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.
Balin was troubled.
He many things to trouble over in his life. The fates of his scattered people. The safety of his brother and cousins. Their quest to regain their home from Smaug. The safety and state of mind of his friend and king, Thorin. He was even troubled over the decision to bring along Ori, Fíli, and Kíli on such a suicidal mission.
But mostly, he was troubled by Bilbo Baggins.
There was something… off about the Hobbit. Not that he knew much about Hobbits to begin with, but from what he did know they were suspicious folk that preferred their home to travel and unknown adventures. It was very rare that any would ever leave their home in the company of Dwarves for a land far away and unknown. Bilbo Baggins was certainly nothing like the stories suggested.
But it wasn't the Hobbit's unexpected personality that troubled him. It was the way he treated them.
Bilbo treated each of them with a healthy amount of respect and warmth that none of them had expected. From hosting a grand feast in his home to subtly protecting Fíli from the trolls, he had shown nothing but kindness and understanding for them.
And it was beginning to worry him.
None of the Dwarves knew the Hobbit. None of them deserved to be treated so highly. Hell, Bilbo barely knew Fíli and yet he was willing to risk his life to protect him from trolls. No one, no matter how kind or wise or noble, would do such a thing for a stranger.
So why did Bilbo Baggins do it?
Balin didn't understand. He did not understand the strange Hobbit that followed them so easily and fought for them with a fierceness unheard of. He did not understand why the Hobbit looked at them the same way a Dwarf looked at the glory of his treasures.
And that was the most troubling thought of all.
Bilbo was pleased.
His plan with the trolls had gone over well. When he originally thought of how to deal with them, he had been tempted to leave things alone. But as he thought more and more about his situation, he realized that the consequences of his actions could change something significant. So he decided to test things by changing something he knew wasn't too important.
While Bilbo did feel bad about having to poison the trolls—no one deserved to die in such pain, after all—he was pleased with how things had played out. So far everything had stayed true to his expectations—they had found the troll cave, discovered the swords, buried the chest of treasure, and he even got Sting from Gandalf. It was a sign that even though he changed an event, he could still expect some things to stay true to their nature.
Like suspicious Dwarves.
He wasn't stupid. The Hobbit knew his actions with the troll had earned him both suspicion and respect. He had held his own again three trolls and that deserved respect. But the way he had done it—through trickery and deceit—was frowned upon. Dwarves believed that facing ones foes in battle was the honorable and bravest course of action to take. Sneaking around and taking them out from behind was seen as cowardly and weak by every Dwarf in the Company.
Well, almost every Dwarf.
"That was a clever way to take out the trolls."
Bilbo looked up from examining his new (old) sword, and found Nori watching him. With the trolls gone and their cave investigated, Thorin had decided to take a small break before they headed out again. Most of the Dwarves were preoccupied with their new treasures and paid him no mind, but Nori had broken off from the group and had taken a seat in front of him on a fallen tree.
"Thank you," he replied politely, nodding. "I know it was a rather gruesome manner, but I needed to act quickly to save the ponies."
"I'm not knocking your method," the Dwarf assured. "It was quick and it got the job done. That's all that matters."
"Yes, true enough though I don't think most of the others agree," he said lightly, watching the Dwarf. Nori had always been a mystery even the first time around. Much like Dwalin, he had kept to himself and his brothers, and had only occasionally sought the company of the others. Bilbo could not remember ever having a conversation that consisted of just the two of them.
Nori shrugged one broad shoulder. "Most of my kind do not see the benefit in catching an enemy off guard."
"But you do?" he prodded.
"Some battles are better won with guile and stealth," explained Nori. "It is a philosophy that I have come to appreciate in my line of work."
Bilbo raised an eyebrow. "And what is your line of work?"
"Very much in line with your own job," the Dwarf answered. "Only I don't steal items but collect information."
"You sound like a crook," he pointed out.
Nori cracked a grin. "An apt enough description."
"Interesting. I didn't think our leader would welcome a criminal," he commented.
"Thorin understands the value of information," the Dwarf explained. "Besides, he holds himself responsible for the criminals we've become."
Bilbo had not known that. "Why? He can't control the choices other Dwarves make."
"No, but he can control what pushes them to make those choices," reasoned Nori. "We did not only lose our home when Erebor was taken. We also lost our jobs and way of life. We became the outcasts who lived on the fringes of society. To survive and feed our families, we were fOrced to take on jobs that we would never have considered in our old lives. That is what Thorin blames himself for."
He holds himself responsible for not providing his people with a home and respectable jobs, the Hobbit realized. He had not known that Thorin took so much responsibility for his people onto himself. It explained even more of the king's determination to reclaim Erebor.
"Thank you for sharing that with me," he told the Dwarf before him. "I know it cannot be easy to reveal such vulnerable information with a stranger."
The thief shrugged. "If you are willing to fight and die with us, then you might as well know what you're really fighting and dying for."
He smirked slightly. "Yes, it is good to know I'm chancing being incinerated for a good cause."
Nori didn't laugh, but he did crack out another grin as he got to his feet. "Yes, well, just thought you should keep that in mind."
Bilbo watched the other turn to go when another thought occurred to him.
"Nori?" When the Dwarf paused and gave him his attention again, he continued, "What did you used to do? When you lived in Erebor?"
His answer was a bittersweet smile.
"I was a part of the city watchmen. I used to protect the streets from criminals."
They continued on.
Bilbo kept account of the days diligently. From his recollection, they would reach Rivendell in June, and he was curious to see if it kept this time around. So far nothing drastic had happened following the days after the incident with the trolls. He could only hope that it stayed so until they arrived at the elven city.
He used most of his time on the road getting his companions to warm up to him. Most of them still ignored him, but he had noticed that a few—namely Dwalin and Dori—would give him a look very similar to one a farmer would give a stray cat. As if he could be useful to them if they gave him a chance, but at a risk of getting clawed.
The only ones he had seemed to won any merit with over the trolls were the youngest ones: Ori, Fíli and Kíli. They had taken to telling him their own stories of daring and bravery that were really nothing more than youthful escapades. Still, he listened to their stories and enjoyed their energetic animations as they recounted each detail with passion.
The enthusiasm reminded him greatly of Merry and Pippin. The memory of the two impish cousins in turn reminded him of the others he had forgotten. In his haste to make things right, Bilbo had disregarded what he had left behind in his other life. Did they still exist the way he left them? Or was another future being rewritten thanks to his every action?
Bilbo could admit that part of him regretted changing some events. He knew that if ensured the survival of Drogo and Primula, then he would never have the same relationship with Frodo this time around. And while it killed him to sacrifice such a relationship, he also knew he could not deny Frodo a chance at a life with his parents.
—the first few months Frodo is with him he does not let Bilbo out of his sight. He follows him into every room and watches his every move with large blue eyes. He never attempts to stop it or discourage the child because he remembers what it's like to lose your parents before their time—
No. Bilbo knew he was selfish in many ways, but not in this one. Not with Frodo, whom he would give the world to if he had only asked.
But he was terribly selfish in other ways.
When he had made his plan to also destroy the one ring, he knew that it would come at a cost. By destroying it before its time, certain events would never transpire and some would never be challenged. King Elessar would never realize his true strength if Sauron was not there to test him. Legolas and Gimli would never overcome centuries of prejudice and hate to forge a legendary friendship without the ring there. Sam, Merry and Pippin would never rise to become the great Hobbits they never knew they could be if they had not made the journeys they did.
And Frodo would never have to carry the ring.
It was the last one that got to him the most. Before Bilbo had left for the Undying Lands, he had heard the heroic songs that spoke of his nephew's strength and bravery as he carried the ring to Mordor. Scribes wrote of his journey with vivid detail, and painted him as a noble and determined hero who only wanted to save his home and people. In every nation the common people said his name with joy; praising him as the most famous of heroes.
But what no one ever spoke of was what came after the journey. No bards sung of the nightmares and sleepless nights. No scribe recounted the scars and frowns. And no one ever spoke of the haunted look in Frodo's blue eyes, or the broken slump in his shoulders.
—there is a price to pay in carrying the ring. Gollum paid with his mind, he paid with his heart, and Frodo paid with his spirit—
It was a difficult choice, but he would make it. Bilbo understood now that he was never meant to be the hero in any tale. Those roles were meant to be filled by people like Thorin and Gandalf and Frodo. Instead, he was would be the selfish and greedy villain in this story if it meant he could spare Frodo, and even Thorin, the horrible fates that awaited them both.