The Shire had never seemed so far like in that moment.
Big, fat tears rolled down on Bilbo Baggins' cheeks as he was curled against the wall of the cave and tried to remain as silent as possible. Not like anyone could've heard the sound of his weeping over the raging storm outside, but he really didn't need anyone to notice. To ask questions, to pity him. He was homesick, and that is all.
The hobbit closed his eyes and could see the soft, green grass, the hills and the round doors of the Shire. He breathed in the smell of flowers and trees, tasted the gust of fresh bread that just came out of the oven. He felt flavours he've never felt before in his mouth, saw colourful dots dancing behind his closed eyelids, and he could almost touch the warm wind that used to stroke his skin while he was sitting on that good, old wooden bench of his.
For once he opened his eyes, these things were all gone. Mere illusions, though, but so real that it caused physical pain when Bilbo realised they had never existed. Leastwise, not here. Since here all the hobbit had were wet clothes, a sword (or, as Balin kindly pointed it out, a letter opener) and nothing else whatsoever. Not even his pocket-handkerchief, and it seriously overwhelmed him. The absolute lack of comfort, safety, certainty and feel of home were as bad as a dagger in his stomach. All he could do was to cry about it. Because what else could a hobbit do?
Bilbo didn't want to fall asleep, for he feared those stone giants could come back and haunt him in his dreams. Until there was the slightest chance these nightmares could ruin the memories he had of the Last Homely House, he was determined to stay awake. The elves made him forget all the misery he had to bear on this journey, and the exhaustion that followed him everywhere. He felt raw and tired, hurt when he was not even injured, and most of all, unwanted. As Thorin put it earlier, he was lost since he stepped out of his round, lovely, green door, and he had no place amongst the dwarves. He was a fish out of water, and he desperately tried to escape, to go back to the depths of the ocean, and never look back.
Some Tooks were never meant to have adventures, it seemed. And wrong was Gandalf, just as the hobbit had suspected.
The halfling didn't have to think for too long about what to do next. He had two choices. One was to stay where he was, lying on the cold, stone ground, keep crying until his eyes grew numb, and let the greater powers handle his fate.
The other was to pack and run.
Bilbo knew there was never a real choice. There was only so much a hobbit could take.
He had made sure that everyone was fast asleep before he started to pack. He rolled up his bedroll, he pulled his claret vest lower and his trousers above, then turned his backpack over his shoulder. He slowly started walking towards the cave mouth.
He was gripping Sting with whitened fingers, as he tried to make his way on the narrow path between snoring dwarves, but once or twice he felt like stumbling. He could barely avoid sitting back on Dwalin's head when his clumsy foot was caught in Gloin's bedroll, but he gained his balance back soon, and sighed with relief.
If he wasn't able to leave this place without being caught, he really didn't know what he was expecting. Rivendell wasn't close, and there was a great chance he would be dead before dawn. And despite all of the reasoning his common sense was trying to convince him with, he kept his eyes on the cave mouth, and held back his breath.
The hobbit was very close to freedom when he noticed something from the corner of his eye. He had no idea how could he miss it, nor Thorin and Dwalin, since they were the first to enter the cave and start scouting. It was a passage with a wide and tall opening, and he was sure it would be impossible to miss. It seemed to call him, to draw him closer and closer, and it was a temptation really hard to resist.
And he had known it for a long time now that he wasn't strong enough.
Before he could've thought about it, he was already moving in its direction, and he didn't even notice his backpack falling from his shoulder with a moderately silent thump. He left Sting behind as well, but he didn't mind. All Bilbo could care about was the pleasant, cool breeze caressing his face and ruffling his hair ever so gently. It felt like an invisible hand was running its fingers over his chin, his dirty, tear soaked cheeks, and it chased away every bad insight he had ever had.
With every step, the emptiness caused by being unwanted in this company seemed to be filled, and all of a sudden, the feeling of pain and fatigue left his body completely. He caught himself smiling, and he forgot everything that's ever bothered him before. The hobbit had never felt such peace in his life, and he knew he shouldn't have been so confiding, but he couldn't help it. It was everything he was yearning for, and now, he felt as complete as he only felt before his mother died. When everything was alright. Now, it seemed those times were still within reach. He would've been a fool not to reach with this in his mind.
The closer Bilbo got, the lighter the path seemed. He could see a greater cavern in the distance, and he could swear he heard the sound of a waterfall and... birds. More specifically, nightingales, and their jug was music for the hobbit's ears. He smiled even wider when he stopped at the end of the tunnel, and slowly looked around.
This cavern reminded Bilbo of the pictures in the books he held so many times as a young hobbit. It was the most beautiful place he had ever been. Dripstones, some of them as big as Gandalf himself, were reaching for him from the ceiling, worn by the endless ages. Nightingales were flying around in the huge space, filling the air with their songs, and chasing fireflies. In the back of the cave, Bilbo noticed the huge waterfall he was hearing the sound of only seconds earlier, and the water seemed so clear and inviting that he felt the need to laugh.
Were not any of these things, that surprised the halfling the most, though. It wasn't a cavern with birds and a noisy waterfall that was so unusual, but rather the small island in the middle of the cave, surrounded by water. It was the only spot, namely, where green grass grew, and a mature willow was standing tall on the toehold. It almost reached the long dripstones, and the longer branches were drifted gently on the surface of the water.
Bilbo's eyes filled with tears at the sight, it was so magical.
The nightingales were flying closer to the tree, playing with each other and singing beautiful songs that Bilbo could almost understand; how, though, he did not know. The hobbit followed them with his eyes, still standing on the same spot. They were fast, but not too fast so he could've lost them. Only when he looked hard enough, he saw a woman lying under the tree.
The hobbit was sure the woman hadn't been there before, but he didn't query anything. He did not dare. He only stood there and watched. The woman had long, blonde hair and her face was hidden to the halfling - he only saw her back. She wore a grey robe, and all appearanced that she was sleeping. Feel her the hobbit could, and he didn't want anything better than to talk to her. He didn't have the courage to speak, though, so he pushed every excuse aside, and stepped into the water with one foot.
His feet were still bruised and covered in cuts from the long journey they had come through the Misty Mountains - probably that is why it felt so overwhelmingly wonderful as the cool water was washing his skin. He smiled and looked down. Tiny fishes were swimming between his legs, and the soft touch of pebbles under his feet sent shivers running up and down his spine. His body was trembling from the joy that tried to burst him from the inside, and his mind was so busy with processing the ecstasy that he didn't even notice the dwarf following him.
Sheer horror took the place of bliss when Bilbo felt something pulling on his vest from behind. It was a firm grip, and he was soon standing on the shore again, facing a very angry dwarf king.
"Thorin," Bilbo breathed, and was still on the verge of panic a little. Thorin's hand didn't move from his neck.
"What are you doing, burglar?" His sharp, blue eyes contained something similiar to worry as he stared at Bilbo, waiting for an explanation.
Bilbo opened and closed his mouth a couple times, feeling like a goldfish, then cleared his throat quickly. "I was about to talk to that woman," he nodded with his head to the small island, but Thorin didn't look away from him. It was becoming frustrating. Those eyes seemed way too blue, and it made the hobbit nervous. "Can I not?"
"You were about to abandon the company," the dwarf growled. Bilbo didn't understand how could Thorin still be so bitter when this place was obviously not meant for that, but he didn't think it was the right moment to argue about it. "Then you came here without a weapon. Are you out of your mind, halfling?"
"I," Bilbo started but couldn't come up with anything. He didn't understand either. All he knew was that he wanted to see that woman, to talk to her, to treasure and preserve this feeling until the end of times. He wanted to feel like this in every single second of his life from now on. "Don't you feel it, Thorin?"
"Feel what?" the dwarf furrowed his eyebrows in confusion, and Bilbo laughed. The other didn't feel it, and the hobbit suddenly found it so amusing he just couldn't stop laughing.
"We should tell the others," the hobbit gently wrapped his fingers around Thorin's wrist, and pulled his arm away so he could go back to the company. Before the dward king could've said anything else, Bilbo was already on his way back, with the same huge smile on his face.
"Fili, Kili!" he shouted, and his echo was reverberated from the wet cave walls. It sounded a hundred times louder, and so did the urgent steps of the dwarf king, following him. "Dwalin, Balin, wake up! You have to see this!"
"Bilbo!" Thorin hissed, his voice irritated, but the hobbit kept going.
"Oin! Gloin! Wake up!"
"What happened?" Bofur sat up immediately, his voice hoarse from sleeping, and the enthusiastic face of their burglar really wasn't something that either of them was expecting to see. "What's wrong?"
"I found something! Get up already and follow me!" he urged them and, with huge suddenness, he turned around, crashing into Thorin's chest. The dwarf stood behind him like a brick wall, and Bilbo feared for the soundness of his nose for a second.
"I will never forgive Gandalf for talking me into taking you with us," he growled, and the hobbit's head snapped up to look into the other's eyes. Now that he was out of that cavern, the pleasant feeling was wearing off, and the dwarf's words were starting to hurt him. Again. "You have no use whatsoever. You should've never considered coming with us. Never."
"Thorin," Balin murmured in the background, but he was ignored by the dwarf king.
"I will see to it that you are delivered back to your precious Shire as soon as possible," Thorin grunted out and walked past the trembling hobbit. Bilbo could feel tears piercing his eyes, and he wished he had never left that cavern. He wouldn't feel so unwanted then, so useless, so pained.
The cave grew silent after Thorin walked back to his bedroll, but Bilbo never moved. He tried to swallow the lump in his throat, and he looked up at the tunnel in the wall of the cave with longing.
He had never expected it would be gone.
Bilbo forgot about the pain right away, and ran to the spot where the tunnel's opening rose only a few minutes ago. Now it was all gone, and the hobbit ran his palm over the stone wall, like he was searching for a secret handle. He felt the despair building inside him with every passing second.
"It's not possible," he whispered, and pushed his ear to the wall. He wanted to hear the sound of those birds again, the waterfall, but all he could hear was the silent talks of the dwarves behind him.
"What's the matter, Mr. Baggins?" Kili came up to him, but Bilbo couldn't answer for quite some time. He was still desperately looking for the only way that led him to being content, to feel joy, and now, it simply vanished.
"You saw us coming out of that tunnel!" he turned around swiftly and blinked up at Kili. He could barely catch his breath. "You saw us!"
"What tunnel?" Fili asked from the background. Bilbo let out a helpless moan and turned to the wall again, hitting it with his fists.
"There was a tunnel here!" the hobbit was yelling now, attracting everyone's attention. "We've been in a different cavern, and I wanted you to see it, but now, the tunnel is gone!"
"I can see no tunnel, laddie," Balin shook his head with his hands on his hips. "Are you sure?"
Bilbo felt like crying. Everyone thought he was crazy, and now his last chance to feel happiness on this terrible journey was gone. And he couldn't bring it back, doesn't matter how badly he wanted to.
Maybe it wasn't such a bad idea if Thorin sent him back. But why did it hurt, then? Why did it suddenly hurt so much to think about leaving?
"The halfling speaks the truth," Thorin showed up next to Balin, then walked to the cave wall. Bilbo was looking at him with hope he's never felt before, that maybe, just maybe, Thorin could do something, because he was there. They were there together, and they saw. Maybe Thorin didn't feel what Bilbo felt, but the dwarf saw everything. He must have had an explanation. "There was a tunnel here."
His face reflected pure confusion and worry, and when he looked down at Bilbo, the hobbit realised that he was hoping too fast. Thorin didn't know more than him, and it planted fear in his heart.
"What in Durin's name is going on?" Dwalin muttered balefully and switched his gaze between his companions, but no one could come up with anything.
"Something is not right," Nori shook his head and started to back off in the direction of the cave mouth. "We should get going."
"In the middle of the night? Have you gone mad?" Ori asked with tangible disbelief and snorted. "I don't want to die by stone giants!"
"Then what should we do?"
"I won't stay here, you can be sure of tha'!"
"Arguing won't help our situation!"
"Neither disappearing passages, Fili!"
Bilbo didn't pay attention to the disputant company. All he could think about was that strange and beautiful place, and as he carefully looked up at Thorin, it seemed like he had the same thoughts in mind.
"I hate to interrupt, but what's that?"
Bofur's voice was drawing attention immediately, and everyone was staring at the direction he was pointing to. The air was stuck halfway in Bilbo's lungs as he realised what the toymaker was implying, and the sudden grumbling noise that came from under the ground didn't mean any good either.
Bofur was pointing to Sting, and the sword was shining in the bluest blue. It didn't need explanation.
"Grab your bags and get out of the cave, now!" Thorin yelled, and suddenly the whole company started to run around in the cave like a frightened hive.
Bilbo noticed the crack in the ground first, at the same spot where Thorin was meant to step, and as the earth disappeared from under their feet, the hobbit could pull back Thorin in the last moment. All of the other dwarves were falling into the endless pit with loud cries, but the relief that Bilbo felt was short lived. Thorin immediately wrested himself out of Bilbo's hold, and stared back at him with a frown. The hobbit's stomach dropped immediately.
"I don't need your help, hobbit," he bit out without any softness in his eyes. Bilbo felt sick from this amount of disgust. He knew the dwarf's opinion on him, but he still could not understand what turned Thorin against him like this. "It's your chance to go back to your Shire, and forget we have ever met."
The hobbit was frightened as he watched the dwarf king disappear in the pit, and he had to collect every ounce of willpower in his small body to fight back a panic attack. His skin started burning, more and more with every second, and he could barely see through his tears. He knew what was the right thing to do, but why would he do that if he was only a burden? If he had the chance to turn around and leave?
Just like earlier, he realised he didn't really have a choice, not even now.
He quickly picked up his bag and sword from the ground, and, with a great sigh, he jumped after the dwarves.