Bilbo woke to the sparkling, woolly light that usually came with sunny mornings. He rubbed his eyes to dispel the lingering sleepiness and realised that he had slept more deeply than usual, no doubt a side-effect of a day spent in the scent-laden, hot chaos of a kitchen. He rose on his elbows and blinked a few times until his vision cleared. There was indeed something sparkling in the room, but it was not the light itself. It was the finely threaded gold and gems of the garlands hanging around the windows. This was not the Yule décor that he was accustomed to, but there was little of the familiar in his life now. In fact, the one thing that he had become familiar with in the past year was the occurrence of the unexpected. Bilbo lay back down in bed, and stared at the ceiling with its pool of sunlight streaming from the outside.
Then, as he tried to picture the world beyond, he felt more and more keenly that he was being watched. He turned his head and met a different kind of light, one that seemed to weave the sun and the sparkling gems into something magical.
“Thorin,” said Bilbo a little startled. “I didn’t realise you were awake.”
Thorin smiled secretly, as if there was a world of meaning behind that smile that would have taken him hours to express in words and even then he wouldn’t have managed to say it all. He seemed to have managed to turn on his left side during the night, in spite of the serious injuries in his arm and shoulder. And who knew how long he had been awake and watching Bilbo? He didn’t look freshly woken.
“Is there anything you need?” asked Bilbo, trying to fill the space between them with something other than things unspoken.
“No,” said Thorin, a dreamy tone laced in his voice, “I have everything I need right here.”
Bilbo smiled nervously, he knew. Thorin seemed bolder with words in the past few days, and less willing to make it look like he regretted it. “Surely, there is more you need than me.”
“No, not really.”
“Well, for one thing, you need to get better, and for that you need water and food and care,” said Bilbo, rising again on his elbows.
Thorin followed him with his eyes. “I will get better.”
Bilbo looked at him, realising he had been talking a little too fast and with too much aplomb. “Yes, of course you will.” He lay back down and sighed, then studied the ceiling for a bit longer, not really letting his gaze be stopped in its skyward flight by the mountain of stone above him. He turned again to Thorin. “What I meant was, you need to rebuild your kingdom now that you’ve got it back. You need to fulfill your promise to your people, and to yourself. You need to be their king. You would never be happy otherwise.”
“And I will do all that. But I would be just as unhappy if you went away,” said Thorin, a shadow draping over his previously shining voice.
“Is this what you hoped for with Nyrath? To have him and your throne, too?”
The shadow deepened in Thorin’s eyes, and their focus fell away to a nether land of haze. “That… would have never been possible.”
“And it will be possible with me?” asked Bilbo.
Thorin looked back to him, conviction blazing renewed in his eyes. “Yes.”
“Really? How? What has changed?”
“I owe nothing more to no one,” said Thorin, with a subtle note of anger. “My promise was to get Erebor back, and I have. What I do with myself from now on is my concern only.”
Bilbo smiled. “The Company seems to think so. I wonder if everyone else will be as accepting as they are.”
Thorin remained silent for a while, unable to dispel Bilbo’s doubts with certainty. “I will understand if you choose to go back home,” he conceded, sounding prematurely defeated. “I can ask someone to go with you as soon as you wish.”
His gaze dropped again to the level of Bilbo’s throat and his striking eyes radiated in the morning light a sad beauty that was more than Bilbo could resist even if he risked angering all the Dwarves in Middle Earth. “I don’t know yet if I want to,” he whispered.
Thorin’s gaze shot back up to him, illuminated by fresh hope.
Bilbo had made his own promises, to his parents and to himself, to always care for Bag End and to ensure that there would always be a Baggins living there. But in the face of such beauty as he now saw in Thorin’s face, rarefied by lengthy illness into something entirely not of that world, he found it hard to hold fast to those promises and to what he had thought until then to be his lot in life on that good and green earth.
“Well,” he said, smiling again to Thorin, “I should get up and see if I can find us some breakfast.”
Something about Thorin’s expression, relieved in the wake of hearing that Bilbo was not about to leave him, sent a very sharp sting of guilt through the hobbit’s heart as he climbed out of bed. Guilt over bringing back the memory of Nyrath although perhaps he had no right to. He knew nothing about him, nothing really about what Thorin had lived with him, nothing more than that, although his was a distant memory, it was also unusually vibrant in Thorin’s heart and it still carried a great power to hurt him. It had been cruel of him. He’d known that the moment he’d seen the look in Thorin’s eyes. A look of being struck without warning, in the one place where he was bound to suffer the most. Bilbo didn’t really know what had made him bring up Nyrath. Perhaps it had been the boldness of Thorin’s words and the wide uncertain echo that they sent through Bilbo’s mind. He did not need uncertainty. He did not want it. He’d had quite enough of it, in fact. He wanted some sort of guarantee that if he chose to stay, as Thorin obviously wanted, his place there would be secure, set in stone. Of course, there could be no such guarantees, and Thorin had not insincerely rushed to offer any. But that was just how things were. It was no reason to resort to cruelty.
It was with these heavy thoughts that Bilbo opened the door to Thorin’s bedroom, meaning to head out to the kitchen, only to be met by the wide frame of Dwalin, who seemed so determined to walk through that door that they almost bumped into each other.
Bilbo took a few steps back, managing to give an awkward greeting to Dwalin, who also seemed a little startled, and a slightly more appropriate one to Balin.
“Good morning, Bilbo,” said Balin, “where are you off to in such a hurry?”
“Uh, I was about to get breakfast,” said Bilbo, following Balin and Dwalin back into the room.
“Oh, I’m sure Thorin won’t mind waiting a bit,” he said, looking towards Thorin. “How would you like to get out of bed first?”
“Now?” asked Thorin, his eyes growing wide with disbelief.
“No later,” said Balin, eyes bright with a starlit smile.
It came in such contrast with Thorin’s dimmed appearance, but it seemed to infuse him with new energy. He pushed himself up on his arms, meaning to sit up and wincing rather violently from putting too much trust in his left arm.
“Now, now, don’t fret,” said Dwalin, bending protectively over him. “We’ll help.” He took Thorin’s right hand in his and wrapped his left arm around Thorin’s shoulders. “You might feel dizzy at first,” he said close to Thorin’s ear. “Come on.”
Dwalin gently pulled Thorin up and off of his pillows. It did look like the sudden change of perspective after about three weeks of lying in bed was a little hard on him. He squeezed his eyes shut as he tried to get accustomed to the sensation, and then opened them again when the wave of dizziness eventually passed.
“All right?” asked Dwalin.
Thorin approved with surprising tolerance for help. Dwalin pulled the cover off of his legs gently while Balin approached carrying a bundle of clothes in his arms. He placed the clothes on the side of the bed and then selected the item on top, which proved to be a pair of black trousers.
Bilbo almost expected to be invited out of the room as he usually was when Thorin’s personal grooming needs were getting a little too personal for him to see. It felt like that now, as strange as it was, considering that he was being dressed rather than undressed. This moment when Thorin’s outer shell of apparent strength was being put back on and when the visible marks of his weakness were being covered felt more vulnerable still than being openly powerless.
He was allowed to stay, and so he watched as Thorin was slowly coaxed back into actual clothes, with care and time being taken so as not to stir up too much pain. He suffered everything with such patience, accepting help without any flares of wounded pride, although pride was to be expected. After all, he was a powerful warrior, and a king, who was now requiring assistance with something as simple as getting out of bed and dressing. Perhaps he was simply too tired of lying in bed not to be entirely consumed by this extraordinary opportunity to wear a shirt again and leave it.
Once dressed, Thorin was able to stand up, hanging on to Dwalin’s arm. It made him even dizzier than sitting, but he kept his patience and held on tighter to Dwalin until it passed. He even slipped a radiant gaze to Bilbo the moment he was sober enough to appreciate that he was standing again. Then he managed to limp slowly to his blue velvet armchair and Dwalin did not withdraw his support until he was comfortably settled into it.
Balin set his hands in his hips looking very approving of the situation. “There,” he said to Thorin, “that’s better. I’ll get you your rings back. And we’ll ask Bilbo to braid your hair until breakfast is ready.” Now Balin looked to Bilbo with a kind expectancy in his gaze.
“Oh, yes, of course,” said Bilbo.
“I’ll see you later,” said Dwalin, his hand still on Thorin’s good right shoulder, squeezing a little. Thorin looked up with unmistakable gratitude. “I’m around if you need me.”
He withdrew his hand from Thorin’s shoulder, glanced briefly at Bilbo in a way that the hobbit couldn’t read, and then walked away towards the door.
Bilbo felt compelled to follow him.
“Dwalin, I wonder if I could talk to you for a minute,” said Bilbo once he had closed the door to Thorin’s bedroom and found himself alone with Dwalin outside of it.
Dwalin turned to him looking like he didn’t really want to talk about anything. “What about?” he said, gruffly, as expected.
“Thorin,” said Bilbo, lowering his voice a little. “And myself.”
Dwalin glared something fierce, then crossed his arms over his chest. “That is none of my business,” he said. “Thorin can do what he likes with his life. And so can you for that matter.”
“You used to think otherwise.”
“Thorin and I have had a talk about that. It is what he wants. I cannot change that.”
“What, uh, what is it that he wants?”
Dwalin looked at him incredulously. “You. He wants you. I thought you’d seen that by now.”
“I...” Bilbo found himself unable to speak. Of course, he knew that Thorin wanted him in his life, but when put the way Dwalin had put it, it sounded a little frightening. “Yes, I, I have,” he said, lowering his gaze.
“Then we have nothing more to talk about,” said Dwalin, and left the room.
Bilbo stood there frozen, his eyes still set on the ground. Dwalin’s tone and look as he had said those words, He wants you, had made the blood shudder in his veins. It was as if he was hearing Smaug talk about Thorin’s desire for the Arkenstone all over again, and it filled him with dread. That could not be the way Thorin wanted him. It simply could not be. He shook himself a little and looked up, remembering that Thorin was waiting for him in his bedroom. He turned to go back but found Balin standing behind him, studying him with a kind but all-seeing look from under his white eyebrows that resembled Gandalf.
“Are you all right, Bilbo?” asked the old dwarf, coming closer.
“Yes, I… I always feel a little out of sorts at this time of the year,” said Bilbo.
“I imagine the long nights of December are a little hard on Hobbits. You seem so fond of the light.”
“Well, there’s that.”
Balin smiled in the kindest way possible. “Even Dwarves are afraid of the dark sometimes,” he said, “I know I was when I was a wee lad. But you know what my grandmother used to tell me?”
“Fear not the dark, for darkness is only light that sleeps.”
Bilbo smiled back instantly. “That’s… rather nice.”
“And true, most of the time,” said Balin, then greeted Bilbo for a temporary good-bye and walked off.
Bilbo could barely believe that his own mood had gone from dark to light in a matter of minutes. He wondered if Balin had heard anything of his conversation with Dwalin, or if he simply had wizardly powers of his own and was able to read minds.
Either way, he returned to Thorin’s bedroom carrying nothing of his earlier tension with him. Thorin gave him a frail look from his armchair. There was nothing threatening in it, not in his tired eyes, shadowed in grey. He didn’t seem to possess the energy to want anything as badly as he had wanted the Arkenstone.
Bilbo smiled to him, accepting the wave of warmth that came encircling his heart. “I’ll go get the brush,” he said and passed briefly into the bathroom.
Thorin retained his look of softness as Bilbo went back to him, brush in hand. It seemed that getting out of bed had exhausted him and he was not hiding it. “Can you sit up a bit?” asked Bilbo.
Thorin complied, and Bilbo started brushing his hair. The hobbit had yet to become used to the fact that his association with the Dwarf King had turned so intimate in the past month, that they had gone from battling evil and fighting to reclaim a kingdom to such deeply domestic things as hair brushing or making sure that Thorin was properly fed. It seemed that those things mattered so little in the grand scheme of the world, and yet now they proved to be so important. Domestic life had always been important for Bilbo, but after his recent adventures, he had begun to see it as only a little part of what made the life of others. It certainly seemed to be a very little part of Thorin’s life, and it probably would become that again once he had recovered. For now, though, it was what most of his life consisted of. And it didn’t seem to bother him as much as one would have expected. In fact, he appeared so comfortable with that at the moment that he was about to fall asleep.
“Your beard has grown,” said Bilbo, looking down at him and waited for Thorin to acknowledge. “Are you going to have it trimmed again?”
“No, not anymore.”
“Oh? You need a long beard to be King under the Mountain?
Thorin smiled, more alert. “It is not that. I have been wearing it short in honour of those we lost in the dragon fire, as a promise.”
“To avenge their death and take back your homeland?”
Thorin nodded. “My promise is now fulfilled,” he said. “And it is preferable to have a long beard as King under the Mountain.”
Bilbo smiled in return. “I’m sorry, I should have said this earlier. I don’t know how to make braids like the ones you had before. I don’t really have a lot of experience braiding hair.”
“Hobbits never braid their hair?”
“Not male Hobbits, no.”
Thorin’ looked like he was about to break into laughter, but he restrained himself. “Do you know how to make a three-strand braid?”
“Yes, I think I can manage that.”
“That will do,” said Thorin. “I probably need that kind more at the moment.”
“Need? What do you mean, need?”
“There is meaning to the kinds of braids that we wear.”
“Oh, right, of course there is. I should have thought of that. What do three strands mean?”
“They bring together a dwarf’s mind, body and heart. They make us one.”
“Hmm… And the kind you had before?”
“Those have four strands. They are only worn by those who rule. They stand for courage, strength, generosity and wisdom.”
“I understand. You can’t have any of that, let alone all together, without being in one piece first.”
“Precisely,” said Thorin.
As he knit a lengthening braid near Thorin’s left ear, Bilbo wondered if Balin had purposefully asked him to do that because of what it meant. The impression that everything around him was conspiring to bring them closer and that Balin provided occasional help was already old in Bilbo’s mind. He was being steered into slowly coming to a decision that would have changed his life either way, a decision that had a lot to do with the question that had sounded so simple in Fili’s words: what he would miss most. For now, he was sure that he would have missed the feeling of having Thorin’s dark, strong hair weaved through his fingers just as much as he would have missed never sticking his hands into the black earth of his garden again.
Soon enough, Bilbo finished Thorin’s second braid and set it neatly on his shoulder. Thorin glanced up at him, his eyes gleaming with relief that he was beginning to look like himself again. The remaking of his braids really did seem to do something for his confidence. Bilbo smiled at him, realising perhaps for the first time with such halting clarity how important it was for Thorin to recover his strength of both body and spirit, not just for himself, but also for his people. And he, Bilbo, was an essential part of making that happen. This was bigger than both of them, and even if it was something that Thorin was used to and that Bilbo had begun to learn to live with, there was a weight to this moment that Bilbo felt not bearing down on his shoulders, but rather surrounding him, filling him with wonder instead of fear.
This awareness hung undisturbed in the air as the door opened slowly and Bombur appeared in its frame, carrying a tray. Bilbo turned to greet him, but Bombur didn’t seem to be aware of the hobbit. He stood in the open doorway as if bolted to the floor, looking at Thorin with large, glistening eyes. He stared for a while, then he snapped out of his stupor with an ample bow and finally advanced into the room. Many times Bombur had displayed a subtlety of movement that Bilbo had not expected from someone of his hefty stature, and now he appeared to be using his delicacy at its utmost degree in order to walk inside Thorin’s bedroom without making a lot of noise. He set the tray down on a table at Thorin’s side, and after giving him another disbelieving look, he finally acknowledged Bilbo’s presence with a little nod. Bilbo found his reserve unusual. This was not the Bombur that he had spent the previous day in the kitchen with. He seemed almost afraid to look at Thorin or to be in his presence with something other than quiet awe.
“Thank you, Bombur,” said Thorin, his voice slightly weaker than what Bombur had probably heard from him the last time they had seen each other.
Bombur seemed a little startled, but he gathered his wits honourably enough and gave another bow of his head.
“I hear you have taken charge of the kitchen and making a great job of it,” continued Thorin.
Finally, the visible tension in Bombur’s body loosened. “I thought I could make myself most useful there,” he said. “Bofur has been helping. And Bilbo.”
“Only very little,” said Bilbo.
“Well, I should go,” said Bombur. “There’s still plenty to do for tonight.”
“I can come by a little later and help out, if you want,” offered the hobbit.
“That would be very kind of you, Bilbo,” said Bombur. Then he turned again to Thorin. “I’m glad you’re feeling better,” he said, then bowed again with particular devotion.
Thorin thanked him silently with a rare little bow of his own, and Bombur walked out of the room as gingerly as he had entered, but in much lighter spirits.
Bilbo gazed after him until the door had been closed behind him, then looked back to Thorin, who was obviously touched by the impression that he had made on Bombur. Bilbo could certainly understand how someone from the Company who had not really seen Thorin since the day of the battle could be impressed by seeing him now. He looked essentially like himself – his braids were more or less in place, he was dressed in his usual dark blue shirt and black trousers, and he sat rather confidently in his armchair – but there was an air of ether to his thinned features and his pale complexion, as if he had suddenly become light and airy, like an Elf.
“Well,” said Bilbo, as the scents of eggs and bacon and coffee eventually overpowered his less earthly thoughts, “let’s see what Bombur brought that’s good to eat.” He walked to the table where the breakfast tray resided, containing quite a generous meal, even for a Dwarf.
“I think that’s for both of us,” said Thorin, sounding amused.
Bilbo glanced back to him, then back to the tray. “I think so.”
They had had breakfast together before, but it felt different now that Thorin was no longer in bed. It felt more like actually having breakfast and less like keeping Thorin company while he wasn’t quite himself. Thorin also appeared more comfortable with things that way and ate with more appetite than usual, even though he retained a certain elegance of manners that Bilbo had always found to be very undwarvish. It suited him now more than ever, as his movements were slowed by a lingering difficulty in getting used to sitting upright.
When they were done, Bilbo carried both of their plates back to the table and poured some coffee into a cup to give to Thorin. As he did so, he noticed that next to the pot of coffee stood a neat little stack of his lavender biscuits which he had made the previous evening. It seemed that Bombur really had prepared breakfast for both of them. Then he remembered that Thorin had quite liked his biscuits as well.
“Thorin?” said Bilbo, turning, “would you like more of these lavender biscuits?”
Thorin nodded, and Bilbo collected the entire stack of biscuits from the tray. They continued their breakfast in a sort of a daze of soft bliss. The last time that they had sat together around a meal, in the draughty dimness of the mountain, neither of them had had the heart to enjoy it. Thorin had not been himself and Bilbo had not really felt like himself. Now there was a palpable feeling that the worst was finally behind them and that this darkest day of the year would in fact be filled with the most light.
When nothing more than a few crumbs was left of the last lavender biscuit, Bilbo stood up and put everything back on the tray that Bombur had brought. “I should take these back,” he said.
“Thank you, Bilbo,” said Thorin, “for everything.”
Bilbo turned to him, tray in hands, and something in him began to melt. One could not say that Thorin looked humble, even if he was unable to stand on his own two feet without help, but there was something quiet in his countenance, a hushing of an inner roar, a ceasing of thunder that was wondrous to see.
If the door to the bedroom had not opened, Bilbo would have continued to gaze at Thorin as he leaned against the back of his rich blue velvet armchair, weak but hopeful, on what was his first time out of bed after the hardest battle of his life. But the door did open, and Dain walked in, carrying an air of reassuring authority that seemed to be a mark of the Durin line.
Bilbo responded with a smile to Thorin’s gratitude, and then walked out with a little bow of his forehead as he passed Dain.
Outside, in the sitting room, Ori and Dori were busy setting a long table that was surely meant to accommodate the entire Company. He greeted them, and then headed back to the kitchen.
Bilbo kept his promise and continued to lend a helping hand in the culinary preparations for Yule. He found that he was actually getting used to being in the kitchen of Erebor and he was starting to learn where everything was. In fact, he invested himself so deeply into arranging plates and other last-minute minutiae that he almost didn’t realise when the time had passed. He was taken by surprise when Balin walked in and announced that they should be getting ready to wrap everything up as the celebrations were about to start. They were both expected in the Royal Quarters.
They looked at each other briefly, knowing that they were finally going to reap the rewards of all their hard work. Bombur distributed the food that was to be taken to the Banquet Hall and that meant for the smaller and more private gathering in Thorin’s quarters. As the food began to be carried away by a few compliant dwarves, Bombur and Bilbo started on their way.
Slightly to his surprise, Bilbo found that he was a little nervous. He didn’t know what to expect from a Yule feast with the Dwarves, even if it was just those that he felt comfortable with. Something about the obvious ceremony of it all made him anxious. Yule feasts in the Shire were not very ceremonious, as nothing was, really. There were preparations being made, surely, and there was the same kind of enthusiasm taking over Hobbits as he could see in Dwarves, but they had no grand banquet halls, golden garlands, or kings and warriors to honour.
The Company was all there when Bilbo and Bombur arrived. They were greeted with quiet courtesy as they entered. To Bilbo’s eyes, it seemed that he was not the only one being nervous. They all looked like they were waiting for something momentous to happen, something even bigger than a holiday. The young Ori seemed particularly emotional and hung close to his older brother Dori, almost hiding behind his shoulder. Everyone was not really there, however. Dwalin was missing, and, of course, Thorin.
The look of the room confirmed Bilbo’s feeling that this was not going to be a Yule Eve such as the ones he had experienced in the Shire. The table was set exquisitely in a heavy dark red cloth and golden trimmings. The plates, goblets, knives and forks were all shiny gold with inserts of precious stones of various colours. This did not surprise Bilbo, but it was something that he had to stop to look at.
“King Thror’s tableware for banquets,” Dori said proudly, coming closer to Bilbo.
Bilbo glanced at him. “It’s quite... regal,” he said, with a smile that came easily.
Dori nodded, a gleeful light in his eyes. He had always seemed to have a special flair for elegance at the table.
Bilbo returned his gaze to the rest of the room. He had already seen the arrangement of the fireplace the previous night, and now his eyes were drawn more to a great golden harp that stood a little to the side of it. Its strings were shimmering like spider web in the warm light of many lanterns.
The heavy creak of a door called everyone’s attention towards Thorin’s bedroom. He stumbled out slowly, supported by Dwalin, and not looking at all less dignified for it. He stopped briefly to glance lovingly over everyone present. He looked radiant, in spite of being rather humbly dressed and quite visibly weak, and his beautiful hair, in which Bilbo had put two decent-looking braids, made up more than honourably for not having a long beard. He didn’t really need heavy armour, priceless fur or even a crown on his head to emanate royalty. It was in the way he carried himself, even now when he needed help with that. It was in his very presence and in his deepsky-filled eyes, and it could not be undone. They all bowed silently before him, remaining that way for a few good seconds, until Thorin resumed his slow, obviously painful walk to his seat at the head of the table.
Bilbo remembered a somewhat similar scene from the April evening when the Dwarves had taken over his home, filled his dining room and emptied his pantry. He did not remember Bag End ever to have been so noisy and orderless, and yet they had all become quiet the moment Thorin had come. Bilbo had understood right then and there that this band of hungry, chaos-making Dwarves had a deep respect for Thorin, and no matter how carried away they got with their songs and their chatter, it was all less important to them than appearing serious in his presence. Now Thorin looked much less intimidating than Bilbo had perceived him that night, but the Dwarves seemed all the more intent on showing him respect.
As Dwalin finally helped Thorin settle into his chair, something of the solemn weight in the air dissipated and everyone else approached the table, feeling as free as to start making hushed small talk.
The food was already on the table and the ale bubbled in the beautiful golden goblets, but for once, they did not rush to ravage any of it. Still standing, they lifted their goblets as Balin said, “Now that we are all here, we should light the log and then we can sit down. Brother, if you will do the honours.” He looked to Dwalin, who approved and went over to the hearth, where part of the ash log sent by the Elvenking resided yet untouched and surrounded by a blanket of twigs meant to aid the fire.
Dwalin grabbed a torch from a holder and leaned it inside the hearth, uttering what sounded like a ritual saying that went with this moment. “With fire we light the darkness of our days and our memory. With fire we bring warmth to our mountain halls. With fire we welcome the new sun.”
Bilbo found himself mesmerised by the orange flame which sprang alive around the log, so much so that he jumped when Balin nudged his arm and gestured for him to pick up his goblet full of ale. Bilbo did as indicated and as he reached down, he caught a glance of Thorin, who had his hand wrapped around his own goblet. In Bag End, everyone else had been sitting down, listening, and he had been the one standing and speaking loudly about the wealth of their people that lay unprotected in the dark depth of the Lonely Mountain and about their duty to take back what was theirs. Bilbo was sure that he would have been standing with the rest of them now and perhaps would have even lit the Yule log himself if he had been strong enough. But for now, all he could do was to sit and listen and smile mellowy to Bilbo. Bilbo responded by inclining his goblet of ale to him, meaning for it to be only a private gesture. Then he noticed that the others saluted Thorin in the same way, but with ampler movements.
After Dwalin returned to the table, they all sat down and the proceedings relaxed into the joyful, increasingly noisy atmosphere that was characteristic of Dwarf meals. Even Thorin shared a few laughs and joined in the general fun, which was something extraordinary for Bilbo to see, but which was received as entirely normal by the rest of the Company. They were trying not to make him feel any different because he happened to be in less than ideal shape at that moment, and it seemed to be working.
It all turned out to be a very happy affair and Bilbo’s concerns that ceremony would hang too low over the evening were easily expelled. When his plate was finally empty and he wanted no more on it, he could in fact say that he’d had everything he’d expected to have on Yule Eve – hearty food, blood-warming drink and laughter to fill a long, dark night of winter.
When everyone’s bellies seemed to have been appeased, Balin suggested that it was time for some music. It was then that Bilbo found out, not little to his awe, that the beautiful harp standing in the corner of the room belonged to none other than Thorin and that it had been restrung and cleaned and was ready for him to play it again. For now, Dwalin offered to give it a go in his place.
He did so with unexpected gentleness, unexpected to Bilbo at least. There was something velvety to the sounds that he drew from it, something deeply mournful and yet magical and promising about the harmonies that he weaved through its strings, as if he was pouring the dearest treasures of the dwarven heart into his song. It did not surprise Bilbo at all if Thorin’s eyes became a little misty as he listened to Dwalin play his harp. He didn’t need to understand the words that the others were singing in Dwarvish to know that it was about death and life, about grief and hope always woven together like night and day.
The night deepened beyond Bilbo’s ability to keep track of time. Watching the many empty plates on the table and the increasingly satisfied look of everyone in the Company, he surmised that it was sometime around midnight. His impression was confirmed by Balin’s gentle suggestion after Dwalin had finished playing another song that they should probably call it a night and let Thorin rest. The celebrations were going to continue in the Banquet Hall, for those who wished to join in.
Slowly, most of the Company bid their good night and filed out of the room. Thorin looked content with the way his evening had turned out, but he was obviously exhausted. While Bilbo busied himself with at least starting to clear the table, Balin and Dwalin helped Thorin back to his room and eventually into bed. They emerged about half an hour later, all smiles, announcing to Bilbo that Thorin was settled in bed and that he was already almost asleep.
“Will you join us in the Banquet Hall?” asked Balin, as he walked away from Thorin’s door.
“No,” said Bilbo. “I think I’d rather turn in as well.”
“All right then,” said Balin. “Have a good night. We’ll see you tomorrow.”
Bilbo returned his wish, directing his response to Dwalin as much as to Balin. Dwalin nodded back, then followed his brother out of the room.
Bilbo glanced after them until they disappeared behind the closing door. Then he drew his breath and looked back to the fireplace, where the Yule log had shrunk to dark red embers. He had always liked this moment in the life of a fire, when the wood turned to ember and the heat was still strong but gentle, when the high flame was tempered to a low glow that radiated from within rather than burning from without.
Bilbo was indeed more than ready for bed, so he slowly opened the door to Thorin’s bedroom and went in. Thorin was lying on his back, divested again of his clothes, but retaining his two braids and the rings that he had worn all along the journey. His eyes were closed and he did not react to any sound, so Bilbo assumed that he’d fallen asleep. The hobbit went on to wash up and change out of his day outfit, then came back, especially eager to climb into bed and give himself to sleep.
But sleep proved elusive. Something kept him from closing his eyes, although he wanted to, very badly. Perhaps it was because his field of view as he lay in bed was taken up by Thorin’s profile and the thoughts that still glowed in his mind hovered around him. For the Dwarves of Erebor, this Yule Eve night was one like few others had probably been. On this darkest night of the year, they were getting back their light. They had been reunited with their king and from then on they could only rejoice at the certainty that he would soon return to them in complete possession of his prerogatives and would lead them towards the life that they were truly meant to have. Although Thorin did not place himself above them, it had never been more effortlessly evident that the Dwarves held his image above everything that was worldly even when he laughed and drank with them.
For Bilbo, however, there was still something remaining untouched by that deep sense of resolution, or at least by the knowledge that things would be all right. He knew that it would take more than one long night for him to achieve that kind of certainty over his feelings and over what would happen if he gave them free reign over his life. After all, that battle was only just beginning. But something had changed irrevocably over the course of that day. He felt much like a glowing ember himself, like a hard and unyielding shell within him had been charred into the very essence of warmth. He lay like that for a while longer, in the sweet spell that approaching sleep wove around him.
But sleep still did not come, and he was starting to understand why. He rose on an elbow, leaned gently over Thorin and placed a light kiss at the root of his nose, and two more over his closed eyelids. Thorin shifted his head under Bilbo’s lips, nudging the underside of his chin. Bilbo could feel him smile.
He pulled back a little, startled. He had honestly expected Thorin to be asleep. He wasn’t far from it. His eyes were open only slightly, but he had definitely been aware of Bilbo’s kisses.
Bilbo could pretend it hadn’t happened, or he could admit that he felt something for Thorin that could only be expressed in that way. He felt heat gathering in his face as he couldn’t help smiling back to Thorin.
“May I kiss you?” Thorin asked then softly.
Bilbo’s breath hitched in his throat. He hoped that it did not show too much on his face, but he probably hoped in vain. “Where would you like to kiss me?” he asked, putting on his best attempt at untroubled confidence. He would have had to lean whatever part of his face that Thorin was interested in towards his lips. He looked too weak to lift his head to the intended place himself.
“Not your forehead,” said Thorin.
Bilbo felt himself blushing violently, but he kept his head. “I don’t know if I can be what you want me to be.”
“I do not want you to be anything. I just want you.”
Thorin’s answer sounded so deeply true, not at all like greed was driving his words, or lust. There were things he could imagine and fear, things he could remember and fear more, but all of that faded in the face of simple truth. The truth was that his decision was already made and that it was no longer really his choice. He couldn’t choose not to love Thorin, whether there were any stone-set assurances attached to that or not. At what more of an assurance could there be other than being welcomed into the very deepest core of Thorin’s kingdom and of his heart? For now, it was enough.
Bilbo guessed Thorin’s wish even if he did not state it clearly. It was easy to guess, not only because Thorin had a special power to say more with the words he was not speaking, but the thought of it had also been on Bilbo’s mind all day, ever since the end of their morning conversation. He had not meant to kiss Thorin’s nose or his eyes earlier. They had just been sweet diversions from something he dared not do. It looked like he didn’t have to hesitate any longer. He lowered his mouth to Thorin’s, not at all with quivering lips. The tickle of Thorin’s beard made him instantly want to giggle, but he restrained himself and only let his mouth curve into a light smile. The kiss was warm, and infinitely soft, as Bilbo had wanted it to be, and for once the fire in his face died down as their closeness lingered on towards an even softer end. It was more like a dream than like hard reality, but as they finally parted and gazed at each other in the wake of this act without return, they both knew that it was all very real.
Bilbo felt like a great wing of relief embraced him, and his limbs were turning to liquid. He let his head drop slowly on Thorin’s chest, but he remembered at the last minute that it would have probably hurt him if he had lowered his entire weight on it. He kept his ear there for a while, listening for the muffled song of Thorin’s heart, tucked safely beneath strong muscle and bone, much like the most precious of stones inside his mountain. It sounded reassuringly steady. Bilbo eventually glided back down at Thorin’s side and noticed that Thorin had followed him with his gaze, which was now wide and awake with the very sparkling opposite of sadness. Bilbo smiled at him, then leaned his forehead against Thorin’s shoulder, knowing that there would be another time for making himself disappear into his arms.