The Hobbit looked up and squinted through the glare of the setting sun at the speaker. "Yes, Tauriel?"
Tauriel—who was bloody and sporting a limp but was still very much alive—nodded to the Hobbit's arm. "How are your injuries? Do you need to see a healer?"
Bilbo shook his head and patted the shallow slice going down the outside of his left arm from his shoulder to his wrist. "No, I'm fine. My injuries are all minor. Let the healers focus on the ones who need them."
Tauriel nodded. "I understand. Would you… Would you like to visit Erebor?"
Bilbo glanced to the east where the Dwarven city stood. After Thorin and Fíli had been taken away, he had returned to the battle with Beorn and Tauriel and his remaining Dwarves. The battle had lasted for the rest of the day and it was not until the late afternoon came to pass that it finally ended. Their side had won, of course, but it had come at a great cost. The bodies of every race littered the ground in every possible direction and went on as far as the eye could see. Bilbo could smell nothing but blood and rotting flesh as it baked under the sun. If he had anything in his stomach, he was sure he would have thrown it all up long ago.
"No. I'm still banished from the mountain," he replied as he looked back up to the Elven maiden. "I don't want to go where I'm not wanted."
"They seemed quite concerned over you earlier," the Elf pointed out as she tilted her head to the side; causing bits of loose hair to fall into her face. Her braid had come undone over the course of the day and clumps of hair now fell around her face in a mess of autumn sunshine. The look made her face seem softer and younger than she really was.
"I do not doubt their affection for me," he reassured, smiling slightly. "It is just that their king has set a decree and I do not wish to force them to choose between his word and me. I will stay away for now."
The warrior nodded. "I understand. Would you like to visit the camp then? I heard that Master Bard is there resting. Apparently he was the one to end Azog for good."
"He did? I will have to thank him for that later," he mused, scratching at his face only to wince as he snagged an open cut. "For now though I'm going to help the healers with the wounded. My skills are not much, but I can still help them with the menial work."
"I understand. I will return to helping Master Beorn with burning the bodies," Tauriel replied, pushing back her messy hair behind one pointed ear. She licked her lips and seemed to think about something for a moment before she spoke again.
"Are you… Will you be okay helping the healers?" she asked slowly as she stared down into his eyes. "I know that earlier you were understandably upset over your friends…"
Bilbo nodded even as the memory of Thorin and Fíli's injuries flashed through his mind. "Yes. Helping them will give me something to focus on and keep my mind off of them."
Tauriel blinked her hazel eyes slowly. "Running away from your pain will not make it disappear."
"No, but facing it now will not do me any good," he explained, looking away from the Elf's starlight eyes. "I can't let my thoughts or my emotions consume me. I have too much to do still."
"I see. Well, try to remember to stop and breathe, Master Baggins," the Elf advised before bidding him goodbye. He watched her walk back to where the corpses of the Orcs and Goblins and Wargs were being burned. They had dug a pit as far from the city and camp as possible, but Bilbo could still smell the burning flesh in the air.
To the north of him, he could see the camp that the healers had set up for the wounded and dying. He began to make his way there slowly; his right leg throbbing with every step as he had twisted something earlier. When he got there, the healers welcomed his help and bid him to grind herbs for them, or to fetch water and supplies. He easily accepted their requests and helped them the best he could.
Eventually, after the sun had gone down and the air began to grow colder, Bilbo found that he was not the only one helping with the wounded. Thranduil—stripped out of his armor and with bandages wrapped around his upper arm—was also attending to the wounded Elves and Men and Dwarves. For once, the king did not seem to care about races or century-long grudges. He was simply another survivor of the horrible battle. Bilbo paused and watched him for a time as Thranduil stitched up a gash on the back of an unconscious Dwarf.
"From the lack of tears, I take it your friends are still alive," the king commented when he noticed the Hobbit watching him work.
Bilbo shrugged and moved closer to the Elf. "I don't know. They were injured and taken back to Erebor for aid. I don't know if any of them have died by now."
"If they were dead, I'm sure we would have heard their cries. Dwarves are not quiet creatures," Thranduil reminded him, glancing up at the Hobbit under his thick lashes and messy hair. "Though I will admit that they would have good reason. This battle was… brutal even for me."
"Does it ever get easier? The fighting and the killing?" he wondered quietly, glancing over the unconscious Dwarf spread out on a dirty cot.
"For some souls, yes. But for most?" Thranduil shook his head; strands of loose hair falling into his face. "No. It never gets easier. You just get better at blocking it out."
He had expected as much but it still made something in him curl up and sigh. "Sometimes I wonder if all the memories I lock away will one day overwhelm me."
The Elvenking shrugged one shoulder as he finished his task. "They will if you refuse to remember. You cannot erase your past, halfling. It will stay with you always and will change you forever more, but you cannot let it consume you."
Bilbo wondered if such advice counted for souls who were living the same life for a second time. "Is your son well?"
The Elf paused for a moment and his crystal blue eyes seemed to darken into a stormy sky. "He broke three fingers in his left hand and wrenched his shoulder, but he is still alive."
"You don't sound happy about that," he commented.
Thranduil sniffed and looked at him like he was an insect crawling too close to his food. "No father wants to see his son suffer. Even the coldhearted ones like myself."
Bilbo snorted. "I do not think you are as cold as you let others believe you to be."
"Oh? And what has brought you to this conclusion?" the Elvenking wondered blandly.
"Someone so cold wouldn't be here, kneeling in filth, sewing up a wounded Dwarf," he pointed out.
One of the king's brows slowly arched up as he stared at the Hobbit. "You lack manners and respect for your betters. I can see now why your Dwarves are so fond of you."
"And you, your majesty, should stop acting like you don't care about anyone but yourself," he advised, rocking back on his heels. "You're very bad at it. Much like your insults."
"Get out of my face," the Elvenking ordered even as the corner of his mouth twitched up slightly.
Bilbo gave the king a mocking bow before turning away and going back to work. He was still helping the healers hours later when he found himself being approached by the last person he ever expected to see that night.
He looked up from the herbs he was grinding and blinked rapidly. "Master Dáin. What are you doing here?"
Dáin—with his braids loose and dirty and his face caked with dried blood—stopped before him and gave him a short nod. "Good evening. I've come to bring you back to the mountain."
"I was banished," he reminded the Dwarf, slowly setting down his tools and rising to his feet.
Dáin rolled his eyes. "I'm aware of that. I was there for the whole ordeal, remember?"
"Then why are you here making stupid requests?" he snapped back, crossing his arms over his chest. "I can't enter Erebor without Thorin's permission. Did you happen to get it while he was bleeding out?"
"You are very fiery," Dáin mused as he stroked his beard. "That's good. Thorin needs someone who won't sit back and allow him to walk all over them."
Bilbo flinched. "Try to stay on the subject please. Why do you think I will be allowed into Erebor?"
"Because of those," the Dwarf replied, tapping at one of his beads in his hair, "and because your friends asked me to bring you back. They're worried about you, Master Baggins."
"Worried?" the Hobbit repeated quietly. "But I didn't get hurt. I'm fine."
Dáin's eyes—the same eyes that both Thorin and Fíli shared—softened into a lighter shade of blue while his brow lowered. "I do not think wounds are what they're worried about."
Bilbo felt his heart flutter. "Very well. I will visit but I will not stay. I do not want to upset Thorin again."
The warrior snorted. "Doubt he'll care. He's still unconscious."
"Oh." He flinched again and dug his nails into his biceps. "Is he… Is he going to live?"
"Mmm. Not sure just yet. Óin was able to stabilize the wound but there's still a risk of infection setting in," the Dwarf lord explained, shrugging his broad shoulders.
"You are very calm about his possible death," the Hobbit accused quietly as he narrowed his eyes.
Dáin slowly narrowed his own vivid blue pair. "Am I now? I was not aware that you knew me so well, Master Baggins, that you would be able to see through me so easily."
"I don't know you very well," he admitted easily with a nod, "but I do know that you stand to inherit the kingdom should Thorin or his sister's sons die."
The Dwarf's brows flew to his hair and he blinked rapidly for a moment. Then, suddenly, he threw his head back and laughed a booming laugh that drew stares and made more than a few healers jump up. It was a nice laugh that rolled like thunder across the sky, and it made Bilbo flinch because Thorin shared that same laugh.
"Clever and ballsy. My cousin has found a real gem indeed," Dáin complimented, grinning with all his teeth exposed and tossing his auburn hair over his shoulder. "Are you sure you don't want to take up with me over Thorin? He snores, you know, and he has no taste for good wine. Horrible, really. I'm ashamed to call him kin at times."
Bilbo stared at the Dwarf; torn between insulting the warrior and laughing at his accurate description of the King Under the Mountain. Finally he settled on chuckling and shaking his head. "As flattering as your proposal is, I'm afraid I'm quite smitten with your cousin. I will not leave him even if he does have bad taste in pipe-weed and wine."
Dáin sighed loudly and covered his eyes with one hand dramatically. "Ahh, then my love must go on unrequited then! As a lord I must humbly step aside and allow you to be with my less handsome cousin, but my heart will still burn for you forever more!"
"How kind of you," he drawled, rolling his eyes.
"I am a patron of compassion and mercy," the warrior agreed easily, nodding his head and dropping his hand back to his side. "Oh, Master Baggins?"
Dáin smiled again but this time there was nothing charming in it. His eyes became hooded and dark and settled on Bilbo with an intensity that made him take a step back. "You break my cousin's heart again, and I will break every bone in your body. Twice."
Bilbo swallowed and quickly nodded. There was a savage brilliance in those Durin blue eyes that he had only ever seen in one other person, and that had been Lady Galadriel herself. Dáin was turning out to be much more than he had previously assumed. Perhaps all the praise Gandalf had given the Dwarf lord was deserved after all.
"Duly noted," he replied, trying to hold back the tremor in his voice.
"Good." The look disappeared and the Dwarf returned to his easy going smile as his body relaxed. "Let's head out then. I'm sure the others are just dying to see you again."
The moment Bilbo stepped into Erebor, he found himself ambushed by the Company.
"Dáin, you bastard, could you take any longer?! We sent you to get him hours ago—!"
"Are you injured? Do you need us to get Óin?"
"Bilbo we missed you so much—!"
He laughed and threw his arms around Bofur and Balin as they both tackled him in tight hug that made his bruises ache. But it was a pleasant ache that he welcomed as he buried his face in Bofur's shoulder, and entwined his fingers in Balin's beard. He could smell leather and oil and iron and something in him relaxed at the familiar scents of his Dwarves.
"Stop squeezing him so roughly. He bruised his ribs remember?" chided Dori as he pulled the two Dwarves off of the Hobbit.
"Are you okay, Bilbo? We heard you were in the battle," fretted Bombur as he hovered nearby. His shoulder was bandaged and his hand was swollen and bruised, but he was standing and looked well enough.
"I'm fine, fine," he reassured as he looked over each Dwarf. "What about all of you? Is everyone still with us?"
"Just a few cuts and bruises. Nothing to worry about," Glóin boasted as he slid one of his hands behind his back.
Nori—with a bandage around his head—snorted. "You fractured your wrist and a few ribs. That's more than a few 'cuts' and 'bruises,' Glóin."
Glóin shot him a side-eyed glare. "Don't listen to him, Bilbo. He's a filthy liar who lies."
"Thorin and Fíli are the worst off but Bifur was splitting up some blood earlier. Óin thinks he ripped something inside," Bofur admitted quietly as he ignored the two. "He's resting now so we'll see how he is in the morning. Dwalin is sitting with him for now."
Bilbo swallowed and tried his best to contain the fear and worry gnawing at his heart. "And… And Thorin and Fíli? How are they?"
The Dwarves all exchanged looks.
"We don't know just yet. Óin is still with them along with some Elves that came to help," replied Dori, who looked the most composed even with the bruises and welts on one side of his face.
It was not the good news he expected to hear but it was also not the worst. They were not dead yet and that meant there was still hope that things would change for the better.
"Why were you out there? Thranduil was supposed to keep you away," Bombur wondered, tilting his head to the side.
He scoffed and pushed one of his braids behind his ear. "As if I was about to sit back and let you all get hurt. You know that I would do anything to keep you all alive."
"We do know. That's why we asked for you to stay away," Balin retorted as he leveled a frown and a soft glare on the Hobbit. "We knew you would act reckless and endanger yourself for one of us. We didn't want that."
"Why do you say that like it's a bad thing?" Bilbo wondered. "We all know that my death wouldn't really matter in the grand—"
He never got the chance to finish his sentence. Ori—who had been silently lurking in the back of the group—suddenly sprung forward and backhanded him across the face. Bilbo found himself stumbling back from the impact and into Bombur, who quickly yanked him up to keep him from falling to the ground. Holding a hand against his burning face, the Hobbit looked up at the young Dwarf glaring at him with an intensity he had never seen before in the scribe.
"Stop saying that! Stop saying you'll die so easily as if your death wouldn't hurt us at all!" Ori hissed as his shoulders shook and his face turned pink. "I know you miss your lost love—we all know you do! But why can't we be enough to keep you alive? Why doesn't our love and friendship matter? Don't we mean anything to you at all?!"
At the end of his rant, Ori's eyes were red and watery and his lips were trembling. The passion in his gaze had not lessened though and still burned a bright evergreen as they drilled through the Hobbit. In that moment, Bilbo thought he could see the Dwarf that Ori would grow into; the brave and loyal soul that would follow Balin into Moria and stay at his side even in death. It made him want to cry because Ori should not have had to look so old at that moment. Not over a foolish Hobbit like him.
Slowly, he pulled himself free from Bombur and moved to pull the young scholar into his arms. Ori had been roughly the same height as him when they started their journey nearly a year ago, but now he was quite a bit taller than the Hobbit. But even with the difference in height, he pulled the Dwarf to lean against his shoulder and tangled his fingers in Ori's loose hair while his other hand patted his back.
"Ori… I do love you. I love you all so very, very much. That's why I fight so hard to protect you all. I don't want to lose any of you like I lost him," Bilbo whispered as he felt his shoulder grow wet from the Dwarf's tears.
Ori shook his head and wrapped his arms more firmly around the Hobbit's waist. "W-We w-won't die. W-We're str-stronger than th-that. So don't… don't make me watch you die like all those people who fought today…!"
Bilbo felt his own eyes begin to water as Ori's voice hitched. "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry. I never meant to make you worry. I never meant to make any of you worry…"
"Worry comes with the territory of caring for someone," Balin said quietly as he watched the two with his warm eyes. "You're very important to us, Bilbo. We'll do whatever it takes to keep you safe just as you do with us."
"In other words, you're stuck with us. Get used to it," Nori summarized with a smirk that didn't hide the soft look in his eyes.
Glóin nodded and tweaked his curls. "It's true. You're one of us now. No escaping it, burglar."
"Till death do us part," Bofur teased only to gain a smack from his brother.
"We're a family now," Dori agreed with a small smile. "Maybe not in blood but in every other way that counts."
—he hates his home the most. Bag End is a beautiful hole that is spacious and warm and he knows many hobbits would love to live in such a place. But it is also empty and silent and every room holds a ghost that will not rest. If he did not have Frodo to raise, then he thinks he would have given it to his greedy relatives and moved far away because sometimes he still smells his mother's pies and his father's pipe-weed in the air, and other times he can still hear the booming voices and laughter of the Dwarves, and it's not fair because he will never be quite as happy as he once was with them—
Bilbo shuddered and hugged Ori tighter. "Yeah. Yeah, you're my family now."
I think you always were.