The feminine carving presiding over Bilbo’s bed mocked him. So did the elven lady in his room.
“Come now, Master Baggins. I have seen the rabbits in the field and Lindir in his cups, I assure you, there is nothing you could show me that would surprise or affront.” Then she gestured cheekily to the bath, expecting him to strip off simply because she told him to.
“And I assure you, my young miss, that I have absolutely no intention of exposing myself to anyone of the female persuasion.”
Laughing, Arwen said, “I am a daughter of the house of Elrond, Master Baggins. Compared to you, I am a matron at least.”
She was pretty enough, even beyond the beauty which was the lot of all elves. With hair like night and skin like starlight, she must be considered a jewel indeed by her father. “Perhaps so, Daughter of Elrond. Yet in you the blood of Luthien the Fair runs pure, and I cannot be the first mortal to look upon you and see spring after long winter.”
“Oh!” Her eyes, which seemed dark during distant conversation, were quite blue when they went wide. “You flatter me.”
“I speak only the truth, and the plain truth is that a small creature must always shy away from the eyes of the tall and the beautiful.”
“Then I shall avert my eyes,” she promised. “Even so, I would prefer to remain in the room should you experience any difficulty. I shall sit behind the dressing screen. Upon my word, I will not peek.”
Bilbo softened, perfectly aware that she did not deserve to have his ill temper vented in such a way. “Perhaps we could arrange the screen in front of the tub? Then you might still have access to the better part of the view and the room.”
So that was what they did. In fact, saying they did it together is too generous. Bilbo lifted no more than a tenth of the weight of the large, painted screen. However, he was able to prove his earlier point. Bathing himself was easy enough. Dressing thereafter stretched his healing stomach a little uncomfortably, but the hobbit managed in the end. Unfortunately, he had to make do with his fourth best waistcoat. He wanted to save the second best one for occasions, of course, and he’d left the very best at home.
The mustard yellow coat was still in Dori’s keeping. It would likely prove unsalvageable. Blood stains were difficult under the very best of circumstances, and a giant slash straight across the front was hardly the best of circumstances.
Even so, the fourth best waistcoat of Bilbo Baggins was nice enough for anyone. It was a lovely green tweed with brass buttons. Many people in Hobbiton and beyond would be extraordinarily happy to have such a waistcoat. He resolved not to be upset about the loss of the other. Bilbo’s luck was very good, and he would do well to remember as much.
He had, of course, a pair of golden cufflinks that would compliment the outfit nicely. Those, he did not wear. Those, he did not even look at.
“A small creature you may be, Master Baggins,” the elf said when he stepped out from behind the screen, “but you have a beauty of your own. Moreover, I think you know it.”
Then it was Bilbo’s turn to laugh, and tousle his curls just a bit more. “Well, when one has very few natural advantages, one learns to accessorize. Yet such things are better done in private, so that others think the results effortless.”
Arwen smiled. “Privacy among elves is not easily found.” Tilting her head gently to one side, she indicated the balcony. Willingly, Bilbo walked alongside her to look out into the valley. “Do you see that waterfall there? The third from the right?”
“Behind that waterfall there is a cave. Between the roar of the falls, the water to damp any scent, and the darkness of the cave, I believe it is the only place in Rivendell where one can be entirely unobserved. Anywhere else, your heartbeat will be audible to at least one elf.”
Bilbo laughed. “However did you discover such a place?”
“When one’s father sees even the future, a child may long for privacy just as you do. I understand the chafe of constant observation, my friend, better than you think. But in a cave such as that one, you will see neither the stars nor your own beloved companions. Better to walk in the garden, to see and be seen.”
“Much better, I should think,” Bilbo agreed. “And the observation of elves is no hardship, when they are as kind and lovely as you, my lady.” Playing the galant, he offered her his arm with a flourish. Graciously accepting it, Arwen led him out on a tour of the gardens the hobbit most wanted to see. They were stunning: all that he could dream and more.
But the waterfall did not leave his mind.
Several days later, when he finally worked up the courage, Bilbo asked Balin to deliver a note for him.
Good morning! I hope you are keeping well. My own recovery is complete. I am healed. In fact, according to Lord Elrond, I am now as hale as I have ever been. Yet I still feel unwell.
Despite what you may believe, you are not the first lover to take his leave of me. Many fellows who have spent time with me have married over the years, or otherwise wished to change the nature of our friendship. Always before, I have been able to part with someone in an amiable, agreeable fashion. My dearest wish is that you and I can do the same.
For the sake of the good memories I have of our winter together—which I would not have spoiled by such an unhappy break—let us meet for a last goodbye. Please. If you have any fondness for the time we spent together, meet me at noon today beside the purple lilacs. I can bear an ending either way, but it would ease my heart greatly if we could speak in private one final time.
Yours in Hope,
Giving the note to Balin before breakfast ensured that Thorin would have plenty of time to read it and consider, but that did nothing for Bilbo’s nerves.
He had seen the dwarven prince several times at Elrond’s table in recent days, but Thorin sat in state at the Lord’s right hand. They spoke of great matters. The swords found in the troll cave were identified as Orcrist and Glamdring. Intelligence about the movements of goblin armies and the strength of Mount Gundabad was shared. Murmured hints about the ancient dark kingdom of Angmar were given. There was no place in such talk for a hobbit. Indeed, Thorin did not look at Bilbo once on those occasions. Not even coldly. It was as though Bilbo’s chair was empty, and Thorin’s eyes could not focus upon it.
Bilbo did not dare speak to him in public.
Even so, he hoped that a private farewell might ease the tension and allow them to part as friends. Kili was making noises about returning to the Shire sooner rather than later, now that Bilbo was up and about.
So Bilbo waited. Just after elevenses, the hobbit went to the grove of lilacs near the base of the waterfall with Arwen’s cave, and he waited. Noon came. The scent of lilacs mingled with the cool mist of the falls. Noon went. The gentle thrum of the waterfall was just distant enough not to blot out the birdsong entirely. Bilbo enjoyed the trill of a wood thrush chorus. Warm sun drifted from directly overhead to a distinctly westward angle. Bilbo waited. To leave would be to admit that Thorin cared nothing for his misery.
He was not going to be miserable. Bilbo resolved that he would not shed a single tear over Thorin Oakenshield, no matter what. For fifty years, he had been perfectly happy without Thorin. That would hold true for the next fifty years. It had to.
Suddenly, down the winding flagstone path, Bilbo heard the pounding of boots. Thorin burst around the corner and stopped abruptly, staring at the hobbit. Framed by lilac bushes, Thorin looked as handsome as ever, even with a reddened face and wild, windblown hair. Taking an obvious breath, the dwarf straightened his tunic and walked forward with more dignity.
“My apologies, Master Baggins. I have been awaiting you in another part of the garden, next to what I have now been informed, is lavender.”
Bilbo did not know if this was a polite excuse or if a person of Thorin’s obvious intelligence could really mistake a flower for a bush. In the end, it didn’t matter. “I quite understand,” Bilbo said. “Thank you for coming.”
Thorin bowed his head. “I have caused you pain. If it is within my power to ease that burden, I will.”
Bilbo swallowed. Then smiled. “Come. Let us talk in private.”
Raising an eyebrow, Thorin turned his head in an obvious manner, as though searching the bushes for hidden spies.
Bilbo rolled his eyes. “Elves do not need to be seen to see us, you know.”
The humor left Thorin’s face, but he agreed. “I fear we chance being overheard no matter where we speak. I know you must dislike the risk—”
“I do.” Bilbo had to cut Thorin off, before he lost his nerve. The dwarf allowed it. He also assented to Bilbo taking his arm and leading him to the falls, and along the narrow, rocky path behind the thundering water.
It was a considerably damper prospect than Bilbo envisioned. The misty spray was more of a summer shower than a thin fog, and it plastered his hair to his face, wetting his jacket. No natural light entered the cave, save that which came through the thick curtain of the waterfall. This was was enough for hobbit eyes to see, but it cast the world in a strange shade of blue. Thorin was in a similarly damp state, his silk shirt clinging to his body like tangled bedclothes on an early morning.
“Apologies,” Bilbo said, finding a dry handkerchief in his interior jacket pocket and offering it to Thorin. “I learned that privacy was possible here, and the prospect so excited me that I did not anticipate water being wet.”
As he used the little white cloth to dry his face, Thorin did not quite hide a smile. Then he returned Bilbo’s handkerchief. “An easy mistake to make.”
Just like that, Bilbo was at ease. Being teased in that warm, familiar manner made all the coldness of the past few days evaporate like snow in summer. “Who is the more mistaken? The eager leader or the one who trusts him blindly?”
Thorin’s laugh was low and huffy, as though he begrudged his own amusement. “I would trust you to the very edge of the world, Bilbo Baggins.”
“Oh, none of your flattery, Thorin.” Bilbo slapped his arm lightly. “We are here to speak honestly.”
Catching Bilbo in his arms, Thorin pulled him into a desperate kiss. Bilbo’s mouth opened immediately, and his hands found the old familiar places along the plane of Thorin’s back. The soaking wet clothing did nothing to cool their building ardor.
Eventually, Thorin broke the kiss. Tempting as it was to stretch up on his toes and claim another, Bilbo restrained himself. In compromise, he tangled his fingers in the dripping fabric, holding the dwarven heat close for as long as he could manage.
“I know what it means when you find a private place for us, Master Baggins,” Thorin said. “We are here to be together one last time.”
Naturally, Thorin would think that after all of their many assignations. Bilbo swallowed. In truth, a dark, damp cave was not at all where he wanted to be with Thorin. Not after that wonderful winter in a warm bed.
“I only want to talk,” Bilbo promised.
“Oh?” Thorin stepped backward, and Bilbo did not cling. Slowly, the dwarf’s hands went to the hem of his wet shirt, peeling it away from glistening skin to reveal that thick thatch of chest hair. In the green-blue light of the sun through the waterfall, Thorin looked like a visitor from fairy land. The prince of a magical kingdom that Bilbo should never have known. No one else of Bilbo’s acquaintance had such a downy coat. No other lover he would ever take would look at all similar. There could be no balm or palliative for missing Thorin. The shirt hit stone with a wet slap. Thorin raised an eyebrow.
“Is that so?”
Bilbo ached with desire. Just once more, one last time, he could have Thorin. All he had to do was reach out and accept the offer. “Yes,” the hobbit said, surprised by the strength in his own voice. “It is.”
Seeming to take this very hard, Thorin screwed his face up unhappily. “Then you are truly finished with me.”
“Come now,” Bilbo said sensibly. “You are the one who ended things, and in a rather cold way at that.”
“Why bring me here then?” Thorin demanded. “To punish me?”
“Of course not.” Bilbo looked at the blue sunlight filtering through the waterfall. “If you are truly so disappointed as that, I will oblige you. If you insist. Only you must promise to let me keep my own trousers on. A Baggins has his pride, after all.”
Perhaps it would be for the best to have Thorin insist, as so many lovers had done before him. Marring the memory of that perfect winter would let Bilbo carry on, knowing his prince to be imperfect. Thorin could have what he wanted, and Bilbo would know for certain that Thorin had only ever been interested in gratifying his own desires. The waterfall roared in his ears.
After a time, Bilbo turned to look at Thorin. Frozen in abject horror, the dwarf was only staring silently at him. Bilbo’s gaze seemed to break the spell. At once, Thorin snatched up his wet shirt from the ground, pulling it on. “No, not that,” he said. “Never that. Tell me, Bilbo please, for pity’s sake, tell me I have not—Has it not been, as you said on the night of our storytelling, only ever to please us both?”
A perfect prince to the last, then, Bilbo thought, and he felt very warm despite the chill, damp air. “It has,” the hobbit said. “You never do hurt me, Thorin. That was one of the things I liked best about you.”
“Obviously I do not hurt you!” Looking tremendously relieved, the dwarf passed a hand over his face which was once again damp after pulling on a wet shirt. “I love you!”
Bilbo sighed a little at that, but he allowed it to pass unremarked.
Calming, Thorin met Bilbo’s eyes steadily. “I understand now that I have misapprehended your intentions for meeting entirely. Pray, enlighten me as to your expectations on this occasion.”
“Just as I said in my letter,” Bilbo explained. “To part with warmth instead of coldness. It is possible, you know.” The hobbit shivered as the wet of his jacket began to soak through his shirt.
“A promise, then,” Thorin said softly. “To remember and to cherish the time we had together as the happiest of my life, to love and to honor you for all of my days. Will that ease the pain of our parting?”
Well did Bilbo know that such a promise fairly demanded an answer, so he laughed lightly. “Nothing like that! Only tell me that you enjoyed our time together, shake hands, and promise to write.”
“I did enjoy our time together,” Thorin said. “I love you.”
“Perhaps a little more honesty and a little less sentimentality,” Bilbo suggested, “now we are parted.”
“I do love you,” Thorin repeated. “I will never love again as I love you.”
As his skin pimpled with cold in the damp, inhospitable cave, Bilbo found he had no patience for the soft demand in Thorin’s voice. The dwarf clearly expected a response that the hobbit would not give. “I do wish you’d stop saying that.”
Thorin’s stillness took on a certain rigidity. “Why should I not speak the truth? This place is private. No ears save yours are here to risk offending.”
“Because it is not the truth,” Bilbo snapped, turning once more to face the blue waterfall.
“I am not a hobbit, to give of myself so freely without love.” Thorin’s voice was low. Dangerous.
Bilbo didn’t care. “You don’t know the first thing about a hobbit’s love.”
“Of that, I do not doubt.”
“You keep saying you love me.” Bilbo found growling at the hard stone floor much simpler than facing Thorin. “I understand that you mean something rather important when you say it, but you don’t mean love. You mean something dwarvish about being able to hear me when your blood is high in battle. Some intensity of feeling and desire that you have never experienced before. Infatuation, perhaps.”
“How dare you! How dare you tell me what I feel?” Thorin’s voice thundered through the cave, louder than the waterfall.
Bilbo stepped away, toward the path. Coming here was a mistake.
Turning toward the furious dwarf, Bilbo shouted right back at him. “Love is a choice, you fool! Love is a promise! Love is snowdrops in spring! It is adding someone new to the family! You can’t do any of that! You won’t give me any of that! So I do wish you would stop pretending.”
“I do choose you,” Thorin yelled. “You are my choice.” His voice softened. Broke. “The only choice I will ever make.”
Bilbo stopped. “Really?” Hope, like nothing the hobbit ever felt before, fluttered in his throat.
“Yes.” The anger drained from Thorin’s face until only sorrow remained. “I have chosen you. I would be with you, make a family with you, if I could.”
“Oh.” Bilbo blinked. He looked down at the dark stone of the cave floor. “You’re certain?”
“More certain than I have ever been of anything in my life.” Thorin’s voice was so firm. A promise.
“Well.” Bilbo grinned, looking up to meet Thorin’s steady gaze. “That changes everything, doesn’t it? Kili is old enough to look after himself in the day to day, and he’s not in constant danger as I always believed. Yes, yes I think we can manage something.”
Thorin’s eyes widened and the tension in his jaw released so much that Bilbo might even dare to call it slack.
The hobbit laughed joyfully. “Oh, it shan’t be easy, Thorin. Don’t think that for a minute! We can’t return to Bag End, of course. It will have to be Bree. They’re queerly understanding about that sort of thing. A very small smial, I think, on the funds I can justify diverting from Kili’s inheritance and Bag End. But I should rather have crusts with you than feasts without, Thorin! We won’t need much. You’re tremendously easy to feed, given that you only want three meals a day. Actually, I’ve a bit of notoriety in Bree as a writer already. A little book of poetry I wrote—the kind I could never publish in the Shire—has sold rather well there. I think I could make a living at it. Keep you in style. And we shall be invited to Bag End a few times a year, of course. Not that I intend to rely on my brother’s kindness. Far from it! But you know Kili. He’ll be very kind indeed. We’ll probably go home with considerably more venison than we can stomach.”
“Bilbo.” Thorin’s voice was little more than a whisper. The hobbit barely heard it over the rush of the waterfall.
“Yes? You have some amendment for the plan?” Bilbo went to Thorin, so happy that he had to wrap his arms around the dwarf’s soaking wet shirt at once, squeezing him playfully. “Anything you want, Thorin! Anything at all.”
Thorin’s arms did not come up to embrace the hobbit. It was like hugging a statue. “I meant in Erebor,” the dwarf whispered. “I would be with you in Erebor.”
“Ah.” Bilbo released him. He took a step backward. Then another. Erebor remained on the other side of the Misty Mountains, where Kili could not reach him. Even in the greatest need. Bilbo bit his lip. Happiness that filled the heart so completely was a very hard thing to let go of.
“Alright,” he said slowly. “Alright. If that’s—if that’s the only way. If we can see Kili safely back to the Shire first. If we can be sure that he is completely out of danger. I think—”
“Do not!” Thorin’s voice was a short, sharp bark. “Do not offer to give up your brother for me. Not when you have just offered to give up every other thing you value. Not when you have just learned I do not love you, for I will not give up a single one of my own comforts.”
In the throws of battle, Thorin’s face was always a picture of rage. A dark, red fury that set fire to his eyes and bared his teeth with frenzied snarls. Yes, Bilbo had seen Thorin’s anger many times. Yet he had never before seen a sneer of such loathing on that handsome face.
Only one answer was possible. Bilbo laughed.
“Of course I will not give up my brother! The very idea! You think too highly of yourself, Prince Thorin.” Turning, Bilbo wrung out the tails of his jacket. He was wholly unconcerned by the entire conversation.
Behind him, Thorin sank to sit upon the stone. He seemed to become one with the rocks of the cave in perfect stillness. Bilbo chattered aimlessly at the dwarf. After resolving not to shed a single tear, and talking was his only other option.
“Imagine thinking I would put myself wholly beyond Kili’s reach! I am not so selfish as that, you know. I promised my dying mother that I would always look after him. That is not the kind of promise one just forgets. And aren’t you lucky that I wouldn’t? What would you do if I actually did follow you all the way to Erebor? You would have to introduce me to your father, at the very least. Since my own father thought a broken nose was appropriate for any fellow trying to kiss me, I shudder to think what a king among dwarves would do to a hobbit who dared to defile his eldest son.”
“My father would love you,” Thorin said softly.
Daringly, Bilbo looked up at him. The dwarf remained expressionless, giving no sign that he’d broken his stillness. Bilbo smiled tentatively. “In Erebor, where the streets are paved with candy and it is never bedtime.”
Thorin rose like a striking snake, catching Bilbo’s hand. The hobbit allowed it. All around him, the damp cave felt quite cold. He longed for Thorin’s warmth, but they stood apart, joined only by their hands. “It is important to me that you understand the streets of Erebor are paved with stone.”
Bilbo looked away toward the falling water and the blue sunlight beyond. “I was only joking.”
“I know.” Thorin squeezed his hand. “Erebor is my beloved home. I do not know if it could be so for a hobbit. The halls are filled with golden light, but there are few places within the mountain where one can see the sun. We have no gardens, no flowers, and no birthday parties. Outside of the mountain, our winters are much colder and darker than the mild blankets of snow which drape the Shire. We drink ale instead of wine, and work more often than we make music. But we do make music, Bilbo. I would sing to you every single day. I would build a garden for you also, if you taught me how to fill it with roses. More than that, I would marry you.”
Bilbo stared at him, but Thorin’s face was steady and serious. No hint of a joke twitched his lips or sparkled in his eyes.
“You would not be the first husband to be consort to a dwarven king. I have not mentioned it before, because I thought you would not believe without seeing, but I will not have you give up your brother for anything less than this. Marriage is not restricted among dwarves as it seems to be among hobbits. Many dwarves have husbands. Many dams have wives. Many more devote themselves to crafting and make no marriage at all. If you come to Erebor, if you choose me, your slightest whim will command the entire mountain, for none there would naysay the one I love. I cannot forsake my duty to live secretively with you beside the borders of the Shire, but I would bring you to the light of my city as my husband.”
Bilbo could not stop staring at him. The words did not make sense. The implication was too impossible to be believed.
Thorin lifted their joined hands to his lips and brushed a kiss over Bilbo’s knuckles before releasing him. “Please consider it. Speak to Balin, if you doubt my veracity. Or even Lord Elrond, who will be familiar enough with the Line of Durin to tell you which of my forefathers had husbands instead of wives and thus relied on siblings to produce heirs.” Thorin bowed his head.
“Rightfully have you chastised me, Bilbo Baggins. My love is weak. I cannot choose it over my duty. But if yours is strong enough to overcome my failings, I will spend the rest of my life ensuring you have no cause to regret the choice.”
Then he turned, and left the cave by the narrow path behind the waterfall.
Bilbo did not know how long he stood alone in that dark, damp place. He could not seem to breathe. He could not seem to think. Finally, he managed to blink. Racing along the slippery stones, he almost fell twice. Scrambling up again each time, Bilbo made all hast and paid no mind to his safety. Emerging into the bright, sunny garden, Bilbo saw that Thorin was just rounding the curve of the path away from the lilac bushes, disappearing from view.
Stopping at once, the prince turned to look at the hobbit. His face was expressionless, but he tilted his head to one side, willing to listen.
“Indulge me for a moment?” Bilbo was breathless, and he certainly did not look his best after once more passing through the mists of the waterfall. Nevertheless, Thorin strode back toward him without hesitation.
“Thank you.” Bilbo took him by the arm and lead him to a bench well framed by the glorious purple lilacs. Beneath his hand, Thorin’s shirt was nearly dry. Obviously, the dwarf had spent some little time in the sunshine already, while Bilbo remained below. Still, he sat where Bilbo put him.
When Bilbo went about gathering a few of the best sprigs of lilac from the trees, Thorin even smiled. The hobbit had no ribbon for his hastily assembled bouquet, so he tied it up with his cravat, aware that this did no favors for his already disreputable appearance. Shaking his head fiercely, he ran a nervous hand through his damp curls.
“Right,” he said.
Thorin grinned at him openly, looking far too composed.
“Right,” Bilbo repeated.
The prince laughed aloud. Perhaps it would have been easier if the dwarf were not so unfairly handsome, but Bilbo thought not. In as much as the hobbit could think at all, he was aware that a certain amount of nerves must always be present in a situation such as his.
Kneeling on the flagstone path, Bilbo thrust the bouquet up at Thorin. His mouth opened, but no sound emerged.
“Thank you for the flowers, Bilbo.” Thorin’s smile was soft and fond.
Slowly, Thorin reached into his pocket and withdrew a small glass disk, rimmed in gold. Within it were two pressed snowdrops, still bound by a red ribbon. Bilbo recognized the ribbon. “I still know nothing of flowers,” Thorin said. “But I know now that love is snowdrops in spring.” The glass gleamed in the sunshine. “Can you tell me the meaning of lilacs, Bilbo?”
“You kept them.” Instead of discarding the gift Bilbo knew he could not possibly understand, Thorin had pressed the snowdrops as carefully as any maiden would have. More carefully, in fact, to use glass instead of an old book.
“In my foolish, dwarvish way,” Thorin admitted. “I knew they meant something to you—a sign of affection. So I cherished them hopelessly, thinking the whole of your heart unattainable.”
Bilbo grinned. Suddenly, speaking was the easiest thing in the world. “The whole of my heart is entirely yours, Thorin Oakenshield, and it always shall be. Will you join your family to mine in marriage, and share all parts of my life from this day forward?”
“I will,” Thorin said.
So Bilbo climbed slowly up from his knees to sit beside Thorin on the bench, claiming a chaste kiss in the warm sunlight. If he had come to it in a round-about fashion, it was every bit the proposal that a son of Bag End ought to make. An old, aching wound in his heart healed, vanishing as though the pain was never there at all.