Bilbo the Wise, they called him. He was the dragon riddler who'd stolen the Arkenstone, the heart of the mountain, and used it in an attempt to broker peace between the dwarves of Erebor and the men and elves who would wage war upon them.
Bilbo the Brave, who'd faced down the great Thorin Oakenshield when the King Under the Mountain had unleashed his anger at the Arkenstone being stolen from under his very nose.
Bilbo the Determined, who'd been banished from Erebor but returned to save the king's life during his battle with Azog the Defiler.
Bilbo the Tragic, who'd disappeared during that same battle and maybe died of his wounds.
Gandalf the Grey had looked for him aided by all those members of Thorin Oakenshield's Company who could walk after the battle. When that search had found no sign of him, the wizard had travelled all the way to the Shire and back but Bilbo the wise, brave, determined, tragic hobbit had never been seen again.
King Thorin Oakenshield's anger still ran strong and deep against the hobbit. He banned all mention of his name in front of him and refused to lift the banishment against Bilbo. For, he said, he would not give Bilbo's ghost the idea he was welcome to walk the halls of Erebor.
There were other rumours, of course. Some said Bilbo had been spirited away by the elven healers and he lived, whole and healthy, in Mirkwood or Rivendell. Others said the eagles had carried him away to another land, to live there in peace and prosperity. Another rumour claimed the burglar had stolen the heart of Thorin Oakenshield along with the Arkenstone and the king's anger was an attempt to hide his pain.
But, as the seasons turned into years, all those in the mountain agreed Bilbo Baggins would never be seen in Erebor again.
Bilbo snorted behind his fake beard when he heard the rumours. Bilbo the idiot, he thought, who hadn't realised Thorin was too far gone with gold sickness to recognise good sense when he saw it. Bilbo the foolhardy, who'd almost got himself killed by Azog while saving Thorin's ungrateful behind. (Not that he regretted it, not even at his angriest.) And, lastly, Bilbo the pathetic, who couldn't bear to leave Erebor and never see his friends again.
Not that they saw him. No. No one would recognise Bilbo Baggins, gentlehobbit of the Shire behind the facade of Billi the kitchen skivvy. Poor brave little Billi who'd fought in the Battle of the Five Armies and received a head injury that destroyed his memory of Khuzdul.
Most of those who worked with him shook their heads with pity behind his back. It was plain he was a smart little dwarf, hampered as he was by his injury. Surely he'd been meant for some greater position than kitchen skivvy? But Billi seemed to have no ambition at all and he shied away from any attention. It was kinder to leave him be and let him work at his own pace. He was an asset in the kitchen he worked in, at any rate. Gerlun, the head cook there, appreciated Billi's quick work and smart little ways.
"You mark my words, that little dwarf will surprise us all."
"Go on, Gerlun!" one of his helpers said, amused. "He'll be cooking for the king next week!"
"When he's ready, Ral, when he's ready. He's made for better things than being a kitchen skivvy in the miners' food halls."
Bilbo had no intention of being promoted to any other kitchens. The miners' food halls served the miners who worked from early morning to early evening. By six of the clock, most of them were going home to eat with their families, so Bilbo could count on being free from late afternoon on most days. No one asked what he did after he left the kitchens. They would have been vastly surprised to find their shy little Billi was hurrying up to the King's Court to see the king sort the problems placed before him. Balin and Dwalin were nearly always in attendance, Ori too, and frequently Bilbo was rewarded with a glimpse of Fíli or Kíli as well.
It warmed Bilbo's heart to see them all. Balin was just as calm and steadfast as ever in his position as King's Counsel, while Dwalin looked even burlier than before as Captain of the King's Guards; Bilbo pitied anyone who stood in his way. Ori seemed to have grown in confidence as he was now the King's Scribe, though he was still wearing his knitted mittens, of course. Fíli was every inch the king's heir while in court, though Bilbo caught sight of his fun-loving side now and then in the looks he cast Kíli. Kíli was maybe the most changed as he seemed to have grown up all of a sudden, what with the battle and his courtship of Tauriel.
Bilbo's gaze lingered most on Thorin, though Bilbo made sure to avoid staring, keeping his looks brief. Thorin was, in Bilbo's slightly biased opinion, majestic and serene, dispensing justice calmly and fairly. It was hard to equate the polished King Under the Mountain with the dwarf on the road to Erebor who had shared quiet, gentle smiles with Bilbo and talked so hopefully of the future they would share together once the mountain was reclaimed.
There were days, though, when Bilbo couldn't bring himself to go near the court. If only things could have been different between him and Thorin. If only all that planned future hadn't been destroyed in a single disastrous moment on the rampart over Erebor's gates.
On the days when he didn't go to court, Bilbo would wait near the marketplace to see Bofur or Bifur leave their toy shop, Glóin leave his counting house, or Dori leave his tailor's shop. If Bilbo wanted to see Óin, he'd loiter near the Healing Halls, while Bombur could be found in the Royal kitchens.
The only one Bilbo didn't get to see often was Nori. Nori was working for the king, but he was as elusive as an eel with no set working hours. The few times Bilbo managed to spot him was when Nori accompanied his brothers to a monthly dinner meeting of the Company. It hurt so badly, being locked out when all the Company was together, that Bilbo hurried back to his own room on those nights and spent the evening trying to distract himself from his grief at being so near and yet so far from them all.
Those nights were the hardest of all to bear. More than once, Bilbo had sat in his room, staring at the courtship bead and clasp Thorin had given him in Laketown, and wondered what he was doing. Maybe staying had been a mistake. But now, he had nowhere to go. Bilbo Baggins was dead and Billi the skivvy could never reclaim that life.
Bilbo sighed and kept the bead and clasp safely in his pocket. He'd made his choice and it was too late to turn back. Regret was a waste of time.
Time passed as it always does, and Bilbo felt more secure in his position. It was true he he couldn't hide the size of the boots he wore every time he set foot outside his tiny quarters, but, aside from the odd jesting comment about how he should be taller than the king with feet that size, no one paid any attention at all to his feet or noticed he was just the right height for a hobbit.
So it came as quite a shock to Bilbo when someone showed they knew exactly who he was.
It was one of those days when Bilbo had lurked around the edges of the marketplace and watched with fond affection as Dori locked up the doors of his very successful tailor shop and hurried off home to the quarters where he lived with his brothers. Dori was looking just as prosperous as any dwarf member of the Company. He was finely dressed in the latest fashions - as became his status as tailor - with his hair and beard neatly braided and adorned with gems and gold beads.
Bilbo watched him vanish into the crowd, then took precisely three steps before he found himself yanked behind a tall pillar with a large hand over his mouth and an ominously strong arm around his waist.
His first thought, as he struggled and kicked, was that he was being mugged. He realised he was wrong when a familiar voice murmured in his ear, "It's me, Nori."
Bilbo's jaw dropped as the arms loosened enough for him to swing around. "Nori!"
To his surprise, Nori wasn't wearing his hair in its usual eye-catching star style. Instead, it looked dull and darker than usual with a single braid on one side. Even his beard was braided in a different style.
Nori's grin was still the same though.
"Why are you dressed like this?" Bilbo asked, though he wouldn't have been surprised if Nori had asked him that.
"Wait until we're in safer surroundings," Nori said quietly. He took Bilbo's wrist in a firm grasp and led him off through the crowd.
It wasn't long before Bilbo realised they were heading for the lower level quarters. There were hundreds of secure little apartments - Bilbo's included - down there where everyone could be assured of a safe place to live no matter how poor they and their family were.
Nori unlocked a plain door and ushered Bilbo in, then locked it behind them. As soon as the key was back in Nori's pocket, Bilbo found himself being hugged tightly.
Bilbo wasn't used to physical affection any more. He'd been on his own for so long now but, after a few confused moments, the warmth of it sank in and he buried his face in Nori's shoulder and wrapped his arms around Nori's waist.
After a while, Nori said, "You've been here all this time?"
Bilbo nodded and pulled free, then used his sleeve to dry his eyes.
Nori steered him to a chair and sat him down. "Where are you working?"
"Level forty-seven miners' food halls. I'm a skivvy called Billi." Bilbo shrugged at the silent unhappy look this got him. "It's a job. I had to pretend I couldn't remember Khuzdul because of a head injury."
The annoyed look deepened as Nori rubbed a thumb over the scar on Bilbo's forehead.
"How did you recognise me?"
Nori grinned suddenly. "Your back."
"Your back. All those months of walking behind you paid off. I couldn't recognise your walk or that frizzy mess that used to be your hair, but I couldn't miss your back." He leaned in suddenly. "Your beard's not bad. Horse hair?"
Bilbo nodded. "No one else..."
"I've got a few horse hair pieces myself. Wait here." He went off into another room and came back a surprisingly short time later looking his usual self. "Put this on."
Bilbo caught the coat Nori tossed him. It was far better quality than his own. "Why?"
"We're going to the upper level quarters. Billi the kitchen skivvy would look out of place up there."
"I can't go up there! I'm still banished, remember? If Thorin finds out -"
"He won't. But if you think I can tell Dori and Ori you're here and have them not come running to find you, think again. It'll be safer if I take you to them." Nori laid his hands on Bilbo's shoulders and looked him straight in the eye. "Don't ask me not to tell them. You have no idea how much we've grieved for you. I can't leave them with that burden now it's off my shoulders."
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to hurt anyone."
Nori smiled. "I understand and so will they. Come on." He led Bilbo to another door and produced another key, then he unlocked the door and ushered Bilbo out into a quiet, more opulent looking, corridor.
It didn't take Bilbo long to figure out how it worked. Drab, down at heel Nori went in one door and prosperous Nori, a member of Thorin Oakenshield's Company, left by another. No wonder Bilbo had never been able to keep track of him.
Nori adopted his usual jaunty walk and it didn't take long for them to reach the upper levels where the wealthy dwarves lived. Nori's home, Bilbo realised with a trickle of unease, was on the very next level to the Royal quarters.
"Relax," Nori told him. "Thorin's busy in court until after this time and the princes are usually busy and don't return until much later. We're more likely to run into the rest of the Company, and they'd keep your secret, right enough."
"Do you all live up here?"
Nori gave a nod. "Thorin reckons we've earned it. Balin and Dwalin live on the same floor as Thorin, the princes, and Princess Dís. The rest of us are on this floor. Rumour has it," he continued, with a sidelong glance, "that there's a suite of rooms kept empty up there for the missing member of the Company. Thorin has the only key for it."
Bilbo rolled his eyes at Nori. "Rumour has it that missing member is living with the elves and we know how true that is."
Nori shrugged. "Fair enough. Come on in and see my brothers."
He opened a door as he spoke and Bilbo stepped into a beautifully decorated apartment that showed Dori's good taste alongside Ori's love of books.
"You're early," Dori's voice called. He stepped into view. "Is everything -" For a moment, he stared, a puzzled look on his face, then he gasped, "Bilbo!"
For the second time that day, Bilbo found himself being hugged tightly. Dori didn't say a word but Bilbo could hear the quiet gulps that told him kindhearted Dori was fighting tears.
"I'm sorry," Bilbo said, patting his back. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to hurt you."
Dori put him down at last, and sniffed and nodded. "You're too thin!" he scolded. "Where are you living?"
"He's working as a skivvy called Billi in the miners' food halls on level forty-seven," Nori told him, putting a tea tray on the table. As Dori gave Bilbo an appalled look, Nori added, "The untreated head injury he got in the battle gave him an excuse to pretend he didn't know Khuzdul."
Bilbo sighed. "You snitch."
Nori put his nose in the air. "We call them Informants in the trade."
"An untreated head injury could have been serious!" Dori snapped.
"I'm alright, Dori. Truly," Bilbo assured him. "It's been two years."
Dori drew himself up to his full height. "We're all aware of exactly how long it's been. You sit yourself down and eat some cake. You'll be staying here tonight."
Bilbo opened his mouth to argue, but Nori spoke over him. "Good luck making it out through the door."
Ori's arrival proved to be another ordeal for Bilbo though he didn't get another scolding. Seeing Ori try to hide his tears as they ate made Bilbo feel awful. Finally, he laid his hand on Ori's arm.
"I didn't want to risk you all getting into trouble for me," he explained.
Ori nodded. "You couldn't really have done anything else. I'm just so glad you're not dead or..." He scrunched up his face. "I always thought you might have been carried off by an orc."
Horrified exclamations from his brothers showed this was the first they were hearing of it.
"Well, you were wearing mithril!" Ori blew his nose loudly.
Dori stood up abruptly and started collecting the plates. "That's what comes of reading those adventure books of yours! If you'd asked anyone in the Company, they'd have assured you that the orcs were too busy dying or running away after the battle to worry what one little hobbit was wearing. And, talking of wearing, Bilbo, get those boots off your feet; you must be in agony."
Bilbo pulled a face. "I'm more comfortable without them, I admit." He untied the laces and gave a hiss of pain as he pulled the boots off.
"Oh, Bilbo!" Ori's eyes still had a suspiciously shiny look to them.
"It's fine, Ori." Bilbo wriggled his toes. "They feel a lot better now."
Ori's face took on a disapproving look that was a copy of the one his brothers had.
"Nori, you can help me with the drying up," Dori ordered. "Ori, pour Bilbo another cup of -"
There was a knock at the door and the four froze.
"Bilbo, into Ori's bedroom!" Nori ordered, being the first to come back to life. "Dori, Ori, hide the plates and cups. Bilbo, your boots, your boots!"
Bilbo grabbed his boots and fled. After about a minute, he heard a familiar voice.
"- weren't going to answer your door," Bofur said.
"We were washing up," Nori said.
"It takes three of you to do the washing up? Have I interrupted something? I can go, if you want."
Bilbo listened to the silence. After a minute, he opened the bedroom door.
Bofur's head tilted to one side slightly as he looked Bilbo up and down, then, "Bilbo! Mahal, it's Bilbo!" and Bofur jumped at him. "When did you find him? How did you find him? Where have you been?" Bofur demanded. He didn't pause for a breath or let go of Bilbo while asking.
"Today," Dori said. "Nori brought him home."
"He's been working as a skivvy in one of the Miners' Halls kitchens," Nori added.
"And no one noticed you have awfully funny feet for a dwarf?" Bofur asked, rubbing Bilbo's back.
"He's been wearing boots!" Ori said, as though that was the worst part of all.
"Boots? That can't be comfortable!"
Bilbo managed to step back. "I'm fine. It's fine! At least this way I could see you all."
"See?" Bofur gave him a closer look. "Have we walked past you and not even noticed?"
"I tried to avoid letting you see my face," Bilbo explained.
"I only recognised him from his back," Nori said, sounding rather disgusted.
"Well, the face fur helps," Bofur said, tugging at Bilbo's beard. It started to come away and he cringed and hurriedly let go. "Uh, is that supposed to happen?"
Naturally, Bofur declared that he would have to tell his brother and cousin. Bilbo buried his face in his hands. He loved each and every one of the dwarves in the Company but the more who knew he was living in Erebor, the more chance there was of Thorin finding out. Fortunately, all those present agreed that Balin, Dwalin, Fíli, and Kíli would be put in too awkward a position if they were made aware of Bilbo being there, so they were absolutely not to be told.
That left the question of Glóin and Óin. Bilbo looked at the others. He'd known the Company would believe him dead but he hadn't realised just how much they'd grieve for him.
"I should leave."
Bilbo didn't realize he'd said it aloud until he saw the annoyed looks he was getting.
"You're staying the night and that's final," Dori said, flatly.
"I mean Erebor." As the others exclaimed, he spoke over them. "I shouldn't have stayed! I don't know what I was thinking!"
"You had a head injury," Nori pointed out, quite unnecessarily. "You probably weren't thinking."
"That was two years ago. I let you grieve for two years. And now I don't want you to tell anyone else they can stop grieving because I was never dead in the first place!"
"Why did you stay in the first place?" Bofur asked, far more gently than Bilbo felt he deserved.
"Because I couldn't bear to leave and never see you again! Any of you." Bilbo slumped in his chair, his anger dissipating. "I was selfish."
"You should never have been banished," Ori said.
"Ori!" Dori's tone was sharp.
"And now you're arguing because of me," Bilbo put in, before Dori could reply.
"The fact remains you're here now," Nori said. "Arguing about what you should have done or whose fault it is, is a waste of time."
"Aye," Bofur agreed. "What's done is done. It's the future that matters. First, do we tell Glóin and Óin?"
Bilbo nodded. "Tell them." He held up a finger. "But, if I'm caught, you all deny knowing I was here."
The others looked at him, then at each other.
Finally, Bofur said, "I was hoping you'd come and work with me in the back of the shop."
"Or in my tailor's shop!" Dori looked unhappy. "You can't stay working as a skivvy!"
"You don't get it!" Bilbo stood up and leaned forward. "I'm a traitor! If anyone finds out you know, you'll be traitors too. You could lose everything!"
"He's right," Nori chimed in, an unexpected note of support. "I know we want Bilbo living up here, working with us, not being a skivvy and working on level forty-seven. The truth is, we can't. Bilbo's stayed safe because he's never drawn attention to himself. In your shops, he's far more likely to run into one of the others. They might not notice a dwarf the height of a hobbit if they see him passing by, but a dwarf the right height for Bilbo standing next to one of us? They'll take more than a second look."
Bilbo looked around at the unhappy dwarves and decided to get all the bad news over at once. "It also means I won't be able to visit you often - here, or in your shops - because of the risk."
"Don't be so hasty," Dori answered, a gleam in his eye. "I've got a few ideas." He refused to say more than that, instead going off to make a fresh pot of tea.
Nori hummed thoughtfully. "I'll get a spare key made for that apartment of mine. You can use it as a bolthole and as a way to leave us notes."
"You've been in Nori's spy quarters?" Ori asked eagerly. "What are they like?"
Bilbo thought about it. "They're ordinary. Very, very ordinary. They could belong to anyone."
"That's the point," Nori said, a satisfied smile on his face.
"Anyway," Bofur said, giving Bilbo a nudge. "Tell us what you've been up to. Bifur and Bombur will want to know."
By the time Bilbo went to bed, he felt all talked out. He hadn't talked much to anyone since he'd taken on the persona of Billi. He felt as though the last two or more years had been a dream and tomorrow he'd wake up in Laketown with Thorin Oakenshield and his Company of dwarves en route to reclaim Erebor.
"Go to sleep," Ori murmured beside him.
Bilbo smiled. No, he wasn't dreaming. He was sharing Ori's bed and keeping him awake too. Determined to avoid inconveniencing poor Ori any further, Bilbo shut his eyes and drifted off.
The next morning was something of a rush, as Bilbo's shift started earlier than anyone else's. Nevertheless, Dori was up to make him breakfast, Nori was ready to escort Bilbo back to the lower levels, and Ori got up to see them off.
Dori and Ori hugged Bilbo as tightly as they could, resting their forehead against his in turn.
"You'll be here tonight to spend the weekend with us," Dori told him. "Don't make us come look for you."
"I'll be here," Bilbo promised. At least his ring could help him reach their front door without being seen.
Nori escorted him back to the rooms with two front doors. "Meet me here once you've finished work. I'll have the spare keys ready for you."
Bilbo took off the expensive overcoat. "I'm not sure what time I'll be out. It depends on when my work finishes."
"Just come back here. Now I know what to look out for, I'll find you."
"You look like you've come into a fortune, Billi."
Bilbo looked up from the potatoes he was peeling.
Gerlun the cook smiled at him, his round face beaming. "I've never seen you look so happy."
It was a bit of a shock to know he'd given himself away so easily. Bilbo searched for a lie that would suffice. "I met a distant cousin of mine," he said in his far from perfect Khuzdal. "I didn't think he'd remember me but he did."
"Oh, now that's nice. Everyone should have family. Just you and him, is it?"
Bilbo shook his head. "He has two brothers."
"Even better! Are you seeing them soon?"
"Tonight." Bilbo couldn't help but smile. For once, he had plans.
"I'll make sure you get out in time then. We don't want you missing out."
Bilbo was reminded of why he'd become so very, very fond of thirteen dwarves; their kindness knew no end. "Thank you, Gerlun."
The news soon spread, that their 'little Billi' had found some kin and Bilbo found himself blinking back tears at their pleasure in his news. He thought to himself that anyone who didn't like dwarves simply didn't know them well enough.
Gerlun was as good as his word and Bilbo had plenty of time to make his way to Nori's quarters. Bilbo kept a lookout on his way there, thinking surely he'd see Nori before Nori saw him. But, no. Bilbo hadn't taken three steps along the corridor leading to the Nori's quarters before Nori was at his side.
"I didn't see you coming."
Nori grinned at Bilbo's surprise. "You're not supposed to."
Bilbo had another surprise when they reached Nori's secret quarters and Nori handed him two overcoats and told him to try them on. One of them was remarkably similar in looks to Bilbo's jacket - a plain, drab affair well suited to Billi the kitchen skivvy - but with some padding built in around the shoulders and down his back. Once it was on, Nori turned him around and Bilbo peered at him over his shoulder.
"That looks better. I wouldn't recognise your back now."
Bilbo laughed as he turned again. "Dori made these to disguise my back?"
Nori gave him a stern look. "Anyone can wear a fake beard but it takes a genius to disguise his back. Those boots you wear change your walk but I spotted you a mile off because of your back. These overcoats will take care of that."
Bilbo's gaze went to the other coat. The one he was wearing was nothing in comparison. Even Bilbo the well-dressed gentle hobbit of the Shire would have coveted such a coat. Every inch of it - from the material to the gold embroidery and gems - proclaimed the high status and good taste of its owner.
"Beautiful, isn't it?" Nori's hands were almost reverent as he picked it up. "I don't say this often enough but my brother's a genius."
"Isn't it a bit too...opulent?" Bilbo put it on anyway, even as he asked.
Nori shook his head. "Trust me, it'll blend in upstairs. "No one will doubt your right to be in the upper levels, though they might want the name of your tailor."
To Bilbo's surprise, Bifur, Bombur, Glóin, and Óin were waiting for him in the Ri brothers' quarters. The reunion was bittersweet, and Bilbo grieved all over again for the sorrow he'd caused them. Not one word of reproach passed their lips, however they might have been feeling privately. Instead, it was a celebration that their burglar was alive and well, even if they could never acknowledge him in public.
"But what have you been doing, laddie? Surely you're not just peeling potatoes in a miners' hall kitchen?" Glóin asked.
"Of course not!" Bilbo exclaimed. He puffed up his chest. "I get to peel carrots and turnips too!"
Bofur shook his head. "No wonder you've been too busy for us. Thank Mahal Nori found you before strawberry season or we'd still be waiting to see you."
With so many of his friends back in his life, Bilbo found himself able to spend more time in the King's Court watching those of the Company he could never approach. Seeing Thorin was always a little painful. The king was healed, whole and healthy despite the terrible wounds he'd suffered during the Battle of the Five Armies. Even the scars that were visible had faded to thin white lines. To Bilbo's eyes, Thorin was as handsome as ever, a perfect unattainable warrior king to be sighed over from afar. Despite the grief and sorrow that Bilbo still felt at losing Thorin's love and friendship, Bilbo felt more at peace than he could have imagined.
Until the day he was at the back of the court, gazing wistfully at the dwarf who'd broken his heart so thoroughly, and he realised Thorin was looking directly back at him.
For a moment, Bilbo froze, his heart hammering, then the heads of the dwarves in front of him began to turn as if to see what Thorin was staring at, and Bilbo hurriedly stepped out of sight behind a nearby dwarf.
There was silence, then Thorin's voice resumed declaring his judgement on the matter at hand.
Bilbo slid through the crowd to another gap and risked a quick peep at the dais where Thorin's throne was situated. Thorin's face was calm but his gaze moved restlessly as if searching the crowd. More worryingly, there was no sign of Fili or Dwalin who had certainly been standing in their usual places beforehand. Bilbo wasted no time. So far as he could tell, the guards had not yet been alerted. He casually made his way to the wide doors at the back and left.
Once away from the doors, Bilbo ducked behind a large pillar and put his ring on. The world changed into shades of grey and Bilbo leaned back against the pillar, his chest heaving as if he'd recently outrun a pack of wargs.
Thorin couldn't have recognised him, surely? Bilbo barely recognised himself in a mirror, so how Thorin could have seen beyond the fake beard and frizzy mop of hair was beyond Bilbo. It was utterly impossible and had to be a coincidence.
With his breath back under his control, Bilbo peered around the pillar towards the doors. Dwalin and Fili were there, their heads close together as if discussing something. Discussing him? Bilbo had to know.
He crept towards them, careful to make no sound that might alert them to the eavesdropper in their midst.
"...can't have been him," he caught Fili say. "How could it be? It's impossible!"
What was impossible was the way Dwalin's eyes suddenly narrowed, as if he could sense that Bilbo was there. His hand shot out, missing Bilbo by a hairsbreadth, and Bilbo stumbled back, his boots clattering on the floor.
"He's here!" Dwalin shouted.
Dwalin's swinging arms were joined by Fili's, the pair of them looking as though they were playing a game of Blind Man's Bluff. But it was no game.
Bilbo fled. He could hear Dwalin roaring behind him but the words were lost to him until he realised every dwarf around him had swung out of his way and had backed themselves up against the walls. It gave him a clear field to run...and gave anyone chasing him a clear field to track the sounds of the boots he was wearing.
Stopping was impossible. Bilbo continued running, miserably aware that he was giving himself away with every step. The front gates were ahead of him but the guards barred the way. With a distant sense of inevitability, Bilbo headed up the stairs that led to the rampart over the gates.
It seemed oddly peaceful up there, once Bilbo stopped running and took off his ring. He braced his hands on his knees and hauled in deep breaths of cold air until he felt calmer, then he straightened and gazed out at a view which had changed immeasurably since the last time he'd been there.
So, this would be how it ended. Bilbo sighed and pulled the fake beard from his face and used his hands to scrub away the glue. Then he took off his boots and discarded the padded coat. At least he was himself again.
Familiar footsteps made him turn and Thorin came into view.
"Bilbo." Thorin's voice showed no sign of the deep hatred and anger he had to be feeling.
There was no Gandalf to save the day - and his burglar - this time. Bilbo wondered if he'd get a trial, a chance to plead his case, then Thorin strode forward.
Bilbo just had time to think, "No trial, then," before Thorin snatched him up into a tight embrace and kissed him.
Well, that was better than being flung from the rampart.
Bilbo returned the embrace and kissing as enthusiastically as his confusion allowed. Memories flooded back. The touch of Thorin's lips, the scent of his skin, the strength in his arms as he held Bilbo in place against the mountain wall... He'd tried so hard to forget them and the pleasure they'd given him.
"You had a beard," Thorin murmured in his ear before nipping at the lobe with his teeth.
"It was fake," Bilbo managed. "You're kissing me."
Thorin gave a hum of agreement and seemed to be trying to get a hand under Bilbo's tunic. He pulled back slightly and tilted his head to look. "How many tunics are you wearing?"
"Three. I'm in disguise." There was a pause as they looked at each other, then Bilbo added softly, "I'm still banished by you."
Thorin sighed and rested his forehead against Bilbo's. "It was the only link I had left to you. I couldn't give it up. I hoped, contrary creature that you are, you'd storm the mountain and berate me in my own throne room for daring to bar you from Erebor." He gave a huff of laughter and straightened, keeping his hands on Bilbo's shoulders. "You disguising yourself as a dwarf and parading yourself under my very nose should have been my second guess."
"I wouldn't call it parading exactly."
"Parading," Thorin insisted. "You impudent hobbit." There was no anger, instead a fond amusement laced his tone. He kissed Bilbo again, a gentle brush of his lips this time. "I promised to court you."
He had. That night in Laketown amid the celebrations. They'd snuck away from everyone else and Thorin had asked Bilbo to accept his offer. If all went well, he'd said, he was offering Bilbo a place as his consort. As it stood just then, he was a wandering blacksmith with nothing but his abilities to his name. Bilbo had said that was more than enough for him - he'd wanted Thorin the dwarf, whether he was a king or a blacksmith.
Bilbo felt in his pocket. Beside the ring was the bead and clasp Thorin had placed in his hair back then. They'd lain beside Bilbo's ear - a promise for later. He'd always been surprised Thorin hadn't ripped the bead and braid out, but thought maybe his anger was too great at the time.
Thorin took them as Bilbo held them out. "Will you take me as I am, Bilbo Baggins? A fool of a dwarf who couldn't see the treasure in front of him and almost lost that treasure through stupid pride?"
"I'll take you as you are, Thorin Oakenshield." Bilbo closed his hand tightly around Thorin's, almost unable to speak with the happiness that filled him. "An honourable dwarf who did right by his people and who stole my heart with his singing."
"Ghivashel, you are too kind to me." Thorin's mouth twitched into a smile as he began to braid a lock of Bilbo's hair. "I will take advantage of your generosity and bind you to me before you can escape me again."
"You'll have to lift the banishment," Bilbo pointed out. "Or Dwalin will have to throw me through the front gates."
Thorin's smile widened. "Balin will have made the announcement by now." He tugged Bilbo towards the stairs. "Come. I think there are others who would like to know you are whole and healthy."
Bilbo tugged back. "About that. Are you likely to be angry if you discover others in the Company knew I was here?"
Thorin sighed as he stopped and turned. "At least tell me they have not known these two years or more?"
"No, no!" Bilbo assured him. "A month at most. Before then, they thought I was dead."
"I cannot blame them for keeping it secret. I refused to speak of you to anyone." His mouth twitched. "Either they saw through me today or they're checking the gates for your body."
"You're not funny, Thorin Oakenshield." Bilbo sniffed disdainfully. "Did I say I would marry you? I may change my mind."
"You cannot. You have accepted my bead and braid and I will not take them back."
"Can I really not break off our engagement?" Bilbo asked, curious if this was a piece of dwarf culture he'd missed. "Or are you abusing your power as king?"
"I'm abusing my power," Thorin admitted. Quite cheerfully too, in Bilbo's opinion.
"Are you supposed to admit that?"
"Probably not. I'm hoping you'll extend your generosity into not testifying against me."
Bilbo grinned and tugged at Thorin's braids. "You'll have to be very, very nice to me then."
"Have you two not finished making up yet?" Dwalin demanded from the stairs. He made his way towards them and pushed Thorin to one side in order to give Bilbo the gentlest of headbutts. "You're looking remarkably healthy for a dead burglar." His hands tightened briefly on Bilbo's shoulders. "Marry him quickly. He's been moping himself into the grave for the past two years."
Bilbo smiled. "I think that could be arranged."
Arranged it was. While Bilbo would have been happy with a small ceremony involving only the Company, Gandalf, and the Princess Dís, as soon as word had spread that Bilbo the King's Saviour had been found alive and unharmed, the entire mountain of dwarves had insisted on heralding him and celebrating the King's marriage in style.
Bilbo almost wished they'd snuck off to the Iron Hills and got married anonymously as a blacksmith and a kitchen skivvy instead.
However, the ceremonies were finally over, the public celebrations were continuing without the King and Consort who'd retired to their private rooms, and Fíli and Kíli had been booted out the door before they could sabotage Thorin's bed.
"My nephews." Thorin gave a sigh as Dwalin hauled them off down the corridor.
"They'll be sober and sorry in the morning," Bilbo pointed out, as he started divesting himself of his ceremonial robes. Thorin didn't answer and Bilbo looked up to find Thorin watching him, a smile upon his face. "What?"
Thorin's smile widened. "We're married."
"I had noticed. I was there, remember?"
Thorin pulled him in close. "I was starting to think I should have eloped with you to the Iron Hills and got married in secret there."
"Dís would have had your beard, although I was thinking the same thing." Bilbo gazed at the dwarf for whom he'd sacrificed everything in his life and found he regretted nothing. Even his two years of grieving on level forty-seven were nothing now he was here in Thorin's arms. "But we're here now."
"Here and married and even my nephews can't interrupt us."
"Don't say it too loud or they'll take it as a challenge. Do you know how long it's been since we were together?"
"Two years, four months, and five days," Thorin promptly replied.
Bilbo stared at him. "You were counting."
Thorin gave the smallest of shrugs. "I missed you."
Bilbo reached up and pulled Thorin down so they could rest their foreheads together. "I'll never leave you again."
"I'll hold you to that, 'Ibinê."
And that was how Bilbo, the wise, brave, determined, tragic hobbit, got his happy ending after all.