Disclaimer: I do not own any familiar characters/settings/plot featured in this story. They all belong to (most likely rolling in his grave) J.R.R. Tolkien.

Chapter Twenty-Two

The Arkenstone was heavier than he recalled.

It settled in his cupped hands easily; twinkling up at him with a faint white glow that caught the moonlight. When he tilted it back, he could see his reflection in the smooth surface of the jewel. His face—paler and thinner than he recalled—stared back at him with pursed lips and brown eyes highlighted by the dark smudges underneath each eye.

Compared to the flawless Elf before him, he looked like some sort of sad and beaten creature.

"This is the Arkenstone," Thranduil said softly, his marble eyes also fixed on the stone. "Where did you find it?"

"I took it from Thorin," Bilbo replied, the words tasting like ash and dirt in his mouth. "I have claimed it as my share of the treasure to give to you."

"It is a pretty stone," the Elven monarch confessed, his gaze never moving from the Arkenstone. "However it is still just one jewel. My reward was to be more than this."

He scowled up at the Elf. "And it will be if you play your cards right. Use this stone to get Thorin to hand over the amount that was promised. Rest assured that he will pay any price you ask for this stupid jewel."

Thranduil's arctic eyes finally rose from the stone to Bilbo's face. "You do not care for it."

"No, I don't," the Hobbit admitted. When he had slipped out of Erebor, it had taken every bit of willpower not to throw the stone off the mountain and watch it shatter into a million pieces on the ground below. Only the memory of his friends' bodies kept him from it. "It is nothing more than a pretty trinket poisoning Thorin's mind. If I could, I would toss it into the ocean never to be seen again. But since that won't solve any of my problems, I am going to use it to work out a deal with you."

Thranduil's eyes became hooded. "You wish to make another deal with me after failing to deliver on the first one? You are an arrogant creature, halfling."

"For the last time: my name is Bilbo and not halfling," he scolded, glaring up at the king, "and this deal is important to you too. As of right now there is an army of Orcs and Goblins on the march to Erebor. They are destroying everything in their path—including Mirkwood—to get here. Now we can spend what little time we have left fighting amongst ourselves over some gold trinkets and silver rings, or we can combine our forces and take this filth out once and for all. What is it going to be?"

"What makes you think the Dwarves will fight with us?" the Elvenking questioned, looking unfazed by the news of a possible army invading his kingdom. He was probably already aware of it.

"They will join," Bilbo said with confidence. "Despite what you believe, they are not stupid. They know that we cannot stand against this army alone. They will fight with you and the Men of Lake-town if you come."

Thranduil stared at him with his ancient eyes for a long time. When he finally spoke again, his voice had hardened with the faintest hint of iron. "I will summon the Men of Lake-town to join our forces. This battle affects them just as much as it does my people and the Dwarves. But you must convince that Fool Under the Mountain to join us. He will not listen to me."

He flinched. "He won't listen to me either. But if you use the Arkenstone correctly, then you can get him to agree to the gold and alliance."

"He will not forget this betrayal," the Elf warned, his forehead wrinkling the slightest bit. "Dwarves never forget. Dwarves never forgive."

Bilbo snorted. He didn't need the Elf to warn him; not when he lived with the consequences of his actions for a lifetime. "I am aware of that. But I don't care. I would rather that he live and hate me than die as my friend."

For the first time that night, Thranduil finally showed a hint of emotion. His clear blue eyes turned misty and his lips pulled down into a frown that revealed the aged lines in his face. "I see. Very well then, Bilbo Baggins. At dawn I will come to Erebor with the Arkenstone and barter for my gold and allies. If all goes well, then we will stand together to face this army of vermin."

Bilbo did not sleep that night. His body and mind would not allow him to rest; not with the storm that was approaching with the dawn. So he found himself packing his few belongings together in preparation for whatever the future held. When he was done, he watched his friends sleep; tracing their faces in his mind over and over again until he could see each of them perfectly when he closed his eyes. When the sun rose, he did not know who he would lose, and who he would keep.

Slowly, as the sun lit up the earth, the Dwarves began to stir and go about their morning routines. He watched Bombur begin breakfast while Dori rearranged the blankets over the two princes as both of them tended to kick them off during the night. Balin and Bifur shared a smoke together while nearby Nori began the long task of brushing out and braiding his hair and beard for the day. Ori shuffled along to the water closet as Óin and Glóin bickered while helping one another braid their hair back. Dwalin, Bofur, Fíli, and Kíli would sleep on until the smell of breakfast roused them. Gandalf and Thorin were nowhere to be seen and he was grateful for that. He could not face the king just yet.

When Gandalf did finally appear, his face was pinched and his nostrils flared with every breath he took. He tapped his staff against the stone floor until every eye was trained on him. "Thranduil is here to bargain for his portion of the treasure."

The Dwarves groaned.

"Seriously? He couldn't wait until after breakfast?"

"Somebody wake those four lazy bums up. We're going to need their help."

"Do you think he'd be willing to come back after we eat?"

"Who the hell gets up this early to negotiate?"

"Probably did it on purpose to irritate us."

"Where's Thorin? He's not facing that tree-licker alone is he?"

"Hope Dáin is with him. Don't need bloodshed this early in the morning."

Bilbo ignored the remarks and slowly began the long trek to the gates. He could hear the others following at their own pace while bickering amongst each other. In another time he would have found their conversations amusing, but now he found himself wondering if he would ever hear it again. When they all got to the gates, they found Thorin and Dáin facing off against Thranduil, his son and captain with mixed expressions. They were all armed and Legolas held a clothed bag in his arms.

"Oh good, you didn't kill each other while I was gone," Gandalf said in greeting, waltzing over to the group. "I have brought the others as you asked, Thranduil. Now tell us the new deal you wish to make."

Thranduil gestured with two fingers for Legolas to step forward. The prince did and slowly untied the bag he held to reveal the Arkenstone. When the Dwarves saw it, they immediately gasped and began to shout. Thorin turned bone white and staggered back; catching himself on a frowning Dáin in order not to fall.

"I wish to make a new deal with this," the Elf said, smooth expression never faltering. "The Arkenstone for my gold and your support in the coming battle with Azog and his army."

"Where did you get that?" Thorin gasped. His eyes were large and glassy as he dug his hand into Dáin's shoulder.

Thranduil's eyes flickered over the crowd before meeting Bilbo's. The Hobbit shuddered and stepped forward.

"I gave it to him," he admitted, his voice ringing louder and clearer than he had expected.

The crowd turned on him in a blink.

"You? You gave the Arkenstone to him?" Balin gasped, looking as if someone had punched him in the stomach.

"Oh, Bilbo," Gandalf sighed, leaning against his staff. He closed his eyes and looked as old and tired as he really was.

The rest of the Dwarves looked no better. Dáin seemed unfazed, but some like Dwalin, Glóin, and Fíli looked torn between shock and outrage. Others like Kíli, Bofur, Bombur, and Ori looked stunned and hurt by the news. Only Bifur, Dori, Nori, and Óin looked afraid and uncertain. But the worst reaction of all was the one he valued most.

Slowly, so very slowly, Thorin turned to face him with a face as blank as a canvas. When he spoke, his voice was a whisper of a building storm. "What did you say?"

Bilbo swallowed and met the midnight eyes against his will. "I gave it to him. I stole the Arkenstone from you, and then gave it to Thranduil to bargain for his aid in the upcoming battle."

"You—? No. No, it can't be," muttered the Dwarf, shaking his head and making his braids whip around his face. "You wouldn't do that. You wouldn't…"

"Betray your trust?" he finished quietly, never looking away from the king. "I'm afraid I did, Thorin. I'm sorry."

Thorin kept shaking his head, and looked to the Arkenstone in Legolas's hands and then back to Bilbo. His eyes began to grow wild and his lips pulled back into a pained snarl. "No, no, no, no, not you, you could not have—"

The king cut himself off with a roar as he unsheathed his sword, and began to stalk towards the Hobbit in one swift move. Bilbo did not move and watched the king rush towards him with his shadow eyes. But before Thorin could take even three steps, Dwalin, Dori and Glóin were there to hold him back.

"Thorin, what are you doing?! Have you lost your mind?!" Glóin yelled, holding onto one of the king's arms.

"Calm down, Thorin. Remember who he is," Dwalin rumbled, grasping Thorin's wrist that held Orcrist.

Dori didn't speak; simply slipped his arms under Thorin's armpits and held him back.

Thorin snarled and tried to shove the three off only to fail. "Let go of me! I will not stand for this! He will pay for stealing—!"

"Do you remember what I told you the night Azog attacked us?" Bilbo called, interrupting the king and slowly walking closer to the Dwarves. "Do you remember, Thorin? When you asked me what I wanted most in this world?"

Thorin stilled; shaking and breathing so hard the Hobbit could hear it. He didn't answer Bilbo's question and continued staring at the Hobbit with his dark eyes and clenched jaw.

"I said that I wanted you all to live," he continued, paying no mind to the danger he was approaching. "That is all I have ever wanted for this entire journey. To see you all live."

"And is that supposed to justify your theft? You stole the Arkenstone from me. YOU BETRAYED MY TRUST!" roared the king, shoving the three Dwarves off of him and dropping his sword to the ground. Before his cousins could stop him again, Thorin grabbed Bilbo's biceps and yanked him up until they were eye level.

"Why?" he growled, his black pupils completely overtaking the blue in his eyes. "WHY?!"

Thorin grasps his hands with what little strength he has left—

"…I wish to part in friendship from you, and I would take back my words and deeds at the Gate…"

Thranduil places the Arkenstone on Thorin's chest and carefully wraps his hands around it

"…This is a bitter adventure, if it must end so; and not a mountain of gold can amend it…"

Thorin's hand goes limp in his and he sobs even harder because the king is dead, long live the king

"Because I can't watch you die," Bilbo replied, never blinking as he stared into the eyes of his greatest heartbreak. "I can live with you hating me, Thorin Oakenshield. It's worth it as long as you live. Do you understand me? I will sacrifice everything just so long as you LIVE!"

Thorin shook his head as his broad shoulders drooped and his bottom lip quivered. "No. No, I don't understand. No one has ever hurt me like this before. No one has ever mattered so much to me before. Until now."

Bilbo blinked. For the first time since he had taken the Arkenstone, he was confused. "What?"

"Don't you see? My feelings for you?" the Dwarf rasped, his dark brows lowering. "Did I not make it clear enough when I gave you my mothers' rooms? When I braided my family beads into your hair? Could you not feel my love when I held you after Smaug's demise?"

"Liar," he whispered, feeling a strange sort of numbness overtake his body. "You're lying. You don't love me. You can't love me."

"No, I can't," the king agreed quietly as something in his face seemed to fall apart. It was a bit like watching a work of art go up in flames. "Not now. Not anymore."

Thorin released him and stepped back. The Hobbit fell to the hard ground in a sprawl of limbs that made a solid and fleshy 'smack' from the impact. He could not feel the pain though. He could not feel anything but a dawning sense of horror as he watched Thorin turn around and walk away.

"Thorin," he gasped, raising a hand, "Thorin, stop, please! Tell what you meant! THORIN!"

The king did not turn around. "Leave, Bilbo Baggins. Leave and never come back."

Bilbo flinched back and dropped his hand. He could feel something in his chest—something raw and broken and jagged—fall apart at the Dwarf's order. It made his breath pick up until he felt like he couldn't breathe at all. His heart began to ache as if someone had wrapped their hand around it and was slowly squeezing it harder and harder until he swore it would pop.

Was this how a broken heart felt when it broke again?

No, no, no, no, come back, come back, turn around, TURN AROUND—!

"What about my proposal?" Thranduil questioned from somewhere far away. A small part of him found it rather hilarious that the Elf could still sound so composed and together. Could the Elvenking not see that the world was ending?

"I don't care. Take your gold and allies. Take all the gold in Erebor for all I care. Just leave and take that with you," Thorin replied with a voice so cold and sharp that Bilbo was sure that he could have cut his heart out with it. Or what was left of it at that point.

Somewhere—still so far away and distant from him—he heard the others speak up and begin to yell and shout. But he could not make out the words or who they were spoken to as it all became a mixing pot of voices and sounds in the background. The only clear voice he could hear was the voice of the One Ring as it laughed and laughed and laughed.

Who will love you now?

Somehow, Bilbo found himself in Thranduil's camp with Gandalf.

He could not remember how he got there. Vaguely, he recalled the wizard taking him by the arm and leading him gently out of Erebor. But he could not remember the walk to Thranduil's camp, or how his possessions made their way to his side. He did not remember taking refuge in a lone tent where he was forced to lay down and rest. He could not recall anything past Thorin's back as he walked away.

those ocean night eyes stare though him—

"Don't you see? My feelings for you…?"

there is a creeping realization in his mind as he listens to Thorin's words—

"Could you not feel my love when I held you after Smaug's demise…?"

Thorin turns around and walks away from him for the second time

"I didn't know," he whispered out loud, staring up at the ceiling of the Elven tent. "How could I know? How could I ever know when you never told me?"

But Bilbo knew in his heart that the fault was not only with Thorin. He was the one who was blind and did not see what was in front of him. How could he have forgotten that Thorin did not show his feelings with words, but through actions? How could he have missed the significance to the beads in his hair? Or to Bifur's words, and the hints of the others? How could he have missed the look of one-sided love when he had seen it in his own eyes for eighty years?

"You are the biggest fool in the world, Bilbo Baggins," he murmured, closing his eyes and trying to fight back a wave of tears. He had cried enough for Thorin the first time around. He would not do it again.

But you broke his heart this time, the ring whispered, cackling at him.

He could not deny that. He had broken Thorin's heart along with his trust and friendship. He could not ignore that and it made him realize that he did not know what to do now. It was different when he thought Thorin did not love him. He was ready to face losing their friendship if it meant he could keep his friends all alive. But what he was not ready to face was losing Thorin's heart forever.

"My life is one big mistake after another," he muttered, rubbing his forehead.

"Now, now, I'm sure it's not that horrible," Gandalf commented as he stepped into the tent. Bilbo opened one eye, and watched the wizard take a seat next to his cot and lean his staff against the wall. His eyes were shadowed by his hat but Bilbo could still see the downward turn to his friend's mouth.

"How are you feeling?" asked the wizard.

"Like my heart has been stomped on," he replied, closing his eye again and throwing his arm over his eyes. "Gandalf, what have I done? Thorin—"

"Stop right there, Bilbo Baggins, I don't want to hear another word," Gandalf interrupted, his voice turning steely. "What you did today was the bravest and most sensible course of action. By gaining Thranduil's alliance we will also have access to the aid of Lake-town. With their help, we may just win this battle yet."

"But I hurt Thorin," he whispered, recalling the look on the king's face when he admitted to stealing the Arkenstone. "I used his trust against him. I ruined our friendship. I broke his…"

"You did hurt him with this," the wizard admitted easily, "but he gave you no choice. Bilbo, we both know that Thorin is not himself right now. The curse of Durin's line has taken hold of him. He cannot think clearly and therefore cannot see that your actions were done out of love for him. If he was in his right state of mind, then we both know he would have agreed to your plan."

Bilbo shook his head as he felt the sting of tears at the corner of his eyes. "It doesn't change what he said. It doesn't erase the hurt I've caused him. I broke his heart, Gandalf. I broke his heart and didn't realize it until it was too late, and now he will never look at me the same way he did before all of this."

Gandalf sighed, and ran his large hand through the Hobbit's curls. "Oh, Bilbo. I'm sorry that it turned out this way. I truly am. We… We all hoped it would work out between you two. No one thought it would end like this."

"Neither did I," he admitted, lifting his arm so he could cup his face with both hands in order to stop the flow of his damn tears. "I just wanted to keep him alive. That's all I wanted, and yet it turned out like this. How is it possible to lose someone and save them at the same time?"

Gandalf sighed again, and simply kept running his hand through his hair in a soothing gesture. When the wizard accidentally knocked one of his braids against his face, Bilbo felt his resolve crumble into dust. He began to cry thick and endless tears into his hands as his shoulders shook. The strength of his sobs made his chest hurt and his throat scratchy, but he couldn't stop them from coming. Everything—Thorin, Thorin, Thorin, what have I done, please come back, I love you, THORIN—spilled out through his gasping tears.

Through it all Gandalf stayed by his side as he cried out his heart again for the king that he lost once more.

Though he wished otherwise, Bilbo knew that he could not lay about and weep over his broken heart. There was a battle coming that he needed to prepare for and Dwarves that he needed to save. He did not have the time to throw himself a pity party. So, with great effort, he dragged himself off his cot and ventured outside to face the world once more.

Thranduil had set up camp close to where the ruins of Dale lingered. There were tents and Elves scattered as far as he could see; most dressed in war leathers with their weapons on them. Most of them paid him no mind as he wandered through the camp, but a few did stop to stare or even glare on occasion. He ignored the Elves until he finally found the largest tent around with two Elves posted at the entrance.

"Is the king in?" he asked the guards, not bothering to be polite.

One the guards—a female with dark hair—nodded slowly. "Yes. He's planning for the battle at the moment—"

Bilbo did not wait for her to finish her sentence. He marched in and left the guards squawking in protest outside. Inside he found Thranduil standing over a table with Gandalf and—surprisingly—Bard. They all turned to face him with mixed reactions.

"Oh. Done crying are we?" commented Thranduil, looking back to the map on the table.

"How do you feel?" Gandalf asked with a kinder voice.

"Fine," he replied, avoiding the wizard's eyes and looking to Bard. "What are you doing here?"

"Lake-town has been recruited for the upcoming battle," answered the Man, staring at the Hobbit with slanted brows. "How are you? Master Gandalf here has just explained what you did earlier today…"

"You mean he was telling you how I stole the Arkenstone, used it to bargain with Thranduil, and was exiled by Thorin," he filled in, waltzing up to the table. "Yes, well, I'm afraid I was given little choice in the matter."

"We were discussing possible strategies for the upcoming battle," Thranduil filled in, ignoring his words. "I doubt that it will be of any interest to you."

Bilbo shook his head and gave the Elf the same sort of smile he used to give Lobelia when she tried to make off with his good silver. "Of course! After all, I'm simply a lowly Hobbit who challenges kings, faced a dragon alone, and outwitted three trolls at once. What could someone like that possibly know?"

Thranduil's liquid eyes narrowed as Bard tried to turn his laugh into clearing his throat. Gandalf did not even bother to pretend and openly cackled.

"You are a very insolent little ball of fluff," the Elf declared as the Hobbit looked over the map.

"And you're very bad at insults. You should practice more," Bilbo replied, and then proceeded to ignore the king in favor of the map before him. From what he could see, the plan was to allow Azog and his army to get close to Erebor where the mountain and gates would give the archers a better chance, and allow another army to come from behind and box the Orcs and Goblins in. It was a practical plan but it was also the same one that had been used the last time around. It had won them the battle, yes, but at a terrible cost.

"Which army will ambush them from behind?" he asked, glancing up at the three taller males.

Bard raised a sheepish hand. "We will. If all goes well, we can catch the Orcs and Goblins between us."

The Hobbit bit his bottom lip. "But you will be on foot. How will you all move quick enough to get to them?"

"That is what I was wondering as well," commented Gandalf, raising his bushy brows at Thranduil. "It would work better with Elves. Not only do they have mounts, they also move quicker on their feet."

"My people are mostly archers who rely on long-ranged combat," pointed out the king, his silver eyes turning to ice. "They would be more useful above ground where they can use their bows."

Bilbo snorted. "That's bullshit and you know it. Elves are just as good in close combat. You just don't wish to risk any of your people in this fight."

"Of course not. It is bad enough that we were roped into this battle in the first place. Why would I ever wish to risk my people for a bunch of Dwarves?" sneered the Elf, his lovely face marred by the look.

Bard frowned and pulled his shoulders back while Gandalf scowled and looked ready to smack the king with his staff. Bilbo beat him to it though by picking up one of the unlit candles on the table, and throwing it at the Elvenking. Thranduil easily dodged it but look stunned that the Hobbit had even dared to do such a thing.

"Those Dwarves are my friends!" he spat, glaring up at the Elf. "They are willing to go out there and die for you and your people! How can you not grant them the same courtesy? Do you really have so little compassion in your heart?!"

Thranduil stilled and did not blink. His face became as smooth and unreadable as always, but Bilbo could see the tense line to his shoulders, and the way his lips became thinner and bloodless. Even his eyes grew frostier until they were as glossy as an untouched lake.

"Those Dwarves hate you," the Elf reminded him, speaking with a cruel sort of honesty that only Elves seemed to possess. "They banished you from the kingdom that you saved. Their king even tried to kill you. How can you possibly still care over their fate?"

Bilbo sneered. That was quite possibly the stupidest question he had ever heard. "So? Just because their feelings may have changed for me does not mean that mine have. They are still all precious to me and I will fight to the death to keep them whole and alive!"

Thranduil's glacier eyes did not melt but his lips relaxed. Beside him, Gandalf's dark eyes seemed even older in the harsh lines of his face.

"Perhaps we can mix up the troops," Bard suggested quietly from Bilbo's side. "That way each side will have an equal advantage."

"It would help," agreed Gandalf as he looked to Thranduil. "I know that you do not wish to separate your troops, but we must do what will earn us victory."

Thranduil sighed and waved a hand. "Fine, fine. We will split the troops up. Now onto the next order of business…"

Bilbo spent the rest of the day throwing himself into the preparations for the upcoming battle. He helped with the plans, assisted in sorting through the supplies, and even volunteered to stand watch. He brushed the horses down, saw that all the Elves were fed, and began to collect plants and herbs in preparation for whatever injuries he would face. His dedication earned him some odd looks, but no one tried to stop him or jeered at him for it. They simply accepted his efforts and continued on.

Occasionally Gandalf or Bard would find him and would attempt to talk him into resting. He politely but firmly turned them away each time. He knew that once he stopped he would be overwhelmed by his situation, and would therefore be useless. He could not risk such a state with Azog so close. It would only be later, after they won the battle, that Bilbo promised to stop and rest and grieve for what he had (once more) lost. It was not until night had fallen and the Elves had lit their lanterns that he was finally forced to stop as an unexpected visitor walked up to him.

"Bilbo," Balin greeted, pulling the hood of his cloak down to reveal his tired face.

Bilbo blinked up at the Dwarf and slowly set down the clothes he had been sewing up. "Balin. What are you doing here?"

"I came to check up on you," the Dwarf explained as he watched the Hobbit rise to his feet. "We were all worried about you after Gandalf took you away. I had to lock the others up to keep them from following me, the stubborn lot. We… We're all very concerned for you, my friend."

He shrugged one shoulder and looked away. "I'm fine. A bit tired and hurt, but still well enough to work."

Balin raised one white brow as his eyes flickered to the clothes at Bilbo's feet. "So I see. I will tell the others this. It will relieve them to know that you aren't curled up in a ball crying your eyes out."

"Now why would I do that?" he commented, wrinkling his nose. "That would hardly do me any good. Crying won't change my situation or win this battle for us."

"No, but no one could blame you if you did cry," the Dwarf pointed out, his mouth twisting into a frown. "Bilbo, I want you to know that I understand why you did what you did, and I don't blame you for it. Using the Arkenstone to barter for an alliance was the smartest thing anyone has done since Thorin threw the Men of Lake-town out. Maybe this way we will actually survive the upcoming battle."

"It was the most sensible decision, but it wasn't the easiest one," Bilbo said softly, staring down at his feet where the ripped clothes lingered. "Balin, I… what Thorin said today… was it… real? Does he honestly…"

Balin sighed a deep sigh that made his whole body slump. "I have known Thorin my entire life. I knew him in Erebor when he was still a prince, and I knew him after it fell and he was a beggar. I've seen him go to war for his people; seen him provide for his family and friends by any means; and I've seen him work himself to the bone just to get our home back. I've seen him happy and sad, loving and hateful, playful and serious. But in all my years I have never seen him look as content and complete as he was when he was with you."

the king grins, and the harsh lines in his face ease up and his eyes shine, and Thorin looks so much younger when he's relaxed and happy—

"You have made my life better simply by existing, Bilbo Baggins…"

Thorin catches him as he stumbles over the Dwarf's boots in their dance yet again. He glares at the king, but the Dwarf simply throws his head back and laughs and laughs

Bilbo felt his eyes begin to water as his throat became dry and sore. "Why didn't he say anything? Why didn't he tell me?"

"Because he was afraid," the Dwarf admitted, his dark eyes growing sadder. "He was afraid you would reject him. We all know how much you love and mourn for your dead lover. How could he ask for your heart while knowing that it was still with another? How could he compete with someone that died before he even met you? Thorin is reckless in many ways, but with his heart he is always careful."

"How silly of him," he whispered as his shattered heart struggled not to crumble into dust. "I could never reject him. How could I when he is the greatest love I have ever known?"

"Oh, Bilbo," breathed Balin, his face falling into something wretched and pitiful. Before he could blink, the Dwarf was stepping forward and sweeping him into a hug that blocked the cold wind, and made his bruises whimper. With a small sob, he leaned into it and hid his face in the Dwarf's cloak to muffle his cries.

"I'm sorry," Balin whispered, but whether it was for Bilbo, Thorin, or both he could not say. All he knew was that his heart was a splintered mess, and nothing in the world would ever be able to put it back together again.