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Chapter Thirty Two # End of the Innocence #

"Remember when the days were long
And rolled beneath a deep blue sky
Didn't have a care in the world
With mommy and daddy standin' by
But "happily ever after" fails
And we've been poisoned by these fairy tales
The lawyers dwell on small details
Since daddy had to fly

But I know a place where we can go
That's still untouched by men
We'll sit and watch the clouds roll by
And the tall grass wave in the wind
You can lay your head back on the ground
And let your hair fall all around me
Offer up your best defence
But this is the end
This is the end of the innocence." Don Henley, The End of the Innocence.

Frodo had to admit, the dwarves of Erebor knew how to throw a feast.

Each dish had been prepared meticulously and deliciously, and by the time the desserts came around, even Frodo was almost full.

"Ooh, treacle tart!" Little Nala squealed next to him, reaching for some of the sticky treat happily. She had quickly become fond of the hobbits claiming Pippin as her saviour, and the moment Frodo had entered the dining hall he had been dragged down to sit by her.

Ori was beside him with Nori, Kara and little Ari, but most of the others around them were dwarflings.

"Do you like treacle tart?" Nala asked the hobbit sweetly, and he smiled.

"Of course... But I might have some cheesecake instead."

"That's a good choice." Nala's solemn voice as she spoke of food made Frodo want to laugh even more.

He often laughed these days.

There had been a time, even on returning to the Shire when he thought that he would rarely laugh again, when the weight of the ring lingered in its vice like grip around his heart, but now the shadow of the ring was long gone from his mind.

His memories remained as strong as ever, but they were easy enough to deal with now that the hold of the ring was gone. Frodo was now exactly sure what he had done to deserve being freed of the ring, but he was eternally gratefully for it.

Now Frodo laughed more than he ever had before, and Erebor was starting to feel just as much like home as Bag End was, and he felt as close to most of the company as he did with the fellowship.

"Mister Frodo, can you pass me a cookie please?" Binni asked sweetly from his place beside Nala. "I can't reach, and Mister Bilbo says that we're not allowed to crawl across the table."

Smiling at that, Frodo passed Binni his desired treat.

Remembering when he found the scared, emaciated child in the mines with Merry and Bilbo, Frodo marvelled at the transformation into the bubbly little boy that was now leaning into his father's arm, happily nibbling on the cookie that the hobbit had passed him.

Frodo finished his glorious dessert and sighed contentedly, before all of a sudden someone grabbed him under the armpits and hoisted him up off of the bench.

"Hey!" he cried as the children around him burst out laughing and Fíli set him back down on his feet again. "What on earth are you doing?"

"You're going to miss the dancing, my good hobbit."

"But-"

"You can have more dessert later." Fíli appeased him and Frodo rolled his eyes.

"I've had enough dessert thank you very much; I don't think I could eat anymore!"

"Then what's the problem?"

Frodo snorted and simply rolled his eyes at Fíli, following his friend into the ball room. The dwarven orchestra were quick to strike up a lively tune and Frodo found himself swept up into an array of exciting dances with various partners. Some he knew and others he did not, but it was great fun all the same.

The young hobbit was happy that he was not the only one relaxing – Thorin himself was engaging in a particularly complicated array of moves with Dís.

The intensity of Kíli and Astra's dance was stunted by Frerin perching on Kíli's shoulders gleefully, but the laughing pair did not seem to mind the young boy's presence at all.

Frodo noted Dori watching the dance, joggling seventh month old Ari around on his lap as the babe gurgled happily at his parents dancing cheerfully.

Ori was jovially weaving in and out of a group of dwarves who appeared to be his own age. Bifur and Bofur were skipping up and down the length of the hall arm in arm, joining in with different groups in different songs while Bombur and Dana danced together.

Glóin and Áile were dancing with the true grace of dwarven nobles and Dwalin's missing arm was barely noticeable as he winked at several dancing lasses.

Balin had danced to the first few tunes, but had soon sat out to watch next to Dori with one of the girls Ori had fostered on his lap. Though the young (or old – Frodo was not really sure how Ori classed his age) dwarf was yet to find the parents of the twins, Ori did not seem bothered at all, and like Frerin it appeared as though the foster children would be staying where they were for now.

Óin was dozing on the table after drinking quite a bit of ale while Gimli led his little foster sisters around the dance floor gently.

Fíli, who had initially partnered Frodo, had long since moved around, making his way through a variety of partners like most of the unattached young dwarves in the mountain. The popular young prince was never short of a partner and his bliss was evident on his face as he danced.

Bilbo acted much the same as Frodo and Fíli, swapping partners happily and dancing like there was no tomorrow. Frodo had a strong suspicion that Bilbo was making the most of having his youth back again…

Frodo took no notice of time until his breath ran short and his head began to spin from so many lively dances. He politely excused himself from the group he had just danced with and turned away, flopping down next to Dori at one of the benches set out for the people to watch.

"Here, laddie." Balin grinned knowingly from Dori's other side, sliding a tankard of ale down the table to the breathless hobbit. "Enjoying yourself?"

Frodo nodded with a grin, raising the tankard gratefully. "I most certainly am. This outdoes even Bilbo's birthday, by far!"

Dori snorted. "Well, this is a party thrown by a king for an entire kingdom."

Frodo just smiled and sipped at his ale.

The baby in Dori's lap babbled senselessly and reached out towards Frodo with clumsy little arms. With a small smile, Dori passed Ari over to Frodo, who took the babe carefully. The company had remained closer than before, with the royal wing being a gathering place for the entire company and their families, including the foster children, so Frodo knew little Ari almost as well as his doting uncles did.

"Hello, little one." Frodo smiled, tickling the babies little cheek. "How are you today?"

"He's very well." Dori returned as Frodo bobbed his knee up and down gently, causing the little one to giggle contentedly. "Though he slept through most of the feast."

"I saw…" Frodo smiled.

Ari beamed up at the hobbit, his innocent little face symbolising all of the hope in the world, and Frodo nodded.

Life was good.

The party went on and on into the night, until the children were taken to bed, and even then most of the adults remained, dancing through until dawn, feasting and drinking and laughing and talking…

Thorin had not relaxed so completely since becoming King-In-Exile all those years ago. Frey, Bombur's eldest son had volunteered to watch the children of the company while the adults continued to enjoy themselves, and the king had all but forgotten about his many duties.

When his sister finished monopolizing him through countless of dances Thorin thought that he might get a chance to sit down, but apparently that was not the case.

"Uncle!" Fíli cried happily, throwing himself into his uncle's arms and dragging him into the next dance.

"Fíli… I bet your mother put you up to this…" Thorin grumbled, though he took his nephew's hands to continue the dance nonetheless.

"No," his golden haired heir beamed at him. "I haven't danced with you since you taught me and Kíli as children."

"Well I am honoured young prince that you wish to dance with me." Thorin said regally, surprised when Fíli looked away momentarily.

"I wish you wouldn't do that."

"Do what?" Thorin blinked.

"Talk to me like you're my king when we're not in court. It irritates me." Fíli said bluntly.

Thorin was taken aback by his nephew's harsh honesty. "Oh…"

"Sorry, Thorin, I wasn't trying to be insolent or-"

"No, no, you have every right to be irritated." Thorin nodded, finding it somewhat ironic that the dance was so fast.

Fíli gave his uncle a small smile.

"I haven't admitted it outright, no but for many years I put my duty ahead of my family. So…I will say it outright. I love you, Fíli, and I am very proud of you as a dwarf, as well as a prince." Thorin admitted around a loud shout of 'hey' and a clap.

A shocked smile appeared on Fíli's face as he clapped. "Thank you, Uncle Thorin… I love you too."

"And around!" Thorin yelled suddenly with a chuckle, shepherding his nephew in the right direction as though he were a dwarfling again.

Fíli roared with laughter as he just about avoided the feet and face of the nearest woman. "Thorin!"

"What?" Thorin protested as he whirled Fíli around in a circle again.

"Who made me the woman?"

"I did. I'm the k…I'm the uncle, you're the nephew, therefore you're the woman." Thorin declared pompously.

Bilbo chuckled contentedly as he watched Thorin dance around with Fíli as though they had no cares in the world. His makeshift family of dwarves were happy, and that was all that mattered to Bilbo Baggins.

~ The Hobbit ~

"It's over."

"Good." Kíli replied quietly, stroking his little cousin's hair as Frerin snoozed in his lap.

The young dwarf had seen far too many deaths for his liking, and though he had attended the trial, Kíli had offered to babysit for the entire company while the others attended the execution of Afra, the woman that had been in charge of the mountain.

Bombur's three youngest were sprawled across the sofas in the spacious 'common' room of the royal wing, and Ori's little twins, Alodie and Dastan were snoring lightly, snuggled together on an armchair. The twins' parents had not been among those to return from the Blue Mountains, so Ori had decided to adopt the brother and sister the same way Thorin was adopting Frerin. Ari was dozing in a nearby crib and Frerin's fingers were still tangled in Kíli's hair.

It felt strange now that most of the foster children were back under the supervision of their own parents. Kíli half felt like he had lost someone.

"It was quick." Fíli said quietly. "The others are still downstairs, though."

"Drinking?"

"Aye. The hobbits didn't look all too happy about watching and they've had the most to drink by far."

Kíli snorted softly. "Bilbo will be grumpy in the morning."

Fíli smiled and nodded, being sure not to wake the children.

"I like having a cousin." Kíli murmured thoughtfully.

"Me too…" Fíli smiled.

"Do you think we've done it?" Kíli knew that however much he would protest later his little voice had nothing to do with the slumbering children around him.

"Done what?" Fíli frowned, but Kíli refused to make eye contact with his brother, staring at his cousin so as to avoid Fíli's piercing eyes.

"Fulfilled the Blessing…"

Fíli was quiet for a moment and Kíli waited nervously. "Well… We made it back to Erebor; we saved the city…with help… The alliance between Mirkwood and Erebor is stronger than ever…"

"But it's not like the alliance with Lake Town or Mirkwood…" Kíli mumbled, hating the way that his throat stuck. "There's little trust there."

"There's enough."

"Is there?"

Fíli fell silent again and Kíli pursed his lips, slowly brushing Frerin's hair away from his face as he stared pointedly at the little boy's face.

"The time is nearly up, Fee. If you're wrong, if it's not enough, we only have months to live…"

His brother kept his silence and Kíli swallowed.

The youngest heir of Durin had been so worried that he had not heard his brother move, so he jumped a little in surprise when a pair of warm arms wrapped around him from behind. Kíli sighed softly as Fíli's chin rested on his head.

"We're going to be alright, Kíli." Fíli murmured. "I promise."

"You can't." Kíli coughed gruffly to hide his childish whine. "You can't promise that, Fíli."

"I can and I do promise it. You'll be alright."

Kíli knew very well that Fíli had the exact same doubts as he did, but nevertheless his brother's calm words did soothe him a little.

"I don't want to die again, Fíli."

"You won't."

"You don't know that."

"Don't think about it, Kíli." Fíli ordered softly. "Just don't think about it."

~ The Hobbit ~

Gandalf returned to the mountain one day before the two year anniversary of the Blessing.

He hoped that the Company's task had been completed to the satisfaction of the Ancients. Gandalf would hate to see his friends die before his eyes…

The company walked out into the crystal clear rain on the largest of Erebor's Royal Balcony's, their closest family members lingering by the doors. Gandalf had watched Thorin hold Frerin closely one last time, before placing him in the arms of one of Bombur's twin sons. The Company had not wanted any of the children to watch whatever may occur next, just in case they had somehow failed after all of their efforts.

It almost broke Gandalf's old heart, hearing the children sing happily to their parents and guardians that they would see them later while their parents and guardians hid the sorrow from their eyes.

A crackle of thunder crashed ominously across the sky and Gandalf sighed, putting a hand on Frodo's shoulder.

"It is beginning."

Kíli's stomach curled. Though it was true that the alliance with the elves was stronger than it had been in years, he was still not convinced that they had done enough. What was more, Kíli knew full well that if they failed, he would be the first to die. He would dissolve into ash before the eyes of his family and blow away into the wind... Kíli slipped a trembling hand into Fíli's, moving to stand next to Thorin. He leant into his uncle's left side with a soft sigh of submission to whatever fate may come.

Fíli swallowed and squeezed his baby brother's hand. He could not lose his Kíli again. If the Ancients chose to steal his brother away, Fíli himself would not dissolve into ash. He would die of heartbreak first. Steeling his nerves and keeping an iron grip on Kíli's hand, Fíli stepped away from his brother and leant against Thorin's right side so that the nephews' hands linked behind their uncle's back. The golden haired heir of Durin glowed with sudden bittersweet joy when the king of Erebor looped his arms around the waists of his heirs and pulled them closer.

Thorin held his nephews close, praying that he would be able to hold them for years to come. If he were to die then so be it, but not Fíli or Kíli. Thorin cared too deeply now – the loss of any company member would hit him very hard, and he knew it. The Dwarf King prayed, closing his eyes as he tilted his head to the sky.

Balin looked up at his younger brother with a wry smile, placing a hand on Dwalin's arm. The warrior turned, his eyes burning with worry. If need be, Balin was ready to die again. He would truly rather not, but the old scholar was at peace with the world and that was all he really needed.

Dwalin shook his head slowly at the look of peace on Balin's face. His brother would never cease to amaze him. Slowly, he lowered his forehead onto Balin's and closed his eyes. He cared not that he was a grown warrior who had conquered the world twice – he was facing possible death with all those he cared most about, and he would face it with his head resting on his brother's.

Óin gazed up at the sky as if he had never seen rain before. The healer had seen more than his fair share of miracles so he tried to keep an open mind about the company's current predicament. Nevertheless as the clouds drew closer he took a small step closer to Glóin. Twenty years ago he had died hundreds of miles away from his brother – a cold and lonely death. At least this time he could appreciate the warmth and comfort of his surrounding family as he fell.

Glóin kept a hand on his axe hilt even though he knew that it was useless to fight nothing. The banker had never held much stock in myth and fairy tales before, but his carpet of logic had been tugged out from under his feet with the arrival of the Blessing. The same thing had happened with gold sixty years before – what had previously offered him security and sense had turned into the downfall of his admired King and cousin. Glóin turned and grinned at Gimli as the air grew thicker, allowing pride for his son to extinguish the fear in his heart.

Ori stood in between his brothers, the link between them once more. He was a little concerned; Dori looked as though he were about to be sick, and Nori was a very unhealthy shade of grey. The youngest brother, however, stared out over the breath-taking landscape calmly. Ori had every faith that they would live – partly because no one else would. Dying again was not what Ori feared. He knew now that death was inevitable and that one day he would once again leave the world he loved so much, but he feared neither death nor dying. He slung his arms over his brothers' shoulders and pulled them close, resting his head on Nori's shoulder as he squeezed Dori's arm. He had to keep faith that they would live – because what Ori feared most was dying without hope.

Nori tilted his head to rest against Ori's slightly, angling it so that he could look at Kára with a smile and a slow wink. Though he had seen his son but half an hour ago, Nori wanted to run back into the room and snatch Ari back from whoever was watching him, holding his baby boy close until he was naught but a pile of ash. Nori did not want to die, and if he was honest with himself, he was afraid. He feared watching Ori die, and he feared the pain they might feel. He feared hearing the cries and screams of the others, and he feared what may wait him on the other side.

Dori had never been known for his optimism, and he had a very good reason for it. Losing his mother so soon after Ori's birth had forced him to grow up so fast, and if he expected the dog to bite, he was less likely to get hurt. Now Dori's stomach churned nauseously as pessimism told him that the alliances were too weak, and that any moment now his brother would dissolve between his fingers. However, as Ori's hand squeezed his arm, memories filled his mind, memories of laughter and love and life with his brothers. He slung his arm over Ori's shoulder, his hand resting against Nori's neck as Dori clung to his memories for as long as he could.

Bofur smiled softly at the scene unravelling before him. As much as he hoped that it was not the end, he was ready if it was. There was nothing he could do about it anyway, so there was no point fretting about it. What would come would come, and Bofur had resigned himself to that fact with ease. He could think of many worse ways to die - drowning in your own blood on a cruel battlefield, suffocating alone in a collapsed mine, fading away lost and forgotten after all your loved ones had gone... Yes, there were far worse fates than his out there in the world. He could feel Bifur trembling beside him, though he was not quite sure why, and he drew his cousin close. As Bifur offered him a shaky grin, Bofur beamed back, putting his other hand on Bombur's shoulder. Staring out at the rain that was bringing their destiny with them, Bofur smiled.

Bifur did not know why his body shook, but he was grateful for his young cousin's arm when it wrapped over his shoulder. Something had been stirring in Bifur's mind for weeks, months perhaps. He did not know when it had started, but it disconcerted him. Errant thoughts would flitter through his head, as erratic as hummingbirds, and then leave just as quickly. He found himself feeling calm more often, he found himself feeling... Well, he did not rightly know. If he had once had a word for the feeling he did not have it anymore. It was a peaceful feeling, but it unnerved him. Now the feeling grew stronger than ever and white light seemed to fill Bifur's head. Confusion flew from his mind until there was nothing left at all. Bifur felt nauseous and alone in a snow like world, a world with no sight and no sound. Panic tainted the white world and Bifur froze. Was he dying? Bofur shuffled against him, and Bifur remembered why he had not given up when the cursed axe had embedded itself into his skull. At least now he would not leave his cousins alone.

Bombur was resolute as he waited for the rain to cease. They would be fine. They had done as much as they could and surely that would be enough. The architect and cook had far too much to live for to die now, and Bombur knew that the world was full of miracles. He could sense that something was wrong with Bifur - he had never seen his axe-ridden cousin so still - but they would pull through. They always did, they always would. The rotund dwarf suddenly flashed back to when he was but a child, when he and Bofur never had enough to eat, when Bofur protected him from the cruel world while their parents worked day and night to keep a little bread on the table. Bofur's response to every problem had been the same, from a splinter in the thumb to the untimely deaths of their parents. "You won't solve a problem by crying about it." He would say calmly, holding Bombur close. "You've got to be practical about it. It's fine to cry as long as you remember it does naught to help you." Nothing would help them now but what they had already done, Bombur knew that. "It will be enough." he murmured aloud as he stared resolutely to the blackening sky.

Bilbo heard Bombur's murmur and nodded to himself. Personally, the hobbit was assured that they would all be fine for the simple reason that he, Bilbo Baggins of the Shire, no longer felt torn in his loyalties to the dwarves or the elves. Now he was perfectly free to befriend whomever he should choose, and that all he had hoped for in the past sixty years. He wondered where he would be standing now if the Blessing had not happened, and concluded that he would have given up any position for the one he was in now. During the Quest for Erebor, the company had become his close friends but by now they were his family, his close family, and he would not sacrifice this life for the world. Although, he mused, it would be nice if Thorin were to allow him to plant some more flowers and greenery around the place… His heart tore a little when he noticed the pale faces of his friends who were obviously not as assured of their fate, but he could not help but feel warmed by the rare displays of open emotion displayed by the dwarves. My dwarves, Bilbo corrected himself with a wry smile. My dwarves…

Frodo swallowed as he stared at the tableau of waiting family, fully aware that the result of the upcoming moments could change his life so drastically. Though the young hobbit had no intentions of leaving Erebor, he would not be able to stay if the others lost their lives. He would wander back to the Shire, alone and lost and sorrowful. He would live out his life in Bag End, most probably, though his adventures would surely doom him to the life of a bachelor and though he would always have Sam, Merry and Pippin he would likely grow old missing lost friends the same way Bilbo had. He would not have a chance to live with them again, though. Still, Frodo trusted in his friends and that was all that he could do for now…

Gimli firmly believed that his life could not have been more different from the way he expected it to be when he first left the Blue Mountains for Erebor with the women and children. He had never expected to help save the world. He had never expected to befriend and elf. He had never expected to see Thorin Oakenshield again. The superstitious side of him argued that life had given him so much that it would surely begin to take things away from him again. Life could not be so lenient towards death for so long. Nevertheless, he had been working tirelessly with Legolas over the past several months to ensure that the fragile bonds between their kingdoms grew and strengthened, and he could not think of what else could be done.

Legolas felt less out of place than he thought he should do. With Gimli's accompaniment, he had been in and out of Erebor on a weekly basis over the past months, and most of the mountain seemed at least willing to ignore his presence, though many were beginning to tolerate him, including the mothers he had helped with their sick children during the induced plague. Though the elf wondered if it were wishful thinking, Legolas could not remember a time when the relations were stronger between the cities. The rain bothered the elf, which was odd in itself, but what bothered him a little more was the strange sense of belonging he felt standing on a balcony with the dwarves of Erebor.

Lighting crackled down from night sky, illuminating the city of Dale against the suffocating darkness of the thick black clouds.

The lighting struck quickly this time, once again engulfing the entire company in white flames. To the wizard's surprise, flames crackled at Frodo's feet and the young hobbit gasped in pain, doubling over. Before Gandalf could so much as twitch, flames sprung up at the feet of Legolas and Gimli who froze where they stood, before simultaneously hissing in pain.

The flames died away and the clouds dissolved into the sky, leaving a behind the most incredible blue that Thorin had ever seen.

For a moment, no one so much as moved.

"It is over." Gandalf smiled.

Bifur blinked, the colour returning to the world. He shook his head, a little disorientated. "Well, that could have been a lot worse."

"Ah!" Bofur cried, jumping away from him with an expression of disbelieving elation on his face. "Bifur!"

"What?" the dwarf frowned, confused.

"Say something else!" Bofur laughed happily.

Suddenly, Bifur realised what his cousin was saying. "I…I…I'm not speaking in Khuzdul!"

"Ha hey!" Kíli laughed brilliantly, clapping the dwarf on the shoulder.

"I did mention the incredible healing properties of the Blessing of the Ancients, did I not?" Gandalf raised an eyebrow, putting a hand on Frodo's shoulder. "Are you alright, Frodo?"

"Yes…" Frodo frowned, inspecting his palms. "But my han…oh…"

"What?" Bilbo asked quickly. "What's wrong with your hands?"

"Look!" Frodo cried, holding up his palms. On each of the hobbits hands, a ring of elvish lettering the size of a gold coin was emblazoned onto his skin. "It's the markings from the ring…"

"How interesting…" Gandalf mused, genuinely interested now that it was apparent that the young hobbit was in no danger. "It appears, Frodo that those markings are the price you paid for the healing the Blessing bestowed upon you."

Though most of the company looked confused, Frodo's eyes lit with wonder. "That is a small price to pay…"

"Indeed…"

"Healing?" Bilbo asked in a strained voice.

"From the ring…" Frodo murmured, still studying his palms. "I don't feel it anymore…"

"And it seems that our company's newest additions have not been left out of things…" Gandalf chuckled as Legolas and Gimli stared at their own wrists.

"I don't believe it…" Gimli frowned, staring at his wrist. "It's…elvish!"

"What is?" Bofur piped up, and Gimli displayed another tattoo like marking for the company to see that sat at the base of his wrist.

"I have one too," Legolas added quietly, studying his wrist intensely. "Though mine is written in Khuzdul…"

"They both say 'worthy'." Bilbo said quietly, and Gandalf nodded, looking most pleased with himself.

"It is the marking of the Ancients' approval."

Eventually relief took over entirely and the company began to filter back into their halls, greeted by children who had no idea how significant their parents return was.

Only Bilbo remained on the balcony, staring out over the beautiful scenery with a contended smile.

"Well," he whispered to himself words he had not uttered in six decades. "I do believe the worst is behind us."

Author's Note: "I regret to announce - this is The End. I am going now. I bid you all a very fond farewell."

And so in the words of Bilbo Baggins (twice) it's over. I feel a little sad but a little relieved to be honest :P

I truly hope that you enjoyed this story, it has been a pleasure to write, and your reviews have meant so much to me!

Now: if there is enough interest I may consider writing a sequel of sorts about the life in Erebor of everyone after this story. It's something I'd quite like to do, especially with developing relationships between the children etc. I have chosen to end this here because it feels right, but also because I didn't want it to get too OC heavy, so there would probably be a few more OCs (eg Frerin, Kára, other wives and children etc) updates would be a little slow though, and I'd need enough interest :P

Anyway thank you all so much for reading and review if you want a sequel as mentioned above.

Have a nice day!