At first, Bilbo Baggins is excited to learn about his kin’s plans to visit Erebor. He is very well aware it is not a courtesy to him, per say, but it is still family on his mother’s side that is coming to see him. After the months spent in the company of dwarves – entertaining folk, but they can be a tad challenging on a hobbit’s state of mind – he looks forward to a few hobbits to entertain. He is miles and miles East, after all, more than he ever thought he would be, with no discernable plans to return to the kindly West any time soon.
So, yes, Bilbo is eager to hear about Thorin’s newest alliance. Of course it had been Bilbo who had suggested it first, but Thorin has proven to be thick-headed and difficult about other things for no apparent reason. Yet, it seems the Shire has accepted to a trading deal with the newly restored Erebor; Bilbo is overjoyed.
The trade agreement comes with many details, however, as both dwarves and hobbits are overly fond of drawing up these kind of things (dwarves more so, Bilbo will forever claim, and his contact as a burglar in Thorin’s Company should be more than enough proof to any who need it). Too many details to be argued over in letters that will take long to be delivered, at least, so the Thain had decided to send three hobbits over to Erebor to discuss it in more detail. They are travelling with a new load of dwarves from the Blue Mountains.
Bilbo cannot wait to entertain his relatives in the halls of Erebor that are being slowly rebuilt after the dreadful Battle that almost killed the Mountain’s King and heirs. He is sure it will be quite enjoyable.
He is wrong.
Bilbo stands beside Thorin’s throne as the King Under the Mountain welcomes the small delegates of the Shire. It is clear to him that they are uncertain of their position: the three hobbits (all Tooks, obviously, as if anyone else would even contemplate travelling so far) shuffle and bow, murmuring their thanks.
Thorin gives him a look, once the official part of it is over, and Bilbo cannot help himself as he rushes forward, embracing his family.
‘’Uncle!’’ he cries out, and Hildibrand Took laughs heartily as he embraces his nephew. ‘’And Aunt Donnamira! And Jago! I have not seen you in – oh, it feels like a lifetime.’’
‘’I imagine so, Bilbo,’’ Donnamira says kindly, and she looks so much like her sister – Bilbo’s mother – that his heart aches with the memory. He knows he has not been into contact with his family as much as he should have, after his parents’ deaths, but they are still here, looking upon him with a ready smile.
‘’Did Hugo not protest against your coming here?’’ Bilbo asks her, because Hugo Boffin is anything but adventurous. Just like Bungo Baggins, however, it is obvious he cannot resist the wiles of a true Took.
‘’He knows better by now,’’ Donnamira says, waving the complaint away. ‘’Besides, Jago here is far more taking after the Tooks than the Boffins. He insisted on coming along, you know, and I know what mischief my brother and my son will get up to on the road with dwarves. Much like you, in fact. Can’t let another hobbit go running off creating trouble, eh, now without some proper Took sense.’’
Bilbo grins unabashedly. ‘’Hardly trouble, I assure you,’’ Thorin says from behind them. Bilbo turns, seeing Thorin stand there with a small smile on your own. ‘’In fact, I think Bilbo saved us from more troubles than caused them. We owe him a great deal, us dwarves of Erebor. You are – related, to him? I did not know it would be your family that would be sent as convoy, Bilbo.’’
‘’You could search the entire Shire and be hard-pressed to find anyone that is not related to the Took family, my King,’’ Hildibrand says. ‘’But it’s true, we’re more closely related than most. Donnamira and I are siblings of Bilbo’s mother, your Majesty, may Yavanna rest her soul. We are glad to see him whole and healthy.’’
A shadow appears in Thorin’s eyes for no more than a moment, but Bilbo sees it and knows what his friend is thinking of. He knows the guilt that haunts Thorin, even if Bilbo has tried to convince him that all is forgiven and forgotten.
‘’We all are,’’ Thorin says.
Bilbo tries for a comforting smile. ‘’Yes, yes, quite so. I am sure you are quite busy, Thorin, I will show my relatives to the guest rooms. Come along, I hope it will be to your liking. It is no hobbit hole, mind you, but the dwarves have all worked very hard to…’’
Before all of this, there was a Battle.
And after the Battle, there was an aftermath.
And after the aftermath, there was rebuilding.
Bilbo knows that Thorin is the busiest dwarf in the Mountain: he is King and thus he rules. It turns out that it takes a lot of time and effort to rule over a fallen Kingdom with little to call its own – except for a heap of gold that they cannot spend on anything yet, and Bilbo wryly reflects on the word ‘riches’. Riches, yes, but no food or warmth, no safety or cosy rooms to hide away in when the dark arrives. No children playing and laughing, no mothers scolding and secretly smiling. No smell of cake drifting out of a sunlit kitchen.
Riches. Laughable, it is. True wealth lies in everything Erebor has not regained yet. True wealth is anything but gold, and everyone is aware of it as they are rebuilding. Dwarves trickle in, mainly from the Iron Hills, to help Thorin and his Company, but it is a grim undertaking with the silver lining of satisfaction. They have won back their home from a dragon, but now they have to restore it, and it becomes swiftly apparent that the latter is the tougher task.
Bilbo helps where he can, small as he is. Enduring, though, and firmly determined to make his every effort count. So he does the small things: he rations the food, he talks with Bard on behalf of the King, he cooks and cleans, he cleans the bandages of the injured. All equally necessary, and all appreciated by Thorin, of whom he only sees flashes as the days go by.
He does not dwell on his disappointment. It does not matter if he thought Thorin and he were going somewhere; what did he base this on, after all? Fleeting glances, midnight conversations, lingering touches. Nothing concrete; no promises, certainly. Thorin owes him nothing.
It is Bilbo’s own fault if he has lost his heart to a King of dwarves. They have spent three months rebuilding before his relatives arrive, three months of pining from afar and basking in stolen moments before Thorin is whisked away to his duties again.
Three months before things slightly settle down, and by then Bilbo has a set of relatives to entertain.
Bilbo knows his Uncle Hildibrand and Aunt Donnamira better than he does most of his other family members, but he has never been overly close to his cousin Jago Boffin. Jago is Donnamira’s eldest child and is four years younger than Bilbo himself. Despite the relatively small age gap, as a fauntling Bilbo spent more time with other cousins, such as Hildibrand’s son Sigismund. Sigismund, an only child like Bilbo himself, had spent most of his childhood running and flying after Bilbo, and thus he cannot but be slightly disappointed by his other cousin’s absence. He resolves to take this chance to get to know Jago better, however, and for a while his presence is a welcome change of pace.
Jago Boffin is indeed more like a Took, just as his mother claimed. He listens to Bilbo’s recounting of his adventure quite eagerly, nodding along at all the right points. He seems to be quite desperate of an adventure of his own, and Bilbo considers telling him that adventures have a way of turning out to be more of a nasty business than one might believe. His ended quite alright, in the end, but he still remembers Thorin’s heavy breathing at the end of the Battle, remembers how his hands felt slick with Thorin’s blood, remembers the words that both of them had thought would be Thorin’s last –
No. Bilbo is quite happy to never have another adventure in his life, if the cost is having to see the one he cares about most die in front of him. He had seen his mother and father decease and he had seen Thorin on the cusp of the same fate; he has rather had enough of adventures.
It is not until later that he realizes this hobbit-like attitude may pose a bit of a problem for a possible continued existence in a dwarf-ridden Mountain. Where dwarves are, trouble follows, after all.
Living in Erebor is not easy. Most of the necessary rooms have been rebuilt and there is enough food to nourish everyone but they are still far from having plenty. There are still certain paths that are forbidden and the mines are still closed. Getting anywhere at all is a tedious business, especially for a small hobbit who tends to wander into the wrong direction.
He knows how Thorin must have felt now, losing his way in Hobbiton. He had not quite believed at the time it was possible to get so lost in a place whose paths feel so natural to another. Any dwarf he has met so far knows instinctively where to go to, and Bilbo supposes there is a logic to it – even if he has not figured it out yet.
‘’Oh, cousin!’’ Jago greets him as they encounter each other. Bilbo is trying to get un-lost in Erebor and smiles at Jago in relief. ‘’What are you doing here?’’
‘’I am not sure where ‘here’ is, exactly,’’ Bilbo admits. ‘’I am afraid dwarven kingdoms greatly affect my sense of direction negatively. I always seem to lose myself – all these corridors are so alike!’’
‘’Nonsense,’’ Jago tells him brightly. ‘’I find these halls make perfect sense. Here, you’re quite close to the throne room. It is a good thing I happened upon you, Bilbo! We just finished a meeting with the King’s counsellor – Balin, is his name? Very friendly fellow – he invited us for dinner with the Company, in fact! We are quite honoured, of course. Where did you need to go? I will walk with you! I am quite eager to see more of Erebor.’’
Bilbo does not think anything of it, and tells Jago that Bombur has asked him to come to the kitchen to help sort out a new arrival of supplies. When Jago leads him to the kitchens without any hesitation about the way they must go and greets Bombur heartily, Bilbo does not feel anything but relieved and glad that his family seems to be enjoying their stay in Erebor.
Dinner with the Company, as always, is much of a rowdy affair. It’s also one of the only times Bilbo really gets to spend time with Thorin, who always pushes aside the demands on his time for the event. It’s not a weekly thing; rather, they plan it around other occasions.
All of the Company are busy so dinner is always a pleasant affair for all of them. Bombur and Bilbo cook for the dwarves, like they used to on the road, and listen to the other dwarves sing and roar as they do so.
Bombur smiles at him while stirring a soup. ‘’Your family’s not so bad, eh,’’ the dwarf starts. ‘’With how you talked about the other hobbits, I’d have thought all of them were timid little creatures, like we thought of you. That Jago fellow got some real spirit.’’
Bilbo laughs. ‘’Well, these are Tooks,’’ he amends. ‘’They always tend to be a little fiercer than most, and more fond of other folk too!’’
‘’Aye,’’ Bombur responds with a wink. ‘’They’re makin’ some real friends around the Company.’’
‘’Well, that is hardly a bad thing,’’ Bilbo says, and that’s that as they bring the meal to the table, greeted vigorously by the bunch of dwarves that Bilbo is honoured to call his friends. Bilbo gets pushed in between his Uncle and Bofur, which turns out to be good for conversation. Bilbo is rather glad to simply eat his dinner as the dwarves resort to their usual table manners – that is to say, none. His relatives seem undisturbed – in fact, it seems Jago joins them. He is seated in between Fíli and Balin, only a few seats away from Thorin.
Bilbo is seated too far away to speak with Thorin today, but he sends him a few smiles, and the King responds to those easily enough. Then he gets drawn into a lively conversation about – swords, if Bilbo hears correctly from this distance – with Jago and Fíli, and Bilbo can watch his hands flutter around and watch him laugh. He loves seeing Thorin laugh, loves to see him have that opportunity again.
A cold feeling rises in him, though, as he sees the smiles Thorin bestows upon Jago during the conversation. He is unfamiliar with the feeling of mineminemine that claw into his chest. Thorin had not smiled at him for months upon months, when they first met each other. Maybe Bilbo has simply changed his mind about hobbits or maybe he just wants to be kind to the envoys.
But Jago laughs along and Bilbo can hear him faintly telling about the smithies in Hobbiton, and Bilbo remembers that his cousin is a smith. No wonder he fits in so well with the dwarves – they surely must take to a hobbit with that profession. Better than to Bilbo, who only ever has written books and tended to his garden. Thorin answers something in return, but Bilbo can’t hear what he says as Bofur pokes him in the ribs.
‘’You alright there?’’ Bofur asks, concern etched on his face.
Bilbo forces a smile on his face but is rather unsure of how real it seems. ‘’I think I’m getting a bit ill,’’ he says, and shoves away his soup for good measure. In fact, he is not hungry at all anymore, despite having missed luncheon as well. Dinner is his favourite meal, but he finds he cannot enjoy it while Jago is talking about metalwork with Thorin – his Thorin, who laughs and smiles and whose eyes shine as he looks upon the hobbit.
But Thorin is not his. Thorin has never been his, and Bilbo stands up abruptly. The dwarves fall silent, all looking at him. ‘’Excuse me,’’ he mutters, and walks away quickly. ‘’I am not feeling very well. Please, continue, I’ll retire early.’’
He should not be mildly hurt as they indeed leave him to retire and no one comes after him to ask if he is fine. It should not affect him to hear the dwarves start bellowing and laughing again after he leaves the dining room, as if his absence makes no difference to their joy. But he is, and he crawls into bed with an empty stomach and an empty heart.
He is woken by Jago, the next morning. ‘’Cousin?’’ the hobbit murmurs, and Bilbo wants to hide under his blanket and never come out. Someone must have let Jago in, because Bilbo locked his room when he went to bed. ‘’Bilbo, are you alright?’’
The memories of last evening mortify him. Surely he must have been overreacting: it is no harm if the Company takes to Jago. Indeed, Bilbo himself quite likes his cousin. He is clever and headstrong, and definitely charming. His looks help the matter: his bouncing curls are a lively dark brown colour, his eyes a light grey that stand out in his tan face. He is strong, for a hobbit, and quite tall too, and his feet are meticulously groomed. Beside him, Bilbo feels a bit silly with his untameable curls and old slightly-too-large dwarven clothes. He has never cared for his looks before, but standing next to his cousin makes him feel conscious about it in a way he has never been before.
Yes, Jago is quite beautiful for a hobbit, and very capable. That does not mean Bilbo is allowed to go around feeling jealous if his cousin gets along well with the dwarves. Quite silly of him.
Instead of hiding away, he turns to Jago. ‘’Yes, quite alright,’’ he mutters, forcing himself out of bed even if he feels like staying in it for a good long while. ‘’What time is it?’’
‘’Nearly noon,’’ Jago answers, to Bilbo’s surprise. He did not know it had been quite so late.
‘’Oh, dear old me,’’ Bilbo says. ‘’I must have been more tired than I thought! I had promised Óin to help him mix some salves in the morning!’’
‘’Not to worry, cousin,’’ Jago consoles him, ‘’Indeed, I found some free time on my hands and helped out Óin after he mentioned it. We felt it best to let you sleep; we would not want you to fall ill, of course! Thorin requested your presence on the meeting on the alliance between the Shire and Erebor, however.’’
Bilbo rubs his eyes, wondering when exactly Thorin has told his cousin to call him by his given name. ‘’What for?’’ he asks. ‘’That is what you are sent for, is it not? I am not a delegate.’’
Jago shrugs. ‘’I am not certain. He asked, though; so will you come? It starts soon.’’
Bilbo nods. ‘’I will join you soon.’’ With that, Jago leaves. Bilbo ignores the ache in his belly from the missed meals, and gets dressed instead. If Thorin wants him to be there, Bilbo fully well intends to listen.
If he gets lost again on the way to the throne room, he tries not to let it affect his humour.
Thorin only greets him with the roughest of nods. Hildibrand and Donnamira are slightly more courteous, and Jago smiles brightly at him as Bilbo takes a seat. Balin is there as well, a welcome sight to sore eyes, and a few dwarves that Bilbo is less familiar with. The Mountain is far from full yet but there is a steady income of dwarves from the Iron Hills and even some of the Blue Mountains that have made the trip already. More are on the way, which is why it is so important that they gather enough food now that Erebor is not yet capable of supplying itself. Lake-town is ruined, after all, and the generosity of the Elves of Mirkwood only goes so far.
Bilbo sits on Thorin’s right, and he ignores the glances people keep sending him. The meeting starts easily enough, with some of the dwarves squabbling about prices with Donnamira. ‘’What exactly am I doing here?’’ Bilbo whispers to Thorin as the noise rises.
Thorin looks over at him, some faint amusement on his face. ‘’Well, I figured we could use a mediator between my highly esteemed dwarven advisors and the hobbits. You are trusted by your kin and by most of the dwarves; you are most able to make a fair deal for both sides.’’
Bilbo sighs. ‘’I am hardly a negotiator, Thorin,’’ he hisses.
Thorin smirks at him, familiar and full of life, and Bilbo’s heart skips a beat before returning to its regular pace. ‘’In secret, I merely wanted to make sure that your aunt does not make another dwarf cry because she shouted at them.’’
‘’That’s more likely,’’ Bilbo responds dryly. ‘’We hobbits are more fearsome than you think, you know.’’
‘’Oh, I have learnt that very well,’’ Thorin replies with a self-deprecating smile. ‘’And I keep learning it every day.’’
Their hushed conversation is interrupted by one of the dwarf lords – Náli, if Bilbo recalls correctly – standing up with a red head, glaring at Bilbo’s aunt.
‘’It is unheard of!’’ Náli shouts. ‘’We are offering you metalwork of the greatest calibre on Middle-earth, and you dare to call it trivial excess!’’
‘’Master Dwarf,’’ Jago starts, before anyone else can interfere, ‘’We are not trying to disrespect your craft. I am a smith myself, and I am very aware of the intricacies of dwarves expertise! However, we hobbits are a peaceful folk and we have little need of weapons and the like. Were you to offer something more – well, more like luxury products, we would be more agreeable. We simply have no use for swords and axes.’’
‘’No use,’’ Náli grumbles. ‘’It’s weakness, that’s what it is.’’
Bilbo finds himself standing up before he knows it. ‘’Hardly, Master Dwarf,’’ he says unflappably. He has heard enough dwarves whisper of hobbits in a similar way. ‘’It is peace, and if you do not know it, I am quite sorry for you! Your weapons are to defend you and your folk and they suit that purpose very well! However, we hobbits are quite pleased with the fact that there is no need to defend ourselves in the first place. If you enjoy war so much, perhaps you should have come when the King under the Mountain called upon you the first time instead of only coming when the Battle had passed and Erebor was reclaimed!’’
It is silent for a moment and Bilbo is acutely aware of the fact he may just have crossed a few lines. He does not look at Thorin’s face, unwilling to face the madness he is sure must be on there.
‘’Well,’’ Donnamira says and breaks the lingering silence. ‘’Now that is settled, perhaps we can come to another arrangement. We’ll be glad to take your metal and skill for our food, Master Dwarf, if they come in another shape than weapons. Maybe we can discuss it civilly again?’’
Náli mutters something under his breath and Bilbo sits down again. When he finds the courage to meet Thorin’s face, he only finds something unreadable on there – it is not anger, though, and he takes solace in that.
The rest of the meeting goes off without a hitch, even despite the fact that Donnamira does yell at another poor dwarf. This one manages to get through it without tears and some things are settled upon, even if other parts remain up for debate. The hobbits have only been in Erebor for just over a week, though, and Bilbo expects they will remain for at least another month. There is a lot to discuss, after all.
It is teatime when they finish and Bilbo fully expects his relatives to come with him. That turns out not to be the case.
‘’Thorin promised to show me the forges,’’ Jago tells him excitedly, as Bilbo stands in the door opening with his mother’s siblings. ‘’I am quite eager to see them, you know. Being a smith in Hobbiton is one thing but dwarves are capable of so much more.’’
‘’I thought the forges were still dangerous,’’ Bilbo says, aiming this at Thorin who comes to stand beside Jago. ‘’Thorin, you said I could not go there yet. Not a place for a hobbit, as you all kept reminding me so eloquently.’’
Thorin does not seem to feel guilty about that. ‘’Jago is a smith himself,’’ he answers easily. ‘’It is a precaution, Bilbo – we would not want a pillar to crush you. The forges have been wrecked quite badly by Smaug. Besides, I will be there with him. Your cousin will be quite safe with me.’’
‘’I see,’’ Bilbo says, though he does not see.
It does not matter, he tells himself. It does not matter if Thorin has barely had any time to see Bilbo in the months they have been rebuilding Erebor. It does not matter that Thorin seems to free his time to spend it with another hobbit.
It does not matter, because Thorin is not his.
‘’Yes, Drogo seems to be quite set on Primula,’’ Hildibrand tells him over tea. This time, Jago has decided to join them, immaculate with his nice clothes and his nice hair and his nice smile and his nice interest in metalwork and weapons and adventures and Bilbo recognizes that he is maybe a bit jealous, after all. He does try to not let it show, though. ‘’Though Primula is of the same mind, so they seem to make a good pair.’’
‘’Drogo is a good lad with a good head on his shoulders,’’ Bilbo says. ‘’He is quite lucky with Primula, I’m sure.’’
‘’I am sure they will be married before we manage to return to the Shire,’’ Donnamira laughs heartily. ‘’Drogo seems to want to rush through his courtship!’’
‘’Well, that will simply not do,’’ Bilbo says. ‘’Courtships should be long and flourishing! It is the perfect time to get to know each other as a couple and decide about a joint future! No, no, rushing through the courtship does not seem to be a wise choice to me.’’
‘’You have put much thought in this, cousin!’’ Jago interjects. ‘’Might there be another hobbit courtship to be announced soon?’’
The implication is so absurd that it takes a few seconds for Bilbo to understand. ‘’Oh, I would wager not,’’ he says. ‘’I am quite fine on my own, you see. Quite fine.’’
‘’If you say so, nephew,’’ Hildibrand says, and before Bilbo can insist that he is very certain that he will remain a bachelor, Donnamira starts talking about other things that Bilbo has trouble recalling afterwards.
Thorin joins him, one time, when he is smoking just outside the Mountain. His coat cannot keep out the chilly breeze but Bilbo welcomes it; there is a suppressive heat that always lingers inside Erebor that he wishes to be rid of.
‘’Are you that eager to leave the Mountain?’’ Thorin asks him as Bilbo wordlessly hands over his pipe to his friend. Thorin takes a single long puff before handing it back to him.
Bilbo takes another whiff of his pipe before answering. ‘’I find that I can think better outside of it,’’ he answers.
Thorin sits with him for a long while without any mention of duty or ruling or anything of that ilk at all, and Bilbo appreciates it more than he can mention.
The weeks go on. Hildibrand and Donnamira are happy to spend more time with Bilbo but Jago seems to grow evermore fond of the dwarves.
It would be fine with Bilbo, had the dwarves also not seemed so fond of Jago.
It seems absurd to deny it anymore: Bilbo is beyond jealous of his cousin. It is not as if the dwarves spend much less time with him, but he feels like he is more of an outsider than Jago is. Fíli has even taken it upon himself to help Jago learn to sword-fight; it makes Bilbo feel rather conscious of the fact that he has always refused the lessons. Jago revels in it, though, seems to be better at it than Bilbo.
Bilbo is having breakfast by himself when Kíli storms inside his room without knocking. ‘’A pack of wolves!’’ he says slightly out of breath. ‘’So don’t go outside!’’
He almost dashes off, but Bilbo manages to stop him just in time with a stern look. ‘’Kíli! What is this about wolves?’’
Kíli slows down. ‘’There is a pack of wolves just outside the Mountain,’’ he says. ‘’Thorin and a few other warriors are going to deal with it; I’m supposed to be joining them. They are merely starved beasts, but starved they are most dangerous. You will be safe as long as you do not go outside.’’
The thought of Thorin going outside to fight wolves is almost enough to make Bilbo drop his toast. He remembers the Fell Winter, when he was little more than a child. He remembers his father’s pained shriek as the first wolf had dawned upon them, and he remembers running for his life. He remembers the mourning silence in Bag End, the afternoon after they had buried Bungo Baggins. It had marked the end of Bilbo’s carefree childhood.
Bilbo can handle wargs, orcs, goblins – even dragons. What he cannot handle is the thought of another pack of starved wolves coming near anyone he cares about. ‘’Let me come,’’ he demands, standing up quickly. ‘’Kíli, you must let me come with you.’’
‘’Absolutely not,’’ Kíli answers, crossing his arms. ‘’Bilbo, you’re not a fighter! We can’t have you hanging around there! What if a wolf gets you?’’
‘’What if Thorin decides to be a bloody idiot again and jumps in front of one of those beasts?’’ Bilbo demands and tries not to let his panic spill out. ‘’I won’t have it, Kíli! I will not!’’
‘’Thorin will kill me if I let you come,’’ Kíli says resolutely, and before Bilbo knows it, his door has been closed and he can hear the shrieking noise of something heavy being shoved in front of it. ‘’Sorry, Bilbo! You’ll be safe here!’’
‘’Kíli!’’ he yells, trying to open the door, but to no avail. Kíli has locked him in, for better or worse, and he shouts the prince’s name without hearing an answer.
He slides to the floor, remembering the sight of blood in the snow, and does not know if his memories are from the Fell Winter or the Battle of the Five Armies.
It is Thorin who frees him, long hours later. It seems most of his friends were busy with the same wolves, for no one has come to see Bilbo as he was stuck in his room. Perhaps simply no one thought of him.
‘’Bilbo,’’ he says, as the door swings open. Thorin still wears his armour, and his face is gruff, a thin scratch running over his cheek. It does not seem to be deep, but still Bilbo cannot help but run his finger over it before he realizes how close to the King he is and pulls back.
‘’I worried about you,’’ he whispers. ‘’The wolves –‘’
‘’Are all dealt with,’’ Thorin answers firmly. ‘’I will be having words with Kíli about this. These are your chambers and not a prison for you to be kept. Although I must admit I am glad not to have worried about you; they were ferocious beasts, and I would not want harm to come to you.’’
‘’Thorin –‘’ Bilbo begins, but is cut off by the arrival of his cousin – who is surprisingly just as clad in armour as Thorin is, sword hanging by his side.
‘’Bilbo!’’ Jago says. ‘’Here you are. My father and Aunt Donnamira said they had not seen you since before the wolves arrived!’’
‘’Jago,’’ Bilbo starts slowly. ‘’Why are you dressed up for battle?’’
‘’Oh, Bifur and Fíli were taking me hunting! They told me to stay back when the wolves came, however – understandable enough, I guess. One of the wolves came near, though, before Thorin saw me and slew it before it could get to me! I got a good hit at it before, but I am sure I would not have made it were it not for the King. Good thing they forced me to wear armour, wouldn’t you say?’’
Jago glances at him, still grinning cheekily. Bilbo clears his throat. ‘’I’m – oh, I’m glad you are safe. Do you need something warm? For the shock, perhaps.’’
Jago waves him away. ‘’Oh, not so much shocked, cousin, thank you for your concern. You must be used to this sort of thing, after your journey. I had a bit of a fright while the thing was coming at me, but it all turned out fine.’’
‘’Right,’’ Bilbo breathes, feeling a bit faint. Thorin frowns at him.
‘’Jago, if you could excuse us?’’ the King asks. Bilbo’s cousin turns to stare at him, and then at Bilbo, before quickly nodding and leaving. Just as he is gone, Bilbo’s leg give away under him. It is only Thorin’s quick response that keeps him upright. ‘’Bilbo!’’
‘’No matter,’’ Bilbo says, hearing himself speak as if he is very far away. ‘’I just need a bit of tea and I will be right as rain. I’m fine, it’s fine, everyone is fine and I’m –‘’
‘’Sit still,’’ Thorin says. His dark blue eyes are rather near; Bilbo blinks at them. ‘’Did something happen while we were gone?’’
‘’Oh, nothing of that sort,’’ Bilbo scrapes his throat, as his vision clears a bit. He is sitting on the ground as Thorin firmly clasps his arm. ‘’It’s – well, wolves.’’
Thorin’s eyebrows go up at that. ‘’They have been dealt with. It was not a very dangerous affair, Bilbo; no more dangerous than anything we faced on the road.’’
‘’Thorin,’’ Bilbo says. ‘’You know the Shire. You know how peaceful and innocent it is. When I was a child, a rough winter came upon my homeland. We thought nothing of it; we did not think it would mean anything but more of a chill when we ventured outside. Then the river froze over and the wolves crossed it.’’
Thorin is silent. He regards Bilbo with clear eyes, no clear emotion in them. It is part of the reason Thorin is such a good king: he gives away nothing. Bilbo wishes it were different, now. He wishes that the dwarf would tell him what he thinks. He continues nonetheless.
‘’We did not know this, my father and I, when we went down to the market place. It was a foggy morning, but my father loved that best. Added mystery, he said, and he loved a little mystery; not adventures, but a good and proper reminder that many things are hidden to us. He wanted to show me the fog dance on the water. I wish – I wish many things, but most of all I wished I had told him that I wanted to go home. I still remember that day with utmost clarity, Thorin. I heard them growl and snap before I saw them on the ice. We tried to back away, but wolves are faster and care not nearly so much for the slippery slopes. They killed my father before my eyes and they would have killed me, had I been any slower. We call it the Fell Winter; other hobbits died too before we could get the news out.’’
Bilbo feels like he should end his tale more properly, but no more words come out. For him, that day did not end properly. It still feels like he is stuck mid-scream, sometimes, even after all this time.
‘’I did not know,’’ Thorin says at last.
Bilbo huffs. ‘’Of course you did not,’’ he answers. ‘’You dwarves do not think kindly of frightened little hobbits.’’
Thorin helps him up and his touch lingers. ‘’Perhaps my race holds prejudices,’’ Thorin admits. ‘’You, nonetheless, have proven yourself ten times over, Bilbo Baggins. You have proven yourself against countless dangers. You have traded words with a dragon and by facing that evil, it has become obvious to everyone that your bravery exceeds that of us all – you have done more than anything could have ever hoped to ask of you.’’
‘’That is precisely what you asked of me,’’ Bilbo reminds him with a small smile.
Thorin returns it. ‘’Yes, it was,’’ he answers honestly. ‘’In doing it, you showed me exactly how much you can and will endure. I would not begrudge you your fears; I could not. No one could. Not when you have shown us how much courage you truly possess.’’
‘’I feared you would not return to me,’’ Bilbo says honestly. He cannot quite hold it in anymore.
Thorin’s gaze softens. For a moment, Bilbo hopes that perhaps his affection is not entirely one-sided. The King seems glad enough to be with him now, standing closer to him than ordinary friends would. He still holds Bilbo’s hand, and his face is close enough for the hobbit to count his eyelashes. Thorin’s breath ghosts over his face; warm and not unwelcome.
‘’I would always return to you,’’ Thorin whispers. ‘’Bilbo, I meant to –‘’
‘’There ye are!’’ a familiar voice interrupts them. Bilbo and Thorin break apart immediately, and Bilbo feels heat rise to his cheeks.
‘’Óin,’’ Thorin says and he sounds entirely unaffected. Curse these dwarves.
Óin sends Thorin a threatening look. ‘’I heard ye got injured and now I find ye running around Erebor! That’s no way for a King to behave, I’ll have ye know.’’
‘’Hardly running around,’’ Thorin answers, ‘’and only because Kíli locked up our burglar. Bilbo – I have something to discuss with you. Take a day off – no, you deserve one, I have seen you running around from one task to another – and come visit me after dinner, if you are amenable?’’
‘’I would not dare refuse the King anything he would think to ask of a small hobbit,’’ Bilbo asks, his voice a bit quieter than usual.
Thorin’s hand leaves Bilbo’s. They are still for a moment, not moving beyond that. Bilbo keeps extremely still but then Thorin pulls away more, turning to Óin. ‘’Tonight,’’ Thorin promises and then he is gone.
Bilbo stands there for a long time before he decides to find Ori and go help the young scribe with whatever he is doing in Erebor’s library, today. He would rather keep his mind busy than take a day off.
Bilbo does try to visit Thorin that evening but as it turns out, the King has been sent away to an unexpected meeting with Bard and will not return until much later.
He tries not to let it get to him.
‘’I have to admit, Bilbo, I thought hobbits were meant to be much more apprehensive,’’ Kíli says, after the young prince runs into Bilbo. He literally runs into Bilbo as the hobbit is carrying some manuscripts that Ori found lying around somewhere to the library. Kíli helps him with carrying after they bumped into each other, sending the paper flying.
‘’Well, most of them are,’’ Bilbo says. ‘’These are Tooks.’’
‘’Oh, your Uncle and Aunt are alright,’’ Kíli says. ‘’They are mostly like you, though. They like sitting and drinking tea and talking about the proper way of doing things. Your cousin – he’s more like a dwarf, I’d say! Fits in very well.’’
And with that, Bilbo’s good mood leaves him again. ‘’I imagine Jago surprised us all,’’ he mutters. Perhaps Jago would have won over the Company far sooner than Bilbo had, had Gandalf thought of him as a burglar. Obviously, his cousin would have been the better choice – he would not have made such a mess of that whole troll debacle. He would have worn Sting, instead of Bilbo, and maybe Jago would even have the courage to kiss a certain dwarf king instead of pining and hiding away for months.
Seeing how much Jago is adored by all the dwarves makes Bilbo feel – well, inadequate, really. Rather insecure about his standing in the Company. It’s foolish because they do not treat him any different and yet he cannot help it. If the dwarves can grow so fond of a hobbit that has not been journeying with them for months, perhaps he does not mean as much to them as they do to him. It’s gnawing at him, the doubt and concern.
It is making him wonder if he has a place in Erebor, after all. If it’s not best if he returns home to Bag End and leave the world of dwarves behind him, glittering in a distance. He cannot watch the dwarves get tired of having him around, he cannot watch Thorin lose his heart to another and he cannot watch his existence in Erebor become an unwanted burden borne out of remorse and duty.
‘’I never apologized,’’ Kíli says suddenly. ‘’For locking you in your room. I merely wanted to keep you away from the danger, but Thorin has made me understand it was inexcusable. I will not treat you like that again, Bilbo. I know you are capable enough but we all know how you feel about fighting.’’
‘’It is alright, Kíli,’’ Bilbo assures the young prince. ‘’You were right; I admit it was a bit of a silly thought. I am not much of a warrior, after all. I think I’m just a bit tired of being so useless with all the rebuilding that still needs to be done.’’
‘’Useless!’’ Kíli exclaims. ‘’Bilbo, you are half the reason we are still upright after all. Without you we might not even have had a kingdom to rebuild! Without you, Uncle would forget to eat even more often and fall over with exhaustion. Without you, we would have not known how to start growing our own food outside the Mountain! Without you, we would still be at an impasse with the Men and Elves. It is the small details that keep us at bay right now, Bilbo. We have no kingdom without food and warmth, and we would not have food and warmth if we had not had such a sensible hobbit running around.’’
Bilbo feels a bit warmer at that, even as he is certain Kíli has embellished his use greatly. ‘’Nonsense,’’ he says. ‘’You barely need me around the Mountain.’’
It seems like Kíli wants to go against it, but Bilbo feels suddenly very tired. He quite easily changes the subject as they enter the library and they do not come back to the earlier topic at all.
He catches sight of Thorin soon after. He wonders if he should go to him and finish their conversation of days earlier – is intent on doing that, in fact, when Jago appears beside Thorin. The two converse in hushed whispers. He has never seen Thorin look quite as serious, and then Jago hands him something. Bilbo is too far away to see what it is, but he is not sure he wants to know what it is when Thorin’s face turns heart-warmingly tender.
He turns away with a heavy heart.
‘’When exactly will you be leaving, Uncle?’’ Bilbo asks Hildibrand as they are having luncheon together. He does not know where his aunt and her son are, but he is rather content with having Uncle Hildibrand as a companion.
Hildibrand eyes him for a second. ‘’Ten days,’’ he says straightforwardly. ‘’We have already come to a reasonable agreement for both the Shire and Erebor and the Thain has agreed to all the terms. Donnamira seems to appreciate the change of atmosphere, however, and Jago is enjoying some time away from the Shire.’’
‘’He has adapted to life in Erebor in quite nicely,’’ Bilbo says. ‘’I would think him a dwarf, had I not known him by the absence of a beard.’’
Hildibrand laughs at that. ‘’He is an odd lad,’’ his uncle agrees. ‘’But not stranger than you, Bilbo. I think we could search the Shire all year for a more remarkable hobbit and not find one.’’
‘’Hardly so,’’ Bilbo states. ‘’You do not know how often I’ve had to prove myself to these dwarves before they started taking me seriously. Jago fits in more easily than I do.’’
His uncle regards him silently, at that. ‘’Bilbo, you ought to listen to me carefully,’’ Hildibrand starts, leaning forward as if sharing a secret. ‘’We’ve been here a few weeks now, and I have never seen you more at ease anywhere. I dare as well say that you fit better here than you ever did at your mother’s knee. Jago is an oddity that your dwarves enjoy, but he does not belong here. For all his talk of adventure, he has never has so desperately needed it as you do. I do not begrudge you your way of life, nephew, but do not ever doubt that this is your adventure. And you are the only hobbit who can go on it, as the dwarves will not have any other.’’
‘’I think I am quite done with adventures,’’ Bilbo mutters.
‘’Every day in this blasted Mountain is an adventure for us sensible hobbits, Bilbo Baggins. They do not need one more incendiary; they need someone who drags them out of trouble by their ears. A level-headed hobbit who is not afraid to jump into the fires to stop them. They need someone who cares, Bilbo, and no one cares more than you do.’’
‘’You are getting awfully nosy at your old age,’’ the younger hobbit says. ‘’I would believe you had I not been quite convinced already. No, I think it will be best to return to the Shire with you.’’
Hildibrand merely shakes his head at that, but does not try to talk him out of it. Both of them have said what needs to be said.
Bilbo starts packing the next morning.
If Bilbo believed Hildibrand to be nosy, he should have guessed how his Aunt would take to the news. ‘’Bilbo Baggins!’’ she shrieks, entering the dining hall.
Bilbo winces. He is having dinner with the Company –and Jago – and he had rather hoped to make some final fond memories before informing his friends of his intention to leave Erebor. He has been pining here for a little over four months now; he sees Thorin perhaps an hour a week and even when he does, they are not alone. He sees his other friends only slightly more often, and even then they have to leave soon with the new duties they have all received. Sometimes it is Bilbo himself who is busy, though he still feels like he is not doing enough – never doing enough.
‘’Aunt Donnamira,’’ he says politely.
‘’You are the greatest fool I have ever met!’’ she says. ‘’My sister would be aghast to hear of it, do you hear me! You did not travel halfway across the world to turn back when life gets a bit harder to handle. All of these dwarves keep informing me that my nephew is the bravest hobbit to ever walk Middle-earth and yet here you are, still afraid and all the worse off for it!’’
‘’Ma, you’re making a scene,’’ Jago says sternly. ‘’What are you harassing Bilbo for?’’
She ignores her son, looking at Bilbo as she crosses her arms. ‘’If you plan on returning to the Shire, Bilbo Baggins, I hope you have a better reason than the one I think you have,’’ she says quietly.
Somehow, Bilbo expected the dwarves to go in uproar at her words. They become hushed and tense, however, and he feels all eyes settle on him with an unspoken question.
‘’It is not your decision, Aunt,’’ he says determinedly. ‘’Nor do I see why my choice would upset you so.’’
‘’You ran out of your door once without informing anyone,’’ Donnamira states. ‘’Were you truly planning on doing it twice?’’
‘’Worked out well enough the first time,’’ Bilbo says.
Donnamira only sends him a look that is heavy with disappointment before she turns back around the way she came and leaves. The dining room remains silent and Bilbo finds he has lost his appetite once again.
‘’Cousin? A word in private?’’ Jago is the first to speak up as all of the Company continue to stare at him. Bilbo did not meant to tell them like this; he’d have brought it more gently, informing them of his reasons before his aunt came barging in accusing him of things too true to admit. Still, he did not expect the stunned silence and accusing stares.
He feels as if he has stolen the Arkenstone another time as he escapes the room with their gazes burning his back. This time, the guilt is harder to explain. The first time, he had known he was doing the right thing, even if the dwarves had not. Now, it is different.
They have barely left the room before Jago turns towards him. ‘’You cannot leave,’’ his cousin says.
Bilbo huffs out a humourless laugh. ‘’You stay, then.’’
Jago’s eyes narrow. ‘’Why would you go? You have everything here.’’
‘’Has it occurred to anyone that I perhaps want to go home?’’ Bilbo snaps. ‘’Has anyone even considered the fact that I in no way promised to stay once the Quest was finished? That I did not promise to stay and rebuild Erebor, and that I did not promise to help the dwarves with their vegetables and rations and cleaning up the old rooms and cook? Is it such a crime to want to go home?’’
‘’But you don’t,’’ Jago says. ‘’Don’t fool me, Bilbo. I know we have never been close, but you are my family. You have always been alone in the Shire; we thought you liked it that way. Turns out you just needed an adventure and a bunch of dwarves to come into your own. I enjoy Erebor, Bilbo, and I do like the dwarves, but it is clear as day that you belong here. Here is your true home and here lies your heart, as mine lies in the Shire.’’
‘’I’m not a dwarf!’’ Bilbo says. ‘’I am not enough, Jago. I do not know how to wield a sword and I have no wish to learn; I get lost in Erebor when I have been here for months now; I do not stab wolves and find joy in it; I cannot forge anything for the life of me. The dwarves humour me, and one day they will see me for the nuisance I am.’’
‘’They have dwarves in abundance,’’ Jago softly tells him. ‘’They do not need another one. Have I told you how often the dwarves speak of you? You are a hard person to live up to, Bilbo Baggins, and I dare not even try, because these dwarves hold you in the highest esteem possible. Words of your wisdom and bravery have filled up Erebor, and still you do not see it. Do you truly want to leave?’’
Bilbo is silent; he wants to say that he does. It would be no more than a lie.
‘’No,’’ he admits.
‘’Then don’t,’’ another voice behind them comes. Thorin moves out of the shadow, an apologetic expression on his face. ‘’Excuse me for eavesdropping. I merely wanted to – well.’’
‘’That is a very rude thing to do,’’ Bilbo says weakly.
Thorin shrugs. ‘’Which is why you should not leave. Not if you do not truly want it, at least. Who else will tell me when I am being insolent? No one would dare speak to their King that way. You are welcome to stay indefinitely, Bilbo. More than welcome.’’
Jago bows out and goes back to the dining room; Bilbo and Thorin remain standing there. ‘’I should have talked to you sooner,’’ Thorin says ruefully. ‘’The past few months have been extraordinarily busy and I should have made time for you more often. Looking back on it, I am surprised you did not walk out sooner. You deserve more than this, Bilbo. I have done you a disservice.’’
‘’It’s not all bad,’’ Bilbo says quietly. ‘’I enjoyed working here. I just feel – well, inadequate. And I barely see any of you anymore.’’
‘’Please do not leave,’’ Thorin says quietly, and with a few steps he’s suddenly much closer to Bilbo than he was before. Bilbo thinks back to the moment that Thorin had just come back from fighting the wolves and had stood as near to him as he is doing now. ‘’I do not think my heart could take it.’’
‘’I wanted to leave for that same reason,’’ Bilbo whispers. ‘’Thorin, do not play games on a silly old hobbit. If you do not –‘’
Thorin kisses him. All in all, there are worse ways to be cut off. Still, it is very impolite and definitely improper and Bilbo plans to tell him that – once he finishes kissing Thorin, that is. It may take a while.
It slips his mind altogether, in the end.
‘’I am glad to hear you reconsidered, nephew,’’ Hildibrand tells him, eyes twinkling as the hobbit delegates stand in front of the gate of Erebor.
Bilbo blushes. ‘’Yes, well, you turned out to be quite right,’’ he only says, and glares at Thorin’s smirk. ‘’I will visit, though, I do promise that. It may take some time for Erebor to be stable enough for me to leave, but we have made quite some headway already. Do not forget to give that letter to Drogo! And my regards to Primula, of course.’’
‘’We will,’’ Donnamira promises him, and kisses him on the cheek. ‘’Take care, Bilbo. If I hear you got married behind our backs, I will be quite upset with you, I will have you know. You were the one vouching for a long courtship and I would be very displeased not to see you tying the knot with that unruly dwarf king of yours.’’
‘’I would not dare dream of it,’’ Bilbo tells her cheerfully. The Company says their own goodbyes, mostly to Jago, and he does not begrudge him his friendships anymore. Not when in the end, the dwarves come and stand next to him, patting him on the back and telling him how awfully glad they are that it’s not Bilbo who is sitting on a pony heading towards the Shire.
He tells them he would not have it any other way, and with Thorin beside him, he very well means it.
‘’A long courtship, you said?’’ Thorin asks later, when they are retired to his chamber. Bilbo is getting used to being around Thorin more often now, both of them making an effort to spend their time together whenever they can.
Bilbo looks up from the book he is reading. He happened upon it while working in the library with Ori – it was one of the few written in Westron. ‘’Yes, quite,’’ he says. ‘’Though perhaps we do not need such a long one. After all, I do not think I shall change my mind about you.’’
Thorin shuffles behind him, dropping a kiss in his curls. ‘’I am glad to hear of it,’’ he says in a fond voice. ‘’If you were to run away to the Shire now, I fear I would come running after you to beg you to come back to my side. It would be most unbecoming of a King.’’
Bilbo snorts and flips to another page, ignoring Thorin’s fingers toying with his hair. ‘’It would make for an amusing sight, and for weeks of gossip besides,’’ he says. ‘’Still, I am quite content here. And our courtship will undoubtedly be long enough – we do not have the opportunity for a fine party just yet. Besides, more of your people are returning each day. You are a tremendously busy dwarf, my King, and will remain so for the foreseeable future!’’
Thorin hums in serenity, seemingly unbothered by the prospect. ‘’Speaking of courtships,’’ he says, ‘’I have not had the chance yet to give you your first courting gift. I wanted to wait to ask you; alas, had I only spoken up earlier we would have avoided much distress on both of our parts. Still, I hope you like it.’’
Bilbo has now abandoned his book to look at his dwarf. Thorin takes a hairpin from his pockets, and it looks rather small in his large hand. ‘’Oh,’’ Bilbo breathes. The hairpin is decorated with a silver acorn, its details astonishingly beautiful. ‘’Thorin, this must have taken you ages. How did you –‘’
‘’Your relatives helped me,’’ Thorin says quickly. ‘’It is dwarven custom to create something for your intended, preferably something they can wear so it can be seen. I have no knowledge of hobbit custom and thus I turned to your cousin, as I believed he could help me. He told me that flowers are customarily used to court for your folk, and I remembered the acorn you showed me. I wanted to make it as detailed as possible, so I asked him to find one for me. Hobbit courtships seem to be much less complicated than dwarven courtships, but I still hope it is good enough for you.’’
Bilbo remembers that time he had seen Jago hand something to Thorin; he had been too far away to see at the time. Now he realizes it must have been that acorn – the acorn that Thorin wanted to use to help him make a courtship gift for Bilbo. And Bilbo had never seen it coming.
‘’I adore it,’’ Bilbo answers. ‘’I could not ask for anything better, Thorin. Do you know what acorns mean in the language of hobbits?’’
Thorin shakes his head. ‘’Tell me.’’ In the meanwhile, his hands return to the hobbit’s curls, putting in the hairpin with a soft and gentle carefulness that Bilbo is quickly getting used to from Thorin.
He smiles. ‘’Acorns stand for potential – more accurately, the potential for something young and new to grow into something significant and lasting. I think it fits our situation quite nicely, don’t you? I have always been very fond of them.’’
Thorin returns his smile then, tender and easy. Bilbo does not think he wants to give this up. He will nurture the potential of their courtship carefully and see it grow – and he knows Thorin will do the exact same thing.
He is quite certain he is ready to keep his dwarves out of trouble for the rest of his life.