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Pain-Bearer

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Nûl-lûpûrz. "He who begs for pain." The one who takes the pain of everyone else, in love for his master.

Except Bilbo held no love for his master, and every day he wished he could give the pain away -- but never to his fellow Hobbits, his cousins and neighbors who withered away one by one beneath the torments of the Orcs. After the Shirefall -- after the day the sky turned black -- Bilbo was one of the few Hobbits -- of the several dozen who were not sold to Orc tribes faraway -- who survived the torture of the Moria Orcs. Some fell to starvation, or to their wounds, or to suicide -- but not Bilbo, nor many others. He was too highly prized.

Nûl-lûpûrz. This was Bilbo Baggins's title in the darkened halls of Azog the Defiler. He was not "Bilbo" anymore to the people around him -- he was nûl-lûpûrz, Azog's personal slave. He was the only Hobbit who got a special name. The rest of his brethren were usually called snaga or akashuga by the Orcs. That was all they were, now -- halfling slaves to the Orc race of the caverns of Moria, no longer Hobbits of the Shire.

But Bilbo would always be called nûl-lûpûrz by any whose path he crossed. It had been given to him the very first day he was dragged crying and shaking before the great pale Orc. His mother Belladonna trembled beside him but did not scream, even as she reached for him, desperation in her gaze. His father Bungo was already dead, murdered when the Orcs first invaded. Yet Bilbo and his mother were spared, for they were âmbal to the Orcs, pretty with their pale curls and dark eyes -- so they were dragged, kicking and screaming, across the woods and plains past the burnt Old Forest, far beyond the crumbling remains of Bree and the empty fields that gave them unto Moria.

That day he had lost his mother. He had screamed when she was dragged before the great pale Orc who sat beside a white Warg. Azog had looked upon her, then gave her to his army leaders, his expression cruel as they ripped off her clothes. His mother was so brave -- she never shed a tear, though she screamed at the Orcs even as their claws pierced her sides -- but Bilbo could not handle the sight of his mother on her back beneath the horrible monsters.

He ran forward, the ropes around his wrists digging deeply, then relaxing as his Orc captors caught him. He fell to his knees and looked up at Azog, tears dripping down his dirty face. "Please," he begged, straining against the Orcs who dragged him back, "please don't hurt her! Please, please spare her! Hurt me instead! I will take her pain!"

The Orcs on top of his mother stopped when Azog lifted a hand. Azog gazed down at him, something glinting in his cruel, cruel eyes, the first light after the blackness of Shirefall -- and not one that Bilbo ever wished to see.

"No," he said simply, and Bilbo let out a shriek when the Orcs leapt on his mother again. He begged and pleaded and reached for her, his wrists cracked and rubbed raw from the shackles. He cried when her blood ran across the cold stones, firelight glinting on red. The Orcs drew back, laughing and shouting with triumph, but Bilbo looked upon his mother and saw that her eyes were blank, her hand ever reached out to him, as if to pat his head one last time and tell him it would be okay.

But it would never be okay. He had trembled, feeling black hate unfurl in his heart as he looked up at Azog the Defiler. Azog stared back at him, and with one pale hand beckoned his captors forward. He was dragged, silent and stunned, to kneel before Azog's throne, close enough to feel the heat of Azog's powerful body.

Azog reached out that pale hand to caress his dirty, bloody blond curls, and Bilbo would grow to despise that soft touch. "Nûl-lûpûrz-izub," Azog murmured, his fingers closing into a fist around Bilbo's hair, making his scalp burn. He did not know what it meant -- he would soon grow to hate the words -- but at that moment he felt everything break. He had held himself together somehow, clinging to his mother as they were taken from their home alongside hundreds of other Hobbits, after the skies turned black and Orcs invaded their warm little Hobbit holes -- after everything burned and everyone died. His mother, fierce Hobbit that she was, would not let him fall -- but her death was the end of his tenuous sanity.

His father's corpse lay in the front hall of Bag-End. His mother's corpse lay but a few feet away, covered in the filth of lustful Orcs. Behind him, other Hobbits screamed and cried as they were dragged off to their dooms. Before him sat the Orc who had ordered the fall of everything Bilbo and every other Hobbit had ever held dear. That day Bilbo had looked up into reddened blue eyes and felt his heart shatter for the last time.

Azog claimed him that night, and every night after. He was Azog's jewel -- the one slave the Defiler would share with no one else. No other Orc had ever touched him, except for the captors who first dragged him before Azog, and if any of them tried, they were quickly attacked by Azog's white Warg.

At first Bilbo did not know why. Then later, he would understand. It was his spine, Azog told him.

Every time Azog beat him, he stood back up but hours later. Every time Azog raped him, he crawled away to his little cushion at the foot of Azog's bed. Every time Azog taunted him, he glared and bit his tongue. Every time, he screamed and cried and beat against Azog's chest, and though he whimpered and begged to be let go, he still did not give in to his wounds or desire for death.

Azog loved the fire in him -- the steel in his spine, or so he murmured at night, when Bilbo lay crying silently on his cushion. Bilbo stood up to him when no other slave ever had, and Azog longed to break him.

But Bilbo had nothing more to break. Azog had taken everything from him already. All he had left was his pain.

~

By the Shire Reckoning, it had been 1323 when Azog the Defiler's army turned the skies black.

His cousins and neighbors and kin -- all of them disappeared. He knew some of the Hobbits had escaped into towns of Men -- he had not seen his Took cousins anywhere in the hundreds of Hobbits dragged before Azog -- but Bilbo knew not whether any of them lived. All he knew was that Hobbits were the slaves of Orcs, and that no army of Men, Elves, or Dwarves ever came to their rescue. They were abandoned to a fate worse than death. He did not blame the other races, though; he barely remembered that they existed, these days. No one could stop Azog the Defiler.

Bilbo had been Azog's plaything for seven years since the Shirefall. He did not keep time well, as he had not seen sunlight even once in the years since his capture, but he was certain that it had been about seven years. He felt much older than he must be. For a Hobbit he was still young, just growing into an adult, but the years spent kneeling at Azog's feet had aged him in ways he could not have seen eight years ago.

His days were spent at Azog's side, silent and obedient in front of Azog's minions. He knelt or sat on cushions beside Azog's throne, and Azog often ran his claws through Bilbo's curls as if in affection. When Azog had left the caves to lead an attack or simply did not want him around, Bilbo was allowed to roam the halls as he wished, and no Orc would dare harm him. He wore nothing but threadbare trousers and cold steel bracelets on his hands and neck. Azog's name was carved into his stomach amongst the scars of his punishments, marking him as untouchable.

His nights were spent in Azog's bed until the Defiler fell asleep. It was during these torturous nights that Bilbo fought back, and time and time again Azog would whisper to him with great cunning and cruelty, somehow convincing him not to throw himself into the depths of Moria's great caverns.

"If you bow your head and pleasure me, my pretty little hobbit, I will not have the next group of halflings beaten."

"If you shed no tears tonight while I take you, my pretty little hobbit, I will stop my Orcs from raping the little halflings."

"If you beg me, my pretty little hobbit, I will take away their pain."

"Instead, their pain will be yours."

But Azog always lied. Bilbo knew that his fellow Hobbits suffered no matter what Azog whispered into his ears in the darkness. He would have taken their pain and more, but always Azog was one step ahead of him, and even the Great Defiler could not stop the Orcs from plundering his poor kin. Oh, how Bilbo hated Azog.

~

Over time, Bilbo came to understand the innerworkings of Orc culture very well. Having a clever mind, he learned much of the Black Speech, though he never gave Azog or any of the other Orcs any hint of his knowledge. The other slaves learned the most basic of words -- akashuga, danghum, gîl -- the words that helped a Hobbit stay alive one more day.

After seven years of kneeling at Azog's side, listening to his meetings with his army leaders, Bilbo could understand the Black Speech near-perfectly.

So one day, when Azog returned from a hunt looking wild and gleeful, Bilbo listened carefully from his cushion.

Gazatu were mentioned. Dwarves, the most hated enemy of Azog's armies. Moria had once been a Dwarf kingdom, and Azog had lost his temper more than once growling about Durin's line and the Dwarves of Erebor. If Azog was angry about Dwarves, then Bilbo would likely pay the price tonight.

"I want Thorin's head," Azog murmured, and Bilbo remembered vaguely that Thorin was the last of Durin's line and one of Azog's worst enemies. He must have done something truly horrible recently to make Azog this aggravated. Azog had a peculiar way of showing his anger -- he seemed happy even as he raged. Azog let out a high laugh, and Bilbo shuddered.

"He has defied me for the last time. If he is to march on Moria, then we will meet him and burn his forces to the ground. His head shall be mine. Send word! There is a price on Thorin Oakenshield's head!" Azog thundered, and in front of them, Orcs cried out with fervent agreement.

Dwarves marching on Moria? A tiny hope fluttered in the back of Bilbo's mind. When would it happen? Would they really fight against the Orcs? What would happen to the Hobbits?

The Orcs cackled and leapt away, past trembling Hobbits that cowered as they pulled back the trays of food and drink prepared for the meeting. Azog rose and picked up Bilbo's chain, pulling him along as he stalked back to his room. Bilbo followed quickly, stumbling after him, and once inside the great stone room, Azog picked him up and threw him on the pile of furs, letting out a dark laugh again.

Bilbo backed up quickly, and Azog stalked up to the bed, his Warg slinking into the room behind him and growling softly.

"You will cry for me tonight, my pretty little hobbit," Azog purred, and for a moment Bilbo cursed the name of Thorin, the tiny hope in the back of his mind wavering in the face of the Defiler and his peculiar lust for Bilbo.

Chapter Text

Thorin II Oakenshield, son of Thráin II, son of Thrór, King under the Mountain, King of Durin's Folk, stood at the edge of a great camp, gazing over the silent tents of his army. They were but four days from the ancient mines of Moria, and more of his brethren would meet them tomorrow. His gaze darkened, a heavy longing rising up in his throat, as he thought of the reason why they marched to Moria.

Long ago, Moria had been a glorious underground city of Dwarven mines and riches, until the rise of Sauron brought Orcs to invade its massive halls. It had been lost to Dwarves for almost a thousand years, and many generations of Dwarves had yearned to retake their former home.

When Thorin was a young Dwarf of forty-seven, his grandfather Thrór traveled to Moria to see its splendors. He met his death, though, at the hands of Azog the Defiler, a terrible foe to the Dwarf race and Thorin's worst enemy. His father lived on and took on the mantle of King under the Mountain for fifty-one years, until he grew restless and journeyed south, perhaps driven by the Ring of Power on his finger. Yet Thráin, too, met his death at the hands of Azog, captured by goblins and dragged deep into Moria. His head had been returned to Erebor on a pike.

So Thorin had taken up the name of King under the Mountain for his father and grandfather. His reign had been long, and his line was guaranteed in his sister-sons, who were dear to him. Yet year after year, Thorin burned to defeat Azog the Defiler, who had taken so much from him and laid waste to his people. Durin's Folk lived strong in the underground cities of Erebor, but still they sought to reclaim the other great kingdoms of old.

So Thorin had gathered an army of fierce warriors and marched south. More of their kin would join them from the north, and whether he lived or died through this battle, his brother had stayed in Erebor as he had ordered, watching over his people and the city of Dale in worry, along with his sister-sons Fíli and Kíli, securing the line of Durin. Thorin did not know how many Orcs had infested their precious mines, and he knew that the fight with Durin's Bane would be fierce. Many of his people would die for this quest -- yet Thorin believed it was worth it. To reclaim Moria and destroy Azog -- it would be worthwhile, in the end.

The Orcs had grown too dangerous. Seven years ago an Orc army, sent by Azog, had slipped past the Elves of Rivendell and marched across Eriador, pillaging countless towns of Men and completely destroying the Shire, the land of the Halflings. Hundreds of Halflings had fled and now hid in the empty halls of Fornost, the crumbling ruins of Tharbad, or in the hills of Minhiriath. Thousands more had been slaughtered, and the green hills of the Shire were now a blackened wasteland.

The Dwarves were not completely alone in their quest to reclaim Moria. In their company was Gandalf, a Wizard who had loved the Shire very dearly. Gandalf had expressed great anger at Azog and the Orcs for their treachery and had sought Thorin upon hearing rumor of his decision. Thorin had allowed the alliance, as Gandalf had agreed to take care of Durin's Bane, the Balrog that haunted the halls of Moria.

"Dark are these times," Thorin muttered to himself, lifting his gaze to glare at the stalactites of the massive cave they rrested in. Soon he would sink his sword into Azog's neck, and he would laugh as Azog's head rolled just as his father's and grandfather's had.

"Very dark indeed," a voice said behind him, and Thorin turned quickly to find Gandalf standing there, Balin and Dwalin watching them from the campfire. Thorin gave him a frown and looked back upon the camp, debating whether to ignore him. He did not get along well with Gandalf, even though he appreciated the Wizard's advice and knowledge.

"It was not always so," Thorin finally replied, crossing his arms over his chest. Gandalf stepped up beside him and hummed.

"I still think you would be wise to seek the counsel of the Elves of Lorien," Gandalf started, and Thorin groaned at the mention of the most argued point of discussion that had occurred during nearly every conversation between the two of them.

Quickly Thorin held up a hand, a scowl on his face. "No, Gandalf," he said, giving the Wizard a look. "I will not seek assistance from the likes of Elves. They will never approve of our plan, and there is not a single Elf in all of Middle-Earth that I will trust, not after Thranduil's betrayal."

Gandalf frowned down at him, but Thorin had tired of this conversation already. He knew the Wizard thought highly of Elves and especially of the Lady Galadriel, but Thorin refused to consider the prospect. His Dwarves would be enough. Gandalf opened his mouth to argue again, and Thorin scowled and stepped away, shaking his head. "I do not wish to hear of this any longer, Gandalf. My decision is final. My men are powerful and swift, and it will be Durin's Folk who reclaim Khazad-dûm, not any others. It is our birthright."

Gandalf peered down at him and hummed again, looking as if he wanted to argue more, but he merely muttered about the stubbornness of Dwarves and nodded, stepping back politely. "Very well, Master Oakenshield," he said, and bade Thorin good night before walking back to their camp, disappearing into the darkness beyond. Thorin watched him retreat and noted Balin and Dwalin standing up to retire, briefly feeling grateful to his friends for watching out for him.

Thorin would sleep soon, but not yet. For now he watched over his people who slumbered peacefully. The scouts and guards at the edges of the massive camp kept watch, as Orcs had attacked their army more than once. Thorin knew in his gut that Azog wanted him dead and did not want this war -- but Thorin would defeat him. He had sworn on his father's and grandfather's honor to avenge them and to guarantee the future of his people.

Little did he know that his war would bring more than just honor and glory upon him.

~

As a rule, Bilbo spent as much time as he could with the other Hobbits.

There were dozens of them, most belonging to various Orc leaders as personal slaves, but many worked as thatchers or fire watchers or whatever other jobs the Orcs pushed them to do. They were kept in a large hall that was guarded by three of Azog's Wargs, and any Orc who wished to use a Hobbit -- or eat one -- had to gain permission from Azog first before it could enter the room. It was in that hall that Bilbo spent the majority of his time when Azog was away. Usually he stayed with the children, telling them stories and stroking their curly hair, sometimes merely holding them. He tried to give them peace in the terror of their existence, but he could not stop it when an Orc would step into the room and demand a fresh snaga for whatever lusts it had in mind.

Bilbo could protect the children, though. As nûl-lûpûrz, no Orc was allowed to touch him, and if he stood in front of the children and glared, then the Orc could not take one, lest Bilbo later tell Azog that someone had molested him. Sometimes a child disappeared while he was gone, but always Bilbo tried to protect them, to keep them as innocent as possible.

Sometimes, if he found out that a child had been given to one of the Orcs, he would slip some of the black mushrooms found in the lower caverns into the child's soup for that night. The next morning the child would be cold and their lips black, and though the Orc would howl and rage, the little one's face would forever rest in a soft, peaceful expression, as if dreaming of their mother's lap on a warm summer day -- never to know the horrors of an Orc's bloodlust.

If Bilbo knew of a Hobbit who was close to the edge of sanity, who could not do his work and was being beaten worse every day for it, sometimes he slipped the same mushrooms to that Hobbit. He was the only person who could reach the cavern to find the mushrooms, and so it was by his hand that several Hobbits gave up on living. Bilbo did not regret his actions, though. He was happy to spare their pain.

Azog would torment and beat him each time a Hobbit died with black on its lips, but Bilbo continued to protect his people. Every time he saw a Hobbit crying, he remembered his mother, and it was for her that he took these punishments. It was in her memory that he gave his fellow Hobbits relief from the torment that was their reality.

He only wished he could do the same. Yet he knew that if he took his own life, Azog would torment and hunt his kin until every last Hobbit was either a slave or dead. So Bilbo carried their pain for them, and the other Hobbits always watched him and whispered, touching his hands and stroking his curls and huddling against his back while he sat in the hall with them.

If the last words on a Hobbit's black lips were "pain-bearer," well, Bilbo ignored it. He could not bear all of their pain, not when Azog's cruelty ruled over every living thing in the mountain. He could not stop the Orcs from giving the slaves punishment. He could not stop the Orcs from eating their corpses when they died. He could not stop the rapes, the torture, the beatings, or the pain of the Hobbits who already belonged to other Orcs.

But he could protect the little ones, and he could grant death to those who needed it. Another dead Hobbit, another mark on his soul -- another pain for Bilbo to carry.

~

When Bilbo slept, he dreamed of a happier time, when he could pick an apple from a table and run off into the woods to read. He dreamed of sun, of the wind in his hair, of fresh dirt beneath his feet as he worked in the garden. He dreamed of laughter and smiles, of warm roasted vegetables and cold ale. He dreamed of the Shire as it was, as it should still be but was not.

But every morning he woke to Azog's hands on his body, to another day of horror.

In the months since Bilbo had heard of Thorin's war march, Azog had been away quite frequently, sending scouts to watch Thorin's army as it advanced and meeting with his leaders, so often that he left Bilbo to wander as he pleased. So wander Bilbo did, mostly spending his time in the Hobbit hall, but when he was supposed to return to Azog's room to sleep, Bilbo would creep down to the lower caverns to explore the treasure hoards of the Orcs.

It was here that Bilbo had found his three secrets.

His first secret was that of the black mushrooms.

His second secret was a small Elvish sword that glowed blue whenever Bilbo unsheathed it.

His third secret was two gold rings that he kept hidden in a tiny chest, along with his Elvish sword and a few trinkets he had taken a liking to over the years. The chest was hidden in an old dusty closet that might have once held Dwarven linens, but it simply held cobwebs now.

The gold rings were something that Bilbo had found by chance. One had tumbled to his feet one day as he walked past a particularly large mountain of gold, hoping to escape the haunting cries of one of the new captures of the Orcs in the halls above. It was a simple gold ring that had a good weight, and Bilbo liked to turn it over in his hands, though he had never put it on.

The other he had found in a massive chest that a team of Orcs had carried in. It had a large blue gem set in the gold. It had looked to be his size, but when he had put it on, he had dreamed of caverns of gold and of Dwarvish war cries for a week afterward. So he had never put either of them on again, choosing instead to hide the rings away. He had no idea why he liked them so much, but he kept them anyway, thinking that one day, he might like to wear them.

The sword was a particularly brilliant find. He suspected that it was not a true sword, more like a large dagger made for an Elf, as it matched two other Elvish swords that had been thrown into the treasure hold one day several years ago. The Orcs who had carried the swords had hissed and snarled, and Bilbo had learned their names: Biter and Beater. Later, he had learned that the Orcs had raided a small group of Trolls from some nearby woods, and that the three weapons were part of the Trolls' treasure. Those Trolls were now part of the Orc slave force, kept apart from the Hobbits due to their bloodthirsty nature.

Bilbo longed to take the sword into Azog's room and sink it into his chest. He dreamed of it for many nights after he had first found the sword. But then Bilbo had witnessed one of the Hobbit children being dragged into the feeding grounds of the Trolls and left alone, and Azog had stroked his curls gently as Bilbo watched the child be slaughtered.

The screams had haunted him for weeks. He knew then -- he could not kill Azog. Azog would always overpower him, would always outwit him with his cunning cruelty, and even if he did manage to kill Azog, the rest of the Orcs would still live on, and they would no longer be under Azog's control, leaving the Hobbits unprotected. So Bilbo reluctantly hid the sword away.

At the moment, he was sitting outside the closet, stroking the metal sheath and listening for the echoes of celebration above. Azog should be returning soon, and Bilbo did not want Azog to catch him down here -- yet he wanted the peace to last for as long as possible. These moments alone were all he had, some days -- even spending time with the Hobbits lately was suffocating. They always looked to him with desperate eyes, believing he could save them, but Bilbo could not free them, could not take all of their pain away. Some days, it felt that his pain was too heavy for him to carry, and on days like today, he wished that he could sink his little sword into his own chest and drift off into oblivion.

More than anything he wished that Thorin really would come and kill all the Orcs. He did not believe it would happen, though -- Azog was too powerful, and the Orcs too full of bloodlust. He pitied the Dwarves, who would no doubt be murdered or taken as slaves, just as the Hobbits had been.

But it was nice to daydream, even for a little while, of a Dwarven King driving his sword into Azog's pale chest. To fantasize that black blood dripping down his back, those pale blue eyes wide with surprise. To imagine the death of the one being in Middle-Earth he would forever hate.

Then Bilbo heard a resounding cry above, and with a sigh he stood and hid the sword away again, then ran off to the hidden stairways that would take him back to the Orc halls. It wouldn't do to be late.

~

The Orcs were running around everywhere, half of them in chainmail and carrying weapons. They were shrieking orders for more swords, more helmets, more arrows -- Bilbo couldn't make sense of it.

As soon as Bilbo reached the main hall, gripping his chain to keep it from clinking against the ground, he crept up behind Azog's throne and took his place on the fur cushion beside it, kneeling obediently. Azog was standing in front of the throne giving orders, and Bilbo caught seal off the east gate and someone go find the balrog before Azog noticed him and turned around.

"Nûl-lûpûrz-izub," Azog growled, reaching to pick up Bilbo's chain. Bilbo eyed him fearfully but said nothing as Azog dragged him out of the room, starting when he noticed the Wargs herding all of the Hobbits back to their hall. Was something happening?

Azog shoved him into the room and glared down at him, and Bilbo was very tempted to kick him but chose not to. "You will stay here," Azog muttered threateningly, and Bilbo's mouth fell open. He had never been ordered to stay in Azog's room during the day, except in the beginning when Azog had been overly possessive of him.

"Is something happening?" he asked quickly, stepping forward.

Azog backhanded him, and Bilbo hit the ground several feet away, his cheek stinging from the force of Azog's blow. He looked up at Azog with wide eyes, but Azog only cursed at him and paced for a few moments. Finally the Defiler turned again and pointed at Bilbo, a domineering growl escaping his throat. Bilbo stilled and stared -- he only heard that growl when Azog had him in bed.

"You will STAY," Azog said again, stalking over to grab Bilbo's chain and drag him to the bed. Bilbo started to protest when he saw Azog connect the chain to a hook on the wall, far too high for Bilbo to reach.

"What are you doing?" he cried, grabbing Azog's arm, but Azog only threw him away, and he landed on the pile of furs and hit his head against the wall.

"Do not leave the room," Azog growled, but his voice sounded strange, and Bilbo wondered if maybe Azog had thrown him around too hard for once.

As his vision swam, he saw Azog standing over him, pale blue gaze fixed on his face. He wanted to know what was going on. Had Thorin's army arrived? Were the Dwarves attacking? What would happen to the other Hobbits? But Azog's stare -- could his master be worried? -- kept his mouth closed, and finally Bilbo sunk into darkness.

When he woke, Azog was gone, and a tall dark-haired Dwarf stood in his place, staring down at Bilbo in shock.

Chapter Text

Mountain by mountain the Dwarves had taken back the ancient kingdoms of their people.

With a massive army of Dwarves from all across Middle Earth, led by Thorin Oakenshield, King under the Mountain, the Misty Mountains were steadily gutted of the legions of Orcs and goblins that infested their depths. Thorin's people had become powerful in the years since his father's death at Azog's hands. The Dwarves were a strong and active race, and their population had swelled in the past two hundred years, even with the constant fights with the Orcs and the disagreements with the Elves. With the might of the Dwarves, this war against the Orcs had been almost easy compared to other, longer wars.

Many of the goblins fled the mountains to hide in the Downs that rested by the dead town of Bree, and many more died on the swords and axes of Dwarves that burned with fury for Azog and his people. Even more of the foul creatures had fled to Mirkwood and Mordor, and Thorin was thankful for it, though he and many others wished to kill every last Orc for their crimes against the world.

For in the depths of the Orc-riddled caves, the Dwarves had found something truly unholy: Hobbits, with chains on their wrists and necks, slaves to the Orcs.

The first time they had found Hobbits, Gandalf had scowled and Thorin had been surprised, but they had thought that perhaps some had been caught by the Orcs and were taken to be eaten. They sent the Hobbits with an escort to find their kin and continued, not thinking anything more of it.

Until they attacked another nest of Orcs and found a set of rooms that held over two hundred Hobbits, all shackled and worn from months of servitude.

The Dwarves had been horrified. The gentlest folk of Middle-Earth, enslaved by the foulest? Yet it was true. Gandalf had stood at the entrance to one of the rooms for a very long time, his aura slowly darkening with rage, until one of the Hobbit children had cried, "It's Gandalf! Hasn't he got fireworks?" Then Gandalf had softened, hiding his anger and smiled upon the Hobbits, going to tend to the children as the Dwarves broke off the Hobbits' chains and looked for water for them.

The Hobbits had quickly been freed and sent with another escort, and Gandalf had been apoplectic with rage. Every Orc clan's nest they had invaded had contained a similar horde of Hobbit slaves. Children, women, men, old and young -- the Orcs did not care, though some of them favored blondes over brunettes, and some preferred the fatter Hobbits to those with less girth. They were victims of both the ravenous hunger and the physical lusts of the Orcs, and it was all Thorin could do not to rage at how these gentle folk were tortured.

Now they had come upon the last mountain, the ancient mines of Moria, to reclaim their birthright. It had been seven years since Thorin had begun this journey, since Thorin had seen the shining halls of Erebor, his sister Dís, and his sister-sons Fíli and Kíli. Seven years since the Orcs raided Eriador and enslaved the race of Halflings.

It would be a long and fierce battle. Azog must have known of this march for months if not years, and his destructive anger would be explosive upon meeting Thorin's hatred. Gandalf, too, would be a considerable foe against the Orcs and the Balrog, and every Dwarf in his army who had stayed with him from the beginning was burning to take down Azog and claim the final mountains of their ancient home, as well as to make the Orcs pay for their actions against the Hobbits.

Thorin had dreamed of this day for years and years, since he was young and his grandfather was taken from him by the Defiler, since his father's head had been returned to him on a pike, and since the first battle he fought against Azog himself, earning the name Oakenshield and learning of true loathing. He would defeat Azog and hold his head high for every Orc and Dwarf to see. Khazad-dûm would once again be filled with Dwarves, as it should have been for the past millennium. All it would take was that one last step, and Moria would be theirs.

Thorin was determined to take it.

~

Thorin was creeping along a narrow cave that would lead them to Azog's lair. While his army led by Dwalin invaded the larger caves from the north, Thorin had taken a small company of about fifty men and snuck in from deep within the mines, using ancient tunnel maps that Balin had found. With him was Gandalf, who was to hunt down the Balrog, as well as his old friend Balin, and several others, some of whom were distantly related to Thorin himself. He trusted only his closest kin and friends with this mission. It would take stealth and might to deliver the blow to the center of Azog's base of power and topple it from the inside, as well as to rescue the Halfling slaves that were no doubt kept hidden away. Thorin knew he could depend on these men.

After what felt like hours of creeping, they had reached one of the main levels of the ancient mines, and Thorin could see the shacks and walkways of the Orc community, lit with fires but empty of Orcs. Judging by the cries and screams above, they must already be fighting with Thorin's army. Azog would be watching the battle, but would not attack himself, choosing instead to let his minions and command leaders do the fighting. Thorin would find him, soon.

With only a signal, the Dwarves fanned out and began to search the caves. Thorin noticed the ancient Dwarf architecture beneath the shanties and wooden walkways that the Orcs used to scramble around, but he ignored it in favor of searching, growing tenser as an hour passed, and then another. Still the Orcs above did not return, but Thorin was anxious to find the Hobbits and escape with them.

They were quick about it, checking halls and caverns for hidden rooms, until at last they came to what must be the main hall of the entire cave system. At the end of the hall, Thorin found a massive throne room that held an equally massive throne. It looked to have been made from the stone of the mountain, for a being much larger than a Dwarf.

Azog.

Thorin glared at the throne for a moment, wanting nothing more than to burn the furs and skins draped over the ancient stone of his people. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed a frayed cushion with a rug of fur hanging over it sitting beside the throne, and he felt his blood simmer, realizing it must be for a slave. But what slave would be allowed so close to the leader of an Orc clan?

He had to turn his attention away, though, when he heard Balin shout.

"Thorin! We found them!"

Thorin turned and ran out of the throne room, following Balin's voice until he found his men standing outside another large room, with two dead Wargs lying outside. Looking in, he saw several dozen Hobbits huddled toward the back of the room, terrified and weeping as the Dwarves and Gandalf cajoled them to come closer. Walking forward, Thorin pushed past Balin and looked upon the Hobbits, letting his fierce expression soften a bit.

"I am Thorin Oakenshield, King of the Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor. We have come to rescue you."

The Hobbits started crying, and Thorin sighed, stepping back and allowing the others to tend to the poor Halflings. They had been trapped in this hell the longest, and Thorin hoped that they could find peace after returning to their kin.

He had offered shelter and aid to the Hobbits they had rescued. Though he had welcomed the Hobbits to come north with his company, as well as suggested other places for them to settle, such as near the Blue Mountains with the Firebeard and Broadbeam clans of Dwarves, nearly all of the Hobbits had chosen to return to their homeland. Nevertheless, they had a tentative accord between their peoples, and it would be interesting to see Hobbits working so closely with Dwarves, for while they were a young race and had suffered so much in so little time, they were strong and fierce. This Thorin had already seen.

He was torn from his thoughts by a small pull on his coat, and he looked down to see a Hobbit child, barely taller than his knee. He knelt down and put a hand on the child's shoulder, feeling how thin it was beneath his fingers and swallowing a scowl, instead saying patiently, "Is something the matter, child?"

The child looked at him for a long moment, then leaned in and whispered, "Don't forget the pain-bearer. The big white Orc took him away." Then she turned and ran back to the other Hobbits, disappearing behind the skirts of one of the women.

Thorin stared at where the child had stood, feeling his hair stand on end. Pain-bearer. He had heard that term whispered from the Hobbits before, though they had never explained what it meant. Was it another slave? He suddenly remembered the cushion beside Azog's throne.

He stood, feeling cold, and summoned his friend Bofur to his side. "Come with me," he said quietly, and the two of them left the room. They searched hard, ten minutes passing until they came to a hall where a silver-gray Warg stood guard. Exchanging only a glance, Thorin and Bofur took out their weapons and charged the beast, slaying it within moments.

They looked past the Warg's corpse to find an ornate door, and Thorin realized that it looked like it belonged to a Dwarven lord. While Bofur stood watch, Thorin approached the door slowly, his weapon ready as he pushed it open.

Inside, the room was light only by a few torches. Thorin could see Orc weapons and clothes around the walls, but the room was surprisingly clean despite belonging to an Orc. At the back wall was a large pile of skins and furs, and Thorin suddenly realized that it was a bed. This was a bedroom.

It must be where Azog sleeps.

Disgusted but anxious for some reason he could not explain, Thorin walked slowly to the bed and looked around, then started upon finding the reason that the Warg was standing guard.

There was a Hobbit lying on the furs near the wall. His wrists were shackled and there was a collar around his neck, with a heavy chain that was attached to a hook high on the wall. He was wearing nothing but torn pants, and Thorin could see dozens of scars littering his thin, pale body. His dirty hair was a dark blonde, and there was a bruise on his face and blood on the side of his head, matching a stain on the wall.

Worst of all, there was a carving in the skin of his stomach: AZOG.

As Thorin stared, the Hobbit began to stir, cringing and curling up a bit against the wall. Swollen eyelids with dark circles underneath opened, revealing dark blue-gray eyes that pierced Thorin like an arrow. Then the Hobbit looked up and met his gaze.

Dwarf and Hobbit stared at each other for what seemed like ages. Thorin said nothing, not wanting to terrify the Hobbit, but somehow the Hobbit did not seem scared. His gaze bore into Thorin for a long time before he slowly sat up and leaned forward, his expression intense.

"Is he dead?" the Hobbit asked.

Thorin started, a frown appearing on his lips. "Is who dead?" he asked, confused.

The Hobbit licked his dry lips, smearing a bit of blood that had begun to seep from the cracks. "Is Azog dead?" he asked more quietly, looking almost desperate.

Thorin felt as if something shattered right then, and in the next moment, he felt so much rage that he wished to find Azog immediately and completely destroy him. But he held back his temper and shook his head, feeling dismayed when the Hobbit's expression crumpled. "No, we have not met him in battle yet," he said, glancing back at the doorway. "We are rescuing your kin now, so that they do not become victims any further."

The Hobbit reared back, looking shocked, and Thorin could only watch as a few tears escaped his eyes, but surprisingly the Hobbit's voice was level when he spoke. "You're getting them out of here?" he asked, and Thorin nodded, his gaze softening a bit.

"They will be safe," he promised, and the Hobbit bowed his head. Thorin wondered for a moment if he was weeping, averting his gaze, but soon the Hobbit had straightened. Thorin found himself with an intense feeling of respect for this Hobbit, who must have suffered as much as the others he had seen if not more. If he were truly Azog's personal slave... then Thorin would see to it personally that the Hobbit was saved.

Stepping forward, he lifted his sword and swung it at the chain, shattering it and freeing the Hobbit from his bindings. "Come," he said, offering his hand. "We must hurry if we are to escape before the Orcs return."

The Hobbit had stiffened and pressed back with a small cry, but he looked up at Thorin in wonder after the chain fell. Slowly, he reached up and put his small hand in Thorin's fingers, and Thorin gripped his hand and pulled him up, helping him steady himself. He eyed the blood on the Hobbit's head, but the other male -- boy? He looked young, this close -- was no longer bleeding, so Thorin did not say anything of it.

"I am Thorin," he said, not adding his last name or title, though he did not know why.

The Hobbit swayed a bit but straightened, his back straight despite the pain he had obviously suffered, and when Thorin spoke his name, he looked up sharply at the King, his dark eyes widening.

"Thorin?" the Hobbit said incredulously, then he threw his head back and laughed. It was a dark, dry laugh that sent a chill through Thorin. "Thorin Oakenshield himself! Oh, Azog will be so angry!" the Hobbit cried, covering his mouth with his hands, trying to muffle his laughter. His hands fell as his laughter stopped a few moments later, and the Hobbit straightened and smiled at him, looking happier than any Hobbit Thorin had met in the last seven years.

"I am Bilbo, Your Majesty, and I have never been gladder to meet you."

Chapter Text

Bilbo could not believe what he was seeing. Here was the very Dwarf who had for so long eluded capture or death by Azog, sending the Defiler's temper through the roof on so many occasions. Since he had heard of Thorin's march, he had dreamed of this day, and here Thorin was, actually saving him and the Hobbits, just as he had wanted. He surreptitiously pinched himself, but no, there was real pain -- he was not dreaming this time.

He was free. Even for just a few moments, he would be free, he would be Bilbo again -- he would not be Azog's nûl-lûpûrz any longer. His hopes and dreams had finally been answered, and the reality of it made Bilbo want to cry, but he held himself from letting go. Weeping and true relief would be for later -- if he survived. Bilbo would die before he let himself be Azog's slave again.

Thorin was unlike any Dwarf Bilbo had ever seen, too. There had been some visiting the Shire in years past, and more than once Azog's raids had brought back Dwarves to become slaves or to be given to the Orcs as some reward. Those Dwarves were usually stout with intricate braided beards, big noses and ears, and always cursing in Khuzdul. Oh, Thorin had the big nose and ears alright, but something about him was special. Thorin held himself with pride, like every other Dwarf Bilbo had met, yet something was different. Perhaps it was his regal bearing -- to Bilbo, he seemed very majestic -- or his smooth voice.

All of the Dwarves he had met so far had red or blonde hair, but Thorin had dark, dark hair that was nearly black, with a few streaks of silver. He was tall for a Dwarf and had striking blue eyes -- eyes that had nearly given Bilbo a fright upon meeting them, but they were so unlike Azog's that he couldn't be anxious about them for long. Thorin had braids by his large ears, and though his beard was not very large by Dwarf standards, the hair on his chin was very long, hanging over his chest in three braids that came together with a silver hairpiece. The rest of his hair was long and loose, and Bilbo felt himself envious of how clean it looked.

Ah, to be clean.

But he was becoming distracted. Thorin had walked back to the door and was looking around the room with obvious derision, and Bilbo went to him, touching his sore head gingerly. Glancing back, he saw the same room he had slept in for seven years -- his home, in a manner -- and the place of his torment and nightmares for so long. He hated this room. He hated that pile of furs, where Azog had claimed him time and again, where he had been beaten and raped more times than he could remember. He despised that cushion where he had curled up clutching his ribs or hiding his face to stop the tears, night after night. He itched to see it all burn.

Actually, that was a perfect idea.

Bilbo marched over to the massive fireplace, the only source of real warmth in this cold place, and stuck a piece of kindling in until it lit on fire. Then he tossed the branch onto the pile of furs and watched, impassive, as it set aflame. The fire spread and the heat grew uncomfortable, but Bilbo stood still, until his cushion, his bed of seven years, had begun to burn as well. Then he walked back to Thorin's side, noticing that Thorin was staring at him, but Bilbo had dreamed of this day for seven years, and he would not be deterred by a wary Dwarf King.

Oh, to see Azog's face when he discovered Bilbo gone...

For the first time in seven years, Bilbo felt true hope. It almost seemed too good to be true, but if this was real -- if he was to follow Thorin and escape with the other Hobbits, or at least attempt to -- then Bilbo was happy to take this path, if it took him away from Azog. He had no idea what might happen after this -- in all of his daydreams, he only imagined life to the point of either his death or Azog's -- and any other future was impossible to him. One of them would die soon. That he promised himself.

In some way, he doubted he would make it out of these caves alive. Azog would surely order him dead or even kill him himself instead of allowing him to escape with his mortal enemy. Bilbo might even be captured again. Even if that happened, even if Bilbo was once again left to Azog's lack of mercy, he would consider it a victory, because the other Hobbits would be free. If they were saved, then Bilbo would waste no time in defying Azog and taking his own life. He almost looked forward to it, to Azog's expression upon seeing his favorite toy dying by his own hand.

Perhaps he was a bit twisted now, but seven years of bearing the pain of hundreds of Hobbits had changed him. Gone was the innocent boy of Bag-End, who pretended to go on adventures while bringing home more pretty rocks, carved branches, and small animals than his parents knew what to do with. Gone was the boy who had clung to his mother's skirts while his father scolded at him for being too Tookish. Gone was the boy who knew nothing more of sex than gentle tumbles with other lads in piles of hay, or sweet kisses with lasses behind the apple trees. That boy had died seven years ago, replaced by the nûl-lûpûrz, not a boy any longer, who daydreamed of suicide and fed poison to his kin who wished the same.

On a whim he turned to Thorin and asked, "What day is it, do you know?"

Thorin was watching him, dark gaze thoughtful, but he only raised an eyebrow before replying, "It is the twenty-second of September, Master Bilbo."

"Oh," he said, distantly shocked. What a lovely birthday present, he thought to himself, feeling a grin stretching on his dry lips.

~

Thorin watched Bilbo, wondering what his expression meant. He was still shocked at the Hobbit's audacity for setting everything on fire, but he had held his tongue. He had almost shouted at Bilbo's actions, not wanting to attract any attention from the Orcs, yet in some part of his mind, he thought he could understand. This was a place Bilbo must hate, just as much as Thorin hated Azog, so Thorin merely shook his head and stepped out of the room, glancing at Bofur who gave him a nod. Good, so far they had escaped detection.

Bilbo followed him, his gaze drawn to the Warg's corpse, and beside them Bofur did a double take upon seeing the young Hobbit. Bofur's eyes, usually so kind and cheerful, widened with shock upon sliding his gaze down to Bilbo's stomach, and Bilbo crossed his arms low over his midsection, something like shame entering his dark eyes. Thorin gave the other Dwarf a look, but it did nothing to silence him.

"That must've hurt something fierce!" Bofur said without thinking, and Thorin scowled at him. Thorin really did appreciate his friend, but there were times when his tactless brain made Thorin want to shake him.

Beside him Bilbo held himself still, and Thorin glanced down at him, only to see a faint smile playing upon his lips. "It did," Bilbo said after a moment in an odd tone, and strangely enough, Bofur's cheeks reddened.

"Begging your pardon," he muttered, and Bilbo gave a small nod but said nothing in response.

Thorin shook his head and began walking quickly in the direction of the others, not wanting to spend any more time here. After a moment Bilbo and Bofur followed him, with Bofur taking up the rear point, his axe pulled out again. It only took a few minutes to reach the hall where the rest of their party was, and Thorin was glad to see that the Dwarves were already leading the Hobbits away to the hidden tunnels, their wrists free of their shackles and their expressions filled with wonder.

As they approached, a few of the Hobbit children spied them and shouted, drawing attention to them. The children ran to Bilbo and hugged his legs, babbling about the Dwarves in their midst, but Bilbo only smiled and knelt to hug them, messing their thick curls. "It's alright," he said to the children, who gazed up at him with near-reverential awe, "you can trust them. These Dwarves are good people."

Thorin watched as Bilbo comforted the children, something he seemed familiar with. It was then that Thorin noticed that compared to the rest of the Hobbits, the children looked relatively unscathed. All of the adult Hobbits had wounds or scars on their bodies, with dark stains on their ripped clothes, but the children had few such markings, barring the smudge of dirt here or there. This was not so for Hobbit children at most of the other Orc nests they had found, and Thorin found it odd. Were the Orcs in Azog's clan not drawn to children?

Finally the children were ushered back to the rest of the Hobbits, and Bilbo watched closely as they were led away, a line of tension in his thin shoulders. Thorin watched him out of the corner of his eye, interest piqued by this waif of a Hobbit, but soon he was distracted, as Gandalf appeared from the Hobbit hall.

The tall Wizard was muttering into his beard as he walked toward them, but then he did a quite peculiar act, even for a Wizard. Gandalf looked up as he approached Thorin, then faltered in his steps upon seeing Bilbo, his mouth falling open and his eyes widening. He looked completely flummoxed, and Thorin had never seen him like this before.

"Bilbo Baggins," Gandalf whispered, and beside Thorin, Bilbo went completely taut with shock. It wasn't unusual for Gandalf to name Hobbits that he recognized amongst the slaves, but Gandalf's tone seemed different this time, reverent even. Gandalf approached them slowly, kneeling down to their height and reaching up with a shaking hand to touch Bilbo's face, who stared up at him with wide eyes. Thorin watched them curiously, wondering what was so special about this Hobbit that Gandalf spoke to him with such fondness. His attention was caught by Balin a moment later, though, and he took Bofur with him to speak to his old friend, keeping an eye on the quiet conversation between Wizard and Hobbit.

~

When they saw Bilbo walking toward the large group, the Hobbits called for him, hope bright in their eyes. Bilbo took care to comfort the children and nod to his older neighbors and kin, knowing that just the simple reassurance would be enough for them. Behind him, Bofur muttered quietly that they were using some old tunnel systems to avoid the Orcs, and Bilbo was glad for it, that the gentle Hobbits would be kept away from the fighting.

He found himself lingering with Thorin and Bofur instead of joining the others, though. Perhaps staying beside the very Dwarf Azog had hated for so long would not be good for his health, should Azog discover them together, but Bilbo was nothing if not determined to infuriate Azog as much as possible. Let the bastard burn with rage at what his nûl-lûpûrz, freed from the shackles of seven years of slavery, could do with freedom.

Bilbo was startled from observing the other Hobbits by a peculiar figure exiting the room where his kin had all slept. Turning his head, he saw that the man was very tall and wore a gray cloak, and when he noticed the pointy hat, he realized that this was a Wizard. Vaguely he remembered meeting a Wizard when he was a child, but that was a very long time ago and he had been a very different Hobbit then.

Then the Wizard saw him and spoke his name, and Bilbo froze. He stood very still as the Wizard walked to him and knelt before him, lifting a shaky hand to lay on his dirty cheek. The touch startled Bilbo even more -- it was warm and familiar, and looking up, a memory flashed through his mind, of a very tall fellow in gray leaning over him while he hid behind his mother's skirts.

So this was that Wizard. His name... it was Gandalf. This Wizard had known him -- had known his mother. Other memories rushed to the front of his thoughts, jumbled and confusing. Watching fireworks explode over the lake by the Party Tree; giggling as he was bounced on a bony knee, his fingers threading through a thick gray beard; snoozing in his mother's lap as she laughed, while a gravely old voice told a story; the smell of pipeweed drifting in the night wind. Yet they vanished as quickly as Bilbo thought of them.

Such precious memories -- and Bilbo's eyes watered a bit, trying to grasp onto the memory of his mother's laughter, warm and sweet in his ears. His heart gave a pang, but he clenched his fists and held himself tall. He could not fall apart now, not when he was so close to freedom.

"You knew my mother," he said quietly, his voice breaking a bit, and above him Gandalf's beard quivered, his dark eyes hooded with regret.

"She was a wondrous lady," the Wizard said, just as quietly, and Bilbo felt another pang in his chest. His mother had been a fine Hobbit lady indeed; even when Bilbo had been but a fauntling, she'd had half the Shire in thrall with her, with her beauty and personality that was greater than any other Hobbit that lived there. It hurt to remember her -- to know that she was dead and gone; but Bilbo had tried to forget her, these past seven years, lest Azog find out and tear every memory of her from his mind.

"I could never find her, after the Shire was..." the Wizard trailed off, and Bilbo felt a strange brightness in his mind at the thought that someone who was not kin had looked for his mam, had cared enough for her to look for her remains in the blackened mess that was the Shire after its fall.

"She's gone," he whispered, and somehow his voice did not break under the weight of his words. He looked away as tears appeared in gray eyes that held more kindness than Bilbo had seen in seven years, far more than he even deserved. "We were brought here together after Shirefall. She didn't make it." But I did, he thought, wishing that he had joined her in those first moments when Orcs had swarmed her.

"Oh, my poor boy," Gandalf whispered, and then he did something that Bilbo found very peculiar indeed.

He hugged Bilbo.

As soon as those huge, warm arms engulfed his little body, Bilbo panicked. Then he caught a whiff of pipeweed, and it somehow relaxed him, just a tiny bit, remembering it from his childhood. This person had known him, had told him stories and tucked him into bed and played with him, once upon a time. This Wizard had been friend to his mother -- and to him.

"It is alright now, Bilbo," the Wizard whispered, holding him tightly, and Bilbo felt a small part of himself crack beneath that gentle tone. He looked past Gandalf's shoulder but could not see any Hobbits, and most of the Dwarves were gone, save Thorin and a few of his companions. Nobody was looking at them save the Dwarf King himself, and Bilbo was caught by that blue, blue gaze, so impossibly gentle compared to the cruel eyes of his master.

Then Thorin looked away, and Bilbo closed his eyes tightly as he choked, a few sobs escaping his throat. But no, he could not let himself cry, not until it was all over and done with, not till Azog was dead or he was free himself, whether through Thorin saving him or by his own blade.

"It will be okay, my boy," Gandalf said softly, rubbing his back, and Bilbo hid his face in a gray shoulder, swallowing against the hot, dry feeling in his throat. He would not cry here. He would not cry, not yet.

Yet a few tears leaked out anyway, and Bilbo let himself hide in Gandalf's arms for a few desperate moments, trying to regain control over himself. When finally he felt that he could breathe again without gasping, he drew back, his thin body trembling a bit as Gandalf patted his back before letting him go. A handkerchief -- a handkerchief of all things -- was offered to him, and Bilbo grabbed at the semblance of normality, turning away and carefully blotting at his eyes with clean cotton, feeling awkward using the cloth after years of relying on fur and dirty clothes to clean up messes. Yet he felt immensely grateful for the kindness.

Gandalf was looking past Bilbo, and Bilbo turned to see that the fire he had left in Azog's room had worsened, smoke pouring out from Azog's hall. Good, he thought viciously, hoping that everything burned. Turning back, he hesitated before tucking the handkerchief in his pocket and walking over to Thorin, lifting his gaze almost shyly to look at the Dwarf King. But Thorin only glanced at him, as if he had not nearly broken down, and gestured to his companions.

"Master Bilbo, this is my friend and advisor Balin, my cousin Glóin, and our friend Bofur. This, my friends, is Bilbo."

Each of the Dwarves bowed and said, "At your service," leaving Bilbo to try to remember his manners.

After a moment he bowed back, feeling horribly underdressed, yet again he was grateful for the distraction, and the fact that Thorin was treating him like a normal person. "Bilbo Baggins... at your service," he said quietly, meeting each Dwarf's gaze and seeing no disgust there, only a polite respect and perhaps some worry. Thorin Oakenshield kept very good company, it seemed.

Thorin nodded, seemingly satisfied, and began to lead them in the same direction the others had gone, Gandalf following them silently. "We had best hurry before the Orcs return. A battle can distract them for only so long," the tall Dwarf said, and Bilbo nodded absently, his heart beating quickly in his chest, as he realized that soon, he would truly be free. Perhaps he would even be able to take his little sword and use it to --

Then Bilbo stopped in his tracks. His sword! His rings! His books! "Wait!" he called desperately, and Thorin and the others stopped and looked back at him in surprise. "I have some -- belongings," he said, his cheeks heating up oddly.

Thorin stared at him, eyebrows raised. "But you set that room on fire," he said, sounding a bit bewildered.

Bilbo shook his head. "I hid them. They're from the treasure hold, which I guess you ought to know where it is, so you can find it later. I had a sword, and there were some other things -- please," he said, staring up at Thorin with wide eyes.

Thorin stared at him a moment longer, then exchanged glances with Gandalf. The others waited patiently, and finally Thorin nodded, turning to mutter something to Balin and the other Dwarves. The Dwarves gave Bilbo another strange look before continuing on their path, but Thorin and Gandalf stayed with him, and Thorin gave him a vague but tense smile.

"Lead the way, Master Baggins. But we must be quick," he said, and Bilbo could only stare at him for a moment, stunned that Thorin had used his proper name. Then he gathered himself, nodded, and darted off in the direction of the old stairs, hoping that the Dwarf and Wizard would be able to keep up with him.

"It's this way!"

Chapter Text

As they ran after the diminutive figure, Thorin cursed himself in his head for giving in to this foolish fancy. Azog and his clan could return at any moment, and they were rushing through barely lit halls for some trinkets? Yet Thorin could not deny Bilbo Baggins his belongings, not when the Hobbit had nothing else. The second those eyes had pierced him with that pleading look, he had wavered like a flame in the wind.

A glance at Gandalf had done nothing. Having known Gandalf for some time now, Thorin knew some of the Wizard's moods, and he could tell that right now Gandalf was seething. The Wizard was hiding it from the other Dwarves and the Hobbits, but there was a blistering rage in his gaze that had left Thorin feeling unsettled. An angry Wizard was not one he wished to cross, ever. Gandalf had not protested against this movement, either, as Thorin had hoped he would; it was as if he would do anything for this Hobbit, even at the risk of their lives.

Bilbo at least seemed to know his way around here well enough that they were fast about it. Deeper and deeper into the caverns he ran, climbing down stairwells and turning corners so fast Thorin had to call to him twice to wait for them. The light from Gandalf's staff helped them guide their way, along with a small torch Bilbo had snatched up, but otherwise it was very dark and eerie down here. Fortunately, Thorin had traveled enough mines and caves in his lifetime that he hardly noticed the difficulty.

Finally they came to a hall where a wide set of double doors that were just slightly ajar sat, and Bilbo led them to these doors, glancing warily beyond Gandalf into the darkness. "This is Azog's treasure room," Bilbo said quietly, and Thorin straightened, his gaze sharpening. If there were treasures here, they must have belonged to his kin long ago. He would have to tell Balin of this so that they could recover it after defeating Azog's clan.

But Bilbo did not open the doors, instead walking down the hall to a small hallway that Thorin had not noticed before and disappearing. Before Thorin could shout at him, he reappeared a moment later carrying a small chest. He walked back to Thorin and Gandalf and laid the chest down, hesitating before pushing it open.

Inside was a gleaming sword that looked to match Bilbo's height perfectly, along with a few golden trinkets and strangely enough, two ancient-looking books. As Bilbo grabbed the trinkets and lifted the sword out of the chest, Gandalf made a noise in his throat, leaning down to look at it.

"What a remarkable sword," the Wizard said, sounding astonished. "It looks just your size."

Bilbo gave the Wizard a small but shy smile. "It fits me perfectly. They had stolen it from some trolls some years ago, and it came with two others -- hey! Be careful with that!"

Thorin had lifted up one of the books and opened the delicate leather binding, his eyes widening with shock. He gave Bilbo a look, wondering if the Hobbit even knew how important this book was. "This is in Khuzdul. Where did you find it?" Carefully he set it back in the chest, wishing he had not picked it up so suddenly.

Bilbo glanced down at the book, a wary look appearing on his face. "There is a room down that way that must have been a library. Everything's crumbling apart now, but those and a few others were still intact. I like those because they mention dragons, though the writing is so faded that --"

Thorin could not help but interrupt him. "You can read this?" he said, his gaze narrowing as he stared at Bilbo.

The Hobbit seemed to flush, but the lighting was very low and Thorin could not see well. "There was a Dwarf that was brought here... he taught me the letters and a few words. He was planning an escape, and he thought I could help, if I could read the signs and hall names. It didn't really... well, he died not long after, and some of the letters, he hadn't taught me. Then I found the books, and I remembered enough to read some of the words. It helped that there were pictures, of course."

Then Bilbo stopped speaking, for Thorin was staring at him in wonder. A Hobbit, learning their ancient language? They hardly ever taught it to outsiders anymore, though a few of their trading partners had picked up on some words, and friends of the Dwarves had learned some of it, over the years. Yet this ancient text... it must be over a thousand years old, and still this Hobbit had managed to learn from it.

"You continue to surprise me, Master Baggins," he said quietly, and this time he could see when Bilbo flushed, a pleasant pink tickling the Hobbit's cheeks. Bilbo smiled at him, and Thorin smiled back at him without thinking, which made the Hobbit's cheeks turn a bit pinker.

Beside them, Gandalf cleared his throat, drawing the attention of both Dwarf and Hobbit. Thorin's smile faded and he gave Gandalf a questioning look, only for Gandalf to raise an eyebrow at him in return. Then the Wizard ignored him entirely and focused on Bilbo.

"Bilbo, you mentioned something about your sword that I would like to clarify. There were two others, you said?" the Wizard asked, looking curious.

Bilbo started, gripping the sword a bit tighter in his hand. "Oh, yes!" he said, brushing past Thorin and going to the door, which was held open by a small rope that twisted over the inner and outer handles of each of the doors, so that they could not close completely. It seemed that even the Orcs were not stupid enough to leave a Dwarf door closed.

Then Bilbo pushed the door open, and Thorin and Gandalf were greeted by the sight of a massive room piled with gleaming gold, shining gems, and all kinds of Dwarf relics from ages past.

~

Bilbo lingered in the doorway as Thorin and Gandalf entered the room, wide-eyed with awe at the piles of gold. He saw Thorin's attention focused on several boxes and Dwarven chests stacked against one wall, and Gandalf was busy looking over a pile of weapons nearby. He had seen this room countless times, having snuck in whenever he was not with the Hobbits and Azog did not need him, just as he had snuck into the old library many times. He had no concern for the gold or jewels, but he liked to look at the old Dwarf relics, tunics and weapons and axes of a race that ruled these mountains a thousand years ago. The Orcs had not cared for the library, which he kept closed so that they would not find it, and he had hidden even more items in there. The Orcs never noticed, stupid as they were.

"The library I mentioned," he said quietly, catching Gandalf's and Thorin's attention, "has a lot more of this. Not any of the gold, mind you, but... other things. Dwarf things... Hobbit things. Items that the Orcs stole from the people they attacked. I'll show you where that is, too."

Gandalf's eyes glittered as he looked at Bilbo, but Bilbo avoided his gaze, keeping an eye on Thorin. Thorin's expressions were impassive, but Bilbo thought he could detect consideration and respect in his mien. Thorin intrigued Bilbo, even though he hardly knew him, for all that he had heard Azog rant of the Dwarf King. Gandalf, as familiar as he was to Bilbo, was also just as unfamiliar -- but a part of Bilbo felt that he could trust these two. That was why he had told them of one of his secrets.

But not of the other two. He would tell no one of the black mushrooms, and something told him that for now, he should keep his other secret safe as well. The rings were tucked into his pocket with the handkerchief, and Bilbo hoped that neither Gandalf nor Thorin had seen them when he had opened the chest. He had tried to be quick about it, but Gandalf had been watching him appraisingly all this time, so he was not sure if he had gotten away with it. But he felt the need to protect the rings, so he would do so until the urge was gone. His instincts had not failed him yet.

"Here are the swords I mentioned," he said, moving past Gandalf to the far wall, where the Elvish swords lay on a heavy trunk. After giving the Dwarven relics one last look, Thorin followed him, and Gandalf walked to Bilbo's side, both leaning over the swords. Thorin reached forward first and picked up the longer of the swords, which gleamed in the light of Gandalf's staff.

Gandalf let out a soft exclamation. "Why, these are Elvish blades! They must have been made by the High Elves of old -- and you said they were in a troll hoard, of all places?" He picked up the thinner of the blades and held it up, pulling it partly out of its sheath. The weapons were still dusty from however many years they had remained in the trolls' ownership, but the blades were still sharp as though they had just been honed.

Beside him, Thorin gave a sound of disgust and made to throw the blade back onto the trunk, but Gandalf gave him a severe look. "You will not find a finer blade in all the land, Thorin Oakenshield, so do not toss that about like a wet rag!" he said in a scolding tone, and Bilbo had to look away briefly when Thorin glared up at Gandalf. He had known that Dwarves and Elves disliked each other, but to see it like this, especially with Gandalf acting like Thorin was a troublesome Hobbit child... it almost made him want to laugh.

But he did not laugh, and he watched as Thorin looked over the blade before he grudgingly accepted it. Both he and Gandalf took a moment to wipe the dust away, and once again Bilbo was made aware of how very underclothed he was compared to the other two. He had been like this for so long, amongst Orcs who wore little other than their armor, that he had long gotten used to feeling the air on his bare skin. Yet to see Thorin and Gandalf, wearing so much that only their faces and hands were bare... it made him feel naked. Moreso, he hated that his scars were visible, but past a few glances, Thorin and Gandalf had done nothing to make him feel uncomfortable. It was his own Baggins manners, old and dusty after so long disused, that made him want to put on real clothes and look presentable, especially in front of a Wizard and a King.

Finally they all walked out of the room, and Thorin looked up at the doors in consideration for a long moment. Then he pulled out a dagger and cut off the ropes on the handles, pushing the doors closed, and the three watched as the door faded into the wall, leaving only empty space.

"That will protect it for now," Thorin said, and Bilbo wondered if the Dwarves would be able to figure out the password, but then they were Dwarves -- undoubtedly they knew far more than Bilbo did of these halls. Then Thorin looked down at Bilbo and said, "Show us where this library is. We will not take anything, but I will send some of my men to retrieve all of the treasure later."

So Bilbo acquiesced and led Thorin and Gandalf to another hall nearby, carrying the little chest along with him, where he spoke the word "library" in Khuzdul, causing a tall door to appear in the wall. Both Wizard and Dwarf gave him another considering look, but Bilbo only shrugged and showed them in. The library inside was vast but covered in cobwebs, and what books remained were carefully stored in several chests that Bilbo kept in the middle of the floor, surrounded by several more Dwarven artifacts, and a few small chests that Bilbo had painstakingly filled with everything that the Orcs had stolen from the Hobbits. Bilbo set the small chest down with the others. Thorin and Gandalf were silent as they opened a few of the chests and looked over the ancient relics, but Thorin's eyes were bright when he looked at Bilbo at last.

"You did all this," he said quietly, and Bilbo felt his ears heat up.

"When my ma-- er, when Azog didn't need me, well... I spent a lot of time down here. It was better than letting them destroy everything," he finished feebly, his gaze dropping when Thorin's expression darkened at the mention of Azog.

"So you were his," the Dwarf King said lowly, and Bilbo could not tell if his tone was angry or disgusted, and he felt a part of himself shrivel up with shame. Then he lifted his gaze and glared at Thorin, clenching his fists at his side.

"Not by my choice. None of us chose this. So don't you dare judge me," he started heatedly, but Thorin cut him off, holding up his hands.

"No, Master Baggins -- Bilbo -- I am not... no. I am sorry, I meant no offense," the tall Dwarf said, and Bilbo closed his mouth quickly, staring at him. "I only meant... I wish I had come sooner," Thorin finished quietly.

Bilbo was speechless. He had no idea how to respond to Thorin -- to the very Dwarf who had been the cause, however little he realized it, of many nights of pain for Bilbo. Yet here was Thorin apologizing to him, showing regret for letting Azog own him for seven years. For a moment Bilbo wished to tell Thorin exactly how much Azog hated him and how often Azog's rage at Thorin's actions had caused pain for Bilbo -- but then he halted himself.

He did not know if Thorin understood just how much Bilbo had suffered, but he decided he did not care. He did not want Thorin or Gandalf to know -- he did not want anybody to know of the atrocities he had committed. The other Hobbits knowing, that he would allow, because they loved him and accepted him no matter what he did, as they had had little other choice -- but he wanted the horrors of this time to stay secret as long as possible. The other Hobbits would never tell, and neither would he.

Bilbo opened his mouth to respond, to say something meaningless that would never convey how grateful he was to Thorin for coming to their rescue, nor would it even hint at the convoluted emotions he felt concerning Thorin's history with Azog -- when he heard a wild roar echo from the chambers above, and it sent pure fear straight into his heart.

Azog knew he was gone.

Terror seized his chest. Bilbo clapped his hands over his mouth, eyes wide, and for a moment he could not breathe. A hysterical laugh bubbled up out of his throat, and he stepped back toward the door, lifting his wild gaze to the vaulted ceiling.

"He's so angry," he whispered, and dimly he noticed Thorin and Gandalf staring at him, their eyes wide. But he did not care -- he had to escape, now -- and he had already turned to run when someone caught his arm. He shrieked and tried to tear himself away, but whoever had him tugged him back until he hit a hard chest. He felt fur at his back and scented stone and musk, and he realized that it was Thorin. He panicked more when a thick arm wound its way around his middle.

Then Gandalf appeared in front of him, kneeling down again and lifting his hands to Bilbo's head, cupping his face in his soft hands. "We will not let him have you," the Wizard said gently, and Bilbo stopped struggling, his eyes fixed on Gandalf's kind gaze. Nobody had ever protected him before, not even the other Hobbits. No one had ever stood up to Azog -- but these two people might. This Wizard and the Dwarf behind him -- they might protect him, could maybe keep the monster at bay.

Thorin slowly let him go, but his hand lingered on Bilbo's back, and Bilbo turned his gaze on the Dwarf who had saved him. Thorin's blue eyes were hooded, but he nodded to Bilbo, and Bilbo clung to that reassurance.

"We will protect you," Thorin said, sliding his hand up to grip Bilbo's shoulder, and Bilbo felt some of his hysteria seep away.

"Okay," he whispered, letting himself trust for the first time in seven years. If Thorin Oakenshield could not protect him, then no one could.

Chapter Text

Despite his vivid desire to escape, Bilbo was obviously terrified of Azog.

At the back of his mind, Thorin wondered just what Azog had done to leave the Hobbit so fearful that he instinctively tried to run upon hearing Azog's rage over his disappearance. The shoulder beneath his hand was trembling, like a rabbit caught in a wolf's predatory gaze. He wondered what would happen if he squeezed too hard -- would the Halfling shatter? -- as frail as the Halfling's body felt to his touch.

Thorin was suddenly reminded of how very small and thin Bilbo was. How little did Azog feed his personal slave? Not that any of the other Hobbits were any better, from what he had seen, but with what he had experienced of Bilbo so far, from his actions and words... he thought Bilbo seemed much greater, much more than his tiny body encased.

Never had a Hobbit intrigued him so much. Yet now was not the time for such thoughts -- they had to escape, now -- before the Orcs found them. He looked past Bilbo at Gandalf, whose gaze met Thorin's with a knowing glint.

"You remember some of these halls, Wizard," Thorin said quietly, squeezing Bilbo's shoulder again before letting go. "Can you lead us to the others? My men have surely escaped with the Hobbits by now, but we must do the same."

Gandalf nodded and looked back to Bilbo, giving him a reassuring smile before standing. "I do think so, now that I look about. I've been in this library before, long ago... so you should follow me. Bilbo, can you stay close? We can escape, but we must be quick and silent."

Bilbo, still trembling but no longer so tense, nodded once. "I can be both these things," he whispered, and Gandalf patted his cheek again.

"Good, good, my boy. Then come," the Wizard said, vanishing out the door. Thorin and Bilbo were swift to follow, gripping the glowing Elvish weapons tightly in their hands. The door disappeared behind them as it closed, protecting the treasures within.

They ran through the halls, Gandalf leading and Thorin right behind Bilbo, who despite his frailty and head wound was quick on his feet. They were as silent as possible, but a few times Thorin thought they were being followed -- but no, it was just the Orcs searching above for their lost slaves. The caves glittered with dust, glints of hard metals, and shiny black mold, reminding Thorin of how very old these caves were.

In the back of his mind, Thorin wondered how they would clean all this up. No doubt his people would be up for the challenge, but these tunnels were vast. They had already begun to clean up the Orc nests further north, and they had only barely scratched the surface of all of the mines of the Misty Mountains.

The Orcs had not gone too deeply into Moria's caves, though. Thorin supposed that was because of the Balrog, a horrible beast that lurked deep in the caves below, and the only reason they knew of it was because some of the Orcs had let the secret slip a few years ago. Gandalf had taken it upon himself to deal with the Balrog, for Wizard reasons that Thorin did not fully understand, but it still left Thorin and the rest of his army wary.

Durin's Bane had existed in the Misty Mountains for millennia before his people had woken it; who knew of its power, or how deep its reach was. They did not even know if the Balrog would surface; perhaps it would stay deep in its caves below, and the Dwarves could reclaim the caves above. Yet no one would ever rest easy, knowing of Durin's Bane below. Hopefully the power of Gandalf could defeat it. But Thorin did not know what would happen, and he only hoped that his people would be spared the Balrog's brutal fury.

The blue light from their Elvish blades had faded long ago, and Gandalf allowed them to pause, leaning against a nearby wall as Bilbo gasped for air and Thorin breathed in deeply through his nose to ease his thudding heart. The Hobbit stood very near to Thorin, clutching his little sword and staring behind them, and Thorin could only imagine what he was thinking.

"How close are we?" he asked of Gandalf, who muttered and looked beyond the glow of his staff into the darkness.

"Close enough. We may have taken a bit of a roundabout way to get there, but I know these tunnels and we are not far from the camp, not far at all. Just a bit of walking, the rest of the way," the Wizard finally said after a bit of blustering, and Thorin felt a scowl appear on his face.

"We are not lost, are we, Gandalf?" he asked slowly. Beside him Bilbo turned to look at them.

Gandalf hemmed and frowned back at him, but Thorin's stare was relentless. "No, Mister Oakenshield, I think we are not lost! A Wizard is never lost, you should know. I know exactly where we are, and I'm telling you, we are --"

His words were cut off by a hair-raising cry that echoed in the caves behind them, making all three turn sharply. Thorin pulled the Elvish blade from his sheath and cursed when he saw that it was glowing.

"Azog," whispered Bilbo, his face white in the pale blue light.

"-- being followed!" finished Gandalf quickly, turning and taking off running again. Thorin quickly resheathed his sword and shoved at Bilbo, who dug in his heels for only a moment before the fear took him and he shot off after Gandalf.

They ran through the halls, but now their plight rang horribly true: they were being hunted. Orc calls echoed against the stone walls, and they heard drums beating in the distance. Orc war drums, thought Thorin. Azog was serious in chasing after them. Did he know Thorin was here?

After what felt like forever, but must have been only a short time, they came to a long, crumbling bridge that stretched across a vast cavern. Thorin recognized the cave as one that they had crossed earlier to sneak into Azog's clan nest, only they had used a different path that wound around the bottom of the cavern. They were close, then -- but they had to escape the Orcs.

Without stopping they ran across the bridge. It was as they were nearing the other side that whistles in the air caught their attention, and Thorin grabbed Bilbo and jerked him aside just before an arrow would have thudded into his head. "Go!" he shouted, and Bilbo stumbled forward, never looking back as they reached a landing with crumbling stairs and began to climb. More arrows sang in the air, Orcs howling behind them, before a roar silenced every Orc that was chasing them.

"Mâdrol nûl-lûpûrz-izub!"

In front of him, Bilbo froze, and they stumbled as they reached the top of the stairs. Thorin turned slowly and was met with a sight he had hated for over a century. Azog stood at the edge of the bridge, his clan shifting behind him but oddly silent, and Azog was staring not at him, but at the Hobbit beside him, pale eyes wide. Bilbo was frozen in pure fear, and Thorin pushed the Hobbit behind him, meeting Azog's gaze with a hateful glare.

"Azog," he growled, and Azog's gaze sharpened as he recognized Thorin.

"Durinlûk," the pale Orc said softly, and Thorin felt rage beneath his skin, burning to rupture and send him flying at Azog, to kill him once and for all.

A hand on his shoulder stayed him, and he glanced back to see Gandalf looking past him, the Wizard's expression dark. "Now is not the time," the Wizard said quietly, and Thorin nearly shoved him away and leapt from the stairs... but then he felt something trembling at his back. He turned and looked behind him, and he saw Bilbo hunched against the stairs, blue-grey eyes wide with dilated pupils, his haunted stare fixed on Azog. He looked back and saw Azog returning the stare, and slowly he pushed his temper down, reminded that right now, they could not afford to clash with his enemy. Their battle would come later, with his brethren around him and Azog's clan dying at their feet -- not on this tiny bridge where there was no way to fight him.

Gandalf rose and strode past him down the stairs, fixing Azog with a dark look. "You will never have him again, Azog the Defiler," he said, voice thundering across the cavern.

Azog looked murderous, and he held out one pale clawed hand, his eyes widening. "Thrakol nûl-lûpûrz-izub. Azubuk!" With that order, the Orcs screeched and began to race along the bridge, but Gandalf was one step ahead of them. Taking three quick strides forward, he lifted his staff and rammed it into the bridge, a bright light erupting from the stone on top and sending the Orcs flying and the bridge ahead of him crumbling. Quickly the Wizard turned back and ran to them, and Thorin pushed Bilbo up and half-carried him the rest of the way up the stairs, vanishing into the corridor beyond.

When the light from Gandalf's staff faded, all three were gone, and Azog roared with rage, the scream echoing across the caverns and sending shivers through every being that heard it.

~

Bilbo was numb from seeing Azog.

Twice Azog had called for his return. Twice Azog had met his gaze, and twice he had seen something strange in that pale glare that had haunted him for seven years. Pleading? Worry? He did not know. He did not want to care, but Azog's face stayed at the front of his thoughts, as they ran deeper into the ancient halls. The glows faded from their swords and the echoes of war drums disappeared, but they were still fast, until finally Bilbo could hear noise up ahead that sounded of many voices talking at once, and of clangs of steel and the crackling of fire.

They left the corridor they had been traversing and came upon a massive camp that was filled with Dwarves, almost all of them covered in thick armor, with roaring fires, huge tents, and makeshift armories and forges. The sight of it might have taken his breath away, had Bilbo not been so preoccupied with his thoughts.

What did catch his attention was the cry that rang out when the closest members of the camp -- there must have been thousands of Dwarves here -- recognized Thorin and Gandalf. Not a little attention was paid to Bilbo as well, and he let himself hide behind Thorin, whose height and heavy armor were more than enough to keep the gazes from following him.

Thorin strode forward to meet his kin, and Bilbo lingered behind with Gandalf, who let him hide in the folds of his robes as they walked into the camp. He did not want to meet anybody -- he still could not believe what had happened. Azog had seen him, had nearly caught him -- and he had escaped.

Worse, he believed that Gandalf had understood what Azog had said. His pain-bearer. Would he ever be free of Azog? He could not tell. Seeing the Dwarves bowing to Thorin, he was struck by how dreamlike this felt. Perhaps it a dream -- perhaps he had not escaped Azog, and this was his nightmare. To taste freedom in his dreams, but never to realize it in reality.

Thorin was speaking to several Dwarves, some of whom looked quite bloody and bandaged, and Bilbo could barely hear him above the noise of the army. He could barely understand Khuzdul anyway, but he caught a few words -- Orcs, hall, escape -- the ones that his Dwarf friend had taught him. Then Thorin was silent as the tallest Dwarf, who was bald with inked markings on his head, began to speak, nodding and looking satisfied, then vaguely anxious.

But Bilbo was quickly growing tired, and he wondered if perhaps he could go find a nice rock to sit on for a while. He wondered where the other Hobbits were, if they were okay -- and he wished for a blanket or a coat or something, to hide his scarred body. Gandalf kept him close, and Bilbo was grateful for it, as nobody paid him much attention when there was much more of a Wizard to look at than there was of a tiny Hobbit.

Finally Thorin finished speaking with his kin and walked back to them, his blue gaze finding Bilbo's. "Your kin arrived safely, and they are being treated in a tent down that way," the King said, gesturing down one of the camp's pathways. "I must meet with my generals, but you are more than welcome to rest here, Bilbo Baggins. We have food and clothing for you, and they have set up a bath tent as well. My healers will want to take a look at your head, too." Here the tall Dwarf hesitated, and Bilbo could only stare at him, unable to find any words to say. "If you have any need... do not hesitate to find me," Thorin said finally, and had he any feelings left, Bilbo might have felt grateful. A King did not normally give such an offer.

But Bilbo could feel nothing but the pain in his cheek and the side of his head. He felt the pain in his feet from running for so long, and he felt pain in his heart, though he could not understand why. Here he was, free -- but Bilbo could barely make heads or tails of it. It was as if his mind was muted, letting his senses give only the barest of information.

Maybe he was in shock.

Thorin seemed to be waiting for a reaction, so Bilbo gave a small nod, and he caught a faintly worried gaze before Thorin returned the nod and turned from him. He watched the King under the Mountain walk away, disappearing into the ranks of Dwarves who parted for him and bowed, and Bilbo felt some part of him tremble. He did not want Thorin to go.

But Thorin's visage soon faded, and Gandalf gently urged him toward the Hobbits' tent, protecting him from the curious gazes of dozens of Dwarves. Then he entered the tent, to find all of his friends and kin from the Hobbit hall of Azog there, wearing proper clothes and looking freshly clean, eating bowls of hot food while Dwarf healers muttered to them to hold still. The children were laughing and running about, while every face of the adults and tweens showed sharp relief, mixed in with the exhaustion and hunger.

Bilbo stood in the entryway for a long moment, and slowly his shoulders, so tense from hearing Azog scream for him, began to relax. Then one of the children spotted him and cried out, and everyone looked up.

"Bilbo!"

And Bilbo was ushered into the warmth of the Hobbits, who embraced him and held him close, several of the children pulling on his hands. They babbled in his ear and told him of the Dwarves' kindness, of the dark halls they had walked through and of the hot stews, full of carrots and potatoes, real carrots, Bilbo -- and then the tears that he had pushed away for what felt like forever began to spill down his cheeks.

He could not help but cry. Warm hands patted his cheeks and messed his curls, and he was led to a bed where someone pulled him close and held him. He hid his face in their neck and sobbed, unable to believe that they were really here, and it seemed like every Hobbit there touched him or petted his curls or rubbed his back, reassuring him that this was true, that it was not a dream and that he was no longer Azog's slave.

Finally the sobs began to recede, and gently Bilbo was led from the tent to another where a Dwarf with very long braids carefully struck the shackles from his wrists and neck, tossing the chains into a bin with a loud clatter. Then Bilbo was led to another tent, where he was given a bucket of hot water and a bar of soap. One of his kin -- he thought it might have been one of his Brandybuck cousins -- helped him bathe, washing his back as he scrubbed his front, and the smell of the suds -- lemon, his brain supplied for him -- stuck to the front of his mind. He had always liked to use lemon on his fish in evening meals, but now all he could think about was how strong it smelled, how good it felt to be clean.

His cousin poured water over his head, and Bilbo watched as the dirty water ran down the hill they were on. He had not been clean in seven years. He looked down at his skin, seeing no dirt or blood or any other blemishes other than his scars, and he felt that he could cry all over again.

But soon a towel was wrapped around him and clean clothes were handed to him. A white shirt, gray Hobbit pants, a heavy blue sweater, even smallclothes -- all were so soft that Bilbo's eyes watered immediately. He lifted the pile and brushed the cloth against his cheek, a small sob escaping his throat. His cousin squeezed his shoulder then left, allowing him privacy for the first time since he had arrived.

Slowly, with painstaking care, he dressed himself in the soft clothes which were just slightly too big for him, but they fit well enough that Bilbo did not care if they hung a bit off his frame. He stood still for a few moments, hugging himself and enjoying the feel of soft cotton sliding against his skin which had been left naked for so long. The golden rings he had kept hidden in his dirty shorts were tucked into a new pocket in his clean pants, and absently, Bilbo combed wet curls out of his face.

This was not a dream.

He was free.

He was truly free. There were real clothes on his body, his skin had a lingering scent of lemon and lye, and Azog was nowhere nearby. All of his fellow Hobbits were alive and safe, and not one had died, not one had been recaptured, even he had not been recaptured, was not left to Azog's fury --

Some part of him knew that there was still a battle to come and that he would not truly rest until he saw Azog dead, or until he himself was dead, but Bilbo was, for the first time in seven years, clean and clothed, and soon he would be fed and allowed real sleep.

It was not a dream. He was free. Thorin had kept his promise: he had protected Bilbo from certain death and from Azog's fury, at least for the moment, and Bilbo wished he could go find Thorin and thank him. But he knew that the leader of this massive army would be impossibly difficult to locate, let alone speak to, so he let himself be led back to the tent of his kin, melting beneath the happy smiles and hopeful chatter of his fellow Hobbits.

They were free.

Chapter Text

When at last Bilbo lay down to sleep, on a bedroll shared with one of his cousins and at least two of the children, he was too tired to think much past how lovely, this pillow is quite soft and I wonder if that's singing outside. Yet Bilbo fell asleep almost immediately, too tired from running around all day with an aching head and an empty stomach, and for a while, he was content.

Yet he dreamed of things that stretched impossibly large in the distance. Bilbo had only ever dreamed of the past, of his mother and father, of the Shire as it had been, but these dreams were different. They held a different quality, less warm and soft like his dreams of before, but just as lovely, just as vivid -- yet somehow Bilbo did not realize he was dreaming.

He dreamed of a Hobbit hole on a hill, of laughing children and wild birthday parties and of his cousins kissing in the shadow of a mountain. He dreamed of a lady in white naming him bearer, of things seen and also unseen. He dreamed of a black land that reeked of evil, of a gold ring disappearing into molten fire. He dreamed of kneeling before a great throne with a shining gem, presenting a gold ring to a King with blue, blue eyes.

Such impossible things. His last dream was of a deep chuckle in his ear and thick fingers curling into his palm, the scent of stone and fire -- and then he woke, thoughts muddled with a sense of loss. Had someone said his name?

He heard soft snoring beside him and looked over, seeing his cousin on his right side with two of the children clinging to his left side. Beyond them were the rest of the Hobbits, all sprawled out on makeshift cots and bed rolls, covered in blankets and tucked up together, no Hobbit more than a few inches from another one. He was deep in the middle of the group, as if every Hobbit had simply fallen asleep around him, and it made him feel warm and wanted again.

The thoughts of his dreams faded to the back of his mind, and for a long while, he forgot that he ever had such dreams, too busy with the present to think of anything beyond protecting his kin and seeing the last of Azog's days -- and beyond that, learning to live again.

~

Though Thorin was busy for every moment after he left Bilbo to Gandalf's care, he kept a thought spared for the Hobbit in the back of his mind. Balin had taken to the news of the treasure room and recovered library with glee. Dwalin had reported victory with their battle, though the Orcs had retreated too quickly and would no doubt attack again. They had lost many warriors, though, poisoned by Orc blades and arrows, or simply slaughtered in battle. That evening, the Dwarves sang songs of mourning and wrapped the bodies in black cloth saturated with oils and salts, to be taken back to their families.

In the morning the Hobbits would be led away from the battles to the West Gate, where they would be escorted back to the rest of their people. With them would travel the heavily injured to find healing in the nearest camp further north in the mountains. Thorin wanted as few casualties as possible. The skirmish that Dwalin had led was simply a diversionary tactic that had used only a small portion of their power, so that they could rescue the Hobbits and scope out the enemy's hold. The information Gloin and Balin had put together from searching the Orc-infested halls would greatly improve their chances.

He knew that Azog would have allies that would come to his aid, and he knew that his Dwarves would crush them. It would be a long battle, though, with no few deaths on his hands, but his people had accepted this inevitability long ago when he had first issued a summons for able warriors. They had lost many already, but many more innocent lives would be lost if the Orcs were left to roam the Misty Mountains freely. Already they had torn asunder the home of Hobbits, a folk so gentle that they had not even fought in a war in many, many generations.

It was very late, probably the same as very, very early, and Thorin was standing in his tent looking over a rough map Balin had produced of the Orc nest they would invade the next day, when he heard a throat clear nearby. He looked up to see Gandalf standing at the entrance of his tent, leaning heavily on his staff and looking rather worn.

"Gandalf," Thorin said, rolling up the map and going to pour the Wizard a cup of water, "how are the Hobbits? What did the healers say?" He thought of Bilbo and the dark wound on his head, the bruise on his cheek, the dark circles under his eyes and the barely healed scars on his thin body.

Gandalf took the offered cup and sank onto a stone, drinking deeply before sighing and looking at Thorin. "They all rest now. None of them have serious injuries or illnesses... nor even have as many problems as one would expect. The healers want them to rest more, but I know that Hobbits are hardy creatures, and I believe they will be alright if we can get them to the West Gate."

Blast the Wizard. He wanted to know more of one Hobbit in particular, which he suspected that Gandalf knew, but he did not begrudge this information. "We will see to their needs. Were there enough clothes for them? I can have the seamsters create more."

Gandalf set the cup aside and gave Thorin a faint smile, but Thorin could see dark thoughts in his eyes. "There were just enough articles of clothing for every Hobbit. They were all very relieved... just as the others were," he said quietly, no doubt thinking of the dozens of Hobbits they had already saved and escorted back to the West.

Thorin nodded solemnly, still horrified that such a tragedy had befallen such a race. In years past he had thought poorly of Hobbits, for all that they were gentle and did not train for war or create anything more than good food, catchy songs, and detailed woodcraft. In the last few years, though, he had seen the strength and tenacity of Hobbits who had been brought to their lowest and had survived.

He had a faint idea of what the Hobbits had gone through -- he had heard whispers of suicide, of falling asleep one night and never waking the next morning, of torture unimaginable at the hands of Orcs. Elves and Men had fallen to lesser tortures. Denied basic dignity, clothing, proper food, even sunlight for years -- yet somehow the Hobbits had survived, and merely hours later could be found laughing and singing of a hopeful future.

These Hobbits were no different, he thought, and they had been enslaved the longest. He watched Gandalf for a moment before asking, hoping for a casual tone, "And what of your friend Mister Baggins? Did the healers look at his head?"

Gandalf lifted his gaze to stare at Thorin for a long moment, during which Thorin did not twitch or shift his weight, and finally the Wizard said, "Bilbo will be fine. They wrapped his head with a salve and put him to rest quite quickly after they fed him. Such an astonishing boy... I could scarcely believe my eyes, seeing him in that hall."

Something in the Wizard's tone made Thorin wary. There was that disbelief again, the same bewilderment he had seen in Gandalf's gaze when he had laid eyes on Bilbo earlier. What was it about this Hobbit that was so different from the others? It was not just the horrible scar on Bilbo's stomach or his defiant actions in protecting the belongings of Dwarves and Hobbits.

There was something more to Bilbo Baggins, and Thorin wished to understand exactly what it was.

Gandalf was shaking his head, his gaze saddening with ancient thoughts. "That poor, poor boy... what he must have suffered, at the hands of the Defiler."

Mentioning Azog made Thorin breathe in quickly and straighten. "What did that monster do to him?"

Gandalf glanced at him briefly but did not seem to see him. "Did you notice, Thorin Oakenshield, that the children were scarcely harmed here? And that even the older Hobbits were still well, for all that they were hungry and scarred?"

Thorin stared at Gandalf, his eyes narrowing slightly. "What do you mean to say, Gandalf?"

"I did not think of it until I saw the children," Gandalf whispered, as if he did not hear Thorin. "None of them had marks on them from Orcs. Not a single child had a scar or wound, and none of them had been defiled. Who protected them? Orcs have no care whether a Hobbit stands in its way. It will reach its target no matter the prey, whether old or young... yet none of these children were harmed. How?"

Slowly Thorin nodded, turning a hooded gaze on the tent entrance. "I had noticed that," he said quietly. "What did you make of it?"

But Gandalf did not say anything more on the subject. He nearly bowed his head as if to weep, his tall hat covering his eyes. "My poor, dear boy," the Wizard whispered, and Thorin was tempted to ask him again, of what he had meant, but something held his tongue. This was setting off alarms in the back of his head. He had wondered why the children had not been harmed, why they called Bilbo "pain-bearer," when that name had been whispered among all of the Hobbits for years now.

It was on the edge of his mind, a great realization which would shake the foundations of his beliefs on Hobbits, when suddenly Gandalf stood and shook himself, as if chasing away the dark thoughts in his mind, and the same thoughts faded to the back of Thorin's mind, to be explored on another day.

"I will wake the Hobbits later and help them ready for their journey," the Wizard said, glancing sidelong at Thorin. "If you wish to speak to them, I suggest you do it just before their departure. The escort will be prepared?"

"Yes," Thorin found himself saying, though he eyed Gandalf suspiciously. He did not like how Gandalf had changed the subject and made him ignore his worries, but he would let it go for now. "I will do so in a few hours, then. We will protect them, Gandalf, as we have protected all the others. No Hobbit shall die in this war, not after regaining their freedom."

Gandalf gazed at him another moment, then he nodded in acceptance, trusting in Thorin's words. So far, Thorin had not let him down once. "Very well. I wish still that you had requested the aid of the Elves --"

Thorin groaned. "Not this again, Wizard --"

Gandalf continued as if Thorin had never spoken. "But I see now that the march of the Dwarves to reclaim Moria is not to be shared with other races. You have kept every promise you have given me since the start of this war. Every Hobbit has gone home alive, with clothes and promises of aid. Instead of rushing in blindly, as your predecessors might have done, you have paced yourself and thought on every detail of this march thoroughly, down to the last soldier. I commend you, Thorin Oakenshield, and I am sorry for pushing you so, on the matter of the Elves."

Thorin was silent as he absorbed Gandalf's words, the apology ringing in his ears. Then he inclined his head in acceptance, the frown fading from his mien. "I wish to thank you as well, Gandalf, for staying with us as you have. Though we have not seen eye to eye on every part of this journey, you are still a valuable companion to this march. I am... sorry, as well, for my obstinance."

Gandalf gave him a small smile. "You are a fine King, Thorin son of Thráin. I am glad that the Hobbits have an ally in you and your kin."

Humbled yet disinclined to show it, Thorin nodded once again, averting his gaze to the makeshift table where his plans and maps were. "The Hobbits are... they are too gentle, but they have proven to be capable. I regret that we did not act sooner against the Orcs. We had thought of retaking these mountains for years, yet we only do it after the Orcs have acted against the Halflings. That... bothers me, more than I can express. If only we had marched sooner --"

Gandalf interrupted him, his voice quiet but firm. "No one could have predicted the actions of the Orcs, Thorin. You are no more to blame than the Rangers of the North, who were supposed to protect the Shire but were distracted by Azog's son from Grunabad. This was a cunning feat of the Orcs, but then they were always known for their terrible acts of war. None of the great leaders of Middle Earth anticipated this."

The Wizard stood and walked over to the table, looking down at the map of Middle Earth that lay in the center. His voice grew somewhat distant as he continued speaking, long fingers reaching down to trace the ridge line of the Misty Mountains. "Every nation has sent aid, in food, clothing, and volunteers to help the Hobbits find a new home. The Thain has not decided where they will go, and while they wait in the shadows of the ruined town of Bree... I know not where they could go that they would be safe. The Shire was a perfect home for them, and it is destroyed. The fields are black with death, the gentle hills torn apart... no green will grow there now."

Thorin reached over to point at the fields that lay below the ruins of Tharbad. "They could settle here, near the nations of Men. They would be close to my kin in the Blue Mountains and protected by the armies of Men."

Gandalf shook his head, his beard brushing the worn wood. "No, the Men will not cross the mountains just to protect the little folk, and the Hobbits have always been wary of the big folk who walk around them. Perhaps on the coast near the Elves..." He traced the edge of the Blue Mountains near Harlindon, where Thorin knew an Elf city to rest. He twitched, shifting his finger to the Blue Mountains themselves.

"And near my kin, again. Linnar's folk have promised to watch over any Hobbit settlement that may be founded near there. Many of them are here now, and they feel just as strongly about the Halflings that Durin's folk do. If we establish a strong enough settlement in the Misty Mountains, as well, we will watch over them. We owe them that much."

Gandalf turned a crinkling smile on Thorin, though his gaze was sad. "You have promised the Hobbits so much, Thorin Oakenshield, though they are not your kin and you truly owe them nothing, as this was not your fault. But I think they are grateful for it, and it will be good to see Hobbits and Dwarves looking after each other. I think... you have much to learn from them, as they will learn a great deal from you."

Thorin nodded gruffly, clasping his hands behind his back and looking up to meet Gandalf's eyes. "I am glad for the opportunity... but I regret the circumstances that brought this about," he said quietly, and Gandalf nodded.

"Just so," he responded, before nodding once and walking to the entrance. "I will be off for a bit, but I will return in time to wake the Hobbits and help send them on their way. Good night, Thorin. I suggest you get a bit of sleep before tomorrow."

Thorin shook his head a bit, a rare smile touching his lips. "We both know better than that, Wizard. Good night." He watched Gandalf leave, his smile slowly fading, as his thoughts returned to the Hobbits and the conversation that he and Gandalf had not shared. Gandalf was very protective of the Hobbits, but he seemed even more protective of Bilbo Baggins, and Thorin wondered why. What was the Wizard not telling him?

That question would plague him for a long time yet, and Thorin Oakenshield would get no sleep that night.

Though he would be glad for it, as only hours later, he would receive a visitor.

~

Waking in a pile of sleeping Hobbits may have been nice for the company and comfort, but escaping them was a test of Bilbo's not inconsiderable skill in sneaking.

After several minutes of prying off clinging Hobbit children, stepping around bony elbows, and nearly squashing the old Mother Brandybuck's nose, Bilbo was free of his kin, and he gladly escaped out of the tent into cool air. He breathed in a deep sigh of relief and looked around, seeing that the camp was very quiet compared to the noise of it when he had first come here but a few hours ago. A nearby Dwarf looked at him for a long moment but only nodded to him, and hesitantly Bilbo nodded back before looking around.

He began to stroll along the edges of the camp, taking care to avoid the tents with the loudest snores, and as he walked he felt a knot of anxiety lodge itself into his stomach. He could see scouts and watchers at the passageways all around the cave system, but he was beginning to feel vulnerable here, knowing that Azog could come after them at any time. A Dwarf army would not have chosen a location like this without thinking of safety and defense, though, so Bilbo did not let himself worry too much. Instead he walked, hoping to burn off some of his distress, at least for now.

He had not slept much, but he had rested well, and after a good meal and the heavenly washing he'd had, Bilbo was feeling much better. His head had a bandage on it from one of the Dwarf healers, who had clucked over him much like one of his aunts might have and muttered about stubborn Kings under his (her?) breath, but Bilbo had paid it no mind. There was only a faint ache now, so he supposed that the salve was working and that he would not need to worry about it for now.

He was nearing the center of the camp now, and as he passed a lit tent, he heard something clunk against the ground inside, and then a curse in Khuzdul. The voice made him pause -- he recognized it. Though the guards were definitely watching him now, he crept closer to the tent and peered past the cloth covering the doorway.

The tall figure of his Dwarf savior was straightening from picking something off the ground. A cup, then, and the ground was wet too. Inside the tent, Thorin Oakenshield gave the cup a scornful glare before setting it down, and Bilbo reached up to hide a smile.

But he must have made a sound, because Thorin turned around to stare at the entryway, blue eyes narrowing. "Do I have to send the whole lot of you on a patrol around the camp?" the Dwarf King asked in a near-growl, and before Bilbo could flee, he had stalked to the cloth covers and pushed them apart. "I will not sleep no matter how much you hover -- oh, it's you." He stared down at Bilbo, looking a bit baffled.

Sheepishly, Bilbo lifted a hand in a small wave, feeling his cheeks heat up. "Er... sorry, I did not mean to..."

Thorin glanced beyond Bilbo and gave a glare, and Bilbo looked back to see some of the guards shifting at the edges of the pathways between tents. Then most of them turned and marched off, and Thorin gave a low sigh.

"There is nothing to apologize for, Master Baggins. Come in." Thorin stepped back and held the cloth door open, and after a moment of hesitation, Bilbo stepped into the tent, which was considerably warmer than the cave outside. Thorin gave the lingering guards another glare before letting the cloth covers fall together again, and he walked over to a table covered in maps, his gaze finding Bilbo's easily.

Dwarf and Hobbit stared at each other, and Bilbo was eerily reminded of when Thorin had first found him. Thorin's expression did not have the shock of before, but his gaze held consideration, and he glanced over Bilbo as if to make sure that all of him was there. His blue gaze lingered on the bandages on Bilbo's head, then on the blue sweater sloping off his shoulder, and the Hobbit felt a little bit exposed even with the thick clothes on his body, with Thorin looking at him like that.

Finally the Dwarf King looked away and went to fill two cups from a pitcher. "How is your head?" He offered one of the cups to Bilbo, and Bilbo took it without thinking.

Sipping from the wooden cup revealed cool, crisp water, for which Bilbo was very thankful. "It does not hurt much anymore. Whatever your healers put on it worked quite well," he said quietly, his gaze staying on Thorin.

Thorin nodded and met his gaze again. "That would be one of Óin's salves. He is a remarkable healer, with a wide knowledge of herbology and pharmacy. All of the salves, or I suppose they're calling them 'ointments,' were devised by him," the Dwarf said.

Bilbo's lips twitched. "Ointments? Isn't that a bit..."

Thorin seemed to sigh. "Yes, well, try telling him that. His brother is no less stubborn... you met him earlier. Glóin."

Bilbo could not help but smile now. He liked hearing of these Dwarves that he had not met; it made him feel normal again, to be sharing small talk, even though it was with a King. He wanted to ask Thorin many things, to know more about their march and what had happened to the other Hobbits in the Orc clans further north, but he did not know where to begin.

Thorin watched him for a moment, as if sensing his bemusement, and gave an odd half-smile that Bilbo nevertheless admired. "But I do not think you came here to listen to me complain about my kin," Thorin said, and Bilbo's smile turned a bit wry.

"Truth be told, Your Majesty, I did not come here for any particular reason. I was just out wandering... and you caught my attention," he said, and Thorin raised his eyebrows, a vaguely worried expression touching his blue gaze.

"Could you not sleep? I can ask them to send some more blankets over," Thorin said, setting his cup down, and quickly Bilbo held up his hands.

"Oh, no, everything in the tent was fine. It was just..." he trailed off, his gaze dropping to his cup. "I... just could not sleep that well," he finished quietly, and after a moment of silence he looked up to see Thorin watching him.

"I know that feeling quite well," the tall Dwarf said, and Bilbo was reminded of what Thorin had been saying when he found Bilbo standing outside his tent.

His poor soldiers must be worried about him, Bilbo thought, and the thought made him wistful for his cousins and kin who had fretted over him when he had returned. He gave Thorin a small smile, feeling a bit shy to have something in common with the King, and after a moment Thorin returned it.

"It would have been better for you to sleep more, but I imagine that until everything is over, sleep will be a long time in coming," Thorin said quietly, stepping closer to Bilbo who had to tilt his head up to look at him.

Bilbo gave a small shrug, his fingers tracing the edges of his cup. "That's just the way it is, I guess. The same could be said for you, Your Majesty," he said quietly.

Thorin made a noise in his throat, setting down his cup and turning his gaze on the maps on his desk. "Seeing my enemy again will do that," he said after a long moment, and Bilbo followed his gaze to the maps, his eyes widening a bit. He had seen maps of Middle Earth before, but his gaze was drawn unerringly to a familiar spot west of the Misty Mountains, circled with black.

The Shire.

Without really thinking about it, he reached out to trace the black mark. He felt a bit ill just looking at it, a vague memory of black skies brushing his thoughts, before he drew his hand away and drank deeply from his cup, the cold water settling in his stomach and soothing some of his anxiety. When he looked up, Thorin was watching him, blue gaze dark.

"I will do everything in my power to ensure that you and the Hobbits return safely to your kin," the Dwarf King promised quietly.

Bilbo gazed at him for a long moment, his expressions softening a bit with a faint smile. Thorin Oakenshield intrigued him a great deal, and strangely, wildly, Bilbo trusted him. He trusted Thorin to keep his promises, as he already had, and as he would in the future.

"I believe you," he said simply, and he admired the way Thorin's gaze warmed and softened his stern mien. Oh, how Thorin intrigued him, despite his conflicting feelings toward the Dwarf King. Azog must be fuming right now, to know that his favorite pet was walking and talking with the hated scion of Durin's line.

Then Thorin said something which made Bilbo's anxiety nearly double.

"You should return to your kin and rest more, Master Baggins," Thorin said, looking back at the map. "When everyone has woken and the healers have checked their wounds, you will all be taken to the West Gate of Moria. My Dwarves will lead you back to where the rest of your kin is, outside of Bree."

Bilbo stared at him, the words ringing in his ears. Oh, how he wanted to leave -- and he could not express how relieved he felt, to know that the Hobbits would be taken away from the battle almost immediately -- but he wanted to stay! He had to see Azog dead, or else he would forever fear Azog hunting him down and dragging him back to that hated room in chains.

"Can't I stay?" he said without thinking, stepping forward toward Thorin, and Thorin looked at him in surprise.

"Stay? Do you not wish to go home?" Thorin asked, raising his eyebrows.

The question made Bilbo falter. I have no home, he wanted to say, but Thorin's expression shifted as if in realization, and a touch of regret entered his gaze.

"I mean only to say... it is dangerous, Master Baggins," Thorin said after a moment, and Bilbo could hear the apology unsaid in his tone. "War is not for Hobbits, and there will be no place for you here. You are not a fighter, despite that sword you found, and I cannot in good conscious allow you to stay and risk your life. No, I think you should go with your kin," Thorin said finally, his blue eyes solemn as he watched Bilbo.

Bilbo could not find the words to argue with him. He wanted to shout at Thorin for trying to protect him, but at the same time, he wanted to be protected. More than anything, though, he wanted to know what would happen to Azog. Would he fight Thorin? Would he lose himself to his rage? Or would he defeat Thorin with the power of that anger? Bilbo could not simply walk away without knowing, without seeing with his own eyes what would happen between Azog and Thorin.

But he said none of this. Instead he bowed his head and nodded, setting his cup down and murmuring a quiet thank you to the King. "I think I will go rest some more," he said quietly, and though Thorin stared at him, the King did nothing to stop him.

"Good night then, Master Baggins," the tall Dwarf said, inclining his head.

Bilbo met his gaze, wondering if Thorin could read the conflict in his heart, but he only gave a vague smile and nodded. "Good night, Your Majesty," he said, before excusing himself from the tent and starting the slow walk back to the tent of the Hobbits, missing the blue gaze that watched him go, dark with uncertainty.

He would not leave as Thorin wished. He would have to be stealthy, but he would find a spot to watch the battle, where he would be safe and out of the way. He would see Azog's last moments with his own eyes, no matter what the Dwarf King thought.

Chapter Text

Bilbo was able to crawl back into his spot amongst the Hobbits, though he barely remembered getting there and did not remember falling asleep again, so intense were his thoughts and plans for the next day. Over and over he rolled half-baked plans in his mind, until he was sure he was dreaming of them, and then he dreamed of nothing at all.

The next morning, though, he woke to giggling in his ear and opened his eyes to find several of the children ready to pounce. As soon as he saw them, they jumped, and Bilbo could not help but laugh as they tickled him. His cousin Rory (who could be such a child sometimes) joined them, until Mother Brandybuck barked at them all to shut up, some of us are trying to sleep and the old Gaffer muttered that it's too early for young'uns to be rolling about. But by that time, everybody was awake, and the adults wore small smiles on their faces despite grumbling about the time.

As he sat up and watched everybody rise, cracking their backs and chasing after the little ones, Bilbo realized that he had not woken up with another Hobbit for many years. Azog had demanded that Bilbo sleep in his room whether he was there or not, and the first few times Bilbo had disobeyed him in the beginning, he had been beaten severely for breaking that rule and had never broken it since. He had napped more than a few times with the Hobbits, but never slept a whole night. It felt... nice, to be surrounded by them, even if he'd had to escape for a little bit, overwhelmed by their presences.

His cousin tugged at his sleeve, and Bilbo rose and followed him to a small cave where there were chamber pots. He was quiet as they completed their morning ablutions, following Rory back to the tent, where a small crowd of Dwarves had arrived and were handing out bowls of steaming porridge. The Hobbits were somewhat wary of the Dwarves, but they were glad enough for the meal, already cheerful as they ate.

The smell of bacon caught his attention, and Bilbo's mouth watered. Real bacon. This must be heaven.

They retrieved the bowls and spoons, and his cousin tugged him over to where the small group of Brandybucks was sitting. None of his Took cousins had been part of Azog's slaves, but Bilbo had been both glad and depressed to see his Brandybuck kin there. Uncle Gorbadoc was his aunt Mirabella's husband, and Mother Brandybuck (or Great Aunt Adaldrida, as she demanded to be called) his mother -- his very, very old mother, who Bilbo sometimes thought must be immortal. Aunt Mira and Uncle Gordy had lots of children, but only one of them had been caught with them -- Rorimac, or Rory as Bilbo usually called him. Rory had once whispered to Bilbo that his mother had taken the rest of the little ones and hidden them away, and Bilbo could only hope that they had survived Shirefall.

Mother Brandybuck gave him and Rory a glare when they sat down, but then she was clucking her tongue and nudging more bacon into their bowls, and Bilbo ducked his head with a faint smile and obediently ate the hot meal, savoring the crispy treat.

He loved these people. They were the only reason he had stayed sane with Azog as his master. In the beginning he had been unable to go near them, Azog's torments leading him to fear touch, but his kin and the children had quickly absolved him of that guilt. All of them were victims, all of them were kin or near-kin, and their love and compassion for him had kept Bilbo from spiraling down a darker path.

His kin huddling with him in the colder months; his cousin Rorimac throwing an arm around his shoulders; the children grabbing onto his hands and climbing into his lap -- how could he fear their touches, when they loved him so much? The Hobbits had taught him a clear difference between the loving touch of a friend and the cruel touch of his master. So he had done the same for them -- taking the time to comb his Great Aunt Adaldrida's hair back with his fingers, wrestling with his cousin Rory, picking up the children and swinging them around. All of them had learned to cope with their shared trauma by holding onto each other.

When Gandalf had first touched him, he had nearly jumped out of his skin. It had taken all that he was not to move suddenly and wildly and -- perhaps claw Gandalf's eyes out, perhaps simply leap across the room. The touch of someone so much bigger than him had completely terrified him. But his memories, the knowledge that he had known this person from before Shirefall, and the familiarity of Gandalf's embrace had all kept him from losing himself in reaction. That reaction had happened a bit later, when Thorin had touched him, but by that point he had been so completely filled with panic from hearing Azog that he had not cared who was touching him, only that he had to get away before Azog found him.

If he survived this, he did not know how he would handle life again. Would he be able to hug any of his Took cousins, or his Baggins aunts and uncles, or any of his distant family? Would he ever be able to cuddle with someone who wasn't younger than him, smaller than him? Would he be able to shake someone's hand? -- but then he had let Thorin pull him up.

Bilbo just did not know. Rape was unheard of before Shirefall, as was torture. He knew he and the others would have problems, that he would be completely unlike the Hobbit he was before, that he may never recover any semblance of normality. But maybe, the other Hobbits who had already escaped -- who were waiting for them to come home -- maybe they would have figured out some way to deal with the memories and the scars. Maybe not all hope was lost.

But only after he survived could he worry about living.

Across the tent, three of the children had started a word game that led into a silly song, catching attention of many, including Bilbo. He would be sad to see everybody go, but he would be overjoyed to know that they would be safe. Undoubtedly his family would be angry with him, but he hoped they would find the rest of his relatives safe in Bree with the rest of the Hobbits. Which reminded him -- he should probably tell them about what Thorin had said -- and he should tell at least one person he would not be going with them, else they panic later.

But after breakfast. Twisted and victimized he may be, but he was still a Hobbit, and Hobbits will not put food aside for anything.

~

Thorin Oakenshield stood at the entrance of his tent, gazing out at the Dwarves as they prepared for war. Today he would lead them in what he hoped would be the last great battle of this war between the Dwarves and the Orcs. Today he would reclaim Khazad-dûm for every Dwarf who had ever lived on Middle Earth. Today he would finally defeat Azog in battle and take his head, to hold high for every Dwarf and Orc to see, to know that the Defiler was dead once and for all.

He had not slept. He would rest after the Hobbits were gone. He knew he would sleep better knowing that the innocent Halflings were far from their former masters' reach. The face of one Hobbit in particular flashed in his thoughts, and Thorin gave a small sigh.

Bilbo Baggins.

He had given Bilbo much thought in the hours since the little Halfling had visited him. He had brooded over the conversation with Gandalf and compared it to every mention of the "pain-bearer" he had ever heard from other Hobbits.

"I would be dead if it wasn't for the pain-bearer."

"That one came from Azog's clan -- where the pain-bearer is. She said that her old uncle's lips were black in the morning. I wonder where we could've found some?"

"The pain-bearer... that poor, poor boy -- he was hardly past childhood!"

Hints. All of them dark, worrisome hints to the kind of person Bilbo was. They haunted Thorin, the more he thought about it, the more he thought about the children and how he had found Bilbo, how Azog had demanded Bilbo's return, as Gandalf had later explained to him. Orcs may be bloodthirsty, but even they would not disobey their masters and leaders except in extreme circumstances. So if someone was deemed special enough that none of the Orcs were allowed to touch that person... then perhaps that person had used themselves as a shield to protect others. Like the children.

It gave him chills. He would gladly use himself as a shield for any of his subjects. But this spoke of something darker, of a boy being manipulated by a cruel master who could do anything to him. More than before he wanted Bilbo to be taken away, far from the filth who had ordered the Halflings' home torn asunder. Away from the Defiler who had hunted them through dark caves not for Thorin's head, but for the tiny Hobbit Thorin had protected.

He suspected, though, that Bilbo Baggins would be especially hard to send on his journey home. The Hobbit had acceded to his request too quickly. Bilbo's earnest expression had shuttered and turned polite in the blink of an eye, and Thorin was rather suspicious that Bilbo would hide away or trick the escorts into letting him stay.

Thorin could not allow that -- he had pledged to Bilbo's safety personally, and he could not allow the Halfling to stay amidst their war march when he could easily be killed by a stray arrow, an Orc's blade, or even the Defiler himself. No, better that the Hobbit leave, and Thorin would avenge him, the Hobbits, and the Dwarves by killing Azog himself.

He felt torn about his decision, though. If it were him, he would have refused to leave as well, for he would allow no one to take his revenge against the murderer of his father and grandfather. But he was a trained warrior, and Bilbo Baggins was not. There was no way the Hobbit would be kept safe if he were allowed to stay, not even in the camp.

So Bilbo had to go. There was no other way.

~

Bilbo ended up telling the Hobbits some of everything after the Dwarves had left: that Thorin was going to send them back to Bree, that everyone who had survived was there, and that he would stay to see the end of Azog. Everyone was excited about the first and second, but the last, none of them argued with him. They only looked at him with large, sad eyes, and Bilbo heard "pain-bearer" whispered more than once. But they only wished him luck and told him, over and over again, to watch out for himself and to hurry and join them.

It left Bilbo very quiet, reminded that he would never escape that name, while the others discussed their trip in loud whispers. He wondered if they even believed they would see him again -- if they were, perhaps, happy to see him go, to see the worst reminder of their enslavement left behind. He stared down at his bowl, the thoughts growing louder in his head, imagining the Hobbits happy as they were -- but without him, and glad for it. Then Uncle Gordy knocked the back of his head, startling Bilbo out of his dark thoughts. He looked up to see all of his Brandybuck kin glaring at him.

"Your mother would haul you over her knee for such an expression, Bilbo Baggins," his Great Aunt Adaldrida said severely. "Mark my words, nobody in this tent wants to see you go, but we understand why you must. All of us want him dead, too," she finished with relish, and Bilbo could only stare at her, wide-eyed. Looking around, he saw his uncle and cousin staring at him heatedly, as if watching for any more doubts, while the Hobbits closest to them were nodding in agreement.

He ducked his head, cowed, and his face heated up a bit, while his eyes stung just a little. He should not have doubted them. He should never doubt the people who love him.

After breakfast came the Healers, who checked Bilbo's head and muttered, but they said that he would heal just fine if he did not run into any more walls. Bilbo was tempted to respond rather sarcastically, but a look from his great aunt held his tongue for the moment. Instead he focused on finding the Elvish sword he had brought with him, and after a few minutes of searching, he spotted it lying on the ground near the back of the tent. He did not grab it quite yet.

He snuck outside while no one was looking and asked one of the wandering Dwarves if he could borrow something for a belt. Wide eyes and a sad voice easily won him a length of leather that he could wrap around himself twice. Too easy, he thought, watching the Dwarf walk away. Almost as easy as stealing from an Orc.

That Gandalf fellow returned and sat down to entertain the children with a story while the Dwarves and older Hobbits rolled up all the bedding and stacked them up for all of the Hobbits to take with them. It was explained that the other Dwarves would be carrying most of the supplies along the way to the Gate, but the packs would be given to the Hobbits later to carry the rest of their journey back to Bree.

The Hobbits were excited. Rory was chattering happily in his ear, and Bilbo allowed it with a faint smile, hiding the turmoil he felt inside. He wanted to go with them, but he had already made his choice. A few times the Wizard eyed him as if he wanted to talk, but Bilbo stayed firmly surrounded by as many Hobbits as he could, so that he could avoid the tall fellow for a while longer.

Everybody was shooed outside after a while, and Bilbo walked out to see Thorin and many other solemn Dwarves standing in a half circle nearby, watching the Hobbits silently as they walked out. Gandalf stood at the side, watching the two races as they surveyed each other fully, malnourished but emboldened Hobbits meeting the gazes of hardened Dwarven warriors. Somehow Bilbo came to stand at the front of the group of Hobbits, and his gaze found Thorin's blue eyes easily.

Thorin returned the stare, and for a long moment there was only silence. Then the Dwarf King began to speak, looking around the group of Hobbits as he did.

"It has been seven years since the Orcs attacked your home and brought you to these mountains. I am glad to say that such dark days are over, and you no longer shall answer to the likes of Orcs. You shall be free of these caves in less than two days, when you reach the West-gate of Khazad-dûm. From there you will walk across Eriador to where your Thain and kin wait for you, outside of what remains of Bree.

"My Dwarves will guard you the entire way there, and they will stay to assist the Hobbits in whatever way they can. I know not what your Thain will decide for your people, but you are welcome at any Dwarf kingdom or colony, including my homeland of Erebor, where some of your kin have already settled. I cannot express how much the Dwarves regret not marching on the Misty Mountains sooner. I cannot apologize enough for not defeating the Orcs before they did this to you."

Thorin was quiet for a brief moment, before he gave a regal nod, meeting Bilbo's gaze again. "You are free now, and you will be safe. The Hobbits no longer have to fear the Orcs, for we will defeat them!

"The nightmare is passed! We will fight them and avenge you! You have suffered too much at the hands of Orcs, who never should have touched your homeland. Go now and find peace! Go now and build a new home, a better life for you and your people. You shall forever have an ally in the Dwarf clans of Middle Earth!"

For a moment Bilbo could not breathe, his heart caught up with Thorin's impassioned speech. The sincerity in those blue eyes struck him, and he almost forgot about staying behind, carried by the power in those words, of the dream of freedom come true. Around him, Bilbo could hear the bated breaths of Hobbits who had for too long suffered in the darkness. The cheeks of his kin were wet, and a few of them were sobbing quietly, but every Hobbit had a smile on their face and hope burning in their eyes.

Bilbo gazed into those blue eyes for another moment, then bowed his head low, thanking Thorin in the only way he could without speaking and letting his tears out. Several of the Hobbits followed his lead, and when Bilbo looked up, he was startled to see many of the Dwarves bowing their heads in return, while Thorin gazed at him with such a look on his face that Bilbo felt his heart skip a beat.

A powerful ally indeed. He and the other Hobbits would forever be grateful to these Dwarves, and Bilbo looked forward to returning to the rest of the Hobbits in Bree.

But first, he had to see the death of the Orc who had caused the deaths of countless Hobbits and the fall of their beloved Shire.

Almost as if he read Bilbo's thoughts, Thorin gave him a considering look, but Bilbo did his best to look as guileless as possible, and finally Thorin nodded to him and turned away, leaving with the tall bald Dwarf and shorter bearded Dwarf he had met with earlier. Bilbo sighed in relief, hoping that he had been successful in deceiving the Dwarf King, but only time would tell.

~

Despite his best attempts at avoidance, Gandalf caught Bilbo a short while after Thorin walked away. The Wizard did not touch him, thankfully, but he asked if he could speak to Bilbo for just a few moments before they set off, and cautiously, Bilbo agreed. So they walked over to a little area not far from the tent, and Gandalf sat down on a rock to look at Bilbo. His expression was kind, despite Bilbo's obvious hesitance, and Bilbo could tell that he was earnest. But he was still wary, and Gandalf seemed to sense this, as he gave Bilbo his space.

"I wish to offer my services," the Wizard began, catching Bilbo's attention from his cautious thoughts. "I must stay for now with the Dwarves, to see them through this war, but afterwards, I hope to return to the Hobbits and assist them in any way I can."

Bilbo stared at him for a long moment, some of his caution slipping away. "That is very kind of you," he said quietly, crossing his arms in front of him. "I'm sure the Hobbits will be very happy for your help."

Gandalf gazed at him with dark eyes, that showed such sadness for a moment that Bilbo's breath caught in his throat. "You, especially, Bilbo... your mother was very dear to me, and I will not have her only child found wanting. Not after this," he murmured, shaking his head and stroking his large beard.

The mention of his mother left Bilbo with an ache in his chest and a hot feeling in his throat, but he managed to swallow the knot away, lowering his gaze to the ground. "You really shouldn't..."

But Gandalf shook his head and stood, gripping his staff tightly. "But I must. If you have need of anything, anything at all, Bilbo, just call for me, and I will come." He reached out to pat Bilbo's shoulder, and Bilbo flinched underneath the touch, which made the Wizard's eyes widen, and he drew his hand back.

"I am so sorry, my boy," Gandalf whispered, and Bilbo looked away, swallowing against the heat in his throat.

"Thank you... Gandalf," he said finally, and Gandalf bowed his head to him and left. Bilbo stared at the ground until the footsteps had faded, idly thinking that his shoulder felt very cold. He knew that his mother's old friend meant well, and he was thankful for it... but right now, he could not handle Gandalf's kindness. He had bigger things to worry about.

~

Somehow, it was far too easy to sneak away from the departing group of Hobbits and Dwarves.

After Thorin's speech, there was a flurry of activity where the Dwarves and Hobbits readied themselves for leaving. Thorin and most of the other Dwarves returned to their tents to prepare for their war, and the Hobbits gathered up their bedrolls and what packs the Dwarves could be convinced to give to them. At last the group stood altogether, with the Dwarf escorts in the leads, the injured Dwarves behind them, and the Hobbits following, with a small group of Dwarves to follow in the rear.

Bilbo stayed with them as he was expected to, carrying a bedroll on his back and taking a position beside his Uncle Gordy, who gave him a look but said nothing. They started their trek through a cave that was not far from their tent. As the company of Hobbits and Dwarves walked, Bilbo was easily able to find a small nook that he could hide in while the others passed, the Hobbits covering his movements with their bodies.

He waited until the footsteps had long faded, glancing around the corner and watching the lights fade in the distance of the cave. He breathed a deep sigh, his heart beating in his chest as he felt the finality of his decision rest on his shoulders. Then he slipped out of the little nook and crept back to the camp, keeping to the shadows and watching out for the Dwarf guards.

He had little to worry about, though. Most of them were focused on the battle preparations, and they paid no mind to a small shadow that may have moved out of the corner of their eye. Bilbo snuck back to the tent where the Hobbits had slept and slipped inside, walking quickly to where he had left his sword. He wondered how to wear it, not really wanting it hanging on his waist where it would be easily seen. It was much harder to hide when you had a sword that glowed in the presence of Orcs, after all.

Finally Bilbo decided on wearing the sword on his back, underneath his sweater. It was a bit awkward, but tying the leather strap over his shoulder and around his torso did well enough, and Bilbo quickly crept back out of the cave and went to hide in a darkened corner of the camp, far from the eyes of watchful Dwarves.

There he settled in to wait. As soon as the Dwarves marched, he would follow. Anxiety burned in his chest, but Bilbo promised himself he would be cautious and stealthy. He fell into a fitful rest, and he dreamed of Azog's burning gaze, his deep voice whispering in his ear, "Will you bear my pain as well, my pretty little hobbit?" as he lay dying. He woke to a resounding Dwarven cry and tears on his cheeks.

Chapter Text

The final battle of the War of Dwarves and Orcs began on September 23, 2930, just when the sun had reached its peak in the sky, though deep in the mines of Moria, no sunlight ever touched the battle. It was estimated at a later time that the Dwarves numbered over 26,000 strong, with a legion of warriors that gave no quarter and spared no mercy for the Orcs that had infested Khazad-dûm. The Orcs, whose numbers barely topped 12,000, hardly stood a chance, despite being led by Azog the Defiler, a longstanding and powerful commander of the Orc race. Against them fought the proud warriors of every one of the seven Houses of Aulë's children. Durin's folk counted as the majority with nearly half of the army, Thorin II Oakenshield of Erebor leading the Dwarves to what would be the greatest victory of the many clans of Dwarves in nearly a thousand years.

Yet the War, which had lasted six long years in the Misty Mountains, would not be without its casualties. Countless Orcs had fallen to the axes and blades of Dwarves furious in their war-lust. Of the Dwarves, at least two thousand had died in the battles before the last, and on that last day, nearly three thousand more died, succumbing to the Orcs' weapons and poisons.

Thorin's army had the advantage in numbers and strength as well as surprise. Azog's clan and his allies had the advantage of intricate knowledge of the tunnels about them. They also had an ancient creature known as the Balrog, but incidentally, the Balrog was a small chapter compared to the last day of the War, which shone in the ballads of Dwarves and haunted the genetic memory of Orcs for an age and a half.

The War ended in the early hours of September 24, two days after the Hobbit slaves of Azog had been freed from his cruel ownership. Of the thousands who took part in the battle, there were two others of import: a Wizard whose power and abilities would be forever changed by what he encountered deep in the mines of Moria, and a small Hobbit whose actions would name him Dwarf-friend and make him into a well-respected leader and savior of the race of Hobbits.

Azog the Defiler never could have predicted the events that befell him or his clan on that day.

~

Scarcely daring to breathe, Bilbo peered out from his hidden alcove and watched the Dwarves march off to war. They all took different corridors, leaving in well-formed groups that despite their weapons, chainmail, and helmets, were mostly silent after their war cry. He wondered if this was their tactic -- to attack in small waves from many different directions. Surely the Orcs would find them first? Where would they even fight -- deep in the caves, or up in the large crumbling halls of Moria? But what did he know of war?

Bilbo watched as Thorin left with one of the first groups, and he wondered how the Dwarf King would fare in battle. He decided to find Thorin as quickly as possible, as undoubtedly the Dwarf King would seek out his enemy to fight, and Bilbo wanted to be there to witness it. Briefly, he hoped that Thorin would survive this battle. He feared for the Dwarves' lives, and he had once believed fervently that no army could defeat the Orcs, but if it was this group of people -- if it was Thorin and his army of Dwarves -- then Bilbo believed that they could reach victory.

One of the last groups was a rather small battalion of heavily armed Dwarves. It was this group that Bilbo chose to follow, sneaking out from his hiding place and trailing far enough behind the Dwarves that if they turned around, he was able to duck out of sight behind a crag or rock. The Dwarves never noticed him, their hard gazes focused ever forward.

The march was long and silent most of the time. The Dwarves did not take breaks or stop walking, and as the minutes crept by and they drew closer to Bilbo's unwanted home of seven years, he became aware of the shrieks of Orcs and the banging of the war drums in the background. Already the battle was underway. Bilbo could hear the Orcs cursing the Dwarves as they died, and it sent a terrible tremble through him. Though he had seen many dark, evil things these past seven years, it never ceased to bother him when he witnessed death.

He stayed far out of the way, though, as Orcs poured from caves and corridors, and the Dwarves began to fight them. He was in familiar territory -- he knew how to reach the main halls using forgotten stairwells and tunnels. He had crept about these caves for seven years without anyone ever finding him, and so as soon as Bilbo recognized where he was, he ran off into the darkness, finding his way without even needing a light.

Wait for me, he thought of Thorin and Azog, desperate even as determination burned in his veins. Wait so that I can see his fall.

But whose fall, he did not really know.

~

For a time all Thorin knew was the thrust of his blade, the fall of his axe, and the thunks against his shield of oak.

He slayed Orc after Orc, never pausing, only knowing the heat of battle and the spray of black blood on his armor. Baruk Khazâd! Khazâd ai-mênu! Du bekâr! Each shout roused his blood and the war-lust of his fellow Dwarves. The Orcs fell by the dozens as Thorin fought, protecting his brethren and caring not for the corpses he leapt over. He only had one thing on his mind.

Azog.

He knew where the Defiler was: in the main halls of Moria, directing his Orcs to battle and cutting down the Dwarves that ran at him. But Thorin's cousin Dáin had sent word that the Dwarves had Azog and his clan on the defensive, while his allies of other Orc and goblin clans were steady gutted of power in the surrounding caves. Thorin could feel their victory in his bones, but they were still a long way from the end of this battle. After all, Azog was still alive.

And still the Orcs had not fallen. So Thorin pressed forward, cutting down the foul creatures so that he could reach their leader. Gandalf had left their company a while ago, and Thorin could only hope he was seeking the Balrog in caves deep below.

He was running past a small cave when a shadow out of the corner of his eye caught him off guard. He did not stumble, but he hesitated briefly and watched the cave. Whatever he had seen was gone, though. Barely a moment had passed, and then Thorin was running again, letting out a curse as he spun and drove his axe into an Orc's throat.

He had caught a shadow of a shade, but it had been gone so quickly that Thorin wondered if it was a ghost of a Hobbit long dead. A suspicion curled in the back of his mind, but he ignored it, not wanting to believe it to be true. It had just been a trick of his eye. If that particular Hobbit was actually here... well, Thorin did not know what he would do. So he let himself believe, at least for a time, that the flash of pale skin and dark blonde curls was only his imagination.

~

That had been close. Too close. Thorin had nearly seen him.

Bilbo had reached the end of a tunnel that led to a large cave and had to stop short, else he would have ended up right in the middle of a vicious fight between the Orcs and Dwarves. He had ducked back into the darkness before being seen, thankfully, but his attention had been caught before he could run away.

Thorin was fighting amongst the Orcs. And what a magnificent fighter he was: blue eyes blazing as he alternated effortlessly between sword and axe, destroying Orcs without pause, a strange log-like shield on his arm protecting him from the clubs and blades of Orc-make -- and with a start, Bilbo had realized that that was the shield of oak wood that had made Thorin infamous. He had heard a bit of the story, from Azog's rants and listening in on the Orcs, but he had not realized that it was truly a branch and little more. Yet it bore the marks of blades that had once sought to injure Thorin, and Bilbo wondered how it had not broken all these years. Had that not been more than a century ago?

He had realized that Thorin was running toward his cave, so he had darted off down the stone corridor, his heart beating madly in his chest. If Thorin caught him, he did not know what would happen -- but he would rather avoid it. Looking back, he saw Thorin run past and glance his way, and the way Thorin's eyes widened had Bilbo's heart rate tripling in his chest. He hastened to the corner and vanished around it, heading back the way he came.

Oh, he hoped that Thorin had not actually seen him. The tall Dwarf seemed like the type to lecture people, and Bilbo had lived with Great Aunt Adaldrida -- and before that, his father -- for long enough that he was sick of lectures, especially ones that dealt with life or death situations. He doubted, though, that Thorin would use phrases such as "too Tookish" and "nothing like a proper Baggins" if he gave a lecture on behavior.

His face grew hot for a moment, for some reason, but Bilbo shook off the feeling and kept running. How odd, to think of his father of all people at this moment -- and odder still to miss him so fiercely. If he survived this day and returned to his family, as he dared to hope -- then he would try to find out what had happened to Bag-End. He owed his father that much, despite never agreeing with him and always feeling resentful of his lectures.

But he still missed his father, just like he missed his mother. He wondered what they would think of him now, dashing through dark tunnels, chasing the death of the creature that caused their terrible deaths. Would they hate him for what he had done to the Hobbits? Would his mother drag him over her knee like an unruly fauntling? Would his father scold him for risking his life?

But it was useless to imagine them, and yet Bilbo could not stop thinking of them for several moments, as he climbed narrow stairwells and skittered across narrow ledges. He was getting very close to the main halls, and the screams of dying Orcs and Dwarves echoing in the tunnels had him on edge. He was terrified of being discovered by an Orc or running into another skirmish.

Time passed quickly, and in what seemed like only moments, Bilbo came to stand in the shadow of a ledge that looked over the huge hall where Azog's clan had spent most of their time. The hall was filled with Orcs and Dwarves, along with trolls and goblins, and Bilbo could see fighting in every corner of the halls from his vantage point. Bilbo realized that the fire he had set in Azog's rooms had left a thick haze in the air. There was no obvious fire now, but the halls stunk of smoke and death.

His knees suddenly buckled, and he slowly knelt down, pressing his shoulder to the cold stone and staring over the great hall. There was blood everywhere -- red and black, sticking to the walls and sprayed across the corpses and abandoned weapons that lay on the floor. He would never get used to this sight. So much death -- was it worth it? Were the Dwarves even winning? He could not tell -- he could barely see all of the people fighting, with the gray wisps curling in the air.

And then, unerringly, his gaze found a massive pale figure standing amidst the sharp movements of war, despite the haze of smoke and the clamor of the battle below. A violent shiver pierced his body in recognition, and Bilbo's eyes widened. He suddenly wished that he was anywhere but here, that he was invisible, that he had run back to Bree with the rest of the Hobbits.

Because Azog was staring straight at him.

Pale, scarred lips curled, then parted in speech, and Bilbo could read the words without even hearing the noise from far across the hall.

"Nûl-lûpûrz-izub."

There was a high-pitched noise in his ear, yet Bilbo could hear nothing. Bilbo's world narrowed to only him and Azog, his eyes wide as he stared into the pale blue eyes of his master. He felt himself shaking, found himself short of breath, but he could not move, could not gasp, could do nothing. There was only him and Azog, and he could feel the malevolence in Azog's glare even though he was so far away. It burned his senses and left him numb with pure terror.

Then Azog's attention was turned away, for just a second. Those pale eyes shifted to the side briefly, and suddenly Bilbo could move, could breathe again.

He wasted no time in vanishing into the shadows and fleeing as fast as he could down the darkened path that lead to the side of the hall. He grasped as many surfaces as he could reach to drag him a little further, help him get away a little faster. He had to get away. Azog had seen him. Azog knew he was there. If Azog caught him, he was dead. He was worse than dead -- Azog would never, ever let him rest again. He would know only pain for the rest of his miserable life if Azog caught him. He could not let that happen. He had to escape. He had to run back to the camp and follow the Hobbits and get out of Moria and never, ever look back again.

Then he heard a familiar deep voice echo across the vast hall, and every hair on his body stood on end.

"BRING ME THE PAIN-BEARER," he heard, and though he ran faster, it was only a matter of time -- moments, so rushed was he to escape -- that clawed hands caught his clothes and dragged him down into the hazy darkness of battle.

~

Finally, Thorin had reached the massive halls where the worst of the fighting was taking place -- where his kin fought and his enemy stood over them all, his pale face fixed in a cruel leer. Thorin growled under his breath and pushed forward, dashing past his allies and cutting through his enemies as he worked his way toward Azog. All that lay between them was space and warm bodies, and there was no way that Thorin would not reach him.

He could see Azog staring off into the distance, but then as Thorin cut down another Orc and let out a battle cry, he saw Azog's gaze flicker toward him. He gave a vicious glare, and Azog sneered at him before looking away again. Then he saw something strange; Azog's expression flickered and his sneer faded abruptly. Then the Defiler stood tall, pointed aloft, and bellowed something in the foul speech of his race. Around them, dozens of Orcs let out cries in return.

He ignored the strange actions -- and yet they left him wary and on edge -- pushing forward and continuing his fight, when suddenly Thorin heard something that made his stomach drop like stone.

A single high-pitched shriek, too high to be a Dwarf and completely different from the cry of a goblin or Orc. The scream of a Hobbit. But no Hobbit should be anywhere near this battle!

Thorin cursed even as he recalled the shadow he had seen earlier. So it had not been his imagination. There -- across the hall, he saw two Orcs dragging a twisting and struggling figure, so small between them. Dark blonde hair and a flash of blue, the sweater Bilbo had been wearing earlier -- and now he could see Bilbo's expression of terror.

Bilbo had been caught by the Orcs, and he was being taken to Azog.

Damn that Hobbit, and damn the scouts for not keeping a closer eye on him! he thought anxiously. Despite watching for himself to see that Bilbo had left, as well as telling the Hobbits' escorts to keep a sharp eye on him, there was no mistaking those curls. The Hobbit had stayed behind as Thorin had suspected he would, but he appeared to have avoided the worst of the battle -- until now.

Despite his efforts to keep the Hobbit away, somehow Thorin was not surprised by his presence. It was Bilbo's choice to be here, but Thorin was still angry at him for not leaving. Yet in a way, Thorin understood that Bilbo could not leave -- he had seen it in Bilbo's expression, when he had asked, begged to stay -- not without knowing for sure that his former master was dead.

Thorin was still furious, though. Bilbo's safety and continued existence was his responsibility, and he had done very poorly to protect him further than setting a Dwarf to tail him and to make sure he was not separated from his sword. Now he was caught by Orcs, and Thorin had to get to him fast, before Azog hurt him or worse.

So he ran. "Azog the Defiler!" he roared, shoving aside an Orc and jumping up on a ledge, pointing his axe that dripped of black blood at Azog, who turned to look at him.

"Come and face me in battle!" he shouted, uttering the challenge with fury in his voice and a livid expression, and across the hall Azog's gaze sharpened. Then he threw his head back and laughed, and then he pointed at Thorin with that massive clawed hand.

"Toragid biriz," the Defiler said, and though Thorin could not understand it, he felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand when several of the Orcs turned to look at him and hissed. Then he was lost in the heat of battle again, as the Orcs surged toward him and he met them axe to club.

Across the hall, Azog turned away to look upon the approaching Orcs, and Thorin could only watch as the Orcs brought the small Hobbit he sought to protect before Azog. He saw Bilbo being forced to his knees, before the onslaught of his enemies drove him back, and he could only see goblins and Orcs around him. He fought savagely, but in the back of his mind he desperately wondered, Can I reach him in time?

Chapter Text

"You thought you could escape me."

no no no no

"You trusted in that worthless Dwarf, yet he cannot reach you."

oh no, please no, please say it wasn't true

"Know your place, pain-bearer. It is beside me. Not in a hole, not in the light of the sun, not with any son of Durin. With me, and only me."

can't this be a dream can he wake up now please let him wake up

"Pain-bearer! Look at me."

Bilbo raised his head and looked up, following the order without even thinking about it. Azog was glaring down at him, his eyes glittering, and Bilbo tried to breathe in past the stench of death and Orcs. He thought he had been used to the smell of this place, but a taste of freedom had cleared his senses, given him fresh air --

"And what has it brought you?" Azog murmured, reaching out to grip Bilbo's curls tightly. "You know what happens to disobedient slaves. What else has your little adventure brought you, but pain?"

Bilbo glared at him, and then he spat in Azog's face, something he had only dared to do a few times in the last seven years, as it roused Azog's temper something fierce. Kill me, he thought desperately. I can make you angry enough to do it!

But Azog, who had stilled as soon as the saliva hit his cheek, merely reached up to wipe off the offending substance. Then he grabbed Bilbo's shoulder and squeezed tightly, and Bilbo let out a sharp cry. The other Orcs let him go, and Azog began stalking away, dragging Bilbo along with him.

"NO!" Bilbo yelled, grabbing onto Azog's arm and digging his nails in, but broken fingernails were no match to an Orc's thick skin. He pushed his feet against the floor but they slid in the dark mess that covered the stone ground, and though he struggled and fought, there was no stopping Azog as he pulled Bilbo out of the massive hall, to where the Dwarves had not yet breached. There were few Orcs here, nearly all of them fighting in the main hall and holding back the Dwarves, but two of the Wargs were prowling around, including Azog's Warg.

With a start Bilbo realized that they were moving closer to their bedroom, and his voice grew frantic. "No! Don't take me there again! I won't go back! I burned it anyway, there's nothing left --"

"Silence," Azog growled, and Bilbo shut his mouth immediately, nothing more than a whimper escaping him. "So it was you. I thought it had been that damn son of Durin," he said, and Bilbo could not stop him as he strode down the hall to their door. Yet when they reached it, Azog did not enter, his hand pausing in front of the ancient runes that glittered across the stone. Then Bilbo realized why -- the door was closed, and Orcs could not open closed Dwarf doors.

Usually, all of the doors were left open by rope or bricks, and even Azog had kept his door just slightly open when he wanted privacy. It was not that Azog did not know the password to open the door, for he knew a bit of Khuzdul and the password was easy enough, but that he was unwilling to speak the language of the Dwarves. Bilbo had learned this a few years ago, not long after his Dwarf friend had died.

Bilbo could see the heat rising off the door, and he realized that the fire was still burning inside. Azog must have closed it to keep the flame from spreading. He felt relieved, but only for a moment, as in the next, the pain he had expected since he was caught blossomed in his chest.

He realized a second later that Azog had pushed him up against the door, and Bilbo felt white-hot pain as the burning stone touched his chest. He screamed and struggled, and Azog relented after a moment, tugging Bilbo back and walking over to an alcove, out of sight of the rest of the Orcs. He set Bilbo down at his side, and Bilbo fell to his knees and wheezed, a few tears escaping the corners of his eyes.

"Tell me why you did it," Azog said, and Bilbo shot a watery glare at him but said nothing. Azog growled softly and reached down, gripping Bilbo's curls and tugging, forcing him to stand again. "I know you can understand me! Tell me why!"

Fed up and frustrated and in pain worse than he had felt in a long time, Bilbo hit Azog's wrist, but Azog did not let him go. "Because I hate you!" he snarled, his eyes wide and bright as he glared up at his master. "Because I hate that room, and I hate this place, and I wanted to see it all burn!"

Azog let out a soft growl, but Bilbo curled his lips in a sneer, unwilling to back down. Azog let out a short grunt and dropped him, kneeling down and laying his hand on Bilbo's neck. Bilbo stilled but did not stop glaring, twitching as Azog's thumb stroked his pointed ear. "I know that. That is not what I meant, you fool," Azog said, and Bilbo's glare faltered.

"W-what?"

Azog growled again, pressing his claw against Bilbo's ear, and Bilbo yelped when he felt the skin slice open. "Why the Dwarf? Enemy of my clan, enemy of the Defiler -- why him? You could have killed me long before now, but you waited, and now that worthless son of Durin murders my clan in my own halls. Why did you join him?" he asked, shaking Bilbo, and Bilbo realized that he recognized the odd tone in Azog's voice.

Possessiveness. Bilbo knew this, having heard it from Azog many times before, in how he said nûl-lûpûrz each night. He stared up at Azog, not answering for a moment, and Azog shook him again.

"Why?!"

Slowly Bilbo smiled, baring his teeth and feeling triumphant when Azog's eyes flashed. "Because he is your enemy," he said, and he let out a laugh as Azog's lips curled in a snarl. "Because I couldn't save my people, and he could. He took them far away, and all of your Hobbit slaves are gone. All except me, and I won't let you have me much longer," he sneered.

Azog stared down at him, and Bilbo felt the pressure on the side of his head lessen. His twisted smile abruptly faded when Azog's expression changed, a grin appearing on those scarred lips. "That is why you are my pain-bearer," Azog murmured, and something cold and heavy touched Bilbo's heart. Dread, icy and terrible, erasing the triumph he had felt but moments earlier.

"I will not let you die, my pretty little hobbit. You are mine. Nothing can take you away from me," Azog said, and he pushed Bilbo back against the wall behind him. Bilbo was frozen, but he barely heard a soft 'clunk' as his little sword hit the wall. Azog did not seem to notice it, though, as he continued, "Did you know? My allies think me weak for keeping you. But they do not see what I see."

His heart thudding in his chest, Bilbo itched to pull out his sword, but there was no way he could reach it. He stared up at Azog, his eyes wide, unable to say anything in response to the -- emotion? in Azog's voice. More than fury, stronger than hate -- the way Azog murmured the words made Bilbo tremble.

Azog slid his hand behind Bilbo's head to the back of his neck, fingers twisting in his curls, and he pulled Bilbo closer to whisper in his ear. "They do not know the true joy of you, my pain-bearer. You fight me every day, all for your kin, never for yourself. They cannot know the beauty of your agony, of your sacrifice. And they never will," he snarled, suddenly angry, and Bilbo tensed.

"You are mine. I will not give you to any Orc, or to that accursed Dwarf! You will watch as I take his head, and I will mount it in our room, to remind you every day of your failure. Now come," Azog said darkly, grabbing Bilbo by the arm and hauling him up, standing and beginning the walk back to the main hall. "Come and see his death, and the death of every Dwarf he has condemned by bringing them before the Defiler."

Bilbo was too distracted to fight him, and he stumbled along silently, numb with horror. He was imagining that room, but with Thorin's head on a pike above the door, dead blue eyes staring at him. Those blue, blue eyes, empty of fire and life -- and then Bilbo knew he could not let it happen.

His wide gaze flitted up to Azog's face. His master, so possessive of him, and jealous to a fault. So many times Bilbo had been hidden away when Azog's allies from other clans came to visit. Sometimes, the morning after a particularly vicious night, Azog would leave him in the Hobbits' hall and order him not to leave, and no Orcs would be allowed to see the Hobbits that day. The constant touches, the murmurs of his name, even how he would sometimes be the first to see the heads of whatever enemies Azog had slaughtered that day... All of these small things swirled together in Bilbo's mind, along with countless other bits of memories of his master -- facts of Bilbo's life that he had never questioned until now.

The sword on his back felt cold even through the shirt he wore. His chest hurt fiercely, beyond the pain of being burned, and Bilbo could not focus on why. He realized that there were tears in his eyes, and he hated himself then.

He knew why Azog was so possessive of him. He knew why it hurt so much to think about Azog's conviction in taking Thorin's head. Slowly, he reached up to grip Azog's wrist, and the touch made the tall Orc look down at him. Something in Bilbo's expression must have eased his rage a bit, because Azog let him go and continued walking, confident that Bilbo would follow.

Bilbo did follow, all the while feeling the weight of the sword on his back, knowing that he was walking toward an execution.

~

The moments that he could not see the Hobbit stretched like years, but Thorin still pushed forward, until at last he could reach the place where Azog had stood. Azog and Bilbo were gone, though, and in frustration he drove his sword into the next Orc he saw. "Forward!" he shouted in Khuzdul, and the Dwarves around him gave an answering bellow. "Axes of the Dwarves! Defeat the Orcs!"

So onward they fought, and the battle was so intense that Thorin did not notice for several minutes that the Orcs coming at him did not attempt deadly blows, instead seeking only to injure him. His guard was strong, though, and he defended himself well from the Orcs' weapons, slaying the foul creatures that dared to approach him.

And then, ahead -- deep in the hall past where the Orcs held them off -- he could see Azog walking toward him. As the Defiler strode forward, the Orcs parted for him, and behind him walked the tiny figure of Bilbo, head bowed as he followed Azog.

Master and slave, reunited.

The fury took Thorin by surprise. To see Azog standing there with such an expression, as if he had already won, with the poor Hobbit looking so defeated... but then, Bilbo looked up and caught his gaze. Those dark eyes showed no defeat -- no, they glittered with determination and a fire that had Thorin gripping his axe with the desire to surge forward and drive it into Azog's skull.

"So Thorin son of Thrain invades my halls," Azog said, coming to stand before Thorin, and the Dwarf King could see Bilbo several paces behind him, blocked by the Warg that prowled behind the Defiler. "Will you plead as your father did? Will you beg me to spare your life?"

"Azog," Thorin breathed, not understanding the words but feeling a shiver run up his spine in response. He hated how Azog said his name, and somehow he knew -- he knew that Azog was taunting him about his father. "This is the last day you haunt the halls of my forefathers. For the glory of the Dwarves!" he shouted in Khuzdul, hearing his brethren shout in response.

Azog sneered at him, and the great Orc picked up a heavy mace that one of the Orcs nearby handed to him. "Your head will fit perfectly on my wall," he said, and behind him, Bilbo twitched. Thorin glanced briefly at Bilbo and felt his temper rise, remembering all of the terrified Hobbits they saved, the skeletons and corpses they found, the dead looks on the Hobbits' faces.

"You will pay for what you have done," Thorin snarled, and Azog hefted his mace and began stalking toward him. "For my father! For my grandfather! For the Dwarves!" he roared, lifting his axe. "And for the Hobbits you defiled!" he finished with a growl, and he began to run toward Azog, striking at the Defiler with all of the strength in his arms.

His axe caught Azog across the stomach, and the great Orc gave a roar and knocked Thorin back with his mace. Thorin grunted as he hit the ground, but fury and hatred had him rising again. His shield of oak -- the piece of wood that had saved his life so long ago -- blocked Azog's mace from destroying his chest, but the blows still threw him back several feet.

Every time he fought Azog, it was always a test of endurance between them. Dwarves had strength superior to all other races, but Azog had strength above all beings that Thorin had witnessed. They had fought face-to-face four times before: once, the very first time, when Thorin had come seeking revenge for his father, and he had saved himself with a stray branch of oak.

The second time had been years later, when Thorin had been on an expedition to meet the Dwarf leaders from other clans, and Azog had attacked them. Thorin had gained respect and notoriety for his battle against Azog that day, but still the Defiler had slunk away to live, both of them nursing wounds and fury for each other. The third time had been on a hunting trip in Mirkwood, except Thorin had killed three of Azog's generals, and Azog's rage had given Thorin a great scar across his chest.

The last had been just two years ago. Azog had come to an ally's aid further north, and in the middle of the battle, Thorin had met him axe to mace, just as he did today. It was on that day that Thorin scored a victory against Azog: he had taken Azog's hand, slicing it off his arm and causing the Defiler to fall. The Orcs had taken Azog away, and Thorin had heard later that Azog had lived, which had made him furious. Now, the Defiler had an awkward metal hook to replace his hand, and the sight of it made Thorin ill.

So now they fought, Dwarf axe to Orc mace, and despite his rage, despite the desperate drive to avenge his kin and the victims of Azog's cruelty, Thorin could feel himself losing. Azog was more than angry -- he was furious, and though that pale blue gaze was bright and it seemed that he smiled, Thorin could tell that Azog was angrier than he had ever been before in any of their fights. He could see it in the fast, somewhat unsteady movements, feel it in the blows that Azog tried to land on him -- Azog was livid.

Past Azog, Thorin caught glimpses of Bilbo staring at them in horror, while the Orcs that were not fighting jeered and shrieked around them. Some of his Dwarves had stopped to watch, too, and Thorin wanted to tell them to fight, to continue, to push ever forward -- but he was too fixed on fighting Azog.

Then one of Azog's blows hit him in the face, and pain exploded in his senses. He felt himself hit the floor, but the pain in his face had him dizzy, and he could barely focus for a moment. He gasped and opened his eyes, to see Azog standing over him, blue eyes fire-bright as he gazed down at Thorin. Leaning down, Azog took his axe and flexed his fingers around it.

"You will pay for taking my pain-bearer," Azog murmured, setting the axe to Thorin's neck. Thorin stared at him in horror and reached blindly for the Elvish sword, but he could not feel it -- it had fallen away, landed too far away for him to reach.

No, he thought desperately. He could not die here -- he could not lose this battle, not when so much depended on him. His people, the Hobbits -- everything he had fought for -- he could not lose --

But Azog was raising the axe, and Thorin felt the world freeze around him, the cries of his men, of Dwalin screaming his name fading, but he could do nothing --

But then there was color and sound again, bursting into his senses, and Thorin realized that he was not dead, and that Azog stood still above him, expression twisted in surprise. Then Thorin saw it.

Jutting from Azog's chest was the tip of a blade that glowed blue beneath the black blood dripping from it. Behind him stood the tiny figure of Bilbo Baggins, his cheeks wet, shaking fingers gripping the sword tightly. Bilbo let go of the blade and stumbled back, and around them, everybody stared.

Chapter Text

Can I really do this?

Could he? He should. He had to. But Bilbo could not help the lingering sense of doubt, despite dreaming of this day for years. Maybe Azog wasn't -- but no, no, Azog had ruined his life, had destroyed his family and the lives of everyone he held dear, he was a monster and Bilbo did not feel anything other than hatred for him.

Yet why did his chest hurt so much?

As Azog stalked ahead to meet Thorin Oakenshield, Bilbo was stopped by his Warg, who curled around his body and prowled along the edges of the circle that the Orcs and Dwarves had subconsciously made, to give the two leaders room for their battle. Bilbo stared at the back of Azog's head, half-listening to the taunts the Orcs made to the Dwarves, more focused on the feel of the sword on his back and wondering how quickly he could get the strap off. Would the other Orcs notice him before he could reach them? His gaze shifted to the Warg that stalked along the side of the small clearing made for Thorin and Azog. Would the beast attack him?

He decided he did not care if it did, so long as he reached Azog. One of them would die when he did -- perhaps he could threaten his own life, and Azog would halt, or maybe he could injure Azog enough that Thorin could finish him off. His gaze caught Thorin's, and those blue, blue eyes sent a thrill through him. He stepped forward automatically, but the Warg slunk in front of him and blocked the path for a moment. Then Azog and Thorin began to speak to each other.

Bilbo could only listen, unable to move forward. He could tell from Thorin's expressions that he did not understand Azog's sneering words, and he could not help but flinch when Azog mentioned taking Thorin's head again. And then -- and then they were fighting, fast and furious and Bilbo's heart leapt into his throat, staring in dazed silence at the spectacle before him.

Azog's rage was palpable as he landed blow after blow on Thorin, blocked by the massive axe or that curious shield of oak, and Thorin fought back viciously, so intensely that Bilbo could feel the blood pounding in his ears. The great white Warg which had alternatively guarded and terrified Bilbo for years crept along the edge, snapping at Dwarves that ventured too near and growling at the Orcs as they cheered on their chief.

Thorin was losing. Azog was pushing him back, and he struck at Azog less and less, his guard going up as he defended himself more and more. Then it happened: Azog's mace caught the Dwarf King across the face, and he was flung to the ground. Bilbo knew the second it happened that Thorin would not get up from that blow.

When he saw Azog pick up the axe, he acted without thinking. Nobody noticed him, their eyes fixed on Azog's tall figure as he stood above Thorin, so when Bilbo ripped off his sweater and threw it aside, fumbling with the strap over his chest, none of the Orcs stopped him. The seconds of grasping at the leather band pushed against his senses, but finally Bilbo had the sheath in his hand, his other hand pulling out the gleaming blade that sung with a note of finality. The blue of its intense glow nearly blinded him, but Bilbo did not care -- he had to reach Azog.

He began to run. The blade was heavy in his hand -- so many times he had picked it up, and it had felt light as a feather, perfect for his small figure. Now it felt too large, too awkward, but Bilbo clung to it, his eyes on Thorin's face as he struggled to find his sword, too far from his grasping fingers.

"You will pay for taking my pain-bearer," he heard, the deep voice of his master ringing in his ears, and he felt something in him break. Would he ever be free of that name?

Maybe now.

Before Azog could bring the axe down on Thorin's vulnerable throat, Bilbo stood up straight and drove the glowing blade into his master's back, the sword sinking with disgusting ease into that pale flesh. Abruptly the screeches of the Orcs and bellows of the Dwarves faded around them, and Bilbo felt something hot and wet on his hands. Strength suddenly gone, he let go of the sword and stumbled back, reaching up and realizing that his face was damp with tears.

Azog was still for a long moment before his arms dropped, and slowly the Defiler turned to stare down at Bilbo. For once, Azog's expression did not show glee or fury. He looked surprised. Bilbo stepped back when he saw Azog's eyes land on him and widen.

"Nûl-lûpûrz," his master murmured, black blood dribbling at the corner of his mouth, before his scarred mien twisted with fury -- pain? -- and he raised the axe, a roar shaking every nerve in Bilbo's body as Azog began to cut downward through the air. At Bilbo.

He closed his eyes in acceptance. Thorin lived, Azog would die, and the Hobbits were free. It was alright if he died. He had dreamed of this day for years, and though nothing had happened like he had wanted, he was at peace with the thought of dying.

Even so, he tensed and felt more tears on his cheeks, hoping that his cousins would be alright without him, wishing he could have seen sunlight again, wondering if his father would scold him when he reached the other side -- thought I don't want this -- when another bellow made him start and look up.

Blue, blue eyes met his briefly, and Bilbo gaped, as Thorin Oakenshield charged up behind Azog and sliced clean through the arm holding the axe with a glowing blue sword, causing the axe to fly past Bilbo's head and imbed itself in the stone behind him. Azog gave another furious, incredulous roar, but before he could turn and impale his hook into Thorin, the Dwarf King had driven his sword through Azog's chest, halting him in his steps.

The Defiler struggled briefly, but then his eyes dimmed, and Bilbo watched in stunned shock as he fell to his knees in front of Bilbo, then slumped to the side, pale blue eyes lifting to fix on Bilbo's face.

"Azog," Bilbo whispered, feeling every limb in his body shaking, but he could not move, could not pull himself away, even though there were Orcs everywhere and Thorin was watching them silently.

"My pain-bearer," Azog said softly, and then the light went out of his eyes completely, and the Defiler fell to the ground, dead.

Bilbo felt a great void within him open up. His master was dead, and he could find no words, make no sounds, could not bring himself to care that he was still in the middle of a battle and that he could die at any point. Azog was dead. He had dreamed of this moment for so, so long, had wished it every night upon falling asleep and every morning upon waking. He felt the greatest relief in his life bubble up in his throat, a sob escaping him.

Yet he could not look away from Azog's body. Those pale eyes staring at him, haunting him, and Bilbo knew he would never forget this sight -- but then the vision of Azog's dead gaze was blocked off when a tall figure stepped in front of him, chainmail clinking. He looked up to see Thorin Oakenshield standing above him protectively, hefting the little sword Bilbo had used to kill Azog -- and there was no doubt in Bilbo's mind that while Thorin had delivered the final blow, it was Bilbo's actions that had left Azog dead -- and he began to speak to the hall in that deep, majestic voice.

But Bilbo understood none of it. His vision went gray for a moment, and he felt like he might be sick. Azog was dead. Azog was gone. He was free.

He was truly free, and Bilbo could not stop crying because of it.

~

His enemy was dead, by his and Bilbo Baggins' hands. No more would Azog haunt the halls of Khazad-dûm, never to terrify another Hobbit or behead another Dwarf, never to defile any living being on this green earth.

As soon as Azog had turned away from him, Thorin had scrambled for his sword, heaving himself up despite his dizziness and the pain in his head, knowing that he had only moments to stop Azog before he destroyed the Hobbit who had saved Thorin's life. When Azog had raised the axe once again, despite the blade stuck in his torso, Thorin had rushed forward with a war cry to cut the arm off, knowing that was the only way at that point to stop Azog -- and it had worked.

He did not give Azog the chance to rise again. Thinking of his father and grandfather who had died at Azog's hands, of the Hobbits that walked away from the Misty Mountains with empty gazes and lost expressions, he had thrust his sword into Azog and twisted, breathing in deeply as he felt the resolution in the action. He had been briefly stunned by the expression on Bilbo's face as Azog fell, and when Azog murmured something in such a way and Bilbo's expression froze, Thorin's temper rose, not wanting to see that expression on any Hobbit's face again, much less this one.

The way Bilbo said Azog's name turned his blood to ice -- but Thorin had come too far, and he had promised Bilbo he would save him. So he had done so, and if Bilbo looked so lost, so distraught that he might as well been heartbroken, then Thorin would ignore it -- but he would not forget.

Thorin breathed harshly as he stared down at Azog's body, then gave a grunt and tugged his sword free of the corpse. After a moment he reached down and pulled out Bilbo's short sword as well, whipping it through the air to shake some of the blood from it. Bilbo had an empty expression on his face as he stared at the dead body of his former master, and Thorin could not think of much past you saved my life and I have never seen such bravery, but now was not the time -- they were surrounded by the Orcs of Azog's clan and allies, and any second now, they would charge.

He stepped around Azog's corpse and turned, lifting the short sword of Bilbo Baggins and crying, "The Defiler is dead! Khazad-dûm returns to the Dwarves!" and half of the warriors in the hall turned to stare at him. Some of Orcs gave a fierce cry and sprang forward, but the Dwarves who had been near Thorin rushed to meet them, Dwalin at the lead as he fought to protect Thorin. The rest of the Orcs seemed to panic and scatter, undone by the fall of their chief, as Thorin knew they would be. Orcs could never stay together without someone to control them.

Thorin stayed where he was, knowing that the Hobbit behind him had no defense -- and rightfully so, as he heard a deep growl only moments later, and looked back to see the great white Warg which had followed Azog everywhere preparing to jump at Bilbo. Thorin leapt over Azog's dead body and drew up his sword, Bilbo's short sword in one hand while he held his own Elvish blade in the other. The Warg ran at him, snarling and snapping, but Thorin was quick to whirl around and slice at the beast's belly, causing it to let out a great cry of distress.

It turned and leapt at him again, and just like its master, Thorin cut off one of its legs, leaving it to stumble in pain, out of balance. Then it snapped at him, and Thorin had to throw aside the short sword to grab Bilbo and tug him out of the way, as it leapt again. The Warg did not turn to attack again, though, instead limping over to Azog and laying its head down, a howl ringing out across the hall. Disturbed, Thorin took the only action he could think of, which was to stalk up behind the Warg and drive his sword into its neck. Its movement stopped, and Thorin pulled out his sword and backed away to Bilbo again.

He looked past the dead body of his enemy to the rest of the great hall, and to his surprise, he saw that the Orcs were now fleeing, leaving their dead behind while the Dwarves who were not injured or tired chased after them. It was done, then. The battle was over, the war was won -- the Misty Mountains were theirs again.

They had won. The Orcs were on the run, and Khazad-dûm belonged again rightfully to the Dwarves. His march had been a success, and finally -- finally, his enemy was dead, and the Hobbits were avenged. Joy and relief filled him, followed by the dark dread of wondering who was dead, who had not survived the war.

Breathing in deeply, he lowered his weapon and glanced back at Bilbo, seeing the Hobbit kneeling where Thorin had pushed him, his blank blue-gray gaze fixed on Azog's corpse. With a soft curse, Thorin knelt down beside him and laid down his sword, reaching out to grip one of Bilbo's shoulders.

"Master Baggins," he called quietly, then louder again when Bilbo did not even twitch, "Bilbo!"

Whatever daze had caught the Hobbit abruptly faded, as blue-gray eyes snapped up to look at him. Thorin was briefly taken aback by the emotions in that gaze -- was that grief he was seeing? -- but forcibly he softened his expression a bit, squeezing that thin, trembling shoulder. He realized that Bilbo had bits of Orc blood on his face -- no doubt from Azog -- and carefully, as though he would spook Bilbo, he reached up to wipe the dark substance away with the back of his hand.

Bilbo's cheeks were damp beneath the blood, and Thorin started when he saw more tears in the Hobbit's eyes. "It is over," Thorin said quietly, letting his hand drop away, his voice turning gentle. This Hobbit had suffered so much at the hands of the Orc behind them, and Thorin felt the urge to reassure him that everything would be okay. Bilbo only stared at him, perhaps not even hearing him, but Thorin continued, wanting to express the words that burned in his throat.

"I told you to stay away," he said quietly, and he did not move his gaze away from Bilbo's, caught by those dark eyes that spoke of secrets and emotions that Thorin could hardly understand. "I told you there was no place for you here, that you are no fighter. I was wrong, Bilbo Baggins, and I thank you with the heart that still beats because of your actions today." He bowed his head briefly, then looked at Bilbo again, his gaze softening. "Azog the Defiler is dead. You need not fear him anymore. The war is over, and we won through your actions alone."

A moment passed, then Bilbo's face crumpled, tears spilling over his cheeks again. He bowed his head, and Thorin felt his chest ache briefly, knowing that this poor boy had been in pain for far too long. He curled his hand around the back of Bilbo's neck and pulled him closer, letting Bilbo lean against him, and small hands reached up to grip his armor, the thin body extremely tense for a moment before Bilbo relaxed, just enough to let himself cry. Thorin felt a small sob against his neck, and he closed his eyes briefly, wondering how long Bilbo had waited for this day.

Then Dwalin walked up, asking loudly and worriedly if he was alright, and Thorin felt a rush of relief that his friend had survived. He had to let go of Bilbo and stand, wincing at the movement but straightening, a lightness in his feet that had not been there before. "I'm fine, I am unhurt, just... give me a moment," Thorin said, and Dwalin nodded gruffly, glancing briefly at the Hobbit before backing off, going to find his brother who was organizing a team to find their dead.

Thorin looked down at Bilbo, who had noticed the blood on his hands and was trying to wipe it off on his pants. He would have to ask if there were still any Hobbit clothes left in the camp -- if not, he would have to find someone small enough to lend Bilbo some clothes. He remained silent as Bilbo wiped his hands off, the expression on Bilbo's face reminding him of a darker time. "Do not forget your sword," he said suddenly, and Bilbo looked up at him, nonplussed beyond his reddened eyes. "And do not worry. We will clean up when we get back. Come," he said, holding out his hand, and Bilbo stared at it for a long moment.

Then he reached up and took Thorin's hand, eerily like the first time they had met, and Thorin pulled him up easily, glancing over Bilbo but seeing no obvious wounds -- except his shirt looked strangely singed, and there, the bruise on his cheek from the other day was purpling fiercely. There was blood on the side of his head, and Thorin twitched when he realized it came from an odd cut on his ear. Yet Bilbo's eyes were clear for all that they had been darkened with grief before, and Thorin gave his hand a squeeze before letting go.

"It's really over, isn't it?" the Hobbit murmured, gaze flitting past Thorin to the pale corpses beyond.

"Yes," Thorin said quietly, and he thought of how he would be dead if Bilbo had not ignored him and snuck into their war, like a burglar creeping into the hoard of gold of his forefathers. He wanted to yell at Bilbo for risking his life, but the Hobbit looked so lost that he did not have the heart. Later, when they were done with this, when their dead had been buried in stone or sent back to their kin, when Thorin could allow himself to relax -- then maybe he would let his temper go, and maybe not even at the Hobbit.

For now, he had to see to his people. "Will you stay with me?" he asked Bilbo, looking down to meet his gaze, a dark thought building in the back of his mind, that maybe, just maybe, Bilbo would disappear into the halls of Moria and never return, if Thorin gave him the slightest chance to be alone with his thoughts.

Bilbo looked reluctant, but Thorin did not stop staring until the Hobbit finally nodded, the movement slow and careful, and Thorin noticed how this time, Bilbo's eyes did not look past him at Azog's corpse but flitted away anxiously. So he clasped Bilbo's shoulder -- and this time, Bilbo tensed so quickly that Thorin felt awkward suddenly. He squeezed briefly and let go, giving Bilbo his space and looking around for Dwalin.

"This way," he said, looking back at Bilbo and giving him a small nod. When Bilbo fell into step beside him, he began to walk, already looking toward the future, beside the Hobbit that had saved his life and turned the tide of one of the most important wars of his people. He would see to it that Bilbo would never want for anything again -- that forever, he would be welcome at any Dwarf table or hearth, for his actions today. And maybe, just maybe, he would be able to speak to Bilbo more, to help him in any way he could, for saving his life. There was no lesser honor than to repay such a grand deed, and Thorin would never forgive himself if he could not show his gratitude and respect for the Hobbit at his side.

It was hours later, Bilbo trailing behind him silently and helping where he could while Thorin directed his warriors to take the dead back to their camp, when they heard the great roar from below, that made every person in that hall freeze.

~

Deep in the caves of Moria, far past the point where any living being had ventured in years save Orcs who sought alliance and help, Gandalf the Gray walked, his mind troubled and his expression dark.

His mind was not on the corrupted spirit of darkness he would soon face, but on the Hobbits that had brought about this journey through the Misty Mountains. He had seen far too many dark, terrible things in his long lifetime, but the enslavement and torture of the Hobbits, the kindest, simplest creatures in Middle Earth, had touched him in a way that many others had not. The Shire had always been his favorite place of Middle-Earth, and the Hobbits some of his favorite people. Yet they had been attacked and taken, tormented and killed. It was hard for him to see what good this dark act would bear in the future.

He was thankful for Thorin Oakenshield, who had done many great things during his reign in Erebor: maintained the peace and protection of the northern ranges and of the forests of Mirkwood, expanded the population and strength of his people through careful trade and mining -- and he had not hidden away the wealth, but shared it, drawing more and more people to the city of Dale, which had grown quite prosperous indeed. Instead of hiding in their caves, the Dwarves had become a celebrated race, respected by most of Middle-Earth, though Gandalf had his doubts that the Elves thought as highly of the Dwarves as the other races did.

And now, Thorin would finish his march through the Misty Mountains, to reclaim the ancient cities of the Dwarves and save the Hobbits from certain doom. For that, Thorin had every respect Gandalf could give.

It broke his heart, though, to know that so many had died, that so many had suffered. The Tooks, grand as they were, had mostly escaped the carnage, having been off on adventures and engaged in trade far from the Shire. The Brandybucks, too, had mostly survived the ordeal, but so many other families -- so many Hobbits had died.

The Baggins family. Only a few of the well-respected Bagginses remained alive, and of them, one of the dearest to him: Bilbo Baggins. Gandalf had known Belladonna Took since she was just a very small child, and she had been so dear to him, with her love of adventuring and her vast curiosity for how the world worked. He had been overjoyed for her when she had married and had a child, after believing for years it would never happen. Yet somehow Bungo Baggins had caught her heart and held it close, and Bilbo had been born.

Such a precocious child he had been, just like his mother. But unlike the Took family which celebrated creativity and a daring personality, Bilbo's dreams of faraway places and exciting things had been stunted by the Hobbit who had loved Belladonna so much he had built a home out of nothing for her. When Gandalf had met Belladonna years later, she had confided in him how she worried for Bilbo, who had become much more serious and Baggins-like than she preferred, no longer the wild scion of the Took line.

Yet still Bilbo had survived the past seven years with a tenacity that left Gandalf stunned. That poor, poor boy. Pain-bearer, they had called him, and Gandalf could not have ignored such a heavy title, not when the scars on Bilbo's thin body attested to his strength, not when Bilbo flinched when Gandalf stood up tall or reached out to clasp his shoulder. He could only hope that Bilbo would someday heal from the deep wounds on his heart and soul.

He had left the battle above, not wishing to be apart from the war but knowing that he had to find the terrible spirit that haunted these mines. It had been halfway through Thorin's march that Gandalf had learned of the Balrog, from something an Orc had said:

"Hope they'll be deep in the caves by the end of it, meet the fire terror --"

The fire terror. The nameless terror. The unknown spirit which had been seduced and corrupted by the evil of the world. The Balrog, a Maiar so far gone to darkness that Gandalf feared he would too fall in this battle. He did not know if his strength was enough to defeat such a creature.

Durin's Bane, they had called it long ago, but many had forgotten it, even the Dwarves who had feared it for so long. The fire terror -- such words had sparked a memory in one of the oldest of their march, who had remembered something he had read of the fall of Durin -- and it was from that they deduced that the creature lived deep in the caves of Moria.

If it actually existed. That was Gandalf's duty, to determine the validity of the claim and to handle the creature if he met it. Yet he did not know what would happen if he did meet it -- he had heard the stories from long ago, but he had never met one himself. It worried him, but if a Balrog did exist, then there were greater things afoot here. Gandalf had to know.

In his right hand, he held his staff aloft, lighting his way, and in his left hand, he held the Elvish blade that Bilbo had shown him, that fit into his palm like the hand of an old friend. He was prepared, though he worried inside. So when he felt the intense aura of evil that seeped out from the darkness ahead, he strode forward without faltering, the light of his staff brightening as he reached deep into himself and called upon the power that had guided him for many ages.

The roar of the Balrog echoed through the caves and shook the mountains themselves, as Gandalf and Durin's Bane met in historic battle, some might say too early, but nevertheless fated all the same.

Chapter Text

As he walked the hall of the dead, trailing Thorin while the Dwarf King commanded his soldiers to tend to this person or drag that goblin corpse away, Bilbo felt numb, an odd dullness pervading his senses and blocking his thoughts from taking more shape than you'd think I'd be tired by now.

But he wasn't. Tired or otherwise, despite the aches in his feet and chest. Strangely wired even though he had barely slept in the past two days and had been running around for hours, Bilbo followed Thorin and helped where he was needed. A healer had already looked at him and bandaged his ear up, rubbed some of that strange salve -- ointment -- on his chest, but Bilbo was too distracted to care much about the physical pain.

Instead, he was quite busy avoiding the inevitable mental pain.

Azog was dead -- no no no do not think about it! Do -- not -- think --

At all, if he could. Bilbo was quite relieved to be given tasks to complete for Thorin and the Dwarves, including carrying weapons and helping the healers when they needed someone for support. Some dark thoughts strayed in his mind -- you're only doing this because you don't have a master anymore, you need a new one, doesn't that king fit perfectly? -- but Bilbo ignored them resolutely. He could break down later and argue his mind to silence when he was not in the middle of an army of Dwarves, all of whom stared at him with silent respect, who offered their services whenever he showed the slightest bit of weariness, who brought him water when he did not think he needed it and offered to help him clean his sword.

That moment had been particularly painful, but Bilbo was nothing if not determined in pretending that everything was fine. So he had allowed the stout red-haired Dwarf -- Glóin, brother of Óin -- to show him how to wipe away the black substance -- blood, his blood, it was on his hands and clothes too -- from his short sword, which the Dwarf handled with such care that it actually made Bilbo curious for a moment.

"Is it really that nice a sword?" he asked Glóin, who gave him a surprised look.

"I'd say so, lad -- it saved my king Thorin, did it not? Treat it with care," he said gruffly, and Bilbo nodded, nonplussed but unwilling to continue the line of thinking -- this sword saved him, but it killed him --

His mind would not be silent, and Bilbo was starting to wish for a blunt object to shut it up. Maybe then he could sleep properly. Frustrated with his own thoughts, he tied the sword around his hips with the leather strap he had acquired, and he felt a tiny bit better knowing it was there.

Hours trickled by, and Bilbo continued to pretend that he was not on the verge of emotional and physical collapse. He went where he was needed and helped those who were in pain, wiping the blood from their faces as the healers set their legs or bandaged their stomachs. He gave water to the thirsty and sent occasional glances to Thorin, who watched him as he worked but did not speak to him much. To those who were near death, he merely sat with them until their eyes grew cloudy, and a few times he sang softly of green hills and yellow flowers weaved into curly hair, stroking braids crusted with blood until the pained wheezing stopped.

Just as he had for the Hobbits who had died for Azog, so he did for the Dwarves who died for Thorin.

Not once did the Dwarves attempt to shoo him away. They carried an odd respect for him now, accepting his help and thanking him at every turn. Instead of trying to make him sleep or sit down or simply rest, they gave him water or pushed a bowl of salve into his hands to stir or gave him yet another task that would keep his hands and mind busy. Bilbo was thankful for it, but he could not speak his gratitude. He barely spoke at all, except to sing to the dying and offer his services to the next Dwarf.

All the while, Thorin walked with him, never ordering him to do something again, but always present in the background, and Bilbo was comforted by hearing his deep voice nearby. Whatever the back of his mind whispered, Bilbo was glad to follow Thorin, who at least did not toss him aside and ignore him after what had happened. There was respect in that blue gaze whenever Thorin glanced over at him, respect that Bilbo returned -- but something else broiled in his thoughts, a darkness that he could not handle right now.

A few times when his mind was too loud, his fingers brushed his pocket where his treasures were hidden, but Bilbo never thought more of the rings than I'm glad they haven't slipped out in all this chaos. Inevitably he would push the dark thoughts away and focus on what he was doing, and the urge to touch the rings would fade away, his hands returning to his work. It was easier to keep his mind quiet if he had something else to concentrate on.

At the moment Bilbo was staring at the floor, sipping from a container of cool water. Thorin was standing nearby speaking to that other pair of brothers, Balin and Dwalin, having ordered the majority of the army back to their camp with the wounded and dead, and all that was left now was to burn the corpses of the Orcs and goblins. That would be the last task, and it was nearly ready. The floor was mostly clear, past the horrible black and red stains that had since dried, and the Dwarves that remained in the hall numbered only in the dozens, not the thousands that had packed into the caverns before.

Then the ground roared, and such terror seized Bilbo that he dropped the container, his head whipping around to stare past Thorin at the dark end of the hall, not noticing as cold water splashed on his toes. Every Dwarf in the hall froze and turned as Bilbo did, and for a moment, they all held their breaths in the terror. Then a gasp broke the silence, and everyone began shouting, running about, rushing to Thorin who stood with blazing blue eyes, still staring at the darkness.

"Atkât! Be calm!" Thorin shouted, and his soldiers quieted immediately, trusting in their commander. "Gandalf," he muttered, reaching back to grip his axe for a moment. "He must have found the demon. He told us not to follow, but --"

"Thorin!" Balin said shortly, reaching up to grip Thorin's arm. "You cannot! We need our king, especially after your close --" He glanced at Bilbo and shut his mouth, but did not let go of Thorin, who scowled but let go of his axe.

"I know, but if that demon defeats him..."

"Trust in the Wizard," Dwalin grumbled, though he too was glaring into the darkness. "We brought him to deal with the demon, after all."

Thorin's scowl deepened, but after a moment he turned back to the Dwarves and issued short orders for them to continue, Dwalin moving away to direct the work for the fire. "We must hurry back then," he said quietly, glancing sidelong at Bilbo, who noticed his attention but had not looked away from the darkness. Had his master's sentries really --?

The dullness that had blurred his mind for the past several hours faded away abruptly, leaving Bilbo with a foreboding realization, dread growing in his stomach. He stepped closer to Thorin, eyes darting between the King and the darkness. "You mean the fire demon? That's what Gandalf is facing?" he asked quickly, an anxious note entering his voice as he spoke for the first time in hours, a shiver running through him as he thought of the monster that haunted the caves below.

After watching the darkness for a moment, he realized that nobody had answered, and he looked back to see Thorin and Balin staring at him with wide eyes. Disturbed by their expressions, he stepped back warily. "What?"

"What did you say, lad?" Balin said, and Bilbo noticed that he was paler than before.

"Ghâsh-dâgalûr... oh, dear," Bilbo muttered, realizing abruptly what had bothered them. He had not spoken in Westron; instead, he had spoken the Orcs' word for the Balrog. Face flushing slowly, he looked away and crossed his arms, shame filling him. He had never spoken any of the Orkish he had heard before; the language made him feel sick sometimes just from hearing it, but there was no other word he knew for the monster.

Another moment passed, and he heard someone step toward him, which made him tense up badly, but no one touched him, and finally he looked up to see Thorin watching him, blue eyes hooded.

"First Khuzdul, now the language of Mordor... you really are a fascinating creature," Thorin said quietly, and Balin glanced sharply at him, but Bilbo was too distracted by the look on Thorin's face.

He felt his cheeks flush uncomfortably and looked back down, shrugging. "I've always been clever, and if... well, that's all he -- they spoke, so I just... got to understand it. And I heard... him -- he told them to go find it, earlier," he said quietly.

If Thorin or Balin noticed how he refused to say his former master's name, neither made comment of it. Bilbo chanced a glance back at them and saw that Thorin was watching him still, while Balin stroked his beard contemplatively. "Then it knew we were coming," Balin said after a moment, glancing up at Thorin.

Thorin looked past Bilbo into the darkness, blue eyes narrowing. "Perhaps," he said quietly, and Bilbo wondered at how Thorin seemed to read into everything so easily. "Azog may have sent scouts to find Durin's Bane, but who knows if they found it, or if it did not sense Gandalf first."

Bilbo, who had frozen at the mention of his former master, was tempted very suddenly to run in the other direction. Instead he focused on Thorin's words, letting another puzzle take his attention. "Durin's Bane?"

Balin glanced at him again. "What we call the demon," he said, and Thorin nodded beside him, blue eyes staying on the darkness. "Gandalf called it a Balrog, but the Dwarves have always called it Durin's Bane, as it was the creature that drove the Dwarves from these mountains long ago, when it woke and slew our King Durin IV, many centuries ago."

Interested in the history behind the monster, but too disturbed by the thought of it coming anywhere near them, Bilbo shivered and rubbed at his arms, which caught Thorin's notice. "We should leave now," the tall Dwarf said, turning and striding back to the others, who were preparing to leave. "Dwalin! Light the fire now!"

Balin hurried to follow, and after a moment, Bilbo reached down to pick up the metal container which was now empty, capping it and tying it to his belt, then walking quickly after them. He stopped behind Thorin and looked past him, his eyes widening to see Dwalin walk out of the room where they had dragged all of the Orc and goblin corpses. Smoke already followed him, but Dwalin turned and threw a gleaming torch inside, causing the light from inside the room to flare suddenly -- and then Dwalin shut the doors, which glowed briefly before they melted away and left nothing but wall with the faintest outline of a doorway.

Thorin ordered his Dwarves to march, and they began to leave the great hall through one of the side corridors. Bilbo lingered, though, and gazed at the wall, wondering if he was imagining the faint glow behind the lines of the door.

His master's body was in there. Bilbo knew this for sure -- he had watched himself as it had been dragged inside the room, the pale corpse limp and empty of life, of heat, as Bilbo had always known him. He allowed himself to look away after a moment, looking across the hall which still stunk of Orcs and death, stacks of bloodied weapons here and there, the shanties and upper walkways empty of the calls and hoots that the Orcs would be crying now, if they had won this war and his master was still alive.

But the Orcs were gone, his master was dead, and Bilbo thought to himself, Never again.

Never again would he look upon this hall, and a fierce satisfaction overtook him for a moment, relishing the thought of never seeing another Orc hut or hearing those drums again. As for his master --

"Bilbo," came a quiet voice from behind him, and Bilbo turned to see Thorin standing there watching him.

They gazed at each other for a long moment, and neither said anything. Bilbo turned and walked past Thorin to where Balin and Glóin waited. Thorin followed, and they began to hurry back to the camp with the rest of the Dwarves, all wary from hearing the roar of the Balrog, yet with each step he took away from the halls of his torment, Bilbo's shoulders eased bit by bit. All the while, he was watched by Thorin, who could not take his eyes from the Hobbit who had saved his life and turned their war into complete victory.

~

When they reached the camp later, Thorin could tell with just a glance that the Hobbit was near to passing out. Bilbo had walked with the Dwarves without complaint, but he was sometimes slower than the others, and occasionally he would turn his attention inward. What Bilbo was thinking after everything, Thorin did not know, but he stayed close to the Hobbit in case he abruptly fell or expressed any of his pain.

Bilbo expressed no pain, though, and they continued silently. As they walked between the tents, Thorin was relieved to see that despite the lingering aura of terror in the air, Dwalin had commanded the soldiers well. He stepped forward when his commanders and head healers came to meet him, giving him the news he wanted to know. The bodies wrapped in black rested in another cave off to the side, and the wounded were on their way to healing, though there were many proud warriors that may yet leave them to Mahal's house. Though Thorin felt as exhausted as Bilbo looked, he still had much to handle, many people to see and the dying to pay respects to, their next steps to ascertain, the names of the dead to write down -- and then Dwalin pushed him aside and scowled at him.

"You are going to bed, and don't think I won't bully you into it," Dwalin uttered lowly, making Thorin glare at him. "Just because we're both falling over our knees can't mean I won't trounce you if you try to get past me."

Thorin debated taking him up on that, but he knew in the end that sleep would do him well. Most everything could wait for a few hours, as the majority of the army was resting or nursing their wounds, and already some of the individual battalions were preparing to return to their kin. There was nothing to be done to help Gandalf, though Thorin did not trust sleeping when there was that fire demon down below.

But he was about to collapse. So he nodded and clasped Dwalin's shoulder, giving him another half-hearted glare before turning back to those who waited for him.

"For now we rest, and anyone who has already recovered enough to keep watch, put them at the entrances to guard. In a few hours --"

"Six," Dwalin muttered behind him.

"-- Six hours, to be precise, I will meet with the commanders, and we will form a plan. The first sign of the demon's fire, sound every battle horn, and first sign of Gandalf, wake me personally. Go now and rest." He watched as the commanders bowed and strode back to their groups, though the healers lingered, no doubt ready to strip him of his armor and cluck over his wounds. Thorin gave them a glare, but they did not flinch, and he had to admire their resilience.

He swept his gaze past Balin, who was giving him and Dwalin a small smile, to the slender figure that stood at the edge of the group, arms crossed and gaze dark. Thorin debated for a moment on where to send Bilbo -- to the healers? to his cousins' tent? -- but a flash of memory, of Bilbo heaving a sob after seeing Azog's fall, made him reconsider. He walked over to Bilbo quietly and stopped a few respectful paces from him, clearing his throat to catch Bilbo's attention.

It did not work. So Thorin tried again, louder, and finally the Hobbit turned to look at him. All too easily, Thorin could read the exhaustion and distant shock in his expression. What Bilbo needed was rest, but how could he rest in a place of strangers? None of his kin were here, and there was no one here that he trusted.

"Master Baggins, we will rest now. Since the tent you stayed in before now holds the wounded, where would you prefer to sleep? There is the tent of my cousin Glóin, or Balin and Dwalin here," Thorin said, watching Bilbo's face as he spoke and seeing the flickers of worry and distrust. After a moment he offered his last thought, hesitant as he did so, not wanting to alarm the Hobbit who had spent the last seven years a slave to his enemy... nor did he want to cause Bilbo undue stress from his presence. He knew how trauma could haunt a person. "There is also... ah, my tent, where a bed can easily be made for you. I have my promise, after all."

Bilbo watched him, dark gray-blue eyes brightening a bit with more life at his last words, and Thorin felt relieved that Bilbo was not completely gone. "To protect me," the Hobbit said quietly, and Thorin nodded.

"Just so," he said. Thorin had promised Bilbo he would keep him safe -- and after what Bilbo had done for him, there was no possibility that Thorin would let him stay in a place where he could not relax even the slightest. Thorin wanted, especially, to give Bilbo the choice, since he doubted that Bilbo had had many choices not guided by Azog or the protection of his kin in the years of his enslavement. Bilbo was not the first slave he had encountered, after all, and some of the healers who had helped the Hobbits had confided in him later that giving the Hobbits their independence back was a key step in recovering from slavery.

Bilbo hesitated, glancing past Thorin at the others, and Thorin followed his gaze. The healers that waited for him and his friends, Balin, Dwalin, and Glóin, never looked away, respect in their gazes, and Thorin was warmed by their support. They had seen what Bilbo had done for him, such an act of bravery -- and they would never try to hurt him, nor ever speak ill of him.

After a moment Bilbo looked back at him, and Thorin gave him a faint smile to reassure him. Finally the Hobbit nodded and relaxed a little, his arms falling from their position of hugging his thin body. "I suppose I'll stay with you, then," Bilbo said, and Thorin felt rather pleased at the chance to show Bilbo his hospitality, even in these dismal circumstances.

"This way, then," he said, turning to walk back to his tent, and after a moment Bilbo followed, along with the healers who would take a look at both of them before they would rest. Balin, Dwalin, and Glóin went about their own business, the three exchanging glances but never saying anything about the strange pair ahead of them.

~

When at last the healers had deemed Thorin well enough that his glares had the effect to make them leave, Bilbo was treated to the sight of Thorin heaving a great sigh and hanging his head in his hands. The King was sitting on the edge of the pile of blankets and pillows that was his bed, his wounds wrapped with bandages and wearing clean clothes. He had argued fiercely with the healers, but Bilbo could tell that most of it was for show; Thorin never actually pushed them away or snapped at them too harshly. It almost made Bilbo smile, but he was much too tired to respond other than to let the healers take care of him, even though he was tense the entire time.

Bilbo himself was sitting on a smaller bed that had been hastily put together but a little while ago, his bandages changed and his wounds rechecked, his belt resting to the side, wearing a new shirt that was too large on him and soft brown pants, but he was thankful for them all the same. The gash in his head from when he had hit the wall -- was it really two days ago? -- was showing signs of infection, but the rest of his wounds were healing cleanly, and the healers were determined that he rest and regain his strength to help his body recover. Now that the group of Dwarves had left, Bilbo allowed himself to relax, just a bit.

Across the tent, Thorin lifted his head and fixed his blue gaze on Bilbo, which Bilbo returned, a bit befuddled. Surely the King did not want to talk, not after everything? He could feel his body swaying a bit from the exertion of sitting up, and he knew he should be falling asleep. Yet Bilbo could not lie down any more than he could close his eyes. Every time his eyes drifted shut, even for a moment, he saw his master's -- former master, don't ever forget-- surprised look, heard the murmur of nûl-lûpûrz in his ear.

His master -- former master... Azog's death would always haunt him, maybe as much as the screams of the children and the tears of his mother.

Thorin was still watching him, and Bilbo only blinked at him, not willing to pull together the energy to frown. Finally the King's lips twitched, though perhaps not into a smile. "What do you want to do after this?" Thorin asked, and Bilbo could not tell what he meant, that blue gaze steady as Thorin watched him.

"...Do?" he asked after a moment, his eyebrows creasing.

"I promised to send you back to Bree. When you get there, what do you want to do?" Thorin asked again, giving Bilbo a clearer meaning.

Want. He had been fixated on one want for so long, that he had no idea what else he might desire. His dreams, though, had come true -- his master... Azog was dead. And yet Bilbo lived, despite all of his expectations. He had never once imagined a life after surviving this hell, and the question posed by Thorin completely bewildered him. Want? What did he want?

Unbidden, an image of rolling green hills dotted with bright yellow flowers, soft dirt paths, and little crooks and ponds appeared in his head, and tears came to Bilbo's eyes. The Shire was gone -- and yet Bilbo yearned for it, for the Shire he had always loved. His mother, his father, his many aunts and uncles and cousins and neighbors -- he wanted to see them all again. He wanted to go home.

Tears stung at his eyes, but he did not look away from Thorin's blue, blue gaze, so different from Azog's. "I want to see the sun again," he whispered, and started when he felt wetness on his cheeks. "I want to eat apple tarts again, and cook fish with lemon, and sneak carrots out of the farmer's fields, and find mushrooms under the trees --"

But his voice broke on mushrooms and he had to bow his head, hiding his tears beneath his hands. Would he ever be able to eat a mushroom again? Would any of the Hobbits who had lived in Azog's halls be able to eat a mushroom without wondering -- fearing -- that it would bring black death in the morning? Sometimes he had held one of those slimy black mushrooms in his hands and wondered what it might taste like, how quickly he might succumb to its poison, and he never, ever wanted to feel that way again. He wanted to pick a whole basket of mushrooms and eat them all, fry them in butter, roast them with leeks and herbs and eat them all until he was so stuffed that he would have a fat belly for days --

He realized that Thorin had grown silent, but thankfully the King stayed where he was, and Bilbo continued to sob into his hands, quiet noises that nonetheless echoed in the silent tent. He curled up on his side on the soft blankets and rocked himself, hating that he was showing such shameful behavior in front of the person who had saved him, but not once did Thorin scoff or tell him to be silent. Then Thorin spoke to him in a rather gentle voice, and Bilbo's sobs slowed a bit as he listened, opening his eyes halfway in the darkness.

"You will see the sunlight again, Bilbo. You will eat all the apple tarts and fish and carrots and mushrooms you can find, and soon you will be a properly stout Hobbit again. You will be normal again, with normal feelings and normal friends and normal beliefs, and no one will ever take that from you again. I promise you this, Bilbo Baggins. You are free, no longer his, and never will you be subjected to such horrors again.

"Wherever you go, know that you will be welcome in my house, if ever you have need. My home in Erebor -- have you ever read of it? No words can do its halls justice -- the majesty of that mountain cannot be said simply. It is beautiful, though -- the halls shine with the craft of thousands of Dwarves, and there is no end to the caverns of gold, gems, and ores. Outside the mountain there are golden hills and wide fields, endless with their flowers, and in the spring you can smell it all the way down in the forges, the scents of myrtle and honeysuckle and..."

Bilbo's eyelids grew heavy, and despite the pain in his heart, despite wanting things that were dead and gone, he nonetheless fell asleep to the soft tone of Thorin's voice, speaking of a faraway place that sounded a bit like the Shire and a bit like something from a distant dream. No nightmares disturbed his slumber, even after Thorin's voice faded and the King too slept. Finally Bilbo rested, his pain soothed by soft-edged dreams of green hills that turned golden as he walked forward.

~

In fire and darkness they met. The fury of the Balrog scorched him -- but inside Gandalf felt a great sadness open up, knowing that this was once one of his kin. So long ago it had been -- who was this spirit, twisted so by darkness? Who had it been? Someone he had known, someone he had loved? Had they served Nienna together, or had this spirit belonged to another of the Valar? There was no telling, no knowing, no way of turning the spirit back to what it once was -- just as he could no longer return to his former state, not while he stayed here.

So they battled, and though the evil in the spirit growled and howled and roared, Gandalf met it blow to blow, determined to win, both to protect the Dwarves and Hobbit -- and he knew that Bilbo had not yet left, there had been no mistaking the head of curly hair sneaking about in the shadows -- and to send the poor spirit on its way, to end the corruption and the spread of evil.

Chapter Text

Sunlight, bright in his eyes. Blue skies that stretched forever, clouds drifting softly, curling into shapes of animals and letters that Bilbo called out with glee. Soft laughter behind him, and Bilbo turned, beaming.

Long curls obscured the sun, such a deep blonde that they were almost russet. Blue eyes twinkled at him, and Bilbo laughed when he saw the love in that smile, the sweet smile that greeted him every morning and kissed him to sleep every night. This person was the light of his life, his favorite person in the world -- was his entire world.

Happiness. Utter bliss. Blue eyes, such a deep color, like the river -- they smiled down at him, and lithe fingers reached up to pinch his cheek. He raised his arms, and he was lifted and twirled. He shrieked with laughter, and warm arms embraced him, held him close. He never wanted for anything, not when he was with her.

Mama.

She set him down and took his hand, walking with him across green fields, brilliant with clover and tall grasses that gleamed. He grasped handfuls of yellow flowers and tucked them into her skirts, giggling when she nudged him under his chin. On the edge of their forever, the greens slowly changed to gold, the yellow flowers to white and purple, but Bilbo never noticed, as he danced around his mother and sang with her, and she laughed and cried and held his hands.

Then she stopped walking, and Bilbo looked back. She stood at the edge of green hills, yellow flowers in her hair, and she smiled at him, so wide and happy, but her cheeks were wet. He opened his mouth to ask why -- but she shook her head, and pointed past him. He turned; golden fields with white flowers, waving gently at him, beckoning.

A new place. A new place to explore, to have new adventures, to find new things, to meet new people. He turned back to take her hand -- they should go together -- but she was gone.

"Mama?"

She did not answer.

"Mama? Mama!" He ran and ran, but she was nowhere to be found. Soon the green hills were gone too, and all Bilbo had left was the expanse of unknown. He did not know what to do.

The wind brushed his hair, and he looked back to the expanse of golden fields, unsure. There was no other choice, though, so he turned and began to walk forward, into the bright unknown.

~

"Mama..."

He was dimly aware of someone brushing his curls back, of a low humming close to his ear. He turned his head into the soft fur, cheeks brushing dampness. Someone pulled something heavy and soft over him -- so soft, so unlike the matted furs and dingy cushion he always slept on. Bilbo sighed in his throat, relaxing into the gentle warmth, and knew no more.

~

Warmth. Softness. The smells of stone, fire... grass? Nothing like his cushion. Must be a dream, a quite lovely one... Bilbo sighed and pressed closer to the dream-pillow, indulging in the illusion for a bit longer. Soon he would wake, and likely his master would be irritated over one thing or another, and Bilbo would have to pacify him, lest Azog lose his temper and --

But Azog is dead.

His eyes flew open. He was not lying on his cushion, but on a clean mat stuffed with sweet-smelling grasses, a soft fur pelt acting as his pillow, while a thick woven blanket covered him. He was not in Azog's room, but in a tent filled with maps and scrolls and another bed, larger and messy, but very empty. When his wide-eyed gaze landed on the axe leaning against the wall, Bilbo remembered.

Thorin. Battle. His sword. His master's jealousy, rage. Fury, gone in an instant, faded like the last ember, in a face he had hated every night for seven years. A relief so deep that it shook him, a grief so strong he wept. His master, dead.

He was alive. The Hobbits had been taken away to their freedom. He was a guest in the Dwarf King's tent, free... and Azog was dead.

He stared at the axe for a time, remembering the battle and the terrifying moments trapped in Azog's grasp, those heady thoughts of he can't die and in the confusion, in the rush of please no, he knew not whether he meant Azog or Thorin. But Thorin was not the one who had died yesterday.

Nûl-lûpûrz.

How could he have even thought of wanting Azog to live? Was he that twisted? Maybe it was better he was separated from the rest, maybe he had become a monster and had not noticed, he had spoken the language of evil yesterday, after all, so easily -- maybe Thorin kept him not as a guest, but as a prisoner, because he might snap and hurt someone as easily as he had killed Azog --

No, a part of his mind whispered. You are not evil. You still hold good in your soul.

He clung to that thought, not wanting to believe in the alternative. He was not evil. He was not a bad person. Right? But it was true, and Bilbo understood this well, that Azog had been a fixed point in his life for the past seven years, and he had come to rely on Azog's mercy for survival. Azog had held his life in his pale hands, and nothing had hurt Bilbo, save Azog himself... and yet, Bilbo had survived. For relying on Azog, for trusting in his master -- did that make him a bad person?

Yet his actions had protected the Hobbits; they had been punished less, had not been raped, had not been murdered ruthlessly. In the darkness of Moria, it had made sense to give himself to Azog in exchange for their safety, but now, surrounded by normal people with normal values, Bilbo wondered if he was a monster after all.

His chest was hurting. Bilbo reached up to rub at it and remembered Azog pressing him against the smoldering door, but beneath the pain in his skin, he felt an odd tightness in his chest. It felt like all of the past three days had been a dream. Maybe it was -- maybe he would wake up and he would be back in that room, maybe hitting his head so badly had caused this delusion, this intense hallucination, and suddenly he hoped please don't let this be a dream, but if he waited, if he hoped too hard, it would all fade away and he would wake up crying again and no, he would not be able to handle it if this was a dream.

Bilbo reached down to his knee and pinched himself so hard that when he let go, stunned at the pain, he realized he had made himself bleed. This was no dream -- right? This was reality, and Bilbo did not know whether to laugh or cry.

He curled up and hid his face in the soft fur of his bed for several moments, his shoulders shaking slightly, the pain which had taken such a harsh toll on his soul slowly seeping away, the balm of freedom, of fierce relief, soothing his heart. When he lifted his head, he realized that his eyes were dry, but he felt raw, twisted -- he had been through too much.

All of his doubts and worries, the pains of living as an Orc's slave, the exhaustion -- it had been wearing on Bilbo for so long that to be free of it felt far too strange. He could not simply forget, could not pretend that it had not happened, but he wanted to, so badly. He wanted to fall asleep and wake up seven years ago, still an innocent young Hobbit who may not have known what he wanted out of life, but he had been happy, happy to spend forever in his little world, of his books and garden and father and mother.

Mother.

Just thinking of Belladonna Baggins sent a shiver through Bilbo. Had she been in his dreams again? His sweet mam, his beloved mama, his dear mother -- the name changed over the years, but what she was to him -- his love, his world, his light -- never did. He wondered if she would be proud of him for breaking free of Azog's hold. He missed her suddenly, fiercely -- remembered her smile as she held him. She had taught him so much, had given him so much, and though she was long dead, he had killed her murderer, and he was finally free.

Thorin's words came back to him. What do you want to do?

He wanted to go home but did not know if he could bear it. Was the Shire still black with death? Was there anything left to Bag-End, his favorite place? Had any of his Baggins relatives survived, had Mirabella and her children escaped, were the Tooks alright? Where would he go now? What would he do? He felt so alone. He had Rory and his Brandybuck kin, of course, but who else? His parents were gone -- his amazing mother and his fine father, whom he had never truly appreciated until Bungo Baggins had lunged in front of him and caught an Orc's club in the chest. Bungo had died protecting them, to keep them from getting killed -- and they had not.

Instead, she had been taken, and Bilbo with her, to a fate far worse than a quick death. But no, he did not want to think of those early days in Azog's grasp.

He missed his father as fiercely as his mother. Their life had been simple, and Bilbo had been at odds with his father more than a few times, but they had been so happy. He remembered long evenings with the windows open, the scents of orchids and foxgloves drifting inside, and his father would settle into his most comfortable armchair and light his pipe, muttering about how if Bilbo was going to read all night, he might as well read out loud. So Bilbo would, and there would be a soft peace between them, as Bilbo would explore the worlds of faraway while Bungo would relax, sucking on his pipe with his eyes closed, while his mother hummed softly in the background.

His breath hitched. Such gentle times would never happen again. Maybe? What would the future bring, anyway? Bilbo had never known poverty, having well-to-do parents with a big home and lots of leisure, but he knew that it happened, and he understood that now, his life might be spent begging or working hard. He was not afraid of hard work, but the thought of begging left him wary. Too many times he had begged Azog for relief -- but it would not be like that. Right?

His thoughts were circling around, never finding any solution, only revealing more of the darkness he thought he had left behind. He could not bear to sit here and think about it anymore -- so slowly he crawled out of his soft bed and stood. He forced his mind to be blank for a moment as he picked up his sword and wrapped the leather around his waist. Then he crept to the entryway and peered outside, seeing Dwarves milling around and hearing faint songs in the distance, but they were long and sad, with low tunes that reflected anguish.

Now that he was paying attention, though, Bilbo could smell food -- stews, grilled meats, roasted potatoes, even ale. Many of the Dwarves had smiles on their faces despite the solemn air, and in other tents, laughter and cheering could be heard. Around fires that burned little smoke, Dwarves sat with tankards and smiles, occasionally knocking their drinks together to give respect to someone. Bilbo could hear other songs -- rowdy songs, cheerful songs, songs of celebration. Despite the mourning, despite the wounds, they were happy, joyous, relieved.

Bilbo wondered at seeing an army that had won a war.

When he pushed the curtains aside and stepped out, Bilbo was hoping to avoid any attention. He wanted to find a tent that had some of that lovely-smelling food and hopefully convince someone to give him a nibble, then he wanted to find a nice nook where he could eat in peace and avoid the healers for a bit longer. But such was not what happened.

Bilbo's attention was caught instead by a call that rang up, and he looked up to see the Dwarves nearby shouting and gesturing in his direction. Stunned, he could only watch as the Dwarves around him began to clap and cheer. After a moment, he realized that they were chanting his name.

"It's the Hobbit!"

"Bilbo Baggins!"

"The Hobbit's awake! Someone find the King!"

"BAGGINS! BAGGINS!"

Bewildered and more than a little frightened, he tried to step back into the tent, but hands seized him and picked him up, setting him on broad shoulders. The next few moments were a rush as Bilbo tried not to give himself over to a panic attack. He was carried down the path to the biggest tent of them all, and when he was brought in, the entire tent began to cheer just the same as the others. In the middle of it all was Thorin, speaking to several Dwarves at a large table, and with much ado, Bilbo was carried over to the table and sat down on a bench, feeling quite stunned by the whole experience.

Someone pushed a large plate in front of him and a tankard, and Bilbo's eyes grew wide when he saw the meal there. Fat sausages, roasted potatoes and scones with honey, a wedge of orange cheese, delicately fried slices of some tender meat, and that was just what he could see -- the plate was piled high with food. Someone slapped his back and he tensed up, but then the Dwarf beside him was nudged away, and then the same happened to his other side. Hesitantly, Bilbo turned and looked up.

The cheerful grin of a vaguely familiar face met his gaze, and he realized that the Dwarf standing before him was Bofur, who had been with Thorin when he had been rescued. At his side was a tall Dwarf with thick black hair and streaks of white in his rather large beard, who grinned at him much like Bofur did, which led Bilbo to believe that they might be related.

Bofur beamed at him. "Sorry for the lads! They can be a bit rowdy, 'specially now."

Bilbo gave him a very blank stare, not sure if he should get up and run away, but for some reason, Bofur's smile charmed him enough that he stayed where he was.

Bofur's eyes widened marginally. "Oh, you might not remember me! Bofur, at your service, and this is my cousin --"

"Bifur," came a deep voice, and Bifur nodded to him. "At your service."

Once again Bilbo was left rather bewildered at the manners of Dwarves, but he bowed a bit, feeling somewhat foolish as he tried to find his manners. "Bilbo Baggins, at yours. Um... thank you."

Bofur grinned and sat down beside Bilbo, though unlike the other Dwarves, he did not push Bilbo or touch him, and on Bilbo's other side, Bifur sat as well. A heavy plate appeared in front of each Dwarf, and Bifur nodded to him before he began to eat. Bilbo watched him for a moment, wary, but Bifur did no more than munch away, and so he turned his attention to Bofur, who was smiling at him still.

"Go on, then, Mister Baggins! Eat up, you're skin and bones," Bofur said, picking up his tankard and drinking deeply.

So Bilbo began to eat, sitting between two of the oddest Dwarves he had ever met, but two of the most charming indeed, who did not jostle him or push him or carry on too loudly. He did not eat much compared to his tablemates, but the food was delicious and sat heavily in his poor empty stomach. Bilbo suspected he might be sick later for it, but he gave Bofur a small smile, which Bofur returned with good humor.

"There's a good lad! Everyone's talking about you, you know, with your fancy footwork and how ye saved our King's life!" Bofur said, cheerfully biting into a sausage.

Bilbo felt his cheeks heat up, as he poked at his meal, well aware of blue eyes staring at him from across the large table. "Oh, well, I wouldn't --"

"No, no, don't deny it, Mister Baggins, we all saw what happened. You're a very brave lad -- er, you are a lad, right? Can't tell Hobbit ages well."

Bilbo paused, blinking. "Oh... well, actually, I'm an adult by Hobbit standards. So not technically, but I don't... mind --"

"Oho! You look quite laddish to me, but then, you'd be quite young anyway, to a Dwarf." Bofur grinned and popped a potato into his mouth, then sighed. "These lads, though, the cooks, they just don't have what it takes."

"Nothing like Bombur's," muttered Bifur, and Bilbo raised his eyebrows.

"The potatoes? I quite like them." He pushed the potatoes aside and found a lovely stack of bacon, which made his mouth water.

Bofur grinned at him. "Go on, have some of the fried kidneys, and the rashers too, then. No, I'm saying that my brother can out-cook any of these lads no matter the day. Too bad he didn't come -- stayed in Erebor with his pretty wife -- but if you tasted his potatoes, or his meat pies or his stews, you'd scoff at everything you ever ate, too."

"Spoiled, we are," muttered Bifur, and Bofur nodded.

"Completely! If you're ever in Erebor, don't hesitate to find any of us! We'll show you what real food tastes like," he said, winking at Bilbo.

Bilbo could not help but notice that even as Bofur chatted, he was steadily polishing off his large meal, whereas Bilbo had barely touched his in comparison. It seemed that Dwarves ate just as much as Hobbits did -- and for a moment, Bilbo missed the days of elevensies and second lunches. Then he shook himself and bit into a sausage, sighing at the flavor.

Despite Bofur's insistence, to Bilbo this was real food. Not porridge or grain or gruel, but real meat, tender and rich. He took a bite of the cheese and nearly cried at how sharp it was, yet it melted on his tongue so perfectly. Then he had to have a bite of bacon, and the taste reminded him of that morning with Rory and Great Aunt Adaldrida making sure he ate enough. Then he realized that Bofur and Bifur were giving him the same -- space, so that he could relax while the Dwarves cheered and sang around him, and making sure that he ate.

He felt his eyes prickle with tears, but fiercely he pushed the feeling away. He finished off his bite and looked up at Bofur, giving him a small smile, and whatever Bofur saw in his expression made his dark eyes turn gentle.

"Thank you," Bilbo said simply, and Bofur smiled at him.

"No need to thank me, Mister Baggins. It's only proper! I dare say any Dwarf would be honored to have you at his table, now."

Bilbo blushed a bit and ducked his head, nudging the fried kidney around his plate. "I wouldn't go that far --"

"But I would, Master Baggins, as would any Dwarf present at yesterday's battle," came a deep voice behind him, and Bilbo started, nearly knocking aside his plate. He turned to find Thorin standing behind him, the tall Dwarf looking more rested and relaxed, a small smile on his lips. "I see you have avoided the healers rather well so far. I suspect, though, that they will attempt to corner you as soon as you are finished eating." On either side of him, Bofur and Bifur started to stand as if to bow, and Thorin waved a hand, letting the Dwarves around him relax.

Bilbo breathed in slowly to ease his rapidly beating heart. He glanced at the entrance to the massive tent and saw that, indeed, several healers were milling about, some of them watching his table, while the others were finding other Dwarves and dragging them off. Perhaps he was not the only person to avoid them, then. He sighed and looked up at Thorin, raising an eyebrow.

"I think I can outrun them," he said quietly, and Thorin's blue gaze warmed.

"You can try, Master Baggins, but Dwarves are the best sprinters of all the races," he responded, and Bilbo heard several noises of agreement from the surrounding Dwarves.

He sat up a bit and raised his eyebrows, a smile curling at the corner of his lips despite his unease with being surrounded by so many people. "And Hobbits are the lightest on their feet. None of you caught me following you off to war, now did you?" he said, and then he realized what he had said, which made him shrink back.

Instead of looking cross, Thorin instead threw his head back and laughed. "I even had someone tail you! But you are quite right, Master Baggins, nobody could follow you for long. Even Bifur here, who is a master tracker, could not keep up with you," Thorin said, blue eyes twinkling.

Stunned, Bilbo looked over at Bifur, who scowled but nodded glumly. "I knew where ye were when you were hidin', waitin', but then as soon as everyone left an' ye scurried off, I lost ye in the darkness. Quick on your feet, indeed!" But then Bifur laughed and raised his tankard, and the other Dwarves cheered for him, so Bilbo gave him a small smile.

Then he gave Thorin a look. You had me followed.

Thorin merely raised an eyebrow back at him. Of course I did.

They might have stared at each other for a while longer had Bofur not jumped up with his tankard, grinning at them. "Let's hear a cheer for our Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins! Saved our King Thorin's life! For Bilbo Baggins!"

"BILBO BAGGINS!" shouted the room, and for a moment, Bilbo felt dizzy. He felt his entire face flush red, and he tried to sink down into his seat -- maybe sink down under the table -- but an arm on his elbow held him up, and Bifur handed his tankard to him.

"Drink up, lad," Bifur rumbled, and Bilbo sighed. The good cheer was getting to him, so he drank for a moment, just enough that Bifur let him go. He glanced down at his plate as his stomach rumbled, but upon looking closer at it, he felt his appetite die.

Mushrooms.

Thick golden mushrooms, perfectly sautéed with delicious-smelling spices, lay beneath the scattered rashers of bacon, and Bilbo had to close his eyes to control himself, so that he would not be ill at the table. They smelled so good -- and they were nowhere near black -- but Bilbo still felt sick at the sight of them.

"Bofur, if I might steal Master Baggins? I believe he and the healers have a great deal to discuss," came the low voice of Thorin behind him, and Bofur grinned at them both.

"'Course, Your Majesty! Off ye go, Mister Baggins, and come find us after! We'll want to hear more about how you got through all those Orc battles!" Bofur said, and Bilbo smiled shakily and stood, nodding.

"Of course," he said quietly, and without another glance at his plate, he followed Thorin out of the tent, the presence of the King enough to keep the Dwarves from clapping him on the shoulder or nudging him.

They meant well, he knew that. But he could not handle it, not now. If they were Hobbits, maybe... but not people he did not know, that he had not spent years learning to trust. He sighed deeply in relief as he escaped the heat of the tent, and when a healer began to fuss at him for eating so many fried foods, he did not mind. He allowed the healers to escort him to their tent, Thorin trailing them but staying silent.

He did not protest as the healers sat him down and began to peel off his bandages. The bruise on his cheek still hurt, but apparently it was beginning to fade, and the wound on his head was not becoming infected after all, thanks to the salves the healers were using. His chest had to be rubbed with a substance that had a rather strong smell.

"Mint ointment," the healer told him, and Bilbo could not help grinning. The healer shook his head and muttered, "Mad, that one is. But Óin has a gifted touch with healing, and I won't begrudge the name, if he wouldn't be so horrible about it --"

"Horrible? You're calling my ointments horrible now, are you?" boomed a voice, which made Bilbo jump. Thorin, who was leaning against one of the pillars, rolled his eyes, and Bilbo turned to see a heavy-set Dwarf walking up, with thick silver hair and curling braids in his beard. The healer beside him stuttered, but the large Dwarf merely shooed him away and looked down his large nose at Bilbo, who was beginning to feel very nervous indeed.

"So this is the Hobbit," the Dwarf said, and Bilbo felt a vague shift of irritation.

"And you're a Dwarf, so let's be done with the obvious," he snapped without thinking, then covered his mouth.

The heavy Dwarf let out a bark of laughter, and beyond him, Thorin stared at Bilbo. "A feisty lad! I am Óin, head healer of this lot, at your service, Mister Baggins. You're a slippery one," he tsked, picking up the mint ointment. Then he gave Bilbo a look. "Off with your shirt, then."

Instantly, Bilbo was on his guard. He shot a glance at Thorin, then at the other healers, who were far enough away that they might not notice, but Thorin and Óin would both be able to see his scars perfectly well. Thorin had already seen them, but Bilbo was hesitant. Keeping his clothes on seemed to be the only way to protect himself.

Óin must have seen his look toward Thorin, because he turned and frowned at the King. "Begging your pardon, Your Majesty, but I've a patient to see, so we'd like some privacy. Tolin! Bring the curtain!"

Another Dwarf, in the same dark brown and green robes as the other healers, came and pulled a large sheet around, blocking the view of Bilbo and Óin from everybody else. Thorin seemed uncertain, but after a moment he looked at Bilbo.

"You are welcome to walk around the camp as you wish, Master Baggins. If you need anything, you need only ask, and we will provide. I will be in meetings for the afternoon, but my tent will be empty if you would like to rest." He nodded to Óin and swept out of the room, and for a moment Bilbo felt guilty for making him leave, but he was glad for the privacy.

Óin snorted and gave him another look, so Bilbo obediently pulled his shirt off, wincing slightly. The Dwarf clucked his tongue and reaching down touch the burned marks lightly, making Bilbo flinch. Then Óin dipped his fingers into the minty ointment and began to spread the paste across Bilbo's chest. Bilbo sighed as the cool substance touched his chest, breathing in the strong scent. When was the last time he had smelled mint?

"This wouldn't be so bad if you'd come to us first thing," Óin said, and Bilbo scowled a bit.

"Your healers are overbearing," he muttered, and Óin laughed again.

"Just trying to do their jobs! You're a right mess, all skin and bones and all these wounds, and if my ears don't deceive me, you've been in the mess hall with those gluttons, haven't you? I'll put a tea together for the ache you'll have in your stomach later, undoubtedly," Óin said, and despite his large presence, Bilbo could not help but relax.

"I would appreciate that," he said after a moment, and Óin gave him a smile.

"Not a problem, lad. You're stubborn, but not as stubborn as some of my other patients! Can't get them to sit for longer than five minutes," the healer sighed, and as if on cue, a long litany of Dwarvish curse words burst out from the other side of the tent, followed by the sound of someone stomping away.

"See?" Óin said, his eyes twinkling, and Bilbo could not help but laugh. Óin seemed to know exactly how to deal with recalcitrant Dwarves, so a moody Hobbit was likely nothing to worry over. Bilbo felt better already, and he gave Óin a smile in gratitude.

"I really am grateful, Master Óin," he said quietly, and Óin gruffly nodded, his fingers drifting a bit lower. Bilbo started and looked down, realizing Óin was looking at his worst scar.

AZOG

"Funny thing, that," Óin muttered, and Bilbo tensed up despite himself, grabbing at Óin's hand, but the Dwarf did not pull away just yet. If he did not let go now -- "That Orc did the same thing to Thorin's father and grandfather, only on their heads... and in Khuzdul letters. But these are Westron letters."

Azog had done the same before? Well, that explained Thorin's and Bofur's expressions on seeing the scar, when they first found him. What Thorin must have thought, to see Azog's name on a Hobbit... Now, if only Óin would stop touching his scar, maybe he would not immediately run out the tent and refuse to see another Dwarf healer ever again.

But after a moment, Óin sighed and stepped back, pulling his hand away. "Sorry, lad, it's just... odd. The Defiler was a bastard, though, and I think we'll all sleep better for your actions. Now, I've got... well, I've been working on a few things over the years, and one of them is something that might help with that, make it better, heal the skin there. It's got almond oil and some aloe, a few other things... would you like to try it? Haven't tested it too much, but it does work, and I can put it together here."

Bilbo stared at him, his eyes slowly widening. In a second he forgave Óin for touching the hated scar, if it meant that his worst shame might go away, might lessen even a bit. "Really?" he whispered, scarcely believing, and Óin gave him a long look, almost pitying, but by this point, Bilbo did not care.

"I'll make some up myself and send it over to Thorin's tent later, alright? Now put your shirt back on, and let's check your head again."

For the rest of the time he was in the healers' tent, Bilbo was quiet, obedient, and careful not to complain. After more muttering and tsking, Óin pronounced him fine and told him the medicines would be in Thorin's tent in a few hours, so he should go and relax for a while. When Bilbo walked out of the healer's tent, he did so with hope in his heart and a small smile on his face.

~

Days passed, and slowly, surely, Bilbo began to heal. While Thorin continued his meetings with commanders from afar, Bilbo rested and ate, putting on more weight and losing a bit of the skeletal look that had lingered about him for years. He spent most of his time asleep, recovering from the shock, but some days he would linger in the healers' tent, talking to Óin, and once or twice a day, he would meet Bofur and Bifur, who would attempt to stuff him full of delicious fatty foods until the healers found out and scolded them. He slept more easily each night, but sometimes he woke with a cry, and other times he would stir and be eased back to sleep by soft humming.

Every day, Thorin watched, taking care of the Hobbit from afar. He did not press Bilbo, and truthfully he was much too busy to spend every moment worrying about him, but he made sure that his cousins and friends kept an eye on the Hobbit, so that he did not slip away. His time in meetings was fruitful, and though he was exhausted when he crept into bed, silently so that he did not wake his guest, he did not mind waking when he heard soft whimpers in the middle of the night.

A soft song, a gentle hand -- Thorin treated Bilbo just as he had his nephews once upon a time, when they were small and prone to night terrors. Bilbo's tiny figure, which gained weight and strength every day, was nothing like a Dwarf child's (Thorin had been stunned one day to realize that Bilbo was not that much shorter than him) but still Thorin felt concern for the Hobbit who had saved his life.

So he made sure Bilbo was never wanting. In between meetings, he looked in on the Hobbit himself, and he spoke with Bofur and Bifur, who were happy to talk to him about Bilbo's eating habits and how he was warming to them. He spoke with Óin every day about the ointments, teas, and medicines he was giving Bilbo, and when he had moments alone, he plotted.

He had promised to send Bilbo home, after all. He would keep that promise, and every other one he had made.

The Dwarves who had come to his aid from afar were already leaving. They would take with them news of Thorin's victory, and hopefully soon, more Dwarves would come to rebuild Khazad-dûm into the mighty empire it had once been. There was still the question of who would lead any colonies that formed here, but many Dwarves had proven their valor and leadership in the war, and so Thorin had a few ideas of whom to entrust with rebuilding Khazad-dûm. He would return to Erebor in time; for now, there was still much to do, soldiers to command and the dead to bury, a Hobbit to send home, and a Wizard to find.

There had been no sign of Gandalf since he had disappeared nearly a week ago, and no more quakes or roars from Durin's Bane. Thorin wanted to go after Gandalf, but Balin and Dwalin held him back, insisting that he was needed here. So Thorin waited through meetings and plans, decrees and ceremonies, while he worried that the Wizard had fallen too far for mortals to reach.

~

For six days they fought, darkness to light, fire to fire, evil to good. Blow after blow, deep into the caves of Moria where no light had ever touched, and every moment was a test of Gandalf's courage and patience. His strength held true, though, and yet it seemed that every step he took was another step toward his doom. He could feel his time nearing, with each faltering breath, with each battle cry, and he silently pleaded to those who had first breathed life into him to give him just a moment longer, so that he could defeat the corrupted spirit and protect the land he held so dear to his heart --

And they granted him those moments, granted him the power he needed. Through fire and ice, from darkness to light they fought -- from deep within the caves of Moria to the highest peak of the Misty Mountains, they chased each other, each desperate to win, to achieve victory.

Yet Gandalf felt a strangeness in his heart, as if he had walked these steps before, but of course he had not -- perhaps it was that he had not walked them yet. Such thoughts did not linger for long, not when Durin's Bane roared and cursed him, called out dark horrors that made Gandalf cringe -- but was this not his choice, his duty? Only four others in the world like him, and none close enough to assist -- even Saruman who had pronounced his interest in the Dwarves' march foolish would have come, but Gandalf had no time to send for help.

This battle was his own to fight, the corrupted spirit of his kin for him to defeat -- to send back to the farthest realms where it might be cleansed, sealed away, or given to death for an eternal rest.

So he fought, and at last, as the very last bit of power in him burst out in a final blow, he won. The Balrog fell from the cliffside and landed on the stone peaks below, breaking its hold on life, and the most evil of auras -- the aura of terror which had haunted Moria for centuries -- faded away. Defeated was the Balrog, and Gandalf had his victory.

Yet Gandalf fell as well, to the snow which blew cold against his body. Staring up into the white, he felt a softness around him, a gentle touch to his cheek, and he smiled, the deep pains and wounds in his frail body fading away. His Lady may have mercy on his poor old soul yet, and Gandalf -- Olórin, she whispered, smiling -- knew that all he had done was enough.

Carefully, softly, gently, he was carried away into the bright unknown, and Gandalf the Grey knew no more.

Chapter Text

When he opens his eyes again, he is kneeling on his little cushion by Azog's throne. A sharp tug on his hair lets him know that his master is not at all pleased by his dozing off. He had dreamed of something nice, too -- of a tall Dwarf with blue eyes and a soft bed of clean blankets.

He sits up straight and puts on a blank expression, but the Orc commanders who must have been groveling for some transgression or another are smirking and snickering, muttering foul things about him to each other. The instant one of them says thos-karkû, Azog barks a command at them, and they all scuttle off to prepare for something, Bilbo had missed it -- oh, they are having a hunt tomorrow.

Bilbo looks forward to it, then. Two, three, maybe even four whole days of peace without Azog.

Until then, he has to deal with his master's temper. As soon as the commanders are gone, Azog is out of the stone chair, dragging Bilbo by his hair out of the room. Bilbo whimpers and grabs onto his thick wrists, but Azog continues to stalk through the halls, even though the Orcs around them laugh and make nasty comments.

They reach their room, and Azog pushes Bilbo inside first, making him trip over his chain, but Azog catches him before he can hit the floor.

"You embarrass me," his master mutters, and Bilbo shudders, looking away and pulling out of Azog's grip.

"I didn't mean to doze off," he begins, but Azog has no patience for him, merely picks him up and carries him over to the bed, drops him on the torn furs and sneers down at him.

"In front of my commanders, you fall asleep. You will be punished," Azog growls, and despite pretending for years that he cannot understand, Bilbo's eyes widen at the threat in that voice. He backs away, but Azog kneels down and grabs his chain, yanking him forward.

"I will make you beg, my pain-bearer," Azog murmurs, and it does not take much before Bilbo begins to scream --

~

"NOOO!" he shrieked, writhing, and he felt hands on his shoulders and heard a deep voice, and it only heightened his terror. He beat against his tormentor's chest, trying to dig his fingernails in, trying to injure him enough to get away, but then thick arms pulled him up and into a warm embrace -- against a chest smaller than he was used to, not so wide, and covered in cloth.

Cloth? His master was wearing... a shirt?

Bilbo opened his eyes and looked up, and instead of Azog's fierce grin, he found Thorin Oakenshield staring at him with wide eyes. The visage shocked him, and he froze in the act of hitting his captor, long enough for Thorin to grab his wrists and hold him still -- but his touch was gentle, light, and Bilbo realized he could pull away. Oddly enough, this calmed Bilbo, to the point that Thorin could lower his arms and help him sit up, and Bilbo did nothing to fight him.

When Thorin asked, "Are you alright?" in a quiet voice, Bilbo was distressed to the point that he burst into tears. He hid his face in his hands and sobbed, hating himself for being so affected by his nightmares, for hitting Thorin, even for waking him. He had woken with nightmares during other nights in this tent, but never with a scream, never to the point of disturbing his tent-mate.

Thorin said nothing, but a hand came to rest on Bilbo's shoulder, and though he first tensed, he appreciated the warmth, even leaning into the hand a bit. The chance for comfort from a real person was too much for him to deny himself, even though it shamed him and made him very nervous. He trusted that Thorin would not hurt him, though.

"'m sorry," he whispered, and the hand squeezed his shoulder. "I can't... I can't stop thinking about it, dreaming about him. I didn't mean to wake you," he said, voice muffled by his hands, and he felt those broad fingers spread over his thin skin like a blanket. Then the hand retreated, and Bilbo felt impossibly alone for a moment that stretched like eternity.

Then the hand returned with its pair to Bilbo's wrists, and his breath hitched. Slowly, gently, his hands were pulled away from his face. Bilbo looked up in confusion, blinking through his bleary gaze to see Thorin kneeling in front of him. Those impossibly blue eyes were somewhat dark, but Bilbo could sense nothing but a soft compassion from Thorin, who gave him a small smile.

Slowly, carefully, to the point that Bilbo wondered if Thorin was alright, Thorin pulled him forward, and when Bilbo's head hit the blue silk of the Dwarf's shirt, he realized that Thorin was being gentle for him, as if the smallest spook would scare him off. He realized how tense he was and how warm Thorin felt, and he felt his tears return, but he swallowed against the hot heat, against the burn in his eyes, not wanting to ruin Thorin's shirt.

Then Thorin's arm touched his back, and he felt fingers curl into his hair, which reminded him for an awful moment of Azog -- but no, there were no claws scraping over his scalp, just blunt fingertips. Thorin was not Azog, would never be Azog, would never even attempt to be Azog, and Bilbo felt his breath seize in his chest, knowing that he would never have to wake up in fear of Azog's temper ever again.

"He is gone, Bilbo," Thorin said quietly, and Bilbo could hear the rumble of his deep voice against his ear. He turned his face into Thorin's shirt, shoulders shaking, and said nothing in reply, the tears falling from his eyes as something in him broke. He could not hold them back anymore.

Thorin said nothing else, merely held Bilbo while he sobbed, that gentle hand sometimes carding through his hair, sometimes rubbing Bilbo's back. He did not hug Thorin back -- he did not dare -- but Bilbo leaned into him all the same, taking the comfort as it was given. They sat there for a long time, until Bilbo's tears slowed and all he could feel was a wary emptiness, sore and muted. He wondered if he had been in denial this past week. He wondered when it would stop feeling like a dream.

"I want to go home," Bilbo whispered, and then let out a pitiful noise when he realized what he had said. There was no home for him. He had nowhere to go.

The thought made his eyes sting again, but he did not have the energy to cry anymore. Thorin did not respond, and Bilbo was grateful, knowing that hearing Thorin affirm his thoughts would make it worse. Instead he rested, lulled by Thorin's warmth. His eyes kept drifting closed, but he forced them open again and again, not wanting to fall asleep on the Dwarf King who had shown him such kindness. A vaguely familiar tune caught his attention, and he lifted his head a bit, blinking sleepily.

"What is that you keep humming?" he asked softly, and Thorin's hand paused in rubbing his back.

"Something I used to sing for my nephews," Thorin said quietly, and Bilbo blinked, surprised to find out that Thorin had nephews. Did he have no sons? "I put it together when they could not sleep... Is it bothersome?"

Bilbo shook his head slightly, feeling just tired enough that he did not stop his mouth when it moved next. "Would you sing it? Not just hum..."

There was silence for a moment, and Bilbo shifted a bit, wondering if he had pressed too far, before Thorin's deep voice began to rumble in his chest again, the soft vibrations soothing to Bilbo's ear. A small smile found its way to his lips, and Bilbo's eyes drifted closed again as he listened, remembering a time when his father would carry him around the house and sing to him when he was too excited to fall asleep. He imagined Thorin doing the same to a young Dwarf, and the thought made him oddly happy.

"Night is nigh, and you should sleep.
My dear boy, no thoughts should creep
Through your head, where dreams delight,
So rest now, 'fore morning seeps
Into the night.
Lay down your weary head, child.
Stone sings and trees rustle wildly
Ere dawn comes, and you rise.
So rest now, with dreams beguiled.
Now close your eyes."

Thorin sang softly, and when he looked down again, the last note fading from his throat, Bilbo had fallen asleep, a faint smile on his face and tear tracks on his cheeks. Thorin felt an odd softness in his chest at the sight, making him miss his nephews briefly. He was careful in wiping away Bilbo's tears and tucking him beneath the furs again, and though he was tired, he did not fall asleep easily when he returned to his own bed. He lay there for quite some time, his thoughts returning again and again to the scream that had woken him, though he tried to think of anything but Bilbo crying for help.

~

The next morning, Bilbo woke just as Thorin was leaving, and he tripped as soon as he met Thorin's blue eyes, remembering vividly how warm Thorin had been last night and the depth of his voice as he had sung to Bilbo. He muttered good morning and tried not to think about how red his face was, but miraculously, Thorin only greeted him in return and left for the day, much to Bilbo's relief.

He poured himself some water and leaned against the table, pressing the glass to his warm face and letting himself think. More than a week after he had been liberated from Azog, nine days after Azog had fallen to his sword, Bilbo still could not believe how much his life had changed.

He was allowed to eat as much as he wanted. He had a warm, soft bed in an area all of his own, and he was encouraged to sleep often. He was not forced to do anything against his will. He was not a pet anymore. He was not a slave anymore.

He was gaining weight. The food the Dwarves gave him was delicious, and even though he had given himself several stomach aches from eating too much, he still could not resist that extra helping of stew or that last potato. He had wondered where the Dwarves got all this food, and Bofur had explained that during the war, they regularly sent out parties to trade with cities of Men for supplies, easily paid for by the gold found in the Orcs' and goblins' treasure hoards. So Bilbo paid it little mind and enjoyed what they gave him, though he mostly avoided the larger tents and busiest meal times. There was only so much Dwarf singing he could take in a day.

He was not sneered at everywhere he went. After the first day he had woken, the Dwarves no longer always called out to him or cheered when he entered the room. Some of the Dwarves still smiled at him and tried to chat with him whenever he ventured near enough for their notice, but Bilbo noticed that not all the Dwarves cared or worried about him. They merely acknowledged him and continued with whatever job they had, and Bilbo was fine with that. He was treated with respect, not ignored or scorned like the Orcs had. That moment he tried not to think about, but which everybody else tried to talk about, had made him something of a hero -- which completely bewildered him. All of the Dwarves around him were warriors and powerful in their own right. Each one of them had protected or saved someone before. Yet he was special, different -- because he had killed the leader of the Orcs and protected the leader of the Dwarves. So strange. But he did not resist it too much -- it was nice not to be glared at.

He was not molested. Not a single Dwarf attempted to hurt him, ridicule him, degrade him, or force him to do anything he did not want to do (aside from the healers, but that was part of their job). No one gave him nasty looks or threatened to hurt him. No one spit at him, or muttered thos-karkû -- and wasn't that a culture shock, to hear Westron and occasionally Khuzdul everywhere, instead of Orc speech? Azog had forbidden his clan to speak in anything but their own rudimentary language, which was how Bilbo had learned so much of it.

He was engaging in normal interactions with relatively normal people. The cousins Bofur and Bifur would find him and drag him off to supper or lunch or whatever meal they thought he was missing, and they would spend the entire meal telling him stories about Erebor or regaling him with songs that made Bilbo want to cry, they were so bawdy. He suspected they had been put up to it by Thorin, as he saw Bofur go into Thorin's tent one morning, but he did not mind that much. He thought Bofur and Bifur were being very kind, as was Óin, who was quite content to prattle on to Bilbo about herbs and salves when he was not busy taking care of his patients.

Most surprising of all, he was sleeping. Sleep, for the past seven years, had been an act of mercy by his body to give him some reprieve from Azog. He had slept only because of exhaustion and survival. His mind was always strained from it, but Bilbo's body had been conditioned over the years to handle the pitiful amount of sleep and the high amount of stress he experienced. But now -- now sleep was a gift, where he spent long hours simply snoozing, napping away the day, relaxing into the soft warmth of the bed Thorin had put together for him.

Out of consideration for his privacy, Thorin had set up a screen in the tent to give Bilbo some semblance of a room for himself, which had surprised him, but he was thankful for it. He could change and sleep in relative peace, the thick walls of the tent enough to keep out most of the noises during the day, and Thorin never disturbed him if he could help it.

He thought about Thorin often. The Dwarf King confused and entranced him. Always watching, always worrying -- Bilbo could tell when someone's attention was on him, after years of training his senses to watch out for Azog's shifts in moods -- and yet Thorin never pushed him, never treated him as anything more than a respectable guest. The King was obviously keeping a close eye on him, but Thorin never attempted to control him.

It was different, and it made him all the more aware of how strange his thoughts had been, to compare Thorin to Azog. They were nothing alike. Thorin was not looking to push himself into Bilbo's life -- and it gave Bilbo courage. He had worried, in the back of his mind, that he was trying to find a new 'master,' a new person to cling to, but Thorin had removed himself from that position, keeping his distance and treating Bilbo politely.

It was nice, not to have someone trying to consume him.

In many ways it felt like a dream, still. Yet when he slept, he usually did not dream of Azog's halls, but of his family and the Shire, normal dreams for him. Some nights he woke from strange dreams that he could not remember, but he did not mind these, as he did not think they were bad, just strange.

He thought about his former life often, though. Every moment that he was not with a Dwarf, he thought about Azog, about those last moments of his life. Azog haunted him -- and Bilbo sometimes worried that his master's ghost would come after him and drive him to insanity.

Hence the nightmares, but Bilbo wondered if maybe, just maybe, he would be able to deal with them better now, after hearing Thorin sing a lullabye for him. The thought made his face turn pink again in embarrassment, and he debated going right back to bed for a moment. His stomach growled then, deciding for him, and he sighed and looked around for the sweater Thorin had given him to replace the one lost in the battle, hoping that there was bacon this morning.

~

Watching Bilbo the Hobbit shyly pass a bowl of potatoes to Bifur during breakfast, Bofur was gladder than ever for his inherent charm. It had not been easy, gaining enough of Bilbo's trust to the point that he would seek them out during meals, but today Bilbo had walked right to their table without any waving or calling. It was good to see him opening up to them.

Even as a lad, Bofur had been considered charming. All of the progeny of the line of Úr were charismatic and genial to the point that every single adult, save one, was married, and their large family was full of children and happiness. Bofur was the only Dwarf in his family, other than the children, who did not have a spouse.

He was just fine with that, too; he made a good living as a soldier and enjoyed his work protecting the city. Despite having every bit as much charm as his brother and cousins, he had never desired getting married and settling down. In a family that prided itself on having lots of children each generation, he was considered something of the black sheep, though they all loved him despite his choices.

It could be stifling, though, which was why he had signed up for the war effort when Thorin's decree had been posted. A chance for adventure and battle, not to mention a handsome reward when he returned? No way would Bofur not take that advantage. He had been surprised, though, when his cousin Bifur had joined him, despite having a bondmate.

What about Boro? he had asked one night after a particularly awful fight in the beginning, his gaze fixed on Bifur's forehead, which had nearly missed gaining an axe for a decoration.

He found a whole new part of his caves to dig through before we left, told me he'd give me lots of pretty beryls when I got back, Bifur said, rubbing at his forehead, still a bit bloody beneath the bandages.

But he's your bonded. The war's not worth losing him, Bofur said, confused.

You need someone to look after you, too, Bofur, Bifur grinned, and Bofur remembered uncomfortably that the axe had been meant for him, before Bifur had shoved him out of the way.

He thought back to that moment often, and each time it left a happy ache in his chest. Happiness, because of the proof of his family's love for him, and an ache that sometimes left him breathless, that he had drawn one of his family members into a war he had chosen for himself. Bifur had nearly died that day, and so Bofur had taken it upon himself to protect him as hard as he could, even though Bifur was older and technically a better fighter.

But Bofur loved him, and he would do right by Boro and send Bifur home to him, whole and healthy.

It was a considerable relief when, the morning after the final battle with Azog's clan, he woke up in one piece, and he turned over to find Bifur snoring away, looking whole and healthy as he had wanted. Both of them had made it through the war, and he would return to Erebor a richer man, in both reward and experience. Best of all, Bifur would go home to his bonded and be rewarded in love and gems, and Bofur would smile and nod and feel a little sad that he had no one to welcome him home, save his family.

It seemed, though, that he at least would not be returning immediately. Thorin, who had been the commander of Bofur's regiment back in the day, had pulled him aside and asked a personal request, which Bofur was determined to fulfill:

Take care of the Hobbit. Keep him safe, help him eat, take him to the healers, watch over him. Escort him home.

The Hobbit in question was an interesting fellow. Painfully shy, terrified of most of the Dwarves, skinny as a rail, and yet he had just enough of a spark left in him after years of being a slave for Bofur to like him. Bifur, who had noticed his efforts and joined him quickly enough, had thought the Hobbit a little simple, but Bofur believed otherwise. He likened Bilbo's behavior to the Dwarves to his own reactions to his family, after being gone a long time and returning home to every single relative swarming his small house and offering him every foodstuff under the mountain. He could see how overwhelming it might be to someone used to solitude. Bilbo was just shy, and Bofur was glad to help him.

It amused him, though, to see the little Hobbit hiding from the Dwarves, who always cheered for him when he entered the food tent -- but then, most of the Dwarves in the army liked to cheer for everybody who came into the tent. His fellow soldiers were nice folk, rowdy but good at heart, and Bofur had wondered once if Bilbo realized that there were other 'heroes' in the war that were being cheered. But he never said anything about it, considering the poor Hobbit's terribly low self-esteem.

It might help Bilbo, to be celebrated for something other than surviving an Orc master.

Sometimes he thought about the painful scar he had seen on Bilbo's stomach, that first time that Thorin brought him out of a bedroom in the back of Moria's halls. He never mentioned it, never even told Bifur about it, only ignored the thought and offered Bilbo another story, since the Hobbit seemed to like them. As far as missions went, this one was particularly easy, and it was nice to make someone happy. Most of his nieces and nephews had outgrown his stories by now, after all.

He grinned when he saw Bifur trying to sneak some potatoes onto Bilbo's plate, which already had enough from his own efforts to fill it without the Hobbit noticing. At least his cousin agreed with him that the Hobbit was too skinny. Between the two of them constantly foisting food onto Bilbo's plate (save the mushrooms, which Bofur had noticed that Bilbo would not touch, no matter how hungry he was), it would take no time at all to fatten Bilbo up. He had to hide his smile behind his ale when Bilbo noticed Bifur's movement and became flustered.

"Oh, no, Mister Bifur, I cannot possible eat all of those, please --"

"Ye need more starch, Mister Baggins! Look at that belly, nothing there!" Bifur said, and Bofur sat up a bit and shot his cousin a look when he noticed Bifur's hand move as if to poke the Hobbit. Bifur gave him a confused look over Bilbo's head but stopped, and Bofur sighed to himself. He loved his cousin, but he was a very friendly fellow, and it was hard to keep him from bothering the Hobbit too much.

Bilbo, thankfully, had not noticed. "I have quite enough, thank you! If I eat any more of those, Healer Óin will fuss at me again," he said, his small voice becoming a bit firmer, and with a sigh, Bifur subsided.

"Jus' trying to help, Mister Baggins," Bifur said, and Bilbo relented after a moment, giving him a small smile.

"I'm grateful, Mister Bifur," the Hobbit said, making Bofur smile again.

Then their attention was caught by a cheer, and they all looked over to see Thorin entering the tent with Balin and Dwalin. The King waved a hand distractedly and went to eat, never one to stand on ceremony during meal times, and Bofur returned his attention to his plate. He raised an eyebrow when he saw that Bilbo's cheeks were rather pink, but he said nothing, refusing to speculate on how affected the young Hobbit was by their King.

The three of them sat in contented silence for a few minutes, as Bofur and Bifur returned their attentions to their own meals, and Bilbo picked at his plate. After a time, Bofur noticed how lost the Hobbit's expression looked, and he finished off his bite and nudged Bilbo's plate closer to him.

"Have some more of the chicken stew, Mister Baggins. Wouldn't want Óin to come fuss at us, too," he said, giving Bilbo a wink, which made the Hobbit smile at him, just enough that Bofur could tell it was real.

For a moment, anyway, as the expression faded quickly, but Bilbo dutifully took a bite of the stew. "Mister Bofur," he said quietly, hesitantly, and Bofur raised an eyebrow.

"Yes?"

Bilbo seemed to blush, but he continued anyway, his voice getting a little braver. "What... um, well, what is Erebor like? I know it's underground, but I can't imagine..."

Ahh. That was an easy enough question, and one Bofur was pleased to answer. "Well, Erebor is... hm, you know how the halls of Moria were? Bigger than that, and it goes all through the mountains and deep into the earth, so deep you can see the earth's fire-blood some places. Different caves are kind of like different towns, different neighborhoods, where people live anyway. Some folk who do really well have their homes built into the rock high in the caves, while the poorer folk live closer to the bottom of the halls. But there are roads and streets connecting everybody, and it's not like we've got anyone who's really poor, you know?" he said, smiling when he saw how interested Bilbo looked.

"Really?" the Hobbit asked.

"Aye," Bofur said, and Bifur nodded along with him. "Erebor's not like cities of Men. We don't have homeless, don't have too much violence or anybody who starves. Somewhere in the city, there's always a job, yeah? So even if you haven't got much money, you can still go to the mines or the forges or the shops and work for a while, and no one's really badly off."

"Don't forget the markets," Bifur said, drinking from his tankard. Bilbo's eyes widened, so Bofur agreeably continued.

"The markets, aye! Erebor's got three massive halls dedicated completely to selling an' buying. You can get to 'em from the main hall, which can connect to jus' about anywhere in the city. Manar-dûm, that's the first market, has your food and household goods --"

"We get our vegetables and grains from the farmers of Dale, an' most of our meat, too," Bifur interjected.

"And there's a lot of Dwarves that go foragin', make their own spices and ales, so that's a good place to visit," Bofur said, giving Bilbo a grin. "Then the second hall, Torvîd-dûm, that's got all your craftwork. A lot of people sell wares from Dale, but most Men don't come into the city, so most of the stall workers go to Dale's markets a few times a week to trade. Anyone who makes anything sells their stuff there, 'cept the furniture an' some of the finer smithers."

"Do Dwarves really do that much craftwork?" Bilbo asked, his meal forgotten by now, so Bofur nudged his plate again and waited till Bilbo had taken another bite before he answered.

"Tons of it, yeah. Dwarves are masters of metalcraft and smithing, and we've got an excellent demand for weapons and jewelry of Dwarvish make. That's what Torvîd-dûm's mainly for, anyway. All the smithers and crafters, they put out their wares, and the traders come buy from them, then go travelin' to sell them. The crafters get a percentage of the total profit afterwards, so everyone's happy at the end of the day," Bofur said, and Bifur shot him a grin.

"Don' forget the last one, Bofur. Can't leave Mister Baggins wondering. Here, listen to me tell it, I've spent a lot of time there sellin'," Bifur said, and Bilbo turned his gaze around to the other Dwarf curiously, making Bofur roll his eyes.

"The last market is the smallest, but it's got the best stuff, in my opinion," Bifur said grandly, holding Bilbo's attention easily. "It's called Buknad-dûm, and everyone there sells something really special. Furniture, or exotic things, right, like herbs from the west or yellow diamonds from the Blue Mountains. Stuff that people've put a lot of effort to make or get. The really good weapons, the kind you gotta work hard for, and the good engagement broaches and rings. That's what my husband does," Bifur said proudly, and Bofur resisted the urge to roll his eyes again.

Bilbo's eyes were very wide. "Your husband?" he asked, and Bofur frowned a bit, wondering if he had misheard Bilbo's hesitance.

"Yep, my Boro! He mines for one year, crafts the next, then goes back to mining," Bifur said, beaming. "Has a small cave that's been in the family for years, produces great green and blue beryls. Makes the best emeralds, aye, and very pretty river-colored gems. Verra' popular with the ladies! He works with his brother, too, and they learned from their da, who made the broach that King Thráin gave to Thorin's mother!" Bifur looked proud about this, and Bofur felt rather glad that Bifur would get to see Boro soon.

Bilbo looked enthralled, but also a little disturbed, so Bofur cut in with an easy smile. "When he's at home, Bifur sells the broaches while Boro's craftin', sometimes. Buknad-dûm's a good place to go when you're ready to settle down. You can also hire cavers, yeah, the ones that can make you a real nice home for a new family."

"Home," Bilbo echoed softly, his gaze turning down to his plate, and Bofur raised an eyebrow, watching him curiously. Then Bilbo lifted his head and looked at Bofur, his expression strangely solemn.

"What's your home like?" he asked, and Bofur blinked, scratching at his beard.

"Mine? Well, it's nothing special, just a little house a few miles down from the palace. Gotta live close to work, yeah? It has a nice view of one of the bigger suburbs, so I like it. There's a study where I keep my books and a couch in case a friend comes to visit, and my own little kitchen, since I've only got me, so it's not too big," he said, watching Bilbo and wondering at his thoughts.

Bilbo offered him a vague smile. "Do you miss it?"

Bofur considered Bilbo's expression for a moment, but he nodded genially. "Yeah, I do. 's nice to get away, but I like going home, at the end of it all. Even if my family's there, though I gotta love 'em." Bilbo said nothing, his smile fading again, and Bofur leaned over a bit. "Okay there, Mister Baggins?"

Bilbo looked up again and gave Bofur another smile, though it seemed very sad, enough that Bofur immediately wanted to smack himself, for talking about his home to a Hobbit that probably did not have one anymore.

"I'm alright, Mister Bofur," Bilbo said quietly, and Bofur's smile faded a bit, wondering if he had crossed a line. Then Bilbo shook his head, as if reading Bofur's expression, and the Hobbit's smile became a little more real. "Thank you for telling me about Erebor. It sounds lovely," he said quietly, and Bofur felt a little better for it.

"I hope you get to see it someday," he offered, and the Hobbit looked thoughtful for a moment.

"Maybe I will," Bilbo said, and returned to his plate, only to realize that Bifur had snuck two thick slices of ham between his potatoes and his chicken stew. Bofur caught the twinkle in his cousin's eye and laughed, pleased at Bilbo's dismayed expression, and he chose to spend the rest of the meal with Bifur urging Bilbo to eat every last bite.

After they were finished, Bifur walking with Bilbo out the entrance, Thorin caught his attention with a subtle wave, and Bofur nodded briefly before following his cousin and charge. Seemed that Thorin wanted to speak to him later, probably about the Hobbit. For now he would make sure Bilbo got to Óin's tent, then spend the rest of his day helping the others in his regiment pack, since they would be leaving the next day.

Chapter Text

As Bilbo walked away from the food tent, he glanced back and caught Thorin's blue gaze on him, which made him flush again, and he hurried after Bifur. It seemed he would be unable to avoid Thorin after all, even after the first incredibly awkward moments of this morning.

He was grateful, on one hand... but on the other, he was so embarrassed! To be sung to like a fauntling -- and then fall asleep on someone like that, at his age! And on the Dwarf King himself!

Even though it had made him happy... but hopefully he would not have to meet Thorin face to face anytime soon. He did not think he could bear it.

~

It was a busy day for a healer, and as the Head Healer, Óin was busiest of them all, not that it slowed his endless stream of patients. He could feel his age beginning to catch up with him. These past few years, his hearing had begun to get worse, and his braids were already turning gray. It was only a matter of time before he finished this life, but he knew he had a good while left. Best to use it to do good, which was the main reason he had joined this war effort in the first place, even though it had been tough, these past several years.

Constantly taking care of the injured. Sending out teams of his youngest healers to find more herbs deep in the valleys, or even further past the Misty Mountains. Sending valiant Dwarves back home to manage their injuries, or worse, laying black cloths over the dead bodies of Dwarves who had pushed themselves just hard enough. Óin had been a healer for over a hundred years, and he knew how to deal with the injured, how to handle the death.

It was nice, though, that he was able to save some people in the process. Most, actually, considering how many Dwarves had been injured in this war, and how few had died. It was hard at the same time, to see the victims of the war, not just their Dwarves, but also the Hobbits, and especially one Hobbit in particular.

Just before he had planned on looking in on the unconscious patients in the next tent, Óin was visited by the particular Hobbit who had managed to sneak into the war to Thorin's side. Immediately he saw that Bilbo's stomach was just slightly distended beneath his thick sweater, and he muttered to himself, knowing that Bofur and Bifur were to blame. He shot the Hobbit a look and jerked his head toward an empty bed behind the usual curtain, and Bilbo gave him a sheepish smile but obediently trotted over, sitting down and clasping his hands together.

Let's make him wait a bit, Óin thought to himself, going over to his racks of herbs and putting together the usual medicine to soothe the Hobbit's stomach. He was glad, though, because Bilbo had put on a good bit of weight for his size since they had rescued the Hobbits. Óin hoped that the other Hobbits who had left a week ago were doing just as well, considering they had left immediately, but he knew that the outpost near the West-gate would have fed them well for their journey home.

After putting the ointment into a small tin for Bilbo, he walked over to the Hobbit and scowled down at him, though it was mostly for show. Bilbo looked up at him with an innocent expression, knowing this, and Óin sighed and shook his head, earning a smile for his efforts.

"Those two are a bad influence on you," he muttered, and Bilbo actually giggled a bit.

"They're nice, though," the Hobbit said, and Óin shook his head.

"Much too charming for a little thing like you," he said, and crossed his arms. "Shirt off!"

Bilbo rolled his eyes but obeyed, and Óin looked over his body with a critical eye. The skin on his torso was no longer greatly enflamed, and the two wounds on his head were healing very neatly. The bruise on his cheek had nearly faded, and Óin was pleased to see that after several days of use of the salve he had made, the scar tissue on the Hobbit's stomach was beginning to turn soft at the edges. Óin figured that as long as Bilbo kept with the proper treatments, he would be fine by the time he returned to Bree, and though it might take years, that scar would be greatly reduced.

Óin prided himself on his ingenuity for a moment, then began to apply the day's treatments, unwrapping bandages, spreading salves, and putting on new bandages as was required. Bilbo stayed still for him, which pleased Óin, considering how skittish the Hobbit had been in the beginning. As he worked, he and Bilbo chatted about the day, as they were wont to do; the Hobbit had taken a liking to him and seemed more comfortable with him than with other Dwarves, barring Bofur and Bifur, and perhaps Thorin himself.

"There you go, lad," Óin said, and Bilbo nodded and pulled back on his sweater. Óin went to gather the tins and a small scroll, setting them down on the bed beside Bilbo. "Now, I've made up a good bit of medicine for you, and I've written down the recipes and instructions for you. I expect you'll be using them to the letter, yes?" he said ominously, glowering down at Bilbo, who looked rather confused for a moment.

"Of course, Healer Óin, but what you do --" Bilbo started, but he was interrupted by a loud racket as someone stomped into the tent.

"Óin! Where are you? You've got to look at my foot again, King Thorin's asked my regiment to join the first group back home and I want a clean bill of health!" came a voice that made Óin sigh and Bilbo blink in confusion. Around the curtain walked a Dwarf with red hair that was neatly braided into three thick braids with long silver clasps, his thick mustache quivering.

Óin frowned at the newcomer and shook his head. "Nori, I told you two days ago your foot is fine. There's nothing keeping you from marching off to your brothers like the worried nag you are, now shoo! Out of my tent!" he barked, but Nori had a shifty look on his face.

"I cannae go home with an aching foot! It hurt this morning, it did, and if Dori finds any hint of a single injury, you know I'll never hear the end of it! And if my Ori finds out, well, poor boy, he won't --"

Óin held up a hand before Nori could go into a long ramble about his brothers. "I've looked at it every day for two weeks, and it is fine, Nori, really. Now off with you! You're bothering my patients!" he said sharply, gesturing to Bilbo, who looked more fascinated than bothered.

Nori shot the Hobbit a look but dismissed him after only a glance, frowning at Óin. "You're nearly done with him, aren't you? Come now, Óin, just take a look for me."

Óin crossed his arms and stood tall over Nori, scowling down at him. "I have my rounds to make after I finish with Mister Baggins here, so you'll have to wait, Nori. Come back in the morning, and only if it really hurts. Now off with you."

Nori opened his mouth to argue again, but he seemed mollified by the chance to visit tomorrow. It did not take much more to make him leave, and Óin sighed in relief as Nori disappeared out the tent entrance. He walked back over to Bilbo and shook his head.

"Sorry about that, lad. You're free to go now, and be sure to drink that tea for your stomach later. Eat a light supper, you hear me?" he said, shaking his head and knowing that Bofur and Bifur would once again attempt to stuff Bilbo full.

Bilbo hopped off the bed and gathered up his tins, looking after Nori curiously. "You Dwarves sure have a lot of siblings among you," he said thoughtfully, and Óin snorted.

"Aye, we've been a prosperous people, in more ways than one. Nori has it bad, being the middle child with a protective older brother and a sweet younger brother. Close, the three of them, but a headache together. Having my brother here is bad enough. At least Nori's left both of his at home!" he chortled, and Bilbo looked a little confused, but he smiled easily enough.

"Well... thank you for the ointments, Healer Óin," Bilbo said after a moment, nodding to Óin and quietly leaving. Óin watched him thoughtfully, then turned his attention back to his plans for the evening, absently thinking he should catch a meal with Glóin later.

~

Thorin watched as Bofur walked out the door after their meeting, thinking about what Bofur had told him about Bilbo and wondering how the Hobbit would react to this change. Though Bofur was about to find Bilbo and bring him here, Thorin wanted to speak to Bilbo privately as well. He would be sure to speak to Bilbo tonight, if he could manage to return to his tent earlier than usual. His meetings usually kept him up late enough that Bilbo was asleep when he returned.

He was sitting at a table that looked much like the table in his tent, covered in maps and scrolls with plans, attack formations, lists of names, and other such items, along with a large book that held their war accounts, including all of the gold they had recovered and what they had spent on food. He had a good team of Dwarves to manage the books, and it was lucky that they had enough gold with them to repay the Dwarves from the other clans who had joined his war effort.

Across the table sat Balin and Dwalin, his longest and most trusted friends. He could tell that both had opinions on his decision, but time would tell if his friends would speak their thoughts.

"Seems a shame that you're sending the lad off before I get a proper chance to meet him," Dwalin started almost immediately, which did not surprise Thorin.

"He's going to be here soon," Thorin reminded him with a raised eyebrow.

"All the same," Dwalin protested, and beside him Balin chuckled.

"He seems shy, though that's to be expected of a Hobbit," Balin said. Thorin nodded in agreement, though privately he thought that Bilbo was shy for more reasons than that.

"I won't try to intimidate him," Dwalin said with a scowl, and Thorin hid a smile. "I just want to meet the Hobbit that saved Thorin!"

"Of course, of course," Balin nodded agreeably. "You will only stare at him the entire time and ask him abrupt questions whenever you think his guard is down, like you do every person who gets too close to Thorin," he said, and Thorin had to look away to hide his laugh, as Dwalin began to sputter.

"He is an odd little fellow, though," Balin continued over Dwalin's protests. Thorin raised an eyebrow in question, and Balin shrugged a bit. "I only mean -- his knowledge, for one. And his... relationship with the Defiler --"

"Don't," Thorin cut in sharply, giving Balin a frown, "call it a relationship. He was that Orc's slave, nothing more. And you will not speak of that in front of him." Balin stared at him for a moment, his eyes a little wide, but he nodded soon enough, and Thorin was appeased.

"Protective, aren't you," Balin muttered, and Thorin scowled at him while Dwalin watched with interest.

"He is my guest and charge while he is here, and he saved my life, Balin. I will not hear any slander against him," Thorin said, leaning forward, but Balin held up his hands.

"I mean no harm, Thorin. I only think it interesting, that he was clever enough to learn the language of Orcs, and even a bit of Khuzdul. Do you not worry about that? About the poor Dwarf who taught him those letters?" Balin asked.

Thorin sat back in his chair and picked up his ale, a short sigh escaping. "I already told you, Master Baggins said that he only knew the Dwarf as Kadan. That is not one of the family lines of Erebor, so it was likely someone from the Blue Mountains. Mahal rest his soul, but I am grateful that he taught Bilbo, who kept those treasures safe for us."

Balin nodded slowly, but his expression still seemed troubled. "But to give an outsider some of our sacred knowledge --"

"And in doing so, he safeguarded an entire wealth of that knowledge. You saw the scrolls, did you not? They are over a thousand years old, and what ancient knowledge they must hold... To me, they are worth the Hobbit learning the words to protect them," Thorin said, and he saw Dwalin nodding in agreement, though Balin seemed unsure. He did not blame his friend for his opinion, knowing that Balin was wary of sharing the knowledge of their people. Still, it bothered him that Balin would view Bilbo as suspicious. He was a Hobbit, hardly a corrupt creature, unlike the Elves and some of the Men of the world.

Balin sighed and gave Thorin a thoughtful look. "It is already done, so I suppose there is nothing more to say on the subject. After you see the Hobbit off, what will be done here? The other commanders are already leaving with their rewards, and we still need to send a report to Dáin."

Thorin held back a sigh, picking up his ale and swishing it around in the tankard. "I am sending three regiments off tomorrow, you know that. They will return to Erebor with the news, and I've already chosen a group that will go on to the Iron Mountains to visit Dáin," he said, and Dwalin interjected with a thoughtful tone.

"So who are you going to pick to stay in Moria?" he asked, and Thorin stared down at his ale in thought, the answer now clearer to him than it had been months ago when the topic was first brought up, but he was still hesitant.

"I still have not decided... but I was considering Balin," he said lightly, and both of his friends looked at him in surprise.

"My Balin?" Dwalin asked, looking delighted. "My brother would be the best for the position, of course! Though I would miss you, brother, if you stayed."

Balin looked shocked, and Thorin gave him a small smile. "Me? But Thorin..."

"I trust you the most," Thorin said simply. "You are wise and patient, and you have the knowledge these halls will need to be revived. We already have over four hundred Dwarves who have volunteered to stay and help clean, account the treasure, and begin the work needed to bring Khazad-dûm back to its former splendor. I must speak with the representatives of the other clans, but I think they will agree, so long as they have some say... perhaps a council?"

"That sounds wise," Balin said slowly. "We should have a meeting about it soon," he said, seeming to regain his footing, and Thorin sighed at the thought of another meeting.

"Yes, of course. At this rate, it will be next year before all of these meetings are done and I may return home," he said, thinking of his kingdom, and Dwalin shot him a grin.

"Miss the brats, don't you?" he said knowingly, and Thorin rolled his eyes but smiled anyway.

"I'm sure Dís has them well in hand, and Frerin will hopefully have included them in his responsibilities as steward," Thorin said. Dwalin gave him a look, and Thorin snorted. "Of course I miss them! I have never been apart from them this long before. I had to lock them up to keep them from running after me, though I think they would have done well in battle," he said with a grin, thinking of his nephews fondly.

Dwalin nodded, sharing Thorin's grin, and Balin smiled at them both. "It will be good for you, to see Fíli and Kíli again," Dwalin said with a smirk. "Can't have you pining away too long, for your sweet sister-sons --"

"Shut up, Dwalin," Thorin growled, and Dwalin laughed.

"Aye, aye, just teasing, no need to glare at me."

They were interrupted by a throat clearing at the entrance to the tent, and all three Dwarves looked over to see Bofur and Bilbo Baggins standing there, peering past the cloth cover at them. "Master Baggins!" Thorin said, standing along with Dwalin and Balin, "Bofur, thank you. Come in, have a seat."

Bofur nudged Bilbo, who jumped a bit and entered the tent, walking over to the table and hesitantly sitting down across from Balin and Dwalin, while Bofur took the seat next to him. Bilbo eyed the two brothers warily but gave Thorin a small smile, and Thorin noticed how pink his cheeks were. Likely still embarrassed about last night, then.

"I hope you are doing well, Master Baggins?" Thorin asked, and Bilbo nodded after a moment.

"I'm fine," he said quietly, and Thorin eyed him for a moment but accepted the answer.

"I am certain you are curious why I have called you here. I believe it is time that you return to your kin," Thorin said, and Bilbo looked at him in surprise and a little trepidation.

"Go... back? This isn't, um, about..." Bilbo's cheeks turned a bit pinker, and Thorin figured he meant last night. He shook his head, ignoring the curious looks of Balin, Dwalin, and Bofur.

"No, just that it is the right time... and I have my promise to keep to you, after all. Healer Óin and I agree that you are healthy enough for the journey back. You were worse off than the others, after all, and barely more than skin and bones. Tomorrow, I will be sending off three of my regiments back to Erebor, and when they leave, you will depart as well, with Bofur as your guide," he said, gesturing to Bofur, who nodded and grinned at Bilbo.

The Hobbit looked lost and a little bit happy, but also anxious, likely at the thought of returning to the Shire after years of being away. After last night's heartbreaking words of I want to go home, and the sound Bilbo had made afterwards, Thorin could understand the anxiety in his expression.

He had no idea what Bilbo's people were doing, only that they were living in the hills around Bree, as well as in the parts of the Shire that had been ravaged the least, mostly where their Thain lived. Last he had heard, most of the Shire was still unlivable, the Orcs' invasion having left the farm land blackened from fire and gore, the many hills raided and some even crushed, the little towns burnt.

He wondered if there was anything else he could do for the Hobbits, though he knew it was up to the Thain to determine his people's future. The thought of the Thain reminded him of a decision he had made a while ago, and he stood to walk over to another table, picking up a heavy scroll wrapped with a thick blue ribbon. He carried it over to Bilbo and laid it down in front of him, sitting down again.

"This is a message I would like you to carry to your Thain, Master Baggins, if you would be willing. The chest that you saved in Moria's library was already sent ahead, so you will not have much else to carry," Thorin said, and Bilbo nodded slowly.

"I will take it to him," he said quietly, and Thorin watched him for a moment, studying his expressions.

"It will take about two days to reach the outpost we have near the West-gate, and they will supply you for the journey. I am not sure if they will have ponies, but Bofur will protect you during the journey, no matter how long it takes. He has also been given leave to stay in Bree and assist your people if the winter is too harsh this year," Thorin continued after a moment.

Bilbo looked up at Bofur in surprise. "Don't you want to go back to Erebor?" he asked Bofur, and Bofur smiled at him.

"Waiting a bit longer doesn't bother me, Mister Baggins, no worries. I'm glad to help. Bifur will be sure to tell my family," he said. Bilbo watched him a moment, then looked back at Thorin.

"Thank you, Your Majesty... for everything," he said quietly, and Thorin nodded slowly.

"I must thank you as well, Master Baggins, for what you have done for me and my people. Neither of us would be here today, if it were not for each other," he said, and Bilbo's eyes brightened a bit, a small smile touching his lips.

They gazed at each other for a moment, before, inevitably, they were interrupted by Dwalin.

"Aye, you did a mighty brave thing back there, Master Baggins!" Dwalin said cheerfully, picking up his ale. "You saved our Thorin, and for that, we are all grateful. I am Dwalin, at your service!"

Balin nodded beside him, giving Bilbo a smile. "That we are, Mister Baggins."

Bilbo had jumped as soon as Dwalin had spoke, and he watched the two brothers with slightly wide eyes. "Ah... yes, it is... nice to meet you," he said hesitantly, and Thorin had to look away to hide his smile. He would not have crossed Bilbo and Dwalin, two people who were as different as day and night, and it was amusing to watch them. He considered the irony of introducing Bilbo to Dwalin just before the Hobbit was to leave, and the thought sobered him.

He was not sure if he wanted Bilbo to leave just yet. It was time, though, and he knew that Bilbo did not belong here.

"Have you spoken with Healer Óin yet, Master Baggins?" Thorin asked.

Bilbo started and looked at him, his cheeks turning pink again. "Oh, yes, he was very kind to give me medicine for the journey, as well as recipes for the, ah, ointments." Both Bofur and Dwalin snickered at the word, and Balin seemed to roll his eyes. "So... we are leaving tomorrow?"

Thorin nodded, glad that Bilbo had taken a liking to Óin and Bofur. "Yes, in the morning. Bofur will come find you when it is time," he said, and Bofur nodded agreeably. "That is all, I think. If you have any questions, you may find me later."

Bilbo nodded, then looked a bit worried, and Thorin waited for him to speak. "What about Gandalf?" Bilbo finally asked.

Gandalf. There had been no sign of the Wizard for days, no sign of Durin's Bane either, and Thorin worried for the old Wizard who had done so much for his people. "He has not returned yet," he said quietly. "I am planning a search party soon, though. I will send word, if you like, when we find him," he offered, and Bilbo looked troubled, but nodded.

"I would like that," the Hobbit said quietly. "Thank you." They sat in silence for a moment, before at least two stomachs in the room growled, and the sound made all of them laugh, even Bilbo, whose giggle caught Thorin's attention.

"Time for supper then! Bifur'll meet us there, he said," Bofur said, standing and nodding to Thorin.

Bilbo nodded and stood, watching Thorin for a moment, and he finally smiled, his cheeks still a little pink, but he seemed less embarrassed now. "Good evening then, Thorin... ah, Your Majesty," he said, catching Balin's frown, and Thorin sighed to himself.

"Good evening, Bilbo," he said pointedly, and Bilbo's cheeks flushed a bit more, but his smile was a bit wider when he left the tent with Bofur, and Thorin ignored Balin's worry and Dwalin's curiosity as he watched them leave.

Balin and Dwalin said nothing, and Thorin could feel their gazes on him, knowing he had behaved oddly in their eyes. Finally Balin spoke, and his question struck Thorin deeply.

"Why the Hobbit, Thorin? You have done much for him," Balin said quietly.

Thorin stayed silent for a long moment, thinking. "You remember when that fire drake was spotted, all those years ago?" he asked slowly, and Balin and Dwalin both nodded. "I think of that moment often... of what may have been for my people. What if the fire drake had come to Erebor? What if Erebor had been lost? I think of what could have happened, of my people wandering, lost and hungry... then I look at the Hobbits now, and I see the nightmare that could have been Erebor, had that dragon attacked."

"Thorin," Dwalin started, but Thorin shook his head.

"What if it had been us in their position? Victims to Orcs and whatever other foul creatures that roam the earth, lost and alone, with no home? No one would have saved us. The Elves, what do they care about the troubles of Dwarves? Men would have no desire to come to our aid, either. No one would have given us a chance. Truly, my people would have been too proud to beg, but if we had... who would have given us anything? I think of my people when I see the Hobbits. So... I wish to help them, because nobody would have helped us," he said quietly, and for a long moment there was silence, as Balin and Dwalin digested his words.

"And Mister Baggins?" Balin finally asked.

Thorin gazed down at the map that was spread over the table, his eyes finding the circled mark of the Shire. "Bilbo Baggins is my responsibility," he said quietly, "because he was Azog the Defiler's personal slave. Azog was my enemy, and through my failure in destroying him, that Hobbit was subjected to torments worse than any we can ever imagine. I did not make Azog do those things... but I did not kill him, and so he did them anyway.

"Instead of withering away like so many other of his kin, Bilbo Baggins has stayed strong and true, has not faltered or stumbled. He protected his people from death. He preserved invaluable historic artifacts of our people. He saved my life, and he assured the death of my mortal enemy. I will always honor him for that alone," Thorin said, his voice firm.

Balin looked contemplative at his answer, and Dwalin was nodding. "Do well by your allies, and they will do well by you," Dwalin said, and Thorin gave him a smile.

"Just so. Now, I was thinking that tomorrow, I will..." and Thorin explained his plans for Bilbo, hoping that Balin would not disapprove too much.

Balin sighed and watched him with a hint of worry, not saying anything for a moment. "Well, Thorin, I cannot stop you, but you know this has not happened in a very long time. Are you certain about this?"

Thorin nodded, surprised that Balin had acquiesced, but pleased for it. "Very certain. He deserves it, and it is being crafted as we speak," he said, earning another frown from Balin, but there was a twinkle in the other Dwarf's eyes.

"You certainly have grown fond of this Hobbit," Balin said, and Dwalin laughed and began to tease Thorin, much to his consternation.

He was not fond of Bilbo. He just appreciated him, after all. He had high respect for the Hobbit, and despite Balin's worries and Dwalin's insinuations, he was glad for the chance to show it. He hoped that Bilbo would appreciate his efforts, though it would likely embarrass him, in the end.

~

As it turned out, his meetings after dinner kept Thorin up very late, and by the time he returned to his tent, Bilbo was already fast asleep. Thorin was silent as he took off his leathers and boots, not wanting to wake Bilbo, who would need his sleep for the journey. He crept into bed and lay there for a long time, thinking of the Hobbit who would leave him tomorrow. Every so often he would hear a soft breath from the other side of the tent, and he wondered at himself, thinking that Balin was likely correct. Perhaps he was growing fond of the Hobbit, after all.

~

The next morning, Bilbo woke very early, after tossing and turning for most of the night in worry. He lay there for several minutes, listening to the low snores of the Dwarf on the other side of the tent, wishing he could convey the feelings that had taken hold of him ever since Thorin had told him he was leaving.

Gratitude. Anxiety. Hope. He was so very thankful to Thorin, who had saved his life, from Azog and from certain death. Thorin had saved his people, given him a new chance at life, and he did not know how to tell Thorin how happy he was.

The news that he would be leaving had shocked him, yet he knew he should have expected it. He did not feel ready to leave, though. He had never imagined himself leaving these caves ever again. He had always believed that he would die here.

He wished he could have expressed his feelings to Thorin yesterday. The presence of the other Dwarves had stopped his tongue cold, though. He had tried to stay up late and wait for Thorin, but he had fallen asleep before the Dwarf had returned.

Now Bilbo was awake, and Thorin was asleep. He wondered if he would get an opportunity at all.

After a long while, he heard Thorin stirring, and the faint snores stopped. Then he heard footsteps as the Dwarf got out of bed, and Bilbo decided to gather his courage, not wanting to miss his chance. He pushed his covers aside and grabbed his sweater, pulling it on, then crept to the edge of the screen that separated their sides of the tent, peering out.

He found Thorin standing at one of the tables, sipping at some water, his long hair loose and messy from slumber, wearing his sleep clothes still. Bilbo straightened in determination, stepping past the screen.

"Good morning," he said quietly.

Thorin started and looked over at him, his blue eyes widening, and Bilbo swallowed and clasped his hands in front of him. "Good morning, Master Baggins. Is everything alright?" the tall Dwarf asked, and Bilbo nodded.

"Yes, um... well, I was just wondering if... if we could talk," he said, watching Thorin shyly.

Thorin stared at him a moment, then nodded and poured a second glass of water, carrying it over to one of the tables, pulling out a chair for Bilbo and sitting down as well. Bilbo walked over and sat down, rubbing his feet together and picking up the water, sipping it gratefully, though his gaze stayed on Thorin.

This felt... strange. Usually he and Thorin stayed out of each other's ways, never rising at the same time, so besides the other night, he had not really seen Thorin like this, still mussed from sleep. Thorin was watching him attentively, though Bilbo could see the remnants of sleep in his blue gaze, which made his gaze drop.

"I suppose it is a bit early," Bilbo said, and Thorin shook his head slightly.

"Not so early as you might think. I do not sleep very late, after all," Thorin replied. Bilbo nodded slowly, feeling a bit awkward now, but he and Thorin finally had the chance to speak properly, without anyone in their way, and he tried to think of how to convey his thoughts.

Thorin said nothing else, and the silence between them stretched, not quite uncomfortable, though Bilbo could tell that Thorin was waiting for him to speak his mind.

As he gazed at the table, Bilbo thought of the many moments he had shared with Thorin, from the first time their eyes met after he had woken from Azog's abuse, to the night Thorin had held him as he had cried. He realized how much trust he had in Thorin -- that Thorin would protect him, that Thorin would send him home, that Thorin would not hurt him... that Thorin's touch would never harm him. It was more than he had allowed of some of the other Hobbits, all things considered, as he had rarely allowed himself to cry in front of his kin.

Thorin had seen him at his weakest -- yet the tall Dwarf with his kind blue eyes and solemn expression did not look at him as a pitiable creature, but with a strange respect that Bilbo did not believe he had earned. Thorin was a King, so far above him as a Hobbit and a former slave, and he could not see why Thorin would think of him so highly. He had rushed forward and stopped Azog from beheading Thorin, but it was more to end his master once and for all, than to protect Thorin -- right? He was no hero. He had done terrible, horrible things, and he did not deserve the respect and kindness that Thorin had gifted to him.

He lifted his gaze to watch Thorin, feeling his hands shaking around his cup, so he put them in his lap and clasped them tightly, opening his mouth several times, but the words would never come. He opened and closed his hands, rubbing them against his thighs a few times, fumbling for the words and feeling frustrated tears at the corners of his eyes.

"I cannot find the words," Bilbo blurted, and Thorin blinked in surprise, but Bilbo's thoughts spilled out between them before he could stop them, in a rush to convey what he needed to say. "I don't know how to thank you. You saved me -- you took me away from him. You saved my friends... and I -- I do not know how to say thank you. I've wanted this for so long -- but there was always the chance that I would fail, that he would... hurt them, to hurt me. Or if I died -- that he would hurt them in his fury. And I -- I do not know what we would have done, if you had not come. I owe everything to you," he finished in a whisper, keeping his gaze on the table, his knuckles white as he gripped his pants.

There was a moment of silence, and unbidden, Bilbo spoke again, his shoulders tensing up. "You've treated me so nicely, like I'm someone special, and I really am not special. I'm just Bilbo -- I was once normal. I've never done anything extraordinary, unlike my parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles. Then everything happened and now you are here and he is... dead, and -- I feel like it was all you, that I had nothing to do with it. Except I know it is my fault, that he is dead. And I feel so happy about that -- but I'm quite afraid, that this is a dream still. It does not feel real, sitting here with you -- it feels like he's going to shake me awake and I will be there in that room again, trapped in that hell."

He reached up and rubbed at his eyes, hearing his voice shaking, but he hurried on, determined to finish, lest he lose his courage and never utter another word to Thorin again.

"I could not believe it, when I saw you standing there. And you promised -- to save me, and to get the Hobbits out of there, and you did. You promised to send me home -- and you have kept every promise to me. For that, I do not know how to repay you at all, Thorin Oakenshield." He lifted his wet gaze and met Thorin's blue eyes, something in his chest shuddering at the expression on Thorin's face, still so solemn yet completely riveted to him, enthralled by his words.

"And now -- and now we're saying goodbye," Bilbo said quietly. "I feel like I've done nothing that can ever match what you have given me. I don't want to say goodbye to you -- because if I do, I might never be able to repay you. I don't want to say thank you, because I know that it will never be able to convey the gratitude I feel toward you.

"I always thought... I would die here," he whispered, his gaze dropping to the table, not wanting to look at Thorin anymore. "But you saved my life. You gave me a future. I cannot... thank you... enough, Thorin Oakenshield, for what you have done for me. I want, so badly, to repay you, but I am not... whole, not right -- I am not good enough to repay my debt to you. Please tell me how I can repay you. Please... tell me what I can do, to make this right."

His voice fell into the hush between them, and Bilbo felt his cheeks slowly redden as Thorin stared at him and he kept his head down. He had not spoken this much at one time in years, not since he was a boy and he would read aloud to his father or talk his mother's ear off about his day.

He had never revealed this much of himself to anyone. Part of him wanted Thorin to know about the atrocities he had done -- so that Thorin would no longer look at him with such kindness or respect, because he did not think he deserved it. At the same time, part of him never wanted Thorin, or anyone else, to know that part of him.

As he tried to think of what he could do for Thorin, his thoughts turned to the two rings in his pocket. Perhaps he could give Thorin one? The heavy ring with the blue stone -- surely it would fit Thorin's hand, and maybe Thorin would be able to handle its visions better. It seemed like a proper gift, and some part of him felt that it belonged with someone else more than him.

It is not yet time, something whispered in the back of his mind. The thought drifted away, and Bilbo forgot the rings for now. Instead, he worried at the cloth bunched over his knee, trying not to imagine Thorin's expression right now.

Finally, after what seemed like a very long time, Thorin leaned forward, clasping his hands together on the table.

"You need do nothing at all, Bilbo Baggins," Thorin said quietly -- and Bilbo felt his heart freeze -- "because your debt to me was repaid the moment you thrust your sword into Azog the Defiler's back. You saved my life, that day, and in the same movement, you destroyed the enemy that has haunted my people for countless years. The Defiler murdered my father, my grandfather, and more of my subjects than I can count. That he is dead, thanks to you... I can only thank you."

Bilbo stared at the table with wide eyes, remembering vaguely when Óin spoke of Azog writing his name on Thorin's father's forehead -- and an older memory, of Azog raving about the line of Durin, how he had already taken out two of them, but Thorin Oakenshield stood in the way of killing the rest. "But... that cannot -- that does not make us even," he whispered.

Thorin shook his head. "It is not a matter of balancing our debts to each other, Master Hobbit. What more can we do for each other? After all, we saved each other's lives, did we not? You have done a great deed for my people, and for me personally as well. I did what was only right, for you -- there was no way I could leave your people to suffer at the hands of Orcs."

Bilbo looked up, wanting to argue with him, but the look on Thorin's face -- determination, with a hint of stubbornness -- halted the words in his mouth. He floundered for a moment before lifting his hands, gesturing helplessly. "But... it is not enough --"

"It is," Thorin said firmly, but then his voice gentled. "You have shown me a great honor in saving my life and destroying my enemy at such a crucial time. You have also safeguarded priceless artifacts of Dwarven history. You have done many things for my people already --"

"But I want to do something for you," Bilbo said quickly, which made Thorin blink in surprise.

After a moment, Thorin nodded slowly. "If you insist upon repaying such a debt, then know that I shall endeavor to do the same. I... had intended upon doing this later, with a wider audience, but I think that perhaps, now is when you should receive it." He stood and walked over to another table, picking up a small cloth and carrying it over to the table, laying it before Bilbo. Carefully, he unfolded the cloth before the Hobbit's eyes, revealing a glittering necklace with an ornate key made of a pale silvery metal, without any precious stones, but beautiful all the same.

Bilbo stared down at the key in shock and confusion, and he lifted his head to stare up at Thorin, not understanding. "What...?"

Thorin sat down beside him and picked up the necklace, reaching up slowly and laying it over Bilbo's head, the key coming to rest on his chest, over his heart. "If you will not accept my words, then accept this, Bilbo Baggins. This is a token of my people, that marks you as khuzdibâh. It means 'Dwarf-friend.' If you feel you cannot repay me today -- then accept my token, and come to me later in life, when you can meet me as an equal and repay what debt exists between us. Know this, though -- I will do the same for you when we meet again. That is the promise in this token -- that we will always help one another, whenever the need arises."

He sat back and watched Bilbo, seeming to hold his breath, but Bilbo was the one who could not breathe. To be gifted with something so precious -- and to have Thorin ask a promise of him, to find him later? Suddenly Bilbo could see it -- someday, when he was older and stronger and no longer so pitiful, he would walk to Thorin and meet his gaze without flinching, equal to him in all things.

Bilbo longed for that day, and he felt some tears spill over his cheeks, but he breathed in tightly and did his best not to cry, nodding slowly and lifting his gaze to meet Thorin's eyes. He reached up to take Thorin's hand, clasping it between both of his smaller hands. Though he could feel his heart thudding in his chest, he felt the rightness of the moment, as the promise settled on his shoulders. He could bear such a weight, if it meant repaying Thorin Oakenshield for all that he had done for Bilbo.

"It is a promise, then," Bilbo said quietly, and the smile that lit up Thorin's face was one he would remember forever.

~

Bilbo's departure was quiet compared to the march of three regiments of Dwarves. After Thorin left for the day, promising to see him off, Bilbo packed his meager belongings -- his sword, a few clothes, the ointments and scrolls, some soap and towels, and a bedroll. He was given a leather bag that held all of the items easily, and after he had secured everything, Bilbo left the tent to visit Óin and Bifur to say goodbye.

Óin lectured him for ten minutes on taking care of himself, then gruffly clasped his shoulder and told him he was a good lad. Bifur wished him the best of luck and, without any warning to Bilbo, reached up to grip the back of his neck to press their foreheads together. Bofur hurriedly explained that it was a Dwarven way of greeting and saying goodbye, so Bilbo did not react too badly. He did think he would miss Bifur, who was very charming and genial.

When it was time for them to leave, they watched the three regiments walk away along with Thorin, Balin, Dwalin, and many other Dwarf commanders. Thorin turned to watch Bilbo for a long moment, before he lowered his head in a respectful bow, then wished them both safe travels. Bilbo and Thorin had already said so much to each other, and the promise of Thorin's token rested on his chest beneath his shirt. He bowed back to Thorin and thanked him simply, and then he and Bofur left, knowing that it was not truly goodbye -- that someday, he would see Thorin again.

So Bilbo left the Dwarf camp as quietly as he had come, walking alongside Bofur who kept up a merry stream of conversation, keeping Bilbo's thoughts from growing too anxious. Each of them carried their own pack and a small lantern, lighting the way through the dark tunnels, though their path was already lit with torches in some places, from Dwarves who had traveled these halls not long before.

Two days passed quietly as they walked. They found the outpost, where two Dwarves gave them a bag of grain, a bag of apples, and a bag of smoked sausages. Bilbo was given the apples to carry in his pack, and at first he thought he would not be able to handle carrying such a heavy weight. He grew used to the burden, though, and he felt glad that he had become strong enough to carry it.

Then, after a few more hours, they came to the end of a cave, and Bofur winked at him before stepping forward, speaking bâh to the wall -- and Bilbo's heart thudded in his chest when the wall began to change into a door. He stood very still, as a crack of light appeared in the center of the door.

Then the door opened, and for the first time in seven years, since the skies of the Shire had turned black, Bilbo saw sunlight again.

He stared up into the bright light, scarcely daring to blink, for fear that the vision would fade away. Warmth touched his face, and he had to close his eyes briefly, soaking in the feeling of true freedom. He walked forward out of the darkness, and despite the chill in the air, he felt warm as he stepped into the sunlight.

He was nûl-lûpûrz no more. He was, as he had always been, Bilbo Baggins, and finally, finally, he was going home.

Chapter Text

In the bright unknown, there was a beautiful world. It was a massive land that stretched far along the edges of time, with high peaks and deep valleys carved into the earth, and thick forests of many, many different trees curving along the hills. Along the coastline were many natural caves and outlets made of rock, and within one of these holds lay a sparkling city of pearl and ivory. The entire land was breathtaking, with cities and towns resting in the natural holds the land provided, including a city of white with a great silver lantern in a high tower, visible to any who crossed the seas to the east. Tall, beautiful beings walked about the land, carrying with them a grace that was even greater than those of the elves of Arda. The seas rose and fell gently, like any other sea, but within their depths glittered the ageless light of thousands of stars.

This was a land of legend to some. Others called it home.

In the highest of the mountains of this land, there was an immensely tall peak that shone white. On that peak rested a grand city of spiraling towers, glittering white halls, and a spacious courtyard, filled with the most beautiful of flowers and trees. Many eagles, hawks, and other birds flew about the great mansion, taking rest in the tall aviary or dipping into the gentle streams that wove through the courtyard.

In one of these halls, there was a room open to a small and delicate garden of flowers, budding trees leaving white petals on the ground. In this room was a bed of silken linens, and on this bed slumbered a man rejuvenated and young. He had long silvery hair that was once a dusky grey, and some might have once known him as a tall fellow with oddly thick eyebrows. He looked nothing like what those of the distant lands of the Shire and Imladris had known of him, though he still carried a level of age, an air of gravity and knowledge that few others did.

He was known to some as Mithrandir, to others as Gandalf. In these white halls, in this distant, beautiful land of legend, he was known as Olórin.

A beautiful voice, as deep as the sky and as light as the wind that carried blossoms to the ground was heard across the garden outside this room, and to it another voice responded, sweet and lilting, with all the grace of the stars. They spoke in a language older than time, but the man sleeping on the bed would have understood it, for it was his cradle-tongue and the language of his heart.

"His body has healed, yet he sleeps so deeply."

"His soul carries the weight of fire and loss. Let him sleep."

"His soul may never heal. Someday he will return again, and then he may rest without worry."

"You mean to send him back."

"Not as he is. You and I will both see to that. The darkness in the land grows every day."

"Yes... as you have seen, and as I have heard. He will be needed. They will all be needed -- but I fear for Curumo. He speaks into the darkness with envy. I have heard whispers... he seeks the One to rule them all..."

"I have not seen it. Unless the eyes know it for its true self, I cannot see it. Yet I suspect -- there, in the dark lands, where the little people are."

"Yes... that halfling, the one Nienna has chosen."

"He carries two rings. One is wrought with a blue gem, and it belongs to Aulë's children. The other... simple and gold, but fire will show the truth."

"I have heard it. It whispers of fire and darkness, but he does not hear it. He has not placed it on his finger, not even once."

"If he had, it would be noticed. It would be seen and heard by those in the darkness. Such an odd creature..."

"Nienna chose well of him, this halfling... this bearer, of things seen and unseen, heard and unheard. Though the darkness surrounds him, he walks through it as if it were merely a mirage. Nienna's influence, and perhaps a touch of Námo's power..."

"What else was to be done, my wife? When the darkness spread across the green lands of the halflings, Nienna came to us herself. Her wish was granted, and now this child walks, bearing such pain... and a ring that he has no desire to carry. Olórin must guide him far to the south, deep into the darkness, where he may lose every hope... but Nienna has wept for him."

"Yes. He shall carry it far away, to where it was wrought... but it will not happen for many years. I wonder, my husband... perhaps that journey was meant for another?"

"It has always been, and will always be, meant for someone who cannot be lost to the darkness. Halflings... such an odd race. The other bearer, was he not a halfling too, once?"

"Yes. A curious race of creatures. It is no wonder that Olórin likes them so. Come, my husband, let us walk together, and when Olórin wakes, he shall know our thoughts."

"As my wife wishes."

Their voices were carried away, as the lady in white and the lord in blue walked from the quiet garden and the sleeping man. Though he slept, his mind still heard, deep within the slumber of exhaustion and power. Time in the beautiful land passed differently than it did in the place where he had fallen, yet within his mind there was no time, no space, only the edge of eternity and the knowledge of a thousand ages.

In his dreams, he saw the young Hobbit who carried many things, seen and unseen, heard and unheard. He heard his lady in grey walking with the young halfling, her head bowed as she wept. He saw a ring on a white chain on the halfling's neck, and he saw that ring being carried to a distant mountain of fire and darkness. He heard armies rise and fall so that they may take this ring, or that country, or this land, or that belief. He saw the kings of lands that already had been touched by darkness, kings in glittering robes and kings in dirty leathers, kings who would be touched by darkness themselves. He saw them fall, and he saw them rise. He heard his old friend, speaking into the darkness and commanding it for himself. He saw the fall of great and wise men, to power and darkness, to death and destruction.

He saw and heard as his Lord and Lady did.

Through it all, he felt the light of hope, for a simple life and a simple peace, burning in the hearts of those who fought against the darkness.

~

A lady in grey walked along the edge of the river, her head bowed as she traveled from the hall of waiting. Olórin watched and waited, and she looked up as she approached him. She pushed her hood back slightly, and her large eyes were dark with grief, but she met him with grace and reached out to take his hand. Together they walked.

"You have walked the shadows," she whispered.

Olórin did not speak. He did not need to; he was only here to hear her mercy.

"You have seen the darkness. You have seen the despair of many, yet you do not fall to its power.

"In the lost halls of Aulë's children, there was a great darkness. So many lost to terror and despair. So many lost to the darkness, to the evil that could not stop itself.

"My little child was there. You saw in him what I placed -- a mercy for the children. A mercy for the old. A mercy for the weary ones who could no longer go forward. Those poor souls..."

A tear ran down her cheek, but still Olórin said nothing, only squeezed her hand.

"He is a bearer, of things seen and unseen, heard and unheard, touched and untouched. Please guide him, Olórin. Do not let him fall. Guide him, as you guided the children of Aulë and the sons of men -- as you will guide all the people of the world.

"Look after him, Olórin, and after yourself. Take hope with you, and always pity, for those who cannot help themselves, and for those who need help but cannot ask for it."

She stopped, and he turned to face her, reaching up carefully to wipe the tears from her cheeks. Once he had pulled her grey hood down again, he knelt before her and kissed her hand, giving her his promise.

"Yes, my lady."

~

When Olórin's eyes opened, a thousand ages later, he knew his Lord's and Ladies' thoughts as if they had just spoken to him. The power in him burned, as it had been a part of him for all his life. He knew what he had to do. His time in Middle-Earth had left his knowledge dusty and disused, as in the age of peace, he had ignored the signs of darkness. No more. He knew he would be sent back -- and he knew of the path he should take, to defeat the darkness and protect that precious light.

~

Olórin saw the fleeting image of a sweet-smelling garden lit with starlight, before darkness took him. When he knew himself again, he was lying in a soft bed of silk, in a room open to the forest and stars, lit by soft lanterns.

He was himself, but no longer Olórin. He was once again Gandalf, a Wizard of Middle-Earth, yet he was not as he had been.

He felt power as he had not held before. He felt his spirit rising with hope, light, and a great understanding of the world. He felt the darkness on the edge of the land creeping ever closer. He knew he had to act, but first he had to ascertain his surroundings and self.

His hair was long and white, as it had been when he was young, shining and soft. His body felt strong and young again, though when he touched his face, he felt the wrinkles of an old man. His favorite disguise, though changed through the gain of knowledge and power. There were new scars on his body, remaining from his battle with the Balrog. His long beard was as white as his hair, and Gandalf felt a wry smile appear on his lips, wondering if his Lord and Lady were laughing at him.

He looked around and realized he knew this place. The forests of Lothlórien. He realized that his body had stayed here while his spirit had rested in Aman. A piece of knowledge came to him, that Gwaihir had carried him here, and he felt gratitude toward his Lord for watching over him.

Gandalf rose from the bed and found a robe of white with a silver sash hanging over a chair. He lifted it and pulled it over his thin body, realizing that it matched the white staff that was leaning against the wall nearby. He glanced at his hand and saw Narya, and with only a thought, he hid it from the eyes of others. When he reached out to take his staff, the power settled into him easily, the sensation like coming home. He looked to the table in the center of the room and saw the sword that had come to him in the halls of Khazad-dûm by Bilbo Baggins' efforts.

"Mithrandir," called a deep and beautiful voice, and he turned to see an old and precious friend.

"My Lady Galadriel," he said, and they both smiled.

~

Deep in the dungeons of Dol-Guldur, a tall and muscular Orc with a white eye and a vicious scar across his face raised his whip and cracked it down on the back of a small and pathetic creature that screamed in pain.

He was Bolg, once a great Orc king, and within him burned the fury of a ruler who had lost his throne, and a son who had lost his father, though no love had ever existed between him and the Orc who had sired him. Instead it was a matter of pride, that his father had fallen to lesser beings who lived and walked in freedom while Bolg had prostrated himself before a stronger being and begged for safety.

He, like so many other Orcs, had been without a home, thanks to the actions of the Dwarves, who had taken their caves in Moria at the cost of thousands of Orc lives.

The great halls of Moria had once housed thousands of Orcs, but no more. Here and there, in small pockets that were very hard to access, there remained a few small clans, but most of the creatures of darkness had fled when Thorin Oakenshield and his army of Dwarves had swept through the Misty Mountains.

Only in the far north did a city of Orcs remain, and it was called Gundabad. It could hardly be called a city, though, as it had been deserted by its first leader and the majority of its so-called citizens. The wounded and clanless stayed here, after fleeing from the axes and swords of thousands of angry Dwarves. It would become the last great refuge of Orcs and goblins, but by no means was it a prosperous city. King after so-called king would fall as soon as they gained a seat of power, until one called the Great Goblin came to control the city, though still murder and mayhem ruled the minds of the Orcs who lived there. Dirt, filth, blood, gore -- some days it burned with rage, some days it simmered with hatred. The Orcs there felt true hate as they had not felt since their creation.

Bolg, the original leader of the city, had left months ago when he had heard of the fall of his father, the great Azog the Defiler of the mines of Moria. He had taken with him his clan and followers, and they had disappeared deep into the darkened forests of Mirkwood, to the ruins of Dol-Guldur. Though fury made his black blood run hot, he had the cunning of his father and knew when to retreat, for the Dwarves who remained in Moria would no doubt seek to defeat him as they had his father.

Instead, Bolg son of Azog sought the protection of the dark sorcerer who lived in Dol-Guldur, to use his rage as fuel for the dark acts the necromancer would ask him to commit. He would live, and he would remember. Someday, he would get his revenge on those Dwarves, especially on the two beings who had killed his father together: the Dwarf King of Erebor, and his father's pet Halfling.

~

In the Great Smials of Tuckborough, there walked a Hobbit, carrying a small basket in one hand and two scrolls in the other, thinking about how strange his body felt, to be thin, so unlike his father who had been properly rotund as only a Hobbit should.

They were all thin. It had been a harsh winter, and it was already the third month in. Most of the aid from other lands had dried up, spent on food that had to be overpriced, but they bought it anyway from passing Men who wished them luck but hurried on. No one was starving by human standards, but by Hobbit standards, they were hungry. Three meals a day as well as tea, and sometimes the tea leaves were reused from the morning -- nothing like the standard Hobbit fare.

But life was not as it had been seven years ago. Every harvest time there had been fewer crops, less grains and potatoes to store for winter, which was made worse with every group of Hobbits who had returned home from the Misty Mountains. There was enough to survive, to be sure, but not enough to be plentiful as it had been in years past. The poison from the Orcs' raid was seeping into every piece of land around them, darkening the soil and leaving the vegetables spindly and the fruit sour. What food stores had been hidden in the empty homes around them had been taken and shared, so that everybody could make it through the winter -- but this would not last.

Life could not go on this way.

So thought the Thain, Fortinbras Took II, who walked through his home to his cousin Bilbo's room. He was tall for a Hobbit, with the sandy blonde hair of his family and the dark eyes of his mother. His father, rest his poor soul, had died during Shirefall, and so Fortinbras had taken his title and attempted to make sense of the chaos the Orcs had left behind. He was very young for a Thain, and he doubted he would have gained the title so soon in his life, had it not been for the Orcs' invasion.

Shirefall had been a dark and terrible time. So many missing, so many dead, and the Orcs had run about as they wanted, grabbing up Hobbits and carrying them off for sinister purposes. No one had realized exactly what, thinking that those poor Hobbits would certainly be dead by the end of the day.

The Orcs had not been in the Shire long, though, before the Rangers from the North swept down and drove them out, but the wound upon the land was too deep. So many dead. So many missing. So many broken families, empty homes. It had been so dark then, and for months afterward, they had all been lost, unable to piece together their lives after losing so much.

Fortinbras had stepped up and called every Hobbit to the Great Smials. They would account for who was still alive and who had been found dead. They would make a list of the missing. They would mourn, and they would move on. Tuckborough had been the least ravaged, so all of the families were asked to come live there, because they would be greater and better prepared for the future with greater numbers.

So the Hobbits crept into Tuckborough, though many hid in other places, further from the Shire in fear of another Orc raid. Two years had passed, and carefully, they began to heal.

Then a small group of weary and scared Hobbits wandered into Tuckborough, looking thin and wild in torn clothes, lead by Dwarves who were rather bewildered by it all. Then came the news that no one had expected:

They had been slaves.

Terrifying, but they were all overjoyed nonetheless. Some of their missing had lived! There had to be more who lived -- so many had been taken, surely not all had become dinner? And months later, again: a much larger group of Hobbits returned, this time in simple clothes spun by their Dwarf guides.

So there grew a great hope for the Hobbits of Tuckborough, as each day they kept an ear out for Dwarves' boots stomping up the path. Who might come home next? Who might be alive, out there in those dark mountains?

But with every group of Hobbits, there came some bad news: this father was murdered. This child had been eaten. This grandparent had tripped and died.

But at least they knew. At least the list of 'MISSING' grew shorter, names crossed out, but the list of 'DEAD' grew longer, names written in shaky black ink. Fortinbras knew there would always be names on the list of 'MISSING,' for they would never be able to find all of their friends and family -- but like every Hobbit who lived in his family home, he had hoped.

Now, seven years later, the last of the slaves had come home. So many families reunited, so many more broken hearts -- and amongst all of them, dark rumors of a young man, barely more than a boy, who fought back against his Orc master. A Hobbit who protected the children of his master's clan from being touched. A Hobbit who may have helped murder other Hobbits -- but to protect them from being eaten or raped by Orcs?

Fortinbras had heard the rumors, had listened to the frantic worries of anxious Hobbits whose children spoke of the pain-bearer, whose old parents simply shook their heads and muttered that poor boy, whose friends muttered in clusters after that 'boy' had walked by.

Bilbo Baggins, his first cousin, and possibly a braver Hobbit than any of them could be -- and possibly a more dangerous Hobbit than any other in his house, if the rumors were to be believed.

Bilbo had been quiet ever since he had returned, escorted by a cheerful Dwarf who was staying the winter, along with some other Dwarves, in one of the smaller smials nearby. Ever since his return, rumors had abounded about him and his time as Azog the Defiler's slave. Some insisted that Bilbo had sided with the Orcs, that he was a violent and dangerous person, while others, the Tooks, Brandybucks, and few Bagginses the loudest of them, had defended Bilbo fiercely.

From what Fortinbras could tell, there were a few things out of the rumors that were definitely true: Bilbo had been Azog's personal slave. He had slept in the Orc king's room. He had spent a lot of time with the other Hobbits. He had bodily protected the children from harm.

What nobody could really figure out, because none of the former slaves would talk about it outright, was whether Bilbo had gained access to some sort of poison and used it on his fellow Hobbits. Many of the older Hobbits, none of whom had been former slaves, believed he had and were pushing Fortinbras to throw Bilbo out of the home -- but Fortinbras could not ignore the truth.

The children loved Bilbo. None of the former slaves would hear a word against him. Bilbo himself was a polite and kind Hobbit, who kept to himself when he was not playing with the children or spending time with his remaining family.

What Fortinbras believed was that Bilbo and the other slaves had suffered so much more than any of the Hobbits who had survived and remained in the Shire. He believed that Bilbo, and a few other Hobbits who had acted like him, had made the best of his situation and helped where they could. Fortinbras did not know what he himself would have done in such a situation -- but Bilbo Baggins had done what few others could have: he had protected the Hobbits with him, and his actions had inspired similar acts in other Orc clans' slaves.

It amazed Fortinbras that such ugly rumors were circling about a young Hobbit who could earn a smile from any child that saw him. Some of the parents were getting anxious about it, believing Bilbo dangerous, but Fortinbras knew that Hobbit children were the most honest of their race, seeing through any guile someone may exhibit, and Bilbo Baggins had none.

The young Baggins was an honest Hobbit who had suffered many things, and Fortinbras was ashamed of how the other Hobbits were behaving toward him. Bilbo seemed to know about the rumors, as he had been spending less time with children of other families, only playing with the fauntlings of Took or Brandybuck descent, sometimes the Bolger and Proudfoot children as well. He rarely left his room except to visit his kin or occasionally the Dwarves, not even during meal times, which were held in the massive hall in the middle of the Great Smials.

Last week, someone had complained about Bilbo snitching food late at night, but Otho Sackville-Baggins had charged forward and bellowed about Bilbo eating only once or twice a day now because certain people did not want him to join the communal meal time, causing a loud argument right there at the table. Rorimac Brandybuck and even Drogo Baggins had started throwing punches, leaving Fortinbras and his uncles to drag eleven young Hobbits to another room for a very long lecture.

It had not been like this five months ago, when Bilbo had returned shortly after the large group of Hobbits from the Misty Mountains. Everyone had been too happy to be reunited with their family and friends to think much of him, save the Tooks, Brandybucks, and Bagginses. Fortinbras had taken Bilbo in at his aunt Mirabella's urging, though he would have accepted Bilbo into his home no matter what, as Bilbo had few relatives left on his father's side.

(Otho Sackville-Baggins, Drogo Baggins, Rosa Took née Baggins, her son Aldagrim, Linda Proudfoot née Baggins, and her son Odo -- the only Bagginses left out of the once large family, along with Bilbo. All of them lived in the Great Smials; Otho and Drogo even lived in the same hall as Bilbo, alongside Mirabella Brandybuck and her many children, all of whom had miraculously survived.)

Bilbo had been polite, but quiet -- much quieter than Fortinbras remembered. It was only later during a visit from the helpful Dwarves staying for the winter that everyone learned that Bilbo had helped the Dwarf King win his war against Azog the Defiler. One Dwarf in particular, the oddly charming Bofur, was insistent upon singing Bilbo's praises whenever he visited -- and it was likely because of these stories that most of the Hobbits did not believe the darker rumors about Bilbo now.

Four months, three months, even one month ago, Bilbo had rarely avoided the others as he did now. He had come to meals as normal, had visited his Dwarf friends at least once a day, had played with the children often and spent much time in the library, when he was not offering this uncle or that family help with whatever task was in order for the day. He had smiled sometimes and seemed at ease, though like the other Hobbits returned from the Orcs, he rarely embraced his family and even more rarely did he let anyone embrace him.

Then, as the snow set in and the ability to travel and work lessened, the other Hobbits began to gossip as they were wont to do. They began to talk, to help their families heal, but no one wanted to talk about what happened in the Misty Mountains. Those who did always whispered about it, and never with anyone who had not been there. It was impossible to talk about, and the way the former slaves sometimes looked at Bilbo led some to believe that he was bad, dangerous even.

It seemed impossible, though. Part Took though he was, Bilbo had always been a kind and cheerful person, much like the famous Belladonna herself. Adventure may have run in their blood, but they were not capable of violence, of horrible things -- yet had Bilbo not killed an Orc? Still, that was defeating something evil, not hurting a fellow Hobbit. Fortinbras could not believe the rumors. He knew his cousin.

Still, someone had made yet another complaint, so Fortinbras had come to visit Bilbo for appearances' sake, though he was actually intending to have a chat. When Bilbo had returned, he had given Fortinbras a heavy scroll that was signed by Thorin, King under the Mountain, and one that Fortinbras had contemplated many times in the past several months. He had considered the people of the Shire, the Dwarves who had helped them so much and brought so many of them home, and the loss of their farmland. All these things had been building to an important decision in his mind, and he wanted to ask Bilbo his thoughts. He already knew the thoughts of his aunts and uncles, as well as his Brandybuck cousins, but it would be interesting to learn Bilbo's opinion.

They could no longer stay near the Shire. Those older and wiser than him did not truly want to leave, but they understood his reasoning. There was nothing more for the Hobbits here, in a land that had been destroyed by monsters.

Fortinbras believed that they should leave the Shire. He hoped to take all who still lived away from this dark place, back to the land where they had all come from. The old tales whispered of green lands and a great river, and perhaps there still existed smials there. At least the land would be untainted by death or grief.

It would be a new start for all of them, in the Vale on the other side of the Misty Mountains.

Chapter Text

cover2

Solmath 27, Shire-reckoning 1331 (February 17, Year 2931, in the Third Age of the Sun)

In the Great Smials of Tuckborough, known as the Took Ancestral Home to some, there lived not just the Tooks, but many other families, such as the Brandybucks, the Bagginses, the Bolgers, the Proudfoots, the Greenhands, and more. Many orphans, widows, and widowers also lived there, as their homes and families had been destroyed almost eight years ago. Children with no parents were taken care of by a small legion of mourning mothers and fathers. The mansion was massive enough to hold dozens of Hobbits, and each room had at least one occupant, depending on how large the family was. Some families had been reduced to a few members -- and still more had been almost entirely destroyed, with only one last Hobbit to carry on the name. Some families had not survived at all.

One room in particular held a single Hobbit, another orphan, but a Took by blood still. His room was one of the few with a window, and even better, a window seat. The room had once belonged to his mother, a cherished daughter of the Tooks, and it was just as precious to its young occupant.

In the small window seat, there slept a young Hobbit, thin limbs curled in over his head as if to protect himself from a blow, though he was relaxed in slumber. The window seat was unlike a normal Hobbit seat, in that most of the pillows were gone, and those that remained were getting a bit threadbare, as if the owner had not had time to patch them or stitch up new ones. The curtains were pulled closed to keep out the cold. Still, the Hobbit looked cozy, snoozing beneath a thick and colorful quilt, his dark blonde curls peeking over the fabric, while outside, a blizzard brewed.

There were a few scribbles on the walls here and there, and some of the colors were quite bright. There was a bed big enough for an adult Hobbit, though it was missing its quilt. There was a small closet left open with a few shirts, some trousers, and a single green coat hanging inside, seemingly too big for the small occupant of the window seat. It was nothing like a normal Hobbit's closet, which usually held dozens and dozens of cheerful, colorful outfits.

Against one wall was a small fireplace with logs stacked to the side, the embers burning low, a thick rug of colorful cloth laid before the hearth. Two delicate teacups and an old hairbrush rested on the mantel, and a dried flower chain hung over the side, yellowed with age. There was a small table with a single lamp, and scattered along the floor were a few books, some of the covers burnt and worn. A chest lay against the wall, propped open, most of the contents carefully arranged, showing a past that was much beloved but long over: a few more books, a delicate tea cozy, a dark wooden pipe, a gardener's hat, among other small things. A small sword hung from a hook on the wall, Elvish in make but small enough to fit the Hobbit who slept nearby. Two pictures were hung on the wall beside smaller pictures of penciled artwork, the wooden frames darkened from exposure to fire, but the Hobbits drawn inside were easy enough to recognize.

Bungo and Belladonna Baggins, deceased. Their only son, Bilbo Baggins, slept in the cramped window seat, in a room that had once belonged to his mother as a girl. The room was nothing like a proper Hobbit's room, missing many of the normal comfortable and cheerful decorations. Everybody who stayed in the Took ancestral home had a room like this, mostly empty save for who slept in it and their few belongings. Everything that could be spared had been given away to other families, many of whom stayed with the Tooks, and still more in the nearby Hobbit homes that had not been ravaged by Orcs.

Outside, the smial hall was long and winding, with several Hobbits passing by the door, most ignoring it. Occasionally, someone would stop by the door and lean in to listen for movement inside. Otho Sackville-Baggins, Bilbo's cousin and once-aggravant, though he seemed more anxious than irritable now, his face a bit bruised. Linda Proudfoot, his aunt through his father, her face weary and thin. Rorimac Brandybuck and his little sister Primula, wanting to play but deciding to leave upon hearing no noise. Oftentimes other children, who would try to sneak into the room, only to be caught up in an aunt's or mother's arms and carried off to be scolded.

Bilbo slept on, having curled up in the window seat not long after breakfast (which had been early for him, early enough that the Hobbits who cooked in the morning had not even stoked the fires, leaving Bilbo with leftover porridge and an apple). He had sat and watched the sun rise, but not long after dawn, clouds had set in and snow began to fall, leaving Bilbo to drift as the snow did, his thoughts faraway. He could have gone to the family library if he had wanted, but he knew that the parents would have lessons for the children that morning, so he had chosen to stay in his room. Beneath the quilt he was warm, though the air in the room was chilled.

When one of the logs in the fireplace broke and let off a few sparks, Bilbo woke suddenly, blinking in the dim light and breathing in deeply. He knew by the smell of the room that he was home and safe, and he let himself relax, his racing heart slowly easing back to a normal beat. He pushed aside the quilt but then shivered and rubbed his arms, glancing at the low fire.

"Bugger," he muttered, pulling his thick wool sweater -- Dwarvish in make -- more tightly around his thin body. Then he dropped from the window seat and hurried across the room to the fireplace, picking up some logs and twigs, to stoke the fire back to life. When the flames were high enough to leave his cheeks flushed, Bilbo scurried back to the window and took his quilt, going to sit at the end of the bed.

While he waited for the room to warm up, Bilbo pulled a necklace from beneath his clothes and looked down at it, letting it pool in his palm. On the necklace, of a pretty silver, were strung three items: an ornate key of the same material, a thick gold ring that may have fit a Man once, and another thick gold ring with a heavy blue gem, cut square and large. These were Bilbo's treasures, as important to him as the chest of his parents' belongings, the last two cups of his mother's Westfarthing porcelain, and the Elvish sword which his cousins had begun to call 'Sting,' for its small size and sharp edge.

The two rings had come to him while he had been a slave in Azog's halls, and they had kept him company for years. The key, on the other hand, had come to him rather recently, from the hand of a Dwarf that had saved Bilbo's life. His family had been astounded by his tale, and sometimes his cousins had teased him, but Bilbo cherished the key, for its meaning and intentions.

Thorin.

The thought of the stoic and kind Dwarf King caused a small ache in his chest, and Bilbo sighed, dropping the necklace beneath his shirt again and closing his eyes, thinking of his promise.

A promise, to become a better person, so that he could stand tall again and meet his savior as an equal, someday far in the future.

Bilbo clung to that promise every day, because some days it did not seem to be enough. Some days were so dark for him that he could barely see spring, let alone a future that was several years away.

He was very grateful for his family, who had remained by his side throughout the last several months, who had supported him and defended him when others pointed fingers and lay accusations. What they had accused him of was cruel, but within the details were the lie -- the rumor was half-wrong. His accusers did not actually realize how true their words were. They whispered all the same, and Bilbo had not wanted to bother anybody, so he mostly stayed out of everyone's way.

His cousins Drogo and Otho, tweens as they were, always scolded him for hiding away in his room, but Bilbo could not help it. He felt ages older than his cousins, even Rory who had survived Azog's halls with him. All of them could smile and laugh and talk easily, but Bilbo could barely speak to other Hobbits, except his family, the children, and the Hobbits who had been in Azog's halls -- but he did not see them often, either, as they lived in different parts of the Great Smials, and he rarely left his own hall.

So many members of his family were gone. All of his Baggins aunts and uncles, cousins and second cousins, except his first cousin Otho, his second cousin Drogo, his aunt Linda, and his father's cousin Rosa. The grand and respectable Baggins family, reduced to three orphans, two widows, and their sons.

All murdered by Orcs. Their names were written, along with Bilbo's parents and dozens of other Hobbits' names, on the massive wall in the front hall of the Took estate. There was another list on the opposite wall, with MISSING scrawled across the top, but many names had been crossed out, many rewritten on the other side of the hall.

*

Standing between Otho and Drogo, who despite their childhood feud had clung to each other for the past seven years, believing themselves the only Baggins boys left, until Bilbo walked into Tuckborough one late afternoon --

Bilbo picked up a heavy feather pen and touched it to the thick paper on the wall --

Belladonna Baggins, he wrote on the paper, and his hand was shaking hard enough that Baggins almost looked like Boggens --

And when he was done, they pulled him away and took him to where Aunt Mirabella was sitting holding onto Primula, and she pulled him close and held him too, while Rory reached over and took his hand.

*

At least he still had his Took and Brandybuck aunts and uncles, and his Baggins family. Bilbo had arrived in Tuckborough only six days after his kin had, as he and Bofur had moved at a good pace, small as their company was. Thus his cousins and aunts and uncles had waited every day for sign of him, and the thought still made Bilbo's eyes prickle with happiness.

It still struck him how happy he had been to see Otho and Drogo, two cousins who had always tested his temper, standing there at the front of the crowd that had gathered to wait for him. Otho had been the first to grab him in a hug, and not even the panic from being touched had stopped Bilbo from holding onto him tightly.

*

They were walking along the path into Tuckborough, and Bilbo saw a few children spot them and wave, then run off, no doubt to find their parents. Bofur was singing loudly and Bilbo was humming along, though when they reached the top of the next hill, the notes died in his throat when he laid eyes on the Great Smials. There were people waiting for him --

Drogo, thinner than he had ever been, and behind him Otho, looking severe and sour as usual, and beside them Rory, who started shouting when he saw Bilbo and Bofur -- all of Rory's siblings, down to little Primula who was jumping in her place, Aunt Mirabella holding her shoulders tightly -- and Aunt Donnamira and Uncle Isengar, even Aunt Linda and cousin Rosa, and their children --

Then his cousins all broke out into a run, and Bilbo choked back a sob and began to run as well, and when he wrapped his arms around Otho, he started crying, holding out a hand to grip Drogo as he pulled close, feeling Prim and Amy grabbing onto his sweater, touching him, but he did not care --

His family was alive.

*

He and his Baggins cousins had been inseparable ever since. At first Drogo and Otho had treated him normally, trying to pull him into hugs and wrestling and whatever other things they used to do as children, but Rory must have shouted at them, because one day they stopped, though they did not leave him alone. They gave him the space he needed, but stood close nearby, so that he knew he had their support.

To his surprise, Drogo and Otho had been rooming together in the same hall as Aunt Mira and her children, and when Uncle Gordy and Rory came home, they had befriended Rory quickly, because Rory had told them about Bilbo. All of them were orphans, the only Baggins boys left, and as the eldest, it was Bilbo's duty to make sure they were both taken care of. He made sure they were happy and comfortable, that they had proper clothes and linens, that their room had enough firewood, and anything else that he could do. In turn, they dragged him out of his room or the library or the nursery, the three places where he spent most of his time, to eat lunch or have a snowball fight or explore the oldest and dustiest of closets in the deepest parts of the Great Smials, along with Rory and sometimes Jago Boffin.

Knowing that his family was alive, that despite everything they had survived -- even though they had all lost their parents, aunts and uncles, and so many other relatives and friends -- it made Bilbo think everything would be okay. Even the rumors would pass, hopefully, and then perhaps he could return to the nursery and tell the children stories again. Perhaps tomorrow he would go to lunch with Drogo and Otho, and not be whispered about by the old busybodies at the next table...

Perhaps.

*

"That's the one, the children keep talking about him --"

"I thought he just reads them stories in the evenings. Aunt Myrtle says he's really nice to them."

"No, you don't get it, he's a bad one. It's the Took in him, of course, they always were odd sorts --"

"Shh, you shouldn't say that, after the Thain himself took us in!"

"It's true though! He might be a Baggins, but that whole family has gone sour, I'm telling you. I heard Primrose Bracegirdle telling her cousin the other day that Otho Baggins is always getting into fights, and that Bilbo Baggins was one of those -- those goblin-servants, the improper kind. Someone said he liked to poison the others so he could keep his place --"

"No! But he's so polite! Should he be near the children?"

"I'm about to go talk to Myrtle myself --"

*

It hurt, so much. Yet he could not deny the accusations -- because Otho was getting into fights a lot lately, and Bilbo had been a slave, and worst of all, he had poisoned some of his fellow Hobbits --

Why couldn't they understand how hard it had been, living in that place --

They never would, though. Even though they had been attacked by Orcs themselves, the old gossipers would never understand despair as he and his fellow slaves did. If in fact they did understand it, they chose to deny it, resolutely believing in the old ways of nay-saying and propriety.

Bilbo sometimes wished he could yell at them that nothing is proper anymore, you old cows --

At the thought, Bilbo had to sigh and hide his face in his hands. Perhaps he had been spending too much time with Drogo, who had an oddly foul mouth for someone who had once believed so firmly in that old propriety.

He turned his gaze to the window. He had not visited Bofur in a while. The blizzard outside made it difficult, but of course there were other ways to visit, underground paths that connected most of the smials around here, though Bilbo doubted they were often used. No doubt the Dwarves, miners and cavers as they were, already knew about them, but something left Bilbo hesitant to visit his friend.

Perhaps it was because whenever he was with Bofur, he felt as at home as he did with Drogo, Otho, and Rory.

In the past several months, Bofur had become a fast friend. He was kind and cheerful every time Bilbo saw him, and the two of them could spend hours just talking, sharing stories about Erebor and the Shire. Bofur had told him all sorts of things about his family back at home, and in turn Bilbo had shared stories of his mother's adventures and his father's business dealings. They were good friends, and Bilbo was always glad to see him.

Lately, though, with these rumors popping up... he had avoided Bofur, out of shame. He had avoided his cousins and family too, at first, until Rory had dragged Otho and Drogo into his room and told them Bilbo was being thick-headed and stupid, which had spurred Bilbo into sputtering that Rory was the thick-headed one, and an epic fight had erupted that had burst three pillows and left his entire room a mess.

He had not avoided his family after that. The rumor-mongering Hobbits, yes, but not his cousins or aunts or uncles. Bofur, though...

He did not want Bofur to hear of the rumors and look at him differently. He did not want any hint of what he had done to ruin their friendship. He especially did not want Bofur to return to Erebor in the spring and tell other Dwarves (like his king, Bilbo's mind thought traitorously) of Bilbo's darkness.

It was bad enough that the rumors had started in the first place. No doubt someone had been told of their relative's death and had questioned how, and someone had whispered pain-bearer and pointed a finger at Bilbo. The truly horrible thing was --

It was all true. Bilbo was a murderer. He did not deserve to be here. He should be shunned and kicked out, and the fact that he desperately did not want to leave his home, his family, made him feel all the more guilty, despite his actions and the accusing looks.

It hurt, to know that someone had told someone else of his actions. He did not know or care who had given him away, but it left a deep ache within him, to know that someone who could not understand knew of what he had done. The Hobbits here -- the ones who had never known torture at an Orc's hands -- would never understand what had brought Bilbo to the decision to give the black mushrooms to those who would not survive. They would never understand the fear, the despair, the complete loss of hope and dignity -- they would never know how some of his fellow slaves had begged him for help, had clung to his hands and chains and sobbed into the scars on his stomach and pleaded with him to give them death.

He did not want them to understand, either. He was glad that they did not know that pain, that there were still normal, proper Hobbits in the world, who muttered and gossiped and huffed and fretted like a Hobbit should. He did not want to defend himself; he knew he deserved to be shunned. It still hurt, though.

Perhaps when Bofur left in the spring, Bilbo could ask to accompany him... Thorin had said that Erebor was open to Bilbo, anytime he wished to visit -- perhaps he could get a job in Erebor's library...

Bilbo drifted, soaking up the warmth from the fire and wondering about the future he still, sometimes, could not believe he had been given. If he could spare his fellow Hobbits the pain and anxiety his presence caused, then he would. Maybe Otho and Drogo would like to come with him for a while, see some of the world that they had always ignored before. A little Tookish adventure for them, before they found proper spouses and settled down.

Like Bilbo never would.

That was one thing he had noticed upon returning to the Shire. He no longer held any attraction toward anyone around him. Otho and Drogo, even Rory who had suffered beside him, along with the other young tweens and teens who had known destruction and pain, had begun to ease into normal relations with other Hobbits their age. Otho often made eyes at Evanthe Brown, and Rory had begun pinching the elbows of the Goold sisters (as well as their younger brother on occasion). Even Drogo eyed the girls sometimes, though he was usually more surreptitious about it.

Bilbo felt none of that. He felt absolutely nothing. No interest, no attraction, no flutterings in his chest -- and Bilbo had once known these feelings well, having flirted and kissed and teased quite a lot in the long and blissful years of his tweenhood. Azog had broken something in him, and he knew in his heart that he would never find the happiness that his mother and father had shared.

He knew other Hobbits shared his pain, but some of them had spouses they could turn to, and others found comfort in their families.

For Bilbo, he found comfort in telling stories to the children, who always looked to him with awe and happiness. He had not visited them in a while, thanks to the gossipers, some of whom had children in the nursery, but he knew he should visit soon --

Because there were also children like him, who had been brutalized, who had been pets to Orcs, as he had been to Azog. Not very many children, maybe six in all, but they were already known to be different -- quiet, solemn, with large dark eyes that shuttered if there were too many adults in the room. The other children gave them space and let them read their books and play with their toys alone in the corners, and Bilbo had made it a point to visit them several times a week and sit with them. He was one of the few adults they allowed close to them, other than the nannies who tucked them in and made sure they ate, and their parents if they still had them.

Perhaps enough time had passed that he could ask for a plate of cookies and visit them later. Someone had seen him last week, taking a bowl of apples and nuts (with permission from Aunt Linda) to the children, but he had not realized it and could not defend himself later from the accusations, as he had slept through dinner that night. Otho, Rory, and Drogo had defended him in his place, though, much to his amusement and horror when he had seen the bruises.

*

Bilbo stared wide-eyed at Otho, who looked rather proud of himself for having a rather lurid black eye and blood under his nose. "You didn't," he whispered, and Otho grinned viciously. Bilbo looked pleadingly at Drogo. "You're two years older than him -- why didn't you stop him?" he asked furiously, and Drogo glared.

"Because I threw the first punch, Bilbo. Couldn't let those Burrow sods get away with it, could I? Not with Bruno Bracegirdle's cow of a mum muttering like she was -- even that Lobelia girl was in on it!"

Otho started to grin, but at the mention of Lobelia, he turned a scowl on his older cousin. "Lobelia's been playing with Rory's sister Prim, you know, she's nothing like her mum --"

"She's exactly like her mum --"

Bilbo hid his face in his hands as the two began to argue loudly. Why did he have to be the eldest?

*

It would be nice to sit with the children again. The nannies did not mind him, even encouraged him to visit frequently, and the children held no expectations of him, only asked him for stories and to play with them. Maybe when the snow stopped falling, they could go build a proper snow fort outside -- and he could easily convince the kids to take on Rory, Drogo, Otho, and Jago in a snow fight, who would be no match against thirty squealing Hobbit children and teenagers (no doubt the Brandybuck children would join in). Bofur would probably side with him if he pleaded nicely enough, too, and of course Prim would likely take the whole lot under command, so that she could defeat her brother.

Thinking of the lovely hot cider they could enjoy afterwards, Bilbo finally felt warm enough to drift off, dozing lightly for several minutes and imagining a silly winter afternoon with no rude neighbors or worrisome rumors, just the laughter of children and the joy of spending time with his family.

Not twenty minutes later, he was woken by a knock on the door.

Blinking, Bilbo shook the sleep out of his eyes and stared at the door for a long moment, confused. He crawled out of his quilt and walked over to the door, pulling it open slowly. Standing at the entrance to his room was his cousin Fortinbras, the current Thain of the Hobbits, and Bilbo's eyes widened at the sight of him. Had someone made another complaint? Was something wrong?

Fortinbras offered a smile, and Bilbo relaxed a bit, realizing that Fortinbras might just be visiting him as family and not as Thain.

"Fort, um, sorry -- I was napping... what can I do for you?" Bilbo asked, glancing past Fortinbras worriedly.

"Got some lunch before it was hauled off by that mess of tweens from Eastfarthing. Since I'm rather certain you didn't go near the meal hall this morning either..." Fortinbras held up the basket, and the smell of bacon and warm buttery quickbread filled the room. Bilbo blushed, and Fortinbras' smile widened. "Can we have a chat?"

Bilbo eyed him for a long moment, but soon enough he nodded and opened the door for Fortinbras, going to light the lamp. Fortinbras followed him in and closed the door, going to sit on the rug in front of the fire, and after a moment Bilbo went to join him, basking in the warmth. Fortinbras pulled the cloth off the basket and pushed it over to Bilbo, who hesitated just a moment before pulling out a bacon sandwich and biting into it with a deep sigh.

"Thanks," he said after swallowing, and Fortinbras gave him a smile.

"You're welcome, cousin. I know Aunt Mirabella and Aunt Rosa look after you, but I worry about you, too. We all do," Fortinbras said.

Bilbo smiled a bit, feeling happy for the words. Then he gave Fortinbras a somewhat wary look, after taking another bite of his sandwich. "So... you wanted to have a chat?"

Fortinbras nodded, but he made no move toward the scrolls he had placed at his side. "In time. Finish up those sandwiches first."

So Bilbo sat quietly with his cousin and ate three bacon sandwiches, surprised at himself as he had eaten that morning, but apparently the small bowl of porridge had not been enough. He washed his lunch down with a glass of water he kept on the table, and after rejoining Fortinbras, who had remained silent while he ate, his cousin picked up the two scrolls beside him and offered one to Bilbo. It was wrapped in a deep blue ribbon, and Bilbo recognized it immediately.

"That's from Thorin Oakenshield," he said quietly, and Fortinbras nodded.

"Go on and read it, and tell me what you think," he said, so Bilbo took the scroll and untied the silk ribbon, laying it at his feet and slowly unfurling the heavy paper. A beautiful script in Westron curled across the paper, and Bilbo reached up to touch the key underneath his shirt. Then he held up the scroll and began to read.

To the Thain of the Hobbits of the Shire,

I extend greetings and salutations on behalf of the Kingdom of Erebor, to the Thain and his kin and people. In these dark times, I hope to continue the alliance between our peoples, to the mutual benefit of both our realms.

I have thought a great deal upon your travails in the months since my last letter to you. I understand that we are not yet friends, and that in these times you are wary. Despite what has befallen your people, I wish to offer a solution to your plight.

To the East of the Misty Mountains, there lies a valley, lush with life and good land. It situates around the River Anduin, beside the forests of Greenwood, a few weeks' walking distance from Erebor. In the North of this valley lives a Northman named Beorn, who guards the valley and nearby Greenwood from orcs, and sends to Erebor any news. He has been our ally for years, and together with him and the elves of Greenwood, we have kept the North and Western portions of Greenwood free of dark creatures.

When I sent news of the Shire's fall to Beorn, he responded with an offer: come to Anduin Valley. I am like-minded in this venture; the location could benefit the ties between your people and my people greatly. As my carriers have surely told you, I am on a quest to purge the Misty Mountains of orcs and reclaim it for my people, as it was once our home a thousand years ago. With this letter delivered, I am pleased to announce success in this march.

In the coming years, as my people return to Khazad-dûm and the Misty Mountains to rebuild, we will need aid and assistance. The Kingdom of Erebor has a partnership with the nearby city of Dale, belonging to men, in that the farmers and agriculturalists of Dale will provide Erebor with produce and meat, and Erebor in turn will provide aid and protection, as well as priority trade rights to some of our ores.

I and the other leaders of the Dwarf clans wish to offer the same partnership with the Hobbits, should you come to live nearer to the Misty Mountains. The valley of Anduin has land aplenty for agriculture, and I have heard that Hobbits are great farmers and producers of fine food. Past what you require to feed your people, I would ask that you sell your produce and goods to the Dwarves of Khazad-dûm, and in return we will grant protection alongside the watchful eye of Beorn, as well as some rights to our ores and wares.

There are some rules to living in Beorn's land, but they are few, and I have heard enough of Hobbits to believe that these will be little trouble. Namely, not to hunt or kill any animals that live there with the exception of fish, and to pay respect to the land.

I have chosen to winter in the halls of Khazad-dûm, and in the spring we will return to Erebor. If you have any need of assistance, do not hesitate to send any request with Bofur, who accompanied the carrier of this letter to you. When spring comes, he will return to the Misty Mountains, to join us as we return home.

I hope to see a greater partnership between our peoples in the future. To you and your kin, I offer again friendship and alliance, and as ever,

I have the honor to remain,
Thorin Oakenshield
Son of Thráin, son of Thrór
King under the Mountain

Beneath the last line of Thorin's titles, there were a few more lines, written more hastily than the others, and Bilbo's cheeks turned pink when he read them.

Please regard Bilbo Baggins, the carrier of this letter, as a great hero, for he saved my life and did many great things for my people in the final battle of this war march. I have named him Dwarf-friend for his great and honorable actions. My people and I would welcome him to Erebor, should you wish to send an ambassador for your people.

He sat there for a long moment, rereading the elegant script and thinking of what Thorin had said to him all those months ago. More than ever, he felt the desire to go to Erebor and see Thorin again -- but he knew he was not ready, emotionally or otherwise. He could barely stand to be in the same room as the majority of the people in the Great Smials, let alone a mountain of Dwarves. He hardly felt like himself, for all that he had been through, and he wondered if he would ever properly heal.

The idea of going to the old Vale, though... it had promise. A new place, with good land and a river full of fish, near a beautiful forest of legend? He liked the idea. He also rather liked what Thorin proposed, that the Hobbits create a business partnership with the Dwarves. Though he hesitated at ever returning to the Misty Mountains, he knew it would be a good thing for the Hobbits, to leave this place of death and go somewhere new -- and truly, somewhere they had been before, once a very long time ago. He knew the old legends as well as any Hobbit.

After a time he looked up at Fortinbras and smiled, and Fortinbras' eyes warmed. His cousin had lit his pipe while Bilbo was reading, and the scent of Old Toby filled the room, making Bilbo yearn briefly for a good smoke. He had no pipe of his own, though he had recovered his father's pipe, from the ruins of Bag-End many months ago.

*

Two weeks after his return to the Shire, Otho and Drogo convinced him to go to Hobbiton and look through Bag-End, to see if anything was salvageable. They went together with Aunt Linda leading all three, and Bilbo felt his heart seize in his chest when he saw the door with its deep scratches. He pushed it open slowly and looked down, only to see a dark stain on the floor.

His father had fallen there.

Aunt Linda's expression tightened, but she pulled Bilbo deeper into the torn home, holding up a lantern. Everything was broken, torn, scratched -- the pantry had been emptied long ago, the good cushions and blankets sent on to the Great Smials when Aunt Linda had taken control of Bag-End.

Aunt Linda had not lingered long in the once beautiful home, too sad over her brother's death. She had not cleaned the mess, only taken what was still useful and moved on, and Bilbo did not blame her for it. He might have done the same, but now they had the time, so they went into the sitting room where he used to read stories to his parents in the evening.

Beside the fireplace, beneath a pile of broken wood, Bilbo found his father's pipe, and on the floor by the door, his mother's garden hat, somewhat crushed.

Bilbo stood there and stared at the items in his hands for what felt like hours, until Otho came up to him muttering about how he was being silly, and that he needed a chest to carry everything. So Bilbo shook himself out of his reverie and followed Otho to the next room.

The four of them picked through the house carefully, finding what was left, and each item gave Bilbo a rush of memories, of fond times when he had been happy.

No more.

A glance into the kitchen -- what pots and pans that remained were broken or bent, but Bilbo saw two cups sitting in the far corner of one of the window sills, unbroken. He took the cups and tucked them into his pockets, and walked on.

Some of his books had not been burnt. His closet full of bright, colorful clothes -- given away to other Hobbits, though Aunt Linda promised that some might be given back to him. Aunt Linda herself had his mother's favorite quilt, and she would give it to Bilbo.

Going into their bedroom had been the worst. It had been untouched by the violence, and it still smelled of them, of his father's pipeweed and the flowers his mother would bring inside every day. He found a dusty green coat hanging on the closet door -- his father's. He took it and pulled it on, and though Otho gave him a bewildered look, Bilbo refused to take it off for the rest of the day.

He had nothing else of them, except memories and these broken treasures. Everything he could keep, everything he could carry away with him, he would take, no matter how silly it seemed. They were his parents, and he missed them so, so much.

*

Bilbo shook the thoughts of his parents' lost home out of his mind and looked down at the scroll.

"Thorin's idea... I think it is a good one. I think... we need to leave this place, in order to start anew. Thorin, he's... he's already done so much for us. It astonishes me that he wants to do this, too. But it would be something good. I think so, anyway," Bilbo said, and Fortinbras nodded.

"I believe so as well. The older ones, you know how they are, they don't want to leave, think we can just plant some more seeds and everything will be fine. But out there?" Fortinbras lifted his pipe and pointed at the window, past the curtains and into the grey outside. "Everything is dead, Bilbo. Crops won't grow out there. All our good memories of this place... they're ruined by that day. I know not everyone will want to go, but I think, for the good of everybody, that we have to go."

Fortinbras pulled out the other scroll and unrolled it across the floor, revealing a map of the continent. He pointed out the space that Thorin had spoken of, circling it with his finger. "This is the old Vale, and it'd be a long journey... we'd have to go through the Misty Mountains, which a lot of folks would be hesitant to do. But it'd be a safe place, with the Dwarves and that Beorn looking out for us, and even Elves live in the woods nearby, from some kingdom up north."

Bilbo nodded slowly, watching the white-grey of the snow swirling outside. Though it had been years since Shirefall, apparently there was not often sunlight anymore, more often clouds and grey rain. Little had grown, as his cousins had told him, and what did grow was hardly any good. They had only survived this winter so far based on the stores bought from faraway cities of Men.

He looked over the map, drawing a finger from the Shire to the Anduin River, and sighed deeply. "What are you going to do?" Bilbo asked after a moment, and Fortinbras frowned.

"I've talked about it with some of the older folk, and they've requested that we wait a bit, see what spring brings. Some of the better farmers tried something new with the land, but I've got my doubts... though, who knows? When spring comes, we will wait, and if it's worked, then we'll discuss everything again. And if it hasn't worked... then I'll call all the Hobbits to Tuckborough for a great meeting and give everyone the chance to shout about it."

Bilbo snorted, imagining the great shouting that would occur at such a meeting. He glanced longingly at Fortinbras' pipe, and Fortinbras chuckled and passed it over. Bilbo brightened, and he gladly took a long suck of the heady smoke, sighing it out slowly.

"I guess we'll see what happens when the snow melts, then," Bilbo said, thinking of green pastures and bright sunlight, already dreaming of a new life in a new place.

For a while they passed the pipe between each other, until the embers ran out. Fortinbras knocked the ashes into the hearth, then sat back and gave Bilbo a considering look.

"Bilbo," he said, drawing Bilbo's attention. "I don't like how you've been avoiding meals. Aunt Mira's told me that you go get breakfast and supper after everyone else, but not all the time. As your cousin and the head of the Took family now, I can't let you miss meals any longer. The gossipers are just old busybodies. It's winter, and they're bored. Ignore them, and it'll pass. Starting tonight, I want you to come to every meal, okay? Sit with Rory and your Baggins cousins if you want, but come anyway. If you don't, I'll drag you in myself and make you sit with Great Aunt Aldadrida for every meal until the snow melts," he said, fixing Bilbo with a stern look.

Bilbo glanced at his cousin with wide eyes, but he slowly nodded, feeling sheepish and anxious at the same time. "Are you sure? I don't want to cause trouble," he started, but Fortinbras only increased his glower.

"You're my cousin, and a Took to boot, even if Aunt Belladonna did marry a Baggins. You're more welcome at my table than any of those old bats, and if they don't like it, they can shut themselves up in their rooms instead. Aunt Mirabella's already scolded me four times about it, and it doesn't make me feel good to be scolded like a fauntling because some old gaffer's got an opinion about something! You're coming to dinner tonight, and you're going to stop avoiding everyone, just because some people are being rude," Fortinbras finished with a flourish, and Bilbo felt his cheeks turn pink again.

He did not want to say yes, because he did not believe he deserved this... but he could not deny his family anything. Slowly he nodded, and Fortinbras looked somewhat mollified. "Alright," Bilbo said quietly, and he gave his cousin a smile. "Tonight, I'll come to dinner, I promise."

Chapter Text

For the first time in what was probably weeks, as he did not truly remember how long it had been, Bilbo walked into the massive dining hall at the center of the Great Smials while it was full of nearly all of the Hobbits that lived there. Otho walked in front of him and Rory followed behind closely, with the insurance of knowing they were allowed drag Bilbo by his ears with the Thain's blessing if he tried to run away. Bilbo paused in the doorway when several Hobbits hushed, but Rory shoved him forward, and he heard a squeal of delight from one of the tables.

"Bilbo!" Primula called, and despite Aunt Mirabella reaching automatically to grab her, she squirmed out of her seat and ran to meet them, throwing her arms around Bilbo's waist. He softened despite himself, reaching down to pat her soft curls and giving her a smile.

"Hello, Prim. Did you save me a seat?" he asked, and Primula beamed, but Rory cut off her reply.

"Sorry, Prim, he's sitting with the adults tonight. Go back to mama," Rory said while turning up his nose, giving another push to Bilbo's back.

"As if you're an adult," Primula shot back, and a noise like a snort escaped Bilbo, making Rory pinch him.

"Go on, Prim, you have to sit with mama tonight," Rory said, frowning at his sister.

"But I haven't seen Bilbo in forever! Not fair, Rory!" Primula cried.

Primula clung all the harder to Bilbo's waist, refusing to let go even as Rory prodded Bilbo across the room, unconcerned with the eyes that followed them -- and Bilbo was somewhat relieved to realize that most of the Hobbits in the room paid him no mind. Otho rolled his eyes and shared a look with Drogo, who seemed to be pretending that Primula was not there.

Drogo's gaze darkened when he noticed the looks of one table, leaning in to Otho. "Bruno's mum is giving us the evil eye. Looks like his nose isn't healing right," he said quietly, smirking, and Bilbo twitched.

"Don't look at them," he started tightly, but then Rory was pushing him onto a seat at one of the emptier tables, and Primula quickly climbed up beside Bilbo. Rory gave her an exasperated look.

"I'm sitting with Bilbo," Primula announced, and Bilbo held back a sigh.

"Don't fight about it," he said to Rory, frowning at him, and Rory groaned but sat down across from Bilbo, along with Otho, while Drogo took his other side. Amaranth, Rory's younger sister, came over with two plates, and she gave Bilbo a smile as she set one in front of Primula.

"Good to see you, cousin," she said lightly, and Bilbo managed a smile as she sat down. Then Otho was grumbling about Drogo taking all the carrots, while Rory made a face at Primula, and Bilbo wondered if his cousins would ever grow up. Then he hoped that they would never change, no matter how old they became.

It was strange to sit here, even though three weeks ago it would have been perfectly normal. He felt nervous, as if everybody was staring at him when he was not looking, but every time he peeked up, nobody was watching him. Yet he felt attention all the same, and it made him rather anxious.

Maybe he should go -- but no, his cousins had dragged him here and would refuse to let him leave, and Fortinbras had all but ordered him to be here in the first place, and he did owe it to his family -- to pretend, for a little while, to be normal...

All of the noise in the room was bothering him. He managed to ignore it, though, beginning to pile food on his plate, looking forward to a hot meal with his family.

Primula kept up an energetic conversation at his side, telling him all about her lessons and playtime, and Bilbo barely had to speak, only humming in agreement or saying, "That's quite fascinating, Prim," in between bites. Primula had always taken a strong liking to him, even when she was just a baby, and he adored her. If he ever had children, he would want them to be like Prim --

The thought shocked him. Children? When would he ever have children? Who would possibly marry him, after everything that he had done? Primula's chatter faded to the background, and Bilbo felt cold, a deep loneliness filling him, despite being surrounded by the warmth and love of his family. How could he have forgotten? He was not normal. He would never have a normal relationship, a normal love, a normal anything -- he was the pain-bearer. There was no normal in his future.

"Bilbo?"

Bilbo looked down to see Primula watching him worriedly, and he realized that most of his cousins had quieted as well. He looked up and smiled, patting Primula on the head. "I'm alright, Prim. Go on, tell me more about your lesson from last week," he said, and Primula brightened and began talking again.

Amaranth and Otho went back to their meals, but Drogo stared at him suspiciously, and Rory had a dark look to his eyes, as if he knew what Bilbo was thinking.

Rory puzzled him sometimes. In Azog's halls, he had acted much like he had before Shirefall, playful and cheerful when they believed they were alone, but he had also responded the fiercest whenever an Orc came to visit the slaves. Bilbo knew that Rory had been punished for his actions, too, even by Azog himself, but still Rory had looked up at him with a smile the next day, despite the bruises on his face and the careful way he held himself.

It amazed him how easily Rory had settled back into 'normal' Hobbit reactions, and yet sometimes Rory would get that look on his face, with a darkness and anger that Bilbo had rarely seen.

Probably Rory had refused to let Bilbo see it, to keep both of them from falling apart. Maybe pretending to be normal was as hard for Rory as it was for Bilbo.

Bilbo's smile faded a little. He gave Rory an apologetic look, and Rory's expression softened a bit. Despite the age difference between them, Rory was his best friend, and Bilbo hated upsetting him. So he tried, despite his anxiety, to have a normal dinner with his family, and for a time, he managed quite well.

Unfortunately for Bilbo, normal for Hobbits included one of their favorite pastimes: gossip. As with any gossip, it began with a whisper.

"He's come back. Done snitching from the kitchens, then?"

"Shh, he's right there!"

Bilbo tensed, his eyes widening, and Rory looked up sharply, turning to glare over his shoulder. The whispers hushed, but Bilbo felt like crying at the unfairness of it all. He had taken that food for the children -- with permission! Myrtle Burrows could tell them -- but he noticed that Myrtle was not at dinner, likely looking after the children who refused to eat with everyone else.

A few moments passed, and nobody else whispered about Bilbo, carrying on their conversations as normal. So Bilbo cautiously began to eat again, murmuring in response to Primula's chatter, holding himself tense as he waited. The rumors had not stopped -- and he knew they would start whispering about him again.

And there, another whisper, though this one was hardly soft enough to be counted as such.

"It's shameful to let someone like him in a place like this! Shouldn't they take that little girl away?"

Rory and Otho stood at the same time, whirling around to glare at the room, but before they could say anything, Primula said very loudly, "And you know what, Bilbo, when we get married, we are going to have a beautiful Baggins boy, and he's going to have your blue eyes and my blonde curls!"

Bilbo stared wide-eyed down at Primula, who took another bite of carrots serenely as if half the hall was not staring at them. Then a girl at the table where the whispers had come from began giggling, and an older woman hushed her immediately, but already several Hobbits were chuckling and turning back to their meals.

Bilbo felt a sudden, strong fondness for his cousin, a small chuckle escaping him, though his heart beat loudly in his chest. "Prim, dear heart, you know we cannot get married... we're cousins," he said, feeling a little sad.

Primula pouted, and Rory and Otho slowly sat down, looking bewildered. "But I want to marry a Baggins! They're the best family next to us Brandybucks and Tooks, and I can't marry any of them -- they're all my cousins, too!"

Bilbo smiled feebly. "Sorry, Prim... I'm the only Baggins boy you cannot marry," he said quietly.

Primula sighed deeply and looked past Bilbo at Drogo, scrutinizing him slowly and making Drogo look very nervous. "I suppose there are other Baggins boys to consider," she said appraisingly, and Bilbo ducked his head to hide a smile, as he saw Otho stiffen across the table.

Amaranth was shaking her head beside Primula. "Primula, love, you are too young to think about marriage. Let the Baggins boys grow up, and think about it later, alright? Come on, eat your supper," she said.

Primula pouted and looked at her potatoes with a sulk. "I really wish it was Bilbo, though, so I could be his pain-bearer," she said, and immediately all eyes were on her, while Bilbo felt himself freeze up at hearing that word from the mouth of someone who knew nothing of what it meant.

"Primula," he whispered, and Primula looked up at him with a frown. Rory stared at her with wide eyes, and Otho and Drogo held themselves very still, while at the other table, where the whispers had come from, those who were listening grew silent, to hear better.

"It's true! If you're the pain-bearer for everyone else, someone has to be the pain-bearer for you, and I want to be it! I would be a good pain-bearer," Primula said, her voice getting louder, and Bilbo reached up to hold her shoulder, shaking his head already.

"Prim, no. You can't -- I won't let you do something like that," he started, but Primula looked fierce for a moment, reminding him of Rory.

"But you're so sad all the time! It's not right, because you used to be so happy, and then you were taken away, and you came back so sad! I want to make you happy again, Bilbo, you're my favorite cousin and I love you!" Primula said, nearly shouting, making something burn in Bilbo's throat for a moment.

Across the table, Rory took a deep breath as if to calm himself, and Bilbo felt the same shuddering breath escape him. "Prim, you can't... be a pain-bearer, not like Bilbo," Rory said very quietly. Primula glared at him, but Rory held up his hands. "It's not what you think it is," he said, but Primula was already speaking, her curls bouncing as she sat up.

"It's for someone who makes other people happier, isn't it? When they are sad, you take away their sadness, right? I want to be that person for Bilbo! Why can't I?" she asked, and Bilbo reached down to take her hand, catching her attention, his chest aching at how simple she made it sound.

"Primula," he said seriously, and Primula quieted, watching him. "Just being with you makes me happy, okay? Don't talk about," he swallowed briefly, "the pain-bearer business anymore, okay? Just be yourself, that's all I ask." He leaned down to kiss Primula's forehead, and Primula looked upset for a moment, but then she nodded.

"Okay," she said quietly, and Bilbo and Rory both breathed a sigh of relief. Drogo, Otho, and Amaranth all watched them silently, a suspicion in their gazes, but Bilbo avoided looking at his cousins and tried to focus on his meal again. If he could finish his meal, then he could escape without repercussion, and he could spend the rest of the evening in his room, where he could be alone. He just had to make it through this meal without anything else happening.

It was not to be. Their conversation had caught the attention of many other people in the room, some looking very sad, and others looking sour. Bilbo glanced up to see the woman who had hushed the girl earlier glaring at him, which chilled him.

"Shameful," she said, and the little girl beside her tried to shush her, looking nervous. With a shock Bilbo realized that this was Bruno Bracegirdle's mother, and the girl beside her often played with Primula -- Primrose and Lobelia.

"What nonsense," Primrose Bracegirdle continued, ignoring her daughter and glaring at Bilbo, who could not move. "Letting that goblin-servant around young, impressionable children! Pain-bearer? More like murderer --"

Rory's expression twisted. Bilbo made an abrupt movement to shush him, his eyes wide, but Rory slammed his hands down on the table and jumped up, already furious.

"Don't say that word like you understand it!" he shouted, and Bilbo felt something hot rush to his stomach.

No, he thought, don't you dare --

But Rory would not be silenced. "Don't you dare talk about Bilbo like you know what he went through, what any of us went through," he hissed, glaring at Primrose Bracegirdle, while the entire hall went silent. Several of the Hobbits, all former slaves, went white as they realized what Rory was saying.

"You don't know what it was like living in that place! You don't know what we went through -- every day -- thinking it was going to be the last one! Every single day, we didn't know if we would survive, because every day, the goblins came in and decided whether they wanted to eat us, or beat us, or make us do horrible things -- and you will never understand our pain!" Rory shouted, and not a single person said a word, their eyes wide.

"We weren't goblin-servants, like you would even understand what that means," Rory sneered. "We were SLAVES! They kept us to EAT! They kept us and took us out to play with, they made us fight each other, they hurt us and beat us and raped us! And that was when we were not dragged out to be their dinner!

"Every day, every single day we were afraid to wake up and find out they would do to us next. But -- we were the lucky ones," Rory said, his gaze shifting to his cousin, and Bilbo felt the blood drain from his face.

Bilbo could not breathe. No, he thought, staring desperately at Rory, begging him not to say anything else, Please don't tell them --

"We call him pain-bearer because Bilbo got the worst of it, of any of us," Rory said, not taking his eyes from Bilbo's face. "Because every night, Bilbo had to stay with that white goblin, and every day he came back to us bleeding and bruised and hurting, and he said it was nothing, and he would smile and sit with us and all the while he was suffering. Because," Rory said, a sharp laugh escaping him, and Bilbo started to shake his head, but Rory was not done. "Because Bilbo protected us, every day -- he got our master so angry that Azog would forget about us and beat Bilbo up. Every single day --" and Rory had to take a deep breath, getting red in the face from his anger.

Bilbo reached slowly up to his neck, finding the outline of his necklace and holding on tightly to the key and rings, feeling some dark urge to disappear in the back of his mind, to vanish and run from this place and never look back -- but he could not, not while Rory was looking at him.

"And none of you can ever understand what it was like for us," Rory said, looking away from Bilbo and glaring at the hall, at the faces of the Hobbits who had never known the pain of being a slave. "You can be mad all you want that someone you loved died -- but don't get mad at us for it! Don't get mad at Bilbo, because he tried the hardest of any of us to keep us alive, and if he could not save someone, then he made sure that they died quietly -- instead of being eaten alive by a goblin!

"I'm sorry that everyone is dead -- I know you all feel it, how sorry... how sad, how angry we all are. But us slaves, it's not like we killed someone so that we could live -- we had no control over it, over living or dying! But we made it anyway -- and we did not come back here just so you could gossip and whisper about how horrible we are, how we should not be alive because someone you loved is dead!

"All of us lost someone, all of us have scars and nightmares about what happened. We watched so many Hobbits die there, and we were so scared, that we were going to be next -- and all the while Bilbo tried to make sure that we got food and water -- he tried to keep the goblins from paying attention to us -- he tried to help us, so that we could survive!"

Rory waved a hand wildly, growing angrier as he shouted, "So leave him alone, you nasty, horrible --"

But Rory was cut off when Bilbo stood and pressed a hand over his mouth, his entire body trembling. "That's enough," Bilbo whispered, and Rory stared at him, the fury abruptly fading when he saw the look on Bilbo's face. Slowly Bilbo let go of him, and Rory looked across the room, seeing in the expressions of his fellow Hobbits shock, anger, fear -- and sadness, such sadness, because none of them had known.

Not a single Hobbit, who had lived as a slave and survived, had ever talked about their pain before.

Many of the Hobbits in the hall were crying silently. Some whispered, "Is it true?" and someone would nod their head, and soon nearly everybody was crying. Dinner was forgotten, and even those Hobbits who had whispered and pointed fingers were shaking and weeping, shocked by the truth that they had refused to see. Primrose Bracegirdle had gone white, and beside her, Lobelia was crying, looking at Bilbo and Primula with shock.

Slowly Bilbo and Rory sat down again. Bilbo stared down at his plate and held himself tightly, the pain from digging his nails into his palms so strong that he could not feel his hands anymore, while his vision grew blurry --

And then small hands reached up to touch his face, wiping the tears from his eyes, and Bilbo blinked through the wetness and looked over to see Primula looking up at him. She gave him a solemn look, then pushed him back and climbed up into his lap, wrapping her arms around his neck and hugging him. Bilbo felt another arm wrap around his shoulder -- Drogo. Across the table Rory muttered, "I'm sorry, Bilbo," and Bilbo hid his face in Primula's soft curls, a sob shaking his body. Drogo's arm tightened around him. Amaranth moved closer and laid a hand on his shoulder.

Above the soft sounds of weeping, Bilbo heard someone say, "We didn't know."

Someone said, "Nobody ever told us."

Then someone said, "We're sorry." And someone else said it, and then again, and Hobbits were turning to each other and hugging their spouses, their siblings, their cousins, their friends -- because everyone had suffered, no matter how much they had pretended. Everyone had lost someone to Shirefall. Not a single Hobbit in that room had let themselves face their pain, had instead pushed it deep inside them, wanting to live in denial -- but they could not pretend anymore.

The pain was too much for anyone to bear alone.

Soon, though, as Hobbits could not be anything but Hobbits, the scents of dinner drew their attention again, and everybody slowly returned to eating, the hall quiet, but the air was not heavy anymore, no longer stiff, as if crying had released the tension. Not every Hobbit was relaxed, though, still shocked that the details of their dark past had been revealed in such a way, some shaking in memory -- but no one left the hall.

Bilbo felt the overwhelming urge to disappear. Several times he made movements as if to stand, but Drogo's arm would tighten and Primula would press further into his arms, and Bilbo realized that his family was refusing to let him run away and hide again. So he gathered what bit of courage he had left and lifted his head, not looking up at the people around him, but focusing on his plate. Primula shifted so that they could both see the table, and despite the awkward position, they both began to eat again.

Bilbo barely tasted anything. He could only think, they know now, but he could feel his family pressing in around him, supporting him silently. His cousins, protective and watchful, making sure he ate and refusing to let him be hurt again.

But this -- telling everybody what he had done, even without the details... he could barely handle it.

When he was finished eating, Primula remained in his lap, and she refused to let him move until every one of their cousins had finished their meals as well. Only then did Primula slide off his lap, but she kept a death grip on his hand, holding onto him tightly as he stood. Rory immediately moved to his side as Bilbo headed toward the door, wanting nothing more than to leave, and Bilbo realized that his other cousins were following them.

At the door, they were stopped by Lobelia Bracegirdle, who exchanged a look with Primula before looking up at Bilbo. "I'm sorry for what my mother said," she said quietly, looking a bit sour, but Bilbo could see the earnestness in her expression. Beside him, Primula beamed, and Lobelia smiled back at her.

Bilbo did not smile, but he nodded to Lobelia, saying, "Thank you," before walking past her. Primula waved at Lobelia before following Bilbo, and Bilbo sighed at the thought of trying to get rid of his cousins, who would no doubt want to stick close to him for a while.

Thankfully, Rory took care of that problem for him.

When they reached Bilbo's door, Rory turned to frown at their cousins, prying Primula's hand from Bilbo's and pushing the door open.

"I have to talk to Bilbo alone," he said, shoving Bilbo into the room and closing the door immediately, despite Primula's and Drogo's immediate protests. He locked the door, and Bilbo gave him a look before walking over to light his oil lamp, then crossing his arms tightly.

Rory walked over to the window, peering outside at the snow, then back at Bilbo, who ignored him. He did not look forward to the row they would have, but he was desperate to get it over so he could be alone.

"Bilbo," Rory started, then faltered, as Bilbo's expression tightened. "Bilbo," he tried again, more softly, but Bilbo shook his head abruptly.

"Don't," he said sharply, and Rory frowned.

"You heard them going on about you," he shot back, waving his arm in the exact same angry gesture as earlier that evening. "Calling you nasty names, saying those horrible things behind your back -- I couldn't stand it! They have no right, talking about you like that --"

"And you had no right to tell them any of it!" Bilbo interrupted, whirling about to glare at his cousin. "Anyone who wasn't a slave -- they will never understand us, they will always judge us, and I don't care if they do, Rory! I just wanted it to -- to fade away, to disappear. I didn't want anybody to know!"

Rory stepped forward, his hands fisting at his sides. "So it is okay for them to talk about you like you are some, some kind of tramp, like you wanted all that to happen -- like it was your choice? It's not fair, Bilbo, and I'm sorry I said it the way I did, but I'm not sorry I said it! I was protecting you!"

"Well, I don't need your protection, Rory, I'm doing just fine on my own," Bilbo snapped back, and Rory's eyes narrowed.

"Like you've done so far, skipping meals and hiding in here? Like you did back in Azog's halls, when every day you would walk in with another bruise from him beating you --"

Bilbo shook his head quickly, his gaze darting to the door, knowing that their family was standing outside, no doubt trying to listen. "Don't," he whispered, but Rory gave him such a glare that Bilbo's mouth shut automatically.

"They should know what happened! They've been watching out for you just as I have, Bilbo. Just because they weren't there doesn't mean they won't understand it. Let us help," Rory said, stepping closer to Bilbo and reaching up to grip his forearms. "You have shouldered this pain for so long, and it is killing you -- you're wasting away here! We've lost enough Hobbits already, okay? Great Aunt Adaldrida is dying, and our aunts and uncles are gone -- and you're my best friend," and Rory's voice broke, but Bilbo could not meet his eyes. "I cannot lose you, too," Rory whispered.

Oh, it hurt to fight with Rory like this, but the panic in his chest had not faded, the wild energy of the argument seizing him still. One thing Rory had said shocked him, though. "Great Aunt Adaldrida?" he whispered, his eyes wide.

Rory's expression crumpled. "Yeah," he said heavily, "she has the cough, the one from the goblin caves. She says she is fine, but everyone knows that it's..." Then he paused, looking up at Bilbo. "You mean you didn't know?"

Bilbo felt a flash of white-hot shame. "I hadn't... I haven't seen her in a while," he said, thinking of their great aunt, who was not his aunt by blood, but through many generations of marriage between Bagginses and Bolgers -- and through their shared experience in Azog's halls, where they became family out of necessity and choice. Adaldrida Brandybuck had kept him, Rory, and Uncle Gorbadoc together during those long years. She had taken Bilbo and the others under her wing to protect and look after, and she had been the unofficial leader of the Hobbits in that hall, when Bilbo had not been around.

To know that she was dying of the grey cough, a disease that many older Hobbits had died of in Moria's caves from the fungus and dust in the air, broke Bilbo's heart, and he had to hide his face as his eyes grew wet. He felt Rory cross the room and reach up to grip his shoulders, and a small sob escaped him. Rory held him for a little while, until he managed to control his tears and pull back, noticing that Rory's eyes were wet as well.

"I don't want them to know," he tried feebly, and Rory sighed, gripping Bilbo's shoulders.

"I think you need to tell them, some of it anyway," he said, glancing at the door. Bilbo followed his gaze, and he sighed to see several shadows beneath the door, obviously their cousins waiting for them to stop arguing. No doubt they had heard quite a bit of their shouting, too.

"But what?" Bilbo asked, pulling away and going to the fire, rubbing at his stomach, feeling the scar beneath the cloth, his gaze darkening.

"How can I possibly tell them anything of what happened? What can I say? That I poisoned my fellow Hobbits, that I was raped every night, that I begged Azog to beat me and hurt me, in exchange for leaving you all alone? Should I tell them about the black mushrooms? Should I tell them about what the Orcs would do, how they would take Hobbits to be eaten by cave trolls and wargs? How they would pick someone and drag them out in the middle of the hall and eat them right there?"

He turned sharply and glared at Rory, who looked very pale. "What should I tell them, Rory? Should I show them my scars, all the marks from being clawed and whipped and lashed? Have you shown them yours?" he said, and Rory flinched but frowned back at him.

"Don't you dare, Bilbo," he hissed, and Bilbo felt something shutter in his chest. "My parents know, and it's not like the others haven't guessed! I share a room with my brothers, you know! They've already seen it all," he said, putting his hands on his hips and glaring.

"This is about you and your Baggins cousins, because they've been in the dark all this time, and I've had to keep them from being too rough with you," Rory said, and Bilbo's mouth fell open.

"Rough with me?" he sputtered, but Rory talked over him, his voice growing louder.

"For all you Bagginses used to believe in being proper, Otho and Drogo are as rough as a couple of Tooks! They look up to you, you know, you're the only Baggins man around anymore, and they have no one else -- so they want to wrestle with you and roll around like boys do! But you are terrified of that, I know you are, and I knew it upset you when they grabbed you, so I had to shout at them about it -- but they still don't understand, Bilbo. They can't -- it's not in their hearts to know that pain. They think you should be over it! You need to tell them that you're not!" Rory shouted, and Bilbo felt the stubbornness of his Tookish side set in, scowling.

"I'm not telling them anything," he said darkly, but then the door banged open, and Drogo rushed in, Otho following closely behind him. Bilbo faltered, his eyes wide, terrified for a moment that they had heard him. Thankfully, Primula was nowhere in sight; Amaranth must have taken her back to their room.

"Maybe we want to know, have you thought of that, Bilbo Baggins?" Drogo shouted, and Bilbo pushed past him and shut the door, huffing and shooting a glare at his cousins, past caring what they thought of him.

"Don't shout where the whole hall can hear you," he said, and Drogo rolled his eyes, while Otho scowled.

"Bilbo --"

"No," Bilbo said loudly, turning to glare at his cousins, fed up with all of them. "I'm not talking about this. Not tonight. I'm not ready -- I cannot even think about it, let alone tell you anything. I'll -- I will tell you another time, just -- just not now. I can't deal with it --"

"Bilbo," Otho interrupted, looking sour, and Bilbo shut his mouth. "We already heard it, outside. Amaranth had to take Prim back to her room when you two started shouting, but both of us heard it, alright? We know," he finished quietly, as Bilbo was staring at him with wide eyes, looking thunderstruck.

"You, you heard --"

Drogo walked over to Bilbo and grabbed his shoulders, and Bilbo tensed in shock, looking at his dark-haired cousin numbly. Drogo's grip wavered before tightening, but his gaze was serious, fierce, yet so sad at the same time.

"Bilbo," Drogo said quietly, "you've been suffering every day for years, and Otho and I can't let it go on anymore. You're home now, with us, and we are not going to leave you. No matter what terrible things you've done, or how dark your thoughts grow, or how fiercely you push us away, we won't leave you. The three of us haven't always seen eye to eye," he said, glancing back at Otho who grimaced. "But we're family, and Bagginses take care of each other," he continued, looking back at Bilbo and shaking him a bit, making Bilbo gasp.

"But the things I've done --"

"We don't care, you silly sod!" Drogo said, shaking him again, and Bilbo let out a sob.

"But what if -- what if I want to leave this place, what if I go far away? You can't follow me then, you both hate traveling --"

"We'd do it," Otho said fiercely, coming to stand beside them and putting his hand on Bilbo's arm. "You're all we have. If you want to go -- go cavort with Elves or Dwarves or whatever other strange creatures there are in this land, we will follow, we'll go on any Tookish adventure you want to have."

Bilbo shook his head, tears falling down his cheeks, and he reached up to wipe them, breathing in shakily. "But you two, you're supposed to be normal -- you should grow up and settle down, have lots of plump children, be happy --"

Rory came up behind him, knocking him lightly upside the head, and Bilbo looked at him blankly. "How can they be happy if you're miserable, Bilbo?" Rory asked, and Otho and Drogo nodded in agreement. "Would you be happy if I stopped eating? Would you be happy if I was all alone, with no one to keep me company, while Amy and all them all got married and went away?"

Bilbo was already shaking his head. He would never be happy, if he knew that one of his cousins was suffering in such a way. "No --"

"Then look at yourself, you idiot," Rory said, his voice shaking, "Don't you see? We want you to be happy, too!"

But Bilbo pulled away from all of them, going to stand by the window and crossing his arms tightly, his chest shaking as he tried to control his sobs. "How am I supposed to be happy, Rory? I can't -- I can barely get through each day. How do you do it? How do you smile and laugh and dream of better things? I just -- can't," he whispered, and he held himself for a moment, gripping the key beneath his shirt, his shoulders shaking.

"I don't think there is any happiness for me," he continued quietly, "and even though you say I'm wrong, I cannot see it, I cannot believe it. The darkness from that place, from that monster, it has infected everything I have ever held dear. You heard Primula earlier -- she wants to be a pain-bearer!" He laughed sharply, wiping at his eyes, and slowly his expression emptied, staring out the window into the darkness beyond.

"That's who I became," he whispered. "Nûl-lûpûrz. It meant that I begged for pain, because when he was killing my mother, I begged for him to kill me instead. He said it so gently, sometimes, all the while ordering innocent people to their deaths. So I bargained with him, tricked him into hurting me instead. Tricked the Orcs, too, into making him angry, so that he would hurt them instead of us. Anything, anything at all that I could do, to keep him from hurting Rory and the others -- I did it," he whispered, looking back at his cousins. "I will carry that pain for the rest of my life, and I will never let anyone else bear it for me."

Rory stared at him solemnly, and Drogo and Otho both looked like they wanted to argue, but there was nothing they could say.

Bilbo watched them for a moment, his heart aching, and finally he sighed, turning back and sitting down on the window seat, clasping his hands in his lap. "I will... try to do better, though," he said quietly, pulling out a handkerchief and wiping his face. "I cannot promise anything, because it's all too much sometimes, but I'll come to meals -- and you can drag me there if I don't want to go," he said, and Drogo let out a deep sigh, while Otho looked solemn.

"As long as you try, Bilbo," Rory said, looking relieved. "Just don't shut yourself up in here anymore, okay? You should go to the library like before, and to the nursery again, I've heard the kids miss you."

Bilbo nodded, feeling spent after shouting so much, after saying so much to his cousins -- and with the shock of Otho and Drogo knowing. It was too much for him to handle, and right now, all he wanted to do was sleep.

"I think I should rest now," he said quietly, and Rory watched him a moment, before nodding and taking Otho and Drogo by the shoulders. At last, he was giving Bilbo the space he wanted; maybe he had reached his peak as well.

"Right, we'll come find you for breakfast, Bilbo. Come on, boys," he said, pushing Otho and Drogo out the door, and Bilbo walked over to close it, though he paused, watching his cousins walk down the hall. They amazed him in so many ways, in their support and love for him, and though it filled him with such a vibrant happiness, he felt shaky and anxious still.

Slowly he closed the door and went to his closet, pulling off his vest and hanging it up carefully. Then he went to the fire to bring it back to life, sitting down in front of it and staring into the bright flames for a long time, remembering.

Azog. Nûl-lûpûrz. The darkness of those halls, the darkness in his soul which he had never known until he had lived as a slave. The pain he had carried for so long -- and strangely, now, his shoulders felt lighter, for all that he hated the idea of Otho and Drogo knowing about what he had done for the past several years.

He pulled his legs to his chest, thinking of Azog and his burning blue eyes, the touch of his hand in his hair. So many times, Azog had manipulated him, thinking Bilbo's desperation to protect his kin a wonderful game -- and yet to Bilbo it had been his entire world, fighting to save them.

But it was over. Thorin Oakenshield had saved him from that life, had helped him destroy Azog -- had released him from the nightmare of that life.

Slowly, he reached up to his neck, pulling out his necklace and holding onto the silver key tightly, a small sob escaping him.

Some of his hurts may never be mended, not with time -- but Bilbo clung to the trust that he had seen in Thorin's gaze. Thorin had believed in him, to change himself and become a whole person again -- and Bilbo did not want to let him down.

He could do it. Bit by bit, step by step, he could move forward. The rumors that had caused him such anxiety -- he knew why now, and he believed that perhaps now, they would stop. He remembered that there had been a Hobbit whom he had given black mushrooms once -- the first Hobbit to die by his hand, actually -- whose face had been echoed in the woman who had glared at him tonight.

Rollo Boffin had been his name. His sister was Primrose Bracegirdle, née Boffin.

No doubt she blamed him for her brother's death, but Rollo Boffin had been gotten very sick in the second year of their slavery. Azog had decided he would be given to the trolls, and upon learning this, Rollo had begged Bilbo for help. Wasn't there a way to escape? He would rather die alone in the darkness than be torn apart by trolls -- and Bilbo had hesitantly mentioned some mushrooms he had seen, deep in the darkness, that were as black as night and looked terribly poisonous.

So Rollo had begged, and Bilbo had snuck away, fetching the black mushrooms with a heavy heart. He had handed them off to Rollo, then crept back to Azog's room, wondering all the while if he had done the right thing. He had laid awake for hours, worrying, tossing and turning, half-dreaming of finding every Hobbit in that hall dead -- and maybe the mushrooms would not even work, maybe Rollo would still be alive, or maybe he would throw them away --

But the next morning, Bilbo had walked into the Hobbit hall to find Rollo Boffin's body, his lips black and his face slack with death. Azog had raged and thrown his body to the trolls anyway, but Rollo would never feel the torture of a troll's hunger. He had died peacefully by his own hand.

Would Primrose Bracegirdle ever understand that? Bilbo had no idea -- but in his heart, he knew that he could not pay for Rollo's choice. Rollo would have died, no matter what, and though it was wrong -- though he had indeed helped someone commit suicide -- Bilbo felt better knowing that Rollo would not have known such terror at the end of his life.

Maybe someday, he would talk to Primrose Bracegirdle and explain everything about her brother's death. Maybe she would even understand -- or maybe she would call him murderer again. That was her choice -- just as Rollo's suicide had been his own choice.

It hurt, though, and for a long moment Bilbo mourned Rollo Boffin and the loss of his innocence. With such dark weights on his soul, how could he ever find happiness? Maybe it would be better if he followed his fellow Hobbits into death, but --

He could not leave Otho and Drogo, or Rory, or Primula, or the children in the nursery who had no one else to cling to, nor could he forget his promise to Thorin.

So Bilbo would live, and continue forward, and if it hurt, well -- he was a pain-bearer. That was his choice -- to bear the pain of those who could no longer carry it themselves.

Bilbo sat there for a long time into the night, gazing into the fire with dried tear marks on his cheeks, until at last he crept into bed and slept very deeply, his heart just the tiniest bit lighter.

~

The next morning, Bilbo did not sneak into the kitchen to eat cold porridge. Instead, he slept late, and was woken by Rory barging into his room and singing loudly about Bilbo having a visitor, so he should get up and come eat something hot and tasty.

Bilbo tried to glare him out of the room, but Rory would not be stopped, and so it was a very grumpy Bilbo who was pushed and prodded into the dining hall -- where he received a rather pleasant surprise. Delighted, he smiled across the hall at Bofur, who had come to visit along with his kin.

"Bilbo!" called Bofur, smiling cheerfully at Bilbo from where he sat, surrounded by Hobbit children who hung onto his braids and giggled at him. The other Dwarves were sitting at another table, eating heartily. Bofur stood and pried the children off of him, promising to tell them stories later to their pouts, and he walked over to Bilbo, clasping his shoulder and smiling at him.

"Haven't seen you in a while," he said, his dark eyes twinkling. "We made some ale a few days ago and brought it over to share tonight! Got any plans for today?"

Bilbo smiled despite the guilt he felt, reaching up to grip Bofur's arm. "I do now, if that is an invitation. How are you, friend?" he asked, walking with Bofur over to another table, and Rory went to grab them some breakfast, a grin on his face.

"Doing well, quite well despite this snow," Bofur said, and Bilbo noticed that he still did not take off his hat when he sat down, despite months of being scolded by manner-minding Hobbits. "Don't know how you Hobbits stand living in such small holes, and so close to the surface! You should see the halls of Erebor, Bilbo, now those are proper holes!"

Bilbo grinned as he sat beside Bofur, feeling better than ever, as Bofur always managed to cheer him no matter his mood. "Erebor already? Bofur, you try to convince me to go to Erebor at least once a week. Let's talk of something else! Tell me about the ale you made!"

Bofur winked at him, and Rory set a plate of hot food in front of Bilbo, as well as a steaming cup of tea. "No, go on, Bofur, tell him all about Erebor," he said with a grin, and Bilbo shooed him off, already distracted by the scents of tea and bacon. Rory laughed and went to find his own breakfast, leaving Bilbo to sigh and turn to Bofur.

Bofur took the advice to heart, and he began telling Bilbo a new story, about the many guilds of Dwarves who had dedicated themselves completely to making ale and wine. The other Brandybuck siblings came in to join them, and a few children crowded around Bofur, loving his charismatic tones, and even Drogo and Otho came over to listen. Pleased with his audience, Bofur added a few outlandish details to his story, much to Bilbo's amusement and the laughter of the children around them.

Bilbo felt a little nervous, as the hall filled more and more with Hobbits, but there were no whispers behind his back, and he could see that some of his fellow Hobbits had reddened eyes, much like his own. Many of his brethren greeted him with small, hesitant smiles, and he tried to smile back, feeling a little better with every kind expression. The Dwarves were greeted merrily, and Bilbo felt glad, happy even, because he had missed Bofur and looked forward to spending the day with him.

Bofur grinned at him, and Bilbo smiled back, the darkness that had kept him awake for so long last night retreating to the back of his mind, brightened by the presence of his friend and family. Maybe Bofur would come with him to visit the nursery, to see the orphans and the children who were special to Bilbo. Perhaps they could tell a story to the children together, and later they could have that snow fight Bilbo had been thinking about yesterday.

One step at a time, he promised himself. Today, a story and a snowball fight. Tomorrow, something else, something new and different -- and someday he would be whole again.

That was his promise to Thorin, and to himself.

Chapter Text

Deep in the caves of Moria, there stood a Dwarf with a regal bearing, staring down his opponent with a deep look of concentration, so focused that even with such a serious expression, anyone who gazed upon him immediately thought him menacing.

He was a tall Dwarf with long dark hair tied back in a thick plait, blue eyes bright beneath his brow, which glistened with sweat. He stood in the middle of a wide circle of Dwarves, silent as the crowd shouted and cheered. Across from him stood a stout Dwarf, a soldier of the King's army and one of the best. Both Dwarves were shirtless, their heavily muscled bodies ripe with sweat, wearing only thick pants and red sashes around their waists. Each held a sword, the soldier with a heavy Dwarf blade, and the King himself carried a shining blade, light and powerful, curving wickedly in Elvish steel.

They stood and stared at each other, each breathing softly, and the crowd hushed, eager to see their next moves. Then, at once, each Dwarf sprang forward.

The King pressed his weight down on one foot and turned sharply, using the power of the movement to strike at his opponent, and his opponent met his blade with a roar. A sharp clang sounded as their swords met, and the crowd was suddenly teeming with noise and energy again, each shouting for their favorite to defeat his opponent.

Again and again, they struck at each other, circled and prowled and paced around each other, always searching for weakness, for the opening that would decide the victor. The soldier was powerful in his own right, a fine warrior of hardened skill, but the King was a sight to behold, with his fierce attacks and commanding air. It was a fantastic fight to watch, and the Dwarves in the crowd thought themselves lucky for witnessing it.

Despite the shouts of the crowd, despite the apparent equality in skill of the fighters, the victor had already been decided. The King suddenly moved with incredible speed, striking at his opponent over and over, driving him back, until another sharp turn and thrust of his blade sent the soldier's sword flying, and the crowd parted for it to land. The soldier fell to his knees and stared up at his King, panting from the exertion, the Elvish blade just barely touching his neck. The King stared down at him, just as short of breath, and a moment later, he lowered his sword and held out a hand to help his opponent up. Then they bowed slightly to each other, and so ended the match.

The crowd went wild, and they surged forward to congratulate their liege, King Thorin, who accepted their exuberant appreciation with a nod. He picked up a cloth and wiped the sweat from his face, thinking longingly of the hot bath he would take later. Then someone called out the next match, and the crowd drew back so that the next fighters could take the stage.

Thorin waved as he stepped out of the way, exchanging a nod with the soldier who went away with his friends. Someone laid a heavy cloak over his shoulders, Durin blue, and Thorin sighed. As the next fighters took their places, Thorin turned and walked away from the large hall, carrying his sword and turning his thoughts inward. He strode down halls that had been polished of dust and dirt, that shone beneath the firelight of torches, the splendor of Dwarves a thousand years ago beginning to return to life.

In time, the torches would be replaced by lanterns. Each room would be catalogued of its contents, which would be stored away for historians to pour over. Then would come the repairs of walls, ceilings, and floors that had crumbled or been destroyed. Furniture would be made, and plumbing would be added or updated. Rooms and halls would be designated to new uses, new contents -- for a new city.

Durin's City, reborn.

Thorin Oakenshield, a Dwarf who could trace his lineage back to the father of his people, Durin I, who had once walked these halls so very long ago, took the same steps as his forefathers with a heavy mind and a somber mien. His mind was not on the Dwarves who bowed to him as he passed or on the new discoveries being made every day, nor was it on any of the meetings he would have the next day.

He thought of his family, so far away, in the shining city he missed every day. So often he found himself worrying about them, about how Frerin was handling his rule, how Dís was managing the council, how much trouble Fíli and Kíli were causing in his absence. How he missed them, and how much he looked forward to seeing them.

Sometimes his thoughts were too heavy, though, so he would turn his attentions to physical exertions, such as the mock battle he had just fought.

The matches were a good way to burn energy and keep his soldiers' skills sharp in the long winter of Khazad-dûm, when his men were not working on cleaning the Orc halls or exploring the long caves for ores. The majority of the soldiers would leave with Thorin to return to Erebor in the spring, but for now they all worked to recover the beauty and magnificence of Moria's caves.

It served as a convenient distraction for Thorin, as well, when he felt weighed down by meetings, plans, longing for home, and other things. Balin had taken over much of the everyday management of rebuilding and cleaning Khazad-dûm, but as King, Thorin still had much to oversee, particularly when disputes sprang up or matters concerning the other clans developed. These last seven years had been exhausting, and Thorin looked forward to returning home.

Home. Erebor. The beautiful, glittering city beneath the mountain, where his brother ruled in his stead and his nephews watched over the city. Dwalin had returned to Erebor before the snow had set in last year, and Thorin felt envious of him, for seeing those shining halls again. He sometimes ached, thinking of his family so far away, as they had long been close and he had missed them sorely, these past years.

Fíli and Kíli had both begged to come with him, and even Dís and Frerin had wanted to be at his side for this march, but Thorin had ordered every one of them to stay behind. He had refused to risk their lives, knowing that if Azog even heard of their presences, he would come to kill them, to finish off the line of Durin and destroy everything Thorin still held dear. So Thorin had gone on his war march alone, and now -- and now.

Now Azog was dead, and his family was forever safe. He would never again fear Azog finding them and murdering them. If he had hated Azog for killing his father and grandfather, then nothing -- not fury nor loathing could have described his feelings for Azog, had Azog come close to hurting one of Thorin's precious family members.

If nothing else, his intense gratitude to Bilbo Baggins could be attributed to his family's safety.

Of course, there were other reasons -- Bilbo's actions in saving his life, the priceless artifacts Bilbo had recovered, and more -- but Thorin prized his family above anything else, including his own life, and he wished sometimes that he could speak to Bilbo again, to give him thanks for everything Bilbo had done.

It was not to be, though. Bilbo had returned to his kin, and Thorin would travel to Erebor in the spring. Their promise existed, but Thorin would likely not see Bilbo Baggins for many years, and he felt an odd pang at that thought. Bilbo had intrigued him, with his clever mind and tenacity to live. Some part of Thorin wanted to know him better, to understand what had created that tiny Hobbit who had survived so much with such strength of mind.

He wondered what his family would think of Bilbo. No doubt Frerin would approve of him, for his valiant actions, and Fíli and Kíli would befriend him quickly, being young and open of mind. Dís might be harder to win over, but she valued cleverness and brilliance, and Bilbo possessed both.

Perhaps one day, he could introduce Bilbo to them.

Perhaps it had been pity, perhaps it had been something more, but he truly hoped that his promise to Bilbo would someday bring the Hobbit to the steps of Erebor, to meet Thorin again. Even if he never saw the Hobbit again, he hoped that their promise would keep Bilbo going. He had seen darkness in Bilbo's gaze, a desolation from his losses over the years, and Thorin sometimes wished he had done more, given Bilbo more. Yet there was nothing else Thorin could have done for the small Hobbit.

His own troubles had taught him well. Such hurts could not be mended through gifts or promises, but through time and self-healing. Thorin was blessed in that he had a loving family who had helped him through his pain, and from what he had seen, Bilbo at least had friends, perhaps even close kin amongst the Hobbits who had been rescued with him. Those people, and Bilbo's own actions, would save him.

So Thorin hoped.

He knew his fascination with the Hobbit was a bit odd, but Bilbo had saved his life and destroyed his mortal enemy. He believed that with the cleverness and courage Bilbo had demonstrated in Azog's halls, the Hobbit would move on from his harrowing past and become whole again.

Thorin had seen greatness in that tiny Hobbit, and he looked forward to the day he would see Bilbo again, when Bilbo would stand tall and meet his gaze without crying or shivering from fear of Azog, of the future, of his pain -- of everything Thorin had changed for him.

He thought back to that early morning, when he had gifted a priceless artifact to Bilbo and gained a promise to meet again. How tightly Bilbo had held his hand -- how small his hand had been! Yet the Hobbit's grip had been firm and his gaze steady, for all that it had been clouded with tears. Thorin had wanted to wipe those tears away then, but he had not -- and now he wished he had.

Never had he felt such fascination for a single person. Some part of him acknowledged the strangeness of his interest, but he could not deny the truth in his thoughts. Sometimes he dreamed of that moment when he first met Bilbo's eyes -- and sometimes he dreamed of Azog's death and everything after, of that fear of Bilbo slipping away.

He worried. Would Bilbo truly heal? Would he slip away while no one was looking? Would he disappear into history, never to be seen again, just another death in a long line of victims of Azog the Defiler? Thorin believed in Bilbo -- yet still he dreamed of such darkness, of losing someone with whom he already had such a strong bond.

He would have to wait until Bofur returned, hopefully with the Thain's response and news of Bilbo and the Hobbits.

With a deep sigh, Thorin forcefully turned his thoughts away from the small Halfling and focused on the path in front of him. For a moment, he did not recognize where he was -- but there, that was the tiny closet Bilbo had pulled his little chest from, all those months ago -- and now, around the corner, the grand hall full of gold, ancient artifacts, and priceless gems.

Thorin came to stand in the doorway of the treasure hold, which had since been carefully counted and filled with chests, each containing an exact weight in gold or gems. Still, some of the chests were open as the accountants in the room worked, and the glitter of the brilliant metal caught Thorin's gaze.

Gold. Such a beautiful ore, and yet so, so dangerous, to Thorin's family and to his long bloodline. Gold had driven the line of Durin to madness before -- and Thorin had long feared that madness, from witnessing so many moments of his grandfather's love of gold. The sickness, the darkness -- Thorin hated it, and yet deep in his mind, he coveted the gold, just as his grandfather had.

Thorin had battled this sickness time and again. Early in his life, he had watched his grandfather slowly wither away in his desperation to hold all the gold in Erebor. The treasure room had been piled high with every piece of jewelry and weaponry imaginable, all wrought in the shining metal that had run like rivers through the deep caves beneath Erebor. Such treasures -- and King Thrór had lusted for every piece of it that was created. Little had been sold outside of Erebor. Simpler wares of silver, copper, tin -- every other metal but gold, and their precious silver-steel.

That lust had been his downfall. Erebor had not been enough -- Thrór had decided that the caves of Moria, with its legendary mithril and gold veins that ran all through the mountains, would be his and his alone. It was that desire that had led Thrór to his doom, and Thorin had watched, wary and bewildered, as his grandfather's greed had consumed him.

It had broken his heart, to have his grandfather's head delivered to the front steps of Erebor, with AZOG carved into his forehead in Khuzdul letters. From that moment on, Thorin had vowed not to lose himself in gold-lust like his grandfather.

Yet it had been an upwards battle from the start. Thrór had taught him from the time he was knee-high of the value of gold, and Thorin himself had begun to yearn for it, to control it, just as his forefathers had.

Even after his grandfather's death, the treasure halls had remained much the same, as Thráin had seen little point in changing the system. Thorin's father had been infected with the sickness just like Thrór. That same darkness had sent Thráin to his death as well -- and once again, Thorin's world had been destroyed when he walked out of Erebor to find his father's head, AZOG carved into the skin.

No more. Not for all the gold in the Misty Mountains was it worth losing his family.

So Thorin had taken his father's place as King, bringing about a long age of prosperity and peace. He had emptied the treasure holds of everything but the most important or priceless of artifacts, and the rest had been melted down or gifted to other clans. He had given the control of gold over to Dís and the guild masters, who had shared and expanded the wealth of Erebor. They had controlled the economics of it, so that the value of gold did not diminish with a sudden flood of the precious metal into the market. The resulting industry had brought Erebor to true majesty and greatness.

Sometimes, though, Thorin burned to reclaim all of the gold that had been sifting through the kingdom into the hands of Elves and Men, who did not deserve such luxury. Yet he had controlled himself and his urges, knowing that it was only in his mind, that the gold was not meant to sit in Erebor's treasure hall forever, as had been his grandfather's wish.

Of course, Thorin had inevitably followed in his forefathers' footsteps to reclaim Khazad-dûm... but not for the gold, not for the precious ores and gems hidden deep in the earth, but for the freedom of the Hobbits and the destruction of the race of Orcs. So Thorin had promised, and so he had accomplished, freeing that poor race of Halflings and driving the Orcs out of their ancient halls.

Now that they had control of the Misty Mountains again, though... mining would begin again. Mithril, gold, and other rare, precious metals which had long been lost to them would once again be in production, and the thought disturbed Thorin. He worried that he -- and other Dwarves like him -- would once again fall to gold-lust.

Sickness of the mind. At least his nephews and siblings had not been infected with this darkness. Thorin carried it all by himself.

With the faintest of sneers, Thorin turned away and strode through the halls, not stopping until he reached his rooms. Inside held a simple bed fashioned from wood, piled with the furs and blankets he had kept in his tent, the walls covered with the many maps, scrolls, and books that he used every day in his plans and meetings. The entire camp had been moved to the main halls of Khazad-dûm after the first successful round of cleaning.

With a deep sigh, Thorin dropped the cloak and began to undo his braids. After such a workout, he needed to soak his hair and re-oil his braids. It would be nice to return to proper plumbing and the legendary hot springs of Erebor. As far as he could tell, the underground springs in the Misty Mountains were cold and dark, so unlike the naturally steaming springs and lakes that had been generously carved into the walls and floors of Erebor's caves. His engineers had already rigged up a proper heating mechanism, but it was not the same. At least their ancestors had installed some semblance of plumbing in most of the chambers.

Lost in thought, Thorin went through the motions of pulling off his clothes and setting the water to heat and fill the low tub in the washroom that was connected to his room. When at last the basin was filled, he turned off the water and stepped in, sitting down and sighing slowly, deeply, the aches from his fight twinging as the hot water touched his skin. Then he sat back and let himself drift, as the heat seeped into his muscles and relaxed him.

Soon it would be spring, and then Thorin would return home. Then he could settle into the familiarity of his role as King, and someday in the future, he would be released from his responsibilities, when Fíli was ready to take the throne. All he could do until then was control the madness and darkness within his own mind.

~

Deep in the long, winding halls of the Great Smials, there was a series of rooms that were well protected from prying eyes and the heavy noise of the front-most halls. The whole hall was painted in bright colors, the walls covered in beautiful landscapes of flowers, green hills, and bright blue skies, flowers painted carefully onto the wood and brick, white clouds drifting across the blue. Each room had its own theme of wilderness, some featuring spring, some featuring summer, some featuring fall, and all beautiful. Love and care had kept these rooms brilliant and preserved, though every day, there was another mess to clean, another scratch on the wall, another lost block or pencil that rolled beneath a bed or table, not to be seen for months or years, until someone did a hard cleaning of the entire hall.

It was the nursery of the Great Smials, and it was teeming with tiny Hobbit children, shrieking and giggling as they ran around, heedless of their minders who sat and chatted as they watched over the thirty or so children. Only one or two were into their teens, and all were very small, as Hobbit children took a long time to grow into their adult selves.

Lessons were over for the day, and the children had been gifted with two visitors, who sat in two chairs at one end of the large playroom, one of them a young Hobbit, and the other a Dwarf with a funny hat. The Hobbit had a sleeping child in his lap, and the Dwarf had a small set of tools that he was using to build toys out of wooden parts he had carved. The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, was chatting with the Dwarf Bofur as he worked, and every time another toy was finished, a child would appear in front of the duo and receive it with cheerful thanks before disappearing back into the madness of twenty-six Hobbit children playing.

Nearby, five more children sat, very quiet compared to the other children who ran about giggling. All were sitting peacefully, playing with wooden toys, reading a book, or snoozing against a large pillow. Sometimes, one or two of the louder children would come and ask a question, and upon receiving their answer, they would laugh brightly and run back to their friends. Not once did they bother the six children gathered around the Hobbit and Dwarf, long used to their behavior.

Bilbo and Bofur were both favorites of the children of the nursery. Most of these children had lost their parents and were in the care of the Thain's family until someone stepped up to adopt them, or until they grew old enough to go live with their relatives. Bilbo was their favorite person other than Myrtle Burrows, who had taken charge of the whole nursery and commanded the legion of children easily, along with her small team of caretakers.

They all loved her -- but they adored Bilbo, who told fantastic stories and was so gentle, so kind to them, when they had no one else. They also loved his funny friend Bofur, who visited them often, sometimes even without Bilbo, because he always brought toys and told silly stories about Dwarves and sang lively songs that the children were quick to learn.

Many of these children had been slaves, some of them even with Bilbo in Azog's halls. They understood him, and they loved him anyway -- so Bilbo visited them often, even more often ever since the rumors had died down, three weeks ago. He knew how to handle them, too, when they grew angry or scared -- he knew what to sing and what to say to calm them down, to get them to stop screaming, to convince them to eat dinner or go to sleep or do what Myrtle said. He had learned such things in Azog's halls, having taken care of the children for years and protected them through their nightmares -- and through the torment of being awake in that place.

Bilbo understood the children, and they knew it -- so they allowed him near, accepted his stories and songs and scolding, and he loved them for it, because he could protect them, help them get better. If in turn, they helped him a little every day, with their smiles and laughter and soft hugs, then he would accept their love gladly.

Bofur being good with children was a happy delight to Bilbo, who had been hesitant at first to let Bofur know this part of his world. Apparently, in his spare time, Bofur liked to make toys, and he had taken care of nieces and nephews for years, as his brother had been quite prosperous with his children. Soon the two of them had taken to visiting the children at least once a week together, gifting them toys, telling them stories, and playing with them.

Bofur had even become a favorite of the six quiet children who would, at first, only talk to Bilbo, Myrtle, and their family if they had them. Soon, though, they had begun to ask Bofur questions, in their soft tones, and Bofur had been happy to talk to them, his gaze and smile always gentle.

The first time meeting them, though, Bofur had been furious for hours afterwards. Not once had he revealed his anger to the children, but as soon as he and Bilbo had left, Bofur had gone outside to chop down trees furiously. Bilbo had stood with him in the snow, watchful and silent, shocked by his anger and a little bit scared, until Bofur had turned to him, thick mustache quivering.

"Are they the only ones?" his Dwarf friend asked, and Bilbo was silent for a long moment.

"The only children, yes," he answered carefully, and Bofur's eyes narrowed. Then his gaze flickered to Bilbo's stomach, and Bilbo shivered, though not from the cold, his hands going to cover the scar that was already hidden by his thick sweater and waistcoat, fearing Bofur saying anything else.

But Bofur said nothing more, and if he was a little gentler in how he treated Bilbo afterwards, then Bilbo would not complain. It warmed him that Bofur cared, both for him and the children.

As Bofur tinkered with the wooden toy, Bilbo hummed softly, stroking May Grubb's back as she slept against him. She usually clung to him the most when he visited, though sometimes she would allow one or two of the other quiet children to curl up in his lap. Most of them did not like to be touched, but they would sit with Bilbo and ask him to brush their hair or hold their hands. It was enough, for both Bilbo and the children, to have such simple connections.

Bilbo had told them, in the beginning when he had learned of their existence, that he was like them, that he had been hurt by someone far bigger and crueler than him. He had promised them that he would never try to force them to do anything they did not want to do. Perhaps they had not believed him at first, but he was one of the few people who stayed with them and offered silent support, when all the other adults had tried to make them behave like normal children.

They were not normal. Just like Bilbo was not normal. It would be easier for them to move forward and heal, once everyone understood that. They may not be normal -- but they could become normal again, through time and patience, or so Bilbo hoped.

At least the children had people like Bofur, who was happy to tell them stories and offer them whatever they wanted, whether it be space or a new toy. Bilbo could tell that the toys were helping -- in the beginning, the quiet children had rarely left their rooms, but now they sat openly with Bilbo and Bofur, close to the other children, and did not react badly for it. The toys had drawn them out of their shells, letting them play and act as children should again, without anybody forcing them to pretend.

Having May sleeping on his chest was making Bilbo feel very sleepy. Having slept so poorly lately, he did not think it would be too bad, if he drifted off now and napped with the kids. He might wake up with a painted face, but at least he would have rested.

"Bilbo," Bofur said quietly, and Bilbo hummed in response, feeling tired enough that he could easily doze off. Then he blinked and looked over, raising his eyebrows.

"Hmm?"

Bofur grinned at him. "Lookin' cozy there. Getting tired?"

Bilbo made a vague face in response, keeping his voice quiet as May slumbered. "I'm fine, just didn't sleep well last night. How is that toy coming along?"

Bofur glanced back at his lap, his mustache twitching with amusement. "May be a lost cause. I broke one of the pieces and was trying to make do, but looks like I'll have to go back to my place to get a new part," he said, holding up a mess of wood and screws, and Bilbo huffed a laugh.

Then they heard Myrtle and the other caretakers calling the children over for a story before they were given a nap. So Bilbo roused little May and the other quiet children while Bofur tucked his mess away. May whined a bit when Bilbo set her down, but when he said that Myrtle was about to tell a story, she scampered off with the others to their favorite corner to listen, leaving Bilbo and Bofur alone. The two exchanged nods and smiles with Myrtle, and after a round of promises and hugs with the other children, they managed to slip out of the nursery.

"Do you want to go back to your house to get that piece?" Bilbo asked, and Bofur shook his head.

"Nah, I'll deal with it later. Want to have a smoke?" Bofur asked, pulling out his pipe and winking at Bilbo, who could not say no to that.

So they went to fetch Bilbo's father's pipe, and the two retreated to one of the smoke rooms of the Great Smials, which was thankfully empty as it was nearing tea time. Bofur shared his weed, Bilbo pulled out matches, and the two of them settled into comfortable chairs to smoke, the heady tang of the weed calming to both Hobbit and Dwarf.

Bilbo let himself relax, as he had rarely been able to sit in ease like this in weeks. After the disastrous dinner of three weeks ago, where Rory had shouted himself hoarse and made the entirety of the population of the Great Smials cry, Bilbo had held himself carefully, cautious at the possibility of anybody lashing out at him -- but no one had. Still, he had slept poorly since, worrying over the next day, despite returning to a semi-normal schedule of reading in the library, attending every meal, visiting the children, and spending time with his friends and family. Some nights had been riddled with nightmares, and others he had barely slept, so anxious over everything that was happening.

At least the rumors had stopped. Primrose Bracegirdle had retreated and was refusing to speak to just about everyone, though her daughter still played with Primula on occasion. Bruno Bracegirdle's nose had healed, and though he still gave nasty looks to Otho, Drogo, and Rory, hostilities had been ceased for now. Jago Boffin sometimes spent time with Bruno, as they were cousins, but Jago also spent time with Bilbo's cousins, so there was a tentative peace amongst the young male Hobbits of the Great Smials.

It was nice to spend time with Bofur again, too, even though Bofur often tried to convince him to visit Erebor. Some of his earnestness to tell Bilbo of his home must have been from homesickness, but Bilbo thought that Bofur truly wanted him to visit the grand Dwarven city, to see its splendors for himself. The stories were beautiful, but Bilbo sometimes had dreams of a golden city with lots of cheerful people who crafted beautiful jewelry and trinkets, while a tall Dwarf with blue, blue eyes watched him, waiting.

He did not like yearning for something he could not have, but he did not tell Bofur to stop telling the stories, either.

After a few moments of peaceful, shared silence, Bilbo glanced over at Bofur to see his friend watching him. He started a bit, raising an eyebrow and staring back, and Bofur smiled slightly.

"You looked good with all those kids around you. Like you're meant to have lots of children," Bofur said, which made Bilbo's insides freeze, "but that may just be my view of Hobbits."

After a long moment, Bilbo gave a small sigh. "I don't think I'll ever have children of my own, Bofur," he said quietly, making Bofur's smile disappear.

"Why not? You'd be a great father!" Bofur said, leaning forward, but Bilbo shook his head, his heart aching. They had spoken of their families before, but rarely had Bilbo spoken of himself in such a way, even though Bofur had shared so much with him. Yet, at this point in their friendship, he felt he could share a little bit of himself. Just enough to make his point.

"I can't, Bofur. I don't really..." and here he felt a bit awkward, but Bofur's cousin had been like him, so he felt brave enough to say it here, where prying Hobbit ears would not judge. "I'm not the marrying type. I shared some kisses with girls when I was young, but I was... more... well, more into the other lads, I suppose."

Bofur stared at him, his eyebrows rising, and Bilbo felt his cheeks turn pink, so he hurried on.

"Besides, no one's going to look at me twice after Azog... and I haven't looked at anyone twice, either," he said, very quietly, and at once Bofur's gaze softened and saddened, making Bilbo's chest hurt.

"Bilbo," Bofur said quietly, but Bilbo shook his head.

"If you're going to tell me that someday I'll fall in love and get married and live happily ever after, I'll never speak to you again, Bofur," he said fiercely, and Bofur sat back, smoking his pipe for a long moment and watching Bilbo.

"Wasn't what I was going to say," he finally said gruffly, and Bilbo stared at him.

"Then what were you going to say?" he asked, frowning.

Bofur breathed out a thick sigh of smoke, tapping out some ashes. "I was going to say that stayin' single's perfectly fine, if it's your choice. I'm not married, just like a third of the Dwarves in Erebor!" he said, giving Bilbo a look. "It doesn't make you less of a person, to be single. But if you're unhappy like that, that's a different story."

Bilbo was shocked. A full third of Dwarves never married? Nearly all of Hobbits got married -- or at least they had before Shirefall.

"Really?" he asked quietly, watching Bofur in confusion. "But your brother's married, and your cousin has Boro, so..." Then he paused, realizing what Bofur meant.

Bofur smiled knowingly. "Aye, exactly that. Dwarves have a low birth rate for girls, so most of the population is male, see? Not everyone feels like settling down, and those that do, not all of them are going to settle with someone to have kids. Everyone who gets married, they do it because of love, but we don't make marriage between only men and women. You know about Bifur and Boro, and there are women who marry each other, too. But some men and women don't marry at all, either because they don't meet their match, or because they're married to their job, see?"

Bilbo nodded slowly, sucking on his pipe and wondering at such an open society. "Hobbits aren't like that at all, you know. Marriage is when you want to settle down and have a family, start raising children... and men don't marry each other. They just become bachelors, usually live as neighbors and just visit each other," he said hesitantly, and Bofur frowned.

"Shame, that," he said, making Bilbo sigh.

"It's not like I agree with it, but that's how it is... was, I guess," he said, returning Bofur's frown. "Everyone fools around when they're young, but once you grow up, you're expected to have a large family, unless your siblings got to it first. I... didn't have siblings, so my family would have wanted me to get married... but I never looked at any of the girls like that," he said quietly, his cheeks slowly darkening.

Bofur watched him for a long moment, dark eyes twinkling. "I had that thought about you, Master Bilbo," he said with a small grin, and Bilbo shot him a dirty look.

"How do you figure that?" he asked, a bit sarcastically, and his friend laughed.

"Because you were so bothered by Bifur and Boro! But you always ask about them, don't think I haven't noticed," Bofur said, winking, and Bilbo sighed. He did not want to go into his leanings any further, so he turned to another comment Bofur had made.

"What did you mean, married to their jobs?" he asked curiously, and Bofur hummed in response.

"Well, that's a bit harder to explain. But I guess... yeah! Take King Thorin for example," Bofur said, sitting up, and immediately Bilbo's attention was caught.

"Thorin?" he said, before stopping himself and frowning at Bofur who laughed at him. "I mean, the King?"

"Aye," Bofur said, still chuckling. "King Thorin's never gotten married, never courted anyone that I know of. He's chosen his job over love, and there are plenty of Dwarves who do that, including yours truly!" Bofur grinned, and Bilbo rolled his eyes good-naturedly, but still his interest was on what Bofur had said about Thorin. Hadn't Thorin once mentioned sister-sons?

"It's an honorable thing for a Dwarf," Bofur continued, "to devote his or her whole life to their work. Some study Khuzdul their whole lives, and others become masters in whatever craft they take up. Thorin's done right by his people, choosing to turn away from his father's and grandfather's failings and make Erebor mighty again," Bofur finished, and Bilbo wondered at the possibilities of spending one's entire life creating things or learning.

"So what about heirs? With the King?" Bilbo asked, and Bofur nodded as he responded.

"King Thorin has two siblings, aye, his younger brother Frerin, and their younger sister Dís. Her Highness Dís has two boys, Fíli and Kíli, and I'll tell you, Erebor never knew chaos until those two were born. Fíli, the elder, he's Thorin's heir, and Kíli's being shaped into the commander of the military by General Dwalin.

"Now, remember that a third of Dwarves never get married? Thorin has no wife or husband, but both his siblings were bonded, and young at that. That's where it gets a little sad," Bofur said, his smile fading a bit.

Bilbo was leaning forward in interest, his attention completely on Bofur, who saw it and smiled to himself, but Bilbo could not resist. Bofur's stories of Thorin were few and far between, but Bilbo enjoyed every one of them, and this was no different.

Bofur continued, smoking his pipe as he told his story, and Bilbo listened intently. "Frerin was the first to get married, after King Thrór was killed and Thorin began his training to become the next leader after King Thráin. Frerin married a pretty maiden named Bala, and the whole kingdom celebrated the bonding. Then Bala got heavy with child, and everybody was happy, so happy."

Bofur's voice dropped a bit as he spoke, and Bilbo leaned in a bit to listen. "Bala went into labor early, too early, and the healers couldn't save her," Bofur said quietly. "They couldn't save the babe either, and Frerin was heartbroken. Everyone mourned with him, and for a long while, you could barely speak to either him or Thorin, because they were both inconsolable."

Bofur caught the surprise on Bilbo's face and nodded, some of his smile returning. "Aye, Thorin and Dís looked forward to the birth as much as Frerin. The three of them have always been close, and whatever heartache one sibling feels, the other two feel twice as hard. But then, only a few years after Thorin became King, Dís fell in love with her match, Níli, a traveler from the Blue Mountains.

"Oh, Thorin and Frerin were furious! Their baby sister, falling for someone like that? But it was a done deal, and everyone loved the two together, because Níli was a fine Dwarf, for all that he had spent most of his life in the mountains west of here. Níli chose to stay with Dís, and years down the road, they had Fíli, and five years later, young Kíli."

Bofur's eyes twinkled, his grin widening, and Bilbo smiled despite himself, eager to know more of this family. "Finally, the line of Durin had a new generation, the children precious to all three siblings, and Thorin himself named Fíli his heir. See, since Thorin's never had children himself, the line of Durin would have ended with him -- but with two boys, both Thorin's line and Níli's line can continue, yeah?"

Bilbo blinked, confused by this change in topic, and he gave Bofur a bewildered look. "His line? That's right, you Dwarves don't have family names, right?"

Bofur shrugged, breathing out a deep sigh of smoke. "Not family names like you Hobbits have. We have family lines. I'm of the line of Úr, for example, and when they were born, both Fíli and Kíli were of the line of Lí, from Níli.

"But Thorin, Frerin, and Dís made a deal with Níli, that Fíli would be Thorin's heir, and Kíli would be Níli's heir. Fíli will name his son after one of Thorin's forefathers, and Kíli's son will be named with the line of Lí, so everyone would be happy in the end. Though poor Níli will never see it, since he died in battle about thirty years ago," Bofur said sadly.

The description of Dwarf genetics gave Bilbo a headache, and he used Bofur's moment of quiet to sort through the details, until he thought he understood. "So Thorin and Fíli are... of the same line, despite being uncle and nephew? And Kíli belongs to his father's line?"

Bofur nodded, grinning at Bilbo. "Aye, that's it! Men always inherit their family line from their fathers, and women always inherit from their mothers. But since Fíli is his sister-son, Thorin agreed to have Fíli as his heir, since he had never met his match and would not be having heirs of his own."

Bilbo nodded, understanding better now, though he thought it was all a bit odd. He personally felt that the Hobbit way was much easier, but then, he was a Hobbit, and so he had no right to judge Dwarves for their social customs.

Something had piqued his interest again. "You said Thorin... King Thorin never found his match, that the ones who don't marry haven't met their match either. What do you mean by that?" he asked Bofur, glancing into his pipe to judge the embers. Nearly done, then.

Bofur raised his eyebrows, but he answered agreeably enough. "Not sure how you Hobbits might look at it, but most Dwarves feel that everyone has a match out there, a soul mate of a sort. Different people believe different things about it, of course -- some think there's only one, while others think there's only a few possible matches you could ever have. But nearly all Dwarves agree that once you meet your match, you're drawn to them immediately, and little can keep you from them.

"Most people marry their match as soon as they meet and fall in love properly, but I've heard of some Dwarves meeting a second match later in life. Some never meet their match at all, which is what happened with me," Bofur said with a smile, but it seemed sad, so Bilbo reached over to grip his arm.

The information overwhelmed him a bit. Soul mates? He had heard of similar beliefs amongst Hobbits, but the Dwarf beliefs about matches and soul mates sounded rather romantic. "So you... and Thorin, neither of you ever found a match?" he asked quietly, and Bofur hummed, pulling his pipe from his lips and beginning to tap out the embers, so that he could clean his pipe. Bilbo followed his example, gently tapping the ashes into a small basket beside his chair.

"Aye," Bofur said, sitting back again and pulling out a worn, dirty cloth, beginning to clean out the bowl of his pipe. "It's said that you're drawn to them as soon as you meet their eyes. Some people know their match immediately, but for others, it takes longer, seeing them a few times or getting to know them before it clicks. I've even seen Dwarves who take years to realize that they're matches, simply because one of them was injured or sick, maybe absent, sometimes going through rough patches in their lives.

"But in the end, most everyone who meets their match bonds with them, or forms a strong friendship at least. Not every match ends in a bond, but there's never been a match where they refuse to see each other again. It's too important to us Dwarves," Bofur said, and he smiled when he saw Bilbo's fascinated expression.

Fascinated, yes. The idea of a soul mate fascinated Bilbo, both from an academic point of view, and from his growing interest in Erebor and Dwarves. For a moment he felt sad for Thorin and Bofur, who had never met their matches, but neither Dwarf seemed less of a person for having remained unbonded for all this time, and that thought gave Bilbo a little hope, that maybe he would not be so poorly off either by remaining a bachelor.

He gave Bofur a smile and tucked his pipe back in his pocket, and Bofur returned a cheerful grin. "Thank you for telling me this. I'm glad you're here, Bofur," Bilbo said quietly, and Bofur chuckled but ducked his head, making Bilbo grin.

"Glad to be here, Bilbo. Maybe when I leave, you'll come with me, yeah? See Erebor proper," Bofur said brightly, and Bilbo laughed and leaned back as once again, Bofur began to tempt him into going to Erebor.

Someday, yes. Maybe not this year, but someday.

Chapter Text

A lady in white smiled as she gazed upon her friend. He began to speak, and he spoke of many things, dark and distant things that had the hair raising on the back of her neck. It was not often, if at all, that the Lady of the Woods felt afraid, but Mithrandir's story disturbed her in many ways. They sat together as she listened, and when he was done, she began to share her thoughts on what he had seen and heard. They spoke long into the night, turning plans over and thinking aloud to each other, and this carried on for many days, until at least they had reached their decisions.

A lady in white frowned as she listened to the wind. The whispers of darkness were growing louder. A terrible evil was stepping into the world again, and it had one foothold in Dol Guldur, under the eye of a very old foe. The next step it wished to take was in the hands of a small Hobbit. Though she whispered to him and tried to quell the worries in his mind, the grip of power slowly closed around him. Would he endure, or would he falter and fall?

A lady in grey closed her eyes and thought of her brother, who had welcomed far too many into his halls, these past years -- and would welcome many more in years to come. Unless -- yes. Her child of mercy, if he were to give up some of his soul -- then fewer would fall to her brother's halls. So he had told her, and so she believed.

A man in grey opened his eyes as he felt the cold wind touch his face. He walked through the darkened, bitterly cold forests of Arda, eyeing thick cobwebs and feeling a shiver in his heart. The darkness held secrets, foul secrets that should not have touched this world, and it was his duty to look into the darkness where his friend could not. It would be he who would distract his old friend who had fallen to darkness, and it would be he who would defeat him, in the end.

A man in black stared over the beautiful planes, mountains, hills, valleys, rivers, cities, strongholds, homes, and people of the world. He calculated and planned, and always he thought of the darkness that would fall, that would infect this world and bring it under his control. He was not complete, no -- but soon he would be, once he found his other half, the ring which he had forged an age ago.

A hobbit in an oversized green waistcoat gazed out his window, one hand turning over and over a thick gold ring. Though he did not know it, the ring was a source of trouble and grief, and he would one day regret ever picking it up. The ring was pure evil, with a mind of its own -- but yet it could not take this tiny halfling, not fully, not like it had the other. Still, it could whisper, and what it would whisper would bring terrible things upon the hobbit -- and wonderful things, too, in the end.

Yet Bilbo Baggins, who held Sauron's most precious treasure, had no idea that the ring in his hand would drive him to the edge of sanity and desolation. His mind had no room for the temptation -- it had enough to deal with, in grief, sadness, and nightmares, which the ring made worse in the darkest of moments. The ring could infect him, though, and would -- it would drive him to terrible things, dark things, awful things that would haunt him -- but he had already done terrible things.

The ring could not control him, as Bilbo was not simply a ring-bearer -- he was also a pain-bearer.

~

As the ice on the trees melted, and the snow banks shrank, a figure strode from the protective trees of Lothlorien, clad in grey with a hint of white beneath his long robes, a long white staff in one hand and a sword hanging from his belt. He looked up past the rim of his large hat and gazed upon the imposing figures in the distance. The Misty Mountains, once home to the Dwarves of Arda, then taken by Orcs... and taken back by Dwarves, or so Galadriel told him.

Gandalf muttered to himself as he began his long trek into the mountains. He knew of Thorin Oakenshield's victory, as news had traveled to Lothlorien already, but he did not know the extent of the battle. Now that he had returned from some unpleasant business, he could see to his friend, and then he would visit the Shire, to see how the Hobbits were doing.

The months since his return had not been spent idling in the forest. He had gone to visit his fellow Istari Radagast, who had informed him about some strange happenings in the forests of Mirkwood. He had seen evidence of foul creatures, of Orc movements across Middle Earth, and he had followed their trails to the southern edge of Mirkwood, but had lost them in the darkness.

He suspected that they had gone to Dol Guldur, but he had no evidence, and instinct warned him not to investigate the ruins just yet. Instead he had observed from afar alongside Radagast, and he had warned Galadriel of his suspicions. There was a dark power building in that fortress, thought to be abandoned, but Gandalf suspected that the necromancer he had once chased from Dol Guldur had returned, if the trails of Orcs and goblins fleeing to Dol Guldur were any hint. Long ago, he had noticed the dark powers gathering in that old fortress and had investigated, finding a strange sorcerer who practiced very dark arts, but the sorcerer -- a necromancer, of all things -- had fled, and Gandalf had been left explaining to Saruman and the White Council what he had been doing.

As for his old friend Saruman, he had not yet met him again since his return. The painful knowledge that his Lord and Ladies had gifted to him kept Gandalf from seeking out his old friend, though he needed to go to Isengard to search through the older tomes for knowledge. Years ago, he had attempted to visit Dol Guldur to investigate, and Saruman had stopped him, convincing him to leave that side of the Misty Mountains to Galadriel and Thranduil, who saw no presence of evil there.

Gandalf should have known better. He had suspected, but never thought so badly of his friend that he would believe that Saruman had fallen to darkness. Yet if what his Lord and Lady had told him was true, then he would have to be very careful around Saruman.

Before that time, he would visit Thorin, and Elrond, and the Shire. He wanted to know how the Hobbits were doing, and he needed to share this knowledge with Elrond.

It took him another day to reach the Eastern Gate of Moria, and two days more to travel through the mines to the heart of the mountain, where Thorin Oakenshield and his Dwarves were gathered. The path had been easy to traverse, unlike times before, as the Dwarves had staked out the best caves for roads in the months since their victory. When Gandalf the Wizard strode into the halls of Khazad-dûm, shining and cleaned for the first time in a thousand years, he walked with an easy amble, admiring the work the Dwarves had completed over the course of the winter.

His entrance caused quite a stir. Dwarves stopped what they were doing and stared. A few realized who he was and raced off to find their commanders and king. Thus when Gandalf walked into what had once been Azog the Defiler's throne room, which was now a grand hall filled with a massive stone table with many chairs, he had to smile when he met the astonished gaze of Thorin Oakenshield.

The Dwarf looked tired, a usual vision for Gandalf who had traveled beside him for several years. The sword that Bilbo Baggins had found was belted to Thorin's back, which made Gandalf smile to himself, knowing full well of Thorin's hatred for anything of Elvish make. He wore his normal royal blues, but something about him was different. Gandalf could see a tension in his friend, in the furrowed brow and slightly hunched shoulders, but he could also see a lightness in Thorin's eyes. Perhaps because he would return to Erebor? Whatever had changed, Gandalf intended to find out.

Thorin stood from the table, where he had been leaning over a large map with Balin and his remaining commanders, and walked to meet Gandalf, looking partly suspicious and partly awed by his presence. There was a sparkle in his eye, though, and Gandalf felt pleased that his friendship with Thorin had not faded.

"Gandalf," Thorin began, reaching out to clasp Gandalf's arm, "we thought you lost! We searched, but we found no trace of you."

Gandalf smiled and reached up to grip Thorin's shoulder. "That would be because there was little of me for you to find! We have much to speak of, Thorin Oakenshield. I heard of your victory, but you do not know of mine... and there are other things I wish to know, and that I must tell you."

Thorin nodded, and he turned to his commanders to tell them to continue without him. Then he and Gandalf began to walk together, down another hall that led deeper into the city. "Then let us speak, friend," Thorin said, and Gandalf nodded sagely.

"Tell me what has happened."

~

In the middle of Hobbiton, Bilbo Baggins sat upon an old, worn bench at the bottom of a small walkway, which led up a hill to what had once been a beautiful hobbit smial -- the most beautiful in Hobbiton, once upon a time. Time and darkness had destroyed the beauty, though, and if one looked close enough, claw marks could be seen on the door. The inside was nearly empty, cleaned of any mess, but once it had been a place of wondrous comfort.

Once a hole in the ground, and once a Hobbit had lived there, along with his mother and father, whom he had loved very dearly. The green door was faded, the brass knob was dulled and dirty, and the cracked windows were clouded over with dust and ash. The yard that had once been filled with flowers of every color and tall, emerald-green grasses was now dry and yellowed. A few brave flowers had sprouted here and there, peeking up into the faintly warm air of early spring with a tenacity that Bilbo admired, though he pitied them at the same time.

No longer was there any life in Bag-End, though Bilbo had done his best, alongside his cousins, to clean everything up, in one last effort to find anything else he wanted to keep, to take with him when he left this place once and for all. What he had collected was stored in a trunk that sat at his feet. He had left all of the furniture that was worth taking in the entryway, and later his cousins would come help him move the pieces back to the Took family home.

In one hand he held his father's pipe, one of the few mementos he had left of Bungo Baggins. It had a tiny bit of Old Toby stuffed inside, something Bilbo had taken to with a gusto after he had returned from the Misty Mountains. He had not smoked much when he was younger, but the stress of daily life and the yearning to be more like his father had given Bilbo a desire to smoke. He was very careful not to use his good pipeweed too often, for fear of never smoking it again, usually choosing to smoke the thinner and cheaper variety that someone had created a few years ago, but today he thought he had earned a bit of a good smoke.

The Great Meeting had begun this week, when the farmers had announced that the soil would grow no more food. Bilbo's cousin Fortinbras, Thain by name, had called all of the Hobbits to Tuckborough, and they had come in droves, from Bree and beyond, filling the Great Smials to the brim with arguing, worried, anxious Hobbits of all ages and sizes.

Drogo and Otho were rooming with Bilbo at the moment, having given their room to another family, and it was testing Bilbo's temper to be in such close quarters with his cousins. They did not understand his nightmares, though they tried to be accommodating to his needs, and the three of them had already shouted at each other a few times in frustration.

Bilbo was not sleeping well. Every night, he faced dark visions and terrible dreams, of his past with Azog and of the future he feared so much. He sometimes talked in his sleep, and it bothered Drogo and Otho, who already did not sleep well because Bilbo kept a light on at night. All three of them were rather tired for it, but the past two nights, they had all slept relatively well.

A good thing, as yesterday morning Bilbo had been called into the Great Meeting to give his opinion on the matter of leaving the Shire. Just the thought of speaking in front of so many Hobbits, all of them much older than he was, had caused Bilbo great anxiety, but with his family at his side, he had haltingly explained his desire to leave the Shire and create a new life. He had even told them a bit about the Dwarves and his friendship with them, at Fortinbras' urging, and Fortinbras had pulled out Thorin's letter, reading the part about going to the Vale and forming a trading contract with the Dwarves.

Bilbo had left after that, leaving the Hobbits to shout at each other, his part done. Fortinbras had thanked him later, confiding that his opinion and experiences with the Dwarves had done a great deal to help sway the Hobbits, whose opinions of Dwarves had been changing for the better over the years. Bofur and his kin were supposed to have spoken at the Meeting this morning.

Bilbo wondered how that had gone. Drogo and Otho would surely tell him when they arrived. Bilbo had left before breakfast, and it was now nearly lunch, so hopefully Drogo and Otho would have brought something for his growling stomach.

Drogo and Otho should be along soon, hopefully with a cart, and they would help Bilbo take all of this back to the Great Smials. Tomorrow they would go out to Buckland with Rory to search through Drogo's parents' home, then again to Otho's old home. Bilbo let himself drift, thinking of all that they had to do in order to be ready to leave when it was warm enough for travel. He still had to speak to Rory, who had been in conference with his family all morning, about whether Rory would go with them.

The Great Meeting (or as Rory and Bilbo liked to call it, the Great Shouting) was not over yet, but Bilbo already knew in his heart that he would leave this place. So he sat, gazing over what was once the heart of the Shire, and he ached to see how run-down and sad it all looked. The land was no longer green, but yellowed and charred, and the houses were all broken and empty. The farmland, once plentiful, grew nothing; the dirt was too oily, too dark to support life. The clouds were thick, swirling above the horizon and blocking out most of the sunlight, though like the flowers, the sun would bravely peek out every so often, casting warmth on Bilbo's face.

He brought the pipe to his lips and filled his lungs with the pungent smoke, breathing out slowly and watching the wisps curl into the air. Going through his family's belongings, torn and dusty, had reminded him of dark things, of the nightmares he saw every night in his sleep. Of his mother and father, dying before his eyes, and of the darkness he feared now, having spent seven years without sunlight. Of a pale Orc who still haunted him every time he closed his eyes.

He could feel that fear in his bones -- it had taken control of his entire body, leaving him weakened and unable to walk for long periods of time without getting shaky. He had experienced that on his journey home from Moria, beside Bofur who had been rather understanding about it, for all that Bilbo had slowed them down. His aunt said that it was a sickness in the bones, that he was not the only Hobbit to suffer this way. Spending time in the sun helped, but sometimes Bilbo still felt aches in his knees and joints, as if he were very old. Hopefully getting away from this place would improve his health.

Seeing the destruction again, seeing the house of memories and sadness -- it reminded him of his promise, to become better, and to take care of his family. Bilbo believed that it was his duty, as their only son, to make a new home, a better home that would be filled with new memories. He would do right by his cousins and raise them to be proper Hobbits, proper Bagginses, no longer getting into fist fights and using foul language and running about like wild children. If he had to, he would take the spirit of Bungo Baggins himself into his lessons and teach Otho and Drogo exactly how to speak and behave, if only to be somewhat normal again.

He would not forget his mother's lessons, though. She had taught him to love nature and adventure, and he would teach his Baggins cousins a little Tookishness, too, in honor of her memory. They already had learned a bit of it, from living in the Took home and from spending so much time with Rory, who was just as much a Took as he was a Brandybuck.

When Bilbo had been a child, he had grown up believing in two sides of himself, his Baggins side and his Took side. Two families, so different in beliefs and practices, but somehow his mother and father had fallen in love and lived together happily -- so Bilbo had tried his best to balance his two 'sides,' wavering between his desire to run about searching for Elves and his need to behave and learn proper manners. Now, Bilbo understood that these were not his 'sides,' but simply aspects of his personality that were as much a part of him as his hair or his love of books.

He would do right by both of his parents, and hopefully he would do right by raising his cousins, as well. Whatever the other Hobbits decided, Bilbo would leave the Shire, along with his cousins and family, and though it would be a long journey, they would hopefully find a new home in the Vale on the other side of the Misty Mountains.

A large gap in the clouds allowed the sun to shine down again, warming Bilbo's cheeks and making him smile. He lifted his pipe to his lips and breathed in, closing his mouth a bit and flicking his tongue as he blew out, attempting to create a smoke ring. The resulting 'o' of smoke made Bilbo's smile widen, and he closed his eyes, enjoying the warmth on his face and the cool breeze, letting himself believe for a moment that everything was normal.

He heard footsteps coming up the path, but no rattle of a cart, so he gave a small sigh, guessing that Drogo and Otho had not found one. He did not open his eyes just yet, though -- until a small puff of smoke blew into his face, and he started and looked up, coughing.

Instead of Drogo or Otho, a very tall and very familiar figure in grey stood there, with a large pointed hat, warm blue eyes twinkling down at Bilbo. Bilbo stared at him, his mouth falling open as he realized just who was standing in front of him.

"I, um," Bilbo stuttered, before he remembered his manners, straightening and closing his mouth. "Good morning," he offered, and Gandalf smiled at him from beneath his thick bushy eyebrows. *

"What do you mean?" Gandalf asked. "Do you mean to wish me a good morning, or do you mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not?" he went on, making Bilbo's eyebrows go up. "Or perhaps you mean to say that you feel good on this particular morning? Or are you simply stating that this is a morning to be good on?" the Wizard asked, his smile widening with a softness that Bilbo had not seen for many months, and he felt warmed by it. He had not forgotten Gandalf's kindness, in Azog's halls, nor his promise to help Bilbo should he need it. *

"All of them at once, I suppose," Bilbo said, and he stood with a small smile, going to the fence door to meet Gandalf, who huffed a small laugh. "Would you like to sit with me and have a smoke? I've not seen you in quite a while." *

Gandalf reached up to touch Bilbo's shoulder, and though Bilbo shivered a bit, he did not flinch away. This was someone who cared very much for him -- there was no reason to be afraid. Gandalf's gaze sharpened, but he did not stop smiling, and Bilbo relaxed a bit, his smile widening.

"I've no time for smoke rings, I'm afraid, Mister Baggins," Gandalf said, and he leaned down and dropped his voice to a conspiratory whisper. "I'm looking for someone to share in an adventure." *

Bilbo's jaw dropped again, but instead of wariness or anxiety, he only felt a sensation of want. What good fortune was this, for Gandalf to appear just as Bilbo wanted to leave this place? But he could not go on an adventure, not when he was about to leave and start a new life.

"I'm afraid I haven't got time for an adventure," Bilbo said, feeling a little sad. "I'm planning to go away, and I shan't be coming back, I should think."

Gandalf raised his thick eyebrows and looked rather interested in Bilbo's words. "That sounds awfully like an adventure to me. Where are you going, if I may ask?"

That got a laugh out of Bilbo, whose smile widened a bit more. "I'm not sure about the others, but I've been planning to travel to the Anduin Vale. I haven't really got a home here, not anymore, and I was thinking of making a new one out there. Someone told me there's a very nice man out there, who will help me if I ask, and there's a Dwarf out there as well, who has promised to meet me later."

Bilbo glanced back at his old home, and Gandalf followed his gaze, his smile fading and his blue gaze turning dark and sad. Without a word, Bilbo opened the gate, and Gandalf stepped through, walking up to the worn green door slowly. Bilbo followed, watching Gandalf curiously, feeling nervous with his presence, but also strangely excited.

"May I?" Gandalf rumbled after a moment, and Bilbo nodded.

"Go ahead," he said, and he followed Gandalf as the Wizard opened the door and stepped into his home. In the middle of the floor was a trunk of books, along with a large chair and a feather mattress slumped to the side. There was also a lovely bookcase with leaves carved into the wood, Bilbo's favorite from his childhood, and some of his mother's garden tools, tied together neatly. When Aunt Linda had gone through Bag End, she had only taken the most important items -- food, clothing, blankets, and the like -- as that had been what they had needed in Bree and Tuckborough. Not much else had survived, and what Bilbo had not kept for himself would be given away.

Gandalf stood up straight and promptly hit his head on the chandelier. A laugh burst out of Bilbo, and he quickly covered his mouth when Gandalf turned a wounded look on him.

"Sorry," Bilbo said, and Gandalf huffed at him.

"To think that I should have lived to be laughed at by Belladonna Took's son," Gandalf muttered, and Bilbo's smile saddened a bit at the mention of his mother. *

"She laughed at you quite a lot herself, if I remember right," Bilbo said, and Gandalf's expression softened.

"So she did indeed, Bilbo. Your mother was a wondrous person," Gandalf said, looking back into the darkened house, obviously seeing the same bright memories that Bilbo did, and for a moment, they were both quiet. Then Bilbo breathed in deeply and stepped back a bit.

"You can look around if you like. I'll be outside," he said quietly, and he turned away and left the house, walking out to the bench again to sit down. For several nervous minutes, he smoked by himself, keeping an eye on the path in case Drogo and Otho showed up, but soon he heard the door close again, and then Gandalf came down and sat beside him.

He stayed silent as Gandalf pulled out a long white pipe and filled it with weed, then lit it with his finger, beginning to smoke alongside Bilbo. The sun had disappeared behind the clouds again, and Bilbo felt a bit cold, knowing that this would be the last time he would see Bag End.

"I'm so sorry, my boy," Gandalf said quietly, and Bilbo smiled a bit, looking up at the clouds.

"I think I've come to terms with it. I'm ready to start something new. I'm ready to get away from this place, even though I'll miss it... but I miss the old Shire. I can't find anything in this Shire to miss, really, because all I see is memories. You know they're having a big meeting right now, up in Tuckborough? Everyone's been shouting all week about it, but I've made up my mind.

"Now that I think about it, it will be a grand adventure of its own, right? Starting a new life. I'll build a good life for my cousins out there, and someday I'll meet Thorin... er, I guess you wouldn't know, but I befriended him a bit --"

Gandalf's amused voice interrupted him. "I met Thorin Oakenshield before I came here, Bilbo. He told me of your great deed, and of the promise you made to him," he said, and Bilbo blushed.

"You spoke with him?"

"Yes," Gandalf said, smiling, and Bilbo looked up at him curiously. "He told me about the last battle of his war march, where you saved his life. Curiously, he said I could find you in Bree, but instead I found you here."

"Oh," Bilbo said, wondering what Thorin had said of him, but unsure how to ask about it, and feeling pleased that Thorin had spoken of him at all. "I think everyone was in Bree in the beginning, but then Fortinbras -- he's the Thain now -- he invited everyone to Tuckborough, and most of them went with him. That's where my family is. Not... not everyone is gone, did you know? My Baggins cousins, they survived, and all of the Brandybucks are there, and even my Took cousins, they all lived through it. I've still got family, Gandalf," he said, his voice catching, and Gandalf reached over to pat his hand, his eyes bright.

"Why don't you tell me about it, Bilbo?" Gandalf offered, and Bilbo did, opening up to Gandalf in a way he had not done with anyone else save Bofur and Rory. He told Gandalf about the oldest of his Took aunts and uncles who had died fighting the Orcs, about his cousins who had survived, about the last of his Baggins family who would be traveling with him to the Vale. He even told Gandalf a bit about his nightmares and his depression, about how his cousins sometimes had to force him to eat or leave his room, and about how very thankful he was to his family.

He told Gandalf of his friendship with Bofur, about the children he still visited every week, sometimes every day, about the quiet children like him, who were no longer as quiet, who laughed and ran about sometimes, and who had taken to curling up in Bofur's lap while he told them stories about Erebor. He told Gandalf about how everyone was thankful to the Dwarves for everything they had done, how some of the girls had started giggling and blushing around the Dwarves when they visited, and how Thorin Oakenshield was quickly becoming a favorite person to pretend to be in the nursery games.

Bilbo was saying, "Someone will yell, 'I'm King under the Mountain!' and someone else will pretend to be a troll, and once 'Thorin' has defeated the troll, the other children will attack him, and whoever wins gets to be the next Thorin. It's rather silly and rightly cute, because whenever I see the game, I think of little Thorins running around chasing trolls, and then I just start giggling." Bilbo laughed a bit, remembering the game and wondering what Thorin would have thought of it, and Gandalf smiled at the description.

"You wouldn't believe it, Gandalf, but everyone loves the Dwarves. Bofur's very popular, even if he hasn't got any manners," Bilbo said, and Gandalf's smile widened. "He tries to talk me into going to Erebor every day, you know, and I'm already halfway convinced! But I'm not ready to meet Thorin again, not yet, even though I'd really like to go," Bilbo said, his expression falling a bit.

Gandalf opened his mouth to reply, but a new voice broke into the conversation, making both Hobbit and Wizard look up. "What do you mean, I haven't got any manners?" Bofur said, coming to stand in front of Bilbo and Gandalf, and Bilbo grinned at him.

"Take off your hat at dinner, and then talk to me about manners," Bilbo said, and Bofur pulled a face at him.

Then Bofur looked at Gandalf, his eyes widening. "Gandalf! We thought you had fallen in Moria! When did you get here?" he asked, and Gandalf gave a secretive smile.

"Oh, not a little while ago. It is good to see you, Bofur. I have a message for you, actually --"

"Is that Gandalf?" called another voice, and then Drogo, Otho, and Rory walked up, pulling a cart and giving Gandalf wide-eyed looks. Gandalf stood, towering over the Hobbits and Dwarf, and all four began to talk at once, while Bilbo watched with a bemused smile. Gandalf seemed pleased by the attention, and Bilbo thought that dinner tonight would be splendid, once the rest of the Shire caught wind of Gandalf's return.

~

Later that night, Bilbo sat on an old, creaky armchair in a large room that had once been another dining hall, but had been converted into a second nursery for all of the new children who came with the visiting Hobbits. All of the young children of the Shire were in the room, giggling and shrieking and running about while their minders watched, though several children were sitting around Bilbo, talking to each other in their young voices, no longer as quiet as they had been only a few months ago. On the other side of the room, Gandalf was entertaining a horde of children with small firework tricks, much to their awe and fascination.

A creak of old wood caught Bilbo's attention, and he looked over when Bofur sat down in the chair beside his, giving him a grin and catching the delighted attention of the children nearby. "Mister Bofur, look at this," one boy said shyly, going to Bofur and showing him one of the toys that Bofur had made, that the children must have painted, for it was now brightly colored.

"What pretty colors! You did a great job," Bofur said, giving the boy a pat on the head, and the boy beamed and ran back to his friends.

"He's been waiting three days to show you that," Bilbo said quietly, and Bofur chuckled as he watched the children.

"I've been working on something! But I'm about done, so there will be plenty of time now to visit," he said, giving Bilbo a smile. Then he pulled out a scroll and unfurled it a bit, and Bilbo blinked.

"What's that?" he asked curiously.

"Oh, just a letter from King Thorin," Bofur said casually, his gaze sliding over to Bilbo, who sat up immediately and leaned over a bit to see more easily. Bofur laughed at him, and Bilbo muttered, flustered by his own reaction.

"Oh, you can't just say things like that! I guess Gandalf gave that to you?" Bilbo said, glancing over at the Wizard across the room.

"Aye, he passed through Moria on his way here, got this from the king," Bofur said, and Bilbo tried to contain his curiosity for a long moment. Bofur grinned at him, eyes twinkling, and Bilbo gave him a frown.

"Alright, you wouldn't be showing it to me if you didn't want me to know about it. What does it say? How is he?" Bilbo asked, leaning over to see the letter better.

Bofur laughed, looking rather pleased with himself, and Bilbo rolled his eyes. "Thorin's leaving the Misty Mountains, heading back to Erebor. He says I'm to give him any news your Thain wants to pass on before I go back, too. But after this morning, I've got a bit of an idea I wanted to share with you," Bofur said.

Bilbo felt rather surprised, then sad. He did not want Bofur to leave, not after befriending him so well over the past few months. Then Bofur's words caught his attention, and he leaned over the arm of his chair, raising his eyebrows in expectation. "Go on," he said slowly.

Bofur snorted and rolled up the scroll again, his voice dropping as he glanced at the children nearby. "You're planning on leaving, aren't you? You'll need some help getting there, and who knows that whole side of the Misty Mountains better than me? I don't want you to get lost, and there are still Orcs out there, not to mention the mines of Moria themselves are easy to get lost in. I'll be your guide! What do you say, Bilbo?"

Bilbo stared at him, once again surprised at how easily Bofur could read into him. He had been worrying for months about this trip, ever since Fortinbras had visited him and told him about the Great Meeting. He had worried and planned, imagined leaving and taking his cousins with him, though he was hesitant to leave Rory, his best friend. He suspected that his aunts and uncles would follow with their families, but he had no idea how everything would happen. Should he go first and find a place for them? Should he wait until everyone could go with him? Yet he had begun to pack and prepare anyway, without really telling his Took or Brandybuck cousins other than Rory. He had talked to Bofur only a little about leaving, and yet here was Bofur, ready to follow him, to lead him even.

"I don't know what to say, Bofur," Bilbo said, a smile slowly spreading across his face. "I thought Thorin wanted you to go back to Erebor."

Bofur waved the scroll around with a grin. "Ah, but he didn't order me to go back, did he? Says right here," he said, pulling open the scroll and reading from it, "'At the end of the third month, I will take the remainder of the army back to Erebor. If the Hobbits have further need of you, then stay with them until their need has been fulfilled, before you follow us home. Send me word of anything they need before I leave.' Oh, and here at the end, I didn't even see that.

"'Give Bilbo Baggins my greetings. I hope he is doing well, and I look forward to hearing your report on him and the Hobbits.' I can tell him everything in a letter, you know," Bofur said, watching Bilbo's face.

Bilbo felt rather flustered at knowing that Thorin was still interested in him and wanted to know about his health. He wished he could tell Thorin himself, about what was happening in the Shire, and about his own recovery. He wanted to reach out and be able to find Thorin again, speak to him again, but they lived in two different points in their lives. At least he knew that Thorin was doing well, and he could let Thorin know he was doing well, through Bofur.

"Bofur," Bilbo said quietly, and Bofur beamed at him.

"See, he's given me leave to do what I want here, so long as I'm helping you, which is the whole reason for it! I'll get back to Erebor sooner or later. You're my friend, Bilbo, and I want to help you. Will you let me?" Bofur asked, giving Bilbo a rare serious look, and Bilbo sighed with a smile.

"I would be happy if you came with us, Bofur," Bilbo said, his smile widening, reaching up to touch the necklace underneath his shirt. "I don't want to keep you from your family, though."

"Oh, I'll send them a letter, no worries. Bombur's got his family, and Bifur has his Boro. I'm more needed here," Bofur said, the skin at the corner of his eyes crinkling, and Bilbo smiled at him, rather happy with Bofur's decision to stay with them.

"I'll talk it over with Fortinbras... and with my cousins, and Rory too," Bilbo said, his hands dropping to his lap. "I think everyone's going to end up going, anyway, but I was thinking... maybe we could go first, meet Beorn and find a good place to settle. If you take us there, we can find the best spot... don't you think?"

"Aye, sounds like a plan! From the way your elders were talking, it's likely they'll want someone to look about first. Between the two of us and your cousins, and maybe even that Wizard over there, I think we can take care of that," Bofur said, gesturing over at Gandalf, who lit another small spell that flew around as a small bird of light, causing the children to shriek with glee.

Bilbo nodded, already thinking about what he would say to Rory and Fortinbras, how he might convince Aunt Mirabella to let him take Rory, who else might like to come with them. "And you will tell Thorin this? In a letter, instead of going to meet him?" he asked, watching the small fireworks dance around the room.

Bofur nodded, humming under his breath, then gave Bilbo a sidelong look, a grin touching his lips. "I'll write to him, yeah, but you know, Bilbo... you could write to him, too," he said slyly, and Bilbo looked over sharply, staring at his friend.

"Write to Thorin Oakenshield? Me?" Bilbo said, a laugh escaping him. "What would I say? My cousin will surely send him a letter, and you will tell him everything else. He won't need to read anything from me." At the same time that he said the words, Bilbo felt himself agreeing with Bofur. He could write a small letter, just a note telling Thorin about his decision, maybe even ask Thorin a few questions. Just a little letter.

"Aye, aye," Bofur said teasingly, reading Bilbo's thoughts in his face, and Bilbo reached over without looking to shove his shoulder. "Hey! He wants to know how you're doing, and who better to tell him? I can send it off with my letter when the others go back. I think they'll be leaving at the end of the week, so just give it to me when it's ready, alright?" Bofur said, and Bilbo nodded, already wondering what he would say.

"I'll do that," he said, distracted as he thought about the letter, reaching up to touch the key beneath his shirt and wondering how Thorin would react to reading it. He did not see Bofur grinning at him, nor did he see Gandalf watching them from across the room. He thought of Thorin and all the questions he could ask in a letter, and he hoped that it would not be forward of him, to send a letter to a King.

~

That night Bilbo did not fall asleep quickly. Instead he lay in his nest of blankets, his parents' quilt pulled close to his chin, listening to the soft breaths of his cousins as they slept in his bed. His own 'bed' was just a pile of blankets, much like his sleeping place in Thorin's tent had been, but it reminded him quite a bit of his old cushion at the end of Azog's bed.

He thought of Azog often. Too often, he told himself frequently, trying to push the darkness out of his mind. Whenever he was alone, whenever he tried to fall asleep late at night, whenever he touched the rings hanging from his neck and let himself remember his seven years of hell.

Still he felt overwhelming relief, that Azog was dead and that he was no longer a slave. Azog haunted him, though, in his nightmares and memories. His life was so different now, that his life as nûl-lûpûrz felt like a dream. But it was not a dream. Nothing from that life had been a dream, even though sometimes he wished, so badly, that it had all been nothing more than a terrible nightmare.

Azog's face, the last look Azog had given him before he died, his murmur of my pain-bearer as he fell. How he had hated Azog -- and how much Azog's torments still haunted him. He was better now -- he could touch his siblings, hug them, roll around with them, could look adults in the eye without flinching, could handle any number of squealing, giggling children -- and he could hug Bofur, someone who was broader and taller than him.

But still he was afraid. Still he felt lost and alone. Life with Azog had been so different. By night, he had slept at Azog's side or feet, and by day, he had visited the Hobbits and sat with them. Now -- he did much of the same during the day, now with his family and the children who made him happy, but by night -- he was alone. He no longer had to fear someone reaching out and pulling him with clawed hands into an embrace he hated. He no longer had to listen to his master's breathing, to figure out whether his master had fallen asleep already.

He had only himself, and now his cousins, who had no idea how much their soft breaths and snores sometimes terrified him.

That was why he would always be alone. Why he would never marry, or become a comfortable bachelor with a lovely neighbor he would visit frequently, or ever fall in love again. He could handle clasping arms with Bofur or sitting with children snoozing on his chest or shoving Otho and Drogo into a pile of snow. He could handle talking with random people or eating in a room full of loud, gossipy Hobbits. He could handle hugging his male cousins, who were just as tall as him.

But he did not think he could handle sleeping with another person again. Soft kisses, holding hands, flirting even -- it was beyond him now. He could handle children and family, and friendly people like Bofur and Gandalf, but there was nothing else.

Maybe this letter to Thorin -- maybe it would be good for him. When Thorin responded -- if Thorin responded -- maybe he could use it, to teach himself how to get to know someone again. He would like to know Thorin better, truly, and it was not actually meeting him -- so he was still keeping his promise.

Maybe if he talked about Azog a bit -- not in this letter, maybe in a later one, if Thorin responded -- he would be able to get past the memories that haunted him. Would Thorin think badly of him, for using the Dwarf in such a way? Perhaps he should simply write in a journal.

Yet Bilbo wanted to speak to Thorin again. He wanted to know more about the enemy of the Defiler, the Dwarf who had saved his life and changed his future. Not just through Bofur's stories, but by interacting with Thorin himself. He would at least be honest with Thorin, and maybe -- hopefully -- Thorin would write back to him.

Otho began to snore, and Bilbo sighed to himself, reaching up to touch his necklace. He stroked the rings for a moment, but soon his fingers found the key, his fingertips pressing into the carved lines, a motion so familiar that he did it without thinking. He knew those ridges and angles by heart, now -- the key was often in his hands when he sat alone with his thoughts. It comforted him, when nothing else could.

Sometimes he would touch the rings, too, when his thoughts were darkest, but he would think of his promise, of the feeling of seeing light again for the first time in many years, of that first night he had slept outside of Azog's room and had wandered into Thorin's attention. Still his depression crippled him, but he was getting better -- wasn't he? Sometimes he could not tell.

Otho's snoring was distracting, but it did remind him that this was not Azog's room. Azog had never snored. So Bilbo let himself drift, holding onto the key of promise, and soon he slept, dreaming of adventure and a new life.

Chapter Text

When Bilbo thought about it later, he could not help but notice how easily everything fell together. Gandalf's arrival, Bofur's offer, even how the Great Meeting ended. Bilbo himself was not at the meeting on its last day, but Fortinbras told him later that Great Aunt Adaldrida herself had stood up and terrified an entire room of grumpy, anxious Hobbits into agreeing to make an agreement, not letting even her terrible cough stop her from scolding the oldest, proudest, and sturdiest of the Shire. The agreement itself only took an hour to make, and it was thus:

Nearly all of the Hobbits were going to leave the Shire. Some would stay and live in Bree alongside the Men who stayed there, and it was mostly Hobbits who were too stubborn to leave, or too ill or old to make the journey. Everyone else had, shockingly, agreed to leave, and it had left everyone reeling with the finality of their decision.

Fortinbras had offered to send someone ahead, to speak to this Beorn and determine a location to start their new home. Then, after packing up everything they could, the Hobbits would follow, hopefully to arrive by the end of summer, so that they could build homes for the winter. Despite the loss of so many, there were still good workers and masters of skills that would be very important in building a new life for their people. All they needed was a little help, and some time.

With these things in mind, Fortinbras and Bilbo sat in the Thain's office a week after Gandalf had arrived, both staring down at a map of the continent, their gazes fixed on the Anduin River.

"So everything is settled then?" Bilbo murmured, and Fortinbras nodded, reaching out to touch the map and pointing at the Anduin Vale.

"Yes. I trust your judgment, Bilbo. You've always been the most knowledgeable of our cousins, and you know the history of that place better than anyone. You will be fine, especially if you have Gandalf with you. Not to mention the Dwarves will come running if you so much as crook a finger," Fortinbras said, looking over at Bilbo with a grin.

Bilbo snorted, his gaze flitting past the Anduin River to a single mountain above the Greenwood forests, recalling the letter he had written a week ago. "You've been at the pipes for too long again, haven't you? I will ask them for help, to be sure... if we cannot handle it ourselves."

Fortinbras smiled at him. "I was shocked when the Dwarves came forward to help. The Big Folk, too... even those mysterious Rangers! I always thought the other Folk ignored us, but it's because of their kindness that we've made it this far. Without that food..." His gaze grew dark briefly, but his smile widened after a moment. "We've been very lucky, Bilbo. Let us hope that luck follows us to the Vale."

Bilbo nodded in agreement, leaning back in his chair and thinking of all that he still needed to do -- which was really not very much, as most everything had already been packed. All he needed were his traveling companions and supplies, and the supplies he would buy at the towns of Men along the way.

"Have you decided who will accompany you?" Fortinbras asked, tapping the map, and Bilbo nodded.

"Bofur has said he will escort me there, and I want to ask Gandalf if he will come with us. I really want to bring Rory, but I've yet to ask his parents... and I think I should bring Drogo and Otho, too. I think they need to get away from here. They're too angry, too... raw, from everything. Maybe this will help them. Maybe they can use their anger to help me find us a new home. They are so young, though... even Rory isn't an adult, and yet I want to take them all on this journey. Is it selfish that I want them with me?" Bilbo took a deep breath and exhaled slowly.

"I worry about this, Fort. I'm going to find our new home. Me, Bilbo Baggins. What if -- what if I get it all wrong? What if there is a better place, but I don't find it? What if we don't like it? What if it never feels like home... like the Shire as it was?" He fell silent for a long moment, his gaze dark. "Will this even help us heal?" he asked softly, and Fortinbras did not respond at first.

"We can only try, cousin. That's all we have left. We're not weaklings, not like the Big Folk think. We got through the Fell Winter, and we got through Shirefall. We will get through this, too, and we will have a better life in the Vale. It will never be the Shire -- but our forefathers lived there once... they must have loved it at one time, and so shall we. We will make a home there, and we will be happy, Bilbo," Fortinbras said, meeting Bilbo's eyes.

Bilbo felt a shiver run up his spine, and he thought for a moment that he understood why his kin had made Fortinbras Thain. He gave Fortinbras a small smile, and his cousin grinned back at him.

"So all you really need to do now is --"

But whatever Bilbo needed to do, he did not find out, because then the door burst open and Gandalf strolled in, grey robes brushing against the doorway as he ducked and smiled benevolently at Fortinbras and Bilbo, who gave him identical blank stares.

"Fortinbras! Bilbo, my boy! Good, good, I am glad I caught you both together -- what an auspicious surprise that is! You see, I have quite the topic to discuss with the both of you, about the matter of the meeting, and of an adventure. You see, I was at the meeting, and I would like to help -- that is, to accompany whomever goes on this journey! Indeed, I actually have a particular Hobbit in mind already," he said, his gaze cutting to Bilbo, who felt rather bemused by his appearance.

"Actually," Fortinbras started, but Gandalf hurried on.

"I would like to propose Mister Baggins here! I think he would be a fine choice for this journey! An adventure, even, and I'd say that Mister Baggins should enjoy getting out into the world. I would personally escort him myself, you can be sure of that, and --"

"Gandalf," Bilbo interjected before Gandalf could bluster on anymore, a smile twitching at his lips, "I've already decided to go to the Vale. So you will come with me?"

"Oh," Gandalf said, caught off guard, and then he smiled and reached up to stroke his beard. "Is that so? Good, good! That was... easier than I thought it would be."

Bilbo hid a smile, but before he could respond to Gandalf, the door opened again, and in stormed Rory, with Mirabella Brandybuck following him with a deep frown.

"Rorimac Brandybuck! You cannot just charge into the Thain's office, it's not proper --"

"Oh, who cares about propriety, he's my cousin! Fort! I want to talk to you about Bilbo --" Rory shouted, then faltered when he spotted Bilbo sitting in the chair across from Fortinbras, stopping suddenly.

Bilbo raised his eyebrows, and Rory turned pink, before clearing his throat and walking up to the desk. Fortinbras gave him a level look, but his eyes were twinkling, just as Gandalf's were.

"Fortinbras, I want to request permission to go the Vale with Bilbo. I know he's leaving, and I want to go with him. I've got to! He can't go alone, I'm not letting him go back into those caves without me, and -- and he can't just go on an adventure like this, not without his best friend! It's not right! Even if it's just the two of us, between us we've got enough for a whole Took, and you always need a Took for an adventure. Right?" Rory pleaded, pressing his hands to the table and leaning forward to look at Fortinbras. Behind him, Mirabella rolled her eyes, her expression turning resigned, while Bilbo turned away to huff a small laugh.

"Have you talked to your parents?" Fortinbras asked after a moment, and Rory twitched, glancing back at his mother.

Mirabella stepped up beside him and looked at her nephew sternly. "He's been pleading with us all week about it, but I have reservations, Fortinbras. Bilbo is going to the Vale, right? Who is going with him?" she asked.

"Well," Fortinbras said, gesturing to Gandalf, "we have Gandalf here, and Bofur the Dwarf has offered to escort them. That's it, really, Aunt Mirabella."

Mirabella gave Gandalf a considering look, and Gandalf smiled beatifically back at her. "My dear Mirabella," he said, bowing, and she smiled a bit.

"If Gandalf is taking them, then it's alright. And I trust Bilbo," Mirabella said, and Rory gave a loud shout, reaching out to grip Bilbo's shoulder.

"Did you hear that, Bilbo?"

Mirabella turned around suddenly and gave both of them a fierce look, making both young Hobbits freeze. "But so have me, Rorimac Brandybuck, if you step a toe out of line while you are under Bilbo's care -- and he is an adult, unlike you! -- then I will know! So you had better listen to your cousin, and be a good boy, and not get into any trouble!" she scolded. Both Bilbo and Rory nodded quickly to appease her, and her expression softened.

"Well, if that's that --" Fortinbras started.

But that was not that, as once again the door suddenly opened, and Drogo and Otho both rushed into the room, followed by Linda Proudfoot, who seemed exasperated with them. Both boys had determined expressions, which made Bilbo sigh inwardly. Fortinbras, Gandalf, and Mirabella all stared at them, while Rory began to grin.

"Fortinbras Took! We would like to speak with you --" Otho began, scowling.

"It's about our cousin Bilbo Baggins --" Drogo continued, pushing past Rory to frown at Fortinbras, not noticing his cousin at first.

"We know that he's leaving, and we want to go with him!" Otho said, though he turned his head and did a double take at seeing Bilbo there.

"We're not leaving him alone! He's our cousin, and we've promised to stay with him --" Drogo continued, and then he looked over and saw Bilbo staring at him, freezing.

"Bilbo's been looking out for us since he came home! We'll run away if we have to!" Otho declared, looking away from Bilbo and behind them, Linda gave a loud sigh.

"Drogo Baggins! Otho Sackville-Baggins! If you two would just listen to what I have to say --"

Both boys twitched and looked back at her briefly, before looking back at Fortinbras. "Please!" Drogo said, his frown fading, and Otho looked just as anxious.

Then they were both jerked back by their ears, as Linda stepped up to take them in hand. They both yelped, and Linda gave Fortinbras a long-suffering look, smiling in apology. "I am terribly sorry, Thain, for these boys and their rudeness. As I was trying to tell them, I would be happy to allow them to go with Bilbo on their journey!"

Otho and Drogo, who had been struggling beneath her iron grip, stilled and blinked at each other. "What?" they both said, and Bilbo's lips twitched, while Rory had to cover his mouth.

"Bilbo is a proper young Hobbit, and his father would be proud of him," Linda said, her gaze misting briefly and making Bilbo's chest ache. "Now, I've formally adopted both Drogo and Otho, for propriety's sake, but I understand all too well how they care for Bilbo, and I am willing to allow them on this journey -- so long as they promise to be respectful and careful! Both of you are so young, but I believe Bilbo will watch after you both," she said, letting go of their ears and turning them to face her. Both Otho and Drogo were silent, staring at her with wide eyes, and Linda gave them both a smile. "You two will find a good home for all of us there, right?"

Otho and Drogo both nodded, stunned into silence, and Linda patted their cheeks. "You both are so young -- far too young!" she said, and Mirabella reached over to touch her shoulder. Linda gave her a misty smile, then turned to Bilbo, who stood to clasp her hands. "You'll watch them, won't you, Bilbo?" Linda asked, and Bilbo nodded solemnly.

"I'll protect them, Aunt Linda. All of them," he said, looking at Rory, Otho, and Drogo, his gaze softening as he looked upon his cousins, who had all promised to follow him. He worried, though, because of Otho and Drogo's youth, and Rory's temerity, and his own severe problems. But he would also have Gandalf, and Bofur, who would both watch over all of them.

A knock sounded at the door, and all of the Hobbits and one Wizard turned to look, a bit stunned that someone had actually knocked. Then Fortinbras stood and called out for the visitor to enter, and Bofur peeked in as the door opened, a grin appearing on his face when he saw everybody assembled.

"Here you are, Bilbo! And Gandalf, and the lads too!" the Dwarf said cheerfully, stepping into the room and nodding to Linda and Mirabella. "Ladies," he said, bowing slightly, and both of them smiled at his charm. "Thain, just wanted to let you know that I'm to accompany Mister Baggins on his journey! Er, I hope you've talked about that," he said a bit sheepishly, glancing at Bilbo who grinned at him.

"You always seem to arrive at precisely the right time, Bofur. It's been decided that I will go to the Vale, and my cousins here, Rory, Drogo, and Otho, will come with us, as will Gandalf. The Thain has given his blessing," Bilbo said, and Bofur cheered, while all three young Hobbits gave a whoop and clasped each other's shoulders in delight. Linda and Mirabella both shook their heads, but they were smiling.

Fortinbras looked upon the company of four Hobbits, one Dwarf, and one Wizard, a smile coming to his face. "It will take you a long time to get there, but be assured that we will follow, and quickly too. There's nothing left in the Shire for us," he said, his smile slowly fading, and everybody in the room nodded, solemn for a long moment. "The Vale will be a place of new beginnings. You will meet with Beorn and create a contract with him. Bilbo will see to the purchase of supplies -- food for the winter and such things. Don't worry, though -- I'll be sending many families along after you, pretty soon I should think, so you won't be alone there for long. Once everyone has gone, and everything left here has been settled, I will follow," Fortinbras finished, and Bilbo took a deep breath, while his family and friends nodded.

"Thank you, Fortinbras, for trusting me with this. We will not fail you," he said, giving Fortinbras a smile, who returned it.

"I know you will do great things, Bilbo Baggins. I wish you the best of luck," said the Thain of the Shire, and Bilbo Baggins nodded, determined to do right on this journey, for the future of his people.

~

The next day, Bilbo and his cousins had packed everything they could think to bring. Tomorrow, they would leave the Shire, never to see it again. It was late in the afternoon, and Bilbo had one last task to do, something that was very important to him, and something that would break his heart.

He had to tell the children he was leaving.

As he walked down the hall to the nursery for the last time, he heard the shrieks and giggling of the children, and their happy sounds made his heart sink. He would miss them fiercely, until everybody came to the Vale, and he worried about how they would fare without him, especially the quieter children who had been hurt. He had never fancied himself a father, but the orphaned children of the Shire had become quite dear to him, so much that he wished he was old enough to adopt them. There were other couples, other Hobbits who had taken responsibility for the orphans, so he did not need to worry about who would look after them. He would still miss them, though.

Bilbo came to the nursery doors and paused just inside, watching the children as they played, Myrtle Burrows and the other minders chatting by the fireplace as they mended the small, colorful clothes the children wore and often tore. He caught sight of the six children who had just begun to act like proper fauntlings again, sitting on the edge of the crowd and playing with some cloth dolls, one of them reading a book -- and there was little May Grubb, sitting quietly while another girl braided her hair and chattered into her ear. He stood still for a moment, pride filling his chest at seeing May spending time with another girl, a girl who had not been hurt like her, and he smiled widely.

Then one of the children spotted him, and he called out a greeting to Bilbo, that was quickly echoed by several other high voices. Myrtle looked up and noticed him, a smile coming to her face, and she stood and set her sewing aside, walking over to meet him.

"Good afternoon, Bilbo. Have you come for a story? It's about that time, I should think," Myrtle said, her small wrinkles softening with her smile, and Bilbo returned the smile.

"Not quite... though, I have something to tell the children," Bilbo said meaningfully, and Myrtle's eyes widened as she understood.

"Oh," she said softly, her gaze saddening a bit, but she nodded after a moment and turned to the room of children, who were watching them curiously. She clapped her hands loudly and called out, "Everybody! Bilbo's here to talk to you! Come on, let's sit in a circle, just like for story time," she said, and the children all giggled and ran over, sitting down in a wide circle. May Grubb and her friend came over, holding hands and sitting near the front, though far enough to the side that May could relax.

Bilbo smiled at the children and sat down in front of them, crossing his legs and taking a deep breath. Then he began to speak.

"All of you are small enough that in many years, you likely won't remember much of this place. That makes me very sad, because the Shire will always be a place that I love. I'm hoping, though, that the place where you will grow up will become as dear to you as the Shire is to me.

"You see, my dears, it has become too dark here. We have to leave this place, and go somewhere better, somewhere brighter, with green fields and different flowers and woods we have not yet explored. Somewhere where the sun always shines, except when it rains or snows. Somewhere you can all grow up and be happy. A new home, for all of us.

"Do you remember how we talked about responsibility last week? Well, I have a very big responsibility. It is my job to find that place. Tomorrow -- tomorrow... I will leave the Shire, and I will go to this new place, to find our new home. I shan't be taking any of you with me, but in a few months, you'll come join me. Then we will all work very hard together to make this new place very special for all of us," Bilbo said, and his chest ached when he saw the surprise on the children's faces, the beginnings of sulks, of denial, of objection.

But then May Grubb stood up. She let go of her friend's hand and walked over to Bilbo, reaching up to touch his cheeks with her small fingers, just at the height where they could look each other in the eye. She gazed at him solemnly, and behind her, the other children were quiet, watching curiously.

"Pain-bearer," May said softly, and the hairs on the back of Bilbo's neck stood up. He said nothing, staring back at May with wide eyes, stunned.

Then May's quiet expression melted into a smile, and she leaned forward to kiss his forehead. "Find a place with lots of flowers," she whispered, and then she let go of him and dashed back to stand against the wall, hugging herself.

Bilbo watched in amazement as the sulks, the pouts, and the frowns melted from the children's faces, and they began to shout over each other, waving their hands and calling out suggestions.

"Find a place with a big tree that we can climb!"

"Find a place with lots of frogs and fireflies, so we can chase them --"

"Find a place with a big pond! So we can go swimming!"

"Find a place with lots of mushrooms!"

"And Elves!"

"And Dwarves!"

"And --"

And Bilbo laughed, relieved as warmth spread through his chest, a fierce feeling touching him for a moment, that he had succeeded back in those dark halls -- that he had done well to protect these children and their innocence. He nodded to each suggestion, promising to do his best to find the perfect place for them, and then Myrtle stepped in and called for their attention, instructing them to begin cleaning up their toys so that they could have story time.

Bilbo stood up and went to stand by the wall, watching the children as they hurried about, gathering their messes with astonishing alacrity. Then he looked over, and he saw May and the five other quiet children watching him, and he read in their expressions a panicked sort of fear, for the future that they did not understand. He walked over and knelt down in front of them, and they watched him quietly, their mouths trembling as they tried to convey their emotions.

Bilbo reached out and mussed each child's hair, leaning down to kiss their curls and hugging each of them. "I am sorry I cannot take you with me," he said quietly. "But I promise, my dears -- nothing will ever hurt you again. You like Miss Myrtle, right?" They all nodded slowly, and Bilbo smiled. "You know, if you ever have a bad dream, or you get scared, or if anything ever happens while I am not around, you can go to Miss Myrtle. She will always look after you, and she will keep you safe, until you come to our new home to be with me again. Okay?"

One of the two boys, tiny Hob Hayward with his pale curls, made a small noise. "Where are you going?" he asked quietly, eyes bright with tears.

Bilbo reached out to take his hand, squeezing his small fingers. "You remember the big mountains we left?" he said gently, and all of the children froze briefly, but Bilbo gave them such a big smile that they all relaxed a moment later. "Beyond those mountains, far to the east, there is a river, and around it is a beautiful valley, called the Anduin Vale. That is where I am going, and that is where you will go too," he said, and his expression became a little solemn. "You remember the Dwarves? They watch over those mountains now. All of those bad goblins are gone. So when you go, you won't find any nasty goblins -- only big, strong Dwarves, who will protect you if you get scared."

They all nodded, expressions brightening at the thought of Dwarves, and Bilbo knew they must be thinking of Bofur. He gave each of them another hug, and each child hugged him back tightly, sniffling into his neck and giving him soft kisses on his cheek. Bilbo leaned back after May stepped away, his gaze saddening. "You'll be good for Miss Myrtle, right?" he asked, and they all nodded once more. "Then go on, go get ready for story time. I'll see you in a few months, okay?" he said, and after hesitating, their eyes wide and dark, they nodded again and darted off to the other children.

Bilbo stood and watched them for a time, before he caught Myrtle's sad smile as she watched him. He walked over to meet her by the door, and she leaned up to kiss his cheek.

"You be safe out there, Bilbo Baggins, you hear me?" Myrtle said, her voice trembling, and Bilbo nodded, his chest aching as he watched the children.

"Take care of them," he said, watching six of the children in particular, before squeezing her hand one last time and quietly leaving. The doors closed behind him, and Bilbo shuddered at the finality of the noise, hating himself for leaving the children who relied so much on him. He walked mindlessly through the halls, not meeting anybody's eyes as he thought of May's solemn gaze and little Hob's sniffles.

"Bilbo Baggins, you should answer when someone calls out to you!" said a familiar voice, and Bilbo looked up with a start, turning his head to look into the nearest room. There sat the old Mother Brandybuck, tucked into a large armchair with a heavy blanket over her tiny body, though her expression was as severe as ever as she stared at him. Bilbo smiled and walked over to the door, and impatiently, she beckoned him closer, so he went obediently and sat on the ottoman at her feet.

"I'm sorry, Great Aunt Adaldrida. I was lost in thought and didn't hear you. How do you feel?" he asked, taking her small, wrinkled hand in his and holding it gently.

Adaldrida snorted at him, but she softened enough that her scowl faded to a frown. "I feel old, Bilbo, old and decrepit. I'm going to die soon," she declared, and Bilbo inhaled sharply.

"Please don't say things like that," he said quietly, but Adaldrida clucked her tongue at him.

"I've lived a long life, my dear boy. I'm one hundred and twelve -- quite old enough to speak my mind, I should say," she said, and then she began to cough, great hacking noises that hurt Bilbo's ears. He fetched a cup of water and handed it to her, and she sipped it slowly, scowling at the cup. "This cough is dreadful, and I'll be glad to be done with it."

Bilbo stayed quiet, hating the thought of her death, and after a moment Adaldrida looked at him, her expression softening. She reached up to cup his cheek, and he looked at her with dark eyes, remembering all the times she took care of him, how she always looked after him and Rory in those dark halls. How her support had held him together during those long years of pain.

"Do you think you have enough time for one last adventure, Great Aunt?" Bilbo asked, breathing in deeply. "Maybe you could come with me and Rory?" He tried to say more, but Adaldrida shook her head.

"You're a sweet boy, my dear Bilbo," Adaldrida said, smiling at him and patting his cheek. "You go on your adventure, and find us all a nice place to settle down. Oh... but I will miss the Shire," she said softly, looking out the window and watching the yellowed grasses sway in the wind. Bilbo watched her, taking the cup and setting it aside, grief welling up in his chest as he allowed himself to see how quickly she was fading away.

She looked tiny, so much smaller than he had ever seen her. Her skin was pale with sickness, and he could see that her handkerchief was dark with rusty-grey phlegm. She had dark circles under her eyes, but still her gaze glittered with life, with old memories that he would never know, would never understand.

Bilbo sat with Adaldrida for a long time, and neither of them said anything else, simply enjoying each other's presence. They were family, no matter how little blood they shared, and Bilbo would miss her dearly. Adaldrida seemed to doze off, so Bilbo tucked the quilt closer around her and leaned over to kiss her forehead, wondering if he would even see her in a few months. He immediately hated the thought and pushed it out of his mind, promising her silently that she would see the Vale for herself. She had earned it, more than any of them.

"Good-bye, Great Aunt Adaldrida. I love you," Bilbo said against her skin, and Adaldrida sighed softly, murmuring something under her breath. He smiled sadly and stood, quietly leaving the room and closing the door behind him, feeling raw from seeing her in such a way.

Without meeting anybody else, he escaped to his room and sat for a long time on his bed, turning over the key and rings in his hands, his cheeks wet. When his cousins knocked on his door, calling him to dinner, he carefully wiped his face and rubbed at his eyes, and if he did not quite look Rory in the face when he opened the door, Rory said nothing of it.

Dinner was a loud affair, as everybody chatted about Bilbo's journey and the Vale. After dinner, the Hobbits came together to give him a toast, and afterwards, Bilbo was visited by nearly all of the former slaves, who all held his hands, kissed his cheeks, or hugged him, wishing him the best of luck quietly, their gazes as solemn as May Grubb's had been. Bilbo held onto them tightly, until at last the last of his well-wishers left.

Rory, Drogo, and Otho all sat around him, each of them lingering before they would retire to bed. None of them wanted to sleep quite yet, not looking forward to their last night in the Shire, and so they stayed in the dining hall for quite some time. Rory and Bilbo each had ale, and Otho did his best to convince them to let him have some, while Drogo tried not to look eager for the same. Bilbo tried to look admonishing when Rory gave in, but both of the older Hobbits let out peals of laughter at the expressions on Otho's and Drogo's faces upon sipping the ale. One of the cooks brought them a plate of small pies, and they took extra time in savoring the sweet treat, each imagining that it would be a long time before they would have another home-cooked Hobbit meal like this.

Finally, though, Bilbo felt his eyelids grow heavy, and he frowned at his cousins. "Off to bed with the lot of you," he said, and Rory, Otho, and Drogo all groaned, but they stood obediently and stumbled out of the hall to Bilbo's room. Inside his room, Drogo and Otho crawled into their shared bed, and Rory fell down on his back on Bilbo's makeshift pallet, making Bilbo frown at him.

"You can't sleep in your own room now?" he asked, and Rory snorted and gave him a grin.

"Don't you want to cuddle with me, cousin Bilbo?" he giggled, and Bilbo rolled his eyes and sat down with a huff beside him.

"If you smother me in my sleep, I'll have Bofur sit on you tomorrow," he threatened, but Rory only snickered and pulled him down. Bilbo acquiesced while rolling his eyes, turning on his side to sleep. Rory poked him in the back a few times, making Bilbo swat at him, and they heard giggling from the bed, but soon it grew quiet, and after a time, Bilbo heard the soft snores of his cousins.

But Bilbo did not fall asleep easily. He laid there in the darkness and worried, thinking of how they would leave and where they would go, trying desperately not to think about the fact that they would go back into Moria. He thought of Gandalf and his promise to protect them, of Bofur and his promise to guide them, and of his own promises to everybody he was leaving.

He thought of Thorin. He thought of the letter he had written a week ago, that was on its way to Azog's old halls, where Thorin was waiting. He had tried to keep the letter polite, distant, like that of an acquaintance, but all too easily had he spilled out his worries to Thorin, each word flowing easily onto the paper as he imagined Thorin's solemn gaze watching him. Thorin, who paid attention to his worries and listened to him, who would hopefully accept his thanks and apologies.

He usually thought about the Dwarf King during these idle hours, when he was halfway between sleep and waking. In the quiet of the night, he let himself remember -- those horrific moments caught in Azog's grip, the look in Thorin's eyes when he saw his axe raised above Azog's head, the feeling of Thorin's hand on the back of his neck as he cried, the peace when he sat in Thorin's tent, alive and free.

He hoped -- he wished -- he would like it if Thorin responded to his letter. Perhaps, after he had settled his family and kin, he might take up Bofur's offer and visit Erebor. He was healthier now, no longer so thin, no ribs showing beneath his shirt. He still had his scars, but Óin's salves had done wonders on his skin, even the deepest scar on his stomach, the skin softer and less rigid now, less obvious in how they had been made. After he found the Vale, after they settled into a new life -- maybe he could travel, see more of the world.

Rory's warmth behind him was lulling, and Bilbo realized that he was actually sharing his bed with someone. It was only Rory, someone he trusted implicitly, and his cousin beside -- but it was something, a step forward, and he was proud of himself for a moment. He thought of little May Grubb and how she was talking to other girls now, of tiny Hob Hayward who had said not a word for four years before this past spring. Slowly, carefully -- all of them were healing.

Vaguely Bilbo wondered if they might see some Elves on the journey. He had always liked Elves, having read countless stories about them, but he knew of their antipathy with the Dwarves, and he wondered at that old history. He should grab a book or two before he left, to read on the journey... he would have to visit the library rather early, and surely they would not mind if he took out a few books on Dwarf and Elf history...

Bilbo was asleep before he realized he had drifted off, curled up beside the warmth of his cousin, dreaming of faraway places with golden fields and lonely mountains that rose over deep green forests.

~

The next morning, Bilbo rose very early, first sneaking into the library, then coming back and waking his cousins. He helped them get ready, pushing their vests and waistcoats into their hands, chiding them as they rubbed sleep from their eyes. When the four of them were dressed, they all walked out to the dining hall, where six places had been set for a lovely breakfast. Bofur was already there with Gandalf, chatting with the Wizard who looked rather cheerful and awake for the early hour, and the six of them sat together, eating their last meal before they would leave. They would pick up supplies in Bree, then more in further towns along the East-West Road.

Soon enough, they were all standing outside, with their families waiting as they made last-minute adjustments to the cart. Bofur had somehow procured two ponies, which would pull the cart of their belongings. Bilbo had gathered the books and items he had taken from Bag End, along with all of their clothes and the few items his cousins wanted to bring. They had little else, but it was enough to fill the cart, while leaving room for all of them to sit if they wanted. Bofur would drive the ponies, and Bilbo chose to sit beside him. Gandalf, curiously, had a proper horse to ride.

They hugged their relatives closely and said good-bye, then climbed onto the cart and began to roll down the road, listening to the well-wishes of their family. Primula ran beside the cart for a while, begging Bilbo and Rory to be safe, but soon she fell back, waving frantically. Then Tuckborough began to disappear, and they came to the road proper. Bree was nearly a week of travel away, and it would be another three weeks of travel, if they paced themselves well, to reach the Misty Mountains.

Bilbo had walked this road once before, coming into the Shire last autumn, and he felt a strange sense of acceptance as they rode down the road that was littered with small rocks and weeds. All around them, he could see what was left of the Shire, the hills yellowed and grey, the trees no longer flowering or sprouting leaves. It was a Shire that had fallen to darkness, and it was a Shire they would leave behind, never to be seen again.

He would not miss this Shire. He would miss the Shire of his childhood, and for a moment he longed for the whispering trees, the bright green fields, the cheerful flowers and fertile land that had gifted the Hobbits so much. This place had been perfect, but no more.

Good-bye, he thought, gazing at the Shire, and the wind touched his face, one last gentle breeze, as if to say the same.

Hours passed, and the day grew to evening. As they neared the Brandywine River, the bridge rose up in front of them, and all of the Hobbits took a breath, knowing that this was the edge of their world. Otho and Drogo had never been beyond this point, and though Rory had lived just beyond the river in Buckland, neither he nor Bilbo had ever left the Shire before their kidnapping almost eight years ago. All they knew of that unknown world was pain and terror, and for a moment, the Hobbits did not want to leave.

Bofur glanced over at Bilbo, whose knuckles were white as he clutched the seat below him. He remembered being dragged across this bridge eight years ago, holding onto his mother in desperation. Then Bofur reached over and nudged Bilbo, who looked over at him in surprise.

"Ready, Bilbo?" asked Bofur, and Bilbo glanced back past the cart, at the Shire that was, thinking of the Shire that had been and of the Vale that was to be. He looked back at Bofur and smiled, looking forward, feeling hopeful.

"I'm ready," he said, and at that moment, the clouds drifted apart, enough for the sun to shine down upon them, warming Bilbo's face and making all of them smile. Then Bofur nudged the ponies forward, and they began to cross the river into the unknown.

~

Many leagues away, deep in a lonely mountain that rose far above the forests of Greenwood, surrounded by golden hills with gently waving white flowers, there was a spacious room filled with books and a large desk where an older golden-haired Dwarf sat, writing quietly. At another table, another Dwarf sat, younger and looking much like the older Dwarf at the desk. He wore royal Durin blue and had many weapons strapped to his stout body, with an ease that spoke of his expertise with the weapons, and of his skill as a warrior. Despite the numerous weapons on his body, he looked relaxed as he sat at a large table covered in scrolls and maps, studying under his uncle's tutelage, early in the day before court began. He was Fíli, heir to the throne of Erebor, and at the desk sat his uncle Frerin, steward in name while his brother the King was away at war.

A messenger knocked and came into the room, and Fíli was handed a scroll with a royal blue ribbon. Fíli took the scroll and began to read, and his blue eyes brightened with joy. He turned his head to shout, and his long golden braids flew as he jumped up. "Kíli! Uncle Frerin! Uncle Thorin's coming home!" he called, and there came a shout of surprise, before his brother ran into the room, stumbling in his haste to hear more of the news.

At the desk, Frerin looked up in surprise, before a smile blossomed on his handsome face, while the youngest looked on eagerly. That Dwarf was Kíli, the youngest of the line of Durin, and he was dark-haired and bright-eyed, but sadly missing a beard, stubble showing his age, though like his brother, he had an air of experience and knowledge about him.

"What does it say? Uncle Thorin's coming home?" Kíli asked, excited, and Fíli gave him a fond scowl.

"That's what I just said, isn't it?"

"Bring it here, Fíli," said Frerin, and Fíli obediently walked over and handed him the scroll, while Kíli came to crowd at his side. Frerin was a tall Dwarf, much like his older brother, with a long golden beard and thick braids beside his ears, his long hair pulled back in a thick plait. He was just as handsome as his brother, but he carried an air of solemnity, just as serious as his brother, if not a little sad, deep in his blue gaze.

Frerin smiled, though, when he read the news. "Thorin is on his way from Khazad-dûm. He plans to meet Beorn the Shifter on his way, and then he will come directly home, so long as he is not distracted by Elves or Orcs," he said, and Kíli let out a whoop, which Frerin discouraged with a look.

"Shouldn't you be with Dwalin?" Frerin said with raised eyebrows, and Kíli twitched, his eyes shifting away from his uncle's knowing gaze.

"He said he was busy this morning, so we're training later. I was studying! Don't give me that look, uncle," Kíli said plaintively, opening his blue eyes wide.

"Kíli," Frerin said sternly, and Kíli gave a sigh.

"Yes, uncle. Can I go tell mother now? Surely she would like to hear of Uncle Thorin's return!"

Frerin only gave him an exasperated look, and Fíli had to hide a smirk as Kíli made his escape as quickly as he had come, going to find their mother Dís, who was likely at the Central Guild this early in the morning. He took the scroll from Frerin and read through it again, his mouth twitching into a smile.

"I will be glad when he is home again," Fíli said, and Frerin nodded thoughtfully, his expression smoothing. "Dwalin has told many stories about the war, but I would like to hear them from Thorin's mouth. Especially about that battle with Azog! He knew the Hobbit involved, didn't he?" Fíli asked.

"Yes, I would like to hear about it, too," Frerin said, though Fíli was sure that Frerin had already interrogated Dwalin about every detail from every moment of the war march. His uncle was nothing if not thorough.

Fíli was just as excited as his brother about Thorin's return, though he contained it much better than Kíli did. It would be good to see Thorin again. He had missed his uncle, these long years without him, though he had been proud and excited when Dwalin and the army had returned with news of Thorin's victory. Fíli hoped to travel to see Khazad-dûm one day, to see the place of battle himself and to walk the halls of his forefathers. He knew that his brother was more interested in the tactical side of the battle, while Fíli himself longed to know about the history of that long untouched place.

He looked forward to when Thorin rode through the gates. Once the news spread, the entire kingdom would begin preparing for their King's return. Thorin was coming home!

Chapter Text

A week later, outside an inn at the edge of Bree, Bilbo was helping Bofur carry bags of apples and potatoes to the cart. They had new waterskins and feed for the ponies, as well as jerky and spices that Bilbo himself had chosen, and a few early spring vegetables that he had not been able to resist buying. The stall owner had given him a good price, too, and had whispered over the exchange of radishes that she had always liked Hobbits and wished them the best of luck. The kindness had more than made up for the overpriced sausages that Otho had found halfway down the street.

At the moment, Rory, Drogo, and Otho were not speaking to each other, having gotten into a rather loud argument once Bilbo had told Otho how much he could have saved them. Otho was sulking and had turned away from the others, while Rory glared at the back of his head and Drogo looked disgruntled. Bilbo had heard the shouting --

"You can't go buying every tasty morsel you find! We've got to be smart about our coins, you fat-headed brat --"

"Don't call him that! Like you would know any better!"

"Yeah, I saw you looking at the weed earlier, Rory! Come here and show me your pockets, you big-mouthed hypocrite --"

-- and he wanted nothing to do with it, so he had chosen to help Bofur. As he set the last bag on the cart, he looked to see Bofur holding up a length of rope. With a smile, he took one end of the rope, and the two of them tied down the bags, then slid the wall of the cart back into place and stood back. Now they were supplied and ready to go.

"Rory, Otho, Drogo -- we're leaving," Bilbo called, and the three boys gave each other sour looks before grudgingly approaching the cart. Gandalf was nowhere to be seen, but Bilbo knew he was inside the inn, carrying on some mysterious business.

While Rory, Otho, and Drogo attempted to claim spots without speaking a word to each other, Bilbo patted the neck of one of the ponies, rolling his eyes to himself and turning his gaze to watch the street. He had been to Bree only twice before his return to the Shire last October, but he had heard of it from his Took and Brandybuck aunts and uncles, who had gone through Bree more than a few times in their lives.

The town he had heard about in his youth had been quiet but cheerful, with Men and Hobbits sharing wares and tables in friendship and trade. Bree was still quiet now, but it was stilted and anxious, just as the Shire was. Bree had been ravaged by Orcs during Shirefall, and there were not nearly as many Men as Bilbo had imagined. Many buildings were damaged or boarded up with thick planks of wood, and he had heard in the inn's pub that many families had gone to Archet and Combe, or even further south to the larger cities of Men.

Hobbits were still welcome here, still considered good neighbors by the Bree-men, but Bilbo saw many people eyeing them with concern. Likely the news of the Hobbits' decision had already spread, and Bilbo suspected that rumors had reached Bree before they had even arrived, once the Great Meeting had ended.

He wondered what would happen to Bree. The Hobbits who had refused to leave were moving to Bree, but what kind of life would they have here? Bree seemed like a sad place to live, just as the Shire was now.

Bilbo was distracted from his thoughts by a tap on his shoulder, and he turned to see Bofur standing beside him.

"Before we head off into the wild, Bilbo, I've something to give you," Bofur said, and Bilbo blinked at him, nonplussed.

"Bofur, you needn't give me anything," Bilbo said, curious and a little embarrassed. Bofur had already done so much for him! But Bofur shook his head and reached into one of his many pockets, pulling out a small but fine one-bladed axe, its wooden handle wrapped in thick blue leather, the blade carved with Dwarven knots that, upon closer look, were revealed to be leafy vines. Bilbo stared at the axe in shock, and Bofur held it out, waiting until Bilbo hesitantly took it.

He lifted the axe and looked at it admiringly, finding that the weight of it was nothing like he had imagined. It fit into his hand rather well, and he realized how small it was, compared to the axe that rested on Bofur's back. He wondered why on earth Bofur had given it to him, and he looked up at his friend in confusion, trying to find the words to ask.

Bofur's eyes were twinkling, and he had a small smile on his face. "Every Dwarf worth his salt carries an axe with him, whether it be a war axe or a tool like this. I didn't make the axe myself, I'm not that good at smithing, but one of the Dwarves who stayed with us this winter made it at my request. Nordi, his name was. Anyway, I made that handle, and I found the leather for it here, as well as some more for a sheath," Bofur said, holding up a cover that would fit over the blade, in the same blue leather.

"Bofur," Bilbo said, his eyes wide, "I can't -- I don't know how to use an axe. This is too much!"

Bofur grinned at him. "You can't take it back, I've already given it to you, and anyone can use an axe! It will make a fine tool for you on the road, and now you're almost a proper Dwarf, see?"

Bilbo immediately objected, but Bofur bore his flustered attempts to return the axe with a bright grin that made Bilbo's stomach churn with happiness.

"Well, if you insist, I suppose... thank you, Bofur," Bilbo finally said, and Bofur beamed at him. "I suppose this is what you were busy with?"

"Aye, wanted to get it done before the lads left for home. I'll show you some neat tricks for it once we get on the road proper," Bofur said, and Bilbo sighed, a smile touching his face.

"Thank you," he said, and he gave Bofur a short bow, then went to tuck the axe, now sheathed, carefully into his bag. When Bilbo turned back, all three of his cousins were leaning over the side of the cart, watching the two of them with far too much interest, the sour expressions from their fight long gone.

"What about us? You can't spoil Bilbo and leave us wanting," Rory said, a cheeky grin appearing on his face, and Bilbo covered his face with one hand, while Bofur roared with laughter.

"Haven't forgotten about you lads! Found you these," Bofur said genially, pulling out three small daggers and holding them out to the three boys, who clamored off the cart to receive them. Bilbo was pleased when all three thanked Bofur profusely, but he felt a headache form as he watched them lean close to each other to compare their new tools, wondering how long the peace would last. Bofur grinned as he watched them, while Bilbo rolled his eyes.

"Incorrigible," he muttered, and Bofur smirked.

"At least they're not fighting anymore," he muttered to Bilbo, who snorted and had to turn away when Rory gave them a suspicious look.

Then Gandalf strode out of the inn, and he glanced curiously at the three Hobbit boys as he ambled over. "Whatever are you all standing around for?" he asked, and he did not understand why Bilbo and Bofur groaned at the same time and began to laugh a moment later.

Soon, though, they were off, leaving behind the quiet town of Bree and riding off toward the looming Misty Mountains.

~

Thorin rarely saw visions during his sleep, but two nights before he left Khazad-dûm for Erebor, he had a long dream.

A young dwarf of the ancient halls turned new, he stood at his father the king's leisure and listened to the tale of their creator Mahal. Their father's father had crafted them from stone itself, strong children to tend to the stone of the world. They all had an old memory -- that they were once much more. Their father told them that once, they had two hearts that beat as one, but the father of their father's father told him that for the dwarves to have life, they must be struck in half. So they were, and so came the promise of a match to every dwarf -- a promise that every dwarf would not have to die alone, as they were born.

So their father the King of Dwarves told them, and so the young dwarf believed. He took up the axe and the hammer as his father's father taught them. He studied the craft of his people. He fell in love with gold and its glimmer in the dark caves where they dwelt. He worked, and he crafted, and he created beautiful things -- but he was always alone.

Then he was older. Then he began to feel the darkness of death, and he feared. He went to his father who was deathless and he asked, 'You said I would not die alone. You said I would meet my match. Where are they?'

His father the deathless looked upon him and touched his brow, where silver had begun to gather. 'Did you ever seek your match?' his father the deathless asked, and the dwarf said no. 'How will you find your match, if you never look for them?'

And the dwarf understood. He left his father who had guided him in all things, and he walked the great Halls of Dwarves, which wove through the mountains that parted the great land. Years passed. He met many dwarves and made many friends, but he never met his match -- until one day, he left the dark halls, drawn by a light at the edge of the hall.

He left the cave and walked out into the sunlight, and there was a green valley near the mountains, where dwarves with no beards walked. He approached them, and they smiled at him and welcomed him. He asked them, 'Why do you not walk in the halls of our father?' but the beardless dwarves only looked at him in confusion. They did not know his father, and the dwarf wondered if they were not his kin after all.

'How did you come here?' he asked next, and they told him that they were born from the earth. They had no mother or father as he had, but they had an old memory, of being much more than they were before they were struck in half. This startled the dwarf, who shared that old memory, who knew the old story and understood the old way -- but these were not dwarves, so how could they know of it?

But he knew that his father's father had a wife who loved the earth, and he wondered. But he would never know, because his father's father had left their world long ago. He could only suppose.

He wondered about these beardless dwarves, who did not call themselves dwarves -- who did not call themselves anything, really. They spent their days nurturing the earth and harvesting good foods, and at night they slept in holes that were small but warm. They were a kind people, and the dwarf liked them very much.

When he had eaten his fill, the dwarf realized that several more of the hole-dwellers had joined them, and he looked at them in curiosity. They were all laughing, talking, enjoying the warm weather and the fruits of their labor, and the dwarf saw in them a love for song and good cheer. He leaned forward, to share his love of gold, to tell them of his father who reigned king in the halls of the mountains -- and his eyes met the eyes of one of the small creatures who had joined them.

Everything else faded away. All he could see was those eyes.

The greyest of blues, the shadow of silver beneath the glow of a lamp, and the dwarf was lost. He did not understand why he could not look away. The other person did not look away either, and for a long moment, they could only stare at each other.

Then he understood, and he felt relieved, that his long search was over. He would not die alone. He reached out his hand, and a warm brown hand took hold of his fingers, and the dwarf knew --

And Thorin woke, confused and breathless, staring into the darkness of his chamber and feeling bereft. What had he dreamt?

He stumbled to the table where his water pitcher rested, and greedily he drank a full glass, until his heart stopped racing and his breathing was even. He stared down at the table, not seeing it as he remembered the dream. He clenched his hand, still feeling the warmth of the hand pressing into it, but no -- it was only his imagination. There was no warmth there.

Such an impossible dream. Could it have been from a ghost of these halls? A warning, perhaps? The call of gold had been on his mind often as of late -- was some remnant of his ancestors warning him against his fears?

And those small, beardless creatures -- he thought they might have been Hobbits, of all things. Such a strange dream. He had heard stories before, of Hobbits and Dwarves being friendly to each other long ago, but to find one's match in a Hobbit? And one with such eyes -- eyes that still called to him, still made him clench his hand over the ghost of warmth.

Thorin stood for a long time, staring into the darkness and thinking. He did not sleep anymore that night.

~

The next day, while Thorin was going over a list of supplies with Balin, he received word that the team of Dwarves from the Shire had returned.

"Good," Thorin said, lowering the list and giving the Dwarf a nod. "Have Bofur come to me when he has rested."

The soldier shifted and did not meet his eyes. "Your pardon, King Thorin, but Bofur did not return with us. He sent a letter in his stead," the Dwarf said, setting three scrolls onto the table, and a slow frown appeared on Thorin's face.

"He did not return? Where is he?" asked Thorin, picking up the scrolls and looking over them. One scroll was wrapped in a green cloth of a simple make, and he recognized it as the same cloth that the Thain had used on a letter years ago, when Thorin had first begun to exchange letters with the leader of the Shire. The other two were more ambiguous, but after a moment he noticed two small cirth on the cloth of the second, which he read as Úr. He studied the last scroll, wondering who might have written it, then looked at the soldier.

"He said he would stay with the Hobbits, and that he would explain everything in the letter, Your Majesty," the Dwarf said, and Thorin's frown deepened a little, but he accepted the explanation for now and dismissed the soldier to rest.

Then he sat down and looked over the scrolls, and Balin eyed him over the table. "Might as well read them now, Thorin," his friend said, and Thorin nodded slowly. Then he opened Bofur's letter and began to read.

Several minutes later, he lowered the letter and gave a great sigh. "Bofur decided that, to follow my orders of supporting the Hobbits, he would stay with them for the time being. Ostensibly, to protect the Hobbits, but I suspect he simply likes being with them."

"Wise lad," Balin said, and Thorin snorted.

"Clever, more like. He weaseled his way well out of my orders. But I think... I do not mind, not if he is looking after Bilbo Baggins," Thorin said, his voice dropping a bit, and Balin raised an eyebrow at him. "He did well on reporting about the habits and behaviors of the Hobbits. Their health is a worry, as well as the psychological effects of their trauma... but Bofur believes they are strong, and will survive. He also wrote down his observations of Master Baggins... and of his decision," Thorin said, glancing back down at the letter.

"He says that he will escort Bilbo Baggins here, and then to the Anduin Vale to meet with Beorn," he said after a moment.

"Does that mean they have reached a decision, then? May I?" Balin asked, and Thorin passed the letter over to him, picking up the third scroll and turning it over in his hands, his fingers stroking the white cloth that tied the scroll together.

While Balin read, Thorin sat back and thought about what Bofur had written.

I'll tell you now about Bilbo Baggins. I've befriended him while helping the hobbits, and Bilbo is a good lad. He is kind and thoughtful, and he cares about his family and friends.

Bilbo spends most of his time with children, telling them stories or playing with them, or in the Thain's library. He loves to read, but most of his books burned down. I've told him about Erebor's library, but I'm not sure he believes me, majesty. We'll have to show him when he comes to Erebor, won't we? If he's not in those two places, he's with his cousins. He's the oldest of them, and they all look up to him, since most of them have lost their fathers, and he's the closest father figure they have. A lot like a certain king we both know, if I should say so.

Bilbo carries darkness, though. He sometimes doesn't eat enough, or he lets other hobbits' opinions get to him, or he doesn't sleep right. I don't think any of the hobbits are healthy, not like we always knew hobbits to be, but I do think Bilbo is worse off than most of them. He spends more time worrying about other people than himself. He has nightmares about the Defiler, and his past haunts him.

Mind you, he hasn't told me this in person. I've watched him since I met him, and I can see the dark circles under his eyes, the way he rubs his stomach when he thinks no one notices. I've seen the way he stares off into the distance, the way his thoughts darken his gaze. I worry a lot for him, so I want to take care of him. He's become something like a brother to me, for all that he is a hobbit, and I can't leave him alone.

I've told him a great deal about Erebor. I can tell he wants to visit, but he's afraid of meeting you. I think he's afraid of disappointing you, because he thinks he's still a poor imitation of his old self. I think he's healed a great deal, but I've been watching him all these months, so I've seen all the changes. I hope that when you meet him again, that you see what I've seen. I hope you see the strength he carries and the good in his heart.

One last note on Bilbo Baggins, before I continue with my report. Along with my letter, you should have received two more letters. One is from the Shire Thain, and the other is from Bilbo himself. Seems he had a few things he wanted to say to you.

"Balin," Thorin said quietly. Balin looked up at him in question, and Thorin gave him a small smile. "When Bofur brings Bilbo Baggins here, take care with him. He lived in these halls when they were filled with Orcs, so he may be hesitant to stay. Give him my rooms for the time that he is here."

Balin looked startled, but he raised a curious eyebrow at Thorin, glancing down at Bofur's letter again. "Thorin, those rooms are..."

Thorin knew what he meant, that those rooms were meant for a Dwarf lord, but he did not care. "Give them to him. He rested easily enough in my tent after the battle. Mayhap he will rest easy again, knowing that I slept there safely. Make sure his family and Bofur sleep nearby, as well. He is khuzdibâh, and I'll not have him go wanting while he is in these halls. Not here, not where he suffered so much," Thorin said, more quietly, and Balin watched him solemnly.

"Your interest in this Hobbit is rather curious, Thorin, but I'll do ask you ask," Balin said, a small smile appearing on his face, and Thorin's lips twitched.

"I owe him a great debt. Likely he will feel the need to repay this as well, but whatever he does for me, I will always want to help him. It is the least I can do," Thorin said. Balin hummed in reply, and Thorin felt a bit humbled at being so honest, so he set Bilbo's scroll aside and pulled open the scroll from the Thain.

After reading for a bit, Thorin glanced up at Balin. "Fortinbras sends his thanks for everything we have done for them. They have also reached a decision, that they will definitely leave the Shire and go to the Anduin Valley," he said, and Balin started.

"Truly? All of them? But what of the travel -- will it not be dangerous for them?"

Thorin glanced down at the letter. "Gandalf has requested the Ranger Men of the North to guide them here and protect them. He and I spoke of this when he came here not a month ago. The Rangers will guide them here, and then a group of my soldiers will escort them to the Vale. I told you of this, did I not?"

Balin nodded, eyeing the letter in Thorin's hands thoughtfully. "Aye, but I did not know about the Rangers. It will be treacherous for them, I should think, with whatever remains of the Orcs still running about. We will have to prepare for their arrival. When did he say he would come? The Thain," Balin asked, and Thorin frowned as he looked through the letter.

"They hope to leave by the end of spring. They still have to prepare for travel and pack, as well as prepare supplies... so expect them by midsummer, Fortinbras says," Thorin replied, handing the second letter over to Balin, who took it and read, while Thorin took back Bofur's letter and glanced through it again.

He was pleased, though, that the Thain had taken his suggestion to heart. He would need to speak with Beorn about this on his way home. It was good that he had sent the rest of the army ahead, save those who had chosen to stay in Khazad-dûm, and those who would escort the Hobbits to the Valley. Beorn disliked most Dwarves on the best of days, and an army of them would have made talking to him about the Hobbits rather difficult. Thorin had planned to visit him already, to tell him of the possibility of the Hobbits' arrival, but now he would have surer news.

Thorin did not look forward to the upcoming Eastern Meeting. He hoped that Frerin and Dís, who had both gone in his stead, had managed to keep the peace while he was gone. Unlikely, considering Thranduil, not to mention the leaders of Dale and Laketown... but then, Dís was terrifying in all ways when it came to protecting the kingdom, and Frerin could handle any situation, no matter the severity.

He looked forward to seeing them again, at least. No doubt they would press him for every detail on his war march, but he would be glad to be home with them. He had already sent a messenger to them, and tomorrow, he would leave Khazad-dûm for good. He glanced at Bilbo's letter and felt a pang of regret, and for a moment he considered staying longer and meeting Bilbo when he came... but no.

He could not. He had promised, and he would keep his promise.

He would need to give Bofur another commendation upon his return. Bofur had given him a large amount of information on the Hobbits, the Shire, the Thain's plans, and Bilbo Baggins himself -- information that Thorin doubted that any Hobbit would ever share with them. He could use this information to help the Hobbits, to procure future agreements and guarantee their safety and health. He appreciated that Bofur would guard Bilbo Baggins from danger on his journey, as well.

When Balin looked up from the Thain's letter, muttering to himself about preparations and supplies, he glanced at the third letter and raised an eyebrow. "What about the one from Mister Baggins?" he asked.

Thorin picked up the scroll, turned it over in his hands, then tucked it into his pocket, giving Balin a look. "I will read it later," he said, and Balin watched him for a long moment.

"As you wish, Thorin. Shall we continue, then?" Balin said, and Thorin eyed him suspiciously for a moment, but Balin did nothing more than smile, so Thorin assented. For a time, he used his preparations for departure to forget the scroll in his pocket, knowing that if he thought about it too much, he would want to read it immediately.

~

Later that evening, after Thorin had laid out his clothes for traveling the next day, and had seen to packing up everything that he would not need in the morning, he sat at his desk and slowly opened the scroll in his pocket, laying it across the desk. He did not read it quite yet, studying the length of the letter and stroking a finger across the signature.

Bilbo Baggins.

He remembered the last time he had seen Bilbo, a shell of a Hobbit with dark, sad eyes and trembling words, who forced himself to act brave despite his absolute fear from the Defiler. The way those thin hands had grasped him, the way Bilbo's voice had shaken as he begged Thorin to give him time. Sometimes he wished he could go back to that moment and reassure Bilbo more, say something different to him, convince him of his worth, say something else -- but that moment was long over.

If Bilbo was writing to him now, then perhaps Bilbo, too, had not said everything he had wanted to say then.

Thorin glanced at the signature once more, then looked to the beginning of the letter and began to read.

To Thorin Oakenshield,

I have tried to start this letter several times, but each time I try to write, 'How are you? I am doing well. I hope you are doing well too,' or some meaningless sentences similar enough, I crumple up the page and have to start again. I do hope you are doing well, Thorin Oakenshield. You asked me to call you that, so I will, since your name is rather long for a dwarf.

Bofur suggested that I write to you, but I am unsure what to say. Surely he and my cousin Fortinbras have told you everything? But I will tell you what I can, anyway, just in case. I also have some questions that perhaps you can clarify, as well. I did not speak very well at our last meeting, but I am a better writer than speaker, so perhaps these words will reach you more easily.

When I left you, it was by the calendar of Men late September, approaching the end of harvest. Winter set in quickly after Bofur and I arrived, and I moved into the family home of my mother, a Took by blood. My cousin, Fortinbras, is Thain, and he gave me my mother's old room. I am very happy to tell you that I have family that survived Shirefall. My cousins, Drogo and Otho, Bagginses like me, and many other cousins as well. Almost all of us lost our parents to Shirefall, though. I have only a few aunts and uncles left. But they are alive, and that is what is important. I have family still.

The Shire is nothing like I knew it, though. I had seen Shirefall and feared the worst, but I always hoped that the Shire was just as it was the morning before everything changed. Beautiful, peaceful, green with life. But that was not true, Thorin. The Shire as I knew it is dead. Nothing green grows anymore. There are no flowers, no juicy tomatoes or beds of lettuce and herbs. The dirt is oily, and the sun almost never shines. There is always a haze of grey in the distance, and the breeze carries a sour taste. The roads where my parents and neighbors used to take leisurely afternoon walks are dry and rocky. The smials -- our houses in the ground, which were so bright and warm with the comforts of home -- are burnt and destroyed. This is no place to live.

We, the hobbits, have decided to leave the Shire. This past winter was the last we will ever see of this place. I hope that on the other side of the Misty Mountains, the lands are as green as you promised in your letter to my cousin. I would like to see them, and I will soon. All of my kin will leave by summer, after they finish preparing and gathering everything, but I will leave very soon, before them.

Bofur and Gandalf will guide us there. My cousin has sent me to speak to the person you wrote about, Beorn. You told my cousin that Beorn himself offered the Vale as a new home for us, and I will meet with him, to determine where we can live and what his rules are for living on his land. I am a very well-read hobbit, actually, and in my youth I studied the history of that side of the world very carefully. I was especially drawn to the battles in which your neighbor the Elvenking fought, and though I had considerably less histories on dwarfkind, I did read about your kingdom and family. Fortinbras thinks that with this knowledge, I will do well in managing any agreements between the hobbits and the various kingdoms of the east. I hope I do well in this.

As a King of your people and a representative of your kingdom, I hope you might share any information that would be helpful to us. We hobbits are proud farmers, but we have few seeds left from previous years. What we bring with us may not do well in such a different place, so if you know of any books that tell of what grows well in that area of the world, please let me know, and I will buy them from you. Is Beorn a farmer?

After I meet with Beorn, I will find a place for my kin to settle. The hobbits should begin to arrive by summer. Bofur told me it will take almost two months to reach the Vale from the Shire. Once they start arriving, we will begin making homes for the winter. We will probably have to buy supplies from Dale, or any other towns nearby, or even from Erebor. I will have money to pay for what we need. Or, perhaps as you suggested, we could make an agreement, labor for supplies. We hobbits have many skills that might be useful to you dwarves.

Bofur told me of the different market halls, but I would hardly know where to start! Do I need some sort of pass? Or perhaps this token you gave me will help? I suppose all of this should be discussed in person, not through a letter. Is there a certain person I should meet with in Erebor or Dale, to discuss supplies such as wood and metal? Hobbits live in holes in the ground, very comfortable homes if I should say so myself, and we are creatures of comfort. I believe it will take a long while to make a home out of the Vale, but we are determined.

I worry about what will need to be done when we arrive. How do people begin new lives? We will have to make new smials, new furniture, new cushions, new clothes, new everything. I am bringing some things that were not destroyed, but it will not be enough. How can we do this? I am unsure, Thorin. At least in the Shire, we had homes, but in the Vale there is nothing. Most of the craft masters were lost in Shirefall. I worry about how this will work.

Will we even like the Vale? Will Beorn even like us? Will the elves accept us? Will your subjects accept us? We are a simple folk and do not strive for anything greater than a warm hearth, a good meal, and a cheerful song. My people do not sing anymore, Thorin. Not happy songs. Will the Vale give us something to sing about again? Is the eastern world so much better than the Shire as it was? It was our home, and it is gone. How can we replace it?

How can I of all people hope to do this? I am only a hobbit. I never dreamed of anything so big as this. The world was just the Shire, with only books and rumors to tell of the adventures beyond our borders. Then there was Shirefall. And him.

I am sorry for telling you of these worries. I meant this letter to be better than this. I meant to show you how much better I am now. But I'm not better, not really. I still dream about him and the orcs. I'm still thin and sad and angry. I am so angry, Thorin, at everything that happened, and I cannot express it. I write about it and dream about it but I never speak of it. I do not want to scare my cousins. I am afraid of that feeling. I do not want to be like him. He was angry too, all the time. Azog, I mean.

Again, I am sorry. I should not have spoken about that, but this letter is already so long. I've talked all through this letter about myself. I meant to ask you questions about Erebor, and your kingdom, and your family. Bofur told me you have sister-sons, and that Erebor has a vast library, and that there is glowing moss on the walls, and that you can even make ale that glows in the dark from it. Was he lying, or is there truly such a thing? What are your sister-sons like? What is the rest of your family like?

Do you visit the library yourself? Is it truly so vast as Bofur says? He told me it was as big as the hall where the dwarves and the orcs fought, in the battle where everything happened. I happen to like books very much, so if it is so big, I would like to see it. I suspect most of the books are in Khuzdul, but I would like to see it anyway. I have practiced the letters that I remember, and Bofur has corrected what I had wrong. Perhaps I could learn more if that is acceptable. It is a beautiful language.

Please tell Healer Óin that his salves and medicines worked wonders. I am much healthier than I was. But none of us are right anymore. We have not had a proper seven-meal-day in too long! I do miss dwarf food, for all that it made me sick, because there was lots of it. Where did you get your supplies for the army? Bofur told me you made trades with men. Perhaps the hobbits could do this too, until we have tended the land well enough to grow our own?

I hope you are doing well. I hope the dwarves have cleaned out the mess the orcs left. I hope those halls are nothing as I remember them.

I have not forgotten our promise, Thorin. I am still not strong. But I am better than I was, and I hope that after we reach the Vale, after we build a new home there, that life will be a bit more normal. Perhaps after all that, you and I could meet again. What can I do for you that you have not already done for me? Please tell me, if you send a response to this letter. Please tell me what I can do for you. You have already done so much for me and my people. I want to repay you properly.

What can a simple hobbit do for a king of dwarves? How can I ever hope to repay you with all that stands between us?

Respectfully yours,
Bilbo Baggins

When Thorin had read the letter to its end, he stared at the signature for several minutes, stunned at the length and verbosity. How had such a tiny Hobbit written so many words?

In his mind, he pictured Bilbo sitting at a desk with dark eyes and sunken shoulders, sleepless with nightmares and thin from eating too little. He remembered Bofur's warnings about Bilbo's health, and he wished he could do something. He did not think it suited Bilbo, to be so wrought with worry, not after everything he had faced. And such worries -- he wished suddenly that he could go to Bilbo and speak to him directly, and for a moment he was torn between going home and staying here to wait for him.

Then he caught himself, and wondered at his own reaction. He could not stay and wait for Bilbo. What was he thinking? To abandon his kingdom for a Hobbit? No, he would keep his promise and let Bilbo come to him when he was ready. He had to return home, to lead his people and see his family again.

He could write a response to Bilbo, though. He pulled open a drawer and took out a stack of paper, setting it beside the letter. He took a deep breath, then read through the letter once again, looking past his initial response and studying Bilbo's words. That Bilbo wrote so well astonished him, but he felt pleased at the same time. Bilbo was not only courageous and strong, but intelligent as well? He remembered how much it had cost Bilbo to speak to him, that early morning so many months ago, and he wondered at what it might like to speak to Bilbo like this, but in person. He looked forward to it.

It pleased him that Bilbo continued to call him 'Thorin.' He still did not understand his own urge to have Bilbo address him familiarly instead of by his usual titles. It simply did not feel right, to have that Hobbit call him "Your Majesty" or "Sire," placing that level of power between them and leaving them unequal.

He paused as he read that Bilbo was Fortinbras' cousin. Family to the Thain? He had not considered Bilbo's heritage before, but now he wondered what the Thain had told Bilbo. Had Bilbo read his letter? He flushed suddenly, remembering that small addition he had made to the letter, for the Thain to look well upon Bilbo. Had Bilbo read that as well?

He felt gladdened to know that Bilbo had surviving family, but the description of the Shire saddened him the next moment. He had never been to the Shire, but he had heard of its peace and beauty, and he could not imagine losing his home like that. If the dragon had ransacked his home all those years ago, or if they had warred with the Elves or Men... but Orcs had never attacked his kingdom. He wished, not for the first time, that he could go back in time and stop Azog from invading the Shire.

Thorin twitched when he read of Bilbo's knowledge of the East. To know more of the Elves than of the Dwarves? He would have to send some books to Bilbo, once he returned to Erebor, to cure that lack of knowledge. Certainly the histories of his people would interest Bilbo much more than the dark, murky stories about Elves of all creatures. Some other books as well -- books on plants, as Bilbo had requested, and perhaps a book on their language. He would have to go to Erebor's library when he returned home. Perhaps even something from his own collection?

As Bilbo had requested such things himself, Thorin would personally see to sending the information the Hobbit needed, along with anything else he might want. Trade agreements and supplies could be dealt with once he spoke with Dís about the guilds and what they could do. Likely she would prefer to make a contract with the Hobbits themselves. Perhaps Beorn would have ideas, and Thorin could meet with Dale's leader as well.

He suddenly wondered if Bilbo and Dís should ever meet, and what they might think of each other. He shook his head at the thought.

Bilbo's worries rang true with him, truer than he could explain. He remembered when he had been crowned King, at such a young age, just after his father's death. Young and anxious, with so much responsibility, after such loss -- so much like the Hobbit he had met only months ago. His thoughts then must have mirrored Bilbo's now. He still felt anxiety, even with his age and experience, and it saddened him to read Bilbo's anguish of the same sort.

It unsettled him, at the same time, to read of Bilbo's anger. Of his refusal to name Azog but only once, and to see that familiar name written with harsh lines, gouging the paper with hate. Thorin knew, though, what Bilbo meant by 'him.' He could not imagine what Bilbo had gone through with Azog -- and it still left him furious, to think of Azog's ownership over Bilbo. He remembered when Azog had caught Bilbo in the middle of the battle, and still it made his chest burn. What could Bilbo do, though, when he had no one to talk to about such emotions?

Thorin did not think he was suited to understanding Bilbo's needs -- and yet he felt a kinship with this Hobbit, a deep sympathy for Bilbo's anxieties and emotions. Perhaps Bilbo had opened up to him because he had no one else to turn to -- and if that was the case, Thorin would not fail him.

He would answer Bilbo's worries, as well as his many questions. He would do his best to reassure Bilbo, and to offer him aid in what ways he could. Thorin could do that much, at least.

What can a simple hobbit do for a king of dwarves?

Anything, Thorin thought. Anything that you can, as I will do for you. You have already repaid me, Bilbo Baggins, and I will repay you a thousand times more.

He inked his quill and set it to the paper, spelling out Bilbo's name with care in Westron letters, then again in cirth. Then he began to write, and the more he wrote, the less he thought of the time, of his journey tomorrow, of Erebor far away. For a time, all he thought about was a Hobbit far away, who needed him but would not say so -- and whom, he suspected, he might need as well.

~

He was running. He could hear the drums behind him, the calls of catch him, gut him, drag him back to the Defiler behind him in the darkest of speech. He could hear the screeches and growls and grunts of Orcs that would love nothing more than to tear him to pieces. He heard the snarls of their Wargs -- could feel the hot breath on the back of his neck, and he screamed and slipped, fell to the ground, and when he turned on his back, his master stood over him, smiling with fury.

But Azog's eyes were empty and his mouth poured red when it opened, and there was a giant hole in his chest where Bilbo had stabbed him -- Bilbo screamed and covered his face --

Then he woke with a start, his heart racing wildly, a cry still caught in his throat. He looked around frantically, but there was no monster leaning over him, only the quiet of night and the whisper of the wind in the trees above. Instead of a cave of Orcs, he only saw the camp, his cousins sleeping peacefully beside him, and Bofur snoring across the fire. He glanced at Rory and saw that he looked vaguely uncomfortable, but he did not stir when Bilbo sat up. Shuddering faintly, he rubbed his face and carefully crawled out of his bedroll, then snuck across the camp to be closer to the fire.

For a few moments, Bilbo stood in front of the small fire, rubbing his arms and trying not to think about the horrific image he saw in his dream. They had been traveling across the continent for over three weeks. The Misty Mountains loomed in the distance, and Bofur said it would be about a week more before they reached the Western Gate of Khazad-dûm.

The journey so far had been long, but Bilbo had settled into the rhythm of travel comfortably. Otho, Drogo, and Rory were all familiar and safe to him, and he had once traveled with Bofur before and slept well enough. At first, he had been worried about sleeping in a place with so many others, but all of his travel companions were his friends. He trusted every one of them.

Bilbo had slept well and through the night during the first two weeks of their journey, pressed between his cousins while Bofur and Gandalf took turns watching over the camp. Then, it seemed that the closer they traveled to the mountains, the more nightmares Bilbo saw in his sleep. He knew that Rory was sleeping poorly as well, but so far Rory slept through the night -- unlike Bilbo.

Tonight they had camped atop a rocky hill that looked over the nearby Downs, that was hard to reach and, Bofur had assured them, safe from attack. It had not kept Bilbo safe from his bad dreams, though.

Bilbo tried to calm himself, reminding himself that it was a dream and that Azog was dead, but he could not relax. He glanced up and spotted Gandalf sitting against the large crag behind them, so he walked over to join him, curling up next to the grey folds of his cloak.

After a moment, Gandalf stirred, and blue eyes peered down at him in concern. "Bilbo?" Gandalf said quietly, and Bilbo glanced up at him sheepishly.

"Sorry," he whispered. "I didn't mean to wake you."

"You didn't, dear boy," Gandalf responded, sitting up and looking at Bilbo more closely. He hemmed under his breath. "Bad dreams?"

Bilbo nodded, and for a time neither said anything. Bilbo slowly stopped shivering, and Gandalf pulled out his pipe and began to smoke. Bilbo did not feel the urge to smoke himself, but he enjoyed the scent of Gandalf's Old Toby, feeling more relaxed as they watched the fire together.

Then Bilbo asked quietly, "Is there some magic to stop dreams?"

Gandalf was silent for a long moment, as he puffed on his pipe and stared into the darkness. "There is no such magic, my boy, and you would not want to stop your dreams anyway. Your mind uses dreams to sort itself, and some dreams are very important," he said, glancing down at Bilbo, who frowned to himself. Gandalf watched him, his gaze dark with sadness and unnamed emotions.

"I... am afraid to sleep sometimes, Gandalf. These dreams... these visions, they are painful and terrifying. I can't... handle them. Is there nothing I can do?" he asked, looking up at Gandalf with a solemn gaze.

Gandalf watched him for a moment, then sighed very deeply, reaching out to brush Bilbo's curls back. "There are old techniques for strengthening the mind, but I am not someone to teach them. For now, there is only time, and to fill your days with happiness, instead of grief. Time will make everything less terrible, Bilbo," Gandalf said quietly, but Bilbo shook his head, turning to look at the fire.

"There are some things time cannot mend, Gandalf," Bilbo said softly, and his expression darkened a bit.

"And there are many things it can mend, my dear boy," Gandalf said, and Bilbo looked back at him in question. Gandalf smiled at him. "I promise you will heal someday. I cannot say you will not always have terrible dreams, but they will be replaced with better ones. Tell me, have you had any good dreams lately?"

Bilbo watched him, a bit puzzled, but he nodded easily enough. "Sometimes I dream of the Shire as it was... and, well, this will sound silly and you cannot tell Bofur," he said, glancing over the fire to Bofur's figure, relaxing a bit to see him snoring, "but sometimes... I dream of Erebor, of what I imagine it to be like. Those are nice dreams," he finished, a small smile softening his mien, and Gandalf's smile widened with it.

"I think you will like Erebor when you visit it. Thorin will be sure to give you a grand tour of the whole city, and I should say that the markets are a delight to explore," Gandalf said, and Bilbo twitched at the mention of meeting Thorin again, but he looked forward to it.

"Do you think --" Bilbo started, but then he froze, when he heard a familiar high-pitched scream far in the distance. He whirled around and stared into the darkness, paralyzed with fright, barely noticing as across the camp, Rory woke with a start and looked in the same direction.

Orcs. Calling for a hunt -- who was the prey?

He only tore his gaze away when Gandalf reached up to touch his shoulder, gently guiding him back down.

"Bilbo," he heard, and he looked up to see Bofur standing in front of him, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. "It's okay, lad, we're in a safe place, alright?" Bofur said, and Bilbo stared at him without responding. Behind Bofur, Drogo and Otho were sitting up, talking quietly to Rory, who gave Bilbo a wide-eyed look before hiding his face in his hands.

Bofur knelt down in front of Bilbo and took his shoulders in hand, forcing Bilbo to meet his gaze. "Bilbo, it's alright. I promise you, we're safe here. They can't know where we are, and even if they did, I'll protect you, alright? You and your cousins are safe with me an' Gandalf," he said, glancing at Gandalf, who nodded when Bilbo followed his gaze.

Bilbo took a deep breath, then gave a tiny nod and pushed Bofur away. He stood and darted over to Rory, kneeling down beside him and touching his shoulder, and Rory reached up to hug him tightly.

"We're okay, right?" Rory whispered into his ear, and Bilbo nodded.

"We're okay," he whispered back, and after glancing at Bofur and Gandalf again, he let go of Rory and curled up beside him, watching Otho and Drogo lay down on his other side. Bofur went to stand at the edge of the camp, eyeing the surrounding land grimly, while Gandalf watched over Bilbo and his cousins silently.

Nothing attacked them during the night, but no one in the camp rested easily. Early the next morning, before the sun had risen above the horizon, they packed up their camp and started east again, eating apples and jerky. They rode for about an hour, until the sun had risen to warm their faces, and then they stopped at a creek to water the ponies and refill their waterskins.

As he cupped his hands to take a drink, Bilbo heard the high-pitched scream again -- only now it was not distant, and he could understand what followed.

"Halflings! Kill them all!" Bilbo heard, and suddenly he could not breathe.

"They're coming," he whispered, and Bofur jumped up, pulling out his axe and looking around them, while Gandalf pulled out his sword. The ponies flinched and bumped against each other, sensing the threat so close to them. Bilbo stumbled to his feet and pulled out his small sword as well, a small sob catching in his throat when he saw the faint blue glow.

"Bilbo?" asked Drogo, grabbing onto Bilbo's arm.

Bilbo looked over at him with wide eyes. "Orcs are coming," he whispered.

Then Bofur was pushing at them, shoving them at the cart, and Bilbo began to move, grabbing onto Drogo and hoping that Rory had grabbed Otho. He heard the hunting call again and shuddered, remembering his dream and dreading turning around, even when he heard the snarl of a Warg.

"Onto the cart! GO!" Gandalf yelled, and all of the Hobbits scrambled onto the cart, while Bofur took the reins and snapped them. The ponies screamed and began to run, as Orcs swarmed out of the forest behind them.

"Get the Halflings!"

Chapter Text

"Get the Halflings!"

The bone-chilling cry rang in Bilbo's ears, and he held on tightly to Drogo. He looked toward Bofur and saw Rory and Otho huddled next to him, and when he looked back, he saw the Orcs approaching them. Drogo was shaking beside him, and Bilbo pulled him away from the edge when the cart rattled.

"Hold on!" he shouted, and Drogo clung to his waistcoat. The Orcs were getting closer, and Bilbo pressed himself and Drogo back against the bag behind them, his arm in front of his cousin.

As Bofur snapped the reins and Gandalf rode ahead of them, it became clear that the cart was not built for speed. It rattled and shook every time it hit a bump, and they could not turn well, something that startled Bilbo when they went around a rock and he felt them slow down greatly.

"Bofur!" he cried, and he heard the reins snap again.

"Hold on, Bilbo!" Bofur shouted. Bilbo bit down a whimper when he looked back and saw that the Orcs were closer -- close enough that he could hear them growling to each other in their dark speech.

"Flank them and drag the Halflings off! Scouts, shoot the Wizard!"

"Gandalf!" Bilbo yelled, hoping that Gandalf could hear him, "There are more in the woods! They have bows and arrows!"

He heard Gandalf give a great shout, and in alarm he sat up on his knees and looked around, seeing Gandalf charge off into the woods ahead of them. Bofur cursed as the ponies whinnied in fear, and Bilbo had to hold on tightly when the cart bounced again.

"We cannae go this fast! The cart won't take it," Bofur yelled back at Bilbo, who grit his teeth and frantically thought of what to do.

There had to be half a dozen Orcs on Wargs chasing them, and Bilbo had no idea how more were hidden in the woods. He knew all too well how fast Wargs were and how relentless Orc hunts could be. He had no idea how they could escape this safely.

If they got out of the woods, they might find a river to cross, to slow the Orcs down. Or they might get to an outpost -- didn't Bofur say there was one not far ahead? "Just a bit longer --" Bilbo started saying, but then he felt Drogo's grip on his coat slip.

"BILBO!" Drogo screamed, and Bilbo whirled around to see an Orc holding onto Drogo's arm, claws slicing through his sleeve too easily.

"Get away from him!" Bilbo hollered, his heart leaping into his throat, and he did not hesitate when he struck at the Orc's hand with his sword. The Orc snarled and let go of Drogo, and Bilbo yanked his cousin back from the edge of the cart, slicing through the air as the Orc fell back.

"Akashuga sha!" the Orc cursed, and Bilbo tore his eyes away briefly to look at Drogo's arm.

Only a little blood, making Bilbo give a deep sigh, but his relief was short-lived as he looked back and heard the whistles of a dozen arrows, seconds before he heard a sickening thud. He looked down at Drogo and saw the arrow sticking out of Drogo's shoulder, saw the frightened expression Drogo gave him before his face twisted in pain.

"Drogo!" he cried, and he heard Rory and Otho up front calling to them, asking what was wrong, but he only felt terror for his cousin, who was so young, and who was bleeding far too much.

He heard the snarl of a Warg and looked back, only to see another Orc riding up beside the first. He held up his sword, feeling his arm shaking but, but he was determined to protect his cousin.

"Stay back!" Bilbo yelled, and the Orc closest to them snarled.

"I'll skin you and eat you alive, nasty little Hobbit!" the Orc sneered, and a shiver ran up Bilbo's spine.

The Orc lunged forward and leapt from the Warg's back to the cart, and Drogo yelped when it landed inches from him. Once again Bilbo did not hesitate, despite the fear numbing his mind. He let out a yell, rushed at the Orc, and stabbed the glowing blue blade into its stomach. He stood over Drogo and pulled the sword out of the Orc, catching its shocked expression before he shoved it off the cart with his foot. He turned a livid glare on the other Orc that was staring at him in shock.

For a moment Bilbo was shocked at himself, at the strength in his thin limbs and the vicious hate he felt toward the Orc. But then he saw in the Orc's face a familiarity, reminding him of his seven years of hell, and his eyes narrowed.

"Nargraurlat nur-izub," Bilbo hissed, the words hurting him even as he said them, but the disgusting feeling was worth the look the Orc gave him when it realized he could speak their language.

"Nûl-lûpûrz," the Orc said dumbly, and Bilbo's eyes widened as he sucked in a gasp. They knew him?

Then the Orc shouted, "It's Azog's whore! Get the pale-haired Hobbit! Kill the others!"

And Bilbo felt utter terror as the Orcs behind them gave wordless cries that had his ears ringing, recognizing them instantly as hunting calls. More calls responded from the woods, but only a moment later, he heard a death-scream from the same direction as one of the calls.

"Gandalf," he whispered, and two of the Warg riders turned sharply and veered off into the forest. The cart was still moving alarmingly fast, so fast that the woods blurred in his sight, and looking back at Bofur, he could see green fields ahead in the distance. If they could just reach the fields, if they could fight off the last three Warg riders, he could find some herbs -- some sort of medicine, something to save Drogo, who was trembling behind him and letting out faint wheezes of pain.

But then a clawed hand grabbed Bilbo's arm, and he heard Drogo scream his name as the world suddenly tilted. The hand let go, and Bilbo hit the ground with a cry, the sword falling from his grip as he rolled. The world stopped turning around him, and Bilbo breathed in deeply against the sudden sharp pain in his chest. The rattling of the cart grew distant, but Bilbo could still hear his cousins calling for him and the sounds of fighting in the woods.

Then Bilbo heard a growl nearby, and he sat up quickly and saw the Orc on the Warg circling back to stalk him. One Warg rushed past them, but Bilbo saw the other slowing as it approached. The first Orc lunged at him, grabbing at his face, but Bilbo ducked away, only to feel something dig into his neck. He looked down in shock and saw the Orc pulling on his necklace, and he shrieked and grabbed his sword, cutting the Orc's arm and making him let go. The chain broke, and Bilbo hurriedly grabbed it as it fell, gripping the rings and key tightly and backing away, holding his sword in front of him as the Orc glared at him.

"I'll kill you," the Orc promised, but Bilbo only glared and took off into the underbrush.

The two Orcs followed, but Hobbits were known to be fast on their feet and silent when they needed to be. Bilbo wove through the trees and bushes, ducking behind every large rock and using every small path he could find, hearing the larger Orcs stumble and curse behind him. He dove beneath a bush that was growing between two large rocks and pressed himself down against the ground, covering his mouth as he tried to catch his breath through his nose. Then he held very still.

"Azog's whore went this way!"

"That filthy pain-bearer! He should die for betraying Azog!"

"We will take him to Bolg, let him rot in Dol Guldur and die in misery. Where has he gone?"

"Go down that path! I will look here!"

The sounds of branches cracking and leaves rustling faded away, and Bilbo let out a slow breath. His heart was thudding in his chest, pumping blood loudly in his ears, and he tried to focus on the glow of his blade, waiting for it to flicker out. It did not, leaving him more and more fearful, as he waited for any sign that the Orcs were truly gone. Carefully, he rose to his knees and crept to the edge of the bushes, and he jumped when his sword scraped against the rock beside him.

"Did you hear something?" he heard from a distance, and Bilbo's face crumpled as he looked around wildly. Where else could he hide? He backed into the hole again and fumbled with everything in his hands, finally tucking his sword back into its sheath to hide the glow.

Bilbo looked down at the key and rings, mournfully touching the delicate chain that he had worn for six months now. Carefully, he tucked the chain and key into one of his smaller pockets, but then a noise outside caught his attention. Bilbo fretted for a moment, not wanting to lose the rings after holding onto them for so long.

Then he had a thought, and he could have smacked himself. They were rings, and he could wear them. He might have strange Dwarvish dreams for a week, but at least the rings would be safe. So he slid the large gold ring with its blue stone onto his finger, then slid the simple gold ring on after it, closing his eyes tightly.

As soon as he closed his eyes, though, everything went still. The fighting sounds in the distance and the snapping of twigs nearby disappeared, replaced by the chilling sound of wind echoing through a great chasm -- but Bilbo was only in a tiny hole. His eyes popped open, and he looked around him in shock. What he saw terrified him so much that he fell out of his hiding place.

Everything around Bilbo was muted. The sky was terribly bright, but no longer blue, and the grasses and trees around him were no longer vivid green or deep brown. Everything was grayer, darker with only hints of their former colors, and Bilbo realized that the sounds were muted as well, when he noticed movement nearby and heard the faint noise of wood snapping.

He could only watch in horror as Orcs stalked into the clearing he was in, and one turned to look at him -- but then Bilbo stared, as the Orc looked past him as if it did not see him.

"Where could the whore have gone?" one Orc growled, but his snarling words had an eerie echo to them.

"Let's get back to the others," the other Orc suggested, and the two ran off into the woods, leaving Bilbo frightened and shocked, his blood pounding in his ears.

He stayed still for quite some time, but the Orcs did not return. Slowly, Bilbo let himself relax, looking down at the rings, then looking around the strange world again.

It must be a magic ring, Bilbo thought in wonder, twisting the gold ring on his finger. To make him invisible, of all things! How lucky he was to find it, and even luckier to put it on his finger now of all times!

For a moment Bilbo was overcome with the strangest sensation, as if he were not himself. He did not feel like Bilbo, nor like a Baggins, or even like a Took. He felt like the nûl-lûpûrz again, like he was becoming just as terrible as those orcs. Had he really just murdered an Orc to protect his cousin? Had he really just said something in the language he learned from his master? Surely it was somebody else, and not him, who had said and done those things?

But it was to protect Drogo, and Otho and Rory, and Bofur and Gandalf, none of whom understood the Orcs, none of whom knew how they hunted better than Bilbo.

Drogo. His friends, his family. Were they alright?

He looked around himself in anxiety. Where was he? He saw the road in the distance through the trees, and he breathed a sigh of relief.

Were the others okay? Had they escaped the Orcs? Surely Gandalf and Bofur, with their skill and weapons, had fought them off? Bilbo knew he had to find his family and friends, so he crept to the edge of the path he was on and climbed halfway up a tree.

There were no Orcs nearby, but Bilbo decided to keep the ring on. If he was truly invisible, it would only do him good with Orcs about. He jumped down from the tree and pulled out his sword, admiring it briefly as it glowed brightly blue in the gray world. Then he ran off toward the road, careful to be quiet even though he could not see any Orcs. He did not know if this ring muted him as well as rendered him invisible, but he would take no chances.

Bilbo came to the road and saw none of the Orcs or Wargs, save the one lying dead where it had fallen from the cart after he had stabbed it. Grimly, Bilbo went to the corpse and looked over it with a grimace, then gave a sigh of relief when he saw a pouch on its side. He tore the pouch off the Orc's belt, then started running down the road, toward the field that he had seen in the distance.

When Bilbo came upon the field, he saw the cart at a standstill out in the grass. Rory and Otho were climbing around the back of the cart to Drogo, while Bofur was on the ground, fighting a Warg and rider. Bilbo breathed in sharply and started running toward them, desperate to protect his family despite his terror, but then Bofur landed a killing blow on the Warg, and in his next move slammed his mattock into the Orc's neck.

Bilbo turned and saw another Orc running from the woods, the same Orc that had pulled him off the cart, and then he saw Gandalf giving chase. He watched as Gandalf cut the Orc down, and he waited, hiding against a tree, but no other Orcs or Wargs followed Gandalf from the woods.

The fight was over. Elation spread through him, followed by sharp relief, and Bilbo sunk to his knees when he felt them give out. He reached up to rub at his eyes when he felt them water, not wanting to cry in front of his friends and family. They had survived -- they were okay.

"Bofur," he heard Gandalf call, and Bofur looked over at the Wizard in relief, then grief.

"Gandalf, Bilbo fell back there. We have to find him!" Bofur shouted, already starting toward where Bilbo was hiding. Gandalf started after him, but then he caught sight of the Hobbits.

"Rorimac Brandybuck, what has happened to Drogo?" Gandalf said, and Bilbo's breath hitched.

Drogo.

He stood up and pulled the gold ring from his finger, blinking in shock when the world returned to normal. Then he tucked the two rings into his pocket, carefully so they did not fall, and slid his sword into its sheath. Then he stepped out from his hiding place, beginning to run toward the cart.

"Bofur!" Bilbo called, and Bofur looked over in shock and joy.

"Bilbo!" Bofur cried, and when Bilbo met him, Bofur caught him up in a great hug, making Bilbo stiffen. Then he relaxed and hugged Bofur back, before pulling away.

"Where is Drogo?" he asked urgently, and Bofur's expression turned grim.

"It doesn't look good," Bofur said, and he led Bilbo back to the cart, where Gandalf and the others were. Gandalf had pulled Drogo from the cart and set him on the ground, and Bilbo saw that Drogo's right side was soaked with blood. Gandalf was murmuring to him, and he saw Drogo grit his teeth as Gandalf grasped the arrow. Then Gandalf pulled the arrow out, and Drogo let out a terrible noise that had Bilbo rushing forward.

"Poisoned," Gandalf muttered as he threw the arrow away.

"Drogo," Bilbo said, falling to his knees beside his cousin, and Rory and Otho looked on worriedly, pale with shock.

"Bilbo," Drogo gasped, looking up at Bilbo with wide eyes. "You're okay?"

"I'm fine," Bilbo said, looking at Drogo's shoulder and trying not to cry. Drogo reached up to grab him, but the movement obviously hurt him, as he let out a pained cry and fell back against the ground.

Gandalf knelt beside them and pressed a cloth to Drogo's wound. "We must get away from here," he said, and Bofur shifted behind them.

"What about Drogo?" Bofur said, and Bilbo looked up at Gandalf with wide eyes. Gandalf glanced at him but shook his head.

"We can ill afford to take care of him here, out in the open. We can patch him up for now, but we must hurry! Those Orcs may come back," he said, and Bofur muttered in agreement.

Bilbo shifted anxiously, glancing back at Drogo and carefully brushing his dark curls away, then clenching his fist. Then he remembered the pouch in his hand, and he opened it and let out a noise of relief when he found a bottle inside. He tugged out the cork and smelled it, grimacing, then held it out to Gandalf. "Put this on Drogo's shoulder," he said.

Gandalf stared at him, then looked at the bottle in suspicion. "What is that, Bilbo?" he asked, and Bilbo glared at him.

"It's from the Orcs," he said, and he noticed Rory startle at the words. Then Bilbo had to jerk his hand back when Gandalf reached out as if to knock the bottle away. "Don't! Orc medicine works, I don't know how, but just trust me. It will help keep the wound from getting infected," he said hurriedly, and Gandalf glared at the bottle for a long moment.

"How do you know this?" Gandalf asked, and Bilbo gave him a flat stare.

"How do you think?" he said darkly, and Gandalf leaned back in astonishment. Then a wary look came over his face, and he eyed the bottle again, but when he did not take it, Bilbo made a noise of frustration.

"Get out of the way then," he said shortly, and Gandalf moved away from Drogo after a moment. Bilbo carefully peeled the cloth from Drogo's shoulder, inhaling at the grotesque wound. Drogo flinched and turned his face away, and Bilbo murmured an apology. Then he looked back at Rory, who was watching the bottle in Bilbo's hand warily.

"Get me some bandages," Bilbo ordered, his voice shaking, and Rory obediently went to find the bandages they had purchased, bringing them to Bilbo. Rory helped him by holding Drogo up while Bilbo poured the Orc tincture over the wound and wrapped Drogo's shoulder, hoping to stave the bleeding. Bofur came around to help them get Drogo back onto the cart, and all the while Gandalf watched, his gaze dark with questions as he looked between Bilbo, Drogo, and the bottle of medicine.

Bilbo only frowned at him and tucked the medicine into his bag, tossing the dirty pouch away. Then he climbed onto the cart beside Drogo. Otho sat down on the other side of their cousin, and Rory took the spot beside Bofur, who watched them all worriedly.

"Ready?" Bofur asked, and Bilbo looked over Drogo once more. Drogo's eyes were closed in pain, and he was breathing shallowly, but Bilbo thought he was being very brave, so brave, for not crying or whimpering every time he was jostled. Bilbo looked over at Gandalf, who had climbed back onto his horse, and he sighed when he saw Gandalf watching him appraisingly.

"We're ready," he said to Bofur, not looking away from Gandalf, and he reached down to hold Drogo's hand as the cart began to move. Finally Gandalf looked away and began to ride ahead of them, and though Bilbo's sword no longer glowed, the ponies were still spooked and nickered nervously. For a time, nothing happened as they hurried across the Downs. The clouds began to gather, brushing up from the south with increasing winds, and rain fell on the company suddenly. Still they did not stop, and Bilbo covered Drogo with his father's old green waistcoat.

Later it began to storm, and between Drogo's wound and the ponies' exhaustion, Bilbo was loath to travel any further, so Gandalf gave in and let them find shelter. They located an abandoned outpost that suited their needs, with a bed for Drogo and a hearth to build a fire. There were no more signs of Orcs, no more calls in the distance, so they bundled Drogo up and carried him into the old building, and Bilbo boiled some water so that he could clean the wound. Somehow, between the bits of medicine Gandalf knew and the Orc tincture, they managed to stop Drogo's bleeding and settle him to rest.

Afterwards, Bilbo sat close to Drogo, who slept fitfully, his dark curls damp against his skin. Bilbo watched him worriedly and touched his cousin's forehead. Warm, too warm, but not burning. He picked up the waterskin and wet a cloth, then rung the moisture into Drogo's mouth. His cousin licked away the water but did not wake, and Bilbo sighed.

Then he called Rory over to watch Drogo, and Otho, who was sitting on Drogo's other side, watched Bilbo as he stood and walked over to Gandalf and Bofur.

The Wizard and Dwarf were whispering furiously to each other, and Bilbo caught "never allow it" before they noticed him and abruptly quieted. Bilbo watched suspiciously as Gandalf and Bofur exchanged glances.

"What were you talking about?" he asked, keeping his voice low, and Gandalf smiled at him.

"Nothing to be concerned about, my dear boy. How does Drogo fare?" the Wizard asked.

Bilbo frowned at him, but he let himself be distracted by the question, anxiety for his cousin's safety leaving him restless. "His shoulder is not festering, but he has a mild fever. I don't know what else to do for him. How far is it to the West-gate?"

He watched Bofur and Gandalf exchange another glance, wondering at how Bofur glared and Gandalf looked determined. What had they spoken of?

"Six days," Bofur finally answered, and Bilbo's stomach dropped.

"But that's too long! Drogo can't make that, can he?" he asked worriedly, and Bofur frowned in thought.

Gandalf's voice was very hesitant when he answered. "If it becomes infected..."

"What else can we do, though? Are there no towns nearby?" asked Bilbo, frustrated with their responses.

"Not any towns of Men," Gandalf answered, and Bilbo saw Bofur shoot him a look.

"If we really push ourselves, we can make the Gate in five days, maybe even four," Bofur said, meeting Bilbo's gaze. "It'll be another two days to the city proper, though."

"Will Drogo be okay that long? We've stopped the bleeding, but he's in such pain," Bilbo said softly, glancing back at his cousins. Rory and Otho were sitting close together beside Drogo, talking in low voices.

"Not if his fever gets worse," Gandalf said grimly, and then his tone changed. "Though, Bilbo, there is another option --"

But before the Wizard could continue, Bofur cut him off. "I told you, we're not going there! There's no way those tree huggers would ever help us," Bofur growled, and Gandalf huffed.

"Really, Bofur! Lord Elrond is my friend! If we go to Rivendell --"

Bofur made an abortive motions as if to shush Gandalf, but it was too late. Bilbo's curiosity was immediately piqued, and he raised an eyebrow as he figured out what they had been arguing over.

"Rivendell?" he asked quietly, eyeing Bofur as the Dwarf let out a frustrated sigh.

"Indeed," Gandalf said. "It is only a day's ride from here, and we will be safe within the walls of the Elven city. Lord Elrond is a fine healer besides, and he can help Drogo, as well as watch over us until your cousin is healed."

Rivendell.

Bilbo thought of the many books he had read in his youth about Elves, of the long walks through the woods where he would try to catch sight of one, so elusive to his young, inquisitive mind. How often had he longed to visit Rivendell? Rather, how often had he not longed to see that shining Elven city?

Bofur leaned toward Bilbo with an earnest expression. "Bilbo, we can't. The Elves are no friends of Dwarves, and Thorin will have my head if he finds out I let you go to Rivendell!"

Bilbo frowned slowly. "Why should Thorin have any say in it?"

Bofur's expression froze. "Er --"

Bilbo's expression twitched into a scowl briefly. "Thorin may be your king, but he is not my keeper. I appreciate everything he has done for me, but what does it matter to him where I go?" He wanted to say more, but a glance at Gandalf showed a rather interested expression on the Wizard's face, and Bilbo chose not to say anything else, thinking he would ask Bofur later about that comment. "In any case, it doesn't matter. He's not here, and if someone in Rivendell can save my cousin, then we're going there. No arguing," he said sharply when Bofur opened his mouth again.

"But Bilbo," Bofur tried, but Bilbo shook his head and glared, at the end of his patience.

"No, Bofur! I have never had any problems with Elves, even the few I've met, and I trust Gandalf! If he says that Lord Elrond will help us, then I believe him. I know Dwarves and Elves do not see eye to eye, but I am not a Dwarf, so they will see nothing wrong with me other than I'm not tall enough! I will go to Lord Elrond myself and beg, if he can save Drogo! I can't believe you're more worried about how Thorin Oakenshield will react than saving my cousin's life!" Bilbo shouted, and Bofur shut his mouth, looking disturbed by Bilbo's words.

Bilbo realized he had raised his voice when Rory called over, "Bilbo? Is everything alright?"

He took a deep breath and looked away from Bofur, giving Rory a faint smile. "Yes, Rory, everything is fine. Right, Bofur?" he said pointedly, looking back at the Dwarf.

Bofur glared at him for a moment, which startled Bilbo who had never seen such an expression on his friend's face, but then Bofur sighed and looked away. "Yeah, everything's fine, lad. Get some rest, we'll be leaving soon," the Dwarf called out to the others, before he stood and left the building somewhat quickly, before Bilbo or Gandalf could stop him.

Bilbo had never, ever fought with Bofur before. They had always been friendly and open to each other, and it disturbed Bilbo how easily he had shouted at Bofur, just like how fast he had lost his temper at Rory the night his cousin had defended him at dinner. He did not know how to deal with the anger that simmered in the depth of his heart, and he could only push it away and hide it. Bilbo took a deep breath and let it out slowly to calm himself.

Rory and Otho went back to talking, and Bilbo looked down at his hands. "I'll need to apologize to him later," he said sullenly, and Gandalf gave a soft huff under his breath.

"Let him be for now, Bilbo. In any case, I have a few questions to ask you, if you wouldn't mind," Gandalf said lightly, and immediately Bilbo was on his guard. He still felt raw from fighting with Bofur, and he did not look forward to anything Gandalf might ask about.

"What sort of questions?" he asked quietly, eyeing Gandalf with trepidation, but hiding it beneath a pleasant tone.

Gandalf saw through his polite mien immediately and frowned into his beard. "My dear boy, I have no intentions of interrogating you. I simply wish to ask about your knowledge of that Orc medicine and other such things. If it makes you uncomfortable, then I will not. However, you vowed your trust in me but a few minutes ago. I hope that those words were not simply something to shout at Bofur."

Bilbo lowered his gaze, a bit ashamed for his reaction, then gave a sigh. "I do trust you, Gandalf, and even though we have already spoken so much about everything... I still do not like talking about that time. Everything that I learned in that place is so difficult to share. But I will try to answer your questions."

"Thank you." Gandalf leaned forward, glancing past Bilbo at the three young Hobbits on the other side of the room, his voice lowering a bit. "What do you know about the Orc medicine?"

Bilbo twitched, wishing that Gandalf had not asked that question first. He pulled the bottle from his pocket and turned it over, remembering countless times when Azog would toss a bottle of the tincture onto his pillow. He could almost hear Azog growl drink it into his ear. Shivering, Bilbo rubbed his arm, his shoulders hunching a bit as he took a deep breath. As he began to speak, he kept his voice quiet, not wanting to alert Rory to their conversation.

"Wounds made by Orcs almost always get infected, and at first, the Orcs didn't care if we were hurt a lot. A large number of us died in the beginning, because they got hurt too badly and lost too much blood... and Azog -- he didn't like that. So the Orcs began using their medicine on us, and it worked, but it left bad scars.

"You can drink it, and it will keep you from going thirsty, and it will clean out your stomach if you eat something rotten. You can put it on wounds, and it will stop any festering or infection. It didn't do much for the grey cough, which you got from all the dust and dirt in the air, or how weak we got... but it kept us alive, which is what he wanted."

He hesitated, then continued, "Azog made me use it a lot, so I know how it works. I do not know how it is made... but a few other Hobbits did. They had to help make it, because they were older and not much use for anything else. All of us, though, we had to use it --"

Bilbo stopped speaking abruptly when he noticed that Bofur had come back and was standing off to the side, staring at him with an odd look on his face. Bilbo met his gaze with a flinch, but Bofur's dark eyes were impossibly kind, as Bilbo had always known them. Bofur came over and laid his hand on Bilbo's shoulder, and Bilbo sighed deeply, reaching up after a moment to grip Bofur's hand.

"I suppose you'll want to know about the Orc speech as well, and everything else," Bilbo started, but Gandalf shook his head.

"Not if you do not wish to tell me, Bilbo," he said quietly.

Bilbo glanced back at Drogo's prone body, his mien slowly darkening. "I know you want to know, though. Gandalf... I lived with Orcs for seven years. Anything they say, I can understand. I've always been good with languages, and I picked it up quickly. I had to. Surviving depended on knowing what they said about us, what they ordered us to do.

"I know about how they lived. I could write several books on Orc life and culture. But I do not want to. I want to forget everything I ever learned while I was there. I don't want Rory remembering it, either, or Drogo and Otho of all people learning those things from us. It's not right, and it never will be," Bilbo said, lowly but fiercely, turning back to look at Gandalf, and Bofur's fingers tightened slightly on his shoulder.

Gandalf was staring at him with wide eyes. The Wizard looked very troubled, and Bilbo wished to know his thoughts. After a moment, though, Gandalf sighed very deeply and stood from his spot, reaching out to clasp Bilbo's other shoulder.

"I am so sorry, my boy. I would never wish such terrible knowledge on anyone. I cannot help you forget it... but at least, some of it has come to good use, has it not?" Gandalf said quietly, and Bilbo looked back at his cousins, his heart aching for a moment.

Then he shook his head and pulled away from both of his friends, averting his gaze. "I suppose. How are the horses doing?"

Bofur eyed him, likely not buying into the abrupt change in subject, but he answered readily enough. "They're mostly calm now. Still a bit spooked from earlier, but they've been watered and fed. We should start moving soon," he said, glancing over at Gandalf, who nodded.

"If we can make it to the Ford of Bruinen by nightfall, we will be safe from attack. Orcs will not go past the river," the Wizard said, and Bofur scowled a bit, but Bilbo shot him a warning look.

"Bofur, help me with Drogo, will you?" he asked, and Bofur subsided with a nod. Then they walked over to the boys, to tell them about their decision to go to Rivendell.

Gandalf watched them go with a contemplative look on his face.

~

When the rain abated, the company set to traveling again, and hours passed. Gandalf kept a sharp eye out as he rode ahead, while Bilbo sat with Drogo, who moaned in pain every so often as he slept. Several times Bilbo would check his forehead, and each time Drogo felt warmer. He fretted and worried, anxiety rolling in his stomach, as they drew ever closer to the Loudwater River.

It got darker, but as ever they pressed on, pushing the ponies in their desperate attempt to reach safety. Bilbo silently promised that he would spoil them and treat them to several apples once they reached Rivendell, to make up for the hard work they had done today. Gandalf remained on guard, and Bofur was mostly silent, only responding to Bilbo in curt tones, looking tense as he drove.

Watching him, Bilbo suddenly wondered if Bofur had been wounded. His cousins had thankfully escaped injury, and both Gandalf and Bofur seemed fine, but were they really? Bilbo resolved to ask him.

"Bofur, did you get hurt fighting those Orcs?" he asked quietly, and Bofur looked back at him in surprise.

"No, Bilbo, didn't get a scratch. Why?" Bofur responded, raising a dark eyebrow.

Bilbo felt his cheeks warm slightly. "Just wondering," he said, and he had to avert his gaze when Bofur's expression softened. After that, they did not speak anymore, but Bilbo felt the gulf between them lessen just a bit.

At last, they came to the only place along the Loudwater River where it could be crossed. Bilbo had only read stories of it in the past, and the sight took his breath away. Beautiful all around, Bruinen Ford sat at the edge of the forests around Rivendell, the waters running gently over countless pebbles and stones despite the great roar of the waterfall. As they approached the waters, which were shallow enough for the cart to move through safely, Gandalf held up a hand to stop them. Then he raised his head and began to speak loudly and clearly.

"I am Gandalf, and I have with me friends, seeking entrance into the Last Homely House! We seek shelter and help from my good friend Lord Elrond!" he called.

Silence was his answer. Bilbo and his cousins stayed still, and Bofur sat upright in his seat, gripping the reins tightly as he watched the tree line suspiciously. Twilight had begun to fall, and Bilbo could hear nothing, not even insects or birds, only the roar of the waterfall and the soft trickling of water.

Then Bilbo noticed movement, and he looked over to see an Elf stepping out of the woods. The Elf had dark hair, like all of the Elves he had seen, and she was as tall as Gandalf, if not taller. She wore silver armor and a bow on her back, and Bilbo swallowed nervously to see the daggers strapped to her waist.

But the Elf only crossed her hand over her heart and bowed, then vanished into the woods again, and Bilbo let out a shaky breath.

"Well," Gandalf said, sounding very pleased, "I think they shall have a lovely meal ready for us when we arrive. Bilbo, it is still thirty miles until Imladris, and it will take us half a day to follow the path. I do not think it wise to rest immediately, when we are still so close to the borders of Lord Elrond's lands, but we will be safer within the forest. There are many who guard this place, unseen in the woods, and they will know us as friends.

"We can travel for another hour, then make our camp, and at first light we will travel the last road to Imladris. I think that would be the best plan, Bilbo," Gandalf said, looking back at the cart.

Bilbo glanced back at the road which they had followed for over three weeks, then back to the forests of old, that hid a world that he had dreamed of and yearned to see since he was but a child. How many nights had he read aloud to his father and mother, of the Last Homely House, the city of Imladris, the Elven outpost of Rivendell? Yet Bilbo had never imagined he would ever see Rivendell. He had not even given the Elves a thought, not since he was much younger and less disenchanted with the world around him. Yet now he would see Rivendell for himself.

He only hoped that Lord Elrond could help his cousin. He had read of Elrond and knew of his reputation as a healer, but he could not imagine an Elf of legend lowering himself to help one Hobbit. Still, he hoped, and he trusted Gandalf's judgement, even though he was bothered that he had upset Bofur.

He glanced at his Dwarf friend, who was watching him with dark eyes, his expression nearly unreadable in the lessening light. After a moment Bilbo looked away, glancing at Rory and Otho before nodding to Gandalf.

"Let's go, then."

~

They made camp in a clearing near a small creek, and Bofur set to making a stew while Bilbo worked to make Drogo comfortable. While he was cleaning Drogo's wound and wrapping it with more of the Orcish tincture, Otho came over and sat beside him, his dark Baggins eyes fixed on Drogo's face.

"Bilbo," he said quietly, after Bilbo finished laying Drogo back down, and Bilbo looked over.

"What is it?" he asked, hesitant.

Otho glanced up at him, his jaw setting in a grimace. "How much longer does he have?"

Bilbo stared at him, his heart skipping a beat at Otho's dark tone. "Otho, Drogo's not dying. He's just hurt. We're going to find a healer tomorrow, and he's going to take care of Drogo. I'll not have you speaking of your cousin like that -- he will be okay."

Otho's mouth twisted, and he had to avert his gaze, just as Bilbo saw the glimmer of tears. He reached up and gripped Otho's shoulder, and Otho inhaled tightly.

"I promise you, Otho, Drogo will not die. Okay?" he said quietly, and Otho nodded shakily.

"Okay," Otho whispered, and then he turned to look at Bilbo. "I'm really... really glad you're with us, Bilbo," he said quietly, and Bilbo felt a pang in his chest. "It was really rough for me and Drogo, after Shirefall, and having you come home... I know things were rough for a while, and I know you aren't always patient with us, and truth be told I doubted you even liked us for a long time... but you saved Drogo, and you protected us."

Bilbo felt his own eyes sting, and he had to look away, his gaze finding Drogo, whose face was tense with pain. "Both of you, and Rory, you all are my family. I'll do anything to keep you alive and safe. You're all I have," he whispered, and Otho made a low noise.

They sat together for a long moment, and then Rory came to sit with them, a heavy sigh escaping him. "How is he?" Rory asked, leaning forward to watch Drogo.

Bilbo reached out to take Drogo's hand, grasping it tightly as he felt Otho shiver beside him. "His fever is worse, I think, after the rain. He's sleeping, at least, but we should wake him so he can eat," he said quietly, and Rory nodded solemnly.

"This Elf healer, Lord Elrond, he'll be able to help Drogo? Truly?" Rory asked.

Bilbo looked across the clearing but did not see Gandalf, and he supposed that Gandalf had gone into the woods to find an Elf to speak to, or just to walk around and watch for Orcs. He nodded slowly, his gaze shifting to Bofur, who was keeping his attention on the stew simmering over the fire.

"We have no other choice," he said quietly, and Bofur glanced over to look at him. "Not if we want to save Drogo in time."

His cousins could not say anything in response. After a short while, Bofur announced the stew ready, clearing the awkward air with his deep voice, so quiet and solemn compared to his usual boisterous nature. Otho and Rory went to get their suppers, and Bilbo took a bowl back to Drogo, waking him gently and helping him eat what he could.

Afterward, Bilbo and Rory were careful to tuck Drogo into a bedroll, with their blankets heaped on top of him. They all laid down on their bedrolls around Drogo, hoping to make him feel safe, and despite the anxiety and worry, despite the fear for their cousin, the Hobbits all fell asleep quickly, while Bofur and Gandalf watched over them.

~

It called to him as he sat in meditation, his hands cupped around a black orb that sang with dark power.

When he heard it, he did not yet know what it was, only that it called to him, beckoned him, urged him to find it.

He wondered, and then he understood, and he smiled. His other half had woken, and it was searching for him. But where could it be?

He tried to call out to it, to reach for that tantalizing power, but something blocked him. Something bright and shining, that reminded him of the world of old, of a time when his words were power and power was truth. What in this world could stop his eye-gaze from seeing it?

Anger filled him, and he paced, furious that some power still existed out there that could defy him. Then he stood very still and began to plan. He would find his precious other half, the part of him that he had hidden away long ago, that would make his rule of this pitiful world complete.

He would resurrect his Nine first. The rituals would be long, but he needed them at his side, to go where he could not. Let them find his one ring!

Chapter Text

When Bilbo woke but a few hours later, he felt disoriented, as if disconnected from everything around him. He had not dreamt, yet it felt like he had not slept at all. He lay still for a long moment, breathing shallowly as the hollow feeling of something is wrong coursed through him. Then the strange sensation faded away, and Bilbo felt like himself again.

He reached up to his neck, then started when he did not find his necklace. For a moment panic gripped him, before he remembered the events of yesterday, and he felt for the lump of metal in his pocket with relief.

Then he remembered Drogo, and he sat up.

Drogo was sleeping beside him, face pale in the dim firelight, but he was not burning hot. His skin felt strangely cool to Bilbo, and that worried him more than anything.

But his sleep seemed peaceful, so Bilbo crept out of his bedroll and sat outside the circle of warmth his cousins had created, watching the low embers of the fire. Gandalf looked to be sleeping, and Bofur was honing a small block of wood in his hands. They exchanged glances but did not speak, and Bilbo worried at the silence between them.

He did not like fighting with Bofur, who had come to be very important to him, but Bofur had upset him so much yesterday. Why would it matter to Thorin Oakenshield if Bilbo went to Rivendell? If Bofur was not allowed there, because of Thorin's order or some conflict with the Elves, that was another matter. Yet Bofur had specifically said that Thorin would be upset if Bilbo went into the Elven outpost.

Bilbo was reminded of a night several weeks ago when Bofur had talked him into writing a letter to Thorin. Bofur had mentioned writing a report, and at the time Bilbo had thought nothing of it. Now he wondered what Bofur had written. He was not unaware that Bofur's presence was because of a mission, given to him by Thorin, to protect Bilbo.

Bilbo wondered what drove Thorin to go to such lengths for him. The thought made him strangely happy, and at the same time left him wary.

He watched Bofur and wondered, but he dared not ask. It upset him just to think about it, and he did not have the energy to fight with Bofur any more than he already had. Not with Drogo in such a state.

Bilbo averted his gaze when Bofur glanced in his direction, absently reaching into his pocket to pull out his broken necklace. How sorrowful he felt, to see one of his most precious belongings in such a state. At least he had lost none of the trinkets. Maybe after he had made up with Bofur, he would ask his friend to fix it.

The key shimmered in the dim light, and Bilbo thought of Thorin for a moment. He wondered if the Dwarf King had returned home yet. Bilbo glanced up when he felt the weight of someone's gaze, and Bofur quickly looked back down at his hands. With a small huff, Bilbo tucked the key and chain away. He did not want to think about Bofur or Thorin Oakenshield right now.

Instead he puzzled over the two gold rings. He brushed his fingertips over the blue stone of the Dwarven ring and wondered. Why had he not dreamt of Dwarvish things as he once had long ago, when he had first found the ring and put it on? Bilbo remembered those dark dreams clearly: halls of stone and rooms of gold, while a deep voice murmured in his ear in Khuzdul. He still had no idea what it meant, though he had known ever since that day that the ring with its blue stone, so carefully etched, was not meant for him.

Still, why had he not dreamt this time? Perhaps the Dwarven effects of the ring would only be experienced once by its wearer. Yet he had dreamt of nothing at all, not even the Shire as it had been, and that left him a little disturbed. His nights never went without strange dreams, nightmares, or memories. Yet he could do nothing about it, so he tucked the rings back into his pocket, wondering.

After a time he heard a faint whimper, and he turned to see Drogo tossing his head in distress, his breathing shallow and raspy. Bilbo immediately went to his cousin's side and pressed a hand to his cheek. "Drogo?" he called softly.

Drogo gave a small moan when Bilbo touched his face, and Bilbo felt a curl of panic.

"Gandalf," he called, his voice rising, and the Wizard started from sleep, sitting up from his slumped position. Bofur stood from his spot by the fire and came to Bilbo's side.

"What is it, Bilbo?" Bofur asked.

"It's Drogo, he's not breathing right. I don't know what to do," Bilbo said, fretting, and he noticed Rory and Otho sitting up and rubbing the sleep from their eyes. Otho took one look at his cousin and turned white, reaching for Drogo's hand.

"The poison must be hurting him. We must hurry then," Gandalf said from behind them, and Bilbo felt anxiety in his gut.

"Come on, Bilbo," Bofur said quietly in his ear, and Bilbo did not resist when his friend helped him up and pushed him over to the cart. Rory joined him in packing up the camp, looking grim in the shallow light, but Bilbo had nothing to say. He did his best to be quick, and he was grateful when at last they all climbed onto the cart, as Gandalf gently laid Drogo between Otho and Bilbo.

Then they rode, and fast.

~

As he rode Glorfindel wondered at the urgency the scout had expressed. Mithrandir had come to visit, and supposedly there had been an injured member of Mithrandir's company. Lord Elrond had been very keen to speak with him these past weeks, but for the Grey Pilgrim to travel with companions was strange, considering how much he wandered over the continent. Still, Glorfindel had volunteered to meet Mithrandir's company and see to the injured person, so he wondered.

An escort followed behind him, slower than his steed, and Glorfindel would leave the company to them if he had to take the injured person back to Lord Elrond. A trivial task, but Glorfindel had volunteered, because he was curious about Mithrandir and wanted to see for himself if the rumors were true.

When Glorfindel came upon Mithrandir and his company, he saw with chagrin a Dwarf driving a cart, with several Halflings behind him. Two of the Halflings, young in face, stared at him wide-eyed, while a third lay tucked into several blankets, with what looked to be the eldest of all of the Halflings beside him. Glorfindel glanced over them, seeing no major injuries in the three Halflings who sat in the cart, nor in the Dwarf -- nor even in Mithrandir.

Mithrandir, to Glorfindel's curiosity, did not have a white cloak. Instead he still wore his famous grey cloak, and Glorfindel could only wonder why. Surely Lady Galadriel had not been wrong.

As he rode closer, the oldest Halfling looked up at him. Dark eyes pierced Glorfindel, and he pulled the reins back suddenly, coming to a stop and staring.

This Halfling was different.

Some light, so reminiscent of the Ilúvatar, had touched this Halfling -- shining brightly at his center for any to see. Yet that soft light was blemished, tarnished, darkened with terrible weight. Some horrific event had hurt this Halfling. Some darkness haunted him, clouding the purity that was inherent in his race. Such misery in those dark eyes. Such pain.

"Naeggyl," he murmured softly, and the Halfling stiffened and backed away, eyes widening. He stared at Glorfindel as if he had uttered a foul curse.

Glorfindel stared back in surprise, wondering at the Halfling's reaction. Did he understand? What had happened that so haunted him? Such suspicion in that dark gaze, now -- but the mystery of this Halfling would have to be puzzled over later. Lord Elrond was waiting.

"Mithrandir," Glorfindel said, turning his attention to the Wizard, who was staring at him and the Halfling with wide eyes. "Well met. Lord Elrond sends his welcome. We were notified that your company has injuries?" He watched the Dwarf bristle at the sound of his language and the Halflings shift in confusion. The distrust gathered between the dark-eyed Halfling's brow softened with understanding, and Glorfindel wondered at a Halfling having knowledge of their language.

"Glorfindel," Mithrandir said, still looking between him and the dark-eyed Halfling with suspicion, but soon the distrust faded and he was smiling at Glorfindel. "Well met indeed! I am rather pleased to see you. Are you here to take poor Drogo to Lord Elrond?"

"Yes," Glorfindel stated, glancing at the prone Halfling and supposing that this was 'poor Drogo.' "What befell the Halfling?" he asked after a moment, knowing that Lord Elrond would want to know.

Mithrandir's expression darkened. "We were attacked by Orcs most foul!" he said, and Glorfindel's mouth twitched downward at the word. "Mister Baggins here was struck by a poisoned arrow."

"I will take him to Lord Elrond now," Glorfindel replied after a moment, pulling his mount around to the back of the cart. "An escort is on their way. Hospitality will be arranged for all members of your company," he continued, his gaze sliding to the Dwarf, who glared at him.

"Many thanks," Mithrandir said, and then he turned to look at the company. "This is Glorfindel, a friend of old. He will take Drogo straight to Lord Elrond for healing," he explained in Westron, and Glorfindel nodded impassively.

"Shouldn't trust him," the Dwarf muttered predictably, and the dark-eyed Halfling shot him a quelling look. The Dwarf subsided, and Glorfindel watched them curiously.

Then the dark-eyed Halfling looked at him, and despite the differences between them, Glorfindel was struck by the intent in that gaze. "You will keep him safe?" the Halfling asked quietly, but the tone of it did not sound like a question.

Such an interesting Halfling. "I will," Glorfindel said in the common tongue, and that seemed to satisfy him.

With the help of the Dwarf and the other Halflings, the injured Drogo Baggins was placed in Glorfindel's care. The Halfling did not stir when he was moved, except to moan in pain when his shoulder was jostled. He rested heavily against Glorfindel's chest, sitting in front of him on the saddle, head lolling against his shoulder. Glorfindel kept one arm pressed to the Halfling's body, to keep him upright.

"Lord Elrond will see to him immediately," Glorfindel said, watching the strange little company for a moment. The Dwarf glared at him and the younger Halflings looked disturbed, while the oldest Halfling stared back at him, though his gaze shifted after a moment to watch Glorfindel's charge.

He had questions for Mithrandir. Why were so many young Halflings outside the Shire? Surely the Halfling community was busy rebuilding their ravaged home? Why was a Dwarf with them? And the naeggyl with his dark eyes -- what had happened in his life to create such pain?

Lord Elrond would need to be warned. Such darkness might disturb the members of his household, and accommodations for the Halflings' and Dwarf's diet would have to be made. They would need to discuss this in detail with Mithrandir later, when the strange company was settled and the young Halfling healed.

But that would come later. Glorfindel tucked his charge closer and turned away.

For now, he rode.

~

As they began to ride again, Bilbo watched Glorfindel's figure as he disappeared into the distance with Drogo. He was starting to agree with Bofur's belief that this was a bad idea. The way that Elf had stared at him, and what he had uttered -- it still gave Bilbo shivers. But he trusted Gandalf, if he did not trust his own judgment.

Drogo, he thought anxiously. What else could he do but hope that his cousin would be safe? That this Lord Elrond would heal him as Gandalf had promised? He did not voice his worries, though, not wanting to bring any more fuel to the argument that still lingered between Gandalf and Bofur. It seemed to be brewing now, beneath the quiet that held them all still, as they hurried along the path to meet this escort that Glorfindel had promised.

Of course the silence was broken later, but at least it was not by Bilbo.

"This is a bad idea," Bofur said ten minutes later, and Bilbo heard Gandalf give a sigh.

"Master Bofur," the Wizard began, sounding exasperated, "the Elves bear no ill will toward you."

"It's not that! I don't care what a bunch of tree huggers think of me," Bofur objected, ignoring Gandalf's mutter over the insult. "I just don't want them judging Bilbo and the lads for bein' friends with Thorin. The Elves don't like Dwarves, Gandalf -- and that's just fact. They've always treated us like scum no matter where we go. Oh, sure," Bofur scoffed when Gandalf opened his mouth, "they smile while they feed us and call us 'friend' to our faces, but it doesn't change how they would betray us at the first chance.

"I don't expect them to be nice to me, and I surely don't see the point in treating them the same. But they hardly know Hobbits, don't even know how Hobbits think, and they'll only see that Bilbo and the lads are my friends, and they might just treat the Hobbits like they've always treated Dwarves. You know it's true," Bofur finished darkly, and Gandalf looked back at him with a frown.

"I am not denying the conflict in your race's history with the Elves. I'm just saying that in the present, here and now --"

"I know what you're saying," Bofur said shortly to cut Gandalf off, and Gandalf turned back and scowled at the path ahead. Then the Wizard rode forward to put some distance between him and the cart, and they all watched him fume in silence.

Bilbo glanced at his cousins, but Rory and Otho seemed determined to pretend that nothing had happened. They pulled out their daggers and began to talk in low tones, so Bilbo gave a small sigh and crept across the cart to Bofur, sitting down beside him quietly. He clasped his hands nervously in his lap, guessing that Bofur did not want to speak, but he did not know what else to do except offer his company.

At first Bofur stayed stiff beside him, but slowly the tension seeped out of his shoulders, and he glanced over at Bilbo with a regretful mien. "Sorry you had to see that," the Dwarf muttered, and Bilbo sighed.

"You've never been this upset about something before," Bilbo said after a moment.

Bofur kept his eyes on the ponies. "Elves tend to make me feel that way. It's the same for all Dwarves. You saw the look he gave us, and you too," he said after a moment, looking over at Bilbo, who shivered at the reminder of how Glorfindel had stared at him.

"Everything I've read of Elves, they've always sounded nice," he tried, but it was feeble, as he remembered what he had read of the history between Elves and Dwarves.

Bofur gave him a look that said that Bilbo did not fool him, but his expression softened after a moment. "I'm not saying that all Elves are pricks," he started, and had to huff a laugh when Bilbo frowned at him. "I'm just saying -- there's more to it than what you've read in books, or what the Wizard thinks of them. And Thorin, he's never trusted them, for good reason... and I know he'll flay me alive for this," Bofur ended with a mutter, and Bilbo stared at him.

"Thorin is not going to flay you," he said after a moment, feeling amused.

"Shows what you know," Bofur shot back, and Bilbo tried to cover the small snort that escaped him.

"Look, I'll send him a letter explaining everything, alright? And I will specifically ask him not to flay you," Bilbo said, trying not to smile now, and he could see Bofur's mustache twitching.

"Oh, he definitely won't do it if you ask him. Just bat your eyelashes and Thorin won't raise a finger against me," Bofur said sarcastically, but then he started laughing, and Bilbo could not help but join him.

"Bofur!" he cried, warmth spreading across his face. Bofur smirked at him, and Bilbo shook his head but did not stop smiling. He needed this -- he needed Bofur to be positive and smiling and laughing with him, because otherwise he would worry too much, fret too much -- and he did not like to see Bofur with a scowl on his face.

"So does this mean you two aren't fighting anymore?" said a voice by Bilbo's ear, and he jumped and turned to give Otho a scowl. Otho only grinned at him, and Rory leered as he leaned forward.

"Did you kiss and cuddle and make up properly?" Rory crowed. Bofur snorted beside him, watching with amusement as Bilbo debated between shoving Rory and ignoring him.

In the end he settled for huffing and turning around, rolling his eyes as Rory and Otho snickered behind him. Then he turned his attention to Rory when he noticed his cousin's voice grow more serious.

"Bofur, if we have some time later, can you teach us a few things?" Rory asked, and Bofur's gaze sharpened as he eyed Rory thoughtfully.

"More than throwing your knives, I take it?" Bofur asked.

Rory nodded, and behind him Otho had pulled out his dagger, a frown playing at his mouth. "Right, it's all well and good to know how to hit a rabbit, but yesterday, we were helpless when those goblins attacked. You had to face them all alone, and we're not -- we're not useless, Bofur. It's not like I can't take down someone twice my size with a bit of cleverness -- we've all got that, up here," Rory continued, tapping his temple. "But Otho and I, even Drogo... and Bilbo of course, I think we'd all feel better knowing a bit more than the odd rumble with your cousin or the lads down the road. For our protection," he finished, determination glinting in his eye.

For a moment Bilbo was reminded of how much Rory had grown in the past several years. Still his best friend was young, not even an adult, but he had been forced to mature far too quickly, just like Bilbo. In the past several weeks, usually while dinner cooked or before they retired to their bedrolls, Bofur had taken to teaching Bilbo how to use his axe and the boys how to use their knives, mostly for hunting and small tasks. Every time, Rory had jumped into the lessons, asking Bofur many questions and making sure to help Drogo and Otho, who were less enthusiastic about the work but still interested in the lessons.

Learning how to fight, though... and from a warrior like Bofur? It disturbed Bilbo, yet at the same time, the need for knowing how to block a blade or injure an Orc enough to get away pressed into their world imperatively. Maybe once upon a time, Bilbo would have said no, definitely not, not his cousins who were so young -- but Drogo had been hurt, and Bilbo had been taken far away from his family at the time. If Rory, Otho, or Drogo were ever separated from him or Bofur, they would need to know how to fight.

Bofur was saying, "Can't say I don't agree with you, lad, but I think it's up to Bilbo whether I start teaching you those sorts of things."

"You can teach them," Bilbo said quietly, and the Dwarf beside him sucked in his breath, glancing at Bilbo in surprise. Bilbo gave him a small smile before focusing on his cousins, whose disbelief was visible. "I wouldn't mind learning too. As long as you behave and don't give Bofur any trouble," he warned, and Rory and Otho both nodded quickly. Then they began to thank Bilbo profusely, leaning against his back and clasping his shoulder, and Bilbo's face warmed as he pushed them both away.

Rory and Otho took that as their cue to start asking Bofur questions, and Bilbo listened to the conversation with a small smile. It was a good distraction from the worry for Drogo, and he knew that his younger cousin would love the chance to learn to fight properly when he woke.

A breeze touched his face, and Bilbo looked forward to see the path opening up, more of the white stones that he had noticed since they entered the forest shining in the morning light. No longer did so much moss and dirt cover the path. As the path widened and shaped into a road, more dips in the mountains revealed creeks, clearings, and patches of flowers. This forest was beautiful, with soft pools of light warming the rich ground. In the shadows, Bilbo could see many animals roaming within the forest's depths. Rabbits, moles, wild boars, even a fox tail beneath a bush -- such diverse grounds.

Then the road curved, and Bilbo heard the clops of several hooves, just before a small company of Elves on mounts rode into view. He heard Gandalf greet the Elves and begin to speak to them in Sindarin, as he had the other Elf, but Bilbo did not pay much attention to what was said, instead focusing on the Elves themselves. Very tall, maybe even taller than Gandalf, with many weapons and shining armor. The Elves anticipated trouble, or at least considered the possibility to be strong. When they glanced at the cart, they held a cold regard for Bofur, but only glanced at the Hobbits briefly. Then a few looked back and looked more closely at Bilbo, but their curiosity did not last long, as Gandalf explained more of what had happened.

Bilbo watched them, eyes narrowing slightly, but he did not speak as the Elves began to escort them along the path, while others rode past them, likely to scout around for Orcs.

They rode on. The woods began to open like a flower unfurling in the sun, and the sound of rushing water could be heard after some time. Otho pointed to a white cloud of mist in the distance, and Bilbo told him it must be a waterfall. Rory shouted with glee when they came around another bend and saw the beginnings of a valley, a great waterfall tumbling down the mountainside. Warm air brushed past them, and Bilbo sighed at the beauty of this place.

How he had missed nature. Traveling so much gave him the opportunity to see woods and mountains again, but such places along the East Road looked the same as the one before or after, and they did not often contain such grace as this valley.

They did not stop for any meal, so Bilbo handed out some jerky to everyone, and it was enough to tide them over. As the day wore on and the valley deepened, Bilbo's nerves swelled, wondering how Drogo was doing, whether Elrond had seen him by then, what that other Elf had told of them.

Then they came around another bend in the path, and Bilbo's breath caught in his throat.

A great house rested over the valley, nestled into a mountain with waterfalls framing its shining halls. Arched roofs curved over winding paths and glittering windows. A lone bridge led from the path to the courtyard, where long steps wove up to the house. The structure was not great enough to be a city, but it sprawled across the mountainside in many different levels, large enough to house a great number of Elves.

Bilbo had read much of Rivendell and its legendary beauty, but to see it in person gave him such an ache that he had not felt in years. Behind him, Rory and Otho's breaths were hushed, and even Bofur seemed impressed by the serenity the Last Homely House held. Gandalf turned to watch their expressions with a smile, but Bilbo barely noticed him, struck by the visage in front of them while worry for Drogo churned in his stomach.

The rest of the ride was quiet, and Bilbo and the others climbed from the cart when they reached the bridge, looking up at the grand house in awe. Gandalf led the way, while the Hobbits followed and Bofur took up the rear, carefully leading the ponies to the other side.

When at last they reached the courtyard, a stately Elf with long dark hair strode down the stairs, bowing slightly to Gandalf. "Mithrandir," he said, glancing over Bilbo and the others before focusing on Gandalf, and they began to speak in that elegant language. Bilbo understood some of it, but his Sindarin was rusty enough after so many years that he did not catch all of the nuances.

"-- the Halfling sleeps now," the Elf murmured to Gandalf, and something trembled in Bilbo's chest as he breathed out deeply.

"What is he saying?" Rory asked into his ear, but Bilbo shook his head, while Bofur grew tenser and tenser beside them.

After a few minutes, Gandalf turned back to them with a smile. "Drogo is fine! Lord Elrond has seen to him and has given him an antidote for the poison in his body. Lindir will oversee your ponies and belongings, and we are invited to rest before supper. Come," he said, and Rory and Otho went to his side and up the stairs eagerly.

Bofur twitched beside him and muttered something, but Bilbo touched his arm and leaned over to him, whispering, "Just come on, Bofur. I promise I won't let Thorin flay you." Bofur's expression warmed when he glanced at Bilbo, and finally he nodded grudgingly and followed after Gandalf. Bilbo looked up at the Elf, presumably Lindir, who watched him with dark, impassive eyes. He gave a small, hesitant smile, but the Elf gave no response, so Bilbo hurried after his friends, and the Elf followed them.

As Lindir guided them through the halls of Lord Elrond's home, which was splendid in all ways to Bilbo who had only dreamed of such finery and detail, Bilbo noticed several Elves coming to the edge of the halls to watch them, murmuring curiously to each other. Nearly all of them were dark-haired, though a small number had pale hair like Glorfindel, and all of them had various reactions to Bilbo's company.

These Elves smiled when they saw Gandalf, and in their gazes burned curiosity and respect. These Elves glanced at Bofur, and their faces grew colder, but they seemed ambivalent when they looked upon Otho.

These Elves did double takes upon seeing Bilbo, and to a lesser extent Rory. Then their expressions grew still with shock, with darker emotions simmering beneath their placidity.

These Elves saw something in him and Rory -- the darkness that had tainted them from that place, perhaps. Maybe the Elves just saw them as victims. But to Bilbo, who had forced himself to learn how to watch for changes in temperament, these Elves had only judgment for him and his cousin. Pity, condescension, wariness -- even disgust. But all of these emotions were fleeting, for the expressions of Elves were difficult to read.

Bilbo could read them, though, and he did not like what he saw. Perhaps behind those expressions were only initial reactions, not true thoughts. Bilbo did not know, and he did not want to ask, either.

Bilbo stared back at these Elves, his mouth turning down into a frown, remembering what the other Elf had called him. How was it fair that even here, even amongst a race that prided itself on purity, his pain was transparent for any to see? He knew enough Sindarin, having read of Elves and their language extensively as a child, to know what the first Elf had called him.

Bilbo said nothing though. He averted his gaze after the Elves began to look away from him, and he crossed his arms as he walked. He drew into himself, making himself seem smaller, wary of so many tall beings after being surrounded by Hobbits for so long. Even being in Bree, which had so many Men and Women, did not give him such anxiety as all of these Elves, who looked at him, who seemed to know as no one else could.

Let them stare if they wanted. He was not here to see them -- he was here to save his cousin.

The Elves dispersed after a while, their low voices rising as they walked away, but Bilbo paid them no mind. Lindir slowed when they came to an upper hallway and stopped outside an open door, conversing quietly with someone inside. Then he stepped back, and another Elf left the room and came to stand in front of them, staring imperiously down at the Hobbits and Dwarf.

He was very tall, taller than Gandalf even, and he had upon his stern brow a circlet of silver. He wore robes of soft brown and grey, and long braids hung down from his temples. Pointed ears rose up against his dark hair.

"Lord Elrond," Gandalf said warmly, and the tall Elf's mien softened with a faint smile.

"Mithrandir. Mae g'ovannen," Elrond said, moving to embrace Gandalf. When he pulled back, his gaze focused on the small company behind Gandalf and Lindir, and almost unerringly, those pale eyes found Bilbo first.

Bilbo watched Elrond very carefully, but there was no hint of the Lord Elf's thoughts on that impassive brow. Elrond watched him for a long moment, but then he swept his gaze over Bilbo's cousins and Bofur, nodding in greeting.

"This is Bilbo Baggins, the head of the Baggins family and young Drogo's cousin. With him are his cousins Otho Sackville-Baggins and Rorimac Brandybuck, and their friend Bofur of Erebor," Gandalf said, gesturing to each of them as he said their names, and Elrond's gaze lingered on Bilbo again.

"Welcome to Imladris," Elrond said in his deep voice. "Poor circumstances though they were, it is fortuitous that you have come to my house at such a time. I offer my regrets for what has befallen your people," he murmured, and Bilbo shrunk back a bit at the reminder.

"Le fael, hîr vuin," Bilbo said quietly, and Elrond's expression brightened with interest, while everyone else shifted in surprise.

"You can speak Elvish?" Bofur said in shock. Gandalf looked delighted, and Bilbo felt his face flush.

"Just a little," he said softly, and Elrond graced him with a smile.

"You speak it quite well," the Elf Lord said. "I imagine you wish to know about your cousin?"

Bilbo straightened at the mention of Drogo, his shoulders squaring back as he looked up at Elrond again. "Yes. Is he alright? Has he woken?" he asked, more clearly as he focused on his cousin.

Elrond's smile faded into a more serious mien, the healer in him taking over for the lord. "Your timing was just right, for young Drogo may not have survived had you gone anywhere else. He responded well to my efforts, though, and now he sleeps peacefully. Whoever took care of his wound on the way here did a fine job," he said, and Bilbo felt Rory and Otho look at him, but he only gave a small nod.

"May we see him?" he asked politely, and Elrond watched them for another moment before stepping aside.

"Of course," he murmured, sweeping an arm toward the room he had just left, and Bilbo wasted no time in hurrying through, Rory and Otho right on his heels. He noticed Elrond moving closer to Lindir and Gandalf, but he paid them no mind, his attention turning completely to Drogo.

The room was spacious, and a grand bed of silken linens stood in the middle of it, with thin curtains parting to reveal Drogo's form sleeping in the middle, looking so small compared to the great pillows behind him. A small stool had been set beside the bed, and Bilbo used it to climb up, moving to Drogo's side and reaching up to stroke back his dark curls. Drogo's color had returned, and he breathed easily beneath Bilbo's hand. His shoulder was carefully wrapped with soft bandages.

Bilbo felt the mattress dip as Rory and Otho crawled over to him, and he reached over and wrapped his arm around Otho's shoulders, feeling Otho breathe in sharply in relief. "Drogo," Otho whispered, and Rory's hand came up to grip Bilbo's shoulder. Their cousin was alright. He was healing, he was not dead, he was safe.

Drogo did not wake, but the three Hobbits sat with him for some time, talking quietly to each other of Rivendell and what they had seen of it. Gandalf and the Elves left them alone for a while, while Bofur sat at the entrance, keeping watch while giving them their privacy. One Elf returned to offer them water and a tray of snacks, made of fresh vegetables and sweet herbs, and Bilbo and his cousins relished the treat.

The conversation was light enough that Bilbo did not speak of the Elves' reactions to him and Rory, but he noticed a vague darkness in Rory's eyes, as if being surrounded by such serenity troubled him. It troubled Bilbo, too, but at the same time he wished to take in all of this peace and wash it over the darkness within him, to bleed out every bit of evil that he had seen in his life. He felt more and more relaxed as the afternoon progressed into evening, and he even napped for a while beside Drogo, while Otho and Rory lounged on Drogo's other side, speaking in low tones.

Then Gandalf walked into the room and told them that supper was ready to be served, so Bilbo and his cousins rose and went to another room where their packs had been left. They washed themselves and changed into clothes that did not smell so heavily of travel. Then they followed Gandalf through the halls to an open terrace dotted with low tables, where Elves had already gathered to eat. Gandalf went to sit at a higher table with Elrond and the pale-haired Elf from earlier, while Bofur, Bilbo, and his cousins were led to a smaller table at the edge of the terrace, where they were served by a pair of smiling Elves who avoided looking at Bilbo too long at first.

The food was delicious though, and Bilbo managed to ignore the conversation from Gandalf's table, where the three tall beings were bent toward each other to speak in low tones. He even managed to ignore the glances and curious murmurs of the Elves around them. Bofur was tense and disdainful toward the lack of meat in their supper, but soon he had relaxed enough to tell a story to Otho and Rory.

Bilbo learned rather quickly that whenever they finished a dish, another one quickly replaced it with a new arrangement of vegetables, soft breads, or grains with herbs. Otho and Rory seemed to realize this too, as they began eating more and with gusto, polishing off whole platters easily, and Bilbo noticed the astonished looks of the Elves around them as the three Hobbits and one Dwarf put away more food than the rest of the tables.

For Bilbo and his cousins, though, it was the first chance in years to eat a proper meal, instead of one where they had to resist eating as much as they could, because another bite one night meant one less bite the next. At first the Elves serving them seemed disturbed by their appetite, but then they began to embrace it as a type of game, to see what they could put in front of the Hobbits that they would not enjoy. One or two of the Elves would sit with them and watch them eat, then run off to find another plate, insisting that the kitchens were well equipped to handle the stomachs of a few Halflings, when Rory questioned where they got all their food.

There was very little not to enjoy. The only things that Bilbo subtly pushed toward Otho and Bofur were the dishes that contained mushrooms, and even those smelled good enough that Bilbo was sorely tempted to try them. Only memories held him back, and he did not mind that much. Everything was delightful.

Near the end of their supper, a scrumptious scent caught Bilbo's attention, and he turned to see Otho spooning a thick sauce with dark bits of some vegetable onto crisp bread. His mouth watered immediately, and he watched as Otho ate it and gave a low sigh of appreciation, making the two Elves behind him giggle with glee.

"Do you like them?" one of the Elves asked, and Otho beamed at her, while her friend began plating more helpings to share with Bilbo and the others. Bilbo waited for his serving eagerly, and when the small plate was set in front of him, he smiled up at the Elf in thanks.

"Tell me what you think," the Elf said, winking as he watched him, and Bilbo picked up the bread to take a bite.

But then Rory was at his side, holding down his arm and leaning in to whisper to him frantically, "No, Bilbo, it's mushrooms."

Bilbo froze, his eyes widening as he looked closer at the bread, seeing now the soft meat of a mushroom, dark and thick and tender. The Elf's expression slipped a bit with worry, and Bilbo heard Rory telling him, "It's nothing bad, he's just allergic is all," and Bilbo felt his stomach twist. He had almost eaten a mushroom.

It smelled so good, though.

"No, it's fine, I'm not allergic," he heard himself say, and then he bit into the crisp bread. Flavor exploded on his tongue as the heady sauce melted into his taste buds, and Bilbo closed his eyes as he began to chew, savoring the earthiness paired with the delicate sauce, followed by the buttery crunch of bread. He chewed until the flavor had all but melted away, and then he swallowed, staying still for a long moment, wavering between happiness and shock. The bite of mushroom settled in his stomach, and Bilbo felt no nausea, no disgust, only a sense of sadness that he had ignored one of his favorite things for so long. Then he opened his eyes and smiled up at the Elf.

"Guren glassui," he said softly, and the Elf stared at him in stunned silence. His cousins were all mute, their eyes wide as they looked between the plate and Bilbo's hand, and even Bofur's expression was twisted with surprise.

"It's really good," Bilbo said after a moment, and he felt his eyes grow warm with tears. "It tastes really good," he tried again, but his voice cracked and he had to look down.

"Bilbo? Bilbo, are you going to be sick? Do you need a basin?" Rory asked urgently, rubbing his back, but Bilbo shook his head and gently pushed Rory away.

"I'm fine, okay? I don't feel sick. I just... I couldn't help it," Bilbo said weakly, and he could not meet Rory's eyes when he heard the plaintive sound from his cousin's throat. He looked at the bite still left in his hand, wondering if he really should. Then he found he could not resist, and he made a small noise when the amazing flavor burst through his senses again, ignoring Rory's movement to stop him.

Then he scrubbed at his eyes and picked up Rory's piece, offering it to him. "Look, try this, alright? It's really good," Bilbo insisted, and Rory started when he saw the bite of mushrooms in Bilbo's hand.

For a split second, Bilbo felt the strike of fear -- why did I even, he thought, remembering countless times when he offered a different mushroom to other Hobbits -- but then Rory's gaze hardened as if to say don't you dare and he took the morsel from Bilbo's hand, eating it decisively.

Then Rory groaned as he realized the flavor, and he leaned into Bilbo's side with bliss. "That is amazing," Rory moaned.

Bilbo started laughing, a hiccup escaping him as he reached up to wipe his eyes. "Foolish Rory," he said, and Rory giggled as he finished off the mushrooms, leaning across the table to convince Otho to give him more. Otho did, watching Rory and Bilbo with a suspicious gaze, but Bilbo smiled at him and Otho's sour expression softened. Then he and Rory ate more, happy to have a proper mushroom after years of never touching them.

All the while, the Elves watched them, enthralled with their joy.

~

Supper ended with a choice of desserts, and Bilbo pretended not to notice when Otho and Rory both snuck a few of the treats into their pockets. Long after the other Elves had gone away, leaving only Gandalf, Glorfindel, and Elrond at the higher table watching them, the Hobbits and Dwarf finished eating and sat together talking, until the Elves cleaning up the tables not so subtly began to hint at them leaving.

So Bilbo and his friends were led back to the hall where Drogo slept, and they learned that they each had been given a room around Drogo. But Bilbo did not have the heart to leave Otho or Rory alone, so he convinced Lindir that one room would be enough for the three of them, while Bofur took his own room across from theirs.

Bilbo sat with Rory and Otho for a while, sharing the pilfered desserts and pointedly not speaking about his upset at supper. The call of proper sleep proved too seductive for his cousins, after a time. Soon they retired to the large bed, curling close to each other as Bilbo walked around the room to blow out the lanterns.

Bilbo's thoughts returned to supper, and the lingering shock of it left him unable to sleep. So he went to sit on a bench outside Drogo's room, taking with him one of his favorite books, The Battle of Dagorlad, an old text that his mother had passed along to him years ago. He enjoyed historic tales, and he had been overjoyed when he had found the dusty tome hiding beneath his bed, ripped in a few places with burn marks on the spine, but still in one piece.

He read for some time, until he heard a rustle and looked up to find an Elf staring at him.

Bilbo stilled at the intensity in the Elf's gaze, but after a moment he realized that the Elf was not staring at him, but at his book. He twitched the book a bit, and the Elf seemed to shake himself, starting on his path again. Bilbo watched him walk away, curious and a little anxious about the Elf's expression, but soon the lure of Oropher's determination drew him back to his story.

A while later, he heard another rustle accompanying firm steps, and he looked up see the same Elf walking toward him. The Elf stopped in front of him and held out a slim book, bound with green leather with a red ribbon tucked inside. Bilbo stared at the book, nonplussed.

"You might find this version more forthright," the Elf said lightly, holding the book closer to Bilbo. After a long moment in which Hobbit and Elf stared each other down, Bilbo cautiously reached out to take the book. When he opened it, he found a drawing of the region east of the Misty Mountains, marked with lines in different inks that were labeled as 'Elendil,' 'Elrond,' 'Oropher,' 'Amdír,' 'Durin IV,' and 'Sauron.'

"Oh," Bilbo said with surprise, turning the page to find War of the Last Alliance written gracefully in Westron, underlined with Battle of Dagorlad. "Durin IV? The Dwarves were part of the battle?" he asked, looking up at the Elf in interest.

"The translator of the version you hold in your hands was... inaccurate," the Elf said stiffly. "This translation holds true to the first-hand accounts. You may borrow it, if you wish."

Bilbo brightened with a smile, eagerly turning the next page and drawing his hand down the careful script. He lost himself in the pages for a few moments, seeing many differences from his old book already. "This is lovely. Thank you," he said, looking back up, but the Elf was already gone. Bilbo stood up and looked up and down the hall, but there was no sign of the Elf, so he shook his head in bemusement and returned to his bench, delving into the book immediately.

He fell asleep somewhere between the Elves and Men crossing the Misty Mountains and the first mention of Durin IV, Thorin's ancestor and one of the great Dwarf Lords. He woke a half hour later, groaning as he felt a crick in his neck, and he looked mournfully at the book, knowing that he would get to read about Durin IV soon, but he was too tired to continue. So he stood and looked around for his old copy, but he could not find it anywhere.

For a few minutes, Bilbo fretted over the disappearance of his favorite book. Then he remembered the Elf who had visited him, and he wondered with shock if the Elf had taken his book. Bilbo's expression darkened, and he stomped into the room, tossing the green book aside with irritation.

That horrible Elf, how dare he take my book! Bilbo thought, but then he had to convince himself that he had no proof, even if the evidence was clear. He crawled into bed beside Rory and fumed for a little while, but eventually he fell asleep, lulled by the soft sheets and subtle scent of lavender in the plush pillow.

When Bilbo woke the next morning, he searched again for his book, but there was no trace of it. So Bilbo went to breakfast in a foul mood, and only one of Bofur's stories about Erebor could draw a smile out of him. Breakfast was as enjoyable as last night's supper, and once again Bilbo and his cousins ate themselves full, savoring the soft cheeses and delectable fruit pastries.

Gandalf offered them the chance to explore Rivendell, but Bilbo wanted to check on Drogo first and look around once more for his book. When he reached the room he shared with his cousins, he found a surprise waiting for him.

A book was sitting on the bedside table, on top of the green book. When Bilbo opened it, he found the pages of his favorite book. It had been bound anew with soft brown cloth and the pages gently wiped clean of soot and dirt. Bilbo stared down at his book, shocked into silence. Had that Elf done this?

He left his room quickly and searched about the hall, but there was no sign of the Elf, and when Bofur came trudging up to find him, he gave Bilbo a concerned look.

"What's the matter, Bilbo?" Bofur asked.

Bilbo looked down at the books in his hands, wishing he could find that Elf and thank him. "It's nothing, Bofur," he said after a moment, going back into the room to set the books down. "I think I found a kindred spirit, is all," he said, and no matter how many times Bofur asked him to clarify, Bilbo did not explain what had happened.

Chapter Text

As Lindir showed them around Rivendell, Bilbo felt some old tension seep out of him at seeing such a historic place for the first time.

If only there was time more to stay here, Bilbo thought, gazing around him in awe.

Rivendell touched Bilbo in a way no other place ever had. The tranquil beauty of the valley left him sighing each time he looked out a window. Every path he took opened up to a new and fascinating world for him to explore. No matter where he looked, no matter where he went, Bilbo was enraptured.

At first Bilbo had been afraid of the Elves, for the looks they gave him and the word they murmured as he walked past. Yet even the morning after he and his family had arrived, a few Elves approached him, touched his curls or face, and murmured 'naeggyl.' It had terrified Bilbo the first time, but then at breakfast, the two Elves, who had brought them so many wonderful dishes last night, came up to him and thanked him, very simply.

Then they brought Bilbo and his cousins a truly amazing breakfast, with foods delectable and bountiful. He had not eaten like that in so many years, and he was so very thankful for it. The fruit alone had brought tears to his eyes. Curiously, a large bowl of fresh strawberries had appeared at Bilbo's elbow after that.

At the time Bilbo had been distracted by the disappearance of his book, but later he wondered. Some of the Elves could not look at him, somehow disturbed by his very presence, but others smiled at him each time they saw him.

Bilbo didn't know what to make of it.

Despite the behavior of some of the members of Elrond's house, they treated him no worse than how they behaved toward his cousins. Mostly, the Elves looked upon the Hobbits as they might children, always offering Bilbo and his cousins treats or reaching out to pinch their curls. Not a single Elf had curly hair like a Hobbit, or even wiry hair like a Dwarf.

Bilbo and Rory had both flinched the first few times it happened, at these very tall Elves touching them, but Rory soon grew used to it. Bilbo did not, and he ducked out of reach every time he saw an Elf's hand move. Bilbo could tell that his reactions bothered the Elves, but he could not help his behavior. They did not shun him for it, at least. Instead, they only gave him perturbed looks, but they never questioned him.

They treated him far better than they behaved toward Bofur, though, which bothered Bilbo. The Elves were cold to Bofur, offering snide sarcasm or simple platitudes -- and that was when they bothered to speak in Westron at all. Most of the time, the Elves spoke only in Sindarin around Bofur, and what Bilbo understood was not very kind, to say the least.

Bofur gave the Elves an equally antagonistic response, scoffing at their sarcasm and talking very loudly whenever the Elves seemed to encourage quiet. When he was not making fun of Elves or pestering Bilbo about his 'kindred spirit,' Bofur spent as much time as possible ignoring the Elves and comparing everything under Elrond's roof to Thorin's palace in Erebor, to Rory's and Otho's amusement. Bilbo was less enthused, and he tried to reason with Bofur about it at first, until he heard an Elf call Bofur gwaur under his breath. Then the Hobbit could only feel exasperation at all of them.

Despite his annoyance, Bilbo could not help but marvel over Rivendell. Elrond's home was so unlike any smial of the Shire or any dwarrowhall deep in Moria. The halls and pathways were wide with graceful architecture. What furniture Bilbo saw (tall as it was, like everything else in Rivendell) looked rather inviting, for all that Rivendell lacked the cheery colors any proper smial would have.

Then Lindir ushered them into the gardens, and Bilbo took that thought back. Here was the array of brilliant colors that would make any Hobbit proud.

Elrond's garden curled around Rivendell in an embrace, with an array of intense color, of every flower, shrub, and tree Bilbo had ever seen, and so many more he could not hope to recognize. Walls of roses, climbing up entwining trellises and blooming in every shade Bilbo had ever seen, and quite a few he had not, despite living next to the Greenhands for all of his childhood. Sweetpea in brilliant pinks with celadine in bright yellow hues, brushing against the trails of foxglove and snapdragons. Delicate purple blossoms twisting along thick vines. So many flowers, in so many colors, and Bilbo longed to draw them, to smell every flower and lay under every bush. He thought of his mother and how she would have loved this place, of his old neighbors who would sell every last seed they owned to study the different arrangements of flowers and shrubs.

Upon seeing Elrond's gardens, Bilbo politely begged Lindir if they could please have lunch outside, maybe under that tree, if it wouldn't be a bother. Then Rory chimed in about how they wouldn't be any trouble, Hobbit's promise, and Otho joined them and said that they wouldn't pick a single flower. Gandalf had a sudden coughing fit when Lindir was suddenly faced with three pleading Hobbits with bigger and sadder eyes than any Elfling he had ever met.

"Of course," stuttered Lindir, and Bilbo and his cousins immediately rushed off to explore the spectacular gardens with glee. Bofur followed with a look of bemusement.

The sheer amount of care the Elves had put into the gardens greatly impressed Bilbo, who had learned some gardening from his neighbors the Greenhands. He had learned alongside Holman Greenhand at his father Halfred's knee, though not nearly to the extent that Holman learned. Enough, at least, that in the summer before his kidnapping, Bilbo had a tidy little herb garden of his own for his mother's recipes.

As Bilbo admired a plentiful wisteria tree, he felt sadness that the Greenhands and their cousins the Gamgees would likely never see this place. He would certainly tell Holman about it when his childhood friend reached the Vale with the rest of the farmers, though. Perhaps he could buy some seeds from the Elves? He would have to ask Lord Elrond.

Between the Hobbits' happiness over the gardens and the Elves that began to gather in the eaves of the nearby pathways, Lindir's mild suggestion for an outdoor party was met with rousing agreement. Tables and cushions appeared from rooms unknown, Elves with delicate instruments took to a round dais and began to strum softly together, and soon the entire garden was filled with the members of Elrond's house, talking and laughing in the relaxing atmosphere. Lunch was served to cheers and song. Even Bofur, as uncomfortable as he looked, pulled out a flute and began an intense competition with a rosy-cheeked Elf playing a long oboe.

At one point Bilbo was distracted from his lunch when he noticed the Elf who had taken his book lingering at the edge of the garden and talking with Glorfindel. Bilbo made to stand, wanting to catch that Elf and question him, but his attention was torn away when Otho jumped up a second later and shouted, "Drogo!"

Bilbo turned sharply and saw Drogo walking slowly toward them, Gandalf and Elrond following him sedately. Drogo seemed overwhelmed by all of the Elves, and his face was paler than Bilbo would have liked, but when he saw Otho, his entire expression lit up with the same fierce happiness that burned in Bilbo's chest. The joy that struck him next left him breathless, and he was only a step behind Otho as he crossed the open clearing to Drogo. Only a moment later, Drogo and Otho were both wrapped up in Bilbo's arms, while he hid his face in Drogo's dark curls.

"The music woke me," Drogo murmured into Bilbo's ear, and Bilbo laughed as his eyes grew wet. Rory appeared beside him, followed by Bofur who clapped Drogo on his good shoulder and exclaimed, "Good to see you up, lad!"

Bilbo pulled back and checked over his cousin, clucking his tongue, and Drogo grew red in the face at the attention. So Otho and Bilbo pulled him to their table and cajoled him into trying everything within reach, ignoring Elrond's admonition that Drogo should eat lightly.

"What happened, Bilbo? I hardly remember anything after you fell," Drogo said, popping a warm pastry into his mouth and sighing.

"Oh! I never asked you about that, Bilbo!" Rory said in shock, and Bilbo realized that he had not told anyone what had happened to him in the woods.

An Elf nearby, who looked quite like Elrond with his gray eyes, interjected, "Yes, tell us of your battle that gave poor Drogo such a wound!"

"I would have been a lot worse off if Bilbo hadn't protected me himself," Drogo said with a faint blush, looking rather proud as he rubbed his shoulder. "He fought off a dozen goblins for me!"

And suddenly Bilbo was the center of attention, and he immediately grew flustered by all the Elves looking at him. "It was only a few," he tried, and he jumped when Bofur sat down beside him and clapped an arm around Bilbo's shoulders.

"Oh no you don't, Bilbo Baggins," Bofur boomed. Bilbo tried, as surreptitiously as he could, to crawl out from under Bofur's arm, but the Dwarf was having none of it. "We're going to tell everybody all about how you saved our lives, and then we can't leave here without these Elves knowing how you saved King Thorin!"

"The Dwarf King of Erebor?" an Elf exclaimed, and another murmured, "But such a small Halfling..."

Bilbo tried again to escape Bofur's grasp, but he was well and truly stuck in place. Bofur grinned widely and said, "The one and only! And our Bilbo here, if it wasn't for him, we wouldn't have won our battle with Azog the Defiler!"

Bilbo immediately flinched when he heard the name, but he also heard several intakes of breath as the Elves processed Bofur's statement. After a short moment, Bilbo sighed and mustered what little courage he could find. "What happened on our journey here was another matter entirely. It wasn't that impressive! There were only six Orcs on Wargs, and I only had to deal with three of them, really," he insisted, but Bofur scoffed.

"Like taking on three Warg riders by your lonesome is so trivial. No, see, I was drivin' the cart, so I couldn't protect our Hobbits here. Gandalf went off into the woods to fight some archers, and so it was only Bilbo who could defend us! Then the Orcs closed in," Bofur said with great emphasis, clearly enjoying himself as he got into the story, "and it was just little Bilbo with his little sword --"

"It's not little," Bilbo muttered, but then Otho jumped into the conversation over him.

"Bofur, you didn't see Bilbo with that sword! He saw a goblin reach for Drogo, and he bellowed fiercely, and then he swung his sword and knocked the goblin back! But only a second later, it felt like --"

"That's when I was shot!" Drogo said loudly, and Otho nodded with wide eyes, faintly disturbed by the memory.

Rory continued, "And then another goblin came up, and it jumped onto the cart while Bilbo was trying to stop the bleeding, and Drogo was screaming and hollering --"

"I was not screaming, you big oaf," Drogo started hotly, "and anyway, it doesn't matter what I was doing, because that's when Bilbo jumped up and stabbed that foul beast with his sword, and it fell -- and good riddance to the monster! It fell, and that's when Bilbo said --"

"I said it should leave my family alone," Bilbo said hurriedly, and Drogo narrowed his eyes at him, but Bilbo shot him a glare.

"And it grabbed you," Rory said ominously, sitting up and leaning over Otho's shoulder, while the Elves behind him watched. "And you fell! But somehow you came back to us in one piece, Bilbo. Tell us how!"

"Yes," said another Elf with gray eyes, who shared a great likeness to the first who sat behind Rory. "Tell us how, Halfling! You must be very skilled to escape a Warg rider."

Bilbo felt heat burning in his cheeks when attention swung back to him, awe and interest tingeing the Elves' expressions.

"Well," he fumbled, and then he sighed. "I couldn't let them have my cousin, could I?" he explained, and Drogo beamed at him. It was not a story of bravery, or of a warrior's prowess, but Bilbo saw respect dawn in the eyes of the Elves around him all the same. The desperation to protect his family must have touched these Elves, for their gazes softened and they looked upon him in wonder.

"So you fell, and..." Drogo trailed off, and Bilbo shifted beneath Bofur's arm.

"Well, I certainly wasn't graceful about it! The cart was going so fast, I fell rather hard and hurt my shoulder for it. I definitely couldn't fight them off, they were far too fast, so I ran into the forest," Bilbo explained, but this did little to ease his audience.

"But Orcs are fast on their feet!" exclaimed the first Elf with slate gray eyes.

Bilbo nodded slightly in agreement, settling into his 'story-telling' mindset. Just imagine them as fauntlings, he thought, shivering a bit and pressing closer to Bofur's warmth.

"Yes, they are, but Hobbits are much faster!" Bilbo said, his voice growing louder as it carried over the garden clearing. "We can be as silent and as quick as a rabbit when we need to be. And I needed to be very quiet on that day. Six riders followed us, and one died by my hand. Three rode after Bofur and the cart, but two and their Wargs went after me. I had to be faster than them! I had to be silent! And I was -- and I was very fortunate, because I found a hole to hide in."

Bilbo felt Bofur's arm slip down, but he kept talking, thinking of the ring in his pocket and knowing that he should never let anybody here know of it. Nothing good would if the knowledge of his magic ring was spread around, Bilbo thought, something in the back of his mind urging his silence. "There I hid, until they went away. Orcs have good senses, but they are stupid if you can fool them, and I did that day. Then, when they were gone, I made my way back to my kin, where Bofur had finished off the rest with his axe, and my cousins were safe and sound... except poor Drogo, of course," Bilbo finished, his gaze cutting to Drogo, whose cheeks turned pink at being called 'poor Drogo' again.

Bofur began snickering beside him, but Bilbo elbowed him hard, so Bofur coughed and squeezed his shoulder again.

"Brave, brave lad, our Bilbo. But what he did for poor Drogo was only a small part of what he did for our King Thorin," Bofur said, bright eyes glittering as the Elves, against their better judgment, looked on him in interest.

"It all began about seven years ago, when King Thorin looked at the Misty Mountains and said, 'It is time to reclaim Khazad-dûm,' -- and so he did," Bofur began.

Thankfully, Bilbo was left to wallow in his glass of juice as Bofur grew into his story, drawing back from the center attention and curling up against a large cushion behind Bofur. He watched his friend as Bofur wove the story of Thorin's march, remembering the small details from listening in on Azog's meetings with his commanders.

'The Dwarves marched on Bolg's kingdom! It was destroyed!'

'Thorin hunts us, master. He seeks the head of the Defiler!'

'Those rotten Dwarves, they've wiped out Undolog's clan!'

And Azog's dark promise: 'His head shall be mine.' But Azog had returned from battle missing his arm and furious beyond madness. Bilbo had suffered horrifically for several weeks after Azog had lost his arm to Thorin's axe.

With a start he realized the direction his thoughts had gone, and Bilbo drew back from his memories, focusing on Bofur's words.

"Every clan we found, every clan we struck down," Bofur was saying, and his tone was darker now, his smile gone, "we found more of them. Clapped in chains, and all of them starving, all of them hurt and scared and sick, and each time, King Thorin grew angrier, pushing us harder and faster. Then, seven years after we marched from Erebor, we reached the center of Moria, the oldest of our ancestor's halls."

Bilbo realized with a start that Bofur was speaking of his brethren. Had Thorin truly been so horrified, so angered by the Hobbits' enslavement? He glanced past Bofur at the Elves around them, seeing silent expressions of horror. Had these Elves not known of his people's plight? Had they not cared? After a moment Bilbo had to look away, staring resolutely at the glass in his hand. What did it matter, anyway? The Elves had not helped them. The Dwarves had.

"By the time we reached Azog's hall, we knew how to rescue the Hobbits without getting them hurt. General Dwalin, son of Fundin, organized a raid that distracted Azog's army, and a small group of us stole into the halls to get the Hobbits. Thorin and Gandalf, determined as they were, led us right to where the Hobbits were kept, and we got all of them out. But then a wee Hobbit lass tugged King Thorin himself down and told him there was one more," Bofur said, and he looked back at Bilbo knowingly.

Suddenly Bilbo was the center of attention again, but he dared not speak. He only looked up, expression solemn as he met Bofur's gaze, and he gave a little nod.

Bofur's expression softened in encouragement. "King Thorin and I went together to find this last Hobbit, and that was when we found Bilbo Baggins himself, hidden away like a treasure. But the Defiler coveted his slaves," Bofur said darkly, and Bilbo held himself very still. "He found them gone and chased Thorin, Gandalf, and Bilbo through the halls, while the rest of us went ahead. Nearly caught them, too, but Gandalf's magic saved them."

"It would be a dark day indeed when I let a creature so foul as Azog the Defiler have the best of me," Gandalf chimed in, and Bilbo jumped at how close his voice was.

"Aye, you escaped, and the battle would have gone far differently had you fallen there. When they returned, we took care of the Hobbits and sent them home, and you know, I watched myself as Bilbo walked away with his kin. But Thorin suspected -- rightly so," Bofur said, glancing at Bilbo with a grin, "that Bilbo would refuse to leave so long as the Defiler was alive. And lo and behold, in the middle of our final battle -- a Hobbit appeared, and none other than our Bilbo Baggins!"

There was another soft collective gasp, and they looked at Bilbo in surprise, but Bilbo kept his gaze on Bofur. He noticed Rory, Otho, and Drogo out of the corner of his eye, staring at him with admiration and awe. Rory looked smug, and Bilbo smiled a bit as he remembered his family and friends covering his escape.

"And what a sneaky Hobbit our Bilbo is! Not even our best tracker, my own cousin Bifur, could keep up with him. Lost him in the caves between our camp and Azog's halls, until Bilbo was caught and taken to Azog himself!"

"Oh, but how did you get away, Master Baggins?" one of the Elves asked, and Bilbo felt himself grow flustered.

"That is --"

"My King saved him," Bofur said simply. "King Thorin saw the Defiler take Bilbo, and he called out a challenge for the Orc to face him. King Thorin fought his way to the Defiler, and they fought in battle. But the Defiler -- he was furious and powerful, just enough that he fought King Thorin to his knees. He took my King's axe and held it high above his head --"

He paused, and the Elves around them leaned forward. Bilbo closed his eyes as he remembered: his heart beating in his ears, how sluggishly his legs moved, the look on Thorin's face as Azog growled his death omen. The heat of blood dripping over his hands.

"And then, Bilbo Baggins stabbed Azog the Defiler in the back. None of us saw him, none of us even noticed him, until we saw the shining blue blade sticking out of the Defiler's chest. A tiny Hobbit bested the greatest calamity of our age, the Defiler who had murdered so many of our kin," Bofur said, his gaze fixing on Bilbo, who opened his eyes to see every Elf staring at him. His fingers clenched around his glass, but he did not speak; did not think he could have if he tried.

"The Defiler turned and raised our King's axe again, and Bilbo Baggins was surely doomed -- but for our King, Thorin Oakenshield, who rose again and took the Defiler's arm from him! Then King Thorin drove his sword, shining like blue fire, into Azog, and finally the Defiler took his last breath and died. So ended our War with the Orcs, and so we won, on the actions of our two heroes," Bofur finished, satisfied and proud as he watched Bilbo, and he turned as the Hobbit boys and the Elves behind them came forward with questions.

Bilbo said nothing, his gaze dropping to the ground. He was no hero as Bofur thought, as his cousins believed. He was just a Hobbit, and he had murdered someone -- twice, now, if he counted the Orc who had tried to take Drogo. Not to mention all of the suicides he had assisted in Azog's halls --

But that was another lifetime. He was safe now, with his family and friends, and he felt no regret for spilling Azog's blood or killing that Orc. He only wished that he had never been in that situation; never been forced to kill or be killed.

He felt movement at his side and looked up, finding Gandalf beside him. Gandalf gave him an encouraging smile and held out a hand, and Bilbo helped himself up, turning to see Elrond and Glorfindel watching him. Elrond stood from his chair and approached them, Glorfindel following silently, and belatedly Bilbo remembered the mysterious Elf who had disappeared. He eyed Glorfindel for a short moment before focusing on Elrond.

"It seems we have much to speak of, Master Baggins. Would you care to join me in my study?" Elrond asked.

Bilbo stared up at this great Elf Lord, so much taller and older than him, with slate gray eyes that pierced him like an arrow. He imagined all of the things Elrond might say, about his actions with the Orcs, about Azog, about the Shire, about the Hobbits -- and then he sucked in a breath and nodded, relaxing a bit when Gandalf laid a hand on his shoulder. "At your leisure, Lord Elrond," he said quietly, and he allowed Gandalf to lead him away, leaving the lively party of Elves, Hobbits, and one Dwarf behind.

~

An hour later found Bilbo sitting in a very tall chair next to Gandalf, his hands clasped over the sheath of his sword, watching as Elrond and Glorfindel processed all that he had said.

He had told them nearly everything. From Azog's invasion to the Dwarves' final march, and even beyond, to returning home to a Shire in ruins. From Elrond's and Glorfindel's expressions, paling and darkening at different points in the story, Bilbo guessed that they had no idea how far the Hobbits had fallen. He had not spoken much of what had happened during his years with Azog, only explained that he had been Azog's personal slave, and that alone had made Elrond's expression freeze with knowledge that Bilbo dared not consider.

"Such a long story you have lived, and in so few years," Elrond murmured. "Your home lost... and now you seek to find a new one through the very mountains that tore your people apart. You are a very brave person, Master Baggins."

Bilbo's gaze dropped to the sword in his lap, which Gandalf had requested that he bring to show Elrond and Glorfindel. "I'm really not," he said quietly, and Gandalf sighed beside him.

"But you are, my boy. Never doubt that," Gandalf insisted. Bilbo had nothing to say to him; he was not brave, only determined to protect the people he loved. It was not the same.

"This is your sword?" Glorfindel questioned, and Bilbo's hands tightened around the sheath, before he stood and went to lay the sword on Elrond's desk. Glorfindel took the sword and examined it carefully, making a thoughtful noise. "This was made in Gondolin," he said after a moment.

"I thought so!" agreed Gandalf, smiling into his beard. "All three of the blades must have been made in the First Age."

Glorfindel and Elrond both shot Gandalf a look. "Three?" Elrond queried, taking the blade from Glorfindel and turning it over in his hands. Whenever Bilbo held the weapon, it looked like a proper sword, made for his height and size, but in the hands of an Elf, a being so tall that Bilbo could stand on Rory's shoulders and still not look him in the eye, it looked more like a dagger.

"Why, yes," Gandalf rumbled, and he stood to reveal the sword still hanging at his side, the long thin blade that he had taken from Azog's hoard, that matched the great curved weapon that Thorin had wielded against Azog. "Bilbo said that he found his blade, this sword, and another all together. Where did you say they came from, my boy?" he asked Bilbo, who shrugged a little.

"They came from some Trolls," Bilbo responded quietly. "About four years ago, two of Azog's commanders captured three Trolls somewhere, and whatever was in the Trolls' hoard became part of the clan's treasure hold. I haven't a clue where the Trolls got them, though."

Bilbo shifted uncomfortably when Elrond and Glorfindel both stood to take Gandalf's sword, laying it across the table alongside Bilbo's small blade. Glorfindel muttered something, and Elrond's gaze narrowed with recognition.

"This is Glamdring, the Foe Hammer, the sword that the King of Gondolin once wore," Elrond said after a moment, and Gandalf made a pleased sound. "And your dagger, Master Baggins, is of the same make. They would have been crafted at the same time... and you said there was a third?" he asked, and Bilbo nodded. "What did it look like?"

After a moment Bilbo stepped forward and looked over Elrond's desk. "Do you have some paper?" he requested, and Elrond offered him a large fountain pen and a stack of paper. Bilbo began sketching Thorin's sword from memory, slowly at first, before the strokes of ink became surer. After he was finished, he passed the paper to Elrond. "That's it. Thorin took it with him into battle. He used it against Azog," Bilbo said, his voice dropping to a whisper on his former master's name.

Upon seeing the picture, Glorfindel let out a soft exclamation. "Ecthelion's blade, surely -- named Orcrist for its great deeds. No wonder the Dwarf spoke of 'blue fire.' But why would such famous swords be in a Troll hoard?" He sounded angry, and Bilbo eyed him warily, but Glorfindel only scowled down at the two weapons.

"We may never know," Elrond reasoned, and Glorfindel's glare subsided slowly. "It is fortunate, at least, that they have all come into good masters." His gray eyes fixed on Bilbo, and he smiled. "Even the smallest."

Bilbo stared back at him, surprised, and a small smile appeared on his face as he relaxed. "Thank you, Lord Elrond," he murmured. Then he took his small sword back, as Gandalf picked up the now-named Glamdring and tied it to his belt again. Briefly Bilbo wondered if his own sword, Sting, might have an Elvish name, but then Elrond would have mentioned it. A dagger was all it was to the Elves, but it was so much more to Bilbo.

They all sat down again, and Bilbo swung his legs a bit as he set his little sword aside. He looked up to see Glorfindel watching him, and he hesitated at the look on the pale-haired Elf's face.

"You should write it down," Glorfindel said, and Bilbo could only blink at him.

"What?"

Everyone else stared at Glorfindel, who cleared his throat. "Your story," the Elf clarified. "All that you and the Dwarf told us -- you should write it into a book. It is a grand tale."

"What a splendid idea," Gandalf started, but Bilbo tuned him out, turning the idea over with interest. He had considered it before, months ago when he had returned to the Shire and caught sight of one of his old journals in Bag-End, but every time he had tried to write about his troubles, about the horrors he suffered, his pen faltered and the words never came.

But he could write about what happened with Thorin and his march. That was more important to history, he thought, and he could tell it like a story. Then perhaps his cousins would not pester him for so many details on what had happened to him during those years, or during the great battle with Thorin and Azog.

Bilbo realized Gandalf was chatting with Elrond about something, and he waited until the Wizard had finished his piece before speaking again. "I think I would like to do that," he offered, and Glorfindel nodded as Gandalf beamed, while Elrond looked interested.

"The librarian can help you find materials," Glorfindel said, an odd tone entering his voice, and beside him Elrond seemed to sigh.

"He is my chief counselor, Glorfindel, not my librarian. Must you always --"

"Yes, of course," Glorfindel waved Elrond off, and Gandalf seemed amused, but Bilbo could only stare at them blankly. "His name is Erestor, and he will help you."

Bilbo eyed the two Elves and Wizard suspiciously, but after a moment he only nodded. "Thank you." So there was a library. Bilbo would have to find it.

A moment later Elrond focused on Bilbo and clasped his hands together, leaning forward against his desk. "Master Baggins, I noticed something peculiar about your cousin when Glorfindel brought him into my care. For all that the wound was deep and rife with poison, his shoulder showed little sign of infection. Are you a healer as well?" Elrond asked, interest shining in his gray eyes, and Bilbo noticed Gandalf straightening and turning a narrowed gaze on him.

Damn. He did not want to discuss this topic again, did not want to see the Elves grow suspicious and wary of him, but he did not want to lie, either. "Not really, no, Lord Elrond," Bilbo demurred, and he stiffened when Gandalf gave a huff.

"I am sure Lord Elrond would be interested in the Orc elixir, Bilbo," Gandalf said much too loudly for Bilbo's ease of mind, and he saw both Elves sit back in shock.

"Orc elixir?" Elrond said, sounding rather disturbed, and Glorfindel looked hardly better.

"Indeed, a tincture made by Orcs themselves," Gandalf explained, giving Bilbo another look.

With a wince, Bilbo gave Gandalf a rather unhappy look, but the Wizard only stared back at him. Bilbo felt his temper rise, but at the last minute he looked away and fixed a blank gaze on Elrond, his voice dropping as he explained Gandalf's remark. "I treated Drogo's shoulder with a healing tincture that I found on the Orc I killed. I lived with Orcs for seven years, so I know how they mend their wounds, and I knew that every Orc who leaves the clan halls takes some of the tincture with them. I still have it, if you would like to look at it. It takes care of infection and gut rot effectively," he said, his voice turning cold, and Gandalf huffed beside him.

"Really, Bilbo, there is no need to take that sort of tone --"

Bilbo stood up suddenly and scowled at Gandalf, leaning in to whisper to him. "Don't start with me, you old Wizard! What I do and do not tell other people is no business of yours. Don't you dare pull that on me again," he said fiercely, and Gandalf leaned back, staring at him in surprise.

"I only wish to help you," Gandalf said, but Bilbo had had enough.

"Your help is patronizing and rude. I am not a child, and I would like some privacy when it comes to my past, if you please!" Bilbo seethed quietly. "I was a slave, and the things I saw -- I don't like to speak of it at all. What knowledge I have is mine to share, and don't you dare -- don't you ever try to force me to speak before I am comfortable again!"

Gandalf huffed again, but he did not speak again, except to say quietly, "I am sorry, Bilbo."

Bilbo accepted the apology stiffly, and he turned back to Elrond and Glorfindel with trepidation, flinching slightly at the wide-eyed looks on their faces. "I am terribly sorry, Lord Elrond," he whispered, fighting back the stinging in his eyes. He did not want the Elves, whom he had always looked up to as a child, to see him like this, but it was too late. "I should go," he started, but Elrond held up a hand, and Bilbo peeked up at his face long enough to see that the Elf lord's expression was kind.

"All is forgiven, Master Baggins. Please, be seated," Elrond entreated, and slowly Bilbo sat down again, fumbling for the handkerchief in his pocket and making himself tidy again. Elrond waited patiently until Bilbo had righted himself, then said, "I would be very interested to see the tincture you mentioned. You said it fights infection? Do you know the ingredients?"

Bilbo shook his head, gripping the edge of the large chair. "No, I never helped make it, but... I know some of what went in it. Rosehips, dandelion root... but there are other things, and I am not knowledgeable about medicine. Whatever they made it with, it fought infection and helped stomach illnesses... though it did little for the other problems we faced," Bilbo finished quietly, his shoulders sinking as he thought of his Great Aunt back in the Shire.

Elrond watched him curiously, while Glorfindel remained silent beside him. Gandalf watched Bilbo but said nothing, to Bilbo's relief. "What do you mean?" asked Elrond.

Bilbo looked up at him in surprise. "Well, all of us that lived in the Orc halls," he replied, "we have suffered other illnesses, that we have no idea how to treat. That place was full of dirt, fungus, mildew, and other things best left untouched. Many of us became ill. Many of us died from illness. Some of us still suffer, but I can only hope that going to the Vale and living in a place where we can grow food properly will help us heal. There's not much else to be done about it," he said feebly.

Yet Elrond leaned forward, grey eyes glittering with something Bilbo could not name. "These illnesses -- would you describe them for me?"

Bilbo watched him, surprised, but found it in him to reply. "Yes, ah, of course. The worst was the grey cough. Living in that place, with all that dust and spores in the air, it couldn't be helped. Even my Great Aunt, who left Moria months ago, still coughs, and now her handkerchiefs are stained grey." He hesitated, but Elrond motioned for him to continue, so Bilbo said, "We never ate well... only gruel, sometimes stew made with vegetables that the Orcs found for us. The water was clean, at least. Most of us are weak from it. And... some of us, myself included, have some trouble moving sometimes. My joints ache. My bones feel brittle... but then, we were starved. We still are, to some degree." Bilbo paused, not believing that he was saying these things, and he was very aware of Gandalf's worried silence beside him. "There are other things, smaller things, but they are more... remnants of the pain we suffered," Bilbo finished quietly.

Then he sat back and stared resolutely down at his lap, and he did not need to look up to know that Gandalf, Glorfindel, and Elrond were exchanging heavy glances over his curly head.

After a few moments of quiet, Elrond's deep voice intruded on his silence, and Bilbo looked up carefully. "You have given me much to consider, Master Baggins," Elrond said, and his gaze was not judgmental or suspicious, nor was Glorfindel's expression. "Thank you for telling me all that you have today, despite the tone of our discussion. While you are a guest of my home, you and your companions have my permission to explore as you wish. If you have need of anything, please do not hesitate to ask myself or Lindir."

The smile Elrond gave him was kind, and Bilbo was warmed by his acceptance. He managed a small smile in return and hopped down from his chair, bowing slightly at the waist. "You are too generous, Lord Elrond," Bilbo said, and he took Elrond's nod as his sign to leave.

As soon as the door closed behind him, Bilbo heard voices rise in conversation, but he had no interest in trying to figure out what they were saying. He left the way they had come, walking silently through the hallways until he came to the gardens they had left, now emptied of Elves. The tables and cushions had been cleared away, but then Bilbo saw his cousins napping beneath the wisteria tree he had admired earlier, Bofur sitting nearby with his pipe. With a small smile, Bilbo approached them as quiet as he could, but even still, Rory managed to hear him.

His best friend opened one eye, took a single look at Bilbo, and held open his arm. Bilbo set his sword aside and went to his cousins gladly, curling up between Rory and Drogo and breathing in their familiar scents, warmed by the sun and flowers around them. Drogo was sleeping fitfully, and Otho was snoring, but Bilbo relaxed into Rory's side with a sigh, already feeling content.

So he dozed, and his sleep was peaceful for a time, the serene gardens doing much to ease his worn mind.

~

Far away, on the other side of the Misty Mountains, a tall Dwarf with blue eyes strode through a field of grasses and flowers that reached higher than his chest. He wore travel leathers that were worn at the elbows and dusty from the road, and he had both a great axe and an Elven sword strapped to his back. He had traveled for several weeks now, and he was tired of the road, tired of his guard who bickered behind his back and tried to trick him into sleeping properly. He did not look forward to the meeting he was about to have, but it would be better than the journey that would follow through Mirkwood.

His name was Thorin, and he was so very far from home.

The house he approached belonged to a great man who had aided his people for years now, but with whom he shared a rivalrous rapport. It was a generous hall, surrounded by tall oak trees that sheltered the generous garden full of huge bees that buzzed along gently. Everything here was great in size, for the owner of the house was a bear of a man -- as tall as three Dwarves standing on each other's shoulders.

Thorin sighed as the house came into view. Beorn was a suspicious man with little concern for the distances his friends had to travel, and he had even less care for Dwarves. Thorin, at least, had a steady friendship with Beorn that sometimes twisted around into a rivalry, but there were few Dwarves other than Thorin that Beorn would allow into his home. Thorin's guard had to remain at the edge of Beorn's land, and Thorin walked on alone, leaving his pony behind.

He turned his gaze to the valleys and gorges beyond the edge of the great field, imagining seeing the hills dotted with round doors and cozy gardens. He had seen the Shire before, long ago on a journey to visit the Western clans, and he wondered at a new home for the Hobbits. It was peaceful here, for Beorn protected these lands well. Thorin believed Beorn and the Hobbits would get along rather well.

As he entered Beorn's courtyard, Thorin noticed one of Beorn's dog-servants disappear into the house. A moment later, he heard a booming voice, seconds before a head of thick brown hair ducked out of the house.

"Thorin Oakenshield! What brings you to my house?" called Beorn, his feet thudding down the stairs as he walked to meet Thorin. "Weren't you off in the mines of Moria, cutting down Orcs?"

Then his mien turned serious, eyes darkening. "Did you fight Azog?"

Thorin smiled tightly and gave a short but formal bow. "Greetings to you and your house, Beorn. I have come with good tidings: we defeated the Orc armies, and have retaken Khazad-dûm! Azog the Defiler is dead by my hand."

"Well, that promises to be a magnificent story," Beorn murmured, stepping aside and sweeping his massive arm toward his house. "Come in and let us break fast! You who look so travel worn, who must have eaten poorly before coming here! Tell me about Azog's defeat."

Thorin acquiesced, and he followed Beorn into his home, handing his cloak to one of the servants, as had become familiar to him. In short order he was shown to Beorn's table where a meal was swiftly brought out, and Thorin sighed to see all of the cheeses and honey spreads, as was Beorn's wont. But Thorin did not deny that he had not eaten a home-cooked meal in far too long, and so he ate with gusto.

As promised, though, Thorin told Beorn his story, beginning with the battle that he and his army had faced after leaving Beorn four years ago. In the middle of his long march, Thorin had realized that one of the great gates leading out of Khazad-dûm opened into a valley near the Anduin River, and he had paused after a great battle and gone to Beorn's house to plead aid. Beorn had refused to risk his servants, and he had refused to venture into the mountains themselves. Instead, Beorn had promised to guard the gate from any escaping Orcs, as well as to send on supplies as they were needed.

So Thorin told him of the battles that had followed. He told Beorn of the last battle, of Azog's fall, and of the Hobbit he had rescued. Beorn had long despised Azog, just as much as Thorin had, but all Thorin knew was that Beorn's people had suffered at Azog's hands. He saw a sharp relief in the depths of Beorn's eyes as he described Azog's fall. Beorn nodded surely when Thorin confirmed the Thain's decision to come to the Vale.

"I will look after these Hobbits! You said they are small folk?" Beorn questioned, and Thorin nodded as he swirled the ale in his mug.

"Aye, smaller than Dwarves and lighter, not inclined to warfare or violence. They are gentlefolk, and there are many of them, for they have large families and take pride in agriculture and craft. The Hobbit who protected me in the battle, Bilbo -- Bilbo Baggins -- he will come here to meet you. I hope you will welcome him," Thorin said, an edge entering his voice.

Beorn chuckled, but his dark eyes turned hard. "Of course I will welcome him! Do you doubt the spread on my table, Dwarf? Do you doubt my hospitality?"

Thorin held back a sigh of annoyance, leaning back in his chair. "I doubt none of those things, Beorn. I only offer caution. These Hobbits were hurt, and badly, by the Orcs who enslaved them. They will be wary and afraid, and they are very small compared to you. Do not frighten them, and do not offend Master Baggins. I think very highly of him," Thorin warned.

Beorn's smile disappeared completely, and he scowled at Thorin. "Offend him? I will do no such thing! These Hobbits will find every comfort under my roof and on my lands! Soon they will have no need of Dwarves at all," he taunted, and Thorin grit his teeth.

"Master Baggins and his kin will always be welcome in Erebor, and I daresay the Hobbits will receive quite a bit of aid from my kingdom. With the Gate so close to the Anduin River, it will be no surprise to anyone when trade prospers between our peoples."

"But they seek my aid first, Dwarf King, and they will not forget my kindness!"

It was all too easy for Thorin and Beorn to fall into the familiar rote of argument, having spent countless hours at the Eastern Councils following this exact pattern. Thorin almost felt relaxed as his spat with Beorn shifted from the subject of Hobbits to normal topics, such as who made better ale and who could defeat more Orcs in one swing.

"Ah! Ah! Begone with you, bothersome Dwarf! Take that basket by the door to your friends, and begone from my lands!" Beorn cried finally, and Thorin snorted, unsurprised that even in the midst of an argument, Beorn had thought to give him food for his guard. He rose and gave Beorn another bow, less stiff than before, and Beorn waved him off.

"I will see you at the next Council," Thorin said, and Beorn laughed.

"Ah, it just wasn't the same without you! Thranduil had no one to grimace at, and he was completely cowed by your fiercesome sister," chortled Beorn as he stood, and Thorin smirked as he thought of his sister, who was indeed terrifying when she put her mind to it.

"Do you have any messages for the Elvenking? I will see him next," Thorin said sourly, taking his cloak from one of the servants, and Beorn shook his head.

"Anything that must be said, will be said at the next Council. Safe travels, Thorin Oakenshield, and mind my bees when you leave," said Beorn, escorting Thorin to the edge of his courtyard.

Thorin walked ahead into the field, lifting his hand in a half-wave. His soldiers would enjoy the food Beorn had prepared, and at least the ride through Mirkwood would be free of spiders and other dark creatures. Beorn and Thranduil worked well together to keep their woods free from the evil that plagued the darker parts of the forest, and it made travel between Erebor, Thranduil's kingdom, and Beorn's house that much easier.

Once he dealt with Thranduil, Thorin would be just a few days from home, and then finally -- finally he would be with his family again. It was all that let him sleep peacefully -- the knowledge that soon he would see his brother, sister, and sister-sons once more.

Chapter Text

It was three days after the attack that Bilbo began to dream again.

The voice of his master chases him through endless caves. "Ukhurklat-izish," it echoes as he runs, clutching a sword that glows like fire but gives him no warmth. Hands drag him back into the darkness, and he whirls to confront blue, blue eyes.

"You cannot escape this fate, pain-bearer," murmurs Thorin, and no, no, Bilbo will not listen --

He will tear his own ears off if it means never hearing Thorin call him that name --

nûl-lûpûrz, naeggyl, pain-bearer, pain-bearer, pain-bearer

"No," Bilbo whimpered, but he did not wake.

The caves change to the halls of Bag-End, long and winding and stinking of mold and dust. None of the doors open to Bilbo's frantic attempts, except his father's study -- and it is empty of everything except an old green waistcoat. It is too large for Bilbo but he clutches the old cloth anyway. A hint of floral perfume draws him out of the room, and he follows a gentle laugh that he has no hope of ever hearing again.

"You cannot escape it," says Gandalf, and Bilbo finds the Wizard in his way, immovable as a mountain. He tries to push back but his feet slide, and he slips.

"Bilbo," he hears, and he pulls his hands from Bofur's coat. Bofur only looks at him sadly, mottled irises dark with grief. "You cannot escape --"

"Not you too," breathes Bilbo, and he runs away before Bofur can stop him. He sees Rory huddled by the wall, clutching Primula who does not move, his gaze accusing as Bilbo flies past. Then Otho sneers at him, and Drogo hums a song of death, head of dark curls bowed over Bilbo's sword.

"You cannot escape your fate," voices teem, all of his cousins and friends and everyone he has ever held dear --

"No no no!" whimpers Bilbo, shutting his eyes and screaming until his own voice is the only sound he hears. Then all is silent, and Bilbo floats in the loneliness.

"Bilbo," he hears, and he looks up to find two women watching him. They are beautiful, so beautiful he aches. One pale in grey with large dark eyes, one dark in green with long brown curls. The lady in grey cries as the lady in green smiles.

"Walk with us, my child," the dark lady says, and Bilbo takes her hand when it is offered. He trusts her. He knows her. She will never abandon him. She smiles at him, and he follows her into a great field of flowers. The darkness ebbs away, the colors he had not realized were muted bleeding back into the world, and Bilbo hides his face in soft green cloth when they stop to rest.

She is warm and smells of earth, of tomato vines hot under the sun, of clover crowns woven into Hobbit curls, of sunshine and freshly cut grass. She smells of the Shire in the summer. She smells of home. He cannot help but love her, and he drifts as she hums. The melody is familiar, and Bilbo is happy to listen and think of nothing at all. Everything else fades for a time.

A soft touch to his hair draws his face up, and the grey lady blinks solemnly at him.

"My pain-bearer," she murmurs, and Bilbo only looks at her, forlorn in his calm. "Olórin means you no ill-will. He is guided by far-sight and cannot wholly see the weight you carry. Forgive him," she implores softly. "He will not forsake your friendship. He, too, bears what others cannot see."

"I don't like being angry," Bilbo agrees softy, not knowing who Olórin is but knowing that she is right. She watches him somberly, and he is reminded of Thorin's intense regard. He hears a chuckle as he imagines Thorin's blue, blue eyes.

"It pleases me that you have embraced my husband's children, my child," the lady in green says, and Bilbo's cheeks turn pink. Then clouds begin to form above them, as her face twists with sadness. "What was done to my children..." The lady with her skin of earthen brown, warm and golden in the sun, bows her head in grief, shoulders shaking.

The clouds thicken and it begins to rain, tears of the world, and Bilbo cannot help but react, crawling into the lady's lap as if she is his own mother. He hugs her. She holds him tightly for a long time. Her curls, long and thick like a Hobbit's, brush Bilbo's cheeks.

"We will be happy again," Bilbo whispers, though he does not understand what he means. It is truth, though, even in this world where everything else seems to be a lie.

"Yes," the lady in green murmurs, and he feels her smile into his hair. "I believe in you, my child," and Bilbo feels a kiss against his curls. His throat tightens with heat despite himself. "The Vale will be good for you. With my husband's children."

"Thorin's people," Bilbo whispers.

"Just so."

They sit in the flowers for a time, until the sun is warm on his back and she is smiling again. He turns his head to watch the lady in grey, who has stayed silent, whose tears have not abated despite the warmth of the lady in green. She touches his chest with long, pale fingers.

"Do not fear what will come, child of mercy," she whispers, her eyes large and dark and so very sad. "You are meant to bear pain, not to succumb to it. What may be is not fated, only inevitable."

He can only nod, trusting her as he does the lady in green, despite not understanding, despite the desire to run away and forget he ever heard the word 'pain-bearer.'

"Rest now, my child," the dark lady murmurs, bowing her head over him, and her brown curls smell of grass and sunshine and the Shire. He breathes in deeply, and she laughs, her voice falling like splashes of a waterfall around him. He does not want to leave her. She is home. "We will guard you against the darkness."

He rests.

When Bilbo woke the next morning, he remembered little but knew he had dreamt of home, and of his mother. The smell of sunshine and fresh-cut grass lingered on the edge of his thoughts for the rest of the day.

~

Bilbo did his best to avoid Gandalf for the majority of the morning. He was ashamed of losing his temper at his old friend, even if the Wizard deserved it. Still, there was an odd sense of forgiveness toward Gandalf, who had given him space after the meeting with Elrond. He was still a bit upset, but more at himself than Gandalf, for losing control in front of their hosts, and for not being able to stop his anger from erupting. Gandalf was only doing what he believed was best -- despite Bilbo disagreeing about what that was.

Still, Bilbo had a question that he was too shy to ask anybody else, for only the Elves would know otherwise and many of them had been giving him strange wide-eyed looks all morning, so he was determined not to speak to them if he could help it. He had no idea what had caused the change in their behavior, and he desperately hoped it had nothing to do with losing his temper in front of Elrond. No one seemed upset with him, though, so he did his best to ignore it.

Gandalf had disappeared by the time Bilbo built up the courage to find him, and briefly Bilbo considered actually asking an Elf. But Lindir had vanished just as quickly as Gandalf, and Bilbo would eat his vest before he approached Elrond so soon after yesterday's disastrous meeting. He had no idea whom else to ask, and so it was Gandalf that Bilbo sought after lunch; however, the Wizard was playing hard to get and refused to be found.

Bilbo grumbled as yet another hallway wielded no Wizard. He may have to ask an Elf after all, but then he had seen few of them all morning as well. He wanted Gandalf to help him find the Elf who had fixed his books, and he was curious about the company's plans. Now that Drogo had woken, how long would they stay in Rivendell?

Drogo was still healing, but at least he was eating and sleeping properly. Otho had rarely left Drogo alone since his cousin had woken, and all three of them made sure that Drogo got plenty of rest in between meals. Bilbo, Rory, and Otho had separated to sleep in separate rooms yesterday, though Bilbo was reasonably certain that Otho had snuck into Drogo's room to sleep anyway.

As such, Bilbo was sleeping alone for the first time in weeks, and it felt strange to the Hobbit who had shared his space with his cousins for so long. It was nice, though, and it was even nicer to have steady, home-cooked meals every day. Bofur still complained about the general lack of meat, but Bilbo quite enjoyed each dish and had begun to gain weight again. He hoped he would gain more, if only to fill the large coat which still sagged around his body.

Now, if only he could find that dratted Wizard.

Gandalf was particularly stubborn when he wanted to be, though, and so Bilbo searched fruitlessly for close to an hour before he gave up and sulked against a large bench. See if I bother apologizing to him, Bilbo thought sullenly. Then he heard a low voice nearby, speaking in Sindarin.

"You retrieved the book, did you not?"

"Yes, but Erestor was rather stubborn about it. His mind has been distracted as of late," Bilbo heard, and he perked up.

Well, if he could not find Gandalf, at least he could speak to this Erestor, so his day would not be a total loss. He jumped off the bench and approached the voices, finding two Elves further down the hallway. "Excuse me," he said in halting Sindarin, and the two Elves turned around, their eyes widening at the sight of him. Bilbo blinked when he recognized them from yesterday. Grey eyes, and -- matching faces.

"Twins!" Bilbo squeaked, and the Elves' expressions relaxed with humor, though they still watched Bilbo closely.

"Indeed so, Master Hobbit," one of the two said. "I am Elrohir, and here stands my brother Elladan."

"Bilbo Baggins, at your service," replied Bilbo, surprised and delighted. "Are you -- are you related to Lord Elrond?" Only the Master of Rivendell had eyes so grey.

"We are his sons," Elrohir said warmly. "How can we help you, Bilbo Baggins?"

"Oh," Bilbo stuttered, his face warming as they stared at him. Most of the Elves did not look at him long, but both Elladan and Elrohir regarded him with intensity, making him shift and hide his hands in his pockets. "My apologies, but I overheard you mention Erestor. I was hoping to find him," he explained slowly, stuttering over a few words, but the twin Elves listened patiently.

"No need for apologies. Erestor is in the library, just down that hallway." Elrohir pointed, and Bilbo's heart leapt at the mention of the library. What luck he had! "He was by the battle history section when we last spoke. His robes are grey as any other Elf's in that place, but you will know him. None of the attendants carry a scowl such as his," Elrohir explained, a laugh in his voice. Beside him, Elladan's expression relaxed with a small smile.

"Thank you! I am sorry to interrupt," Bilbo offered, but Elrohir waved a hand.

"We are glad to be of service, Master Baggins. Until next we meet," the Elf said cheerfully, and Bilbo managed a smile.

"Until then, balaphadro," murmured Elladan beside him, and though Elrohir twitched at the word, neither of them lingered long enough for Bilbo to ask what the strange word meant. He stared after the twins as they walked away, trying to dissect the word for its meanings, but making no sense of what he could translate. Finally Bilbo gave it up as a mystery and followed the hallway Elrohir had pointed out, until he came to two large doors thrown open, with nothing but quiet inside.

Hesitantly, Bilbo approached the doors, and when he peeked past the ornately carved wood, all of the breath rushed out of him at the sight that met his eyes.

Books. Books on every wall, every surface, in leather-bound tomes, scrolls wrapped with ribbon, and paper sheaths of pages of knowledge he could only imagine. The room was immense and so very tall, each shelf wrought in honey-colored wood vaulting up to the ceiling. Iron-wrought staircases led to the next levels, where the shelves repeated, and every one of them was filled to the brim with books. Reading nooks settled in corners, balconies that twisted around from level to level with long couches and draping cloth, even a wall that was dedicated entirely to stacks of candles, paper, inkwells -- and Bilbo fell in love.

He began to roam, turning around to behold the library in full and laughing in delight. Never had he seen so many books in one place, not even in the library of the Old Took himself. How many books did those shelves hold? How much knowledge lay within those pages? At the top of every shelf, flowing script was written into shining metal and attached to the wood, and Bilbo realized that he had come to stand before the poetry section. Poetry! And Elrohir had mentioned battle history -- how many genres were there?

He approached a shelf and reached up to touch a book of red leather, wondering at the care put into this library. This Erestor, whom Glorfindel had implied to be master of this domain -- what love he must have for the written word. Bilbo could not wait to meet him, if only to express his admiration for this room. It would be wonderful to meet another book-lover.

Elves in long grey robes with blue trim walked quietly amongst the shelves, but Bilbo hardly noticed them, so enamored with the sight before him. Then Bilbo felt eyes on him, and he turned to see one of the Elves quickly look away from him. He glanced around, but all of the Elves seemed rather interested in their work, and none of them were scowling.

Well, if they were so busy, perhaps he could have a wander...

So Bilbo wandered, walking deeper into the library and relaxing as he inhaled the scents of paper and leather. As he explored, he eyed the many different plaques labeling the shelves, most he could not hope to understand, and determined that he needed to study Elvish better. The last few days had been a strain on his knowledge of Sindarin, which he had studied in his free time as a child, but he had rarely spoken it.

Then Bilbo's gaze landed on a plaque labeled, simply, Naugrim. Dwarves. A topic for which he definitely held a great deal of interest. He was pleased to see several titles in Westron in addition to the gentle Elvish script, as well as quite a few in the stiff cerths of Khuzdul. After a few moments of examining the titles, he pulled a few down and looked around, spotting a small table with chairs nearby a small balcony. Perfect.

~

Forty minutes later, Bilbo was lost in a treatise on the value of yellow diamonds to the Woodland Realm, curled up on a cushioned chair and oblivious the attention he was receiving from the two grey-robed Elves who lingered on the edge of his area. Their gazes were intense as they watched him, and though the other Elves in the library all glanced at him from time to time, none were so interested as these two -- save another one, who stood in the shadows from a balcony three levels up, his normally stern mien relaxed with wonder.

One touched by the Valar could not be ignored, no matter how small he made himself seem.

The shadowed Elf disappeared, only to reemerge on the same level as Bilbo, hovering just out of sight as he watched the small Hobbit enjoy the fruits of his pride and joy. His dark gaze wandered to the pile of books Bilbo had chosen. Dwarves -- not a surprise, considering the book he had caught the Hobbit reading a few days ago, as well as his actions in the recent war within the Misty Mountains. He noticed two of the library attendants pretending to look busy nearby, and he hid a smile, knowing that they saw what he saw. They all noticed the light of the Valar in one who should not carry such a gift -- yet Bilbo Baggins shown as brightly as any Elf of the ages of old.

Such brightness -- and such darkness, too, but the Elf was less concerned with that than he was with the gentle fondness in the Hobbit's touch, as he stroked a finger down the page of his current read. When he had first seen the Hobbit with his worn and dirty book, he had been appalled, believing the Hobbit to be an offender of books everywhere -- but then he had seen the care with which the Hobbit had handled the book, and he had suspected the damage was not the fault of its owner. It was all too easy to exchange the book while the Hobbit was distracted with an unabridged copy, which gave the Elf two opportunities: to see what the Hobbit thought of historical accuracy, and so that he could understand what had damaged the poor book.

Fire, and time away from the shelter of a shelf -- so he had carefully cleaned the pages and laid it in new leather. It was a trifle, with the book as small as it was -- made with a Hobbit in mind, and lacking prominent details that would have filled more pages. He had wondered if the Hobbit had any other books in a similar state, but it was not his place to ask. Certain acquaintances of his would argue that it was not his place to fix the book, either, but he could not walk by a damaged book and ignore it.

Nor could he walk by this Hobbit and ignore him, either. He was far too interesting.

The two attendants noticed his presence then and hurried away to busy themselves. The Elf allowed them to escape his wrath, knowing they could not help their reactions. He turned his attention back to the Hobbit and studied his small collection of books, then made a decision and disappeared down another row of shelves.

When he returned, he was somewhat dismayed to find the Hobbit gone, but then he saw the small head of curly hair moving by the shelves that dealt with Thranduil's realm. He glanced at the open book on the table, running through the titles he kept in his library, then left the small stack of books he had gathered on the table and turned to leave.

"Oh!" he heard, and he turned to see Bilbo coming around the shelf with another stack of books. "I'm sorry, I didn't realize anyone was over here," the Hobbit murmured as his eyes rose to meet the Elf's -- and then he straightened in surprise, his eyes widening. "Ah! It's you!" he exclaimed, nearly dropping his books.

Erestor, chief counselor and unofficial librarian of the House of Elrond, sighed as he was caught by the Hobbit he had been avoiding for several days now. It was his own fault, truly, for being so drawn to Bilbo. It was so rare to meet someone who might care for books as he did -- and there were many reasons more to be fascinated by this tiny person.

"You! You!" Bilbo cried, setting his books down and throwing his hands up. "You're the one who took my book! You're the one who fixed my book! Oh, I've been searching everywhere for you!"

Erestor noticed that even with the hint of a scowl on his face and the quickness of his irritation, the Hobbit was very gentle with the books as he set them down. His hands were very small, the fingers much shorter than an Elf's in comparison to his palm, but they held the books gently. He noticed calluses from holding a pen regularly, as well as other small scars. Bilbo's nails were clean, though, for all that he must have had a hard life, with his writer's hands and scars of untold history. Here was a Hobbit who took care with his appearance.

"I have not been hiding, if that is your implication," he responded mildly, knowing full well that he had been doing his best to stay out of the Hobbit's way, and Bilbo's eyes narrowed.

"Have you not? Because I saw you yesterday, and as soon as I tried to look for you, you were gone!" Bilbo retorted.

"Am I not to walk about my own home with leisure?" Erestor replied.

"It isn't leisure when you are avoiding someone," Bilbo answered quickly, and then he turned a becoming pink color and ducked his head. Erestor stared; he was delighted by him.

"I meant no offense, master Hobbit," Erestor said after a moment. "You were otherwise engaged, and I had duties... and, I suppose, I did not wish to share words with you at that time, surrounded by too many curious gazes."

Bilbo eyed him warily, but after a moment he nodded and crossed his arms. "You know, you are the only Elf here who calls me a Hobbit. Everyone else uses the term Halfling, which is rather rude. We're not half of anything -- we are perfectly whole as we are!"

Erestor made a thoughtful noise, his thoughts shifting to the members of his race who were less than respectful of other races' histories. "I am fully aware of your identity as a Hobbit, and of the Hobbits' predeliction for names. Others are... not as considerate," he admitted, and Bilbo huffed a small sigh.

"Thank you," he said after a few seconds of staring at Erestor, nodding once more. "Now, if you didn't want to be found, why have you sought me now?" His gaze dropped briefly to the stack of books Erestor had left on the table, narrowing as his attention returned to Erestor. "I have the suspicion that you are the Elf I was told to seek," Bilbo said slowly.

Erestor's mouth twitched before he smoothed his expression. "Oh?" he inquired blandly, straightening with a glint in his eyes.

"Indeed so," said Bilbo, and then he hesitated, his cheeks growing pink as his fingers danced over the book in front of him. "Are you Erestor?"

Erestor waited a moment, watching the Hobbit's face grow pinker with uncertainty, and then gave a small bow. "I am Erestor, chief counselor of this house, and you are the guest of my Lord Elrond, Bilbo Baggins. Now we are well met, master Hobbit."

"Well met?" cried Bilbo, his small face darkening with the promise of a scowl. "I have been looking everywhere for you, ever since you took my book! Though I am very grateful for your gift and have no wish to offend you, I would very much like to know why you did what you did!"

Erestor glanced back, noticing a few of the attendants watching them, and a faint scowl sent them scurrying away. Then he walked to the edge of the balcony, and after a moment, Bilbo followed him, small features still twisted in a scowl. Erestor clasped his hands behind his back and looked down at Bilbo.

"I took your book and restored it, master Hobbit, because seeing a book in any state of disrepair offends my sensibilities, and having seen your care with the book, I chose to believe that like me, you would rather protect your books than treat them ill," he said quietly, and Bilbo stared at him with wide eyes, his cheeks turning pink again, so much that his large ears began to turn red.

"You came to this house because you needed healing, while you and your kin were on a journey away from the Shire that has always been your home. I can only imagine that the state of your book and other belongings is due to the same reason that you have left what is known and familiar behind. You do not seem the type of person to inflict destruction upon your belongings... and so I felt the need to inspect the damage and attempt to repair it. It was a small token, and I am glad you appreciate it."

"I -- that is --" the Hobbit stuttered, and Erestor waited patiently. Then Bilbo took a deep breath to steady himself and gave Erestor a small smile, the scowl in his brow fading. "I do appreciate what you did. And you are quite correct. During Shirefall, my home was..." Bilbo's expression darkened, but the light in his brow did not dim. "Part of it burned. My father's study, which held most of our books, was destroyed, and my room was torn apart... but some of my books survived. Everything that I own is either in my guest room, or strapped to the cart housed in Lord Elrond's stables. My books included, though they are in a sorry state," Bilbo finished quietly, a sad smile touching his face.

Erestor's interest was immediately piqued. "You have other books with you? Similarly damaged?"

Bilbo's eyes widened. "Well -- yes, what I could fit into my bags. I couldn't leave them behind, could I?"

"Then you must bring them to me when you next visit the library. I will inspect them, and if they can be repaired, I will be glad to handle them," Erestor said decisively, and he enjoyed the way Bilbo turned pink again.

"I couldn't ask that of you! Perhaps if you taught me how you did it," Bilbo tried, but Erestor shook his head.

"I must insist, Mister Baggins. If you would like to assist, then perhaps we could repair them together, but I would like to assess them first. I have a long history of experience in restoring books of dubious states," Erestor said firmly. He watched as Bilbo floundered for a response, the Hobbit's embarrassment outweighing his need to be as of little trouble as possible.

Finally Bilbo sighed and nodded, giving Erestor a shy smile. "Only if you call me Bilbo," he offered, and unexpectedly, something in Erestor's chest warmed.

"If you would call me Erestor in return, it would be my pleasure," he said quietly. Bilbo's smile widened.

After a few moments of content silence, Bilbo spoke again, looking back into the grand library that was Erestor's favorite place. "You have a beautiful library," he said with admiration, wonder in his voice.

Erestor followed his gaze, a smile touching his mouth. "I thank you for the compliment, though it is Lord Elrond's library, first and foremost. I merely keep it for him."

Bilbo's mouth twisted with a faintly ironic smile, catching Erestor's interest. "I suppose that is why Glorfindel called you the librarian," he said. Erestor's expression smoothed, a faint curl of irritation rising in his thoughts, but he ignored the name and nodded.

"Some might refer to me as such, but my title is chief counselor. It just so happens that I enjoy books of all sorts, and my Lord Elrond has a similar devotion to knowledge. He does not mind my adherence to historical accuracy, either," Erestor explained, and Bilbo looked up at him curiously.

"You don't hate Dwarves nearly as much as the others, do you?"

Erestor stiffened, and Bilbo's mouth twitched into another smile, as if he understood something intimate about Erestor. "I simply wish to be true to history as it happened, not only history as my people see it. Personal views are irrelevant."

"A mark of a good librarian," Bilbo said seriously, and when Erestor looked down at him, he saw a twinkle in the Hobbit's eyes. "My mother would have enjoyed it here. Your sorting system alone would have entertained her for hours," Bilbo sighed, a faraway look entering his gaze.

Erestor watched him, but Bilbo said nothing more on that subject, instead walking back to his table to pick up the book he was reading. "I also am interested in your references. Did you write these books? Is that why I could easily find them?" Bilbo asked.

"I did write a majority of the books in these rooms. With the library already sorted, it was a simple task to mark further reading in the books I edited and wrote. As for the ease of access, well, not every person who enters these rooms finds my sorting system easy," Erestor said after a moment. He watched Bilbo's fingers stroke the inked lines on the page. The look of fascination softened the worn edges of the Hobbit's expression, made him look younger -- and how this Hobbit who could only be a few years into his adulthood could look aged, Erestor did not understand.

"It's lovely," Bilbo said quietly, and Erestor gave him a small smile. "I found your sorting system rather sensible. Perhaps our minds share some likeness in thought."

"Thank you. Are you enjoying your research, then?" Erestor asked, glancing at the book again, and Bilbo nodded, his mien brightening again.

"Oh, yes! You have so many books that the Old Took, my grandfather, could never even imagine! Like that copy you left with me, about the Battle of Dagorlad? That is part of a series, is it not? What a collection you have here! At first I meant to look up information about Thorin's ancestor Durin IV, and then I wondered about Oropher and his activities, and then I found a treatise on the export of yellow diamonds to Mirkwood, and -- there is so much to read! It's wonderful," Bilbo sighed, and Erestor had to hide a smile again. His suspicion was correct; Bilbo Baggins loved books just as he did.

"You are welcome to read anything you like in these rooms," Erestor said, and Bilbo stilled suddenly, his eyes going very wide. "I would only ask that you return the books to where you found them, and that you write down any books you take back to your rooms in the ledger by the door. I would also be happy to answer any questions about your research, if you like," Erestor offered.

For a few moments, Bilbo did nothing but stare at him, to the point that Erestor could not stop himself from twitching. Then Bilbo ducked his head, and Erestor was faintly alarmed to see the Hobbit's small expression twisting as if with tears. "Are you --?"

"I'm fine," Bilbo said quickly, but his voice trembled slightly, and Erestor had to look away, to give Bilbo some space. Then Bilbo cleared his throat and said more clearly, "I very much appreciate this, Erestor. Thank you."

Erestor looked back at Bilbo, who smiled up at him with the light of the Valar on his brow and such strength in his gaze, for all that he carried scars of untold history and had lost half his life to the destruction of Orcs. Erestor felt his old heart melt a little to see that smile, and he returned it with a small one of his own. Here was a person with whom he could get along quite well, and he looked forward to Bilbo's reactions to his library, to the books on his table, and to the conversations they would surely have in the future.

"It is my pleasure, Bilbo."

~

A while later, Erestor sat on another balcony, writing in a half-empty book, though his pen strokes were languid and his dark gaze distracted. He had left Bilbo to enjoy his books, to many more expressions of gratitude and soft smiles, which pleased Erestor for reasons he could not explain. What was it about this Hobbit that attracted him so?

He was so lost in his thoughts that he did not notice he had company until broad hands slid over his shoulders and squeezed, and he startled and leaned back into warmth. "Elrond's guest is downstairs," was murmured into his ear in his native tongue, and Erestor twitched.

"I'm aware," he said stiffly in the same language, pulling away from his captor and closing his book, turning around to frown at his visitor.

Glorfindel smiled lazily at him, and Erestor debated his mood concerning the other Elf. Lately they had been on the edge of flirtation, but the very idea of Glorfindel turning his wicked wit on tiny Bilbo rankled Erestor.

"You haven't teased him, have you?" he asked suspiciously, and Glorfindel raised his eyebrows in question.

"When would I have had the chance? Why, does that worry you, my dear librarian?" Glorfindel asked, his sharp gaze catching Erestor's eyes, and the dark-haired Elf gave a short sigh.

"It is not a worry. I like him, Glorfindel, and if you offend him, I will have words with you," he said, turning back to his book with a small huff. After a moment of pointed silence, he felt the other end of the couch dip with Glorfindel's weight, and he looked up to see pale eyes watching him intently.

"What?" Erestor said irritably.

"Nothing," said Glorfindel mildly, still watching him closely. "You like this Halfling."

"Hobbit," Erestor snapped, not for the first time, and Glorfindel held up a hand.

"Hobbit, then. You like him?"

"He enjoys books as I do," Erestor explained shortly, and Glorfindel's mien softened with a smile.

"Ahhh, so that is why," the taller Elf said to himself. "Do not worry, my dear, for I will not tease him. Elrond likes him as well."

That bit of information made Erestor relax, and he watched Glorfindel with a half-lidded gaze. Glorfindel met his look with a sharp smile. "It would please me if you promised such," Erestor said quietly, and Glorfindel gave an elegant shrug.

"I will not bother the Hobbit. Did you know -- he has only been here a few days, and already he has two nicknames?"

Erestor shot him a look, his lips twitching downward. "Naeggyl," he murmured, thinking of the scars on Bilbo's hands and the way he held himself tightly.

Glorfindel nodded, shining hair falling over his shoulder. "Yes, and another: balaphadro. Curious, don't you think? For one such as he, to shoulder so much torment," Glorfindel said quietly, and Erestor shot him a bewildered look.

"One who follows the path of the Valar," he whispered, then nodded. If others saw what he saw, that brightness that shone in a being that would otherwise never know such light, then he agreed with the name. Not that he would ever say it to Bilbo's face -- he was happy with the honor of using Bilbo's given name. "How many have noticed?"

Glorfindel made a small noise, reclining back on his end of the couch and looking up at the sky. "Many have noticed, but the younger ones less so. Elrond was bewildered by the change in your Hobbit, as he did not shine so brightly yesterday. Perhaps he had a telling dream?" Glorfindel wondered, and Erestor followed his gaze to the clouds. They would likely never know what caused such light in Bilbo, and there was no reason to ask him, as the Hobbit would not understand.

"What do you know of his pain?" Erestor asked after a moment, and Glorfindel met his gaze, his usual jeer fading.

"He told his story to Elrond, and I was there to hear it. I will not repeat his tale, though I suggested that he write it down, and that he seek you for advice," Glorfindel said quietly, and Erestor was pleased that Glorfindel had set aside their usual differences for the Hobbit he wished to help.

"That is why you will not tease him, hm?" Erestor said slyly, and he enjoyed the way Glorfindel glared at him in response.

~

Later, when Bilbo had finished reading about Oropher's death and the strained relations between Mirkwood and Erebor, he took care to tidy his area and return his oddly large pile of books to their proper places -- only to be surprised when a grey-robed attendant appeared from nowhere and took the books from him, murmuring that she would take care of it. Bilbo could only thank her in bewilderment, watching as she glided serenely away.

Elves were an odd sort, but he liked them anyway, for the most part. Erestor especially, and wasn't it a joy to have met a fellow book-lover? Bilbo could tell that he and Erestor would get along very well, and he hoped that he would be able to sneak away to the library often.

He glanced out to the sky and noticed that it was only mid-afternoon, and he smiled to himself. A little more time for some reading, then. That poetry section he had seen earlier sounded promising, so Bilbo went off to search through the shelves, finally pulling a small tome that simply said Stone. He would be sure not to tell Bofur how drawn he was to the topic of Dwarves; it wouldn't do to inflate his friend's pride.

When he returned to his small niche, he was surprised to find a tray next to the few books he had decided to keep to read later, steam rising from the spout of a delicate pot. There was a bowl of fruit and a tray of sandwiches, perhaps too many for an Elf but a perfectly reasonable amount for a Hobbit. Bilbo looked around in confusion, but he saw none of the library attendants nearby. He wondered if it was Erestor, or perhaps the Elf from before. He touched the handle of the pot -- carved leaves painted gold -- and leaned down to breathe in the aroma.

Elvish tea -- how long had he wanted to taste such a treat?

He would leave a note when he left, to thank whomever gifted him this treat.

With that thought he settled into his comfortable chair again, which was quite large but suited him well with its plush cushions, and began to read Dwarven poetry.

Three dwarves came 'round my house today
And each of them held a different tool.
The first, his hammer heavy and strong,
Pounded at my loom hard and long.
The second brought a chisel fine;
He stroked and prodded my loom to shine.
The third, he hefted a massive staff;
Then he rutted me so well I laughed.
Three dwarves came 'round my house today
And each of them fixed my broken loom.

Bilbo stared down at the page before him, stunned at what he had just read. Had he really chosen a book of romantic poetry? He flipped further into the book, his face slowly heating up as he found more lines than he could believe about Dwarvish romance -- the pounding hammer? Really? He breathed in carefully and tried not to laugh, while aware that his cheeks were rather hot.

The king's known well for his skill,
In pick and sword and his quill,
And in the forge he is renowned
For inspiration herself he crowned.
But night comes on and his wife he beds,
As she hems and haws and puts off with dread,
Til at last she all but stammers,
"Tonight you be the anvil and I'll be the hammer."

A low noise from one of the balconies above him dragged him out of the book, and Bilbo realized that he was reading something very intimate in a rather public place. Quickly he closed the book and pushed it away, cheeks flaming. Then he felt affronted by his own reaction; surely at his age it was fine to read something of that nature? Even if it had to do with sex, it was not as if he was unaware of it, all things considered. Not to mention his experience in his youth!

Then his thoughts stuttered, and he stared at the book in shock. Had he really just thought about sex? And unrelated to him? Bilbo was distracted enough that he sat still for quite some time, noticing nothing around him. At some point he poured himself a cup of tea and sipped the aromatic drink, still warm but no longer steaming. Then he busied himself with the sandwiches after his stomach growled, all the while wondering what his life might have been like if Orcs had never dragged him into Azog's caves.

Eight years ago, he had shared a kiss with Holman Greenhand, his neighbor and the son of his parents' gardener. A kiss that had made his heart flutter with hope, moreso than secret kisses with Daisy Bunce or a spur-of-the-moment dance with Tomas Grubb. He had flirted with Holman for ages before that, often joining him in the garden to tend the herbs and letting their hands brush together often, or teasing him about the dirt on his nose and making motions to wipe it off himself. If Shirefall had not happened -- would he and Holman be together? Would they settle into comfortable bachelorhood as neighbors, one family in everything but in name?

He had met Holman again after his return to the Shire, but Holman had changed. He had not been a slave, but he had lost family to Shirefall, had lost Bilbo, and there was no hope of ever rekindling the sweet romance they had shared. There was no possibility of considering it, not with the way Bilbo had felt after spending years as Azog's pet. Still he believed he could not be in a relationship proper... but perhaps it would be alright to acknowledge those old feelings again. If the heat in his cheeks and the uncomfortable twinge in his lower stomach were any indication, Bilbo was perfectly capable of feeling it.

He was simply unsure if he could ever want it.

When Bilbo finished the sandwiches and tea, he pulled the bowl of fruit closer and picked up the book of poetry again. He read for some time, slowly eating the fruit off his fingers and listening carefully for any steps nearing his little corner. But no one came back to visit him, and he only heard soft sounds on the wind; nothing that would indicate anyone was nearby.

Heart of Stone
The lads chipped away in Khazad-dum
And chipped away her heart of stone,
For lover's touch their lady wept
And lover's touch all denied.

A lover's touch their lady cried,
Until one miner began anew
Chipped away her heart of stone
And plundered her depths of gold.

Once more her miner began anew,
A lass fairer than mithril's shine.
She plundered into depths of gold
And won heart sweet of her lady's stone.

The lads chipped away in Khazad-dûm,
Dreamed of caverns deep none would know,
For the lass fairer than mithril's shine
Delved all her days in her lady's time.

At one point, Bilbo had to hide his face at how detailed some of these poems were. Yet some of them made him ache in a way he did not dare to examine, and they spoke of love that Bilbo had only dreamed of in his youth. Some of them even told of love between those of the same gender, and those poems he noted for later, wanting to dissect them for their symbolism and implications.

His Other Half
He set his heart to stone and waited 'neath silvered leaves
For the one to break the stone to clay.
His one, his only, his perfect match --
And so he waited and wandered, waited and roamed
Then met his match in the shadows of day.
They danced, they sang, they rejoiced all night
Till dawn broke 'part their sweet embrace;
Lips to lips, beards entwined,
Shaft to shaft, they loved each other evermore.
Two halfs now whole, unbroken 'neath silvered leaves.

When Bilbo came out of his reverie, he noticed that the sun was beginning to set. The boys must be wondering where he was, and it would be dinner soon. After a moment of consideration, he added the book of poetry to his pile. Then he fetched some paper and a pen, and he wrote a small note beside the emptied tray, and after that, he added the list of books he was borrowing to the ledger Erestor had mentioned.

Then he picked up his books and left the library, holding the books close to his chest and trying not to feel like an illicit teenager. He walked until he found himself in their guest hall, and he paused at Drogo's doorway and listened. He heard laughter and cheerful voices, and he smiled to himself, glad that his cousins were enjoying themselves.

"There you are!" came a voice that was much too close for Bilbo's nerves, and he jumped and turned to find Bofur behind him. At the sight of his Dwarven friend, he was immediately reminded of the book hidden in his stack, and he blushed immediately.

"B-Bofur! Um, good evening," he stammered, and Bofur gave him an odd look.

"Alright there, Bilbo?" the Dwarf asked, and Bilbo nodded quickly.

"Oh, yes, fine," he reassured his friend, clearing his throat and willing his blush away. "I'm sorry for being gone so long -- I found the library, and it was... distracting."

Bofur's expression cleared with understanding; he had long known about Bilbo's love for books. "I understand, though I'm sure no Elf library can compare to Erebor's. Say, did you meet Gandalf? He was here earlier."

Bilbo shook his head. "I haven't seen him all day, actually. Did he say something?"

Bofur made a disgruntled noise. "Well, I asked him when we were going to leave, and he said he didn't know! Said he had important things to discuss with the Elf Lord, and that with Drogo healing it might be a while yet. So, since our Wizard is being recalcitrant and difficult, I figure that you, me, and the boys can spend the time working on that training I promised all of you," Bofur said with a nod, and Bilbo could only stare at him.

"Training? Oh, with my axe and sword, and fighting? But Bofur," he hesitated, and Bofur gave him a sidelong look that was far too understanding for Bilbo's comfort.

"I know, you think of them as just boys, but every Dwarf learns to fight at a young age, boy or girl, and in this world -- your cousins need to know as much as possible. I'll just teach them the basics, Bilbo, don't worry," he said, keeping his voice low, and Bilbo remembered that they were standing just outside Drogo's room.

Bilbo glanced into the room, seeing Drogo sitting with his back to the door, entertaining Otho and Rory with a story. He thought of that horrifying moment when that Orc grabbed his cousin, and he shivered, forgetting about the books tucked against his chest and his lovely afternoon. He could only see Drogo falling.

"Alright," he said finally, quietly, and Bofur reached up to clasp his shoulder. "But if it gets out of hand, you'll let me stop it, won't you?" Bilbo implored, and Bofur nodded.

"'Course, Bilbo, you know I'll put everyone's safety first. Now, how about we go find some dinner?" Bofur said, squeezing Bilbo's shoulder, his warmth steady and solid against Bilbo's side, and inexplicably, his face heated up again.

"Yes, dinner sounds good," he said quickly, ducking under Bofur's arm and going to his room to hide the books away. Now if he could only get through this meal without thinking about those poems!

~

This was not a dream of his childhood. This was not a dream of moments long forgotten, stolen behind apple trees, under the shade of myrtle, in the back of his uncle's barn. This was not a dream of fumbling beneath the covers after his parents had gone to bed, gasping into his pillow as he tried to reach into that sensation again --

This was a dream of heat, of promises beneath kisses that ignited his skin, of hands that dragged fingertips over his sides and murmured love into his ear. Of weight in his stomach, burning through his hands as he grasped onto warm skin soft and unscarred, while a voice murmured into his ear --

more --

Bilbo stretched beneath the covers with a groan, coming awake as heat pulsed through him. He opened his eyes and stared dazedly up at the ceiling, wondering why he was awake. A bad dream, perhaps? He shifted against the covers, feeling far too warm. At least his cousins were in the other room; he did not want to wake them with his dreams.

He pushed the covers aside and sat up, and that was when Bilbo became aware of the change in his body, the heat pooled at his center, and he groaned as the cloth in his lap shifted. Confused, he looked down and stared, his mind suddenly very alert.

Oh. Oh.

Bilbo immediately felt his face heat up, and he glanced around the room quickly, but there was no one to see his aroused state. Hesitantly he curled up against the pillows again, laying his hand on his thigh and staring into the darkness. A visage came into his mind -- heat so powerful it burned his tongue -- and he shuddered. When had he last felt like this? When had he last woken in such a state? Not in far too long.

Of course, he had woken many times in a somewhat similar state, ever since he returned to the Shire, but never like this. Never with heat searing in his veins. Only a natural reaction, that every male Hobbit faced in the morning. Not like this.

He had not felt like this since he had pulled Holman Greenhand behind a shed and kissed him, just a week before Shirefall.

Would it be okay to...? He was a grown Hobbit after all. Nobody was watching. And he remembered his dream, and memories long before that, of what it felt like to touch himself like that. He thought of the poetry he had read before falling asleep, and his face flushed brightly, heat spreading through his entire body.

After another moment, and many more glances at the door, Bilbo slipped his hand into his trousers, and he shuddered. Oh, how could he have forgotten this? Then for a time, he did not think of much at all.

Afterwards he lay still, staring up at the ceiling as he caught his breath. After him -- and in his state, Bilbo could not even think the name -- he had given up all hope of feeling like this ever again. Wonder and hope filled his chest, and he turned into his pillow to hide the laughter that bubbled from his throat. He was okay. He was normal.

Not that he could tell anyone about this, because Bagginses were proper no matter how long they had gone without a fumble in the sheets, but it made Bilbo very happy with himself.

He fell asleep with a smile, and his slumber was deep and easy until morning.

Chapter Text

Twilight fell upon the valley, casting shadows across the pathways of Elrond's home. Elves with lanterns walked about, lighting lamps and brightening the darkened halls. On the northern side of Rivendell, there was a small garden surrounded by tall trees with high lanterns, but none were lit, as tonight the garden was nearly empty -- save for one figure who sat at the foot of a great tree. He was missing his characteristic pointed hat and staff, and his grey robes were, for once, open to show the white underneath. He was Gandalf, and he was brooding.

Balaphadro.

The Wizard contemplated the young Hobbit whom he had brought to this place. He had watched Bilbo from a young age, interested in the child that had changed the wild and wandering Belladonna Took into a mother and wife. Such a sweet child -- and such a jaded adult, after such horrors at so young an age. His wish had been to heal Bilbo with Rivendell, with its serene halls and natural beauty, and already, after ten days with the Elves, he could see that Bilbo was greatly affected by Elrond's home.

Bilbo smiled more. He laughed more. He ate to fullness and enjoyed everything given to him, and there was no doubt that he spent more hours in the library than Gandalf cared to count. He slept better, which was a relief to Gandalf, who had worried over the dark circles under Bilbo's eyes for weeks now. Gandalf had seen him in the company of Erestor several times now, talking about whatever book sat between them, while brightening the stoic Elf's normally placid expression.

Bilbo was a little less shy after making friends with Erestor, and he responded to the wonder the other Elves showed, engaging in light conversation when before he could not meet the Elves' eyes. It was obvious that Bilbo was healing, despite the darkness in his gaze and the anger simmering beneath his calm expression. Gandalf had not forgotten Bilbo losing his temper in the meeting over a week ago. It worried him, more than anything else.

The other Hobbits, too, could be seen smiling with newfound joy, running about Rivendell with a fascination Gandalf only saw in the young these days, both in relief for their cousin's smile, and in their own healing. Bofur, in contrast to how he had behaved upon first arriving, had relaxed and taken to training the boys in defensive combat. A good idea, and at least it distracted the Dwarf, who attempted to bother Gandalf at least once a day about leaving Rivendell. Gandalf always felt exasperation at the racist hatred between Dwarves and Elves -- but who could blame either race, when the two had such history? At least Bofur was not as cold about it as Thorin, though the Wizard suspected that Bofur hid a great deal of his thoughts from the others, and especially from Gandalf himself.

Rorimac's eyes were no longer so haunted, no longer so dark with rage and emotions that he never expressed in front of Gandalf, but which the Wizard knew he possessed anyway. The young Brandybuck had taken to chatting with the various Elves of Rivendell when he was not with his cousins or sneaking into the kitchens. The lessons with Bofur had done well to take the edge off his hard anger, and the boy showed delight every time Bilbo laughed or spoke out during a meal.

Drogo, poor Drogo whose wound was all but a memory, gave Gandalf a moment's worry. Drogo, who had been so furious after Shirefall, who had guarded his cousins' vulnerable moments with fierceness, who was the first person to go to any of his cousins' sides after one woke from a nightmare, was now solemn when he was not cheered by his cousins. Gandalf suspected that the Baggins boy felt guilty for his injury and helpless at his own weakness, especially since Bofur would not yet allow him to take part in his more rigorous lessons. Bilbo had once expressed dismay to him over the anger in Drogo and Otho, who had lost their entire families to Shirefall. Gandalf hoped that it was only the anger of youth, and that it would fade as Drogo grew older.

Otho, the youngest, who had walked about with such scowls and worried expressions, who had been a truly awful boy in his youth, was calmer in the halls of Rivendell, the worry for his cousins fading to curiosity. He had even showed very un-Baggins-like tendencies, such as following Bilbo into the library, which delighted the older Hobbit to no end. Late in the evenings, Gandalf could hear Otho and Drogo reading to each other from the books Otho would borrow from the library, in some truly alarming subjects: battle tactics, defensive techniques, and worst of all, Orc weaknesses and habits. He did not stop the two young Hobbits, though, as the knowledge would be good preparation for them, particularly on a journey so dangerous.

But still, Gandalf brooded, concerned for the young Hobbit at the center of the company. He had not forgotten Nienna's request. He fretted and contemplated and worried, always searching for a way to draw his young friend out of his fate -- while pushing him ever toward that inevitable future.

Touched by the Valar.

He had seen so many succumb to darkness, to fear, to the evil that tainted the land, yet Hobbits amazed him time and again with their resilience and strength. Bilbo Baggins was no different -- he was just like his mother, really. Stubborn and fearless, and still afraid for all those he held dear.

Pain-bearer.

Gandalf feared for him, and perhaps even feared him a little bit. Why had Nienna chosen Bilbo Baggins? What gifts lay beneath that dark gaze, that judged the Wizard for his silence, for his manipulations which were only for the good of others, that seemed to know when Gandalf had done nothing to give himself away? What would Bilbo become in the future? How would those dark years change him? Gandalf could not see a future that was not stark with despair.

"What draws your gaze eastward, Mithrandir?" called a familiar voice in Sindarin, and Gandalf turned to see Elrond approaching. He smiled at his old friend and patted the spot beside him.

"Merely concerns, old friend." For a moment, Gandalf was silent, gathering thoughts between bushy brows, and Elrond took the proffered seat, waiting patiently for the Wizard to speak.

"We must reconvene the Council," Gandalf said slowly, "but not as it was. The Lady Galadriel, of course --"

"But not Saruman," Elrond finished, and Gandalf made a perturbed noise. "So you have told me. This disturbs me, Gandalf, for I do not relish the idea of excluding one who has stood at our side for ages past. Yet... I cannot see into Saruman's realm. I cannot see his paths. If what you saw was true..."

Gandalf straightened with a faint scowl, old knowledge darkening his gaze. Shifting made the white of his robes flash in the dim light. "There is no denying what was told to me by my Lord and Lady. I saw such terrible catastrophes, Elrond, and all of it from the rise of evil... from Saruman's betrayal, yes, and from darkness that grows in the corners of the world. What happened to the Hobbits of the Shire was only the beginning. If we do not gather our allies and take out the darkness before it spreads, then I fear all will be lost."

Elrond frowned into the dark serenity of the valley, grey eyes laden with deep thoughts. "Then we will do what we must," he said slowly. "What of Saruman?"

"He must be stopped," Gandalf intoned. "After I deliver Bilbo and his family to the Vale, I will investigate Dol Guldur once more, and then I will go to Isengard myself. Saruman is my kin, and... it is my duty to handle him." He could not hide the sadness in his voice, and Elrond reached up to touch his shoulder.

"If you have need of me, I will come, Mithrandir," his friend said quietly, and they shared a small smile.

They sat together for a time, listening to the muted sounds of the dinner hall on the other side of the house. Music drifted to them on the wind, until at last Elrond stood and offered Gandalf his hand. Gandalf helped himself up, pulling his grey robes shut again, and together they walked back into the house.

"You are planning to leave soon, aren't you?" Elrond mused, and Gandalf huffed a small breath.

"In a few days' time, yes. I hope we have not been a bother," he said, and Elrond shook his head.

"Mister Baggins and his family have been a delight, and even that curious Dwarf has not been a terror as Lindir worried. You always collect such interesting company, Mithrandir," Elrond murmured, his solemn mien softening with a smile. "Mister Baggins in particular..."

"What do you think of him?" Gandalf asked lightly.

Elrond was silent for a time, and the two stopped at the edge of a long hallway, looking ahead together to the dining hall, which was lively with music and chatter. Beyond the open doors, Gandalf could see Bilbo laughing with Bofur and Rorimac. "I have not met many Hobbits in my life, but what I know of them... it is just as I see in that room. They have a love of life that would surprise even some of my kin who have watched this world from its youth. Bilbo Baggins and his kin suffered such hardship, and still they laugh, still they smile with joy and hope. I have never known an Elf, who was a victim of torment at the hands of Orcs, to heal so swiftly or so completely. It is a wonder to behold them, even if it leaves me with a great sadness, that they suffered as my Celebrían did. I admire your young friend, Mithrandir, and I hope to call him friend myself, one day."

A slow smile touched Gandalf's face, and his eyes twinkled as he looked over at Elrond. "You should tell him that. I think he quite admires you as well," he said with a teasing lilt. Elrond shot him a look, shaking his head with a small smile.

"I have noticed his attention. If he should seek me out before you leave, then I will not deny him," Elrond promised. A moment passed, and Elrond's shining features twisted slightly in worry. "Mithrandir... did you ever find Iarwain Ben-adar? I have heard nothing of him, these years past."

Gandalf slowly shook his head, his expression saddening again. "No, I saw nothing of him in the Old Forest, which had taken such damage during the Orcs' attack. But he is wise, and I think nothing has felled him. I suspect he has hidden himself away, perhaps to nurture the earth there."

"Hm. When I send aid to the Shire next, I shall have someone look for him," Elrond mused, and the two continued on to dinner, more relaxed now despite the worries looming in the back of their minds.

~

"Hit me harder, Otho! This isn't a rumble with the boys down the street! Hit me like I cussed your cousin out!"

"I'm hitting as hard as I can, Bofur! Ow!"

Bilbo lifted his head from inspecting the darkening bruise on his shin, exasperation sending his eyes rolling. While Bofur's taunts to his cousins were admittedly amusing at times, Otho's expression every time Bofur egged him on was shifting from mulish dismay to pure fury. His own pride was wounded enough that he hoped one of the boys would succeed in knocking Bofur down.

Not that Bilbo did not appreciate Bofur teaching them to fight -- quite the opposite. His aching back and bruised shin left him cranky, though, and he openly smirked when Rory and Otho rushed Bofur together and managed to push him a few feet back. They did not keep the Dwarf busy for long, as he easily tossed them onto the grass. The two Hobbit lads were up again quickly, while Drogo shouted suggestions and cheered from several feet away.

At the moment, Bofur was teaching Otho, Drogo, and Rory how to take down a stronger opponent, using one of the smaller courtyards as a training ground. He had demonstrated first with Bilbo, who had managed to knock him down by tripping him (much to the displeasure of his knees and poor shin). The boys were not as sure in their abilities as Bilbo was, nor had they refined their speed or agility, so they were having a tougher time of it.

Bilbo suspected that Bofur had gone easy on him. One flinch from Bilbo when Bofur had grabbed his waist was apparently enough to make the Dwarf turn gentle. It greatly bothered Bilbo, who felt Bofur was not taking him seriously. He had outwitted and escaped Orcs far bigger than Bofur -- he was not a weakling! Though Bofur was rather strong, which Bilbo thought was because he was a Dwarf.

Bilbo was amazed at the strength and power of a Dwarf body. Hobbits were quick and light on their feet -- completely different from Dwarves, who stood immovable and strong like a mountain. Bofur was not as fast as the boys or Bilbo, but what he lacked in speed, he made up for with sturdy legs and powerful arms. He could throw any of the Hobbits across the entire courtyard, though he never went that far.

At least Bilbo had managed to trip Bofur, though his shin was still protesting his decision to twist it under Bofur's knee. Those Dwarf boots were as hard as a rock!

Movement caught Bilbo's attention, and he looked over to see two Elves standing by the pavilion. Elrohir and Elladan, with their twinkling grey eyes and serene expressions -- that, to Bilbo, spoke of mischief, reminding him of his younger Took cousins. He watched them watch his companions, until one of the twins noticed him, and together they made their way to Bilbo.

"Hello again, Bilbo Baggins!" the first twin said, and the note of his voice left Bilbo thinking he was Elrohir. The other twin nodded in greeting, and Bilbo remembered how Elladan had barely spoken to him the last time they had met.

"Hello again, Elrohir and Elladan. Are you enjoying the spectacle my cousins make?" Bilbo asked, raising an eyebrow as he heard another shout from the courtyard, followed by some foul language. He glanced over and watched Rory shout at Bofur, who was grinning. The two Elves followed his gaze, and Bilbo looked back in time to see both of them smirk at the sight.

"Quite so. It is most curious to see two races, so very different, in such an atmosphere. Halflings are usually not so..." Elrohir trailed off.

"Violent," murmured Elladan, and Bilbo stared at them.

"It's hardly violent -- just some tussling between boys. Surely Elves are no different as children?" he asked, hiding his irritation at the implication that his cousins were violent, of all things.

"Elven children grow up very differently from other races," Elrohir explained. "There was the occasional mischief, but Elves are unlike other races in aging. Your cousins, for instance -- how old are they?"

Bilbo raised an eyebrow, but answered readily enough, "Twenty, twenty-two, and twenty-nine. None of them are adults yet, which for Hobbits is when one turns thirty-three. When are Elves considered adults?"

"At such ages, we would appear like small children, but we would have the mental force of an adult Elf. An Elf is physically an adult by the time they are one hundred years of age, which is when most other races have already fallen to age and sickness. To watch the world move so quickly, when one's own time is so slow... it is saddening," Elrohir finished, and Elladan tilted his head toward the courtyard.

"Elven children did not play like this, nor did they train for warfare so young. It is unfortunate your cousins must learn such things," Elladan interjected, surprising Bilbo who had the suspicion that Elladan was much more circumspect than Elrohir.

Then Bilbo frowned, but his voice was mild as he replied, "I'd like to know what a Hobbit should do if an Orc grabs him and tries to hurt him. Orcs are much stronger and larger than us, and we come from a peaceful life. I want my cousins to survive any fight they may encounter in the future. How is this worse than Elves carrying around swords and bows?"

Both of the Elves looked down at him in surprise, and after a moment it was Elladan who said quietly, "It is not worse, balaphadro. Only unfortunate." For a moment, the Elves' expressions faded to distant remorse and pain.

There was such a look on the two Elves' faces then, that Bilbo recognized, and it sent a chill through him. These Elves did not simply know of Orcs and their torments -- they understood the vile acts, perhaps almost as much as Bilbo did. He dipped his head slightly in apology.

"I am sorry for overre... for leav... for any offense with my words," Bilbo said finally, unable to call forth the right words in Sindarin, but the twins' expressions lightened.

"You did not offend, dear Halfling," Elrohir replied quietly. "You see, our mother was taken by Orcs as your brethren were. It was we who saved her. Father... went through the same reactions as you do now. We understand the necessity of it. It is still sad to see such a gentle race in our situation." For a moment the Elf looked achingly sad, and Bilbo watched them both with dimmed shock, that they truly had experienced what his family had. He had to avert his eyes at the thought -- their mother? Just like him, and his mother --

"I am deeply sorry," he whispered, and Elladan and Elrohir bowed their heads.

For a time, they were silent, watching the commotion in the courtyard, until Bilbo remembered something that had bothered him earlier. "If I may ask, young lords," he began, slipping back into Westron, "what does balaphadro mean? You have called me that twice now, and others have said it to my face." He watched the twins, his gaze narrowing a bit as they exchanged a glance that spoke untold volumes.

After a moment, Elrohir answered hesitantly, "Your question has a somewhat complicated answer. What do you know of the Valar?"

"The Valar?" Bilbo questioned, his eyebrows creasing. "Only that they are the Lords of the West, in the lands where the Elves go when they sail from the Grey Havens. Why do you ask?"

The twins exchanged another glance. "I think that is something our ada should explain, Mister Baggins. He is a master of the ancient knowledge of this world, and the name that has been given to you has old history. We are poor substitutes for him," Elrohir explained, and Elladan nodded solemnly, their Elvish miens turning distant.

Bilbo eyed the two Elves, annoyed with their answer, but he showed none of his irritation. "I'll do that," he murmured. Perhaps Elrond would be more forthcoming than his sons.

~

The next evening, Elrond informed the company that Drogo had healed completely, and Gandalf made the decision that they would leave Rivendell in two days' time. Then the Wizard retreated while Bilbo tried not to feel sad. He had grown to enjoy Rivendell very much, with its beautiful library and serene atmosphere. Despite his initial worries, the Elves had warmed to him and his family, and they had been treated very kindly.

It had been a lovely stay -- but Bilbo was ready to go on. He had new knowledge of the history of the lands east of the Misty Mountains, as well as lists of plants and herbs that grew around the Anduin River. Erestor had been most helpful in locating a book that contained gardening techniques for mountain soil. Bilbo even had seeds that someone had generously donated.

(Bilbo had found the gift one morning outside his door, a bag filled with small pouches of seeds with careful labels in Westron, from tomatoes to squashes, and herbs as well, with tiny notes on when best to plant them. He was delighted, but nobody admitted to the deed. He suspected one of the librarians, who may have seen his notes on where to find wild vegetables in the mountains. The grey-robed aides had been most helpful whenever he visited the library, and he made sure to compliment them to Erestor whenever they were in hearing distance.)

Bilbo had at least thanked Elrond, who had smiled mysteriously, but the Elf Lord had not revealed the source of the gift. It was all Bilbo could do not to cry at the kindness -- or at Elrond's promise of supplies for their journey through the Misty Mountains.

He was very happy to have come to this place. Rivendell had acted as a balm to his soul, worn and lost after Azog. He felt like himself again -- reading and laughing and learning and exploring, such as he had as a child. He felt normal again, and not just because of his renewed understanding of his body, but more like a proper Hobbit, with useful manners, and intuition into situations, and a love of good food. Even though darkness and anger lurked in the back of his mind, Bilbo felt good about himself again.

With so little time left, Bilbo forewent visiting the library on the morning after Gandalf announced their departure. Instead, he walked about Rivendell alone, admiring its natural beauty and thinking of how he would very much like to come back here someday. If only he could face his fear of the Mountains ahead and return -- perhaps some long years in the future.

After lunch, he found himself a hall full of statues and relics of Ages past. There was a mural on the wall of a Man holding a shining broken sword up to a figure of darkness, and Bilbo shivered as he looked upon it. He recognized the scene. It had been in his favorite story, The War of the Last Alliance.

The sword that had been broken, but which had cut the One Ring from the hand of Sauron the Cruel.

Something burned in his mind for a moment, and Bilbo reached up unthinkingly to touch his necklace, grasping the rings and key that lay hidden under his shirt. He stared at the sword that had taken the Ring from that Dark Lord, his hand slowly tightening, until he felt pain and let go in surprise. He glanced at his hand and saw no blood, but he had gripped his necklace tightly enough to leave indentions. How strange.

Then he turned, and he saw a statue of an Elf with a great stone shield, and on that shield lay a cloth of blue silk. A broken sword glinted in the sunlight, and Bilbo stared down at the shards of Narsil, his eyes slowly widening.

History, right here before his very eyes. How Bilbo itched to find his old book and reread those passages -- what deeds this sword must have seen in its days of glory. He did not reach out to touch it -- he had too much respect for the history in that sword -- but he admired it, idly piecing together the shards in his mind.

"Do you know the story, Master Hobbit?" a deep voice called, and Bilbo turned to see Elrond himself approaching. He flushed pink and nodded, clasping his hands behind his back.

"I do, Lord Elrond. It was one of my favorite stories as a child," he replied, and Elrond came to stand beside him, his stern expression solemn as he gazed down at the Sword That Was Broken.

"Oh?" Elrond murmured, looking down at Bilbo with interest. "The story of our failures lured you more than sweet fairy tales or songs of better times?"

Bilbo dared a glance up at Elrond, and he relaxed slightly see the twinkle in Elrond's eye, so much like his twin sons. "The history of our world is a wise lesson to learn. Otherwise, we may find ourselves repeating it," he offered, and Elrond's lips twitched into a smile.

"Indeed so, Mister Baggins. Do you not wish to join your companions as they ready to leave? Your family surely could use your assistance."

Bilbo gave a little shrug. "I shan't be missed. My cousins need to learn some independence, after all. I can't be telling them what to do every step of the way. Besides, Bofur has it under control, I think."

Elrond chuckled in response and gestured before him, and together they began to walk along the balcony, the afternoon sun gleaming through the thick leaves. "Have you enjoyed your stay in my home?" Elrond asked, and Bilbo nodded, looking up at the clear blue sky.

"It is a beautiful place. I have enjoyed the people I have met here, and everything that I have learned and experienced. You have been very kind," he said quietly.

"I could do nothing else," Elrond responded, his voice low against the gentle breeze. "I am glad for it, Mister Baggins. You are always welcome in my home, and if you wish to return one day, I will be pleased for it."

Bilbo looked up at him with a small smile, his eyes crinkling with pleasure. "I would like that very much, Lord Elrond," he said, and Elrond smiled back at him.

A moment passed, and Elrond said to him, "On the matter of your departure, I have a proposition for you as a representative of your Thain."

"Oh?" Bilbo managed to say, blinking up at the tall Elf.

"Indeed so. When we first spoke, you told me of the illnesses your brethren suffered. I have thought upon this topic, and I wish to offer my hospitality to those who cannot pass through the Misty Mountains at this time due to their illness. It is my hope that I may treat your kin and heal that which weakens them, as well as devise assistance for those who go to the Vale of Anduin. What was done to you in those mountains cannot be healed in a few weeks, but if I understand what you suffer now, I may be able to send instructions to you in some months' time. With your blessing, I hope to send this offer to your Thain, so that any who need healing may come to my house immediately," Elrond explained to a stunned Bilbo, who could not believe his ears.

Such kindness! Such willingness to help them -- and before, had Bilbo himself not believed that Elves would do nothing for his kin? He had been mistaken about the Dwarves, who had come to their rescue, and again about the Elves, who were so affected by their plight that they offered aid immediately. Perhaps even Men would prove different than he had once thought -- but for now, he was happy, and he smiled brightly up at Elrond, reaching up to take his hands which were so much larger than a Hobbit's could be.

"Yes -- a hundred times yes. I cannot express how grateful I am to have met you, Elrond, for your kindness, to myself and my kin -- thank you. Thank you! I cannot believe how much you have given us," he rambled, tears coming to his eyes again, and Elrond only smiled kindly at him, squeezing his hands until Bilbo, suddenly embarrassed, let go.

"You are most welcome, good Hobbit. I will send someone to the Shire immediately, then," Elrond said, and Bilbo nodded, his cheek still very pink.

They walked for a little while, as Bilbo's blush calmed, but the quiet between them was not awkward. Elrond was someone with whom he could get along, and he was very glad for the opportunity to speak with him. Bilbo wondered if one day he could talk to Elrond as he could with Erestor, and he wished that he could stay longer. He would have to visit again, sometime after the Vale was settled.

As they neared the main courtyard, Bilbo was reminded of the previous day and his conversation with Elrond's sons. When they neared a private corner, he looked up at Elrond. "If I may ask -- do you know the meaning behind balaphadro? The Elves of your house have taken to calling me that name, and I'm afraid I do not know what it means. Your sons said that you would be the best person to explain it," he admitted, and Elrond glanced down at him in surprise. Those grey eyes widened, then narrowed, and Bilbo briefly wondered if he had gotten those two Elves in trouble.

"A heavy question, Mister Baggins. I can indeed answer your question, though it may take some explanation. Would you like to join me for tea?" When Bilbo agreed, Elrond called aside someone, and they proceeded to the Elf Lord's personal study, where Bilbo had once sat over a week ago. No sooner than Bilbo had sat upon a large chair across from Elrond than an Elf came in carrying a tray of tea things and a plate of soft pastries that Bilbo took delight in. When the servant had left and Bilbo was breathing in the steam of his teacup, Elrond looked upon him.

"As my sons must have explained, what the people of my home have taken to calling you has some history behind it. The most direct translation I can offer to that term is, one who follows the path of the Valar. Do you know of the Valar, Mister Baggins?"

Bilbo frowned into his cup of tea, remembering when he had first heard the word and tried to pull apart its meaning. "As I told Elladan and Elrohir, all I know of the Valar is that they are the Lords of the West, and it is their lands to which your people sail upon the ends of your lives here. I do not know much past that," he explained, and Elrond sat back in his chair, fingers steepled.

"Let me explain first the etymology of the name chosen for you, Mister Baggins. Balaphadro. Bala refers to the Valar, who walked the world before us. Phadro means one who follows, as such on a path. Thus, balaphadro is one who follows the path of the Valar.

"Once, when the world was young and the Eldar were but children under the stars, we woke from our first sleep to meet the world as it was. At that time, the Valar walked among us, and they guided us through the chaos that darkness called upon this land. After much warring with those dark forces, the Valar saved us from the wrath which sought to destroy us all.

"During that time, many Elves followed the Valar on their paths through Middle-earth, through every dark shadow that they battled. There were fourteen of them, and sometimes they lay gifts upon their followers. The Valar favored the Maiar, of course, but some of the Eldar received gifts as well. These few Elves were called balaphadro, for they carried their gifts with grace no matter what they suffered."

For a few moments, Elrond was silent, while Bilbo stared at him with wide eyes. He wished immediately to fly to the library and look up everything about these Valar, for he knew very little about the beginning of their world. Then he hesitated, wondering what this had to do with him -- why would Elves call him such a historical name?

"To most of this world, the Valar are known as the Lords of the West. To the Elves who linger here, the Valar are our Lords and more; they are the essence of Ilúvatar. It was they who sang to him of the world, and it was his will that the song came into being, and us with it."

"So they helped begin the world?" Bilbo asked after a moment, and Elrond hummed in reply, picking up a gleaming flask and pouring a faintly green liquid into a glass.

"Indeed so. Each Valar worked on a particular part of the world. Have Hobbits never wondered how our world began?" Elrond asked, and Bilbo hummed as he recalled older songs that he had never given much attention.

"There are not many history books of our people, but we do have songs. Some songs sing of a mother, but most think of that as the earth itself," Bilbo said, wondering if he could ask his older relatives about those songs.

Elrond replied, "One can only suppose how Hobbits came to be, but all save the Dwarves were created by Eru Ilúvatar, and they were created by Aulë. Perhaps one of the Valar petitioned him. If your oldest songs sing of a mother, then I might even suppose that Yavanna, wife of Aulë, had something to do with Hobbits. She loved all things that grow, and it was she who planted the first seeds of the world."

Bilbo sat quietly for some time, digesting all that Elrond had told him and wondering at the largeness of it all. Something in Elrond's words niggled at him, made him wonder, made old dreams rise to the back of his mind -- but Bilbo did not understand, and he did not want to.

He wondered at the truth of it, but he feared he might never understand. It eased his mind a bit, to know that Dwarves already apparently knew of these Valar and their hand in creating this world. The Elves had their beliefs, but Hobbits were simple creatures, and they cared little of what had happened long ago, only what happened now and could happen in the future.

It was a very interesting story. Perhaps someday he might be able to understand. For now, what use was it to know of creators and spirits of ancient times, when they were no longer here? But then Bilbo realized that Elrond had not quite explained why he of all Hobbits was called that name. He looked up at Elrond and set down his tea. "And the balaphadro -- those who were gifted, as you said. Why do I share their name? I am but a simple Hobbit," he said quietly.

Elrond looked at him with piercing grey eyes. "You shine with a light that no other Hobbit ever has, Mister Baggins -- a light that could only be gifted by one of those faraway Lords. You are clever, indeed, and you have done heroic deeds -- but you insist that you are a simple creature, of a simple people. Every balaphadro in our oldest stories was like you. They insisted they were not special, that they were not heroic or just or mighty.

"I believe you were given a gift, to help you protect your people. I see this in you, as do the members of my house; they cannot explain it, but they understand it just the same. So they call you balaphadro, because you walked that same path as the Valar once did. You guided your people out of the darkness, and you granted them mercy when you could not save them. None in my house know of what you told me and Glorfindel that day, but they see it, all the same. They see the light in you that led you out of that darkest place."

Bilbo stared up at Elrond, feeling something in him tremble at the truth of it, but he could not believe such pretty words. He was no hero, and he was not a good person, not after all that he had done in those mountains. He was not special. He had just done only what was right, at that time, and it was no hero's duty. Whatever light the Elves saw in him -- it mattered not, because he was not that person. He was only Bilbo, and no matter what they called him -- pain-bearer, naeggyl, balaphadro -- he would not change for them. Perhaps he had been given a gift -- but it was also a curse, and he wished it had never happened.

"I see," he murmured, sipping his tea slowly and trying to ignore the sensation of the world spinning around him. "Does... Gandalf know about this?" he asked after a moment, his voice quiet, and he watched Elrond nod. His expression fell into contemplation, thinking of the Wizard's reactions to him over the past few weeks, and Elrond watched him closely, his solemn expression saddening slightly.

"I did not mean to upset you, guest of my home," Elrond said quietly. "Mithrandir means well, surely."

Bilbo shook his head, giving a faint smile. "You know, I have heard that it is unwise to seek the council of Elves, for they will answer both yes and no. In this, you have not failed the rumor of you, Lord Elrond. What you told me is not what bothers me, but what it means for my past. Thank you for telling me," he finished quietly, and Elrond watched him for a long moment, until his mouth twitched into a faint smile.

"What I have heard of Hobbits is that they are very resilient. You and your kin amaze me every time I think upon your plight, Mister Baggins. I wish you and your brethren the best, and I hope you find a new home in the Anduin Vale," Elrond said quietly, and Bilbo gave him a small smile. He breathed in deeply, to help clear his head, and he caught an odd scent.

"What is that you are drinking?" Bilbo asked after a moment, and Elrond blinked.

"It is springwine, made from the fruit of a tree that grows not far from here. We harvest the fruits in late summer, but the wine is not ready until just as the snow melts for spring. Would you like to try it?"

Bilbo perked up a bit, ready to put aside all that they had talked about for a time. Hobbits were always interested in trying new things, and he told Elrond so. Elrond found another glass and poured some for Bilbo, who sipped the light, flavorful wine with fascination. Elvish wine! Wouldn't his Took cousins be jealous!

Despite the heavy topics of their earlier conversation, Bilbo sat with Elrond for some time, drinking wine and tea and speaking of many things. The plate of pastries was steadily emptied, and at one point Erestor peeked in on them, to find that Elrond had spread a large map of Middle-earth over his desk, and he and Bilbo were leaning over it and talking animatedly. Erestor only shook his head after a concerned glance at the old map and left. Glorfindel was next to visit, and he could only stare in surprise, that Elrond and Bilbo of all people could speak so easily. His message was received and summarily dismissed, and Glorfindel left, looking rather bewildered.

Finally, Gandalf peered into the room, and was shocked to see the black gleaming hair of Elrond bowed close with the dark blond curls of Bilbo. He hesitated, listening for any strangeness in their conversation, but the two spoke of historical things that did not interest him. Finally he managed to announce that dinner was about to be served, and only then did Elrond roll up the map, while Bilbo, whose cheeks were strangely flushed, gave him a cheerful smile.

"Have you finally come out of hiding then, Gandalf?" Bilbo said, a small hiccup escaping him, and Gandalf realized that the Hobbit was tipsy. He shot a look at Elrond, who merely smiled, before sighing.

"I have not been hiding, my dear boy --"

"Oh, but you have! And I do not blame you for it, even though I have been very cross with you, my dear old man! But that is neither here nor there, and I am willing to forgive you, so long as you stop being so mysterious!" Bilbo said, his grin turning cheeky, and Gandalf stared at him. Then Bilbo bowed good-bye to Elrond and sauntered out the door, a small sway to his large feet, and Gandalf looked at Elrond in bemusement.

"What have you been telling that Hobbit?" he demanded, and Elrond laughed.

"Oh, this and that, my dear friend. Come, let us retire to supper, where it will be most amusing to see such a small Hobbit sing, as he has promised." With that worrisome tidbit, Elrond swept Gandalf from his study after Bilbo, much to the Wizard's consternation.

~

The long road through Mirkwood always left Thorin feeling cranky and disturbed. The path itself was easy to travel, especially with a company of highly-trained and fully-armed dwarrows, despite the heavy presence of Elves in the forests. None of the Elves actually bothered them, but just seeing an Elf through the trees left him grumbling.

The woods had been dark and murky since long ago, but soon after becoming King and starting the Eastern Council, Thorin had grudgingly worked together with Thranduil the Elvenking to empty the forests of the many nests of Spiders, Orcs, and other dark creatures that lurked in the shadows of those trees. It had been neither Thorin's nor Thranduil's idea, but Beorn's, who had insisted that if the Councils were going to continue, and if they were to change locations every time they met, then the roads would need to be cleared for easy travel between the realms. Indeed, after the road was first cleared and the next Council convened, the Lady of Lothlorien herself came to visit, acknowledging their hard work and leaving a few mysterious words before disappearing into Thranduil's realm. Thranduil had been determined to clean the forest ever since.

That had been over a hundred years ago. Since then, all of the forest north of the mountains of Mirkwood had been cleansed of darkness, through the joint efforts of Men, Elves, and Dwarves. Trade had since increased with the safer travel paths, and all of the nations had prospered. The East had become a great region that attracted many Men, Dwarves, and even Elves from across Middle-earth.

Ever since, Lady Galadriel had visited many Eastern Councils, but not every time, and sometimes for no other discernible reason than to smile mysteriously at everybody and be very cryptic with her words -- particularly to Thorin, with whom she would mostly speak in Khuzdul, just to exasperate him. He still had no idea how she knew the language.

Thorin did not much like Galadriel. Dís and Frerin usually ignored him when he complained about her presence.

She was easier to deal with than Thranduil, at least, who bothered Thorin when they were in different cities and infuriated him when they were forced into the same room. There was no dealing with Thranduil -- he was arrogant, haughty, rude, and truly one of the most irritating individuals that Thorin had ever met.

Thorin had always thought Thranduil arrogant, but it was not until he became King and had to deal with the Elvenking personally that he came to understand the true treachery within Thranduil's character. The Elvenking was selfish and cruel, and far too capricious for Thorin to trust him. After what Thranduil had done -- or not done, as was often the case with the Elvenking, who would nary lift a finger to help a Dwarf, let alone send his warriors whenever Thorin called for aid -- Thorin could not speak to him without an argument.

At least he had not yet murdered Thranduil. There was something to be said about his patience.

"Daydreaming on the road, Thorin Oakenshield? My, what would your sister say?" called a deep voice that made the hair on Thorin's body stand on edge. He turned slowly to behold the Elvenking himself standing upon a ledge above them, his favored warriors gathered around them, long Elven hands clutching their bows as if they dearly wanted to the shoot the company of Dwarves below. Immediately Thorin's guards went for their weapons, but Thorin shifted his hand in a small signal, and they subsided.

"What brings you out of your trees, Elvenking? Did a spider get loose in your rooms again?" he answered loudly, making the Dwarves snicker and the Elves above them sneer. Thranduil stared at him with an impassive mien, but Thorin saw the glint of malice in his pale gaze. Good.

"Is your war march done then? Is next year's Council to be graced with your presence once more?" Thranduil asked boredly, and Thorin glared.

"As if you hadn't heard my herald when he came around the first time. I was successful! The ancient halls of Khazad-dûm belong to the Dwarves again! My army marched home ahead of me, in case you were too drunk to notice. Now I return home to my kingdom," Thorin declared, and Thranduil clasped his hands behind his back, looking down his nose at Thorin.

"Pity for the kingdom that awaits such a king. Watch your step in my forest, Thorin Oakenshield. I would not have your company ruining my paths," Thranduil commanded, and he turned to disappear back into the shadows, but Thorin had a parting remark that had the Elvenking's shoulders stiffening.

"Watch your step at the next Council, Thranduil Elvenking. Since it will be in Erebor, it would be a failure of our hospitality if you lost your way, as my Dwarves once did in your woods," Thorin growled, and he turned and stormed further into the woods, his guards following quickly, as Thranduil turned to watch them leave.

Worthless, arrogant, malicious Elf -- there was no dealing with him. Thorin almost wished that Dis would continue to go to the Councils for him, so that he would no longer have to deal with Thranduil. Trust an Elf to insult a guest of his woods personally!

At least soon he would be out of these horrible woods, and he would be nearly home. Then he could see his family again. Perhaps there might even be a letter waiting for him, from the Hobbit he had left behind -- but Thorin tried not to think about that. He had thought about the Hobbit far too often these past weeks, imagining the day he would see him again, thinking of the celebration his kingdom would give to the hero of the War.

But that would have to wait until Bilbo Baggins actually visited him, which might be years in the future. Until then, he would have to make do with letters.

Chapter Text

Once again, Bilbo had to say goodbye. At least Erestor did not have the large, sweet Hobbit eyes to make him regret saying the words, but that did not mean he was happy to say them.

He woke to a mild headache that was only soothed by a cup of very strong tea. Still, his headache was not irritating enough to stop him from packing alongside his cousins, with the surprising help of Erestor, who showed up at his door with a tea tray, a lovely assortment of pastries, and Bilbo's chest of books.

Every book that lay within had been painstakingly and carefully cleaned, rebound with supple leather, and gently engraved with titles in silver script. Bilbo lifted the books out with reverence, his eyes stinging as Erestor looked on with a faint line between his brow. He noticed then that his mother's glory box had been cleaned as well, oiled and shining, and a breath caught in his throat.

"I hope you did not mind, but I amended some of the ones with torn pages, so the script may be different, but the information is certainly the same. Is it not enough? I should have chosen a better leather, but I thought of the climate of the Vale and --"

"They're perfect," Bilbo whispered, and Erestor shut his mouth quickly, though his gaze warmed.

Bilbo knew that Gandalf was ensconced in deliberation with Elrond, and Bofur had disappeared sometime earlier that morning. Across and down the hall, Rory, Drogo, and Otho raced around in a flurry of activity, shouting at each other as they tried to find everything that, in their enjoyment of staying in a place with proper beds for more than one night, they had thrown about their rooms as if they truly lived within these walls. Bilbo rolled his eyes as he heard a shout, followed by a scuffle. Erestor raised an eyebrow, but Bilbo distracted him with a plea to help him pack, and Erestor was all too content to assist.

"I will write letters to you in the Vale," Erestor declared as he folded Bilbo's clothes into a bag. "I will send you books, so that you do not grow bored in the winter. You will write back." His long fingers fluttered over the shirt he had just picked up, and Bilbo smiled up at his arrested expression.

"I will write," he promised, reaching up to grip Erestor's hands briefly, before letting go and looking into his mother's glory box, happy to see his precious books looking like normal again. Then he frowned. "Was it always this full?"

Beside him, Erestor twitched, as if in guilt, and Bilbo looked at him in surprise. "Erestor, did you --"

"Bilbo! I can't find my vest! Have you seen it?" called Drogo from the other room, and Bilbo gave Erestor an amused glance before going to help his cousin. When the vest was found and he returned, the glory box was closed, and Erestor once again was composed.

The Elf was arranging Bilbo's clothes still, and Bilbo walked over to help. "I suspect that box will be heavier than it was when I came to Rivendell," he teased, and Erestor let out a sniff, picking unseen bits of lint from Bilbo's shirt.

"I'm certain I have no idea of what you are speaking," the Elf said loftily.

"Certainly," Bilbo huffed, and after a moment they smiled at each other.

When his belongings were packed into bulging bags and trunks, Bilbo sat down on the bed and looked around the room that had given him such restful sleep. He sighed -- he did not want to leave only to spend future nights on a lumpy bedroll on the ground. He would miss the steady meals and the peaceful atmosphere, and most of all --

"I wish we had more time," sighed Erestor, standing in front of Bilbo.

"I would come back to visit, if you would like," Bilbo offered, shy with the newness of their friendship. "And... you could visit me, as well. Once my home is complete."

Erestor watched him, solemn features warming, as they did often in Bilbo's presence. "I shall visit, as will you. Though we have had little time to know one another, I feel as if you and I have been friends for a long time. We converse with such ease and share interests so closely. I am glad to have met you, Bilbo."

Bilbo smiled up at Erestor, warmed by his open mien and words of camaraderie. He reached out to take Erestor's hands and squeezed them, pleased that he had made such a wonderful friend. "I feel just as you do, Erestor. I hope that our letters are long and frequent, and I hope you will visit soon! Thank you for everything you have done for me. My books... my research, and your gifts. Don't think I didn't notice how you snuck in my favorites of the books I borrowed." Erestor looked chagrinned, and Bilbo laughed, his cheeks turning pink as he thought of the titles he had glimpsed in the glory box. "Thank you. I cannot thank you enough."

Erestor's gaze softened, and he squeezed Bilbo's hands back before letting go. "You never need thank me, Bilbo. All this I was glad to do, and more. I will miss you and think of you often, and I wish you all the luck with your journey." They shared another smile, until another scuffle in the hallway distracted them both.

"Best go see what other trouble they've gotten into," Bilbo sighed, but he had a smile on his face as he left his room, Erestor following with a small laugh.

~

To say goodbye to Rivendell was to walk through its halls and think of all that had changed. Bilbo took his time, as everything had been loaded onto the wagon and all that remained was to add generous supplies of grain and other food from Elrond's stores. What had changed was not just how he was received by the members of Elrond's house, but also how he looked upon this realm, as well as how he looked upon himself.

He noticed that unlike the first time he traversed these halls, he was greeted with smiling faces and well wishes for his journey. No longer did Bilbo look at these Elves with distrust and fear. Now he accepted their kind words and did his best not to hide or flinch away -- and after enjoying the warmth of Rivendell, it was too easy to view these people as those who would not harm him.

It was with a light heart that Bilbo visited the library one last time, to return the last of the books he had borrowed and to explore it once more. He would borrow nothing else, but perhaps there were topics he could make a note to research on his next visit -- for surely, as he had promised Erestor, he would return to Rivendell, someday in the future.

It was among the books about Greenwood and the Elvenking Thranduil's realm that Bilbo found a most curious sight -- Bofur, nose stuck in a thick volume that Bilbo had not read, but that he recognized as one his fingers had passed over a few times before while searching for related books. Bilbo stopped short and stared. Bofur had a few papers sticking out of his pocket, and instead of looking pleased with what he was reading, his brow had gathered together in a fierce frown, and he was muttering to himself.

"Bofur?" Bilbo called, and as if struck by lightning, Bofur jumped and whirled around, eyes wide.

"I'm not doi-- oh, Bilbo, it's just you," Bofur said with a sigh of relief, closing the book and shoving it back on the shelf, but Bilbo did not miss how Bofur's gaze darted to the book as his fingers let it go.

"Yes, I was just returning the books I had borrowed. What were you reading? Was it interesting?" Bilbo asked, curious because Bofur had never before shown such an interest in books.

"Yeah, just thought I'd see what had attracted you so much to this place. So! All packed up?" Bofur said, clasping his hand Bilbo's shoulder, and before Bilbo knew it, the two were walking out of the library, caught up in conversation. He would only recall the odd moment later that night, and he would think little more of it, because who was he to judge someone for reading?

Their dinner that night was more subdued than the previous night's, though it was no less joyful. Well wishes and good-byes were toasted to the Company, and Bilbo went to bed that night with a smile, resting deeply and with no dreams.

Their departure took place early in the morning, and Bilbo had little more to do than urge his sleepy cousins onto the cart before sitting beside Bofur. Elrond, his sons, Glorfindel, and Erestor saw them off, and Bilbo waved good-bye until Rivendell was too far away to see the faces of the friends he had made.

The entrance to Moria was about four days away, and with every hour that passed, Bilbo saw the mountains that had haunted his dreams loom ever higher. He remembered the days that he had been dragged alongside his mother, and he could not help his shivers. Rory slunk behind him and ended up, more often than not, pressing to Bilbo's back as he entertained Drogo and Otho, and Bilbo did not miss how Rory's shoulders hunched in further the closer they traveled. Oftentimes, Bilbo would turn to join the conversation, both to soothe his nerves, and to ease the anxiety that was growing in his cousins' minds.

All the while he remembered, and oh, how he tried to forget.

~

Far on the other side of the Misty Mountains, lay a kingdom resplendent in its power and might, hidden beneath a lonely peak covered in snow. Two massive statues of stone twisted into the likeness of Dwarven kings of long ago stood at the grand entrance, protecting the thousands of Dwarves that lived within its halls. It was the greatest kingdom in the land, and it was called Erebor.

The king had not yet returned home, but that did not keep the kingdom from running as usual, headed by Frerin and Dís, brother and sister of Thorin, King under the Mountain. The Prince managed official duties that King Thorin would have commanded, while the Princess held absolute power over the various and many guilds of Erebor. Thorin's kingdom was safe and well protected within their hands.

The two young princes of Erebor, Fíli and Kíli, had learned a great deal about ruling and government under their mother's and uncle's tutelage, during the years of Thorin's war march. Fíli, as the firstborn and Thorin's heir, was well into being groomed to be king someday, though they all hoped that such a day was far in the future. Fíli, like his brother, was young and impetuous, though the weight of responsibility had culled many of his wilder urges. By contrast, his brother Kíli, who was next in line to inherit General Dwalin's position as leader of the military, was still excitable and carefree. Fíli was not yet so solemn in his duties, though, that Kíli could not easy entice him into mischief.

It was all Princess Dís could do not to shake both of them, for they were still children at heart. She was proud of them, as only a mother could be, but oh, how those boys frustrated her.

Today, for instance, Kíli had ducked out of his practice with Dwalin and had nearly coerced Fíli into sneaking out to Dale. Nearly, because Dís had walked upon their plotting, and all too quickly she had taken Kíli's ear in hand and given him a stern lecture. Dwalin showed up ten minutes later, and Kíli was escorted away, giving his mother and brother betrayed looks.

Fíli had wisely remained silent when Dís had turned her wrath upon him. He now walked beside her as they made their way to the Central Guild, the focal point of all of the commerce in Erebor. At various points behind them, guards walked, allowing the royal family their privacy, while protecting them all the same.

"You cannot let him continue to get away with this childish behavior! He is a prince of this nation, and I will not have him go gallivanting about and bringing shame upon this family. Your uncles will both hear of this, and I will have you know now, son of mine, that if you join him in any of his antics, I will not hesitate to drag both of you across my lap like the children you want to be!"

"He's just anxious because Thorin has yet to return home," Fíli said quietly, and Dís turned her head with a sharp look at her son. Fíli met her gaze steadily, and after a moment Dís sighed.

"We all are, Fíli, but that does not mean that the rest of us will choose to break into the barracks in Dale and leave chickens in the soldiers' beds. That boy is a menace! How do I still love him?" she lamented, and Fíli huffed a small laugh.

"Because he is still your son, as am I. He will settle down when Thorin arrives. It should be soon," Fíli said, but it was with a weary note that echoed in Dís' mind. How many times had they said that? How many times had they thought, Surely he will come home today, only to wait for nothing.

"How did you become so wise, my son?" Dís asked, a small smile softening her serious mien. He was becoming more like Níli every day, and though Fíli looked more like his father, he had her eyes. It eased the ache she sometimes felt when she looked at him. How ironic it was, for the son that looked like his father to inherit the line from his uncle? And Kíli, who would take on the duties of the line of Lí -- he worshipped Thorin. All it took was one word from Thorin for Kíli to behave.

At least they both had known their father, and loved him. At least her brothers loved them in return, childish and immature as they sometimes acted.

"I learned it from you," Fíli said, in a flat tone that had a chuckle escaping Dís before she realized it.

"You have been spending too much time with Frerin," she said to him, as they passed beneath the Arch and turn onto the pathway into the Guild. She did not mind when Fíli smirked at her, reaching up to tug affectionately at one of his braids.

"Pay attention today. We have visitors from Fogrín's folk, and every one of the dunderheads he sends to me is surlier than both of your uncles together. Keep your wits about you," Dís lectured, and Fíli nodded obediently. Dís lead him into the Guild, even if he knew his way by now. He was content to let her take charge, though.

He was more here as a formality, than to learn anything of Guild matters. Fíli would need to know the politics, if he ever had to settle cases, but Dís knew that his mind was not inclined toward business as hers was. Kíli certainly had never inherited that side of her; her younger son took after his father with his love of fighting and tactics. Fíli was more like Frerin in his interests, and he was slower to temper like Frerin as well -- unlike Dís, Thorin, and Kíli.

Dís had not decided, yet, whom she would choose for the Guild to vote on when she was to leave her position. Every one of the guilds would get a vote, and if she chose poorly, it would reflect on her past decisions as Guild Master. If either of her sons had a child that was inclined toward business, perhaps. Their cousin Glóin had a small brood of children, and he had always been good with business. Perhaps Glóin's son Gimli held promise, or better yet one of his daughters, especially if either Fíli or Kíli took an interest in their distant relations.

Dís would have to wait and see. For now, she would teach her sons what she could. She could wait for an heir, for she would not leave her position anytime soon.

"Consider my thoughts, son of mine. Your brother is growing into a position that will be, at once, feared and respected across the lands of this world. He will command the armies at your disposal, and instead of studying and learning as he should, he frolics and runs about like a child. His friends may think it merry fun, but what respect can be wrought of a few paltry tricks? Pranks on our allies, jokes at the expense of our diplomats -- it is embarrassing."

Dís took a moment to gather her thoughts. "I never wished for you or your brother to grow up so quickly, after your father..." She stopped herself, and she did not look at Fíli, who had taken the loss of their father as badly as she had. His silence spoke volumes, and after a moment of silence, Dís had recovered enough to continue.

"I know my sons, and I know that your brother is a loving, playful boy. But if he is to become a Dwarf of legend, he must grow into that seat of power. Please speak with him. He cannot stand my glares, nor Frerin's lectures. You and Thorin are the only ones he listens to, and Thorin is not here," Dís finished quietly, slowing as they approached the door.

She looked up at her son, who stared into the Hall of Commerce, eyebrows furrowed in a way that struck her. Fíli looked so much like Níli, and yet there, in his eyes -- the deepening solemnity of Frerin, and the darker hesitance of Thorin. Mostly, though, Dís saw in his eyes a mirror: his own frustration with his brother, despite his ambivalence whenever Kíli's antics were brought up.

"I will speak to him," Fíli said at last, and Dís smiled at him. Then they went into the Hall together to begin the day's business.

~

Swish. Thud. Creak. Swish. Thud. Creak. Swish.

"'You must cease these immature tricks!' they say! 'You must act like an adult!' they say! A few jokes, and suddenly I am, once again, the blight of this family. It never ends!" ranted Kíli, youngest of the royal line of Durin, as he destroyed a large target painted with a crude picture of an Orc. Arrow after arrow, he slotted and let them fly, never caring that he destroyed half his arrows, ignoring the burn in his fingers as he sought to relieve his frustration.

"Is that what they're calling you these days?" called a teasing voice, and Kíli just barely stopped from loosing an arrow into his brother's face as he turned abruptly.

"Fíli," he breathed. Then his brow drew together again, as he noticed the serious expression on his brother's face despite the lilt in his voice. Without another word he turned away and continued to let arrows loose into the Orc's face.

He expected a lecture. He expected his mother's and uncle's words parroted back to him, in the same stream of judgement he suffered this morning when Dwalin had finally deemed him properly punished. Instead, he felt a faint swoosh of air by his head, and he saw one of Fíli's daggers land amidst the sea of arrows. Another followed, and then Kíli continued alongside his brother, until the Orc was merely a splattering of paint upon splintered wood.

It was not as if he did not realize how needless his antics truly were. It was only a bit of fun. Something to help pass the long winter months when they had few visitors and too much free time. His soldiers enjoyed it -- not that they were truly his soldiers, the way Dwalin carried on -- so what was so terrible about a few jokes? It was not as if he did not use the opportunity to look into the documents hidden in the Dale Marshall's office every time.

Kíli had not missed his mentor's lectures, though he was glad for Dwalin's return. Seven years was seven years too many spent suffering through the stern glowers of Nyrad, Dwalin's second in command, even though Dwalin was hardly better.

At least Dwalin's training did not have Kíli running himself completely ragged. He believed Nyrad was out to torture him.

Still Fíli did not speak to him, so Kíli crossed the small training ground to grab two swords from the wall. This ground had been theirs as long as they had known to fight -- inherited from their mother and uncles, who had learned the arts of war in this very room over a century ago. Kíli tossed one of the swords to Fíli, who caught it neatly, and twirled his own in his hand, smirking.

"Come at me, brother," he taunted, and Fíli grinned back at him before rushing forward.

It was easy to fall into the dance of a fight. He and Fíli knew each other better than they knew themselves, and despite Fíli's bulk and Kíli's agility, they were well matched. Neither gave quarter. Neither backed off. It was rushed, and wild, and Kíli felt his frustration and anger melting away, as he exchanged blows and taunts with his brother. He saw that same drain of emotion from the weight that had drawn his brother's brows downward, and he felt glad that in this room, between just the two of them, there was no strife.

Neither of them won -- but they grew too exhausted to continue, and Kíli staggered to the table where he kept canteens of water. He threw one at Fíli who drank greedily from the metal, and Kíli grimaced as he realized the water was stale. Had it really been so long since he had trained down here? He glanced across the room at the destroyed target, wiping his mouth on his sleeve.

He had painted that four months ago. Usually they were destroyed within a single month. Perhaps he had been focusing too much attention on his pranks after all, and not enough on his own training.

"We'll have to paint a new one," Fíli said quietly, taking Kíli's empty canteen and setting it back on the table. Kíli made a thoughtful noise, sliding his gaze over to his brother.

"Perhaps with the good Elvenking this time?" he asked slyly, and Fíli snorted even as he shot Kíli a scolding look.

"Even you should remember the blistering we received from Frerin the last time we used King Thranduil. What about a Troll? Dwalin said they had to fight a couple in the battle, didn't he?" Fíli said thoughtfully. Kíli's eyes widened with glee.

"He did! A Troll would be perfect, Fíli, good thinking! I'll have to find some spare wood," Kíli said, already plotting how best to paint his new masterpiece. As he studied the wall where they usually fixed their targets, he noticed that Fíli stayed silent, and his shoulders sank slightly.

Here it comes.

"Have you ever thought to tell Dwalin about your little spy network?" Fíli asked, and Kíli sent him a sharp glance. He busied himself with hanging up his bow and the two swords, and Fíli allowed his silence, moving to straighten what mess Kíli left behind.

"You shouldn't know about that," Kíli said after a moment, and Fíli shot him a smirk.

"Like you can keep anything from me. I know you used to meet Nori at the tavern on Silvercrest. Be a bit more subtle, would you? Not to mention your occasional spars with Bofur," Fíli said, grinning, and Kíli huffed a scowl, shoving at his brother's shoulder.

"You know Dwalin never appreciated that side of command. He hates Nori, and the less said of Bofur's involvement, the better. Besides, with both of them gone, who else was to carry on their work?"

"Maybe Nori's partner in crime?"

"Ha! He couldn't sneak his way out of a coal mine," Kíli grumbled. "I can't believe you! Stay out of my spy network." Kíli pouted, and Fíli laughed at him, tugging him out of the room.

"Come, we should find supper. Are you telling me your future king should not know of his kingdom's best kept secrets? You forget, while you suffered at Dwalin's and Nyrad's hands, I learned a thing or two from Thorin and Frerin. Nothing escapes them, no matter how quick you are to hide it, brother dear," Fíli said, his voice dropping as they walked closer to the busier halls.

Kíli sulked, envying his brother for the time he spent with Thorin. Hopefully when Thorin came home, Kíli would be able to spend some close time with him. How he had missed his uncle! Home did not feel right, for Thorin to be gone so long.

They walked in silence together for a few minutes, an easy companionship, before Kíli felt the need to ask the question that had been burning in his mind since Fíli had walked into the training hall earlier.

"Aren't you going to lecture me?" he asked with a sigh.

Fíli glanced at him out of the corner of his eye. "And have you resent me for it? You don't need me yelling at you. I know you the best, after all, and I know why you do these things. Mother, Frerin, and Dwalin may seem harsh, but they do love you, brother. They worry, as I do. They expect us to be adults as they are, but we are still young. We need not rush to be like them. Though... perhaps you could make your tricks more subtle? Chickens in the barracks, really?"

"It was to be a ruse! A distraction! So that I could borrow one of their maps of King Thranduil's woods! You know he trusts Lord Tyrion more than he trusts us," Kíli complained, and Fíli laughed.

"So that your next prank would be in Thranduil's halls? Though Thorin would surely approve, Frerin might just have your head, dear brother. Best to lay low for a while, anyway," Fíli chortled.

Kíli stayed silent, before he shoved at Fíli's side. "Why must you be so wise? Oh king," he said sarcastically, and Fíli smirked at him.

Then they both froze when a horn sounded, with several more horns blaring in quick succession. The loud calls sang in triumph and celebration, ringing in the same tones over and over, announcing to the entire nation -- the return of the king. Fíli and Kíli stared at each other for a beat, then took off running down the hall, elated grins erupting on their faces.

"Thorin has returned!"

~

When Thorin sighted the front gate of his home, he sighed so deeply that his pony snuffed in surprise. Thorin patted its neck and nudged the animal forward, smiling to himself when he heard the horns again. They had bypassed Dale, as Thorin would take his time to meet with Lord Tyrion later, after he had rested and seen to his kingdom. Erebor stood tall and glorious as always, the statues of his ancestors standing guard against any whom might think the Dwarves easy prey.

They had passed Ravenhill almost three hours ago, and Thorin had smiled when one of the ravens flew off toward Erebor. An hour later, he had heard horns in the distance. The sounds had spurred him, urged him forward, and his small company began to ride faster. From there, it was only a short ride, until they had come to Erebor's Front Gate, standing tall in the mountain. The sun was setting to his side, but Thorin took no heed of it, as his gaze was fastened on the five figures striding out of the Gate.

His brother, Frerin, just a step behind his sister Dís. His nephews, Fíli and Kíli, ran past them toward Thorin, and Dwalin, his closest friend, strode behind the four royal family members, while guards and citizens followed in their wake. Thorin felt a grin taking over his solemn expression, and he pulled the pony to a stop and dismounted, striding forward.

Kíli reached him first, grabbing onto him and not letting go, and Thorin hugged him back tightly, feeling a burn in the back of his throat.

"I've missed you, uncle," Kíli whispered in his ear, and Thorin nodded.

"You as well," he murmured back, his chest warming as he pulled away and looked over his nephew. Taller, but still no beard -- and yet Thorin could not care. He cupped Kíli's face and rested their foreheads together for a moment, then turned to see Fíli beside him.

Fíli exchanged a happy glance with Kíli, who stepped back, and Thorin wrapped his arms around his heir, gripping the back of his neck and looking over Fíli's face.

"You are older," Thorin said roughly, and Fíli laughed.

"Still younger than you," he returned fondly, and Thorin smiled.

"Move aside, sons of mine! I want to see my brother," came a stern voice that Thorin had greatly missed, and he smirked when Fíli shuffled aside quickly, looking upon his sister who scowled at him. Then the dark expression melted into a bright grin, and Thorin quickly pulled her into a hug, holding her close for several moments, relishing the feel of her.

A strong arm wrapped around his shoulder, pushing Dís closer, and Thorin looked up to see his brother, who was smiling with joy in his dark eyes. Dís shifted to make room, and the three siblings embraced tightly. Thorin felt the years of weariness begin to seep away, knowing that he was home, that his family was safe, that the danger to his most precious people was gone. He had been away for too long!

Dwalin clapped him on the back, smiling widely at him. Beyond his friends, Thorin's citizens were laughing, crying, and smiling as they beheld their king's return. As Thorin separated from his siblings and nephews, the large crowd parted, every Dwarf bowing low as Thorin began to stride forward. Above them, the horns rang out, and Thorin held his head high.

He had no crown on his head. His clothes were worn and tattered. He was exhausted, dirty, and aching. Yet Thorin Oakenshield was welcomed as the King of his nation, and everyone he passed felt joy at the return of their King.

~

Miles and miles south of a celebration for the return of a king, two Orcs huddled close and muttered to each other in a small, dingy hallway, deep in an ancient stronghold.

"We need to tell him! He asked to know immediately if we found it," one Orc whispered harshly.

The second Orc hit the first upside the head. "He is with the Necromancer! We cannot interrupt," he growled, and both Orcs flinched when they heard a shrill scream from beyond the wall beside them.

They waited, until at last the door to the room beyond opened, and a wave of malice passed them, though they only saw a flash of darkness. They rushed into the room, immediately halting before Bolg.

"Strongest of the old lines! We have news, great Bolg!" the second Orc said, ducking low, and Bolg turned, his mouth twisting in a snarl.

"I am busy," he said, then turned back to the small, pallid body on the stone table, which shook in pain and moaned shrilly. Bolg lifted his whip again and struck, metal spikes dragging through thin, greyed skin. The creature shrieked in agony.

The two Orcs hesitated, until the first Orc pushed forward and cried, "We have found the pain-bearer! He rides from the green-land and travels east!"

Bolg froze. Slowly he turned, his whimpering prey forgotten, and his pale eye flashed as he fixed a glare upon the two Orcs. "Where is he now?" he demanded, and the Orc flinched back.

"Three weeks past, the wretched pain-bearer was riding toward Moria. He must seek the halls of your great father! Accursed halfling! He rode with a wizard and a dwarf, and more halflings with him! Then he went to the hall of elves, where we could not follow," the Orc simpered.

Bolg sneered at them. He glanced at his victim, then shoved past the smaller Orcs and stalked out of the room, following in the path that the tall, thin man with gleaming eyes of fire had walked. He reached a great room where the form of his master lingered, halting behind him.

"Master," Bolg called.

"What is it?" the tall creature murmured. None of the Orcs knew his true name. They only knew him as the Necromancer, or as the Dark Lord, and addressed him as their master. He was unlike any other creature in the world, save that accursed hobbit, in that he knew the secret language of the Orcs, taught to them ages ago -- by him. He had created them.

"I want to leave and hunt the one who murdered my father," Bolg said, in a barely civil tone. He was only so respectful -- could not help it, as he hated being someone's slave.

"No," the Necromancer replied, not bothering to turn around, and Bolg growled.

"I must! He taunts me even from here -- after what he brought into my father's halls, into the mountains of my people, your servants! He must die by my hand," Bolg snarled, and the Necromancer turned slowly to face him.

He stood in the shape of a Man or Elf, but so much taller, broader, with piercing eyes that burned and twisted in blazing red and orange. Just one glance upon his form brought malice and hatred into one's heart, and even from several feet away, Bolg could feel the heat of his body, as if he would erupt in fire. His right hand was completely black.

In this fortress, the Necromancer often wore little more than a tunic and cloak, for all that he was surrounded by the vilest of monsters of Middle Earth. In the blink of an eye, though, he could shift, change, the magic coursing through his body enough to encase him in ancient armor, or to turn him into fire, or into darkness itself. He seemed completely comfortable in his own skin, and his mien was calm and relaxed. This was a creature who knew his own power. This was a creature who held no fear.

"It is your wretch that lies in my dungeon, holding the secret of the location of my One. Torture holds no sway over his head, but your command of him loosens his tongue. You will stay here until he tells me where my One is. Then, and only then, may you go on your hunt," the Necromancer said, and Bolg found he could not move, the great aura of fury and enmity leaving him stiff with fear. "Am I clear?"

"Yes, my master." Not even Azog had commanded such power in his bearing. Bolg bowed and backed out of the room. Then he turned sharply and ran through the crumbling fortress, until he came upon the dungeon where the shivering creature lay in its shackles. The other Orcs had disappeared, and Bolg rushed to the wretch and grabbed its face, shaking it until large, pale eyes fixed upon his face.

"WHERE IS IT?" he roared, squeezing until the wretch coughed and hacked, and he loosened his grip. The creature began to laugh, wet, hacking noises that grated on Bolg's ears.

"Gollum, gollum... stolen it was, tossed in a room of gold. Nasty Orcs! Nasty Azog! Gone, gone, my precious is gone," the creature whimpered, and it began to wail, the caterwauling echoing across the fortress.

Bolg stared down at the wretch, the creature he had taken as his servant years ago, and cursed. Undoubtedly it was part of the treasure the Dwarves had taken when they had killed his father. Was it still in those dark caves? Or had it gone back to that damned mountain with the Dwarf King?

"Moria," Bolg heard, and he turned to see the Necromancer, Sauron the Great, staring at him from the doorway. Those brilliant eyes burned in the darkness.

"You will go and find it. Take the Riders with you." And my One will be mine again.

"Yes, my master." And his head will be mine.

~

Bilbo woke suddenly, his heart beating fast. Yet their camp was peaceful, the night dark with stars, Gandalf snoring against a tree while Bofur stared into the fire. Bilbo did not move, letting the soft noises of his cousins sleeping calm his racing heart. He felt -- disturbed. Wary. What had he been dreaming?

He heard a crow in the distance and shivered. After some time, he fell asleep again and did wake till dawn, when Otho quietly nudged him up. They set on the road again, so close now to the West-gate, only half a day away. Now the air was colder despite the season creeping toward summer, and it filled Bilbo with memories of a dark time.

Rory had gone quiet some days ago, and no amount of coaxing or teasing would bring him from his silence. Bilbo was quiet as well, but he took charge where he had to, pushing his cousins and pulling Rory along gently. He knew how Rory felt.

It was the same way he felt every time he looked up at the Misty Mountains.

When they reached the West-gate hours later, Bilbo stood and stared at it in silence, clutching Rory's hand and feeling dread creep into his mind. Oh, how much he yearned to turn around and run the other way. For a moment Bilbo felt hysteria seep into his thoughts. Had this all been a wonderful dream? Was he unconscious even now, and would he wake in Azog's clutches?

But then Drogo appeared at his other side, and he heard Otho complaining to Bofur about having to leave the ponies with the Dwarves at the outpost there. Bilbo saw then that there were Dwarves coming out of the West-gate, already opening to Gandalf's pleased look. The Dwarves went to take their cart, promising that their belongings would reach the central cave system via carts and rails.

Bilbo was dubious enough that he forgot, for a few minutes, that he was going back to the place of his imprisonment for seven years.

Soon, though, Bilbo stood still again, watching as Gandalf, Bofur, Rory, Otho, and Drogo walked into the shadows, following the other Dwarves. A shiver went straight up his spine as he felt warmth on his back, and he closed his eyes for a moment, imagining a moment almost eight years ago. But there was no one behind him to see his back, lit by the edge of the sun. There was no one to see him square his shoulders and lift his head in determination. There was no one to watch him take those steps into the darkness he had feared for so long.

There was no one there, yet Bilbo felt eyes on him all the same.

~

(Excerpt from Seven Years, Chapter 1)

The mountains in the distance loomed closer, taller, until they blocked the sky and the air grew colder. But instead of climbing the mountains, the Hobbits were led, wretched and shaking, into a small vale that held a sudden dip in the land, and at the bottom of this decline was a deep and sinister cave.

Oh, Bilbo did not want to go into that cave. He dreaded it -- he dug his heels into the ground and would not move. His cousin and mother followed his example, and other Hobbits as well, and Uncle Gordy stood in front of them when the Orcs turned back to bark at them.

"Rûmol!" one Orc snarled and stalked up to them, but Bilbo spat into his face. The Orc struck him, and he hit the ground violently, and he might have died that day -- had his mother not stepped in front of him and glared fury up at the Orc who had hurt her son.

"Don't touch him," he heard, Belladonna's once sweet and musical voice cold with hatred, and she might have died, too, if the Orc had not been pulled back by the one who had taken interest in them.

"Ulu-izub kulut," it snapped at the other, and in an instant it had pulled its great weapon and beheaded the Orc who had attacked them. Bilbo gagged when the Orc head rolled to the ground, retching on the dry grass, and then he was hauled up, their captor clutching him close and growling at the others. "Nargraurol!" it shouted, and the other Orcs backed off, hissing but leaving Bilbo and Belladonna alone. Past the crowd around them, Bilbo saw the pale face of his cousin, hazel eyes fastened to his mother and the Orc.

"Zaz akashuga kulut thrak Azog-tramurz-û," the Orc announced, but Bilbo understood none of it. The darkness of the Orc's tone and the cry the surrounding Orcs made was enough to make him shiver with fear.

The Orc yanked him up, and he cried out as his shoulder was jostled. He must have injured it in his fall -- but there was nothing for it, as the Orcs were already moving forward, and he was being dragged along with his mother.

"No!" Bilbo cried, and he pulled back against the rope. He would not go into that dark place! He would not go into that terrible abyss! He would rather die -- but then the Orc grabbed his mother and squeezed her until she screamed, and Bilbo reacted without thinking, rushing forward to her side. The Orc laughed and let go, and Bilbo was left shaking, enraged by the easy manipulation, and terrified for his mother, who was shivering from the shock.

"I'm sorry, mama," Bilbo whispered, but Belladonna only shook her head.

"You have nothing to be sorry for, dear heart. Whatever happens after this, we will be brave," she said clearly, her strong voice carrying above the growls and grunts of the Orcs, and the Hobbits around her straightened, taking her words into their hearts and believing them. Then she squared her shoulders and strode forward into the darkness, and the Hobbits followed her, tears trickling over dirty cheeks at the inevitability of their doom.

Bilbo stared at the line of her back, lit by the edge of the sun, until shadow was cast over them all.

Chapter Text

Eight years ago, Bilbo had walked a path through these mountains in two days of darkness. Two days of fear, of never-ending shadow, of absolute terror at what would befall him, his mother, and his family. The caves had echoed with sinister sounds, Orc drums in the distance and snarls as the monsters had roamed in the darkness, leaving the Hobbits shaking with utter despair.

Now the halls were brightly lit with torches, and a proper road could be seen, with resting points in different caves along the way. There were clear pools of water that Bilbo had never known existed, deep and dark and silent in the caves. The caves were quiet, but not unnaturally so; Bilbo heard dripping, rocks falling, the murmur of voices as Dwarves approached.

They were not the only company on the road through the Misty Mountains. Other Dwarves passed them, heading to Ered Luin to gather their families or down south with trade in mind. Bofur told them that long ago, this road had bustled with activity, as evidenced by the caves that still held ancient plumbing and rooms, where they rested during the night. The Dwarves had cleaned these rooms and filled them with beds, tables, and chairs, a kindness for weary travelers to take their rest.

The entire trip felt surreal to Bilbo. He barely slept. He may have shut his eyes to rest for a handful of minutes. Everywhere he looked, he expected to see Azog's face. What had he been thinking, coming back to this place? For all that the Dwarves kept these mountains well-guarded now, Bilbo was afraid -- and he worried, deeply, for the Hobbits who would follow, who would take one look at these mountains and start crying.

Yet his second journey into the depths of Moria was completely unlike his first. Despite his fears, Bilbo saw no Orcs. He heard no war drums. He heard none of the dark speech he despised. He saw only Dwarves, brightly lit tunnels, clean water, and the faces of his cousins, smiling despite the tense air. Bofur seemed more cheerful as they saw more signs of cleaning and work done, more evidence that these were no longer caves of Orcs, but halls of Dwarves.

All of the company save Bilbo had been given tokens as they had entered through the West-gate. The service guard had attempted to give one to Bilbo, too, but then Bofur had leaned over and whispered, "Pull out the key Thorin gave you, Bilbo," and the guard's eyes had widened with awe. Then he had hurried to give all of Bilbo's companions completely different tokens than before, gold instead of silver, twisted bits of metal that hunt on leather thongs.

Khuzdibâh, the guard had whispered. So Bilbo had left the necklace hanging on his chest, though it felt strange, as he had long kept it hidden. Not out of shame, but just from a feeling -- that he needed to keep his necklace safe.

He still felt odd, knowing that everyone could see Thorin's token and his rings, especially his magic ring. He still had not yet asked Gandalf about it. He had thought to look it up in Lord Elrond's library at one point, but the notion had fallen to the back of his mind, until he had only remembered after they had already left Rivendell. To forget something so important -- magic -- left Bilbo unsettled. Yet he was afraid to ask Gandalf, in case Gandalf thought the ring was too powerful for Bilbo's hands. It was his. He did not want to give it up.

Everyone was too interested in Thorin's key to notice the rings, anyway.

Rory looked just as bewildered as Bilbo felt. His younger cousin had still not spoken, but Bilbo stayed near him, knowing that he was tense. It eased his mind, too, to be close to Rory, who had known that same journey eight years ago.

Neither Bilbo nor Rory slept, that first night in Moria. They did not dare. Instead, Bilbo convinced Gandalf and Bofur both to let them keep watch, and after much grumbling and many concerned looks, the Dwarf and Wizard rested while Bilbo and Rory stayed awake together. They sat in silence, clutching each other's hands tightly, curled up together in one of the large chairs in one of the resting halls.

Only once did Rory break his silence. "It's so quiet," he murmured, and Bilbo nodded, Rory's curls brushing his cheek. In Azog's halls, there had always been noise; Orc drums and music, the clanging of iron and anvil, the snarls of Orcs fighting, the thuds of Trolls below -- it had been loud, living in that place. They had not realized until after returning home how strange it was to sleep without that constant racket.

The serene quiet disturbed them.

So Bilbo began to hum under his breath, melodies that he had heard from their mothers long ago, back when they were both mere fauntlings and the darkness held no worse than an unlit candle; songs that Great Aunt Adaldrida had sung to them in the days when there was no hope; and a lullaby that a Dwarf with blue, blue eyes had sung to him months ago.

"We'll make it through, won't we? We'll be okay, right?" Rory whispered, turning his face from Bilbo's shirt.

Oh, Rory. "We will be happy again," he promised softly.

Rory's shoulders jolted, and Bilbo felt a sob against his neck. He pulled Rory closer, tucking his cousin's face against his chest, wrapping himself around Rory so tightly that he felt every hiccup, every tremble, every flinch as Rory tried to keep his crying quiet. Just as he had countless times before with so many Hobbits, Bilbo let Rory cry his pain away, staring past his cousin's curls into the flickering shadows. He did not see Otho watching them, eyes dark in the quiet, while Drogo slumbered away.

He would not let Rory, or any of his precious family, be hurt by this place ever again.

~

The walk into Khazad-dûm left Bilbo speechless for some time. Rory was just as stunned, while Drogo and Otho boggled at the halls around them, and Bofur walked with a skip to his gait. Gandalf watched them all but said little, and Bilbo tried to contain his shock.

There was not a single hint of Azog's clan left. Not a single Orc shanty, nor any of the wooden pathways and rope ladders, nor any weapons of Orkish make. The halls smelled clean, of pine, fire, and metal. The walls gleamed beneath the lantern light, and Bilbo's mouth was open as he looked up, seeing details in the stone that he had never known existed. He saw statues that had been covered by Orc huts, rooms that were opened wide and lit warmly, great lanterns that shone with different colors of light, and thick tapestries covering the walls, depicting great Dwarves of old. These were not Azog's halls; they were the halls of Dwarves.

In Azog's throne room, Bilbo was startled to see that the throne was still there, but it was empty of any person, holding instead a long silken cloth with an ancient crown. He looked to its side, expecting a small cushion, and he was shocked further when he did not see it. His fists clenched at his sides, but he looked away, focusing on the Dwarf that was rising from the long table that sat before the throne, with seven chairs stretched around it.

Balin, Lord of Moria.

"Welcome to the halls of Khazad-dûm!" Balin announced, smile stretching across his face. He was cheerier than Bilbo remembered, and he greeted Gandalf and Bofur with familiarity as he reached them. Then Balin turned to Bilbo and his cousins, and he bowed low, gaze fixing upon the key that hung on Bilbo's chest. The Dwarf's eyebrows creased slightly, but smoothed soon enough. Bilbo started, bowing in return.

"And greetings to you, khuzdibâh Bilbo Baggins. Be welcome in these halls, that belong to Dwarves once again by your heroic deeds," Balin said, keen eyes resting on Bilbo's face. He nodded, tense but determined to act normal.

"Thank you for your gracious welcome, Lord Balin," Bilbo replied as Balin straightened. "These are my cousins, Rorimac Brandybuck, Otho Sackville-Baggins, and Drogo Baggins. They are under my care while we travel." His cousins all bowed awkwardly.

"Good to meet you, lads! I hope your journey was safe?" Balin asked, smiling at them.

Beside him, Bofur winced. "About that, Lord Balin -- and congratulations on your lordship! I knew you were perfect for the job --"

Balin waved a hand. "Bofur, we have known each other since you were a lad. You may all call me Balin, please," he said, looking a bit dismayed. Bilbo smiled a bit, but his gaze kept falling past the older Dwarf to the throne beyond. He kept expecting a familiar voice to call for him.

"Yes, er, sorry, Balin. There were a few complications," Bofur hedged, large hands waving around, and Balin raised his thick white eyebrows.

"What sort of complications?" Balin asked, but Bofur only glanced at Bilbo, who ignored them both. He was sure that Bofur had plenty to tell his fellow Dwarves, and he wished to retire to a bed, or an inn if there was one, or something that was far away from this wretched room.

Else he be tempted to go to the place he knew most, to see what remained of the life he had destroyed.

"Well, I am sure all of you are very tired. But be welcome in Khazad-dûm! Your rooms have already been prepared for you, and supper will be set up soon. Join me for breakfast in the morning, and we can discuss everything then," Balin said, and he turned to call for another Dwarf, who came up silently beside them. "This is Benri, your guide. He will take you to your rooms. Have a restful sleep!"

Then they were being shuffled out of the room, and if Bilbo's gaze skirted a spot on the floor that had once held a familiar stain but was long cleaned away, he made sure no one noticed. No one but Rory would understand, anyway.

~

Benri led them to a long, brightly lit hallway with beautiful angular designs in the walls, lined with doors with different colored gems in the center of each doorway. Bofur seemed jittery as they walked along the hallway, which was much more ornate than other hallways, and was one that Bilbo had never seen before. This hall had been in a part of Azog's halls that he had rarely visited, and now he saw why; it was bedrooms and suites, that surely Azog would have cared little for.

The doors were made of wood and thus could be opened normally, so Bilbo did not pay much attention as the Dwarf pointed to each door and gave his cousins their pick of the rooms. Gandalf retired at the beginning of the hall, but Rory, Otho, and Drogo hesitated, obviously waiting for Bilbo to make his choice.

"Mister Baggins has been given this room," their guide said, leading the small group to the last door, which was larger than the others and held three gems instead of one in its wooden frame. The gems were blue, and they caught Bilbo's attention. Deep, dark blue that glistened in the firelight; he thought of blue, blue eyes and shivered.

The guide opened the door, and when no one else stepped forward, Bilbo sighed and walked into the room. Its interior surprised him; brightly lit as the hall was, with simple tapestries on the walls to keep the room insulated. There was a fireplace and a long sofa with pillows, and a large Dwarf bed in the center of the room, piled with furs and blankets, with a long rug curving around the wooden frame. Bilbo could smell the pine and straw from the new furniture, and the strange scent helped him relax somewhat. He set his bag down by the door.

"Thank you," Bilbo said quietly, and Benri walked over to a door in the corner of the room. Bilbo noticed that his cousins had turned away to argue, Rory through stilted motions, over which room they wanted, so he followed the Dwarf, Bofur trudging alongside him. Bofur's eyes had widened, but when Bilbo shot him a curious glance, Bofur shook his head and said nothing.

"This door leads to your bathing quarters. We have upgraded the plumbing to a very efficient model, so you and your company may enjoy hot water at any time. Do you know how to work the baths? They can be a bit tricky," the guide said, starting to show them how to work the knobs, and Bilbo gave him a flat look.

"I did live here for seven years," Bilbo said shortly, glancing past the Dwarf into the washroom, which looked, hauntingly, like the bath in Azog's room. He turned away, ignoring the Dwarf's wide-eyed look and Bofur's sharp intake of breath, and looked across the room at the bed. The furs reminded him, for a terrible moment, of his cushion from Azog's room -- but then he looked closer, and he thought that they were more familiar than that.

"Did someone sleep here before me?" Bilbo asked, and Benri began to stammer.

"I, I am not sure if I'm allowed to say --"

"Tell him," Bofur growled, and the Dwarf guide faltered.

"King Thorin stayed the winter in this room," the guide said in a stiff voice, and Bilbo breathed in sharply. Then he felt his face warm abruptly, realizing that he had recognized those furs -- they had been Thorin's.

Bofur seemed to recognize that Bilbo needed a moment to himself, and he hustled the guide out of the room, while Bilbo tried to calm down. It was almost too much -- being in this place again, with so many memories of Azog, and yet at every turn, in every room, there was some remnant of Thorin, chasing away the horror.

He took a deep breath, then released it slowly. When he had some control of himself, he walked to the doorway where the guide and Bofur waited, Bofur glaring silently at the guide. Bofur looked over at him and nodded, and Bilbo looked past him to see three of the doors closest to him open. He heard his cousins' voices inside, and he let out a sigh.

The guide cleared his throat, still cowed by Bofur's frown, but determined to continue his duties. "Lord Balin has invited you and your company to breakfast with him in the morning. As the hour is late, supper will be sent up shortly. Please do not hesitate to ask if you need anything." Then the guide fled, under Bofur's glare.

"I'll talk to Balin --"

"No, it's alright," Bilbo said, suddenly feeling very tired. "I think we should all take a rest. He said supper is on the way, and it's been a long day, and... I would like to be alone tonight, Bofur. I'm sorry."

Bofur looked over at him with concerned eyes that Bilbo would not meet. He knew Bofur meant well, but he was quickly becoming overwhelmed. After a moment, Bofur nodded. "Ye don't have to apologize, Bilbo," he said gruffly, reaching up to grip Bilbo's shoulder. "I get it. You go rest, and I'll manage the lads from here."

Bilbo gave him a small, grateful smile. "Thank you. If they need anything..."

Bofur smiled back at him. "I think I can handle three Hobbit lads for a night. Go on, we'll be fine. We'll see you in the morning."

Bofur left the room, closing the door behind him, and Bilbo let out a deep sigh, reaching up to rub at his eyes. Then he walked over to the bed and fell, face-forward, into the pile of furs, frustration welling up in his throat. He took a deep breath -- and his breath caught.

Thorin.

The bed smelled like safety. Like stone and fire, cloves and pine, and a faint musk that he remembered. When he had stayed in Thorin's tent, it had been beneath his notice, but he remembered it all the same. When Thorin had hugged him, so gently, Bilbo had smelled it but never realized what it was. When they had spoken that last morning and he had held Thorin's hands, Bilbo had smelled it, again -- and not once had he thought, This is Thorin's smell.

Now Bilbo realized what it was, and it made him feel safe.

He pulled himself completely onto the bed and burrowed into the furs and blankets, melting into the soft fabrics. Long moments passed, and Bilbo relaxed, slowly, as he remembered those days when he had slept in Thorin's tent and experienced his first nights of freedom. Thorin, grumbling late in the evening over his maps, while his guards had tried to cajole him into sleeping. The sounds of humming late at night, deep in his dreams, when Bilbo had tossed under flashing nightmares of his past.

He breathed in that heady combination of soothing scents again, and sighed. Then he breathed it in again, and again, until his body was completely relaxed. The candles burned in glass lanterns on the walls, flickering as the wax melted. He could hear distant clangs, water dripping in pipes, murmuring beyond the walls; the fire crackling in the hearth. But mostly, it was quiet, and Bilbo could hear more than anything the sound of his own heartbeat.

He began to hum, and he did not quite remember all the notes, but it came to him easily just the same. He fell asleep to a dream of blue, blue eyes and fingers running through his curls.

~

When Bilbo woke, hours had passed. The fire was low, and Bilbo blinked in the dim light, hardly recognizing where he was. He breathed in the scent in the blankets and mumbled, "Thorin?" sitting up as the thick fur fell off his body. Then he realized that he was not in Thorin's tent, but in a room in Moria rebuilt.

At least no one was around to hear his slip of the tongue.

Bilbo crawled out of bed and went to tend to the fire, working until it was roaring again, and then he looked around, rubbing his arms and shivering. He was still in his travel clothes, and his bag remained by the door. There was a silver tray by the door, covered, and Bilbo went to investigate it. He found a plate of familiar Dwarven fare, which made him smile, remembering the heavy meals he had eaten with Bofur and Bifur.

He ignored the meal for now, though, determined that after a week of travel, he would have a proper bath.

Bilbo took the time to fetch clean clothes and his bathing supplies from his pack. Then he went to the bath, carrying a candle, and he had to stand on a small ledge to reach the lantern.

Then he looked around the room, and what he saw made him tense up with resentment.

The room was not exactly like the bath in Azog's quarters, but it was close enough. The room was clean, at least, and the tiles were shining in the faintly green light of the lantern. The basin of the bath was sunken in the floor, and Bilbo saw a mosaic at the bottom, of a star above an axe. Very Dwarven, and so very like his master's bath. It left Bilbo feeling nervous and unprepared for this moment.

Azog had allowed him to bathe, but never with soap, and only with cold water. There was no heated water in Azog's halls, but what was heated for food and craft. Azog himself had kept his body clean, and he had expected the same of his slave, for reasons Bilbo had never quite understood. He had suspected, though, that Azog's desire for cleanliness had more to do with scent and status than any true desire to be clean.

So much of Orc culture had been tied to how impressive an Orc looked. Azog, with his pale, greyish-white skin, had stood out no matter where he went in any crowd of Orcs, who had any combination of paints, tars, tattoos, scars, mud, blood, and dirt on their bodies, to show off their prowess. In the darkness of the caves, Azog's implicit power had been obvious with the way he stood above other Orcs. Bilbo had always suspected that Azog had kept himself clean so that his pale skin would shine in the dark caves -- so no other Orc would ever mistake him as average.

Azog had hated when Bilbo smelled of anyone other than him. He had allowed the Hobbits' scents, but he preferred Bilbo to smell only like Azog. If Bilbo had been out of the room for a while, Azog would force him to sleep in his bed, or make him wash himself, so that he smelled 'right' again. And the times in that bath, that he had stared into the dark water and thought, wouldn't it be easy --

With a sudden fury, Bilbo threw his bath bag down and fled the washroom, crouching down in the corner by the bed and covering his face. He felt panic seizing his mind, and he thought, I can't do this, I can't, I can't, until his vision grew black at the edges.

He realized he could not breathe.

He tried to inhale, but his chest would not move. His throat was closed. He grabbed for the wall and fell to the side, bumping his head against the bed, and he reached up blindly, trying to pull himself up. Instead his hands snagged one of the furs, dragging it off the bed, and it covered Bilbo completely, leaving him in complete darkness -- surrounded by Thorin's scent.

He gasped in air, so sharp it burned, and the numb sensation in the back of his mind began to fade. He inhaled through the squeeze in his throat, and again, until the pain began to recede and he no longer saw stars. He could breathe again. He was alright. He was safe. No one could hurt him here. No one would hurt him ever again.

Thorin had promised him that he would be safe.

But was he safe here? Was he safe anywhere? Here he was, back in Azog's halls, where his master's ghost might remain, waiting to haunt him. If he suspected right, Bolg had issued a warrant for his head, much like Azog had for Thorin years ago. He had no idea what he would find east of the Misty Mountains, and he feared that unknown place. He could not be safe anywhere, not truly, no matter what Thorin had promised.

He reached up to grasp the key Thorin had given him, pulling on it so hard it dug into the back of his neck. His fingers brushed the rings, and Bilbo shuddered, thinking of putting on his gold ring and vanishing forever, forgetting about his cousins and promises and simply disappearing into the darkness. How he longed for peace from the wretchedness of his life. How he craved oblivion at night, how hard it was to continue. What was the point?

He gripped the ring tightly. ...burzum ishi...

Even if he was safe, even if Azog was gone and he was no longer trapped -- what was there for him? All of his worthless titles, all of his memories that hurt so much -- he would give it all away, he would disappear into this darkness and do what he had wanted to do for seven years. It would be so easy. Fitting, even, if he went down into the tunnels and found the black mushrooms again. He would deserve it, for everything he had done to his people, to his family, to everyone who had suffered, who had only suffered more because of him --

...thrakatulûk...

But he had promised.

"You must be strong, dear heart. You must go on."

He had promised.

"Accept my token, and come to me later in life."

"You be safe out there, Bilbo Baggins, you hear me?"

"I shall visit, as will you."

"We will be happy again."

So many promises, all of them that kept Bilbo alive, all of them for his family and friends, all of them for Bilbo. How could he give them up? How could he let go of such precious people?

He could not give up. He had promised.

The black panic fell away from his thoughts, and he could think clearly again. Bilbo inhaled slowly, and he caught Thorin's scent again, grounding him. He pushed the blanket off and sat up, letting go of his necklace with a sigh. As the blanket fell to his hips, he caught a whiff of his own odor, and he made a face. Then he glanced at the washroom, daunted by the thought of another panic attack.

But he was so dirty, and if nothing else -- it would be unlike every bath he had taken in this place. It would be hot, with soap and every other luxury he had taken to using during his baths after returning to the Shire. Erestor had even given him some amazing herbed soaps, and Bilbo could not wait to try them.

So he would bathe, and he would not panic. Because he would not let Azog take this from him, too.

It was with shaking hands that Bilbo turned the knobs over the bath and flicked up a small lever, watching as hot water began to pour out of a carved spout in the wall. He watched the steam rise in the air, and his gaze focused on a small indented shelf in the wall, where several bottles stood. Curious, he pulled a few down and looked at them.

The bottles, in clear glass, held thick, viscous liquids inside them. One he recognized as oil, but the others held small bubbles suspended in the substances. One of them looked gritty, more like a paste than a liquid. Each had a certh inlaid upon the glass, but no other ways to identify them. He lifted up one of the bottles and tilted it, watching the thick liquid slide around.

It was then that Bilbo noticed the small card of paper sitting on the shelf behind the bottles. He pulled it down and turned it over, and a shiver ran up his spine when he recognized the handwriting.

Bilbo,
These are soaps some of the craftworkers made this winter. They are different from bar soaps. It is best to use them with a cloth. Rùfshâlh is a hard soap for after a day of travel or heavy work, and lavamâl is simple soap. Eshùmal is for Dwarf hair and for your skin afterwards. You may use them as you wish. For a treat, pour a bit of lavamâl under the running water.
Thorin

Bilbo began to smile when he saw his name on the paper, and his panic had simmered and faded by the end of the note. Thorin had written the Khuzdul words in Cirth, which greatly pleased Bilbo, because he remembered enough to read them. He glanced at the bottles again, understanding now what they held, and he picked up the one Thorin had said was soap. Opening it left him breathing in the heavy scent of cloves and chamomile. The same scent from Thorin's blankets.

He hesitated guiltily, glancing at the bars of soap Erestor had given him. He could use both, couldn't he? Then he tilted the bottle toward the small fountain of water, spilling some into it as Thorin had said, and his eyes widened with surprise as bubbles began to fill the tub.

He laughed and set the bottles down, kneeling by the tub and reaching out to pick up a handful of bubbles. How delightful! And the smell of them -- like tea in the winter, or a rich cake. He would have to thank Thorin, perhaps in a letter.

He took off his dirty clothes and left them in a basket by the door, then returned to the tub and switched off the water. He could feel the steam warming the room, and the thick bubbles now towered above the floor. His anxiety had receded completely to the back of his mind; this was unlike anything he had ever experienced.

Bilbo slid one foot into the water and wriggled gleefully at the heat. Then he stepped down into the basin, laughing as the bubbles surrounded him. What a treat, indeed!

~

I wonder if Bilbo found my notes, Thorin thought, leaning back into the hot, bubbly water of his bath. Did he make it to Balin safely? He sunk into the water, scrubbing at his long hair and surfacing with a deep groan. Even in these moments of privacy, he worried for the Hobbit he had left behind.

One of his greatest joys upon returning home was to have a proper washroom again. Oh, how he had missed his bathtub, and all of the other comforts of his home. Though they had fixed the plumbing and had made sturdy furniture for Khazad-dûm, his washroom there had not been nearly as good as home.

Thorin's welcome home had been grandiose, with a great feast that had gone on for hours. He still had a headache from the wine and ale he had drunk. He had been visited by nearly the entire kingdom, and no one had been happier than his siblings and nephews. And oh, how he was happy to see them, too. Everything he had done, every moment of his war march, had been for them, and for his people.

At the end, though, it had also been for a certain Hobbit. Of whom Thorin thought often. He had asked after any letters sent to him, but none had been from Bilbo. It worried him -- had Bilbo gotten his letter? Had he decided to stay in the Shire, or was he simply traveling later in the summer? Or... was he hurt, or lost, or worse -- and Thorin could not handle the thought of Bilbo giving in to his pain. But surely Bofur would have sent word, if anything was wrong?

Unless Bofur, too, had fallen -- no. They were fine. He was over-worrying.

Thorin did wonder how Bilbo would react to the room. He had hidden the letter on the shelves, where surely Bilbo would find it, drawn to books as he was. After his letter, he had written a couple of notes, to explain various things to Bilbo, as he had thought of them later -- such as about Dwarven shampoos and soaps, and of the reconstructed library, and other things.

Tomorrow, he would speak with his family and advisors about the plans for Khazad-dûm, and about everything that he had missed in his kingdom in the eight years he had been gone. He would tell them everything of his march, and he would spend the day with his nephews, and with Dwalin, and with his citizens. He was home, and he was glad.

He would also speak with Frerin and Dís about setting up a second Ravenhill outside the East-gate. They had left a few trained ravens with the outpost there, but it was not like Ravenhill, and surely both of his siblings would agree that it was important to send more to stay there, as well as to Beorn.

It had little to do with their new neighbors, nor with a certain Hobbit, who would certainly be writing to him. Thorin simply wanted to make things easier for everybody involved, especially if rebuilding Khazad-dûm was to go as planned.

I hope he got my letter.

~

When his bath was done and Bilbo had dressed in soft, clean clothes, he explored the room, bolstered by the note Thorin had left in the bath. If Thorin had left him such a note, perhaps there was also a letter? But he did not find anything on the desk, nor near the bed, and he tried to hold off his disappointment.

The room smelled of pine and cloves, even more so now after his bath. Bilbo saw now that there was a bookshelf against one wall, originally part of the stone, but with new shelves of wood. He was drawn to the bookshelf immediately, finding several tomes with rune-speak on them, and even one or two in Westron. There was a map folded up, and opening it, Bilbo found that it was the same map he had seen on Thorin's table, back in his tent so many months ago. His gaze went unerringly to the black circle around the Shire, a small sigh escaping him as he was overcome for a moment.

Soon, though, his gaze wandered to the eastern side of the map, trailing his fingers over the different points he thought he could recognize. There was Erebor, up above the great forests of Greenwood -- though on this map, it said 'Mirkwood' -- and right under it Dale and other small towns. There was a river that went off into the east, into lands Bilbo had never known about. He wondered what else lay beyond the Misty Mountains.

He ran his finger down lower, over the mountains of Mirkwood, to a small point that simply said, Beorn. Beorn lived near the edge of the mountains, close to the Anduin River and Mirkwood, and Bilbo wondered how close they would end up living to Beorn. He wondered if Beorn was truly as nice as he was kind.

He folded the map up and put it away, pulling out one of the books leaning against the side of the bookcase, and as he did, he realized that something was sitting beside the book, hidden in its shadow.

A jolt ran through his chest.

A scroll, tied with a blue ribbon. Carefully, Bilbo pulled it from its hiding place, his heart beating a bit faster. Then he unfurled it, and the same script from the card in the washroom filled the paper.

Khuzdibâh Bilbo Baggins,

I was pleased to find your letter among the parcels Bofur sent to me. Though Bofur and Fortinbras indeed explained the situation sufficiently, I enjoyed your letter and hope that my response may be even a fraction as compelling. As you call me Thorin, so I will also call you Bilbo. It is only right, between us.

May this letter find you in good health and spirit. When you read this, you will have traveled long and far from your home, back to the very source of all that changed your life. I hope that Bofur has treated you well, and that you have not gone wanting while under the care of my friend and advisor Balin. If you have need for anything while you stay in Khazad-dûm, do not hesitate to ask Balin for it.

Thank you for your letter, and for the trust you left in me. I hope that one day I feel as though I have earned such a precious gift. It will take time, but surely I will prove myself worthy of your regard.

Though our acquaintance has been short, I am glad that you wrote to me. Your letter surprised me, for I did not expect such a gift with words from you! But you continue to surprise me, and each time my opinion of you grows.

I will always endeavor to answer every question that you ask. I do not claim to be an expert, except perhaps in ruling, but even then, I have advisors and allies to counsel me. In these letters, though, only I will respond, and hopefully my knowledge will be enough to match yours.

I am glad for you, that you have found family and have a safe place to live in the Shire. I would enjoy meeting them someday. That they are alive and well is a blessing. I was very interested to realize that you are the Thain's cousin, which was quite the surprise.

What happened to your Shire was a tragedy, and I am sorry for my part in not stopping the Defiler from waging war against your kind. If I had only destroyed him sooner. If I had only defeated him in one of our battles before he could hurt you. He was my enemy, and I failed to stop him. I am sorry.

You will have a new home, though, and I will do everything in my power to assist you as you travel to the Vale. Everything that I promised you will come true. All of the comforts of the Shire will grow again in the Vale. Your people will take care of that. Let my people take care of yours, so that the future you want may happen.

As for your concerns, I believe you will do a fine job in advising your people and handling the political affairs of my side of the world. Your letter conveys your brilliance, though I already knew how intelligent and clever you are. Do not trust the words of elves, though, especially not in dwarf affairs. I will send books to Beorn's home after I reach my kingdom, with information about our side of the world that your books may not contain. I will also send books on herbology and agriculture, and a few other topics besides.

Beorn manages his own foodstuffs, and he is good at agriculture. He farms, tends animals, and makes jams, jellies, honeys, and cheeses, that he sends to Dale and Erebor to sell. I think your people and he will get along well, if your shared love of food is any indicator.

When you come into Erebor, your token as khuzdibâh will be enough to take you anywhere. Normally visitors require tokens, which you can arrange for at the service station at the entrance of Erebor. There are different types of tokens: merchant, trader, visitor, tourist, diplomat, among other kinds. These tokens are free, but are not to be taken lightly, because each has its own restrictions and rules. For you personally, though, the key I gave you will let you go anywhere in Erebor. No one will question it.

If you come -- when you come. I will help you. You need not do this alone. When I reach home, I will begin arrangements for materials, volunteers, and plans for assisting you. We can make contracts, if that is what you prefer, but you will not so easily escape my aid.

We may discuss the matter in person, but know that I will help you no matter how you try to stop me. I suspect you will try to stop me a great deal of the time, my friend. It will be an impossible task, and you should give up now. I will not be stopped, not when it comes to helping you. I owe you the world.

Everything your Shire had, your Vale will have as well. People create new lives when they step forward and keep walking. Keep looking to tomorrow. The days will pass, and before you realize it, you will be living that new life, better than before, and whole again. Your people will be happy again. They will sing again, songs of glad tidings and good cheer, and everything you told me of before will come true. All the comforts you could ask for, and the joy of a good meal at a warm hearth.

I believe that you can do it. I know that you can. You have already faced so much hardship, and now it is the easy part. Though it may seem dark and difficult at times, though you may wish to falter, know that I will be there to help you. Know that any dwarf you meet will help you, and Beorn has promised to be your ally. The elves and men will follow in our steps if they know what is good for them.

The Vale will not be the Shire. But it will be a home, and a good one. There will be easy travel between the Vale and Erebor, and trade will blossom between our nations, not to mention the trade you will undoubtedly have with the dwarves who will live in Khazad-dûm.

I think you are the only person who could do this. The hobbit I met in those caves was not bowed low, spine broken, from the worst experience any person could suffer. The hobbit I met is brave, clever, strong, resilient, and so much more than he seems.

You need not apologize to me. You can tell me anything. I will always listen to you. That is not just because of our promise -- but also because I wish to help you.

Tell me. Tell me about your anger, and your fear, and your pain. I will listen.

You are nothing like Azog. That wretch, that miserable beast, he was a monster, and you are not. You suffered abuse worse than anything I have ever seen, and it is your right as a living creature to feel anger at how he treated you. You did not deserve it. You did not deserve any of what happened to you. If you cannot speak to your cousins, or to Bofur, or to anyone else, then tell me. I will tell you, again and again, until you believe it yourself, that you are nothing like him, that how you feel is normal, and that you are not a bad person. You are good. Azog was worthless. You are worth far more.

Believe me, Bilbo. I have seen the evil of this world, and you are nothing like it. You are so much more.

Do not apologize to me for telling me your true thoughts. I wish to know them, and I welcome your letters. Rage at me. Tell me of your happiness. Tell me of your family, of your journey so far, of everything that you think about at night. I wish to be the one who understands you the best. That is the vow between us, and more. I wish to call you my friend, and I wish you to call me yours.

What do you wish to know of my family? My parents and grandparents have passed, but I have two siblings, my younger brother Frerin, and our younger sister Dís. She has two sons, Fíli and Kíli, to whom I am close. They are wild children, but they will become strong as they mature. Dwalin and Balin are cousins of mine, and I have more cousins besides, distant relations of past kings' siblings. I have no children of my own, nor do any of my siblings have spouses anymore. I never had one. I have my siblings and my nephews, and that has always been enough.

In answer to your other questions, yes, the library in Erebor is vast, so vast that even our greatest scholars have not fully explored it. There are tomes from dwarf clans from all over the world, detailing history that we dare not share with outsiders. There are halls in that library dedicated entirely to forging, craftwork, and silversmithing. There are dozens and dozens of books of poetry, literature, and philosophy. Everything that drives a society lays within the walls of our library. It is the cultural center of the entire East. No other nation can boast of a library as vast and varied as ours. I invite you to explore it at your leisure when you visit me. That includes learning Khuzdul, though you may find that some would restrict that particular knowledge. I wish not to restrict anything from your eyes. You are khuzdibâh. You may read what you wish.

I shall pass your word on to Óin, and to the chefs under Balin's watch, so that they may prepare for the hobbits when they come. Seven meals, truly? The table of dwarves must seem small to you in comparison. Perhaps your seven hobbit meals equal about three dwarf meals? We received our supplies from cities of Men, through trade and work. I am sure that Beorn will do well to help you with agriculture for your people, and in the meantime, there will be aid from Erebor and Dale.

I hope that you enjoy Khazad-dûm as it should be. We worked all winter to clean and rebuild the city, and I daresay it will be completely unlike the halls you lived in before. If anything makes you uncomfortable, or you foresee some complication that will upset your people, do not hesitate to let Balin know. He will take care of it.

I have not forgotten our promise, either. I will wait for you. You may take all the time in the world, kindly child of the west. We will meet again. That is what we promised, after all.

What can a simple hobbit do for a king of dwarves? Anything, Bilbo. Anything that you can, as I will do for you. And you are no simple hobbit.

What can you do for me? You can come visit me, and you can let me aid your people. You can tell me the darkness that haunts you, so that I may pull it from your mind and give you peace. You can be my friend, so that I may be yours.

What you must ask yourself is not what you can do to repay me, but what I must do to repay you, Bilbo Baggins. Azog was threatening to kill me and every last member of my family. He would have brought his armies to my kingdom's door and destroyed every last dwarf in my halls. You saved my family and my people from that monster. You gave up so much, suffered so much, and here you are, begging me to let you repay me? Let me repay you. Let me give back to you what was taken from you. Let me give you the freedom that is rightly yours.

Write to me. I will write back. I look forward to your every letter.

Sincerely yours,
Thorin

Bilbo stared down at Thorin's signature, signed thoughtlessly in Westron, then carefully scripted in Cirth. His eyes ran up the page again, reading the words over and over, yet not seeing them, not knowing them anymore but for what he heard in his mind, in Thorin's voice: You can be my friend, so that I may be yours.

He did not deserve this kindness.

He hiccupped, and he realized that he was sitting on the floor, and that his cheeks were wet. He gasped and wiped at his face, but the tears kept coming, and he covered his eyes, holding the letter away from him.

"Thorin," Bilbo gasped, hiccupping again. "How can you -- idiot dwarf," he whispered, thinking not of the King who had held his sword aloft to save him, but of the grumbling Dwarf who scowled over maps and made his worrying soldiers go on extra rounds to avoid going to bed. Someone whom Bilbo could call friend, though he did not deserve it.

He let out a keening noise and sobbed, dropping the letter and wiping his face with his sweater sleeve. He had thought Thorin would write some advice and little more, but this -- he had not expected such a letter. He had not dared to hope that Thorin would respond to his fears. He had fretted so, after sending his letter off with the Dwarves, about talking so candidly with Thorin, who surely would not have time for him -- but Thorin had made time. He had gifted Bilbo with so much, and he asked for nothing in return. Nothing but Bilbo's company and friendship.

Rage at me. Tell me of your happiness. Tell me of your family, of your journey so far, of everything that you think about at night. I wish to be the one who understands you the best.

Bilbo reached out to pick up the letter again, reading over the lines of script, tracing his fingers over Thorin's signature. How could Thorin know him so well? But then, he had told so much of himself in his first letter, and they had known each other for a while, though short. It was not fair -- Thorin saw him so easily, yet he underestimated Thorin every time.

Did Thorin rage as he did? Did Thorin fear as he did? Thorin had said so in his letter, but yet he wrote to Bilbo with such kindness. A little imperious, but Bilbo thought that came with the title of being King. Still, so kind, just as he had been in the camp. He wanted to know Thorin more. He wanted to know what Thorin wanted, what Thorin feared, what Thorin thought about at night.

He worried, though. Thorin was... imperious, yes, if not outright manipulative in his eloquence. He recognized the signs. Had he not lived with Azog, the most manipulative and cunning of Orcs? He knew manipulation when he saw it, and Thorin did it thoughtlessly, for what he believed was Bilbo's good.

Bilbo did not let others manipulate him. He called Gandalf on it every time. He allowed Bofur to try to ply him with tales of Erebor, but he stopped at Bofur trying to get him to agree to anything. Rory thought he did not know when his cousin intentionally used those pleading eyes to get his way, and Bilbo allowed it every time, because he loved Rory. No one else, though, was allowed to manipulate him.

Thorin, though...

We may discuss the matter in person, but know that I will help you no matter how you try to stop me. I suspect you will try to stop me a great deal of the time, my friend. It will be an impossible task, and you should give up now. I will not be stopped, not when it comes to helping you. I owe you the world.

What can you do for me? You can come visit me, and you can let me aid your people. You can tell me the darkness that haunts you, so that I may pull it from your mind and give you peace. You can be my friend, so that I may be yours.

Thorin's promises, again and again, to help his people -- he was almost insulted that Thorin would not let him take care of his own people! Yet he was touched, and so thankful, for the kindness Thorin was extending. He would have to refuse, though, because he had the money to pay for supplies, and he did not want his people to be indebted to Thorin as he was. Had Bofur not mentioned that Thorin's sister was head of the Guilds and managed international contracts? Perhaps she would see more reason than Thorin, who, for all of his good intentions, did not see the damage he could do with his gifts.

Or perhaps... Thorin wanted the Hobbits indebted to him. No, he couldn't, Bilbo thought. He read those lines again. No, Thorin only wanted to help them. Thorin was grateful for his aid, and the guilt that spilled out through Thorin's words -- surely he did not think to attempt to manipulate an entire people?

Bilbo wondered if he was in over his head, with his friendship with Thorin.

Yet the letter made him happy. He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped at his face, clearing the signs of crying away. Someone who cared for him this deeply, who tried at every turn to make him comfortable -- from putting him in a familiar place to leaving him the makings for a bubble bath -- and Bilbo doubted him?

He felt wretched for thinking so little of Thorin, if only for a moment.

I will wait for you.

Bilbo's cheeks warmed, and he ran his fingernail across the line, burning the words into his memory. Thorin's promise. He reached up to grip the key Thorin had given him, the weight familiar in his hand. If Thorin wished to be his confidant, then Bilbo would aspire to be the same for Thorin.

He picked himself up from the floor and went to fetch his forgotten dinner, pulling a blanket to the chair by the fire and curling up to read the letter again, a smile playing on his lips.

Chapter Text

"Hey, Bofur, can I talk to you for a moment?"

Bofur turned to see Rory waiting for him outside his room. He had just stepped out to meet Balin before breakfast, and he blinked to see Bilbo's cousin standing there. He smiled genially and opened his door again. "Sure, Rory, come on in," Bofur said.

Rory wasted no time in speaking as soon as the door closed. "I need you to distract Bilbo for as long as possible today." The usually cheerful Hobbit, who Bofur had noticed had been rather quiet the past few days, carried a solemn, serious expression, his mouth turned down in a frown.

Bofur raised his eyebrows, curious and a little wary. "Any particular reason? I don't mind watching out for him, but I'd like to know what for," he replied.

Rory nodded, glancing at the doorway as if concerned that Bilbo would open the door right then. "I've got something I have to do, and Bilbo can't know any of it. It would hurt him too much. I have to protect him," Rory said quietly, his gaze fierce, and Bofur straightened slightly.

"It's not dangerous, is it?"

Rory shook his head. "It won't harm anyone. But this is for his peace of mind, and mine... and for many other Hobbits as well. I don't want to explain any more than that. Sorry, Bofur," Rory finished. He met Bofur's gaze again, looking ready to fight him.

Bofur eyed him for a moment, trying to make sense of what Rory was not telling him, but he truly had no idea what Rory intended to do. Rory and Bilbo had spent seven years in this place, so they undoubtedly knew many more of its secrets than Bofur ever would. He did not like the idea of letting a young Hobbit go off on his own, but he could relate strongly to Rory's desire to protect Bilbo. From what, he did not know, but he decided then that he would trust Rory.

"Aye, I'll watch over him, lad. We'll be in a meeting with Balin for much of the morning, so whatever business you're taking care of, best have it done by lunch. Good?" Bofur asked, and he felt his mouth twitch with a bit of pride as Rory nodded and finally cracked a smile.

"Thank you, Bofur. That should be plenty of time," Rory replied, some tension in his gaze easing. They left the room together then, Rory going to wake the boys while Bofur went to knock at Bilbo's door. Whatever old ghosts haunted this place, Bofur would do his best to safeguard his friend's mind and dignity -- even if it meant trusting a young Hobbit who refused to tell Bofur the truth.

As Rory entered Drogo's room, Bofur waited for Bilbo to respond, but there was no answer. Even as Drogo and Otho began to surface, rubbing their eyes and yawning, and Bofur knocked a few more times, their Hobbit did not come to the door. Bofur exchanged glances with Rory, then knocked one more time and said, "Bilbo, I'm coming in!" and pushed the door open.

"Bilbo?" Rory called over Bofur's shoulder, his voice raising until Drogo grabbed his shoulder and shushed him hurriedly.

For Bilbo lay asleep, curled up in the center of the large bed, resting deeply with one hand pushed against several pieces of paper. The tension in Bofur's shoulders loosened when he saw his friend so relaxed. He shot the three boys a look and crept closer to Bilbo, picking up one of the thick furs -- which was rather familiar, though Bofur would contemplate that later -- and laying it over Bilbo's sleeping form. A quick glance at the papers identified Thorin's handwriting, though he did not read any of it.

Then he left, ushering the boys out and down the hall, chuckling as the three Hobbits whispered to each other about their cousin. Even Rory was talking, though he still carried a dark look in his eyes. Bofur would leave him be about it, though -- so long as it did not endanger anyone. Then he would be obligated to take care of it.

Best get the lads fed and talk to Balin, and then see if Bilbo had risen by then. It would be easy to distract him if he was sleepy and hungry. If only Bifur were here to help him; his older cousin had been particularly good at keeping Bilbo's mind off his troubles. Bofur did well enough on his own, though.

Breakfast passed easily enough. Balin inquired after Bilbo, shared glances with Bofur, and nodded agreeably to know that he was still sleeping. The three Hobbit boys boggled over the size of a dwarven tablespread, and Bofur ate with an ease he had not felt in a while. He had enjoyed his time with the Hobbits, but it was good to be amongst his own kin again, especially friends who knew him. He did not miss Balin's effort to catch his gaze and raise his eyebrows, snorting into his cup and winking at his old friend. They had quite a lot to discuss later.

Gandalf had mysteriously disappeared, but Bofur was unbothered by the fact. Wizards would do what they wanted, and who was he to stop Gandalf from roaming about? The halls of Khazad-dûm had been completely renovated, and Bofur could see the efforts of the seven different clans in the remodeling.

The ancient twisting, mathematical knots of the Longbeards, strong and firm in the walls, surviving even after centuries. The iron-wrought doors of the Ironfists and great metalwork of the Broadbeams, alongside the delicate glass lanterns of the Blacklocks and tapestries of the Stiffbeards. The leatherwork of the Firebeards and the heavy stone furniture of the Stonefoots. All of the aspects of the seven different clans mingled here, making Bofur at once proud of his own clan and interested in the clans that he had seen only little before. What would Khazad-dûm do for them in the future? It had already brought them together, united under Thorin's march. How much more would the Dwarves prosper as a people?

He hoped that it impressed the Hobbits and Gandalf as much as it impressed him. He had never seen so many members of the different clans together, working alongside each other like this. Thorin had done this, and Bofur was all too glad to be his friend.

At last when breakfast was over, Rory caught Bofur's gaze and gave a small nod. Bofur turned to Drogo and Otho and loudly caught them in a discussion on what dwarvish things they might like to try in a community of dwarrows, and when Rory complained of a headache, they only waved him away, enthralled by Bofur's list of things to do in the city. Or so Bofur thought, until he noticed Otho and Drogo exchanging a glance and looking at the door together.

Sharp boys. They were related to Bilbo, after all, but Bofur had not survived sitting for half a dozen of Bombur's children to be done in by a couple of Hobbit lads. He held onto their attention for at least half an hour more, urging them to empty their plates -- which, much to Otho and Drogo's suspicion, continued to be refilled -- until Otho began to moan about his belly and Drogo was giving Bofur dirty looks.

"We should get Bilbo and Rory and go on a walk," Drogo said, stubborn to the core, which sounded agreeable enough to Bofur.

"We'll let Rory have a bit of a kip, but the four of us can go wander. Mayhap visit the kitchen?" Bofur offered teasingly, and Otho gave him a dark look.

Bofur was reminded of those mornings with Bilbo and Bifur, watching Bifur sneak more food onto the Hobbit's plate and stuffing the Hobbit full. Bilbo had been so skinny, back then -- skin and bones, and pain in his eyes and shadows in his every glance. He had flinched at every quick movement, every loud noise, every large Dwarf that walked past him -- and Bofur had been able to do so little to help him. The best he knew, he had learned from his brother; feed the body, and you feed the soul with it.

He felt a sudden protectiveness over these Hobbits, who were moaning and scowling at him, but he caught the smiles tugging at the corners of their mouths and the satisfied looks they gave their plates. Just like Bilbo.

He would make sure that they, and Bilbo, did not go wanting in these halls. It was more than just his duty to Thorin, now; he cared about these Hobbits and their ties. He wanted to take care of them. He offered Otho and Drogo a cheerful grin and stood, watching as their expressions brightened.

"Let's go get your cousin. There's lots to see in Khazad-dûm, and best to get Bilbo fed before we start!" Best to keep them all together, too, Bofur thought, eyeing Otho and Drogo, clever and sneaky as they were. Bilbo was difficult enough to handle, but he would have his hands full with all three of them. Rory would have been even worse; and it was ironic that Bofur was doing this as a favor to Rory, of all Hobbits.

But first, to wake Bilbo.

Except when Bofur reached their hallway and knocked on the Hobbit's door, Bilbo did not answer. The room was empty, the bed neatly made, the papers rolled up again on the desk.

Bilbo was nowhere to be found.

 

~

When Bilbo finally dragged himself from his warm bed, his room was nearly dark, but for the tiny glowing lines that ran through the walls in intricate patterns. He blinked in the darkness and sat up, his hands skirting over thick paper, and he smiled as he remembered Thorin's letter.

Then he heard a distant clang, echoing through tunnels far away, and he remembered where he was. His smile dropped from his face.

Azog's halls.

No.

Balin's halls. The Dwarves' halls. Thorin's halls, even, to an extent --

...completely unlike the halls you lived in before.

That might be true. He would have to walk these halls again, and perhaps they were changed for good. Perhaps the stench of Orcs was truly gone -- and yet a few times Bilbo had caught those old scents, of rotting straw and putrid tar, yesterday. It made him sick.

But this had been his life for seven years. He wanted to see what had changed.

He wanted to see what was the same.

It was easy to get away from his family and the Dwarves. Bofur had taken the boys to breakfast, which meant that Bilbo could get dressed and slip from the room without them ever noticing. Even easier to avoid the various Dwarves walking around the halls, on their way to this mine or that room. He knew of dozens of different hidden walkways and passages that, while they had been cleaned since he was last here, were too far out of the way for most Dwarves to use.

Walking through the halls shocked Bilbo. Nothing of his old home -- for all that he had hated it, Azog's halls had been his home -- remained, but for the walls and a lingering sense of dinginess. All of the filth and mess had been cleared away. He kept running his hands over the walls where patterns he had never known existed were etched into the stone. Once or twice he stopped to look into a room he remembered, glancing in only briefly before the sight disturbed him too much to linger. The Dwarves had done a tremendous job in reclaiming what had once been theirs.

All too soon, Bilbo was standing in front of a familiar stretch of stone, lantern in hand. The hall was empty and dark, clean of the small piles of bones and Warg hair that used to gather at the corners. There was no white Warg skulking in the shadows; Bilbo had checked twice. There were no Orc commanders snarling down the hall at visiting goblins; there were no drums in the distance, or sounds of fighting, or high laughs that grated on the ears. There were no Orcs at all.

The wall before him was cold and silent. Bilbo leaned in, licked his lips, and whispered one of the few words of Khuzdul he knew. "Janad."

The wall began to gleam, and then it cracked apart, revealing the door. Bilbo felt eyes on the back of his head and turned around quickly, but instead of the pale, scarred face he feared, he saw no one -- nothing but shadows. Quickly, he twisted his fingers into a small notch in the wall and pulled, disappearing into the room where he had slept for seven years. He turned, and what he saw took his breath away.

The room was completely empty. It was clean of all the furs, weapons, and armor that Azog had kept for himself. The walls shone, tinged black from the fire, and instead of Azog's stench, all Bilbo could smell was smoke. The fire he had started on a whim beneath Thorin's confused gaze had burned everything. Nothing remained of the life he had held in this dark, grimy place. What must have remained from the fire had been cleared from the room, the ashes swept away and the twisted remains of iron shoved into some smith to be forged anew. There was nothing -- no sign that Bilbo had lived here. No sign that Azog had held him captive for seven years. No sign of his innocence lost, nor of the pain he had held close to his heart for so long.

There was nothing.

Bilbo walked through the room, mind numb as he saw it for what it was: an empty room. He stood in the middle and turned around slowly, trying to place where Azog had hung his war armor; tried to point out where the white Warg had slept every night; tried to remember everything.

But the memories had already begun to fade, remnants of a lifetime dulled at the edges. Bilbo could point at the very spot where his cushion had rested, but he could not remember where Azog would leave his mace after a hunt. He had been able to see that life clearly in his mind for so long, and yet now, faced with the reality -- there was nothing.

His gaze cut to the washroom door, which had burned away, only the iron hinges left. He crept to the doorway and stared in, seeing that the fire had mostly left this room untouched, though the heat had warped many of the tiles. He shivered when he saw the basin in the floor, remembering cold baths and Azog's sneer. He had to look away as he was reminded of his panic attack from last night.

There was nothing here for him to remember. The space itself had moved on -- perhaps it was time that Bilbo, too, moved on.

He left the washroom and looked up at the wall where a bent hook still sat. His gaze dropped to the expanse of wall beneath it, and there -- he reached out and rubbed away some soot, finding dried blood, cracking rusty red on his fingers.

For a moment, all he could picture was Azog's face before his eyes had closed, anxious and angry with the threat of his enemy invading his halls. So that threat had come true -- and Bilbo had opened his eyes to Thorin Oakenshield, who had saved him and given him his freedom.

Had he suffered for nothing? No -- he had saved his people. If the memories of his life here were no longer heavy on his mind, then he was relieved. He would never forget what Azog had done to him. He would never forget the terrible things he had done to protect his people. He would never, ever forget his pain; he would carry it all his life. But if it hurt a little less -- just that much less, then he was glad for it.

"You're dead," he said to the room, flinching as his voice echoed, but he looked around stubbornly. "You're dead, and I'm alive. This? This is nothing to me now. This holds nothing but ash, and you burned with it. And look --" He pushed up his shirt to reveal his scar, which was softened and faded, AZOG lined in letters that would, someday, be illegible. "Every day I've rubbed this with a salve that makes it disappear. I won't be yours anymore. And someday -- someday I'll be with somebody, and they'll look at me and won't see your slave. They'll see me, Bilbo Baggins -- not your pain-bearer!"

Bilbo found himself breathing harshly as his scream faded. His hands had dropped to his sides into fists, and he blinked away tears furiously. There was nothing more for him here. Azog was dead, and Bilbo was doing everything in his power to move on, to be a Hobbit again, to be normal once more. He was nearly there. He was almost whole again.

"No more," Bilbo whispered, and then he left the room, never looking back.

~

Six years ago, Rory had watched, alongside dozens of other Hobbits, as Rollo Boffin took a terrible choice into his own hands with the taste of death. He remembered that time very well; Rollo had gotten very sick, too sick even to work, and Bilbo had sat with him for hours, talking in low tones away from the rest of the Hobbits. Then Bilbo had left, and Rollo had fallen into silence, coughing grey slick into a tattered handkerchief and wiping tears from his sunken cheeks.

Rory had watched him for a time, having known his sons Bosco and Marco Boffin (dead now, along with their mum), who had played with him just as their cousin Lobelia had played with Rory's sister Primula. What troubles had brewed behind Rollo's furrowed brow, Rory would not understand until days later.

He had spied Bilbo and Rollo talking the day before it had happened. He had seen Rollo's face light up with desperation; watched Bilbo's shoulders hunch in with every plea that Rollo gave. Rory knew Rollo had begged -- because he had crept close enough to hear them.

"You've got to, Bilbo, they're going to throw me to the Trolls. Please, please get them for me, I'll eat a hundred if that's what it takes --"

"You're asking me to give you --" And Bilbo had looked furtively around, leaving Rory to duck behind one of the pillars. He looked sick, even as Rollo looked determined.

"My wife and kids are dead, Bilbo, and there's only this maggot-rotten place. I can't stay here anymore. Please. Please, you have to help me."

"Rollo, I'm not even sure they're really poisonous. Just because they're cave mushrooms --"

"Please, Bilbo! I don't want to be eaten by a Troll! I'm as good as dead, anyway -- I want to die my way, not his way. Not like that! Please, if you've any mercy in you --"

"...Alright. Alright, I'll bring them tomorrow. But Rollo, this is -- what if they hurt just as badly --" And Rory had watched as Bilbo had bent over, breath seizing in his chest in a sob, grasping Rollo's hand tightly. Rollo had wrapped his hand around the back of Bilbo's head, ignoring his flinch, and pulled him close, whispering so low into Bilbo's ear that Rory had barely heard him.

"Nothing will hurt as much as what was done to my Druda. It's my choice, Bilbo. Don't be blaming yourself for any of it. It's not a brave thing for me to do -- but it's my choice and you can't take that from me. I won't let you blame yourself for this, alright? You're a good lad, got a good head on your shoulders. You can't know how grateful I am for this. Thank you."

Bilbo had only been able to nod, looking miserable and so very sad. "Okay. They're in a cave off from the big waterfall, so I've got to leave now, if I'm to return before he wants me back. I'll go now."

"Thank you, Bilbo my lad. Thank you for this." Rory had ducked away again when the two Hobbits separated, his heart beating fast in his chest as the weight of their conversation settled in his mind.

And Bilbo had gone away, bringing Rollo something black and slimy hours later. Rollo had kept away from the rest of them that night, but Rory had watched him after the fires had gone low, and he had watched Rollo eat the black substance when the rest had fallen asleep. Then he had laid down, and Rory had watched him, until he too had fallen asleep.

Rory had woken hours later as normal, to the morning drums and grunts of Orcs outside. Rollo Boffin had not. Lips black and his body empty of life -- Rollo had died in his sleep.

Black mushrooms were the cause, as Bilbo had miserably told them later, face pale beneath the bruises from Azog's beating. Black mushrooms that grew on the side of a cave that Bilbo had found, that he had mentioned to Rollo Boffin, and that Rollo had begged for. They were as poisonous as they looked, but Bilbo would tell them nothing more. Even months and years later, when Hobbits who had given up hope begged for the mushrooms, Bilbo would not tell a soul where to find them.

Except Rory already knew exactly where the mushrooms were. He had never seen them himself, but there was only one great waterfall in Moria, and only a few caves around it besides. So when Rory snuck away from Bofur, Drogo, and Otho, he quickly gathered supplies and went to the one place Bilbo would never, ever want him to go.

The cave was easy to find. The waterfall, once heavy but now a trickle, came out of the mouth of a massive statue of an ancient Dwarf, and there, behind the left elbow of the statue -- a cave hidden from prying eyes. Orcs would hardly care for it, given the narrow ledge and the fact that it only went back maybe forty feet. Half the floor was sunken in and ridged as if water had once drained there, and all along the back wall -- mushrooms, thick and black and glistening in the light from Rory's lantern.

Grimly, he set his lantern down and surveyed the cave, wondering how best to carry out his plan. The smoke would catch everyone's attention, but he did not want to touch the things, and if he dropped them down the crevice, they might poison the water supply. The cave had no other exit, so he would have to set the fire and leave quickly to avoid the fumes -- and then Rory realized that this might be a bit harder than he had thought. What if the smoke was poisonous too? They had never burned the mushrooms before. What if he poisoned everyone?

Determined, Rory sat down cross-legged and stared at the wall, thinking hard on what he should do.

"Rory?"

With a cry of surprise, Rory whirled around, only to find Bilbo standing a few paces behind him, staring at him in horrified shock. Rory stared back, open-mouthed, and silently cursed Bofur for failing to keep Bilbo distracted. Bilbo looked past him at the cave wall; then, to Rory's dismay, his gaze dropped to the supplies on the ground: flint, tinder, oil, and a shovel.

"What are you doing here?" Bilbo asked slowly, his voice high and trembling, as his eyes flashed with anger. Rory closed his eyes, cursed to himself, and stood to face his cousin.

~

Bofur looked around him in dismay. Five minutes ago, he had been leading Otho and Drogo through one of the old forges, pointing out old bits of knowledge to distract them. Three minutes ago, he himself had been distracted by an old friend coming up to greet him, and one minute ago, he had noticed that the two Hobbits were gone.

What was he going to do? Here he had promised to keep an eye on four Hobbits, and all of them were gone!

~

"Bilbo, it's not what it looks like. Okay, well, it's exactly --"

"What it looks like," Bilbo said slowly, staring down at the tools needed to light a fire, "is that you are being very foolish." He did not need to look at Rory to know the shame on his cousin's face, coupled with determination. Rory opened his mouth to speak again, but Bilbo held up a hand and pointed to the cave entrance. "Rorimac Brandybuck," he seethed, voice low but loud enough to echo through the cave, "Get out of here right now. Or so help me --"

Rory was scrambling toward the entrance even before Bilbo had finished speaking, but he stopped suddenly, turning to face Bilbo and frowning. "No, I won't! How did you even get here? I thought you were with Bofur!"

Bilbo scowled at him, taking a few steps forward, but Rory did not budge. "I haven't even seen Bofur today! What on the mother's green earth are you thinking? You can't burn these!" Bilbo paced further into the cave, turning to fix Rory with another glare as he stopped between his cousin and the wall of mushrooms, leaning down to gather the supplies Rory had brought.

Hands caught his wrists, and Bilbo flinched, looking up into Rory's face, and whatever expression he wore made Rory let go of him quickly. Instead Rory grabbed at the flint and oil, looking angry, but Bilbo was furious. "Bilbo, at least let me explain!"

"I don't want to hear it," Bilbo said shortly, snatching the flint from beneath Rory's fingers. "Did your parents raise you with cotton between your ears? You can't burn anything in a cave with only one exit, and you won't be able to burn them anyway -- they're wet! It'll take more than one empty-headed fauntling to deal with these things, and I won't have you do anything near them anyway! Get out! Or else I'll turn you over my knee like Aunt Mirabella would!"

Rory drew back suddenly, his mouth falling open as he stared at Bilbo. "I'm only a few years younger than you!"

Bilbo stood up and grabbed Rory's elbow, pulling him toward the exit, the heat in his chest leaving him shaking. "You are still under my care, and you are being phenomenally stupid. Let's go, just --" But he s