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On Adventures and Other Forms of Conduct Unbecoming of a Wizard

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I.

For as long as even the old Gaffer could remember there had been a wizard living in the hill at Bag End, overlooking the Shire. As wizards went, this one wasn't the wandering sort, always out to lure gentle folk out onto nasty adventures, or even the powerful kind, the sort that lived in high towers, reaching out into the ways of the world.

No, this was a wizard who was their sort of folk, more of a gentlehobbit than a wizard; why, he even looked exactly like a hobbit, from his modest height - even for a hobbit - to the unruly curls on his head, his equally modest if ageless features, his slowly prospering belly, to his bared and furry feet. Even his name was Hobbitish: "Bilbo" - and although he took no family surname, he was known to be quite fond of the Baggins clan, probably for their solid respectability of character, though, that being said, the wizard Bilbo was generally known to be generous and kindly to all the Shirefolk.

Still, despite having a reputation for stocking a good larder, respectability and gentleness, when the other wizard came striding up to Bag End, in his travel-worn clothes and his bent gray-blue hat, tattered wispy beard tugged by the breeze, the Shirefolk watched, turned, and whispered knowledgeably to themselves. Wizard business, the word spread, slow and self-importantly. Another wizard has come to talk to our wizard, about the ways of the world and its kings.

They would be far more right about that than they knew.

As to Bilbo himself, he had settled quite comfortably in the beechwood bench behind his gate, shaping smoke rings into butterflies to amuse himself and keep his hand in, and the reappearance of the other wizard was, he had to admit, rather unwelcome.

"Gandalf," he sighed, and indeed it was Gandalf the Grey who had come up the road to Bag End; Gandalf the wandering wizard, whose business was schemes and the subtle reworking of the other races. "What are you doing here?"

Gandalf glanced at him keenly, and one of the smoke butterflies fluttered into a smoke bird, and turned blue and pink before it dissipated. "Dear me! So Saruman spoke true. One of the Maiar, retired, smoking away the rest of his days?"

"Well," Bilbo shrugged, breathing out another smoke ring, "The Enemy has been defeated for many a year. Besides, I'm quite fond of this land, and the land is fond of me."

Gandalf nodded slowly, for he could indeed see that; any visitor could, even those without a touch of magic. To step past the Water into the Shire was to come into a sense of peace, of a warm and gentle harmony; its fields and forests lush with colour and life, a pocket of quiet perfection sealed away from the rest of the world and its cares.

"It can survive without you for a time," Gandalf decided, leaning on his walking stick. "I have some business that I can't quite fully attend to, and-"

"Ask Radagast," Bilbo interrupted. "Maybe his land can survive without him for a time."

"You know full well what Radagast's Green Wood sits as a buffer to," Gandalf scowled, and he had an impressive scowl that bristled with whiskers and with age, one that had cowed Men and Elves and Dwarves alike. Bilbo, however, merely arched an eyebrow, and Gandalf added, with a snort, "Besides, he isn't suitable for this particular venture. I need someone versed in subtlety."

"Well, you won't find that person here," Bilbo got to his feet, his brow beetling into a frown of his own, as he ambled up the steps to his door. "Good day! And take your business-mongering to Bree, thank you. I'll not be best pleased if you sneak off any unsuspecting gentlefolk from hereabouts onto one of your mad adventures."

So decided, Bilbo let himself into Bag End and shut his door, stamping off to make himself some tea, still rather annoyed at the presumptuousness of it all, which was why he could be quite forgiven for failing to notice the small spark of magic that was inscribed onto his front door. Gandalf himself, after all, was an old hand in subtlety.

After a cup of tea, Bilbo was called out to the homesteads to attend to a group of sickly children who had been refusing to eat, and what with diagnosing the problem (sylverberries from Rushock Bog) and instructing the parents on proper treatment, Bilbo had forgotten about the entire unpleasant business in the morning. He did his rounds, checking on the Old Gaffer, who'd caught a cold, and having tea with the Brandybucks before taking a comfortable stroll back home to immerse himself in his books before preparing his dinner.

This sense of peace was rather rudely shattered at dinner, when he was abruptly invaded by an inexplicable stream of noisy and uninvited dwarves, who, it had to be said, were lucky that Bilbo was so bewildered by their presence and so settled by his long and gentle existence in the Shire that any thought of finding his staff and chasing out the intruders quite slipped his mind.

Bilbo did, however, manage irritation when a final wave of tumbling dwarves revealed Gandalf behind it all, looking rather pleased with himself. "Gandalf. I should have known."

"Should you now," Gandalf removed his hat, hanging it up, even as the other dwarves blithely tipped hoods and weapons into Bilbo's arms, raising boisterous shouts as they scurried off to help their kinsfolk raid Bilbo's poor besieged pantry. Annoyed, Bilbo dumped the gear against the wall, wiping off his hands, and fixed Gandalf with a stern glare.

"I've told you that I'm not interested in getting involved with your schemes," he hissed. "Get these dwarves out of my home!"

"They've come a long way, and they're hungry," Gandalf replied blithely, ducking his head under an archway.

"How is that my problem, exactly? And… you! Put those back! Those chairs were handcrafted for me by the Old Took, and they're older than you are… you! Don't touch those plates! Oh, confusticate the lot of you!"

Hungry dwarves, it seemed, would not be deterred by even the irritation of one of the Maiar, howsoever retired, and the larder was quite empty by the time Bilbo gave up trying to harass his unwanted visitors into some semblance of civilised behaviour. Settling down in a corner with a pint and his pipe, Bilbo decided to just ignore the mob in his poor home; after all, it was the nature of Gandalf and his schemes to wander about, and the dwarves seemed unlikely to be set up to linger more than the night.

His irritation had started to fade after the pint, and he ended up amusing the three youngest dwarves - barely out of childhood, as far as he could tell, by the way dwarves measured it - by smoking up rings in the shape of colourful and curling beasts. Bilbo had always been rather fond of younglings in whatever shape or form, and he was growing mellow enough at this point not to notice the way Gandalf smiled to himself from the other corner as he waited for the last and most important dwarf to arrive.

II.

When he did, it was with a heavy and merciless rapping on Bilbo's beautiful door, and as such, Bilbo was already predisposed not to like Thorin Oakenshield when the dwarven king was introduced to him. The haughty way Thorin assessed him didn't help, nor his brusque, "Who is this?" to Gandalf when the king apparently found him lacking.

"The fourteenth member of your Company," Gandalf supplied blandly. "Bilbo."

"You told me that the last member would be another wizard," Thorin retorted accusingly, "Not a green grocer."

"Oh, but he's a wizard, uncle," Kíli burst out, even as Bilbo switched his glower from Gandalf to Thorin.

"He makes the most amazing smoke rings," Fíli added enthusiastically, and clapped Ori on the shoulder. "Ori saw it too!"

Faced with the brunt of Thorin's stare, Ori shuffled quickly and shyly behind Fíli, dropping his eyes, and Gandalf sighed explosively when Thorin growled, "I should hope that he has more tricks up his sleeve than shaping smoke rings."

"Is this about the dragon in Erebor?" Bilbo hissed at Gandalf, when Thorin had swept off towards the dining room, arrogant as you please.

"Not entirely," Gandalf replied, with a look of such innocent surprise at his question that Bilbo found himself following Gandalf into the dining room rather than storming outside to fetch his staff. He'd just remembered where he'd left it, after all, hidden in its temporary role as a supporting stilt for the tomato plants, out of sight from curious Hobbit children and their sticky hands.

It turned out to be entirely about the blasted dragon in Erebor, damn Gandalf and his schemes, but despite himself Bilbo found himself rather caught up in the mystery of it all, the budding promise of a great and winding story that was struggling to play itself out, what with maps of secret doors and keys and the romance of the dwarves' grim promise. Bilbo did love his books, but most of all, he loved stories, and as such, he sat smoking in his kitchen long after even Gandalf had put up his feet on the coffee table to rest.

He glanced up at an approaching tread, and frowned when Thorin settled himself down in the chair opposite him, leaning one gauntleted arm over the cherrywood. Thorin was dressed richly, in furs and beautifully crafted mail armour of dwarven make, befitting his imperious manner and his airs, and Bilbo supposed that he was slightly impressed by Thorin Oakenshield, as rude as the dwarven king was. He did look quite the sort for a good story.

"I apologize for my words at your door," Thorin began, and although his manner wasn't earnest Bilbo supposed that he did sound sincere. "They were ill spoken, and I will offer you no excuses for them."

"Apology accepted," Bilbo said graciously, because it had been obvious enough that Thorin had had heavier matters bearing on his mind, what with the rejection of most of his kindred and the knowledge that he was quite likely leading his own kin - among them his heirs - into suicide. "And I wish you and the others all the best."

"You are not coming with us?"

"I've made that quite clear, haven't I?" At Thorin's frown, Bilbo added, with a sigh, "Look. I've been retired here in the Shire for a very long time. I'm not sure what manner of wizard you're looking for, but you're probably best off trying to persuade Gandalf to stay with your party; he's more of the… adventuring type of wizard. I'm more of the um, homely kind, interested in good food and books, not really mountains and dragons."

"You're a healer," Thorin blithely ignored him, "And I presume that like Gandalf, you're able to walk softly in dark places?"

"Well," Bilbo muttered, "I'm rather out of practice on the latter, and besides, I'm not interested in coming on adventures. They're nasty things that make you late for tea, and I have duties here."

"My grandfather kept a library in Erebor," Thorin continued. "Gandalf tells me that you love books. The library we have is vast, with books from the days of Durin himself, older, enough to fill your home five times over and more."

"I've heard of it," Bilbo admitted reluctantly. Dwarves often collected knowledge the way they hoarded treasure; with taste and care. "But surely it burned when the dragon came."

"The room was built to be fireproof, and locked high in the mountain, constructed to be sealed against the elements and time itself. I am sure that it would have survived. It is yours, along with a share of the treasure, if you would come with us."

"And how on earth am I meant to transport all those books?"

"You are welcome to stay in Erebor, should we retake it," Thorin pointed out, "Or you could use your fourteenth share of the treasure to take the books back here. Build yourself a tower to rival Orthanc."

"That would be ridiculous," Bilbo said, a little aghast at the very idea, and was surprised when Thorin smiled at his statement, as though amused. Slightly irritated, he was about to mutter a polite rejection anyway, as tempting as the thought of all those books was, and found himself saying, instead, "A hall full of books, you say."

"Balin has also seen it. Ask him."

Bilbo puffed at his pipe, mainly to keep his mouth busy, before he said anything else that he would have cause to regret. He could feel inevitability tugging at him, and he didn't like it one bit. He would have no practical way of storing the books over in the Shire, nor very much time at all to devote to their study.

"No, I'm still afraid that I'm going to have to dec-"

Thorin had reached over, to press his roughened fingers over Bilbo's wrist, warm and callused, the heavy ring of his House catching the last glimmers of warmth from the fireplace. "And a great debt I would owe you, wizard, from myself and my House. We treat our debts seriously."

Bilbo was about to mention that this particular incentive was the least interesting of all, and was simply searching for a kindly way to break it to Thorin, but under the intensity of the dwarf's stare, and the weight of history that he could feel, gathering momentum behind him, Bilbo found himself stumbling.

"Um, er, this is still rather sudden," Bilbo hedged awkwardly. "I can't just up and leave overnight. I have to pack, and I'm going to have to leave someone with instructions, especially about the Gaffer's cold and, and Sarah Gamwich's expecting, and-"

"Pack tonight," Thorin withdrew his hand, and Bilbo sagged, letting out a breath that he hadn't realized that he had been holding. "Write a list. Dwalin will deliver it to whoever you like, and catch up with us."

Annoyingly enough, Bilbo found himself nodding slowly, and Thorin pushed himself away from the table, seemingly satisfied. It was only shortly afterwards, when Bilbo had located a pack from the deep recesses of his storeroom, that reason crept back into his mind, and he sighed. "Oh, bother! Why did I ever agree to go?"

He knew exactly why, at least, deep within him. Thorin was a most dangerous dwarf, even for a dispossessed king. Perhaps it was Gandalf who had fallen in with the dwarven king's plans, and not the other way around as Bilbo had originally assumed.

Blast.

III.

Gandalf looked rather smugly pleased with himself when Bilbo nudged his pony into step with his horse. "It's a good morning for a ride, Bilbo. Whatever's the matter?"

"I feel uprooted," Bilbo retorted sourly, as much as Dwalin had been as good as his word and had brought back a written reply from the Gamgees, haphazardly spelled, assuring Bilbo that his thick sheaf of detailed instructions would be followed to the letter. The Gamgees could be relied on, if at least to try. "You do realize that I'm of little actual help to this Company on this particular quest. I've no experience at all with dragonslaying, or whatever they're expecting me to be able to do."

"Oh, I think you have a lot more to offer than you think, old friend," Gandalf retorted, amused. "Besides, you're a healer, and the road ahead's grown dangerous over the years."

"I'm not Elrond," Bilbo muttered, and lowered his voice further. "My magic's long been sunk into this land, Gandalf. I've been diminished. We all have been. The price of existing in this world weighs on all of us. And so it should. Our work here is finished. We linger with no purpose here but to fade."

"I wouldn't call it that," Gandalf, however, glanced past Thorin, at the head of the Company, to the forests beyond. "I think there's more for us to do yet. The way home is still shut."

"That's an optimistic view of things," Bilbo grumbled, though he felt his spirits lift a little, grudgingly. "By the way, did you clear this with Saruman?"

Gandalf eyed him with that selfsame innocent surprise, and when Bilbo tilted his head, Gandalf made a huffing sound, tipping down the edge of his broad-brimmed hat. "Well. He can't possibly spare the time to approve every single-"

"So you haven't. Are you getting me into trouble?"

"You can't be in more trouble than you already are," Gandalf pointed out dryly, "You and Radagast. The last I saw of Saruman, he was caught up in one of his… well. He has strong opinions."

"Of what constitutes 'Conduct Unbecoming of the Maiar'?"

Gandalf huffed again, though he smiled this time, wry and curling under his whiskery face, having been himself the subject of Saruman's 'strong opinions' from time to time. "Precisely."

"If you plan to pass through Rivendell with that map, he will find out," Bilbo pointed out soberly. That was a good thought, in a way, if Saruman put an end to all this silliness in Rivendell. Unless things had changed dramatically since Bilbo had last passed that way, the journey from the Shire to Rivendell should be fairly peaceful, and it would be a nice ride there and back.

"Perhaps," Gandalf noted, all untroubled, which indicated that the other wizard had already thought this through, likely in depth. Gandalf had always liked to be clever. It tended to be awfully inconvenient at the best of times, especially where his fellow Maiar were concerned.

Bilbo was still mulling this over when they set up camp on a broad ledge against a cliff, looking out over a darkened forest, and as he smoked his pipe beside the fire, he found himself again besieged by princes.

Fíli and Kíli elbowed each other for a moment as they settled beside him, then Kíli asked, excitedly, "So you're as old as Gandalf, Master Bilbo?"

Bilbo glanced over at Gandalf, who was seated further away, on the edges of the camp, smoking his own pipe, and who gave no indication of listening in, but probably was. "He is older than I am, but time is immaterial to the Maiar. Wizards," Bilbo elaborated, when the princes looked a little blank.

"Why does he look like a Man, while you took bobbit form?"

"Hobbit," Fíli hissed, correcting his brother, and looking up over at Thorin, seated on the other side of the camp on a rock and watching the horizon, also seemingly oblivious to the conversation.

"Ah, well," Bilbo said, a little self-importantly, "Form is also immaterial to the Maiar. I'm rather fond of hobbits. As a whole, they're gentle, peaceful creatures, content with simple things. If the world was more like them, I should think that it would harbor less suffering."

There was a derisive snort from Thorin's direction that made both young princes glance up quickly, but when Thorin made no further comment, Bilbo puffed at his pipe, a trifle put out. After all, Thorin was the one who had pushed him to come along, despite Bilbo's protests, and rudeness was quite uncalled for. A harsh yowling cry from the dark made him swallow the snide comment that was welling within him, though, and he frowned. "What was that?" It had sounded far too much like-

"Orc," Fíli supplied helpfully.

"This far out of the shadow of the mountains?"

"They ambush travellers with their wargs," Kíli added, grinning when Bilbo blinked at him. "Tear anything they find to pieces and eat the unsuspecting alive-"

"You think that an orc attack is amusing?" Thorin cut in harshly then, his scowl thunderous even as his nephews straightened up sharply at his tone, and he strode across the camp, his hands behind his back, up to the furthest spur, to glower out into the dark, ignoring their murmured apologies.

"Thorin has more cause than most to hate the orcs," Balin was the one to break the frozen silence, and when he did, it was with a rich and desperate tale, one of war and of a Naming-deed. It was a dark story to tell, with the cry of the orc still echoing softly past, and Bilbo shivered, taking another puff of his pipe, watching the fire. Trouble, he felt, was coming quickly.

IV.

Rivendell was, comfortingly, exactly the way Bilbo remembered it, even with centuries past, and it felt good to settle his feet over beautifully paved stone, smoke his pipe, and look out over waterfalls that would not change for the next age and more. Here, timelessness was the norm, not something to set him apart, and so occupied, Bilbo almost missed the dwarven younglings trying to sneak up on him.

Mail made an awful amount of noise, even if its wearers were trying to be quiet, though, and he puffed out a blue butterfly that dove straight for the studiously silent shadows in the corridor winding away to his right, and heard Ori let out a soft squeak.

There was a lesson to be learned here, Bilbo felt, as the younglings showed themselves; Kíli first, brash as ever, trailing his ever-present brother, and Ori bringing up the rear, the only one who seemed shamefaced about the disturbance. Innocence was one of the few qualities unfettered by race, howsoever tempered by time and circumstance.

"Gandalf was called to a meeting," Kíli announced first, "He told us to make preparations."

"Of course he did." Saruman had to be here, and if he was, it was quite possible that the Lady was here, as well. There was a hushed stillness to Rivendell, a dreamlike muting to its laughter and song. "Is it time yet?"

"Soon." Fíli admitted, even as Kíli prompted, as unsubtly as ever, his patience for small talk clearly exhausted, "The elves have different names for you and Gandalf."

"So they do." Bilbo conceded, amused, even as Kíli earned a quick elbow from his brother. "They have names for all of the wizards, usually literal ones. Gandalf is 'Mithrandir' - the 'Grey Pilgrim'. They call me 'Amarvellon', or 'Earth-friend'."

"And why's that, sir?" Ori piped up, admittedly while still safely behind both princelings.

"We were all sent here with a purpose," was as far as Bilbo was willing to say, and took to distracting the younglings with a few tricks of smoke and sleight of hand instead, easy routines that he'd used before to keep hordes of hobbit children occupied and out from underfoot during festivals.

He nearly missed Thorin's approach, until Kíli and Fíli scrambled to their feet abruptly, looking slightly abashed when their uncle walked into the soft circle of lamp light. "We leave now," Thorin stated briskly, and judging by the growing colour in Fíli's cheeks, Bilbo guessed that the princelings had been sent to fetch him, and had promptly been distracted by their own curiosity.

"I wanted to finish my pipe," Bilbo intervened, and even as Thorin arched an eyebrow at him, Ori shot him a grateful look, especially when Thorin seemed to accept the explanation, waving the younglings away.

"They are not children any longer," Thorin told him gruffly, once the princelings were out of sight, his tone stern. "You should not encourage them."

"Children or not, they are too young for your quest," Bilbo retorted, even as he put out his pipe, tapped out the weed and put it away. "You should not have brought them."

"They are old enough to make their own choices."

"Old enough to remember the dragon?" Bilbo challenged.

"That is none of your concern."

"I don't appreciate your tone, Master Oakenshield," Bilbo noted mildly, as he fell into step beside Thorin, "Particularly since you pushed me to come along."

Thorin glowered at him, but Bilbo had been glowered at by Saruman before and more, and as he merely smiled back, it was the dwarven king who finally jerked his stare away. "I know a little Sindarin, from before the dragon came. The elves named you and Gandalf 'Elf-friends'."

"They can be rather pleasant folk." Bilbo had made the acquaintance of the Master of Rivendell, the last that he had chanced this way, and he supposed that the impression had stuck.

"So I have reason to believe that you wizards have motives beyond what I originally expected."

"Oh, for…" Bilbo stopped walking, sticking his hands into his pockets. "That's it. I have had quite enough of dwarven royalty and their ridiculous suspicions. I am staying here, in Rivendell, and I wish you the best of luck."

Instead of storming off, as Bilbo thought, Thorin frowned at him, turning around. "I did not ask you to leave."

"Not in so many words!"

"I was merely stating an opinion-"

"Well, you can state them again, away from here. Away from me," Bilbo retorted, about to draw his pipe out from his pouch, only to squeak as Thorin stalked over and planted a palm against the small of his back, propelling him forward. "Thorin!"

"We have to leave now."

"And so you shall… would you stop… is this a kidnapping? Are you seriously kidnapping me? I ought to-" Bilbo's next squeak was muffled against the rub and bristle of Thorin's beard, as he was just as abruptly pushed up against a wall and kissed, of all things. Utterly shocked by the sudden further invasion of personal space, Bilbo froze up; Thorin kissed with a blindingly unsubtle presumption that was both intensely annoying and incredibly exhilarating at the same time, taking his mouth in a blithe and confident conquest.

When he drew away, Bilbo sputtered, outraged, stunned, but Thorin clapped a hand over his mouth, glancing down an adjoining corridor, where Bilbo was just in time to see the edges of an elvish robe whisk out of sight. He relaxed, suddenly understanding. A cover, then. Quick thinking by Thorin.

And rather unnecessary, at that. Bilbo had no intention of continuing on the madcap adventure any further, especially since he was hardly appreciated. About to tell Thorin as much, when the dwarven king dropped his hand, Bilbo hesitated as he caught the faint flush to Thorin's skin, the heat in his imperious eyes that quickly shuttered away.

"We are late," Thorin stated brusquely, and Bilbo found himself keeping step as Thorin started to hurry down the corridor, glancing here and there to check for oncoming elves.

As he followed the Company up the steep passage out of the Valley, leaning on his staff, Bilbo considered the distinct and unwelcome possibility that Gandalf's blasted adventure had long stripped him of any form of respectability, leaving complete insanity in its wake.

Bilbo could only hope that this quest - and the infernal king at the centre of it - wouldn't be the end of him. Wargs and goblins and more lay ahead, with the dragon at the end of it all, and this particular story, in Bilbo's opinion, would prove complicated enough even without a dwarven king's presumptuous airs.

When he lingered just at the corner of the pathway before it edged out of sight of Rivendell, however, Bilbo nearly jumped when he felt a now familiar palm press over the small of his back. "I don't need to be pushed along," Bilbo noted quickly, in case Thorin had any further ideas.

"I know," Thorin replied, sounding a little hesitant, and startled, Bilbo glanced over, concerned.

Thorin, however, was steadily glowering at Rivendell, as though willing the Last Homely House to spontaneously combust, and after a long, awkward moment, Bilbo noted, dryly, "Apology accepted. Yet again."

The hunch of Thorin's shoulders seemed to relax lightly, though the dwarf still had the gall to mutter, "I said nothing of the sort."

Dwarves and their confounded stubbornness! Bilbo opened his mouth, about to withdraw his acceptance, when Thorin admitted, almost as flatly, "But I was about to."

"Ah," Bilbo blinked owlishly. "Er. Good."

Thorin waited, as Bilbo started to grow uncomfortable; Thorin's palm at his back seemed to burn with warmth, even through the layers of his clothes, in the silver-bright distant sound of rushing water through the climbing sun, and eventually, it was Thorin who prompted, gruffly, "You were falling behind."

"Oh. Oh!" Bilbo shook himself out of his stupor, embarrassed, and started briskly up the path, Thorin's hand dropping away as he kept pace behind him. Bilbo told himself that he didn't miss it, even as he smiled to himself and took in a slow breath, watching the world wind vast and eternal into the horizon before him. Perhaps adventures and dwarven kings weren't all too bad, after all.

Chapter Text

V.

For someone whose hobby, apparently, was turning into a giant bear monster and gadding about crushing orcs, Beorn had a near obsessive love of stories that Bilbo could identify with, and a huge larder that he could definitely appreciate.

Warm, dry and pleasantly full for the first time in what felt like an age, Bilbo dozed off to the excitable and entirely incorrect assertions of Kíli that Bilbo - and possibly Gandalf - most certainly could also take bear shape if they so wished, and had Bilbo been somewhat less exhausted, he might have been of the mind to voice an objection.

He woke early enough that the sun was still an growing afterthought, and picked his way through the heaps of snoring dwarves to the doorstep, where Gandalf was perched on a stool, smoking his pipe. Yawning, Bilbo drew a hand through his relentlessly unruly hair, and pulled up another stool, settling on it to fill his pipe.

The first pipe of the morning was always a peaceful affair, or at least it had once been, when Bilbo had little to worry about other than the various illnesses and minor mishaps that the Shirefolk managed to get themselves into. The view out from Beorn's sprawling house showed a wide yard spotted with massive bear prints, and, rather unsettlingly, close to the inner paddock gate was the head of an orc, staked to the ground, and the skin of a warg that had been ruthlessly and messily flayed off its original owner, still steaming in the morning cold, nailed to a tree.

Bilbo's stomach churned for a moment before he snapped his eyes away and the smoke settled his nerves, though when he glanced up at Gandalf, he saw that the other wizard was looking at the skin, and not looking at the skin; his eyes fixed some distance past from the bloodied pelt.

Eventually, Gandalf refilled his pipe, and his tired eyes flicked over to Bilbo, as though finally registering his presence.

When Gandalf spoke, it was in a language long forgotten on this side of the world, and it was a struggle for Bilbo to refocus and remember the tongue. Quenya was an echo of another life. "You left out part of your tale, Kemendil."

"As have you, Olórin," Bilbo replied tartly in the same tongue, trying not to show how Gandalf's use of his First name had unsettled him. "What is this business that you must attend to so abruptly?"

"What Aiwendil saw in Dol Guldur concerns me," Gandalf turned his gaze back to the skewered orc skull. "The Morgul blade's presence bodes ill."

"You did not know about this blade until Aiwendil found us," Bilbo countered. "Yet you had never intended to stay with Thorin's Company to the end."

"There were signs even before Thorin departed the Blue Mountains. Matters falling out of their natural order. Those trolls that we encountered were but part of a symptom. Speaking of which," Gandalf's eyes twinkled as he looked back to Bilbo, "Fíli and Kíli seemed determined to convince our host that you could have turned into a giant bear, or a troll, or even an oliphant if you wanted to when you faced the trolls."

Bilbo groaned. The matter of the three cave trolls had been entirely embarrassing, and it certainly proved to Bilbo himself how out of practice he was at walking in shadows. At least nobody had been seriously hurt, although that had been some sort of miracle, what with the fracas and Bilbo accidentally misplacing his staff in the confusion and getting hauled up into the air like a hunk of meat.

He'd found his staff afterwards, thankfully, kicked to a side by panicked ponies, though Thorin had not been best pleased at all, even though Gandalf had intervened at dawn before anyone had been hurt.

"And did you correct that misconception?"

"Oh, no," Gandalf shot him a now all-too-familiar look of innocence. "Should I have?"

Blast dwarven princelings and their tendencies to unnecessarily embellish even moments of utter embarrassment. Bilbo exhaled and puffed at his pipe until his annoyance had died down. "I'm surprised that Thorin still wanted me along after all that."

"Oh, he had his reasons. And after your intervention with Azog, I think you have quite convinced him."

That particular mad blaze of impulse was yet again something else that Bilbo would prefer to forget, and he puffed again at his pipe, eyeing Gandalf, and after a while, when it was nearly time to tap out his pipe, added, quietly, "I found something when I was in the caves under the Goblin King's mountains."

"Ah."

"I… the creature I played the riddle game with had dropped it, when he was fighting the goblin that had fallen into the caves with me. I could feel it… calling to me, even from where I was hidden behind a shelf of rock. It wanted me to pick it up. I can't describe how that felt," Bilbo drew in another thick lungful of smoke, and breathed it out in a misshapen puff. "Like I was a fish, being reeled over, enthralled. It was," Bilbo added, even more quietly, "A ring. A golden ring."

Gandalf's eyes narrowed quickly. "Where is it now?"

"I left it there. Kicked some gravel over it to cover it, and pulled over some rocks. But if it is what I think it is," Bilbo continued soberly, "Then it had no business being there. And if it is what I think it is, it wants to be found. It will be found."

"It may not have been the best of ideas, leaving it there."

"Nor would it have been the best of ideas, for one of the Maiar to touch it. You know what it could do if it got its hooks into someone with even a touch of power, let alone one of us," Bilbo countered. "This ring resurfacing, the trouble in the south, the Necromancer - I can't help but feel that there are threads connecting them all, somehow. But the goblins in the mountain will be in disarray for a while, and the orcs seem focused on Thorin. I think that the ring can stay where it is for a time."

"But if it is what you think it is," Gandalf continued thoughtfully, "Then it must be retrieved. It must be destroyed."

"But not by Man."

"No," Gandalf agreed, if with a touch of sadness. "I will have to think on this, Kemendil."

"The world is home to many rings of power," Bilbo noted, making a token attempt at optimism, though without much hope. "Perhaps it is something else."

"But is that what your heart tells you?"

"No," Bilbo admitted, with a shudder. "And besides, whatever it was, whether it was the Ring, or something else, I could tell that that loop of gold was evil. I wish you luck in the south," Bilbo added, a little wryly. "I do hope that this is less than it seems."

"I will return to Thorin's Company if I can finish my business in time," Gandalf promised, though he looked careworn now with all of his years, and breathed out a smoke ring that curled into a bird, which a stiff breeze quickly swiped into ruin.

VI.

Bilbo was in a better mood to explore Beorn's lands the next day. Their host was still missing, but a warm hearth and plentiful food had put Bilbo in a happy state of mind, and besides, now that he wasn't so bone-weary, he could appreciate the lush meadows and the ancient rows of oak, the hushed pocket of peace so close to Mirkwood.

This land too knew its master, and was fond of him. Bilbo was studying the white clover, idly wondering whether it could be easily encouraged to grow in the Shire, when there was a yelp of pain and a cry of "Bees! Huge bees!"

Younglings.

Bilbo hurried down the field, where Kíli's face was scrunched up in pain, shaking his left hand, and Fíli had, of all things, drawn his blades, while Ori seemed frozen to the spot. "Confound dwarven princelings and their curiosity!" Bilbo growled, pulling Kíli to him and carefully drawing out the sting, unbuckling and dragging off the glove. Kíli's finger was already beginning to swell, but Bilbo touched his fingers to it, concentrating, and after a moment, Kíli relaxed.

"That was a waste of magic," Bilbo told him severely, "The bee wouldn't have stung you if you had left it alone."

"It was furry, and big, and there," Kíli muttered resentfully, as though it was the poor bee's fault that it had retaliated, though he seemed abashed, at least, as he pulled his glove back on. Bilbo stared pointedly at Fíli until Fíli mumbled something and sheathed his blades, scuffing his feet.

"And you've caused it to spend its life, purely out of thoughtlessness," Bilbo countered, with a gesture at the grass; its sting spent, the honey bee lay dying, a tiny patch of striped orange and black on the grass. "Besides, we saw the bees on our way through to Beorn's house. They are hardly novel, are they?"

"Sorry," Kíli mumbled, the tips of his ears reddening, echoed awkwardly by his brother, and even as Ori looked even more frozen than ever, Bilbo sighed, and balancing himself on tiptoes and on his staff, he reached up to ruffle Kíli's unruly hair, the way he would in the Shire to reassure a child that had just been scolded. Quite possibly, this wasn't how a dwarven prince should be treated; the younglings all looked surprised - then Kíli grinned irrepressibly, and asked, "Are you going to turn into a bear?"

"And to think I was just about starting to feel kindly about the lot of you again," Bilbo noted dryly. "Ori, you shouldn't associate with these two. Your brothers are far more sensible."

"Well, um, er," Ori seemed nervous when put to the spot, "I am sure that you could turn into a bear if you wished, Master Bilbo."

"Ah-"

"Or maybe you could become a dwarf, after all this?" Fíli suggested earnestly.

"And why would I do that?" Bilbo inquired, amused now, despite himself.

"Were you not going to live inside Erebor's library?" Kíli seemed openly puzzled that Bilbo was even asking.

"Not in the library," Fíli corrected, with a brief glower at his brother, "He would have rooms, as an honoured guest."

"He would have Thorin's chambers for that," Kíli mumbled quickly, almost too softly for Bilbo to catch, then he yelped when Fíli elbowed him sharply in the ribs.

"Take over Thorin's chambers?" Bilbo asked, puzzled, "Even if I did choose to stay in Erebor - which is a very big if - I would not want to displace anyone. Let alone its rightful King."

The younglings exchanged glances, then Fíli tugged Kíli and Ori a few feet away, where a hushed conversation took place, complete with gestures from Kíli and guilty peeks from Ori. Bilbo leaned on his staff, trying not to grin, as the younglings eventually edged back, where with some muttered shoving and hisses Fíli was jostled to the front, clearly the chosen spokesman for being heir apparent.

"Are there female wizards?" Fíli blurted out, when Kíli prompted him by prodding him in the ribs.

"There are no male or female wizards," Bilbo noted mildly, "Not as you think. The Maiar are just the Maiar. The flesh forms we take may be gendered, but often that is a question of aesthetic or functional choice and matters little."

"Oh," Ori was frowning, clearly thinking this over, just as Kíli said blithely, "So Gandalf could have been a female Elf! Or a female Man. Or a dwarf."

"Quite possibly, if he had wished," Bilbo grinned, somewhat entertained at the thought.

He couldn't quite imagine Gandalf commanding quite the same gravitas in any other form - not to speak less of other races or genders, for after all, arguably, the greatest power in the land was the Lady of Lórien - but somewhere over the centuries, Olórin had become Mithrandir and Mithrandir had become Olórin, and a Grey Wanderer was what Gandalf was and would be, a fixture in many stories of the wide road.

"But he is… frozen in his current form? As are you?" Ori asked, proving that youth and a lack of royal blood might in fact be proponents for dwarven intelligence.

"We made our choice of form more than an age ago," Bilbo gestured at himself. "This is what I am, until I return to the Undying Lands."

"And when would that be, Master Bilbo?" Fíli seemed a little disappointed, possibly due to the lack of any immediate demonstrations of skin-changing.

"I do not know," Bilbo admitted. "Gandalf feels that the way home for the Maiar is shut because our work in these lands is still unfinished."

"What about you, sir? What do you feel?" Ori cut in, perceptive as ever.

"I wish that I still believed otherwise." The Ring still weighed heavily on his mind. But Mordor was yet dormant, the last Gandalf had heard, at least, the Enemy still presumed to be shattered. They would have to tread lightly.

VII.

Beorn was in a boisterously good mood when he returned to his house, and somewhat to his dismay Bilbo found himself hoisted up into the air and prodded. "Little bunny is getting nice and fat again on bread and honey. Have some more!"

"I'm a wizard, not a bunny," Bilbo retorted as he was set down, but it was hard to stay cross, especially when Beorn started to tell tales of his own, tall ones and small ones, all of them funny. It seemed that Beorn had verified Gandalf's story, and had been greatly pleased at the death of the Great Goblin; he was willing to give them packs and supplies for the road ahead, through Mirkwood.

Bilbo left the dwarves to the preparations, perching outside, instead, on a paddock fence, watching good natured ponies sidle closer to investigate his pockets for apples. He was petting one of them when the master of the house stamped up close beside him, and he nodded politely in greeting. "Master Beorn."

"Three of your kind I have met now, wizard," Even Beorn's voice was a giant of a thing, booming and rumbling through the skin-changer's massive frame. "And all three of you have been the pleasant sort. It is a good trend!"

"Ah, well, thank you, I suppose," Bilbo offered, a little hesitantly, though he smiled; he couldn't quite imagine what Saruman would think of the bluff, boisterous Beorn, bred of old magic, with no interests beyond his borders save stories and the ruin of the orc-kind. "It is very good of you to help us."

"Not in the least," Beorn patted Bilbo's shoulders heavily, nearly shaking him off his perch. "You have all brought a great story of your own in your wake. Killed the Great Goblin… hah!"

"That was rather accidental, I felt," Bilbo murmured, trying to look further, over the lush, rich fields, to the murky border of the wild woods beyond. "And I hope that this particular story does not end abruptly, by way of dragonfire."

"A good story works itself out," Beorn stated complacently, before fixing him with a solemn eye. "But on to other things. I felt that I should warn you. For the next leg of your path, the land is sickened. There are savage things in the wood now and worse, poisonous things."

"A warning for me?"

"The beasts of this land are my friends," Beorn nodded at a particularly enterprising pony that had nearly managed to nose into Bilbo's waistcoat pockets, "They know you for what you are. Would you seek to cleanse the woods?"

"Until the shadow that poisons it is past, I cannot," Bilbo admitted. "Another who loves the wild lands more than I has tried. But I should like to try, when the poison has been lanced. Perhaps our next meeting will be in better days, skin-changer."

"Perhaps," Beorn echoed, his eyes twinkling under bristling brows. "I was told that you were a skin-changer yourself, wizard."

Bilbo grimaced. "You should not be quite so quick to believe the words of those who are still to young to have learned to watch what they say."

"Ah, so I thought," Beorn rumbled, still amused, "But even should you have been able to shed your skin, I think that you would have made a most tiny little bear."

Beorn laughed uproariously when Bilbo sputtered, and ambled away to check on the ponies. Grumbling about the general lack of respect for wizards nowadays, Bilbo had succeeded in gently nudging the ponies away from his pockets when gauntleted arms crossed over the fence beside him.

Thorin had been far more solicitous since that awful night with Azog and the wargs, which, Bilbo had to admit, made the king somewhat more bearable as polite company. It was… nice, Bilbo supposed, to have someone show intelligent interest in his usual work-

"Why did Beorn seek to warn you in particular?"

What was nowhere near as nice, Bilbo reflected sourly, was Thorin's also growing tendency to poke his nose where it wasn't needed. "Wizard business," Bilbo settled on replying, as tersely as politeness allowed.

Instead of growing annoyed, as he thought, Thorin merely followed Bilbo's gaze, out over the sunny fields to the far edge of the forest. "You heal more than cuts and scrapes. You speak to the land itself."

"That's a… poetic way of putting it." Just as Gandalf balanced the mortal races and Radagast tended to the creatures and plants of the vast Greenwood, Bilbo had stumbled and settled into a role, after the war that had come before. "And not particularly accurate."

"Much of the land around Erebor was ravaged by dragonfire, and lies dead and blackened. Should you be able to undo the damage, you could do much more good to the Lonely Mountain, even after our quest."

"Assuming we manage to get rid of the dragon."

"It may already be dead." Thorin, however, had the sense not to sound too optimistic. "Stay in Erebor, after the dragon. Help us heal the land."

"You don't need me for that. Clear off the deadwood and brush and import some soil and saplings from the lands below the mountain. The forest will recover eventually. It is already beginning to, if the birds are returning."

Oddly enough, this didn't seem to reassure Thorin - he was frowning most thunderously. "Why would you not wish to stay?"

"Locked within a mountain, surrounded by stone?" A short, all too clear memory of tumbling with frightening speed down shale and scree into the yawning dark settled into his mind, trailed by the echo of goblin laughter and drums, and Bilbo fought the urge to shudder. "I like the Shire. I'm sure that your kingdom is very nice," Bilbo hastened to add, when Thorin's frown deepened, "Especially if - or when - the dragon is gone and everything's tidy again, but I confess that I am none too fond of castles and fortresses."

Thorin reached over, gently grasping Bilbo's wrist, and when he spoke again, his tone was oddly intense, and there was something in the gleaming set of his eyes that was almost like avarice. "You cannot be persuaded?"

Somewhat bewildered, Bilbo hesitated for a long moment, then he awkwardly patted Thorin's fingers with his free hand. "You should not make promises so early, O King," he pointed out, with what he hoped was gentle humour. "Not while your lands are not yet yours."

"Then I will ask you again when Erebor is mine again," Thorin brought up his other palm, clasping their hands together, "And I trust that your response will be kinder."

What was that about? Bilbo wondered, still puzzled, as Thorin strode off to check on the progress of packing. Dwarves were strange creatures.

Chapter Text

VIII.

Bilbo was beginning to regret having lost his temper by the time the Silvan Elves had marched them into the halls of the Elvenking Thranduil, set within a vast cavernous network of caves that sat on the edge of Mirkwood, thick with beeches and graceful constructs.

Even on the road he had sensed the corruption permeating the forest, and it had made him somewhat dizzy and out of sorts. Bombur falling into the enchanted river had not helped matters - having to break the sleep-spell had been tiring; not to mention that Bombur had been carrying many of their supply packs that the river had swept away. As such, by the time Thorin's Company had stumbled on the Silvan Elves and their baited illusions, Bilbo had been weary, hungry and irritable, never a good combination for a wizard to be in.

Blasting the spell open with a stamp of his staff had possibly been overreacting, though Bilbo was fairly sure that no one had been seriously hurt. Had he been in better control of himself or less tired, Bilbo would have sensed the spellweave in time and persuaded the dwarves to avoid it rather than seek trouble, but now-

At least the stronghold of the elves was yet unaffected by the taint in the woods, and Bilbo felt stronger with every step, his breathing settling by the time they were marched into the vast cavern that was the throne hall, to their forced audience with Mirkwood's king.

Thranduil had been King of the woodland realm for far longer than the dwarves had ruled under the Lonely Mountain, but Bilbo had never met him before. Although Thranduil himself was Sindarin, he and the Silvan elves he ruled over had little use for strangers, and Bilbo had never particularly been fond of trouble. The Elvenking was tall, moon-pale and otherworldly as the Sindarin tended to be, his robes richer even than Lord Elrond's, his crown a weaving confection akin to anthers, forged of several hues of gold.

Unlike the Master of the Last Homely House, Thranduil's gaze was distant, unsettlingly neutral, like a doll's or a puppet's, at least on first glance - his eyes, however, held a gleam of calculation that Bilbo was unused to in his dealings with the Elves.

"Amarvellon," Thranduil greeted him politely enough, in Sindarin. "Well met."

"Well met, Thranduil son of Oropher, King of the Greenwood," Bilbo replied in kind. "I apologize for the misunderstanding in the forest. We were tired, and we had been warned that the forest had sickened; at the first touch of spellwork I reacted poorly."

Thranduil seemed to consider Bilbo's explanation, even as Bilbo was uncomfortably aware that beside him, Thorin was beginning to shift his weight on his feet in impatience. Thorin clearly had no love for the elves, let alone this particular one, and an outburst was going to be imminent.

"You did still attack my people," Thranduil said finally, in Westron, likely so that he could gauge the reaction of Thorin and his Company.

"Your people should have known better to try their tricks on one of the Maiar," Thorin shot back in a growl, and behind him, the other dwarves muttered and jostled in agreement. Bilbo bit back a deep sigh, as Thranduil transferred his unblinking stare onto Thorin.

"Thorin Oakenshield," Thranduil intoned, as though he had been trying to place Thorin's face - Thorin stiffened, clearly furious at the perceived slight. "May I inquire as to your business in my woods?"

"He, er, they are my escort," Bilbo interjected hurriedly, as Thorin took in a deep breath. "We were just passing through! No trouble intended whatsoever."

Thorin glanced sharply at Bilbo, who raised his eyebrows, trying to convey through his hard stare that if Thorin was to open his mouth again and get them all thrown into the dungeons, Bilbo was going to wash his hands of their lot. Possibly after setting Thorin on fire.

After a moment, Thorin let out a slow huff, and swung his stare back over to the Elvenking, thankfully in silence.

"Amarvellon would command a dwarven king and two princes from the line of Durin as his retinue?"

"Ah… haha, you see-" Bilbo began, only for Thorin to cut in, flatly, "And why should he not? It was an honour to be asked."

"And your business in my kingdom?"

"Wizard business," Bilbo stated quickly, before Thorin could interrupt again. "An ill wind has come, which we have cause to believe may stem from Dol Guldur. The other wizards and I seek to investigate how far the damage runs, or whether the taint in the woods and the hills is symptomatic of anything more… troubling."

"From Dol Guldur?" Thranduil repeated, with a faint frown.

"Only recently, Radagast showed Gandalf and I a Morgul blade," Bilbo noted quietly. "It was from Dol Guldur. Gandalf has consulted with Lord Elrond and the Lady Galadriel. We have cause to believe that the rot extends further and deeper than we had believed. Thorin is familiar with the lands beyond your borders, where I am headed. I felt that his knowledge would save me some time. The rest of the dwarves form part of his royal guard."

"Ah." Thranduil tapped his long, elegant fingers on his throne, his expression distant, as though troubled, even as the 'royal guard' drew themselves up with mutters, as tattered and unkempt a 'guard' as Bilbo had ever seen, although thankfully - again - they were otherwise silent. "I should like to know more about the problem of Dol Guldur, Amarvellon."

"I would be pleased to um, share information," Bilbo said carefully, even though this was a mildly alarming thought; Gandalf hadn't given him a whole lot of details, and he knew that he would have to leave out any mention of the Ring. "But if it would not be too much to presume, my friends and I are tired and worn from our travels. Perhaps after we have rested?"

"Of course. I will have rooms prepared, and refreshments." Thranduil clapped his hands sharply, and a few courtiers peeled away from his Court, hopefully to arrange for a lot of food; out of the corner of his eyes, Bilbo could see Bombur swaying slightly, possibly already on the verge of being prepared to eat the furniture.

The cave set aside for guests was richly furnished, thrice as large as Bag End, with a myriad number of rooms cunningly set into the rock. The long dining table was heavily laden with food - albeit without meat - though the dwarves were hungry enough not to complain. Bilbo gladly had his fill of goat's cheese, bread and honey, before ambling away from the noise of the dining hall to sit at a pleasant enough reading room set into the stone, filling his pipe as he looked over the tidy little volumes of books lining the shelves.

He was leafing through one of them when Balin padded into the room and settled into a chair. "Master Bilbo."

"Ah, Balin," Bilbo surfaced from the book with reluctance. Sindarin history wasn't a particular interest of his, but whoever had penned this book had possessed a most lovely skill at calligraphy. "Is something the matter?"

"Deft talking back then," Balin, like many of the other dwarves, never really bothered to talk in circles. It was a refreshing trait. "But we may now be in a bigger spot of trouble than we were."

"We are?"

"There be a great deal of guards about outside, watching us," Balin gestured in the general direction of the door, "And they have not returned our weapons."

Bilbo did rather miss his staff. And Balin had sharp eyes - he was usually used as a look out purely for this reason. If he had seen a large volume of guards… "I'm sure that it's only a temporary oversight. Thranduil seemed friendly enough."

"Lord Elrond was friendly," Balin disagreed. "This one is nothing of the sort. I have met him before, when Thrór was yet King under the Mountain. He knows only greed."

"I have never met an Elf who was interested in gold and gems," Bilbo pointed out, if gently. Just like Thorin, Balin and the other veterans of the rout by Smaug were filled with a near poisonous bitterness; both against the dragon and against the Elves that had stood by and watched their city burn. Dwarves were very, very good at holding grudges.

"Aye, laddie, nor did I, up until this one," Balin grunted. "Just be careful of him."

"I am far older than Thranduil himself, Balin," Bilbo noted, a little amused. "You need not concern yourself."

"I'll drink to that if we can get out of here in one piece," Balin grunted. "You think I see trouble where there isn't any."

"I might be inclined to believe that, after what happened in Rivendell."

"I have heard of Thranduil, from Thrór. He has no reason to love dwarves. He had a… blood dispute with dwarves from Belegost. It is an old grudge, and a long tale," Balin added, when Bilbo straightened, curious.

Bilbo mulled this over for a moment, dredging up old memories and fitting the pieces together, then he snorted. "Over the Simaril in the Nauglamír? That is a very old grudge indeed, and a bitter one, if he blames all of your kind for the greed of a few."

"Sometimes the old ones are the most bitter," Balin shrugged, "Watch your step, Master Bilbo."

IX.

Annoyingly enough, Thorin insisted on going with him when Thranduil sent word after breakfast that he wished to speak to Bilbo, and Thorin only shot him an unimpressed look when Bilbo told him in hushed Khuzdul that Thorin should leave all the talking to Bilbo.

Confound dwarven kings and their conflated sense of self-importance! Sulking, Bilbo followed their guard up the winding stair out of the guestrooms. He had expected to be led up to a war room, or some sort of meeting place, like the circular pavilion in Rivendell, and was a little surprised to be escorted back into the throne room.

Thorin let out a contemptuous snort when they saw that Thranduil was again seated on his throne, that they were to approach as supplicants, but Bilbo was old enough to know that pride oft served no purpose but its own, and he tried to be polite enough as they exchanged the usual pleasantries.

Thankfully, Thorin seemed willing to keep his peace, at least while Bilbo told Thranduil as much as he dared about Gandalf's suspicions and Radagast's findings in Dol Guldur, about the trolls and the orcs that had accosted them on the wild road. At the end of it all, Thranduil steepled his fingers, looking pensive.

"I have sent scouts to the outskirts of Dol Guldur," Thranduil said quietly. "Ungoliant's children have grown bold in their attacks of late, where they have usually had the sense to leave my people alone."

"You would tolerate those beasts on your land?" Thorin asked, almost with a sneer, and Bilbo had to take in a breath, praying silently to the Valar for patience, when Thranduil looked over to Thorin with a thin smile.

"You tolerate the dragon in yours, O King Under the Mountain."

Thorin bristled, his fists clenching, but Bilbo hastily grabbed his wrist. "Talk of giant spiders and dragons aside," Bilbo said pointedly, "Have your scouts returned?"

"None of them returned." Thranduil noted pensively. "The danger you speak of rings true, Amarvellon. I propose a temporary alliance. You and your retinue may remain here while I call for aid from the Lady of Lórien. With our combined forces, we will march on Dol Guldur, and cleanse its rot from these lands."

Thorin sucked in an exasperated breath, but Bilbo quickly squeezed his wrist before letting go, and he let it out, with a frown. "By all means, prepare for war," Bilbo said gently, "But I would be of little use in such an arena. Instead, I will send word to my cousin Radagast, whose purview includes the Greenwood. He will advise you in my stead."

"And where would you head, Amarvellon? Is Dol Guldur not the focus of your concern?"

"As I mentioned earlier, your Majesty, I have been tasked to investigate the lands beyond Mirkwood. Unfortunately," Bilbo noted wryly, "Saruman the White has yet to be convinced that these matters are evidence of a greater sickness, and I do not yet possess the authority to intervene."

"I have heard of Saruman's reputation," A slight frown briefly marred the stillness of Thranduil's features. "I will send a message to him. Perhaps that would persuade him of the gravity of the situation."

"Certainly." Bilbo said hastily. "In the meantime, I still have my task to run. If it would not be too much trouble, we seek the return of our tools, and if possible, any supplies that you can spare us for the road ahead."

Thranduil glanced at Bilbo, then at Thorin, again with that strange gleam of calculation in his eyes, then he smiled, thin, mirthless and unsettling. "Of course, Amarvellon. Please continue to enjoy the hospitality of my kingdom while I make the necessary arrangements."

"That was not so bad," Bilbo told Thorin, afterwards, in harsh Khuzdul, when the royal guard led them out of the throne chamber.

"I will feel better about it all when I have my weapons again," Thorin retorted, in a grunt, eyeing the guards with distaste, and Bilbo threw up his hands. Quite possibly, Thorin wouldn't even recognise civilised politeness even if it smacked him in the face.

X.

He was somewhat more inclined to feel kindly towards the dwarves and their suspicions when supplies and weapons were yet to be returned even after three days in Mirkwood, and entreaties and demands for an explanation, then an audience with Thranduil, went politely unheeded.

"We are prisoners," Dwalin growled once, after dinner was served and the elves had withdrawn. "Prisoners in a pretty cage. This is where fine talk has landed us, wizard."

Bilbo opened his mouth to object, but Balin had already interceded. "The wizard has no experience in dealing with Thranduil and his treachery."

"Did you not try to warn him?" Dwalin shot back, unconvinced, as the other dwarves glanced uncomfortably among themselves, and Kíli and Fíli looked sharply towards the corridor leading to the single exit.

"I can speak for myself, thank you," Bilbo cut in, before Balin could interject again. "All right, I admit that there was quite possibly a miscalculation of events. However, we are all now well fed, and, if Bombur, Bifur and Bofur have been as busy as I think they have, we should have supplies squirrelled away, ready to go. Yes?"

Bifur nodded, even as Bombur grunted from the end of the table, pausing only briefly between grasping a wheel of cheese on the table to slide a loaf under his chair to the basket beneath it, his hands deft for his bulk. Seeing this, Ori quickly picked up an apple, even as Fíli and Kíli pulled up baskets of bread, and Thorin rapped at the table sharply.

"If we all start, it would be obvious," Thorin snapped, and abashed, the princelings pushed the baskets back up, and Ori hung on to the apple for a long moment before biting into it awkwardly. "The problem remains," Thorin continued, "That we are deep within enemy territory and unarmed."

"Which is where I come in," Bilbo said firmly. "I've sent word to Radagast about our problems, and he has replied with aid."

"Magic?" Kili asked excitedly, though he was quickly hushed by a stern glance from Thorin.

"Radagast keeps an eye on the Greenwood with his spies. Small birds and beasts. They know the realm of the Elvenking better than Thranduil himself, and should be able to lead us out of it. "

"Even were we able to retrieve our weapons, and overcome the guards, we would have to fight our way out of the kingdom," Thorin objected.

"Elves are soft," Dwalin grunted. "A small, determined force will be able to break its way out. We made it out of the Goblin King's mountain, didn't we, lads?"

"I would prefer that it doesn't come to that," Bilbo winced at the gruff roar of assent and the sound of mugs slamming on the tables from the other dwarves. "Give me time. There should be another way."

"Doing things your way landed us here, wizard," Glóin muttered, already in a black mood from being separated for so long from his axe.

"Rather than starving and lost in the forest," Bofur shot back defensively. "Besides, we've not nearly gathered enough for the road ahead to Laketown."

"And the elves will be far better with their bows and blades than the goblinkind," Balin continued firmly, ignoring the surprised look at Bilbo gave him - he hadn't expected this much support from that quarter. "It will be considerably more difficult to break out of these caves than the goblin's mountain."

Dwalin glanced at Thorin, who had settled back in his seat, and Thorin eventually nodded. "We will follow your lead again, for now."

"Your ways are soft," Thorin had the gall to complain to him afterwards, when he found Bilbo in the reading room, wondering whether the elves would notice too terribly if he pocketed the books.

"I happen to be far older than you are, Thorin," Bilbo retorted, even as he regretfully put the books back on the shelves. Carrying them would be a waste of weight and space.

"You come from a different world."

"I have existed in yours for nearly two thousand years," Bilbo shot back. "I wager that I have seen far more war and death than you have, O King. Far more of the cruelties that the mortal races inflict on each other and themselves. Enough to be sick of it," he added tiredly, as he settled the books back into place.

At least this seemed to give Thorin some perspective - he sobered quickly. "My words were spoken in haste."

"You truly should get out of this habit of saying things that you'll have cause to apologize for afterwards," Bilbo noted wryly, as Thorin sniffed. "When you ascend to your birthright, Thorin, I recommend strongly that you choose the 'softer ways'. Your people are tired of war, and even if they were not, diplomacy and treaties are better stewards of meaningful peace than blades and axes. Your grandfather Thrór knew this well."

"It served him ill at the end."

"No, that was Smaug, Moria and Azog," Bilbo corrected flatly. "You are King now, in any regard, not he. And a poor King you will be if you are consumed only by revenge and a lust for gold and riches. You were born not to enjoy a life of wealth but to serve your own kind, Thorin Oakenshield."

"You think that I am not fit to be king?" Thorin growled, crowding closer, fury in his tone and in his eyes.

"I think that someday you will be a great King," Bilbo refused to cede his ground, folding his hands. "But that day has not yet come. You have far too much anger in you. Surely you can see also that this quest of yours is reckless."

"And yet here you still are," Thorin growled.

"Because I have some hope that what you seek at the end of it all is a home for your people, not the gold at the bottom of your mountain or mere revenge." Bilbo dared reach out to press a palm over the glittering scale of Thorin's armoured sleeve. "That at the end of it all the line of Durin will return to the throne under the Lonely Mountain. Not a treasure hunter."

Thorin's eyes seemed to turn darker and darker, his jaw setting, tense and almost vibrating in rage, then he clenched his hands and pulled back, tipping his head to Bilbo in ironic acknowledgement before striding out. Bilbo sagged against the wall behind him with a sigh, rubbing at his face with a palm. That hadn't seemed to have gone as well as he had thought it might.

A mouse chose that moment to scurry out from a hole set behind a cabinet, and up his breeches to his arm, where it perched precariously on his palm as he brought it up to regard it, chittering excitedly in the staccato cadence of the tongue of mice. One of Radagast's spies. After a few moments, Bilbo slipped the mouse into his waistcoat pocket, carefully, and stepped into shadow. It was time to get to work.

Chapter Text

XI.

Bilbo had, out of necessity, improved considerably on shadow walking after the messy business of the goblin king, but getting to the storeroom unnoticed was still a very near thing.

Their equipment had been clearly searched, especially Beorn's packs, but their weapons had been left unattended in an untidy pile, with Orcrist and Sting on top of the heap, his staff lying across the edge. Breathing out a slow sound of relief, Bilbo resisted the urge to buckle Sting back at his hip. Until they were ready to go, retrieving the weapons would just raise the alarm.

Not to mention that getting the heap of weapons back to the dwarves was going to prove a problem in and of itself: they were far too heavy for him to carry, save in several trips, and he would risk getting caught and discovered each time.

The mouse in his pocket peeked out, and scrambled up to his shoulder, making a soft, chittering sound after it looked around and saw that they were alone. After a moment, a hedgehog, of all things, waddled out from behind a stack of barrels, a thrush hopped out from over a tower of crates, and then Bilbo lost track of the myriad members of fur and claw that waddled, padded or hopped out of their hiding places. Radagast had been true to his word.

The hedgehog introduced itself rather self-importantly as Sebastian, and it hopped onto the scroll of paper that Bilbo unfolded from under his jacket, scuttling back and forth in excitement as it and a few mice outlined a rough map of Thranduil's caverns.

Bilbo went over the map a few times until he was sure that it was as right as it would be, and pondered it carefully. The river was the most obvious way out, and it would lead straight to Laketown, but they be highly visible, as they would have to commandeer a barge, and possibly face being fired on from all directions or even blocked off. Service tunnels were a better bet, and as luck would have it, one of them ran close under the great cave of the guestrooms.

Thorin had nominally recovered from what seemed like a thoroughly majestic sulk by the time Bilbo returned to the guestrooms, lugging a small bundle of picks, wrapped tightly with cloth. The other dwarves had been told, apparently, to go about their business as usual, and only Thorin and Balin met Bilbo in the bedchamber set furthest from the guarded entrance.

"Weapons?" Balin asked, hefting one of the pickaxes.

"No, of course not," Bilbo grimaced. "Mining picks. There's a tunnel that runs close to Bofur's room. From there, it's a short run to the storerooms, where our weapons are, then a longer walk to the outskirts of this cavern."

"And the noise from all that digging?" Thorin pointed out. The dwarven king's mood was still dark, judging from the heavy frown that lingered over his brow, but at least he seemed to be trying to contribute.

"You dwarves are noisy enough when you eat and drink," Bilbo pointed out, a touch acerbically. Did he have to think of everything? "Have two of our Company or so slip away each time and work on the tunnel. It should only take a day or so to work a hole large enough for us to get through. I have visited the tunnel myself, and it is not in use."

"Well, Master Bilbo, it does seem as though you have thought of everything," Balin put the pickaxe back in the heap, examining Bilbo's roughly drawn map. "I for one am most pleased that you are part of this Company."

Thorin glared at Balin when the old dwarf pronounced this last statement blithely, but stood aside with no comment as Balin bundled up the pickaxes in a quilt to carry them into Bofur's room. Alone with Thorin, the accusing silence seemed to turn treacle-thick and awkward all too quickly, and Bilbo excused himself quickly with a fumbling excuse. As far as he was concerned, his advice to Thorin had been spoken kindly, and if Thorin chose to take offense at it all, then a poor King he would be indeed.

The next day seemed to pass at a crawl; Bilbo spent it shadow walking around Thranduil's caves, checking guard patrols and their route, at first, and then his curiosity got the better of him, and he started to explore the other tunnels, warily at first, then with greater confidence, curious about Silvan customs and their ways of life. For all that Thranduil was Sindarin, his kingdom was perhaps out of necessity more militarised than Rivendell; most of the Silvan elves seemed armed in some way or other, and Bilbo was glumly sure that the Silvan elves' reputation with the bow was probably well-deserved. Their flight was going to have to be executed perfectly.

It was during one of Bilbo's explorations that he chanced quite by accident to pass a high balcony, overlooking the thick canopy of Mirkwood. About to tiptoe past, Bilbo nearly swallowed his tongue when he realized that Thranduil himself was within the chamber, leaning against the balustrade, while beside him was a far younger elf, with a distinct facial resemblance. Prince Legolas, Bilbo surmised, Thranduil's heir. Curiosity had him hide himself away where the shadows were thickest, instead of retracing his steps.

"... our people grow worried, Father. Surely you can see that it is not wise to chance the wrath of one of the Ithryn."

"Something about his tale does not ring true, Legolas."

"You would accuse the Ithryn of spreading falsehoods?"

There was a snort from Thranduil. "The Ithryn are wise, and of the most part benevolent, but they are here to pursue their own interests, Legolas. To them, the kingdoms of Men, Elves and Dwarves are but pieces on a chessboard. Should they need to sacrifice a piece to stem the tide of an overall picture that only they can see, they will do it."

"Would they not be right to do so? They are of the Valar-"

"I will not allow our kingdom, our people to be cast aside as pawns," Thranduil cut in sharply. "Dol Guldur is indeed stirring, but Amarvellon seeks to leave Mirkwood. Does that not speak ill to you? I have sent Saruman the White a missive, requesting that he explain himself. In the meantime, I will seek to hold Amarvellon here. Perhaps new instructions from Saruman - or the award of the necessary 'authority' that Amarvellon mentioned - would change his mind. Should we have to face what lies in Dol Guldur, the aid of one of the Ithryn would be invaluable."

"So this is not about Thorin Oakenshield?" Legolas challenged, if quietly, even as Bilbo had a mild fit of panic. Sent word to Saruman, by the Valar! Confound Elven Kings and their meddling!

"What about Thorin?"

"Since your last two visits to Erebor-"

"Thorin is the king of a dispossessed race of vagrants now, Legolas," Thranduil interrupted flatly. "His treasure is lost to the dragon. He is of no further interest to me now. Besides, we have more immediate matters of importance. Reinforce the patrols on the outer perimeter, and watch the forest closely."

"Yes, Father."

"My son," Thranduil gentled his voice, clasping Legolas warmly on the shoulder. "You are too young yet to learn rulership and its cares. But when you are, remember that you should put your people first, before other concerns."

"Was that why you would not face the dragon?" Legolas asked hotly.

"The dragon was happy with its gold. It cared not about the previous tenants of the Lonely Mountain. Once I was satisfied with that, why intervene and waste the lives of our people? We have not the resources to care for an entire kingdom, embattled as we already were with the spreading rot from Mirkwood and Ungoliant's children. The dwarves are an intelligent species. They found their own way, did they not?"

Legolas bit down on his lip, then he sighed and bowed his head. "Yes, Father."

"Go. Reinforce the patrols."

Legolas bowed again, padding silently out of the balcony even as Bilbo belatedly remembered himself and tried to scoot back into the dark beyond the lanterns. Too late - Legolas blinked, looking straight at him, his step hesitating, and even as Bilbo froze on the spot, the elven prince was beside him in two long strides. Slender fingers with impossible strength grasped his cloak, and before Bilbo could react he was hauled into an adjoining room, the door shut hurriedly if quietly behind him. Legolas held up a finger sharply for silence, tilting his head, and after a long moment, he carefully let go of Bilbo, smiling wryly.

"Amarvellon walks where he pleases after all."

Bilbo recognised that expression, part pleasure, part curiosity - after all, he'd grown used to seeing it on the princelings' and Ori's faces whenever he shaped smoke rings. Younglings. Slowly, he breathed out, willing himself to calm down. "Of course. And you have sharp eyes, even for an Elf."

"The sharpest," Legolas agreed, young enough (for an Elf) to still have pride in small things, though he sobered quickly. "Did you overhear everything?"

"I heard enough."

"Would you abandon us here to face the threat in Dol Guldur ourselves? If it is a Necromancer as you say, then we will have no real way to face it."

"Seek the aid of the Lady Galadriel, and hold fast until her arrival," Bilbo suggested. "The Necromancer cast back one of us, one whose magic has held fast in the Greenwood for over a thousand years. I cannot help you in this."

"Then what do you seek outside of Mirkwood, if the threat lies here?"

"Information. As I told your father."

Legolas sighed, glancing down at his feet, then back at the door. "I cannot say that I understand the Ithryn. But you have been named 'Elf-Friend' by Lord Elrond himself, and perhaps the ways of the Ithryn are not meant to be understood. Are you going to face the dragon?"

The direct question cast Bilbo off balance. "Ah... um-"

"There are no orcs or black magic where you are headed, Amarvellon. The dragon is the sole threat between here and the Lonely Mountain," Legolas pointed out, with a quick smile. "And - forgive me - but unless your business involved Erebor and its dragon, then I do not believe that you could have commanded the attendance of Lord Thorin and his heirs, howsoever kindly they may feel towards you of the Ithryn. My father does not look beyond his borders, and he did not consider this possibility."

"Unlike his son?" Bilbo noted wryly. "Perhaps I am going to face the dragon. What of it?"

"Ah." Legolas blew out a soft breath, his expression lighting up. "I wish that I could go!"

"No, no, no, no," Bilbo said hastily. "I'm not about to compound escaping with kidnapping, thank you."

"I know, it would be trouble," Legolas agreed glumly. "But Mirkwood is small compared to the rest of the world. And," Legolas added, in a softer voice, with another glance at the door, "That day, we should not have turned our backs on the dwarves."

"Your father had a point."

"He may have done what was correct," Legolas shook his head, "But it was not what was right."

"I think," Bilbo patted Legolas on the elbow after a moment's pause, amused, "That someday you will do great things, prince Legolas. Beyond Mirkwood, perhaps for the world itself. I will be watching your career with great interest."

Legolas smiled at him, almost with a touch of mischief, then he straightened up. "When do you intend to leave Mirkwood, Amarvellon?"

"Tonight, probably." If word had been sent to Saruman, then their schedule had just been escalated.

"I will ease the patrols on our borders with Laketown. Concentrate them against Dol Guldur, instead. Go in peace," Legolas added, with a touch of solemnity, "And may we meet again in better days."

"Thank you," Bilbo said, with relief. This would simplify things greatly.

"After you slay the dragon," Legolas said, grinning now, certainly, irrepressibly, "Come back to Mirkwood and tell me about it."

XII.

There was a minor problem in the tunnels after all - Bombur's bulk proved a tight squeeze at times, even with part of the Company shoving his bulk and the rest yanking at his arm, and if not for the urgency of the situation, Bilbo would have found it all quite amusing.

"Wizard, can you not turn him into a mouse?" Dwalin grunted, doing the bulk of the pushing due to having the greatest strength. "A fat round mouse would be easier to carry and push about than a fat round dwarf!"

"Not a mouse!" Bombur hissed, rather horrified and red-faced about it all, his feet digging into the rock as he managed to push himself forward a few inches.

"A sheep, then! Or a cat! Anything... smaller!"

"No sheep! No animals!"

"I am not that sort of wizard, I am afraid," Bilbo gripped his staff nervously. Even if Legolas had pulled the patrols away, they were making an awful lot of noise, "Just put your back into it."

"You come here and put your back to it!"

"Silence," Thorin growled, gesturing at Bifur and Bofur. "Get the butter from the supplies. Grease the walls."

"But that was for cooking," Bombur protested. "T'would be a waste!"

"I'll light a fire underneath your rump if I thought that it would get you through these tunnels more quickly," Dwalin growled, even as Bifur and Bofur hastily rummaged through the packs.

After that, the squeeze was easier, and eventually, the tunnels widened out again, allowing even Bombur to puff through with ease. The tunnels wound down, at first, deeper, until the stone gave way to packed soil, and tree roots often dug through the roof and curled along the walls, but soon it angled up again, the soil giving way to gravel, and when they emerged into the gloom of Mirkwood, dusty, filthy but free, Bilbo let out a deep breath.

"Now where do we go? We are not on the path," Thorin perched on a log, looking vainly around them, as the other dwarves scrambled out onto the grass.

"Not to worry. We have guides, this time round." Bilbo reached into his pack, and very carefully, wary of spines, picked Sebastian out of it.

The hedgehog uncurled, blinking away sleep, even as Kíli chose that moment to say, "I've had hedgehog stew before."

Sebastian let out a squeak of horror, even as Bilbo glowered at the prince. "If you are very lucky," Bilbo noted primly, "Sebastian might even forget to mention that to Radagast."

Kíli blinked, then he flinched when Thorin smacked him against the shoulder, and he lowered his head, abashed. "Sorry."

Still looking a little disgusted, Sebastian straightened up, making an odd, twittering sound, and after a moment, a pair of swallows flit down from the canopy, alighting on Bilbo's shoulders. After another moment's conversation, Bilbo nodded, and put Sebastian down gently on the grass, where the hedgehog shot Kíli a last, surprisingly dirty look for a hedgehog, before scurrying away into the undergrowth.

"And here are our guides," Bilbo gestured at the birds, one of which leaped into flight. With the birds taking turns to scout on ahead and report back, they took a winding and seemingly interminable path through the gloom of Mirkwood, occasionally stumbling over gnarled roots and rock, but keeping together, listening for pursuit. None came, and Bilbo began to relax when the forest started to thin into brush, the trees growing scattered, and finally, when they crested a rise, he looked down a sloping valley towards a river, snaking its gleaming way in the dying moonlight to the distant lights of a town.

"Laketown," Thorin surmised, as he drew level next to Bilbo. "Three days' walk, I think."

"Right." Bilbo whispered his thanks to the birds, and they rose up into the sky, flitting out of sight. "The elves are busy with Dol Guldur for now, but they may come hunting if they find us missing."

"We must keep moving," Balin agreed. "If we keep away from the river, to the tree line, we should be safe enough until we reach Laketown."

"Should we bypass the town?" Thorin glanced back over their shoulders, towards Mirkwood. "A township of Men, so close to Mirkwood, would exist only with the sufferance of the Elves."

"We will need supplies from the town," Balin said quietly. "It is the last place that we can buy any of that before the Lonely Mountain. Dale still lies shattered."

Thorin exhaled, glancing back over the party. "A large group of us will draw notice. Take Bifur, Bofur, Oin and Glóin. Pose as merchants. Buy supplies, and ponies."

"Much of our coin was in the packs seized by the goblins."

A tally of the party turned up a surprising haul of random rings and bags of coin, though not much of it; Bilbo had never really had much to do with currency - much of what he needed on a day to day basis tended to be conveniently provided by the Shire folk - and most of the Company were craftsmen, toymakers and blacksmiths who had never seen the wealth of Erebor, even had they once lived in it. It wasn't much by way of coin, and Bilbo was beginning to regret not thieving a little from the elves when Thorin abruptly unhooked a chain from his neck, dropping a pendant onto the haul, a shard of something that gleamed and whirled blue and silver with the light.

"Thorin, no," Balin sighed. "The last of your mother's treasures."

"Use that," Thorin said gruffly, and turned away, even as Fíli and Kíli exchanged uncertain glances before scurrying after their uncle.

The mood that followed them out of the borders of Mirkwood towards Laketown was a somber one, with Thorin in a grim mood despite their clean escape, and when they set up camp the next night, he perched on a fallen log, some distance from the camp, his eyes fixed on the shadow of the Lonely Mountain, so forbidding and solitary a figure that not even his nephews tried to disturb him.

Chapter Text

XIII.

None of the dwarves made any comment about Bilbo's stated decision to slip into Laketown to have a look around; getting them out of the mess in Mirkwood seemed to have raised him considerably in their esteem. Most of them, in any regard. Thorin's mood remained dark, and he said little, looking always forward, instead, to the distant spire of the Mountain. Perhaps the true weight of the task he had undertaken had finally confronted him, or perhaps it was the loss of yet another piece of his heritage. Bilbo preferred not to speculate.

As a whole, Bilbo rather disliked the townships of Men - even if he remained visible, he was often jostled and tripped over, and was usually given much cause to regret having chosen this particular shape and form. As such, despite attempts to be careful, it was a somewhat more bruised and irritable Bilbo that finally made it to the township's single tavern, a rather disreputable set of premises with the rather too grandiose name of 'Eastmarche', where he huddled in a corner to listen to gossip, feeling a little sorry for himself.

News of their escape hadn't yet filtered down to Laketown, which was good: either Thranduil was still searching Mirkwood, or hopefully, he had decided that one wizard and his 'retinue' of travel-worn dwarves were less important than the situation in Dol Guldur.

As to the Lonely Mountain, the dragon, if any, was still dormant, and the general mood of the room was that dragon or not, the Mountain was bad luck, and no Man had dared chance the Mountain and its ghosts for decades. Too much violent death had been meted there, and common gossip ran that the dwarves themselves had cursed the Mountain and everything within it.

The discussion - increasingly drunken - of whether the dragon was still in the Mountain seemed to be an old one that ran on familiar grooves - not even the barkeeper seemed interested enough to listen in, and the questions were driven mostly by passing merchants and travellers. As far as the residents of Laketown were concerned, came the general consensus, the Mountain was best left alone, dragon or not, and any gold was long cursed, until the King returned to the Mountain.

This started a drunken and lugubrious song about the return of the King to the Mountain that Bilbo supposed that Thorin might have enjoyed, regardless; he stayed long enough to listen to a muddled chorus before a harried bar girl nearly tipped a pint of beer over him, after which he hastily left the tavern while she was still looking about to see what she had tripped over.

Dodging the piles of refuse that occasionally scattered the streets - so charming, these towns of Men - Bilbo found himself at the horsemarket, where Balin was haggling over the price of a small herd of ponies with their solemn, sad-eyed owner. Thorin's necklace, Bilbo noted, was nowhere to be seen, although the pouch of coin that eventually changed hands was larger than Bilbo remembered.

Sold already, then.

Bilbo watched Bifur and Bofur strapping saddles onto the ponies for a moment, then a wild impulse had him square his shoulders and retrace his steps, circling the town. He checked a few likely shops before finally, tired and a little bored of it all, he slipped into the General Supplies store, whose owner, a plump and florid man with enough ginger in his hair to almost resemble Bombur, so happened to be admiring the gleam of Thorin's necklace in the light of the lantern.

Finally.

The shopkeeper smiled to himself, even as Bilbo waited impatiently by the door for him to stow the necklace somewhere, hopefully without key and lock, then to his annoyance, the shopkeeper trundled over to close the shop, nearly catching Bilbo's cloak in the process.

Trapped! Bilbo berated himself for being far too curious for his own good, by the Valar, then decided there was nothing to it but to follow through, as the shopkeeper ambled up the creaking stairway to the second floor of his shop. Cautiously, Bilbo followed suit, keeping against the wall to keep his footsteps silent, and edged over to peek into the room that the shopkeeper walked into.

A young girl's room, judging from the toys, Bilbo thought; cheery, handmade stuffed dolls with bright threads for hair and buttons for eyes lined the shelves, and a pot of fresh daisies sat on a windowsill. A wan, pale woman in a simple frock glanced up when the shopkeeper entered, seated beside the bed, where a young girl slept, still and white, and even from the door, Bilbo could sense how close the child was to death, and shivered.

"I bought this today from some dwarves," the shopkeeper passed Thorin's necklace to the woman. "I paid far too much for it, but I thought that Ella would love it."

"Oh, it's beautiful," the woman said, examining the pendant, though her voice remained joyless. "Dwarven make, I think. Look at the fineness of the chain! Why, around her neck, our daughter would look quite the princess."

"She would love it," the shopkeeper repeated, as his wife laid the chain on the small table beside the child's bed, and got to her feet, hugging the shopkeeper, lost for a moment in their grief.

Bilbo counted to ten, then ten again, when the shopkeeper and his wife left, until he could hear no more, then he edged into the room, heading to the bed, pressing a palm briefly to the child's head. She burned with fever that was consuming the rest of her short life, and with a soft sigh, Bilbo pressed his palm over her eyes, whispering the words that had first been taught to him by Estë, an age and more away before flesh.

Soon the colour returned to her cheeks, and she let out a soft sigh as her breathing evened out again, the fever leaving her, and Bilbo leaned for a moment on his staff to catch his breath before searching the room for writing materials.

He was busy writing out a list of ingredients to make a simple poultice when the girl asked, her voice steady enough, if still in a whisper, "Who are you?"

Blast! He'd gotten carried away again. Bilbo looked up from the table, and said, rather intelligently, "Um."

"I feel much better," the girl smiled, as she sat up from her bed. "You are one of the good spirits, then? From the Elves? My mother always said that one of you would come, if I was good."

"Not from the Elves," Bilbo said hastily, and chanced a white lie instead. "From the dwarves. One use only." He picked up Thorin's necklace from her table, and pocketed it, and continued to write out his prescription. "I'm going to leave your parents some instructions. Just apply twice a day, at breakfast and after dinner, and you should be as right as rain in a week or so."

"I've never heard of a dwarven spirit," the girl said, though she took Bilbo's instructions solemnly enough, folding up the paper carefully and tucking it into a pocket of her frock.

"There are very many things in this world that you would not have heard of," Bilbo agreed, patting her knee.

"Where is your beard?" The girl asked, curiously. "And you are rather small for a dwarf."

"The beard is optional, and I am a spirit, not a dwarf," Bilbo felt that the conversation, as it tended to where younglings were concerned, was getting rather ahead of him after all. "Drink lots of clean water, and do not play in the rain again, child. Now, is there another way out of your house? The front door was locked by your father, and he carries the key."

"There's a side door, with the key under the mat," the girl said, getting to her feet, a little wobbly at first before she managed a few more steps under her own strength. "I'll let you out. Though," she added, with another cheeky grin, "Could you not just disappear?"

"That would be most terribly unlucky," Bilbo protested, hiding his grimace. "Stealing away like a thief. Unheard of."

"Dwarven spirits are funny," the girl laughed, though she walked Bilbo out through the storerooms to the back door, picking up the key from under the mat and unlocking the door. "Goodbye, Master Spirit. Thank you."

"Goodbye!" Bilbo bowed with a flourish, to make the child giggle. "Perhaps if I next chance by this way, I might check on you again. Now go talk to your parents. Ease their minds a little."

Bilbo was feeling rather pleased with himself, overall, as he returned to the dwarven camp, where the ponies were being brushed down and dinner was almost finished. He took his dinner from Bombur, even if it was a little cold, petted the small white pony allotted to him - Clover, her name would be - and set off to find Thorin.

Thorin was not too difficult to locate; he was a little further away from the camp, this time, still looking out at the Lonely Mountain, though he glanced up when Bilbo approached. "Wizard."

"I think we are rather past formalities by now, O King," Bilbo noted, with gentle humour, and after a long moment, Thorin nodded, and glanced back over to the mountain.

"Soon we will return to Erebor," Thorin murmured, as though to himself.

"The birds may be returning, but I think that the dragon still remains. The Men of Laketown think the place still haunted or worse."

"Men," Thorin snorted, derisive.

"I would not be so quick to discount them," Bilbo climbed up onto the log, if at a respectful distance, dangling his feet over the stone. "Besides, Dale was part of the reason why Erebor was so prosperous. Without a trading post to sell your craft, without their fields and their livestock, Erebor would have been a rather hungry place, I should think. And Dale was the first place that suffered from the dragon's coming."

"So it was." If Thorin was abashed at all, he did not show it. "My grandfather was always careful to keep good ties with Dale."

"And wisely so. Should you reclaim Erebor, Dale must also be rebuilt. One is dependent on the other."

"I do not need your advice on how to rule," Thorin retorted, though there was humour there, in his tone, which startled Bilbo a little. "You wizards are a meddling sort."

"Gandalf rather moreso than I," Bilbo shot back, a little annoyed at the generalisation. "I was quite happy where I was in the Shire, thank you, without having to bother about dragons and dwarven kings and elves."

"Gandalf!" Thorin exhaled. "Gandalf and his pretty words, his promises of wealth under the mountain, of the birds returning. Where is he now?"

So Gandalf had been the one to instigate this madcap adventure. Bilbo supposed that he wasn't surprised after all. "Battling the Necromancer, I should think. He said that he would return to your Company should he conclude that business in time."

Or should he survive.

The words left unsaid sobered Thorin quickly; the dwarven king looked down at his hands, with a most furious scowl, then he sighed, and tipped up his head, to fix Bilbo with a sharp stare. "Do you think that the Necromancer is a more important issue?"

"That depends on what the Necromancer is," Bilbo admitted pensively. "Whether he is just a mortal man with black magic, as Saruman thinks, or far more. But that is another battle, and not ours. Gandalf's battle, now."

"And so in the shadow of the dragon, instead of Gandalf, I have the little healing wizard," Thorin drawled, and although there was humour again there, Bilbo scowled at him, reaching into his pockets and drawing out the necklace.

"Oh, to think that I went to so much trouble to find this for you! I shan't be so nice to you again."

"My mother's...!" Thorin blinked. "Did you steal this back?"

"Not particularly," Bilbo hedged, and found himself giving a short summary to Thorin of the girl and her shopkeeper parents, and at the mention of the 'dwarven spirits', Thorin laughed long and loud - a startling, rich sound which had Bilbo smiling. Thorin had not laughed like that since Beorn's house, and it felt like the pall over the party was lifting.

"Dwarven spirits would have been more imposing," Thorin decided at last, with a faint smirk at Bilbo's scowl.

"Certainly they would have thought that the dwarves themselves would be more grateful," Bilbo retorted. "Here, take it back. I was quite tired of all your brooding, in any regard."

"I was thinking, not brooding," Thorin corrected, though he kept his hands to himself. "Keep it."

"What... why should I-"

"It was freely given - and freely earned," Thorin reached over, curling his big hands over Bilbo's fingers, wrapping them over the necklace. "My mother would have been honoured to know that her necklace came to one of your kind for safekeeping."

"Then I will treasure it," Bilbo promised, and as he hung it around his neck, working the cunning catch, he could not help but add, somewhat playfully, "In the memory of at least one dwarf who held a healthy respect for the Maiar."

Thorin snorted, though he watched with that oddly avaricious gleam to his eyes as Bilbo tucked the necklace out of sight under his shirt. It hung a little heavy around his neck, but he would get used to the weight eventually. "Balin and the others respect you."

"Only after a great deal of effort on my part to earn it, it seems."

"Well," Thorin said, sounding amused, now, "You do not look quite so imposing, not like Gandalf."

"Oh, are we really going to have to go over this again?" Bilbo groused. "I happen to like how I look, thank you!"

"You would not be the only one," Thorin noted, and as Bilbo stared at him, a little puzzled at the heavy undertone, Thorin snorted again and looked back over to the mountain. "My mother respected the Wizards because she felt that all of you came to Middle Earth to inspire its people to do great things."

"Ah, well," Bilbo straightened up a little, somewhat embarrassed, "Maybe Saruman and Gandalf-"

"I think she was right after all," Thorin admitted softly, interrupting him. "I was afraid of the dragon when I first set foot on this quest. I had faced it before, seen how it smashed through our gates and swatted aside the best of our army without even suffering a scratch. Saw how it burned many of our people to ash where they stood. Azog was a terrible enemy, but at least he was one that could be bled. Fighting the dragon seemed as futile as trying to face a wildfire."

Bilbo said nothing, at first. He had seen dragons before, when the Maiar marched with the Host of the Valar during the War of Wrath, watched Ancalagon fall from the sky, twisting and screaming great gouts of flame. That too, was another life.

"I think that you are right to be afraid," Bilbo said finally, when Thorin seemed to be expecting him to say something.

"I have thought over what you have said, in Mirkwood," Thorin murmured, a little hesitantly. "They were bitter words to swallow, but you were right. My people deserve a King from the line of Durin, not a treasure hunter. And so," Thorin added, as Bilbo blinked at him, "When the time comes to face the dragon, I will face it. Not for the gold it has stolen, or for the lives it has taken, but for the lives that will come when the Mountain is rid of the dragon. For the future of Erebor."

There were warnings that Bilbo wanted to say, about the decided inadvisability of facing down a dragon with an army, let alone a tiny group of dwarves and one wizard more accustomed to healing colds and scrapes than adventuring, but the words died in his throat as Thorin levelled an intense stare at him, and he managed a stumbling, "Fine words, O King," instead.

"You give me courage," Thorin reached over again, to clasp his hand and tug it over, to brush his mouth over the underside of his wrist, "And that is a greater gift than all the gold in the world."

It took Bilbo a long moment of startled blankness to finally understand the heat in Thorin's eyes, the careful gentleness of his grasp; perhaps even the real source of Thorin's black temper since Mirkwood, and he nearly laughed at the sheer insanity and strangeness of it all, finally connecting all the subtle little pointers since Rivendell and beyond. Something of humour must have shown in his eyes; Thorin let go of his hand, his expression growing reserved, even as Bilbo struggled to think of what to say.

"I am rather fond of you after all, despite everything," Bilbo noted finally, as kindly as he could, "But you should understand that this form that I wear is just a shell. What I am - what Gandalf is, what Radagast and Saruman are - we exist beyond flesh. Beyond Death, beyond even Time itself. My true form would be utterly alien to you, Thorin Oakenshield; you would not even be able to look upon it."

"I know that." Thorin seemed a little annoyed. "Alien as your true form may be, and timeless, there is little more that is different from the mortal races, is there? You still know anger, joy, fear and sorrow. You still bleed when you are wounded."

"Well," Bilbo said, about to lecture Thorin on the precise nature of the differences between the Ainur and the mortal races, when Thorin slipped his fingers up to link them with Bilbo's, gently squeezing his palm - despite himself, despite what he was and what he would be, and the gulf of time and more between them, Bilbo found himself laughing, squeezing back. "You are a very dangerous dwarf, O King."

"I shall take that as a compliment," Thorin said quietly, and Bilbo allowed himself to be tugged over, presumptuous as it still was, for an arm to circle over the small of his back and for his head to be nudged under Thorin's chin, prickly and warm as his beard was; he smelled of steel and iron and leather, and impossibly, improbably, Bilbo felt a calming sense of peace edge through him in a slow tide, echoing a sense of tranquillity that he had felt only an age and more before, in the Gardens of Lórien in Valinor.

Maybe there was little that was truly different between their kind.

Chapter Text

IX.

They skirted Long Lake and followed the River Running, with the Lonely Mountain now clear and forbidding beyond them. With fresh ponies and supplies, the Company's spirits were high, and even Thorin occasionally joined in the songs. The few of the River Folk they passed blinked and stared in surprise as the strange Company of dwarves and one small wizard rode past, and once they were hailed, by a boat of fishermen.

"Ho, Dwarves, where are you headed? That way runs into the Desolation of the Dragon!"

Thorin looked over to Balin and Dwalin, but Bofur, ever quick on a comment, had already called back, "We return to the Mountain! The King Under the Mountain is returning!"

"Hush," Thorin growled, but the fishermen had already fallen to excited chattering and shouted questions about their quest that the younger members of their party were happy to respond to, despite Thorin's glare, and laughing, Bilbo reached over to pat Thorin's wrist.

"Let them," Bilbo murmured, as the fisher folk rowed away, one of them already whistling a snatch of the tune that Bilbo had heard in the tavern. "Your kin are not the only ones awaiting your return to your throne."

"Men are like magpies, attracted only to wealth," Thorin muttered, though there was no heat to his tone, and he even smiled a little, after, when under Ori's instigation Bilbo had to retell part of the story of his little foray into Laketown, and of the song of the King Under the Mountain that he had heard in the tavern. Fíli and Kíli could not be persuaded to stop singing it, and their mood stayed high even as they made camp.

During dinner Bilbo amused Ori and the princelings by telling them a highly condensed version of the War of Wrath, of the mariner Eärendil and the march of the Host of Valinor against Morgoth, spinning smoke into tiny eagles and dragons that tore at each other over the fire, as the Eagles of Thorondor fought the fleet of winged dragons. When the miniature smoke-form of Ancalagon the Black was cast down, twisting and dissipating into the logs, the applause and cheer from the dwarves startled Bilbo into realizing that he had far more of an audience than he had originally intended. Somewhat self-consciously, he wrapped up the rest of the tale, of Morgoth and his punishment, and puffed at his pipe until his audience faded away to their usual tasks.

"And you saw all of that?" Ori asked, wide-eyed still.

"Not all of it," Bilbo allowed, blowing out a normal smoke ring, with a sigh. "Enough of it."

"But such great deeds!" Kíli said enthusiastically. "The great eagles battling the dragons! Eärendil taking arms against Ancalagon!"

"The war laid waste to the River Sirion, and much of the once green lands west of the Ered Luin. There was much death that day," Bilbo murmured quietly. "Much that was lost. The orcs and their Balrog captains ruined much."

"But there was no alternative but war," Fíli pointed out, a little more mature than his brother, after all, guessing at the heart of Bilbo's mood.

"No. I suppose not. The orcs and the Balrogs were cast in evil, and there would be no persuading them otherwise. Their sickness of the mind was ingrained; they were created with it. The first orcs were elves, once," Bilbo added, with another puff of his pipe, "Poor creatures, captured by Melkor, tortured and mutilated. A dark and vile deed, even for he."

"Elves!" Ori repeated, with a blink, screwing up his face, even as the princelings frowned in concert, unable to reconcile the graceful, haughty elves of Elrond's House or Thranduil's Court to the blackened and hateful things that loped and slunk over the land, befouling everything that they touched.

"War is a monstrous beast," Bilbo continued, as he puffed out another whisper of smoke. "Sometimes necessary. But always hateful. Best avoided where possible."

"Thorin has been in one," Fíli noted, "The one against Azog in Moria."

"Two, if you count Smaug," Kíli added quickly.

"The second war - if a war it was - rose out of self-defence, and the first was started out of need, perhaps. Or a perceived need. Many of your people were slain; your great-grandfather among them," Bilbo reminded them, though he patted Fíli's shoulder when the princeling seemed downcast at the thought. "Someday perhaps you will be King Under the Mountain, Fíli. When you are, I would not be so quick to counsel war."

"You have started on my heirs," Thorin told him afterwards, when by some means of cunning and sleight of hand the dwarven King managed to corral Bilbo away from the camp. "They are young and impressionable."

"They listen and are less inclined to be stubborn," Bilbo corrected, and had to swallow a giggle when Thorin stroked confident thumbs in slow circles up his arms, pinning him against a tree. "Thorin, that tickles."

"They would be soft kings if they listened to you," Thorin murmured, though his eyes grew hot as Bilbo allowed him to press one sword-roughened palm over his cheek, to chase the gentle curve of his jaw.

"Courage and strength does not always lie against the edge of a blade, O King, but knowing when to turn it aside," Bilbo's voice hitched as a thumb traced the pointed tip of his ear with the gorgeous tenderness of a lover exploring the body of his beloved for the first time; his heart was beating faster and faster, his breathing growing stuttered. Was Thorin really-

"Should I have followed such counsel I would have never left the Blue Mountains."

"Which would have been a wise decision, if Balin's account of the new life you built for your people there is accurate. Thorin-" The rest of Bilbo's sentence was swallowed in a gasp and another laugh as Thorin followed the touch of his thumb with a surprisingly agile tongue. "Thorin, what are you doing?"

That brought Thorin up short, and quickly; the dwarven king frowned at him. "Surely you know something of courtship, if you have lived for so very long in flesh."

"Oh. Oh!" Bilbo had to feign a cough to hide his embarrassment. "So that was what you were doing!"

"Aye," Thorin seemed frozen between astonishment, suspicion and resignation, then he let out a wry laugh. "Was it unpleasant?"

"No, no, quite pleasant," Bilbo admitted, then added, defensively, when Thorin arched an eyebrow, "I am rather familiar, theoretically, with the process of maypoles and meadows, but usually, not directly."

"Oh?"

"Well, I am often called to midwife the difficult births, and on occasion some younglings with more imagination than sense besiege my door begging me for 'love potions'... are you laughing at me?" Bilbo folded his arms, scowling, as Thorin started to chuckle.

"So do those exist?"

"What?"

"Love potions."

"No, of course not," Bilbo sniffed, "'Love' at their age is usually lust, or infatuation of some sort. Love comes only through time... Thorin-"

Thorin paused only briefly before his murmured, "Carry on," was muted in a delicious wash of breath against Bilbo's neck, followed by the gentlest, teasing touch of teeth that made him shiver; his skin felt tender, almost raw, as though it was stretched tight with sensation, new and heady and intoxicating.

"W-well," Bilbo stuttered, his hands frozen against Thorin's arms, "You cannot distil that sort of emotional attachment through herbs or magic."

"I should hope not," Thorin's hands had crept over to Bilbo's rump, giving it a squeeze that made him jerk and yelp, "Because it is magic in itself, an old magic," Thorin murmured, tugging lightly and briefly on the lapels of Bilbo's ruined waistcoat with curiosity, before undoing the buttons on his shirt with elegant dexterity that seemed strange coming from such large fingers. "That is how the dwarves love, Wizard; for us, love is more like a madness, unyielding like the stone itself. It consumes, it is jealous, and often, it destroys."

"Not for Aulë were the gentle things," Bilbo whispered, in a snatch of thought older than Thorin's people counted time, and it was lost in the next as Thorin kissed down his throat to press his mouth over the pendant, his lips briefly warming the chain over Bilbo's skin. At the oddly shocking intimacy, Bilbo let out a soft, sharp sound, almost wounded, like an animal's gasp for breath or mercy, and Thorin growled, the sound rumbling against Bilbo's frame, over his skin, as he leaned up to take his mouth.

There was nothing gentle about it at first, the wet thrust of Thorin's tongue into his mouth as confident as before, in Rivendell, but then big fingers crept into the thick curls of Bilbo's hair behind his skull when he shivered, and the kiss turned slow and filthy with novel promise. Bilbo was struggling to breathe - he wasn't sure if he was meant to breathe - as he tentatively met the slick press of Thorin's tongue with his own, then with more confidence when the dwarf choked a moan against his mouth and all but crushed him against the tree, his free hand clenched over a branch, as though Thorin was the one being kissed within an inch of his immortal life.

They kissed until Bilbo forgot the uncomfortable and awkward press of mail and buckles against his softer clothes, until his knees gave and they sank with a breathless laugh in an awkward sprawl on the wet grass; there would be stains on his breeches and his coat, and still his fingers sought to wind themselves through Thorin's thick mane and urge him further. Thorin's beard tickled his chin, a hand still curled against Bilbo's head as though to keep him close, the other splayed wide over his thigh, stroking up, again with that slow and filthy promise, and back down, until Bilbo was gasping, laughing. His breeches were beginning to feel tight, as his body-made-flesh seemed to sing under Thorin's assertive touch, but it was Thorin who looked wrecked, flushed, his eyes wide and wild.

"Not here," Thorin decided finally, roughly. "Not in the wilds and against a tree like an animal. I would have you in Erebor, when I retake my birthright."

Not for Aulë were the gentle things, Bilbo thought again, panting and boneless against the tree. For Thorin spoke true: the dwarves were not made by Ilúvatar, and did not love as Men and Elves did, not with passion wrought gentle through the press of time. Theirs was a jealous love, a craftsman's stubborn love, and, far too often, it was an obsession that turned all other cares to ruin.

Still, he dared to reach out, to clasp Thorin gently by the cheeks with his palms, to draw him down and press a chaste kiss over his forehead, then over his eyes, until the dwarven king let out a shaky, soft breath into the space of frozen time between them and shifted to lean against the tree, folding Bilbo against his shoulder and his arm to bury his mouth in Bilbo's hair. Here, Bilbo could see the edge of the key to the Mountain, pressed under furs and Thorin's mail shirt, and he ran the flat of his thumb over it and smiled, wry and tranquil.

X.

Soon the grass ebbed to a desolate and blackened soil, with only bleak stone and the ruined dead stumps of trees to break the flat of the land before them. Thorin was taking them away from the River Running, picking his way through the Desolation of the Dragon. Grass had grown here once, Thorin murmured, as they made their slow way towards the Mountain; there were no more paths. Now the land was broken; the wrath of the dragon had seared away all life from the shadow of the Mountain.

Bilbo had been expecting to feel nausea, or the dislocation he had felt in Mirkwood where the land lay sickened, but here he could only feel a sense of stillness, as though the land was simply sleeping, waiting. Dragonfire hadn't poisoned the land, not like the Necromancer had from Dol Guldur; Smaug had only charred a shell over it, that made the land sleep until the deadwood could be cleared again. It was a relief, and when they finally made camp at the foot of the mountain, on the western side of the great southern spur, Bilbo was the only one still in good spirits.

The dwarves set up camp with quiet efficiency, even as Thorin and Balin stood aside, consulting quietly. Eventually, Thorin strode over, motioning for his nephews to attend him.

"Fíli, Kíli, go with Balin. Scout the land to the South, where the Front Gate once stood. Do not get too close." See if the dragon remains, was the unspoken instruction.

Fíli nodded, even as Kíli tried and failed to hide a grin, excited again. Hastily, Bilbo added, "I will go, too. I'll like to take a further look at the land."

Thorin glanced at him, as though in surprise, and opened his mouth, then he seemed to think better of it and nodded.

They had made it to the foot of the spur - Ravenhill, Balin had named it - when the river met them again in its winding loop from Laketown, noisy and swift, rushing through steep stone banks into the wide valley in the shadow of the Mountain, with its old ruins of houses and towers.

"Dale," Balin said, with a gesture towards the ruins, and looked grim. "This too, was once green and lush."

"The land is not dead," Bilbo noted, as he scuffed his feet briefly against the charred dirt. "It is waiting. With some work, it will be green again."

"Much work," Balin said, with a glance over at the vast ranks of blasted forests, though he straightened a little, as though some good humour was returning to him. "We will circle around the spur. There'll be a view of the Gate from there that won't be so exposed."

From Balin's vantage point, there was a clear view of the Gate - now just a cavernous opening into the mountain where great walls and bridges and doors had once stood, with the violence of the dragon's passage still strewn in rubble and ruin in the water and against the Mountain. Other than the rush of the River Running and the stream that flowed into the depths of the Mountain, and the occasional dry croak of a crow, there was silence; and from within the darkness flowed a dark trail of smoke, and the occasional puff of steam.

The dragon was still alive.

Even Fíli and Kíli were sober when they returned to the camp, where their observations were met with murmurs of dismay. The thought of the dragon had been a distant one, it seemed, and most of their Company had secretly hoped that it was dead. It seemed a cruel fate that after braving stone giants, goblins, orcs, wargs and poisoned Mirkwood that they had reached the end of their quest, only to find a far more bitter foe.

Only Thorin seemed unmoved. "Good!" he said flatly, cutting through the grumbling and the gloom. "So it is still alive. We can yet bring our people's curses home to Smaug."

"We've made it this far, laddie," Balin noted tiredly. "There is no one left here but us. No aid is coming, from our kinsfolk or anyone else. You would still face the dragon?"

"I am here to take back Erebor," Thorin retorted firmly. "Our people still need a home. I will face the dragon."

"And I," Kíli said instantly, quickly echoed by his brother, and a renewed if desperate cheer seemed to rouse the other dwarves. More so than on the Gate of the Mountain, perhaps the dwarves could sense that they were perched on the Gate of history, and beneath their feet, the river of time was relentless.

In the morning they moved their camp to a long valley that overlooked the western slopes, to begin their tedious and dangerous search for the hidden door. Some grass grew on this side of the mountain, where the dragon had been less thorough in its devastation, and Bilbo liked to curl his toes in it and read the map. He wished that he still had Radagast's friends with him; this would have been much easier with an army of small eyes and feet.

Still, finding the passageway up the mountain, and the door, was only a matter of time, especially with the stubbornness and eye for detail that the dwarves possessed, and one afternoon the princelings tumbled into camp, breathless and smug with themselves. They had found a way up, they said, to a grassy spur, and beyond that, a flat plane of rock that had to be the door.

The dwarves set up camp on the foot of the mountain directly under the spur, and a higher camp above, connected by an ingenious system of rope pulleys seemingly crafted spontaneously on the sly, and Bilbo was one of the first to be hauled up, clutching his staff tightly against the wind. He approached the door quickly, feeling against it for any hidden levers and pressure plates, and then he spoke the few spells and key-words that he knew. Unfortunately, the door would not budge, and with a sigh, Bilbo sat down on a rock beside it, thinking. Confound Gandalf, after all! The wandering wizard knew far more about hidden doors and secret phrases than he.

The moon runes were the key - Bilbo scratched out the runes from memory, on a scrap of paper that he had used to wrap the second last store of his pipe weed, and pondered the horizon even as the other dwarves tried their luck on the door.

"It's no use," Bilbo said finally, his voice low - none raised their voices, this close to the mountain. "When is Durin's Day?"

Dwalin glanced at Óin, possibly the most well-read of the dwarves among them, who shook his head, slowly. "I cannot guess. Our lore reads that it is the first day of the last moon of Autumn, but to predict the coming of such a day is beyond us now. Usually now, we call it Durin's Day when the last moon of Autumn and the Sun are in the sky together."

"'Stand by the grey stone when the thrush knocks'," Thorin recited, glowering at the smooth stone, "'And the setting sun with the last light of Durin's Day will shine upon the key-hole'. A riddle?"

"I doubt it," Bilbo murmured, though he dangled his feet over the stone, and tried to trawl through his memory for anything that might give him a clue.

"It is a week until the first day of Autumn," Óin noted, with another glance over at the horizon. "We could watch over the stone until then. But what of the thrush?"

"We could trap one, and knock it against the door?" Kíli suggested brightly, and added, quickly, "Very gently," when Bilbo glared at him.

"Someday, you and I are going to have a long talk, Master Kíli," Bilbo muttered, and fished out the last of his pipe weed. "I suppose there is little to do now but wait, and hope that we do not wake the dragon before we are ready."

Chapter Text

XI.

The week was a miserable one, spent huddled against the mountain. The dwarves swapped watches from the high and low camps, save for Bombur, who refused to try the pulley system until he 'absolutely had to'. The Company's spirits ebbed, save for Thorin, who sat always in the high camp, watching the door, and his nephews, who sensed their uncle's urgency of purpose and seemed excited by it, dividing their time between trying to feel for pressure plates and hidden locks against the stone slab or carefully scouting around the foot of the mountain.

Bilbo, on the other hand, had always learned how to occupy himself when the days grew slow: it was either that or grow mad during the interminable task that had been set to him by Estë. He had packed a blank journal, a quill pen and an ink bottle from Thranduil's 'guest' rooms, and although the ink needed a little diluting, they could spare no water. He would have to rewrite his notes when he was home.

If he ever went home.

On the third day, Thorin shifted over to look at what he was doing, and of course his first comment was, "You are writing in the language of the Elves?"

"In Quenya. Yára-Quenya, if you want to be precise," Bilbo corrected.

When Thorin frowned, over from the other side of the high camp, Óin elaborated, "One of several Elvish tongues, also thought to be used by the Valar. Yára-Quenya is its older form."

"I knew that," Thorin said, with a touch of impatience. "Why would you write in that?"

"Valarin has no true written form, and to be honest, I'm rather fond of these letterforms," Bilbo wrote the same line in Westron, then in Khuzdul. "See?"

"No," Thorin said, after a moment's thought, though he smirked a little as he did so.

"Don't tell me that all your books are in Khuzdul," Bilbo groaned, as a sudden thought struck him. A hall full of books in Khuzdul! He would need a mountain full of tea and pipe weed to trawl through that. For although he had learned a passable conversational Khuzdul from Gandalf, his familiarity with written Khuzdul was somewhat basic. The dwarves guarded their language as jealously as they did their gold.

"What is wrong with Khuzdul?"

"It's such an angular language."

"It is the purest language."

"I think we were discussing aesthetics," Bilbo pointed out, with a touch of impatience. "Besides, I like it when languages evolve. That is what keeps them alive, just like the people who speak it. It changes as they change."

"And the dwarves do not?"

Bilbo peered at Thorin, his quill pausing, but he couldn't quite make out the expression on his face, and he hedged, if gently, "Your kind were not made to change, but to endure."

"And so our choices are set in stone, if stone we are?" Thorin snapped, and pushed himself to his feet, stalking away to the edge of the spur, to look down over the cliff face.

Startled by Thorin's abrupt change in mood, Bilbo glanced over at Óin blankly, puzzled, and after a quick glance between Bilbo and Thorin's now relatively distant figure, the greying dwarf walked over to sit close, against the rock face, facing Bilbo. "It is said," Óin pitched his voice low for Bilbo's ears only, "That King Thrór had one of the Rings of Power."

"I knew that much." Seven Rings had come to the Dwarf Lords - one of them to Durin of Khazad-dûm - it would have come to Thrór, in time. "The dwarves were impervious to their influence."

"That depends," Óin said sadly, "On your idea of 'impervious', Wizard."

"You speak of the gold-fever," Bilbo murmured, frowning. He had once, a very long time ago, had a discussion with Gandalf over the Seven Rings, and the consensus was that Saruman's counsel was right - the dwarves seemed more or less impervious to their effects, and besides, dwarves were not easily parted from their things, insidious by nature or otherwise. Other than Moria and Durin's Bane, which was an accident that could have happened regardless of the Ring, the gold-fever had not been too destructive... or so it had seemed then.

Óin risked another glance at Thorin's back, then he nodded, slowly.

"Where is the Ring now?"

"Lost. It came to Thráin, I hear, but Thráin too is lost to us."

"Then Thorin has never even touched the Ring."

"Durin's Ring has been with his bloodline for more than an Age, Wizard. The fever is in his blood, in Durin's blood. His more than mine, or even Balin's line. Before you came into the party, he had no other reason to wish to brave the Mountain. If you claim that we cannot change," Óin smiled then, thin and wry, "Then we follow gold-fever into the Mountain, and not Durin's heir."

Bilbo was beginning to think that Gandalf was rather more subtle than he had truly even let on, and that soured his mood somewhat. "Over-sensitivity was not one of Aulë's gifts to your kind."

"Not usually," Óin's smile widened, into a sly grin, "But this has been weighing on Thorin's mind for a while, I can see that much. And, well, Wizard, if you cannot see that your words reach him further than most, then you are blinder to the world than you seem."

Attempting to continue writing his notes became a meandering and eventually pointless exercise, and muttering to himself about the exasperating nature of dwarven kings, Bilbo carefully tore off a corner of his precious paper, wrote a quick note on it in Khuzdul, and slipped it into Thorin's bedroll, when no one was looking.

The next morning, he had made it past the first page, noting down his impressions of Beorn's House and skin-changers, when Thorin sat heavily back down beside him. Over at the look out, Dori glanced at them, then grinned and looked away when Thorin pointedly curled an arm around Bilbo's waist, his free hand pressing the scrap of paper over his book. "Few who have dared call a scion of the line of Durin an 'idiot' have lived."

"Adjectives aside," Bilbo primly tucked the paper away, "The point stands. I doubt I would have followed you and your Company all the way here to the Mountain itself, if you had been entirely the same dwarf who invaded my home in the Shire."

"Time will tell," Thorin said soberly, though he closed his eyes and pulled Bilbo against him, resting against the rock; the fourth day passed pleasantly enough, even in the shadow of the Dragon.

XII.

On the seventh day, a thrush arrived, huge, and nearly coal black, twittering; it peered at their camp, then flew straight up to the slab of grey stone, even as Thorin nearly bowled Bilbo aside by scrambling to his feet. By the time Bilbo had packed his quill and writing materials away, the thrush had found a snail, and was knocking it against the door, in a sharp staccato.

Nothing happened, and if the old thrush seemed at all concerned that its meal was being avidly watched by a growing number of dwarves and one little Wizard, it didn't show it. The sun dropped in the sky, further and further, until it had nearly dropped past a bank of reddened clouds - and then it sank past, and a chorus of groans rose from the dwarves.

"Hush," Thorin growled, still watching the thrush, as it hopped on the grass - and a finger of light burst from the cloud bank, falling onto the rock, just as the thrush let out a loud trill. With a crack, the rock under the slit of light flaked, revealing a keyhole.

"The key!" Bilbo prompted, but Thorin had already drawn it from the chain around his neck, fitting and turning it in the rock. There was an oiled snap, then a faint rumble, and the dwarves piled against the rock even as the thrush shot up into the sky. Under their efforts, the stone door gave, widening, into a deep darkness that looked like the maw of the mountain, that fell ever darker and downwards.

Thorin's hand clenched tight on Orcrist's hilt, and he made as if to step into the dark, but Dwalin caught his shoulder quickly. "It needs scouting."

At this, Fíli and Kíli started to push forward, but Bilbo hastily offered, "I will go. The shadows are dark enough that not very much magic is needed to walk in them."

"We will all go," Thorin disagreed, gruffly. "The doorway is small; the dragon cannot be lying in wait within it. Pull up everyone who is willing to come. Should anyone not be willing to face the dragon, then let him turn aside now. All of you have come this far with me; should we prevail against the beast, you will not find me ungrateful, whatever your choice may be now."

Oddly enough - or perhaps not oddly - none of the Company stood aside, not even Ori, who was pale and nearly trembling with fear, and torches were lit, with a careful, nearly funereal solemnity. Bilbo took in a slow breath, and he could feel tranquillity again, insanely, like the calm before a storm, sucked into the ambit of inevitability in Thorin's wake - perhaps the dwarves could feel it too, for their hands were steady, even as they prepared to face one of the banes of their kind.

The stairway down into the dark seemed steep and endless, and they had drawn their weapons; Bilbo clutched his staff in one hand, and Sting in the other, although the tiny blade looked even smaller and useless now; not even elven steel could pierce a dragon's hide, and he was not sure if he still had enough magic within him.

Soon it grew warmer, and warmer, until a red glow painted the walls, with wisps of vapour smoking past, with a whistling, gurgling sound, like the rumble of a great beast beyond, asleep; it shook through the ancient stone around them, beneath them, and behind, in the Company, someone let out a soft, shuddering moan. Thorin let out a harsh breath, as though to push forward, but Bilbo quickly held up a hand. Signalling in iglishmêk, he stated his wish to move forward alone, to scout. Thorin narrowed his eyes, shaking his head, but after Bilbo signalled again, then again, he let out a slow breath, and finally nodded curtly.

Personally, Bilbo wasn't quite sure why he had offered; it was a wild thought, some strange conviction that perhaps he should and could scout first the lay of the land as it was now and be of some use. He walked into shadow, edging down further into the tunnel, sweating, into the great treasure-hall of the dwarves.

The cavern was far vaster than he expected; not even the dragon's glow, curled as he was on the mountainous piles of treasure, seemed to touch the ends of the hall. Bilbo blinked hard, momentarily surprised by the wealth that he could see stretched before him, beyond mortal count, but shook his head, and held his breath as he stepped carefully onto a patch of rock that was not covered by coin, then another, waiting as the dragon's breathing changed note and then back again, then held his breath and stepped closer still, trying to get a better view of the dragon.

Smaug was a vast, red-golden dragon, his huge wings furled against his back, turned a little on his side, such that part of his belly's armoured coat of gems and gold fragments from his long sleep on the dwarves' hoard could be seen. Bilbo deflated a little, even as he dared to pick his way closer. As far as he could recall, the underbelly of a dragon was usually its weakness; by fate or by design, Smaug seemed to have addressed that particular flaw, most blindingly.

Still, perhaps that now splendid coat of gems and gold did not coat the entirety of the dragon - this thought drove Bilbo, perhaps foolishly, to venture closer yet, until Smaug sniffed, snorting, and opened one single, gigantic golden eye.

"I smell a thief," Smaug said then, in a growl that shook the gems and gold he lay on. "I hear your breath, O Thief, even if you have stolen unseen into my hoard. And though I do not know your scent, I can smell your magic."

Bilbo quietly cursed his curiosity, and tried to start picking his way back to the tunnel, but the dragon laughed, a booming, vicious sound, pushing himself onto his feet, cascading gold from his wings and from his tail. "Come, now, Wizard! I can feel you move. I can guess where you are. Speak! Why have you come?"

Ah, well. Bilbo took in a breath, then another, and sought to change his voice, to deepen it as Gandalf had once shown him how, to let a touch of his magic into his words. "If you know what I am, then you know what I have seen."

"The War," Smaug sneered, the dark smoke curling thicker from his nostrils for a moment. "The War of Wrath was a long time ago, Wizard, and you are alone. Why have you come?"

"Curiosity, O Smaug the Tremendous," Bilbo said quickly, because if the dragon hadn't yet come to strike him, then the dragon too had to be curious. "If you know what I am, then you know that I have no interest in gold or gems."

"True! Gold and gems are of no use to your kind," This seemed to calm the dragon somewhat; his wings curled back tight over his scales. "Then why have you come?"

"Erebor has a library. I wished to take a look at it. A very quick one, without troubling any dragons."

Smaug seemed to give this some due thought, the smoke darkening, then growing light again, and slowly, with a hoarse, terrible rumbling sound, the dragon began to laugh. "And if you did, O Wizard, you would have taken the front door, walked straight to your library and back without waking me."

Bilbo silently cursed his inattention - always a fatal flaw when talking to dragons. "Um. Wrong turn?"

"Hrr," Smaug was circling now, padding around him, and this was why he wasn't dead yet, Bilbo realized, with a horrible and sudden calm. The dragon wasn't curious. Smaug was playing with him. He backed away hurriedly, as quietly as he could over the rock, even as the dragon cut him off from the exit with his long tread, his tail slithering in the gold. "Your voice pitches low to the ground, and you smell of the earth and of the grass. You are not Saruman the White of the Black Tower of Orthanc, whose magic I may have feared to face. Nor are you the Blues, lost to the eastern and southern corners of the world, nor the Brown, for the only animal scent on you is a pony's. Nor are you Gandalf the Grey, for though I smell the Road upon you, it is no kin to you."

"So. Thrice I name you, Wizard - you are Kemendil, Amarvellon, Earth-Friend. You are the Green Wizard. Tell me, what business does Estë's little wizard have with me?"

"Ah... haha well, that would be a tale long in the telling," Bilbo noted, even as he clenched his hand more tightly around his staff, backing away as quickly as he could, preparing what magic he had within him.

"Perhaps you come here for the sake of the dwarves," Smaug growled, and his smoke turned darker, and darker yet, as he started to prowl towards Bilbo's voice. "No matter. I have not eaten one of the Maiar before."

"Nor will you!" came the cry from the doorway, behind Smaug, and with a roar of "Baruk Khazâd! Khazâd ai-mênu!", Thorin's Company had come to war.

Smaug tried to turn, but the dwarves were quicker, cleaving past in an ever-moving, desperate tide. The dragon snarled in outrage, stamping down and swiping and snapping, but even as Bilbo's heart rose to his mouth the dwarves seemed always just out of reach; and as he watched, Bofur's mattock swung sharply against the dragon's hind calf, chipping some of the crust of gems and gold off the underside.

"It comes off!" Bofur cried out, at the others, and even as Smaug turned to snap at Bofur, he was quickly distracted by Fíli, who had dared to climb up onto the dragon's back, using the spurs of horn and spikes, and as Smaug's head whipped around, viper quick, jumped, blades flashing, ripping two long rents down the leather of one of Smaug's wings as he went.

The dragon reared back, shrieking in rage, the ululation of his fury painfully loud, causing the coin to jump around Bilbo's feet and the ground to tremble, and the dwarves scattered, but no flames came, and Bilbo quickly guessed why. "He won't use his fire in the treasure hall!" Bilbo called out. "He will not risk melting the treasure!"

"And he is slower than he was," came Thorin's answering shout, somewhere safe out of reach as Smaug landed heavily on all four of his clawed feet, knocking Óin and Nori off balance, though Dwalin hurriedly hauled them back up. "Sixty years you have slept and not eaten, dragon. It has had its toll."

"Fire! Murder! Thieves!" Smaug roared in response, whirling around to Thorin's voice, but the dwarves had rallied, and renewed their assault, chipping away at Smaug's undercoat of gems, drawing cuts and gashes where they could. But Bilbo could see that this only enraged Smaug; with the dragon's size, the dwarves could do little damage, like ants biting at the feet of a far larger creature, and soon, the dwarves would tire.

There was a cry of defiance as Bifur sank his boar spear deep into Smaug's leg, through a gap that Dori's flail had smashed open, and this time, the dragon's angry retaliation finally caught home; a backhanded swipe sent Bifur's small form tumbling away over the heap of treasure with painful force. The dragon laughed, slamming his massive tail onto the coin, causing the ground to quake and bowling Dori, Bombur and Glóin off their feet, but as Smaug turned to crush them in his jaws, Thorin cried, "Kíli! The eyes, Kíli!"

The first arrow skittered off its mark, glancing harmlessly off the scything horn that arced up from behind the armoured lid of the dragon's gigantic left eye, but the next found its mark, and the next. Blinded, the dragon's howl of rage and pain was piercing enough that all the dwarves had to clap their hands over their ears, and as Bilbo watched in horror, the first burp of dragonfire rose in a deadly gust against the stone wall, scorching it, and even from this distance, he could feel its searing, drying heat.

Smaug was beyond caring about his hoard.

The dragon whipped his head back down, his once brilliant iridescent eyes weeping a viscous black ichor, and his jaws parted, even as Kíli belatedly began to run. Bilbo had never tried to move so quickly in his life - somehow he made it to Kíli's side, pulling the prince behind him and summoning all the magic he could manage, pushing it forward even as the flames came, in an insane welter of heat that screamed around them - but did not burn, banking off the shield of pure will that Bilbo had thrown up. Dimly, he could hear Thorin's shout of horror, as the gold around them began to melt, the molten metal starting to spit and puddle, pushing them back, and in the corner of his eyes, he could see Ori pick up a double handled, heavy gold cup from the pile of gold, and throw it at the dragon's maw with all his might.

It was a desperate and almost comical act of defiance, but against all odds it was, at that point, the perfect move. The cup swung up in gleaming arc, disappearing into the red flames, and abruptly, Smaug staggered back, gurgling and coughing. Molten gold dripped down between teeth as long and as sharp as blades, but most of the metal had rushed down his throat, along with the superheated gems, searing the dragon from the inside. The dragon twisted, landing heavily on his flank, choking and clawing blindly at his throat and gouging great bloody rents in his own coat of gems, even as Kíli hastily dragged Bilbo away from the superheated gold around them.

"Thorin, look!" Balin called, with urgent desperation, "Look high at the dragon's left!"

For over Smaug's belly, high on the left of his chest, was a patch of pale skin, unprotected by the coat of gold fragments and gems. Kíli began to draw his bow, but Thorin had snarled, "Dwalin!" and had begun to run, in an insane charge, towards the writhing dragon. He took a step off the haft of Dwalin's warhammer, as Dwalin launched him with a shout up into space - and for Bilbo, time seemed to slow and wind tight, as Thorin landed heavily high against Smaug's upper forequarters, slipped, almost slid off into the churning mass of gold and dragonflesh, but caught himself hurriedly on a spike and hauled himself up, scrambling up against scale and horn, then taking another crazy and desperate leap up into the air.

Smaug shrieked as Thorin rammed Orcrist to the hilt into the unprotected patch on his belly, screamed and tore Thorin from him with a snap of his jaws before the dwarf could jump clear and tossed him aside, to slip and slide in a broken heap over a hill of coin. "Thorin!" Fíli cried, in despair, even as Kíli clenched his hand tight on Bilbo's shoulder, but Bilbo was pulling away, running, even as the dragon slammed horn and tail against the wall and gold, locked in his death throes, bubbles of flame tearing up and uselessly towards the distant ceiling.

"Thorin," Bilbo whispered, kneeling down and tossing Sting aside, gripping his staff as he forced himself to survey the damage. The dragon's teeth had failed to punch through Thorin's armour, a testament to dwarven craftsmanship, but Smaug had crushed Thorin within it; blood bubbled from Thorin's lips, and his skin was pale. "Help me!" Bilbo called to the other dwarves, desperately. "Get the armour off!"

"He will die," Óin said, tense, "The shock-"

"He will not," Bilbo snapped, keeping his hand over Thorin's eyes as he began to speak the words of Estë, pouring his determination, his will, the very edges of his self into the healing, to knit bone and skin and flesh back together, even as Dwalin shouldered the princelings aside and started to haul pieces of rent armour off Thorin's battered frame, slicing through buckles and straps rather than bothering with undoing them.

When Thorin finally took in a hoarse, but strong breath, Bilbo was so exhausted that he could faint, even as a ragged cheer went up among the dwarves. "Bifur? Where is Bifur?"

"Here." Dori limped over, supporting a grumbling Bifur over his shoulders. "Got a few ribs broken. Nothing too serious."

Thorin managed to get to his feet, leaning heavily on Fíli, when Bilbo finished with Bifur and started to check on the others, and his expression was still grim as he looked at the body of the dragon, Smaug's black ichor staining the gold under his corpse. "It is done," he said quietly, then.

"Aye, laddie," Balin clasped Thorin's shoulder. "Oakenshield was your name, but Dragonslayer it should be, now."

"I would not be so quick to change it," Thorin said wryly, clapping Balin on the arm in turn, if weakly, still pale and wan. "For I could not have done it without all of you. Bilbo?"

"Here." Bilbo somehow managed the strength to stagger over, and Thorin pulled him close, clutching at his shoulders in their tight embrace as though holding on to a lifeline. "I should add," Bilbo continued lightly, even as his voice choked up, as the dwarves laughed and cheered again, "That this habit of yours of being mauled by great beasts whenever there is a battle is a poor one, O King."

Thorin snorted, but he pressed a chaste kiss to Bilbo's forehead, mimicking Bilbo's gesture days ago, in the woods, then to his eyes, before hauling him up for a rough kiss that had Bilbo press up desperately against him and clutch at his shoulders, dizzy and hungry but all too brief, as Thorin reluctantly pulled up and away, though he would not let Bilbo go.

"Balin, take Dori, Bofur, Óin and Nori. Head back up the passageway and close the door. Get the ponies and clear up the camps. Come in through the front gate. On your way in, pass through Ravenhill. See if any of the ravens of old remain. We must send word to Dáin, and to our people in the Blue Mountains." Thorin's arm drew briefly tighter, as he took in a slow breath. "Erebor is our home again."

Chapter Text

XIII.

It was an exhausted and bruised camp of dwarves that resettled in the Great Hall, behind the Gate. Bilbo had no more magic to give: he had barely enough to knit Bifur's ribs back together as it was, and had been nearly fainting on the long, dark and silent journey up from the treasure hall to the Gate - he had to be carried for the last quarter, his head bouncing uncomfortably against Dwalin's shoulder, staff tucked into the crook of Dwalin's arm.

Curled against his staff on a sleeping roll, Bilbo watched the less bruised dwarves begin the slow and horrific task of carefully and respectfully clearing old bones away into orderly sorted heaps on the far perimeter, to be buried later deep in the stone. From stone Aulë had made the dwarves; to stone they would return. Death still hung in a dismal pall in the silent, hollowed mountain that had once been one of the last great dwarven kingdoms, and it still reeked of the sulphur and big reptile stink of dragon, but a new pride and a sense of triumph had suffused Thorin's Company; here and there Bilbo caught bits and snatches of song and laughter.

Balin and the others returned when the night started to grow back into the morning, leading the troop of unhappy ponies through the Gate, a huge, ancient raven perched on Balin's shoulder. The ponies still smelled the dragon, and wheeled and whinnied in protest, but eventually suffered themselves to be corralled and brushed, trembling, showing the whites of their eyes.

Thorin straightened from the campfire, though he didn't try to get up from the chair that Bofur had found from the inner watchroom barracks, still pale. Bilbo had done what he could with magic, but Thorin had to be in pain - stubborn as he was, however, he had refused rest.

"O Thorin son of Thráin," the old raven croaked, in Westron, if slow and measured; he seemed nearly blind from age, and had lost the feathers on his crown. "Hail, King Under the Mountain! May the memory of your deeds this day live forever!"

"You are from the line of Carc?" Thorin asked, frowning slightly, as though trying to place the bird in his memory.

"I am Roäc son of Carc. My father has passed from these lands. Now I am chief of the great ravens of the Mountain in his stead. We are few now, but we remember the kings of old. Most of us are abroad, but I have sent a messenger to Dáin of the Iron Hills, and another to your sister Dís in the Blue Mountains. We would be glad to see your kin return to the Lonely Mountain."

"My thanks, Roäc," Thorin replied formally in turn, "I will honour our ancient friendship with your kin."

"A warning, O King," Roäc tipped his head, hopping and shifting his weight on Balin's shoulders. "For the land is awakening again, and the birds are returning in force to the Mountain. Even before Balin son of Fundin called for me, I had heard that the dragon was dead, and I am not the only creature in the shadow of the Mountain who knows the signs. The Master of the Lake-men hungers ever for wealth, and even as his Men see the signs that the dragon is dead, he may send scouts. Beyond Lake-town, the Elven King amasses an army, for what purpose we cannot yet tell; carrion birds are circling in their wake, seeking violence."

"Thank you for the warning," Thorin said, though he looked grim.

"If you would listen to my counsel," the old raven said, ponderously, "Should the Master send Bard of the line of Girion, I suggest that you speak with him, at the least. Bard is of the race of Dale, and a grim man, but true, and we would see peace once more in the Lonely Mountain between men and dwarves and elves. I have spoken."

Thorin let out a harsh breath, and narrowed his eyes. "We shall see. If you can, recall all of your kin to Ravenhill, those who would return from abroad. I will have need of your eyes and your wings in the days ahead, and I will not forget your friendship."

"I will see what can be done, O King," Roäc dipped his beak, then he rose slowly and ponderously into the air, and took wing back out of the Gate.

"Tomorrow we must fortify the entrance," Thorin told Balin, with a glance at the sundered Gate. "There should still be tools from the mines, and stone. We must hold the Mountain until Dáin reaches us."

"Aye, tomorrow," Balin clapped Thorin's shoulder kindly. "But you should rest, laddie. You're right about to faint."

Thorin let out a snort, but he allowed Balin to help him to the sleeping rolls, where he slept nearly instantly, with the sleep of the dead. Shaking his head slowly, Bilbo curled up and tried to doze off again, but it was still an hour or more before he managed to drop off into sleep.

Excitement in the dwarven camp woke him up early in the morning; Bilbo sat up, rubbing his eyes and yawning, then he frowned at the princelings, who seemed to be beside themselves with glee, almost dancing a jig on the spot, whispering and shoving at each other.

"Did something happen?" Bilbo asked, even as the other dwarves who were awake muttered curses and Dori, at watch, shrugged.

"We went back down into the treasure hall," Kíli blurted out, only to be elbowed sharply by his brother.

"Shh! Shh! It is a surprise." Fíli sidled over to Thorin, who growled, opening an eye, seemingly used to his nephew's antics, "Whatever it is that the both of you are up to-"

And then Thorin sat up sharply and swallowed the rest of his words, as Fíli produced, from a pouch, a stone like nothing Bilbo had ever seen, like a globe with a thousand facets, that shone with its own light, like a small, silver moon. "We found it in the treasure hall," Fíli said, so very proud of himself, as Thorin took the stone from him, turning it over and over in his hands, as though disbelieving of his luck. "It took us an hour."

"Good work," Thorin said gruffly, blinking hard, as though at some deep and fierce emotion, and he clasped Fíli's arm tightly, and nodded at Kíli, who was still grinning behind his brother.

"The Heart of the Mountain," Balin supplied, his tone soft with wonder. "The Arkenstone."

"And it will be returned to its rightful place, when Erebor is restored." Thorin tucked the stone away in a pouch at his belt, under his furs. "We will take its recovery as a sign. The worst is behind us."

"The last time someone said that," Dori said gloomily, with a touch of his usual pessimism, "Remember what happened afterwards?"

"What... we've already slain the dragon," Bilbo scowled, "What else could-"

"Don't! Don't say it! When we normal folk say things like that, oh, 'tis terrible luck, Master Bilbo. But when a wizard says it, something horrible is bound to happen."

"Don't mind old Dori," Balin told Bilbo afterwards, when he led Bilbo up eerily silent corridors and stairwells, holding up a torch. Try as he might, Bilbo was already unable to remember the twists and turns that they had made; the Lonely Mountain was vast on the outside, but Bilbo had still been unprepared for how truly gigantic Erebor was. Silent and empty, the city was intensely unsettling.

"Ah, haha, well, he does have a point," Bilbo noted wryly, as they took yet another turn in the empty hallway. "What is the Arkenstone?"

"The Stone of Kings." Balin supplied, his expression distant again. "Long ago it was found in the mines. King Thror affixed it to his throne, as a symbol and a sign of his right to rule. It was thought to be lost when the dragon returned."

Dwarves and their love of giant shiny baubles. "Once Roäc returns with his kin, let me know. I should like to find out how Gandalf is going, and Radagast."

"About the Necromancer?"

"I suppose." Bilbo felt a cold finger run up his spine; it was difficult to discuss the Necromancer and the Morghul blade, when pressed in by the dark, in the haunted stone of a dead city. "Now that the business of Smaug is over and done with, I should try and find out if they need my help."

"Thorin is not the only one to have changed," Balin smiled, and seemed to be in an exceedingly good humour as he led Bilbo up another narrow set of stairs. "Here we are."

He raised his torch, and Bilbo saw that they faced a short and narrow corridor, which widened out into a chamber, lined with rotting tapestries. Set against the wall were two giant steel and granite doors, dusty and lined with cobwebs. Balin ambled about, lighting the ancient torches bracketed on the walls, and whatever the dwarves had used to preserve the wood and cloth seemed to have prevented the wood from crumbling, even after over a century and more.

Gold lettering was cunningly inlaid into the granite in Khuzdul, and carefully, Bilbo brushed away the webs. "The Great Library," he read, if slowly. He pushed at the doors, but they would not give.

"A moment." Balin felt along the wall, beside one of the tapestries, as he passed his torch to Bilbo, and after a moment, did something complicated with both hands, against a hidden switch. There was a click, and with a ponderous grind of hidden gears, the doors swung inward.

Bilbo shivered. Even here the dead had fallen. A dwarf skeleton lay slumped against a lectern, and Balin sighed, even as he padded in to gently take the safety lamp from beside the skeleton, dusting it off. "Poor old Hwalin. So he wouldn't leave his books after all."

Bilbo had watched the others clear out their makeshift camp site without a blink, but now, a welling sadness started to settle over him, as he looked over the crumpled and desiccated corpse; he was beginning to understand the true extent of the ruin that Smaug had dealt against an entire kingdom of dwarves. "I'll be quick, I just wanted a look."

"He would not have minded." Balin strode into the library, raising the lamp. "Hwalin was fond of anyone who loved books."

"In that case, I'll stay and poke around for a while." Bilbo took the lamp from Balin, balancing its heavy metal loop on the tip of his staff. "But please have someone come and look for me in a few hours or so, or I think that I shall get most frightfully lost."

The library of Erebor was as vast as Thorin had promised, and after making a slow circuit of the ground floor and the mezzanine, Bilbo looked up, further yet, to the floors above of rows of rows of books that were barely illuminated by the lamp. He could not quite make out the ceiling in the gloom, let alone the true store of books that the dwarves had hoarded, and this was only the main Reading Room - there were two smaller ones, Balin noted, and a storage for carvings and maps. Bilbo felt frozen between delight and a sense of wry humility in the knowledge that it would likely take him the rest of the Third Age to read his way through everything, and he ran his palm affectionately over ancient leather-bound spines.

He had picked out a few tomes at random to peruse at a lectern on the ground floor when a tread at the door made him look up - then he shook his head and glanced back down. "You should still be resting, Thorin, let alone climbing up all this way."

"Balin said that you needed a guide, but he is occupied with surveying the mines," Thorin explained. "And I am fine." The dwarf's gait was a little stiff, but otherwise, recovery seemed to be proceeding quickly enough. Aulë's creations were a hardy folk.

"And you could not have sent someone else, O King?" Bilbo asked, if with a twitch of his mouth.

"Those few of us who lived in Erebor before the dragon have gone to look at their homes," Thorin said, more soberly, "To remember what they had lost."

"And regained."

Thorin tipped his head, to look back to the entrance, where the dwarven librarian's body lay, in an eloquent if silent answer to Bilbo's response. Some things could not be regained. "Most of us escaped that day. The dragon had no real interest in laying waste to the city. Smaug only wanted the gold. Most of the casualties were from the army tasked with protecting the Gate and the ramparts."

"Not everyone could be saved," Bilbo made a quick guess at the root of Thorin's melancholy, "Or had wanted to be saved."

"The librarian was a kindly soul. Tolerant even of dwarven princelings and princesses rampaging about his library reenacting ancient battles."

"Your sister still lives-"

"But my brother is dead. He too, was slain at the Gates of Moria." Thorin's hand clenched tight on the lantern that he was holding, then he took in a slow breath, as if to clear his head of the ghosts of the past. "How are the books?"

"In Khuzdul." Bilbo opened one book at random, then another. "Also in Khuzdul. Oh, this one is in Westron! But... 'On the... Subject of Ground Support in Mining and Underground Construction'... ah. How fascinating."

The beginnings of a smile was tugging at Thorin's mouth, as he balanced the lantern on the ground and drew to Bilbo's side, curling a hand over to the small of his back. "It is fascinating."

"I am beginning to suspect," Bilbo said sourly, with a glance around him at the ranks of books that stretched into the dark, "That what dwarves find 'fascinating' is rather at odds with a wizard's opinion of the same."

"I should hope not," Thorin's beard tickled over his skin as the dwarven king set his mouth to Bilbo's neck, teasingly at first, then with teeth, when Bilbo's hands curled over the edges of the lectern with a gasp.

"Thorin," Bilbo admonished, with archly feigned exasperation, "Can you not see that I am busy?"

"Too busy to attend to your King?" Thorin murmured, teeth and tongue now at Bilbo's ear, tugging lightly and playfully at the fleshy lobe.

"Wizards answer to no King... or at least, not any from the Children of Ilúvatar, adopted or otherwise," Bilbo retorted, suffering an answering chuckle before turning, to slant his mouth with a touch of greed against Thorin's, tentatively licking into his mouth for a taste, his heart beginning to race as Thorin rumbled a moan against him. Still... "In the library? Thorin," Bilbo pushed at Thorin's shoulders, but Thorin would have one more greedy kiss before he pulled back, openly reluctant.

"May I show you Erebor, Wizard?" Thorin's request was formal enough, though his eyes were smoky with promise, and Bilbo's answer of "Oh, if you must," was not as bland as he would have liked. This was new to Bilbo, even over the centuries of his existence, this singular, maddening intoxication.

The way to the royal estates was a winding one, interrupted with increasing frequency by Thorin's tendency to get distracted by Bilbo's mouth and skin, and Bilbo was kiss-reddened and flushed by the time they finally stumbled past abandoned guard posts to marble steps, alternatively layered by obsidian speckled with winking gold fragments. Bilbo's step faltered, curious about the intricate murals picked out by semiprecious coloured stones into the ground, but Thorin would have none of it, all but pulling him along.

A layer of dust had settled over Thorin's chambers, as with the rest of the city, and the tapestries that adorned the walls were beginning to rot with neglect. A great white pelt covered the bed, going gray with the dust, moth-eaten at the corners, but Bilbo laughed and sank his hands into it, before sneezing as the dust was unsettled. "What poor creature did this belong to?"

"A huge bear. Some trick of birth had given it white fur instead of brown. I was young," Thorin recalled, his expression growing pensive, stroking his hand over the dusty fur. "It was a year or so before the dragon came."

"I would not show this to Beorn if I were you," Bilbo noted, trying to sound light-hearted but only managing wry gentleness, but it seemed to work; Thorin snorted, tugging the heavy fur aside. The quilt beneath it was richly patterned in intricate concentric shapes, but even as Bilbo tried to follow the weave, he found himself pushed down over it, large hands bracketing his shoulders as he let out a laugh, reaching up to sink his fingers into Thorin's thick mane of hair. "What now, O King?"

"Now?" Thorin repeated, in a low and hungry drawl, as he took another kiss in a teasing press of lips before licking a filthy stripe up from the hollow of Bilbo's throat to his chin, his next kiss hungry and far less innocent, marked with a muted strangled sound of want, "Now," Thorin rasped, his deep voice starting to hitch, "I should like to see you bare, wizard," he whispered, as fingers picked at Bilbo's shirt collar, flicked at the buttons, "I would have all of you," Thorin continued, as desire seemed to pulse naked and hot in his eyes, "I would ruin you."

"Ah," Bilbo sucked in a high, tight breath; as cold as Erebor was now on the cusp of autumn, he was sweating into his shirt, and he licked suddenly dry lips, reaching further, to curl his fingers under Thorin's mane to the nape of his neck - and Thorin looked up sharply at the echoing sound of a crash, then he groaned and pressed his forehead into the quilt beside Bilbo's hair as he heard his nephews' unrepentant laughter, somewhere outside.

"We could close the door," Bilbo suggested, though he started to chuckle; the mood was fading quickly, and for a pair of princelings, Fíli and Kíli could be unthinkingly destructive.

"I am going to strangle them," Thorin muttered, without moving.

"They're coming closer," Bilbo pointed out helpfully, and by the time Fíli and Kíli peeked into the chambers, Bilbo was seemingly taking a look at the view of silent Erebor from the balcony, while Thorin was inspecting old sets of armour and blades, further in an attached antechamber.

"I told them not to come," Ori offered, an unhappy tail behind the princelings, possibly the only youngling who read the tension in Thorin's hunched shoulders.

"Nonsense!" Fíli clapped Ori heavily on the shoulders. "And we did not get lost, like Balin said we would. This is our city too, now."

"Where is Mother's room?" Kíli asked, stamping about excitedly outside, which prompted Thorin to sigh and step out, herding his nephews away from further damage. With the immediate vicinity emptied of boisterous dwarven royalty, Ori edged awkwardly against the entrance of Thorin's chambers, looking hunted, clearly too intimidated to enter.

Taking pity on him, Bilbo padded out, patting his shoulder. "Would you know the way back?"

"I do," Ori said confidently. Dwarves had good senses of direction, at least underground. "Balin wished to inform you that Roäc has brought more of his ravens down from Ravenhill."

"Thank you, Ori. Lead on."

"What about Thorin and the others?"

"Well," Bilbo said, with a faint smile - the noise had abated, though he could still hear them walking about somewhere, "This is their family home, and I suspect that Thorin has much to show them."

"If he does not first throw them off the walls," Ori said sorrowfully.

Chapter Text

XIV.

Even Thorin went to work when the tools and stone were found, the dwarves hurrying to fortify the Gate, and as such, Bilbo had Balin draw him a map of the route between the Gate and the Great Library, and left for his books with a small supply of hard biscuits and water. Roäc had sent scouts to look for Gandalf and Radagast, and Bilbo could do little now but wait.

Thankfully, Hwalin had kept an orderly, numerical system after all, as much as it was in Khuzdul, and it took Bilbo only half an hour or so to locate the section of the library that was devoted to literature and was not in Khuzdul. He stayed in the Library and read until the dimming lantern told him that the day was passing, and returned to the camp at night to rest - this settled into a comfortable routine.

The days grew slow and their stores of food were diminishing. No animals had returned to the foot of the mountain yet, and although Dori and Nori managed to rig up some rods and catch a few fish from the River Running from where it bent around the ruins of Dale, they would only be able to hold out for a couple of weeks more on their supplies.

"We could eat the dragon?" Kíli suggested, during yet another dinner of biscuits and boiled salted pork. "It is very cold in the treasure halls. The body has kept."

Over at the fire, Bofur and Dori's faces wrinkled in mutual expressions of disgust, and Fíli looked around, but Thorin was still away outside the Gate, inspecting the stonework with Balin and Dwalin. "Well, can you?" the princeling asked then, and it took Bilbo a moment to realize that he was being addressed.

"Can you what?"

"Eat a dragon," Bombur prompted, and looked glum. "Salt pork and biscuits again! Another day of this and I would be willing to try some dragon."

"Ah, er, that," Bilbo blinked rapidly, "How on earth would you even be able to cut it up?"

"The gem coat chips right off," Bofur pointed out, and he looked thoughtful now. "And anything's edible after it's been roasted for a bit."

"I would not know what dwarves could find edible," Bilbo pointed out, "Though if anyone poisons themselves by trying, I shan't be wasting any magic on them."

That seemed to bring the dwarves up short for a while, and then Glóin grunted, "Bacon! We could cut off just a bit, and smoke the meat. Anything's good when made into bacon."

"That's not true, you can't make bacon out of fish," Óin pointed out.

"Smoked fish, fish bacon, same thing," Glóin retorted.

"Chickens," Fíli said triumphantly. "There is no chicken bacon."

"We have chicken ham in the Shire," Bilbo found himself saying, before he could stop himself, "Cured chicken meat, sliced thin. By the Valar, why are we still discussing this?"

"It may be poisonous," Dori noted dolorously, "Or have terrible side effects. Perhaps anyone who eats dragon meat will grow scales and horns."

Dori's dire prediction was probably having the opposite effect on the princelings, who looked positively thrilled at the possibility of sprouting horns and scales, but before they could volunteer, Ori said, "We could ask the ravens. They eat carrion. Perhaps they will know."

"We could cut off a bit and leave it out on the grass. The birds will try some of it. We can see what happens to them," Nori suggested, always with the somewhat unsavoury solutions, and Bilbo scowled.

"And if you poison the ravens?"

"We'll tell the ravens first, obviously. The other birds can try it."

"No intentionally poisoning the local wildlife," Bilbo decided firmly, and the dwarves were still squabbling among themselves when Dwalin arrived, gesturing to Bilbo to get up.

"You are wanted outside," Dwalin said, though he would say no more, settling down to help himself to dinner, and Bilbo picked up his staff, somewhat puzzled. It wasn't as though he had very much experience with fortifications.

The night was promising to be an especially chilly one, and Bilbo gingerly scaled the scaffolding and let himself down the other side. The stone was uncomfortably cold even under his feet, and he pulled his coat over his shoulders as he turned around.

One of the great eagles sat perched on the southern spur, and from this distance, Thorin's and Balin's forms were visible as small figures beside it. Bilbo hurried over, a touch breathless by the time he scaled the spur. Balin clasped Bilbo's shoulder silently before picking his way down the slope, and Bilbo looked after him in puzzlement, then back to Thorin, who had one of the ravens on his arm.

"Hail to you, Amarvellon. I have sought out Mithrandir in the Greenwood as you have asked," the raven began, without preamble. "He bids me to advise you that his business is concluded, but he must hold counsel with you in the House of Beorn. Meneldor has offered to bear you hence."

The eagle inclined its massive head at the mention of its name, and shifted its great wings upon its back, even as the raven took flight from Thorin's arm, circling back to Ravenhill. Bilbo blinked for a moment, surprised. Beorn's House? What on earth could Gandalf want? Still, if it was urgent enough that he had persuaded an eagle to come and fetch Bilbo, then Bilbo supposed that he should go and see what the Grey Wizard wanted.

Thorin grasped Bilbo's arm tightly as he took a step towards the eagle. "You are leaving?"

"I must."

"What more does Gandalf want?"

"Wizard business," Bilbo said, as gently as he could, and Thorin let out a visceral, angry sound, almost like a snarl, as he pulled Bilbo against him, to kiss him with a raw longing so achingly bright that Bilbo nearly caved and changed his mind.

"You will come back," Thorin whispered afterwards, in the slip of space between them, the puffs of white steam from their breaths mingling in the chilly air.

"Was that a request, or an order, O King?" Bilbo teased, though he rubbed his palms over Thorin's cheeks, pressing the memory of warmth into his fingers, but Thorin was in no mood for teasing; he gripped Bilbo's wrists.

"Promise me."

"All right," Bilbo sobered, in the light of Thorin's anxious temper. "I will come back."

"Immediately after your 'wizard business'."

"Thorin," Bilbo smiled, guessing at the root of Thorin's show of possessiveness, "I have existed since before your people counted Time, lived on Middle Earth for almost two thousand years. And in that span of time I have met no one like you. Rest easy. I will return when I am able to."

Thorin did not seem reassured, but he let Bilbo go, and helped him up onto the eagle's back. He did not wave when Bilbo did, and he stayed on the spur, a small and solitary figure until the eagle rose up into the bank of clouds and out of sight.

XV.

Meneldor gave Laketown a wide birth, staying high enough up in the sky that Bilbo tried to burrow further against thick feathers for warmth, and eventually, the eagle said, in its harsh speech, "Do not pinch, wizard! The air is thin, but we would chance the bows of Men should I drop lower in the sky."

"My apologies," Bilbo murmured, easing his grip, and he was a little surprised to find that he missed Thorin and the others already, missed the boisterous dwarves, even the princelings and their nose for trouble. Missed Thorin and the warmth of his hands. It was not a very wizardly thing to feel, and Bilbo scrubbed at his face briefly with his spare hand, the other tightening briefly on his staff. "Gwaihir mentioned before that he would not fly past the townships of Men."

"Mithrandir impressed the urgency of this matter on him, and I offered to chance the trip," Meneldor replied, banking higher on a gust, wide wings spread to catch the wind. "Something is happening in Laketown, close to the Mountain. They seem to be preparing for war, when I passed. Mercenaries have come up the river to swell their ranks."

"And the elves?"

"The elves are watching."

Worried, Bilbo sank deeper against the feathers. Thranduil had not seemed concerned about Thorin, but if Gandalf's 'business was concluded', then why would Thranduil still amass an army? As to the Lake-men, Roäc had already warned Thorin, and the dwarves were very good at withstanding sieges - at least where dragons were not involved. The River Running's source ran from within the Lonely Mountain, and as to food... Bilbo hoped that the dragon was edible, if the worst came to that. Maybe.

Surely the Master of Laketown would understand that attacking Thorin would bring him far more trouble than it was worth; the dwarves made fell foes, and had been known to band together to raise armies to attend to their grudges. A township of Men would not be difficult to raze... unless Thranduil was involved... and the dwarves were a dwindling folk, after all, Bilbo recalled, glumly. There had been a grudge against Smaug, and only twelve dwarves had answered Thorin's call.

It was a long flight to Beorn's House, and Bilbo found himself dozing off into dreams made fitful by his worrying; when Meneldor finally landed in the meadow before Beorn's home, it was a very rumpled and yawning Bilbo who had to be helped off the great eagle's back.

"Little bunny has grown thin again," Beorn grinned, though he thankfully set Bilbo down without prodding him further this time. "Come and have breakfast!"

"Thank you, I'll love to," Bilbo cheered up, even as he felt slightly guilty at doing so, what with the plight of Thorin's Company behind him. "Meneldor, my thanks for your service," he began, before he belatedly remembered the correct phrasing, "Farewell, wherever you fare, until your eyries receive you at the journey's end."

"Farewell," Meneldor echoed, "Good hunting, Amarvellon," the great eagle settled on, for the appropriate polite response among eagles would be strange to a creature with no wings, and with a great heave of its wings, the eagle leaped back into flight, circling up and up back into the sky.

"Where is Gandalf?" Bilbo asked, following Beorn into his Hall, only to find, to his complete astonishment, a hobbit seated at the table, going through an impressive pile of bread and cheese with dainty ease. "Primula?"

"Oh, Master Bilbo!" Primula scrambled off the table, curtseying prettily, which showed the Brandybuck in her, though her quick, cheeky grin as she did so spoke far more of the blood of the Old Took on her mother's side. "Good morning."

"What are you doing here?" Bilbo demanded, blinking slowly, then a slow and horrible realisation began to dawn. "Was it Gandalf?"

"Well," Primula began to look a little bewildered herself at Bilbo's astonishment, "Master Radagast went to the Great Smials of Tuckborough, and mentioned that you were in need of a Hobbit to help you out of a spot of trouble."

"Radagast!" Bilbo was beginning to grow concerned about the nature of this new 'wizard business'; groaning, he had to sit down at one of the great benches in Beorn's hall. "Oh he did, did he? What on earth is happening? And how did you get into this mess? You're a Brandybuck, not a Took."

"I was visiting my mother," Primula noted blithely, "Drogo and I have set a date for our wedding, and I wanted a spot of advice."

"And somehow you went from getting wedding advice to being swept onto an adventure?"

"Oh, a lot of the Tooks wanted to go," Primula conceded, "But Master Radagast mentioned that whoever it was would have to be about your size, possibly smaller, which cut out a fair bit of the competition, then he said that whoever it was would probably have to be young and sprightly, which left out Aunt Belladonna, and then he mentioned goblins, which made some of the other lads back off, so here I am."

"Goblins," Bilbo repeated, as the horrible realization started to take full shape. "Oh, no, no, no. I am going to have words with those two!"

"Did you not need help after all?" Primula seemed visibly disappointed.

"Well, I might have," Bilbo admitted grudgingly, "But not of this sort, and I did not think that it would be needed so soon, and-"

"Begging your pardon then, Master Bilbo," Primula interrupted, again with that quick grin, "You've done a great deal of good for the Shire, for as long as anyone can remember, and if we can do you a good turn, why, I do not see why we should not."

Gandalf did not return at lunch, though he arrived before dinner, without Radagast, to find Bilbo having to tell the tale of how Smaug had been slain for the second time to Beorn, who seemed beside himself with amusement. "Slew the dragon!" Beorn roared, slapping his thighs. "Those little people who sat in my hall!"

"To the dwarves, it is Men and Elves who are the wrong size," Bilbo pointed out, but this only seemed to amuse Beorn more, and Primula was wide-eyed as she had listened, as though overwhelmed. Still, Bilbo was pleasantly full, and his nerves mellow by Longbottom Leaf, which Primula had brought from the Shire, a gift from the Tooks, and when Gandalf snorted and settled down on a chair beside the fireplace, Bilbo had already quite forgotten much of his temper. "Gandalf."

"Bilbo," Gandalf's wrinkled face creased further around his whiskers with pleasure. "I hear your business has gone splendidly."

"So it did," Bilbo agreed, then he glanced at Primula, and back to Gandalf. "I want to have a word with you, Gandalf. Outside."

"Of course." Gandalf finished the loaf that he was eating, and trailed Bilbo out of Beorn's house. "Now, I know what you are going to say to me, Bilbo, but it was necessary," he said first, once they were a short walk out away from the wooden halls. "From your description of the corridors out of that place, it was a narrow squeeze, even for you. Therefore, a hobbit would be needed, to pick up the Ring."

"Are you quite mad?" Bilbo hissed, gesturing in the general direction of the goblin mountain with his pipe. "Surely the back door is heavily guarded by now! Primula has no experience of the world, let alone navigating a goblin mountain. And suppose that creature, Gollum, is still there?"

"Why, you'll be going with her, of course," Gandalf raised his eyebrows. "You will have to show her the way. Bilbo," Gandalf added, with a touch of sharpness, when Bilbo sucked in a deep breath, "You have said it yourself. The Ring wants to be found. It will be found. And the goblin mountain is empty right now. The orcs and the goblins are on the march."

"Empty? On the march? That can't be good," Bilbo blinked quickly, "Who leads them?"

Gandalf sighed. "Azog, the Pale Orc. They seek to revenge themselves."

"Then Thorin must be warned!"

"'Tis a large force, and it is moving at an infantry's pace, coming over the mountains to circle around Mirkwood and Laketown. We have time," Gandalf pointed out blithely. "Besides, if I know dwarves, after reclaiming their home their first act was quite likely to start fortifying it, was it not?"

Bilbo nodded slowly. Besides, a large force of orcs had to be visible, and Roäc's people were keeping an eye out for Thorin. "But as large a force as you are describing, to have emptied the mountain... Thorin has asked for aid from Dáin, but it will not be enough, even if it comes."

"Thranduil is mustering his forces as we speak. He will swell his ranks with men from Laketown, and march on the Lonely Mountain."

"You managed to convince him to commit his people to defend the dwarves?" Bilbo asked, surprised.

"Well, I do have my ways," Gandalf replied, with yet another look of studied innocence, but as much as Bilbo stared at him with open suspicion, the other wizard would say no more of his 'methods'. "This is the best chance that we have to take the Ring, Bilbo. You know this."

"I suppose you are right," Bilbo muttered, reluctantly. "But to involve the hobbits! And Primula-"

"From what I have heard, the line of the Old Took is given to unusual things," Gandalf interrupted. "She is Belladonna Took's niece, is she not?"

"She was about to get married! Before I left, she was about to settle down with Drogo Baggins-"

"And a very respectable folk, the Baggins."

"-they were picking out names for their future children-"

"And what names would those have been?" Gandalf asked blandly, and his tirade derailed by Gandalf's so-very-reasonable tone, Bilbo stuttered for a moment before puffing irritably at his pipe.

"If you must know, they asked me for my opinion. If there was a girl, t'would be 'Primrose'. A boy would have been named 'Frodo'."

"'Frodo', hum! A good name."

"Thank you, I thought so too... oh, stop distracting me," Bilbo glowered, and even as Gandalf smiled innocently at him again, he realized that he was now more tired than angry, and more inclined to be reasonable. Confound Gandalf and his puppetry! "Fine. If the goblin mountain is as empty as you say, then this should be a hopefully painless exercise."

"Hopefully," Gandalf echoed, with a glance at the deep forests beyond in the line of mountains against the gray sky, and Bilbo felt unsettled again at the very thought of returning to the goblin's keep. But the Ring did have to be found, and kept safe, at least until they could decide what to do with it, and he supposed that grudgingly, reluctantly, he could see Gandalf's logic. He smoked for a while, watching the mountains with Gandalf, then just as his pipe started to need refilling, Gandalf turned, heading back towards the hall. "With luck, it may not even take very long at all."

"I suppose." Bilbo sighed. "I had been hoping that this particular adventure of yours was over."

"Were you?" Gandalf noted, and seemed so very smug with himself that Bilbo frowned at him.

"Well of course, what with the dragon, and the orcs and wargs and goblins, and the frankly terrible meals for the most part... and... Why do you ask?"

"Ah," Gandalf harrumphed, looking amused, as he stepped up over the threshold into Beorn's house, "I would not have thought you and Thorin so quickly resolved."

"What did you know about that?" Bilbo pressed, suspicious all over again, but Gandalf only shot him another annoyingly innocent look, as he settled in a chair by the doorway.

"Perhaps nothing. Perhaps everything. I very much doubt," Gandalf added, as Bilbo glowered at him, "That Thorin would have faced the dragon, had you never gone along with him on his quest."

"He would surprise you," Bilbo found himself adding, defensively, though he did not quite think so as well, and puffed at the last of his pipe, uncomfortably, as Gandalf squinted at him and smiled, exasperatingly smug.

"Still, matters seem to have run exceedingly well to date."

"You mean, other than the problem of the Orc, and Elven, and, and the Laketown armies converging on the Lonely Mountain as we speak?"

"Oh," Gandalf huffed, though his smugness faded. "There are always a few complications to any good ending to a story-"

"You call that a complication? I would have thought 'flaming disaster' would have been a better phrase."

"Well, there's nothing that we can do about it now." Gandalf said, a little crossly; the other wizard had never been very good at accepting criticism, constructive or otherwise. "We have other problems to attend to. Get some sleep, old friend. We will start off early tomorrow."

Chapter Text

XVI.

Beorn lent them ponies, supplies and a horse with far more generosity than before, and this was a rather comforting development, Bilbo supposed. He rather doubted that Beorn would have been so quick to agree to help them if goblins and wargs still crawled about the hills, even if the skin-changer was quite obviously tailing them again, in bear shape.

"There is a great bear following us, I think," Primula whispered, when they had settled down to make camp at dinner, and Bilbo let Gandalf explain about Beorn and skin-changers, puffing at his pipe. He was beginning to regret having left Erebor so hurriedly, without his pack of things, as Beorn had no paper or ink at his halls, for all his love of stories.

Thinking about writing had his mind wander back to the discussion he had with Thorin over the Khuzdul language, on the doorstep of the hidden entrance to the Lonely Mountain, and Bilbo did not realize that he was smiling to himself until Primula hastily stifled a giggle, and Bilbo glanced up to see them both watching him. "What?"

"I cannot imagine what Saruman would say," Gandalf noted, with an eloquent lift of his brow, and Bilbo rolled his eyes.

"I know exactly what he would say, thank you." Bilbo puffed out a blue smoke ring, then a yellow butterfly, when Primula laughed with soft delight, then he sobered slowly, as he followed his thought through. "And he would be quite right."

"Would he now," Gandalf murmured, drawing out a pipe of his own, and filling it up.

"Such a match would be unbecoming. We Maiar are not mortal folk," Bilbo said solemnly, with an apologetic nod at Primula. "And Thorin is not young for a dwarf. To us, his life will pass in the blink of an eye, even should he live as long as the line of Durin tends to. And more importantly, our cares are not his cares. Sometimes there is a... gulf between us, when we speak. On many things, we cannot see eye to eye, not for lack of trying, because we simply cannot, due to what we both truly are."

"But he has tried," Gandalf stated, not quite a question, and Bilbo nodded slowly.

"He tries." Dwarves were stubborn folk, and Thorin was no exception.

"Hum! Then what do you propose, old friend?"

"I suppose," Bilbo breathed out another smoke ring, "I feel as though my head is clearer now that I'm away from Erebor. Perhaps it was all a... a madness from the stress of the adventure and all the enforced companionship. He'll have responsibilities as King, and I have my own life in the Shire. I think it could all end amicably." Even as he said that, as steadily as he could, he felt his stomach give a cold twist, and his dinner settled leaden and unhappy within it.

"If you think that, my dear Bilbo," Gandalf puffed at his pipe, with a snort, "Then you do not know dwarves at all."

"And besides," Primula piped up, somewhat to Bilbo's surprise, "Begging your pardon, Master Bilbo, for I'm sure that I'm not entirely certain what you wizard folk are talking about, but this is quite like how the Baggins are so very different from the Tooks, and the Brandybucks are different in their own way, as are the Gamgees and all the others. Everyone is different, but if by some luck or chance you find another soul willing to cleave to you, why then, maybe one short lifetime together is enough after all."

"Thank you, Prim," Bilbo said, and found himself a little reassured, after all, as much as Primula's words were a vast generalisation of the issue, and possibly not even near applicable to his case. "I should add that I was a little surprised when your aunt told me that you were marrying Drogo."

"He is very respectable," Primula noted, and her lips quirked up, amused.

"That is exactly why I thought that you wouldn't be interested, my dear."

"Love works in subtle ways," Primula offered, as she tugged a little at her skirts, "And he would make a great companion, and a great father to our children. He has a good heart, and at the end of it all, I suppose even a Brandybuck prefers a good heart to a wild one."

"A good heart and a great companion," Bilbo mused out loud, puffing out another smoke ring.

He supposed that most could ask for no more than that. Perhaps even wizards could ask for no better gift than that, however mortal or brief, however complicated - though he was no longer quite capable of being clear-headed in this regard. Bilbo knew that he was already far more than just fond of Thorin Oakenshield, inadvisable as it was for the both of them. Maybe encouraging Thorin's attentions had been selfish of him: after all, he had nothing that he could offer Thorin: no heirs or wealth or political ties, and by way of his duty to the Valar, he would not even be able to allow Thorin to direct his magic.

Still, Bilbo had promised Thorin to return. Perhaps they could discuss the matter then, like mature adults, and the separation could have already served to clear both their heads.

Yes. That was what they would do. So resolved, Bilbo managed a smile. "I do hope that he makes you happy. And if you have more than two children, I'll be more than happy to help with the names again."

"If the child ends up anything like what I was at that age, one will be quite enough, I think."

"Or he - or she - may end up like Drogo, and be a quiet, serious little thing," Bilbo suggested playfully.

"No," Primula disagreed, flashing a decidedly Tookish grin, "Somehow, I don't think that he would be."

XVII.

The back entrance into the late goblin king's domain did seem unguarded, which was a good sign. Bilbo glanced at Gandalf, who raised his eyebrows at him, then he sighed, scuffed his feet a little, and handed Beorn's hooded lantern to Primula.

"Don't light it until we really need it. And keep close," he whispered, and she nodded slowly, looking pale but determined. Drawing Sting from its sheath, and holding his staff tightly, Bilbo picked his way to the entrance, keeping to the thickest of the underbrush, and finally found himself peeking past into the gloom.

No goblins, and Sting stayed resolutely silver, so with a deep breath, Bilbo edged his way into the passageway, keeping to his right, until he found the gash in the wall that led away into a deeper darkness. Eventually, the light from the distant corridor faded, and when Primula stumbled heavily against him and muffled a squeak of fright, Bilbo unhooded the lantern partially and lit it, though he kept it as dim as he could.

Even with the small bobbing circle of light between them, Bilbo found himself half expecting to be jumped by Gollum or by goblins at every turn, and if he had to admit it, he wasn't exactly very clear on where they were going, and when he stopped at yet another intersection, scratching his head and trying to decide between one turn of rock and another, Primula let out a soft laugh that only trembled at the edges.

"Did you not come this way before, Master Bilbo?"

"Let me think," Bilbo muttered, a little crossly. "I was led out of here the last time."

"Led?"

"I bested some creature in the dark squarely at a game of riddles, and he led me out. Never try to riddle a wizard," Bilbo noted absently, as he peered into the dark, "Still, he was not a very gracious loser, and I suspect he won't be willing to play another game with me."

Primula brought the lantern closer to the ground, and after a few circular turns, pointed wordlessly - further down one of the narrow corridors, there was a footprint that fit Bilbo's boot. A little sheepishly, Bilbo nodded to her, and they followed what marks they could find until they finally reached the tiny slice of rock that had claimed Bilbo's waistcoat buttons. Squeezing through was a little easier this time round, thanks to a steady diet of cram and boiled pork that not even a day at Beorn's could have rectified, and Primula wriggled through easily enough after him.

He followed the distant sound of water and the feeling of growing damp, until they finally emerged out into the vast cavern with its underground pool, and the spur of rock that jutted out over the murky waters. Gollum was nowhere to be seen, and Bilbo looking around warily, trying to catch a glimpse of bone-pale skin and huge malevolent eyes, but after a moment, he shuddered and hurried Primula along, to the narrow gash between cliff faces that rose up and away from the underground lake.

Once they could see the distant lights of torches above them, Bilbo hooded the lantern, but that meant that they were plunged into a gloom that was almost too dark to even make out each other, and Primula let out a soft sigh of relief as Bilbo changed his mind. "We will have to be very quick," Bilbo whispered, with a cautious glance back up, and they moved quickly along the rock until the small pile that Bilbo had made against the cliff face.

To his relief, it looked as though nothing was out of place, and Primula set down the lantern, helping Bilbo move the rocks out to a side. They had shifted off the first layer of rock, when, filtering out of the dark to their left, away from the pool, there was a harsh croaking swallow of gollum! gollum, then a hissing, sibilant, "The Wizard has returned, oh yes, Precious, and he has brought another fleshy, juicy thing with him, oh yes he has."

"Keep digging," Bilbo told Primula, as he raised his staff. "Creature, get back. We mean you no harm."

"No harm, he says," Gollum whispered, sounding closer now, and made another croaking swallowing sound, "But we have lost our Precious, oh yes we have, since the Wizard went away, we have. What is it digging up, Precious? What has it hidden?"

"It isn't any of your concern."

"I think it is, Precious," Gollum hissed. "I think it has our birthday present, it does, nasty thief, Wizard-thief, yes-" and a stone flew out from the dark, glancing against Bilbo's shoulder, then another, that knocked hard against his temple, making him stumble, momentarily dazed. Gollum leaped out of the dark with a shriek of rage, long fingers outstretched for Primula, but she had scrambled back, only to yelp as Gollum got a grip of her ankle, dragging her down and jumping for her throat.

Bilbo lunged, knocking Gollum off Primula with his weight, and as he struggled, shoving away hands that grabbed for his neck with surprising strength, he snapped at Primula, "Keep digging!"

"Thief! Thief!" Gollum snarled, maddened with a berserk rage, and Bilbo let out a yell of pain as the creature got his teeth into Bilbo's arm, ripping away a chunk of flesh. "Thief!"

Somehow, Bilbo managed to scramble back, then, depressingly, there was the sound of footsteps and shouting from far above, and in his hand, Sting began to glow a brilliant blue. "Goblins," Bilbo whispered, glancing up, and that halted Gollum even in his rage; the wretched creature looked up, sharply, frightened, then scrambled away into the dark, towards his pool with a wail of despair.

"Dig, Prim!"

"You put far too many rocks on this thing, wizard!" Primula growled in return, flashing a fine Tookish temper, though she worked faster, hauling away rock and gravel. Ropes slapped down against the rock beside them, and Bilbo backed up nervously, beside Primula. The goblins were about to climb down - and down they came, shrieking and snarling, hooting and shouting threats in their twisted tongue, waving wicked hooked daggers and whips and spears.

"I thought this mountain was empty!" Primula had risked a frightened glimpse upwards.

"It was meant to be!" Confound Gandalf! "They must be some sort of skeleton guard, left to mind the premises-"

And then it became too busy to talk; the goblins were upon them. Bilbo ducked the first swinging blow from an axe, shoving Sting blindly up through the first goblin's rib cage, and beside him, Primula hissed and kicked out with painful accuracy, making the next goblin double over with a squeak and Bilbo wince in sympathy. She grabbed the wicked goblin knife from its belt, and plunged it wildly into its back, then Bilbo pushed her down and away from the next goblin's spear.

"Dig!"

"Fewer and lighter rocks next time, Master Bilbo!" Primula sifted through gravel wildly as Bilbo grabbed at the haft of the spear, desperately, dragging the goblin forward and into Sting's blade, raising his staff to block the next goblin's blow. Above, more goblins were beginning to slide down the ropes.

"Any time now, Prim!"

"Oh, for crying out lou... wait, I have it, I have it!" Primula crowed, bringing up something that gleamed gold in her hand.

"Close your eyes," Bilbo instructed, and raised his staff, willing out a burst of concussive light that knocked the goblins beside them down, clearing a space forward. "Now run!"

They sprinted through the corridors, the goblins screaming and howling behind them, darting down narrow slices of rock and hoping against hope that they were going the right way; and finally, Primula let out a gasp of relief as they reached the gash of rock with Bilbo's buttons marking the ground. She squeezed past, then hastily hauled Bilbo through with all her strength, and they tumbled down, just in time to avoid a cruel swing of a goblin blade.

The goblins could not get past, spitting and cursing and scrabbling at the rock as they tried, but they were not safe yet; no doubt the alarm had already been raised. Bilbo sheathed Sting and hurried Primula through, backtracking until they had reached the main corridor to the exit, and sprinted out into the sun, wheezing and panting, until they reached Gandalf at the tree line, already on his horse, holding their ponies.

"Quickly, quickly!" Gandalf urged, as they pulled themselves up onto their ponies, and gave them their heads, the terrified creatures galloping for Beorn's house as the first warg's howl split the air.

"Wargs again?" Bilbo groaned, but even as the first warg burst out of the underbrush beside the mountain, a great shadow lunged out from a copse of trees, crushing it down. Beorn was at their back, in the shape of a massive bear, and he wheeled with surprising speed, bellowing defiance, grabbing another warg out of the air and crushing it to him, killing it. They fled unhindered, slowing only when they passed the great corridor of trees into Beorn's grounds, and Bilbo thought then to press fingers, wincing, to the bite wound in his shoulder, knitting flesh together.

"The mountain was not empty in the least, Master Gandalf," Primula told Gandalf with great dignity, when they were back in the safety of Beorn's hall.

"My apologies," Gandalf replied mildly, not repentant in the least. "But now you have quite the story to tell to the other Tooks and the Brandybucks, Primula Brandybuck, and through a great deal of your own courage."

Under Gandalf's flattery, Primula blushed a little, her temper fading. "Oh! I suppose. But it was Master Bilbo who was mauled, by that horrible thing in the shadows."

"I'm quite all right." Bilbo had settled gratefully down at a bench, pulling out his pipe to steady his nerves. He had just about had quite enough of adventures, and being chased about by goblins and wargs; it felt as though he hadn't had tea at any sort of respectable hour for an eternity. "Being a wizard has its benefits."

"Now come," Gandalf beckoned at Primula. "Show me the Ring."

Primula opened her fist, to reveal the heavy gold ring within it, and Bilbo shivered, feeling the weight of the evil thing in the air, the whispering pull to his thoughts, even as Gandalf straightened, with a harsh intake of breath, and rummaged into his pockets until he found a small, battered leather pouch. Emptying it of the bits of coin that it contained, he passed it to Primula, who put the ring within it and tied up the pouch tightly with several knots, sealing it at Gandalf's gesture with drips of wax from the nearest candle.

"Never look upon this again," Gandalf said quietly, "And if you value your life and those of your loved ones, never mention it to anyone. Do you understand? If you would tell this tale to the other hobbits - and I know that they would ask you - just say that it was a... a magic crystal of some sort, that you returned to Master Bilbo for safekeeping."

"I understand," Primula swallowed, looking a little pale again. "What is it?"

"Best not to tell you," Bilbo said quickly, and glowered at Gandalf. "Now what do we do with it? Give it to Saruman?"

"No, not yet. I shall have to do some reading, in Gondor, I should think, and confirm what it is before I speak to Saruman," Gandalf looked pensive. "In the meantime, the best place for it to be is the Shire. It is the seat of your power," Gandalf added, when Bilbo stiffened in outrage, "Where your magic is strongest; your magic is in the very bones of the land itself. It will be safe there, and hidden."

"I will hide it," Primula promised firmly. "I can do this for you, until you need it again. No one will know that it even exists."

"Primula..."

"I've done this much for you already, Master Bilbo," Primula said wanly, "I can do this much more."

"But it shouldn't be in your home - that would be too dangerous," Bilbo decided, digging through his pockets, and he passed the key to Bag End to Primula. "Put it in mine. Hide it in the chest of my effects under my writing desk. Take whatever you like from Bag End in return. Tell the others that you entered my home because I offered you a reward for your help."

Primula nodded quickly. "You can rely on me."

"I will send word to Radagast. He will see Mistress Brandybuck safely home." Gandalf decided. "As for the both of us, I think it is time that we head back towards the Lonely Mountain. Thranduil will send us a pair of steeds, which will take us swiftly through Mirkwood and beyond, and we should be able to catch up with Thranduil's army."

"How on earth did you persuade him to be helpful?" Bilbo blinked.

"Not I, but a greater power," Gandalf winked, and Bilbo shook his head slowly, with a snort. The Lady of Lórien did always have a bit of a soft spot for the Grey Wizard.

Beorn returned from tormenting wargs in the morning, when Radagast had come down from the woods, and the elven steeds promised by Thranduil were snorting and saddled in the meadow, eyeing the horses of Beorn's House with disdain. "Leaving already!" he boomed, lifting Primula up into the air, grinning as she laughed, then Bilbo, who stifled a yelp of indignation. "It was a good hunt! Where are you going? More adventures?"

"Oh, I hope not," Bilbo sighed, though Primula grinned impishly at him as she got onto Radagast's chariot.

"You do seem to be very good at those, Master Bilbo. But you are a wizard after all."

"Don't you start, Prim."

"The Orcs will crest the mountains in a week or so, I think," Radagast looked unhappy. "Nasty, murderous things! They ate Emsie and Lily, did you know? Horrible! Horrible!"

Bilbo glanced at Gandalf, who made an almost imperceptible shrug. "I am sorry for your loss," Bilbo noted awkwardly, unsure for who - or what - he was offering condolences for, as was usually the case where Radagast was concerned, but the Brown Wizard sniffed and got onto his chariot, the rabbits sniffing and stamping at the ground in impatience.

"I hope that you kill many of them," Radagast muttered, then he seemed to visibly try to cheer himself up, as the birds under his hat twittered. "Come back to the Greenwood for tea, whenever you like, Bilbo. After everything. Sebastian's grown quite fond of you."

"I will, please thank him again for his help in Mirkwood," Bilbo agreed wryly, as with a shouted command from Radagast and a wave from Primula, the chariot sped quickly down the corridor of trees and out of sight. Slowly, Bilbo let out a sigh of relief. Primula should be safe with Radagast. For now, the matter of the Ring was resolved.

"You would hunt orc in the mountains?" Beorn was asking Gandalf, as Gandalf mounted his horse.

"They hunt our friends," Gandalf replied, as Bilbo got onto the sleek white pony that Thranduil had supplied for him. "The dwarves who were last at your house."

"Ah, the dragon slayers!" Beorn frowned thunderously. "I will gather up my people. We will come. It would not be a fitting end to such a tale, for its heroes to be slain by orcs."

"And you will be welcome," Gandalf declared, and Beorn clapped the wizard heavily on his shoulder, then ruffled Bilbo's hair, looking amused when Bilbo let out another squeak of irritation.

"Then we will meet again on the battlefield, little bunny! Try not to grow too thin until then!"

"I think that that will be the least of my worries," Bilbo replied sourly, which prompted Beorn into uproarious laughter, the hearty sound following them out of the meadow as they wheeled their steeds towards the deep, gray gloom of Mirkwood.

Chapter Text

XVIII.

Thranduil nodded at them dispassionately when the guards showed Gandalf and Bilbo to the Elven King's tent, studying a great map of the mountains spread on an oak table, the elegant detail of design on the old parchment indicative of its elven make. Beside the table, Legolas smiled brightly the moment he recognised them, and on the opposite side, a tall, ascetic man frowned slightly, studying them.

A wild dark mane hung loosely over leather plated armor and a loose-fitting, fur-lined jacket, with a plain yew bow slung over the man's shoulder, held in place by an equally plain baldric. A quiver of arrows was worn high over a hip, fur lining the hem but otherwise also undecorated. An ugly, thick dagger was strapped to one high, travel-worn boot, the entire effect making the man look distinctly out of place in the elegance of the Elven King's tent, like some hunter in the woods who had accidentally fumbled into the midst of finery. Bilbo eyed him curiously, but glanced back to Thranduil when the Elven King began to speak.

"Mithrandir and Amarvellon," Thranduil greeted them in Westron, with a politeness so neutral that it was nearly frosty. Bilbo grimaced faintly, and Legolas' smile swiftly turned mildly apologetic. "So the Ithryn have finally seen fit to grace this war council of their choosing with their presence."

Gandalf sighed, leaning a little against his staff, as though praying for patience. "The Lady of Lórien explained the necessity of this to you in Mirkwood, Thranduil."

"But she thought not to commit any of her own forces, only to command others to commit their own," Thranduil looked back down at the map. "And the so-called King Under the Mountain has shown not a whit of interest or gratitude in our proposed intervention, even as my scouts have reported that the orc army most certainly outnumbers our forces. Tell me again, Gandalf, why should I waste the lives of my people in defending the kingdom of one who would demonstrate only indifference at our sacrifices?"

Gandalf muttered something possibly rude in Quenya under his breath, and Bilbo internalised a sigh. Perhaps his conviction that Thorin could be mature about anything was an ill-founded one after all. "Because the orcs will not be content with just razing the Lonely Mountain," Bilbo tried his most reasonable tone, "And if it came to pass that the Mountain became theirs, then your kingdom would sit between two orc and goblin cities."

"The orcs have not dared to breach Mirkwood's borders," Thranduil retorted, unimpressed, "Even with their numbers, they have sought to circle around the Greenwood, and besides, I have heard tell that the only blood they seek is Thorin Oakenshield's. I say we let him reap what he has sown."

"The White Council has decreed that Erebor must stand, and so it will," Gandalf growled, already irritable from their long ride through Mirkwood to Thranduil's ranks and in no mood for dissent. "No further discussion is necessary. Bard, are your people ready?"

"They are," the tall man nodded curtly, "But begging your pardon, Master Wizards, there is ill content rife in the camps. No man is privy to this 'White Council' of yours, for we of Laketown are simple folk, and although my kin from the line of Dale have come as I have called, there is still no future for us in the shadow of the Mountain. Why should we spend our lives against the orc?"

"Thorin would not help to rebuild Dale?" Bilbo asked, surprised.

"He would not. He said," Bard recited grimly, "That Dale had grown rich and fat off the profits it had made from the dwarves, and that the dragon's violence had not been an act that was foreseen or controlled by his people. Should Dale be rebuilt again, it would have to be on our own coin and through our own efforts. If that is what he believes, why should we return? Dale is barren, and we have remade our own lives since. Let the dwarves try to eat their gold during the long winter."

"Blast and confound dwarves and their pride!" Bilbo pinched at the bridge of his nose, to stave off a headache. "I'll go and talk to him."

"He shot an arrow at the shield of the last messenger we sent out to parley," Bard warned.

"He would not shoot at me," Bilbo replied dismissively, and the grim man looked briefly impressed, then thoughtful.

"Fisher folk mentioned thirteen dwarves, and one small being with no beard and a staff, riding towards the Lonely Mountain before the dragonsmoke was silenced... was that you, Wizard?"

"It was." A small being indeed!

"And you were there when the dragon was slain?"

"Yes, and an awful, terrible business that was. I never want to do it again," Bilbo added, with a scowl at Gandalf, who had raised both of his whiskery eyebrows in amusement.

"Then I am honoured to make your acquaintance, Master Wizard, and tonight, my men would be pleased to hear that tale."

Bilbo wasn't quite sure that he wanted to tell campsite tales to a discontent gathering of Men, but he managed politeness. "It would be my pleasure to tell it, Bard."

Legolas trailed Bilbo out of the tent, as he mounted the white pony. "My father has not had a good week," Legolas offered softly and wryly, as he held the pony's reins for Bilbo.

"Neither have I," Bilbo muttered, though he reached over to pat the elven prince awkwardly on his shoulder. "I hope you did not get into trouble."

"Ithryn magic spirited you and your friends out of Mirkwood," Legolas noted, wide-eyed with feigned innocence, "What fault of that was mine?"

Bilbo chuckled, though he sobered quickly, as he glanced around the camp. He had never liked war camps; there was always a thrumming anxiety, a banked and sleeping violence to them that unsettled him thoroughly. This was worse; there was a sense of discontent, a wary distrust in the eyes of the Men who passed them by. "Come and listen to my tale tonight," Bilbo invited, pulling together his resolve. He supposed that he could do that much.

"Of course." Legolas patted the pony's muzzle, then let go of the reins, and Bilbo kicked in his heels, urging the pony into a canter.

Elven-bred or not, the poor thing still whinnied, nostrils flaring, when Bilbo rode past the ruins of Dale, following the River Running towards its source. The dragonsmoke had faded, and he could hear snatches of birdsong, but the valley's devastation was still ruinous. The pony calmed under some petting, and took them closer, until they were within sight of the Gate.

The dwarves had been busy. Large slabs of stone now sealed the entrance, cunningly fitted together, curved to turn aside battering rams and stone, with only a narrow pathway up, within full arrow-sight of the ramparts. At the top of the ramparts, Bofur fumbled his pipe in surprise when he recognised Bilbo, and his shout of joy brought the princelings to his side, both of them grinning with open pleasure once they peered out at him.

"Bilbo! Come on up!" Fíli waved at him. "We have missed you!"

"Actually, I cannot stay," Bilbo replied, as the pony snorted and stamped, "Could you get Thorin for me please?"

The princelings blinked, wearing identical expressions of confusion, but Bofur nodded and slipped out of sight. "Why won't you stay?" Kíli asked, with a touch of plaintiveness in his voice, "Uncle has been like a bear with a sore tooth since you were gone."

"A week more and he'll be mauling us all," Fíli agreed mournfully. "You will have our blood on your hands."

"He won't do that," Bilbo retorted, keenly aware of the princelings' penchant for dramatics, though their woeful expressions planted a faint sprig of doubt that wormed larger when Kíli glanced back over his shoulder with a nervous laugh, as though checking to see if anyone was scaling up the ramparts towards them. He touched his brother's elbow briefly, in warning, and Fíli shot him one final, pleading look, before both brothers composed their expressions and Thorin pushed past.

Thorin looked visibly weary, though he was dressed now in a fine suit of gold chain under his furs, befitting his status and his birth, and Orcrist's scabbard was richly inlaid with silver and gems. His gauntlets had been replaced by cunning bracers that ran in exquisite, overlapping plates up the back of his palms and wrists to his elbows, though his fingers were bare of rings save that which held the heavy seal of Durin's line.

"Bilbo," Thorin began warmly, then his glance turned to the pony, to the obviously elvish make of the sleek saddle and blanket, the elegant weave of its reins, and his expression grew stormy. Bilbo's heart sank a fraction. This did not promise to go well. "Why do you hesitate at our Gate?"

"I am due back in the camps," Bilbo gestured vaguely behind him. It was a poor excuse, even to his ears, but he knew that if he wanted to speak seriously with Thorin, it was better to do so with some distance between them, or risk giving in to impulse again. Thorin was dangerous, especially close up, with the full weight of his considerable personality at play. "I just thought that I would come by to, um, to talk."

"Then talk," Thorin observed, his tone brisk, palms curled over the ramparts. "Do you come on behalf of yourself, or for the Elven King?"

"What? Why would I-"

"We have sent back all his messengers to date. His and those from the Lake-men," Thorin growled, "Are you here to lecture me as well, Wizard?"

"You need their armies," Bilbo forced his temper under control, trying to keep his tone reasonable. "Azog and his army of goblins and orcs are coming, did you not know that?"

"My cousin Dáin is on his way, with his army."

"And do you think that Dáin would be enough to push back the orcs?"

"We defeated Azog and his orcs in Moria. We can do it again." Thorin retorted, unmoved.

"Only at great cost to your people! Do you think that Thranduil is here for your gold?" Bilbo snapped, growing irritable despite himself. "He is here because the White Council has told him to come!"

"And why should the White Council care about Erebor? They did not care when the dragon came," Thorin shot back, just as hotly, "They did not care about Erebor when its people were driven out, to starve and sicken as we wandered the wastes, homeless and destitute. Why should the Council care now, unless it has other motives?"

"The White Council exists because no kingdom can stand alone, O King," Bilbo retorted, "Do you truly mean to refuse their aid purely because it did not come earlier? Besides, the Greenwood sits on your borders, and you will need Dale to be rebuilt. You need your allies, even more than you did before. Your people are returning to Erebor - how will you feed them, without trade and barter?"

"I see vultures that waited until the dragon was dead before coming to sit at my doorstep," Thorin growled, "And if you would cast your lot with them, so be it."

Beside him, the princelings grimaced and exchanged glances behind their uncle's back, even as Bilbo exhaled and shook his head slowly, trying again, "I am owed a fourteenth share of the gold, am I not? Offer that to Bard of the line of Dale, to rebuild his city. Give him something to fight for."

Thorin blinked, surprised, "Why would you do that?"

"What on earth would I do with so much gold? Besides, if it would save you from your foolishness then I would gladly give it away."

It was the wrong thing to say - Thorin scowled instantly, his pride wounded. "The gold is yours to deal with as you see fit, but the Gate to Erebor will remain shut until these armies no longer threaten my doorstep. I have no use for Men or Elves whose aid must be paid for with gold."

"Oh, confound dwarves and their stubbornness!" Bilbo threw up his hands in disgust. "Greed has poisoned your line after all, Thorin, and I am sorry to see it, even if you do not."

"Bilbo-" Thorin began, and for a moment, the wildness was there, that aching bone-deep want that had burned bright in his eyes when they had last parted, then Thorin closed his eyes, bitterly clenched his fists, and straightened up from the ramparts, turning away.

Wide-eyed, the princelings exchanged another glance, then Fíli hurried to keep step with their uncle as they disappeared from Bilbo's sight. Kíli shot Bilbo an openly beseeching look, but Bilbo shook his head again, with a tired, wry smile, and offered a little wave before turning his pony back towards the camp.

That had not gone well after all.

Bilbo was in a poor mood when he returned, smoking his pipe by the large campfire and watching the flames, and he did not look up even when Legolas sat down on the bench beside him, speaking in Sindarin, with a quick glance at the Men that passed them. "I take it that your meeting did not go well."

"Dwarves are stubborn folk, and their King is no different." Thorin had acted as though he had been betrayed, which was both intensely exasperating and intensely hurtful, somehow, at the same time. Bilbo felt wrapped in a blanket of thick melancholy, with unhappiness sunk into his very bones, and he watched the flame flick and dance, puffing out another smoke ring.

"He has an army on his doorstep and no reason to think kindly of us."

"Even with the orcs about to come?"

"Even so."

Bilbo looked at Legolas with surprise. "Those are patient words, Prince Legolas."

"Thorin Oakenshield has just slain a dragon. Perhaps he thinks that the orcs are a small problem in comparison," Legolas smiled gently, "And he holds Erebor. A dwarven-made fortress is difficult to breach. Perhaps his confidence is not ill-founded."

"So you think that everyone here should go home?"

"No, no of course not," Legolas looked surprised that Bilbo had even suggested it. "I should like to face the orc-kind in battle."

Bilbo groaned, pinching at the bridge of his nose again, his melancholy returning. "Let's not talk about battles. I would wash my hands of this adventure if I could."

"Then why are you still here, Amarvellon?" Legolas grinned, with a touch of impishness. "Why do you try to mend things? Why does the Green Wizard prepare for battle?"

"Because despite it all," Bilbo admitted crossly, "I should like to think that everyone will be reasonable in the end, and I should like that very end be a good one. A peaceful one, if possible."

"You try to see the best in all of us, of Men, Elves and Dwarves. So does Mithrandir. Perhaps this is why the Ithryn can inspire the Children of Ilúvatar to do great things," Legolas said soberly, then he brightened up, and changed to Westron, raising his voice. "What happened when you faced the dragon?"

"That is the end of the tale, Prince, and we should start at the beginning," Bilbo puffed out a smoke ring, then another, that resolved into a small, wispy image of Bag End. Reluctantly, although his heart was not quite in the mood for storytelling, he supposed that he did owe the prince a tale. "When thirteen dwarves and the Grey Wizard invaded my home..."

It was a condensed retelling, with Mirkwood and Laketown glossed over, but by the time Bilbo had shaped the sleeping form of Smaug, draped over smoky piles of gold, to his surprise he had attracted a growing audience, with Bard at the corner, arms folded and silent. Bilbo felt a touch of self-consciousness under his grim stare, but the tale had a life of its own, now, as Smaug woke and started to circle around his own small little smoke-figure; even Legolas had half-risen from his seat, his eyes wide with excitement.

The charge of the small smoke figures of Thorin's Company roused a cheer from the crowd, quickly hushed as Bilbo launched into a retelling of the battle, with Smaug, the story winding its own wild way around the hearts of the Men and Elves who had stopped by to listen. There was a gasp as the dragon turned on the fallen dwarves, then another cheer as the tiny smoke arrows from Kíli found their mark, and gratifying, a louder one yet at Bilbo's own magical intervention. But the loudest roar came as Bilbo described how Thorin had made that insane leap from the dragon's limb to the vulnerable patch on his chest, then a groan rippled through the crowd as the dragon closed its jaws over Thorin's figure and tossed him aside.

Bilbo tidied up the end of the tale conscientiously, accepted a skin of water from someone to his right, and ended up coughing it over his knees as the crowd applauded and laughed and someone thumped him on the back. There was a power in stories after all, he realized slowly, as he caught sight of Gandalf leaning against the post of the stables, puffing contentedly at his pipe. A story about a great deed had bought them aid from Beorn and his kin, and now - perhaps now it served to soothe frayed sentiment and discontent, worked to mend a few of the bridges that had lain sundered, by time and by pride.

As Bilbo settled back down on the bench, Bard passed him by, and clasped him briefly and wordlessly on the shoulder. Wryly, Bilbo bowed his head, and hid a smile. Perhaps Bard was not as simple a man as he had said he was, after all.

The crowd had faded by the time Bilbo refilled his pipe, and even Legolas had gone his own way; it was Gandalf now who sat down beside him, eyes twinkling. "You make as good a storyteller as Beorn himself."

"I was going to write a book about all this," Bilbo admitted, then the thought sobered him; his pack and his materials were still in Erebor, and his parting from Thorin had not been kind.

Gandalf seemed to guess at his thoughts, patting his knee. "You still do not know dwarves," the Grey Wizard said finally. "He will seek to make amends."

"I doubt that very much, old friend. Thorin has much pride in him. And I suppose it is for the best," Bilbo allowed, as sour as that thought was, and as leaden. "After the battle, I will return to the Shire. I am quite tired of adventures for now, and I do not like the idea of that thing sitting in Bag End, untended. I want to go home, Gandalf," Bilbo said, with a burst of homesickness, heartsickness. "There is no place for me here."

"We shall see," Gandalf said softly, as he blew out a smoke ring, but he would say nothing more no matter how keenly Bilbo scowled at him.

Chapter Text

XIX.

The raven dropped out of the sky when Bilbo could bear the darkening mood in the camp no longer and had taken the pony for a short ride out over the mountains, and as Bilbo held up his arm, it alighted high on his wrist, careful to keep its claws short of his bared palms.

"Hail to you again, Amarvellon," the raven greeted him, for it was the selfsame raven that had been late of Mirkwood, the one with the brisk and curt demeanour about it, but this time, instead of launching straight into its message, it fluffed its great feathers, and seemed - for a want of a word - displeased. "I am Thórc, son of Roäc, and I will be chief of the ravens of Ravenhill after my father."

"Greetings, Thórc, son of Roäc," Bilbo said politely, blinking, "And thank you again for your service before. Had you not been so quick to find Mithrandir, our business could have gone quite poorly."

"That was a trifle," Thórc said dismissively, though the raven smoothed down a feather or two, pleased by the flattery. "I have... messages for you from Erebor."

"Messages?" Bilbo tried to still the quickening beat of his heart. So Gandalf was correct after all - perhaps.

Oddly enough, Thórc's feathers fluffed up again, in distaste. "My line and Durin's folk have had a long and ancient friendship, and our services should not be lightly used-"

That did not sound good. "Whatever message you have to deliver, rest assured, it will stay secret with me."

The raven eyed him with a beady glance, then it smoothed down another feather. "The fact is, O Wizard, that even am I honour-bound to deliver first to you the message of the King Under the Mountain, I am not quite sure what the message is, for he did correct himself overmuch before me, all the while pacing about and cursing the Elvenfolk and the myriad machinations of the Wizardfolk, and I suppose, if anything, I should simply convey to you a general impression of displeasure."

Bilbo had been trying to stifle a laugh, but it bubbled out anyway, even as he tried to cover it as a hasty cough. "Well, what was the last thing that he said?"

"Something rather rude in Khuzdul, O Wizard, which I would prefer not to repeat in polite company and I presume is irrelevant, as it was not addressed to you," Thórc muttered, with a trace of sulkiness, for he was young for a Raven of the Ravenhill, and filled with self-importance at his hereditary role as Roäc's heir. "The King Under the Mountain, I believe, most likely bids you to return to Erebor for quite possibly a second exchange of verbal hostilities of some sort, as he may or may not have regretted his words to you at your last meeting."

At that, Bilbo had to laugh, and he laughed until he nearly dislodged the raven from its perch; as it was, Thórc shot him a stare that was surprisingly long-suffering, for a bird, and muttered, "Should I convey your derisive laughter by way of a response?"

"Oh, no, um, no of course not," Bilbo said quickly, though he had to take a few gulping breaths of the chilly air to calm down. "What were the other messages?"

Thórc inspected the claws on one of its taloned feet. "There was also a somewhat more secretive and equally incoherent message from the princes Fíli and Kíli, who bid you ignore their uncle's message and any offense that you may take from its content, and whom beseech you to return to Erebor posthaste as their living conditions are apparently growing untenable."

"And? Anything else?"

The raven sighed. "If you must know, in general, the other dwarves wished you well, but although we ravens are trained to have a good memory we were never really expected to carry very more than four messages, let alone twelve poorly dictated ones."

"Well, um, could you let Thorin know, er, that until he is prepared to be reasonable about Bard's request, at the very least, and be mature about the entire situation... no, not that last bit, sorry, um..."

"By Eru Ilúvatar," Thórc groaned, "Not the Wizard as well! Do you all need time to compose your thoughts?"

"Just tell Thorin that I will speak with him when he's prepared to be reasonable," Bilbo decided, and regretted the words shortly after Thórc had nodded and flown off.

What was meant to be a brisk, enjoyable ride was therefore somewhat ruined by Bilbo's continuous obsessing over whether he should have said anything more, or less, or not at all, or differently, and he was on his miserable way back to the camp when Thórc returned, swooping down, and looking even more long-suffering, hunched into its wings. "I was once told that serving Durin's line as their messengers would be an honour," Thórc muttered.

"Life has its disappointments."

Thórc eyed Bilbo suspiciously, as if trying to gauge whether the wizard was laughing at it, then it clacked its great beak together, and shifted its weight on Bilbo's arm. "The King recited quite a list of his grievances, of which I believe you are already aware of."

"Quite likely." Bilbo had to feign a cough again, and the raven shot him a pained look, its feathers mantling. "Anything else?"

"He says that until the Elves and Men see reason there is nothing to be reasonable about, and in any regard he claims that you and he have unfinished and unrelated personal business to discuss. Erebor is just a short ride from here," Thórc noted with a touch of plaintiveness. "Just so that you are aware, O Wizard."

"I am quite aware of its proximity," Bilbo said dryly, "My response to that stands. Oh! Although, if you could think of a way to word it more kindly-"

"I am a messenger, not a songbird," Thórc retorted, again with his sulkiness. "There were other messages from the princes and such, but they were all repetitious and hardly of any real relevance or importance."

Poor Fíli and Kíli. "Tell Thorin not to bother sending another message to me unless he has something truly constructive to add, um... in a nicer way..." Bilbo trailed off awkwardly, as the raven had already launched up into the sky. "Oh dear."

XX.

The camp was in uproar when Bilbo returned, and he gleaned quickly from the gossip that a host of dwarves had appeared on the eastern spur of the Mountain, hastening now towards Dale. Dáin had finally arrived, then. Bard was preparing to ride out to meet their messengers, and hastily, forgetting Thorin and his grievances, Bilbo spurred on his pony, drawing level beside him. The bowman looked briefly surprised, though he nodded and said not a word, until they were within a respectful distance of the two dwarves from the Iron Hills.

Bilbo's heart sank a little further as he studied the unarmed messengers. Dáin's folk looked grim, and battle-hardened, their long, forked beards thrust into their belts, girded over finely crafted hauberks and chain. Round shields were strapped to their backs, and the weapons they had laid down on the charred ground as a sign of good will were cruelly crafted: twin mattocks with curving edges and cunningly wrought runes along the blades, short swords and daggers. Dáin had come to war, and the messengers were studying Bilbo and Bard with careful suspicion.

"I am Bard of the line of Dale, and I represent the allied camps," Bard offered. "This is Bilbo the Green, who faced the dragon alongside Thorin Oakenshield."

The dwarves glanced at Bilbo with renewed curiosity, looking over his staff, even as Bilbo tried to draw himself up and look less self-conscious. "We are of Dáin, son of Náin, Lord of the Iron Hills," the dwarves said, finally. "We have been called by our kin Thorin Oakenshield to Erebor, for we have heard that the kingdom of old has been renewed. Who are you who sit in the plain as foes before defended walls?"

"Not foes," Bilbo said quickly, "There was a bit of a misunderstanding. There is an orc army approaching over the mountains. We are here to help defend Erebor."

"We have no great love of Elves, O Wizard, nor have we much love for Men who sit on our Gate only when the dragon is slain," one of the messengers said flatly. "Leave the orcs to us."

"And what of supplies?" Bilbo snapped.

"We have brought enough."

And Bilbo could in fact see that in the waiting ranks of the dwarven armies, many were burdened with heavy packs, and he knew from recent experience that the dwarves were hardy folk, easily able to bear considerable weight by way of supplies while marching swiftly without tiring.

"There," Bard growled, as they rode back to the camp, after many stiffly formal words, "They do not want our aid. Let us leave the orcs and the dwarves to their own devices. We can withdraw to Laketown and reinforce it."

"A fourteenth share of the gold is mine," Bilbo sighed. Curse the dwarves! "Use that to rebuild Dale. I have been to Laketown, Bard. Trade is scarce from the Elven King, for the elves do not want for much, and the fisher folk keep to themselves. Laketown is not prosperous, not the way Dale can be."

"Even should Dale be rebuilt, it cannot survive if it is faced with only animosity from Erebor," Bard shook his head. "Yours is a generous offer, but ultimately a pointless one, Bilbo."

Bilbo was about to offer a retort, when he abruptly frowned, looking up over Bard's shoulder. "What on earth is that? A cloud?"

"No cloud," Bard breathed, for lightning forked under the blanket of darkness that seemed boil forth over the distant peaks, swelling towards them, and even as they watched, frozen, the ground seemed to shake, thrumming, to the distant rhythm of war drums. "The orc."

And as Bilbo stared at the horizon, his blood chilling to ice in his veins, he could see that the stretch of the orc's army was vast - judging from Bard's paling face - far vaster than perhaps even the Elves and the Men had originally surmised; it was like a cloak of black inching over the white snow, enough to surround and wash over the Lonely Mountain and the armies that stood before it. For the hatred of the goblin-kind and the orc for the dwarves had been fanned with the death of the Great Goblin, and with the blood-lust of Azog, and the call had gone to the dark cities and strongholds of the goblin-kind and the orc, a great call to arms to retake dominion of the North. Under mountains and hills they had crept quickly in the dark, through tunnels, with only a portion of their force above ground, visible to scouts.

"There is no more time to run," Bard said grimly, for he could see too that such a force would not be content with just Erebor; it would sweep Laketown as well in its bloodlust. "For good or ill, our lot is cast with Thorin Oakenshield."

Gandalf was riding out towards them, and he reined in his horse sharply. "Go, Bard! Take places on the Mountain! The Elves will be set on the Southern Spur - your Men and the dwarves should take the Eastern. We will lure the enemy into the valley, where our archers can do the most damage."

Bard nodded tightly, urging his horse into a gallop, even as Gandalf gestured at Bilbo, then at the dwarven ranks. "Well? Go and talk to them!"

"And I suppose that I won't be riddled with arrows for trying," Bilbo pointed out dryly.

"They can see better foes to use their arrows on now, I suspect." Gandalf was already circling his horse about, to head back to rally the rest of the armies, and with gritted breath, Bilbo turned his poor pony towards the dwarven ranks.

The dwarves seemed wary rather than hostile, and Bilbo relaxed a fraction when Dáin pushed past the ranks of his guards towards him, a familiar, ancient raven on his shoulder. "Hail again, O Wizard," Roäc told him gravely. "You have helped to slay a dragon, only to face a far more bitter foe."

"He was with Thorin, in Erebor?" Dáin asked, frowning.

"Aye. Had he not been present, Thorin would have in turn been slain by the wounds that the dragon had meted."

The dwarves murmured amongst themselves, then Dáin gestured curtly at the armies beyond them as they mustered on the spurs. "Well then, laddie, where do you want us?" At Bilbo's blink, Dáin snorted. "I can count the odds as well as any Elf, Man or Wizard. We make a stand together or not at all."

Bard approached them as the dwarves marched on the spurs, and after a quick consultation with Dáin, the dwarven bowmen, few as they were, climbed up to the highest tip of the spurs to cluster with the others, while the infantry gathered to defend the base of the spur. Bilbo dismounted - ponies could only come to harm in such a battle - sent off the poor steed with a pat, and made his way up the spur, to stand beside Bard and wait, trembling. Sting was glowing in his hand, and he wasn't sure how much use he would be, at all.

On the other spur, the elves waited in an unnaturally calm silence, while at the tip, Gandalf had drawn Glamdring, which also burned with an angry glow. The warg riders swarmed first into the breach, harrying and bringing down the thinning rank of Men who had volunteered to draw them through, and as they surged past the elves, the great silver bows of the elves rose and sang, stitching death across wargs and orc alike.

Still more surged through, and the elven spearmen charged, cleaving into the ranks of the goblinkind with the old hatred of the elves for all things that crawled and killed in the dark, and even as the ranks of the orcs faltered, the dwarves roared, "Dáin! Dáin!" and charged into the fray, the Men of Laketown and of the line of Dale at their backs.

The bloodletting sundered and halted the advance of the orcs, staining the ground black with goblin and orc blood, but still more poured into the breach, as though heedless of the ruin dealt to their kind, and more yet, until the elves and the dwarves were driven slowly back to the spurs. A cry from Bard alerted the bowmen to a new threat; more goblins and swarmed up the sharp cliff faces high behind them, heedless of those of their own who tumbled over the treacherous edges to be dashed below on the rock, loosing barbed arrows at them from higher ground.

The ranks of bowmen faltered, men falling under the hail of orcish arrows, but Bard stood firm, loosing arrows into the goblin ranks, his jaw set, and around him his men rallied, until the goblin archers broke ranks and fled. Bilbo did what little he could for the wounded, crouched and working feverishly, to draw out arrows and mend flesh, but it was not enough; it could not be enough, not with the black tide curling around them, drawing death in its wake.

The day grew long, and longer yet, but the tide could not break the ranks of the armies, gathered as they were at the spurs, and it seemed as though the battle might turn to a stalemate. But then orcish drums boomed, shaking the ground again, and charging into the midst of the orcs was a huge white orc, on a white warg, flanked by other heavily armed orcs. Azog had come, and before the heavy swings of his mace, Elves and Dwarves and Men alike were scattered and broken.

"Bard!" Bilbo cried, and Bard turned, notching an arrow. The first found its mark, felling one of Azog's heavy guard, but the rest glanced off shields or were lost in the mass. Azog's warg seemed to be an unstoppable force, charging and breaking ranks where it went, snarling, the great beast rending armor and flesh alike.

Then Azog turned, as though abruptly seeing Bilbo, and he smiled in recognition, a sharp smile full of murder, and he turned his warg towards the eastern spur. Bard cursed, his hand going for his quiver, but there was but one arrow left, jet black and fletched. He notched it and drew his bow, even as the warg gathered for another leap - and the arrow slammed into its skull.

The white warg tumbled with a rending scream, pitching its master to the ground, but Azog's guard closed ranks around their leader, and Azog soon recovered, getting to his feet with a howl of rage.

It was answered at the Gate - the orcs had forgotten Thorin!

The walls of stone tumbled into the pool, and from Erebor Thorin's Company surged forward, clad in shining mail, in a wedge behind their King, and upon their shield-arms were round shields wrought of single dragonscales, that flashed a ruddy fire as deep as dragonfire in the dying sunlight, and which turned aside arrows and blades with disdain. Under Orcrist's gleaming blade warcs and orc and goblin were slain alike, and none seemed to touch Thorin as he drove into the black tide, straight towards Azog, his voice lifted in a great cry even over the roar of the battle. "To me! To me! Elves, Men and my kinsfolk! To me!"

Down the spurs came Dáin, with all of his men, and Bard swept with his Men into the fray; on the other spur Bilbo could see Legolas leap down, blades flashing, followed by spearmen, his quiver long exhausted, Gandalf and Glamdring flickering through the black ranks, and despite himself, feeling rather insane, Bilbo was pulled into the wildness of it all, stumbling beside the dwarves, bloodying Sting as they charged.

But the ranks of orcs had closed around Azog, and would not break, and yet again the goblin ranks of bowmen had gathered on the high cliffs. Death was upon them soon, Bilbo thought blindly, even as he gripped his staff and prepared the rest of his magic.

Before he could try any spells, there was sudden rent in the dark clouds, and a huge shape dropped past, that swept and bowled goblins off the cliff face with pounding wings. The Eagles had come! A shout came up from the Elves, and through to the Dwarves and Men, as Gwaihir and his chieftains dropped out of the sky, to rend at orcs and goblins with their talons - and behind the black tide was a sudden, deep bellow, as though from some gigantic beast, and a huge bear loped into sight, far larger than what Bilbo remembered, forcing its way through, followed by others of its kind. Beorn.

The skin-changers and the great eagles were turning the tide; under their assault the goblins wavered and fled, and the giant bears crushed and swatted away the orcs in their path, until with a roar Beorn broke through Azog's guard, grasped the Pale Orc in his great clawed paws and crushed him.

A cry of dismay rippled through the remaining orcs and goblins, and the tide broke and scattered, fleeing, pursued by the victorious, but Thorin and his Company were nowhere to be seen, even as Dáin and his guard managed to cleave their way through to Beorn's side.

"There!" Legolas called, to their left, pointing, and now Bilbo could see the rank of dwarves, dragonscale shields held high, and behind them, on the bloodied ground, a broken figure-

This was what it felt like for the world to stop, Bilbo thought, with a sudden and terrible calm, as the rending cries of battle and ringing blades seem to dim around him, his step faltering. Then there was a tight grip on his shoulder, and Gandalf dragged him forward a step. "Come!" Gandalf growled, harshly. "It is not yet over!"

Dwarven hands were pulling and grasping at him, urging him forward, mail and leather, and even as he knelt beside Thorin he could see Gandalf hurry over to Fíli and Kíli, who were slumped on the ground a little further away. Bilbo could see immediately that they would live, if barely - the dragonscale shields had turned away the worst of the sundering strikes that would otherwise have broken them, and pale and bleeding as they were, they were conscious, watching Bilbo with wide and frightened eyes.

For Thorin - dragonscale shield or not - Thorin had fallen pierced with spears, his lifeblood bubbling onto the ground, and he seemed to struggle to focus, frowning as Bilbo looked over the damage, horrified. Even with Estë's teachings, he was no Elrond, and Thorin was already beginning to fade, and... a bloodied hand groped up to his, pulling at his fingers, even as Thorin tried to smile, crooked and faint, likely already delirious.

No. It was not yet over.

Ripping a corner from his cloak, Bilbo pushed the wad between Thorin's teeth, to prevent him from biting his tongue. "Dwalin."

"Aye, Wizard."

"On my mark," Bilbo instructed, and at a signal, Dwalin grunted and pulled the first barbed spear out of Thorin's shoulder, even as Balin and Bifur held their King down. Estë's words would not be enough; it was pure magic itself that Bilbo burned into Thorin's flesh, willing skin and flesh and bone back together, dragging back the outward ebb of life, with old magic, Creation-magic - the very knit and weave of energy that made him what he was. "Again," Bilbo growled, and as Dwalin hauled out the next spear; again he forced old magic to bend to his will.

Dimly, he could hear Gandalf's warning, vaguely feel bony fingers curl over his shoulder again, but sensation seemed to be fading, along with sense itself; when finally at the last spear he commanded, "Again," the word seemed spoken from a far distance, and with the last of his magic spent, Bilbo felt himself dip down, dropping, flying or falling, into the dark.

Chapter Text

XXI.

To Bilbo's complete astonishment, he woke in his bedroom in Bag End, and for one single, horrific moment he thought perhaps that it was a dream after all (or a nightmare), and then he nearly started out of his skin when beside him, so shocked that she had jumped from her chair and overturned her knitting all over the floor, Esmeralda Took let out a shriek and fled from the room.

"What on earth?" Bilbo muttered; his throat felt raw and sour, and his body seemed to be slow in shaking off sluggishness - he had sat himself up and was rubbing his eyes when the sound of hurrying footsteps grew louder, and Belladonna Took swept in, with Esmeralda peeking over her shoulder.

Age had not blunted Belladonna's imperious manner, or the deep vein of feminine mischief about the crow's feet of her crinkling eyes that ran at counterpoint to her natural grace and dignity; she let out a loud and hearty laugh as she saw that he was awake, and stamped over in her great silver-capped boots to embrace him fiercely.

"Belladonna?" Bilbo tried, squirming awkwardly and now profoundly embarrassed. "What in the name of the Valar are all of you doing in Bag End?"

"Fetch the other wizard," Belladonna instructed her niece, and Esmeralda nodded quickly before ducking out. Carefully, the elderly hobbit settled on the chair that Esmeralda had vacated, bending with a little effort to gather up the strewn knitting.

"Belladonna-"

"Water," Belladonna instructed, pouring him a glass from the jug at the side table. "That fool girl, what with her screaming and carrying on. I hope you were not too startled, Master Bilbo."

"No, no," Bilbo obediently drained the glass, though he frowned. "I was... elsewhere," He said, concentrating. "I was outside Erebor."

"I do not know where you have been or what happened to you," Belladonna stated, though the firm fold of her arms over her chest indicated that this had not been for lack of trying. "But two weeks ago the other wizard brought you home, on the back of a great eagle, and you were so still and cold that my other fool niece, that Primula, thought you were dead, and was wailing about and crying until the other wizard told her quite sharply to becalm herself."

"Two weeks," Bilbo repeated, astonished. "I have been asleep for two weeks?"

"Aye, and by the half of it you were warm and breathing again. I had a roster going," Belladonna continued, setting the knitting aside, "The other wizard said that somebody should sit beside you at all times, read to you or just talk about anything. Everyone volunteered, but we picked out the best." There was a faint scowl at the door. "Or so I thought."

"Esmeralda is a lovely girl," Bilbo murmured, automatically defensive.

"And she be taking her time with that flighty Saradoc lad," Belladonna continued with a touch of disapproval.

"He is going to be the Master of Buckland," Bilbo pointed out, then he frowned as he realized that he had dredged that particular titbit out of seemingly nowhere at all. "How did I know that?"

"I suspect she tattled about it to you," Belladonna seemed satisfied, "You must of heard it and all, like the other wizard said that you would."

Bilbo was about to confirm his suspicions about the 'other wizard', when Gandalf awkwardly bent his head and folded himself into the room, careful of the low ceiling. He smiled a whiskery smile when he saw that Bilbo was indeed awake, and then he said, gently, "Mistress Took, a moment if you please. Wizard business."

"I'll cook up something warm, my famous potato leek stew," Belladonna patted Bilbo's hand with her parchment-thin, wrinkled one, with great affection. "You've got to eat something hearty and warm, Master Bilbo. Esmeralda! You are coming with me. T'aint our business now to be about!"

When Belladonna had stamped off, Gandalf shook his head slowly and sat down on the edge of the bed, hunched to avoid the ceiling, and he raised his gray brow. "She is a most difficult and remarkable woman."

"That she is." Bilbo agreed amiably, for although he was most fond of the Baggins clan, of all the hobbits his clear favourite was Belladonna Took, for all her brash wildness and love of adventure, and she did take much pride in that, as she did in most things. "You took me back here."

"Your magic is sunk into the bones of this land," Gandalf shrugged, as though that was obvious. "I held you stable with mine until we returned. The land has shared it back with you."

"I was held back from the door," Bilbo mused, his memory unfurling further. "There was a window, a bright and brilliant one, but I could not reach it. Why did you stop me from going home?"

"Should I have not?" Gandalf asked, with a touch of sadness now, and Bilbo shivered. He stared down at his hands, wordlessly, and felt tired all over again.

"How did it all go?" he asked, finally. "The others? Fíli and Kíli? Thorin?"

"Minor injuries. Fíli and Kíli are recovering well. Thorin..." Gandalf scrutinized him for a moment, then continued, "Thorin is unharmed."

"That's..." For a moment, his relief was so great that his vision blurred. "That is good to hear."

"He did not want to let you leave, but he saw the necessity of it," Gandalf said solemnly, "And he would have come with us, but I dissuaded him. Erebor needs its king, now more than ever."

Bilbo nodded slowly. "Of course. I hope he did not immediately start a brawl with the Elven King," Bilbo added wryly. "Or Bard and his men."

"I think it would have gone well," Gandalf said, with optimistic complacency, and he reached into his sleeve, drawing out a pouch. "Thorin did want you to have this, for safekeeping."

Puzzled, Bilbo took the small pouch from Gandalf. It was light, and whatever was in it was hard. Slipping his hand in, Bilbo let out a soft gasp as he drew out the brilliant, small silver moon of the Arkenstone, its facets catching the light of the morning sun from the window and scattering it over his sheets and cheeks.

"What... why would he-"

"It is, after all, known as the Heart of the Mountain," Gandalf pointed out, with amusement twinkling in his eyes. "I think that at some point, he should like it returned in person."

"For... for some sort of promissory note, it is quite, quite ostentatious." To his consternation Bilbo found himself stuttering and scrunching up his nose; he gave a loud sniff and forced his nerves steady. Slowly, with great care, he slipped the Arkenstone back into its pouch, and offered it back to Gandalf. "Take it back to Thorin."

"You could take it back yourself."

"No," Bilbo said, with a touch of wry sadness, even as the smile faded from Gandalf's eyes and from his mouth. "Could you not sense it, old friend? Your magic was all that held my form together on the way back here."

Gandalf blew out a soft breath, and he seemed bent and weary now, like an old man. "I tried to stop you," Gandalf said finally, quietly. "I tried to pull you back."

"My magic was mine to give." Bilbo tried an insouciant shrug. "I love these lands, and the land loves me. This is no hardship, old friend."

"Once it was not," Gandalf replied, with a terrible knowing gentleness, as he pushed the pouch containing the Arkenstone back towards Bilbo. "Keep it safe. Thorin will come for it in time, if you do not return."

"Or you could send him a message," Bilbo muttered, though if he knew dwarves and their stubbornness - a familiar topic by now - a message, even from Gandalf, would not stop Thorin, not if he wished to come. He felt torn between a slow and awful dread, and an almost painfully intense anticipation; his breath caught in his throat, then he eased it out, and forced himself to change the topic, when Gandalf merely arched his brow at him again. "The Ring?"

"Still safe. Primula was as good as her word. I shall tarry one more day with you here, to see you settled in, and then I ride for Gondor." Gandalf clasped his hands together, carefully. "Perhaps it will not be necessary. Mordor, after all, is still silent. Still, the White Council and I drove out the Necromancer from Dol Guldur, but that cursed place could not be cleansed; not even with Nenya. That concerns me."

"Not even with...!" Bilbo clenched his hands around the pouch. "That is not good at all!"

"Saruman was certainly persuaded to take the matter seriously after that," Gandalf sounded a touch amused, if darkly so. "Thranduil has set a permanent watch on that cursed place, but the touch of corruption in the land has been easing."

"Was it difficult? Driving out the Necromancer?"

"It was difficult," Gandalf agreed, then his eyes crinkled a little at the edges, "Certainly it would have been nigh impossible, if the Necromancer had been able to summon the Dragon, or call the orc and the goblinkind to his banner."

It took Bilbo a long moment for everything to finally click together, and then he wasn't sure whether to be impressed, furious or amused. "You used Thorin! Everyone!"

"Not used, oh no," Gandalf retorted, "But I certainly had to make a lot of arrangements. And I did not expect you to do this to yourself, Bilbo."

Bilbo recalled Thranduil's comments, from what felt like a long time ago, in Mirkwood, and he could see Thranduil's point, finally. Gandalf was indeed playing at a game of chess, while Bilbo - Bilbo had forgotten how to look at the board. "I could not let him die."

"His heirs were safe. The line of Durin would have returned to the Mountain, regardless." Gandalf sighed. "It would have been better for the kingship to pass to his nephews. Thorin's pride makes him a most dangerous king."

Bilbo patted the pouch, allowing a faint and careful smile to inch up his mouth, "I think that that, at least, is changing."

XXII.

Bilbo was dealing with the outbreak of chronic coughing in Budgeford when there was a whispered discussion at the entrance of Budgeford Hall, and after a while, young Wilibald ambled over to Bilbo just as he was starting to write out his prescription. "'Tis Miss Linda Baggins, sir," he said, as Bilbo tried to decide whether ashwort or bluetongue was better, "She says that begging your pardon, but there's a pair of dwarves a-stamping about Bag End, and if you do not come quick, there's 'bout to be Trouble with Mistress Took."

This last was said with a great degree of satisfaction and amusement, and around them, even old Master Bolger raised his chin from his rocking chair. Hastily, Bilbo finished scribbling his prescription, thrusting it at wrinkled old Ruby, the most sensible of the lot. "Thrice a day," he said quickly, "Everything can be bought at the marketplace. Don't follow me, please, you're all quite contagious, thank you."

He wasn't sure how quickly he ran all the way back from Budgeford to Bag End, but he was slightly out of breath by the time he staggered through his door, just in time to catch the tail end of what must have been a most impressive tirade. Certainly Fíli and Kíli seemed torn between looking startled and hunted, and they looked up at him with painful relief when he approached.

"Are they truly your friends, or are they burglars?" Belladonna demanded, without preamble. "Barging into your home like that, without even knocking at the door! Well, I never! They gave Paladin such a fright!" Behind the archway to the pantry, Paladin Took could be seen glancing out, and at Bilbo's arched eyebrow, he carefully and guiltily hid the heavy saucepan he had obviously picked up as a makeshift weapon away behind his back.

"Belladonna, this is Prince Fíli, and his brother Prince Kíli, of the line of Durin, heirs to Erebor," Bilbo said dryly, even as Fíli and Kíli bowed hastily. "At your service, Miss!"

"Princes?" Belladonna seemed unimpressed. "You would have thought that their mother would have taught them better! I suppose that they'll be staying for dinner?"

Fíli and Kíli nodded warily, then Fíli, clearly the smarter of the two, added, even more cautiously, "That is, if we're welcome to."

"Of course you are. Have some tea," Bilbo said hastily, dragging them towards the living room and settling them on armchairs. He sidled into the kitchen, but Paladin had already put the kettle on, and Belladonna was studying the pantry. "Um," he tried, a little awkwardly, "I can handle it from here."

"But it's me first turn at the roster," Paladin Took looked injured. "It took me forever to talk Belladonna into it! It be right awful how she don't trust her own kin, not us menfolk. It b'aint even as though we would nick anything, not from a wizard! I can make tea, Master Bilbo, I can."

"Er, right," Bilbo muttered, wilting under Paladin's earnest stare, and headed back to the living room, internalising a sigh. The Shire hobbits had taken Gandalf's instructions far more seriously than they really warranted, in his opinion, especially since he was stable now. But at least he'd persuaded them to leave him alone when he needed rest.

"Don't mind them," he told the princelings, who were still craning their necks about, trying to peek around as much of Bag End as they could while sitting still. "Continuing misunderstanding. How have the both of you been?"

"Good," Fíli said, just as Kíli muttered, "Awful," and the princelings glanced at each other before Fíli added, hopefully, "It would be better if you came back to Erebor."

"Didn't Gandalf explain?" Bilbo frowned.

"We have not heard from the Grey Wizard for nearly two months," Kíli pointed out. "The last message we got from him was that you were going to be all right. He sent one of the thrush folk to tell us."

Actually, that was very much like Gandalf, on hindsight. Now that Erebor was presumably stable, the Grey Wizard had characteristically lost all interest in it, consumed as he was with the problem of the Ring. "Have your people moved back to Erebor?"

"Mostly. Those who would return." Kíli said earnestly. "The place has been cleaned up and everything. It no longer smells of dragon."

"And Dale is being rebuilt with our help," Fíli chimed in. "Thorin had a long talk with Bard. They've even worked out new trade agreements."

"And he even thanked the Elves for their help," Kíli added, "So we were hoping-"

"-what with Uncle being very good and all-"

"-that you would come back to Erebor," Kíli finished, looking expectant. "You were going to, weren't you? The library's still there."

Bilbo felt frozen, almost distant, a slow ache starting to curl in his chest, and he smiled and shook his head. "I won't be going to Erebor."

"Why not?" Fíli demanded, "Are you still angry at Thorin? He's sorry about what he said, he is!"

"No, not in the least. I'll explain after dinner," Bilbo said firmly, and that made the hurt and the ache go away for a while, at least. "Tell me about the others. How is Balin?"

The princelings fidgeted most terribly throughout dinner, and helped Bilbo clear the plates with obvious impatience. The Tooks had gone home for the night, and the moon was out, a half moon, its light pale over the grass, as Bilbo finally picked up his staff from beside the door and stepped out of Bag End, beckoning to the princelings to follow him.

It was a long walk to the Homesteads, and Bilbo ignored the princes' questions all the way, walking briskly until they fell silent and simply kept in step, their usual curiosity making them stray now and then to look over at the occasional hobbit hole or closed shop, until they were finally at the smattering of trees and the end of the rolling fields that marked the beginning of the road to South Farthing.

Bilbo took a breath, as he felt the land shift a little uncertainly under his feet, and he took one step, and another, and a third before Fíli suddenly gasped. At that, he turned around, and held up the palm of his free hand, showed them the light of the moon through now-translucent flesh, before he took the few steps back onto the land of the Shire. The princes gripped his shoulders, as though to check that he was whole, and it was Kíli whose eyes were now bright with unshed tears.

"Now you see," Bilbo said, as gently as he could, and it was Fíli who let out a low moan and crushed him close. "Hush! It is not as bad as you think. This is my home," Bilbo patted Fíli's shoulder. "It has been my home for a long time; I love the land, and it loves me - my magic that lies in its bones is all that holds me here now. I should have liked to see Erebor new again," he admitted, "But we survived - we all survived. That is as good an end as I should like."

"We could ask Gandalf," Kíli said, sounding dispirited, "Or the Elves."

"You would find no answers there, nor do I need them." Bilbo drew the pouch from within his jacket. "Take the Arkenstone back to Thorin. It belongs above his throne, not here."

"That stays with you until he says otherwise." Fíli shook his head.

"Didn't Balin go on about how it was a symbol of the Durin line's right to rule?" Bilbo, however, smiled to himself as he pocketed the pouch again.

"I think that the great big dragon's head that we put up over the Gate is the only symbol that we need," Kíli drawled, with a forced trace of good humour, exchanging a glance with his brother, and carefully, Fíli nudged at Bilbo's shoulders, turning them back towards Bag End.

The princelings stayed on for a few days, and at the end of it, their sunny natures were back in full force. "We'll visit again," Fíli promised, as they prepared to mount their ponies.

"We'll get the others to come, too," Kíli added, just as earnestly.

"They would be welcome," Bilbo said, as he waved. "Tell them that tea is at four!"

XXIII.

Balin came by once, and Bofur, and Ori, Dori and Nori, and once, rather to Bilbo's surprise, even Dwalin. The dwarves of the Blue Mountains had resettled in Erebor, and were growing prosperous through trade with the newly rebuilt Dale; the marketplace of Dale was again a marvellous thing. Ori had brought drawings and sketches, if a little shyly, and these Bilbo carefully pressed together in a book. They were windows into another life.

It was nearing summer, the days growing warmer, and Bilbo began to enjoy sitting on his beechwood bench in the sun again, smoking, his eyes closed to the world and his feet warm in the grass under his feet. It was on one such day, when Bilbo was quietly turning his mind towards the minor spring fever problem in the Shire, when Thorin said mildly, just beyond his gate, "Good morning."

Bilbo nearly fumbled his pipe, and ended up coughing, his eyes snapping open. Thorin - Thorin had to gall to smirk faintly at his shock; the dwarven king was alone, and had a touch more silver in his hair, but otherwise, he looked almost the same as Bilbo last remembered him, with Orcrist at his belt and gold looped mail under his furs. "Why are you wearing furs in summer?" Bilbo asked, blinking, his mouth saying the first thing on his mind, then he remembered himself and started to his feet. "Thorin! It is good to see you. What are you doing here?"

"Visiting," Thorin began, then he suddenly began to frown, and Bilbo turned around, just in time to see Primula peek out of Bag End at them, then she grinned with a touch of Tookish curiosity and began to waddle carefully out of the door.

The flush of pregnancy had not stopped Primula from insisting on a regular place on the admittedly now fairly relaxed roster, although he'd had to forbid Drogo from coming around the place at the same time - the two still acted like newlyweds and sometimes gave him a headache, what with all the clucking about and carrying on; one would think that they were still younglings.

"More dwarven visitors?" Primula drew up beside him, looking Thorin over pertly, seemingly not put off in the least by the distant, nearly cold stare that he returned at her.

Thanking the Valar that at least Thorin's first exposure to Hobbitish hospitality had not been at the sharp end of Belladonna's tongue, Bilbo introduced, "Prim, this is Thorin Oakenshield. Thorin, this is Primula Brandybuck, who did me a great favour during that business that I was recalled to Beorn's house for."

"It wasn't that great a favour," Primula corrected, though she beamed with pleasure.

"I remember that," Thorin's tone remained flat, clearly intending to be disagreeable after all, and Bilbo's bright pleasure at seeing him again began to wilt a little.

"Prim, why don't you go and check on Belladonna for me," Bilbo said quickly, before Primula's sunny Brandybuck nature towards strangers switched towards a more Tookish temper at Thorin's pointedly rude disinterest. "See if the swelling on her ankle's going down."

"All right, Master Bilbo," Primula said, with a doubtful glance between Bilbo and Thorin's stormy expression. "Pleased to meet you I'm sure, Master Thorin," she added, if a little more self-consciously, and let herself out of the gate, making her slow way down through towards the Smials.

Thorin watched her go, and there was something of anger in his expression, in the hard set to his jaw, and concerned now, Bilbo said, with a little forced humour, "Hobbits aren't quite the sort for greeting royalty, and if the word had gone out, I'll have all the children besieging my gate to try and get a look at a 'real' king."

Thorin's mood didn't seem assuaged by this; instead, Thorin asked, in the same, flat tone, "Am I intruding?"

"No, of course not," Bilbo assured him, if uncomfortably, "Come on in. I'll put the kettle on."

Bilbo had come back to the living room after putting on the kettle to boil, only to find that Thorin had wandered off, and was studying the now battered list of names that had been pinned openly to the mantlepiece - the roster, kept in Belladonna's scrawled and barely legible handwriting. Her nieces' names had all been printed in advance, particularly her favourites, despite her open denials of showing cronyism; the rest of the spots were occasionally crossed out, or crabbed in at the edges.

"What is this?" Thorin asked, brusque.

"A roster. It isn't quite necessary any longer, I think. The hobbits are the children of the land," Bilbo struggled to explain, when Thorin's frown deepened, "They are part of it, even if they do not know it, for they have lived on it and tilled it and loved it for as long as I have. They were part of how Gandalf helped the land to anchor me here. When I was asleep, there was always one of them with me, to talk to me. It isn't quite necessary now," Bilbo repeated, in a grumble, "I'm quite well, and I see a lot of them on my usual rounds. They help with the housekeeping nowadays, usually."

"Ah." Thorin straightened up, and to Bilbo's surprise, the dwarven king actually seemed faintly embarrassed. "So Primula is..."

When Thorin's voice trailed off, Bilbo finally realized what the true nature of the misunderstanding had been, of the jealous nature of the dwarves, and he began to laugh; he laughed until Thorin rolled his eyes, until the dwarven king began to scowl again and the kettle started to whistle. "I'll go and get that," Bilbo managed to gasp out, and was about to head towards the kitchen when Thorin dragged him over by his arm and pinned him to the wall instead, beside the mantlepiece; the kiss was tentative at first, a brush of lips over lips that turned to hunger when Bilbo whined deep in his throat and clutched at Thorin's shoulders, sinking his fingers into the furs.

"I should get that kettle," Bilbo murmured, his voice husky and almost unrecognisable by the time Thorin could be persuaded to let up, but Thorin merely nipped at his jaw and growled, "Where is your bedroom?"

"Now?" Bilbo yelped, and then tried, a more halfhearted, "The door is wide open-" before Thorin turned a nuzzle against his neck to a bite, then worked lips and tongue into a filthy, possessive kiss over the mark high above his collar, and then he was gasping, "Oh, um, here," and they were stumbling awkwardly backwards, shedding belts and Bilbo's waistcoat and Thorin's furs and baldric and his mail shirt on the way with awfully casual carelessness.

Bilbo felt like he should object, somehow, but his blood felt as though it was burning, as though he would dare anything, now, as he nipped at Thorin's mouth and swallowed the dwarven king's choked oath with a laugh. They nearly tripped over the step before his bed, and Bilbo straddled Thorin's lap and tangled his hands in his thick mane and kissed him until Thorin gave up trying to navigate the buckles on his large furred boots and growled and pulled at Bilbo's clothes instead with impatient fingers.

He had started to unbutton his shirt, batting away Thorin's hands, when Thorin pulled off his own padded undershirt, and Bilbo was promptly distracted, tracing first the old scar that sliced down past his right shoulder, then he pressed his palm to the unmarked spot high on Thorin's chest, where the first spear had pierced him through. "No damage," Bilbo murmured, relieved. "Good."

When he looked up, however, Thorin's gaze was so intense that it seemed to burn; there was fury there, somehow, fury and grief and something like a black fear, or regret, and then Thorin was upon him again, rolling them both, pinning Bilbo on the bed and climbing over him; the kiss was rough with the angry thrust of Thorin's tongue into his mouth, but big hands clung to his shoulders as though to hold him down, as though desperate to never let him go again. Gently, tenderly, Bilbo stroked his fingers down from thick hair to the bristling brush of sideburns to Thorin's cheeks, and Thorin let out a raw sound between them, a wounded sound, almost like a sob.

They kissed again with the weight of Thorin over him, with the hard heat of something - arousal, Bilbo realized, dizzy with novel lust and dazed - against Bilbo's thigh, and they ground and rut against each other tentatively at first, then with greater hungry fervour, until Thorin broke from Bilbo with a harsh gasp and dragged at Bilbo's trews with angry impatience. Bilbo pulled Thorin's hands back up to his shoulders, and navigated laces and buttons with shaking hands, tugging until they were both bared enough to have hard flesh lined against each other, and Thorin spit into his palm, reaching between them to grasp them both.

Bilbo sucked in a tight breath, bucking, wide-eyed, drowning he thought, at how Thorin leaned back on the elbow of his free hand and watched him writhe and moan as though committing him as fiercely as he could to memory, trying to carve him into his soul to keep him there, desire in a hot and heavy pulse through their tangled limbs and bodies, in the rub and thrust of their arousals and the wet slick between them. Bilbo had his nails in Thorin's back, scratching down, bleeding him, and Thorin had bit down in return, high on the other side of his neck, growling, his growl turning into a moan as Bilbo fumbled down to fit his hand under Thorin's, around them both, squeezing tentatively and pulling against Thorin's rhythm, then again there was that raw and wounded sound, and Thorin was spilling against him in hot, thick spurts.

Dazed, Bilbo nearly jerked back in his surprise, but Thorin's hands were holding him in place; and the dwarven king had pinned him with his stare, that angry, wild and wounded look, as he shifted back and bent down over Bilbo's soiled and still flushed cock and belly and started to lick him clean, ignoring Bilbo's gasp of shock and fingers tugging into his hair. Thorin closed his mouth over the fleshy head only when Bilbo was clean, by the Valar, filthy as that had been Bilbo was trembling uncontrollably now, his breaths in shaking sobs broken into languages that he barely remembered, and when Thorin sucked lightly he was spent, with a fractured cry wrung from his throat.

The taste of Thorin's mouth was uncomfortably bitter, but Bilbo licked into it anyway, in dazed bewildered pleasure, feeling catlike and snug now and warm in the ebb of lust between them. Thorin curled against him and pressed a palm over his belly, fingers splayed, even as Bilbo belatedly tried to check the scabbing marks on Thorin's back.

"Leave it," Thorin muttered, his voice hoarse, as he dragged Bilbo back down firmly, and then he was dozing, probably exhausted from his long journey after all, pressing the heave of his chest against Bilbo's flank, and he didn't wake, even when Bilbo squirmed over to brush his lips over Thorin's forehead.

He fit his palm against Thorin's chest again, and smiled to himself, a secretive and careful smile, a soft one. It was good to know that the Grey Wizard couldn't always understand the whys of everything. Bilbo's magic had been his to give, and to Thorin he had given it gladly and with all his heart. That, Bilbo thought, as he settled back down more comfortably, that was how wizards loved, and this was all that it should be.

Chapter Text

.Thorin

1.0.

At the heart of ruined Dale was a bell tower, the bell rusted and shattered on the cobblestones, the tower teetering on the verge of collapse, and Thorin bent at the gleam of something in the rubble, and picked up a child's doll, the stuffing long rotted, only the gilt of the buckle on its clothes still intact.

Around them, Bard's Men and some of the Elves were helping to finally sort and bury the dead of Dale, in the land beyond the River Running, along with freshly dug graves for those who had fallen in battle. Bard was running a hand over the bell, over the faded inscriptions upon it, the angular script.

"This is in the dwarven language, is it not?" Bard asked, his tone neutral. The truce between them was an unsteady one still, forged from battle, but the weight of their bitter words before it remained still, haunting them.

What did that matter now? It seemed an ill and petty thing, compared to what had been lost. He had lost Bilbo. "It is in Khuzdul, yes. An old blessing, wishing the people of Dale good health and good fortune. It was a gift from my grandfather to your people; I was here when it was raised into the tower."

"What was Dale like?"

"Noisy," Thorin said curtly, then he forced himself to gentle his words. "I was young. It was my first visit to Dale in any capacity. I met your King. He was a good man," Thorin recalled, if vaguely now; he hadn't had very much of a memory of Dale, only fleeting impressions. His father Thráin had been the one usually tasked with diplomatic visits; save for hunts and visits to neighboring dwarven cities, Thorin did not usually leave Erebor - he had been considered far too young then.

"It was the first time you had come to a city of Men?" Bard was smiling, a lopsided smile - it wasn't mocking, Thorin supposed, with a slight frown - then he realized belatedly that it was the way one would smile between friends, playfully, with harmless amusement. Curious. "Everyone must have seemed over-tall."

"We were made for the mountains and the stone. You for the open air," Thorin shrugged, as he bent to carefully place the doll back where he had found it. "When the dragon came, neither mattered. Not race or age."

"No." Bard was sober again, and grim. "Not to the dragon. Where is the body?"

"Still in my treasure halls." There was a logistical problem there, if a minor one.

"Display its skull over your door," Bard suggested, a little fiercely. "Let all see that it is slain."

Thorin eyed Bard for a moment, raising a brow at the heat of his words, then he nodded, if slowly. The line of Dale too had a claim on the dragon's blood. "So it will be. And it would be fitting if it looked out towards a new city of Dale," Thorin added quietly, padding over to the bell, wiping his palm across its surface, smearing dust. "If you are yet interested in returning."

Bard had gone still. "A swift change of heart, O King."

"I have been awarded some... perspective," Thorin allowed, if flatly, and thankfully, Bard merely bowed his head, and said nothing at all about Bilbo, or the Gray Wizard, or the eagle that had borne them away. "We will help you rebuild, if you wish. Negotiate the old trade agreements. Let the blood that has been spilled between our cities not be in vain."

"I will speak to my people," Bard promised, though he smiled, a slow and tentative smile. "But for me, it would be an honour to return to the home of my fathers. Let Dale and Erebor return to their strengths of old."

They shook hands gravely on it, as kings did, and went to bury their dead. There was a quiet peace to Dale now, Thorin felt, not the haunted blanket of death that he had sensed when he had first set foot into the ruined city. Perhaps there was some wisdom in softer ways.

2.0.

Roäc was a patient and formal creature, just as Thorin remembered the ravens of Ravenhill to be, but his son Thórc was sharply spoken and curt, quite the opposite, and if not for how swift the young raven was, and intelligent, Thorin would have had to have a word with his father.

"The Shire is a very long way away," Thórc said sourly, when Thorin called it down from Ravenhill and told it what he willed. "A very, very long way away to go to recite a love letter, O King, and one that is not even poetically written."

Thorin scowled at it. "What does a raven know of poetry? And besides, it is not a love letter."

"I know enough, and aye, that is exactly my point," Thórc retorted, shifting its weight on Thorin's bracer, its talons scratching over the gems. "Why would you send your beloved something so curt and formal and inelegant?"

"Because I want to send a missive, not a letter, or I would have brought something to tie to your foot-"

"Are we carrier pigeons now, O King? Have we been reduced to this?" The raven ruffled its feathers, and sounded even more morose.

"No-"

"So your message is to run, essentially, 'Have rebuilt Erebor and Dale. Bard is now King. Laketown has resettled into Dale. Trade commenced with the Elven King.' Anything else?"

"Why should there be anything else?"

"More of a laundry list than a love letter, eh?"

Thorin scowled at the raven, but it merely stared back at him with its beady black eyes, and eventually, Thorin exhaled angrily, and lowered his voice. "Tell him that I miss him," Thorin muttered, exasperated. "Are you happy now, raven?"

"Happy? Happiness is a warm and juicy carcass of something sweet and freshly dead," Thórc described, if ghoulishly. "Happiness is not flying across vast stretches of land to deliver the most ungracious love letter I have ever had the misfortune to hear."

"I will have a lamb brought up here on your return," Thorin offered, because he had learned something of diplomacy, if nothing else, since the Battle of the Five Armies, and now Thórc lifted its beak with new interest.

"I will return soon, then," Thórc stretched its wings, "Unless you should first like to consult, perhaps, the Elves currently visiting Dale. They may be able to help you with your diction, O King."

"Begone with you," Thorin snapped, irritated all over again, and the raven huffed at him before leaping up into the air.

The blasted raven had however fanned a small flicker of doubt in Thorin over the entire business of trying to communicate with Bilbo via messenger, and Thorin cursed under his breath as he climbed down the hill to his waiting pony. Yet if Bilbo could not leave the Shire, then that was the only recourse left to him.

He supposed that he could have dictated something longer to the raven, something personal, but courtly and gentle words were somewhat alien to his race, and besides, Thorin had given Bilbo the Arkenstone. Surely that was enough? Or at least, it would have been enough, if Bilbo was... mortal... and interested in the least in gold and gems...

Thorin sighed, and was in a black mood by the time he returned to Erebor. Having to deal with the usual disputes and settlements and court affairs of the day to day machinations of ruling only made his mood worse, and at the end of the day, only his sister Dís dared approach him, when he was in the balcony of his room, looking out over Erebor.

"I heard that you breathed fire today in court, brother," Dís said dryly, as she approached him to stand beside him at the balcony. As befit her rank, Dís wore a rich brocade patterned robe over her shoulders, and a hauberk of gold chain mail under it, tucked at her waist with a cunningly woven belt. Clasped at her hip were twin short-handled hammers, their dense heads patterned with runes, and a dagger was tucked into one of her capped boots.

"Some of the petitioners ought to think their petitions through before wasting my time."

"These have already all been culled by Balin," Dís pointed out gently, and touched his elbow with a firm but playful pinch, the way she had when they had been children with Frerin and had run wild in Erebor; she had dared pinch and wrestle and brawl with them, almost indistinguishable from the princelings save for her skirts, and these were always worn over breeches and boots, much to their father's amusement and their mother's despair. "What eats at you, brother?"

It was with ill grace that Thorin told her what the raven had said, and then he scowled at her when his sister started to fight a grin, with some success at first, then it spread over her mouth into a wide curve that touched at her eyes with merriment and mischief. "Leave me," he told her curtly, annoyed, but she smirked at him and shook her head.

"Over a wizard," Dís drawled, so archly that Thorin snapped, "He is not just a wizard!"

"Oh?" Dís shot back, but now Thorin refused to be baited, and he glared out at Erebor until his sister sighed, and curled her arms around his waist from behind, and pressed her cheek against his shoulder, into the furs. She stayed that way despite his irritated noises and unsubtle attempts to dislodge her, and when he gave in, with a grunt, she murmured, "I was so afraid that you would all perish. To the orcs, to the road, to the dragon. Then I would be truly alone in this world."

To that Thorin could say nothing, only awkwardly pat the hands clasped around him and wait; he could not tell his sister how he would have only allowed her sons to die if he had no breath left within him to prevent it, for that would have been ill comfort to her. "I had not wanted them to come," he reminded her finally, "Not both of them."

"As though either of us could have stopped them." Dís squeezed him gently, then added, in a firmer tone, "I should like to thank this wizard of yours for his help."

"Ride to the Shire?" Thorin asked, dubiously. "The road is not yet fully safe."

"Not by myself. I would not know the way. But in the meantime, I could help you with your raven problem."

"I do not have a raven problem. The raven is the one with a problem."

"We shall see."

3.0.

It had been young Ori's idea, to spend Durin's Day in the Shire, in a commemoration of all that they had achieved on that day. It had spread to his brothers, and from his brothers to Bofur, and from Bofur to the others, and finally from Fíli and Kíli to Balin, and by the time Balin had casually told Thorin about the entire Company's intention to make a trip down to the Shire to coincide with Durin's Day, he had felt rather annoyed that he had been the last to hear of it.

"You were busy," Balin reminded him; there had been a mining accident deep in the fifteenth shaft, and he had spent weeks reviewing plans and procedures with the foremen, in order to re-coordinate their safety procedures and shore up the old supports.

"I cannot spare the time to go," Thorin stated, which was the truth of it all, as much as he disliked it, and he was in a poor mood for the rest of the week as the others prepared to leave with far too much pomp and noise and ceremony, in his opinion, until Fíli and Kíli took to shuffling quietly around the royal estates whenever he was about.

"Of course you are going," Dís had the effrontery to tell him, when he finally complained to her about it. "I had a pony prepared for you."

"What-"

"If you do not go you will simply breathe fire for weeks until your Company returns and ruin any hope of any of us enjoying any peace during the Durin's Day festivities," Dís folded her arms firmly across her chest, chain mail jingling. "Go. I can run Erebor as regent in your stead, it will be fine. I can handle mining disputes and procedures as well as you can."

Thorin quarrelled with his sister most fiercely, but when she set her mind to something there was nothing that anyone could do to shift it, and eventually, she added, blithely, "Besides, I told Bilbo that you were going."

"How did you... have you been using the ravens by yourself again?"

"They are rather fond of me," Dís noted blandly, for she was a generous hand at bribery, and when Thorin glowered at her, she added innocently, twisting the knife, "Imagine how terribly disappointed he will be if you fail to show."

Convinced that his sister was some sort of evil changeling, yet again, it was a greatly annoyed Thorin who set out on the road with his Company. A day into their journey, however, he was feeling somewhat better about the whole endeavour, and by the time they reached Mirkwood and Thranduil's hospitality he supposed that he was starting to enjoy himself, even if there were Elves everywhere, and he was not quite sure if he should be encouraging or discouraging his nephews from swapping stories with the Elven prince. His truce with Thranduil was still rather stiff and formal, but it was progress - in a way.

Softer ways.

Beorn was inordinately pleased to see them again, even if that very strange wizard, Radagast, was having breakfast perched precariously on the fence of Beorn's paddock, and had eyed them with the startled wariness of a rabbit when they had trotted onto Beorn's grounds. Thorin had approached him afterwards, if only to try to be friendly, but the wizard had smiled at him, with a frozen rictus of a smile, and had scuttled away into the gloom of Mirkwood, muttering something darkly all the way about dwarves and hedgehog stews. Kíli had looked abashed.

Gandalf, of all people, was at Rivendell, and he raised his whiskery brow at them as they were escorted into the halls. "Why, it is Thorin and Company! Another adventure?"

"No," Thorin said instantly, even as Kíli declared, "To the Shire!" and had winced when his brother elbowed him.

"Visiting friends! A far better and gentler endeavour," Elrond said, approvingly, "Eat! Drink!"

"Why are you here?" Thorin asked Gandalf, afterwards, when the sun had dipped over the horizon, and they had walked away from the feasting pavilion to a circular dais that overlooked the falls. There was a small, circular stone table at the centre of it, like an altar, but it was smooth and cold to the touch and held nothing.

"Seeking advice," Gandalf admitted, then he smiled, whiskery and amused and secretive. "Wizard business."

"I hate that phrase," Thorin muttered, folding his hands behind his back as he looked at the falls.

"Ah, but a most necessary sort of business, I am afraid." Gandalf had settled down on a bench, and was preparing to light his pipe, though where even Bilbo would use a match, a flame flickered up over the tip of Gandalf's fingers.

Thorin watched the first puff of smoke, then the first smoke ring as it curled and twisted into a bird, and he said, quietly, "You would have preferred it if I had died."

Gandalf raised an eyebrow, though he did not deny it. "I did not think that Bilbo should have spent his magic so. You are mortal, Thorin Oakenshield, as much as I am fond of you and your line. Sooner or later, you will pass from these lands. Your flesh will turn to dust, then your bones, but we - if the Valar so wish it - we will yet be here."

"You think that it was a waste?"

"I thought that you were in a particularly good position to waste his gift," Gandalf agreed, amused now, "But I am beginning to change my mind."

"You are?" Thorin was surprised.

"I am beginning to," Gandalf repeated, irritating as ever, and breathed out another smoke ring, that turned into a little dragon that flickered into ash. "I feel that a great storm is coming," Gandalf said finally, when Thorin frowned at him. "A storm that will need all that is good on this earth to resist it, and now one of my kind is bound to a small piece of land that stands betwixt here and nothing very much at all."

"Can it be undone?" Thorin dared to ask then, dared to voice the question he had buried deep within him. "Can it be reversed?" When Gandalf merely raised both eyebrows at him, Thorin growled, "Should he need to leave the Shire-"

"Magic does not quite work that way, not ours," Gandalf interrupted, though he seemed pleased that Thorin had asked - good humour had returned to his eyes. "Perhaps the storm may be weathered without Bilbo. And the North stands strong again, with Dale and Erebor. Hum! It is a good trade, perhaps."

"You speak as though we are pawns," Thorin snapped, accusingly.

"That would imply a certain degree of detachment," Gandalf sniffed, unimpressed. "And I assure you that is not the case, Thorin. But there are matters in this world beyond just one dwarven kingdom, or a little Shire."

"What matters?"

"Of that I am still thinking. And looking." Gandalf smiled, exasperatingly and unnecessarily mysterious about it all. "But for now your part in this particular adventure is quite finished, and be glad about it. Do pass Bilbo my kindest and warmest regards."

4.0.

The Shire did not quite need much of an excuse to throw a party, it seemed, even for festivals that they had never heard of, and as much as it was obvious that they had most likely done it for a small part to please their wizard and for a large part to get roaringly drunk, it was quite pleasant, even when his nephews began to dance on tables.

It was not conduct befitting royalty, in Thorin's opinion, but he was feeling mellow, what with having had quite a bit of ale to drink and having Bilbo in his arms; the wizard was laughing and clapping with the rest of the dwarves and the hobbit-folk, and as Thorin took the distraction as a chance to press a lick and a nip over the back of Bilbo's neck and feel him gasp and shudder, he had a little presence of mind to silently bless his sister and her impulses.

What had originally begun as lust tangled with curiosity over the very strange and new addition to his Company had turned quickly to infatuation and then to something far more, to the particular sickness of the dwarves, who could only love furiously and jealously, unyielding as the stone - and then something had changed, as though the wizard's gentle fingers had plucked a chord within him that ran soul deep, and sometimes he missed the simplicity of before, when he had only wanted. Now-

"Can we go elsewhere?" Thorin murmured against the shell of Bilbo's ear before he tugged lightly at it, and the wizard's laugh shook against him, warm and rich and delicious.

"We'll be noticed."

"Let them notice."

"I know a place," Bilbo tipped his head up with a secretive and playful smile that Thorin had to taste, and it was a much more flushed wizard that was finally let up from against Thorin's hip. They slipped away when Kíli dragged a loudly protesting Ori up onto the table beside them, and Thorin found himself being pulled through the chilly night air towards a distant forest, until the trees had swallowed the revelry behind them, until he heard the laughing rush of a river, snaking somewhere beyond them.

Bilbo pressed him down, then, in the soft hollow of a tree that wrapped its thick roots in a gentle curve to either side of them, laughed as Thorin growled and clawed his fingers into the hem of Bilbo's waistcoat. "Don't tug!" Bilbo warned him, if with another kiss and a teasing nip, "I shan't ever find the buttons in the dark."

"You wear far too many clothes," Thorin retorted in response, though he managed with only slightly trembling fingers to navigate the buckle of Bilbo's belt in the light of the moon, trying to ignore how the wicked creature in his lap purred and rolled his hips luxuriously against his tightening breeches. Bilbo seemed intent on making Thorin do all the work, trailing a torturous line of nips and suckling kisses up against his neck instead as Thorin cursed and finally managed to shuck Bilbo's trews. Bilbo smiled pertly and invitingly at him as Thorin pressed his thumb between the crease of his rump, stroking against the wet from the afternoon, the stretched heat of muscle; still he pressed in his fingers, even as Bilbo moaned and scrabbled at his shoulders and snapped his head back, a gorgeous wanton thing.

Fingers deftly undid his breeches, pushing them down just enough to greedily draw out his cock; it filled to its full girth under clever fingers, but Thorin hesitated when Bilbo leaned back from him with a distant look of concentration. "No oil-"

"You cannot hurt me, Thorin," Bilbo promised him, and beyond even the province of lust there was a gentleness to his tone that scored another meaning beneath even that, with the press of eternity and something beyond flesh. With that Thorin spat on his palm and reached between them, then pulled him down, to take his mouth and hold him still, grasping and clutching for him, then biting down on his own lip with a gasp as Bilbo smiled and squeezed his eyes shut and lowered himself down to fill himself tight, open-mouthed, the first moan from his kiss-swollen lips shocked and hungry.

Thorin had wanted this urgent, but in the clench and heat of Bilbo's body he could find only tenderness, and he forgot the chill behind them and the bite of the bark against his shoulder as he set his hands on Bilbo's hips and let Bilbo rock against him, slow and unhurried, with that beautiful lazy curl to his lush mouth as they kissed and kissed again until Bilbo twisted a little against him with a low and shaky groan.

It was sharper then, harder; Thorin's nails bit into Bilbo's hips, bruising him, perhaps, as Bilbo rode him with desperate urgent snaps of his hips, to finally let go with a wail as Thorin panted against his neck and leaned up to bite down on the lobe of his ear. He ground as deep as he could with a moan, his heels digging into the grass and pushing the fresh sharp scent of soil against the air, and Bilbo braced his hands over his furs, his smile brilliant as he rolled his hips, slow and maddening until Thorin was shaking and lost against him.

"Happy Durin's Day," Bilbo said later, when they had cleaned up as well as they could and were watching the river rush past, a black and silver ribbon under the moon.

Thorin said nothing, until Bilbo turned in his lap, his back upright, and this close to the boundary of his world, his skin was ethereal and unworldly. Thorin had hated it at first, hated what he had done, what the both of them had done, that had shackled Bilbo to this land so far from Erebor, but today on the cusp of Durin's Day he felt something like a deep chord, strung wide, poised to change; he leaned up to kiss Bilbo gently over the forehead, then over his eyes, and lashes fluttered shut against him.

"Happy Durin's Day," he echoed in a whisper, and Bilbo smiled, slow and secretive and bright; through his brow the eternal midnight sky had crowned his head with stars.