1. The Only Choice
Bilbo woke up with a feeling unlike anything he had experienced before. He felt spent, but something warm and fuzzy burned softly in his chest, making him smile as he opened his eyes. The milky ray of sunlight coming through the well in the ceiling told him it was morning. He stretched his body whole, from the tips of his fingers to the tips of his toes, then turned his head to check on the rightful owner of the bed that he was lying in.
His eyes met Thorin's wide, muscular back, and his splendid mane of curled hair resting on his pillow. The grey fur blanket covering them both was lowered to Thorin's waist, leaving the upper part of his body naked. There was still a bandage on his visible arm, and a long, fresh scar streaked like a red flash of fire across his left shoulder. It looked painful. Fighting the urge to touch it, Bilbo's hand journeyed instead to Thorin's hair, knowing that he would not have been able to feel anything that way. Disturbing him from much-needed sleep was not a risk, so Bilbo went ahead and buried his fingers in that thick cloud of dark pleasure.
He had been blissfully toying with Thorin's hair for a few good minutes, when he heard his bed mate breathe in deeply and exhale a faint moan. He was waking up. Bilbo withdrew his wandering hand and watched in anticipation as Thorin rolled over on his back. A few seconds elapsed before he opened his eyes, but, as soon as he did, he turned his gaze to Bilbo, smiling for a morning greeting.
"I was… playing with your hair," said Bilbo, smiling back, "I hope you don't mind."
Thorin furrowed his brows. "Of course not." He did not seem upset, just confused at Bilbo's exaggerated deference. They had just shared a most intimate experience. Surely Bilbo didn't need to ask for permission to touch his hair. Bilbo wondered at his own silliness.
"Are you well?" asked Thorin, interrupting the awkwardness of the moment. The wrinkles above his nose had disappeared. His tone was purely inquisitive. He only wanted to know if the previous night's events had left no traces of unpleasantness in his favourite hobbit. There he was again, being uncharacteristically careful.
"Very well," said Bilbo with a bright grin that he hoped would settle Thorin's concern once and for all.
Indeed, Thorin began to smile again, appearing pleased with the answer that he had received, and a little flattered. He shifted on one side to face Bilbo and locked eyes with him. Bilbo enjoyed looking into Thorin's marvellous eyes even more than playing with his hair. They were more radiant than the Arkenstone itself. Bilbo had never thought that a dwarf could have such stunning blue eyes. Not that he had met that many dwarves before twelve of them had come bustling through the door of his home, followed by the more decorous entrance of a thirteenth. A particularly agreeable appearance was simply not something his mind had associated with dwarves. But Thorin was incredible, and Bilbo could swear that he had the most beautiful eyes he had ever seen. As pleasant as they were to look at, however, Bilbo found it difficult to sustain their gaze, for they had another quality. They were as piercing as the blade of Thorin's sword, and even if Bilbo hadn't been terribly intimidated at first, he had begun to feel particularly vulnerable of late.
Thorin was a King under the Mountain now, and he had chosen Bilbo to trust with the part of himself that he usually kept well hidden under layers of metal armour and royal importance. Ever since they had exchanged fond confessions, and especially after overcoming the terror that Thorin might die from his wounds, Bilbo had become overly sensitive to his presence. And he felt so much more than he knew how to express. It was nothing like the sweet, simple affection that he had experienced occasionally in the Shire. This was heavy and overpowering. It shortened his breath and tugged like a claw at his chest. Sometimes he wanted to run, back to the Shire, or to Rivendell, or anywhere as long as it was far away from the Lonely Mountain and its King. He wanted to run now, but instead, he let his eyes drift down to Thorin's beard. It was still, painfully, Thorin, but the sight of his trim dark beard dissolving slowly along the underside of his chin was easier to bear than looking him straight in the eye.
"Bilbo, you would tell me if something were wrong?" asked Thorin, the dense tone of his voice filling Bilbo's ears to the brim. He sounded so thankfully unaware of the torment raging inside Bilbo's head.
"Nothing is wrong," said Bilbo, looking back up, unable to hold a smile. Thorin's tenderness was in itself not only overwhelming, but also unexpected. Bilbo had initially attributed his soft disposition to exhaustion from illness, yet it had survived well beyond being bedridden and in need of care. It sprang from somewhere else. To know that Thorin harboured such deep feelings for him was comforting for Bilbo, although it came with added responsibility. He was sure that Thorin loved him in a different way than he loved Thorin, but somewhere in that whirlwind of emotions, they met on common ground. Bilbo could only hope that he would eventually be able to prove himself.
"We should have waited." Thorin's voice trailed, his gaze losing focus as if he was only saying that to himself.
"What?" asked Bilbo, the wistful haze that had settled over his mind scattering quickly. It was happening again. He kept hurting Thorin's feelings instead of rewarding them. Just because his Took side seemed to have never entered Erebor with him.
"It was too soon, I should have known -"
"No, Thorin," said Bilbo, daring to extend a hand to Thorin's forehead and fighting to muster as much assurance into his voice as he could in that moment. "I came to you, remember?" Thorin's gaze refocused on Bilbo's, expectant. "You did nothing wrong. Really, it's my fault, all of it."
Thorin looked somewhat pacified by the touch of Bilbo's fingers, but still disconcerted. "I do not understand," he said, his eyes starting to lose their waking clarity. "I'm sorry, I can't," he began but couldn't carry a whole sentence before his eyelids started to fall against his will.
"It's all right, Thorin, go back to sleep. You need it," said Bilbo.
"Tell me later?" whispered Thorin, already half asleep.
"Yes, I will tell you later."
An expression of satisfied comfort settled on Thorin's face as Bilbo's thumb lightly rubbed the shallow vertical crease in the middle of his forehead. With his free hand, Bilbo pulled the fur over Thorin's shoulders. He seemed to be melting under its warmth, his head sinking into the pillow, his eyelids shutting tightly. Bilbo watched patiently as Thorin surrendered once more to soothing unawareness. He didn't look intimidating when he was asleep. He looked sweet and peaceful, vulnerable even, and Bilbo found himself once more as his barely adequate guardian.
Inevitably, the still fresh memory of guarding Thorin's agony bed inched itself to the front of Bilbo's mind. Thorin had looked more than vulnerable then. The marble paleness of his skin, the translucent, polished purple of his eyelids. He had looked strangely beautiful in his hour of defeat. To everyone else, he had been, of course, victorious. He had taken back his kingdom and returned to his people their home and their fortune. But if he himself could not live the dream that he had given everything to achieve, then, for Bilbo, it would have been no victory.
Bilbo still had an occasional knot flaring up in his back from sleeping in an armchair instead of a bed for far too long, against the repeated and concerted appeals of the other members of the company. Thorin's last whispered words to him before slipping into darkness had filled him with gut-wrenching guilt. "Forgive me. I love you." Even now, when all was well, those words scorched his insides. Bilbo had not dared think that Thorin might ever feel for him anything more than friendship, at best, and the words and deeds exchanged between them towards the end of the adventure had not been indicative of anything other than the opposite. To hear the truth from Thorin had been to realise exactly what his betrayal had meant and what he was standing to lose. "I'm sorry," he had whispered back, without much hope of having been heard.
Yet, the uncrowned King of Erebor had refused to die. One day, his eyes had struggled open and Bilbo had felt more grateful for that than for anything in all his life. He had been granted a second chance to tell Thorin, "I'm sorry about everything. I'm sorry for taking the Arkenstone, for betraying your trust. I love you, too." Thorin had only been able to respond with a jaded smile, carrying no inkling of surprise. It had been enough, however, for Bilbo to understand that he had been heard and forgiven, but also to discover that his feelings had not been a secret to Thorin. More guilt. His treachery, apparently, had run deeper still. Thorin had not only been betrayed by someone he loved, but by someone that he knew loved him back. Someone who should have abandoned all reason for him. Bilbo had been tempted, but he had thought of the responsibility that Gandalf had laid upon him, to be braver than he thought he could be. He would have done the same thing had he known that Thorin was conscious of his affection, and that awareness had made him feel wretchedly undeserving as he had stared into Thorin's beautiful blue eyes and seen a love never before directed at him. "I truly am sorry," he had said. Thorin had shaken his head slightly and managed to say, in a wisp of a voice that barely sounded like his own, "No, you did what was right."
Bilbo smiled to himself. While his thoughts had fluttered back uninterrupted to less fortunate times, Thorin had fallen back into a deep slumber, far removed from danger or pain. He was finally able to rest.
It would have been lovely to join him, but Bilbo's stomach was beginning to protest the late morning. Resolving that Thorin would be fine on his own, Bilbo got out of bed.
Moments later, groomed and dressed to his satisfaction, he peeked once more at the sleeping Thorin, and then walked gingerly out of the room, meaning to make as little noise as possible. His considerate effort was however rendered futile by an explosive "Bilbo!" shot from down the hall in the combined voices of Fili and Kili. It almost caused him to slam the door shut. He fortunately caught himself in time and sighed deeply, swaying his head. Those two were incorrigible.
"Shhh," he said as the two youngsters approached and planted strong hands on both his shoulders, shaking him violently. "Thorin's sleeping!" Exasperated, he looked up at them, hoping that eye contact might drive the message home.
No such luck. The information that they needed to be quiet did not seem to get through to either of them. They snickered at each other audibly, then Kili said in his usual hearty tone, "You managed to exhaust him, 'ey?"
"Yes, I'm going to exhaust an enormous dwarf," said Bilbo, realising quickly that he would come to regret his propensity for sarcasm.
Indeed, his remark attracted a roar of jeering from both royal nephews.
"Enormous, huh!" said Kili through wild giggles. He eyed Bilbo with a naughty look and slapped him hard on his back, almost causing him to topple forward and hit his head on the big wooden door that he had just closed.
Bilbo's chin dropped helpless into his chest, and his right hand went to his forehead. It never ended. Even without his saying anything about his relationship with Thorin, they were giving him a hard time with every opportunity. He cursed himself, realising that this time he had caused his own misfortune.
"Honestly," he said, not bothering to look up, "keep your voice down."
"Don't worry, Bilbo," said Kili in a tone that indicated at last his willingness to adopt a more serious demeanour. "Dwarves can sleep through anything, especially after all that uncle has been through."
Bilbo raised his gaze, encouraged by the fact that Kili was acknowledging the true reason for Thorin's weariness. He breathed more easily as the two brothers were now simply smiling down at him, their own faces showing signs of fatigue that had not been there at the start of their adventure together. He smiled back, instantly regretting his annoyance. They were not trying to make him uncomfortable. They were simply finding their way back to a normal life, and amusement was certainly part of normal life for them. Bilbo felt a sudden wave of affection for the two young dwarves, especially since, as their less impudent selves, they clearly had something of Thorin's majestic bearing. Kili even had his dark hair, and the potential for producing that blood-curdling stare.
"Come on," said Fili, putting an arm gently around Bilbo. "Join us for breakfast."
"Pleasure," answered Bilbo and preceded the two brothers into the great dining hall of Erebor.
The atmosphere was that to which he had already become accustomed. Noisy, unreserved laughter, shouting and knocking of metal pints, content groans over tasty food. It was like a big party every time the dwarves had a meal, and Bilbo had come to greatly enjoy these moments.
As he walked through the tables with Fili and Kili behind him, he noticed that the dwarves they were passing by were giving small, respectful nods of acknowledgement. It made Bilbo feel awkward. The greetings were for the two princes, obviously, but he felt strange to walk before them and indirectly receive such a level of attention. He had known from the beginning of their adventure that Thorin, Fili and Kili were royalty among their folk. Thorin had always worn his stature with open, hefty pride. Even out of his armour and furs, he looked regal. Fili and Kili, on the other hand, had simply acted their age. They had been mischievous, unpretentious, typical young dwarves, and they had been delightfully friendly to Bilbo. With them, he had never felt the distance that their standing might have imposed and that he had felt with Thorin. He continued to feel it even now, when they were close.
However, the situation had changed. They were back in Erebor, no longer homeless wanderers. Thorin continued to radiate dignified aristocracy, only it was even more overwhelming now that he actually had a kingdom to rule. Fili and Kili had also kept their informal conduct, as proven by the conversation they had just had with Bilbo outside their uncle's chambers, but their position as royal heirs was no longer something that Bilbo remembered fleetingly whenever Thorin might have directed an affectionate glance at them. Instances like Bilbo was witnessing at that moment, when the two brothers were shown reverence in spite of their youth, were quite humbling. He hoped he would eventually get used to having such important friends.
While Bilbo pondered his inadequacy, they reached their intended table where the rest of the company were sitting. Bilbo greeted everyone, then sat between Fili and Kili, as they had indicated. The seat at the very head of the table had been conspicuously left empty. It was most probably for Thorin, for whenever he might have felt ready to join them, although Bilbo was wondering if it was even proper for a king to serve his meals in the great hall, with his subjects. He had not been officially crowned yet, but he was king by right.
Bilbo's thoughts were again interrupted by a steaming plate of stew being shoved under his nose by Bombur. The tempting aroma stirred his senses, chasing his pensive mood. He grabbed his spoon and began eating, exchanging eager glances with his table companions.
He was almost done when something caused him to stop short, spoon suspended in mid-air between his plate and his mouth. The echo of heavy boots and steady walking came through the hall. As the sound approached, the heated conversations faded into murmurs. Bilbo couldn't see from behind the thick stone pillar obstructing his view, but he knew what all that meant. Thorin was coming. He had mentioned something the night before about feeling strong enough to join his friends for a meal. It appeared as though he had meant it.
Bilbo felt his heart start to pound, thuds gaining weight as the well-paced steps came closer. His heart beat now as fast as it had the previous night, when Thorin had leaned over him with serious intentions for the first time. Bilbo's heartbeat had been so loud that it had caused Thorin to worry. Instead of finishing his lean with the intended kiss, he had placed his face gently on Bilbo's chest, furry cheek warm over his booming heart. Thorin had even suggested that they postpone their moment of intimacy for another time when Bilbo might have felt less agitated. Greatly touched by Thorin's thoughtfulness, Bilbo had dared take a shivering hand to the top of Thorin's head. Coiling his fingers into the thick hair flowing from it, he had explained that it wasn't reluctance. He didn't really know what it was – well, he knew, he loved Thorin too much, but he couldn't really say that to him – but he was confident that he would be able to handle it. He had encouraged Thorin to continue. Still hesitant, raising a pair of enlarged eyes to Bilbo that threatened to make his heartbeat stop completely, Thorin had asked if he was certain. His fingers still tangled in the dwarf's hair, Bilbo had nodded and pulled Thorin's head closer for a kiss. Fortunately, Thorin had found this convincing enough, but he had been exceptionally careful.
Bilbo couldn't remember ever meeting a more contrasting being than the Dwarf King. So stern in appearance, with a will tougher than the strongest iron, so fierce in battle, yet capable of such protective love as he felt for his two nephews, or such profound tenderness as he had shown to Bilbo the previous night. The memory of it was only aggravating Bilbo's current state of agitation, sending his head into a whizzing stupor. He had even forgotten to decide what to do with his spoon, which was still hovering above his bowl.
"Breathe, Bilbo, if you can remember how," an amused voice whispered into his ear, while a strange hand pressed gently against his own spoon-clutching hand, bringing it down to the level of the table. It was Fili, who had apparently noticed that Bilbo was melting into his seat. Bilbo blinked at him, raising his eyebrows in confusion, then redirected his gaze to the place where he was expecting Thorin to appear momentarily.
Indeed, after a few more seconds of waiting, Thorin's head came into view, followed by his entire impressive figure, as he advanced towards the table where his special friends were sitting. He seemed well rested and pleased with the attention that he was receiving. Bilbo was thankful to be sitting down. Thorin looked utterly glorious in a rich blue overcoat with intricate silver trimmings running down the sides of his chest, and a thin collar of black, shiny fur, raised slightly around the neck, framing the lower part of his throat left exposed by the dark shirt underneath. He was wearing his usual braids, but there was also a glinting lace of gold weaving in and out. At their ends, his braids were no longer held together by simple golden cuffs, but by two longer clips studded with twinkling gems of various shades of blue and grey. He was obviously home, where he had access to more kingly garments, but Bilbo found that he was not really prepared to see him dressed like a king. And he was sure this was actually toned down from what he might wear in more official situations. It was enough, however, to take Bilbo's breath away.
Thorin smiled at everyone at the table and inclined his forehead only slightly, responding to their deeper bows. He walked towards his saved seat, choosing the side that Bilbo was sitting on. As he passed by his chair, Thorin stopped for a second to lay a hand on Bilbo's shoulder, squeezing gently. Bilbo resisted the urge to look up at him with incredulous eyes. He hadn't expected Thorin to acknowledge him like that in front of everyone. It was just a squeeze of the shoulder, but Bilbo was a little hobbit and Thorin a king over the rest of the people in that room. Bilbo watched him in a daze as he walked on towards his chair and sat down. Thorin's manoeuvre, which he suspected was meant specifically to reduce his anxiety again, had worked. Bilbo regained most of his composure and even became comfortable as Thorin gave him a secretive little grin from the head of the table. Bilbo smiled back, heartened by the incredible courtesy that he was being shown.
It was only after he had been able to relax that Bilbo noticed Fili and Kili positively beaming at both his sides. Fili was sitting at Thorin's right, as was proper, then came their hobbit friend, and Kili. This arrangement was somewhat irregular if the rules of seating by rank were to be observed. No one seemed particularly upset by it, however.
"We hope you don't mind, uncle, that we let Bilbo sit between the two of us," said Fili eagerly, apparently wanting to check with the person at the table that was most likely to take offence.
Bilbo's ears turned red as he heard his name mentioned, fixing his eyes back on his plate.
"No, no, it's fine," said Thorin mildly. "So what must I do to get some food?"
"Oh, allow me," said Kili, jumping from his seat. Fili followed him, leaving the space between Thorin and Bilbo empty.
Bilbo couldn't resist looking up after all. Thorin was smiling at him softly, the image of his dark, brooding self a ghostly memory of a life past. This was Thorin delivered from his burden, the ill fire in his heart extinguished, and Bilbo wondered what he had been like as a young prince, before the coming of the dragon. Had he been a mischievous prankster like his nephews? Very likely. Bilbo was convinced, at any rate, that he had been more easy-going. He had surely taken part in his share of raucous partying, and his laughter had probably filled the dim halls of Erebor many times. Bilbo realised that he didn't know what Thorin's laughter sounded like. He wasn't laughing now. His face was animated only by a kind smile, slightly time-worn, like the silver strands in his otherwise still luxuriant hair, but very comforting to look at.
After gracing Bilbo for a few good seconds, Thorin's smile acknowledged the other occupants of the table with equal fondness. Bilbo couldn't take his eyes away from Thorin, so he couldn't see the expressions on the other dwarves' faces, but he was certain that they were quite happy to be reunited with their King under such auspicious circumstances.
Of course, no one was more elated than Thorin's younger nephew, who reappeared shortly, carrying a tray full of Bombur's finest cooking. He placed it neatly in front of his uncle, then both brothers retook their seats, watching intently to see if their offering was being well received.
Thorin looked puzzled at the excessive but, nonetheless, appetising selection of food. It truly was a kingly meal. "You plan to help me with this, do you?" he said, addressing both of his nephews in a tone that sounded at least half serious.
"You need to recover your strength, uncle," answered Kili. Obviously, everything about their uncle appeared magnified to the two princes, even his appetite.
"Of course," said Thorin, sighing, and shot an amused glance at the rest of the company. Everyone chuckled under their breath, including Bilbo, who secretly found comfort in the fact that he was not the only one with an exaggerated view of the Dwarf King. At the same time, he felt overcome with another wave of affection for Fili and Kili. They loved their uncle dearly.
Thorin took hold of his fork and began eating with the same exquisite manners that had first impressed Bilbo. Even if he was hungry, and Bilbo knew for a fact that the food was good, there was no particular indication of pleasure on Thorin's face, nor any audible manifestation of content. Bilbo wondered if self-restraint was a natural attribute that came with royal blood, or an acquired skill. Judging by the way Fili and Kili conducted themselves, Bilbo was inclined to think that it was acquired.
"So," Thorin said, looking up from his plate, at his two most eager admirers, "how are you two managing?"
"Excellent," said Fili, brimming with satisfaction. "In fact, we resumed our training yesterday."
"I am glad to hear it," said Thorin and took another small bite of the delicious rabbit leg that was Bombur's specialty. "Maybe you can include Bilbo in your training, if he wants, of course."
His gaze was now directed at Bilbo, who had not expected to be involved in this family conversation. "What?" he asked, eyes widening. "Oh, yes, sure," he said, doing his best to exercise as much self-restraint as he was capable of. The idea of taking advanced combat lessons from Fili and Kili excited and flattered him to no small degree.
"We'd love to!" said the two proud prospective teachers, each planting firm hands on Bilbo's shoulders, pinning him to the back of his chair.
"I hope you don't intend to use me as a punching bag," said Bilbo, wryly.
"Don't worry, Bilbo," said Fili with a wink, "we'll just teach you how to master that sword of yours."
"I thought it was a letter opener," said Bilbo glancing quickly at Balin, who was sitting at the other end of the table.
Balin gave a smile of concession. "I take it back, laddie. Obviously, it is a sword."
Bilbo returned the smile, then looked back to Thorin, who was watching the conversation with what appeared to be caring pride glowing on his face. Thorin was proud of him! He had, after all, saved the quest from disaster a few times. Perhaps he was not that undeserving of the dwarves' respect.
Bilbo's heart continued to grow with a healthy sense of self-worth as the meal progressed, but it had sunk slightly by evening, as he had been wandering mostly alone through Erebor. Thorin had taken his leave after the prolonged breakfast to tend to some long-due responsibilities that came with his high standing. Unfortunately, Bilbo himself couldn't follow where Thorin the King went.
He had, of course, his own little duties to perform. The royal library still required a fair amount of cataloguing and dusting before it could actually be called a library. But this was the first day when he would have had to do that without Thorin. He had preferred instead to explore the mountain. Although devastated by the dragon's wrath, Erebor was impressive and truly beautiful, but it was a foreign place. While Thorin had been ill, it had been easy for Bilbo not to think of the Shire. Yet, now that he no longer had to worry about Thorin's fate, it had become increasingly difficult to push away the call of his native land. Drifting through the darkness of Erebor, he had encountered friendly, but mostly unknown faces. The Dwarves were overjoyed to have regained their home, and if anyone could understand, it was Bilbo. It was somewhat of an irony that it was him who was the exiled one now. Of course, no one stopped him from starting back at any moment, but there was one treasure in Erebor that he wanted to be near.
As the sun was beginning to set, he finally walked out into the open, through the great gate, and sat down on the ledge carved into the wall of the mountain. He took in the grand view over Dale and the valley beyond. Sighing, his thoughts travelled to Bag End, which lay somewhere in the distance where his sight could not reach.
"Bilbo," said Thorin's voice, stirring the hobbit abruptly from his daydream.
Bilbo barely caught himself from wincing at the suddenness of the sound and turned to where the voice was coming from. Thorin was walking towards him with a slight drag of his feet, looking preoccupied. He eventually sat down close to Bilbo, and said, "We started a conversation this morning that we did not get to finish."
Bilbo smiled. "It's fine, Thorin, it wasn't important."
"I believe it was." Thorin sat very straight and his eyebrows slanted downwards very seriously. Bilbo glanced down. He had dreaded this moment the entire day. "You are often… uneasy around me. Is there anything I can do? Or not do?"
Sighing, Bilbo looked up into Thorin's pristine, sapphire-like eyes. "Don't mind me, I'll get used to it."
"To what?" He really didn't understand.
"Everything, this," said Bilbo gesturing to indicate all that was surrounding him, the great Dwarven city of Erebor itself. "You being a king."
"But you knew who I was before."
"Yes, but now it's different, isn't it? We're not on the road together anymore. Now we're here, in your kingdom. These people worship you. I… It's a little… a little too much for me, that's all."
Searching Thorin's face for the impact of his sincerity, Bilbo found that it was the dwarf's turn to falter, so very unlike himself preferring to look at his boots instead of the person talking to him.
"You wish to go back to the Shire," he said almost in a whisper, his voice low and gloomy.
"No!" said Bilbo, grabbing Thorin's muscled arm, not completely surprised by his jumping to an unfortunate conclusion. "No, Thorin," he tugged at his arm, forcing the dwarf to look him in the eye. "I want to be where you are."
Thorin's eyes fixed Bilbo's, unforgivingly seeking the truth. His gaze could be most unnerving when directed at someone or something with the determination of a skilfully shot arrow, but it was easy for Bilbo to face it when he was so sure of himself. Thorin's face soon relaxed into a relieved smile.
"That is only part of the reason anyway," said Bilbo and looked aside.
"Oh?" said Thorin, sounding intrigued but a little annoyed at the prospect of another possibly bad surprise.
Bilbo sighed and shook his head. "I shouldn't be telling you this."
"Because! It's just not something you say to people."
Thorin was beginning to pout again.
Bilbo laid his hand over Thorin's. It felt like sun-warmed rock. His fist closed promptly around the tips of Bilbo's fingers. "I could say that I love you, but that wouldn't be quite accurate."
Thorin looked at Bilbo with an expression that was very, very rare. He was unsettled. "What do you mean?" he said, the tilt of his head slightly menacing.
"These dwarves are not the only ones to worship you," continued Bilbo, wondering at his sudden fearlessness. "I worship you, Thorin."
Menace turned to genuine surprise, and then to something that came as close to humbleness as it was possible for a proud King of Dwarves. It was definitely something that Bilbo hadn't seen before, even if he was sure that he had glimpsed many sides of Thorin that others hadn't. He really seemed at a loss for words. Only his other hand started a well-intentioned journey towards Bilbo's face, but Bilbo caught it in time.
"It scares me," he said, still smiling, but pushing Thorin's hand away.
Thorin withdrew, visibly discouraged. "Why?"
"Because I need you."
"I know," said Thorin, his voice caressing.
"No, you don't," said Bilbo, only managing to sound defeated, although he was aiming for angry. His gaze fell to his hand trapped firmly into Thorin's. "I need you in order to survive. I cannot lose you."
"You are not going to lose me," said Thorin, confident as only he could be.
Bilbo glanced up at him, exasperated. "But I nearly just did!" Anger came out in his voice effortlessly this time.
Thorin looked taken aback by Bilbo's outburst. After all, not many people dared challenge him, and Bilbo felt instantly inappropriate. His anger was perhaps misplaced, but he couldn't deny that it was there. He uncoiled his fingers from Thorin's warm grasp, with a slight drop in his breath. He had to explain himself.
"I expected you to die, Thorin," he began. "You were injured so severely, that we all feared you would not survive. No one said the words, but we all thought it. I was terrified. I was more afraid of losing you than I had been of being killed by goblins, or eaten by giant spiders. It made me realise how important you are to me. It made me understand exactly what it is that I feel for you. I can't find a word for it, but it is more overwhelming than all the richness in Erebor, or than your title. And now, every time we're together, I feel like I should make the best of every minute because… it might be the last."
"Bilbo," said Thorin pulling the hobbit to him in a powerful grip of his upper arms, making Bilbo feel certain that he would later develop bruises shaped like Thorin's fingers. "You cannot allow yourself to think in this manner. I am here, and nothing is ever going to take me away from you."
"Allow myself?" squeaked Bilbo, thrusting a hand against Thorin's chest to steady himself into the dwarf's painful clutch. "Do you really not understand? This is not about thinking, Thorin. And can you really promise that nothing will ever happen to you?"
Thorin blinked wildly, then released Bilbo, who proceeded to rub his assaulted arms "No," he admitted, "but at least for the time being, you can stop worrying. It will be a long time before anyone comes knocking again. Besides, you are much braver than you think. Even if I do not die of a very old age, and sometime in the very far future my luck fails me, I am sure you will manage."
"Are you really?" asked Bilbo, with a sceptical lift of his right eyebrow.
"You will have grown bored of me by then," said Thorin, the corners of his mouth curling into a playful smirk.
Bilbo resisted the impulse to punch him vigorously in his regal face. "I don't know about bored, but I might grow irritated."
Thorin laughed quietly and gathered Bilbo to himself, his large arms wrapping tightly around the hobbit's body. Bilbo couldn't remember ever feeling as safe, happy and invulnerable as he did when sinking into Thorin's arms. The only thing that came close to it was curling up in his bed at home, or sitting in the middle of his garden, surrounded by sunlight and flowery scents. But it wasn't quite the same. Bilbo nestled his head under Thorin's chin, and leaned rather forcefully against his chest.
"And I do understand, you know" said Thorin. "What I can promise is that I shall take better care from now on."
Bilbo gave a hushed moan of approval and settled himself more comfortably in that blissful embrace until the tip of his nose brushed against soft, long curls that darkened his view of the surroundings. Only when enveloped by Thorin's warmth did Bilbo realise that he had grown a little cold in the stretching shadow of the mountain. They remained entangled for a while, and Bilbo would have eventually fallen asleep if it had not been for the sound of running steps coming from deep inside Erebor, and for a bright voice piercing the falling darkness. "Uncle!"
Then, the flurry of exhausted breath emerged out of the mountain, followed by an abrupt halt of the hurried steps. "Oh, sorry," said Kili's voice, sounding embarrassed.
"It's all right, Kili," said Thorin, releasing his tender hold on Bilbo. "What is it?"
Bilbo actually felt as if he had been awoken from a deep state of sleep. He squinted through his eyelashes at Kili, who looked positively mortified. The furious red in his cheeks spread to the very tips of his ears as he managed to utter, "It's nothing, it can wait." He started to turn back.
"Kili, sit down next to Bilbo and tell me what you wanted," said Thorin with no trace of ire in his voice.
With a guilty expression that Bilbo found amusing and endearing at the same time, Kili surrendered and went to sit in the indicated place. "It's, uh... well, Dwalin said he and you are going into Dale tomorrow. Fili and I were wondering if, maybe, we could go, too?"
"Yes, if you feel up to it, of course," said Thorin smiling kindly.
Kili's face regained its usual glow. "We do, most definitely."
"Very well, then. In fact, Bilbo, I was meaning to ask if you might want to join us," said Thorin glancing down at a surprised Bilbo. He had been content to watch Kili's excitement at his uncle's approval, not even daring to think that he might become part of the company as well.
"Me?" he asked looking from Thorin to Kili, whose eager smile seemed to encourage him to accept. "Well, I wouldn't want to impose." Surely Thorin had some official business to take care of.
"You would not. We're simply visiting the fair. I'm quite sure you would like it."
"Oh, in that case, I suppose I will."
"Splendid!" said Thorin, grinning happily at both Bilbo and his nephew.
For the first time in a long while, Bilbo felt that he could take a deep breath. Sitting between Thorin and Kili, their backs secure against the hard wall of their beloved mountain, making plans for a leisurely outing, and simply enjoying each other's company, Bilbo felt that he belonged with them. When Gandalf had declined to guarantee his return from the proposed adventure, Bilbo had not thought that anything other than death could have deterred him. He had never considered that he might choose another life over the one he had longed to go back to. And that was the only choice that he could make as Thorin laid a warm hand on his shoulder and suggested that they all go inside for dinner. Feeling as if the weight of the world had been lifted from his heart, Bilbo stood up with his two friends and walked with them through the great gate of Erebor, into the golden kingdom that was to be his new home.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.