A/N: Hello, everyone! Well, I tried my damndest, but I wasn't able to fit quite everything that needs to happen into this chapter. (I think I'm destined to be 'the girl who cried last chapter' for all time, seriously.) As a result, the final installment of this story will be a short-ish epilogue to cover the last - and admittedly rather important - scene. Thank you so much to everyone who has waited so long for this chapter in particular: I've been waiting to share this one with you guys for absolute ages! I hope you enjoy, and please do let me know what you think.
As always, updates are available and all questions are welcomed at my tumblr (emilianadarling dot tumblr dot com).
It took few seconds for Bilbo's words to fully permeate Thorin's haze. They were nothing but meaningless sound at first, a minor distraction in the face of the strained expression on Bilbo's face, the obvious frustration in his voice. As soon as the importance of Bilbo's words truly sank in, however, Thorin felt a cold, visceral fear twist in his stomach. He tensed up, straightening his back and squaring his shoulders, and he was so aware of his reaction it was almost as though time itself had slowed down.
This was not the blinding determination of fear in battle, or the constant low hum of terror he had harboured for his people every day of their exile. This fear was a yawning maw that left him flayed open, wretched and exposed for all the world to see. For Bilbo to see.
Bilbo, who was still standing there. Who was still waiting for an answer. Thorin schooled his face into something neutral, desperately hoping that the strength of his reaction had not been plain to see.
In front of him, Bilbo was growing visibly more agitated.
"Well?" Bilbo asked, shuffling his large feet uneasily. There was a rigid expression on his face, as though the frustration that sometimes simmered just beneath the surface of him had finally boiled over. Thorin gave his head a little shake.
"Of course," Thorin heard himself say, slow and stilted, his mouth seeming to form the words without any conscious thought on his part. He darted a quick look over Bilbo's shoulder. The camp fire was only a little ways away, and their companions were bustling around easily within hearing distance. Thorin felt heat rise in his face. He stiffened, trying to think of a way to relocate this conversation. To make his humiliation a little less public.
"Not here," Bilbo clarified, as though able to read his thoughts. His words were still short, abrupt. Thorin saw him glance over to the denser trees around them. "Come with me?"
It was still a question, not a command, but Thorin thought he probably would have obeyed an order nonetheless. He nodded, raising himself up on shaky legs.
He tried not to let on just how separate it all felt: his body standing, his heart pounding in his chest, the shock-white blank of his mind. Because even though he would have preferred almost anything to actually talking about this, he knew that Bilbo deserved answers. This conversation was always going to happen, and even if Thorin would have preferred it to wait until after the reclamation of Erebor – until after he had his kingdom beneath him again – he would just have to suffer and make do.
Thorin picked up his sword – better to be prepared than caught off guard – and called out to Dwalin as they turned to leave, gesturing down at Bilbo and tilting his head toward the forest. It would not do to disappear without a word and raise alarm. Dwalin gave the halfling a curious look but nodded all the same, and Thorin obediently followed when Bilbo lead him into the forest.
Neither of them seemed to truly have a destination in mind. Bilbo went ahead of him, moving with an unfamiliar speed and determination. The thick pads of his meet made more noise than they usually did as he picked his way over the ground. They walked until they were out of sight and earshot and further, walking through the trees as dread rose in Thorin's throat like bile.
They finally came to a stop at the base of a great gnarled tree, its branches twisting up into the sky. Warm sunlight still filtered in through the leaves and branches, so much different than the darkened heart of Mirkwood they had escaped only the day before. The forest floor was thick with moss.
Bilbo halted mid-step and spun around, crossing his arms tight against his chest. He had left his coat back at the camp, and the movement made the light fabric of his shirtsleeves shift beneath his waistcoat, made the pale line of his throat even more visible. Thorin swallowed hard and clenched his jaw, fighting the urge to look away. Bilbo's expression was hard, but his eyes looked almost sad.
What is it you want? Thorin knew he should ask, but the words died on his tongue. Instead he remained silent, lips pressed together and eyes fixed determinedly on Bilbo. He stood up straighter, waiting for the onslaught to come at last.
"I can't," Bilbo began, cutting himself off with a sudden inhale of breath through his nose. He pressed his lips together and raised his gaze for a moment, eyes shining with anger or remorse or both. After a second, he looked at Thorin and tried again. When he spoke, his voice was choppy and strained but carefully enunciated, as though he was afraid of being misunderstood. "I can't do this anymore."
There was a beat – and then the words hit Thorin with the force of a physical blow, something sick and hopeless churning in the base of his stomach. After so much silence between them, so much left unspoken, actually hearing the rejection felt surreal, brutal. He had known it was coming, but still the hurt echoed right down to his core.
"I don't know what this is, but it has to stop," said Bilbo coldly. He was gathering momentum, now, the words coming with greater speed and conviction. "Nothing I do makes it any better. You – you won't look me in the eye, won't talk to me. Confound it, Thorin, even when you hated me you would talk to me." He uncrossed his arms and raised one finger in the air, lips a tight line. When he spoke again, there was an intensity to his voice that made Thorin suck in a breath. "I am here on your fool of an errand. I did not risk my life in Mirkwood to be pushed aside like this. We are on our way to fight a dragon, we can't – we can't afford to fall apart before we even get there."
Thorin wanted to say something, but his throat felt too dry to speak. He nodded brusquely instead, not wanting to look Bilbo in the eyes as the shame of it settled heavily over his heart. It had never been his intention to devalue the halfling's bravery, or to make things even worse between them with his silence. But it did not matter what his intentions were. They would both have to put their hurt aside for the greater good of the quest if they were to have any hope of succeeding.
Bilbo hesitated, swallowing hard. He looked down at the mossy ground, the movement making one of his curls fall in front of his eyes. The sight made something tighten in Thorin's throat.
"Look," said Bilbo quietly, eyes fixed firmly on the ground. "I know… I know you didn't realize it was me. In the dungeons."
There was a pause. Thorin… blinked. He stared at Bilbo, completely unable to make sense of the words. At his silence, Bilbo continued in a rush.
"The poison made you see things, I know that, I'm not… I'm not a fool. But neither are you, and you don't need to avoid me like this for one stupid mistake. It's punishing me for something that's not my fault."
And none of that made sense. Could not possibly make any sense, and it was as though Bilbo was speaking in riddles. Thorin felt his brow furrowing as he ran over the words in his mind, once, twice, three times. Checking them against his own cloudy memories. After a moment, Thorin realized that Bilbo was actually squirming under his gaze. He looked miserable, Thorin realized. Resigned.
Bilbo took a deep breath as though to steady himself, then raised his eyes up to meet Thorin's as though it took a great effort to do so. "Can we not simply pretend it never happened?" Bilbo asked, wretched and wincing as though he already suspected what the answer would be.
It was enough to bring Thorin back to the moment, to make him open his mouth for the first time during the whole conversation.
"I knew it was you."
The words came out in a tumble, all at once and without his permission. They were low and stunted and barely more than a murmur, but it was still enough to make Bilbo's whole body tense up, to make his expression go slack.
"You what," Bilbo asked, voice completely flat and uncomprehending. Thorin shuffled his feet, feeling awkward and exposed and too large for this conversation, and he could not understand how the Bilbo had drawn so wrong a conclusion.
"I knew it was you," Thorin said again, slow and clear and almost shaking because it was important that Bilbo understood. That he knew. Thorin could barely understand this conversation, could hardly believe what he was saying. "When I did… what I did. I knew it was you."
There was a pause. And then –
"I don't understand," said Bilbo simply. His brow was creased, his mouth slightly open. Thorin frowned, trying to dredge up the right thing to say. But talking had never been his strong point, not even in the days before the dragon came.
"Master Baggins," Thorin began, stiff and slow, and for some reason that made Bilbo flinch. "You have been… very kind." He took a deep breath, clenching and unclenching his fists by his sides. "But you do not deserve to be treated the way I treated you."
"Oh, so the way you're treating me now is so much better?" Bilbo snapped, but he visibly backtracked at Thorin's pained look, raising his hands up in the air palms-forward. "Sorry. Sorry. Please do keep talking."
It was like slogging through mud, trying to find the words for this. Thorin screwed his eyes shut and raised a hand to his forehead, mentally going over the events of the past few days. It was difficult to explain, to put into words, and Thorin found himself wishing that they could be having this conversation in Khuzdul instead of the common tongue. There were so many words and ideas that his mother language captured so vividly that Westron could only talk around, could only conjure up a watered-down imitation for.
"I did something very wrong that day," said Thorin finally, letting out a small noise of frustration at how flimsy it sounded in the common tongue. "Something unforgivable. I was not in my right mind, no. But that is no excuse." He swallowed, looking down at Bilbo with a heaviness in his heart. "You should not have to tolerate that. If you never wanted to speak to me again, I would understand. I –"
"Wait," said Bilbo abruptly, not seeming to care in the slightest that he was cutting Thorin off. His expression seemed pinched, and when he spoke it was slowly, clearly, as though he was speaking to a small child. "Wait. You… you think I'm angry." He paused. "Because you kissed me."
"You have every reason to be," Thorin assured him, but he was left blinking in surprise when Bilbo responded by throwing his arms into the air in exasperation.
"What are you talking about?" Bilbo demanded loudly, taking a few steps back and letting out a humourless bark of laughter. "Everything you say is – it's all empty words and honour and stoic silence and I am done, Thorin Oakenshield. I am done. Say the words you mean and be done with it, because I do not understand what you are saying."
"What is there to understand?" Thorin practically roared back, then cut himself off with a wordless grunt of aggravation. He forced his voice to grow soft again, clenching his fists and leaning in closer. "I forced you to kiss me," he hissed, spitting the words out under his breath like the dirty secret that they were. "You tried to pull away and I would not let you. That is unforgivable, how can you not see that?"
"I can't believe I'm hearing this," said Bilbo in disbelief, staring at Thorin as though he had grown a second head. He opened his mouth as if to speak, then closed it again, gesturing wildly one of his hands and pacing for a moment before spinning back around and trying again. He clasped his hands in front of him as though in supplication, but there was a bright fire burning in his eyes as he spoke. "All right, first of all? You don't actually get to decide what I think is forgivable or not. Second of all – Thorin, are you insane? You were half out of your mind when that happened! You didn't say anything that made sense for two days after that."
"I still hurt you," Thorin growled out, hands clenched and the humiliation of it throbbing in his chest like a wound. He took another step forward. "I still forced you"
"I'm not going to hold you accountable for something you did when you were so delirious you barely knew where you were, no matter how pig-headed and self-sacrificing you are!" Bilbo snapped, standing his ground. He let out a frustrated burst of air, running a hand through his curls and looking at Thorin helplessly. "I thought you were embarrassed," he said, and Thorin was horrified to see that there was old hurt peeking out through the words. "I thought you were embarrassed because it was me, of all people –"
"Of course I was embarrassed that it was you!" Thorin practically shouted, red-faced and wrong-footed and far too loud. He was breathing hard, now, and that had probably been the wrong thing to say, but this was all too much, too fast, and if he could find the magical combination of words to make Bilbo understand then he would say them, he would, but all he had achieved was to make Bilbo go wide-eyed and blinking and Thorin did not know what to say.
There was a long, long pause as they both stood there, words hanging in the air between them. After a moment, he saw Bilbo visibly pause to collect himself; saw him take a few deep breaths, straighten his posture, blink back some of the emotion in his eyes.
"None of this is getting us anywhere," Bilbo declared, raising his palms ever-so-slightly in a placating gesture. He looked so small, standing there amidst the towering trees, and Thorin forced himself to take a few steadying breaths as well. For a few moments, Bilbo paused to think – and then Thorin saw something strange come over him, a realization that made his entire demeanour change. Bilbo looked up at him, and it was disquieting how suddenly calm he was. "I think the better question might be why you kissed me at all?"
It was as though a pitcher of cold water had been turned over Thorin's head. He took a step back, shaking his head slowly and pleading with his eyes.
"Do not do this," he said quietly, and it felt cruel, like an animal forced to dance for another's amusement. For an insane moment, Thorin actually considered turning and running away. It was a ridiculous thought, however, and he dismissed it with a shake of his head. "Do not make me say it." He swallowed heavily. "Please."
"No," said Bilbo bluntly, and Thorin winced at the dismissal. Distantly, some part of his mind wondered when he had last felt so chastised, so powerless against someone. He had never thought Bilbo to be cruel before. "No, say what you mean. There's been far too much skulking around on both our parts, and it's time for that to stop." Bilbo paused, cocking his head to one side. "Why did you kiss me?"
It was as though the whole world had narrowed down to this moment. Thorin said nothing, his mind a great metal gear spinning helplessly without anything to catch on. Panicky little bursts of energy were crawling under his skin, because how could he even begin?
He glanced over at Bilbo in desperation, but Bilbo was still looking at him expectantly. Thorin shifted uneasily under his gaze; he licked his lips and glanced away. His face burned, and it felt as though his cloak had grown suddenly heavier. He caught Bilbo's eyes, and the way he was looking at him – expectant, irritated, hopeful? – made something inside of Thorin ache. He glared down at the ground, purposefully avoiding Bilbo's eyes.
"For some time now," Thorin began slowly, but his voice caught in his throat. He scowled and shifted uneasily under Bilbo's hot gaze, wishing he was anywhere – anywhere – but here. It felt like wrenching an arrowhead from a wound, but without the immediate relief that came after. Helplessness was twisting violently at his insides, and it made him want to fight, to lash out. He coughed, physically forcing himself to speak. "For some time now, I have…" he trailed off again, this time finishing with a low growl of anger, of resentment.
"What would you have me say?!" Thorin demanded abruptly, too-loud and cornered and desperate, scrabbling at scraps for any hint of what to do. He flung his hands up in the air, taking a few steps back. "What would you have me say that would satisfy you?"
"I would have you speak the truth," Bilbo almost yelled back, his tiny fists clenched by his sides. "Why is that so difficult?" Thorin gave his head a shake, feeling the weight of the beads as his braids shook.
"It is simple for you," said Thorin darkly, because words came so easily to him. The little hobbit who could open his mouth and bewilder trolls and save them all without lifting a finger. Instead of sympathetic, however, Bilbo looked offended.
"Nothing about this is simple for me, actually. Although it might be somewhat easier if I didn't have dwarf kings pulling me in every direction, saying they're sorry and kissing me in dungeons and then acting as though I never existed in the first place–"
"I did not mean to hurt you."
"Then what did you mean to do, Thorin? I cannot understand if you do not tell me, why can't you just-?"
"Because I care for you!"
The words were bellowed out, raw and so loud they actually echoed in the woods around them. Some of the birds that had been quietly tittering all this time were startled into silence, and the quiet that rang out around them was stark with the sheer physicality of its presence. Thorin was left standing there, ruddy and shattered and breathing hard, his eyes fixed on the one person he had tried so hard to silence himself around for so very long. Bilbo stood, eyes wide and not saying anything – but it was too late now. The worst of the damage was done.
"I care for you," Thorin said again weakly, and it felt as though someone had cut into his chest, left his heart exposed and beating for all to see. "You are kind, and brave, and… inexplicable. That is why." He swallowed hard. "Please know that if I had all the wealth of this earth, I would give it to you. But I do not." He let out a shaky breath. "I used to think… once we reclaimed Erebor…"
Bilbo said nothing, only stared at him with such intensity it made him all the more uneasy. Thorin gave his head a shake, turning away.
"This is too much," said Thorin quietly, evenly. He felt hollow inside, as though there were no words left to be spoken. "I cannot… I am not made for this. To bare myself open, to make myself weak." He squeezed his eyes shut, but still Bilbo said nothing. Left him standing here making a spectacle of himself, making himself look the fool. "Make your fun. I cannot bear this any longer. I did not think you to be cruel, but perhaps I was wrong."
Stiff-backed and resolute, Thorin started to walk away – but only made it a few paces before Bilbo finally began to speak behind him.
"No," he heard Bilbo say, and Thorin bowed his head, walked faster. "No no no no no no no, please, Thorin stop." He heard footsteps, heard the voice grow louder – and felt Bilbo's small hand take hold of his arm, wordlessly asking him to stay.
Physically, there was no way Bilbo could stop him from leaving. It would be easy to pull away, to keep going – but the weight of Bilbo's hand on his arm stopped him in place as thoroughly as though he had been turned to stone. And slowly, very slowly, Thorin turned around.
The expression on Bilbo's face was so fragile, so hopeful, that Thorin barely dared to draw breath. Bilbo looked shaken, yes – but he also looked more open, more welcoming than Thorin could remember him looking for a long, long time.
"All this time?" asked Bilbo quietly, as though afraid of the answer. But he did not seem to be mocking him; had not demanded that Thorin take his leave. Tentatively, Thorin nodded.
"… since Azog," said Thorin, glancing down at Bilbo's hand on his arm and feeling a warm rush of feeling in his stomach. "Since you laid down your life for me and expected nothing in return. Or… perhaps longer, I do not –" He cut himself off with a small noise of frustration, but Bilbo did not look upset. Instead, there was almost a trace of humour in his eyes.
"You have the strangest way of showing someone you care about them, you know that?" he asked, dry tone mitigated by the warmth in his eyes. Bilbo glanced down, staring somewhere in the region of Thorin's chest. "I thought you knew," he said, sounding suddenly shy, disbelieving. "I thought it was one of the reasons you disliked me so much at first."
With a deep breath, Bilbo raised his gaze and met Thorin's eyes again. When he spoke, his words were full of certainty. "Thorin, I have always held you in the highest regard," Bilbo said, and it felt as though the earth had been pulled out from beneath Thorin's feet. As though he had been left free-falling. "Since the night I met you, I have. You are stubborn, and obstinate, and infuriating," Bilbo said with a half-laugh, "but you're also the most honourable man I've ever met. I think you're rather wonderful." He hesitated – and for the first time during their conversation, for the first time in days, a smile spread across his lips. "And… and I care for you, too."
It was as though white noise and blinding light had wiped away every other thought from Thorin's mind. He let out a small, choked noise and Bilbo smiled wider, beaming at him as though nothing had ever been strained between them.
All Thorin could do was gape, running his eyes over every inch of Bilbo's face, hardly able to believe what was happening. He tried to maintain his composure, to stay keep himself in check – but it was so very difficult when Bilbo's hand was still on his arm, warm and solid even through the thick fabric. There was a giddy disbelief rising in his chest that clashed violently with the lingering reservations that were still cloying at the edges of his heart.
"All the things I have said to you – done to you –" Thorin began, but Bilbo cut him off.
"I forgive you," said Bilbo, as though it was that simple. His eyes were locked on Thorin's, not moving away even for a moment. His hand tightened on Thorin's arm.
"I have nothing to give you," Thorin insisted, grasping at every doubt and fear that had plagued him these past months, unable to believe that he could possibly be lucky enough to be given something so precious. Not without sacrifice, not without struggle. It did not seem possible. "No… no gems, or gold. To make up for what I have done. I have nothing."
"I don't care," said Bilbo easily, and when Thorin saw Bilbo's eyes flicker down to linger on his mouth he almost groaned. Bilbo's face was as open and easy as it had been that day on the Carrock so long ago.
"I am a king without a kingdom, Bilbo Baggins," Thorin tried to explain, half-noticing the way Bilbo sucked in a little breath of air when he spoke his name. "If Erebor were reclaimed, I would give you everything that befits my station. But I have nothing to my name. You deserve everything, and I can give you nothing."
"What goes on in that head of yours?" Bilbo asked, visibly bemused. He seemed somewhat exasperated again, but… gentler, this time. Fonder. He gave a little laugh, shaking his head. "I'm telling you, I don't care."
"Without gifts, I…" Thorin trailed off, a hint of sadness tugging at his chest. He thought of Bofur, about the easy companionship he and Bilbo seemed to share. About the confusion and stress and pain Thorin had caused Bilbo without meaning to, even with his best intentions at heart.
He was not good at this. At making people smile, or laugh, or feel loved. It was only a matter of time until Bilbo realized that for himself.
"I worry that you may find me… disappointing."
For a second, Bilbo's shining smile dimmed. He frowned, a wrinkle appearing in his forehead, narrowing his eyes ever-so-slightly and tipping his face upward to better look into Thorin's eyes.
"Is that something you've actually been worried about?" Bilbo asked quietly. He sounded half-curious, as though he was close to solving an unhappy riddle. "Is that actually something you think?"
"I have nothing to offer you," said Thorin emphatically, silently willing Bilbo to understand. He could hear the waver in his own voice, now. He was slipping, losing his grip. Every instinct in his body was screaming at him to pull Bilbo close, to feel the press of his small body against his own. To keep the halfling safe and warm and his, only his, and he did not have the strength to hold back much longer.
"Oh, Thorin," said Bilbo quietly, and his eyes were so very sad as he shook his head in disbelief.
Slowly, ever-so-slowly, Bilbo reached up his hand and laid it against the side of Thorin's face. His hand was small and soft and warm, his thumb brushing delicately over his cheek, and Thorin could not help but lean into the touch. It felt so good, so intimate, that he could not help but let his eyes flutter shut for a half-second.
When he opened them again, he was met with the calm blue of Bilbo's gaze.
"You've always had something to offer me," Bilbo said, his voice steady and sure and easy, so easy, as though it had always been this simple. His hand slid from Thorin's face, trailing down until it was resting on his shoulder. Then he stepped in close, raised himself onto his tiptoes, and pulled Thorin down into a kiss.
For a bright white and shocky moment, Thorin could not think. Everything went blank with disbelief, with joy, a great burst of pent-up energy and emotion flashing behind his eyes like a lightning strike. And then all of his fear and hesitancy seemed to melt away and he was kissing Bilbo back, resting a large hand on the back of his neck and cradling him, pressing into his space, pulling him closer. It felt as though something deep inside of Thorin was clicking into place, as though part of him he had never realized was hollow was suddenly filled to bursting.
It was impossible to hold back now that he had Bilbo like this, soft and sweet and making tiny little noises of want that made Thorin feel as though his blood was on fire. The gentle press of his mouth, the untidy mess of curls between Thorin's fingers, and it was so much better than the first time, when everything had been sweat and grime and grasping greedy taking. He could not identify the moment the kiss ceased to be chaste and became deeper, more languid. Bilbo was so warm and alive against him that it almost felt as though Thorin was breathing him in, taking everything he offered and making it his own.
When Bilbo reached up and wrapped his arms around his neck, straining to stay on his tiptoes and not break contact, Thorin could not hold back a groan. Without thinking, he walked them backwards until Bilbo's back was pushed up against the nearest tree – gently, so gently, just the lightest touch of back against bark. Thorin crowded him in, running his hands reverently along Bilbo's neck. He shuddered when Bilbo drew him in closer, and Thorin was acutely aware of how much broader he was, how much bigger, how easy it was to press Bilbo's body against the tree and keep him there.
Thorin had always been abstractly aware that Bilbo was considerably smaller than him. He had thought about it in terms of keeping Bilbo safe, in terms of what it meant for Bilbo as a swordsman; he had even allowed his mind to linger on the idea in the dusky grey moments before he drifted off to sleep. But being confronted with the full reality of how slight Bilbo was, how freely he yielded control, was utterly overwhelming. It left him quietly devastated; left him wanting to wrap himself around Bilbo and never let go, to protect him and cherish him like the treasure that he was.
He could feel Bilbo smiling against his mouth and it was wonderful, it was perfect, and Thorin genuinely could not remember the last time he had felt this kind of unchecked happiness. He dragged his fingers over the base of Bilbo's neck and felt the softness of the short hairs there, felt Bilbo shiver with pleasure against him.
He was claiming something freely given, and the thought was so heady it almost made him groan out loud.
After a few long minutes they pulled apart ever-so-slightly, and the sight of Bilbo glassy-eyed and rosy-cheeked, his back pressed up against the tree and clinging helplessly to his shoulders for support, made Thorin let out a low, strangled noise. Bilbo was breathing heavily, mouth wet and shining, and Thorin could not hold himself back from pressing quick kisses against the corner of his mouth, against the intoxicatingly smooth line of his jaw.
It felt unreal, being able to touch him like this; with the knowledge that Bilbo wanted it, welcomed it, that he felt the same desire that Thorin had kept hidden for so long. He dragged his mouth over the soft skin of Bilbo's cheek, fascinated at the strangeness of smooth skin beneath his lips.
"Mine," Thorin rumbled, unaware he was saying it out loud until he actually heard himself speak. He could not bring himself to regret it, though; he felt the truth of it from the tips of his fingers to the marrow in his bones, the knowledge that this was it, he was gone, he was lost running through him like the blood in his veins. Thorin breathed in the smell of him, earth and grass and something distinctly Bilbo, stroking his calloused thumb over the curve of his ear. He felt Bilbo gasp at that, the sound making heat pool in the base of Thorin's belly. "Mine."
"All right," Bilbo breathed out shakily, mouth hanging open and clutching at Thorin's shoulders. As though he might fall, might slip away if he were to let go. His voice was high, strained. He swallowed hard. "Yes, I'm… I rather think I'm all right with that."
Hearing him say that – in that voice, with that look on his face – hit Thorin like a blow to the stomach, made something uncontrollable flare and ripple beneath his skin. He choked out a breath, completely overcome for a moment at what it meant to have Bilbo's forgiveness, to be able speak such things aloud and be met with encouragement instead of anger.
"You know not what you do to me," said Thorin shakily. He moved so that their foreheads were pressed together, his hand cradling the back of Bilbo's neck. "I am sorry," he rumbled, and his voice was soft, barely more than a whisper. "For all the pain I caused you." It made him ache to think about it; about the hurt and the uncertainty, about all the time they had lost, about everything Bilbo deserved that Thorin could not give him.
But he could spend the rest of their lives – maybe days, maybe years, there was no way to tell which it would be – trying to make it up to him. And perhaps that could be enough.
Bilbo actually laughed out loud, pulling away just enough that Thorin could see the look on his face. He was smiling, now – his real smile, the one that shone like the sun, the one that made his eyes crease and his laugh lines deepen.
"I rather think I caused you a fair bit as well," said Bilbo, easy and content as he reached up and tucked some of Thorin's long hair behind his ear. His waistcoat was askew and his hair was a tousled mess, but he did not seem to mind. His cheeks were slightly flushed.
Thorin smiled in return, warm and loving and just for the two of them, but the happiness in his chest was so immense that he could not find the words to speak. Instead he leaned down and captured Bilbo's mouth in another kiss, pressing him back into the tree and wondering what on earth he could have ever done to deserve this.
Later, lying on the soft mossy ground with Bilbo's head tucked under his chin, an echo of that same smile still lingered on Thorin's lips.
With every breath he took, he could see Bilbo's head rising and falling almost imperceptibly. His sword lay on the ground a few feet away, long-discarded but still within reach just in case. They were both still fully clothed – the woods were not a safe or sensible place for certain things to take place, at least not with the ever-present threat of enemies catching up to them – but Thorin could feel the warm hum of contentment along his skin all the same.
They would have to return back to the camp soon; Dwalin would undoubtedly be getting suspicious by now, and they should be aiming to depart for the Long Lake within the hour. But they could linger for a few minutes still.
Thorin played idly with Bilbo's hair, twining his fingers through the curls and scraping his nails gently along the base of his neck. He felt Bilbo curl up tighter against him, heard the soft little noise of pleasure at the touch.
"Mm," said Bilbo quietly, sighing happily, and Thorin could feel the warm breath of air against his chest. Then, apropos of nothing, Bilbo let out a sudden snort of laughter. Thorin blinked, waiting for some kind of explanation. When none came, he poked Bilbo softly on the nose.
"What is it?" Thorin asked fondly, and the question made Bilbo let out another little chuckle against him.
"Nothing. It's nothing! Just…" Bilbo shifted, moving semi-reluctantly out of Thorin's arms and into a sitting position. He straightened out his shirtsleeves, shaking his head in disbelief. "I can't believe that of all the ridiculous reasons you chose to keep your distance, none of them were the only reason that makes any actual sense."
That was hardly fair, Thorin thought as he wrinkled his nose, because all of his reasons had been perfectly sensible –
— but then he frowned, replaying the sentence over in his head, completely at a loss for what the only reason that makes sense could be. He stared at Bilbo, who did not seem to realize that what he had said was in any way confusing. Instead, his halfling was fussily smoothing out his waistcoat with a distracted little smile on his face, quickly slipping his hand into one of the pockets before he appeared satisfied. It was a pity to watch him put himself back together; Thorin had discovered that he quite liked the look of Bilbo all mussed and untidy, too caught up in the moment to care about propriety or his appearance. But the question of the only reason that makes sense was still niggling persistently at the back of his mind.
After a few long moments, Thorin pushed himself up onto his elbows, slowly tilting his head to one side.
"… what is this reason of which you speak?" Thorin finally asked, partly because he wanted to know and partly because other people possessing information he did not had bothered him for as long as he could remember. Bilbo looked up from straightening his shirt collar, shooting him a disbelieving look.
"Thorin," said Bilbo reproachfully, his expression clearly indicating that he believed Thorin to be purposefully playing the fool. There was a half-sad little smile on his face, as though this was something that should not be joked about.
Thorin, on the other hand, had absolutely no idea what they were talking about. It was… frustrating, yes, but also somewhat amusing. Like a game; as though they were peeling away the layers of themselves like clothes, getting to see how each other worked on the inside. He gave his head a little shake.
Frowning, Bilbo gave him a very deliberate once-over. He trailed his eyes from the top of Thorin's head to his still-shod feet, then up again to meet his eyes – before gesturing to himself as though that should explain everything. Thorin's frown deepened.
"Really?" said Bilbo incredulously. He gestured between the two of them somewhat frantically, and at Thorin's continued silence he seemed to grow more agitated. "I – we're men, Thorin," Bilbo blurted out in a rush, looking more than a little harried. His face was rumpled, the lines in his forehead drawn deep. "We're both men. Male. That's the obvious thing. The obvious problem with… you do know that it's not as simple for us as it is with others, right?" he asked, as though he was speaking to someone particularly stupid. "It is… hidden. Not spoken about."
"Why should we not speak of this?" Thorin asked in bewilderment, because Bilbo was making less sense with every word that came out of his mouth. He could not imagine going back to camp and pretending, putting on a farce for his kin and companions. "Is it uncommon among your kind? Is it not done?"
"Uncommon – I don't. Thorin." Bilbo looked pained. He made a vague gesture with one hand, staring at Thorin as though he had declared his intention to take on Smaug armed only with a sewing needle and a jug of mead. "Of course it's done, but it's hardly talked about. There are laws, and – are you telling me that this –" he gestured almost hysterically between them "– is perfectly normal among dwarves?"
Thorin frowned. "You cannot choose who you love," he said slowly, eyeing Bilbo doubtfully. "My people learned this long ago." The expression on Bilbo's face made him feel as though he was speaking another language entirely. There was a long pause.
"So you're telling me," said Bilbo, slowly and carefully as though he might misstep, "that where you come from, the fact that you didn't have any… pretty trinkets to give me was more upsetting than the fact that we are, in fact, both male."
"Of course it was," said Thorin in surprise, pushing himself up higher on his elbows. "Not giving the correct gifts is a reflection on you. It's about how valuable you are, how much I would give for your favour. It is important. Just as you are." Pause. "Your people care enough to make laws against this? Truly?" Thorin asked, mildly horrified. He tried to imagine anyone being concerned enough with other peoples' private business to actually meet and discuss such things, to put them on paper and make them law. To enforce them. He grunted, giving his head a shake. "Your Shire is a very queer place."
"… apparently so," said Bilbo weakly, throwing his head back and staring up at the canopy above. He looked torn between laughing and tearing his hair out in frustration. "I… cannot believe the amount of time I spent worrying about that, then."
Thorin almost laughed out loud at the ridiculousness of it all – before a sudden realization left him stunned silent, because all at once it occurred to him that this might not be the only misunderstanding brought on by Bilbo's strange upbringing. He remembered the villages of men he had worked in during his peoples' exile, the flippancy and unfaithfulness with which some of them had treated matters of the heart.
There was a sudden buzzing in his ears, a growing terror churning in his gut, and for a moment it was very difficult to restrain himself from reaching forward and physically dragging Bilbo back into his arms. He sat up fully, thoughtlessly pushing his hair out of his eyes as he did so.
"Bilbo," said Thorin slowly, and he could hear the note of panic in his own voice. "If… if we are to do this, then it must just be us." Thorin saw Bilbo's head whip around to look at him out of the corner of his eyes, but he glared determinedly down at the ground instead of meeting his eyes.
"I cannot enter this without that being understood. My people, we… we love with all our hearts, and often only once. It must be only us, no one else. I could not bear it, otherwise." The very thought of anyone else touching Bilbo – putting their hands on him, seeing the kiss-addled expression on his face, knowing him in the way that only Thorin should ever know him from now on – was enough to make his hackles rise, to make his hand twitch for his sword. A thought occurred to him that almost made him growl, but he forced his voice to remain neutral, calm. "Not… not Bofur, or –"
The exclamation, incredulous and offended and ever-so-slightly amused, was finally enough to wrench Thorin from his preoccupation. He glanced up, saw that Bilbo's mouth was hanging open. That there were high points of colour in his cheeks.
"Of course I'm not going to run off with the first thing that moves, Thorin, who do you think I am?" Bilbo shook his head, raising his eyes to the heavens as though appealing for help from a higher power. "Bofur, though. Truly. Thorin, have you ever spoken to Bofur for more than five minutes?"
"I –" Thorin began, before slamming his mouth shut again. He felt badly thrown, off-balance. He tried to straighten himself back up, to regain ground. "Perhaps I have not, but you –"
"Bofur isn't interested in me," Bilbo stated, as though it was a fact, and Thorin shook his head.
"You do not know that."
"Yes, I do."
"Thorin, he was betrothed," said Bilbo quietly, sadly, and that made the righteous indignation in his chest dissipate as though it had never been there in the first place. Thorin stared, unspeaking, as Bilbo pushed ran a hand through his curls, his mouth a tight pained line. "Bofur speaks of her often. Her name was Nyr. She was a vegetable merchant's daughter in Erebor."
"… what happened to her?" Thorin asked, because it seemed like the right thing to say, but of course he already knew. Had known the moment Bilbo mentioned Erebor. His throat was tight and dry, and he felt suddenly sick to his stomach. Bilbo shrugged sadly.
"She was sweet, and she was gentle, and he was not with her when the dragon came."
Hearing it out loud was enough to render Thorin completely silent, his eyes fixed distantly on the space beside Bilbo's collar bone. One of the buttons on his once-white shirt was missing; Thorin's mind fixated on that detail while his mind whirred and processed this new information, renewed grief pulling at his insides the way it always did when he learned the details of yet another life shattered, another of his people left ravaged and ruined by dragon fire. It brought the loss of it right back to the present; made it feel as though it had happened yesterday instead of decades ago.
When Thorin looked up, he realized that Bilbo had moved so that he was kneeling right in front of him – so close he was practically sitting in Thorin's lap. Bilbo reached out and took hold of his chin with gentle hands, and Thorin allowed him to guide his face with his hand, to coax him into looking Bilbo in the eyes. They were still-water blue and shining, full of some great emotion Thorin could not identify.
"We'll get it back," said Bilbo evenly. He half-smiled, but there was nothing particularly happy in his expression. There was just steadiness, and conviction, and fear of the future so great it could only be left unspoken. "We'll get it all back."
And that… that was so close to what he has been telling himself for decades – with every clang of his hammer against the anvil and every night before he fell asleep, repeated like a prayer or a curse at every indignity his people have had to suffer – that Thorin could only nod, brusque and silent for fear that his voice might waver if he spoke. Bilbo let out a little huff of air, his fingers curling ever-so-slightly against Thorin's face.
"I understand at least a little about how your people love," Bilbo began, lips still pulled into that humourless smile. "Bofur is one of the closest friends I have ever had, and I know that he could not love another if he tried." Thorin nodded in silent acquiescence. There should be relief in all this, and there was; he had worried and fretted and tormented himself about this for so long, and suddenly one of the major sources of self-doubt in Thorin's life had been completely and entirely vanquished. But any relief could feel was trumped by far by the old grief.
Bilbo, however, was not finished. His eyes flitted briefly over Thorin's face before returning to hold his gaze once more. He smiled again, small and earnest, and took a steadying breath. "And more to the point, I doubt I could ever love any other than you. Never have before, and I don't rightly see it ever happening again."
It was as though every muscle in Thorin's body tensed up at once – before releasing again just as quickly, leaving him with the plummeting feeling of bewildered relief and joy that made it feel as though his heart was aching and soaring at the same time. He stared at Bilbo helplessly; at this impossible creature, at the halfling who valued comfort and safety but would risk his life for a cause that was not his own.
For so many years, Thorin had fought and clawed and struggled for every scrap of happiness. He had debased and degraded himself in the name of his people, made do with little and jealously guarded any joy that came his way.
The idea that he could have this – could have Bilbo – without having to fight for him was so foreign that Thorin could barely wrap his mind around it.
"So it looks like you're rather stuck with me, I'm afraid," Bilbo finished, licking his lips and letting out a dry huff of laughter. "Whether you like it or not."
When Thorin pulled him down into one last kiss, it felt like coming home.