Kíli was not stupid.
He knew that, between him and Fíli, his older brother had won all the brains. He was the one who always had his nose in the books when they were younger; and he was the one who Thorin always discussed strategies and history and politics with. For a long time it had bothered Kíli that his uncle never wanted to speak about such things with him. But, just like his odd appearance, he had grown to accept it. In time he even began to realize that, while Thorin never spoke to him about court traditions, he did tell him stories of his youth and the different jobs he took on and lands he had seen, and Kíli was content with that.
But the point was that he was not stupid. Fíli was smarter than him, yes, and while it was true that he could be oblivious to some things, Kíli did not believe he was stupid.
He just didn't like to think.
Honestly, he believed that thinking was silly and a waste of his time. He had grown up listening to Fíli always question everything around them from how babes were made to why a flower smelt sweet. His brother could never be content with things being just the way they were. He always had to know everything about it.
Kíli didn't get it. Did it really matter why a flower smelt sweet? Was it not enough that it simply did? And why would he care how a babe came into the world? Was it not enough that they existed and made the world better? Honestly, he didn't care about questions or answers because he was too busy enjoying the way a flower smelt, and how soft a babe was.
Sometimes he couldn't help but think that his brother, in his constant need to understand everything, was missing out on the point of it altogether.
It was the same way with Bilbo.
Kíli knew—because he was not stupid, thank you—that most of their Company found the Hobbit a bit strange. He was a bit too friendly, a bit too brave, and a bit too eager to help them. This was not normal behavior, and it made them suspicious and mistrustful.
But Kíli didn't care. He liked Mister Baggins and his funny smiles and dry comments. He was willing to give him a chance even if his uncle didn't want to. He was willing to overlook all the suspicion, and would simply enjoy spending time with the Hobbit and the rest of their comrades.
Because Kíli was not stupid and he knew that sometimes, just sometimes, you had to trust your heart over your mind.
Bilbo could not breathe.
He literally could not catch his breath. It was as if someone had sucked all the air out of his chest, and left him gasping for breath. He actually began to feel lightheaded and had to lean against the mountain in order not to collapse.
In the distance, over the rain and thunder and clash of stone flesh, he thought he could hear a scream. It was piercing and high and it took him longer than normal to realize that it was Kíli. Forcing himself to look away from where the Dwarfs had disappeared—Fíli, Dwalin, Bofur, Nori, oh no, nononono—he found that the rest of the Company were safe on the other side, and staring on with horror.
His eyes first singled out Dori holding Ori to his chest with a desperate grip; shielding his brother's eyes and shaking his head as if in denial. Behind them he could make out the figures of Bombur and Bifur; the cook holding his cousin back as the other tried to make his way to the edge. Finally he spotted Kíli, who was screaming for his brother and also being forcibly held back by Glóin and Thorin. When the king met his eyes, Bilbo quickly looked away; unable to face what he knew would be written in those blue eyes.
—Thorin's eyes look like they are cut from stone; they are such a hard and frigid black as he curses him out and banishes him from Erebor and ends their friendship. The accusation that burns in them hurts almost as much as his words—
This is my fault, he thought, feeling as if he was going to throw up. This is all my fault. Oh, what have I done? What have I done?!
If he had the chance, he would have fallen to his knees and wept over his failure. But the Stone Giants were not about to stop their fight for a little Hobbit. The rock he still stood upon—the one the others should have been on, his mind reminded spitefully—began to move, and he found himself clinging to the slippery surface desperately. It was a much harder feat this time around to hang onto the giant without the aid of his comrades, but Bilbo was determined that this would not be the end for him. He dug his fingernails into the unforgiving stone and braced his feet the best he could, and hung on. He eyed the distance between him and the rest of him comrades and when he judged it right, he pushed himself off the giant and leaped to the other cliff.
He did not reach it.
Bilbo's fingers grazed the barest hint of stone—slick and smooth from constant rain and travel—and then before he realized it, he was falling and falling and then—
Everything went black.
Bilbo awoke to pain and the intense brown gaze of a Dwarf.
"Master Baggins, are you awake?" Dwalin—bloody and dirty but alive Dwalin—asked him when he opened his eyes.
He stared at the Dwarf for a moment as he slowly came to his senses. His head and left arm hurt something fierce, and he could just barely see into the darkness around him. But none of that was important because Dwalin was alive.
"You're not dead," he whispered as something tight in his chest eased up.
Dwalin looked mildly offended. "Of course not. You think a little fall off a mountain is going to do me in? I'm a Dwarf."
"Of course. Of course, I should not have presumed the worst," he admitted, slowly sitting up and gazing around them. He could see nothing clearly in the darkness, but what he could make out was that they were in a narrow cave of some sort. He also realized that they were alone.
"Where are the others?" Bilbo asked, looking back to the Dwarf before him.
Dwalin's lips became a thin line on his face. "Don't know. I fell down further than they did. Most likely they are above us on some ledge."
Bilbo glanced above them and could barely make out the large crack that they both must have fallen through. "Do you think we can climb up and find them?"
"If I was alone? Yes. But with you here?" The warrior snorted and shook his head. "Not bloody likely."
"Then leave me here and go on alone and find the others," he suggested.
Dwalin scowled. "I'm not leaving an injured Hobbit alone in a cave on the side of a mountain. You're liable to get eaten or fall off stumbling around in the dark."
"I can protect myself well enough, and I'm not dumb enough to move around injured," he argued, feeling a bit offended. He was not a lad and could take care of himself after all. "It is more important for you to find the others and make sure they're safe."
Dwalin's scowl grew even more severe. "Why do you do that?"
"Put the rest of us above yourself. We are neither kin nor friend yet you act as if you would die for us. Why?" the Dwarf asked bluntly, still frowning harshly at him.
Bilbo bit his lower lip. He could think of a dozen lies of why he put his comrades in front of himself, but he knew that none of them would have satisfied Dwalin. The warrior wanted simply the truth and that was the one answer he could not give.
"Because… I could not live with myself if I did not do everything in my power to see that you all lived to reclaim your home," he answered slowly.
"You care that much about our quest? But you are not even a Dwarf," Dwalin pointed out with a raised brow. "Why should you care if we get home or not?"
"Compassion and understanding is not limited to race," he pointed out. "I do not need to be a Dwarf to understand what it's like to want to go home."
Dwalin stared at him for a long time before slowly shaking his head. "You are a rare sort, Mister Burglar. If only… well, it does not matter. In fact, it makes it even clearer to me that I need to stay with you. You are much too soft to survive out here alone."
Bilbo wanted to bang his head against the stone around them. Only the fact that his head already hurt kept him from doing so. "This is ridiculous. I am not in any danger here but the same could not be said for the others—"
"The others are trained and experienced in surviving these sorts of matters," interrupted Dwalin, rolling his eyes. "They are also more likely still together, or will be able to find each other easier than we would. Now stop arguing and let me think of a way to get out of here together."
The Hobbit huffed and leaned back against the cold rocks behind him. "Fine, but try not to hurt yourself."
Dwalin ignored him.
With nothing more to do, Bilbo closed his eyes and tried his best to focus on the pain in order not to think. But it was hard. He found that his mind could not erase the image of Fíli's wide eyes, or the sound of Kíli's screams. He could not ignore the truth that he had caused… that one of his comrades were possibly…
"This is all my fault," he said out loud as if it would somehow make him feel better.
In front of him he heard Dwalin snort. "Don't be daft. You could not have known that the giant would have moved. Do not waste your time wallowing in self pity."
But I did know, he argued back in his head. I knew exactly what was going to happen and I still screwed up. What… What do I do now? How will I face the others knowing that I… that I possibly killed their brothers and friends?
To his frustration, Bilbo could feel tears welling up in his eyes. He tried to quickly wipe them away before his companion could notice, but he was too late.
"Hey, don't you start bawlin' on me!" the Dwarf ordered, pointing a finger at him. "We don't have time for tears here. We gotta find a way out and back to the others. So quit wallowing in guilt and get it together!"
Bilbo nodded; pushing back his emotions and trying to become clear headed. "Of course, of course. I'm sorry, just frustrated by my own stupidity."
"Still no reason for you to cry," the warrior grumbled in return.
"I know. I just… I thought of having to face the others, and telling them that their brother or friend is not coming back. I don't think I could do it," he admitted quietly.
Dwalin said nothing to that.
"I think it would be worse telling Kíli," he continued, not sure why he was still talking but knowing he did not want to stop. "The others, they seem used to loss or at least have someone else. But Kíli… I heard him screaming before I fell. He… He sounded like his world was falling down around him. And I couldn't even face Thorin when he… when he looked at me."
He had never understood the relationship between the two brothers, but he admired the strength of such a bond. It was the type of bond that came from living a life where half your world was made up of another person. He had only seen such a relationship one other time in his life and that was between Pippin and Merry.
To kill Fíli was to kill Kíli.
"I do not know what Kíli would do if he lost his brother," Dwalin admitted quietly. "For his entire life he has always had Fíli by his side. I don't think he would know how to live without him there."
Bilbo found that idea both sad and sweet. "What… What do you think Thorin will do? If he were to lose Fíli."
The Dwarf sighed and rubbed his eyes. "Don't know. Thorin is built of a different sort of stone than his nephews. He certainly treasures his sister's sons very much—"
"He loves them as if they were his own sons," he corrected because he knew such a love with Frodo, and recognized it easily enough in others. "His smiles are saved for only Fíli and he gives his laughter to Kíli alone."
For once, Dwalin looked surprised. "You noticed that?"
He snorted. "Of course. How could I not? Your king spends most of his time looking as if he's been sucking on lemons. It's rather obvious to notice when he smiles or laughs."
"Thorin has every reason to be so serious. He's got a lot weighing on him with this quest," the warrior scolded with a rough frown.
Bilbo felt a pinch of guilt at that. "You're correct. My apologies. I do not mean to insult your king, but try to understand my position. Since the moment we met I have not seen anything but mistrust and scorn from him. It is hard to respect him when he shows me none."
The Dwarf shrugged. "That's Thorin's way. He's always been suspicious of outsiders. Give him a reason to trust you, and he will soon enough."
Once, in another lifetime, that would have been true. But Bilbo recalled the look in Fíli's eyes and the sound of Kíli's scream, and was no longer sure that was possible now.
Bilbo did not know how long they sat there resting before Dwalin finally decided it was time to escape their cave.
"We will need to venture into the mountain to get out of here," the Dwarf instructed, pointing into the darkness to next to them.
Bilbo squinted into the pitch black before him but could see nothing that hinted that the darkness would lead them further into the mountain. "Are you sure about that? How do you know that doesn't lead to a dead end? Or a wall?"
"Again, burglar, I'm a Dwarf; I have a sense for the stone," the warrior reminded him, rolling his eyes. "Now come along. I will go first and you follow behind me, understood?"
He waved a dismissive hand. "Yes, yes, I will follow you."
Dwalin grunted and heaved himself up to his feet. The cave was high enough that he did not need to bend his knees, but it was narrow enough to force the Hobbit to lean back against the stone in order to avoid getting squashed.
"Are you sure we can't just climb?" he wondered yet again as the Dwarf moved deeper into the darkness and gave him room to finally stand.
"Stop whining and keep up," Dwalin answered, ignoring his question.
The Hobbit rolled his eyes but quickly moved closer to the Dwarf. He could not see very well in the darkness and did not wish to lose track of his companion. "I'm going to hang onto your cloak so we don't get separated," he informed the Dwarf, grabbing hold of the soggy green cloth.
"Fine. At least this way you won't get lost," the warrior admitted as he led them on into the mountain.
Bilbo did not know how long they walked in the darkness. He could feel his heart pounding in his chest the whole time, and he gripped his comrade's cloak so tightly that his hand began to eventually ache. He was uncomfortable and unsure about venturing into something so unknown, and he didn't like that he had no control over where he was being led. The only comfort he found was the knowledge that Dwalin seemed to know where he was going, and did not seem bothered by the lack of light or the unknown facing them.
Finally, after what felt like an eternity and a half, they reached the end.
"See, I told you that I would not lead us wrong," Dwalin boasted, giving him a smirk over his shoulder.
Bilbo nodded absently; giving the Dwarf only half of his attention. The rest was focused on the grand and watery cavern they had entered. A very familiar cavern.
This place… Could it be…?
He moved deeper into the cavern; his eyes searching for a familiar island set in the middle of the gleaming underground lake. Behind him Dwalin continued to speak.
"I think I can find a path to the surface from here. Just stay close and I will—"
There was a sound of a crack and a thump, and when Bilbo spun around he found his companion collapsed on the ground with blood leaking from the back of his head.
"Dwalin!" he yelled, moving to his side and quickly checking to make sure the warrior was alive. At the corner of his eye he noticed a large rock with blood and leaned down to inspect it. As he did, he spotted a white figure moving at the corner of his eye, and quickly spun around to face the attacker.
"Gollum!" he yelled, one hand going for Sting as he pushed himself up. "Come out, you little blighter!"
There was a moment of complete silence where he wondered if perhaps he was imaging things. Then a small crackle of stones had him spinning around, and left him facing the creature Gollum for the first time in eighty years.
"It calls us, precious," the creature—and it would always be a creature to him, no matter what stories Frodo told him of it being a Hobbit once—said, staring up at him with horribly familiar eyes.
—his greatest memory of Gollum is always the eyes. Those large eyes that are the color of the lake when it is frozen during winter. They reflect a world of madness that could never be healed or understood. Those eyes haunt him most because he knows that they could have easily been his if he had kept the ring—
"I know you," he agreed, leveling Sting straight at the small and bony figure.
"How does its knows us?" Gollum asked, seemingly unafraid of the sword. It began to circle him slowly and Bilbo moved himself so that he stood between the ring bearer and the unconscious Dwarf.
"I know many things about you," he admitted, watching the creature carefully.
Gollum paused and tilted its head to the side and stared. "What does it knows, precious? What secrets does it tells?"
Bilbo thought for a moment before the answer came to him. "I know that you hold something important. Something that I need. Something that is in your pocket."
The reaction was instant.
He barely managed to bring his blade up in time to catch the small scavenger as it threw itself at him with an unexpected strength and speed. As it was, he could barely fight off the long and bony fingers that struggled to wrap around his throat.
"Thief! Thief! Its wills not take yous from us, precious!" Gollum screeched, eyes narrowed and dark.
"You don't know the consequences of owning that ring," he snarled back, bracing his feet and using all of his strength to push the creature back.
Gollum paid no mind to his words and simply came at him again. He dodged the spidery figure and spun around, and then brought the blunt edge of the hilt down soundly on Gollum's head with as much strength as he could. Gollum collapsed to the ground and did not move.
Bilbo watched the pale figure for a moment longer, his breathing heavy and his heart racing. Once sure that it was unconscious (or dead; either was fine with him) he moved back to Dwalin's side. The Dwarf had an impressive lump forming on the back of his head and the skin had been ripped open from the rock, but he was alive and whole. When he realized that, he felt a wave of relief engulf him.
I will not lose this one yet, he thought, pulling out his handkerchief (which he recalled this time) and beginning to clean up the bloody mess. I can only hope that I can say the same for the others.
When the Hobbit was finished caring for his unconscious companion, he turned his eyes back to their attacker and pondered what to do. Part of him, a very large part, wanted to end the creature right then and there. Bilbo would never forget the sight of Frodo's mutilated hand, or the nightmarish adventure he had undergone thanks to Gollum. Killing the wretched beast was the only sure way he had to protect his nephew. But another part of him, the levelheaded and sensible and decidedly Baggins part, disagreed because in the end it had been Gollum who had destroyed the ring.
If I fail in my quest then it may be up to Frodo and Gollum again, he admitted to himself. He wanted nothing more than to save Frodo from his fate, but destiny always seemed to have a mind of her own. So, with great regret, Bilbo spared Gollum's life for the first (second) time.
With nothing more pressing to distract him, Bilbo turned his attention to the one thing he had been intentionally avoiding: the one ring. Slowly, he rolled Gollum over and reached into the small pocket that was nearly hidden beneath the tears and stains. Keeping one eye on the still unconscious creature, he reached into the pocket and grasped the cold ring with a shudder.
—the ring is always a quiet whisper in the back of his mind. It is never loud or demanding but it is always there. It whispers promises to him. Promises of desires that he dares not think of. It taunts him with power and wealth and the ability to bring back what he wants most. He ignores it and ignores it until finally one day he finds that he cannot ignore it anymore—
Bilbo shuddered again and sat back with the ring grasped tightly in his hand. He did not want to look at it or recall the days he spent under its spell. He did not want to remember the rush he got when wearing it, or the power he felt when he believed he controlled it. What he wanted most was to simply throw it into the water and never look at it again.
But he didn't. Instead, he lifted his hand and held the simple band of gold before him. "So… we meet again."
And the ring—beautiful, wretched, accursed thing, it took the light from Frodo's eyes—began to whisper.