After the battle, there is silence.
Not objectively, of course. Objectively, there is the roar of fire, the cries of dying, even the occasional tired cheer from those to whom the realisation of victory has arrived before the understanding of its cost. Objectively, the foot of the mountain is littered with noise as the survivors search for their comrades, echoing with the shouts of joy or despair that follow, depending on what they find.
Objectively, Bilbo runs through the battlefield, feet slipping in the bloodied earth, calling out names of friends he has grown to love. And when he is answered, his relief comes out in meaningless babble that even he doesn’t understand, biting his lip to pull himself under control, making himself useful in the aftermath of it all. There is always need for another pair of hands to fetch bandages, to carry food and water, to dig graves.
Objectively then, the world is as full of sound as before, if not more.
But inside Bilbo’s heart, there is silence.
It still beats, of course it does, and if he has to press fingers to his neck every now and then just to check… Well, no one has to know about that.
It is not a physical silence that has come upon him. He hasn’t gone deaf nor mute, he still hears and talks, still turns when someone calls his name. Even though the voice doing so is never the one he wants to hear almost as much as he dreads it.
But inside him everything is quiet, as if a hush has descended over his soul. It is the stillness of eve, fallen at the height of noon. Bilbo feels hollowed out and cold, the space between every heartbeat stretching out like a hand into infinite darkness.
It is emptiness that no meal can fill. He starts to think nothing will.
Except maybe going home.
“He thinks you do not want to see him,” Bofur says. “That’s why he has not asked for you.”
He has cornered Bilbo in the supply tent, looking at the already packed satchels knowingly, but not doing anything to stop him. For that, Bilbo is grateful.
“If you would only see him,” Bofur pleads, and it pains Bilbo to see such distress marring his usually cheerful face.
But even that feels distant and muted. Fighting the urge to check his own pulse again Bilbo sighs. “I don’t…” He blinks for a while, gaze wandering aimlessly from Bofur to the tent wall to the waiting packs. “I don’t have anything to say,” he finishes finally. It’s the truth. That’s why he’s leaving. Because he has nothing left to say, to give, to any of them.
Bofur’s eyebrows draw together and for a second he looks like he’s going to argue and then like he’s going to cry, but in the end he only holds the tent flaps open, gesturing for Bilbo to go through.
Outside, the rest of the company is waiting. Bilbo think he should’ve expected it but somehow it catches him unaware and defenceless.
It’s a hard goodbye and for a moment there the silence inside him is blanketed by friendly arms and solid bodies; Bombur lifting him off his feet, Kili’s hair tickling his nose, Dwalin’s hand squeezing the back of his neck tight enough to hurt.
Balin mutters about the reward and Bilbo takes a minute to placate him with promises to send for it as soon as he’s back home even though he has no such intentions. What would he do with gems and treasure? And as for gold… He never wants to see it again.
Ten days down the road, Gandalf appears next to Bilbo’s pony, sliding out of the woods so quietly and casually that neither of them have a chance to be startled.
He doesn’t say anything, just continues to walk alongside him and Bilbo shrugs, going back to surveying the landscape. It’s not like he isn’t used to the silence.
They go on like that for rest of the day and it’s not until Bilbo sees the lights of a village up ahead, promising shelter for the night that Gandalf draws to a halt.
Bilbo stops as well, turning in his saddle.
“Well then,” Gandalf says. “It looks like you’ve made your mind up.”
“I’m going home,” Bilbo says, which is idiotic because that much is obvious.
Gandalf, however, cocks his head and regards him curiously like he’s just said something extraordinary.
“Are you now?” he asks before guffawing with laughter. “Maybe you are at that, maybe you are.” His eyes twinkle like he’s party to some private joke Bilbo wouldn’t understand even if he knew what it was.
“Then again,” Gandalf adds over his shoulder, already walking back toward the forest, “maybe you aren’t. Think on that, Bilbo Baggins!” The darkness swallows him up quickly, though the words linger, like a puzzle Bilbo will have to worry at until he figures it out.
It is full summer by the time he gets back to the Shire; the fields just starting to turn golden and every garden lush and vibrant like a maiden on the day of her hand-fasting. The air is heady with smell of flowers and growing things, and the sounds of children playing and the excited greetings carry Bilbo all the way to his front door.
“I tidied a bit,” Hamfast says, “every now and then. The garden too.” His lips shape the words around the stem of his pipe and when Bilbo offers his hand he gets pulled into a rough hug. It lasts no more than a few seconds but when he’s standing on his own again, in his immaculately kept garden, the birdsong sounds a little louder, a little brighter.
The silence is still there although somehow less oppressive, not quite as all-consuming, as before. It helps to see his furniture, to sit in his chairs, make tea with his mother’s kettle and run his fingers over the worn paper of his books, the familiar stories and maps sinking through his skin.
Of course he has been there now himself; to the edge of the map and beyond, above the mountains and under them, and what he has found…
Bilbo puts the book down and goes for a walk. The sun is warm and he doesn’t need to think.
The letters arrive just as the leaves turn to the colours of sunset. There are several of them, full of news and well wishes, and Bilbo reads them and reads them and reads them, over and over until his eyes grow blurry from fatigue and unshed tears, until he can almost hear Gloin’s smug tones, Fili’s excited chatter.
There are plenty of news about Thorin too and Bilbo would lie if he said he didn’t devour those like a hobbit starved of nourishment, learning about his recovery (slow but steady) and the gradual establishment of a proper court and a functioning kingdom (even slower and far less steadier by the sound of it).
For all the letters about Thorin there is not one from him though.
Bilbo doesn’t know whether he is disappointed or relieved.
The winter is blessedly mild, full of sun and blue skies, perfect for building snow-hobbits and eating cake by the fireside.
Primula and Drogo come for a visit, and with them Frodo of course. The last time Bilbo saw him he was nothing but a babe in arms, all swathed and coddled and barely talking. Now, he’s talking up a storm, getting over his initial shyness quickly and dragging Bilbo by the hand around the house and outside it, asking more questions than even he can answer.
He tries though; patiently explaining everything from map making to the best way of preserving blueberries, while Primula watches them both with a soft smile.
“He’s not old enough to understand triangulation, you know,” she says, shaking her head in amusement while Bilbo carefully backs away his sextant, having taken it out of its box to show Frodo.
“Doesn’t matter,” Bilbo says, “I’ll show him again when he’s older.”
There’s a silence at that and Bilbo glances over his shoulder just in time to catch Primula’s fierce hug, her arms coming around him and squeezing tight.
“I’m so glad you’re here to do that,” she says, her voice wavering, “I wasn’t sure if you’d come back.”
Bilbo’s exhale is shaky as he clings to his cousin’s embrace. “Me neither,” he whispers, oddly relieved, “me neither.”
Something inside him shifts at the admission, fear and anger he hadn’t even known he’d been holding onto melting away. He remembers now who he was before he was a burglar, a burden, a nuisance, before he picked up a sword, a ring, the Arkenstone, before he was a company member, a friend, Thorin’s…
He remembers now and the silence breaks, and from between the cracks the tears finally fall, great heaving sobs threatening to wrench him in two as he cries in his cousin’s arms. Because it may not have been anything special but it had still been important. Is important.
Much later they sit at the kitchen table, hands wrapped around mugs of tea, the night wrapped around them like a comforting blanket.
“When will you leave again?” Primula asks. Her voice is calm and accepting, no hint of censure in it.
What surprises Bilbo most is how unsurprised he is by the question. “I don’t know,” he says.
It’s true, he doesn’t. There’s no denying the fact that he will though, even if the ‘when’ is still uncertain.
Primula nods, reaching to tuck a stray curl of hair behind his ear. There’s something about the gesture that makes his chest ache, right where his heart is
“Tell me about it?” she invites.
He does. The story pours out, words tripping over one another in their eagerness to be heard after being held back for too long, too tightly. It’s like draining an infected wound; every hurt and wonder, every loss and joy tangible again, out in the open – still his, always his, but not all of him.
And when he is done talking, Bilbo picks up a pen and writes.
It takes him the whole winter. Primula and her family go home, the solstice passes with barely a blip and before he knows it buds are pushing toward the spring sun, the Shire turning from white to brown to delicate green.
When Bilbo looks up, the world is full of colour and noise, the wind sweet like honey as it rushes through the streets and along the river, giddy with life.
It would be perfect… except he can’t finish the story.
It’s not like he doesn’t know why either.
After all, you can’t finish what isn’t over.
Bilbo sets out at dawn, the first hesitant rays of the sun chasing at the shadows. The unfinished book sits at the bottom of his bag, waiting for its next chapter, and Bilbo’s heart feels stronger with every step he takes.
And when from around the bend of the road a familiar figure emerges, walking out of the early morning mist like a mirage except solid, real, there’s a part of him that isn’t even surprised, that only thinks ‘of course’.
Thorin’s hair is even longer now, hanging heavy like a cloak over his back, his stride fast and purposeful. He’s alone and travelling light, his retinue somewhere behind and out of sight. Fili and Kili must have followed him at least, and if they haven’t Bilbo will skin the two of them himself.
Despite Bilbo’s sense of inevitability, Thorin clearly hadn’t expected to see him like this, in the middle of the road, surrounded by nothing but fields and quiet, no distractions to hide behind. He falters, shock and apprehension plain on his face and it hurts to see him this open, this vulnerable, but there is joy there too, underneath it all, and hope, as fragile as the spring.
Bilbo keeps walking while Thorin stops, keeps walking while Thorin’s knees hit the ground and he goes down.
“King under the Mountain,” Bilbo says, catching him by the shoulders, anchoring them together. He presses his palm against the warmth of Thorin’s face, the edges of beard soft against his fingertips. “Have you a need for a burglar again?”
“No,” Thorin says and the word comes out long and shuddering, his lips brushing the tender inside of Bilbo’s bare wrist. “Only you.”
His eyes are clear of all madness and when Bilbo leans down, resting his forehead against Thorin’s, his whole body slumps in relief.
“Well, I’m here,” Bilbo says, his hands burrowing under Thorin’s hair, seeking and finding the hollow of his throat and the steady beat of his pulse underneath.
Around them, the day breaks with a wave of noise: the joyous cry of skylarks and the rustle of wind through the trees, the clink of armour and the low murmur of conversation drifting from beyond the hills where Thorin’s company is slowly catching up with him. But louder than all of that is the sound of Bilbo’s own heart and of Thorin’s.
He closes his eyes and listens.