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Plant Your Trees

Chapter Text

Beorn's home was not the same in winter as it had been in summer.

Or perhaps it was Bilbo who was not the same.

The contrast between the fields of flowers they had left and the fields of snow that had met Bilbo a few days ago was quite stark, but it would not last.

It would return to what it once was and the flowers would bloom once again come spring.

But the frost that had made itself at home in his heart... Bilbo was not certain it would ever go away. And he knew he could not turn back to what he'd once been.

For that he would like to curse and thank Gandalf with the same breath.

If the Wizard had never come.

If Bilbo had never gone.

Then he would have missed so much, and lost so little.

If Thorin and Fíli and Kíli had never died.

If.

If, if, if...

"If I had one wish..." Bilbo said and his voice trailed away in the silence of the sleeping house.

Gandalf and Beorn had gone to bed hours ago and Beorn's animals had done the same, except for a brown and red cat that had laid claim to Bilbo's lap and alternated between meowing and pricking his leg with sharp claws if he stopped petting it.

If, if, if...

In the fireplace the fire kept dancing and swirling.

-

Bilbo did not remember falling asleep but he must have, and Gandalf or Beorn must have moved him to his bed because it was there he woke up.

The Hobbit took his time opening his eyes but eventually he sighed and accepted that he was indeed awake.

He might be the only one though, because as Bilbo blinked open sleep-crusted eyes he realised he could hear soft snores in the background. More than one person snoring even.

Strange, it wasn't like Gandalf and Beorn to sleep late. It could perhaps be some of the dogs.

But it wasn't.

-

Not even daring to breathe or blink out of fear that he would do something to change it, Bilbo took in the scene in front of him.

Hazel eyes were open wide in shock, all traces of sleep gone.

He couldn't have looked away even an entire herd of oliphaunts had come marching into Beorn's home.

The three Dwarfs sleeping in front of the fireplace naturally paid him no mind.

Bilbo must have made a sound because the red and brown cat curled up on Kíli's stomach opened one eye to glare at him.

And then Thorin stirred.

*

Bilbo watched him wake, an event he'd seen only a handful of times on the quest. For all that Bilbo considered himself a morning person, Thorin always seemed awake and moving before him, or half the Company.

Thorin's body went still, much like how the wind would die away in the Shire, chased away by the approach of a strong spring storm, one that promised a good solid rain through the afternoon. It was as though Thorin went from relaxed sleep to wakeful tension from one second to the next, prepared to leap into battle at a moment's notice, all without bothering to look at the world around him to see what was going on.

Thorin waking had always made Bilbo wonder what it was like, to live the life of a warrior, carrying memories and experience that made one wake as if the world was ending around one's ears.

Now Bilbo didn't wonder anymore. Not that Bilbo was a warrior, not by any stretch, but he woke enough nights gasping from the sight of Orcs bearing down on the Company. Never bearing down on himself, no. It was always the Company, or Bard's sweet children, or even Gandalf, never mind that the batty old meddler was a wizard. Bilbo always dreamt of his friends being cut down, those he'd fought beside and fought to protect.

Most of all, he saw the sons of Durin falling beneath a tide of Orcs. And Bilbo was always there, standing there, watching, unable to move, unable to interfere as the ocean of black overwhelmed his Dwarves, so helpless.

Even if that wasn't how they'd died, it was what his dreams thrust at him over and over again, as though his mind refused to loosen its grip on his grief. If anything, it seemed to worsen as Bilbo and Gandalf retraced their steps, past the broken city of Dale, through the dreary darkness of the Mirkwood, on toward Beorn's…

And now, well.

Now he was dreaming his Dwarves were with him, sleeping in Beorn's house, presumably traveling home with him, back to the Shire.

Surely that wasn't a surprise. Bilbo knew in his heart he would carry all three of them with him all his days.

He just couldn't tell if this new dream was better or worse than the battle dreams. Certainly pleasanter, but at least the dreams of Erebor and Ravenhill did not make him feel like his grip on sanity was at risk of slipping loose.

And none of it mattered, because Thorin's eyes were blinking open, taking in the room blearily, with no small amount of consternation drawing his thick eyebrows down into a familiar frown. His gaze settled on Bilbo and locked there, something like astonishment flickering across his face, quickly chased down by another frown.

Thorin stood, slowly and carefully, as though expecting Bilbo to bolt and vanish any second. In any other circumstance Bilbo would have laughed at him. As it was, he felt like bolting, because he could not bear seeing Thorin in front of him only to watch him vanish before his eyes. Not again, not when he seemed so close Bilbo could almost reach out and touch him.

Thorin took three halting steps, as if he wasn't sure he was capable of it, favoring his right side, and Bilbo remembered the blade wound through Thorin's foot, through his chest, his blood soaked through every layer of cloth he'd been wearing. Bilbo's breath shuddered out, fleeing his chest, the traitorous air.

Thorin stopped at the edge of Bilbo's hay-and-blankets bed near to Beorn's fireplace, his back lit dimly by the dying embers, casting him in looming shadows. In his face Bilbo saw the frozen falls of Ravenhill, and Óin dressing Thorin's body for burial, how Thorin had looked so small and cold and alone, and how the world had sunk from grey to black as the cover-stones were pushed over three new tombs. It was unfair, it was so unquestionably unfair and wrong, and Bilbo knew this had to be a dream. This Thorin in front of him was a shade, one more memory blurring into nightmare, because it shouldn't have been Thorin, it never should have been Thorin who died, or Fíli, or Kíli.

It should have been Bilbo.

Bilbo, in exchange for all three of them. Or one of them at least.

But Bilbo was not a fool, and he knew perfectly well life didn't work like that, no matter how much he wished it. So when Dwalin had found him curled over Thorin's body three months ago, Bilbo had straightened his spine, even if tears stained his cheeks. He'd offered Gandalf the best smile he could manage, though his voice had died in his throat. He'd stood unwavering through the funeral, as he had done for his parents so many years ago, even though part of him wanted to crawl in after them. And he had drunk very old Dwarvish wine he'd not tasted at all, and toasted to his Dwarves' honor. And as soon as Gandalf assured him winter had softened enough to travel safely, he had wished his Dwarves all the luck in the world and left.

And now, now. Well. Bilbo was not a fool, and he was not mad, and this Thorin was not real. He could not be. So Bilbo knew him to be a dream.

Thorin knelt at his side, still strangely tentative—as if Thorin had ever done anything tentatively a day of his life!—and reached for Bilbo.

Bilbo recoiled, leaning back to avoid that touch. He would not do this again, he would not lose Thorin again.

Thorin's hand stilled in midair before dropping to rest on his thigh. At this new angle, Bilbo could see his eyes, still dark in the dim light, but glittering and watching Bilbo steadily.

"Bilbo," Thorin said, voice the same as ever, but soft and uncertain, and he somehow turned Bilbo's name into a question Bilbo couldn't begin to decipher, let alone answer.

Whatever it was, it was enough to make Bilbo relax forward without thinking, and Thorin took it as permission to reach out and catch the sleep-mussed curls falling into Bilbo's eyes, brushing them back behind his ear. Bilbo could not hold in his sharp gasp. Thorin's hands were warm and calloused as his palm cupped Bilbo's cheek and his fingertips skated down the shell of his ear.

Thorin's hand fell away, and he said, "You've kept your hair long," as if that was relevant to anything. Bilbo laughed in spite of himself.

"More like it's hard to find a willing barber among a bunch of thickheaded Dwarves," he said, the banter coming to him so easily that when he realized, it was a knife to his heart. Because this wasn't real.

"Ah." Thorin's return smile was genuine, so very familiar, and another twist of the knife. "But this is Beorn's house," he said, looking around as if to verify what was certainly a statement, the confusion of his waking moments returning to his brow.

Bilbo almost asked what that had to do with hair, or haircuts, before he caught himself. This was ridiculous. Thorin was dead, and he was dreaming about bantering with him over Bilbo's hair length, of all things. He scratched his nails along his thighs, hard enough to leave marks beneath his trousers, and started to tell Thorin exactly that, but Thorin beat him to it.

"What strange shapes the afterlife takes," Thorin said, and his frown was growing like a thunderstorm on the horizon. His gaze settled on his nephews, his mien softening for a second, before he tensed. "My boys—" And he looked to Bilbo again, abrupt and afraid.

"Kíli didn't—Bilbo, you aren't…" He looked heartbroken, shocked by whatever revelation was newly weighing on him.

Bilbo didn't know what it was or how to answer him; only, 'you're not real' suddenly didn't seem the right thing to say.

Thorin must have seen something of Bilbo's confusion, because he shook his head and muttered something to himself, too soft even for Bilbo to catch in their intimate quarters, and in Khuzdul besides, if Bilbo heard any of those sharp syllables correctly.

"I died," Thorin said, as if he'd been reading Bilbo's mind, but he spoke more to himself than to Bilbo. He looked to Bilbo sharply, as if expecting a contradiction—and really, Bilbo couldn't blame him. They argued often enough, didn't they? "I—you…" He glanced back at his nephews, at Fíli, eyes lit with unnamed grief that Bilbo understood better than he liked.

"I remember watching Fíli fall," Thorin broke off, jaw clicking shut and shoulders tensing into a decent impression of stone.

It reminded Bilbo far too much of the effigy planned for Thorin's tomb, so he said the first thing that came to mind. "You went sort of…" Bilbo almost said 'mad,' but that wasn't right, even if it was. Thorin had gone mad over the gold, but the way he'd broken over Fíli's death had been a different madness altogether. "Dwalin called it berserker, later… After."

Thorin blinked, clearly surprised. "Aye, it is something like that." He looked back at his nephews again, so terribly sad that Bilbo had to dig his nails into his thighs hard enough he was sure he'd broken skin, just to keep from reaching out and catching Thorin in a hug.

There was only so much his heart could take, and he was certain that would break it.

Thorin would melt away into nothing if he dared reach out.

It wouldn't be the first time Bilbo had dreamt as much.

Thorin turned back to him slowly, looking for all the wide world like he wasn't sure he wanted to tear his gaze away from his nephews. Like they'd vanish if he did. Like Bilbo felt, sure all three of them would disappear the second he blinked.

"Kíli?" Thorin asked, almost too quiet to hear.

Bilbo hesitated, but in this, at least, he knew what Thorin was asking. Thorin saw it in his face, and frowned all the harder.

"Bolg," Bilbo said reluctantly, feeling like the word was dragged by claws and daggers from his throat. "That spawn of Azog. Kíli faced him together with Captain Tauriel."

"Captain Tauriel?" Thorin asked, and his usual scowl was creeping through, the one he always wore when he heard anything sounding of Elves.

"She was captain of the guard, one of Thranduil's—"

"Was?" Thorin interrupted. "She died with Kíli—for Kíli?"

Bilbo shook his head slowly but kept Thorin's gaze. "No… Kíli died avenging Fíli and protecting Tauriel in equal measure. Tauriel did not die, though she would have, had Prince Legolas not arrived at the last moment. I am not sure she is thankful for it." She had seemed lost, when Bilbo had seen her, a reflection of his own feelings in another's eyes.

Thorin slowly sunk the rest of the way to the floor from where he'd been crouching since he'd first approached Bilbo, gaze dropping away, and he was silent for so long Bilbo tried to think of anything to say. What comfort could he offer an uncle who'd lost both his nephews to the scourge of the Durin line? What comfort could he offer this illusion of his own cruel mind, when he could think of none even when he was awake?

"I don't understand," Thorin said with a blankness that worried Bilbo despite his certainty that none of this could ever be real. He scooted closer, even as his fingers instinctively dug against his thighs to keep from reaching out.

Thorin caught the movement and looked up, so lost that Bilbo's breath stopped in his chest, any false words of comfort dying before they'd ever seen the air.

"What of you? How did I fail you as well, my burglar?" Thorin asked, voice hoarse, and he was so terribly stricken.

Bilbo only realized he was leaning forward when his palms landed on Thorin's knees, and his face was a bare foot away from Thorin's own. "I don't… You didn't." You didn't fail anyone, he wanted to say, but the words stuck in his throat.

Thorin's hands came up to cover Bilbo's own. "I remember you were there. You were there, at my side when I…" Though Thorin's face stayed tilted toward Bilbo's own, his gaze fell away, as though he saw something besides Bilbo in front of him. "Was it nothing but illusion? A false comfort as death claimed me?" he muttered, most certainly to himself than to Bilbo. Bilbo frowned in consternation, trying to understand what Thorin meant.

"It was a cold comfort then," Thorin suddenly growled, fingers tightening on Bilbo's hands. He looked to Bilbo again—or rather, saw Bilbo again, instead of whatever had been before his mind's eye. "How?" Thorin demanded, as arrogantly demanding and outright angry as Bilbo had ever seen him, barring memories of gold sickness he did not care to think on.

"I don't understand," Bilbo said. He leaned back, only a little, but Thorin's hands remained gentle despite his anger, and they slid slowly up Bilbo's arms, an impossible warmth through the cotton of Bilbo's shirt, and they did not stop tracing up his skin until they carefully cupped Bilbo's jaw.

Thorin swayed forward as if he could not help it, his anger melting back down into that terrible grief he'd had looking upon his nephews. "How did you die?" he asked softly.

Bilbo blinked repeatedly, rapidly, because this… well. This was a turn of events his dreams had certainly never taken before, not even close, and he—well. How did one answer such absurdity? He opened his mouth to protest, something along the lines of, this is a dream. I'm not dead, Thorin. You're dead. You're being ridiculous, again. But Thorin continued as if he'd not asked a question at all.

"I apologized—did I?" He searched Bilbo's eyes, Bilbo still caught in his grip—gentle, so carefully gentle. Thorin's eyes slid closed and he swayed closer. "As the breath left me, Bilbo, I pleaded your forgiveness. I thought… I was certain it was true, no vision. Bilbo, my Bilbo, please believe me. If I could take back my words, my actions at the gate, for any price I would do so. I—"

Bilbo felt horror growing within him, a great gaping, churning ache in the pit of his belly as Thorin spoke, half-stricken, half-panicked. He caught Thorin's hands in a tight grip, dragging them from his face to hold against his chest, as though that would communicate every thought and feeling tumbling through his body.

"Thorin," he said, but Thorin was rambling on.

"You should not have died—the eagles came. I thought you safe, despite everything, despite all I caused. Bilbo, I am sorry. I do not deserve your forgiveness, but I cannot—"

"Shut up," Bilbo interrupted, suddenly fierce and angry at this shade before him, daring to impugn Thorin's memory, their last moments together. "Stop talking, stop! How dare you?"

Thorin reeled away in shock, jerking so far back some distant part of Bilbo was surprised the Dwarf didn't topple straight over. But Thorin's hands were still caught in Bilbo's own, and he refused to let go, and held on all the tighter when he realized Thorin's face had shuttered with hurt and a sort of expectance, like he was only waiting for Bilbo to condemn him.

"How dare you?" Bilbo snarled again, entirely out of sorts and quite furious about it, that his mind would put this sort of terrible, mangled repetition of Thorin's death before him like that was the least bit okay. "I—of course I forgave you! Of course I did, as though there was anything to forgive when it was I who betrayed you. I betrayed you, Thorin, and you died for it!" If a whisper could be hissed in a shout, Bilbo accomplished it, the Baggins part of him ever mindful of Fíli and Kíli—their shades?—sleeping beside the fire. He glared fiercely at Thorin and lowered his voice. "So don't you dare apologize, or look at me like that, like you're sad for me, when you died, Thorin. You, and not me, when I should have. Don't. You. Dare."

Thorin stared at him, and Bilbo was pleased to see his jaw was hanging open in shock. Bilbo took a breath, and then another, trying to calm down. He failed rather spectacularly.

Thorin twisted his hands and somehow managed to catch Bilbo's own, tangling their fingers together. "You're not dead?" he asked, voice and eyes lit with hope.

Bilbo snorted a humorless little laugh and couldn't quite help his exasperated look. "No, Thorin. This," he tried to wave around the room, but both his hands were still caught in Thorin's, and so he ended up sort of swinging their arms around in an odd little dance, "is a dream. Nothing more." A cruel one, with a warm-bodied Thorin half in his arms, trying to apologize for things that were entirely Bilbo's fault.

Well. Mostly Bilbo's fault. Perhaps fifteen percent could be put on Thorin.

Thorin's fingers tightened around Bilbo's, and he looked around the room more carefully. "This is Beorn's," he said.

"We did this bit," Bilbo said dryly.

Thorin looked to Bilbo, then to his nephews, then around the room again. He shook his head slowly, in bewilderment more than denial, Bilbo thought. "I do not understand," he said, and Bilbo had to bite his own cheek to keep from pointing out they'd done that bit as well.

"This is a dream," he said instead, firmly as he could manage. And if his voice trembled just a little, well. Who could fault his heart for wanting something he could never have?

Thorin shook his head. "I remember the battle with Azog. I remember the eagles flying over the mountain, the tide finally turned, though so many lay dead. I fell there, and then you came." He smiled at Bilbo, tentative. "You are always saving me, Master Burglar."

"I got you killed," Bilbo said flatly. "If I'd not been such a fool…"

Thorin leaned forward abruptly until his forehead pressed against Bilbo's, his skin still shockingly warm, so very alive Bilbo could weep from the touch. "You saved me," he said, voice brooking no argument. "When I could see nothing beyond the gold, when I was mad with it, you pulled me free. Do not doubt it, Bilbo."

Bilbo tried to hold back his sniffle, but couldn't quite manage it. He screwed his eyes shut and bit his tongue instead, willing himself not to cry; normally he wasn't prone to such nonsense, but since the battle it seemed like thoughts of Thorin caught him with terrible ease.

"If this is a dream, it is a strange one," Thorin mused, breath puffing softly against Bilbo's mouth. "I was sure I died in your arms, my Bilbo. All faded to blackness, and I woke in great darkness, called forward by a voice I knew not, but my heart named him my maker…"

Bilbo couldn't open his eyes to see the certainty and awe he heard in Thorin's voice mirrored in his face, still too close to Bilbo, too real, too full of life.

"But if this is a dream, why does it bring me to the skin-changer's house, surrounded by those I have wronged most of all?"

Bilbo made a strangled, irritated noise, pressing his forehead harder against Thorin's. "Don't you start that again, you great, irritating… king!" Because Bilbo had discovered in the recent months that stubborn as Thorin was, it wasn't an attribute unique to him. All kings seemed to possess the annoying quality, from Thorin to Dáin, Bard to Thranduil. It was the single most obnoxious thing Bilbo had ever dealt with, including a certain meddlesome wizard and Bilbo's own silver-thieving cousin.

Thorin grunted, squeezing Bilbo's hands. "Yet if this is a dream, it feels peculiarly real."

Bilbo huffed, finally opening his eyes once more to give Thorin a look. "It's not your dream, it's mine. Of all the arrogance...!"

"Yours?" Thorin said, his confusion plain in his voice.

"Yes," he said firmly, trying to head off any argument Thorin might try to make. "I have only dreamt of you, and Fíli, and Kíli since… Well. Since."

Thorin gently pulled away, and Bilbo felt the loss of it immediately, much to his own surprise. Cool air kissed his forehead unpleasantly where Thorin's warm skin had been but a second ago.

"I feel too real for this to be your dream," Thorin said.

If this were any other situation, Bilbo would have laughed at the absurdity of the statement. "A dream would say that, wouldn't he?" he pointed out instead.

Thorin blinked.

Bilbo blinked.

They stared at each other, for Bilbo didn't know how long. It felt like an eternity, but couldn't have been more than a few minutes.

Bilbo disentangled his fingers from Thorin's and reached up—slowly, carefully, oh so carefully—and touched his fingertips to Thorin's cheek, just above the scruff of his close-cropped beard. He'd finally begun growing it in, those weeks before the battle. Thorin's skin was warm, as it had been since Thorin had reached out to him. In all of Bilbo's other dreams, Thorin was cold, always so very cold, like the ice Bilbo had held him on, the stone he'd been buried in.

Thorin's beard scratched against Bilbo's skin.

"Oh." Bilbo's eyes widened, his mouth dropping into an O of surprise, and he pushed his fingers more firmly against Thorin's skin, nails scraping lightly against his beard just below his ear. "Oh," he said again, and he still didn't know if all of this was real, but it felt so good, just good, to feel Thorin's body when he reached out to him, to feel life in the Dwarf he'd come to love so dearly, and missed too much.

Thorin leaned into his touch like a cat starved of attention, fingers digging into Bilbo's knee enough that Bilbo felt the pull of the scratches he'd made himself, not half an hour ago, when he'd first seen Thorin at the fireplace.

He winced, but he didn't mind the pain at all, and when Thorin started to withdraw at Bilbo's flinch, Bilbo followed him forward, climbing into Thorin's lap like he was the cat, or like he was a little fauntling needing comfort after a terrible nightmare. He slinked his arms quickly around Thorin's neck so he couldn't be removed, and firmly ignored the way bits of Thorin's armor dug unpleasantly into his skin.

"You died," Bilbo breathed out, not particularly clearly because he was suddenly crying. He could feel the fat, salty tears tumbling down his cheeks, the pressure of more aching behind his eyes, his nose and throat suddenly overwhelmed and stuffy with snot. "You died, you died you diedyoudied—"

"Sshh, melekûn men," Thorin hummed, low and gravelly, his arms coming up to surround Bilbo in more hard bits of armor and unbelievable, delicious warmth. Broad hands spanned over his back, rubbing soothing lines up and down, his thumbs tracing smaller circles against the cotton of Bilbo's shirt. "I am here. You are safe. I am alive. Sshh."

Bilbo let Thorin hold him—prayed to Eru and Aulë and anyone who was listening for him to never let go—and cried himself out. He hadn't cried quite this way since Dwalin had found him over Thorin's body.

He distantly realized that his neck was damp exactly where Thorin's cheek was pressed; Thorin was crying too. His fingers were aching in their lock around Thorin's neck, but he unclenched his painful grip to slide his hands up and tangle his fingers in Thorin's hair, burying them there in the dark strands that were neatly combed and braided in a complex pattern that felt familiar, though Bilbo could not immediately place them and did not care to try.

"You are. We are," he agreed, wetly and with a haze of uncertainty what he was saying even made sense. All he wanted to do was comfort Thorin the same way he was being comforted. "All of us," he added, watching Fíli and Kíli where they still slept peacefully by the fire in Beorn's great hall, their chests rising and falling in what had to be one of the best sights Bilbo had ever seen, even if it was all a bit blurred by his slowing tears.

He pressed his mouth and nose briefly into Thorin's shoulder hard, not minding the way the chainmail made sparks of discomfort flash through his nerves, but he couldn't keep his eyes from tracking back to the boys. They were a sight for sore eyes, no mistake.

Something about the pair of them made him finally feel like maybe this wasn't a dream that would leave him heartbroken in the morning, but he could not quite put his finger on what it was. He watched, happy and awed and puzzled, as Fíli shifted in his sleep, grumbling something and elbowing backwards, causing Kíli to whine out his own complaint and shuffle lower. He had his arm thrown over Fíli's side to cling to his brother's chest, right where Fíli had been—

Where the Defiler had—

Bilbo couldn't think it, not even now, months later. Fíli's death had been burned onto his memory, unfathomable, unthinkable, and somehow still existing as a fact. He'd been unable to move, even as Kíli and Thorin had torn off, mad with the shock of it. And still Bilbo could not think it.

Well then. Kíli's arm draped over Fíli's side, hand resting exactly over where Fíli should have been wounded, but most certainly wasn't.

It was that hand that brought dawning realization down on Bilbo.

He couldn't be dreaming.

He would never dream Kíli holding Fíli. No, it had always been the other way around. Fíli had always been the one running after Kíli, containing Kíli's enthusiasm, protecting his younger brother from the chaos of his quick, unstoppable energy. Fíli always protected Kíli, not the other way around.

He buried his face into Thorin's neck, breathing deeply and let fresh tears trickle down his cheeks. Happy tears, for a change, because his mind was suddenly awhirl with such burning joy.

This had to be real. It had to be. Bilbo wouldn't dream in his wildest, strangest dreams that Kíli would be the one protecting his brother.

It should have been the other way around.

"This is real," he said, muffled into Thorin's neck. He tightened his fingers in Thorin's hair even as Thorin's hands slowed their steady, comforting travel across his back to slide up Bilbo's arms, and Bilbo leaned back at the nudge of encouragement, meeting Thorin's damp eyes with his own soggy grin.

"This is real," he repeated, fierce and happy. "It has to be. I would never—it has to be." He leaned into Thorin, pressing his forehead to the Dwarf's, beaming into Thorin's beautiful, confused blue eyes.

"Good," Thorin said, but his lips twitched just so, and he asked rather wryly, "And you know this now, how?"

So Bilbo told him, and surprised a quiet, rumbling laugh out of Thorin, but he couldn't argue the point either. Thorin told him in halting tones that he had not seen them act so since Fíli had been just twenty-two, and Kíli only seventeen, and Fíli had fallen down one of the old, unsafe mining tunnels in Ered Luin and broken his arm and two ribs. He'd been missing for two days, the entire community fraught with worry, none more so than Kíli.

"When we found him, it was Bofur and two others who rigged the harnesses and mining equipment necessary to lift him safely out. Kíli did not part from Fíli's side for nigh on four months. I believe Fíli was ready to climb the walls to escape Kíli's fussing by then." Thorin smiled in fond memory, and Bilbo smiled at him in return.

They sat together exactly like that, for much of the night, whatever was left of it. They spoke in quiet voices and studied each other's faces, and not once did Bilbo let Thorin go entirely. Bilbo was pleased to notice he was not the only one, for Thorin seemed no more interested in letting Bilbo go either.

For Bilbo's part, he wasn't willing to risk losing track of Thorin for a second, and if that meant curling in the Dwarf's lap until he figured out what to do next, by all that was green he was going to do so.

That admittedly didn't last terribly long, and about an hour later they silently agreed to shuffle onto Bilbo's blankets, sitting side by side against the wall, legs and sides pressed together, hands curled so that their fingers entwined. And still they talked, inconsequential little stories of Bilbo's youth, of Ered Luin, of Thorin growing up in Erebor. Small things.

Neither of them wished to speak of the battle any longer, or their deaths, or whether Bilbo had gotten it wrong and this was a dream after all. Or at least, Bilbo did not wish to, not at all, and since Thorin no more made mention of it than Bilbo did, he assumed he felt the same.

But Bilbo's desire to stay beside Thorin for the rest of time, doing nothing more than conversing as he leaned into Thorin's warmth… all his want in the world combined together did not keep him from yawning, over and over again, exhaustion piling up on top of him like lead weights. Want he wanted did not keep his mind from drifting as it tried to sink into sleep without his permission.

If he was tired, he was surely awake, wasn't he?

This had to be real.

"You must sleep," Thorin murmured, his voice a soft humming comfort somewhere above Bilbo.

It was only then Bilbo realized his head had come to rest against Thorin's arm. He pried his eyes open, wondering when they'd closed. "'m fine."

Thorin chuckled. "Indeed, very fine. But you must rest, Bilbo."

Bilbo made a plaintive disagreement, what was an eloquent argument in his head, but somehow came out only as a mumbled whine.

"We have decided this is real, have we not?" Thorin asked, sounding far too reasonable for Bilbo's liking, and cutting straight to the quick of Bilbo's fears.

Bilbo pressed his face into Thorin's shoulder. "I'm afraid," he muttered.

"As am I."

Bilbo sighed deeply. "Be here in the morning," he said, and he meant for it to be a demand, but knew it sounded just as much like a plea.

"Nothing would drag me from your side, ghivasha," Thorin promised. He shifted, and Bilbo felt his curls being brushed to the side, and the brief, warm press of Thorin's mouth.

Bilbo was asleep before he really registered the kiss.

Chapter Text

Bilbo woke slowly and groggily, over-warm and unexpectedly happy for reasons he couldn't quite recall. A dream, perhaps.

The fireplace before his sleepy gaze was dark and swept out, nothing—no one sleeping in front of it. He tensed, memories from the night filtering in slowly, like flies sinking in molasses.

Kíli with Fíli wrapped in his arms, sleeping before the hearth as soundly as if they'd not found good rest in an age. They'd barely twitched the entire night, Bilbo recalled.

But they were gone, every trace of them swept away with last night's ashes. Bilbo's stomach curdled, though he'd not eaten anything since last evening's supper. A soft, pained groan came from somewhere nearby, and it took him a moment to realize it was him.

It'd only been a dream.

He was such a fool.

Something tightened around his chest. Bilbo hadn't thought there was enough left in him to hurt so much.

It took him another minute for his foggy mind to realize the band of pressure wrapped around him wasn't grief, but an arm curled across his torso.

Bilbo's breath caught in his chest. He barely dared risk looking around, but in the end he could not contain his curiosity, or his hope. He peeked carefully down at the pressure around his chest, and found an arm with a heavy, leather vambrace picked out with gold, and there were achingly familiar silver rings on thick, calloused fingers.

Bilbo let out a breath, harsh and short, and dragged another painful breath into his lungs before daring to look over his shoulder. Thorin's dark hair was pulled back into intricate braids, revealing the heavy rune-etched cuff on his ear. Bilbo's eyes traced the silver in his hair down to the scruff of his beard, the sharpness of his nose, his dark lashes framing pale eyelids that flickered as he dreamt. Soft breath stirred the back of Bilbo's head, and he was surprised he hadn't noticed it earlier.

Thorin was still there, sleeping with his arm firmly wrapped around Bilbo, as if Bilbo was the one who might vanish. Bilbo let out another breath, willing himself to calm.

But where were Fíli and Kíli? His thoughts dragged his gaze uneasily back to the cold fireplace, still empty of the lads Bilbo dearly wanted to be there.

There was the soft hiss of burning leaf, of air being puffed up through a thin pipe, and then the familiar scent of pipe-weed wafted into his nose. Bilbo tilted his head, turning wide eyes onto a familiar and terribly welcome sight.

Gandalf sat on a stool a short distance off from Bilbo's makeshift bed, booted feet propped up on the lowest rung, staff tucked securely against one arm, smoking away on his worn pipe. There was a thoughtful, almost worried gleam to his gaze as he stared straight at Bilbo.

"That stool certainly wasn't there the night before," Bilbo said tartly, as if that was the most important thing he wished to discuss at the moment, which it certainly wasn't.

Gandalf's beard twitched in a small smile. "No, I daresay you're correct in that, my friend." His eyes traced over first Bilbo and then Thorin's sleeping form, intent enough that Bilbo felt a blush burn its way across his cheeks.

Oh, that was simply absurd. As if there as anything to be blushing about, he scolded himself, and cast his own eyes over Thorin again. It was a marvel—Thorin was a marvel, lying right there at his side, arm still snug around Bilbo's middle, solid and warm and real in the bright light of day shining through Beorn's open windows.

"How is this possible, Gandalf?" he asked, making sure to stay quiet to keep from disturbing Thorin.

"I do not know," Gandalf admitted, "which is precisely why I am watching over you."

Bilbo's mouth twisted. "Thorin would never hurt me."

Gandalf's eyebrows arched.

Bilbo mustered his fiercest look. "I know him. I trust him. He has never hurt me, Gandalf, and you can't blame him for the madness at the gate. It would be akin to blaming someone for falling ill! For—for having a fever, or being ensnared by a spell. That's not fair."

"You're taking it all in stride," was all Gandalf said, still unfathomable, puffing thoughtfully on his pipe once more.

"How can I be angry over that? I never was, really. He—I thought I'd lost him, all of them," he muttered, that old grief sweeping through him like an avalanche despite the Dwarf at his back. It'd been so real—it still was real. It had happened; Thorin, Fíli and Kíli had all died. That they weren't dead now didn't erase the fact that Bilbo had lived through it all.

"You know quite well that isn't what I'd meant," Gandalf rebuffed.

Bilbo's shoulders slumped and he gave up trying to argue. "No, I'm really not taking anything in stride," he said, thinking back to last night. "But I can't deny the sight before my eyes, now can I?" he asked, his Hobbit sensibilities kicking in despite the trying uncertainties of last night. He murmured to himself, "Nor do I want to."

Gandalf let out a long, worn sigh. "No, my dear Bilbo, you cannot. Nor can I, when it comes to it, and that is why I sit here. This bears watching, and no few questions."

"He is real then? They are? All three of them?" Bilbo asked, voice very small despite himself. He couldn't bring himself to look up at Gandalf, to risk seeing the denial in his face.

"As real as you and I," Gandalf reassured, though Bilbo was not sure he sounded entirely happy about it.

Fair enough, Bilbo supposed. Wizards were peculiar beings who thought peculiar things, and Gandalf probably did not like unexpected things to happen any more than Hobbits did—unless, of course, Gandalf was the one causing said unexpected things.

But hearing that simple assurance from his most trusted friend and guide made happiness burst in Bilbo's chest. Bilbo could be happy enough for both of them, he was sure.

"And where are my miscreant sister-sons?" Thorin asked with no real heat, voice laden with sleep and worry, as though he'd only just woken to discover they were gone from the fireplace, as Bilbo had. Bilbo wondered how much he'd heard of their conversation, but he was nodding along to Thorin's question regardless.

"Outside, reacquainting themselves with Beorn's dog-folk, last I saw," Gandalf supplied, amusement finally bleeding into his words. "I see your stubbornness continues to be a source of great consternation, Thorin, son of Thráin."

Thorin made a face against Bilbo's curls, hidden from Gandalf's notice, but a tension Bilbo hadn't even realized was there bled out of him at Gandalf's reassurances. That same worry eased in Bilbo's heart, and he absently curled his hand over Thorin's, squeezing his fingers lightly.

"I do not think it was I whose stubbornness achieved this… whatever this is," Thorin admitted finally, arm tightening around Bilbo. "Though I confess, I do not understand any of it in the least."

Gandalf hummed thoughtfully, casting a look over Bilbo he could not decipher. "I do not know what forces lay behind this miracle, for indeed it is nothing short of a miracle, but if I were to guess, I would say it did not come from one source alone."

Bilbo's belly growled. Thorin and Gandalf both fell silent. Bilbo hitched a shoulder in a shrug even as he felt Thorin grin into his curls.

"I believe my burglar requires sustenance," Thorin declared, reluctantly shifting away from Bilbo to sit.

Bilbo caught Gandalf's amused, curious look before the wizard tilted his head in a nod. "Quite right. Let us have something to eat, though it is well past breakfast, or even second breakfast."

"Elevenses?" Bilbo asked, dismay lacing his voice enough to earn amused glances from both his companions.

"Long have I known Hobbits eat seven meals a day, and still I do not know where you put it all," Thorin muttered, rising gracefully from the floor. He offered Bilbo a hand, and though Bilbo grasped it and allowed Thorin to pull him up from the floor, he nonetheless ignored Thorin's comment.

"Just past elevenses, I'm afraid, and hying quickly on to luncheon," Gandalf said, smiling at them. He stood from his stool with a creak. "However, bread and fruit are left over from breakfast, as well as milk and a pot of honey, and I believe the sheep are organizing something special for lunch after they discovered this morning's unexpected guests."

"You mean Fíli and Kíli have charmed them," Bilbo said, recalling the last time they were here and the way the lads had seemed to have with Beorn's cooks. Their way of eking out one more loaf of bread had been enough to put the finest of Took tweens to shame. Despite Gandalf's assurances that they were fine, Bilbo suddenly, fiercely wished they were beside him, throwing themselves into elevenses with abandon.

"They are quite fond of the lads," Gandalf agreed amicably as he ushered the two of them toward the table. "After our meal, I should like to ask both of you some questions, and Thorin, you need to be looked over." There was a pause to Gandalf's words, and Bilbo glanced back to see him swooping down to collect something just beside Bilbo's makeshift bed that Bilbo could not see. Before he could ask after it, Thorin grumbled something sounding entirely rude beneath his breath.

"I see no need for letting you prod me," Thorin said. Bilbo turned back to Thorin with an argument on his lips and caught Thorin's hand tracing absently over his chest, uncertainty pulling his mouth into a frown.

"Thorin?" he asked, his own uncertainty making him hesitate. Thorin's hand traced exactly where—no, he would not think on it. He couldn't. Thorin is here, he reminded himself firmly. He is alive.

Thorin looked disgruntled, but it was then that Bilbo properly noticed his clothing for the first time, and he interrupted before Thorin could think to speak.

But all his mouth got out was "Your—" before his brain kicked in and clicked his jaw shut. It was still enough to draw their attention. Distress made Bilbo fidget as he ground to a halt before Beorn's overlarge dining table. He twisted his hands together, wringing his fingers as he frowned at Thorin's clothing.

"What is it?" Thorin asked, eyes darkening, clearly disturbed by Bilbo's antics, and Bilbo almost took a step back into the bench behind him. Thorin rested a hand on his shoulder, the other coming to brush across his jaw. "What is the matter?"

Why hadn't he noticed it last night? Bilbo looked up at Thorin worriedly, catching sight of Thorin's complex braids, mussed by sleep but still firmly in place. It was all he could do not to reach up and begin unraveling them all, the burial braids that Balin and Dwalin had braided into the hair of their fallen cousin.

Balin had explained all kings were buried with such honor.

"Bilbo," Thorin pressed, stepping that much closer to him, until there was little space left between them.

"I'm sorry," Bilbo blurted out. "I didn't notice last night—I mean, I did, but I didn't think. I didn't really notice—"

"What?" Thorin frowned.

"Your clothing," Bilbo said, resisting the urge to pluck at the clothing, the armor, or to try to take it off and make Thorin wear something—anything—else.

Thorin looked down at himself, frown deepening. "I do not remember these clothes." His brow creased. "I was not wearing these in the battle."

"They're… your burial clothes," Bilbo said reluctantly, the words dragged from his mouth at Thorin's confused, questioning glance. Thorin's startled expression broke Bilbo's heart for reasons he didn't fully understand.

Gandalf cleared his throat. "Why don't we enjoy a meal, and discuss everything after?"

Bilbo did not feel much like eating all of a sudden, much the same way he never did of late, once the food was before him. But Thorin agreed with Gandalf and tugged Bilbo toward the places set at one end of the table, and Bilbo followed.

Something had caught Thorin's attention, for he was silent and brooding as they ate, lost in his own thoughts. That didn't stop him from adding food to Bilbo's plate when Bilbo failed to do so himself, Bilbo noted, holding back an annoyed sigh as another handful of cherry tomatoes made their way onto his plate.

"Stop that," he complained, batting Thorin's wandering hand away, causing half the tomatoes to roll across the table aimlessly.

Thorin turned on him, scowl firmly in place. Bilbo had wondered when his Dwarf's temper would make an appearance; Thorin didn't quite seem himself without it.

"You've barely eaten," Thorin accused. "Last we were here, Nori wanted to run wagers on whether you would outclass Bombur."

Bilbo scowled himself at that. "I'm not hungry, thank-you," he said irately. "And you mind your own plate, and your own business besides!"

"You are my business," Thorin snapped back. He plucked up the escaped tomatoes and dropped them back onto Bilbo's plate.

"I am certainly not!" Bilbo sputtered, feeling a flush creep up his neck, whether from embarrassment or pleasure or indignation, he wasn't sure. All of them together, he thought, disgruntled, and resisted the urge to rub at his cheeks.

Thorin glowered at him. "You sat vigil with me," he said, and for all that Bilbo had no clue what Thorin meant, it sounded like the worst of accusations.

"I… what?"

Thorin looked to be at a loss for words.

"You stayed with Thorin's body as it was prepared for burial," Gandalf supplied, not unkindly, though he still watched Thorin with a careful eye.

"I, well, yes. Of course I did." Bilbo cast a bemused look between Thorin and Gandalf, before focusing solely on Thorin. "How could I leave?" he asked. He'd asked Balin something similar, when his friend tried to lead him from the tent, and then to Bofur, and then to Dáin. None of them ever had an answer to the question Bilbo was genuinely asking. Dáin had understood it best of all, had nodded once, spoken of his wife's death in childbirth, and left him there, ordering the others to let him be in peace.

Bilbo had stayed with Thorin and his nephews for three days, watching their bodies, his hope of catching any movement—maybe Thorin was only sleeping, Fíli unconscious, Kíli playing one of his foolish tricks—dimming with every day, until it snuffed out at last.

He'd watched Óin remove first Thorin's garments, cleaning and dressing the wounds as if Thorin would ever get up again. Then the healer repeated the same with Fíli, then Kíli. Óin had told him it was one aspect of a healer's work that most never realized.

Bilbo had watched Dwarves of Dáin's company come in with regal clothes and armor collected from Erebor's halls, Dáin at their head. Dáin had explained to him as they had dressed their fallen king and princes. Royal clothing and armament for a royal burial, to do them honor and send them onto the roads to Aulë with weapons to defend themselves.

Bilbo had watched the Company say their own goodbyes, every one of them. He had watched Tauriel enter to sit with Kíli, looking at him as though she too expected movement, though the guards outside put up a fuss.

He'd watched everyone say their farewells, but he'd never found a way to say his own. He'd never wanted to let them go, and the last time he'd been forced into such a role was when his father had died of his own grief. Bilbo had wondered then, at Thorin's side, if that wasn't the easiest way of things. It would certainly hurt less.

After—after the ritual, the vigil, Bilbo now realized, after everything—Gandalf had come as he had after the battle. He'd sat at Bilbo's side, and noisily smoked a pipe of weed, and simply stayed there until he'd won the barest of smiles from Bilbo.

Fingers curled into his shoulder, jarring him from his memories. Concerned blue eyes swam into focus before him, and Bilbo absently reached up and brushed a few stray strands of hair behind Thorin's ear.

"I'm fine," he lied to that worried look, surprised how level his voice came out.

Thorin huffed. "You're not." It was a moment before he added, "Only our closest kin sit with our bodies in vigil before the burial. Balin or Dwalin would have stayed, had you not."

Bilbo blinked. "Oh. No one said. …I am sorry, I know we are only friends—"

"No." Thorin was frowning again. "We are not—"

"Pardon me?" Bilbo leaned back a little, his own mouth tilting downward. "I know I betrayed you—"

"Mahal," Thorin cursed. His fingers flexed around Bilbo's shoulder. "You blame yourself for my actions, Bilbo. I went mad; that was not your fault. My own weaknesses let me succumb."

"What rot," Bilbo snapped. "You were ill, Thorin. And you weren't the only one either. There was, apparently, a reason Gandalf didn't want us facing Smaug without him, and it had much to do with dragon sickness!" If you only listened once in a while, he added silently.

Thorin's lips flattened in grim defiance. "As I recall, Gandalf was weeks late."

Gandalf cleared his throat, but neither of them paid him any mind.

"And that's a good reason to ignore his advice, is it? A wizard couldn't possibly know more about a situation than you, is that it?"

"My point was," Thorin snapped, "You did not betray me, and you are far more to me than a simple friend!"

"Well, my point was—what?" Bilbo's glare vanished in an instant of shock. Surely he'd heard him wrong.

"If anything, I betrayed you," Thorin said, his hands coming up to cradle Bilbo's jaw. "My madness was not your fault, nor was my death." He visibly hesitated, thumbs tracing along Bilbo's cheekbones as his eyes roamed over Bilbo's face. "You are grieving, amrâlimé, it is as plain as day, and it is my fault. But I am here, and I will not leave you."

Bilbo felt that great pressure behind his eyes that told him he was only seconds away from crying again, and though he was quite fed up with himself, he could not keep it from happening. He blinked his eyes rapidly and tried to look away, but Thorin's hands were firm along his jaw.

"You're a great sodding sap, you know that?" Bilbo sniffed, squirming until Thorin finally let him go so he could slide forward and hide his face against Thorin's chest. "Honestly."

And if he was crying again, and clinging rather snuggly to Thorin's—dratted, blasted, cursed—clothes, well, Thorin didn't comment on it. And besides, Thorin's arms slipped around Bilbo's back, and Bilbo was more than a little certain he could happily stay right there for the rest of his life.

Gandalf cleared his throat a second time. Bilbo snuffled into Thorin's shirt, completely ignoring the uncomfortable armor, and flapped his hand in the wizard's direction. Before he could say anything, there was a shout somewhere far behind him, and Bilbo jolted, because he recognized that voice.

He almost fell off the too-large bench in his haste to see past Thorin, but then Fíli and Kíli were there, crashing into the bench, Bilbo, Thorin and all, two sets of arms swinging up and around them like vines grown out of control. He was certain he heard something skitter off the edge of the table, and wondered if it was his plate overflowing with tomatoes.

Bilbo laughed despite his damp cheeks, hugging them back as tightly as he could. Finally, he knew his boys were as real as Thorin. He felt Thorin's arm slide around Fíli, dragging him in close, even as Bilbo's arm hooked around Kíli, latching on for dear life.

"Uncle's made you cry," Kíli declared, squinting close to Bilbo's face. "What's he been doing?"

"I could take a guess, but I doubt we want to know," Fíli said, grinning wickedly, only for Thorin to tug on his hair.

"None of that from you, inùdoy," Thorin said flatly, but he wouldn't let Fíli go, not even enough for Fíli to squirm an inch.

It was Fíli's hair that caused Bilbo to notice. "You're out of your braids and armor." He couldn't keep the relief from his voice. The burial braids gave him chills, not least of all because he'd sat through their very funerals. Now Fíli's hair was back to its simple braids, including the short braids in his mustache, and Kíli's hair was as much of a bird's nest as if it had never been braided at all.

They still wore the lavish gold- and silver-stitched shirts and trousers they'd worn before, but Bilbo supposed there wasn't much else for them to change into.

They both grinned at him.

"Couldn't be having it," Kíli said.

"All that armor," Fíli agreed.

"So heavy, you would not believe, Uncle Boggins."

"Hard to move in."

"Pinched at every joint."

"Anyway, made it harder to hide my knives," Fíli added.

"So we chucked it all." Kíli finished, grinning more.

Bilbo blinked. "Uncle Boggins?"

Thorin snorted against his hair. "Ignore them. Though perhaps you would help me pry my own armor off. My foolish nephews are not wrong in that it is uncomfortable."

"You slept in it," Bilbo reminded him.

Thorin shrugged. "Habit." He finally released Fíli when the lad started making eyes at the half loaf of bread left on the table. When the boys were ensconced on the other bench, fighting over the last pear, Thorin leaned in. "You could help me with my hair as well."

Bilbo startled, almost falling off the back of the bench. "Pardon," he squeaked, wondering if he'd heard wrong, knowing how private Dwarves kept their hair and braids. But at Thorin's serious expression, he nodded in agreement. "O-of course I will, if you're certain."

Gandalf cleared his throat, and Bilbo glanced at him to find him watching them with a great deal of amusement, and the first full smile he'd seen from the wizard since he woke.

"With that, I shall leave you. I find I must speak with Beorn on matters of some import." Gandalf gave Thorin a quick, stern look as he stood, ignoring Thorin's irritated glare. "I will be back to check over any lingering pains, as I have already done with your nephews."

~*~

"What did Gandalf mean by that?" Bilbo mused not an hour later, as he helped pry Thorin's armor off. It also required Fíli and Kíli, because armor was foolishly heavy, in any sensible Hobbit's opinion. But it gave him the chance to listen as they bickered in the background, and he did so with quiet pleasure humming in his chest. "About lingering pain," he added absently.

Thorin made a noncommittal noise. "What do wizards ever mean?"

Kíli and Fíli fell silent, causing both Bilbo and Thorin to look up. Thorin was clearly listening to his nephews as attentively as Bilbo was, and Bilbo knew he was happier than anyone that they'd been given back to him.

Kíli cleared his throat. "When we woke this morning, Gandalf and Beorn stood over us, watching like we would combust into smoke any second." His fingers twitched as if he had an itch he couldn't stop thinking about.

Fíli nodded. "It took a while to convince them we were real."

"And not evil magic," Kíli added, scrunching his nose. "How would that work at all, anyway?"

"Gandalf insisted on examining us," Fíli continued, elbowing Kíli in the ribs.

Kíli's fingers twitched again at Fíli's words. "Right." He exchanged a glance with his brother, and Bilbo just knew they were holding an entire conversation in that one look.

Fíli grimaced, and Kíli stood straight even as his face went grim, so much so that Bilbo blinked, and studied him closer, and Thorin stiffened at his side.

Kíli gripped Fíli's shoulder, pressing his weight into him. "I don't know about you, Uncle, but Fí and I keep having phantom pains. Gandalf said we'll probably carry them the rest of our lives, which I s'pose only makes sense."

"It does?" Bilbo asked, glancing at Thorin's face.

Thorin was stony. "There are scars," he said with such certainty that it took Bilbo a moment to realize he was asking a question.

Kíli nodded, still grim-faced.

"Where I was stabbed," Fíli spoke up suddenly. "And there is an ache in my leg where I broke it, according to Gandalf."

Kíli swallowed, his voice thick. "You fell, brother," he said, and paused long enough Bilbo thought he would say nothing else. After a minute, that same grim determination came back. "I've a scar along my back and stomach, too."

"Oh," Bilbo said, freezing in his work, mind suddenly full of images of Fíli and Thorin, dark imaginations of Kíli. Watching Fíli fall. Pressing his hands to Thorin's bleeding chest. Kíli facing Azog's spawn. He took a deep, steadying breath and tried hard to ignore the terrible memories suddenly crowding his mind. "That's… That's. Well. It shouldn't be unexpected, I suppose." He frowned severely at a piece of armor around Thorin's shoulder that he couldn't remember the name for. "How does this thing come off?"

"Let me," Fíli said, throwing an arm around Bilbo to squeeze his shoulders before undoing some straps Bilbo had not spied along the underside.

Bilbo focused on that, ignoring Fíli's and Kíli's silence, and Thorin's worried look. Armor also apparently required help getting into and out of, with both its weight and its complicated straps.

Any sensible Hobbit would find it absurd to wear something one couldn't wear or remove without aid, and Bilbo was certainly as sensible a Hobbit as there ever was. His Dwarves, on the other hand, tended toward the exact opposite, so when Bilbo purposely pointed this perfectly logical notion out, he only received three affectionately amused looks, and he silently thanked Eru as the tension slowly drained out of the room.

"I suppose I will adjust to such peculiar opinions," Thorin mused as Bilbo picked at the buckles of Thorin's vambraces.

Bilbo shot him an annoyed look, and resisted thumping his arm only because he was still in chainmail. "I am not 'peculiar,' thank-you," he said primly, and relaxed even more when Thorin smiled.

"I meant your kin, in truth," Thorin said.

Bilbo paused, frowning up into the shadow of Thorin's amused face. "Whatever for? It's not as though you'll be seeing much of them."

"You are returning to your Shire, are you not?" Thorin asked. Fíli and Kíli froze around them, their jokes once more dying in the air.

"Well, that'd been the general aim, yes," Bilbo said slowly. He tilted his head to frown down at the loosened straps and tugged the vambrace off, thinking more of his Dwarves returned to him and lost just as quickly, returned to Erebor, than removing silly bits of armor. He could not have that, not after everything he and they had been through.

"Then so I shall follow," Thorin said, tone brooking no argument.

Bilbo whipped back up to gape at him. "W-what?"

"I told you," Thorin said patiently. "I will not leave you again. I would follow you to the ends of the world, if you but said."

Bilbo's jaw was hanging open, he knew that, but he could not stop or drag it back up to its proper place. When he jiggled his mind back into action and closed his mouth, all he could really think to say was, "You can't do that, Thorin."

"I can, and shall," he said. He leaned down to rest his forehead against Bilbo's. "I will not lose you again, ghivasha kurdulu." Bilbo distantly heard Fili and Kili make unintelligible noises behind them.

"I—you can't, Thorin," Bilbo said again. He shook his head. "Your kin—your family and friends and people—are waiting for you in Erebor. You've spent your life dreaming of your home. How can you ask me to take that away from you?"

Thorin huffed a small laugh, breath puffing against Bilbo's lips. "You are my home, Bilbo. It took me far too long to see it. I was blind. But it is no less true for that."

"We're coming too," Fíli spoke up suddenly, straightening and standing his full height when Thorin and Bilbo turned to stare at him. Bilbo, for his part, was too stunned to think straight, and could only gape at the ludicrous statement.

Kíli nodded at his side. "Can't be rid of us that easily."

"Oh, most certainly not," Bilbo said, exasperated. Both their faces settled into defiant, mutinous looks that Bilbo associated more with fauntlings than grown lads. He wished Gandalf were there to support him, but he was still off speaking with Beorn about Eru knew what. Dratted wizards.

"We're family," Fíli said fiercely. "And we're sticking together."

"We'll have to write Mother though," Kíli added. "She'll murder us otherwise."

Thorin's voice told Bilbo he was frowning as much as Fíli was. "You two belong in Erebor."

Fíli hesitated, but met Thorin's eyes squarely. "I'm too young to rule, no one would accept it. I'm sure—" he looked to Bilbo. "Who's in charge now?"

Bilbo shook his head and gave up on the entire conversation with a sigh. "Dáin."

"Dáin will be a good king," Fíli asserted, nodding to Bilbo.

"He doesn't want to be," Bilbo muttered, ignored by everyone else in the room, though Thorin's frowning gaze slid to him briefly.

"Erebor is your birthright, our home reclaimed," Thorin snapped, shifting ever so slightly in front of Bilbo as if protecting him from a fight.

Bilbo saw his opportunity and took it, coming to a decision before he realized he was fully decided. "Quite right! It is our home, and that is precisely why we're turning right around and returning as soon as we may."

"We're not leaving—" Kíli began stubbornly, then stopped just as quickly. All three gaped at him, Thorin twisting on his heel so quickly Bilbo was surprised he didn't topple over.

"Our?" Thorin asked.

"We?" Fíli said at the same time.

All three of them looked so hopeful, Bilbo couldn't help his laugh. He smiled at them, shaking his head. "I know of at least twelve people who will be eager to see you," he told them. "And I should like to see them besides."

He leaned against Thorin and said a little more quietly. "You're not the only one who's been blind." He looked up into familiar blue eyes he'd feared he'd never see again, finally beginning to feel all of this was real. Really real. "Don't you think I might have realized my home was a person and not a place, too?"

Thorin stared down at him blankly for a good, solid minute, and though nerves nibbled at Bilbo's fingertips, he couldn't help grinning up at Thorin, entirely pleased he'd driven him speechless.

Thorin leaned down swifter than Bilbo could blink and pressed a firm, sweet kiss against Bilbo's lips. Bilbo froze, staring, stunned, into Thorin's face as Thorin rested his forehead against Bilbo's once more.

"I love you as well, Bilbo Baggins of the Shire."

"Of Erebor, isn't it, now?" Bilbo corrected, almost automatically, still staring though Thorin's face was blurred in his nearness and he was sure his eyes were at risk of crossing if he didn't stop soon. He flushed. "Ah, that is. I love you too. Of course I do, if that isn't perfectly plain."

"Bilbo Baggins of the Shire and Erebor," Thorin agreed, interrupting his babbling, and pressed another smiling kiss against Bilbo's still-stunned mouth, as though he could not help himself—either in kissing or in grinning.

"Oh," Bilbo said articulately, finally, after what felt like an eternity, and pushed up on his toes to kiss Thorin in return.

There were groans mixed with laughter somewhere to the side, both Fíli and Kíli hooting and hollering and, somewhere in there, complaining, "Finally."

"So," Gandalf said, and his voice was most certainly laced with a great deal of merriment. "I see matters are coming along in here, though we appear no closer to a change of clothing."

Bilbo startled at the sound of his voice. Thorin pulled away with a grumble, then pressed another brief kiss to Bilbo's forehead. "We have been occupied with other concerns," he said.

"No matter, no matter." Gandalf waved Thorin off, far more jovial than he'd been all day. "In fact, I do not believe I need look you over after all, Thorin. I think we've resolved everything more or less as far as we are able, and more satisfactorily than I'd hoped."

Bilbo narrowed his eyes suspiciously. "What are you up to, Gandalf?"

"Up to?" Gandalf's eyebrows arched. "My dear Bilbo, I am not 'up to' anything. Indeed, events have been so peculiar this day that I did not expect to discover any answers."

"But you have," Thorin prompted, eyeing Gandalf skeptically.

"I came across something lying beside your bed, Bilbo," Gandalf said, reaching into his robes to draw something out. It was small enough to hide in the palm of his hand, something gold and gleaming, and Bilbo did not see what it was until he took a few steps forward, Thorin glued to his back as though the object in Gandalf's hand would leap up and attack.

Bilbo breathed in sharply. Thorin did as well.

Fíli and Kíli, now crowded around Gandalf, looked puzzled, shooting them questioning glances.

"My acorn," Bilbo said, reaching out to pick it up, and only wondering at the last second whether that was wise.

"It is perfectly safe," Gandalf assured him, offering it to him.

Bilbo looked to him uncertainly. "I… I'd buried that, Gandalf. With—with Thorin."

Gandalf smiled, though there was something sad to his face. "So I surmised. Still, it is quite safe, and you may handle it safely."

Bilbo supposed it made sense. Thorin had been wearing his burial clothes, so why wouldn't the acorn Bilbo had tucked into his tunic still be on him as well? It must have fallen out when Thorin had slept beside him, last night. Still, Bilbo picked it up from Gandalf's palm with a great deal more reluctance than he cared to admit.

Bilbo had held Thorin in his arms as his Dwarf took his last breath, begging Thorin to hold on, knowing he wouldn't—couldn't. Thorin had told him to plant his trees then, but as Bilbo had watched the others say their goodbyes, it was the last thing he could imagine in the wide world. Moving on, living, watching things grow. Three of the people he'd come to love best in the world would never get that chance, and Bilbo couldn't fathom it.

So he'd put the acorn the one place he wanted some good to grow.

"But it is only an acorn, Gandalf," Bilbo said, despite his own misgivings that somehow this small object that Gandalf claimed was important would whisk his Dwarves away from him again.

"Indeed, only an acorn, one grown on these very lands. You will find much of Beorn's land is steeped with the same magic that lends itself to Beorn himself. You need only look to his animals and gardens to see it." Gandalf rested a hand on his shoulder, meeting Bilbo's eyes with fathomless ones of his own. "I know not all the answers to this riddle, but some great power has channeled itself through this singular acorn. A Hobbit's love, and a Dwarf's besides. I know not how it was wrought, or even all of what played a hand in this, but hence the magic came. I can answer no more than that."

Bilbo looked down at the acorn in his hand, trying to see if there was anything about it he should have realized was magic.

On closer inspection he could see that the acorn had three heavy cracks in it, spaced equally apart on its shell, broad enough for Bilbo to fit the edge of his nail in, but no more. But those had not been there before, when Bilbo had picked it up, or in the long weeks after. They hadn't been there when Bilbo had placed the acorn with Thorin. And acorns certainly did not sprout in such a fashion!

Those cracks were the only sign that there was something peculiar about it. It was just an acorn, surely?

He thanked Gandalf numbly, looking to Thorin in his shock, but not the least bit able to express his bewilderment.

Thorin stared back, gaze moving between Bilbo's face and the seed in his palm.

Fíli leaned over Bilbo's shoulder. "Does this mean Beorn's acorns grow dead Dwarves?" he asked so conversationally that Bilbo laughed despite himself.

Kíli leaned over his other shoulder. "Dunno. But we should definitely plant it. That's what those cracks are for, right? Do you think it'll last 'til we get back to the mountain?"

Bilbo sighed, unable to help himself, and smiled at his lads. They would have to discuss plants, what they grew, and how at a later date. Not that Bilbo could argue the point terribly with a magic acorn in his palm.

But all things considered, he couldn't quite complain, now could he?

~*~

They crested the hill of the ridge hiding the mountain from sight, and stopped to stare down at it. Ravenhill was not far off, the ice of its falls thawed back into proper waterfalls. The ruins, which had remained untouched during the few months of reparations, barring a clean-out of the Orc bodies, still gave Bilbo chills. He looked past it to the mountain instead, the early noon sun gleaming off its snowcapped peaks.

Thorin stood silent at his side, but he practically vibrated with tension. Bilbo wiggled his hand until he caught Thorin's fingers in his own, lacing them together like that would keep the future from happening.

Bilbo was nervous too.

"Well, this ought to be interesting." Bilbo said, just for something to say, thinking of Dáin on the throne—one he didn't want, Bilbo knew, but that his nobles didn't mind his having in the least—and the many Dwarves and Men working hard to rebuild Erebor and Dale respectively, the Company included among them.

No one knew they were coming, of course. There was no way to get a message to Erebor that would arrive before they did.

Bilbo had not a shadow of a doubt the next hours—days, weeks, knowing the way Dwarves liked to shout—would be… well, loud.

Loud, and full of demands for Thorin to prove this and that. There would be questions. Denials.

No doubt the tombs would be cracked open, and Gandalf had guessed they would be empty—and, as Kíli had said upon that statement, "'Course they are. We're right here, aren't we?" before Fíli had whacked him on the back of the head and argued, "What if there're two of us? It's not like we've got an explanation for anything."

But Bilbo sincerely hoped Kíli was right, which was an unusual turn of events from the normal way of things, but why should there be any bodies? Thorin, Kíli and Fíli were here, at Bilbo's side, and surely a wizard's guess had to count for something? It was only common sense.

But if they weren't, there were another ten headaches to add on the ones Bilbo already expected.

Thorin squeezed his fingers. "You're thinking loudly enough to be heard in your Shire."

"Still time to turn and flee," Fíli added with a grin, and Bilbo pretended he didn't see Kíli nod enthusiastically behind him. Apparently they were all anticipating headaches.

"Nonsense. We're already at our own doorstep. It'd be silly to turn back now," Bilbo said resignedly, and Thorin took that as his cue to straighten his shoulders and step forward toward the narrow path down the cliff.

"Let's go home."

Chapter Text

Bilbo had settled himself in the Courtyard of Kings—which was, in actuality, just the courtyard before the main gate, long since renamed its ludicrous title that Bilbo found more than a touch pretentious.

But he supposed that was his own fault, what with the tree he'd suggested planting there, for all to see and take pleasure in, and to remember.

Nonetheless, it was one of his very favorite places in the entire mountain, this bench beneath the ever growing oak, and he enjoyed sneaking down every once in awhile with his pipe, a good book, and a certain king's favorite fur coat for warmth.

He turned another page of his book of Elvish epics that was older than most Elves these days, and did not smile in the least or acknowledge it in any way as a shadow moved into his light.

"I thought you'd sent that tedious thing back," Thorin said, and Bilbo looked up to catch him staring at Bilbo's book in great distaste.

Thorin was distinctly without any coat or cloak at all, though fall was teetering on the brink of winter and the sun was sinking rapidly to its bed, and Thorin had a good dozen coats in his wardrobe besides. Even Dwarves would not relish the brisk cold blowing through the airy courtyard, and Thorin had to be freezing.

Bilbo could not help his smile then. "Elrond told me to keep these latest until our visit next spring. I'm afraid you're stuck with months of me enjoying my Elvish poetry."

"And stealing my coat," Thorin added with a surly glare Bilbo saw right through.

"You could have taken another. You must have a hundred lying about that cavern you call a closet."

Thorin's eyebrow arched. "Unless something has changed dramatically since breakfast, more than half of that cavern is taken up with your waistcoats."

Bilbo ignored that. "I suppose you're going to stand there sulking at me until I relinquish your coat."

Thorin crossed his arms.

"You'd let me sit here, freezing," Bilbo added, putting on as sad a look as he could manage, which was quite good if he did say so himself. "Your own husband. Whom you claim to love above all else."

Thorin snorted, rolling his eyes at Bilbo's dramatics. "You have your own furs," he pointed out.

Bilbo's feigned pout melted away into a cat-in-the-cream smile. "But if I took mine, you wouldn't come looking." He patted the empty space on the bench before lifting the edge of Thorin's own coat in invitation.

Thorin looked less than impressed, but he slid into place as he always did.

They had, after all, made a ritual of this for more years than Bilbo could number offhand.

"I come in search of you, my burglar, not your ill-gotten gains," Thorin informed him imperiously, but quite ruined the effect as he slid a chilled arm around Bilbo's waist, making Bilbo squeak and elbow him in the ribs.

"You're cold," Bilbo snapped.

"Whose fault is that?" Thorin returned, and pressed a lazy kiss into Bilbo's curls, more white than blond these days, much as Thorin's hair now bore more silver than black. "Come, read some of this terrible Elvish poetry of yours."

Bilbo's lips curled into another pleased smile, and he settled himself a little more firmly into Thorin's side as they sat beneath the oak that had once been an acorn in the palm of Bilbo's hand.