‘No, don’t you dare, Thorin! Get back into bed instantly!’ Bilbo shut the door behind him, looking like thunder.
Thorin looked up from where he was leaned over the desk in his bedroom. He held his body stiffly and even from the distance to the door, Bilbo could see sweat beading on his forehead.
‘I have been in bed. I’ve spent the entire morning in bed. I’ve spent weeks in bed. I’ve spent enough time in bed to last me for the rest of my life,’ he said, sounding to Bilbo like a particularly petulant dwarfling.
Bilbo walked quickly through the room, stopping next to Thorin and pressing a soft hand against his side, feeling for any seeping blood or breakage. He breathed deeply again when there was nothing to be found.
He kept his hand there, absentmindedly brushing over Thorin’s middle, feeling the muscles tense at his touch. Looking up at Thorin, ready to lecture him some more, Bilbo stopped when he met his gaze. Thorin seemed to be holding his breath, his eyes flickering between Bilbo’s face and his hand.
Bilbo dropped his hand and stepped back.
It had been like this between them for while. Something had been released that day on the ice when Bilbo thought he had lost Thorin forever, when they had urgently spoken those words of truncated farewells to each other. And still something unsaid lingered between them, like a dam had been burst and now they didn’t know what to do with all this water.
‘You have stone dust in your hair,’ Thorin murmured, settling his gaze on Bilbo’s curls.
Bilbo ducked his head and flicked his hand over it, trying to dislodge the dust. ‘The restoration of Erebor has reached the library. Ori and I have ensconced ourselves in the far corner with most of the salvageable texts, both those in Khuzdul and Westron, but the dust still flies through the air.’
‘How goes the work?’ Thorin turned towards his bed, walking slowly so as to jolt his body as little as possible.
Bilbo followed, holding out his hands in case of a fall. ‘With Erebor? Or the library?’
Thorin sat down on the bed with a grunt. ‘Both. Either. Just talk to me so my mind doesn’t collapse from this forced idleness.’ He lifted one leg, then the other, straightening them carefully as he leaned back against the large pillows bunched up at the head of the bed. He released a long breath as he relaxed.
Bilbo pulled up his usual chair and sat down. ‘Well, everyone is busy, of course—’
‘Lucky devils,’ Thorin muttered under his breath.
‘And the restoration is coming along steadily,’ Bilbo continued, ignoring Thorin’s grumblings. ‘Balin told me today that he has sent out ravens to both the Iron Hills and the Blue Mountains, asking for more builders and anyone else who wants to settle in the new kingdom of Erebor.’
‘Does he really think any will come? A kingdom with a useless king can’t hold much attraction to any self-respecting dwarf or dwarrowdam.’
Bilbo leaned forward. ‘You’re not useless, Thorin,’ he said, ‘but you’re still wounded. It’s a wonder than you survived Azog’s blade at all. We don’t want to lose you to a sickness of the blood. Speaking of which; has Óin been to see you today?’
‘If you mean, has he come by to poke and prod while asking tedious questions, then yes: he’s been to see me. That’s all anyone gives me these days, a lot of irritating probing and prodding. ’ If Thorin could have crossed his arms, he would. Everything about him seemed surly and closed off.
Bilbo’s lips thinned. ‘Right. It seems these visits are more of an annoyance than a pleasure to you.’ He stood up, the chair scraping against the bare stone floor. ‘I’ll leave you alone.’
He turned towards the door.
Bilbo ignored Thorin’s voice, walking steadily. He knew he was being unfair, he knew that Thorin found his recuperation tiresome, but in that moment he also felt hurt. He was trying to reach out, to make something more of what had happened between them. But it seemed that Thorin was not interested in anything but moaning about the slow healing of his wound.
He opened the door, ignoring Thorin’s plaintive ‘Bilbo…’ as he shut it behind him.
As much as the restoration of Erebor took up much of its inhabitants’ time, the reconstruction of Dale was equally important. Distrust still lingered between the men of Lake-town and the dwarves, leaving Bilbo to try to do as much as he could to help in the diplomatic contact with Bard and his people. And so it had been decided that he would accompany a group of builders from Erebor and stay with them in Dale as a buffer between them and the men until the first prejudices had faded away.
Balin was writing a missive to Dale, informing them of this fact, when he stopped to look up at Bilbo. ‘Does Thorin seem different to you?’
Bilbo glanced up from reading the letter from the Thain of the Shire, agreeing to send supplies to Erebor as soon as possible. ‘Different?’ he said with an affected nonchalance. It had been three days since Bilbo had left Thorin’s bedroom, and by now he longed for any news of him.
‘More morose, less talkative. When I visited him last night, he barely moved beyond one-word answers.’
‘That doesn’t sound different to me,’ Bilbo said bitterly. ‘He seems to want to be left alone with his misery.’
Balin hummed. ‘But it’s gotten worse during the last couple of days. I think he needs something to do, something to keep him occupied.’
‘Óin says that he’s not to leave his bed yet,’ Bilbo said quickly.
‘I know, I know.’ Balin waved an impatient hand. ‘But I think I have an idea.’ He put aside the letter he was writing and picked up another piece of parchment. ‘One of our hunters was walking by Ravenhill a couple of weeks ago when he came across a raven chick sitting on the ground, no sign of a nest or its parents anywhere nearby.’
‘Oh, poor thing.’ Bilbo’s brow knitted in sympathy.
‘The hunter has been feeding it by hand and keeping it warm ever since, but it’s reached the age when it’s supposed to start learning languages.’
‘Surely, they learn like children do. By imitating others? Are there no ravens who will adopt and teach the little thing?’
‘The ravens of Ravenhill are working hard for the restoration,’ Balin said. ‘No sooner do they return with messages from abroad than they have to fly out again, asking for aid and assistance from all over Middle-earth.’
‘Then the hunter perhaps?’
‘He’s a simple dwarf who’s only ever needed to use everyday Khuzdul. If this chick is to become a Ravenhill messenger, then it should at least learn how to speak Khuzdul like a trained diplomat. And Westron will also be expected of a messenger from Erebor.’
Bilbo nodded, understanding Balin’s idea. ‘It would give Thorin something to do and focus on without straining his body.’
Balin put down the parchment and returned to composing his letter. ‘Will you propose the idea to him, then?’
‘I think he will be more amenable to it if it came from you.’
Bilbo scoffed. ‘I doubt it. He finds my visits and my attempts at conversation irritating.
Balin looked up from his letter and frowned. ‘That doesn’t sound like Thorin.’ He shook his head. ‘But I will ask him if you think it better.’
‘I do,’ Bilbo said and returned to reading his own letter.
Bilbo slowed his steps outside Thorin’s bedroom, listening for any sign of life. He was leaving for Dale today and had to be gone for at least a week, more likely two. If he could just have a morsel of Thorin before he left…
He knew that Balin was planning on taking the bird to Thorin today, hoping that the sight of the little fellow would soften his heart to the idea. Bilbo had seen it earlier. Its body was squat and chubby, lacking both the long neck and wings that made up the noble bearing of its elders. But thankfully, it had grown a full coat of feathers by now. The tiniest hatchlings always looked more like lizards than birds to Bilbo with their papery skin and gaping maws. Its beak and its feet were still pinkish though, and its eyes were a clear blue, almost close to Thorin’s in colour. It preferred hopping to flying but had started to utilise its wings and were now clearing more and more distance in its hops. And whenever you spoke, it would tilt its head to the side, almost as if it understood what you were saying and were trying to memorise the words. All in all, it was a very charming little raven.
‘I’m not playing nursemaid to a bloody bird!’
Thorin’s voice was loud through the closed door, making Bilbo startle with a guilty jerk of his body. Low murmurings followed, probably Balin trying to be diplomatic and reasonable to his king.
Bilbo restrained himself from putting his ear to the door. It had been a week now since he had last seen Thorin, but the sting of their last conversation still burned Bilbo enough to keep away.
Forcing himself to turn back, Bilbo walked down the hallway but he only managed a handful of steps before the door to Thorin’s room opened.
‘Ah, Bilbo,’ Balin said, closing the door behind him. ‘Well, it didn’t go terribly well.’
‘Yes, I…heard,’ Bilbo said, not quite knowing how much he should admit to eavesdropping.
Balin twirled one of the ends of his long, white beard between two fingers, still deep in thought. ‘At least I managed to convince him to look after it until the hunter returns from scouting near the Long Lake. Maybe that will be a good start to its learning of languages.’
Bilbo nodded, his gaze fastened on the shut door behind Balin. ‘How is he? Thorin, I mean.’
Balin sighed. ‘Much the same.’ He started to walk away, leaving Bilbo no choice but to follow him. ‘And I’m starting to doubt that even this business with the raven will bring him out of his low mood.’ He shook his head before looking over at Bilbo ‘You’re going to Dale today, am I right?’
Bilbo gave a solitary nod.
‘Well, maybe he’ll be better when you return.’
Bilbo glanced at Thorin’s door disappearing down the hallway behind them. He hoped so, he really did.
Two weeks later, Bilbo trudged back to the mountain, his muscles aching with tension. Dale had been an uphill struggle with trying to make the needed work flow as easily as possible, and Bilbo was looking forward to returning to the quietness of his own room in Erebor.
Most of the builders had stayed behind in Dale, but a small group was returning alongside Bilbo. They chatted amiably as they walked in a loose group towards the main entrance of Erebor.
He thought about Thorin as he walked. Actually, a day had rarely passed over the last couple of weeks without Bilbo thinking about Thorin. Often had he shook his head at his own ridiculous, sensitive feelings which had kept them apart for more than necessary. One of the first things he would do when he returned was to seek out Thorin’s room and hope that he didn’t still bear a grudge for Bilbo’s foolishness.
‘Yes?’ Bilbo looked over his shoulder at the builders, putting on a smile for whoever had called his name. But none of them was giving him in any attention at all.
He looked back towards the mountain where a group of guards were posted outside, looking straight forward like stone sentinels. Bilbo frowned. Strange.
There it was again, the sound being carried from some place. He looked up, seeing if there was someone further up the mountain calling down to him. But there was no one.
Shaking off the odd event and making himself think that he imagined it, Bilbo kept up with the group as they entered Erebor.
It happened again as he was walking towards his room. A faint echo of ‘Bilbo. Bilbo.’ flowed down the empty hallway, the chilly wind inside the mountain carrying it away as soon as it had reached him.
Bilbo’s eyes narrowed as he turned towards the hallway. If he had a habit of believing in ghosts, he might think that Erebor was haunted. But how the spirits of long-gone dwarves would know his rather hobbitish name was a mystery beyond him.
He waited for a while with his hand on the door handle, his ears twitching under his curls for the slightest of sounds. But when none came, he shook his head before opening and closing the door behind him. He only wanted to quickly deposit his coat and his pack before seeking out Thorin after almost a month’s absence.
‘Thorin?’ The door creaked as Bilbo pushed it open.
When Thorin saw him, he sat straighter, smoothing his hands over the sheets covering his legs. ‘Come in. Please.’
Bilbo closed the door behind him and hovered in the space between it and Thorin’s bed, not knowing yet how easy this meeting would be.
He cleared his throat. ‘How- how are you feeling?’
Thorin’s hand fiddled with the corner of a sheet, running it rhythmically between two fingers over and over again. ‘Better.’ He glanced up at Bilbo. ‘Óin says that the bandages might be able to come off tomorrow.’ The sentence sounded smoothly rehearsed as if Thorin had used the same line to every visitor today.
‘That’s good.’ Bilbo nodded a bit too quickly. ‘Very good.’
It was silent for a moment. Bilbo shifted from one foot to the other, feeling how the cold stone heated up beneath him.
Thorin turned slightly where he sat. ‘How was Dale?’ His tone was carefully light.
‘Still in ruins.’ Bilbo took a step closer to the bed. ‘But the builders were sure they could put together some temporary shelter until the town is rebuilt.’
Thorin hummed and looked down at his hands again.
Bilbo bit his lower lip, pondering on whether he should step closer to the bed or the door. ‘I--’
‘I apologise for the last time we met!’ The words burst out of Thorin, the suddenness jolting Bilbo where he stood. ‘I didn’t mean to call you irritating. You’re the least irritating creature alive, you must know that. And I’ve loved all your visits, and I’ve missed them while you were away, and please, please forgive me for my peevishness.’ His eyes were wide as he stared at Bilbo.
Bilbo let loose a breath he didn’t know he had been holding. ‘Only if you’ll forgive me for my overreaction to your justified frustrations.’ He took three quick steps until he was standing next to Thorin’s bed. He smiled fondly down at him. ‘It seems we were both being foolish.’
‘A couple of evenly matched fools,’ Thorin murmured, grinning up at Bilbo. ‘You’ll have to keep visiting me, then. We can’t inflict our blatant idiocy on others and will have to keep it between ourselves where it will do no real harm.’
Bilbo laughed then, his first real laugh for a long time. He turned to the closest chair, reaching down to pick up what looked like a pile of blankets from the seat so that he could sit down.
Bilbo stuttered into stillness, his hands hovering over the chair. Was he not welcome to stay after all?
‘Get a chair from the table.’ Thorin gestured. ‘Or you’ll wake up Kark.’
‘Kark?’ Bilbo dragged another chair closer, its heavy legs skidding across the floor as he went.
‘The raven I’ve been taking care of.’ Thorin shuffled slightly to the side of the bed and pulled back the nest of blankets to reveal a small, black bird with its head tucked into its breast in a heavy sleep. ‘It just had its first real flight today and it’s exhausted. It needs its sleep.’
Bilbo sat down and studied Thorin as he carefully arranged the nest around the raven, his large hands dwarfing the small bird. There was a softness in his expression that Bilbo had rarely seen, something that Thorin had taken pains to hide when he had acted as the leader of their company. But Bilbo remembered the nights during the quest when the two of them had huddled together for warmth and companionship. When Thorin’s brow had relaxed and his shoulders had dropped as he talked to Bilbo about his family, about Fíli and Kíli and his hopes for a restored Erebor.
Those long nights when they had talked softly about their pasts and their future; those were the nights that Bilbo remembered most fondly. And seeing Thorin now brought back a clench of fondness within Bilbo’s chest.
‘I’ll be careful not to wake…Kark?’
‘Yes.’ Thorin tucked the blankets close to the bird. ‘It means raven in Khuzdul.’
Bilbo hummed, noticing how Thorin fussed over the small bird. ‘The hunter’s not back, then, from his scouting trip?’ Bilbo raised one eyebrow, remembering the loudness of Thorin’s protestations from a fortnight ago.
‘Hm?’ Thorin looked up from the nest. ‘Oh, I don’t know about that. But it’s not much trouble, having Kark in my room.’ He shifted back on the bed and leaned against the piled-up pillows. ‘And everyone’s so busy at the moment, so it’s only fair that I do my bit. For the restoration,’ he finished with a firm nod.
Bilbo’s lips almost trembled with the strain of holding back his pleased grin. ‘For the restoration,’ he affirmed.
He tilted his head, trying to get a good look at the raven. It had almost doubled in size since he saw it last, though it still lacked the lean stature of a fully grown bird, and its beak and claws were finally turning a more dignified black.
‘How’s the language teaching going?’ He leaned back in his chair, relaxing into a prolonged stay.
Thorin shrugged. ‘Well, I think. Though it’s not as much teaching as constantly vocalizing all of my thoughts aloud for the benefit of Kark.’
‘In both Westron and Khuzdul?’
‘Westron in the morning, Khuzdul in the afternoon. I need the soft sounds of Westron to warm up my tongue for the forceful Khuzdul.’
‘And your throat, unless you want to sound like a dog coughing up a chicken bone! Always a danger with Khuzdul, I find,’ Bilbo said with a teasing smile.
Thorin rolled his eyes at this insolent hobbit. ‘I’ll have you know, Bilbo, that--’
Both of them stilled, their eyes following the sound to the small nest on the chair. The top of a black, rounded head was sticking out and reddish-black beak pushed the blankets away. ‘Bilbo. Bilbo.’ Kark made a small jump until it was sitting on the edge of the folded-up fabric, its head moving in jerky movements as it looked from Bilbo to Thorin. ‘Bilbo. Bilbo.’
Thorin was the first to speak. ‘Oh, Mahal…’ He covered his face with one hand.
Bilbo frowned. ‘Thorin…?’
‘Yes?’ Thorin’s voice was muffled and even his large hand couldn’t hide his reddening cheeks.
‘Why does it keep saying--’
‘Yes, that.’ Bilbo swallowed as he watched the bird make a flying leap from the chair to sit on Thorin’s middle. ‘Why does it keep saying my name?’
‘Bilbo. Bilbo.’ Kark jumped closer to Thorin’s face, arching into the broad finger that ran down its back.
‘Well…’ Thorin dropped his hand and cleared his throat. ‘Bilbo’s the same in Westron or Khuzdul--’
‘So, I suppose,’ Thorin continued, ‘that it’s hearing that word twice as much as any other word.’ His eyes were fastened on the small bird, his cheeks still red as he avoided Bilbo’s gaze.
Bilbo looked down at his own hands, his barely controlled smile finally breaking free. ‘More than any other word?’
Thorin dared to look up, meeting Bilbo’s eyes with a mute request to understand. ‘Just about.’
Bilbo nodded, getting a very clear impression of the content of Thorin’s conversation with Kark for the last couple of weeks.
He made a decision then, pushing away from his chair to get closer. ‘I think Kark is a very, very clever bird,’ he said, pressing one hand against Thorin’s pillows as he leaned over him.
Thorin breathed out in surprise as he gazed up at Bilbo. ‘Really?’ A careful smile soon matched Bilbo’s.
Bilbo hummed, leaning closer still until his face was level with Thorin’s. His eyes flickered between those blue eyes and that soft mouth. ‘Really.’
And he leaned in completely, ignoring the incessant squawk of ‘Bilbo. Bilbo.’ next to his ear as he and Thorin shared something which required no words at all.