The thing about falling in love, Bilbo thought, was that it was mostly a series of maybes.
He didn’t care much for the maybes. They left him feeling unsteady, off-kilter and wrong-footed, like the solid ground had turned to mud beneath his feet and left him sinking. He wondered at what point you stopped falling in love and instead just got to live in it.
Maybe at the point where the person you’re in love with starts to love you back.
Maybe. Another one. It was becoming unbearable.
Oh, it wasn’t as if Bilbo wasn’t enjoying falling in love with Thorin Oakenshield. He was, in that particular way most people enjoy falling in love. It made the sun shine brighter and the food taste sweeter and he could sigh and sing with the best of them. He woke up feeling it, and he went to bed feeling it, and it was all very nice and a bit dreamy, in its own sort of way.
And for a while, he’d been happy with the maybes. They had given him quite a lot, all things considered.
Maybe he would see Thorin today. Maybe they would walk through the halls of Erebor together, chasing one another through the markets, sampling sugared nuts passed out in paper cones and bits of roasted meats presented on tiny hand-sized skewers. Maybe Thorin would find him in the library where he was working on translations, bring him a cup of tea and distract him for an hour or so before Balin came to herd him back into this council meeting or that. Maybe Bilbo would find his way into that council meeting, ostensibly for an opinion on the growing seasons but really just to sit and make faces at Thranduil behind his back, making Thorin turn pink behind his beard as he tried not to laugh. Maybe they would share a drink or a pipe or a meal, drifting into a comfortable silence that always felt like it held them together, rather than apart.
The truth of it was that Bilbo loved Thorin, and every time their paths met, he grew a little more certain of it.
Thorin, for his part, loved Erebor.
And here Bilbo was less sure. He knew Thorin could love more than just Erebor–one look at the way he treated his two nephews could tell a person that–but he was less sure about whether Thorin wanted to love a person the way Bilbo loved him. And he was less sure than that as to whether, even if Thorin did love a person that way, he would want to do something about it.
Less sure, but . . . maybe.
“Here you are,” a voice called from behind Bilbo, and there Thorin was, coming across the gate to where Bilbo had settled himself to smoke his pipe. Orcrist was at his hip, which was just as well, because the guards had gone out of sight; he must have told them to head down to the guardhouse for some coffee to warm their bones and leave their warrior king to look over his land himself. Bilbo grinned at the thought of the show it must’ve been, but could not deny the benefit of a friend with the ability to provide some privacy even in the most public of places. “I’ve been looking for you.”
“Hullo,” Bilbo said, as Thorin stepped in beside him. He offered over his pipe, which Thorin accepted. “I wasn’t exactly hiding, you know.”
In the early days, after Erebor had been retaken, Thorin had been entirely unable to share a spot on the gate with Bilbo, and Bilbo would’ve known that he was only looking for Bilbo here as a very last resort. Bilbo would have none of it, of course; there were very few places in the mountain that a hobbit of the earth and sun could sit and smoke and enjoy a breeze, and it very quickly got old to have one of his closest friends ruining the mood with awkward apologies that persisted long after the wounds had healed.
Bilbo had lived. Thorin had lived. Erebor had been reclaimed.
They could not unmake the past that had been made in the desperate moments on the gate, nor on the battlefield below it. They could only move on, and move forward, and build the sort of life the dead had died for.
Finally Bilbo had been unable to handle even one more minute with the remorse and repentance that threatened to pull Thorin into the tombs after his people. He had forced Thorin out onto the gate one summer afternoon, sat him down with a pipe, and told him to smoke until he was over it. Thorin had nearly made himself sick on the pipeweed, but he’d found his heart still beating in his chest, and a new purpose in his throne, and after all his years of wandering and exile, he had finally begun to bloody well relax.
It had made Bilbo’s heart sing, to see Thorin smile again.
“You don’t have to be hiding for you to be difficult to find,” Thorin said diplomatically, taking a long pull on tonight’s pipe and letting the smoke out in short puffs. His lip tugged into a teasing sort of smile. “Erebor’s a big enough place, full of all sorts of nooks and crannies a hobbit could get lost in. I trust you’re curious enough to find them all.”
“Not my fault you lot can’t find a nook or cranny to save your mother’s gems.” Bilbo took his pipe back with a grin of his own, jabbing his elbow playfully into Thorin’s side. “You’re in a good mood. What’s the occasion?”
“Why shouldn’t I be in a good mood?” Thorin frowned, struggling to hold the expression around a chuckle. “I’m having a good smoke with good company. That ought to be enough for any king among dwarves.”
Bilbo squinted. “The agreements with the weavers and tailors have finished, have they?”
Thorin’s expression crumbled, and the laugh spilled forth. “Thank Mahal, they have.” He had the pipe now, and gestured broadly with it. “A whole mountain’s worth of space, and they squabble over a few square feet. It’s enough to make anyone bop them on the head and remind them that two years ago that space lay beneath a dragon.”
Bilbo laughed with him. “Bop,” he repeated. He’d never heard Thorin say that before, though Bilbo himself said it often enough. He must be rubbing off on him. “I don’t imagine you bopping anyone.”
“Slashing and wrestling, perhaps, but bopping? That seems more my area.”
“I shall just have to call you in to handle it next time, then. Would hate to intrude upon your area.”
“By all means,” Bilbo said with a wave. “You’re welcome to whatever areas you’d like.” And then, very quickly, as he realised how that had sounded, he rushed to add, “Bopping, I mean. With the bopping. Feel free.”
Thorin arched a brow at him, but if he thought it was unusual, he opted not to mention it. Instead he reached once more for Bilbo’s pipe. “And what were you doing out here, while I was corralling the weavers and tailors?” he asked, leaning on the stone wall of the gate and looking out over the land. There were trees growing in here and there; there might even be flowers this year, small and blue and hardy.
“Mm.” Wasn’t that the mithril-and-diamond question? He finally settled on being vague. “Thinking.”
“You’re always thinking. About what? Bopping dwarves on the nose to teach them some manners?”
“I’m always thinking about bopping dwarves on the nose to teach them some manners,” Bilbo sniffed, “but no, not really. Just . . . thinking.”
Across the land, the sun began to dip below the horizon. The guards would come back soon to light the torches, and then this moment would be lost, and Bilbo would go back to falling in love in the vague little spaces fitted in around all the maybes.
Maybe he was tired of these vague little spaces. Maybe he was beginning to think certainty, even if it were certain rejection, would be better than another maybe.
“Have you ever wanted to know something,” Bilbo started slowly, studying the horizon intently, curling his hand around the stone of the wall, “and at first, you’re too afraid of what the answer might be, so you don’t ask, until it goes on and on for so long that finally you think you’d rather know and have the truth be some horrible, wretched thing than to live any longer wondering about the maybe of it?”
Thorin thought for a moment. “Yes.”
“What did you do?”
“I hired a burglar and fought a dragon, and now here we are.” Thorin’s brow furrowed. “Are you all right, Bilbo? Is there something I should know?”
Erebor. Of course it would be Erebor.
Thorin loved Erebor.
But still, in the quiet moments like these, passing a pipe between them, watching the sun as it set over a land that just two years ago had been a desolate waste, a land that two years ago Bilbo had helped Thorin to reclaim. A land that, two years ago, Thorin had asked him to stay in.
And Bilbo thought, with a little more confidence than he had had just an hour ago, that maybe Thorin could love someone else besides just his mountain.
“I’ve been thinking,” Bilbo began, keeping his gaze trained on that faraway horizon, “that maybe I’d like to have a spot of dinner with someone.”
Thorin’s brow furrowed even further. “If you’re hungry,” he said hesitantly, “I believe the kitchens are doing venison tonight. We could swipe a hand pie for supper, before the roasts at dinner.”
Bilbo laughed quietly; it was just like Thorin to take things literally. “I mean, I’ve been thinking about having dinner with someone, and spending the evening with them. Less about the dinner, more about the someone.”
He reckoned that Thorin knew him well enough by now to hear the seriousness underlining his teasing tone, and indeed, Thorin seemed to mull this answer over for a while before answering, cautious and a little suspicious. “Someone you care about, then.”
Bilbo nodded. The pipeweed in the bowl was going thin, so he set it aside and clasped his hands together to hide how nervous he felt. He still did not look over, but he could not have said what it was he was looking at any longer.
“Someone I maybe cared very much about,” he agreed slowly, significantly. “Someone I like spending time with. Someone I maybe want to spend more time with. Maybe someone I want to spend all my time with.”
Thorin took a breath in, and very carefully did not move.
“Maybe,” Bilbo went on, trying very hard to keep his voice steady, “Maybe someone I want to share an evening with, and maybe a morning too, and maybe the night in between. Someone I maybe want to share myself with, and maybe have a share of them. Someone I want to share a silence with, maybe, or to share a laugh with, or a nightmare, or a happiness.” He took a deep breath, closing his eyes to find the last remnants of strength. “Maybe someone I want to share a life with.”
Thorin was quiet for a long time. Bilbo could feel his eyes, studying his profile, but he still didn’t open his own to meet them.
He couldn’t. Maybe the answer’s no, he thought, and he couldn’t.
“Why don’t you?” Thorin asked finally. “Are you not sure?”
Bilbo shrugged, his eyes still closed. “Maybe I’m sure of myself, but I’m not sure they want the same things. “Sometimes I think maybe they do. Sometimes I think maybe they’ve already committed too much of themselves to something bigger, something that wouldn’t leave them any room for me.” He huffs a self-deprecating little laugh. “Maybe I’ve just not got the confidence to ask yet.”
There was another long moment. Bilbo wished he had brought more pipeweed with him, if only for something to do with his hands. He also wished for a very strong cup of chamomile tea and a shot or three of dwarvish whisky, which was a spirit that typically put Bilbo flat on his arse faster than he could say Bullroarer Took.
Three, he thought firmly, as the moment dragged on. Four if this doesn’t end soon.
And then he felt a hand brushing over his, pulling his fingers apart and taking one into the clasp of two much bigger and much warmer. “Your hands are cold,” Thorin said softly. “Perhaps you should quite quickly gain some confidence so we can go in and see about those hand pies.”
The air caught in Bilbo’s throat. “Thorin.”
“And then once you’ve had your supper,” Thorin went on, “maybe you would do me the honor of sticking around for dinner. And I’m sure I could arrange for a cup of tea after that, and maybe a little conversation, if you’re so inclined.”
Bilbo wanted to open his eyes. He wanted to, desperately he wanted to. He wanted to know how Thorin looked just then in the last rays of light, in the breeze off the gates. He wanted to know how their hands looked, curled together. He wanted to know if Thorin’s eyes, his forget-me-not eyes, were looking at him.
But he wasn’t there yet. Still falling: still grabbing at the maybe of Thorin’s meaning.
“And after that?” Bilbo heard himself ask.
Then Thorin had both of Bilbo’s hands, pulling him away from the wall a little, making Bilbo turn to face him. He was standing so close Bilbo could smell him, that dark scent like smoke and vetiver and that strange metallic scent of a firespark. “Bilbo,” he said. His voice was barely more than a whisper in the evening breeze. “Bilbo, open your eyes.”
He hesitated, and then admitted, half-hoping it would end the conversation, “I’ve not got the courage. I’m afraid of falling.”
Thorin chuckled, soft and low. “You have faced far scarier things than this on this wall,” he said.
“Who says I mean you? Maybe I’ve suddenly developed a fear of heights.”
“You know the thing about heights,” Thorin said. His hands squeezed once around Bilbo’s, terribly gently but insistent. He was standing so close now that Bilbo could feel the heat radiating off him. “It’s not really the fall that’s frightening. It’s the landing that people are afraid of.”
“Is that supposed to help? It doesn’t, you know.”
“It would if you would look at me. Maybe I could help you find that landing.”
Oh, bother. On the count of three, then, Bilbo told himself. One, two—
Thorin was right there, as close as Bilbo had thought and maybe even closer than. The sun had finally finished setting and Thorin was awash with pink and gold and the early violets of twilight, the beads of his braids flashing like stars in his dark hair. His eyes were unwavering, steady and certain, and his mouth was just barely touched with the beginnings of a smile, and he was right bloody there.
“I think,” Thorin said, “that you have maybe been spending too much time on maybe. I think it is probably time for you to find out for sure.”
Bilbo swallowed hard, trying to steady himself. “What if he says no?”
There was that laugh again, that soft, tender thing. It looked different on Thorin this close—it lived in the lines around his eyes and in the curve of his mouth. “Bilbo, can’t you hear me?” he asked. “I’ve already said yes.”
And then Thorin kissed him.
Soft, tender things indeed, Bilbo thought, a bit stupidly, and then Thorin shifted, and kissed him a little deeper, and Bilbo did not think anything at all for a very long moment.
“Well,” he said, when Thorin finally drew back. He tried to compose his face and found that he couldn’t; the smile had taken over it entirely.
“Well,” Thorin returned, with an equally pleased look. “Have you found your confidence yet, Master Baggins? Have you found your landing?”
“Maybe.” Bilbo leaned in, tasting the grin on Thorin’s mouth. Yes, that certainly did help, he thought, reaching for just enough confidence to kiss him properly. “Maybe you’ll have to help me keep looking.”
Thorin laughed, pulling Bilbo closer to wrap one arm around his waist. “Well, you did say you were looking for someone to spend your life with.”
“Guess we’ve got time then,” Bilbo said, and kissed him again.