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Two Roads Diverged

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Bilbo had once heard that before a person died their entire life flashed before their eyes. All the good, all the bad, the joy and love, the pain and heartbreaks, all laid out before them like a scroll to consider and go over. In that moment a hobbit could make peace, let go of the things that weighed on them, and accept moving on to what came next with a clear mind. Bilbo had always thought it sounded very romantic and lovely and, even, hoped that his parents had experienced such a time of peaceful reflection before their deaths.

It was something he’d taken comfort in.

As he dashed through the thick unbrush of the forest, stones and roots catching at his feet, mud clinging and trying to hold him back, there was no peaceful record of his life playing before his eyes. When he fell and rolled down a soft embankment to splash into a shallow stream, the smiling faces of his parents did not swim before his eyes. When he tried to pull himself out of the water, dripping set and slipping in slick sand, and a howl that shattered the night made his heart seize up in his chest, there was no acceptance in him.

Just fear and anger and the silent chant in his mind of ‘That damnable wizard. This is his fault, I knew this was a bad idea!’. Oh how he hated Gandalf in that moment, hands scrambling over sharp river stones that bit into his soft palms and tore at his nails (or was he tearing at the rocks) and a stitch in his side making it hard to breath. How he hated himself for that moment of curiosity and loneliness driving him out of his door and for listening to Gandlaf’s last words: “I’ll be in Bree. 5 days to arrive, then another week there. If you change your mind that’s where you can find me.”

He’d changed his mind, fool that he was. He’d packed and run out of his door two days after Gandalf had left, a strange desire that he couldn’t put a name to taking hold and driving him. Maybe it was the thought of his mother, who had longed for one last adventure but never had the chance, and how she would have gone happily. Maybe it was the lingering spark of something, a thrum of excitement under his skin and in his heart, that the wizard had left behind.

Maybe he was just tired of doing the same thing day after day: wake, eat, chores, eat, business handled, eat, market or garden time, another meal, visiting with friends and relative or perhaps reading or writing, and so on and so forth. Every day, with little variation. It should have made him happy, like it made his kin and friends happy. He should have been content in it, with no desire to leave his cozy smial at all and certainly not for some vague, but dangerous, adventure as proposed by some daft wizard who he hadn’t seen since his mother died.

And yet he’d done just that. Left and gone dashing off to Bree, checked into the inn and asked for the wizard. The innkeeper had told him Gandalf had been there but wasn’t at the moment, but hadn’t yet checked out. Bilbo hadn’t been concerned at all, all too happy to find a spot to sit and drink and swap stories with the big folk milling about, when he’d been approached by a man claiming to be sent by Gandalf. The wizard was outside the town, he’d been told, waiting for him so they could get an early start in the morning.  

He hadn’t thought to be suspicious or question the man’s motives. He was looking for Gandalf, the man said he knew where Gandalf was, so off he went.

Into the woods outside of Bree’s gates, nattering on about adventure, happily being lead through trees and towards a pinprick that the man claimed was a fire and camp in the distance.

Like an idiot.  

Such an idiot. He was a fool, felt his mistake in his burning limbs and tight lungs as he tried to force himself to his feet only to stumble. He hit the ground on his hands and knees, sinking up to his wrists in soft sucking mud and sand. He heard scrambling behind him, imagined he saw the underbrush shaking and felt the heavy steps of the beast shaking him shaking the ground. He gasped out, heart stopping and terror freezing him.

Wargs. Huge wargs with razor sharp teeth and slathering jaws, chasing him through the forest. He didn’t know where they’d come from or where the man he’d been trailing behind had gone; one minute the man had been there and the next he’d vanished into the trees and the howls had started. Bilbo had taken off without a thought, memories of the Fell winter that he’d thought long buried bubbling to the surface. Wolves, made bold by lack of food, bodies thin, fur mangy and patchy, full on bald, bleeding, and scabbed in places. Eyes beady and crazed, yipping and foaming at the mouth in their mad hunger.

Snow and ice turned red by blood, the snapping of bones and tearing of flesh, shouts the the hobbits who fell behind and wouldn’t make it across the frozen over river. The smell of blood, cutting through the nothingness of that bitterly freezing winter day. And Bilbo, young and trembling in his mother’s hold, screaming as his father tripped and the wolves converged on him.

The thought of that being him, of being torn apart while he still breathed, had sent him blindly into the forest, no idea if he was headed back towards Bree or to his doom.

He’d seen flashes of his pursuers, knew they were as tall as he was, like wolves but more twisted, crueler somehow, fur dirty and ragged, eyes glowing yellow in the darkness as they ran and stalked him, growls and barks that sounded almost like laughter as they ran him down. Sometimes they’d jump ahead of him, send him tripping and falling back to another direction.

His lungs and heart were going to burst in his chest, like overripe fruit left out in the sun too long. He couldn’t even pull himself out of this forsaken riverbed, sliding down the wet earth every time he tried to haul himself up the bank. He caught onto roots, dug his feet in, but the ground crumbled beneath him. His mouth was sour with fear and bile; the only thing keeping him from being sick was the feral, inhuman almost-laughter.

He was going to die like his father had died and no one would even know where he was, how to find him. He would forever be Bilbo Baggins who’d left his safe home to chase a wizard and never returned.

Lobelia would take his home and oh, that was not what he wanted his last thought to be, it really wasn’t. Why couldn’t he think of something pleasant, like warm bread and jam or warm summer days or his mother’s soft hands that had always smelled of lavender? Why, as he dragged himself up and the sound of paws beating against the earth, splashing through water, was he wishing he’d confronted Lobelia about the silver he just knew she’d stolen and all the rumors she’d started about him not being a proper hobbit worthy of Bag End.

No family, no spouse, no reason for such a large home that miserable hobbitess had said so many times, and he’d just smiled politely thought it all and he should have-

Something clamped onto the back of his jacket, a very nice velvet affair with very fine stichting that he was very proud of, and pulled. He dug his fingers into the dirt, caught rocks and roots. Fabric tore, the ripping sound resonating through him all the way to his teeth. Pain shot through his as a nail caught something and tore free. He kicked back, felt rough fur, kicked harder and then-

He screamed as strong jaws clamped onto his leg, sinking in deep, and then everything became fire. He dropped back, hit the ground hard, and the world darkened and shook as flamed licked up his leg, jumped into his flesh and held fast. There was a jerk and then he was flying back, rolling across the ground.

Someone sobbed, far away.

A shadow fell over him. He forced his eyes, blurred and wet, to focus long enough to see teeth, stained yellow under the blood foaming around them and black gums, lips pulled back and tongue lolled out in a parody of a smile. His breath stopped, his heart stopped, everything stopped, except the teeth coming closer closer-

And all he thought think was ‘damn that blasted wizard.’

A streak of tawny gold slammed into the warg and, with a confused whine, it tumbled away from him and back into the stream with a splash. Growling filled the air as the warg and what had hit it twisted and fought. The golden animal (a wolf? Maybe. It was hard to...hard to see. To think. He felt so sick.) was much smaller than the warg but had latched onto it’s neck and was hanging on tight as the warg rolled and thrashed, trying to escape the claws shredding it’s back. There was blood, in the air, staining fur, running free.

Bilbo sucked in a breath into his burning lungs and pushed himself back over the ground. Tried to, at least, but a wave of pain had him crying out and reaching for his leg; blood smeared over his hands and all he could see was sinew and muscle, bone hidden under blood and dirt.

The sobbing grew in intensity. His throat burned.  

Color drained from the world, leaving it all grays and growing blackness.

The other wargs he’d seen in the woods jumped from wherever they’d been, rounded on the fight. Bilbo could see their bodies tensing, knew they were about the leap into the fray.

Another wolf came streaking out of the trees and into the riverbed, placed itself between the two wargs and the scuffle happening behind him. It bared its teeth and puffed up, fur standing on end as it growled, low and threatening. The wargs seemed to hesitate and in that time another wolf leapt down, near silent aside from the muted splash as it touched down.

The first warg yelped. The golden wolf had ridden it down and, as Bilbo watched, the warg’s belly was torn open. A steaming mass of innards and blood tumbled free; the warg’s legs twitched and it whined, low and warbling then gasping. It tried to move, to stand, collapsed into its own insides and went still.  

Bilbo’s stomach convulsed and then he was heaving, thick and sour, onto the earth. The wargs skittered back.

Something gleamed in the darkness, metal under moonlight, and a shadow fell onto one of the wargs. Another flash and the warg was no longer connected to its head.

Blibo blinked and the world vanished, went silent. His last thought was ‘Oh, I’m going to kill that wizard’ and then nothing at all.

---

Thorin grimached at the mess on his sword as he dragged it out of the last warg. The beast had tried to escape, jumped clear up the embankment but Frerin had been snapping at its heels and managed to hold it up long enough for him to follow and finish it off. He bent down and dragged his weapon along the fur of the warg, resolved to be content with that until they returned to camp and he could clean it properly.

A excited yip and a shout of his name had him looping back to the stream, Frerin loping along at his side and looking entirely too pleased with himself.

Idiots, the three of them. They were supposed to be laying low, waiting for information from Erebor, not chasing after human shifters and saving stupid hobbits from their well earned fates and...looking at Kili’s bare, hairy ass as he tore strips from that hobbit’s jacket to wrap up his leg.

Thorin slide back to the steam with a groan. If Aule was kinder they’d be able to keep clothes when they changed and he’d never be subject to seeing his nephew’s ‘bits’ like this.

“What are you doing?”

“He’s been bitten.” Kili said without looking up, whole focus on binding the hobbit’s leg. Which, from what Thorin could see, looked like so much brutalized meat. He wasn’t entirely sure it was salvageable. In the time it had taken them to leave their camp and follow the sounds to the wargs they’d done quite the number on the poor thing.

Thorin felt a tinge of regret for not being faster. Kili had been in the town, lurking the inn for any signs of their contact but instead of coming back with information he’d come back making a fuss about men skin changers luring away a hobbit. Thorin wasn’t one for getting involved in the affairs of others, just as others never cared for the affairs of dwarves, but wargs. He hated wargs and if ever there came a time where he allowed one to live when he could have stopped its heart...well, it had best be because his own life had ended. Anything less wouldn’t have been something that would let him sleep at night.

Fili was laying on his belly, nosing at the hobbit’s face and sniffing at him. He yipped again and Kili nodded in agreement. “We think he’ll live.”

Thorin frowned hard. “And you’re bandaging him instead of taking his head?”

Kili looked at him askance. “Uncle, we are not beheading a hobbit.” Between that and Fili’s scolding look one would have thought Thorin suggested something truly awful, like sharing a meal with elves, not something that was standard practice for dealing with warg victims who weren’t dwarves.

Dwarves they always gave a chance to turn right, even if most of the time they ended up killing them in the end. But men...men always went wrong.

“You’d rather leave him to turn alone and terrorize the town?” Assuming he didn’t succumb to that leg wound first. Which seemed likely; healing would happen fast, if he was turning, but Thorin wasn’t willing to bet on whether it’d be fast enough. Or put faith in Fili and Kili's diagnosis ability. 

Kili shook his head, eyes widening. “No! But. We could take him with us! Just for a little bit, to see if he’s turning. He might not!”

“Never seen any hobbit wolves.” Frerin added, sideling into place at Thorin’s side, stretching and shaking out his hair, beads clinking. “It wouldn’t be right to cut off his head if we aren’t sure he’s going to turn." Thorin wasn't petty enough to suggest they cut out the hobbit's heart instead. Or, rather, he was, but his brother kept barreling on, not allowing him an opening. "And turn badly at that. I don't want a 'what if' sitting on my head and you shouldn't either.”

Kili nodded, eager to have a powerful ally in his crusade. “If he was a dwarf-”

“He is not a dwarf!” Thorin snapped.

Kili’s jaw tightened in a stubborn gesture and his bottom lip poked out. “I’m not going to kill someone that may not turn warg. It’s not right.”

Thorin bit back another groan. Kili and Fili were little more than children. They didn’t understand, not really. Oh, certainly, they’d been trained up the right way and knew that warg bites drove their victims made, and would turn them into wargs at well. Wargs were like them, skin changers of a similar sort, but they weren’t like them in the ways that mattered. Most couldn’t take their birth forms back after their first moon, they ate the flesh of even their own kind, and the answered to the call of only the darkest of masters.  

Where wargs roamed orcs and goblins liked to follow. And that was why they killed them and their victims. Nothing good came from letting the heart bleed for them and hoping that things would turn out. Thorin had been down that road and had his heart broken as he watched friend and family become twisted and wrong.

Fili and Kili’s father was among that number and the grief had nearly ended him. He didn’t have the heart left to spare for a hobbit but these two...these two had too much. Perhaps because of their father’s end.

Frerin felt too strongly for the bitten. He saw what he'd lost in all of their faces and if Thorin could have left him behind he would have saved them both the pain of something like this. 

He often longed for his mate but never more than he did looking at his nephew’s hopeful faces and the tension in his brother's shoulders as he stared at him, brows furrowing. Dwalin would have ended the hobbit quickly and cleanly, knowing it for the mercy it was. Better to die now and not suffer through becoming a dark, forsaken beast.  

“He’s tiny.” Frerin nudged him and offered a smile that didn't touch the ice in his eyes. “We keep him until the moon and if he goes warg he’ll be what, rabbit sized? You’ll be able to punt it and be done.”

“Punt it.” Thorin deadpanned.

“Punt it.”

Thorin looked at his nephews and found himself on the receiving end of two sets of puppy dogs eyes, one brown and dwarven and the other blue and wolfish. Back to Frerin and, damnit, more puppy dog eyes and a wobbling lip for good measure. Thorin’s lip curled in disgust. This was emotional manipulation of the most shameful sort. Had they no shame?

No, look who he was with, of course they didn’t.

Still, his brother had a point. The hobbit wouldn’t be rabbit sized, no, but he wouldn’t have the size of the ones who had once been men or even the ones who had been dwarrows. And he would be disoriented after he first turned, barely able to stand.

He would be easy to dispose of, assuming pity didn’t stay their hands for too long.

It could be a lesson in misplaced compassion for his nephews if nothing else. There was no teacher like experience and reality.

And it would get them to stop looking at him like he was a wraith hiding under their bed or had announced there would be no birthdays this year or eaten the last sweet roll, all of which were equal levels of offense to those two. 

Oh, that he could just order them to obey him. He was their leader, the head of the pack and the first alpha but when it came to his family he might as well be a mere blacksmith. Frerin had always been too cheeky for his own good and Kili was very much a young alpha, testing boundaries and pushing at Thorin endlessly as he tried to find his place.

And Fili...the less said about his struggles with his older nephew the better. He had never been so grateful to not have had pups of his own as he’d been since Fili and Kili had come of age.

A half dead hobbit was not the hill Thorin was going to make a stand on, not when nothing but a headache and sulking would follow.

“Fine, keep your  new pet, but you’ll have to look after him and tend to that leg. Losing it won’t help matters. And if he goes warg you’ll take his head.” The twin cheers that had started cut off abruptly, Kili looking stricken and Fili whining.

Frerin sighed. “Thorin-”

“And you can carry it, after you’ve pulled a bone from that warg.” He interrupted. “Kili, shift back and scout the area; I doubt there are just these three here. Fili, with me.”

With that he stalked off back in the direction of that camp. Let them have their hobbit for the two weeks until the moon, then mourn when the inevitable happened.

He would have nothing to do with it.

“I never have these issues with Dwalin.” He muttered mournfully. Fili huffed out a laugh at his side. Thorin aimed a half-hearted kick at him and missed completely, Fili ducking away with a happy bark.

Brat.