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.
Thorin froze. "What?"
"The beads in your hair," Bilbo explained, gesturing to his braids. "You're missing one."
Thorin kept staring as his face went from shocked to dismay to something he couldn't identify. He sighed deeply and his wide shoulders dropped. "You're wearing one of them in your hair."
"I am?" he repeated, reaching up to touch his hair only to find the bead in question. "Oh. You're right. I… I forgot that too didn't I?"
"Yes," the king confirmed, his lips twisting down into a deep frown.
He groaned and rubbed his face harshly with both hands. "Oh, Thorin, I'm sorry. It seems like I'm forgetting everything important."
"Not everything. You remember us and you remember our journey. The little details we can work on," the Dwarf reassured gently.
He peeked out at the king between his fingers. "But I've forgotten something important, haven't I?"
Thorin shrugged. "It doesn't matter. We have more pressing issues to speak of. The letters you left for each of us… Is it all true?"
"I assume so. If I left you letters telling my story, then I wouldn't leave anything out," Bilbo confirmed, dropping his hands into his lap. "Why? What did yours say?"
"You wrote of the consequences to my madness," the king replied, his frown twisting into a scowl as his eyes turned frosty. "How it brought about not only my death, but the death of my precious nephews. You wrote of the years after where you returned to the Shire and wrote our story. You… You even wrote of your grief and regrets. Of the years you spent mourning for… for me."
He nodded and gave his companion a brittle smile. "I did spend a long time grieving for you and the boys. Eventually I moved on with my life but the anguish never really did stop. It was like an old wound that healed but never faded."
Thorin looked as if his words had physically stabbed him. "And you kept it to yourself all this time…"
"Well, I could hardly tell you when we first met," he pointed out, smirking. "You would have thought me crazy and refused to hire me."
"I would have still hired you," the Dwarf denied, shaking his head. "I would have just had you watched closely."
Bilbo wanted to feel surprised by that but he just wasn't. "We need to talk about your disturbingly low standards for recruits."
"Sure. We can do it when we speak of your lack of self-preservation," the king shot back.
He sniffed and raised his head chin stubbornly. "I saw you and the boys die before me. I had no interest in reliving the experience."
Thorin clenched his jaw. "No, but you would have us experience the joy of watching you die. Why did you leave when you did? And do not say it was because you were trying to protect us, or so help me…"
"It wasn't for that reason," he reassured, nodding. "Before I left I had a dream of Sauron. It frightened me greatly so I decided it was time to destroy the ring as quickly as possible. It was simply chance that I left while you were all still healing."
Thorin relaxed slightly. "Well that's comforting. Would you have told us the truth if we were not injured?"
"I don't know," he admitted honestly. "Probably not. Anything to protect you all, remember?"
"We are going to break you of that habit," the king promised, pointing at him.
Bilbo smirked. "Good luck with that. Now what else did my letter say?"
Thorin seemed to think about it for a moment before his face suddenly grew soft and vulnerable. "You… You said you loved me. Is it still true?"
"Yes," he immediately answered without a hint of shame because he was long past the point of embarrassment. "I never stopped. Do you still care for me?"
The king nodded, looking taken back by his blunt response. "Y-Yes, I do."
"Good. We can move on from there then," he decided, nodding firmly.
Thorin kept staring at him; looking torn before sighing and laughing hysterically. "You… You never cease to surprise me. I don't think I'll ever understand the way your mind works."
"Good. It means we'll never grow bored of each other," he teased with a smirk.
Thorin snorted and descended into a snicker that had never failed to make him smile. The king had a rather ridiculous laugh that rather ruined the broody hero look Thorin was going for.
"Can I speak to the others now? Or do you still think I'm too fragile to handle them?" the Hobbit asked.
"I suppose. Can't exactly stop you can I?" the Dwarven king replied as he reached over and gently adjusted the coat around Bilbo's shoulders. "But don't be surprised if some of them ignore you. We were all affected by your departure in some manner. Some are more angry and hurt than anything else."
Bilbo glanced around the camp and took in the dark looks on some of his friends. "I understand. I'll make it up to them somehow."
"Word of advice? Try not to die on us," said Thorin, raising both black brows. "Again."
The first person Bilbo found himself apologizing to was, bizarrely, Dáin.
"Burglar! I have a bone to pick with you!" the Dwarf yelled as he came stomping into the camp with his soldiers and Gandalf. He yanked off his gauntlets and threw them at Dwalin's face when the Dwarf tried to stand up to stop him. When Glóin tried to grab his arm, he twisted away easily and tripped his cousin so he landed face first into the ground.
At his side, Thorin groaned and began to rub his forehead. "Oh Mahâl. They should know better than to try and take on Dáin. He's the best warrior in the Iron Mountains."
"That was very embarrassing," he agreed just as the Dwarf lord stopped in front of him. "Dáin! How lovely to see you again!"
Dáin scowled. It was an impressive scowl, for sure, but Thorin's were much worse so he wasn't at all intimidated. "Burglar, I warned you before about hurting a certain someone, yes?"
"Hmm. I vaguely remember this conversation. I also remember you being a lot taller," he commented, scratching his elbow.
Dáin's scowl grew deeper and brought out his scars even more. "Are you trying to make me angry?"
Bilbo blinked in surprise. "You mean you're not angry now?"
Thorin calmly reached over and placed a hand over the Hobbit's mouth. "Dáin, if you're here to threaten Bilbo on my behalf, then I suggest you turn around now. It's bad enough that Dís will be interrogating him when they meet. I don't need you following in the act."
"Too late. I've already threatened him," the Dwarf growled, blue eyes blazing. "I told you what would happen if you caused him any sort of harm. Now it's time to pay the price."
Bilbo tugged Thorin's arm down as the king tensed at his side. "I don't remember your exact words, but I believe broken bones were involved."
"Dáin—" Thorin began to growl.
"I promised to break every bone in your scrawny body twice," Dáin agreed, ignoring his cousin. "Get up so I can fulfill that promise."
"Try and I'll break your jaw," the King Under the Mountain warned.
"You're very upset by my actions," the Hobbit noted, nodding thoughtfully. "I don't blame you. Would it help matters if I told you I did all this to protect Thorin and everyone else?"
Dáin tilted his head to the side. "Depends. Did you destroy the ring like you planned?"
"Then it doesn't help."
"Dáin, get out of here or I'll tell Great-Aunt Katla that you were threatening my One," Thorin swore.
The Dwarf lord gave him a dirty look. "Low blow, cousin."
"Dáin, I understand why you're so angry," Bilbo said, interrupting the two Dwarves before they could start bringing in more scary relatives as threats. "I hurt Thorin and the others with my actions. I understand that, and I do regret hurting them. But if I could give them a chance at a life free of war and death and loss, then I am going to do it. Even if it does cost me my life."
Dáin shook his head; ruffling his messy braids even more as his scowl deepened. "You little fool. Don't you realize that life ain't worth living if you have no one to live it with?"
Before he could respond, the Dwarf turned around and walked off.
"Well. That was unpleasant," he remarked, blinking a few times.
Thorin scoffed. "You thought that was bad? Look who is coming over now."
Bilbo scanned the camp until his eyes met stony gray. He immediately felt his stomach tighten into knots as his oldest friend marched towards him with storm clouds following in his wake. "Gandalf! How… nice to see you. Here. With us."
"Bilbo Baggins," the wizard greeted back in a voice of thunder as he stopped before the Hobbit and Dwarf. "It is time for you and I to have a conversation that has been long overdue."
He squinted up at the looming figure. "I'm not sure about that. What are my chances of getting out of this conversation unharmed?"
"Slim," the male growled, tightening his fingers around his staff. "And getting slimmer."
"Can we save this discussion for another time?" Thorin wondered, getting to his feet. "Now that you've all returned, it's time for us to leave before Sauron sends his army after us."
Gandalf didn't look like he agreed with that idea, but didn't protest as the king marched off yelling orders. Bilbo waited until the Dwarf was gone before he looked back to the wizard. "Before you start yelling at me, I would like to warn you that I'm not all together at the moment. You would be better off waiting for a later time to do this."
"I'm not going to yell at you," the wizard denied, his face falling into a frown that cut into his heart. "I just want to know why you didn't come to me earlier with all this. I would have helped you, Bilbo. You didn't have to endure this all alone!"
He shook his head vigorously and then immediately regretted it as it made his headache flare up again. "No. It was my turn to carry this burden, Gandalf. The last time around you and my nephew took on the ring and paid the price that came with it. Meanwhile, I did nothing but cower in the safety of Rivendell. This journey was long overdue."
Gandalf's face softened greatly. Before he could blink, the wizard dropped to his knees and grasped his hands in his own withered pair. "Bilbo, you cannot grant me the benefits from another life. I have done nothing to deserve them."
"I remember them. That is enough for me," he said, shrugging.
His friend squeezed his hands in reply. "Are you at least done with this penance of yours?"
"I didn't destroy the ring," Bilbo confessed quietly, glancing down to their joined hands. "I made things even worse. I brought Sauron back and now he knows everything that is to come. He… He took a part of my soul. Said that the only way for him to die, is for me to die."
Gandalf made a sound in his throat that had several nearby Dwarves backing away. When he looked up at the wizard, he found him wearing a scowl that he had not seen since Frodo was stabbed by one of the Nazgûl. Oddly enough, it was a comforting look to see again.
"We will see who dies and who lives in the end," he rumbled, the air around him crackling with magic. Bilbo hoped his hair didn't catch on fire from all that static. "For now, you focus on getting better. When I return, I expect you to be as healthy as you were when we first met."
"When you return? Where are you going?" he asked as the wizard rose to his impressive height.
Gandalf flashed him a reassuring smile that did nothing to reassure him. "I'm going to visit a few… friends."