(after the dragon, and the madness; after the Arkenstone and the battle and sharp blades on cold ice; after Fíli's fall and Kíli haunted eyes, blood on Bilbo's face and beneath his tongue and 'forgive me' and 'I'm so sorry' and 'plant your trees, watch them grow'--)
--after. Everything is fine.
The bodies of the dead are burnt, those of the wounded tended to. Thranduil and his army leave. Bard and the Laketown Men shore up the ruins of Dale and settle in for a long winter. In the mountain, Dáin sends to the Iron Hills for supplies and beds down the remains of his army in makeshift barracks.
("If ye think I'm leavin' yer bloody arse unguarded, cousin, ye must've hit yer head harder than we thought. Might as well hang a sign out front, 'Welcome to Erebor, Don't Mind Us, Please, Help Yerselves'!"
Thorin, thin and pale beneath his bandages, had nodded. "Thank you, Dáin.")
Time passes. Wounds heal. Fíli relearns to walk with the aid of a crutch. Kíli smiles again, though his eyes still turn dark and distant towards the south. The rest of the Company, Bilbo's mad wonderful unlooked-for family, lick their wounds and carry on. Dwarves it seems are a resilient lot.
Thorin rises from his bed when Oín allows it. He holds meetings with Balin and Dáin, accepts reports on the condition of the mountain, trades ravens with his sister in Ered Luin. He eats well during mealtimes in the communal hall. When Balin suggests they end for the day, he retires to his rooms without complaint. He is in every way the picture of a diligent new-crowned King.
Thorin is calm, reasonable, respectful. He laughs with the Company, trades friendly barbs with his cousin, smiles, soft and fond, at his nephews. He is unfailingly polite to Bilbo.
He is fine.
"Was he like this before?"
Bilbo doesn't know which 'before' he means. Before, with the dragon; before, after Azanulbizar; before, in Ered Luin. Before, every other time Thorin has been called upon to act a part at the expense of himself.
Beside him, Dwalin is silent. They are standing together to the side of the dining hall. At the long tables, Bofur is holding court, recounting some ridiculous tale of their journey for the Iron Hill dwarves.
"Yes." Dwalin says at last. He doesn't ask what Bilbo means. Bilbo has seen him watching Thorin. Balin too. Even Fíli, who seems to have aged a century in the last year, looks at his uncle with worried eyes. "Never this bad though."
Bilbo watches Thorin watching the others. He is seated at the head of the hall, the King's place, but close enough to his kin to easily pass a dish. A half-smile rests on his face as Bofur pulls Nori and Glóin into his reenactment.
Bilbo doesn't know what Dwalin or Balin or Fíli have said. He doesn't know what he himself might say, should he and Thorin ever have an actual conversation again instead of the strangely formal trading of pleasantries they seem to have fallen into. Bilbo doesn't know how to make things right when it seems like "right" itself is part of the problem.
Dwalin sighs. "You don't have to fix him, lad. 's not your job."
Bilbo remembers the hill. He remembers Thorin's apologies. He sometimes wonders (suspects) if it wasn't just the forgiveness of a hobbit that had prompted the relief, that smile, that look of peace.
Bilbo wonders if Thorin wishes things had gone different. A glorious death to make glorious songs, and no more burdens to bear.
(He thinks of Thorin, gasping and dying and the happiest he'd ever seen. Feels something dark and bitter rise in the back of his throat.)
But whatever Thorin may have wished, things hadn't ended there. He and Bilbo came down from the hill together. And now Erebor needs her King, his nephews their uncle, the Company their leader. The world it seems needs Thorin to be fine. So he is.
It makes Bilbo want to scream.
Of course it's not his job. Bilbo is aware of that, thank you very much. Technically he doesn't even HAVE a job any longer. The quest is over, his burglaring done. Bilbo's presence now is that of a free hobbit, a guest, if a beloved and rather uncomfortably rich one.
(He'd argued, after the battle, that he didn't need or want his bloody fourteenth share. How was he meant to bring it back to the Shire, by oliphaunt? Balin had asked mild as milk if that meant he'd be keeping the Arkenstone then. Bilbo complained about it later to Thorin while he lay insensate from fever and drugs.
When he awoke, Thorin had ordered the Arkenstone buried with the dead in the lower crypts. So that was one problem taken care of, at least.)
So no, Bilbo doesn't owe Thorin anything. Their relationship, as far as contracts and obligations are concerned, is through. Bilbo can return to the Shire whenever he likes, with honor, gold, and the blessings of a grateful kingdom.
He can do that. He SHOULD do that. It would be the reasonable, right, FINE thing to do.
Bilbo doesn't dream of the creature Gollum. He doesn't dream of caves or trolls or spider-filled forests, or even of stone against his back and Thorin's hands fisted in his shirt.
When Bilbo closes his eyes at night, there is ice beneath his knees and eagles above and everything is cold, cold, cold.
Erebor is a labyrinth at best but at least its current inhabitants all sleep close together. No sense spreading out when there's only two hundred-odd souls in the first place. Bilbo finds his way to Thorin's temporary set-aside quarters easily enough.
It's late, well past mid-watch, but Thorin opens his door on the first knock.
"Hello. I've been wanting to explore some rooms Ori told me about on the fourth level. Would you like to come?"
Bilbo's first impressions of Erebor the Lost Kingdom had not been kind. Dragons and madness aside, the mountain itself had seemed...dead. A grand and empty tomb, filled with treasures but devoid of life. The fossilized skeleton of a bygone age.
Now in the depths of winter the mountain is dark and cold. There are days Bilbo thinks he'd rather freeze in a snowdrift or take his chances with the Men in Dale than remain buried here. If this is the natural home of dwarves then many things now make sense. One NEEDS a certain level of bullheaded obstinacy to avoid losing oneself Below.
However, those days are not the only days. Bilbo's time now is split between helping Bombur turn army dreck into edible food and assisting the others with the Great Cleaning. There are bones to be buried, old furnishings to be cleared, a hundred years worth of dust to be swept out as much as possible. The work is far from pleasant, but it's given Bilbo the chance to see more of Erebor. And in a better frame of mind.
Now, on good days, Bilbo looks at the stone and empty halls and imagines the mountain merely sleeping. A long-abandoned mother waiting patiently for her children to return.
They have been wandering for hours. It's either incredibly late or incredibly early. This is neither reasonable nor right nor fine. Bilbo is half-convinced they are going to be lost forever, left to molder in some small forgotten storeroom.
("I assure you, Master Baggins, I know my way about." Thorin had told him an hour ago.
"Oh, well then. Now I definitely know we're going to die." Bilbo said. Thorin's answering chuckle had been quiet, pained, and real.)
They've made their way from the fourth level to the fifth and are now walking through what seems to have been a marketplace. Every now and then Thorin reaches out to trail his fingers along the walls. Sometimes he stops to pick something up, or stands for long minutes and watches the lantern-light play over the stone.
Bilbo knows now what it means to miss home. He thinks of the Shire often, thinks of fields and trees and the smell of Bag End, warm wood and familiar books. He would cheerfully trade his entire new-found wealth for a bite of good Westfarthing cheese. He even longs to see his neighbors again, nosy bothersome lot that they are.
Bilbo knows what it means to love a place. But he has never seen anyone love something the way Thorin loves this mountain.
One day when Bilbo writes his memoirs he will describe flying like this: "It is the most glorious and terrible feeling. On the back of a Great Eagle you think you might to anywhere. But you never forget that there are dark lands open wide underneath, and nothing to save you if you fall."
He will not mention the second time he felt that--felt the ground give way and a dark void open beneath his feet. The second time was not so kind as the first. For one thing, there were no great wings to bear him up. Just the rattling breaths of a dying dwarf and a fierce and desperate denial.
For another, the second time lasted far longer. It lasted through the interminable (daysweeksminutesage) on the hill, and the chaotic hours that followed. It lasted through the next few days, when all that could be done had and Thorin still lay as quiet as a corpse.
It lasted through the following weeks, when Bilbo found himself at Thorin's bedside as regularly as clockwork. It was pointless, and silly, and Bilbo had been entirely unable to stop. Everyone else was so understanding that he'd hated them a little too.
Solid ground did not return until sixteen days after the battle, and by then it was too late. The shape of the world itself had changed.
In the end, Thorin's sense of direction does prove better beneath stone than above it. They return to the inhabited halls just before the break of day. That afternoon, there are bags beneath Thorin's eyes and Bilbo nearly falls asleep in his soup. The entire Company Doesn't Ask so loudly they might as well be shouting.
Bilbo feels better than he has in months.
Two days later, Thorin looks up from a report just in time to catch Bilbo's eye. He holds the gaze for a long moment before dropping his chin and looking away.
Bilbo thinks of the Shire. He thinks of home, of journeys and family, of the things you lose and the things you leave behind. He thinks of pain and joy and quiet terror, and of stubborn broken kings who bleed quietly on the inside.
Something that might be resentment or might be exasperation or might be boundless, terrifying affection settles warm within his chest. Bilbo looks at Thorin and thinks 'You are never going to be easy, are you?'
(Thinks 'Yes.' Thinks 'Mine.')
After the battle, things are not fine. But they will be.