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A Struggle Worth the Cost

This was essentially written as an attempt to justify my ship after movie canon tried so hard to sink it; you'll have to tell me how I did.

Title: A Struggle Worth the Cost
Pairing: Kíli/Bilbo, minor hints of others
Warnings: DoS canon angst
Word Count: 9927
Disclaimer: If I owned the Hobbit, it would be tragic
Summary: Things change after the Misty Mountains and Thorin is not the only one who sees Bilbo with new eyes.


Things had changed for the better after the Misty Mountains, though Bilbo was slightly irritated that all it took was one act of extremely foolhardy courage to make Thorin see him differently.

But despite his annoyance and the stupidity of the dwarf lord’s reasons, the hobbit was pleased to finally be accepted as a true member of the company. For while some of the other dwarves had been kind to him from the beginning, it had been all too obvious that he was more outsider than friend in Thorin’s eyes. Even when Bilbo had tried to pull his own weight where he could, many of his older companions had treated him like a foolish child instead of an adult and their condescension had begun to weigh on him.

Adventures were supposed to be better than your normal life, or at least more interesting, and if the hobbit was going to be lonely and unwanted, he could have done that from the comfort of his own home.

However, for all their hyperbole, the tales had been right about the bonds forged in blood and fire because Bilbo could not imagine leaving the others now. Or perhaps Thorin was simply not the only one that night had changed.

Not that the hobbit actually felt like a hero since he had been terrified for every second of the fight. He just hadn't been able to stand back and watch the dwarf lord die. So when the dwarves started treating him like a proper warrior after the eagles landed, Bilbo hadn’t known how to react at first.

Kíli was the worst of them; the young archer’s admiration almost palpable as he hung on the hobbit’s every word. Because the archer had taken Thorin’s newfound acceptance of their burglar as an excuse to indulge his interest in other cultures, asking one thousand and one questions about the Shire's way of life. In truth it was rather overwhelming but while the halfling was a bit uncomfortable at first, the dwarf's enthusiasm was impossible to resist for very long.

Indeed Bilbo soon found himself looking forward to these conversations since they helped to ease the panic in between bouts of running for his life. So he spun tales of bygone days for the archer as they traveled, myths, history and stories of his boyhood misadventures, and Kíli was not the only one who listened in.

While the older dwarves were more subtle about their interest, somehow Balin and the brothers Ri were always walking nearby at the most exciting parts and Fíli stood as a quiet presence at his brother's side.

The blond dwarf was still something of an enigma in the hobbit’s eyes for Bilbo had seen the core of steel beneath his lighthearted facade. But while he was fiercely protective of his family, Fíli also had one of the kindest hearts that the hobbit had ever known and the elder prince had been the first to take Bilbo aside after their company descended from the Carrock, bowing low and offering his formal thanks for what the burglar had just done.

“The House of Durin owes you a debt, Master Baggins, and we will always remember the bravery that you showed in our defense.” His face was serious and Bilbo was struck again by the difference between Fíli’s quiet strength and his brother’s somewhat manic glee. But then again, even if there were only a handful of years between the dwarves, looking after Kíli required a great deal of maturity.

Truthfully the hobbit did not know how his family had managed to keep the archer alive this long if his current reckless abandon was any indication of his early years. But while Bilbo was already feeling a share of responsibility for reining in Kíli’s recklessness, the halfling found that he really didn’t mind. Somehow the weight lay lightly on his shoulders and if he had had time for introspection, the hobbit would have had to admit a few things to himself. Such as Bilbo’s admiration for Kíli's dimples and those long, long legs of his.

But Azog had caught up to their company far too quickly and so the burglar did not have time for any epiphanies. He was too busy running and what stray revelations ghosted across his thoughts were easily justified.

After all, the world needed people who could always see its beauty even when their future darkened and the archer’s vibrant optimism was reason enough to keep him safe from harm.

So the burglar found himself looking to Kíli each time the company managed to escape from their pursuers for a little longer, his heart refusing to settle until he saw that the young dwarf was fine. Perhaps it was foolish of him considering that the archer had proven far more capable at fighting than Bilbo himself, but no amount of logical admonishments made the worry disappear.

Though, to be fair, it wasn’t every day that an enormous bear tried to swallow his companions and once the beast had been driven back from the door, the hobbit slumped against a wooden beam with a sigh. I'm not made for this, he thought as he panted for breath, one arm holding his aching side.

While Bilbo was in far better shape than he had been when they started this journey, hobbits were not made for distance sprinting and all this running was starting to take its toll on him.

“Are you all right?” someone said, the burglar glancing over to see Kíli staring at him worriedly.

“Shouldn't I be asking you that?” Bilbo responded, forcing himself upright with a groan before reaching out to grab the archer’s arm and looking him over for injuries. “The bear nearly had you there.”

“Yeah, that was a close one,” the young dwarf replied with an uneasy shudder before his smile broke through the gloom again. “But we made it through all right. Even if our wizard has gone crazy and expects that beast to be our host.”

As usual, Kíli's ridiculous cheer made short work of the hobbit’s exhaustion and he couldn’t help but return the other’s grin despite his aching legs. “I'm sure Gandalf has his reasons. He hasn't let us down before.”

“True enough. Uncle thought the man had lost it when he first saw you in Hobbiton and you've more than proved your worth by now,” the archer said, his whole face softening as Bilbo blushed furiously beneath Kíli’s fond gaze. But he could not make himself look away even though his cheeks were burning and the pair might have stood there forever if Fíli had not interrupted them.

“Thorin wants us,” the older dwarf told his brother, mouthing “Sorry” at the hobbit with a helpless shrug.

“I guess I'll talk to you later then,” Kíli said reluctantly, clapping their burglar on the shoulder in farewell. Then he turned to follow Fíli, Bilbo staring after him as they made their way to their uncle by the fire and the halfling knew that there must be an idiotic smile on his face.

Valar, but he's wonderful, the hobbit thought with a dreamy sigh. A little hairy for my usual taste, but those dimples are just adorab-.

He turned away quickly, his face flaming again he realized exactly what had been on his mind. What am I thinking? This is no time to be starting a relationship, Bilbo scolded himself, ducking his head and hoping that no one else had seen his slip.

But the rest of the company was busy settling down to sleep amongst Beorn’s many animals and the hobbit tried to shove the last few minutes from his mind so that he could do the same. However, while he was exhausted from their days of panicked travel, the burglar found it impossible to sleep for his mind was too wrapped up in his sudden epiphany to chase other sorts of dreams.

I'm well and truly smitten, aren't I? the halfling mused as he turned Gollum's ring within his hand, the cold shine helping to pierce through the denial that he had been living in.

Because Bilbo had not become infatuated with the archer over a few short days of conversation; his eyes were far too comfortable with Kíli's form for that. Indeed he could pick out the dwarf from amongst his fellows with only the barest glimpse of a shoulder and his mind was filled with the sound of the archer’s roaring laugh.

Sure the dwarf was a bit tall and gangly and too skinny by far but somehow that didn’t seem to matter and the halfling should have realized how he felt before now. After all, he was hardly a fauntling who had never known the sweet heat of attraction and Bilbo could not understand how he had failed to notice his heart fluttering.

Maybe I've just been too busy dodging Thorin's glares to realize how much I cared about his nephew and it’s not as though anything could have come of it while his uncle still hated me so perhaps denial was a way to spare myself the pain. To be honest, the hobbit almost wished that he had not realized the strength of his feelings since this revelation did him no good right now. Not when any one of them could die tomorrow and he didn’t even know if dwarves were open to these sorts of relationships. Given the general insularity of their people, Bilbo was not feeling very hopeful and he certainly wasn’t going to broach the subject without knowing if Kíli might like him back.

Sure the archer seemed to consider him a friend but the halfling was running blind here and he had never been one for taking needless risks. This quest was already the craziest thing that the burglar had ever done without trying to add a cross-cultural romance to the mix.

Valar, is he even of age? Bilbo wondered with a sudden spark of horror. I know dwarves live longer than my people but I have no idea how old he is. Well, that's just one more reason to hold my tongue right now.

So the burglar shoved his head underneath his cloak and groaned in frustration, forcing his thoughts to silence until he finally fell asleep.

But thankfully the world appeared somewhat brighter in the morning and the hobbit mood was improved further by their host's fantastic spread. Indeed while Beorn still seemed rather annoyed to have dwarves beneath his roof, Bilbo could find no fault with the skin-changer’s hospitality.

However, even such good food as this could not keep the burglar from worrying entirely, both about his companions' survival and the itch of attraction thrumming beneath his skin. Because Kíli looked absolutely delectable after a night of proper sleep, his eyes bright and shining as he laughed at something that his brother said.

Somehow it was harder to ignore the archer now that the hobbit had realized how he felt about him or maybe this was just the first time that Bilbo had tried. Still, Bagginses were nothing if not stubborn and he was determined to keep his emotions under control so that he didn’t make a fool of himself.

Thus the hobbit tried to pay attention as Beorn and Thorin faced off with each other, breathing a sigh of relief when the skin-changer agreed to aid their cause. Perhaps now their company would actually have a chance of reaching their goal before Azog's minions ran them down.

Besides their borrowed ponies were adorable, the burglar deciding to call his Myrtle in honor of the one who had fled before the dwarves reached Rivendell. She was cute and fuzzy and a great excuse to avoid Kíli as much as possible, Bilbo running off to braid daisies into her mane whenever the young dwarf looked his way. So even though nothing could truly stop his eyes from wandering, the hobbit had hope that his pining was not too obvious and perhaps things would have stayed in this limbo for the remainder of their journey if he had not forgotten to account for Kíli himself.

---

However, Bilbo had been too caught up in his own misgivings to remember that he wasn’t the only one making decisions here and quite frankly, their burglar was taking way too long for the archer’s taste.

Kíli had never been one for hesitation and while this had gotten him into trouble, it had also gotten him what he wanted more often than not. And right now he wanted their hobbit because Bilbo had interested the dwarf from the beginning with his odd mix of fussiness and snark, a wicked tongue hidden beneath that soft facade. The prince had always appreciated people who could make him laugh so freely, almost as much as he liked a good surprise.

Thus Bilbo was everything the archer liked wrapped in one adorably chubby package and it had taken a great deal of self-control to keep his hands to himself this long. He wanted their hobbit, wanted to hold him and kiss him and perhaps even love him one of these days.

But while Kíli often ran forward without thinking this did not mean he was completely oblivious to the world around him and his uncle's dislike of Bilbo had been rather hard to miss. So no matter how the burglar’s smile made his heart beat faster, the archer had not been willing to face the dwarf lord’s wrath just yet. Not when it had taken weeks of begging before Thorin allowed Kíli and Fíli to join him on his quest and his brother would take the blame for any foolishness as he had always done. So instead of risking their banishment back to Ered Luin, the younger dwarf had sighed and pined and held his fucking tongue.

However, that was before Bilbo had saved his uncle’s life and in so doing, more than proved himself to everyone. Indeed now that Thorin had finally seen the steel within their burglar's soul, the archer had no intention of waiting on the sidelines anymore.

Because Kíli was bad at being serious, the weight of it sat poorly on his shoulders, and as soon as he had a moment to catch his breath, his thoughts turned to more pleasant things than Azog’s deadly threat. Really there were so many pleasant things to think of and Beorn's hall was a chance to test the waters, trade goofy smiles with his hobbit as he admired the other’s lovely blush. Indeed, the archer probably would have kissed him then if Fíli had not interrupted at the perfect moment but despite his disappointment, the anticipation would only make that moment sweeter when it came.

Assuming that the dwarf ever managed to talk to Bilbo long enough to have that conversation because the closer that the company drew to the Mirkwood, the more it seemed that the burglar was avoiding him. It went on for days like that – and really one pony could not possibly need so much combing – until finally Kíli had had enough.

“May I speak with you for a moment?” he asked, cornering the hobbit by the fire the night before they reached the forest's western edge. The dwarf’s tone was gentle but firm and although Bilbo hesitated for a moment, his resistance could not withstand the archer’s pleading eyes.

Works every time, Kíli thought a little smugly as he led the burglar away from the company, that trick having gotten him out of a lot of trouble in his day. Indeed he was rather pleased to see that Bilbo was not immune to it like his closest family members even though the prince would not use that ploy to make his case. Not when that wouldn’t be fair to the hobbit and so once the other dwarves were out of earshot, Kíli allowed the smile to drop from his face. He wanted Bilbo to realize that he was serious about his proposition and he reached out to take the burglar’s hands.

“My dear Bilbo,” he began, trying to fill his voice with all the admiration that he felt. “I want you to know that you are extraordinary, brave and clever like no one that I've ever met before. And I want... I would like to be your friend and I would be honored to be more.”

The archer cupped the burglar’s face between his palms, stroking Bilbo's cheek gently until he finally met Kíli's gaze. He saw surprise and a hint of doubt in those wide eyes and yet that was nothing compared to the dawning wonder there.

So the dwarf could no longer resist the urge to kiss his hobbit and he leaned down to claim the other’s lips. He kissed Bilbo gently, sweetly, demanding nothing until the hobbit melted against his chest. Only then did Kíli pull back, just far enough to whisper, “Will you allow me the chance to prove myself?”

The halfling was blushing again, a rosy flush across his cheekbones that the archer wanted to follow with his tongue. But for this he could have patience; their burglar deserved to be courted properly. Although at the moment Bilbo appeared more gobsmacked than anything else, staring up at Kíli as if he would disappear.

“Are you sure you want me?” the hobbit asked when he finally managed to speak again. “There are so many reasons why we should forget the thought: the quest, your uncle, our people's differences...”

“I do not care about excuses,” Kíli replied firmly, refusing to admit that Bilbo might have a point. “All I want to know is if you think that you could love me because that chance would be worth anything. It would be a far greater reward than Erebor itself.”

He wasn't usually this eloquent but the hobbit brought out his poetic side; he made Kíli want to dream of romance and so perhaps the dwarf had already fallen deeper than he’d thought.

“To be honest, I care for you already,” Bilbo said eventually, squaring his shoulders with a resolute nod. “And if you are certain that you wish to do this, I am with you for as long as the dream lasts.”

So the pair traded a few more sweet kisses before the falling sun drove them back toward the rest of the company, Kíli tangling their fingers together to keep Bilbo at his side. He leaned into the hobbit as they sat down by the fire, wrapping one arm around his shoulders while Thorin watched them with an indulgent sigh.

---

It still hadn't quite sunk in for Bilbo when he woke up the next morning and he lay there for a long moment to savor his lovely dream. It must have been a dream or a pleasant fantasy because the younger prince of Erebor could not possibly want him. But Kíli did not allow the hobbit to doubt his memories for long, greeting him with a kiss and brilliant grin.

So this last day before the Mirkwood was spent in a rather joyful haze, Bilbo soaking up the archer's presence like a flower starved for light. It had been a long time since anyone touched him, a long time since anyone had tried, and while the dwarf was hardly going to claim his burglar before the entire company, that did not mean he kept his hands to himself. A brush across the hobbit's fingers as their ponies trotted side by side, an arm around his waist when the group halted for a drink – a thousand fleeting touches that showed Bilbo how deeply he was cared about.

No matter how their story ended, whether in triumph or in heartbreak, right now the halfling was utterly content. Truthfully he was happier than he had been for quite some time despite the danger that still dogged their footsteps and not even the sight of the Mirkwood could ruin his mood entirely.

Although the forest certainly tried, looming before Thorin's company in a tangle of darkness and of gloom that made the burglar sway on his pony’s back. Bilbo could feel it like a sickness, every tree before them rotted to its core, and all he could think was: I do not want to go in there. But Gandalf overrode his objections with practical necessity and if this was truly the only path that they could take, the hobbit would soldier on.

Only it seemed that they must soldier on without the wizard at their side.

Not that Bilbo realized this when he moved to help Nori unsaddle their ponies, bumping his shoulder against Kíli's for support. The archer gave him another glinting smile and it helped to know that he was not alone anymore.

Indeed his mood would have remained positively hopeful if Gandalf had not run out of the Mirkwood shouting for his horse. The hobbit had never seen the other look so shaken, not even when Azog had been set to kill them all, but whatever he had found within the forest had disturbed him to the bone. Disturbed him enough to abandon Thorin’s company without his guidance when they would need it most.

“You're not leaving us?” Bilbo asked plaintively, unable to stop a hint of panic from welling up inside his chest. If Gandalf left who would get their company to safety next time that Azog cornered them? It's not as though the burglar could be relied upon to save anyone again even if he had stumbled upon a magic ring somehow and now that Kíli had offered him a future, Bilbo couldn't imagine losing it.

So he found himself shifting closer to his dwarf, sharing worried looks with his companions as they digested Gandalf's abandonment. Because the wizard would not be swayed from his new purpose and he took the hobbit aside to offer some last words of advice.

“You've changed, Bilbo Baggins. You're not the same hobbit as the one who left the Shire,” he said and if this was supposed to be comforting, the tone was rather off.

Instead the burglar found himself feeling guilty for some reason, his thoughts turning to Gollum's haunted eyes after the creature had realized that his ring was gone. “I was going to tell you; I... found something in the goblin tunnels.”

“Found what?” Gandalf asked, his eyes narrowing suspiciously at Bilbo's uncharacteristic hesitance. While the hobbit had been out of his depth for much of their journey, he tended more towards snark than shyness and the wizard had never seen his tongue so tied before. “What did you find?”

In truth, the halfling was never sure why he did not speak of the ring in that moment, for that has been his intention when he opened his mouth. But the wizard looked so tired then, so very old that Bilbo did not wish to trouble him anymore. The ring was such a little thing, just a harmless bit of magic, and it could wait until his friend returned. Both were good justifications for his silence and if the hobbit only thought of them after his words failed him, this was neither here nor there.

And thus the wizard rode off in ignorance, leaving Thorin's company huddled before the Mirkwood in a cold drizzle that perfectly matched their mood.

But Durin’s Day was fast approaching so the dwarves squared their shoulders and walked forward, Bilbo holding Kíli's hand tightly as they stepped beneath that canopy. The forest closed over them like a living shroud, even the sounds of their footsteps suddenly muffled so that Gandalf's final warning was all the burglar could hear.

“You must stay on the path; do not leave it. If you do, you will never find it again,” the wizard had cautioned and at first this task did not seem too difficult. For while it was almost impossible to judge the passage of time within the Mirkwood, the elvish road remained bright and shining beneath their feet.

Until it wasn't anymore.

However, that was several days into their journey and for now the hobbit still had hope that they might reach the other side unscathed. So he passed the long hours trading stories about his childhood with Fíli, Kíli listening in and groaning whenever his brother mentioned something embarrassing. Though the archer's annoyance was easily placated by Bilbo's fond amusement and a few mortifying truths of his own.

Though as their crossing dragged on and on, even Kíli's relentless cheer began to dim, his smile swallowed by the dank miasma that they breathed. Truly everyone was becoming sluggish after so long in the darkness and the shadows seemed to reach down from the trees when Nori said they'd lost the path.

Bilbo couldn’t understand how the dwarves had failed to notice and yet despite their panicked searching, there was nothing to be found. So eventually Thorin had to admit defeat amidst a string of curses, shoving his company onward through the trees with a growl.

From then on their journey only grew more twisted, movement dancing in the corner of Bilbo's eyes as he reached out to touch the strange webbing strewn across their path. It shuddered beneath his fingers like a living creature or perhaps that was just this forest digging deep beneath his skin. The sickness and the madness closed in around him until his feet seemed to be moving on their own and he stumbled then, vision twisting as Dori disappeared into his own reflection staring back.

The hobbit jerked away at the sight, nearly colliding with Kíli before the vision disappeared. But he could still feel his head swimming even as the company realized that they had been traveling in circles and Thorin snarled his frustration toward the sky.

Soon any semblance of order had devolved into arguments and accusations, old feuds and half-forgotten insults drawn back into present memory. Only the burglar was relatively unaffected, perhaps because he had no grudges to offer, and while his thoughts were unfocused, there was one that anchored him.

“The sun. We have to find the sun. Up there...” I have to find the light and bring it back. He could see flashes of the sun far above them, a faint glint calling to him between the leaves and somehow he found the strength to climb. With every step he left the company muttering below him, pulling himself painstakingly into the forest canopy.

His journey seemed to take forever as his hands slipped on rough bark and rotten leaves but eventually his head broke through the trees. One deep breath and the Mirkwood's poison spell was broken, its sick miasma blowing away on the breeze.

Now the hobbit could think again, the world filled with a sudden clarity as he stared across the forest canopy in awe. For the sky around him was awash with butterflies, a tapestry of painted wings shining in the light.

Here was a remnant of the Greenwood, the beauty that this forest had known in ancient times, and Bilbo felt his heart swell at the sight. Knowing that such loveliness could survive the evil which surrounded them gave the burglar hope for better days; hope for the future and their quest's triumphant ending because there before him was Esgaroth as well. He could see the Long Lake and the Lonely Mountain rising far above it and it was not so far at all.

“We're almost there! Can you hear me? I know which way to go,” Bilbo shouted down between the branches and worry began to overwhelm him when he heard nothing in return.

His dwarves could have seriously injured each other given the way they had been fighting and the hobbit was about to begin his descent when movement caught his eye. Something was coming; something large was rustling the branches and the burglar had no hope that the creature was benign. I have to warn Kíli and the others, he thought, fear driving him down into the trees again.

But any dreams that Bilbo had of rescuing his dwarves were quickly shattered when he caught his foot on a sticky web and tumbled straight into an enormous spider's jaws. His panicked kicking only delayed the inevitable, the hobbit watching in horror as a swarm of the creatures overwhelmed his companions and the ache of failure followed him into unconsciousness.


He woke suddenly from a dream of suffocation only to discover that his nightmare was all too real. Indeed Bilbo was so wrapped in webs that he couldn’t even twitch and his scream welled up in his throat without anywhere to go.

So the burglar choked on it, his mind whiting out with panic as he thrashed against the spider's hold. But once he had exhausted himself in the struggle, calmer thoughts were able to prevail. Because his dwarves were either dead or captured so if he was going to survive this, he would have to save himself. Come on, Bilbo. Get it together. It's time to prove your worth again. You can worry about Kíli once you're not about to be eaten anymore.

The hobbit didn’t exactly have a plan but a bit of wriggling proved that the webbing was not as tight as his terrified mind had thought and with some careful maneuvering, he managed to free his blade.

Just like squashing a spider in the garden, Bilbo told himself firmly, ignoring the fact that he'd never had the heart. But one quick stab and it was over, the shock of the impact nearly tearing his weapon from his grip as the monster fell out of his sight.

Then the hobbit staggered to his feet, brushing the webs away from his face before he fumbled Gollum's ring onto his hand. Instantly the world turned white and ghostly and to his great surprise, the ring’s strange magic gave voice to the spiders as they argued over their meal. For all their size, they clearly were not the brightest creatures and a flung stick drew most of them away.

Only one remained, too caught up in its hunger to be enticed by further prey. Instead it scuttled around one of Bilbo's companions, salivating over his flesh until the burglar could not stand it anymore.

Even though he was unable to see which dwarf was threatened, he could not stand back and watch his friend or lover die. So he charged forward, driven by the same desperation that had allowed him to tackle Azog in Thorin's defense.

But the same power which hid Bilbo from the spider's sight also seemed to dull his blade and the sword glanced off the monster's fangs without obvious effect. Indeed his blows just made the creature angry, his opponent snarling curses as it tried to bring the hobbit down. So he removed his ring once more and took advantage of the spider's surprise to shove his blade in deep.

“It stings! Stings!” the creature shouted, blood pouring from its wound as it crashed toward the ground.

“Sting. That's a good name,” the burglar said, staring at his blade with a smug little grin. He kind of liked this new version of himself, the brave and daring Bilbo who rescued everyone and no one was ever going to call his sword a letter opener again.

So he turned his attention to the webs that held his friends imprisoned, a few quick slices sending them to the forest floor where the dwarves started to stand up groggily. To the hobbit's great relief everyone appeared to be unharmed and Bilbo's eyes sought out Kíli's form amongst the rest. The archer too was looking for his burglar, though it was Bofur who voiced the concern in his heart. However, before the halfling could ease their worry, another spider attacked him from behind.

No! Bilbo shrieked, his ring slipping from his fingers as he tumbled through the branches and while he had only owned it for a short time, he was suddenly consumed by the need to get it back.

Nothing else mattered, not even the sounds of battle that drifted up between the trees, and the hobbit scrabbled through the dirt desperately.

“Where is it? Where is it? Come on. Where is it?” Bilbo muttered, panic easing only once he finally spied his treasure a few feet away. But just as the burglar began to walk forward, a hatchling spider crawled out of the earth. It was pale and grotesque and the sight made the halfling falter until one of its legs brushed against his ring.

Then the hobbit saw red, leaping forward to attack the spider with a feral shout. Mine! he snarled, blade crashing down upon the creature's back. Mine! Mine! Mine! Mine! Mine! Only when the spider had stopped twitching and the ring was in his hands again did his thoughts begin to clear, Bilbo sitting back on his heels with a feral smirk.

Serves you right, the burglar thought as he gazed upon his treasure and whispered one more satisfied, “Mine.” You never should have challeng-... what am I doing? What did I do?!

Bilbo stared down at his hands, the once clean skin covered with blood and slime and ichor, and the hobbit's satisfaction was fast disappearing beneath a dawning horror. Because this was not him; this was not Bilbo Baggins who had never killed another creature before their journey started and this was not the person that he wanted to be.

But even now when shame threatened to overwhelm him, the halfling could not bring himself to throw the ring away. All he could do was rock back and forth in the dirt where he was sitting, one hand across his mouth to muffle the sound of his sobs.

---

Kíli was getting very tired of fighting for his life. Sure he enjoyed a good brawl as much as the next dwarf, but a giant bug attempting to eat him was where the archer drew the line.

Honestly, this whole day had been terrible from the moment that it started and he still didn’t know where his hobbit was. The dwarf hadn't seen Bilbo since the spiders had first attacked their company, though he was fairly certain that their burglar had saved everyone again.

That's my hobbit, Kíli thought proudly before ducking a flying claw. While he might have preferred a quieter trip which gave them time to fall in love properly, he had enjoyed seeing Bilbo find his courage whenever their luck failed.

But the trouble they were in now might be too much even for the burglar's cleverness and the archer had to sigh when the spiders were joined by a score of elvish scouts. Their company was quickly surrounded, Kíli keeping one eye open for his hobbit while Thorin and the elves’ leader traded angry barbs and his distraction almost cost him everything.

Because one of the spiders grabbed him by the ankle after his weapons were lost to elvish hands, Fíli shouting his brother’s name as the monster dragged him away. But without a blade the dwarf could only flail and struggle wildly since not everyone could look as majestic as his uncle when in danger for his life.

So while it was rather embarrassing to be rescued by an elf maid, Kíli was just happy to be rescued at all, and perhaps maid was the wrong term considering her lethal skill. For the warrior cut through the remaining spiders as if she were dancing, her knives leaving a trail of bleeding corpses in her wake, and the archer had to admit he was impressed.

That is my kind of woman, the dwarf thought with a slightly dreamy sigh and if not for Bilbo, he might have fallen in love right there. But his people were nothing if not loyal once their hearts were given so Kíli settled for some harmless flirting as he was imprisoned, fighting back a laugh when the elf shot him down sarcastically.

Yet even if this Tauriel found him amusing, their company could expect no aid from that quarter, particularly after Thorin told her king to 'Ish kakhfê ai’d dur rugnu!'

Even Kíli might have thought twice before saying that to their captor but the mere mention of Thranduil had always made his uncle act irrationally and without a deal their only hope of escape lay with their burglar. However, their leaders being mortal enemies didn’t mean that he and Tauriel couldn’t get along anyway. So Kíli struck up a conversation when the elf captain made her rounds and even a reluctant ally might be useful if Bilbo's efforts failed.

Not that the dwarf wanted to think about that possibility – his hobbit caught and captured, tortured or far worse. It was much more pleasant to focus on the way that Tauriel's eyes glowed when she spoke about the starlight and Kíli had always been fascinated by how other races saw the world.

So their discussion lasted long into the night, the pair trading tales of the wonders they had seen until the archer could almost forget that he was imprisoned here.

---

Meanwhile, Bilbo was having a far less pleasant experience in the elf king's halls. Despite his misgivings, the hobbit had no choice but to wear his ring continuously as he snuck through the dungeons, every close call making his heart pound in his ears. For these cursed elves could hear him even when his body was hidden from their sight and the burglar had to hold his breath more than once.

But the hours that he spent pressed into awkward corners finally paid off and he knew exactly how he was getting his dwarves out of here. The halfling just had to wait for Elros and his friend to drink themselves into a stupor before nicking the guard’s keys and setting his friends free.

Honestly the brilliant smile that Kíli gave him was worth every nerve-wracking minute and Bilbo stole a quick kiss while Balin unlocked the other cells. It was good to see the archer with his eyes clear of madness, bright and shining like they were supposed to be, and the dwarf seemed just as pleased to see his hobbit there. So a pleasant warmth filled Bilbo's chest when Kíli shoved his way through the company to walk at his burglar's side, keeping him company while they descended into the earth.

The halfling did feel a twinge of jealousy when the archer started telling him about some Tauriel, who was apparently the most fantastic woman that the other had ever met. But he could not be too resentful as long as his dwarf kept looking at him with such passion in his eyes and that flirtatious spirit was part of what he'd fallen for.

So Bilbo took a quiet pleasure in Kíli's enthusiasm while he led the dwarves ever deeper and although the archer did seem a bit confused when the company arrived in Thranduil's cellars, he was quick to support the burglar when he asked for Thorin's trust. However, the rest of the dwarves were not as easily convinced and thus the discussion quickly devolved into bickering again.

Only their leader's growled command forced his company to climb inside the empty barrels as the hobbit wanted, several of the company sending Bilbo annoyed glares. Admittedly it wasn’t the most dignified manner of escape but the burglar thought that he had done rather well in the time he had.

Even if the hobbit had completely forgotten to consider his own freedom and he panicked slightly when the trapdoor shut with him on the wrong side. However, a bit of Tookish luck soon had that sorted out and then Bilbo was floating in the river with the rest. He hung on tightly to one of the barrels as they rushing water swept them toward the exit, the burglar far too aware of the depths below his feet. However, their escape had not gone unnoticed and before they passed the final barrier, shouts of alarm began to sound.

Curse it all, Bilbo swore as the sluice gate swings shut before them, Just a few more seconds and we would have been home free.

The dwarves would have no chance of reaching the mountain now, not if their burglar was imprisoned with the rest. But just as the hobbit was resigning himself to a most unpleasant future, the situation changed again. A band of orcs swarmed out of the forest, slaughtering several of the elvish warriors before anyone could react.

These monsters were clearly after Bilbo's companions and while Azog was not with them, a new terror stood at the head of the pack. Scarred and misshapen, the orc towered above his fellows with death burning in his one clear eye.

But this time there would be no brave charge to drive back their enemies because the hobbit was having enough trouble keeping himself afloat. Only a white-knuckle grip on the edge of Nori's barrel stopped his head from falling beneath the water and his companions were not faring much better as the battle raged on above their heads. In truth the dwarves were sitting ducks there in the sluice tunnel and they would all be lost if they could not escape soon.

Bilbo was too busy choking on river water to notice when Kíli leaped for shore, but the hobbit would not have been surprised by the other's recklessness. It was just like the dwarf to ignore his own safety and perhaps it was better that the burglar remained ignorant. Every near miss would have made him grow faint with worry, the hobbit helpless to do anything but watch as the archer tried to save them all.

And yet even though he knew nothing of the danger that his dwarf was facing, Bilbo could not miss the scream. Not when it was the sound of his own heart shattering.

The hobbit could see his terror mirrored on Fíli's face when he looked over but while the dwarf shouted his brother's name frantically, the burglar's voice was stolen by the thought of Kíli dying without him there. It would be unforgivable because no one should have to face the end alone, not when their loved ones were close enough to hear them cry out in agony. So he began to drag himself toward the pathway, determined to die together if they must die at all.

But before Bilbo could climb up onto the rocks, the sluice gate began to creak open and a spark of hope ignited in his chest. The same thought was visible on the faces of his companions, Fíli refusing to move until Kíli tumbled back into his barrel with a groan.

The archer was pale and shaking, his face twisted harshly in agony, and yet all the hobbit could feel was relief that the other was still alive. Wounded was far better than dead when even the worst injury would heal with time.

So he clasped Kíli's hand tightly as they swept through the river tunnel, the rest of their journey passing in a blur of water, orcs and elves. Honestly, he was too busy trying not to drown to pay much attention to the chaos going on around him and by the time the dwarves outpaced their enemies, the burglar's arms were shaking from the strain. So the moment that he felt earth beneath his feet, he let go with a gasp of relief.

However, despite the streaks of pain that were running through him as he lay panting on the rocky shore, it was his archer whom Bilbo was most worried about it. He watched anxiously as Kíli stumbled forward and no matter what that fool dwarf said, he was definitely not fine.

But the blood pouring down his leg was making the hobbit rather queasy so he left the archer in his brother's expert hands until the gory work was done. By then the burglar's legs had stopped shaking enough for him to stand again, not that he was much use when the bowman appeared. But suspicious as he as, Balin managed to talk the scruffy fellow into ferrying their company to Laketown and Bilbo settled by Kíli's side once they were all aboard.

“That was very brave of you, if utterly foolhardy,” the halfling said, leaning against his dwarf's shoulder carefully. “Although I do wish you wouldn't make me worry so much next time.”

“Now you know how I felt watching you charge Azog,” Kíli retorted, gracing him with a wry smile before wincing in pain again. “But I only did what was necessary and the wound is worth it to know that we are free. I could not have let you come to harm.”

Bilbo flushed beneath the other's words, a warm glow suffusing his chest as he ducked his head bashfully. He still wasn’t used to someone caring about him, no one had after his parents died, and he leaned over to press a kiss to Kíli's cheek.

“I'll be right back,” the hobbit murmured before standing up carefully and picking his way through their companions to reach the boatman's side.

“Master Bowman, may I trouble you for a moment? I was wondering if you had some water for my companion; he has been injured and a drink would help to ease his pain.”

“Your companion, you say? These are an interesting bunch with whom you're traveling and you do not look like the rest. Are you a dwarf lady then? I've heard that they appear very similar to dwarven men but with a bit less hair.”

“What?! No! I am a hobbit and very much a male. Bilbo Baggins, at your service.”

“Bard the Bowman at yours. Or rather Bard the Bargeman these days,” the man said with a friendly chuckle that deflated the burglar's offended posturing. “I apologize if I insulted you. Times are hard and we do not see many travelers these days so I take my amusement where I can. But here's a skin of water for your friend there; your face was well worth the cost.”

“Thank you,” the hobbit replied, reaching out to take the water a little warily. However, Bard seemed sincere in his apology and while it had not been the classiest joke, Bilbo had faced worse pranks from his cousins every year.

So the burglar laid his suspicions to rest as he made his way back to Kíli, content in the knowledge that their goal was close now and surely the rest of their journey must pass more peacefully.

---

The archer really hadn't meant to worry anyone. He had simply seen the gate lever and moved before he'd thought. Then again Fíli was always saying that was his brother's problem, scolding him whenever he didn’t consider the consequences of his actions well enough.

But there had been no time for reflection and in truth Kíli would have done exactly the same thing even if he had known what it would cost. Because one small wound was a cheap price to pay for his uncle's dreams and the safety of their company. Erebor was the only thing that Thorin had spoken of for as long as the archer could remember; he and his brother had grown up on tales of their great-grandfather's kingdom and so Kíli could not have let this chance slip through their grasp.

Although the dwarf had actually been driven as much by fear for Bilbo as for the rest of his companions and he would have died before he allowed his hobbit to be harmed. For Kíli was sure now that he did love his burglar when before the archer had not known the strength of what he felt.

He had not known until he was laying on the stone in agony and the thought of Bilbo had been the only thing which drove him to his feet. The prince had not been able to bear the idea of dying without seeing the other's face again and he could not leave their hobbit to be slaughtered by their enemies. So he had moved even though every step was a torture, the fight raging on around him in a blur of pain and blood. He had done what was needed and while the wound in his thigh burned fiercely, he could not regret earning it.

Not that the dwarf was going to announce his agony to the world for it was bad enough to see the worry in Bilbo's eyes. Fíli would only fuss over him even more if he knew the truth and Kíli could not stand the thought of his uncle’s disappointed face. It was worse than any scolding to know that he was letting Thorin down and so the archer was determined to keep pace.

Therefore he tried hide the pain, smiling down at his hobbit even though his leg was on fire and forcing himself to stay alert while Bard snuck their company into Laketown beneath the guards’ watchful eyes. But the dwarf zoned out the moment that he had the chance to sit down, staying silent as everyone argued over the weapons the bargeman brought.

To be honest it seemed a little unreasonable to think he would have dwarven steel hidden in his rafters and the merchants they were posing as would have been content enough. However, Kíli had far worse things to worry about than their company's lies unraveling because the pain of his wound was only growing worse. By now his leg was one throbbing mass of agony and with every passing minute, the dwarf's mind was growing hazier from the pain; the pain and the seed of terror which blossomed in his heart.

Kíli did not want to die so young and yet if rest could not ease his injury then the young prince might be doomed. So he hobbled over to Bilbo where he was sitting in the corner, determined to enjoy himself during these last hours if they were all that he had left.

The rest of the company was busy arguing but it was not hard to entice the hobbit into soft kisses and cuddling, the most that he could ask beneath so many watchful eyes. Bilbo's lips had only grown sweeter for their absence and if the dwarf's smile was slightly brittle, the burglar did not ask him why.

My dear hobbit. If I must return to Mahal's embrace, at least I will not do it with a lonely heart. I am only sorry for the pain that I will cause you if what I fear comes to pass and I hope that I survive long enough to see the halls of my fathers with you at my side, Kíli thought, holding his burglar close to him. For if Smaug yet lives within the mountain, you should have someone with you who cares more about your safety than about Erebor's shining heart. Surely I can last that long.

But while the archer needed a chance to heal more than anything, this was not to be because the company's discussion ended with a plan to rob the humans' armory. A poor way to repay Laketown's hospitality, grudging though it might be, but Thorin would not be dissuaded from his path.

So Kíli found himself creeping like a thief through the night and he could not be too surprised when his leg gave out, even if the dwarf would have preferred to collapse without bringing a score of guards down upon their heads. But thankfully his uncle seemed to forget his error in the struggle to sway Laketown's Master to their cause even as Kíli fought his own battle to remain upright. Both of them proved to be successful, although the archer was extremely grateful when the man offered a feast in Thorin's honor and he could sink down in a chair again.

Their company never did sleep that night, the celebration lasting until the wee hours of the morning and by the time the sun rose, the archer wasn't sure which way was up. His world as spinning slowly, the sharp pain of his wound lost in a spreading fire so that it took all of his concentration to keep from stumbling.

In truth, Kíli only made it to their boat because Bilbo helped to support him but while the dwarf was barely coherent anymore, he still could not believe it when Thorin barred his way.

“Not you. We must travel with speed and you will slow us down.” His uncle could not have chosen any words to hurt him more, not when he had always tried so hard to make him proud.

“What are you talking about? I'm coming with you,” the archer protested, looking at Thorin with pleading eyes. But this time the older dwarf stood firm and while he tried to soften the blow by saying that Kíli could join them once he healed, the prince was increasingly sure that day would never come. So he could not help but feel betrayed as Thorin left him here to die amongst hostile strangers, denying his nephew the chance to see Erebor's golden halls.

Although Kíli just felt guilty when Fíli climbed out of the boat to join him for his brother should not sacrifice this dream for him. The elder dwarf deserved to be standing with their uncle when that secret door was opened instead of being held back by Kíli once again.

But the archer did not have the voice to convince Fíli to leave him; truly he had no words at all. He could only meet Bilbo's eyes helplessly, a faint shake of his head keeping the halfling in his seat. Their company would have no hope of success without their burglar so as much as Kíli wanted to collapse in his hobbit’s arms, this was not an option here.

The dwarf could not be the reason that his family's dreams were shattered, even if this meant giving up his own instead. And thus he watched his companions float away without him, eyes locked upon Bilbo's small form until the world went dark.

---

The hobbit did not see Kíli collapse, though if he had he might have leaped from the boat despite his inability to swim. Yet even in his ignorance, he could not shake the feeling that something terrible was happening and he stared back at Laketown until the company reached Esgaroth's far shore.

So really it seemed almost fitting that Gandalf was not there to meet them at the overlook and that damn door was nowhere to be found.

Come on, Bilbo. Think! You need to have good news for Kíli when you see him again, the burglar told himself, nerves buzzing with panic as the time flew by. But then he spied a pathway zigzagging up an enormous looming statue carved into the mountain and when they reached the top, Bilbo was certain this was the door they sought.

The others shared his conviction, gathering around the stone with the widest grins that the hobbit had ever seen. Even Thorin was smiling, the expression transforming his face into something truly beautiful. The dwarf lord looked so much like his nephew then and it broke Bilbo's heart to see that smile fall when the sun disappeared without revealing anything.

“What did we miss?” he asked the company, voice edged with despair. “What did we miss, Balin?”

But the older dwarf had no answers for his leader and the hobbit could not believe it when the others began to give up hope. There must be something more, something left that they could try for Bilbo would not accept that they had failed. He could not accept that the danger and the sacrifice had been for nothing, Kíli's blood spilled uselessly.

“Thorin... you can't give up now,” he whispered after the other tossed his father's key away despairingly. However, the dwarf would not listen and soon the burglar was the only one still on the mountainside. So Bilbo stared at the stone stubbornly, repeating the map's riddle under his breath as he wracked his brain for ideas and once again, his stubbornness paid off. Although the burglar almost wished that he'd given up with the others when Balin left him in the tunnels of Erebor, the old dwarf's warning ringing in his ears.

And yet there was beauty in these carved stone walls, a sense of love and history in every detailed carving, and Bilbo's fear was lost in wonder for a time. The hobbit only wished that Kíli were here to see it with him because the archer's excitement would have made this day complete.

However, the burglar soon had more excitement than he wanted as his search for the Arkenstone continued and he could only wince when Smaug opened one glowing yellow eye. The dragon was truly enormous, his power overwhelming in its strength and the hobbit could think of nothing but to resort to flattery. Yet somehow the creature's smug knowledge was far worse than any fangs or fire, Smaug's words flaying Bilbo's fears wide open with his poison tongue, and all too soon Thorin began to prove him right.

Because there was a glint of madness in his eye when he asked about the Arkenstone and the hand that held his sword did not tremble against the hobbit’s neck. There was no sign of the dwarf who had watched his nephew's courtship with a doting grin as he glared down at the burglar, only the need for vengeance against the monster who had stolen everything.

So Bilbo could not be too surprised when Thorin decided that they would all burn together, though this did not mean that he was not horrified.

How did everything fall apart so quickly? he wondered, sprinting away from the dragon's flames again. Their attempts to fight only made Smaug angrier and angrier, his smug superiority disappearing beneath an overwhelming rage.

All too soon the dragon decided that these dwarves were not worth his time and set his sights on a larger prize. So Bilbo listened in dismay as Smaug threatened to raze Laketown to the ground in retaliation for the company’s trespassing.

The fire drake would slaughter everyone: Bard and his young children, the people whose only crime was living in the shadow of the mountain and the dwarves whom Bilbo most cared about. Bofur, who had been kind to him from the beginning; Fíli, whose greatest desire was to keep his brother safe and Kíli, whom the hobbit could no longer imagine life without.

His dear friends would never be able to flee in time, not with the archer's injury slowing them and if they died now it would be entirely his fault. For he was the one who had woken up the dragon, the one who should have moved more softly or found a way to kill their foe before he opened those dread eyes.

Yet Bilbo's desperate pleas for mercy only stoked the dragon's hatred and Thorin's final attempt to kill Smaug just gilded the monster’s hide. So all the hobbit could do was watch as death swept toward Laketown; watch and pray and whisper, “What have we done?”


End