A/N: Years ago, I promised to update this chapter "next week." Looks like I wasn't good for my word, but perhaps late is better than never. I am EXTREMELY SORRY to have left you hanging like this. Thank you for your patience! And again, sorry for the unreasonably long wait.
As Bilbo watched, blinking groggily, Gandalf blew smoke rings in his masterful style by pursing his lips and letting out silent huffs, one for each ring.
"I wish I could do that..." Bilbo murmured, his voice hoarse from sleep, as the smoke evaporated and the scent of nettle tobacco reached his nostrils.
A slow smile formed on Gandalf's face and he lowered his pipe, looking down at Bilbo.
"My dear Bilbo. It warms my heart to see you awake."
With his eyes sparkling, Gandalf looked just as delighted as he sounded and Bilbo gave him a groggy smile in return.
"How are you feeling, my boy?"
Bilbo assessed his condition, giving Gandalf's question the consideration it required. He felt warm, comfortably so, but not so much that he would have been feverish. Nothing ached, he wasn't in any physical pain.
Much to his surprise, he could tell Gandalf, "I feel quite all right, thank you for asking."
"That is excellent to hear," mused the wizard, lifting the pipe up to his lips.
Yawning, Bilbo rubbed his eyes before pushing himself up into a sitting position, pleased to note that he was well enough to sit up on his own. He then reached out to give Gandalf a hug, embracing the wizard as well as he could in their awkward positions. Gandalf's robes felt coarse against his cheek and the scent of nettle tobacco was as strong as ever, but Bilbo didn't care.
"Oh, Gandalf," he murmured onto the wizard's chest. "You have no idea how lovely it is to see a friendly face. I am so relieved that you are now here with me! These few days... I don't even know how to begin to tell you. The last few days have been horrible, absolutely horrible."
"So I have heard, my boy," Gandalf sighed gravely, patting Bilbo in the back with one hand while holding his pipe with the other. "While you were sleeping, I learned of what you have been through, what you have experienced after the battle. I was told of the execution attempt and how you have run from the dwarrows time and a time again. You are quite resourceful, Bilbo, I must say. Hobbits never cease to surprise me, it seems."
Bilbo shook his head sadly and gave Gandalf a bit of a squeeze before withdrawing.
"I was desperate, not resourceful," he said, hanging his head. "I thought... I thought I would die, I thought I would be killed by Th- the dwarves," Bilbo still couldn't say Thorin's name out loud, he felt as if the mere action would break him. "You were my only hope, Gandalf, I looked for you, tried to search for you... Where have you been?"
"I have been here and there," Gandalf's answer was full of remourse and as vague as the gesture he made with his hand. "I went away... but I also came back and now I am here."
"Yes," sighed Bilbo, resigning himself to the fact that he would never be able to understand the wizard as well as he wished to. "I guess the most important thing is, indeed, that you are here now. Oh, how glad I am that you came back, that you are now here!"
"And I shall stay for as long as you will be needing me," promised Gandalf, putting a hand on Bilbo's shoulder.
"Thank you," was all Bilbo could say to that. "And thank you for coming back. I... I appreciate it, very much so, more than I can ever say."
"No need to thank me, my boy. I consider knowing you a privilege. Your mother would have been very proud of you."
Bilbo didn't want to think of his mother, not at that moment, for he felt emotional enough as it was. Now that Gandalf had come back, he needed to stay sharp – Gandalf would soon tell him the truth of the matter, Gandalf would tell him whether Thorin wished him harm and Bilbo needed to be prepared for all possible outcomes if he wished to overcome the situation. If he became too emotional, he might not be able to do so.
It was a testament of how long he had spent with the dwarves – or rather, a testament of how close he had grown with a certain curt leader of the dwarves – that he now decided to go straight to the point instead of even trying to make polite, pointless conversation.
"Dwalin and Thranduil told me," Bilbo thus spoke, clearing his throat, "that you went to the camp of dwarves to find out whether Th-"orin, "the dwarves want me dead or not."
"Indeed I did," confirmed Gandalf, withdrawing his hand and leaning back in his chair. "I visited one certain camp resided by dwarrows and spoke to their soon-to-be-king. It was all quite revealing."
Bilbo's heart began to pound in his chest. Anticipation, fear, sorrow, trepidation, hope – his feelings were a bewildering mix, a ball of yarn of different colours. He began to pluck fluff off his blanket to occupy his hands, no longer able to meet Gandalf's gaze, so much the answers meant to him – answers, answers to questions he couldn't even quite put to words.
"How were they?" he eventually asked the question that most weighed on his mind, and once he got the first question voiced, other questions came pouring out. "Had Fili and Kili woken up yet? What about Th- their uncle? Were they getting better? Were their injuries grave? Was anyone else badly injured? Did you see Bofur? Do you know if the whole company survived the battle?"
"There is no need to worry for the dwarrows," Gandalf assured him. "Those members of the company who were injured in the battle are now steadily healing, and the rest are fine. It is so like you to ask after others even though you must worry for yourself as well."
"And what did you find out?" he asked the blanket. "Regarding my situation, I mean."
It took a while for Gandalf to answer.
"I took a look into Thorin's mind," Gandalf eventually spoke, his words lazed with audible regret. "I gazed in him. I saw many scars, but I also found out the truth of the matter: I found out that he feels guilty for what has happened to you, that he feels guilt and worry, concern for you, that he feels frustration for the way he can't change the past, and regret for all he did when the dragon sickness took him in its grasp. I found out that his mind is now clear, the golden fog has indeed vanished."
"The truth is, Bilbo," Gandalf continued, "that Thorin cares for you deeply – he thinks highly of you and considers it an honour to call you his friend. He didn't order your execution. It is as Balin told you: Dain misunderstood Thorin's request to 'take care of you' and what you have experienced in the past few days has been a direct result of that."
Bilbo stared at the blanket, clenching the edge of it in his fists as if it was the only thing grounding him to reality, as new colours appeared into his yarn of emotions. His mind was in turmoil, he couldn't quite process what Gandalf had just told him. He didn't know what to think or say.
It wasn't that Bilbo wasn't happy to hear Gandalf's words because he was, he really was. He felt faint with relief, he felt like... like...
What did he feel?
He didn't know what he felt.
All he knew was that his heart was pounding painfully fast in his chest while his throat was so tight that it was almost like a lump of words and emotions had blocked up his airways in their hurry to get out all at once. He felt numb, in a way, even though his senses felt somehow hightened like he had been preparing himself for a fight.
"I-" he eventually managed in a hoarse voice, "I will need to hear Thorin himself say that to believe it to be true. It's not that I don't trust you, Gandalf, because I do trust you and your word, and I do know that you speak the truth, I know it – my brain knows it – but to make my heart know it too, I will need to hear Thorin say that he still sees me as his friend, that he doesn't wish me harm."
"Quite understandable, my boy," Gandalf assured him, "and it must be said that Thorin would have most likely followed me here to speak with you in person, but his nephews needed him by their side and so he had to stay. We can, however, go see him to the dwarven camp once you will feel up to it – Thorin has requested it and welcomes you back. Dwalin has already made the necessary preparations and we can leave at a moment's notice."
"And you would come with me?" Bilbo made sure.
"Yes, of course. I will not leave your side until this matter has been cleared for good," promised Gandalf with a firm nod.
Thorin couldn't leave with his nephews, not now, not with a good conscience, and that's why he had to settle for waiting – hoping – that Gandalf would manage to convince Bilbo to come back for long enough for Thorin to offer his most sincere apologies, to beg for the hobbit's forgiveness, if necessary. He would get on his knees, he would speak from the heart – it would be the honourable thing to do. He hoped that Bilbo could find it in him to see that no ill will had been intended, that the dwarves still regarded him as a worthy friend.
When the news came that a wagon from the camp of elves was approaching, Thorin began to prepare for his meeting with Bilbo. He wore clean clothes and had his hair braided in a modest manner – he wanted to be presentable, but consciously avoided coming of as pompous as he did not want Bilbo to think for a moment that he was still under the curse of gold.
Thorin was nervous, which made his temper short and him irritable until eventually Fili sighed and told him to stop grinding his teeth because it sounded like thunder was approaching. Thorin snapped and told Fili to hold his tongue in the presence of his king and guardian, before he got up and began to pace, pretending that he hadn't seen Fili rolling his eyes at Kili.
Before Thorin knew it, Balin was already announcing Gandalf and Bilbo. With his mouth suddenly dry, he cleared his throat and granted them permission to enter.
And then there they were in his very tent, Gandalf with his powerful presence, supporting Bilbo who was leaning heavily against the wizard, holding onto the grey fabric for dear life, looking at Thorin with round eyes, with visible wariness, with fear, with hope, and after them came in the entire company, all of them moving to stand near the tent walls, present but giving Bilbo and Thorin room.
Hadn't Bilbo just become the focus of Thorin's entire attention, he might have ordered the others to leave. As it now happened though, he stayed silent, unable to utter a word, his mind uncharacteristically blank.
"Bilbo," Thorin barely heard Kili's whisper, so intently he was regarding the hobbit whom he now saw as a loyal, trustworthy friend.
Instinctively, Thorin took a step forward, towards Bilbo, reaching out a hand, only to come to a halt when Bilbo flinched back. The tips of Bilbo's ears reddened and he lowered his gaze down onto the ground, leaning even closer to Gandalf as if for support.
"Calm yourself, Bilbo," Gandalf said in a soft voice and Thorin saw him giving Bilbo's shoulder a reassuring squeeze. "No-one here wishes you harm."
"Indeed we do not," Fili said. "Please, Mr. Baggins, what has been done to you has been a terrible misunderstanding. Uncle Thorin meant you no harm."
Slowly, Bilbo raised his head and gave Thorin a cautious, yet hopeful look. Thorin tried to smile, but found that he could not. Instead, he withdrew his reaching hand and bowed his head. Swallowing, he knelt down, wincing as his wounds protested the movement, waving Dwalin and Balin's assistant away before his cousins had managed to take but a step towards him.
"Bilbo Baggins of the Shire," he spoke, keeping his head bowed. "I have lowered myself so that I am level with the ground instead of standing high as a mountain. In this way, I hope to show you that I am humbled, that I regret the wrongdoings you have had to endure in the hands of my kin and my own. I am truly sorry, I ask for your forgiveness."
He didn't dare look up, even as he heard soft steps approaching. A gentle hand was placed on his shoulder and then, grunting in audible pain, Bilbo Baggins knelt onto the ground with him.
"Look me in the eye, Thorin," Bilbo whispered. "Look me in the eye so I can see for myself that the sickness has passed."
Thorin did as he was asked – it was the least he could do for Bilbo; he would have done so much more had Bilbo only asked. He raised his head and met the hobbit's gaze as steadily as he could.
Bilbo's eyes were unreadable when they locked gazes. He studied Thorin for a long while, but eventually he seemed to find whatever he had been looking for as his chin began to tremble and his eyes filled with tears.
"Thorin," Bilbo breathed out and his hand came to touch Thorin's neck, holding on, not too tightly. "Thorin, my friend, it is as Gandalf said – you are yourself again."
"Indeed I am," Thorin said, "and I am ready to make amends in any way you find suitable."
Bilbo let out a strangled laugh which almost sounded like a sob and leant forward so that their foreheads touched.
"How about a hug for starters, my friend," he said softly, "would that do?"
It did doo.
A/N: Thank you for reading. The ending might be a bit rushed, but I hope you have enjoyed the fic nevertheless, overall.
With best wishes, Aate