When he first saw Thorin, he stubbornly blamed it on the inhuman quantity of wine he had imbibed. The dead dwarf king appeared in front of him, as majestic as he had always been, piercing blue eyes fixing him with a sorrowful look. Bilbo started laughing maniacally to the point which he almost fell off his armchair, a half-empty bottle of wine wobbling in his hand. He mistook Thorin for a drunken hallucination and, with an ill-aimed throw, smashed the bottle in the general direction of the ghost. Thorin disappeared without a word.
He had arrived back in Bag End not even a month before and was spending his days like the recluse he had become. If he ever got out of the house it was because he needed to restock his pantry. Hobbiton seemed to reluctantly accept his return and the hobbits learnt not to even bother greeting Master Baggins as he obviously looked in no need of social interaction. Everyone knew that ever since he miraculously returned from that troublesome journey of his, Master Baggins was morose and unapproachable. Buzzes of gossip followed him every time he placed foot out of Bag End, people frowning upon and wondering about the dwarfish-looking clothing he always wore and his unruly mop of curls in dire need of a cut.
But mostly, Bilbo locked himself up in Bag End and spent his days mourning the love he lost, a bottle of wine by his side, pouring over maps whose illustrations he has seen with his own eyes, reading books whose content he already knew by heart, constantly with a sigh on his breath and eyes ready to spill overdue tears.
The second time he saw Thorin, Bilbo was at the market, in a rare visit downtown because he needed new gardening tools. He had decided he was done weeping and he'd better get on with his life and pretend the journey never happened. His garden was flooded by weeds, his flowerbeds had wilted and needed looking after; he also had been wanting to plant that acorn he picked up from Beorn's garden.
'It ought to be a good distraction', he thought.
He had even thought of the perfect place to plant it. Above Bag End, on the top of his smial. He could see the oak's roots twisting over his roof, its leaves shuffling, whispering in the warm summer wind, a bench near the trunk, the shade cool and comforting...
Bilbo smiled to himself despite his incessant sadness, and tried to ignore the judging hushed tones that overtook the marketplace along with his arrival. He heard Thorin's voice before he saw him. He was looking at some tools, trying to estimate their quality, and the hobbit merchant who was selling them looked at him warily. They were made from copper and looked like they would bend or break easily.
"I could have made you better ones. I would have used iron, and made steadier handles. I would have put your initials on the top of them."
Bilbo's breath caught in his throat, his eyes widened as he took a step back and looked upon the dead dwarf. Thorin's voice was definitely something he wasn't expecting to ever hear again, no matter how much he wanted. Thorin was eyeing the inferior tools with amusement. Bilbo shakily exhaled a breath he didn't know he was holding. The merchant seemed undisturbed by the dwarf leaning on his stand and commenting at the poor quality of his tools. Bilbo assumed he was hallucinating again, the ghost tormenting him in that moment being caused by grief and guilt. He reluctantly purchased the copper tools, as they seemed to be better than the rest, and left the market, never looking back. When he arrived home, he dived into work and pretended the event had never happened. His garden bloomed again, more beautiful than ever.
He repainted his front door, refusing to feel anything remotely close to regret or melancholy as he covered the mark Gandalf etched in the wood. He tried to plant the acorn, but couldn't. His mind kept replaying Thorin's bright smile, the one that escaped from his lips despite the madness that took over him, the one Bilbo caused by mistake, the one caused by the very acorn he was holding tightly in his fist. It wouldn't do.
He slept with the acorn under his pillow.
Of course, Bilbo's silly, stubborn plan of pretending the journey (and the battle that took away his will to live) hadn't happened failed when a loud, slightly familiar knock was heard from his door.
At first, he tried to slam the door into his old friend's face. He didn't want any dwarves on his doorstep. He was doing well, he didn't need reminders. But then he recalled that extended invitation he had made. It was four o'clock, time for tea.
Balin hadn't changed at all. Almost two years had passed since Bilbo's return and Balin had come to oversee the last caravans that were set to leave for Erebor and decided to visit Bilbo on his way to Ered Luin.
He didn't tell Balin about the ghost that had been haunting him, it would've only worried the old dwarf, but the topic of Thorin was still approached.
"You should've been there," Balin says. "Hundreds of candles were lit in the halls, everyone mourned for days on end, but only the company was there for the funerals. You were the only one missing."
"I couldn't, Balin. You buried him like Thorin Oakenshield, the Last King Under the Mountain, and to me he was never that. To me he was… Thorin, just Thorin."
"I know, laddie, I know. I'm sorry."
Balin tells him of Erebor, of the company, of how they rebuilt the city, and Bilbo found himself missing the Lonely Mountain, and wished he could make the journey back with Balin. But his heart ached too much. He wished he could lay flowers on Thorin's stone tomb, wished he could learn the mountain Thorin loved and had spent his life trying to get back, wished to see his people return and prosper. But he couldn't. And when Balin invited him to come to Erebor, he declined. 'Too many bad memories,' he said.
Thorin appeared by the fire one evening, a silver crown upon his brow, but wearing the same old fur coat that was so characteristic of him. Bilbo was quietly reading in his armchair, but once he noticed the king, he stood up and turned away, circling the room aimlessly, not wanting to face the dwarf. Until he stopped and said what he had been wanting to say since he started seeing Thorin.
"I loved you, you great oaf."
Bilbo's voice was filled with regret and sorrow. A long pause followed, before an equal saddened voice replied.
"No, you don't. You don't know, you'll never know. You're dead."
Dead, dead, dead. A never-ending chant, always reminding him of what he could never have.
"And yet, you still love me, do you not?"
Bilbo pursed his lips, he couldn't reply, he couldn't deny. He closed his eyes and felt his body tremble; Thorin's husky, deep voice made things go on fire inside him. He didn't blame it on the wine anymore. He stopped drinking when he realised that his meetings with Thorin (because he stopped calling them hallucinations, that would mean he's insane, and Bilbo Baggins was not losing his mind, thank you very much, visions of the dead dwarf he loved or not) seemed to be much clearer if he wasn't drunk. And after all, never was one to succumb foolishly to the short-lived numbness that alcohol provided his mind with. It was a stupid way to reconcile. And there was nothing more he wanted than to prolong Thorin's visits, even though they pained him beyond measure.
He grasped the back of his armchair and held on tightly until his knuckles turned white and his hands started shaking. He prayed that Thorin would still be there when he finally gathered the courage to look at him.
"Go back to Erebor, Bilbo. You do not belong here anymore. You will always be welcomed in Erebor."
Bilbo sighed deeply, breath unsteady and shaky.
"I can't. And you know why. Besides, you banished me, remember?"
Bilbo finally opened his eyes and turned towards the dwarf. The woeful look etched upon his kingly features took the hobbit by surprise. It seemed like Thorin hurt to look at him, like he was suffering as well.
"But yes, I do still love you."
A ghost of a sad smile flourished on Thorin's lips before the flames in the fireplace slowly swallowed him.
Thorin always seemed to appear when Bilbo was somehow close to being content. But he would catch a glimpse of the dead dwarf's fur coat, or feel a blue gaze on the back of his neck and his resolve would crumble in a heartbeat. Sometimes he ignored Thorin and he would vanish without a word, but other times he invited him for tea or a meal and they would end up chatting, as if one of them wasn't immaterial and an impersonation of a dead dwarf.
Thorin never touched anything, not the tea, not the food, not even Bilbo. That's one of the reasons Bilbo knew the dwarf was not truly there. He tried touching him with a shaky hand once, desperate, hopeful, but Thorin disappeared without a sound, and Bilbo his fingers grasping desperately at thin, cold air.
However, Bilbo leant that maybe the dwarf was not a hallucination produced by his grief-stricken mind. This Thorin remembered the journey in its entirety, things Bilbo couldn't recall and didn't know. Things that happened on his watches, late into the night, stories about the company. He thought at first that this Thorin and his stories were fuelled by his subconscious that filled in the gaps, trying to convince him that this is real, that Thorin isn't just a thing he made up, like an imaginary friend. But Thorin used Khuzdul sometimes, words that he had never heard before, and Bilbo finally started considering that maybe his mind wouldn't even be able to create all those things Thorin spoke of, nevermind words of a language he was forbidden to learn as an outsider. Of course, he had heard the company's members swear in Khuzdul and he guessed meaning of some basic phrases, but the way Thorin spoke was entirely unfamiliar. So Bilbo started to foolishly believe that perhaps this was not some cruel farce that his imagination was playing on him, but didn't question the logic of it. He was simply thankful that he could spend some evenings in the company of a person he loved endlessly and never thought he would ever see again.
One evening, Bilbo gathered his courage and asked the question that had been eating him up inside.
"Are you real, or are you just in my mind?"
"Even if I were just in your mind, ghivashel, why should that mean that I am not real?"
Thorin didn't vanish as Bilbo expected him to. Instead he smiled, and there was something in his blue, blue eyes that Bilbo couldn't read.
Sometimes, dwarves would stop by in Hobbiton and trade their crafts. That was usually when Bilbo made rather long visits to the market in hope of finding a kind, open-minded dwarf who would confirm that the snippets of Khuzdul he heard from Thorin actually made sense. He couldn't ask Thorin what they meant, of course. There was still a chance he was just the product of his imagination. Bilbo figured if those words truly existed and had a meaning, then surely it would mean that Thorin wasn't just a sick mechanism his mind created to help him cope with loss. But every time he reproduced what Thorin said to him, he received shocked looks and disdainful glares and they refused to comment. Dwarves were extremely reluctant when it came to sharing bits of their culture, even with outsiders whom they considered friends. Bilbo knew that. However, one particular young dwarf, who reminded him of innocent Ori, shyly told him, after Bilbo spent no small amount of gold at his stand, not to be afraid of asking the dwarf who spoke to him in such a way. 'I'm sure he wouldn't mind translating for you,' he also said sincerely, a glint of mischievousness in his eyes. Bilbo didn't dare ask Thorin, but he was happy that Thorin, whatever he was, was in some way real.
Bilbo never told anyone, ever, of Thorin's visits, but the dwarf was constantly there. Sometimes, he was more of a shadow that followed Bilbo around quietly, never demanding attention, and thus, never noticed or acknowledged. Other times, Bilbo would angrily send him away, telling him that he couldn't keep doing this, that Thorin didn't let him live. But the dwarf kept coming back, and Bilbo welcomed him, after realising he couldn't turn him away and that his heart fluttered every time he saw the dwarf.
One of those ordinary evenings Bilbo spent in Thorin's company, the king made a promise Bilbo didn't understand until many, many years later. The dwarf was sitting on the edge of Bilbo's bed, while the hobbit was briefly looking through one of his books, waiting for sleep to come to him. He stopped frequently, to read paragraphs out loud, if he thought Thorin would enjoy them. Thorin usually did, as he smiled warmly or laughed, a sound that Bilbo was never tired of hearing.
"When it all ends, I'll be there. I'll wait for you."
Bilbo stared at him dumbly, trying to grasp the meaning of his words, but as he opened his mouth to ask Thorin what he was referring to, the dwarf disappeared, but not before giving Bilbo one last smile that made something inside the hobbit burst with affection and longing.
Bilbo was, of course, past the part when he would throw bottles of wine at Thorin and would be struck by regret and pain at the sight of him. But sometimes, Thorin shows up and doesn't say a word, just stands still and observes Bilbo with a certain longing in his eyes. No matter what Bilbo said, he got no response from the dwarf. It was an evening like that when Bilbo, feeling particularly nostalgic and frustrated, told him how he came to fall in love with him.
He told him how something in his chest cracked when he heard Thorin's song of his lost home fill the halls of Bag End, how lonely and rejected he felt during the first few weeks of their journey, when Thorin would rudely point out that he's simply not cut out for this, that he didn't belong.
Thorin flinched and closed his eyes, turning his back to Bilbo and facing the fire.
Bilbo also told him how something inside him woke up roaring when Thorin descended from the burning trees and faced Azog. How he numbly felt the need to protect him, to sacrifice himself for Thorin's sake. How angry and distressed he felt when Azog demanded his head.
He told Thorin of the relief that washed over him when he saw that the dwarf was almost unharmed. Of the pleasant, unexpected embrace Thorin enveloped him in and how right it felt.
Thorin still remained silent, hands clasped tightly at his back. Bilbo kept his voice steady, calm, and continued.
He told the dwarf how he started seeing him as a leader, started seeing Thorin for who he really was. How he noticed Thorin's selflessness, his determination, his love for his people and family. He saw how he heeded Balin's advice, how easily he shared conversations with Dwalin, how he berated his nephews out of love and tried to protect them.
Thorin's shoulders were tense. Bilbo felt the urge to touch him, to soothe him, to tell him that the deaths of Fili and Kili were not his fault, but he knew that if he tried to touch him, he would disappear. Thorin was not corporeal in any way either, Bilbo stopped hoping, but he couldn't help wishing. So he went on.
He told Thorin how happy he felt when he was regarded as one of their own, how useful and accomplished he felt when he saved them from spiders and from Thranduil's dungeons. It was a sense of belonging he was never to experience again. He also told Thorin how he faced a dragon for him, how he found the Arkenstone and how guilty he felt while he kept it away from Thorin. How he saw the dwarf succumb to madness, only to see a glimpse of a smile caused by a simple acorn and how that smile motivated him to see this thing through. To end it. How he regretted betraying Thorin, crumpling the king's trust forever, but didn't regret his actions, as they worked out in favour of the dwarves. How agonizing it felt to have a mad Thorin strangle him, hold him over Erebor's battlements, threatening to throw him, to kill him. How he lost the will to live, how the purple bruises in the shape of Thorin's hands didn't fade for weeks and reminded him that he failed the one he loved.
He told him how he braced himself for the battle to come, how he found his courage by simply wishing to protect Thorin and the company, how he was ready to die in order to ensure their safety.
He told him about the crippling panic that felt when he found out that another army of orcs was headed Thorin's way, up on Ravenhill and the horror of seeing Fili brutally murdered. Told him how he wished he could've brought him back, to have had arrived earlier, to have had warned them.
Told him how Thorin's apology and last words gave him hope, only to realise that the dwarf was dying, how a part of him ceased to exist when Thorin drew his last breath in Bilbo's arms. How he wished he could've said something, could've told him how much he loved him. How he died in the arms of someone who loved him beyond measure, how much he regretted everything and how he wished he could start all over again. How he frantically broke down in tears, how he couldn't breathe… How he cried until his eyes turned red and his voice was hoarse. He had never cried like that, never suffered like that.
Bilbo told him how he learnt of Kili's death and how he thinks that the line of Durin was doomed and how ironic it all was. To have finally reclaimed your home only to die at its doorstep.
He told Thorin how he couldn't stay for the funerals, how he felt like it wasn't right to see him buried like the king he didn't have the chance to be. How he spent the journey home crying and having night terrors. How he refused Beorn's offer to spend the winter because the place reminded him of happier times he couldn't relive ever again. How Elrond and his healers tried to fix him but failed.
How Bilbo mourned him ever since, and how for his heart, time stood still.
But Thorin still didn't face him. Bilbo took his head in his hands and roughly rubbed at his eyes. He wouldn't cry. Not now. His chest ached, his throat clenched with sobs yet to be released. He heard Thorin's voice as if it came from far away; it sounded like it was fading, like Thorin was dying all over again.
"I'm sorry, Bilbo."
Bilbo didn't know exactly what Thorin was sorry for.
After that evening, Thorin started appearing more often and Bilbo finally accepted with reluctance that the dwarf's visits gave him a reason to get up in the morning, even though he knew that talking with a person that wasn't alive, but appeared before him was most unhealthy and that the whole Shire would deem him mad. But he didn't care. He stopped caring long ago. And so, Thorin became a constant in Bilbo's life, an anchor that paradoxically kept Bilbo sane. Years passed, but Bilbo's love for Thorin never waned and the king's visits didn't stop.
Thorin was there when Bilbo took Frodo in, and often shared his memories of Fili and Kili when they were children with Bilbo, helping him slip into his role as an uncle, as a guardian.
Thorin was there when Bilbo gave up the ring, and smiled encouragingly at him to let go of the burden Bilbo didn't know he was carrying.
Thorin was there in Imladris, helping Bilbo finish his tale, helping him remember, now that most of the unbearable pain Bilbo had felt gradually turned into a dull ache as time passed. He was there when Bilbo blamed himself for not realising what the ring was, for letting Frodo carry a burden that wasn't his. He was there when Bilbo gave the mithril shirt and his sword to Frodo and assured him that it wouldn't be the last time he saw his nephew.
Thorin had always been there, unchanged by the long years that passed since his death. He was there when Bilbo embarked on the ship that took him to Valinor.
He was there, on the shores, when Bilbo arrived as a changed hobbit, youthful and scar-free.
"I told you I'd wait for you," the dwarf said, his smile bright and infinitely more precious than any treasures hoarded by dragons.
Bilbo's insides twisted and a gasp escaped from his trembling lips when he reached out and touched Thorin. His hand found solid warmth and his heart soared freely for the first time in eighty years. Their bodies crashed in a long overdue embrace and time stood still.