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After the End

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"Th... Thorin?" Bilbo gasped, tottering on ancient knees across a pale gangplank. The noises of the elves about him, the seabirds, the docks... everything became a sort of background static. Dizziness seized him and he almost fell in the water, but the strong hand catching him proved that the dwarf was actually there. Thick dwarven arms pulled him aside to stand out of the way, his old bones protesting such rough treatment even as his mind spun.

The dwarf smiled uncertainly, thick black hair flickering in the breeze. "Bilbo," he said in a raspy, scraping voice. "It was true. You came." Thorin's short beard was unchanged but seemed... thicker somehow, Bilbo thought, and his hair didn't have any silver in it. He looked younger, vital, and far less careworn than the Thorin that had shared a journey with the hobbit so very long ago. He was wearing surprisingly rich clothes, but it was unmistakably the same dwarf that Bilbo remembered, only with no wounds or other signs of hardship and glowing with health.

"I..." Bilbo stopped and caught his breath. Behind him, elves trooped off the ship, some calling greetings to waiting loved ones and others just moving into the shining white city. A rushing wind swept past him as a pillar of shapeshifting white flame flickered quick as thought down the dock and into the city of Tirion, cycling through flocks of birds and clouds and fire in quick succession; he suspected this was Gandalf remembering how to be more than human. Frodo ran cheering behind him, suggesting new shapes. None of this was half as distracting as the stocky figure in front of him. Bilbo's eyes were rapt at the sight of someone he had lost over seventy years before, looking young and vital and... "You're... alive. How...?"

A familiar chuckle went through the hobbit's mind like a dagger. "Not exactly alive, but not exactly dead." Azure eyes that had haunted Bilbo's dreams (and nightmares) for decades gazed at him now with an openness that hurt worse than grief. "I am not supposed to be out of the Halls of Mahal, but when I was told you were expected, I could be nowhere else." The dwarf's hand reached for Bilbo's shoulder but he stepped back.

"Thorin," Bilbo's head was spinning. "This is... frankly, this is a great shock." Silence fell between them for a moment, and for all the bustle about them it was as though they were alone.

"I heard what you said." Simple words that hit Bilbo's mind like a huge stone splashing into a still pond. Thorin was looking at him with a look the hobbit had never seen before. "All of it."

Bilbo's knees felt weak for reasons that had nothing to do with age, and he slumped onto a small keg, wheezing for breath. "What... what do you mean?" he ventured, fearing that he knew exactly what Thorin meant. He ran a hand through his thinning white hair, cursing the cramps that seized his calves as soon as he sat.

"At my tomb. I heard you. I don't know how... but when I was sitting in the Halls, meeting my people, your voice came to me. I heard you say... all sorts of things. It broke my heart when I heard you crying. Bilbo... that I ever caused you to weep like that... it tears my heart to shreds. Even worse, that you had no idea I felt the same, and I only regret..." Bilbo interrupted him, holding up his hand and shaking his head frantically.

"Stop, Thorin, stop. Just..." He huffed a breath, trying to get his bearings. If I'd known it would be like this, I might not have come, he reflected bitterly, knowing all the while that he was lying to himself with the thought. "That... that was a long time ago. I... I mourned you. Yavanna knows, I mourned you. But you were... Thorin, you were dead. And I finally moved on, I had to, and... now you're here..." He flapped his hand, unsure how to even put it in words. Thorin looked grim, as he always did when Bilbo was telling him something he didn't want to hear. That at least hasn't changed, the hobbit sighed. "Thorin, I'm old. Ridiculously old. I've led a long life, and I don't even know you any more." Another lie, he thought sourly. Thoughts of Thorin had never been far away, no matter what he was doing. For once, the dwarf who Bilbo always thought of as decisive was taken aback.

"I... I see," Thorin stammered. "So your feelings have changed?" Bilbo could see the posture shifting, mouth firming, eyes narrowing, chin coming up, that proud expression that the King Under The Mountain always wore when he was hurting.

"Changed? Thorin... in case you haven't noticed, I am one hundred and thirty years old, which is a preposterous age for a hobbit! Even if somehow I were still feeling something for you, what's the point? I'm far too old for any such foolishness." Thorin's sudden smile indicated that he was hearing what he wanted to hear from Bilbo's statement. Typical, he thought sourly. Bilbo wasn't having this conversation right now, thank you very much. It was complete balderdash, and besides, how dare someone make him feel like an awkward tween as old as he was? "But regardless, I'm delighted to see you looking so well. I must go and find out... goodness, I don't even know what I'm to do. Where I'm staying, whether I have any clothes to wear, where I can eat... I only just arrived." The crafty light in the warm blue eyes in front of him was so familiar that his stomach twisted. But then Thorin looked past him and his face hardened. Bilbo was unsurprised when a soft hand rested gently on his shoulder.

"Come Bilbo," Elrond said, smiling down at the hobbit and dwarf alike, "Galadriel has made room in the home of her kin for all of us from the ship who have no houses here. We shall find or build lodging for ourselves soon enough, but for now we stay in the House of Finarfin." Glancing at Thorin, Elrond sketched a slight bow, "Thorin Oakenshield, we meet again in a better place. I am surprised to see you here... it is said Aule does not allow many to leave his halls. You must be high in his favor." Thorin flushed and mumbled something inaudible, but Bilbo felt a rush of pride he didn't really want to feel. Of course Thorin was high in the favor of Aule, and probably everyone else, he thought fondly in spite of himself. Silly old dwarf, he could charm a bird down from a branch when he set his mind to it, no matter how grumbly and harsh he tried to seem to everyone.

"Thorin... I'm sorry, I have to go. I will... please come see me. It's lovely to see you again." Bilbo willed himself to ignore the hurt in those eyes, the same eyes that haunted his dreams for so many years. Thorin bowed, face a cold mask.

"Of course," he said shortly, "It will be my pleasure. Until then," and he whirled to go, long coat swirling about his legs. Bilbo reached out and caught his arm.

"Thorin, please," he said softly. "Don't behave like this. It... it means a great deal to me that you were here to welcome me. Really. Please come and visit me." He refused to be parted from anyone he hadn't seen in more than sixty years on a bad note, and that was doubly true of someone he had loved once as deeply as he had Thorin.

"Of course, ghiv... Bilbo. I will come." Thorin flushed a deep red but nodded once brusquely, then strode off towards the city himself. When Bilbo turned, Elrond's gaze was speculative but his smile was still present.

"Valinor is a land of surprises, is it not? One never knows who or what may be just around the corner." Elrond's expression became rather sly. "Or what opportunities might appear, long thought hopeless."

"Elrond," Bilbo said in a scolding tone, "there will be none of that! I refuse to be mocked at my age, it's bad for the liver. Now show me where this house is." Slowly, they made their way down the flagstones into Tirion proper, the hobbit leaning on a cane and Elrond gently matching his stride. Around them, the shining white walls of stone and the flowers of the beautiful city stretched off in all directions. Every crossing and courtyard held a dancing fountain. And the elves! Everywhere there were elves... walking, talking, strolling, laughing, reading, playing music. Bilbo had never imagined so many of the Eldest in one place. Elaborate gardens appeared, some with houses in the center, others that seemed to lead off into woodland groves and more natural spaces, and he kept wanting to stop and examine the scenery, but Elrond urged him along. Even after so much time spent in Rivendell, one thing seemed odd, and finally he had to ask. "Elrond, are there... only elves here? I don't see any dwarves, or hobbits, or... well, I suppose I wouldn't see any men, as I remember that Mandos gave them a different place, but where are all the rest?"

Elrond's face grew a bit grave. "Ah." He looked off into the distance, and Bilbo feared for a moment that he wouldn't answer. But finally he said "Each of the races has their own place here, Bilbo. I was quite surprised to see Thorin Oakenshield at the docks, because dwarves are almost never permitted to venture out of the Halls of Aule. They lie beneath the mountains you see far in the distance." Looking around, Bilbo saw nothing but buildings and forest, and he raised an eyebrow at Elrond. "Mountains you could see in the distance," came the seamless correction with a wry look, "if we were at a high enough point. So I am told, at any rate; this is my first time here as well, though I have read much of the lore of those who dwelt here in the first days. Hobbits who have passed on from life dwell in the Gardens of Yavanna, and there she keeps them with the ents and entwives and other beings that are dear to her. I suspect you will meet her at some point, as will Frodo, because it is until now unheard of for any of her children to come the elven way, by boat. Also, more importantly, she will wish to honor you for your service. The betrayal of Mairon, who became Sauron Gorthaur, was a wound that her husband Aule had borne for quite a long time, and as the ones who healed it..." Elrond broke off. "This is the road, I believe." Bilbo turned with him, momentarily left speechless by the idea of meeting the Green Lady herself whose shrines he had frequented throughout his life.

They passed down a short entrance path and entered a high stone gate, and Bilbo's breath was taken completely by the sight of the sprawling white stone palace before him. "I thought you said it was a house," Bilbo said in amazement. "This is a city of its own!" Elrond's familiar laugh drew a figure that Bilbo knew immediately to the door, smiling in welcome.

"Lindir!" the hobbit laughed, "Were you so desperate for a door to guard that you immediately entered service here? How you must miss the Last Homely House!" Laughing and joking, they passed within, greeting Galadriel and thanking her for her hospitality. Lindir then showed Bilbo to his rooms. Rooms which were... uncomfortably splendid. Bilbo looked around the huge open space, full of delicate carvings and gilded furniture that looked so expensive he was afraid to sit on it and suddenly the hobbit felt old and stodgy and out of place. Doors led off the main chamber to bedrooms and bathing chambers and closets, such a profusion of space and things that he was quite dizzy by the time Frodo knocked at his door. "Oh Frodo, thank goodness you're here," he said in a flustered tone, "tell me, my boy, are your rooms like this as well?"

"Yes, uncle, I'm afraid so," came the quiet response. Frodo's face was solemn but his eyes were dancing with mischief. "A bit much, isn't it?" Bilbo spun around to look again at the frankly preposterous splendor of the place before making a very undignified sound indeed.

"A bit much! I can't even imagine... what on earth do they think..." he stammered, momentarily speechless. Finally he burst out, "Do they think we're kings? This is far, far too much." Shaking his head, he gingerly took a seat on a chair whose seat was too high for him to sit, making his feet dangle awkwardly. "And it's not terribly comfortable either, my boy, but please don't think me ungrateful for saying so." Frodo laughed, open and carefree, and Bilbo's heart lurched; he hadn't heard that laugh in far too long. If being here was bringing peace to his nephew, it must be as healing as everyone had said. Which brought another realization. "Do you know... by all rights I should be exhausted after that long walk, but I don't feel terribly tired. Isn't that odd?" Frodo gave him a boyish grin.

"Elrond said on the ship that Valinor had healing powers, and something about even the old become young again," he said, snickering a bit, "maybe you're becoming young again, and won't you be shocked to wake up my age!" Bilbo scoffed and swatted lazily at his nephew. Frodo continued, "And wouldn't that handsome dwarf be pleased? I never knew you had..." anything further was cut off by laughter as Bilbo squawked in outrage. The old hobbit immediately jumped down off the chair and shook his cane at his nephew, who ran out the door giggling. Grumbling, Bilbo went to sit again and realized that he had leapt from the chair with an agility he hadn't had in ten years or more. He resolved to ask Elrond or Gandalf at the soonest opportunity. If he was becoming young again...

Apparently he was. Time was strange in Valinor, as there was no night as such. Light and darkness came and went at odd times, and seemed to do so in various regions independent of one another. From a tower in the house, he saw sun on the mountains when the stars were visible overhead and the elves were singing beautifully to Elbereth in the gardens; another time, the mountains were shrouded in darkness when the sun was blazing down on the white city, casting rainbows from the blocks and prisms of crystal built into the walls seemingly at random. Days were a manner of convention, but none of the new arrivals could stop thinking in such terms. Even better evidence of the fluidity of time was the rapid reversal of the ravages of age on the ancient hobbit. Bilbo's hair began to thicken and turn the brownish-blond of his youth, his vision improved, his joints stopped hurting, and the wrinkles smoothed out in a quick unwinding of the years that had graven them so deep into his face. The only sticking point was Thorin.

When the dwarf first appeared at the doors, Bilbo caught Lindir as he tried to send him away. The sound of arguing voices, so rare in his time here, drew him to the area to see a flustered, angry Thorin glaring up at an uncharacteristically sneering Lindir. "Thorin?" Bilbo said, and both of them turned to stare at the hobbit, Thorin with a look of longing so deep that it made Bilbo's heart flutter and Lindir with a gaze of apology mixed with exasperation.

"Bilbo, this wretched elf..." Thorin began.

"So sorry to have allowed you to be disturbed..." Lindir said at the same time, as they glared at each other again for a second.

"Stop it, the both of you!" Bilbo scolded, feeling every bit his age (even though his body was beginning not to, and wasn't that an odd thing?). "Lindir, Thorin is my dear friend, let him in at once! Thorin, stop bedeviling Lindir and mind your manners! Honestly!" Lindir's look of surprise was matched quite well by Thorin's. The elf bowed and withdrew and Thorin walked over and clasped Bilbo's forearm more like a battle-mate than a friend, looking decidedly sheepish.

"You look... happy," he said, and Bilbo felt a flush rise on his face that hadn't been available for years. "I can tell Valinor has already begun to heal you. I am glad to see you well." These pleasant social nothings were said in a tone that made Bilbo feel the need to sit down again. Blast and confusticate this dwarf, he thought, and why does all of my body have to be getting younger? It's been longer since he died than I had been alive at the time, but he still can get me flustered. Bilbo Baggins, you're a ridiculous old baggage!

"I... thank you Thorin, that's quite kind of you to say. Please, come in, I'll send for some tea and biscuits, we can visit a while. Unless... I don't mean to presume, perhaps you have other plans?" Thorin's eyes followed Bilbo hungrily, but he smiled and shook his head. Suddenly he looked down and Bilbo realized for the first time that Thorin was carrying a bouquet of flowers.

"Oh... I brought you these." A stocky arm was thrust out as though it carried a weapon, and Bilbo took the flowers gently. The overwhelming smell of roses and jasmine from them made it all he could do not to sigh in pleasure.

"Thank you, they're lovely," Bilbo said, feeling suddenly bashful. "Please come." They walked up the stairs to Bilbo's room, and he thought to himself at last I have a use for that incredibly pretentious sitting room in my suite! Thorin looked around with muted approval, nodding at the furnishings that Bilbo still thought far too ornate for his tastes.

"At least they put you in a place that does you some honor," the dwarf said grudgingly. "I would have given you walls of gold and floors flagged with jewels but this will do, for elves." Bilbo's eyes rolled of their own accord; leave it to his... to Thorin, he corrected himself, to think that something already far too much wasn't gaudy enough! They spent the afternoon chatting about the remaining companions from their adventure and catching up on what had happened since Thorin's death in the battle, laughing about the confusion in the mountain with the dwarves that were still alive. Thorin was all too aware of the fall of Dain during the War of the Ring and of Balin's failed attempt to retake Moria, since both of them had shown up in the halls of Aule; he was agog to hear of Gandalf's destruction of the balrog, however. "D... Durin's Bane is dead?" He said with wildness in his eyes, "I must..." he caught himself and laughed ruefully at Bilbo's teasing expression. He huffed a breath, looking away for a moment, and the slight flush on his cheeks made Bilbo's stomach flip. "I beg your pardon, sometimes I forget..." Thorin gestured around himself with one hand, "my situation."

Bilbo laughed, and the moment passed. Thorin left, but returned the next day, and the next, each time bringing a present and providing it to Bilbo as though it were nothing. Small things, typical courting gifts, that seemed specifically designed to make Bilbo's heart pound; flowers, baked goods, sticky sweets and fiddly little games carved of wood. Nothing grand, nothing extravagant, but each of them the sort of gift a courting hobbit might receive from their beau in the Shire. Bilbo wondered when Thorin had made such a study of hobbit courting; the dwarf he remembered certainly wasn't interested in hobbits at all (other than me, his mind provided most unhelpfully). He hadn't seen much of Gandalf (Olorin, he reminded himself, he is Olorin now, not Gandalf) but he wondered if maybe the nosy wizard wasn't keeping up his practice with meddling by advising Thorin. All his suspicions were finally resolved by looking down into the garden one day and seeing Frodo head-to-head with Thorin, each of them deeply intent on some whispered conversation together. Aha, the wretched thing, he thought with a mixture of fondness and fury. Well, that explains that. Sighing, he went back inside and resolved to speak to Frodo about this as soon as possible. Despite his intentions, though, possible never seemed to arrive.

After a few weeks, Bilbo looked as young as he had when going on his adventure, possibly younger. Thorin was very complimentary each time they met, but he always maintained a polite distance. The closest he came to expressing physical affection was kissing Bilbo's hand when they met and when they separated. Despite the attention which Bilbo was coming to truly enjoy, Thorin was beginning to look drained and ill. Bilbo asked several times if he was in poor health, but Thorin insisted he just wasn't sleeping well. He had rooms in a traveler's lodge, built for elves coming from other settlements in Valinor to visit the city. He had told the hobbit several stories of being mocked or derided by some of the other guests, but Bilbo was worried. The dwarf's skin was developing a grey pallor which seemed decidedly unhealthy. In spite of that, he took Bilbo all over Tirion. Together they explored the gardens that Bilbo had seen coming in, walking and admiring the flowers (actually, Bilbo admired the flowers and Thorin seemed to admire Bilbo). They passed some small way into some of the forests on the marked paths, until Thorin finally confessed that the trees made him feel ill and queer, as though he were about to be nauseous, so that was the end of that. The dwarf took him to small bakeries where the food was free, the bakers laboring for the sheer joy of craftsmanship, and Bilbo spent afternoons almost eating himself into a torpor while Thorin smiled softly at him from nearby. And each day, Bilbo felt more excited for Thorin to arrive, and each day, Thorin looked a little more wan and grey but smiled all the same. Each time he saw Bilbo, his face lit up and the hobbit was helpless. How do you not respond to that?, he wondered to himself. He began to dream of Thorin again at night, something that had finally stopped (mostly) when he was seventy or so... even worse, some of the dreams were terribly inappropriate, what the Shirefolk would refer to as 'itchy'.

One afternoon they were sitting in the garden of the house. Lindir had long since given up on trying to ignore Thorin, and he brought tea and biscuits to where they were, pouring each of them a cup before withdrawing. They ate and chatted amiably about all sorts of things, planning to go to a new workshop Thorin had found where they carved wood into toys and puppets, but Thorin looked even more pale and drawn in the bright sunlight. "Thorin," Bilbo said in concern, "really, no offense, but you look dreadful. Are you quite sure that you wouldn't like to rest?"

"No," the dwarf said forcefully, "I am quite well, no need to worry. I'd hate to worry someone so lovely." Bilbo blushed to the roots of his hair and the tips of his ears. This was the first properly flirtatious thing Thorin had said in all their time together, the first comment completely beyond the mask of friendship. Bilbo knew that he was quite, quite lost. It had all been silly to try, really, he was finally willing to admit. There had been crushes before Thorin, but nobody had ever come close to holding his heart so completely. The hobbit gave a soft smile, looked at Thorin where he was sitting and the dwarf flushed as well, the red standing out starkly against his greyish color. Shining blue eyes glittered with unshed tears as he looked at the hobbit, and Bilbo's heart dissolved.

"Lovely?" the hobbit said in a soft voice. "Thorin." The need in his eyes was so intense Bilbo was sitting next to him before he even thought. "Yavanna's love, Thorin, I missed you so much," Bilbo whispered. "I cried for years, you silly dwarf, it broke my heart so badly it was never the same. I was so furious with you for dying that I..." Thorin's lips were on his before he could complete his sentence. The taste of cinnamon and sugar from the biscuits was on his lips, but Thorin tasted like sun and joy and sweetness. The scratch of beard was exotic but wonderful, Bilbo thought in a daze, and then suddenly realized 'wait, I could have been having this all this time?' He leaned into the kiss, wrapping his arms around Thorin and realizing that the dwarf was shivering. He pulled back. "Thorin?" The dwarf gasped and held his stomach, but tried to kiss Bilbo again.

"Worth it," the dwarf said in a rough voice, clearly in terrible pain even as he reached for the hobbit. "Worth it all to be with you even this much."

"No, Thorin, stop, you're... what's... help!" He shouted, but nobody heard. "Help!" He kissed Thorin on the cheek and said "Stay here, I'm going to get help, hold on." Thorin tried feebly to hold onto the hobbit and Bilbo groaned. "Don't you even think of leaving me again, or Yavanna help me I will hunt you down in the Void itself if I have to." He ran as fast as his newly-young legs would carry him into the house."Lindir... help... Thorin...sick..." he gasped out, and Lindir nodded once, sharply, and dragged him along to where Galadriel was speaking with a number of elves the hobbit had never seen before.

"My pardon, Lady, it seems Bilbo's guest has fallen ill." Galadriel excused herself and rose gracefully from her seat, smiling kindly at Bilbo and making him feel as though he were a tiny fauntling again.

"Master Baggins, there is no illness in Valinor. Could you be..." Bilbo hated to seem rude, especially to his hostess, but he seized her hand and tugged on it imperiously all the same.

"Come!" he choked out, attempting to drag her by force if need be into the garden. She raised her eyebrows but allowed him to pull her along. When she saw an unconscious Thorin lying wan and splayed on the flagstones, her face went pale as well, mouth falling open in shock.

"But how can he... oh, the fool. The brave, brave fool." Bilbo was stunned when she suddenly glowed with light. She touched Thorin and the light flowed over and around him. Shaking her head, she grimaced for a second and then whistled softly. A small bird immediately flew away, chirping urgently and within minutes (minutes in which Bilbo thought he might die of anxiety) a flaming white phoenix flew down and became a pillar of flame and then...

"Gandalf!" Bilbo shouted, forgetting the wizard's new name, and ran to him clutching at his white robes. "Thorin is sick and you must help... please..." he was crying now, tears pouring down his face. Olorin looked at him in shock, then down at Thorin and a thunderous scowl crossed his face.

"Fool of a dwarf! Of all the stiff-necked hare-brained... why is he here? What on earth was he thinking?" He strode over, sending another soft glow of magic over Thorin's comatose body. Bilbo sobbed brokenheartedly.

"Because of me," he said. "He came because of me." Olorin stopped and turned slowly, eyebrows raising, and Galadriel got a very peculiar look on her face. The scowl was gone from the wizard, and his expression was one of gentle questioning. Olorin's hand rested on Bilbo's shoulder, and he broke down sobbing. "It's all my fault," he cried wildly, "I kept him here, because I was stubborn and didn't want to give in and admit that I love him and oh gods I can't stand it!" he was shrieking now, voice climbing into a high-pitched panicked tone. "I can't lose him again, I can't, I can't," he cried wretchedly, nose running and hands clutching at his curly hair. "I can't..."

"Well, that's quite a different kettle of fish," the wizard said. He took Bilbo gently by the shoulders and soothed him. "There's no need to panic. Let's get him back where he belongs." Olorin looked at Galadriel from under his brows, and she nodded, going back into the house. "I must go arrange transport. Galadriel will come back with porters to bear him outside. All will be well, I'm sure, Bilbo, just keep safe here and..." Bilbo wiped his nose, glaring ferociously.

"No." He said like a gauntlet being thrown. "I'm going too. Wherever he needs to go, I will not be separated from him again." Olorin looked at him as if to argue, but he remembered Bilbo's mother all too well, and when Belladonna Took had that expression, to argue with her was at best foolish, at worst actively dangerous. Sighing, he nodded.

"You may not be able to stay with him, Bilbo. I will tell you that now. It may be beyond the power of any of us to keep you together." The wizard's expression was kind but sad. "Dwarves are not permitted to leave the halls of Aule. Very, very seldom is one given such permission, and I must assume that Thorin either overstayed his parole, or more likely had no such permission at all." Olorin patted him and moved quickly towards the entrance of the gardens. "But you may come with him as far as I may bear him. Beyond that is out of any of our hands." Bilbo stood and wrung his hands as Galadriel reappeared with two elves and a makeshift stretcher which they used to transport the stocky body of Thorin to the front of the house where the white-robed wizard was waiting with two eagles even larger than those which had borne the party away from goblins so many years ago. Galadriel spoke softly to the largest eagle, voice trilling in Quenya, and it kerk'ed a response, nodding its head. "Old friends," Olorin said, "carry the dwarf to the halls of Aule as swiftly as he may be borne. The hobbit goes with him, treat him kindly, I beg you. If you would wait nearby and see if he needs to return, I would consider it a kindness to return him here to this house." Bilbo glared at the wizard, but Olorin ignored his expression and soon enough the two eagles were aloft, racing through the air towards the mountains looming far to the west of the city. One bore Bilbo on its shoulders, the other Thorin in its talons. A bird made of white flame flew beside them.

What seemed like hours later, they began to descend. A huge fortress was visible, carved into the sheer side of mountains the likes of which Bilbo had never seen. There were no foothills, here, nor smaller peaks; these mountains were a solid wall of stone teeth, rising unbroken from the plains to incredible heights, snow-capped and severe. The face of the fortress was massive, images carved of dwarves smithing, laboring, delving... but there were no windows, Bilbo noticed. No balconies broke the stark lines; no entrance or hole was visible, even for ventilation. All was smoothed black rock and straight lines. At the base of the mountain, there was a series of seven tiered platforms, rising like steps carved for giants, and at the center of the topmost platform in the back was a gate. The eagles deposited the body and Bilbo there, and Olorin took shape again, sighing before lifting the body onto his shoulder. Bilbo shivered in fear at the looseness of Thorin's limbs.

"Is he... Gandalf... please, he can't be dead," Bilbo said wretchedly.

"He was already dead when he met you at the dock, Bilbo," Olorin responded sadly. "Don't worry, Aule will be able to revive him... if he chooses to do so." Sighing, he stopped and turned to the hobbit. "But I must tell you this. Of all the Valar, Aule is least inclined to be disobeyed. What Thorin did was... for your sake I will say noble, but also incredibly foolish. It remains to be seen if he will be forgiven." Chuckling in spite of himself, the wizard shook his head. "Only Thorin Oakenshield of all the dwarves I have ever known would be headstrong enough do such a thing. Truly, death changed him not a whit."

Bilbo's heart spasmed, but he steeled himself. Right then, he thought angrily, I will have to be his advocate, I suppose. Together they approached the huge gate. The closer they got to it, the larger it seemed, looming over them to a height Bilbo thought beyond impressive and on to the faintly ridiculous. What on earth could possibly be large enough to use such a door? Even stone giants would be dwarfed by it. Smaug at his full size would look like a puppy here. When they reached the bottom of the gate, Olorin looked around and produced a pleased "Ah!" as he walked over to a smaller man-sized door set in the bottom of the gate. Glancing at the hobbit, he said "Are you quite sure you want to come in, Bilbo? I am a servant of Manwe, and I am known here. You are... well, not known here. It is probably not dangerous, but things are odd in the realms particular to each Vala; you are, in a very real sense, walking into Aule's mind, and only he may let you out again." Bilbo squared his shoulders and nodded firmly. With that, the wizard pulled open the door and strode through with his burden, the hobbit close on his heels.

When they were inside, Bilbo was disoriented by double vision, as though he were seeing two scenes overlaid on each other. In one, he and Olorin stood, tiny as ants, at one end of an unimaginably vast hall. In the distance, a glowing figure sat on an enormous throne, head propped on one hand, glaring at them. In the other, they were standing in a blacksmith's forge with a massive dwarf in front of them, naked to the waist, hammering away at an anvil. The dwarf's face was exactly the same as the figure on the throne. "Well?" came the brusque challenge. "Been a while since one of Manwe's high and mighty servants came down here to..." Dark eyes flicked to the bundle over Olorin's shoulder. "Ah." Amazing that one small sound could contain so much disapproval and disappointment, the hobbit thought. The smith and the glowing figure reached out and with what looked like his forefinger and thumb (that can't be right, Bilbo thought in confusion) picked up the body of Thorin (tiny between two fingers) and dropped it on the floor. "My thanks. You can go." He turned back to his anvil, glaring at it as though it had done him wrong, then the hammer resumed. Olorin's hand was a warning on Bilbo's shoulder, but he'd had enough of caution.

"Er, excuse me," he said in his most polite voice, "Bilbo Baggins at your service!" Aule hadn't looked at him, but Bilbo saw the eyebrows go up as he hammered away. "Lord Aule... Would it be possible to get you to fix him?" Olorin snorted a laugh and put his fingers to the bridge of his nose as Aule looked up in confusion, though his arm didn't slow as the hammer crashed down with regularity on the red-hot metal. In the other view, the figure on the throne seemed to be looking up. "It's just, you see..." Bilbo thought, well bugger... I suppose there's nothing for it. "I very much love him, quite desperately in fact, and I want to have him back." Until that moment, Bilbo realized, he had never experienced absolute silence. When the forge stopped, all sound stopped; he could hear the blood rushing in his ears, it was so quiet. Olorin seemed frozen where he stood; not a hair moved. The hobbit felt like an ant under the eye of some unimaginably vast beast, like the whole world was staring directly at him. For the first time, the voice from the smith and the voice of the figure on the throne were both somewhat audible.

"What?" It was terrifying in combination, like the earth itself was speaking, despite the normal seeming volume. The figure on the throne stared. The smith turned and looked him up and down dismissively, then turned back to his anvil. "No." The hammer resumed its work, and the echoing clang of metal on metal was still somehow quieter than the silence had been before. Eyeing the length of metal, Aule turned his tongs and thrust it into a barrel of greasy water, causing a great hissing cloud to rise. Bilbo was still trying to cope with hearing "no" in that horrible, final tone but his mouth opened without his conscious intent.

"I beg your pardon, but if I might just explain..." Aule sighed deeply, and turned, beetling his brows at the hobbit. "It was entirely my fault, you see, and I feel..."

"Listen to me, child of my wife," the smith said. "You brought me my dwarf back. Once more, my thanks for that. He won't trouble you again. Now go." Thick, sooty fingers flicked and in an instant Bilbo found himself outside the gate, staring at it with his jaw hanging open. Olorin sighed and shook his head as Bilbo ran forward, pounding on it with his fist and shouting. The smaller door they had entered was mysteriously gone.

"Let me in this instant! I told you, I love him! Don't... please don't..." tears were streaming down his face as he battered uselessly against the vast portal, and Olorin tried again and again to lead him away. "But... I love him," he said brokenly, then threw himself down on the ground and sobbed. The wizard sat beside him looking miserable, patting Bilbo's shoulder as he grieved. Finally, when he couldn't cry any more, he stopped and sat up, but refused to rise when Olorin offered him his hand. "I hate this place," he said, in a tone of absolute misery. "I wish I had stayed in Rivendell and died."

"Bilbo..." the wizard said gently, face soft with sadness. "I'm so sorry, but I did tell you..."

"I mean it, Gandalf... or Olorin, or whoever you are now," the hobbit said in a furious voice, face livid with rage. "I had made my peace long ago with Thorin being dead, though it shattered my heart into a million pieces when it happened. There's only so long one can mourn, though every day of grief seemed like it lasted ten thousand years. But to come here, and have him be here, and have it seem like," his voice got louder and wilder, and he stopped talking to sniffle wildly and ferociously wipe his nose on his sleeve, "like everything could pick up where we left off only to have this happen! I can't bear it. He was finally getting to court me properly! And now... Having him again and losing him again is worse than not having him at all." The hobbit looked half-mad, snot and tears and dirt on his face, glaring at Olorin as though the wizard were responsible for his situation. "Don't you understand? I spent twenty years of my life feeling miserable like this! Twenty bloody years of knowing that everything I ever wanted, everything I could have had and held and loved lay in a box of stone in the bottom of a mountain I couldn't even bear to see again! But I finally fought my way out of that grey gloom and learned to live again, just in time to be old. And being old helped, because I didn't have to deal with people expecting me to be so bloody happy all the time, and if I wanted to be sad, I could be. And to come here and be made young again and have Thorin again and have it seem like... like..." he took a shuddering breath, "like Valinor really was the wonderful place all the elves kept banging on about, where everything was happy and wonderful, and there was no sorrow and no death. It was amazing to think that maybe that was all real and true. But it was a lie. This whole place is a lie. There's nothing here but the same pain and separation and loss I could get in the Shire or anywhere else." The light seemed to go out of him, and the hobbit slumped down slowly. "I wish I were dead."

"Never wish that, Bilbo." Olorin's words were kind but stern. "That helps nothing, and you might find that death is no better than this, who can say? I do understand. Better than most, in fact; I have suffered great loss in my long life, and I am so very sorry. I would wish this on no-one, and on you least of all, my dear hobbit. I wish I had known Thorin had come before things reached this pass; I don't know what I might have done, as stubborn as he was, but I could have at least warned you of what was surely coming." He produced a pipe out of thin air, then thought for a moment and produced a second smaller one and passed it to Bilbo. The hobbit took it, looked at it incuriously, and set it aside. He barely seemed to notice when it dissolved into nothing again, and Olorin sighed deeply.

"Do you know what the worst part is?" Bilbo said softly, almost as though he were talking to himself. "He courted me for weeks while I fought myself. Weeks we could have been together, but it took that long for me to admit to myself that I loved him still. Ten minutes before he fell, I finally realized I had been stupid to pretend like I didn't. We kissed at last. But only the once." He stared off into the trees as the light faded, one of the intermittent random periods of night coming upon the mountain. "His last words to me were 'worth it all to be with you'." A sob racked the hobbit's frame. "If he had said that to me before he died at Erebor instead of all that ridiculous poppycock about forgiveness and going to the hall of his fathers, I might have thrown myself from the mountainside. I knew he loved me, but he never... he never told me. He never said. I got back so much more than I lost. And now I've lost it all again." Bilbo sat quietly, tears running down his cheeks again. "How do I live through this?"

Olorin sighed and puffed at his pipe. "I will seek out Lady Nienna. She has helped me and many others when we wanted to yield to loss. It may be that she can ease this terrible grief with her..." Bilbo didn't even let him finish. He was shaking his head, blondish curls bobbing softly in the gloom.

"No," he said. "I've had enough of magic and Valinor. Just... take me back to my rooms." He cast one last, despairing glance at the giant gate and unforgiving walls of stone looming up before him. "There's nothing for me here." He may have been looking at the gate, but it was obvious that 'here' encompassed all of Valinor and everything within it. Silently, sadly, Olorin called for the eagle who waited for them, and together they flew back to Tirion.

Days and then weeks passed and Bilbo stayed in his rooms. When anyone sought him out, they would find him in his nightclothes, lying in bed in a darkened room with the drapes pulled. He would respond to direct questions sometimes, but most of the time he was silent. His food was barely touched, and he began to grow thinner. Frodo came most of all, bringing sweets and dainties, fresh tea and flowers, anything to try to provoke a response, but all in vain. The only time he was able to get a response of more than two words, he wished he hadn't. One day while sitting and trying to get a reaction, Frodo apologized to Bilbo for telling Thorin how to court him without asking first, and Bilbo screamed at him, shouting horrible, awful things, and threw the teapot beside the bed to smash on the wall beside the door as the younger hobbit fled. Frodo stayed away for a day or two, uncertain of his reception, but when he returned it was like nothing had happened; if not for the lingering scratches where the teapot crashed, he would doubt his own memory. Galadriel became concerned and came to check on him, but to her Bilbo would not even speak. He just lay, staring listlessly at the wall, while she spoke; finally she rose, touching his shoulder in sympathy, but he flinched from her touch and rolled himself up in the quilt. With each day that passed, the hobbit grew thinner and weaker.

One day a commotion was heard through the door to Bilbo's room that Frodo had left ajar; it hadn't seemed important enough to warrant closing, especially since getting out of bed was harder now. There was the sound of voices outside and movement, and Bilbo feared that a whole group was coming. Why, he wondered, can't they leave me alone? Wretched enough to feel like this without the bother of other people. The sound of his suite door opening made him sigh internally, but the next thing to happen was beyond unexpected. A warm wind blew through the room, carrying the scents of the Shire. Bilbo could smell the apple trees, the fields of grain, the trees in the orchards, the loam in the rain. So this is death, he thought. Fair enough. It's been a decent enough life, despite all that my poor heart has been through, but I'll be glad to see the back of it. Instead of the shadowy half-expected figure of death, a tall golden-haired woman strode into the room and stopped as though shocked.

"Oh, child," he heard her say in the warmest, kindest voice he had ever heard. Just the sound of her words brought him to tears like he hadn't produced since that fateful day at the gate. The woman came and sat on the edge of the bed and held him as he wept, stroking his hair and murmuring softly to him like he was a faunt. She smelled like the Shire, he realized; it was her making that scent. And still he sobbed and sobbed, but instead of feeling bitter and drained like before he felt cleansed, and oddly empty. When he was done, she cradled him softly and kissed his forehead. "Now," she said in a quiet voice, "Tell me your sorrow, child. You are a hero to all of us. What has brought you to this?" He knew there was some magic there, because he would never tell so much to a total stranger, but neither would he have allowed a stranger to comfort him so. Slowly, broken by the occasional tear, Bilbo told her the whole story, from meeting Thorin at Bag End to his death in the Battle of Five Armies, the long years of grief and remorse, and then (after bracing himself) the story of their courtship here in Tirion, while Thorin grew weaker and hid his ailment so that he could stay with Bilbo. She was a wonderful listener, making interested noises and paying close attention, but when he told her of the cruelty of Aule and how he had been dismissed without even a hearing, she sighed heavily.

"Oh beloved, why do you never listen to anyone," she said softly. In a flash, Bilbo realized who this must be. He wanted to get up and bow, suddenly shocked into embarrassment to be cradled in the lap of Yavanna herself. She read his face without a moment's hesitation, bursting into laughter that was pure and joyous and somehow reminded the hobbit of springtime. "None of that, now, Bilbo... I am the least formal being you'll meet." She beamed down at him where he lay on her lap in his nightclothes, and for the first time since his visit to the mountains he felt the urge to stir from the bed. "Do you know, it's always been odd to me that my husband is one of the least romantic people in creation in most ways, but yet... for some reason, he made his dwarves to have only one true mate?" Her eyes twinkled mischievously at Bilbo. "Did you know that?" He shook his head; he certainly hadn't known that! But, he thought, if that was true, then Thorin coming to find him meant... oh. The hobbit was glad that he was already sitting down or he would have fallen over. The thought that he might have been Thorin's one chosen mate might have broken him earlier, but with the change in atmosphere the Green Lady had brought, it just strengthened his resolve to get up and do something, anything, to get him back. She grinned down at him, eyes twinkling. "I find it quite romantic, and dwarves have been known to do desperate things for the one they are destined to love... if they ever meet them."

Bilbo cleared his throat. He had talked more in the past hour than he had in the past month. "Lady," he finally got out, "I know very little of dwarven customs. Even traveling with twelve of them across half of Eriador, I never learned much."

"Well, you wouldn't have," she said softly, reaching somehow across the room without moving and fetching a filled steaming cup of tea and handing it to Bilbo. At this point the hobbit began (somewhat belatedly) to realize that the Valar didn't seem to move in the same reality as everyone else. He sipped at it as she said "My husband made them in his own image, and as you can tell from your brief interaction with him, he's not the most forthcoming and sharing sort, and thus neither are they. They hoard their customs and secrets like gold. But, like him, when they love..." she smiled fondly and looked away, "they can work wonders and they will love you truly, deeply, utterly, without hesitation or boundary. Never doubt that love, Bilbo Baggins." He grimaced.

"Thorin came to me and died again simply for a kiss, Lady. How could I doubt such a love as that?" She smiled sweetly but her eyes were sad. "Ganda... Olorin told me that there was nothing to be done, that Thorin was gone forever. He said that Lord Aule might not even..." he took a quick breath to ease the tension in his chest, "revive him because he was disobedient. Please tell me, is there anything I can do, anything I can say, to change that?" She looked at him with eyes as old as the world, but the expression on her face was alight with approval.

"Finally! That sounds like a proper sensible hobbit question! Better late than never, I suppose. Does this mean that you want to get out of bed now? Are you done with lying about and moping?" she asked him teasingly. He hung his head but nodded, feeling exactly like he had when his mother caught him playing in mud puddles as a faunt of barely eight years. "Well then, do so. I will be in your sitting room, and when you are bathed and dressed, find me there and we will discuss what might be done." With that she stood and marched out of the room, turning to cast one last gentle smile at him as she closed the door. He sprang out of bed so quickly he lost his balance, forgetting how weak he had become. He also realized belatedly that he was ravenous, and stuffed a roll in his mouth from the untouched tray on the bedside table before hurrying into the bath. By the time he had finished washing and getting fresh clothes on, he was tired but still almost ran out into the room where Yavanna was sitting in a chair in a blazing sunbeam. He wanted to kneel because she looked so beautiful and powerful, but she beckoned for him and he went and sat on another elf-sized chair nearby, kicking his feet as he sat.

"I don't need all that bowing and scraping, Bilbo, I told you before," she said chidingly. "I love all my hobbits, but you and Frodo are especially dear to me for your service in ridding the world of that..." she frowned and muttered something, then said "of Sauron. If you hadn't found his little trinket and kept it safe... if Frodo hadn't been able to destroy it... it could have been very bad indeed. You two won the last battle for all of us, a battle in a war that had been going on since the Beginning. We owe you a tremendous debt. My husband especially, though he was in no hurry to learn of it. Sauron was once called Mairon, and he was a Maia like Olorin, only more powerful. He studied with Aule, and my husband taught him all that he knew before Mairon betrayed him and went to the Darkness. Aule was deeply hurt by that, and truly he hasn't trusted anyone quite the same since. He feels guilty for the uses to which Mairon put the knowledge that he taught him." Yavanna stopped and looked down at her lap. When she looked back up, there was a fierce light in her eyes. "Even so, Aule owes you, though he knows it not. I must tell you, though. He is quite jealous of his dwarves, and does not share them easily or often; whether he would permit you to visit your dwarf in his halls is uncertain. You would be the first non-dwarf permitted to do so if he does. I will think on what I might offer him on your behalf." Bilbo felt himself tearing up.

"Lady," he said gently, "thank you... I don't know why you would do so much to help me, but thank you." She somehow cupped his face with her hand from where she sat, and again he marveled at the way the Valar played with space.

"I told you, you are my child, and you are dear to me. All my children are dear to me, Bilbo. I love you. What mother doesn't?" She stood. "Now I will leave for a bit and think on this. I expect you to rest, properly rest, not just lie about in bed all day. Also, eat; you're far too thin. Move about; you need exercise. This bottomless sorrow hasn't served you well at all. When I come back, we will go and see if my husband can be made to see reason." Bilbo nodded and grinned in spite of himself. Mother indeed, he thought. With that his stomach gave a loud rumble of complaint, and he laughed aloud at the look of disapproval on her face.

"I promise I will rest, and eat, and move. If we can get Thorin back, oh Lady, I will be the happiest hobbit alive." She left after one last caress of her hand across his hair, which left him happy and seeking out food. It was only hours after she left that he realized that for all her encouraging words and kind sentiments, she had never actually said that it was possible to get Thorin back at all. With this sobering thought, he retired for the night.

Yavanna didn't return the next day, or the next, or the day after that. Bilbo's swift recovery was a wonder to a household who somehow hadn't seen Yavanna come or go, though Galadriel just welcomed him back to the dinner table with a knowing smile. He ate and exercised as though he were on a mission (which in a way he supposed he was), falling into bed exhausted each night and rising the next morning determined to do everything he could to storm Aule's mountain fastness by force if he had to. He refused to allow himself to think about the Green Lady's refusal to promise results. Failure simply wasn't an option, and that was that. Everywhere he went reminded him of Thorin, and even with his new resolve the reminders were exquisitely painful. When he went into the gardens, he could see the stocky handsome dwarf sitting there in his mind. When he walked on the street, memories of their conversations and long hair blowing in the gentle breeze, and a ghost of thick fingers holding his made his lower lip tremble. When he sought out one of the bakeries that had been dear to them, ghostly blue eyes gazed at him from every corner, and when the baker asked where the dwarf had gone, Bilbo had to stop and breathe for a moment before he could answer. He finally smiled, mumbled something which probably made no sense, and fled clutching a cinnamon roll.

A week passed by, and then another. Bilbo was beginning to slow down as his first flush of enthusiasm was corrupted by doubts. What if Yavanna didn't return? What if she was never there at all, and the whole thing was a figment of his imagination? Bilbo lay in bed at night, agonizing over the fact that nobody else in the house had seen her come or go. He hadn't shared the story, thinking it too personal, and at the time he had assumed that when he showed up again with Thorin all would be explained, but... What if it was all some derangement of his depression? Maybe his miserable mind was so tired of being despondent it manufactured the whole thing. Worse yet, even if it was real, she never promised anything. What if Aule's mind could not be changed? What if he didn't even let them in? What if Thorin couldn't be brought back a second time? What if, what if... doubts and worries swirled around him as he lay in bed, and increasingly as he walked in the streets or did anything else. He began to wander further afield, exploring remote corners of the city and spending a great deal of time diving into the forest groves that had made Thorin feel peculiar, simply for relief from memories of the dwarf walking with him. The hobbit wondered at times if he weren't becoming somewhat mad; the degree to which he was haunted by his memories and the constant gnawing bite of grief in particular made him suspect that madness might not be far off.

One day he was deep in the woods, marveling at how such a thick and ancient-looking forest could be so close to Tirion itself, when a voice he remembered said "Ah, there you are! Lovely day for a walk, isn't it?" Bilbo's heart leapt at the sound. Yavanna stepped out from behind an enormous tree as though she had been there all along. She extended a hand towards Bilbo. "Take my hand, child. It's much easier to take you with me when we touch." He reached up and took the hand extended to him, and the world began to flicker around him as they walked. She strolled as though she were in a garden, Bilbo walking at a normal pace at her side, but with each step the surroundings changed, trees and rocks and waterfalls and beaches appearing and disappearing with each step. He felt dizzy and shook his head, but dared not let go of her hand. They stopped for a moment when she saw the gesture, this time standing atop a pillar of grey stone that fell sheer on all sides down what looked like hundreds of feet into a churning flood of water far below. No birds or other signs of life were present, and the only sound was the mournful whine of the wind and the rushing of the water far below. "I'm sorry, I forget that this is disorienting to those who are unused to it. We can rest a moment, but then we really should be going." Bilbo let go of her hand thankfully and staggered a few steps to sit down, holding his head with both hands. After a moment, the whirling dizziness faded a bit.

"Lady?" He asked from where he was sitting. "Do you... do you think there is much chance of getting Thorin back?" Bilbo hated to ask, but he needed to know before they got back into that terrible smithy. She looked at him for a moment with a compassionate expression, but then gave a wry smile.

"There is always a chance, Bilbo. I do not prophesy; it is not my gift, nor my desire." She looked around, and sighed. "Ironic that we come to a place where I have nothing of my own to speak with you of this. But it seems to be the will of Eru; so be it." She flung herself down carelessly on the rock beside Bilbo and smiled at him. "Aule is proud, Bilbo. You must know that if you wish to love a dwarf, for they are the same in that as in so much else. He is proud, and stubborn, and takes offense far too easily in my opinion." She looked away for a moment and flicked her fingers; Bilbo saw patches of lichen appear at places on the stone, growing by the second. "He will be furious at Thorin, and for several reasons. First for leaving his halls where he feels that he has provided everything his children could want; as I told you, we all love our children, and he maybe more than most. To my husband, that will seem like a rejection, and he takes rejection poorly." Bilbo's bark of laughter made her eyebrows go up.

"Thorin gets very haughty and proper when he feels he's been rejected," the hobbit explained, "and he gets this look around his mouth that looks angry, but it's because he's stabbing himself with guilt and shame." Yavanna reached out and stroked his curly hair, grinning like a little girl.

"Your Thorin is the very image of his maker, then," she giggled, "I know that exact look, does he also do the squint?" She narrowed her eyes to look angry and Bilbo laughed, amazed that he could produce a sound so carefree.

"Yes, exactly! A terrible squint, and don't forget the lifted chin, and the shoulder shake," he shimmied himself into a stern, upright posture and glared down his nose haughtily as Yavanna laughed another of her chiming laughs, and all the moss and lichen that had grown on the barren stone rippled in sympathy. Bilbo noticed a small bush forcing itself out of a crack in the stone that had barely been noticeable minutes before.

"Oh child of mine, such patience I wish upon you, for your Thorin sounds entirely too like my husband for your peace of mind. I love him with all my heart but he can be so difficult sometimes I could tear out my own hair. Yet and still, love is love; the gifts of Eru Iluvatar fall where they fall, and lucky the heart that finds them." She grimaced a bit. "And as for love... The second reason that Aule will be angry with Thorin is because he left the halls for you in particular. He is... jealous, in a way that the rest of us are not. I think it marvelous that you should love a dwarf, indeed I feel you and I are closer kin for it, but Aule may not think so. He will question you both straitly before he does anything, but I worry that he will see Thorin loving you as a rejection of his own gifts to him of life and skill. It will take some gentle wooing to calm his heart, but I will do my best."

"Thank you." Bilbo sat, staring at his own feet, twisting them this way and that in the breeze. "I know you said that he owes me a debt. Is there...?" he trailed off, uncertain how to even frame the concept. Hobbits didn't keep debts like that, but dwarves did, as he knew quite well. She gave him an earnest look.

"Yes, and that is our greatest weapon, but it will need to be used with skill. Let me mention that, and just answer the questions put to you. Do not be surprised at anything you see or hear, and just have faith in me. Can you do that?" he nodded quickly, but she looked him in the eyes.

"Yes, Lady, I trust you." She nodded and stood, extending her hand.

"Good! Then let's be on our way. Sooner started, sooner finished, isn't that the phrase?" Laughing to hear a Shire commonplace in so decidedly uncommon a place, he took her hand and they set off again. Shortly, they stood in front of the enormous gate again, but there was no sign of the small door that Bilbo had used with Olorin. Yavanna put her hands on her hips and sighed. She glanced around and tapped her foot for a few moments, looking increasingly exasperated, then told the hobbit in a matter-of-fact voice, "Cover your ears." No sooner had he done so than she walked over and rapped her knuckles upon the door. Bilbo thought it wasted effort, since he had kicked and pounded the door to no effect when last here, but he had forgotten that Valar were simply different. The titantic gateway boomed and groaned, seeming to ripple and warp in its hinges. The smaller door popped into view immediately, and her amused smirk made it all the way to the threshold before she carefully smoothed her face. Looking down at Bilbo and gesturing with a finger before her lips, she opened the door.

When they entered, Bilbo had a moment of deja vu. Nothing had changed; Thorin still lay on the floor exactly where he had been before, and the only sign of time passing was the presence of tiny flecks of soot and forge-smut on Thorin's clothes and face. The figure on the throne was looking up with astonishment in the other view, but the dwarven smith was right where he had been, hammering industriously away on what looked like the same piece of metal. He looked up sourly, gazing first at Yavanna and then with a truly grim look at Bilbo, before going back to his metal. "Well?" he muttered. "Always glad to see you, but strange company you're keeping."

Yavanna walked over to the smith and embraced him, paying no mind to the soot and sweat. Yet another oddity of perspective struck the hobbit when he realized that the tall woman he had accompanied here was somehow the same height as the dwarf, or vice versa. In the other view a cloud of swirling green and gold fire flickered the length of the hall before dancing around the figure on the throne joyously, producing a smile. "Husband," she said in a soft, low voice, "I missed you." The smith eyed his metal critically before thrusting it into the forge again for heating and set down his tongs, turning fully to face her. His face relaxed into something approaching a smile, and with a start Bilbo realized that Aule's expression was exactly the same one that Thorin had for him. His squeak of surprise was ignored by the other two as they kissed quickly and separated. In the smithy, at any rate; Bilbo saw in the other image that the green fire was wrapped like a vine around the figure on the throne, and that scowling, furious face was now wreathed in smiles.

After a moment, Aule turned to Bilbo, and his smile fell away. "What's this about?" Bilbo glanced at Yavanna, who gave a slight nod.

"Bilbo Baggins, sir, I mean my lord! I was..." Aule snorted in disdain.

"Yes, yes, I remember you. Even offered me your service, as if I asked for it or wanted it. Here last time with that stuck-up Maia of Manwe's, now you come with my wife. What's a Bilbo Baggins that you can get a Maia and Vala to act as your heralds?" Dark eyes bored into him. "What do you want, anyway?"

"Thorin." The name fell into the room like a droplet into a deep well. "We were... we loved each other when we were alive, but it never, well, he died. He came to meet me at the docks when I came with the elves." Aule's eyebrows raised a bit at this statement, but his eyes flicked to Yavanna and she nodded, so he made a small gesture to continue. "We had a few short weeks together and then he..." Bilbo gestured helplessly at Thorin's body. "Please, bring him back and let us be together." Bilbo almost fell to his knees to beg, but remembered in time that weakness wasn't appreciated by dwarves. Aule's jaw set, and his lips were a grim line.

"No." Bilbo almost started to cry at that flat, final word again, but Yavanna reached out and touched the smith's shoulder as he went to turn back around. Aule gave her an incredulous look. "Are you here to argue for him too? Is it really your wish to tell me what to do with my own children?" he shouted angrily, and the look Yavanna gave him was one Bilbo recognized instinctively. It was a look he himself had worn on so many occasions he knew it from the inside. He felt like his face might freeze in that expression on the journey to Erebor, usually when Thorin had done something truly bone-headed.

"Of course not," came her cool reply, unconcern in her voice at odds with the reproach on her face. "I haven't done that in this many thousand years, I'm not about to start now." She stepped back, dusting her hands off, and Aule gave her a narrow look, appearing faintly worried.

"Well... good." he huffed. "Then what?" She looked away pointedly, then gestured for Bilbo to come stand near her. Aule glowered at the two of them.

"I just thought you would like to meet Bilbo. He is one of the two of my children that brought down Mairon, after all." She glanced up with an expression of perfect disinterest. "But I see I was wrong, and clearly you're busy with..." she gestured gracefully with one hand, "all this. So I suppose we'll be going. Come, Bilbo." She stretched out her hand and he almost cried out, but remembered his promise. Shaking with repressed tears, he took her hand obediently.

"Stop." Like before, the figure on the throne's voice blended with the smith's, and the whole mountain seemed to rock and quake beneath Bilbo's feet. Yavanna's expression didn't even change, though the hobbit thought he saw her eyebrow twitch. The smith looked at Bilbo and the hobbit really did take a step back this time. The dark, deep-set eyes had been replaced with roaring flames, like the dwarf's whole body was a roaring forge. "Mairon?"

"Yes sir, I mean no sir, I mean, well, yes, I was the one who found the Ring that Sauron made, and kept it safe, and hid it from him for long enough for my nephew to destroy it, so yes, in that way, if you please, but..." Aule threw back his head and laughed and the figure on the throne laughed too, and the booming guffaws caused the room to shake crazily, bits of stone falling from unimaginable heights above and lamps swaying. Glancing over at Yavanna, Bilbo saw a small smile hovering around her lips. When the smith finished, he wiped the back of a hand across his eyes and chuckled again, then turned a piercing gaze on Bilbo.

"Mairon is dead." Aule said in a tone of rich satisfaction. "And you were part of throwing the traitor down. You have my thanks for that. Now I see why the elves brought you. And what did you use the power of Sauron's Ring for in all those years, Bilbo Baggins?" The words were said in such a tone that they compelled an answer; Bilbo felt his tongue fighting to speak before he even opened his mouth.

"It hid me and made me invisible," he panted quickly, "I used it to sneak Thorin and our friends out of Thranduil's dungeons, and to speak to a dragon, and to hide from neighbors and people trying to borrow money." With that his jaw snapped shut, and he stared in shock at the smith, who was staring back with an identical expression. Yavanna was snickering quietly off to one side, but neither of them glanced at her.

"Was that all?" the smith asked incredulously, but again with compulsions in his voice, and Bilbo wracked his mind. Oh dear, he thought, but there was nothing for it. As soon as it crossed his mind, it was spilling from his lips.

"I... used it once to pick apples in my smallclothes." He said miserably, a pink stripe across each cheekbone. Aule's face was a picture of dismay, and Yavanna was laughing outright now, loud undignified whooping that brought a strange sound to the gloomy halls. "Well, it was early, you see, and I really wanted apple pies, and I didn't want to get dressed, and so I thought nobody would see me and I could just..." Aule's snort of incredulity cut him off.

"You had the power of a Maia in your hands, and you used it to pick apples in the nude and hide from neighbors?" Eyes gone dark again turned to Yavanna in amazement. "Are your children mad, or saints?"

She smiled at him, eyes glittering in amusement. "A little of both, sometimes. My children are good, and decent, and pragmatic to their very bones. As you would know... if you spent any time with them." The smith's face closed down with the implied rebuke, but Bilbo thought his mouth had a rueful slant to it. Yavanna stepped over to him, laying her hands on his shoulders and gazing directly into his face. "They also love intensely, and deeply, and like your children, they cherish their loves forever. Loss is a terrible sword to them, as it is to your dwarves." Aule looked down, but she leaned in and pressed her lips to the edge of his beard, teasing at his hair with her hand. He huffed and acted offended, but Bilbo noticed he didn't even move. Finally, he grunted angrily.

"Fine," he grumbled, turning back to his forge. "Since everyone is so determined to make me do whatever they want. Ridiculous. Why I even..." Yavanna looked down at Bilbo, who was beginning to worry again, but her expression was light and smiling, like they were sharing a secret. He shivered and waited. Aule pumped the bellows, bringing the forge to a white heat, then without any warning, reached down (giant figure reaching out) and picked up Thorin's body and flung it into the heart of the flames (giant hand cupping tiny form in a white flame). Bilbo screamed in panic in spite of himself, but Aule didn't even look up. Pumping the bellows again, he got the flame even higher, and Yavanna's hand calmed the hobbit. Reaching in with his tongs, the smith somehow fished out a small something that was at the same time Thorin's body, and flung it on the anvil. Snatching up his hammer, he began tapping out a furious rhythm on the... on Thorin, Bilbo thought. How could anything survive that? Despite his worries, the body didn't seem to be damaged; in fact, even the clothes were unsinged, but a warmth and color seemed to be returning to the grey flesh as Aule hammered away at him. With a final ringing blow, the tongs holding the dwarf were thrust into the quench and another billowing cloud of steam rolled up. After the steam had stopped, Aule flung Thorin's body in the floor and grated out "Get up."

Thorin clambered to his feet, staring at Aule, and said "Mahal," going to his knees and bowing his head. Bilbo felt tears welling up at the sight of his beloved again. He wanted to run over and embrace him, shield him from whatever might come, but Yavanna's hand was grasping his shoulder firmly and she shook her head when he glanced up at her. Aule glowered down at the dwarf in front of him, seeming both the same size and to be looming over him.

"You left my hall. Why?" Bilbo could hear the compulsion in the question; he felt a vague desire to answer it himself, but Thorin blanched at the power of it and was speaking before he could even think.

"Vigi of the Blue Mountains came to your hall and said that elves passed him with two hobbits on their way to the Grey Havens before his death. Bilbo Baggins was one of them. He was coming to Tirion on a ship with the elves because... well, because. I love him with all my heart; I have loved him since before I died. I heard the words of love that he spoke at my tomb along with his tears, and my heart shattered into pieces even in your halls. I could not refuse to go." Aule's face was grim, brows drawn down and beard bristling around a set jaw.

"You left my halls without my permission. You went to a place of the elves, to meet one of my wife's children?" Thorin nodded. "Have you learned your lesson? I may not bring you back next time." The stubborn look Thorin gave his maker was the mirror of Aule's own.

"I would do it again. I would do it a hundred times to see Bilbo. Time with him is worth death." Bilbo cried out, but Yavanna shushed him. Clearly they were hidden from Thorin somehow, and muffled as well, but he burned inside to hear these words.

"What if I told you that the only way you could be with this... Bilbo of yours was to be exiled from my halls and the race of your kin? To be unable to help us when we remake the world, and to end with the rest in fire? Would you stop being a dwarf for him?" Thorin reeled for a moment, but nodded.

"If that is what must be, then so be it. I love him. He is my one true love, and I will take what punishment I must to have him." Bilbo was sobbing by now, but Yavanna leaned down and comforted him by stroking his hair. Aule looked at Thorin with pure incredulity warring with anger on his face.

"Oh dear," Yavanna murmured, and then she stepped forward. "Husband," she said, and Thorin whipped around and saw Bilbo. With a guttural cry, he raced over and grabbed the hobbit so tightly Bilbo's shoulders hurt, but instead of flinching the hobbit clutched at Thorin in return. Crying, they kissed and pressed together, wetting each other's shoulders with their tears of happiness. Yavanna looked significantly at Aule, who was staring dumbfounded at the pair before him. "Here is my proposal, if you wish to hear it," she said, stepping softly around the dwarf and hobbit intertwined in the middle of the floor and placing her hand on her husband's shoulder. "Clearly Bilbo cannot dwell within your halls for long, as he is not a dwarf. He must have sun and wind, wood and plants about him." Aule nodded absently, still staring at the tearful reunion taking place in his smithy. "In the same way, Thorin cannot go unpunished, for sneaking out of your halls and defying you." Bilbo whipped around to glare at her, but took comfort from her tiny smile and cautionary look. Aule grunted and nodded at this. "Let Thorin be exiled from your halls for alternating months, since he was so desperate to escape; let Bilbo come within your halls for the other months, that he may see what Thorin is missing, and understand what the love of him has cost his beloved." Aule nodded grimly, but even Bilbo could see the smile playing at the corners of his mouth below the long beard. "I will volunteer to take them back and forth, to ensure that they are monitored and that no further escapes are attempted. It will be no hardship to see you more often, beloved." The smith laughed and shook his head, but his gaze was on his wife and it was filled with admiration.

"You are dangerous," the smith said, "and I remember why we are married. So be it, then. I will let this Bilbo Baggins see the splendors of the halls of the dwarves, the only non-dwarf to do so," his dark eyes fixed on Bilbo, "for his service to me in destroying Mairon, and for love of my child." He reached out and touched Bilbo from across the room as Yavanna had, tapping him on the head so that his ears rang for a moment. "My debt to you is paid, Bilbo Baggins."

"Yes sir, my lord, sir," Bilbo stammered, heart overflowing with joy. "Thank you, thank you, thank you, I..." Thorin snatched him up again and kissed him, lips pressing against his and stars appearing in his sight. The laughter of Yavanna and Aule was like music as they watched the couple rejoicing. Finally, Thorin seized Bilbo's hand and both of them bowed to Aule and Yavanna in turn. Thorin tugged the hobbit over to a door that had appeared in the wall. Unlike the simple wooden door that let them through the gate, this was elaborate and inlaid with runes in gold and silver, sparkling with mithril and worked with the sigils of Durin and the other six fathers of the dwarves. At Thorin's touch it opened, revealing an entrance hall hung with lamps and bustling with dwarves of all ages and appearances. He dragged Bilbo inside, ignoring the hobbit's half-hearted attempts to stop and look around when suddenly a dwarf almost as massive as Aule's smith-form appeared before them. Thorin dropped Bilbo's hand and stepped in front of him, bowing to the new dwarf.

Bilbo examined the newcomer and something about him seemed raw and powerful. His hair was long and shock white, braided in elaborate patterns that swirled and shifted, and his long white beard was the same. Despite the age implied by the white hair, though, his eyes were as black as coal and piercing as diamonds, and the rich clothing he wore did nothing to disguise the immense power of his shoulders and arms or the depth of his barrel chest. The strange dwarf looked at Thorin in what looked like disgust, then drew back his hand and punched him, sending him to the floor. "Idiot," the dwarf said in a voice like thunder, "I told you not to go. You may be my descendant, but you're not me. You can't get away with that sort of thing." Glittering dark eyes cut to Bilbo. "So this is the little scrap you were pining for?" A snort of disdain that went through Bilbo like a red-hot wire. "He looks like a skinned rabbit."

"Now see here!" Bilbo said sharply, stepping in front of Thorin as his beloved lay on the floor shaking his head. "You can't just go around hitting people! What sort of behavior is that? Who are you, and how dare you strike Thorin? I can't believe that..." Suddenly the old dwarf's eyes trapped Bilbo's, and he felt a sensation like all his nerves were being scraped, like the dwarf could see into him in a very deep and uncomfortable way. A booming laugh rang out, with the massive dwarf's head thrown back and mouth gaping as he guffawed. He reached down and helped Thorin up, and Bilbo was astonished to realize that Thorin didn't even seem upset. Instead he was grinning like he was amused as well, but the hobbit saw very little reason for amusement.

"Maybe a skinned rabbit, but one with a core of diamond and fire, I see," the old dwarf said to Thorin, nodding. He glanced back over at Bilbo. "You'll do, I suppose, though you're no dwarf. Here." He gave a pin to Bilbo with an elaborate seal on it, made of some silvery metal and set with tiny cut gems.

"All-Father," Thorin said, bowing his head again, "you honor us." A snort was the only response and the old dwarf strode off, shouting in the language of the dwarves at someone in the back of the hall. Thorin looked at Bilbo with glowing approval, but the hobbit was completely wrong-footed.

"What just happened?" He asked in confusion. Thorin gingerly touched his jaw, then took Bilbo's hand again.

"You have just met Durin the Deathless, father of all the dwarves, my clan in particular, and my direct ancestor." Thorin half-smiled. "He approved of you, though his manner is... abrupt. Wear that pin; it marks you as part of his house. It is..." Thorin took it from Bilbo, turned it around, and his brows climbed upwards. "A mithril badge set with diamonds. You did impress him." Thorin glanced at Bilbo from under his brows. "I... we haven't been able to talk about things very much. Please don't think me forward if..." Bilbo's hand touched Thorin's shoulder gently.

"Thorin," the hobbit half-whispered, awareness of the whole hall fading so that all he saw was the handsome dark-haired dwarf in front of him. "I've waited for you quite long enough. Do you have rooms here?" At the dwarf's slow, stunned nod, Bilbo smiled wickedly. "I'd love to see them." A flush passed from Thorin's neck up to his hairline, but he nodded sharply. They headed off into the halls, ignoring the shocked looks of dwarves on all sides at a hobbit in their midst. Sometimes, Bilbo thought, you do manage to win after all. Glancing over at the profile of the dwarf beside him, he smiled. This would be a good way to spend eternity.