After Bilbo turned a corner only to find himself staring at the same rather distinctive stone bench for the third time, he had to admit he was utterly, irredeemably lost.
It wasn't much of a surprise, really, given that he had more or less just stormed off in a random direction. A foolish thing to do, certainly, when he could only barely be trusted to make his way between Thorin's chambers and his forge, but then he had been provoked into it. He would have certainly made his way to his destination without any trouble or hesitation if it hadn't been for the whispers of some rather unpleasant dwarves drifting into his ears along the way.
Bilbo knew of it, of course, knew of all the murmurs and stares he drew simply by being who he was. It wasn't exactly a secret, however much the members of the Company might have liked to keep it from him. There had been some louder words in the beginning, of course, from dwarves who thought him nothing but an intruder and perhaps an enemy simply for his presence in their hallowed Halls, but all that had quieted down when three generations of Kings Under the Mountain and a crown prince besides had spoken up on his behalf. For all that kings may have been numerous here, all the previous bearers of all the dwarven crowns gathered in one place as they were, the word of those who had led Durin's line in life still carried some weight.
Bilbo had been surprised to find Thrór stepping up to his defense in the end, but he had hidden such feelings as well as he could. Thorin's shock had been vocal enough, and of course Thrór had chosen to act like it was unthinkable for him not to take his grandson's side in the matter, now why would they have ever thought so.
By the time Narvi had chosen to step froward the matter had been all but decided already.
For all that no dwarf was speaking up out loud, though, some were still not content with his presence. Rather than face the gathered kings to make their displeasure known, though, they preferred whispers and murmurs and hateful glances. All of which Bilbo could bear, really, it was hardly anything more malicious than what he had gone through for the dubious honor of being the Mad Baggins of Bag End for so long, but that didn't mean he wished to hear it any more than necessary.
All of which meant that he had turned the wrong corner rather than pass by the gaggle of dwarves who so clearly did not want him anywhere near their home. Which had very quickly led him to where he was now, hopelessly lost somewhere in the seemingly endless tunnels.
He really shouldn't have teased Thorin so much for his lack of direction. His dwarf certainly seemed to have no trouble finding his way around here, making Bilbo wonder if it simply had been the roads above ground that gave Thorin some trouble. Bilbo had never once lost his way in the Shire, after all, or even in Rivendell, yet here he could not tell where he was or whence he had come.
With a sigh, Bilbo finally sat down on the finely carved bench, taking out his pipe. Perhaps if he sat here for a bit, someone might wander by and give him directions. He'd even face the amusement of dwarves at the thought of a little hobbit so horribly lost. It might take a while, though, as these tunnels seemed less populated than those he usually walked along, but surely someone would wander by eventually. No part of the Halls was unoccupied, after all, or so he had been told; they carved more as there was need to do so, and with the inhabitants only ever increasing, no corner was ever left to fall out of use.
Of course, as this appeared to be a day when the world took great pleasure in giving him trouble, he had hardly even lit his pipe as someone sat down next to him.
Bilbo glanced to his side, wondering who might join him in so casual a way. Even the friendly dwarves tended to keep some distance to the strange guest, wary as ever of outsiders. One of the young ones, perhaps, they all seemed less suspicious of him, the ones who had passed before their hearts had hardened quite so much.
To his surprise his companion was an old dwarf, judging by the snow white beard that fell down a firm chest. Almost as tall as Thorin, too, from what Bilbo could tell with them both seated, and broad enough to match his build. The thick arms spoke of a blacksmith, of days filled with hard work and sweat, and indeed around him lingered the smoky smell of a forge that he was rather learning to like in Thorin's hair.
"Let me guess," Bilbo said, kicking a foot as neither of them had spoken for a while. "You're here to tell me I shouldn't be here."
"Now why ever would I do that?" The dwarf's voice was deep, deeper than even most of his folk, and Bilbo almost fancied he could feel the stone bench vibrate in response.
"That seems to be the order of the day," Bilbo murmured, kicking his feet again. It felt silly, as though he were a fauntling again with his toes barely reaching the ground on his mother's better chairs, but the difference of build between a hobbit and a dwarf was just big enough that furniture fit for a dwarf was ever so slightly too big for him. "Let's all tell the hobbit how this is not his place."
"Who are they who would think they have the right to judge that?"
"Quite a few, actually." Bilbo took a puff of his pipe, slowly starting to relax again though still not entirely trusting this stranger. "Anyone who is of the opinion that Mahal wouldn't or shouldn't allow anyone but dwarves to enter the Halls."
The old dwarf gave a sage nod. "And yet you are here," he pointed out. "Clearly either your heart is that of a dwarf, or perhaps the Maker isn't quite as strict as many would like to believe. I'm rather inclined to suspect both at once, if you won't be too offended."
"I gave my heart to a dwarf. Does that count?" An impish answer, perhaps, and one not quite suited to a respectable adult, but then his patience had been lost somewhere by the wayside as he fled from cruel gazes and crueler words.
"From what I heard, you received his in return." And of course the story of his strange romance would have reached even those who had never met either of them in life. "Clearly, then, you are part dwarf, and with every right to be here in the Halls."
"Does that make Thorin part hobbit, then?" The thought was amusing despite his lingering annoyance, of Thorin with beardless round cheeks, or perhaps with little tufts of hair atop his feet.
"Oh, hardly. Anyone who has been made a dwarf will remain a dwarf, however strange their lives and choices." There was a hint of amusement in the stranger's voice, now, not that Bilbo could quite figure out what had brought it about. "Besides, I've been told it's the Maker who gives each dwarf his match. He would hardly then be so cruel as to keep them apart."
"I'm not so sure." He thought of Kíli, and the way his eyes would sometimes drift off to somewhere far beyond the walls of these Halls, of Gimli and his great solemnity in drawing up their contract for traded places. Clearly not all were so fortunate as to find their love beside them, or so trusting in the goodwill of the one who had shaped them.
"All things in due time, little hobbit. And there is little else in these halls but time."
"A painful time it is, too, for someone lonely even among kin."
"And yet time can tear down any wall. Who knows? Perhaps the day will come when these Halls open up to the fields of elves."
"I did not speak anything of elves." It was not his secret to reveal. "And I doubt many would still take the opportunity."
"Aye, that is true. Yet I think there would be those willing to travel, once in a while, if only to return here in the end." The dwarf chose to ignore his other comment, staying quiet for a while. "I took a wife, myself, once."
"Oh?" Bilbo took on his best polite expression, the one of listening to people go on about things that didn't hold any personal interest to him yet would have been quite inappropriate to ignore. "And is she here with you?" Now, where else would she have been?
"Sometimes, aye. Not as much as I might hope." And that was not an answer he would have expected. "You remind me of her, little hobbit, you of the green fields and the gentle sun. Though perhaps it should be your cunning that reminds me of her." There was a chuckle, a sound both deep and light at the same time. "A contract, Mister Baggins? To trade for a place that was always yours? I'm not even sure if that was worthy of the most devious dwarf or too foolish for words indeed."
That made something cold settle down in Bilbo's stomach. "What do you mean?" He had been so sure that his being here meant the scheme had succeeded. That Gimli would then have his own happiness as the other end of the bargain.
If that was not true at all…
"Oh, don't fret, you little thing. I only mean what I said before; if you have the heart of a dwarf in your possession, clearly none could deny your right to be here. And I do approve of tenacity, in whatever form it comes, even if it would make a perfectly respectable lad try and trade away his one birthright for the love of an immortal." Bilbo remained frozen even as he heard his companion stand, felt more than saw the tall form stretching over him, somehow even taller than he should have been from the figure Bilbo had seen seated beside him. "And I still do not believe two halves of a whole could be parted for as long as you seem to fear."
A hand touched his hair, pushing it behind his ear. There was something so intimate about the gesture that he should have been offended, really, yet all he could think of was a kindly grandfather patting a beloved child on the head. It made him feel warm, in some inexplicable manner, and he ducked down his head to hide his slight embarrassment.
When he looked up, the old dwarf was gone, without a hint of him anywhere on either side of the corridor.
Bilbo sat still for a moment, not even bothering with his pipe. Something was nagging at him, something about the dwarf's words tugged at his mind, waiting for him to get over his shock and confusion enough to see whatever it was that was the matter.
When it did break through it left him reeling in his wake, almost gasping for breath in the face of the improbable truth.
The dwarf had spoken of his name like a friend, had mentioned the contract. While his name might have carried on through the whispers, he was certain nobody beyond the Company and Thorin's closest family had any knowledge of the contract he had signed.
He was still sitting there as the voices approached, familiar ones right behind the corner. Fíli and Kíli burst out into the corridor the next moment, Thorin right behind them.
"Bilbo!" Kíli drew Bilbo into a hug, and it wasn't until then that Bilbo realized his pipe had burned out at some point. "You worried us! Uncle went home to eat and grandmother said you'd gone to see him hours ago!"
"Ah, yes, I got a bit lost and thought I'd just sit down and wait for you to find me." Bilbo blinked up at Thorin as Kíli let him go. "Wait, hours? I've been gone that long?" He had been walking for a time, but surely it had not been that long.
Thorin frowned. "Aye. Were you not aware? It's almost time for supper, and mother said you had left before luncheon."
"No. No, I was not." Almost supper? Certainly his stomach should have noticed, if not his mind! "Am I very far from your forge, then?"
Fíli frowned. "Not three corners from there. How long have you been sitting here, exactly? I know I came past here not half an hour ago, and you weren't here then."
"Now, that can't be right. I've been here a good while, surely you must have seen me." At least he had been if one were to judge by his now cooled pipe. Bilbo was about to say something else, but Thorin stepped forward, then, a hand reaching to touch something behind his ear.
"Bilbo." Thorin frowned, something thunderous in his expression. "Where did this come from?"
Bilbo blinked in surprise, then did so again as he realized Thorin was drawing forth a small braid, topped with a bead. It wasn't that he had never worn such a thing before, he knew Thorin's courtship braid was safe and secure on the other side of his head, but this wasn't one he could recall anyone putting there. "I really couldn't tell you. I've never seen that bead before in my life."
"And you wouldn't have." Thorin's expression softened as he examined the bead more closely, though there was still something strange in his eyes. "Bilbo. Did you by any chance meet someone while waiting for us?"
"Well, there was this old dwarf who sat by me a while. I don't think he ever gave me his name." Bilbo frowned. "I think there was something strange about him, though I couldn't quite put my finger on it." He recalled the touch to his ear, though, the fingertips that had lingered in his hair for just a moment, precisely where the braid now was.
"I'd imagine so." Fíli was now by his uncle's side, staring at the bead with an almost reverent expression. "Bilbo, do you know what this rune means?"
Bilbo peered at the small mark etched into the bead, the sole decoration on the smooth surface. "I'm afraid not," he had to admit. "I've been working on my reading of the runes, but that one I'm not familiar with."
"And you wouldn't be," Thorin said, his voice now soft as he looked at Bilbo with that strange look in his eyes. "Bilbo, that is the seal of Mahal himself."
And, really, after going such a long time without meals, surely nobody was going to blame Bilbo if he just so happened to faint for a bit.