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Ink Will Have to Do

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Bilbo Baggins sneezed again, turning over his pillow to try and find a cool spot. He supposed it was pleasant to have a pillow again, and a very fine feather pillow at that, after weeks of sleeping on the ground or worse, skulking about invisible in elvish dungeons. Unfortunately, he ached all over and his nose was running terribly, and in general he was feeling shockingly low despite having gotten all thirteen dwarves safely to Laketown.

Ori took his flute from his lips and leaned forward in his chair. "Is there anything I can get you, Mr. Baggins? Some more water? Perhaps some hot tea? Shall I fluff your pillow?"

"No thank you," Bilbo croaked. Perhaps the most disorienting thing about arriving in Laketown had been the change in the dwarves' attitude toward him since he had rescued them from the dungeons of the Elvenking. At times they seemed to think he could do no wrong, and that with Mr. Baggins' help they would somehow simply waltz into Erebor and and slay the dragon before breakfast some morning.

Their faith in Mr. Baggins was rather touching; Bilbo just wished he shared it.

Ori went back to playing the flute, and Bilbo closed his eyes and tried not to think what being burned alive would feel like. At least it would be faster than being roasted slowly by fever, the thought, shivering with yet another chill.

The door swung open and Bilbo heard Ori scrambling to his feet. "I was just--"

"--I know what you're doing," growled the voice of Thorin Oakenshield. "Did you think I was unaware the rest of you were taking shifts to keep an eye on our burglar? Even if you didn't see fit to inform me."

Ori stammered something inarticulate.

"Well, you are done," boomed Thorin as Bilbo rolled over and blinked bleary, gummy eyes at the figure in the door. "I'll be taking your place." Apparently something in Ori's expression displeased Thorin, and his scowl deepened. "Does everyone think I'm too proud to spend some time watching over an ailing comrade?"

"Well--"

Thorin's eyes narrowed. "Begone, and take your shrill flute with you," he growled.

"Yes sir, Mr. Thorin sir!" stammered poor Ori, gathering his things up with a great racket and bolting out the door.

"I rather liked his flute," rasped Bilbo. "And Bofur's merry clarinet. Even Bombur's little drums are rather pleasant. Do you so dislike music, then?"

Thorin glowered down at him. "I am no stranger to making music," he said, "But I do not have my instrument with me."

"You play an instrument?" Bilbo couldn't help but feel curious even though his illness. "What do you play?"

But Thorin merely shook his head and rested a heavy hand on Bilbo's forehead, brushing back his hair. His hand was cool as living stone, and Bilbo sighed with the pleasure of it against his fevered brow.

Thorin pulled back his hand. "Get some rest," he said. "And let me know if you have need of anything. Despite what some in our party may think, I am not so high and mighty I cannot aid a companion."

Then he sat down and Bilbo drifted in and out of a shallow sleep, riddled with fever. Half-awake, struggling toward full consciousness, he felt somehow that there was a great weight on his chest, crushing him: a heavy golden pressure, implacably malign. He struggled to sit up as a foully sweet voice whispered in his ear, sibilant syllables he could nearly understand. "No, no," he stammered. "I don't want to hear you, I don't, I don't," and he tried to cover his ears but his hands wouldn't move the way he told them to, they were scrabbling for his waistcoat pocket--

"Wake up, Hobbit! Burglar!" A great voice was calling him, a voice like horns, cutting through the vile mist that clung to his mind. "Wake up! Bilbo!"

Thorin's voice pulled him out of his dream with a gasp as if he were breaking out of deep water, and he shook himself all over like a dog. Thorin's hands were on his shoulders, and his eyes were wide and wild.

"Oh!" gasped Bilbo. "I'm--I'm all right now. Thank you very much."

"You were--" Thorin broke off and stood up once more, looking away. "I could not wake you."

"I'm all right now," Bilbo repeated, trying to sound like he meant it.

Thorin made a harrumphing sound, bending to pick up something from the floor. Bilbo looked over the edge of the bed and saw vellum sheets and writing implements scattered about in disarray, as if someone had thrown them aside in great haste. From an exposed corner of one sheet he saw a familiar face: Balin's, his eyes wise and gentle. "Oh!" said Bilbo in surprise. "What is--"

A large hand slapped his aside as he reached down for the scroll, and Thorin scooped up the jumble of papers into a messy pile. Putting them on the chair out of Bilbo's reach, he began to pick up the quills and pencils that were lying about. Bilbo looked expectantly at him, but he said nothing.

"Are you...drawing?" Bilbo finally said.

"I was until some hobbit started thrashing around like he was dying and broke my concentration," Thorin said gruffly.

"Well, I certainly beg your pardon for my terrible lapse in manners," Bilbo shot back. Thorin picked up the sheaf of drawings, sat down and began to look through them, setting them in order. He didn't look at Bilbo. "I never thought of drawing as a very...dwarf thing to do, if you'll forgive my saying so. Ori aside, of course."

Thorin made a grumbling noise. "We are engineers and builders, burglar. Drawing is part of the process."

"But portraits--and if I may say so, such beautiful portraits!" Bilbo exclaimed. "Why, you captured Balin to the very life, I swear!"

Thorin glared at him as though he suspected Bilbo of joking, but then his expression softened slightly. "Do you really think so?"

"I most certainly do. Do you have more finished? I would love to see them."

Thorin leafed through the vellum and produced another sheet, turning it so Bilbo could see Dwalin's fierce expression and keen eyes. "That's perfect!" Bilbo said, clapping his hands involuntarily.

Thorin grunted and shuffled through the vellum to show a picture of Dori. "I'm not content with his braids," he said as Bilbo complimented it. "Lots of detail work there."

"But...why exactly are you doing this now?" Bilbo asked. "I should think you'd be busy with preparations for Erebor."

Thorin was silent for a moment, looking at different pieces of parchment. Without looking at Bilbo, he said, "It is traditional, before a great battle, for warriors to be commemorated in some way, in preparation for our death. Usually we do it in stone, of course. But we have no stone, and little time. So ink will have to do." His blunt fingers touched the vellum like a caress. "It is a poor memorial for a dwarf. But I can give them no better."

Bilbo lay back on his pillow with a little gasp. "Oh," he said. "I'm--so relieved."

Thorin frowned. "What?"

"I don't know, everyone seems so certain that I'm going to find some way to get by this dragon, and, um, I guess it's just good to know that I'm not the only person who's worried that maybe, er, we might not, you know--"

"I know," said Thorin. His mouth twitched. "I'm sure it will cheer you greatly, then, to know that I do not like our odds at all."

Bilbo cast him a dubious look, unsure whether he was joking. "Well, yes, that's--that's quite a comfort," he said uncertainly. Then a thought occurred to him. "So, am I--" He gestured at the sheaf of parchment, "--I mean, have you, um..."

Thorin frowned and pulled the papers out of reach. "It is a dwarf custom, not a hobbit custom. Besides, the lack of a beard, the different proportions..." He shook his head, scowling. "Too difficult."

"Oh," said Bilbo, feeling somehow deflated. "I see."

Thorin cleared his throat again and picked out a piece of vellum on which Bilbo could see a partially-finished Ori smiling out, then brandished a pencil and began to work on it. Bilbo watched him for a while: the fierce concentration in his eyes, the way the pencil stroked the vellum. At some point he drifted off to sleep, the gentle sound of scratching like a shield against bad dreams.

When he awoke, Thorin Oakenshield was gone and Bombur was bringing him breakfast.

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The Battle of the Five Armies was finished, and carrion crows were feasting over the slopes of the Lonely Mountain. Balin's body was battered and sore, but the wounds of his body were nothing compared to the wounds of his spirit. Yet there was little time to grieve; there were treaties to sign, after all, and discussions of succession and apportionment of spoils, and one old dwarf with a broken heart was a small enough matter.

And so the morning after Thorin Oakenshield's death found him bending over a small figure huddled in a corner of Erebor's great hall. "Bilbo," he said softly.

He flinched when the hobbit looked up at him and through him. After a moment the bleak eyes focused and Bilbo Baggins rasped, "Balin." Then he put his head back down on his knees. "I am so sorry," Balin heard him choke.

Balin sat down next to him on the stone floor and put one arm around him, and for a long time they sat in Erebor, listening to ghosts both merry and stern pass by them.

"I am here," Balin said at last, "To discuss your portion of the treasure." He felt Bilbo start to shake his head and tightened his arm around the hobbit. "Of course, the amount remaining is much reduced, but you are still due a percentage of what is left to us. One-eleventh, to be precise." Bilbo said nothing. "Bilbo Baggins," Balin said at last, "It would ease my heart if you were to come and take your share."

At that Bilbo gave a great gulping sniff and nodded, as Balin had known he would.

Together they went to the treasure-hall of Erebor.

The elves and the men of Laketown had claimed much of the gold; at this point Balin wished them well of it, for it had brought nothing but pain to his people. What remained was heaped up in a corner, along with the battle gear of the party.

Bilbo walked aimlessly around the great shining trove, sometimes picking up a goblet and putting it back down, sometimes a shining necklace. His eyes didn't seem to see any of it.

After a while, Balin said gently, "Bilbo, I thought perhaps you should see this."

Going to Thorin's gear, he pulled out a vellum scroll and held it out.

Bilbo merely looked at the piece of parchment in his hand for a long time, making no move to take it. Then he reached out and slowly unrolled it, the vellum rattling slightly in his hands.

Balin knew already what he saw on it: a hobbit's face in pencil and ink, gazing out of the parchment. It was unfinished, the shoulders just lightly sketched, but the hair had been drawn with painstaking detail, each lock given careful attention, and the eyes were both brave and worried at the same time. The parchment was slightly wrinkled, as though someone had crumpled it and then carefully, meticulously smoothed it back out.

And across one corner was a spattering of dark red smudges.

"Aye, lad," said Balin when Bilbo looked up at him, "He carried it with him."

"Ah," said Bilbo. And then once more: "Ah."

He gazed at the scroll a long time, and Balin saw him touch the dark stains with fingers that shook slightly. Then he nodded. "I'll take this," he said.

"And your share of the treasure?"

Bilbo smiled, and his eyes were sad. "I've claimed all I need. This is worth more than everything in this hall," he said.

Balin put a hand on his shoulder. "Aye," he said. "That it is."