Once he had decided, Bilbo went to Kili first. It was in the evening, just before dinner, when he entered the healers’ camp. Kili looked up at the ceiling of his tent as Bilbo entered.
“Have you, too, come to tell me I will be the stuff of legends? One-armed Kili, whose aim was ever true, who killed many Orcs in battle before he couldn’t put an arrow to bowstring anymore?”
“I have come to say goodbye, Kili,” Bilbo said gently.
Kili looked at Bilbo then. He seemed to see the truth of it in Bilbo’s face, for he reached to Bilbo then, with his one hand.
“No! You cannot go yet! How can you go while Fili still sleeps?” He wiped away furious tears. “Why would you go so soon?”
Bilbo had thought his heart could not break more, but of course, it would break again for this brave young Dwarf. “I have been gone a long time, Kili; and it is a long journey back to the Shire,” he said. “I must go home.”
Kili had never looked more like his uncle. “You do not need to go; you choose to go! A week, a month or more would make no difference; if you leave now you will have to spend the winter in Rivendell!”
Bilbo reluctantly nodded. Kili threw the stoneware pitcher of water from his bedside table at Bilbo’s head. “Go, then! I will tell Fili you did not care enough to wait!”
Bilbo dodged the pitcher. “Farewell, Kili,” he stuttered, his voice choked. He almost ran to exit the tent. He paused to hear Kili’s sobs, but he did not go back in the tent. Outside the healing camp, he wiped away his own tears. That could have gone better, he thought. Ah, well. Coward. You knew he could not leave his bed.
At dinner he told the rest of the company. Dwalin scowled and Balin’s frown was concerned. Bofur’s kind eyes were sad. Ori looked to Dori as if he sought an explanation. None seemed to understand. Bilbo was glad of it; he did not want them to understand his reasons. He had said he would go; he must go; that would have to be enough for them. They had known of his homesickness since almost the beginning of the journey. Let them remember his longing for his home and be satisfied.
Nevertheless, they all asked him to stay, in their various ways. Each pulled him aside the next day, at a meal or while he packed, to ask him to reconsider. Bofur was the hardest for Bilbo to face.
“I know ye miss your home,” he said. “But ye’ve just given ours back to us. Won’t you stay to see us make it one?” Bilbo could only shake his head. Bofur waited for a while, but Bilbo said nothing else. He continued packing. Finally Bofur clapped a hand on his shoulder, then moved away.
When he was ready, his bags packed, and Gandalf waited with his pony, Bilbo went to say goodbye to Fili. Fili lay still and silent, as Fili had never been. Though Gandalf waited, Bilbo sat a long time by Fili’s bed. He was glad that for this one member of the company, he did not have to try to explain. For this one member of the company, he could simply be. He pretended that he was not crying. He wished he could stay to see Fili wake. He did not think he could.
When he left Fili’s tent, he saw that they would have just enough time to ride to Dale before nightfall. Gandalf seemed to understand that he could not talk just yet. They had mounted and were prepared to ride out when a few Dwarves appeared, guards from the Iron Hills. They did not menace, but they were clearly there to stop them from leaving.
“Will you hinder us in our journey?” Gandalf inquired, only the slightest hint of power in his voice. Bilbo had seen Gandalf when he choose to intimidate. He was not trying yet.
“No, sir,” the Dwarf captain replied. “Only to ask you to wait, if you would.”
Bilbo tensed. No good can come of this. He spoke.
“If we do not leave now, we will not be in Dale before dark,” he said.
“You need not hurry,” Thorin said. “Erebor would welcome you a while yet.”
Bilbo trembled as he turned his pony to face Thorin. He would do this, and then it would be done. Gandalf turned his horse as well. It pranced forward a bit, blocking Bilbo’s view of Thorin.
“Perhaps not, Thorin Oakenshield,” Gandalf said. “But what good host keeps guests beyond when they want to stay?”
Thorin moved to the side a few steps to seek Bilbo, sitting his pony quietly beyond Gandalf. Bilbo could see Thorin now, leaning on a crutch, his ribs wrapped tightly. Balin supported his other side. Thorin’s face was taut with pain.
“What welcome guest flies into the night without farewells?” he asked. “You have taken your leave of all the company, but you have not bid me farewell, Bilbo.”
Bilbo looked at Thorin’s boots. “No,” he said. Thorin sighed.
“I meant what I said, Bilbo, when I thought I would die; and I mean it still. I would have friendship between us. I would know that you have forgiven me. I do not send you away but would ask you to stay in Erebor a time, to help us rebuild our home.”
Bilbo looked at the ground somewhere near Thorin’s feet. “I thank you,” he said. “I cannot stay.”
Thorin frowned. “Do you not wish to see Fili recovered?” Slowly, he maneuvered his crutch so he could take a few steps forward. “What do you mean, you cannot stay?” He looked suspiciously at Gandalf. “The wizard does not make you go.” It sounded half statement, half question.
Gandalf sat his horse, inscrutable. What good are wizards, Bilbo thought grumpily.
Thorin moved a few steps closer. Bilbo, half turning, realized that he was trapped between Gandalf on one side and a rocky outcropping on the other. He could not move away.
“Please do not go,” Thorin said softly. He was only a few feet away now, awkward with his crutch. He was bleeding through his dressing on one side.
“I must go! I cannot stay!” Bilbo cried wildly. Thorin’s hand was now on his pony’s bridle.
Still Thorin pressed him. “Why must you leave us so soon? And why would you not say goodbye to me before you left?”
Bilbo could not help it. He drew Sting.
“Let go my pony’s bridle,” he said. His voice was high and wavering. The Iron Hills guards were suddenly alert, but Thorin raised his hand to stay them.
“Bilbo,” he said. “Bilbo. You fear me.” Bilbo felt an angry tear roll down his face. He nodded once.
Thorin took his hand off the bridle. It was awkward for him, on the crutch, but he managed to move back some space. His jaw clenched.
“You cannot forgive me,” he said. “For my words and my deeds at the Gate.”
Bilbo slowly sheathed Sting. He looked at Gandalf, pleading. Gandalf merely looked back at him, a sad near-smile on his lips. He would find no help there. He turned back to Thorin.
“I have forgiven you, Thorin,” he said. Thorin looked up, his eyes bright. Bilbo shook his head. “But I cannot forget it.” Thorin drew in a breath. It seemed very loud in the sudden silence. Bilbo shook his head again, and scrunched his face, but still he cried.
“I dream of being held over that expanse. I dream again and again of falling that long way down. I tried to come and visit you and I could not make myself do it.” Bilbo sobbed. Thorin reached out his hand to Bilbo; Bilbo flinched. Thorin’s hand held for a moment, then dropped away.
“I am grateful for all you have done for Erebor,” he said stiffly. “I will not keep you when you do not wish to stay.” He paused. “I cannot believe your words when you say you have forgiven me, but I must believe you when you say you wish to go. Farewell then.” He gestured curtly to Balin, who helped him move back to his fretting healers.
He turned and he bowed then, a clumsy thing, very unlike the always dignified Thorin Oakenshield, King under the Mountain.
“I and mine shall ever be at your service,” he said.
Bilbo still could not look at his face. He turned a pleading look to Gandalf. With the saddest look in the world, Gandalf turned his horse to the Dale road. Bilbo followed on his pony. He thought perhaps he saw Kili watching in the twilight. He did not look at Thorin again. With every step he felt safer.