If Balin had left his room that morning even a minute sooner Bilbo would have probably lost his head. Not figuratively either, because while the dwarves present sensibly agreed that what the situation called for was someone calm and sharp and used to sorting things out, their second choice for someone to call would have been Thorin, being the King and also the injured party here.
Bilbo could not imagine Thorin hearing that a half-naked stranger had been discovered in his wife's bed and not immediately strangling the stranger in question with his bare hands. He hadn't hesitated to go after a dragon for what he considered his own, and Bilbo was no dragon. For a brief moment he imagined an enraged Thorin charging a comically surprised Smaug clad in a frilly nightdress for cuckolding him, but then the full gravity of his situation caught up with him and Bilbo made an effort to be serious.
Fortunately, this morning Balin had decided he deserved another rasher of bacon and lingered over his breakfast instead of moving on with his plans for the day, which was why the summons to the Queen's chambers had found him as yet unoccupied. He and Bilbo had proceeded to have a long and winding conversation in which Balin had tried to subtly inquire whether Bilbo was a) having a sordid affair with the Queen, or b) a crazy person who had murdered and eaten her for her nightie. Eventually though, Bilbo managed to convince Balin that he was still Bilbo, only a male Bilbo that had somehow ended up in the wrong place by no fault of his own.
Balin was surprisingly willing to accept that explanation. Apparently that happened occasionally in Erebor, people showing up with limbs that should have been cut off in some battle ages ago, or insisting they had a small army of children and grandchildren when everyone knew they were resolutely unmarried.
Bilbo felt he should have been somewhat peeved that no one had thought to mention this. Surely somewhere between the funeral arrangements and the extensive list of dragon-induced ways to die someone could have worked in a clause saying "oh, by the by, if you do survive the dragon, you might be transported into a whole different world where everyone knew you as a woman and you were married to the dwarf you privately consider your dearest friend though you would never say that for fear he would look at you funny or worse, with pity because warrior kings do not befriend hobbits even if they do apparently marry them".
As it was, he had other things on his mind so he could only make a half-hearted attempt at giving Balin the stink-eye. It only made Balin rock on the balls of his feet and wink at him, because Balin had been glared at by experts and Bilbo's pitiful version could barely register compared to, say, Thorin's.
"Don't you worry about this, lad, you'll return where you belong. Eventually. I'll make sure no one gives you grief for not being yourself in the meantime," Balin said, not entirely comfortingly, and swept out of the room with an air of aggrieved efficiency, as if Bilbo's plight was just another unexpected errand in his busy schedule.
Bilbo sighed, and plopped down into the nearest armchair, because he was still staunchly convinced that sitting down quietly for a while was the best thing for shock. And as he was sitting and taking in the whole thing like a reluctant sponge, he couldn't help but examine his feelings on the matter.
There was anxiety, of course, over Thorin and the others' reactions, and a bit of troubling excitement about a new adventure, and even a smidgeon of eagerness to get to know this new Erebor, and quite a lot of lingering speechless shock, but the prevailing emotion was indignation.
Here he was, sitting in a decadently comfortable armchair, in a room furnished with every comfort imaginable, with a scrumptious breakfast scattered on the floor and the door to a cavernous closet left ajar before him and visibly bursting with beautiful clothes, all of it for him and yet not! From Balin's words Bilbo had surmised female Bilbo had done more or less exactly what Bilbo himself had accomplished in his journey, yet she was the only one who had gotten an unequivocal welcome in Erebor! Why, that was an unsupportable injustice! What did she have that Bilbo didn't...
All right, stupid question.
But then that meant that Thorin had married Bilbo. Bilbo tried to wrap his head around the idea. A Bilbo that was different from him in only one respect. Married. To Thorin. Officially and everything. Now why would Thorin go and do such a thing? Did he feel obligated in some way? Was it some peculiarity of dwarvish etiquette? Did getting your life saved require showing friendship and respect if it was done by a male hobbit, but a marriage proposal if a female hobbit was responsible?
Or perhaps, thought Bilbo in a fit of inspiration, the Thorin of his world was entirely different to this Thorin. Perhaps a dashing, gallant version of Thorin that had swept female Bilbo off her feet and... No, it was no use, that didn't sound right at all. Bilbo just wasn't the type of hobbit that inspired anyone to feet-sweeping, and he couldn't imagine a female him would be any different. The fact that she'd been unmarried at this age supported the assumption.
And then there was Thorin.
Thorin who was so taciturn, gruff and emotionally reticent that the only reason anyone had any idea about his feelings was that occasionally Balin stepped in to explain them for him. Even after they'd become friends that hadn't changed. Bilbo remembered asking about the dwarven ballista in Laketown, remembered Thorin giving him a look full simultaneously of deep feeling and the frustrated inability and unwillingness to express it. Balin had interjected smoothly to explain and Bilbo had thought nothing of it. But while that was possible in a friendship in Bilbo's admittedly second-hand experience marriage didn't work like that. His mind treated him to another absurd scene - Thorin trying to propose to female Bilbo, then giving up and frog-marching Balin in front of her to do the proposing in his stead.
And yet the thought of Thorin being any other way, of an open, sociable Thorin who was also a Thorin interested in marrying a Bilbo, any Bilbo, was just preposterous. That just wouldn't be Thorin. It wouldn't be either of them.
"Ahem," said a politely frustrated voice beside Bilbo.
Bilbo looked up to see a new dwarf, this one male and dressed like a courtier, not a guard, which in Erebor meant that he'd foregone the helmet and his armor was slightly less heavy-weight. The dwarf was holding a set of folded clothes.
"Would you like to change now, or are you going to visit the Healers as you are?" the dwarf asked, making it sound like he wouldn't be surprised if Bilbo was the kind of depraved and rude individual that would choose option two.
Bilbo snatched the clothes out of his hands.
Bilbo let himself be led through the halls of Erebor. He'd become reasonably acquainted with it and could probably walk from the royal chambers to the main hall of healing on his own, but it probably wasn't wise to mention that. He'd rather be seen as a clueless stranger than as a dangerously knowledgeable one.
The dwarves they passed were mostly too preoccupied to give Bilbo much notice, but still more than one passerby startled at seeing Bilbo. He was dressed like a dwarf but no one could mistake him for one - even though the clothes must have belonged to a child he was still swimming in them, and his smooth face was hardly inconspicuous. No doubt the gossip would be known by all before the day was over, even if Balin had sworn to secrecy everyone in the know. Which Bilbo wasn't certain he had - after all, their queen was gone and some explanation was warranted. The truth was surely better than whatever speculation would circulate in the absence of any certain information.
The halls of healing were like Bilbo remembered them - cavernous, very clean and full of jutting angles for hapless patients to run into. Bilbo fancied that anyone getting treated for, say, a bump on the head here might be discharged with bumps everywhere except the head.
A bevy of healers were dashing about and looking important, but in the little side room of the Head Healer Oin was only polishing his ear trumpet idly.
"Ah, it's you," he told Bilbo, as if he actually knew him. "Pick a chair. I told Balin these things can't be rushed. It'll end when it's time to end and no sooner. I don't know what he expects me to do about it."
Bilbo sat gingerly on an armchair/stool hybrid that felt like it had been upholstered with marbles. His guide had wasted no time in making himself scarce. Probably didn't want to be around when Thorin stormed in. Bilbo was surprised it hadn't happened yet, actually. Balin ihad/i said something about a mine inspection, perhaps they were afraid the mine would collapse under the onslaught of Thorin's bellowing if they told him there, or else they were hoping Bilbo would pop out of existence if they delayed the bad news a little.
"I'm not sure what you could do either," he told Oin.
"Breather? I can't say I mind taking one," Oin shouted out. Well, he probably meant to say it, but the result was still that they probably heard him in the Iron Hills, let alone in the patient wards.
Oin produced a couple of pipes and a pouch of loose pipeweed. Bilbo took one when it was offered and surreptitiously wiped the bit on the end of his shirt. Oin didn't appear to notice.
"Is it all right to be doing this here?" Bilbo asked suddenly, gesturing between his pipe and the closed door to the main hall.
"Not while I'm on duty. I don't like beer anyway, nothing like a good pint of ale," Oin said. Bilbo nodded sagely and wondered how long he would have to stay here. He liked Oin all right, but his conversation could be... challenging.
There was silence for a while and then Oin asked, at a much lower volume:
"Been feeling depressed lately?"
Bilbo started, feeling caught, and Oin's beard moved in a way that probably meant he was grinning. Bilbo's reaction must have been answer enough.
"I see, I see," he said. "Regrets, wondering if you made the wrong choices, eh?"
Bilbo nodded hesitantly.
"Yes, but how did you guess?"
"The Queen had the same look as you. Wriggled her nose like a rabbit all the time, ha, like you're doing now. She looked happy enough, but also worried," Oin said, fixing the stem on his pipe and looking at Bilbo sideways. "She came in for an itchy knee - or was it an elbow - and then kept asking about the old Queen and the late Princess."
"Did she indeed?" Bilbo murmured to himself.
He was just about to ask if Oin had any experience with other cases like his and if the afflicted party had been dissatisfied with their life as well, when a sudden burst of noise in the hall put an end to the conversation.
Oin sprung up sprightly and was out the door in a blink. Bilbo did a little nervous dance trying to figure out where to leave his pipe, before finally propping it on a thick stack of paper on Oin's desk and following.
The main hall was in an uproar. Dwarves were being carried in, hacking violently or desperately wheezing for breath, and there was a lot of yelling in Khuzdul. Needs must Bilbo had developed a keen ability to determine how much panic there was in any given shout in Khuzdul, on a scale from "there's a sharp pebble in my boot" to "watch out, a Dragon just appeared behind you", and this was somewhere around "I just killed a warg with no trouble, but more might be coming", which was pretty serious, but not horrible. He dithered nervously at the doorway to Oin's office, wondering if he should get out of the way, but still anxious to know what was going on.
Then Thorin walked in, arm slung over Bofur's shoulder for support and feet shuffling, and Bilbo felt his throat seize up like he'd just tried to swallow a piece of Grandma Baggins's rock cakes.
A small crowd formed around Thorin, Oin who'd elbowed his way over right away, a couple of younger healers, a few guards. Bilbo could clearly make out Thorin's voice in the din, irritated in more than one sense of the word, sounding even more gravelly than usual. The argument was quickly cut short by the arrival of more patients, and Bofur steered Thorin further into the hall. They passed right by Bilbo, who was still standing like a graven image in the sidelines.
He couldn't make himself move until after they'd disappeared around a corner. Then he shook his head like a dog flicking off water and snagged a healer passing by.
"What happened?" Bilbo asked, breathless himself.
The healer looked at Bilbo with some suspicion, but obviously decided a spy's methods would be more subtle than haplessly asking people for explanations.
"Gas leak. Three of the fans in the lower levels broke down," she told him curtly and hurried off.
Bilbo vividly remembered the lecture on mine gases Bofur, Bifur and Bombur had given him. Well, which Bofur had given him while Bombur nodded emphatically from time to time and Bifur provided illustrative hand gestures. Whoever said words were the best instrument of persuasion obviously hadn't known Bifur. The impromptu performance of someone choking on their own blood before regurgitating their stomach was going to stay with Bilbo forever.
He started walking towards the bend, towards where Thorin was, without any conscious decision on his part. This was nothing, Thorin was going to be all right. Dwarves had a higher tolerance for this sort of thing, and the kind of gas that made you cough but didn't irritate the eyes was by far the least dangerous, Bofur had said. Nobody's eyes were red, and Thorin had even come in walking.
Except Thorin would insist on staying upright as a matter of pride even if he were at death's door. He ihad/i stood and watched the eagles with Bilbo and talked about gardens and armchairs with a giant hole in his chest, with his lifeblood seeping into his clothes under the hauberk. Bilbo had no idea how bad off Thorin was before he'd collapsed like a felled tree. Only sheer luck had him fall backwards on the ice instead of toppling forward off the side of the hill. Bilbo shuddered even to think about it; he was so much lighter than Thorin, he could never have held him back even if he had reacted quickly enough to grab onto him. Bilbo's feet quickened the pace as if by themselves.
And then slowed right back.
What in the world? None of that had actually happened. Bilbo had raced to Ravenhill to warn Thorin of Azog's plan to surround them just as Thorin was about to send Fili and Kili on a reconnaissance run. The four of them had galloped away on the dwarves' battle rams just in time - Bilbo riding with Fili, the lightest, and twisting around to watch the orc horde swarm right at their heels.
They had regrouped by the gate and when Azog had followed after Thorin, arrogantly going ahead of the bulk of his troops, Thorin had met him, and cut off his other arm just as Kili's arrow had found his eye. Azog's head had rolled across the battlefield and it had all been over so easily Bilbo had scarcely been able to believe their good fortune at the time.
This was extremely worrying. Waking up in strange worlds was bad enough, but at least Bilbo had felt he could rely on his own self, if nothing else. With this one fixed point he could have born any number of changes and surprises. This impossible memory changed everything, and such a vivid, natural memory it was Bilbo had nearly failed to notice it wasn't his. What if this persisted? Could he even trust his recollection of events anymore?
Troubled by these thoughts, Bilbo absent-mindedly spotted Thorin lying on a cot at the back of the hall and mechanically headed over. Thorin was speaking in the common tongue to a young, fidgety healer, possibly because it was easier on the throat than Khuzdul.
"I was barely affected. There's no reason for me to stay here," he was saying, with marked patience. It was likely only because the healer was so very young and so visibly terrified of him that Thorin had conceded to lie down - Bilbo had noticed how unexpectedly encouraging he was with young dwarves, provided they didn't have the misfortune to be his heirs. Oin obviously knew who to send to deal with this patient.
"Be that as it may, Your Majesty, the use of a nebulizer is strongly advisable by all exposed," the healer said, looking very much sick himself at having to contradict his king. Next to him, Bofur was tugging on the sides of his hat, looking like he was looking for a way to voice his agreement tactfully, or at least without making Thorin dig his heels in even more.
Thorin gave the healer a look dripping with unimpressed imperiousness. Which meant he was obviously fine and made him seem very much himself even in this insane reality where he had for some unfathomable reason married a version of Bilbo. Bilbo couldn't help but let out a relieved sigh at that.
Everyone turned to look at him.
Which made him realize that it hadn't perhaps been the best idea to sidle up to Thorin's cot like he would have back home.
"Um, yes, hello," he said. "I hope I'm not intruding. I was just visiting here and I couldn't help seeing you come in, and I was, ah, a trifle concerned, so I came to see how you were getting on. Obviously you're as well as can be expected, though I really think you should still submit to the relevant treatment just in case. I really am frightfully sorry for bothering you. I'll be leaving now. Oh, and naturally I wish you a speedy recovery. Not that you need to recover from anything, but-"
Bilbo's babbling gradually petered out. Thorin stared at him, his expression shifting with the inexorability of a glacier running down a mountainside. Bilbo wondered whether he would be able to pull back quickly enough if Thorin lunged at him.
Then Thorin did lunge at him, and the answer was clearly no.
Thankfully, Thorin did nothing more distressing than hold Bilbo by the shoulders firmly and peer into his face. And peer some more. The glacier had apparently turned into an avalanche crashing straight towards him.
"Bilbo?" Thorin asked, uncharacteristically hesitantly.
"Yes?" said Bilbo. And if he sounded like he wasn't exactly sure himself, after the morning he'd had he felt no one should have the right to complain.
Thorin flopped back against the pillows, releasing Bilbo.
"I have need of you after all, Master Healer," he said. "I'm much worse than I imagined."
Which was when it dawned on Bilbo that no one had broken the news to Thorin yet.
And he'd thought nothing could top their previous first meeting.