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It had begun with mocking; the burglar was just so very easy to rile, and he made the most amusing noises. Bofur couldn't help teasing him with makeshift handkerchiefs and sly songs as they rode along.

The first night, though, when Bilbo shook so with the cold that he kept waking himself up, Bofur draped his blanket on top of Bilbo's and spent the rest of the night wondering why. Bilbo's grateful, shy smile when he handed back a neatly-folded blanket at breakfast sent a frisson of something through Bofur's chest, and he thought oh.

It quickly became habit, shouldering some of the burden for the hobbit. Nudging Bombur into ladling an extra scoop into Bilbo's serve, commandeering Bilbo's bedroll and setting it right by the fire, raising his voice in song or joke or story to prompt a laugh and distract from the journey. Bilbo never failed to reward Bofur with a smile, and he found himself hoarding them closer than gold.

****

When Kili cut them down from the troll spit, Bofur rushed over to Bilbo full of congratulations and admiration for his quick thinking, and not a few jokes at Kili's expense.

His steps slowed, though, when he saw the expression on Bilbo's face. He turned to see what he was looking at, and there was Thorin.

Bofur had never been good at lying to himself; he knew he had nothing to offer next to Thorin. Some skill with toymaking, a wealth of stories and jokes... nothing compared to the King Under the Mountain.

Well. Bofur shook himself, hiking a grin back onto his face. Bilbo's happiness was more important than Bofur's disappointed hopes. He strode over and clapped Bilbo on the shoulders.

'Well done, laddie!' he grinned as wide as he could, then pulled an exaggerated face at Bilbo's appearance. 'Euch, we're going to have to find you a heavy-duty wash house if you're going to insist on pursuing those hankies with so much enthusiasm.'

Bilbo shot him an irritated glare, though his cheeks had reddened at the praise. 'From the smell of the company,' he said tartly. 'I'm surprised to hear you know what a wash house is, Master Bofur.'

Bofur clapped one hand to his chest. 'Wounded! How you wound me, Master Burglar! Why, I'll have you know I bathed already this year.'

Bilbo's nose wrinkled up, and Bofur ruthlessly suppressed the pang of want that shot through him. It would get easier with practice, he told himself. Rather than dwell, he took up his pipe and started playing a merry jig, more relieved than amused when Fili and Kili seized Bilbo by the elbows to twirl him in time to the tune.

Turning, Bofur caught sight of Thorin standing behind one of the trolls. Thorin had an almost-mournful look on his face, and Bofur didn't need to follow his gaze to know that the King was watching Bilbo.

Well, Bofur told himself firmly. That was excellent news for Bilbo, wasn't it?

Now all that needed to happen was for Thorin to get over his dignity enough to make a declaration.

****

Staggering a little as the eagle let him down, Bofur rushed to Bombur to check on him. Bruises and scrapes, but nothing worse. Bifur, too, was fine when he calmed down enough to stop imitating the eagles. Bofur himself was a little singed around the edges, but nothing of note.

Thus assured of his family's good health, Bofur turned to run a worried gaze over the rest of the Company, pausing as he saw Gandalf bent over Thorin's prone form.

'Mahal save us...' he breathed. 'He can't be-'

But Thorin was strong, and Gandalf's magic a thing of wonder. Bofur let out a relieved sigh when his King sat up to glare at the whole world.

'Well,' Bofur turned to grin at his brother. 'At least we know he's still-'

He broke off as Thorin stood and bore down on Bilbo, spitting vitriol and crowding the Hobbit to the edge of the rock. Bofur started forward to intercede, but then Thorin was clasping Bilbo to him and Bilbo was clinging back.

'Oh,' Bofur said, just a breath. He'd known this day would come, but somehow all the preparation in the world was not equal to the heartbreaking joy on Bilbo's face as he was held by another.

The Company's mood turned joyful, and Bofur allowed himself that one short moment of grief as Bilbo's fingers curled into Thorin's cloak and their companions heaped praise on the Hobbit. Bilbo was not for him, except as a dear friend, and Thorin was his king. Still, Bofur felt like his insides were freezing solid, and he gave himself the duration of the Company's distraction to let himself feel all the disappointment and hurt and sorrow he was not entitled to.

Then Thorin caught sight of the Lonely Mountain, and even a broken heart couldn't keep Bofur from grinning at the sight of their goal.

'Almost there,' he threw an arm around Bombur's shoulders, ignoring the pitying glance from his brother. 'And nought but several leagues of wilderness and one measly dragon between us and victory!'

Bombur snorted, but he offered Bofur half of the rock cake secreted in one of the containers braided into his beard, so Bofur laughed and crammed the cake into his mouth. Bombur gave him a nod and clapped him on the shoulder before drifting off to take stock of what supplies everyone had managed to keep.

Bofur took a deep breath of the chilly air and packed his heart up, boxing everything he should not feel into solid iron chests in his belly, then he shouldered what was left of his pack and followed Thorin and Bilbo down towards the river.

****

Beorn had been an experience, Bofur thought as he caught his breath and bobbed along in one of Bilbo's barrels. The spiders he could've done without, and the less said about the damn elves...

Bofur was a genial sort of dwarf; he liked nearly everyone he met, but he had to agree with Thorin on the subject of the wood elves. The long, solemn, put-upon lot in Rivendell had been grand, but this lot had been absolute twerps. Especially the stony-faced prince who'd been nancing about showing off his archery and giving Bofur a raging headache from when the dainty little foot had pirouetted on his head.

The current slowed as the river widened, and Bofur followed Thorin's order and started paddling towards the shore. The barrels weren't easy to steer, but dwarves were a stubborn people, so the fourteen of them managed to drag themselves out of the water in pretty good time, Bofur thought.

It was freezing out of the water, the wind stealing what little warmth the water hadn't claimed, so Bofur wasn't terribly surprised when the bargeman appeared before anyone even heard his step.

He was too tired and too cold to keep himself from drifting towards Bilbo to reassure himself of the Hobbit's continued good health while Thorin and Dwalin glared, and Balin nutted out a deal with the bargeman.

'You're a hobbit of great resource, Master Baggins,' Bofur said, angling himself between Bilbo and the wind to keep him from shivering quite so violently. 'Who'd have thought a baker's dozen dwarves could escape the halls of the elves through their basement?!'

Bilbo chuckled and pulled his tattered coat closer around himself. 'Who would have thought we'd escape the elves to wind up at the mercy of men?'

'Aye,' Bofur glanced towards the bargeman and Balin; the man looked wary but open to negotiation. 'Well, if we could be guaranteed a dry change, a flagon of ale and a night's rest I might be willing to rely on men's mercy with an open heart.'

Bilbo opened his mouth to answer, but all he managed was a violent sneeze.

'Come now,' Bofur herded Bilbo towards the man's barge. 'Sit ye down out of the wind, eh? The lordly types will sort everything out, never you worry.'

And Balin did; almost as soon as Bofur had Bilbo settled against the barge's wall, the man was hustling the rest of the Company on board and casting off.

'Well,' Bofur said to his brother, wringing some more of the river out of his poor hat. 'I think we might just manage this quest after all.'

****

'Oh, stop your fussing,' Bofur gave Bombur a grin and a shove. 'You go on to bed if you must, I'm not wasting the night!'

Bombur gave him the same disappointed look their father had used to give both Bofur and their mother when the two of them carried on carousing well into the night, but he retreated without making a fuss.

Bofur kept an eye on him until Bombur drifted inside the barracks house the Master of Laketown had set aside for the Company, then he turned to the grizzled man in charge of the barrel.'So you said you're champion drinker, eh?'

The champion grinned, displaying much gum and few teeth, and he held out a flagon.

'A prince among men!' Bofur declared, and the race was on.

****

'Hhhnnnggghh...' Bofur closed his eyes even tighter in protest at the blasted crowing going on outside as much as the hammer and anvil inside his head and tried to go back to sleep. He had to be up soon for-

He shot upright, bounced off the bottom of a table and rolled to freedom. The Company was leaving!

Panic and the cold air off the lake cleared the hangover away for the moment, and he dodged through tree-trunk legs and haphazardly-stacked crates trying to find the launching point.

Oh, he thought as an elbow clipped him in the ear, why were there so many men? Did they ever do anything but breed?

Finally he burst through the final row, only to see the back of a boat sailing off towards the mountain. Bofur felt himself slump; he'd never thought to shame his ancestors like this. And now Bombur and Bilbo would have to look out for themselves! Bofur couldn't rely on any of the other dwarves to have a care for Bombur's constitution and really quite delicate sensibilities or for Bilbo's fragility...

Downcast, he turned away from the mountain, trying to think who to ask and how he could ask to be ferried to the shore. But there were Fili and Kili and Oin standing on the platform large as life!

'You missed the boat too?' Bofur said, spirits buoyed back to normal.

Fili scowled to rival his uncle and then Kili was collapsing, pale as moonlight and twice as sickly.

****

The road to the gates was harder than it should have been; partly neglect and dragon-damage but mostly fraught with the simmering panic of what they'd find when they reached Erebor. They none of them spoke the whole thirty miles, save the bare necessities.

Bofur spent a few miles contemplating the difference the whole journey had wrought in the princes, mostly to distract himself from his worries about Bombur and Bilbo. The dwarrowlings; no, Bofur chided himself, they were dwarves now. The brothers had grown and settled in themselves since that long-ago dinner in the Shire. Part of Bofur mourned their newfound seriousness, but mostly he was proud to follow such examples of the line of Durin. Fili would be a stout and sterling king when the time came.

Bofur only prayed that time was not quite yet.

'There are fires in Erebor!' Kili shouted from a crest in the road. 'I think they may yet live!'

Bofur felt his heart speed up, picking up his feet to match its pace.

'Tamed fire!' Fili added, grinning for the first time since the party in Laketown. 'They must have relit the furnaces!'

They raced towards the gates, stone blackened and iron twisted in a way that clawed at Bofur's insides. There was no sign of a guard as they jumped from boulder to boulder, but Bofur pushed the dread to one side and concentrated on reaching their long-standing goal. Erebor!

'Took y' long enough,' Dwalin growled from the shadow of the gates just as Bofur was preparing to jump across a wide gap, then Fili and Kili were throwing themselves into his arms, cheering and clapping him and each other on the shoulders and backs. 'The rest of 'em are inside.'

Bofur gave Dwalin a wide smile, hardly daring to hope, then he caught sight of Bifur lurking in the cavernous hall beyond and he ran to his cousin with a merry laugh.

In growled Khuzdûl, Bifur let Bofur know exactly what he thought about Bofur’s lack of punctuality, even as he clasped Bofur to his chest. Bofur replied with wildly-inaccurate excuses until Bifur’s scowl cracked into a grin. And then Bombur crashed into the pair of them, crying and laughing and muttering his thanks.

Bofur sent his thanks down to Mahal that his family (and, when he spared a glance around the cavern, the rest of the Company too) were safe.

Smaug was dead, their quest successful, and not a single dwarf or hobbit sacrificed in the doing of it. It beggared belief!

Bofur felt the last of the tension run out of him when Bilbo stepped into the fray, full of endearingly-awkward jibes and worried looks scanning all the new arrivals for injuries. Bofur clapped a hand on Bilbo’s shoulder and pulled him in for a hug.

‘Kili’s elf lass fixed him up good as new,’ he whispered into Bilbo’s pointed ear. ‘We caught a soaking and a shock when the wyrm came down, but no harm done.’

Bilbo relaxed in Bofur’s grip, small hands curling into the sheepskin of his jerkin as he took a few ragged breaths. Bofur held on until Bilbo’s breathing evened out and he gave a laughing hiccough.

‘There, lad,’ Bofur eased him back and smiled down at the slight blotchiness of Bilbo’s face. ‘Nought you can do when tears want to flow except let them. It’s been a rough week on all of us and not a dwarf here would look down on you for it.’

‘You all look down on me anyway,’ Bilbo gave him a ghost of a grin and started straightening his clothes. ‘I’m a foot shorter than any of you.’

Bofur grinned back at him. ‘Aye, but it seemed rude to make a point of the fact.’

Bilbo laughed then. A full-bodied guffaw that echoed around the chamber and drew Thorin’s eye. Bofur ducked his head under his King’s frowning attention. Bilbo wasn’t his to cheer up, though he’d perform the task for the pleasure of it. Thorin had precedence and Bilbo’s heart and every right under earth to frown at Bofur dragging his beloved into corners.

Bofur clapped Bilbo on the shoulder and made his excuses to go fuss over Bombur some more.

He could feel the weight of Thorin’s gaze even as he cornered his brother to interrogate him about everything that had happened.

That gaze felt heavier under the vaulted ceilings than it had on the road, but Bofur stifled his frown and concentrated on business that was his.

****

The following morn, Bofur joined in the search for the Arkenstone; eager as any Dwarf to see the jewel of jewels. He sorted through a dozen kings’ ransoms in gold and jewels, calling jokes out to the others as he tried to be gentle with his ancestors’ work.

Bilbo flitted through the cavern several times; face creased with a worry Bofur wanted to call unfounded, but couldn’t. Thorin’s black mood weighed over even the elation of their success and Bofur misliked the way he scowled even at Bilbo. When Thorin spoke with Bilbo now, he seemed to be using his greater bulk to crowd the Hobbit into walls and alcoves and away from the Company, and Bofur felt a cold thread of apprehension in his belly at the sight.

But Bilbo had come with them through fire and flood, and he seemed wary rather than shaken after these encounters. So Bofur simply sang a little louder and hoarded some small pieces of treasure he came across which might please Bilbo and said nothing.

When Thorin gave the order to barricade the main gate, Bofur found himself struck dumb for once. The Men of Laketown were men, aye, with all the attendant greed and violence of their short-lived race, but Smaug’s destruction of their town and kin had been spurred by the Company’s actions. Not to mention the bargain struck for the assistance they’d given.

‘Thorin just needs to secure Erebor first,’ Bofur said to Bifur as they shifted masonry into place, as much to convince himself as his cousin. ‘And we hardly have supplies to feed several hundred men; they’d’ve done better to head upriver to the elves before chasing down the bill.’

Bifur merely grunted and heaved a carved lump of nose at Bofur so he could plug a gap in the wall.

‘Aye, well,’ Bofur groused, peering past Balin at the cold day outside. ‘One thing at a time, I suppose.’

****

‘How my mother would laugh to see this,’ Bofur exclaimed to Ori, holding up a scabbard worth more than his family home even before its age and rarity rendered it priceless. ‘Her wastrel son with the pick of ten thousand noble dwarves’ armoury!’

Ori smiled his nervous smile, still awkward and coltish even now, then with a speed his brother Nori would’ve been proud of whipped Bofur’s hat away and replaced it with something much heavier.

Bofur turned to check his reflection in an undecorated shield and saw a ridiculous jewel-encrusted diadem adorning his crown. He pursed his lips, turning hither and yon to wring a chuckle from Ori before making a show of deciding against the thing. The stout breastplate, however...

My mother would scold me for not washing behind my ears before I fought a dragon,’ Ori said, head ducked but a sly smirk showing his lie.

‘We-ell,’ Bofur darted forward to retrieve his hat and resettled it in its rightful place. ‘Your brother surely might. Can’t say as I ever had the pleasure with your mother.’

Ori’s smirk turned wry and he checked to make sure both Nori and Dori were out of earshot. ‘I don’t remember her much, but Dori used to be much more carefree. Sometimes I wonder...’

Bofur turned as Ori trailed off, wondering what could have caught the young Dwarf’s attention. Immediately outside the entry to the armoury stood Thorin, glittering in the torchlight as he held out a shimmering coat of the finest mail Bofur had ever seen. Mithril, unless his eyes had blurred past all usefulness, and Bofur was sure he was as keen as ever.

They were too far away to hear, but Bilbo hesitated, seeming to refuse the gift before Thorin cajoled him into acceptance. Bofur watched as Thorin settled the mail over Bilbo’s curls, smoothed it over his shoulders and adjusted the drape of it over the dusty ruin of what had been ridiculously expensive clothes a year and Mahal knew how many leagues ago.

‘Well,’ Bofur said with a grin which only hurt a little. ‘As fine a betrothal gift as was ever offered and accepted! ‘Tis only a pity we haven’t the supplies or the time for a feast, eh lad?’

Ori blinked, lips quirking in a lopsided smile of his own. Bofur kept his gaze averted from the lovers, partly from respect for the privacy of the moment but mostly because he was certain his resolve to be happy for them would crack like ill-tempered steel if he actually saw them entwined. He was saved from having to play at merriment any further, though, by Fili’s call to arms.

Relieved, he checked his new armour, leaving the pick of ten thousand princely weapons in favour of his own mattock which had travelled with him to the very depths of the Blue Mountains and all the way across the world. It would stand up to elves and men too. Bofur jogged after the prince towards the battlements. He kept his gaze firmly on the back of Kili’s head and his mind on the job at hand as he passed between Bilbo and Thorin.

He wouldn’t be able to stay in Erebor after this, Bofur realised with a pang. For all his determination to be happy for Bilbo, he was not equal to the task of faking good spirits when faced with such heartbreak.

****

That night, after the disastrous attempt the men had made at demanding gold, Bofur stood his watch with a heavy heart. He could see the fires in Dale, imagined the Men huddled around them, cold and hungry and angry. They had such short lives, and shorter memories, to think Thrain’s heir would bend to threats, but a reward had been promised. And while it was not Thorin’s fault Smaug had attacked Esgaroth, surely some charity to secure again the friendship of the men of Dale would be a wise choice.

His thoughts were interrupted by the almost-silent scrape of something on stone, and Bofur crept along the battlement to find Bilbo looking guilty as a dwarrowling caught with his hand in a jar of sweets, a rope tied to one of the broken chains.

‘You should be inside,’ Bofur said, stepping forward to stare out over the broken rooves of Dale. ‘Out of the wind.’

Bilbo stayed frozen for a moment, before relaxing a little. ‘No, I… needed some air. Place still stinks of dragon.’

Bofur turned his head, tracking the dark shapes of elves slinking through the streets below. ‘The elves have been moving their archers into position.’

Bilbo made a small sound, and Bofur felt a sudden violent urge for the hobbit to be spirited safely far from Erebor and the evils about to befall them all.

‘The battle will be over by tomorrow’s eve,’ he shot a glance at Bilbo, hoping the hobbit would read his acceptance and support. ‘Though I doubt we will live to see it.’

Bilbo’s much-loved face looked drawn in the torchlight, thinner and more worn than he ought to be as he sighed ‘no, these are dark days.’

‘Dark days indeed,’ Bofur agreed, glancing at Bilbo’s rope. ‘No one could blame a soul for wishing themselves elsewhere.’

Bilbo’s eyes widened, looking somewhere between stricken and relieved. Bofur dragged a smile up and turned his face to the stars.

‘Must be nearing midnight,’ he turned for the stairs. ‘Bombur’s got the next watch. It’ll take a bit to wake him.’

He started down, half rejoicing that Bilbo wouldn’t see the carnage on the morrow, half despairing at never seeing his face again, when Bilbo called his name. He looked up into a heartbreakingly brave smile.

‘I will see you tomorrow,’ Bilbo nodded, a kindly attempt at a lie.

‘Goodbye, Bilbo,’ Bofur concentrated on not letting his shoulders slump as he rounded the bend in the stairs. He stopped, listening for the slither of the rope and the soft grunts as Bilbo lowered himself towards a freedom Bofur could never begrudge him. After a slow count of fifty, Bofur trudged back up the stairs to watch the small shadow darting through the wreckage between Erebor and Dale.

****

No one seemed to have yet noticed Bilbo’s absence when the Company assembled the next morn to watch the men and elves make their demands. Bofur cast a glance over the assembled horde, an unwilling pang of anxiety at the seemingly-endless shiny ranks of elven warriors shivering through him and he hoped Bilbo had managed to slip through their ranks as unremarked as ever.

Well, Bilbo was doubtless well out of it, and Bofur had his brother and cousin by his side. He had his king leading the way and Erebor was finally free from the chiefest calamity of the age. He ought to be glad for the chance to die in such company for such a cause.

Balin twitched and Bofur realised something had happened; the elven king or the boatman had said something but he hadn’t been listening. Bofur watched as Bard withdrew something from his coat and tossed it like a toy. The light caught and refracted, colours sparkling in an almost uncanny manner. Bofur gasped, almost in concert with the rest of the Company. There was only one object in Arda that sparkled with such fire, but it was buried somewhere under ten thousand other pieces of dwarven craftsmanship.

‘They are taking us for fools,’ Thorin said, low and bitter. ‘It is a ruse, and a filthy lie. The Arkenstone is in this mountain! IT IS A TRICK!

And from behind the crowd of dwarves came a voice Bofur was stricken with delight and horror in equal measure to hear. To think he had just been cheering for Bilbo’s safe flight from the mountain.

He watched, horrified, as Bilbo tried to reason with Thorin, though his reasoning was alien and bordering on heresy to a dwarf. Watched with growing horror as the dwarf who should cherish Bilbo above any jewel snarled and spat hate in the face of Bilbo’s sweet, if wrongheaded, action.

Until Thorin gave the order to throw Bilbo from the rampart.

For a moment, Bofur’s ears refused to understand the order. He had to have run mad, perhaps in the face of being unable to declare himself his mind had grown addled. But Thorin leapt forward, violent intent and animal rage all aimed at poor Bilbo, only thwarted by Fili’s swift reactions and the enraged shouting from Gandalf down among the men and elves.

Bofur reached out for Bilbo, bundled him towards the rope still hanging down the wall as tears sprang in his eyes. Bilbo met his gaze, whiter than snow and too shocked to form words as Bofur urged him over the wall and away from Thorin.

‘I’m sorry,’ Bofur whispered, letting himself clasp Bilbo’s small hands once more. ‘Be safe.’

Bilbo gave a jerky nod and scrambled down the rope as Thorin howled accusations indiscriminately. Bofur watched, heart in his throat until Bilbo reached Gandalf’s protection, then he turned back to the Company and his mad king. He’d heard tales of Thrain’s sickness at his mother’s knee, but those fantasies were nothing compared to the anguish of seeing such a twisted version of the dwarf he’d pledged his service to.

Bofur looked around at the pale, disbelieving faces. Even Dwalin looked shaken by the last few moments, and as Thorin turned his ire back to the elven king, Bofur saw Fili and Balin exchange a grim look.

He almost wished the army would attack; Bofur couldn’t imagine Thorin managing to negotiate a peace after this, and he was heartsick enough not to want to drag out this agony.

But Thorin was smirking now, and Bofur became aware of a tremor; the tramp of thousands of boots marching to a drumbeat familiar from years in the mines. Mouth agape, he turned his gaze to the hill to the South in time to see a figure that could only be Dain Ironfoot astride his warpig ahead of rank upon rank of dwarven warriors. Heart rekindling, Bofur turned to exchange relieved grins with his brother and cousin.

They’d seen Dain in battle once before, and the thought of that mighty warrior setting his eye on the cold snake of an elf below made Bofur’s heart sing.

He raised his voice in a cheer when Dain’s twiddly-widdlies demolished the elves’ first volley, joined in celebration by everyone save Thorin as Dain’s forces charged.

****

Bofur had expected to sally forth and burst through the elven ranks as soon as they were committed; or perhaps for Dain to smash the line so thoroughly that they could fortify properly and make Bard return the Arkenstone.

Thorin didn’t give the order, though, even when the hills on Dain’s flank shuddered and spewed forth great worms and a truly horrifying number of orcs, trolls and wargs. Bofur watched, heart in his throat as Dain’s forces rushed to form a line.

Bofur stared, only half hearing Kili and Thorin arguing about rendering aid to their kinsmen as even the elves regrouped and joined the defence of the broken city Thorin had caged them in.

The orc forces split, heading for the undefended walls of Dale, dealing carnage and destruction on Men whose only crimes had been greed and foolishness.

Bofur felt tears well up, as the only thoughts he could form were how can we not help? and Bilbo would have been safer here if I’d hidden him from Thorin’s wrath.

Far below and far too close, men and elves and dwarves died while Thorin simply retreated to the treasury.

****

The battle, after Kili had challenged Thorin and the dragon sickness had receded, was too confusing to understand until afterwards. Bofur had confused, yet vivid, flashes of memories of fighting side by side with Bifur and Bombur, of elves and men and dwarves surging around him and the wet crunch of his mattock crushing orcish skulls. Not to mention a belated sense of terror at having mounted one of the blinded siege trolls, and the amazing view of the chaos which that piece of madness had afforded him.

He’d watched, filled with pride and desperation, as Thorin, Dwalin and the princes had charged up Raven Hill before the immediate enemies around him had distracted him even as the eagles had arrived, irrevocably turning the tide of the battle.

After, Bofur had looked around the field, chest heaving and limbs trembling and realised that Bilbo had been down here in the thick of it all. He started heaving bodies over, frantic to find one small hobbit and dreading the discovery. Bombur caught his intent and lent his strength to the grim search until Gandalf’s long shadow fell over them.

‘He followed Thorin,’ Gandalf said, voice as grim as Bofur had ever heard it. ‘They are all atop the hill.’

Bofur let the body he’d been shifting drop and straightened, turning to see Balin leading the rest of the Company towards Raven Hill. Gandalf strode off, leaving Bofur and Bombur to scramble after him and up towards the site of the final reckoning.

The path up the hill seemed longer even than the road from Esgaroth had been, the weariness of the battle and his dread for what they would find weighing Bofur’s feet down like a pack full of ore after a full shift mining.

The first thing Bofur’s eye caught on when he reached the final step was Bilbo, hunched over something dark and motionless, shaking and murmuring nonsense. Bofur’s steps slowed as he registered that it was Thorin; victorious and vanquished at the same time. He had wrestled his honour back from the madness of the treasure just in time to die.

Beside him, Bombur collapsed to his knees, sobbing desperately. Bofur sank down beside his brother, settled an arm around his shoulder and stared at Bilbo.

Heartbroken, miraculous, beautiful Bilbo bent over the dwarf he’d loved. Alive, alive, yet hurt perhaps beyond healing.

Bofur let the tears fall for Bilbo, for Thorin and the princes, for Bombur, and for himself.

****

Saying goodbye to the princes and Thorin was a bittersweet moment. Bofur loathed the part of himself which was glad for Thorin’s death, but just because a dwarf rallied at the end to honour and good sense did not excuse his earlier deeds. The hurt caused by Thorin’s actions would not be easily healed, even if the chief sufferer had already granted unconditional forgiveness.

Bofur found himself sorriest as he looked down on Fili’s still face. Fili had grown into the sort of king Bofur had once imagined Thorin to be, and the broken tale pieced together from Bilbo and Dwalin’s accounts of his last moments tore at Bofur’s heart. Kili had been just as bright and brave, but Fili had been right kingly by the end and it was a tragedy he’d never gotten the chance to take the throne.

I would have followed you with a song in my heart, Bofur thought as he stared at Fili’s unmoving, unlined face. Mahal grant you joy and a sweet reunion with your brother.

Bilbo left shortly after, heading West with Gandalf back to his hobbit hole and away from the site of his heartbreak. Bofur couldn’t blame him; even with Dain on the throne and the new peace between men, elves and dwarves there was a pall on the city.

Perhaps, Bofur mused as he worked alongside a dour Iron Hills dwarf to clear rubble in the old guard barracks, this place would never be the bright gem of dwarven civilisation to those who had fought in the ashes. Dain was not the king Bofur had followed across Arda, and somehow the lofty halls seemed oppressive rather than grand to him now.

****

The work to repair and restore Erebor proceeded apace; dwarves from the Blue Mountains streamed through the gates day after day, lending their arms and expertise to the work. The halls rang once more with hammers on stone and steel and boisterous voices raised in song, and Bofur was glad. Too long had their people’s joy been muted and reserved for small happinesses. It was a bright new age, and there was work enough for all hands.

But it seemed that it was somehow unbefitting a member of Thorin Oakenshield’s company to bend his back to the hard labour of repair now there were so many other eager hands. Bofur found himself expected to attend councils and lordly affairs, with grim lords and emissaries from far afield talking matters of state.

Dwalin and the Ri brothers took to it as though born for the task, while Balin cited his advanced age and retreated to his rooms. Oin and Gloin seemed content to sit at the edges of the room. Bifur’s long injury had apparently left him with much to say, while Bombur kept sneaking off to help in the kitchens. Bofur took to affecting simplicity, offering only the most foolish of suggestions until he was gently but firmly excused from this duty.

There were yet no dwarrowlings in the city; would not be for many a year. No work for a toymaker here. The mines would be reopened soon, but that work was not enjoyable even if he were allowed to lower himself so.

Bofur laughed at his predicament; five years ago the idea of escaping the mines and the grinding poverty forever would have seemed a fever-dream, and now he was feeling almost wistful for the mindless exhaustion of a mining shift. It had been the better part of a year; Durin’s day swiftly approaching, and Bofur knew he had to leave.

He packed his things, took a little gold and left his brother with charge of his affairs. Dain granted him leave to go, charging Bofur with some letters for Dis, though Bofur had not mentioned his direction.

He headed North the next morning, bright autumn sun in his face and a song on his lips. South would have led him through more settled lands, but added many leagues to his journey to avoid the trees. It was perhaps a little more dangerous to skirt so close to the Grey Mountains, but Bofur was never willingly going to set foot in Mirkwood again even if the reports were true and the Old Forest Road had been properly cleared.

****

It was almost spring by the time Bofur sauntered into the marketplace in Hobbiton; the winter had been a harsh one, but travelling alone was swifter than in company. The hobbits he passed sent him openly curious glances, but no one objected when he set out a sign advertising marvellous toys for wonderful children at the edge of the square.

He’d spent many a night crafting ever more outlandish toys as he journeyed, so the blanket he laid in lieu of a table was fair crowded when the first little hobbit child slipped his mother’s skirts to stare wide-eyed.

Bofur pretended not to see as the child crept up to the edge of the blanket, instead winding the springs on an acrobatic frog and setting it down to perform its flips. Within moments there were dozens of children crowding around his blanket, shouting delighted questions and demands for demonstrations. Bofur grinned and wound the springs of half a dozen toys, spreading them out on the smooth paving stones. He pulled his flute out and trilled a jig in time with the jerking motions, and the little hobbits started mimicking the toys, jumping and twirling with such joy that Bofur kept playing long after the springs had unwound.

There were one or two worried faces hovering behind the laughing crowd; parents unsure of Bofur, he guessed. Well, dwarves were a rarity in the Shire, and at least hobbits were less hostile towards strangers than men were.

He played on and off all morning, sold a handful of toys to parents keen to placate children dragged home for chores, and settled back with a golden pie he’d traded a cunning puzzle box for. The sun was warm on his face and the air smelled green and fresh.

‘Bofur?!’

Bofur blinked and grinned up at Bilbo, a basket filled with green things dropping to the ground in shock.

‘Hello Bilbo,’ Bofur started, clambering to his feet just in time for Bilbo to hurl himself into Bofur’s arms, face pressed into Bofur’s travel-stained shirt. Bofur brought his arms up to cradle Bilbo. ‘Well I guess you weren’t just being polite with your offer, then.’

Bilbo huffed and pulled back, a flush in his cheeks as he straightened his waistcoat (still buttoned with the wooden replacements Bofur had carved, he noted with pleasure) and retrieved his basket.

‘What a thing to say,’ Bilbo said, mock-offence and good humour in his voice in equal parts. ‘I absolutely insist you come to Bag End this minute and tell me all the news. Are the others far behind?’

‘Tis just me,’ Bofur shrugged and followed Bilbo up the road towards his neat little home. ‘Too many years a wanderer to be happy settled, though the others have taken to it well enough.’

Bilbo shot a frowning glance over his shoulder as he unlatched his front gate. ‘Just because Erebor isn’t your home doesn’t mean you don’t have one.’

Bofur laughed and let his pack fall to the floor against a polished chest. ‘Belonging somewhere and wishing to stay there always are two separate matters, Master Burglar! Fear not, my feet are just too used to the road to be happy at rest.’

‘Well I hope you can settle your feet for a good long while here,’ Bilbo said, heading into his larder to drop off his purchases. ‘I shan’t be content with a brief visit!’

Bofur trailed after Bilbo into the sitting room where long ago Thorin had sung. The fire was unlit, and the room seemed much brighter and more airy. Much more suitable for Bilbo.

‘I reckon I can promise that,’ Bofur said with a grin.

****

There was work aplenty for dwarven strength even in the Shire, and he spent many a fine day repairing stone walls and telling stories to hobbit lads and lasses (‘fauntlings,’ Bilbo would keep correcting) until summer started fading to autumn.

Bilbo had made no sign of wishing Bofur gone and Bofur was content simply to be near and to see Bilbo happy. They might have continued quietly sharing space for years if Bilbo hadn’t happened to look up from the fire unexpectedly one night and caught Bofur before he could master his expression.

‘Oh,’ Bilbo said, voice hardly there at all as his eyes widened, apparently too shocked for words.

Appalled at himself, Bofur begged Bilbo’s pardon and rushed down the round hall to the guest room to pack his things. It was unpardonable, he berated himself through stinging tears. Bilbo was mourning Thorin and here was Bofur stomping through his grief and making the hobbit uncomfortable in his own hole!

‘Bofur,’ Bilbo said from the doorway, and oh Mahal! He sounded gentle as ever, no anger in his tone. Bofur’s fingers tightened in the straps of his pack before he made himself turn, though he kept his gaze on the floor.

‘I am sorry,’ Bofur said again. ‘I’ve no hope of anything but friendship, I swear. I’ll go tonight.’

Bilbo padded close, his delicate hands coming up to cup Bofur’s face. ‘Bofur, look at me.’

Helpless to refuse, Bofur let himself look into Bilbo’s eyes and he gasped. Bilbo was smiling.

‘But…’ Bofur felt his breath speed. ‘You and Thorin-’

Bilbo’s smile turned rueful for a moment. ‘You know, Gandalf told me of the ways dwarves differ from hobbits in matters of the heart. I’ve spent months dreading you finding out how I feel and thinking me flighty, but hobbits aren’t constrained to a single love unless they choose to be. Even had he lived, I don’t know that I could have stayed with Thorin after everything.’

‘Are you saying,’ Bofur swallowed, bringing his own hands up to cradle Bilbo’s against his cheeks as his heart thrummed. ‘That you will have me?’

‘Of course,’ Bilbo pressed a kiss to Bofur’s lips, small fingers pushing into the base of his braids. ‘I only pray you won’t suspect my devotion is lesser for having been given before.’

Bofur tilted his head down to rest his forehead against Bilbo’s, so relieved he felt dizzy. ‘I’ve travelled a long way, Bilbo. The ways of other races are often strange, but this is one strangeness I am mighty glad of. If you’ll have me, I’ll take you at your word and under whatever conditions you like.’

Bilbo let out a relieved breath and pressed his lips to Bofur’s once more, warm and sweet and happy.

‘This calls for a celebration,’ he said. ‘I think there’s still some brandied cherries for a pie.’

‘In a moment,’ Bofur murmured, slipping his arms around his delightful hobbit. ‘We’ve all the time in the world.’