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A Shot in the Dark

Chapter Text

 


 

When he opened his eyes, it was to the sight of a familiar ceiling in a familiar home.

When he sat up, he found himself in his old room. It was not the room that he had left behind in Bag End as a withering old Hobbit—and condemning Frodo with the fate of that damn ring, his mind viciously reminded him—but a room from a lifetime ago. It was a room that he had changed thoroughly with a passion fueled by the stubborn Baggins determination to outrun painful memories.

It was the room he had before he left for Erebor.

Is this a cruel jest of magic, or the afterlife? he wondered, staring with an open mouth at his surroundings. When he had last closed his eyes, he had been on a boat on his way to the Undying Lands. So this was certainly not what he had been expecting to see after waking up from his nap in his cabin.

Eru could not be so cruel as to cast him into a place that reminded him of what was long lost, right…?

When his eyes fell upon the full-length mirror—his mother's mirror that Frodo accidently cracked forty years ago—he very nearly fell out of his bed. For what he saw in it was not the familiar wrinkled face he had grown to know, but a young one that he had nearly forgotten.

Shaking, he scrambled out beneath the mountain of blankets and quilts and stumbled over to the mirror. Grasping the edge of it, he stared at the face of the young Hobbit before him with freckled skin and thick brown curls, and felt something in him crack.

"I'm young again," he said aloud, watching the face in front of him repeat his words. "I'm young again, and in my old house in Bag End before I went to Erebor—"

Understanding dawned on him and brought him to his knees. He recalled now, a story from long ago, of a Hobbit lass that had watched her beloved die in an accident. When she awoke the day after his funeral, she found herself reliving the days before the accident over and over again, and was able to save her beloved from his cruel fate.

He did not know what manner of powers had given him such a choice, or what he had done to deserve such a rare and wonderful gift. But what he did know was that there was to be a war over an ancient ring. This war would bring death upon all the races and a change to all the lands for the first time in centuries. From this war great heroes would rise from each race, and with each great hero an equally great villain would rise up to meet them. This war would be fought and won at the hands of four Hobbits; one of them being his precious Frodo. And though this war would be won because of the strength of his nephew, it would also forever change the lad in ways he had never wanted.

What he also knew was that, at that exact moment, there was a dragon sleeping in a glorious Dwarven city under an equally glorious mountain. This city was stolen by the dragon for its treasures, and he had driven out the great people who had built it. He also knew that at that exact moment a certain Dwarven king was doing everything in his power to reclaim it. And with the help of twelve other Dwarves, a Wizard, and a Hobbit, this king would embark on a journey that would change them all. In this journey he knew that he would create a bond with each of them and eventually even come to love the stubborn king. But before he was ever able to speak of his feelings, he would watch this great king die in battle shortly after reclaiming his home from the selfish dragon.

And damn if Bilbo Baggins was going to allow all of that to happen again.


 

Chapter Text

 


 

Gandalf observed the Hobbit before him carefully.

As far as Hobbits went, he seemed no different from any other. He was of the average height and build for his race, which was short and dense. He was dressed as most Hobbits were: in a simple and modest attire of a button down shirt, brown trousers, and no shoes. His thick hair was properly trimmed around his face, and he smelled of soap and fresh bread. As far as appearances went, Bilbo Baggins seemed very much a respectable Hobbit.

Too bad he had never put much stake in appearances.

"Good morning," he greeted pleasantly, planting his staff into the ground and leaning against it slightly.

The Hobbit glanced up at him from beneath his thick brown curls. He stared at him for a moment with light brown eyes—Belladonna's eyes, he noted—before a wide smile broke out across his face.

"Good morning, Master Gandalf," Bilbo returned, raising his pipe in greeting.

Gandalf's brows met his hairline. He had not expected to be recognized, least of all by the very one he had sought out. "You know me, my young friend?"

"Of course. My mother spoke very highly of you until the end of her days." The Hobbit took a puff of his pipe and blew out a lazy smoke ring. "We Baggins never forget a friend, you know. Even one we have not seen in decades."

"Indeed." He did not know if he was to feel happy, proud, or surprised by these turn of events. The perplexing feelings made him want to smile widely for it had been far too long since he had been this entertained. "Since you seem to know me so well, might I ask you a question?"

Bilbo waved a lazy hand. "Ask away, good sir."

He leaned forward and tilted his hat up so he could meet the young Hobbit's eyes full on. "I am looking for someone to share an adventure with me. Would you care to be that one?"

Bilbo's polite expression did not change but he did put his pipe down in his lap. "Perhaps. But first tell me more of this… adventure."

This time, Gandalf did not hold back his smile.

 


 

Once Gandalf was on his way with a promise to return for dinner, Bilbo calmly stood up and walked back into his home, shut the door and locked it, and then proceeded to have a minor break down.

Oh sweet Eru, I can't believe I just did that, he thought, leaning his back against the door and slowly sliding to the floor. It had taken every ounce of self control not to break down and tell the wizard every little thing that was to happen with Thorin and company, Frodo and the ring, and even of Saruman and his betrayal. And to have to look into the face of his oldest and dearest friend and lie… Bilbo wasn't sure how he was going to face the rest of his (dead) companions if he couldn't even face Gandalf for five minutes.

Stop it, Bilbo. You can do this. Just remember why you are telling these lies in the first place, he reminded himself firmly. You made a plan now stick with it!

After recognizing the rare opportunity he had been given—and having a mental breakdown over the possibilities—Bilbo had constructed a plan. It was a very basic plan that followed one line of thought: do not let anyone die again. He had made it simple because he realized that he could not change every little detail of their journey just because it suited him. There were certain events that had to happen—like Thorin's battle with Azog—even if he didn't like them.

Though he was still on the fence about the troll situation. Being used as a troll handkerchief had not been his finest moment.

Of course, his true problem lay not in making a plan, but in acting on it. Bilbo knew it was easy to say that he would do this and that when the time came; and he had no fear that he would fail to act when it did. No, the real challenge lay in reliving days he had already experienced with people he already treasured, but who would see him as nothing more than an outsider.

How was he to look upon the faces of his dear companions once more, to see them again before age and death had taken their toll, and pretend that they were nothing more than a stranger to him? How could he laugh and smile with them while knowing that three of them would never live to see their home restored to its former glory?

How was he supposed to lie and pretend that he did not mourn a lifetime away for their dear leader…?

"Stop that, Bilbo, you old goat. You don't have time for a pity party," he scolded himself out loud, shaking his head. He gave himself a light smack on the cheek, forced himself to stand, and marched to the kitchen.

He did not have time to wallow in doubts and insecurities. He had thirteen hungry Dwarves to prepare dinner for.

 


 

From what he recalled, the first Dwarf to arrive would be Dwalin.

The first time he had met the burly and blunt Dwarf, Bilbo had been rightfully intimidated. Tall for his kind and equally robust, Dwalin was easily the most menacing Dwarf he had ever met. Because of this fear he had skirted around him like a mouse the entire time it been just the two of them. It was only later on in their journey—after he had gotten to know Dwalin better—that he had learned that by acting so skittish, he had not only had lessened his worth in the Dwarf's eyes, but also reinforced every reason why Dwalin didn't trust outsiders.

So that was why he was going to do things a bit different this time around.

That evening when his doorbell rang, Bilbo calmly stood up and went to answer his door. When he opened it, he found the tattooed Dwarf standing dressed in the same gold belt and green cloak he recalled from so long ago.

"Good evening," he greeted, giving Dwalin a wide smile. "You must be one of the Dwarves Master Gandalf mentioned. I am Bilbo Baggins, and you are most welcomed in my home. Do come inside."

Dwalin stared at him for a moment with his dark brows raised high before giving a jerky nod, and ducked inside. "My thanks. I am Dwalin, son of Fundin. Where's the kitchen?"

"I have prepared dinner for all of us. Come this way." Bilbo turned around and walked back to his dining room, knowing the Dwarf would follow. When they entered the room, he heard a quick intake of breath and smirked.

"I hope this will be enough to feed you and your fellows. I do not know how much Dwarves like to eat, but we Hobbits love food," he said casually, rolling his head back to get a good look at Dwalin's face.

The Dwarf was wide-eyed and his mouth had fallen open. Of course, he had every right to be shocked. Every inch of Bilbo's table was covered with food. From savory cooked lamb to smoked sausages—he had not held back for this meal. He had done so because he recalled quite well how much this group could devour in one sitting. So instead of waiting for them to raid his larder like the last time, he had pulled out all the food he had stored away, paid a visit to the market nearby, and cooked up a feast fit for a small army.

Or, in this case, thirteen Dwarves and one wizard.

"I… this looks like a fine meal. I'm sure the others will enjoy it greatly," Dwalin finally commented, pulling his gaze away from the table to give him a squinty-eyed glare. "Why did you do all of this? It must had taken you hours."

"Why, because you are my guests! I don't know about you Dwarves but we Hobbits always treat our guests with the upmost respect. And in this case, that means feeding them until they are no longer hungry," he scolded, giving the Dwarf a glare.

He wasn't really bothered by the question because it was such a Dwalin thing to be suspicious over a good meal. However he did so enjoy making the Dwarf look guilty over questioning his good intentions.

Bilbo could admit that he had grown into a devious old Hobbit.

"My apologies. I was just… not expecting to be treated to a feast." Dwalin tilted his head and stared at him with an open and frank expression. "Do all Hobbits really do this for their guests?"

"Well, not all of them. Some of them can be quite rude and stingy," he admitted, recalling his (distant as far as he was concerned) cousins the Sackville-Baggins. "But I am not one of those, and neither are most of my family members. Now come; pull up a seat and get started. I'm sure the others will be here soon enough."

Dwalin gave him another questioning look but pulled his cloak off and took a seat against the wall. He stabbed at a piece of fish and gave it a quick sniff before shrugging and digging in.

Bilbo leaned against the wall and watched him. Dwalin had been a dear companion to him, but they had not been as close as he was with Balin and Bofur. Instead, Dwalin had been Thorin's right hand and dear friend throughout their travels. He could never bring himself to be jealous of their familial bond but did regret never building a bond with Dwalin himself.

But then again, he regretted not doing a lot of things in his lifetime.

"Are you going to eat or stare at me?" the warrior growled, never pausing as he tore the meat off a chicken bone.

Bilbo jumped slightly before giving an awkward laugh. "Ahh, I'm sorry. I'm just curious is all. Never met a Dwarf in person after all."

Dwalin snorted. "Hmp. Well, you'll get an eyeful soon enough."

Oh, how very true.

A solid knock on his front door echoed through the halls and made him jolt. He had forgotten that the rest would soon be following. "Ahh, I'll just go get that. You continue eating."

Dwalin gave a grunt in answer but did not look away from his meal.

Bilbo headed to the door; straining his memory for who it would be. Other than Dwalin arriving first and Thorin arriving last, he could not quite recall who came between. Shrugging, he opened the door and found a tall Dwarf with a battle axe strapped to his back standing before him.

It was Balin.

the last time he see's Balin is before he sets out for Moria. His old friend has aged well and is eager to set out on his newest adventure. He invites Bilbo to come along with him, but he declines since he cannot leave Frodo on his own just yet. So instead they spend the evening laughing and recalling the humorous parts of their journey while keeping silent of those days that were not so wonderful

"I think it's going to rain later," Balin commented, staring up at the sky.

"Really? I hope it clears up by dawn then," Bilbo returned automatically even as he felt his throat tighten up at the familiar voice.

Balin laughed and turned to face him. He looked the same as Bilbo remembered with his prematurely white hair, twinkling dark eyes, and kind smile. The sight of his old friend made that crack in him widen even more.

"Oh, yes, that would be good. Hate to begin our journey trudging through the rain," Balin agreed, stepping into his home. Bilbo stepped back and allowed the Dwarf entry before closing the door behind him.

"I am Bilbo Baggins," he introduced, straining to keep his voice from shaking. "Please make yourself at home."

"Ah, my thanks, my thanks. I am Balin, son of Fundin. Wonderful home you got here. Very warm and cozy," Balin said cheerfully, unwinding his red cloak. "I have never seen the inside of a Hobbit-house. I was expecting something a bit draftier to be honest—"

"Balin!"

Dwalin had apparently heard his brother's voice and had ventured out of the dining room to find them. Bilbo watched the two brothers greet one another with a head butt and realized, for the first time, that the two had most likely not seen one another for years. Living on whatever work they could find meant that they most likely had gone separate ways in order to make a living. It was another reminder of what his Dwarven companions had been forced into due to Smaug.

"Come along; there's dinner waiting for us," said Dwalin, guiding his brother back towards the dining room.

"Oh, excellent! I wondered if there would be food here," Balin commented cheerfully.

Bilbo watched them go and played with the idea of following them before dismissing the thought. He would allow them the chance to catch up without having to worry about eavesdropping Hobbits. Besides, he needed a chance to compose himself. If seeing Balin left him feeling unsteady then he could only imagine how he would feel seeing the rest.

He rubbed his forehead and patted his cheeks a few times before he felt composed again. It was just in time too as there was another knock on his door. This time it was harder and louder; as if two fists had beat upon it.

Two fists. That surely means it's…

With a heavy heart, Bilbo opened the door again and this time found two young Dwarves standing on his doorstep. One was clearly older with his golden hair tied back in braids and a beard that was only now long enough to braid. The other was taller with wild dark hair and only the barest hint of facial hair. Both were well-armed and wearing identical impish grins.

"Fíli—" begun the blond.

"—and Kíli—" added the other.

"—at your service!" they finished in unison before giving a short and synched bow.

when he finally finds the two brothers, he finds a sight that will haunt him for years to come. Kíli lies on his back with his eyes closed and his young face ghostly white. There are arrows impaled in his chest and his lifeblood has created an ocean beneath him. Fíli lies close to him on his chest with a sword and dagger wedged into his back. One hand is stretched out to his brother's hair, his face and blank eyes still fixed on Kíli. Even in the end he still tries to protect his little brother

"Bilbo Baggins," he returned quietly, the crack in his heart now a full-blown gap. "Pleased to meet you both. Please come inside and join the others for dinner."

"There's food? Great, I'm starving!" Kíli pushed past him without hesitation, practically bouncing into the house with all the energy of a pup. He began to pull off his weapons and dropped them into one of the chests that Bilbo had discreetly left out for them.

Fíli followed at a more sedated pace, but with all the confidence and grace that could only come from youth. He too began to strip off his weapons and left them in one of the chests; all the while taking in the house around him with painfully familiar blue eyes.

"Bit bigger than I thought it would be," commented Fíli as he began to pull out his stash of many, many knives.

"That's 'cuz you thought Hobbits lived in holes in the ground with the mud and worms," Kíli mocked, reaching behind to pull off his bow. His hand waved in the air for a few seconds before Fíli reached over and lifted the end up so he could grasp it and pull it off.

"I knew they lived in houses. Just didn't think they would be this big. Didn't think Hobbits were this big," Fíli retorted, flashing a smirk at Bilbo.

Kíli snickered and spun around to face Bilbo and paused. The impish smile slid off his face and his dark eyes widened.

"Oi, Mister Baggins, you all right? You look a bit unsteady there," he said, reaching out a hand as if to catch Bilbo.

All right? No, I'm not all right. I saw you die with your brother. I saw you die trying to defend the uncle you loved so much. I saw you both die and now here you are again—alive and whole and so very, very young!

Bilbo choked back a sob and gave Kíli—smiling, bouncing, fiery, alive Kíli—what he hoped was a reassuring smile. "Oh, yes, I'm fine. Just feeling the day catching up to me, you know? Why don't you two head to the dining room for dinner? Dwalin and Balin have already arrived."

Kíli hesitated; brown eyes flickering over him before he finally shrugged and turned away. He wandered off to find the dining room with Fíli trailing after him; also shooting the Hobbit a confused look but also did not press for an answer.

Bilbo waited until he heard the joyful sound of greetings echo through his house before he finally allowed himself to fall back against his door for the second time that day. Never, in all his years, had he ever imagined such a pain as he felt when he looked upon the brothers Fíli and Kíli. To see them as they once were—brilliant and bright and so very full of life—and know the fate that awaited them …

He could not afford to fail. Seeing those two just made his resolve even stronger. No matter what, he would see that every one of his companions survived the Battle of the Five Armies.

Even if it cost him his own life.

There was another pounding knock on his door. The strength of it rattled both the door and the Hobbit and he knew that, barring Thorin, it was the rest of the Dwarves. And so Bilbo straightened up, steeled himself for the chaos, and opened the door.

He was then promptly thrown to the ground as an avalanche of Dwarves fell on top of him.

 


 

"Do you suppose I broke something?" Bilbo asked Gandalf as he was looked over and prodded.

The wizard made a considering sound in the back of his throat. "Unlikely. But you will have some bruising. Possibly be sore tomorrow."

He winced. He was not looking forward to riding with a bruised bum. "Lovely."

"I am again very sorry, Mister Baggins," Bombur—large, clumsy but sweet Bombur—apologized again for the fifth time since tripping and causing all the Dwarves to fall onto the Hobbit. "I'm not the most graceful Dwarf on his feet."

"That implies you ever had grace to begin with," Dori—who was just as uptight as he recalled—muttered, rubbing the front of his head where a clear, red bump could be seen.

Bombur visibly wilted like a flower without sunlight at the remark, and Bilbo felt his annoyance rise at the sight. "Come now, it was an accident. He apologized for it and meant no harm. Let it go and move on."

Dori stared at him; clearly startled by the sudden rebuke while Bombur simply gawked. At the corner of his eyes, Bilbo could see a few of the others also staring but paid them no mind. He recalled quite clearly how mean and downright vicious the Dwarves could be to Bombur simply because of his size and clumsiness. He had no intention of allowing that to continue again when he knew exactly how good of a Dwarf—and friend—Bombur really was.

An arm was swung around Bilbo's neck, and he suddenly found himself in the warm hold of Bofur. The miner wore the same ridiculous hat and scarf that he remembered so well with his mattock strapped to his back. The Hobbit could even smell the Dwarf's favorite pipe-weed—Longbottom Leaf because Bofur always had class—interlaced within the miner's old coat.

"Aye, our host is quite right. Now is not the time to lay blame," Bofur commented, smiling the dimple smile that he was so well-known for. His eyes though were steely as he leveled them upon the older Dwarf before him. "After all, we've all made mistakes and took a tumble or two, yes?"

Dori rolled his eyes but did not disagree. Instead, he pulled himself to his feet and made his way to where his two brothers sat already eating; clearly done with the conversation.

"Forgive dear old Dori. Afraid that he's a bit of a grump most days," Bofur commented lightly, patting the Hobbit on the shoulder and releasing him. "My thanks for standing up to him though. Sometimes he forgets not everyone is as stone hearted as he is."

"I'm sure he has his reasons," Bilbo pointed out, not about to pick sides in the obvious pissing contest. He knew that his Dwarves would all eventually become as close as brothers; but that would not happen until they started their journey, and had a chance to build those relationships. For now all they were to each other were comrades with the same goal. The real bonds would not develop until later.

"Aye, that he does, that he does," agreed Bofur, slowly nodding while obviously studying the Hobbit. "Good of you to recognize that. And… thank you for sticking up for my brother."

"You're welcome. He did not deserve such a comment over something so small," he said honestly, giving the still silent Bombur a smile.

The round Dwarf smiled back slowly while Bofur beamed without restraint.

"Well said! Now, I think it's time we join the others before they eat everything in sight, and leave us with nothing but the crumbs!" Bofur declared, tugging his brother towards the table of food. Bombur, of course, followed without complaint.

He watched them go before turning his gaze to the wizard beside him. Gandalf looked considering as he studied the Hobbit. It was a look he remembered well having seen it every time he had done something that was not expected of him.

"You seem confused, Master Gandalf," he commented, leaning back against the chair he had been dragged to after being at the bottom of a Dwarven pancake. "Something on your mind?"

"Ahh, it's nothing. Simply the ponderings of an old man," Gandalf dismissed just as he expected him to. Even as good friends, the wizard rarely revealed his inner thoughts to him. "So what do you think of our current company? Not quite what you were expecting, I would think."

Bilbo turned his attention to the collection of Dwarves centered around his table. Dwalin was engaged in an arm wrestling contest with Glóin—whose resemblance to his son was uncanny now that he saw him as a young Dwarf again—while Fíli and Kíli and Bofur cheered them on. Balin was in a deep discussion with Bifur—who still indeed had the old Orc axe embedded into his forehead—that seemed to involve Khuzdûl and much hand gestures. Bombur had gone straight to eating next to the young Ori and silent Nori. Óin—in his familiar brown cloak and white braids—was engaged in trying to eat as much food as possible while next to him Dori tried to avoid the spittle of stray food.

It was all such a familiar sight of energy and life that Bilbo could not fight the warmth that overtook his heart. In all his worry and nostalgia, he had forgotten that there had been good times on his journey too. Stories and songs told around a blazing fire; jokes whispered under breath during the long walks; and the comfort that came from knowing you were safe and loved. His Dwarves had showed him a new side to life that he would have never known in the Shire. With them he had learned of honor and hope and sacrifice, and had grown from a stuffy, cowardly and selfish Hobbit into a brave and kind one.

The Dwarves of Erebor had changed him into someone better, and Bilbo could never forget that.

"They are… something else. Not what I was expecting, certainly, but that's what makes them so grand. I do not think they would be so mesmerizing if they were anything else but this," he said honestly, never looking away from the group of Dwarves

He could feel Gandalf staring at him with his ancient eyes, and knew that there would be a comment to soon follow. But before the wizard could even open his mouth, there was a great pounding on his front door that made every Dwarf go silent.

Gandalf slowly rose to his feet and gave the others a knowing look.

"He's here," he announced, and Bilbo's heart stopped.

 


 

Chapter Text

 


 

Bilbo found that he could not breathe.

Every second seemed to turn into an hour as Gandalf stood and headed to the front door with the Dwarves following. He could only watch from his chair as they disappeared around the corner, and listened as the door was opened and greetings were exchanged. When his ears caught the sound of a familiar baritone, he found his breath suddenly returning to him in quick gasps.

He's here. He's here, he's here, he's here, he's here, he's here, he's here

Suddenly, Bilbo found that did not want to face Thorin again after all. He did not want to face the Dwarf that had lingered in his thoughts and heart for decades. He did not want to remember the days he spent mourning—wishing with every inch of his being that Thorin had survived that final battle. He did not want to remember how much his heart had ached; how many times he had lost himself in memories and daydreams of what could have been.

I can't do this. I can't. How did I ever think I could face him again? he wondered, rising to his feet and heading out of the room. I have to leave. I have to get out of here before they come back. I have to—

His thoughts were cut off as he collided with something large and solid. The impact sent him stumbling back; tripping over his feet and almost falling if not for the hands that latched onto his biceps. They wrapped around his arms like iron vines and hoisted him straight up so that his feet just barely graced the floor.

Without thinking, his eyes went to his savior's face, and he found himself facing Thorin Oakenshield for the first time in eighty years.

Thorin's body is as cold as ice in death. His face has been cleaned of the blood and gore, and his hair has been brushed back neatly from his face. In the dim candlelight, his pale skin looks waxy and fake. He never stirs, never moves, and the realization that he will never see that face smile again hits him with a brutal force that brings him to his knees

"So this is the Hobbit," commented Thorin, tilting his head to the side and regarding him with narrowed blue eyes. "He—

—"If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world," Thorin gasps, blood leaking from his pale lips as he struggles to draw breath still. "But, sad or merry, I must leave it now. Farewell…"

"—grocer than a burglar," finished the king, glancing to his left to raise a brow at Gandalf.

"And you are very rude for a king," Bilbo said before he could stop himself.

Thorin paused and the air suddenly became very still. "Excuse me?"

"I said that you are very rude for a king. I have invited you and your companions into my home, and have provided food and shelter for the night. A king should know to treat such a host with gratitude instead of mockery," he said without pausing to think. If he stopped to think for even a second then he would remember, and if he remembered then Bilbo knew he would not be able to keep up his façade any longer.

Thorin slowly turned his gaze back to him. His face looked as if it had been carved from stone for it was so serious and still. Only his eyes blazed out as bright as blue flames. Dwarves by nature were intense and passionate beings, but Thorin always took it to another level. He was a Dwarf who could feel so much that it consumed his entire being. That intensity had always made itself known most through those fever bright eyes of his.

I had forgotten how intimidating his stare could be, Bilbo thought to himself absently.

"You are correct. I thank you for the hospitality you have provided for us," Thorin finally said, surprising the Hobbit. The Dwarf released him and he took a few steps back the moment his feet touched the floor again.

"You're welcome," he returned automatically. He looked past the king at the other Dwarves—some of whom were looking at him with dropped jaws—and towards the dining room. "There should be some food left if you are hungry. I'm sure the others would be happy to show it to you."

"Aye, Thorin, there's a lot of food still. Come this way," bid Balin, gesturing for him to follow.

Thorin turned in a whirl of fur and followed the other Dwarf with the others trailing them. Bilbo could not watch them go and turned on his heel and marched back to his room with a muttered excuse to the others. He did not stop until he was in his bedroom with the door safely locked up tight. Once there, he covered his mouth and began to sob.

Oh, to look upon the face of the one he adored most in the world… Bilbo felt as if someone had just reached into his chest, wrapped a hand around his heart, and squeezed. Could a broken heart break again? He was beginning to think it was quite possible.

In all his fantasies where Thorin was alive again, he was always happy and relieved and overcome with bliss. There were never any suppressed memories or quiet sobs. Only smiles and laughs and promises to never leave again.

But then, that was the difference between reality and fantasies. His fantasies never quite lived up to his reality.

How am I supposed to survive another journey with him if I can't even face him without crying? he wondered, wiping his eyes clear with one hand. When he had made his plan he had done so with the confidence that he could endure meeting his deceased companions once more. He had foolishly overestimated his own strength.

A light knock on his door had him springing to his feet.

"Bilbo? Are you quite alright in there?" asked Gandalf from beyond the door.

"Ah, yes, I'm fine," the Hobbit replied, quickly scrubbing his face clear of tears. "Is there something you need, Master Gandalf?"

"We are going to go over the details of our expected journey. I thought you might like to hear them," Gandalf replied slowly.

Bilbo quietly cursed the considerate wizard in his head. He was hardly presentable or stable enough to look upon Thorin and the rest so soon. But staying locked up in his room would only invite suspicion. So with a heavy heart, he made himself as composed as possible and unlocked the door.

Gandalf stared down at him; his gray eyes gleaming from beneath his heavy brows. "My dear Hobbit, are you quite sure you are well? You seem… distraught."

Distraught? No, I am not distraught. Just an old fool with too many regrets and a stubborn heart that refuses to heal.

But Bilbo did not voice those thoughts. Instead, he gave his old friend a strained smile that felt false even to him. "I am fine, Master Gandalf, quite fine. Now, why don't we rejoin the others? You said we have much to discuss, yes?"

Gandalf did not look convinced but did not push him. Yet.

"Indeed, Master Baggins, indeed. We have much to discuss," the wizard agreed, turning and leading him back to the Dwarves.

That, my old friend, is truer than you know, the Hobbit thought as he followed the wizard back to the source of his greatest joy and heartache.

 


 

Bilbo did not pay much attention as the Dwarves and wizard gathered around the ancient map and went over their mission. Instead, he spent his time subtly studying the others, and trying not to stare too obviously as Thorin. It was admittedly very hard.

—"You have proven yourself a loyal friend to me time and time again. For that you have my eternal gratitude," Thorin swore, clasping him on the shoulder. His hand is large and covers most of his shoulder, and he can feel the warmth of the Dwarf through his own thin clothing

"I do not have the skills to find it, but there are others in Middle Earth who can," he heard Gandalf comment as he leaned over the table.

Thorin does not sing often but when he does everyone stops and listens. His deep voice never fails to invoke images of gleaming halls, blazing fires, and a never ending ache for a home that was long lost

"Gandalf will have fought hundred of dragons in his day!" Kíli exclaimed somewhere further down the table. An argument soon followed but he did not hear the words.

—"I've never been so wrong in all my life…" Thorin suddenly moves forward and wraps him in a hug that sweeps him off his feet. He returns the hug instinctively; curling his hands into the fur of the king's coat. It has been a long time since he has been hugged

"—lbo? Bilbo!"

Bilbo jumped slightly as a hand landed on his shoulder; dragging him from his memories and back to the present. He looked up at the owner of the hand, and found Gandalf staring down at him with pursed lips.

"Are you well, Bilbo?" the wizard questioned.

"What? Of course, of course." He leaned back and waved the wizard away. "Sorry, just dozed off there for a bit. What were you saying?"

"We were discussing your position as our burglar," Thorin filled in, giving him the same look he would give a toad in his path. "The wizard here seems sure that you will be a worthy asset to our Company. The rest of us do not agree."

"Understandable. It's not like any of you know me or seen any of my skills," he agreed, carefully avoiding looking directly into Thorin's eyes. "But I can assure you that I will do my very best to help you all on this journey. That is all I can say in my own defense."

Gandalf smiled while the Dwarves murmured amongst each other and exchanged looks. While he knew his words did help him slightly, the only way his Dwarves would believe him capable would be when they actually saw him in action.

"If you are in my Company then I will do my best to watch over you as I do the rest. But I cannot guarantee your safety or life," Thorin pointed out, still watching him with those blue, blue eyes.

He nodded, pleased with such an admission. "Good. I do not want you putting your life ahead of my own. If it ever comes to a point where it is my life or yours, you must always choose yourself."

"Bilbo!" cried Gandalf, aghast.

"No!" Bilbo cut him off before the wizard could begin. "Do not argue with me about this, Master Gandalf. I am a simple Hobbit from a simple line with no spouse or child to depend on me. If I perish would it really make a difference in the grand scheme of things? No, it would not. But Master Thorin here is a king and leader of his people. He must live in order to reclaim their home from this dragon. To put it simply, his life matters more than mine."

At that point, all the Dwarves were staring as if they were not quite sure what to make of him. Even Thorin looked taken back by his sudden admission. Only Gandalf seemed disturbed by his words.

Bilbo honestly did not care if his old friend agreed or not. He knew, in the grand scheme of things, that he was important to the world but only to a certain point. His destiny had been to find the ring and carry it to Frodo, who was destined to destroy it. But since he had every intention of never letting that damn ring be in the same city as his precious nephew, he believed his importance in such a matter was diminished. Besides, he had a plan for the ring and knew it could quite possibly cost him his life. But that was a risk he was willing to take if it saved Frodo from his own cruel fate.

"Looks like the Hobbit has made up his mind," Dori pointed out, giving Bilbo a look he could not read.

"Yes, it seems that way," agreed Thorin, his face returning to the blank mask he was most familiar with. "Balin, give him the contract and see that he reads and signs it."

As Balin went about pulling out the contract, Bilbo found himself under the intense gaze of Gandalf. The wizard was clearly perplexed by his behavior and eagerness to engage in the adventure ahead. He knew that his old friend would be suspicious, and those suspicions were likely to grow with the coming days. However, no matter how much his friend pressured him, Bilbo knew he could not yet tell him the truth. The lives of those he held were too important for him to risk even to Gandalf. Until he was assured that Thorin and the others would live, and the ring was once more in his possession, only then would he break his silence and reveal the truth to the wizard.

Until then, he was keeping his mouth shut.

 


 

"Mister Baggins… what are you doing?"

Bilbo glanced over his shoulder and found Ori standing behind him. The young Dwarf was staring at the sign that he was bent over.

"Oh, I'm putting up a sign to let my neighbors know where I've gone," he explained, lifting the board up to the Dwarf so he could read it himself.

Ori leaned closer and squinted at the curvy letters. "'I have left on an adventure. If I do not return in two years then I leave my home and everything in it to my cousin Drogo Baggins on the conditions that he, his future wife, and their children never set foot in or near Brandywine River. To my Sackville-Baggins relatives, I leave nothing. Seriously, keep them off my property and away from my mother's fine china.' Mister Baggins, why did you write such an odd sign?"

"Because if I don't then when I return home all my things will have been ransacked, and my greedy relatives would be living here," he explained, setting the board down. "This is the only way I can keep them away. I'll hang it on my door outside before I leave."

Ori just looked at him as if he had claimed the moon was made of cheese. "Are all Hobbits like you?"

"What do you mean? What am I like?"

"Well, you're so… open. Friendly. And nice. Very, very nice," the youngest Dwarf clarified. "Most races don't like anyone outside their own race. But you don't seem to mind at all that we're Dwarves. Are all Hobbits so… accepting?"

"Well, no, not all Hobbits are so open to outsiders," he admitted, recalling some of his more suspicious and mistrustful cousins. "But I don't believe in that. I believe that every race has something to offer the world. You simply must give them a chance to show you."

"And… what about the ones that don't give you a chance?" Ori's voice was quiet as he twined his fingers around the soft wool scarf that hung from his neck. Standing there, Bilbo was suddenly struck by how young and innocent Ori truly was at that moment.

it is Gandalf who tells him of the fates of Balin, Óin and Ori. He speaks of a tomb and a final stand and a book that Ori had written of their journey. He listens to every detail and at the end he cries for his brave friends who died such lonely deaths so far away

"Then you do not want their friendship. If they cannot see past your appearance and into your character, then it is their loss," he replied, resisting the urge to throw his arms around his—living, breathing, whole—friend.

Ori ducked his head and smiled as a light blush began to make its way up his cheeks, and to the tips of his ears. He had forgotten, over the years, how sensitive and sweet Ori had been at this age.

after the final battle, he spots Ori standing over the dead with clenched fists and pursued lips. His face is pale and splattered with blood and bruises, and eyes that look too old on a face so young

"Would you like to help me wrap up my fine china?" Bilbo asked impulsively. "I want to put it away so it won't get damaged or stolen while I'm gone."

Ori looked surprised and then delighted. "Sure! I like to help. Just tell me what you need done."

He knew that. Ori had always expressed joy in being able to help in any manner. As the youngest on their quest, he had often been overlooked for his inexperience and coddled and protected by his brothers. This time around he would see that Ori did not get forgotten. He would help the youngster grow on this quest for he would surely need such experiences if he was to survive Moria with Balin and Óin.

"Great! Come this way. I think the others left the dishes on the table." He gestured towards the dining room and watched Ori practically skip to it as he followed at a slower pace.

Ori, you are yet another friend that will survive the death that awaits you. I cannot allow anything else.

 


 

They left the Shire at the first light of dawn.

With the barest hint of sunlight peeking over the trees, Bilbo nailed the sign onto his door as the Dwarves behind him stood by and watched. He heard Balin reading it out loud for the others, and smirked when they roared with laughter.

"Not very fond of these Sackville-Baggins is he?"

"Did you see him and Ori wrapping up the plates last night? I was wondering why. Now I know it's because of greedy relatives."

"When it comes to sticky fingered kin, the best thing you can do is pretend you have nothing."

"Wonder what the big deal is about this river. Is it a Hobbit thing to ban relatives from water for an inheritance?"

"Wish I could see the reaction of these Sackville-Baggins. Bet it would be a riot!"

"Enough." Thorin did not need to raise his voice to become the center of attention. "Are you done yet?"

Bilbo stepped back and regarded his board for a moment before nodding. "Aye, I believe so."

"Then let us be off. We have a long way to go," the king-in-exile ordered, already beginning to march off.

Bilbo waited until the rest of the Dwarves followed their leader before turning to take in his home for what could possibly be the last time. When he had last left it, he had done so as an old man at the end of his years. He was still the same old man, but this time he faced a future with a chance of actually changing things. With that in mind, he did not know if he would survive the journey this time around. He did not even know if he would change anything for the better or worst. All that he knew was that he had a chance, and he was going to take it.

I bid you all farewell for now. I hope that the next time I return here, it will be with a better story to tell, he mused before finally turning and following his Dwarves out of the Shire, and into the (second) start of their quest.

 


 

Chapter Text

 


 

Dwalin had never met a Hobbit before.

Hobbits rarely left their homes and he had never stopped at the Shire on his way to Ered Luin, so it was understandable why he had never seen one. Not that he cared, really. He had met enough races in his life at that point, and all of them turned out to be made of the same cloth—a greedy, hateful, ugly cloth.

But Bilbo Baggins was… different.

It was not his kindness or generous behavior that threw him off. He had met others before who were kind to Dwarves—stemmed from pity more than anything else, bastards—and it was not his willingness to go along on their quest either. Being promised a reward from the coffers of Erebor would motivate anyone, after all. No, what threw him off were not the actions or words from the Hobbit.

It was simply the way he looked at them.

For most of his life, Dwalin had been regarded by other races as a stupid and greedy barbarian. He had grown used to being seen as something lesser just because he was shorter than Men, and sported a beard that he was sure the weed-eaters were simply jealous of. He never liked it and never would, but he had come to accept it as just another fact of life.

But Bilbo Baggins did not look at him as if he were scum or trouble. He did not look at him with pity or mistrust. He did not even flinch in fear of his weapons or beard or many, many scars. No, he did not do any of the normal things that Dwalin had come to accept, and even expect on some level.

Instead, Bilbo Baggins looked at him the same way a lad looked at his first weapon. As if he was something wondrous and amazing and unreal.

It was unexpected.

He did not know Bilbo Baggins. He had done nothing to earn such a look from the Hobbit. He had not been friendly, or even kind to the Hobbit! Dwalin did not understand why he deserved such a look.

However, for all his confusion, he could not deny that some part of him was… pleased. It had been so long since anyone—even among his own kind—had given him such a look. It made him feel as if he was worth something again. That he wasn't just a wandering old Dwarf looking for a home, but a mighty warrior with the blood of an ancient line running through his veins.

Rather funny, really, he mused, glancing behind at the humming burglar riding along on the pony. Never thought a Hobbit could make me feel like a Dwarf again.

 


 

Bilbo had never enjoyed riding. Oh, he liked the animals themselves well enough, and had grown quite fond of a few ponies during his time traveling. But the riding itself he did not enjoy. Hobbits simply weren't meant to be removed from the ground in any manner.

Unfortunately he was stuck riding for the time being. They had left the Shire behind and were well on their way to Erebor. In that time, Bilbo had found himself growing more and more used to seeing his once dead companions alive and merry. The sharp ache in his heart had died down into a tolerable pinch, and the memories of another life no longer plagued him at every turn. Now he could at least face Fíli and Kíli without flinching, or wanting to burst into tears.

But for all his progress, he found that he still could not face Thorin. The leader of their Company hadn't paid him much mind and had spoken no more than a few words to him in passing, but even those few words had been horribly awkward for him as he struggled still to see this Thorin as his own person instead of a memory. It would be difficult, but he wanted to move past his own memories and feelings to build a fresh relationship with Thorin. They would never have the same friendship as they did before, but he did at least want a decent relationship with the Dwarf.

Oh, but it was hard. Not only was it still difficult for him to simply look at Thorin, the Dwarf himself was incredibly difficult to get close to. The last time around he had to throw himself in front of a group of Orcs just to get the king to smile at him. This time around he was sticking to talking with the latter being a last resort.

It was not only Thorin that he found himself struggling to win over. He noticed Gandalf had been watching him with that same look he used to (and eventually would again) give Meriadoc Brandybuck and Peregrin Took whenever they got too close to the fireworks. He was expecting such a look, but that didn't mean he enjoyed being mistrusted by his oldest friend.

"Mister Bilbo, would you like to taste the soup?" Bombur asked, pulling him from his thoughts. The redhead was sitting before a large pot and stirring it with slanted brows and pursued lips. Bombur had always taken his cooking very seriously.

"Of course." The Hobbit carefully took the ladle handed to him and took a sip of the soup. It was a simple meal of meat and broth but the spices brought it to life. "Delicious. Do I detect a hint of parsley?"

Bombur beamed. "Aye. Parsley and basil, to bring out the lamb. I believe I detected rosemary in the beef you served us, yes?"

"Yes, from my mother's herb garden. She was an excellent cook and had a way with plants. I took over the care of the garden after her death, but I'm afraid I lack any real skills. It is enough that I keep them alive at all."

"I'm sure your mother appreciated the sentiment," interjected Bofur, flopping down between the two in a graceless heap. He hijacked the ladle from Bilbo and finished the rest of the soup in one gulp.

"Mmm. I'd say it's ready to be served," he informed his brother, handing the ladle back. "Shall we call the others?"

"Not until Mister Bilbo gets his portion," Bombur declared fiercely, already scooping some soup into a clay bowl. "The rest will devour the soup without any mind to our smaller comrades."

Bofur nodded in agreement while the Hobbit in question scowled.

"You do not need to treat me any different from the others," he protested. "I may be a Hobbit but that does not mean I'm really so different from the rest of you. I don't need special treatment."

Bombur ignored his words and simply handed him a bowl. "Here you go. Eat up now."

"Don't bother arguing with him. Once Bombur makes a choice, he sticks with it," Bofur explained as he grabbed his own bowl and held it out to be filled.

"Hey, are you eating without us?"

Fíli and Kíli joined them around the pot of stew; both slightly out of breath from sparring. Most of their Company had been watching them and either taken to yelling out suggestions, or cheering them on. Bilbo recalled them doing such a thing often the last time around though he couldn't remember if there was ever a winner.

"Why did you start serving without telling me? You know how hungry I get kicking Fíli around," Kíli complained, reaching over to swipe a taste of Bilbo's soup with two fingers.

"Hey! Didn't your mother ever tell you that's it's rude to put your fingers in other peoples' food?" he complained, attempting to smack the wandering fingers with his spoon only to miss.

Kíli widened his eyes and bit his lower lip in a manner that he recognized all too easily. He remembered the young Dwarf pulling such a move to get his way, or to makeup whenever he did something foolish. Unfortunately for him, that face only worked on his brother and uncle and sometimes Dwalin.

"Don't even try those eyes on me. I lived among baby Hobbits. Come near me again and I'll crack your fingers," he warned, waving his spoon to get his point across.

Long lost friend or not, you did not come between a Hobbit and his meal.

"Looks like our burglar has a pair after all," Fíli snickered as he went about the more sensible task of getting his own bowl of stew instead of trying to steal one.

"Obviously. How else could he have talked back to Thorin?" Bofur pointed out.

"And join us on our quest against a dragon," reminded Bombur.

"Which, by the way, I still don't get. Why did you decide to come with us?" wondered Kíli, deciding to steal from his brother now after being shooed away from Bilbo's food. His theft was rewarded with a swift elbow to the side that was ignored.

Bilbo stirred his soup thoughtfully. Why did he join them the first time around? Was it really just for an adventure? Or had their song and tale truly touched him? He knew that was why he had decided to stay later, and it was still important to him now. But he honestly could not recall what had influenced him into running after them that morning so long ago.

"You goal is a noble one," he finally answered. "You lot… You don't have a home anymore. It was stolen from you. So I will try to help you get it back if I can."

The Dwarves around him paused and stared at him with a look that was much like the one they had given him the first time he had said that. It still made him feel horribly uncomfortable.

"You…" Bofur began only to trail off as the others began to join them for dinner. No one else mentioned his words for the rest night, but the Hobbit could still feel the looks they gave him, and it made him wonder what they could have possibly thought of him now.

Later that night, after the stew was finished and they had retired for the night, Bilbo awoke to the sound of wargs howling in the night. The noise awoke the rest of his companions with grumbling and hissed insults as they all gathered around the small campfire. Bilbo joined them with his quilt wrapped around his shoulders, and tried to contain his yawns.

"Are wargs common around these parts?" he questioned, rubbing his eyes with one fist.

"No. They usually don't come this far out," Bofur answered him, lighting up a pipe.

"Aye. They are used by the orcs as mounts and usually linger around Rivendell," Dwalin added, scowling.

"Think they'll bother us?" Ori wondered, eyes wider than usual.

"Not if we keep moving. We leave at dawn," Thorin commanded, stalking off to the edge of the cliffs to overlook the canyon below.

"He seems… angrier than usual," Bilbo noted, hinting at the untold story that he knew they all needed to hear.

"Aye. Thorin has more than enough reason to hate those foul beasts," Balin answered dutifully, and then launched into a heroic and tragic tale of an attempt to reclaim the lost kingdom of Moria from the dreaded orcs. He explained with great sorrow of how Thorin's grandfather, King Thrór, was beheaded by the orc Azog; who was determined to end the line of Durin. With eyes lost in memory, he recounted of how he watched Thorin struggle to hold his own against a monster thrice his size, and how it was thanks to a simple piece of fallen oak that he managed to survive, and cut off the beast's hand.

Bilbo listened to the familiar tale while watching his companions. Each Dwarf seemed hypnotized by the story, and he realized that it was this moment that cemented their loyalty to Thorin Oakenshield instead of just the King Under the Mountain. It was this moment that they all realized how much their king had lost, and how hard he would continue to fight to reclaim it. He could see, in the way they all stood and turned to their king still standing on the cliffs, that they would follow the Dwarf until the very end.

And so would he.

 


 

They traveled on.

The days continued to pass and Bilbo found himself becoming more and more at ease around his long-lost comrades. Soon he found that he could even meet Thorin's eyes without feeling as if he had been punched in the chest. But the most startling thing he discovered was his youth.

Bilbo had forgotten how to felt to be able to walk without creaking and aching bones. Hell, he had forgotten how it felt just to be able to move for more than ten minutes without feeling tired and out of breath. He had been an old man for so long—longer than he should have been thanks to the ring—that he had forgotten that there was ever a time that he was young.

It was an exhilarating realization.

"Um, Mister Bilbo, why are you walking along with the ponies instead of riding one?" Ori asked him one day as he guided his pony along on foot.

"Because one day I won't be able to," Bilbo replied, and earned an odd look for his remark. He easily ignored it; well-used to be being regarded as strange even among his own kin for most of his life. He had grown to accept the looks.

Thankfully the rest of the Dwarves didn't seem to care whether he walked or rode the pony.

Actually, he had noticed that other than Fíli, Kíli, Ori, Bofur and Bombur, the rest of their Company never spoke to him, or paid him any mind. He understood though that it was to be expected. Dwarves were mistrustful of outsiders by nature, and until he proved himself trustful then the rest would not open up to him. That was fine because it gave him a chance to focus on another problem: Gandalf.

Bilbo realized that he had to end the tense silence between him and the wizard. He thought he could handle the mistrust and suspicion until they reached Erebor, but it was becoming too much for him. He had enough that he had to deal with, and having Gandalf against him did not help.

So one night, as the rest gathered around Bombur for dinner, he cornered the wizard as he sat alone on a nearby rock.

"Bilbo," the wizard greeted pleasantly even as his eyes gleamed under his hat. "What can I do for you?"

"You don't trust me," he stated bluntly because old age had brought about more than wrinkles for him. "You think something is wrong with me, yes?"

Gandalf stared at him silently for a moment before slowly nodding. "Yes. Yes, you are quite right. You are hiding something from the rest of us, Master Baggins."

"Yes, I am," he admitted, watching as the nearby camp fire cast dark shadows across his old friend's face. It made him look quite menacing.

"I have to keep this secret for the moment," he continued on, "but only up until a certain point."

"What is the reason for this secret?" questioned the wizard. "What are the consequences if you speak of it?"

the Dwarves begin to sing in low and deep voices as they bury the bodies of the three royal Dwarves. The song is in Khuzdûl and is beautiful and alien to his ears. The voices that resonate as one paint a melody that is heartbreaking with the grief that carries through. Their king and his heirs are gone and they mourn for all three

Bilbo closed his eyes and took in a deep breath. "The lives of those very dear to me are on the line. So until I know that they are safe and well, I will hold my secret to myself."

Gandalf's eyes widened as he took in the meaning of his words. Once he did his face softened, and the harsh line and wrinkles eased up in a way that made him look much younger and kinder.

"In that case, I will not hound you for an answer. I will wait for you to come to me in your own time," the wizard said, giving him the same smile he shared whenever Bilbo had done something foolish, and then attempted to make up for it. It made his heart hurt a little to see it again in this lifetime.

"Thank you, Master Gandalf. I do appreciate your trust in me," he replied, giving the wizard a small smile. "And I promise that it will not be misplaced."

And I am sorry that I cannot speak to you of the truth. You are a good and noble person but you may make things worse in your attempts to help. I do not even know the consequences of my own actions at this point, let alone what you may cause. So all I can do is to try and change things, and hope that my choices don't condemn us all.

Gandalf simply kept smiling his kind smile. "I'm sure it won't, Bilbo. I'm sure it won't."

 


 

Chapter Text

 


 

Before he had expected it, they had found their way to the trolls.

"We will camp here for the night," declared Thorin as they came upon the burnt hovel of what once was a farmer's home.

Gandalf paused and stared at the skeletal remains of the shack with furrowed brows. Bilbo knew he was recounting the farmer and was about to voice his concerns to the king. He silently inched closer as the wizard and Dwarf began to converse.

"—should make for Rivendell. We would be most welcome by Lord Elrond—" Gandalf was trying to explain with obvious impatience, and mounting anger.

"We will not!" Thorin cut off sharply, making a slicing motion with his hand. "The elves showed no interest in lending us aid years ago, and I doubt they will now. Leave it alone, Gandalf."

Gandalf's lips became pinched and he tugged his hat down further over his eyes. The Hobbit recognized the tell and immediately reached out to grasp the wizard's arm as he attempted to storm away.

"Wait a minute, where are you going?" Bilbo questioned, making sure to pitch his voice higher.

"To be with the only one here with any commonsense—myself!" the wizard declared loudly, and tried to tug his arm free.

He wasn't having it. The Hobbit dug his heels into the ground and gestured to the Dwarves around them. "You cannot leave us here unprotected! What if we are attacked?"

"We are not unprotected," Thorin snapped from behind him. "You are among veteran warriors who survived countless battles, halfling, thanks to their great skills—"

"I have seen no such skills in battle," he interrupted, cutting the king off much in the same manner he had done earlier to Gandalf. "We have been on the road for weeks and not once have I seen any of you engage combat. For all I know you could be as skilled in battle as an Orc is at knitting."

Nearby, both Bofur and Nori had a sudden and mysterious coughing fit.

"No, I would feel much safer if there was a wizard present as we tried to puzzle out why this house in the middle of nowhere was recently burned down," he finished, stressing the last part because Dwarves needed to have things spelt out for them. "And, Gandalf, you should not be wandering about alone considering we've been hearing wargs howling for the past few nights. Oh, and would you look at that—the sun is going down."

At that point, all the Company had stopped and were watching the drama with mixed expressions. Most seemed quite close to laughing but were able to control it. Fíli and Kíli had given up any pretense at not finding the situation funny, and were giggling into each other's shoulders like children. Thorin had gone very, very still, and was turning a light shade of pink. Bilbo thought the shade complimented his blue eyes quite nicely, but he didn't think the Dwarf would appreciate the compliment at such a time.

Or any other time.

"Bilbo, would you truly feel safer if I were to stay?" Gandalf questioned, setting a hand in his curls. His face was a mask of concern, but Bilbo could see the bright twinkle in his gray eyes. The wizard was most likely cackling inside.

"Yes, I would," he declared firmly, nodding.

"Then I will stay," the wizard granted, looking up past the Hobbit to give the Dwarf king a glare. "For the moment, anyway."

Bilbo allowed his shoulders to sag in relief. "Thank you."

Thorin glared at both of them before snapping at his nephews, "Fíli! Kíli! Watch the ponies! Everyone else set up camp!"

The two brothers immediately stopped giggling.

He finally released the wizard as the Dwarves around them began their tasks. Gandalf gave him a smile that he returned easily enough.

"You continue to surprise me, Bilbo Baggins," he commented, his eyes still twinkling. "I think we are in for quite an adventure."

Oh, Gandalf, the real surprises have yet to occur.

 


 

When it came to delivering the meals to Fíli and Kíli, Bilbo volunteered first.

"I don't mind taking it to them. It will give me a chance to check on Mrytle," he explained to Bombur as he took the bowls.

"Very well then. But hurry back before your food gets cold," the cook advised, already setting aside a bowl of stew for the Hobbit as the rest of Dwarves descended upon the food.

He simply nodded and went on his way.

When he found the two brothers, they were arguing in lowered voices and taking turns hitting each other in the shoulder. He waited for them to notice him, and when they failed to, finally cleared his throat to catch their attention. His actions had them jumping and spinning around to face him with wide eyes.

"Gentlemen," he greeted, holding up their bowls of stew. "I have brought you dinner."

"Oh, would you look at that, Kíli, our burglar has brought us dinner," Fíli said in false cheer. "How nice of him!"

"Oh, yes, very nice of him," Kíli agreed, nodding his head eagerly.

"We'll just take those off your hands then, and you can go on your way," Fíli added in the same fake tone while reaching out to take the bowls.

Bilbo stepped back to avoid him, and gave them both a deadpanned look. "What did you two do now?"

Fíli pulled back with a scowl. "What? I resent that tone. Do not assume that we've done something stupid every time we're left alone."

"Though we did lose some of the ponies," his younger brother admitted.

Fíli immediately punched him in the arm. "Kíli!"

"Well, we did!" defended Kíli, rubbing his arm and scowling. "We might as well tell him since he's already here."

"You lost—? How many did you lose?" the Hobbit demanded, setting the bowls down on a nearby log.

"Two," Fíli admitted with a frown. "We've been looking for them and we think they were stolen."

"By who? There's no one else out here but us," he pointed out.

Kíli pointed to the upturned trees and wreckage of nature close by. "We think by whatever did that."

Bilbo followed his finger and raised both brows. "Oh dear."

 


 

He allowed the two brothers to drag him off in pursuit of the trolls much like the first time around. The only difference was when they arrived to where the trolls were camped, he did not allow them to immediately push him into saving the ponies by himself.

"I'm not going in there alone and without a plan," he reasoned to the two Dwarves. "They are three trolls and I am just a little Hobbit."

"You are also our burglar and known to be quiet. This would be a good chance to prove yourself to the others," Kíli argued.

"Or get myself eaten alive," the Hobbit retorted with false sweetness. "Look, I will attempt to free the ponies if one of you goes back to tell the others of this, and one of you stays here to help me."

Fíli and Kíli looked to one another. The blond raised one brow while the other shrugged and gestured to his own clothes. Fíli nodded in answer and patted one of his many blades. Bilbo watched the wordless exchange in interest. He recalled the two doing such things before, but never gave much thought to it. But now he realized how in tune they really were if they could read each other's thoughts so easily through gestures alone.

No wonder they died together in the end, he realized with a sobering sadness.

"I will stay with you while Kíli gets the others," the older Dwarf finally said.

"I'll be back soon," the brunet promised, getting to his feet and quietly sprinting back the way they came.

Fíli watched his brother disappear back into the forest before turning his attention back to the Hobbit. "Okay. What's your plan?"

Bilbo smirked. "Well, first, I need to get captured."

 


 

It was rather easy to walk into the troll's camp without them noticing.

"Hello there," he greeted, waving an arm and jumping slightly to gain their attention.

The three trolls turned to him and were on their feet instantly.

"Lookit we have here," one said, reaching down to pick him up in a grip that threatened to break his ribs with the slightest twitch.

"What is it?" wondered another, leaning closer to stare at him. "I've not seen this before."

"I'm a Hobbit," Bilbo answered in a calm voice that contrasted with his pounding heart. "What are you three?"

"We… We're trolls," said the finale one, staring at him with a baffled expression. "Haven't you seen a troll before?"

"No. Haven't you seen a Hobbit before?" he retorted.

The trolls just stared at him.

"Why don't you fear us?" asked the one holding him.

"Fear you?" the Hobbit repeated, blinking a few times.

Smaug is large. Larger than a house, a bear, or even a mountain. He looms over him in such a way that he believes the dragon could block out the sun just from standing. He can see his reflection in one amber eye that is nearly as wide as he is tall. He realizes exactly how small and pale and pathetic he looks, and it makes him cold in a way snow never could

Thorin falls and does not get up. He does not move, does not flinch, does not stir. It makes something in him rise up and roar

the ring whispers promises to him; promises of freedom, promises of power, and promises of rebirth. He shuts the whispers away and tries to ignore the twisting feeling in his stomach

Frodo adjusts the mithril shirt that hangs to his thighs. It hangs awkwardly on his small frame, and makes him look like a child playing dress up. When Frodo looks up to meet his eyes, he can see a strength in them that he himself has never possessed. That strength makes his heart stop because it is a strength that demands a life in return

"No," Bilbo said with a smile that he knew was as twisted as the vines in his garden. "No, I do not fear you three."

The three trolls looked stumped.

"But… You should be afraid of us!" cried the second one, looking as if his world had been turned upside down.

"Yeah, you should be afraid of us!" the first one agreed, shaking him. Bilbo felt and saw his world turn upside down, and tried his best to control his stomach.

"Let's put him in the pot. That should put the fear in him," the third—and smartest, obviously—troll suggested with a smile that showed his missing and yellowed teeth.

"If you're planning to eat me, I would suggest roasting," he chimed in as they carried him back to their pot. "That way you won't lose the juiciness of the meat."

"You know how to cook?" questioned the third one, sitting down before his pot.

He nodded. "Oh yes. Tell me, how does your soup taste at the moment? Perhaps I could recommend some herbs and spices you could add."

The trolls stared at him and then at each other before the first finally shrugged and dropped the Hobbit down before the pot. He picked up the wooden ladle and took a gulp of the soup, and then twisted his face up into a snarl.

"That tastes awful! What did you put into it?" the first troll asked the third.

"The same stuff as always!" claimed the third troll as the second one took a turn trying the soup.

"Oh! He's right! That taste horrible it does!" the second troll agreed, throwing the ladle down and wiping at his tongue as if he could wipe the taste away.

The third troll finally tried the soup for himself and was soon enough gagging in disgust.

Bilbo slowly got to his feet and backed away a few feet as the trolls began to gag and claw at their throats, and then began to vomit. The first that grabbed him soon collapsed to his knees and began to choke on the blood and vomit that his body kept heaving. The second and smaller troll had already collapsed, and was twitching and convulsing on the ground. The third was the only one who paid him any mind even as he too retched.

"You… You Hobbit you… d-did something to the stew," the troll gasped, pointing at him and struggling to his feet.

He pointed a finger at his chest and raised his eyebrows. "Me? Oh no, it was not me. I did nothing to your soup."

"True. That would be me."

Fíli stepped out from the trees and moved to his side. He had a disgusted look on his face as he regarded the trolls before him.

"I can't believe that worked," he commented, wrinkling his nose as another of the trolls began to vomit again.

Bilbo nodded. He was also surprised by how easily the trolls had fallen for their trick. "Do you think we should put them out of their misery?"

Fíli studied the moaning creatures for a moment before finally nodding. "Yeah. Watch my back for a moment."

It was a testament to how sick the trolls had grown that they did not notice or fight the Dwarf who snuck up behind them, and rammed his sword into the back of their necks. The only one who noticed was the third troll, and even then his attempts at protecting himself were weak and halfhearted at best. Fíli ended his life easily enough.

As the blond took out the trolls, Bilbo moved to the back of the camp and began working at the ropes that held the ponies captive. Just as he undid the last knot, the rest of their Company arrived at the scene with their weapons raised and ready; only to stop short at the sight of the already dead trolls.

"Fíli!" Kíli easily leaped over the puddles of mess and bodies and made his way to his brother. "Did you do all this?"

"Not alone," his brother replied, wiping his blade clean. "It was a joint attack."

"What happened?" questioned Thorin, also making his way to his nephew's side, but at a more sedated pace.

"We poisoned the trolls," Fíli replied with a simple shrug.

The Dwarves and wizard stared.

"With what?" Balin wondered.

"Monkshood, deadly nightshade, and rosary pea," listed the Hobbit.

"Where did you get such plants?" Óin demanded as Nori and Bombur gaped. They were the only three who seemed to realize exactly how lethal the plants were.

Bilbo gave them all a look of exaggerated surprise. "Why, the trails we've been traveling of course! It's not hard to find them if you know where to look."

"So you picked these plants and then poisoned the trolls with them?" Kíli summarized, looking at his brother for approval.

The prince shrugged. "Pretty much. Our burglar here distracted them while I snuck in and stirred the ground herbs into their stew. Then he tricked them all into tasting it, and the rest… well the rest is obvious."

The Dwarves and the wizard continued to stare.

"Mister Bilbo… How did you distract the trolls?" Ori wondered softly, his eyes wide.

"Ha! That's the best part. All he did was walk up and talk to them!" gloated Fíli. "I nearly fell over when I saw he let them pick him up. And then he even advised them on how to cook him!"

Ori's eyes grew even wider. "Wow, Mister Bilbo, that's so brave!"

Bilbo shifted, feeling uncomfortable at such praise. He wasn't brave, not really. Gandalf was brave. Thorin was brave. Frodo was brave. Hell, Samwise was brave. But him? He wasn't brave. If he was then he wouldn't have sent his nephew into Mordor with his ring.

"Bilbo, why would you do such a thing on your own?" Gandalf asked with a severe frown.

He shrugged. "They were about to eat our ponies. We did not have the time to wait for you all."

"Then you should have sent Fíli to distract them while you snuck up behind them. He is the more experienced fighter between you two," pointed out Balin.

"No. I would not risk Fíli in such a way," the Hobbit said firmly, shaking his head. "He is too important to chance over something like this."

The Dwarves grew silent at that. All except one.

"Why did you pick these plants?" Thorin wondered. For once he did not look at Bilbo as if he were dirt beneath his boot. Instead, he looked thoughtful as he gazed at the Hobbit with his fire blue eyes.

Bilbo swallowed the lump in his throat as he met the intense look head on. "Because I am a Hobbit. I am no warrior or master burglar. I am just a Hobbit and I must protect myself through my own means. This is one way that I have chosen to do so."

Thorin stared at him for a moment longer. He could not read what the Dwarf thought of his words, but he could tell that for once the king was not annoyed by him. The Hobbit decided to count that as a large step in the right direction.

Finally Thorin looked back to the others, and pointed to the dead trolls. "Scout the area. Let us find out exactly how these trolls found their way here."

 


 

Chapter Text

 


 

Balin was troubled.

He many things to trouble over in his life. The fates of his scattered people. The safety of his brother and cousins. Their quest to regain their home from Smaug. The safety and state of mind of his friend and king, Thorin. He was even troubled over the decision to bring along Ori, Fíli, and Kíli on such a suicidal mission.

But mostly, he was troubled by Bilbo Baggins.

There was something… off about the Hobbit. Not that he knew much about Hobbits to begin with, but from what he did know they were suspicious folk that preferred their home to travel and unknown adventures. It was very rare that any would ever leave their home in the company of Dwarves for a land far away and unknown. Bilbo Baggins was certainly nothing like the stories suggested.

But it wasn't the Hobbit's unexpected personality that troubled him. It was the way he treated them.

Bilbo treated each of them with a healthy amount of respect and warmth that none of them had expected. From hosting a grand feast in his home to subtly protecting Fíli from the trolls, he had shown nothing but kindness and understanding for them.

And it was beginning to worry him.

None of the Dwarves knew the Hobbit. None of them deserved to be treated so highly. Hell, Bilbo barely knew Fíli and yet he was willing to risk his life to protect him from trolls. No one, no matter how kind or wise or noble, would do such a thing for a stranger.

So why did Bilbo Baggins do it?

Balin didn't understand. He did not understand the strange Hobbit that followed them so easily and fought for them with a fierceness unheard of. He did not understand why the Hobbit looked at them the same way a Dwarf looked at the glory of his treasures.

And that was the most troubling thought of all.

 


 

Bilbo was pleased.

His plan with the trolls had gone over well. When he originally thought of how to deal with them, he had been tempted to leave things alone. But as he thought more and more about his situation, he realized that the consequences of his actions could change something significant. So he decided to test things by changing something he knew wasn't too important.

While Bilbo did feel bad about having to poison the trolls—no one deserved to die in such pain, after all—he was pleased with how things had played out. So far everything had stayed true to his expectations—they had found the troll cave, discovered the swords, buried the chest of treasure, and he even got Sting from Gandalf. It was a sign that even though he changed an event, he could still expect some things to stay true to their nature.

Like suspicious Dwarves.

He wasn't stupid. The Hobbit knew his actions with the troll had earned him both suspicion and respect. He had held his own again three trolls and that deserved respect. But the way he had done it—through trickery and deceit—was frowned upon. Dwarves believed that facing ones foes in battle was the honorable and bravest course of action to take. Sneaking around and taking them out from behind was seen as cowardly and weak by every Dwarf in the Company.

Well, almost every Dwarf.

"That was a clever way to take out the trolls."

Bilbo looked up from examining his new (old) sword, and found Nori watching him. With the trolls gone and their cave investigated, Thorin had decided to take a small break before they headed out again. Most of the Dwarves were preoccupied with their new treasures and paid him no mind, but Nori had broken off from the group and had taken a seat in front of him on a fallen tree.

"Thank you," he replied politely, nodding. "I know it was a rather gruesome manner, but I needed to act quickly to save the ponies."

"I'm not knocking your method," the Dwarf assured. "It was quick and it got the job done. That's all that matters."

"Yes, true enough though I don't think most of the others agree," he said lightly, watching the Dwarf. Nori had always been a mystery even the first time around. Much like Dwalin, he had kept to himself and his brothers, and had only occasionally sought the company of the others. Bilbo could not remember ever having a conversation that consisted of just the two of them.

Nori shrugged one broad shoulder. "Most of my kind do not see the benefit in catching an enemy off guard."

"But you do?" he prodded.

"Some battles are better won with guile and stealth," explained Nori. "It is a philosophy that I have come to appreciate in my line of work."

Bilbo raised an eyebrow. "And what is your line of work?"

"Very much in line with your own job," the Dwarf answered. "Only I don't steal items but collect information."

"You sound like a crook," he pointed out.

Nori cracked a grin. "An apt enough description."

"Interesting. I didn't think our leader would welcome a criminal," he commented.

"Thorin understands the value of information," the Dwarf explained. "Besides, he holds himself responsible for the criminals we've become."

Bilbo had not known that. "Why? He can't control the choices other Dwarves make."

"No, but he can control what pushes them to make those choices," reasoned Nori. "We did not only lose our home when Erebor was taken. We also lost our jobs and way of life. We became the outcasts who lived on the fringes of society. To survive and feed our families, we were fOrced to take on jobs that we would never have considered in our old lives. That is what Thorin blames himself for."

He holds himself responsible for not providing his people with a home and respectable jobs, the Hobbit realized. He had not known that Thorin took so much responsibility for his people onto himself. It explained even more of the king's determination to reclaim Erebor.

"Thank you for sharing that with me," he told the Dwarf before him. "I know it cannot be easy to reveal such vulnerable information with a stranger."

The thief shrugged. "If you are willing to fight and die with us, then you might as well know what you're really fighting and dying for."

He smirked slightly. "Yes, it is good to know I'm chancing being incinerated for a good cause."

Nori didn't laugh, but he did crack out another grin as he got to his feet. "Yes, well, just thought you should keep that in mind."

Bilbo watched the other turn to go when another thought occurred to him.

"Nori?" When the Dwarf paused and gave him his attention again, he continued, "What did you used to do? When you lived in Erebor?"

His answer was a bittersweet smile.

"I was a part of the city watchmen. I used to protect the streets from criminals."

 


 

They continued on.

Bilbo kept account of the days diligently. From his recollection, they would reach Rivendell in June, and he was curious to see if it kept this time around. So far nothing drastic had happened following the days after the incident with the trolls. He could only hope that it stayed so until they arrived at the elven city.

He used most of his time on the road getting his companions to warm up to him. Most of them still ignored him, but he had noticed that a few—namely Dwalin and Dori—would give him a look very similar to one a farmer would give a stray cat. As if he could be useful to them if they gave him a chance, but at a risk of getting clawed.

The only ones he had seemed to won any merit with over the trolls were the youngest ones: Ori, Fíli and Kíli. They had taken to telling him their own stories of daring and bravery that were really nothing more than youthful escapades. Still, he listened to their stories and enjoyed their energetic animations as they recounted each detail with passion.

The enthusiasm reminded him greatly of Merry and Pippin. The memory of the two impish cousins in turn reminded him of the others he had forgotten. In his haste to make things right, Bilbo had disregarded what he had left behind in his other life. Did they still exist the way he left them? Or was another future being rewritten thanks to his every action?

Bilbo could admit that part of him regretted changing some events. He knew that if ensured the survival of Drogo and Primula, then he would never have the same relationship with Frodo this time around. And while it killed him to sacrifice such a relationship, he also knew he could not deny Frodo a chance at a life with his parents.

the first few months Frodo is with him he does not let Bilbo out of his sight. He follows him into every room and watches his every move with large blue eyes. He never attempts to stop it or discourage the child because he remembers what it's like to lose your parents before their time

No. Bilbo knew he was selfish in many ways, but not in this one. Not with Frodo, whom he would give the world to if he had only asked.

But he was terribly selfish in other ways.

When he had made his plan to also destroy the one ring, he knew that it would come at a cost. By destroying it before its time, certain events would never transpire and some would never be challenged. King Elessar would never realize his true strength if Sauron was not there to test him. Legolas and Gimli would never overcome centuries of prejudice and hate to forge a legendary friendship without the ring there. Sam, Merry and Pippin would never rise to become the great Hobbits they never knew they could be if they had not made the journeys they did.

And Frodo would never have to carry the ring.

It was the last one that got to him the most. Before Bilbo had left for the Undying Lands, he had heard the heroic songs that spoke of his nephew's strength and bravery as he carried the ring to Mordor. Scribes wrote of his journey with vivid detail, and painted him as a noble and determined hero who only wanted to save his home and people. In every nation the common people said his name with joy; praising him as the most famous of heroes.

But what no one ever spoke of was what came after the journey. No bards sung of the nightmares and sleepless nights. No scribe recounted the scars and frowns. And no one ever spoke of the haunted look in Frodo's blue eyes, or the broken slump in his shoulders.

there is a price to pay in carrying the ring. Gollum paid with his mind, he paid with his heart, and Frodo paid with his spirit

It was a difficult choice, but he would make it. Bilbo understood now that he was never meant to be the hero in any tale. Those roles were meant to be filled by people like Thorin and Gandalf and Frodo. Instead, he was would be the selfish and greedy villain in this story if it meant he could spare Frodo, and even Thorin, the horrible fates that awaited them both.

 


 

Chapter Text

 


 

Bilbo realized something was wrong when he heard the Wargs howl.

The Company did not hesitate. They had their weapons out and were ready before he could even stop and think. Their efficiency paid off for no sooner had they heard the howl, there was a Warg leaping out from the foliage and heading straight for Thorin. The king dodged and ran his new sword into the back of the neck of the creature in one quick move. As he pulled his blade out, Dwalin and Bofur were running their own weapons into the creature; finishing it off for good.

"Orcs," cursed Thorin, wiping his blade clean.

"How did they find us?" Balin wondered at his side.

"Who did you tell, Thorin?" Gandalf demanded of the king, and the two soon erupted into an argument.

Bilbo ignored them all as he felt his heart begin to pick up speed. The last time around Radagast was here when the Wargs attacked. Why isn't he here now?

"I swear I told no one!"

"What do we do? We can't take them all on at once!"

"We need a plan!"

Could I have done something that prevented him from coming? Did keeping Gandalf around during the troll incident do this? Wait, never mind that, Bilbo. Focus on the Orcs! Without Radagast here, we won't be able to get away.

"How far is the nearest settlement?"

"There is nothing out here but us and the Orcs!"

"Why are we even arguing about this? We should stand our ground and fight!"

The Elves. Elrond is leading a company of Elves this way. We simply have to hold out until then.

"We can use the area," he declared loudly over the arguing Dwarves and wizard. "Station those with long-ranged weapons in the trees. Those with melee weapons need to take cover and wait for the Orcs to come. If we can kill them before they alert the others, we can keep them away from our location."

Most of the Company ignored his words, but Thorin was gazing at him in consideration. He met the blue gaze evenly, and tried his best to ignore the pounding of his heart.

"We cannot fight them all at once. You know that their numbers will be too great," he pointed out.

Thorin slowly nodded. "And there is no place to take cover in the coming plains. This is the only area with trees and covering."

"Wait, are we actually considering this?" Glóin demanded, looking back and forth between the king and Hobbit.

"Do you have a better idea?" retorted Kíli, eyeing up potential trees to climb.

"We make our stand here. Everyone take position," Thorin ordered. "Halfling, stay with Bofur."

Everyone moved to act without question. Even Bilbo could not bring himself to retort to the 'halfling' comment as he moved to crouch in some shrubbery with the toymaker.

"Stay within in my sight. I will do my best to protect you," Bofur murmured to him.

"Funny. I was about to say the same to you," he murmured back, unsheathing Sting.

On his other side, Bombur snickered.

Three Orcs riding Wargs found them soon enough. Bilbo watched from his position as Kíli and Ori took out one of the Wargs while Nori, Dwalin and Fíli attacked the Orc. Another was ambushed by the others; Thorin neatly beheading the Orc before taking out the Warg with the aid of Gandalf, Balin and Glóin.

The third wandered closer to them, the Warg clearly sniffing them out. He felt Bofur and Bombur stiffen on each side of him as Sting begun to glow a familiar bright blue. He could feel how fast his heart was beating, and wondered if the Orc could hear it too. It certainly seemed that way as the Warg turned and looked through the foliage and straight into his eyes. It bared its teeth in a twisted snarl, and crouched low as its rider turned its attention to them.

He did not wait for the Warg to attack. In battle, you took any opening the enemy gave you with no hesitation. Pausing for even a second could be the difference between life and death. He'd learnt that the hard way.

So without any warning to his companions, Bilbo charged.

The Warg had clearly not expected it. It pulled back; ducking his blade and growling deep in its throat. He followed through with another swing before throwing himself to the side as the Orc rider tried to cleave his head off. He stumbled only once before catching himself in time to bring Sting up to block the hungry mouth that tried to rip his face off.

The Warg bit into his blade and tried to pull it away. He dug his feet into the loose dirt beneath him and pulled back. Before the Warg could successfully pull his blade away, a mattock was slammed into its face; shattering its skull open in a bloody mess and making him jerk free and stumble back.

Óin caught him before he fell as Bofur yanked his mattock out of the dead Warg. The Orc had been knocked down by a combined attack from Kíli—who was still perched in the trees—and Bombur and Bifur. As he watched, Bifur stabbed the Orc in the chest with his spear as Bombur cleaved his knife into its back. In moments the Orc laid as still as its pet.

"All right there, Master Baggins?" Óin questioned, leaning in to hear him with his good ear.

He nodded, feeling his blood rush and his breath catch. "Y-Yes, I'm all right. Thank you."

"Didn't expect you to go charging off like that," the healer commented with a wry grin. "Threw us all off for a moment."

"Yes, well, I can't very well sit back and leave everything to you lot. Might get me killed if I did," he reasoned.

Óin cackled and patted him on the shoulder. "In that case, we will leave the next one to you."

He gave the older Dwarf a dirty look. "That wasn't a challenge—"

"Move!" Bofur ordered, coming up from behind them and pushing them both back. "More Orcs are coming."

Bilbo went silent and tightened his grip on Sting. Soon enough, more Orcs appeared; this time five with only three riding Wargs. Kíli and Ori did not hesitate and began pelting the Wargs while the others ambushed the rest. He saw Fíli twirl out of the reach of an Orc with his twin blades singing as Dwalin swung one of his axes into the legs of a Warg. Beyond them, he could see Glóin and Nori fighting back to back against two Orcs.

They need help, he realized, and then once more charged into the fray without another thought.

In combat, Bilbo found that time slowed down until every second felt like an hour. He knew that even though the battle—or skirmish, really, considering some of the scrapes they would get into later—felt like it lasted for hours, he knew it was only a matter of minutes.

Before they could finish off the five Orcs, even more appeared to aid their brethren. He soon last track of how many Orcs there were and who was fighting who. Soon he even forgot where he was and what he was doing. All he could focus on was each strike, each blow, and each dodge as he struggled to hold his own against the Orcs and Wargs.

Eru is this how it will really end? Here before we even start? he wondered.

An arrow in the forehead of the Orc above him was his answer.

"Elves!" Kíli announced from the trees, his voice a mix between surprise and disgust. "There are Elves coming!"

Bilbo felt his shoulders relax as the thunder of hooves became audible. Nine riders soon came charging into the clearing with arrows flying and swords raised high. With the extra aid, they soon enough turned the tide of battle and finally cut down the Orcs and Wargs.

As the last Orc fell, the Elven riders began to disembark as the Dwarves moved to check on one another, and huddle in suspicious groups. He watched Dori hover over Ori while Balin patted Dwalin on the back as they chuckled over something. Nearby he saw Kíli jump down from his tree and rush to Fíli's side, and spotted Bofur speaking to Bombur and Nori. Beyond them he could see Óin looking over a protesting Bifur.

Where is Thorin? he wondered before his eyes finally found the king.

He stood scowling next to Gandalf as the wizard spoke to a very familiar Elf. Lord Elrond looked no different since the last time he saw him. His face was perhaps less weary and jaded this time around, but it was no less finely crafted with an unworldly beauty that Bilbo had never seen in any other race.

He could not hear the conversation they were having, but could guess the subject from the dark look on Thorin's face. Gandalf was clearly trying to convince the king to head to Rivendell for rest and aid in reading the map. But from the stubborn set of his jaw, Thorin was clearly not having it.

Eventually Elrond stepped forward and said something that made Thorin pause and scowl. Eventually he gave a grudging nod that won a loud sigh from Gandalf, and a small smirk from the Elf.

Hmm. Why do I have the feeling Elrond offered him food?

"Everyone get ready! We will be joining the… Elves for dinner tonight," Thorin said, his lips curling back into a sneer.

Bilbo snickered as the rest of his companions let our disgruntled groans. It was good to know that, even in the midst of so many changes, some things like appetite would never alter.

 


 

Bilbo had seen many beautiful and wondrous sights in his life, but the most wondrous of them all would always be Rivendell. The last time he had seen it he had been an old man with eyes half blind and a mind half gone. But now he looked upon it with clear eyes and a sound mind, and it made him want to weep at the sheer beauty of it all. From the graceful curves of architect to the majestic glory of nature, Rivendell was a masterpiece in every way. He could only stand there and silently admire the genius and artistry that went into creating such a place.

It was a shame that his companions didn't agree.

"Ugh, look at all that water. How do they not drown themselves in it?"

"Soddy architect. That roof is going to collapse one of these days."

"They're wide open in a valley! How have they not been invaded by a dragon yet?"

"What's with all the trees? Are they trying to become one with them or something?"

"I hope they have ale here."

He ignored all the snide comments and simply took in the city that had been his home in his later years. It seemed brighter and warmer than the last time he had seen it. But then, the last time he had seen Rivendell most of the Elves had left the fair city for good. Of course there would be no life to a city when there was no one to live in it any longer.

Elrond left them with an attendant who silently escorted them all to a wing of rooms. His Dwarves muttered and glowered at the Elf and the rooms, but Bilbo ignored them and thanked the attendant. After all, it was not his blood that carried centuries of hatred and mistrust.

"Don't get too chummy with the Elves," cautioned Óin from his side as the Elf left. "You never know when they'll turn around and stab you in the back."

"I doubt they would do that to me. I'm not so important," he reasoned calmly, watching as the others explored their new rooms with guarded interest.

Óin snorted. "Indeed. Well, now that we're here, take off your shirt."

Bilbo turned and stared. "I beg your pardon?"

"Your shirt, laddie, take it off. I need to check your wounds," Óin explained impatiently, tugging at the bottom of his coat.

"What wounds? I don't recall getting hurt," he said, pulling his clothes free from the Dwarf.

"That's because the rush of battle dulls the pain," Óin retorted. "Now off before I take it off for you."

Bilbo sighed and began to strip. He knew that when it came to matters of healing, it was better to simply obey the older Dwarf. Even Thorin knew better than to go against the healer's orders.

When his upper body was finally unclothed, Óin wasted no time in examining each scratch and bruise that marred his flesh. The last time around he would had been greatly embarrassed to be so exposed in a room full of healthy and hardy Dwarves. A Hobbit was hardly as firm and chiseled as an average Dwarf, and nor were they as tall and exquisitely made as an Elf. Being around such races had made him feel quite plain and awkward the first time around.

It was not so now. Not when he recalled quite vividly of being wrinkled and withered and as frail as a piece of parchment. This time he had a new appreciation for his fifty-year-old body with its firm skin, thick curls, and strong bones.

"Hmm. Looks like a Warg got you on the shoulder blade," Óin commented as he examined his back.

"Really?" He craned his head back and caught a glimpse of four red scratches going across his back. "Huh. I didn't even notice that."

"Like I said, the rush of battle dulls the pain," Óin reminded. "Now hold still while I clean it out."

Bilbo hissed as he felt the healer dab something cool onto his wounds. It stung but did not hurt as bad as some of the other injuries he had endured.

"What does that do?" he asked.

"The herbs in the tonic will keep it from becoming decayed and expanding. It will also ensure that the scratches heal and leave behind less of a scar."

"Scars don't bother me, but it's good to know it won't get worse. I would hate to get sick so early on in our quest," he said snidely.

Óin simply chuckled. "Good attitude. Try to remember that when you get burned by the dragon you're robbing."

 


 

Dinner with the Elves went much as he recalled the first time around. There was music, good food, and much grumbling from the Dwarves. He spent most of his time during dinner listening to the snide remarks being muttered, and trying not to laugh too loudly. When dinner ended, Bilbo watched Thorin leave with Elrond, Gandalf, and Balin while the rest of the Company returned to their rooms.

"Mister Baggins, where are you going?" Ori asked when he noticed him walking in another direction.

"Ahh, just for a walk. I want to explore this place some more before we leave," he explained with a smile.

"Oh, okay. Would you like some company?" Ori offered though he looked hesitant to wander off through an Elven city.

He shook his head. "No, that's not needed. You go on with the others. I'm sure I won't be long."

"Okay. Have fun," Ori bid before scampering off to join Dori who was waiting for him.

Bilbo waved goodbye to the Dwarves before turning on his heel and heading to his real destination.

Rivendell was known to keep a library that housed a collection of books that anyone could read. It was there that he had conducted most of his research into the Elven language, and it was there that he had composed most of his writings. And it would be there that he would find what he was looking for.

Now where would they keep it? he pondered when stood among the collection of writings. Hmm. Art, poetry, language, politics… ah-ha! There it is!

Bilbo made his way to a small bookshelf and began to search through the Elven titles until he finally found the one he was looking for.

"Mordor," he whispered, pulling the book out and skimming through it quickly. He was the only one in the library but he did not know how long that would last. He had to be quick or he risked getting caught. He found the page he was looking for in the very back of the book. It was old and slightly outdated, but it was still a good rendition of a map to Mordor. Carefully, he tore the page out and wrapped it up and slipped it away in his coat. He just as quickly placed the book back where it belonged and headed to the door; eager to be away from the place and out of suspicion.

So quick he was in his haste that he nearly walked straight into Thorin in the corridor.

"Oh!" Bilbo stopped short and jumped back slightly. "Pardon me, I didn't see you there."

"Not surprising considering how quick you were moving," Thorin pointed out, not looking at all fazed. "What were you doing in there?"

"Oh, I was just looking at their books. They have a great deal of them," he lied, tilting his head up to get a better look at the king.

In the dark halls the only source of light came from the moon above them. The pale moonlight made Thorin's skin gleam ivory and brought out the silver threads in his black hair until it shone like mithril, and made his eyes shine like fresh cut jewels. The sight of it all made his stomach clench up. He had forgotten, over the many decades, how beautiful Thorin really was. Or perhaps it was his love that made the king look so achingly gorgeous.

"Were you injured?" he blurted out before he could think. "Earlier today, I mean. When we fought the Orcs."

Thorin blinked a few times. "No, I was not hurt."

"Oh. That's good," he said awkwardly.

Since the journey started, Bilbo had not held a conversation with Thorin alone. Partly because they were constantly surrounded by the others, and partly because Thorin had honestly displayed no interest in talking to him. But after some silent weeks, the Hobbit found himself aching for a chance to speak to the Dwarf alone. There were so many things he wanted to ask him; things they never got a chance to speak of the first time around. But now, standing before the very object of his affections, he found that he could not recall a single question.

"Indeed." The Dwarf glanced down before his eyes flickered back up to his face. "I noticed Óin attending to an injury on your back. Is it serious?"

"Huh? Oh, you mean the scratch," he said, subconsciously reaching behind to touch the bandaged wound. "It's fine. It was only a little scratch."

Thorin's expression did not change but his shoulders relaxed slightly. "That is good to hear. You fought well today, Master Baggins. I had not expected that."

"Thank you," he replied instinctively. Manners were as entwined in the Baggins blood as curiosity was in the Tooks. "You were very impressive as well."

"More impressive than an Orc is at knitting?" Thorin asked, arching one black brow high.

Bilbo was taken aback by the tone and comment before he grinned. "I'm sorry, but are you complaining about what I said? Master Thorin if I offended you—"

"You did not offend me over a simple comment, halfling," Thorin interrupted with a scowl. "It was simply… a challenge. To me. To prove to you that I am a skilled warrior."

He bit his lower lip to keep from smiling. "Aye, you did. I will never doubt your skills again."

"Good." Thorin pulled his shoulders back up slightly. "Well, come along then. I will escort you back to the rooms. Try not to wander around alone again. There's no trusting what our host may be up to."

"Do you ever consider forgiving the Elves?" he asked as they began to walk back to their rooms.

"No," Thorin answered bluntly with a scowl. "I will not."

"Why? I mean, I can understand why you wouldn't forgive Thranduil—"

"How do you know of him?" the Dwarf demanded.

Bilbo gave him a look that he hoped conveyed how silly of a question that was. "Because I asked the others? I wanted to know the details of this quest so I asked around. Anyway, as I was saying, I understand why you wouldn't forgive Thranduil, but what about the others? Why hate all Elves for the wrongdoings of a single Elf?"

"There is a saying among men that I find very fitting for this situation. 'Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.' To trust an Elf again means risking my people again. That is not a risk I can afford to take," the king explained.

"You know, being this grumpy and serious cannot be good for your health," he grumbled under his breath before pausing as the Dwarf next to him suddenly stopped walking.

Thorin looked at him with his dark brows furrowed. "Why do you constantly talk back to me?"

"Because you're not my king?" he offered, blinking a few times.

"That doesn't matter. Most people who meet me do not challenge me," Thorin declared with all the certainty that came from being blue blooded.

He rolled his eyes. "Probably because they know you'll glare at them if you do."

"That's not why. They do not speak up either out of respect or fear. You hold me in neither regard." The Dwarf sounded confident in his words. "So why do you defy my orders and question me at every turn?"

Because I know who you really are under that cold front you put up? Because I've seen you risk your life for the others time and time again? Because I've seen you cover up your sleeping nephews with your own coat when they were cold? Because I've seen you take an arrow for Ori because you reasoned you could handle it better than him? Because I know you better than you will ever realize?

Bilbo spoke of none of his thoughts. Instead, he said quietly, "Because I want to see the real you. I want to know Thorin Oakenshield and not just the King Under the Mountain."

Thorin's eyes widened and he took a step back as if his words had physically overwhelmed him.

"Why? Why would you want such a thing?" he questioned, his voice a deep rasp.

Because you are the one I hold most dear. Because you somehow got under my skin in a way that no one—not even the Elves I admired so—managed to do. Because my heart is a foolish and soft thing that will not let you go no matter how much time passes.

But he did not speak any of those words either.

Instead he shrugged and gave a simple smile. "Because we are comrades on a great quest, and if you would welcome it, I would see us forge a friendship on this journey."

Thorin simply stared at him as if he had just offered to bring him the sun and the moon.

"You…" he began but did not finish. Instead he shook his head; his face as troubled and lost as the day Bilbo had betrayed him with the Arkenstone. It made his heart ache to see such a look again.

"We should go back to the others. I'm sure they're wondering where we are," he said, silently giving the Dwarf a chance to end the conversation.

Thorin took it with a look of relief. "Indeed. Let's go."

Neither of them spoke again.

 


 

Chapter Text

 


 

Fíli was a thinker.

When they had been children, his mother used to say that Fíli was the brains and Kíli the heart. That if they were to fall in love, Kíli would simply love unconditionally without question while Fíli would question the very meaning of love. As a child, he had not enjoyed being defined as the 'bookish one' by others but as he grew up he came to accept it.

There was no use in lying to yourself after all.

Fíli was the 'bookish one' when it came down to it. He was the one that would obediently practice writing his letters while Kíli fell asleep next to him. He was the one that bothered their uncle with a million questions about swordplay while Kíli actually practiced with the swords. He was the one who sat with their mother and listened to her as she quietly explained how to properly wrap a wire.

He never considered himself very bright or particularly gifted, but he did so enjoy using his mind. He loved to ponder about why things happened the way they did, or what made a person act the way they acted. He enjoyed asking questions and learning the answers. Kíli could be satisfied with life the way it was, but Fíli constantly found himself asking, why?

Why did people die?

Why was the sky blue?

What made his hair gold?

Why did the seasons change?

Why did his body need sleep?

Why did Bilbo Baggins look so sad sometimes?

The last question was his newest mystery.

Bilbo Baggins was interesting for a Hobbit. He loved to eat, knew the raunchiest drinking songs, and could hold his own against an angry Thorin. Kíli adored him for those traits alone, but Fíli liked him better for his dry humor, unnoticed thoughtfulness, and fierceness in battle.

But he didn't like the looks.

Sometimes, usually at night when everyone was eating or chatting, Mister Baggins would get the saddest look on his face. It wasn't like the ingrained look of pain that Thorin would wear whenever he was reminded of Erebor, or even the laughing flinches that Kíli would put on whenever someone mocked him for his appearance. Instead it resembled the quiet grief that his mother would wear whenever the subject of his father was brought up.

He understood that it was a sadness that came from loss. Not the loss of a home or a possession or a legacy, but the loss of a person. It was the deepest type of loss that he knew of, and it was one that he barely understood because his father died long before he could miss him.

Fíli did not know what Mister Baggins could have lost in his life to invoke such a look. He did not even know what it was about their company that reminded him of his loss. But what he did know was that their Hobbit was sad at times and no one could say why. So like with most mysteries in his life, Fíli would discover the reason behind it.

He just hoped he didn't regret it.

 


 

They lingered in Rivendell for a week.

From his memory, Bilbo knew that they were waiting for the moon so that Lord Elrond could finish reading the map. He also knew that soon the White Council would gather to question Gandalf about their Company, and Saruman—the bloody traitor—would attempt to stop them. But what he did not know was the outcome of the meeting. Without Radagast and the Morgul-blade there to distract them, he could not think of another way for them to leave without notice. He could only hope that Gandalf was tricky enough to stall for time as they made their escape.

But Bilbo was not worried about the White Council and their meddling. No, what he was concerned about was Radagast.

The wizard had not shown up this time around and it alarmed him. He did not know how severe the consequences would be in the long run, but he understood the consequences for the present. If Gandalf did not confront the Necromancer, then who would stop him? And more importantly, how would they learn of Sauron's future return?

They were troubling thoughts and they weighed him down like stones. He recounted everything he had done since starting the journey, and could not find a single moment where he could have possibly changed things enough to keep Radagast from appearing. And even if he miscalculated and was the reason for Radagast's disappearance, it still did not explain where the wizard was now.

For the first time since he started his journey for the second time, Bilbo wished he had someone to speak to about his troubles. He was used to keeping secrets, and he always guarded his thoughts and dreams as fiercely as Smaug guarded his (stolen) treasure. Becoming Frodo's guardian had also taught him that he had to present a strong and unwavering figure for the lad. But now, for the first time in many years, he found himself longing to speak to someone about his thoughts and concerns.

You're being very whiny about this whole thing, he chided himself sternly as he sat upon a bench under a graceful willow tree. You decided to take this task upon yourself and now you must deal with it. So stop brooding like Thorin and think!

So lost in his thoughts, he failed to notice he wasn't alone until someone tapped him on the shoulder. When Bilbo looked up, he found himself face to face with Bifur as the Dwarf took a seat next to him.

"Oh. Hello, Master Bifur," he greeted without much thought. "Lovely day is it not?"

The Dwarf nodded and said something in Khuzdûl that Bilbo couldn't even begin to understand. But from the pleasant look on Bifur's face, he took it to mean that the Dwarf agreed.

"What are you doing out here?" he asked, only now realizing that he did not see the others around. Since coming to Rivendell his companions had taken to sticking together in little packs. Even Ori, Fíli and Kíli had taken to keeping him company on his walks in an attempt not to leave him alone with the elves. It was both sweet and aggravating.

Bifur shrugged again and gestured to the trail and then pointed to the Hobbit while saying something in Khuzdûl. Bilbo translated it to mean, 'It's my turn to babysit you today.'

"You don't have to follow me around you know. I doubt the elves will pay a simple Hobbit any mind," he pointed out.

Bifur scoffed and pointed to a scar on his arm with a look.

"Yes, I know that they didn't help you when Smaug attacked. But these elves are quite different from the ones that did that," he reasoned.

His response was a snort and a rude hand gesture that he hadn't seen in years.

Bilbo shook his head in fond exasperation. "You Dwarves are so stubborn. It's a wonder you get anything done."

Bifur simply grinned and puffed his chest out slightly.

The Hobbit watched the older Dwarf as pulled out an old pipe and began to light it up. The first time around he had found Bifur to be a bit too much with his constant gestures and rambling Khuzdûl. It had taken him nearly half the journey before he realized that, though the Dwarf did not speak anything but Khuzdûl, he still understood every word spoken to him.

"Do you ever get frustrated, Master Bifur, when others call you stupid simply because you speak in Khuzdûl?" he asked.

Bifur shook his head with a calm look. He said something in Khuzdûl and then shrugged lazily. He translated this to roughly mean, 'Idiots are everywhere; what can you do?'

"You're right. You can't change the way others think," admitted Bilbo, recalling his own stubborn and stupid relatives. "I wish I remembered that when I was younger. It would have saved me a lot of trouble."

The Dwarf snickered.

"Yes, yes, laugh it up. It's funny now but it wasn't then. I was such a fool when I was younger," he said, thinking back on how he acted the first time he embarked on the journey. "I suppose I'm still somewhat foolish now, but I like to believe that I've gotten a little wiser over the years."

Bifur nodded while saying something in Khuzdûl. He gestured to his forehead where the axe was, and then made a gesture with his hands. When Bilbo gave him a blank look, he huffed and repeated the gesture until the Hobbit realized that the Dwarf was recalling his own mistakes made in his youth, and how the biggest one cost him part of his mind.

"It must be aggravating not being able to speak to me properly," he realized, wondering why he had not thought of this earlier. "Master Bifur, I know that you would not dare teach me Khuzdûl, but could you perhaps teach me the signs you use? This way we could actually hold a proper conversation instead of me guessing at everything you do."

Bifur stared at him with wide eyes for a moment before a large grin broke out across his face. He then began to gesture animatedly with his hands and let out a stream of Khuzdûl without ever pausing for breath. Bilbo laughed and felt his heart lighten at the simple joy the older Dwarf displayed at such a request. He still did not know what to do about Radagast's disappearance, the White Council, or even the Necromancer. But in that moment he wanted to forget it all and simply enjoy learning to understand his old friend in a new way.

"Okay, okay let's start with the basics first. What is the sign for 'hello'?"

 


 

Three days later they left Rivendell behind.

Bilbo did not know what tricks Gandalf had to use this time around in order to distract the White Council, but he was grateful the wizard was so canny. They managed to slip away in the night much like the first time around; slipping through the corridors like thieves and shadows. When they began their trek, Bilbo could not resist turning around like the first time for one last glimpse of the beautiful city that was once his home.

But this time he did not need Thorin's voice to tear him away.

Onto the mountains and goblins and the ring now, he declared to himself, and followed the rest of his comrades onward.

 


 

Chapter Text

 


 

The Misty Mountains.

If there was ever a place in Middle Earth that Bilbo would have been happy never to see again, it would have been that mountain range. He could see it from the distance even miles away, and the sight of it made his stomach twist into knots.

all he can focus on is the cold. It is the type of cold that he has never felt in all his years. It is a cold that burns when it touches his skin, makes every breath hurt, and turns every joint in his body stiff

"Is there really no other way than this mountain?" he asked Bombur as they lingered in the back of the Company.

"Well, one could go around the mountain if they were up to it," the cook answered. "But it takes a lot longer."

"And we don't have time to spare," added Óin from his other side.

Bilbo frowned. The first time around he had never given much thought to the reason why their journey was made in haste besides the obvious reason of the door. But now he found himself curious as to what the cause could possibly be.

"Why is it so important for us to get to the mountain as quick as possible?" he asked aloud.

"Because others have heard the rumors that Smaug may be dead or gone and are seeking our treasure. We must hurry to beat them," Bombur answered, rubbing his belly.

"Besides, we've been waiting for decades to reclaim our home. We will wait no longer," Óin added with a fierce scowl that could rival Dwalin's on a bad day.

"Ahh, that makes sense." He nodded before another question formed from the answer. "But who would want to challenge a rumor of a possible dead dragon just for gold?"

"When it comes to greed, there are no depths that one will not go to satisfy their lust," Óin replied. "We Dwarves know it well. It is a fine line we walk between greed and passion. It is one we must always tread with caution."

there is a look in Thorin's eyes that he does not know. He has never seen those blue eyes darken so greatly or become so detached from any sort of life. He follows the king's gaze and finds it is on the Arkenstone, and feels himself turn cold

I think I understand what you mean, Bilbo thought, glancing to the front of the Company where Thorin led them on.

I think I understand quite well.

 


 

It was dark when they finally reached the mountain.

It was agreed that they would rest for the night before beginning the journey through the mountain. Camp was set up and everyone began to attend to their own needs duties and needs. Without anything to do, Bilbo found himself a snug nook to curl up in, and watched his Dwarves go about their business.

It was a silly and overly sentimental thing for him to do, but he found that he enjoyed watching his comrades more than he did speaking to them. He enjoyed watching Bombur become so engrossed in his cooking that he tuned out the entire world. He watched fondly as Ori scribbled in his book and smeared ink on his cheeks every time he pushed a braid out of his eyes. He liked to memorize the melody that Dwalin hummed to himself while cleaning his weapons, and the sound of Kíli's laughter as he teased his brother.

I have become the old man I swore I would never be, he admitted to himself, snorting and shaking his head.

"Something funny, Master Burglar?"

Bilbo glanced up to the Dwarf that had joined him, and shook his head with a grin. "Simply laughing at myself, Master Bofur."

"Often times that is the best thing to laugh at," Bofur agreed, taking a seat next to him. In his hands he held a small, curved knife and a piece of unmarked wood.

"What are you making?" he asked, nodding to the knife and wood.

Bofur shrugged as he made himself comfortable next to the Hobbit. "Don't know yet. Maybe a whistle. Maybe a toy. Maybe even a figurine. We'll see when we get there."

"Hmm." He watched the Dwarf as he fiddled with the knife before a thought occurred to him.

"Master Bofur? May I ask you a question?"

"Only if you call me by my name and without titles," the other answered with a dimple grin.

He chuckled. "Very well. Bofur, why is it that you are a toymaker but your brother is a cook? I thought that most dwarven families go into the same trade."

Bofur clucked his tongue and glanced across the camp to Bombur. "That's true enough. Bombur and I did start out as toymakers back in Erebor. We were even preparing to take over our father's shop, and maybe even open up another."

"So what happened?"

"Well…There was this dwarven lass. She worked in the palace kitchens and used to walk past our store every day on her way to work and back," Bofur said quietly, his eyes darkening in memory. "I remember that she used to keep her brown curls tied back with blue ribbons that matched her eyes. She probably could have had any Dwarf she wanted, but the only one she ever seemed to want was Bombur."

"Oh," he said, unsure what to say. "And did he… want her back?"

Bofur smiled a smile of unspoken memories. "Oh, yes. My brother did not just love her; he worshiped her. She was his stone and jewels and gold and everything precious. They were so very happy together, and I swear I have never seen anyone so well matched as those two were for each other."

Bilbo felt his throat tighten. "What happened to her?"

"Smaug came and Erebor fell. She fell with it. And my brother was never the same again." Bofur finally looked at him, and it was with the face of one who had seen too much death to be changed by it now.

"We Dwarves… We each deal with our grief differently. Some of us throw ourselves into battle. Others thrown themselves into drink. Bombur threw himself into food because it reminds him of her. That is why he is the cook and I am the toymaker now," the Dwarf finished softly.

Bilbo did not know what to say. He never knew that Bombur had been married or why he loved food so much. It made him realize even more that there was so much he did not know of his companions and the lives they had led before. And it drove home how just much they all truly lost thanks to Smaug.

"I cannot imagine how he must feel," he said quietly. "To have known that type of joy and then to have lost it… How do you go on?"

That was certainly true. He knew what it was like to grieve for a lost love but his grief was a one sided one. He never knew what it felt to love and be loved in return only to lose it all.

"You learn to live with it," the Dwarf advised, returning to his woodwork. "It changes you and you will never be the same but you can't let it define you. Because once you do then you will lose yourself to that moment—that memory—forevermore."

The words were wise and knowing and sent a chill down his spine.

"Bofur… What did you lose when Erebor fell?" he wondered in a soft voice.

Bofur snorted and did not look away from his carving. "I think the better question would be what did I not lose, Master Baggins."

Bilbo did not ask any more questions that night.

 


 

The next morning they began their climb.

It was a slow and rough affair. The High Path, no matter how well used, was not the easiest road to walk. It was a rocky and steep climb up the mountain and took longer than he remembered it taking the first time around. Everyone was on guard for Orcs and goblins and Bilbo was greatly tempted to tell them not to bother worrying for their greatest threat would come as they slept.

Then, as night fell, the Stone Giants began their fight.

He had forgotten, over the many years, exactly how frightening the climb was with those great creatures fighting overhead. The rain and thunder could not drown out the sound of their stone flesh hitting one another, and no matter how much he pressed himself back against the mountain he found that he could not escape the stones that rained down on him.

"We need to get to shelter!" Balin yelled from somewhere near the middle of the group.

"Agreed!" Thorin yelled back. "Stay together until then!"

Bilbo glanced up and realized that the fight between the giants was getting more heated. Quickly he eased himself back against the mountain until there was space for the others to walk, and then nodded to the Dwarves who walked behind him.

"Go on ahead of me!" he yelled over the weather and giants.

"Why?" Fíli yelled back even as he nudged his brother onward. Kíli slid past the Hobbit without question with Ori trailing him.

"I have a better grip with my bare feet and can move faster!" he explained. "The rest of you don't with your boots! So go ahead and stay together and I will follow!"

That was only partly true. He did have a better grip with his feet and he did want the group to stay together, but it was in order to avoid what happened last time. Though things turned out fine, he did not want to risk them getting stuck between two quarreling Stone Giants again.

Fíli looked skeptic but did not get a chance to argue as Dwalin, who stood behind him, nudged him on the shoulder. "Just do as he says! Keep moving!"

Fíli sighed and followed Ori without another complaint. Dwalin soon followed with a grave nod to Bilbo that he translated to mean, 'Thanks for protecting the stubborn prince.'

He nodded back and leaned further into the rough rocks so the larger Dwarf had more room to walk. After him followed Bofur and then Nori; both were huddled under their cloaks in a futile attempt to hide from the rain. Only once they were past him did he finally breathe a sigh of relief, and began to follow the group again.

They trudged on through the rain and fighting. Bilbo found himself constantly glancing up at the giants above them; watching and measuring their every move in hopes that he could time when they needed to leap to safer grounds. But it was difficult to spot them with the rain and darkness.

It is only a bit further, he thought to himself, and then the one we stand on should move and

Then the stone before him began to move.

He stumbled back before he caught himself with his hands. When Bilbo looked up, he found that the giant had broken off from the mountain and was moving. Most of the group was stuck on the giant's leg, but his attention was not on them. It was instead narrowed on Fíli, Dwalin, Bofur and Nori who were still before him, and not on the giant like they should have been.

"Jump onto the giant!" he yelled but his voice was lost to the wind and thunder.

Bilbo began to move closer to them, hoping that they could still time it right and maybe manage to get to the other side before the giant crumbled. But before he had even taken two steps he found the ground beneath him crumbling, and on instinct he jumped back just in time as—

—he caught sight of Fíli's wide blue eyes one last time—

—the ledge crumbled into ruins and the Dwarves standing on it fell into the darkness below.

 


 

Chapter Text

 


 

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?"

"Do what?"

"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.

It didn't.

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.

Bilbo Baggins…

 


 

Chapter Text

 


 

When Dwalin finally awoke, the first thing he did was reach for his hammer.

Instantly, Bilbo leaped back and out of the way as the Dwarf swung it out without restraint around himself. He pushed himself to one knee as another hand went to one of his axes while the hammer was swung overhead. It was not until he finally got to his feet and his eyes were clear and open, did Dwalin finally seem to realize that he was no longer being attacked.

"Burglar," he greeted as his dark eyes singled out the Hobbit. "What happened?"

"You were knocked out by a falling rock," Bilbo replied, having decided to lie in order to save Gollum. It was, admittedly, a difficult decision to come to. But he knew that if he told the truth then Dwalin would end up killing the little scavenger whether out of common sense or a bruised ego. And he couldn't let that happen…

"I was knocked out… by a piece of rock," Dwalin repeated slowly, staring at him.

He nodded and held up his bloody handkerchief as proof. "Yup. Hit you on the head and knocked you clear out."

Dwalin just stared at him. 'Stared' was the polite way of terming it.

"Do you feel better?" he asked, attempting to break the awkward air that was growing between them.

"I'm fine. It will take more than a pebble to take me out," the Dwarf scoffed, finally sheathing his weapons once more.

Bilbo bit his lower lip and tried his best not to smirk. "Maybe not take you out for good, but it did knock you out for awhile there."

Dwalin just gave him another 'stare'.

"Do you think we can find the surface from here?" he continued speaking, ignoring the look. The Dwarf really had nothing on Gandalf when the wizard was angry.

"… Yes. I can lead us out from here. I think it will be easier from this point on," the warrior admitted, scratching at his head where some of the blood that he had missed had dried up.

Bilbo felt vaguely disgusted. He had a feeling that blood was going to stay under the Dwarf's finger nails for the next few days.

"We should get moving then if you're up to it," he pointed out, trying to ignore his revulsion. The bathing habits of Dwarves were none of his concern. "I don't like lingering here. This place makes me uncomfortable."

Dwalin grunted and sheathed all his weapons but his hammer. "Agreed. Let's get moving before another 'rock' falls on me."

Bilbo bit his lip to prevent himself from snickering. No one ever told him Dwarves were so insightful. It was just another new fact to add to his ever growing list.

"Which way are we going?" he asked, carefully putting his body between Dwalin and the rock where he had dragged the unconscious Gollum behind. He had tied the scavenger up with some rope he found on Dwalin; but he didn't know how long it would hold, or when the little termite would awaken and cause more trouble. All he could do was try and get Dwalin and himself away as soon as possible.

The warrior rolled his shoulders back and raised his face to the ceiling. He sniffed the air a few times and then tapped the ground with the tips of his boots before giving a firm nod.

"To the east now," he declared, hiking his hammer up to rest on one broad shoulder, and then swiftly moving towards their destination.

Bilbo followed the Dwarf without complaint. "How do you Dwarves understand mountains so well?"

"We were born to the stone, burglar, and it is in the stone that we spend our lives. We learn to listen to her voice before we ever use our own. Learning to navigate through a mountain is as easy for us as it is for them rangers to go through a forest," Dwalin replied with a snort.

He had not known that. "Is it hard then? Living above ground, away from the stone?"

"Yes," Dwalin answered bluntly, never pausing in his steps. "It is difficult but not impossible. We prefer to do without it."

"Why? Does it cause you pain? Do you greatly miss it?"

Dwalin finally stopped and Bilbo found himself almost running into him. He took a few steps back and looked up at the Dwarf that was now glaring down at him.

"Living away from Erebor is like living without an arm or a leg," the Dwarf explained slowly, staring at him with eyes that could have been carved from stone. "It is unbearable in the beginning but in time you get used to it because there's no other choice. Most days you'll be fine; other days you'll burn with the memories of how it used to be. It is a phantom ache that never goes away because you live with the reminder of it every day. Now did that satisfy your curiosity, burglar?"

He nodded, feeling like an insensitive fool. "Yes."

"Good. Now quit yapping. We got a great deal still to travel," Dwalin snarled, spinning back around and continuing on his way. Bilbo quickly followed and they continued their trek on through the mountain in silence.

 


 

When they finally found their way out of the mountain, Bilbo realized it was early afternoon.

We were there all night and into the next day, he mused, carefully climbing over a large rock. From what I recall, the sun was setting when we encountered Azog. Which means the others must be on their way out if they got caught by the goblins. But if they didn't get captured then where would they be now?

For the first time in a long while, Bilbo found that he didn't know what to do next. Their group was splintered, he had no clue where the others were, and there was a possibility that some of them were now dead. He was stuck.

Find them. Search them out. Hunt them down, the ring whispered to him in the back of his mind.

He firmly pushed the whispers away. Not now! I don't have time for this!

"What should we do now?" he asked Dwalin, turning his complete attention to the Dwarf in order to block the ring.

Dwalin sniffed and looked around the area before shrugging. "Doubt the others have made it this far yet. We'll wait here and see if anyone shows up."

"And if they don't?" he pushed, feeling his stomach twist up into knots.

"Then we'll go back and look for them," the warrior replied, walking over to a tree and making himself comfortable under it.

Bilbo bit his lower lip in order not to groan. "I hate waiting. It never gets easier, no matter how old you get."

Dwalin snorted and didn't hold back the small smirk that tugged at his lips. "Don't know anyone who does like to wait."

"I don't know how the elves handle living for centuries. I think the memories alone would drive me insane," he admitted because it was something that had secretly horrified him for a long time. He could not imagine how Lord Elrond or even Lady Galadriel could handle memories that spanned over lifetimes. The weight of a hundred years alone already weighed him down like a boulder.

Dwalin shrugged and closed his eyes. "Who cares? Get some rest for now. You might need it for later."

Bilbo really hoped he wouldn't.

 


 

He never thought that he would fall asleep with all the worrying he was doing, but his body surprised him. Or he was just that tired. Either way, one moment Bilbo swore he was thinking of possible entries back into the mountain, and then in the next moment he found himself jerking awake at the bellow next to him.

"Wha…?" he began to speak, blinking around the area and searching for the noise. He realized that the sun was settling to set in the horizon, and that the air was growing chilly. Finally he noticed that Dwalin was on his feet and was grinning without restraint.

He soon realized why when Balin came sprinting into the clearing.

"Dwalin!" he yelled, barreling straight towards his brother. Dwalin caught him without hesitation and the two were gripping each other in a fierce hug that looked rather painful with all that armor. Bilbo watched them from the sidelines as they spoke to each other in low Khuzdûl. He could not understand a word of what was being said, but he felt that the meaning behind it was pretty clear.

If Balin is here then maybe…

He turned back to where Balin had come from, and soon found the rest of his companions making their way at a more sedated pace. He looked over each face hopefully but found that none were his missing companions.

They didn't find them, he realized, and his stomach twisted into more knots.

Thorin led them into the clearing and Bilbo carefully avoided looking the Dwarf in the eye. Instead, he took note of each Dwarf and realized though they were dirty and bruised, they were all relatively unharmed. Physically, at the very least. It was one less thing for him to worry about.

"Dwalin," Thorin greeted as he drew closer, his stern features relaxing slightly. "It is good to see one of you alive."

Bilbo had a feeling that he wasn't included in that statement.

"Did you find the others?" Kíli asked from his uncle's side. His dark eyes seemed very wide in his pale and bruised face.

Dwalin shook his head solemnly as his brother finally released him. "I'm sorry, lad. We didn't come across any of them."

"Not even their bodies?" Dori asked quietly.

"No bodies. We landed further down the mountain then them," Bilbo answered.

"Then there's a chance they could still be alive?" questioned Ori, his face lighting up.

Bilbo looked at the other Dwarves and knew they were all thinking the same thing. There was a chance that their comrades could still be alive, yes, but it was a very, very slim chance.

"What do we do now, Thorin?" Glóin questioned while nursing a rather large and sickly yellow bruise on his forehead.

The king closed his eyes and took in a deep breath before releasing it slowly. "We will wait the night out here to see if they show up. If they do not appear by morning…"

Thorin trailed off but they all read the message clear enough. They were continuing on in the morning with or without their lost companions.

Bilbo looked to the west where the sun was slowly making its way down. He didn't know how much things had changed now, and he didn't know if Azog was coming or not. But if the fiend did come, then they would not have till morning to wait for their comrades.

"How did you all get so bruised?" he asked, his mind spinning though possible plans.

It was Óin who answered him. "We ran into some goblins on our way here. Nasty little bastards managed to capture us, but we sliced through them like butter. Even took out their king along the way."

Bilbo nodded and tried to make himself look surprised and awed. "Impressive. But what did they capture you for? Why not just kill you where you stood?"

"A good question, Master Baggins," Gandalf said, speaking up for the first time. The wizard seemed deep in thought as he stared off in the direction they had come from.

"Master Oakenshield," he called out slowly, and all attention turned to the wizard. "Do you happen to remember what the Great Goblin said to you?"

Thorin blinked twice before his eyes widened and he began to curse in Khuzdûl. Balin and Óin caught on as well if their wide eyes were anything to go by, but the rest looked lost and confused.

"What? What did that fat goblin say to you?" Kíli asked, tugging on Thorin's coat.

"That someone would pay a price for his head," Gandalf answered for the king. "My guess is that 'someone' are Orcs, and that the goblins may have informed them of our location. If that is true, then they may be heading in our direction at this very moment."

It took a moment for the realization to settle, but once it did, pandemonium immediately followed. Bilbo watched as his Dwarves broke out into arguments and a great deal of gesturing and cursing. He couldn't follow all of the words being said, but he understood that the gist of the arguments were about whether to stay and wait for their lost companions, or move on before the Orcs caught up with them. It was a mess of words and heated emotions, but it was the results that he was hoping for.

Bilbo didn't know if Fíli, Bofur, or Nori was alive or dead, and he didn't know if Azog was coming for them or not. But what he did know was that he couldn't let his remaining comrades be unprepared for whatever was coming.

This is all I can do to warn you lot of Azog, he thought miserably. I can't do anything more. Not when I don't know what's coming anymore.

He didn't know how long the bickering lasted, but eventually Thorin decided to put a stop to it.

"We make camp here for the night!" he bellowed over the voices, drowning them down until there was silence. "We will set up a watch and traps, and make preparations for any attack that may come. If we are attacked then we will be ready for them. If not, then at least we still give our comrades a chance to catch up with us. I will hear no more on the subject!"

There was no more argument after that. The assembled Dwarves and wizard nodded and went about following the commands given. Bilbo watched them all before deciding that he would be most helpful in setting up traps. Eru knew he had enough practice watching Merry and Pippin.

"Master Óin," he called, hurrying over to the healer. "I have an idea of some traps we may use with some of the plants I picked. Would you care to help me put them together?"

The Dwarf smirked. "Why, I would be delighted to, Master Baggins."

 


 

Bilbo kept an eye on the slowly setting sun, and an ear out for the howls of Wargs. To his dismay, he only got to set up half of his traps before the piercing howls of the Wargs brought the entire camp to a stop.

"They're coming," Ori gasped, his hand moving to his slingshot on reflex.

"Time to act. Everyone to their places," Thorin ordered, reaching out a hand to push his nephew toward his designated tree. Everyone moved without complaint and either began to pull themselves up into the trees, or into the bushes around them. Bilbo himself climbed up a tree with Sting in one hand, and made himself comfortable next to Ori. Across from him he could see Kíli and Balin and Bombur crouched on their branches, while Bifur and Óin made themselves comfortable on a branch above him. Below them Gandalf, Thorin, Dwalin and Dori took their places in the bushes around the camp.

The camp was silent except for the crackling of the fire that they had set up in the middle of the camp. Around the fire were the few bedrolls they still had; stuffed so it would look like they were all sleeping. It was a very simple ruse that probably wouldn't fool most people, but they were dealing with Orcs so it could still pass. Bilbo only hoped that Azog wasn't the first one on the scene.

Next to him, he noticed that Ori's free hand was shaking. Silently he reached over and took it into his own, and squeezed it lightly.

"It's going to be fine," he said quietly. "We are all going to come out of this alive. I promise."

"I don't think that's something you can promise," Ori whispered back even as his hand finally stopped shaking.

Bilbo smiled. "Watch me."

The sounds of running and hissing grew closer and closer to their camp until soon enough a pair of Orcs with Wargs came dashing into the camp. They each landed on a stuffed bedroll and proceeded to either stab it with their weapons, or tear into it with their jaws.

Well, there goes my good coat, he thought with black humor that quickly died as the rest of the Orcs joined their fellows. With them came a (familiar) tall white Orc that made Ori tense again, and the hate in him rise swiftly.

Then he saw who the Orc was dragging behind him, and his whole world came to a complete stop.

"Fíli!" Ori gasped before slapping a hand over his mouth.

Bound and chained to Azog by rope, Fíli stumbled into the clearing before falling to his knees. He was dirty and bloody, and Bilbo could already make out the bruises and welts on his face. He looked exhausted and weary, but still managed to glare up at his captor with his bright blue eyes.

"They have Nori too!" Ori whispered to him fiercely; drawing his attention away from the bound prince.

His eyes scanned the clearing before he finally spotted both Nori and Bofur; each also tied to an Orc. They were dirty and wounded, and were sporting more welts and bruises than the younger Dwarf. He had a feeling he knew why.

He glanced up across to where Kíli was, and found that he was being restrained by Balin and Bombur. He glanced to Ori and wondered if he would have to do the same, but found that the young Dwarf looked more horrified than angry.

"Don't draw any attention," he ordered quietly just in case. "We need to wait for the signal."

Ori nodded, but still didn't tear his eyes away from his brother. Bilbo could not imagine what Ori was feeling at seeing his older brother bound and beaten, but he knew that anger would follow soon enough. He only hoped that the anger helped him in battle and didn't cripple him.

Below them, Azog had been surveying the camp before barking something to the other Orcs in his harsh mother tongue. Then he reached behind him and yanked Fíli forward until he stood close enough for the Orc to place his sword at his neck.

"Dwarf King," he growled in common. "Come out so I can give you another head of your kin."

"I'm scared of being king," Fíli confides one cold night. They're all huddle up in groups to keep warm, and he's squished between Fíli and Bofur. The toymaker is fast asleep with his hat pulled low, but Fíli is still wide awake so he decides to keep him company.

"Why? I think you'll be a fine king," he whispers back.

Fíli smiles slightly at the compliment. "I feel too young. I don't think I'm wise enough yet to rule. I don't know if I ever will be."

"Wisdom comes with age. You'll learn how to be a good king as you grow," he reassures.

Fíli snickers. "I guess I have something to look forward to other then going gray."

He huffs and cuddles closer for warmth. "I think you should be more afraid of going white or bald. You're related to Balin and Dwalin, after all."

Fíli laughs again but this time he is so loud that he wakes Kíli, who is sleeping on his other side—

Azog pushed the blade closer until it broke skin and began to bleed. Fíli didn't move or flinch, but his blue eyes widened ever so slightly before closing. He was resigning himself to his death.

sometimes he catches himself calling Merry and Pippin another set of names. He doesn't mean to do it, but it's hard; so very hard because the two are so very much like the Dwarves he lost. It makes him want to cry when he sees them because they deserved to live; Fíli and Kíli should have lived, but they didn't and Merry and Pippin are living the lives they should have had, and why did it turn out this way, whywhywhwy—

The grief that swallows him whole surprises him for a moment, but only for a moment. He was familiar with grief; knew it like an old friend by now. He knew how to push it back until it was only a distant ache in his heart.

But the rage… the rage was new.

Kill it, the ring suggested, rising to his anger like a serpent to music. Save him. Save him. Kill it.

"Ori," he whispered as he gripped Sting tightly in one hand. "Tell Kíli to aim for the eyes."

Then before Ori could reply, he dropped out of the tree.

Once his feet touched the ground he forced his body to roll to absorb the impact. Then he sprung to his feet and realized that every Orc was now focused on him. Including Azog.

"Using a hostage I see," he said casually even as the Orcs pointed their weapons at him. "Guess you lot are as weak and cowardly as they say."

Azog narrowed his pale, pale eyes as the others began to hiss and curse and growl. He made a sharp gesture with his hook, and they all fell silent.

"Halfling," he acknowledged, his voice sounding like rocks scraping again each other. "I see the Dwarf King has grown desperate. Pathetic."

The Orcs snickered and jeered at him, and Bilbo allowed himself to smile. He was under no illusion that it was a nice smile. "Indeed. Almost as pathetic as an Orc torturing an unarmed child. Really, you couldn't find a full grown Dwarf to capture? At least they would put up a fight. But him? I'd be surprised if he even knew how to hold a sword."

By now, Fíli was staring at him with wide eyes while Bofur and Nori looked alarmed and considering. He had a feeling that the later was thinking up a plan thanks to his distraction. He only hoped it didn't interfere with his own.

Azog eyes widened at the insult, and he pulled his sword away from Fíli's throat to point at Bilbo. The moment he did an arrow hit him in the eye, and chaos erupted.

Gandalf, Thorin, Dwalin and Dori finally revealed themselves and attacked the nearest Orc to them. Above them, Ori and Kíli were unleashing arrows and stones on the unprotected eyes of their enemy. Bombur, Balin, Bifur, and Óin jumped into the fray as well, and Bilbo soon lost sight of them all.

All except Fíli.

Azog had broken off the arrow in his eye, but it was still gushing blood down his face and neck. Below him his Warg had also been blinded, and was whimpering as it attempted to claw the arrows out of its face. The Orc was obviously in a great deal of pain and confused, but that didn't stop him from attempting to behead his captive. Fíli was doing a good job of dodging the now half-blind Orc, but he knew that it couldn't last; not while the Dwarf was still tied to Azog.

Bilbo dug his feet into the dirt and ran.

He ducked and dodged as much of the combat as he could, and scrambled behind his fighting comrades when he couldn't. All the while, he kept Azog and Fíli in his sight, and as soon as he got close enough, he raised Sting high and brought it down swiftly on the rope that bound the two together.

"Run!" he yelled, pushing Fíli away from the pale Orc and towards the trees. Fíli tripped but scrambled to his feet as Azog roared something guttural and vicious behind them. He glanced over his should to see if they were being followed, and found that Dwalin and Thorin had blocked the fiend off from following them.

"Give me your hands," he ordered as soon as they were far enough away from battle. Fíli held his bound hands up and he quickly cut through them until the Dwarf was free. "Get up into the trees. Kíli and Ori are there. They'll protect you."

"Wha—" Fíli tried to protest, but Bilbo was already moving; back into the battle and into his pocket to where a cold ring rested.

Just this once, he promised himself, and slipped the ring on.

The effect was instant. Everything around him seemed to slow down and the colors became paler and less vibrant. A chill went down his spine, and he swore that he heard the ring laughing at him in the back of his mind.

Shut up and let me focus on the Orcs, he snarled back, and then went to work.

The first thing he did was focus on taking out the Wargs. They were the most dangerous with their massive jaws and claws, and offered a significant advantage to their riders in height and protection. He didn't know if the Wargs could smell him coming, but he didn't care. He had to help his friends.

The first Warg he came across didn't seem to notice him as he stalked up to it. He leapt to the side to avoid one of its hind legs, and then ran Sting into its ribs as hard as he could. The Warg screeched a high and agonized sound that made his ears hurt, but he pressed on; attempting to push the blade further into the thick flesh before jumping back as the Warg twirled around to face him. He found himself looking at its face and his eyes wandered over it and then down, down, down until he found its neck.

There!

He swung Sting out in an arch that sliced open the throat of the Warg like paper. The blood sprayed across his face and he blinked as some of it got into his eyes. He wiped it away, and then watched the Warg as it backed up and struggled to breathe before finally collapsing.

To the next one, the ring suggested, and for once he found himself in agreement.

 


 

Bilbo did not know how long it took to kill the Wargs. He lost track of time, and could only focus on taking out the creatures that threatened his friends. It wasn't until the last Warg was dead that he finally stopped and looked around. His Dwarves had managed to kill most of the Orcs and all of the Wargs were obviously dead. There were a few stragglers left, but they were wounded and were obviously not going to last much longer. The biggest thing he noticed though was that Azog was gone.

He still lives. Fine. Let him come another day; we can kill him then, he thought with a wicked viciousness that made him pause. He was not usually so bloodthirsty, and actually wasn't fond of killing. So why was he feeling so damn hungry for battle?

Revenge. Kill it. It will feel good, the ring goaded.

Oh. That's why.

Bilbo slipped the ring off and blinked as the world returned to normal colors and shapes. Most importantly though the feelings of bloodlust were dying away as he slipped the ring back into his pocket, and ignored the voice taunting him in the back of his mind. Above them the sun had finally set and night had fallen during their vicious scrimmage with Azog and his ilk. The fire they had put together was now their only source of light in the dark forest. It cast an orange glow on the bodies of the Orcs, and made shadows dance across his comrades' faces. He slowly looked them over until he identified every Dwarf, and then allowed himself a sigh of relief when he realized that they were all alive.

We did it. We got through it this time.

Bilbo walked to where his comrades were gathering, and grinned when he realized that some of them were hugging the lost ones. Kíli was wrapped around Fíli like an octopus and seemed like he wasn't letting go anytime soon. Fíli was enduring it with a look that said he was well used to his brother's clingy ways. Nearby Nori was holding both Dori and Ori as they hugged him back. He seemed to be trying to soothe the crying Ori, while Dori looked like he was just basking in the fact that he got to touch his brother again. Beyond them, he saw Bofur laughing as Óin looked over him while Bombur and Bifur fussed over him.

They were all alive and well. No one had died despite his massive screw up in timing and control. He had not failed them yet.

Bilbo sniffed and rubbed his eyes as they began to grow wet. He didn't realize how much he had been holding back his fear and anguish at the thought of failing them again. It was only now—seeing them alive and safe—that the relief and gratitude engulfed him.

"Oh, what's this? I hope those are tears of joy and not sadness."

Bilbo blinked through his tears and realized that Balin was now before him. He looked concerned as he stared into Bilbo's eyes.

"Joy. These are tears of joy," he reassured, rubbing them away hastily. It wouldn't do to start bawling like a child in front of Balin. He didn't want to make the Dwarf uncomfortable.

"Aye, I think we all could cry in relief at this outcome," Balin agreed, still watching him.

"I thought they were dead," he admitted, wiping his cheeks clean. "I thought they were dead and then the Orcs dragged them in like that and… and…"

Balin's face softened, and he reached out to lay a comforting hand on the Hobbit's shoulder. "I understand. It was a hard thing to face for everyone. But you… you did us all a huge favor by distracting Azog. You even managed to save Fíli! That alone is a great gift. So thank you, Master Baggins. Thank you for saving him."

Bilbo felt his face warm and hoped it wasn't too obvious. "I-I only did what was right. I couldn't just stand there and watch him die. I wouldn't let any of you die if I can help it."

Not again.

Balin nodded slowly as his eyes stared at him thoughtfully. "I'm beginning to believe that, Master Baggins."

The Dwarf gave his shoulder another gentle pat before wandering off to where Óin was attempting (and failing) to look over Bofur. He looked back to the group and found that Thorin had made his way to his nephews, and had managed to pry Kíli off of Fíli and pulled him into his own hug. He could see how tight the king was gripping Fíli's coat, and watched as his massive shoulders seemed to ease ever so slightly. Fíli in turn seemed to go boneless and relaxed into the hug like a child. He probably only now felt completely safe since his abduction.

Bilbo felt his own heart ease up as he watched them. The last time around, he had been the one in that fierce hug after he had saved Thorin from Azog. But, as he watched Thorin's eyes soften into a sky blue, he realized that he really didn't mind this outcome.

 


 

Chapter Text

 


 

Óin had always considered himself a rather simple Dwarf.

He liked to fight, to eat, to read, and to sing. He didn't care for Elves, olives, or liars. He was loyal to his king first, his family second, and his friends and allies third. He believed that everything happened for a reason, and letting go of things you could not control. All in all, he was not very complicated.

This way of thinking—simple and practical—was why he liked their Hobbit burglar. Bilbo Baggins had made it very clear that his one desire was to see them all safely to Erebor. He had proved his intentions time and time again; from little things like allowing the younger ones to eat first during dinner, and to bigger things like protecting Fíli from the Orcs and trolls. Óin appreciated this blunt and honest wish.

The only thing about Bilbo that did make him wary was his lack of self-preservation.

He was deaf in one ear, yes, but he sure wasn't blind. He had seen how reckless the Hobbit was with his own life. He threw himself into battle without hesitation, didn't flinch to protect others with his own life, and even asked the others to put themselves before him. He seemed not to care whether he lived or died at all.

The Dwarf was sure he wasn't the only one who noticed. The wizard noticed and was concerned, and Dori definitely noticed because he was such a mother hen. He had a feeling even Thorin had recognized it but hadn't said anything because he didn't know how to deal with it. None of them had acted on their concerns though, which meant it was up to him to take care of their burglar.

Óin was a healer; it was in his nature to try to help others even when they didn't want it. Bilbo Baggins did not seem to care if he lived or died, but Óin did, and he was going to keep him alive no matter what they faced.

Even if Bilbo didn't want to be.

 


 

After all the hugging and weeping and the laughing came the task of recuperating. The Orc corpses made the area highly undesirable to stay in so they bundled everything that was still salvageable, and headed out to find a safer place to rest and heal. Gandalf led them through the dark forest while the others helped the wounded as they begun the task of walking down the mountain. Eventually they found a clearing that seemed relatively safe, and made camp for the second time that night.

Bilbo found himself a cozy corner where he had the perfect view of everyone and was still close enough to jump to their aid. There he made his bed and began to look over his own wounds and bruises. There weren't very many since he had been invisible and unnoticed for most of the battle, but he couldn't dodge everything in the fight. Thankfully most of them were minor and unimportant injuries so he was able to tend to them without going to Óin. Once he was done, he sat back and watched his companions. Óin was looking over Fíli, Nori, and Bofur as they had the most wounds. It actually looked rather difficult since none of them were interested in healing, but in recounting their tale of capture to the others.

"—then Nori stood up, looked it straight in the eye, and said: 'You call that a kick? Who trained you? Here, let me show you how it's done.' Then he knocked it off its feet with one leg sweep—all while still being tied up!" Fíli boasted between Kíli and Ori.

The Dwarves laughed and hooted while Nori shrugged and scratched at his swollen nose. "Well, it was a bad kick. Didn't even leave a bruise. Pathetic."

"They left enough marks," Dori pointed out from his side. He was attempting to get his brother to eat but was obviously failing as Nori kept pushing his hand away.

"True enough," Óin agreed as he hovered over Bofur. The toymaker had taken a hit to the head and the healer was attempting to wrap a clean cloth around the wound. "You three are lucky you got out alive at all."

"Aye, thanks to my little brother here!" Fíli crowed, wrapping an arm around Kíli's shoulders and shaking him. "Nailed the bastard right in the eye he did. Wouldn't be surprised if he died from the injury."

Kíli beamed from under his brother's arm. "It was all luck. I wouldn't have gotten a chance if Mister Baggins hadn't distracted him."

"True! Where is our burglar? I need to thank him for saving my life!" Fíli cried, standing up and looking around. When his eyes finally found the Hobbit, he smiled just as brightly as the sun.

"Bilbo! Why are you so far away? Get over here so I can thank you properly!" the blond Dwarf demanded.

Bilbo raised his brows and tried not smirk too obviously. "So I can smell the Orc blood more clearly? I think I'll pass and stay right here. Upwind. Away from the smell."

Most of the others broke into laughter at his retort, but Fíli scowled in answer. He marched through the Dwarves over to the lone Hobbit and flopped down in front of him. With the young Dwarf so close, Bilbo could now make out his wounds more clearly. What he saw made him wince.

"You saved my life back there," Fíli said, not noticing his wince or discomfort. "I don't know what would have happened if… if you hadn't…"

"I could do nothing else," he finished for the Dwarf. Fíli was beginning to look a bit lost as he recalled the evening, and he didn't want to see him sad again. "I would never let any of you die. Not if I can help it."

Fíli blinked his blue eyes that he shared with his uncle before a wide smile split across his face. Before he knew it, Bilbo found himself being pulled into a hug that squeezed all the air from his lungs at once.

"Thank you for saving my life," Fíli mumbled into his ear. His beard tickled his ear and neck but the Hobbit was willing to endure it. Honestly, he needed a hug just as much as Fíli did at this point.

"You're welcome, Fíli," he muttered back, trying not to melt into the embrace like a child.

"Hey, Fíli! Stop harassing our burglar and get over here! It's your turn now!" Óin ordered from the group as he finished tending to Bofur.

The younger Dwarf groaned but dutifully released Bilbo, and got to his feet. "Fine, fine! But no poking this time! I got enough of that with the Orcs..."

 


 

Bilbo continued to watch over his comrades even after all the wounds were healed, their bellies filled, and they all finally drifted off to sleep. He found that he could not make himself fall asleep quite as easily, and honestly he didn't want to at this point. He had too much to think about, too much to plan and go over in his head. Not to mention he still felt shaken from nearly losing his Dwarves (again) thanks to his own stupidity.

No, he wasn't going to be sleeping anytime soon.

At least he was not the only one still awake. Dori sat next to Nori and Ori and kept looking at them like he couldn't believe they were there. Dwalin was polishing his axe while Gandalf smoked his pipe and seemed to study the night sky above.

And then there was Thorin.

The royal Dwarf was on watch and was sitting by himself a little bit away. Occasionally he would look back at them, and slowly run his blue eyes over each Dwarf. When they landed on Fíli and Kíli, they softened slightly and lingered the longest. Then he would continue on before finally going back to his watch.

He didn't blame any of the Dwarves for their reassurances. He could hardly help himself either from looking over each of them; taking in every injury and bruise, and the careful rise and fall of their chests. He still couldn't shake the lingering fear at nearly losing them again.

He stayed awake long enough to watch Dori and Gandalf finally fall asleep, and for Dwalin to switch with Thorin. The king clasped the other Dwarf's hand tightly and the two shared a look that said more than words ever would. Bilbo found himself rather envious. He couldn't do that with his eyes. The envy quickly died away when he realized that, instead of going to his bedroll, Thorin was instead making his way to Bilbo's corner. He felt his heart beat begin to pick up and tried his best to ignore it.

Thorin quietly took a seat next to him and made himself comfortable against the boulder. Then he reached into his coat and pulled out his long dark pipe. The Hobbit watched him light it and wondered what type of pipe-weed he was smoking. Knowing Thorin, it was something cheap and tasteless. He always had horrible taste in pipe-weed and wine.

"You were very brave today," the king finally said, taking a long puff and letting the smoke out slowly. "Very quick to think and very resourceful with the traps. We owe a good portion of our victory to you."

Bilbo snorted. He was hardly the reason for their victory. Everyone had done their part to win the battle. "Hardly. I wouldn't have made it through the fray if I didn't have all of you there to watch my back."

Thorin shrugged. "Say what you like; the rest of us know who won us the battle in the end."

"I will," he declared, raising his chin, "and while I'm at it, I would like to add that both Ori and Kíli played a big part too. Make sure the others know that."

The Dwarf nodded slowly. "True. They did well today. We're all very proud of them."

I am too, he admitted to himself.

"But I owe my thanks to you in particular," Thorin continued calmly. "You saved not only my nephew today, but my heir and crown prince. Such actions… I cannot even begin to think how to repay them."

Bilbo frowned and scratched at one of his wounds on his elbow. "I don't need anything. I could hardly sit by and watch an innocent person die. It wouldn't be right."

"So noble," Thorin remarked with the faintest hint of mockery in his tone. He took another long puff of his pipe before blowing the smoke out through his nose. "Regardless of your wants, I still owe you a debt. So name your price, burglar."

Against his will, Bilbo felt a twinge of hurt pierce his heart at the Dwarf's remark. He honestly didn't want anything other than to see his Dwarves live through the journey. But Thorin obviously didn't know that, and thought he was angling for something. He understood the reasoning behind it, but it still hurt to be regarded so lowly by someone he held so dear.

"I don't need nor want anything from you, Master Oakenshield," he said quietly, turning away to stare back at their sleeping companions. "All I wanted was to see Fíli live. That he and the others are alive is enough for me."

Thorin was quiet for a long time. He continued smoking his pipe, but made no move to leave the Hobbit. Bilbo wondered how long he was going to stay before the king finally spoke again.

"I have offended you," Thorin announced, setting his pipe down. "My apologies. That was not my intent. I wanted to… Hmm. I'm making a rather large mess of this whole thing aren't I?"

"Pretty much," he agreed, rolling his eyes.

"You certainly don't hold back with your words," the Dwarf grumbled but without any real heat. "There has been a misunderstanding here. I did not mean to insult you by implying that you saved Fíli simply to gain something."

Bilbo turned back to the king with both brows raised. "Really? Then what did you mean to imply?"

Thorin scratched his beard and seemed to think deeply over how to phrase his words. "What I meant was… Well, with Dwarves, we have a certain code we follow. If a Dwarf were to give another gift or perform a favor, then it is expected that the recipient would return these actions. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, but that's another story."

The Dwarf paused and pointed a finger at the Hobbit. "You have done my family a favor by saving Fíli. Therefore I am now expected to repay that favor."

"So… because I saved Fíli, you now have to do something for me," Bilbo summarized slowly. "But… why you? Shouldn't Fíli be the one to repay me?"

"Fíli is not of age yet," Thorin replied, shrugging. "He is still considered a child by others, so he is not expected to repay the debt. Instead it falls to me as the head of the family to attend to it."

"Oh." Bilbo leaned back and thought about what he had just learned. The first time around, when he had saved the king, Thorin had not mentioned such a debt after. In fact, he couldn't remember ever hearing of it or of Thorin repaying it.

Maybe… Maybe he's telling me now because I saved Fíli instead of Thorin this time, he mused to himself. Yes, that sounded more likely. Thorin was likely to view a debt with Fíli as more important than his own. He wouldn't do anything less for his nephew.

"So... how does one go about repaying this debt? Do you have to save my life now? Because I'm pretty sure you've done that already in battle," he pointed out.

Thorin snorted. "Hardly. Those are not seen as debts. Defending your brothers in combat is expected of every Dwarf, and to go against such a thing is to go against our very nature. No, what happens now is that you ask me for something and I do everything in my power to give it to you."

"But… I really don't want anything," he reminded the Dwarf, feeling a bit lost over the whole thing.

"Really? What about gold or jewels?" Thorin challenged.

"I'm a Hobbit. We value flowers and good food more," he pointed out.

"Status, then. A high ranking official once we reclaim Erebor?" the Dwarf countered.

"To do what? I'm a burglar, not a politician," he rebuked.

The king was beginning to grow visibly annoyed. "Women, then. Or men. Or a new horse, a new house, a new coat even!"

"I don't want a lover, I don't need a horse, I own a perfectly lovely home, and if I need a new coat then I can get it myself," Bilbo listed, growing rather amused by the whole thing now. "Face it, your majesty, there is nothing I want in this world that you can give to me."

"Then… what is it that I can't give you?" the Dwarf wondered, furrowing his brows.

Your heart.

Bilbo bit his bottom lip sharply until it began to bleed. "Master Oakenshield, please understand something: as of now I have no desires other than to see that you all live to reclaim your home. That is the task I have accepted and I am committed to seeing it through. If that can be accepted as a desire, then I suggest you do everything in your power to stay alive in order to grant me my wish."

Thorin stared at the Hobbit with a look that he honestly could not read. It was strange because he swore he knew every look that the king made.

"That doesn't exactly meet the qualifications, but I will accept it for now. At least until I can find a suitable payment that you will accept," the Dwarf finally remarked, picking up his pipe and slowly rising to his feet.

"You will be looking for a long time," he retorted before licking his bottom lip clear of blood.

Thorin raised one brow high as the corner of his lips curled back slightly. "Good. I like a challenge."

Then he stalked away silently to where his bedroll was. Bilbo watched him go and wondered, not for the first time, why he couldn't have fallen for someone less complicated.

 


 

Bilbo woke later than usual the next morning. By the time he was awake, it was already midmorning and breakfast had been cooked and served, and the camp was being packed up.

"Master Baggins!" Bombur greeted when he noticed he was awake. "Come eat! I saved you a plate!"

The Hobbit yawned and slowly dragged himself to his feet. His body ached slightly from the night before but he dutifully ignored it over the thought of food. He sat down next to Bombur and rubbed his eyes clear.

"My thanks," he rasped before clearing his throat a few times. "Thank you, Bombur. I'm glad to have something warm to eat after last night."

"Yes, it has been a long few days," the robust Dwarf agreed, handing him a plate of food, "but it turned out fine in the end. We all survived and we all found our way back to each other!"

Bilbo smiled at the cheery cook and began to eat his breakfast. "Indeed. Now we can continue on. What's the next stop?"

"We need to get down the mountain first," Bombur replied, stroking his mustache in thought. "That should take about three days—maybe more considering the wounded we have."

The Hobbit nodded and thought over all the maps he knew of in order to get an idea of how far they still had to go. "Then from there?"

"We must pass through the Vales of Anduin and then we need to get through Mirkwood." The Dwarf frowned and furrowed his bushy brows. "Not looking forward to that part, honestly. Them Elves there are sure to pull something."

Bilbo didn't doubt it. While he was quite fond of his son Legolas, he honestly never grew to care for Thranduil. The Elf was too cold and reserved for his taste. Of course, he also locked up his friends in his dungeons, so perhaps he was being a bit biased. But regardless of his feelings, he knew how important Thranduil would be in the upcoming war. If he wanted to change the outcome of the Battle of the Five Armies then he would need the Elvenking's support.

"Now, now, Bombur; don't go scaring our burglar over a couple of leaf eaters," Nori drawled as he joined them. He dropped down next to Bilbo in a lazy sprawl that still managed to look graceful.

"I'm not scared of Elves. I'm actually quite fond of them," Bilbo retorted with a smirk.

The two Dwarves shared a look of mutual disgust.

"Well, there's no accounting for taste," Nori said, eyeing the Hobbit beside him.

He simply laughed and shook his head. "So how are your battle wounds? I assume that Óin has you back in shape."

The thief waved a dismissive hand. "I'm fine. Those Orcs were pathetic. They hardly did any damage."

Bilbo carefully took in the black eye, split lip, and numerous bruises the Dwarf was still sporting. "Oh, yes, they didn't even leave a mark on you."

"You two probably would have gotten off easy if you could keep your mouths shut," Bombur pointed out, waving his spoon at his fellow Dwarf.

"No. They wanted to torture us and were looking for an excuse. So me and Bofur gave them one," Nori explained as he examined his fingernails.

"Hmm. I'm sure the young prince had nothing to do with that decision," Bilbo added without bothering to lower his voice.

Nori squinted at him. "You have something to say there?"

"Me? No, absolutely nothing," Bilbo claimed, widening his eyes until they began to water. "I would never imply that you and Bofur deliberately egged the Orcs on so that they would beat you two instead of Fíli. That would be foolish."

Bombur burst out laughing while Nori continued to stare at him with his steely green eyes. He met the look evenly, and even raised his brows in a silent challenge.

Finally Nori smirked and shook his head. "Well played, burglar, well played. We might just make something out of you yet."

"Hopefully something decent and unlike yourself, you thief," Dori interjected as he joined the three with a satchel in hand and a scowl on his face. He stood over Nori and crossed his arms and began to loom menacingly.

Nori leaned his head back until he could meet his brother's eyes upside down. "I resent that. I don't steal things; I liberate valuable property from their unworthy owners."

"Isn't that another word for a thief?" Bilbo wondered.

"Pretty much," Bombur agreed.

Nori simply waved a dismissive hand at both of them. "Details, details. Now what has my dear older brother in such a fit?"

Dori reached into the satchel and pulled out bundle of shimmering red cloth. "Did you take this from Rivendell?"

"Why is that a question? You know I did," the younger Dwarf retorted, rolling his eyes and turning back to face Bilbo and Bombur.

Dori brought the cloth and satchel down in a hard smack against Nori's head. The Dwarf didn't flinch.

"I told you not to take anything from them!" Dori scolded harshly. "What are we even going to do with this? You can't sell it where we're going!"

"Well… I was thinking we could turn it into a coat," Nori drawled, lazily turning his gaze to the Hobbit next to him, "for our dear burglar. Who no longer seems to have one…?"

"What? No, save it for something else. I'm fine," Bilbo denied, not wanting to be dragged into the conversation. "Make something for Ori with it; I'm sure he'll appreciate it."

"Ori has enough coats," Dori replied, turning his steely green gaze to the Hobbit. "But you… I noticed your coat was destroyed last night during the fight. Do you have another one?"

"Of course not, look at him!" Nori answered before Bilbo spoke up. He waved a dramatic hand at the Hobbit. "He doesn't have any boots or gloves or even an extra shirt left! Our burglar is going to die from the elements before we ever get to Erebor!"

Bombur nodded in agreement while Dori continued to stare at the Hobbit with a rather intense look. Bilbo now felt torn between feeling outraged that Nori thought him so weak, and confused over why clothes were even an issue.

"I-I have enough clothes, thank you very much! And Hobbits don't wear boots to begin with so that shouldn't be an issue!" he retorted, glaring at the thief.

Nori shook his head with a mocking frown on his face. "Our dear burglar is too kind for his own good. He's willing to risk dying from the cold so as not to inconvenience us with things like sewing and knitting. Such a kind Hobbit!"

At that point, Dori was looking at him with the sort of look he usually reserved for Ori. Like he was some sort of injured lamb surrounded by a pack of hungry, hungry wolves. It was a very alarming look.

"I'll take your measurements after breakfast. Nori, see that he finishes all his food. I have to find my sewing kit," Dori ordered, rolling up the cloth and stuffing it back into the satchel.

Bilbo opened his mouth to protest, but was stopped short as Nori shoved a piece of dried meat in.

"Will do, brother, will do," the thief promised, smirking widely as Dori gave him an approving nod before stalking off to presumably find his sewing kit.

"That was well played," Bombur complimented from the sidelines.

"Thank you. It's always nice to be recognized," Nori replied.

Bilbo stared at them both; torn between applauding the thief for his sneakiness, and wanting to pull his ear for making Dori worry about him. Nori noticed his look, and gave him a lazy smirk that was, against all odds, rather charming.

"Best finish your breakfast, dear burglar. Don't want to keep Dori waiting," he advised, and then ducked as Bilbo threw a spoon at his head.

 


 

Chapter Text

 


 

It was almost noon by the time they left. Packed and fully rested, the group began the long trek down the mountain. Thorin led them with Gandalf by his side while Fíli, Nori, and Bofur were ordered to walk in the middle as they were still healing. Bilbo chose to linger in the back with Bombur as he pondered on what to do next.

Without the aid of the eagles, they would no longer be able to cover such vast miles so quickly. They were going to have to walk down the mountain and then to Beorn's cottage, and thus were going to be set back a few days. They were no longer following the original timing, and now he didn't know what to expect.

Were they to face more enemies because of the time delay? Was Azog going to catch up to them quicker than the last time? And most importantly, were they going to miss the last rays of the Sun of Durin's Day, and fail in the quest? He also still had no idea where Radagast was; did he still linger in his home in Mirkwood? If so, then was it possible they would meet him there?

So Many unknowns. It's going to drive me to madness, he brooded, kicking a stray pebble on the road. I can't prepare for anything now that I know everything may have changed. The only things I can prepare for is getting into Erebor and getting rid of Smaug.

The irony that Smaug was now the least of his concerns was not lost on him.

In front of him, he noticed Glóin whisper something to Óin, who then nodded and waved him away. To his surprise, the Dwarf then slowed his steps until he was side-by-side with the Hobbit.

"Master Glóin," he greeted, nodding to him. "What brings you back here?"

"Got a question for you. I've been watching you in battle. Who trained you with the sword?" asked Glóin, eyeing up Sting with narrowed eyes.

"I have no training. My tactics are 'don't get stabbed,' and 'get them with the pointy end.' Does that count as training?" he replied dryly.

Glóin snorted. "Thought as much. You looked like child out there; swinging away until you hit something. Was almost painful to watch you."

Bilbo laughed. He had forgotten how very blunt Glóin could be.

"Thank you for your honesty. Nice to know I'm making a fool of myself every time I lift a sword," he said cheerfully.

"I see no point in dancing around the point. I say what I like, when I like," the Dwarf boasted, grinning. The look made the lines in his face softer and the twinkle in his eyes brighter. Bilbo was suddenly strongly reminded of Gimli.

"That's why I decided we need to train you," Glóin continued, "so you don't look like a fool out there. Oh, and so you don't die."

"Train me?" he repeated, blinking.

"Mm-hm. In swordplay. I don't think those scrawny arms could lift an axe," the Dwarf said.

"But—"

"We can also practice with some daggers. Think Nori has some extra ones he'd be willing to spare."

"Why—"

"We also need to teach you how to throw a punch. Can't depend on weapons for everything. You gotta be able to take care of yourself in any situation!"

"I can—"

"We'll practice during camp. Óin said he'd help out and heal whatever wounds you get," Glóin added, patting the Hobbit on the shoulder. "Make sure you don't wear yourself out walking. I won't go easy on you just because you're a Hobbit!"

Having finished his say, Glóin left Bilbo behind and returned to his place next to his brother.

Bilbo watched him go before slowly turning to face Bombur. "What just happened?"

Bombur patted his shoulder with a grin. "I think Glóin has taken a liking to you. Tough luck."

 


 

To Bilbo's eternal horror, Glóin made good on his word that night.

"Time to train," he said cheerfully, interrupting Bilbo and Ori in the middle of their conversation.

"What? But, dinner—!" he complained as Glóin grabbed his arm and dragged him away to an open area in the camp.

Glóin waved a dismissive hand and tossed him Sting. "You can eat when we're done. Now first things first: change your grip. You keep holding the blade like that and you'll strain your wrist. Maybe even break it."

Bilbo gave him a stink eye. "Change it what? You need to show me the 'proper' grip."

Glóin rolled his eyes but dutifully readjusted the Hobbit's hands until he was satisfied. "There. Now, do you know the difference between high guard and low guard?"

Bilbo blinked. "Um, no?"

"Thought as much," the Dwarf grumbled, but he didn't look too put off. "We'll start at the beginning then."

For the next hour Glóin explained the different positions to him and had him practice each one. He would call out the stances randomly with Bilbo struggling to follow each one. It was a surprisingly taxing routine, and all too quickly the Hobbit found himself tiring from the effort.

"Not much upper body strength," noted Glóin, shaking his head. "You need to work on that."

Bilbo shrugged as he gasped for breath. "I'm a Hobbit. We rely more on speed than strength."

The Dwarf nodded, looking thoughtful. "Logical. We'll work on your defenses first then. Now, high guard!"

The Hobbit groaned but dutifully moved into the correct position. By then most of their companions had joined the two, and were watching the Dwarf and Hobbit with varying degrees of interest. Bilbo could hear them as they discussed the two as if they weren't there.

"His footwork is good. He seems to know the correct steps and patterns," Balin commented as took a seat on a rock.

"Needs to tighten his grip. One hit and he'll lose his blade," Dwalin pointed out, shaking his head.

"He'd work better with daggers or a bow. Something light so not to weigh him down," Bofur added without looking up from his carving.

Dori shook his head and clucked his tongue. "Glóin is being too tough on him. It's his first time training with a blade."

Next to him, Nori and Ori snorted in unison.

"Mister Baggins can handle it. He's tougher than he looks," defended Fíli as Kíli nodded in agreement.

"He's been keeping up with Glóin this whole time," Óin added with a wide smirk.

"Dinner is ready. When is Glóin going to let him eat?" Bombur complained to Bifur, who in turn ignored him.

"When Bilbo can't go any further," Gandalf answered, lighting up his pipe.

Thorin said nothing but Bilbo could feel his eyes watching him. It made him uncomfortable to be under that gaze as he struggled to follow Glóin's commands. But then again, Thorin's eyes always affected him one way or another.

It took another twenty minutes before Glóin finally called to a stop.

"That's enough for today, burglar," he said cheerfully. "You can go and eat now."

He dropped his arms to his side and released a loud sigh. "Thank you. I thought my arms might fall off if I didn't stop soon."

Glóin laughed. "You'll be feeling that for the rest of the night! Not to worry; in time you'll get used to it."

Bilbo winced. "Lovely."

 


 

Later, after dinner was finished and the few bedrolls set out, Bilbo was surprised to find himself in the company of Gandalf. He had not spoken with his old friend much throughout their journey. It was partly his own fault since he had been preoccupied with keeping track of events and Dwarfs, but he also had a feeling that Gandalf had been avoiding him.

"It is a nice night," the wizard commented, gesturing to the sky above them with his pipe.

Bilbo nodded and glanced up at the clear sky. "Very nice. I hope it stays that way for some time."

"Indeed. We need some luck after these past few days," the other agreed, glancing at the Hobbit from the corner of his eye.

"Tell me, Bilbo, how are you doing? We have faced a great deal of foes in a short amount of time. Has it all been very difficult for you?" he asked.

Bilbo closed his eyes and thought about the question. The journey had been difficult so far, but not in the way that his old friend assumed. The difficulty was in choosing which events to change and which to leave alone. And after his foolish mistake, he now had more to worry about since he didn't know what was changed and what would remain the same.

"It has been… hard in some cases," he finally admitted, opening his eyes. "I find myself at a loss over what to do at times. And I worry about the others often; I fear losing one of them before we ever see their home again."

"Yes, I've noticed your affection and protective nature over the others," admitted Gandalf. "It worries me when you insist on putting yourself in danger for them. You need to be more careful."

"I'm sorry; I can't help it. My life holds little value while they have the hopes of their people resting on them," the Hobbit explained with a shrug. "If I fall then the worst thing to happen will be that my home is sold. If they fall then they lose their kingdom all over again. Do you see why I do not hesitate to risk my life for them?"

He thought his explanation would satisfy Gandalf, but all it did was make his face fall and his eyes grow dark. "You underestimate your worth, Bilbo Baggins. I can promise that quite a few would mourn your passing a great deal. Myself included."

Bilbo felt his heart give a painful squeeze. Gandalf was his oldest and dearest friend even if the wizard did not know him as well yet. He never wanted to see him hurt or worried even when it was over Bilbo. Gandalf deserved better than that.

"I'm sorry," he apologized, reaching out to grasp the wizard's arm. "It was not my intention to make you worry. I just… They all lost so much already. Their home and family and friends. They've all suffered unfairly for years without any help. Knowing all of this, how can I not risk my life for them? How can I not want to help them succeed? To ignore them would be selfish and heartless; two features that Hobbits just do not have."

Gandalf stared at him for a long while with his ancient eyes. He could not begin to imagine what the wizard was thinking, but he hoped that the other heard the sincerity in his words. He did not want to worry his old friend but he also could not give up on his mission. He was going to see it through even if it did end up killing him.

Eventually Gandalf released a long and deep sigh that made his shoulders slump. He grasped the Hobbit's shoulder and gave him a half-smile. "Hobbits. You never cease to amaze me. Even after all my long years, I'm still surprised by your folk again and again."

"I don't know why. We're actually quite simple when you get down to it," he pointed out.

"Maybe to you. But the rest of us are not as… noble by nature," the wizard said slowly.

Bilbo thought of King Elessar and his attempts to protect Frodo and the others to the point of even challenging Sauron personally. He recalled Boromir who, despite his weakness for the ring, still gave his life to protect Pippin and Merry. He thought of Legolas and Gimli who each fought to protect all of Middle-Earth. And he remembered the Battle of the Five Armies where Dwarf, Elf, and Man fought together to defeat their enemies.

"You're wrong," he said, looking up to meet the wizard's eyes. "Hobbits are not the only noble folk out there."

He did not know what Gandalf thought of his words, but the wizard smiled at him like he had an idea of what he meant. "Indeed, my dear burglar, indeed."

 


 

It took another day before they finally reached the bottom of the mountain. The sun was setting when they finally did, but Bilbo could still see the green horizon as it spread out before them. He spotted the river and the little cave where they moved to rest for the night. It was there that Gandalf finally Mentioned Beorn and suggested that they stop there to ask for supplies and rest.

"Beorn is the only one close enough to ask for aid," the wizard explained. "He may or may not grant it, but we should still ask. We can't be picky at this point."

"What is a Man doing living all the way out here alone?" Balin asked, raising one thick brow.

"Beorn is… different from other Men. He is a shape-shifter and his people have supposedly lived here for centuries. I have not met the Man myself, but I am told he can speak the language of beasts," replied Gandalf. "Asking him for aid will be tricky though. I'm told he can be easily angered."

"A shape-shifter? What does he change into?" Kíli asked, his dark eyes lighting up.

The wizard smirked. "A bear. A very, very large bear."

The Dwarves erupted into chatter at that. Bilbo listened to them as they speculated about the unknown shape-shifter, and took a moment to ponder about the Man himself. Beorn had been an interesting friend the first time around. The Man looked intimidating and his temper was frightful when evoked, but on a whole he was a good sort. He had been kind to them the first time around, and he hoped it would be the same this time.

"How long will it take to get to his home?" Dwalin asked Gandalf.

"Two days at the most. Maybe less if we are not followed by Orcs and Wargs," Gandalf grumbled, casting a glare to the mountains behind them.

Bilbo counted the days in his head. Two to reach Beorn, another to prepare for Mirkwood, and finally two more to get to the forest. That was five days in all and that was if they didn't run into any problems along the way. They were definitely behind schedule now.

We will need to make up the time with Mirkwood. If I can keep them on the road and away from the spiders and Thranduil, then we may be able to slice off a few days, he thought, trying to outline a plan in his mind. Then there's that river and the blasted deer… I better ask for extra rope from Beorn. We're going to need it.

"Oi, burglar! It's time for training!" Glóin yelled, pulling him from his thoughts and plans.

Bilbo groaned but dutifully got to his feet while reaching over to pick up his sword. "Fine, fine. But don't hit me so hard with your stick this time when I make mistakes! I'm beginning to bruise."

Glóin laughed and reached down to tousle the Hobbit's curly locks. "Good! The bruises mean you're learning. Now, high guard!"

 


 

At dawn, Bilbo awoke first. He gathered the clothes he still had left along with Sting, and set out for the river nearby. He waved to Bifur, who was on watch, and the Dwarf nodded back in understanding. Content that no one would worry about him, he set out for the river as the rising sun lit up the land. It was still chilly but he was willing to risk the cold in order to clean off the blood and grime. Warg blood was never a good smell to wear.

He washed his clothes first as they would take the longest to dry. He scrubbed them the best he could with the soap Nori had lent him—which suspiciously looked Elven made and smelt of flowers—before setting them out on the nearby rocks to dry. Then he forced himself into the chilly river and began to long task of getting clean. Bilbo didn't know how long he was in the river before the sound of heavy boots told him that he was no longer alone. When he turned to see who it was, he wanted to cry.

"What are you doing here?" he nearly whined, sinking into the water.

Thorin—and of course it was the king who came because that was Bilbo's lot in life—raised a single black brow as he begun to unbraid his hair. "For the same reason you're here: to bathe."

"I didn't think anyone else would be up this early," the Hobbit grumbled mostly to himself.

"So? Were you trying to avoid us? Shy about being naked?" the king questioned, obviously amused. "I don't know much about Hobbits, but I'm fairly certain you're not too different from us Dwarves."

Bilbo groaned. "I'm not shy. I just… don't bathe in front of others."

Thorin snorted and began to strip off his coat and armor. "I promise not to look."

It's not you looking that's the problem, he grumbled to himself as he drifted away from the Dwarf. He tried not to stare at the other as he entered the water, but it was very, very hard. He had always found Thorin mesmerizing even before he grew to love him. From his scarred and tattooed skin to his burning blue eyes, the Dwarf was striking in every aspect.

Thorin made good on his word and ignored him for the most part. He was busy washing away all the blood and dirt and sweat from his thick hair. As the Hobbit watched him from the corner of his eye, he realized something that he had never noticed before.

"Why don't you grow your beard out all the way?" he asked before he could stop and think.

"Why do you ask so Many questions?" Thorin shot back, never pausing in his task.

Bilbo shrugged. "Because I want to understand you all?"

The Dwarf finally paused and stared at him with raised brows. "Really?"

"Yes," he said firmly, feeling rather annoyed. "I want to get to know you and the others, remember? I told you this back in Rivendell."

Thorin just kept staring.

Bilbo met his look evenly and tried not to let his annoyance get to him.

"I cut my beard off after Smaug," the king finally said, turning back to his washing. "It was in memory of my father and grandfather. I will only grow it out once I have reclaimed our home in their honor."

He had not expected that. "Oh. That's… very honorable of you to do. I understand that Dwarves highly prize their beards as their best feature. It must have been difficult to cut yours off."

"It was my price to pay," the Dwarf said simply, shrugging one shoulder. He glanced at the Hobbit and ran a hand over his own shorn beard with a curious look.

"You do not have a beard. Can Hobbits not grow them?" he asked, tilting his head to the side.

"Most of us can't but some with mixed blood are able to grow beards," answered Bilbo, thinking back to his relatives and stories. "They usually have Stoor blood in them if they do. The Brandybucks are the only ones I know capable of sporting a beard."

"Brandybucks?" Thorin repeated.

He waved a dismissive hand. "A Hobbit clan. I'm related to them though marriage but not by blood."

"Unlike the Sackville-Baggins," the Dwarf countered, the edge of his lips curling up slightly.

He made a face of distaste. "Unfortunately. I prefer to pretend that I share no relation with them."

"Are they that bad?"

"Yes. No. Well, sometimes." Bilbo scratched his nose as he tried to think of an accurate description for his cousins. "Otho and Lobelia are not bad Hobbits per say. They are simply greedy and can't seem to appreciate what they already have. Their greed outshines their good traits most of the time."

Thorin looked considering as he took in his answer. "I understand. I don't care for most of my Ironfoot kin. They whine too much for my taste. The only one I don't really mind is my cousin Dáin. He's not as aggravating."

Bilbo tried not to wince at the mention of Dáin. He respected the powerful Dwarf and appreciated his efforts in both the Battle of the Five Armies, and the War of the Ring. However a part of him couldn't help but resent the Dwarf for taking the crown that Thorin never got the chance to wear. It was a senseless feeling since he knew that it wasn't Dáin's fault that Thorin died, but sorrow was rarely logical.

"Seems we have something in common then," he commented instead, trying not to think of the past.

Thorin shrugged and returned to washing the dried blood from his skin. "I suppose bothersome relatives are to be found in every race."

"Even Elves?" he countered mostly to be annoying. He was part Took after all.

The Dwarf scowled. "Elves are simply bothersome."

The Hobbit laughed and also returned to cleaning the dirt from his hair. "You really hate them. I wonder how we'll get through Mirkwood without you going off to behead their king."

"I won't do such a thing. We are on borrowed time already," the king rebuked. "However, after Erebor has been reclaimed and rebuilt, then I will turn my attention to our enemies. The Elves will pay for turning their backs on us."

Bilbo spun around and stared at the Dwarf in disbelief. "You're not serious are you? Starting a war with the Elves? That's madness!"

"No, it is revenge," the warrior countered as his wide shoulders drew back and his face turned grave. "My people have suffered for years because the Elves decided that they were not worth saving. I won't have their suffering be for naught."

"But starting a war will just bring them more suffering," he pointed out. "Would you really have them endure more sorrow and death? Can you not just forgive them and move on?"

"No! Some things cannot be forgiven! Some things cannot be forgotten!" admonished Thorin, his blue eyes turning into glaciers. "I would not expect a halfling to understand what it means to lose all that is dear to you! To watch as it slips away from you while you stand by powerless! You cannot understand the level of grief we carry for what we have lost!"

he falls to his knees at Thorin's side. His Dwarf struggles to draw breath while Óin tries to staunch the bleeding gorge across his chest. The blood doesn't stop no matter how hard Óin presses, and he realizes that it will never stop no matter what they do. Thorin reaches out a shaky hand and he catches it in his own bloody pair. He wraps his small hands around the single large one and holds it as tight as possible. Maybe if he does this he can keep the king with him for a little longer.

"Farewell, good thief," Thorin rasps, his blue eyes darkening with the shadow of death. "I go now to the halls of waiting… t-to sit beside my fathers, until… until the world is renewed."

He shakes his head in denial, but Thorin doesn't stop as he begs for forgiveness and friendship. He wants to say yes, that he forgives him for everything; that he wasn't even angry and only hurt. He wants to apologize for stealing the Arkenstone from him, and explain that he did it to save them all.

Only it wasn't enough was it?

He wants to confess his love and devotion for this Dwarf; wants him to understand that Thorin has his heart and he doesn't know how to take it back. He wants to scream because that heart is breaking with every pained gasp Thorin takes, and the blood won't stop even as Óin yells for aid, and he has to say something so he says, "Farewell, King under the Mountain," and it is not enough and it never will be, but what else can he say as he watches Thorin die before him

Bilbo didn't realize that he was moving until his fist struck Thorin across the face. The impact made his hand throb sharply, but it was worth it for the look of shock on the Dwarf's face. He took a step back and cupped his face while staring down at the Hobbit before him. Bilbo raised his head high and met his gaze firmly even as his body shook from his suppressed emotions.

"Don't you dare," he growled, "presume for one moment that I do not understand what it means to lose all that you hold dear. I watched my world die an unfair death. I held his hand and watched the light fade from his eyes. I could do nothing to save him; I could only stand by and watch like some useless fool! Do you have any idea what that's like? To watch what you hold most dear fade away from you?!"

He didn't realize that he was crying until the tears fell. He wiped them away fiercely, wishing not for the first time that he was a stronger Hobbit. "You say I do not understand your grief? Hah! I have lived every day since his death with a guilt and longing that I can never erase. My life will never be completely happy no matter what I do because I lost the very one that made me the happiest!"

By then Thorin was looking at him as if he had never seen a Hobbit before. Bilbo was sure that he was quite a sight and he knew that he was going to regret losing his composure later, but at that moment he could not help it. Thorin's words had hit him deep; deep enough to remind him of that terrible day that he watched the Dwarf die. It made him angry to be accused by the very one he mourned that he didn't know what sorrow was.

"Master Baggins, I—"

"Don't," he interrupted the Dwarf, raising a hand. "I don't want to hear anything. I can't… I can't speak right now. Not when I'm this emotional. You… You have made me very angry so please—"

"I did not mean it," Thorin said, this time interrupting him. He ran a hand through his wet hair as he visibly struggled to find the correct words. "I did not mean to… hurt you by accusing you of not understanding pain. I just… My temper tends to get the better of me. I cannot think straight once my anger takes over. So I'm… I'm sorry for my words. They were undeserved."

"Yes, they were," agreed Bilbo, rubbing his face clear of tears. "But I suppose I provoked you in my own fashion. But you must understand something: hearing you speak of going to war with the Elves alarms me. I am risking my very life to help you reclaim your home, and yet you tell me that you plan to risk losing it again in only a few short years! It makes me wonder why I'm even bothering to help you lot in the first place."

"My anger against the Elves is justified," Thorin argued, but his voice lacked any heat. "However, I understand your point. Rest assured that this war would not take place for many years. Erebor has to be rebuilt first and foremost."

He shook his head. The stubborn Dwarf was just not getting it. "That doesn't reassure me; it makes me worry even more. Whether you go to war now or later, you still risk losing your people and kingdom. You risk Fíli and Kíli. Tell me, would you do that to them? Would you force them to fight in a war for your own satisfaction?"

Thorin's eyes widened and he looked taken back by the thought. The Hobbit had a feeling that the thought of his nephews fighting in a war never crossed his mind. He probably thought he could keep them from it, but no one could stop the two brothers from fighting for their family. They proved that in the Battle of the Five Armies.

"I… I would not," the Dwarf admitted, broad shoulders slumping in defeat. "It is difficult enough having them on this journey. I would not see them go to war on my behalf."

"So you won't go to war against Thranduil? You'll let the past go?" he pushed.

"I will never forgive Thranduil for turning his back on us," replied the king, slowly, "but I will not go to war over his cowardly actions. For the sake of my people and my sister's sons, I will leave the past behind."

Bilbo's shoulders slumped in relief. He had avoided another disaster in the making, praise Eru. Perhaps nothing would have ever come from Thorin's desire for revenge, but he didn't want to risk it. He had enough wars to worry about in the present (or was it past?).

"Thank you," he said gratefully. He gave the Dwarf a small smile. "And I'm sorry I punched you earlier. That was very rude of me."

Thorin scoffed and tapped his unmarked cheek. "That could hardly be considered a punch. We need to work on that along with your swordplay."

"Well excuse me for being a Hobbit and not a Dwarf," he grumbled, crossing his arms over his chest. It was only then that he recalled where they were, and what they were not wearing.

Don't look, don't look, don't look, he began to chant to himself as he subtly turned around and tried to wade back to where his soap and clothes were. Don't look, don't look, don't look—

"What are you doing?" Thorin called from behind him.

"Finishing my bath," he replied, trying to sound casual and failing. "You should do that too. So we can put our clothes back on. Away from each other. Without eye contact."

The warrior king snorted. "Very subtle, burglar, very subtle."

"I didn't think Dwarves knew that word," he retorted, finally returning to his spot. "And my name is Bilbo!"

Thorin was silent for a moment before he grudgingly replied, "Very well, Bilbo."

Bilbo did not blush at his answer but he did drop his soap into the river.

 


 

"Where have you two been?" Dwalin asked bluntly when they finally returned to the camp clean and clothed.

"The river," Thorin replied, wrinkling his nose at the other Dwarf. "You should pay a visit. You smell like an Orc."

Dwalin gave him a rude hand gesture in reply.

Bilbo ignored them and returned to his bedroll in order to pack his now clean clothes away. After he did, he looked around at his companions and found that most were awake and packing, or eating breakfast. A few were even gathering their clothes and looked to be heading off to the river to bathe. Soon enough they would be ready to leave to find Beorn's home.

Then… Then we tackle Mirkwood, he thought, glancing to the direction where the forest laid in wait. And then… Smaug.

 


 

Chapter Text

 


 

Glóin was fiercely loyal.

If one was to ask to describe him then the first word that would come to mind would be loyal. He never turned his back on his kin, never doubted the words of friends, and could always, always be counted on to help. He was not quick to trust many with this devotion, but the ones that he did trust he remained committed to until the end of his days.

Bilbo Baggins had earned this loyalty.

The Hobbit was not aware of it, of course. Glóin didn't think the burglar noticed if people liked him or not. He seemed more fixated on making sure others felt loved and protected. A very odd trait to be sure. He had thought it was a Hobbit custom at first, but Gandalf had assured him it was merely a Bilbo one. But regardless of the Hobbit's mothering, he had still earned Glóin's loyalty.

When he first met the burglar, Glóin had not known what to make of him. Bilbo had seemed so very small and vulnerable compared to the rest of them. He was sure that the wizard had made a mistake. How could someone so tiny and hairless ever be of use to a Dwarven warrior?

Then Glóin saw him talk back to Thorin and realized that the little thief had a spine of mithril.

It stunned them all to be sure. He was certain none of his comrades had expected such fierceness from something so small. Except, perhaps, Gandalf. It was probably why he chose Bilbo to begin with, the tricky bastard. And that fierceness wasn't a fluke either. The Dwarf had watched the Hobbit confront trolls, Orcs, and a pissed off Thorin without ever shrinking away in fear. He even took on the Pale Orc in order to save Fíli! It was amazing.

It was watching Bilbo confront Azog that sealed his loyalty to the Hobbit. He could never turn his back on someone who was so obviously willing to die for them.

It was the reason why he and Óin had agreed on training him. Bilbo had the courage of a Dwarf but he lacked the build and skills. He could not make the Hobbit bigger or taller, but he sure as hell could teach him the correct way to fight.

It was the least Glóin could do for someone who had shown loyalty to him.

 


 

Bilbo had never been happier to see a patch of flowers in his life.

"Look at the size of those bees!" Ori gasped, pointing to the many, many bees hovering over the colorful clovers.

"I think they're about as big as my hand," added Kíli, holding his hand up to compare it against the bees.

"Yes, and probably sting twice as bad," Dori pointed out. "Stay away from them the both of you."

Ori pouted at his brother's back. "But I wanted to draw them…"

Nori leaned down and whispered something in his brother's ear. Whatever he said made Ori brighten up and nod vigorously at the other. Nori winked in reply and gestured to Dori and made a face at his back.

I have the feeling those two are planning to return here, Bilbo thought with a small smile. He was slowly moving his way to the front of the group as they grew closer to Beorn's home. They were already at the edge of his bee-pastures and in the distance he could see the great hedges that protected the home of the shape-shifter and his animals. The last time around Gandalf had dragged him along first while bidding the rest to wait before entering. It had turned out to be a bad idea as Beorn had grown annoyed with the consistent trickle of Dwarves. So this time around he wanted to go about things a bit more obviously.

"… I suppose we could go in two at a time. It might overwhelm him if we all come trotting in at once," Gandalf mused, rubbing his staff in thought.

Thorin looked like he disagreed. "I don't like the idea of leaving the others out here alone and vulnerable. We still don't know where Azog is!"

"I agree," Bilbo said, butting into the conversation with no shame. "We should stay together and enter together. Beorn might find us suspicious or dishonest if we don't all approach him at once."

The two looked at him in mutual surprise.

"Hmm. A practical idea, Master Baggins," Gandalf agreed, his gray eyes lighting up. "Come along then; I believe there is a gate hidden among those hedges!"

Bilbo followed the wizard along with his Dwarves as they finally came upon the thorn hedges. They skirted around until they finally came to a tall and broad wooden gate that Gandalf boldly pushed open. Beyond them laid an assortment of houses and gardens and more animals than Bilbo had seen in his life.

His comrades begin to mutter to one another as they pointed out oddities they found, or something they liked. He ignored them in favor of watching the horses that came trotting up to them; beautiful and groomed and looking at them intently with knowing eyes. They seemed to look over each visitor before sharing a look and then galloping off to one of the buildings.

"They have gone to tell him of our arrival," commented Gandalf, looking amused. They followed the path until they finally came to a courtyard where the horses had run off too. Standing above them all with his axe in one hand was Beorn.

Bilbo knew how large the shape-shifter was, but it still took him by surprise to see it again. Beorn was taller than Gandalf, as thickly muscled as Dwalin, and sported more hair than Glóin. He glanced over all of them as they approached, and then snorted.

"They are no threat," he said to the horses, petting the head of the nearest one. "Off with you now, and let me deal with our visitors."

The horses trotted off easily while Beorn set his axe down and met them with his shrewd brown eyes. "Who are you and what do you want?" he asked, crossing his tree trunk arms across his chest.

Gandalf moved forward first and tipped his hat politely to the giant. "I am Gandalf the Gray."

"Never heard of it," Beorn replied because manners had never been his strong point. He looked over the others, and his frown grew deeper as he took in the many Dwarves with their weapons and scowls until he got to Bilbo. He stopped short and raised his bushy brows high.

"What are you supposed to be?" asked the shape-shifter, moving closer to get a better look.

Bilbo felt his Dwarves tense around him as the giant drew near, but he stepped forward calmly and met the curious look with one of his own.

"I am a Hobbit. What are you?" he retuned, raising his chin. He heard Gandalf groan beside him, and imagined that his father was probably rolling in his grave at his terrible manners.

Beorn didn't seem offended by his bluntness. Instead, he grinned and knelt down on one knee so they were closer in height. Bilbo thought it was pointless but he appreciated the thought.

"I am Beorn," he said simply. "Do you have a name, little bunny?"

"Bilbo Baggins, and I'm not a rabbit but a Hobbit," Bilbo replied with a scowl as he heard a few snorts and snickers behind him. He had a feeling he was going to be hearing that nickname for some time now.

The shape-shifter shrugged, unrepentant. He looked over the rest of the Company before glancing back to Gandalf. "The rest of you are Dwarves. I don't care for Dwarves. Why did you bring them and this bunny to my home?"

"We have come to ask for your help," the wizard answered. "We lost a good deal of our supplies when we were attacked by goblins. Then some of our companions were badly injured and abducted by Orcs. We managed to get them back and beat the Orcs and goblins, but it cost us more supplies and injuries."

Beorn looked them over again before focusing back on the wizard. "Why were you near goblins and Orcs? Better yet, what brings you all this far out to begin with?"

"I am the reason they are here," said Thorin, stepping forward. He gave a short bow and then straightened to his full height. "I am Thorin Oakenshield and we are on our way to Erebor."

"Oh?" The shape-shifter returned to his feet and looked the king up and down. "Thorin Oakenshield, son of Thráin, son of Thrór, yes? I've heard of you and your lost kingdom. Something about a dragon and gold—I wasn't really listening at the time. Still, I don't see why I should care. Your mission has nothing to do with me."

Thorin narrowed his eyes slowly. "Does that mean you will not provide us aid?"

"No. It means that I am waiting for a reason why I should give you aid," Beorn answered simply.

The Dwarves begun to mutter to each other and Gandalf frowned. Bilbo groaned quietly to himself. He had forgotten that the only reason Beorn had granted them aid to begin with was because he enjoyed listening to their story. But honestly they really didn't have the time to indulge the giant in storytelling. They were already behind schedule as it was!

But what else can we do? I don't know how else to convince him, he thought with a sigh. Well here goes nothing…

"How about an exchange then?" he called sharply, moving closer to the shape-shifter until he had his attention. "A story for your aid?"

"It depends on the story," Beorn returned, but he looked curious now.

"A story of adventure and friendship," replied Gandalf, stepping in. From the gleam in his eyes, the Hobbit knew his friend had caught onto his idea. He stepped back as the wizard began to weave a tale of honor and hope, secrets and mystery, and adventure and wonder. He watched Beorn's face throughout the account as it grew more curious and then fascinated and finally entranced.

In the end the giant threw his head back and laughed. It was a booming laugh that reminded him of thunder and echoed through the courtyard and drew your attention. It was a very striking laugh and it made him want to smile and laugh along.

"Well done!" he declared with a wide grin that revealed every tooth. "That was a fine tale whether honest or not! I will give you the help you seek as long you all remain respectful. Now come; I will show you my home."

The shape-shifter spun on his heel and began to walk out of the courtyard and towards his house. Gandalf hesitated for a moment before following. He winked at Bilbo as he passed and the Hobbit smiled back widely.

Mission accomplished.

 


 

Bilbo stood back as the others 'oohed' and 'ahhed' over the animals that served them dinner. He was still impressed with the sight as he was the first time, but he felt the others deserved to see them more. It wasn't as if it was all new to him after all. Once they were done they feasted on a superb dinner while Beorn told them tales of his land and mountain before asking questions of their own quest.

"Why are there not more of you on this quest? You face a great dragon at the end; surely you'll need an army to defeat him," the shape-shifter asked.

"We do not have an army," Thorin said frankly. "These are the only Dwarves who were brave enough to answer my call."

Beorn looked over them before his eyes rested on Bilbo. "And the bunny? Why is he here? What could he have in common with Dwarves?"

"'He' is right here and does not enjoy being ignored," replied Bilbo, feeling rather irritated. "And I came because I want to help them. Their goal is an admirable one."

The thick brows were raised again. "I see…"

He had a feeling that the shape-shifter didn't believe him, but he didn't question the Hobbit anymore. As the meal concluded, Beorn showed them where they could rest and then warned them not to leave the house until the sun came up. He listened as the Dwarfs questioned why and grumbled at the answer they received, and then ignored them as Gandalf began to lecture them all.

This is good. Everything has gone much the same as it did the first time around, Bilbo mused as he claimed one of the beds for himself. Now if he comes in tomorrow morning and tells us that he believes our tale then I will know things have remained much the same. I hope.

"Burglar!" Glóin suddenly called, marching over to him. "Burglar it's time to practice! Get your butter knife."

Bilbo groaned and collapsed into his bed in a dramatic sprawl. "Can't we take a break for tonight? I'm so tired."

Glóin scoffed and nudged him over so he could sit down on the bed as well. "Weakling. Fine, we won't train tonight. But expect us to practice tomorrow and every day until we reach Smaug! You need to toughen up before we can send you off."

"Why? Are you all planning on making me fight him alone?" the Hobbit teased.

To his surprise, Glóin grew serious. The Dwarf leaned closer to him and patted his knee gently. "Never. You're one of us now, Hobbit, and we don't turn our backs on one another. We'll protect you when we confront Smaug. I swear it."

Bilbo felt like someone had just knocked the air out of him. It was one thing to love and protect someone. It was quite another thing to know that someone would do the same. Since he woke up in his home again all those months ago, he had not given much thought to being loved. He knew what it was like, had the memories of it, and certainly didn't lack enough of it before. But it was only now that he realized how much he wanted his Dwarves to care about him as they did before. He wanted their affection and loyalty and friendship.

Bilbo wanted to matter to them all as much as they all mattered to him.

"Oh. I… thank you," he stuttered, feeling overwhelmed and blown away. He didn't know what to say to Glóin's declaration. There were no words that could accurately describe his feelings at that moment. "You are all… I want to protect you all too."

"We know that now," assured the Dwarf, patting his knee again. "Every one of us."

 


 

The next morning proved Bilbo correct in his theory.

Beorn greeted them all enthusiastically and told them of the Wargs and goblins that he had confronted the night before. He thanked them for telling them the truth, and then assured them that he would provide supplies for when they entered Mirkwood. He even went as far as to provide ponies to escort them to the beginning of Mirkwood, and told them what to expect when they entered the dark forest.

"Do not drink or even touch the water in there," the shape-shifter warned sternly as they ate their breakfast. "Nor should you hunt any of the creatures there. Both will only end up making you ill or cursed. You must stay on the path at all times and never ever leave it! If you do then you will be lost in that dark forest and will never be seen again!"

Fíli and Kíli went wide-eyed at his words while Ori paled slightly. The rest did not seem quite as alarmed, but they did grow tense and serious.

"What of the Elves that live there?" asked Thorin with a clenched jaw.

"They usually leave travelers alone as long as they don't cause a racket," Beorn said, shrugging. "They probably won't be any trouble to you lot."

None of the Dwarves looked reassured.

"There is one more thing you should all know," added Gandalf, clearing this throat. "I'm afraid I must leave you all when we reach Mirkwood."

Bilbo raised his brows as his Dwarves begun to protest and complain to the wizard. Gandalf had left them the last time around as well, but he had thought it had been because of the Necromancer. Had Radagast finally appeared and warned his fellow wizard of the Necromancer? Or was his old friend leaving for other reasons?

I wish I could ask him but it would likely make him suspicious, he thought as he listened to Gandalf reassure the others that he would return eventually. Damn. Another loose end to deal with.

Eventually his comrades grudgingly accepted that the wizard was not going to stay with them no matter how they begged, and breakfast was finished with a solemn silence. When they were done the Dwarves and wizard separated to do their own things, and Bilbo used the moment to approach their host.

"Master Beorn," he called, waving a hand to get the giant's attention. "Master Beorn, might we speak?"

The man grinned and squatted down to meet him. "Of course, little bunny! How may I help you?"

"I wanted to discuss the subject of food with you," he explained, leaning closer so the other could hear him. "While I am grateful that you have granted us food to begin with, I must ask that you give us more then you intended to."

"You want more food," Beorn summarized, leaning back on his heels.

The Hobbit nodded, unashamed by his request. "Yes."

"Why?" asked Beorn. He did not look offended by the request, but rather curious.

"Because our walk through Mirkwood will be a long one, and there is nothing to eat in that forest," he replied. "I would not risk the chance of my companions starving before we can be burned alive by the dragon."

Beorn laughed loudly at that. "A fine point! Very well; I will give you as much food as you all can carry. Does that sound fair?"

Bilbo nodded as his shoulders drooped in relief. "Yes, thank you. I would also ask that you give us mostly nuts and dried fruit and herbs; they are light and small and will last the longest."

"You've done this before," the shape-shifter realized, cocking his head to the side.

"Perhaps," he granted, shrugging, "or I'm just sensible. May I help you gather and pack the food? That way I will be able to judge if we have enough."

Beorn grinned widely; looking very much like the bear he changed into. "Little bunny, you may do whatever your little heart desires. Come; I will show you my store rooms now!"

 


 

Bilbo spent the rest of the day helping Beorn prepare the supplies. He personally inspected each package carefully; making sure that every free space was stuffed with food for the journey ahead. He helped Beorn choose the best water-skins to take, and politely refused when the giant offered to give them bows and arrows.

"They will be of no use for us in there," he said confidently. "Instead, could you give us rope and a lantern? I have the feeling we will need those more."

Beorn granted his every request without question. Occasionally the shape-shifter would give him a curious look, but he never pushed the Hobbit for answers. He seemed content with simply helping them, and Bilbo had never felt more grateful to another in all his life.

By noon they were ready to leave.

"These packs are heavy," Kíli whined, nearly pouting as he picked up one of the bags up with both hands.

"Don't grumble; you'll be missing that weight when it grows light from lack of food," Dwalin said, picking up his own with one hand and carrying it over to his pony.

"I saw you helping our host pack them," Bofur commented to Bilbo as he helped the Hobbit tie his pack to the pony. "What did you put in these things?"

"Food," he replied firmly. "Lots and lots of food. And large water-skins. Lots of those as well."

Bofur laughed. "Well done! Maybe we won't starve after all."

That's what I'm hoping for.

Beorn bid them all farewell with a last warning about the safest road to take, and then they were off. They rode hard for the rest of the day before making camp at dusk. By then Bilbo could see the faint outline of Mirkwood in the distance, and felt his throat dry up at the memory of going hungry and thirsty for days on end. He had faced many unpleasant things in his life, but dying from starvation still scared him the most.

Glóin dragged him out to train again that night, and he dutifully endured it without complaint. Knowing now that the Dwarf was training him because he cared made it all bearable. Even if most of it left him sore and aching for the rest of the night. When they were done with the training, he joined Bombur and Bofur and listened to the two brothers' banter while drifting off to sleep.

At dawn they continued on. The dark shape in the distance grew clearer and clearer until soon enough they stood before the forest known as Mirkwood. It resembled his memories perfectly; the twisting and gnarled trees, the menacing darkness, and an unnatural silence that never wavered. Seeing it all again brought the fear back to his heart, and awoke the ring in his pocket.

Dark roads, dark days, dark deaths, the ring taunted. Dark, dark, dark, so very dark ahead.

I can handle it, he shot back, gathering his courage. I can handle anything now.

The ring simply laughed at him. The ring had been mostly silent since the battle against Azog, but it still made its presence known with its icy touch. It lingered in the back of his mind; patiently waiting for him to use it again.

"Will the ponies be safe on their own?" asked Ori as they began to unpack their ponies and water-skins.

"Not to worry, Master Ori. Beorn assured me that they know their way home," Gandalf promised as he helped them unload their packs. "I also believe that he will meet them halfway. He's rather protective of his animals. Looks at them as if they were his children."

Óin snorted softly. "And just when I thought he couldn't get any stranger…"

Once free the ponies trotted off easily; obviously pleased to be away from Mirkwood and its heavy burdens. Soon they had filled all their water-skins from the nearby spring, and distributed all the packs fairly. Bilbo thought his own was suspiciously lighter than last time but wasn't sure.

"This is where I leave you all now," announced Gandalf as he hoisted himself onto his horse. He made himself comfortable before focusing his attention back on the group below him.

"I will meet you all again," he promised, smiling slightly. "For now continue on without me. Be sure to remember Beorn's warnings and stay on the path in Mirkwood. If you do so then you will make it to the other side without problems."

"We will do all that you told us," Balin assured, giving the wizard a short bow. "Safe travels for now, Master Gandalf."

Thorin nodded as well, giving the man a serious look. "Safe travels. We will see you on the other side."

"Safe travels," Gandalf returned, bowing his to them all. His gray eyes swept over them all one last time and then he was gone; riding off in a blur of gray and white before they could blink.

The group watched him go before Thorin finally cleared his throat and signaled for everyone to move. "Let's go," he called, walking into the forest, "we still have a long way to go."

Not too long I hope, Bilbo thought, and followed the rest of the Dwarves into Mirkwood.

 


 

Chapter Text

 


 

In another lifetime, when he had sat down to write his story, Bilbo had recalled his journey through Mirkwood with a weary sort of fondness. It had been a dreadful thing to go through at the time for sure; starving, giant spiders, cold Elves, and a barrel ride down a raging river was not exactly a vacation. But later, after they had gotten out alive and the rush of blood had died down, he looked back and felt a sort of pride at what he had managed to accomplish. Later he even thought of taking on the forest for a second time; confident and cocky that he could handle anything it threw at him now.

He was wrong.

Wrong, wrong, wrong, WRONG! I was so very wrong, I hate this place; hate it, hate it, hate it! Bilbo chanted to himself, trying not to trip over a tree root for the fifth time in twenty minutes.

They had been in the woods for not even a day and the Hobbit already hated it. He hated the towering trees that tangled into each other and blocked the sunlight from him. He hated the trail that twisted and turned through fallen trees and overgrown vegetation. He hated the black squirrels that watched them go with beady little eyes that looked far too intelligent to him. He hated the unknown sounds that echoed around them and made them all jump and search for a source only to find none. He hated the cobwebs that stretched from tree to tree in thick, dark wads that hung teasingly overhead. But the thing he hated most was the knowledge of the many eyes that watched them as they trudged through the forest.

"You look very angry," Bofur noted as he leaned forward to get a better look at the Hobbit. "What's wrong?"

"I hate this place," Bilbo answered simply. "I hate these trees, I hate these squirrels, I hate these cobwebs, and I absolutely hate these stupid tree roots that keep tripping me!"

Bofur slowly moved back from him. "Um, I'm sorry to hear that? Do you… Do you want to walk behind me? I can trip first and warn you."

Bilbo sighed and shook his head. "No, I'm sorry, don't worry about me. I just need time to adjust to this stupid forest. I'll be fine then."

Bofur nodded but still looked concern as he returned to his spot in line. They all walked in a single file with Thorin leading them and Dwalin bringing up the end. It was a slow and silent walk as the forest made not only Bilbo on edge, but everyone else as well. He could see how tense and guarded all the others were from the carefree Kíli to the high-strung Dori. No one felt safe in Mirkwood.

It grew worse when the sun went down and the entire forest became pitch-black. The small fire they made did little to pierce the darkness around them, and it did nothing to hide the red and green eyes that stared out at them from all around.

"Do you think they'll attack us?" Ori whispered from where he was huddled between his brothers. For once he did not seem to mind Nori's arm around his shoulders, or the cloak that Dori had bundled him in.

"Doubtful. If so then they would have done it by now," growled Dwalin as he glared up at the eyes.

"We'll take turns on watch so nothing surprises us," added Thorin as he calmly looked over Orcrist.

Ori relaxed slightly but continued to glance up nervously at the eyes watching them. Across from him, Fíli and Kíli were doing much the same only their eyes looked curious. They were clustered together between Dwalin and Balin, and were holding a whispered conversation as they took turns staring at the unknown eyes around them.

Bilbo honestly didn't know who the many eyes belonged to—Elf or beast, he really didn't care—but he kept his eye on the pale and round orbs that would occasionally appear. He had no interest in fighting giant spiders again, but he would if the insects tried anything.

You will not get in my way, he thought, glaring at a pair of pale blue eyes that seemed to glow. You will not get my friends. Not again.

"Master Baggins, I think you should sleep closer to the middle," Óin suddenly said, interrupting his staring contest with the spiders.

"Um, why?" he asked, looking to the healer across from him.

"Because I wouldn't put it past you to try and take on whatever is watching us," the Dwarf replied bluntly. "With you in the middle I can keep a better eye on you."

Bilbo stared, feeling rather offended by the answer. "What? I'm not going to do that, I'm not stupid! Beorn said not to leave the path, remember? Only if they show up on the path will I confront them."

He thought his answer would satisfy the Dwarf, but it only seemed to make the whole camp stop and stare.

"Oh Mahâl," groaned Dwalin, rubbing his forehead.

"Wow, and I thought we were bad," Fíli muttered to Kíli, who nodded in agreement.

"How did you make it to adulthood?" wondered Bofur, staring at him as if he had never seen the Hobbit before.

"See, I told you he needed looking after," Nori said to Dori while Ori gave him a look of sympathy.

Glóin simply shook his head while Óin released a loud sigh. "Right, you're sleeping between us from now on," the healer declared, looking as if his expectations had been met. "Show up on the path… I'm beginning to rethink my opinion on Hobbits…"

"But, I—" Bilbo tried to protest but was ignored by all. He was confused over the sudden turn of events, but he had a feeling that wasn't about to change anytime soon.

 


 

The days passed slowly.

Bilbo tried to keep track of time but found it difficult as they went deeper and deeper into the forest. Soon the trees became so wrangled and thick above that he could not spot any sign of sunlight. With no source to count the days, he decided to focus on their food and water supplies instead. Beorn had given them more food as he had asked, and though they were managing to stretch it, he still worried they would run out again. His comrades, at least, did not share his worry. They were still weary of the forest and its occupants, but without the stress of hunger weighing them down, they were able to relax slightly. Fíli and Kíli began to make jokes again, and Nori even began to annoy Dori once more. It relieved him that he did not have to listen to them argue and bicker with each other again.

With the limited space they had, Glóin had grudgingly called their training to a pause. He swore they would start again once they were out of the forest, and the Hobbit easily agreed to placate him. Without the training to occupy himself, Bilbo decided to spend the time to continue learning Iglishmêk from Bifur.

"So… this means 'friend,' while the opposite means 'foe,'" the Hobbit questioned as he tried to make the correct sign with his fingers.

Bifur nodded and wiggled his fingers before answering in Khuzdûl. Bilbo looked to Bofur—who was acting as a translator and teacher—for an answer.

"He said that you need to bend your forefinger back more," the Dwarf explained.

Bilbo did as told and held up his hands for inspection. "Like this?"

Bifur nodded and Bofur smiled. "Perfect! You got it down."

He looked down at his hands and then back at the duo before him. "I did not think a language of the hands would be so complicated."

"Khuzdûl is a complicated language," Bofur explained, shrugging. "Iglishmêk mirrors it in that regard."

"Hmm. I'm not really learning your language, right? I mean, I don't want to get you all in trouble for teaching me this," asked the Hobbit. He realized for the first time that his request could bring trouble to his friends.

Bofur shook his head and gave him his signature dimple smile. "Don't worry! We're not breaking any laws in teaching you this. Since we're translating the signs into common for you, you're not really learning any Khuzdûl."

Bifur nodded along and made a waving gesture with one hand that he mentally translated to mean, 'It's fine, let it go.'

"Ahh, that's true," he admitted, feeling relieved that he had not caused his friends any trouble. "Let's continue then. What is the sign for trouble?"

Bifur pointed to the Hobbit.

"Wha—? Oh, ha, ha, very funny." Bilbo rolled his eyes as Bofur snickered. "I get it, I get it. I'm always in trouble."

"You do have a way of getting into the worst situations possible," the toymaker pointed out. "Most of it is even of your own making."

"I do not go looking for trouble!" he argued, feeling rather offended. "I just happen to run into troublesome people!"

Bifur snorted and gave him a look that didn't need any words.

The Hobbit pointed a finger at the Dwarf. "Don't look at me like that! I'm not wrong!"

"Weeelll, you did join us on this adventure," reminded Bofur, grinning so widely that it looked painful. "And then there were the trolls, and the mountains, and the orcs, and then Beorn…"

Bilbo was about to protest that until he realized the other had a point.

Blasted Dwarves, he thought, and tired his best not to pout as the other two laughed at him.

"Master Baggins!" Dori called from somewhere behind him. "Come here for a moment."

"Gladly," he said, standing up and stalking off to where the older Dwarf sat. He ignored Bifur's laughter and Bofur's halfhearted apologies, and sat down across from Dori. The warrior was sewing something together that looked like one of Nori's shirts. Next to him were a pile of clothes with numerous tears and holes in them.

"Yes? Did you need something? Help perhaps?" the Hobbit asked.

Dori snorted and set down his work. "Hardly. I simply wanted to give you your coat. I finished it earlier but forgot to tell you."

Bilbo stared, taken back, as the Dwarf reached into his pack and pulled out a small red coat. He tossed it to the Hobbit and it smacked him in the face before falling into his lap.

"The color isn't exactly subtle but the fabric is strong and durable," the Dwarf explained as he returned to his task. "It will keep you warm when the fall comes."

Bilbo picked up the coat and ran his fingers over the smooth material. It was silky soft on the outside but inside was padded with warm beige wool that was all tied together with tiny impeccable stitches. It lacked buttons, of course, and the outside material was a little too lavish for his taste, but all in all it was a beautiful coat.

And Dori had made it just for him.

"I-I don't know what to say," he whispered, touched by the simple but sincere gesture. "Thank you, Master Dori. It is beautiful."

Dori shrugged and continued his task but his face relaxed a tad. "It was nothing. You needed a new coat and I am a weaver. It was an easy enough task to complete."

"Doesn't mean I'm not grateful any less," he insisted. "You took the time and effort to do this all just for my sake. That is a grand gift by itself."

"You use a lot of pretty words," the Dwarf noted as he looked up at him. "I am not as eloquent so I prefer to allow my actions to speak for me."

"Well, this has said a great deal to me," Bilbo insisted, clutching the coat to his chest. "I will treasure it always."

Dori scoffed at his reply but his eyes were soft when he looked at him. "Don't be so dramatic; it's just a coat."

No, he argued to himself as the Dwarf continued his knitting, it is so much more than that.

 


 

It was a great relief when they finally found the broken bridge.

"So… any ideas on how we're going to cross this?" Bombur asked as they all studied the wooden bridge that had rotted away in the middle.

"There's a boat on the other side," Bilbo pointed out, squinting into the distance. "Looks about twelve yards away."

"You can see that clearly so far?" Thorin wondered, looking at him in surprise.

He shrugged. "Hobbits have good eyesight."

"Is there a way to get the boat over here?" asked Balin, rubbing his jaw.

"We need a rope with a hook," the Hobbit said firmly, deciding to get right to the point. "The boat looks light and I don't think it's tied to anything. If we can throw the hook onto it then we can pull it over."

From there the plan went much the same as it did the first time. They fastened the hook and rope together and Fíli was chosen to throw it. After missing a few times, he finally managed to snag the boat and began to pull only it find that it was tied up. Kíli went to help his brother, and after a nudge from Bilbo, Dori joined them. It took a few tries but they managed to pull the boat loose and catch it before it could float off.

"There are no oars," noted Dwalin as he inspected the boat. "How are we supposed to move this blasted thing?"

Fíli sheepishly raised a hand. "I have an idea."

After Fíli explained his plan, they agreed and he threw another hook again until it finally caught on to a tree across the river. Bilbo waited until Thorin had decided who would cross before he spoke up again.

"I will go last," he chimed in before Bombur could complain about being last again. "I'm light so it will balance Bombur out."

Thorin frowned but did not disagree. "Very well. Fíli, Kíli, Balin! You're up first."

Next to him, Nori lightly tugged at his hair. "Stop that."

"Stop what?" he asked.

"Putting the others first," the Dwarf replied as he watched their comrades carefully climb into the boat. "Think about your own safety for once."

Bilbo made a face of distaste. "I don't think so. You lot need more looking after than I do."

Nori sighed and shook his head. "Stubborn."

"Yes," he agreed, and then elbowed the Dwarf in the side with all his strength.

The thief didn't even flinch.

It was a slow process getting everyone across the river safely. He watched them proceed carefully while also keeping an ear open for any galloping deer. He didn't know if the deer would show because of the time difference, but he wasn't getting his hopes up. Their luck wasn't that good.

Sure enough, when it was finally their turn to cross, Bilbo heard the sound of pounding hooves growing closer. Before Bombur could take a step into the boat, the Hobbit grabbed his arm and pulled him off to the side of the bridge. Before the Dwarf could ask why, a deer came flying out of shadows and galloping towards them from the other side. It bowled the others over before leaping across the bridge in one graceful arch. It landed lightly on the other side and galloped on into the forest; ignoring the two on the bridge as if they were nothing.

"Hmp. Blasted deer," the Hobbit grumbled to himself as he released the cook. "All right there, Bombur?"

The Dwarf nodded, looking a little shaken by the sudden appearance of the deer. "Y-Yes. Just surprised is all. I wasn't expecting that."

He patted the other on the arm sympathetically. "Yes, that was rather random. Well come along then; let's get this over with."

With the deer gone, the two climbed into the boat and slowly made their way to the other side. They managed to take one step out of the boat before they were swarmed by their companions.

"Okay there, Bombur?" Bofur asked his brother as he helped him out of the boat.

The cook nodded and waved him away. "Yes, yes, I'm fine. Bilbo pulled me off to the side before it could land on me."

"Oh?" Bofur raised his brows and gave the Hobbit a smile. "Thank you for that. I hate to think what would have happened if that deer had knocked my brother into the river."

Bilbo shrugged and took Dori's offered hand. "Not a problem. I couldn't very well let it land on him."

"True. You much rather have it land on you," Nori agreed cheerfully because he always strived that extra mile to be annoying.

The Hobbit winced as Dori's grip on his hand tightened. "While that may be true, it still didn't happen. We're both safe. Here. With all of you. Unharmed."

"You're walking next to Ori for the rest of this journey," Dori declared in return.

Bilbo cursed.

 


 

They walked on.

With Bombur awake and their food still plentiful, they managed to walk further and longer than they had the first time around. This was both a blessing and a curse to Bilbo. It was a blessing because they were that much closer to getting out of Mirkwood and closer to Lake-town. But it was a curse because he didn't know what to expect from the rest of the forest now. He also realized that he had another dilemma: Thranduil. If they did not meet the Elvenking this time around, then he would not know of their journey, and would not come looking for reparations. Without Thranduil there with his army, Bilbo realized that they would not be able to win the upcoming battle.

Well this is a major pain, he brooded to himself one night. How am I going to get his attention? Unless we step off the path and cause trouble then I doubt he'll care about us. But I can't let them step off the path and I can't go myself. Maybe I can sneak into his home…

"You look very frustrated," noted Thorin as he took a seat next to him. Bilbo had to force himself not to jump or tense at the sudden appearance of the Dwarf king.

"I'm simply thinking about how much food we'll have to get us through this forest," he lied, scooting over a bit to give the Dwarf some room.

"Mmm. Balin has been keeping track and estimates we can make it stretch for another two weeks," Thorin admitted. "But that's if we begin to cut back on how much we eat now."

"I thought as much." He watched the Dwarf as he stretched his legs out and forced his shoulders to relax. Thorin looked tired and it showed from the dark circles under his eyes and the tightness in his jaw. The journey was beginning to take its toll on him.

I want to help him, the Hobbit thought, clenching his pants tightly. But how? He doesn't trust me enough yet.

"Bilbo," Thorin suddenly said, turning to face him. "Do you recall the conversation we had after you saved Fíli? The one about the debt I now owe you?"

The Hobbit nodded slowly. "Yeeesss. What about it…?"

"You told me that I could not grant your wish. That the one thing you wanted most was not in my power to give."

"And it never will be," he reminded him because he knew how stubborn Dwarves could be.

Thorin did not deny it. Instead, he stared at him with blue eyes that looked nearly black in the dark forest. "Your greatest wish… It's for him is it not? The love you lost?" he asked quietly.

Bilbo looked away. His throat felt tight as he struggled to swallow down either laugher or tears. "Yes."

Thorin sighed heavily. "I thought as much. Death is something that even I cannot combat against."

"Yes, it is rather final," he agreed, and to his annoyance his voice sounded scratchy.

"I suppose I must find another way to repay you," the Dwarf continued, tapping his finger against the hilt of Orcrist.

"I told you how you could do that. I don't know why you can't just accept that as my wish," the Hobbit grumbled.

"Keeping everyone alive is not something I can guarantee," pointed out the king. "It is amazing we got as far as we have without any deaths."

Bilbo had to laugh at that. "True. I was afraid that we had lost some on the mountains. And then when those Orcs dragged them back to us… We're all very lucky."

"Hmm." Thorin glanced around the camp before looking back to him. "The… The one you lost… Were you together long?"

"No," the Hobbit replied simply. "I knew him only for a short time. We were only ever friends and nothing more. He died before I could tell him my feelings."

Thorin's eyes widened and his brows flew skyward. "You were not lovers? I thought… I mean, from the way you spoke of him I assumed—"

"Yes, it is an understandable mistake," he agreed easily. "I refer to him as my heart but it was not the same for him. He… He valued me only as a dear friend, and I dared not ask for more. It was enough to simply love him from afar."

The Dwarf was now looking at him with something akin to pity in his eyes. The sight of it made him want to laugh (or cry) because the Dwarf was the very reason for it in the first place. "Don't give me that look," he chided gently. "I accepted my lot in life long ago. I am at peace with my heart now."

"It is still a sad thing to find your One only to realize that you are not their One," the king said softly.

Bilbo simply shrugged. He honestly had accepted his fate in love long ago. The first time around he had been content to simply love Thorin from afar; he had never expected anything else but friendship from the king. It was the same thing the second time around. He was happy enough to stand by the Dwarf and protect him and love him in silence. He would not ask for more than that.

"Love is not always fair," he replied. "I never thought I would fall in love when I was younger. It took me by surprise when I finally did. So I will treasure the memories I have and take comfort in my love for him. It is all I can do now."

Thorin had nothing to say to that.

"Have you ever been in love, Master Thorin?" the Hobbit asked. He had avoided asking the question the first time around in fear of a broken heart, but he was long past that point now. He had been living with a broken heart since the moment Thorin took his last breath.

"No. My love has always been reserved for my people," the Dwarf said firmly. "Even as a prince I had always understood that the kingdom must be put above all else. It… It would not be fair to ask someone to give me their whole heart while they must share mine with my people."

Bilbo had not known that. He always knew that Thorin treasured his people, sure, but he never thought the king would avoid love for them. He didn't know if it was a noble sentiment or a sad one.

Thorin suddenly snorted and then chuckled. When he noticed Bilbo's curious look, he explained, "I was just musing that we two are very pathetic when it comes to matters of the heart."

Bilbo blinked once, twice, and then burst into laughter that Thorin soon joined in. Their companions were all staring at them with mixed expressions, but Bilbo paid them no mind. He simply kept laughing because if he didn't then he'd start crying over his sad little heart that longed for the king that could only love his people.

Pathetic lot indeed.

 


 

Two days later they were attacked by Elves.

Bilbo had honestly not expected that.

They slipped out of the forest like ghosts and had them surrounded before they could even blink. None of the Dwarves had a chance to draw their weapons as each Elf aimed an arrow at their face. Bilbo stared at the one pointed at him before slowly following it until he met the eyes of the owner. It was an Elven female with long red hair and fierce hazel eyes. She was as beautiful as any other Elf with her high cheekbones and slender form, but it was not her beauty that made him freeze and stare. It was the familiarity.

Tauriel! Then that means…

He glanced at the corner of his eye to where Thorin stood with his own arrow pointed at his face. The Elf that stood over him was tall and fair with pale blue eyes that glowed silver in the right light. His face was beautiful like a finely sharpened blade and achingly familiar to him.

"Well, now. What do we have here," wondered Legolas as he stared down Thorin with cold, cold eyes. "Dwarves wandering about in a forest that does not belong to them. I wonder what could have brought them here…"

"We mean no harm," answered Balin before Thorin could speak and get them all killed. "We're simply passing through. There's no crime against that, yes? We have not broken any rules or harmed any creatures while here."

"You use the road of my people," Legolas pointed out. "You entered our home without permission. You are trespassers."

"Say what you like, Elf," Thorin said flatly. "We have committed no crime here."

The prince slowly blinked. "Thorin Oakenshield, son of Thráin, son of Thrór. It has been a long time since we have seen the likes of you."

Thorin did not speak but narrowed his eyes until they were only slits of blue on his face.

"I wonder what has brought you back here after so many years," Legolas continued. "Would you tell us your reason?"

The Dwarf remained stubbornly silent.

"No? Very well then. Perhaps you care to tell our king instead." The Elf finally lowered his bow but did not take his eyes off his captive. "Tie them up. We will let my father deal with them."

Well, I guess that solves the problem of meeting Thranduil, Bilbo thought before he found his arms bound before him.

 


 

The Elves led them through the forest much the same way they had the first time. The only difference Bilbo could find was that it seemed shorter than the last time. But then, they had gotten further through the forest than the first time. Eventually they came to the bridge and the raging river that was still as dark and intimidating as he recalled. The Elves dragged them over the bridge and down the halls carved out of the stone, and to the throne room of the Elvenking, Thranduil.

Much like his son, Thranduil looked no different from his memories. He was still as beautiful as a finely carved statue; immaculate and perfect and never changing. He looked down over each of them from his high throne before his vacant eyes settled on Thorin.

"Thorin Oakenshield," the Elven king greeted without an ounce of emotion. "It has been some time."

"Not long enough," the Dwarf growled, not bothering to hide his scowl.

The Elf titled his head down in what could have passed as a nod. "No. I would be happy to never see a hair of your kind again, but you have made that impossible with your presence. Tell me… why have you come to my forest? Why would you dare enter my realm?"

Thorin did not speak.

"Still so stubborn, I see," Thranduil acknowledged. "No matter. I think I have an idea of why you lot are here. Could it be that you seek to reclaim what is no longer yours? Have you come to try to win back your home, little prince?"

Thorin clenched his jaw. "I am a prince no longer. I am king—"

"Oh! Forgive me, your majesty. I had forgotten about your grandfather's passing," Thranduil interrupted with great exaggeration. He waved one arm out in a graceful sweep and drawled, "All hail the King under the Mountain."

In response, Thorin turned white and his eyes grew frosty. The others were also scowling or glaring at the Elf king, and even Bilbo could not deny his irritation with the monarch. He understood that there was bad blood between Elves and Dwarves that lasted for centuries, but Thranduil was just being petty now.

And Bilbo Baggins did not have time for petty Elves.

"Enough," he called in Sindarin, pushing his way to the front until he stood side-by-side with Thorin. He threw is head back and glared up at the king high above him. "Enough of this! You should be ashamed of yourself! An ancient Elven king mocking another for his grief? What is wrong with you? Have you no pride? No compassion? No manners?"

For the first time, Thranduil finally showed a hint of emotions. His eyes widened a fraction and thawed slightly. He leaned forward in his throne and tilted his head to the side in what seemed like wonder as he stared down at the Hobbit below him.

"A halfling," he said back in Sindarin. "I have not seen your kind in centuries. How did you come to learn our tongue?"

Bilbo rolled his eyes. "Oh, don't act so surprised. It's not as if your language is a secret. As long as one has enough books and a fluent teacher then you can learn."

"A halfling that speaks the language of Elves and travels with Dwarves… I don't think I have ever seen an odder sight," the Elf commented, leaning back into his throne. "Tell me, why do you travel with this lot? What could a halfling have in common with Dwarves?"

"First of all stop calling me 'halfling.' My name is Bilbo Baggins," the Hobbit scolded, ignoring the shifting Elves around him who seemed displeased by his lack of manners. Too bad for them that he didn't care what they thought. "And I chose to accompany them because their mission is a noble one."

Thranduil arched one brow. "A noble mission you say? How is enraging a dragon for some gold a 'noble' mission?"

"They are not taking on Smaug for the gold alone," Bilbo argued back. "They're doing it because they want to go home. How is that not a noble goal?

"What are you saying two saying?" Thorin whispered at his side but he ignored the king.

"Home?" the Elf king repeated, and something in his voice cracked a fraction. "There is no home for them to return to. Smaug cannot be killed by thirteen Dwarves and a single halfling. You are all destined to fail."

"Maybe. Maybe not. But it is still worth trying," he insisted, shaking his head. "Let us go so we can find out."

"Hmm." Thranduil slouched back into his throne and draped one long leg over the other. "I suppose it would be amusing to see if they live or die… And I really gain nothing by keeping them here except an unpleasant smell…"

"So you'll let us go?" Bilbo pressed, crossing his fingers.

"I will let the Dwarves leave for their little mission," the king agreed before pointing a finger at the Hobbit. "But you must stay here."

"What?!" Bilbo squawked in common. He stumbled back away from the Elf but was stopped short as Dwalin caught him from behind. The Dwarf settled his bound hands against his back and held him up until he was able to gain his bearing again.

That was not what he had expected.

"Bilbo, what is it? What did he say?" Balin asked from behind him.

"H-He said you a-all can leave but I-I have to st-stay," he stuttered, never tearing his gaze away from the Elvenking. Thranduil's lips had curved up the slightest bit in what passed as amusement for him. He did not enjoy being the reason for that amusement.

Around him, his Dwarves immediately began to protest.

"What—?!"

"Why that miserable tree-licker—"

"—can't stay here! You belong with us—!"

"—thieving bastard. Trying to steal our burglar—"

"—can't think we'd agree to that—"

"—should just kill the bastards and get out of here—"

"—found him first! Go find your own Hobbit—!"

"—do with a Hobbit? I don't trust this deal—"

Bilbo ignored the frantic Dwarves around him and remained focused on the Elf watching them.

"Why do you want me to stay? I-I'm just a simple Hobbit," he reminded the Elvenking because he honestly didn't see the benefit at all.

Thranduil shrugged one shoulder. "You're entertaining, and I am sorely lacking in entertainment these days."

Oh, lovely, the king wants a new court jester. Wonderful. No wonder no one likes him.

Bilbo finally tore his gaze away from Thranduil, and focused on the only one who had any real say. What he saw made him jump and lean closer to Dwalin. Thorin's face was completely calm. His shoulders were tense but he wasn't clenching his jaw together, or glaring at Thranduil like the others. The only hint that he was angry was in his eyes. They had turned into a blue so dark it looked black. It was the same type of blue he had seen only in the deep parts of lakes and rivers. It was as if Thorin had managed to get so angry that his rage had reached a point of complete murderous composure.

Bilbo had seen that look only one time before.

He looked at me that way when he found out I stole the Arkenstone, he recalled, swallowing the lump in this throat. Not good, not good. I need to get out of the deal before Thorin snaps and kills Thranduil.

"I have a better proposal," he called in Sindarin, trying to step forward only to be pulled back by Dwalin and Balin. He rolled his eyes at the both of them, but didn't try to move again.

"Speak," answered the Elven king, waving a slender hand.

"Let me leave with all my companions. Let us leave the forest and travel to Erebor to confront Smaug. If you do all this then I will give you the reward that was promised to me by Thorin," the Hobbit offered.

Thranduil's eyes suddenly sparked with a glint of life. "Oh? And what did the Dwarf promise you?"

He gave the Elf a look that he hoped conveyed how stupid he found that question. "What did you think he offered me? Gold! Gold and silver and jewels and whatever else they have in that mountain! You can have it all but only if you let me go too."

The Elf king seemed to consider the proposal for a long time. Bilbo watched him as he exchanged a look with Legolas that he could not read before finally turning his marble eyes back to the Hobbit.

"I accept," said the Elf, and the Hobbit slumped in relief.

"Thank you," he said, bowing his head to the king. "Thank you very much."

"I should be the one thanking you," Thranduil pointed out, furrowing his brows slightly. "I am the one who will receive your promised reward in the end."

"True, you are getting the treasure," he agreed, nodding, "but I don't care. I didn't come along for the reward."

Thranduil still did not look like he understood. "Then… what did you come for?"

Bilbo simply shrugged. "For them."

 


 

Thranduil agreed to let them go free but that was as far as he was willing to go in helping them. They were escorted out of the castle and back to the road by a silent trio of Elves. Once they were on the trail, the Elves turned and disappeared back into the forest without another word. Bilbo rubbed at his now free wrists as the blood began to flow again. He had a feeling he was going to wake the next morning with a bracelet of bruises on each wrist.

"Why did they let us go?" asked Ori, voicing the question that he was sure the others were all wondering.

"I think we need to ask our burglar for the answer," answered Balin, who was watching the Hobbit. "What did you say to him at the end?"

"I made a new deal with him," Bilbo explained, still rubbing his wrists. "I told him if he let me go too then I would give him something."

"What… What did you promise?" Bofur asked, looking like he was dreading the answer.

He sighed and braced himself for the impact. "My portion of the treasure."

He was not disappointed.

"What?! Why would you do that?!"

"You can't give our gold to an Elf!"

"Bilbo, you should have offered something else! Anything but that!"

"You can't do that! It rightfully belongs to you!"

"We aren't going to fight Smaug just so that weed eater can get his grubby hands all over our treasure!"

"Enough." Thorin did not need to raise his voice to silence the Dwarves. They all went quiet and looked to him as he turned to Bilbo with his dark eyes. Bilbo tried not to flinch back or run far, far away from those eyes. In his experience, they never brought anything good.

"What you decide to do with your portion of the treasure is your business," the Dwarf acknowledged quietly. "But that deal only applies if you live. If you die in this confrontation with Smaug then Thranduil gets nothing. Understood?"

"Understood," he agreed, feeling a bit amused by the demand. If he was dead then he didn't think his first concern would be if Thranduil got his reward or not.

"Good." Thorin turned back to trail before them and raised his chin high in challenge. "Now let's get out of this blasted forest once and for all."

 


 

Chapter Text

 


 

Despite his friendly and outgoing personality, Bofur did not have many close friends.

It was a strange idea to many who knew him because Bofur was the type who could make friends with anyone. He enjoyed drinking and singing and laughing, and was always willing to sit and talk if asked. He liked most races—though Elves still left him weary—and could tolerate even the most annoying of people. He never lost his temper, was always willing to hear a good joke, and could drink an Elf under the table.

But despite all of these traits, Bofur still had a problem with friends.

He had his acquaintances and comrades, of course, and Mahâl knew he wasn't short on kin. But he couldn't say that he had anyone that he trusted or liked enough to stick around with. Perhaps it was his high expectations that made it so difficult, but he honestly believed that a friend was to be loyal, kind, honest, and reliable. Anything less and they weren't worth it.

Bombur was his brother and his first friend in life. After him had been Bjor and Asvald; two childhood friends who had died when Erebor fell. For a long time after he had not sought any friends; preferring instead to heal the wounds that Erebor had left behind. It wasn't until he moved to the Blue Mountains that he befriended a guard named Inge, and then eventually Dwalin.

Bofur never thought that someone of high birth would ever even speak to him let alone become a good friend, but Smaug had changed more than just him. Dwalin didn't care about his blood or his job as a miner, and was simply happy to have someone to drink with. From Dwalin he had met Balin, who had introduced him to Dori, who in turn was happy to have someone to keep his brother Nori out of trouble.

Dwalin and Nori were unexpected friends, but he didn't regret meeting them for one second. Because with them came the expedition and the Company, and with the Company came the best twelve Dwarves he had ever known. And with all of that came Bilbo Baggins, who fascinated and impressed him daily. He never imagined that any of them would become so precious to him, and yet…

Bofur treasured them all. He treasured each of them like the gold so many of his kind sought, and would happily fight to the death for any of them. He never thought he would have so many Dwarves as friends—not to mentions the king himself—and he never imagined he would even come to care for a Hobbit. But it happened and they were his now as much as Bombur and Bifur were, and Bofur was going to protect them all no matter what.

Because that? That was what friends were for.

 


 

When Bilbo took his first step out of Mirkwood, he realized they were running out of time.

"Oh no," he moaned as he took in the bright red and orange painted across the tops of the trees. The grass was beginning to become speckled with shades of brown, and there was now a noticeable chill to the air.

Fall had arrived.

"We're running out of time," muttered Ori at his side. His wide eyes were scanning the horizon with equal worry.

"We are," he agreed, pushing his bangs out of his eyes. "We're going to have to step it up if we want to get there on time."

"There's still the walk to Lake-town to get through," Ori fretted, playing with one of the beads in his hair, "and we need to replenish our supplies still. And we still don't know where those Orcs are…"

"The Elves will take care of Azog and his minions," the Hobbit reassured as Dori and Nori joined them on either side. "We just need to focus on getting to Lake-town."

"Our burglar is right," agreed Nori as he proceeded to use Bilbo's head as an arm rest. "The Orcs are not a concern. I'd be surprised if they could even get through the forest to begin with."

"And even if they do find us again, we won't let them live," Dori added, wrapping an arm around Ori and pulling him close.

Bilbo elbowed Nori in the ribs until he huffed and relented his perch. "Exactly! Remember how well you fought them last time? It was thanks to you that we were able to save your brother and the others."

Ori blushed from his neck to the tip of his ears. "I-I-I d-didn't do-do mu-much—"

"Don't sell yourself short," Dori interrupted. "I saw you in the trees. You were blinding the Orcs for us. That gave us a great advantage and was a big part of the reason we won. I'm proud of you."

The young Dwarf was slowly turning into a shade of red never seen before. "D-D-Dori..."

"It's true. Don't think I didn't notice how all the Orcs around me went blind first," added Nori, reaching over Bilbo to ruffle his little brother's hair. "You made me proud too."

At that point, Ori had pulled his scarf up to his nose and was trying to disappear into it. "I-I just wanted to p-protect y-you both. L-Like how you p-protect me…"

Bilbo felt his heart warm at the stuttered confession, and it made him want to sweep the Dwarf into a hug. But before he could act, Dori beat him to it. The Dwarf pulled Ori into an engulfing embrace and began crooning something in Khuzdûl as he rocked him back and forth.

Next to him, Nori released a great and loud sigh as if in pain. "And it begins! Well, come along then, burglar. Dori isn't going to be letting up anytime soon."

"He does that often then?" Bilbo wondered as he dutifully followed the thief to where the rest of their companions were.

"Only with Ori. He used to try and hug me when we were younger, but I quickly put a stop to that," the Dwarf explained.

"Not fond of hugs are we?"

"Not if it's Dori. He forgets his own strength."

The Hobbit flinched. He had seen Dori pick up an Orc and throw it like a sword at another. He knew how strong the Dwarf was. "Ouch."

"Exactly." Nori nodded. "It's a painful experience and I rather just avoid it all together."

He glanced over his shoulder to where Dori was still holding Ori captive. The young Dwarf was enduring it without complaint, and was even smiling as he patted his eldest brother on the back. Bilbo's respect for the scholar suddenly grew.

"Ori seems to be handling it well," he pointed out.

The thief scoffed. "Of course. It's Ori. He's always been the strongest one."

Bilbo didn't doubt it. Ori had been willing to take on Moria after all.

When they finally joined the rest of the Dwarves, they found them in a circle squatting over a map. He recognized it as the one Gandalf had given Thorin in the beginning of their journey. The king was using it to show their progress and where they needed to head to next.

"—we need to follow the River Running north," the Dwarf said, trailing a finger down the river drawn on the map. "It will lead us to Lake-town and from there we can enter Erebor."

"Only there's a problem with that plan, O Great Leader. There is no road left to follow," drawled Dwalin, gesturing to the area.

The Dwarf was correct. The road they had followed had abruptly ended at the edge of the forest. There was no road to follow now; only overgrown trees and the rushing river.

Bilbo wanted to kick himself. He had forgotten, over the years, that the road had not been accessible at the time. It was why their barrels had turned out to be so important in the end; it had been the only way to get to Lake-town. But by being so focused on diverting Thranduil's capture, he had created yet another problem to deal with.

"We'll still need to follow the river," said Balin, rubbing the end of his beard in thought. "But to do that we'll need a boat."

"And where are we going to get a boat? The Elves? They would rather watch us drown," Glóin pointed out.

"We could build a raft with the trees here and the rope we have left," Bofur offered as he rested his chin on the head of his mattock.

"And who among us knows how to build a raft?" wondered Óin.

In unison, Bofur and Bombur pointed to Bifur. The Dwarf in turn gave them a dirty look and snarled something in Khuzdûl.

"But you're the only one here who was an engineer," Bombur reminded, paying the look no mind.

"And if you don't do it then we'll have to backtrack into the forest and waste more time," added Bofur.

Bifur gave them a gesture that Bilbo didn't understand, but he had a feeling it was a curse as it made both Dwalin and Nori snicker. The Dwarf then mumbled something in Khuzdûl and gave Thorin a grudging nod.

"Thank you, Bifur. Your help is appreciated," the king replied, bowing his head slightly. He rolled up his map and waved a hand to the rest of them. "Come; we'll do as Bifur says. Dwalin, Dori, Nori and Glóin will help him chop the wood, or whatever is needed. The rest make camp and try to see to our food supplies. I have a feeling we will be here for a good while."

The rest of the day was spent planning and gathering supplies for their raft. Bilbo helped with sorting through the food and water they had left, and found that they were nearly out. He realized they would need to leave as soon as possible if they wanted to make it to Lake-town before they starved. When he informed Thorin of this, the king could only sigh and shake his head.

"We will need to work into the night if we want this raft done quickly," he said, rubbing his jaw as he watched Dori and Dwalin cut down another tree. "We will need to work in shifts now. I will inform Bifur of this and see if it will work."

Bilbo sighed and nodded along. There was little else he could do.

As the sun began to set, seven of the Dwarves stopped their work and were allowed to finally rest while the rest continued on. The Hobbit was not surprised to see that the three youngest members were a part of the group that stopped.

"I'm so tired!" Fíli moaned as he stretched his arms as high as he could. "I think I'm going to sleep for a thousand years after all of this."

"Think I might join you," Kíli added as he dropped to the ground in a dramatic sprawl. He yelped and quickly rolled away as Fíli tried to kick him in the side, and then sprung to his feet and tackled his brother. The two were soon off in another wrestling match that left the rest of the Company sighing, or grumbling.

Bilbo shook his head and turned to Thorin, who was watching them with a look that said he was far, far too used to such antics. "Do they resemble her?"

Thorin turned to him and blinked. "Who?"

Bilbo nodded to the two brothers. "Your sister's sons. Do they take after their mother?"

Thorin blanched. "Dís? Mahâl, no. They take after their father even if they do look like Durin's sons. I thank the stone for that every day. The world can only handle one Dís."

"Is she that bad?" the Hobbit wondered, trying not to smile.

"She is not bad, she is just… intense. Passionate. And clever, oh so very clever. She could always find a way to get out of trouble, and leave Frerin and me to hang." The king scowled, obviously recalling those horrible memories. "It didn't help either that she was the only girl and the youngest. Our father allowed her to get away with everything."

"She sounds quite impressive," he admitted. "I'm surprised she didn't join you for this."

"She was needed at Ered Luin," the Dwarf explained. "If not then she would have come along. She was… not pleased that I allowed Fíli and Kíli to join me."

"I would think not. She is their mother," Bilbo said as he recalled what Balin had told him the first time around. When she learned of her sons' and brother's deaths, Dís had not killed herself with grief but it was a very close thing. She became much like the stone she was born from; hard, unrelenting, and so very cold. He had always felt horrible for her because he knew that she had lost the most in the Battle of the Five Armies.

"She must be very worried about you all," he commented to the king.

Thorin shrugged his broad shoulders. "I'm sure she is. But Dís is strong; she can handle it."

"Maybe," the Hobbit admitted as the king walked away, "or maybe you just underestimate how much you three mean to her."

 


 

It took three days for them to build the raft. They seemed like a long three days to Bilbo as they were all constantly working. Though he could not help with building the raft itself—he had sadly not inherited his father's carpentry skills—he could help with sorting through their supplies. Bifur had instructed them to get rid of anything they didn't need in order to conserve space and weight. With this in mind, Ori and he had sat down and begun the long task of riffling through the belongings of the others.

"Why does your brother carry so much wire?" he wondered as he sorted through Nori's weapons.

"I don't know. I try not to think about it," Ori admitted as he tossed some tangled yarn from Dori's bag.

Bilbo took a moment to wonder why and then wrinkled his nose. "Agreed. Let's ignore it and avoid it in future discussions."

"I usually do," the scholar promised with a grin that made him look disturbingly similar to the thief in question.

On the third day Bifur finally declared that the raft was ready and that they could leave.

"Do you think it will hold our weight?" Bilbo asked Bofur as they watched Bifur explain to Dwalin and Dori how to steer with the oars they had made. They had pushed the raft into the river and tied it to a nearby tree. So far it was floating, but Bilbo didn't think that counted as there was no weight on it yet.

Bofur shrugged. "Bifur was always a good engineer so I don't see why it wouldn't."

"But there's a great deal of us," he reminded, not feeling reassured, "and I don't know how many of them can swim. Not that it would matter with all that armor to weigh them down."

"We all know how to swim," the miner promised as he threw an arm around Bilbo's shoulders. He pulled the reluctant Hobbit closer until he was settled against the Dwarf's side. With the massive height difference, Bilbo felt much like a child seeking comfort from a parent.

"We'll be fine," the Dwarf said softly, patting his shoulder. "I promise that none of us will drown in this river. And if it makes ya feel better, I'll tell the others to take off their armor for now. So they don't drown in them."

"Drowning in armor is a legitimate concern," he sniffed, but still allowed himself to lean against his taller friend. The Dwarf was rather warm after all.

"Of course it is," Bofur agreed, somehow managing not to sound patronizing.

"Bofur! Quit groping our Hobbit and get over here and help me with the food!" Bombur suddenly yelled from behind them.

Bofur groaned but dutifully released his captive and turned around. "Why don't ya yell a little louder, Bombur? I don't think the Dwarves in the Blue Mountain heard ya!"

Bilbo rolled his eyes and turned his attention back to the raft that was, admittedly, staying afloat as the Dwarves ventured on to it. Glóin was standing without any problem and was helping his brother and Nori load their packs. Nearby Fíli and Kíli had staked out a spot while Ori tried to convince Dori to let him sit on the outside. When his gaze landed on Thorin, he was surprised to find the king staring at him with a scowl. When he raised his brows back in question, the Dwarf quickly looked back to Balin and Bifur as they peered over the map.

What was that about? he wondered before dismissing it. There was no point in trying to guess the king's mood considering how frequently they changed. He had realized that the first time around.

"Bilbo! Come join us!" Kíli suddenly called, waving for him to board the raft.

He sighed but leaned down to pick up his pack before making his way to the raft. He hesitated for a moment before bracing one foot on the unsteady surface and then pushed himself onto the raft. It shifted for a moment before settling, and he let out a breath of relief.

So far so good.

"Isn't this exciting?" asked Kíli, looking at him with bright eyes. "We're about to leave and soon we'll be at the Lonely Mountains!"

He nodded and gave the Dwarf a smile that he hoped didn't look too fake. "Indeed."

As long as we don't drown first.

"Are we ready to leave?" asked Balin as Bofur and Bombur joined them on the raft. When the cook took a step onto the raft, Bilbo felt his heart freeze as it dipped and threatened to sink. But Dwalin pulled the heavyset Dwarf further onto the raft and closer to the middle, and the flat boat evened out again.

"You're to stay in the middle so we don't sink," ordered Dwalin, releasing the cook.

Bombur rolled his eyes but dutifully sat himself down in the center of the raft. "Fine, but the rest of you need to take off your armor. Bofur says it's making Bilbo nervous."

All the Dwarves turned as one to stare at the Hobbit. Bilbo met the looks and raised his chin stubbornly. "If you fall into the river then you may sink with the extra weight. Watching one of you drown is not something I would like to experience!"

The Dwarves just kept staring.

"I'm not even surprised at this point," admitted Glóin as shared a look with Nori.

"We should have seen this coming," the thief agreed, nodding his head.

"This is getting ridiculous. How are we ever going to get close to Smaug with him here?" Dwalin demanded of Thorin, who in turn ignored him in favor of rubbing his forehead.

Balin made a 'tsk' sound and lightly yanked on his brother's beard. "I think our real concern is how are we going to keep him from Smaug."

"One of us will have to go with him," Óin suggested, rubbing his chin. "Maybe bring some rope along just in case…"

"Just when I think he can't surprise me anymore with his antics, he goes and pulls something like this!" Dori complained to Bifur.

"How are you still alive?" Kíli demanded while his brother just kept staring.

At that point, Bilbo honestly had no idea what the Dwarves were complaining about, and he really didn't care. What he did care about was that none of them had listened and were not taking off their armor.

"If you lot don't take off your armor before we leave then I'm taking it off for you," he threatened, pushing his hair out of his eyes.

The Dwarves didn't look intimidated by his threat, but they did begin to strip down to their tunics and slacks. He watched them all carefully until he was certain they were all no longer wearing their heavy leather and metal.

"Right. We can go now," he declared, moving to sit between Kíli and Ori.

"Thank you for granting your permission," Thorin replied with a remarkably straight face. "Dwalin, Dori; get your oars ready. It's time to leave this blasted forest behind."

 


 

To Bilbo's honest surprise, the raft did not sink and drown them all that first day. It held together even with all their weight, and was easy to navigate up the river even with the currents pushing at it. Dwalin and Dori took turns rowing with Glóin and Thorin for hours at a time. He didn't know how they all managed to keep up such a cycle, but he was honestly impressed with their strength and endurance.

With nothing to do on the raft except wait, Bilbo turned his attention to preparing for the upcoming battle. It occurred to him that, in the event that he failed to protect his friends, then he would need to know how to help them. Since Gandalf was still gone he turned his attention to the next best healer around: Óin.

"You want me to teach you about healing?" the Dwarf repeated, staring at him with disbelief. "Why?"

"Because I want to learn?" offered the Hobbit.

Óin raised a bushy white brow in answer.

"Okay, maybe not just because of that," he admitted, scratching his neck. "I want to be able to help the others if they get hurt. I know about different herbs that I could use, but what I don't know is how to stitch up a wound, or cure an infection. I'm useless in this form and I don't wish to be any longer."

Óin sighed and shook his head. "That's why you want to learn? To help the others?"

"Yes?" he said slowly, unsure why it was a concern. Who else would he use the skills of healing on? The Orcs?

The Dwarf muttered something in Khuzdûl before switching back to Westron. "Very well, lad. I'll teach ya what you want."

"Thank you, Óin," he said, giving the Dwarf a smile. "I promise to listen to everything you have to say."

"Hmp. We'll see about that," the healer mumbled. "We'll start now with you telling me everything you know about herbs. Leave nothing out. I need to know what I'm working with here."

And so begun his studies into healing. For the rest of the day he listed all the herbs that he knew of and their many uses in medicine. Once done, Óin began to teach him about other uses that he had not known, and then showed him some of the new herbs that he carried. He then ordered the Hobbit to look for the new plants on their journey in order to learn where they were commonly grown.

"When you find some, pick them and add them to your collection," the healer ordered, gesturing to his pack. "Once you have enough I'll show the best way to use them."

The Hobbit nodded as he repeated everything he learned in his mind in order not to forget any of it. "Understood. And, thank you again for doing this for me. I do appreciate it."

Óin shrugged. "It's fine. Not as if we have anything else to do while sailing down this bloody river."

"True," he granted, grinning. "It does make the time pass faster."

The old Dwarf chuckled. "Indeed, burglar, indeed."

"How did you ever get into such a trade?" Bilbo wondered as he crossed his legs under him to sit more easily. "Glóin is a warrior yet you are a healer. What brought about such different professions?"

"Actually, Glóin is a banker by trade." Óin laughed when Bilbo looked at him in disbelief. "Don't look so surprised! My brother is a lot smarter than he lets on. He's always been good with numbers so our parents encouraged him to build on that. He had just finished his apprenticeship when Erebor was attacked."

"But… he's always going on about fighting! I thought for sure that he was part of the army or guards like Dwalin," the Hobbit replied, straining his head around the others to get a look at the redhead. It was Glóin's turn to row and he was concentrating on his task, and was thankfully paying them no mind. He didn't want the Dwarf to know how surprised he was to hear that he was trained in such an intelligent trade.

"All Dwarves are warriors, lad. It is mandatory for both males and females to train in combat for a number of years before we are allowed to start on our trade of choice," the healer explained patiently. "But after Erebor fell many of us had to give up our trades and take other jobs to survive. Glóin decided to work as a guard for traveling merchants, and has stayed with it since the pay is good."

"I… I never knew that." As with Nori, he had not given much thought to what sort of life the others had before Erebor fell. He did not think they would be so very different from what he knew. "Then what is your trade? Were you always a healer?"

"Aye. I got lucky. A healer is something that is always needed no matter where ya go," the Dwarf confirmed. "Others were not so lucky. Balin went from a scholar to a merchant; Dori was a weaver but gave it up for manual labor; and Thorin was a prince who became a blacksmith."

"Thorin was a blacksmith?" he repeated, stunned. He knew the king had experience with crafting weapons but he never knew it went so far. Thorin had certainly never made any mention of it the first time around.

"Best you'll ever meet," boasted Óin. "If you ever need a sword or an axe made then he's the one to go to. He makes the metal sing."

"Óin, stop lying to him," Thorin suddenly ordered from where he sat. He had gotten stuck between his nephews and was now acting as their bed. Fíli, with his arms crossed, was leaning against his uncle's shoulder to sleep while Kíli had simply sprawled across his lap like a pup.

Óin waved a dismissive hand at him. "They're hardly lies. You are the best blacksmith around and we all know it."

Thorin rolled his eyes as the others around them agreed.

"I believe it," Bilbo added honestly because he knew that Óin didn't lie. The healer saw no point to it.

Thorin sniffed and looked away, but Bilbo could still see the faint curl to his lips.

 


 

The days continued to pass in a slow cycle. Soon one day became two and then eventually three until finally four. The raft was still remarkably holding up but Bilbo noticed that the currents were beginning to grow stronger as they journeyed further and further north. When he voiced his concern to the others, they admitted to noticing the same thing, but were waiting until the river became too rough to navigate through before they returned to land.

"We save more time riding the river over walking it," Balin pointed out when he asked why. "We need to take advantage of it for the time being."

"But what if we don't get off the river in time?" Bilbo pressed, ignoring the groans and sighs around him. He didn't care that the others were most likely finding his worry annoying at that point. He would rather have them alive and annoyed with him than dead and silent.

"We won't," Balin reassured with eyes that were soft and warm. "We will land soon enough. I promise."

The Hobbit sighed and his shoulders slumped. "If you say so."

It took another two days before they finally decided to make their way back to land. The east side of the river was clear of trees and overgrowth and boasted enough room for them to walk again. The currents were also beginning to grow stronger and rougher; making it much harder to navigate through. The slow trickle of rain also paid a part in the decision as it threatened to flood their raft.

"We need to get off the river before the rain picks up," Bofur pointed out as he tugged his hat lower.

"But how? I don't think we can get the raft close enough to the banks to land," Kíli said, pointing to the jagged rocks that blocked their way.

"Fíli, use what rope we have left and a hook and throw it to one of the trees," Thorin ordered his nephew. "Dori and Dwalin, try to get us as close as possible. The rest of you get ready to jump."

The Company did as commanded with Dori and Dwalin pushing against the currents while Fíli tried his best to hook onto one of the trees. Eventually he managed to hook it onto a branch and then tied the rope to the raft. Slowly they drifted closer to the banks until the rocks blocked them and they had no choice but to jump.

"Ori, Fíli, and Kíli will go first," the king ordered, gesturing to the three youngest members. "The rest will follow after. Quickly now, move!"

Bilbo watched as one Dwarf after another leaped to the shore. Each jump made his heart beat faster only to slow down again when they reached the safety of the banks. When Thorin turned to him, he shook his head and stepped back.

"I will go last—" he begun to say only to be interrupted by the Dwarf.

"No, you will go now," Thorin declared before hoisting him up by his coat and tossing him off the raft and towards the shore.

He couldn't help but screech as he flew through the air before landing harshly in the arms of Fíli and Kíli. The three of them hit the dirt in a tangle of limbs and groans and bruised flesh. Bilbo rolled off of Kíli and got to his feet awkwardly; all the while glaring at the king on the raft.

"You're going to pay for that!" he yelled as Bofur leaped from the raft next. "I mean it!"

Thorin ignored him but Bilbo could see his sharp smirk even from the banks.

"Aww, don't be like that. He was just trying to help," Kíli tried to console as he climbed to his feet with his brother.

Bilbo simply gave him the same look his mother used to give him whenever he used her good sheets as a canvas for painting. In return, Kíli went wide-eyed and ducked behind Fíli.

Eventually all the Dwarves made it safely to the shore with Thorin coming last. Once the king was safe on land once more, Bilbo marched up to him and poked him in the chest as hard as possible. He would have kicked him but the Dwarf was wearing steel boots and his feet were not up to it.

"Never. Do. That. Again," he growled, glaring up at the royal warrior.

To his frustration, Thorin didn't look at all remorseful or threatened.

"If you keep insisting on risking your life for others then be prepared to have them do the same," the Dwarf retorted, poking him back in the forehead. Bilbo batted his hand away in annoyance as the others snickered around them.

"We'll make camp here for now," Thorin announced, turning to the rest of the Company. "See if we can set up some sort of shelter from the rain. We also need to replenish our food and water supplies. Get as much rest as possible for tomorrow we continue on foot."

 


 

At the first hint of dawn they walked on.

They followed the river as it twisted and turned and continued on as far as the eye could see. Bilbo could not estimate how far it stretched but he hoped it was not as far as it felt. In the distance he could see the Lonely Mountain at it stretched out toward the sky; sharp and jagged with snowy tips. It stood out like a lighthouse in a raging sea; a source of light to guide them through the perils to come.

"The Lonely Mountain… it's really beautiful," Kíli admitted to him as they trudged on under the afternoon sun.

"It is," Bilbo agreed, pushing his hair out of his face, "very lovely. I'm sure it's even better up close."

Kíli nodded; still staring at the mountains with a look of wonder. "Yeah, I bet it is. I didn't think I would ever see it like this."

He had to raise his brows at that. "You didn't think your uncle wouldn't try to reclaim Erebor?"

"No, I knew he would one day," the Dwarf admitted. "I just never gave it much thought. I grew up hearing stories about the glory and beauty of Erebor, but that's all they ever were: stories. Seeing it now has finally made it real to me. Something more than just a story my ma would tell me before bed."

Bilbo had not thought of that. "That's… actually quite understandable. It is hard to miss something that you have never known."

"That's what Fíli said," the brunet agreed, brushing his dark hair out of his eyes. "Me, him, and Ori—we were all born outside of Erebor. Me and Ori were lucky 'cuz we were born in a house, but ma had Fíli on the road. It was only her and our father and she always said they were lucky he survived. Dwarves have a hard time in childbirth."

"That's possibly the saddest birthing story I ever heard," the Hobbit said honestly. "I think it almost beats out my cousin Flambard. His mother didn't even know she was pregnant at the time and had passed him off as the runs. She was in for a surprise when she went to the privy and ended up with a baby instead."

Kíli cackled. "That is sad! You have to tell that story to Fíli! Maybe now he'll stop pulling that card on our ma."

"I will." He paused, thinking of how to phrase his next question without being intrusive. "Your father… I've never heard any of you speak of him."

Kíli looked at him with surprise but didn't seem defensive. Instead he shrugged and said, "Yeah, well, he died a long time ago in a battle. Happened a couple years after I was born. Me and Fíli don't really remember him."

Bilbo winced in sympathy. "I'm sorry to hear that. I'm sure he was a fine Dwarf."

"That's what Thorin always says," the Dwarf agreed, grinning. "He always tells us stories if we ask him, and he says that Fíli got his glare and I got his smile."

"Was it hard growing up without a father?" he wondered because he honestly never had to experience that.

The brunet scoffed. "Of course not! We had Thorin around for that. He's a good enough father to us."

Bilbo had thought as much. "He seems to agree. He treats you both as his own sons."

To his surprise, Kíli frowned and shook his head. "I don't know about that. He treats us good, yeah, and me and Fíli have always thought of him as our da. But Thorin always reminds us of who our real father is, and makes us visit his grave and family. I don't think he likes the idea of being our da."

"Or maybe he's trying not to replace your father in respect for his memory," the Hobbit pointed out because he had heard this story before. He had struggled with finding a balance between uncle and father to Frodo for a long time. It was not until his nephew was nearly grown that he finally stopped feeling guilty for loving the lad as his own.

Kíli still didn't look convinced. "Maybe."

"You should ask him yourself if you don't believe me," he suggested. "I'm sure he'll tell you the same thing."

"Err, I'd rather not. Those types of talks are awkward."

"What, you mean talks that involve feelings?"

"Yeah, those! Rather just avoid them," the Dwarf explained.

"Shame. I've found that those conversations are usually the most important."

"Kíli is no good with words," explained Fíli, joining the conversation without an invitation. "It's a wonder Balin was able to teach him how to read at all."

In response, Kíli casually kicked his brother in the back of the knee. Fíli tripped but managed to keep himself from falling.

"I know how to read," the younger Dwarf insisted, pouting slightly. "I just don't like to. It's boring! I always fall asleep in the beginning!"

Bilbo patted the prince on the arm. "It's fine; not everyone likes to read. It doesn't make you stupid or bad with words no matter what your brother says."

Kíli stuck his tongue out at Fíli in victory.

"He's only being nice to you to make you feel better," the blond shot back with a look of mock pity. "Our burglar doesn't want to say the truth 'cuz he knows you'll cry."

Bilbo sighed as Kíli finally gave up on subtly and simply tackled his older brother. As the two began to curse in Khuzdûl and roll around in the dirt, he drifted off to speak to the next Dwarf nearest to him.

"What do your tattoos mean?" the Hobbit asked, smiling brightly up at the tall Dwarf.

Dwalin scowled and refused to look at him. "Don't you have someone else to bother?"

"Not yet. You're the next one on my list," explained Bilbo, trying not to smirk.

"I'm not going to tell you my life story, burglar," the Dwarf said bluntly.

"I'm not asking for it. I'm asking about your tattoos."

"My tattoos are my life story."

"Oh!" Bilbo had not thought of the tattoos as that, but it made sense when the Dwarf put it that way. "So each one is about a certain event in your life? Or maybe a time? How do you decide on the tattoo for that matter?"

Dwalin finally sighed and closed his eyes. He looked like he was searching for patience that probably didn't exist.

"The quicker you answer the faster I'll leave you alone," he pointed out because common sense wasn't exactly a common trait even among Elves.

"Fine," the warrior growled, opening his eyes. "A Dwarf gets a tattoo for special events that happen in their life. The first is when they come of age. The second is after the mastery of their trade. Others are the victory of their first battle; the bonding to your One; and the birth of a child. Finally they may ink themselves in memory of the deceased."

"But you have much more tattoos then the ones you listed," he noticed. "What are all those extras for?"

"They are for battles that I have fought. As a warrior it is acceptable to tattoo my victories or defeats in combat," Dwalin explained with a bored tone.

Bilbo studied the interlocked shapes on the other's skull. They were dark green and faded but the patient artistry of the tattoos was still clear. He could not imagine how long it had taken the artist, or how much pain Dwalin had endured for them.

"The others… do they have tattoos? Because I haven't seen any," he wondered, realizing for the first time that the others could also have tattoos.

The warrior grunted. "They have them. They're just covered at the moment."

"Do they all look like yours?"

"The shapes are likely to be similar, aye, but they're different." Dwalin paused and then added, "Unless it's the name of a clan, or guild then it's always the same."

"So every Dwarf gets a tattoo when they become an adult. What if they don't wish for one?"

"Then they don't get one. It's not a mandatory thing to do; just traditional," clarified Dwalin. He looked Bilbo up and down slowly before meeting his gaze.

"Hobbits don't have tattoos," the Dwarf pointed out. He didn't sound disapproving or mocking; simply stating a fact.

Bilbo nodded and explained, "My people find it improper. Tattoos, piercings, and even a bad haircut is thought of as indecent."

"Sound like a bunch of tight asses," the warrior replied with a snort.

"We can be at times," the Hobbit admitted easily, "but every race has their flaws."

Dwalin smirked. "Really? Then what's ours?"

"Your lust for gold," he answered without hesitation.

"What?" Dwalin spat, looking outraged. "That is not a flaw! It is a gift!"

Bilbo rolled his eyes and simply said one word: "Smaug."

The warrior stopped short. After a few seconds he nodded grudgingly. "Fine. I'll give you that."

"Thank you," he replied cheerfully, "and if it makes you feel any better, I find Elves to be worse with their superiority complex. Very annoying."

Dwalin stared at him for a moment before he threw his head back and laughed. "Well said, burglar, well said!"

Bilbo smiled back and basked in hearing the gruff warrior laugh and laugh.

 


 

It had been a long time since he had a nightmare. Bilbo had forgotten how unpleasant they could be.

the fire burns through cloth, hair, skin and bones until there is nothing left but ashes. He screams and tries to move to his friends but he can't break through the chains that hold him back. He can only scream and watch as Smaug burns his friends alive one by one as the ring laughs at him in the back of his mind.

"Failed them again," the ring taunts, and then laughs and laughs and laughs

"—lbo! Bilbo! Wake up!"

His eyes snapped open and he sat up in one motion and cracked his head against the Dwarf leaning over him. Bilbo hissed and grabbed his head as a sharp pain raced through his skull. He heard a low curse before two strong hands wrapped around his wrists, and pulled them down away from his head.

"Damn. Think it's gonna bruise," he heard the other mutter. "Last time I get close to you when you're asleep."

Bilbo finally opened his watery eyes to glare at the king before him. "Why were you leaning over me to begin with?"

"I was trying to wake you up from your unpleasant dream," Thorin explained, still examining the Hobbit's forehead. He rubbed at the spot and Bilbo hissed as a spike of pain hit him again. The Dwarf immediately dropped his hand.

"Sorry," Thorin apologized, looking sheepish. "I thought it would help the pain."

"No, I think touching it just makes it worse," the Hobbit admitted. He peeked around the campsite and found that the rest of their companions were still sound asleep despite all the noise they were making.

"What are you doing up?" he wondered, turning his eyes back to the king. "I thought it was Bifur's turn tonight?"

"He was tired so I took his shift," the Dwarf explained.

Bilbo scowled at that. "And when are you planning to sleep?"

"When I'm dead," Thorin deadpanned. When he saw the look Bilbo made at his answer, he lost his expressionless look and rolled his eyes.

"I've been pushing everyone to move faster so it's natural that I should let them rest," he explained simply.

Bilbo still didn't approve and had no problem showing it with a scowl. "If you fall asleep on the road tomorrow then I'm kicking you awake. In the ribs."

"I'll try to land on my back to make it easier for you," the king promised.

He groaned but couldn't fight the smile that replaced the scowl. "You're ridiculous, but you have my thanks for waking me up. I don't enjoy nightmares."

"You kept tossing and muttering in your sleep," explained Thorin with a frown. "You looked very upset. What was your dream about?"

Bilbo bit his lower lip and glanced around the camp again. "I dreamt that Smaug killed everyone. I was forced to watch it all while bound and helpless. It… It was a horrifying dream."

"That does sound… unpleasant," the Dwarf agreed, furrowing his brows. "It was not what I was expecting to hear, but it makes sense considering it's you."

"I don't understand. Why does it make sense now?" the Hobbit asked. He honestly did not understand where Thorin was coming from.

The king waved a hand to their sleeping comrades. "You value our Company very much. I've seen how you willingly put yourself in danger for each of them; as if they are your very kin. You respect us, listen to us, and silently adore us from afar. That is why I am not surprised that your greatest fear would be to see us die."

Bilbo felt his face slowly turn red. He knew he had been less then subtle with his attempts to protect the Dwarves, but hearing it laid out by Thorin was a bit embarrassing. Hearing it from another made him realize that he sounded a bit off in the head.

"What I don't understand though," continued Thorin, paying no heed to his blush, "is why. Why do you risk so much to protect us? From the very beginning you made it clear that you wouldn't hesitate to give your life for us. Why do that? What did we do to earn such loyalty and devotion?"

Bilbo closed his eyes and released a heavy sigh. "There is a reason for that. But it is not one I can share with you just yet."

The king scowled. "Why? What is holding you back?"

"I can't say. It's part of the reason why I want to protect you all," the Hobbit explained, giving a half shrug. "But what I can say is that after Smaug is dead and Erebor has been reclaimed, I will sit down and tell you everything. Does that sound acceptable?"

"I hate waiting," the Dwarf said bluntly, still scowling, "but I will grant your wish and leave it alone for now. But it better be a damn good reason."

He laughed and then quickly smothered it with one hand as the Dwarves around him shifted. "It is a good reason; one I think you will find unbelievable."

"I lost my home to a dragon," the other reminded, rolling his eyes. "Nothing is unbelievable to me at this point."

I'm counting on that.

"You should go back to sleep. I'm sure you won't have any nightmares now," suggested Thorin as he got to his feet.

Bilbo wrinkled his nose and wiggled out of his bedroll. "Nope. I'm going on watch with you. If you insist on being a martyr then I will be one too."

"We don't need two people on watch," the Dwarf pointed out, glaring at him. "Go back to sleep. We have hours still till dawn."

He ignored the look and got to his feet. "Not happening. I'm joining you whether you like it or not."

"Stubborn little thing aren't you?" the other mumbled to himself as he stalked off to his post. Bilbo simply grinned and followed after him.

"Complain as much as you like; I know you're pleased for the company," he teased, taking a seat next to the king and stretching his legs out before him.

"I happen to enjoy my solitude," retorted Thorin. "I like the company of my kin, of course, but I also need space from them lest I strangle them."

"I understand. I like to be with friends and family too, but I also prefer my own company at the end of the day."

"Yet here you are. With me. Interrupting my solitude," the Dwarf reminded him.

"I'm not leaving so give it up," he advised the king, rolling his eyes. "Now, tell me about Erebor."

Thorin stared at him. "What?"

"Erebor. Tell me what it was like. I know so little about this city other than it's your home. It would be nice to know what to expect," Bilbo explained because he really didn't know much about the city. He had never gone back to it after it had been reclaimed, and he had avoided any books or rumors of the place for a long time. It was too much to hear about the city that housed the bodies of his fallen friends.

Thorin continued to stare at him for a moment before casting his gaze out to the horizon. "Erebor… Erebor was not what most would consider beautiful. It was too cold for the Elves and too dark to the Men. There were no plants or windows or sunshine. It was all stone and jewels and sharp edges. But it was beautiful to us. The stone the Elves called cold was a source of comfort and protection. The darkness the Men feared was a challenge to dig deeper and further. The uncut jewels were our plants and the sparkle of gold our sunshine. We lived everyday with the warm whisper of our mother stone in our ears, and in the protective shelter of her embrace. There is no place in the world quite like it and there never will be."

Bilbo closed his eyes and tried to imagine the city that the king described. He tried to see past the decay and ruin that he recalled, and pictured a bustling mountain with a glittering ceiling of jewels and metal. He imagined the warmth and closeness of so many living together in such a small space; all going about their business while basking in the protection the mountain offered against the outside world. He thought of the artistry of Dwalin's tattoos and imagined that same talent being used to create homes and books and weapons. And he imagined the powerful and dutiful king that would give his life to bring it all back again.

Eventually he drifted off to sleep with Thorin's deep voice in his ear, and the memory of a lost city in his dreams.

 


 

Seven days later and they still were not at Lake-town. Bilbo found the days passed in a blink and they still seemed so very far away from the Lonely Mountain. He watched the distance everyday; hoping that soon they would see the end of the Forest River. But at the end of the day he found himself disappointed and anxious as time marched on.

He tried his best not to focus on his worry and turned his attention to his companions. He continued training with Glóin—who had deemed his swordsmanship passable and moved on to teaching him hand-to-hand combat—in the evening when they had time. Training how to throw punches and kicks turned out to be more brutal than he had expected; soon he found himself with swollen knuckles and skinned knees.

"I feel like a child," he complained one night as Bofur helped him wrap up his bruised and swollen hands.

"You just started," the miner reminded him. "Give it time and your hands will get used to it. For now keep the bandages on. It will help with the swelling."

He sighed but did as told and tried his best to ignore the pain in his hands.

It took another three days before they finally—finally—reached their destination.

"Is… Is that it?" Ori asked softly, tugging on Dori's arm. The rest of the Dwarves all stopped and stared with mixed expressions.

Bilbo swallowed the lump in his throat as they all took in the town built on water with the Lonely Mountain looming behind it. "Yeah. Yeah, that's it."

Here we go again.

 


 

Chapter Text

 


 

"So… what's the plan?" Bilbo asked as they made their way to the long and thin bridge that would lead them to Lake-town. It was the only way for them to pass over the lake without a boat, and it stretched on into a fog that not even his Hobbit eyes could see through.

"We restock what we can in the town. Then we continue to Erebor," Thorin explained, leading the group.

"Great. Wonderful. But what if the citizens of Lake-town object to our little adventure? I don't think they really want to risk making Smaug angry," he pointed out.

"They will not stop us," Thorin said with certainty. "We are too close to fail now. We will retake Erebor or die trying."

Bilbo couldn't help but flinch.

"I'd rather it not come to that," he said quietly.

Bifur was the only one who heard him and he gently patted the Hobbit on the shoulder. He made a sign with his other hand that he roughly translated to mean, 'It won't come to that.'

When they reached the bridge, Bilbo looked ahead at the two guards on duty in front of the locked gate. They were drinking and laughing over something between them with their weapons abandoned at their feet. The group was halfway across the bridge before they were finally noticed by the two Men.

"Halt! Who are you and what do you want?" yelled one as the other cursed and spilt his drink down his shirt.

Thorin looked them over with an arched brow, obviously unimpressed. "I am Thorin Oakenshield, son of Thráin, son of Thrór, and I have come for my kingdom."

The two young Men simply stared at him.

"You're a Dwarf," said the one who had spilled his drink.

"And you're the village idiot," Thorin returned easily, and then pushed past the two without hesitation.

"Wait a minute! You can't just barge in without permission!" cried the first Man who had spoken. He swung himself in front of the king and leveled his rusted and dull sword at him. "Step back now!"

Thorin looked to the blade for a moment before turning to Dwalin. The taller Dwarf stepped forward and calmly broke the sword in half with his hands. The broken piece fell to the ground, and the two Men stared at it as if it had just insulted their entire lineages.

"Wow. This is reaching a new level of pathetic," Bofur commented, wincing.

Bilbo mentally agreed and stepped forward to save the two from further humiliation. "Would you please inform your lord of our arrival? We must speak with him as soon as possible."

The two guards turned to look at him, and the second one pointed a finger at him. "Who are you? What are you?"

"The one trying to save you from making a bigger fool of yourself," he replied sweetly. "We simply wish to speak to your leader. Now let us in before you say something even stupider."

"I kind of want to see that," admitted Kíli.

The first guard at least had the sense to pull his friend away and gestured to the gate. "F-Fine. Follow us then. But don't try anything! We have a lot of soldiers on guard inside."

Nori snorted as they followed the Men into the town. "If they're anything like you two, I'm sure we'll be fine."

 


 

Lake-town looked exactly as Bilbo remembered. The wooden buildings were still suspended above the water as if floating. There were few roads or streets to be seen; mostly there were canals with boats, and bridges built high above them to connect the homes. The air was chilly and he could smell of stench of dead fish and lake water even miles away.

"Wow," Ori said, staring up at the buildings with round eyes. "How did they do that? I never heard of houses on water before."

"The town is held up on wooden pillars sunk into the bed of the lake," Bilbo explained, gesturing to the water around them.

Behind them, Glóin snorted. "Foolish idea. One day those pillars will collapse from water damage and the whole city will fall with it."

Ori paled at the idea and even Bilbo could help but shudder at the image that sprung to mind. "Glóin, please don't speak of that. Especially since we are currently in the town."

The Dwarf shrugged, looking unrepentant. "I'm just calling it as I see it."

"Then kindly call it away from my brother," Dori snapped from further back.

Glóin simply rolled his eyes in return.

The two Men led the Company through the streets without fail. Occasionally they would glance behind at the group before turning back and whispering something to one another. Bilbo wondered if they were eyeing up their weapons, or simply judging their clothes. He couldn't be sure from his spot in line.

Around them, the Men and Women of Lake-town stopped to stare at them with mixed reactions. Some looked surprised or excited while others looked weary and suspicious. He didn't begrudge them for their looks. They were about to bring an angry dragon down on their heads after all.

Eventually they came to a familiar building that housed the Master of Lake-town. He couldn't say he was looking forward to meeting the greedy Man again, but they couldn't avoid him. They would need his permission if they wanted a chance to rest and restock their supplies. As the Men walked up the wooden steps to the door, Bilbo hurried to Thorin's side in order to stall what he knew was coming.

"Please don't make a dramatic entrance when they open the doors," the Hobbit asked softly.

"Why not? It's rather fun shocking them," the king replied without looking at him.

"And it may also get us thrown out," he retorted, frowning. "Can't you just talk to the lord of this place nicely? Without making a scene that may get us banned forever more?"

Thorin sighed and finally looked at him. "I can't promise the 'nice' bit but I won't announce my presence. Yet."

Bilbo relaxed as they finally stood before the doors. "Thank you."

"Hmp. I liked it better when I was feared," the Dwarf grumbled.

"I was never afraid of you," he reminded.

Thorin's lips twitched. "I know."

Then the doors were thrown open and they were bathed in light.

He squinted through the sudden brightness and took in the large chamber before him. Tables stretched from the door to the other side of the room, and were filled with food and folk. At the end of the chamber he spotted the piggy Master of Lake-town seated in his great chair. At the slam of the doors opening, all attention was turned on them.

"What is the meaning of this?" demanded the Master of Lake-town as he slipped out of his seat.

"Master, these Dwarves have come to speak to you," said the smarter guard. He gestured to Thorin and added, "This one was going on about a kingdom to claim or something."

Thorin took that as his cue to step forward and introduce himself. "I am Thorin Oakenshield, son of Thráin, son of Thrór, and we are the Dwarves of Erebor!"

There was a moment of silence before chaos erupted. Bilbo flinched at the loud of pitch of many voices talking and shouting at once. He watched as the Master hurried over to them while waving to his guests to calm down. When he reached them, he quickly gestured for the guards and pointed to a door off to the side.

"Escort them to my office. I will listen to them there," he ordered. "The rest of you see to our guests. Let them know everything is fine."

The plump Man led them through the door and down a hall and into another room that was much smaller and taken up by bookshelves and a desk. It was a tight fit with so many in the room but somehow they made it work. The Master took a seat at his desk, and then gazed at them all with a look that said he had no idea what to make of them.

"So, you say you are… Torin?" the Master asked slowly.

"Thorin," the king corrected as he stood across the table from him. Somehow he was managing to look down at the Man even with the difference in height. "I am Thorin Oakenshield, King Under the Mountain. I have returned to reclaim my city and get rid of Smaug once and for all."

The Man simply kept staring. "Oh. Is… Is that so?"

"We have come to ask for your permission to stay in your town for a few days," added Balin, his tone gentle and calm. "We are tired from our long walk and would like to prepare before we leave again."

"Oh, of course. We would be happy to… help," the Master replied, blinking and looking around at all the Dwarves that had gathered. When his eyes landed on Bilbo, he stopped and stared again.

"You… You are not a Dwarf," he realized, his watery blue eyes scanning the Hobbit from head to toe.

Bilbo shook his head and pushed back his bangs so he could see more clearly. "No, I'm not. I'm a Hobbit from the west, and my name is Bilbo Baggins."

"A Hobbit?" the Man repeated, blinking rapidly. "What are you doing here with a bunch of Dwarves?"

He gave a one-shoulder shrug. "Trying to keep them alive."

From a dark corner of the room—because no one appreciated a cliché like Dwarves did—Nori scoffed loudly. "More like us trying to keep you alive."

In response, Bilbo made a rude gesture at him behind his back.

"Right." The Master didn't look any less confused as he ran a hand through his thinning red hair. "For lodgings I can get you a private house to stay in. For supplies I can recommend several fine merchants to visit. Does this sound fair?"

"It does. And what will this all cost?" Thorin asked, narrowing his eyes.

"Well, what do you have?" the Master returned.

Calmly, the Dwarf reached into one of his many pockets and pulled out a gold necklace with a ruby at the end. The Master's eyes lit up at the sight of it and his mouth fell open slightly.

"Will this do?" the king asked, tossing the necklace onto the table.

The Man quickly scooped it up while nodding. "Y-Yes, this will do nicely. I will have my Man escort you and your companions to your lodgings."

Thorin tipped his head forward slightly in gratitude. "Thank you."

"B-But w-we also must discuss your plan to confront S-Smaug," the Master added quickly. "Tomorrow will you return here to explain it in greater detail?"

The Dwarf stared at him for a long moment with hooded eyes. The look reminded Bilbo of a sleepy wolf that had just been rudely awoken by a bumbling elk.

"Very well," the king finally drawled, tilting his head to the side. "I will return here at noon tomorrow. Is that satisfactory?"

The Master nodded quickly; his face pale and his watery eyes large. "O-Of course! W-Whatever you l-like, my good sir."

The Dwarf smiled back with all his teeth exposed. "Good."

 


 

The house they were granted was the same as the one he remembered. It was large and looked newly built but it was also cramped with too much furniture. But there were rooms for them to share and a kitchen with a full pantry so no one complained. The sun had set long ago, and so when they arrived at the house, most of the Company went straight to bed. A few were still awake, and when Bilbo saw that Thorin was one of them, he made a beeline for the king sitting by the fire.

Thorin nodded in greeting as he took a seat across from him. The chair was large and much too tall for him, but Bilbo didn't mind the awkward size. It was soft and padded and it took him off his sore feet; that was enough for him.

Thorin watched him struggle into the chair while calmly smoking his pipe. When the Hobbit was finally seated, he raised one brow in question. "I thought you would join the others and go to sleep. We certainly earned a good rest by now."

"I'll go to sleep soon enough," assured Bilbo, shrugging. "But first I want to know what you're going to tell the Master tomorrow."

"The truth," the Dwarf answered bluntly. "There is no point in lying to him."

"Fair enough. But what if he refuses to let us leave?" he pointed out. "He must know the threat our goal poses to him and this town."

"Then we will escape without his permission," retorted Thorin. "Don't worry, burglar. We will get to Erebor one way or another."

He sighed and leaned back into his oversized chair. "I just don't want our visit here to end in violence."

"It won't as long as they cooperate," the Dwarf muttered around his pipe.

Bilbo rolled his eyes but didn't fight the smile that slipped across his face. "So stubborn. It's a wonder you Dwarves get anything done with such an attitude."

Thorin stared at him for a moment before narrowing his eyes slowly. "Stop that. Now."

"Stop what?" the Hobbit asked, blinking in surprise.

Thorin gestured to his mouth with his pipe and explained, "The smiling. Stop it."

Bilbo was now even more confused. "What? Why?"

"Never mind why. Just stop it," the Dwarf ordered with a scowl.

Bilbo stared at the Dwarf for a moment before his Took side got the better of him. Slowly, he leaned forward and smiled as widely as he could at the king. In response, Thorin dropped his pipe to the ground and looked away.

"You are vile," the Dwarf cursed, his scowl growing fiercer.

The Hobbit laughed and kept smiling. "Come now, it's all in good fun. After all, I rarely get a chance to one up the King Under the Mountain."

"Are you joking? You talk back and argue with me all the time! I'm beginning to think that my nephews will never fear my temper again thanks to you."

Bilbo privately thought that there had been no fear there to begin with, but decided to allow Thorin his delusions. "Well you can't blame only me. You're so damn complicated that you make me frustrated."

"I'm complicated?" Thorin repeated, pointing to himself. "I'm complicated? Master Burglar, in all my years I have never met a more unpredictable creature than you. I could spend the rest of eternity trying to understand how your mind works, and I would still need more time."

Bilbo felt rather offended at that claim. "I am not complicated! I'm a simple Hobbit who enjoys good food and relaxing with a good book—"

"And who also goes on suicidal missions with a bunch of Dwarves that he's never met before. He then spends this journey arguing with kings, insulting Orcs, poisoning trolls, and turning his companions' hair white from his antics," the warrior recounted with a smirk. "Yes, all very normal."

He opened his mouth to argue only to realize that he had nothing to say. It was all quite true, after all. When Thorin saw that he was speechless, his smirk grew wider and he laughed.

Why am I saving him again? the Hobbit brooded as the Dwarf cackled. I'm sure there was a good reason. Maybe. Possibly.

"I still don't think I'm complicated," he grumbled, crossing his arms over his chest. "Those that know me well would tell you the same."

Thorin snorted. "I know you well enough."

He highly doubted that. "Hardly. You've known me only half a year and most of that time you didn't even speak to me."

"I don't need to speak to you to know you," the Dwarf objected with a frown. "All I have to do is watch. That's why I know that you prefer to sleep outside the group, and that you always lay on your side with your feet uncovered. I know that you dislike the cold and love the sun. I know that you prefer Bombur's cauliflower soup to his rabbit one. I know that you like flowers because every time you see one you smile. I know that your favorite color is blue because nearly all of your clothes are that color. I know that you adore the coat Dori made for you because you never take it off. I know that your favorite pipe-weed is Old Toby because your pack smells of it. And finally I know that you don't value your own life, and will recklessly put yourself in danger for the sake of others."

Bilbo stared blankly at the Dwarf before him. His mind had gone into shock and his voice seemed to have run off somewhere. His feelings were a tangled mess of contradictions much like the stray pieces of yarn that Dori sometimes knotted together. Was he to feel impressed by Thorin's knowledge? Or maybe flattered? Angry? Sad? Happy? He couldn't pick a feeling out of all of them, and so was feeling them all at once.

"You… You noticed all that?" the Hobbit finally said, his voice quiet and small.

Thorin arched a single dark brow. "I notice everything."

"Oh." Bilbo didn't know what to say to that. He still hadn't even decided on a feeling yet. But his mind had at least caught up to him, and was now encouraging him to run away before he did something stupid.

"I… I think I'll turn in now," he said, trying to sound unfazed and failing miserably. He slid down off his chair and gave the King Under the Mountain a shaky smile. "Goodnight, Master Oakenshield."

"Thorin," the Dwarf corrected; still watching him with his wildfire eyes. "My name is Thorin."

Bilbo flinched. "O-Of course."

He then turned around and ran away from Thorin and his horribly beautiful words.

 


 

Bilbo got little sleep that night. Despite his warm and comfortable bed that felt like heaven after sleeping on rocks for weeks, he could not fall asleep. His body certainly ached from all the walking and training, but his mind was buzzing and active. The result of such a mix was a night of tossing and turning, and too much thinking.

He didn't know what to make of Thorin's words. How did the Dwarf know so much just from watching him? And for that matter, what was he doing watching the Hobbit in the first place? Did he do that with all their comrades? Or was Bilbo just a special case because he was a Hobbit? He had so many questions, and to his disgust they all made his heart beat quicken. A seed of hope had been planted in his heart that Thorin could possibly—maybe— feel something more than friendship for him.

Bilbo hated it.

He knew his place in life. He had accepted that he would always be Thorin's friend and nothing more. And even if Thorin came to love him—and he was under no illusion that would ever happen—there was still the matter of him being a Dwarf king. It was bad enough that they were not even the same race, but a king with a commoner? Hah! The others would laugh themselves sick over the idea. Thorin was of Durin's line and would only marry someone of equal birth. He could never be with a simple Hobbit.

Bilbo knew all of this—had lived in peace with it for eighty years, damnit—and yet his heart still had to go and start hoping for something that could never be. It made him feel disgusted with himself that he had so little control over his own emotions. He was supposed to be stronger this time around! He was supposed to be above daydreams and wishes and other romantic nonsense. He had lived his life already and had not come back to live it again, but to give others their first chance! He had no business thinking of anything else.

Make him love you, the ring offered in the back of his mind. Now that it knew of his weakness, it had been taunting him with promises of love and loyalty. It was slowly driving him insane.

It wouldn't be the same, he retorted sharply. It wouldn't be real.

It would, the ring crooned. A burning love, a true love. Never leave you alone again.

But it wouldn't be him, he stressed because the piece of jewelry was just not getting it. It wouldn't be his choice so it would all be a lie. I would never want such a thing.

It did not listen. Make him want you. Make him love you. Together, always. Always, always, always.

"Shut up," he hissed out loud. "Shut up, shut up, shut up!"

The ring simply laughed. Poor Hobbit. Alone Hobbit. Bilbo, alone. Poor, poor Bilbo; who will love you now?

He didn't bother with a reply. They both knew the answer to that question.

 


 

When he awoke the next day, Bilbo found that it was noon and most of his companions were gone.

"They went to explore the city and stock up," explained Glóin, sitting cross-legged and barefooted on the floor in a simple tunic and breeches. He had all his weapons spread out before him, and was going over each of them meticulously. "Pretty sure Fíli and Kíli are still sleeping upstairs, but the rest are gone."

"Did Thorin go to meet with the Master?" he asked, joining the Dwarf on the floor.

"Aye. Took Dwalin and Balin with him. Hopefully Balin will keep him from saying something stupid," the warrior said, rolling his eyes. "I'm not even going to bother hoping with Dwalin."

He laughed and leaned back on his hands. "I'm sure Balin will keep things calm. He's very good at that."

"He's a softie at heart all right," Glóin agreed, sharpening one of his knives. "But threaten his king or kin and he'll rip your throat out with his teeth before you can blink."

"Thank you for that lovely description," the Hobbit replied, making a disgusted face.

Glóin simply grinned, unrepentant.

Bilbo watched the Dwarf as he began to polish his knife. He couldn't see it very well as hair kept falling into his eyes. He pushed it back irritably only to have it fall back into place again.

"I need to cut my hair. It keeps getting in my way," he complained, running his hand through the mess of curls. "I should probably also brush it one of these days."

Glóin paused in his chore and his eyes went wide. "No! Don't do that! Just braid it back and it won't be in your way. Mahâl, don't ever cut your hair again! That's a horrible practice.

"But I'm a Hobbit. We don't favor long hair like all of you," the burglar reminded.

"Which is, again, a horrible idea," the Dwarf grumbled, wrinkling his nose. "I don't understand why you all do that. Even Men and Elves see the beauty in keeping your hair natural."

"Long hair is not considered attractive to hobbits," he explained, shrugging. "It weighs your curls down and looks messy. It is much cleaner and simpler to just cut it short."

Glóin still looked disgusted as he returned his attention to his weapons. "Still don't like it. For Dwarves, your hair and beard are very desirable traits. To even think of cutting either is a nightmare."

"So… is it only hair that you value? Do your people not find other traits attractive?" wondered the Hobbit.

"Aye, we also like muscle and large features," Glóin explained, waving his knife. "For example, the 'Ri brothers? Beautiful. Simply stunning. I've seen Dwarves get into fights over them. It is why Dori is so protective of his brothers. Those looks can bring about trouble."

Bilbo blinked slowly. He had never thought of the three brothers as beautiful; stunning, yes, amazing, sure, but beautiful? It had never crossed his mind. Of course, he also knew them individually as their own person, so it was possible that he had completely missed the appearance part.

"So then is Kíli considered ugly by your people?" he wondered as he pictured each Dwarf in his mind. He was slowly realizing that he was quite possibly traveling with some of the most desirable Dwarves around. It was rather mind boggling.

"To some, yes. His features are too delicate and fine right now," the Dwarf agreed. "But once he grows into his face and sprouts a beard, I'm sure he'll be quite handsome. But don't mention any of this to him. He's very sensitive about his looks."

"I won't," he promised. He never wanted to upset Kíli. It was much like kicking a puppy. It just hurt and made everyone angry.

"So what do hobbits like then?" asked Glóin, turning his attention to his axe. "If you don't like hair, then what else is there?"

"Well, having large and hairy feet is seen as attractive to many," explained Bilbo. "So is being large and round because it shows that you have a good appetite. Height isn't very important though some hobbits are attracted to that. Bombur would be considered very attractive even with all the hair."

Glóin raised his bushy brows. "Oh? Perhaps he should visit then. Might find himself a wife."

Bilbo winced. "Wasn't he already married?"

The Dwarf immediately looked remorseful. "Oh, aye, he was. Forgot about Bera for a moment there."

"Bera? That was her name? Did you know her then?"

"Mmm. She was a pretty little thing; almost as pretty as my Súna. She worked in the kitchens so I saw her in passing." Glóin frowned and his eyes darkened. "Poor thing didn't deserve to die the way she did. None of them deserved to die like that."

Bilbo didn't ask about who the rest were. He wasn't sure he wanted to know.

 


 

It was late afternoon when the rest of the Company began to trickle in.

"Bilbo! I got fresh vegetables to cook with tonight," Bombur said in greeting, bouncing into the room with a large beige sack.

"Wonderful. We'll eat well again," he replied, smiling at the cook's enthusiasm.

Bofur and Bifur sashayed in after him; each carrying their own bags of supplies that they dropped without a care.

"This town is too confusing," the miner declared, throwing himself down next to Bilbo on the floor, and pulling his hat over his face. "It's like a maze out there! I don't know how any of them find their way home."

Bifur scoffed and said something in Khuzdûl that made Bofur groan, and Bombur and Glóin snicker. Bilbo wisely decided that he didn't want to know.

"What did you buy?" he asked instead, looking to Bofur while Bifur helped Bombur drag their bags into the kitchen.

"Ehh, mostly food and stuff. Got some more rope and a tinderbox too. That's what we were ordered to look for," the Dwarf explained, his voice muffled under his hat. "The others are getting the rest."

Bilbo nodded thoughtfully. "Did anyone bother you three?"

"Nah. They stared and pointed but that was about all," the Dwarf replied. "Nothing we haven't seen before."

"No one is going to start a fight with us," Glóin reassured, reading his concerns easily. "And if they do then we'll show them why they shouldn't."

Bofur groaned and pulled his hat down to give Bilbo a weak glare. "Stop worrying. We're safe here."

"You don't know that," he argued back, thinking of Bard and his Men. "Not everyone is as dense as the Master. Some will make the connection between Dwarves and Erebor."

"I think you're giving these people too much credit," Bofur retorted, sitting up just enough so he could flop into Bilbo's lap. He pulled his hat back over his face and made himself comfortable on his new pillow. "Remember the two guards we met? I think that was their best."

"No, their best is likely waiting to see if we pose a threat to them," he rebuked sternly. "Don't underestimate this town."

Bofur snorted. "Not much to underestimate."

"I'm going to smother you," the Hobbit threatened, pushing down on the hat lightly. The Dwarf simply laughed in response.

The second group to return were the three brothers.

"I can't take you anywhere!" Dori complained as he stomped into the house with a sack very similar to Bombur's. He tossed it to the side and spun around to yell at the thief. "Can't you go one day without causing trouble?"

"Nope," replied Nori, sauntering in with another sack over his shoulder and a split lip. Ori followed shortly behind; looking rather calm about his arguing kin.

Bilbo immediately zoned in on the wound. "What happened? Were you attacked?"

"No, Nori just doesn't know when to keep his big mouth shut," Dori growled before switching to a furious rant in Khuzdûl. Nori replied in kind, and then they were off for another round. Bilbo had lost count of the score back in Mirkwood, but he had a feeling that Nori was winning.

Ori ignored them both and joined his comrades on the floor. He held up his much smaller bag proudly. "I got more ink and paper!"

"Did you get the fabric and oil?" asked Glóin.

"Nori has it," assured Ori. "The merchant didn't want to sell to us at first, but we managed to get it in the end."

Bilbo slowly narrowed his eyes. "Does Nori's lip have anything to do with that?"

Ori suddenly found the ceiling very interesting. "N-No, of course not. W-Why would you think that?"

"We have to work on your bluffing face," said Bofur from behind his hat. He still had not moved from his Hobbit pillow.

"You can't even see me!" protested the scholar.

Bofur snorted. "Don't need to. Your voice says it all."

Ori silently pouted.

The third and final group to return were the rest of their companions.

"—trust him. That Man is greedy and spineless!" yelled Dwalin as he marched in behind Thorin. Balin and Óin trailed after them; both looking tired and annoyed.

"He has agreed to let us leave without harassment. That is enough for me," countered Thorin, rolling his eyes.

"Indeed. Let it go, Dwalin," Balin pleaded, rubbing his forehead. "You're giving me a headache with your whining."

Dwalin scowled but listened to his brother. "Fine. But when we all end up in prison, don't come crying to me!"

"So dramatic," muttered Óin as the warrior stalked off with a huff. He nodded to the group sitting on the floor still before heading off to the rooms with his own sack of supplies.

"I take it the meeting went well?" Bilbo asked, smiling widely up at the remaining two Dwarves.

Thorin and Balin shared a look. "The Master will not give us any problems—" Balin began slowly.

"—because I have paid him not to," finished Thorin, eyes turning steely. "He was willing to look the other way for some gold trinkets. A cowardly Man as Dwalin claimed, but a useful one for the time being."

"He doesn't seem to care much for his people," Glóin commented, never looking away from the handle of his axe. "Says a lot about this place that they would choose such a Man for a leader."

Bilbo bit his bottom lip to keep from speaking. The Master of Lake-town had been cowardly and greedy, certainly, but that didn't mean the people were. They did not deserve the fiery fate that awaited them in the coming days.

"When are we leaving?" asked Ori, pausing in his writing to look up at the group. He had ink smeared across his face from where he had pushed away his braids. Bilbo sighed at the sight, and reached for his handkerchief.

"If we have everything, then tomorrow morning," replied Balin, his lips twitching slightly as he watched the Hobbit attempt to wipe the black marks from Ori's face. "If not then the day after, but no later than that. We cannot afford to linger here for very long."

"Indeed." Thorin stared down at the snoozing Bofur with an unblinking gaze. "What is he doing?"

"Cutting off the blood flow to my legs," grumbled Bilbo as he continued trying to clean the young Dwarf's face. Ori kept twitching away and wrinkling his nose at his touch instead of holding still, the brat.

Thorin scowled and barked something in Khuzdûl that had Bofur shouting and jumping up in a blink. The miner looked around before focusing on the king, and then tentatively said something in Khuzdûl. In reply, Thorin growled something low and made a gesture with one hand that made all the Dwarves stop and stare at him.

"Seriously?" said Bofur, brows raised high and his hair frazzled.

In response, Thorin narrowed his eyes.

"Fine, fine! I'm going, see?" The miner got to his feet and stuffed his hat on before marching off with a huff.

Bilbo watched him go before looking to the now smirking Thorin, and then finally to the exasperated Balin.

"What just happened?" he asked slowly.

Ori shook his head and patted him gently on the shoulder. "You don't want to know."

 


 

With the Company together once more, they began the long task of packing up their supplies, and checking to see what they still needed. Bilbo sat back through the whole ordeal; trying to avoid any attention and Thorin at the same time. He still could not face the king alone without recalling his words from the night before. It left him feeling awkward and unsure, and gave the ring more ammo to harass him. So he attempted to avoid the Dwarf until he could wrestle his feelings under control, and was able to ignore the goading of the ring.

Bilbo waited until his companions were all distracted with their tasks before he snuck out of the house. The sun was just beginning to set on the horizon, and the people of Lake-town were beginning to close up shop and head home. A few looked at him with a mix of wonder and suspicion, but were polite enough to give him directions when he asked. As quickly as he could, he slid through the streets and bridges of Lake-town until he came to a stop in front of an average looking house.

He could hear no sounds or voices coming from the home, but he thought he could see a hint of a fire and shadows from the windows. He stood on his toes and strained to get a better look, but unfortunately Men were unnaturally tall and built their homes the same way.

"Can I help you?"

Bilbo gasped and spun around, and then nearly collided with the Man standing behind him. He took a few steps back and looked up at the newcomer with an excuse on his lips, and froze. There was a familiar stranger before him.

Bard—the bowman, the slayer of Smaug, and the future king of Dale—was tall and commanding even dressed in his worn homespun clothes. His dark hair was pulled back in a familiar mess of curls, and his equally dark eyes could rival Thorin with their intensity. At his back was his longbow and sword while a quiver of arrows sat at his hips.

Bard stared down at him from his impressive height with a face of stone. "I don't like repeating myself," he warned calmly, never blinking. "Now, what do you want?"

Bilbo rested a hand against his beating heart and gave the Man a polite smile. "Ahh, sorry. You just surprised me for a moment. I'm looking for a Man named Bard, and was told that this was his home. Do you know where I can find him?"

"You're looking at him," the Man replied. "Again, what do you want?"

"My name is Bilbo Baggins, and I came here to ask you for a favor," the Hobbit explained, glancing around to make sure they were alone.

Bard's eyes narrowed. "What sort of favor?"

"A dragon sort," he replied, and smirked when the Man's eyes went wide. "Do I have your attention now?"

"Keep talking. What business do you have with Smaug?" the bowman demanded, crossing his arms over his broad chest.

"My Company and I intend to kill him and reclaim the city he has stolen," explained Bilbo.

Bard cursed. "The Dwarves who came last night—I knew they were trouble! I had thought they had something to do with the mountain, but hoped the Master would be wise enough to deny them entry to the ruins."

"The Master is willing to look the other way for some treasure," the Hobbit recounted, shrugging. "Personally, I'm still wondering how he ever got such a position with those morals."

"There wasn't a lot of competition," the human growled, beginning to pace back and forth. "When do they plan to leave?"

"Soon. Tomorrow morning, most likely," he replied, watching the future king carefully. "We are racing against time, you see, and cannot afford to delay for very long."

Bard cursed again under his breath. "Then I will need to gather the others tonight. We cannot let them leave—"

"No, you won't," Bilbo interrupted, making the Man pause in his frantic pacing. "You will not stop us from our goal. We will face Smaug one way or another."

"You would dare risk the lives of my fellows—the lives of my children—for the glory of a dead kingdom?" Bard questioned slowly. His dark eyes had gone hard while his hands shook with suppressed emotions.

Bilbo didn't flinch away. Instead, he took a step closer and raised his chin high to meet the Man's eyes. "No. I would risk them all for a chance to be rid of Smaug for good."

The bowman did not look convinced. "A foolish notion. Nothing can kill the beast."

"Wrong. I know how to kill him," the Hobbit countered calmly.

Bard snorted. "As if I believe that. You have not even seen the drake—"

"On his left breast, near his heart, he is missing a scale," he interrupted again without pause. "The rest of his vulnerable underbelly is protected by jewels except for this one spot. It is small and not very accessible, but if one was to use a bow…"

"Then they could expose this weakness," finished the human, his dark eyes growing round. He stared at the Hobbit as if he had started sprouting off the very meaning of life. "How… How do you know all this?"

Bilbo smiled and tapped the corner of his mouth. "That, I'm afraid, is a secret. But I will say that I am confident in this weakness. I am so confident that I signed onto a mission that has nothing to do with me, and left the safety and security of my home far to the west for it."

Bard simply kept staring. "I don't… Why are you telling me all of this?"

Bilbo lost his smile and grew serious. "Because I need your help, Bard. I need your help in bringing down Smaug once and for all."

 


 

When he returned to the house, he found that his absence had not been noticed by anyone. Well, almost everyone.

"Where did you slip off to?"

Bilbo glanced over his shoulder and gave the Dwarf before him a smile. "Just went for a walk. I wanted to see the town before we left tomorrow."

Dwalin raised one brow in answer. He was leaning against the doorframe with one leg bent and his arms crossed over his chest loosely. "Uh-huh. Anything else?"

"Nothing you need to know," he replied, feeling a pinch of annoyance. "You're not my mother. You don't need to keep track of me."

"Says the Hobbit with a death wish," Dwalin deadpanned.

He rolled his eyes in return. "For the last time, I don't have a death wish. I'm simply practical."

"More like dense," muttered the Dwarf as he pushed himself off the doorframe. He looped an arm around the Hobbit's shoulders and began to drag him along. "Well, either way, come along now. It's time for dinner and Bombur is already grumbling about the food getting cold."

Bilbo sniffed but allowed the Dwarf to guide him to the dining room. "I don't blame him. A cold meal is never very good."

"You would still eat it even if it was cold and dirty," scoffed the Dwarf.

"Of course. Wasting food is a terrible crime," he defended.

Dwalin simply snorted. "You hobbits are a strange lot. You eat twice as much as Dwarves and yet you are still so tiny. Where do you put it all?"

"We use up all of our energy rather quickly," Bilbo admitted, scratching his nose. "That's why we eat so often. It's to replenish our strength."

"Really? Then does that mean you haven't been getting enough food on our journey?" the Dwarf wondered with a frown. "Have you been starving this entire time?"

Bilbo shook his head quickly. "No, no, I'm fine! I've been getting enough to eat! When I can I've been picking nuts and fruit to snack on. It's been enough."

"But you need more than rabbit food to live off of," the warrior protested, his frown never wavering. "Why don't you eat more from our stock of food?"

"It wouldn't be fair to the others," he pointed out. "Why should I get a larger portion over you or Bombur? If anyone should be given more food then it would be Fíli, Kíli and Ori. They are still growing and need it most."

"I should've known you would say something like that," muttered Dwalin, shaking his head. He tightened his grip and pulled the Hobbit closer as they entered the dining room. Carefully sidestepping the others, the warrior led him to an open seat and boosted him up into the large chair.

"Stay here," ordered the warrior before disappearing into the crowd of Dwarves.

Bilbo frowned and pushed his bangs back. He had a bad feeling the Dwarf was about to join the others in their coddling. He really didn't need any more of that. But to his surprise, Dwalin did not suddenly appear with a plate stacked high with food. Instead, Bombur popped up with two plates of food in his hands.

"Here we go," the cook said, setting one of the plates down on the table. "Eat up now. This is probably the last big meal we'll have."

"Thank you, Bombur. It looks delicious," he replied automatically, still glancing around for Dwalin. "Did… Did Dwalin say anything to you by chance?"

Bombur shook his head. "Not really. Just mentioned in passing that you were very hungry tonight. Why?"

"No reason." Bilbo smiled and thanked the Dwarf again before turning his attention to his dinner. He still had an uneasy feeling that Dwalin was about to pop up with Dori in toll, but he wasn't about to waste his time worrying. He had a delicious meal waiting for him.

 


 

The next morning they left Lake-town behind.

The task went about much like Bilbo recalled. They were given three large boats to use to row up the river, but the Master did not provide them with any ponies this time. Bilbo didn't know the reason for this change but didn't put much thought over it. It really didn't matter why they had no ponies; only that they were not delayed time wise. Once the boats were loaded with their supplies and passengers, they set off with the rising sun.

Bilbo watched Lake-town as it became smaller and smaller before disappearing from sight all together. He worried that it would be the last time he saw the town safe and whole. He couldn't face it (again) if his plan failed, and Smaug reached it (again).

It won't happen as long as I follow the plan, he reminded himself, trying to shake away the fear and doubt. And even if that fails, Bard will still be around as backup. Smaug won't get another chance at the town.

"You're doing it again."

The Hobbit looked to the Dwarf at his side and blinked. "Excuse me? What is it that I am doing again?"

"Worrying," supplied Thorin, leaning closer to him so his lowered voice could be heard.

Bilbo tried his best not to flinch away. "There's a lot to worry about. And I don't want to hear any nagging from you over this. Not when you spend half your time worrying, and the other half brooding."

Behind them, Dwalin and Balin had a sudden and mysterious coughing fit.

"I do not brood," denied the king, spitting the word out as if it was something foul or Elven. "I am simply thinking deeply. I reflect on past actions. I contemplate future possibilities and—"

"You brood," he interrupted, rolling his eyes, "and fret and worry and glower to mask your concern. You are a king with a great deal of responsibilities, yes, but you also take more than needed upon yourself. All of that worries you, and so you brood into all hours of the night instead of sleeping like normal folk."

Thorin glared but didn't dispute his argument. "Regardless, we are not talking about me. You are worrying yourself needlessly. Stop it."

"We are on our way to confront a dragon. I think I have the right to worry," he retorted dryly. "I, in particular, have every right to worry as it will be me going in first to scout the area."

On the other side of him, Dori paused in his rowing while Thorin suddenly tensed. "You won't be hurt. We will be nearby for you to call on."

Bilbo scoffed. He had no intention of calling on any of the Dwarves until the very last possible moment. "You would all be better off hiding. There's not much thirteen Dwarves can do against a full grown dragon. And we both know how I feel about you lot putting yourselves in danger."

"So we should just cower in the shadows and allow you to face Smaug on your own?" the king asked with a mockingly sweet voice. "Is that your solution?"

The Hobbit frowned and leaned a bit back from the other. "We've been over this. I don't want to see any of you die—"

"And we don't want to see you die," interrupted Thorin, glaring at him eyes the color of a frozen lake. "We won't let you die, Bilbo. We will protect you. I will protect you. From Smaug, from Orcs, from trolls—even from yourself if we must."

Bilbo swallowed the sudden lump in his throat. "I-It is not y-your job to p-protect me!"

"No," Thorin granted, his eyes never thawing, "but it was never yours to protect us either."

 


 

It took them two days to reach the end of the river. When they finally did reach the banks on the third day, they tied the boats, gathered their supplies, and began the walk to Dale. It was a long and tedious task as the area was overgrown and the paths once there were long gone. They spent an entire day simply scouting and backtracking through the foliage as they struggled to find a safe route to the ruins of Dale.

"It's too quiet out here," observed Nori, staring up at the trees with unblinking eyes.

"I think all the animals have fled the area," explained Balin as he helped Bombur set up the campfire for the night. "Smaug must have scared them away."

"Smart move," muttered Dwalin. "Too bad the humans didn't follow."

"Where would they go? This was their home too," Balin pointed out.

His brother scoffed and waved a hand towards the south. "There are lots of human settlements out there. They didn't have to stay."

"Not everyone is so brave, Mister Dwalin," Ori said softly, causing the two brothers to stop and stare. He met their gaze without flinching and even raised his head higher.

Dwalin opened his mouth a few times before finally closing it with a solid click.

Bilbo smiled to himself as he set out his bedroll. At the start of their journey, Ori would have never dreamed of disagreeing with someone like Dwalin. It just showed how much the scribe had grown over the months, and it made the Hobbit fiercely proud of the young Dwarf. He wasn't the only one either as he spotted Nori smirking without restraint while Dori hummed to himself with a little smile.

"Hmm. I don't think I've ever seen Dwalin speechless before," commented Thorin as he took a seat on the ground close to the Hobbit.

Bilbo grinned widely at the Dwarf. "It's a rather lovely sight, don't you think?"

"Indeed. We need to have more of those moments," the king agreed as he settled his blue eyes on the Hobbit. "I have a request to make of you."

"Oh?" He leaned back on his bedroll and judged the king carefully. He still didn't know what to make of Thorin and his strange words, but it was impossible for him to deny the Dwarf anything. He was never very strong in that. "What is it?"

Thorin scratched at his beard but didn't look away. "I would like you to tell me about him."

The Hobbit frowned. "Who?"

"Your lost love. Tell me about him. I want to know what he was like."

"Why would you wish to hear about him?" he asked, feeling torn between laughing and groaning. Couldn't the Dwarf leave that subject alone yet? What else did he possibly need to know about himself?

"I'm… curious," replied the king, obviously choosing his words carefully. "He must have been something amazing to make you fall in love with him."

Bilbo slanted his brows. "Why would you think that?"

"Because nothing seems to impress you," Thorin said flatly. "You have faced everything in our journey—trolls, Orcs, Elves, kings, and even shape-shifters—without any sort of surprise or awe. So, clearly, this stranger must have been the stuff of legends to catch your attention."

"I… I guess he was," he admitted because Thorin had ended up a hero from the stories the first time around. The tragic type of hero that died nobly in the end, but still a hero. "But his valor wasn't why I loved him."

The Dwarf frowned and drew back slightly. "I don't understand. What did you fall in love with then?"

Bilbo sighed and felt a headache coming on. "There is more to a person than their deeds, you know. I loved him for his bravery and strength in battle, yes, but that wasn't all he was."

"Then tell me what he was like so I may understand," the king retorted, looking as if he too was getting a headache.

"Fine," snapped the Hobbit. "He was the most stubborn and rudest cad that I ever had the pleasure of meeting!"

Thorin stared. "What?"

"You heard me. He was blunt and rude to the point of being cruel. He also could never let anything from the past go, worried about absolutely everything, had no sense of direction, and a horrible taste in clothes. Oh, and he smoked Southlinch. Who smokes Southlinch but tasteless Men?" said the Hobbit, making a disgusted face.

"The… The Dwarves from the Blue Mountains?" offered the king, slowly leaning back from the Hobbit.

"Only because your lot don't know any better," Bilbo dismissed, completely caught up in his rant. "But he knew better. I gave him some of my Old Toby to try once and do you know he said? He said that he liked Southlinch better! As if that cheap imitation could ever compare to Hobbit grown pipe weed! The nerve of him!"

"Very foolish," Thorin agreed, nodding quickly.

"That's because he was a fool. The second biggest fool I've ever known!" exclaimed the Hobbit, throwing his arms up in the air to show exactly how big.

"Who was the first?" wondered the Dwarf.

"Me. I'm the biggest fool because I fell in love with the sod." He dropped his arms and felt his heart give a quick but strong squeeze. "He was a stubborn fool with bad taste, but I still loved him. I loved his sense of loyalty, and his devotion to his family and people. I loved his passionate persistence and unwavering sense of duty. And I loved that, no matter what he faced in life, he never gave up. Even when the world was against him—and it was at times, believe me—he still got up every day and gave it his very best."

Thorin's brows scrunched together and his mouth twisted into an ugly scowl. "He… He does sound like a hero…"

Bilbo laughed something broken and wrecked in reply. "He was a hero. He inspired me and influenced me in ways that I could never say. He made me a better Hobbit just by existing, and I will never forget that. Do you see now why I loved him so?"

"Indeed." Thorin gazed at him with something he could not read in his blue eyes. Bilbo wondered how the Dwarf couldn't see himself in his words. Anyone else in the Company would have made the connection to the king, but not Thorin. The Dwarf never did give himself enough credit.

"I'm sorry that you lost him," Thorin added quietly after a pause.

He gave a half-shrug. "He wasn't really mine to lose."

The king snorted. "Then I suppose he wasn't so perfect after all."

"What?" he asked, blinking.

Thorin just gave him a half-smile and got to his feet. "Get some rest. We will be busy tomorrow cutting through this overgrowth."

The Dwarf then turned around and Bilbo silently watched his—past, future, present, always—love walk away.

 


 

Chapter Text

 


 

Bifur was not mad.

He knew what the others said about him. What they thought when they saw the axe embedded into his forehead. 'Lost his mind,' they would whisper in common as he walked by. 'Can only speak in Khuzdûl now. Can't communicate any other way. Such a shame.'

(Fools. Just because he couldn't recall how to speak common didn't mean he couldn't understand it.)

Bifur had not lost his mind with his injury; simply a few skills and memories. He was still perfectly capable of fighting in a war or in building a raft or whatever else was asked of him. He knew how to read a map, barter for supplies, and find food. He could still read the stars and ride a pony and sing along to drinking songs. Bifur was not anything less with his injury no matter what the others thought.

(Did they not realize that, had he been anything less, than Thorin would not had taken him along?)

There were simply some… things he could not recall. Little things that didn't have any affect on his daily life, but were important to him for sentimental reasons. Like the name of his sister, or the smell of his mother's perfume. Or what color his father's eyes had been, or if his brother had died during the fall of Erebor or after. Sometimes he even caught himself talking to Bjarte about his day at work, or asking what he wanted for dinner that night. Then he would catch himself and realize that he had been talking to air because Bjarte had been dead for sixty years.

(Or was it forty? Fifty?... Did it really matter anymore? He was still dead in the end.)

Sometimes, when he closed his eyes and blocked out the world around him, he could almost remember everything he was forgetting. Like the exact shade of brown (chestnut? Russet?) that Bjarte's hair had been. Or the number of freckles (thirteen? Four?) on his left shoulder. Sometimes he could even remember the sound of his laughter (a bell in the wind, right? Or was it a deep drum?) at a good joke.

(Sometimes he wondered if he made Bjarte up in his broken mind. How could someone so perfect be real? Let alone ever belonged to him?)

Bifur tried not to let the lost memories get to him. There was little he could do about his injury, and even less over the state of his mind. It was a miracle that he even survived such a wound! He was lucky to still be alive and relatively healthy. He counted his blessings every day, and tried his best to get on with life even with the holes in his memories.

(But was it really a blessing? Or a curse?)

It was gratitude for life that drove him to join Thorin in his mad (ha!) quest to reclaim Erebor. Bifur had survived a near-death injury for a reason. He had been looking for that reason and had found it in his king's plan. He didn't mind signing away his life to help Thorin reclaim their lost kingdom. He didn't mind all the danger they faced, or the knowledge that it could end with his death. That was all fine. Bifur was living on borrowed time already.

(Part of him looked forward to death. It would be nice to rest for once.)

His easy acceptance of death was why he understood Bilbo. The Hobbit was the same as him; willing to die for a greater cause than himself. He didn't know what had happened to the Hobbit to inspire such logic, but he could relate to the burglar's feelings. There were just some goals (folk) worth dying for.

(Bjarte had died for him in the end. Bifur still wished it had been him instead.)

 


 

Dale was a city of ghosts.

That had been Bilbo's first impression of the ruins the first time around, and he found that it was much the same the second time. Dale was a skeleton of its former glory; a once beautiful and vibrant city that had been gutted and ripped apart by Smaug. Now all that remained of that beauty were hollow buildings, scorched fields, and the unheard cries of those who had never left.

"This place is creepy," Kíli whispered, staying close to his brother's side.

"I think it's haunted," added Fíli, fingering the hilt of one of his many blades.

"Doubt it. Smaug would chase even ghosts away," grumbled Glóin as the group made their way through the dead city.

In the very back of the group, Bilbo sighed. It had taken them another two days to climb through the wilds and up to the looming mountains. The closer they grew to their destination, the bleaker the land began to grow. Smaug had burned away everything that was once alive and green, and left behind only black fields and scorched rocks. Like Dale, it was now only a ghastly imitation of its former self.

He wrinkled his nose and tried his best not to sneeze. The smell of smoke and ash was thick in the air, and he could hear nothing but the shuffle of feet and metal. The entire Company had grown tense and silent as they inched closer and closer to Erebor. The Hobbit was only one who was still calm and at ease, and that was only because he was sure Smaug was not awake.

Well, partially sure.

"How far is the door from here?" Ori asked Dori.

"We don't know exactly where the door is yet," replied Balin, turning to look at the young Dwarf. He gestured to the city with one hand. "We're going to camp here and scout the mountain for it. It's a bit risky since we don't know where Smaug is, but we can't waste time. Tomorrow is Durin's Day."

Ori shivered and eyed the ruins. "What if Smaug does notice us here?"

"Don't worry about the dragon. We need to focus on finding the door," advised Dwalin, swinging his hammer in time with his steps.

Bofur grunted. "Agreed. Thorin, what's the plan?"

"Scout the area and set up camp," ordered the king, pausing and crossing his arms over his chest. "Then set up a watch before we begin scouting the mountain. We will go in groups of three and no less. Understood?"

The Company murmured their agreement and broke off to begin making camp. Bilbo sidestepped the others and carefully made his way to Thorin's side. The king had wandered over to a cliff to gaze up at the Lonely Mountains above them.

"I never thought I would see them again," the Dwarf said in greeting when he stopped at his side. His blue eyes looked like uncut sapphires as he stared up at the home of his ancestors.

"Does the sight of them make you feel sad? Or happy?" he asked quietly.

"Both," replied the king, his lips curling into a small smile. "My memories do them no justice. They are… more magnificent than I recalled. Beautiful and strong and proud. I have never seen a lovelier sight than this."

Bilbo squinted up at the gray mountain range. "We are looking at the mountains here, right? I'm not missing something am I? Like a carving of a naked Dwarf?"

Thorin snorted and then laughed lightly. Bilbo tried his best to memorize the rare sound. Who knew when he would ever hear it again?

"I am speaking of the Lonely Mountains," assured the Dwarf, finally looking to his companion. He still kept his body angled towards the mountain range though. "I know it would not mean much to you, but these mountains are everything to me. It is here that I was born and raised. It is here that my family lived and where my ancestors are buried. This… This is my home."

"Oh, Thorin," he breathed, feeling his heart melt at the confession. He wanted to sweep the Dwarf into a hug but held himself back. Thorin would probably see it as an attack and stab him, or something.

The king blinked rapidly. "You finally said my name."

"What? Oh, I suppose I did," the Hobbit realized, shrugging. "Your words were very touching. I couldn't help it."

"Hmm. You should do it more often. I gave you my permission," the Dwarf reminded him.

Bilbo shrugged again. "I'll try. Oh! I had a reason for coming over here. I was wondering if I could borrow your map. I wish to study it to find this door we need."

"I don't see why not. Just remember to give it back." Thorin reached into his massive fur coat and pulled out the rolled up paper, and handed it to the Hobbit. "Don't let my nephews near it. Mahâl only knows what they would do with it."

"Wander off and get eaten most likely," grumbled the burglar as he stashed the map away in his own coat.

Thorin smiled slightly before his face grew serious once more. "Bilbo… Do you honestly think we can do this? Defeat Smaug and reclaim Erebor? Do you not doubt me and my crazy plan even a little?"

The Hobbit looked up at the king in surprise. "What brought this on?"

The Dwarf shrugged his wide shoulders. "I know the others have doubts. Even I doubt myself at times. But you have not shown any of that. So I wonder… Do you really believe that we can do this?"

Bilbo wanted to smack himself in the face. It had foolishly never occurred to him that Thorin would have doubts. Everyone had doubts; even fierce kings with fiercer tempers. He should have seen that coming a mile away.

"I do," he assured, tentatively settling his hand on Thorin's forearm. "I believe in you and I believe in our comrades. We will win this, Thorin Oakenshield. We will defeat this dragon and get your mountain back. I know it as I surely know the sky is blue, and the sun is warm."

Thorin stared down at him before slowly bringing his own hand to rest upon Bilbo's. The Dwarf's hand practically engulfed his own small one, and his warm touch made something hot uncoil in the pit of his belly.

"Thank you, Bilbo Baggins," said the king. Something in his face—in his deep blue eyes—made Bilbo think of an egg that had been cracked. Such a sight made him want to reach up and hold it together, but that wasn't his place.

Instead, he took a step back and whispered, "You're welcome," and then ran away.

Coward, the rink mocked him, and for once he didn't disagree with it.

 


 

Bilbo spent the rest of the day pretending to study the map. It was rather boring business since he knew where to go already, but it was important to give the illusion that he was studying it. So he pretended by staring at it and making faces at the paper as if he was frustrated over it. Eventually Bombur called him away from it to help with dinner, and he gleefully accepted the chance to do something productive with his time.

"I keep expecting Smaug to come raging down on us," the cook confided as they peeled potatoes for the stew.

"I'm sure the giant lizard is sleeping," Bilbo reassured. "And if he is awake, I doubt he cares about us. Unless he's hungry. Then we may need to worry."

"Bilbo, one day your nonchalant attitude is going to get you killed," the Dwarf pointed out, but he was smiling so Bilbo didn't take it personally.

"If that happens, you have my permission to mock my corpse," the Hobbit promised.

Bombur laughed. "I might not get the chance! If it manages to kill you, then it will definitely kill me."

"Do I want to know what you two are talking about?" asked Bofur, taking a seat between the two.

Bilbo schooled his face into a thoughtful expression. "We are speaking of Smaug and death and mocking. Very deep and meaningful stuff."

Bofur nodded back with a remarkably serious face. "Of course, of course. It's right up there with the meaning of life, and where we go after death. Very deep and important."

Bombur simply groaned. "You two are no longer allowed to be left alone unsupervised."

"I think you should try that method out on Fíli and Kíli first," advised Bilbo, pointing at the two brothers. The princes were hunched over something between them and were snickering quietly. He wisely decided that he didn't want to know why.

"Thorin tried. It didn't end well for the Dwarf left in charge of them," the miner replied as he dug through one of his pockets.

"What happened to the Dwarf?" wondered Bilbo.

"His hair was dyed green and his beard was burned off," Bofur explained absently before cheering as he found what he was looking for. He held it up above his head triumphantly with one hand. "Ah-ha! Here it is!"

The Hobbit leaned forward and squinted at the wooden object in the Dwarf's hand. "It's a whistle."

"Mm-hm. I've been working on it for the whole journey," the Dwarf clarified as he tied the small whistle to a piece of cord. Once done, he leaned forward and slipped it over Bilbo's head. "I carved it for you for when we confront Smaug. If you get in trouble or lost, just blow the whistle and we'll come find you."

Bilbo picked up the wooden whistle and ran his fingers over it. It was a simple little thing made of dark wood and decorated with a few curvy designs that were carved into the side. Underneath it he found two simple letters in Khuzdûl at the bottom. He honestly thought it was the most beautiful whistle he had ever seen in both lifetimes.

"Thank you, Bofur," he said softly, looking up at the toymaker next to him. "It is a wonderful gift. I've never seen a better whistle in my life."

In response, Bofur smiled his dimple-smile that made his dark eyes light up. "Thank you! It's not my best work, but I'm still proud of it since I made it with so few tools."

"It's wonderful," he insisted, gripping the whistle tightly. "I will keep it with me always. I swear it."

"Good. That was the idea behind it," the miner replied, scratching at some dirt on his cheek. "Nori thought we should tie a bell to you so we know where you are at all times, but Dori pointed out that it would attract Orcs or Wargs. A whistle is much more practical and safer."

Bilbo's smile dropped into a scowl. "Nori is getting rocks in his bedroll tonight."

"If you do, he'll probably crawl into yours in return," pointed out Bombur. Bilbo thought that explained a great deal about the thief, but wasn't stupid enough to say that out loud within the hearing range of Dori.

"Nah. He knows Thorin would kill him if he did," assured Bofur, waving a dismissive hand.

The cook side-eyed his brother. "Since when have death threats ever stopped Nori?"

"Why would Thorin even care in the first place?" wondered Bilbo, staring at the two brothers.

The two Dwarfs shared a look that the Hobbit could not read. Bombur then said something in Khuzdûl that had Bofur nodding. The cook then sighed deeply while his brother simply laughed.

"Don't worry about it," advised the miner, ruffling the Hobbit's curls.

Bilbo disagreed. He felt like he should very much worry about it, but decided not to share that. He didn't think it would get him an answer anyways.

 


 

The next day, Bilbo decided it was time to show the others where the door was. Much like the first time, he dragged Fíli and Kíli with him to scout out the western side of the mountain. Carefully, he guided the two brothers to the great Dwarven carving, and then waited for the princes to make the connection.

Surprisingly, it was Kíli who noticed it first.

"Hey, is that…?" the prince wondered, tugging on his brother's arm until he got his attention. "Fíli, Fíli I think that's it! I think we found it!"

Fíli looked to where Kíli was pointing and his jaw dropped. "Durin's beard, it is! Kíli, you did it! You found it! We have to tell the others! Come on!"

Bilbo smiled as he watched the two brothers sprint down the dirt mounds in the direction of their camp. He saw no point in going along with them since he had everything he needed on him. So he patiently took a seat on a nearby boulder, and waited for the rest of his comrades to join him. He was not alone for long. Soon enough, he spotted the Dwarves running towards him in the distance along with, to his eternal surprise, a gangly wizard. He stood up and waved until he was sure they spotted him on the hill.

"It's over here!" yelled the Hobbit, pointing to the carving chiseled into the mountain behind him. "We found it!"

Unsurprisingly, it was Gandalf who reached him first with the others trailing behind him. He tipped his hat in greeting, and gave Bilbo a fond smile that made his eyes crinkle at the edges.

"Master Burglar, it is good to see you again," the wizard said. "The others were just catching me up on your journey so far. I must say, I did not realize you could speak Sindarin."

"You never asked," he retorted, giving his friend an innocent look that he had, ironically, learned from the wizard.

"Of course, of course. Clearly an error on my part," Gandalf agreed with a nod as the others joined them.

"Is that it then?" asked Thorin, tilting his head back to get a good look at the steep peak.

Bilbo nodded. "I think so. We haven't found any other lead, right?"

"No. This is all," replied Balin, looking to his cousin. "Thorin, this must be it. We need to start climbing if we want to reach it by sunset."

"Indeed. Let's go," ordered the king, stalking off in a whirl of wool and fur. Bilbo stepped back and allowed the others to follow after the Dwarf before moving to Gandalf's side.

"Where were you all this time?" he asked in a lowered voice.

"I simply had an errand to run. Nothing to concern yourself with," reassured the wizard, patting his shoulder.

Bilbo squinted up at his unnaturally tall friend. The first time around, Gandalf had left them to face off against the Necromancer. He had not returned to their Company until after Smaug had been killed and the Battle of Five Armies was about to begin. He did not know what Gandalf had gone off to take care of this time, but whatever it was, it clearly had nothing to do with the Necromancer. He could not decide if this idea was alarming or not.

"Is there… something we should know about? Any sort of trouble following us?" the Hobbit asked, carefully choosing his words. For all his innocent and foolish persona, Gandalf was as sharp as a blade and rarely missed even the smallest detail. He did no interest in trying to outsmart that brilliance for the rest of their journey.

The wizard titled his head down to meet his eyes. His bushy brows were raised but his eyes lacked a suspicious glint. "Not that I am aware of. The Orcs that were following us seemed to have given up but that's all. Why? Do you suspect something?"

"No, not really," he lied, shaking his head so his growing curls hid his eyes form view. "I just… back in Mirkwood, I felt something. Something dark and sinister and unnatural. I don't know what it was, but it scared me. So I was wondering… if maybe you knew something."

"Ahh, well, I suppose that makes sense," admitted Gandalf, rubbing his fingers against the wood of his staff. "Mirkwood is a very old forest with a very long history. I am not surprised to hear that some of those memories made themselves known to you."

Bilbo wanted to bang his head against the mountain. Was the wizard being deliberately obtuse? Or did he really not understand what Bilbo was hinting at? Did he really leave to confront the Necromancer? Or did he, perhaps, defeat the unnatural evil lurking in Dol Guldur this time around? He had so many questions and, frustratingly, could not ask a single one.

"Do not worry yourself over Mirkwood," continued Gandalf, failing to notice his irritation. "Whatever you sensed there unlikely followed you out of the forest. Take heart; I cannot sense anything strange around you or the others."

The Hobbit gave his friend a strained smile. "Of course, Gandalf. Thank you for listening to my silly fears."

Gandalf gave him a kind smile and patted his shoulder again. "They are hardly silly, my friend. Mirkwood can haunt even the most courageous of souls. But enough of that now. I believe our comrades are beginning the climb, and we best catch up with them."

"Of course," Bilbo agreed before following the wizard as he hurried to join the Company. Once out of sight, he released a deep sigh and wondered, not for the first time, exactly what consequences his meddling would bring about.

 


 

That evening Bilbo found himself sitting at the edge of the cliff with his legs dangling dangerously over the rim. In front of him the sun was beginning to set while behind him he could hear his comrades arguing amongst each other. He could hear Balin muttering over the map with Ori and Óin while Dwalin, Nori and Bofur tried to find the keyhole. He could also hear cursing and grunting and soon the sounds of iron striking rock.

"Dwalin, stop that! You cannot force the door open!"

"I can't hear with all that noise—!"

"The sun is setting! We're losing light!"

"Are you sure you read this correctly…?"

"There's nothing here! No keyhole, no door; nothing but rock!"

"We're going to miss it if they don't hurry up—!"

Bilbo simply rolled his eyes and leaned back on his hands to enjoy the sunset. The last time he had seen it he had been too preoccupied with finding the keyhole. The Shire rarely hosted such a masterpiece of nature, and this time he wanted to enjoy the beautiful colors the setting sun casted across the sky. He sorely wished he could smoke but he had run out of Old Toby the night before, and it would be a cold day in Mordor before he allowed himself to smoke Southlinch.

"Blue, pink, orange, red, yellow," he listed to himself, counting off the different colors. "Hmm. Is that purple? Or maybe violet? Can't be lavender; far too dark. Maybe periwinkle?"

"Bilbo… what are you doing?"

The Hobbit looked over his shoulder at Dori, who had spoken. "I'm trying to find all the colors of the sunset. Care to join me?"

"The sun—we are losing valuable light and you're playing games?!" yelled Glóin, who had overheard his answer.

Bilbo made a face at his friend and teacher. "We are not losing light. We still have the moonlight to look for the keyhole. Or did you all forget what phase the moon is in?"

The two Dwarves stared at him for a moment before they both went yelling for Thorin. The Hobbit snickered and returned to his sunset game. As the sun grew lower and lower, he found the colors growing into dark purples and blues and even silver. It was only when the sun finally set for good that he pulled himself away from the ledge, and turned his attention to the Dwarves and wizard once more.

He found them all in front of the hidden door; the moonlight filtering through the wisps of clouds to show them the secret keyhole. As he watched, Thorin inserted his key and slowly unlocked it with a deep 'click' that they all heard. Then he pushed the door open to reveal a dark and deep passage that would lead them all into Erebor.

Bilbo joined his friends as they slowly made their way inside. He could see very little in the darkness; a trait his Dwarves clearly did not share as they easily navigated into the tunnels. To his relief, Gandalf soon lit up the top of his staff and casted a white light over them all. With the help of the light, his eyes easily sought out the Dwarf king, who was now touching the smooth stone wall with one hand.

"I know these walls," Thorin whispered in a voice of untold heartbreak and memories. Next to him, Balin looked close to tears as he took in the small but carefully crafted chamber.

The others looked no better. Óin had a hand over his eyes and looked to be whispering something under his breath. At his side, Dwalin was leaning against the wall; looking as if he had no energy left to support himself. Dori was being supported between Bifur and Glóin, while Ori was on the floor writing something in his book. Nearby, Nori was staring up at the designs above them as Bofur sunk to the ground near him; his hat pulled off and covering his face. Bombur was crying silently to himself as Gandalf patted him on the back.

Bilbo felt his own eyes begin to water. His friends had finally—finally—made their way home. Had it been this emotional the last time around as well? Or was he simply more sensitive because he finally understood how much they had endured to get it back?

"It feels… familiar," said Fíli, tracing a line of runes with one finger. "Like I've been here before. It feels like…"

"Home," finished his brother. Kíli stood in place next to him with his eyes closed as he breathed in the mountain of his kin.

"That's because we are home," rasped Bofur from behind his hat. "The Dwarves of Erebor are home again. We're finally home."

The rest of the Company went silent at that.

Bilbo shared a look with Gandalf, who nodded back. He hated to interrupt their moment of reunion, but they did have a job to do. Clearing his throat, he stepped forward. "Well now, I believe this is where I come in. Is there anything in particular that I should be looking for when I investigate Smaug?"

His question snapped the Dwarves out of their daze. They all looked at him before turning to their king with a range of expressions that Bilbo could not properly interpret. Even Thorin wore a look that seemed a cross between eating something sour, or seeing Thranduil again.

"We… We need to find a weakness first," answered Balin once it became clear that Thorin was not going to speak. "See if you can find a weak spot in his scales, or if he has any flaws. Something for us to focus on if we are to kill him."

Bilbo nodded. "A weakness, got it. Anything else?"

"Yes," Thorin finally said, turning to look at him. When he met his eyes, Bilbo felt something heavy settle in his gut. He knew those midnight blue eyes. He had been dreading them since Mirkwood.

"There is a… stone that I would have you seek out," the king said slowly. "It is a white gem that glows. I want you to keep an eye out for it when you're down there."

"A white stone," he repeated, feeling like the ground had fallen out below him. "Very well. And what is the name of this glowing stone?"

Thorin's dark eyes never wavered. "The Arkenstone."

Bilbo flinched. "Arkenstone. Lovely name. Good to know I'm risking my life over a pretty rock with a pretty name. Be sure to mention that at my funeral."

His words seemed to finally snap Thorin out of his thoughts. "I'm not asking you to go so far! Simply keep an eye out for it! If you don't see it then that's fine. I'm not going to order you to die looking for it!"

"As if you could order me around to begin with," the Hobbit grumbled as he pulled off his pack and dropped it to the ground next to Ori. He also retied his sash so his coat wouldn't come loose before untying Sting, and dropping the blade next to his pack.

"What are you doing? Don't you need that?" asked Ori, picking up the sword and holding it out to him.

Bilbo shook his head. "No. It will only weigh me down and make more noise. I'm better off without it."

"But you should still bring a weapon with you," insisted Dori, looking to Nori. The thief nodded and reached down to tug a single dagger loose from his boot.

"Take it," the thief ordered, handing it to Bilbo. "Just in case."

The Hobbit nodded and tucked the small blade away in his coat.

"Don't forget what I told you about the whistle," ordered Bofur, peeking out from behind his hat. "Use it if you need our help. I mean it."

"I will, Bofur," he promised, trying to put his friend at ease. "Now, if there is nothing else, I believe it is time for me to fulfill my part in the contract."

None of the Dwarves tried to stop him but they still did not look very happy. Bilbo ignored the frowns and scowls, and simply gave Gandalf a final nod before he descended into the city for the (second) first time his life.

 


 

Erebor was a tomb.

Bilbo could think of no other word to describe it. It was a tomb of riches and ruins, grief and greed, and a murdered race that cried out for vengeance. He didn't enjoy walking through the dark halls the first time, and he certainly didn't care for it the second time. What was worse was knowing that, at the end of his journey, a sleeping dragon was waiting for him.

Calm down now. You know how to handle this dragon. You've done it before and you can do it again. Just stick to the plan and everything will be fine, he tried to console himself, skipping down a few stone steps. And, even if you die here, Bard knows what to do. He will kill Smaug and save Lake-town.

But who will save your friends? asked the ring, reading his real fear far too easily.

Did I ask for your opinion? he snapped back. Stay out of this!

The ring—thankfully—remained silent.

Eventually Bilbo came to a horribly familiar hall and stopped short. Mountains and mountains of treasure was laid out before him; gold and silver, emeralds and diamonds, there was no end to it all. Above him the few lit torches reflected off the precious metals and gems, and made the hall glitter like the ocean at night. It would have been an all-together wondrous sight if he did not know what was sleeping beneath all that gold and silver.

He wrinkled his nose before turning his attention to other matters. He looked over the stairs he stood upon and the multiple exits and covers it provided. He took note of the pillars that offered protection, and finally estimated if any fire could harm the pathway behind him. Once satisfied, he moved to a raised plane that overlooked the room and took in a deep breath before letting it out through his nose.

Well, time to get to work.

"Smaug! O Smaug the Tremendous, I call upon you! Please grace me with your magnificent presence! I have come a long way to gaze upon your glorious majesty!" Bilbo recited, cupping his hands around his mouth in order to make his voice louder. His shouts echoed through the chamber before silence descended again.

The Hobbit dropped his hands and waited.

Soon—too soon, if he was being honest—he heard the shifting of gold coins followed by a loud huff. Then the sound of two large feet standing up followed that and then the jingle of coins as the dragon made his way to the Hobbit. Bilbo could see his great shadow on the walls of the chambers, and the sight of it brought back the bitter taste of fear.

he ducks behind a pillar as Smaug's fire goes flying past him. He can feel the heat of it on both sides, and it is like nothing he has ever known. He half-expects to burst into flames just from the heat alone. He can feel the sweat sliding down his face and neck, and knows he's going to have blisters and burns on his arms and legs. If he survives this all he swears to never get close to an open fire again

Bilbo swallowed back his fear and memories as Smaug finally came into view. To his horror, the dragon seemed even bigger than he recalled. His teeth and claws even looked sharper, and his scales seemed harder and rougher. Smaug's ember eyes were still the same though. Still bright and wide and so very, very cruel.

"Well, now. What do we have here?" asked the dragon, leaning in to give the Hobbit a deep sniff. It took every ounce of control that he had not to jump away and take cover when the dragon did. At that range, he found that he could see the blood stains on Smaug's very pointed teeth. He forced his gaze not to linger there and looked up at the drake.

"I-I-I am a Hobbit," he replied, digging his nails into the palms of his hands to control his shaking. "I-I have come f-from far from the w-west to gaze upon you in your entire splendor! Truly, the s-songs and t-tales fall utterly s-short of the reality, O Smaug the Greatest of Calamities!"

Smaug huffed and pulled away until he could see the Hobbit properly. "An intruder with manners? I have not seen many of those before. Tell me, where did you learn my name? I doubt they whisper of me so far away."

"T-Through stories, of course. Everyone k-knows of how you d-defeated the Dwarves of Erebor and took from them their t-treasure," he explained, trying to give the dragon a smile. It felt more like a grimace to him though. "S-Such mighty beings a-are known even to us Hobbits. Truly, y-you are clever and p-powerful."

Smaug sniffed and tossed his head back, obviously preening. "Indeed, I am all that you speak of and more. It is good that you lesser creatures realize this. But you still have not told me the entire truth. Why are you really here?"

Bilbo bit his lower lip. Smaug had the uncanny ability to tell when he was lying, and he did not wish to risk making the dragon angry just yet. Honesty was the only answer he could give.

"I h-have come here to a-ask you a question," he admitted. "It is about your fire. Can it truly melt anything in existence?"

"Hah! My fire can melt the very stone from these walls!" the dragon boasted, curling his wings in closer as he loomed over the Hobbit. "Iron or mithril, flesh or bone, my fire burns through all! Nothing can withstand my flames!"

"What about a ring? Can your fire melt a ring?" he asked quickly before the dragon could continue his odes to himself.

Smaug paused and titled his head to the side. His serpentine eyes narrowed into slits of bloody amber as he ran his tongue over his teeth. "That depends. What type of ring is it?"

"A gold one," replied the Hobbit, reaching into his pocket and pulling it out to show the dragon. "See? It is a simple ring. You did not mention gold in your list, so I wonder if you perhaps cannot melt that. Am I wrong?"

"Wrong indeed, little Hobbit," the dragon spat, his nostrils flailing open. He pulled his large head back and gave a jerky nod to the floor. "Set your silly little ring down and move out of the way. I will show you the glory of my flames!"

Bilbo quickly set the ring down and hurried to hide behind a pillar. When he heard the dragon drawing in a deep breath, he closed his eyes and clasped a hand over his mouth to muffle any shrieks or noises he could possibly make.

Please work, please work, please work, please work—

Smaug released his fire and Bilbo shuddered. Even hidden away to the side, he could still feel the heat of the flames. It was just as hot and terrifying as he recalled. How did he ever manage to survive the first time around against such a fearsome beast?

When the fire died away, he waited a moment for another breath of fire and found none. Carefully, he stepped out from his hiding place, and found Smaug staring down at the still perfectly formed ring.

Damn. Guess not even dragons can destroy it, he cursed, walking back and scooping up the still cold ring. He rubbed it between his fingers before looking up to meet the wide gaze of the dragon.

"It didn't work," he observed quietly. "Why didn't it work? I thought your fire could destroy anything?"

"It can," replied Smaug, his eyes never blinking. He had yet to move from his crouched position and Bilbo felt something cold slither down his spine when he realized that.

"My fire can burn through all Rings of Power," the dragon continued, never moving his unblinking gaze from the Hobbit. "All the rings… except one."

Bilbo felt his heart stop.

No.

"One ring to rule them all," recited the dragon, slowly uncurling his wings and drawing his wide shoulders back.

No, no, no, no, no—

"One ring to find them," the beast continued, raising his neck high and tossing his head back.

He can't know, he just can't !

"One ring to bring them all," the dragon crooned, his ember eyes growing impossibly wider. His chest began to glow a bright red and orange as he gathered his fire together.

Run, the ring advised, for once sounding reasonable.

"And in the darkness… BIND THEM!" At the end of his sentence, Smaug finally released his flames in a great wave of fire.

Bilbo ran.

He ran and leapt down a flight of stairs as the red and orange flames chased after him. He went tumbling; rolling down the hard stones before falling off into the piles of gold coins. He hit the treasure hard; knocking the breath from his lungs in one swoop. Bilbo gasped and struggled for breath even as he yanked the ring on.

The world immediately melted into duller shades of color. He took a moment to catch his breath before pushing himself to his feet; stumbling a few times before catching himself. When he finally looked around, he spotted Smaug through the haze shuffling through his gold like mad. Coins and gems went flying through the air as the dragon dug through the horde of treasure with desperation similar to that of a thirsty Man digging for water.

"HOBBIT! COME OUT!" bellowed the dragon, his deep voice sounding softer and slower to Bilbo. He watched the dragon carefully as he backtracked to the nearest flight of stairs. Once there, he took in his surroundings and realized that he was close to where his comrades were waiting.

Damn. This is not how I wanted it to go. He wasn't supposed to recognize the ring, he thought, casting his gaze to the frantic dragon before looking back to the stairs. Guess there's no helping it now. Kíli it is.

Then, before he could regret his decision, Bilbo pulled out the whistle from beneath his shirt and blew as hard as he could.

Smaug immediately turned to the sound in whirlwind of gold and silver. "HOBBIT! GIVE ME THE RING!"

Bilbo ignored the dragon and began to run up the staircase. He jumped as many steps as he could and even slipped a few times, but not for one moment did he stop. Behind him, he could hear the dragon roaring for him over and over again as he stomped through the chambers. His massive weight made the ground shake, and Bilbo nearly stumbled off the stairs a few times. But he persevered and kept running until he was finally back on the platform from earlier. Once there, he slipped the ring off and sprinted for the secret corridor. But before he even reached the opening, he found himself smacking head first into the iron chest of Thorin.

"Bilbo!" Thorin grabbed him by the biceps before he could bounce back from the impact. He groaned and leaned forward against the Dwarf for a moment; trying to get the world to stop spinning on him. He had a feeling he was going to have another bruise on his forehead thanks to a certain Dwarf.

"That hurt. What are you wearing under that coat?" he mumbled into the king's chest.

He felt and heard the Dwarf snort. "Clothes."

Bilbo had been imagining something a bit different. Like a stone chest plate, or steel armor. "Oh. Your clothes hurt me."

"It wasn't the clothes that hurt you," muttered the king as he pulled back and slid his hands to Bilbo's shoulders. He looked the Hobbit up and down before finally meeting his eyes. "What happened? We heard your call."

"Seriously? You heard that little shriek?" the Hobbit wondered, blinking around before realizing that the entire Company and Gandalf were there. "Wow. Bofur, you made one hell of a whistle. Good job."

"COME OUT! COME OUT NOW!"

Bilbo and his comrades jumped at the sudden bellow of rage that echoed through the chamber. He suddenly remembered the reason why he had called them. "Oh yeah. Smaug is awake and he's kind of… angry."

"HOBBITT!"

"I may have provoked him," he added, blinking up at the king. "But not on purpose! It was an accident! I didn't think he would act this way!"

"GIVE IT TO ME!"

"Bilbo, what did you do?" gaped Bombur, his mouth falling open and his eyes widening to the size of dinner plates. The rest of the Company looked no better with Dwalin cursing and pulling out his axes while Glóin cracked his knuckles. Before Bilbo could defend himself though, Smaug finally spotted them on the stairs. When he saw all the Dwarves, he immediately lost what little self-control he had left.

"INSOLENT LITTLE LIAR! HOW DARE YOU BRING THOSE THIEVING WORMS HERE?! I WILL KILL YOU ALL AND TAKE MY REWARD FROM YOUR CORPSE!" the dragon roared before shooting a wave of flames at them.

The Company scattered. For the second time that day, Bilbo found himself falling off the platform and onto the gold below. But this time he was not alone. Thorin wrapped his arms around him in a tight embrace that hurt his bruises, and rolled so that the Dwarf took most of the impact when they landed. Though he was saved from the brunt of the fall, Bilbo still found himself gasping in pain as Dwarves were not the softest of landing pads.

Before he had a chance to gather his wits, Thorin was pulling him up with one hand; dragging him down the mountain of treasure as Smaug continued his pursuit. He flinched at the sound of the dragon's howls and mindless screeching. Smaug seemed to have lost all composure at the sight of the One Ring, and was now nothing more than a raging beast. The Hobbit had never seen a scarier sight than an insane dragon.

Thorin glanced over his shoulder before his eyes went wide. Before Bilbo could ask him why, the king was yanking him behind a pillar and caging him against it with his whole body as Smaug threw another blast of fire at them. At the touch of heat, he wrapped his arms around the Dwarf and pulled him closer in order to keep him as far from the fire as he could.

Don't let it end here. Please, please don't let it end here. Not when we're so close to the end of our quest!

"Bilbo, what did you say to him?" Thorin muttered into his hair.

"Not important right now," he replied into the Dwarf's chest. "Thorin, I know how to kill him. On his left breast, near his heart, he is missing a scale. It's his only weakness and our only chance to kill him! We have to tell the others!"

Thorin stiffened against him before cursing in Khuzdûl. As the flames around them died down, he stepped back and moved out into the open to shout to the others, "HIS LEFT BREAST! HIS WEAKNESS IS HIS LEFT BREAST! KÍLI HIT HIM THERE!"

Bilbo winced as Smaug released another roar, and then found himself running with Thorin once more. The Dwarf dragged him down another hill of coins and jewels before forcing him up a flight of stairs. When they reached the top, he found Ori and Bifur there hiding in wait.

"Take him," ordered Thorin, pushing the Hobbit towards Bifur. "Go back to the side door and get out of here! Don't let the wrym find him!"

"Thorin, no! I'm not leaving you all here alone!" Bilbo objected, spinning around to face the king.

"I wasn't asking you!" Thorin growled, unsheathing Orcrist. He said something in Khuzdûl to the two Dwarves, who both nodded solemnly in reply. Then he turned and jumped off the stairs and back into the fray below.

"Thorin!" Bilbo moved to follow but found himself stopped short by Bifur. He turned around and tugged on the hand holding his wrist captive; trying to twist free from the iron grip.

"Bifur, let go! I have to help them! They need me!" he said, digging his feet into the ground and pulling back with all his strength.

Bifur shook his head; his face hard and unwavering. At his side, Ori too was wearing a serious look that made his resemblance to Dori even more obvious.

"We can't let you do that, Bilbo," the scribe said, his tone softening only the slightest bit. "Thorin has ordered us to keep you safe and that's what we're going to do."

Bilbo cursed and bared his teeth in a vicious snarl. "I don't care what he ordered you to do! I won't let them die! Now let me go!"

Ori's face wavered for a moment until Bifur snapped something at him in Khuzdûl. He began to drag Bilbo back towards the secret door; his tight grip never loosening. Ori soon followed behind; his face once more stone firm. Behind them, Bilbo could hear the sound of Dwarven war cries clashing with Smaug's fierce roars. The noise made his ears ring and his skin go clammy and cold.

No, no, no, not again !

"Bifur, please let me go! I can't leave them behind! Not with Smaug! They'll die!" he pleaded with the warrior.

Bifur ignored him and simply kept dragging him along.

Bilbo tugged harder as desperation began to claw its way up his throat. "Bifur, your cousins are down there! Ori's brothers are there! Your king is even there! They all need us!"

The toymaker faltered and then stopped for a moment. He glanced over his shoulder and met the Hobbit's eyes with his own dark ones. Bilbo could not read the Dwarf's thoughts, but he hoped the Dwarf could read him.

"I can't let Thorin die. Not like this; not when there's a chance I could save him," he gasped, feeling as if his heart was trying to pound its way through his chest. "Please, please, please, I can't lose him!"

Bifur's eyes widened and his grip on Bilbo's wrist went loose. He didn't hesitate and pulled away from the Dwarf and began to sprint back to the chamber. Behind him he could hear the other two running after him, but paid them no mind as he jumped off the platform and into the gold below. As he fell, he pulled on the ring and disappeared from sight.

When he hit the gold, he forced his body into a roll to absorb the impact. Then he got to his feet and looked over the area. Smaug was chasing after Nori and Bofur while the others tried their best to distract the beast. Above them, he could see Gandalf and Kíli running up a flight of stairs; obviously searching for a safe spot for the Dwarf to fire his arrows.

They need time for Kíli to line up the shot, he thought, twisting the ring on his finger. Is that what the others are doing? Trying to give him time?

For the first time since the Misty Mountains, Bilbo found that he did not know what to do. He couldn't figure out the Dwarves' strategy and he didn't know how to draw Smaug's attention without getting killed. All he could do was stand there and gape as his friends tried their best not to get burnt alive over his foolish mistake.

Think, Bilbo, think!

He looked around the room before zeroing in on Thorin, who was leaping off one of the stairs and onto the dragon's back. Smaug tried to throw him off but the Dwarf slid down his chest before attempting to ram his sword into the opening of Smaug's chest. He missed by inches but did not seem discouraged as he rolled out of the way of another blast of fire. Above him, Dwalin took his chance to also jump off a flight of stairs and the cycle continued.

So that's what they're doing, he realized, beginning to run towards the dragon and Dwarves. They are distracting him. But unless Smaug stands still, Kíli will never get a clear shot!

As he drew closer, he looked up to where Gandalf and Kíli had finally come to an open ledge that stood in perfect range of the dragon. Smaug, still distracted by the others, had not noticed the two. But he knew that would not last and soon the wizard and archer would lose their chance to take the fiend out for good.

So, not knowing any other way, Bilbo took off the ring.

It did not take Smaug long to notice him. The Hobbit wondered, briefly, if his red coat made him stand out against the all the gold and silver. He hoped it didn't because he knew the fact would make Dori sad.

"LITTLE HOBBIT!" Smaug sneered, pausing in the act of swiping Bombur to the side. He stood tall and arched his wings back. "YOU HAVE FINALLY COME OUT OF HIDING!"

"Bilbo, run!" yelled Bofur, who was the nearest Dwarf to him. He ignored his friend and raised his head high to meet dragon's gaze with every bit of courage he had. He wished there was more of it.

"I was never hiding," he retorted, clasping the ring between his shaking hands. "I was running because you tried to kill me without reason."

Smaug tossed his head back and laughed. It was a horrible sound of twisted metal and crackling lightning. "You want a reason? I will give you one. YOU HELPED THESE FOOLISH DWARVES! IS THAT REASON ENOUGH FOR YOU?!"

Bilbo flinched and glanced up at where Kíli was aiming a glowing white arrow at the dragon. He quickly looked back to the creature and stepped forward to keep all the attention on himself.

"You won't win!" he yelled back, trying to smother the flickering fear in him. "Even if we fall here, others will come to fight you! This is the end, O Smaug the Tremendous! Your time has come!"

Smaug's eyes widened and his mouth pulled back in a snarl that showed his many, many teeth. "FOOLISH LITTLE MAGGOT! I AM KING UDNER THE MOUNTAIN AND I—"

The dragon's speech was cut off as a single arrow embedded itself into his chest. Smaug screamed a scream so loud that the very heart of the mountain shook. Bilbo collapsed to his knees and covered his sensitive ears with his hands. He watched, with hooded eyes, as the dragon fell to the ground in a resounding 'boom' that knocked them all to their feet. Gold and silver flew through the air, and he scrambled to avoid getting caught under an avalanche of treasure. Then everything went still and silent as they all waited for Smaug to rise once more.

He did not.

Bilbo slowly, very slowly, rose to his feet. His legs felt weak and loose like jelly, and threatened to collapse under him. But he pushed himself forward until he finally stood before Smaug. The dragon laid as still as stone; his ember eyes glazed and dark with death. At his chest was Kíli's arrow; buried into the single spot free of scales and jewels.

"We did it. He's dead," he whispered, feeling a strange sort of numb wonder. "Oh, Eru. It's over. It's all over…"

"Mahâl," breathed Dori, joining him in staring at the dragon. The rest soon appeared and then they were all crowded around the corpse of the dragon once known as Smaug. No one spoke a word for a long time until finally Fíli begun to laugh.

"He's dead. He's dead and Kíli killed him and mother is going to skin me alive for letting him near a dragon," he gasped, laughing through his words. He let out a high shriek that greatly resembled a bird, and then turned to scoop his sibling into a hug that lifted him off his feet.

"You did it! Kíli, you killed Smaug!" the prince yelled, and it was as if a dam had broken because the rest of the Company began to cheer and shout, and nearly mugged Fíli in their attempts to embrace Kíli. Bilbo watched it all with a smile as he slowly sunk to his knees; his emotions and wounds finally catching up to him. He didn't mind though. Smaug was dead and his friends were alive and he would happily endure another round with Azog if he could keep it that way.

"Bilbo."

He looked up and found Thorin kneeling next to him. He gave the king a shaky smile before squeaking as he was swept up into a crushing embrace. For the third time that day, Bilbo found himself squished against Thorin's stone chest.

"You're all right," the Dwarf whispered, burying his face in his curls. One arm settled around his waist while the other slipped up around his shoulders as he practically pulled the Hobbit into his lap. Bilbo could feel all the blood rushing to his face as he breathed in the smell of fire and sweat and iron. What the hell was Thorin doing?!

"T-Thorin…! Are you… Are you all right?" he asked, his voice unfairly high to his ears.

"Mmm. I'm fine. Smaug couldn't catch me," the king replied softly, misinterpreting his question. "I was more concerned for you. Standing up to the beast like that, honestly. Is there nothing that you fear?"

"Yes. I have a lot of fears," he admitted easily. "I just don't let my fears keep me from doing what I must."

Thorin chuckled. "You are very brave. That courage is what brought down the greatest enemy of my people. I thank you for that, Bilbo Baggins. Thank you for avenging my people."

"Kíli is the one who shot the arrow," Bilbo muttered even as he slowly brought his arms up and wrapped them around the king's waist. The moment he did, Thorin tightened his hold even more until Bilbo was sure he was going to break in half. But he didn't protest the rough treatment. Instead, he relaxed into the embrace and buried his face against the furred coat, and allowed himself the small and guilty pleasure of being held by the only person he had ever loved.

Smaug was dead but they—Fíli, Kíli, Thorin—were still alive.

 


 

Chapter Text

 


 

"Um, uncle? I hate to interrupt this… moment. But what do we do now?"

Bilbo and Thorin looked up in unison at Fíli. The young prince was carefully looking off to the side while scratching his cheek. It took Bilbo longer than he liked to realize exactly why the Dwarf was avoiding eye contact with him.

"Mmp!" Bilbo pulled himself free of Thorin's embrace and scrambled to his feet. He made a show of fixing his coat and adjusting his shirt and sash; all an attempt to avoid meeting the eyes of the two Dwarves. He could feel his face growing hot and hoped he didn't look too much like an overly ripe tomato.

Thorin got to his feet at a more sedated pace; all while glaring at his nephew. "Speak clearer, Fíli. No matter what Kíli thinks, I cannot actually read your mind."

"I'm talking about the dragon. What do we do with the body?" explained Fíli, gesturing to the deceased Smaug. "And how are we going get out of here? The main entrance is caved in."

The king sighed and looked over the mighty corpse of his greatest enemy. "For now we can leave Smaug here. It is more important for us to focus on clearing the entrance."

Bilbo thought back to the gates that had caved in and wrinkled his nose. "That will take more hands than we have now. We need help."

"He's right," agreed Balin, joining in on the conversation with Óin and Gandalf. "We will need others if we want to get the gates operational again."

"I'm sure the Men of Lake-town would be willing to help if you pay them," pointed out the wizard as he leaned against his staff. His hat had gone missing somewhere during the fight, and his hair now fell into his face in a mess of silver waves.

Thorin pulled his lips back in an ugly sneer. "Those Men are greedy and will ask for more than they deserve."

"Actually, they're poor and hungry and have a selfish leader," Bilbo retorted, determined to nip the stirrings of greed in the bud. "And in case you didn't notice, you have mountains of treasure here. You can afford to part with some of it for the sake of rebuilding your city."

The king blinked a few times before a hint of shame crossed his face. "You're… You're right. It would not hurt to pay them for their help."

"I can go tomorrow to speak with them," offered Balin, quickly jumping on the idea. "I can also send a letter to Dáin while I'm there. I'm sure he'd be happy to help us."

Thorin nodded. "Do so. Also send a message to my sister. Tell her to begin sending Dwarves and supplies. We will need all the help we can get if we want to rebuild this place."

"Great, are we done here? Because I have a Hobbit to examine," drawled Óin with his arms crossed and one foot tapping.

Bilbo blinked and pointed to himself as everyone turned to stare. "Me? Why do you have to examine me? I'm fine!"

"I'll believe that when I see it," retorted the Dwarf, already moving over to pull on the bottom of his red coat. "Come now, off! Time is wasting."

He scowled and yanked his coat out of Óin's hand. "No, there's no need. I'm fine."

Óin paused and stared at him for a moment with unblinking eyes. Then, quicker than Bilbo thought possible, the Dwarf poked him sharply in the ribs. He instinctively yelped as pain raced through his body, and wrapped his arms around his side.

"Still feel fine?" deadpanned the healer as Thorin rushed to his side.

"What happened? Where does it hurt?" asked the king, his blue eyes tracking down his body.

The Hobbit waved a dismissive hand and stepped away from the Dwarves crowding him. "It's nothing, just a bruise! I probably got it playing 'Keep Away' with Smaug. Nothing to worry about."

Thorin looked to Óin, who nodded back with a scowl. Before he realized it, Bilbo found himself trapped between the two stubborn Dwarves with Thorin behind and Óin in front. Thorin held him by the shoulders with a firm grip while the healer begun to pull up his coat and shirt without an ounce of shame. The Hobbit yelped at the sudden prodding to his bare skin, and squirmed back in order to escape those cold fingers. Unfortunately, he had little room to maneuver with a king standing at his back.

"Óin, stop that! I never gave you permission to touch me there!" he objected, trying to push the healer's hands away. Behind him, he felt Thorin sigh deeply before both his hands were captured by the king. The Dwarf easily linked their fingers together and then forced his arms down to his side where he could not reach Óin.

"Just accept it. Óin is very stubborn over these matters. He will win one way or another," advised the king, leaning down to speak into his ear. Bilbo scowled in answer and tried to resist the urge to head butt the royal Dwarf.

"Just as I thought. Your ribs are bruised," Óin declared, finally pausing in his poking to glare at the Hobbit. "Nothing to worry about, huh?"

He sniffed and raised his nose. "It is nothing to worry about. My ribs will heal in time. There is nothing you can do about them."

"What were you doing that ended with bruised ribs?" wondered Thorin, rubbing his thumb against Bilbo's knuckles.

"I fell down the stairs and onto the treasure," he replied absently, his attention mostly on the healer. "Óin, what is in that jar?"

"Something that will help with the bruising," the healer said as he pulled out a small glass jar and some bandages from his pack. He gestured to Bilbo's jacket and shirt and then motioned to the ground. "Take it off now and sit down. Don't force me to make Thorin do it."

Bilbo groaned but dutifully nodded. Once his hands were released, he stripped off his coat and shirt before sitting down on the cold treasure with his legs crossed. Behind him, Thorin released a strangled groan that had both Óin and Bilbo looking at him.

"Thorin… are you all right?" the Hobbit asked, blinking up at the king. Thorin had his eyes closed and looked to be in great pain as he clenched his hands into bloodless fists. When he looked closer, he saw that the Dwarf's face was even turning a light shade of pink that extended down to his neck and collarbone.

"Are you sick?" he wondered before looking back to Óin. "Is he sick? Do you need to examine him first?"

Óin snorted and shook his head. "He's fine. Just being a fool. Now hold still; this ointment took me weeks to prepare. I don't want to waste even a drop of it."

Bilbo reluctantly did as told, and allowed the healer rubbed a light yellow mixture over every inch of his chest and back before wrapping it with clean bandages. As Óin finally tied the last wrap, someone dropped his dirty shirt on his head.

"Get dressed now. It's cold down here," ordered Thorin, staring fixedly at something off to the left. He glanced to where the Dwarf was staring just to make sure he wasn't missing out on anything. All he found was more treasure.

Maybe he's basking in being rich again? he wondered as he pulled his shirt on and then his coat. Or looking for the Arkenstone. Either reason is bad.

"No heavy lifting or taking on dragons for the next few weeks," Óin ordered as he packed up his supplies. He stood tall and pointed a finger at the short male. "I mean it, Bilbo. Don't do anything reckless any time soon. You may end up breaking your ribs next time."

"Yes, Óin," he replied, rolling his eyes.

Óin clucked his tongue and gave him one last poke before rambling off to harass his next victim. Bilbo scowled and rubbed at where he poked. The old Dwarf was stronger than he let on.

"So what's next?" he asked Thorin, turning to the remaining Dwarf. Balin and Gandalf had wandered off to make plans to return to Lake-town at dawn while Fíli had rejoined the others in their celebration. From what he could see, Kíli, Fíli, Glóin and Bifur had climbed onto Smaug's head and were singing a rowdy song of the dragon. Nori, Bofur and Dwalin were attempting to pull the drake's scales off while Ori was drawing a sketch of Smaug. On one of the platforms above, Bombur and Dori sat smoking their pipes.

"We'll get some rest. It has been a long day for all of us," answered Thorin, glancing around the massive chambers. "Tomorrow we will explore the upper levels and see what must be done with the entrance. We have a lot of work ahead of us before winter hits."

The Hobbit agreed. They did have a lot of work to do, and not nearly enough time to do it all in. Smaug was finally gone but the Battle of the Five Armies still loomed in the coming days. And then, if he survived that, he still had the ring to take out. He had a lot to prepare for in the coming days. Bilbo sighed deeply; feeling old for the first time since he had begun his journey.

"You should probably go to sleep," the king said, watching him with sloped brows. "You look exhausted."

"Sleep does sound nice right about now," he admitted, feeling his bones ache and his head throb. "But I'd hate to miss the celebration."

"I'm sure we'll be celebrating plenty in the near future," the Dwarf pointed out as he reached out and gently placed a hand on his back. He allowed the king to guide him to the stairs and help him up to where Bombur and Dori sat above the rest.

"Bilbo?" said Bombur, putting his pipe down at their approach. Next to him, Dori raised a single eyebrow as he looked over the Hobbit with his hawk eyes.

"Will you watch over him for the moment? I'm afraid he may fall asleep on his feet," Thorin explained as he guided the Hobbit over to the two Dwarves. Bilbo allowed himself to be maneuvered like a doll, and easily slid to sit down between his two friends as they made room for him.

Vaguely, he heard Thorin speak some more about supplies and packs, but he paid the words no mind. All he wanted to do was curl up and sleep for a hundred years. Without much thought, he made himself comfortable against Dori's shoulder, and allowed himself to relax his weight against the Dwarf. He must have drifted off for a few minutes because soon after Bilbo found himself being guided to lay down on something soft. He groaned before burrowing into what felt like a firm pillow, and heard the distant buzz of mumbling voices before something heavy and warm was draped over him. He pulled his new blanket close without thought, and breathed in the scent of fire and iron as he drifted back to sleep.

 


 

When Bilbo woke again, he found himself on his bedroll between Dori and Ori with Thorin's coat thrown over him. He stared at the dark ceiling for a long moment as memories from the night before washed over him. When he finally realized where he was and what had happened, he groaned and rubbed his face.

Smaug is dead, Bard didn't do it, and Thorin is possibly going to go insane. Oh, and that army of Orcs and goblins are probably on their way here, he listed, rubbing his eyes clear. What a lovely way to start the day.

With another groan, he pulled himself up and took in the treasure chamber. On the other side of Ori, Fíli and Kíli slept tangled up together in a mess of limbs and hair. Leaning against a far wall, Bofur slept alongside Bombur, Glóin and Óin. But other than those eight, he could not find any sign of the other Dwarves and wizard.

Perhaps they're already awake? he wondered, carefully scooting out of his bedroll and tugging on the large coat. Thorin could afford to let him borrow it. Erebor was cold and he had spent the night running from a dragon. The king owed it to him. When he finally stood up, he noticed a small and unknown pouch sitting on top of by his pack. Curious, he picked it and up and opened it up, and found that it was filled with an assortment of nuts.

Did Bombur leave this here? Or perhaps Dori? Bilbo mused before dismissing the mystery to nibble on his new treat. It was an unspoken rule among hobbits that when faced with free food, one never turned it down. With his snack in hand, he began to search for the rest of his comrades.

He found them, eventually, on the upper levels of the city. Following the sound of echoing voices, he wandered on until he came to the main gates of Erebor. The massive doors had long been destroyed into rubble by Smaug. Standing in front of the wreckage were Thorin, Dwalin, Bifur and Nori. Thorin and Bifur were in deep conversation as they examined the gates while Nori and Dwalin leaned against a nearby wall. The thief was cleaning his finger nails with the tip of a dagger while Dwalin looked as if he was trying to master of art of sleeping with his eyes open. At Bilbo's approach, they all stopped in their tasks and turned to him.

"Well if it isn't our brave little burglar," cooed Nori, waving his dagger in greeting. "Have a good sleep? You certainly earned it with all that running around last night."

Bilbo shrugged as he stuffed another handful of nuts into his mouth. "Better than I expected considering the circumstances. I'm surprised to see you all up. I thought you would be sleeping your victory away with the others."

Dwalin snorted. "Lightweights, the lot of them. Can't even handle Man made ale. I'm embarrassed to call them Dwarves."

"Says the Dwarf who lost to one of those Men in a drinking contest," drawled Thorin, giving his friend a wicked smirk.

"I did not lose! It was a draw!" denied Dwalin as Nori and Bifur cackled.

The king just looked at him. "You passed out under the table in nothing but your skivvies. She kept drinking for the next hour and proceeded to beat us all at dice. I don't think that counts as a draw."

"You lost to a Woman?!" Nori shrieked, looking as if his greatest wish had just been granted. "Oh, I'm never letting you live this down now."

"You mention this to anyone and I'll tell Dori why you really ended up naked in that jail cell in Gondor," the warrior threatened, glaring at the other Dwarf.

Nori immediately stopped laughing.

"Where's Balin and Gandalf?" Bilbo asked, deciding to ignore the peanut gallery because it was far too early in the morning for such nonsense.

"They left for Lake-town at dawn," replied Thorin, tilting his head to the side as he regarded the Hobbit.

"I see you like my coat," he remarked, lips twitching at the corner and threatening to turn into a smile.

The Hobbit shrugged. The coat was actually far too big on him and dragged across the floor behind him like a heavy veil. It was also quite ugly, in his opinion, but Thorin always had horrible taste in clothing. But it kept him warm and was soft so he was willing to overlook such flaws. "It's very warm and I don't like the cold."

"Will I be getting it back in the near future?" the king wondered.

"No," the Hobbit replied bluntly, munching on more of his snack.

Bifur snorted while Thorin sighed. "Are you at least going to share your food?"

Bilbo scoffed and hugged the small package closer to his chest. "You're more likely to get your coat back."

"You are a selfish little thing, aren't you?" Thorin asked though it sounded more like a comment than a question.

"Only when it comes to food," he reassured, popping another nut into his mouth.

Thorin's eyes became hooded as he watched him. "I will keep that in mind."

"So, Bilbo, what the hell did you say to get Smaug so angry last night?" asked Nori, sharing a look with Bifur and Dwalin that he couldn't read.

Bilbo shrugged one shoulder. "I told him his fire couldn't melt everything."

Bifur groaned and signed something that he loosely translated into, 'Are you stupid? Why would you do that?'

"It was an accident. I didn't think he would get so angry," he admitted, pushing his hair back with one hand. It was partly true that he had questioned Smaug's ability to burn everything, but the others didn't need to know what started the topic off. "What was that arrow that Kíli used? I noticed that it glowed."

"Gandalf says he put some sort of spell on it," explained Dwalin, crossing his arms over his broad chest. "Supposed to make the arrow stronger, or something. Guess it did its job 'cuz it took the bastard out in the end."

"Still can't believe he's dead," Nori admitted, shaking his head. "After all these years, Smaug is finally gone. We… We can come home again."

The Dwarves all went quiet at that, and Bilbo felt his heart soften. At that moment, Nori looked very young and open. His eyes were wide and the lines in his face were softened as he took in the realization that Erebor was free once more. It made his resemblance to Ori even more pronounced. Carefully, the Hobbit tucked his bag against his side, and reached out to give the thief a one armed hug around the waist.

"Yes, Nori. You can all come home now," he said against the thief's collarbone as he patted his back. "You and Dori and Ori and everyone else. You all have a home again."

Nori tensed for a very long time before he slowly relaxed into the hug. He slipped one arm around his shoulders and bowed his head against Bilbo's hair. The Hobbit carefully pretended not to hear how shaky the Dwarf's breath was, or even the trickle of warm water that dripped down his neck. He just held his friend and kept patting his back.

None of the others spoke. Some things were just better left unsaid.

 


 

After the tears had been shed and vows were made ("We never speak of this again, Bilbo. Dori will get jealous and try to hug me too. I can't afford to break my ribs. Again.") the Dwarves dragged him back to the treasury. There they found the others were finally awake and were basking in their newfound wealth.

"Uncle! Bilbo! Come join us!" yelled Kíli in greeting, waving from his place on the mountain of treasure. A gold crown sat lopsided on his head, and around his neck were several jeweled necklaces. The others were dressed similarly and were shifting through the collection around the room.

"Where did he find that gaudy thing?" Thorin muttered, raising his brows.

"Do you mean his crown?" wondered Bilbo, squinting at the gold and diamond piece that sparkled brightly. It was certainly very… flashy.

Thorin grunted. "Yes. I need to find him a decent one that is properly made. Something with rubies to match his coloring."

Bilbo rolled his eyes. "Save that pressing concern for later. We have bigger things to worry about. Like how we're supposed to equally split all of this treasure up amongst each other without leaving Erebor penniless."

"That's what Glóin is here for," the king replied, making a shooing gesture with one hand. "He will see that everyone gets a fair portion. Do not be too concerned. You will get your due reward in the end."

"I don't care about my portion," he replied, shrugging. "It will all be going to Thranduil anyways."

Thorin frowned darkly. "I had forgotten about your deal. What possessed you to offer up your portion to that weed-eater?"

"The desire not to remain in his Company any longer," the Hobbit said, pushing his hair back. He really needed to cut it. The ends were starting to tickle his cheekbones and block his vision.

Thorin's face grew even darker. "Aye, I remember now. Disgusting wretch. If I ever see him again, I will show him why no one dares to steal from a Dwarf."

"Except for dragons," he reminded the king, "and I'm not a thing to be stolen, thank you. Try to remember that."

"You are part of the Company. You belong with us," the Dwarf stated firmly, looking at him with smoky eyes.

Bilbo froze. "You… Do you all really think that?"

"Do you think we would take on a dragon for anyone?" pointed out Thorin.

"No. No, I suppose not," he admitted quietly. Some part of him was aware that the Company had grown to care for him over the journey. But he didn't want to face it because if he did than he would have to face the guilt and longing that came with it. He wanted their love again, yes, but had firmly told himself that it was not important this time. He had known their love once already; he did not need it a second time. All he needed was to keep them alive. But his heart never seemed to listen to his mind.

"It is not right that you do not get anything after all the help you provided," the king commented, rubbing his jaw. He looked around the massive chambers and over all the treasure before them. "There must be something here that I can give you."

Bilbo shook his head. "No, keep it. I do not care for treasure. I have no use for any of it."

Thorin looked at him as if he had just started speaking Sindarin again. "Did Smaug happen to hit you in the head last night? Shall I get Óin to examine you again?"

The Hobbit rolled his eyes. "There's nothing wrong with me, Thorin. I simply do not care for treasure. I cannot eat it or use it to keep me warm. It cannot speak to me or keep me Company. All it can do is shine."

"But it can buy you food and clothes and shelter," the king argued back. "It can even bring people together, and create relationships. All this treasure can do that for you."

"I can grow my own food and make my own clothes easily," he retorted, bracing his hands on his hips to stare the king down. "Gold and silver can bring people together but it can also drive them apart. It can destroy any bond and drive kingdoms to war. Just look at everything Smaug did just for some shiny jewels and pretty coins."

"You don't understand," replied Thorin, shaking his head. He glanced around at their feet before kneeling down to pick up a gold coin and sapphire ring. He held them out to Bilbo and forced the Hobbit to look at them.

"Do you see this coin? Do you see the designs and words etched into it on both sides?" he asked, and when Bilbo nodded, he held up the ring as well. "Do you see the ring? Do you see how smooth and polished the silver band is? The designs engraved in it? Do you see how carefully cut and shaped the jewel is?"

He nodded and pushed the Dwarf's hand out of his face. "Yes, Thorin, I see it but I'm not following—"

"This is the legacy of my people," the king interrupted without care. "This is what our creator blessed us in. This talent—this craft—to turn rocks and stones into something beautiful. To take an uncut and rough mineral and transform it into a beautiful jewel. All of the treasure you see here was made by Dwarven hands. Through hard labor, dedicated persistence, and practiced skills, we created all of this wealth. No other race can do what we do here. No other race can take a useless stone and craft it into something useful. When you dismiss this treasure as nothing, you dismiss the hard work and talent of my people."

"I… I never thought of it like that," Bilbo stuttered, feeling his face heating up. After watching Thorin go mad over the Arkenstone, he had grown to hate the gold and jewels the Dwarves horded. He did not ever stop to think deeply over why they treasured it because it was enough that Thorin had chosen it over their friendship. But now, hearing the king speak of it, he realized how unfair he was being. Just because he did not care for gold coins and emeralds did not mean that he had the right to look down on those who did.

"I'm sorry. I'm so sorry, Thorin. You're right; I didn't understand. I didn't understand any of it, and in my ignorance I dismissed it as worthless. That was wrong of me. I had no right to do that," the Hobbit said, forcing himself to meet the king's eyes. "Please forgive me."

Thorin shook his head and tossed the coin and ring back to the floor. "I am not angry over your words. I have heard them many times, and I understand why others would call us greedy and cold. Dwarves feel emotions very strongly, and sometimes our pride for our craft can consume us. When it does, we become as greedy and cruel as the rumors say."

He flinched at that. "I understand. I just… How do you control it? This madness for treasure? How do you keep yourself from sliding into it completely?"

"It depends on the Dwarf," the king said simply, shrugging. "Some resist the pull easily while others struggle. In the end it is up to them."

Bilbo felt his heart sink. Thorin had resisted the pull of treasure up until he faced the Arkenstone. He had fallen completely under the madness of his people then. The Hobbit did not know how the king would handle it this time around, but the odds were not in his favor.

"But enough of this grim talk," the Dwarf declared, narrowing his eyes at something in the distance. "I think I know what to repay your service with. Wait here."

The Hobbit did as asked and watched the king trot off to one of the treasure mountains. He watched the Dwarf kneel down and begin to dig something out of the horde of gold coins. With a muffled curse, Thorin yanked something long and white free from the pile, and then stood up straight and turned around. When Bilbo saw what he was holding, his mouth dropped open.

"Is that… Is that mithril?" he asked as the Dwarf approached, staring hard at his new (old) gift.

Thorin stood taller and gave him a wide smirk. "It is indeed mithril and it is now your mithril."

"What am I supposed to do with it?" he asked as the king forced it into his arms.

"Wear it."

He rolled his eyes but didn't argue. He rather did want his old shirt back. "Fine. I accept this but nothing else. Thranduil can have the rest."

Thorin frowned but did not argue with him. "As you wish. But do not think we will forget your services. Everyone here knows what you did for us, and what you gave up. We won't forget that."

Bilbo bit his lower lip in order to stay quiet. He recalled the last time around when he had helped them drive Smaug away, and how they had feasted in his name and called him friend. He remembered how, after stealing the Arkenstone, Thorin threatened to kill him, and how no one bothered to stop it. He recalled it all, and wondered how long it would take them this time to forget all the he had done for them.

 


 

Later that day, Bilbo found himself somehow roped into helping Thorin explore Erebor. They all had broken into groups of twos or threes and were given sections of the city to scout. Somehow he found himself put with the king, and before he could protest, the others were already running off in their own groups. Thorin had simply shrugged when he looked at him in question.

"I don't pretend to understand them either," the king said in answer. "Shall we go now?"

He sighed and nodded. "Might as well."

The section they were to scout turned out to be the palace. Bilbo had never thought of Erebor having a palace since it seemed like the whole mountain was their castle. When he told this to Thorin, the Dwarf laughed.

"Why wouldn't we have a palace? We have houses and markets and schools of trade," the king pointed out. "Erebor is a city even if it does not match your idea of one."

"I suppose I've simply thought of the mountain as one big house," he admitted, scratching his nose. "The Shire is nothing like this."

"No, your Shire is very simple and practical," the Dwarf agreed, sidestepping a broken column.

Bilbo side eyed the king. "I don't know if I should be insulted or not."

"It was not an insult," Thorin quickly reassured. "I simply meant your people don't seem to care for dramatic architect."

"No, we don't," he agreed, thinking back on his homeland. "We see no point in it. As long as it keeps you warm and safe, what does it matter if it is large or small? It is enough that it is filled with family and friends."

Thorin paused and looked at him with pursued lips. "Your home was empty."

He stopped and nodded. "It was. My parents are gone and I have no siblings or spouse."

"I'm sorry to hear that," the king said, his eyes a sky blue and his tone honest. "Do you ever miss it then? Your house was empty but the Shire was still your home. Do you not long for it?"

Bilbo tilted his head back and tried his best to recall his old home. The Shire was beautiful and safe and comfortable, but it wasn't home. He had realized that when he settled in Rivendell. It had been so easy to leave it all behind that it made him realize that his heart no longer saw the Shire as home. Rivendell, of course, was lovely and soothing, but it too never felt like home to him. The truth was he could not recall when a place had felt like home. It had been lost the moment he took that first step out of his door for Erebor.

"No," he finally said, looking back to the Dwarf. "I don't miss the Shire. It has not felt like home for a long time."

Thorin's eyes widened and he took a step back. He opened his mouth for a moment before quickly shutting it and striving off again. He looked over his shoulder to call, "Come along then. The palace is just past this hall."

Bilbo blinked before he hurried to catch up. Thorin said nothing more until they finally came to a large set of marble doors. One of the doors had crumbled to the ground while the other was broken in numerous places. Carefully climbing over the mess of marble and stones, they entered the palace. He paused when they finally did, and looked around curiously. They looked to be in some sort of entrance hall if he had to guess. The floor was made of a dark green stone that he didn't recognize, and there were great statues placed around the room. There were five grand doorways before them; three of them still accessible and looking to lead into long and dark corridors.

"So where do we go first?" he asked, looking up to the Dwarf.

Thorin slowly looked over the room with eyes that were clouded with memory. His jaw tightened and he took in a quick breath through his nose before pointing to one of the doors to the left. "We'll start there. It is where my family… It is where our rooms were."

Bilbo nodded and followed the Dwarf into the dark hall. He could see very little in the darkness, and found himself tripping on rubble, but Thorin seemed to have no problems. The Dwarf led them with ease and familiarity through the corridor before suddenly stopping in front of a door. He stared at it for a moment before pushing it open and stepping inside.

The Hobbit followed him and squinted around the fairly large room. Like the rest of the city, it had fallen into disarray and ruin thanks to Smaug. But some things still remained intact and he took them in carefully. In the center of the room sat a large table that was surrounded by padded divans and chairs, and off to the side sat a fireplace taller than even Dwalin. On the other side was a door that was still, amazingly, intact.

Bilbo looked to Thorin and winced at what he saw. The warrior king looked as if someone had punched him in the stomach. His eyes were wide and glassy, and he was clenching his jaw so tightly that it looked painful. Slowly, the Hobbit moved closer to the Dwarf before softly calling his name.

"Thorin?"

The Dwarf glanced at him for a second before his eyes were drawn back to the room. When he finally spoke, his voice was low and raspy. "This… These were my brother's chambers. Frerin."

"Oh." Bilbo felt a needle prick his heart. Thorin had never spoken much of his brother in both lifetimes, and he had honestly never wanted to ask. It had always seemed awkward and invasive to ask about someone who died before he was even born. But now, standing in the room filled with the ghost of Frerin, he realized that perhaps it was time to ask.

"Tell me about him," the Hobbit said quietly while watching the king.

Thorin closed his eyes and took in a deep breath. "I don't know what to say."

"Say anything. Whatever comes to mind," Bilbo suggested softly because if there was one thing he knew well it was grief.

The king took in another shaky breath. "Frerin… Frerin was an archer, like Kíli. He had the same unruly hair too but it was golden like Fíli. He… He was the only one who inherited out mother's hair. Dís always envied him for that. He also got her chin and her nose. Out of the three of us, he was the only one who could make our father laugh. Frerin… He was always smiling, always happy even after Erebor fell. Nothing could ever keep him down for long. He was even smiling when he… when he died."

Thorin opened his eyes and looked at him, and Bilbo found that they were wet with unshed tears. The sight of those eyes made his breath catch because Thorin Oakenshield never cried. Not even on his death bed did he shed a single tear. But yet he cried for his brother who had been dead for decades, and somehow that seemed even sadder than if he had cried for himself.

"He died in my arms you know," the king whispered as if it was a terrible secret he couldn't bear to tell. "My only brother. He was the bow and I the sword, and it was my job to keep them away from him. It was my job to protect him. But I… I didn't and so he died. He died and now I will never see that smile again."

"You will!" Bilbo said before he could stop and think. "You will see him again one day along with everyone else who has passed on. You will see that smile again, and when you do you will never have to worry about losing it again."

The Dwarf blinked a few times before he released a choked laugh. "You're right. You're right, of course. I will see Frerin again one day. I will see them all again."

"But not yet," he quickly added before the Dwarf got any ideas. "Not for a good while still because… because you still have so much to live for! You have to rebuild Erebor and—"

"Bilbo, calm down," interrupted Thorin, holding up a hand. "I promise you that I'm not planning on dying any time soon."

"No one ever plans to die," the Hobbit pointed out, crossing his arms over his chest. It was still cold and he had—foolishly—given the king his coat back.

"No," acknowledged the Dwarf with a nod, "but that doesn't mean I won't fight to stay alive. I have lost much in my life, yes, but I also still have a lot left to live for."

That stopped him in his tracks. "Oh. That's good."

"You should consider doing the same," Thorin added, one of his eyebrows rising slightly. "Staying alive, that is. You might just find something worth living for."

You are reason enough to keep living.

"I have no interest in dying yet either," Bilbo said, glancing away from the royal Dwarf lest he spilled his thoughts. "But I'm also not afraid of it. I've lived a good life and have no complaints. If I fall on this journey, then at least it would be for a good cause."

The king scoffed. "And I suppose your dead love has nothing to do with this desire for death, hmm?"

"Actually, he doesn't," he admitted, trying not to smile over the irony. "I do not believe I will see him in the afterlife."

"Why not?" Thorin wondered, cocking his head to the side so that his braids fell in his face.

Bilbo simply shrugged and looked around the massive area. "Shall we continue on to the other rooms? Or would it be too much for you right now?"

"I can handle it," the Dwarf replied, standing up straighter. "Come; my sister's room is next door."

They managed to investigate two more rooms—one belonging to Dís and the other to Thrór—but found the rest inaccessible. Thorin did not look too putout that he could not visit his old room or his father's, and Bilbo privately thought that he was relieved. Facing all that you once held dear while knowing it was forever now lost was never an easy experience.

The final room they stopped at was the last room that was not completely damaged. Thorin looked greatly reluctant to enter it but eventually forced himself to push open the damaged doors. Bilbo followed quietly and found himself in a room similar to Frerin's, only much softer and warmer. The walls were a cheery red and the furniture was made of wood instead of marble and stone. The most delightful feature of all though was the massive bookshelves that lined the room from ceiling to floor. He couldn't help but give a low whistle of appreciation when he saw them, and quickly made his way over to the books. Some were damaged and illegible, but a few had stood up to the test of time and dragon. But when he picked one up to flip through it, he was disappointed to find that it was written entirely in Khuzdûl.

"These were my mother's chambers," Thorin explained, his tone not quite as wrecked as when he had spoken of Frerin. "Her name was Arndís and she loved to read. My father built this for her as a wedding gift. She would spend all her free time here with her books."

"She sounds interesting," he commented, looking through the different titles written in a foreign tongue.

"She was… gentle," the king said slowly, seeming to ponder over his words. "Always so calm and kind no matter the circumstances. She never lost her temper, never raised her voice, and never had a cruel word to say. But for all her tenderness, she was also so very fierce. No one dared to cross her because they knew she would repay any slight back tenfold. And she would do it all with a smile on her face."

Bilbo glanced over his shoulder to give the Dwarf a look. "She sounds like Balin."

Thorin chuckled as he traced his fingers along the fireplace mantle. "Aye, she does. But she was much prettier to look at."

"I'm telling him you said that," he said, picking up another book to flick through it.

"He'll agree. My mother was beautiful," the warrior king boasted. "Her hair was as thick as Dwalin's arm and fell to her knees when unbound. When she brushed it out in front of the fire, it would shine like melted gold."

Bilbo finally tore himself away from the books to look at the king fully. "You miss her."

"Not as much as I should," Thorin admitted, rubbing his thumb against a crack in the white marble. "I remember her hair and her laugh and her smile, but that is all I can recall. She has been gone for so long that the loss does not even ache anymore. I'm afraid that I am not a very good son to her."

"You are not a bad son," he reassured as he thought of his own mother. He found that he could no longer recall her face or her voice either. Even the ache of her death had dulled over the many years until it became nothing more than a bruise on his heart.

"I do not remember my mother's face or her songs either," Bilbo confessed. "She died long ago too and in time I simply… accepted it. I will always love her and miss her, but I do not ache over her loss. Not anymore."

The king tilted his head in thought. "You do not miss her more than him?"

Bilbo did not even bother to ask who he was referring to. "I miss them in different ways so I can't properly compare it. But in some ways, losing him did hurt worse. Parents… they are not built to last forever. Only a lover can do that."

Thorin blinked before looking away; his shoulders tensing and pulling back. "If you ever desire it… You may stay here."

"Here?" Bilbo repeated slowly, trying to follow the sudden change in conversation.

The king nodded; still refusing to face him. "Yes. If you wish it, then you could live here. You could… You could even stay here; in my mother's rooms with all her books. I think she would like it if someone took an interest in them."

"I can't read them. They're all in Khuzdûl," he replied blankly. His mind had not quite caught up with the words he was hearing.

"It would not be hard to translate them… Or even teach you how to read them," the Dwarf responded, somehow growing tenser. He abruptly turned away from the fireplace and met Bilbo's eyes head on.

"It is just a thought," Thorin said, his blue eyes striking against the red walls. "Think about it. We… We would all like it if you stayed here. With us. If you wish it… Erebor can be your home now."

Then the king spun around and marched out the door without another word.

 


 

"We should have a feast," declared Kíli as he stretched out with his head on his brother's thighs. He still wore his new jewelry but had at least gotten rid of his garish crown.

"We don't have enough food for a feast," Bombur pointed out as they had all settled to discuss what they had found in their explorations.

"We can have one later," comforted Bofur when the prince's face fell. "After we clean this place up and get some more supplies. It will be the feast to end all feasts! It will go on for days and everyone will talk about it for years to come!"

"Can we have fireworks?" wondered Ori, never pausing in his writing since he sat down. "Gandalf must have some stashed away."

"We'll ask him when he returns," Bilbo promised, glancing over at the scribe's writing. It was rather incredible how Ori could write so much and still follow the conversations around him. "Did you enjoy seeing Erebor?"

"It was amazing," Fíli replied before the younger Dwarf could speak up. "The throne room alone must have taken years to build. And the craftsmanship! I could never make something so detailed even if I spent the rest of life trying."

"Good thing you were born a prince then instead of an architect," muttered Nori, pulling out a deck of cards from his coat. "Who wants to play a round?"

"Deal me in," said Dwalin, standing up to move closer to Nori.

Bofur also got his feet. "Me too. But no counting cards this time, Nori. The moment you do I'm kicking your ass."

Nori scoffed as he shuffled the worn deck. "I don't need to cheat to win. You make it easy enough."

"Did any of you visit the mines? Or the deep halls?" Bilbo asked, ignoring the three as they began to bicker over their game.

"No, it was too damaged. We will need to clear it first and send an experienced group to investigate it," replied Bombur as Bifur nodded in agreement at his side.

"Most of the halls and staircases seemed to have held up," Dori added, pushing a loose braid behind his ear. "The upper levels have the most damage, obviously, but it looks like the rest of the city has been untouched for the most part."

Thorin nodded as he listened to them all with his fingers laced together. "We will start from the gates and move through the upper levels then. We will work our way down through the rest of the kingdom from there."

"We should prioritize housing above all," reminded Glóin, smoking his pipe. "If those Men from Lake-town help us, then they'll need a place to sleep. And if Dáin brings his people too then we need even more room."

"Not to mention more food," Óin pointed out, listing it off on one hand, "and supplies and tools to clear all the rubble. We also need a healing ward. There are bound to be accidents in all of this. Oh, and let's not forget the Orcs that were following us. We need patrols to keep watch for them. I doubt Azog has just given up."

Bilbo bit his bottom lip as he listened to the healer. If they did survive the battle that was to come, then they would have a lot of work to do. But listening to them discuss rebuilding their city made him anxious. He wanted to tell them to forget about it for the moment because they had bigger concerns to worry about with the coming armies. He wanted to start preparing for that; not for rebuilding a city some of them possibly wouldn't see again.

Kíli groaned and threw one arm over his eyes. "Ugh! Can't we save all this talk for later? When we actually have help? I don't want to worry about this right now."

"I agree. We should be celebrating still," Fíli added, leaning back on his hands. "Where's the ale?"

"We drank it all last night," replied Bofur, squinting at his hand of cards.

Kíli groaned again but Fíli didn't look discouraged. "What about music? We still have that, right?"

The Dwarves immediately perked up. Nori, Dwalin and Bofur paused in their game, and even Ori put down his book. They all looked at each other for a moment before scrambling for their packs.

"Bombur! Let's cook up what's left of the meat!"

"Where's my flute, Nori?"

"Other pocket, other pocket!"

"Bifur, pass me my clarinet!"

"Does anyone have any pipe-weed left?"

"Uncle, get out your harp! We need something besides flutes here!"

"You two still owe me money. I beat you both fair and square."

Bilbo laughed as he watched the chaos that erupted. He scooted back so he wasn't in the way, and then allowed himself to enjoy the celebration. Parties were quite possible the only thing that Dwarves could compete with hobbits in. Eru knew they couldn't beat them in eating or drinking.

Eventually, as the music picked up and the food was passed out, Kíli dragged Glóin into a complicated dance that involved a lot of jumping. Surprisingly, Glóin was rather agile on his feet, and was able to keep up with the younger Dwarf rather easily. Ori soon dragged Nori into the fray and even Bombur left his boiling stew to join in. Bilbo laughed in surprised delight and clapped along as the dance grew faster and more complicated.

Then, out of nowhere, Thorin was standing before him with a hand extended.

"Dance with me?" the king asked with a small smile on his face.

Bilbo quickly shook his head and scampered back even more. "N-No, no, no thank you. I don't dance."

Thorin's face and hand fell. "Oh? I see. Can hobbits not dance then?"

"Excuse me?" he said, blinking rapidly. Could hobbits dance? He had never heard a more absurd question. He may as well have asked Bilbo if hobbits liked to eat! "Of course we can dance. We can dance better than any Dwarf or Elf around!"

Thorin raised a single black brow. "What about Men?"

"They can't dance at all," he replied because it was a universal truth that Elves were beautiful, Dwarves were strong, and Men could not dance to save their lives. "I can dance perfectly fine. I just choose not to."

"Oh? Prove it," the king challenged, raising his other brow and smirking.

"I will," he retorted, getting to his feet and grabbing the Dwarf's hand to drag him into the throng. "Try to keep up."

In response, Thorin simply threw his head back and laughed.

 


 

Chapter Text

 


 

Bombur remembered her hands the best.

They were soft and strong hands; hands that chopped vegetables and kneaded dough. They only fleetingly knew what it was like to hold an axe, and they never strived to hurt anyone. With deft fingers, they had braided his hair and combed his beard out at the end of the day. They had soothed his back aches and rubbed the tense knots out of his shoulders. He had worshipped those tanned hands and decorated them with silver and iron rings because she did not care for gold. He had held those hands in his own clumsy pair as they walked home together, or after they had made love. He had kissed them when she told him that he was to be a father. They had in turn wiped away his tears of joy.

They weren't there to wipe them away when Smaug came.

The years after Erebor fell were a haze to Bombur. He could recall only vague images of fire and screams, and wandering for days on end. He remembered a soothing voice guiding him along, but for the most part the memories were fuzzy and unclear. He probably would have continued like that for the rest of his days if Bofur had not forced him awake with a hard punch to the face.

Bofur—his little brother who watched their father burn alive; who saw their mother crushed by a falling pillar; whose back was covered with the burns of Smaug's fire—forced him to wake up and see again. Bofur had dragged him out of his fog and made him remember what it was like to live. He had saved him in every way, and Bombur could never repay him for it. He was so very lucky, in that regard, that he had a brother who loved him so much.

Bilbo Baggins… was not so lucky.

The Hobbit did not have a brother. He did not have any siblings or parents left and his kin were very far away. He had only the Dwarves and a lone wizard for company. Bombur did not know if they could be enough for the single Hobbit with a broken heart. But, just as Bofur forced him to live, he would force Bilbo to carry on. Because he understood now why his brother fought so hard for him. He understood that love—for a spouse or brother or a friend—was still love.

And love? Well, that was always worth fighting for.

 


 

Bilbo found himself exploring Erebor over the next few days. He stuck mostly to the secure areas such as the throne room and armory, and avoided the unstable mines and deep halls. He found himself leaving footprints in the dusty halls and stairs as he rediscovered the glorious Dwarven city. Sometimes one of the other's joined him but most of the time he explored alone; getting lost in his thoughts and memories and plans for the future.

Balin and Gandalf had still not returned but he was not worried. He estimated that it would take them a good week before they would return to Erebor. He hoped that when they did return they would bring news of Azog and his ilk, and then he could begin to help his friends prepare for the upcoming battle. He hoped that perhaps the Battle of the Five Armies would not commence, but he wasn't about to take any chances. Not with the lives of the three royals Dwarves on the line.

With nothing more to do but wait, Bilbo took to watching his friends in between his explorations. Thorin in particular he kept a close eye on when he went through the mountains of treasure. So far none of them had displayed any madness or stirrings of greed over the gold, but he didn't let his guard down. Sooner or later one of them would be consumed by it. And considering his luck, Bilbo knew it would most likely be a certain Dwarven king.

Eventually, during one of his walks through Erebor, he found himself in the massive throne room. It was indeed an architect of wonder as Fíli had claimed, and he took a long time admiring the carefully constructed statues that lined the colossal chambers. He could not begin to imagine how the Dwarves had gone about building something so large and detailed. Not even Rivendell could boast such an architectural wonder. When he eventually made his way to the actual throne, Bilbo was surprised to find it already occupied.

Thorin knelt on one bent knee in front of (his) the throne with something unseen in his hands. He seemed to be whispering a string of unbroken Khuzdûl in what almost sounded like a prayer. Bilbo patiently waited until the Dwarf finished speaking before finally making his presence known.

"Thorin?"

The king's wide shoulders and back visibly tensed before relaxing. He slowly got to his feet and turned around to face the Hobbit. He smiled politely, but Bilbo saw that his brows were slanted and his eyes shadowed by something he could not place.

"Bilbo. I did not hear your approach."

"Hobbits are very good at being quiet when it suits us," he explained, moving closer to the royal Dwarf. "What are you doing?"

"Huh? Oh, it was just… I was apologizing to my grandfather and father," the warrior explained, waving a hand at the throne behind him. In his other hand, Bilbo realized he held the key to the secret door.

"What do you have to apologize for?" he wondered.

"I… I could not protect them," Thorin admitted, closing his eyes and grimacing. "At the Battle of Azanulbizar, my grandfather died at Azog's hands. Then, my father, he… Gandalf found him before he died. He had been tortured to the point where he could not even recall his own name. They were my kings and kin and I could not save either of them."

"Oh, Thorin," Bilbo sighed, feeling torn between laughing and crying. He knew that Thorin carried guilt and grief in his heart over the fates of his family, but he had not imagined that it would be so great. How much more would his king take onto himself until he realized that some things were not his responsibility? That some things could not be changed no matter how many tears you spilled, or how zealously you wished it?

"It's not your fault that they died," the Hobbit said, and when Thorin began to protest, he reached up with one hand to cover the Dwarf's mouth.

"Don't interrupt me," he ordered, raising his voice. "Just be quiet and listen for a moment. Your grandfather died in a battle that he chose to participate in. Your father died after being captured by an evil that we cannot begin to understand. Neither situation was something you could have predicted let alone changed. So stop blaming yourself for what happened. I highly doubt that your kings would want you to spend the rest of your life believing you failed them when it was you who managed to reclaim Erebor."

Thorin sighed and tapped at the hand that obscured his mouth. When Bilbo finally released him, he sighed again and rolled his eyes.

"You are ridiculously stubborn and annoyingly logical," the king grumbled, but his eyes had softened into a pale robin blue. "But thank you for your words. They have, oddly enough, made me feel better."

The burglar grinned. "We Hobbits are rather good at that too. Common sense, I mean. Oh, and cooking. We are very good at that too."

"And eating," added the Dwarf, his mouth quirking up into a half smile that was unfairly handsome. "You're rather good at that too."

"Yes, well, what good is cooking if you don't eat well?" he pointed out, tossing his head back so that his hair wasn't in his eyes anymore.

Thorin watched him before nodding to the Hobbit's head. "Your hair has grown quite a bit these past months."

"Yes, I am aware of that. It keeps falling into my face," Bilbo grumbled, shaking his head and making the curls bounce back into his eyes. "See? I keep meaning to cut it but every time I ask someone for scissors, no one seems to have a pair. I think it's a conspiracy."

Thorin did not laugh at his joke as he had intended. Instead, the king did something much, much worse. Without a word, Thorin reached out to push his hair back behind one of his pointed ears. Bilbo froze and stared at the Dwarf as that large hand skimmed his cheekbone, and then the tip of his ear before dropping back to his side.

"Would you like me to braid it back for you? So it will not fall into your face anymore," asked the king, looking unfazed by his actions.

He shook his head quickly and stepped back. "Um, no, no, no that won't be necessary. I-I don't think it would look good. Braids, that is. I think I would look awkward with them."

The Dwarf did not look discouraged. "I disagree. I think you would look fine with them. Please, would you let me try? If you do not care for them after, then I promise to undo them."

Bilbo felt himself caving like one of the forts that Frodo used to make with his drapes. "Oh, very well then. But when it turns out hideous, don't say I didn't warn you."

Thorin smirked and gestured for him to sit down on the cold stone floor. He did so reluctantly and felt the Dwarf settle behind him. He tried his best not tense at having Thorin so close, and when he felt the Dwarf run his fingers through his hair, it grew even more difficult. His heart began to pick up speed and he wondered if the other could hear it trying to pound its way out of his chest.

The king was silent as he quickly separated his hair and began to braid it back. Bilbo shivered at the gentle touch and light pull on his hair. No one but his parents had ever bothered with his hair before, so it was a rather new experience having someone else touch him; especially someone he was attracted to. It made him wonder if all Dwarves felt the same pleasure, and if that was true, then he suddenly had a new understanding for their fascination with hair.

Thorin made quick work with the braid before pausing when he reached the end. Bilbo heard him shift and the sound of something clicking before his hands returned. He felt those hands tie the end of his braid before moving onto the other side. The second braid was finished just as quickly and soon—too soon, he secretly admitted to himself—the king was standing up.

"There, finished. How does it feel?" the Dwarf asked, helping him to his feet.

Bilbo reached up and held out one of the braids in front of his eyes. His thick curls were tightly woven into an intricate order before being tied off by a familiar band of silver and black. He dropped the braid and watched as it fell off to the side of his face and out of his eyes.

"These are your clasps," he said, looking to the Dwarf's signature braids only to find them lacking their bonds at the ends. "Why are you letting me use them?"

Thorin shrugged. "I had nothing else to tie the ends with."

"But aren't these important? And what will you use for your hair?" he wondered, frowning up at the king.

The Dwarf simply shook his head as a grin bloomed across his face. "I have extras that I can use. You keep them for now. When Erebor is rebuilt, I will make you a better pair."

Bilbo fingered one of metal fastenings. "No, you don't have to do that. These will work fine. Thank you, Thorin. This is… This is a lovely gift. Even better than the mithril shirt."

"Truly?" Thorin's eyes widened and he pulled his shoulders back. "You like those simple things more than the mithril shirt?"

"Of course. The shirt is just a pretty shirt. But these?" Bilbo held up one of the braids again and swung it back and forth. "These are something you value and yet gifted to me. They have much more sentimental value, and are therefore much more precious to me."

Thorin rubbed his shorn beard as he considered his words. "I see. You like things with sentimental value. That… actually fits you. I will keep this in mind with future gifts."

"You do that." Bilbo dropped his braid and delighted in how the cool metal brushed against his skin before settling under his jaw. "I think I will keep these braids for now. They do keep my hair out of my face nicely."

"I told you they would. You should really listen to my ideas more often. They tend to be good ones," the king boasted, grinning without restraint. The grin softened the creases and harsh lines in his face; making him look years younger and the resemblance to his nephews even greater.

"Mmm, yes, much like the idea to take on a dragon with thirteen Dwarves," he drawled, tilting his head back to give the Dwarf a look. "Wonderful plan, really."

Thorin sniffed. "It worked, didn't it?"

"Somehow, magically, yes. But in the future, let's not take on anymore dragons," he chided, turning on his heel and walking down the steps. "Come on now, O King Under the Mountain. I think it's time for second breakfast."

Thorin followed him without complaint. "Second breakfast? What is that?"

Bilbo wrinkled his nose. "Ugh, I forgot that you Dwarves only eat three meals a day. I think it's time I educate you lot on the wonders of seven meals a day. In the Shire, we start the day off first with breakfast…"

 


 

As much as he enjoyed Erebor, Bilbo found himself longing for fresh air and sunlight after a few days. He was a Hobbit, after all, and they enjoyed the feel of grass under their feet and the warm touch of the sun on their skin. When he told his comrades his desire to visit outside, they quickly agreed but only if he took someone with him. So with Bifur in toll, he traveled down through the secret door and back to the mountain top.

"Ahh, fresh air!" Bilbo cheered, throwing his arms up and letting his head fall back. The air was chilly but the afternoon sun was bright in the gray clouds, and it warmed him to the bones. Even the rocks and weeds under his feet felt nice after walking on nothing but smooth stone and coins.

Bifur chuckled at him and took a seat on one of the boulders. He pulled out his pipe and lit it up while keeping his eye on their surroundings.

"I doubt anything will attack us up here," he reassured, lacing his fingers behind his head and relaxing against it.

Bifur scoffed and slowly signed, 'Don't be dumb. There is always danger.'

Bilbo simply rolled his eyes. "Eru save me from paranoid Dwarves."

The Dwarf just grinned in return before waving at his hair with his pipe, and then pointed to Bilbo. The Hobbit translated it to mean, 'Nice braids. Who did them?'

"Like them? Thorin did it," he explained, shaking his head so the braids swung loose and then stopping to show how they fell into place around his face. "I was skeptic at first, but now I realize how useful they are. They keep my hair completely out of my face. It's wonderful!"

Bifur chuckled and took a puff of his pipe. He held up one of his own braids where there was a clasp, shook it at Bilbo, and wiggled his brows.

"They're Thorin's clasps, yes, but they don't mean anything. He just didn't have anything else on hand," he explained, dropping his arms back to his side.

The Dwarf snorted and signed, 'Doubtful.'

"It's true. Why would you think differently?" he wondered.

The Dwarf shrugged and signed, 'You should tell him how you feel.'

Bilbo froze. "W-What? W-What are y-you talking about?"

Bifur sighed and gestured to his heart before signing, 'You love him. I know it. Don't lie.'

The Hobbit swallowed as he felt his knees weaken. It took every bit of his strength to keep himself from falling to the ground right then and there. "H-How d-did you f-find out?"

'The battle with Smaug. You were so scared for him. That fear came from love,' Bifur signed slowly, giving him a knowing look.

Bilbo flinched before moving swiftly to the Dwarf to grasp his free hand in both of his. "Please don't tell him! He can't know, he just can't! He would feel guilty for not loving me back and it would make our relationship ever so awkward. I couldn't stand it if I lost his friendship over this!"

Bifur stared at him with wide eyes through his rant. Sighing, he put his pipe down so his hand was free, and signed slowly, 'You are a fool. Thorin would never turn you away over this.'

"You don't know that," he pointed out, tightening his grip until his knuckles turned a bloodless white. "Please, Bifur, promise me you won't say anything. Please!"

The architect sighed again and signed, 'I won't tell him. It is not my place to speak for you.'

The Hobbit's shoulders slumped as he felt his panic give away to relief. "Thank you, Bifur. You have no idea how much I appreciate your silence."

Bifur patted his shoulder and gave him a half smile. He gently pulled his hand free and signed, 'It's not a problem. But you have to tell him someday.'

"No, I don't," he denied, moving to sit on the ground next to his friend. He pulled his knees up to his chest and leaned his head against the Dwarf's thighs. "If possible, I'd prefer it if he never found out. I couldn't stand his pity, or to make him uncomfortable."

'You won't. Thorin would probably appreciate hearing it,' the Dwarf signed before picking his pipe back up.

He scoffed lightly. "So you say. Regardless, I won't be telling him anytime soon. There is far too much to do at the moment."

Bifur—bless him—did not keep trying to change his mind. Instead, he patted his head and offered him his pipe. Bilbo gratefully took it, and the two spent the rest of the afternoon enjoying the sunshine and ignoring the unspoken words between them.

 


 

The Dwarves tried their very best to throw a feast every night since the defeat of Smaug. It was rather difficult though as they slowly ran out of food, were out of ale by the first day, and lacked any good pipe-weed. But they had their music and each other and that was enough for them to throw a party. That was why, for the fourth night in a row, Bilbo found himself laughing and singing along with the others as they made up their own songs.

It was also during this feast that Bilbo found himself watching Thorin play the harp.

The first time around, when he first discovered that the Dwarf played the harp of all instruments, it had understandably stunned him. After all, Thorin hardly gave the impression of being a soft Dwarf. But after spending months with the king, Bilbo had eventually realized that Thorin did have a soft underbelly no matter how much he glowered and glared. It was just hidden under that ugly coat and nasty scowls. That soft side was only shown in three ways. The first was when one of their comrades got hurt or sick. The second was usually aimed at Fíli and Kíli. The third and final time was when he played his harp.

This softness was not known only to him. Earlier, while browsing through the treasure, they had stumbled upon a harp as tall as Bilbo, made of silver and gold. Fíli and Kíli had taken one look at it before declaring that their uncle had to keep it. Thorin had growled and groaned but did not turn down the lovely instrument. Since then he had taken to randomly playing the elegant harp throughout their celebrations.

That night, as Bilbo watched him pluck one clear note after another, Thorin finally noticed his impolite staring. He stopped and raised one brow at the Hobbit before speaking, "Would you like to learn?"

Bilbo blinked and looked behind him to see if someone else was standing there. When he realized he was alone, he turned back to the king and pointed to himself. "Who, me?"

"Obviously," droned the Dwarf, his other brow joining its twin. "I can teach you to play if you wish to learn."

He bit his lower lip and swept his eyes over the gleaming instrument. "I don't think you can teach me. I'm afraid I've never been very good with music."

The king clucked his tongue and shook his head. "Are you giving up before even trying? I didn't think you so much of a coward, Bilbo."

"And baiting people only works on your nephews and Dwalin," he grumbled back even as he got to feet and marched over to the Dwarf. "Fine, how does this blasted thing work?"

Thorin rose to his feet and motioned for Bilbo to take his seat. Once he was seated behind the harp, Thorin moved back to sit behind him, and he suddenly found himself boxed in by the Dwarf.

Maybe this wasn't a good idea, he thought, tensing as Thorin pressed in close. He could feel the hard chest and abdomen press against the curve of his back and shoulders as the king reached around to grasp the Hobbit's hands. He watched those hands—large and callused and so very different from his own soft pair—as they guided his fingers to the strings of the harp. He could even feel the rasp of Thorin's beard against his ear as the Dwarf leaned forward to get a better look at the harp. He hoped the king did not notice how tense he was, or that he was now consciously aware of every breath he took. It would just make the whole scene even more awkward.

"Put these fingers here and here… There, like that," ordered Thorin as he placed his fingers in the correct position. Bilbo expected him to then release his hands (and possibly get far, far away from him) but instead Thorin did something much worse.

He helped the Hobbit play.

The king gently manipulated his fingers into pulling the correct strings until a clear but unfamiliar melody was produced. Bilbo watched—a bit awed, really—as the Dwarf was able to puppet his clumsy fingers into producing a graceful melody. Eru knew he wouldn't be able to do such a thing on his own.

"I don't think I have ever played something so well before," he muttered, and felt the chest behind him rumble as Thorin chuckled.

"That is because you have a king playing for you," the Dwarf teased back. Bilbo found that he was much too aware of how close those lips were to his cheek. With the slightest turn, the king would end kissing more than Bilbo's cheek.

Stop it, Bilbo, you old fool before you do something stupid!

He forced himself to focus instead on the harp and the song being played. Anything but the broad Dwarf behind him. "W-What is this song called?"

"Barazbizar," replied the king, playing a sharp note, "it means 'Red Valley' in common. Do you like it?"

"It's pretty," he admitted as he listened. "A bit sad though. It sounds almost wistful."

The Dwarf nodded and Bilbo tried not to shiver as a long braid fell forward to tickle his collar bone. "The song comes from a tragic story of a khuzdinh—a Dwarf-lady—who was fair and gifted in her craft. She one day caught the eye of a foreign king who stole her away while her father was gone. Her father, a powerful king himself, waged war on this foreigner to get his daughter back. The khuzdinh, who by then had fallen for her husband, tried to cool the fires of her father's anger but could not. Even the foreign king tried to stop the war by offering up all the wealth and riches of his kingdom. But the father had already drawn his sword, and a drawn sword could not be sheathed until it tasted blood.

"So they went to war and fought all day until night fell and everyone lay dead. The khuzdinh came and walked among the dead, and with her magic, brought them all back to life. The next morning the war continued until dusk where they all fell again, and the khuzdinh used her magic once more. This cycle continues on and the two armies are cursed to fight forever more while the khuzdinh weeps alone for her husband and father."

"That is a sad story," Bilbo said softly as he thought of the poor maiden who could not save those she loved despite her talent. It was an uncomfortably familiar tale. "I wish it had a happier ending."

"Most Dwarven stories are sad," Thorin explained, his voice lowering a notch. "We are not a lucky race when it comes to happy endings."

Bilbo flinched. The king was far too correct in his statement. The Dwarves were possibly the unluckiest of all the people in Middle Earth. The only ones who could possibly rival them were Men, who fell too easily to their own desires. Possibly the Orcs and Goblins as well, but they really did bring disaster upon themselves.

"But perhaps this tale will end happy," the king continued, failing to notice his flinch. He played one last note before finally releasing Bilbo's hands and pulling away. The Hobbit firmly told himself that he was not disappointed over that.

"Did you enjoy your lesson?" asked the Dwarf, staring at him with sky blue eyes and a half smile.

"Oh, yes, it was nice. Maybe one day I won't even need you to guide my fingers," he answered without thought before going wide-eyed. He had just invited Thorin to teach him again! What the hell was wrong with him?!

The king's smile grew into a full one at that. "Perhaps. Until then, I will help you."

Bilbo felt his face begin to grow hot so he quickly stood up and walked away without another word. It was rude of him and he would have to apologize later, but at that moment he had to get away before he did something stupid. Like taking Thorin up on his offer.

 


 

"I see you finally gave in and let someone braid your hair," crowed Glóin as he took a seat next to Bilbo later that night.

He rolled his eyes. "Yes, I finally braided my hair. But only because no one would lend me a pair of scissors. You wouldn't have anything to do with that, would you?"

"Of course I do," the Dwarf replied without an ounce of shame. "I told them of your dumb idea and they all agreed it was for the best. And I was right! You look so fetching with those braids! You might actually pass as attractive now."

Bilbo groaned and smacked his current annoyance in the arm. "I'm not doing it for the appearance but because it's practical. It keeps my hair out of my face."

Glóin scoffed. "Yeah, sure, that's why. And where did you get those claps? They look awfully familiar..."

"I'm not playing this game," he insisted, pulling his legs up to his chest so he could rest his chin on his knees. "Yes, Thorin gave them to me. Yes, they used to be his. No, it does not mean anything. And yes, I am still going to cut my hair when I find a pair of scissors."

"You ruin all my fun," the Dwarf grumbled, slumping back against the wall they both sat before.

"Deal with it," he ordered, rolling his eyes. "I can't imagine how your poor wife puts up with you all the time."

"Poor wife? My Súna is many things but poor was never one," the warrior replied, stroking his beard. "Did I ever tell you how she was the only one to ever beat me in hand-to-hand combat? Put me right to the ground in three moves, she did. I lost both my title and my heart to her that day."

Bilbo watched the Dwarf as he continued to stroke his beard. His eyes were warm and his mouth had softened into a small smile. Even the hard line to his shoulders had relaxed into something gentler. "You miss her."

"Aye, I do," Glóin admitted easily. "She's my jewel, my One. I don't know what I would do without her. Probably get myself killed."

"Would you… Would you tell me about her? Your wife and your son?" he asked slowly, playing with the thick hair on his feet. "I never hear you speak of them though I know you obviously adore them both."

"I haven't told you about them, have I?" mused the Dwarf, tilting his head to the side. "Well, first off, I am married to Súna daughter of Sunnvá. She is a Broadbeam and I met her when I moved to the Blue Mountains. She is about as tall as you with hair the color of wheat and eyes as dark as ebony. Though small, she is the best fighter I have ever seen in hand-to-hand combat. She is a jewelry maker by trade, and even more direct than I am with her words. I thank Mahâl everyday for bringing her into my life."

"She sounds lovely," the Hobbit said as he tried to envision the small but fierce Dwarf-maiden that had charmed the honorable Dwarf so easily. "I would love to meet her one day."

"You will," reassured Glóin, patting his leg. "She will come to Erebor as soon as she hears we have reclaimed it."

He nodded. "I look forward to it then. Now what of your son? What is he like?"

"Gimli? Ahh, well, if Súna is my jewel than Gimli is my fire," Glóin explained, returning to running his fingers through his beard. "He is my laughter and smiles and everything pure. He has my coloring and looks, but his spirit is all Súna. He is so small and yet so fierce! So very passionate and bright! He will shake the world up one day, mark my words."

Bilbo believed that. Gimli had dared to take on Mordor for Frodo; had fought against Sauron's forces without flinching; had gained three hairs from the Lady Galadriel; and had even challenged centuries of prejudice and hatred by befriending Legolas. Gimli had not just shaken the world; he had shattered it.

"They are the reason that I decided to join Thorin on this quest," the warrior admitted quietly, his hand slowing. "Reclaiming Erebor would give them both a better life. Even if I had died on the quest, as long as Erebor was reclaimed, they would have been taken care of. I want that for them. I want Súna to sleep soundly knowing that we are safe. I want Gimli to grow up without ever going hungry again. I want them both to be happy and safe. I think it is all I ever wanted in this life."

Bilbo felt something in him melt. Glóin sounded so honest, so humble in his desire to give his wife and son a better life. How many beings—Elves, Dwarves, Men, Hobbits—could ever say they took on a dragon just so their family would never risk the chance of hunger? How many gods and kings and lords could ever say that they would die just to keep their loved ones safe? It was no wonder why Gimli had grown up to be such a wonder. He had the perfect role model to follow.

"You can give them that now," he pointed out, nudging the warrior's arm with his shoulder. "You can give them everything they ever wanted. Erebor is safe once more and your family is too."

Glóin sniffed and turned his face away to subtly wipe at his eyes. "Yes, yes, you're right. No need to rub it in now, burglar."

Bilbo nodded and carefully looked away from the teary-eyed Dwarf. He tried his best to ignore the nagging guilt that whispered he was ruining Gimli's destiny with his intention to destroy the One Ring. He was sorry, yes, but it had to be done by him and him alone.

After all, Glóin wasn't the only one with a family to save.

 


 

In hindsight, he should have expected it to happen soon. Luck had never favored him the last time around so why would it start then? It was in the middle of their sixth celebration, and he was in the process of showing Ori a Hobbit dance when the young Dwarf suddenly stopped.

"Hey, what's that glowing over there?" wondered Ori, squinting at something in the distance.

Bilbo turned to where he was looking and froze at what he saw. Oh no…

"What glowing thing?" asked Kíli, joining them in their staring. The rest of the Dwarves eventually stopped as well and turned to see what they were looking at.

Óin gasped and reached out to steady himself against his brother. "Thorin, is that…?"

The king stepped forward; blue eyes turning darker with every step. Bilbo had to dig his nails into the palms of his hands to keep himself from grabbing the Dwarf and pulling him back. Instead, he forced himself to watch as the king slowly reached out and picked up a clear gem that glowed with an inner white light.

Fíli took in a sharp breath as he had made the connection. "Wait, is that what I think it is?"

"What is it?" whispered Bofur, his eyes wide and cloudy.

"The Heart of the Mountain," Thorin said softly as held up the stone in both hands. His blue eyes had gone completely black as he stared at the gem of his ancestors without blinking. "This… This is the legacy of our heritage. This… is the Arkenstone."

And Bilbo wanted to scream.

 


 

Chapter Text

 


 

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?"

No.

"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.

 


 

Chapter Text

 


 

Ori had never considered himself very brave.

Growing up poor and homeless, he had learned what fear meant at a young age. His earliest memory was watching his ma's body being buried in some nameless grave in some nameless village of Men. She had died from a plague that had taken half the village, and had nearly taken Ori too. Somehow he was able to overcome it and get better but his ma had not been so lucky. She had died and left his brothers and him to take on the world alone.

That memory—that fear of watching his ma die and nearly dying himself—stuck with him for the rest of his life. It made him cautious and leery of the outside world; where things like sickness and death was far too common. He had spent a good portion of his childhood hiding away in his room with only his few books and toys for company. It didn't help either that both his brothers encouraged his fear in their own ways.

Ori loved Dori more than he had ever loved his ma, but his brother was overprotective to the extreme. He always warned his little brothers of the dangers in the world, and stressed how important it was to be safe and smart. While Nori had taken this advice as a challenge to get into as much trouble as possible, Ori had taken it to heart that he always had to be careful because the world could so easily crush him as it did his ma.

Nori had too, unknowingly, made his little brother very wary of ever taking a step outside of his house. Ori had more memories then he cared for of his middle brother coming home with a black eye, a split lip, or bruised knuckles. Seeing his strong and fearless brother so badly hurt had simply driven home how even the most powerful of Dwarves could still fall to the wicked ways of the outside world.

With this constant fear of being hurt or dying in the back of his mind, Ori had lived life skittish and withdrawn. He never took great risks and he never chanced his safety if he could avoid it. In return, his life was very safe and routine. If he sometimes wondered what it would be like to see unexplored lands, then that was his own private fantasy.

Everything changed when he met Mister Baggins.

Bilbo Baggins was the same height as him, but not as nearly densely built as a Dwarf. His wrists were petite and delicate and he seemed to bruise so very easily. He even wore only two layers of clothes that were so thin he could see the flex of the Hobbit's muscles when he moved. When Ori was introduced to him, he had felt a jolt of sick fear for the small Hobbit that could be so easily crushed. How were they ever supposed to protect someone like that?

Of course, all these impressions were shattered after the troll incident.

It had stunned him to be sure. How could someone like Bilbo—who could not wield a sword and carried around a handkerchief—ever muster the courage to face three trolls alone? If that wasn't enough, Bilbo went on to challenge Orcs, shape-changers, and even a dragon without batting an eye. He was fearless to the point of reckless and so easily risked his own life for the others. Ori could not understand it. Where did such bravery come from? How did he do it every day without ever faltering? How could Bilbo face the world head on with all its horrors and deaths, and yet still smile?

It was perplexing. It was unnatural. And it was also amazing.

Ori did not want to be a coward. He wanted to live like Bilbo did—easily and laughing as he explored the forgotten wonders of the world. He wanted to visit places that he had only ever heard whispers of, and discover lands that existed only in legend. He wanted to be brave and strong and able to live his life without being crippled by the constant terror of death.

And if Mister Baggins—who had lost his One and was so small that Ori sometimes thought of him as a bird—could be brave, then perhaps one day Ori could be the same.

 


 

Thorin and Bofur both jumped at the sudden shrieking Hobbit as he proceeded to scream his lungs out. Bilbo was quite sure he looked like a child having a temper tantrum, but he really didn't care. He needed an outlet for his frustration and it was either screaming or punching someone in the face. Since he couldn't choose between Thorin and Thranduil, screaming won out.

When he finally stopped, he found the two Dwarves silently staring at him with mixed expressions. He ignored them both, turned on his heel, and marched out of the hall and back to the gates. There he found Gandalf and Balin arguing with a familiar Elvenking while Óin stood off to the side watching. Bard and his Men had disappeared, but he spotted Dwalin and Nori standing with the healer while outside lingered three mounted Elves that he did not recognize.

"—can't just march in here like that!" Balin scolded, glaring up at the king.

"I don't see why not. Your door is wide open," retorted Thranduil, coolly unfazed.

Gandalf stood between the two and looked close to smacking them both with his staff. "Enough! Arguing now will not—"

"I have simply come for what was promised to me," interrupted the Elf, arching a high brow. "Grant me my reward and I will happily leave you all alone."

"There's nothing to grant! We haven't even split the treasure yet!" snapped Balin.

"Then I won't be leaving so soon now will I?"

"Damnit, Thranduil, stop antagonizing him!"

"What is going on here?!" bellowed Thorin as he stomped into the halls with Bofur trailing after him.

The arguing trio turned to the Dwarf king as one. Balin relaxed as Gandalf groaned and Thranduil pulled his lips back in the slightest hint of a snarl.

"What is that doing here?" Thorin demanded, pointing to Thranduil but looking to Balin for an answer.

"I was promised a portion of the treasure and I have come for it," the Elf answered before Balin could speak up.

The Dwarf king sneered. "You will get nothing from me, kalil rukhs."

Thranduil simply looked at him without blinking. "My arrangement was not made with you."

All eyes immediately went to Bilbo, who could only shrug. "I did make a deal with him. My portion for our freedom."

"And I held up my part of the bargain," added the Elf, tilting his head to the side slightly. "Now it is your turn, halfling."

The Hobbit nodded and waved a hand impatiently. "Yes, yes, I will uphold my end as well. You will have your promised treasure."

"He will not!" objected Thorin, making a slicing motion with one hand. His dark eyes burned brutally as he glared up at the Elvenking. "You will get nothing from us! Get out now before I cut you down!"

"Master Oakenshield control yourself!" thundered Gandalf, the air crackling around him with tightly controlled power. Balin discreetly took a few steps back but Thranduil did not even blink as his liquid blond hair whipped around his shoulders.

Thorin did not look threatened either and even stepped closer to the wizard. Bilbo quickly reached out and locked his hands around the Dwarf's forearm before he did something stupid in his madness.

"Enough, Thorin," he soothed, wrapping his arms around the muscled limb, and digging his heels into the ground. "We will get nowhere with threats so calm down."

"Aye, Bilbo is right," agreed Balin, moving to stand at Thorin's other side, and settling his hand on his cousin's shoulder to ground him. "Yelling will not solve anything. Take a breath and relax before you give yourself another headache."

Thorin glared at them both but slowly forced himself to relax. Bilbo did not relax his grip though, and noticed Balin discreetly signal something to his brother. Whatever it was, Dwalin understood, because he began to carefully inch around the room where Thorin would not notice him.

"I will not give anything to this cowardly wretch," the warrior king swore, curling his hands into fists. "Not when he did nothing to deserve it! All the treasure in this mountain belongs to my people who shed blood, sweat, and tears to create it. They owe nothing to this filthy liar who turned them away when they came begging for aid!"

Thranduil's carefully constructed mask finally cracked. His blue eyes thinned into slits of azure, and his lips pulled back at one corner into a (unfairly attractive) snarl that showed a hint of his teeth. "Do not test my patience you ignorant little maggot. I have been lenient with your temper tantrum till now, but I grow weary of your whining. Give me the gold I was promised. Now."

At the end of his sentence, Thorin immediately attempted to lunge at the Elvenking, and was only stopped by Dwalin as he came behind and wrapped his cousin in a bear hug. With the three of them, they were able to hold the Dwarf king back from potentially maiming Thranduil, and starting another war with the Elves.

"Thorin! Calm down ya fool!" snapped Dwalin, leaning his head away so he didn't get smacked in the face by the struggling king. Thorin simply snarled something back in Khuzdûl, and attempted to head butt Dwalin again.

"Look at him. He's like a mad dog that needs to be put down," suggested Thranduil.

"Would you kindly shut up? You're not helping!" Bilbo snapped back, glaring at the Elf.

"Bilbo is right. Stop riling him up," advised Gandalf, giving the king a stink eye. "In fact, perhaps it would be better if you left for now."

"I will not leave without what was promised to me," retorted the Elvenking.

"And you will get it," reassured Balin, ignoring Thorin as he swore at him, "but you need to give us time. Come back in a week and we will have your reward set for you."

"We will have nothing but my blade—" Thorin began to rant only to be cut off by Bilbo's hand.

Thranduil looked at Balin then to Thorin before finally back to Balin. "You have three days. If the deal is not honored peacefully by then, I will take my portion from you lot by force."

"Fine," agreed the Hobbit, making a shooing gesture with his free hand. "Great, deal. Now go!"

The Elvenking inclined his head slightly before turning away in a dramatic whirl of silk and velvet. Bilbo rolled in his eyes as the Elf glided out of the mountain. Were all kings so damn dramatic? Aragon had certainly seemed levelheaded, but perhaps he was the only exception.

It was only after the Elves were completely out of sight that they finally released Thorin. When they did, the Dwarf king spun around and punched Dwalin in the jaw before delivering the same treatment to Balin. Bilbo darted back quickly before the same could happen to him. Dwalin and Balin were Dwarves and could handle such a punch without trouble; Hobbits though were not built to withstand such powerful strikes.

"How dare you speak for me," the king growled, glaring at his cousins with midnight eyes. "Have you forgotten who your king is?!"

"I have not forgotten who my king is, aye, but my king has forgotten himself," Dwalin sneered, rubbing his jaw lightly.

"Dwalin is right. Thorin, this is not like you! You are not this violent or angry!" pointed out Balin, looking unfazed by the punch. "Don't you see it? You're acting like…"

"Like your grandfather," finished Gandalf, his gray eyes as hard and unflinching as stone. "You are losing your mind, Thorin Oakenshield; just as your grandfather did, and his father before him, and his father before him. Durin's curse has finally caught up to you."

"SHUT UP!" roared Thorin, his face turning a harsh red that clashed horribly with his coloring. "Do not speak to me of matters you know nothing of! My grandfather may have lost himself to the madness, but I am not him! I am stronger than he ever was, and I will not fall to the gold fever!"

"Then what do you call this?" Bilbo asked softly, feeling the fight drain out of him. He felt tired and used up and far older than his years. If they could not snap Thorin out of his madness, then what was he supposed to do? Would he have to steal the Arkenstone and end his friendship with Thorin once more? Or would the king only regain his wits on his deathbed again? What if he saved Thorin from death only to deliver him to an even darker fate?

Thorin turned to him and paused. His eyes lightened slightly and his mouth pulled down at the corners as he took in the Hobbit. "Bilbo, please. I cannot give that coward the gold he desires. Don't you remember what I said before? How my people crafted all of the treasure to be found in this mountain? That treasure belongs to them. I cannot give it away so simply."

"Yet you promised the Company a portion if they helped you," he pointed out, crossing his arms over his chest. "How do you explain that?"

"Yes, because they are all Dwarves from Erebor," the king replied, moving closer to the burglar. Bilbo took a step back on impulse, and the Dwarf froze; his face shifting into one of surprise and then pain.

"You are afraid of me," Thorin realized quietly, his shoulders slumping and his brows lowering.

"Not of you," he corrected, "but what your madness may turn you into. Thorin, you are my friend and I will always trust you with my life. But this… this is not you. This is not the Thorin I have come to know. This is a dangerous stranger driven by the power of a pretty rock, and I cannot trust that."

The king's face grew darker. "You keep blaming the Arkenstone for my state of mind, but I cannot take your word seriously. Not when you were against the jewel from the very beginning, and bid me to get rid of it."

"Because I didn't want it to come to this!" he explained, flapping his hand at the Dwarf king. "I feared what that blasted stone would do to you and I was right! You've lost your mind to it!"

"I have not lost anything!" retorted Thorin, glaring at him.

They were going in circles. Maddening, dizzying circles.

"Yes, you are, and I'm done arguing with you!" Bilbo snapped, turning around and stalking back into the mountain.

"Where are you going?" the king demanded from behind.

"Away from you!" he replied as Nori and Óin quickly moved out of his way, "and don't follow me because I'm not talking to you until you regain your senses!"

"You won't be speaking for the next few years," translated Gandalf because he secretly enjoyed causing trouble.

Thorin snapped something back but he didn't catch it. He didn't mind. He was sure it was nothing good.

 


 

Despite their best efforts, Bard and the Men of Lake-town left Erebor that day to return home. Bilbo watched them go with pursued lips and wondered if the next time he saw them it would be on the battlefield. At his side, Gandalf watched as well with hard, gray eyes; reading something into the exile of the Men that he could only guess at.

"Has anyone been able to talk any sense into him?" he asked the wizard as they stood together at the gates of Erebor.

"No. He is ignoring us all and has holed himself up in one of the rooms," Gandalf replied, scowling at the fading backs of Bard and his Men.

Bilbo sighed and rubbed his forehead. "What are we going to do? Thranduil won't just let this go."

"No, he won't," the wizard agreed, sighing deeply and leaning against his staff. "I fear we may need to sneak the treasure to him, or keep Thorin occupied long enough to give the king his portion."

He wrinkled his nose. "And if Thorin catches us?"

Gandalf's scowl deepened. "Let us hope he doesn't. I have no interest in fighting a friend."

Bilbo didn't think things could get much worse, but found himself proven wrong the next day. Dáin Ironfoot arrived and brought what looked like his entire army. Bilbo did not see the king when he arrived, but he certainly noticed when the halls were flooded by heavily armored Dwarves.

"Where did they all come from?" asked Fíli as his brother gaped at his side.

Bilbo looked over the familiar iron armor and boots and knew exactly where they came from. "The Iron Hills. These are Dwarves from the Iron Hills."

"Uncle Dáin is here!" realized Kíli as his face bloomed into a wide smile.

He turned and raised his brows at the prince. "Uncle? I thought he was your cousin?"

"He is but he's always been more like an uncle than a cousin," explained the archer, his brown eyes bright. "He always sent me birthday gifts, and once he took me and Fee drinking at this pub—"

"And we're ending the story there," interrupted Fíli, wrapping an arm around his brother's head and covering his mouth with his hand. "Dáin is a distant cousin but he's always been good to us. He even took in a good deal of Dwarves from Erebor after it fell. I'm not surprised he came to help us."

Bilbo had not thought of that. He had not known that Dáin had been so close to the two princes, but then Thorin had mentioned liking him best of his Iron Hills kin. He would certainly not allow anyone he didn't trust so close to his precious nephews.

"Dáin must be with Thorin," Fíli mused before suddenly squawking and pushing his brother away. "Gross, Kíli! Don't lick my hand! I don't know where your tongue has been!"

Kíli stuck his questionable tongue out at his brother as Fíli wiped his hand vigorously against his pants. "Next time keep your hand to yourself! Come on, Bilbo, let's go see him! You'll love uncle Dáin!"

Before Bilbo could speak up and dispute that claim, the youngest prince grabbed his hand and dragged him off. He heard Fíli groan before following them through the throng of unfamiliar Dwarves. He tried his best not to get dizzy as Kíli took sharp and sudden turns and twists to avoid running into any of the Dwarves. Though he didn't appreciate being dragged around like a doll, he did appreciate how the young Dwarf did his best to keep Bilbo from colliding with any of the strangers. He didn't think his ribs would hold up against their iron armor.

Kíli did not stop until they entered the gates where they found Thorin speaking to a grim faced Dwarf with graying auburn hair, and an impressive beard that fell to his waist in curls and braids. When Kíli saw them, he let out a high shriek of joy.

"Uncle Dáin!" he called in greeting, releasing Bilbo to sprint to the Dwarf.

The grim faced Dwarf turned at the call and broke out into a smile that was, even with all the scars, charming. "Kíli! Fíli! My two favorite imps!"

Kíli laughed and threw himself at Dáin in an engulfing embrace that made Bilbo wince. With all that armor between them, he thought it looked rather painful and uncomfortable. But neither Dwarf seemed to mind as they butted foreheads and greeted one another in a mix of common and Khuzdûl.

Fíli approached at a slower pace but his smile was no less bright as he clasped hands with Dáin, and butted their foreheads together in greeting. The prince muttered something to the older Dwarf that had him cackling, and thumping him on the shoulder.

"Ahh, some things never change," chuckled Dáin as he released Fíli with one final pat. "Thorin, why did you not mention how much they have grown? Fíli here is practically an adult, and Kíli even defeated Smaug! The little Dwarfs that used to eat sand are now jaded warriors!"

Kíli puffed his chest out and pulled his shoulders back while Fíli groaned beside him. "You're never going to let that sand thing go are you?"

"You two ate so much of it that you made yourselves sick," Dáin reminded him, arching his brows. "Dís stabbed me in the thigh for it, and stole all my good ale. For that, I will be sharing this tale on your wedding days."

"It was rather funny," admitted Thorin, shrugging at his nephew's glare, "and it's not the most embarrassing thing you two have ever done. Remember the farmer's pony—"

"Anyway," Kíli interrupted loudly before his uncle could continue his trip down memory lane, "we have someone you have to meet, Dáin! Bilbo, come here!"

The Hobbit dutifully walked over to the prince, and listened as he was introduced by the young Dwarf. "Uncle Dáin, I present to you our Hobbit burglar Bilbo Baggins. Bilbo, this is our favorite cousin Dáin Ironfoot, son of Náin, son of Grór, and Lord of the Iron Hills."

Durin blue eyes slowly looked over Bilbo before settling on his hair. When he did, Dáin blinked and spoke something in Khuzdûl. Thorin replied in the same language, and pulled his shoulders back with a smirk. Dáin turned to him, and raised one brow high.

"Seriously?" he asked in common, staring at Thorin.

"You have to ask?" retorted his cousin, crossing his thick arms over his broad chest. "Come now; you know me better than that."

Dáin nodded and glanced at Bilbo again before looking back to the king. "True, I just didn't think you would ever…"

"Neither did I," admitted Thorin, shrugging one shoulder. "Yet it happened and now I will have no other."

"Huh." Dáin turned back to Bilbo, and stared at the Hobbit with his head tilted to the side. "Interesting. Well, I am pleased to meet you, Master Baggins."

"And you, Master Ironfoot," he returned, nodding his head politely. "You have come at a good time. Perhaps you can convince his majesty here not to go to war with the Elves over a deal that I made."

Thorin groaned while Dáin frowned. "Bilbo, do not bring this up now. Dáin has just arrived from a long journey—"

"Didn't I say not to speak to me until you regained your senses?" he interrupted, giving the warrior king a side-glare. "Are you normal again? Are you going to admit the Arkenstone has turned you into a fool? That banishing the Men of Lake-town and threatening Thranduil was a bad idea? No? Then stop talking."

Dáin began to choke on what seemed like nothing but air while Thorin narrowed his now normal shadowy eyes. "I've told you before that I do not trust those Men and Elves. I will not grant either of them access to Erebor or her wealth until my people are seen to."

"Your people are on the other side of the continent," Bilbo pointed out, bracing his hands on his hips. "And in case you didn't notice, they'll be returning to nothing but rubble if we don't fix this place up. Which, by the way, cannot be accomplished without the help of the people of Lake-town!"

"Erebor will be rebuilt with the help of Dáin and the Dwarves he has brought," retorted Thorin. "We do not need those Men now. As for the Elves, I will not grant them a coin of the treasure that they seek to steal. They have no right to it."

"It was my portion that was promised," he stressed, glaring at the king, "the portion that I earned. Does that not mean it is my choice to do with it as I like?"

"Not if it is going to Thranduil," growled Thorin.

"What are you two arguing about?" Dáin asked, cutting into their conversation.

Bilbo spoke up before Thorin could begin to rant. "Thorin has lost his mind to the Arkenstone."

"I have not!" denied the king while Dáin's eyes grew larger. "You just hold an irrational hatred for it!"

"Then why did you agree to the deal with Thranduil one day, and then change your mind the next? And you welcomed the Men from Lake-town without a problem, but turned them away a week later," he reminded the Dwarf. "All of this happened after you found that sparkly stone! Before that you were fine!"

"He has a point there," Kíli agreed softly, cringing as Thorin turned his glare on him. "You did start acting off after we found the stone…"

"Enough! I will hear no more of this nonsense!" rumbled the King Under the Mountain, making a slicing motion with one hand. "I am fine and the Arkenstone is not a threat!"

Bilbo snorted loudly and gave the king a dirty look.

"This is hilarious. Is there a betting pool going on?" Dáin whispered to the two princes.

"Talk to Nori. He'll set you up," Fíli whispered back.

"I heard that!" Bilbo snapped, turning on the three with a glare. "Enough with the jokes! This is a serious matter!"

"Oh, I couldn't agree more," Dáin said, his blue eyes narrowing. "We do have a serious matter on our hands. On our way here we realized that the Defiler is on the move. He is leading an army of Orcs and Goblins to Erebor. We are going to war."

 


 

"Why are they staring at me?"

Dwalin shrugged; looking more concerned over fixing his boot than the Hobbit next to him. "Don't know. Probably not used to seeing a Hobbit. Doubt most of them even know what a Hobbit is."

Bilbo eyed one of the unknown Dwarves as they pointed to him (again), and said something to their companion in Khuzdûl. "They're looking at my hair."

"Maybe they're jealous of your beads," suggested Bofur.

Bilbo watched as the two Dwarves laughed and shook their heads and made a rude hand gesture at him. "I don't think it's the beads they're looking at."

Dwalin looked up at the two Dwarves, narrowed his eyes, and then threw his boot at the two. It hit one of them in the face, and they went down with a shout. The other squawked and looked ready to come to their friend's aid until they saw Dwalin stand up. He quickly grabbed his companion and the two scampered off.

Bofur cackled and Bilbo rolled his eyes as Dwalin went to retrieve his boot. "Never mind. I don't want to know what they're saying."

"It's not very interesting," reassured Bofur, winking at him.

"Now I really don't want to know," he muttered, rubbing his face. "Have they come out of the room yet?"

The miner clucked his tongue. "Nope. The door is still shut."

"Of course it is," he sighed, dropping his hand into his lap. Since Dáin's announcement of Azog, Thorin had called a meeting between himself, Dáin, Balin, and Gandalf. They had locked themselves up in one of the rooms hours ago and had yet to reappear. He did not know if this was because they were busy making plans, or because Thorin was being stupid and refusing to listen to reason still.

He had a strong feeling it was because of the later reason.

"Do you think Dáin will make him see sense?" he wondered out loud as Dwalin rejoined them.

"Unlikely," growled the warrior as he plopped back into his seat with his boot. "If Balin and you couldn't get through to him, then Dáin won't have much of a chance."

"Kind of wish we had those Men still here," admitted Bofur, scratching one dirty cheek. "They would be a lot of help right about now."

Bilbo winced as Dwalin nodded in agreement. "Aye. Hate to say it, but we're not going to win this. Not without heavy losses."

"A lot of Dwarves are going to die," the toymaker agreed softly. "One of us might…"

the bodies extend into the horizon like a sea of the dead. Even when he squints, he still cannot see an end to it all. Dwarf, Elf, Man, Orc—there is no discrimination in death. They all lay where they have fallen with their unblinking eyes staring up at him. The smell of the dead is strong, and makes him gag and his eyes water. He cannot look at the corpses for long because he feels guilty that he has lived why they have not

"No one is going to die if I can help it," he declared, pushing back his memories.

Dwalin scoffed at him but his dark eyes were gentle. "Not even your tricks can stop death, burglar."

"No," he agreed, eyes narrowing on the closed door where the meeting was being held. "But I can even the odds."

It was not until the sun had set and the moon was high that the doors were finally thrown open. The loud noise startled Bilbo into jumping to his feet in alarm, only to find Gandalf storming out with a string of curses. He watched the enraged wizard stalk off before looking to the door where Balin and Dáin were also storming out; both wearing an enraged yet sad expression. They failed to notice the Hobbit in the corner as they walked off after Gandalf; whispering to each other and making dramatic hand gestures.

Bilbo looked back to the door, and when Thorin failed to emerge, he slowly walked to it. He peeked inside and found the king sitting at a broken table with his head in his hands. His broad shoulders were slumped and his hair was a mess of black curls and braids. He did not look like the King Under the Mountain but simply a tired and old Dwarf.

It made his heart want to break all over again.

"Thorin," he called softly, walking into the room to where the king sat.

Thorin lifted his head and met his eyes. "Bilbo. Have you come to yell at me some more?"

"No, not right now. My throat hurts from earlier," he admitted, hoisting himself up onto a part of the table still standing. His legs brushed the Dwarf's thighs and he found that he was now eye level with the king for the first time. It was a rather nice feeling.

"Good. My ears hurt from listening to Gandalf yell," the Dwarf revealed, glancing down to where their bodies touched before looking back to Bilbo's face. "Balin and Dáin believe I should ask Thranduil for help."

"They are correct," he agreed, watching Thorin's face in return. "We will need the Elves and Men if we want to survive the upcoming battle."

Thorin shook his head viciously; unwinding his braids even more. "I can't ask them for help. My pride will not allow it."

"Is your pride more important than the lives of your people?" he pointed out, raising his brows. "The lives of your nephews and friends? What good is pride to the dead?"

"You don't understand. My pride was all I had left after Erebor fell," the Dwarf said, his lips turning down into a painful looking frown. "I lost my kingdom, my people, my title, and even my family. I had nothing left but my pride for so long that I don't know how to exist without it. What sort of king would I be without my pride?"

Bilbo couldn't say. He didn't know what made a king good or bad; only what could kill them. "Thorin… You say you cannot agree to a deal, but what if I created one for you?"

"I would not ask that of you," refused Thorin, shaking his head. "All you must do is stay safe. Focus on only doing that."

No one would be safe once Azog led his army to Erebor. Bilbo knew that, and he could see in Thorin's eyes that he knew it too.

"Are you still blind to what is before you?" he wondered, staring into the shadowed blue.

"I am not insane," the king rebutted, but his eyes never changed. "I wish you would believe me."

"I wish I could believe you too," he admitted because it would have made things so much easier to handle. "But I can't deny what I see before me. You can doubt me and even hate me if you must, but I swear, Thorin Oakenshield, that I will save you from this madness."

At his words, something shifted in Thorin's eyes. A light went off in them like a firecracker in the night sky. Before he could ponder why, Bilbo found himself tugged closer as Thorin wrapped his arms around his hips, and buried his face in his stomach. He squeaked and tried not to push the Dwarf off of him.

"I'm happy that I met you," the king said, his deep voice muffled by clothes and flesh. "I'm so glad Gandalf chose you. You… You have made my life better simply by existing, Bilbo Baggins."

Bilbo felt his breath catch. Oh. Oh. Was it possible to feel both joy and grief at the same time? Because he was quite sure that was what his heart was experiencing at that moment. Before he could stop and think—because thinking would only get him into trouble—he lifted his hands and buried them in the mess of inky black curls in his lap. Thorin stiffened for a moment before tightening his grip on the Hobbit's hips and thighs. Bilbo didn't mind, and hugged the king back as well.

"I'm happy to have met you too," he whispered, closing his eyes to resist the tears that were rising. "So very, very happy."

He wished he could say how truly happy he was to have seen Thorin again. To have talked with him, laughed with him, cried with him, and even argued with him. It was truly a gift to be able to live alongside the lost love of his life again. It didn't matter that Thorin did not love him back, or was losing his mind to a rock; it was simply enough that he was still alive.

It was rather unfair, really, how different love turned out to be when he found it. Bilbo had been expecting something from the stories and poems that he had read all his life. But love turned out to be nothing like the stories painted it to be. Thorin did not complete him, or make him suddenly love himself more. He could live on without the Dwarf in his life; had even done so for many years, and had been happy for the most part. And though he had never stopped loving the king, he certainly didn't waste away like some mourning heroine from the stories.

But what he did find from love was this: he didn't need Thorin to complete him, no, but the king did inspire him to be a better person. He could live his life happy alone, yes, but it would be even better with the Dwarf in it. And though he didn't bleed to death from his broken heart, he certainly cried his eyes out over the loss of the only soul he had ever fallen for.

Maybe his love wasn't the type that the bards would ever sing of, but it was still real and true. His Hobbit heart was not as loyal as a Dwarven one, nor as everlasting as an Elven heart, but the love it carried was just as strong. It was a love that burned in his chest for eighty years, and would burn on for eighty more because his heart could not forget the joy it felt in loving another person.

I love you, he thought, curling the thick hair around his fingers as a few tears slipped through. I love you, I love, I love you, and I'm sorry but I can't watch you die again. I'm sorry, Thorin, so sorry.

Thorin lifted his head, and looked up at his face. When he saw the Hobbit crying, his eyes grew wide and he lifted one hand to Bilbo's cheek. "Do not cry, ghivashel. Everything will be fine. We will win this battle."

He simply closed his eyes again as Thorin's thumb wiped away some of his tears. Nothing would be fine because he was going to betray Thorin's trust and ruin their friendship again. Nothing would ever be fine because life was nothing like stories, and there was no happy ending waiting for him at the end of the road.

I'm so sorry.

 


 

Chapter Text

 


 

The Arkenstone was heavier than he recalled.

It settled in his cupped hands easily; twinkling up at him with a faint white glow that caught the moonlight. When he tilted it back, he could see his reflection in the smooth surface of the jewel. His face—paler and thinner than he recalled—stared back at him with pursed lips and brown eyes highlighted by the dark smudges underneath each eye.

Compared to the flawless Elf before him, he looked like some sort of sad and beaten creature.

"This is the Arkenstone," Thranduil said softly, his marble eyes also fixed on the stone. "Where did you find it?"

"I took it from Thorin," Bilbo replied, the words tasting like ash and dirt in his mouth. "I have claimed it as my share of the treasure to give to you."

"It is a pretty stone," the Elven monarch confessed, his gaze never moving from the Arkenstone. "However it is still just one jewel. My reward was to be more than this."

He scowled up at the Elf. "And it will be if you play your cards right. Use this stone to get Thorin to hand over the amount that was promised. Rest assured that he will pay any price you ask for this stupid jewel."

Thranduil's arctic eyes finally rose from the stone to Bilbo's face. "You do not care for it."

"No, I don't," the Hobbit admitted. When he had slipped out of Erebor, it had taken every bit of willpower not to throw the stone off the mountain and watch it shatter into a million pieces on the ground below. Only the memory of his friends' bodies kept him from it. "It is nothing more than a pretty trinket poisoning Thorin's mind. If I could, I would toss it into the ocean never to be seen again. But since that won't solve any of my problems, I am going to use it to work out a deal with you."

Thranduil's eyes became hooded. "You wish to make another deal with me after failing to deliver on the first one? You are an arrogant creature, halfling."

"For the last time: my name is Bilbo and not halfling," he scolded, glaring up at the king, "and this deal is important to you too. As of right now there is an army of Orcs and Goblins on the march to Erebor. They are destroying everything in their path—including Mirkwood—to get here. Now we can spend what little time we have left fighting amongst ourselves over some gold trinkets and silver rings, or we can combine our forces and take this filth out once and for all. What is it going to be?"

"What makes you think the Dwarves will fight with us?" the Elvenking questioned, looking unfazed by the news of a possible army invading his kingdom. He was probably already aware of it.

"They will join," Bilbo said with confidence. "Despite what you believe, they are not stupid. They know that we cannot stand against this army alone. They will fight with you and the Men of Lake-town if you come."

Thranduil stared at him with his ancient eyes for a long time. When he finally spoke again, his voice had hardened with the faintest hint of iron. "I will summon the Men of Lake-town to join our forces. This battle affects them just as much as it does my people and the Dwarves. But you must convince that Fool Under the Mountain to join us. He will not listen to me."

He flinched. "He won't listen to me either. But if you use the Arkenstone correctly, then you can get him to agree to the gold and alliance."

"He will not forget this betrayal," the Elf warned, his forehead wrinkling the slightest bit. "Dwarves never forget. Dwarves never forgive."

Bilbo snorted. He didn't need the Elf to warn him; not when he lived with the consequences of his actions for a lifetime. "I am aware of that. But I don't care. I would rather that he live and hate me than die as my friend."

For the first time that night, Thranduil finally showed a hint of emotion. His clear blue eyes turned misty and his lips pulled down into a frown that revealed the aged lines in his face. "I see. Very well then, Bilbo Baggins. At dawn I will come to Erebor with the Arkenstone and barter for my gold and allies. If all goes well, then we will stand together to face this army of vermin."

 


 

Bilbo did not sleep that night. His body and mind would not allow him to rest; not with the storm that was approaching with the dawn. So he found himself packing his few belongings together in preparation for whatever the future held. When he was done, he watched his friends sleep; tracing their faces in his mind over and over again until he could see each of them perfectly when he closed his eyes. When the sun rose, he did not know who he would lose, and who he would keep.

Slowly, as the sun lit up the earth, the Dwarves began to stir and go about their morning routines. He watched Bombur begin breakfast while Dori rearranged the blankets over the two princes as both of them tended to kick them off during the night. Balin and Bifur shared a smoke together while nearby Nori began the long task of brushing out and braiding his hair and beard for the day. Ori shuffled along to the water closet as Óin and Glóin bickered while helping one another braid their hair back. Dwalin, Bofur, Fíli, and Kíli would sleep on until the smell of breakfast roused them. Gandalf and Thorin were nowhere to be seen and he was grateful for that. He could not face the king just yet.

When Gandalf did finally appear, his face was pinched and his nostrils flared with every breath he took. He tapped his staff against the stone floor until every eye was trained on him. "Thranduil is here to bargain for his portion of the treasure."

The Dwarves groaned.

"Seriously? He couldn't wait until after breakfast?"

"Somebody wake those four lazy bums up. We're going to need their help."

"Do you think he'd be willing to come back after we eat?"

"Who the hell gets up this early to negotiate?"

"Probably did it on purpose to irritate us."

"Where's Thorin? He's not facing that tree-licker alone is he?"

"Hope Dáin is with him. Don't need bloodshed this early in the morning."

Bilbo ignored the remarks and slowly began the long trek to the gates. He could hear the others following at their own pace while bickering amongst each other. In another time he would have found their conversations amusing, but now he found himself wondering if he would ever hear it again. When they all got to the gates, they found Thorin and Dáin facing off against Thranduil, his son and captain with mixed expressions. They were all armed and Legolas held a clothed bag in his arms.

"Oh good, you didn't kill each other while I was gone," Gandalf said in greeting, waltzing over to the group. "I have brought the others as you asked, Thranduil. Now tell us the new deal you wish to make."

Thranduil gestured with two fingers for Legolas to step forward. The prince did and slowly untied the bag he held to reveal the Arkenstone. When the Dwarves saw it, they immediately gasped and began to shout. Thorin turned bone white and staggered back; catching himself on a frowning Dáin in order not to fall.

"I wish to make a new deal with this," the Elf said, smooth expression never faltering. "The Arkenstone for my gold and your support in the coming battle with Azog and his army."

"Where did you get that?" Thorin gasped. His eyes were large and glassy as he dug his hand into Dáin's shoulder.

Thranduil's eyes flickered over the crowd before meeting Bilbo's. The Hobbit shuddered and stepped forward.

"I gave it to him," he admitted, his voice ringing louder and clearer than he had expected.

The crowd turned on him in a blink.

"You? You gave the Arkenstone to him?" Balin gasped, looking as if someone had punched him in the stomach.

"Oh, Bilbo," Gandalf sighed, leaning against his staff. He closed his eyes and looked as old and tired as he really was.

The rest of the Dwarves looked no better. Dáin seemed unfazed, but some like Dwalin, Glóin, and Fíli looked torn between shock and outrage. Others like Kíli, Bofur, Bombur, and Ori looked stunned and hurt by the news. Only Bifur, Dori, Nori, and Óin looked afraid and uncertain. But the worst reaction of all was the one he valued most.

Slowly, so very slowly, Thorin turned to face him with a face as blank as a canvas. When he spoke, his voice was a whisper of a building storm. "What did you say?"

Bilbo swallowed and met the midnight eyes against his will. "I gave it to him. I stole the Arkenstone from you, and then gave it to Thranduil to bargain for his aid in the upcoming battle."

"You—? No. No, it can't be," muttered the Dwarf, shaking his head and making his braids whip around his face. "You wouldn't do that. You wouldn't…"

"Betray your trust?" he finished quietly, never looking away from the king. "I'm afraid I did, Thorin. I'm sorry."

Thorin kept shaking his head, and looked to the Arkenstone in Legolas's hands and then back to Bilbo. His eyes began to grow wild and his lips pulled back into a pained snarl. "No, no, no, no, not you, you could not have—"

The king cut himself off with a roar as he unsheathed his sword, and began to stalk towards the Hobbit in one swift move. Bilbo did not move and watched the king rush towards him with his shadow eyes. But before Thorin could take even three steps, Dwalin, Dori and Glóin were there to hold him back.

"Thorin, what are you doing?! Have you lost your mind?!" Glóin yelled, holding onto one of the king's arms.

"Calm down, Thorin. Remember who he is," Dwalin rumbled, grasping Thorin's wrist that held Orcrist.

Dori didn't speak; simply slipped his arms under Thorin's armpits and held him back.

Thorin snarled and tried to shove the three off only to fail. "Let go of me! I will not stand for this! He will pay for stealing—!"

"Do you remember what I told you the night Azog attacked us?" Bilbo called, interrupting the king and slowly walking closer to the Dwarves. "Do you remember, Thorin? When you asked me what I wanted most in this world?"

Thorin stilled; shaking and breathing so hard the Hobbit could hear it. He didn't answer Bilbo's question and continued staring at the Hobbit with his dark eyes and clenched jaw.

"I said that I wanted you all to live," he continued, paying no mind to the danger he was approaching. "That is all I have ever wanted for this entire journey. To see you all live."

"And is that supposed to justify your theft? You stole the Arkenstone from me. YOU BETRAYED MY TRUST!" roared the king, shoving the three Dwarves off of him and dropping his sword to the ground. Before his cousins could stop him again, Thorin grabbed Bilbo's biceps and yanked him up until they were eye level.

"Why?" he growled, his black pupils completely overtaking the blue in his eyes. "WHY?!"

Thorin grasps his hands with what little strength he has left—

"…I wish to part in friendship from you, and I would take back my words and deeds at the Gate…"

Thranduil places the Arkenstone on Thorin's chest and carefully wraps his hands around it

"…This is a bitter adventure, if it must end so; and not a mountain of gold can amend it…"

Thorin's hand goes limp in his and he sobs even harder because the king is dead, long live the king

"Because I can't watch you die," Bilbo replied, never blinking as he stared into the eyes of his greatest heartbreak. "I can live with you hating me, Thorin Oakenshield. It's worth it as long as you live. Do you understand me? I will sacrifice everything just so long as you LIVE!"

Thorin shook his head as his broad shoulders drooped and his bottom lip quivered. "No. No, I don't understand. No one has ever hurt me like this before. No one has ever mattered so much to me before. Until now."

Bilbo blinked. For the first time since he had taken the Arkenstone, he was confused. "What?"

"Don't you see? My feelings for you?" the Dwarf rasped, his dark brows lowering. "Did I not make it clear enough when I gave you my mothers' rooms? When I braided my family beads into your hair? Could you not feel my love when I held you after Smaug's demise?"

"Liar," he whispered, feeling a strange sort of numbness overtake his body. "You're lying. You don't love me. You can't love me."

"No, I can't," the king agreed quietly as something in his face seemed to fall apart. It was a bit like watching a work of art go up in flames. "Not now. Not anymore."

Thorin released him and stepped back. The Hobbit fell to the hard ground in a sprawl of limbs that made a solid and fleshy 'smack' from the impact. He could not feel the pain though. He could not feel anything but a dawning sense of horror as he watched Thorin turn around and walk away.

"Thorin," he gasped, raising a hand, "Thorin, stop, please! Tell what you meant! THORIN!"

The king did not turn around. "Leave, Bilbo Baggins. Leave and never come back."

Bilbo flinched back and dropped his hand. He could feel something in his chest—something raw and broken and jagged—fall apart at the Dwarf's order. It made his breath pick up until he felt like he couldn't breathe at all. His heart began to ache as if someone had wrapped their hand around it and was slowly squeezing it harder and harder until he swore it would pop.

Was this how a broken heart felt when it broke again?

No, no, no, no, come back, come back, turn around, TURN AROUND —!

"What about my proposal?" Thranduil questioned from somewhere far away. A small part of him found it rather hilarious that the Elf could still sound so composed and together. Could the Elvenking not see that the world was ending?

"I don't care. Take your gold and allies. Take all the gold in Erebor for all I care. Just leave and take that with you," Thorin replied with a voice so cold and sharp that Bilbo was sure that he could have cut his heart out with it. Or what was left of it at that point.

Somewhere—still so far away and distant from him—he heard the others speak up and begin to yell and shout. But he could not make out the words or who they were spoken to as it all became a mixing pot of voices and sounds in the background. The only clear voice he could hear was the voice of the One Ring as it laughed and laughed and laughed.

Who will love you now?

 


 

Somehow, Bilbo found himself in Thranduil's camp with Gandalf.

He could not remember how he got there. Vaguely, he recalled the wizard taking him by the arm and leading him gently out of Erebor. But he could not remember the walk to Thranduil's camp, or how his possessions made their way to his side. He did not remember taking refuge in a lone tent where he was forced to lay down and rest. He could not recall anything past Thorin's back as he walked away.

those ocean night eyes stare though him—

"Don't you see? My feelings for you…?"

there is a creeping realization in his mind as he listens to Thorin's words—

"Could you not feel my love when I held you after Smaug's demise…?"

Thorin turns around and walks away from him for the second time

"I didn't know," he whispered out loud, staring up at the ceiling of the Elven tent. "How could I know? How could I ever know when you never told me?"

But Bilbo knew in his heart that the fault was not only with Thorin. He was the one who was blind and did not see what was in front of him. How could he have forgotten that Thorin did not show his feelings with words, but through actions? How could he have missed the significance to the beads in his hair? Or to Bifur's words, and the hints of the others? How could he have missed the look of one-sided love when he had seen it in his own eyes for eighty years?

"You are the biggest fool in the world, Bilbo Baggins," he murmured, closing his eyes and trying to fight back a wave of tears. He had cried enough for Thorin the first time around. He would not do it again.

But you broke his heart this time, the ring whispered, cackling at him.

He could not deny that. He had broken Thorin's heart along with his trust and friendship. He could not ignore that and it made him realize that he did not know what to do now. It was different when he thought Thorin did not love him. He was ready to face losing their friendship if it meant he could keep his friends all alive. But what he was not ready to face was losing Thorin's heart forever.

"My life is one big mistake after another," he muttered, rubbing his forehead.

"Now, now, I'm sure it's not that horrible," Gandalf commented as he stepped into the tent. Bilbo opened one eye, and watched the wizard take a seat next to his cot and lean his staff against the wall. His eyes were shadowed by his hat but Bilbo could still see the downward turn to his friend's mouth.

"How are you feeling?" asked the wizard.

"Like my heart has been stomped on," he replied, closing his eye again and throwing his arm over his eyes. "Gandalf, what have I done? Thorin—"

"Stop right there, Bilbo Baggins, I don't want to hear another word," Gandalf interrupted, his voice turning steely. "What you did today was the bravest and most sensible course of action. By gaining Thranduil's alliance we will also have access to the aid of Lake-town. With their help, we may just win this battle yet."

"But I hurt Thorin," he whispered, recalling the look on the king's face when he admitted to stealing the Arkenstone. "I used his trust against him. I ruined our friendship. I broke his…"

"You did hurt him with this," the wizard admitted easily, "but he gave you no choice. Bilbo, we both know that Thorin is not himself right now. The curse of Durin's line has taken hold of him. He cannot think clearly and therefore cannot see that your actions were done out of love for him. If he was in his right state of mind, then we both know he would have agreed to your plan."

Bilbo shook his head as he felt the sting of tears at the corner of his eyes. "It doesn't change what he said. It doesn't erase the hurt I've caused him. I broke his heart, Gandalf. I broke his heart and didn't realize it until it was too late, and now he will never look at me the same way he did before all of this."

Gandalf sighed, and ran his large hand through the Hobbit's curls. "Oh, Bilbo. I'm sorry that it turned out this way. I truly am. We… We all hoped it would work out between you two. No one thought it would end like this."

"Neither did I," he admitted, lifting his arm so he could cup his face with both hands in order to stop the flow of his damn tears. "I just wanted to keep him alive. That's all I wanted, and yet it turned out like this. How is it possible to lose someone and save them at the same time?"

Gandalf sighed again, and simply kept running his hand through his hair in a soothing gesture. When the wizard accidentally knocked one of his braids against his face, Bilbo felt his resolve crumble into dust. He began to cry thick and endless tears into his hands as his shoulders shook. The strength of his sobs made his chest hurt and his throat scratchy, but he couldn't stop them from coming. Everything—Thorin, Thorin, Thorin, what have I done, please come back, I love you, THORIN—spilled out through his gasping tears.

Through it all Gandalf stayed by his side as he cried out his heart again for the king that he lost once more.

 


 

Though he wished otherwise, Bilbo knew that he could not lay about and weep over his broken heart. There was a battle coming that he needed to prepare for and Dwarves that he needed to save. He did not have the time to throw himself a pity party. So, with great effort, he dragged himself off his cot and ventured outside to face the world once more.

Thranduil had set up camp close to where the ruins of Dale lingered. There were tents and Elves scattered as far as he could see; most dressed in war leathers with their weapons on them. Most of them paid him no mind as he wandered through the camp, but a few did stop to stare or even glare on occasion. He ignored the Elves until he finally found the largest tent around with two Elves posted at the entrance.

"Is the king in?" he asked the guards, not bothering to be polite.

One the guards—a female with dark hair—nodded slowly. "Yes. He's planning for the battle at the moment—"

Bilbo did not wait for her to finish her sentence. He marched in and left the guards squawking in protest outside. Inside he found Thranduil standing over a table with Gandalf and—surprisingly—Bard. They all turned to face him with mixed reactions.

"Oh. Done crying are we?" commented Thranduil, looking back to the map on the table.

"How do you feel?" Gandalf asked with a kinder voice.

"Fine," he replied, avoiding the wizard's eyes and looking to Bard. "What are you doing here?"

"Lake-town has been recruited for the upcoming battle," answered the Man, staring at the Hobbit with slanted brows. "How are you? Master Gandalf here has just explained what you did earlier today…"

"You mean he was telling you how I stole the Arkenstone, used it to bargain with Thranduil, and was exiled by Thorin," he filled in, waltzing up to the table. "Yes, well, I'm afraid I was given little choice in the matter."

"We were discussing possible strategies for the upcoming battle," Thranduil filled in, ignoring his words. "I doubt that it will be of any interest to you."

Bilbo shook his head and gave the Elf the same sort of smile he used to give Lobelia when she tried to make off with his good silver. "Of course! After all, I'm simply a lowly Hobbit who challenges kings, faced a dragon alone, and outwitted three trolls at once. What could someone like that possibly know?"

Thranduil's liquid eyes narrowed as Bard tried to turn his laugh into clearing his throat. Gandalf did not even bother to pretend and openly cackled.

"You are a very insolent little ball of fluff," the Elf declared as the Hobbit looked over the map.

"And you're very bad at insults. You should practice more," Bilbo replied, and then proceeded to ignore the king in favor of the map before him. From what he could see, the plan was to allow Azog and his army to get close to Erebor where the mountain and gates would give the archers a better chance, and allow another army to come from behind and box the Orcs and Goblins in. It was a practical plan but it was also the same one that had been used the last time around. It had won them the battle, yes, but at a terrible cost.

"Which army will ambush them from behind?" he asked, glancing up at the three taller males.

Bard raised a sheepish hand. "We will. If all goes well, we can catch the Orcs and Goblins between us."

The Hobbit bit his bottom lip. "But you will be on foot. How will you all move quick enough to get to them?"

"That is what I was wondering as well," commented Gandalf, raising his bushy brows at Thranduil. "It would work better with Elves. Not only do they have mounts, they also move quicker on their feet."

"My people are mostly archers who rely on long-ranged combat," pointed out the king, his silver eyes turning to ice. "They would be more useful above ground where they can use their bows."

Bilbo snorted. "That's bullshit and you know it. Elves are just as good in close combat. You just don't wish to risk any of your people in this fight."

"Of course not. It is bad enough that we were roped into this battle in the first place. Why would I ever wish to risk my people for a bunch of Dwarves?" sneered the Elf, his lovely face marred by the look.

Bard frowned and pulled his shoulders back while Gandalf scowled and looked ready to smack the king with his staff. Bilbo beat him to it though by picking up one of the unlit candles on the table, and throwing it at the Elvenking. Thranduil easily dodged it but look stunned that the Hobbit had even dared to do such a thing.

"Those Dwarves are my friends!" he spat, glaring up at the Elf. "They are willing to go out there and die for you and your people! How can you not grant them the same courtesy? Do you really have so little compassion in your heart?!"

Thranduil stilled and did not blink. His face became as smooth and unreadable as always, but Bilbo could see the tense line to his shoulders, and the way his lips became thinner and bloodless. Even his eyes grew frostier until they were as glossy as an untouched lake.

"Those Dwarves hate you," the Elf reminded him, speaking with a cruel sort of honesty that only Elves seemed to possess. "They banished you from the kingdom that you saved. Their king even tried to kill you. How can you possibly still care over their fate?"

Bilbo sneered. That was quite possibly the stupidest question he had ever heard. "So? Just because their feelings may have changed for me does not mean that mine have. They are still all precious to me and I will fight to the death to keep them whole and alive!"

Thranduil's glacier eyes did not melt but his lips relaxed. Beside him, Gandalf's dark eyes seemed even older in the harsh lines of his face.

"Perhaps we can mix up the troops," Bard suggested quietly from Bilbo's side. "That way each side will have an equal advantage."

"It would help," agreed Gandalf as he looked to Thranduil. "I know that you do not wish to separate your troops, but we must do what will earn us victory."

Thranduil sighed and waved a hand. "Fine, fine. We will split the troops up. Now onto the next order of business…"

 


 

Bilbo spent the rest of the day throwing himself into the preparations for the upcoming battle. He helped with the plans, assisted in sorting through the supplies, and even volunteered to stand watch. He brushed the horses down, saw that all the Elves were fed, and began to collect plants and herbs in preparation for whatever injuries he would face. His dedication earned him some odd looks, but no one tried to stop him or jeered at him for it. They simply accepted his efforts and continued on.

Occasionally Gandalf or Bard would find him and would attempt to talk him into resting. He politely but firmly turned them away each time. He knew that once he stopped he would be overwhelmed by his situation, and would therefore be useless. He could not risk such a state with Azog so close. It would only be later, after they won the battle, that Bilbo promised to stop and rest and grieve for what he had (once more) lost. It was not until night had fallen and the Elves had lit their lanterns that he was finally forced to stop as an unexpected visitor walked up to him.

"Bilbo," Balin greeted, pulling the hood of his cloak down to reveal his tired face.

Bilbo blinked up at the Dwarf and slowly set down the clothes he had been sewing up. "Balin. What are you doing here?"

"I came to check up on you," the Dwarf explained as he watched the Hobbit rise to his feet. "We were all worried about you after Gandalf took you away. I had to lock the others up to keep them from following me, the stubborn lot. We… We're all very concerned for you, my friend."

He shrugged one shoulder and looked away. "I'm fine. A bit tired and hurt, but still well enough to work."

Balin raised one white brow as his eyes flickered to the clothes at Bilbo's feet. "So I see. I will tell the others this. It will relieve them to know that you aren't curled up in a ball crying your eyes out."

"Now why would I do that?" he commented, wrinkling his nose. "That would hardly do me any good. Crying won't change my situation or win this battle for us."

"No, but no one could blame you if you did cry," the Dwarf pointed out, his mouth twisting into a frown. "Bilbo, I want you to know that I understand why you did what you did, and I don't blame you for it. Using the Arkenstone to barter for an alliance was the smartest thing anyone has done since Thorin threw the Men of Lake-town out. Maybe this way we will actually survive the upcoming battle."

"It was the most sensible decision, but it wasn't the easiest one," Bilbo said softly, staring down at his feet where the ripped clothes lingered. "Balin, I… what Thorin said today… was it… real? Does he honestly…"

Balin sighed a deep sigh that made his whole body slump. "I have known Thorin my entire life. I knew him in Erebor when he was still a prince, and I knew him after it fell and he was a beggar. I've seen him go to war for his people; seen him provide for his family and friends by any means; and I've seen him work himself to the bone just to get our home back. I've seen him happy and sad, loving and hateful, playful and serious. But in all my years I have never seen him look as content and complete as he was when he was with you."

the king grins, and the harsh lines in his face ease up and his eyes shine, and Thorin looks so much younger when he's relaxed and happy—

"You have made my life better simply by existing, Bilbo Baggins…"

Thorin catches him as he stumbles over the Dwarf's boots in their dance yet again. He glares at the king, but the Dwarf simply throws his head back and laughs and laughs

Bilbo felt his eyes begin to water as his throat became dry and sore. "Why didn't he say anything? Why didn't he tell me?"

"Because he was afraid," the Dwarf admitted, his dark eyes growing sadder. "He was afraid you would reject him. We all know how much you love and mourn for your dead lover. How could he ask for your heart while knowing that it was still with another? How could he compete with someone that died before he even met you? Thorin is reckless in many ways, but with his heart he is always careful."

"How silly of him," he whispered as his shattered heart struggled not to crumble into dust. "I could never reject him. How could I when he is the greatest love I have ever known?"

"Oh, Bilbo," breathed Balin, his face falling into something wretched and pitiful. Before he could blink, the Dwarf was stepping forward and sweeping him into a hug that blocked the cold wind, and made his bruises whimper. With a small sob, he leaned into it and hid his face in the Dwarf's cloak to muffle his cries.

"I'm sorry," Balin whispered, but whether it was for Bilbo, Thorin, or both he could not say. All he knew was that his heart was a splintered mess, and nothing in the world would ever be able to put it back together again.

 


 

Chapter Text

 


 

Nori had never considered himself a particularly good Dwarf.

He didn't think of himself as evil incarnated, of course, but he was also aware that he had made a lot of fucked up choices in his life. Some of them he didn't regret because he really didn't see anything wrong with them. Stealing to provide food for his family was justified as far as he was concerned; anyone who said otherwise could try going hungry for a few damn days, and then come back and talk to him. It was the same way with killing. He didn't like to kill—who the hell did besides Orcs and Men?—but he wouldn't hesitate to defend himself either. He tried his best not to kill, but sometimes it was inevitable in a fight.

But there were also some choices that he was… less than proud of.

Stealing to feed his baby brother was one thing he could justify in his head. But cheating people out of their money? Selling stolen goods on the streets and moving shit through a city for corrupted lords? Fuck, even Nori could admit that he screwed up. He knew he could write a book with his list of crimes and sins. He could probably even turn it into a swashbuckling tale and make a profit off of it too. Ori wasn't the only one in the family who could write, after all. He was just the only brother passionate about it.

Nori knew that what he did was sometimes morally wrong. Dori had failed to be a decent parent to him in many ways—and despite what his brother thought, Nori really didn't hold a grudge against him for it because a child couldn't raise another child—but he did manage to teach his brothers about morals. He had taught them to know the difference between right and wrong, and to live by a code of honor no matter what. So he couldn't claim not to know any better because he really did.

Unfortunately for Dori, the world was not so easily black and white. It was sometimes muggy and gray and there was no good outcome no matter where you looked. Nori had tried his best to do what was right, but he knew he faltered and screwed up. Sometimes he even chose the easy way over the right one because being noble and honorable didn't mean shit when you're dead.

Nori knew his crimes and accepted that Dori would never quite look at him the way he did when they were children, but it was all worth it because it was him who put food on the table whenever Dori lost his job. It was thanks to his dirty hands that Ori was able to go to school and that Dori was able to keep his house. He was the one who paid for the healers when their ma was dying, and it was him who ensured that Ori survived it.

Nori knew he would go to his grave without ever regretting his deeds because every single damn one of them had been made for his brothers.

Dori would never—could never—understand his line of thinking, but he could see that Bilbo did. The Hobbit so easily risked everything he had just to keep their company alive and safe. At first he was amused by the blunt little kitten—and Bilbo would always be a kitten to him because only a kitten would snarl and hiss at someone thrice his damn size—and his unapologetic methods. But somewhere along the way, between the Misty Mountains and Mirkwood, Nori found himself growing attached to the Hobbit. He found the fussy way he worried cute and his obliviousness charming. Somehow the kitten managed to dig his claws under his skin and into his heart.

When he finally realized he cared about the Hobbit, he also came to the realization that said Hobbit had zero self-preservation. Bilbo was quite possibly the stupidest son-of-a-bitch he had ever met in his life. He recklessly threw himself into danger at every turn and failed to realize that he was not, in fact, immortal. He walked around and acted as if he was the size of a troll instead of a sprout, and how he ever made it to fifty was a damn mystery that Nori knew would haunt him for the rest of his life. All in all, the burglar needed looking after, and the thief was determined to see that he got it one way or another.

After all, Nori always did what was best for his brothers whether they liked it or not.

 


 

To Bilbo's surprise, Beorn arrived two days later to join in the battle.

"I saw the bastards joining up before Mirkwood," the shape-shifter explained to Thranduil and Bard; towering over the two tall males easily. "Figured you would need the help so here I am."

"We won't turn down another ally," Bard said, nodding up to the giant. "This battle will not be an easy one to win so thank you for coming."

Beorn shrugged his colossal brown shoulders. "I figured that, should you lot all die, then they would turn their beady little eyes on my land. I rather stop them here with all of you then face them alone."

"Wise of you," complimented Thranduil though his deadpanned voice ruined the compliment. "You may stay if you wish it. Tauriel will find you a place to rest."

The captain stepped forward and pressed her hand to her chest and gave Beorn a short bow. "Welcome, Master Beorn. I am Tauriel and I would be pleased to help you."

Beorn slowly looked the Elf up and down before giving her a rakish grin. "Sweetheart, the pleasure is all mine."

Tauriel raised one brow and smirked as Bilbo groaned from behind Bard, and smacked his forehead. In front of him, Bard's shoulders were shaking and he was making gasping noises that would have worried him if he didn't know the man was laughing. Bard seemed to find humor even in the darkest of hours. He had a theory the man would be laughing on his death bed.

Beorn's face exploded into a smile that showed off his rather sharp teeth and made the dimples in his cheeks stand out. Casually, he pushed through Thranduil and Bard to get a look at the Hobbit. "Little bunny! What are you doing here? Shouldn't you be with your Dwarves? Or did you trade them in for Elves? Not that I can blame you with lasses like Tauriel here. I would drop them too."

"See, this is what happens when you live with only animals for company," Bilbo complained to Bard, pointing to the giant. He then squeaked as he was picked up in a fierce hug by said giant.

"Put me down! Beorn, put me down right now! I don't like being this high up—!"

"You're so skinny!" the shape-shifter cried out, holding the Hobbit out with one hand while using the other to lift his shirt and poke at his stomach. "Too skinny! How can you be so skinny? I gave you so much food before you left!"

"Yes, which I had to share with thirteen Dwarves as we walked through Mirkwood," he snapped, batting at the hand poking him. "Stop that! My ribs are bruised and you're making it worse!"

"When did that happen?" wondered Bard, frowning.

"When I got into an argument with Smaug," Bilbo replied absently.

"You got into an argument with Smaug?" questioned Thranduil, one of his dark brows arching impossibly high.

"What?! What were you doing confronting a dragon? Is that why you left those Dwarves? Did they send you in alone to face that damn lizard?" Beorn demanded, hugging the Hobbit again.

Bilbo groaned against the barely clothed and sweaty chest as his ribs began to scream. "How is this my life?"

"Master Beorn, perhaps you shoulder put Master Baggins down before you break him in half," suggested Tauriel because she was clearly the only one around with any sort of sense.

Beorn sniffed but did as the Elven maiden asked. Once safe on the ground once more, Bilbo straightened his shirt, and carefully moved so that Thranduil's captain was between him and Beorn. He ignored Bard's snort because there was really no shame in self-preservation.

Thranduil sighed and in Sindarin ordered Tauriel to take Beorn to an open tent before stalking off. Bard followed reluctantly but promised to visit them later. As the two leaders disappeared, Tauriel turned her attention back to the shape-shifter.

"Come, Master Beorn. I will show you a place to rest," the she-Elf said, gesturing with two fingers for him to follow. "You may come as well, Master Baggins, since you two seem to know each other so well."

Before Bilbo could politely decline the offer, Beorn picked him up again in one easy swoop and placed the Hobbit on one of his massive shoulders. He squeaked and dug his hands into the shape-shifter's wooly hair. "Beorn!"

"What? You're safe up there," the giant pointed out, balancing him with one hand as he turned to Tauriel. "Lead on, my lady."

Tauriel briefly met Bilbo's eyes before smirking and pivoting on her heel. "This way then. I believe I know the best place."

"You still haven't told me where your Dwarves are," Beorn commented as he followed the Elf through the camp.

Bilbo scowled and tried his best not to look down at the ground so far, far away. "They're in their mountain obviously. Where else would they be?"

"But why aren't you with them?" the shape-shifter pressed.

"Because I was kicked out by their king," he replied tartly, digging his fingers tighter around Beorn's thick hair as he slid down the man's shoulder slightly.

Beorn wrinkled his nose and hoisted him higher. "Who was their king again?"

The Hobbit felt his heart hiccup and tried not to show it. "The broody one."

"Oh, him! Now why would he do that?" the shape-shifter wondered.

"It's a long story. Ask Gandalf or Bard about it later," he replied, not wanting to speak of the events again. It was hard enough not thinking of Thorin and the others; he really didn't need to relive what happened again.

Beorn shifted and tightened his grip on Bilbo's hip. "I think I will."

Tauriel did not stop until she came to nearly the end of the camp where a large and open tent sat. "Is this acceptable, Master Beorn?"

"It's perfect," assured the shape-shifter as he finally set the Hobbit down. "Thank you, my lady, for leading the way and gracing us with your lovely company."

"Mmm." The Elf smirked; obviously finding the giant amusing instead of charming. "You're welcome. Now, Master Baggins, are you planning to participate in the upcoming battle?"

"Of course. Do you think I came here for your king's company?" he replied, rolling his eyes. "I would rather face Smaug again."

The Elf blinked once, twice, and then threw her head back and laughed. Her laughter reminded him of his grandmother's wind chimes when they got caught in the breeze, and Bilbo was suddenly struck by how beautiful she truly was. With her red hair and hazel eyes, Tauriel was like the first hint of autumn when the air began to cool, and the leaves began to change from green to gold. If he stared long enough, he could even see the hints of amber in her hair and the sprinkle of emerald in her eyes.

No wonder Kíli was so infatuated with her, he thought, and then winced as he recalled the prince. He had not gotten a chance to say goodbye to the two brothers. He had not gotten a chance to say goodbye to any of them.

"You have a very bold tongue," complimented Tauriel, crossing her slender arms over her chest. "I like that."

"My tongue can be bold too," Beorn interjected, wiggling his dark brows and grinning.

"Ugh. Do you use lines like that on all the females you meet?" Bilbo asked, looking up at the giant.

Beorn shrugged. "Usually."

"Well, now we know why you don't have a wife," the Elf commented, raising one of her fine brows. "But I digress. Master Baggins, if you wish to fight in the battle then you must be better armed. Simple clothes will not protect you from blades and arrows."

"I have a mithril shirt that I plan to wear," he reassured.

Tauriel arched her second brow. "A mithril shirt? Amazing. That will work well enough, but I still wish you to wear more. Perhaps something for your arms and legs that the shirt does not cover?"

"And what do you suggest I wear? I doubt the Elves and Men have something in my size," he retorted.

"I will make you something myself," the warrior replied coolly.

Beorn snorted. "You? What does a dainty thing like you know about armor?"

"More than you know about maidens," Tauriel said sharply, narrowing her eyes a fraction. "Though female warriors are accepted among Elves, we are still rare and few. Practical armor for us is not a large concern so I have learned how create armor that fits me properly. I will do that same for you."

Bilbo blinked, a bit taken back by the kind offer. "Um, thank you? That's very generous of you."

The Elf simply shrugged. "You are my comrade for this battle, and I will not see you so easily killed. I will come back at noon to measure you. For now, I will take my leave. Unless you need something else?"

"No, we don't," he quickly reassured, stepping on Beorn's bare foot when the giant opened his mouth. "Thank you, captain."

Tauriel gave him a small but sweet smile and simply raised her brows at Beorn before pivoting around and walking away. The two watched her graceful form until it disappeared among the other soldiers. When she was gone, Beorn released a loud and deep sigh.

"What I wouldn't do to have a lass like that waiting for me at home," the shape-shifter said, running a large and dirty hand over his beard..

He snorted. "Mistress Tauriel is hardly the type to sit at home by the fire mending your shirt. If anything she'd be outside with you; killing Orcs and Goblins alike."

Beorn's dark eyes grew brighter. "Even better! I like a lass with fire!"

Against his will, Bilbo found himself laughing at the shape-shifter's enthusiasm. "Good luck in wooing her. You'll have to get in line with the rest mooning after her."

"Ahhh, goddesses like her don't go for mountain bears," the shape-shifter commented, the edge of his lips folding down while the light in his eyes grew dim. "But it's nice to look and dream, aye?"

Bilbo frowned and reached out to pat the giant on the arm. "Now don't be like that. You're just as amazing as her and anyone would be damn lucky to have your heart."

Beorn gave him a small smile but his eyes remained shadowed. "Little Bunny, are you confessing your undying love for me?"

"Don't you see? My feelings for you…?"

Bilbo flinched. "Don't be stupid. Now come along and put that nose to use in helping me find something to eat."

"So demanding," the giant groaned, but still pointed to the west as the two ventured off to find some food.

 


 

Tauriel returned at noon as she had promised with strips of leather and parchment. Bilbo eyed them dubiously, but didn't fight the Elf as she stripped him of his shirt, and measured and prodded at him. With her great height and sure hands, he felt a bit like a child again with his mother as she attempted (and failed) to make him clothes. Belladonna had been skilled in many things, but sewing had not been one of them.

"You are so small," mused the Elf as she knelt before him and measured his legs, "that it should only take me a day at most to make your armor."

"Will you keep it light for me? I don't wish to be weighed down. My speed is my best asset," he said, holding his arms out.

Tauriel clucked her tongue. "I will keep it light. It will have some weight, of course, but nothing too heavy."

He nodded. "Thank you. I do appreciate all of this."

"I know," assured the Elf, glancing up to meet his eyes with a quick smile before turning back to her task. "You are obviously a kind soul, Master Baggins."

"Call me Bilbo," he corrected automatically as the Elven maiden stood to measure his arms, "and how do you know I'm kind? You don't know me. I could be a complete bastard as far as you know."

"You forget that I was there in the throne room when you made your deal with my king," Tauriel reminded him calmly. "And I was there when you gave the Arkenstone to him, and when your Dwarves banished you. A greedy and cruel heart would not endure so much pain for nothing."

Bilbo sighed and pushed one of his braids behind his ears. "You're right about that. My heart is a soft and foolish thing."

"There is nothing foolish in being compassionate," the warrior chided gently, her face shifting into a small frown. "If more souls were as kind and thoughtful as you, then this world would be a better place."

"I suppose an Elf would know what's best," he admitted. "If you don't mind me asking, how old are you?"

"Old enough to know that loving another will always leave you open to pain," the she-Elf replied as she moved onto his other arm.

"So older than your prince," he summarized.

Tauriel laughed her wind chime laugh. "Indeed. Legolas is a few centuries younger than I. It is not a very large age gap, but it is wide enough that he feels like a younger brother to me."

Bilbo snorted. "Does he know that? Because the looks I've seen him give you are not very brotherly."

"Now don't start that. I hear enough of that nonsense from my king," the Elf scolded lightly, softly flicking his nose. "Legolas is simply confused about his feelings at the moment. He thinks he loves me but what he really loves is the idea of being in love. My prince is a romantic at heart and has built up this notion that the greatest of loves starts as the greatest of friendships. He thinks I fit into that fantasy when I really don't. In time he will come to understand that we are really quite ill matched for one another."

"Have you spoken to him about this?" he wondered, raising his brows. "I think it would be best to set him straight before anything happens don't you think?"

"I tried, but he will not listen," she replied, rolling her eyes. "He is a stubborn little fool. Much like his father."

Bilbo wrinkled his nose. "Legolas is much more pleasant to deal with than his father."

"He is, but my king is still better company than some Elves I know," Tauriel mused as she finally finished taking her measurements. She rolled up her parchments and leather and rose to her feet in one fluid move.

"I will work on it tonight and you can try it on in the morning," she explained, looking down at the Hobbit.

Bilbo nodded as he tugged his worn and dirty shirt on. "Take your time. I don't want you to lose any rest on my account."

Tauriel shook her head and gave him a smile that made her high cheekbones even more obvious. "It is not a problem. I do not need as much sleep as most races."

"But you still need to be well-rested for the battle," he retorted, pointing a finger at her. "Don't neglect yourself on my behalf. You are far more important to this battle than I am."

Tauriel stared at him for a moment with unblinking hazel eyes. He stared back as he finished buttoning his shirt up. "Yes?"

"It's… nothing," the Elf finally said, blinking her eyes rapidly and looking away. "I will speak to you later, Bilbo. Good day."

Bilbo watched the Elf glide away before shaking his head. If there was one thing that crossed all species boundaries, it was that males would never understand females.

 


 

Bilbo spent the rest of the day seeing to his supplies, and making sure that Beorn was comfortable. The shape-shifter was easily pleased and needed little but the reassurance that none of the Elves would bring any cooked meat near him. If they did, he promised he could not be held accountable for his actions. Bilbo promised him he would keep the meat out of view and would discreetly warn the Elves. He carried out this mission until night fell and Bard came to drag him off and bully him into eating.

"You do realize I'm not one of your children, yes?" the Hobbit asked as the Man forced into his hands a bowl of what was supposedly stew but was a questionable vivid red color. "Despite the whole height thing, I'm actually lot older than I look."

"Then you should shut up and eat your food like the adult you claim to be," the bowman pointed out as he served himself next.

Bilbo gave him a dirty look but dutifully took up his spoon. "I'm not sure I like the look of this stew. Is it supposed to be so… thick?"

"Bilbo, the Elves of Mirkwood aren't known throughout the land for their cooking skills," Bard pointed out as he snagged two rolls and passed one to the Hobbit. "Just be thankful they only made stew. This morning they were wondering what burnt squirrel on a stick would taste like."

"Awful," he reassured as he recalled the time the Dwarves had tried to cook the squirrels from Mirkwood. It had been a scarring experience for him. "Tell them to stick to rabbit or fish or even elk. Anything but squirrel."

"Careful. They might take that as permission to start roasting the spiders," the Man cautioned.

He wrinkled his nose and gave his companion a disgusted look. "Bard, I thought you wanted me to eat?"

The bowman waved a lazy hand. "Right, sorry. Ignore that."

"I will," he muttered before taking a cautious slurp of his stew and immediately regretting it. "Ugh, what did they put in this? Spoiled vegetables?"

"From the color I'm going with the blood of their enemies," Bard declared as he sniffed his roll and then made a face. "And the bread was obviously made from the tears of their widows."

Bilbo grimaced at the description but did his best to take another spoonful. He needed to eat, after all, and it would be rather rude of him to turn down the meal the Elves worked so hard to prepare. Even if it did taste like dirty dishwater.

"Azog's army has been spotted," the Man said casually as he dipped his bread into the stew. "The king estimates they'll be here by noon tomorrow if they don't stop for breaks."

He felt his stomach clench and knew it had nothing to do with his meal. "Are we ready to face them?"

"No, but we can't change that," the bowman replied, shrugging his broad shoulders. "We will face the Orcs and Goblins tomorrow one way or another."

Bilbo sighed and settled his bowl in his lap. "So we will. Are your children safe in Lake-town? I would think the army would come through there first to get to us."

Bard nodded as he ripped apart his roll. "Aye, I left them with their mother's sister. Lake-town was evacuated when the Elvenking passed through it so she'll take care of them. Some of the Elves stayed behind to help them leave on boat up the Forest River into Mirkwood. They will be safe there."

"Thranduil did that?" he asked, blinking a few times. "I didn't think he cared about anyone outside of his own kingdom."

"He doesn't usually but for some reason he's always helped us," the Man replied, pushing a few loose curls behind his ear. "I think he feels guilty over Dale. We… a good portion of us are descended from the survivors of the old city. I think he feels that he owes us for not helping our ancestors the day Smaug came."

"Really? I wonder why he doesn't feel that way over the Dwarves," the Hobbit mused, tapping his spoon against the edge of his bowl.

Bard simply shrugged. "I can't say. Perhaps he can't let go of those centuries of hatred and rivalry. Maybe he does feel guilty and is just hiding it behind a mask. Who really knows what goes on in the Elvenking's head."

Bilbo pressed his lips together, and thought of the way Thranduil's face had broken into honest remorse when Thorin had died the first time around. He thought of the little cracks in the king's mask that he had glimpsed so far that hinted at an emotional and passionate being underneath. He thought of Legolas and his silver laugh and unwavering kindness and loyalty, and the way Thranduil's eyes always thawed for his son alone. He thought of it all and wondered if perhaps the king had more compassion in him than he realized.

"You look deep in thought," the bowman commented as he finished his roll. "Are you thinking of the Dwarves?"

"Hmm? Oh, no, I wasn't. I was simply reflecting on something," he replied, shaking his head clear and making his braids smack him in the face.

Bard raised his brows and tilted his head to the side; making the fire cast dark shadows across the sharp planes of his face. "Uh-huh. Sure."

"You know, I think you're the first person not to ask me if I'm fine or not," Bilbo mused, deciding to change the subject because he really didn't feel like thinking too deeply over the moral integrity of Thranduil.

The Man snorted. "I don't have to ask when I know you're not. Actually I'm impressed with how much effort you're putting into being normal."

"I have to because I can't think of them right now," he admitted. "If I do then I'll falter, and if I falter then I will be useless in the battle tomorrow. So I must ignore them and focus only on the Orcs and Goblins."

Bard blinked his dark eyes slowly and tilted his head even further. "Do you need a hug? Because if you do I know a guy."

Bilbo laughed and threw what was left of his roll at the Man who, predictably, ducked. "When I end up throwing up this slop later, I'm aiming for your face."

"Can you reach that high? Do you need me to find you a stool?" wondered the bowman with a wicked smile that made him look younger and boyish.

"Sleep with one eye open," he warned, waving his spoon at the bowman.

Bard gave him a lazy salute, and Bilbo found himself laughing again. He really had no reason to laugh with what had happened and what was to come, but at that moment laughing was really all he could do. For in the morning they would go to battle and he could not say if he would ever see Bard's roguish smile ever again.

After tomorrow, Bilbo didn't know if he would ever smile again.

 


 

Chapter Text

 


 

The mithril shirt was just as light and cool as Bilbo remembered it to be. It fell to his thighs and past his elbows, but left his collar bone and neck wide open along with his legs and arms. When he stood before Tauriel to show her this, she slowly took in every inch of skin that was visible to her in the morning light.

"I believe I have made enough and what I lack can be easily fixed," she said with one arm crossed over her chest while the other tapped out an unknown melody against her chin. "I may have to adjust a few pieces too."

Bilbo shrugged one shoulder. "As you wish. May I see what you have made so far?"

The Elf nodded and squatted down to the swathed bundle that she had brought along. When she opened it, he saw several pieces of light brown leather that were sewed together with meticulous little brown stitches. Most of the pieces looked incomplete to his eyes but he couldn't be sure. It wasn't as if he knew anything about armor.

"The first thing I made were these greaves to protect your legs," Tauriel explained, holding up the two longest pieces of leather with brown laces at the edges. "I will tie them for you but you must tell me if they're too tight."

He nodded and held still at the Elf slid the smooth leather around one of his legs. It came up just past his knee and ended nearly to his ankles. The rough edges tickled his feet but it covered his tendon well enough so he ignored it. When he gave her a nod, Tauriel easily and quickly laced it up on the side and looked up at him with her brows raised.

"How does it feel?"

The Hobbit lifted his leg, tested the weight, and then bent it before he gave her a nod. "Perfect. It's not too heavy and I can still move easily enough."

The Elf flashed him a quick smile before setting her attention on the second greave. "Perfect. Let's try the other one now."

Once both greaves were laced up and secured, the warrior moved on and pulled out an oddly shaped piece of leather. It was the same color as the greaves but was shaped as a triangle with smooth edges and the same bit of lacing at one end. When he asked what it was, the captain explained it.

"This is a gorget," she said, wrapping the piece around his neck. "It will protect your neck and collar bone."

"It feels like a noose," Bilbo complained, tugging at the top where it dug into his jaw and chin.

Tauriel rolled her eyes and pulled his hand away. "You'll be thankful for it later when it saves you from an arrow to the neck. Now stop wiggling and let me tie this."

He sniffed but held still for the Elf. Once it was properly laced up, he found that it did, indeed, cover most of his neck and a good portion of his upper chest. The leather was just as smooth and warm as the other two and protected him well enough. He still hated it though as it kept pushing up into his jaw.

The final piece of armor the Elf presented to him was a simple pair of fingerless gauntlets. The leather was soft and well used and covered his entire forearm. It snugly embraced his hands and arms when he flexed them.

"Well, now. Take a look at you. You look like an actual warrior," the captain praised, settling her hands on her slight hips.

Bilbo looked down at himself and snorted. "I look like I allowed a blind Man to dress me. Nothing matches."

"Really? I was thinking you look more like you allowed a child to dress you," the Elf commented, winking at him.

He made a face at her that earned him a wind chime laugh in response.

"Put your shirt and pants on and it will look better," she advised him, tossing her long hair over one shoulder.

The Hobbit did as ordered and found that in the end he did no longer look as ridiculous as before. When he pulled on his frayed and ripped red coat, Tauriel made a noise in her throat that drew his attention back to her.

"That coat… the color will draw a great deal of attention," she pointed out with a frown that made the fine bones of her face even more prominent.

He shrugged and began to roll up the sleeves to his elbows. "I am aware of that. But Dori made it for me when he found out I lost my old one so…"

Tauriel's face softened and her eyes lightened. "I see."

Bilbo reached down and picked up his sash and tied it tightly around his waist so his coat would not flap open when he moved. Then he buckled his belt and settled Sting against his hip and tucked a pouch away into his coat. Finally he pulled on his whistle from Bofur and looked up to the Elven warrior.

"Well, do I look acceptable now?" he asked, holding his arms out and turning in a circle.

Tauriel tapped her chin with two fingers and slowly looked him up and down with her starlight eyes. "Better than before. We can now be seen together by others."

He rolled his eyes and dropped his arms. "You're so generous. I think—"

Bilbo found himself cut off as a loud horn echoed through the camp. Tauriel's face immediately became hard as her brows furrowed and her jaw clenched while her hand went to the hilt of her blade in a blink. She looked off to the east side of the camp and slowly narrowed her hazel eyes.

"That was a warning from the scouts. Azog and his army are coming," she said, her eyes never blinking.

The Hobbit felt a trickle of fear wind its way down his back. "What? But I thought they wouldn't get here until noon!"

"We were wrong," Tauriel replied as she stalked off to the other side of the camp. Bilbo quickly followed after her; struggling to keep up with her longer legs and greater stride.

"Where are we going?" he asked the Elf.

"To my king. He will be directing the soldiers into their squads," the captain replied without looking at him.

Bilbo nodded and followed Tauriel as she led him through the many tents and moving Elves until they finally found Thranduil's tent. The king stood in front of it; dressed in a silver and gold armor with his smooth hair held back by a thin band of mithril. At his hips was a long and elegant sword that was nearly as tall as the Hobbit. The sight of the king dressed for battle made Bilbo stop and stare. He had forgotten, over the many years, exactly how deadly the Elvenking really was underneath his acid words and porcelain face.

"Tauriel," Thranduil acknowledged with a small nod as he laced his fingers behind his back. "The battle is finally upon us."

Tauriel dropped to one knee and placed a hand against her chest over her heart. "Direct me, my liege."

"Gather your troops and get into position," the Elf ordered in Sindarin, his silver eyes never wavering even as another horn boomed through the camp. "You know your orders. Do not fail me."

Tauriel nodded once before standing up straight and marching away. With the Elf gone, the king finally turned his eyes to the Hobbit standing off to the side.

"You plan to participate in the battle," Thranduil commented, one of his dark brows rising slightly.

He nodded and crossed his arms over his chest. "I do. My friends are out there and I will not leave them to fight alone."

"Gandalf asked me to keep you behind so you would be safe," the Elf said as he slowly looked the burglar over, "but I do not believe that is possible for anyone."

"No. I will fight in this battle whether Gandalf wants me to or not," he replied, raising his chin stubbornly.

Thranduil's lips twitched at one corner as he nodded his head once. "Go then, halfling. Go protect your foolish Dwarves. Maybe this time they'll accept your help."

"My name is Bilbo," he reminded the Elf with a scowl before turning on his heel and marching away for battle.

 


 

After much thought and deliberation, Bilbo reluctantly came to the decision to wear the ring for the beginning of the battle. He didn't like the idea but he could find no other solution. He was a small and slight Hobbit going into battle with Elves and Men who had no loyalty to him. His only friends and comrades were Beorn, Tauriel and Bard and he didn't even know where they were. If he wanted to survive long enough to save his friends, then he knew he would need an advantage over the Orcs and Goblins. The ring was the only advantage that he could think of.

This means nothing, he warned as he slipped the ring into his front pocket. You will not tempt me again. I won't allow it.

The ring simply cackled. Promises, promises.

Ahead of him, Bilbo could see the Elves and Men moving into position to box the enemy between them and the Dwarves. Gandalf had played mediator between the two sects and had managed to convince Dáin and Thorin to keep their Dwarves stationed before Erebor to meet the Orcs and Goblins head on. Meanwhile the Elves and Men would wait until the enemy was completely between them before they would move and begin to take out the rear end of Azog's army. It was a practical plan but he hated it as it meant his Dwarves would be facing the blunt of the Orcs and Goblins alone for a time.

As the Men and Elves continued to gather, Bilbo looked around until he spotted a watchtower. Carefully and slowly, he began to climb it until he could see over the heads of the Elves and Men and into the distance beyond. What he saw made his stomach roll and his mouth turn dry.

Thousands and thousands of Orcs and Wargs and Goblins were marching towards Erebor with Azog in the lead. The black and brown mess of bodies looked like a blight on the land to him. Ahead of the army, he could see the newly constructed gates of Erebor closed with rows and rows of Dwarven warriors before it. There was a great deal of them and they all stood perfectly still and armed as Azog's army marched closer and closer to them. But as brave and ready as the Dwarves stood, Bilbo still felt himself shiver when he noticed how much bigger Azog's army was compared to them.

I have to get to them, he thought fiercely as he slowly began to climb down the watchtower. The moment his feet touched the scorched earth, he began to jog towards the Dwarven city. He didn't get very far though as a hand suddenly grabbed him by the back of his coat and stopped him.

"Whoa! Where do you think you're going?" asked Beorn as he held the Hobbit up with one hand and looked him over.

Bilbo scowled and tried to kick the giant holding him up like some troublesome kitten. "Beorn, put me down! I'm going to help my friends!"

Beorn's dark brows met his hairline. "What? Are you crazy? You'll be slaughtered before you even get within twelve feet of them!"

"I will not!" he denied, still trying and failing to kick the shape-shifter in the chest as he was held further away. "I have a plan! Now put me down!"

"Not happening. You're going to get yourself killed with such stupidity!" the giant pointed out, shaking him slightly.

"Beorn, my friends are out there!" he yelled, pointing to where Erebor sat. "I cannot leave them there to fight alone! They need my help!"

Beorn's face softened but he still did not release Bilbo. "You are a lone and tiny bunny. What difference can you make?"

Bilbo laughed a high and unpleasant laugh. "To the world? Absolutely nothing. To a single Dwarf? Everything. I would give my life freely if it means the ones I love can live to see tomorrow!"

"Put him down, Master Beorn," ordered Tauriel as she came sauntering up to them in dark leather armor. She had tied her hair back in one long braid and had her blades and bow prepped and ready to go. She stopped next to the shape-shifter and placed one hand on her hip and pointed to the ground with the other.

"Now," she said simply, staring up at the giant with flashing eyes.

Beorn huffed but gently settled the Hobbit back on the ground. Bilbo roughly pulled himself away and stepped back to fix his coat again.

"Did you hear what he plans to do?" Beorn asked the Elf, staring down at her with a scowl and scrunched brows.

"Yes. He is planning to go and help his friends," the Elf replied calmly as she settled her other hand on her hips.

"And you're fine with that? You're just going to allow him to go gallivanting off to be killed?" the shape-shifter pressed, pulling his mouth back in a small snarl that revealed the sharp points of his canines. Looming over the slender Elf, Bilbo was suddenly very aware of how much larger Beorn was compared to her.

Tauriel did not flinch or back down. "He won't be killed because we are going with him."

Beorn blinked. "What?"

"What?" Bilbo parroted back.

"You heard me. You and I will be accompanying Master Baggins into battle," she explained simply.

"But what about your troops?" Bilbo asked, gesturing to where the Elves and Men were gathering. "Don't they need you to lead them?"

"I've given them their orders and left them with Legolas. They will be fine under his command," the captain replied, shrugging her lean shoulders.

"You really mean it? You want us to go into battle with him?" Beorn questioned, rubbing his beard as he visibly considered the offer.

Tauriel nodded. "Yes. I've been considering it since yesterday when he affirmed he would be entering the battle. Seeing what we're up against now, I realize that I cannot allow him to go without protection. It would be unethical of me."

Beorn nodded. "You're right. He's so small that he would get squished within minutes. I wouldn't sleep right tonight knowing that I allowed that to happen."

"Don't I get a say in this?" Bilbo wondered out loud with a hint of a whine in his voice.

"No," the two replied in unison.

Another horn was blown in the distance; a deep and booming sound that resonated into his bones. The Hobbit recognized it as a Dwarven horn and then immediately heard the war cries of the Dwarves follow; echoing from Erebor and into their camp. Azog's army had reached them and the Battle of the Five Armies had begun.

"If you two are coming then we need to leave now," he said sharply, looking up to the taller duo.

They both nodded; their expressions serious and determined even as another horn tore through the air. Beyond them he could hear Bard yelling out orders to his Men while Legolas spoke in a calmer voice to his soldiers. The Elves and Men were getting ready to split up and move into position.

"We are with you, Master Baggins," Tauriel promised, her hazel flashing gold in the morning light. "Until the end."

"Let's not go that far just yet," Beorn muttered as he pulled off his shirt to reveal his greatly muscled and hairy upper body. He rolled his massive shoulders back and stretched his arms a few times before sighing. "Much better."

"What are you doing?" Tauriel wondered as her eyes skimmed the half-naked male.

"I'm going to transform into a bear and carry you two on my back," the shape-shifter explained, cracking his neck. "We'll cover more distance that way. Plus, I can keep you both safe at the same time."

The Elf tapped her lower lip in consideration. "You know, I've ridden many different steeds in my time, but this is the first time I've ever considered riding a bear."

Beorn—because he obviously didn't understand boundaries—leered at the Elf. "Sweetheart, I'll give you a ride anytime."

Tauriel threw her head back and laughed. "I will take it into consideration, Master Beorn."

"Oh for the love of—! Really? Do you two have to do this right now?" Bilbo demanded, throwing his arms up into the air.

"Aww don't be like that, little bunny. I'll give you a ride too," Beorn reassured, wiggling his fuzzy brows.

"I will stab you in your sleep," he promised in return with a sweet smile.

"Kinky," the shape-shifter tossed back before growing serious. "Okay, lovelies, stand back now and try not to scream."

The Elf and Hobbit each took a few steps back as Beorn's bones began to crack and shift under his skin; moving and growing longer and wider. His skin became thinner as it was stretched as far as it could go while his thick hair grew even thicker and more abundant. Beorn closed his eyes and gritted his teeth as he changed, but he didn't scream from the obvious pain he was in. Bilbo was both impressed and horrified by it all.

"Oh," whispered Tauriel, her eyes wide as she covered her mouth with one hand. "In all my years, I never…"

He nodded. He had seen Beorn transform before but it never ceased to wow him time and time again. "He's amazing."

"Indeed," agreed the Elf as her eyes softened and she dropped her hand.

Beorn's transformation from a normal looking Man into a bear took only a few minutes, and before long the towering giant was gone. In his place stood a great black bear with thick fur, powerful muscles, and sharp claws. Beorn growled and shook himself once before opening his dark eyes to meet their gazes.

"Beorn? Are you well?" the Hobbit asked, taking a step forward and raising one hand.

The bear snorted and scrubbed at his face with one paw that, even with the claws and teeth, managed to look cute.

Tauriel chuckled. "I'm thinking that's a yes. Well, come along then. I'll help you up."

Bilbo followed and allowed the Elf to boost him up onto the bear's back in one smooth gesture. Beorn grunted but didn't move as the Hobbit made himself comfortable. Beorn's back was so wide that he couldn't sit right and he found that he needed to dig his fingers into the thick fur just to hold himself up. Tauriel easily helped herself up and settled behind him; her longer legs able to straddle the bear more comfortably. She wrapped a secure arm around his waist and pulled him to lean back against her chest.

"I have you, Master Baggins," she reassured, patting his waist. "I won't let you fall."

"Thank you," he replied dryly as he wrapped more of the thick fur around his fingers. "Shall we leave then?"

"Aye," agreed the Elf as she tapped her heels against the bear's ribs. "Master Beorn, we're ready! Let's go!"

Beorn snorted but crouched down before leaping into a sprint that surprised his riders. Bilbo dug his knees into the bear's back and leaned closer to the Elf behind him as they finally headed into the Battle of the Five Armies.

 


 

War was not something Bilbo believed he would ever learn to tolerate. Oh, he could fight when he needed to and even injure his enemy if he had to, but killing would never feel natural to him. Even when it was at the defense of another or himself, he could not fight the cold weight of guilt that settled in his gut as he watched the light die in someone's eyes. Racing into battle with Beorn and Tauriel, he wondered yet again how he was to defeat an army and save his friends when he couldn't even stomach the thought of killing.

As Beorn drew closer and closer to Erebor, the Hobbit realized that there were even more Goblins and Orcs than he had originally thought. The Dwarves were holding their own against the horde for the moment, but he could see that it wouldn't last. The Elves and Men needed to hurry.

"Do you have a plan?" Tauriel asked, leaning down slightly to speak into his ear.

He nodded. "I need to find Thorin and his nephews first! Azog is set on killing them above all others!"

"As you wish!" Tauriel replied as she pulled out her bow and an arrow. "Lean down against Master Beorn so I can get a clear shot!"

Bilbo quickly dropped to his stomach and locked his knees and elbows as the Elf behind him began to pick off Orcs and Wargs and Goblins without pausing. Each draw was swift and smooth and whistled through the air easily. He couldn't see every target the Elf hit, but he was sure each of them was dead the moment her arrow was released.

Below them, Beorn released a roar that sounded more like a laugh than a battle cry. Bilbo had a feeling the shape-shifter was enjoying watching Tauriel take out their enemy with so much ease.

"We're getting close to the main horde!" Tauriel warned, notching back another arrow and standing up on her knees. "Prepare yourself, Master Baggins!"

He nodded and pushed himself up to his knees and reached for Sting. Over Beorn's head, he saw another Orc fall to Tauriel's arrow while nearby a Goblin was cleaved in two by a Dwarf. Everywhere he looked there were Dwarves fighting against Orcs and Wargs and Goblins, but he found that none of them were his Dwarves.

Beorn released a roar that rumbled through him and made his bones shake in their sockets. A good portion of the Orcs and Wargs turned to face him at the sound, and he could see them racing to meet the bear and his riders. Behind him Tauriel released another arrow; taking out one of the Wargs and causing the Orc rider to fall off. Two more followed the same fate but five more Orcs and Wargs continued to charge them.

"Get ready to jump!" Tauriel ordered as she slid her bow around her neck and pulled out her swords.

Before Bilbo could ask how, the Elf stood up and leaped off the bear and onto one of the Orc riders. She easily parried its sword with one hand while driving the other into its vulnerable neck as she landed. The Warg stumbled at the sudden flux in weight and crashed into the ground; sending its rider tumbling out of the saddle. As the Orc fell and gurgled on its own blood, Tauriel easily slid her bloody blade behind her; stabbing the Warg in the side of the neck and ending its life with a flick of her wrist.

"How am I supposed to top that?" Bilbo muttered to himself even as he threw himself off of Beorn's back. He forced himself into an awkward roll when he hit the ground that made his ribs shriek a string of curses at him. When he stopped, he dizzily rose to his feet and looked up just in time to see Beorn maul an Orc and Warg at the same time.

Two of the five riders were dead but the other three were still alive and fighting with more following in their lead. Tauriel easily took down one with her bow while Beorn proceeded to smack one of the riders out of its harness with one giant paw. But one of the riders noticed the Hobbit and came galloping towards him with a snarl.

Oh, lovely, he thought before throwing himself to the side to avoid being trampled on. As he pivoted around on one heel, the Orc swung back around and tried to lob his head off with a giant axe. Bilbo ducked and swung his blade out in an arch; catching the Warg in the face as it attempted to lunge at him. It snarled and pulled back to crouch down; preparing to leap again only to fail as an arrow embedded itself in its forehead.

The Warg collapsed; sending its rider sprawling out of its saddle. Seeing an opening, he sprung forward and drove his sword as hard as possible into the Orc's neck. The Orc jerked a few times as black blood began to leak everywhere before collapsing to the ground. Bilbo carefully avoided looking into the darkening eyes and worked on pulling his sword loose. It was stuck deep though and he had to put one foot on the Orc's chest in order to pull Sting free.

"Master Baggins!" Tauriel yelled, catching his attention. When he looked up, he found the Elf had an Orc in a headlock and was using it as a shield against another while burying her sword into the Goblin behind her. When she saw that she had his attention, she jerked her head to Beorn and he turned to look just in time to watch as the bear ripped an Orc's throat open with his teeth.

"Why would you tell me to watch that?!" the Hobbit complained, feeling his stomach twist.

Tauriel visibly rolled her eyes as she pushed her shield into the Orc she was guarding against, and then ran her long sword into both of the Orcs. "The Elves and Men are coming so get back on Master Beorn's back!"

Bilbo sniffed but still sheathed Sting and jogged back to Beorn. Once he was close enough, the bear crouched down and allowed him to climb onto his back. He winced slightly at the feel of the bloody fur, but still buried his fingers into the clumped strands. Soon he felt Tauriel settle behind him; one arm slipping around him once more while her other held her sword posed and ready.

"Let's go find your friends," the Elf said into his ear as she nudged Beorn and then they were off.

Around them, the battle continued on.

 


 

Chapter Text

 


 

Out of the three of them, Dori knew what it was like to live alone the best.

His mother had been a beautiful Dwarf. With her flaming red hair, evergreen eyes, and challenging smile, she had charmed everyone she had met. She loved easily, forgave everyone, and never allowed her lowly status as the descended of a royal bastard get to her. She was fierce and wild like the wind; never bowing to anyone and never really settling in one place completely. Dori knew that he could live a thousand years and he would still miss his beautiful mother as much as he did the day she died.

But as mesmerizing as his mother had been, he could not say that she was a good parent. From the day he was born he had been shuffled off to the side and forgotten about until his mother needed something. He had learned to walk and talk without her. He had learned how to feed himself, clothe himself, and protect himself without her. And he learned to comfort himself when he was scared or lonely without her.

Sometimes Dori wished he could hate her for being such a shitty mother, but he really couldn't. His heart still yearned for her love and attention too much to resent her. And, in the long run, he knew that he was better off for it. Without his mother around, he had learned to be strong and how to take care of himself. These skills came in handy when Nori and Ori were born later on.

The day his mother placed Nori in his arms, she had told him to watch him and take care of him before leaving. He took one look at his baby brother and fell in love. At long last he was no longer alone. He had someone to love and comfort and keep him company. For once in his life, Dori finally knew what it was like to love and be loved in return.

He tried his best to raise his brother but it was hard trying to be an adult when you were still only a child. And as Nori grew up, it became obvious that he had inherited more than their mother's eyes and lips and fingers. He had also gotten her wild and fierce drive and ability to charm anyone he met. Those traits had brought him more trouble than Dori cared to think about. In the beginning, he could combat it, but as Nori grew he became more restless and independent. He wanted to be free of his older brother's overprotective ways and chaffed at his constant nagging. Dori reluctantly pulled away and gave his brother his chance at life even though it left him alone again.

But he was strong and so he took it in stride. Even after Erebor fell and they were forced to flee to the cities of Men, his mother and brother still wandered away from him. He dealt with it and focused on saving coin and keeping track of them when they disappeared for days on end. It was not a happy life but it was not horrible either, and Dori counted his blessings and moved on.

Then one day Ori was born.

In many ways, Ori felt more like his child than his brother. As with Nori, their mother had left Ori with him to be raised before leaving again. With the large age gap between them and their absent mother, Dori became both mother and father and brother to Ori. He was the one who fed him and changed him and sang him to sleep. He taught him how to walk and talk and read and sing and sew and so many other little details of life. Ori became everything and for once in a long time Dori found that he was not alone.

When their mother finally passed away—and how strange it was to him to be an orphan at his age—Nori finally came back to stay. He still wandered occasionally, of course, but he didn't stay away as long as before, and he always came back. With his two brothers there with him, Dori felt like he had a family again. That he wasn't alone anymore and would never be again.

Being alone for so long meant he was quite good at spotting it in others. He could see it in Bifur's eyes and Thorin's shoulders and in Bilbo's smiles. Sometimes he even caught a glimpse of it in Gandalf but it was fleeting and rare. He could not say why any of them would feel isolated when surrounded by so many who loved them, and it was really not his place to ask. But what Dori did know was that solitude was a crippling experience that could eat you up inside. He had spent so many years alone that he could not stand the idea of seeing any of his friends—his family—go through it too. So he silently swore to himself that he would stay with the Company and his brothers for as long as they needed him.

Because without any of them, Dori knew he would be lonely too.

 


 

Bilbo had forgotten how noisy war could be.

It was a silly and insignificant detail for him to recall in the middle of a battlefield. But—riding through the dead terrain on Beorn's back while Tauriel cut down Orc and Goblin alike with her sword—the noise was all he could focus on. He could hear the clash of iron on iron as weapons met and armor was struck. He could hear the battle cries of every race—the guttural Orcs; the screeching Goblins; the chanting Elves; the booming Dwarves; and even the roaring Men—as they created a symphony of war together. He could even hear the screams of pain and death as both his allies and enemies fell to a blade or arrow or axe. The last cries made him squeeze his eyes shut and bury his fingers tighter in Beorn's fur.

He didn't want to listen to the songs of the dead again.

"I think I see some of your comrades!" Tauriel commented after a time had passed. He opened his eyes and looked to where the Elf pointed, and spotted what looked like Nori, Balin, and Glóin. They fought back to back in a circle against the enemy and were sporting a few injuries. Balin in particular had a slash across his face that had smeared blood over his cheeks like war paint.

"Shall we go to them?" the Elf behind him asked and he nodded as he pulled out his whistle.

"Without question," Bilbo declared before blowing his whistle as hard as possible.

The Dwarves all turned as one at the sound. Unfortunately, the orcs and wargs and goblins also turned to face the descending trio too. His Dwarves were able to stop a few but most of them began to charge them; their bloody weapons ready to open more throats.

"Beorn, don't attack them!" Bilbo ordered as he pulled out his pouch from his coat and quickly opened it to retrieve a handful of smaller packs. Along with it he pulled out a match and quickly lit it up.

"What are you doing?" Tauriel asked as she took out some of the Wargs with her bow.

"Watch," he replied before lighting the small bundles and throwing them as hard as he could towards the incoming fiends.

The results were instant. The small packs blew up; some in midflight and others the moment they touched the Orcs and Goblins. Bits of flesh and armor went flying through the air as the victims shrieked and fell to the ground. Some twisted about on fire while others simply bled out from their newly inflected wounds.

"What did you do?" Tauriel gasped in his ear as her grip around his waist tightened.

He rolled his eyes. "I blew them up, obviously."

"Yes, I got that part, but how?" the Elf retorted as Beorn began to gallop towards the Dwarves.

"With sulfur, charcoal, and saltpeter," he listed easily. "It's the ingredients to Gandalf's fireworks."

"When did you make those?" the warrior wondered.

"Yesterday," he explained, wincing as Beorn stomped on an incoming Goblin without pausing. "What do you think I was doing all day? Crying my eyes out and writing sad poems?"

Tauriel laughed her wind chime laugh and pulled her bow out again as they finally arrived to where the Dwarves stood. Beorn had not even stopped before Bilbo was pushing Tauriel away and sliding off of the bear's back. He sprinted towards his friends and tried his best not to trip or slip on the bloody corpses around him.

"Bilbo!" Glóin cried out in greeting; catching him in a hug with one arm and swinging the Hobbit around so he could bash his axe into the unprotected abdomen of an incoming Orc. "What are you doing here?! Gandalf said you would be with that damn leaf-eater in the camp!"

"Gandalf should have checked with me first before he decided what I would do," he retorted sharply, driving Sting into a nearby Goblin that was attempting to cut Glóin's leg off.

"Those blasts you threw at the maggots—you're sharing that with me later!" Nori declared, swinging his long mace with both hands into the chest of an incoming Orc.

"Deal!" Bilbo replied, ducking a bloody hammer as it tried to bash his skull in. "Where are the others?!"

"We got separated from them but Thorin should still be close to the gates! The others are probably trying get back to him like us!" Balin explained, wielding both his axe and sword at the same time in a synchronized dance.

Bilbo nodded and allowed Glóin to yank him to the left in order to avoid a charging Warg. The beast didn't last long as Balin drove his sword into its neck and Nori shattered its ribcage. "We need to get to them before Azog does! This whole battle exists because he wants to kill Thorin and Fíli and Kíli!"

"Easier said than done!" pointed out Nori as he dropped his shoulder to avoid a mace and then spun around and knocked a Goblin off its feet. "This horde won't let us through!"

"Don't worry; I have a plan!" he reassured as he pulled out more of his fireworks and matches, "and we're not alone! Tauriel! Beorn!"

Beorn roared in acknowledgement as he finished mauling a Warg. Nearby, Tauriel did an impressive black flip to avoid a sword and fired an arrow upside down at her attacker. Her arrow easily killed the Orc by the time she was able to neatly land on her feet.

"I'm here!" she yelled, flipping her braid over her shoulder with one hand and running her dagger into the face of a Goblin with the other.

Balin actually stopped and took a moment to stare at the roaring animal tearing through the enemy as if they were made out of paper. "Beorn?! The shape-shifter from before?!"

"What are you doing with them?!" Glóin demanded as he buried his axe into the head of an Orc; splattering its blood and flesh across his face without flinching. "A giant dog and some dainty lass are hardly adequate protection! Where's that king of the weeds and acorns?! He was supposed to protect you!"

"Who are you calling dainty, weasel?!" Tauriel retorted; kicking a rusted blade out of a Goblin's hand as it attempted to stab her in the thigh. She then kicked the Goblin into the air and away from her.

Glóin snarled and ran his axe into the shoulder of a Warg with more force than needed. "Weasel?! I'll show you weasel you dirt-eating little—"

"Glóin, shut up! This isn't the time!" Nori yelled as he flung one of his daggers at a charging Orc. "Bilbo, what's your plan?!"

"We use these fireworks and Beorn to cut a path through the army and to the gates!" the Hobbit replied, wincing as a Goblin's sword nicked him in the arm before he could run Sting through it.

"Sounds good to me!" Balin said before snarling as an Orc's axe caught him in the collar bone. It didn't penetrate through his thick armor but Bilbo had a feeling that the Dwarf was still going to have a nasty bruise by noon. The Orc in question didn't last long as Balin neatly beheaded it in one swing.

"Let's move then!" Tauriel ordered before grabbing Bilbo by the back of his coat and flinging him onto Beorn's back. The Hobbit yelped at the move but still instinctively wrapped his free hand in the bear's fur and locked his knees in order not to fall off.

"Warn me before you do that!" he scolded.

"No promises!" the Elf retorted as she head butted an Orc that had grabbed her. "Are you going to light those poppers within the next century, Master Baggins?"

"Are you going to call me by my name within this century?" he returned even as he lit up some of his fireworks and then threw them as hard as possible into the crowd of Orcs and Goblins.

"Beorn, move once you get a chance," he said as the fireworks went off.

Beorn growled in what sounded like acknowledgement before he sprung forward through the smoke and screaming orcs and goblins. Behind them he could hear Tauriel yelling for the others to follow and he quickly pulled out more of his fireworks.

Okay, Bilbo. Let's see how many of these bastard you can blow up, he thought before he lit up the area once more in a flash of fire and smoke.

 


 

Bilbo could not say how long the battle lasted. He could not say if it took hours or minutes for them to fight through the hordes of fiends to get to Erebor. All he knew was the frantic motion of lighting up his fireworks and tossing them at the enemy while hoping he didn't hurt any of their allies while he was at it. Once and awhile he would look behind to check on his comrades and found them getting bloodier and wearier with every step. It made his heart ache and his fingers itch to join in the fighting, but every time he tried to slide off of Beorn, the bear would force him to stay. Eventually he gave up fighting the shape-shifter as it was clear he would not be getting off anytime soon.

When they finally did make it to the gates of Erebor, Bilbo felt the blood in his veins turn to ice.

Azog was nowhere in sight but that didn't matter as there were more than enough Orcs and Goblins to make up for his absence. All of them were focused on the gates of the city where a few familiar Dwarves still stood among the corpses of allies and enemy alike. The Hobbit spotted Dwalin first for he fought with a mechanical intensity in front of the wounded but still living Fíli and Kíli. Nearby stood Dáin; fierce and unwavering as he systematically went through one foe after the other without pause. Finally, further away from them, fought the King Under the Mountain.

At first Bilbo was not sure what was wrong with the sight before him. Thorin was injured and bloody but did not seem as tired or weak as the others. He fought with the same fluid grace as always and easily cut through Goblin and Warg alike. It was not until he watched for a moment that Bilbo was finally able to pinpoint what was so wrong with the king.

Thorin was fighting recklessly.

All of the openings and weaknesses that he usually so carefully guarded were now wide open and vulnerable. As he watched, an Orc was able to get into the Dwarf's defenses much too easily and nearly cut his head off. Thorin was only barely able to avoid it and was left with a slice across his ear instead. Watching the king fight so foolishly, Bilbo felt his fear and shock melt under the flames of fury.

No. This is NOT going to continue.

Before Beorn could stop him, the Hobbit threw himself off the bear and sprinted towards the Dwarven king. He ducked and jumped and spun through the enemy ranks and was able to escape most of their weapons and hands. One Orc was able to grab hold of his coat but he quickly solved that dilemma by cutting the sleeve free with Sting. He lost most of his left sleeve but he didn't care as he continued to rush to Thorin's side.

"Thorin!" he yelled as he grew closer and closer. "Thorin, you imbecile, watch your lower left!"

The Dwarf did as told and parried the incoming blow from a Goblin. As he skewered the beast with Orcrist, he looked up and met Bilbo's eyes with his own wild pair.

"Bilbo! What are you doing here?!" he yelled as his face turned white under all the blood and grime caked on it.

Bilbo scoffed and ducked a Warg as it tried to bite his face off. "You banished me from Erebor, remember?! You said nothing about the land outside of it!"

"That's not what I meant!" Thorin retorted, grabbing the wrist of an Orc to stop it as it tried to bring a hammer down on his head. "What are you doing out here in the battle?! You're supposed to be at the camp with Thranduil where it's safe!"

"And leave you all alone to fight Azog?!" he jeered back. "Not in a million years!"

"Damnit, halfling, I cannot fight with you here!" Thorin snarled as he twisted the Orc's wrist and brought it to its knees and then lopped its head off. "Get back to the camp!"

"Halfling now is it? Did I lose your respect along with your trust when you sent me away?!" he questioned, trying to ignore the sting that came with the word. Behind him he could hear Beorn's roar and Nori's curses as the others finally caught up to them.

Thorin sneered and pointed at Bilbo with one hand while the other knocked an incoming arrow to the side. "Do not look at me with those eyes! You have no right to claim offense when it was you who stole from me!"

Bilbo sneered back as he twirled out of reach of an Orc's mace. "You left me no choice! What was I to do with you so blinded by your own fears?! Sit around and wait for you to get yourself killed?! I would rather steal a thousand jewels and challenge Smaug once more before I allowed that to happen!"

"It is not your place to decide my fate!" the king rebuked as the Hobbit finally made it to his side. As Bilbo stopped before him, he swung Orcrist over the burglar's head to catch the incoming sword of an Orc that would have pierced through him. With a grunt, the Dwarf pushed the sword away and yanked Bilbo back with his free hand.

"You are nothing but trouble out here," growled Thorin as he parried another blow from the Orc and then hacked its arm off. As the Orc screeched, the king drove his sword into its chest and ended its suffering before whirling back to the Hobbit behind him.

"Get into the city before you get killed," he growled, pointing to Erebor with Orcrist.

Bilbo shook his head and raised his chin high. "No! I'm staying here with you and the others!"

"Damnit, Bilbo, this is not the time to be stubborn!"

"I'm not leaving you alone! You're fighting too—"

"FÍLI!"

The arguing duo turned as one to the terrified scream that cut across the battlefield. They found Kíli sprawled on the ground; his bow knocked a few feet away and his mouth bleeding greatly. His dark eyes were wide and his face pale as he stared at the Dwarf standing over him. Fíli stood tall and unwavering with his sword buried into the stomach of the large Orc before him. The Orc's own sword was buried deep into the prince's left shoulder. Fíli did not seem to notice the wound as he twisted his sword in deeper and then rammed his second blade into the Orc's chest. The Orc jerked and then fell back; leaving its blade behind and collapsing to the ground in a twitching mess of black blood.

The prince stood still and watched it until the creature finally stopped twitching before finally collapsing to his knees. As they watched, Fíli grasped his shoulder where the blade was still buried and nearly fell over if his brother had not caught him. Kíli held him steady and nearly pulled him into his lap as his hands hovered over the wound; uncertain about what to do.

"Fíli," Thorin gasped, stumbling towards his nephews and nearly dropping his sword. "Oh, Mahâl no. Not them, not them. Not my boys…!"

Bilbo ignored the king and turned to where his friends fought. He cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled as loud as he possibly could to them, "BEORN! TAURIEL! GET THE PRINCES INTO THE CITY!"

The bear and Elf turned as one to where the two brothers were before sprinting towards them. As they cut through the invading army, Dwalin and Dáin moved to protect the two younger Dwarves as orcs and wargs and goblins alike descended on them. Reassured that the princes would be safe for the moment, the Hobbit turned his attention back to the still dazed king.

"Thorin, snap out of it! Now is not the time to fall apart!" he yelled, grabbing the Dwarf's arm.

Thorin ignored him; his eyes still glued to his nephews. "No, how can I… I have to…"

Bilbo felt his fraying patience growing even thinner. Yanking the king back, he moved until he stood in front of the taller male and poked him in the chest with his free hand. "ENOUGH! If you want to save your sister's sons then focus on staying alive! You are no good to them dead!"

Thorin blinked twice; his eyes shifting between ebony black and murky blue. Before his eyes could settle on a color, they grew wide and his brows met his hairline. Bilbo had only a second to wonder why when the king jerked him into a hug and spun them around. The motion left him dizzy and disoriented and it was not until he felt Thorin groan against his hair that he realized something was wrong.

"Thorin? What…?" he began to ask before he noticed the arrow sticking out of the king's back. "Thorin! What did you do?!"

"Protecting you," the Dwarf growled, pulling back and reaching behind to break off the shaft of the arrow. "Because you can't seem to do it yourself!"

"Says the Dwarf with an arrow in his back!" Bilbo retorted as his eyes sought out their friends. "Hang on and let me get help! Then we can get you into the city—"

"Down!" Thorin ordered in reply, pushing him down and out of the way of a flying axe. "I can still fight now get behind me!"

"So you can get hurt again? I think not!"

"Why are you even here?!" the king growled, jerking away from a Goblin's spear. "Why have you come back to torment me?! Is it not enough that you betrayed my trust and stole my family's greatest treasure?!"

Bilbo groaned and rammed his elbow back into the face of an Orc. "Are you serious?! Do you really want to have this conversation now?!"

"Answer the question!" the Dwarf snapped as he broke the Goblin's spear in half with his sword.

"You stupid Dwarf! How can you not see that I did it all to save you for you are my treasure?!" he snarled back, ducking the Orc's punch and plunging Sting into the Orc's gut. As he pulled back and turned to Thorin, he found the king frozen in motion with his mouth open and his eyes a wide and muggy blue.

"What…?" the Dwarf mumbled before cursing as the Goblin he was fighting drove a sword into his thigh.

Bilbo felt the world turn beneath his feet.

Thorin takes one final breath and then almost sighs as he dies. His blue eyes grow lifeless and empty and look more like the jewels his kind favor so much. The limp hand in his own pair falls through his bloody fingers and he begins to cry harder because everything he has done to this point has been for nothing. Thorin is dead and gone forevermore

"THORIN!"

The king growled and beheaded the Goblin in one strike before falling to his knees. He braced Orcrist into the ground to lean against while his free hand went to his wound; trying to stop the gushing blood as it spilled through his fingers and down his leg.

Bilbo was moving before the Goblin was dead; leaping over a dead Warg and sliding on the bloody battlefield before dropping to his knees next to the kneeling Dwarf. He could feel the mud and blood soaking into his pants and greaves; getting his skin dirty and itchy. Once next to the king, he pushed his own hand up against Thorin's where his wound was. He could hear Óin's directions in his mind telling him that he needed to stop the bleeding before all else.

"Damn," Thorin cursed, clenching his jaw and the hilt of his sword. "B-Bilbo get out of here. I can't p-protect you like this!"

"Stop talking," he ordered as he pulled his coat off and pushed Thorin's hand away to tie it around his thigh as tight as possible. The king hissed at the pain but didn't fight him. But before Bilbo could finish tying it a second time, Thorin cursed again and pushed him down and rammed Orcrist into an incoming Orc with both hands.

"You need to leave before they overrun us both," the Dwarf growled as he twisted his blade once before yanking it out.

"Good thing we're here to help then," drawled Nori as he kicked the dead Orc away and then slammed his mace into a nearby Goblin.

"Just can't leave you two alone for long can we?" Glóin commented, easily batting away an arrow from Thorin.

"Bilbo, stay with him until Óin finds us. We'll keep the roaches away," Balin ordered as he took up position in front of his cousin.

Bilbo nodded and moved to help Thorin as the king stumbled to his knees again. To his alarm, the Dwarf was beginning to grow paler and his hands were beginning to shake around the hilt of his sword. "Thorin! Thorin, look at me! We need to—"

"The boys… are they…?" the king gasped, leaning into the Hobbit's side as Bilbo wrapped an arm around his shoulders to hold him steady.

He nodded frantically even though the truth was he could not see the two princes. "T-They're fine, fine! Dwalin and Dáin are with them and so are Beorn and Tauriel!"

Thorin chuckled and leaned his head against Bilbo's shoulder. "L-Liar. Y-You always l-lie to protect m-me."

"I know. I do a lot of stupid things for you," he whispered back, pushing aside the Dwarf's braids so he could see his face clearly. "Like taking on a dragon and joining this battle. You owe me for all of this so you better stay alive, Thorin Oakenshield."

"B-Bossy. That's w-why so many people keep t-trying to k-kill you," the king muttered as he began to sweat heavily. His blue eyes were misty as he looked up to meet the Hobbit's gaze. "B-Bilbo, y-you called me y-your t-treasure. W-Why…?"

"Why do you think?" he retorted, glancing at Thorin's wound only to find it bleeding through the make-shift bandage. "Shit! Thorin, I need you to lay down so I can re-bandage your wound. Quickly now!"

Thorin groaned but still shifted until he laid flat on his back with his leg in Bilbo's lap. The Hobbit quickly untied the bloody coat and then rewrapped it around the bleeding wound. Once set, he tied his sash around it even tighter to stop the bleeding.

"B-Bilbo, s-stop," the king ordered, reaching out one hand to snag the Hobbit's wrist. "I n-need to t-tell you I-I'm s-sorry."

"Tell me later after we've won the battle," he suggested, easing the Dwarf's leg out of his lap and patting Thorin's hand with his free one. "After all of this is over, you can apologize and make a fool of yourself in front of all our friends. Deal?"

"M-Might not get t-that c-chance," the Dwarf pointed out as he began to breathe through his mouth. His skin had shifted into a grayish white and Bilbo could see the buildup of sweat on his brow. Even the hand wrapped around his wrist was beginning to shake as the king began to lose consciences.

"Thorin, Thorin stay with me," he ordered, scooting closer to the king and cupping his clammy and cold cheeks with both hands. "Please, please stay with me. Óin will help you as soon as he finds us."

"I-I'm sorry I h-hurt you. D-Didn't m-mean to," Thorin muttered as he closed his eyes. "J-Just wanted y-you t-to stay…"

"I know you didn't. You just weren't thinking straight," Bilbo agreed as something like panic began to tighten around his heart. He could feel it growing tighter and tighter with every labored breath the king took as he realized he was losing Thorin to death again.

No. Please, no, not again . It's not supposed to end this way—!

Leaning down, he pressed his forehead against Thorin's until their noses aligned and their lips just barely brushed. "Please don't go. Please, please… do not leave me to live this life alone again…"

"Bilbo! I think I see Óin!" Balin suddenly yelled, gesturing with his sword towards a group of Dwarves running towards them. When Bilbo looked hard enough, he realized the warrior was correct. Óin was coming along with the others.

"Over here! Óin, we're over here!" he shouted, sitting up and waving one arm rapidly.

The group easily charged through the orcs and goblins and wargs and to their aid. Óin sprinted to the fallen king and fell to his knees at his cousin's side; his bloody face shifting into an ugly scowl.

"Damnit, Thorin, you stubborn ass," the healer cursed as he checked the king's pulse. "We need to get him into the city. Dori! Bifur! Help me with this fool!"

"The boys—Fíli was stabbed! He needs help!" Bilbo said as he stood and stepped back so the two Dwarves could pick up the king.

Óin waved a hand towards where the two princes lingered. "Dwalin is bringing him along with his brother. Gently now, you two, don't move his neck about!"

Bilbo nodded as he watched his friends carry their king to the gates. Along the way they were joined with Dwalin and Kíli who held an unconscious Fíli between them. As he watched, the gates were opened by the Dwarven archers inside and the Company quickly slipped into the city with their fallen royalty. As the gates slammed shut behind them, he wondered if it was the last time he would ever see Thorin and Fíli alive again.

 


 

Chapter Text

 


 

"Master Baggins?"

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.

"Master Baggins?"

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?"

"Yes?"

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.

"Bilbo!"

"Dáin, you bastard, could you take any longer?! We sent you to get him hours ago—!"

"Burglar!"

"He's alive!"

"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.

 


 

Chapter Text

 


 

Thorin was not a romantic Dwarf.

For all his passion and intense emotions, he actually had little interest in matters of the heart. Oh, he loved deeply enough and would kill to protect those he cared for, but that was love of a different sort. He loved his family and friends and people. He loved his heritage and homeland and Creator. He never had any interest in the love that came with a One; the love of a bond mate and life companion. It held little appeal to him, and he felt that he was blessed enough in love.

Frerin had been the romantic one amongst them. He was the one who had spent his time daydreaming and waxing poetically about what it would be like to find his One. When they were children, he had always wanted to hear the love stories over the war ones. As they grew older, he was the one who spent hours trying to design the perfect bead to grant to his beloved one day. It took him years before he finally sketched out one that met his requirements. Thorin still had the drawing tucked away. It was wrinkled and faded and really quite worthless, but every time he tried to throw it out, he would recall the way Frerin's eyes had glowed when he showed it to him, and found that he could not do it.

Dís had not cared either but she had always been more like Thorin in those terms. Frerin was the odd one out with his golden hair and easy smiles. Like a flash of golden lightening, his quick words and booming laughter had been the only thing that could make Dís smile and Thorin relax. He thought he would never need the sun because his little brother cast enough light on them all to live.

While Frerin had been the sun, Dís had been the moon. Hard and distant, she was the strong one out of the three of them. Even as a child she had been serious and clever; seeing the bigger picture easily and all the details that made it up. She had used her quick wit to protect her family and people and it had been that same wit that saved them after Erebor fell. Many Dwarves saw her as cold because of the distance she put between herself and others, but Thorin knew better. His little sister loved just as fiercely as the rest of them; she just didn't show it.

If Frerin was the sun and Dís the moon, then Thorin knew he would be the sky. He was the one who protected them and held them up for the world to see. He was vast and mighty but paled in comparison next to them. That was fine; Thorin didn't mind being in the background. His siblings were glorious so why wouldn't they get attention? Their love had been enough for him—his sun and his moon—and he never thought to ask for more. If his family loved him then what more could he ever want?

And then Frerin died.

Thorin thought he knew grief when they lost Erebor, but it was nothing compared to when he lost his brother. It was as if a piece of him had died with Frerin, and he knew he would never be the same again. Dís had been just as changed as him; his cold moon becoming even colder. Even their relationship became strained and tense without Frerin there to lighten them up. The three of them had been so intertwined that when a piece was cut out, they completely fell apart.

Things had gotten better when his sister found Vílin. The Dwarf had been common born—a potter, of all things—but he had loved Dís fiercely. His sister, in turn, had given him the smiles that she had once horded away only for Frerin. Thorin could not deny something so precious to his remaining sibling, and had given them his blessing. When his sister had become pregnant a few years later, he had accepted the news happily but not given it much thought. He was happy he would be an uncle and that their line would continue on, but he never stopped to think about what his sister's child would mean to him.

That was why he was completely unprepared for the emotions that came upon him when Fíli was born.

Was it possible to love someone without knowing them? Thorin had never thought as much until the day he held his nephew. He had looked upon that little red and scrunched face and felt his heart soar with love. He never wanted to set his nephew down again; he wanted to hold him and watch him and protect him from every danger in the world. He wanted to teach him how to hold a sword, how to read their mother tongue, and to give him sweets when Dís was not looking. When Kíli followed a few years later, he had felt the same consuming love and fierce need to protect him. His nephews had filled the void that Frerin's death had left in him. They became his sunlight and the only ones who could make him laugh and smile again. For the first time since his brother's death, Thorin finally felt complete again.

That was, until, he met Bilbo Baggins.

It was not love at first sight. In fact, at first he found the Hobbit odd and a bit suspicious with his easy attitude. He was also rather annoying too when he questioned Thorin's every word without fear. But the Hobbit could hold his own and never whined, so he couldn't complain. He honestly didn't give the burglar much of his attention until the troll incident where he declared that he would rather die than risk Fíli.

That was… interesting.

It didn't exactly endear him to the Hobbit, but Thorin could respect someone who protected his sister's sons. He didn't know why the little burglar cared but he wouldn't question his intentions. As long as he didn't go back on his word, then what did Thorin care what the Hobbit did? He still didn't give Baggins much thought though he was appreciative when he saved Fíli (again) from Azog. He was even willing to pay such a debt back dutifully, and could not understand why the Hobbit resisted his offer.

But everything changed when Baggins punched him in the river.

The Hobbit had been so furious, so hurt by his words that Thorin couldn't help but feel guilty. He knew he wasn't the most pleasant of Dwarves around, but he didn't like to intentionally hurt someone who had done him no harm. The burglar had accepted his apology even though he made Thorin promise not to seek revenge on Thranduil. Feeling guilty and a bit ashamed, he had agreed easily enough to the promise. He even found himself granting the burglar—Bilbo—permission to call him by his first name.

After that, Thorin found himself watching Bilbo. He watched the way the Hobbit never seemed fazed by whatever they encountered, and never lost his composure even when angry. He watched Bilbo fret and worry over the others to a rather alarming degree, and how he easily placed himself in danger for them. He watched the burglar ask the others questions, and saw how intently he listened to their stories as if he honestly cared. He marveled over Bilbo's bravery and how he boldly confronted even Thranduil despite the great harm the Elf could bring upon him. He even watched how much the small Hobbit seemed to eat throughout the day, and wondered where he put it all.

But mostly, Thorin watched the way the sun made the gold strands in his brown hair light up. He counted the freckles on his cheeks and studied the arch of his cheekbones. He pondered over the exact shade of brown Bilbo's eyes were, and marveled over how red his lips grew when he bit them. He memorized the melody of his laugher and traced the teasing curve of his smile in his mind.

Then, eventually, he began to wonder what it would be like to be the cause of those smiles.

Thorin had known love but he had never known a love quite like this. It consumed his every thought and dream. He found himself itching to know everything about Bilbo; from the good to the bad and even the boring bits in between that didn't really matter. He wanted to be the reason for the Hobbit's laughter, and wanted to comfort him when he cried. He wanted to give Bilbo everything he ever wanted, and burned to protect him from everything horrible and ugly in the world. He wanted to run his fingers through those wild curls, and trace the trail of freckles with his lips. He wanted to see his bead braided into Bilbo's hair, and wanted to erase every memory of that dead fool from the Hobbit's heart.

Thorin wanted many things in his life—to reclaim Erebor; justice for his family; revenge against Smaug and Thranduil; safety and security for his people—but he could honestly say that he never wanted anything quite as much as he wanted Bilbo Baggin's heart.

 


 

"You're cheating."

"I am not. You just suck at cards."

"No, I agree with him. You're cheating."

"Lies, all lies."

"If I quit now do I get any of my money back?"

"No, Ori, that's not how the game works."

"Don't worry about it. I'll win your money back for you."

"Of course you will because you're cheating."

"You keep using that word but I don't think it means what you think it does."

Bilbo bit his lower lip to keep his laughter from spilling out as he watched Ori, Nori, Glóin and Bofur play a game of cards before him. The four sat in a circle with a pile of coins and jewels in the middle. So far Nori was winning, which really was not a surprise to him. But what did surprise him was that Bofur and Ori were losing while Glóin was catching up to Nori. He assumed that being the younger brother and good friend of a thief, the two would be better at cards. Obviously though Nori failed to teach them anything useful.

Behind him, Dori sighed as he continued to re-braid the Hobbit's hair. His braids had become messy and unkempt after the battle, and the Dwarf had noticed and offered to fix them. He had accepted and then quickly rethought that decision when the older Dwarf broke out a box of combs and beads and other hair accessories that he had no way of identifying.

"You don't have to do this," Bilbo repeated again for the fourth time that night.

"I am aware of that," Dori replied without pausing in his task. "Lean back please."

The Hobbit sighed and did as asked. "I hope you're not weaving ribbons and lace into my hair."

"Of course not. I hardly have the proper materials for such work," the warrior scoffed. "No, I won't weave anything into your hair just yet. We'll wait for your hair to get longer before we do that."

"You sound confidant that I'm staying here," he mused, staring up at the dark ceiling.

Dori snorted and gently tugged on the curls in his hands. "We both know you're not leaving. You made that clear when you allowed Thorin to braid his beads into your hair."

Bilbo blinked. "What do his clasps have to do with me not leaving?"

The Dwarf finally paused in his braiding. "They… Did Thorin not tell you the meaning behind his beads?"

He shook his head slowly in order not to ruin the unfinished braids. "Nope. All he said was that he didn't have anything to tie the ends with so he had to use his clasps."

"Of course he did," the Dwarf muttered before continuing his task. "Blasted fool. Bilbo, time for a lesson in Dwarven culture. When a Dwarf offers to braid their bead into another's hair then they are essentially asking that individual for their hand in marriage."

Bilbo froze. "Wait… Are you telling me that Thorin proposed to me? And he didn't say anything first?!"

Dori clucked his tongue and pushed the rising Hobbit back down with one hand. "Calm down. No point in yelling at him now. Wait until he's awake and better before you go off on him."

"I will," he seethed as he crossed his arms over his chest. "He's going to wish he never met me—wait, did I unknowingly accept? Are we engaged?!"

"No," the Dwarf replied and Bilbo sighed in relief. "To show that you accept you would have to give him back one of the beads he gave you. Wearing them simply shows that you're considering his proposal."

"What I'm considering is the best way to kick his kingly behind back to the Blue Mountains," the Hobbit growled. "How dare he pull such a sneaky tactic on me? If he wanted to marry me then he should have simply come out and asked!"

"If he did, would you have accepted him then?" Dori wondered as he tied off another braid.

"I don't know," he said honestly because the idea of Thorin even loving him was still hard to believe. "Can a king even marry a commoner? Or a Hobbit at that?"

"The law says no but Thorin can easily change that," the Dwarf replied. "There are a few perks to being king."

Bilbo sighed and tapped his fingers against his elbow. He did not know how to take such news. Why did Thorin propose to him and not say anything? Did the Dwarf plan it that way or was it spontaneous? And why had no one told him the meaning of the beads earlier?

"Why didn't anyone mention this?" he asked out loud, glaring at the four Dwarves playing cards because they were the only ones he could see at the moment.

"We all—foolishly—assumed that Thorin would explain the meaning behind the beads," replied Glóin without looking away from his hand, "and then eventually ask you to marry him."

"Last time we assume our dear leader does anything smart," muttered Nori as he stroked his beard and considered his hand.

"Don't worry; with the way Bilbo is fuming, I'm thinking Fíli is going to king soon enough," reassured Bofur, grinning his dimple-grin.

Ori paled under his bruises at the thought. "I'm moving back to Ered Luin!"

"We should've guessed that he didn't say anything when he told you he loved you," Dori mused as he gently tugged some stubborn curls into place. "You look so stunned that I thought you would faint."

"It was a big blow to me," he admitted quietly. "I never thought in a thousand years that Thorin would ever come to see me as more than a friend. It just seems so… unlikely."

Bofur clucked his tongue as he threw a card onto the ground. "You need to give yourself some more credit there, Bilbo. Anyone would be lucky to have your heart."

"It's true. If it was anyone else but Thorin chasing after you, then I would have already challenged him to a duel to prove that he was worthy enough for your hand," reassured Glóin as he squinted down at the card Bofur threw.

Bilbo blinked a few times. "A duel? Now what does that prove?"

"That he's strong enough to protect you," Dori explained simply.

"How silly. I can take care of myself just fine," he said, wrinkling his nose and ignoring the scoffs and snorts he got. "In the Shire, we don't hold duels but contests. For lads it's usually a drinking contest and for the lasses a dancing one. Of course, you can change it up, as some lads are better at dancing and some lasses are better drinkers."

"Wait… are you saying that if Thorin wants to marry you, then he needs to enter a drinking contest?" Ori clarified as he looked up at Bilbo with his brows raised. "Who is he supposed to out drink?"

"Well, since my parents are gone and I have no siblings, it will probably be my cousins or uncles and aunts," Bilbo mused as he thought over his family tree. "There are two rounds before he would face off against the matriarch of my family—which would be Grandmother Baggins."

Nori and Bofur began to choke and cough while Glóin cackled and Ori just stared.

"Your grandmother?" repeated Dori, actually pausing in his braiding.

He sniffed and gave them all a dirty look. "Grandmother Baggins has never lost a drinking contest in all her one-hundred and twenty-one years. Can any of you claim to hold such a record?"

"How often does she drink?" Ori asked sensibly.

"She carries a bottle of wine with her," the Hobbit drawled, rolling his eyes. "So I'm thinking every single day of her life."

"Wow. That sounds wonderful," Bofur admitted, going slightly misty-eyed. "I should start doing that…"

"You'd get drunk and fall off a mineshaft and die," Nori pointed out, rolling his eyes. "Stick to drinking only at meal times."

"So what do these contests prove to your family?" Ori asked as he rubbed as a bruise on his chin. It was slowly turning purple and made Bilbo wince every time he looked at it.

"Nothing so important," he said, looking away from Ori's bruise. "It's just a challenge to see how far the challenger is willing to go for their beloved. If you refuse or lose early, then it's obvious to your intended that they don't mean much. But if you keep at it and don't stop, then even if you lose, you can still marry your intended because you've shown their family how much they mean to you."

The Dwarves all shared a look.

"That actually sounds smart," Glóin admitted.

"Very practical way of gauging how much your kin matters to the challenger," Dori acknowledged.

Bilbo snorted. "We hobbits are very practical folk. Why do you think we avoid the rest of the world?"

"Are you sure you don't mean 'suicidal' folk?" Nori wondered as he threw a card down.

He made a shooing gesture at the Dwarf. "Quiet you. Don't upset Ori again."

"Hey!" protested the scholar.

Dori lightly tugged on his hair again. "I'm done now. You can get up."

He nodded and reached up to feel his hair as he got to his feet. Dori had braided some of his hair back into a multitude of little braids with little gold clasps that, when he shifted, clinked together like a bell. It felt strange but it kept his curls under control and out of his face so he could not complain. He still liked the two front braids best where Thorin's claps were.

"Thank you, Dori," he said, turning to Dwarf. "I do appreciate this."

Dori gave him a half-smile as he gathered his things together. "It was no problem. I'm rather used to braiding hair."

Bilbo glanced at Ori and Nori's long and thick hair and didn't doubt it. His eyes then drifted past them and to the crumbling hall where Thorin, Fíli, and Bifur were taken hours before. "Do you think Óin will allow visitors now?"

"I don't know," Bofur admitted, following his eyes. "But he may make an exception for you."

"Won't know until you ask," pointed out Nori.

He nodded and pulled his shoulders up and straightened his spine. "Right. I'm going to go and see then."

"Good luck. Tell us how they're doing if you do see them," Ori said as the Hobbit began to march off.

"Try not to kill Thorin just yet," Glóin reminded him without looking away from his hand. "Remember: King Fíli and his heir Kíli!"

Bilbo shuddered at the idea. "Right. Will do."

 


 

The injured three Dwarves had been taken into the most stable part of the mountain to be cared for earlier. Ironically, it turned out to be the treasure room that was the safest. Bilbo found a few of Dáin's warriors guarding the entrance and, after taking a look at this hair, they allowed him to enter. Inside he found Dáin and Balin in deep discussion with a tired and worn looking Óin.

"—stable for now. He's not coughing up blood anymore but there's no way of knowing if the wound is healing," he heard Óin explain to the two as he drew closer. "If he gets through the night without trouble, then maybe he'll pull through. But there is no way of knowing for sure."

Balin sighed slowly; the line and creases in his face deepening even more. For the first time, Bilbo noticed the white bandage peeking up from his collar, and how he favored his left side more. Even Dáin stood rigidly with his powerful shoulders tense and his face a bloodless white that brought out his dark bruises even more.

"We will have to tell Bofur and Bombur," Balin said softly, rubbing his eyes with two fingers. "They deserve to see him in case he passes in the night…"

"Would you like me to explain it to them?" Dáin questioned as he eyed the worn Dwarf at his side.

Balin shook his head firmly. "No. No, I will do it. No offense, Dáin, but they should hear it from a friend."

"None taken," the warrior reassured as his blue eyes met Bilbo's. "Besides, I think I should help Master Baggins here."

Balin and Óin both turned to look at the Hobbit.

"Bilbo," Balin greeted with a nod.

"Are you injured?" Óin demanded immediately because bedside manner was something only taught to Elven healers. "Bleeding anywhere? Lost a limb? Tell me now before I leave."

Bilbo rolled his eyes and held his arms out and turned around so the Dwarf could see him completely. "I'm fine, Óin. Only a few bruises and scrapes. Tauriel and Beorn protected me for most of the battle."

"Hmp." Óin sniffed and eyed him up and down slowly. "So you say. I'll give you a full examination tomorrow when I don't have critical patients to deal with. Balin, go tell Bofur and Bombur to get over here soon. Dáin, try to drag Kíli off his brother if you can. I don't need him fainting from exhaustion. Again."

Balin nodded and Dáin cocked his head back in a lazy salute. Seeing his work done, the healer turned and stomped off to presumably see to his other patients. With Óin gone, Bilbo leveled his gaze on the two remaining Dwarves.

"Where is Thorin?" he asked bluntly.

"Sleeping. Come along; I'll take you to him," Dáin replied, spinning on his heel and stalking off without waiting.

Bilbo gave Balin a nod before he hurried after the warrior. Dáin led him silently up a few flight of stairs before turning into a small alcove. There, resting on a bed of furs and quilts, laid the unconscious King Under the Mountain. At his feet sat Dwalin; bruised and injured but still loyally guarding his king.

Dwalin's dark eyes glanced up at their approach and he blinked rapidly. "Bilbo?"

"He came to visit," Dáin explained as the Hobbit pushed past him and stumbled over to the king. He dropped to his knees at Thorin's side and wordlessly looked over the Dwarf.

Thorin had been stripped of his armor and clothes and left with only bandages for modesty. They wrapped around his chest and shoulder and though Bilbo could not see his lower half thanks to a quilt, he had a feeling it was also bandaged. The white of the bandages made the king's skin seem sickly, and reminded the Hobbit of how waxy Thorin's skin turned in death. The only reassurance that Bilbo could find in the sight was the slow but steady rise of his chest.

"Óin drugged him to sleep so he wouldn't have to deal with the pain," Dwalin said quietly as he watched the two. "He'll probably be out of it for the next few days. Only way to help him fight corruptions and heal."

Bilbo nodded as he slowly reached out and pushed the inky black hair off of Thorin's face. It was a mess and hung in his face and stuck to his sweaty and heated skin. It looked very uncomfortable to the Hobbit. Vaguely, he heard Dáin say something to Dwalin about sleep before he heard the sound of his heavy boots stomping off, but he didn't give it any mind. Instead he busied himself by pushing the king's hair off his face and away from his neck, and wiping his face with his handkerchief.

"Were you hurt? In the battle?" Dwalin asked quietly as he watched the two.

He shook his head as he patted Thorin's forehead dry. "No, nothing serious. I was well protected by the others."

"Good. I didn't want to face Dori or Balin if something happened to you," the warrior grunted.

Bilbo snorted and glanced up at the warrior leaning against the wall with one leg bent up so he could rest his elbow on it. The warrior's face was a mess of scratches and bruises and one of his ears was bandaged up as was his right forearm. But he could not see any other wound on the Dwarf and wondered if he was hiding more under his clothes.

"How are you?" he asked, meeting Dwalin's dark eyes. "Any serious injuries?"

Dwalin shrugged one shoulder. "Nothing worth crying about. Cracked something in my knee but that's all. Why are you here?"

"Making sure your stupid king didn't kick the bucket," he replied, raising his brows. "Why? Do you not want me here? I can leave if you desire that—"

"That's not what I meant," Dwalin said, interrupting him and rolling his eyes. "I meant why did you choose to come back? I thought you would be too angry or heartbroken to come."

Bilbo shrugged and glanced down to watch the slow rise and fall of Thorin's chest. "I wanted to make sure you were all still alive and safe. I wanted to see… I wanted to be sure that Thorin did not die protecting me."

Dwalin had nothing to say to that.

"Do you think the madness has left him yet? He seemed almost back to his old self when I saw him," the Hobbit mused as he shifted to sit with his legs crossed.

"I don't know," the warrior replied, his brow wrinkling. "After you left, he holed himself up in a room and would not come out. When he finally did, it was to fight in the battle."

"Oh." He glanced to Dwalin before looking back to the unconscious Dwarf. "Do you think he can hear us?"

"Hmm. Maybe you should try telling him a story," suggested the Dwarf.

Bilbo stared at him. "What?"

"A story. Balin told me that once, when they were children, Thorin became very sick. The sickness he caught is an incurable one that clogs the lungs so you cannot breathe easily. It killed his grandmother and everyone thought it would kill Thorin too," the warrior explained with a small frown. "But the princess-consort did not believe that. She said she would not lose her son and so she read to him every day; telling him stories of great heroes who overcame the odds against them. She did this to encourage him to keep fighting his illness no matter how hard it got. And that's what he did; Thorin survived it and got better again to become that hero his mother told him stories of."

"A story?" he repeated quietly, looking back to the king. "But what story should I tell him?"

"Anything. Just… Just talk to him. Let him know he's not alone," Dwalin said quietly as he looked away from the two.

Bilbo closed his eyes and thought back to all the stories his mother used to tell him as a child. He recalled the many tales he read in Rivendell and even the stories that Gandalf used to share with him. But for some reason none of them felt right. The words of a different story—one that he had never shared honestly—came spilling out of his lips before he could stop them.

"Once there was a Hobbit who lived in a beautiful but empty home. He was healthy and respected by many, but lived a lonely and empty life. Then, one day, a wizard came knocking on his door…"

 


 

Chapter Text

 


 

"This is really not necessary," Bilbo grumbled as he marched through the battered battlefield to Thranduil's camp. "Really, the Orcs and Goblins are dead and gone, and there are Elves patrolling the area. I am perfectly safe walking back to the camp by myself."

"Of course you are," reassured Bombur from his left side. "But we worry over you. We want to make sure you're safe with the Elves and Men."

"And from yourself," Nori added from his right.

Bilbo gave him a side-eyed glare. "Those comments are why Dori doesn't leave you alone with Ori."

"Or with anything shiny," Bombur contributed with a wide smile that went against the gleam in his eyes.

Nori sniffed and waved a lazy hand. "Details, details, irrelevant amount of details. Now tell me: are we going to visit the other Woman?"

He raised his brows and stared at the thief. "What?"

"He's talking about Bard," Bombur explained quickly.

"Yeah, your new mistress!" the other Dwarf chirped.

The Hobbit closed his eyes and took in a deep breath before releasing it through his nose. "Do you say these types of comments around Thorin? Because if that's true then I think I know why he went crazy on us all—"

"Please, Bilbo, give me a little credit here. Do I look like the type to taunt a warrior king?" Nori asked, holding a hand to his chest and giving the Hobbit a wounded look.

"Yes," Bilbo and Bombur replied in unison.

"Well, yes, maybe I would taunt Thorin a little bit," the thief admitted, holding up two fingers and pressing them nearly together to show the exact amount. "But even I know when to back the hell off. Thorin went crazy all on his own; he didn't need any help from me."

"No. That blasted stone did it all," he muttered, kicking a stray pebble across the ground. "I'm tempted to melt it down and remake it into the world's shiniest chamber pot."

"That sounds lovely," the cook remarked without batting an eye at the Hobbit's odd idea. "Perhaps you should ask for the Arkenstone as a wedding gift. I'm sure Thorin would give it to you then."

He squinted up at the Dwarf through the morning light. "What makes you so sure we're getting married? Thorin banished me from his sight, remember?"

"Yeah, but he didn't ask for his beads back," Nori pointed out, tugging lightly on one of the beads in question. "And have we forgotten the battle so quickly? I'm pretty sure I saw him protecting you there."

"Just because you love someone doesn't mean you're meant to be," he said quietly because he knew better than anyone that love was not enough at times. "What will his people think of me? And his sister and the rest of his extended kin? Not everyone is as accepting as all of you. Thorin has to take all of that into consideration."

"Thorin would not make a decision about marriage so lightly," Bombur chided gently. "You know that he always puts his duty first. He would not choose you to stand beside him if he did not believe you would be a good spouse and ruler."

Bilbo shuddered and wrapped his arms around himself. "Don't say that word! I'm no leader; I couldn't even lead my team during the picnic games!"

"Well, the consort doesn't exactly rule the mountain. Their job is to maintain the court, assist the king when needed, and look after the heir," Nori explained, counting off the different jobs with his fingers. "You already keep the Company in line; you stop Thorin before he does something stupid; and you keep a sharp eye on those two fools we call princes. I think you have this consort thing down by now."

Bombur nodded eagerly at the other's words. "The consort is not a king, Bilbo. They do not need to sit through negotiations or lead an army into battle. They are there to help the king and care for the people when the king cannot. All of these are jobs you can do."

Bilbo wasn't sure about that. Caring for a few people was quite different from caring for a nation. He did not know if he had enough room in his heart for such love and devotion. And if he could not find it in himself to care for Thorin's people, then how could he ever handle sharing Thorin's heart with them?

 


 

When he finally arrived at the camp, Bilbo forced his babysitters to return to Erebor. He pointed out that he was now safe with the Elves and Men and did not require an escort any longer. He also reminded them that they all needed to rest and the two would not feel completely at ease sitting around a bunch of Elves. So, with great reluctance, the duo bid him farewell and returned to the mountain with the promise that he would visit them soon.

Now alone and free of his bodyguards, the Hobbit began to hunt down Bard, who was the last of his friends that he had not checked on. He had paid a visit to Bifur and Fíli before he left, and found that both Dwarves were alive and healing. Whether they would live in the coming days no one could say, but Bilbo felt that the odds were in their favor. Especially since Bifur had Bofur watching his every move and Kíli refused to leave his brother's side.

He found Bard in bed in one of the many tents set up for the Men. He was battered and bruised but conscious. His arm was bandaged from elbow to wrist and he was sporting a nasty black eye that made his eye swell shut. His naked chest was also a portrait of war with the many bruises and scratches that colored his pale skin.

Bilbo paused before him, placed his hands on his hips, and took in the battered Man carefully. "Well. I suppose the black eye is an improvement. Now if I turn my head and squint, you could almost pass as handsome."

"No, no jokes. My back hurts too much to laugh," Bard groaned, covering his face with one hand.

"I'll hold back then," promised the Hobbit as he made his way over to sit beside the bed. "How do you feel?"

"Sore. And shaken. Very shaken," the Man admitted as he shifted slightly to sit up comfortably. "I've never been in such a battle before and I hope I never will again. The things I saw out there… I don't know how I will ever sleep peacefully again."

"Time will erase some of it," he reassured with confidence, "but not everything. You won't ever really be the same now but you don't have to be broken either. Just… Just take some time to mourn for the fallen and accept that life will go on."

Bard opened his good eye and peeked at the Hobbit through his fingers. "Why do you sound like you've done this before?"

"Because I have," he replied with a small shrug before quickly changing the subject. "I was told that I have you to thank for ending Azog. You have my eternal gratitude."

"I wasn't exactly aiming for glory when I killed the Orc. I was just trying to stay alive," the Man explained modestly as he dropped his hand. "I hardly deserve all this praise I keep getting for the deed."

Bilbo scoffed and rolled his eyes. "You ended an Orc so fierce and vicious that it could kill kings and heroes without pause. Do you really think you don't deserve some acknowledgment for such a feat?"

"I was just one of many out there yesterday," Bard countered quietly as his dark eye stared off at something in the distance. "I watched many Men—good Men that I grew up with and lived beside for years—get cut down like they were nothing more than buzzing insects. Elves and Dwarves that I never met until yesterday fought and died to protect me. How can I call myself a hero when it is their blood that brought us our victory?"

The Hobbit sighed and nodded. He understood where Bard was coming from. In his first lifetime, he too had been hailed a hero for deceiving Smaug and fighting in the battle. He never understood then why anyone would say that, and he still could not comprehend it now. How they not see that the real heroes were the ones who gave their lives to stop the battle?

"Do you need a hug? Because if you do then I know a guy," he said quietly because the language he shared with Bard was one built on humor and sarcasm.

Bard snorted and then laughed his boyish laugh that made his face less grim and much younger looking. "No, no thank you. The only hugs I want are from willowy figures with long, soft hair."

He arched his brows and widened his eyes until they began to water. "You want a hug from Thranduil?!"

"No, Women!" the bowman said even as he kept laughing through his words. He hissed slightly and wrapped an arm around his side but didn't stop chuckling. "Ahh, my body aches. I think I made things worse with all that laughing."

"Would you like me to leave?" Bilbo asked.

"No, I like the company," the Man assured, waving a lazy hand. "What happened to your coat? I thought you never took it off."

"Huh? Oh, I used it to bind Thorin's wound in the battle," he explained as he thought back to his beloved coat. "I don't know where it is now."

"Oh. So… I heard that the Dwarf king had been wounded badly. Is he still alive?" Bard asked quietly, watching the Hobbit.

He sighed and pulled one leg up to his chest to rest his chin on. "At the moment, yes. But that may change in the coming days."

"Was it hard? Meeting him again in the battlefield?" the archer questioned with a small frown.

He shook his head; making his braids bounce against his face. "No, it wasn't hard. I yelled at him and called him a fool. He yelled back and told me to leave the battle. I called him a bigger fool, he took an arrow protecting me, and then he got stabbed."

Bard blinked his one good eye and looked at the Hobbit like he didn't know if he wanted to give him a hug or a punch. "Do you ever stop and wonder, 'How is this my life?'"

He groaned and pressed his forehead against his knee. "Every day, Bard. Every single damn day of my life."

The Man made a noise in his throat that sounded like he was going for comforting, but just couldn't muster up the energy to care. "You really do love him don't you?"

"Yes, I do," he admitted quietly, shuddering slightly at the grip his emotions had over his heart. "Very, very much."

"You have horrible taste."

He snorted. "I am aware of that, thank you."

"No, I mean really horrible," Bard insisted. "Really, really horrible. Couldn't you choose someone a little more stable? At least someone who can balance out your brand of crazy?"

Bilbo frowned and looked up at the Man. "Bard, I balance out his stupidity most of the time."

"And that doesn't scare you?" Bard wondered, staring at him with his brows raised.

In reply, he kicked the Man in the arm and then laughed as the archer cursed him out.

 


 

Later that day, Bilbo found himself somehow roped into negotiations between the Dwarves, Elves, and Men. He still wasn't sure how that happened but he blamed Gandalf and his fast talking. That was why he ended up sitting at a round table with Gandalf, Thranduil, Bard, Balin and Dáin.

Dáin was still battered and the slash across Balin's face was still red and puffy, but they both looked aware enough of their surroundings. Bard looked faintly uncomfortable sitting up straight in the chair, but he wasn't complaining so Bilbo didn't speak up either.

"We had a verbal agreement that was witnessed by your king and all those Dwarves," Thranduil said, dressed impeccably as ever in sliver and green. If it wasn't for the faint hint of bandage peeking from under his sleeve, Bilbo would never had thought the Elvenking had just seen battle. "You cannot ignore that. I also returned the Arkenstone to you in exchange for gold and aid."

"We have not forgotten," admitted Balin with his hands crossed over his stomach as he leaned back into his chair. "But you must understand that we have yet to divide the treasure up amongst us. We also have not even begun to go through and price the treasure horde correctly. With all this in mind, we cannot give you the portion just yet."

"Fine. I will wait for it," the Elf replied with a small tilt of his head, "but only if you sign a contract that acknowledges my claim. I will not have you all backing out because your king changed his mind yet again."

Balin exchanged a look with Dáin.

"We will sign a contract," Dáin agreed as he perched his elbow on the arm of his chair while running his other hand through his beard. "But Thorin could still refuse you. He gets the final say in this."

Thranduil bared his teeth in a smile that looked more like a snarl. "Then you best convince him otherwise."

Dáin's blue eyes glimmered with a hint of that savage brilliance Bilbo had seen the night before, but the Dwarf did not rise to the bait.

"What of Lake-town?" Bard asked, speaking up for the first time. "We participated in the battle too. We deserve some sort of recognition."

"We will give you a reward," Dáin replied without looking at the Man.

Bard clenched his jaw and sat up straighter. "That not's good enough. I want a contract too that promises compensation to the family of each Man that died out there. I also want you to fulfill your promise of paid work that you brought a few weeks back."

Balin winced while Dáin arched one brow as he finally looked at the archer.

"And what right do you have to demand a contract from us?" the Dwarf lord drawled, his blue eyes settling on the Man. "Let alone the gold you ask for. We will reward your services, yes, but we are not obligated to do anymore than that, boyo."

"Dáin," said Gandalf, the warning in his voice clear enough.

"Bard is a descendent of Girion, the last lord of Dale," Bilbo said before anyone else could speak up. He plopped his elbow on the table and rested his cheek on one closed fist. "After Smaug destroyed Dale and took over Erebor, he stole all the treasure from the wreckage of Dale and added it to his horde. Technically speaking, some of that treasure in Erebor belongs to Bard and the other descendents of Dale."

"Whose side are you on?" Dáin demanded with a scowl.

"How do you know that?" Thranduil questioned sensibly.

He shrugged. "I saw some of their coins and pottery in Erebor. They all bore the stamp of Dale."

Gandalf looked at the Hobbit with frank curiosity. "How do you know what the stamp of Dale looks like? It has not been used since the city fell."

"It has a giant 'D' and an arrow behind it," he droned, rolling his eyes. "That was rather a big tip off."

Dáin looked to Balin, who could only shrug. "He's right. That is the Dale symbol."

"Then you do owe us a portion," Bard pointed out with a wide grin that looked more threatening than friendly. "I want a contract drawn up with the terms I mentioned."

"Fine. But we add our own conditions as well," Dáin stated, narrowing his eyes. "To both contracts."

Now it was Thranduil's turn to narrow his eyes. "Such as?"

"First all treasure given must first be approved by Thorin after he wakes," the Dwarf listed without blinking. "He is king and this is his kingdom. We have no real authority to give it away yet."

Thranduil looked liked he wanted to roll his eyes but was resisting because it was too close to actually showing emotions. "Fine. What else?"

"Second, after you receive your portions of treasure, all debts are fully paid. You cannot come back to us in a few months saying that we did not give you what you deserve. Once you are paid, we owe you nothing," Dáin explained.

Thranduil's lips dipped down slightly but he did not protest. "Very well. Anything else?"

"The third and final condition is you must not use Thorin's past actions against him when he is formally acknowledged as king," Balin added before Dáin could speak. He looked at the Man and Elf with diamond-hard eyes that made his resemblance to Dwalin very obvious. "He will face enough doubters and questions over his right to rule in the coming days. We do not need outsiders also challenging his ability to lead."

"But the sickness that took over—is it gone? Or does it still linger?" Bard wondered, raising one black brow.

"You'll find out when he wakes up," Bilbo replied, rolling his eyes. "But he seemed almost back to normal when I saw him in battle. I think being away from the Arkenstone helps him fight the madness."

"We really should get rid of that thing. All it does is sparkle and drive my cousin mad," Dáin mused, tapping one of the gold beads in his beard.

Balin smacked him in the arm. "Leave it alone before Thorin ends up banishing you too."

The Dwarf scoffed and tossed his thick hair back. "He would never do that. He loves me like a brother."

Gandalf snorted and just looked at him. "He banished Bilbo."

Dáin frowned and looked to the Hobbit, who grinned at him, and then to Balin. "I may have to rethink that plan."

"You do that," the Dwarf said in the same voice he used when talking to Fíli and Kíli. "Now shall we get back to our contracts? Do you both accept the terms we offer?"

Bard shrugged and looked to Thranduil, who closed his eyes and took in a deep breath.

"Agreed," the Elvenking said slowly as if the words were physically painful to say. Bilbo wondered if it really did offend him to sign a contract with the Dwarves, or if he was just being his melodramatic self like usual.

Gandalf smiled the same smile that he always wore right before he lit up his fireworks. "Wonderful! Let us begin writing out the contracts then! With luck, we will finish by nightfall..."

 


 

he walks slowly up the cracked and broken stone steps. A good portion of the staircase is missing; entire sections have fallen off and other parts have crumbled into ruin. But the gaps prove no challenge for him. He jumps over them easily and continues his way up to the tower.

Below him he can hear the rumbling of the Orcs as they assembled. Their grunting and lumbering footsteps echo against the stone; if it was not for him, then everyone in Mirkwood would hear the damn beasts. His lips curl back at the thought and reminds himself to teach them how to be quieter.

When he finally reaches the top of the tower, he crosses his arms behind his back and looks out over the forest. He can see the creeping blackness spreading over Mirkwood; a slow but steady disease that will soon paint all of Middle-Earth. His lips pull back into a smirk at the thought.

This time he will not lose

Bilbo bolted straight up and gasped. He was sweating and his skin was chilled but the unsettling images in his head stood out the strongest. Although he had never laid eyes on him before, he knew without a doubt who that stranger was from his dream.

Somewhere in the back of his mind, the ring began to croon one word over and over again.

Sauron

 


 

Chapter Text

 


 

Despite what he told the world, his name had not always been Beorn.

Beorn was the name he took later in his life after he had decided on his final form. Before that he had been called Aga—a name his Mother had given him at his creation. When he asked her why, she had told him it meant, 'He who walks in twilight.' He never understood why she picked that name, but he didn't understand a lot of things his Mother did.

When he was still Aga, he had roamed the world freely in many forms. Most of the time he had chosen to be an animal, but he had tried out the skins of Men and Elves and even Dwarves for one very brief period. He didn't care for them very much which was why he stuck to animals. As a beast, he could smell and hear and taste things that he could not experience as a Man. He could not say why but the world just seemed much more vivid and alive to him when he stood on four legs instead of two.

His Mother had been the one who told him that he needed a final form. She had given him great freedom for a long time, but after he had seen his fill of the world, she had reminded him of his duties. He was created to serve the earth and it was time for him to do so. So he had obeyed her will and chosen his final form, and thus Beorn the shape-shifter was created.

Beorn could happily say that he enjoyed his life. He tended and cared for the earth that his Mother had created the best he could, and he protected her animals as fiercely as she had with him. He spent his days listening to the whispers of the trees and laughter of the wind, and his nights running freely under the moon. He never felt lonely or lacking because his Mother had not created him to want for nothing more than a good meal and a good laugh. Unlike his peers, he never cared for the lives of Men and Elves and Dwarves. He had walked and lived amongst enough of them to know their hearts, and what he found was not worth the effort. The others could save them or condemn them if they wanted; he was happy enough with his trees and dogs.

He would have happily stayed away from the dealings and plots of mortals if it was not for a certain bunny that crossed his path. Bilbo Baggins was fascinating to Beorn, and it was not just because he was a Hobbit traveling with Dwarves. No, he was fascinating because his soul was older than his body. He had met many different being in his lifetime, but this was the first time he had ever encountered an old soul trapped in a young body. It was quite a wondrous sight and it made him immensely curious. The Keeper of the Dead did not allow souls to be reborn with their previous lifetimes tainting it. So how did Bilbo Baggins ever come to be in such a state?

Beorn thought to ask Gandalf but the wizard did not seem aware of his Hobbit companion's state. That did not surprise him when he realized it. Beorn was neither beast nor mortal and so he could see things that others could not. This sight was why he could see how old Bilbo Baggin's soul truly was while one of the strongest of the Maiar remained blind.

The Hobbit fascinated him greatly. Not only did he have a unique soul, he also had an entertaining personality to go with it. Beorn could not remember the last time he had laughed so much! Everyday brought something new and exciting for Bilbo, and Beorn enjoyed every minute of it. He thought he could spend a hundred years watching the bunny and he would never grow bored.

Perhaps he was growing soft in his old age, but Beorn found himself growing rather fond of the Hobbit and the mismatched crew that seemed to follow him. He had never cared for the dealings of mortals before but, watching the Hobbit and Dwarves and Men and Elves fight and die for each other, Beorn thought he could learn to.

 


 

Bilbo did not go back to sleep after his dream. How could he when he had the ring cackling and taunting him in the back of his mind? It was as if his nightmare had awoken the damn thing and now it would not leave him alone. Over and over again it whispered its master's name with a fervor he did not think possible. The ring knew its creator was alive and it yearned to return to him as a zealot yearned for his god. Listening to it call for Sauron over and over again, Bilbo began to realize that he could not put off his mission to Mordor any longer. He had to destroy the One Ring as soon as possible before the Dark Lord noticed the cries of its precious ring.

Fail, you will fail, fail, fail, the ring chanted like a child. You will fail like always. Fail, fail, fail!

"Oh do shut up," he muttered under his breath as he set up his parchment and quill. After deciding that it was time to leave, the Hobbit realized that it was also time for him to write down his story for the others. In the event that he failed to destroy the ring, he wanted his friends to be prepared for what was to come. So he decided to make a timeline of the major future events that would bring about the War of the Ring. He knew that his actions could potentially alter the future drastically—and possibly make things worse—but he could not walk away and leave his friends blind to the evil that was rising.

Won't make a difference, the ring sneered viciously. Won't stop what is meant to be.

"We'll see about that," Bilbo retorted before he began to write out one of the greatest wars that Middle Earth would ever see.

It took him until dawn before he was finally satisfied with his timeline. His back hurt from hunching over and his hand and wrist ached from writing, but he did not stop after finishing his timeline. Instead, he kept writing. He wrote a letter to Gandalf explaining his second chance at life, and thanking him for being his good friend for so many years. He wrote of his regret that they would not get a second chance at that friendship, and asked the wizard for his forgiveness over lying to him for so long. He then begged the wizard to protect the Company and his fellow Hobbits because there was no one else he would trust more with such a task.

After he finished his letter to Gandalf, Bilbo wrote a letter to each of the Dwarves that he had come to care for so much. As with Gandalf's letter, he explained his second chance and what really happened the first time he joined them on their quest. He wrote of how stuffy and self-absorbed he had been in those days, and how it was traveling with them that had opened his eyes to the hardships of others. He told the true story of Mirkwood and the barrels, of Lake-town and Smaug, and how the Battle of Five Armies was supposed to end with the deaths of Thorin, Fíli, and Kíli. He explained his grief and guilt over their deaths and how he spent the next eighty years trying to make peace with it, but found that he could not. Finally he admitted that the real reason he decided to join them again was because he wanted to protect them all from the dangers he knew was to come.

But he did not only write of sad and tearful things. No, Bilbo did not want to leave his friends with nothing but sad memories and a fear that they had failed him somehow. So, in each individual letter, he thanked them for everything they had done for him. He thanked Dwalin for protecting him in the Misty Mountains and putting up with his many questions, and for leaving behind little snacks for the Hobbit to find because he was convinced Bilbo was starving on their journey. He thanked Balin for being kind to him even when he didn't trust Bilbo, and for coming to see how the Hobbit was doing after Thorin had banished him from Erebor. And he warned Balin of the fate that awaited him in Moria because he could not stand the idea of his good friend dying to horribly once more.

To Fíli and Kíli, he thanked them for living even when fate had decided on a different course for them, and begged the two princes to keep going no matter what destiny said. He explained how precious they truly were to everyone, and how they each had the potential to grow up into some amazing Dwarves. He wanted them to understand how much it meant to him to see them so alive and bright again because that was a dream he never thought would come true.

To Óin he wrote his thanks for taking the time to teach him a little of his trade, and of his exasperation with the Dwarf's need to constantly check on him. But he also admitted that it was nice having someone care so much of his wellbeing again, and how Óin really did impress him with his knowledge and patience. As with Balin, he warned the healer of the violent death that awaited him in Moria, and begged him not to go. In Glóin's letter, he thanked the Dwarf for taking the time to teach him how to fight even though they both knew Bilbo was a horrible student. He admitted to how much the Dwarf impressed him from his fierce loyalty to his unselfish desires to protect his family. Finally he explained that Gimli would indeed grow up to become the legend that his father saw in him, but only because he had Glóin there to show him what a hero looked like.

In his letter to Bofur, Bilbo admitted that the first time around the miner had been the only one to extend a hand of friendship to him in the beginning. He went on to explain how he had never forgotten that because Bofur became his best friend even when they lived half a world away from each other. He then thanked the miner for his loyalty and friendship because both were priceless gifts that he could never repay. To Bombur he thanked the Dwarf who inspired him with his perseverance because no matter how many mistakes or falls he took, Bombur still always got up and kept trying. He reassured the Dwarf that he was both a fine cook and an equally fine friend, and that he should never doubt himself again because Bombur had taken on a dragon and how many could claim that? In his letter to Bifur, he thanked the Dwarf for keeping his secret to himself, and for teaching Bilbo Iglishmêk even though he was quite sure he was horrible at it. But most importantly he thanked the Dwarf for staying alive and getting well enough to read this letter because he couldn't stand the idea of burying another friend.

To Ori he told him of the Dwarf that he would grow up to be and of his grim fate in Moria at Balin's side. But he also went on to explain that the scribe could avoid it if he wished because his fate was in his hands now. He also admitted that Ori was quite possibly the bravest Dwarf that he had ever met because he did not know of any other so young who would take on the challenges that Ori did. In Nori's letter he insisted for the final time that he could take care of himself, and that he knew the thief had taken his buttons and pointed out that he really wouldn't get anything for them because they were chipped and cracked. But he also wrote of how Nori had impressed him with his loyalty and the subtle way he cared for his brothers. Bilbo even admitted that if he ever had a brother, then he hoped he would have been something like Nori. To Dori he thanked for his advice and for listening to Bilbo whenever he needed a willing ear. He admitted that Dori always made him feel at ease and comfortable no matter what lifetime he lived. Finally he thanked him for his coat and mourned that it was probably a bunch of bloody rags now, and apologized about misusing it so badly.

The final letter to Thorin took him the longest. As with the other letters, he started from beginning in his first life where he joined the Company, outsmarted Mirkwood and Smaug, and watched Thorin die at the end of the battle. Then from there he explained how he returned to the Shire where he spent a good deal of years mourning for a love that was unreturned.

'I learned to smile and live again,' he added because it was time for him to be honest with Thorin. 'But it took time because my heart is a stubborn and weak little thing.'

He wrote of the book he penned of their adventure, of how Frodo came to live with him, and finally of the ring. He explained Frodo's quest to Mordor to destroy the One Ring, and how his nephew succeeded but at a steep price. It was a price that he could not bear to burden his boy with again.

'You of all people must understand my love for Frodo,' he reminded with sharp slashes to his letters. 'I know that you would do anything for your nephews. Do not hate me for doing what I must for mine.'

But the hardest part of the letter, Bilbo found, was putting his feelings into words. He had read many poems and stories that expressed such emotions that the reader was reduced to tears. But he was no poet or great scholar, and his love had never consumed his every thought or action. He was just a simple Hobbit with a simple heart that never knew when to let go and move on. So, knowing this, he wrote the truth for Thorin with simple words for his simple heart.

'I love you. I loved you for eighty years and I will love you for eighty more.'

When he at last laid down his quill, Bilbo found that he felt strangely empty inside. He had poured out all of his feelings and emotions into his letters that he now had nothing left inside. But it was a nice feeling, and he favored the peace it brought with it for that brief moment.

One task down. Two more to go, he thought before slowly rising to his feet as he continued to prepare for the journey ahead.

 


 

"Bilbo! You're back!" Ori chirped when he saw the Hobbit entering the city.

Bilbo smiled slightly and gave the scholar a small nod. "I did promise to visit. How are the others?"

"Bifur is still alive," Ori revealed with a wide smile that showed off his high cheekbones. "And Fíli even woke up and ate some broth before going back to sleep. Even Thorin was awake for a little bit before passing out again! Isn't this great?"

"It is," he agreed, feeling his heart lighten greatly. "Does Óin believe Bifur will recover?"

The young Dwarf shrugged. "He can't say just yet, but he says the fact that he made it this far is a good sign. A very good sign!"

Bilbo sighed and felt something in him relax. It was a relief to know that Bifur was recovering well enough. Now he could at least leave without worrying that he was leaving a friend to die.

"Where are the others?" he asked, glancing around the inner gates of Erebor. Some of Dáin's warriors lingered about; some acting as guards while others talked and went about their business. He spotted Dwalin speaking to one of the unknown Dwarves, and beyond him he could see Glóin leaning against a wall smoking his pipe.

Ori shrugged. "Don't know. Kíli is still with Fíli, of course, and Bofur and Bombur have been taking turns sitting with Bifur. Óin is still tending to his patients and I think Dwalin is trying to organize a patrol or something. But I don't know where the others are."

"That's fine. I'm sure I'll find them before I leave," he commented as he met the scholar's eyes. He hesitated for a moment before finally reaching forward and pulling the now taller Dwarf into a hug.

Ori made a questioning noise but did not fight the sudden embrace. Instead he wrapped one arm around Bilbo's waist and used the other to pat him on the back. "Bilbo? What brought this on? Is something wrong?"

"No. Nothing is wrong," he lied as he took in the scent of ink and cinnamon that lingered in Ori's scarf. "I just felt like hugging you."

"Oh. Well, if that's what you need, then that's fine. But Dori gives better hugs than me," Ori confided as he continued to pat him on the back.

Bilbo just laughed and hugged the young Dwarf tighter. "I'm sure he does."

 


 

He went to see Fíli first.

The young prince had been placed in an alcove similar to Thorin's in the treasury and that was where Bilbo found him still. When he arrived he found the prince sleeping with Kíli sitting at his side with his broken bow in his lap. The young Dwarf looked up as Bilbo grew closer, and gave him a smile that lacked the normal energy he had come to expect from Kíli.

"Bilbo," the youngest prince said in greeting as he waved. "I was wondering when you would come back."

"I wanted to see everyone," he replied honestly as he settled next to Kíli on the cold stone floor. "How is he?"

Kíli looked to the unconscious Fíli and shrugged. "Alive. He's woken up a few times and even managed to eat some broth before passing out again. Óin thinks he'll be fine as long as he's not moved."

"Fíli is young and Óin is a good healer. I'm sure he will recover soon enough," Bilbo reassured as he watched the brunet. Kíli had grown as pale as his brother and was sporting dark circles under his darker eyes. He looked shaky and tired and much older than his years. Like Ori, Kíli had been changed forever by the Battle of the Five Armies.

"Kíli," the Hobbit said softly, placing a hand on the archer's forearm. "Do you want to talk about anything?"

The prince shrugged again and did not look away from his brother. "What's there to talk about?"

"How about the horrible battle you were just in where you watched your brother and uncle get cut down in front of you?" he pointed out, leaning forward and out so he could catch Kíli's eyes. The Dwarf met his gaze for a moment and then shuddered and squeezed his dark eyes shut.

"I keep seeing it every time I close my eyes," Kíli admitted quietly. "Fíli stepping between me and the Orc and taking that blow. I can still feel his blood on my hands. It was warm and thick and it just wouldn't stop! And Fíli, he didn't cry or anything! He just smiled and told me to stop crying because I have an ugly crying face. Can you believe it? He was making jokes as he bled out in my lap! He's so stupid!"

Bilbo nodded and patted the archer's arm as he shook and struggled to hold back his tears. "It sounds like Fíli was trying to comfort you in his own way."

The prince nodded as he wiped his nose on his free sleeve. "He's always been like that. Always protecting me and watching out for me. Fee's not like Dori; he doesn't hover or mother me like I'm a babe. But he's always been there when I needed him. I should have known he would pull something like that in the battle."

"Kíli, you cannot blame yourself for Fíli's actions," he pointed out as he reached up and pushed the messy locks out of the prince's face. "He knew what he was doing when he stepped in front of you. It was his choice."

"But he shouldn't have done that!" Kíli yelled as he jerked away from the Hobbit. He glared at Bilbo with flashing dark eyes that reminded him of lighting in the night sky. "Fíli is the crown prince and he needs to remember that! He can't throw his life away protecting me!"

Bilbo sighed and reached out to jerk the resisting prince into a hug. Stubbornly he wrapped an arm around the Dwarf's broader shoulders and buried his other hand in Kíli's thick hair. Kíli resisted for a moment but eventually he melted into the hug just as the Hobbit expected.

"Fíli is the crown prince, yes, but he is also your big brother," he reminded quietly as Kíli shook in his arms like a child. "He was your brother first and his duty to you will always override his duty to the crown. It is a selfish desire, yes, but what else can one expect from two exiled princes?"

The young prince sniffled and hiccupped as he visibly struggled to hold back his tears. "I've never lost someone I love before," he confessed as if it was a shameful secret. "Da died before I could learn to love him, and I wasn't even born when grandfather and uncle died. I don't know how I would go on if Fíli died in that battle. How could I live with myself knowing that my brother died to keep me alive?"

"You would find a way to go on," Bilbo reassured as he ran a soothing hand through the dark hair. "But that is not a burden you have to carry. What you need to do is focus on keeping Fíli safe now. It is your turn to protect him, Kíli."

Kíli buried his face further against his shoulder but still nodded his head. "I will. I'll keep him safe. I have to now. I just have to."

Bilbo tightened his hold on the young prince even as his heart relaxed. He knew that Kíli would follow through with his vow, and though it hurt to see how changed the Dwarf was, he was also very thankful. Kíli would keep Fíli safe just as the crown prince protected him. They would both live and would fight to keep the other alive, and in the end that was all he ever really wanted for them. He wanted Fíli and Kíli to live.

Keep each other safe, he begged the two in his mind as Kíli clung to him. Don't waste this chance for a life that I've stolen for you. Live your lives to the fullest and die as old Dwarves in your beds. That is all I want for you both.

 


 

It was Bofur that he found sitting at Bifur's side this time.

"He's still alive," the miner said in greeting without looking away from the small carving he was working on.

"So I heard," Bilbo replied as he walked closer to kneel down next to Bofur. In front of him Bifur laid stretched out on a mat similar to the ones Thorin and Fíli were on. The older Dwarf looked peaceful in his slumber with his hair combed back and beard neatly braided. There was an old quilt tucked around him that showed his bare and scarred chest and arms. If he didn't know any better, Bilbo would've sworn the Dwarf was perfectly fine.

"I didn't think we would see you again so soon," Bofur commented as he held up his carving and squinted at it before blowing away a bit of shavings.

The Hobbit shrugged. "I wanted to check up on everyone. Make sure no one died while I was away."

"Hmm." Bofur looked over his sleeping cousin and his dark eyes seemed to grow even darker. "You know, he was my hero when I was a child."

Bilbo blinked a few times before his brain finally made the connection. "Who—Bifur?"

"Uh-huh." The Dwarf nodded as he turned back to the carving in his hands. "See, I'm the youngest in my family, so my older cousins never gave me much thought. But not Bifur. He always made time to play with me and ask me about my day. He taught me how to carve and how to use a blade and how to drink. And he's the one who saved me from death the day Smaug attacked."

"Oh. I never knew that," he admitted quietly as he looked to Bifur. "He never talks about his past."

"Bifur has a hard time remembering things," the miner explained, jerking his chin towards the axe buried in Bifur's forehead. "That injury took away more than just his words. It also took away his memories. He doesn't complain about any of it, but I know it hurts him to lose something so precious."

"I never have heard Bifur complain about anything in his life," Bilbo realized as he thought over their past conversations. "He just took everything in and dealt with it. Even when things seemed bleak on our journey, I never heard him whine or grumble. He just kept walking on."

Bofur nodded as his shoulders seemed to sag like a great weight was on them. "Bifur is strong because life has forced him to be. If he didn't learn to endure and go on, then the world would have crushed him when Erebor fell."

"Is that what he has been doing? Surviving?" he wondered quietly.

The Dwarf shrugged as he looked up to the Hobbit with his sad eyes. "Sometimes that's all we can do. It's not much of a life now, but I have hope that Bifur will find joy in living again."

"I do too," Bilbo whispered as he reached out to take one of Bifur's rough hands into his own. "I hope he finds the greatest of joys in living again."

 


 

Thorin was still asleep when he finally paid him a visit.

The king was pale as ever and his chest and shoulder were still greatly bandaged, but his chest still rose and fell in a steady rhythm. Bilbo watched the Dwarf breath in and out as he settled on the ground next to the king's bed. For a long time he simply watched Thorin as he slept on; memorizing the arches and slants of his face, the wrinkles at the corner of his eyes, and the way his hair fell in disarray across his face. Thorin was not attractive by Hobbit standards but Bilbo had long given up ever conforming to his people's ideals. Thorin was beautiful to him and always would be.

"I would have said yes, you know. If you had asked me properly," he finally said, reaching up to touch one of Thorin's clasps he still wore in his hair. "You must have known that I wouldn't recognize the gesture, so I don't understand why you still secretly proposed. Were you afraid that I would reject you? Did you even plan to come out and tell me the true meaning behind your beads? Or were you going to just let me go; to live out my life believing that you thought of me as nothing more than a friend? I know you, Thorin, and I know that you would not put your happiness above others. You would have left me alone because you did not think I would ever come to love you, right? Well, the jokes on you because I do love you, and accept your proposal."

Thorin did not rouse at his words. He showed no sign of waking at all, and secretly it relieved him. Bilbo did not believe he could face Thorin's questions or pleading. He wasn't that strong of heart, not really. Just incredibly stubborn.

Slowly, Bilbo undid the clasp at the end of his braid until it was free from his hair. Then he reached for one of Thorin's thick braids and began to replace the small band at the end with the silver clasp.

"Do not hate me for this," he said quietly as he worked. "If you hate me, then it will be harder for you to forget me. And if I die on this quest, then that is what I wish for you. I wish for you to forget me and move on with your life."

The sleeping king still did not rise but Bilbo thought he saw a twitch. Perhaps Thorin would not wake but that did not mean he could not hear the Hobbit's words.

"Do not linger over the past like I did," he continued, lowering his voice a notch. "It will bring you nothing but heartache. I spent a great deal of years mourning over you and my own broken heart. I would never wish any of that on my worst enemy, let alone you. So forget me and my name and find happiness in your kingdom and family. That is all I ever wanted for you."

At the end of his confession, Bilbo had finished retying the clasp into the original owner's hair. The silver band gleamed brightly against the black locks; catching the candle light and twinkling like a star in the night sky. The clasp looked much better in Thorin's hair than it ever did in his own.

"Maybe I will come back," he whispered into the silence, "but I can't promise that. So when you wake, accept that I love you back, and then focus on rebuilding your home. Put me out of your mind and in time you will forget me. That way, if I do die, it will not hurt you as much."

Thorin still did not rouse at his words. With a small smile, he leaned down and pressed his lips against the king's cool forehead before pulling away. "Goodbye, Thorin. I hope you live out the rest of your days in peace and prosperity like you deserve."

Then Bilbo turned and walked away from Thorin for what felt like the final time.

 


 

Bilbo spent the rest of the day subtly collecting supplies and packing his things together. It was not very difficult as most of the Men and Elves paid him no attention, and there were greater matters to attend too. So quietly and carefully, he gathered the food and water he would need along with a few other essentials he thought would come in handy. When he finally felt like he had packed enough, the sun was setting and the day had come to a close. With nothing else to do, Bilbo retired to rest even as the ring continued to whisper to him in the back of his mind.

When he awoke, it was still dark and the air was cold and the fires had long died out, but Bilbo still rose and dressed and gathered his pack. After checking to make sure his letters were noticeable and would not be missed, he silently stepped out of his tent and began his trek out of the camp. He thought that he was doing a fairly good job of sneaking away, but that confidence died a quick death when a massive hand settled on his head and stopped him in his tracks.

"Well I guess Miss Tauriel wins the bet. The bunny is trying to sneak off," Beorn—which he knew before the giant even spoke because he was the only one with such monstrous hands—commented as he ruffled the Hobbit's braids; casting a jingling sound that echoed too loudly to Bilbo.

The burglar sighed and swatted at the hand on his head before turning to face the three unnaturally tall figures that loomed over him. "What are you three doing up?"

"Wondering what the hell you're doing," Bard replied bluntly with his arms over his chest. For the first time since Lake-town, the Man looked at Bilbo with his icy eyes he usually saved for Orcs and Thorin. "Why are you leaving in the dead of the night, Bilbo? And where for that matter?"

"I'm going home," he lied without blinking. It disturbed him, for a moment, how good he had become at lying before he dismissed the concern. There were worse things to be in life than a liar; like a killer or a rapist or a freakishly tall person like most of the other races.

Tauriel snorted; a gesture that visibly surprised Beorn and Bard but not Bilbo. He had seen the Elf strangle an Orc with her bow string and bare hands the day before. He didn't think she cared much about propriety at this point.

"You're lying," the Elf said easily as she raised one brow high and looked down at him. "Now tell us why before we drag you off to Gandalf—"

Bilbo rolled his eyes. "Gandalf does not scare me."

"—who will get your Dwarves for us," Tauriel finished with a smirk that made her high cheek bones stand out. "I think that young one with the green eyes will do. I doubt even I could say no to such an innocent face."

"You would if you knew how hard he can punch," the Hobbit grumbled as he rubbed his jaw in remembrance. "And I still don't see why I need to tell you three anything. I am under no obligation to share my business with anyone."

"Not even with a friend?" Bard asked quietly as he met Bilbo's eyes with his dark pair that reminded him of Kíli.

He flinched. "That's not fair. You can't use that against me."

"You are sneaking off in the dead of the night. We will use whatever tactic we wish to get an answer," Tauriel replied bluntly without blinking.

"You are scared," Beorn suddenly stated as he took in a deep breath through his nose. "And worried. Something is bothering you greatly. So great that you are leaving behind the Dwarves you went to battle for without a word."

"That's not true. I left them letters," he grumbled as he hiked his pack up higher on his shoulders.

Bard sighed as the straight line to his shoulders softened. "Bilbo, please do not push us away. All we want is to help you. Please, tell us what's wrong."

"You won't believe me," he muttered as he felt his resolve waver.

"Try us," challenged Tauriel.

Bilbo felt his defenses collapse. "Fine," he snapped as he reached into his pocket and pulled out the ring and held it up for them to see. "I'm going to Mordor to destroy the One Ring."

The trio just stared at him.

"What?" Bard said, blinking at him rapidly. "Can you repeat that?"

"You heard me the first time," he grumbled, trying not to roll his eyes. "I'm going to destroy the One Ring. Can I go now?"

"Wh—How did you even find that? Where did you find that?!" Tauriel asked, taking a step back without removing her eyes from the gold ring in Bilbo's palm.

"In the Misty Mountains," the Hobbit replied. "And no, I'm not mistaken because that writing on it only became visible after Smaug failed to melt it with his fire."

The three kept staring.

"I have to admit; I didn't see this coming," Beorn commented as he scratched at his beard.

"I feel like I should be surprised, but somehow I'm not," Tauriel admitted with a small frown.

"Will you two keep him here while I go and get my things?" Bard asked as he pointed back at the camp over his shoulder. "I don't want to have to chase after him with all these injuries."

"What? Bard, you're not coming with me," Bilbo said as he placed his hands on his hips and attempted to stare the Man down. "You are injured and need to rest and get better. Not hobble off after me as I take on a volcano."

Tauriel nodded and turned to face the Man as well. "Not without us, anyways."

"Excuse me? Who exactly invited you two?!" the Hobbit growled as he switched his glare to the Elf and shape-shifter.

"You cannot honestly think we would let you go off alone to face the greatest evil our world has ever known," Beorn pointed out, raising both of his bushy brows. "You're not that stupid—no, wait, you are."

Bilbo ignored the jibe. "This is not happening. None of you are coming with me; end of discussion!"

The shape-shifter simply laughed. "Just try and stop us, little bunny."

"Bilbo, we're going with you," Bard said with the same tone he had heard the Man use on his children. "So just shut up and accept it."

Bilbo felt like he was going to scream. They were just not getting it. "And what if you die on this quest, Bard? Hmm? What will your children do then without their father there to raise them?"

Bard flinched and clenched his jaw but did not back down. "And if I do not help you defeat this evil now, then they will be the ones to pay the price in the future."

"Bilbo, this is not like stealing a stone or going to battle," Tauriel pointed out, her voice softening a fraction. "This is a great task that affects everyone. You cannot bear it alone."

The Elf was right. He knew that he was better off with their help; that carrying the ring to Mordor alone was crazy and stupid. But a bigger part of him couldn't help but rebel at the thought of involving his friends, of risking their lives. He recalled Ori and his Dwarves and how strongly they fought to make him understand how much he meant to them too. They begged him not to sacrifice his own life for their sake, but Bilbo could not overpower his own fears of their deaths. He had already watched his friends die in one lifetime; he did not want to experience it again.

"I don't want anyone to die because of me," he admitted quietly, wincing at how hypocritical his words sounded to his own ears.

"As we do not wish to see you die," Tauriel rebutted without pause as she stared into his eyes with her own flashing hazel. "But that is a risk we must all take to rid the world of this evil. So strengthen your heart, Master Baggins, because we will be accompanying you to Mordor."

Bilbo felt his objections die a screeching and horrible death. "Fine. You have fifteen minutes to gather your things and then I'm leaving—with or without you."

The Elf smirked at him and tossed her head back. "I'll be back in ten."

"Show off," muttered Bard as he followed the Elven beauty back to the camp.

Bilbo glanced to Beorn, who had yet to move, and raised his brows. "Well? Aren't you going to gather your things too?"

"I have everything I need on me," the shape-shifter reassured with a toothy grin. "Besides, someone needs to make sure you don't run off without us."

He sniffed and looked away. "I said I would wait and I will. I never go back on my word if I can help it."

Beorn blinked his brown eyes slowly as he stared at the Hobbit. "And what would force you to go back on your word?"

"You'll know when I break it," he muttered as he turned around and stared off at the mountain in the distance.

Beorn had nothing to say to that.

Eventually Tauriel and Bard returned; both lugging their packs along with them. Bard looked tired and paler than when he left, and Bilbo felt his concern rise again at the sight. But before he could ask the Man to stay behind again, Beorn stepped forward and spoke.

"Bard, I'll carry you for now," the shape-shifter declared as he pulled his shirt off and tossed it to Bilbo. The Hobbit caught it and made a face at the smell that made Beorn grin widely.

Bard frowned and took a step back from the Man. "No thank you. I don't need to be coddled."

"Oh be quiet and just accept his offer," Tauriel ordered as she took the Man's pack from him and heaved it over her shoulder without flinching. "No one here will make fun of you for accepting help. Right?"

"Of course not," scoffed Beorn as he cracked his knuckles. "Why would we when we have your face to mock?"

Bilbo snorted and began to fold up the shape-shifter's shirt. "Not helping the cause, Beorn."

Beorn shrugged, unapologetic. "Just telling him how it is. Now step back so I can transform and we can leave."

The three dutifully did as asked and waited for the Man to become the beast he so greatly resembled. Once completely transformed into a bear, Beorn rambled over to Bard and nudged the Man in the shoulder with his massive head. In return, Bard sighed deeply and his shoulders drooped in defeat.

"We never speak of this," he told Beorn, poking the bear in the forehead. Beorn simply snorted and playfully tried to bite his finger off. The Man huffed and slowly climbed on top of the bear and made himself comfortable. Once he was set, he nodded to the others.

"Ready when you are," he said as he dug his fingers into Beorn's thick fur.

Bilbo nodded and glanced back to Erebor for one final time before setting his eyes on the horizon. "Then let's go."

 


 

Chapter Text

 


 

"So what route will we be taking to Mordor?" Tauriel asked sensibly as they began their trek along the river.

Bilbo pulled out the map he had stolen from Rivendell and opened it up to show her. "We follow the River Running until we find a way to pass over it. Then from there we can walk along the edges of Mirkwood and then cut through the Brown Lands to Mordor."

"The Brown Lands are desolate and barren of any sort of life," Tauriel pointed out, arching one of her brows. "How do you expect us to get through such land with our limited supplies?"

"We'll gather what food we can along the way," he replied, shrugging his shoulders. "It is what we did after we made it through Mirkwood. We can do the same now."

"You do realize that they will see us approaching the Black Gates miles away," Bard pointed out from atop Beorn. "There is nowhere to hide on those plains."

Bilbo sniffed and tossed his braids back. "Do you have a better idea? Because I certainly don't know of another way into Mordor."

"No," the Man admitted easily, "but we have time still to plan a better approach."

Tauriel nodded as she readjusted her bow on her back. "I'm more concerned with the season. Winter will make this journey harder than it could be."

"Snow is not the first concern on my mind when I plan to march into the heart of a volcano," Bilbo muttered, kicking a stray rock across the path.

Beorn snorted and shook his massive head in what seemed like agreement or scorn. He couldn't be sure. Reading the gestures of bears was not a skill of his.

"Well it is a concern to me," Tauriel retorted with a frown. "Food will be scarce, the nights will be longer, and the cold may just do us all in before we even reach the Brown Lands."

Bilbo bit his lower lip and nodded. He knew the Elf was correct in her worries. Nature was against them and they had only a limited time to get to Mordor before the worst of winter set in. He really had picked a horrible time to leave Erebor, but time never had been a friend of his to begin with.

"You could go back if you're so worried," Bard said, pushing some of his loose curls back with one hand. "We wouldn't blame you. This won't be an easy task for a maiden."

Tauriel scowled and gave the Man a glare over her shoulder. "I am not the one who needed assistance in walking, Master Bard."

The Man scowled back at the Elf and crossed his arms over his chest. "I said I didn't need the help. It was you three who insisted I get atop the fluffy horse."

Beorn huffed and deliberately jostled the Man on his back. Bard cursed and quickly grabbed hold of the bear before he could tumble off. "Blast! Don't do that, you furry menace! I can't afford more injuries."

"If you cannot handle riding, then I shudder to think how you will ever handle Mordor," Tauriel commented, her thin lips pulling back into a wicked smirk. "Perhaps we should have left you behind after all."

"I handled Azog. I think I can handle a volcano," Bard deadpanned.

The Elf shook her head and gave him a patronizing look. "Why don't you learn to handle the bear first before taking on Mordor? Once you do, we'll find you a deer to conquer. Or maybe even a rabbit or a squirrel."

"Do I need to separate you two?" Bilbo wondered out loud as Bard's glare grew darker.

Tauriel sniffed and raised her nose high into the air. "He started it. I was just finishing it."

"What you're finishing is my patience," Bard snapped back.

"This going to be a long journey," Bilbo mourned to Beorn as Tauriel and Bard continued to bicker. "A very long journey."

In reply, Beorn licked his cheek in what he hoped was sympathy and not mockery. But considering his luck, he was betting it was the later one.

 


 

It took them until noon before they managed to find a shallow part of the river that they could cross over. Unfortunately, while the water was shallow enough to walk through, it was still deep enough to get them all sufficiently wet. Bilbo found himself waddling waist deep in it while struggling to hold his pack above his head without slipping on the slimy rocks beneath his feet. Behind him Tauriel walked close behind; the water only up to the middle of her thighs and therefore easier for her to walk through the river. Beorn trudged ahead of them with a grinning Bard, who no longer seemed to mind his mount. By the time they finally crossed the river, they were all sufficiently wet and cold.

"We should take a break here and dry our clothes," Tauriel suggested as she wrung out the bottom of her long hair. "No need to get sick so soon."

Bard nodded as he dumped the water out of his boots; the only part of him that had gotten wet. "Right. Let's save that for the Brown Lands."

Bilbo rolled his eyes but still went about gathering wood to make a fire. Tauriel joined him and soon enough they had a small but strong fire amongst the four of them. They all gathered close to it and shared a small meal of bread and hard cheese. Even Beorn returned to his normal form to join them in their lunch. It was during this brief break that Bilbo found himself forced to reveal his true history.

"So, bunny, I have a question for you," Beorn began casually as he sat bare-chested with his legs stretched out before him. The shape-shifter did not seem to feel the cold and looked completely content in his simple attire of loose trousers.

Bilbo raised his brows as he munched on his block of cheese. "Oh? About what?"

"Your spirit," the male replied, leaning back on his hands and tilting his head to the side. His long and messy hair fell into his face but Bilbo could still see his dark eyes staring at him. "It is older than it should be; as if it has lived a full life. This would be fine if your body was old but you're not. Care to explain why this is?"

Bilbo froze. "What?"

"I agree: what are you talking about?" Bard asked as he looked between the two. Beside him Tauriel remained silent; simply staring at the two with one brow raised high.

"Bilbo, you know what I speak of," Beorn chastised gently, his dark brown eyes never blinking. "Now tell us the truth: what are you?"

He stared back at the shape-shifter as his heart began to pick up speed. Never in a million years did he expect to be confronted by Beorn over his secret. How did the shape-shifter even guess? And how could he read Bilbo's soul? Not even Gandalf could do that!

"H-How?" he whispered, staring back at the giant as his hands began to shake.

Beorn shrugged his massive and scarred shoulders. "I stand with one foot in each world, bunny. Such a being can see things that others sometimes miss."

"Then… are you saying Master Baggins is not what he appears to be?" Tauriel questioned as her eyes narrowed into slits of hazel.

"I'm a Hobbit," he declared quickly, his voice rising slightly. He curled his hands into the fabric of his pants in an attempt to stop them from shaking. "I was born a simple Hobbit and I will die as one even if my soul is different—"

"I know that," Beorn reassured, cutting him off. He gave the Elf and Man a firm look before switching his gaze back to Bilbo. "You are a Hobbit. I have never doubted that. It is simply your spirit that is different."

"And why is that?" Bard asked as he pursued his lips. "Why is his soul old? Do you know the reason why, Bilbo?"

He hesitated for a moment before finally nodding in defeat. "Yes. My spirit seems so old because… because it is. This is my second time living this life."

His three companions stared at him.

"What?" Tauriel deadpanned without blinking. "Can you repeat that?"

"Yeah, I'm not following the thought process here either," Bard admitted, scratching the back of his head. "What do you mean this is your second time living? Were you reincarnated or something?"

"No. I have always been Bilbo Baggins in both lifetimes," he corrected softly as he stared down at his lap. "What I mean is that somehow, someway, I was sent back eighty years into the past to relive my life again."

The three just kept staring.

"I think you better start from the beginning," Beorn suggested softly as he stared at the Hobbit with something hard in his eyes.

Bilbo sighed but did exactly that. He told them of his first lifetime where he journeyed with the Dwarves and saved Erebor only to watch the king and his heirs die on the battlefield. He spoke of his finding of the ring, of taking it back to the Shire with him, and how he lived with it for years without knowing what it truly was. He then told them of Frodo and how he gave the ring to his nephew only to have Gandalf at last discover that it was the One Ring. He explained briefly of the war that followed, of the battles won and lost, and how in the end they won when the ring was finally destroyed for good. At the end of his tale, each of his comrades looked at him in silence until Tauriel finally broke it by jumping to her feet.

"Why did you not speak of this all earlier?" she demanded, glaring down at the Hobbit with her flashing eyes. "Do you have any idea how valuable all this information is? You have knowledge of what might possibly be the greatest war ever fought in our world and you horded it away! Why would you do that?"

"Because I did not wish to risk changing things too drastically," he replied, meeting the Elven beauty's glare straight on. "I learned the hard way back in the Misty Mountains how even the smallest change can alter things greatly."

Tauriel did not look convinced. Instead, she clenched her jaw together and pulled her shoulders back into a straight line as she continued to glare at him. "And what about the risks you took? I've seen you in battle, Master Baggins, and I've heard you speak of sacrifice more than once. You could have died for one of your comrades on that reckless journey and all your knowledge would have been lost forever."

"I know. It was a risk that I was willing to take," he admitted, raising his chin higher. "I would rather die in the place of my friends than allow them to fall again."

Bard released a strangled gasp while Tauriel's eyes practically spat fire at his confession.

"You would have sacrificed the world for three dwarves that were destined to die?" she said harshly as her mouth pulled back into a snarl. "How could you do such a thing? How could you put your desires above the fate of the entire world?! How could you be so selfish?!"

"Because I am selfish!" Bilbo snarled back as he finally rose to his feet to meet the confrontational Elf head on. At the corner of his eye, he noticed Bard and Beorn stand as well, but paid them no mind as he continued to glare at the archer before him.

"I am selfish and self-absorbed and horrible and quite possibly the worst mortal to ever walk this land," he admitted as his hands continued to shake, "but I do not regret my decision for one moment. I would still choose Thorin and the others over the world again and again if I have to!"

"Bilbo—" Bard tried to say but the Hobbit cut him off before he could begin.

"No! You do not know what it's like to live for decades wondering why someone you love died an unjust death!" he yelled, switching his glare to the two. "It wasn't fair! Thorin should not have died! None of them should have died at that battle! I spent years living with that thought and when I finally got the chance to save them, how could I not take it? How could I deny my heart's greatest desire when it was right in front of me?!"

"That does not justify your actions!" Tauriel spat, her beautiful face twisting into something harsh and unforgiving. "You put your feelings before what was right and that nearly doomed us all!"

"I could not help it!" he replied as his heart began to pick up speed. "I know it is horrible and selfish of me to pick one person over thousands, but I couldn't resist making that choice! I'm not strong enough to watch them die again! I'm not strong enough to be the hero you think I should be!"

Tauriel glared with hard and unrelenting eyes. "It does not matter if your choice came from love and devotion! It was still wrong!"

"Enough," Beorn ordered, interrupting the arguing duo by stepping between them. He pulled himself up to his full height and stared down at both with eyes that reflected a carefully controlled savagery. For the first time in a long time, Bilbo recalled that Beorn was not truly a Man no matter what face he wore.

"Enough. What's done is done and it is time to calm down," the shape-shifter growled.

Tauriel shook her head; her red locks creating a whirlwind around her face. "Not until—"

"No, sweetheart, that's enough," the male cut in, his tone softening slightly as he looked at the Elf. "Yes, Bilbo was rather stupid and selfish with his actions, but what's done is done. Arguing about who is in the right here won't change what happened. All we can do now is stop the upcoming war by ending the ring for good."

The archer continued to glare at the shape-shifter and then at Bilbo before finally turning on her heel and stalking off into the forest. The three watched her until her form disappeared among the trees and nothing could be seen of her. Once gone, Beorn and Bard turned their stares back to the Hobbit before them.

"Well. That was unexpected," commented Bard as he blinked a few times. "I've never seen an angry Elf before. I always assumed they were above petty things like temper tantrums."

"That only works when applied to Thranduil," Bilbo muttered as he collapsed back to the ground and crossed his legs. He rubbed his forehead with one hand and tried his best to make his heart stop pounding so loudly in his ears.

"I did not expect her to react that way," he admitted quietly to his remaining companions.

Bard nodded and moved to sit next to the brooding Hobbit. "Neither did I. She always seems so very composed. Not even during the battle did I see her lose control of her emotions. But then again, no one was expecting the story you just told us."

He glanced at the Man from the corner of his eye. "Do you agree with her then?"

Bard shrugged again and held his hands out helplessly. "In a way, yes, I understand her anger. You took a big gamble in keeping your secret and trying to change the fate of Durin's line. Your plans could have backfired with your death and changed things for the worse. But at the same time, I can understand why you acted the way you did. If someone gave me the chance to save my wife over the world, I can't say I wouldn't choose her."

Bilbo nodded and glanced to the shape-shifter. "And you, Beorn? What do you think now that you know the truth behind my actions?"

Beorn shrugged and laid back onto the cold earth with his arms crossed behind his head. "I'm the wrong person to ask, bunny. I hate everyone equally."

Bard scoffed. "Liar."

"No, I do," the giant insisted, bending one leg so he could rest the other on his knee. "People always make things more complicated than they have to be. It gets tiresome after awhile. That's why I avoid them and stick with my animals. Much simpler to deal with."

"But aren't you angry at me for nearly killing you all?" the Hobbit pressed, rubbing his hands together.

"See, that's what I'm talking about right there," the shape-shifter replied, rolling his eyes. "Dramatic, all of you. Why would I be mad at you? No one is dead and the war has not even started yet. Yes, you could have screwed this up to the point where we all died and Sauron took over, but you didn't do any of that. You survived, saved your crazy Dwarves, and now you're going to save the rest of the world. No reason to get mad about any of that."

He still didn't feel better. "Tauriel is furious with me."

"Our lady has a very strong moral code that she follows," Beorn pointed out as he closed his eyes. "So of course she would be angry. She is a noble and strong female, but she needs to realize not everyone is so honorable. Not everyone can put their duty above their personal feelings."

"Personally, I'm more concerned about how you got here than what you did," Bard admitted as he scratched at his unshaven jaw. "Traveling into the past is not exactly a common occurrence."

Bilbo simply shrugged. "Your guess is as good as mine. The only reference I have to this is a story of a Hobbit lass who relieved the day of her beloved's death over and over again until she was able to save him."

"I've never heard of such a state before either," Beorn admitted easily. "No stories, no legends, nothing. But I've also spent most of my time with horses and bees so what do I know?"

"Do you think someone else came back with you?" Bard wondered, turning to face the Hobbit at his side.

"I wondered about that too," he confided, biting his lower lip. "But no one has done anything out of the ordinary—wait, that's not true! Radagast the Brown—he's a wizard like Gandalf—he was supposed to warn us about an evil rising in Dol Guldur, but he never showed up!"

Beorn opened one eye and squinted at him. "Evil? What sort of evil?"

"The Necromancer. Well, actually, it was Sauron masquerading as a Necromancer in order to throw off any sort of suspicion of his true identity," he explained slowly as he recalled everything he could. "Gandalf later went to investigate Dol Guldur and defeated him the first time, but this time he did not give any indication that anything of that nature happened. So I don't know what happened to Radagast or the Necromancer."

"That… does not sound good," Bard said slowly, blinking his dark eyes rapidly. "If this Radagast did not show, then either he failed to notice the Necromancer; was killed before he could inform anyone; or deliberately didn't inform anyone of what he saw."

"Radagast is not the real threat here," Beorn pointed out as he sat up and braced his elbows on his knees. "It is the Necromancer. If he is not in Dol Guldur like he is meant to be, then where else would he be? Why has he not shown himself as he did according to your story?"

"Do you… do you think he came back too? With me?" Bilbo asked quietly as something cold slithered down his spine. Distantly he thought he heard the ring giggle but could not be sure if he was imagining it or not.

Beorn exchanged a grim look with Bard before nodding. "I think it's something we should keep in mind. After the story you told us, I'm willing to believe that anything could happen at this point."

He shivered and pulled his knees up to his chest. If their suspicions were correct about Sauron, then their journey suddenly looked a lot bleaker than it did a few minutes ago.

 


 

Tauriel returned some time later; stalking back into their camp silently with a frown on her lovely face. Her eyes still burned but the sharp line to her shoulders had relaxed and the crinkles around her mouth had eased up. She ignored Beorn and Bard and walked up to Bilbo and looked down at him from her impressive height.

"I'm still angry with you," she said bluntly while crossing her arms under her breasts. "But it is not in my nature to hold a grudge. So I will forgive you for your selfish and dumb choice as long as you promise never to do such a thing ever again."

"I can't promise you that," he replied because he knew himself well-enough that if the possibility came up where he had to choose someone he cared about over the world—well, sorry world, but he was picking his loved ones first. Eru could punish him for it later in the afterlife.

The Elf's eyes sparked again but she didn't immediately lunge for his throat. "Fine. Then I will keep watch and make sure you don't jeopardize the world in your selfishness."

Off on the sidelines and out of the danger zone—because he was clearly a coward—Beorn snorted. "You have your work cut out for you."

Bilbo flashed him a quick glare before turning it back to the female in front of him. "Just don't get in my way of protecting my friends."

"It's like watching a game or a battle. I feel like I should have a snack in my hands," Bard confided without lowering his voice because Lake-town fishermen weren't known for their intelligence.

"There should be some dried fruit in the bunny's pack," Beorn replied, pointing to the leather sack without looking away from the drama before him.

"I'm going to stab you both in the crotch," Tauriel promised without looking at the two Men.

"I can still leave you all behind and finish this myself," the Hobbit added as Bard hijacked his fruit.

"No you won't," Beorn said, rolling his eyes. "We'd hear you trying to sneak off with all those bells in your hair."

"And you'd worry about us too much to leave," Bard added, biting into his stolen food and signing his death sentence.

"I hate you all," he declared with feeling as he glared at the three.

Bard simply nodded and kept eating his stolen fruit. "We love you too, Bilbo."

 


 

Chapter Text

 


 

"WHAT?! WHAT DO YOU MEAN HE'S GONE?!"

Dwalin looked up from his watery soup and squinted at the door. He could hear Dáin alternating between cursing something fierce, and interrogating the unfortunate bastard that had managed to piss him off. He felt a brief stab of surprise at the Dwarf's anger—Dáin kept his cool even when things went sour; like that time he and Thorin decided to steal King Thrór's favorite book, "The Stone Mason's Mistress," only to be caught by the king himself—but mostly he was curious over what ruffled him up so badly. Whatever it was, it had to be big.

To his joy, Dáin came stomping into the room with his face as red as Glóin's hair, and his braids messy and undone. He looked like a weasel that had been upturned in the middle of his nap. When his blue eyes landed on Dwalin, they narrowed into slits. He stomped over to the warrior and threw a wrinkled envelop into his face.

"Read this. Now," the Lord growled before turning back on his heel with a dramatic flourish of his cloak because he was secretly as dramatic as Thorin was in front of Bilbo.

"Wait, why? Who is this from?" he called as Dáin stalked off. "Dáin!"

"Just read it!" the other Dwarf roared back without stopping. "And I'm going to tell our stupid cousin that his dumbass intended has run off for Mordor!"

Dwalin dropped his bowl of soup. "WHAT?!"

 


 

"Master Balin? I have a letter here for you from Lord Dáin."

Balin nodded and held out his hand without looking away from the papers he was going through. "Thank you. Dismissed."

The attendant gave him a thickly bound letter before bowing and leaving. Balin tossed it onto his table and finished reading the reports he had before finally looking at the letter from Dáin. To his surprise, the handwriting on the envelope was not the familiar slashes he had been expecting. Curious, he picked up the letter, broke the seal, and then skimmed over the excessively curvy letters. What he read made his very heart stop in his chest.

"Oh no. Bilbo… what have we done?"

 


 

"From Uncle Dáin? About what?" Kíli wondered as he took a thick envelope from one of Dáin's personal guards.

"Wait, this is Bilbo's handwriting," Fíli realized as he scanned his own yellow envelope. "Why is he sending us letters?"

The guard shrugged helplessly. "I don't know. All I was told by Lord Dáin was to deliver these letters to you both."

Fíli exchanged a look with his brother before dismissing the unknown guard. Once the stranger was gone, he opened the letter and began to read. Five minutes later the letter was a crinkled mess on the floor as he lunged for his still-reading brother. Kíli squawked and caught him with one arm while the other splayed behind him in order to balance himself from falling off his chair.

"Fíli! What the hell?!" he yelled as pushed away the blond braids falling into his face. "What is wrong with you?!"

"You were supposed to die," Fíli rasped as he hugged his only brother tighter. "We both were. We were meant to die…"

He felt Kíli relax in his arms slightly but he didn't dare relinquish his hold. "Fee, what…?"

"Read your letter, Kíli," he bid as he buried his face in the messy dark locks, and tried his best not to imagine a world without his little brother at his side. "Just read it."

 


 

"Brother? What are you reading?" Glóin asked as he waltzed into the room that Óin had claimed as his own. His older brother stood before a table covered with his herbs, tools, and other healing nonsense that he knew all about, but never bothered to share with anyone. Óin had always got pissed at him for not knowing so he made it a point to act dumb just to annoy him.

The healer did not answer as he continued to read the letter in his hands. As he watched, his older brother's eyes began to grow wide before narrowing, and then finally settling on watery. He sniffed a few times but did not allow the tears to fall, and Glóin couldn't help but roll his eyes over that. Óin would rather kiss an Elf before he ever dared to cry in front of his little brother.

"Really, what are you reading?" he asked again as he walked closer to the other Dwarf. "Is it another letter from Dís? I know that you two have some sort of freakish bond where you both get a kick out of torturing Thorin with guilt and nasty medicine, but I really don't think now is the time to complain to her over his stubborn ass—"

"Glóin," Óin interrupted without raising his voice or looking away from his letter, "I think I just discovered how I'm going to die."

 


 

"Bofur? Is this real?" Bombur wondered as he looked up from his letter to stare at the Dwarf across from him. Bofur ignored him and kept reading the letter with eyes that were growing darker and darker with every second. He didn't blame his brother. His own stomach felt curled into knots, and he didn't know if he wanted to cry or scream over what he had just learned.

"Oh, what have we done?" he wondered out loud as he thought of their halfling friend who had sacrificed more than he thought possible for them. "We were so suspicious of him for so long; it must have hurt him so much to be so mistrusted! And Thorin! How could we ever let him or our princes die—"

"Bombur," Bofur interrupted as he finally looked up to his brother with his dark eyes. "I think Bilbo may have just bitten off more than he can chew."

 


 

"Are you fucking kidding me?!"

"Dori! Not in front of Ori!" Nori scolded with a mocking scowl as he covered Ori's ears.

Dori—to his great surprise—ignored him and simply kept walking back and forth as he read the letter in his hands. Ori held a similar letter in his hands, and was speeding through it with remarkable precision. On Ori's lap sat an unopened letter with Nori's own name scratched across. He squinted at the handwriting but could only vaguely recall it from somewhere.

"Nori, I think you need to read your letter," Ori said slowly as he held up the envelope with his name on it without looking away from the letter in his other hand. Nori shrugged and took the parchment and opened it with one of his daggers. He quickly skimmed over the letter inside, and then felt the floor fall out under his feet.

"Oh shit."

 


 

"Thorin? Are you all right?"

He ignored Balin and kept staring at the letter in his hands. Though he had read it countless times already, for some reason he found that he could not quite believe what he had just learned. Bilbo had journeyed back in time? To save them? To save Fíli and Kíli? To save Thorin? He had never heard of such a feat, of such an odd notion. But the more he thought about it, the more the pieces began to fall into place: Bilbo's easy demeanor when they first met; his protective actions; his fierce loyalty and affection for the Dwarves even when they didn't know him…

He glanced down to the last sentence written on the paper. In swirly script it said, 'I have loved you for eighty years and I will love you for eighty more.' Bilbo's lost love—the one he spoke so highly of and cried for and continued to love even when it was one-sided—had not been some unknown fool all along.

It was Thorin.

"Balin… I have made a grave mistake," he said quietly as he folded the letter and tucked it into his coat pocket.

His oldest friend nodded slowly. Balin looked like he had aged ten years just by reading Bilbo's letter. "I think we all have whether intentionally or not. Now the question is what do we do about it?"

The memory of Bilbo's voice speaking to him while he slept taunted him. It had been the only light in his nightmares of death and fear and madness. "Get the others. Now."

Balin blinked. "What? Why?"

Thorin bared his teeth in what he knew was a bloodthirsty smile. "Because we're going to Mordor."

 


 

"No."

Thorin's glare grew darker while the Dwarves around him began to tense and growl like a pack of dogs. Dáin was slightly tempted to throw a stick just to see what they would do. If they chased after it, then he wasn't holding back against the dog jokes any longer.

"I don't recall asking for your permission," Thorin rumbled as he attempted to look fierce and menacing. But Dáin still recalled when his cousin had shaved his eyebrows off because of a dare, so it was rather hard to take him seriously.

"Too bad because you need it before you can set off after your little Hobbit," he retorted as he crossed his arms over his chest, and leaned back against the wall behind him.

Dwalin snorted and gave him an ugly sneer. "Last I looked, this wasn't your mountain we were under."

"No, this is not my kingdom," he agreed easily mostly because he knew his composed mask pissed Dwalin off, "but I am the one with the army that you will need to storm Mordor to save your beloved."

At Thorin's side, Dwalin bristled along with a few others whose names he couldn't quite recall. He knew they started with a B and were related, but that was about all. They were common folk, after all, and he didn't make much effort in remembering the names of commoners. On the other side of Thorin though, Balin looked thoughtful as he rubbed his beard and stared up at something on the ceiling.

"He has a point. Our forces are mostly made up of soldiers from Dáin, Thranduil, and Bard. Without them, we have only the Company and perhaps Gandalf to help us face Mordor," Balin pointed out, ever the voice of reason. Sometimes it amazed Dáin how Dwalin could grow up with such a Dwarf as an older brother, and yet still fail to use his words properly.

Thorin's shoulders grew tenser and his already pale face grew whiter. Though obviously in great pain, his stubborn cousin had insisted on sitting up in his bed after summoning Dáin and his Company to his side to discuss the letters the Hobbit had left for them. He had not read them personally, but from what he had seen of the wizard, whatever the halfling had to say had thrown them all for a loop.

"Are you denying me aid?" his cousin asked quietly.

He rolled his eyes. "No, you fool, so stop glaring at me. I'll help you get your Hobbit back, but first you must rest and heal. You'll be no help if you die before reaching Mordor."

"Bilbo is out there alone with no protection," Thorin argued because he was a stubborn, stubborn bastard. "We cannot afford to linger knowing that!"

"Actually, he's not alone," a large and round Dwarf admitted, raising a hand and waving it in the air. "I heard from Gandalf that Bilbo took his pet, new mistress, and the scary Elf along with him."

Óin gave him a look that said he was seriously reconsidering his opinion of the Dwarf. "What part of that statement was supposed to reassure us that he's safe?"

"What do you mean he took his mistress?" Thorin spat as he turned his glare to the redhead. "Since when did he get a mistress?"

One of the other auburn haired Dwarves—the sneaky one that kept filching his guards' knives for fun—snorted loudly. "He means Bard."

Thorin's eyes went wide and his mouth twisted into an ugly snarl. "WHAT?! I WAS OUT FOR TWO DAYS AND YOU FOOLS LET HIM RUN OFF WITH THAT WORM?! WHAT IS WRONG WITH ALL OF YOU?! YOU HAD ONE JOB! ONE!"

The Dwarves all winced as one and shifted as their king roared at them. Dáin rolled his eyes again and wondered not for the first time why he ever left his mountain. Perhaps it was time to get to know his mother's side of the family better…

"You are the one who banished Bilbo from the mountain," Balin reminded with a scowl as he rubbed his ear. "We had to send Dáin here just to convince him to visit us! How could we watch over him when he's not even allowed in the mountain?"

That stopped Thorin before his anger could erupt like a volcano. But Balin had always been good at nipping Thorin's temper in the bud before it could grow into something uncontrollable. He couldn't stop the anger—only Frerin had ever been able to calm his brother—but Balin could still slow it down until it cooled into a simmer in the back of Thorin's mind.

Dáin made a point of ignoring the cruel twist in his heart as he recalled Frerin. After a hundred years, he had gotten rather good at ignoring his heart. "Regardless of your opinion on his comrades, Master Baggins is not unprotected. Those three will be adequate enough protection until we catch up."

Thorin turned his blue—Frerin's—eyes to him. He could read the desperation in them as his cousin wordlessly begged him to understand. He didn't know why Thorin bothered. He knew Dáin wouldn't be swayed.

"Dáin, I cannot leave him out there. Not now, not when I know what he's sacrificed for me," his cousin said, his deep voice a rasp.

He shrugged, unmoved, and pushed himself off the wall with one foot. "And you won't. Get some rest, cousin, and I will see if I can muster us up a decent enough army from the elves."

As he walked out of the room, he smirked and called casually over his shoulder, "Oh, Thorin? Glad to see you have one of your beads back. I look forward to the wedding."

Behind him, the Dwarves erupted into chaos.

 


 

Chapter Text

 


 

Bilbo spent the rest of the day alternating between ignoring Tauriel and pondering over what Beorn had pointed out to him. What if, somehow, Sauron had returned to the past with him? Did the Dark Lord remember everything like Bilbo did? Was he also planning and scheming about what to change and what not to leave be? And most importantly—where was Sauron? In Dol Guldur as in his dream? Or waiting for them in Mordor; plotting and waiting like a thief in the night?

I could be walking into a trap, he acknowledged as he followed Tauriel with Beorn and Bard at his side. I could be taking us all to our deaths. I could be bringing the ring to Sauron and dooming all of Middle-Earth at this very moment—

"Are you brooding again?" Bard asked, interrupting his thoughts.

He turned and squinted up at the Man through the afternoon light. "I wasn't brooding; I was thinking deeply."

Beorn—in his bear form once more—snorted. Atop him, Bard also rolled his eyes. "You're brooding, trust me. I'm an expert at such things. I did a lot of it after my wife died."

"I think that's called grieving," he countered, hopping over a large stone in his path.

"It's all in the same family," the Man reasoned, making a shooing gesture with one hand. "But that's not why I brought it up. What are you thinking about that has you making such a face?"

Bilbo shrugged and glanced off to the side at the river that they continued to follow. "Nothing important. Just making plans for our mission."

"Uh-huh." Bard's face showed that he obviously didn't believe him but was willing to accept the lie for the moment. "Right. So what plans have you thought of?"

"Well, I'm trying to figure out how to sneak into Mordor without being detected," he replied as he quickly thought up an answer. "I doubt there will much of an army waiting for us, but whatever forces they do have will still likely outnumber us."

"We will have to scout out the area before we decide on anything," Tauriel said suddenly from the front. Her steps never paused but she tilted her head back slightly to show that she was listening in. "It will probably take a few days and we will need to stay hidden at all times. We cannot risk detection when so close to the heart of Mordor."

Bilbo nodded; causing his braids to clash together in a mess of jingling bells. "I agree. Under no circumstances can we allow the ring to fall into Sauron's hands. If it comes down to it, we retreat and wait for another chance to end it for good."

"Beorn, look, they're talking again!" Bard whispered to the bear as he nudged one of his furry ears.

Beorn whined and tossed his head back in agreement.

The Hobbit gave them both a sour look. "I miss your sense of humor, Bard. Do you miss it too?"

"Just as much as I miss yours," the archer promised without batting an eye. "What do you think your Dwarves will do after they read your letters?"

"Scream. Curse. Brood. Scream some more," he listed, shrugging. "They're not a complicated bunch."

"You don't think they'll come after you?" asked Tauriel as she glanced over her shoulder at the Hobbit with one brow raised.

He shrugged again. "Maybe. I'm hoping Gandalf will talk some sense into them if they try. They just came out of a battle where some of them nearly died. They can't handle such a journey."

"Oh yeah and we're in such top shape ourselves," Bard said, sotto.

Bilbo ignored him. "I'm also hoping that their newly reclaimed home will convince them to stay."

"And if they don't?" Tauriel pushed. "If they come after you? What then?"

"Then we have more help when sneaking into Mordor," Bard replied before Bilbo could speak up.

He flinched. "I don't want that. They already nearly died…"

Tauriel blinked twice and turned back to the front. "We will all die if we do not destroy the ring this time. Even your Dwarves."

He knew that. It made his skin crawl and his stomach clench up into a knot at the thought, but he could not deny that everything would be easier with help. But after everything he risked to keep his friends alive, he didn't want to see them still die trying to fix Bilbo's mistake.

"Cheer up, Master Baggins," the Elf chided with a gentle voice a she continued to march on. "We will get through this one way or another."

Yeah, but I just hope it doesn't kill the very ones I came back to save.

 


 

They walked on until dusk finally began to fall and they could see no further. With Tauriel and Beorn's help, they were able to find a secluded area to rest under the thick trees with a small fire to fight back the cold. Beorn chose to rest in his bear form; which Bilbo quickly decided to take advantage of and cuddle against the furry menace for warmth. Bard soon joined him with his own coat tied tightly around him and fell into a deep sleep as soon as he leaned back against the bear's side.

"He's pushing himself too hard," Tauriel commented as she sat across from the three with her sword in her folded lap. The firelight lit up the gold in her hair and eyes and made her look even more ethereal than she usually did.

Bilbo glanced at the Man huddled at his side and nodded. "He is. We will need to watch him to make sure he doesn't overdo it."

The Elf nodded and glanced back to the forest around them. He leaned his head against Bard's arm and watched the female before him. Tauriel had taken first watch without asking and none of them dared argue with her after her earlier show of temper. For a long time they were both quiet, and Bilbo found himself just beginning to fall asleep when the archer finally spoke again.

"Bilbo," she said, speaking his name for the first time since their argument, "I want to apologize. I should not have lost my temper with you earlier. It was uncalled for and childish of me."

"It's fine. I understand why you did. My choices are selfish when you come down to it," he admitted quietly. "I would give up the world for my friends' sake if I had to. It is impossible for me to do anything else."

Tauriel sighed and nodded. "I understand why you would do so. But that does not make it right. Sacrificing the lives of innocents for your happiness is wrong."

"It is. That's why I couldn't destroy the ring in the end. Not because I was too old, but because I was too weak. Frodo had to carry my burden and paid my price in the end. That is why I decided to make this journey even though I'm terrified out of my mind," he revealed as he thought back to his nephew and all he had endured. Bilbo regretted many things in his life, but he didn't think he regretted anything more than letting Frodo walk out of Rivendell with his ring.

"You are a selfish and self-absorbed Hobbit, but you also love more deeply than most are capable of," the Elf mused as the sharp lines to her face softened. "I wish I could so the same."

"It is not hard to let yourself love someone," he pointed out with a scoff.

Tauriel shook her head; causing her hair to whip around her face. "Maybe not for you, but I am the Captain of the Royal Guards. I have a duty to protect my king and fellow guards above all else. I must be able to put my feelings aside in order to be a good leader. If I didn't, then my judgment would become compromised, and their lives endangered."

Bilbo furrowed his brows as he stared at the Elf. "You have such a strong code of ethics. Why? Why do you fight so hard to protect the world and what's right if not for love?"

"Because someone must," the she-Elf replied firmly as something hardened in her eyes. "Someone must fight for justice and protect those who cannot protect themselves. Someone must fight against cruelty and oppression and wickedness. Perhaps I am arrogant and naïve to assume such a role, but I simply cannot sit back and do nothing while others suffer. I lost my family to such selfishness and I will not see the pattern repeat itself for another innocent."

The Hobbit stared at the fierce warrior before him, and felt wonder and shame consume him. He had heard of great and selfless heroes before—and even met a few of them—but he didn't think he ever met one quite like Tauriel. How many people would—could—devote their lives to the safety and well-being of others? How many could put aside their own feelings out of consideration for the feelings of others? Who could ever live so selflessly and not crumble? Who could face the world with such devotion to the idea of good and justice and not grow jaded by the evil in the world?

"Tauriel, you are a wonder," he said honestly as he stared at her.

Tauriel wrinkled her brow and laughed softly. "No, I'm not."

"You are," he insisted as he searched for the words to explain how amazing the Elf was. "You are able to live with such strong convictions without faltering. That is a wonder in this day and age."

She laughed again her tinkling laugh and brushed back some of her long hair from her face. "Go to sleep, Bilbo. I will guard you all tonight."

"We can take shifts," he grumbled quietly even as he made himself comfortable against his fleshy pillow at his side. "It is not that hard."

Tauriel simply kept smiling as the firelight flickered across her face. Perhaps it was simply a coincidence, but that night he dreamed of autumn leaves painted vivid amber and red and wind that sounded like bells laughing.

 


 

At the first hint of light, they moved on.

With the forest on one side and the river on the other, they walked on through the thick underbrush and crumbling land. It took quite a few days, but eventually they separated from the river and continued to follow along the outskirts of Mirkwood. Tauriel led them for the most part; a native to the forest and a better scout than the others excluding Beorn. Sometimes she would glance into the forest they followed and narrow her eyes, and other times she would cock her head to the side and smile as if listening to a favorite song. Bilbo wondered if it were other Elves that caught her attention or something large with eight legs. When she was not leading them to their possible deaths, Tauriel was tending to their most injured companion: Bard. With Beorn supporting him for the most part, he had begun to heal slowly but surely. The bruises had begun to fade into a sickly yellow and his wounds were finally beginning to scab over. He had also—thankfully—avoided any sort of infections with his open wounds.

"I think you can walk on your own for now," Tauriel declared one evening as she went about her nightly ritual of examining Bard. "Not for long periods of time, of course, but you should be able to handle short bursts."

"But I feel fine," complained the Man as he held up his tunic to reveal his naked and bruised torso to the Elf. "I don't need to be coddled anymore."

Tauriel rolled her eyes and poked one of his purple bruises, causing the Man to yelp. "You were saying?"

Bard scowled and smacked her wandering hands away. "Now you're just playing dirty."

"Are you sure you're an adult?" the Elf wondered, arching one brow. "Because you seem more like a little boy with the way you keep whining."

"Are you sure you're a an Elf? Because your prodding reminds me of an Orc at dinner," the Man shot back.

Tauriel narrowed her eyes and snarled. "Are you calling me an Orc?"

"Well you're certainly brutish enough to play the part—hey, hey, I said no poking! That hurts!"

"Oh suck it up and be a Man!"

"It's like watching a pair of siblings," Bilbo confided to Beorn as they sat off to the side away from the arguing duo.

Beorn nodded as he munched on some nuts. "I've seen nicer fights between cats and dogs."

"Do you think we should intervene before she stabs him?" he wondered as he stole some of Beorn's food.

The shape-shifter shook his head quickly. "Hell no. I haven't been this entertained since you fell face first into that muddy puddle."

He scowled at the memory and elbowed the bear in the ribs. "That's wasn't funny. My clothes are still dirty and I was cold and damp for the rest of the day."

"You also still have mud on your ears," Beorn added as he threw a nut in the air and caught it with his open mouth.

"What? Why didn't you tell me?" he whined as he began to rub at his ears.

The shape-shifter shrugged. "Because it's funny."

"This is why no one likes you," he replied as he licked his fingers and began to wipe the dirt away.

Beorn grinned with all his teeth. "I know."

Before Bilbo could reply, Bard threw himself between the two and glared across the circle at Tauriel. "You are not allowed to sit next to me or stand near me for the rest of this journey."

"I'll try to resist your manly charms," the Elf deadpanned without blinking.

As Beorn snickered at his side, Bard rolled his eyes and turned to the Hobbit next to him. His dark eyes softened even as his face turned hard and stern. Bilbo immediately felt alarm rise in him at the look.

"What? What is it?" he asked, leaning back a bit from the Man.

Bard hesitated for a moment; licking his bottom lip before finally speaking. "Bilbo, will you… could you tell me what happens to my children?"

He blinked rapidly in surprise. That certainly was not the question he had been expecting. "Um, sure, but I don't really know much. I know your son becomes the Lord of Dale and that your oldest daughter becomes a very wealthy and successful merchant. I think your youngest daughter joined the guards—against her brother's wishes—before eventually marrying and settling down."

"Bain… Bain becomes the Lord of Dale?" Bard repeated slowly as his frown grew deeper and his eyes softened even more. "He rebuilds Dale?"

The Hobbit shook his head. "No. You rebuild Dale and rule as the lord until your death."

"Me?" Bard scoffed, pointing to his chest. "I'm no ruler! Just a poor fisherman trying to keep his children alive."

"You are the heir to Lord Girion and the rightful ruler of Dale," he reminded, rolling his eyes. "Only you can rebuild her into the former glorious city she once was."

Bard shook his head viciously. "I am no lord or prince or king. I can barely read or write my letters! How can you expect me to rule a city?"

Bilbo shrugged and held out his hands helplessly. "I don't know how you will do it, Bard. All I know is that you become rather good at it."

"Relax, pup. Dale is already a pile of rocks. You can't do anything worse to it at this point," Beorn pointed out, interrupting their conversation without a hint of shame.

Bard raised his brow and turned to face the giant sitting on his other side. "Pup?"

"You look like one with those messy curls," the shape-shifter explained, gesturing to his hair with a grin. "We need to find you a comb. Or maybe a pitchfork."

"Says the bear with dreadlocks," the Man deadpanned.

"Bard, why do you object so much to ruling Dale?" Bilbo wondered, drawing the conversation back to the original topic. "I've seen you lead your Men in battle. You are more than capable of being a leader."

The archer shook his head; causing his wild curls to become even messier. "Because I'm a horrible choice! I know nothing of politics or war or money! I can barely manage to feed my family; what makes you think I can feed an entire city?"

Bilbo sighed and rubbed his forehead with two fingers. Apparently he was going to have to go with a different tactic in order to convince the Man that he would be a good leader.

"Do you remember what I told Thorin when you first came to Erebor?" he asked. "That I trusted you because I saw you handing out food to the poorer villagers?"

Bard narrowed his eyes and leaned away from the Hobbit as if he was a potentially deadly fungus. "Yes…"

"That compassion for your people is what will make you a great Lord. Not your skills in battle or how clever you are in politics. It's your love for your people and their well-being. That is what will make you the beloved Lord of Dale that you will be remembered as," the Hobbit said, staring into the Man's eyes in order to get his point across.

The archer's eyes grew wide and the tense line to his shoulders relaxed slightly. For the first time since they met, Bard looked uncertain. As if he was standing on shaky ground and didn't know which direction would lead him to steady ground. Seeing that look reminded Bilbo—once again—how much younger everyone was. This was not the Bard that had watched Lake-town burn or took down a dragon or threatened Thorin with war. This was the Bard that he had created; the one who still could smile because his home was not a pile of ashes, and his daughter was not blinded in one eye.

"He's right, you know," a soft voice said, interrupting their staring contest.

The duo turned as one to look at their Elven companion who had spoken. "What was that?" asked Bard as he raised his brows.

"I said he's right," Tauriel repeated as she met their looks with her own flashing hazel. "A good leader is not one who lives for himself. It is one who lives for others."

Beorn nodded as he pushed back some of his thick hair with one hand. "I've seen a lot of leaders in my time. The good ones were always the ones beloved by their people. You take care of them like you take care of your spawn, and you'll be fine."

Bard blinked and slowly looked between the three around him. Finally his shoulders slumped and he sighed deeply as a small smile curled at his lips. "You're right. You're all right. I just can't argue against any of you with that logic."

"You know, if you kept that little fact in mind, we could save all that time you waste on being stupid and use it for something more productive," Tauriel commented with a smirk that brought out her high cheekbones.

Bard immediately lost his smile. "You know, it's comments like those that are keeping you unmarried and alone."

"Excuse me?!"

Bilbo sighed and made himself comfortable as the next show commenced.

It's going to be a long night.

 


 

Chapter Text

 


 

He had never wanted to be a hero.

That was a fact. When other little boys were fighting over who got to be the legendary hero or the great king, Bard had been happy enough to be the loyal sidekick. His brothers had always wanted to hear stories of powerful warriors and wise lords and their adventures; Bard had been happy enough to hear about the Man who caught a magical fish who could grant wishes. As he grew older, it became something of a running gag in town over how practical he was. 'Fisherman Bard,' they used to laugh, 'he dreamed of being a commoner and it came true!'

Bard didn't mind the jokes. He laughed along when he heard them too. It had been his dream to grow up and marry and have a family. He didn't need to be a hero or a king; he was happy enough as a fisherman and a husband and then later a father.

That was part of the reason why he recoiled at Bilbo's suggestion that he would become the Lord of Dale. Not only was he the worst candidate—most fishermen from dirt-poor villages were—but he also had no interest in the job. He didn't like being the center of attention, or the one that everyone turned to in a crisis. He got stuck with that job most of the time, yes, but that hardly meant he liked it. He was happy to be just another face in the crowd; just another nobody going about their daily life.

"You're being a coward again," Mari would probably tell him if she was still alive. Before she became his wife, she had been his best friend; the only girl who had played with the boys no matter how many times her mother scolded her. She had known him better than anyone and would have seen right into the heart of his objections within seconds.

"You're afraid of failing," she would have said while rolling her blue and green eyes at him. "You're afraid of getting someone killed or hurt. You're afraid you won't be able to feed your people or protect them from another dragon. And finally you're afraid you won't be able to live up to Bilbo's words. Isn't that right, darling?"

He would have nodded and shrugged like he always had when faced with her sharp observations. "Right again, my love, like always."

In return, Mari would have flashed her devious grin and tossed her brown braids back in triumph. "Damn straight I am and don't forget it!"

By Eru… he missed her so much. There was not a day that went by that he did not think of his wife in some little way. He saw it every day when he looked at his children—the way Sigrid moved when she cooked; the curve of Bain's smile and his eyes; how Tilda always knew when he was lying—and they always brought her face to mind. But sometimes, when he was stressed or worried or angry, her voice would whisper to him comfort or advice.

"You can't let your fear of failure hold you back from being the Man you are meant to be," Mari would have advised, patting his check. "You have to take a chance and step out of your little world one day."

"But I could get our children hurt," he argued back in his mind because if he was going to fight with the voice in his head then he could at least win the disputes. "I could get everyone hurt or killed if I try to rebuild Dale."

"Or you could do something great for our children and the people of Lake-town," his wife countered. "Bard, you know that Lake-town is crumbling and things will only grow worse under the influence of the Master. You know that rebuilding Dale is the only way to give them a chance at a future."

He knew that. He knew, even as he denied it so fiercely to Bilbo and the others, that in the end he was going to have to rebuild Dale. Not because it was pre-destined or because he wanted to be some heroic lord, but simply because it was his best chance to save his children from going hungry.

Bard never wanted to be a hero, but being a good father was one dream he didn't mind.

 


 

"It's snowing," Tauriel announced with all the enthusiasm of a Man walking to the gallows.

Bard gave her a slow ovation. "Great observational skills. Anything else you would like to point out to us? Perhaps that the grass is green? Or that Bilbo has no self-preservation?"

"Don't drag me into this," Bilbo said as he dug through his bag for warmer clothes.

"I think we should take shelter. You lot don't take to cold very well," Beorn suggested as he held one hand out to catch the falling snowflakes.

"Don't be stupid. If we couldn't survive the cold, we would have all died out long ago," Tauriel replied, rolling her eyes.

Beorn did not seem convinced. "Sweetheart, you're wearing two layers of clothes at the most. The bunny here is barely pulling together one, and don't even get me started on the puppy with his ripped coat. You're all going to freeze to death in an hour."

"Why do you argue with me?" the Elf asked, glaring at the bear.

"Because you're lovely when you glare at me like that," Beorn replied with a toothy grin.

Tauriel's eyes became two slits of hazel. "Really? Then I wonder what you'll think when I push you into a volcano…"

"As long as you glare at me while doing so, I'm fine with it," the shape-shifter reassured.

"I feel uncomfortable listening to this. Do you feel uncomfortable, Bilbo?" Bard asked as he stared up at the sky.

Bilbo shook his head and continued to dig through his pack. "I'm deaf. I cannot hear any of you."

"Now don't be jealous, puppy," Beorn chided, giving him an exaggerated patronizing look. "Our lady is lovely and we all know it."

Bard grimaced and shook his head. "I'm not jealous, thanks. I prefer Women who don't have the chest of a twelve-year-old boy."

Bilbo finally paused to stare at his friend. "Why are you looking at her chest, Bard?"

"Because when I first met her, I didn't know if she was male or female," the fisherman admitted without a hint of shame.

Tauriel suddenly became very still and silent. Beorn—because animals were good at sensing danger—took a step away from her and moved so that Bard was between them. "Are you calling me a Man?"

Bard—because he was clearly a fool—shook his head. "No. I'm just saying that you Elves all look very delicate to me—put your bow down! It's not an insult!"

"It is a common problem with Elves," Bilbo pointed out as he finally gave up on his quest for warmer clothing. "It can also happen with Dwarves if the females are wearing armor or thick clothing."

"You know, somehow, none of that statement made me feel better," Tauriel growled though she did lower her bow even as she continued to glare holes through Bard's head

He rolled his eyes and stood up and swung his pack on. "It wasn't supposed to. Can we go now? We are wasting valuable time standing here."

"What's the rush? It's not like Mordor is going anywhere," Beorn commented, scratching at his lightly furred stomach.

"No, but I would like to get some miles past us in case the snow becomes too heavy," he explained as he began to walk off without waiting for his comrades.

"He's right; let's move on," Tauriel ordered as she straightened her shoulders like a general preparing to lead an army to war. She followed after the Hobbit while behind her Bard pushed Beorn ahead of him, and used him as a shield against the Elf maiden.

"How long do you think it will take to get to Mordor?" he asked the Elf while ignoring the two cowards behind them.

The archer shrugged her slender shoulders. "I don't know. Depending on how the weather goes and our supplies, it may take at least a month until we reach the south end of Mirkwood."

The Hobbit felt his heart sink. He knew that it would take a good while before they reached Mordor, but hearing it confirmed just made his spirits dampen. He didn't want to spend so much time lingering and doubting himself while the ring taunted him in the back of his mind. He just wanted to get the whole quest over with and learn if he was going to live or not.

"I don't know how Frodo handled it all," he said quietly as he stuffed his hands into his pockets in an attempt to keep them warm.

Tauriel blinked and glanced at him before turning her eyes back to the front. "Frodo… He was the one who destroyed the ring originally, yes?"

"Yes," he confirmed with a nod. "He's my cousin by blood, but I always thought of him as a nephew and then later my son. He was also the only one brave and strong enough to carry the ring to Mordor."

Tauriel clucked her tongue and nodded. "I see. You are doing this for him aren't you? Why? Do you fear he will not be able to handle it in this lifetime?"

He shook his head and unintentionally created a song of bells with his braids. "No. Frodo could do it again. No matter what I change or don't change in this lifetime, Frodo will always have the strength it takes to face Sauron and the ring. It is simply who he is and nothing will ever change that."

"Then why endure this mission instead of waiting for him to do it?" the Elf wondered quietly.

"Because this quest will break him," he replied simply. "It will break his spirit and he will never completely heal. I can't… I cannot let that happen again. I cannot let this stupid ring break my boy's spirit again."

Tauriel turned to look at him again with ancient eyes that knew far too much. "If that quest broke his spirit, then what do you think it will do to you?"

He shrugged one shoulder and gave her a brittle smile. "I don't know. I am not as strong as him so perhaps I will shatter in the end."

"And you don't mind that? Is this Hobbit truly worth the risk?" the archer asked with one brow arched.

Frodo giggles and ducks behind the rose bush. After a moment he peeks out over the top; his blue eyes bright and dancing with glee. One look into those eyes makes his heart melt and his mood lift up in seconds. For the first time since he returned from Erebor, he feels truly happy again and it is all thanks to the little boy playing in his garden

Bilbo nodded and looked back to the road before him. "Yes. Frodo will always be worth it."

 


 

They walked until the snow forced them to stop and rest. They huddled together with a small fire between them until the snow stopped and they could continue on. Though cold and tried, they trudged on until darkness forced them to seek shelter once again. However some luck was on their side, as Tauriel and Beorn were able to find a small enclave under the drooping trees of Mirkwood to rest in. They made camp there for the night as the snow began to fall around them once more.

Bilbo found himself huddled between Tauriel and Bard as Beorn took the first watch. The shape-shifter had volunteered as the cold had the least effect on him; a strange perk that not even Beorn could explain. While Tauriel and Bard immediately went to sleep after a small dinner, Bilbo could not drift off so easily. His body was tired and sore but his mind kept running in circles; thinking and worrying over their quest and the fate of his friends back at Erebor. Mostly though he found himself missing his Dwarves. He had spent nearly a year in their constant company, and to have them so far away for so long left him feeling unstable and lost. It ate at him so much that he found himself voicing his feelings to the only other person still awake.

"Beorn?" he called softly in order not wake the other two boxing him in.

The shape-shifter looked up at him and blinked. "Hmm?"

"I miss Thorin and the others," Bilbo admitted quietly.

"Of course you do," Beorn scoffed. "They're your family."

He certainly couldn't deny that. "Yes, they are. Do you have any family?"

Beorn shrugged and scratched at his beard. "It depends on what you define as family. If it is by blood then I must say no. There was a time where other like myself roamed this world, but they died long, long ago. I have a Mother but we share no blood between us. But if you speak of bonds, then I will say that my animals are my family. They are the only ones I share my love with."

"Do you ever want more? Like a wife or children?"

"Sometimes… Sometimes I wonder what it would be like," the bear admitted, his voice growing softer as his face relaxed. "In my time I have watched many love stories unfold; some happy, some tragic, and some a lie. In the beginning, I never understood any of it and I never wanted to because it seemed so foolish to risk so much for something so fragile. But as I grew older, I realized that the love between two people is something like a marvel."

Bilbo could think of many words to describe his feelings for Thorin, but 'marvel' was certainly not one of them. "A marvel?"

"Mm-hmm. I have seen Men go to war over their ladies and Women scheme and kill for their lords. I once knew an Elf who loved a beautiful maiden but never spoke of it because she knew this maiden would never look at her the same way. Instead, she silently endured a broken heart while helping this maiden save her lord, and even stood at their wedding. It was only after she knew the maiden was safe and happy that she allowed herself to fade."

Beorn glanced up and gave him a small smile that made his tanned face softer and younger. "And then there's you. You, who fought spiders and Orcs and a dragon just to save the one you love. A thousand years could pass by and I would still be amazed at the power and influence that love can hold over a heart."

The Hobbit stared at the shape-shifter before him. In all his years he had never given his feelings much thought; they existed and tormented him at times, and made him delirious at others. It never occurred to him what it would be like if he did not have them, or even a chance to experience emotions. Hearing Beorn speak of it—as something rare and beautiful and so very precious—made him suddenly so very grateful for the chances he had to love and grieve and simply feel.

But it didn't seem fair that Beorn wouldn't get the chance to experience such feelings. Not when he knew what the shape-shifter was meant to hold one day.

"Beorn?" he called quietly.

"Hmm?"

"In my last lifetime, you had a son."

Beorn stared at him. "What?"

"You heard me. You had a son," Bilbo repeated as the corner of his lips twitched up into a smile. "I do not know if he was your blood child or who his mother was, but I know that he existed and you loved him dearly. I know it is not the love that you wanted to experience, but the love for your child can still be an amazing feeling. It can still drive a Man to war and a Woman to lie and steal. It is the love I hold for Frodo, my child, that drives me to destroy this ring."

Beorn blinked slowly; his expression torn between shock and hope. Finally it settled on the later, and his massive shoulders eased up slightly. "A son? Huh. I never thought… well. I suppose I should start working on my father jokes. That should be fun."

"It is fun to torment them," he admitted because the best times with Frodo had been when he was teasing the boy. Frodo never got offended and could always give back what was given. It was one of the reasons why he got along so great with Gandalf.

Beorn smiled widely and Bilbo found himself smiling back. The shape-shifter was not handsome by any standard, but when he smiled, his face lit up like the sun lit up the land at dawn. The Hobbit didn't think he had ever seen a more memorizing smile in his life.

"Thank you for sharing that with me, Bilbo," the bear said, his smile never faltering. "It gives me something to look forward to in the future. That's rare for me."

He shrugged lightly; trying his best not to move too much and wake his other companions. "You deserve to know that the love you are so fascinated by will come to you one day. It is only fair."

"Then we best get rid of this ring so our boys can grow up safe and happy," Beorn advised as his eyes hardened even as his smile stayed on.

Frodo never smiles anymore. His boy still fakes it but he learned long ago how to spot Frodo's true smile in his eyes. His nephew goes through the gestures of smiling and living, but there is no life in him. Frodo is broken inside in a way that he cannot fix no matter how hard he tries

Bilbo nodded and closed his eyes. "Yes. We will."

 


 

Chapter Text

 


 

The days began to blur together.

They walked on and on but Mirkwood continued to stretch unending before them. Winter began to grow stronger until snow blanketed everything in sight while the trees became nothing more than skeletons. Their supplies began to dwindle and if not for Beorn and Tauriel, then Bilbo were not sure how he would have found food and fresh water. The only silver lining he could find in their travel was that they had yet to encounter any sort of Orcs or other dangers.

"Do you think it's odd that we haven't sighted any Orcs?" he asked his comrades one day as they rested for their noon break.

"The patrols in Mirkwood would not allow any Orcs through," Tauriel explained as she worked on brushing her thick hair out.

"Unless they are an army with Goblins and Wargs along for the ride," Bard interjected without looking up from his bow that he was cleaning.

Tauriel smacked him on the knee with her comb before returning to her task. "It was safer and smarter to allow the army through Mirkwood than attempting to stop them with the few soldiers we had at the time. By letting them through, we could herd them towards our main forces and eliminate them there."

"Were there any stragglers?" Beorn asked as he watched Tauriel brush her hair with a look of wonder. Bilbo had a feeling that the shape-shifter had never even seen a comb in his life before if his own knotted hair was any indication.

"If there were then the scouts would've taken them out," Bilbo realized as he played with his beads. "I suppose that explains why we would not have seen any since we left Erebor."

"Actually, our scouts did report something odd," Tauriel added as she paused in her brushing and looked up at them all with a wrinkle between her brows. "Before they entered Mirkwood, the armies split up; one group going into Mirkwood while another headed off to the south. Our scouts tracked them but eventually left them alone when it became clear they had no intention of going into our territory."

"Wait, you mean a part of that army is still out there somewhere?" Bard summarized as he looked up from his bow with wide eyes. "What the hell is wrong with all of you? How could you let them wander off so easily? They could be attacking another kingdom now!"

"It wasn't my decision to make," the Elf defended with a dark scowl. "The king ordered us to leave them be and focus on the forces traveling through Mirkwood. They were a bigger concern to him than the Orcs outside of the kingdom."

Bilbo felt himself turning cold and it had nothing to do with the weather. "If part of the army withdrew then we didn't really face the full power of the Orcs in the battle. That's why Thorin and Kíli and Fíli are still alive; because the enemy was weaker this time around. And now that I think back on it, we lost a lot more forces and even more were severely injured the first time."

Tauriel and Bard stared at him with mirror expressions of horror while Beorn released a deep breath through his nose. "If the remaining forces went south, then there is only one place they must be going to," the bear said slowly as he met the Hobbit's eyes with his own narrowed pair.

He swallowed and nodded. "Mordor."

"But why would they split their forces up like that? Why not stay together and crush us?" Tauriel asked as she looked between the shape-shifter and burglar.

"Because someone told them not to," Bard replied quietly as his hands began to shake. "Someone knew they would lose and didn't want to waste so many soldiers on a defeat. Someone who knew exactly what would happen and has been making plans just like you from the start."

Bilbo closed his eyes and tried not to be sick. "Sauron."

 


 

"We need to tell the others of this," Tauriel declared after they had come to terms with the undeniable truth before them. "They need to know that he has such a big advantage on us."

"How? We're miles away from them and have no way to communicate," Bilbo pointed out as he rubbed his throbbing forehead.

The Elf gestured to the forest at their side with her chin. "I can find a scout in the woods and have him take a message back to the king."

"How long will that take?" Beorn asked as he tapped out a quick rhythm on his bent knee.

"I don't know," she admitted, biting her lower lip. "It could take a few hours or a few days; it depends on what rotation they're on now."

Bard snorted and shook his head. "Great. And what shall we do in the meantime? Sit around and knit?"

"How about you work on sewing your mouth shut? That would be a wonderful use of your time," Tauriel suggested with a sweet smile.

"Sure, and while I'm at it you can work on getting that stick out of your ass," the Man returned without blinking.

The Elf clapped her hands and cheered. "Great idea! Then I'll have something to hit you with!"

"Beorn, why did I think it was a good idea to invite any of you along?" Bilbo wondered as the arguing duo began another of their performances.

"You didn't. We invited ourselves," the bear replied as he watched the act with a smirk.

"A decision that I'm greatly regretting," he muttered before stepping forward until he was between the two. "That's enough you two. We don't have time to argue and bicker. Tauriel, you should leave now to find your scouts. We will wait here for you in the meantime."

Tauriel flashed Bard another glare before nodding to the Hobbit. "Agreed. I'll be back as quickly as possible. Stay alert and do not enter the forest under any circumstances. If you must venture within, I suggest sending Bard first as bait."

"Wow, thanks for the concern," the Man deadpanned.

"You're welcome," Tauriel replied with a smirk before disappearing into the forest without a sound.

Bard simply snorted. "Showoff."

 


 

With their guide gone for the moment, the three remaining males made camp for the night. Bilbo found himself secretly thankful for the delay. His ribs still ached and he found himself unusually fatigued and stiff. It annoyed him greatly that his body was being so weak. After all the training and walking, he thought he was getting healthier. Apparently his body had a different idea.

"Pup, you have a few spawn running around, right?" Beorn asked out of the blue as they sat together around a fire to keep warm.

Bard rolled his eyes but nodded. "Yes. I have three: two girls and a boy. Why?"

The shape-shifter shrugged his wide shoulders. "Just wondering. So is it hard being a father?"

"Um, sometimes?" Bard replied, blinking a few times. "It was hardest after Mari passed away, but it got easier with time."

Beorn nodded as his brows furrowed together and he rubbed his jaw. "That makes sense. So what's the hardest thing about being a pa? Feeding them? Drying their tears? Listening to them whine?"

The archer slowly raised his brows as he stared at the shape-shifter. "Beorn, what is this about? Why are you asking me all of these questions?"

"The bunny here told me that I'll have a son in the future," the bear explained as he nodded to the Hobbit. "I'm trying to figure out how the hell I'm supposed to raise this kid."

"You will be a good father, Beorn," Bilbo reassured as he rolled his eyes. "One simply has to look at your animals to see that."

The shape-shifter shook his head fiercely. "There's a difference between raising an animal and raising a child, bunny. With my horses and dogs I only need to worry about the most basic of needs; food, water, shelter, protection. I can give them all of that along with my love and respect and they can return it in their own ways. But bringing up a child is a bit more complex. I have to teach this kid right from wrong. I have to teach him about the world and how cruel it can be while also protecting his innocence. It is my responsibility to make sure this boy grows up into a decent person. That is not an easy task even for someone like me."

"Beorn, there's no real way to explain how to properly raise a child," Bard pointed out, wrinkling his eyebrows. "All you can really do is love them and protect them and teach them the important stuff in life."

"And that works for all your offspring?" the bear challenged, leaning forward slightly to rest his chin on his fist.

"For the most part, yes," the Man said. "I love them all equally and would give them the world if they asked for it, but I also have to remember that they're people too. They have their own personalities and opinions so I have to take that into consideration when dealing with them. For example: my oldest girl Sigrid is very mature and strong. As the oldest, she thinks she must be strong and so she keeps her worries and concerns to herself. I have to remind her every now and then that it's not weak of her to share her feelings with others. My boy Bain also tries to come across as strong, but is actually very insecure and needy. I always make sure to give him more attention and reassurance than I have to with the girls. Finally my youngest, Tilda, is very independent and is happy enough to be left to her own devices. I give her as much freedom as I can, but I always let her know that I'm around when she needs me."

Bilbo exchanged a look with Beorn before turning to stare at the archer. "Wow, Bard. I had no idea you were so good at this parenting thing."

"Years of practice and the help of a good Woman," the Man explained with a small smile that did nothing to hide the way his eyes grew somber. "Mari was a great mother. She understood our kids better than I ever did. She's the one who told me that I couldn't treat them like they were copies of each other like my parents did with my brothers and I. I would be lost if it wasn't for her."

"She sounds like a wise Woman," he commented quietly as he watched his friend closely.

"She was, but you would never know it with the way she behaved," Bard said as his smile eased into a grin that softened his face greatly. "She was such a little devil! Always mouthing off to someone and making people laugh or scream. She didn't take crap from anyone and could easily level a grown Man with one look. I think Tilda is the most like her in personality, but Bain takes after her in looks."

"You miss her a lot," Beorn commented with a sympathetic smile.

Bard returned it with a smile that Bilbo knew all too well. "Every damn day of my life, Beorn, every damn day."

 


 

The sun fell and rose again without Tauriel returning to the camp. With no other choice, they remained in their camp and continued to wait for the Elf to appear. It was while waiting for their comrade to return that Bilbo found himself alerted to an unpleasant development.

"So we're being followed," Beorn commented out of the blue as he examined his nails.

Bard and Bilbo looked up from their game of dirt hangman to stare at the shape-shifter. "By what?" asked the Man before Bilbo could speak up.

Beorn shrugged his shoulders. "Don't know. It is a creature that crawls about on all fours and talks to itself. The kitten and I noticed it a few days ago, but since it hasn't made a move on us so we left it alone."

The Hobbit groaned and rubbed his face. He knew that description all too well. "It's Gollum."

Bard turned back to him and blinked. "What?"

"Gollum. He possessed the ring before me," he clarified quickly. "He is now a slave to it and is trying to take it back."

"Why do you not sound more alarmed by this?" the Man asked as he glanced at the forest from the corner of his eye.

"He's crazy and untrustworthy, but harmless as long as you keep an eye on him," he explained with a shrug. "As long as we watch him we'll be fine."

Beorn winked. "Leave it to me. The little worm won't move without me knowing so."

Bilbo nodded and looked to the forest as well. Though he could not see any hint of the creature, he knew it was watching his every move. But where he once would have felt unnerved by it, now all he felt was a grim determination to complete his mission at all costs.

Watch and wait all you want, fiend. Nothing you or anyone else try to do will stop me from destroying the One Ring for good.

 


 

Chapter Text

 


 

Once upon a time there lived a little girl named Minastauriel.

She was a common enough child among her people; sweet and innocent and filled with endless energy. There was nothing particularly striking about her nor was there anything horribly wrong. She was just another child of Mirkwood; beautiful and free as she danced with the leaves and raced the wind.

Minastauriel loved her life and never dreamed of being someone else. She was happy enough chasing her older sister through the trees, or learning the bow from her father. She looked forward to helping her mother cook and sew and clean, and could not imagine anything better than sitting down with her family to listen to her mother's tales of days long passed. She would have spent the rest of her days like this if she could; loved and protected and so very happy. Minastauriel did not need fame or riches or power because none of it would ever make her as happy as she was with her family.

But that life ended the day her parents and sister were killed by Orcs.

Though no one knew it, Minastauriel died that day too. The innocent girl who believed that the world was a wonderful and safe place was butchered with her family one cold day in winter. Now all that remained of that girl was anger and grief and a thirst for justice. Minastauriel died a brutal death, and in her place Tauriel was born.

Tauriel was everything that Minastauriel could never be. She was strong and courageous and could kill without flinching. She was a warrior who no longer fled from the Orcs, but actually hunted them down. She was renowned through the kingdom for her skills and tactics and even earned her king's approval. She had power and fame and riches and everything else that Minastauriel never had. Yes, Tauriel was everything that Minastauriel could never have been.

Tauriel was everything Minastauriel had (never) wanted to be.

Minastauriel's story never got a happy ending like other stories. No, hers ended in blood and death and rebirth. Tauriel couldn't change Minastauriel's story, but she could change the ending for others. She could ensure that people like Minastauriel got their happy ending instead of the tragedy that she had endured. And through all of it, Tauriel hoped that somehow she too would find her (Minastauriel's) happy ending one day.

 


 

When Tauriel finally returned, two days had gone by.

"Took you long enough," Bard commented the moment the Elf stepped into the camp.

Tauriel flashed him a vicious glare. She was dirty and unkempt and her hair was a mess, but her shoulders were relaxed and her posture at ease. "Next time we'll send you into the forest to track down the scouts. Does that sound fair?"

"Did you find them?" Bilbo asked before the Man could retort and begin another argument. He was really not in the mood for another round between the two.

Tauriel gave Bard one last poisonous look before looking to the Hobbit. "Yes. I gave them my report and told them to take it to the king. With luck, he'll get it by the end of the week."

"Did you have a lot of trouble finding them?" Beorn wondered as he stared at the Elf's shoulder with narrowed eyes and a frown.

The archer shrugged and gave the bear a smile that didn't reach her eyes. "I had a small run-in with some spiders, but I handled them easily enough. I'm fine now."

"Hmp. That doesn't smell 'fine' to me," the shape-shifter muttered, his dark eyes flaring as he continued to stare her shoulder. "It smells bloody and diseased. You were poisoned by those overgrown insects."

Tauriel blinked rapidly for a moment; obviously taken back by Beorn's assessment. Then her eyes softened and her smile melted into something true and genuine. "Yes, they did manage to hurt me during a fight, but I was able to treat the wound before it grew into something fatal. Do not worry about it, Beorn. I'll be fine."

"Still, it wouldn't hurt to double-check it before we leave," Bilbo pointed out as he took note of the dark circles under Tauriel's eyes. He had a feeling the Elf had been on the move without stopping since she left. "And I think you should rest for a moment before we leave. You look like the walking dead."

"She always looks like that," Bard muttered.

Beorn nodded quickly. "The bunny is right. Sit down and rest and let me see your wound. You'll be of no help if you faint."

The Elf rolled her eyes and threw her hands up in the air. "Fine, fine, you win. I swear, you lot are almost as bad as my king when Legolas gets a hangnail…"

Bilbo snorted and traded a look with Beorn as the Elf began to tug off her vest and tunic without hesitation. When her clothes were finally gone, he found himself blinking in surprise at the dark cloth wrapped around her upper chest.

"Why are you wearing that?" he asked, pointing to his own chest to show where he was looking.

"I bind my breasts so they don't get in the way during battle," the archer explained, raising a brow as she looked over the three males. "Why else do you think my chest looks so flat all the time?"

"Ehh, I just assumed it was an Elf thing," Beorn replied with as much shame that Tauriel had shown when undressing. "I noticed that most of them tend to be on the smaller size."

"Are you sure you weren't looking at the males?" Bard wondered as he carefully avoided looking at Tauriel. Bilbo noticed that he was also turning red and made a mental note to mock him for it at a later date.

Tauriel looked over her shoulder to scowl at the Man. "Would you stop encouraging the rumor that my kinsmen look like females—!"

"It's not a rumor, it's a fact," Bard argued back as he kept his gaze fixed firmly on the Elf's face.

"I didn't know your breasts got in the way during battle," Bilbo commented as he rubbed one of his beads. "Then again, I don't know much about breasts in the first place so…"

"I can draw my bow faster with them bound," the she-Elf explained as she pretended to pull out her bow from behind to demonstrate. "In the past, some female warriors would even cut off one or both of their breasts in order to increase their skills."

"Ouch. That sounds painful even to me," Bard admitted, flinching.

Tauriel simply shrugged and began to undo the bandage around her shoulder. "We do what we must to win. In battle, even the smallest detail can decide whether you live or die."

Bilbo nodded and then winced when he saw what laid under the bandage. Tauriel's wound was still an open sore with oozing blood and pus. The only bright side he could find in the sight was that there was no poison or rotting flesh from the spider's venom.

When Beorn saw the wound, he inhaled sharply through his nose and pulled his mouth back into a snarl. "It's 'fine,' huh? I hate to see your definition of 'bad' then."

The archer raised a fine brow and tossed her hair over her unwounded shoulder. "I'm a warrior, Beorn. The captain of the king's guards. I've endured worse wounds than this little scratch."

"We're not playing the 'compare scars game,' kitten," the bear growled back, dark eyes flashing.

"That's too bad. I'm pretty sure I would win," Bard commented from the sidelines.

Bilbo snorted and gave his friend the same look he used to give Merry and Pippin when they tried to lie to him about stealing his vegetables. "The scratch you got from the scared raccoon the other day doesn't count."

"It wasn't a raccoon," the Man argued back with genuine passion, "it was a demonic beast!"

"It was as big as my thigh! And it squeaked when it saw you!"

"Are you going to clean her wound out, bunny, or keep taunting the pup?" Beorn asked, interrupting their argument without breaking his own silent argument with Tauriel.

The Hobbit carefully looked between the two and weighed his options. "I don't know. Which one doesn't end with me getting stabbed?"

"You can clean my wound, Bilbo," Tauriel assured, her voice softening a fraction even as her glare stayed strong. "After all, you're not the one treating me like a child."

"I'm not treating you like a child—!"

"Then what else would you call this coddling—?"

"Because that's what Beorn does," Bilbo replied before the shape-shifter could answer. He nodded his head to the bear in question as he began to pull out a bottle and bandages from his pack. "He's really very motherly when you come down to it. Why do you think animals love him so much?"

The Elf blinked a few times before looking between the Hobbit and shape-shifter in consideration. "Is that true, Beorn? Are you really a mother hen?"

The bear shrugged his colossal shoulders as his cheeks began to bloom into a faint pink. "Well, can't help it really. Part of my nature to protect and defend and all that shit. It's what my Mother created me for."

"Oh." The archer glanced down at the Hobbit in front of her as he began to apply one of Óin's salves to her wound. Bilbo saw the question in her eyes and shrugged his shoulders in answer.

"Just accept it," he advised, wiping some of the pus from her wound as he rubbed the green goo into her injury.

"Very well. I apologize for jumping down your throat like that, Master Beorn," the Elf said formally as she looked over Bilbo's head to meet Beorn's gaze. "I am just not used to having someone so fixated on my wellbeing. It is usually the other way around."

The bear nodded and crossed his arms over his chest. "It's fine. Just… don't fight it next time, okay? There are few people that I can worry about so let me fret like some clucky great-aunt."

Tauriel nodded. Her face had relaxed back into its natural softness and her eyes no longer looked to be spitting fire as she looked at the shape-shifter. "I will keep that in mind then for future occurrences."

"Promising to let him worry about you the next time you get hurt isn't really comforting," Bard pointed out with a smirk because he obviously thrived on causing trouble. Bilbo was beginning to miss the old Bard who used to stand around glaring at random objects in the room. At least then he could be counted on to be quiet.

"Would anyone really care if I fed you to the spiders?" the Elf wondered as she slowly narrowed her eyes at the Man.

Beorn snorted. "His children would."

"They'd get over it. Children are very resilient," she persisted as Bilbo began to wrap a clean bandage around her shoulder.

"Tauriel, we're not feeding him to the spiders," Bilbo said firmly without looking away from his task. "We need someone to test any traps or act as bait for the enemy, remember?"

"Heartless. Just heartless. I'll remember this later at dinner," promised the Man.

Bilbo nodded as he finished wrapping Tauriel's wound. Once done, he stood up and looked over his friends before jerking his chin to the south. "Everyone up now. It's time we get a move on. We still have a long way to go."

 


 

It took another week before they finally came to a place that Bilbo had not been looking forward to from the start.

"Dol Guldur," he said grimly as he looked upon the decaying fortress that loomed over the forest. "It is just as dark as I envisioned it to be."

"Why does your king keep such a place around?" Bard asked Tauriel as he squinted up at the rising towers. "It looks like something out of a bad fairy tale."

"It used to be the capital city of his father, King Oropher, when he ruled these lands. After he died, my king abandoned it and took our people north to live," Tauriel explained calmly. "As to why he never destroyed it, I don't think he could bring himself to do it as it once belonged to his father. My king was very close to the late lord."

"Did you ever meet him? King Oropher?" Bilbo asked, glancing at the Elf from the corner of his eye.

The captain shook her head. "No. He died long before I was born. From what I've heard of him, he was very tall and very wise. Legolas supposedly looks a great deal like him."

"He does. A bit shorter and his eyes are blue rather than green, but other than that he's the spitting image of his grandfather," Beorn commented as he stretched his arms out before him until his joints cracked. "Thranduil looks like him too, but not nearly as much as his son. Funny how blood works."

The three turned to look at him in mutual surprise.

"You knew Oropher?" Bard asked, raising both his eyebrows.

"How?" Tauriel wondered as she furrowed her own brows.

"I think the better question would be when," Bilbo muttered as he too stared at his tall friend.

The shape-shifter shrugged and gave them a half smile. "For a time. It was when I was younger and masquerading as an Elf in order to understand them better. Oropher… He was not what you'd expect from a king. He never saw himself above his people, but rather as their equal. He used to sit with them and talk and eat and laugh like they were family. They loved him for that. Why so many of them were willing to follow him and die with him."

"Wow. He sounds nothing like Thranduil," the Hobbit mused, rubbing one of his beads in thought.

Tauriel nodded as she stared at Dol Guldur with a distant look in her eyes. "No, but it does explains a lot about him. My king has always been firm in keeping us away from the outside world, and he has always made it clear that he was our leader and not a friend. I suppose he was trying to be everything he thought his father was supposed to be."

Beorn shook his head. "No. I saw Thranduil when Oropher was still around. He adored his father; practically worshiped the ground he walked. If anything, he probably resented them for taking his father away. Probably why he hates outsiders too. Oropher always believed in protecting all of Middle-Earth, regardless of race. It's what got him killed in the end."

"Were you two close?" Bard asked as he studied the bear.

"Nah. Spoke to him a few times, but I mostly kept my distance. Didn't want to tip him off that I wasn't really an Elf," the shape-shifter explained with a grin. "So shall we camp here in the shadows of the creepy fortress for the night?"

"Why not? Actually, why don't we just go the whole nine yards and set up camp in Dol Guldur?" Bilbo suggested with a large and obviously fake smile.

Beorn squinted at him. "I'm sensing some sarcasm in your words."

"Picked up on that did ya?" Tauriel muttered as she rolled her eyes and stalked off towards the ruins. "Come along, boys, and don't let the fortress scare you! I promise I won't let the spiders crawl into your beddings. Or your ears in some cases."

Bard and Bilbo exchanged an alarmed look before following after the Elf with a laughing Beorn. "That was a joke right, Tauriel? Right? Tauriel!"

Her laughter was the only answer they received.

 


 

Though he hated it, Bilbo found himself setting up camp that night with the rest of his comrades in the view of Dol Guldur. He tried his best to ignore the dark fortress as he went about his tasks, but it was very hard as he recalled the stories he heard from Gandalf, and his own haunting dream of Sauron. What if the Dark Lord truly lurked within the ruins? Would he feel the ring and come looking for it? Bilbo knew his comrades were strong and skilled, but he really doubted even they could stand up against the Dark Lord.

Soon, soon, soon, the ring crooned to him as it sensed his fears. He will come soon. Soon, soon, soon…

Not before I throw you into the volcano, he snarled back as he paused in collecting some wood to rub his forehead. His headache had returned with a vengeance and it seemed to worsen every time the ring whispered to him.

The ring laughed at him. Lies, all lies. He is coming and all will feel His wrath once more. Soon He will be whole and We will be One again.

He felt something cold trickle down his spine and tried to ignore it. What are you talking about? How do you know if Sauron is coming or not? And why would you even tell me that?

Soon, soon, so very soon, the ring continued to chant with a childlike glee as it ignored his questions. So close, so close, so very close!

Bilbo closed his eyes tightly and tried to block out the ramblings of the ring. You're bluffing. Your Master doesn't know where you are. If he did then he would have found you by now—

A high pitched shriek broke his train of thought and made him jump.

"What the hell was that?" Bard asked as he got to his feet with his bow in hand.

"Nothing good," replied Tauriel as she too rose and scanned the forest around them.

Beorn raised his head and titled it to the side as if listening to something far away. "Sounds like horses. About a dozen, maybe even more. They're moving awfully fast…"

"Which direction?" Tauriel questioned as she continued to scan the area.

Beorn pointed to the left of him. "South. They're coming from the south."

The Elf immediately began to climb a tree to the top and looked out in the direction that the shape-shifted had pointed to. Soon they heard her curse and drop down to meet them with her face twisted in an expression that they had never seen before.

"It is the Ulairi," she spat with clear disgust.

Bilbo felt his skin erupt in goose bumps. "The Nazgûl? The Ring-wraiths?!"

"Are you sure?" Beorn questioned with a frown.

The archer nodded. "Yes. Though I have never seen them before, I know of the signs to look for. The Ulairi have found us."

"Which means that Sauron has found us," Bard translated with a remarkably calm face. "What do we do now? Do we stay and fight or run for our lives?"

"We cannot all outrun them," Beorn replied firmly as he began to pull off his shift. "So some will have to stand and fight."

Tauriel nodded as she pulled out her bow. "Agreed. You and I shall hold them off for the moment. Bard, take Bilbo and get as far away from this place as possible."

"What? No, we are not leaving you two here to die!" Bilbo objected as he glared at the Elf and bear only to be ignored.

"Are you sure?" Bard asked softly as he met the Elf's eyes.

The captain nodded again with a firm set to her jaw. "Yes. We must keep the ring from them at all costs. Get Bilbo away and further into Mirkwood. With luck, one of the scouts will find you two and take you to the king."

"And no matter what you hear, don't look back," Beorn added before he began to transform into his second form.

He looked between his friends with growing horror. "No, we can't do this, we just can't! We can't leave you two here to die just to give us a head start!"

"We're not dying to give you a head start," Tauriel denied as she climbed to sit on top of the bear. Once seated comfortably, she gave the Hobbit one of her smiles that made her eyes sparkle and cheekbones stand out.

"We are dying in order to protect the world from Sauron," she corrected softly before nudging Beorn with her heel. Then before Bilbo could object once more, the bear turned and galloped off into the forest with Tauriel's red hair billowing out behind them like a bloody banner.