Granted, in the four decades of his life to date Bilbo was no stranger to abject humiliation by any means, if only because he had always been vertically challenged and had been forced to go through the cruel gauntlet that was state school, but he was fairly sure that where the British were concerned, this particular episode was quite possibly, as it were, forging new horizons in the wide sea of utter mortification.
"He doesn't mind," Gandalf arched his whiskery gray eyebrows with an expression of innocent surprise. He had trailed behind Bilbo to the bedroom, leaning against the doorway while Bilbo hastily buttoned up his best shirt. "After all, the hour is late, and I did not call ahead to notify you that we were coming."
"Yes, why didn't you call ahead?" Bilbo hissed, "I could have appreciated a text, even, maybe along the lines of 'Dear William Robert Baggins, I will in an hour or so be bringing along some scions of East European royalty, so please ensure that the kettle is on and you are appropriately dressed'?"
"I never text," Gandalf drawled, and held up two long-fingered, bony hands in supplication when Bilbo bristled and briefly considered the ambit of justifiable homicide. "This is a rather unusual situation, old friend, and we've had to go to some great lengths to come to your apartment without being followed. In the circumstances, propriety is rather something of an intellectual exercise, isn't it?"
Bilbo exhaled explosively, as he threaded through his cufflinks. "I suppose... oh, well, then, um," he muttered, as he cleared his throat, "I think I've seen the pictures after the... but they really are royalty?"
"Technically, exiled royalty, but the designate applies. King Thorin of Erebor, Crown Prince Fíli and Prince Kíli, all of the House of Durin."
"How am I meant to address them?" Bilbo asked nervously. "Sir? Your Majesty?"
"Well, by name, of course," Gandalf's eyebrows rose again, though out of evil amusement this time. When the mind was decaying from age, Bilbo thought sourly, it usually either ran towards intricate shades of malice or a frumpy, vague benevolence, and Gandalf had always been well-versed in the former. "They won't object. What are titles between friends? Come. That should be the kettle."
Bilbo was still painfully self-conscious when he seated himself at the small table of his humble kitchen after pouring out the tea, but thankfully, Thorin didn't even seem to notice. It was quite easy to believe that Thorin was royalty - he had a powerful set to his broad shoulders, and keenly arresting eyes; a firm cast to his jaw that was almost cruel, on the verge of marring otherwise elegantly handsome features. He had a neatly trimmed beard and oddly long hair that fell in a thick mane to his shoulders, and he wore a beautifully cut charcoal gray suit and a white shirt. In strange contrast to his clothes, on his ring finger was a large silver ring with a lattice over a huge precious gem, an oddly barbaric note to a picture of carefully groomed power.
Royalty, but not so much of the Sunday-best-waving-in-a-horse-carriage sort, as the seemingly harmless breed of British monarchy tended to lean towards, but more of the off-with-his-head, why-yes-I-have-a-medieval-dungeon type, Bilbo felt gloomily. It would just be his luck.
Thorin's heirs - his nephews - looked no different from other boys around their age, keenly curious and seemingly eternally good natured. There was something about their uncle in Fíli's jaw and Kíli's eyes and hair, but other than that they could have passed as any teenager on the street, dressed in jeans and shirts, exuberant to the point of being childlike. Thorin arched an eyebrow when Bilbo offered them some biscuits, but there was something rather amusing in watching the level of chocolate chip cookies dwindle steadily in the glass jar. Royalty or not, kids would be kids.
"This location is secure?" Thorin was asking Gandalf, his accented English harsh and guttural, almost Germanic.
"We weren't followed, and I doubt that anyone knows of this place."
"Surely MI6 has a more appropriate safehouse. I do not approve of unnecessarily involving civilians."
Gandalf sighed, even as Bilbo stared sharply at Gandalf, astonished. "MI6? You?"
When asked about his profession, Gandalf had always mentioned something or other about being self-employed in the 'publishing business' before he had retired to become an occasionally cranky fixture in the coffee shop that Bilbo tended to frequent for breakfast; one of the various friendly faces that Bilbo had become used to in Staffordshire. They spoke on occasion now and then, and Gandalf sometimes visited during tea, but Bilbo had never had particular cause to make enough of their friendship to harbor much curiosity about who Gandalf had been prior to his quiet retirement.
Even now, Bilbo couldn't quite summon the imagination to picture Gandalf in a sleek black and white suit, or anything out of the shapeless gray shirts and trousers that he tended to favour, their uniform monotony broken up occasionally by equally faded dull cardigans, an ode to the slow death of good taste. Along with the constant lingering scent of good tobacco and chamomile about him, Gandalf had always seemed to be the very picture of a harmless elderly retiree, if one disregarded his sharp tongue and prying nature.
Gandalf harrumphed at his question, and Thorin seemed amused - the king's mouth curled sharply. "You don't suppose that I have quite so many chances to speak with deposed kings due to my skill in chess, do you? Now, Thorin, as to your question, yes, there are more appropriate safehouses, but officially, MI6 is not interested in assisting you. Therefore, unfortunately, the safehouses are off limits."
"Not interested in...!" Fíli began, but Thorin held up a hand, cutting his nephew off.
"That is disappointing."
"Is it?" Gandalf shrugged. "It is not government policy to interfere unduly with other governments, Thorin, particularly with no sanction or decision from the United Nations or NATO."
"And they would not act," Thorin growled, "When a terrorist group violently seizes control of an entire nation?"
"Terrorism is a matter of definition, my dear Thorin, and coup d'états have on occasion proved able to create stable governments," Gandalf replied, unperturbed, "The concept of the modern, powerful monarchy has long grown... unfashionable, shall we say, perhaps even more unfashionable than militant extremists. Is it not better to retire quietly somewhere on the Continent? Thanks to the particular nature of royalty, it's quite possible that you're related in some way to nearly every crowned figurehead this side of Europe, after all. You won't be left destitute."
"SMAUG is not your usual group of angry insurgents," Thorin retorted, "Should they gain control of the Arkenstone technology, they will spread like a cancer over Europe itself."
"And there, your Majesty, is the crux of the problem," Gandalf smiled thinly. "Thanks to your House's isolationist policies in the last few centuries, this 'Arkenstone technology' that you have described seems rather... unbelievable. You've permitted few foreigners into your kingdom for decades, and our political espionage is already spotty, let alone our knowledge of your country's technological advances. If your country possessed black gold rather than the normal sort that gleams and glitters, perhaps you could have moved America - and by default, the United Kingdom - to your side, but you have nothing to trade to us but a dream of infinite, portable clean energy."
"You accuse me of lying?"
"I accuse nothing, Thorin. But that is beside the point. I have been instructed by an old friend of mine - and a relative of yours - to assist you to my best capacity despite my retirement. I have also been brought to understand that this is without MI6 sanction, and as such would be burned if I make any mistakes whatsoever. In the light of that, your Majesty, perhaps you should be persuaded to view my willing involvement with a greater degree of kindness."
Thorin flushed, but he sat back down from where he had half-risen from his chair. "I appreciate the favour."
"And well you should." Gandalf glanced abruptly over at Bilbo, who found himself straightening up hastily. "Besides Bilbo here is no mere civilian. He is a security analyst. One of the best. If you need to break back into your own kingdom, there are few other people I should want with me."
"Ah," Thorin seemed a little surprised, even as the princes shot Bilbo keenly curious looks. "MI6 as well? Or CIA?"
"What?" Bilbo interjected, blinking, "What - I'm not-"
"Isn't 'security analyst' the usual word for 'spy'?" Kíli pointed out cheerfully, evidently high on processed sugar, just as his brother added, "Like in Mission Impossible!"
"Regardless," Gandalf interrupted, as Bilbo reddened, "Mister Baggins is an MI6 contractor, and a very successful one-"
"Gandalf, come on-"
"Although he might not have known about the true identity of his employer at the time, MI6 has been very impressed by Mister Baggin's work with AEGIS and MANDALA, which have become keystones of the so-called 'New' MI6."
"That was MI6?" Bilbo blinked. He had thought it a little strange at the time that a small private equity firm would have been so interested in surveillance coordination technology. "Is that why you retired in Staffordshire? To keep an eye on me?"
"Among other things," Gandalf conceded, if with his usual, irritating air of affable mystery. "It occurred to me that if breaking into Erebor is what you need, then Mister Baggins is just the man for the job."
"We're breaking into a country?" Bilbo repeated, uncertain whether to feel horrified or curious, or both, "Isn't that highly illegal?"
"Well," Gandalf huffed, unperturbed, "Theoretically."
"How can something only be theoretically illegal?"
"Ah, Mister Baggins," Gandalf grinned a crooked, whiskery grin, even as Thorin snorted, "To answer that very question is perhaps the raison d'être of the legal profession."
"Um," Bilbo hedged, "I'm really not very sure about this, Gandalf." Espionage, smuggling, and/or assisting with light guerrilla tactics, at his age? He would have to be insane to-
"Excellent! We leave tomorrow."
"What? But I - Gandalf...!"
"I, er, good morn-" Bilbo caught himself as Gandalf raised his whiskery eyebrows again. For some reason, the old man had a remarkably peevish attitude towards polite greetings. Possibly a sign of the onset of senility. "I thought that everyone had left," he concluded, a little awkwardly. From under which rock had Gandalf unearthed himself, anyway? The house had been empty when Bilbo had woken up. Had he picked the lock? The security systems should have alerted-
"Preparations had to be made. And besides, I'm not too comfortable about them staying in one place for too long," Gandalf lifted a bony shoulder, even as he wordlessly and shamelessly slid Bilbo's spare key across the table, the thief. "SMAUG is very resourceful."
"So they're an actual terrorist group?"
"In a sense," Gandalf seemed amused again, at the question, "And again, not particularly. Not by many modern definitions. They have no religious underpinnings, nor do they seem to have any general political leanings. MI6 had always thought them more of a modern form of criminal enterprise rather than a terrorist organisation. A modern mafia," he elaborated, when Bilbo looked confused, "Interested only in profit."
"Why would they want a country?"
"Many reasons. And, I have to admit, if they did truly take over Erebor, then that is a very great prize indeed."
"You don't believe Thorin's story?"
Gandalf sniffed, and took a sip of a cup of tea that Bilbo poured for him. "MI6 has been strongly advised to extend him the benefit of doubt by a certain august lady, but I suppose we shall see."
"Surely a mafia organisation isn't a desirable form of government."
"Sadly - or not - in contrast, the concept of a modern monarchy, my dear Bilbo," Gandalf noted dryly, "Is an exceedingly anachronistic form of government, and, ultimately, an unpopular concept on the field of international politics. While, depending on your point of view, a government focused on economic profit and military strength might even be somewhat democratic." Gandalf smiled his whiskery, ironic smile as he said that. "Capitalist, even."
"Jordan and Monaco are monarchies." Bilbo groped briefly through his admittedly poor knowledge of international politics.
"Monaco and Jordan are constitutional monarchies," Gandalf corrected, "Brunei and Qatar are closer examples to Erebor."
"Just because a country is stable does not mean that its form of government is right, my dear Bilbo," Gandalf noted, though he seemed pleased at this point, "Nor does instability indicate that an experiment with democracy is necessarily wrong. But the point is not a relevant one in this case, is it?"
"Is Thorin a good king?" Bilbo pressed, and when Gandalf arched an eyebrow, he folded his arms tightly, "I won't agree to help a tyrant."
"You are so terribly English," Gandalf chided, though his eyes gleamed with amusement. "The fact is, we are uncertain. Erebor is stable and self-sufficient, but our spies have never managed to pry very far into the dealings of the House of Durin. No one gets in, and no one within Erebor seems to have willingly tried to leave - until now. I suppose that is one reason why MI6 may have bowed - if secretly - to Her will, at least to the extent of digging me out of retirement. Curiosity."
"And the other reasons? This 'Arkenstone' tech?"
"The energy race, in its own way, defines the world, Bilbo. Thorin has indicated a willingness to share technology with the world, should he retake Erebor. But more worrying is the possibly of the secret of the Arkenstone tech falling into the wrong hands."
"Isn't that already too late? SMAUG has been in occupation for months, hasn't it?"
"Thorin seems confident that it is yet a secret."
Something about Gandalf's amusement made Bilbo ask, "You think that it doesn't exist?"
"I think that it is a pipe dream," Gandalf finished his cup of tea neatly, "But sometimes pipe dreams are well worth investigating. And, of course, She was quite insistent."
"I suppose," Bilbo conceded reluctantly, "That I'll try to help, though I'm not sure what sort of help I can truly give you. If Erebor is more technologically advanced-"
"Far more, if reports - and Thorin - are to be believed."
"-then we might end up sitting on the doorstep of the Iron Ring for years." Bilbo knew that much about Erebor, at least.
"We can only try," Gandalf pointed out, unperturbed again. "Even She can only ask that much of Her subjects."
"Will we be flying to Budapest, then?" Bilbo asked. "That's the closest international airport, isn't it?"
"Oh, not at all. That would be quite impossible."
"Then?" Bilbo asked, with a touch of sarcasm despite himself, "Horseback?"
"Amusing as that may be, I'm afraid that in this day and age a line of ponies would only attract far more attention than that is worth. We are going by train. Pack what you need, and meet us at the Eurostar terminal in St Pancras by four o' clock today."
"And that won't leave a paper trail?"
Gandalf, however, merely smiled his irritatingly knowing smile. "See you at four o' clock."
Despite his misgivings, Bilbo had to admit to himself that he was, blast it all, curious, and at his age, at that. He packed lightly and had arrived in London far enough ahead of schedule to enjoy a light lunch close to St Pancras, after which he had wandered about the spectacular trainshed for a while before heading towards the Eurostar terminal.
Somewhat to his surprise, despite being an hour early, a man was already at the terminal, holding up a sheet of note paper with Bilbo's name written on it in neat copperplate. The man was stout and taller than Bilbo, though not as tall as Thorin, and around his good-natured smile, an impressive corona of plush white hair had spread in a lush mane of a beard and sideburns over weathered skin. He was dressed in a plain maroon coat that was almost dark enough to be black, buttoned up over his trousers and black oxfords.
"Mister Baggins," the man shook his hand, when Bilbo approached him and introduced himself. "My name is Balin of Fundin. So very pleased to meet you." Like Thorin, his accent was pronounced, guttural.
"The pleasure is mine," Bilbo offered in response, then added, awkwardly, "Have you been waiting here all day? I was told that we were meant to meet at four."
"Ah, we saw you coming," Balin replied dismissively, as he led Bilbo through check in with a flash of a card at security, luggage and all, "The lads wanted to go up and fetch you, but we ain't so sure if the station's secure, and you seemed like you were toddling about just fine. This way, Mister Baggins."
A sleek silver bullet of a train sat idling at a platform, unmarked and unpainted, with only four carriages behind it. A private train, then, though one of a make that Bilbo had never seen. Wasn't this only going to invite attention? Puzzled, Bilbo followed Balin onto the train, listening to Balin's studious patter only absently as he stood for a moment and gaped. He had been expecting luxury, certainly, but this -
It was as though he had stepped from reality into the set of a science fiction film. The hull was a dull silver, patterned with lights and a complex rig of consoles and control panels to his right, which stood empty, the chair before it wheeled a little to a side. On the consoles flickered a constant stream of surveillance images, of St Pancras station and its outskirts, as well as of locations that Bilbo could not immediately place. More consoles were interspersed along the length of the carriage, and bulky silver cases with complex weaves of cables and glittering panels were strung up to what looked like a glass cage of tame lightning suspended near the ceiling of the engine car, the heart of which looked to be some sort of brilliant, fist-sized gem.
"Arkenstone tech?" Bilbo asked Balin, when the door hissed close behind them.
"Yes, yes," Balin seemed pleased that he knew.
"But Gandalf said that..." Bilbo trailed off, unsure whether to proceed to tell Balin that the last he had heard of the Arkenstone tech, it was supposedly a question of science fiction. This seemed rather defiantly real to him, all the same.
"I'm afraid that the world governments are rather less trusting than you, Mister Baggins," Balin noted wryly, "And this is only a very minor offshoot of the Arkenstone tech. An improved battery, rather than the real thing. The charge will hold steady for years, but it is not producing the charge. I'll show you to your cabin, and then Thorin will be pleased to have a light tea with you in the dining car."
"Is he in a better mood than yesterday?" Bilbo couldn't quite stop himself from asking wryly.
"Ah, laddie, he has not been in the best of moods since we've had to leave our home," Balin replied calmly, and even as Bilbo coloured a little and was about to apologize, Balin added, "But he is in as good a mood of late as I have seen, so he very likely wouldn't try to bite your head off with no provocation. Probably."
Bilbo hid a grimace. This unexpected detour from the well-worn grooves of his usual life was not getting off to a good start.