There is a sound like a match sparking into fire, and Bilbo Baggins opens his eyes to see a hand reaching out from the dark.
It is not a hobbitish hand. It is callused and worn, a hand that has known hard work and is unafraid of it, a hand dark with years wandering through the sun and storm where it might have been more suited to the fires and shadows of the earth. It is a hand that had held too much anger in its life, and not enough tenderness, and though Bilbo has not seen such a hand for some-odd eighty years, he could not fail to recognise it.
He reaches out with his own hand, which he seems not to have had only moments before, and takes it.
The hand clasps around his, stone-rough and forge-hot but comforting all the same, and pulls him to feet Bilbo had lost or forgotten or somehow has only just regained, and then there is a face in the darkness, and eyes that shine like stars.
“Thorin Oakenshield,” Bilbo says, breathless. “I am dead, then.”
“Aye, Master Baggins,” Thorin agrees. His face is calm and patient, more regal now that it had ever been with a crown above it. The fires that had once burned in his heart, fueling his prides and passions, his stubbornness and steadfastness, still blaze in his voice. “You are dead.”
“I always knew you would come for me,” Bilbo says, closing his eyes, and after all these long years, he finally feels peace.
He remembers that there had been white shores, and a blushing sunrise like a swollen peony blossoming over the horizon.
Frodo had sat with him then, his shirtsleeves rolled up and his hair curling in the humid air. He had shed his waistcoat like a wayward tween and peeled apples at Bilbo’s bedside, twisting the skins off in long, unbroken pieces. “Tell me about the trolls,” he would say, as if he hadn’t read the story a hundred times, as if he hadn’t had a hundred of his own stories to tell, smiling crooked and small. It had been so long since Frodo had smiled. “Tell me about the skin-changer.”
“Oh, ho ho,” Bilbo would answer, as if Frodo was a wee faunt asking to share in a secret. “Well, the thing you have to understand about that is—” and off he would go, his frail hands spreading wide in the storytelling, his eyes bright and lively, until he was near-gasping for breath through the creaking laughter of old age.
He had talked about rushing waterfalls and towering pines; he had talked about the stink of horse and the dust of cram. He had talked about the grim shadows of the Misty Mountains and the dread depths of Mirkwood, the rickety stilts of Lake-Town and the crumbling towers of Dale. He had talked about homesickness and about fear and about courage and about being a very little fellow in a very big world.
He talked about everything, but not about everyone.
Frodo had listened, and laughed when he should have laughed and gasped when he should have gasped, and he had watched quietly as Bilbo’s gaze trailed away at the end of the stories, just before he could say anything that might give him away.
“Bilbo,” Frodo had begun carefully, early one morning when the dew was just settling on the flowers outside Bilbo’s window. Neither of them slept well, even then; Frodo dreamt of fire and Bilbo of ice, and it had finally become easier to not pretend they didn’t. “When you left the Shire, you said you wanted to see the Lonely Mountain again. You didn’t mean to come back, did you? You were going to Erebor to stay.”
“Well, now,” Bilbo had said. “I suppose that’s true.”
There was a long, mighty pause. “You were a hundred and eleven years old that year,” Frodo had finally gone on. “In fine shape, but a very old hobbit already.” Frodo had leaned forward, taking Bilbo’s hand in his. His voice had been very gentle. “You were going to Erebor to die.”
Bilbo had lain back in his bed and closed his eyes. “Ah, you’re a clever lad,” he said. “Too clever by half, I should think.” And then he had been quiet for a while, for such a long while that Frodo might have thought him asleep, but finally his eyes had cracked back open. The sun had caught in Frodo’s hair, outlining him in gold, but his eyes, so wide and so blue, had for a moment been someone else’s. “I had hoped,” Bilbo had said, very slowly. He had to stop and clear his throat, and then he tried again. “I had hoped to go back to him, in the end.”
Frodo had not asked who, but Bilbo had known that Frodo understood. He had known that Frodo had noticed the name Bilbo had not said since they had left the Grey Havens and all of Middle-Earth behind. He had known that Frodo was haunted by much the same losses he was.
Frodo had worn the Ring too, after all.
“Gandalf told me once that the Ring prolongs the life of its bearer,” Frodo had said, his voice even and soft. “If you’d had it still, you might have made it.”
“I would not have been the same hobbit I was when I left him, though,” Bilbo had answered. “In the end I think it was a blessing, you know. I didn’t stand before his tomb with that rot in my heart, after he gave so much to burn the sickness out of his. I spared him that indignity at least.”
“He would have understood,” Frodo had whispered into that dewy morning sunlight, threading his fingers between Bilbo’s. “You’ll find him in the afterwards, Bilbo. I’m sure of it. He’ll be waiting for you.”
And Bilbo had looked at Frodo, and just for an instant, he could see everything Frodo had done, and everything Frodo had believed, and everything Frodo still won and lost and every young hope he nurtured in his chest like pale little seedlings, still too new and small to survive on their own but still loved, and Bilbo had held tight to him.
“I know,” Bilbo had said. “I know.”
The darkness is a nothing-space; it is the cool, enveloping shadow of a fire that has just burnt itself out. Something in it demands the hush of murmurs and whispers, of soft touches and gentle hands. “How are you here?” Bilbo asks quietly, looking up at Thorin’s impossible face. “You should be in the halls of waiting.”
Thorin’s mouth curves up on one side. “So I am,” he answers. He is still holding Bilbo’s hands, and Bilbo feels strong again under his gaze, like his knees have straightened and his shoulders have lifted. Thorin has always made him feel like that. “Your heart called me to here, and so this is where I have waited.”
“Oh,” Bilbo blinks. He looks down at their clasped hands; the gentle iron of Thorin’s grip squeezes once around his fingers, reassuring. Something catches in Bilbo’s throat, sharp and throbbing, pulling like a fish hook. This is Thorin. These are his hands, his forge-flecked skin; that is his nose, straight and proud; those are his laugh-lines, still too small, his silvering braids, still too short, his fathomless voice. “I didn’t know you could hear it.”
“I have always heard it.” Thorin’s eyes are so clear when he looks at Bilbo, his voice so tender. “I heard it even when I did not think to listen.”
He speaks of gold-sickness and dark days, and Bilbo is shaking his head before Thorin has even finished. Is this what Thorin has waited for? With all the things Bilbo carries in his heart, still unsaid, is this all that Thorin has wanted to say?
Is this all he wants to hear?
“I don’t want your apologies or your forgiveness,” Bilbo says, a little hot with the sudden need to protect himself. “We did that on the battlefield, and then you died, and it was perfectly horrible and I don’t want any more of it. We parted friends, Thorin. You didn’t have to wait for me just for that.”
“I didn’t,” Thorin answers. “I say that now only so you understand why I did not say what I have yet to say then. I have waited here because we parted friends, Bilbo Baggins. But I rather think there was more to it than that.”
Oh, Bilbo thinks, and then, “Oh,” Bilbo breathes. His heart tumbles over itself, chaotic and confused, as his brow furrows. “Eighty years is a long time to wait to only think something,” he says cautiously, though whether he’s warning himself or Thorin, he does not know. “It’s a long time in which to remember, and a long time in which to forget, and a long time to wait for something no one has ever said.”
There’s a long silence in the dark. Bilbo closes his eyes and wishes, ridiculously, that there were a little more light.
“Have you really not heard it?” Thorin whispers. “I hear your heart so clearly, Bilbo Baggins. Do you really not hear mine?” He frees one of his hands from Bilbo’s grip and uses it to trace a line down Bilbo’s cheek. “Or are you just afraid of what it says?”
Bilbo huffs—it’s hardly his fault if stubborn dwarves don’t say what they mean and leave people wondering about it for eighty-odd years. “I’ve tried not to think about it,” he says, and perhaps that’s too cold because Thorin’s fingers fall away from his face, but Thorin must understand this. “I’ve had to live without you, don’t you see? I’ve had to go on, and try to make something of a life, and—and it was hard enough as it was already. To wake up every morning and wonder if there was something I could have done, something I could have said, to make it all go differently; to sit alone by my fire and wonder what kind of life we might have had if only one other thing had gone some other way. I thought I would be crushed to death under the weight of it some days.”
“It is still there to hear, if you would hear it,” Thorin says.
It is not a demand, but neither is it a plea. An encouragement, maybe. As though he had closed his eyes to be led somewhere, and now, having arrived, Thorin wants him to see.
If Bilbo ever did hear something, it would have sounded like that. It sounds like a promise.
Bilbo opens his eyes. He is surprised to find that there is a light in the darkness, to see that there is a warm, golden glow like the first rays of some faraway sunrise. It catches in Thorin’s hair, gilding him with peach and honey; he steps a little closer, as if to reassure Bilbo that he’s not going anywhere.
“Would that you had not lived such a life,” Thorin murmurs to him, taking both of Bilbo’s hands back into his own. “I had hoped that you would have found happiness. I had hoped that you would find comfort again in the world, Bilbo, and hope, and all the safe and contented things your Shire seemed to hold for you. I could only offer you dragonfire, and death, in the end, and I kept my final words behind my teeth in hopes that you would be protected from them, but I see now that that was a mistake. I should have told you, even if it would only have been a moment of knowing before I had to leave you.”
The light in the darkness gleams and grows, and Bilbo thinks there’s a sound to it now—the rushing of wind through long grasses, the bubbling of a creek over smooth stone. It sounds like rolling hills and also like white shores; it sounds like the echoes of deep caverns and the fall of snow.
“Tell me now, then,” Bilbo says.
Thorin takes a deep breath in. When he looks at Bilbo, he looks at Bilbo like he can see Bilbo, like he can see the last eighty years writ large in his eyes, like he can see all of the life Bilbo had had to cobble together out of the lonely mornings and the cold nights and every moment in between, the pinpoint stars of Frodo laughing in the fields of the Westfarthing, the party tree lit up in celebration, the pages of the red book. He looks at Bilbo like he can feel the yearning of his heart to return to Thorin’s last resting place, that he might one day rest beside him; like he can feel the last few years of Frodo’s youth dripping by as Bilbo planned for the permission of his coming-of-age; like he can feel the wrench of soul at realising he would never make it. He looks at Bilbo like he can hear the rush of the sea as Bilbo left Middle-Earth behind.
He looks at Bilbo like his chest is cracked open, like all the breath in his lungs has gone out and all their years of waiting have stretched thin, ready to break.
He looks at Bilbo, and his eyes are so, so blue.
He says, “I have waited here to tell you that I love you.”
The years of waiting snap closed, and Bilbo takes the last step forward and breathes for what might be the first time in his life.
“You should’ve just said,” Bilbo points out, huffing, and when Thorin’s expression cracks, a laugh that could have been a sob escaping his throat, Bilbo kisses him.
First kisses are a certain sort of magic in life, and Bilbo is very pleased to find the same is true in death.
The darkness rings with the sound of a hundred bells when Bilbo finally tilts himself into Thorin. The first kiss is a surge of emotion, a hard press of lip to lip, but it gentles almost immediately, into no more than a brush, really, a shuddering breath over a ghosting contact. Just a hint, a suggestion of a kiss, as though they are both afraid of it. Maybe they both are.
Bilbo has not imagined this.
He has never allowed his thoughts to wander here, to contemplate these what-ifs. There had been little point in considering questions that could never be answered, and the only things he could’ve discovered were pain and grief and loss. He has not wondered about the feel of Thorin’s beard against his palms, or about the scent of Thorin’s hair. He has not guessed about the pressure of Thorin’s lips nor the hold of Thorin’s hands.
Thorin was dead, and Bilbo had known better than to wallow in the shadows of chances never taken and words never said. Bilbo had known the taste of heartache too well already.
But now Bilbo is dead too, and Thorin is here.
“I love you too,” Bilbo says, pulling back half a space, “in case that isn’t clear,” and Thorin laughs again into Bilbo’s mouth.
Thorin is here, and the next kiss is a little more certain of itself.
The light around them shines on.