Spring always came with a sting of pain for Bilbo. The pain of loss, and of roads not taken. Yet, on that particular spring, of the year 3000 of the Third Age, the pain was a little sweeter. Perhaps it was because Bilbo had plans for a new journey, one from which he did not mean to come back.
It had been spring when Thorin Oakenshield and his Company of merry dwarves had shown up at his door more than half a century before. It had been that exact day of the year, April 24th, only later, in the evening. They had come to take him on a real adventure, beyond the borders of the Shire, employing his services as burglar in the quest to steal a most precious gem from under the belly of a fire-breathing dragon and thus help Thorin and his companions take back their long-lost homeland. He had gone, expecting to return a changed hobbit. You will not be the same, Gandalf had warned him, and, indeed, he was not.
It was no secret that he was different since he had returned from his adventure. The other hobbits thought him strange at the very best, but there were holes burrowed deep within his heart that no one knew about and that had not been there before. He himself did not go into them very often. But in April, they called to him. Whatever it was that lay in those holes stirred and burst its way out, much as the seedlings in his garden shot out of the dark ground, looking to bathe in the warm sun.
Bilbo stood over the writing desk in his study, sorting through letters that he had received over the previous season. He always cleaned his study in spring, and he was almost done for that year. As he finished stacking the letters that he wanted to keep and tossing the others into a bin, to put into the fire later, his eye was caught by the small chest containing his most prized keepsakes of the quest. He had placed it on the desk that morning, meaning to look inside at some point. Its lid was open, showing the weathered paper edges of the portraits that Ori had drawn for him, of himself and of the dwarves.
Bilbo sat down in his chair, and picked up the stack of drawings with a sonorous sigh. He smiled as soon as his eyes lay on the first portrait – the ingenuous Ori himself – and his smile grew as he leafed through and remembered each of his friends as they had once been. And then there were the last three – the young Fili and Kili, and, finally, Thorin. His smile faded into a shadow of regret as he held on to that last portrait.
It was in colourless crayon, but nothing could have erased from his memory the splendid blue eyes of Thorin Oakenshield. He only wished now that he had not had to watch the fire in them go out, until they had become but glossy, lifeless orbs of pale grey-blue, in the falling snow, on that day of winter when Erebor had been reclaimed. Yet, he was glad that he had been with Thorin to the very end. They had started on that journey together, and it was fair to end it side by side.
As Bilbo pondered the past, the front door opened and closed without ceremony, and the sound of light steps filled the silence of Bag End.
“Bilbo?” came Frodo’s young voice from the corridor.
“I’m in the study, Frodo,” Bilbo called, his voice a little raspy from not having talked the whole morning. He placed the portraits back on his desk.
“Oh,” said Frodo, as he came in, a bit breathless and red in the cheeks, no doubt from having run all the way home from one of his usual sprees around the woods of Hobbiton. “You said you wanted to go to the market today.”
“Yes, yes,” said Bilbo, standing up and straightening his shoulders as if he wanted to set his whole being back into place. “Give me a minute and we’ll go.” He smiled to Frodo a bit nervously and feigned attention to a pile of books that he had already arranged moments before.
Frodo had inherited the inquisitive mind of the Bagginses, and, as Bilbo expected him, he advanced towards his writing desk. He stopped at his side and looked down at the stack of portraits, topped conspicuously by Thorin’s. He picked it up in both hands and studied it for a few seconds.
Bilbo tried his best to appear as if this did not make him feel uncomfortable, and continued to work with a little too much zeal on setting order among things that did not need any. Fearing that, perhaps he was trying too hard to look preoccupied, he glanced furtively at Frodo.
Frodo seemed too interested in the portrait to notice. “This is Thorin Oakenshield, isn’t it?” he asked, glancing back at Bilbo. Bilbo nodded, and Frodo resumed his perusal. “He certainly looked like a king,” he said, finally, with a distinguishable inflection of awe, and set the drawing back on the desk.
Bilbo did not resist as a smile etched itself on his lips. And with it, some of his nervousness gave way. “He did, yes,” he said, daring to face his young cousin and risk having him see in his eyes whatever it was that he had wanted not seen all those years that they had lived together.
Frodo gazed at him, eyes teaming with questions. “I wish you would tell me more about him,” he said timidly. “You talk about the others, but never about him, not really.”
Bilbo’s chin dropped over his chest and he snorted as he tapped his fingers on the hard cover of a book. He did enjoy telling Frodo about his dwarf friends and the adventure that they he had shared with them, but he very rarely mentioned Thorin’s name, although he was the most prominent of dwarf figures in his story. He knew that a time would come when the young hobbit would start to find his avoidance of the topic peculiar and wonder. It seemed that that time had been there for a while. It should not have surprised him. Frodo was almost of age now. It would have been foolish to think that he could keep not telling him certain things for much longer.
“There is not much to say beyond what I have already told you, Frodo,” said Bilbo, sighing and finally left his books alone. “He was the leader of our Company. He told us where to go and when. His sense of direction left a lot to be desired, and he could be irritatingly headstrong, but he was very brave, and his heart was certainly in the right place. I helped him win his Mountain back and now he’s buried under it, with the Arkenstone, and his sword.”
Bilbo perceived the bitterness in his own voice, although he had not necessarily intended to put it there. He cleared his throat and looked at Frodo, who donned a look of appropriate consternation.
“So, you were not very good friends with him?” offered Frodo.
Bilbo couldn’t help smiling again. Frodo’s conjecture was not at all misplaced. What else could he think if Bilbo talked warmly about every other dwarf besides Thorin? Obviously, Bilbo must not have liked him as much as he liked the others. “No, we were all friends,” he said, feeling the sudden need to sit down. He slumped back into his chair. “Excellent friends,” he murmured, more to himself.
“Unless,” continued Frodo, with a twinkle of realisation in his tone. “I know that Sam likes Rosie Cotton and he never wants to talk about her.”
Bilbo’s gaze shot back to Frodo’s, knowing that there was no meandering out of this conversation. He no longer had to think of a way to tell Frodo. He wanted to tell him before leaving. He wanted to tell somebody, and his heir had the right to know. Yet, it appeared that age and experience had naturally pushed Frodo towards making that discovery on his own. All that Bilbo could do now was to answer his questions, and to try and gauge his reaction.
Frodo’s eyes were wide, twinkling blue embers, but he seemed more enlivened by having possibly solved a complicated riddle than he seemed put off by the implications of Bilbo having more than friendly feelings for the Dwarf King. “Did you… ” he began, but paused to reformulate his question before addressing it. “Did you have feelings for Thorin that you didn’t have for the others?”
Bilbo had to admit that Frodo had found an elegant phrasing. He measured his own words before answering. “He was... particularly important to me, yes. And I think that I was important to him.”
To Bilbo’s amazement, Frodo’s whole countenance illuminated as if a great mystery had been revealed to him. “Is that why you never married?”
Bilbo smiled and settled more comfortably into his chair. “I would not have made a very honest husband.”
Frodo’s expression clouded a little and he lowered his head. “I am sorry that he died,” he said, after a moment’s pause.
“He was a warrior and he gave his life to save many others, but I still regret his,” said Bilbo, feeling the familiar sting of tears in his throat and in his eyes. He could not look at Frodo anymore, and so he lowered his gaze to his hands, clasped together in a tightening hold.
“I truly am sorry, Bilbo. I will be outside, if you need me,” said Frodo, with very genuine sadness in his tone, and slipped out quietly.
His footsteps did not go much further immediately. They stopped briefly outside Bilbo’s study, then continued towards the door, which closed with a muffled click. That was when Bilbo knew that he was alone in the house again. His hands trembled as they covered his face, contorted by violent sobs. He had not allowed himself to cry in that way for a very long time, and it felt as if he could mourn Thorin anew after all those years.
When the sobs finally stopped and he felt lighter, Bilbo washed his face and went outside to look for Frodo. He found him sitting on his garden steps, his thoughts drifting far away, over the glistening hills. He did not seem to hear the sound of the door opening.
“Frodo?” said Bilbo, and the young hobbit turned to him a bit startled. “I am ready to go to the market if you are.”
Frodo nodded, but did not stand up. His shoulders slumped under the weight of something that needed to be confessed before going anywhere. “I should not have asked,” he said, looking up at Bilbo with guilty eyes. “I’m sorry. I did not mean to upset you.”
Bilbo waved it off and went to stand by his side. He squeezed his shoulder. “It’s all right, lad, I wanted to tell you... sometime.”
Frodo returned a half-smile and glanced towards the oak tree, risen lush and vigorous from the acorn that Bilbo had brought with him from his adventure. “The oak tree,” he said quietly, “It reminds you of him, doesn’t it? Oakenshield… I never thought about it before.”
Bilbo snorted lightly to himself. “I suppose I could have picked up the seed of any tree from Beorn’s garden, but I picked up an acorn,” he mused and Frodo looked at him again. “One of the last things that Thorin said to me, as he was dying, was to come back home and plant my trees, watch them grow. I think that he wanted me to watch them grow for him as well, and I have, every day since.” Frodo gazed at him with compassion. “Shall we go?”
Frodo nodded and finally stood up. They walked side by side for a few moments in silence. Bilbo could still feel the taste of tears in his throat and his sight was still a little misty, but the fresh air and the warm sunlight did him good.
“Bilbo?” said Frodo, with emphasis, and Bilbo looked at him with raised eyebrows. “I hope that someday I get to love someone as much as you loved Thorin. Even if I lose that person, like you did, I think that it might still be worth it.”
Bilbo felt the sudden urge to burst into tears again, but he controlled himself well enough. “I hope that you do, too,” he replied with what he hoped to be a pleasant smile.
“It is worth it, isn’t it?”
In spite of the sudden knot that ached in his chest, Bilbo did not hesitate to answer. “Entirely.”
Frodo grinned back, seeming to snap out of his philosophical moment. “What did Thorin like to eat?” he inquired then, scrunching up his eyebrows as if he was just beginning to think of the truly serious questions.
“Well, he didn’t have much of an appetite during the quest, but like all Dwarves, he was fond of meat. He also liked eggs very much. He asked for six of them at breakfast the morning we left Bag End.”
“Six?” asked Frodo with large eyes. Bilbo nodded, and Frodo pondered that detail for a while. “Did he like mushrooms?”
“Er, he liked mushrooms more than he liked vegetables, I suppose.”
“He never ate greens?”
“Not that I know of.”
“Huh… did he like tea of coffee?”
“Well, he was not against tea, but he preferred coffee, really.”
“I could have guessed that,” said Frodo somewhat triumphantly.
“He doesn’t sound like much of a tea person, does he?”
“No,” answered Frodo and they both laughed.
“Was he really as handsome as that drawing?” asked Frodo after they had both been satisfied with laughter and made a few more steps in silence.
“More,” answered Bilbo. “He had clear, blue eyes, just like you.”
Frodo looked particularly content with that information. “And he had long hair?”
“Yes, dark and curled, also like you.”
Frodo thought for a while more. “I think that I would have really liked Thorin,” he declared finally with an air of weighty certainty.
“I am quite sure of it myself,” said Bilbo, and winked.
The rest of Bilbo’s day went by quite agreeably. After returning from the market, he and Frodo had their lunch and tea, and then Bilbo baked some lovely seedcake. He spent the afternoon finishing up in his study, and evening found him sitting on his bench outside, blowing smoke rings into the falling dusk.
It had been an eventful day, one that he had been contemplating with apprehension for a long time. He felt much better now that he had told Frodo about Thorin. Not only because a great burden had been lifted from his heart, but because he knew now in all assuredness that Frodo was a fine young hobbit and that he could trust him to be all right by himself.
A mild breeze ruffled Bilbo’s hair, still the colour of very ripe fields of wheat even if he was almost 110 years old. He knew that it was just his imagination and his stirred memories, but he could have sworn that it was the touch of Thorin’s hair that he felt on his face, and a whisper of his voice that he heard through the wind. They said that time healed and that it made one forget. They did not know what it was to lose what he had lost. Even if he had not come back with him to the Shire, Thorin was present in Bilbo’s mind even when he was not thinking of him, especially when he was not thinking of him. When he looked out over the green hills of Hobbiton, or at the setting sun, when he drew in the scent of rain, or when he enjoyed a warm breeze as on that evening, Thorin was always there, like a seal that had been etched into his eyes and everything he saw, he saw through it. Death had not truly parted them, nor time.
Time, he had had enough of. He felt tired and in need of a long break. He felt ready to leave the Shire for good, forsake the ring that had stretched out his days to an uncommon age and live out the rest of his life with the Elves, in Rivendell, where Thorin would have surely found reasons to grumble constantly, had he come along. But perhaps there was a time and place where neither himself, nor Thorin would have found any more reason to grumble, and perhaps that time and place were getting near.
“Thorin,” spoke Bilbo to the wind, “wherever you are, I hope that you are waiting for me. It won’t be long now. I shall be there soon.”
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