Contrary to whatever Yavanna thought, Bilbo had an excellent memory.
He remembered the scent of grass after a summer rain. He remembered the feel of snow beneath his feet. He remembered his mother’s smile when the scones came out of the oven just right. He remembered his father’s eyes roaming over the lines in his books. He remembered how Frodo couldn’t sleep unless Bilbo stroked his hair while singing him lullabies. And he remembered Thorin’s voice.
Though, Bilbo was Hobbit enough to admit that his memory got a mite fuzzy over the things that happened after he left the Shire for the second time.
He knew that his sweet, soft Frodo had saved the world, and that when the ache of it got to be too much for Frodo’s tender heart to bear, Gandalf had packed them both away to the Undying Lands. Bilbo also knew that ‘undying’ didn’t apply to him. Someday the time would come for both he and his nephew to pass from the land of the Valar and Elves and slip into the Halls of Mandos to join the rest of the Hobbits who had died. Despite knowing that death would come for them as it came for all who were not the immortals, Bilbo also knew that the peace of this eternal place was meant to cleanse both him and Frodo of the taint The Ring had left behind.
Bilbo also knew, that no matter how the Valar fussed over him, he would never heal.
The moment Gandalf had stepped from their boat to solid ground, his age had fallen away like leaves in autumn. From one breath to the next he was young again, with a hearty laugh and bright eyes that were unburdened by the cares of Middle Earth. Dear Frodo had followed soon after—though his sweet face had needed little change. Instead, the bounce came back to his step and to his curls.
But, no matter how many days slipped by, Bilbo had only gotten worse.
Este, the Vala most gifted in healing, spent each and every day at Bilbo’s side, singing in her high and lilting voice a tune with enough power that it should have brought Bilbo back to health had he been on his last breath. And yet, he still lingered in the twilight where no gift of the Valar could touch him. It had been Yavanna, the Valar over all green and growing things, who had brought Bilbo to her Pastures, thinking that perhaps a little cottage surrounded by flowers might be enough to rally his spirits.
Yet still, Bilbo faded. But he remembered enough that when darling Frodo had told Gandalf of his worries, Bilbo had forced himself to show something close to wellness. Bilbo remembered sitting up that day and forcing down several spoonfuls of broth to quell his nephew’s concern. It was enough that Bilbo was able to prod the lad into going off with Gandalf to see all the former Wizard’s favorite places in the Undying Lands.
And now, Bilbo could hear Frodo pleading, “But you promised me, Gandalf!” from outside the door to Bilbo’s little cottage. “You swore to me that if I left him here with Yavanna he would be healed by the time we got back.” Whatever Gandalf might have said in return, Bilbo’s ears were too tired to hear.
No… tired was not fierce enough a word. Bilbo Baggins was exhausted, body and soul.
Every day Este sang to him in a voice too high to comfort, while Yavanna opened his windows to the scent of flowers that he was not allowed to see because he was deemed too delicate to go outside. And every night, they closed his curtains to the starlight and left him tucked tight in covers where he faced his demons alone.
While Frodo had been near, Bilbo’s sleep had been riddled with nightmares no worse than what had plagued his sleep for the last few decades: Fili and Kili cut down by Azog the Defiler, Gollum sinking his ragged teeth into soft skin, Smaug’s fire unleashed on Lake Town.
(Yes, Bilbo’s memory worked just fine. )
But when Frodo had followed Bilbo’s prodding and left, the dreams had turned beyond his control. Suddenly he dreamt of using Sting to slice Frodo through, running off into the night with his Precious at his side and his nephew dead on Bag End’s floor. Dreamt of showing the Ring to Thorin rather than handing the Arkenstone over to his enemies. Bilbo had thought that those would be the worst of it, thought that even his imagination could not conjure up something worse than what Thorin might have been capable up when plagued by Dragon Sickness and equipped with the might of the One Ring. But of course, as was the pattern for Bilbo’s life, he went from the frying pan in to the fire.
Soon, Bilbo had dreams that he took as a sure sign he really was losing his mind.
Between Frodo’s stories and Gandalf’s magic, Bilbo knew what every member of the Fellowship looked like, and the appearance of every man, woman, and child that the other boys had come across in their travels.
But the Elf he thought he dreamt of did not match a single one of them.
She was tall like a willow, with soft, raven curls that tumbled wild past her sharp features. Bilbo might have mistaken her for an Elf of Elrond’s house, were it not for the dead shade to her eyes. Bilbo remembered what it was to spend the waning years of his life safe with Elrond’s people, and never had any Elf—no matter their history—ever fixed Bilbo with that hollow-eyed look.
He’d thought she was a delusion of his addled mind right up until she ran her thin fingers along the deep wrinkles at the corner of Bilbo’s mouth.
He knew that touch, and he’d screamed with all the energy he had left in his body.
She had come every night since, and Bilbo had learned that calling out for help did him no good. The Valar tending to him seemed to think that Bilbo’s explanations were a nothing but a sign that his mind had slipped beyond their reach.
On this night, as she had so many others, she settled down on the bed beside Bilbo. She was close enough to touch, but she had learned the hard way that no matter how gentle she tried to be, Bilbo would still scream at the feel of her skin against his. Under the weight of her gaze Bilbo slipped back to his youth, nearly a hundred years melting away. Within moments he was back to the mild, golden-haired lovely that she had first met all those years ago.
As had become their pattern, along with his youth, Bilbo found the strength that she had seeped away from him during the light of day. “Hello, my golden boy.”
Bilbo sunk deeper into the pillows and sighed at the sight of her. “Hello, Ashnazg.”
“I don’t know why you cling so to this place, my darling. They keep you pent up in this ugly little box, so perilously close to the disgusting brightness of daylight. When you die I shall take you away from here, and we shall see the world together. Honestly, I don’t know why you’re putting off the inevitable.”
“I refused to become like Gollum when you actually had a hold over me, I can’t imagine why you think I’d do it now.”
“Oh, my darling boy. If I no longer have a hold over you, how am I able to slip my bonds and come for you in this place? Neither my maker nor my master, for all their power, have found their way out of the Void, but every night I come for you.”
“It’s got not a thing to do with you, it’s about me. I’m being punished for taking you out of that cave. When I’ve paid, you’ll go right back where you came from.”
She pressed her hands to the edges of Bilbo’s pillow and loomed over him, her lips perilously close to his flesh. “I don’t think you believe that, my dear.” He scoffed at her, but his shivers betrayed him. “I think you know that for all your pretty words, I am at the heart of you. You owe me your life a dozen times over, and despite all you know about me and where I came from, you cannot bring yourself to hate me.”
“That was before you started interrupting my sleep and getting in the way of my healing.”
“Oh, my boy,” she gave him a smile that was all teeth. “You and I know that’s not true. In fact, I’m your life partner. I’m the one you brought home from Erebor. While all those Dwarves betrayed you, I did not. I stayed with you, I loved you when they turned their hearts to stone against you.”
“That’s conveniently ignoring how you’re the one who helped drive them mad in the first place, isn’t it?”
“The line of Durin was as it always was, I had nothing to do with Oakenshield’s actions,” she snapped. “He loved the Arkenstone more than he loved you.”
“And you loved the destruction and ruin of Middle-earth more than you loved me. So you and I are at an impasse, both still in love with things we will never have. Now get out.”
The woman pulled in on herself, shrinking until she was the perfect size for a Hobbit maid. Her curls tightened and her stomach plumped, but still her eyes were dead. “Don’t you wonder what it would be like, darling? You haven’t felt the touch of a lover’s hand since you gave your heart away to a Dwarf who didn’t value it. I am the one who stayed with you, who you clutched on those long winter nights when you wept for what might have been. Don’t you want to know what it would be like to be touched back?”
There was a flicker of something both terrified and fascinated in the back of Bilbo’s gaze. A hundred years of unrequited love was long for even the most stalwart of hearts. And now Bilbo sat there, suspended on the edge of death because this creature would not let him go. All the years they were together and she’d burrowed into his soul, taking up residence amidst the sweet affection he’d held for her before he understood the depth of her villainy. And now, he would be trapped in this in-between state until she released him, only truly alive when she let him shed his age so that they could speak. If she wished it, he would never move on to see his kinsmen, his parents, his Dwarves. He would be stuck with only her until someone discovered that she’d slipped from the Void to dwell in the shadows of Bilbo’s room. (Considering that she had been here for more months than Bilbo could remember, it seemed unlikely that they would ever realize she was gone.)
This was the moment. He’d been fighting her since he realized what had found him here in this safe place, but he was growing weary. He knew that Frodo had come back to him whole and hale, and that his prolonged illness was the only thing keeping Frodo tied down when he would rather be adventuring. Bilbo was exhausted, and now was her chance to break him, to keep him.
“Come now, my love, shall you and I have one last adventure together before I let you sleep?”
Bilbo sighed, a soul deep gust of painful air, and he stretched out his fingers to her. She reached back for him, and it wasn’t until he screamed that she remembered how terribly clever her Bilbo was.
She had been so pleased that this was one of those few nights Bilbo deigned to speak to her that she didn’t catch how the conversation outside had trickled away. So taken with the sight of Bilbo’s blue eyes clear and broken that she it never once crossed her mind that—out of all the people in the Undying Lands—Frodo Baggins was the one who would know the feel of her lurking at Bilbo’s bed.