This is how it begins.
It begins with Lobelia Sackville-Baggins making off with his best spoons. It begins with Bilbo running through the Shire, setting many tongues a-wagging with scandal over such an indecorous hobbit. It begins with Bilbo walking past his leafy oak, grumbling all the while. It begins when he doesn't notice boots by his door, swords neatly hung, coats on pegs, and travelling packs carefully placed out of the way.
It begins with Bilbo stalking into the kitchen, accepting a cup of tea from a dwarf, gaping in shock, and being told the following by a haughty Thorin Oakenshield:
"It is four-fifteen, Master Baggins. You are late to tea."
It begins with Bilbo fainting once again in his own home, all because of a company of dwarves.
"But, but…" Bilbo stammered an hour later. It had been twenty years, after all. He had long hoped for the Company to visit before now, no matter if Dwarves had a different lifespan than Hobbits. For all but elves, twenty years was a long time. "You died."
The tone came out as more accusatory than intended. Bilbo, once so mild-mannered, flinched at his own blunt tone. Quickly, he averted his eyes from Thorin to take in the remainder of the company – all thirteen of them, from Oin and Gloin to Dori, Nori, and Ori, to Bifur, Bofur, and Bombur, Balin and Dwalin, and even- Bilbo still couldn't entirely believe his eyes – Fíli and Kíli. The latter looked as springly as ever, although a hair too serious to match the Kíli from Bilbo's old memories. The former's scars were more apparent; he lightly grasped a walking cane, and when the other sons of Durin were distracted, rubbed absentmindedly at his shoulder.
"It was a close thing," Thorin admitted, "I too, believed my fall imminent at the time."
"But it wasn't," there, his voice was even as he breathed in deeply. The scent of leather caressed him, and the crackle of his hearth was almost enough to erase twenty long years of loneliness and grief from mind and memory. "Twenty years, and not one of you-"
Balin silenced Thorin when the dwarf opened his mouth to speak. The sight of the eldest dwarf paying such disrespect to his king – an elbow to the ribs wasn't a very subjectly move to make – was enough to briefly amuse Bilbo, but not enough to deter him. Head aching, he stood and went to gaze into the fire. He felt… steadier with his back to the dwarves, sheltered from meeting thirteen (oh, how the number uplifted him!) pairs of keen eyes.
"Twenty years," Bilbo repeated softly. He wanted to be angry, truly he did, but they were all alive and here. Bilbo would have gladly paid more than twenty years so that any one of the Company could continue to draw breath.
"We thought you angry with us, after the furor died down and you left without a word," Kíli admitted softly. Bilbo was grateful it was he who spoke, simply because he didn't yet know how to react to Thorin.
"It was only after," continued the elder of the brothers, "that we considered you may have believed the same of us."
"How could I have been so stupid?" Bilbo growled, more to himself than any dwarf in the room.
"Our wizard may have mentioned a nasty head wound you took, laddie," Balin replied anyway.
To Bilbo's surprise, a tear slipped down his cheek. "A head wound," he said thickly, barely keeping a tremble from his voice. "Yes, an orc threw me into the rocks. I didn't awaken until I saw Thorin stagger and fall."
"I am told we were found together, Master Baggins," Thorin placed another piece of the tale neatly into place. "I believe you returned to unconsciousness after our brief conversation."
Bilbo turned, starting as the dwarf loomed close than expected. At some point, Thorin must have approached him but Bilbo had been too distracted to register the sound. He didn't attempt to read the mingling emotions in the dwarf's eyes, too busy still reeling with his own shock.
"Curse all you dwarves," he muttered sourly to himself, and threw his arms around Thorin just as Thorin had once embraced him. "My name is Bilbo, not Master of… of… anything!"
The contact startled the dwarf, for perhaps he was more used to angry blows than honest touch. Then Fíli and Kíli were there, and naturally the remainder of the company followed and suddenly whether or not Thorin knew how to react to an honest hug became a moot point. If Bilbo was crying, he was not the only one severely lacking a dry eye.
Later, Bilbo and Balin would sit by the dying embers of their fire and Bilbo would smile over the slumbering dwarven figures so reminiscent of a time long past.
"I am deeply sorry for the pain we caused you," Balin apologized quietly, and Bilbo recognized his words as true. Still, they mattered little. They had come, even if their arrival had been a bit later than expected. Bilbo could be happy with that.
Bilbo shook his head as his way of answering. "Perhaps if I had not begged Gandalf to spirit me away…" he halted the thought there, and changed tracks. "Will you be departing in the morning?"
A shrug and a crinkled smile were the replies Bilbo received.
"I do not know," the dwarf admitted. "Thorin has some plans to thank you properly for your part in our tale, but…" here he stopped.
"Let's leave the morning for tomorrow's morn," Bilbo continued for him. It felt right to leave the planning for another day. They had their lifetimes ahead of them, after all. Plotting it out would require thoughts and negotiation and dredging up old memories Bilbo had tried for two decades to forget.
The hobbit smiled and rose, shaking his thoughts loose. Yes, it was best to leave tomorrow for tomorrow, he decided. Throwing reality into this night would simply tarnish a moment he had pictured only in dreams.
If this is a dream, he reasoned to himself, then it is one I do not wish to wake from.
"Good night to you, Master Balin," he said steadily, drinking in the sight of the sleeping dwarves as he had not the first night.
"Good night, Bilbo," came the gentle reply. "Dream well."
Bilbo smiled, and this is how the story ends.
Twenty years after his journey began, twenty years after he traveled across Middle Earth, Bilbo found an end for his story. This is his story's end: a room of dwarves slumbering on, a treasure greater than all the gold in the Lonely Mountain, and a dreaming hobbit by the name of Bilbo Baggins.