Bilbo hated the One Ring with every inch of his heart. It was the one thing that he had ever allowed himself to completely despise because if he didn't then he would have adored it. He could think of many horrible fates but submitting completely to the ring was a nightmare that not even he wanted to contemplate. Nothing else that he had ever known could ever replace that hate.
But the Arkenstone… it came to a close second.
"It's so beautiful," whispered Glóin, looking close to tears as Thorin held up the stone for all to marvel over.
"I've never seen anything like it," added Dori as he reached out to hold Nori back from grabbing it.
"It is truly the Heart of the Mountain," Dwalin said, his deep voice a whisper of awe.
Bilbo felt like he was going to be sick.
"It's a rock," he proclaimed loudly, crossing his arms over his chest. "Does it do anything? Besides sparkle, I mean."
The Dwarves all turned as one to stare at him with mixed reactions.
"What?!" squawked Óin, staring at him as if had just declared that he was going to marry an Orc or an Elf. "How can you even ask that? Just look at it! It's the Arkenstone!"
"It's a pretty jewel," he admitted easily, waltzing closer to Thorin, "but that is all I'm seeing. Does it do anything more? Does it give you wisdom or knowledge? Does it heal the wounded and cure the sick? Does it light up the entire mountain if you hold it up high enough? What does it do that makes it so precious?"
Thorin slowly shook his head; staring at the Hobbit with a small frown. "It does not need to do anything. That it simply exists is enough for us. This stone represents our skills and wealth to all others. This is the heart and soul of Erebor and her people."
"Really? A rock that you found in the mountain represents the might of your people?" summarized Bilbo, stopping before the king and tilting his head back to meet his eyes straight on. "That is rather insulting to them, don't you think? How can a mere stone—one that you didn't even make, by the way—ever measure up to the strength of your people? A strength that survived exile and untold hardships for decades?"
"But it's more than just that!" protested Kíli. "It's an heirloom! A family legacy!"
The Hobbit scoffed. "It's a shiny rock!"
Glóin gasped, and held a hand over his heart as if he was in pain. "Bilbo!"
"Why are you so angry over this?" demanded Thorin as he stared down at the Hobbit with a clenched jaw. "It is—as you keep claiming—merely a stone."
"Because you look at it as if it holds all your heart's desires within," he snapped, trying to control his hands as they began to shake. "Such a look alarms me."
The king's eyes widened as the midnight blue began to shift into a clearer shade of cerulean. "Bilbo, no, that's not it. The Arkenstone does not hold all my desires. It is simply… It is something my grandfather and father treasured. It is an heirloom that reminds me of them and our heritage. It is nothing more than that."
—Thorin's hands grip his collar with the strength of a bear as he holds him over the wall. He dangles leagues above the ground in midair as the king shakes him harshly while yelling. The terror of falling grips him so tightly that he grabs Thorin's wrists in an attempt to hang on. When he meets the king's eyes, they are as black and cold as a winter night.
"You miserable Hobbit! You undersized-burglar!" the Dwarf curses, shaking him even harder. "What have you done?!"
He does not answer. He has no answer to give because he is about to die at the hands of someone he loves over the fate of a pretty rock—
Bilbo bit his lip until it began to bleed. At that moment, he wanted nothing more than to yank the blasted gem from Thorin's hands, and toss it into the nearest abyss. He wanted to scream and cry because he could fight dragons, and outsmart trolls, but in the end could do nothing when faced with a glowing jewel.
"You told me that your kind can lose themselves to the glory of their craft," he spat, feeling something in him beginning to chip away. "Remember those words and try not to lose yourself to this stone."
Thorin nodded with a frown and angled brows as his—black, empty, cold, accusing, insane, dead, dead, dead—blue eyes turned steely. "I understand your concern, but I swear I will not fall to the curse of my blood. I will not give into the madness of Durin."
The Hobbit laughed. It sounded choked and wrecked, and made more than one of his companions take a step forward. "So you say now. But we shall see in the coming days how long this vow of yours lasts, O King Under the Mountain."
Bilbo spent the rest of the day avoiding his comrades. He found that he could not bear to face them with the storm of emotions raging in his heart. It was childish and cowardly of him, but he honestly didn't care. Seeing the Arkenstone again had reminded him of all his old hurt and anger from his first lifetime. He thought he had made his peace with Thorin's banishment years ago, but apparently that was a lie. It seemed that not even eighty years could completely erase the sting of rejection, and indignation over the slight his friend(s) had given him in the end.
Is it wrong to hold the actions of another lifetime against them? he reflected as he sat on the head of one of the many statues that lined the throne room. It had been rather difficult to climb up the smooth surface, but somehow he had managed it without falling to his death. It was worth the effort and the risk as the shadows and height hid him from view.
Perhaps I was too harsh with Thorin, he admitted to himself, swinging his legs. He has not done anything to deserve my ire just yet. I should have controlled myself better. Maybe if I did then—
"I never took you for the hiding sort," Dori suddenly called, his deep voice echoing through the empty halls and startling him.
Bilbo braced his hands on the edge of his seat, and leaned over to stare down at the Dwarf below him. "How did you find me?"
"I'm fairly good at tracking," Dori replied, shucking off his coat and rolling up his sleeves. "Nori used to run away and hide a lot, and Ori used to make a game of hiding to avoid baths. I had to learn if I ever wanted to see them again."
He snorted. "I'm not surprised. Nori is rather skilled at sneaking through crowds. Probably even taught Ori where to hide."
"That's not a good thing," the Dwarf replied before beginning to climb the massive stone figure.
"Wait, Dori, stop! I'll come down!" he yelled, quickly rising to his feet.
Dori ignored him, and kept climbing. To Bilbo's surprise, the old Dwarf moved swiftly and deftly up the rock without pause. He seemed to know exactly where to put his feet, what to grab, and what to avoid. It wasn't long before the weaver was hauling himself up on the ledge that Bilbo sat upon.
"Stubborn Dwarf," he chided as he helped Dori up. "You should have waited. I would have come down for you."
Dori scoffed and shook his head. "Nonsense. It was just a little climb. Better this way because now I can make sure you don't run away."
"I don't run away," he protested weakly. "I just… make a strategically placed retreat."
"Oh, is that what hobbits call it? We Dwarves know it as something differently," his companion mocked, arching his brows and widening his eyes. "We call it running away."
Bilbo pouted. "Fine, I admit it. I ran away. Happy?"
"No, because I don't know the reason why," Dori said, leaning back against the stone behind them, and raising one knee to rest his elbow upon. He leveled his light green eyes—the same eyes that Nori and Ori shared—on the Hobbit without blinking.
"Bilbo, what happened back there? Why do you hate the Arkenstone so much?" he asked with a voice that was surprisingly soft and gentle.
The Hobbit looked away, and dug his fingers into the soft fabric of his pants. How could he ever make Dori—or any Dwarf, really—understand how cold his heart felt at the sight of that jewel? How could he convince a race that prized stone above all else that the greatest stone of all was poison? He was better off trying to convince Thranduil that his son would one day willingly befriend a Dwarf!
When he failed to answer, Dori eventually sighed and turned to look out at the crumbling throne room. "Did you know that I raised Nori?"
Bilbo blinked and looked back at the Dwarf at the sudden change in subject. "What?"
"You heard me. I raised Nori," the weaver repeated, tapping his fingers against his knee. "Our ma was lovely and all, but she really wasn't cut out to be a mother. She was a miner who loved her craft, and who gave her love freely. That free love is why my brothers and I all have different fathers."
The Hobbit giggled before slapping a hand over his mouth. He gave his companion a sheepish look. "Sorry."
Dori waved a dismissive hand. "It's fine. We're not ashamed of our mother or our blood. We love each other too much to be ashamed. Anyway, as I was saying, our mother was never much of a mother. Oh, she tried her best, of course, but I spent most of my life fending for myself. Then Nori came along and I found myself taking care of him too. I had no idea what I was doing most of the time, but I tried my best with him. Even got him to join the city guard, I did. Not that it matters now considering what he is…"
"Nori is a good Dwarf," he insisted, feeling a bit annoyed by Dori's words. "Just because he steals sometimes doesn't make him a criminal."
Dori stared at Bilbo for a moment in answer; his green eyes looking for something that the Hobbit could only guess at. Eventually the harsh lines and arches of his face softened, and his green eyes seemed to grow even lighter in color. "You truly believe that, don't you?"
"Of course," he replied, raising his chin. "You should too. Nori is a good Dwarf."
"So you say. I'm glad he has found a friend in you," the old Dwarf replied, his voice a bit rough. "Alas, I cannot claim the same faith for my brother. I've known him all his life, and I know what he has done. I cannot forgive his actions, and he cannot forgive mine. Thus we continue to disagree and fight."
"But you still love him," he reminded, feeling a tug between something like sympathy and sadness for the Dwarf. "You love both of your brothers very much."
"Aye, I do. As angry as I am with him, I still love Nori," agreed Dori with a small and sad smile. "The heart is a funny thing, don't you think? It can love and hate something so easily at the same time."
Bilbo thought of Thorin and found himself agreeing. "My heart is a foolish thing. It never knows the difference between what is good for it, and what is not."
"If my heart listened to my mind, then I would have disowned Nori years ago," the weaver admitted. "But then, if my heart did listen to sense, then I would not be here with you. So perhaps it does know what it is doing."
"If my heart listened to reason, then I would have never fallen in love with the most bullheaded fool to ever walk these lands," he agreed, nodding.
Dori side-eyed him and raised both of his silver brows. "Thorin isn't that bad."
Bilbo groaned and covered his eyes with one hand. "Why does everyone keep implying that I'm in love with Thorin? Am I leering at him or something?"
"You don't leer," Dori reassured, patting his leg. "But you do stare at him over the fire and sigh longingly. Sometimes you even drool."
He peeked through his fingers to stare at the Dwarf. Dori looked back at him with a smirk that he usually saw on Nori when he was being a pest. He had a feeling he now knew who the thief had learned that look from.
"I am ending our friendship right here and now," Bilbo declared firmly.
Dori simply snorted and patted his leg again. "Bilbo, please. I raised Nori. You think I don't know bullshit when I hear it?"
He groaned again and dropped his hand into his lap. He fiddled with the bottom of his shirt for a moment before finally speaking again, "Dori… I don't trust that stone. When Thorin looks at it, I see something dark in his eyes. It scares me."
The Dwarf sighed and closed his eyes. "I understand. I remember what Thorin's grandfather was like in his final days. King Thrór was completely consumed by the madness at that point. It was… not an easy thing to see. I'm sure Thorin fears falling into the same state."
Bilbo nodded and pulled one leg up to cross it over his thigh. "What do we do? To keep him from falling to the gold fever?"
"Watch him and remind him of what is really important," Dori said firmly, eyes turning fierce. "Don't let him forget about what is truly precious to him. It is the only way."
"Precious to him?" he repeated, rubbing a thumb over his ankle. The Hobbit didn't know how he could do that. Did he remind the king of Fíli and Kíli every time he began to slip? Did he force the Dwarf to recall his grandfather and father? He truly didn't know what he could do to help Thorin.
"I don't know what is precious to him," he admitted, dropping his head back against the wall behind him.
Dori groaned and rubbed his eyes. "For you, I think just being there for him will be enough. Be a friend and listen to him when he needs it."
The Hobbit said nothing. He did not think that being Thorin's friend would be enough to combat the influence of the gold madness. After all, the first time around Bilbo had not been enough to make Thorin want to choose him over the Arkenstone. What chance did he have a second time?
The next day saw the return of Balin and Gandalf. To everyone's surprise, they did not return alone.
"I am Bard of Lake-town," the tall and familiar Man introduced as he bowed to Thorin. Behind the bowman stood around twenty more Men; all of them dressed heavily and carrying packs.
"They've come to help us repair the gates," Balin explained at Thorin's side. "As long as we pay them fairly, they will help us in any repairs we need."
Thorin silently looked over the serious Man before him. Finally he gave a small nod of recognition. "I am Thorin Oakenshield, son of Thráin, son of Thrór, and you are all most welcomed here."
"My thanks. We were informed that one of your companions slew Smaug. May I ask which one did this?" Bard questioned, his dark eyes scanning the group. When he met Bilbo's eyes, he arched one brow, but did nothing more.
"You were told correctly," replied the king as he gestured for Kíli to step forward. The youth stood by his uncle with his head held high, and met Bard's dark eyes without flinching. Thorin's lips twitched slightly as he settled one hand on the younger Dwarf's shoulder.
"This is my nephew Kíli. He was the one who fired the arrow that ended Smaug for good," the king said, his deep voice laced with such pride and love that a deaf Man would hear it.
Bard slowly looked the young Dwarf up and down before suddenly dropping to one knee. When he did, the rest of the Men did as well without hesitation. They all bowed their heads except for Bard. Instead, he placed a fist over his heart, and held Kíli's stare with midnight eyes that were as firm and solid as the mountain itself.
"Then we of Lake-town owe you a great debt, Kíli of Erebor. You have saved us from further destruction and avenged our fallen kin. Until the end of my days, I swear to aid you in any way I can," the bowman pledged, his deep voice echoing through the chambers.
Kíli shifted and looked away; scratching at his elbow while biting his lower lip. "Um, thank you? But you should know that it wasn't just me who ended Smaug. The others helped too. Bilbo was the one who even noticed his weakness in the first place! Without him we never would have killed the dragon."
Bard's eyes singled the Hobbit out immediately. "Then we owe a debt to him as well. Master Baggins, my bow is yours to command."
"How do you know his full name?" Thorin asked as he slowly narrowed his eyes at the Man.
"We met back at Lake-town," replied Bilbo, quickly stepping forward before the heir of Dale could answer. "I introduced myself and we spoke a bit before parting. He is a good sort, Thorin. You can trust him."
Thorin did not seem reassured. Instead, his shoulders tightened, and his brows wrinkled as he stared down at the Hobbit. "You trust this stranger that much? Why?"
"Because he actually cares about his people," he answered, bracing his hands on his hips and meeting the king's stare. "I saw him handing out extra fish to those too poor to afford food. He did it without asking for payment of any kind. That is not the mark of an evil Man."
The king slowly turned his eyes back to the Man. "Is this true? Did you really hand out food to the poor out of kindness?"
Bard blinked rapidly before nodding his head. He looked at the Hobbit with a hint of wonder that became obvious in his voice. "A-Aye, I did do that. I just wasn't aware that Master Baggins was present. I never noticed him at all."
"Yes, he's rather good at sneaking away," the Dwarf muttered, and earned himself a swat in the arm from said Hobbit. "But sneakiness aside, I trust Bilbo's word. If he says that I may trust you, then I will do so. But be aware that if you lose that trust in anyway, then not even Bilbo will be able to save you from my wrath."
Bard nodded. "I understand. You have my word that I will not do anything to lose that trust."
"Good," the king replied, raising one black brow. "Now get up. We have a lot of work to do."
The Men of Lake-town turned out to be efficient and willing workers. They listened and followed Thorin's orders without question. There were a few stares and gasps when they came to Smaug's corpse, but that could have been because of the smell. Or the never ending fields of treasure that stretched out before them. It was a tossup, really.
"We began to chip the scales off to get to the flesh beneath. There we cut the flesh off and bury it outside," explained Thorin as he ignored the gawking. "Bloody and disgusting business, but it is the only way to get rid of the bastard. I would like half of your Men to stay here and help us get rid of the rest."
Bard circled the dragon corpse with his hands crossed behind his back. He took in everything while nodding before stopping before Thorin. "Aye, we can do that. Did you want to save anything else?"
"The bones and claws and scales we will keep," the king replied, nodding to Dori and Bofur. "They will take care of that. For now we just need to get rid of the body before it stinks up the place even more."
Bard nodded and gestured something to the Men. Half of them went to work while the rest followed Thorin to the gates. Once there, the king spread his arms wide and rumbled, "Welcome to the gates of Erebor! As you can see, we have much work to do."
Bard whistled as he took in the damage. "This is a lot more than we were expecting. We may need to send for more Men."
"Do what you must," Thorin agreed. "I will spare no expenses for this. We need the gates rebuilt before winter sets in."
"I understand. We will begin right away," the bowman assured, bowing his head slightly. He signaled to the others, and they stepped forward to begin digging.
Bilbo stood back and watched as Men and Dwarves began the long process of clearing away the rubble. He tilted his head in acknowledgment as Thorin came to stand next to him, but did not tear his eyes away from the group.
"Looks like things are picking up," he commented, crossing his arms over his chest. "The gates are being cleared and Smaug is being buried. Sort of."
"Indeed. Our luck has finally changed," the king agreed, making no attempt to hide his stare. "You finally came out of hiding. Does that mean you are no longer angry at me?"
"I was never angry," he replied in a low voice, "just scared. I don't like that rock. It is not natural."
"It is a jewel, Bilbo, and nothing more," chided the Dwarf as he crossed his own arms over his wide chest. "You have no reason to fear it."
Bilbo scoffed, and finally turned to meet Thorin's blunt stare. "The jewel emits a white light. You can't tell me that is normal."
"The Arkenstone is… unique," Thorin agreed slowly, visibly searching for the right words to use. "But that does not make it evil. Simply… different."
He rolled his eyes but decided not to argue with the king. It wasn't as if he had any chance of changing his mind. Instead, he changed the subject by waving a hand at the Men, and said, "How much are you going to give them for their work?"
The Dwarf shrugged and tapped two fingers against his elbow. "Whatever Balin promised them. They are doing us a great service so I will pay them what they deserve."
"Good. They need it," he commented, glancing at Bard from the corner of his eye. The Man had three children to feed and no wife to help him, and he was considered one of the lucky ones in Lake-town. The people there certainly needed help.
Thorin raised a single brow slightly. "Indeed. You were right earlier when you pointed out that the Master is the only greedy one. The people are clearly suffering for that greed. I will do my best to ease that suffering."
"Thank you," Bilbo said, giving the Dwarf a smile. "I'm glad to hear that. I hate to see innocents suffer at the hands of greed."
"I spoke too harshly before," the king admitted, his lips twisting down at the edges. "I forgot, for a moment, what it's like to have nothing. To live day-by-day on scraps and the pity of others."
Bilbo felt whatever lingering resent he was carrying evaporate. "I'm glad you remembered that. These people need some sort of kindness for once."
"And Erebor will provide it," the Dwarf assured, eyes turning steely. "I will not be like Thranduil. I will never turn away anyone in need. Not again."
"I know you won't," the Hobbit said honestly, smiling without restraint for the first time in days.
Thorin stared at him in response before sighing deeply, and rubbing his forehead. "I thought I told you not to smile like that."
"You did," he agreed, smiling even wider. "I just decided not to listen."
"You never listen to me. I could be on my deathbed and you would still ignore my wishes," the Dwarf mused.
—in the end, Thorin only asks for his forgiveness on his deathbed. He spends the entire journey home wondering if the king ever realized that he would have given Thorin anything if he had asked. The Arkenstone, Smaug's head, Erebor—he would have given Thorin the very world if he had asked. But Thorin never asked, and so he never gave, and he spends the rest of his days wondering if the king ever wanted anything more than his forgiveness—
Bilbo closed his eyes and tried his best not to react. "You're right. I wouldn't."
To his surprise, Bard approached him later that day.
"Master Baggins," the Man greeted, crouching down in front of him. His dark eyes scanned the piles of parchment that sat around the Hobbit in an organized mess. When he finally met Bilbo's eyes, his mouth was quirked up at one corner.
"Busy are we?" he commented, one brow rising on the same side as his half-smile.
The Hobbit rolled his eyes. "Just a bit. Thorin asked me to organize our supplies so I'm trying to list what we have now; what we need restocked soon; and what we will need later. I am also trying to figure out what you and your fellows will need too in the coming days."
"Don't worry about us. We will be fine as long as we have a place to sleep," Bard reassured, shifting his weight back on his heels.
He hummed and tapped his quill against his knee. "Very well. But I get the feeling that you did not come over here to discuss my mess."
Bard shook his head; a few black curls slipping free and falling into his pale face. "No, I did not. I came to ask about the confrontation with Smaug. What happened to your plan?"
"It fell apart once I… accidentally made him angry," Bilbo said slowly, tapping his quill faster against this knee. "When I was sent to scout the area, I ended up confronting Smaug. During our… conversation, I implied that his fire could not melt everything. He did not take my remark well."
"You pissed off the dragon by taunting him," the Man summarized, rubbing his mouth in a failed attempt to hide his growing smirk. "That… was not very smart."
"Really? I never would have guessed," he deadpanned. "After I angered him my comrades came to my aid, and I told them where his weakness was. Kíli fired his arrow and poof! The dragon fell down dead and Erebor was reclaimed. The end."
Bard raised his brow again. "Lovely story. But why didn't you tell them about his weakness earlier? You knew where it was before going in there."
"Because I didn't want to risk their lives," the Hobbit replied with a scowl. "I was going to finish the beast off myself."
"You… were going to fight a dragon. Alone," Bard repeated slowly as if he could not comprehend the words the burglar was speaking. "You. A Hobbit, who is as tall as my youngest daughter, and whose arms are as thick as my son's. Are you mad?"
"It's a definite possibility," admitted Bilbo, shrugging. He did have a habit of making conversation with a cursed ring in his head. He was pretty sure that sane people didn't do that.
The bowman shook his head and rubbed his face with one gloved hand. "You are mad. I can't believe that I agreed to your plan earlier. What was I thinking?"
"Hey, my plan was a good one! It's not my fault that Smaug decided to screw it up!" he protested.
The Man scoffed, and rolled his eyes. "Right, sure, blame the dragon for getting angry when you insulted him. How did you ever make it through Mirkwood with that thinking?"
"I bribed the king," the Hobbit explained, waving a lazy hand. "But that's another story—"
"You bribed Thranduil? The Elvenking?!" repeated Bard, falling forward onto his knees while staring at Bilbo with large eyes. "With what? Your body?!"
"Now what would he do with that? I highly doubt that there is a market out there for hobbits," he pointed out, tapping his quill against his chin. "Although if there was then I suppose Nori would know—"
"Master Baggins! You cannot sell yourself off like some, some—" Bard sputtered, waving his hand frantically about as if trying to grasp the very words from the air.
"Oh stop it, I didn't promise him my body," Bilbo interrupted before the Man could work himself into a frenzy. "I promised him my portion of the reward from the expedition. And my name is Bilbo."
Bard's broad shoulders sagged at his answer. "Oh thank Eru. I thought for a moment there that you… You know what? Never mind. Let's just end this conversation right here."
The Hobbit shrugged. "As you wish. Oh! I meant to apologize to you. I promised you a chance for revenge against Smaug, but failed to deliver it in the end. I'm sorry for that."
"Don't be sorry. I'm certainly not," the bowman reassured, pushing a loose curl behind his ear. "I am simply happy the monster is gone forever more. Now I can raise my children in peace."
"And possibly rebuild Dale," suggested Bilbo, arching his brows.
The Man shifted and rolled his shoulders back. "Let's just focus on one city at a time. Erebor and Lake-town will need a lot of work."
He shrugged. He was rather unconcerned over the future of Dale since he knew it would be rebuilt eventually. "Agreed. You should get back to the gates. I'm sure they need you."
Bard nodded, and rose to his feet in one smooth motion. "I will. I just thought it was important that we get this conversation out of the way while everyone else was preoccupied."
"You thought correctly," Bilbo replied before making a shooing gesture with his quill. "Go on now. We both have a lot of work to do. I will see you at dinner."
The bowman nodded with a small smile as he began to walk backwards. "Save me a seat close to the fire."
"What makes you think I want to be near fire after almost getting burned alive?" he demanded of the Man. Bard simply laughed, and walked away with a lazy salute.
Bilbo huffed and turned back to his papers. "Ugh, Men."
Though he hated it, Bilbo saved Bard a seat next to the fire as he requested. He didn't save him any of the rolls Balin had brought back though. When it came to food, it was every Man and Hobbit for himself. He was halfway through his soup when Bard finally dropped into sit next to him. In his hands he held his own bowl of soup, and one of the harder loafs of bread that was left.
"Thank you for saving me a seat," the Man said in greeting as he crossed his legs and balanced the bowl in his lap.
"Well, I could hardly refuse as you walked away now could I?" the Hobbit pointed out, stirring his soup.
Bard grinned with all of his teeth exposed. "That was the plan. So did you finish your task?"
"You mean my lists? No, not yet," he replied, shaking his head. "I need to speak to the others to see if I'm missing anything. Are you sure you don't want me to add you and your fellows? It would not be a problem."
"We have brought everything we need along," the bowman reassured as he attempted to soften his bread by dipping it in his soup. "Food, water, clothes, and our tools are all we need. As long as we have a safe place to sleep, then we have no need for anything else."
Bilbo shrugged. "As you wish. How goes the digging?"
"Good, for the most part," replied the Man. "That Dwarf—Master Bifur—knows his stuff. He is very careful with his directions, and has us go slow so we don't create a rock slide. I think it will take us up to a week to completely clear it."
"So soon? I thought it would take longer," he mused as Fíli and Kíli suddenly appeared. Without any hesitation, they sat down in front of Bilbo and Bard and looked at them with matching grins.
"Mister Bard," greeted Fíli, his grin showing the tips of his canines.
"Bilbo!" greeted Kíli, his grin less of a snarl and more of a smile.
Bilbo looked between the two brothers, and narrowed his eyes. "What are you two up to?"
"Up to? I don't know, Kíli, what are we up to?" wondered Fíli, looking to his brother.
"I think we're up to chatting with our favorite Hobbit and his new friend," the younger prince chirped back easily.
"Uh-huh." Bilbo glanced to Bard, who simply shrugged, before turning his attention back to the two Dwarves. "Have you two eaten yet?"
"We finished our dinner," assured Fíli, flashing him an honest smile before turning his sharp grin back to Bard. "We just thought we'd keep you two company."
Bard snorted and lifted his bowl to sip from it like it was a cup.
Bilbo sighed but decided to humor the two brothers. "Of course. So what did you two do today? I didn't see either of you at the gates."
"We were helping with Smaug," replied Kíli, raising a hand and wiggling his fingers. "See? I still got some blood under my nails."
"That's disgusting," he said bluntly, wrinkling his nose and pointing his spoon at the Dwarf. "You wash up before bed tonight. I'm going to check up on you too so don't try and weasel out of it."
"Yes, Bilbo," Kíli said dutifully, exchanging a look with his brother.
"I like your braids. Did uncle do them?" asked Fíli as he looked to the Hobbit.
He rolled his eyes. "You know he did since these are his beads I'm wearing."
"They do look very nice," agreed Bard, stabbing at his softening bread. "Is there any meaning to that style of braiding?"
The Hobbit shrugged. "Not that I'm aware of. Fíli and Kíli here probably know more."
Fíli nodded, and held up one of his own braids. "That's a basic braid like mine. The only time we wear a special style is for a wedding or funeral or other events. Most of the time we keep it simple and show our meanings with beads and jewels."
"My people have a custom too," Bard mused, gesturing to his own hair. "Unmarried Women and girls will keep their hair loose and free until they marry. Then they will wear it up or pinned back. Unmarried Men and young boys will usually keep their hair short until they marry. Then they grow it out along with a beard or mustache."
"Truly? I had never noticed that," he reflected, thinking back to Bree and Lake-town. "But now that you mention it, all the Women I have ever seen with loose hair were young. And the only time I ever saw a Man sporting a beard was a married one."
"Most Men and Women will follow this custom, but not all of them," explained Bard as he broke apart his finally soft bread. "The Men of Gondor, for example, will usually only keep their hair to shoulder length, and never allow their beards to grow fully."
"That explains why most of them are ugly," commented Fíli, side-eying his scowling brother.
Bilbo recalled the brothers Boromir and Faramir and laughed. "Not all of them are so ugly, Fíli. Some are quite handsome even with the scruffy beards."
Fíli and Kíli turned as one to stare at him.
"Of course," he continued, ignoring the looks, "they still have horrible taste in pipe weed, and their clothes are always very dark and plain. Really a depressing lot most of the time."
"I visited Gondor once when I was younger. It seemed like no one ever smiled there," admitted Bard, finally able to eat his bread without chipping a tooth. "Do hobbits have a style with their hair?"
"No, not really. We mostly wear our hair short as the curls become untamable when long," he explained, shrugging. "The only reason I agreed to braids was because I have no other way of keeping my hair out of my face. No one here will allow me the use of scissors to cut it short again."
"Why not use a knife?" asked the Man, lifting his brows.
Bilbo jeered. "If they won't let me handle even a pair of scissors, then what makes you think this lot will let me use a knife?"
"You can't fault us for being paranoid when you do dumb things like taking on three trolls alone," stressed Kíli, giving him a glare that made him look disturbingly similar to Thorin.
Bard choked on his bread. "W-What?"
"Then there was the time you talked back to the orcs in order to distract them," added Fíli, stroking his mustache and looking up as if in deep thought.
"And that time you walked up to the shape-shifter who could transform into a bear—"
"Then at Mirkwood where you yelled at that nancy king of the Elves—"
"And of course recently when you pissed off a dragon the size of a mountain," finished Kíli, sharing a look with his brother. "As you can see from past experiences, we really can't afford to leave you alone with a pointy object."
"Much like how we can't leave Bombur alone with a cake, or Kíli with an Elf," agreed Fíli. His remark earned himself a scowl and a punch in the shoulder from his loving little brother.
At that point, Bard was staring at Bilbo as if contemplating if it was too late to make a run for it. "You… Did you really do all that?"
He huffed and finished the rest of his soup before speaking. "I had to. My friends' lives were in danger."
"You care so much for these Dwarves that you're willing to die for them?" remarked the Man, tilting his head to the side.
Bilbo looked down into his empty bowl in order to avoid the eyes watching him. "Yes, I do."
There was a moment of awkward silence before he found himself knocked over by two blurs of blond and brown. He groaned as he hit the hard floor; his still healing ribs and bruises protesting the weight, and rough treatment. But there was little he could do as Fíli and Kíli wrapped around him like a pair of leeches.
"Awww, we love you too, Bilbo!" cried Kíli as he wrapped his arms tighter around his neck and shoulders. Bilbo tried his best not to choke on the thick hair in his face.
"We promise to protect you too," assured Fíli with his arms around the Hobbit's waist.
"Great, I love you both too, now will you please get off of me?!" he yelled, pounding on Fíli's back and Kíli's shoulder.
The two brothers gave him one more squeeze before releasing him from their clutches. Once they released their iron grips, he pushed them away and staggered back to his seat. There Bard was making no attempt to hide his laughter because he clearly had no soul.
"Never do that again," the Hobbit ordered as he rubbed his side. "Never."
Fíli and Kíli—because they were the spawns of Morgoth—simply beamed up at him. "Yes, Bilbo."
Bilbo found himself spending much of the following days finishing his lists, helping with the work, and helping with the meals. The celebrations had ended and the real work to rebuild Erebor had begun. Everyone was working—even Gandalf, to his surprise—and no one idled around. With so many things to do, he found himself too busy to stop and speak with any of his friends. It was not until nearly a week had passed that he was finally able to find a moment to speak to Thorin. He found the king sitting alone in a room that was half caved in but still usable for privacy as the door still worked.
"What did you do with the Arkenstone?" he asked bluntly as he marched in because his tact had honestly disappeared around the same time that his hair had begun to go gray.
Thorin looked up from the letter he was reading, and stared at the Hobbit. "It is in my pack. Why?"
Bilbo crossed his arms and leaned his hip against the makeshift stone table the Dwarf was seated at. "Because I have not seen that wretched stone all week. I thought perhaps you decided to throw it away."
The Dwarf narrowed his eyes, and slowly set the letter down. "I have not thrown it away. It sits hidden among my possessions until the time comes where I can properly display it for all to see."
"You mean your crown," he translated, rolling his eyes. "Oh, stop glaring at me, Thorin. I'm not going to yell at you again. I was just curious as to where it was. I thought you would like to show it off."
"I would if all these Men were not around," the king explained, pressing the tips of his fingers together, and peering over them with hooded eyes. "I do not trust them just yet. They seem honorable but appearances can be misleading."
"Bard would not bring Men here that he did not trust," he reassured.
In response, Thorin's shoulders grew tense. "You trust his judgment?"
The Hobbit nodded. "I do. He is a new friend and a good Man. He would be a better leader for Lake-town than that greedy Master we met."
"You think very highly of him," the king pondered, his blue eyes turning darker. "My sister's sons told me you thought the Men of Gondor were handsome. Does your taste lie with the taller folk then?"
Bilbo blinked as he tried to figure out what part of the question that he felt most offended by. "I—Why is that even a question? Why would you even care?"
"I don't," the Dwarf replied, never blinking. "I'm simply… curious. Can hobbits love again? I heard that it is common among Men and Elves to take another spouse."
"Yes, we can," he answered slowly; still not following the thought process of the king. "We believe that every love is special and sincere and true. A widow might not love her second husband that same way she loved her first, but that does not mean she loves him any less."
Thorin went completely still. "Would you… Would you ever love again?"
"I don't know," he replied honestly. Thorin had been the only love he had ever known. He had tried, of course, to fall in love again, but never found anyone that clicked with him quite the way Thorin had. In the end he had simply accepted that the Dwarf king had been his only love, and moved on with his life.
"If you did fall in love again, would it be with a Man?" the king asked, his voice low and rough.
Bilbo frowned and stood up straighter. "What is this about, Thorin? Why are you asking me these weird questions?"
"Because I want to know if you are falling for that Man!" yelled the Dwarf as he rose to his feet in one swift motion.
"What Man?" he asked, backtracking through the conversation in an attempt to follow the (clearly) insane Dwarf. What was Thorin going on about?
"Bard!" the king snarled, gesturing to the east where the gates were.
Bilbo gaped and had to brace himself against the table as his legs went weak. "Bard?! Are you out of your mind?! Where in the world did you ever get an idea like that?!"
Thorin's eyes grew even darker. "You don't deny it…"
"Because there is nothing to deny!" he retorted sharply, throwing his arms up in the air. "I don't believe this! You are delusional and I'm not speaking to you until you regain your wits!"
"Don't walk away from me!" the Dwarf roared as the Hobbit turned around and began to stomp off.
Bilbo scoffed and kept walking. He didn't get very far before he found himself jerked back by his wrist. He was forced around roughly by that hand and met Thorin's diamond gaze full on in shock.
"Do not ever turn your back on me," the king snarled, tightening his already unyielding grip until Bilbo winced from the pressure.
"You're going to break my wrist," he pointed out while trying to pry the iron fingers loose with his free hand.
Thorin relaxed his grip slightly but did not release him. "You test my patience, Bilbo. Stay away from that Man."
The Hobbit paused in his attempt to break free to gape at his captor. "Why? He is my friend!"
"He is not your friend!" snapped the king, yanking the burglar closer until Bilbo had to lean back to look the Dwarf in the eye. "He is a stranger who has come for gold and nothing more! We are your friends and family! Not some fisherman from a backwater village!"
Bilbo felt his anger shift into a dawning sense of horror and fear. "Thorin… Why are you saying all of this? What is wrong with you?"
Thorin frowned while his eyes lightened by a fraction. "Nothing is wrong with me. I have simply recalled my position as king and all that comes with it."
"And my choice of friends is something you get to dictate as king?" he demanded, raising his eyebrows.
"No. I cannot control your choices," the Dwarf admitted, "but I can warn you. Do not push me in this. If you do, I cannot guarantee that Man's life."
"Thorin… This isn't right, this isn't you," he pointed out, reaching out with his free hand to grasp the king's coat. "Think about what you're saying. Doesn't it sound the slightest bit off to you?"
Thorin blinked, and looked down at the Hobbit's hand before slowly turning his stare to the wrist he still held. Carefully he relaxed his grip until Bilbo gently pulled his arm back.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to hurt you," the king apologized as his eyes lightened into a cobalt blue instead of ebony black. "I just want you to understand. I don't trust these Men, and I don't want you to get hurt. They are strangers and I fear they may mean to harm us all. Can you understand that fear?"
"Yes," he lied, feeling something fall apart in his heart. "I understand."
Thorin's wide shoulders sagged. "Then will you not see that Man anymore?"
Bilbo took in the dark blue eyes and flinched. "I'll think about it."
"I suppose that is all I can ask," granted the king as the burglar slowly stepped away. "I think it is time for us both to return to work. I shall see you at dinner?"
"You will," he agreed mechanically before turning around and walking away. When he was far away from the king, he leaned his weight against the wall, covered his face, and tried not to scream. The very thing he had feared was finally happening.
Thorin was losing his mind to the Arkenstone.
—Thorin's eyes are black as night—
"… I am betrayed…"
—the king rubs one finger down the Arkenstone; staring at it as if it is the loveliest sight he has ever seen—
"… take him, if you wish him to live; and no friendship of mine goes with him…"
—the armies of Thranduil and Bard stretch as far as the eye can see. Thorin looks at the armies camped out before Erebor and simply scoffs. He has no problem with going to war with them—
"… get down now to your friends or I will throw you down…"
—for a moment he thinks Thorin will ignore Gandalf and simply drop him. He thinks it would be a bittersweet way to die at the hands of the mad king he adores—
Bilbo shook and tried to control the rhythm of his breathing. Please, Thorin. Don't do this, he begged in his mind. Don't let your family curse consume you. Don't make me watch you fall again.
That night Bilbo approached Óin, and pulled the healer off to the side to talk privately.
"Thorin is losing his mind," he said in greeting to the Dwarf.
Óin just stared at him. "What?"
"You heard me. Thorin is going mad," he whispered fiercely, leaning closer to the taller Dwarf.
Óin just kept staring as his brows slowly climbed up to meet his hair. "By Mahâl's balls, lad, where did you get such an idea?"
Bilbo held up his bruised wrist to the Dwarf. "When he did this and told me to stay away from Bard because apparently I have a fetish for Men. Do not ask me how he came to this conclusion because your guess is as good as mine."
The healer looked at the blue imprints around Bilbo's wrist, and then met his eyes. "What… Thorin did this? Are you sure?"
"You think I would lie?" he challenged, dropping his arm and pulling his sleeve down. "It's that blasted Arkenstone! It's driving him mad just like I said it would!"
"Now hold on a moment, Bilbo. First tell me where you got the idea Thorin is losing his mind, and why your wrist is bruised like that," the Dwarf ordered, his eyes straying down the Hobbit's arm before returning to his face.
Bilbo sighed but explained the incident from earlier. Through it all, Óin's eyes grew wider and his mouth became pinched in a straight line. At the end the Dwarf shook his head, and stroked the end of his beard.
"This… does not sound good," the healer muttered, fingering one of his beads. "I will speak to Balin and Gandalf over this. For now you stay away from him. I don't want him to do something we would all regret."
He nodded reluctantly. "Fine. But I'm telling you that it's the Arkenstone doing this."
"If it is then taking it away will not help now," the Dwarf fretted. "We will need another tactic. Go and rest, Bilbo. We will take care of this."
Bilbo did as ordered and avoided Thorin for the rest of the night and the next day. It was not very difficult as the king was just as busy as everyone else, but that didn't mean the Dwarf didn't see him. At random points during the day he could feel eyes watching his every move. He didn't need to look to know that it was Thorin staring at him.
So preoccupied with avoiding Thorin and his dark eyes, he had not given his surroundings the attention he should have. That was why when he heard yelling and a rumbling noise, he looked around in confusion instead of heeding the warnings. He saw something dark at the corner of his eyes for a moment before he found himself yanked into someone's arms, and buried against their chest as they hit the ground in a roll.
Bilbo winced as his ribs objected to the tight grip—he was getting a bit tired of being manhandled everywhere—around his shoulders and waist. He could feel a large hand covering his head and the chest he was smashed against was firm, but not as hard as a Dwarf. It also smelt of sweat and dust and leather, and when he opened his eyes, he realized that he recognized the brown shirt.
"Bard," he mumbled, pushing back to look up at the Man. "What happened?"
"Rock slide," replied the bowman as he released him. He sat up and helped the Hobbit up with one hand while the other checked for injuries. "Anything broken?"
"Only my pride," he replied, looking over to the gates where an avalanche of stones had fallen right where he had been standing. If Bard had not grabbed him when he did, then he would have been one dead Hobbit.
"You saved my life," he realized, looking up at the Man. "Oh Eru, thank you, Bard. I would be dead right now if it wasn't for you!"
The bowman shrugged and gave him a half-smile. "It was only fair. You saved my life and my home from Smaug."
Bilbo snorted and glanced around the room—over the Men and Dwarves who were checking on others—when his eyes clashed with a pair of midnight blue. He froze, and stared at Thorin as the king stared back with something dark uncurling in his eyes. When Thorin's eyes flickered to Bard, that darkness seemed to explode.
"Oh no," he breathed, his heart curling in on itself. "No, no, no—"
"Bilbo? What's wrong?" asked Bard, looking to where the Hobbit was staring. His eyebrows met his hairline, and he leaned back slightly. "Why does the king look like he wants to throw me off the mountain?"
"Because he does," he muttered, forcing himself to look back at the bowman. "Bard, listen to me. Thorin is not in his right mind at the moment. He's sick with this Dwarven disease that the others are trying to cure. So stay away from him if you can because I don't know what he'll say or do to you."
Bard stared at him; looking torn between yelling, and getting up and just leaving the mountain because they really weren't paying him enough for all of this. "What are you talking about? What disease? Why weren't we told of this before? Are we going to catch it?"
"You and your Men can't catch it," the Hobbit reassured. "It is unique only to Dwarves. And we just discovered yesterday that Thorin is afflicted with it when he began ranting at me. Before all of that he was fine."
"Is he the one who did that then?" wondered the Man, pointing to the Hobbit's bruised wrist.
Bilbo scowled and pulled his sleeve down. "None of your business. Just listen to my advice and stay away from Thorin. Do you understand?"
Bard frowned; his eyes flickering to his hidden wrist, and then to the glowering king before returning to Bilbo's face. "I understand. I will stay away from him."
"Thank you," he said, his shoulders relaxing slightly.
Bard nodded though his frown and narrowed eyes never changed. "Are you going to stay away from him too?"
"If I can," he admitted, rubbing his bruised wrist while watching the glaring king from the corner of his eye. "But I might not have that choice."
Two days later the gates were finally cleared open.
"Impressive," commented Bofur, standing in the doorway and staring up at the ruined ceiling. "Very nice."
"You lot do good work," agreed Bilbo as he studied the doors that had been cleared open. There was still much rubble to be cleared away, but the bulk that had blocked the doorways had been removed. Now they could finally leave the mountain without resorting to the secret door.
"Thank you," said Bard with his arms crossed over his chest and a grin on his face. "We still have much to clear away but at least we managed to get this section cleared. When we return, I will bring more hands to help."
"That won't be necessary as your services are no longer needed," drawled Thorin as he marched up to the Man and Hobbit. Behind him trailed Balin, Gandalf, and Óin; all of them frowning and looking far too serious for Bilbo's comfort.
"No longer needed?" repeated Bard, his grin shifting into a scowl as he turned to meet the king. "What do you mean?"
"I mean that we don't need you and your Men here any longer," Thorin sneered, tossing a sack to Bard who caught it without flinching. "Get out of my mountain."
"What? But we still need their help!" protested Nori, joining the conversation with Bofur and some of Bard's Men.
"This is not what was promised to us," objected Bard as he glowered down at the Dwarf. "We were promised work with pay for the next few months; not a week and a half!"
"The deal has changed," Thorin growled, shaking off Balin as he tugged on his arm. "I want all of you out of my kingdom by noon. Understood?"
"Oh Mahâl," groaned Óin as he rubbed his forehead.
"Thorin—" Balin huffed, reaching out for the Dwarf again.
"What was his title now? King of the Fools?" wondered Gandalf, stroking his beard.
"ENOUGH!" roared the king, jerking around to face the two Dwarves and wizard. "I will hear no more complaints! I am king here and my word is law! I say that these Men are to leave then they will leave! Am I understood?!"
The three nodded with obvious reluctance as Thorin spun back around to face the Men and Bilbo. He pointed to Bard and ordered, "Get out. Now."
"This is not over," warned the bowman as he gestured for his Men to move.
Thorin simply sneered; the look forcing his usually handsome features into something ugly and unnatural. As the Men began to walk off to pack their belongings, Bard met Bilbo's eyes, and visibly softened.
"You should come with us. I don't think it is safe here," he said lowly, leaning down towards the Hobbit.
Before Bilbo could politely refuse the thoughtful offer, Thorin grabbed his wrist and jerked him away from the Man. "He is staying here. He is part of our Company and belongs with us."
"I can speak for myself," he snapped, yanking his arm free, "and thank you for the offer, Bard, but I am afraid I must decline. I have to stay here as you can clearly see the king has lost his damn mind."
Nearby, both Nori and Bofur had one of the mysterious 'coughing fits' the Dwarves seemed so prone to.
Bard's glower never wavered though. "As you wish. Good luck, Bilbo."
"Thank you," he said, flashing the Man a smile before turning to face the scowling king next to him. He met the scowl with a glare of his own, and poked the Dwarf in the chest.
"We need to talk. Now," he ordered, reaching down to grab Thorin's wrist and drag him away. To his relief, the Dwarf did not fight him, but allowed the Hobbit to lead him to one of the empty halls before he released him.
"What in Eru's name is wrong with you? Do you have any idea of what you just did?" he said, glaring up at the scowling king. "You just threw out our only ally!"
"We do not need those Men. We have Dwarves coming to our aid," snapped Thorin, eyes a murky mix of black and blue. The blend of colors made Bilbo nauseous just looking at them.
"You fool. Don't you realize that Dwarves are not enough?" he wondered before shaking his head. "No, of course not. You're not in your right mind. You can't see any sense like this."
Bilbo immediately regretted his words as Thorin's eyes went completely black.
"Stop saying that!" the king snarled, reaching up to pull at his hair from the roots. "All of you, every second of the day, constantly whispering to me. I see how all of you doubt me, think I'm sick—BUT I AM FINE! DO YOU NOT UNDERSTAND THAT?!"
"If you are so 'fine' then why are you screaming at me like that?!" he yelled back, reaching up to take the king's hands into his own so he wouldn't pull any more of his hair out. "Listen to me, damnit, listen! This is not you, Thorin. You do not make such foolish and rash choices, and you do not yell at your friends. Can you not see how strange you are acting?!"
Thorin looked down at their joined hands before looking back to Bilbo's face. "I don't—Bilbo, I can't… I cannot think straight. All I can think about is that Man stealing everything I love from me. Just like Smaug and Azog and the rest of them. I don't… I can't lose them again. Not at this point."
Bilbo felt the fracture in his heart grow wider. Soon he thought his heart would be a pile of rubble just like Erebor. "Oh, Thorin. Bard is not trying to steal anything from you. It is simply all in your head. That blasted Arkenstone is making you sick."
At the mention of the stone, the Dwarf's face darkened and he yanked his hands away. "Do not blame the Arkenstone for all of this. I know that you hate it, but it is not the cause here. It is just a stone! I do not understand your hatred for it."
Bilbo felt his temper finally snap.
"BECAUSE IT IS THE CAUSE OF ALL OF THIS!" the Hobbit raged, grabbing the king's coat and shaking the Dwarf with all his strength. "HOW CAN YOU NOT SEE THAT AFTER WATCHING YOUR GRANDFATHER SUCCUMB TO THE SAME DAMN THING?!"
Thorin's eyes grew wide and his mouth fell open as the Hobbit shook him slightly. The stunned reaction did not last as those dark eyes narrowed into slits, and his mouth pulled back into a snarl. Bilbo took a step back and prepared himself in case he needed to make a run for it. With his anger backing him, he could probably outrun the Dwarf.
But before he could find out, Bofur came stumbling into the hall; breathing hard with his hat lopsided from his frantic running. "Thorin, Thorin—!"
"Not now," growled the king, never taking his eyes off of Bilbo.
Bofur ignored the demand and pointed back to the gates. "You have to get out here right now! Thranduil has arrived for his portion of the treasure!"
Bilbo closed his eyes and screamed.