When Bilbo first steps back into Bag End, the first thing he does is take a long hot bath with actual soap and water. He sits in his tub and lets the heat leak slowly into his muscles, scrubbing until he thinks his skin won’t get any lighter. When he’s done, he makes himself a cup of tea. He chooses a bundle of tea leaves and lights a fire in the hearth and sets his kettle over it until it whistles.
A whole year’s worth of morning papers is stacked in neat piles at his doorstep; Bilbo chooses the top edition off one pile and sits in his armchair to read it, taking appreciative sips of his tea at intervals. The big news is printed on the cover in shock font:
LOCAL FARMER GROWS TWENTY-POUND ONION
Halfway through the third page Bilbo folds it up neatly and sets it beside him. He tips his head back, a smile growing on his lips, and then his eyes flicker open when he realises something new.
It’s quiet. A bit more quiet than he remembers. He can almost hear his own heart beating (had it always been that quiet before?). Bilbo pours himself another cup of tea and continues to listen to the silence.
“No, no, I didn’t run away. Heavens, no,” Bilbo explains to his neighbours. “I just…took a vacation, that’s all. For my health.”
His neighbours regard the shiny bruise on his forehead and healing cuts on his cheek and give him a look that plainly says that they think he’s bonkers. “For my health,” he calls after them as they walk away.
Bilbo feels for the ring, tucked away in his waistcoat pocket, and makes a mental note to use it whenever he sees them coming around.
Late one night he accidentally knocks his sword belt off its peg in the hall whilst sweeping his hobbit hole. Sting slides out of its scabbard slightly, only just so that Bilbo can see himself in the shimmering metal, his round face bisected by the whorl of Sindarin curving around the base of the dagger.
During supper, he uses Sting to make ham slices, and much later, pretends to be fighting giant spiders in his bedroom. Bilbo trips on a mat and ends up tangling himself in his blankets, impaling an unfortunate pillow through the centre and sending goose feathers everywhere.
He sleeps with Sting sheathed in his hand, and dreams of seeing the elven realm of Lothlorien.
He wakes up on a bright Monday morning to the sun in the sky and a room full of buttery light. Seize the day, his mother used to say, so he goes out and restocks his larders using a little bit of his now-considerable fortune. After lunch, he bakes a cake with pineapple cream between eight layers, each one smaller than the last. When he’s done, Bilbo takes a step back and scratches his head and wonders why the whole confection sort of resembles Erebor, even without squinting.
On Trewsday, as is with every Trewsday, the Sackville-Bagginses dutifully send him a legal notice in the post, rejecting his claims to the Baggins estate of Bag End on grounds of you ain’t him, he’s dead. Bilbo always makes sure to send a reply, usually consisting simply of addresses, names, and his rebuttal yes I am, and no I’m not, because he knows that it’ll tick off Lobelia like no tomorrow. That’ll show her to take his lovely silver spoons; he honestly doesn’t think he will ever get over that until the day he dies.
After Heavensday is Mersday, then comes Highday, except Bilbo can’t really tell the days apart too well; he’s starting to notice that they all kind of look alike.
He’d never thought he’d miss the non-taste of cram sticking to the roof of his mouth and camping under the stars with thirteen snoring dwarves and the itch of pony hair scratching its way up his nose, never mind his blasted allergies. He looks out his window at the Shire, seeing none of it but the blue, blue sky stretching down to meet the earth far beyond the cresting hills.
The sunblasted fields of the Shire turn out to be his new favourite place to be, now that he’s not on the road anymore. Bilbo goes there daily with a picnic basket in hand and a mat folded over one arm and a song humming in his throat. It always smells of spring and heather there and the grass is lush and clean enough to sit on without getting stains on his pants. Linnets sing in the trees, amid the rustling leaves and heated herbs on the wind and the gurgling rush of brook water over the hills.
He loves it there, though not as much as he thinks he ought to. The tranquil, he appreciates an awful lot, make no mistake about it, but some days he falls asleep bathed in light and wakes to the silvery moon peering down on him. The fact that his life has more or less reasserted the norm pleases him, but only to a certain extent; there’s only so much he can make of sleepy hours and hollow minutes every night in retrospect.
These are his afternoons now, reclining luxuriously against a tree as he pushes pipe-weed down the rim of his pipe, taking deep puffs until his lungs tingle and something warm and fuzzy lights itself deep within his heart. He sucks homemade treacle out of freshly-made tarts and studies the movement of the clouds overhead, sometimes bringing out his sketch pad to practice landscape art. When he tires of pencilling verdant knolls and clear skies, he writes poems about dreams and summer and life and love.
Far over the Misty —
Bilbo pauses and blinks, confused as to where that had come from, and strikes out all three words with a single slash of ink before crumpling up the parchment and starting fresh on a new one.
On a whim, Bilbo gets out his map of Middle Earth and unfurls it over his dinner table and pores over it, making a conscious effort to keep his gaze from sliding eastward over the Mirkwood, past Laketown, to finally settle on Erebor.
He fails anyway.
Two weeks pass like this — days of basking and nights of map-reading, and Bilbo finds himself tracing the marked tracks weaving throughout Middle Earth, making annotations here and there next to towns, routes, landmarks. Thankful for his impressive anthologies, Bilbo transports a dozen thick books down to his study and reads up on cultures and languages and places of interest, man and dwarves and elves alike, meticulously copying the most fascinating bits onto the corners of his map in neat, minute words.
Before he goes to sleep every night, regardless of whether he has worked on it or not, Bilbo looks at the map, written over in his own hand. Sometimes, a wild, impulsive feeling blooms in his gut, one that proves resistant to negative thinking, and he only manages to calm himself after a trip to the larder. He’s not about to go running off into the blue or anything — once is more than enough by any decent hobbit’s standards, especially so for a Baggins.
Still, it’s an idea that he toys around with, considering the possibilities, telling himself that it’s all purely academic and nothing more, but when he says it out loud it’s not as convincing as he thought it would sound. He keeps the map under his pillow anyway, and as always, sleeps with Sting keeping him company.
The opportunity presents itself subtly — a small band of gypsies, a circus troupe, stopping just across the Shire to set up camp for a couple of days. After some consideration, Bilbo goes to take a look, spending a few pennies on popcorn and spun-sugar candy and whatever saccharine treats they force upon unwitting visitors.
Between shows and exhibits, he speaks with the carnies, asks them about life on the move. Bilbo gleams a set of varying answers that boils down to most of them being thankful for their travelling, and thinks about it himself. “There’s that saying about a rolling stone and some moss, I think,” a human firebreather muses. He puffs a short tongue of flame two inches into the air and blows smoke through his nostrils. “Some wiseman or wizard once said. I dunno.”
“Indeed.” Bilbo fingers his belt, absently longing to feel the hilt of Sting press into his hand as he watches the man exhale a whole fireball.
Back at Bag End, Bilbo rolls up his sleeves and dons an apron and begins an intense session of spring cleaning even though firstly, it’s the middle of summer, and secondly, the entire place is literally clean enough to eat off just about any surface. But cleaning occupies him, makes him feel busy and productive, and making his time in Hobbiton worthwhile is probably going to be his last-ditch attempt at convincing himself to stay.
He scrubs in dust-free corners and washes clean dishes, willing himself to think about dinner and painting, and not about dashing out the front door and getting wrapped up on another seemingly endless journey that could take him hundreds of miles from home, or worse, to his grave. Up to his elbows in soap suds, Bilbo remembers the countless times he had thought of his hobbit hole out in the wild, back when he’d stupidly signed on to burglarise a dragon’s den, and finds himself determined not to get himself trapped in a similar predicament again. Life’s short enough as it is; he may as well enjoy it from the safety and comfort of the Shire, and there’s no shame in choosing that, is there? At least not for a humble little hobbit such as he.
Just for the heck of it, Bilbo decides to change the sheets in his room as well. When he flips the mattress over, the lower piece of the contract from nearly two years ago flutters out of the lining and floats to land at his feet. He can still see his signature over the line, along with Thorin’s trademark scrawl and the inky curves of Balin’s name above it. Looking down at it with a pillow trapped under his chin, Bilbo groans. It doesn’t help one bit.
Opening his fob watch, Bilbo is struck at the amount of time that has gone by. Has it really been eight months since he returned from Erebor? Bilbo almost cannot believe it. He’s fifty-three years old, on the brink of fifty-four now, and it bothers him to be bothered that he’s only got one life-changing adventure to his name. How he doesn’t find enough satisfaction in that is something that eludes him completely, especially when everyone around him would proudly tell them that they have absolutely none at all to boast about.
Sometimes, Bilbo honestly wishes that he hadn’t been born half a Took; wouldn’t that make life so much more tolerable?
He changes his mind no less than thirty times in a span of a day and night, packing and unpacking and repacking until he hits the middle ground where his hobbit hole is a considerable mess, and there are underpants in his oven and teacups on his shoerack. “Listen here,” he tells himself sternly after deciding against it for the eighteenth time. “You are a Baggins of Bag End. You belong here. Not out there. In here. At home.” Bilbo breathes out heavily and stands upright, glad to have straightened out his priorities, and sets out to tidy up the place.
Five minutes later, he’s all packed again and ready to go. He wails, utterly at a complete loss, and flops on his bed to stare at the ceiling as though as he might find the answer plastered across it. No such luck.
He very nearly missed out on the journey of a lifetime; what’s to say he’s about to miss a second?
Eventually, when he contacts his attorney so he cannot change his mind and finalises a document leaving everything he owns in Bag End in trust, to be renewed by himself every five years if he wishes, Bilbo finds himself on a mad dash through the Shire, daring himself not to look back. He has a pack on his back and a wallet fat with gold and Sting by his side, no contract this time but he has remembered his hanky, and the ring leaping about excitedly in his pocket. The day is bright, and the grass is warm under his bare feet. Someone calls out to him, bewildered, “Mister Bilbo! Where’re you off to?”
He doesn’t bother to turn around as he yells, “I’m going to see the world!” and runs and runs until the fields shrink away and the trees swell above him like they did the first time round he stepped out of Hobbiton and springboarded into the world.
The carnies are a mile and a half into their journey when Bilbo catches up with them and hitches a ride on the last caravan. The tenant inside is a female acrobat named Sysha, who has a brother and a kid on board with her. “He’s not mine, in case you’re wondering,” Sysha tells Bilbo conversationally. She nods at the boy, who’s as tall as Bilbo already and bending a slender leg over his head to touch his chin with his toe. “Found him wandering the road one day half-starved to death. No idea where he came from.”
“It was very kind of you to take him in,” Bilbo says. He is sitting on the tailboard of the caravan with his short legs dangling over the edge, watching the road feed into the retreating hills of the Shire. Farewell, he thinks sadly, but the thought of seeing it on the return trip cheers him slightly.
“Aye. It’s what any decent folk would’ve done.” She looks at Bilbo, a small smile on her face. “Though sometimes, I swear I get the feeling that it was meant to be, like he had to be there exactly at that moment when we came along. D’you believe in fate, Bilbo?”
“I can’t say I don’t.” He catches a falling leaf as it twists into the caravan into his hand, blows on it and sends it spiralling away.
He has his map of Middle Earth and a carefully-planned year-long itinerary, the former invaluable and the latter a bit more useful than a losing lottery ticket, and ends up leaving it behind when the carnies drop him off twenty miles east on the outskirts of the settlement of Bree. To Bilbo’s surprise, he’s hardly frustrated, especially not when he catches sight of the town for the first time and cannot believe that Thorin led them around it rather than through it on their first trip to Erebor. Bree is a picturesque little village with human-sized houses and dirt paths and whitewashed picket fences and a lonesome windmill standing in a field of wheat, and is altogether one of the loveliest things he has ever seen. It isn’t as green as the Shire or as imposing as Erebor or as grandiloquent as Rivendell, but spending most of his life in Hobbiton has given Bilbo a rather profound sense of joy in simplicity, and at first glance, Bree is wonderful.
He’s almost entirely lost in thought just at the sight of it, but the sun is setting and has set the skyline on fire, and with the windmill and its blades turning lonesomely against the backdrop, Bilbo cannot get his canvas out fast enough.
Bilbo plans to stay perhaps a week or two, taking up lodging at The Prancing Pony in a hobbit room with a low ceiling and round windows that remind him of Bag End. The guest next door is a hobbit working down at one of the farms on Staddle, who greets Bilbo good morning as he leaves the inn. Striking up a chat in the vestibule connecting the rooms on the second floor, Bilbo learns that he grows primarily pipe-weed, and that harvest time is drawing near. “You must stop by to have some!” the hobbit offers, shaking Bilbo’s hand enthusiastically. “I insist! We’ve never had a finer crop this whole year.”
“I will, I will!” When their handshake ends, Bilbo finds a small sample wadded up in his palm and smiles at the hobbit, thanking him profusely for his generosity.
He leaves most of his things locked up in his room when he goes out, but always takes his wallet, Sting, and the ring with him. It’s not so much that he doesn’t trust the security of the inn so much as it is incredibly handy to disappear at will. That, and having Sting with him makes him feel a lot bolder, somehow.
It pays off six hours later in a small pub when a merry band of stonemasons catch sight of the hilt peeking out from his waistcoat and haul him up into their party to join them. “Ye ain’t from around here, are ye?” one of their company asks.
“I’m from Hobbiton,” Bilbo says, thanking him as he pushes a tankard of rum into Bilbo’s hands.
“That sleepy little place?” A brawny-looking man with arms almost as thick as Bilbo’s neck downs a half pint of stout. “What’s a hobbit from Hobbiton doing in Bree with a dagger?”
“Sword,” Bilbo corrects him, drawing a few inches of Sting for them to ogle. The elven-forged blade gleams exactly as it did the first time Bilbo unsheathed the blade, almost seeming to give the weapon a character of its own as light dances off it. “It’s enchanted,” he tells them. “I’ve seen it. It glows blue when goblins or orcs are near.”
“I’ve never seen anything like it!”
Bilbo grins and pushes Sting back in. The liqueur is sharp and tangy on his tongue when he takes a sip, and Bilbo drinks just half to be polite and leaves the rest. They spend the afternoon in conversation, and Bilbo listens to talk of honest work and long days, and tells them a bit in kind about the famed stone archways of Erebor. When they’re done and ready to leave, his acquaintances insist on picking up the tab for him, which Bilbo hastily tries to overturn — he’s the one with a wallet overflowing with gold, after all — but they insist on paying in the spirit of drinking companionship. “S’what friends are for, eh?” their leader says, slapping Bilbo on his back.
Bilbo inhales a noseful of rum and chokes, but grins the best he can as he hiccoughs.
He makes his way down to the marketplace next, consciously window-shopping for the most part, not for a lack of money but rather a magic satchel with illimitable capacity. He has enough gold and silver to last him to Erebor and back three times over, four if he’s frugal, but he doesn’t look forward to hauling a backpack twice his size all over Middle Earth. A mule wouldn’t be out of the question, but he shelves the idea, thinks he’ll reconsider when it’s finally time to move on from Bree.
There are familiar sights there upon the stalls like cheeses and fruits and pipe-weed, farming implements and clothing tailored for men and hobbits alike. Spying a small wooden flute, Bilbo pays few copper pieces for it and tries a simple song on the instrument. When he retires to the inn for the night, he delights the patrons with a lighthearted improvisation of Misty Mountains, even as he feels a bit sad inside as it makes him think of the times he spent travelling with Thorin and the rest of the dwarves.
The next few days are spent in the country with his stationery and his muses. With a different countryside to gaze upon and new scents in the air, the words loosen and begin to flow freely, and in the span of a few hours Bilbo manages to write three new poems and a short sonnet on agrarian life. Even the artwork cooperates dutifully; he gets the right shades of graphite in the proper places without too much thought or effort, and Bilbo quickly has himself a carbon copy of a flatland dotted with patches of grass and flocks of grazing sheep. He’s so pleased with himself that he orders rum back at the inn just for the sake of it, and leaves a generous tip for the proprietor to pick up from the counter.
Time passes quickly in unfamiliar Bree, and slowly the weeks turn into three months, such that the locals begin to recognise the hobbit from the Shire who turned up in their village one day for reasons unexplained, not that anyone is asking questions. In fact, it seems that just about everyone he meets is completely and utterly charmed by his presence, which Bilbo is heartened by. While he doesn’t make a zealous effort to do so, making people happy is something that pleases him immensely. That and the fact that he knows what his standing among his neighbours back in Hobbiton is, and Bilbo steadily warms to Bree as it does to him.
The greengrocers start giving him first pick and free fruits, the street vendors, lower prices on some of their goods, which Bilbo usually buys to gift away to his newfound friends in Bree. On Highday nights, Bilbo meets his stonemason drinking buddies at the usual place and orders a different beverage every time. Slowly, his threshold tolerance for alcohol builds, until one night he chugs three-quarters of an actual pint of beer and manages to hold on to his sobriety for the rest of the night.
He wakes up thoroughly and badly hungover the next morning, but that’s besides the point.
Half a year in and more and more people begin to think of him as a local rather than a passing visitor, Bilbo himself included. During the day, he helps out with odd jobs or errands with the housewives whenever he can, and writes to pass the time, otherwise attending festivals and birthday celebrations that he’s invited to through mutual friends, who eventually get round to including him in their social circles as well. After a while, he becomes well-liked enough for people to ask him to go up to Combe to taste their honey and try their vintages, and other hobbits to ask him over for luncheons and dinners.
Everyone thinks he’s eccentric, the more gossipy of the lot claiming that he’s a few cheddars short of a cheese platter, but they are also are aware of his well-manneredness being outdone only by his charitableness, which is enough to quell rumours of him being a runaway heir from some hobbit kingdom somewhere in Middle Earth, though it isn’t honestly that far-off from the truth. It’s still a lot milder than most of his neighbours back in Hobbiton, which he appreciates.
When he’s not learning to hew a hammerhead out of a menhir at the masonry or making quiches with the village baker’s sons, he makes most of his free time work for himself, unwinding away from the busyness of Bree to catch a breather out in the fields that so closely resemble those back home in Hobbiton. When Sunday dusks come around, Bilbo makes it a routine to go out to the fields on his own and watch the sky chase the sun into the grasslands stretching west.
He feels comfortably at home, almost forgetting entirely about leaving Bree and takes to leaving Sting behind in his room when he leaves for the village every morning — he doesn’t have much use for it, and besides, it gets quite heavy sometimes — that is, until the innkeeper makes a lighthearted jest about collecting an annual rent from him rather than weekly fees as Bilbo’s stay continues to extend indefinitely into the year, and something that distantly resembles quiet fear tightens inside Bilbo like a fist.
It turns out to be only the beginning of a mild heartburn, but it’s enough to remind Bilbo of the reason why he’d left Bag End in the first place. He loves it in Bree, quite nearly as much as he loves Hobbiton, and while the thought of wrenching himself away from the quaint little village and everyone in it is nigh unthinkable, even more so is the thought of remaining there for the rest of his life. He’s happy as ever, but the same habits befall him, like seeing the Lonely Mountain in every rock he chisels at in the mason, and looking longingly past the outer fences of Bree. Just as in the Shire, the familiarity of Bree is both endearing and tiresome, the effects of the latter becoming steadily more pronounced with every morning he spends there. It’s not as sleepy, but manages to slip into a routine nonetheless, which begins to unsettle him the same way it had after coming back from Erebor.
With this in mind, he forces himself to stay a week more and no further, telling everyone who’s close enough to notice when he’s left. He keeps the news from the human stonemasons until his last Highday in Bree, and doesn’t expect it when they break down into tears at the news.
They have one final drink together, buying a whole pint of golden ale for Bilbo in regard. Surprising everyone, himself most of all, Bilbo finishes the entire thing and tilts the empty tankard over his head proudly to roars and cheers of his name. “Thank you all, for everything!” Bilbo cries as they part ways. “Mayhaps we shall see one another again someday, who knows!”
Their leader waves goodbye. “Come see us in Archet should you ever return, and remember, Bilbo Baggins, that you have friends here in Bree!”
He leaves early the next morning, stepping out into the cool dewy air and breathing it in to fill his lungs, smiling sadly, and turns briefly to lay eyes on Bree, the village that is now as much a part of him as he was of it, for the last time in a long while. He’ll return one day, he knows, just as he’s returning to Erebor and Rivendell and Bag End back in Hobbiton, but it doesn’t stop him from weeping as he sets off in the direction of the rising sun.
Move your mouse over the Sindarin text for translation.
Sindarin phrases from the following sources:
On the road, Bilbo’s mood lifts so quickly it’s nothing short of shocking. He cuts a long walking stick from a hawthorn tree and sings with it keeping pace beside him, going taptap on the ground. After a few hours of hiking, he starts to recognise things along the way, and realises with a start that it’s the same route they had taken to get to Erebor. Bilbo gives the area leading up to the troll-hole a wide berth, shuddering at the memory of huge threatening hands wrapped around his limbs and touching the ring in his pocket to reassure himself that he’s safe enough.
Alone and without a schedule to keep, Bilbo explores the countryside at his own leisure. The route he takes is the furthest thing away from linear, circling around hillocks and groves and traipsing lightly through fields, stopping now and again to bend over and smell the flowers. Whenever the urge hits him, he sits down and draws up anything that begs to be sketched. A still life of the Misty Mountains, a portrait of a robin building a nest. Other times, when he just feels like resting to drink in the scenery, he plops onto his pack and stretches himself luxuriously in the grass, groaning and smiling contentedly as he sinks into soft earth.
But as much as he likes being on the move, there are certain bits of it that he would gladly do without, like the wargs and dirt and the wetness when it rains, and bother the highwaymen. The blasted highwaymen.
“Mug him,” one suggests.
“Ransom him,” the second insists.
“Get it over and done with, then kill him.” The last highwayman unsheathes his dirk, and blinks in surprise. “Hey! Where’d he go?”
Bilbo walks right between two of them, grinding his teeth and feeling rather tempted to poke them a couple times with Sting in the right areas to teach them a lesson, but decides against it. He’s invisible and feeling charitable, and there’s no need to muck up a perfectly good day more so than it already has been by the cretins behind him.
As he travels, he meets other people on the road as well — itinerant peddlers, roaming adventurers, migrating people seeking a different home somewhere. Bilbo feels obligated to warn them off the main road, especially after the annoying affair with the highwaymen, though most of them are aware of the danger and capable of protecting themselves, but they thank him anyway for his consideration. A dwarf merchant going west passes him by one day; Bilbo hails him and asks after Erebor.
“The King under the Mountain is well,” the dwarf says. “As is Erebor and Dale.” Bilbo finds out that much of the castle is still being rebuilt, though progress is picking up fast. With news of Smaug’s death percolating across Middle Earth, trade routes have been reopened, market stalls blooming, and traders all over the country are smelling ripe opportunity for the picking. Everyone can’t seem to wait to get a piece of the pies that are Erebor, Dale and Laketown, all three decimated by war and dragonfire and in burning need of commodities and raw material, to be paid for from their literal mountain of recovered gold.
Bilbo name-drops some of the original company, hoping that perhaps the dwarf will pick up on a couple of them. He hasn’t been in contact lately, not since undertaking his little quest to see as much of Middle Earth as possible, and even before that all he’d received were a few letters from Balin and a tear-stained note from Bombur that had run the ink all over the parchment. In fact, now that he thinks about it, he’d completely forgotten to write to tell them that he was planning to make his way there. To his surprise, the remaining ten have been practically raised to the point of nobility where everyone in Erebor and its surrounding territories knows who they are. Bilbo, as it seems, is also a known name around those parts. “You’re Bilbo Baggins?” The dwarf peers at him. “Headed to the Lonely Mountain again, are ye?”
“I’m actually headed everywhere, if that makes any sense.”
The dwarf shakes his head, almost apologetically.
On the way, Bilbo also meets a messenger elf headed for Rivendell, and joins up with him. The elf is riding a horse, and offers Bilbo a lift that he accepts gratefully. Bilbo learns from the elf that Elrond is planning to host a grand musical recital in the Hall of Fire in a few months, and has been busy extending invitations and making preparations. Acclaimed musicians from Lothlorien are scheduled to perform, along with visiting bards from as far as Dale, and with a feast planned, it is set to be the event of the year in Rivendell.
In short, Bilbo couldn’t have chosen a better time to resume his adventure.
The moment Bilbo sets eyes on the valley of Rivendell once more, he knows immediately that it will prove a challenge. Hobbiton was nearly a whole year, Bree six months. He remembers the first time he had been a guest at Rivendell, and how much he was loathe to depart with the dwarves when they had rested sufficiently and successfully translated Thorin’s map. He’d regretted it then that they couldn’t stay longer, and now he can, forever if he wishes, though that remains to be seen.
Elrond is courtesy and hospitality defined, receiving Bilbo in his solar where he is writing a letter. “Stay in Rivendell as long as you require,” he says to Bilbo, returning his quill back into his inkpot. “As long as you are beneath my roof, you shall have my assistance in any matter whatsoever. Gi nathlam hí.”
“Could I perhaps I attend the recital, please?” Bilbo asks.
Elrond nods. “By all means.”
Bilbo is granted chambers not too far away from Elrond’s own. His room is large, larger than what he expects and has more space than he knows what to do with, so he settles down to unpack for what he predicts will be a long stay. He has clothes hung up in one corner, his pack in another, and all his stationery in a third, and when he’s done the room looks quite silly with a wide empty space in the middle save for the massive bed, but Bilbo doesn’t want to look ungrateful by not using as much of the room as he can to store his things. What if it’s some elven discourtesy for a guest to leave parts of a bedroom in disuse? Granted, he doesn’t recall reading anything of that sort in Dinners With Elves and after meeting Elrond his guide had smiled when Bilbo expressed his concern and told him that it was fine, elves weren’t hung up about vacant living space, but nonetheless it never hurts to be safe.
He has a bath and changes into a clean tunic and goes out to explore Rivendell. Sequestered away into the face of the mountainside, the elven outpost is surrounded by tall cliffs and lush greenery and a number of waterfalls. Its buildings are mainly interconnected by stone paths that form a trellis over the river Bruinen. Where Bree was a moderately large village, Rivendell is smaller in comparison and has less to offer by way of provincial life, but it is pure and simple and serene, which is a completely different kind of experience altogether.
Standing on the balcony, staring out into the blue of the moving river, Bilbo can practically feel the peace beginning to accrue inside of him. He slowly forgets the weariness of moving, the travellers’ ache melting away from his bones. The valley seems to speak to him, a story waiting to be told through his eyes, every word caught in the wind through the trees and the misty spray drifting up from plunge pools to coat his skin with moisture. Rivendell is tranquil, shaped like a poem. There’s something about just being there that fills him up with silent resonance, like music plucked from harp strings or coaxed from the hollow centre of reed flutes. For a while, Bilbo pauses in his thoughts and lets his eyes do the wandering for a change, caught in an almost-religious awe of the chance to look over the whole valley.
At dinner, he is seated on Elrond’s right, which he knows is a great honour for a guest. He introduces Bilbo to the other elves in a toast to his health, which he does not expect and it all but overwhelms him as he almost falls out of his seat. “Th — thank you!” he squeaks as he rights himself and tries to think of an appropriate reply. “Um, I’m very, very flattered! It’s an honour to be here.”
Settling in Rivendell is no problem at all. The elves take very kindly to him and are more than willing to show him around their residence. Apart from watching sunrises from his room and venturing out into the mountain ranges surrounding Rivendell to pick flowers and berries, Bilbo spends a considerable amount of time acquainting himself with Elrond’s library and its impressive collection of tomes and books from all over Middle Earth. There’s enough fiction to fill decades of his life, non-fiction several lifetimes. Some are written in languages that Bilbo doesn’t understand, but he recognises a bit of Khudzul on the cover and some Sindarin on the spine, and it spurs him to try learning to speak a foreign tongue.
Bilbo makes a couple of noises that sound nothing whatsoever like what the elf said. She giggles and covers her mouth, concealing a grin. “It’s tricky,” Bilbo complains, glossing over the open Sindarin dictionary he has propped up in front of him.
“You will learn.”
He does, slowly and steadily, practicing his greetings with the other elves when they walk past in the hallways. In time, his mouth grows accustomed to the tricky syllables and consonants of the elvish language, as does his proficiency.
Elrond inclines his head, clearly impressed. “Henion. Mae govannen. You are learning quite well, Bilbo Baggins.”
“Quite,” Bilbo agrees modestly.
As the day of the recital draws closer, Bilbo makes it a habit to frequent the Hall of Fire with his flute. Many of its chambers are dedicated to academic study and spells of quiet thought, but the main hall is specifically designed to be performed in. There’s a large stone stage curtained with orange velvet and tassels and seated in a sheltered amphitheatre. A multitude of wind and string instruments are kept away in a room that becomes open for his use when he puts in a polite request with Elrond.
It is plain to Bilbo that the elves of Rivendell treasure the hall a great deal. Gatherings of poets and thespians there are a daily occurrence, and he never recalls ever entering the hall without his ears being greeted by soft music. Flutes are popular among the elves, seconded only by harps, and it doesn’t take long for Bilbo to find a tutor. He befriends a young lyrical soprano named Clarissë who teaches him an accompaniment for the Song of the Wandering Elves, and revels in playing it in time as she sings for him in Sindarin. Bilbo understands most of the song thanks to his endeavours in picking up the language, but asks her to help him translate the lyrics as he wants to try singing it in Westron.
The musicians arrive at the end of the year, and word is that the Lady of Lorien herself may grace the function. Bilbo doesn’t know too much about the Lady Galadriel, but he’ll be damned if he continues in his ignorance of one of the most important figures in Middle Earth, so the first thing he does upon hearing the news is to find the thickest biography of her that he can find in the library and read it cover to cover. Parts of the Sindarin text still remain a mystery to Bilbo, but he asks around and gets enough answers from the elves of Rivendell to fill in the blanks. By the time he has enough to form an impression of the elven guardian of Lothlorien, it becomes Bilbo’s intention not to embarrass himself in front of her if and when she comes.
Meanwhile, the excitement in the air is palpable. Banners are strung, flowers are teased into arrangements, and the elves discuss the occasion gaily in the streets. The chefs are experimenting more than ever with new dishes, which Bilbo takes cheerful advantage of by lingering near the kitchens more often. The elves are as creative with their foods as they are with their music, and love it when others try their inventions, something that Bilbo is only too happy to help with. He loves food, elvish food in particular with their exotic veggies and imitation meats, and the way they prepare them is a whole other adventure on its own.
Bilbo even makes preparations of his own for the festival, cleaning his best shirt to within an inch of its life and brushing up on his Sindarin in front of a mirror to impress the other guests. He continues to practice with his flute until he can play the song Clarissë taught him without any hiccups, which turns out in his favour when she hears him in the Hall of Fire one day.
Clarissë tells him a week before the recital that she’ll be taking the stage as one of the interluding performances, and asks Bilbo if he wants to form part of the instrumental ensemble accompanying her piece. To say that Bilbo is floored is a gross understatement. After copious persuasion and encouragement, he finally agrees to it, and this is how he ends up seated comfortably behind the dais of the stage, clenching his wooden flute and surrounded on all sides by fair-faced elves nodding assent as Clarissë moves effortlessly through a cadenza.
Galadriel, absolutely stunning beside Elrond, meets Bilbo’s eyes once and smiles, which distracts Bilbo enough to miss a finger position on his flute.
After Clarissë has finished, Bilbo rejoins the audience at the back, only to be ushered to the front row by a steward at Elrond’s invitation. When the curtains close in at the end of the first act, he congratulates Bilbo on his performance. “It would seem that your talents are not limited solely to Sindarin, Bilbo,” he says. “Agoreg vae. A pleasure.”
“Oh! Well! I…” Besides being flattered beyond measure, Bilbo is acutely aware of the aura that seems to surround Galadriel, a warm tingle that settles over his skin as she looks at him. His wits return to him after a few seconds of stuttering. “Le — le hannon! The pleasure was mine!”
Galadriel blinks. “Pedig edhellen?” she asks Bilbo kindly.
For all his studying, Bilbo doesn’t understand, and tells her.
She smiles and nods benevolently. “You speak Elvish?” she repeats in Westron.
“Some. I’ve been trying to learn, hiril vuin. Sindarin is a lovely language.”
“I’m glad you think so,” Galadriel agrees, her voice smooth and pleased.
The curtains are drawn back and the second act begins, and Bilbo loses himself in bows across cellos and breath blown through flutes, helping to craft the music of the night.
The recital ends in a banquet in the Hall of Fire itself. It is an opportunity for Bilbo to speak with the performers and interact with the visiting elves, some of whom hail from the forested region of the Mirkwood, and others from Lothlorien. He expresses his desire to see Lothlorien, which many of the guests pick up on and meet with offers to accompany him there when they return. Bilbo considers it, but decides he wants to linger in Rivendell a bit longer, and refuses graciously. While disappointed, they still follow up with promises to show him the realm when he arrives.
Then, as he’s spooning stewed onions onto his plate off the serving table, a familiar face appears above him.
“Gandalf!” Astonished, Bilbo accidentally drops his spoon into the main dish and scrambles to retrieve it.
The wizard smiles at him through his magnificent beard and pushes back the rim of his hat with his staff. “Bilbo Baggins! Good to see you again! It’s been a very long while, indeed — nearly a year and a half, I should think? Why, imagine my surprise when I came here expecting the most heavenly of music and caught sight of you, seated meekly in the orchestra!”
“I was playing the flute,” Bilbo tells him. “My friend was performing a song.”
“Yes, well, both of you were very good. You should be proud.” He bends over to swipe half a stewed onion off Bilbo’s plate and pops it into his mouth, biting down with a satisfying crunch. “Whatever are you doing here, Bilbo? I dropped by Bag End months ago to see you and you weren’t home; could it be that you were here all along?”
Bilbo shakes his head. “I’ve been…uh, travelling.” He tells Gandalf about the half year he spent in Bree and the resulting months in Rivendell, and his plans to travel to Laketown and Dale and Erebor, with perhaps a stopover in Lothlorien, and then back again. He leaves out the bit about the memoirs that he plans to write; it’s still an idea in the works.
“Why, Bilbo!” Gandalf chuckles. “It would seem that you’ve fallen prey to some sort of wander-lust since we last met! Dear me, dear me! What happened to the hobbit who thought of the Shire all the way to the Lonely Mountain? Is he gone forever?”
Bilbo giggles in reply. “Oh, I don’t know about that! Maybe he shall return someday, but who knows?”
“Maybe, maybe, we shall see!” Gandalf filches another onion before Bilbo can stop him. They migrate from the food table to a corner of the room where they knock up a lively conversation to catch up with the times. News of prosperity in the east is the hottest topic nowadays with the reclamation of Erebor and decimation of the orcs, and while Bilbo’s already aware of the current state of affairs in that particular province, he listens to Gandalf for anything he might have missed out. Bilbo complains about the frankly ghastly smog that has been blowing up from the south, but what can anyone really do about that, really, that’s how Mordor has been the past few decades.
Gandalf mentions that he’s been doing a bit of travelling himself, shuttling between the Shire and Lothlorien and Rohan between the seasons. Bilbo notices that the details he gives about these trips of his are scant at best, and Gandalf doesn’t seem to show any indication of wanting to elucidate his purposes, but Gandalf’s always been like that anyway, so Bilbo doesn’t think too much of it. He’s a lot more interested in the fact that Gandalf speaks fluent Sindarin, a skill that he lets slip when he thanks an elven steward for offering them some wine. They trade Sindarin greetings and formalities until Bilbo is sure that there really are only fifteen different variations of asking someone over for a meal; elves were a rather friendly bunch of people, after all.
“Good on you, Bilbo Baggins, good on you!” Gandalf exclaims, clapping his hands as Bilbo finishes singing the Westron translation of Clarissë’s song. “You’ll make a fine musician, no doubt about it. Now, ah, I must ask you something, Bilbo, if I may — you do still have it, don’t you?”
Bilbo rubs his nose. “Have what?”
Something flickers in Gandalf’s eyes, too quickly for Bilbo to see exactly what. He looks around airily and returns his gaze to Bilbo. “The ring?” he asks, his voice oddly hushed.
“Oh. That.” Bilbo pats his waistcoat pocket, where there is a near-indiscernible bulge. “Yes, I still have it.”
“And you, ah, use it?”
“Yes.” Bilbo nods and smiles at Gandalf. “And marvellously useful, I’ll say.”
Gandalf doesn’t return the smile. “Regularly?”
“No, only when I need to. Why do you ask?” Bilbo lets his hand rest over the fabric, unconsciously curling his fingers around it. Gandalf is staring at him, eyes flickering between Bilbo’s face and the concealed ring, and it is beginning to make him feel uncomfortable. The wizard’s face has clouded, but his smoky-grey eyes remain sharp in an expression that Bilbo might mistake for concern if not for the way they linger over his protective hand longer than they do on his own eyes. A shiver prickles at the base of his spine, and suddenly he feels as though he knows Gandalf a little bit less than he did not a whole minute ago.
The sound of a cork popping out of a champagne bottle amid cheering snaps them both out of it with a jump. Gandalf glances over his shoulder and studies the tip of his staff, pointedly avoiding Bilbo’s gaze. “No reason,” he replies noncommittally. “It’s…I find it interesting, that’s all.” He smiles in a manner that doesn’t fully reach his eyes. “A ring that makes its wearer unseen — in all my years I do think I’ve ever only heard of one like it. Interesting.”
“Interesting,” Bilbo parrots slowly, continuing to observe Gandalf. He lets his hand fall away from his pocket, and friendliness returns to him as Gandalf pours him a small draught of miruvor. “Yes, I suppose it is.”
“Well, now that’s done, we can talk about your journeying. I intend to travel to Erebor myself, Bilbo. Will you be leaving Rivendell soon?”
Sipping the sweet cordial, Bilbo shakes his head. “Not for a while, I’m afraid. I’ll want to stay for a while longer.”
“As long as you did in Bree, perhaps?” Gandalf asks.
“Perhaps,” Bilbo confirms, thinking deep down about actually retiring to Rivendell in his old age, when he has neither the mind nor body to continue roaming the face of Middle Earth. He doesn’t think he will ever tire of sunrises between the mountain peaks, and the chirping of thrushes in the summer, the music blurring away lassitude, and the taste of spring water. Unlike Bree or Hobbiton, both sanctums of his in their own right, there’s a sort of subtle eternity to Rivendell that makes him feel that he would have no qualms about living the rest of his life there. He knows that while the elves live forever, he won’t, but it doesn’t mean that he can’t hold back from partaking in their long lives when he can. Few of non-elven roots have had that serendipity, and Bilbo can’t think of anything that might make him pass it up.
If anything, in the months to come, there will eventually be a moment when he knows that it is time to move on from Rivendell. He knows this because if he passes it up, falling to a second of weakness or a slight of resolution, he will never be able to truly leave ever again, as simple as that.
But now is not the time. For now, he waits.
The festival concludes on a high note with some of Gandalf’s signature fireworks lighting up a majestic display of sparks and light in the night sky. Galadriel gives a short address collectively thanking everyone for their attendance, the elves of Rivendell specifically for their part in organising the event. Surrounded by applause that reverberates throughout the entire valley, Bilbo joins in enthusiastically, stamping his big feet and whistling as loudly as he can for good measure.
Gandalf goes on his way the day immediately after the festival, promising to relay news of Bilbo’s return to the rest of the dwarves when he reaches Erebor. As the other visitors leave Rivendell, Bilbo returns to the library in earnest. He is found more often there than anywhere else, the Hall of Fire included, and as a result many of the elves take to referring to him as the librarian of Rivendell Library. When he catches wind of it one day, Elrond even suggests formalising the title to Bilbo, but Bilbo draws the line there; Elrond’s been infinitely gracious to him from the moment of his arrival and he doesn’t need to be any more indebted to his elven friends than he already is, thanks.
Elrond one-ups him on that by declaring him emeritus librarian of Rivendell Library at dinner, at which point Bilbo gives up.
The books become his whole life for the good part of the new year, taking up most of his days and leaving only just sufficient space for rest, good food and divine music. In addition to Sindarin, Bilbo takes a small interest in reading the same runes that Elrond had translated for Gandalf the first time they had visited. He looks through a couple of scriptures and an ancient guide to runeology, but keeps the topic on the shelf; learning Sindarin is a challenge enough on its own.
He has two calendars in his room, one from Hobbiton and one of Imladris, and synchronises both to the best of his timekeeping abilities, making daily referrals until other elves ask him for the date and Bilbo is able to answer them correctly after a moment’s though as though as he has the dates written on the back of his hands (which he actually does resort to in his early attempts to commit the elvish calendar to memory, not that he ever tells anyone).
The sheer amount of literature consumes him, freeing the hitherto repressed bibliophile that Bilbo suspects has laid dormant inside of him his whole life. He reads, rereads, and catalogues, setting a weekly quota for himself to meet — a book every three days, six if it’s in Sindarin — and marks it out on his calendars. And it’s not like he’s just reading for the sake of reading; the prose is tantalising and fluid and trembling, positively begging to be read. He doesn’t recall ever being so eager about a hobby, nor finding as much joy in it. Elven authors are as skilled with their quills as they are with their instruments, as Bilbo comes to acknowledge a second time through A Dwarven Tragedy at Minas Tirith, by Jolonna Evenstar.
The best thing about reading, Bilbo thinks, is the gift of sharing it with others. This comes in a stroke of luck — a compilation of elfling bedtime stories that he discovers when he’s sorting through the older books by first names. As he flips through the yellowing pages, skimming through the tales, an idea strikes him.
He cleverly thinks of a way to merge his twin passions — every evening, he loans the book out of the library and makes his way to the Hall of Fire. There, seated on a chair up on the stage, he reads to the little elven children who gather there for reasons ranging from instrument practice to choir rehearsals to seeking warmth and comfort of the fire that burns perpetually inside the Hall. Backed by the lulling music and the merry crackling of the fire and mugs of warm milk, the children are absolutely delighted by Bilbo, referring to him using epithets that tickle his little hobbit heart like Uncle Bilbo and Kindly Mister Baggins. Whenever he finishes a book, he regales them with stories of his own from his childhood or his quest with the dwarves, plugging the gaps until he manages to find another book to fill their evenings with.
He doesn’t stop there, however. He finds out that elves are rather receptive where it comes to literature, and starts his own book club in one of the rooms within the Hall. A small circle of book-loving elves attend weekly discussions with him, taking part in discussions of characters and plots and story arcs in their book of the week. On rare occasion, even Elrond joins them, checking in on his emeritus librarian, who has become rather popular with the children and adults alike.
Even as he doesn’t warm to the title, Bilbo has to admit that his love of the library has managed to supersede many of his other passions. Spring comes and goes, and summer and autumn passes him by just as fleetingly, but he continues to stay in Rivendell mainly because the library needs him there. Large as it is, there is much to be improved on, such as the classification system and a number of books with texts that have faded over the decades. He takes it upon himself and his team of elves from his book club to straighten up the whole library, reshelving and organising and copying books, and it doesn’t take too long for them to practically overhaul the entire place.
His efforts pay off in more ways than one. More and more elves take an interest in the refurbished library, and give Bilbo their thanks for contributing so much to it. Other book clubs spring up, and Bilbo notices a stark increase in the rate at which books are loaned out of the library. He becomes busier than ever, doing book checks and stock takes, and even starts placing orders for even more books to be shipped into Rivendell.
As for himself, when he’s not carrying armfuls of books up and down the library, Bilbo continues to find reverie in his old comforts, like food and art and poetry. He sets aside reading for a short while to begin work on his memoirs, titling it There And Back Again, a Hobbit’s Holiday. Reminiscing on his travels is more meditative and enjoyable than he ever expected it to be, rocking in his chair for long periods of time with a cup of tea cooling in his hands.He doesn’t leave the house in Rivendell as much, and the few sights he knows of are reduced to the waterfront of Bruinen and a mountainside that doesn’t steal his breath away as much as it used to when he looks at it for the thousandth time.
It’s only when his friends surprise him on his fifty-fifth birthday does Bilbo become aware of how much time he has spent in Rivendell. He has absolutely no idea how they found out when his birthday was, not to mention the shocking realisation that he’d forgotten his own fifty-fourth birthday as he’d been living in Bree at the time, but when he asks Clarissë how they knew, she smiles mysteriously and tells him to make a wish as she presents him with his birthday cake, all fifty-five candles magically lighting up before his surprised face.
Staring into the flickering flames atop layers of frosting and cream, this is how he finally knows that the time has come, his heart sinking as he blows out the candles in a single breath.
Bilbo finds Elrond in his solar at night. The Lord of Rivendell is standing in the moonlight at the balcony staring skyward, something held up to his eyes. Bilbo knocks on the open door and waits for Elrond to look at him and nod permission for him to enter. “Ah, Bilbo.” The elven lord gestures with his free hand at his desk and sets the instrument in his other into a case on top of it, next to a silver pitcher. “Join me for a drink, would you?”
“Oh, thank you.” Bilbo hops onto the chair and settles into it comfortably. He lets Elrond pour a generous amount of clear cordial into a cup and hand it to him, murmuring his thanks over the rim as he takes a sip. The drink is a fruity, sweet wine with a sharp kick to it that puts some fire back into his bones even as it cools his mouth. Elrond pours one for himself and sits back, swirling the cup in his hand.
They drink in silence for a few moments. Then, Elrond points at the instrument resting on the desk. The object is complex, covered with a number of dials and scopes and scales that make it look as though it was made for someone with three hands instead of two. “A Five-Point Chariot sextant,” he explains. “The craft of men. Used for navigation on the seas, where direction can be found only in the stars.”
“Do you plan to go over the seas?” Bilbo asks.
Elrond shakes his head. “Perhaps. I just might someday. Not in the immediate future, no, but I find it an object of fascination.” He looks over his shoulder, past the balustrade of his balcony at the sky, smiles, and turns back to Bilbo. “It’s a new moon in a week and a half. Would you do me the pleasure of accompanying me?”
“Oh. Um.” He wraps his fingers tightly around the cup. He tries not to think about seeing the stars in the sky with Elrond, lest the temptation be too great, and fails anyway. Hesitantly, he shakes his head against the need to say yes. “Thank you very much for asking, but no.”
Elrond nods slightly.
“It’s just that…I think it’s time I moved on from Rivendell,” Bilbo says firmly, a lot more surer than he feels.
Elrond doesn’t so much as blink. He regards Bilbo quietly, and nods again.
“But — but you knew that already,” Bilbo says slowly, realising.
“Then why did you ask me to come with you?”
Elrond runs a slender finger in a circle over the polished wood of his desk. “It is good form to extend an invitation even though the answer will be no.”
“Oh,” Bilbo mumbles. “How did you know?”
He arches an eyebrow. “When was the last time we spoke in here?”
Bilbo has to take a few seconds to think back on the entire year he has spent in Rivendell. A large chunk of memories in the library and a smaller, but still considerable, portion in the Hall of Fire, and weeks in the kitchen and a couple of days in between idling about Rivendell, but he thinks long and far back before he can put an answer in his mind. “My first day.”
Elrond inclines his head knowingly, as if Bilbo has just answered himself. “It ends where it begins.”
“I might have just wanted to ask for that book you’ve got overdue,” Bilbo points out.
“Look through your records.” Smiling, Elrond reclines back and drinks some more. “You’ll see that Isung checked it in three days ago, returned a day before it was due. She’ll have told you, anyway.”
Bilbo giggles, thwarted. “You got me,” he mumbles into his cup.
With a snap, Elrond closes the lid on the box. “When you come back, maybe,” he says with a wistful sigh. He sets his cup down and steeples his fingers, elbows resting on the arms of his chair. “When will you be leaving?”
Without much thought given to that, Bilbo shrugs. “Maybe a week. At most.”
“Where will you be going?”
Bilbo scratches his head absently. “Through the Misty Mountains, and I think I’ll call on a friend on the other side. Then the Mirkwood.” It’s a plan he hasn’t given all that much thought to; making it through the Mirkwood alone isn’t something that he feels particularly safe about. He thinks about putting in a word with the wood-elves, as thin as his credit already is. “Laketown, Dale, Erebor,” he lists. “Then back again. It’s quite flexible at the moment.”
“I see. I will help as much as I can to facilitate your travels.”
More minutes ebb by with silence between them, punctuated only by Elrond granting Bilbo a refill and then tending to his own cup. Elrond doesn’t seem inclined to say anything else, but just as Bilbo is contemplating excusing himself to pack, he asks, almost abruptly, “Why are you travelling, Bilbo?”
The question catches him completely off guard. Confused, he cants his head. “Eh?”
“I’m curious is all.” Elrond sets his empty cup down on the table, eyes still trained on Bilbo’s, as if searching for something held within him. “You’ve Took blood in you, yes?”
“I see. Is there anything else, though?”
“Anything else?” Bilbo is thoroughly and truly lost. He doesn’t remember Elrond ever being so ambiguous.
Seemingly reading the confusion in Bilbo’s face, Elrond shakes his head and raises a hand. “Allow me to rephrase, if you would?” He waits for Bilbo to nod before continuing. “Why did you leave the Shire, Bilbo?”
“Why did I leave?” Bilbo repeats dumbly, wishing that he wasn’t starting to sound so much like a novelty bird. But he doesn’t know what else to say, and replying seems to be the least he can do, regardless of actual substance. He furrows his eyebrows in a thoughtful expression, going through the months leading up to his breakneck decision to start seeing Middle Earth on his own. “Bored?” he supplies, more of a suggestion than an answer. Realising that immediately, he fishes for another answer, changing tack. “It just…sort of happened.”
“Sort of happened.” Elrond nods, but Bilbo gets the feeling that he doesn’t believe it just as much as he himself doesn’t. It certainly had not been anything of the sort, but Elrond doesn’t need to know that. “Bilbo,” he starts, with the air of someone about to ask a favour. “Could I ask you something?”
His fingers thread through each other in front of him. “Does this have anything whatsoever to do with the King under the Mountain?”
Something catches in Bilbo’s throat, something bordering on an instinctive answer, a denial, and an affirmation. He swallows it down once he has a few seconds to think about what to say. “Dain?” He’d met the dwarven king just once, only a few days before leaving Erebor for home in Hobbiton. Bilbo wrinkles his nose in what he hopes is an expression of surprise. “Why would he have anything to do with this?”
Elrond doesn’t fall for the bait. “Thorin Oakenshield,” he clarifies.
“Oh.” His eyes suddenly feel a little watery, along with a brief shudder that he tries to hide in a nervous smile. The silver of the cup is cold under his fingers. “What about Thorin?”
“You travelled with him,” Elrond elaborates. “To Erebor and back. You’re going the exact same route about it, are you not?”
“Um. Yes. But I also went with twelve other dwarves. And Gandalf.” Bilbo allows his smile to widen marginally until it feels too foreign on his face, like a helmet with the visor down over his mouth. Thinking about Fili and Kili makes it all the more harder to maintain and he gives up the effort, settling for a neutral grin that only makes him slightly uncomfortable.
“Were you close to him?”
“Close to Gandalf?”
“Close to Thorin.”
“Thorin,” Bilbo repeats again, hating the way he’s answering Elrond. The memories come back in a slow trickle that increases in pace as he remembers. “The last time we talked, he tried to toss me off a wall.” His voice is distantly cool, and he leaves out the bit about the frankly hurtful name-calling, though he’s certain that Elrond probably knows about that too.
“Nevertheless.” The unanswered question is apparent enough without any further elucidation.
Bilbo shakes his head. “We…I don’t know.” Part of him wants to stop speaking to Elrond, while another just flat out wants to fold over the desk in front of him and curl up into something too small to be seen. To his shock and surprise, his eyes are steadily growing wetter. “We talked,” he murmurs, dabbing at his eyes with his sleeves. “We travelled. We camped together. He said he was wrong about me not belonging with them.” Bilbo smiles at the memory, for real this time.
Elrond continues to observe him quietly. He doesn’t have to say anything for Bilbo to recognise a gentle request to go on.
“Then…and then, oh!” Bilbo blinks and swipes furiously at his tears. “The temper on that man. Pah!” He gasps as he remembers his manners and quickly deigns to beg Elrond’s pardon.
“Quite all right.” Elrond nods understandingly.
“I’m so sorry,” Bilbo mumbles. He wants to smack himself in the forehead, but he doesn’t want to go through the trouble of apologising all over again. Having to do it once is already bad enough on his part. “I’m sorry. I just forgot myself.”
“We all do, once in a while.”
A nervous smile on his face, Bilbo chuckles. “But you don’t though, do you?”
Elrond allows a tiny grin, but doesn’t answer that. Instead, he asks, “Have you lost something?” His tone is kind and sincere, the type one would assume when speaking to a young elf.
Bilbo doesn’t know what that could mean. “No, I don’t think so. I haven’t gotten to packing just yet, but I’ll get started tonight.”
Over Elrond’s shoulder, the horned moon peeks through the craggy mountaintops, turning the balcony a shimmering silver. “I meant that philosophically,” Elrond explains simply.
Cheeks reddening in a manner that is equal parts alcohol and embarrassment, Bilbo hiccups. “Oh. Er, well.” He busies himself with studying the engravings on Elrond’s desk, reading the Sindarin etched into the frame. Three words in, he hits a dead end and doesn’t know how to continue on with translating. “I shouldn’t think so,” he says, and laughs softly in a way that makes him feel sad. “Do you think that’s why I’m travelling all of a sudden? I’m lost?”
“Not all who wander are lost,” Elrond replies sagely.
“No, I’m not,” Bilbo agrees. Then, a second time as if to convince himself, “I’m not.”
After leaving Elrond’s solar, Bilbo gets back to his room and plonks himself on the edge of his bed and has a good long think about the talk he had. When the thoughts start to fly around such that he feels as though his brain is about to spin right out of his skull, he gets up to claim his laundered clothes to fold them and pack them away into his bag, trying to let his head clear up. It fails to do so miserably, and he finds himself pacing his room in circles and stepping out on a mission to get something to eat out of the pantry, before stepping back into his room after just two steps into the hallway, locking his door and unlocking it almost immediately after because he’s never had to use the lock before, then hurling himself back on his bed, face-down with his arms clutched tightly around his pillow and articles of clothing strewn all around his tiny body.
He falls asleep quite unintentionally and wakes abruptly in the night covered in sweat. Kicking off the sheets, Bilbo sits up slowly to rub his shiny face in his hands and moans. He’d stopped dreaming of Bag End halfway through the previous year, and Bree at the end, but the dreams of Erebor continue with a stubborn tenacity. Well, he says Erebor, it has to be, because Thorin’s often there, and where else would the King of the Mountain be but at the Lonely Mountain?
A sniffle makes its way through his nose. With a sudden zeal, Bilbo pitches off his bed and stalks over to where he keeps his stationery and draws out one piece of parchment from his sketching pad and a stick of graphite. The parchment rips unevenly along the top edge where it had been stuck to the rest with adhesive, but Bilbo doesn’t take any notice of that, just sets it down on his table and rummages about for a candle and a matchstick.
When the candle has been lit and it’s bright enough to see clearly, he starts a rough sketch of a face, rounded and anchored at four points to situate features accurately. He stencils in long, dark hair and a beard first, the things he remembers most. Then comes the mouth: flat and hard as a knife-edge, tipped with a neat, dense moustache and a goatee beneath it, both joining up with the beard around the corners of the mouth. Out of fondness, he adds a patch of dirt here, some grime at the hairline, before he settles to draw in the eyes.
He leaves it at that, when Thorin’s eyes are strong and sharp and defined. The rest will be done another day, when his memory isn’t as hazy and he isn’t overcome by so much sleep, which he releases himself to under the carbon gaze of a dead man.
He leaves on the same conditions as he did with Bree — one week, and no longer. Bilbo makes sure to fully utilise the time he has left, asking Elrond for permission to borrow some of the maps in the library, which he agrees to readily. “It is the least I can do for you, after all that you have done,” he tells Bilbo. In addition to the maps, he grants Bilbo a pony equipped with saddle bags, storing a considerable amount of food and supplies and everything a traveller would need in addition to Bilbo’s own inventory. As much as Bilbo wishes Elrond wouldn’t go through the trouble of putting together a farewell dinner for him, he’s too distraught inside about finally saying goodbye to Rivendell to object.
Elrond is not the only one who gives him a parting tribute. Clarissë makes a gift of a silver brooch in the shape of a quarter note with a deep blue sapphire inlaid in its centre. “For the hobbit who would make me smile with his flute-songs for a hundred years, you are an angel of music,” she says as she pins it on his tunic and kisses his cheek lightly.
His fellow librarians present him with a choice selection of new and rare books for him to read on his journey, some of which are written by his favourite elven authors and one of which Bilbo recognises as a hobbit genealogy. “Try not to read them all at once, all right?” the elf who had taken him for Sindarin lessons says, winking.
On his third-to-last day in Rivendell, Bilbo rounds up a string of different lasts — his last book club session, his last walkaround in the library, his last group flute practice, and his last nighttime reading. He tries to hold together normality, wishing to treat every single one no differently as he would if he was going to stay there forever, but news spread fast among the elves, and each one of his lasts culminates in a mutual plea for him to stay behind and a massive group hug.
That part he enjoys the most, almost enough to forget his bereavement.
Stripping his room is the most painful part of packing. The corners are bare, the sheets on the bed folded away and tucked beneath the pillow for its next guest to use. He leaves a few portraits and a sonnet pinned up on the wall for them to remember him by, but packs everything else and for the first time that year, lashes Sting to his waist as he dresses.
He catches a glimpse of himself in the long mirror, and wonders when he’d started to look so old.
At the hour of his departure, a gathering of sorts takes place at the bridge leading into the pass through the Misty Mountains. Just about every elf in Rivendell comes to see Bilbo off, from the armoured hunters astride their chestnut destriers to the musicians of the Hall of Fire to the elven children who had listened intently to his stories of faery dust and starlight nights.
Elrond leads the farewell with a handshake and a blessing, a lingering touch on Bilbo’s forehead with his fingertips. “Goodbye, Bilbo Baggins, Elf-Friend and Librarian. I have greatly enjoyed your company in your time here. Until we meet again, pelo nalú i laiss en-Galadh Guil lín.”
Smiling bravely, Bilbo replies with tears in his eyes, “Nîn velui a lalaith veren nalú en-agovaded vín. I will miss Rivendell dearly, but I will return one day, I promise!”
A elfling at that point runs out from the crowd to hug Bilbo around the waist. “Please don’t go, Uncle Bilbo!”
A second of weakness, and I am lost. Bilbo shakes his head even as his heart threatens to overflow with sorrow. “Child, I will not be gone long!” he exclaims, wiping his eyes. “Before you know it, I will have come back and you will have grown, and I know that from now until then you will continue reading and reading until you’ve read even more books than I!” He bends down to thumb the tears away from the elf-child’s cheek, and looks up knowingly at Elrond.
Standing up, Bilbo takes the reins of his pony and leads it over the bridge. A horn drones behind him, a long, rumbling sound that echoes off the stone cliffs and shakes the ground beneath him, creeping a tremble into his bones. When he reaches the other side, he allows a brief turnaround to wave goodbye before mounting his pony and setting off at a slow trot, blinking through his tears against the afternoon light of day.
The weather takes a turn for the worse, almost mirroring his mood perfectly.
It isn’t an hour after setting off from Rivendell that the thunderless rain starts to come down, soaking Bilbo and his pony through in a matter of seconds. Thankfully, the saddle-bags that Elrond has accoutred the pony with are waterproof, and protect Bilbo’s books and stationery well. He wipes damp hair out of his stinging eyes and leans forward and blinks, trying to see as much of the pass as he can through the thickening mist that has descended around him. It’s rotten visibility for what he fears is miles, without any sign of clearing up for a long while.
Cold, too. Bilbo shivers, clutching at himself as the pony continues to trot through the pass, which is silent all but for the clopping of hooves against rock as he makes his way up. He notes that a great deal of the High Pass has been reconstructed, and the absence of stone giants chucking bits of mountain at each other is wholly welcomed by Bilbo, who has frankly had enough of thunderstorms and loud crashes and something that’s supposed to be stable and sturdy heaving under his large hobbit feet. There are a few areas along the way where steps have even been hewn into the stone where the gradient is too high to walk safely. At these spots, he makes it a habit to dismount and lead his pony up before carrying on, for added precaution. If he’s learned anything on his trips with Thorin and Company, it’s that one can never be too safe about travelling, even more so when you’re on your own.
Glassing the steep path that winds up the mountain, he worries for a bit about manoeuvring the pony about. It’s dark, even though it’s only approaching midday, and the sun is nowhere to be seen, only miles and miles of clouds. There’s a fierce wind blowing and he tries his hardest to keep the rain-lashed path in sight, hands gripping the reins tightly to pull back at any given moment should the need arise. To his surprise, the pony appears to know the path well and very nearly steers itself in spite of the mist, winding up the mountain with little prompting from Bilbo. When he stops to rest for a bit, he extricates a red apple and a cube of sugar from his saddle-bag of food and feeds the pony, petting it and murmuring praise as he silently thanks Elrond once more.
There are more caves than he remembers, small hollows that open up along the way infrequently, temping foolhardy exploration and hotheaded spelunkers seeking adventure or treasure. Bilbo takes a pass on all them — he knows that the goblins are mostly gone for the time being, but he doesn’t fancy taking the risk. In another nightmarish realisation, the memory of the horrible creature lurking about somewhere in the bowels of the Misty Mountains still haunts him in his dreams, the clatter of stones and a strangled death-rattle. Often, they lock in an endless battles of riddles that he always ends up losing, and that rasping, hateful voice snarling at him over and over, “What has it got in its nasty little pocketses? Stoles it! It stoles it!”
A chill that has nothing whatsoever to do with the inclement weather prickles down his spine, and Bilbo lets the ring play over his fingers in his pocket as his heart thrums and he takes to looking over his shoulder nervously and checking Sting at intervals, suddenly wanting to get off the mountains a lot more than he wanted to a minute ago.
The fact that he’s travelling alone becomes starkly apparent when a large rock dislodges itself overhead and tumbles down the side of the mountain, smashing a large bit off the path where he had been just five minutes previously and making Bilbo call out in fright. Panting and holding to the reins to calm his pony, he breathes out in relief and massages his chest as he looks over the edge of the mountain path, down the precipice where the boulder has fallen. A distant crash floats up from the darkness. “Phew,” Bilbo mumbles. “Close shave there, eh?”
His horse whinnies and tosses her head back, a sound accompanied by the lonesome echo of Bilbo’s own voice reflecting back at him from hundreds of feet below. Gulping, Bilbo steadies himself and forges on with his head held low and his eyes cautiously searching the rocky mountainside looming above.
When he reaches the highest point of the High Pass, it becomes clear enough for Bilbo to trot his horse out and sit it next to a ledge, stepping out to take a panoramic view around of Middle Earth as seen by one standing at its very heart. Westward, he sees a light greenery threaded with gentle hills and small mountains, splotched with patches of yellow and the seasonal colours of Arnor, pushing forward to meet the saltwater at what he knows is the bayfront at the edge of Forlindon. To the north, the Misty Mountains continue on and on, bowing and vanishing what he estimates is roughly fifty miles in that direction.
Looking to the east, he sees a thin area of vegetation preceding thick jungles and a neverending mass of land stretching far beyond the boundaries of the Mirkwood, where Dale and Erebor lie. Squinting, he thinks he can make out the mountain, but it’s still too misty to be absolutely sure of it. Finally, he stands and watches the darkened south, where the other half of the mountain range bounds toward, murky and smoggy where Rohan must be, and several lightning storms floating over the wastelands of Mordor. He stares all around for a long time in the quiet, thinking of nothing and everything all at once.
The rain lifts as he starts to traverse down the other side of the mountain, clearing away the mist sufficiently for Bilbo to gaze eastward, over the shambling forests and the green density of the Mirkwood, and his sights settle on a tiny protrusion sitting forlornly on the horizon. Erebor. Even at that distance, seeing it again stirs excitement within Bilbo at the prospect of making it back there within the year, and suddenly he’s not as bothered by the rain and the cold as he was a couple minutes ago. Indeed, he finds it in himself to sing while riding his pony, loud enough to express the wholeness of his gaiety but not too loud so as to attract unwanted attention to himself.
The ground turns amber when he finishes his descent down the other side of the mountain and the late afternoon sun is crawling in the sagging sky behind him, and he reaches the edge of the forest where they had stopped to regroup once they had escaped the beastly goblins. He pauses for a while at the spot where he’d rejoined with the group and made the only promise in his life that he had been fully determined to keep, remembering all that had happened. Not long after that, they had all ran for their lives and he’d made his first kill. It hadn’t even been on purpose and it had shocked him thoroughly, to feel Sting in his hand sliding into a warg’s skull with a squelch that turned into a dreadful grating noise as it cleaved through bone. He remembers how he’d blanked for a moment, stunned with horror at what he had done, feeling the pulse of the dying wolf ebb away through the metal in his hands.
Then, Thorin had called to him, and his senses returned in a rush of adrenaline and mounting fear. Getting Sting back out was the harder, and more terrifying, bit, but there hadn’t been any room for him to lose his stomach then. Thinking about brain matter oozing out in Sting’s wake now makes him queasy for the time he couldn’t afford to be, and Bilbo quickly moves on.
The next part proves tricky, as they had made their way to the Eyrie on eagleback instead of on foot. He plans to drop by Beorn’s before making for the Mirkwood; he doesn’t predict a long stay, because as much as he holds Beorn in great reverence and is aware of the skinchanger’s fondness for him, he still scares Bilbo an awful lot. He ponders for a long while, sometimes at junctures, to think of how to approach Beorn for help, remembering the prickly temperament on the man and, not for the first time, wishing that Gandalf was with him.
Hours on a winding path leads Bilbo into a sparsely distributed grove of trees that opens up further into a clearing of short grass and nodding dandelions. Bilbo steers his pony to a tall spruce and dismounts before tying the reins to a low branch and making his way to the very centre of the field, where a giant moss-covered stone stands sentry. He climbs up on top of it and shields his eyes and gets up on his tiptoes to peer to the east, where the Lonely Mountain remains a dark long shadow and nothing more.
He breaks for lunch with two cored apples and a strip of salted beef jerky. His horse, now named Marianne, gets another apple and half a carrot and a small sack of oats. Chewing the toughened meat and leaning back onto his pack, Bilbo pillows his hands under his head and relaxes, soaking up the warm sunshine. Sunsets out in the wild, away from civilisation, are tragically beautiful to behold, Bilbo thinks. The sky is raw and rose-red, streaked with filamentous clouds that stretch out from behind the mountaintops behind him in fingers. With a soothing wind blowing through the grass and thrashing the trees, it makes it seem as though the land is speaking to him in whispers. He shuts his eyes for a moment, just listening, and when he opens his eyes all is still and quiet around him.
In the afternoon, he takes some time to survey his surroundings. After a while of searching through his belongings, Bilbo retrieves a huge herbology tome that he loaned out of Rivendell Library and sits down to read it, matching identifiable plants in the clearing he’s stopped in with the illustrations and descriptions within the book. Then, he occupies himself further by trying his hand at making drawings of everything he manages to put a name to correctly, an effort that takes hours to complete. When he’s done with everything and has filled up his sketch pad with no less than sixteen different species of trees and plants and fungi, the day has all but gone by and it’s very nearly time for dinner and bed.
Bilbo gets his camping gear set up while there is still light in the dusky sky and settles his groundsheet down on a layer of carpet grass and stakes it in at the corners to stop it from moving around in his sleep. Dinner is a simple enough affair — for a fire, he scrounges about in the nearby woods and carries back armfuls of twigs and dead branches and scatters dead pine needles into the wood before setting it all alight with his tinderbox. Finally given the chance to play cook, he makes a chunky vegetable stew of lentils and peeled potatoes, adding edible mushrooms for variety and flavour, gulping everything in his bowl down and burping loudly in satisfaction before he covers his mouth and excuses himself quietly with a giggle.
He drapes a blanket over his horse before taking out his own and lies flat on his stomach on the groundsheet to look at the sketch of Thorin he’d started on back in Rivendell. It’s still as he had left it that night, the only features being Thorin’s hair and facial hair and his eyes; he hasn’t had the time to get back to it since leaving, and every day leading up to his departure had been packed with goodbyes and farewells, far too many and much more than he thinks he’d deserved.
In the light of his campfire, he lets his fingers brush over the sketch, imagining where the nose should go, how large it should be, and closes his eyes, trying his best to remember how Thorin had looked like. It takes effort to dredge up the memory, having not seen the late king for nearly three whole years, and Bilbo frowns at not being able to definitively recall the shape of his cheekbones. Bits of Thorin’s face seem to blur at the edges into unfamiliarity, and even now he’s not too sure if what he’s got is accurate anyway. Bilbo thinks about asking the other dwarves for a portrait of Thorin when he’s reached Erebor, if only to finish up his sketch and if they do have one at all. What he does remember for certain — his blue eyes, his voice, the warmth of his body against his as he pulled Bilbo into an embrace…
He opens his eyes and looks at the incomplete portrait again with a sigh, then folds it neatly into quarters and tucks it into his pack before lying flat on his back to ogle the emerging stars in the sky.
Bilbo buttons up his waistcoat and checks that his socks are dry before settling down to go to sleep. The night that follows the descent of the sun into the Misty Mountains is cool and dry, and before long Bilbo nods off into the woodsy smell of his surroundings, of pine needles and leaf litter and dreams of strong arms around him holding him fast.
Indiscernibly later, Bilbo is awakened by movement in the trees. Leaves crackle, undergrowth stirs, branches snap in the dark. His eyes fly open, his heart jolts double time, and his hand quickly rests on his belt to unbuckle Sting from its sheath. He slides it out as noiselessly as he can and gets to his feet, blinking the sleep out of his eyes and willing his mind clear, listening intently. More restlessness in the vegetation nearby, louder this time. And closer. Bilbo stands up silently, his right hand wielding Sting and his other dipping into his waistcoat pocket to retrieve the ring. He puts it on and immediately feels a lot safer.
As he investigates, his eyes slowly adjust to the near-complete absence of light. The moon is a pale sliver of purity, a lunula bright as a Silmaril at the corner of a large, smoky cloud that filters out a considerable amount of light that reaches the earth. It is hard to see even past the tip of Sting, which he holds bravely ahead of him while he advances towards the sound, now with both hands gripping his sword.
The noises are coming from deep inside the grove. Bilbo uses Sting to brush aside a large leaf sticking out of the ground and peers inside at where he thinks it is. He cannot see too much, and he can barely make out the shapes of trunks and bushes, but nothing else. For a few moments, he doesn’t hear anything but the pounding of his heart in his ears. Branches shift around him as a small wind picks up, then dies down again. Nothing.
Bilbo turns his head in one more sweep, surveying where he was certain he had heard something, and shrugs. He pushes Sting back into its sheath and pockets his ring and is about to start making his way back to camp when he hears a low, feral growl behind him, and suddenly it feels as though the entire world has dropped out from under his feet.
Daringly, he chances a look again, and a large shape melts into the near-darkness. It writhes and twists, and a black glob that appears to be a head twists in his direction, a low snarling sound rattling from it. Bilbo presses down his fear and holds back a squeak and thinks of all the things that makes him feel brave as he grabs for the ring and the shape comes into view.
The warg is large — probably average size for a warg, by Bilbo’s guess — but even while shrouded in midnight, Bilbo can see the whites of its teeth from where he is, wavering as the jowls of the beast tremble. The warg gets close enough for Bilbo to smell the stink off of it, and to see that both of its eyes are as milky and sightless as spider eggs. The warg lifts its head and sniffs, nostrils flaring dangerously, and it drops its snout again to let out a growl that sends prickles fluting over Bilbo’s skin.
The ring goes on Bilbo’s finger easily and he takes a tentative step backward, eyes never leaving the warg and his hands shaking badly on Sting’s hilt. He wonders if the warg can hear how fast his heart is beating, if it can smell him in the dark. Wargs have a good sense of smell, don’t they? He doesn’t know. He bites his lip and breathes as quietly as he can as he continues his retreat, until he takes another step back and his bare foot lands on top of a stick, splitting it in two with a loud crack.
Instantaneously, the warg snaps its head in his direction and lunges. A shriek rips from Bilbo’s throat as the warg clips his side and careens into a tree trunk, smacking its head on the bark with a sickening crack. All Bilbo can think about is how he hopes desperately that the creature has broken its skull, praying pleasebedeadpleasebedeadpleasebedead as he whips around and makes a desperate run for it, but quick as lightning, the warg recovers, coils, and makes another spring at him, sailing clear over his head and landing perfectly in his path.
Unable to stop his momentum, Bilbo collides into the warg and bowls over, all the wind knocked out of him. A paw presses down on his leg, and remembering Sting in his hand, he slashes at it wildly until it sinks in with a shallow thunk and the warg roars in pain, releasing him. Bilbo scrambles to his feet and continues running as ferocious jaws snap shut behind him and a dank-smelling warmth gusts over his shoulders.
He runs and runs, clearing obstacles the best he can with the limited sight he has; the warg is blind, but still very strong and very fast, bulldozing into trees and deadfall and anything in its way to get to Bilbo. Once again, it hurls itself over him and bounds off a tree and blocks his way, arching its back and keeping low, all the while making a terrible growling noise.
Bilbo clenches Sting so hard his fingers start to hurt. The warg lunges and makes another wild attempt to bite him; Bilbo swings Sting blindly, cutting up leaves and branches as his attacks meet air, but it finally finds something soft in the dark and all of a sudden the warg falls back with a yelp. Taking the chance presented by the warg’s lapse in attacking, Bilbo runs and leaps over it, brushing the soles of his feet over its bristling back and picks up at a sprint away from the warg, putting as much distance as he can between them. Glancing over his shoulder, he thinks that he’s lost it.
His shins bang into something hard and unyielding, and before he has any chance to regain his balance, Bilbo tumbles and lands painfully on his stomach over the fallen log that tripped him up. Blinking and gasping with shock, Bilbo feels something else tackle him from behind, sending him flying a couple more feet into the dirt. Miraculously, he winds up on his feet and vaults over another log that he sees in the dim moonlight at the last second. He lands awkwardly on the other side and hears something snap under his foot, wildly thinking it to be another branch, and it takes Bilbo two more steps to realise that the snap was his foot.
Pain shears up his leg and into his thigh with mind-numbing intensity, and he’s in so much pain that his voice all but deserts him. Crumpling under his own weight, his leg giving way, he falls heavily and bangs the side of his head on what has to be a boulder and stars explode around the corners of his eyes, dulling the pain somewhat, but his fingers weaken and Sting slips out of his grasp. His ears have burst into a shrill ringing that refuses to abate, and as much as he blinks, the odd mixture of darkness and the symptomatic phosphene of concussion presses blindness into his eyes.
Bilbo lies slumped on his side for a few seconds, stunned by the impact, and then jaws clamp around his torso, lifting him high into the air. He cries out soundlessly, limbs flailing about like a rag doll. “Help!” he screams despite himself, battering the warg’s nose uselessly with his tiny fists. The pressure of the jaws slacken infinitesimally, then they clamp down again with increased force as the warg gives him another vicious bite. Sharp teeth sink into his waistcoat, popping a few buttons off it, and Bilbo feels his ribs starting to crack, even though the concussion has robbed him of sensation other than the stabbing pain in his ankle.
“Help!” Bilbo wails again, completely out of instinct. He draws air to make another plea for help before the warg bites down a third time, even harder, forcing all the breath out of his lungs and effectively silencing him. He manages a choked mewl as the warg’s jaws tighten on his midsection, and he slaps the warg’s snout one last time with his hand as he struggles to breathe, slowly being suffocated by sheer pressure that is sure to come with the fourth and final bite to tear him in two.
There’s a soft, but not insignificant thrum over the din, and then around Bilbo's body, the warg makes a gruesome, guttural howl that’s muffled by the ringing in his ears. Something sticky and fluid starts to gush over him; Bilbo thinks as his eyelids drift shut that he’s finally dying, bleeding out in the jaws of the warg, and there’s a bright green light that blazes through the forest, searing across his eyes. The warg falls silent and drops him limply onto the ground, tipping over with an almighty crash.
Lying on the ground, Bilbo doesn’t move a muscle as tears leak down his nose, but through increasingly heavy eyelids, he sees a figure bearing over him, small with a long beard and there’s the outline of a big nose in a light floating over his head.
“Thorin?” Bilbo whispers in disbelief.
He doesn’t fight the unconsciousness when it comes.
“Did you mean it?” Bilbo asks.
Thorin is riding ahead of him, his posture so unfailingly straight it threatens to make him appear as tall as an actual man. “Did I mean what?” he replies without turning around.
“How wrong you were.” He still has difficulty believing it, even now thinking that the worst is finally over. Bilbo pushes his lips forward in a skeptical pout as their ponies continue trotting forward, to the Mirkwood. No one has ever called him brave before, and the concept is foreign to him. Strange, more likely, or maybe even reckless. Certainly not brave, of all things.
At this, Thorin does turn his head to look at Bilbo. “You doubt my words.”
Bilbo squeezes his legs around the horse’s back and shakes his head. “No, no,” he clarifies quickly. He has to knot the reins in his hands, finding something to occupy himself while he meddles together an answer. “I only meant…well, it’s not every day that I get that.” From a king, no less.
Mathematically, there is a few feet between their ponies, but Thorin seems much closer than that as he locks eyes with Bilbo. It is possible that they have found some way to forge a connection entirely out of staring at each other, at the point where speech cannot be enough to express feelings like trust and gratitude the way words normally do, because Bilbo finds himself reading all of this in Thorin through the way he looks at him. His knee shifts against the saddle and he swallows, relying on both gestures to centre himself firmly in his saddle lest he falls off, addled with affection.
He wonders if the connection runs deeper than that sometimes. He watches Thorin ride and longs for his closeness, his touch. For days since the Eyrie, he has been thinking of Thorin, of whether he thinks of Bilbo too. What does he fill his head with, exactly? Erebor, no doubt, and Smaug and Azog and thoughts of finally returning home. All things large and important beside, but could there possibly be room for him, small and commonplace and unimportant as he is, too? He aches from wondering, fixing his eyes on Thorin’s furred cloak, rather than his face, to avoid giving himself away.
“I have rarely been surer of anything else,” Thorin says firmly. “I am not one to be glad about admitting my faults, and I admit that I faulted you by holding you in doubt. I owe you my life, and I am sorry.”
“I realise that it’s difficult to put faith in me. I’m trying my best, too.” Bilbo nods, his brown curls bouncing on his forehead.
Thorin’s face softens from a dignified expression of penitence to one of friendly fondness. Bilbo thinks that he might say something else as he opens his mouth slightly, but then he pulls his lips into a small smile and turns back to face the dirt road again, leading the way forward.
Bilbo is jerked back to lucidity by something astringent shooting up his nose, waking him with a start. His eyes snap open and he takes a sharp, ragged breath. In the first light of day, it takes a second for him to realise that he’s seated up against a tree and there’s a wooden bowl being held under his nose. He cries in surprise and lashes out with his right hand, almost knocking it to the ground, but the bowl is wrenched away and something thwacks him on the head, arresting his attention.
“Keep still!” a voice commands irritably.
Eyes blurry, Bilbo rubs his face and looks at the owner. Radagast the Brown glares down at him, tutting disapproval. “S’bad enough with your leg like that, now ‘ye wanna thrash around like a fish out of water?”
“Ra — Mister Radagast?” Bilbo mumbles.
The brown wizard frowns. “I don’t suppose you need another whack to jog your memory, do you?” He shakes his staff threateningly.
“No, no!” Bilbo waves one hand and covers his scalp protectively with the other. He tries to shift away and is rewarded with a blinding burst of pain in his right leg, crying out and screwing his face up in agony. Almost immediately, Radagast’s staff checks him swiftly on his shoulders four times, not hard enough to injure, but quick and sharp enough to stun him silly.
“I — said — keep — still!” He punctuates each word with a light slap of his staff about Bilbo’s upper arms. Bilbo gasps, more from the shock of impact rather than the pain of it, which is all but dwarfed by the agony in his leg. He shields his face with his hands in anticipation of another blow, but shudders and stops moving. Sighing, Radagast bends over to see to his ankle, muttering inaudibly under his breath.
The pant leg of his trousers has been hiked up to expose the wounded area at his ankle, and when he catches sight of it, Bilbo has to compel himself not to scream. His feet are laid next to each other, his left foot darkened with dirt but as normal as anything. His right foot is equally dirty, but it is also bent at a ridiculous-looking angle such that he can see the slight bulge of a bone pressing against swollen, bluish-black skin where there most definitely should not be anything but level, pale skin. A large bruise maps from the upper part of his heel down to the sole, and is joined by more patches on the upper plane of his foot that would be visible if not for his feet hair. While he isn’t moving it at all, there’s a throbbing sensation in his foot that sends waves of pain stabbing up his calf. He cannot tear his eyes away from it, even though just looking at it makes his stomach turn over.
“Broken, I’m afraid,” Radagast murmurs, shaping his fingers just over the surface of his ankle, his gaze skittering restlessly. “And rather badly. Just wait a moment, I’ll get it immobilised. I am sorry, I can’t do anything about the pain for now; you’ll have to bear with it until I get you to safety.”
“The warg?” Bilbo rasps, eyes suddenly wide with fear.
The wizard scratches his head with the end of his staff. “Dead, I should think.”
“How — how?”
He holds up an empty crossbow. “You know, I don’t even remember carrying this thing around,” Radagast demurs, attention suddenly shifted from Bilbo’s ankle to full absorption in the crossbow. He sticks a finger into where a quarrel would be nocked and brings it to his tongue, tasting and sucking on it. “Now where on earth did I find this?”
“You…killed the warg?”
Shrugging, Radagast tosses the crossbow over his shoulder. It lands in a bush, vanishing with a swishing sound. “Stupid quarrel didn’t make it all the way through its throat, so I gave it a little bit of a boost.” He bangs his staff on the ground, making the swirling jewel at its tip glow with a dim green light. His grin gives way to a expression of pure fright. “Did I overdo it a little bit? Do you think so?” Then, almost immediately after with a scowl, “Oh, what I am saying? Damned creature was about to eat you alive. Of course I didn’t!” His eyelid twitches erratically in a way that manages to worry Bilbo, even through the pain and disorientation.
He remembers something with a shock. “My…my,” Bilbo stammers, fumbling with his vest to check where the warg had bitten him, fearing the worst.
Radagast shakes his head. “Y’aint bleeding under there, lad, save for some bruising and a cracked rib or two. Might have something to do with all the mithril you’re packing.”
The vest folds over to reveal his undershirt, a pearly-white weave of mail, fibrous chain-links nearly invisible to the naked eye. The material is crumpled and soaked with sweat, but it is otherwise holding together in one piece. Bilbo can feel the spots on his chest where rows of sharp teeth dug into the fabric, and his diaphragm still feels slightly constricted, but Radagast is right about the extent of his injuries.
“That’s a valuable piece of clothing you’ve got there, Mister Bilbo.” Radagast nods, his face serious. “Probably saved your life. Wargs bite to kill.”
“It…it was a gift.” With trembling hands, Bilbo rolls his vest back down and reaches to button up his waistcoat, forgetting that he’d lost all his buttons in the struggle with the warg. A breathy laugh escapes him and he drops his head back against the tree, reveling in the amazement of just being alive, never mind his stark lack of buttons.
At that moment, a twittering bird flies overhead and deposits a length of cord on Radagast’s hat. He takes the cord and whistles back at the bird, removing his hat to allow the bird to roost in the nest in his hair. Winding the cord about his hands, he snaps it taut. “Now do as I say, and don’t move a muscle. My rabbits will be here any moment to bring you back for proper treatment, but I will not have you going anywhere with your leg flapping about like a sock in the wind.”
Bilbo presses his lips together and looks away, hoping desperately that Radagast knows what he’s doing. It’s not that he has something against the wizard, but rather it’s difficult to trust first-aid to someone with dirt in his nostrils and a streak of what is probably birdlime running down the side of his face. Out of the corner of his eye, he observes the wizard as he works. Radagast splints his leg expertly with four sticks and binds the catgut cord around the sticks, leaving a bit of slack in it and trailing the free ends in his palm.
“Okay, here’s what I’m going to do: I’m going to count to three, and then I’ll pull,” he cautions. “Ready?” He waits for Bilbo to nod and then, quick as a flash, he yanks the cord tight around the splint without another word. Bilbo bleats loudly, more startled than hurt.
“Oh, oh, you tricked me!” he sobs.
Radagast grins wickedly and shrugs. “Caught you when you were relaxed. Hardly an easy task, splinting a tense little hobbit.” He dusts his hands off and plops down in front of Bilbo with his staff against his shoulder, resting his hands on the ground pushing his fingers lightly into the soil.
Bilbo brushes tears away from his cheek and tries not to glare at Radagast, dropping his gaze instead and suddenly feeling ashamed. Trickster or not, the wizard saved him from the jaws of death, quite literally, and he has no place bearing any ill feelings towards him. “Thank you,” he mumbles. “For saving me.”
“You’re welcome.” The wizard waggles his fingers at him. “Good thing you’ve got a healthy pair of lungs on you. Else I probably wouldn’t have heard.”
“If — if I might ask, Mister Radagast, what were you doing here so late at night?” The last Bilbo had seen of Radagast was when they were fleeing from the orcs on their way to Erebor, and then Gandalf had not-so-accidentally led them all to Rivendell. He hadn’t managed to reconnect with him even while returning to the Shire with Gandalf, who’d reassured Bilbo that Radagast was fine and well.
“I was on my way home, I heard a shout for help, I investigated.” He sniffs. “I do live here, if you remember.”
Bilbo does remember where he lives, which doesn’t clear away much of the confusion in seeing him again. “Isn’t Rhosgobel on the other side of the Misty Mountains?”
“No.” Radagast scrunches his nose, thinking deeply. “It’s on this side. Isn’t it?”
“We did meet you on the other side,” Bilbo says slowly. “When we came by the first time.”
“Did you?” Bemusement clouds Radagast’s face. “No, I’m quite certain we met here.” He taps his staff on the side of the tree for emphasis.
“There were orcs and wargs,” Bilbo prompts tentatively. If speaking with Gandalf is a puzzle, speaking with his cousin Radagast is a double-locked box mystery. He’d forgotten exactly how maverick the wizards of Middle Earth can be, maverick being the polite way of putting things. “You — very nobly, if I may add — drew them away for us to run, remember?”
“Eh?” Realisation dawns on Radagast after a few seconds of pursing his lips in thought. His eyes light up, his lips trembling in a expression of comic surprise. “Oh, that can’t be right, then!” he wails. “Rhosgobel? On the other side? Goodness!”
“But, but you said you live here, though.” Puzzling out the circumstances under which Radagast has found himself stranded on the wrong side of the Misty Mountains helps distract Bilbo from his ankle somewhat. With the immobilisation, he knows that it’s not hurting as much as it would be, but he'll think of anything to keep his mind off the image of it broken and bruised.
“I do, I do!” Radagast slaps his temple, lips moving soundlessly. “Rhosgobel, Rhosgobel, not here, it isn’t? And — and the rabbits will be here soon, so they’re here, and I woke up here this morning on this side for sure. Or was it last night?” Frowning, he sticks his tongue out and looks cross-eyed at the stick insect perched innocently on it. “Did I?” he gurgles at it.
The bug waves its appendages in what Bilbo thinks is a shrug, and vanishes as Radagast pulls his tongue back into his mouth. As if to prove that the day really can get more bizarre, the wizard removes his hat and poses the same question to the bird on top of his head. Bilbo grimaces in a way that has nothing to do with his ankle, wondering exactly what his life has come to.
“She says that yes, I’ve been living here, but I haven’t been living in Rhosgobel,” Radagast confirms with conviction, jamming his hat back on. “We were living…” To Bilbo’s amusement, he touches two fingers to his mouth and hooks them into his lower lip, visibly growing frustrated at not being able to recall whatever it is he wants to. “Living here, but also at home, not Rhosgobel home, but still home, yes, just not my home…”
Heavy footsteps nearby; Bilbo can feel them shaking the earth. Alarmed, he turns quickly to look, intuition guiding his hand to his pocket for the ring (How had it gotten back in there? he wonders. Hadn’t he been wearing it when the warg attacked?). His gaze returns to Radagast, who seems to have not heard or felt anything. “Mister — Mister Radagast!” he whispers urgently.
“Someone’s home, no doubt about that,” Radagast mutters, pulling at his lip and paying Bilbo no attention whatsoever. “But whose?”
It’s a warning that comes too little, too late; a huge beast easily five times Bilbo’s size thunders into their vicinity, felling two trees on its way through. Landing with a heavy crash, it throws its head back and gives a quelling roar that echoes through the woods all around them, startling birds from the trees in simultaneous takeoff. It swings its huge, shaggy head in a large round and catches sight of them. Bilbo squeaks in fright, but Radagast remains stoically unobservant of the creature. It comes to the beast having to lumber over to them and snarl over him and drip a gob of viscous drool into his lap for the wizard to look up and finally take note of the creature’s presence.
Instead of leaping up to accost the beast, Radagast reacts completely differently from what Bilbo expects. “Oh, yes!” Radagast cries joyfully. Bilbo is so bewildered at his reaction that he forgets to be frightened for a moment. The wizard slides his gaze to Bilbo, grinning, and points up at it with his staff. “Yes! His home, now I remember!”
Up close to the beast, Bilbo finally recognises it. The black grizzly quivers and assumes its full height before starting to shrink into the shape of a man. A beefy, hairy, bearded giant of a man dressed in clothes stitched together from sacks, but a man Bilbo knows nonetheless.
“Mister Bilbo,” Radagast says. “This is Mister Beorn.”
The shapeshifter is as massive as he remembers, if not more massive. Beorn’s eyes widen visibly and he performs a double-take when he catches sight of Bilbo and bellows in surprise, “Little bunny!” Beorn swoops onto him and snags Bilbo around the waist, swinging him high into the air, arms and legs dangling and the splinted ankle screaming out in protest.
“Stop!” Bilbo chokes, the only word he can get out before the pain overrides his ability to speak.
Catching sight of his broken ankle, Beorn sets him down quickly but with as much gentleness as he can muster, looking thoroughly horrified. “Sorry! Sorry!” He reaches for Bilbo’s ankle, as if to caress and comfort him, then appears to think twice and shies away. “Are you alright, Bilbo?”
Bilbo whimpers piteously in reply, his eyes squeezed shut.
“Ah, have you two met before?” Radagast claps his hands in glee before he notices that Bilbo is speechless from severe pain. He bends over quickly to tend to him, checking the splint around his ankle.
“He was my guest, once, as you are now,” Beorn answers, watching Radagast right the brace, which has gone crooked in his short-lived time airborne. Bilbo nods and takes wheezing breaths, still unable to find his words.
“Well, we must be very careful with Mister Bilbo. Poor thing was attacked by a warg last night and he broke his ankle. Imagine that!”
“Ho!” Beorn’s eyes turn unimaginably fierce, glittering as if a miniature person in his skull has lit a pair of bonfires in them. He gnashes his teeth audibly. “Is that so? Well, you have my deepest thanks for saving Bilbo, Radagast. As for the wargs that defile my land, I shall find and skin them to the very last one for this effrontery so long as my name is Beorn.” He pats Bilbo on his forehead. “Mister Bilbo, until you are back on your feet again, you shall stay in my protection at the Carrock. I insist!”
“We’ll have to wait for my rabbits to return to get him there, first of all,” Radagast advises.
“No need.” With a careful tenderness incongruous with the sheer muscle mass of his arms, Beorn cradles Bilbo like a babe and hoists him up. “I will carry him there.”
On foot, Beorn reaches the Carrock in half an hour. Radagast remains behind and asks them to go on ahead, preferring to take his rabbit sled back. “Do try to make Mister Bilbo comfortable until I get back, Mister Beorn!” he calls after them as they leave him behind.
“Bah, wizards!” Beorn complains to Bilbo. “Always needing to tell people what to do and what not to do. As if I don’t know how to take care of a guest!”
“You know Mister Radagast?” Bilbo murmurs into his hairy breastbone. The end of his long, dark beard is coiled up on Bilbo’s heaving chest.
Beorn nods. “Useful fellow, Radagast. Mind you, I say useful, not indispensable. He’s been helping a great deal around my land. Almost as good with animals and plants as I!” He laughs heartily.
“And…and he’s been staying with you?” It’s new information to Bilbo that Beorn likes visitors, at least those who don’t have an interesting story or two to share.
Beorn turns a kind eye on him. “Useful and nuttier than a squirrel’s winter stash. What can I say? I like him! As do my friends and family; he speaks our language.” He scrapes his bare feet on a fallen log, dislodging accumulated layers of caked mud and dead leaves. “Gandalf passes through sometimes, but he never stays for long. Mentioned you might be coming through one of these days, and here you are!” Beorn’s gaze slides to his wounded ankle. “Though I would have liked it for this not to have happened. It happened on my territory; I’m terribly sorry for you to have been injured.”
“When did Gandalf tell you I was coming?”
“Seven months ago.”
“Did he mention where he was going?”
Beorn snorts rudely. “Didn’t ask. Didn’t care. Still don’t. Whatever on Middle Earth Gandalf wants to get himself up to, it’s none of my concern. He’s free to stay if he needs to, as long as I get to keep out of it if it pleases me. And doesn’t it so?”
“It does,” Bilbo replies, because he thinks it’s the correct answer to give, and ends up being right as Beorn hoots approvingly.
Steadily, the vegetation grows greener and the large wooden gate of the Carrock comes into sight. Birds twitter excitedly overhead as they approach. Beorn whistles shrilly at them, and they fly off swiftly in the direction of the gate. “So we’ll be ready for your arrival,” he tells Bilbo.
At the gate, a waiting bay horse unlatches and opens it for their passage. The garden of the Carrock is as lush and wonderful as Bilbo recalls. There are flowers of a dozen different colours growing in rows that stretch along the length of the garden, fenced on both sides with tall hedges. Barracks of beehives are clustered at the corners, running along the perimeter of the hedge. Animals are everywhere — dogs and birds and squirrels and deer and rabbits and horses, all of which rush out to greet Beorn and Bilbo. Even the bees seem to be piqued, gathering outside their hives to float around them in swarms. “Back! Back!” Beorn scolds severely. “Give the little bunny some air!”
Bilbo wants to protest against being called a little bunny, but he hasn’t the temerity nor the strength to do so, so he deflates in Beorn’s arms and watches the beautiful landscape trundle past slowly.
Inside the Carrock, Beorn lays Bilbo down on a straw bed with a woollen blanket, taking great pains not to disturb his wounded leg. “Are you hungry, Bilbo?”
“I had —” A thought strikes him. “My pony! My things! It’s all back at —”
“Here,” Beorn interrupts firmly and gestures out the window. Looking out, Bilbo sees the pony that Elrond had granted him is grazing in the fields surrounding the Carrock, relieved of its saddle-bags and his belongings. “I passed your magnificent creature on the way there,” he explains, winking at Bilbo. “Told her to go on ahead and wait here for you.”
Bilbo sinks back into the mattress. “Th — thank you! I’m very grateful.” That settled, his stomach warbles mournfully before he becomes aware of his raging appetite, even though he had a rather filling dinner the night before, but he supposes that near-death situations sort of do that to a person. “I am quite hungry,” he mumbles abashedly.
Beorn disappears for a few minutes and returns with a crisp loaf of freshly baked bread and a large honeycomb on a ceramic plate, settling them on a table next to Bilbo’s bed. Bilbo breaks off chunks of the bread and slathers it over the honey and tears into it with his teeth. The bread is fluffy, the honey sinfully sweet. Beorn watches him with the satisfaction of an owner watching his pet eat its food, smiling.
“Little bunny’s getting fat on bread and honey,” he rumbles, prodding Bilbo’s belly gently.
“I am not fat,” Bilbo says crossly. “And neither am I a little bunny.” He winces as his ankle starts throbbing again, reminding him of his injury.
It takes ten minutes for Radagast’s rabbit-sled to pull over in Beorn’s garden. The wizard knocks on the door with his staff to announce his arrival and lets himself in, much to Beorn’s displeasure. “Wait for the damn door to be answered after you knock, wizard,” he grumbles, wiping his hands on his trousers. “If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a hundred times that it’s downright impolite.”
“Not a hundred, just sixty-two. Don’t exaggerate.” Radagast dumps a small sack knotted at the mouth in front of Bilbo’s bed and starts pulling assorted plants out of it. “I helped myself to a bit of your garden, Mister Beorn; I do hope you don’t mind.”
Beorn’s nostrils flare in a manner that plainly means that he does mind the forgoing of askance, but he says anyway, “It’s for Bilbo, of course.”
Out of nowhere, Radagast produces a stone bowl and fills it a quarter-full with water and mashes a flower, a root, and an ear-shaped mushroom into it. He dips a finger inside and lifts it to his tongue, tastes, filters the contents through a strainer and hands the bowl to Bilbo.
“What is it?” Bilbo eyes the liquid inside suspiciously. Mysterious black bits float around in it and he has to wonder how they got there even after the whole thing had been strained.
“It’ll be easier to fix your ankle if you’re not thrashing about every time I touch it. Drink slowly.”
Bilbo sniffs the liquid and makes a face. He thinks he’s smelled something similar once, clinging to the walls of the waterways in the Mirkwood. “It’s disgusting,” he says, sticking his tongue out.
“What were you expecting? Miruvor? Don’t be difficult.” Radagast clucks his tongue. “Drink and go to sleep so I can work.”
He does try, but the first drop on his tongue makes him gag and beg Beorn for honeyed water to cleanse the taste away. “Hobbits and their picky taste buds,” Radagast mutters cantankerously, tapping the side of the bowl with his fingers.
“Perhaps some sugar to help it go down?” Beorn suggests.
No amount of honey nor sugar stirred in manages to fully mask the awful bitterness of the liquid, but between Radagast’s glare and Beorn’s encouraging look, Bilbo swallows all of the brew whilst holding on to his nose tightly to eliminate as much of the flavour as possible. He exhales heavily through his mouth and grimaces when it’s all gone, thinking that the similar-smelling stuff on the sewer walls would probably taste much better.
Radagast takes the bowl back and rinses it out. “Now just lie down and count backward from twenty. Or was it count backward from fifty?” He purses his lips in indecision. “Ah…let’s call it twenty. Just to be safe, count really, really slowly.”
Bilbo mumbles an affirmative, but his eyelids are already drooping and his arms feel like they’re turning to wood. He settles comfortably on the mattress with the pillow soft and downy beneath his head and he doesn’t even get past eighteen before drugged sleep swallows him up.
Thorin is squirming out the yawning mouth of a barrel, his clothes dripping wet, a bruise rising on the side of his head where he’d dashed it against the inside of the barrel. Bits of straw stick out of his bedraggled hair like golden pins in a very dirty pincushion. There are shadows under his eyes that Bilbo doesn’t remember seeing when they had spoken face to face in Thorin’s cell. The dwarf moans, flopping over onto his belly, looking as though the ride had taken easily twenty years off his life, and Bilbo has to take a moment for it to sink in that he’s never seen Thorin so humbled nor pitiful before.
“You alright there?” Bilbo asks uncertainly.
The glare he gets in return serves to counterbalance his previous sentiment with perfect polarity. “What does it look like?” he gasps.
“There’s no need to be snappy,” Bilbo says, feeling more hurt than he deigns to show in his voice.
Thorin breaks eye contact with him, his mouth a bitter line of contempt. He pushes himself slowly to his feet, his gait unsteady. When Bilbo rushes to hold him up, Thorin holds up a hand to halt him. “It’s fine,” he mutters stiffly. He turns his back in a brusque motion and limps off toward the other barrels, leaving Bilbo behind to wonder exactly how he’d done Thorin wrong.
After they’ve fished every last battered, groaning dwarf out of their incommodious vessels, Thorin does a second headcount, calling out names to confirm that no one’s either suffocated or bludgeoned to death, or just simply lost. Twelve voices grumble their positives back at him. “Right then,” he says, forcing out a crick in his back. “We’re off.”
Perhaps it’s the fault of days of starvation or the river-ride induced bruising, but no one except Bilbo seems to notice that he’s been left entirely out of the count. He hadn’t even looked at him when performing the check, but Thorin says nothing else and gestures for them to walk on. Bilbo’s eyes water, but he wipes them away angrily, determined not to let Thorin see. He refuses to meet his gaze as he passes, which is frankly alright with Bilbo as he fights the urge to seethe at Thorin. Wasn’t he the one who had engineered the plan that got them all freed? Hadn’t he stolen food for them in captivity, bringing it to their cell doors at the risk of being discovered himself? And it’s not as though the adventure was his idea in the first place. He didn’t have any idea that Thorin could be so petty. He feels snubbed and unappreciated, just like he did many times until the Eyrie, but his pride forbids him from making any mention of it. His nose pushed into the air, he tails Bombur, trying to make nothing of it as they walk up the coast in a line and head for Laketown.
He can still feel his equilibrium yawing, his balance thrown off residually by the rush and whiplash of river current, but steels himself to walk straight. Bilbo thinks of Bag End for the thousandth time in a long succession of thoughts about home, how comfortable he’d be in his robe, sitting in his armchair with his bare toes curling against the warmth of the fireplace, and he sighs wistfully.
A hand rests on his shoulder, fingers curling over his clavicle. Thorin looks at him with cryptic eyes. “You alright there?” he asks.
“Fine.” Bilbo’s voice is chilly. “Now that you remember that I exist again, I’m fine.”
Thorin doesn’t release his shoulder, gripping tighter but not to the point of discomfort, as if asking him to stay. “You are always with me,” he says. “It…there was no need to factor in a certainty.”
Is Thorin trying to explain himself? Or being painfully ironic about the whole affair? Bilbo regards the hand on his shoulder uncertainly, not knowing what to say in response. He squints up at Thorin, into his depthless and fathomless eyes, the way he does when trying to work through a difficult riddle, searching for hints, thinking of algorithms.
“I was wrong to have treated you like that,” he finally says, and he pulls Bilbo into a hug. This one is very much like the first time they had engaged in such contact, only there’s something distinctly dissimilar in the way he lets Thorin gather him into his arms now. The first time, he had been caught unawares, given no time to react — he’d been stunned, stoic, before giving in with a surprised smile. Now, he gives in from the start even before Thorin touches him, melting against him as if he’d been wanting just that all along. A hug to set matters right, a kiss to efface a wrong, the bilateral language of two people closer than lovers. “I am sorry,” he whispers in his ear, his voice breaking. Bilbo clutches the back of his soggy robes tight and breathes his musky scent, and prays hard that he’ll never let go.
Later, when Bilbo walks at the back of the pack, he thinks of those final three words and how exactly any of it would be different — inflection, body language, the look in his eyes — if Thorin had made to substitute that triplet of syllables with a phrase of his (entirely random) choosing, ‘I love you’, and decides that it could very possibly be the same.
Bilbo wakes in pain and endures consciousness in discomfort. He blinks into the night, his breathing shallow and rapid. Someone has removed most of his clothing, leaving him in just his pants to sleep in. It suits him quite well; even without a blanket, the night is stiflingly warm.
He becomes aware of the thudding ache in his right leg, and whimpers softly with each dull pulse that seems to radiate up the back of his leg and into his groin. His hair is damp with sweat, and his skin feels hot. Trying to talk, he finds that his mouth is parched, his tongue swollen and heavy as he licks his chapped lips ineffectually. His head feels as though it’s been cored out and stuffed with wool. “Water,” he croaks softly, looking around blearily for help.
A strong, thick arm edges beneath him, supporting him to a half-seated position, and the rim of a cup is brought to his lips. Bilbo laps at the sweet water until the last drop, coughing weakly when there’s none left. The arms release him carefully back into bed, and twitching, spasming from the pain in his leg, Bilbo drifts back to fitful sleep.
When he wakes up again, he’s alone in his room. The windows are wide open, and the room is airy and warm and full of morning sunshine. By his bedside, a mound of fruits is arranged stylishly on a platter, a get-well note stuck into the crown of a large pineapple at the very top. Bilbo opts to study his ankle instead, which has been propped up on a small pillow, but it has been swathed in layers of bandages. It still aches dully, though the pain is significantly lesser than before.
“Finally awake?” Beorn’s gruff voice floats into his room. The skinchanger’s head pokes out from behind the door. “How’s your foot?”
“Better.” Bilbo nods and smiles shyly. “Much better. Thank you for bringing me water last night.”
“Last night? That was nearly three days ago. You’ve been out for a while.”
“Three days?” Bilbo squawks.
“That Radagast; the clot thinks he might have given it to you a bit stronger than he thought it would be.” Beorn rubs a large finger under his nose. “But he’s seen to you and set your ankle. Now you should rest for it to heal up right. Shouldn’t take more than a couple of months before you’re up and running again.”
Bilbo swallows, his throat still aggravatingly dry, but he doesn’t ask for water just yet. “Where’s Mister Radagast?”
“Think he’s gone back to Rhosgobel for a bit. Or he might be lost. Most likely lost, but he’ll probably turn up in a couple of days, if we’re unlucky. Until then, you’ll be staying put with me!” Beorn smiles widely, displaying rows of sharp yellow teeth that certainly wouldn’t look out of place in a bear’s mouth.
“Um.” Twisting his fingers in the sheets, Bilbo thinks of a way to phrase his question that doesn’t sound ungrateful or presumptuous. “I don’t want to be any trouble —”
Beorn gives a booming laugh. “What? No trouble at all! You’re more than welcome to stay. You weren’t thinking of going anywhere else with your foot like that, were you?”
Bilbo shrinks back into his bed. “Of course not,” he replies, his voice small.
“Then there’s no question about it.” Beorn whistles into the hallway and a deer bearing a food tray on its back clip-clops into the room. There’s a bowl on the tray filled with a thick, steaming soup that Bilbo can smell from his bed. In spite of his spit-drying thirst, his mouth starts to water at the aroma of buttered croutons swimming in cream of asparagus. Beorn grins at him. “Breakfast?”
Bilbo is confined to bed rest for the whole of the next week. To ward off being bored out of his mind, he asks for the books in his saddle-bags and reads as much as he can. Between The Shire: An Unabridged History and Evenstar’s Elves In Love, he has another look at the first half of his drafted biography and thinks about editing out a few bits at the start, for accuracy. There, he tries to polish his Sindarin as well, but without a native speaker to correct his pronunciation, it’s a half-baked effort at best.
Beorn keeps him company by his bed at irregular intervals, if only to bemoan how boring his hobby is and to squeeze Bilbo for tales of his travel. And subsequently comment on how boring they are.
“You read too much,” Beorn comments one day. He steals an orange from Bilbo’s tower of fruit and digs into it with his nails. The skin breaks with a small spray of juice and a sharp clear burst of citrus permeates the air as he peels it. “I don’t understand what’s so interesting about books. Never have, never will.”
“Reading is a joy.” Bilbo accepts a wedge of orange from Beorn and pops it into his mouth. He bites down on the sacs, releasing juice and pulp into his mouth. Beorn’s oranges taste a lot different from those sold at greengrocers — somehow, they manage to be appreciatively sweet and sour without either taste overpowering the other. “Perhaps I could interest you sometime.”
Beorn shakes his shaggy head as he tidies up the rinds and starts to break apart another orange. “Bleh.” He blows a wet raspberry. Bilbo giggles, holding his book away at a safe distance to protect it from being bombarded with spit.
The animals also pitch in to look after him while he rests. When Beorn is not around, they carry Bilbo back and forth from the bathtub, bring him food, and keep him clean. They even ambush him in bed with a sponge on one occasion, after which Bilbo, who is most certainly not completely bedridden, stubbornly insists on going to the tub to wash up on his own after that. While he doesn’t understand them, all of them seem to understand his requests perfectly, helping him to take books and snacks when he gets bored or hungry, both of which he often is at the same time.
After what seems like forever in bed, Bilbo grows sick of being kept indoors all day. He yearns for the wind in his hair and to feel earth under his bare feet. He dislikes having to tread scuffed wood all day long; hobbit feet are meant for tilled soil and dry grass and breathing fresh air. He even misses the rain dripping from his hair down his face, as much as he is loathe to admit it. Fixated on getting some time outside, he convinces Beorn to allow him to break curfew just one day before his confinement ends, on which he hobbles out into the Carrock garden, arms around the long necks of two ponies and supervised by Beorn.
As when he had first arrived at the Carrock, the garden is filled with more animals than he can count. Horses run on the ridgeline of a hill a short distance away from them and dogs gambol about near the flowerbeds. Birds and bees are all about, twittering and buzzing in discordant syncopation. There are a few cows and deer grazing nearby in lush grass, and a heady earthy smell rises from the ground. Bilbo sniffs at it hungrily, at spring finally afoot all around him.
He opts to sit on the porch where his legs are allowed to dangle over the edge, airing his good foot and resting the other. He watches several things interchangeably — birds flitting about the trees, ducks wading in the pond, the dragging clouds in the sky — and decides that he’s missed being this close to such strong rural charm. A diving duck bobs upright with a soft splash and looks at Bilbo for a few seconds before taking a second dive. Sunlight and shade, a cooling wind over the downs, the scent of wet soil. He listens to bird songs and enjoys the breeze, gazing down rows and clusters of beehives and thinks about maybe keeping some of his own.
A finch lands on his head and peers inquisitively over his fringe at him. Bilbo looks up at it without moving his head. “Mister Beorn, there’s a bird on my head,” he murmurs.
“Well, Elsie’s a friendly one, and she enjoys meeting new people. Was terribly disappointed to miss making your acquaintance, so there you go.”
The bird tweets and shakes its tail feathers, then flies away.
At noon, Beorn herds Bilbo back into bed (“The deal was until the afternoon,” Beorn reminds him gruffly as Bilbo pleads to stay out another five minutes) and goes up to the barn to tend his horses. In his room again, Bilbo tries to continue working on his portrait of Thorin, adding more outlines and definition and stopping when his dreams and memories conflict too much. As much as he likes to read, he yearns for something else to occupy his convalescence, just for some variation to break out of the monotony of his slow, befuddling recovery. He sneak-hops out of his bed and over to Sting, which is belted up on a rack with the rest of his travelling clothes, and smuggles it back to practice reading the Sindarin engravings on the flat of the blade and mime parries with it.
When Beorn comes back to check on him, he finds Sting stashed under his mattress almost immediately, and promptly confiscates it from him. “We just finished patching up your ankle,” he tells a sulking Bilbo. “I don’t want to have to patch up your face too.”
“I’m bored,” Bilbo complains, crossing his arms petulantly.
Beorn sheathes Sting and wraps it up in its own belt. “Find some other way to entertain yourself.”
After the week is over, Bilbo is allowed to leave his room on occasion to stretch his legs and while away time. Initially resolute, Beorn eventually gives in to Bilbo’s repeated pleas to allow him to explore the Carrock beyond the manse itself. “On your own leg it’ll be, then!” he declares. He helps Bilbo carve out a wooden crutch to allow him to move about on his own, but still insists on having an animal companion with him at all times, a caveat that Bilbo is more than happy with. Mostly, he’s joined by his own pony on his walks, and sometimes the bird that has taken a liking to nestling on his head whenever he goes out.
The Carrock is far too huge to be explored in a matter of days, especially not by a hobbit with a fractured ankle, and his negotiations with Beorn implicitly stipulate a period of time in which he is allowed to roam the grounds unsupervised by Beorn himself. He gets little seen with too little time, as moving to the front door already takes him a while. He knows that it’s really for his own safety, but he doesn’t like the feeling of having his movements controlled, not one bit. He wishes that his stupid ankle would heal faster, then Beorn and the animals wouldn’t have to coddle and fuss over him, not to mention the prospect of being able to go to the toilet without fumbling around with his crutch and being free to see the Carrock at his own time.
Recovery takes a staggeringly long while. The pain diminishes, but not at a rate that Bilbo feels will get his foot healed up completely any time soon. He exercises his legs as much as he can without aggravating his ankle, limited to wiggling his toes until either stiffness or pain sets in. Hobbit feet are sturdy and tough, he knows, but it also generally means that healing is harder. He doesn’t remember ever injuring himself to such an extent and gives in to worry after a while. What if he never fully recovers? Will he ever be able to walk normally again? Even a life in Bag End would be significantly more problematic with a permanently afflicted ankle, let alone one on the move. He’d never be able to see Erebor again, would never see Lothlorien ever. He tries to be optimistic about it, but even Beorn remarks over breakfast one day on how slowly he appears to be recovering. While it is a broken ankle, Bilbo can’t help but share Beorn’s concern; the skinchanger’s blunt, but brutally honest about these things.
Radagast only reappears after two months at the Carrock, in which time Bilbo has exhausted most of his books and started on a second draft of his memoirs. The brown wizard knocks and waddles in immediately after, just as always, except he trails in so much mud behind him that Beorn seizes him by the collar of his robe and ejects him bodily from the manse. “And don’t you dare set foot in here until you’ve cleaned yourself up,” he roars out the door before slamming it shut. “Why I put up with that wizard, I don’t know,” he grouses to Bilbo.
Radagast makes a second entrance after five minutes, considerably cleaner apart from the branches in his hat and a chunk of mud on the bottom of his staff. Beorn looks as though he might just very well throttle Radagast with his bare hands, but Bilbo squeaks loudly enough for him to turn back to him in concern. “I…I thought I felt something in my foot,” he babbles. It’s not a complete lie anyway; he’s been regaining sensation slowly, along with symptomatic aches and pains that accompany the process.
“Radagast,” Beorn booms, beckoning him see to Bilbo.
“Hm? Oh!” Radagast appears to have noticed Bilbo for the first time. He peers down at him. “Mister Bilbo! What are you doing here?”
Bilbo blinks hard. “You…don’t remember?”
“Don’t remember what?” It is clear on Radagast’s face that he doesn’t, and clear on Beorn’s face that he’s about to make bad things happen to the wizard.
Bilbo’s heart sinks. If he doesn’t remember, will he still be able to help him now? He lifts his leg for Radagast to see his bandaged ankle. The wizard looks at it, absentminded eyes widening. His mouth opens in a perfect circle.
“Are you injured?” he asks, truly concerned.
“Radagast,” Beorn warns. His foot is tapping impatiently; Bilbo thinks quickly, remembering his temperament. As much as he likes Radagast, Bilbo is aware that Beorn would not be adverse to causing him mild discomfort.
“You saved me from a warg,” Bilbo says quickly. “You killed it, but I had already broken my ankle by that time, so you and Mister Beorn brought me here.”
“Oh, that! Yes! I remember now!” Radagast claps his hands. “Injured, right? By the warg! Yes, yes, thank you for jogging this poor old wizard’s memory; I can’t for the life of me keep up with everything nowadays, too much to do, too much to remember, you see. Now, if you’ll just let me take a look at it…”
Bilbo lets him snip off and unwind the bandages to expose his ankle. It’s the first look Bilbo has had since he’d seen it immediately before being splinted, and to his relief, it looks much better than he had hoped. Most of the ghastly bruising has been replaced by redness and a tender swelling, and there are no alarming bulges save for the ones he’s used to seeing in his foot. Looking at his other foot for reference, both look similarly normal, as compared to the warped counterspectacle that had presented itself not hours after he first broke it. Radagast lets his foot lie flat against the palm of his hand, applying gentle pressure and asking him to move his toes. “Does it still hurt?”
Bilbo winces. “A little bit.”
“Perfectly normal.” He presses his fingers lightly over the sides of his ankle. “Had to snap your all your bones into place back then,” Radagast says conversationally. He grins at Bilbo. “Wasn’t an easy job to get done, you know. Tough feet you’ve got, eh?”
“Um.” Fidgeting uncomfortably, Bilbo tries to push away the mental image of his ankle bones grinding about in his foot. He wishes Radagast would have spared him the lurid details; the wizard’s medical aptitude, as it seems, ends abruptly at bedside manner. “I…yes, I suppose so.”
After he has finished examining Bilbo’s ankle, Radagast unwinds a length of fresh bandages and dresses his foot again. “Just continue to keep off it, and you’ll be on your way soon,” he instructs as he winds the bandage around it.
“How soon?” He doesn’t mind being holed up in the Carrock so long as he can walk around the place. Even after being there for a while, there’s much of it he has yet to see, and so much more he has yet to do.
“When you can. Don’t ask silly questions.” Radagast tears off the end of the bandage and fastens it with a pin.
Asking for an estimate of his recovery time isn’t silly, Bilbo is sure, but he pouts and tests his foot in favour of arguing. The bandage is looser than the previous one, providing more support than immobilisation. He still can’t put too much weight on it without feeling uncomfortable, but he thinks he might be able to walk again without someone else having to hold him up. Baby steps, he thinks eagerly, limping across his room with a shaky gait and his arms stretched out on both sides for balance, like wings on a volplaning bird.
Thankfully, he gets to discard the crutch in a matter of days after Radagast’s return and graduates to using a walking stick instead. It’s a vast improvement; he’d never taken to the idea of replacing a foot entirely, much preferring assistance rather than substitution. It feels unimaginably nice having his right foot shuffling against solid ground once more, rather than jackknifed in the air like a sore thumb as it was with the crutch.
He feels in control of his mobility once more; as token as it is, being no longer completely reliant gives him a sense of functionality that he never knew he lost while he was being kept in bed. Like any creature with two legs and an innate curiosity, being indoors for so long had started to atrophy away the need to move about constantly. Bilbo thinks, with a grim realisation, that maybe it took being dragged all the way across Middle Earth by Thorin for him to become aware of that.
With his walking stick, he travels further and longer than usual. Beorn allows him to limp up to the barn to see and feed the horses, something which Bilbo has been wanting to do for a long time. The stables in the barn and open and free for the horses to come and go as they like. Beorn’s horses are large, powerful creatures with twinkling eyes set in long and intelligent faces. There’s a quality about them that makes Bilbo think impulsively about trying to ride them, but he regains his senses after doing a little bit of math on his tiptoes as he feeds them; he is part Took, but he’s no Brandobras, after all.
Other interests that he pursues with his newfound motility include the flowerbeds out in the sprawling front garden of the Carrock. Large as it is, there is nearly always something to do, which Bilbo loves. He helps out with the gardening as much as the animals will allow him, all of whom, apparently, are under strict orders from Beorn to keep it to a minimum. Still, Bilbo is motivated and tries to do more than what is asked of him (if anything is asked of him at all, that is).
As with most hobbits, farmwork comes naturally to him as flight comes to birds. Armed with an assortment of gardening implements he busts out of a shed in the garden, he tills the soil for new crops, plants seeds, and waters the flowers. If he can help it, he picks fruits that grow as high up as he dares stretch for and harvests the tubers. When he’s ushered to rest on the porch by a pair of deer, who always seem to catch him no more than ten minutes into the act, Bilbo studies his herblore tome diligently and makes notes, until he’s left alone to sneak off again with his spade and watering can in hand.
The beehives are another thing that he preoccupies himself with. Grey, large bell-shaped hives inhabited with bees that buzz around Bilbo in curious swarms, but never threaten to sting. Beorn takes him down to them when Bilbo voices his desire to observe the hives as they are. He watches as Beorn reaches barehanded into one of them and pulls out a large honeycomb, still covered all over with bees that clear off as Beorn hands it to Bilbo. “The secret is in the flowers,” he says. “And the bee-friend, of course!”
Hand on his cane, Bilbo sinks his teeth into the waxy, sweet comb and tries not to moan obscenely between munches.
Beorn grants him three hives to look after, which don’t require as much maintenance as Bilbo initially thinks they will. Keeping bees, specifically Beorn’s bees, simply takes supplying fresh straw and monitoring of the hives for growth and health. The bees are self-driven, self-sustaining, and incredibly tame and friendly with him. He has a nagging feeling that as with the rest of the animals, they understand him, and he thinks sometimes about what they might be saying back.
The most labour-intensive part about it extends to transplanting clover and campanula in close proximity of the hives, not that there isn’t already an abundance of flowers all around anyway, but Bilbo does it to keep himself busy. Aside from the rich, luxuriously sweet honey, he also tries harvesting beeswax to make candles in Beorn’s kitchen. The process is tricky, even for his dexterous fingers, and Beorn finds great joy in hooting at Bilbo’s wonky-shaped candles alight on their table at dinnertimes.
“How are your hives?” Beorn asks over bowls of split pea soup; Bilbo had shelled the peas and prepared the broth himself that afternoon.
“Good, very good.” The garden’s now brighter with colour, and the hives are thriving. Everything is close to perfect; Bilbo can’t imagine it any better. He thinks he’s got his memoirs down the way he wants it to be, even though a third draft isn’t out of the question. Though as far as possible, he would like to avoid going down that path; dwelling on his travels to Erebor over and over yields even more uncertainty, more imprecision. His memory is clear, but forgetting is long and inevitable. If it takes speaking to the rest of the Company at Erebor, he thinks it much wiser to halt work at the moment and be patient. There’s really no hurry.
“And your foot?”
Bilbo lets his gaze drop to the soup in his bowl. “S’okay,” he murmurs noncommittally. He can walk again with his stick, no doubt about that, but something about it still doesn’t feel quite right. He does housework and gardenwork where his tolerance for the threat of pain allows, and he feels quite ready to try walking without any support whatsoever, but cannot find the courage for it. He worries about being rendered lame, perhaps far too much given his ambition to leave once he’s at full health again, but then again perhaps that might be the reason for his concern in the first place. And maybe his concern is misplaced; Rivendell is lovely, but life at the Carrock wouldn’t be any less diminished, would it?
He’s much closer to Beorn than he ever hoped to dream he would be, too. If the skinchanger was fond of Bilbo before he’d come to live with him, he now treats Bilbo almost like family. After a while, Bilbo grows accustomed to making himself entirely at home as Beorn requests him to. Their relationship turns domestically platonic. Beorn goes out in the morning and comes back to the Carrock slinging warg pelts and firewood on his back; Bilbo stays behind to dust around the house and help the animals prepare their meals.
In addition to the beehives, Beorn also cordons off a small section of his garden for Bilbo to plant whatever he likes, even though he tends pretty much to everything, but Bilbo is immensely grateful all the same. Beorn often chides Bilbo to eat more at dinner — he always looks peckish to Beorn, even if he’s had a pre-meal appetiser — and spoons stewed broccoli onto his plate despite his protests. “It’s good for you,” he grunts. “Little bunny needs to get fat on other things besides bread and honey.”
“I’m not fat, and I’m not a little bunny,” Bilbo wails for the nth time. Beorn just smiles.
At long last, at the end of five months living with Beorn, Bilbo can finally walk about the hallways normally, distributing his weight equally on both feet without weakness or pain. The bandages come off and he gladly hangs up his walking stick. He even goes out riding his pony in the woods in the vicinity of the Carrock from time to time, picking sage and wild berries to plant in Beorn’s garden. Being free to travel again is a blessed release; he’s missed the dense heat of the forest, the neverending journey and the prospect of destination, and the crush of dry leaves underfoot. He tours the landscape by night and maps the stars in the sky, wishing he could have joined Elrond back in Rivendell. Leaving is always the harder option, he knows that well.
Possibly the hardest thing he’s had to do is to figure out exactly how to tell Beorn that he’s planning to leave. It seems as though Beorn has taken to assuming that Bilbo’s taken up permanent residency with him, just as he’s apparently got it in his head that Bilbo enjoys being picked up and swung around like a tyke whenever they meet for breakfast. That and how most of his travelling equipment are slowly being moved into storage by Beorn himself — his pony joins the rest in the stables, his saddle-bags are nowhere to be found, and he can’t remember the last time he saw Sting — makes it appear to Bilbo that he might just be staying there even longer than he had in Rivendell.
Which isn’t a bad thing altogether, as it was with Hobbiton and Bree and Rivendell, and he wavers while trying to put his priorities straight one night. He’s happy, if not happier than he’s ever been, living with Beorn at the Carrock. If he could leave Rivendell, then he could very well find it in him to leave the Carrock. Only Elrond is Elrond, and Beorn is, well, Beorn. Could he bear to tell Beorn that he wishes to leave? How would Beorn react to hearing that from him? He certainly has the power to stop him, and while Bilbo’s quite sure that Beorn would never do such a thing, the chance, as insignificant as it may be, still remains.
Bilbo decides to risk it, but cooks his best the night he decides on telling him to soften the blow. He pulls out all the stops with the produce from his private garden — potatoes mashed with cream and butter; honey-glazed turnips and carrots; caramelised onions and corn on the cob; mushrooms stewed in rosemary sauce; and his favourite chunky vegetable stew. When Beorn sees the set table and the spread on it, he doesn’t bother to tone down his surprise. “Well! How very nice! What’s the occasion? Is it your birthday today? It’s certainly not mine!” He’s in a good mood tonight, which spurs Bilbo on to broach the topic.
“Not my birthday,” Bilbo squeaks. He’s still wearing his apron and a pair of oven gloves, and he sets down a pot of curried pumpkin soup on the dining table.
“Are you going to be leaving soon?”
Bilbo freezes half-way through untying the strings of his apron. The shock must show on his face, for Beorn grins and laughs loudly. “Don’t look so surprised, Bilbo! I was wondering when you’d be packing up to go. Actually thought it be a lot earlier; what’s it been, a whole month since you haven’t needed your cane?”
“About two weeks longer than I’d thought, then. Come, sit.” Beorn waves a large hand at the chair opposite him.
Bilbo acquiesces slowly, taking the time to study Beorn’s face. He sits down while Beorn tumbles a number of mushrooms onto his plate for him. Thanking him politely, Bilbo spears one on his fork and takes a bite, filling his mouth with mushroom. Beorn watches him eat. “When are you going?” he asks.
He swallows, a tangy sliver of taste still lingering on his tongue. “I…don’t know yet.” Bilbo had given a lot more thought to actually convincing Beorn to give his blessings rather than the actual date of departure. He wants to give it a week, just as usual, but oddly, even with the Carrock being much smaller than Bree and Rivendell, he’s not sure if it will be enough time to get all the necessary affairs in order.
“Just tell me when you think of a date. I’ll help you get your things ready.”
The sound that revelation forces out of Bilbo is the most amount of relief he’s ever heard from himself, even including not dying in a warg attack. Beorn looks up, soup dripping down his beard. “What?”
Bilbo chuckles and helps himself to another mushroom. “Nothing at all. It’s just…nothing.”
“You thought I wouldn’t let you go?”
He chokes in his haste to reply, “No! No —”
Beorn seats his chin in a palm, elbow on the table. “I could keep you here if I wanted. Easily, as a matter of fact.” Just as Bilbo is starting to feel a bit numb at his words, a sense of impending doom in his gut, Beorn shakes his head. “Kidding,” he says with a smirk. “I’d never do such a thing to a friend of mine! What kind of a person do you think I am?”
The scary kind, Bilbo thinks, and berates himself for even thinking that. “Intimidating,” he paraphrases.
“Hm. I’ll take that as a compliment. Thank you, Bilbo.” He picks up a cob of corn and cleans it off in record time, clattering the empty husk back onto his plate and licking his fingers. “Why do you want to go, though? Don’t you want to stay with me?”
Bilbo bites his bottom lip, wording his answer carefully. “I’m very happy here, Mister Beorn, I really am. I could probably die happy here and in quite a number of different places I’ve been. And, well, I think I could find so many other places out there where I’d feel the same.”
Beyond that, he doesn’t know what else to say or how else to put it. It’s the truth of the matter — where exactly does he belong, anyway? He’d thought it figured out a long time ago when he was young and enjoying life the same way until the day Gandalf knocked on his door, only for that illusion to shatter along the way to Erebor. How wrong he had been about his life in general; it’d boiled down to thirteen dwarves to show him that.
A hint of a smile flickers in Beorn’s eyes. He leans forward. “Do you want to stay?” he asks again, his tone clearly demanding a monosyllabic answer.
Bilbo opens his mouth and closes it several times over. He hates being asked that question and hates not being able to answer it. He tries, and he fails. It’s unfair of Beorn and unfair that Bilbo’s the way that he is and nothing is fair about being asked a question that cannot possibly have a right answer. His jaw set and his hands fisted in his lap, Bilbo alarms himself as he starts to cry silently. A tear splashes onto his plate, then another, until he is watering his plate with tears. Beorn hands him a cloth to daub his face, and doesn’t push the question again. Bilbo’s eyes are still damp and puffy when they resume eating, and he struggles to get his breathing back to normal before he speaks.
“I want to stay,” he confesses to his pumpkin soup. “But I can’t. I want to, but I can’t.”
“I understand,” Beorn says, and the terrible thing about it is that from the look in his eyes, Bilbo thinks he probably does. “Just let me know when you’re ready. But it would make me feel better if you let Radagast take you through the Mirkwood. Don’t go alone. And be careful, Bilbo.”
“Always.” Bilbo nods, and forces himself to smile.
His days at the Carrock increase in number as there continues to be no sign of Radagast’s return. Beorn reassures Bilbo that it’s normal; being busy and harebrained never mesh well together where time and punctuality are concerned, as Bilbo already understands that much about the wizard. In fact, he’s strangely grateful about his leaving being dependant on someone else for a change, as if it is momentarily beyond his control.
In the meantime, he decides what to pack. A bag of fruits and vegetables, another with his books and parchments. His backpack is mainly filled with his clothing, and while Beorn persistently asks him to top up the space left inside with even more food, Bilbo holds his ground. The less things he brings, the better. And it’s not like he’ll be in the Mirkwood as long as he was with the dwarves anyway — the return journey with Gandalf on ponyback had taken a shorter time even though they had eschewed cutting through the Mirkwood in favour of a loop around the northern border of the forest. He mainly worries about getting word to the wood elves of his visit in the spirit of courtesy; he’d pushed his luck far enough at Rivendell, and would prefer not to try it again with Thranduil, if what he remembers of the Elvenking serves him accurately.
“I will help you deliver a message,” Beorn tells him, when Bilbo shares this concern over tea. He sticks his arm out and whistles, coaxing a bird to him. Bilbo thinks that the bird that comes is Elsie, but he’s not too sure of that and watches Beorn trill a set of notes at it. The bird tweets back, puffs itself out and takes flight. Bilbo follows it with his eyes until it vanishes over the roof of the Carrock manse and thanks Beorn for helping him, his worries considerably lightened.
Radagast finally arrives a week after that, crashing his rabbit sled into the front garden and squashing a number of pumpkins flat. Beorn is inclined to do the same to the wizard, holding back only if not for Bilbo’s overriding need for accompaniment through the Mirkwood. After they have explained the circumstances to Radagast and the wizard readily offers his assistance, they decide to leave that same day.
He gathers up his things and is ready in an hour. At the front gate, Bilbo mounts his pony, his pack strapped to his back and Sting swinging at his hip. Radagast is beside him atop his sled, which has been cleaned of pumpkin juice and repaired where the bottom had been gutted out by Beorn’s lovely fence mid-flight. The animals have gathered in droves around Beorn, all of whom Bilbo has worked with around the Carrock at least once in his stay there. The horses harrumph, the deers toss their heads, the bees drone in their swarms. Bilbo wonders if each of them is saying farewell the way they know how, and wishes he knew each and every one of those ways, if only to reciprocate the sincerity he feels.
It is his fourth departure, but it’s not any easier than the first three. If anything, he realises that it’s getting harder with each successive goodbye. There are no tears this time round, and the absence of them is not startling in the slightest. He has mustered the courage to feel despair without any of it showing on the surface, to give strength to those around him, and himself most of all. It is only afterwards when he is too far off to come back will he finally feel safe enough to cry.
“Goodbye.” Beorn nods. “Try not to run into any wargs on your way there.”
“There probably aren’t any left, considering how you’ve been.” He thinks of the many warg skins nailed to the trees he had seen while riding his pony about, and smiles.
Beorn laughs loudly. “You make a good point. But I hope you will remember to keep an eye out for danger.”
“You needn’t worry that much; I’ll be with him,” Radagast says.
“Precisely my point,” Beorn replies, cocking an eyebrow at him.
They trade final goodbyes and handshakes and Bilbo thanks Beorn for his generous hospitality with a wreath of flowers he prepared the day before. When he trots his pony out the gate, Radagast’s sled trundling next to him, Bilbo hears a powerful bellow behind him — Beorn’s grizzly form, towering over the rest of the animals, rears up and slaps his mighty paws on the ground. Bilbo can feel the tremor in the earth even from where he is and he looks over his shoulder, but Beorn is already melting back into human form and he catches the gesture of an arm waving in farewell before the trees surround him and the last of the Carrock disappears from sight.
The murky darkness of the Mirkwood absorbs them as they ride into the forests through an arch of trees winding tortuously around the entrance. A dense canopy of dark leaves blots out the sky, and vines hang from a tulle of interspersing branches above to lick at their faces. Underneath them, the ground is uneven and strangled with roots. The jewel at the tip of Radagast’s staff is glowing brightly, allowing them to see the path ahead as they travel side by side. Thinking of how he’d initially planned to wend his way through the Mirkwood alone, Bilbo shudders and finds himself feeling incredibly grateful for the extent of Beorn’s foresight.
“The wood elves don’t live too far in,” Radagast tells him. “And the Mirkwood’s a lot safer than back then. Or at least if I remember correctly.”
Bilbo thinks about that and tries not to feel nervous. He trusts Radagast, just not his memory. “I suppose there’s nothing to fear.”
The trek is a long and bumpy one. Before long, they hear the sound of running water and eventually come across the enchanted river that flows through the heart of the Mirkwood. Having forgotten completely about it, Bilbo tries to think of a way to get his pony and Radagast’s sled across it, but at the edge of the river, the wizard raises his staff and a thick tangle of roots arcs over the river and agglomerates into a bridge wide enough for them to cross one at a time.
“You are very skilled with magic,” Bilbo notes when they are on the other side.
Radagast raises his staff again and the roots are swallowed back into the earth with a slurping sound. “That’s very flattering of you to say so, Mister Bilbo, but it’s hardly magic.” He taps his staff on the ground. “I speak to the land, and the land answers back.” Radagast signifies what he means by waving a hand at the vegetation all around them. “It speaks truth in the wind and the trees and all of Iluvatar’s creations.”
They move forward into the Mirkwood. In an attempt to pass the time, Bilbo asks about Radagast’s absence from the Carrock and what he has been doing. “The usual things,” Radagast replies. “Sick trees and wounded animals.” He winks at Bilbo. “Little bunnies with injured feet.”
Bilbo sulks and doesn’t ask any Radagast any more questions after that, quite annoyed with him.
They do not end up running into giant spiders or wargs, much to Bilbo’s relief, and after hours on the path feeding deep into the Mirkwood, they catch sight of a small light in the distance. “That’ll be the wood elves,” Radagast says. “Jolly good people, the whole lot of them.”
“Do you work with them often?”
“Not often, but I have helped them on occasion. I suppose we could be called colleagues; I once spoke with the King of the Woodland Realm, who gifted me the emerald in my staff.”
“When was that?”
The lost look on Radagast’s face reminds Bilbo of the fact that recalling dates is not one of the wizard’s stronger points.
Indeed, as they draw nearer to the light in the forest, Bilbo makes out elf-fires, the same ones he had been sent to investigate by Thorin the time they had all lost their way in the Mirkwood. And around them, wood elves making merry and feasting and dancing with great elan. Unlike before, none of it disappears into darkness when they approach; instead, one elf who seems to recognises Radagast stands, sets down his plate and greets him. “Hail, Radagast the Brown! We had not known that you would be joining us this day, but there is always room for you and your friend if you wish to partake.”
“Not today, Mynion. I’m merely escorting my friend here, Mister Bilbo Baggins, to your dwellings, where he wishes to take up temporary residence on his journey to Erebor.”
The elf looks at Bilbo. “Yes, we have received word from Beorn on this matter. If you’ll come with me, I’ll bring you there.”
Bilbo dismounts and leads his pony forward, but Radagast makes a clicking sound with his teeth and his rabbits pull the sled in the other direction, toward where they had come from. “Wait,” Bilbo says, surprised. “You’re not coming with me?”
Radagast shakes his head. “Too much to do, too much to remember, Mister Bilbo! You’ll be safe from here on out, and I must be headed back now. Rhosgobel’s not going to dust itself, you know.”
“To the gates,” Bilbo bargains. “Just that far. Please?”
Bilbo yelps as Radagast reaches out and conks him on the head with his staff. “You are not a little bunny, Mister Bilbo! I don’t have to see you everywhere, do I?”
“No,” Bilbo mutters, rubbing his skull. A thought occurs to him — he rummages about in his saddle-bag for a while and pulls out a rolled-up piece of parchment and presents it to Radagast with both hands.
“Well, now!” Radagast chuckles. “What’s this? A farewell gift?”
“Um, well, I thought that you would like it if I drew a portrait of you,” Bilbo explains. “I’m quite good at drawing people, but it’s not quite finished yet — I thought that I’d have time to touch it up and give it to you at the Woodland Kingdom.” He bows. “To thank you, for rescuing me and healing me and seeing me this far!”
Radagast accepts and fastens the scroll to a carrier in his sled. “You’re very welcome, Mister Bilbo. Until we see each other again, then!” he says, patting Bilbo’s shoulder.
“Novaer,” Bilbo murmurs. “Goodbye.”
The sled speeds off back down the path and Bilbo watches it as it shrinks and shrinks, until he cannot see it anymore. It isn’t until a while after as he follows the elf that Bilbo thinks in retrospect that in addition to the portrait, he probably should have also given Radagast a calendar as well.
It is the first time that Bilbo walks through the gates of the Woodland Kingdom as a visitor, rather than slip in unseen. His guide leads him over the bridge and calls out to the sentries to open the gates, granting them entrance into the Woodland Kingdom. Bilbo takes the time to ask the elf, Mynion, about King Thranduil — he’s met the elven king just once and doesn’t know much about him aside from mentions of him in a book or two that he read in Rivendell, which is hardly enough as it is. He feels well-versed enough in elvish customs and courtesies, but he knows those can only carry a person so far. Even though they’d parted on good terms after the Battle was over, Bilbo knows that he hadn’t the time to make a lasting impression on Thranduil and the other wood elves. If anything, now is the time to acquaint himself and get off on a good foot with him.
He is lead into the throne hall, where Thranduil receives him. The king is seated on his throne of wood, a regal staff in his hand and his scribe standing to his left. On his right, a youthful-looking elf bearing much of his likeness is seated on a smaller throne, his chin on his hand and looking immensely bored. Bilbo sinks into a low bow until the king acknowledges him and bids him to rise. “Gi suilon, hîr vuin!” Bilbo says loudly.
Thranduil raises his eyebrows slightly. “Nathlo. You speak Sindarin.”
“Lord Elrond was kind enough to have me taught when I was staying in Rivendell. He sends his regards, Your Majesty.”
“It is very thoughtful of him. I will send gifts as thanks.” Thranduil nods at his scribe to make a note before turning back to Bilbo. “The skinchanger Beorn sent word of your arrival a quarter-moon cycle ago, Mister Bilbo. I understand that you wish to stay in my kingdom for a while.”
Bilbo bows his head.
“My previous offer still stands. You are welcome to stay here, elf-friend. I believe that you are travelling to Erebor? As am I, in a moon-cycle’s time. Presumably, you are attending the memorial ceremony as well, are you not?”
This is news to Bilbo, who hasn’t heard anything of the sort in his two years of wandering. He lifts his gaze respectfully. “Memorial ceremony, Your Majesty?”
Thranduil regards him solemnly. “In exactly one month’s time, it shall have been five years since the Battle of the Five Armies concluded. Erebor will be hosting a remembrance at the battleground this year, to pay respects to and celebrate the fallen of that war. You are unaware of this?”
Bilbo tries not to squirm under Thranduil’s gaze, the feeling of being interrogated fluttering about in his stomach. “N — no, Your Majesty.”
The Elvenking smiles. “Dispense with the tiresome formalities, Mister Bilbo. I am not one to be a stickler for titles when I’m speaking with friends. Once will do, then I won’t hear any more of it.”
It feels as though a massive weight has been lifted off Bilbo’s shoulders. His tongue is suddenly a lot more moist than it was when he stepped into the throne hall. “How should I address you, Your Ma —” He clamps his teeth together the moment he realises what he’s about to say, biting the word off before it can escape him. “Apologies.”
“How do you normally address your friends?”
Bilbo thinks of the Gaffer and the old Took in the Shire. He thinks of his Bree drinking mates, the greengrocers and the peddlers who always met him with a smile. He thinks of Elrond and Clarissë and Gandalf, and of Radagast and Beorn and Elsie. Finally, he remembers Bard of Laketown, and the ten dwarves alive and well at Erebor.
He remembers the brothers, Fili and Kili, and remembers Thorin Oakenshield.
“Could I call you Mister Thranduil, at least?” Bilbo mumbles.
When Thranduil nods, the elf on his right looks as though he’s been struck by lightning. “That would be acceptable, if you wish,” Thranduil says. “You must be exhausted from your travels.” He nods at Bilbo’s guide. “Mynion, please bring our guest to his quarters.”
The elf bows in acknowledgement and gestures at Bilbo to follow him once more. As they walk out of the hall, a conversation starts taking place behind him immediately.
“I’ve never seen you like this, hîr vuin,” a voice says stiffly. Bilbo thinks that this must be the young elf. “Permitting not just one of our own, but an outsider to refer to you as such. Who is he?”
“An old and trusted friend,” Thranduil replies, and then the doors close behind Bilbo and he hears no more after that.
When Bilbo is shown to his room, he cannot help but exclaim in surprise. Unknown to Mynion and most of the other wood elves, he knows his way well around the Woodland Kingdom, having squatted in permanent invisibility around the palace for weeks while thinking of a way to spring the other dwarves from their cells. This room brings back especially vivid memories of pilfering and hiding food — being the guest room, it was often stocked well with supplies and generally unguarded, which made it the perfect place for him to hide in whenever he fancied a minute or two of not being invisible.
Mynion looks concernedly at him. “Is there something wrong?” he asks. “Is it not to your liking?”
Trying not to giggle, Bilbo shakes his head. “No, this is just fine, thank you!”
Similar to Rivendell, there is a lot more space than Bilbo knows what to do with once Mynion has left him to get his room in order. The corner approach is viable, but he tries to think of another way to fully utilise the whole room to exercise his mind. He adds the contents of his saddle-bags to the room and sorts through his belongings, arranging food and stationary on the table until he hears someone clearing his throat behind him.
Leaning against the door frame to Bilbo’s room is the elf sitting in Thranduil’s throne hall, his arms crossed. The elf is slim, with bright, sharp eyes and long silver-blond hair that just only reaches his shoulders. He looks over Bilbo, which doesn’t take too long as there isn’t very much of him to physically sum up, and raises an eyebrow.
Bilbo sets his Sindarin dictionary down and springs into a bow. “Le suilon,” he says. “Bilbo Baggins, at your service.”
The corner of the elf’s lip twitches in what Bilbo is sure is the beginning of a smile quickly restrained. “Could I just call you Bilbo?” he asks.
“Certainly!” Bilbo stands straight and looks up at the elf. “And I have the pleasure of addressing…?”
“Legolas.” He nods. “Legolas Greenleaf, Son of the Elvenking, and Prince of the Woodland Realm. But just Legolas will do. No ‘Mister’,” he adds quickly as Bilbo opens his mouth. “The Elvenking is not a patron of first-name terms. Thankfully I don’t take after him in that particular trait.”
“Legolas,” Bilbo repeats slowly. Dropping the honorific doesn’t sit very well with Bilbo, but the elf is immovable.
“Makes me feel old,” Legolas explains.
It isn’t a long shot to think that Legolas is most definitely a lot older than him, though Bilbo holds his tongue on that probability. “How may I be of service, Legolas?”
Legolas continues to study him from where he is. “I asked the Elvenking about you, but he said that if I wanted to know, I should ask you in person. So.” He uncrosses his arms and takes a step into the room, then clasps his fingers behind his back. “If you are willing, might I ask you to tell me your story?”
Bilbo pulls up a chair for Legolas and a low stool for himself so that they are seated before he begins to tell Legolas about himself. He tells the elf prince about his life in the Shire leading up to Gandalf’s arrival and his subsequent quest to reclaim Erebor. Legolas nods as Bilbo delves into their journey to the east across Middle Earth, the desolation of Smaug, the standoff at the gates of Erebor, and the Battle of the Five Armies.
“I know about that,” Legolas tells him. “I fought alongside the Elvenking in the ranger contingent.”
Bilbo goes on to the end of his first adventure, when he’d settled back into Bag End and had started getting restless. His time in Bree and Rivendell takes half an hour to flesh out satisfactorily, while getting injured and convalescing at the Carrock takes the other half. He leaves out a few details, such as his ring and his conversation with Gandalf and any matters concerning thoughts of Thorin. By then, both of them have gotten quite hungry and start helping themselves to the fruits on the table. “After I was able to walk again, Mister Radagast showed me the way here,” Bilbo says as he pares an apple, twirling an unbroken helix of peel into a wooden bowl. “I was planning to go to Laketown first, then Dale and Erebor, but now I think I’ll be popping over to Dale with the Elvenking, then Erebor afterwards.”
Legolas nods as he picks grapes from a cluster with his mouth. He chews thoughtfully and spits seeds into the bowl Bilbo is using with incredible precision. “Bilbo Baggins, quite honestly, I have known no hobbit to have travelled as far and wide as you had even before you decided to take this up. Now, I think it safe to say that no hobbit ever will have travelled as far and wide as you have.”
“I didn’t say that it was a compliment.”
“It is, to me!” Bilbo shears the naked apple in two with his knife and offers Legolas one half. Legolas grins, bypasses the offer and fishes the other piece out of Bilbo’s hand.
“You divide it, I get to choose mine. That is fair,” he says, biting into the fruit with a crisp crunch and a grin of mixed mischief and enjoyment.
“Why, yes.” Bilbo laughs. “I suppose it is.”
In the evening, Bilbo joins the wood elves in the dining hall for dinner. The hall resembles much of the throne room, aside from the number of benches and tables and the strong smell of cooking food wafting from the kitchens and the absence of tapestries hanging from the walls. He is seated at the main table, a few seats between him and Thranduil. Legolas opts to snag the seat next to Bilbo, trading places with one of Thranduil’s advisers. The Elvenking thins his lips as Legolas moves over, but he looks away and doesn’t say anything.
“Perhaps you should return to his side,” Bilbo whispers to Legolas nervously. “He seems displeased.”
“You could fill a whole encyclopedia with the things that displease the Elvenking,” Legolas whispers back, and stays where he is.
The main courses are served quickly — loaves of lembas with a dipping sauce; poached quail eggs; boiled onion and carrot stew; and venison in a thick hearty gravy. Bilbo sniffs eagerly at the steaming meat, having not had anything other than vegetables for the past few months with Beorn. He eats as much as he dares hold down until his belly is full and his trousers feel a little bit tight. “You have a very big appetite,” Legolas observes.
Bilbo pats his stomach, grinning. When he opens his mouth to reply, a belch escapes him loudly enough for a few elves at the table to take notice, including Thranduil. “Pardon me,” Bilbo mumbles, blushing furiously.
After the main dishes have been polished off, barrels of wine are rolled from the back of the hall to every table to wash down the meal. The vintage served to Bilbo is a rich clear white that sports an earthy bouquet and a creamy aftertaste. He manages to have three cups of the liquor before he begins to feel a bit tipsy, but even then Legolas gawks at the sheer amount of alcohol he has ingested. “Do you drink often?” he asks incredulously.
“Erm, well, I shouldn’t think so,” Bilbo mumbles. Thanks to his stay in the liquor-loving town of Bree, he does have an exceptionally high tolerance for alcohol. He is off his game, however, having abstained for quite a while even in Rivendell. Determined to fix that, Bilbo raises his tankard to Legolas invitingly. “Cheers!” he cries, as Legolas picks up his own and clashes it into Bilbo’s.
In the end, he doesn’t fix that after all. Two cups later, Bilbo finds himself being escorted back to his room by a steward and one very concerned Legolas, held firmly in the air by his arms between the two elves. It’s a bit of an overreaction, Bilbo thinks — all he did was misplace his pants a few times, and since when has a little bit of exhibitionism ever harmed anyone? Nevertheless, his protests fall on deaf ears as he is bundled into his nightwear and is put to bed. When he tries to rejoin the party after the elves have left him, he manages to make it halfway back to the dinner before Legolas pounces on him in the hallway. Squalling, fighting and complaining, Bilbo gets locked back in his room, thudding his head against the door and groaning “Lemme out” over and over again as a key turns audibly on the other side.
He’s not tired in the least — perhaps the world doesn’t want to cooperate with his feet a little bit, but Bilbo feels fine otherwise. He waddles over to his bed and drapes himself over it, pushing his forehead into the pillow. Now that he thinks of it, maybe he was on to something back in the dining hall. Bilbo wriggles out of his pyjama bottoms and proceeds to have a good long wank on his bed, catching his release in a table rag. He honestly doesn’t remember the last time he’d masturbated, nor having one that felt as satisfying. Sighing, Bilbo cleans himself up and tries to get dressed again, but he can’t seem to find his pants again. At that point, being bothered about his clothes is one of the very last things that he’s going to do, so Bilbo flips over his side and drops off within five minutes of closing his eyes.
The journey is all but over, the flocks have left, and winter comes with dragon fire and brimstone on its heels. When the thrush knocks, if and when it ever does, a locked-door riddle wrapped up in an enigma that sets Bilbo’s head spinning and threatens to fray out tempers.
They’ve been holed up in a cave outside the secret entrance for a whole day and night now, conjuring new ways of coercing the door open, each successive one more far-fetched and unlikely to work than the last. Hours of fruitless discussion and pointless solutions start to take its toll on the frustrated dwarves. “Perhaps Mister Bilbo should play scout for us,” Dwalin suggests. “Through the front gates. Even Smaug cannot eat what he cannot see.”
Seated outside the entrance to the cave, Bilbo hears that clearly, and cannot stop himself from shaking with fright. He gets up and stamps his feet, walking away from the dwarves quickly. Though it is not the first time he’s experienced it, the feeling to pack up and flee back to Bag End burns stronger than ever in his gut. Exactly five months and four days since he’s left, but who’s counting? Why he’s taken that long to see this for what it really is — a foolhardy kamikaze mission with no chance of success — he doesn’t know. If they were sensible, they’d give up here whilst no one’s on fire or in Smaug’s belly. Ignoring the fact, of course, that being sensible flew right out the window the moment they all embarked on this quest in the first place.
Bilbo clomps down the hillside, kicking at stray pebbles and studying the terrain as he pushes thoughts of death away from his mind, alone. He could be home now, entirely unconcerned about being alive to see tomorrow and in every comfort Bag End offers. He doesn’t deny wishing for that often, he’d said so himself, but a promise is a promise nonetheless.
Under his feet, the mountain tremors slightly. Bilbo looks up, alarmed and half-expecting the flap of wings and the shadow of a descending drake around him, but there is nothing. He breathes again, carrying on.
He doesn’t return to the dwarves for a while, preferring to scout the hillside, ostensibly for clues or anything else that might get them into Erebor unnoticed. He keeps his ring on, for safety. Walking on his own always calms him and helps him to think. In actual fact, he needs that sort of time to reexamine his life in retrospect, seeing exactly when and where it had all gone wrong. Surprisingly, while Bilbo regrets a significant number of things, but they are mostly trivial little issues, like not bringing his own handkerchief or not packing enough clothes for the road. He doesn’t regret seeing Rivendell, for one. He doesn’t regret the sky stretching around him, the wind in his eyes as he rode eagleback over the Misty Mountains. And he doesn’t regret meeting and getting to know Thorin, most of all. Bilbo cannot bring himself to hate being there with them or to deny the fundamental connection arcing between him and the dwarf king, or pretend that he’s not investing his fullest into trying his best especially for him. This is his life now, like it or not, his fate and all theirs twined inseparably into one.
Bilbo imagines the strand of fate, his, knotted at the end with Thorin’s. It really makes him wonder.
When he gets back to the cave after an hour of wandering, the dwarves don’t seem to have even noticed his absence. Bilbo decides to keep the ring on, listening. Gloin and Dwalin are arguing loudly while Ori looks as though he might burst into tears at any given moment. Bilbo stands at the entrance and surveys the battleground of words, assessing if it is safe to approach. He looks around for Thorin and sees him at the sidelines, broken away from the epicenter of the debate. A hand holding up his chin, Thorin looks more tired than he ever has been on the whole journey.
Bilbo slowly makes his way to Thorin, sidestepping a gesticulating Dori and a stupefied Bifur on the way. Bombur suggests loudly that they try to catch a thrush as Dwalin snorts, while Kili plucks at his bowstring absently with his eyes distant. Up close to Thorin, Bilbo takes note of his finer features, like the strands of grey peppering his dark hair at his temples, the crinkles at the corners of his eyes, and the blueness of his eyes. Bilbo holds his breath as he gets as near as he dares, lest he be discovered. Thorin shuts his eyes, gets up and walks to the entrance of the cave. Bilbo hesitates for a while before following him in. The cave is a small one, and even outside the entrance, Bilbo can still hear the discussion clearly.
“We must ask Thorin. He has the best chance out of all of us at convincing Bilbo to go in.”
“Shouldn’t we just ask Bilbo himself? And you seem to be forgetting that no one’s going in unless we figure out how to open this door.”
Bilbo tries to block out the rest of the conversation. Instead, he focuses on following Thorin, who walks for a while before reaching the secret door to Erebor. The dwarf king stands before it in silence, looking up at the silty outline of an entrance carved into the mountainside. From where he is standing, Bilbo cannot see Thorin’s face. He slips the ring off and approaches Thorin apprehensively.
The rustling of grass under his feet gives him away. Thorin glances over his shoulder at him and nods slightly when he sees that it’s Bilbo. “It was getting a bit noisy back there,” Bilbo explains hastily. “Thought some air would be nice.”
Bilbo slowly relocates to Thorin’s side, standing next to him and looking at the hidden door himself. In the failing daylight, he has to concentrate before he can see the whole of it. He thinks again of the thrush and the key, thinks harder than he ever has in his whole life, but once again draws a blank.
“We’ll figure this out,” Bilbo murmurs. It occurs to him to take Thorin’s hand and squeeze it reassuringly, but sensibility overrides his gut feeling at the last moment and his hand falls to his side limply. Thorin, with his eyes trained on the door, doesn’t appear to notice.
“There is no other option,” Thorin replies softly. Out of the corner of his eye, Bilbo sees his skyward face, his dirt-streaked beard, the tragic droop of his eyelids against the dusky sun that makes him seem so old. Again he dares himself to reach out and touch him, hold him, to just make the slightest bit of contact, to show Thorin that he isn’t alone in this. It is suddenly essential to him that Thorin knows this, somehow, but Bilbo can’t think of a way to show him.
“They were talking about having you send me in first, weren’t they?”
Past pretense and denial, or quite possibly out of pure virtuousness and honesty, Thorin nods. A flicker of shame crosses his face, darkening his eyes slightly.
“Would you?” Bilbo asks.
They look at each other as a sudden wind catches them both. Thorin’s cloak flaps about his body like a windsock and he pushes his long hair out of his face. The look in his eyes is deep and mysterious as an ocean. Bilbo watches him intently, waiting for his answer.
“I would never put you in harm’s way,” Thorin says finally. “You are dear to me, and I will not have you endangered.”
A flash of audacity shoots through Bilbo, even as his heart leaps at Thorin’s reply. “Not even for all the gold in Erebor?” he asks impulsively.
The dwarf stiffens visibly. Immediately, Bilbo regrets asking; it’s hardly reasonable to pose such a scenario Thorin after all, who’s had years to measure exactly how much he’d have to give up to regain his claim to the Lonely Mountain. How much he’s already given up. Bilbo turns away quickly, his face burning with guilt.
He cannot believe his ears. “I — I’m sorry?”
When he turns back, Thorin is right in front of him, looking down at him. He puts his hands on Bilbo’s shoulders. “I…gold can be replaced. In time. Our home is where we choose to call it. You have proven yourself to me many times over. Loyalty, honour, a willing heart. I can ask no more of you than all you have already given.”
Bilbo sees the embrace coming this time and wraps his arms around Thorin’s chest as far as he can go. His eyes are misty and he is close to tears as he breathes Thorin, his nose in his long hair and his mouth in the default position of a kiss on his shoulder. He feels Thorin’s face on the top of his head and his hands tightened at the flat of his back. He is ridiculously, privately in love with this man, and yet he cannot find it in him to admit it even now. He’s never been this besotted with someone, let alone inarticulate about it, but his thoughts fly apart and become filled with Thorin, and it is all that he knows now.
Next time, Bilbo promises himself, closing his eyes. I’ll tell him next time. “I’ll do it,” he whispers, smiling into Thorin. “When we get this open, I’ll do it.”
When Bilbo wakes in the morning, the hangover smacks him in the back of his head like a well-aimed sucker punch. He gasps at the sensation and rubs at his face, still lying in his bed with his brain banging about the inside of his skull like a war drum. A draft around his privates alerts him to the state of the lower half of his body, unclothed from the night before. Bilbo grabs around drunkenly for his pants but repeatedly gets handfuls of bedsheet instead. He’d get up to look for them, but even opening his eyes is painful. Bilbo lies on his back and groans and sulks at the ceiling as a shadow looms over him, blocking out the light. He feels a minute sense of relief at that, but the voice that follows drops every word on his head like a rockslide.
“Bilbo, it’s noonday. Why on Middle Earth are you still in bed?”
Legolas, Bilbo thinks crossly as he recognises the voice. He opens his right eye just a sliver to shoot a sullen glare at the elven prince. Light slices across his eye, sending another stab of pain into his forebrain. “Go’way,” he mutters, pulling the sheets over his head.
“You didn’t respond to my breakfast invitation this morning. I was worried for you.”
“M’fine,” Bilbo says, a little louder this time and with more of his irritation injected into his voice. He tugs his blanket tighter around himself like a chrysalis, only for Legolas to take hold of the ends and tug it back off him. Bilbo grabs at it, misses, and tumbles out of bed.
“Bilbo —” Legolas shouts, horrified.
He lands on his chin, the impact softened by the blanket under him. If waking up was a rockslide, this is the equivalent of a stone giant fracas over the Misty Mountains in the inside of his head. Bilbo scrunches his face and chews his lip as Legolas helps him to his feet. The elf gives an amused huff.
“S’not funny.” Holding his head in his hands, Bilbo wills the world to stop spinning and fails. He plonks back onto the bed while Legolas fishes something off the floor and drops it into his lap.
“You might want to put these on.”
Bilbo grasps at it sightlessly, and yes, those are his pants there. He’d be more embarrassed at having flashed the Prince of the Woodland Realm if he were sober, Bilbo thinks, though he distantly recalls flashing the Elvenking the night before, so he considers readjusting how mortified he’ll be in retrospect once his head isn’t revolving around on his shoulders. He mutters his thanks vaguely and tries to get his pants on, ending up squeezing both feet through a single pant leg.
Legolas smirks and goes over to assist him with his underwear. Bilbo thinks momentarily about hating him for that, then decides it really isn’t worth the effort.
To Bilbo’s disappointment, the Woodland Realm doesn’t have a library of its own, just a small bookstore that has barely enough books in its repositories to be named one. The books he had loaned out of Rivendell Library lasted him very nearly to the end of his recovery at the Carrock, and then after that he’d been dry on reading and ended up spending more time outdoors instead. He’d planned on getting back his momentum on arriving at the Mirkwood, but he hadn’t known about the shortage then and now finds himself scrambling to maximise his time with the wood elves.
It doesn’t take much browsing to separate the books into those that he’s already read in Rivendell and those which he’s never seen before. In a gesture of friendship, King Thranduil allows him to look at his own private collection, which is even smaller but consists of several limited-edition anthologies with titles that Bilbo cannot help but gawp at. Accordingly, he’s only allowed to borrow them one at a time, which is still a magnificent boon; a few are really too ancient and fragile to be handled in quantity, on top of being exceedingly valuable. Out of the dozen, Bilbo thinks about choosing just the five he wants to read the most over the month before they depart for the Lonely Mountain and updates his reading list with the new additions.
Somewhere in there, he is reminded of how close he is to seeing Erebor and the rest of the dwarves again. Bilbo has to take a moment to meddle out a plan of sorts, realising that he’s been making it so far on gut instinct and improvisation. It would certainly make him feel more reassured knowing that he’s travelled all the way across Middle Earth once more with at least an inkling of purpose; as much as he essentially left on a whim, he’s been getting much more out of it than he would have dreamed and would like to keep it that way with every successive location he visits. Visits to each of the dwarves are in order, of course, and to the reigning King under the Mountain to pay his compliments.
He stops short of the memorial service, and the inevitable visit to Thorin’s tomb. As much as he’d rather stick with an itinerary from here on out, there are clothes to be washed and flatbreads to be baked, and quite frankly having a desultory element about his visitations gives him something more to be excited about. Unless if it’s another warg, but he’s fairly certain that it’s not a probability.
At least, that’s what he convinces himself is true, on both counts.
As for his numbered days in the Woodland Realm, he rations his time accordingly during his stay. Bilbo reads at his fastest pace, visits the kitchens on occasion, and gets taken on tours around the place even though he’s rather familiar with the Elvenking’s palace already. He eats an awful lot, managing his optimum six meals a day, and drinks more mead than he ever has in his life. He gets drunk less often and steadily improves at holding his liquor, until he sets a new personal best at two-and-a-half normal-sized pints before his stomach starts to kick up a protest. Bilbo even manages to keep it down that one time.
Another opportunity to try something new pops up as a dinner topic — Thranduil makes mention of an ongoing ecological survey by his elven botanists regarding the state of the Woodland Realm in light of the Necromancer’s expulsion from Dol Guldur, and it only takes a round of asking on his part before Bilbo is given permission to tag along for the remainder of the study. Herbology book by his side, he accompanies the team performing the study in a small radius around the palace, checking the health of the trees and identifying new plants along the way. When the study ends, Bilbo has added three new species to the back of his book along with his observations and notes, and even gets mentioned in the report submitted to the Elvenking.
The start of the monthly hunt is announced at the end of his first week in Thranduil’s kingdom. At dinner, the Elvenking rises from his seat and addresses the rangers that have assembled in the dining hall, providing dates and details and accolades to be won before sitting down to a modest applause.
Legolas leans over to Bilbo. “Have you ever been on a hunt?” he asks.
Bilbo slips a lettuce leaf into his mouth, thinking. “I don’t suppose scavenger hunts count,” he replies.
“Fire a bow before?”
“I can throw a mean rock. Ask the mudcrabs in the Brandywine River.”
The elf smiles. “You’ll never catch anything like that. Tell you what,” he offers, “meet me in the archery hall after lunch and I’ll show you a few things.”
“You any good with a bow?”
The smile widens on Legolas’s face. “Come and find out.”
When he was crouching in the Woodland Realm, invisible at nearly every minute of the waking day, Bilbo had walked through the archery range just once while he was thinking of a way to get the dwarves freed. There, he had stood at the doorway, hidden, and watched the elven rangers practicing. He still remembers one instance in which a marksman had split a bull’s-eyed arrow in two at a hundred yards and Bilbo had almost clapped out loud at the feat. The hall has not changed much since then, apart from the addition of even more targets and dummies at the far end and a light dusting of wood chips over the polished floor for better footing. Legolas is waiting for Bilbo when he steps in, a oaken longbow on his back and a smaller one at his feet beside three quivers of arrows. He nods at Bilbo when he sees him. “Afternoon.”
Legolas hooks a foot into the bow on the floor, snaps his leg and sends it through the air at Bilbo. Bilbo snatches at it reflexively and fumbles. The weapon clatters to the floor again as Legolas tuts at him. “Had a bit too much food, Bilbo? Your reflexes are a bit dull.”
Pouting, Bilbo bends down to retrieve the bow. “You surprised me —”
“Just a little joke there.” He winks at him and gestures for Bilbo to come closer. “From what I know of hobbits, shooting a bow should come naturally, no?”
“I think so.” Hobbits make fine archers, Bilbo knows, but he personally hasn’t ever used one before. He considers the bow in his hands carefully. It is supple and light, a weapon of fine quality and craft. He thinks that it must have been carved out and strung only recently, testing its weight in his palms and plucking at the bowstring.
“Let’s see then.” Legolas reaches for his own bow, slings a quiver across his back and points at a target halfway down the range. “Hit that for me, would you?”
Arrows rattle around in the quiver Bilbo chooses as he too arms himself and stands at the ready. Legolas crosses his arms and observes him. Bilbo draws out an arrow and nocks it in his bow, pulling the string taut and lifting the bow up the way he’s seen others do it before.
His lips brush the fletching and he takes aim, sending the arrow across the hall and missing the whole target by a few inches. Bilbo watches his arrow clatter into a pile of straw at the butt and chews the inside of his cheek. “Drat,” he mutters.
“I’d say that is wasn’t bad for a first time,” Legolas quips, “but then I’d be lying.” He expertly nocks an arrow and releases it into the centre of the target, and twice more with other targets at varying distances.
“Were you planning on actually teaching me anything, or have you decided to just show off all afternoon?”
Legolas cocks a long eyebrow at him. “It is good practice to begin with a positive demonstration. Now you know what it’s supposed to look like.”
“I know what it’s supposed to look like,” Bilbo remarks. “It’s not something that calls for a lot of imagination.”
Legolas looks unconvinced. “Tell me what you observed about all three shots.”
Bilbo eyes the arrows buried in the targets across the hall. He wasn’t paying all that much attention, as a matter of fact, plus he hardly knows what Legolas wants him to describe. “Um…it was, well, quite fast, I suppose.”
“Er.” His fingers move absently over the string of his own bow as he tries his best to remember. “You…you were constant?”
“Constant how?” Legolas presses.
Scrambling for a lifeline, Bilbo flashes back to his memories of Kili. Though distant and far off, he can still imagine the dwarf nocking arrow after arrow, shooting one after another in rapid succession. “Your hand,” he mumbles, fishing for the words to put the idea in. “It — it sort of kept, I don’t know, coming to the same place?”
His unrefined answer doesn’t seem to impress Legolas one bit, but the ranger nods. “Correct. More or less.” He loads one arrow and draws the string back, but keeps it there as he aims at the furthest target. “Consistency is one of the key factors in maintaining your aim. See here?” He shakes the hand holding the bowstring taut slightly, taps it on his cheek where it nearly touches his face. “Always at this spot for every shot.”
Legolas releases the arrow and hits the bullseye before turning back to Bilbo. “Find what works best for you. The more comfortable you are, the less fatigue you will feel in the long run. An archer must not tire easily. Come.” He beckons Bilbo to his side and points at the same target he missed. “Try again. I’ll guide you this time.”
The second attempt is easier than the first, as Bilbo starts to get the feel of wielding the shortbow. In addition, Legolas stoops to correct his posture all over. “Don’t grip the bow so hard; it’s not going anywhere. Elbow up, chin up,” he instructs, making the necessary amendments by nudging Bilbo into place without consultation. By the time he is satisfied, Bilbo feels his back beginning to strain from the posture Legolas has shaped him into.
“Can I shoot now?” he asks, trying to keep his arms from shaking at the simultaneous tension from the bow and his body.
“Almost.” He pushes Bilbo’s right arm down such that the arrow and his arm are in a straight line. “Aim and steady your breathing, and when you feel ready, release.”
This time, he strikes the target much better than he had hoped. The shaft of his arrow trembles a few inches to the right of Legolas’s arrow, and he has a few seconds to feel immensely proud of this achievement before Legolas grimaces and says, “Not as good as I expected, but it’s passable. A moving target will be vastly different. Another thing is that you slacken your bow arm too early.” He prods Bilbo’s left arm.
“It’s tiring,” Bilbo mumbles, massaging his wrist.
“Relax.” Legolas grins cheerfully at him. “Archery is a sport. It’s meant to be fun.”
They continue practicing for the next hour, practicing being Legolas scoring perfect bull’s-eyes and Bilbo managing to land his arrows in the targets, until Bilbo’s arms start to ache and the arrowhead continues to dip lower with every successive shot. “Can we take a break?” he asks, panting. His brow is matted with sweat and there’s a stiffness in his lower back. He’s quite thirsty, too.
He helps Legolas to pull over two bales of hay and they sit facing each other, their bows propped against the side of their bales. After they have drank from their own water skins, Legolas pulls a loaf of lembas out of his bread and breaks it in two, handing one half to Bilbo.
Bilbo tuts and snitches the other half from him before Legolas can react fast enough to stop him. “I get to choose mine,” he reminds Legolas. “That is fair.”
“Hoist by my own petard.” Legolas sighs and takes a bite resignedly.
“You’ve been to Erebor before, haven’t you?”
His jaw working, Legolas nods.
“Just the one? At the Battle,” Bilbo clarifies.
“I have travelled there a few times in recent years as ambassador,” Legolas says. “To maintain the relations between us and the dwarves of Erebor and the men of Dale.”
“Have you gone lately?”
“I last visited the year before as the guest of the King under the Mountain. We partook in a joint hunt during the season to strengthen ties, both militarily and diplomatically.” He breaks apart the bread in his fingers, sending a shower of crumbs to the straw-covered floor.
“I see.” Bilbo chews a mouthful of lembas and looks at Legolas, who doesn’t appear to have any intention of finishing his half. Bilbo has the feeling that Legolas’s mind is suddenly elsewhere. Curious, he asks, “And what do you think of the dwarves, then?”
Legolas examines his fingernails, all interest in the bread lost. “We have…always had a thorny relationship with the dwarves of Erebor. My father disliked them even before the coming of the Firedrake,” he recounts slowly. He lifts his head, the apple at his throat bobbing as he swallows. “The Battle of the Five Armies served to repair that somewhat. Everyone’s still adjusting, myself included. I was raised not to trust the dwarves, and yet here I am, an envoy to them. It’s a remarkable turnaround of events.”
“Do you trust them now?”
The question doesn’t seem to sit well with Legolas. He squirms uncomfortably in his seat, dusting off his lithe hands. “It’s complicated,” he says quietly.
“If you want to talk about it,” Bilbo prompts, leaving his offer hanging there. He likes Legolas and wants to hear him out, and help him, if possible.
Legolas looks at him with cloudy eyes. “Have you ever had feelings for someone else, Bilbo?”
It’s a lot closer to home than Bilbo initially thought, and he has to consciously stop his mouth from falling open. “Oh,” he whispers. “I…”
Biting his lip, Legolas tilts his head uncertainly. “Because what if — and I do mean what if, it could very well be nothing, mind you — I were to, say, elect to forge a strictly platonic relationship with someone whom my father would dislike by sheer conditioning, purely based on the fact that he disliked most of his species for most of his adult life.”
Bilbo blinks. “You fancy a dwarf?” he translates.
Legolas bristles. “I said no such thing.”
“But do you, though?”
The way Legolas shrinks into himself is familiar, if only because Bilbo is aware exactly how it feels like. It clears away any doubt he had about Legolas and the dwarf in question. The last of the disintegrating bread sifts through Legolas’s fingers, and in the emptiness left behind he clenches and unclenches his fists. “He’s…he’s a respectable dwarf,” he murmurs. “A warrior, like me. Handsome. Of noble birth, too, or at least as far as I know.”
“When did you meet?” Bilbo asks, interested.
This makes Legolas pause. “We haven’t exactly met,” says hesitantly, knotting his fingers together. His hands are incredibly restless, seeking occupation. “Haven’t spoken either, as a matter of fact. I mean, I know that he knows me, but we’re not exactly friends —”
“Not exactly?” Bilbo interrupts.
Legolas tilts his chin in what Bilbo assumes is the dignified gesture of one who has been successfully called out on. “We’re not friends,” he says. “Our meeting was rather unorthodox. Last year on the hunt, I accidentally jolted his pony and he fell into the mud. We traded a few words afterwards, some of which were…acrimonious.”
The parallels are striking enough to make Bilbo smile fondly. “That’s nice.”
“I know that he has no designs on anyone else. At least, not as far as I know.” He draws his legs up to his chest and rests his chin on his knees, rocking back and forth slightly. He stares moodily at the toes of his boots. “But…I don’t know, should I really be doing this? This, this isn’t proper, even if he were an elf. It would be an abomination if I were to pursue this issue, wouldn’t it?”
Bilbo keeps silent. “Have you talked to anyone else about this?” he asks after thinking for one long, futile minute.
Legolas shakes his head. “No one must know about this,” he says miserably.
“You just told me,” Bilbo points out.
“I trust you.” He looks at Bilbo with sad eyes that stirs a feeling of a similar nature within him.
Bilbo takes a deep breath and looks directly back at Legolas, seeking connection with him. “I — I understand,” he confides.
Legolas quirks an eyebrow skeptically. “You do.”
“I do.” He too pushes a thumb into the remaining bread, breaking it up into fragments, though his eyes never leave Legolas’s. He smoothens his trousers and steeples his hands in his lap. “Listen, remember what I told you about Thorin?”
“The late King under the Mountain?”
Bilbo nods, smiling with the slightest hint of abashment. “I might have left out a bit of it. Well, I say a bit.”
It takes Legolas less than ten seconds to connect the dots. “So you and him —”
“Just me,” Bilbo corrects gently. “I never told him. Never got the chance.” He adds on the last part quickly and absolves himself for the brazen lie that it is. In all the times they touched, he hadn’t gotten up sufficient courage to so much as even hint at it. Could’ve told him in the moonlit soak over the Lonely Mountain, bespoken the growing love he harboured for him through the bars of the prison that held them in the Woodland Realm, kissed him to soften the blow of betrayal with the weight of the Arkenstone in his pocket. And what if he’d told him in any of those moments? He doesn’t like thinking of what ifs, he never has, although wishful thinking has always managed to find a place with him the same way wood-mites infiltrate the foundations of a hobbit hole.
Legolas’s eyes are still wide with amazement. “You loved him.”
Bilbo closes his eyes, feeling the heavy thump of his heart inside his chest. “Well, yes. And I think I still do, as a matter of fact. Not that he ever knew, of course. Or is ever going to know.”
This brings some of the wind out of Legolas’s sails. He seems unable to say anything.
“There’s nothing quite like it, loving someone else.” Bilbo wipes his face where tears have started to flow and shakes his head sharply. He has much more control of himself now than he did at the Carrock, but chooses to cry in spite of that or perhaps because of it, pulling a heavy breath in to sigh. If Legolas sees him like this, then perhaps he will be saved at some point in his eternal life from such a fate. Maybe it would be better, kinder even, if he advised Legolas to find someone else who could live with him forever, but Bilbo knows it never really works out like that. It is not too late for the elven prince as it is for Bilbo already, where he wakes to the pain of loss edging deep beneath his ribs, like the echo of a voice in a hollowed-out cave where something grand and mighty had once stood.
With the conclusion of the hunt comes the end of the month, and the preparations are made for the assembly of elves attending the memorial ceremony, with Thranduil leading the delegation. While comprising mostly elves in positions of political significance, there is a large number of veterans and soldiers who had fought in the battle swelling their ranks as well. Legolas informs Bilbo that he too will be coming along, though he doesn’t state his intentions with regards to meeting the dwarf they’d talked about.
“Does this dwarf have a name?” Bilbo asks conversationally.
Legolas appears to take a moment to remember. “Gimli,” he replies. “Son of Gloin.”
“Gloin?” Bilbo laughs incredulously at this revelation.
“Why do you find this amusing?” Legolas asks hotly, clearly affronted.
“No, no,” Bilbo wheezes, clutching his stomach and waving an apologetic hand. “I — I know him! Gloin! We were companions and travelled together to Erebor.”
“Oh.” The redness recedes from Legolas’s face slightly. “Did…did he ever speak of his son?”
“Just the once. He didn’t talk about his family much. I’m going to drop by to see him, though; you’re more than welcome to join me if you want to. Perhaps see Gimli again.”
The elf’s face flushes anew with a startling, novel furiousness. “We’ll see,” he says in a manner that Bilbo takes to mean a vehement yes.
For the first time, packing up to leave is not that much of a chore, seeing as Bilbo hasn’t done much settling down in Thranduil’s kingdom as the rest of the places he sojourned in. He enjoys himself in the Woodland Realm, but the palace has too many corridors and corners that Bilbo is acquainted with by virtue of being a ghost for the better part of the dwarves’ imprisonment there, and holds too many memories that Bilbo would rather forget. Moments of breathlessness, his heart in his throat, sticky fingers in the kitchens, a band of cold metal around his finger as he takes noiseless footsteps through its hallways. Long, long days and sleepless nights. Granted, the air or paranoia and the fear of being discovered and captured has long since dissipated, but its vestiges remain at the edges of his thoughts. In essence, he doesn’t find that much trouble in finally leaving, but not to say that it isn’t a heartache on its own entirely.
Down at the stables, Bilbo slings his filled saddlebags and readies Marianne for travel. The entire delegation moves out from the Woodland Realm in waves so as to avoid a chokepoint where the Mirkwood thins out and gives way to the flatlands preceding Laketown. The advance party starts moving at dawn, the second, an hour later. Bilbo and Legolas are relegated to the third and last host in the company of the Elvenking, who heads the wave atop his horned elk. Bilbo rides Marianne alongside Legolas on his chestnut horse, and is all but hidden in the party of taller, fairer wood elves.
“It’s nice to be heading for Erebor on a pony,” Bilbo calls out to Legolas, with whom he shared the story of his jailbreak and barrel-ride escapade. “It wasn’t very pleasant leaving the first time I came.”
“I’ll have to try that one day,” Legolas says, grinning. “In a barrel down the waterways. Live a little, you know.”
They ride on through the Mirkwood. The path stretches straight but is too narrow to accommodate more than three riders across at any one time, and as such they maintain a file formation in their passage. Aside from the odd exotic-looking plant or two, there really isn’t that much to remark about the ecology, which Bilbo thinks looks about the same every few dozen yards and identified as such during the course of his study. To occupy himself, he continues to chat with Legolas, though they conscientiously steer clear of what they discussed previously in the archery range, being in earshot of Thranduil and many of his advisers.
“How long has it been for you?” Legolas asks. “The last time you visited Erebor, I mean.”
“Nearly three years.” He realises that he’ll be celebrating his fifty-sixth birthday in Erebor, considering the likely length of their visit. There’s a poetic sweetness to it that he cannot ignore, and Bilbo’s spirits lift a great deal more at the thought.
“Excited at seeing it again, I take it?”
“Why, yes!” Bilbo laughs gaily. Excited doesn’t so much as cover it — long has he dreamed of setting eyes on the Lonely Mountain again, to admire its grand gates and stand in awe of everything that it is or was. After the battle, he’d left posthaste in the aftermath, leaving little time to see the whole of the dwarven kingdom, and Dale besides. He remembers the stories Thorin had shared with him of Erebor in its glory days, of halls bedecked with gold and chambers filled with treasure, and hopes that the incumbent King under the Mountain has managed to restore some of that, if not all. It was hardly a grand sight when he’d initially seen it, but the business of dragon colonisation normally never is.
As they finally break away from the heavy jungles of the Mirkwood, the air lightens considerably and Bilbo squints against the sunlight beaming down from the sky. He covers his eyes and looks at the unfamiliar country — the river, normally filled with black water, unspooling away from the Mirkwood and turning clear where it rushes into the Long Lake and becomes benign of ensorcellment; clear and bright skies with nary a cloud to dim the afternoon sun; bodies of water branching off to meander through the land; and sprawling on the Lake itself, much larger than Bilbo recalls and degrees noisier such that he can hear its activities from the easternmost edge of the Mirkwood, Laketown. It is the afternoon, Bilbo can tell, and he estimates that they’ve been riding for the whole of the morning. His bum aches from the saddle and there’s a crick in his back from riding upright, and he thinks eagerly of taking a break in Laketown and dismounting to rest his body.
Disappointingly, they bypass the town completely, taking the landed route around even though Bilbo pleads with Thranduil to spare some time for a stopover. The Elvenking is immovable. “You can visit the good citizens of Laketown on the return trip,” he says. “The Master and Bard of Laketown will most likely be at Erebor by now, anyway. You will not find them here to receive you at the moment. Moreover, we cannot miss our scheduled time of arrival in the court of King Dain.” He sniffs. “We pride ourselves on punctuality, as it is expected of us.”
Bilbo falls silent, downhearted. “Cheer up, Bilbo!” Legolas chirps, poking his shoulder. “You won’t miss much, and Erebor awaits.”
“But I’m tired. Can’t we rest for a while?” Bilbo moans.
“We will rest at the designated time and area,” Thranduil replies smoothly.
It takes them another two hours of riding along the declivity of River Running before Thranduil calls for a halt in a wide open area where they join up with the preceding two waves. Much of the campsite has already been prepared and set up for their arrival. Cloth tents pitched in regularly-arranged rows and wooden racks of laundry and food, and piles of firewood are all about to light when it gets dark out.
Bilbo shares a tent with two other elves riding in the third host. Exhausted from the journeying, he heaves his pack into the tent and throws himself in after it, landing on top of his pack with a sigh. Not five minutes after, just as he is drifting off into a nap, something tugs at his trouser leg.
“Aren’t you hungry?” Legolas says in his ear.
Grumbling, but thanking Legolas for calling him, Bilbo rubs his eyes and stumbles back out of the tent. Dinner is roast wild hare, seared fish with cracked peppercorns, lettuce and white grape wine. Desiring sleep more than anything, mouthfuls of each dish suffice for Bilbo before he has one cup of wine and excuses himself to retire to his tent for the night.
Early next morning, they break camp in half an hour and begin to move out, once more in three separate parties. The first wave sets off just as Bilbo wakes up, which leaves him just enough time to have breakfast and wash up before the entire campsite has been packed up. His eyes are still bleary with sleep even as he mounts Marianne and Legolas nags at him to pick up the pace. “Come on, come on!” he snaps, jostling him by the elbow. “We were supposed to hit the road five minutes ago!” Bilbo just groans and, falling back on habit, thinks of Bag End before he can stop himself.
Another day of riding stretches before them as the Lonely Mountain continues to draw closer. Bilbo finds himself staring blankly at it several times, thinking of nothing in general before it sinks in that he’s closer to it than he’s been in three years. This is what he left Bag End for, what stirred the blood in his veins, what made his weathered feet restless. Like a lodestone drawing in something made of iron, the proximity makes his heart race, as though as its pull on him is stronger now that they’re almost there. He has to consciously steady himself in the saddle. Tearing his eyes away from it, Bilbo fights the urge to leap off his pony and run there himself ahead of the elves. To calm himself, he hums the melody of song he knows in two languages — the Common Tongue, and for one-piece woodwind.
We must away ‘ere break of day —
“What’s that you’re singing?” Legolas asks.
“I heard him, once,” Bilbo murmurs softly. “Thorin. When they first came. The night before all that. They were in my living room, all around the fire, and I was praying that they would just go and leave me alone, and this is what they sang.”
“It’s a lovely tune.”
“I can teach you, if you want,” Bilbo offers.
“Maybe at Erebor.”
Before long, the sun has passed them overhead and the peaks push upward as they enter the mountainous region that houses the town of Dale and the kingdom of Erebor. On the route, the elven procession passes the whole gamut of travellers legging to and from their destination — men of noble class, financiers and entrepreneurs conducting business, even groups of tourists — many of whom hail from all over Arda. The men mostly come from Edoras, the dwarves from the Iron Mountains. They meet a few elves from Rivendell that Bilbo has spoken with in person and greets joyfully, and a couple from Lothlorien.
As the faces pass by, it dawns on Bilbo that he hasn’t seen another hobbit in ages. It’s not a surprise, though it leaves him longing for the friends he had left in Hobbiton and Bree. When was the last time he’d enjoyed a bit of pipe-weed with a fellow hobbit, asked after the summer harvest and hosted someone for dinner? Or just sat back in his dressing gown with some seed-cake and a good book, curling his toes against a crackling fire? This far away from Hobbiton, and having been on the move for so long, he reflects on his life then and his life now, trying to forge the connections linking those two together, but he can’t see them at all.
He’d hardly recognise himself now, at age fifty-five. He’s changed an awful lot in the span of the first half of just this decade, and Bilbo struggles with coming to terms with how far he’s come. Home is an uncertainty, a concept alien to him as every place he stays in comes and goes. Elrond’s words in Rivendell return to haunt him — is he going to be like this for the rest of his years? What if he really is lost, or worse, running away from something? Either way, it frightens him a little bit to put it in perspective, the definition of what he is now — never settling, always migratory, long, unfulfilled nomadism — and the thought is enough to quash his previous delight like a flood over a candle.
Suddenly moody, Bilbo rides with his head lowered all the way to the front gates of Dale.
The town has changed dramatically to the point where Bilbo cannot gather his wits to fathom that it had been practically destroyed for a good length of time with the coming of Smaug. He shelves his conflicting thoughts for a moment and absorbs the spectacle that the town has become. If the people have at all expected the arrival of the wood elves, they make a great show of trying to prove the opposite. The moment Thranduil’s elk sets hoof in the town, a shout and a long horn sounds from the top of the guardhouse, and before Bilbo can figure out what that’s supposed to mean, an entire crowd of people have gathered around them. Gifts exchange hands, welcomes are shouted, and friendly greetings are made. Suddenly, Bilbo is riding with half a cheese wheel in his lap and his hands are filled with pastries. He looks over at Legolas, who has fared just as well as him and now sports a daisy chain around his neck, among other presents.
“Are they always like this?” Bilbo calls over to him.
“Only when the Elvenking is here.” Legolas nods in his father’s direction. “Otherwise, it’s just the baked goods.”
The crowd flanks them and follows them through the city square. There, they are informed by the representative of the town council that the mayor of Dale, like the Master and Bard, have travelled up to Erebor at the invitation of King Dain. “We will be making our way there shortly as well,” Thranduil says. He motions for a large wooden chest to be heaved off the baggage cart and presented to the council representative. “A gift from the wood elves to the people of Dale.”
“Our deepest thanks,” the councilman says with a deep bow. “Might you stay for a short while to rest? We are at your service, Elvenking.”
“Many thanks, but we wish to reach Erebor by sunset. We should be off soon.”
With that, they reach and leave Dale within an hour. It’s a new personal best with regards to the length of his stays, Bilbo thinks, but he supposes it’s still better than a complete bypass as it was with Laketown.
The road up the Lonely Mountain is a steep and narrow one. Bilbo can feel Marianne straining under him to continue on as they get higher. “C’mon, girl,” he mutters in her ear, stroking her face. “Just a little bit more.”
At long last, the gradient evens out and the entrance to Erebor gapes before them. The sight of it fills Bilbo with a sort of quiet reverence, as though he is bearing witness to the happening of something unearthly and holy. A bridge connects the dwarven kingdom to the outside world, and as they reach it, Bilbo sees a group of seven dwarves standing in a line perpendicular to their advancement. His heart performs a double-flip as he sees Balin standing with them, and Ori at one corner with his hood up and a parchment and quill in his hands. They look the same as he remembers, though both of them are dressed in fine clothes and measures of jewellery. Ori most notably is wearing a silvery diadem with an inlaid gemstone at its peak, Balin a massive golden belt studded with jewels. Bilbo considers waving frantically to compel recognition, but keeping in mind that decorum is one of Thranduil’s priorities, he nixes that course of action after giving it some thought.
The wood elves stop in front of them to be addressed properly by the dwarves. A elf riding a large mare conceals Bilbo from sight, even as he cranes his neck and edges sideways to get a better look.
The dwarf in the centre of their file steps forth and bows graciously. “Welcome to Erebor, Thranduil, King of the Woodland Realm.”
At this, Thranduil inclines his head. “I have the pleasure to be in the company of…?”
“Droghor Shatterstone, chief adviser to the King under the Mountain. I was tasked with receiving you. If you may,” he gestures towards the entrance to Erebor, “the King awaits your arrival.”
Most of the company breaks away as the elves are shown to their rooms by the dwarf stewards and their horses are stabled. Bilbo is inclined to go with them, or perhaps ride up to Balin to say hello, but Thranduil dismounts, nods at him specifically and turns, a clear request for him to follow. After giving the reins of his pony to a stable-dwarf, Balin and Ori have both crossed the bridge and a gathering of elves in front of Bilbo keeps him from catching up with them.
By the time the crowd has cleared, the remaining party bound for the throne room consists of Thranduil, Legolas, a small team of esteemed elves, and Bilbo himself. He positions himself at the very back, waddling after them and looking in amazement at the reconstructed kingdom. Where broken beams and charred bulwarks had been years ago are thick tiles and tall walls of turquoise stone streaked artfully with gold. The floors are a green sort of marble that is somehow warm to the touch. There’s no trace of the destruction that had haunted the halls nor any evidence that a dragon had once wrested it away from the dwarves of old. Their footsteps echo along the long hall that they follow Droghor through, and at a certain point the paving acquires a polished feel to it such that Bilbo imagines being able to slide across it on his bare feet if he dared to try.
The throne room itself is cavernous and imposingly decorated. Large banners tasselled at the ends hang from the walls, which tower high into the heart of the Lonely Mountain and disappear into a fog of darkness above. Pillars of smooth obsidian as thick as the largest trees in the Mirkwood sprout up from a matching darkness below and support the base of the entire chamber. Two thrones are situated in the middle of the room. Seated in one is Dain Ironfoot, and in the other a dwarf-woman, both of them garbed in finery and adornments and surrounded by a triplet of standing dwarves.
“Greetings, King Thranduil,” Dain intones as they approach and bow. “It is an honour to have you present.”
“Likewise, King Dain,” Thranduil replies.
“I trust that your journey here was pleasant and smooth?”
“Yes, it was. Thank you for having us.”
“You’re very welcome. Only right that our allies should join us for this occasion, no doubt about that. If I may introduce my senate?” Dain beckons with his hands and the dwarves step out one at a time to nod and be named. “Bili Zirak, dwarf-master of coin; Safur Longbeard, head scribe; you’ve met Droghor already; Moifur of the Iron Hills, my lieutenant-general; and my wife, Dis Oakenshield, Queen under the Mountain, Daughter of Thrain, Son of Thror.”
In the midst of admiring the architecture of the throne room, Bilbo turns his head so fast at the last name that his neck cricks, and as he rubs at it the queen nods at them, her hands clasped in front of her. For a second, Bilbo thinks he misheard, but after half a minute of looking at her, he begins to see it. Like the other dwarves, she has long, braided hair and is bearded, though her facial hair is much shorter and rulier than the male dwarves. Her eyes are soft and bright, and she has the cheekbones Bilbo has debated internally over for months, and as she smiles it is easy to imagine that it is Thorin sitting in her place, grinning over him. If she notices that Bilbo is staring at her, she gives no sign of it.
“Well met. My own people, if it pleases you?” The elves mirror the dwarves, stepping forth and back as Thranduil introduces them. “Gwill Evergreen, council vice-chair elf of the Woodland Realm council; Syllyra of Lothlorien, my chief royal adviser; Eiradell Highcross, lead rangers; Calorfin Tiviel, senior sister of my healers; and Bilbo Baggins Esquire, of Bag End, Hobbiton.”
It takes a few seconds to register that he’s been called as well, but that’s all it needs for Bilbo to feel entirely awkward as he moves forward to present himself and bow.
“Bilbo Baggins?” Dain leans forward to look at him closely, and calls out in surprise when Bilbo lifts his face to look straight at him. “Well, by Durin’s beard! It is you, after all! I had no idea you were attending as well. I mean, we heard from Gandalf that you were coming, but that was more than a year ago.”
“Er, well.” Twiddling his thumbs behind his back, Bilbo tries to estimate exactly how long it would take to explain the circumstances of what happened from Rivendell up to the present, and puts a guess on really long. “Your Majesty, I beg your pardon, but it is a lengthy and trying tale and rather dull besides. I should not wish to waste everyone’s time here.”
“I see. No matter, you are here now, and your attendance is highly valued. The ceremony will take place at the end of the week,” Dain continues, addressing everyone. “Until then, make yourselves entirely at home here. The full hospitality of the kingdom of Erebor is yours to enjoy.”
Word of his return spreads from the moment they file out of the throne room, and it is only three steps after the door closes behind them when Bilbo, still thinking about the dwarf-woman bearing Thorin’s features and epithet, walks face-first into a giant belly covered with red silk and fur. “Bilbo!” a voice roars, and then he is lifted into a smothering hug.
“Bombur!” he gasps as his breath is squeezed out of him. He can’t feel his arms being pinned to his sides, and he’s pretty sure that he’s turning a spectacular shade of purple from all the blood rushing to his face. When he’s set back down, Bilbo takes a moment to massage feeling back into his limbs before speaking with the dwarf, who is degrees more rotund than Bilbo recalls. “It’s been a while, hasn’t it?”
“Oh, Bilbo! It took you so long to get here,” Bombur wails. “When Gandalf said you were coming, we all thought you’d arrive by the end of the year!”
“I…got a little bit sidetracked.” He quickly relives the memories of life in Rivendell, the run-in with the warg, and his recuperation with Beorn at the Carrock. It all certainly seems an awfully long time ago, as he thinks about it now.
“I did tell him that it would take a while,” a second voice says behind Bilbo.
“Balin!” Bilbo is pulled into another brotherly hug.
The dwarf winks at him. “Good to see you again, lad. Ori spotted you at the front gates, but we thought it wiser to wait for you to meet the king first. How goes your travels?”
“Eventful,” Bilbo says after pondering about the right way to describe it. “How has everyone been?”
They strike up a lively conversation on the way to the guest chambers. “We are all well at the moment,” Balin tells him. Bilbo hears that Nori and Dori own a company with stakes in the gold mines, while the last brother, Ori, underwent two years of further schooling and serves in the king’s court. “I’m not too sure what Bifur has been up to nowadays, but hardly anyone does.”
“He’s making toys again,” Bombur supplies helpfully. “With Bofur. They sort of live partly in Dale now.”
“Ah, is he? That’s very nice.” Balin scratches his nose. “Oin’s a troop leader with the army now. Training the recruits, mostly. Gloin’s still here on the council as a member. My brother’s turned into somewhat of a house-dwarf!” He chuckles. “Married last year, and now they’re expecting a child!”
“And you two?” Bilbo presses interestedly.
“Royal kitchens,” Bombur says, and that’s all he needs to say, judging by the straining metal belt around his massive waist.
“I’m an adviser to the King under the Mountain,” Balin says. “It’s a bit of a chore, but it has to be done.”
“The queen,” Bilbo murmurs, fidgeting with his hands. “The king said her name was Oakenshield?”
Balin’s eyes twinkle kindly. “Yes. Dis Oakenshield, Daughter of Thrain, Son of Thror. Now the Queen under the Mountain, wife of King Dain.”
The resemblance comes back to Bilbo. “His daughter?” he asks, his mouth suddenly drier.
“Sister. But I’m sure she would be flattered that you think her appearance youthful.”
“He never said he had a sister. He never said he had any family besides all of you.”
Balin smiles sadly. “I’m sure that Thorin had his reasons.”
And what reasons might those be? Bilbo knows very well that the affairs of the late dwarf king are none of his business, but it still hurts to know that Thorin had locked away this part of his life from him. Even as he loved the dwarf, he could never understand why Thorin always seemed to feel the need to isolate himself from the life that used to be his, as if the means of keeping his past concealed necessarily amounted to noble sacrifice in the name of a worthy cause. He was always tragically alone where it came to anything outside of reclaiming Erebor in the name of his family, Bilbo thinks, and was prickly with trusting it out. Part of him wonders if he would have told him about this sister of his and everything else besides, should they have been given enough time.
Deep in thought, Bilbo doesn’t notice that Balin and Bombur have stopped walking. He turns his head when he realises this, confused, and then immediately becomes aware that someone else is standing in front of them.
“Balin. Bombur.” Dis Oakenshield nods at them in turn.
The two dwarves bow, murmuring together, “Your Majesty.”
Bilbo hastens to bow as well. “Bilbo Baggins, at your service, Your Majesty.”
“As I am at yours, too.” She smiles at him in the way that reminds Bilbo painfully of Thorin and extends a hand decorated with several bracelets and rings. “I believe we have not met?”
Bilbo takes her hand and shakes his head. Her hand is smaller than Thorin’s, though the strength of her touch matches his. The grip she has on his hand is firm and suggests no weakness in the slightest. Like her brother, she gives off an impression of one who is clearly not to be trifled with. Swallowing, Bilbo draws his hand back when she lets go, clenching it to stretch out his fingers.
“You knew my brother, though,” Dis says, her lustred eyes holding his. The look in them is unreadable. “And my sons.”
“Queen Dis is the mother of the late Fili and Kili,” Balin announces sombrely behind him.
Bilbo tries to think of something to say to this, but his voice fails him utterly.
“My lady,” Balin says, “would you like to speak in a more suitable location? We were just showing Bilbo to his quarters.”
Dis doesn’t look away from Bilbo. Her gaze is measured, gauging. Bilbo gets the feeling that he shouldn’t blink, lest he exposes more of whatever it is that he’s sure he’s displeased her with. The fact that the piercing stare she is giving off resembles Thorin’s own so much is even more of a motivator to strain against his quivering eyelids. “Yes,” she says. “That would be charming.”
I am fully aware of the fact that dwarves in the LoTR verse do not have inheritable familial surnames; the reasons for my choice in this chapter will be fully explained in the next.
“Would you like some wine, Bilbo?” Dis raises a crystal jug three-quarters full with an aged dark red.
“Yes, please, and thank you.” They are sitting at a small table in Bilbo’s room, which is lit by an array of white wax candles suspended from a candelabra overhead. His pack is on top of a footlocker at the end of the luxurious four-poster that dominates a good part of the room, which is saying something considering that he’s quite sure that it’s as big as some of the smaller hobbit holes in Hobbiton.
They take their drinks in mutual, observant silence. Dis swirls her cup in her hand, her many rings clinking against it, and watches him. Bilbo sips his wine meekly, looking at anything but her. A rich tapestry hanging on the wall behind her. Thick, leather-bound books shelved on a case wedged up against the cupboard. A vase of white flowers with long yellow anthers. He is trying to brew interest in the doily covering the table between them when Dis says, “Thorin never told you about me, did he?”
“No, Your Majesty. He did not.” Among other things, Bilbo thinks dejectedly.
“But you knew that Fili and Kili were his nephews.”
“Yes.” He thinks of them both, so youthful and free, handsome, in their prime, and he clenches his jaw to brace himself against the reality of it.
She sets her cup down on the table and collects her hands in her lap. Her stare slides from Bilbo to her fingers, knitted across each other, then back to him. “How much do you know of my brother, Bilbo?” Dis asks.
“Not much,” Bilbo replies. “Only what everyone else knows. Well, everyone who isn’t a dwarf, I should believe.”
“You weren’t curious? You never asked after him?”
“It wasn’t my place to ask.” He doesn’t dispute his wanting to know, at the very least.
Dis shifts about in her seat, allowing her fringe to fall over her forehead, partially concealing the left side of her face. She lifts a hand to push a lock of hair out of her eyes, tucking it behind her ear. Bilbo sips his wine some more and counts the seconds.
“You had your questions,” Dis states. A fact, not an inquiry. Bilbo hesitates, then nods. “I can answer them for you. I can tell you everything about Thorin, if you will hear me out. But I will need to start from the very beginning and tell you of my own life, should you want that.”
Bilbo looks straight at her, eyebrows raised. He forces them back down. “Ye — yes, of course. I’ll listen.”
She lifts her head. A breath drawn in, then the silence. It is quiet enough for Bilbo to hear the flickering of candle flames above. “I was born here in Erebor, the third child of the heir apparent to the Throne under the Mountain,” Dis says. “I never knew my mother. She died very shortly after I was born. It was a complicated birth. I was told that when I was plucked from my mother’s womb she asked to hold me and she kissed my brow twice before she passed on. I had not even opened my eyes by the time she had taken her last breath. My grandfather spoke of her often and said that she had given her life so that I may live and she lived on in me. Thorin told me that I was her final great act and her last legacy to the dwarves. I was never openly faulted for her death, even though there were many times I wished with all of my heart that I had been and perhaps I was.
“Thorin was the oldest of all of us. Our brother, Frerin, was the middle child, and I was the last. My childhood was not a bad one, but neither was it a happy one. After our mother died, the company of each other was all we ever knew as children. It was difficult for me to speak to my grandfather and father. They had their duties, were always much too busy with the affairs of the kingdom. We understood that perfectly well and never kicked up a fuss about not seeing them around. We also knew from the start that Thorin would be king someday, but he never made anything of it. We weren’t made to accede to his every whim or request or anything. Quite the opposite, in fact. He loved us both very much and we took care of each other in our mother’s absence. When he too started to serve in the king’s court, we saw less of him, but he still always made time for us. He was a good brother and an honourable dwarf, a person I loved very much.
“When I was a little girl, I was very idealistic. I wanted to be an adventurer. I always thought there was something more to the world than kings and gold and the stifling aristocracy of being a princess. I never told anyone but Thorin. He was very supportive about it. Even now I don’t know if he was merely patronising me or if he was genuine, but either way I learned at five years of age that there was nothing to that dream. Princess or not, I was two things that would have me stolen from the world that I longed for so badly: a dwarf, and a woman. We are a rare breed. Female dwarves are few in number and are held in great esteem. The dwarves are fiercely protective of us and often hide us away, some even pretending we do not exist. My own grandfather would not have me leave the inner sanctum of Erebor, fearing for my safety. In those days Middle Earth was a much more dangerous place than it is even now. You should have some idea of that from what you experienced on your travels with my brother. Even now it is still forbidden for dwarf-women to leave their dwellings except in times of extreme need. I was denied the chance to follow my ambitions, not out of malicious intent, but benevolence, and I don’t know whether or not that made it better or harder to stomach.
“So from that day forth I seized upon another world that I could make my own. Erebor was filled not just with gold and riches but with books also. I read widely and with religious dedication from the moment I had the words and the hunger for it. I grew up with stories in my bed and no one would ever find me without a book in my hand. I read more books than ever dwarf had before me and I studied texts in four languages and my father had me schooled by the best linguists in Middle Earth. Reading gave me an ethereal sort of hope that I relied on to hold my childhood dream together. I let my mind do the wandering when my body would not be allowed to. By the time I was nine I had read every book in Erebor and I spoke fluent Westron and Khudzul and some Sindarin and a little bit of Quenya and the dwarves were starting to call me the brightest dwarf-child in all of Middle Earth. My grandfather was proud of that and encouraged me to nurture this interest. I never could comprehend why and feared him to be wrong. It was then that I realised that my passion for literature was itself part of the grander scheme of things that my grandfather and father had envisioned for me as well. You should have guessed it by now. They were very pragmatic and very farsighted. I was to be groomed to be the consort that no noble dwarf could turn down. Intelligent beyond my years and of royal birth besides. My responsibility as a female Durin was essentially that on its own to rally people to our cause whenever need be. A diplomatic instrument. The sole thing I found any joy in was itself politicised where I had previously thought impossible. It mattered very little to me, to be honest. But then whenever I picked up a book it would always seem heavier, as if the burden upon me had transferred into the objects that had once given me peace. It was frightening.
“When the Firedrake first descended upon Erebor from the sky, bringing with it fire and chaos and death, for a long while I thought it the end of the world. Well, the world that we knew of, anyway. I was ten years old then. My childhood was lost to the same flames that burned Dale to the ground and I had no youth from then on. I was no longer a child for having seen so much dying and destruction that anyone who laid eyes on it regardless of age or background was sobered instantaneously to the horrors of the world and I knew that with a surety even then. The truth of it was not something that could be washed away like a wine stain on a frock. I’m sure you know what happened after that. Erebor fell to Smaug the Terrible. We were driven out of our own kingdom, some of us half-dead and many of us with deep scars that we would carry for the rest of our lives.”
A stillness overtakes Bilbo’s entire body as he listens. He forces himself not to abandon his cup and excuse himself from the room, opting to go temporarily mute.
“The great migration of the dwarves of the Lonely Mountain scattered us all over Middle Earth. Some went south to Rohan and established themselves there; many of them name it home now, even with the liberation of Erebor. Others fled to the Iron Hills and sought asylum with the King Regnant. My grandfather and father took us to Dunland, where we lived for many years in abject poverty. Thorin and Frerin worked as smiths to help support us. I myself made a meagre wage translating and writing letters for the Dunlendings, many of whom were illiterate. It was enough, but only just. There was nothing else to be had with what limited coin that remained to our once-proud family name. We were very poor, and it affected my grandfather badly, the extent of which I was unaware of until my twenty-third birthday.
“At that time we were all adults, Thorin and Frerin and I. The years in Dunland had made us toughed and jaded but we would not admit it to each other. Homeless and pathetic as we were, we were of Durin blood, and the pride of being a Durin was something that couldn’t be hawked away like one of our pithy goods even if it were to buy some more bread to put on the table. When there was no pride to be found we hewed it out from stone and iron. In our penury it was still worth hanging on to, even if we couldn’t fill our empty stomachs with it. And it was that pride that made me see what had become of the family I once held dear so much.”
Dis raises a handkerchief to each eye, dabs lightly, and returns her hands to rest. “A dwarf came down to Dunland from the Iron Mountains one year. An exile like us. He was a horticulturist who lived and owned a small family farm in Dale before the sack. He had lost four fingers on one hand from burns and was burned also on a considerable portion of his face and had no sight in that eye. But he was still very handsome, and very charming. I didn’t know at the time what he meant to accomplish by travelling so far out to seek his fortune and I questioned him on this when he came by our house to ask me to read a letter for him. That was the first time I had held such a conversation with someone else that did touch my heart and make it stir. The things he told me were things that I could not disagree with even if I were to pit the whole of my literacy against it. He had read but all of seven books in his entire life and yet he spoke truth in such a way as though everything I had known and would ever come to know would find its elements in his philosophy. Like rivers to the sea, and many rivers finding their provenance in the mountains. Loyalty. Honour. A willing heart,” she recites, and Bilbo’s stomach flutters at those words. “Love. Humility. Things such as those that all seemed simple enough until deep thought was given to it and their true value became revealed like a diamond in the rough. He loved life even as he did not love his own and derived as much happiness from it as he himself decided to make of it. He’d lost everything to the coming of Smaug and yet he found it in himself to carry on with what hope he had left enough to rely upon as little hope as it was and he told me that it had to be so. How when befallen by the most terrible of misfortune that the one to receive it must keep going and draw out courage to weather through for it is knowing true despair that is a strength entirely on its own to be tapped. I had scarcely heard of things being put in such a way and he made me see things from perspectives I never thought possible. He was like no one I had ever met before. From him I learned so much of what I could and wanted to become in person and in character and spent many nights thinking of the things he had said. I fell in love with him quickly, and he did as well with me. He asked me to marry him, and with that I did not care any longer about whether or not we would ever reclaim Erebor. I was happy, so happy such that I felt no loss or shame in living with him forever in Dunland.
“But my grandfather was adverse to giving us his blessings. He was furious at the prospect of giving my hand to the dwarf I loved mostly in due to his physical impairment and lower social class. Dwarven law dictates that a dwarf-woman of royal lineage must be wed to another dwarf of noble standing or with an equivalent title, or otherwise she renounces her title. I saw no sense in adhering to such a law where we were at that time, though my grandfather was immutable. My father abstained from the matter entirely and would not say or do anything to change my grandfather’s mind. Frerin was the only one who agreed with me but as far as my grandfather was concerned, his youth and his words counted for nothing. I got into an argument with my grandfather and ultimately Thorin interceded, else I might have been thrown out of the house entirely. I knew that he too was upset at me but I knew also that he valued my happiness enough to place my love above the duty I had to the line of Durin just that once. He bartered with my grandfather to consummate our marriage on the condition that all my children would carry on the name of Durin, disregarding my husband’s side of the house entirely. I myself would be disowned from the family line and lose all claim to its wealth and influence. My sons or daughters would not be punished for my actions. Falling in love was wholly beyond our control, but my husband and I were satisfied with that compromise. I spent all my life solidly convinced that ill fortune or luck be discounted in judging the circumstances of a person’s life. That there’s no such thing as treating life like a game that could be looked back on to think what may have been played or done differently to produce an alternative outcome that never was. It’s a harsh outlook but it is also the only one that I have been comfortable with adopting and I make no apologies for that. What happened or may not have happened is irrelevant, and I found it odic that I was to be subject to my own beliefs like an ultimate test of faith.”
Bilbo fixes on the ruby pendant at her neck, his lips tight. He has to remember that his tongue is inside his head, and moves it about to be sure.
Dis leans back and holds up a hand to support her cheek. “My grandfather and I did not speak to each other for a number of years after I was wedded to my love, and I was treated like the outsider that I was, having besmirched the family name in his eyes. In that time, I began to have growing worries for the state of his mind. He would not work, ate very little and would only see what we gathered was an old friend of his, who appeared out of nowhere. He started to speak of snatching Erebor back and did so with a gleam in his eyes that I’d seen when I was a girl being brought through the royal treasuries by him. I didn’t know what it was at the time but the dwarves of this time now have a name for the malady that I’d feared had come over our grandfather. Dragon sickness. The same avarice that had overtaken Smaug to conquer Erebor for his own. I did not know what to do. Then, as if returning into that nowhere from which his friend had come from, our grandfather left us. We had no idea what was going on, nor any inkling of that which would come to pass. Only when they returned a few weeks later did we learn of the plan that my grandfather had dreamt up after paying a preliminary visit to the ruined dwarf kingdom of Moria. It was then which I knew that any illusions of finally leaving Erebor behind that I entertained over the two decades in Dunland were just those and nothing more.
“The war with the orcs for Moria escalated quickly. My grandfather put out a call to arms to the other dwarves living in kingdoms at the far reaches of the world. He wrote letters himself and used a continental network of couriers to reach them all. I was thirty-two then and I could feel the beginnings of battle gathering in the air like a lightning storm over Middle Earth. It was so thick you could drive a sword through it. I tried not to pay any heed to its inevitability, but even the Dunlendings themselves could sense its coming. When the day they were supposed to leave for Moria drew close, I broke my war of silence with my grandfather and beseeched him not to pursue this madness, and was put in my place severely for my impudence. Turning to Thorin for help only made matters worse. I found out that he had been the one to persuade our grandfather to go up north to Moria in the first place. He too desired to avenge the death of our people, as did Frerin, though I was reassured that he did not share Thorin’s taste for gold. I was only a bit older than the age that Thorin was when he saw Erebor taken and still I could not accept that his choice was the right one. Thorin said I did not understand the purpose of fighting for our peoples’ sake and that it was my inability to place myself in their positions that clouded my judgement and stance on the matter. I repeated the same of him and added also that his selfishness and greed would end up killing them all. I was disciplined a second time by my own brother. Before that, he had never raised a hand against me before. Ever. Even when he was angry with me. It has been more than two hundred years since then and I still remember it well. I probably will for the rest of my life.
“I could not stop them from taking up their axes and armours and marching north to what I was fully convinced was their deaths, leaving me behind to fend for myself. Orphaned and brotherless. And to what end? It was clear that the world they were fighting for wasn’t one in which I knew how we could possibly resume to exist in when the cost of reclaiming it would be their own lives. I’d never known such despair in my life at being so alone and I think I would have killed myself there and then had it not been for my husband’s love and kindness. I’m thankful to him for teaching me to live in spite of seemingly lacking a reason for it, among many other things, and my feelings for him haven’t changed since then. I owe my life to him.
“A number of years passed in Dunland as the fighting continued. Its effects spread through the region like a contagion. Refugees began to come south to escape the fighting, and although we hardly could make enough for ourselves, the village took in as many as we could. But the worst had yet to rear its head. Orcs were coming down from the mountains with heightened frequency and a renewed barbarity in their raids, targeting any person who remotely resembled a dwarf in retaliation for our hostility towards them. A few of our neighbours were dragged from their homes and stabbed to death in the fields. Shorter Dunlendings were butchered in their beds, their eyes put out and their heads mounted on fenceposts for the crows. Others were left to die on the mud streets groaning for help that would not come and would be useless even if it did. My husband and I were saved only by the grace of the elves of Lothlorien, with whom we sought refuge. I felt that I could trust them to keep us safe, and thought it an opportunity to start over and set things right as much as I could. I wanted to be a mother. We were going to have a family of our own.
“I did not foresee the consequences of that — Thorin would come back alone from Moria. Our grandfather and Frerin were dead, our father lost forever. All the fighting had won Thorin was a broken kingdom and a new epithet to his name, for all the good it would do him. There would not be the new world that they thought would be theirs, as I knew it would. He was informed of what had become of me and was furious. He saw it as a betrayal, spurred on by his hatred for the Woodland elves, and named it such that we were no longer brother and sister. I myself was tired of waiting and inaction and was weary of being one of Durin’s Folk where all it brought me was unhappiness. I was angry as well for the loss of Frerin, who I loved very much and was even younger than my sons when they died. We parted company on bad terms and I thought then with some bitter righteousness that we would never see each other again and it was for the best.”
For a full minute she returns to staring wordlessly at Bilbo while his feet squirm under the table and he holds his upper body as stiffly as he can. He very nearly starts hiccuping from overly controlling his breathing. His mind is a blank of any thoughts that are his own, and now labours to compile everything that Dis is telling him about the dwarf he had fallen in love with. Thorin had hated the elves, Bilbo knows, as he’d made that abundantly clear from the beginning, but Bilbo still cannot imagine him brooding so much hate for his sister that he practically erased her existence from spoken memory.
“Decades passed without word nor contact from any other dwarf. I lived with my husband in Lothlorien and we were blessed with two sons who would know a similar fate to mine own. My husband died of disease a week before Kili’s second birthday. It was a peaceful death. He is buried in the sacred forests of the elves where I still visit and speak to him regularly. He remains the only person in whom I can confide anything and everything. Fili was already seven at that time and I saw in their eyes a wisdom beyond their years. The sort of hermetical wisdom you’d expect of one who could hold no darkness or evil for having seen too much to be wary of brooding such things. They took after their father in that aspect and I was grateful for that. They were very bright and strong children of whom I had no expectations beyond being my sons, the last things to tie me to this world. And yet I felt them suffer for lack of having a father and that I could do nothing to ameliorate that was one of the worst feelings I have ever known. And ever will.
“Ten years after my husband died I discovered that my sons were receiving letters from Thorin. I didn’t know how he found out about them, but it was plain that he cared deeply for them. I never received a letter from Thorin myself but my sons spoke his words and acted as his proxy to make requests of me. It was never explicitly stated by my sons but I deduced that he never named me in his letters to them. Thorin wanted to see them even as he still did not want to have anything whatsoever to do with me. I was inclined to disallow that at first but my sons were adamant about seeing their uncle. They had never wanted anything more. It occurred to me that they could never have an opportunity like this again as any male dwarf should and I saw it also as a far hope for us to mend our broken relationship with each other. Reluctantly, I let them leave Lothlorien to visit him. That one visit turned into two, and then three, and soon enough my sons were shuttling back and forth between Thorin and I as they grew up.
“My sons loved Thorin. Probably much more than they loved me, and their own father, though that is no one’s fault. I could take them out of Lothlorien to hunt and fish and see what little of the world we could, but it was never the same for them as it always was with Thorin. Sometimes I resented Thorin for that, and other times I was thankful that he was a figure to which they could look up to. I think he raised them more than I ever did, and I’m not proud of that. Even I could not turn a blind eye to the effect my brother was having on them. Fili and Kili would always return to me more learned and spirited and braver than before. One day they stopped coming back to Lothlorien entirely. I received in their place a letter written by Fili and stamped with both their names expressing their desire to accompany Thorin on a quest to reclaim the Lonely Mountain from Smaug. I knew then that this was part of the bargain Thorin had helped me strike with our grandfather and that he intended to keep me to my word. They were very apologetic and filial about it and I could not begrudge them for their decision. I was only distraught and worried that Thorin was bringing them down the same path he had trodden along with our father and grandfather and I pleaded with the only other dwarf I knew I could trust to take care of my sons. Balin agreed readily.”
“Balin?” Bilbo whispers.
Dis nods. “My third cousin. His brother Dwalin joined them, along with nine other dwarves, a few of whom I knew by name and less by face. The last I ever heard of my sons up until the Battle of the Five Armies was that they were travelling west to meet up with Thorin in the Shire, and I’m sure you know what happened after that.
“The conclusion of the Battle of the Five armies reached me only when the elves brought word to me. I did not know of my sons’ and brother’s fates until a messenger from Dain came to Lothlorien seeking me out. Once I had heard the messenger out concerning the full details of how they had died defending him, I found that I could not hate Thorin for their deaths even though I wanted to. I am very proud of them. They did not die in vain, even considering that Thorin himself did not make it in the end. The night before they left I saw them one last time and could not say anything even though I desperately wanted them to stay. He had never misguided them in the course of raising them and I knew that just by observing them for the dwarves that they had become. They were embodiments of the same things my husband told me of so many years ago and begrudging them to stay with me would mean trampling upon those and everything he stood for. Their bonds with me were not any weaker for that. I regret none of it at all.
“The messenger had other tidings from the newly-coroneted King under the Mountain as well. I was told that one of his first decrees as the king was to seek me out in Lothlorien to offer an amnesty. My brother had told him of me when Dain went to Moria to fight with him and he had sympathised silently with me for a number of years after our estrangement from each other. He is a compassionate dwarf who puts family above all even as Thorin wasn’t able to and had decided to offer to restore my status, but in the end I sent the messenger back to relay my declination. Dain sent the messenger again to tell me that he thought that it would have been what Thorin wanted. Once more I refused, requesting the messenger to tell Dain that even if I were to believe that to be so, I still could not break my solemn promise to my grandfather. I swore to him to abandon my birthright to the noble line of Durin in the witness of my father and Thorin and my own husband. Now all of them are gone now and it is only a worthless soul who would betray their word to the dead. I was sure that Dain would understand where I was coming from and expected him to cease trying to have me return.
“The next dwarf to come down from Erebor was not any mere messenger. Dain sent Balin to speak and reason with me and as he planned, I was powerless to turn him away as I had sworn to myself to do so with every other courier he tasked with arguing with me. I was dealt a second surprise then when Balin said that the terms of the deal had changed completely and that he recommended strongly that I agree to it. He said that Dain was offering to marry me so as to induct me back into the house of Durin. We are second cousins by blood; did you know that? We share a great-grandfather, and my grandfather was brother to his grandfather. It is not outlawed among the dwarves to marry cousins beyond firsts though there are some who think badly of the practice. I would be queen and a Durin once more and whether or not that constituted forgoing my vows would be a grey area altogether, easily bypassed by semantics should that be wished.
“At first, I was outraged. Our names together would sum up what I thought of it; do you see? Disdain. Precisely that. Then Balin explained the rationale of it to me once I had calmed enough to listen. He said to me that the marriage was one of convenience but the convenience was of grave import to the dwarves of Middle Earth. Dain held the throne in Thorin’s place by the laws of succession as the primary ruler of Erebor must be a male dwarf. With my brothers and sons dead, my grandfather’s line of succession had ended. His grand-nephew, Dain, was hence the next-in-line and instated to the throne by pure virtue of that fact. The clans who had sworn fealty to my grandfather’s line of Durin were wont to challenge Dain’s claim to the throne on my behalf in a rejection of ancient dwarven law. A civil war was not out of the question and with that I was burdened with the power of being able to prevent that completely by marrying Dain and assuming the title of Queen under the Mountain to appease and bind them to Dain’s allegiance. Once that was explained to me, there was nothing else for it. The choice was simple if there ever was one. I returned to Erebor and wedded Dain Ironfoot in a month, and the Lonely Mountain and its neighbouring territories have been at peace since. My only condition on marrying Dain was that I may adopt the epithet that brought fame and notoriety to my brother as an honour to his memory, even as it circumvents custom and I know not if he would be agreeable to it, and I am now styled Queen Dis Oakenshield, Sister to Thorin Oakenshield and Daughter of Thrain, Son of Thror.”
Dis falls silent and closes her eyes. Despite having said virtually nothing in the past quarter of an hour, Bilbo’s mouth has gone dry. “Your Majesty —”
“Dis,” Bilbo repeats, and the lack of tacking on an honorific doesn’t disconcert him for once. “Thank you for telling me all this, I’m truly grateful. Really, I am. Your brother — he was a brave and noble dwarf. One of the best dwarves…” He trails off as his thoughts begin to derail and are replaced by a tiny shrill voice screaming at him to stop talking, and ultimately crashes into verbal oblivion.
The queen looks up at him. “I’ve heard from the remaining dwarves of his company and the men of Laketown as to the way my brother treated you. There’s no need to defend his foul behaviour. I greatly suspect that it was the dragon sickness that had poisoned his thoughts to turn him against you and I, like it did our grandfather’s, and the other dwarves in Thorin’s company had been remiss of that reality or the possibility of it before that. It is not their fault as it is not yours. I have said that I don’t care much about the things that happen to a person and this is no different. I don’t think of Thorin harshly for that and I think you should not either. That is why I have told you all of this. You are a good person, Bilbo Baggins. I can see it in you like my first husband would, all that is right in this world in your eyes. In two months’ time I will be one hundred and eighty-six where many of those years were not spent in these halls. In a way you could say that I got what I’d wished for. Sometimes I think us dwarves live far too long for our own good. I have long thought the elves to be the strongest race of us all for having to live eternally. I’ve seen decent people change to scheming ones and bosom friends metamorphosing into mortal enemies that you would not recognise them at all and it was almost always thoughts like these that catalysed such transformations. Bitterness and hate. It is nigh impossible for a person to live wholly without hate though I have seen many cases of the inverse even for people as respectable as you and they never had very fulfilling lives.”
“I don’t hate Thorin,” Bilbo murmurs, fixating on his cup.
“I’m not saying you do. Not now, at least. But we can never rule out the likelihood of a tomorrow where you wake up and all you can think of is ill will and contempt for him. That has certainly been true of me many times over. I never made my peace with him even as I have made it in wake of his demise, though I did not know for sure if that was true of you. I can only hope that when you too find yourself in such a situation you will remember what I have said and judge Thorin more kindly for that. While his actions were his own he never chose his life even if he were well-suited for it. He would have made a great king had he lived.”
“But you said you don’t believe in circumstance, didn’t you?”
Dis shakes her head. “I don’t believe in a lot of things that many people take to be gospel and this just so happens to be one of them. It doesn’t make me right, but neither does it mean I’m wrong. We’re all entitled to our own beliefs. The world, at the very least, is that much fair. Fate just isn’t something that I’d consider a mitigating factor in the course of passing judgement. Certainly not when the world doesn’t function like that even as I know with all my heart it would be a much better place if it did. Much easier to forgive a person’s trespasses for being in the wrong place at the wrong time than to penalise him indiscriminately for the crime of being someone to whom things happen. It says a lot about me to hold such contradicting principles, doesn’t it? I’ve been told as such often by people younger and infinitely wiser than myself. People always believe in bending the world to fit their will when it is the other way around that is the norm. It always has been. It is the world I see when I wake every morning. Why would I look upon one person differently because fate was unkind to him? Sympathy is a difficult quality to possess, and even more difficult to exercise. Life has no qualms about leaving that person to his fate and neither should anyone else. Dain thinks otherwise. This is why he is king as I could never hope to be. It takes a certain kind of compassion to rule justly and wisely and I’m afraid that I have no pity to spare for that sort of thing. The best I can show is kindness and understanding to my people but neither of that changes the way I think. Which is unfortunate. I badly wish it did.”
Dis rises from her seat and smoothens down her furs, shaking back her hair. She holds out a hand. “I am sorry for speaking so much. It was far more than I had initially wanted to say, but you needed to hear it. My brother did not get to make amends with you before he died and I was worried that it would have affected you the same way I was. Perhaps even led you to dislike me for that. I see now that I was wrong about that. Well, I can safely say that I have never been so wrong in all my life. I wish to beg your pardon for misjudging you, and also on my brother’s behalf for the way he treated you, and I pray that we may part in friendship from here. For Thorin’s sake, and mine.”
“I…thank you, Dis.” Bilbo stands up and shakes her hand, working up a small smile. “You are very kind to have told me all this — it was everything I wanted to know and more.”
She just smiles sadly and says nothing. When she leaves, Bilbo staggers over to his bed and pulls the comforter over himself and curls up into a small ball, lying there on his side. He wants to cry, but the tears will not come, and he settles for sniffling dry and long until someone knocks at his door to tell him that dinner is ready, and he waits where he is for a few minutes longer before actually getting up to change.
The next day Bilbo is taken on a tour around the entirety of the Lonely Mountain by Balin himself. Bombur is conspicuously absent, but Bilbo thinks he overhears the stewards moaning over a commotion in the kitchens in the morning as he has his breakfast and decides that he doesn’t want to know. On the way to their first stop, they meets Dwalin in his villa where he stays with his heavily pregnant wife. The excited dwarf greets him at the door the way dwarves normally do, and Bilbo doesn’t remember too much of that before waking up inside Dwalin’s house on the sofa with a growing lump on his forehead and another on the back.
“Sorry, lad,” Dwalin mumbles. “Got a bit carried away.”
After Bilbo has left gifts and recipes for herbal remedies to treat morning sickness, they leave Dwalin’s place and head for the main mines which form up a great deal of the interior of the Lonely Mountain. Scaffolding upon scaffolding combines into a towering lattice that spirals down and down until the measureless bottom at the heart of Erebor where the Arkenstone was excavated. A small army of dwarf miners are suspended in harnesses, platforms and carts, all of which dangle from the uppermost scaffold by thick ropes and pulleys, while the miners themselves chip tirelessly away at veins of raw, untapped gold and silver. Occasionally a geode of emeralds or sapphires bleeds into the rock, and is mined with much more care and diligence by the dwarves. The clinking sound of pickaxes and chisels on stone is all around Bilbo like the chirp of metallic crickets as they descend deeper into the mines.
“Could we ride up in one of those?” Bilbo asks, pointing at what he thinks is a large bucket, in which a dwarf is scrutinising several uncut diamonds through a brass loupe.
Balin chuckles and smiles fondly. “Ah, to be young again. Why not?”
Half an hour of walking later and they reach the bottom of the scaffolding where it ends, not having been built any further than that. Rocky walls streaked with the gleam of untapped gold past them; Balin explains to Bilbo that Dain was espousing a more conservative policy with regards to the production of gold from Erebor. “It’s all economics, really,” he says. “Now the focus is not so much on amassing gold but rather only moderate gratuity with its use. It’s a rather big change, but we’re adjusting.”
A bucket-lift is lowered down to them and they are hoisted up, up and up by a master winch at the top. Bilbo has a second chance to acquaint himself once more with the natural richness buried within the Lonely Mountain, where gold flows from the walls in more ways than one. “It’s beautiful,” he sighs.
“This was my favourite thing about Erebor when I was a little dwarf-lad,” Balin tells him. He drums his fingers against the side of the bucket, eyes faraway in recollection.
His admission brings a thought quickly to Bilbo. “What was Thorin’s?” he asks as conversationally as he can make it out to be.
The collecting blurriness in Balin’s eyes dissipates instantly. He strokes his splendid beard and tugs on the end, pursing his lips. “Probably the same. Just in a different way, that’s all.” He has no need to elaborate for Bilbo to know what he means.
After they have explored the mines and the sprawling network of tunnels weaving beneath the mountain, there is still a significant portion of the morning remaining, and as such they spend it tracking down the other dwarves scattered through Erebor. They manage to locate Oin in the barracks and watch from the sidelines as he gives a dressing-down to his men for the state of their bunks. Bilbo’s not sure if he really wants to speak with Oin after that, but Balin pushes him to do so and Bilbo finds that Oin hasn’t really changed all that much even as the dwarf has grown more shouty. “I’ve to keep them on their toes,” Oin grunts. “Make ‘em move their bums. If it takes screaming their brains out their bottoms, who am I to deny them that?”
Bilbo and Balin learn that Gloin and Ori are both in a closed-door council meeting set to end its agenda at noon, so Bilbo avoids looking them up out of courtesy. He does get introduced to Gloin’s son, Gimli, as they walk past each other in the corridor and Balin points him out. Gimli is a gruff young dwarf not much older than Fili nor Kili when Bilbo first met them, with a love of whetstones and axes and fighting in general. “I was to come with Thorin initially,” Gimli grunts. “But my father prohibited it. He thought I was too young to go.”
“And a wise decision it was,” Balin says.
“I was of age. I should have come with you,” Gimli insists. “Well, I’ll find some way to prove you wrong someday.”
Bilbo briefly considers mentioning Legolas to Gimli, but thinks better of it.
Going down to Dale to see Bifur and Bofur is out of the question given the time they have left before lunch. Fortunately, Dori and Nori walk into them as they finally decide to seek out Bombur, and they engage in a good long chat over sweetmeats and mulled mead in the largest dining hall in Erebor.
“Do you still have any cram left over, by any chance?” Bilbo asks.
“Why, Master Bilbo! Ye cain’t be telling me that you’re actually missing the stuff!” Nori guffaws.
Bilbo grins. “I’ve just forgotten how it tastes like.”
“You’re lucky.” Dori nods and shakes his tankard at Bilbo. “You’ll want to keep it that way if you know what’s good for you. Two hundred years and all the mead in Erebor and I still haven’t had that fortune.”
An hour later at lunch, Bilbo discovers that the second most abundant commodity in Erebor after gold is distilled alcohol of every kind. Ale, mead, beer — if it’s fermented and capable of inebriation, the cellars of Erebor have it. He can’t help but stare bug-eyed when he catches a glimpse of the barrels stacked up to the ceiling in a large storeroom at the end of the hall in a large pile dwarfed only by the riches he had seen in the royal treasury. Bilbo makes sure to watch his intake between the different courses to preserve sobriety, but manages to impress his table mates by quaffing a hobbit-sized pint of frothy ale without suffering any noticeable side effects. Rowdy, raucous and jolly, the dwarves have Bombur chug a whole keg of beer while Bilbo watches and laughs, snorting ale out his nose.
The afternoon’s programme includes a generous amount of time for Bilbo to ride out of Erebor and down to the town of Dale. Whereas Balin is held up with his duties and apologises for not being able to follow, Ori stands in for him and accompanies Bilbo on the way down. “I’ve to make a delivery to the council,” Ori says, tapping his saddle-bag smartly. The ends of gold-tipped scrolls poke out the top of the bag. “Policies and such.”
“You’re enjoying yourself, aren’t you?” Bilbo teases.
Ori blushes and smiles broadly to match it. “It’s all I’ve ever wanted, really. I’ve never been happier.”
The town plaza is a familiar, welcomed sight. Much of it reminds Bilbo of the street markets in Bree, and even those in Hobbiton. They dismount and lead their ponies through to look at the wares spread out on wooden counters and stalls, as well as to chat with the townsfolk of Dale. Some of them are new to Dale, but many of them had come back to the homes of their grandparents and their great-grandparents to pick up their long-lost trade. Bilbo hears them out gladly; if there is one thing that brings him joy, it is learning about the things that make people happy. Every other person knows him by name and wants to shake his hand or pay him compliments or ask him home for dinner, and at the end of one avenue Bilbo has accumulated enough freebies to last him back to Bag End and more dinner invitations than he knows what to do with. Making the appropriate calculations, he estimates that he’ll finish his obligations in three months, provided that he comes down from Erebor every evening.
In the middle of town, they meet Bard of Laketown and the new Master, whom Bilbo had not met prior to reaching Erebor. They stop in a bar for a short drink, and Bilbo decides very quickly that he likes the new Master, who is good-natured, humorous, and most importantly of all, short enough for Bilbo to speak with without inclining his head too much. Whatever happened to the old Master isn’t something that he wants to know. “He wasn’t a very nice man,” Bilbo recalls thoughtfully. “You’re much better than him.”
Elric, the new Master, grins at him. “Thank you, Bilbo. It’s flattering of you to say so.”
“But true.” Bard nods. “Laketown has never been so prosperous, with much thanks to you and the assistance of the Elvenking and the King under the Mountain. There’s talk of maybe setting up a deep-water port further into the Long Lake.”
“If you can find any builder willing to build over dragon bones,” Elric reminds him.
Bard grimaces. “Well, that’s part of the problem. We’ll find a workaround soon enough. A port would be of great benefit to Laketown. Waterfront trade is a rather lucrative source of income now that the river tribes have returned.”
“What we have currently does a decent job for now, but we can discuss this back in Laketown,” Elric says. “For now, the remembrance takes top priority.” He thumbs in Bard’s direction, addressing Bilbo. “He’s to be honoured for slaying Smaug. A true hero, Bard is.”
“Hardly a hero, Elric,” Bard rebuts, “with a lucky arrow and a speaking thrush to guide the shot.”
“You must have been very brave,” Bilbo comments. Just being in the same chamber as Smaug had terrified the living daylights out of Bilbo, even if he turned it into false courage at the moment. He can’t imagine actually confronting Smaug and fighting him like Bard did.
“I’d never been more frightened.” The bowman lowers his head. “I think it might have saved me that day.”
“He’s really too modest,” Elric says in a loud whisper to Bilbo, smirking at Bard.
After they go their separate ways, Bilbo and Ori pop over to the toyshop, which Bofur is manning with the help of many assistants. “Busy day,” he says quickly, arranging his toys and dusting his shelves, wearing a grocer’s apron that has been smudged with grey spots on the front. His face lights up when he sees Bilbo. “Master Bilbo! Oh, it’s so good to see you again! Just give me a ‘mo.” Bofur kicks in a back door behind the counter, pokes his head in and hollers, “Bifur, look who’s come to visit!”
Bilbo seriously thinks, as yet another constricting hug strains his shoulders, about investing in some padded clothing for his abused body.
Their visit is not a long one, unfortunately, as business is unforgiving and Bifur is still not saying much apart from the infrequent grunt, but Bilbo promises Bofur to come down another time to chat when he is not as occupied. There is still two hours left in his allocated quota for his afternoon in Dale, so Bilbo asks Ori if he knows of a good bookshop. He is greatly pleased when Ori admits to sharing his love for books new and old, and can list the largest proprietors of books and scrolls off the top of his head.
Later, they walk their horses all the way back up to Erebor, as their ponies are of finite strength, after all, and carrying their rider’s equivalent weights of books and presents. They are dismally late for dinner, which Bilbo isn’t too bothered by. He’s too busy trying to figure out how on Middle Earth he’s going to fit all his stuff into his now-distressed pack that is close to splitting at the seams. For once, with the shelves filled with books and jars of scented oils on the dresser and everything else that his bag cannot fit in the footlocker, his room doesn’t feel starkly empty, which doesn’t make him feel as satisfied as he thinks he should.
A change settles over Erebor in the days leading up to the remembrance. The colourful tapestries are removed and replaced by dark pennants bearing the blazonries of the Lonely Mountain, the Woodland Realm and Esgaroth, and in a fourth quadrant, the sigil of a screeching eagle. From the outermost balcony of the watchposts, Bilbo can see what was the battleground being prepared with outlines and platforms and flags flying the same crests. It makes him think of Thorin’s tomb within the Lonely Mountain itself, a large crypt empty save for the Arkenstone. He’d been there at the sealing, watched the large cinderblock stones grating into place and the molten gold poured into the cracks to caulk the coffin shut and the laying of Orcrist upon it, flashing in the darkness of the tomb. He’s heard that since then they’d carved out a statue of Thorin in his likeness, and positioned it to stand at the forefront of the coffin with Orcrist in its hands. It’s the closest thing to a portrait that Bilbo has to go on and with that in mind he puts off asking around for an actual one. Whether or not it’s because he just doesn’t want to talk about Thorin isn’t relevant; being a bother, even a slight one, is the last thing he wants to be to the dwarves, even if they don’t seem to have a problem making references to Thorin in every other sentence.
The night before the remembrance, the original company of dwarves plus Bilbo gather in a small pantry that is often used by stewards desiring a siesta. Everyone but Gandalf is there, though no one makes any comment about the wizard’s absence. Bilbo had asked Balin earlier that day if Gandalf would be coming to the remembrance, but the dwarf admitted that they had not had any word from him since his short-lived visit months ago. “We asked him then, but he said that he would get back to us with his answer,” Balin said. “He never did. I do hope he’s alright.”
The dinner that they have is a small and simple one, just like the night they met in Bag End for the first time. Bilbo notes that the food even vaguely resembles the provisions he usually keeps in his well-stocked larder back home, instead of the rich meats and grains of Erebor. It is a modest affair that involves merrymaking and conversation, and Bilbo is genuinely disappointed at the end of it that they don’t make a performance out of washing up. The joke about Thorin turning up late doesn’t get made, even as Bilbo feels it building in the air. Odd. He never thought that dwarves could be so tactful. Before they retire for the night, they pour a round of mead, a pint a person.
Dwalin raises his tankard solemnly. “To Fili.”
“And Kili,” Balin adds, raising his.
“To Thorin Oakenshield,” Dori says, lifting his high in the air, prompting everyone else to raise their own.
Bilbo’s stomach churns but a strange sense of calm overrides him as he joins in, murmuring their names, and flushes it all out with the sharp rush of mead down his throat. When they all sit down, he realises that he hasn’t said anything since the start of the dinner and is no mood to break that streak, so he closes his hands around his tankard and rolls it between them, listening to rehearsed panegyrics around the table and trying not to mentally craft out one of his own. He has no need to; he does not expect to speak tomorrow at the ceremony, nor will he even if asked. It’s better this way for him and everyone, because there are some things he knows that should not be put into words and said out loud, least of all by him, not when he's already let go of so much more than he thought he could.
He cannot sleep.
Bilbo steps cautiously through a minefield of snoring dwarves and nods at a sleepy Kili keeping watch and wanders through the night-darkened hallways of the place he never imagined they would actually reach. It’s not at all what he thought it would be, with its scorched floors and ruined walls, skeletons in every room, a palace of oddities. He supposes that the mountains of gold underneath the actual mountain itself would count for something seeing as one-fourteenth of it now belongs to him, if he had it in him to care for it at all. The share is already his, anyway, as far as he’s concerned, with the Arkenstone clinking against the ring in his pocket.
He walks without thinking of where he’s actually headed to. The water closets are unsurprisingly out of order, the kitchens are ruined, and there’s hardly a view to be had on the balconies. Around the radius of the Lonely Mountain, the ecology is rough and scarred, the ghost town of Dale visible from where they are like a memento mori of all great kingdoms in Arda.
Bilbo comes to a stop. He watches. He waits.
Thorin is in a room where part of the ceiling has caved in, from disuse or besiegement, exposing a greater part of the sky. He is not moving. The dwarf’s profile in the moonlight seems ephermeral, diaphanous, almost like something caught between existence and nonexistence and prone to winking out forever with the slightest bit of disturbance.
He jumps, startled. “Th — Thorin?”
Without turning around, the dwarf says, “It is late. You should get some rest for tomorrow.”
“I couldn’t sleep,” Bilbo says truthfully. He holds his hands behind his back and scuffs at the floor with his feet, looking down at them. Being alone with Thorin makes him feel a sort of liberty to confess his innermost secrets to him, even more so when looking at him in the moonlight. Which is particularly a bad course of action considering that Thorin has been turning the entire of Erebor upside down looking for the jewel in his pocket.
Thorin turns his head fractionally, such that Bilbo still cannot see his eyes. “Stand with me?”
Slowly, Bilbo lets his feet carry him over to Thorin’s side, where he stands and looks at the same thing as Thorin. A week after Durin’s Day and the moon has started to reform, a drifting crescent sending beams of silvery light through endless sky. “This was my room,” Thorin says quietly. A layer of moss creeps in through the aperture in the roof. Rubble is strewn across a badly-corroded bed frame. “I grew up here.”
Bilbo carefully runs through the words in his head. “It’s very spacious.” He runs them through a second time and wants to smack himself.
But Thorin makes an amused sound. “Yes, I suppose it is.” His grin is faint, but there.
They watch dark clouds drift over minutes worth of sky, not saying anything to each other. Bilbo holds back a cough to preserve the silence between them. He has long known that the lack of speech says more than anything where it comes to him and Thorin.
He moves a listless foot. The Arkenstone rolls against his hip and Bilbo has to take several calming breaths. “Have you given any thought to their offer?” he asks tentatively. “The Elvenking and the men, I mean.”
Thorin’s expression does not change, though Bilbo knows the dangerous flash in his eyes well. “They will not have anything. Erebor belongs to the dwarves and the dwarves alone. Men and elves have no business here, and even less of a claim to our treasure. We will never submit to them.”
“We can’t fight them,” Bilbo reasons. “Even it were all of us, and I’m not very good at fighting.”
“You won’t have to fight anyone. You will be safe here. I’ve sent word to our allies in the Iron Mountains. They’ll be here soon; you have nothing to fear.” The tone in his voice is so sure and reassuring that Bilbo loses all hope of posing any further objections. Thorin puts a hand on his shoulder, turning Bilbo to face him. With his other hand he cants Bilbo’s head to the moon, studying his face. His eyes are of the most ancient, saddest blue. “I swear that I will protect you no matter what, even if my own life is to be forfeit. You have my word.”
Bilbo cannot turn away from him or break their contact, so he closes his eyes to avoid looking at Thorin like the way he is, lest he pulls the Arkenstone from his pocket and hand it to him and beg his forgiveness. In place of that, his whole body starts to shake. Tears stream down his cheeks, and he is powerless to halt them or wipe them away. “I don’t want to die,” he gasps. “Thorin, please…I don’t want to — you can’t — I can’t do this anymore…!”
Slowly and with heartbreaking care, Thorin brings Bilbo closer to him, snugging him against his chest and allowing Bilbo to cry into the lapel of his robe. Bilbo registers distantly that Thorin has put his face on Bilbo’s head, and is holding him with one arm around his body. Bilbo wants to stay like this, here and forever, in a moment where all misgivings and betrayals are rendered inconsequential, and blessing can be evoked from a single touch. But at the same time this is how he knows that it cannot be, not when the deed has been done and there’s another that must follow in light of what Thorin has told him. “It’s alright,” Thorin says. “I’m here, Bilbo.”
“I’m sorry,” he whispers against Thorin. “I’m so sorry.”
“Everything will be alright,” Thorin murmurs into his hair. “You have to trust me.”
The worst part is that Bilbo does trust him, far more than anyone else he’s ever met, which makes this nearly impossible to do. “Yes,” he lies, and thinks before it can crush him, goodbye.
In the end, he doesn’t make anything special of his choice of clothes for the remembrance. He wears what he always has, but makes sure to tuck in his mithril shirt before putting his vest on. He dons Sting for courage and pins Clarissë’s brooch to the front of his waistcoat. All in all, it’s a good look for him.
It takes place in the morning immediately after breakfast. A bouquet of daisies in his hands, Bilbo follows a small contingent of dwarves, in which the rest of the Company are present as well. King Dain and Queen Dis head their movement and lead them down to a large hillock overseeing the battleground, where the elves and men are already in their places. The whole knoll, now covered with wild grass and sedge, is decorated by a pastiche of flowers, velvet and dark banners.
Before them stretches the unmolested flatland of the battleground. The wind bends the weeds that grow where fighting and killing had once taken place for reasons nobler and greater than greed and ambition. Bilbo blinks as the wind stings his eyes, sniffing.
The ceremony itself is not too long — recollections are made by a few who had fought in the battle, spaces of silence unfold, and speeches are given by the respective leaders of the three different factions. The eagles are the only group who do not have a representative, though they are mentioned frequently in the speeches. As is Gandalf, who is also not present.
Bilbo stands through the length of the remembrance and maintains his gaze below the level of his eyes. He keeps his back straight, his hands clasped around the flowers at his waist.
A large bronze bell is rolled in on wheels. Several dwarves carry up a large marble tablet with golden letters inscribed on it and place it before the bell. Dain announces that the tablet contains the names of the fallen and the missing, as is oft of war. Some more words are said. Bilbo hears maybe half of them and processes even less. The bell tolls five times, one for each year that has passed, and they observe a moment of silence.
Later, when the formal observance is concluded and Dain declares five days of mourning, Bilbo shuffles over to the tablet, which has already been surrounded by a dense ring of flowers. Names are written in three columns — one for each faction save the eagles, of which none had perished in the war. At the very top of the column dedicated to the dwarves, he sees it in gold. Thorin II Oakenshield. He wants to reach out and touch it and trace the letters of his name, but respectfulness forbids. Bilbo adds his daisies to the lot and steps back. He doesn’t know what to say or what else to do.
Someone moves behind him and touches his arm. “We can see it now, if you wish,” Balin murmurs over his shoulder.
Bilbo’s voice is so soft he almost cannot hear himself. “Yes. Let’s go.”
The sepulchre is dark and large, way too empty for Bilbo to feel comfortable in, especially with his dislike of more space than necessary, though he thinks he would find a way to feel uncomfortable with it even if it were not. There is a strong smell of dust about the place; Bilbo quietly suggests to Balin to have the place aired out to improve ventilation. He would like it, he almost says, and he knows that Balin can see that. The dwarf smiles benignly at him. “Of course.”
When they finally reach the tomb, Bilbo looks at the statue of Thorin for a long moment. He was on the right track with his portrait, Bilbo thinks, looking over it. The face and body are most definitely Thorin’s, and the sculptor had been a good one, capturing the resolution in his face and eyes well. Bilbo keeps looking at it. “You never found his body?” he asks softly, the same question he asked five years ago down to the precise wording.
Balin doesn’t move as he too watches the statue. As with the question, his answer doesn’t change. “Many people died that day. To find one person…” He says no more after that.
Bilbo understands. He nods, blinking through his tears. “I would like to go home now,” he whispers.
On the second day of mourning, Bilbo packs only what is absolutely necessary for a linear trip back to Hobbiton. He packs all his books and scrolls and maps, but leaves his clothes out for the last day when he has everything set in order. At lunch, he is accosted by many of the ten remaining dwarves of Thorin’s original company and is pleaded with to stay longer. Their reasons are varied and some of them valid, and because Bilbo didn’t just spend close to three years on the move to stay in Erebor for a little over a week, he decides to stay a while longer.
There isn’t much to do in Erebor besides reading and sightseeing, though the two lose their appeal quickly. He preoccupies himself with other things, like speaking with the dwarf children and reading them stories, and getting Legolas to get up the courage to talk to Gimli. “He’s not going to eat you or anything,” Bilbo says patiently. “Look, I know his father; I could ask him for you —”
“No.” The elf shakes his head fiercely. “This is a matter that requires precision and delicacy. Your assistance will not be required.”
Bilbo shrugs. Another week later, Legolas still hasn’t spoken to Gimli, and loses his chance entirely when the wood elves return to the Mirkwood. Maybe next time, he mouths at Legolas as the elves troop out.
Time creeps up on him and surprises him with its elasticity the way it did in many of the places that he has lived in. Erebor returns to normal activity within a month and it becomes clear to Bilbo that the dwarves are doing everything possible to extend his stay. Ori asks him to help out with archiving the royal libraries, and as small as they are, the task still involves a great deal of ancient books and scrolls that Bilbo would have to be mad to pass up to read, and that manages to burn a whole month on its own. Then Bofur and Bifur and Bombur invite him down to Dale to see their toyshop, and Bilbo lets himself be talked into learning how to carve dolls and toys. The toys get larger with each successive one that he manages to attain a certain level of skill in making, and eventually Bilbo draws the line at helping Bofur to carve a life-sized wooden lion out of a log that looks thicker than a troll’s waist. Unsurprisingly, after being turned down, Bofur does nothing of the sort.
Dwalin’s son arrives just as the season changes, and Bilbo has the honour of planning the baby shower, the logistics and administrative details of which turn out to be the most tedious thing he has ever done in years. He handwrites invitations and dreams up the decorations, thinks of whether or not the drapes will clash with the carpeting and asks Bifur for advice, which does not turn out fruitful, but the party shoots off without a hitch, and Bilbo has the satisfaction of watching his friends celebrate the birth of Dwalin’s firstborn. After which, he gets so much beer into his system that he wakes up in the villa the next afternoon with a cloudy recollection of relieving himself from the top of the front battlements of Erebor. That the guards can no longer keep a straight face when they walk past him is all that Bilbo needs to refrain from investigating any further.
Other things that demand his presence continue to flow in. Suddenly, he doesn’t have all that much time to read as he is summoned to council meetings, and when he asks about this Bilbo learns that they have unanimously agreed to name him ambassador to the Shire. “It’s a worthy cause, Bilbo,” Balin says. “You should be proud; you’re the bridge that joins the east and the west.” Bilbo can’t think of any way to challenge this, and resigns himself to sitting in on their meetings. The fact that many of the things they discuss have little to do with the affairs of the Shire is not lost on him, but he never gets the opportunity to point this out.
Meanwhile, as his packed bag slowly unpacks itself again and Marianne gets put in the main stables with the rest of the ponies, Bilbo starts going down to Thorin’s tomb more often, usually with some food and his sketchpad in tow, almost like a picnic. Bilbo finishes his sketch of Thorin at long last and coils it up with a deep sense of satisfaction a year and a half in the making. Aside from that, he changes the flowers laid next to Orcrist regularly and speaks out loud about his travels and adventures as if Thorin could hear him. He feels foolish at times, with the only sounds in the chamber being the echos of his own pontifications and a thin current of air blowing overhead — Bilbo makes a mental note to thank Balin for that — but he keeps up the practice, speaking until his tongue tires and his throat gives out and there are no more words to be said for that day.
Bilbo talks about anything and everything, from the insignificant to the life-changing, from the carnies whom had picked him up from the get-go to performing in Rivendell to breaking his ankle at the fringe of the Mirkwood. “…and Mister Radagast and Mister Beorn found me after that and fixed up my ankle. Would you believe it!” He chuckles at the memory. If the pause between his stories brooks some form of explanation, it’s because he needs to catch his breath or take a drink to quench his thirst or simply remember what to say next. Certainly not because he’s forgets and remembers in cycles that there’s no one there to reply to him.
These are the things that he tells Thorin. Not I miss you or I think of you every day or I wish we could have at least said goodbye. Though he talks to Thorin as he never could when he was alive, he treads carefully around the biggest one of all, I never said I loved you. He talks and talks until he finds himself folded over the empty stone coffin with an ache in his back and his face wet with tears, and only stops when the dwarves get wind that he’s been sleeping in Thorin’s crypt and insist on taking turns to chaperon his visits. After that, Bilbo says considerably less to Thorin in earshot and whispers more often, now that there is finally someone there who might hear, and worse, possibly reply.
The months add up slowly. His fifty-sixth birthday arrives and Bilbo is mock-kidnapped by Dwalin and Bofur and Bifur for his surprise party that night, which is a terrifying experience for him as he doesn’t see it coming at all and he ends up breaking a vase over Bifur’s masked head before they manage to truss him up and subdue him, kicking and biting, into a sack. Then, Bilbo has several frightening minutes struggling about and shouting for help, and he could slap himself for not having his ring or Sting on him, until he is dumped out onto his bum at the head of a long table to a collective shout of surprise rolling all around the main dining hall.
“You could have just told me!” Bilbo gasps as they untie his wrists. “I would’ve come!”
Bofur smirks at him. “And where would be the fun in that?”
Two courses of meats and a serving of ale later, the highlight is wheeled out from the kitchens. His cake is a marvel of confectionery science — Bilbo is sure that magic has to be involved somehow, just by looking at it. The cake is bigger than he is, with layers upon layers of sponge flan encased with thick icing, and set into it is a shower of raspberries and blueberries and gooseberries and far too many kinds of fruit for Bilbo to comprehensively name. He has no doubt that no oven on Middle Earth would be capable of baking such a cake, and his suspicions prove true when Ori hands him a card that comes with the cake, which reads Compliments from Gandalf in loopy letters.
The party lasts well into the night, and morning comes around quickly once the haze of drunkenness lifts from Bilbo’s head and he can walk straight again. There’s an embarrassing moment in the hallway as he heads back to his room where he accidentally bowls Dis over when he isn’t paying too much attention to where he’s walking. It is only after copious apologising on Bilbo’s part and a matching volume of it’s alright, I’m fine on Dis’s does Bilbo relent to leave her on her own again.
He only revisits his plans to finally return to Bag End when Gandalf appears at Erebor once more nearly half a year after the remembrance to rescue him from the dwarves. Bilbo greets him in the foyer to thank him for sending the cake over. “Sounds like you had quite the journey here, Mister Bilbo!” Gandalf says, peering down at him. “My cousin Radagast asked me to pass on his greetings to you for him.”
“Did he say that exactly?”
Gandalf smiles. “Well, I admit it wasn’t as refined as what I actually said, but it’s the thought that counts.”
“You missed the ceremony,” Bilbo says accusingly. “You should have come.”
“Yes, I am sorry I was not there,” Gandalf says and twirls his staff. “I had some important business to attend to. Which still hasn’t been resolved as of yet, mind you. This is not a social visit, Mister Bilbo; I will be heading out for Rohan once I have a word with the council of Erebor.”
Bilbo’s face falls in dismay. “You’re leaving again? But you just arrived!”
“Well, there’s that saying about time and tide and such. I am a busy man, Mister Bilbo!”
"Can I come with you? I mean,” he adds, “if we’re going the same way. For old times’ sake.”
“You’re leaving Erebor? Could you possibly be returning to the Shire, at long last?”
Bilbo nods. “It’s been very long, and…well, I kind of miss it.” He spreads his hands. “I want to go home! Hobbiton, I mean. I’ve been wanting to for a while, actually.”
“Might it be that you’ve sated your wanderlust for now?” Gandalf chuckles good-naturedly. “Or could you be returning for good?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Bilbo replies. “I suppose we’ll see where I go from here.”
Stroking his beard, Gandalf nods. “I will be able to see you as far as Laketown, after which we will part ways. I shall be taking a boat south of the lake to continue on to Rohan. I believe you should be able to make your way back on your own from there at your own pace.”
“Rohan?” Bilbo is sorely tempted. He wonders about the other places he hasn’t seen yet, like Lothlorien and Edoras and Minas Tirith, all of which he has ached to visit at least once on his journey. It is only the thought of not going back to Hobbiton in time to secure Bag End against what happened the last time he’d left that keeps him from asking Gandalf to take him too. “I…yes, that would be lovely,” he says.
They leave together two days after that, amid tears and fanfare and pleas for them to stay a little while longer; Bilbo lets Gandalf do all the talking for him, mistrusting his own resolution like he knows he should. Though Bilbo has lesser time than he’s used to having when making his farewells and packing up his things, he manages it anyway with help from Ori, who out of the company of dwarves is the one who most wants Bilbo to stay at Erebor, possibly forever, but is physically incapable of turning down a request from Bilbo. It doesn’t stop Ori from continually dropping hints of how Bilbo’s life would be so much better off if he would stay, and how the hobbit’s constant presence is a blessing to all of them. That the dwarf looks at him with eyes wide and pleading whenever they make eye contact is another reason why Bilbo forces himself to concentrate on shirts and shoes and books. The last thing he needs is compulsion on top of temptation.
The night before their departure, he meets each of the original company to say goodbye with promises to return in the years to come. This is not exclusive to the living dwarves, as Bilbo too goes down to the crypts where Fili and Kili are interred. He brings lilies for Fili, tulips for Kili, and arranges the flowers carefully into wreaths on their stone coffins before stepping back to say goodbye.
Bilbo has to physically ready himself to see Thorin’s tomb one last time, as if going in to a war zone. He almost manages to leave within five minutes of arrival after paying his tributes, but then he makes the mistake of glancing up at the face of Thorin’s statue standing over the tomb. It is well into an hour when Bilbo is seated cross-legged in his usual spot, talking to Thorin about his worries for the road back home, concerns about living in the Shire, and not being able to see Erebor again. “You have to take care of yourself, you know?” Bilbo murmurs, twiddling his thumbs. “I’m going home, I won’t be able to come down here from tomorrow on. I…I’ll miss you.”
Thorin’s eyes, far from blue and cast in cold metal, look over and beyond him forever, at increate things which Bilbo cannot know and cannot see. Nothing more can and will be said, and he is stranded on his own in a floating sea of silence.
Bilbo wakes early next morning slumped against Thorin’s empty coffin. There is a dry taste in his mouth and his cheeks are salty, and he is very, very, very late.
They are seen off at the gate. Dain and Dis are there, in addition to the original ten dwarves of Thorin’s company. The dwarves try to make a gift of a massive chest of gold, which takes Dori and Bifur combined to lug from a carriage before it is presented to Bilbo. He refuses flatly. It takes much stubborn negotiation and Bilbo pointing out that he likes his pony and has no wish to flatten her to reach a compromise of the dimensions of the casket Bilbo finally accepts, a small one which he leaves at the public hospital in Dale once they have left Erebor.
He has an even harder time convincing the staff not to name a ward after him, at which point Bilbo throws his hands up in surrender and lets Gandalf do the talking, which always seems to solve the problem no matter what it is.
After passing Dale, they ride on tirelessly until nightfall overtakes them and they are standing on the outskirts of the Long Lake. Laketown is speckled with tiny pinpricks of light, the outlines of its houses and wharves dark shapes on the water. They ride in and leave their steeds at a stable outside the town. Asking around for a while, Gandalf manages to get Bilbo lodging at an inn for the night before leaving Laketown immediately. “You could stay for one night, you know,” Bilbo says, trying to convince him.
Gandalf shakes his head. “I’m in a hurry. There is someone I must see as soon as I can.”
Bilbo stands at the pier to see him off in a small boat before going back to his room at the inn. Constructed to house men, the room continues the tradition of being much larger than Bilbo would like, but he’s too tired to give it a second thought and collapses into bed, dropping off within minutes.
The next morning, he is awakened by a knock on his door. Answering it, Bilbo is greeted by a courier passing on an invitation to breakfast at the residence of the Master of Laketown. How Elric found out that he had arrived is a mystery to Bilbo, but he accepts out of politeness.
The Master of Laketown lives in a house not much bigger than the others, a single storey high with a small room in the back, comfortably housing just one person. There is a homely feel about Elric’s house that pleases Bilbo when he steps in to assess the place. The welcome mat at the doorstep adds a simple aesthetic touch of quaintness; Bilbo thinks about buying one for Bag End himself.
In addition to the Master, Bard is there as well to welcome him at breakfast. “How did you know?” Bilbo asks. He’s growing a bit tired of being left out of the loop when it comes to these things.
“Gandalf,” Bard says, and that explains everything.
Once they have eaten, Elric tells Bilbo to stay as long as he wishes. “If you ever need anything, you have but to ask,” he says.
Bilbo takes to exploring the many boulevards that make up the central square of Laketown, much of which has been rebuilt further down the Long Lake. There is little left of the original town, which remains in the distance much like Dale once had been prior to its reconstruction. Wood has been largely replaced by stone at the foundations of the new town, and Bilbo notes that the houses are much bigger and sturdier than before. He asks a guard about this and is told that the new Master had decreed for the town to be fireproofed in that manner, making it much more resilient in the event of an attack. “He is a wise man,” the guard says, nodding. “And well-loved by all of us.”
While exploring, Bilbo starts to think that there might have been some truth to Legolas’s words when they had passed it by on the way to Erebor. Laketown offers a new experience like many of the places before it, but the way of life there is standard enough for Bilbo to think that he hasn’t missed much. Much of the business that takes place in Laketown occurs down at the docks, where fishermen haul in the morning catch and traders from up the lake cry their wares, selling spice and textiles and precious metals.
In the afternoon, Bilbo talks his way on board a fishing craft sailing out to the deepest part of the Long Lake, close to where the skeleton of Smaug lies. He hasn’t fished since his youth in the Shire, and has a ball of a time relearning how to prepare and fix bait to a line, and then throwing it out and pulling in a fish. One particular snapper pulls back so hard that he falls into the river, where he spends a couple of seconds splashing about until the other fishermen hoist him back up.
Dripping, soaking wet, Bilbo returns to his room to change, and spends the next day with a cold stuffed up his nose. It’s not all bad, though; he grins at the snapper on his wall and reaches for another tissue, wrapping the blanket tighter around his shivering body.
“How much?” Bilbo asks, pointing at a lariat made of bloodred coral.
“Thirty coppers,” the merchant replies.
Bilbo pays the man and tucks the lariat away into his bag with the rest of the gifts he’s acquired. He’s started to think of collecting trinkets and presents from so far out east to bring back for the hobbitlings in the Shire when he returns, which he remembers liking quite a lot. He could have a housewarming party or something similar for all his nephews and nieces and anyone else who would attend, assuming that they still remember who he is. On second thought, perhaps that won’t be too much of a problem — the last time he’d been gone for so long, they’d remembered him, all right. The Sackville-Bagginses had seen to that nicely.
He wanders the docks and speaks with the merchants, swapping anecdotes and adventures and tales. He hears from one who had actually set foot in Mordor, and now wears a prosthetic in place of said foot. The merchant lifts his robe to flash it proudly, much to Bilbo’s disturbance.
Bilbo looks down to the end of the pier, squinting. He can see the Lonely Mountain, now aflame with orange light from the setting sun. A flock of birds glide towards it in a dotted V-formation.
Turning back to from where he came, he accidentally knocks into someone. A basket falls to the wooden docks, spilling turnips and carrots and tomatoes everywhere. He bends down quickly to help pick everything up, saying, “I am so, so sorry! I should have been more careful, I don’t know what I was —”
As Bilbo glances at the person he has bumped in to, he sees up his hood. Eyes, blue, alight with life, look down at him. Solid cheekbones and a long, dark beard. Bilbo drops the turnip in his hand. He suddenly cannot feel his fingers.
In essence, it is a good thing that the world seems to blur around him for a second. Bilbo has that one precious second to look at Thorin, convince himself that he isn’t going crazy or seeing things, before Thorin spins around and abandons his vegetables and Bilbo, setting off at a dead sprint up the docks and back into the streets.
“Wait!” Bilbo cries, chasing after him. All he can see is the back of Thorin’s hood, a sky-blue garment that is buffeted about as the dwarf dashes through the streets like a whirlwind, zigzagging through human traffic and dodging around street stalls. Bilbo runs faster than he knows that he’s capable of sustaining for longer than a minute, pushing himself to catch up with the fleeing dwarf. “Thorin, wait!” he shouts again. Thorin keeps on running. Puffing, sprinting, Bilbo frogleaps over a hay cart, slides under another, and he is perhaps ten feet away from Thorin when he steps into a shallow pothole and falls flat on his front, banging his knees against the road. “Ow!” he gasps.
Then, as his vision struggles to reassert itself, there is someone crouching in front of him. There are arms reaching under his and lifting him to his feet. He is still woefully unbalanced and has to be supported, but then a voice says to him “Are you alright?” and it is concerned and gentle and, most of all, so familiar that Bilbo nearly breaks down into tears at the sound of it.
“Thorin,” Bilbo whimpers, leaning against him and struggling to keep his face in sight. “Thorin…Thorin —” The hood is fully down now, giving Bilbo a complete view of him. His eyes, now heavy-lidded; his coarse beard; his dark head — all too real to be a figment of his imagination. Not this close-up and intimate, not when it’s happening right in front of him. He quivers like a live wire against Thorin’s body, into which he fits like all those times they had been alone and so close together, the world dissolves and he doesn’t know what to believe anymore. These are the things that Bilbo will remember afterwards in trickles and snips: the sunlit curve of Thorin’s face above his, his cloth shirt, sword arm and sleeve, a smell of home (Thorin’s, his) and crying into his chest, just saying his name over and over again.
Thorin’s house is a quaint little shack at the furthest borough of Laketown where the town reaches in to the littoral zone of the Long Lake. Few people save for construction workers and odd-job holders live in that area, which is one of the few places that Bilbo has not yet visited out of the impression that there would be little of interest there. The universe has a terrible sense of irony, Bilbo thinks obtusely as he is helped inside.
He doesn’t resist Thorin as he is moved around by him, lets his limbs be manoeuvred into place like a puppet on a string. Bilbo feels estranged from his own body even as his thoughts are awhirl, and he lets Thorin direct him into the bedroom and sit him on the bed. His knees are bleeding, he knows, but he cannot bring himself to pay any attention to that. All the while he stares blankly in front of him, thinking of nothing, while Thorin goes into the bathroom and brings out a basin and some towels and starts mopping up the blood on his knees. When he finally looks at Thorin, his stomach twists in his gut as though a knife has been thrust into it.
Thorin just looks very, very tired. He has a moist towel wrapped around his right hand and is holding Bilbo’s knee with the other as he cleans it. Bilbo watches him wordlessly. Everything about this would seem unremarkable to a person watching at the periphery when it could not be further from the truth. Thorin presses bandages over the gashes, ties them tight and neat, and snips off the free ends. Then, he leaves the bedroom for a while and returns with a cup of tea. He hands it to Bilbo and sits in a chair near the door, his eyes directed at Bilbo’s face.
Nothing is said for a good ten minutes, and a crossfire of speechlessness unfolds between them. Bilbo’s palms are numb, tingling from the perceived warmth of the cup in his hands. Thorin inhales, and exhales deeply, closing his eyes.
His eyes flick open. He doesn’t say anything, just looks at Bilbo.
“It — it is you, isn’t it? Thorin?” Bilbo asks, to confirm what he already knows is true.
A long moment of inaction, then the dwarf stands up and walks over to him. Bilbo opens his mouth as Thorin reaches out towards him, but Thorin simply takes the cup from him. “It’s getting cold,” he murmurs, turning to leave the room. “I’ll make you a new one —”
Bilbo grabs his elbow, suddenly desperate. “Please. Don’t…don’t leave.” Other things he wants to say and ask well up in his throat, but he keeps swallowing them down. It is getting hard to continue speaking.
Thorin tenses at his touch. He angles his head to slide his gaze to Bilbo. His threadbare shirt is appallingly loose around his muscular body. It makes him look small and forlorn, and it nearly breaks Bilbo’s heart to see him like this. Bilbo stands up shakily, ignoring the pain in his legs and keeping his hand on Thorin. “Bilbo,” Thorin says, low and quiet, and it is all Bilbo will let him say before he lurches up without warning to kiss him.
The cup shatters on the floor next to their feet and with powerful, surprising force, Thorin’s arms close around him quickly, gathering him up into himself and Bilbo kisses and kisses him like a catharsis. Wet, hot contact, rough facial hair itching against his chin, a bit of teeth and tongue, and half-sobs between breaths while Thorin hesitates, then gives in with nips at the corners of his mouth. Crying has never felt so good, has never been so needed before in Bilbo’s life and it is too good for him to think about even stopping. He is sobbing into Thorin’s mouth and all over his beard, but neither of them are paying it any attention. Thorin moans past his cheek, burying his fingers into Bilbo’s hair and combing them out, pressing in his palm at the nape of his neck to hold his head in place, then he moves his hands to Bilbo’s shoulder blades, molding him even closer.
Bilbo mouths soundless words over Thorin’s lips, disconsolate, and when Thorin mouths back over his skin, Bilbo finally knows what utter sorrow is. “Thorin,” he says, soft and vulnerable, like he always felt around him. They continue kissing. Bilbo slips his tongue past Thorin’s lips, drops it deep and heavy into his mouth, and whines in his throat. He moves a shaking hand down Thorin’s torso, slow, hooking his fingers under his shirt, unable to prevent himself from doing so any longer. Thorin follows him with his eyes, murmuring indistinctly, but he makes no effort to stop Bilbo from hiking up his shirt, even lowers his head to let it be pulled off him, then seals his lips back to Bilbo’s.
“I,” he says uselessly, and helps Bilbo undress himself without another sound, and they both ease to the bed like a strange sort of dance, still holding each other and kissing as though it were the last night of the world. Bilbo lies down first, not remembering any of it, his skin damp and warm where Thorin is touching him, then the bedframe creaks as Thorin’s weight is added on top of him, and it feels like they are one, this cherished contact of his body with Thorin’s, but not quite and not exactly and it’s still not close enough, not after having worlds between them and spending what feels like lifetimes apart, and they cannot be allowed to be separated again like they were before all this, never again. Bilbo gasps as Thorin flexes a palm against his stiffening cock, twists his body to kiss Thorin’s right nipple, his lips seeping into the hollow above his sternum, over his bobbing apple, then the underside of his jaw, and Thorin cranes his neck to let him, then he looks back down, pressing a kiss to each fluttering eyelid.
“I thought,” Bilbo whispers, and then, “You,” and “Why?” because he doesn’t understand and doesn’t think he ever will, before he makes a noise he has never made before, raw and full of despair and beyond help, reaching out to grip Thorin around his ribs and bring his full weight down on him, Thorin’s mouth to his, as Thorin holds on to his shoulders, moving tender, slow fingertips over his skin. Thorin jerks against him, just once, returns to the fierce kissing, rolls over beside Bilbo as Bilbo struggles to get near again, and it hurts and hurts for Bilbo to be so close to him as he never was, but he wants this more than anything in the world and please let this be real, thinks it with every fibre of his being and every cell in his body and every otherworldly thump of his heart, and pushes harder against him in unequivocal, total surrender, opening himself up as a sacrifice to proffer the final proof that this is happening to him, lips moving rapidly to shape the words please please please at the tip of Thorin’s breastbone, for all they cannot reclaim and all that was never said.
“You, oh, oh,” Thorin is murmuring remorsefully into his hair, lowering kisses onto his scalp as he snakes his arms tighter around Bilbo’s shoulders and stays them where they are on him, unyielding. Bilbo holds still, fearing to open his eyes in dread of what will behold them, and sees with his hands the dwarf with whom he is making love. He touches the places which he has never seen, touches those which he has, and presses his face into his ribs and puts his mouth on Thorin’s weathered body, thinks about burning this moment forever into his mind like a branding, like dried rose petals squeezed between the pages of a book, and it might as well be so when Thorin’s chin digs into his forehead and scrapes roughly across his skin, leaving a burning itch in its wake.
Bilbo opens his stinging eyes, sightless with tears that warp light into glaring halos at the corners of his vision, and he grabs at Thorin’s sinewy back, his palms planing into the thick curve of his deltoids, into the divots of his spine where they feel like they belong. Bilbo bites his lip, a whimper escaping his lips, trying not to shake while Thorin kisses his face from the crown of his forehead to the tip of his chin. “Bilbo,” he says again, hollowly, like he’s remembering something from a season far away and forgotten, much too terrible for Bilbo to listen to, so lost and beyond salvation, and Bilbo kisses him once more and comes right up against him, slicking warmth between their naked bodies. He doesn’t release Thorin, preferring it like this, to cry piteously over him and wishing to meld right into him like water permeating a suit of armour, because Bilbo doesn’t know if he can take such grief any longer without his tiny, fragile body giving way.
“Thorin,” Bilbo sobs. He will not let him go, will not risk letting him go again, for a second time would all but be unthinkable. All that he had thought and never said in the empty tomb beneath the Lonely Mountain finds its way to his frantic, moving lips, half-formed and airless, unable to materialise in the common air that they now share. His handhold on Thorin pins the dwarf to himself, the way a drowning man clings to a floating log, and he digs his teeth into Thorin’s collarbone completely outside his own volition, muffling his own cries of anguish, terrified of the things he might say.
The taste of Thorin floods Bilbo’s mouth, the tang of salt and woodsmoke and copper, and Thorin hisses, arches his back, and a second wave of pulsing, liquid heat spreads across their bellies, until they are trembling, curling up into each other, with Thorin kissing his forehead while Bilbo weeps into his heart, his strong, beating, living heart proclaiming the song of life through bone and skin and muscle, and he seeks the strength to say the words for conviction, quaking against the only person who has shown him what it is to wander and be truly, hopelessly lost. “It is you,” Bilbo whispers. “Oh, it is, it is you.”
Bilbo awakes later in the night. He shifts a little bit, addled by sleep, and discovers that there is hairy skin pressed against the curve of his bare back; Bilbo moves his hand to reach behind him and discovers that there is another one holding it tenderly. The weight of an arm anchors his pale, naked body to the bed, and another pillowed underneath his shoulder, and there is rhythmic breathing that he’s come to associate with deep sleep in his hair. There is a soft mouth placed gently at the back of his head, unmoving. Oh, Bilbo thinks, closing his eyes again.
He sleeps more soundly than he ever has in years.
The next time Bilbo wakes up, he is alone. The blanket has been draped over his unclothed body, the ends pushed in snugly around him neatly to cover him completely up to his chin. He sits up in bed, blinking, and looks around at the room he is in. There is nothing he can identify that might suggest that Thorin’s lived here all along — a small table, clothes hooks on the wall, and a wardrobe. Nothing strikes him as out of the ordinary, that he might imagine that the greater part of his life has been housed within these walls for the past five years.
Bilbo takes the blanket, tugs it around himself and walks out of the bedroom. There is no one else in the house, though he spies half a fruitcake on the dining table with a fork laid next to it, clearly meant for him. He considers it for a moment, and decides that he isn’t hungry enough for breakfast.
He seats himself at the dining table and shakes back his unkempt hair. It is much too long; he’s been meaning to have it cut for a while. Bilbo sits where he is for a long moment, naked underneath the blanket, then sense returns to him sufficiently for him to venture back to the bedroom to wear his clothes.
Bilbo busies himself with straightening up the bedroom once he’s clothed again, then washes the cup in the sink and dries it with a towel, and then he sits back at the dining table and waits, composing riddles in his head that always somehow break off at the halfway mark, like a song he cannot quite remember the lyrics to.
Only an hour later, Thorin comes back in through the front door, a bag slung over his shoulder. He freezes at the sight of Bilbo, stands a little bit straighter in the doorway. “Good morning,” Thorin says.
The greeting is so ludicrously commonplace, like it’s perfectly normal, that Bilbo almost laughs. “Morning.”
Thorin’s gaze floats to the untouched fruitcake. “You didn’t have any breakfast.”
“I wasn’t hungry,” Bilbo says, which is the truth. Also because he’s aware of the very real risk of losing his stomach all over Thorin if it were even the slightest bit full, but he doesn’t tell him that.
Thorin keeps looking at him. He kicks off his sandals and throws his bag onto the couch and moves to the dining table to sit adjacent to Bilbo. He breaks off a piece of the fruitcake and slips it into his mouth. It is so quiet that Bilbo can hear him chewing, and suddenly Bilbo is very, very angry with him, such that it is all he can do not to shake out of his skin. “Well?” Bilbo says quietly.
Thorin’s jaw stops working. His eyes flicker momentarily to Bilbo’s, then down. He starts chewing again at a slower pace.
“I think,” Bilbo murmurs, trying to keep himself from shouting at the top of his voice, “that you owe me an explanation.”
None comes in the immediate minutes that follow. Thorin continues to chew his stupid fruitcake, refusing to even look at Bilbo, and Bilbo’s rage grows and grows until he’s positive that being this angry cannot possibly be safe. When Thorin rises and murmurs, “I’ll make you some tea,” Bilbo snatches his wrist in a vice-grip. The bulging muscles in Thorin’s arm make it obvious that he could break out of it if he wished to, but Thorin does no such thing. Instead, he scrutinises Bilbo’s hand quietly, and still does not look at him.
“I wonder,” Bilbo says coldly as an icy feeling floods his chest and flakes away his self-control, bit by bit, “if you’re thinking that any of this is okay. This — this is not okay, Thorin Oakenshield. Not even in the slightest. How could you, Thorin? How? When you’ve disappeared and we all think you died out there, you’ve been living your life here all along like nothing’s the matter? We buried you, Thorin. I put flowers on your grave. This is sick.” Bilbo swallows. His heart is twisting inside him like a foreign creature, threatening to claw its way up his throat. “It’s sick.”
To Bilbo’s horror, a complete stranger stares back at him with Thorin’s face and eyes and voice. There is no defensive anger or righteousness or pride on his face, just a frightened sort of tightness, the kind that would fit easily in the eyes of a child lost in the woods, which is degrees worse than anything Bilbo could have imagined. He would take anything else over this. Anything. “Please release me,” Thorin says quietly, the plea evident in his tone.
Bilbo drops his arm immediately like he’s been burned, which is not too far off from the feeling in his hand where it had previously been on Thorin’s wrist. Thorin’s gaze immediately falls away from Bilbo as he rubs his wrist and murmurs “Thank you,” as if to prove that he really can wound Bilbo even more, then he turns and walks into his bedroom, his footsteps heavy on the wooden floor. He shuts the door noiselessly, as if it were pushed into place by the wind, and after a long minute Bilbo hears a soft click on the other side and knows that the bolt has been slid home.
Bilbo cannot get out of the house anywhere near quick enough, and doesn’t remember if he slams the door on his way out.
Bilbo remembers very vaguely being a boy of ten years in Hobbiton, so carefree and innocent where it came to comprehending the world and its workings, bringing home one day a fallen sparrow he had found in the backyard to his father. Bungo Baggins had taken the animal from his cupped hands and looked at it carefully. “You can do something for it, can’t you?” Bilbo had asked. “You can fix it, like you fixed Mildred.”
Bungo touched and prodded the bird, and he shook his head. “Oh, Bilbo. Mildred’s your toy, made of wood; this beautiful creature is made of so much more than that. I’m afraid that I cannot help it.”
“I don’t understand,” Bilbo had said. “It’s…it’s just a little bird. Why —”
“All living creatures have their time, and this one has met its own.” Bungo massaged the sparrow’s chest gently with his thumbs, then handed it back carefully to Bilbo. “Best we bury it where you found it. Would you like that, Bilbo?”
He had cried, of course, but nodded at that. Later, as his father made a show of digging the grave, Bilbo had felt the stirring of wings in his hands, then watched with surprise as the bird hopped to its feet and chirped feebly, and he looked at his father in childish wonder as Bungo grinned at him. “Sometimes, Bilbo,” his father said as they freed the bird, “things like these happen once in a while, and we call them miracles.”
Miracles, his father had said, where what had once been dead was brought back to life. If only Bungo Baggins could see his son now, Bilbo thinks bitterly. Some miracle; it is anything but.
He walks through Laketown, going nowhere in general. People mill around him without a second glance. For a moment he tries to convince himself that he’s like all of them, their lives going on the way they have always known for not knowing anything more, but he keeps flashing back to the night before, where he could not have foreseen any of what had happened. Even now it still seems fractured, like pieces of a broken plate, and Bilbo spends all of two minutes attempting to piece it back together before it becomes too difficult to bear and he starts to feel a bit nauseous. He just walks to keep his mind off Thorin, a futile endeavour as his whole world now seems to have been thrown into disarray by the knowledge that Thorin is alive.
Thorin had deceived him. Deceived him and lied to him, where deception and lies were the last things Bilbo would have expected of him. Perhaps not openly, like a blatant lie, but a lie of omission is still a lie nonetheless. He would understand having secrets, just as everyone has their own, could look past Thorin erasing his own sister from his life, but lying about something like this must be on a whole new level of its own, past forgiveness and explanation. Bilbo keeps thinking about it, unable to fling himself to anything else; the thought that Thorin is alive turns everything in its direction with its immense gravity, weighing down on his mind. Strange, where just the other day he would have given anything to see Thorin just one more time, and now he doesn’t think he can bear to even look at him ever again. He would sit down — he’s so very dizzy — but Bilbo pushes himself to continue walking and shoves his hands into his pockets to hide the fact that they’re shaking badly.
It’s frankly amazing, the way the world keeps turning on its own like a well-wound pocket watch, sparing little time for those who feel as though they have fallen completely off it, exactly how Thorin’s sister had said it would. Time sags to little absent happenings, where Bilbo is only half-aware of the things going on around him and what he’s doing, and everything else falls away and there’s nothing at the peripheries to fill in the wide empty spaces in his memory between meandering aimlessly around the town plaza to throwing rocks into the river. He goes from looking at vacancy cards in the glass windows of inns to stumbling down steep alleyways to staring into bars wishing for the stomach and wisdom to drink himself into a stupor. The non-linearity of it should worry him, Bilbo knows, but he thinks he can forgive that lack of worry for having other things on his mind at the moment.
He walks and walks until his feet are sore and lets the hours stretch out meaninglessly. His thoughts return to the dreadful secret Laketown had hidden, which he might have discovered sooner had the wood elves stopped when Bilbo asked them to. Had anyone else known about this? Bard? Elric? Gandalf? They would never keep this from Bilbo, never, he is sure of it, but he had been sure of so many things before, like how he would spend the rest of his life in the Shire, which he was not wrong about just once, but twice. How he would never find love, content with being a bachelor once he had grown beyond the courting age of hobbits and everyone had passed him by. How Thorin was dead and gone from his life forever.
Bilbo walks quickly among the people on the docks, near where he had met Thorin the day before. He almost pauses at the same spot, thinks about standing there in hope of a flux where everything will go back to the way it used to be, and he will have been wrong, mistaken, and in actuality it is as he has known for the past five years. It was much easier to deal with that reality, rather than the one living in a house he’s never seen before but now can never forget. He fills his gaze with the calm of the Long Lake, its waters a rippling, shiny blue of a deep hue, and Bilbo tries to untangle the riddle that is now as much Thorin as it is him, in an effort to settle his runaway mind.
He jerks to a halt and shudders. Bard is in front of him, looking down at him with a worried expression. “Are you alright?” the bowman asks.
A breath rushes out of Bilbo’s lungs in what could pass as a laugh. “Uh. Well, yes,” he lies. The way it slips off his tongue so comfortably makes him feel even more disgusted at himself. “Everything’s…fine.”
“Really? You look rather troubled.”
Bilbo scrubs a hand over his face. It does nothing to alleviate the unfulfilled desire to retch until his stomach is empty and cramping, so he breathes thinly through his nose and presses his lips together, shaking his head. He has to make a conscious effort to stay on his feet.
Bard lays a hand on his shoulder in what Bilbo knows is meant to be a reassuring gesture. It is the same place where Thorin had held on to him in bed. Bilbo barely manages to keep his knees from knocking together. “You know that if there’s anything at all,” Bard tells him. “You can tell me, yeah?”
Bilbo swallows the tears that have knotted into a thick ball at the back of his throat, pushing back down the rising bitterness of bile at the same time. “Yeah,” he says hoarsely.
Frowning, Bard cants his head, looking at Bilbo’s collar. “What’s that?”
“You’ve got a little spot there, like a bruise or something —”
Bilbo pulls back from Bard, clamping a hand over his neck, knowing immediately what Bard is referring to. He doesn’t recall Thorin doing that, but he hasn’t been remembering a lot of things accurately as of late, and aside from that it’s not exactly difficult to put it together in his mind. “It’s nothing,” he says too quickly, knowing full well that Bard will not buy it. “It’s just…nothing.”
The way Bard looks at him does not disappoint Bilbo’s expectations. “All right,” Bard says, his gaze trained on the hand Bilbo is holding to his neck. “Just remember what I said. If you need someone to talk to, I’m willing to listen.”
Sporting a smile that doesn’t belong on his face, Bilbo nods and turns away before the jig is completely up.
He skips lunch entirely and loiters around Laketown for the whole of the afternoon, faffing his time away to put off going back to either the inn or Thorin’s place, both of which are equally undesirable options. Going back to the inn would mean restless, disturbed sleep, if any at all, while the other choice needs no explaining. The former would be the better path to take — he could pack up quickly and leave for the Woodland Realm, and reach Thranduil’s kingdom if he hustled enough, leaving Laketown and Thorin and all this behind him, pretending that he had never seen Thorin alive and they had never made love to each other and he’d never came out on this stupid adventure in the first place.
Settling on that, Bilbo walks as fast as he can to the inn where he has been lodging, bursts into his room and starts throwing all of his possessions pell-mell into his bag. He will not spare himself the time to make sure that he has everything, performing just a single sweep of the room to pack anything which he remotely recognises as his own. When Bilbo is done, he slides his arms through the straps, storms downstairs, slaps a gold piece on the counter and strides out, ignoring the innkeeper’s cries of “Mister Bilbo, your change!” This takes perhaps just ten minutes, nine minutes more that what Bilbo would have preferred.
At the entrance to Laketown, as he is about to mount Marianne, his hand stops short on the saddle. Do it, he thinks. With a leap and a click of the reins, he would reach the Woodland Realm by duskfall. He doesn’t even realise that his free hand is trembling until Marianne makes a loud whinny, snapping him out of his reverie. He clenches it into a fist. The shaking subsides, but only just. He can still hear the river town bustling behind him, and knows that in a small house in there, Thorin is waiting. Alone, with no one else in the world but Bilbo. If the thought that Thorin had managed to tear his heart in two, the thought of him living the rest of his life the way Bilbo thinks he’s been living — on his own — quarters it.
Bilbo sighs, turns his pony around and walks back into Laketown.
He knocks, to be polite, then he waits a while. There is no come in or any equivalent of an invitation even after a few minutes, but the door is unlocked so Bilbo nudges it open a tiny bit and peeks through the fissure. He can’t see anything besides a small portion of the living room, and the fact that the bedroom door is open. Thorin’s left his room, then. As Bilbo strains his ears, there’s a clinking noise coming from the kitchen. Bilbo pushes further and enters the house carefully, the door creaking to announce his presence.
Bilbo pads into the living room and stands in the centre, looking into the kitchen. He can see Thorin’s back turned to him. Thorin is washing something in a large wooden basin filled with water and suds, the sleeves of his shirt rolled up to his biceps. A towel is spread out on the counter next to him, on top of which is stacked a few plates that are eventually joined by a pair of utensils and a mug. There is still an aroma of dinner about the room; Bilbo smells cooking oil and marinade, and spies a fish tail sticking out of the trash bin. Thorin dries his hands on the towel and dries everything else, then puts it back into a cupboard under the counter. He shuts the door with a click just as Bilbo steps inside and says, “Um.”
Thorin glances back at him, rolling down his sleeves and shaking them out. He knots the strings at his cuffs without looking at them. “Good evening,” he says.
“I did knock,” Bilbo blurts out, painfully aware that his pack is still on his back and his knees are positively killing him.
“Yes. I heard.”
Bilbo licks his lips. There is a way to approach this, he just doesn’t know how. Whatever it is, it doesn’t make itself apparent. He defaults to playing everything by ear. “You didn’t say anything.”
“You would have come in either way,” Thorin replies.
“How did you know it was me?”
Thorin crosses his arms in front of his chest. “Who else would it be?” he says, confirming Bilbo’s suspicions that there really is no one else other than him who knows about this. It should make him feel better. It only makes him feel worse.
Bilbo’s throat closes up slightly, and he swallows dry in an attempt to get it to widen enough for his voice to come through. “I…I’m sorry about just now,” he says softly.
Thorin’s expression is blank. His eyes flick down, then up again.
“I shouldn’t have said those things,” Bilbo continues. In his palms he has his handkerchief, and works his fidgeting fingers into it for want of a better thing to do with his hands. “I was angry, and confused, and I don’t know what came over me at the moment to say such awful things about you —” Bilbo pauses, lips thinned against each other, and he pulls in a sharp breath through his nose, “— and I’m sorry. But. I…you were dead, and now you’re…”
He cannot bring himself to continue, and for a fleeting, terrible moment, Bilbo knows suddenly that this is where it will end. Thorin will ask him to go away, and Bilbo knows full well that he will comply, because that’s how the two of them are, and they’ll never see each other again while he himself will live for the rest of his life aware of this, forever haunted by ghosts and the living, and he can never forget, not ever, because how could he after all that they’ve —
“Have you eaten?”
Bilbo’s mouth is still half-open; he closes it before he realises that he’s forgotten to reply. Instead, he says, “What?”
“Are you hungry?”
“No,” Bilbo says softly. His stomach growls its betrayal, seemingly amplified by the acoustics of the small room they are standing in, and very much louder than his voice. In response, his heart starts beating all too fast. That and the combination of his hurting knees and the way Thorin is looking at him, Bilbo thinks that he may just pass out where he is.
Bilbo doesn’t faint, which is a godsend, because it allows him to witness the glorious moment when Thorin smiles and his eyes turn warm, brows lifting into his dark fringe, and he is looking at Bilbo with what he wildly thinks has to be affection, or, at a stretch, possibly even love. Oddly, it makes him feel like fainting even more, and by a greater stroke of serendipity, Bilbo still manages to hold himself together on his feet. “I’ll make you some dinner,” Thorin says.
In his travels, Bilbo has seen many things which he would never have believed existed — spiders the size of caravans, enchanted metal that glows a warning in the presence of goblins, a diamond capable of splitting light into all the colours of the world — but the sight of Thorin in an apron and kitchen gloves makes Bilbo wonder for the first time if he truly is dreaming.
Thorin cooks goulash and potato puffs and sets it all in front of Bilbo. It smells absolutely delicious, and despite Bilbo’s uncertainty that he still might not be able to keep his stomach, the hunger seizes him like a fit and he’s shovelling it all into his mouth before he knows what he is doing, and it might just be the best thing he has ever tasted.
“Take it slow,” Thorin tells him, taking off his apron. “Chew your food. You don’t want to choke.”
Bilbo stops abruptly with his cheeks stuffed with meat and soft potato, looking up at Thorin. Some gravy dribbles out of the corner of Bilbo’s mouth and down his chin; Thorin reaches over with a napkin and cleans his face for him. Just before he is done, one of his fingers slips through the fabric, brushing lightly against Bilbo’s upper lip. Bilbo licks the spot that Thorin’s finger had touched, and swallows. “Thank you,” Bilbo says softly when his mouth is only half full and he can talk comprehensibly.
Thorin smiles faintly, then goes back to the washing-up area of the kitchen to clean out the pots he used to cook dinner. Bilbo watches him rinse a saucepan and hang it up on a rack and walk to the living room, out of sight. He finishes eating as quickly as he can, washes up his own dishes and goes to look for Thorin. Bilbo finds him in the bedroom working over the bed, pulling back the soiled sheets and swapping them with new ones, smoothening down the bedclothes and fluffing out the pillows. When Bilbo comes in, Thorin has just finished spreading the blanket over the bed. “You must be tired,” he tells Bilbo. He tips his head at the made bed. “Get some rest for the night.”
“I’m working late tonight. I’ll be back in a few hours.” Thorin puts his hands on Bilbo shoulders, looking into his eyes. A pregnant pause with an uncertain expression on Thorin’s face, then he kisses Bilbo lightly on his forehead. “Sleep well.”
Bilbo gulps, unable to speak, and nods. He doesn’t move until Thorin has left and the front door creaks shut behind him, then he stumbles over to the bed and sits down heavily on it. He exhales sharply through his mouth and replenishes his air slowly through his nose, thinking hard. It is only half an hour later when tiredness overcomes him that Bilbo changes into his nightclothes and slides into Thorin’s bed, leaving as much space on the other side for Thorin when he returns. Even as Bilbo is tired, sleep does not come to him easily.
He does eventually slip under, only barely, and is woken what he thinks is minutes after midnight by a door opening and the rippling orange light of a lantern that vanishes as it is blown out. Bilbo goes very, very still, controls his breathing and keeps his eyes shut. There are footfalls on wood that get louder and closer, a break in them as Bilbo hears shuffling about in the cupboard, and then resume until they stop in front of him.
Bilbo continues to feign sleep, no thoughts in his head. He is just waiting for the sheets to be lifted, for Thorin’s weight to be added next to him. Nothing happens for a long while. Then, there is the tickle of a beard on his cheek and a kiss sinking into the curly hair at his temple, lips lingering there for a few seconds and low breathing in his ear. Fingers graze the top of his head gently, then trail down the side of his face before they are removed completely. The diminishing footsteps after that indicate that Thorin is exiting the room, and after a while, Bilbo hears the sofa groan outside.
He gets out of bed silently and drifts to the door. On the sofa lies Thorin, who has a couch cushion as a pillow and a blanket that looks too small and too thin to be comfortable. He adjusts himself about, finding a neutral position, but seems unable to. Bilbo blinks, watching him try to sleep and feeling his heart ache with every grunt Thorin makes.
Thorin finally turns his whole body at an angle to the sofa, murmurs something inaudibly, and stops moving altogether. Waiting to no other movements from Thorin, Bilbo shuffles over to the sofa and kneels in front of it. Thorin is facing away from him, his long hair curtained over the cushion. Very quiet breaths are issuing from him. “Thorin?” Bilbo whispers.
The dwarf shudders, but does not turn over.
“Thorin,” Bilbo says again, touching his shoulder. Thorin does turn over at this to look at him. Bilbo hates the absence of lighting and how he cannot see Thorin’s face clearly, how parts of it are obscured in indistinctness and shadow. His eyes are dark, but now possess a glimmer to them as is with reflective surfaces in dim light. Bilbo hates this most of all, the way it makes him look so empty inside, like he isn’t seeing anything at all.
“Bilbo,” Thorin murmurs, half-closing his eyes.
Bilbo holds his face in one hand, tilting his own head to see him better. He moves his thumb in circles over Thorin’s cheek, scraping his beard and biting the inside of his cheek to keep himself from shaking from the rustling it makes. He wants to say something, but he doesn’t know what. The way Thorin looks at him makes him so lovesick that leaving Thorin here like this is a physical impossibility. He still doesn’t dare kiss him, but this much he can do. “Come to bed,” Bilbo tells him. “For me. Please?”
Thorin continues to stare at him blankly, worryingly quiet. His eyes slowly adopt a rougher quality, more real, more down to earth somehow, like pulling back out of a deep dream, but Thorin still does not move or say anything. Shortly after Bilbo thinks of telling him that he will sleep on the floor next to him should Thorin insist on keeping to the sofa, Thorin sits back up and rubs at his face. Without a word, he pushes his hand into Bilbo’s and takes it, gets off the sofa and leads Bilbo into the bedroom. He tucks Bilbo into bed and eases in beside him. Bilbo wriggles over, close to Thorin, and rests his hand on his chest, feels the gentle rise and fall of his ribs as a final reassurance that he is alive, and looks up to meet Thorin’s sideway gaze. “Goodnight, Thorin,” he whispers.
After a minute of closing his eyes, he hears Thorin whisper back, “Goodnight, Bilbo,” and this time, he falls asleep within minutes.
The second morning in Thorin’s house is a surreal experience if there ever was one. Similar to the previous day, Thorin is gone when Bilbo gets up in the morning. In a dreamlike state, Bilbo washes up, makes the bed, changes for breakfast and chews through a hard slice of pumpernickel that he finds in the larder for one whole minute before realising that he hates pumpernickel.
Thorin comes back as Bilbo is in the middle of cleaning soggy bread out of his mouth, catching him with his tongue out over the basin he uses to wash his dishes. “Bilbo?” His eyebrows furrow, joining in the centre of his forehead. “What are you doing?”
Caught in the act, Bilbo pulls his tongue back in quickly and stammers, “Uh — I — I was, um, well. Just. Uh. Nothing.”
Thorin just gives him a quizzical look. “Have you eaten?”
“Sort of, yes. But not really, not. I mean. Um, no.”
The look becomes less of a puzzled one and more amused, though tired. “Well, once you’ve made up your mind, I’ve got some butter biscuits in there.” He points out a small tin next to the utensil holder.
“Yes, I’ve eaten,” Bilbo says firmly.
“Oh. Well. That’s good.” With that, Thorin turns away and heads for the bedroom. Bilbo follows him and stands in the doorway, watching him pull clean shirts from his bag and add them to the wardrobe.
“Thorin, can we talk?”
He halts momentarily, a half-folded shirt under his chin, then goes on folding and piling shirts.
“Thorin,” Bilbo says, his voice soft. No response; Thorin continues working. “Thorin. Thorin, please —”
Thorin slams the wardrobe shut, still gripping the handles firmly. He lets go, allowing his arms to fall to his sides, tilts his head back and breathes loudly. He turns around, looking absolutely crestfallen. “Sorry, sorry,” Thorin mumbles, pressing his hands to his face and blowing air out from between them.
Bilbo looks at him, unsure if to advance or retreat. Either way doesn’t seem right, so he does nothing.
Releasing his face, Thorin moves his hands to his hips and hangs his head, looking down at the floor and away from Bilbo. His eyes flick up at Bilbo, then he closes them. “What do you want to talk about?”
Everything, Bilbo wants to say, because he truly needs to know everything of Thorin’s world for the last five years that he was dead to all of them. He wants to know how this is even possible, how Thorin could give up on all of them so easily when they hadn’t given up searching for him, dead or alive, for weeks after the battle. He wants to know how Thorin ended up here, what he’s been doing and how deep the untruths and pretenses lie. Instead, he asks, “Why didn’t you come back?”
Thorin says nothing, like Bilbo hasn’t said anything. His gaze is intermittent, spending a few seconds on Bilbo before flitting back to the floor for a longer stretch of time, repeating several times over before Bilbo asks again in a firmer tone. This time, Thorin does reply, but whatever it is he says is too soft and garbled to be understood.
Bilbo curls his fingers a bit more tightly into his palms, not quite fists yet but threatening to assume the shape. “I promised myself I wouldn’t get angry or shout, not after what happened the last time,” he says. “Which I think makes it fair if I get an answer this time. A reasonable one. Don’t give me any of that ‘it’s complicated’ stuff, or I might have to break my promise to myself, which I really hope I won’t.”
Thorin crosses his arms in front of his chest and drops his head, closing his eyes. His mouth has twisted in a display of unwillingness to speak.
“I know it has to be difficult,” Bilbo says softly, “whatever it was that you had to lie about. But — but think about me for a minute, won’t you? Five years. All that time to think that it was all my fault that you died, because I’d taken the Arkenstone in the first place and if I hadn’t, then I’d supposed…I don’t know what I’d supposed, but I reckoned that you would have gotten yourself killed anyway along with the rest of us. So I was — it’s like this, having to think that no matter what I did you would end up dead, and that I couldn’t have done anything to save you.”
Thorin opens his eyes, focusing on him for a fleeting moment before looking away. “It’s not like that,” he says. “Never. You shouldn’t have ever thought that.”
“I wouldn’t have if you’d just came home and told me,” Bilbo tells him.
I…I couldn’t go back.”
“Nonsense.” Bilbo knows very well that Erebor is but a day’s journey from Laketown on horseback, three at most on foot. Thorin’s had all of five years to make the trip; there is no benefit of the doubt to be given here.
“I couldn’t,” Thorin repeats, low and resigned. Then, “Things have changed. You don’t understand.”
Bilbo has to press a hand to his mouth to keep himself from swearing. “Make me understand,” he says, his voice twisted into a cracking, trembling thing that sounds nowhere near like him. “What must I do to understand why you would do such a thing?”
After a moment, Thorin leans back against the wardrobe. His mouth goes very thin. “You wouldn’t understand,” he rephrases.
It takes an inhuman amount of self-control for Bilbo not to punch Thorin. He forces himself to right his breathing before he dares to say anything. “Try me. Give me your best shot. If I don’t understand it’s because you’re not trying hard enough to tell me what has been going on these last five years, and even then I swear I’m going to take my things and leave and never come back again like I will if you don’t stop acting like a complete arse this instant, so you might as well spill it.”
Thorin stares at him, his eyes wide and his mouth open slightly. A muscle in his face jumps, then he returns his gaze to the floor. “It isn’t you,” he says softly. “Or anyone else for that matter. It’s — it’s me. It’s all me.”
“What’s all you?” Bilbo asks. The feeling is as though he’s on the edge of a sinkhole, about to stumble upon a terrible, well-hidden secret, and even as he stares into the void he wants to take the plunge, even as he knows he may very well regret it.
He pounds his head back into the wardrobe behind him. “Why I can’t go back,” Thorin murmurs. “I…I’m not. Him. Me. Who I am now. I’m not him anymore.”
“Look,” he sighs, “I know this will sound crazy but I don’t know how else to explain it to you, so here I am, telling you this even though you’ll think that I’ve gone off the deep end: I’m not Thorin Oakenshield. There. Well, I suppose to you I am, and to many other people if they ever got a good look at me, and I probably was him at some point in my life, but now I’m…well, you get the picture. I’m just not him. Not Thorin, I mean.”
Bilbo is breathing very fast. A panic is building up in his chest. “What do you mean, you’re not Thorin?”
Thorin pinches the bridge of his nose between his thumb and his forefinger. “I remember everything,” he says. “All I had seen, all I had done. The things which I liked, the things which I didn’t like. Friends. Family. Enemies. It was all there in my head, all these thoughts and memories. Thorin’s memories. Well, most of them, anyway — there’s some blank spaces in there, like something’s been carved out in sections, or pages torn from a book — but it’s enough for me to know who I’m supposed to be. I’m remembering more with time, but it’s slow. Just last week I — I remembered I used to play with that dwarf, Dori, I think, when we were young. Only — only...” He shakes his head. “That wasn’t me. None of it was me.”
Bilbo doesn’t follow. He’s not sure anymore if he wants to. “What are you going on about?”
“I’m — he’s — oh, for goodness sake, just look!” With his right hand, Thorin lifts away the hair that falls over and conceals the side of his face, revealing a faint, off-white scar scrawled around his ear and up into his hairline. “The last thing I remember of the battle was fighting this…this goblin, and the foul creature had a warhammer and I must have gotten careless, because the next thing I know is that I’m pulling myself onto a riverbank, soaking wet, with blood on my face and a headache that could kill a hundred men, and somehow just knowing that I’m this exiled dwarf king named Thorin Oakenshield who commands a company of twelve other dwarves and one little hobbit, and I know just some of their names and their life stories and how I’m supposed to feel about each and every one of them from how I’ve apparently interacted with them in my past, except I don’t, and the rest of them are complete strangers who would apparently lay down their lives for me even though I’ve never met them before, which has to be enough to frighten a normal person right out of his mind, only I know that Thorin Oakenshield is stronger than most normal people and I’m supposed to be Thorin Oakenshield, only, well, I’m not!”
A cold weight seems to fall into the pit of Bilbo’s stomach, sucking the warmth out of his limbs. In clear limbic flashbacks he remembers the things Thorin is telling him, but cannot grok their separate meanings even as he tries to think of another way to look past what he gathers it must mean. “But — no, you’re saying that you remember, but you just don’t remember being you?”
The dwarf breathes, slow. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” Thorin sounds utterly devastated as he says the words, and he slumps to the floor, his legs askew. “I know what you must have been expecting, and this…if this isn’t enough, then. That’s all there is to it.”
Inclined to join him, Bilbo digs his toes into the floor and squeezes his hands into fists, his mind racing to process everything. His body feels like a tree with the base of its trunk sawed away to a fraction of what it was, now teetering and on the verge of falling over at the slightest provocation. “But…but, no,” he stammers. “You have to be — this can’t be — you’re…”
Thorin gathers his legs close to him and wraps his arms around them, as if to shrink away into himself and disappear entirely. He starts to shake. “How could I have gone back? After everything that’s happened. I couldn’t have answered to anyone. No one. Those…those two dwarves? The archer, and…and his brother, I remembered one year, and that’s all I know of them. I still can’t remember their names. They died for me, I saw them. I held one as he died, and I didn’t even know who they were.”
“Fili and Kili. Your nephews,” Bilbo says softly.
“Nephews,” Thorin whispers, like he’s asking why. “I had nephews.” He shakes his head miserably. “And you…when I saw your face, you, the way you looked at me. I remembered it. I could never forget. He said…I said. Ghastly things. Terrible, ghastly things. I manhandled you. I would have killed you,” he whispers. “Gods, I nearly killed you.”
Bilbo has nothing to say to this. He can hear his pulse pounding in his ears, his heart athunder inside his chest.
“In any case, what else could I have done?” Thorin snaps. “It wasn’t my life, not anymore, at least as far as I knew. What would you have me do? Go back and be king?” He laughs without any evidence of mirth. “Pretend to be him? How would that have been fair to everyone? You, me, the rest? How would that have been fair to Thorin?”
“You could have come back,” Bilbo cries. “You could have told us what happened.”
“What good would that have done? What good?”
“We would have helped you.”
Thorin shakes his rumpled head and makes a scoffing noise. “Like they helped Bifur? That dwarf, with the axe in his head — mute for nearly two hundred years, I remember him well. Thorin remembered. Who’s to say he’ll ever speak again? Who’s to say I’ll ever be Thorin again?”
“Don’t say that, you can’t know that.”
“You just — Durin’s name! You don’t get it, do you? What it’s like, to know who you were and not being that person anymore, this amazing, horrible person, and I don’t know how I ever was such a person or whether or not I want to go back to being him, if it were even possible, and goodness knows he’s been taking his time, and now I’m just tired of waiting to be him in the wrong world and in his story. I…I,” he sobs into his knees. “I know I’m him, I have his name and his face and his memories, but — I’m me! I’m just me, what’s wrong with that?”
“Nothing,” Bilbo chokes, the word thick and too awkward to convince either of them that he believes it. “There is nothing wrong with that.”
Thorin lifts his face to Bilbo, and the fear in his eyes is illimitable and wracking and blue, so blue, and Bilbo’s going to be sick, he’s sure of it. “So why is it when you look at me, all you see is him?” he asks softly.
At this, Bilbo’s legs finally do give way, and he has to hold Thorin, embrace him, tell him that everything is going to be alright when it can never be, not like this, not with what Thorin is telling him, and before he knows it he too is crying, inarticulate, as Thorin grabs blindly at him, moves his arms shakily around Bilbo and they are wound around each other with a desperate sort of strength, clinging on for their own dear lives while the world all around them dissolves into grey, and then nothing.
They move to the bed after a while on the floor, and Thorin falls asleep first, once he’s stopped hiccuping and shivering and whimpering enough for Bilbo to pull the blanket over him and cuddle him, just a little bit. Summer light filters into the window through the thin curtains drawn across the only window in the room. Beside him, Bilbo watches him as Thorin’s breaths lose rapidity, then segue into rhythm with depth and volume. Sleep has wiped Thorin’s face of distress and misery, replacing it with stillness and calm. There are wrinkles on his forehead and at the corners of his eyes that Bilbo doesn’t remember ever noticing. His cheeks are still tearstained, but Bilbo supposes that his own are too, and it is only the thought that him crying might wake Thorin that prevents him from adding even more to them.
Thorin makes a snuffling, almost comical, sound, then moves his head on the pillow slightly. It makes Bilbo smile. Hadn’t he dreamed of this before? He’s sure he has, someway or another, for he knows this moment too intimately already. They’d held on to each other and locked eyes and cried past midnights, walked through oceans and moved mountains to be where they were, made love and made up for all they could have been, and that which they couldn’t. Please don’t tell me how this ends, Bilbo thinks, as he brushes his fingers over Thorin’s arm. The skin there is smooth and vibrantly warm, even through the cotton of Thorin’s shirt.
Beneath his eyelids, Thorin’s eyes move visibly. He murmurs something in his sleep, something close to Bilbo floating from his lips. It makes something in Bilbo jump. He keeps listening, but cannot make anything out from the rest, and soon enough, Thorin falls quiet but continues to stir, battling phantoms in his sleep. To Bilbo’s shock, Thorin starts to cry again, his tears leaking out from behind closed eyes and wetting his face once more.
If I loved you to bits and pieced you together again, would you be there waiting for me? If you had my whole heart, if you always had, would you come back to me? It is a labour to continue to hold back his own tears, so Bilbo finally lets them trickle down his cheeks. “You were so brave,” he whispers. “And you still are. Oh, Thorin.”
At the mention of his name, Thorin goes still and opens his eyes slowly. For a moment they waver, his gaze unfocused and hazy, then they move up to Bilbo’s face and stay there. Bilbo tries to see past the sorrow in them, beyond miles and miles of unknowable silence, and cannot. So, he says, “It’s me.”
Thorin seems to think about this for a moment. “Yes.”
“You were talking,” Bilbo tells him. He combs a shaky hand through Thorin’s hair, expecting him to flinch away. Thorin doesn’t. “In your sleep.”
He closes his eyes at this. “Was I crying again?”
Bilbo stops moving his hand, leaving it where it is on Thorin’s neck, his fingers slipped behind his ear. He thinks about lying, but knows that denying it would be pointless. “Yes.”
A long minute passes. Thorin keeps his eyes closed.
“Dreaming?” Bilbo offers softly.
Thorin looks at him again. “I don’t remember.”
“It’s okay. Take your time. I’m here.” He has no idea what any of what he is saying will accomplish, but he keeps himself talking to prolong whatever connection that still exists between them, as though if he says enough of these things to Thorin it will give him back his life, give them back their lives.
Thorin’s lower lip trembles. “He was braver than me. Much more so.”
“That’s not true, and you know it,” Bilbo says fiercely.
“Come now,” Thorin whispers. “Facing Azog. Goblins. Bolg. I wouldn’t dare, none of that.”
“But you did. I saw you. Everyone did.”
That Thorin moves his own hand over Bilbo’s and squeezes it gently heartens Bilbo to move his face closer to him, until they are almost sharing Thorin’s pillow. “I see you,” Thorin murmurs. “When I dream. His dreams, I suppose. And…and I’m always sad. I don’t know why; I can’t remember it, but I think I — he, I mean. He must have cared for you very much.”
A shiver rattles through Bilbo, and even hearing this, he finds himself despising the way Thorin continues to refer to himself. He wills himself not to start crying again. “Stop saying that,” he says, his voice low and stern. “Stop saying he and him and Thorin and whatever it is that you think will have me believe that you’re not you, I forbid it, it’s absolutely horrid to listen to.” He attempts to winch up a hopeful smile that Thorin does not return. Instead, he looks away, but does not let go of Bilbo’s hand.
They spend yet another long while in wordless embrace. Bilbo’s lips brush the tip of Thorin’s nose, the gesture too tender and fond to be a mere accident. “I’ve given a lot of thought to what I should do,” Bilbo whispers. “What needs to be done to make this right. You once said that you would protect me no matter what. You gave me your word, do you remember that?”
Thorin gulps, then nods slowly. “I remember.” His voice is so quiet that it seems as though only his lips are moving in the shape of the words.
“Let me do the same,” Bilbo says, when what he really means is I would do anything for you. He will tell him this, now or never. “Let me take care of you. I…I know that I’m small, and I’m not very quick or strong or smart, but, but I’ll find a way, I will, I swear. Will — will you let me?”
A strangled breath exudes from Thorin’s mouth and breaks past his lips. He cannot seem to be able to bear looking at Bilbo. “You can’t,” he whispers.
“Please, I’ll try, I’ll do anything,” he says, a last-ditch effort to make Thorin listen. “I can’t leave you like this. I love you.”
Thorin trembles and makes a sad, moaning noise. “That’s not fair,” he says tightly. “You love Thorin. Not me.”
It is all that he can bear to hear. Gripped with anguish, Bilbo kisses him before he can fall apart completely, relying on Thorin’s embrace to hold what’s left of him together, which is hardly much judging by the way his breaths keep on catching in his throat and how he cannot seem to summon the air to sob properly. When he does break away and regains the ability to talk, his voice is splintered and jagged and thick. “How can you say that?” Bilbo chokes out, his shoulders beginning to jerk. “I love you; I don’t care, I don’t —”
Like a flash, Thorin closes the sliver of space between their faces and kisses Bilbo, whole-souled and passionate, thieving away whatever is left of his breath. Bilbo submits to his touch automatically, trustingly, like he’s seen this coming all along, even as Thorin shakes under his hands like a wounded creature and makes the most awful sounds. Bilbo is weeping uncontrollably, having given in to his deepest, most primal fears, which are now edged dangerously close to the surface, the fear that he will lose Thorin not to death or ether, but to love. Where leaving was a painful option just the day before, he sees now that it is a firm impossibility. He pulls himself into Thorin’s arms and distantly registers that Thorin is also crying much more quietly and neatly than he is, as if to be strong for the both of them.
His hand frees itself of Thorin’s and trails down his shirt to pull it up, to feel Thorin’s bare body on the skin of his palms, and holds him where he feels safe enough to touch, splaying over the left side of his chest as wide as he can stretch like a star, over muscle and velvety chest hair and everything he wants of Thorin. Thorin exhales over his face, his morning breath sour and stale, but Bilbo doesn’t mind it, not one bit, and reaches down to slip into Thorin’s pants and slowly rub at his growing erection. Despair quickly gives out under the growing sense of saddened arousal at Thorin’s hands running under his mithril mail to touch him as well, with Thorin breathing on a crescendo as his hips sway back and forth, his cock growing fuller and hotter in Bilbo’s hand. It never fails to surprise him, knowing all the things that the immediacy and rawness of sex can efface, writing voracious desire in its place.
Thorin kisses with a fervency that manages to astonish Bilbo, even as he’s getting used to the feeling of Thorin’s mouth pressing so tightly against his that it almost forms a hermetical seal. He is hard, so hard that he can feel his pants straining, and he wraps his fingers around Thorin’s cock and all he can think about it getting Thorin to come over his hand, and he has Thorin’s saliva on his lips, salty and strange-tasting, and Bilbo wonders for a second why he only wants more more more, but he stops thinking entirely and part of his brain whites out when Thorin slides his tongue into his mouth, right beneath his own, where it feels like it fits like a puzzle piece.
He forgets himself for the duration of having Thorin planed fluid and warm against him, twining tightly around each other to achieve the absolute maximum contact that they can afford. He squeezes Thorin’s cock with an upward twist of his wrist and feels the bulbous pressure of his engorged glans in his closed fist, coaxing a moan from Thorin. Having Thorin here with him, thrusting into the grip that he has on his cock, is the greatest relief that he has ever known. He wants to belong to Thorin forever, and he certainly feels like his, even though he has no idea how he had ever come to deserve someone like Thorin.
He realises suddenly that Thorin has broken his soundless crying, and is keening into his mouth as they kiss. Thorin’s voice is in his mouth, vibrating along his cheeks and teeth and the roof of his mouth, almost as though as it is Bilbo’s own. He takes the air from his voice and changes it into desperate pants, rutting at the bulge in Thorin’s pants through his clothing, squirming restlessly and hissing at their lack of skin-to-skin contact, frustrated, controlling his unsteady breaths while Thorin kisses and touches him back, each and every action he makes adding to the storm of love and arousal boiling up within Bilbo.
Bilbo dips his head and kisses Thorin’s chin through his beard, pushing his nose in and drawing air and sex-musk and the smell of sweat into his lungs, and tugs at Thorin’s beard with his lips, letting his tongue drag over bristling hair. The friction of it is so sensual that he predicts himself coming first, except Thorin’s cock twitches and starts to gum up Bilbo’s fingers with semen, filling his pants with a heated stickiness, overwhelming to the touch. His grip falters around a fading hardness, and Bilbo clamps his upper lip between his teeth for a second, but it slips out and he cries loudly in surprise, past self-restraint, and quietened to a mutter only by the pressure of Thorin’s crushing kiss.
Bilbo gasps once more and struggles to look at Thorin, blinking a mixture of sweat and tears out of his eyes. He has never seen anyone so beautiful before, nor so damaged. Odd, how there’s little discernment between the two in this moment, tied so closely that one could not be without the other. He had called this love real before, but is only discovering now the true extent of that, and it is far beyond anything that he could ever have thought possible, comparable to nothing. Bilbo clutches at Thorin’s ribs and tucks his head over his collarbone, a hand knotted into Thorin’s hair for reassurance and balance, whether meant for him or Thorin, he does not know. His skin is burning, reduced to nerve endings frazzled with the electricity of arousal, and he is torn between the faith that everything will be okay when this is over, and the likelihood that it will not.
The muscles in his groin tense up and his knees jolt up slightly, and with that Bilbo comes in his pants with a shudder, enveloping his cock in slickness, flashing bits of light across his eyes. His head lolls back onto the pillow and he unravels limply, still held close to Thorin’s body. The high of orgasm recedes and the initial feelings bleed back through to the surface like an excess of ink poured onto parchment, dark and dense and impossible to blot away. He wants to kiss Thorin again, but Thorin has pulled his lips back into his mouth and his breathing has gone all funny.
“I always believed…I’d thought, before all of this, in Bag End,” Bilbo whispers, “that it would just be me, for the rest of my life. When everyone else had left or found theirs. That there would never be anyone else. For me. It wasn’t an issue; I was ready for that. I was happy with what I had. And then — and then you came.” Bilbo drops his forehead against Thorin’s, leaving only the slightest space between their eyes and mouths, where their noses are pressed together, and tries to think that this will be all that they need, now and forever. “I never knew how beautiful the world could be. We saw it together, remember? You showed me.”
“It wasn’t me. It was never me.”
“It was always you,” Bilbo says. “Always. I just know it.”
“How can you know that?” Thorin demands. “You don’t think I can’t see it in you? That littlest bit of hope that I’ll be Thorin again, if you stay with me long enough, like one day we’ll wake up and I’ll be that king once more — well, what if I don’t want that? If — if I become me again, what if I don’t love you like now what I —” He gasps sharply and inhales several times. “I don’t remember anything of that, there’s nothing there, it’s just a blank. What he — what I felt for you. Empty. I’m scared to find out what that means. If I ever find out at all. If I’m real, if I’m still here. I — I feel it too, you know? I love you, it’s the only thing that I know for sure is true. Oh, I love you. And that’s me, all of it. Just now and yesterday. But I don’t know if it will be, if we continue on like this. I can’t go through that. I just can’t.”
“Listen to me,” Bilbo murmurs, soft but very urgent. “You have to listen to me. I don’t care about being king or all that fighting and gold and adventuring — none of that matters to me one snit, I swear. But you do. No matter what, I don’t ever want you to have to be lonely again, there’s no reason for that. None at all. I want to be with you, we don’t have to live together or…or talk or have sex or anything like that. Even if you don’t love me back, if you never have up to this, it’s fine. Just — just let me be there for you. I’ll need nothing else, I promise.”
“You won’t. Why won’t you let me?”
Thorin exhales thinly. “Tell me this, Bilbo,” he murmurs, and his eyes find Bilbo. “If you had the choice, if…if bringing back Thorin meant me having to die, would you let me?”
The question is a sledgehammer blow to the gut. Bilbo is no stranger to difficult questions with hard answers, but this is an impossible question that cannot have an answer. The silence that results is all the answer it takes for whatever light in Thorin’s eyes to go out like a match in the wind. He disengages his hands from Bilbo slowly and closes his eyes. “I really think you should go now,” Thorin murmurs, and turns over to face away from Bilbo, curling up and going fetal with his arms wrapped tightly around himself.
In the night the rain comes down heavy over Laketown, lashing the stone walls and lifting the curtains inward. They are lying on the furthermost edges of the bed, turned away from each other, not touching as if there’s a great void open in the space between them. Bilbo isn’t sleeping — he looks at the wall directly in front of him, clutching the pillow and listening to the rain splash about in the streets. He cannot see Thorin, but despite the steady breathing behind him, he knows that Thorin is awake as well.
A great burst of light, then a massive thundercrash. Bilbo yelps in fright and stifles the rest of his cries into the back of his hand. Recently it’s taken very little to set him off into tears, and he chokes back his anger at the way his eyes are watering so easily. Even though the blanket they are sharing is pulled all the way up to his neck, Bilbo trembles uncontrollably, suddenly very cold.
He feels the mattress dip slightly and warm fingers are slipping into his own, equally warm feet sandwiching his and a warmer body aligning against the curve of his spine. Despite this comfort, the tears increase in volume, and by the time Thorin’s lips find the same spot in his hair that he loves to be touched at, Bilbo is sobbing again. He hadn’t even been aware of it, but everything he has done in the years since leaving Hobbiton seems to have led up to this one singular moment, in Thorin’s arms, where he wants to be till the very end as there could never be anything after this.
“Don’t make me go,” he begs. “Please, Thorin.”
He can feel the thoughts forming in the pause, then Thorin whispers, “I’m sorry.”
They sleep in each other’s arms and the next day, they go out in the dawn into Laketown. Thorin wears the same sky-blue hood that Bilbo saw him in when they had met, pulling it down such that only Bilbo can see his face close up. They walk in the streets together for the first time, side by side, their hands drifting close to each other, touching occasionally but never holding. Bilbo looks through the street markets and talks to the shopkeepers, buying them breakfast to share on the docks. Thorin keeps his head lowered, never making eye contact with anyone except Bilbo, and speaks only when spoken to by him in a whisper. At a fruit stand, Bilbo buys a bag of cherries for Thorin, who watches the man tumble the fruits into a paper bag and hand it to Bilbo, and thanks Bilbo quietly afterwards.
They walk around the main town square and look at the buildings there, which are very new and larger than the old ones in the now-defunct town further down the river. The council hall, a museum of sorts that houses the annals and records and artifacts leading back up to the founding and destruction and rebuilding of Esgaroth, a toastmaster’s club with a statue of a man holding a tankard in one hand and a script in the other. “The old club wasn’t as grand, remember?” Bilbo murmurs to Thorin. “When we first came. You said it was very modest.”
Thorin gazes at the stone building and shakes his head. “No,” he replies, turning away. “I don’t.”
After leaving the central district, Thorin brings Bilbo down to the site at the fringe of Laketown to show him where he works. “We’re expanding the area of the town out east,” he tells Bilbo. “Where the lake is much deeper. There won’t be enough houses in the next decade so the Master is looking to address that. But there’s also going to be a port, a large one. We’ve heard the rumours.”
“Bard and the Master were talking about that in Dale,” Bilbo says. “When I met them there.”
“Ah.” A small smile touches his lips. “Good news for all of us, then.”
They have lunch in a small café in the northern district and return to Thorin’s house afterwards. Thorin leaves him there to pack and goes back to work, and because Bilbo never took anything out of his bag, he has little to do and spends all of his time in Thorin’s bed with the curtains drawn, trying not to cry. He holds Thorin’s pillow against his face and just breathes like he hasn’t breathed all day, flooding his lungs with everything that is and was Thorin, the smell far too precious to relinquish fully, the hurt shattering inside the empty space that now occupies his chest. Bilbo falls asleep quite unintentionally and is woken up only by the opening and closing of the front door. He doesn’t even realise how much time has passed until Thorin has returned and called him to have dinner.
When they have finished eating and washed the plates, Bilbo waits in the bedroom while Thorin takes a shower. His heart pounds double-time when he hears the splashing stop, and continues on as Thorin enters with a towel wrapped around his waist. “All packed?” he asks Bilbo.
“Tomorrow morning. After breakfast.”
“Are you going straight home?”
Shaking his head, Bilbo looks away. “I’ve some things to do in Rivendell and Bree. But I won’t be staying long.”
There’s a shockingly long moment where Bilbo feels as though he’s suspended in space, not moving or existing or breathing, while Thorin moves about the room and changes into his nightwear. He lies down only when Thorin does and Bilbo turns over to face him, ready to make one last plea to stay, but Thorin touches his lip with his thumb and kisses him. “Don’t,” Thorin whispers.
“Let me —”
“I know what you’re going to say. I’m sorry. This is how it has to be. What we’ve had these few days, all that we’ve done together — I couldn’t have asked for anything else. If we end it here, this is how I’ll always remember you. I wouldn’t give this up for anything. Nothing in the world is more dear to me. We could have been so much more than this, but it’s enough for me.”
“We still can,” Bilbo insists. “There’s still time.”
A shaky smile crosses Thorin’s face. “Go to sleep,” he murmurs. “You’ll need your strength for tomorrow.”
There’s not enough strength in the world to do what he knows he must the next day, Bilbo knows, but he shuts his eyes and sleeps anyway, Thorin’s arms warm and reassuring around him, and he prays that he’ll never wake up.
In the morning Thorin is waiting for him when he wakes up. Bilbo gets dressed and takes his pack out into the living room and sits there with no stomach for breakfast. He is reassured only by the fact that Thorin hasn’t prepared anything for the two of them, but cannot find any reassurance in it.
“Come with me,” Bilbo beseeches.
“Then let me stay.”
“Please don’t do this. I’ll do anything. Anything you want.”
“I want you to go.”
Thorin is immovable. Bilbo begs, promises, pleads, but Thorin turns away and sets his mouth in a thin and unhappy line and tells him again that he should get going.
“I could tell the other dwarves,” Bilbo says. “About you. Here.”
“But you won’t.”
Thorin shakes his head. “No, you won’t.”
“How do you be sure of that?” Bilbo asks, though he knows that Thorin is right.
“Because you love me,” Thorin replies softly, and says no more than that.
When Bilbo does leave, finally, it’s almost as though he is in a dream, the feeling of which he has already become all too accustomed with to know when it is so. They do not say anything to each other as Bilbo leaves, their faces confessing what their voices will not. It is very quiet and very quick — he puts his face against Thorin’s shoulder as Thorin allows and he holds Bilbo loosely against him as Bilbo tries to read his heart in his touch, and when he lets go they kiss once last time and Bilbo walks to the door and steps outside with his pack, blinking against the tears and the morning sunlight harsh on his face, the door closing with a soft click behind him.
He stands on the porch, just breathing for a full minute. It’s appalling, really, all the things which can be done without the use of words.
He is gone. Bilbo’s gone.
Thorin keeps his hands flat on the door, holding it shut as if to keep someone out. He isn’t keeping anyone out, not as far as he knows. Just. Well.
He is still too stunned to do anything after the door has closed. When he regains control, he shuffles to the kitchen and makes a cup of tea, his hands shaking as he balls up the leaves between his fingers and heats the water over the fire. Then he sits at the table in the pantry with his elbow on it and a hand over his face. The tea goes ignored for a good length of time while Thorin just thinks, before it is poured away down the sink and the cup washed and dried and put back in the cupboard.
He tries to go to bed again, but the day is early and the devastation of having to turn Bilbo out isn’t enough to have reset his biological clock, so he lies there forlornly on his side with his eyes closed, wishing for the oblivion of insensateness, stubbornly ignoring how his bed, made for two, now only has one. Odd that he notices this, when it’s been like that for years. His thoughts and memories have gone all fuzzy, like a piece of parchment that has suffered water damage at the corners and dried out again, still clear enough to scrutinise but not quite the same as it was before.
Thorin opens his eyes, blinking, and sees a little scroll on the bedside table, tied around the middle with red string. He sits up and takes it and unfurls it, looking at what’s been written on the parchment in painstakingly neat handwriting.
I don’t know what else there is to say to you. I’ve said everything that I could think of, and if there’s anything that I could have said to make things alright, I’m sorry I didn’t think of it in time. But you have to know that no matter what you think or who you believe yourself to be, for who you were, are and will be, I love you. I always will.
Thorin swallows convulsively, which is difficult given that he is lying down and his throat isn’t made for that. Carefully, he rolls up the piece of parchment and ties it with the string, placing it back on the table in the same exact spot where he had seen it, such that it is as though no one had ever opened and read it before, that it might someday be unfurled to see the sunlight like a butterfly’s outstretching wing.
It is a fine day to be travelling, with perfect weather and perfect sun and just the right amount of clouds in the sky, but Bilbo does not see any of it. He lets his pony carry him on the path leading away from Laketown to the border of the Mirkwood, barely guiding her along, the reins looped around his limp hands. Like a shell, a husk, his body is hunched as he travels, his mind still back in Laketown in that small house and even smaller bed. Bilbo thinks he still smells of Thorin’s house, of Thorin if he stretches his hopes wide enough, and wonders how long it will take for it to fall away from his body. If he doesn’t wash this particular set of clothing for as long as he could handle, might he theoretically be able to preserve the last evidence that he’d ever found Thorin in Laketown? Could he even bear to set foot in that town ever again? He thinks these things over, and can’t find the answers he wouldn’t know what to think of anyway.
The ride goes on into the morning, and the country stretches into trees and forests, a world without end. A world he thought he’d seen enough of, once. Bilbo’s pony trots a bit faster, her hooves thudding into soft ground like a heartbeat, the breath of the earth.
He tilts his head back and looks to the sky, squinting when the sun slips out from behind a large bank of cloud. The trail ahead is cornfields and gravel and loose soil, checked with roadside heather and morning glory. He’s travelled this road before with the elven host, and thought it beautiful. It still is, Bilbo thinks, but he just can’t appreciate it at the moment. He is riding sightless with eyes wide open, his body lolling about and his thoughts on Thorin.
The fields rustle as he passes, a wave of susurration guided by a gusting wind. Few trees sprout up along the way, but the origamied amber leaves that crunch crisply beneath him are evocative of autumn. After a length of riding, the fields diminish away and change into a flamenco explosion of yellow and orange. There is sedge and thistle and wild mustard, and a buzzing of bees that reminds Bilbo of the Carrock, which he tries to look forward to visiting again, but fails. He’s not sure if he can look forward to anything, ever.
He only becomes aware that he’s taken a wrong turn when he is suddenly fenced in by palings on both sides. Marianne snorts and goes a little slower, her head turning smartly from side to side, eyes wary. Bilbo stares down the length of the path that they are now on, which he does not recognise ever having walked. Torn flags hang from pickets staked firm and deep into the ground, flashing bright colours and mutilated symbols like warning signals. Magpies crow loudly and obnoxiously in the sky. Bilbo swallows and nudges his pony to turn around.
As he completes the turn, he hears a rustling that sounds nothing like the work of wind, but that of something moving through leaves. Bilbo swallows nervously and prompts Marianne to trot forward, managing a couple of metres before someone steps out of the corn and into his path.
“Morning.” The man, dressed in a brown leather tunic and a short, black cape, tips his hat at Bilbo. He has an easy smile that would appear friendly, if not for his eyes.
Bilbo holds on to the reins a bit tighter. “Morning,” he replies.
“Addran, at your service,” the man says smoothly, though his tone carries no intention of being in anyone’s service.
“Bilbo Baggins at yours.” Bilbo studies the man warily. He has a handsome face and a small, flat nose, though there’s something about his tapered eyes that Bilbo doesn’t like.
“Not many people travel down this road, Mister Bilbo Baggins. Are you lost, by any chance?”
“I shouldn’t think so, no,” Bilbo says.
“Hm. I see. Must be dangerous, travelling on your own,” the man says, slowly walking toward him. “What’s a hobbit doing so far out east?”
“I — er, would rather not say.” Bilbo blinks, keeping his eyes on the man, wishing he could tell Marianne to reverse without any cuing. “Could you…could you stay where you are, please?”
The man keeps walking, though his gait resembles more of a glide than that of legs moving. “I can help you,” he says, wearing the same smile. He spreads his arms conciliatorily, sweeping aside his cloak. Bilbo squeaks when he catches sight of the hilt of a sword in the man’s belt, and fumbles for both his ring and Sting.
“No — no, I don’t need your help, I —”
Hands grab at him from behind, and Bilbo lets out a shout as he falls off his pony and lands hard on his back. Before he can do anything else, his wrists are pinned above his head by a pair of hands much larger than his own; he yells and kicks out, catching a shin and a grunt of pain, and then his ankles too are being held down as well. He struggles to break free, but the grip the other two men have on him is much too strong.
The man named Addran stands over him, now with his sword unsheathed, and places the tip delicately at Bilbo’s throat. Bilbo whimpers and tries to push himself back into the earth, shirking away from it. “Just a routine inventory check of passers-by, Mister Bilbo Baggins,” he says, his voice oily. Then, it turns crisp and authoritative as he says, “Search his pockets.”
The pressure of one hand is removed from Bilbo’s wrists, the remaining one still unyielding, and Bilbo feels himself being patted down all over. His wallet is removed from his waistcoat, then the ring in his front pocket. Sting is pulled from its hilt and handed to Addran, who whistles as he takes it in his left hand. “That’s a beauty. Elven weaponry, I believe?” He looks down at Bilbo. “You didn’t steal this, did you?”
Bilbo shakes his head frantically. “Please,” he begs. “Let me go.”
“He’s seen our faces,” the man holding his ankles says.
“Don’t take any chances.” The second man nods at Addran.
Addran shrugs. “If it were up to me,” he tells Bilbo, “you’d walk away from this alive. But we can’t all get what we want, can we? Sorry.” He raises the sword, blade pointed at Bilbo’s chest, and Bilbo cries out and squeezes his eyes shut.
The piercing does not come, but he hears a thud and Addran goes “Ungh!” and suddenly he can move his legs again; something heavy falls onto his thighs, and then his arms are free as well. He scrambles to his feet, and it’s Sting on him, so he takes it with both hands and reasserts his vision, looking about wildly for someone to slash or stab; he sees Addran struggling with someone about three-quarters his own size on the ground, and the two other men rounding on him with their weapons drawn.
It’s Thorin on Addran, punching him in the jaw, and Bilbo is surprised at the sight of him for a fraction of a second, then feeling returns to his arms and hands along with a flare of renewed vigour, and he charges at the two men with Sting, yelling and slashing at the back of their legs with it. He sinks the blade deep enough in the first man’s calf to know that he’s nicked the bone, and wrenches it back out with a brilliant spray of blood. The man screams and topples over; the second man blocks Bilbo’s first stab and strikes at him in a wide arc with his own sword, which is longer and larger than Sting, made for fighting foes much larger than Bilbo, allowing Bilbo to slip deftly around it and thrust Sting into the man’s shoulder.
Bilbo thinks for a fierce moment that he’s done it, but the man kicks out at him and drives a boot into his stomach, winding him magnificently, and he keels over in pain, his vision blurring. The man’s sword sweeps into his chest this time, tearing his waistcoat and catching in his mithril mail; the material holds, and instead of being sliced open he is knocked onto his back, Sting flying from his hands. Bilbo chokes and blinks quickly, twisting violently to the side and avoiding the tip of his opponent’s sword just before it can reach his body, and he stops, because there’s a foot crushing his ankle, the one he’d injured a year ago, into the ground; he wriggles and yells, throwing up a hand to shield his face just as the man swings the sword down on him.
A heavy fall in front of him, then an even heavier one, and the weight on his ankle lifts. He lowers his shaky hand to the man falling flat in front of him, a sword sticking out of his back. Bilbo crawls backward, away from him, hyperventilating and still dazed from the aftershock of fighting.
He looks up and sees Thorin standing over the fallen man, his long hair a mess about his face, which is streaked with blood. He has a hand clutched to his side, keeping it there as he teeters, unstable, and then collapses where he stands.
“Thorin!” Bilbo lunges over the dead man to him. Thorin has gone very, very pale underneath the blood streaming down his face, his breathing coming out in ragged pants. Bilbo puts his hands where Thorin refuses to let go, and brings them away bloody. “No,” Bilbo whispers. “No, no.”
Thorin grimaces. “Are you alright?” he gasps.
“You’re bleeding. Oh, gods, it’s everywhere!” Bilbo makes for his saddle-bags, where he must keep something that will help — he must keep something — but Thorin grabs at his wrist.
“Stay,” he breathes.
“I need to do something, I’ll get help —”
“It’s okay. It’s okay.” More blood blossoms out from beneath his fingers, staining the cotton of his shirt a dark ruby red, like a growing patch of spilled wine. “It doesn’t hurt. Not one bit.” He screws up his face, teeth clenched, through which air slices in and out weakly.
“You’re wounded,” Bilbo says. “I have to — let me see it, I can —” He gasps in horror when he manages to pull Thorin’s hand away from his side for a moment. Underneath it is nothing but thick, oozing blood that has drenched the ripped fabric completely, too much to see anything else but that the wound is a mortal one. Thorin makes a strangled sound and clamps his hand back onto it. “We have to get you back to Laketown, or to the elves, they can do —”
“Nothing for me,” Thorin whispers. “I don’t — have much time left. Just…just stay with me. Until I’m gone.”
“You’re not going to die.” Bilbo shakes his head, taking Thorin’s free hand in both of his own. “You can’t die. Not here.”
“Listen — to me.” He holds Bilbo’s hand with failing strength, seemingly losing the fight to keep talking in full sentences. “Come…closer.” Bilbo does, until their faces are as close as they were in bed together. Thorin sighs, closing his eyes. “I remember now,” he murmurs.
“Remember — remember what?”
“Everything.” Though he does not open his eyes, Thorin grins weakly. “I…know now. When I heard you — saw you — what was going to happen to you. It came back to me. Everything.”
“Everything — what? What do you mean, everything?”
Thorin brings Bilbo’s hands to his labouring chest, moving it in a slow circle. “It’s me,” he whispers. “Bilbo, it’s me.”
“It’s you,” Bilbo answers, nodding, not knowing what else to say. “Yes, it’s you.”
Thorin’s eyes flutter. “Halfling,” he whispers.
Bilbo blinks. He hasn’t been called that in years. The hat drops not a moment later. “Thorin?”
The grin widens, but only a little. He opens his eyes feebly, the look in them familiar and adoring and blue as the sky. “Hey.”
“Hey,” Bilbo chokes, squeezing Thorin’s hand between his own. His touch seems to give Thorin just enough strength to squeeze back in a gesture, to comfort, to reassure, to show endearment. “You’re…you’re back?”
“I — never left. Was always — always there.” His eyes fall closed again as he coughs weakly. “Grateful,” he says, breaths growing thready, “so grateful — that you…you’re safe. Here with me.”
“You saved me. I’ll save you, now.”
“No.” Bilbo tightens his fingers on Thorin’s. “No — don’t die, please, don’t go; you have to hold on — have to…”
Thorin’s eyelids stir, then lift marginally. The blue of his eyes is only just visible past his prickled lashes. “To die like this,” he whispers, “is the greatest honour I have ever known.” He raises a trembling hand to Bilbo’s face, cupping his cheek, and lets the dead weight of his hand pull Bilbo down to him, into a lasting kiss. “Tell…tell no one.”
“I — ah, I…”
“No one must know…that I died — here. At the Lonely Mountain, that’s where. I. Where everyone…where it is known. Promise me,” he murmurs over Bilbo’s lips.
“Yes,” Bilbo sobs, his voice breaking into pieces. “Yes, I — I promise.”
Thorin’s lips pull into a small smile. “I’m sorry,” he says, now so softly he is barely mouthing the words. “So — sorry. I would never have…at the Gate…”
“It’s not your fault. Never say that.”
Thorin breathes deeply, and exhales in a long sigh. “If only — more like you —” their lips meet, the slightest pressure of skin on skin, “— it would be a merrier world. Do you remember? I…”
The next breath does not come, and Thorin’s hand slackens and slides away from his bloodied side. The other hand that Bilbo still holds is warm, but even as he rubs it, massages it, kisses it, there is no response. After many minutes that feel like hours, Bilbo lowers himself onto Thorin’s body and hugs him tight. He does not let go as he cries and cries with his face in Thorin’s shoulder, the one place where he’s always felt safest enclosed in by tender arms, always holding him near as if to protect something more precious than life itself.
He chooses the spot well after many minutes of thought, burying Thorin out in the field, right beneath a tall oak tree in an unmarked grave. He’ll remember the exact spot if he sees it again, he’s sure of it. Bilbo kneels there, by the tree, and whispers to the soft earth, “I’ll always remember. No matter what,” before he stands and blows his nose pointlessly and mounts his pony to turn away, riding up the browbeaten path.
The journey to the Woodland Realm is a long and winding one, much further than it needs to be, and he cries quietly all the way, diminishing into sniffles by the time he comes across a patrol of elven sentries who take him into Thranduil’s kingdom once more. Bilbo wipes his tears and collects himself adequately before meeting the Elvenking and Legolas in the throne hall, nodding wherever appropriate but never meeting anyone’s gaze directly.
“Bilbo,” Legolas says to him after they have left the hall. “Are you alright? You look troubled.”
“I’m just a bit tired.” Bilbo tries for a smile.
Legolas regards him carefully, then nods. “Get some rest. We’ll be having dinner soon.”
When he gets to his room, Bilbo drags himself over to the bed and has a lie down, his face turned away from the door so that anyone passing by will think that he’s sleeping or resting. Not crying, and definitely not grieving. He’s hungry and his clothes are still dirty, but he doesn’t care. Bilbo pulls the covers to his waist and sleeps with his hands under his cheek, so that he won’t have to wait for rougher, more calloused hands to slide and rub warmth into them.
He is woken up by calls for dinner, which he goes to only to show whatever he dares of his face, so that no one has reason to believe that he’s run away. As for warding off Legolas’s concern that he’s starving himself, Bilbo has the bare minimum and makes a fine display of enjoying his food, rolling out the smile he’s learned to use when there’s absolutely nothing to be happy about, an immensely hollow feeling spidering outward in his chest.
Later, he’s sick in the latrine, and sobs over the sink as he washes his face. He shivers and clutches at himself, not daring to look in the mirror, not with the way his heart is aching full to burst. It’s too soon to even pretend that Thorin is there with him, and much too painful to know that he isn’t. Already he is missing his company and the rough warmth of Thorin’s hands, and when he braces his palms over the latrine to retch again, the feeling in his hands is cold and unbearably lonely.
The next day, he sets off again for the Carrock, with Legolas and another elf accompanying him to show the way. Bilbo maintains his silence throughout, and to his relief Legolas gets the message quickly and doesn’t persist in prompting him to speak. It is only at the edge of the Mirkwood, where Bilbo knows the way, that Legolas says to him, “Well, goodbye for now, Bilbo.” He touches Bilbo’s shoulder and looks at him, eyes searching his. “You’ll be alright, yeah?”
“I’ll be okay,” Bilbo replies quietly. He’s sure that even the other elf can tell that he’s lying, but no one seems to feel the need to call him out on that.
He reaches the Carrock by sundown, and even though Beorn is not in, Bilbo is met by the animals at the front gate and brought inside the manse by his sleeves. His things are stripped away from him and he’s slipped out of his filthy clothes and tumbled into a tub of hot, soapy water. Bilbo laughs when the two deer creep up on him with soft, ticklish sponges, and doesn’t fight them as they scrub his back. It’s a sound that he never thought he would ever hear himself make again, but looking into the long, innocent faces of the deer towelling him off, it’s difficult to feel sorrow even with Thorin on his mind.
Beorn comes back in the evening, arms full of firewood. He grins as he enters the kitchen, where Bilbo is busying himself with making dinner. “I knew you were here,” he says. “I could smell you a mile away.”
“Are you saying I stink? I just had a bath, I’ll have you know,” Bilbo replies.
“How was Erebor?”
Bilbo smiles tightly and sets a bowl of sauteed turnips onto the table. “Dinner,” he intones, not wanting to talk about anything at all.
Beorn shrugs and sits down. “Suit yourself.”
He remains at the Carrock for a few days, just to check on the condition of the garden and the hives which were once his to take care of. Then, after seeing that they’re in perfect condition, he looks for weeds that aren’t there and chops firewood even though there’s plenty. In the afternoons, he goes out riding with Marianne, and rereads all the books he has in the evenings. He has to do these things to fill his time and his head, distractions a physical necessity to stop himself from sinking into his thoughts. He is already sleeping badly, waking up in the late hours to himself, just him, with no one else around and so much of night to weather through alone, clutching the blankets tighter around his shivering, sob-wracked body.
Radagast pops in the day he leaves, and there is much shouting and scolding and throwing of heavy objects when Beorn confronts the wizard with the frogspawn that he’s apparently been storing in the water trough behind the manse for weeks, though much of the aggression is Beorn’s and none of it Radagast’s, who just does a lot of being shaken like a pepperpot. Peace is only restored when Bilbo brokers a deal between the two of them — that Radagast keeps future pieces of nature in places where they belong, and in return Beorn will not have the wizard slathered in honey and tied to the fencepost near the hives.
“Thank you, Bilbo,” Radagast says afterwards, fixing his robes. “I don’t know what I’d have done without you.”
“You’d be looking for a good remedy for bee stings, I imagine,” Bilbo replies, and they share a laugh that dies quickly in his throat.
Come next morning, Bilbo departs from the Carrock, once again with Radagast at his side. They ride through the woods where Bilbo had been attacked, up the slope and into the pass, traversing down the other side without much event. Bilbo doesn’t feel like speaking much, as usual, but his good fortune continues with Radagast, who is perfectly alright with talking like a runaway cart and not caring if anyone is listening.
They part ways not long after leaving the Misty Mountains behind, Radagast returning to Rhosgobel and Bilbo heading on to Rivendell. Bilbo unfolds his map and searches out the shortest route, although he already knows which one to take. The old feel of the parchment rustling under his fingers startles him, even more so when he runs his fingers over the writing at its corners. It seems a lifetime ago when he’d written those words down on a whim, back when the world was far behind him and another adventure just ahead. His eyes don’t shift continually to Erebor anymore; he peruses the map with an extent freedom, and folds it up neatly into quarters when he’s done with it.
Rivendell is an absolute relief to see once more. The elves pour out to receive him, Clarissë leading the charge to bend over him and kiss him on both cheeks, before Elrond too stands before him with a warm smile. “Iston i nîf gîn,” he says. “It is good to see you again, Bilbo Baggins. Everyone has missed you greatly.”
“I — I’ve missed everyone too,” Bilbo mumbles.
“You must stay a while. The night, at least. I presume that you are returning to the Shire?”
“Yes, I am. Thank you, I will stay,” Bilbo tells him, meeting his gaze just once and smiling blandly before he lowers it.
His days of return are much more busy and fruitful in Rivendell, where he has many people who want to talk to him and kiss his cheeks and hold his hands, to ask after his trip to Erebor and back. Bilbo initially feels very uncomfortable about the whole affair, especially the parts where contact is involved. It’s odd having lips brush his cheeks without the follow-up of a beard, and having hands in his that are slim and smooth and unspoiled. After a while, he gets used to it, though he continues to miss Thorin as much as ever.
A welcome-back party is sprung on him in the library when he goes to return his books, with old and new faces among the ranks of the librarians there looking after the place in his absence. More hugging and crying and touching ensues. Bilbo is overwhelmed. He cries with happiness, which doesn’t feel right after having cried for so long on nothing but loss and despair, but he soldiers through. There is a book-shaped cake and sandwiches and pints of mulled wine, and even as he chides everyone for bringing food into the library, Bilbo is smiling throughout.
A week passes, and Bilbo’s things still remained packed, save for the clothes he wears and launders when he needs to change out. He frequents the Hall of Fire once again and listens to music, some sad and some happy. Clarissë sings for him, he plays his flute for her. There’s a quiet sense of closure in being surrounded by so much music, though he has to excuse himself from the hall whenever something becomes much too sad to listen to and he has to have a little cry in his room to pretend that it will make him feel better.
Before long, Bilbo moves on as well by foot, having returned Marianne to Elrond, with Bree as his next destination. He steps into the homey village without being recognised much, that is, until he calls at the Prancing Pony and the innkeeper takes a look at his face and shouts, “Well, if it isn’t Mister Bilbo Baggins!”
“Hello, Findor,” Bilbo replies with weariness in his tone.
“Blimey, it’s been, what? Three years?”
The innkeeper whistles. “Where’d you go to? Must have been one heck of a journey.”
“Erebor, and — well, it was. Many hecks, as a matter of fact,” Bilbo sits at the counter and shrugs his pack off. “Anything to eat? I’m starving.” He honestly doesn’t ever remember feeling as hungry as he is now in his entire life.
A plate of fried chicken and a hobbit-sized pint of cider later, Bilbo pays the innkeeper and leaves, intending to make Bag End by dusk, only he runs into his drinking buddies on the way out, and he doesn’t recall too much of what happened after that. Somehow, the next morning he ends up in a bed in a house he does not know, and stops freaking out only when a snore alerts him to one of his friends curled up on the floor next to the bed.
When he finally figures out where he’s left all his things, and found his waistcoat on a scarecrow out in a plot of land overgrown with pipe-weed, Bilbo finally makes for Hobbiton. It is a half-day walk filled with familiar landscapes and sunlight and wind, a whole pleasure in itself as he reminisces. Suddenly, he is back in the last carriage of a caravan again, legs swinging, the future unwritten, his days rife with the excitement of possibility. A world that was waiting, and still is.
The windblown uplands of the little hobbit village come into sight within hours of leaving Bree, and Bilbo is looking over a sea of verdant green on a knoll, a countryside speckled with colour and other hobbits and circular doors, all of which floats by until he is standing at the front gate to Bag End, looking up at his home. The gate creaks open as he enters; the hinges are in need of a bit of oiling.
“Mister Bilbo!” someone calls from behind him.
“Mister Hamfast!” Bilbo reaches over his lovely fence to shake the Gaffer’s hand.
“You’ve come back again,” Hamfast says. “Just like I knew you would. Everyone was saying you wouldn’t, not this time, but I told them otherwise, I did. I know you better than all of them do.”
Bilbo just smiles.
“Will you be staying? For good?”
“I don’t know yet. Perhaps. But definitely staying for now, yes.”
Hamfast returns his smile. “I took care of the place for you,” he says, nodding at the front door to Bag End. “Dusting and cleaning and everything. There’s been a bit of a mite problem recently, but I’ve sent for someone already. Don’t you worry about a thing, Mister Bilbo.”
“Oh.” Bilbo looks at the Gaffer’s kindly face, feeling a crash of immense gratitude for him. “Th — thank you! I…I’m really indebted to you, I am.”
Hamfast shakes his head and raises a hand. “Think nothing of it, Mister Bilbo. S’what friends are for. Though you’ll be wanting to hear that the Sackville-Bagginses have been kicking up an awful ruckus about you. Saying that you’re dead again.” He gives a grimace and dusts off his hands. “You’ll want to watch out for them; they’re a right nasty lot.”
“I will, thank you.”
Holding his spade, Hamfast winks at Bilbo. “Go on, then. I’ll leave you to it.”
Bilbo walks up the garden path and knocks on the front door, just for the sake of it, before he slips the key in. True to the Gaffer’s word, the inside of the place is free of dust and cobwebs and any other evidence of the lack of occupancy for the last three years. Bag End is nearly as he left it, down to the plates on the washing-rack and furniture in the living room, and though the pantry is bare as a bone, that is to be expected. He throws his pack onto the couch and rests in his armchair with his feet put up on a pouffe that he doesn’t recall ever buying. The fireplace is empty and cold. When Bilbo sees that, he searches about for some dry tinder and wood to get a fire going, and has to go next door to ask one more favour of the Gaffer as he has nothing in his wood-box at all.
Slowly, Bilbo settles back comfortably into Hobbiton. Having been away for so long, not many people take a second look at him in the short run, but news of his return spreads quickly, and soon enough Bilbo has to consciously relearn how to ignore the way people stare at him with their eyes narrowed in suspicion and their noses upturned. He finds that he still enjoys it greatly whenever visitors come around, liking it a lot more as additional presences help to make Bag End feel not so large or empty. This is mostly fulfilled by the hobbitlings, who, to his delight, are still mostly endeared to him and sneak around whenever they can evade the watchful eyes of their parents, defying instructions not to go near ‘Queer Old Mister Baggins’. He tells them stories and makes them pies and gives them little trinkets, but even as they facilitate the process of getting used to living life in one place again, not a day passes that he doesn’t let his thoughts move to Thorin.
Sting goes into the bottom of his trunk along with his travel pack and sword belt. His shirt of mithril mail goes to the museum in Michel Delving, where he knows it will be safe until he finds the need to retrieve it. Bilbo still keeps the ring on him at all times, electing to wear it on a chain around his neck after seemingly misplacing it a couple of instances. He still can’t get his head around how it managed to get into one of his least favourite mugs when he always has it in his pocket all day long and generally never uses it except in the case of unwelcome visitors, or worse, the Sackville-Bagginses. Whatever the case, the chain solves the problem nicely, and the ring stops winding up in odd places.
Winter comes, flowers fade, Spring arrives, and the Shire is full of colour once more. He finishes the final draft of his memoirs, at long last and after three separate drafts. Bilbo day-trips to Bree on occasion, but on most days he adopts the lifestyle he used to know best — at home, sipping strong black tea with a good book by the fireplace. When he’s not doing that, he’s out shopping for more things to furnish his hobbit-hole with or lunching with the Gamgees or calling on his Tookish cousins and nephews. Days outdoors are spent on walks and sightseeing and waterlilies in the pond. Early in the year, his cousin Drogo marries, and though Bilbo knows that he too thinks him rather strange, Bilbo gets an invitation to attend the ceremony nonetheless.
This goes on for a very long while, spanning the rest of the new year. Good days are filled with activity and friends and hot piping strudel and wine. Bad days boast burnt meatloaf in his oven and scuff marks on his nicely varnished floor and passive-aggressive mail from the Sackville-Bagginses. One particularly awful day, he loses the bit of contract he had left over from when the dwarves first came knocking on his door, and after turning nearly the whole of Bag End inside out, Bilbo resigns himself to never finding it again. It does help that Gandalf and Balin unexpectedly pop by for tea afterwards, and it helps to take away a bit of the sadness. On other days neither good nor bad, he sits by the window with a cup of warm chamomile, staring at the same unbroken blaze of sky, his mind a thousand miles away and his heart where only the dead have ever travelled, where he will be too, someday, eventually, as all living things do.
He lives up to his promise to Thorin dutifully and faithfully. When he thinks the pain has lost sufficient resonance such that he might be able to bear it, he sketches Thorin over and over again, until he is satisfied that his hair is of the right length and his eyes are correctly shaped and his mouth is as smooth and set like he knows it was. If he’s feeling brave enough, he sketches where Thorin is buried, because he can and not because he fears forgetting, because he never will. When the hurt rebounds, as it often does on bad days, Bilbo writes out all that he knows of Thorin, from what he heard from Thorin himself and his sister, and he reads it many times over before nothing else can be added before he burns it in the fireplace. He does this many times over until he is sure that he will remember what he has written for the rest of his life.
He ends it the same way, every time: I loved him very much. And he loved me too.
One particularly bright Mersday, where the weather is humid and warm, Bilbo is standing in line at the bookstore when a long shadow moves over him. He looks behind him, and up at the man next in queue after him, a scroll in his hands and seemingly unperturbed by the all the murmuring and pointing the other hobbits in the store are doing. While Bilbo is rather pleased at how he, for once, isn’t the cause of the disturbance, he is nonetheless confused. He knows that Men are hardly seen in Hobbiton, which he knows for a fact hasn’t changed by the reactions the stranger is eliciting, and finds himself tailing the man after they have paid for their purchases and have left the store.
“Excuse me,” Bilbo calls to him. The man turns around. “Bilbo Baggins, at your service.”
“Byron Isildur, at yours.” The man smiles affably. “May I help you?”
“Pardon my rudeness,” Bilbo says slowly, “but I notice that you’re, well, a man.”
“Yes. So I am.”
“I was just wondering, if you are willing to share, what you’re doing in Hobbiton? You’re not from Bree, are you?”
He shakes his head. “No, I was just passing through. Came in through Forlond.”
“Forlond?” Bilbo muses. “So you’re headed for Bree, then?”
“If there is time. Or else I’ll be taking the southwest route direct to Edoras.”
“I’ve business with the King of Rohan,” Byron tells him. “Tidings from over the seas."
“What sort of tidings?”
Byron grins. “Telling you would take some time. I don’t think I’ll be staying that long.”
“What if I came with you?” Bilbo asks, stricken with sudden interest in this stranger and his destinations and news. “To Edoras.”
Byron laughs. “Sure, I could tell you on the way, if you really want to hear.”
Bilbo finds himself thinking of the city of Edoras and all that he’s read about the human capital of Rohan. The valleys of Harrowdale, the river Snowbourn, the Golden Hall of Meduseld. Mount Starkhorn. And beyond all that, he finds himself thinking of other things, like the empty backpack he has hanging up on a hook inside his cupboard, like Sting in its sheath on his mantelpiece, like the ring he wears on the chain around his neck. And most of all, he thinks of the bravest person he’s ever known, and how it was to have loved him. His heart quickens at these thoughts, and Bilbo cannot keep the smile off his face.
“I’d like that,” Bilbo says quietly. “I’d like that very much indeed.”
I am indebted to the Lord of The Rings Wiki, which has been an incredible source of maps, character profiles and histories to refer to throughout the course of writing this story.