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When we have shuffled off

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  “For in that sleep of death what dreams may come

When we have shuffled off this mortal coil…?”

-William Shakespeare


The halls of Aulë were built of stone, which Bilbo supposed should come as no surprise. Of course, it was very nice stone, with lovely veined marbles and glittering gems embedded in them, creating sparkling mosaics refracting the light that seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere at once. Hardly the rough granite that the farmers dug painstakingly from their fields in the Shire, it was polished to mirror shine. But he found that his eyes skipped over these wonders after the initial awe. After all, he’d seen the glory of Erebor, and of late had lived many years in Valinor. His eyes sought another sight, and its lack made any amount of wealth in cold rock and ore seem lackluster.

He certainly had not believed it when Mandos came to him, offering his permission to retire to the Dwarven halls, rather than pass on to goodness knows where, as was the habit of Men and Hobbits both. Perhaps more shocking than the offer had been Mandos himself, who was very kind and even friendly, offering some approximation of tea in what to Bilbo’s bewildered eyes looked not unlike a hobbit’s sitting room. It was delicious, of course, but it hurt his head to think of how it could exist at all when he had died not an hour before, and how it was his soul that consumed it now bereft of a body. Bilbo decided not to think too hard on it.

“The truth is, we’ve seen enough such paired souls by now that it’s really more trouble than it’s worth to keep them separate,” Mandos explained. He had taken the appearance of a gentlehobbit, no doubt intended to set Bilbo at ease, but quite frankly an Elven visage both terrible and splendid at once may have been easier for his poor brain to process. Seeing one of the Valar with dark brown skin, hairy feet, a comfortable belly, and laughing brown eyes with a mop of curly black hair was really more than he could handle at present, even if those eyes glimmered like stars. “Little Melian was the first with her Elwë, and after that it was certainly our own faults that we did not foresee her daughter taking after her, or that it would only be the start!”

“The start, I see,” Bilbo said, taking a sip more out of habit than thirst, to steady his nerves. No doubt he was a bit wild-eyed, and justifiably so for speaking with one of the forces that created the world itself.  Fortunately, even after some two-score years living outside the Shire, and then dying outside it, he had not entirely forgotten his manners, which could carry on a pleasant conversation over tea even whilst being held over a fire, or worse, speaking with his relatives. His voice was calm, even light and certainly polite as he said, “Terribly interesting. So there were many of these… partnerships, across the races? I should have thought Elrond and his kin were the only ones, at least all that I’d heard of.”

“If only there were so few! It would certainly cut down on the paperwork,” Mandos said, giving a hearty and very hobbit-y laugh. “After Lúthien Tinúviel and Beren we had dozens, as if they were only waiting for an example to follow. You may have heard tell of your Took-ish ancestor and his fairy wife, who of course was one of the Silvan elves, as you may have guessed. Lesser known to your kind may perhaps be the many dalliances between Men and Dwarves, and  both Elves and Dwarves will suffer torture rather than admit to the affairs that have sprung up between their races. There’s nothing quite like the forbidden to make romance irresistible, as my sister Yavanna is fond of saying, and wouldn’t she know!” He laughed again, as if it was all a good-natured discussion over embarrassing family history. “Celebrimbor and Narvi are perhaps the best known, the doors of Khazad-dûm were built over the course of their courtship, you likely would not recognize the names of the others, save for Legolas and Gimli and my have they caused a stir, Varda is utterly enchanted by them. She'd probably let them come to Valinor if they wanted, and hang whatever Manwë would have to say on the matter! But yes, we were talking of pairings such as the one with you and Oakenshield. Well, there was Turin and Beleg, Aragorn and Arwen Undomiel; Elros chose a mortal life as well to not be separated from his beloved. It seems the Elves and Men can hardly keep their hands off one another. As they say, love tends to find its way, whatever the plans of the mighty.”

Bilbo was fairly certain he had turned scarlet, and would soon catch fire and cremate what was left of himself to hear it all so bluntly stated, and to hear he and Thorin included amongst such company. It was only long-trained propriety that kept him from burying his face in his hands as Mandos went on. After all, it had only been a very short dalliance, practically a flirtation and so terribly ended. Surely they were not… surely there had been some sort of mistake, putting the names Bilbo Baggins and Thorin Oakenshield on a list that included Beren and Lúthien, and he said as much in a rather strangled voice.

“Not at all!” Mandos exclaimed, “Though it brings us to the matter at hand. You see, Nienna and I put our heads together some time ago and decided it was far easier to discreetly pull such souls aside after their first death and let the two hash out where they would like to go together. To do otherwise was only to invite the most overwrought flights of emotion, the sheer number of times I’ve seen my Halls stormed by a young man or woman convinced that if they did not fling themselves upon my mercy they’d never see their love again… It always takes a bit of time to talk them down and explain things, that of course we will not keep them separate but no more shall we make the decision for them. Not technically in our original design, but this arrangement certainly cuts down on the hysterics.”

“Thorin is here?” Bilbo said, his heart leaping to his throat. This was all a bit too much; one should not be expected to deal with lovers long passed away, and under terrible circumstances to boot, so soon after suffering one’s own death. It could not be good for his health.

But Mandos sobered then, what humor had danced in those star-like eyes dampening and going out. “I’m afraid it is more complicated than that. It should be both of you here now to decide where you will go, but Thorin’s punishment has kept him hence.”

Bilbo froze. Then he placed his teacup carefully in its saucer, and that back onto the table lest he drop it from hands gone suddenly numb. “I don’t understand. Thorin made mistakes, to be sure— haven’t we all— but it seems horribly unjust to hold it against him over a century later. Especially when so much of that was illness. If it is a matter of forgiveness, certainly that has long since been given?”

Mandos shook his head. “Were it my decision, or even that of my brother Aulë who is the dwarves’ creator, Thorin Oakenshield would long since have passed into their halls of bliss. The punishment he suffers now is driven by nothing other than his own will, and try as they might none have been able to free him of his self-imposed torments. You have been long anticipated, though of course we would not want to have you here before your time. Aulë has begged that I seek your aid, so that he need no longer watch one of his beloved children suffer thus.”

“Let me see if I understand this correctly: you wish me, Bilbo Baggins, to enter the halls of the dwarves and convince Thorin, who I have no seen for over a lifetime, to stop punishing himself? All because we were…” he choked over the word, hobbit propriety did have its downsides as well, “… lovers, for a very brief while.”

Mandos beamed. “Exactly! So happy you agree, I shall tell my brother at once."

And before Bilbo could protest further he was hustled into some truly glorious dwarven halls through means that were not entirely possible in the physical world and hurt his head to dwell on. One minute he was in a hobbit sitting room speaking to the lord of the dead, the next he was standing in a throne room lined with a forest of stone columns, as tall again as the fabled trees of Lothlórien. Thorin was nowhere in sight, though Bilbo looked and his heart sank at the absence.

There was a dwarf in the room, however. In a great stone chair sat a being that Bilbo could only assume was Aulë. His hair and beard were like fire, his skin dark as ash and his great square hands were roughened and scarred by work. The world seemed to distort around him, so that he appeared impossibly large, greater and more real than the stone that loomed above. The effect would have been altogether terrifying, if he did not look up at the sound of Bilbo’s approach and give a joyous cry, leaping to his feet and lumbering forward, arms spread wide. By the time he reached Bilbo he was only a little taller than the average dwarf and he wrapped his arms around Bilbo in a bone-cracking hug, pounding him on the back as if they were the oldest of friends.

“At last you have come!” Aulë boomed, pulling apart but holding Bilbo by the shoulders, looking him up and down. “I should have thought to have you here some fifty years ago, if not for that troublesome ring of Mairon’s. I utterly blame myself; of course, had I only known what mischief he would get up to—! Still, you are here now, though you certainly took your time!”

“My deepest apologies, Lord Aulë,” Bilbo said, before it caught up to him that he had just apologized for not dying sooner.

“Please, call me Mahal, all my children do, and you are practically family!” Aulë—Mahal said, and still gripping Bilbo by the shoulders began to guide him, frogmarched him really, towards a long corridor lined with bronze doors. “What’s more, ye could not have known. I’ve sent the rest of my children away so they won’t be underfoot. You know I built them to be tough, aye, and stubborn! But I have not seen such self-imposed misery since Durin came back the sixth time after losing Khazad-dûm. Yet even he could be convinced after a few decades that it was not his fault for awakening one of Melkor’s beasties. But this grandson of his—! I do hope the application of some good hobbit sense will snap him out of it.”

“Is he in very much pain?” Bilbo said a bit breathlessly as he was dragged down the corridor, feeling rather like a long-expected midwife come late to a birthing. But at his words, Mahal stopped in his tracks, looking somber.

“What suffering Thorin feels is his own and aye, it is quite terrible. I have glimpsed his mind, and I see that he is trapped within himself, reliving the day of his death, when his nephews fell and he broke his oath to the people of Esgaroth. He punishes himself for it still, as if it were not all made right soon after and that all who loved him forgave him. Many times have his kin attempted to reach him and draw him hence, but to no avail. He will not hear reason!” Mahal looked at one of the doors, and Bilbo realized it was not by chance that they had stopped here. There were runes inscribed above the lintel: Thorin Oakenshield, son of Thráin, son of Thrór, King Under the Mountain. It was altogether too much like a mausoleum for Bilbo’s taste, and he shivered at the sight of it.

Mahal pulled open the door, and Bilbo was struck by gray light of a winter’s day, the sharp smell of ice, and the sight of the Lonely Mountain sloping away from him, as if the door opened in the air itself. He was transported in his own memory by the scent to those blood-soaked days, so often recalled but rarely examined closely, for the grief had never truly faded. But this was no memory; this was the day itself, real as the daylight before his eyes.

“What if I fail to convince him?” Bilbo said, turning to Mahal.

Mahal seemed to consider this, frowning to himself with an expression that reminded Bilbo of no one less than Bofur, a reminder that Mahal was father of all dwarves. Then he shrugged, and placed a companionable hand on Bilbo’s shoulder.

“Try not to?” And, without further ceremony, he shoved Bilbo through the door.

Bilbo barely had time to yell before he landed face-first in a snow bank, which did little to improve his mood as he dusted himself and waded free. Yet his grumbling ceased as he looked down the mountain and saw a familiar battlefield below him like a stain upon the snow. For as far as Bilbo could see, there were only the corpses of the fallen. Men, Elves, Dwarves, and Goblins made equal in their final moments, a thin layer of frost dusting over torn armor and pallid faces. A raven cried out far above, a lonesome sound that echoed over the desolation.

He began to walk. There was nothing else to do, it was clear that he was the only “living” thing here, though he was painfully aware that he could no longer claim that status. Whatever this world was, however familiar it may seem, it was all within Thorin’s mind: a pale and evil shadow of an already evil day. Much had been lost, Bilbo thought, as he surveyed the field, but surely not as much as this. It had not been a total slaughter, and many survivors had been present at the aftermath, helping the wounded and giving the dead their final resting places.

Not so in Thorin’s mind. Nothing stirred, and the crunching of the snow beneath Bilbo’s feet was loud in his ears. The terrain was as he remembered it, though surely the door to Erebor, left ragged and gaping by Smaug’s destruction and their own pitiful attempts at fortification, had not been so dark? For now it gaped like an open maw, black and forbidding, and none of the faint gray light of the winter’s day pierced its entrance. There was nothing friendly or welcoming about the sight, and Bilbo found himself steering away from it despite himself. There were many places to look before he must resort to those labyrinthine halls.

He started at Ravenhill, the site of that last showdown with Azog, where Fíli and Kíli had fallen, though Bilbo had not seen the latter fall, long since knocked cold by the pommel of a goblin mace. He thought that if Thorin was still haunted by this day, then it was their deaths which may entrap him.

The silence was haunting, the cold bitter after so many years spent in the jeweled green of Valinor with its eternal summer, and Ravenhill itself was a ruin with the fallen watchtower, and the piled goblin corpses.  Yet the land itself distorted the eye, for in some places the piled remains were hazy, as if half-seen, whereas towards the center they were picked out with sharp detail. The battlefield itself seemed constructed from memory. Like an artist’s canvas, some places were clear and real as life, while others were merely filled in by blurry suggestions of color and shape.

Even as the thought unsettled Bilbo and bewildered his gaze, it offered some insight into Thorin’s mind: one haunted by a single day gone nearly a century before. The ice of Ravenhill, where the duel had taken place, could be inspected down to the least droplet or pebble, and Bilbo shivered against the cold and at the sight of the bloodstained corpse. Azog lay there; gaze blank and turned towards the sky, as cold and still as the stone ruins.

There was nothing there, and Bilbo left that place, trailing across a battlefield that he had tried to forget, once he’d set down the necessary details in his book. It had taken him years to finally write this portion of the tale, called the Battle of Five Armies. Even then he’d not been able to observe it too closely in memory, preferring to leave the reasons for the battle to chance and half-hearted explanation, rather than go into the details of the complicated alliances and betrayals that had brought friends and enemies to the field that day. His book had been a children’s story, after all, and though he could not in good faith change the ending, he’d not wanted to frighten a generation of young hobbits with the true horrors of a battlefield. So while that day would always cast a long shadow over his memory, on the page it was relatively small, not taking up nearly so many words even as the account of the trolls, which was a particular favorite in the Shire. To revisit it all again was certainly not how he'd hoped to spend his afterlife.

Bilbo found the ruins of Dale, and after that the shores of the Long Lake where they’d pulled up their boat and gone searching for the hidden door. The boat was still there, and the area blessedly free of the statue-like corpses that seemed all the more dead for the fact they’d never been alive. Yet as time wore on, Bilbo admitted to himself that he was avoiding his task. This little pocket of existence, whatever it was, did not stretch forever. Indeed, he could see only to the immediate horizon, the rest was engulfed in a cloudbank, the visible area stretching no further than a mile beyond the entrance of the mountain.

Only two places remained to search: the camp, and the halls of Erebor. Some corner of Bilbo’s heart knew Thorin would not be in side the mountain. The sight alone confirmed that the home of Thorin’s forefathers had darkened in Thorin’s mind, become threatening, nothing like the glorious chambers of stone and light that they had lived in his memory.

What if it is not as I remember? Thorin had said once, as they lay in bed together. Curled side by side in Beorn’s home, there had been time for rest, and for whispered conversation late into the evening, when the Company could not overhear. Only then had Thorin let his guard down enough to voice his fears. Erebor has been a tomb these long years, and often as I remember the golden light I remember the ruin and terror of the day it fell. I fear my own home, Bilbo. How has it come to this?

Bilbo had soothed him as he could, whispering comfort in Thorin’s ear until he drifted off to sleep. Such fears were never spoken during the day, and by Lake-town they were wholly forgotten, or perhaps buried, in Thorin’s headlong rush to the door. No, he would not linger within its ruined halls, Bilbo assured himself. Perhaps it was only an excuse, his own attempt to avoid a place of dread, except the remaining option was so much worse.

In the aftermath of the battle, Dain’s army, the Men, and the Elves had made camp. There the wounded were treated, those who could be saved, and as it happened, those who could not. Beside one tent in particular was a little hillock where some trace of late autumn grass remained, exposed to the wind and swept free of snow. Even as Bilbo looked at it, it seemed to sharpen. He knew it well, each blade of grass outlined in his memory as he’d stared blankly at the ground, until his vision had blurred and he’d given himself over to weeping, until eyes were red and his voice was hoarse for days.

Bilbo’s steps were leaden as he approached, and surely it was not his imagination that there was a new scent in the air. Damp furs and blood, the medicinal smell of ointments applied too late, drowning out the sharp scent of the winter’s wind. Gandalf had brought him here in a terrible hurry, the news barely across his lips before Bilbo was running. Only a little time left, and Thorin wanted to see him…

Bilbo felt cold of a sudden. Above him, the pennants atop the tents snapped in the breeze, and his heart sounded loud in his ears. It was very difficult to breathe, but he forced himself forward, brushing aside the canvas door before reluctance and painful memory could overwhelm him entirely. The air was hot and close inside, for a little fire burned in a brazier in the corner, casting shadows over the darkened tent. At least it was warm in there, but he would prefer the cold to this place, and thought of turning then and there to tell Mahal it was no use. It had been too long, and he was too old and far removed from that day and he could not go back to it. It had taken him thirty years to leave it behind, and now, oh now…

There was a figure seated on the bed.

Thorin’s head was in his hands, and he did not look up at Bilbo’s sharp intake of breath, loud as a thunderclap in the silence. In the darkness of the room he was all but lost amongst the shadows, hair falling around his face. He still wore the torn armor and leather of the battlefield, but the fur blankets that had enshrouded his wounded body were cast aside.

“Thorin?” Bilbo said, or meant to, but his voice was hoarse and the name escaped as little more than a whisper. He forced himself to take a step forward, then another. How many times had he imagined this? Certainly he’d dreamt it, night after night seeing himself at Thorin’s deathbed, and Thorin somehow cured. Sitting up, with that light of love in his eyes that had been there so briefly before it was snuffed out. Bilbo felt in those dreams a terrible, searing hope, the promise of so many years together that were ultimately denied to them, and had awoken more than once to a tear-stained pillow. In sleep, the rigid self-control he’d maintained fell away, and he could no longer feign that he was happy, or even content, wasting away in the Shire.

For a moment, he wondered if this too was a dream. Did he yet live, slumbering on the shores of Valinor, enjoying the sunlight that warmed his old bones? If so, it was a cruel vision summoned from the depths of years long past and better left to their rest. He had moved on, or at least healed. He had come to accept a life so different from had had seemed possible that wild year upon the road. Helping Thorin reclaim Erebor for his people and his nephews, but more importantly and seemingly more impossible the thought of a life at Thorin’s side…

Of course, it had all fallen apart, in a whirlwind of fire and madness so swift it was breathtaking, and all those castles in the air and in stone came crashing down. No lover by his side after that, though always in his heart and eventually (so many years later) it had been enough.

Now Thorin was here. Even were it a vision of a dying mind it was certainly no dream; it was far too solid for that. And just like that, all those years were only a day, and wishes so long buried along with the hopes that came with them were sprung fully renewed within him. Thorin was right in front of him, close enough to…

Bilbo put out a shaking hand, and placed it on Thorin’s shoulder.

Thorin shifted as he looked up from his hands, each movement leaden as if he carried a great weight. His eyes widened a fraction at the sight of Bilbo, yet no sooner had they then what light had flickered there so briefly dulled again, and he looked away. “Do you think me such a fool that I cannot see through this guise?” he said bitterly. “I am not so easily swayed by tricks.”

Tricks? Bilbo looked down at himself. He was young again in appearance, as young as he’d been the day of the battle, and clothed the same in that ragged blue coat and torn trousers. Had he made himself appear this way? Indeed he had not imagined himself this young in many years, and even had he given in to such vanity he would have at least dressed himself a bit more presentably. But the mithril shirt was there, impossibly, and he traced it with his fingers, remembering the first time it had been pressed into his hands by the dwarf in front of him. Someone had contrived to make his appearance match the surroundings, and he had little doubt who that was.

And if appearance could be so easily changed in the afterlife, he had little doubt that others had attempted it as well, and a suspicion formed in his mind. “Am I to believe your family, or even your creator, has been sending false hobbits to your door in an attempt to lure you out?” Bilbo glumly realized he could all too easily imagine Fíli and Kíli doing just that, especially if Thorin was being difficult, just as easily as he could imagine the utter disaster that would result.

“More than once, and what else could you be? Such folk may not enter the halls of the dwarven fathers, beyond the edge of the world,” Thorin said. Yet curiosity, or perhaps suspicion, was rousing him and he sat a bit straighter on the bed. “If you are Fíli or Kíli come to argue again you might at least drop the appearance, it is not amusing.”

Of course Thorin would find it impossible for a hobbit to find himself in Mahal’s halls, until just that day Bilbo had thought much the same himself. Still, he could not suppress a flicker of outrage to be thought some sort of prank!

“I suppose I should be glad you do not find my appearance amusing, as it is the only one I have,” Bilbo retorted. “But my goodness, I’ve come rather a long way for such rudeness.”

Thorin’s expression closed, but before it did Bilbo saw the flash of shock, and then shame. He looked away. “Even if you are him,” Thorin said, his voice shaded by doubt, “then you might as well return whence you came. You owe me nothing, and I have taken much from you, and would not keep you from your own halls of bliss.”

“Nonsense,” Bilbo tutted. “Since when must there be any talking of ‘owing’ when… old friends come visiting? Wherever I was bound, I can assure it would not have been half so interesting as the halls of the dwarves.”

Thorin went still, the shadows of the fire flickering over his face as silence fell but for the sound of their breathing. Then he looked up, and for the first time stared intently at Bilbo, as if seeing him for the first time. Bilbo tilted his chin up, defying Thorin to doubt any further that it was really him, but it was just as much to hide the shameful tremor of his lower lip. He stiffened it, and dared not think about how long it had been since he’d seen this array of emotions on Thorin’s face. Doubt, as he’d so often shown towards Bilbo, shading to surprise, and then wonder. In such an expression all the hard lines of Thorin’s features – the habitually clenched jaw and furrowed brow— softened into that look of quiet amazement. Even all these years later it struck Bilbo, stole his breath away, and he marveled at how doomed he’d been from the very start. How was anyone to have such a look directed at them and not fall wretchedly, desperately in love?

“Then much has changed, if our little burglar now speaks of interesting sights, rather than the comforts of home,” Thorin said softly, and the faintest of welcoming smiles twitched the corner of his lips, before he seemed to catch it, as startled as Bilbo at its appearance. Even so, Thorin leaned forward, clasping his hands in front of him with a look of interest that Bilbo had seen many times upon the road. It was the most astonishingly alive gesture Bilbo had seen in this desolate landscape, as bit by bit the icy stillness that had afflicted Thorin melted away, and by all evidence it was despite himself as he looked with wondering disbelief on Bilbo.

“Hardly little, I’ll have you know I was very nearly one-hundred and fifty when I passed,” Bilbo protested. “Not a patch on your dwarves, to be sure, but certainly prodigious for a hobbit. I may well be the longest lived of my kind.” Bilbo said, managing some degree of good-natured indignation even as his voice was thick in his ears. “And if I was ever again such a homebody, I might never have come to see the shores of the Blessed Lands or had the opportunity to find you here.”

“I am glad,” Thorin murmured, “To know that you lived a full life, and saw such wonders. Often were you in my thoughts, but I never thought to learn of your final years until the others of the Company passed on, and those are never joyous times.” His brow furrowed, and he looked askance at the hobbit. “But why are you here?" Thorin said, his eyes were searching while his voice was shaky and roughened with emotion Bilbo dared not name. "Surely you have your own rest to find, loved ones of your own kind who long for your return. Even beyond the doors there are friends who await you with more joy than you will find here."

“Just as you do,” Bilbo said. He had thought of his mother and father, and Frodo hopefully many years hence. But second chances were only rarely given and he was not about to pass this one up. “As indeed I imagine I am not the first to come in here looking for you. Whyever do you linger here, Thorin, when even your creator suffers for it? He all but begged me to bring you out, and any time the mighty ask hobbits for aid it is inevitably a sign that something has gone terribly wrong.”

“Well do I know it,” Thorin said wryly, and then sobered. “I am aware of my lord’s concern, but in this instance he is wrong. I will remain here until I am called, upon the breaking of the world when all dwarves will be summoned forth to remake it, and no sooner.”

Stubborn as ever, Bilbo thought, dismayed but not surprised. “I’m sure I only exhaust what others have already told you, but you must realize that no one yet blames you for what happened? Those who love you have long since forgiven you, and in any case, it has been decades. Any harm committed is long forgotten.”

“Indeed, you are not the first to say so,” Thorin said dismissively. “Others have come, to tell me that none of this is real, that I am trapped here of my own devices.”

“Well…” Bilbo hesitated, searching for the right word before falling back on the straightforward. “They’re not wrong.”

“And you too think I do not know this?” Thorin shot back, showing the first flash of that old fire that Bilbo had seen, irritation rising quick and sharp. “Or that I do not know that but for me, none of them would be here at all? Fíli and Kíli may yet live if not for my crimes. My father came too, and I learned that he was a prisoner even while I traveled the road to Erebor, and I did not turn aside, or save him though I knew somewhere he lived. He endured a life of torment, and I did not find him. Balin dreamed of Erebor reclaimed and our line restored. He, Ori and Óin would never have left for that suicide mission to Khazad-dûm had I better protected my heirs.”

The anger guttered in Thorin, like a dying flame and he looked away, a shadow seeming to fall across him, drawing him into the dark. “Whether I join them or remain, I am surrounded by the evidence of my mistakes. Here at least the solitude makes it bearable. This Mahal cannot understand, that even if I am forgiven it does not mean the consequences are washed away. In life, I thought to be the law unto myself, breaking oaths and alliances for my own gain. There is a price for such actions, and if I would change the oldest laws I must be willing to accept the punishments for them.” He looked back to Bilbo, eyes blazing with anger, self-recrimination, and a lingering hurt beneath. “I am not trapped, burglar, and as such I do not require rescue.”

Bilbo settled back on his heels, rocked back from the force of the tirade. Without a doubt, he could see the shape of Thorin’s justifications and understand them. More than just the line of Durin had suffered for their ill-fated assault on the dragon’s lair. It spoke to Thorin’s own sense of honor, so twisted and diminished by the effects of his illness, returned full force in the wholeness that came with death, that he would take this punishment unto himself in recompense.

“That is true, I suppose,” Bilbo said, and took his hand from Thorin’s shoulder. Thorin swayed, as if instinctively reaching once more for his touch before catching himself and drawing back. His expression tightened, mouth drawing to a line and he pulled in on himself, steeling himself at Bilbo’s agreement. Yet those narrowed eyes widened again in shock as Bilbo used his now-free hand to pull himself up onto the cot, and take a seat beside Thorin. “Not that it changes my mind.”

“And you will waste your time bringing me around to your way of thinking, when halls of bliss await you? Have I not inconvenienced you enough in life that you seek more?” Thorin said. He seemed wary, even more so when Bilbo chuckled at his words.

“Inconvenienced? Certainly, and that’s a mild word for it,” Bilbo said, he said lightly. An idea was forming in his mind, now that the initial shock of their reunion had worn off. It was hitting him now, and if he did not keep some levity he was sure he would crumble under the weight, that this truly was Thorin before him. Locked within his own grief, but not made harsh by it. Only alone, and filled with self-recrimination, with none of the peace that had seemed present in his eyes when last they parted.

And Bilbo could not blame him for it. He too had thought he found some peace, that at least he and Thorin were not parted in anger. But it was many years before he had the heart to smile again, or even to admit to himself how the loss ate at him. How could he blame Thorin for this exile, when he had lingered thirty years alone, haunting his own house like a ghost, until Frodo came into his life? He’d written his little book, convinced himself that was the end of it, that he was fine when he was nothing of the sort. Not until he was on the road again did he feel any true measure of peace, and he had traveled long and far before he realized the truth.

He had been away from home since that day on the battlefield.

“But you know, inconvenience is really only a little thing,” Bilbo said. “Compared to being alone.”

“You are not alone,” Thorin protested, his brow furrowing. “Beyond these very doors are friends who would receive you gladly, why not go to them?”

Bilbo arched an eyebrow at this, wondering if Thorin recognized the hypocrisy of his own words before he waved a hand to dismiss them. “They will get on well enough without me, and I have found in my old age that I abhor large crowds. It makes me terribly grouchy, all those people clamoring for your attention… No, a single guest for tea is all I require, and I shan’t be changing now.”

“You wish to stay?” Thorin said, and those his tone was calm and measured his body had gone tense, and Bilbo marveled that even after so many years he could read it so.

“If you will have me, there’s nowhere else I’d rather be,” Bilbo said simply, and knew the truth of his own words.

“It is a poor substitute for the reward you deserve,” Thorin said with concern.

“You are here, what more could I ask?” Bilbo said, though he would have to admit to himself his nonchalance was crumbling, and a shameful little tremor had entered his voice. Best not to think about how often he’d spoken those words in dreams, and how often he would gladly given up everything to make them true.

“Better companionship,” Thorin deadpanned.

Bilbo snorted, recovering himself, and shrugged. “I can think of no better. Besides, I am not so cheerful a companion myself, as my nephew and many elves of Rivendell may attest.” Thorin’s lip twitched and he looked down. Another thing Bilbo had forgotten, how rarely Thorin smiled and how it transformed him when he did.

“Yet I cannot ask this of you, Bilbo,” Thorin said, looking back. “This is my burden to bear, and you have done nothing to deserve being here.”

“Is there no dwarven law against theft?” Bilbo said, and Thorin started. “Since I am certainly guilty of that, and not only the Arkenstone. Had I not stolen that little ring, much would have been different.” Both good and bad, for Frodo would not have suffered so, but who could know what twists of fate may have gone a different way? The ring fallen into other hands, the world into darkness, but his nephew may have been spared, perhaps. It had all begun with a theft, one that dogged him all his life.

“Your ring?” Thorin said, puzzled. “It was useful at times, to be sure, but I fail to see that it would have changed all that much, save that we might have spent longer in Thranduil’s dungeon.”

With that Bilbo’s eyebrows shot right to his hairline. “You don’t know?” he blurted, before stopping himself.  Thorin was looking at Bilbo, utterly perplexed by the violence of his reaction. “You really don’t,” Bilbo marveled. “But of course, how could you?” By Thorin’s own account the last dwarves he had spoken to were those who died in Moria, and that was decades before the truth of the One Ring came to light.

Which meant he did not know any of what had happened after. How Erebor held fast against the armies of Sauron, how no dragon had been there to join the battle and lay waste to the kingdoms. How, by bringing Bilbo to the right place at the right time, Thorin had ensured that the Ring did not remain with Gollum, from whence it would surely have fallen into evil hands, slave as the creature had been to the object’s call.

Events that led to the salvation of Middle Earth, all put into motion by a chance meeting between a dwarven prince and a wizard.

“Indeed, that does explain a great deal though,” Bilbo mused aloud. “The world is not so dark a place as you remember, Thorin, and you played a very real hand in saving it.”

Now Thorin appeared thoroughly baffled, but at least he was no longer hunched in on himself, and confusion had at least temporarily banished that shadows that lurked behind his eyes. “I cannot imagine that is true,” he said.

Bilbo’s eyes must have shone then, because he had an idea, quite a wonderful one in fact, and wished only that he had his pipe so that he had something to do with his hands. Instead he settled back on them, leaning conspiratorially towards Thorin. “You know, I have become quite the storyteller since last we met. Will you allow me to tell you one?”

Thorin nodded, reluctantly, but there was more to it, the tiniest glimmer of interest, and perhaps of hope in his eyes.

“Very well then,” Bilbo said, satisfied to have gotten his way. He cleared his throat and began, affecting the easy, rolling tones for which he had been so beloved by the children of the Shire. “This is the story of how a prince, quite without knowing it, saved the world. It began… much as you would never expect. In a tavern in Bree, there was a dwarf…”

It was not a short tale, and it may well have taken days to tell. Yet in that place that knew no time, it hardly felt it. As Bilbo spoke, Thorin’s eyes widened in amazement and disbelief by turns, and if the two began to lean closer together as Bilbo spoke then neither acted upon it until, quite by accident a broad dwarven hand reached over to clasp a smaller hobbit one.

Both deigned to ignore it for the moment though, because Bilbo had reached the caves of Moria, and Thorin was riveted by a tale of which he’d only heard a small part through the lens of Balin’s final days

“Indeed, it might have been the end of Frodo there, if not for the mithril shirt,” Bilbo said.

“Flattery,” Thorin interjected, something he did with surprising rarity throughout Bilbo’s storytelling. “Hobbits are tough creatures, Frodo no doubt could have survived on his own.”

“A spear thrust by a cave troll?” Bilbo snorted. “Your opinion of us really has improved. No, I’m afraid I must disagree with you there. Had you not made that gift to me, then Frodo would no doubt have bled to death in the Chamber of Mazarbul.”

Thorin went quiet at this, and allowed Bilbo to continue his tale. Bilbo himself may not have known all the details until Frodo joined him in Valinor. Bilbo only wished he had the Red Book with him now, which was currently in the keeping of Samwise Gamgee, so that Thorin could better trust that this was not some tall tale spun to lure him out of his prison. Yet Thorin made no such protest, and so lost were they both in the tale that when Bilbo finally finished it took a moment for them both to realize something had changed.

“Do you hear that?” Thorin said with a frown.

Bilbo cocked his head to the side, listening, and it took a moment before it dawned on him. “Are those…birds?” Thorin rose to his feet and went to the door, casting the heavy canvas aside.

Sunlight streamed in, bright and blinding, and Bilbo hurried to join Thorin, only to slow, his mouth gaping in wonder, as they stepped outside.

The corpses were gone. In their place, wild grass blew gently in the wind that swept off the Long Lake. The clouds had vanished too, and as far as the eye could see the sky stretched blue and unsullied, the sun high and white over head. Beyond the doors of Erebor gleamed, whole and intact, the bronze shimmering in the light, the stone dwarven sentries as perfect as the day they were carved.

Erebor in the summertime, surely a sight that Bilbo had never seen and could not have recreated. This was Thorin’s work, and Bilbo could not help but gape, taking in the wonder of it all. A gentle breeze tousled his hair, fresh and clean with no hint of cold.

He looked to Thorin, and was taken aback by what he saw. He had not realized that the grime of the battle still coated Thorin’s skin until it was washed away. His braids swayed in the wind as it brushed the loose strands from his face as Thorin stared in wonder about him. Even his clothes had changed, a deep blue tunic overlaid by silver armor that gleamed in the light. Bilbo looked down to see himself changed as well, not dirtied and ragged but smartly dressed in a burgundy coat and green waistcoat, as he would have done himself. His hands not quite as smooth as they had been when he was fifty, but not so wrinkled as when he had been a hundred years after that. A comfortable middle age that more closely reflected his own image of himself, and he caught a hair to stare cross-eyed at it. Light brown, yes, but shot through with a bit of silver. Much better.

“How could this be?” Thorin breathed, turning to look first to the mountain and then across the lake to Lake-town, sitting serene upon the horizon and Dale intact beside them.

“I think,” Bilbo ventured, “that it's because you believe me.” Confusion passed over Thorin’s face, but he seemed to reach the conclusion even as Bilbo did. The hobbit continued, “That your life did not end in utter ruin, that you accomplished something greater than yourself. Even if the circumstances were terrible, Erebor was still reclaimed, and young dwarves like Gimli count it as their home once again. Without it the world may have fallen to darkness, and it was your decision to take it back. Even if not for the city, it was thanks to you that I left my home at all, for what good that contributed."

"I—" Thorin began, looking like he may protest, but the evidence was all around them. Ravens cawed over the lintel of the door to Erebor, and somewhere a thrush sang. "I did not know."

Bilbo was tempted to say that Thorin could have, had he only come out sooner. He very much doubted that Mahal was ignorant of those events, and other dwarves like those that fell in the defense of Erebor against Sauron's forces might have told Thorin as well. But looking around at the shining sweep of the landscape around them it was hard to hold on to such a petty impulse.

Something caught Bilbo’s attention out of the corner of his eye; or rather there was a lack for when he turned he saw that the infirmary tent was gone. In its place was only long wild grass, bending in waves with the breeze. When he looked back to Thorin he found the dwarf watching him in return, his expression gone stiff, and a terrible grief in his eyes. "So, this is the end."

"I beg your pardon?" Bilbo said, blinking.

"You were sent here for a purpose, were you not?" Thorin said.

"Yes, of course, I could hardly have come here on my own," Bilbo said, still baffled.

"Now that purpose is accomplished."

"Ye-es," Bilbo said, drawing out the word, "but I fail to see why that has you so upset."

At that, Thorin went from merely upset to stricken. "I only thought... but it appears I was wrong. My apologies, it seems I have misjudged matters, and kept you far too long for selfish ends."

Once, Bilbo might have gone silent then, and taken Thorin's meaning that he wished him to leave. But it had been many years since he was a flustered gentlehobbit who ran puffing out his door, and age and many travels had left him less inclined to be unassuming, and far less worried about causing a fuss. "Thorin, I haven’t the faintest idea what you mean, but I suspect you've gotten some absurd idea into your head. As I cannot read your thoughts, I would thank you to tell me what it is you're babbling about."

Thorin reared back, whatever memories he had of Bilbo clearly not standing up to the difference a century could make. Still he obeyed, if perhaps he seemed a puzzled at himself for needing to do so. "Were you not sent to retrieve me from this prison? Now that it is done, there can be no further need for you here. You must return to your own halls, or beyond to wherever it is Men and Hobbits go when they pass. It had been my hope that we may have more time together, but I see that you would sooner be on your way."

"Oh," Bilbo began, and then it sank in, "Oooh no..."

He hadn't told Thorin. Somehow in the midst of it all it had slipped his mind to explain how he was here in the first place, and the deal Mandos offered. He could feel a blush building somewhere around the base of his throat and crawling up his face.

Because really, what were they? According to certain all-powerful forces, Thorin Oakenshield and Bilbo Baggins were a match worthy of the same deal offered to Beren and Lúthien. Never mind that Thorin looked deeply uncomfortable even daring to ask that Bilbo spend a few hours more with him, and he certainly did not know how to classify a few months infatuation, followed by a rather fraught courtship, always on the run and all ended in tears. Thorin looked equally uncertain what to do with him, and if the guilt he felt over his final days of life was any indication, it had a great deal to do with how they had parted.

And it was Bilbo's job now to explain all this.

"Let me understand this correctly," Thorin said some time later, after Bilbo had stuttered and blustered his way through a rather confused explanation, and felt he might die several more times of embarrassment in the process. "We are now being compared to an Elven love story?" He looked pained at the thought.

"I'll have you know, I spent my twilight years with Elrond, who is Lúthien's great-grandson and they're entirely lovely people who you should be honored to be compared to!" Bilbo said loftily, welcoming a bit of indignation on his host's behalf if only to counter the paralyzing tide of embarrassment this conversation had set loose. "And as Lord Mandos explained, it's hardly limited to Elves and Men, and by all accounts Glóin's own son may be sharing our current problem when his time comes."

Thorin stared, momentarily derailed from their current problem. "Gimli has taken up with a Man? How—Glóin would not stand for it!"

Bilbo barked a laugh that was perhaps a bit too high and hysterical to be explained away. "Not exactly. There are a few developments that I left out when explaining the history. I'm sure the others will be happy to explain," Bilbo said. It was as good an excuse as any to get them out of this awkward conversation, and he would feel better once Thorin was surrounded once again by his kin. Then there would only be, well, the future to attend to.

"Don't tell me it was the elf in the Fellowship, Thranduil's spawn," Thorin said, a dreadful suspicion creasing his brow.

"Fine, then I won't," Bilbo said innocently. "Is that the door? I could have sworn it was around here somewhere, it all looks so different now..."


"What? You asked me not to tell you," he said, and with a Tookish grin set off up the slope to find the door back.


It was perhaps a bit underhanded to use Thorin's outrage to get him chasing after Bilbo, but it certainly was effective in keeping the dwarf from lingering over his doubts. They had no sooner stepped through the doorway into the pillared halls when Thorin was engulfed, the bulging muscles of Mahal's arms closing around him.

"At last you’re back, laddie!" Mahal exclaimed, and lifted a struggling Thorin off his feet. He likely would have broken a few ribs had they been alive. Thorin barely had time to let out an undignified squawk and his glare seemed a product of his realization that, as this was his creator, he could not for example punch him in the nose but he was nonetheless severely tempted. “And you!” Mahal turned to Bilbo, shifting Thorin to one arm as if he weighed nothing and opening the other.

“Oh, no, really, it’s not necessary…” Bilbo said, backing up and putting his hands out but to no avail, as he should have expected, and suddenly the world was consumed by a huge fiery beard pressed against his face and arms like bands of iron wrapped around his chest as he too was lifted from the floor. He gasped, and managed to twist around just a little to see Thorin’s long-suffering look back at him.

“Do you still wonder why I was hesitant to return?” Thorin muttered, but a self-deprecating smirk showed he did not mind nearly so much as he pretended.

“I don’t know what you did, Master Baggins, nor is it my business to know, but you have earned my eternal gratitude,” Mahal said, when he had finally put them both back on the ground and they’d managed to stop wheezing. “As for you, Thorin.” Thorin stiffened, straightening to attention. There was a flicker of trepidation on his face as he stood across from Mahal, the door to his self-made prison at his back. Then Mahal’s face creased into a broad smile. “You have been missed.”

Thorin’s throat worked but he held his gaze steady. He gave a small nod of acknowledgement, not seeming to trust himself to do more.

“Come, come! Your family awaits, and if I keep them back a moment longer those nephews of yours have threatened to defect to Tulkas, the scamps!” Mahal said, turning and gesturing for them to follow.

“You know, there is still time for us to choose the Hobbit afterlife instead,” Thorin said under his breath.

“Don’t tempt me,” Bilbo whispered back.

“So it is true then, you will stay?” There was something Thorin’s tone that kept Bilbo from simply waving him away, and when he turned Thorin was watching him, uncertain, and as ever too proud to show more than the faintest trace of hope.

“Unless we are trampled by your mad relatives first…” Bilbo said, then swallowed as all attempts at levity fled him. “… Yes, of course, Thorin. I will stay. I would like nothing better.”

It seemed something more was required of him, because that uncertainty had not been banished from Thorin’s bearing. After all the embarrassments suffered, this one seemed very small, what with no eyes upon them and Mahal long down the corridor. So it felt not just right, but indeed quite perfect, for Bilbo to tilt his head up, and he needed to only suggest rising to his toes before Thorin was leaning down, capturing his lips.

He had dreamed, more than once, of many years before them. Of looking upon Erebor made whole again, and being surrounded by friends and family with his lover at his side. And as the kiss deepened, and Thorin’s hand rose to cup Bilbo’s face, he thought perhaps they had been true, and he’d only been wrong about the timing.