Bilbo found that he could not breathe.
Every second seemed to turn into an hour as Gandalf stood and headed to the front door with the Dwarves following. He could only watch from his chair as they disappeared around the corner, and listened as the door was opened and greetings were exchanged. When his ears caught the sound of a familiar baritone, he found his breath suddenly returning to him in quick gasps.
He's here. He's here, he's here, he's here, he's here, he's here, he's here —
Suddenly, Bilbo found that did not want to face Thorin again after all. He did not want to face the Dwarf that had lingered in his thoughts and heart for decades. He did not want to remember the days he spent mourning—wishing with every inch of his being that Thorin had survived that final battle. He did not want to remember how much his heart had ached; how many times he had lost himself in memories and daydreams of what could have been.
I can't do this. I can't. How did I ever think I could face him again? he wondered, rising to his feet and heading out of the room. I have to leave. I have to get out of here before they come back. I have to—
His thoughts were cut off as he collided with something large and solid. The impact sent him stumbling back; tripping over his feet and almost falling if not for the hands that latched onto his biceps. They wrapped around his arms like iron vines and hoisted him straight up so that his feet just barely graced the floor.
Without thinking, his eyes went to his savior's face, and he found himself facing Thorin Oakenshield for the first time in eighty years.
—Thorin's body is as cold as ice in death. His face has been cleaned of the blood and gore, and his hair has been brushed back neatly from his face. In the dim candlelight, his pale skin looks waxy and fake. He never stirs, never moves, and the realization that he will never see that face smile again hits him with a brutal force that brings him to his knees—
"So this is the Hobbit," commented Thorin, tilting his head to the side and regarding him with narrowed blue eyes. "He—
—"If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world," Thorin gasps, blood leaking from his pale lips as he struggles to draw breath still. "But, sad or merry, I must leave it now. Farewell…"—
"—grocer than a burglar," finished the king, glancing to his left to raise a brow at Gandalf.
"And you are very rude for a king," Bilbo said before he could stop himself.
Thorin paused and the air suddenly became very still. "Excuse me?"
"I said that you are very rude for a king. I have invited you and your companions into my home, and have provided food and shelter for the night. A king should know to treat such a host with gratitude instead of mockery," he said without pausing to think. If he stopped to think for even a second then he would remember, and if he remembered then Bilbo knew he would not be able to keep up his façade any longer.
Thorin slowly turned his gaze back to him. His face looked as if it had been carved from stone for it was so serious and still. Only his eyes blazed out as bright as blue flames. Dwarves by nature were intense and passionate beings, but Thorin always took it to another level. He was a Dwarf who could feel so much that it consumed his entire being. That intensity had always made itself known most through those fever bright eyes of his.
I had forgotten how intimidating his stare could be, Bilbo thought to himself absently.
"You are correct. I thank you for the hospitality you have provided for us," Thorin finally said, surprising the Hobbit. The Dwarf released him and he took a few steps back the moment his feet touched the floor again.
"You're welcome," he returned automatically. He looked past the king at the other Dwarves—some of whom were looking at him with dropped jaws—and towards the dining room. "There should be some food left if you are hungry. I'm sure the others would be happy to show it to you."
"Aye, Thorin, there's a lot of food still. Come this way," bid Balin, gesturing for him to follow.
Thorin turned in a whirl of fur and followed the other Dwarf with the others trailing them. Bilbo could not watch them go and turned on his heel and marched back to his room with a muttered excuse to the others. He did not stop until he was in his bedroom with the door safely locked up tight. Once there, he covered his mouth and began to sob.
Oh, to look upon the face of the one he adored most in the world… Bilbo felt as if someone had just reached into his chest, wrapped a hand around his heart, and squeezed. Could a broken heart break again? He was beginning to think it was quite possible.
In all his fantasies where Thorin was alive again, he was always happy and relieved and overcome with bliss. There were never any suppressed memories or quiet sobs. Only smiles and laughs and promises to never leave again.
But then, that was the difference between reality and fantasies. His fantasies never quite lived up to his reality.
How am I supposed to survive another journey with him if I can't even face him without crying? he wondered, wiping his eyes clear with one hand. When he had made his plan he had done so with the confidence that he could endure meeting his deceased companions once more. He had foolishly overestimated his own strength.
A light knock on his door had him springing to his feet.
"Bilbo? Are you quite alright in there?" asked Gandalf from beyond the door.
"Ah, yes, I'm fine," the Hobbit replied, quickly scrubbing his face clear of tears. "Is there something you need, Master Gandalf?"
"We are going to go over the details of our expected journey. I thought you might like to hear them," Gandalf replied slowly.
Bilbo quietly cursed the considerate wizard in his head. He was hardly presentable or stable enough to look upon Thorin and the rest so soon. But staying locked up in his room would only invite suspicion. So with a heavy heart, he made himself as composed as possible and unlocked the door.
Gandalf stared down at him; his gray eyes gleaming from beneath his heavy brows. "My dear Hobbit, are you quite sure you are well? You seem… distraught."
Distraught? No, I am not distraught. Just an old fool with too many regrets and a stubborn heart that refuses to heal.
But Bilbo did not voice those thoughts. Instead, he gave his old friend a strained smile that felt false even to him. "I am fine, Master Gandalf, quite fine. Now, why don't we rejoin the others? You said we have much to discuss, yes?"
Gandalf did not look convinced but did not push him. Yet.
"Indeed, Master Baggins, indeed. We have much to discuss," the wizard agreed, turning and leading him back to the Dwarves.
That, my old friend, is truer than you know, the Hobbit thought as he followed the wizard back to the source of his greatest joy and heartache.
Bilbo did not pay much attention as the Dwarves and wizard gathered around the ancient map and went over their mission. Instead, he spent his time subtly studying the others, and trying not to stare too obviously as Thorin. It was admittedly very hard.
—"You have proven yourself a loyal friend to me time and time again. For that you have my eternal gratitude," Thorin swore, clasping him on the shoulder. His hand is large and covers most of his shoulder, and he can feel the warmth of the Dwarf through his own thin clothing—
"I do not have the skills to find it, but there are others in Middle Earth who can," he heard Gandalf comment as he leaned over the table.
—Thorin does not sing often but when he does everyone stops and listens. His deep voice never fails to invoke images of gleaming halls, blazing fires, and a never ending ache for a home that was long lost—
"Gandalf will have fought hundred of dragons in his day!" Kíli exclaimed somewhere further down the table. An argument soon followed but he did not hear the words.
—"I've never been so wrong in all my life…" Thorin suddenly moves forward and wraps him in a hug that sweeps him off his feet. He returns the hug instinctively; curling his hands into the fur of the king's coat. It has been a long time since he has been hugged—
Bilbo jumped slightly as a hand landed on his shoulder; dragging him from his memories and back to the present. He looked up at the owner of the hand, and found Gandalf staring down at him with pursed lips.
"Are you well, Bilbo?" the wizard questioned.
"What? Of course, of course." He leaned back and waved the wizard away. "Sorry, just dozed off there for a bit. What were you saying?"
"We were discussing your position as our burglar," Thorin filled in, giving him the same look he would give a toad in his path. "The wizard here seems sure that you will be a worthy asset to our Company. The rest of us do not agree."
"Understandable. It's not like any of you know me or seen any of my skills," he agreed, carefully avoiding looking directly into Thorin's eyes. "But I can assure you that I will do my very best to help you all on this journey. That is all I can say in my own defense."
Gandalf smiled while the Dwarves murmured amongst each other and exchanged looks. While he knew his words did help him slightly, the only way his Dwarves would believe him capable would be when they actually saw him in action.
"If you are in my Company then I will do my best to watch over you as I do the rest. But I cannot guarantee your safety or life," Thorin pointed out, still watching him with those blue, blue eyes.
He nodded, pleased with such an admission. "Good. I do not want you putting your life ahead of my own. If it ever comes to a point where it is my life or yours, you must always choose yourself."
"Bilbo!" cried Gandalf, aghast.
"No!" Bilbo cut him off before the wizard could begin. "Do not argue with me about this, Master Gandalf. I am a simple Hobbit from a simple line with no spouse or child to depend on me. If I perish would it really make a difference in the grand scheme of things? No, it would not. But Master Thorin here is a king and leader of his people. He must live in order to reclaim their home from this dragon. To put it simply, his life matters more than mine."
At that point, all the Dwarves were staring as if they were not quite sure what to make of him. Even Thorin looked taken back by his sudden admission. Only Gandalf seemed disturbed by his words.
Bilbo honestly did not care if his old friend agreed or not. He knew, in the grand scheme of things, that he was important to the world but only to a certain point. His destiny had been to find the ring and carry it to Frodo, who was destined to destroy it. But since he had every intention of never letting that damn ring be in the same city as his precious nephew, he believed his importance in such a matter was diminished. Besides, he had a plan for the ring and knew it could quite possibly cost him his life. But that was a risk he was willing to take if it saved Frodo from his own cruel fate.
"Looks like the Hobbit has made up his mind," Dori pointed out, giving Bilbo a look he could not read.
"Yes, it seems that way," agreed Thorin, his face returning to the blank mask he was most familiar with. "Balin, give him the contract and see that he reads and signs it."
As Balin went about pulling out the contract, Bilbo found himself under the intense gaze of Gandalf. The wizard was clearly perplexed by his behavior and eagerness to engage in the adventure ahead. He knew that his old friend would be suspicious, and those suspicions were likely to grow with the coming days. However, no matter how much his friend pressured him, Bilbo knew he could not yet tell him the truth. The lives of those he held were too important for him to risk even to Gandalf. Until he was assured that Thorin and the others would live, and the ring was once more in his possession, only then would he break his silence and reveal the truth to the wizard.
Until then, he was keeping his mouth shut.
"Mister Baggins… what are you doing?"
Bilbo glanced over his shoulder and found Ori standing behind him. The young Dwarf was staring at the sign that he was bent over.
"Oh, I'm putting up a sign to let my neighbors know where I've gone," he explained, lifting the board up to the Dwarf so he could read it himself.
Ori leaned closer and squinted at the curvy letters. "'I have left on an adventure. If I do not return in two years then I leave my home and everything in it to my cousin Drogo Baggins on the conditions that he, his future wife, and their children never set foot in or near Brandywine River. To my Sackville-Baggins relatives, I leave nothing. Seriously, keep them off my property and away from my mother's fine china.' Mister Baggins, why did you write such an odd sign?"
"Because if I don't then when I return home all my things will have been ransacked, and my greedy relatives would be living here," he explained, setting the board down. "This is the only way I can keep them away. I'll hang it on my door outside before I leave."
Ori just looked at him as if he had claimed the moon was made of cheese. "Are all Hobbits like you?"
"What do you mean? What am I like?"
"Well, you're so… open. Friendly. And nice. Very, very nice," the youngest Dwarf clarified. "Most races don't like anyone outside their own race. But you don't seem to mind at all that we're Dwarves. Are all Hobbits so… accepting?"
"Well, no, not all Hobbits are so open to outsiders," he admitted, recalling some of his more suspicious and mistrustful cousins. "But I don't believe in that. I believe that every race has something to offer the world. You simply must give them a chance to show you."
"And… what about the ones that don't give you a chance?" Ori's voice was quiet as he twined his fingers around the soft wool scarf that hung from his neck. Standing there, Bilbo was suddenly struck by how young and innocent Ori truly was at that moment.
—it is Gandalf who tells him of the fates of Balin, Óin and Ori. He speaks of a tomb and a final stand and a book that Ori had written of their journey. He listens to every detail and at the end he cries for his brave friends who died such lonely deaths so far away—
"Then you do not want their friendship. If they cannot see past your appearance and into your character, then it is their loss," he replied, resisting the urge to throw his arms around his—living, breathing, whole—friend.
Ori ducked his head and smiled as a light blush began to make its way up his cheeks, and to the tips of his ears. He had forgotten, over the years, how sensitive and sweet Ori had been at this age.
—after the final battle, he spots Ori standing over the dead with clenched fists and pursued lips. His face is pale and splattered with blood and bruises, and eyes that look too old on a face so young—
"Would you like to help me wrap up my fine china?" Bilbo asked impulsively. "I want to put it away so it won't get damaged or stolen while I'm gone."
Ori looked surprised and then delighted. "Sure! I like to help. Just tell me what you need done."
He knew that. Ori had always expressed joy in being able to help in any manner. As the youngest on their quest, he had often been overlooked for his inexperience and coddled and protected by his brothers. This time around he would see that Ori did not get forgotten. He would help the youngster grow on this quest for he would surely need such experiences if he was to survive Moria with Balin and Óin.
"Great! Come this way. I think the others left the dishes on the table." He gestured towards the dining room and watched Ori practically skip to it as he followed at a slower pace.
Ori, you are yet another friend that will survive the death that awaits you. I cannot allow anything else.
They left the Shire at the first light of dawn.
With the barest hint of sunlight peeking over the trees, Bilbo nailed the sign onto his door as the Dwarves behind him stood by and watched. He heard Balin reading it out loud for the others, and smirked when they roared with laughter.
"Not very fond of these Sackville-Baggins is he?"
"Did you see him and Ori wrapping up the plates last night? I was wondering why. Now I know it's because of greedy relatives."
"When it comes to sticky fingered kin, the best thing you can do is pretend you have nothing."
"Wonder what the big deal is about this river. Is it a Hobbit thing to ban relatives from water for an inheritance?"
"Wish I could see the reaction of these Sackville-Baggins. Bet it would be a riot!"
"Enough." Thorin did not need to raise his voice to become the center of attention. "Are you done yet?"
Bilbo stepped back and regarded his board for a moment before nodding. "Aye, I believe so."
"Then let us be off. We have a long way to go," the king-in-exile ordered, already beginning to march off.
Bilbo waited until the rest of the Dwarves followed their leader before turning to take in his home for what could possibly be the last time. When he had last left it, he had done so as an old man at the end of his years. He was still the same old man, but this time he faced a future with a chance of actually changing things. With that in mind, he did not know if he would survive the journey this time around. He did not even know if he would change anything for the better or worst. All that he knew was that he had a chance, and he was going to take it.
I bid you all farewell for now. I hope that the next time I return here, it will be with a better story to tell, he mused before finally turning and following his Dwarves out of the Shire, and into the (second) start of their quest.