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Here, There Be Dragons

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The light in the hall flicks on. Bilbo doesn't close his eyes tighter, doesn't tense, doesn't stir. When the light from the hall turns off and the bedroom door gingerly creaks open, Bilbo keeps his breathing steady. Throughout the sounds of undressing, he prevents any response in his body. He'd try to sleep with his back turned to the door, but then he would never sleep at all. 

The sheets lift. A warm body with incongruously cold feet eases into the bed in front of him. The mattress shifts beneath him as Thorin draws closer. A light brush of beard against his forehead signals the incoming kiss. It's soft and lingering, much like the fingertips on his shoulder. Bilbo can feel the decision being made, whether Thorin will wake him or not. It's after eleven on a weeknight, so Thorin oughtn't, but he might. 

Ultimately, Thorin settles in beside him and quietly snuffles off to sleep. His low snores are a strange, once-loved lullaby, now irritating from frequent repetition. Still, at least they mean Thorin is asleep. 

It takes Bilbo perhaps ten minutes for his heart to stop pounding, perhaps twenty more to feel like sleep is possible. All told, he drops off within the hour, and that's an impressive record when sleeping beside a murderer.



It started simply enough. Years of dusty maps and old books, and Bilbo's middle age had come creeping up on him faster than the PhD ever had. He'd settled into Rivendell University easily enough, taking the maps and the books, if leaving the dust behind in Hobbiton. He taught well once he managed to make his students look downward. Terribly short compared to all of his colleagues, he felt easily lost and overwhelmed for a time. This faded as he settled in, but the occasional strange thing still happened, such as an odd visitor outside his office door. 

"If it isn't Bilbo Baggins!" exclaimed an old man from behind a large, grey beard. 

"Yes, hello," he greeted in turn, hand still in the cubbyhole for his letters. "I'm sorry, have we met or did you just read my mailbox?"

"Both! Or I'm afraid I might not have recognised you. It has been a very long time, Bilbo, a very long time indeed."

"I... I suppose it has, yes," Bilbo replied, nodding. "Otherwise, I'm sure I'd remember your name better than I do."

"Your mother would be appalled. Gandalf is my name."

"Oh!" A connection of his grandfather’s, if he remembered correctly. Bilbo made his quick apologies. "And what, um. What brings you here?"

"I am looking for someone," Gandalf replied, "with working knowledge of ancient maps and runes."

"Well," Bilbo said. He nodded up to the plaque on the side of his door and stuck a thumb beneath one of his braces. "That would be me."

"So I see. What time might my friend bring his map around?"

"Is it safe to be moved?" Bilbo asked. "I've nothing scheduled tomorrow. If not Wednesday, we might try for Saturday."

"Tomorrow," Gandalf agreed. "As for the state of the map, I'm uncertain. It might be best for you to pay a house visit. It's not very far. Though perhaps it would be best if you could manage a translation from a picture."

"Would you happen to have a picture?"

Gandalf withdraws a folded piece of paper from his pocket and hands Bilbo a photograph printed on plain paper. 

Bilbo hums and haws, recognising a fair deal. Enough to know one thing: "There might be secret runes. Trick of the ink, it's a common trick for that style. I won't know for sure until I see it in person."

"Then you must visit. I'll make the arrangements. And Bilbo?"

Bilbo hummed once more, too engrossed in the map to look up. 

"Do be careful."

"Always am," Bilbo promised. Old maps were far too fragile to be otherwise. 

 

With the arrangements made, he'd gone to house of Thorin Durin the following afternoon. Bit of an intimidating place, to be honest, with a metal gate built into the stone walls about the front garden. He had to buzz in, which was rather unexpected. "Bilbo Baggins," he announced. "Friend of Gandalf's, he said Mr Durin would be expecting me...?"

"Right," a gruff voice replied. "Come on in."

A buzzer sounded and Bilbo quickly pushed the gate open. The fellow who opened the door was bald and formidable. "He's in the back," said the bald man. 

"Right." Bilbo adjusted his pack and entered. 

"What's all that?" the bald man asked. 

"Books, mostly."

The bald man lead him into the back, which apparently meant down multiple hallways and through a crowded kitchen. 

"Dwalin, who's this?" called one of the youngest in the group, the only one without a beard. 

"Gandalf's map expert."

"Ah. Uncle will be pleased."

Bilbo followed Dwalin into a backroom. Though the decor was dark, the walls were well-lit. Though the furniture is all aged, the quality could not be doubted. Before a table stood Thorin Durin, for this could only be Thorin Durin. Tall, though not so tall as Dwalin, he wore his hair long without it looking stringy or unkempt. It looked very good, actually, startlingly so. When Thorin turned, Bilbo saw traces of grey lightening the darkness of his hair. His beard was short in comparison and well trimmed. 

"So you're Gandalf's translator," Thorin said.

Bilbo nodded nervously. "That would be me. And this would be the map?"

"It is. It was my father's." Thorin stepped aside for Bilbo to approach, then stood much too close to Bilbo's back. In shucking his backpack, Bilbo nearly hit him, and not by accident either. 

"What have you made of it so far?" Thorin asked. 

"What, since yesterday?"

A bored pallor settled across his features, as if delay were a form of illness. "How much time will you need?"

Bilbo explained the required sets for seeing hidden runes and the preliminary tests, but he did so somewhat absently. "So far, I know this part here reads as follows," he adds, then recites the runes aloud. He follows this with the translation. 

"My father said the bird mentioned was a raven."

"It's a thrush," Bilbo replied with confidence. "It's a remarkably common mistake." He began to explain why before Thorin cut him off with a raised palm. 

"That's enough," Thorin told him. "You know what you're doing, I'll give you that."

They discussed the further tests required to see the hidden runes, Bilbo explaining what equipment Rivendell University has at its disposal, Thorin largely nodding with his arms crossed and his blue eyes intent. 

Even with some delays for the equipment, they had their results within the month. In a fascinating twist, the runes they uncovered were an entirely different dialect than the obvious runes. Bilbo delighted over the map, and Thorin insisted he call whenever a new development made itself known. Bilbo called to ask whether Thorin would allow Bilbo to write a paper on the map, this justifying the use of university resources. All was agreed, Bilbo was thrilled, and Thorin's faint, quiet smile never blossomed nor withered.

 

When at last the map had been exhausted--or when Bilbo was exhausted of the map and writing about it--Bilbo called Thorin for what was intended to be the final time. "I've already sent it off to several journals," he reported. "There's a copy in your email. I do hope it answers all your questions."

"Thank you," Thorin said. The line thrummed with his voice even in the resulting silence. 

"What do you-" Thorin began the moment Bilbo attempted to say, "I should hear back-"

They both went silent. "Sorry, you first," Bilbo insisted. 

"How much?" Thorin asked. 

"...Sorry?"

"For... all of it."

"I'm... Thorin, I'm not an appraiser. Sorry, that's, as luck would have it--or not have it--that's the one thing I didn't sort out. Um."

"For your services," Thorin corrected. 

Bilbo blinked. He looked at the mobile in his hand and then stuck it back against his ear. "Sorry?"

"How much do you want for your services?"

Bilbo stared at the wall of his office, but his appointment calendar offered no suggestions. "I just love maps," he said. "Your father's is lovely. Opportunities like that don't come around every day. And, and I'm publishing an article, or at least I should be. You know, publish or perish, so. I'm, I'm fine, really."

There was a long, confused silence. "I dislike owing favours," Thorin replied. "Is there anything besides maps and runes that interest you?"

"Riddles."

Thorin laughed softly. "I don't know any."

Bilbo bit his lip. "Um. Food?" He'd never actually received a fruit basket in his life, and it felt a strangely obligatory event. 

"Anything in particular?"

"I'm not picky."

"Excellent. What are you doing tomorrow night?"

"Watching QI, why?"

"The night after that? Saturday."

"Um." Bilbo sat up straighter in his desk chair. His event calendar held nothing.

"Good. Where should I pick you up?"

Bilbo stammered out his address, too surprised not to. 

"Expect me at seven. I'll see you then."

"I, yes. See you."

Thorin hung up. 

Bilbo stared at his phone, waiting for it to clarify whether or not this was a cryptic thank-you or an exceptionally smooth pickup. His phone did no such thing.