When his nephew finds him in the workshop he doesn't think much of it. He's in the middle of a tricky bit, tongue between his teeth, tucking a braid behind his ear, mithril clip on the end tinkling sweetly against its fellows.
"Ah! Frodo-lad, would you hand me some more wire?"
Enough time in Erebor made one want to create things. It was the magic of the mountain, the way Rivendell made one want to wander the gardens and sing. Eventually even someone as stubborn as Bilbo had given way; he'd tried his hand at several dwarven handicrafts to hilarious effect and then surprised everyone and himself again by learning to filigree. When you got down to it, it was just as relaxing as crocheting doilies, if a wee bit more strenuous.
"Why does Uncle Thorin die in your book?"
Bilbo blinked. A drop of sweat that had been lurking in his eyebrow made a sudden, successful escape down the tip of his nose. It was a hot afternoon, even under so much stone, and his body had suddenly turned into a block of ice.
"Oh Aule, where did you even find that thing?"
Frodo went on with a child's singlemindedness even as he handed over a small coil of silver wire.
"And Fili and Kili too? It's terrible! I nearly cried myself enough for a bath!"
Oh that's no good, you hate those he thought, a bit hysterically.
Well it explained this morning at least, the way Frodo had clung to his "cousins'" legs and stoically volunteered himself for the tickling they usually had to chase him up and down the halls to get. There had been something different too in the way he'd looked at Thorin over the breakfast table, with his usual child's adoration overlaid with a more desperate love, as if he had somehow begun to understand that even his rock-hewn second Uncle was mortal and temporary.
Carefully, automatically, Bilbo set down his small hammer and pliers and wished he'd never forgotten to burn the bloody thing.
This would be hard to explain.
He couldn't exactly tell the boy that it was something he'd scribbled out in a drunken haze.
He had been ill after the battle, in a way that went beyond the inflamed gashes in his arms or the spear wound in his calf. When he was a tween his practical father had taught him remedies for coughs, scrapes and broken bones but no hobbit had been battle-sick in a hundred years. Even as he bound his leg and broken ribs with a strip of dead elf's cloak as he staggered off the battlefield he did not know why the shadows of everything suddenly seemed twice as bright, why red was so vivid and every other color seemed to fade. Even his clever magic ring was suddenly heavier than a battle hammer, pinning his arm to the earth and he only managed to pull it off because his sword hand was slippery with blood.
He ran into Dori at the aid camp. The eldest of Ri was briskly directing wounded to the healer tents and organizing wagons to cart away those that could travel. He leaned heavily on a broken mace, somehow making it look like a gentleman's cane, and his hair was perfectly braided again, not the ragged white mane it had been towards the end of the battle, which meant that Nori was alive and about.
He'd rather have met Bofur, honestly. Dori, bless him, was a stiff old thing who'd thought what Bilbo had done with the Arkenstone was "a shocking breach of protocol" but he hadn't stopped the others slipping him a pair of vambraces and an old shield from one of the less-burned armories. At least he had respected Bilbo's wish to fight with his Company even if he was technically banished and couldn’t stand beside them in the line.
Now, with a mother's eerie accuracy he turned around and his eyes found Bilbo in the staggering crowd. Bilbo suddenly, desperately wanted to disappear. They had shared watches and scone recipes and invented between them several new mixes of tea but now they were like strangers.
He had to ask the question, but he was afraid.
The plan had been to fight his way to Thorin to guard his back. To die in his defense if he had to, but great battles scoff at the plans of small hobbits. As the sturdy dwarves had charged forward Bilbo ran to follow but was swept sideways by a flanking goblin wave and then he had been dodging around the legs of fighting Laketown-men and elves, hacking away at curved necks and grasping claws. Every time he spotted Durin's Banner in the distance he ran, cursing, towards it but it was as futile as a pebble swimming out against the tide. Everywhere there were turning points in the battle calling out to him; pockets of dwarves to warn in his disembodied voice, Orc bowstrings to cut.
There had been a cave troll.
Bilbo had stabbed it in the soft place behind the knee it had fallen down.
Sometimes he caught sight of another from the Company and then his strength doubled, fresh fire flickered in his little hearth and his leaden body could move again but they were always swept away in different directions. Now any second Dori would speak and Bilbo would know for sure if Thorin's proud back as he led the charge would be the last he saw of his only king and sometime friend.
"His Majesty was reckless, he and young princes were sorely wounded but we have every hope they'll live."
Bilbo breathed and a new host of fears rushed in to fill the sudden enormous vacancy.
What about Bofur? Hadn’t he joked that he was going to die looking better than a simple miner deserved, arrayed in a glittering topaz-encrusted breastplate crowned by his lucky hat? Ori, who he'd last seen grimly guarding Nori's left, who had worn fraying mittens under his greaves? Bombur, who had waded like an armored wrecking ball after Bifur's mad charges into the heaviest fighting, gold-scrolled war hammer in one hand and his old iron spoon in the other? Balin, who seemed too old and kind for yet another battle smiling wryly at death from the battlements of the Gate while Dwalin roared out war cries and grinned.
It was unthinkable to pick a favorite. Names jostled and crowded on the tip of his tongue so in the end he choked out
"...and the rest?"
"We are still thirteen, Master Baggins."
They had been fourteen once.
Bilbo pressed his less-bloody hand into his eyes. Pink tears dripped down his chin.
Thank the Valar, thank Aule and Ilúvatar and any Maiar who care to hear me.
"Well..." Dori seemed at a loss for words. Protocol clearly did not cover this. Technically Bilbo was still a traitor, persona non-grata and an enemy of the crown, but what the dwarf said was "Well aren't you a sight! At least it seems you've missed the worst of it! Usually we put those as can walk on the wagons to Laketown but you sit right here and someone will be by to have a look. Mahal bless, What I wouldnt give to have a speck of mint to throw in a pot..."
He bustled away, and without him the world was grey and flat again, even in the presence of such good news.
"So, That's that" Bilbo thought numbly "Here is the end of the story, and here I stand as useless as a dangling thread."
He had to leave. Kindness seemed intolerable in that moment, in fact he felt certain it would shatter him. It would be too cruel to pretend that he could sit here, have a cup of mint tea and then go see everyone. They were heroes now and he was just a hobbit whose part in the quest was long over. The story would flow onward, expanding without him like a river finally finding the sea, all that was left was to attempt a graceful exit.
He limped to a nearby wagon, pulled himself up, and wedging himself into a corner next to a bandaged Man, fell into a consuming fevered sleep as the wagon rolled out and away towards kinder ground.
The next night saw him sweating on a pallet in a tiny storage room under the roof beams of an inn. The downstairs rooms were packed with other patients and he had yielded the Big Folk their much needed space. Man-sized quarters felt too vast for him anyway with the feeling that he could roll under the bed like an old boot and never be found. The supplies had mostly been cleared out - all that was left was an old horse blanket that felt quite fine after months of hard travel and a bound ledger book, barely used and mostly blank, gathering dust next to its companion bottle of ink.
It was in that room that Bilbo Baggins began flattening the most glorious, significant thing in his life into a children's fairy tale.
The first colors that returned to him were blue and gold. He could see a sliver of sky out of his little window and it was safe enough, being neither gems nor eyes. Downstairs a man had shown off a flattened chalice, fallen from Smaug's underbelly and laughed about how he'd use the money to start fixing up his granddad's brewery in Dale. Bilbo had looked at the sparkling thing and felt the coins shifting under his feet, the dragon's breath on his face and went to bed without eating dinner.
In the book there was a sky-blue hood with a gold tassel and not a word about the color of the dwarf-king's eyes.
The first feelings that returned out of the numb fog were less welcome. There was a day where he was alight with relief and gratitude and made strides into an equally light-hearted prologue and the bit with the trolls. Then immediately afterward came a string of days where he stared at the quill and the empty page and tried to reconcile the cold rage and wet wailing sorrow that seemed to be the only things left in him after he'd almost stopped a war and after the person he'd killed for, had faced down a dragon for, judged his loyalty and love worth less than a pretty rock.
For the first time in his life his dreams turned against him. When he closed his eyes he saw Fili and Kili kneeling in each others arms, spears and arrows sticking out of their backs like black wings. He saw black and silver hair against a bloodstained pillow.
Maybe that was the reason he wrote what he did, eventually. He must have believed that if he could somehow trap that possibility in words it would never come to pass.
Columns of words, black as Orc blood, snaked across the pages as the cupboard room accumulated worn quills, bits of used bandages and, Bilbo was ashamed to admit, several Man-sized bottles of something fermented that lasted him a precious week of hazy days and bleary (if consistent) sleep.
Sober, scratching now and then at the mercilessly itching scabs of his former wounds, he had to give himself credit in that it was a middling fair book.
( Though perhaps it was too visible where happy memories resisted the pen and he fell back on describing the scenery, into the droning saga-style of legends old; this thing happened and then this other thing happened and then a third. Perhaps in between the pages a king died for greater than the sin of pride, for rejecting a heart that had been guarded securely for 50 years and laid at his feet, pristine, unbroken, untouched by anyone. )
If someone were to mine it for meaning they could say it had a good theme of greed bringing a royal line to ruin. Behold, the perils of valuing gems and gold over living folk. The truth was something else of course, and far more complicated, but for the sheltered fauntlings of the Shire it would serve.
Except the ending was wrong.
Yes the "hero" had survived and returned to where he started with a chest of gold but no reader with half a brain and a working heart could call that a happy end to the adventure. "Yes, he goes back to the Shire, there is an ill-timed comedic interlude where Lobelia steals his spoons and he putters around wiping dust off the furniture, slowly forgetting the whole thing. The End."
It was not convincing.
He could not convince himself. Thinking about his hands which had fisted in a king's hair and pressed his ragged handkerchief to his friends' wounds and pushed Sting into living flesh touching his mother's dishes, pulling on his father's waistcoat didn't bring him peace but made his heart twitch like a trapped moth. He would be a changeling if he returned - someone else going through the motions of being 'respectable Bilbo Baggins', desperate not to give himself away.
"No," he thought "I can’t do this to myself. I'd rather fight another horde of spiders, I'd rather Azog and me and my ring in a small dark room."
So he stayed and stretched his last coins by taking odd jobs: potwasher, scribe, errand boy for the slowly emptying halls of healing.
When the news came that the King Under the Mountain had risen from his sickbed he raised a tankard and drained it even as sudden tears rolled down his cheeks, even as his bitterness drained out of him. Thank every star, what he had written were just words and /he/ was alive and would rebuild Erebor and be remembered in story and song for the living king not the dead hero. It was all-right suddenly, that Bilbo would never see the gold-veined upper halls Thorin had told him about as they sat and smoked because Thorin was safe to walk them. The memory of how they parted still pained him but it didn't poison every happiness they'd had before.
After that, something cold and iron around his heart had unclenched and Bilbo found he could begin to think about a future. Back west, he decided. Surely Lord Elrond would find some small use for him and he would send the Company letters as soon as he got to Rivendell. There was no excuse for bad manners. With fresh energy he threw his worn quill into the fire and the manuscript in the bottom of his pack: it might come in handy as kindling over the mountain passes or perhaps once he had some peace he could edit it.
On the eve of his departure he went, softly clinking to bed. He wore his mail shirt under his clothes most days and polished it every night with a veteran’s obsessive care. It was always curiously warm, for metal, and he fancifully believed it carried the last warm trace of the hands that had first slipped it over his head - the last of the warm feelings between them. As he tossed and turned in sleep the links left imprints for the morning but at least he didn’t dream of the goblin wave sweeping his companions away or Orc blades kissing his unwilling skin.
That was how he stumbled out of bed at the first knock, how he opened the door wearing nothing but mithril and bandages, sword in hand and how Thorin son of Thrain son of Thror knelt before him to offer his apology.
They limped back together through the wide open gates of Erebor, up grand stairs and through gold-veined halls where Bilbo's leg gave out at last and Thorin carried him. The sheaf of paper was forgotten.
Bilbo took a ragged breath, and the exhale was fervent with unsaid prayers, every one in thanks that he was here that this was his ending.
"Frodo, listen to me" he knelt down to look his nephew in the eyes and once he was there couldn't stop himself from embracing the child, whispering the truth in his ear.
"You must remember, dear boy: the world is never quite the same as what you read in books, sometimes it may be worse but sometimes it is much, much better."