A Brief Visit

The plan had been for a brief visit. A chance to really talk now that everything was over and the goals of the quest had been achieved.

Everything had happened so fast after we had retaken the Lonely Mountain. And much of it seemed rather surreal even at the time. I'll never forget standing on the top of that wall as Bilbo admitted giving the Arkenstone to Bard and the Elvenking. Thorin was in a rage, but I was numb. I couldn't understand just at that moment why Bilbo would do such a thing. I felt betrayed by the both of them at once. Bilbo for consorting with those whom our king had proclaimed to be the enemy, and Thorin for turning Bilbo away so quickly without really giving him a chance to explain why he'd done this to us... to me.

After Bilbo had climbed down to join Gandalf and the others it was my eyes he sought out. As plans were made for the buying back of the stone, we just looked at one another. I could see the apology in his eyes, but I could also see conviction. He believed what he had done was right. And in the long night that came afterward, I decided to put my trust in him once again. If Bilbo had truly believed this was the right course of action, then I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt until I saw how the aftermath unfolded. Or at least until I got the chance to speak to him again.

What was truly strange about it, I suppose, was that it was not until then that I remembered that Thorin wasn't Bilbo's king. And it came as something of a shock. I had become so used to having him with us that it seemed as though he belonged there. It wasn't that I had forgotten that he was a Hobbit or that we had collected him from a little hole built into a hill with a round, green door. But somehow my heart had forgotten that he hadn't always been there. I had forgotten that his place, his loyalties, didn't necessarily lie in the same place as mine. It was frightening. Not because he was different from me, I'd always known that, but that I had learned to trust and care about him so much. I had never before relied on someone who was so far outside my world. I don't think I realized just how much I had come to depend on him, and on his presence, until he wasn't there.

The mountain felt horribly empty that night, and we all sat in stunned and aching silence. Only Thorin spoke, but his words of anger and blame touched no chord in the rest of us. I wasn't the only one who had come to care for Bilbo and I wasn't the only one who was shamed by our king's behavior toward the Hobbit. But I think I was the only one who found it in me that night to believe that he may have done the right thing after all. The others simply felt betrayed and forlorn. While I was just waiting, hoping Bilbo would prove my faith in him well placed yet again.

And he did.

I have fought in battles before but only the one that followed that night remains a blur in my mind. For that, I am grateful. I don't want to remember the charges and counter strikes or just when it was that we were separated from Thorin and Fili and Kili. I remember all too well when I learned that the two youngest dwarves were dead and that Thorin was mortally wounded. And that Bilbo was missing. They searched everywhere, and I remember Gandalf's face was grim even while he assured Thorin, who wanted now at the end to see Bilbo again, that they would find him. No matter his words to comfort a dying Dwarf, Gandalf was not sure in himself that Bilbo was still alive and that frightened me. We'd lost so much already, were about to loose our king. I couldn't bear to loose our Hobbit as well. We still needed him, or at least I did. I didn't quite know what that meant then, I was too tired and frightened to think about it. That would come later.

The relief I felt when I heard that Bilbo had been found, mostly unharmed, was tremendous. He was with Thorin when he died, and I know from Gandalf what was said. Even Thorin, stubborn as he was, could not deny that Bilbo had been in the right after all, that he had acted for the best. He'd tried to save us from ourselves and in doing so, taught us... taught me, a lesson I shall never forget and will always be grateful for. They parted on good terms, and I know that eased Bilbo's mind, and allowed Thorin to pass in peace. Thorin may not have been his king, but I believe that Bilbo loved him in the same way the rest of us did, even with all his faults. And Bilbo's respect and friendship meant much to Thorin. After all, Thorin did reclaim his grandfather's throne mostly through Bilbo's bravery and cunning.

But the Battle and deaths and fear and uncertainty weighed on Bilbo. I saw that clearly when I finally found him, sitting alone up on Ravenhill where he had stood during the battle. I sat down beside him in the biting evening breeze. He said nothing, continuing to stare at the mountain, lost in thought.

"Thank you," I said finally. He turned to me and raised his eyebrows questioningly. "For proving my faith in you well placed," I finished, at a loss for better words.

Bilbo sighed and smiled slightly. "I'm afraid you've lost me, my dear Balin," he said in a light tone of voice that belied how tired and worn he looked at that moment.

I frowned and looked out toward the mountain, trying to find the words I wanted. They were not easy in coming. "Even when Thorin declared you a traitor to us, I believed in my heart that you were not. I believed... I could not believe that you would deliberately betray us." I turned back to him and smiled as best I could, though the sorrow in my heart was still great. "You've shown that faith not to be ill founded, as you have proved right our trust in you many times before on this quest. And for that I thank you."

Bilbo smiled sadly, and shook his head. "You don't have to thank me. I have always done what I believed to be the best thing. My thanks, if thanks is needed, is that peace has been restored. I would have wished it to happen without the orcs, of course," he added wryly. "It was really bad manners for them to come sticking their noses into this, just when I'd put such a clever plan into action."

I couldn't help but chuckle. "Bad manners indeed," I murmured. I reached out then, lying my hand over his. "But I thank you just the same," I told him seriously.

Bilbo dropped his eyes, and I saw to my surprise a blush creep across his cheeks. But he turned his hand under mine and twined our fingers together before raising his eyes to mine once again. "Then you are welcome," he said quietly.

I was grateful for my beard then, for I felt the surprising warmth of a blush in my own cheeks. What I may have said or done in that moment, I have often wondered since. But it was broken as Gandalf called Bilbo's name from a little ways down the hill. We both turned toward that voice as if pulled abruptly from a dream. Bilbo stood, releasing my hand as Gandalf approached. If he noticed anything odd about the two of us sitting together holding hands he said nothing.

Gandalf asked Bilbo if he had meant what he said about leaving for the Shire immediately and Bilbo said that he had. I looked at him in disappointment and some surprise. It was again an unwelcome reminder that Bilbo was not one of us and that his destiny lay outside and away from my own. It made me sick at heart.

"You would leave us so soon?" I asked, rising to stand next to him.

Bilbo turned to me and nodded, an apology in his eyes. "Too much has happened in this place," he said sadly. "And I find myself aching for my own snug Hobbit hole again."

I sighed, understanding, though I didn't want to. "You will come back to us again, will you not?" I asked, desperately hoping for some assurance that I would see him again.

He smiled, a true and warm smile, despite his weariness. "I will try. But only if you will make the endeavor to return to the Shire sometime. You were there so briefly before, I was unable to show you my gardens and was barely able to cook you a meal fit to eat."

I couldn't help but laugh at the humor in his eyes as he spoke. I stepped forward on impulse and embraced him in the manner of dear friends. "I promise I will try to come to the Shire as soon as I am able," I told him and he embraced me back warmly. It was no idle promise I made, for I fully intended to keep it.

And so I have. Several of us traveled back into the West to collect the things that had been left behind when we had set out on the quest to reclaim the Lonely Mountain. Gandalf traveled with us but as we turned back east, our business affairs finally wrapped up, and the last of the goods and Dwarves coming with us were packed and ready to go, he said that he would be leaving us at that point. For he was traveling next into the Shire to visit Bilbo. Dori and Nori were with us and both expressed the desire to see Bilbo again, but in the end only I was able to give the goods entrusted to me into the hands of others and travel with Gandalf back into the green lands of the Shire, baring only their good wishes with me.

I was suddenly impatient to see our dear Hobbit again and my step was brisk as Gandalf and I traveled. As we grew near though, a trepidation began to grow within me. Bilbo had been much in my mind in the time since we had parted and I had come to realize that there was more in my heart for him than I had at first supposed. I thought often of that evening on Ravenhill and wondered, if Gandalf had not come... They were idle thoughts of course, for what is done is done, but still they came often to my mind. And more than that, he had been heartsick when he left, eager to be away from the Lonely Mountain and all that had happened there. Would he really be as glad to see me again as I would be to see him?

I found myself lost in thought many times, searching my memories for clues as to what may be in Bilbo's heart. For, it was difficult to know. I found that in spite of the time we had traveled together, I knew so terribly little of Hobbits and their customs that I was unable to guess if Bilbo's behavior toward me was that simply of a friend or if there may indeed have been something more. I thought often of asking Gandalf, for he knew much more of Hobbits and their ways than I, but I always stopped myself on the brink of some question that would reveal my inner turmoil. It was not that I do not trust Gandalf, but Dwarves are not accustomed to discussing matters of the heart with anyone but the one to whom their thoughts turn. And even then, it is discussed little, for such things are not meant for idle talk. They are matters of far too weighty an importance.

However, it seemed as though Gandalf knew just the same with that strange knowledge of things wizards seem to have. As we drew closer, he began to regale me unasked with tales of hobbits, of the Shire and of it's folk. He told me at length of the adventures of the Tooks, the family of Bilbo's mother. He told me of Bilbo's grandfather, who I was surprised to learn had been a dear friend of Gandalf's. He told me the many adventures of Bilbo's uncle Hildifons who had chosen to remain in the outside world and never returned to the Shire. He also told me Bilbo's great-great-great uncle Bullroarer Took and his great battles. I found myself less and less surprised by Bilbo's fortitude and courage. Only increasingly amazed that I had not known of the greatness of Hobbits before. Such a strange race, leaving the world to their own comings and goings, and yet able to do such great things when need or wanderlust called.

Gandalf's stories were informative, though they didn't answer many of the questions I had. Still, they kept my mind away from my own worries and so I felt calm when we finally approached the familiar round, green door again. Gandalf rang the bell and the door opened to reveal Bilbo's cheerful face. He was plumper and dressed in far finer clothes than when I had last seen him, but he was still the same dear old Bilbo who had traveled so far with us.

I will always remember the look of delighted surprise that came across his face as he saw us. Any uncertainties I had regarding my welcome were soon dispelled by the warmth of the Hobbit's welcome. He soon had us settled down to tea and eagerly asked after our other companions and listened with great interest to all the news from the Lonely Mountain and from Dale and Lake-town. His claimed his own news was little enough in comparison, but after some prodding on Gandalf's and my own part, he was willing to tell it. I was surprised to learn that he had been given up for dead by his neighbors and relatives while he was away. He and Gandalf described the pandemonium of the auction they had arrived back in the middle of. Then Biblo regaled us at length, and with much amusement, of his ongoing legal battles to reclaim all his property and to be declared alive again by the local government. It had been long since I had laughed as much as I did that day.

Afternoon passed swiftly and, as promised, Bilbo served us with a dinner that far rivaled that which had been had on that April evening so long ago. We ate and talked and laughed and sat around the fire with our pipes, telling stories and singing songs far into the night. I felt lighter of heart than I had for many years when I lay down to sleep in the soft feather mattress of Bilbo's guest room. I remember thinking it a shame that I could not spend longer in that place than the brief visit Gandalf and I had planned.

The days seemed to pass far too quickly, as Bilbo did his best to fatten the both of us with good food and lots of it. We took long walks about the county and sat in the gardens of Bag End for hours. I felt a peace come over me in that place which I could not readily explain. The odd, wild beauty of the place touched something inside of me. I breathed deeply of the clean Shire air and of the sweet smell of Bilbo's garden and a part of me could understand his love of this place. It was not the great halls and deep mountains that were my home, but it was indeed beautiful in its own way. I could finally understand Bilbo's anxiousness to return here. For there was no doubt that he belonged in this place. Watching him smoke his pipe, sitting in his garden of an evening, it was impossible to miss the quiet contentment in his eyes. He talked of someday going out again into the world to see mountains and great forests. But not yet, he said, as he looked about his home in satisfaction.

Not yet. It was all I could think the morning Gandalf declared he must be off again. I could hardly believe a month had passed and though part of me did long to return to the Lonely Mountain, I found I was not yet ready yet to leave Bilbo or the Shire. The feeling surprised me with it's intensity. And when Bilbo asked me to remain longer, I happily agreed. I sent word home with Gandalf not to expect me as soon as had originally been planned.

So, it was with a sense of peace that I stood with Bilbo on the step of Bag End that bright morning to bid farewell to the wizard and then gratefully turned back into the house, shutting the round, green door behind us. And I breathed deeply of the mingled scents of wood and candles, books and clean, dark earth...

"I don't know if you can strictly call it a holiday, Bilbo," I commented, settling myself more comfortably against the tree I was leaning against.

Bilbo chuckled from his place sitting cross-legged in the grass near me. "Well, it certainly didn't seem like a holiday at the time. But you really must admit 'There and Back Again: A Hobbit's Holiday' has a lovely ring to it."

Bilbo's birthday had come and gone, and winter would soon be upon us. We were taking advantage of the last of the warm weather to spend the day out of doors. I gazed out across the fields and to Hobbiton in the distance with the hill of Bag End rising behind it. The Shire was stunning decked out in its autumn splendor and Bilbo was gazing out over the same view with obvious pleasure. I had been reading a bit of the memoirs he'd been working on and we had been discussing it for some time.

"I'm still not sure about the title," I said stubbornly. In reality, I rather thought the title clever, but was having far too much fun teasing Bilbo to admit it right then.

The Hobbit pulled a face at me. "Well," he sniffed. "Dwarves are known for their silver work, not their silver tongues, so I hope you don't mind if I don't take your literary criticism too seriously."

I couldn't help but laugh then, and Bilbo joined me. With a contented sigh, he shifted his position to rest against the tree next to me and I looked at him fondly as he gazed out over Hobbiton.

"There won't be many more days like this," he commented.

"Does it snow much here?" I asked, only vaguely curious about the winter ahead of us.

"Sometimes," Bilbo said, turning slightly to look at me. "But not over much. Not as much as up in the mountains, certainly."

I nodded slightly to indicate that I had heard, but my mind was occupied with a thought that had been much in it of late. As the comfortable days stretched on, I often found myself wondering just where my place in Bilbo's heart was. Of his friendship and affection I had no doubt. But beyond that, I did not know. At quiet times like these, I would wonder what he would do or think if I were to kiss him. It was that thought that occupied my mind at that moment, when he sat so closely beside me.

Bilbo must have seen something odd in my glance because his gaze turned questioning, but he did not move away even when I reached out to brush a stray curl from his face. It was this that gave me the courage to lean forward. I slipped my hand gently back into his hair and lightly brushed my lips against his.

I felt his lips curl into a smile against my own and was surprised to hear a soft chuckle. "I was wondering when you were going to get around to that," he murmured and I drew back slightly in surprise. He was looking at me with amused affection.

Suddenly I felt foolish for not having acted sooner and could not help a soft chuckle of my own. "You are not always easy to read, master Hobbit," I said, leaning in once more. "I wasn't entirely certain of my welcome."

I cut off any reply he might have made by claiming his lips a second time. This time I pressed more firmly against him and to my delight he answered warmly, opening to my questing tongue and giving me my first real taste of him. He was sweet and tart, like a ripe apple, and I found myself addicted to the taste at once, drawing back only for a short breath before delving in once again. And Bilbo met my kisses with exploration of his own, sweeping past my lips and teeth to find the hidden caverns of my mouth while our hands began to wander over the hills and valleys to be found through layers of autumn clothes.

There was something rather funny about it. I had wondered for nearly two months now if I dared to try this. And now... a smile and a chuckle and he was kissing me back as though there was nothing out of the ordinary about it in the least. I supposed I should have known that nothing I could do would entirely take Bilbo Baggins by surprise. Not much does. But still, I couldn't help but find it ironically funny, even if I was slightly annoyed that he'd allowed me this uncertainly for so long.

"You could have said something, if you knew of my interest and returned it," I murmured against him.

My answer was another chuckle. "I was under the impression Dwarves didn't like to talk of such things," he answer teasingly, stealing another kiss. "And I wouldn't have wanted to upset your delicate sensibilities, my dear."

I snorted. "Delicate indeed. You could have just kissed me, then," I said, not entirely willing to admit him right in that matter.

This earned me a full laugh. "If you'd taken much longer in coming to the point, I would have. Really Balin, all that waiting was becoming rather annoying. And here I'd always believed Dwarves to be quick to action..." I cut off his stream of words with my mouth and it was a while before either of us spoke again.

How long we sat there learning the secrets of one another, I could not say, but it was a while before we drew apart, our breath rather short and our arms still tight about one another. Then Bilbo laughed merrily and stood, drawing me to my feet as well.

"Evening's coming on," he said. "And I for one would like some dinner."

So homeward we walked, skirting around the outer edges of Hobbiton and back toward Bag End. The trees may have changed and the first sharpness of the changing season may be in the air, but the sun was still surprisingly hot in its late afternoon glory. We kept to the coolness of the tree shadows as often as possible before abandoning them to walk the dusty road that led up Bilbo's hill.

What it was we talked of I could not have said, for I was still too lost in the wonderment of the moment. But talk we did, for it was Bilbo's laughter, merry and rich, that echoed in my ears as we walked. His gardens were full of golden sunlight when we stepped through the gate and the whole place seemed to glow. The young apprentice of Bilbo's gardener was still hard at work preparing the flowerbeds for winter as we trudged up the path and Bilbo called out a hello as we went. Young Hamfast paused in his work to wipe the sweat from his brow and wish us a good evening. He'd been more than uncertain of me when I first came, but the lad had grown used to me and his smile of greeting was honest and directed at both of us.

It was cool within the hole and I was grateful for it as we stepped inside. While I lingered in the hall for a moment savoring the escape from the sun, Bilbo swept farther into the hole, intent on the serious business of preparing dinner.

I have never been the best of cooks, but I had tried during my visit to aid in the preparation of meals as best I could. I fear though, that I was far more of a hindrance than a help that evening. I could not keep my thoughts on the cooking any more than I'd been able to follow our conversation during the walk back. However, to be fair, I wasn't the only one plagued with other thoughts beyond food. We were like young lads again, teasing in both word and touch, stealing kisses as we moved about the kitchen. More than one dish nearly ended up ruined by our thoughtlessness. That, more than anything else, served to assure me of Bilbo's sincere interest, for if there is one thing I'd learned, it is that it takes a great deal to distract a Hobbit's mind from his dinner!

Finally, in desperation, Bilbo ordered me out of the kitchen to go set the table. "For if you don't go, I'm sure I'll burn the lot, and then we'd be in a fix!" he laughed.

He turned away from me, back to the stove, and I slipped my arms about his waist for a moment, giving his neck a kiss before moving away. "Go on now," he chuckled, shooing me away with the wooden spoon he was using to stir the pot.

I couldn't help but laugh as well, at my own antics as much as anything else. I shook my head in bemusement as I laid out the place settings. This behavior was unlike me, at least it hadn't been since I wasn't much more than a lad. But Bilbo's laughter and his own playfulness brought out something in me, something... young. It was the only word I could think of to describe it. There was already white in my beard and yet with my dear Hobbit I felt like little more than a child. I felt free of the constraints of adulthood, free to simply sit back and enjoy myself. I have always known we Dwarves were a rather dour lot, but I'd never wanted to be any other way... until now. Now, there was just us and there was no need for the concerns and constraints of proper behavior or decorum.

It wasn't long before Bilbo joined me with the food. It took two trips to bring it all in and another trip to the cellar for a bottle of his fine wine before we were ready to start eating. Dinners are often a quiet affair with Bilbo, for the Hobbit is always very serious about eating. And this night, despite the shared glances and secret smiles, was no different. Afterward, we settled down by the fire with our pipes as always. Only tonight, we sat together on his little sofa instead of in the chairs which were nearer the fire, but across from each other.

We spoke long that night of the lovers we had had in the past, both the joys and heartbreaks. I put my arm around his waist and he shifted close to lean comfortably against my side. I fell to watching him with a certain wonder, still surprised how much things could change so quickly, and yet somehow not change very much at all. For it was still us, here, smoking our pipes, just as we had done the night before. I found it amazing that I could have been holding him like this then, if only I'd been willing to speak sooner. But I could not find it in myself to be sorry things had gone as they had. Indeed, I could have been sorry for nothing at that moment, save the moment's end. It was odd though, that this did feel so much as it had been, only better. It was as though something more should have changed, but in all honesty it hadn't, and didn't need to.

After a time we fell into silence, staring into the fire, occupied with our own thoughts. I don't think a horde of goblins could have made me move just then, so comfortable and content was I. Move I finally did though, turning my head toward Bilbo as I felt a tickle at my hair.

"Stay still," Bilbo said firmly, and so I did, waiting until I heard a small sound of satisfaction. Then I felt warm lips against the side of my neck. "There it is," he said against my skin. I wondered what he meant, but soon didn't care as his tongue traced patterns upon me. I sighed in pleasure, tilting my head to give him better access.

After a few moments, he drew back and I turned to look at him curiously. He smiled, his eyes dancing with mirth. "I though there had to be a neck under all that hair somewhere, but I decided I'd better make sure just the same."

I suppressed my grin with some difficulty. I wanted him to continue doing what he had been doing, but I couldn't let the teasing note in his voice go unanswered. "Do you have some objection to my beard, master Hobbit?" I said, gravely as I could.

"Well," he said, striking a thoughtful expression. "It is rather scratchy, and it does get in the way a bit. No Hobbit would put up with such a thing, for you see it's just not very neat and tidy." He nodded his head slightly as if to emphasis the point.

My lips twitched, but I managed to keep a straight face and answered him in as dignified a tone as I could muster. "I'll have you know, that among Dwarves a long beard is not only a sign of age and wisdom, but also a sign of virility. Only a child or a woman would be without one."

That amused him greatly. I saw his shoulders shake with the effort to keep the laughter in and it was a moment before he could answer. "Oh dear, I thought things were going too well. For I fear you are in for a bit of a shock if you've taken me for a lass all this time!"

It was all I could do not to laugh out loud. "Are you suggesting," I growled out, valiantly trying to keep the laughter at bay with only moderate success. "That I've not enough experience to tell the difference?"

"Experience is as experience does, my dear Dwarf. And I've yet to be able to make a judgement one way or the other." There was a bit of a challenge in his eyes, along with the humor and affection.

My own amusement grew quieter as other emotions filled me. "I shall have to show you then," I murmured, leaning in close for a kiss.

"I had rather hoped you would," he answered against me before closing the gap between us. The kiss started off slow and teasing as our words had been, but it soon grew in passion and intensity. A soft sound of pleasure escaped one of us, though I could not have said who. And it seemed to hang in the air between us as we drew apart looking at one another with passion-filled eyes.

Bilbo stood then and a small smile curved his lips as he held out his hand to me. I accepted his unspoken invitation gladly, taking his hand into my own and allowing myself to be drawn farther back into Bag End.

A thought occurred to me much later in the night and, half asleep as I was, I chuckled. Bilbo stirred slightly in my arms.

"What's so amusing?" he asked sleepily.

I pressed a kiss to his shoulder. "Nothing much. When I came here, I had intended this to be a very brief visit, simply a time to... talk some, before I headed back to the mountain. Now look how long I've stayed. And now, of course, I find I've no intention of leaving for some time."

"I'm glad of that, certainly. For you must stay the winter now and keep an old Hobbit warm." I could hear the smile in his voice, though I could not see it.

"Keep you warm?" I asked, incredulously. I had already been forced to remove one of the quilts that covered us, due to the warmth of his body. "It is likely you will be the one keeping me warm. With the amount of heat you produce, my love, you do not need me to be warm."

He turned in my arms then, and there was something serious in his eyes despite his smile. "No, I think I'd be terribly cold without you."

There was no answer for that but to kiss him. So, I did. We then settled, twined closely together, and soon his breath slowed and deepened as he slipped into dreams.

I lay awake for some time. I knew this could not go on forever. I could no more spend all my life living in a hill than my love could spend his life living in a mountain. My mind knew it well, but my heart did not care. For now, I was happy, and the contentment of this moment could not be broken by any thoughts of the future.

Soon I followed my lover into peaceful, sated slumber.

The End

...for now