Bilbo sighed as he finished restocking the milk, pushing each container carefully into place so they were lined up evenly. He straightened his back, feeling an ache in one shoulder that he tried to rub away. It lingered on.
He wandered back to the front of the grocery, peering out the window. Summer had come to Linlithgow, with unusually warm days and short nights, and he was feeling more than a little restless. Across the street, Mrs. Gamgee shot him a wary look as she went back into her flat, carrying groceries she had purchased somewhere else. There were a great many of his neighbors who wouldn't darken his door again, even after a year of peace and quiet. It didn't matter that he hadn't been convicted of any crimes, or that the authorities had congratulated him for his heroic efforts in bringing Smaug's treachery to light. To his quiet little neighborhood, Bilbo was a figure of danger and intrigue, and that was a little more than they'd ever wanted to see from quiet Mr. Baggins. Bilbo wanted to fling open the window and shout a "good morning" at Mrs. Gamgee, just to see what she might do.
He puttered around the front of the shop, stocking biscuits and sweets, and checked his watch. It was a Thursday, so that evening, once everything was taken care of, he would be able to go down to the prison to visit. They had eased up on the restrictions considerably in the past few months, given the good behaviour of all of the Sons of Durin, and his weekly visits were more of a social event than anything else. There wasn't long left to go in most of their prison sentences, thank the maker, and Thorin assured him that Gandalf was working all of the legalities out so that, as soon as they were released, they would be able to go back to Beinn Chùirn and begin mining operations right away.
He wasn't sure that Nori and Ori had ever quite forgiven Bofur for insisting that they come clean about all of their crimes - but, then, Nori's sentence was several months longer than the rest, since there had been so much evidence for his various crimes. Bilbo straightened a stack of newspapers, still absently a bit surprised when the Sons of Durin weren't mentioned somewhere on the front page. It had been the story of a century, and he half expected it to take another century before the excitement fully died away. Gandalf had done his best to see them exonerated for their crimes - but there had been so many of them. Despite the public hatred of Smaug, Bofur had been right. They had to stand answerable for the things they had done.
The bell over the door jingled, and Bilbo turned to see who it was.
"Hi, Uncle Bill!" Kíli called, dropping his satchel just inside the door and coming over to grab him in a quick hug. It was like feeding stray cats, Bilbo thought with what he recognised was fake grumpiness. Feed them once or twice, make the mistake of petting them, and you'd never be rid of them. "Is Fíli back yet?"
"Of course not!" Bilbo said with a laugh, ruffling Kíli's hair. It was much shorter these days, and wildly curly. "You know Gandalf said they'd be working late all week on this case." Kíli huffed, pouting a bit, and Bilbo pushed him gently toward the produce. "Here, lend a hand. I'd like to have things in order before Frodo gets home from school."
"Oops," Kíli said, not-quite accidentally dropping an apple on the floor. "Better eat this one myself." He grinned cheekily at Bilbo and bit into the apple, re-stacking the rest with his free hand.
"You'd think Beorn made you work through meals, the way you act!" Bilbo scolded, but he ducked his head to hide a fond smile. "How are things at the hospital?"
"Great!" Kíli said cheerfully. "Beorn said today that he thinks I've got a real shot at getting into uni! He claims he's personally responsible for my reformation as a decent human being worthy of being educated." He rolled his eyes at that, and Bilbo followed suit. Granted, he gave Beorn great credit for the work he'd done with Kíli. When he and Fíli, and half of the rest of the Sons of Durin, had wound up patients on his secure ward again, Bilbo had feared that he would take some kind of vengeance on them for their earlier escape. Instead, he had carefully taken Kili under his wing as he healed, and by the time he was ready to be released, Beorn had negotiated a compromise with his legal representatives. Kíli was something of a cross between a community service worker and an apprentice - but Beorn had given him a job and a solid place to put his feet, and kept him from running off whenever the thought struck him. Now, Kíli was applying to the University of Edinburgh, and Bilbo couldn't be prouder.
Sometimes Bilbo looked at him, and at Fíli, trying to see the boys who'd come to his door on a dark night more than a year before. Gandalf had worked out a similar deal for Fíli's technological services, and they were both making an honest living, and coming home to a hot meal and warm beds at night. He'd taken them in without a thought - without one second of hesitation, happy beyond words to fill the cold, quiet places in his home with warmth and the noise of overly energetic youngsters. Frodo had joined them almost nine months ago, when his parents had died suddenly, and Bilbo was the only relation who was willing to take him in.
The lads had taken to Frodo like a younger brother, and there were no more neat, tidy corners in his flat anymore. The eight-year-old's toys and books were scattered everywhere, along with Fíli's high-tech devices and power cables, and Kíli's - well, everything. It wasn't orderly or peaceful or predictable - and Bilbo was so unbelievably grateful!
It wasn't perfect, of course - nothing ever was. The family was divided so cruelly that sometimes Kíli fell into dark moods, staring out into the night with absent eyes. They would likely never shake the instinct to put their interests, and their family's interests, before anything else. Bilbo had been forced to very sternly talk Fíli out of plotting cyber-hacks to try to get the others out of prison ahead of schedule, reminding him again and again that they had to abide by all the laws now - even the ones they didn't like. And there was no escaping the fact that Fíli and Kíli were dangerously codependent, even after a year of peaceful family living. They didn't sleep unless the other was around, worrying constantly over one another, and Bilbo had become resigned to the fact that when one of them was having some sort of trouble, the other was useless to the rest of the world until it was sorted. He did worry after them, despite how well things seemed to be going - but for now, they had one another, and they were safe and well, and that was all there was to be said.
The bell jingled again, and Frodo came in at a dead run. Kíli gave a shout of laughter and swept him up, tossing him high in the air and just barely missing knocking over the whole apple display. "Frodo! How's school?"
"Wonderful!" Frodo grinned, huge blue eyes wide. "Ted Sandyman said that I was an orphan, and I said I wasn't either anymore, and then Sam Gamgee punched him in the nose!"
"I imagine Sam's grandmother won't be pleased to hear that," Bilbo said with a wince, but Frodo shook his head. Dark curls flying, he looked like he might have been Kíli's little brother in blood as well as in practice.
"No, because Merry and Pippin distracted the teacher so she didn't see, and then Rosie Cotton told Ted that if he told anyone on Sam that she'd tell his mother he'd been picking on the little kids again, and Ted ran away!" He finished his story half-breathless from excitement, and Kíli put him down gently, offering his hand in a solemn handshake.
"Well done you!" Kíli said seriously, though his eyes were twinkling. "I think we should take Sam for an ice cream one of these days, you know!" Frodo nodded gleefully at that, and scampered around the shop to fling himself at Bilbo as well.
"Uncle Bill!" Bilbo crouched down to hug the little lad. "It's Thursday, Uncle Bill! Are we going to visit everyone tonight?"
"Of course we are!" Bilbo said, shaking his head in mock dismay that Frodo would even ask that question. "You've got your marks to show them, don't you? And Uncle Thorin said there would be a surprise this week. Wouldn't want to miss that!"
Kíli beamed, bright as a sunbeam, and gestured wildly to Frodo. "Come on! We need to get you washed up if we're going!" They left the shop together, heading upstairs, and Bilbo caught Kíli's mischievous wink as he told Frodo loudly, "I don't know about you, but I'm starving! How about a bite to eat?" Frodo's giggle carried back to Bilbo as he climbed the stairs, and Kíli's deeper laugh was a joyful undercurrent. Bilbo smiled quietly as he finished up his last few tasks, getting ready to close up for the evening. It was a bit of a trip, out to Edinburgh and back in an evening, but if Fíli and Kíli could make the commute every day to go to work, Bilbo didn't think he should complain about making it once a week to get the family all together.
The bell jingled again, and Bilbo gave a quiet sigh. Someone always did manage to turn up in the last few minutes before he closed up, and they invariably took half an hour to buy one or two items. He turned quickly, pasting on his best welcoming smile.
Thorin was standing there, in dark clothes grown a little large on him after a year in prison, with a smile on his face that Bilbo had never seen before. Bilbo gaped at him uselessly for a long moment, unable to process it.
"You-" he tried after a minute. "You're supposed to be in prison. For another six months."
Thorin shrugged easily. He looked younger, somehow, than Bilbo had ever seen him. "We've been working on a deal - Gloin and Bombur have been doing all they can for us. The authorities are very pleased with our rehabilitation, and, truth be told, the government is very invested in getting the mines working. We're a much better investment at work on Beinn Chùirn than we are in prison."
Bilbo was almost breathless, and looked down to see that his hands were busy crushing a newspaper up in a tiny ball. He let go quickly.
"Everyone? For good?"
Thorin laughed, and it was a healthy, hearty sound. "By Durin, I hope so! They'll keep Nori a few more days, just for the form of the thing." He looked around. "Where are my nephews? Not in too much trouble, I hope?"
"Fíli's working a bit late tonight, and Kíli's just gone up to the flat with Frodo," Bilbo said. The words felt like they were coming out at a bit of a distance. He wasn't sure he had blinked since Thorin came in, and he wasn't really certain he was going to want to blink in the next little while, either.
He had seen Thorin in prison every week since the trial, visiting with him first in the isolated little room where he'd made his visits the first time the Sons of Durin were incarcerated, and later in a larger, cosier lounge with the rest of the family as well. It had been incredibly good to see him every week - but there was a constraint on their interactions, there in front of cameras and witnesses, with Thorin in stark prison garb. Now he was here, in his own clothes and standing in Bilbo's shop, and looking hale and whole. It was more than he could take in.
Thorin nodded, perhaps a little distracted himself. He was watching Bilbo happily, with a deep sort of contentment. "Well, we're going out to the mountain right away," he told Bilbo. "The others are collecting supplies."
"What, you mean now?" Bilbo asked. "Don't you want to sleep in real beds tonight?"
"We've been sleeping in beds for a year now," Thorin said, shaking his head. "We're free men now. We need to go home."
A sudden stab of loss hit Bilbo, and he broke eye contact, looking down. He had known that they would want to go back to the mountain when they were free - but he'd hoped, somehow, that it wouldn't have to mean losing them. "I understand completely," he said, trying not to let the hurt show in his voice. He was happy for them, honestly he was.
Footsteps thundered down the stairs, and Kíli dashed out onto the pavement, crashing into Fíli as he reached the shop door. They clutched one another's shoulders for a minute - their normal ritual of reassurance when they'd been forced apart for a day - and then sauntered into the shop, stopping dead when they saw Thorin. Frodo followed in Kíli's wake, staring up at Thorin in shock.
"Thorin!" Fíli shouted, face lighting up, and Thorin was nearly knocked over as the lads threw themselves at him, laughing and asking questions in rapid-fire succession. He put his arms around them tightly, eyes closing in relief as he held his children again as a free man.
"Is everyone free?" Kíli asked frantically, clutching at Thorin's sleeve. "Are we going to be together again?"
He was happy to see the boys he loved like sons smile so brightly, looking up at Thorin with such adoration - but it was a bittersweet happiness for Bilbo. He could almost see the places in his flat where they had been, empty once again. He and Frodo wouldn't make nearly enough noise or mess to fill the place up, and the idea of them rattling around that little flat made his throat feel thick. Frodo crept to his side, looking up at Thorin and Fíli and Kíli in undisguised awe.
"Yes," Thorin said fondly, letting his forehead knock against Kíli's quickly. "In fact, we're going home tonight. It's a lovely night to sleep under the stars." It was a gentle offer, but Fíli and Kíli lit up, grinning at one another like fools.
Frodo looked up at Bilbo, tugging a bit on the hem of his jacket. "Are they coming back, Uncle Bill?" he murmured, voice quiet and anxious. If anyone knew about loss, Bilbo thought sadly, it was Frodo. He didn't deserve to have to deal with this separation. Bilbo put a hand on his back, rubbing a comforting little circle.
"Of course they are, my lad!" he said, too cheerfully. "I expect we'll never get a moment of peace to ourselves with this lot popping in and out all the time!"
Fíli and Kíli spun around at that, looking startled and half horrified, and Bilbo saw Thorin's face fall before he quickly composed himself, seeming to draw back into himself a bit.
"What do you mean?" Fíli asked blankly. "You make it sound like we'll just be visiting you!"
Bilbo's forehead furrowed in confusion. "You can't very well live here and at Beinn Chùirn at the same time, lad," he reminded Fíli gently.
"But," Kíli objected, looking utterly lost, and more than a little hurt, "but look, we can't be split up everywhere!" He turned to Thorin, looking to his uncle to make it right. "Tell him, Uncle Thorin!"
Thorin cleared his throat awkwardly, looking at Bilbo with more than a hint of embarrassment. "We were hoping," he said quietly,
"He means he is hoping, really," Fíli interrupted.
"Though we all agree," Kíli added, and Thorin smacked the backs of their heads gently.
"Hoping, that is, that you might consider coming to Beinn Chùirn. With us." He was looking so carefully optimistic that Bilbo wasn't sure how to handle the situation.
"You mean tonight? For this camping trip?" He looked down at Frodo, who was looking desperately hopeful. "I suppose we might, although Frodo might miss school tomorrow."
"Not just tonight!" Thorin pulled away from his nephews gently, coming forward a few quick steps. "Truly come with us! There's no telling when we might need a grocer, or indeed a burglar, away up there!"
Bilbo blinked at him. "Are you saying I should leave Bag End and move to the middle of nowhere, just in case you have a sudden urge for Hobnobs?" But for all his sarcasm, there was a glowing ember of hope in Bilbo's heart that felt like it might burst into flame at any second.
"No!" Thorin came forward fast, putting gentle hands on Bilbo's shoulders. "I'm saying I want you to come with me, and to be there with me, because I do not want to be apart from you any longer."
"You mean it," Bilbo said, more than a little stunned. "I didn't think-"
He stopped, bewildered by his own sentiments, and Thorin gave a crooked little smile. That hopeful spark roared to life, and Bilbo had to take a quick, deep breath.
"I had a great deal of time to think, this past year," Thorin admitted.
"If you say no, he's going to mope for the rest of our natural lives!" Fíli hissed, peering around Thorin's back to make eye contact with Bilbo.
"You didn't think you were going to get out of this family so easily, did you?" Kíli asked. He leaned in from the other side, chin leaning on Thorin's shoulder. "Come on, Uncle Bill! One more adventure?"
Bilbo looked at Thorin, and the understanding that passed between them in a glance was enough to make him smile softly, feeling like he might never stop. He looked down at Frodo, who was still clinging to his side, and patted his shoulder.
"Let this be a warning to you, Frodo," he said wryly. "It's a dangerous business, going out your door." He thought back to the way they'd dragged him away, kicking and fighting, and the road that had stretched before him then. "You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to."
And it had swept him away, all unknowing, until hardly anything was left of the life he had cherished. Bilbo felt like he scarcely knew the man he had been before - and he was wildly, fiercely glad. The warm summer breeze tugged at the door of his little shop, and Thorin Oakenshield was standing before him, hope in his eyes and a smile on his face that echoed Bilbo's own. He heard a roar of laughter and song making it's way up his street, likely scaring his neighbors indoors, and he knew they were all coming back to him, prepared to sweep him away again on an adventure that he couldn't begin to imagine.
"And after all," Bilbo said, brave and daring, "why not?" - and he grabbed Thorin by the shirt, kissing him soundly. His feet hit the road, and he didn't much mind where he might go. One more adventure, indeed.
And now here we are, at the end of all things. Err, the story. I have a few things to say.
1. First and foremost, THANK YOU. Your support and love for this story gave me so much energy and enthusiasm, and are really what let me write this. I haven't written anything that made me this happy in years. I love you all.
2. I DO NOT want to be done with this 'verse, even though this story is over. I'm going to be writing little stories, glimpses into different parts of their lives. Anything you want to see, drop me a line and I will try to do! Prompts would be much loved.
3. You guys have just read almost 100,000 words of this ridiculous AU. HOLY COW. You don't even understand how blown away I am by that! If you made it all the way though, I would absolutely love to hear from you - here, or on Tumblr, or anywhere, because I want to love you and be amazed by YOU PERSONALLY you crazy mad wonderful human being.
OK, that's ... all I have now! I'm going to go away and stop weeping everywhere and sleep for the first time this month, and maybe read some of somebody else's words for a change - and then I'm going to be back and writing again, because I'm addicted.