“We’ll see more snow tonight.”
Bilbo jumped a little and turned towards the old Lakewoman who sat nearby repairing a slightly scorched fishing net. He hadn’t realised she was paying any attention to him, but he supposed he shouldn’t have been too surprised since all sorts of people noticed him more and more lately.
“Pardon?” he asked, glancing up at the sky. It didn’t look like snow to him.
“More snow,” the woman repeated without taking her eyes off her work. “You can smell it.”
“I smell nothing, but I’ll take your word for it,” Bilbo said politely.
“Very wise,” the woman said.
Bilbo made an affirmative noise and waited for her to continue, but apparently she had satisfied her need for conversation because she didn’t speak any further. After a while the silence grew uncomfortable, to him at least, so he bid her farewell and left as quickly as he could without seeming too rude. He hadn’t left all of his manners behind with his handkerchiefs, after all.
Damn it all.
Bilbo had been so delighted to see the first snowflakes fall. He shuddered involuntarily, thinking of what he remembered of the battle - Elves and Men and Dwarves dying and dead and hacked to pieces, and there was Thorin against a sea of black driving his sword through the Pale Orc, one triumphant moment before three jagged spears punched through his armour. Bilbo had seen death during the Quest, he had killed himself though he didn’t like thinking about it, but seeing how easily Thorin fell, and Fíli and Kíli not soon after him made it all too real all over again. Now even dead Orcs looked so terribly like dead people that it turned his stomach to remember the black blood on Sting that had been so hard to clean off.
It had been such a blessing; the thick white blanket of snow that had covered the signs of bloodshed and the Dragon’s fury, but now he was cold and wet and enough was enough.
Besides, Bilbo thought as he saw the Elvenking stride towards the Dwarven infirmary tents where he most certainly was less than welcome, snow made it much more difficult to slip to places unnoticed, with or without his magic Ring.
Which just meant he would have to be extra careful.
Thorin woke up in agony and begging for water, though the only sound he managed to get out was a weak dry croak.
His eyelids felt heavier than lead, but he didn’t need to see to know that Dwalin was by his side. A scarred hand brushing stray strands of hair from his face was as familiar to him as anything in this life, and Thorin had a feeling that Dwalin had been there since they’d brought him back from the battlefield. He had been there since before he was too young to remember, in truth.
Someone coaxed a copper straw between his teeth and trickled some water very slowly to his mouth. Swallowing took more of an effort than he would've liked, but Thorin would’ve sworn before the Maker himself that the lightly honeyed lukewarm water was the best thing he had tasted in his entire life. The straw was withdrawn and Thorin groaned in protest, forcing his eyes open.
He was in a tent that was dimly lit by cheap candles, and Bombur was there with Dwalin, holding a tiny water-dish and a straw. He looked even more shy than he usually did.
“I used to do this with Bifur,” Bombur mumbled almost too quietly to hear as he offered the straw to Thorin again. “He came back from the war with the axe in his head and all, he was in a bad way for over a year before he got better. I was too young to work so I learned to do this.”
“I did not doubt you,” Thorin rasped. “Thank you.”
Bombur blushed deep crimson and muttered that it was nothing. He had never liked attention drawn to himself for any reason, not even when it was gratitude well earned. Perhaps especially when it was well earned. He handed the water-dish hastily to Dwalin before slipping behind the curtain that separated Thorin’s bed from everyone else’s, moving on to help the other wounded.
“Fíli? Kíli?” Thorin asked after a while, dreading the answer.
He didn’t remember much of the battle after he had fallen on top Azog’s still-warm corpse, but he did remember Fíli collapsing next to him, still fighting with a spear-pierced thigh. He remembered being too weak to pick up a sword and help him, and after that nothing save for feverish nightmares.
“Alive,” Dwalin reassured him simply. “On the mend. Better off than you are.”
Thorin sighed in relief. The lads might have sworn to die in defense of their uncle and King, but he didn’t know what he would’ve done if he had lost them. Dís had sworn the same oath, and almost fulfilled it too in an Orc raid that had taken her leg and almost her life when she had been little more than a child, but Thorin didn’t know how he could’ve told his sister about the death of her children. Losing Frerin had been bad enough.
“King Thorin?” one of Dáin’s soldiers called from behind the curtain. “The Elvenking is here.”
“What does he want?” Thorin snarled.
“To see you. Shall I tell him to fuck off?”
“No,” Thorin said. If it was already known that he was awake he couldn’t appear weak, no matter what. “Send him in.”
Better to have Thranduil come to him than the other way around.
“Help me sit up,” he murmured to Dwalin who didn’t waste time hauling him to a somewhat upright position. Thorin nearly passed out from the sheer agony of moving even this much, but he gritted his teeth and endured it. He would not face the Elvenking lying down.
Thranduil glided in wearing ridiculously unwieldy robes and an unreadable expression. Dwalin stood up and his hand went to his axe. Thorin bared his teeth and hoped the gesture passed for a threat and only that. He wasn’t sure he could’ve spoken without revealing how much pain he was in.
Over a minute passed in hostile silence.
“I don’t know how you do it," Thranduil said eventually.
Thorin didn’t answer, save for quirking his eyebrow.
“I saw your nephews. They will live for now, but eventually they shall die. There is no saving them, nor any of you,” Thranduil continued, looking Thorin straight in the eye. “You’re born dying. Your children are dead before their first breath, and there is no hope of avoiding it, nothing you can do to keep them safe. I don’t know how you can bear it.”
It wasn’t an apology. It wasn’t even close to being one, yet Thorin felt like it was the only thing resembling an admission of fault that he would ever receive.
He might have laughed, almost. Old fury renewed burned through him fiercely enough to dull out the pain of his wounds until it was all he could do to stay still, stay quiet. He wanted nothing as much as to avenge himself on this elf who had abandoned his people to die because it wouldn't have made a difference.
How dare he?!
Thranduil seemed to know his thoughts, or at least he didn't expect a reply. He left as swiftly as he had come, leaving behind only a suspicious puddle of snow-melt dripping where no one had been standing.
“We know you’re here, master Burglar,” Dwalin grunted.
There was a profoundly irritated sigh that would’ve made Dori proud, and then Bilbo Baggins appeared out of thin air.
“Snow,” he offered by a way of explanation, shifting around nervously. “It’s pretty, of course, but I never liked it much now that I think of it. Nice enough for children, but there was a terrible long winter in the Shire when I was young, give me proper warm spring any time-”
“We know,” Thorin interrupted him curtly. Hatred was still coursing through his veins, but at the sight of the Burglar shame rose like bile to his throat to quell it. He was left feeling oddly hollow. “Ered Luin is not that far from the Shire. What do you want?”
Bilbo muttered something under his breath that might have been manners. Then he sighed and straightened up to his full height like he usually did when he was irritated by something - or someone - though right now he looked less than sure of himself and he slipped his left hand to his pocket to fiddle with his magic Ring.
“I was speaking with Bofur when I thought you were going to- well... I was speaking with him. And Balin. And Ori. And most of the others too. And I... I still think it’s stupid. Going to a war over a bit of gold. Over a shiny rock.”
Thorin hissed furiously and beside him Dwalin bristled and shifted his hold on his axe. Bilbo didn’t notice, or pretended not to.
“But I was speaking with them all, and... they were angry. Really angry. I guess...” Bilbo made a vague gesture and carried on. “It seemed like such a simple solution. Make you see sense. I knew how important the Arkenstone is to you and everyone else thought it was such a good idea to force you to see sense, even Gandalf... But I guess I didn’t think it through. You weren’t the only one being bloody stubborn. Though that you were, mind you. And I lied to you, and I made a wrong decision, and I’m sorry.”
“It wasn’t your decision to make in the first place,” Thorin corrected quietly.
“I’m sorry,” Bilbo repeated, shrugging helplessly.
This was turning out to be a night of confessions and long silences.
“I was going to kill you,” Thorin said finally. “I think I apologised when I thought I was dying, I don’t remember for sure. But I am sorry. More than I can say.”
“Well, it wasn’t really you, so-”
“It was. That I do remember. If there was madness it was my madness, and my fury and my hands, and I knew you and I very much wanted you dead.”
Thorin had learned to read the Burglar’s body language well enough to know he was supremely uncomfortable right now, but he had to be honest for his honour’s sake. If he was to be forgiven, the forgiveness couldn’t be based on a falsehood.
“Did anyone ever explain to you what a white lie is?” Bilbo grumbled, a tiny bit of annoyance creeping into his voice.
“Yes,” Dwalin answered on Thorin's behalf. “Balin’s hair went white in the attempt, but Thorin never learned how to lie.”
Bilbo chuckled weakly.
"Well, I seem to have made a better liar and a thief than I would have thought or liked, but I did give my word. And I broke it. And... I might have stolen it back to unbreak it."
He slipped his hand into his other pocket and pulled out the Arkenstone.
Thorin’s breath caught, and no wound in the world could have stopped him from extending his hand to take it. His fingers closed around the Heart of the Mountain and every bone in his body, every drop of blood in his veins burst into a joyous, reverent song. It was like running his fingers along the stone of Erebor for the first time in over a century, only magnified thousandfold. Beside him Dwalin's eyes were wide with wonder as he reached to take Thorin's free hand.
Steady. Trusting. Without doubt, even after everything.
It was like coming back home.
Thorin squeezed Dwalin's hand and lifted the Arkenstone, pressing it against his forehead.
Frost pinched at Bilbo’s ears as he stepped out from the tent, but he breathed in deep the brisk mountain air regardless. He wasn’t sure Thorin forgave him, and he wasn’t at all sure he forgave Thorin either, but it was all in the open now and all he could do was to hope it was going to turn out all right.
He turned his eyes skyward and watched the snowflakes fall, white against the dark of the night. Cold and wet and uncomfortable, and yet... And yet he closed his eyes and let them brush against his cheeks, soft and gone in an instant like he'd imagined faery wings as a child, like he'd imagined the most secret and subtle of all magic.
This, this was how an adventure was supposed to end.