The mithril shirt was worth far more than he had guessed.
That… he had suspected it of course, but it was another thing altogether to hear it. True, it had not been said directly to him; he had overheard it between two of Dain’s generals, and there was no reason to think they would lie. They were dwarves. They knew the value of such things.
The revelation would have been enough to goad him into action given time, but that was not all he heard from his niche in the hall.
It was the general’s open ended proposition of theft that settled a decision in Bilbo’s head. Despite the pleading for what would never be his that sounded with each beat of his heart, it was obvious what needed to be done.
The King under the Mountain had been on his feet for two weeks now. Shaky feet, but on his feet all the same. That was a blessing enough, and while it might have been a comfort to him if things had gone otherwise, it was no longer necessary. Between the battle and the gold sickness that had come before, it had been a long recovery for the King under the Mountain.
Naturally, it was being discussed in hushed whispers; Thorin Oakenshield had fallen to gold sickness and the corruption of a dragon’s curse. He had gone mad, and threatened war upon his enemies and violence upon his kin. He had gone as far and farther than his grandfather, and still, Thorin Oakenshield been strong enough to emerge again as himself. Every whisper carried reverence, and further explained to Bilbo how incapacitating the illness had been.
Thorin had not been in his right mind.
Bilbo had known that.
Now the extent was becoming apparent, and paired with the other whispers he heard, the decision was obvious.
He certainly hadn’t meant to give Bilbo something so valuable. Friendship was all well and good, but that was no reason to give away the second most precious item in the mountain. To a hobbit who had no need of it.
His hand could not stay at his side, brushing against the magnificent filigree of the shirt that Thorin had insisted he wear. Bilbo would not allow himself to think back to that strange day. Not to the way Thorin’s eyes had been so softly intense as he helped slip it over shi head. Not to the bizarre weight that hung around them. Not to tenderness he had believed he was seeing, hoped he was seeing. Not to the way that a moment later Thorin had been worse than ever.
He wasn’t going to allow himself to think of any of that. He wouldn’t survive it a second time.
Besides, Nori had too much trouble as it was fighting back the gossip regarding his theft of the arkenstone, he didn’t need to add to that burden because of misplaced sentiment. And, it wasn’t as if he could really wear it every day. Nor would he want to. It was light enough not to feel it, but what kind of a hobbit would wear armor? None. That was plain.
It would be better for everyone if he slipped it back into the treasury.
With his ring, it wouldn’t even be difficult.
“Ah, Balin, have you finally determined to listen to my repeated entreaties that you stop referring to me as your majesty? I am grateful to hear of it.”
His friend’s smile was strained.
They two, long accustomed to it, carried the stress of the mountain, and were well aware of it. In time they would be able to transfer some of the responsibility onto a council and the boys, but not yet. The boys were still abed, recovering from wounds grievous enough that none had dared to send a raven West until the day before; they were at last confident in their recovery, scarred as they both would be, and off went the raven to their Amad. It would still be weeks before they were up and about. As for the other option, Thorin could not appoint a formal council until after the coronation, which he would not do without his nephews in attendance.
However they could, the company filled in the holes, but each night ended with the responsibility settled firmly on a yoke between Balin and himself.
Balin did not react to the teasing.
“Have you spoken to Bilbo recently?”
Thorin stuttered, not sure how to reply.
He had seen their burglar half a dozen times since rising from his sick bed, and each time, he fought with his instincts, keeping himself perfectly composed and proper. Bilbo deserved no less than that.
“Three days ago.”
“Did he seem… unhappy?”
“He complained of the lack of handrails on the staircases.”
Balin almost smiled, but stopped himself.
“Nothing more serious than that?”
“What do you know Balin?”
It wasn’t like the old dwarf to hedge around the subject.
“Gloin brought me the most recent lists he has compiled from the cataloging of the treasury. There was something unexpected, and he wanted me to know of it before it was given over to Ori for inclusion in the record.”
Perhaps something from his madness. Perhaps something from his grandfather’s madness. Some item that needed to be returned to the elves with tact?
None of the possibilities sounded pleasant.
Thorin accepted the sheaf of paper, and skimmed through the listing of treasures. Statues and ornaments and instruments. All of it was expected and opulent. He could not have picked one of the statues from another, but he trusted Gloin’s descriptions to hold true. Balin would not have squirmed if there was not something beyond the simple. His eyes flicked to the bottom, paused, and noticed the tick mark midway up the page.
If he had contemplated this occurrence, Thorin would have thought his reaction would have been loud, and possibly calamitous to onlookers. He would have seen himself striking out, threatening, yelling, fighting it, challenging anyone who would dare imply it could come to pass.
Falling into madness had changed him.
He did no such thing. He read the line in full, the size and weight and worth listed in Gloin’s neat print, simply to confirm what he already knew. There was only one piece of mithril mail in the mountain. Had there been more, he would have manhandled his nephews into it.
The one on the sheet was the one he had made a token of his hopes.
He nodded, handed back the sheet, and looked back to the proposed trade arrangement with Bard. It needed to be settled before their caravans returned. There were a few fine points he wanted to pick apart before agreeing. He would need to crosscheck the language with what had been used before Smaug came, both to be sure he had not left the mountain open to mistreatment, and that he was not unduly abusing the Men.
“Thorin?” Balin’s voice cut through the minutiae of legal terms, and the concern was blatant.
“That is his choice.”
“You cannot think--”
“Please speak to him at your next opportunity about a change in rooms. With a decision made, he might desire to live outside the royal wing. Prioritize the clearing of anywhere you deem fit for him.”
“I will have a runner bring you the final language of this document before the morning.”
The dismissal served and Thorin was left with the silence of the room to echo his self recriminations and pain. Pushing them back did nothing to stop them, and each he tried to counter spawned three more. His own words resounded, laced with the glints of memory from his time in that maelstrom of greed. The accusations that he had faced knowingly after were the loudest, but it was the shreds of words in Dwalin’s broken voice that wore down his strength. It was the too clear recollection of a confident confession shattering into fear that ate away at the core of him.
After what he had done, he could not have thought Bilbo would wish to keep it.
After how Thorin had treated him, he deserved to have the gift thrown in his face as he sat on the throne before the entirety of the kingdom.
Hobbits were incessantly polite though. He would never do that.
There was some mercy in it happening secretly. No one saw the way he trembled as he meticulously stripped himself of the hope that had glimmered each time he saw Bilbo wearing the mail. No one had to see the way the light went out of his eyes. Even Thorin didn’t see that blaze extinguish.
He felt it happen.
Ice trailed in the rising shadow and he shook as the trails of light through his veins winked out like dying coals.
The cold in his bones grew more intense in the days after.
He blamed the winter air when Bilbo asked.
Thorin was distant.
More distant. Worse, if Bilbo was willing to think about it, than he had been in the weeks between Hobbiton and Rivendell. Not that Bilbo thought about it.
Instead, he kept a perfectly polite smile in place, wondered at what had changed, and quietly planned a spring departure for his broken heart.
Bilbo purchased a travelling pack when the snows began to ease, the news spread, and Thorin retreated to his chambers on the pretense of paperwork to claw at the raw pain that had overwhelmed his chest.
It was a natural conclusion to the evidence preceding it, but Thorin had foolishly allowed himself to hope.
Two centuries should have taught him never to do so, but he was a dreadfully stupid thing.
After the reclamation, he had thought he might be permitted a meager scrap of joy that was his alone, not an extension of his life as King. He was joyful for the Mountain’s recovery. He was thrilled with the speed of the rebuilding. His nephews were no longer bandaged, and were back with Dwalin, regaining strength and reflex. There was much to be happy for, but Thorin had allowed the dream to grow despite what had happened.
Bilbo’s rejection, written in the return of the mithril, had shrunk Thorin’s aspirations, but deep in his chest, one faint ember burned still, and had persuaded him that so long as Bilbo stayed, there was a chance to repair what he had broken.
Happiness was not his lot. He was just too stupid to stop wishing for it.
The company held a party when word got out. Bilbo wasn’t sure if it was better or worse than an unnoticed exit in the lead up to it. Once he walked in the door he knew that it hurt far more.
Thorin attended like a wraith in the corner, dull eyed, with dark smudges beneath and a plate of food still full beside him. Bilbo tried again, one last time, one last night to find the dwarf that he had come to love in their quest. The one that had vanished somewhere in the mountain beneath a crown and coat of fur. All he received in reply was guarded answers, not one word longer than necessary. When Thorin departed for the night, citing the latest missive from the East, Bilbo turned to drink, and the consolation of his friends.
They knew better than to ask why he was upset. They had, after all, been on the quest with the pair of them, had seen the way they had coiled tighter, only to unravel into a mess of propriety and awkward silences.
They kept his mug full, and their tone light. They were good friends.
Bilbo drank his share and more, genuinely laughing and too aware of how hard it would be when he left them behind.
Fili and Kili stayed upright longer than the others, telling him all their favorite foods so he could have them ready when they came to visit. That they would come visit was never discussed, simply known as a certainty.
Interrupting his brother’s description of the perfect meat pie, Kili blurted out, “Why do you want to leave us?” Bilbo hesitated, and Kili rushed on, “You like us, and we all like you. And you’re a hero, and why are you leaving?”
Drink made him sloppy, and Bilbo couldn’t answer.
“Shut up, Ki.”
“No, Fi, I wanna know why.”
“Nadad, he made his choice.”
“He deserves to hear it, even through us.”
“If he wanted to know he would have asked.”
“No he wouldn’t.”
“Yes he would.”
“It’s his choice.”
“It’s their choice.”
“--Why did you break uncle’s heart?”
Bilbo drained the rest of his mug while Fili smacked his brother, hissing a khuzdul diatribe. He should have known the question was coming. Like a fool, he hadn’t prepared an answer.
“Because I thought I could stop the war, lads.”
Fili and Kili froze in their fighting and turned to him. An entire conversation passed between them, culminating in Fili slowly speaking. “Not the Arkenstone, Bilbo. No one cares about that now.”
“Why did you return the mithril?”
“I… hobbits don’t wear armor, as a general rule.”
The boys seemed to be sobering by the second, but Bilbo was just lost, and no small part angry that they would bring this up at all. It was bad enough that Bilbo had fallen in love with their uncle, he didn't need it thrown in his face that it had been lost because of his own actions.
Another flurry of substantial looks and nods of their heads passed, and they turned back to him, tiny hints of smiles hiding in the corners of their eyes.
Then they started talking.
The fire was crackling and warm, homey, and a contradiction with the way that Thorin felt.
He had run out of paperwork to complete, and there was nothing to distract him from the whimpering, dying thing that had replaced his heart. All his life he had dismissed such poetic rambling as senseless exaggeration. Sitting before a fire, feeling the heat against his skin but knowing in the depths of him there would never be any flare of warmth again, Thorin had to admit that the best poetry could not come close to the way that he felt.
Time had not eased the ache, perhaps distance would.
If Bilbo did not wish to stay, he could only try to find the advantage of it. Perhaps once he left Thorin might stop noticing how hollow his chest had become. He did not dare think it would recover, only that he might manage to pass a day without it as a permanent spectre of loss in the periphery of his vision. It haunted him. It rang out as a reminder every time he heard his voice, or saw a speck of mithril. He would keep the mail in his room after Bilbo left, and every time he saw it, he would further inure himself against the pain of it. Just as he had with his brother’s ring.
In time, a few decades perhaps, the screeching pain would ease to a throb.
He needed to choose guards for the detail that would see Bilbo safely to the Shire.
Reading through the files that Balin had compiled would distract him for a few hours. Maybe after exhaustion would let him sleep unbothered by dream or memory.
He hadn’t reached for them before a clamor in the hall caught his attention.
Hoping-- Fearing-- He did not know what prompted him-- but for whatever reason, he crossed the chamber and pulled open the door.
Just in time for Bilbo to crash into his chest.
The hobbit was panting, gasping for air, and his clothes were rucked like he had tumbled down a hill. There were no injuries, which stilled the most frantic shouting in Thorin’s head; if the company or the mountain was in danger or hurt, the halls would have been louder. If they boys were hurt, Dwalin would have outrun the hobbit.
All there was to examine was the hobbit clinging to his tunic, trying to gather enough breath to speak, and failing. No matter how it would hurt after, Thorin waited with Bilbo pressed against him, memorizing a feeling that would never happen again. Through tremendous will, he kept himself from rubbing his palms over Bilbo’s back.
“No one ever told me.” Bilbo finally managed in a gasp.
Thorin scrambled for a proper response to that.
“No one. Not you. Not the company. Not anyone. Thorin. They boys finally. Just now they-- we were drinking. I was drinking. Far more than I should have Thorin. Far more, and dwarven ale isn’t particularly strong I have to say, but I had your share as well I supposed and they asked me about-- Thorin, I’m a hobbit.”
It was particularly brutal torment. Bilbo was pressed into his chest, babbling and touching him and heartbreakingly drunk.
“I’m a hobbit.” He said at last, like it explained all.
“Not a dwarf.”
“I am aware.”
He just wanted this to end. So close to what he wanted, it was worse for the hairsbreadth gap between having Bilbo pressed to him in weary confusion, and pressed against him in eager fondness.
“I didn’t know what it meant, and I’m not entirely clear on the specifics of all of this, the boys were talking rather fast and they kept interrupting each other and I have had a lot of ale. Thorin, I had a great deal of ale. I should have had less. I really should. But I understood the part that matters. I think I did. If you’re still -- if this isn’t insulting. It might be insulting. They may have been wrong. But I don’t think that anyone knows you better than they do. Balin does, but I didn't want to wake him up and ask, Thorin.”
There were tears in Bilbo’s eyes where he looked up.
“If it’s insulting, I can just leave sooner than next month. I can Thorin, if you’d rather.”
A tremor tried to move Thorin’s hands to find Bilbo’s, so he could cling and beg him not to ever go.
“Should you like to depart before the end of---”
“Don’t you be like that Thorin. Stop being a king for a moment if you please. Just if you please, for one moment, don’t be a king, just be Thorin. Just be my Thorin, not the King. Just tell me whether the boys were right.”
He could not answer what he did not understand, and said so.
Those tears fell, and Bilbo pulled back by a step, wavering, and gracelessly pulled off his coat.
“I… I went and got it back. No one told me before Thorin.”
Firelight caught on loops of shining silver, flickering with Bilbo’s uncertain movements.
It took longer than Thorin wanted before he could breathe again. Longer still before he could move, react, respond.
But something must have shown in his face from the moment he recognized the courting gift that he had given; A broad smile, one that grew larger each time Thorin looked back to it, was blooming on Bilbo’s face. When he managed to reach forward, Bilbo closed the gap, jingling softly as his arms flung around Thorin’s nec.
His feet had surely left the ground, and Thorin was content to carry him forever if he was allowed to keep this feeling. It was sunlight and wildfire bound together, replacing the chill of his soul with a joy he thought was lost forever. Bilbo was too far gone with drink for Thorin to be confident it would not come apart, but it was enough for him to think that the cold would not be his fate. It was enough to let him hope without thinking he should quash it. To relight the sequence of dreams he had denied himself in the last months. To convince him he would have to take up poetry to explain the way he had become, in the space of a moment, blessed.
Face buried in Thorin’s neck, Bilbo whispered, “No one told me.”