This is not how the story is supposed to end, Bilbo thinks as they lead him toward the tent where Thorin lays dying. Quicker than thought the old stories he grew up listening to flit through his mind, and in all of them the ending is the same: good triumphs. The dragons are slain, the princesses are rescued, the true loves spend their days together. The King reclaims his throne.
Life isn’t like a story, he realizes with sharp, painful clarity. Despite what his adventure would have him believe. Good doesn’t always triumph. Sometimes princesses are eaten. Sometimes, the King will die in vain.
The bundle in his pocket is heavy. He doesn’t remember receiving it; if it was before the battle or during or after, just that suddenly it was there and he knows that it is his last hope, the last thing he can do for him.
“How long?” he asks the healers, his voice thick. Hours, they reply. Maybe a day, if he’s lucky. A day!
He expects to see Fili and Kili standing outside their Uncle’s tent. They are not.
The smell inside the tent is horrendous. In the old stories, death is romantic and noble, pale faced lovers closing their eyes with a sigh, like passing into sleep. They never mention the smell of blood and metal and corruption and things that should be kept inside the body coming out. Nor does Thorin look like he’s about to sleep; his face is contorted in pain as his dying body spasms and fights against itself. He opens his eyes, fever-bright, and for a moment Bilbo wonders if he can even see him, or if he already wandered in the lands Beyond. A day…nay. Thorin has but minutes left.
But then he seems to come back to himself. He doesn’t have the strength to wave the guards and healers away, but they seem to understand anyway and leave. Then it’s just Thorin and Bilbo, and he finds he doesn’t know what to say.
“You came back,” Thorin says, his once rich voice little more than a reedy wheeze.
“Of course I came back!” Bilbo retorts. The words flow out; he doesn’t even know what he’s saying. “I can’t very well let you claim Erebor without me!” He laughs, the sound half-crazed. “This is just a…a temporary setback. You’ll see, Thorin. You’ll wake up tomorrow and…you’ll wonder…why you were being so over-dramatic…as…as usual…” his voice trails off as the lump in his throat threatens to choke him.
“There are no more tomorrows for me, little one,” Thorin says. “Nor will I wake up, ever again.”
At that the tears do begin to flow. Bilbo can’t help himself. He approaches Thorin’s side. His hand strays toward the King, but he pulls back, afraid to hurt him. Then he laughs at himself - he can’t hurt Thorin more than he already is.
If anything the Hobbit’s touch seems to calm him, if only a little. Bilbo strokes his blood-soaked hair, remembering how he’d done this before, in better times, when it had seemed like they’d have their whole lifetimes before them to be together. Thorin had refused him, true, but never rejected him.
“Would that we had more time…I would show you how much I regret my words to you,” Thorin says. His eyes are almost closed now; he is almost gone. “I only pray that you forgive me.”
Of course I do, you fool, Bilbo wants to shout, but it is too late. Thorin’s eyes slip closed and his breathing grows shallow.
And all at once, it comes back to him what he’d come here for.
“Thorin, wait!” Bilbo says, reaching into his pocket. He draws out the Arkenstone.
If he’d expected a miracle, that Thorin would spring back into life at the sight of his beloved gem, he is disappointed. The King does not stir, save the struggling spasms of his chest.
“It isn’t fair,” Bilbo murmurs to himself. “The old stories were wrong.” He gently places the Arkenstone into Thorin’s bloody hand…
He finds himself flat on his back on the floor of the tent, feeling drained, wondering what on earth just happened. He tries to sit up and is overcome with dizziness and the overwhelming urge to just lie still and sleep. He closes his eyes…
…and hears the rasp of Thorin’s breath, ever-so-slightly stronger. He jumps to his feet, and yes, yes, he does seem to be breathing easier! His gaze wanders to the great gem still clasped loosely in his hand, and all at once, he knows the terrible truth.
He kneels by Thorin’s head, watching him. The King is still grievously injured. It was not enough. Bilbo has given him a reprieve. Not salvation.
Memories flit through his mind. Rolling hills and gentle folk. A warm home with a green door and a large garden. The word home comes to mind, but it seems strange and foreign. You will not be the same, Gandalf had said and now he laughs, a slightly hysterical giggle, when he thinks of the wizard’s words. He’d thought he’d understood then, but he didn’t, because he couldn’t…couldn’t understand that being changed did not mean coming home with fantastic tales and ever a yearning to see these places again but instead it was a man, a man he would yearn to see again for the rest of his life and it was no good because a man was not a mountain, immovable and deathless.
The Shire is not home. Erebor is not home. Thorin is home, and his home is almost gone.
It seems, to Bilbo, in that moment, that a veil is lifted from his eyes. Never has he seen the world with such perfect clarity. There is but one path before him, as there always was. He is not afraid, no more so than if he were going to market on a Thursday.
He smiles as he places his hand in Thorin’s, encasing the Arkenstone between them. He hated the gem once, but now he loves it. Almost as much as he loves Thorin.
With fading vision he watches as Thorin’s breath becomes stronger and colour begins to return to his cheeks. I love you, he thinks, as Thorin’s eyes open and his eyes close.
I love you.