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Pain-Bearer

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Sunlight, bright in his eyes. Blue skies that stretched forever, clouds drifting softly, curling into shapes of animals and letters that Bilbo called out with glee. Soft laughter behind him, and Bilbo turned, beaming.

Long curls obscured the sun, such a deep blonde that they were almost russet. Blue eyes twinkled at him, and Bilbo laughed when he saw the love in that smile, the sweet smile that greeted him every morning and kissed him to sleep every night. This person was the light of his life, his favorite person in the world -- was his entire world.

Happiness. Utter bliss. Blue eyes, such a deep color, like the river -- they smiled down at him, and lithe fingers reached up to pinch his cheek. He raised his arms, and he was lifted and twirled. He shrieked with laughter, and warm arms embraced him, held him close. He never wanted for anything, not when he was with her.

Mama.

She set him down and took his hand, walking with him across green fields, brilliant with clover and tall grasses that gleamed. He grasped handfuls of yellow flowers and tucked them into her skirts, giggling when she nudged him under his chin. On the edge of their forever, the greens slowly changed to gold, the yellow flowers to white and purple, but Bilbo never noticed, as he danced around his mother and sang with her, and she laughed and cried and held his hands.

Then she stopped walking, and Bilbo looked back. She stood at the edge of green hills, yellow flowers in her hair, and she smiled at him, so wide and happy, but her cheeks were wet. He opened his mouth to ask why -- but she shook her head, and pointed past him. He turned; golden fields with white flowers, waving gently at him, beckoning.

A new place. A new place to explore, to have new adventures, to find new things, to meet new people. He turned back to take her hand -- they should go together -- but she was gone.

"Mama?"

She did not answer.

"Mama? Mama!" He ran and ran, but she was nowhere to be found. Soon the green hills were gone too, and all Bilbo had left was the expanse of unknown. He did not know what to do.

The wind brushed his hair, and he looked back to the expanse of golden fields, unsure. There was no other choice, though, so he turned and began to walk forward, into the bright unknown.

~

"Mama..."

He was dimly aware of someone brushing his curls back, of a low humming close to his ear. He turned his head into the soft fur, cheeks brushing dampness. Someone pulled something heavy and soft over him -- so soft, so unlike the matted furs and dingy cushion he always slept on. Bilbo sighed in his throat, relaxing into the gentle warmth, and knew no more.

~

Warmth. Softness. The smells of stone, fire... grass? Nothing like his cushion. Must be a dream, a quite lovely one... Bilbo sighed and pressed closer to the dream-pillow, indulging in the illusion for a bit longer. Soon he would wake, and likely his master would be irritated over one thing or another, and Bilbo would have to pacify him, lest Azog lose his temper and --

But Azog is dead.

His eyes flew open. He was not lying on his cushion, but on a clean mat stuffed with sweet-smelling grasses, a soft fur pelt acting as his pillow, while a thick woven blanket covered him. He was not in Azog's room, but in a tent filled with maps and scrolls and another bed, larger and messy, but very empty. When his wide-eyed gaze landed on the axe leaning against the wall, Bilbo remembered.

Thorin. Battle. His sword. His master's jealousy, rage. Fury, gone in an instant, faded like the last ember, in a face he had hated every night for seven years. A relief so deep that it shook him, a grief so strong he wept. His master, dead.

He was alive. The Hobbits had been taken away to their freedom. He was a guest in the Dwarf King's tent, free... and Azog was dead.

He stared at the axe for a time, remembering the battle and the terrifying moments trapped in Azog's grasp, those heady thoughts of he can't die and in the confusion, in the rush of please no, he knew not whether he meant Azog or Thorin. But Thorin was not the one who had died yesterday.

Nûl-lûpûrz.

How could he have even thought of wanting Azog to live? Was he that twisted? Maybe it was better he was separated from the rest, maybe he had become a monster and had not noticed, he had spoken the language of evil yesterday, after all, so easily -- maybe Thorin kept him not as a guest, but as a prisoner, because he might snap and hurt someone as easily as he had killed Azog --

No, a part of his mind whispered. You are not evil. You still hold good in your soul.

He clung to that thought, not wanting to believe in the alternative. He was not evil. He was not a bad person. Right? But it was true, and Bilbo understood this well, that Azog had been a fixed point in his life for the past seven years, and he had come to rely on Azog's mercy for survival. Azog had held his life in his pale hands, and nothing had hurt Bilbo, save Azog himself... and yet, Bilbo had survived. For relying on Azog, for trusting in his master -- did that make him a bad person?

Yet his actions had protected the Hobbits; they had been punished less, had not been raped, had not been murdered ruthlessly. In the darkness of Moria, it had made sense to give himself to Azog in exchange for their safety, but now, surrounded by normal people with normal values, Bilbo wondered if he was a monster after all.

His chest was hurting. Bilbo reached up to rub at it and remembered Azog pressing him against the smoldering door, but beneath the pain in his skin, he felt an odd tightness in his chest. It felt like all of the past three days had been a dream. Maybe it was -- maybe he would wake up and he would be back in that room, maybe hitting his head so badly had caused this delusion, this intense hallucination, and suddenly he hoped please don't let this be a dream, but if he waited, if he hoped too hard, it would all fade away and he would wake up crying again and no, he would not be able to handle it if this was a dream.

Bilbo reached down to his knee and pinched himself so hard that when he let go, stunned at the pain, he realized he had made himself bleed. This was no dream -- right? This was reality, and Bilbo did not know whether to laugh or cry.

He curled up and hid his face in the soft fur of his bed for several moments, his shoulders shaking slightly, the pain which had taken such a harsh toll on his soul slowly seeping away, the balm of freedom, of fierce relief, soothing his heart. When he lifted his head, he realized that his eyes were dry, but he felt raw, twisted -- he had been through too much.

All of his doubts and worries, the pains of living as an Orc's slave, the exhaustion -- it had been wearing on Bilbo for so long that to be free of it felt far too strange. He could not simply forget, could not pretend that it had not happened, but he wanted to, so badly. He wanted to fall asleep and wake up seven years ago, still an innocent young Hobbit who may not have known what he wanted out of life, but he had been happy, happy to spend forever in his little world, of his books and garden and father and mother.

Mother.

Just thinking of Belladonna Baggins sent a shiver through Bilbo. Had she been in his dreams again? His sweet mam, his beloved mama, his dear mother -- the name changed over the years, but what she was to him -- his love, his world, his light -- never did. He wondered if she would be proud of him for breaking free of Azog's hold. He missed her suddenly, fiercely -- remembered her smile as she held him. She had taught him so much, had given him so much, and though she was long dead, he had killed her murderer, and he was finally free.

Thorin's words came back to him. What do you want to do?

He wanted to go home but did not know if he could bear it. Was the Shire still black with death? Was there anything left to Bag-End, his favorite place? Had any of his Baggins relatives survived, had Mirabella and her children escaped, were the Tooks alright? Where would he go now? What would he do? He felt so alone. He had Rory and his Brandybuck kin, of course, but who else? His parents were gone -- his amazing mother and his fine father, whom he had never truly appreciated until Bungo Baggins had lunged in front of him and caught an Orc's club in the chest. Bungo had died protecting them, to keep them from getting killed -- and they had not.

Instead, she had been taken, and Bilbo with her, to a fate far worse than a quick death. But no, he did not want to think of those early days in Azog's grasp.

He missed his father as fiercely as his mother. Their life had been simple, and Bilbo had been at odds with his father more than a few times, but they had been so happy. He remembered long evenings with the windows open, the scents of orchids and foxgloves drifting inside, and his father would settle into his most comfortable armchair and light his pipe, muttering about how if Bilbo was going to read all night, he might as well read out loud. So Bilbo would, and there would be a soft peace between them, as Bilbo would explore the worlds of faraway while Bungo would relax, sucking on his pipe with his eyes closed, while his mother hummed softly in the background.

His breath hitched. Such gentle times would never happen again. Maybe? What would the future bring, anyway? Bilbo had never known poverty, having well-to-do parents with a big home and lots of leisure, but he knew that it happened, and he understood that now, his life might be spent begging or working hard. He was not afraid of hard work, but the thought of begging left him wary. Too many times he had begged Azog for relief -- but it would not be like that. Right?

His thoughts were circling around, never finding any solution, only revealing more of the darkness he thought he had left behind. He could not bear to sit here and think about it anymore -- so slowly he crawled out of his soft bed and stood. He forced his mind to be blank for a moment as he picked up his sword and wrapped the leather around his waist. Then he crept to the entryway and peered outside, seeing Dwarves milling around and hearing faint songs in the distance, but they were long and sad, with low tunes that reflected anguish.

Now that he was paying attention, though, Bilbo could smell food -- stews, grilled meats, roasted potatoes, even ale. Many of the Dwarves had smiles on their faces despite the solemn air, and in other tents, laughter and cheering could be heard. Around fires that burned little smoke, Dwarves sat with tankards and smiles, occasionally knocking their drinks together to give respect to someone. Bilbo could hear other songs -- rowdy songs, cheerful songs, songs of celebration. Despite the mourning, despite the wounds, they were happy, joyous, relieved.

Bilbo wondered at seeing an army that had won a war.

When he pushed the curtains aside and stepped out, Bilbo was hoping to avoid any attention. He wanted to find a tent that had some of that lovely-smelling food and hopefully convince someone to give him a nibble, then he wanted to find a nice nook where he could eat in peace and avoid the healers for a bit longer. But such was not what happened.

Bilbo's attention was caught instead by a call that rang up, and he looked up to see the Dwarves nearby shouting and gesturing in his direction. Stunned, he could only watch as the Dwarves around him began to clap and cheer. After a moment, he realized that they were chanting his name.

"It's the Hobbit!"

"Bilbo Baggins!"

"The Hobbit's awake! Someone find the King!"

"BAGGINS! BAGGINS!"

Bewildered and more than a little frightened, he tried to step back into the tent, but hands seized him and picked him up, setting him on broad shoulders. The next few moments were a rush as Bilbo tried not to give himself over to a panic attack. He was carried down the path to the biggest tent of them all, and when he was brought in, the entire tent began to cheer just the same as the others. In the middle of it all was Thorin, speaking to several Dwarves at a large table, and with much ado, Bilbo was carried over to the table and sat down on a bench, feeling quite stunned by the whole experience.

Someone pushed a large plate in front of him and a tankard, and Bilbo's eyes grew wide when he saw the meal there. Fat sausages, roasted potatoes and scones with honey, a wedge of orange cheese, delicately fried slices of some tender meat, and that was just what he could see -- the plate was piled high with food. Someone slapped his back and he tensed up, but then the Dwarf beside him was nudged away, and then the same happened to his other side. Hesitantly, Bilbo turned and looked up.

The cheerful grin of a vaguely familiar face met his gaze, and he realized that the Dwarf standing before him was Bofur, who had been with Thorin when he had been rescued. At his side was a tall Dwarf with thick black hair and streaks of white in his rather large beard, who grinned at him much like Bofur did, which led Bilbo to believe that they might be related.

Bofur beamed at him. "Sorry for the lads! They can be a bit rowdy, 'specially now."

Bilbo gave him a very blank stare, not sure if he should get up and run away, but for some reason, Bofur's smile charmed him enough that he stayed where he was.

Bofur's eyes widened marginally. "Oh, you might not remember me! Bofur, at your service, and this is my cousin --"

"Bifur," came a deep voice, and Bifur nodded to him. "At your service."

Once again Bilbo was left rather bewildered at the manners of Dwarves, but he bowed a bit, feeling somewhat foolish as he tried to find his manners. "Bilbo Baggins, at yours. Um... thank you."

Bofur grinned and sat down beside Bilbo, though unlike the other Dwarves, he did not push Bilbo or touch him, and on Bilbo's other side, Bifur sat as well. A heavy plate appeared in front of each Dwarf, and Bifur nodded to him before he began to eat. Bilbo watched him for a moment, wary, but Bifur did no more than munch away, and so he turned his attention to Bofur, who was smiling at him still.

"Go on, then, Mister Baggins! Eat up, you're skin and bones," Bofur said, picking up his tankard and drinking deeply.

So Bilbo began to eat, sitting between two of the oddest Dwarves he had ever met, but two of the most charming indeed, who did not jostle him or push him or carry on too loudly. He did not eat much compared to his tablemates, but the food was delicious and sat heavily in his poor empty stomach. Bilbo suspected he might be sick later for it, but he gave Bofur a small smile, which Bofur returned with good humor.

"There's a good lad! Everyone's talking about you, you know, with your fancy footwork and how ye saved our King's life!" Bofur said, cheerfully biting into a sausage.

Bilbo felt his cheeks heat up, as he poked at his meal, well aware of blue eyes staring at him from across the large table. "Oh, well, I wouldn't --"

"No, no, don't deny it, Mister Baggins, we all saw what happened. You're a very brave lad -- er, you are a lad, right? Can't tell Hobbit ages well."

Bilbo paused, blinking. "Oh... well, actually, I'm an adult by Hobbit standards. So not technically, but I don't... mind --"

"Oho! You look quite laddish to me, but then, you'd be quite young anyway, to a Dwarf." Bofur grinned and popped a potato into his mouth, then sighed. "These lads, though, the cooks, they just don't have what it takes."

"Nothing like Bombur's," muttered Bifur, and Bilbo raised his eyebrows.

"The potatoes? I quite like them." He pushed the potatoes aside and found a lovely stack of bacon, which made his mouth water.

Bofur grinned at him. "Go on, have some of the fried kidneys, and the rashers too, then. No, I'm saying that my brother can out-cook any of these lads no matter the day. Too bad he didn't come -- stayed in Erebor with his pretty wife -- but if you tasted his potatoes, or his meat pies or his stews, you'd scoff at everything you ever ate, too."

"Spoiled, we are," muttered Bifur, and Bofur nodded.

"Completely! If you're ever in Erebor, don't hesitate to find any of us! We'll show you what real food tastes like," he said, winking at Bilbo.

Bilbo could not help but notice that even as Bofur chatted, he was steadily polishing off his large meal, whereas Bilbo had barely touched his in comparison. It seemed that Dwarves ate just as much as Hobbits did -- and for a moment, Bilbo missed the days of elevensies and second lunches. Then he shook himself and bit into a sausage, sighing at the flavor.

Despite Bofur's insistence, to Bilbo this was real food. Not porridge or grain or gruel, but real meat, tender and rich. He took a bite of the cheese and nearly cried at how sharp it was, yet it melted on his tongue so perfectly. Then he had to have a bite of bacon, and the taste reminded him of that morning with Rory and Great Aunt Adaldrida making sure he ate enough. Then he realized that Bofur and Bifur were giving him the same -- space, so that he could relax while the Dwarves cheered and sang around him, and making sure that he ate.

He felt his eyes prickle with tears, but fiercely he pushed the feeling away. He finished off his bite and looked up at Bofur, giving him a small smile, and whatever Bofur saw in his expression made his dark eyes turn gentle.

"Thank you," Bilbo said simply, and Bofur smiled at him.

"No need to thank me, Mister Baggins. It's only proper! I dare say any Dwarf would be honored to have you at his table, now."

Bilbo blushed a bit and ducked his head, nudging the fried kidney around his plate. "I wouldn't go that far --"

"But I would, Master Baggins, as would any Dwarf present at yesterday's battle," came a deep voice behind him, and Bilbo started, nearly knocking aside his plate. He turned to find Thorin standing behind him, the tall Dwarf looking more rested and relaxed, a small smile on his lips. "I see you have avoided the healers rather well so far. I suspect, though, that they will attempt to corner you as soon as you are finished eating." On either side of him, Bofur and Bifur started to stand as if to bow, and Thorin waved a hand, letting the Dwarves around him relax.

Bilbo breathed in slowly to ease his rapidly beating heart. He glanced at the entrance to the massive tent and saw that, indeed, several healers were milling about, some of them watching his table, while the others were finding other Dwarves and dragging them off. Perhaps he was not the only person to avoid them, then. He sighed and looked up at Thorin, raising an eyebrow.

"I think I can outrun them," he said quietly, and Thorin's blue gaze warmed.

"You can try, Master Baggins, but Dwarves are the best sprinters of all the races," he responded, and Bilbo heard several noises of agreement from the surrounding Dwarves.

He sat up a bit and raised his eyebrows, a smile curling at the corner of his lips despite his unease with being surrounded by so many people. "And Hobbits are the lightest on their feet. None of you caught me following you off to war, now did you?" he said, and then he realized what he had said, which made him shrink back.

Instead of looking cross, Thorin instead threw his head back and laughed. "I even had someone tail you! But you are quite right, Master Baggins, nobody could follow you for long. Even Bifur here, who is a master tracker, could not keep up with you," Thorin said, blue eyes twinkling.

Stunned, Bilbo looked over at Bifur, who scowled but nodded glumly. "I knew where ye were when you were hidin', waitin', but then as soon as everyone left an' ye scurried off, I lost ye in the darkness. Quick on your feet, indeed!" But then Bifur laughed and raised his tankard, and the other Dwarves cheered for him, so Bilbo gave him a small smile.

Then he gave Thorin a look. You had me followed.

Thorin merely raised an eyebrow back at him. Of course I did.

They might have stared at each other for a while longer had Bofur not jumped up with his tankard, grinning at them. "Let's hear a cheer for our Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins! Saved our King Thorin's life! For Bilbo Baggins!"

"BILBO BAGGINS!" shouted the room, and for a moment, Bilbo felt dizzy. He felt his entire face flush red, and he tried to sink down into his seat -- maybe sink down under the table -- but an arm on his elbow held him up, and Bifur handed his tankard to him.

"Drink up, lad," Bifur rumbled, and Bilbo sighed. The good cheer was getting to him, so he drank for a moment, just enough that Bifur let him go. He glanced down at his plate as his stomach rumbled, but upon looking closer at it, he felt his appetite die.

Mushrooms.

Thick golden mushrooms, perfectly sautéed with delicious-smelling spices, lay beneath the scattered rashers of bacon, and Bilbo had to close his eyes to control himself, so that he would not be ill at the table. They smelled so good -- and they were nowhere near black -- but Bilbo still felt sick at the sight of them.

"Bofur, if I might steal Master Baggins? I believe he and the healers have a great deal to discuss," came the low voice of Thorin behind him, and Bofur grinned at them both.

"'Course, Your Majesty! Off ye go, Mister Baggins, and come find us after! We'll want to hear more about how you got through all those Orc battles!" Bofur said, and Bilbo smiled shakily and stood, nodding.

"Of course," he said quietly, and without another glance at his plate, he followed Thorin out of the tent, the presence of the King enough to keep the Dwarves from clapping him on the shoulder or nudging him.

They meant well, he knew that. But he could not handle it, not now. If they were Hobbits, maybe... but not people he did not know, that he had not spent years learning to trust. He sighed deeply in relief as he escaped the heat of the tent, and when a healer began to fuss at him for eating so many fried foods, he did not mind. He allowed the healers to escort him to their tent, Thorin trailing them but staying silent.

He did not protest as the healers sat him down and began to peel off his bandages. The bruise on his cheek still hurt, but apparently it was beginning to fade, and the wound on his head was not becoming infected after all, thanks to the salves the healers were using. His chest had to be rubbed with a substance that had a rather strong smell.

"Mint ointment," the healer told him, and Bilbo could not help grinning. The healer shook his head and muttered, "Mad, that one is. But Óin has a gifted touch with healing, and I won't begrudge the name, if he wouldn't be so horrible about it --"

"Horrible? You're calling my ointments horrible now, are you?" boomed a voice, which made Bilbo jump. Thorin, who was leaning against one of the pillars, rolled his eyes, and Bilbo turned to see a heavy-set Dwarf walking up, with thick silver hair and curling braids in his beard. The healer beside him stuttered, but the large Dwarf merely shooed him away and looked down his large nose at Bilbo, who was beginning to feel very nervous indeed.

"So this is the Hobbit," the Dwarf said, and Bilbo felt a vague shift of irritation.

"And you're a Dwarf, so let's be done with the obvious," he snapped without thinking, then covered his mouth.

The heavy Dwarf let out a bark of laughter, and beyond him, Thorin stared at Bilbo. "A feisty lad! I am Óin, head healer of this lot, at your service, Mister Baggins. You're a slippery one," he tsked, picking up the mint ointment. Then he gave Bilbo a look. "Off with your shirt, then."

Instantly, Bilbo was on his guard. He shot a glance at Thorin, then at the other healers, who were far enough away that they might not notice, but Thorin and Óin would both be able to see his scars perfectly well. Thorin had already seen them, but Bilbo was hesitant. Keeping his clothes on seemed to be the only way to protect himself.

Óin must have seen his look toward Thorin, because he turned and frowned at the King. "Begging your pardon, Your Majesty, but I've a patient to see, so we'd like some privacy. Tolin! Bring the curtain!"

Another Dwarf, in the same dark brown and green robes as the other healers, came and pulled a large sheet around, blocking the view of Bilbo and Óin from everybody else. Thorin seemed uncertain, but after a moment he looked at Bilbo.

"You are welcome to walk around the camp as you wish, Master Baggins. If you need anything, you need only ask, and we will provide. I will be in meetings for the afternoon, but my tent will be empty if you would like to rest." He nodded to Óin and swept out of the room, and for a moment Bilbo felt guilty for making him leave, but he was glad for the privacy.

Óin snorted and gave him another look, so Bilbo obediently pulled his shirt off, wincing slightly. The Dwarf clucked his tongue and reaching down touch the burned marks lightly, making Bilbo flinch. Then Óin dipped his fingers into the minty ointment and began to spread the paste across Bilbo's chest. Bilbo sighed as the cool substance touched his chest, breathing in the strong scent. When was the last time he had smelled mint?

"This wouldn't be so bad if you'd come to us first thing," Óin said, and Bilbo scowled a bit.

"Your healers are overbearing," he muttered, and Óin laughed again.

"Just trying to do their jobs! You're a right mess, all skin and bones and all these wounds, and if my ears don't deceive me, you've been in the mess hall with those gluttons, haven't you? I'll put a tea together for the ache you'll have in your stomach later, undoubtedly," Óin said, and despite his large presence, Bilbo could not help but relax.

"I would appreciate that," he said after a moment, and Óin gave him a smile.

"Not a problem, lad. You're stubborn, but not as stubborn as some of my other patients! Can't get them to sit for longer than five minutes," the healer sighed, and as if on cue, a long litany of Dwarvish curse words burst out from the other side of the tent, followed by the sound of someone stomping away.

"See?" Óin said, his eyes twinkling, and Bilbo could not help but laugh. Óin seemed to know exactly how to deal with recalcitrant Dwarves, so a moody Hobbit was likely nothing to worry over. Bilbo felt better already, and he gave Óin a smile in gratitude.

"I really am grateful, Master Óin," he said quietly, and Óin gruffly nodded, his fingers drifting a bit lower. Bilbo started and looked down, realizing Óin was looking at his worst scar.

AZOG

"Funny thing, that," Óin muttered, and Bilbo tensed up despite himself, grabbing at Óin's hand, but the Dwarf did not pull away just yet. If he did not let go now -- "That Orc did the same thing to Thorin's father and grandfather, only on their heads... and in Khuzdul letters. But these are Westron letters."

Azog had done the same before? Well, that explained Thorin's and Bofur's expressions on seeing the scar, when they first found him. What Thorin must have thought, to see Azog's name on a Hobbit... Now, if only Óin would stop touching his scar, maybe he would not immediately run out the tent and refuse to see another Dwarf healer ever again.

But after a moment, Óin sighed and stepped back, pulling his hand away. "Sorry, lad, it's just... odd. The Defiler was a bastard, though, and I think we'll all sleep better for your actions. Now, I've got... well, I've been working on a few things over the years, and one of them is something that might help with that, make it better, heal the skin there. It's got almond oil and some aloe, a few other things... would you like to try it? Haven't tested it too much, but it does work, and I can put it together here."

Bilbo stared at him, his eyes slowly widening. In a second he forgave Óin for touching the hated scar, if it meant that his worst shame might go away, might lessen even a bit. "Really?" he whispered, scarcely believing, and Óin gave him a long look, almost pitying, but by this point, Bilbo did not care.

"I'll make some up myself and send it over to Thorin's tent later, alright? Now put your shirt back on, and let's check your head again."

For the rest of the time he was in the healers' tent, Bilbo was quiet, obedient, and careful not to complain. After more muttering and tsking, Óin pronounced him fine and told him the medicines would be in Thorin's tent in a few hours, so he should go and relax for a while. When Bilbo walked out of the healer's tent, he did so with hope in his heart and a small smile on his face.

~

Days passed, and slowly, surely, Bilbo began to heal. While Thorin continued his meetings with commanders from afar, Bilbo rested and ate, putting on more weight and losing a bit of the skeletal look that had lingered about him for years. He spent most of his time asleep, recovering from the shock, but some days he would linger in the healers' tent, talking to Óin, and once or twice a day, he would meet Bofur and Bifur, who would attempt to stuff him full of delicious fatty foods until the healers found out and scolded them. He slept more easily each night, but sometimes he woke with a cry, and other times he would stir and be eased back to sleep by soft humming.

Every day, Thorin watched, taking care of the Hobbit from afar. He did not press Bilbo, and truthfully he was much too busy to spend every moment worrying about him, but he made sure that his cousins and friends kept an eye on the Hobbit, so that he did not slip away. His time in meetings was fruitful, and though he was exhausted when he crept into bed, silently so that he did not wake his guest, he did not mind waking when he heard soft whimpers in the middle of the night.

A soft song, a gentle hand -- Thorin treated Bilbo just as he had his nephews once upon a time, when they were small and prone to night terrors. Bilbo's tiny figure, which gained weight and strength every day, was nothing like a Dwarf child's (Thorin had been stunned one day to realize that Bilbo was not that much shorter than him) but still Thorin felt concern for the Hobbit who had saved his life.

So he made sure Bilbo was never wanting. In between meetings, he looked in on the Hobbit himself, and he spoke with Bofur and Bifur, who were happy to talk to him about Bilbo's eating habits and how he was warming to them. He spoke with Óin every day about the ointments, teas, and medicines he was giving Bilbo, and when he had moments alone, he plotted.

He had promised to send Bilbo home, after all. He would keep that promise, and every other one he had made.

The Dwarves who had come to his aid from afar were already leaving. They would take with them news of Thorin's victory, and hopefully soon, more Dwarves would come to rebuild Khazad-dûm into the mighty empire it had once been. There was still the question of who would lead any colonies that formed here, but many Dwarves had proven their valor and leadership in the war, and so Thorin had a few ideas of whom to entrust with rebuilding Khazad-dûm. He would return to Erebor in time; for now, there was still much to do, soldiers to command and the dead to bury, a Hobbit to send home, and a Wizard to find.

There had been no sign of Gandalf since he had disappeared nearly a week ago, and no more quakes or roars from Durin's Bane. Thorin wanted to go after Gandalf, but Balin and Dwalin held him back, insisting that he was needed here. So Thorin waited through meetings and plans, decrees and ceremonies, while he worried that the Wizard had fallen too far for mortals to reach.

~

For six days they fought, darkness to light, fire to fire, evil to good. Blow after blow, deep into the caves of Moria where no light had ever touched, and every moment was a test of Gandalf's courage and patience. His strength held true, though, and yet it seemed that every step he took was another step toward his doom. He could feel his time nearing, with each faltering breath, with each battle cry, and he silently pleaded to those who had first breathed life into him to give him just a moment longer, so that he could defeat the corrupted spirit and protect the land he held so dear to his heart --

And they granted him those moments, granted him the power he needed. Through fire and ice, from darkness to light they fought -- from deep within the caves of Moria to the highest peak of the Misty Mountains, they chased each other, each desperate to win, to achieve victory.

Yet Gandalf felt a strangeness in his heart, as if he had walked these steps before, but of course he had not -- perhaps it was that he had not walked them yet. Such thoughts did not linger for long, not when Durin's Bane roared and cursed him, called out dark horrors that made Gandalf cringe -- but was this not his choice, his duty? Only four others in the world like him, and none close enough to assist -- even Saruman who had pronounced his interest in the Dwarves' march foolish would have come, but Gandalf had no time to send for help.

This battle was his own to fight, the corrupted spirit of his kin for him to defeat -- to send back to the farthest realms where it might be cleansed, sealed away, or given to death for an eternal rest.

So he fought, and at last, as the very last bit of power in him burst out in a final blow, he won. The Balrog fell from the cliffside and landed on the stone peaks below, breaking its hold on life, and the most evil of auras -- the aura of terror which had haunted Moria for centuries -- faded away. Defeated was the Balrog, and Gandalf had his victory.

Yet Gandalf fell as well, to the snow which blew cold against his body. Staring up into the white, he felt a softness around him, a gentle touch to his cheek, and he smiled, the deep pains and wounds in his frail body fading away. His Lady may have mercy on his poor old soul yet, and Gandalf -- Olórin, she whispered, smiling -- knew that all he had done was enough.

Carefully, softly, gently, he was carried away into the bright unknown, and Gandalf the Grey knew no more.