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Prayers to Broken Stone

Chapter Text

“Go down now to your friends!” he said to Bilbo, “or I will throw you down.”

A hush fell over the Company and for a moment all that could be heard was the winter wind as it hissed and shrieked over the cracks in the mountain. Color gathered high in Bilbo’s cheeks, as if he had been struck, but there was iron and defiance in him still, even if it was set to the ill purpose of defending his thievery. He stood tall when not a moment before he had shuddered and twisted in Thorin’s grasp over the precipice.

“What about the gold and silver?” asked Bilbo. His voice was soft and Thorin remembered from it stolen moments in the Elvenking’s dungeon, in Laketown, and at the hidden door. Before the dragon, before things had become…complicated. What indeed of the gold and silver? Was it rage burning inside him, or shame? He remembered his grandfather then, wandering the treasury in his delirium. How, when the dragon came, Thrór had chased a falling jewel into certain death while his people burned.

But this is different, Thorin reminded himself. These were thieves and brigands, come to his door with swords to pick over the corpses of his people. Twisting his burglar to their ends, it was their fault! 

“That shall follow after, as can be arranged.” For there to be any other meaning to Bilbo’s question, that it might carry concern for Thorin rather than concern for the treasure, did not bear thinking. Better to assume otherwise, that Bilbo was thinking only of his own share. If the burglar would act the mercenary, let him be treated as one. “Get down!”

Thorin saw his expression hardened. Bilbo never had been one to allow his true meaning to be ignored, but the rage thrumming in Thorin’s veins told him it was not disapproval of his sidestepping, disapproval that made Thorin feel smaller than the hobbit. The rage pushed back, told him it was suspicion in Bilbo’s eyes, that he would not receive his equal share of the treasure. Bilbo seemed prepared to say something when voices came from below.

“Until then we keep the stone,” cried Bard.

“You are not making a very splendid figure as King under the Mountain,” said Gandalf. “But things may change yet.” Thorin turned back, placing his hands on the wall as he shouted to the carrion eaters below.

“They may indeed,” said Thorin. Gandalf too? He should have suspected as much of the meddling windbag, ever taking the side of Men, Elves, and thrice-damned Hobbits! Well they would see about that. Soon Dáin would come with his armies and the axes of the dwarves would be upon them. Overrun with fire and blood, they would see then if they could keep hold of the Arkenstone in dead hands!  Then they would see if there was any truth to the immortality of Elves and wizards.

Thorin’s thoughts thus turned to the future; he paid no mind to the hobbit in question as Bilbo watched him. His fingers dug into the stone at the thought of descending, sword in hand, an army at his back, upon the Men and Elves below, and the sound of scratching rock was swallowed by the wind.

Bilbo turned to face the company and shared a long, quiet look with Balin, his eyes bewildered and pleading with the older dwarf. Something passed between them then, something more than the shame and pity that traveled on silent currents between the members of the Company as they watched Thorin cast out the one who had brought them so far and saved them from so many evils. Had Bilbo turned to go then they may have maintained that silence, following their leader as they had sworn.

Instead, Balin looked to Thorin, whose hands were clenched on the stone wall as he glared black death upon those gathered below. Then he looked to Bilbo, standing pale but unflinching, desperate for some sign of support from his companions. For surely they must all see it, how something was terribly wrong in the heart of Erebor, even now with the dragon dead and the gold lying unguarded within.

Balin cleared his throat.  “Bad business it was, splitting the company like that, leaving the other lads behind. A bad business indeed.” The Company started, looking to one another as if coming out of a dream. Bilbo too looked up in surprise and stopped his movement towards the edge of the parapet.

“I suspect, were Fíli and Kíli here, they’d have some words for their uncle,” Balin continued.

“Silence, Balin. This is not the time,” Thorin said without turning.

“Words regarding Bilbo as well. Thorin, have you lost your mind?” Balin came alongside him and hissed the last into Thorin’s ear.

“Do not speak to me of madness,” Thorin snarled. “It is not madness to protect the legacy of our people from thieves.”

“It is if you would risk all of our lives to do so,” said Balin. Thorin turned and glared at Balin. The older dwarf stood as Bilbo had, unyielding, a frown twisting beneath his snowy beard. Between the two of them Thorin felt the wall behind him like a trap closing around him.

But the sense of being cornered only served to sharpen his anger, and Thorin’s expression soured. “If you would take his side then go with him! I will not be questioned by my own subjects in front of our enemies.” A gasp went up from the other dwarves, and something shifted in the air as those words escaped. The Company was staring as if they did not know him. Even Dwalin grimaced and crossed his arms, looking down at the ground.

“Subjects? Well, I suppose that’s true. The mountain is yours, and you are king,” said Balin slowly. “But Gandalf is right, Thorin. It is one thing to retake Erebor and another to keep it. Chasing away the one who helped you gain it, well, it doesn’t sit right. And I suspect it doesn’t sit right with the others either.”

Ori and Bombur looked as if they wanted nothing more than to hide behind their brothers and cousins but Glóin, Dori, and Nori were exchanging silent looks that held in them a nod of agreement. There was a general shifting and shuffling of feet.

“If you would keep the Company intact…” Thorin began. Balin’s shoulders rose, hope dawning in his eyes. “Then you may go with him. All of you.”

Balin’s face fell and a cry went up from the Company, including the bear-like rumble of shock from Dwalin as he glanced between his brother and his lord.

“Balin, really, that isn’t necessary,” Bilbo said, putting a hand on Balin’s elbow.

“You don’t agree with my decision?” Thorin said, rounding on the Company. “Ungrateful lot, begone from my sight! There is no place in Erebor for traitors such as you!” He looked to each of them in turn as their eyes widened, they ducked their heads or stared back at him, challenging. “You heard me well. Get down!”

“Thorin…” Balin began.

“Now!” Thorin roared, then turned to Bard and Gandalf below, who watched in silence. “Take them or slay them, I care not. There is no deal.”

With that he turned back to the great iron door that lead out from the parapet and before any could stop him, slammed it shut behind him.

Dwalin was the first to the door, pounding it with his fists and tugging at the handle, Dori joining him to try to pry the thing open by sheer force, but it would not budge. There was no key, no other means of returning into the mountain, so one by one the remaining Company filed down the steep slope and into the waiting camp of Gandalf and Bard. So distracted were they by their misery that not even Bilbo, usually keen of eye, thought to look closer at the spot where Thorin had stood. For where his fingers had clenched and unclenched on the wall there were ten newly carved gashes like chisel marks into the stone.

 


Once in the camp they found they were not alone. Bofur, Fíli, and a newly healed Kíli were fighting towards them through the crowd as they descended.

“Bilbo!” Bofur cried as the three trotted to a halt. “You’re alive! We feared the worst, what with the dragon. Crashed into Laketown it did, right atop our heads, it’s a wonder we made it…” Bofur trailed off, noting the grim set to Bilbo’s face, the somber tone of the rest of the company.

“Where’s Thorin?” said Fíli.

“He has locked himself within the mountain,” said Balin.

“But he’ll come out soon, right?” said Kíli. “He has to.”

“Perhaps a reminder that no one can eat gold will be good for him,” Balin said, giving a reassuring pat on the shoulder to Kíli, but the look he exchanged with Bilbo spoke volumes. They turned and looked to the silent bulk of Erebor behind them and never before had King Under the Mountain seemed so apt a title.

 

Hours passed, and was still there was no word from Thorin, for though many attempts were made to call to their leader from the door, none were answered.

Then, in the pre-dawn light of the following day they heard the first rumbling. Like an earthquake, it roused those members of the company who remembered the first coming of Smaug and they leapt to their feet, racing out of their tents to the ledge below the gates.

With a deafening crash that shook the earth beneath them and shattered the ear even from a mile’s distance with the wrenching shriek of stone on stone, a huge shelf of the mountain gave way, and crashed down before the stone sentinels of the entrance to Erebor. Blocking the entrance.

“Thorin!” Fíli and Kíli cried. Bilbo gave a strangled yelp at their side, reaching out as if he could part the stone with his will alone.

“I did not expect this,” Balin said, coming alongside them.

“What was that? What’s going on? Balin, Thorin could be trapped in there, or worse!”

Balin shook his head. “That was no accident. Thorin has triggered one of the old defenses. There will be no going in or out of the mountain save by the secret door. He has determined to wait out our siege.”

“There’s no food in there, he’ll starve before then!”

Balin considered this, looking troubled. “Then there may be something else he is waiting for.”


 

 The Hollow Men
by TS Eliot

I
We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats' feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar

Chapter Text

Golden coins trickled between his fingers and for the first time Thorin reviewed the memories of his grandfather wandering these halls and thought, Yes, I understand now.

It had been three days since he collapsed the entrance to Erebor, left open and gaping to outside enemies when Smaug crashed his way into the open air, streaming molten gold and curses. Had someone triggered these defenses in time, all those years ago, Erebor may not have fallen. Thorin had dwelled on these thoughts as he readied the charges to cleave the stone, gnawing on anger as if it were an old bone.

After the stone collapsed, he returned to the treasury. On the first night, he had tried to find shelter in one of the many bedrooms but in every one he found crumbled wood and moldy blankets, if not the degrading skeletons of his kin, clutching one another as they huddled together in their final moments. Only the treasury was free of their corpses, those constant reminders of his failure, and he passed the night sleeping atop one of the softer piles of gold, if such a thing could be said to exist, a scavenged sword and shield at his side.

Strangely, he awoke without any feeling of discomfort. Awareness returned slowly and he stretched, luxuriating in what felt like the finest down mattress, pleasant dreams of carven gems drifting through his sluggish mind. Never before had he slept so well, or so deeply, and he faced the day with renewed vigor. Briefly did his thoughts turned to food, and in what manner he might would sustain himself until the armies of Dáin arrived. There was still the hidden door left open on the side of the mountain, which could well be surrounded by his traitorous companions and the thieving hobbit if they were wont to return to his good graces. But he found he was not hungry, and instead spent the day wandering the treasury, marveling at great pieces of craft and art long forgotten, such marvels of weapons and armor as would make the great cities of Men weep at their glory.

All his.

On the third morning he slept half the day away and thought he could become used to this. For months he had slept ill upon the road, having always been a light sleeper, but he would not admit to the Company that the snoring of the other dwarves was a constant grate on his nerves, and even before the road his rest had been plagued. For decades he had feared for his people, for the mountain, for his missing father, his widowed sister and her sons, for his companions and whether his people would ever regain their glory or fade out in poverty and ignominy, as had the Petty-dwarves.

Fears no longer, he thought as he shook his head. The mountain was theirs now, with all its boundless wealth. He had regained their homeland, as he swore he would, and claimed lordship over it. Never again would a dwarf of Erebor feel want, or hunger.

Hunger. Three days and he had felt not a pang. It was as if he lived on the air of his homeland alone. A troubling thought. But then that second voice, the one that had spoken in the thrumming rage of his heart, reminded him he had been too long with Men, and weak Hobbits who required many meals a day. A Dwarf need not stuff himself so regularly. Doubtless it was the satisfaction brought by the end of his many decades work to reclaim his home that sustained him now. When Dáin arrived they would feast.

Again he found himself wandering back to the treasury, for he had not gone far, only to the throne room to gaze upon the empty socket where the Arkenstone should dwell. The loss sat heavy in his heart, the missing jewel that should crown the great hoard. But returning to the wide swaths of gold, shifting like sand dunes beneath his feet as he walked among the riches, brought instant calm. It was as if he could feel every individual coin of the vast wealth, each jewel and dagger. He felt that, should he so choose, he could close his eyes and point out the location of the smallest glass bead, and keenly feel its loss should it be taken.

He settled down in the center of the heap, in a great crater left behind by the slug when it burst from its bed to rain fire upon Thorin's Company. Unlike the rest of the gold, which took on the chill of the damp subterranean air, this indent was somehow shielded. It was warm to the touch, as if the dragon had imparted some of its own heat upon it. Thorin lay down there, eased by the surrounding walls of his home, the warmth of the soft metal beneath him, and the knowledge that soon his allies would arrive to lay bloody waste to the armies of Mirkwood and Laketown.

On the third night, the itching began.


It was bright as daylight when Thorin awoke, skin burning as if on fire. The pain was searing; blanking all thought from his mind save to find relief. He could not tear his heavy outer coat away fast enough, ripping away layer after layer in his haste, paying no mind to the sound of tearing cloth.

At the first glimpse of skin he gulped. Froze.

A single V of flesh was visible through the collar of his rust-red shirt and he probed at the opening with wide fingers. Pale flesh, unused to the light of day, should have appeared beneath. If he could he would have denied it then, piled his clothing back on and chalked the impossible sight up to nightmares. But the burning in his flesh was was beyond endurance, and with a growl he tore away his wide leather belt and-- before terror could overwhelm his arms-- yanked off his coat. He peered down the collar of his shirt.

Bile rose at the back of Thorin’s throat, tasting of copper and acid. Were his teeth not clenched he might have screamed.

The skin of his chest had darkened and puckered, blackening like a bruise. Sores glinted in wet, speckled patches across his stomach and shoulders like pockmarks. Fear turned from paralytic to goad as he tore off his shirt and stood bare-chested, tracing his fingers over the wounds.

The marks were dry and glinted in the dark. Dwarves could see better than any race in pitch black, needing only a faint candle to see far into the deep places of the world. But never this well, not in the middle of the night. Now he saw as if it were midday, but had no time to think on this. Hypnotized, he scraped a blunt fingernail over one of the patches and the pale skin flaked away as if it were parchment.

Thorin recoiled, jerking his hand back with a strangled cry. His breath came in great heaving gasps and his heart thundered in his ears. Against all better judgment, moved by nothing but the wild terror scattering his thought, he prodded again at the same spot, gasping under his breath as a harder prod with his finger uncovered raised ridges across his biceps and shoulders. Thin lines like razor scars traced squares or…scales, across his flesh. His closer inspection revealed the black spots were surrounded by duskier skin, as if the pale flesh was only a mask over the new skin beneath.

It struck him then, shortening his breath with terror, how truly alone he was. Óin, Gandalf, anyone who could help was beyond a wall of rock. It would take him hours to escape through the hidden door and descend from the mountain. That was even if they still waited beyond the door and had not returned to Laketown. And who was to say they would help him? Could this not be some scheme of Gandalf’s to flush him out, some plague designed to bring him to his knees before them, crying out for aid?

If so, it was well thought out, Thorin thought, biting back a hysterical laugh that was all but a cry. In a reckless move, suicidal for all he knew, he dragged his blunt nails across his forearms, feeling the world spin along with his vision as great hunks of his flesh tore away, revealing blackness beneath.

All pride fell away then and a strangled whimper broke from between his lips. The faint voice at the back of his mind, the boiling rage that had filled his belly since he learned the Arkenstone was held by his enemies…all of it fell away in the wildfire of terror that raced through his mind, leaving no space for greed or anger. Nausea welled in his stomach, crashing like fire inside him, while another fire still raced over his skin, crying for the scratch of his nails. The red shirt was balled in his other fist and he bit down on it as a tremor tore through him and he fell to one knee, teeth clenching around the soft fabric as he doubled over.

There was a dry, tearing sound that was nothing of fabric. Thorin froze as he felt the skin of his back split. Too late, too late to go to Óin or Gandalf, he would die here, a victim of his own damnable pride just as the wizard had predicted. Dáin would find only a ruined corpse under the mountain and it was fitting somehow, fitting that they should find him here amongst the gold of his forefathers. His thoughts babbled and scattered like fear-crazed children before he noticed there was no pain. The itching across his skin still burned on his stomach and arms and legs but on his back the cool air struck the exposed flesh like a balm.

Thorin opened his eyes, sweat stinging his brow and the edges of the open sores. For the moment the worst of the agony had past, or at least he had become accustomed enough to it that he dared to crawl a few feet, slow and wary against the splitting of his own flesh. His hands shook as he fumbled amongst the gold coins until he pulled forth a silver bowl, polished to a mirror shine. He held it behind his shoulder, and out of the corner of his eye could see a ridge of dark teeth rising along his back. Nausea surged in his throat and the world spun as the vision sank in. Teeth? Or spines. His breath came out in shuddering gasps as this new revelation skittered over his mind, unable to find purchase in the chaos.

He lowered the bowl in a daze; his eyes dull and unfocused, and only then caught a glimpse of his own features. Staring eyes focused, widened. On one side, his face was as pale and clammy as that of a fever patient, the other… on the other the shadowy rot had spread up his neck and jaw, disappearing into his beard. Black flesh like scabs marked his discolored skin, speckling his forehead and cheekbones. His eyes…

Thorin threw the bowl to the ground where it rang amongst the coins, but even so he could see them there: his eyes gleaming with their own light, a muted blue that lit his graying face like that of a corpse.

The movement flexed his flaking skin and he cringed as a crack ran down his forearm. The pale flesh parted and now he could see the shape of those thin ridges that had covered him in their patterns. Scales. Gleaming obsidian black, dry and smooth as a newborn snake in the light of…the light of his eyes. For there was no doubt why the cavern seemed lit as if by a midday sun. Where the flesh split, relief followed and even as he knew he must find a way to literally save his own skin he gave a groan that thrummed through him, crown to toes, as the itching eased. He sank down into the gold, burying his fingers into the coins to brace himself as another groan shook him, this one starting from deeper within, and lower, as pleasure rang through his bones. The shirt dropped tfrom his hand as he sank down, careful not to break any more of the skin that covered his body like dead leaves, splitting and crumbling at the slightest touch.

Where his body met the gold the pain vanished, and the nausea eased. He continued down, lying flat upon the warm coins of the treasurey, then untied his heavy iron boots as well, wanting to feel the coins upon his bare skin.

Barefoot. I must look like a Hobbit. The thought rose unbidden, intrusive. This was no time for thoughts of the burglar, his thoughts babbled in their delirium; would that he had never laid eyes on that cursed race. Without Bilbo…

We would not have made it this far.

He pushed the thought aside with annoyance. Without the hobbit his hoard would not be one gem short.

The heavy iron boots came away and he frowned at the holes in the toes of the heavy socks he wore beneath: slit across the toe, as if cut open by a knife. He cast them aside and buried his feet into the coins, rapture pouring through his veins.

That small voice, the same one that wondered how his burglar would laugh to see him barefoot, cried out for escape. Cried out that he must find Óin or Gandalf, lest the disease bring him low without a fight.

Yet the treasures rose around him like an embrace, washing away the agony and dragging sleep in its wake. Peace made his limbs heavy, and even as panic cried from the corner of his mind that thought nothing of gold, it was no match.


Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion;

Chapter Text

Bilbo came to on the battlefield, his head aching as if someone had beaten it repeatedly against a wall, which in all likelihood was close to the truth with all the jostling he had received. Being invisible only meant the orcs could not target him, but he had received plenty of bumping and prodding, and even a few nicks from the edge of blades as he wove and dodged past, struggling to stay near his companions. Armored as they were from Dáin’s stock of infantry gear, the dwarves of the Company were almost impossible to distinguish from the larger host from the Iron Hills.

It was a coincidence for the storybooks indeed. Bard and Thranduil had been so busying arguing amongst themselves for they might best dig out the entrance to Erebor and claim their share of the treasure that they almost didn't notice when Dáin and his army arrived, which put a swift end to those negotiations. 

Bilbo had thought Thorin would make his appearance then, for surely the arrival of Dáin’s army had been the point of his little stunt of walling off Erebor. But the dwarf king, who Bilbo would have once called his friend, if not something more, something tenuous and unspoken and lost now with the Arkenstone, had never arrived. Gandalf must have noticed how Bilbo’s shoulders sank as the day progressed and no familiar dark head approached, tall and proud amongst the other dwarves, to issue his counter-offer with a fresh and well-trained army at his back. In the end he never appeared, leaving three lords of three races arguing over what to do with one another and with the mountain.

That was the moment the armies of Azog arrived from Dol Guldur. What purpose brought them there, none could say, though Bilbo had his sneaking suspicion that it was the Pale Orc's enmity towards Thorin that brought them to Erebor, for what use had the orcs for treasure and jewels? Only hatred of Dwarves, Elves and Men could bring them thence, and that they had in spades.

Battle was hardly the word for it. Chaos, a mêlée of four races scrapping amongst themselves with no central command or formal battle line. Then the Eagles swooped in and the army of Dol Guldur collapsed into a rout. Perhaps all battles were thus; Bilbo was not one to know, having never seen a great battle outside of his books. Still, he imagined they were usually a great deal more organized than this one, numbering only two sides rather than five.

Something thoroughly unreasonable and Tookish had prompted him beforehand to request his own set of dwarven armor and weapons from Dáin, and he too had joined battle, although he soon realized how thoroughly out of his depth he really was. On went his magic ring, and he spent the rest of the fight dodging the flailing of Elves, Dwarves, Men, and Orcs while trying to stay near his companions, striking out with Sting when they were in danger. Thus he saved Fíli and Kíli from Azog after they had together slain Bolg, and he bedeviled the Pale Orc with little stings across his ankles and calves long enough for Dáin to arrive with his vanguard. For Dáin had been at Azanulbizar and would have slain Azog himself then had Thorin not intervened. Mightily the two strove against one another, or at least they had been when something struck Bilbo on the head and he knew no more of the battle, or anything else for that matter.

Bilbo rubbed at the goose egg forming above his temple and had gone quite far across the battlefield, dodging the twitching orc bodies and the sadder, broken corpses of Elves, before he realized he was still invisible! He would have snatched off the ring then, but it occurred to him that he did not yet know for certain the outcome of fight and perhaps a bit of caution was warranted.

He was skirting along the edges of a mud-stained field tent when he heard the first familiar voice. It was Gandalf, who sound distinctly irritated, which was nothing new.

“For heaven’s sake, Bard, Thranduil—yes you too. I am quite done with your childish sniping. Until we determine if Thorin is still alive, Dáin is the acting king of the dwarves.”

“And what right does that give him to negotiate for the wealth of Erebor, promised to me by Thorin Oakenshield when he was a guest in my halls?” came the cool voice of the Elvenking. “Let me treat with his heir, the brown-haired one. He seemed amenable to my people.”

“Kíli was never the heir, you are thinking of Fíli. A simple mistake, but a common one. I’m afraid Fíli is not available to negotiate, his wounds from the battle…”

At that moment Bilbo wrenched the Ring off his finger, and rounded the corner into the tent. “Surely nothing has happened to Fíli!”

Gandalf, Thranduil, Bard, and Dáin all sat at a rough camp table and looked up as one as Bilbo entered.

“Bilbo, my dear friend! We thought you lost in the battle,” Gandalf said, and real joy brightened his face.

“Well, I’m found again, if a bit the worse for wear,” Bilbo said, indicating the throbbing lump on his head. “But never mind that, what has happened to Fíli and Kíli? And what of the others?”

“All well, all well, I can assure you, though similarly bruised and battered. Fíli took quite a blow to the head himself and is far too dazed to negotiate with these cutthroats, even if he were trained for such things.”

Bilbo sagged with relief, before he remembered the other pressing issue. “And Thorin? Is there any word from Erebor?”

Gandalf’s expression turned grave. “None, and I fear the worst. Even dwarves, hardy as they are, cannot go forever without food or water. The latter he may have, but unless Thorin is leaving by the secret door to forage then I fear for his health nearly as much as I fear for his sanity. Such treasure is enough to turn the heads of even the very wise.” He gave a sour look at his three companions, as if to indicate there were far worse consequences for those he did not number among the wise. “Even normal gold may have terrible effects.”

“It isn’t? Normal gold, I mean,” Bilbo said. Thranduil scoffed, at which Bilbo frowned with indignation.

“Long has the gold of Erebor been the nesting place of evil,” Thranduil said. “And not lightly does such a curse fall from the metal without the aid of one such as Mithrandir. There are foul magics that follow in the wake of dragons, for like orcs they are beasts twisted by the enemy from other beings. Where they go, wrath and ruin follow, not only from the fire of their breath. The very ground they walk upon carries their curse: the hunger for treasures that may break the souls and bodies of lesser beings.” Thranduil gave a smile then, as if to indicate how far above such things he counted himself. “One can only imagine what horrors have imbued the treasures of the dwarves, lying beneath Smaug for over a century.”

“Gandalf, is that true?” Bilbo said, keeping his gaze fixed on Thranduil, searching his face for mockery and deceit. Mockery there was in spades, but deceit was harder to read. Bilbo loved the Elves of Rivendell, but perhaps some of the dwarven bias had infected him in Mirkwood. His distrust of the Elvenking began the minute he imprisoned the dwarves in his halls, and it only grew as he saw the way Thranduil goaded Thorin when he was at his mercy.

“I have suspected as much,” Gandalf said. “Which is why I forbade Thorin to enter the mountain without me.”

“There was hardly any choice: Durin’s Day was here and you were not,” Bilbo pointed out, feeling compelled to defend Thorin’s decision even when he too had protested it at the time. A creeping anxiety was born in him at the Elvenking’s words, and he cast worried glances up at the mountain, as if he might be granted some special sight to pierce the miles of stone and see Thorin within.

“Often does necessity make mockery of our plans. Still, once the door was open, there was no need to go inside immediately. You could have opened the door and waited on the step, or taken turns camping just inside the entrance until I arrived,” Gandalf said, and Bilbo frowned, nose twitching, for he had no answer to that. It had all seemed so urgent at the time, with Thorin driving them on, that the thought had simply not occurred. “It matters not. What matters is that we have a city in ruins and three armies still outside the gate of Erebor who will not be sated without their share or at least some promise of future payment. And we have no way of getting in with any kind of large force.” Gandalf’s eyes gleamed. “Which may be where you come in, my dear Bilbo.”

“Oh no, my burgling days are over, I’ll not go in there to bring you back treasure, not a single coin! Thorin was right, you lot have no proper claim to it and I’m ashamed at how you all behaved over the Arkenstone, especially you two!” Bilbo cried, pointing at Thranduil and Bard, the former of whom looked affronted if a bit confused, as if he had been attacked by a particularly vicious squirrel.

“This is not a question of treasure or blame, Bilbo Baggins,” Gandalf said, cutting Bilbo’s tirade short. “They have agreed that their share of the treasure must wait until we have determined who exactly rules under the mountain, at least they will even if I have to bang their heads together a few more times.” Gandalf said with an added glare at the assembled lords. “No,” he continued, his voice softening, “this is a selfless errand, if far more perilous.”

“Sounds familiar,” said Bilbo dryly.

Gandalf ignored this. “Someone must enter Erebor and find Thorin. You are the only one I can trust not to fall under the sway of the gold.”

Bilbo’s heart leapt. In truth he had considered doing something similar, perhaps leaving a bushel of apples outside the door in an attempt to lure Thorin out, like a cat with a piece of fish, but just as he had considered it himself he had also considered the impossibility of it, and his heart sank to somewhere near his fur-covered feet. “Gandalf, I very much doubt Thorin is going to want anything to do with me after…after the Arkenstone debacle.”

“Indeed, that is an issue that still needs some resolution. As it was your share of the treasure, I believe you should have some say in the matter. What do you suggest, Bilbo?” Gandalf said.

Bilbo pondered this, his heart heavy with the memory of the theft. Even if he still thought his reasons were right he could not forget the look of pain and betrayal on Thorin’s face when the Arkenstone was revealed in the hands of his enemies. “It belongs to the dwarves. Give it to Fíli and Kíli, or Dáin if you must, for safekeeping. Then it must be returned to Thorin. After all, it belongs to his family and I was only borrowing it,” he said finally.  A cry of protest went up immediately from Bard and Thranduil while Dáin leaned back, looking satisfied.

“Oh, hush you two,” Gandalf snapped. “You never would have been permitted to keep it anyway. Master Baggins is right. The dwarves would have gathered to make war on you before the year was out. It is a legacy of their people, not a pretty bauble to stick in a tiara.” He turned back to Bilbo. “With any luck this news will bring Thorin back to his senses and we can put this whole unpleasant business behind us. Master Bard of Laketown tells me Thorin offered to share the wealth before you departed, we shall simply have to make him own up to that promise, but none of that will happen while he has walled up with the Arkenstone beyond his grasp.”

Bilbo considered, remembering the terror of that long drop, his teeth rattling as Thorin shook him. But then he remembered too their embrace high above on the Carrock, their whispered words far below in the dungeons of Thranduil, and the bliss on Thorin’s face as the door to Erebor cracked open. There was more to his friend than the madness that consumed him.

“He is in there somewhere,” Gandalf said, and Bilbo started, wondering if Gandalf had divined his thoughts. “My guess is the treasury, but he could be anywhere, for Erebor is vast.”

Bilbo chewed his lip then nodded. “I will do it.”

“I thought you might,” Gandalf murmured. “Though I must say your courage has increased manifold since I found you in the Shire, my dear friend.”

Bilbo shook his head. “Nothing of courage in it. Thorin is…well, he’s many things, but he is also my friend, after a fashion, and no hobbit can leave a friend to starve to death. I’ll get ready; there’s isn’t much time to waste,” he said, turning. He thought to wash first, and have his wounds dressed, before loading up with as much food as he could carry, perhaps a pony to carry it to the hidden stair. He had just headed to the door of the tent when Gandalf caught him by the shoulder and leaned down.

“Bilbo, you will need to be careful,” Gandalf said, putting his mouth to Bilbo’s ear. “Thranduil is right: not all may be well with Thorin’s mind.”

“Really Gandalf, I think I can handle one starving dwarf. After all, I handled thirteen of them in Mirkwood. I imagine nothing Thorin can dish out will compare to that unpleasantness; the worst should be well behind us now.”

He would later realize how very badly he needed to stop saying things like that.


 

There was really no time to linger, but still Bilbo visited the field infirmary while arrangements were made for his pack and pony. He thought to check in on Fíli and was pleased, though not surprised, to see Kíli there as well. The red-haired elven maiden he vaguely recalled from the dungeons of Mirkwood hovered behind the young dwarf like a shadow as he hunched over his brother’s cot. Fíli’s head was swathed in bandages, but the two seemed to be in good spirits, laughing over some joke Bilbo had missed when Fíli looked up and waved to the hobbit.

“Bilbo! We had just about given you up!” Fíli said. Kíli turned and with a startled laugh wrapped one hand around Bilbo’s shoulders and dragged him to the side of the bed.

“Well if it isn’t our burglar, returned to the land of the living!” said Kíli.

“Never left it, I’m pleased to say,” Bilbo said. “Though I hear Fíli here was a near thing. I’m sorry I could not do more but, well…” He pointed to the lump on his head, wrapped now in clean linens.

“There’s no need. There’s no telling what might have happened without you and your letter opener,” Fíli said.

“Has there been any word of Thorin?” Kíli piped in. At that, the room went quiet and the temperature seemed to drop several degrees. Bilbo shifted.

“None. I’m off to…that is, Gandalf suggested that I be the one who goes looking for him,” Bilbo said.

“But that’s a wonderful idea!” Kíli said. “Thorin trusts you.”

Bilbo stiffened. Of course, the brothers had not been there, had not been close enough to see Thorin’s fingers digging into his shoulders as he called Bilbo a descendent of rats and threatened to cast him down to the rocks. “Indeed. Well, Gandalf has managed to convince Bard to surrender the Arkenstone into your keeping. It should be along shortly. I’m hoping this news will cheer him.” Thorin's name stuck at the back of his throat.

“And what about us?” said Fíli. Kíli looked at his brother and back.

“But of course we’ll be going too, right?” said Kíli to Bilbo, who shifted again. A moment to exchange a few pleasant words to an injured comrade before he departed was growing far more complicated than he had anticipated.

“Gandalf made no mention of you; I’m sure he has his reasons. Oh! You must stay with your brother, Kíli,” Bilbo said, unconsciously wringing his hands together. He clamped them beneath his arms to keep them still. Fíli arched an eyebrow.

“If Thorin is being unreasonable, wouldn’t it make more sense to send us?” said Fíli. Kíli snorted.

“He’s never listened to us. At least, not me. Mr. Baggins has a far better chance if Uncle is being difficult.”

“Oh, but here’s a thought,” Bilbo exclaimed, as guilt got the better of him. “Once you’re recovered, you’re welcome to come join me, if Gandalf approves. After all, if I’m not back by then I’ll likely be needing your help anyway.”

Fíli did not seem convinced. “What exactly is the problem, Bilbo?”

“Oh, you know your uncle, he’s just upset about Thranduil being here. Decided to keep the mountain closed off until it’s all settled.” Fíli opened his mouth to protest when a gray head in a pointed hat appeared, poking through the tent flap.

“Time to go, Bilbo,” Gandalf announced.

Bilbo turned back to the brothers. “I must be off. Goodbye, Fíli, Kíli, my lady,” he added, bowing to the elf maiden. “I will be back by the end of the week, you will see. Farewell!”

The dwarf brothers chimed back their farewells and Bilbo ducked out after Gandalf. The wizard stood by a fuzzy dun pony laden with two heavy packs. It snorted at the sight of him, breath misting in the air.

“I will travel with you as far as the secret door, but I’m afraid I must turn back there,” Gandalf said.

“So you will not be coming with me to see him?” Bilbo said anxiously.

“Would that I could, Bilbo, for I have an ill feeling about Thorin’s silence. But I cannot leave three armies for one dwarf. Thranduil and Dáin are at each other’s throats, and I still do not know for sure which side Bard would take if they should come to blows. I must tell you I will be happy to be done with the whole Line of Durin and of Oropher for a few centuries once this is over,” he muttered the last under his breath. “Nonetheless, I can keep you company on the road and help you with your packs until then.”

“Well, thank you for that at least,” Bilbo said, trying to hide his disappointment, and more his sudden trepidation. Alone in the mountain with Thorin, with the bruises of the dwarf’s handprints still ripening on Bilbo’s shoulder… He had faced great spiders, a dragon, and more monsters than he wished to count but none quite matched this new terror, that of seeing a friend’s face twisted by anger beyond recognition. He released a shuddering sigh, letting it take the with it the edge off his of nerves.

“Shall we go?”


Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death's other Kingdom

 

 

Chapter Text

Thorin came awake seizing, his breath choked off, unable to breathe. With a strangled wheeze he sat upright, clutching his throat. Sharp points pricked the skin of his neck as he convulsed, struggling desperately to swallow past the blockage. The back of his throat tasted of bile and something harsher as well, sulfur or charcoal, and he could not breathe.

Thorin convulsed, falling to his knees and planting one hand on the gold as he hacked and coughed. Wet droplets trickled down the side of his neck from beneath his hand and a chill sweat gathered on his brow as he heaved. The world darkened at the edges; panic blanking all other thought as his lungs burned for air.

The blockage shifted and loosened in his chest and he would have cried out if he had air to do so. He spat blood from where he had bit the inside of his cheek in his seizures, then something black that gave off a sulfuric reek and splattered in gobbets on the treasure beneath him.

Air hit the back of his throat and he inhaled sharply, sucking it down, and with it sweet relief. Breathing it out and with it—

Fire.

Belching forth from his throat, it shot in plumes across the gold, flashing white across his vision. Blinded he stared, frozen, as his vision blackened and spotted in the afterimage. Flames curled and billowed, racing along the treasure, the soft gold beading to liquid across the surface of the hoard. He could feel each coin as it lost its shape and pooled into a misshapen lump.

Thorin clamped a hand over his mouth and felt skin like toughened leather where his lips would have been. Lower, his hand slipping down unbidden, he found hardened scales like chips of obsidian where the soft flesh of his throat had once been. His hand fell limp to his side and then he was moving, scrabbling through the pinging, clanging coins to find the polished silver bowl. Black scales covered the muscles of his arm in strips, the white flesh curling at the edges where it flaked and peeled away. His hand closed around the bowl and he heard the squeak and squeal of metal.

Wide, strong fingers, used to wielding a blacksmith’s hammer or a sword, now ended in black talons. The points glinted, their lengths wickedly curved, sharp as scimitars, and screeched as they bit into the silver . He distantly remembered what must of have been talons digging into his skin as he clutched at his throat. Thorin looked about wildly, and saw too that his toenails matched their brethren.

And in the mirror surface of the bowl…black scales cutting across the left side of his face in a jagged scar, stretching upward from jaw to cheekbone. Eyes that glowed with a baleful inner light now had slit pupils like a cat’s. Dragon scale and fire were devouring him from the inside out, tearing at his flesh and twisting him, bone and sinew. Thorin’s breath came in sharp, shallow gasps as it all came crashing down upon him and a wild noise, part scream and part groan, built at the back of his throat and was set loose, reverberating through the caverns of Erebor.

 


 

“Here is where I must leave you, Bilbo,” Gandalf said, as they stood before the hidden door into Erebor.

Bilbo sighed, though he had known this moment would come. All was dark beyond the stone doorway, and it somehow felt colder, less welcoming even than when they had first found it. For then he had his companions waiting for him while he traveled through the tunnels, and now he must go alone to face whatever monsters lay on the other side.

Not monsters, he reminded himself, just Thorin. Which, truth be told, seemed just as fearsome considering their last parting. He squared his shoulders, for if he did not go now he feared his nerve would fail him entirely.

“I should think you will be needing these too,” Gandalf said dryly, passing the heavy packs to Bilbo. The wizard had at least had the courtesy to help Bilbo bring the supplies up the hidden staircase, no easy feat for one so much taller than was meant for such a narrow stairway. Bilbo oofed as he accepted. “Will you be quite able to manage?”

“So as long as this is a fortnight’s worth of food I believe I shall,” Bilbo said with a laugh. “Certainly it’s more than we’ve had at many points in the journey, and that will make the burden seem lighter.”

“With any luck, you will not need it,” Gandalf said. “But just to be safe. There should be enough even for three weeks, if you are careful and eat like Men rather than Hobbits. There are also some medicines in there, warm clothing, bandages and herbs should Thorin’s absence be due to illness or injury.  Óin has included instructions of his own for the more common dwarven ailments, and some vials of his ointment, so be careful not to drop it.”

“I will,” said Bilbo, shouldering the second pack.

“Well, I must be off, there is no telling what those rascals will get up to with me gone,” said Gandalf.

“You do speak of great lords of the Elves and Dwarves,” said Bilbo dryly.

“Yes, funny about that,” Gandalf said. He stopped just before reaching the staircase, turning his head back a little. “Bilbo, be careful while you are down there. There is no shame in escaping if ought goes wrong. We cannot save everyone, even those who are very dear to us, and there are some illnesses for which there is no cure.”

Bilbo opened his mouth to reply when the thought of it finally struck him. Of Thorin in the dark and tomb-like halls of his ancestors, alone. Sick, perhaps, or too injured to move and for the first time since the wall some of the fear fell away to make room for memory, of gentler words and hands that touched in friendship instead of rage. Something seized in his throat then, and he could only nod silently. He hefted his pack and faced the door, dark and unwelcoming as ever, but now only a barrier that must be surmounted. With a little nod to himself he set off, down the winding tunnel and into the heart of the mountain.

Tiny light wells drilled into the ceiling provided pinpricks of illumination along the way, once his eyes had adjusted to the gloom. He had just about settled into a comfortable pace, shifting the packs around when they grew heavy, his confidence growing with each step, when he heard it.

A groan that rose to a scream, rising with the subterranean winds, its tones overlaid with some monstrous echo. A chill of horror ran through him, draining the blood from his face, and he would have dropped the packs and bolted then had not the far more horrifying thought occurred to him.

The sound had come from Thorin.

The only alternative was that some other creature had made the caverns their abode side by side with Smaug, somehow passing unknown to the great worm. Unlikely, as Smaug had not seemed one to share his home. A sound like a wounded animal, he now realized, as the gooseflesh that prickled his arms at the clamor eased and he found himself running towards it, rather than away. What if this had been one of many screams, growing more ragged with each day as Thorin cried out, broken and alone, calling for aid that never came…? Bilbo redoubled his speed.

It may have been a short distance were it straight, but the path wound snakelike through the mountain, and Bilbo was out of breath when he came to the wide stone platforms that overlooked the treasury. There he skidded to a halt, surveying the glittering hoard beneath.

“Thorin,” he squeaked then coughed, clearing his throat, and shouted again, “Thorin!”

There was no response, and the high ceilings with their cathedral-like arches swallowed all sound from the air. Placing the extra pack of food down, Bilbo selected the one that held the first week’s food and medicine, racing down the steps and across the golden dunes.

 


 

Terror made Thorin’s breath come short and fast, the world spinning around him, and once again he was on all fours amongst the gold, struggling to catch his breath. It felt better there, closer to the ground; the dizziness overcame him again when he tried to stand. The gold was like satin beneath his fingers, soothing his mind of cares. All was not lost. He had the treasure of Erebor, the halls were his. All would be well, all would be well, the gold sang to him.

…with fingers that now end in talons, skin that splits and shreds with each movement, walking on all fours as a beast…

There was a sound. Thorin’s head jerked up and all frantic and tumbling thoughts stilled. A deadly calm fell upon him.

Silent as a shadow and swift as death, he climbed free of the bed of gold, surveying the hoard. There was a scent on the air, a familiar one though he could not place it. No matter, he would be ready for the intruder. Limbs would crack and blood would flow, he would cut them down and devour them as sheep for daring to enter his halls. He dodged pillars that lay scatted like fallen trees over the gold and slipped into their shadow.

He could hear the thief long before he saw him, though his footsteps were as light upon the coins as the rustle of leaves over stone. The thief called out a word, but he could not hear it over the pounding of rage in his blood. Heat gathered in his throat and his talons clenched. A figure stepped in front of his hiding place.

The thief squawked as he fell upon it and they tumbled together back onto gold, the metal clanging and clattering as they rolled end over end. He snarled in frustration as his talons, strong and sharp as swords, dug into what should be soft and yielding flesh only to be stopped, turned away by something tougher and harder. The ground gave way beneath them and they slid further, picking up speed. Coins jangled and clashed around them, a whirlwind of gold.

They stopped with a sickening thump. The back of his head struck unyielding stone, and stars exploded across his vision. The thief landed atop him with a groan.

When his vision cleared, Thorin blinked as he came back to himself. He looked up. Horror swept him.

“Bilbo?” Thorin breathed

“Ah… aaaah…” Bilbo panted above him, his face white. A gurgling sound came from the back of his throat. “Aaaaah…?”

“What are you doing here?” Thorin snarled, grabbing at the hobbit’s arm, but Bilbo leapt, tumbled backwards, kicking himself away and landing hard.

Bilbo raised a shaking hand from where he lay on his back, pointing at Thorin. “Ah?”

Thorin looked down. Like charred paper, the white of his flesh had peeled away at the edges to reveal black scales. Yet where only the day before the scales had been only speckled patches, now they covered his chest, his arms and throat in wide strips. The baleful glow of his eyes reflected in them, two points of unearthly blue light. What flesh had not fallen away was dusky gray, stretched taut over scales waiting to break free. He touched the back of his neck, feeling the hard ridge that covered his spine and trailed down his back. He swallowed, hard.

Thorin looked back at Bilbo. The hobbit was pale and shaking, eyes wide while his mouth and throat worked, but no sound came out. Silently screaming. At Thorin. Flesh crumbling to dust around him, acid in his stomach, Thorin saw himself in Bilbo’s eyes with more clarity than he had in the silver bowl, and saw a monster staring back. A single thought pierced a mind clouded in a haze of gold and fire.

“Bilbo,” Thorin said, his voice trembled and he reached out one hand in entreaty. Bilbo flinched back. “Help me.”

Thorin could not say what he would have done had it been otherwise, but at that moment a change came over Bilbo. His trembling ceased and his lips drew to a thin line.  His nose gave a twitch. Then he nodded to himself and sat up.

“Right. Well, give me a moment and I’ll put the kettle on.”

 


 

Remember us—if at all—not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.

 

Chapter Text

Within an hour Bilbo had gathered enough pieces of broken furniture to start a small fire and prop the copper kettle from the pack atop the coals, filled with water from one of the skins. It really was abysmally dark down there, perhaps not so for a dwarf, but Bilbo’s eyes were having difficulty adjusting. The cheerful little campfire was a relief even if it meant he lost what night vision he had gained.

Thorin was settled just beyond the immediate reach of the firelight, his eyes two glowing points in the darkness. Bilbo had found him a cloak from amongst the packs, a lovely thing of dark blue with a silver tassel, and Thorin now wore it with the hood pulled up, concealing the horrid black scars that covered his face and body.

Once ready, Bilbo poured the tea into a pair of tin travel cups and passed one to Thorin, who accepted it without a word. As his hands emerged from the long sleeves of the cloak, one meant for Men and so too long even for so tall a dwarf as Thorin, Bilbo caught a glimpse of curved black talons at the end of Thorin’s fingers and gulped silently, hiding his reaction under the guise of blowing on his tea. The water had just finished boiling and was far too hot to drink. Thorin brought the cup to his lips.

“Oh, Thorin!” Bilbo exclaimed, putting out a hand to stop the dwarf.

Thorin downed the scalding liquid in one long swallow before looking up. “What is it?”

Bilbo lowered his hand, his mouth agape. Thorin watched him from beneath his hood, one black eyebrow raised. Bilbo shook his head and subsided. “Nothing, it’s nothing. Just…I thought it a bit too hot to drink, didn’t you?”

Thorin inspected the bottom of the cup. “Not particularly.” A strange expression crossed his face and he set the cup aside.

Bilbo’s fingers drummed against his own steaming mug. Thorin shifted his position, sitting with one knee drawn to his chest, his arm draped flat across it while his other hand lay on his knee. Black scales trailed up his hand and disappeared into the sleeves and Bilbo cast his gaze about trying to find something, anything, to look at besides the claws glinting in the firelight. Thorin must have read his movement, because he folded in on himself then, drawing his hands out of sight under the cloak.

Bilbo cleared his throat. “So, are we going to talk about this?” he said.

“This?” Thorin echoed coldly.

“This,” Bilbo said and made a circular gesture towards Thorin. “All of this.”

Thorin looked away, his face falling into shadow under the blue hood. He must have closed his eyes too, for the faint glow winked out.

“No, I didn’t mean…!” Bilbo stopped. His voice softened. “Thorin, how did this happen?”

The silence stretched long before Thorin spoke again. “I do not know. I awoke like this.”

“What, all at once?” Bilbo exclaimed.

Thorin must have opened his eyes, for the lights returned and from the tone of his voice he was rolling them at Bilbo at the moment. “No. There were early signs. Marks on the skin, as if this new flesh was growing beneath my own. The gold… I must have fallen asleep on the gold, and when I woke it had spread.” His voice lowered to a growl, but weighed down more by shame than anger. “I don’t know what to do.”

“But... why didn’t you come to us for help?” Bilbo said.

Thorin stilled, and looked down at his hands. The scales glinted in the firelight. “How could I?”

Silence fell between them again, the only sound the crackle of the fire and the rustle of cloth as Thorin pulled himself deeper into the folds of the cloak, vanishing but for glimpse of gray flesh at his throat, shadowed by his hood.

“You know,” Bilbo said, clearing his throat before he continued. His voice was strangely hoarse, and there was a weight in his chest as if someone had hung a stone where his heart should be. “I don’t think they would resent you, the company that is, if you asked for help.” He poked at the fire with one of the spare sticks. “They would have forgiven you.”

“And who is to say that I have forgiven them?” Thorin said, his voice grave while uttering words that would have been childish in another, but from him held the dreadful grimness of an oath. “Or that I should seek their aid who have stolen from me and betrayed me?”

The fire sparked at Bilbo’s prodding, along with the flickers of his own anger. “They didn’t steal the Arkenstone, Thorin,” Bilbo said, and the flames bathed his face in red light as he looked up at Thorin. “I did. In case you have forgotten.”

“Never,” Thorin said, his voice low and taking on the edge of flint on steel. “Not if I should live a thousand years.”

“Good. For a moment I thought I must fear for your mind as well as your skin,” Bilbo said, and turned back to the fire. “There was no need to drag them into this.”

“They took the side of thieves against their king. If they wanted my goodwill, they should have done more to keep it,” Thorin snapped.

Bilbo jabbed the fire, hard, and sparks showered into the air, dropping embers upon them like fireworks. Bilbo jumped, and as he did he saw that he gripped the makeshift poker like a sword. Thorin had looked up at the sparks but did not move to avoid them. The blue light gleamed in his eyes. Bilbo’s heart thundered in his chest, and he opened his mouth to apologize before the reason caught up to him.

Why, his blood was as hot as the fire itself! And he realized he was angry, yes, very angry in fact, at the nerve of the dwarf before him and quite prepared to tell him so!

“Oh, that’s nice. Very nice indeed. They follow you across fire and water when none of your other kin would come, get chased, beaten, and oh yes, nearly eaten, twice, to help you regain your homeland and this is how you repay them? Toss them out the door because they dared to speak their minds? Well do you know what, Thorin Oakenshield?”

At some point Bilbo had leapt to his feet and now he stood holding the poker pointed at Thorin and staring down it along the length of his arm. Blue light glinted beneath the hood but Thorin only watched him, saying nothing. Bilbo deflated, the tip of the stick bouncing on the stone floor as he lowered it. He raked his fingers through his hair, catching and holding it as he stared blankly forward and the enormity of it all crashed down around him. “I…I just thought better of you, Thorin. I really did. I’m sorry I was wrong.”

Bilbo tossed the stick aside and turned, staring back the way he had come up the tunnel while his breathing eased from its frantic rush and his chest loosened. Then his shoulders drooped further, this time in despair. He could not very well go back the way he had come, not with Thorin like this, but the memory of the wall was rising like a pair of hands clasped around his throat and he wondered at how foolish he had been, denying Fíli and Kíli’s help, allowing Gandalf leave.

What good was he at reasoning with Thorin? Bilbo didn’t even know him, not anymore, and what was worse, he felt just as much to blame that it had come to this. Stealing the Arkenstone had been the right thing to do, he still believed that, had to, but oh, that gulf between them seemed insurmountable now and how was he ever supposed to reach across it with all this lying between them? How had he even thought to try?

“Why did you do it, burglar?” Thorin’s voice was so heavy, so replete with weariness that Bilbo found himself turning before he could even begin to think better of it, as unable to stop himself as he would have been had Thorin cried out in pain.

Thorin watched him, eyes half-lidded as he looked down. Exhausted. The black streak of scale on his left cheek seemed only a shadow that had fallen across his face and there was something there, something familiar, as if the last of the beast that attacked Bilbo in these halls had fallen away and Thorin was, if not completely himself, then at least closer to the person Bilbo remembered from before than he had been in some time. Poor fool that he was, Bilbo knew he could not have resisted that question if he tried and all pride and outrage drained from him. He sighed and sat back down, propping his cheeks in his hands as he stared into the depths of the fire.

“It is a very pretty gem, isn’t it? I’d be lying if I said that played no part,” Bilbo began. Thorin settled back, listening, and Bilbo’s voice fell into the even cadence of their many evenings by the fire, as if he related no more than the passing weather and not whys and wherefores of a betrayal that nearly had Thorin cast him to the rocks. “Mostly I was afraid, I think. We were low on food,” Thorin snorted derisively at this; Bilbo chose to ignore it, “and Bard had a point, even if I could not agree with his methods. All those poor people in Laketown… Smaug only attacked them because of us, and if a bit of the gold would help, it seemed wrong to keep it from them. It wasn’t mine to give, I know— well, except that it was, my share at least. But you hardly seemed ready to let them into the mountain to retrieve it. A couple tons of treasure… it’s hardly portable, you know. Come to think of it, I’m not sure how I was expected to get any of it home without drawing every brigand for a thousand leagues.”

Thorin gave him a measured, impatient look. Bilbo cleared his throat and hurried on. “I knew it was important to you, but there didn’t seem to be any other way. And I—I feared for you, Thorin. The way you looked at me when you asked after it was unsettling, to say the least and I, uh, I’m not sure I was entirely wrong.” Bilbo lifted his chin. “In fact I know I wasn’t. Maybe there was a better way, but we’ll never know for certain and at least all of you are alive. If being banished from the mountain is the worst I suffer, well, then so be it, but I can’t think of a better use for my share.”

A pretty gem,” Thorin remarked, his voice taking on an edge. “You have no idea of its worth. You other races never do, thinking only that we dwarves are driven mad by gold and greed.” Bilbo raised an eyebrow and could not help but make a gesture that took in Thorin’s current state, then point to treasure that surrounded them.

Thorin snarled and rose to his feet. Bilbo fell back, and he was ashamed to think of it, but his hand strayed to the hilt of Sting as Thorin loomed above him. “The Arkenstone grants its wielder the powers of kingship, among those the right to summon the armies of the dwarves. The very armies I had sent for that day.

“Am I supposed to believe your kin need a gem as an excuse to come help you?” Bilbo interrupted, glaring up at Thorin, who returned the look with equal venom.

“I gave Dáin assurances that the Arkenstone was in my possession when I sent for him, asking for his aid against the armies of Bard and Thranduil,” Thorin retorted, ignoring Bilbo’s question. “Little did I know that it had been stolen by the burglar I hired to retrieve it!”

“Then I am all the more glad I stole it!” Bilbo said. “I don’t want Dáin fighting Thranduil and Bard anymore than I wanted you fighting them!”

“Do you understand nothing of politics?” Thorin growled. “When Dáin arrives he will learn that I have lied to him and I will stand foresworn before my kin. Worse, as the leader of the Company, I will be held responsible for the Arkenstone falling into the hands of the very enemies I summoned them to fight!”

“But what does any of this matter, Thorin, when the fighting is already over!” Bilbo shouted. This time it was Thorin’s turn to recoil, his eyes snapping wide at Bilbo’s words.

“Over? It will be days more before Dáin arrives from the Iron Hills. How can it be over?” Thorin said.  

This drew Bilbo up short and his breath left him in a rush as he stared at Thorin, remembering the dwarf’s earlier words of how long he’d slept. “Thorin,” he said cautiously, “do you have any idea how long you’ve been down here?”

“Three days, no more,” Thorin said, but the rage that had leant him size and might was failing him, and his voice was tight as he looked to Bilbo for confirmation.

Bilbo’s eyebrows rose and he puffed out his cheeks as he exhaled. “Oh...oh dear.” He looked back up to Thorin, at the black scales climbing his cheek and his blue eyes burning from within the hood. “Oh dear, oh dear… Thorin, you may want to sit down for this one. I’m not even sure where to begin.”

“Dáin… is already here?” Thorin said. The anger drained from Thorin entirely then, and Bilbo would have been heartened at this if he did not suspect it could easily return if he was not very, very careful with what he said next.

“Here? Yes, you could say that, he has been for almost a week,” Bilbo said. At this Thorin did sit down, and put out a hand to steady himself on an ornamental vase that lay upended upon the gold. “We were wondering when you’d come out and uh, would have sent someone to look for you sooner if not for the battle.”

“There was a battle?” Thorin said, and it seemed the healthy skin of his face had gone even paler than the gray, diseased flesh.

“Yes,” Bilbo said, and began unconsciously wringing his hands. “A terrible one. When Dáin arrived we all feared he and Thranduil would come to blows, everyone was squabbling over how they would get into the mountain. To be honest, with the door collapsed I’m not sure anyone knew what they were doing there anymore. Well, then Azog arrived with an entire army, if you can believe it. Who knows for certain why they came to Erebor, probably to get at you. Of course, Bard, Thranduil, and Dáin had no choice but to take up arms together to fight off the orcs. Then the Eagles appeared, oh and Beorn. I have no idea where he came from.” As he spoke, Thorin’s face shifted through an array of emotions starting at shock and moving on to horror and then bewilderment, before he seemed to give up entirely on trying to understand and just stared wide-eyed at the floor. “They’re already calling it the Battle of the Five Armies and such a mess I’ve never seen in my life. Nearly didn’t survive it myself, when Azog found Fíli and Kíli…”

Thorin sucked in a breath, his face expression twisting and growing, if possible, even more sickened.

“They’re fine!” Bilbo exclaimed when he caught sight of it. “Goodness, you think I wouldn’t tell you straightaways if any harm had come to them? I spoke to them in the infirmary before I left. They’re a bit the worse for wear— Fíli took a nasty blow to the head— but I’ve been assured they will recover quickly. Fortunately, they come from a line of hard skulls.” He offered a faint grin at the last but Thorin appeared to take no notice.

“What else?” Thorin said. He gave Bilbo a look that could pierce stone. “Tell me everything. What was the outcome?”

“Oh, well,” Bilbo stuttered, taken aback to be pinned thus by his gaze. “The orcs were defeated, obviously, or I wouldn’t be here. I’m afraid I missed how it was accomplished, took a blow to the head myself while I was trying to keep Azog away from Fíli and Kíli. Luckily Dáin showed up just before then and killed him, I think. By the time I came to it was all over. There were,” Bilbo gave a shuddering breath, “many deaths. Not just orcs but elves and Men and dwarves. No one from the company, but it was… hard… to see so many strewn about.”

Bilbo gulped and realized with horror that he was choking back tears. His first sight of the battlefield had been like a dream, and had not penetrated the daze brought on by his head wound and general bewilderment. Now, with a little distance and clearer mind, he gagged at the force of the memory, of the piles of dead, their forms twisted in agony, their bodies…not entirely intact. He quickly blotted the image of their broken forms from his mind, of the things that had come spilling out, else indeed he would be sick.

“H-hard to believe it was only this morning,” Bilbo continued with a weak laugh, realizing he had been staring at the fire and feeling very cold despite it.

“This morning?” Thorin echoed. His expression had changed as Bilbo spoke, losing some of its severity. He no longer watched Bilbo as if challenging him, but rather with something closer to concern. “You were wounded, yet did not take any time to rest before coming here?”

“Oh, one of Dáin’s folk patched me up well enough. It was only a little bump. The worst of it was lying on the battlefield all night, terribly uncomfortable that was. If I never smell orc blood again it will be too soon,” Bilbo said with a dismissive wave, relieved to have moved on to safer topics. “Actually, I was glad to have something to do. There’s not much use for a hobbit on a battlefield, before, during or after. I suppose I could have helped with the wounded, but quite frankly it’s a dreadful business and most likely I would have only been in the way. With the Arkenstone squared away, there would not have been anything left to do but wait and worry about you, and from the look of it we would have been waiting quite some time.”

Thorin frowned, shaking his head as if driving away a bothersome fly. “You’re doing it again,” he said irritably.

“I beg your pardon, doing what?” Bilbo said, startled.

“You speak of great deeds as if they are of little account, then go on about your own unworthiness even as you fling yourself into dangers even the bravest would not dare, you impossible, infuriating… burglar!” Thorin said. His eyes seemed clearer as he spoke, the blue glow dimmed, though he still looked as if he could chew through rocks in his annoyance.

“Well!” Bilbo said. “I suppose I learned from the best in that regard, Master Oakenshield. If I fling myself into danger it is only because a certain leader of our company did so at the slightest provocation, and seemed to expect nothing less of those who followed him. Goodness knows you never commented on my deeds before, why should I expect them to be of any import now?”

“And why should my comment have ever mattered? Your deeds during the quest will already be the subject of dwarven song for an Age, to say so aloud would be to repeat the obvious,” Thorin growled, but looked away as his own words seemed to catch up with him, and along with it the first tinge of shame in the downward flicker of his eyes.

“It still would have been nice to hear from time to time,” Bilbo said softly. “To have done anything that impressed the mighty Thorin Oakenshield, why, that would have been a feather in my cap and no mistake. They’d never believe it back home.”

Thorin studied Bilbo, searching for some sign of mockery, then shifted and turned away. There was agitation in the set of his frame, some restless energy, and he cast several glances back at Bilbo, his mouth working as if preparing a response. Only then did it occurred to Bilbo what he had neglected to mention, why it was the very purpose of his errand!

“Oh, but you likely don’t care about any of that!” Bilbo exclaimed. “But you should be pleased to hear that the Arkenstone has been retrieved and returned to dwarven hands, even if Thranduil did try to kick up a fuss over it.”

“The Arkenstone?” Thorin said, and if Bilbo didn’t know any better he’d think from Thorin’s tone he’d forgotten it entirely, which was of course impossible. “How was this accomplished?”

“It was mostly Gandalf, I must admit, goodness knows I couldn’t convince those three to put themselves out if they were on fire. But I did suggest that it be returned to Fíli in your absence, what with him being your heir and us, ah, not knowing when or if you’d be back. I knew it belonged to your father and grandfather after all, even if I did not know its full importance at that time, maybe because someone never bothered to tell me. It seemed too important an heirloom to have bartered about like an old sofa, and really what use would Bard have had for it? He certainly could not have traded it for food and he is the only one who can be called even slightly deserving, as far as I’m concerned. And... Thorin?” The dwarf did not appear to be paying attention.

“I should have been there,” Thorin muttered. “For all of it, the negotiations, the battle, Fíli and Kíli. I should have been fighting with them on the front lines, not lying in some stupor—!” He dashed his hands over the gold, sending coins dancing and pinging into the dark.

“Well, I for one am glad you weren’t there,” Bilbo retorted. “In the state you were in, you would have made some suicidal charge, probably at the elves instead of the orcs, and gotten us all killed.” He sighed. “Please just…come out of here, and let us help you. Then I’ll be on my way and you need not see me again.”

Thorin regarded him silently and when he finally spoke he tilted his head up but would not meet Bilbo’s eyes. “After all that has happened... why did you come back?”

Bilbo blinked. “I—I should think that would be obvious? We were worried about you. But I suppose you mean after the…unpleasantness, on the wall.” He huffed a sigh, but felt his insides clench uncomfortably even at the memory of all that dizzying space yawning behind him. “Because there was no one else. Because you might have been hurt, or sick, or starving alone down here. Because… because in the end I know I wronged you, and thought to make up for it at least in part. I’d rather we parted in kindness, Thorin, though I know some things cannot be forgiven.”

At each word, Thorin's face twisted until finally he said, “Enough!” He paused at Bilbo’s flinch, and held up a mollifying hand, his manner softening. “You shame me with your words, Master Baggins. For all the ill that has come between us I… realize I have wronged you. I cannot say I am not angry with you still, likely I will be for many years hence. This anger it… is like a living thing inside of me, like nothing I have ever known.” Thorin frowned to himself, as if troubled by his own words. “But know that as much as I can, I forgive you for any wrong you may have brought me or my house, and can only hope that one day you might find it in yourself to forgive me in turn.”

Bilbo blinked, unsure of what he was hearing. But Thorin did indeed look properly ashamed, hunched in on himself under his cloak. He was a far cry from the terror that had shaken Bilbo on the parapet and called him a descendent of rats. Why, Bilbo had seen children caught with their hand in the cookie jar that were less miserable. He seemed barely strong enough to hold himself upright at the moment. Still.

“You were terribly rude up there, you know. I was frightened quite out of my wits, ” Bilbo said. “But, all things considered, I… suppose you had your reasons. I too could have had a bit more tact, and there really is no excuse for stealing. I should know, having been a victim many times myself from certain relatives. A far as I’m concerned the matter is forgiven and forgotten, and if we never need to bring it up again, it will be too soon.”

“So easily?” Thorin said with a frown. “I expected it would take many years for you to forgive the harm I might have caused you up there and…just now.”

Bilbo huffed out a sigh. “Well, we Hobbits are not one to hold grudges.” Relatively speaking, he added mentally.

“A soft and fickle people, then,” Thorin muttered, but immediately seemed guilty at his own words.

“Practical, and not prone to throwing our lives and health away on old disputes better left in the past,” Bilbo retorted. “Certainly we are not as stubborn as certain dwarves I could name, though some of my kind make a good attempt at it.” Bilbo looked down at his teacup, noting with some annoyance that it had gone cold long ago, and he without tasting a drop. “Seems a bit hypocritical in any case: you just forgave me quickly enough.”

“You’ve done enough to earn a lifetime of forgiveness, Master Baggins,” Thorin said softly. “I’m only sorry that I ever forgot that.”

“I…yes, well,” Bilbo began. Thorin was looking up at him now from beneath dark lashes; his head tilted so the black scales up his cheek were hidden in shadow. The blue light shining from his eyes seemed to have faded, or perhaps been overpowered by the firelight and Thorin’s skin had taken on a ruddier glow, less the ghostly pallor that had been there when Bilbo first saw him. Bilbo felt himself blush to be looking so closely. “Does this mean I’m no longer banished from Erebor?’

“It’s already a poor exile if you can walk in by the back door,” Thorin said, with a faint smile that made Bilbo wonder if he should move away from the fire, it was indeed quite warm.

“Then might we not walk out of it now?” Bilbo said, feeling a bit reckless and Tookish, but the prospect of the errand proving far simpler than he expected caused a rush of giddiness. He offered his hand to Thorin.

And, wonder of wonders, Thorin looked at Bilbo’s hand and his own appeared from within the folds of the cloak, hovering above Bilbo’s. Then he paused. The snap and pop of the fire filled the silence. Thorin was staring down at his own hand, the black scales wrapped around his wrists and trailing up his hand like a choking vine. Talons glinted in the firelight at the end of his fingertips. Then he retracted his hand and it sank back to his side, and Bilbo’s heart sank with it. Thorin shook his head. “I cannot.”

“Thorin, you have been ill, the others will understand,” Bilbo said with a sigh. “No one is going to blame you.”

“An illness? That’s all you think this is?” Thorin said incredulously. He stood then and pushed back the hood and tossed the edge of his cloak from his shoulders. He wore only black trousers beneath it, his feet were bare, and if Bilbo made a somewhat undignified squeaking sound it was quickly swallowed by his subsequent gasp of alarm. The flickering light cast deep shadows over gleaming scales scratched in a jagged line from above Thorin’s left eye, down his cheek and throat where it spread out in great ragged patches across hard plains of his bare chest, the skin dry and curled at the edges like burnt paper.  In his rush to grant Thorin a cloak, Bilbo had not noticed how far the diseased flesh had spread.

He moved closer, probing at the Thorin’s chest with the tip of his fingers and found the scales dry and smooth, like snakeskin, and the deep black of their hue perfectly matched Thorin’s hair, as if the scales were an extension of his coloring. Thorin’s own pale flesh was dry at the edges and…hot, fevered even and it was only when this thought registered that he realized his face was inches from Thorin’s chest and that Thorin was watching him but had done nothing to stop Bilbo’s inspection.

“If it’s not an illness, what is it?” Bilbo said, and was quite proud that he did not stutter as he pulled away.

“A curse. Some parting gift from Smaug to ensnare any who tries to reclaim the gold,” Thorin said. He pulled the cloak back over his shoulders in a strangely self-conscious move, concealing his body again, though the hood remained down. “I know not for certain, I know only that I lacked the strength to resist it. I cannot face my people like this. Twisted, rotting from within…” Helpless frustration contorted Thorin’s face. “And if it is a punishment? For my crimes against you, and against my kin. Like a dragon I have behaved, so a dragon I have become?” The distant look had returned to Thorin’s eyes, panic that seemed to take him far away, and he stared as if contemplating some unimaginable horror.

Bilbo’s heart twisted, for it seemed wrong that one who had always been so fearless should wear such a look of terror. “Listen to me. Listen, Thorin. There is a cure for this, I’m sure of it. You think this is a curse? Then we should go to Gandalf, he will know what to do.”

Thorin jerked away at Gandalf’s name, the lost look instantly replaced by fury. The glow of his eyes snapped alight, bathing his face in its ghostly pallor. “I will not go begging on my knees for aid from that old traitor.”

“No one said anything about begging,” Bilbo said. “But, unless you’ve forgotten, he is the only wizard for hundreds of miles.”

“He sent my father to his death on a hopeless quest to regain our home, and abandoned us to the mercy of the Elves, twice. What purpose he had in in aiding us I know not, but it was not for our benefit. Even now he takes the side of our enemies against us. No, I have been blind too long to the wiles of that wizard, I will not seek him now,” Thorin snapped.

“Thorin, that’s insane,” Bilbo sighed. But at his words Thorin’s back stiffened and something passed over his face that looked like…fear. And Bilbo remembered then a conversation overheard long ago, about the strain of madness that ran in Thorin’s family, and backpeddled frantically. “If you will not see Gandalf, then what do you propose? We only have supplies for a fortnight after all.”

“We?” Thorin said. But the fear had been replaced by relief, and some of the shadow and anger left his face, which in turn calmed Bilbo immensely.

“Of course! I was sent here with a job to do, after all, and I think you have been down here alone long enough,” Bilbo said. He meant it all quite matter-of-fact but trailed off at Thorin’s expression, for he was staring as if Bilbo had said something quite extraordinary. It was all the hobbit could do to keep from fidgeting beneath that gaze. Then Thorin seemed to catch himself and looked back over his shoulder at the hoard.

“This cannot be the first time such a malady has afflicted my kind. There may be some record of it in our archives,” Thorin said then a memory seemed to occur to him for he snuck a glance back at Bilbo and continued sheepishly “Unless you wish to rest first?”

“Well, if we’re going to be down here for some time, it would make sense to form a more permanent camp,” Bilbo said, nodding to the sea of gold on which their small campfire sat haphazardly. “And it has been a long day, a bit of rest would not go amiss.”

“Then that is what we will do,” Thorin said with a nod to himself. He hesitated and Bilbo nearly jumped out of his skin as Thorin patted a hand against his shoulder. “Thank you.”

And perhaps in that moment the memory finally fell away, of Thorin’s face twisted in anger, of the cold wind and the stone whirling beneath his feet, and took its place firmly in the past. Bilbo smiled tentatively back. “Think nothing of it.”

 


II

Eyes I dare not meet in dreams
In death's dream kingdom

Chapter Text

Thus began a routine that could have been called domestic if not for their surroundings. Bilbo suggested they move their small campsite to the platform above the treasury, as for a multitude of reasons he was wary of remaining so close to the gold and it hardly made a comfortable resting place. Thorin grumbled at this but complied. Once there, Bilbo set aside the foodstuffs in neat piles and selected from the hoard a beautifully wrought iron tripod, carved with knotwork patterns and mysterious dwarven runes, to serve as their fireplace. Thorin helped drag it up the stairs, and together they placed it in the center of the camp.

He had just laid out the bedrolls when Thorin returned, depositing an armful of tinder and a wide-mouthed bucket of black rocks at the edge of the living space Bilbo had prepared for them.

“Charcoal?” Bilbo said, peering into the bucket and brushing his finger over one of the rocks. It came away black with coal dust.

“From the forges,” Thorin said shortly, taking a seat on one of the bedrolls. “Far more efficient than broken furniture. Once I get it started they will burn for days.”

“If we can get them hot enough. I seem to recall forge coals require a great deal more heat to light,” Bilbo said. “I should have a tinderbox here somewhere. I hope it will be enough” He turned back to the mostly empty pack, and sure enough there was a simple copper box hiding at the bottom, which he handed it to Thorin.

Thorin snorted. “Getting them hot enough will be no great task. A dwarven infant could have these white hot before he knew how to walk.”

“Oh course, how silly of me to forget for even a moment that you’re all obsessed with smithing,” Bilbo said, rolling his eyes. “Just let me know if I can be of help.”

“Thanks to our obsession, as you put it, I have lit and probably built more forges than you have days in your life. I doubt there is much you can do aid me,” Thorin said, turning his attention to the brazier, dumping the charcoal into the basin and setting to work with the tinder and thus did not see Bilbo making a face at him behind his back. Bilbo sobered though, as a thought occurred to him.

“Even here in Erebor?” Bilbo said. “All those seemed fairly well constructed to me.”

“No, not here,” Thorin said as he struck the flint and steel together. They sparked immediately and the tinder branches caught within a matter of seconds, Bilbo noted with some admiration. It usually took him several attempts when getting his own hearth going. “Lighting the forge is the first job of a blacksmith when he begins his day. But in Erebor…” Thorin paused, exhaled, and some of the tension bled out of him as he remembered where they stood. “Here, the forges were never cold except for repairs. And there were hundreds at work, at all hours. The hammers of our smiths fell day and night, like ringing bells.” There was reverence in Thorin’s voice as he spoke. Then his expression hardened. “No, the forges of Erebor needed little help from me. It was the forges of Men, poor things barely hot enough for pig iron, that were my lot in the years of our exile. I wrung what craft I could from them, but for little purpose but to mend crude pots, nails, horseshoes…” Thorin fairly snarled the last. The fire was spreading beneath his hand with remarkable speed, though the forge coals had not yet caught.

“Even if you left the mountain in haste, wouldn’t you have had some gold and jewels with you? Even the smallest of these gems would be enough to set up any hobbit for years, if he could find anyone with enough gold to buy it from him,” said Bilbo.

“Hardly,” Thorin said, and seemed to be biting back a further retort, possibly regarding the lives of Hobbits. Instead he took a moment to blow more heat into the kindling. “Much went to buying food and shelter in those first years, at exorbitant prices. There were thousands of us, and our need was obvious, so in all places we were overcharged. My family did what we had to to keep our people alive.” Bilbo went quiet as he absorbed this, imagining long trains of dwarves, their raiment still blackened from the dragon fire, crossing the landscape with their wagons, bringing with them what belongings had been on hand during the attack.

“Still, with so many of you on the road I shouldn’t think a prince would need to stoop to such work,” Bilbo said. “I remember the wandering dwarven smiths that came to the Shire when I was lad. They seemed a rough bunch. I find it hard to imagine you among them.”

“I may well have been,” said Thorin with a grimace. His voice grew harsh with memory.  “We always needed more hands. They were dark times, when all beauty was robbed from us, leaving only drudgery.”

Bilbo thought of his warm hobbit hole, where no danger or want had ever touched him. He had once ventured out from there when the lock on the door jammed, hoping to bring it to one of the dwarven smiths passing through the town. Tinkers, the Hobbits called them, and he had rushed to and from their shop as quickly as possible, not even looking them in the eye when he paid the fee for their work. They had been a fearsome bunch, with wild beards and piercing gazes. Or so he had imagined, he had been too afraid to look them in the eye. Had one of those dwarves been Thorin all those years ago? The lock had worked beautifully after that, and never jammed again. He had never really taken the time to admire the marvelous craftsmanship that had gone into it, only felt relief that it meant he’d never have to interact again with those big, fearsome folk. In truth he felt a rush of shame now at the memory, and reached out without thinking to pat Thorin on the shoulder. “All in the past now.”

Bilbo’s brow furrowed. The fire had not yet caught, yet heat radiated through the fabric draped over Thorin's shoulders. It was an intense heat at that, more than feverish, akin touching the door of a stove. Bilbo pulled his hand back and only then saw Thorin’s expression.

The dwarf was hunched over the fire and his hands…his hands were clutching the edges of the tripod, though the metal must be searing hot. Thorin’s eyes were wide, wild, and unseeing, and his breath came in great panting gasps. The muscles in his arms spasmed as if he would tear the iron apart with his bare hands. Then before Bilbos’s eyes, Thorin’s fingers clenched and there was the shriek of metal as his claws tore deep furrows into the iron. Bilbo’s head jerked up to gaze on Thorin’s face. His teeth were gritted in a silent snarl. Had Bilbo been mistaken before when he thought the black scales went only to Thorin’s brow? Now they ran in a jagged line up the left side of his face, all the way to his hairline.

“Thorin, Thorin!” Bilbo said in alarm, dashing around the brazier to stand in front of Thorin, the fire flickering between them. “It’s all right, it’s over! You’re home now, you’re safe!”

“Over?” Thorin said. His voice held the grate of cracking stone. “Vultures sit before our gates, waiting to pick over the corpses of our dead, they who only hindered us in our quest, and would not raise a finger to aid us when we wandered in starvation and poverty, and you would tell me it’s over?” The tripod trembled beneath his hands and Bilbo took a step back, thinking it would be torn asunder in a shower of fire and charcoal. Yet a greater heat seemed to radiate from Thorin himself and the blue of his gaze burned with its own flame. The black scales of his forearms caught the light as the gray flesh at the edges cracked and flaked. “You, you…!”

A change came over Thorin’s face, and rage gave way to nausea. His face turned a peculiar shade of green beneath the ruddy cast of the flames. “Get away from me,” he choked.

“Thorin, what are you…?” Bilbo said.

“I said, get away!” Thorin reached over the flames, grabbing Bilbo by the collar then jerked his arm, flinging Bilbo across the polished stone floor where he skidded, stopping just feet from the edge of the platform. Bilbo scrambled away from the edge on his hands and knees, sputtering protests, but Thorin wasn’t listening. He was hunched over the flames, his eyes squeezed shut, sweat glinting on his forehead. Then without warning he doubled over and fire exploded from his lips, whirling across the coals. They flared white with heat as they caught, raising a gout of black smoke into the air.

Thorin tumbled back, falling to the floor, and curled in on himself as he was wracked by a coughing fit. When the storm passed he looked up, eyes red-rimmed from the exertion, gazing over the flames at Bilbo. For a moment there was only the cheerful crackling of the fire as they stared at one another.

“Well, that is one way to start a fire,” Bilbo remarked. And well, what else could he do? For if he started screaming now, he was fairly certain he would never stop. 

Thorin tilted his head at Bilbo’s words and gave him a look of stunned incredulity, mouth slightly agape and brow furrowed. He appeared to be struggling for words to respond to what appeared to be the most inane sentence he had ever heard. As he could not see his own expression, he likely did not understand the reason why Bilbo swiftly clamped a hand over his own mouth, or the choked sounds that escaped as a hysterical giggle.

“I’m sorry, it’s just… this really is a fine mess, and no mistake,” Bilbo said. Thorin bristled, pulling the hood of the cloak over his head from where it had fallen back during his convulsions, then rose to his feet, walking towards the stairs.

“No, wait, Thorin I didn’t mean…” Bilbo said, grabbing Thorin by the arms and stopping him as he tried to walk past.

“This is not your burden,” Thorin said, wrenching his arm back but Bilbo held on.

“I say,” Bilbo said, drawing himself straighter, “it most certainly is! And I can hardly be expected to do nothing. Besides, a burden shared is a burden halved. Thorin,” he said as the dwarf looked away and again tried to free himself. “I will help you find a cure for this.”

“Where did you think I was going?” Thorin said.

“Oh, I don’t know, probably to go sit in a corner somewhere and brood, though I’m sure you’d look quite majestic as you did so. Was I entirely wrong?”

Thorin’s hardened lips drew to a thin line that told Bilbo he had not missed his mark. “If you must know, I thought to go first on my own to search the archives. I see no more point in waiting.”

“A likely story,” Bilbo said. “Very well, it is a good plan and quicker accomplished with two. In the meantime though, I imagine you’re hungry after emptying your stomach like that. Let me make us up a packed lunch first.”

“I’m not hungry,” Thorin said. “And you cannot read Khuzdûl. It would be a pointless exercise.”

“First of all, I don’t believe you. You’ve been down here for days with only a cup of tea in you, unless Smaug had a hidden larder somewhere. Second, who says all the books will be in dwarvish? I speak Westron, and know some Sindarin from my mother; it may be that the other races know more of this malady than yours.” Thorin glowered and Bilbo interrupted him with a flap of his hands. “Or not! But I won’t wait here while you go wandering off into the dark. Besides, you would actually have to tie me up in a sack to stop me,” Bilbo reminded him.

“A tempting offer,” Thorin said, and Bilbo might have huffed in annoyance if not for the faint smile teasing the corner of his lips. “Very well, pack your lunch and let us be off.”

Bilbo nodded, then dashed over to the now empty pack, tossing in a few apples, cheese, bread and cured sausages, remembering the dwarven distaste for any food that didn’t involve meat. He might make some sandwiches once in the library, he did not risk making them now for fear Thorin might take off. Only at the last minute did he remember to include a few candles along with the tinderbox. He did not fancy the idea of having to wander the vast caverns of Erebor on his own, or waiting around an empty camp for Thorin to return when the dwarf had already shown a talent for disappearing for days on end.

“Ready,” he said. Thorin nodded and together they set off into the dark, passing out of the gold treasure room of Thrór into the winding caverns of the underground city.

The halls were dark, almost too dark for Bilbo to navigate but Thorin moved through them unerringly. When Bilbo lagged behind, uncertain where to step without tumbling into the fathomless distance below, and could not help but wonder why dwarves seemed so averse to railings, Thorin grabbed him by the wrist and pulled him onward without looking back. His hand was warm, too warm by Bilbo’s thinking, and together they navigated what felt like miles past great bronze doors and pillared halls. There were even some fountains that still trickled, adding the silvery pling of water to the underground breeze that seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere at once. Bilbo tried not to look too closely at the scattered mounds of cloth and dust, though whether out of fear for what he might see or respect for the dead he could not bear to examine.

“We’re here,” Thorin said, stopping before a great arch that once held double doors, before they had been torn from their hinges and smashed to kindling on the floor. Bilbo stepped gingerly around the wreckage, and coughed as dust assaulted his nose on the other side, waving his hand to clear the air.

Then he stopped, mouth falling open as his eyes adjusted to the better light. Somewhere high above tiny holes like stars had been drilled into the ceiling then covered with glass, allowing natural light to filter down. It caught the dust motes hanging in the air, making them appear as chains of golden light, solid enough to touch. And beyond, beyond…

Books. Shelves climbing to the ceilings, and stretching away from his as far as the eye could see, stacks of scrolls and tablets too. The walls were covered in intricate patterns and engraved runes, while solemn statues of dwarves held the ceilings above on their shoulders, and smaller statues of marble and alabaster filled the alcoves. Unlike all the other statues Bilbo had seen, these did not carry axes or swords. The one closest to the door had a forked beard and in one hand held a scroll and in the other a tablet. Further down a statue of what he thought might be a dwarven woman held a hammer and tongs. Between them was an empty alcove, deep claw marks like knife wounds scrawled into the stone. Bilbo thought he might guess what had once stood there: statues of gold and precious metal, looted by Smaug to be added to the greater hoard.

Thorin,” Bilbo breathed as his head tilted back and he looked up, up, up to the dome above. “This is magnificent!”

“Yet much diminished since last I saw it,” Thorin murmured. Bilbo turned to him and saw his face was shadowed by a deep, abiding grief. When Bilbo looked back to the library he saw it then, that which had been hidden by glory on his first glimpse. Fallen shelves, shattered tablets, manuscripts torn and scattered across the floor. Dust coated every surface, and there were black scorch marks upon the walls.

“I’m sorry,” Bilbo said quietly. “It must have been truly glorious. I never would have guessed.”

“What do you mean?” said Thorin turning to him, puzzled.

“Well, except for Balin and Ori, none of you seemed a very scholarly bunch. But this library is bigger even than Lord Elrond’s!”

Thorin snorted and looked back to the shelves. “You would judge a people by their lowest point and think you have the measure of them? Erebor has one of the greatest libraries east of the sea; the only one greater was in Khazad-dûm, before it was lost. Even the cities of Men cannot compare.” There was no mistaking the pride in his voice. “We record everything: our histories, building techniques, art, engineering… Unlike Elves, we cannot depend on memory or long lives to protect our knowledge. When the last dwarf falls he will do so with a book in hand, recording the names and deeds of all who fell before him.”

Bilbo shivered at the image. “It’s just…when I said I would help you I did not, could not imagine it would be so huge! I have one of the largest libraries in the Shire and it would not fill one of these shelves. How will we begin to find what we need? Do you know the author’s name?” he said looked out over the ruined expanse with dismay.

Thorin looked at him askance. “We won’t need it, the library has its own organization system of which the author’s name is only a small part. So long as it has not been destroyed, we should have no trouble.” He shook his head. “Honestly, organizing a library by author? No wonder Men cannot keep any decent records, they must always be losing what they’ve wrought.” With that he wandered over to a corner Bilbo had not heretofore noticed, and pulled out a set of shelves filled with…tablets? There were runes inscribed on them that Bilbo could not read. Thorin skimmed them once, then opened a second shelf reading whatever was written there quickly, before shutting both and setting off towards the stacks.

“Wait, aren’t you going to look at the others too?” Bilbo said, trotting after him.

“No need. The information could only be amongst the histories, specifically those accounts which deal with the sacking of dwarven cities by dragons.”

“You could tell all of that with one look?” Bilbo exclaimed.

“It is a numeric system, each subject is divided by number, with subcategories within based on the era or topic. I needed only to refresh my memory. For that matter, what histories we have in the language of Elves and Men are on the way, so you may set to work as well,” said Thorin without breaking stride.

“A numeric system, imagine that! I have never heard of such a thing,” Bilbo marveled. For he was in fact a scholar at heart and found himself strangely excited by the idea. Why, how efficient it would be for larger collections! All that he had seen were done by the name of the author, or of the work if none was known, which meant beyond a certain point it became impossible to find anything if one didn’t already know what they were looking for. He had tried introducing a few different organization systems, which only made matters worse. To think the dwarves had come up with something so clever! Well, he supposed he should not be surprised.

Many of the shelves had tumbled with time or by Smaug’s destruction, their contents scattered over the floor, but a remarkable number remained standing and untouched save for a thick layer of dust. Thorin stopped before of one of them. “Here lie the histories of Elves and Men. I wish you luck.”

“For your sake I hope I have it,” Bilbo replied, and squared his shoulders as he looked to the great carven shelf that carried mostly scrolls, some of them with silken tassels hanging from the ends, or wrapped around ornate carven rods. There was an elvish feel to it that set the works apart from the rest of the library.

“You are certain you won’t have any trouble?”

“I’ll be fine,” Bilbo said, and cracked his knuckles.

“Some of those are very high up, would you like me to find you something to stand on? A stool, perhaps, or a box?”

“I climbed higher than I like to remember up a burning pine tree, I imagine a bookshelf should pose no difficulty,” said Bilbo dryly.

He heard a soft whuffing sound and was glad his face was turned so that Thorin could not see how hard he was grinning in response to the dwarf’s quiet chuckling. “There are quite a lot of books,” Thorin observed.

“Which means that for the first time in this whole blasted journey, I am actually set to a task at which I have some experience. You have more to go through than I, shouldn’t you be going?”

“Indeed,” Thorin laughed, and strode off down the hall and out of sight.


These do not appear:
There, the eyes are
Sunlight on a broken column
There, is a tree swinging

 

Chapter Text

Thorin was still chuckling to himself as he rounded the stacks. The corridors seemed to go for miles, but the practicality of his people meant this was no aimless search. The number of the catalogue brought him far into the darkened halls of the library, still clear as day to his own vision. Here the books were mixed with older tablets, runes stamped into baked clay or carved into stone. Dwarves had been late adopters of the wood-pulp parchment and vellum of Elven records, being long distrustful of their fragility. But eventually his people had to admit to their utility, particularly in regards to storage, for thousands of tablets took up far more space than a single scroll or paper tome.

Thorin’s touch was reverent as he found the histories, tracing the back of his finger down the spines, careful to keep hooked claws from the aged bindings. They were familiar books, the histories of his people, of his family. Though dust coated them, no vermin had managed to penetrate the halls of Erebor and the room was dry enough that the books were still intact. The first one he touched, drawing his eye like a lodestone, was the tale of the great Azaghâl, the Lord of Gabilgathol. He who, though slain by the dragon Glaurung, delivered such a blow upon the beast that it fled from battle, taking the many servants of the Enemy with him. A rush of nostalgia filled Thorin at the sight of the worn tome. How many times had he, Frerin, and Dís urged their father to read it to them? How many times in turn had Fíli and Kíli begged him to tell again their favorite tale? There was no need to open it; he could have recited the entire work from memory.

Even more to the point the tale of Azaghâl, while a great one, had only the barest description of the dragon, and no mention of any illness associated with their kind. He moved on to the next volume, carefully taking it down from the shelf and turned to the first page. He recognized this one too from childhood: the coming of the cold-drakes to the Grey Mountains, and the death of his great-grandfather Dáin I and his grandfather’s brother Frór before the gates, almost two centuries before Thorin was born. The survivors had fled those halls, his grandfather going south to found Erebor, while his great-uncle went on to settle the Iron Hills, now ruled by Thorin’s cousin, Dáin II. It seemed that ever were the dwarves beset, driven from one home to the next by dragons and other servants of the Enemy.

Thorin’s teeth dug into his lower lip at the sight of the scales on his own arm and he closed the book, putting it too aside. It was many more books that he sampled before he found one that went into further detail on Glaurung, Father of Dragons, whose baleful gaze was a weapon of its own in battle. How long he dwelt in the treasury of Nulukkizdîn, once the city of the Petty-dwarves before it was settled by Elves and renamed Nargothrond. He knew the Petty-dwarves had died out long ago, yet he felt the old flicker of curiosity at that vanished people, so disdained by his own ancestors.

So far, there was no mention of any illness that resembled his own. It was far too early to give in to frustration, he reminded himself, with an inner voice that sounded suspiciously like Bilbo. After all, he had no knowledge of this disease and so it would not be waiting in the histories he already knew. Still, impatience nagged at him, for he had to admit that Bilbo was right: that if they could not find a source for the disease or some clue as to the cure in the next few days, the best course of action was to bargain with Gandalf.

Thorin knew that pride played some role in his desire to stay well away from the wizard, but there was more to it than that. He could never fully forgive Gandalf for his role in the armies at the gate, or for what Thorin knew now of his father’s end. But here, in the darkness surrounded by the histories of his people, he could not help but admit in his heart of hearts that he wished to avoid Gandalf for another reason. For Gandalf numbered among the wise of Middle Earth, he could well know this curse on sight. And if he saw Thorin, if he said there was no cure…?

Thorin pushed such thoughts aside and turned back to the shelves. If there be no hope, let him discover it on his own, not before the judgmental gaze of wizards and Men. Had not Bilbo said that they feared him dead? Then it would be simple to vanish into the darkness of his city, never to return. He would prefer it to facing their judgment. He would prefer it to the eyes of his nephews and kin.

Other tomes held much the same information: the migrations of the dwarves, and the machinations of the Enemy. Soon he turned to older works, to tablets yet to be copied to flimsy parchment, and from there to a section on the history of the Petty-dwarves. Thorin was reminded of how there was no final answer on why they had diminished and ultimately vanished from the world. The histories of his people, the Longbeards, barely touched upon them, for they had been a despised off-shoot of Durin’s Folk and their disappearance had been counted no great loss at the time.

Yet Thorin knew well the histories of his own people, of the Third and Second Ages, and knew they carried no mention of the dragon sickness as he suffered it, and so he found himself drawn to the dusty tablets that held one of the few surviving records of that lost people. For in truth no scholar had made any real study of the Petty-dwarves, yet theirs were some of the oldest accounts in the library.

He carefully removed some ten stone tablets from a lower shelf, tucked into a corner almost as if they were hidden, their clay surfaces blackened by fire and rubbed smooth by time. They were engraved with runes in a dialect of Khuzdûl so ancient it was strange to Thorin’s eyes, even though the language of dwarves had changed little over the years. He set them carefully, one by one onto the floor and knelt before them, bent forward as he painstakingly scanned the worn script. Someone had thought these tablets belonged here, near the histories of Glaurung and the Sack of Nargothrond, yet he did not recall seeing a record of their existence in the reference lists. A dwarf would never deliberately destroy such a work, or let it be truly lost, but might it have indeed been hidden there?

Thorin’s eyes widened as piece by piece another tale came together from between the lacuna and cracked spaces of the ancient tablets. For this record was by one of the Petty-dwarves, not only about them, an account of their own history. He read eagerly at first, then slowed, eyes widening with horror, as a very different tale emerged than the one he had learned as a child.

 

Read here the account of Mîm, last of the Nauglath, called the Petty-dwarves and the wicked dwarves by those who despise us. I leave to you the account of my people, our only account, so that our enemies may know the depth of their wrongs against us.
To whosoever should find this: despair, for you have found the hoard of Glaurung and your doom is nigh.

You shall not leave it whole.

We, the Nauglath, awoke in the shadow of the Enemy, far from the kindly West, and in those early days before the Sun and Moon we called him Lord. We knew no Maker, if ever such a one existed. In the infancy of our race he was the Dark Hunter who stole our people into the night. In our childhood he came to us openly, and took us into his fortress. There he bent the works of our hands to his use. He taught us dark spells and crafts, the clever use of steel and stone for bringing death. We watched as the Enemy stole too the Eldar children, breaking them into the shape of the Rakhâs, of the Orcs. Our task was to craft armor for these broken creatures, to forge the wicked curve of their blades, and outfit them for battle. They were dark days, when all beauty was denied us, leaving only drudgery. In the pits of his fortress we labored, surrounded by the wicked creatures of his army.

It was many long centuries before the first Nauglath escaped. We fled west and settled there in the hollow hills, burrowing deep into the earth, and there built our halls and fortresses. We made our homes in red-flowering Sharbhund and sacred Nulukkizdîn. There we thrived at last, away from the Enemy though not beyond his reach.

Yet even there we were pursued: by his servants, which we expected, but also by the Eldar, for whom we were not prepared. They hunted our kind as vermin, slaying us in our homes for sport. The points of their arrows shone bright, the gleam of their swords cold and merciless as the stars they worshipped. Ever our numbers dwindled. Yet our kin, the Indrafangs—

 

At this, Thorin stopped paused in his reading, trying to place where he had heard the term before, when he recalled. Indrafangs was an ancient word, not even proper Khuzdûl, a net term to describe all the seven Dwarven clans besides the Petty-dwarves, in particular the Longbeards. His ancestors.

 

…the Indrafangs turned their back. Though we called for their aid, they disowned and disavowed us, called us small, the descendents of rats not fit to be the children of their Maker. When the last of our people were slain at Nulukkizdîn, the Eldar took it for their own. They called it Nargothrond and built their walls and towers upon the bones of our people, tearing the stone and filling our sacred halls with their clamor.

The Indrafangs knew of our plight. They stood by and did nothing.

Worn but not broken by our hardship, our numbers diminished and our people dying, we the Nauglath raised our voices in supplication to the Enemy. We called upon him for aid, remembering the great armies and fell beasts with their sharp teeth and strong armor.

“Give us power,” we begged. “Make us like the orcs and trolls and wargs, the great generals of your host. Give us fire and armor and weapons. Give us vengeance, and we will serve you again, now willingly. We will become the greatest foes of the Eldar who hunted us, and the Indrafangs who spurned us. Let us destroy their great cities, cast black spells upon the treasures there so none may enjoy their stolen riches. Let us spread your will into the very hearts of our foes with a touch. Let us curse the ground we walk upon with your plague.”

And the Enemy granted our wish, taking our warriors and craftsmen, our men, women and children, back with him deep into the iron fortress.

 

The tablet broke off here in a crooked line, the rough edges smoothed by millennia. Thorin fumbled amongst the stack, frantically scanning the ancient Khuzdûl runes for the continuation, even while his stomach churned with dread.

 

I, Mîm, last of the Nauglath, was the only one to leave that place, the filthy pens in the pits of Angband. There I saw our children die in droves, snatched from their mother’s breast to be tested, given teeth and scale and fire. Our craftsmen’s hands were broken, twisted into claws by the experiments of the Enemy. Many went missing and were never seen again, but their screams rang out from the dark, and in the night, whispers filtered down to our sleeping places. They taught us the blackest of magics, made our flesh roil and shift like water over our bones, and in our agony we saw the Enemy's design for a monster greater than any known.

And we were glad.

We knew our true enemies then: the Eldar and the Indrafangs, who waited beyond the walls. We had no need of peace, for our hatred was enough. The children were given freely, the sacrifice of flesh offered willingly, for it meant our vengeance upon they who had hunted us and spurned us. The shadow of the Enemy was our refuge, our home, and our womb.

Yet I, I was weak. My sons, Khîm and Ibûn, were born in that place and in my weakness I took them thence. We fled the pits and wandered long and far to our abandoned fortress of Sharbhund, called Amon Rûdh. None of our kin remained there: they had passed from the land long before, into the darkness beyond the grave, or into the shadow in the East. If there were others, we no longer knew of them. Two hundred years passed with no word.

Then, mighty Glaurung erupted from the lands of the Shadow, trailing fire and woe. He ravaged the kingdoms of the Eldar, burned their trees and fortresses, and we knew: the pits of Angband had spat forth our kin once again. Blessed now with armor, flame, and claw, while we weak creatures, we faithless three languished in filth beneath our hill. For Glaurung reclaimed the city of Nulukkizdîn, tearing down the walls of the Eldar, slaying their soldiers like sheep, and bewildering their heroes with his gaze. But we of Sharbhund were afraid, and did not join him, our lost kinsman, and for that error we suffered and lost all.

My sons are dead now. The grief lies too heavy to relate here, and I stand now in the fortress of Glaurung, in the halls of Nulukkizdîn, and wait to serve him.

Know this: we will bring death to the Eldar by fire and claw, but for Indrafangs we reserve a greater punishment. Cursed will you ever be, who spurned and betrayed us, for Glaurung is the father of dragons and where he walks ever more of his kind shall spring. Look to your gold, ye Indrafangs. It holds your doom.

For the death of our children, for the death of our people, we call this vengeance upon you: that you will know the final weapon the Enemy granted to us, that the Indrafangs shall suffer as we did. Through the gold, the blight of the dragon will seize you, mind and body. It will twist your form as the Enemy twisted our people, it will break your mind to his service. It will find you in your homes, and in your love of beauty. It will find you wherever you flee, for thus does the Enemy create more dragons in his service.

Beware the gold if you can, traitors of the Nauglath. For thus our vengeance is achieved.

 

There was a distant rushing noise, or perhaps it was only in his mind for it came from everywhere and nowhere at once. Beyond it a roaring, like that of a hurricane, and Thorin pressed his hands to his ears, gazing sightless down at the tablets.

Why had his people never spoken of this? Yet he knew the answer as soon as it came to his mind. Just as none spoke of the source of goblins and orcs, the secret shame of those races which had abandoned their own to the Enemy. He had grown up thinking dwarves free of that taint, though he had known of the Petty-dwarves, but only as a civilization long dead. All buried things come forth and so had this, seeping into the hearts of his people, into his line, his grandfather wandering the halls of treasure, his father fleeing in shame and madness from the battlefield, and he….

Thorin's hands clenched and the sharp tips of his fingers, claws, dug into his scalp as he stared forward. His breath came in short, panting gasps.

You are not your grandfather, a voice crooned at the back of his mind, a voice of memory, his own arrogance reflected back at him when Balin had chastised him at the hidden door. Not chastised, insulted. For you are greater than them. You regained your home. They abandoned you. They left you alone. Betrayed you…

Darkness stirred out of the corner of his vision, like a living thing, shadows moving through the air in a darkening flurry, falling around him like dying leaves, gathering over the tablets, at his feet. And in those flecks he saw the children of the Nauglath, heard their cries as they were bent and twisted, as their eyes caught alight and they looked West to those who had betrayed them, who had failed to protect them. And he knew that hatred would never die, that such spells ran dark and deep, in memory and anger and blood. Their curse spread in his gray dying skin and the oily blackness beneath, in the hook of his claws and the fire in his throat. And it would not release him, except in death, for their hatred echoed across the millennia.

The shadows closed around him, vise-like at his throat and cutting off his breath, and flowed up from his feet, covering the floor, the room. He was drowning, and only one thought remained clear through the oncoming storm: that there was no salvation. There was no escape from this. It was too old, too full of hatred. The curse of the dragon on the gold followed wherever they touched, and he had blundered into it, falling as so many of his kin had before. Had Smaug been thus, once? He could see a red-bearded dwarf among gold of ages long ago, the red scales like a creeping vine as they bent and twisted him into his new shape. Thorin’s gorge rose at the vision and he clamped his hand over lips already hardened against the flame of his breath.

Find Bilbo, a corner of his mind whispered, the part that had known prisons, and crushing jaws, and barrels, and the Pale Orc looming above him. Find Bilbo. And Thorin’s mind, that part which saw even now the shadows gathering around him, rising to waist-height, said in a daze: how could he? Bilbo was long away, far away beyond the mountain. He was among the green things of his home, with his books and his armchair and the things he loved best. Far away, not here beneath the mountain, not here with the screams of the Nauglath, with the gold, and the dead dreams of a dead kingdom.

The shadows swirled like ash on the breeze, rising around him and he stumbled to his feet, but found no escape. His vision spotted and all he could feel was gold radiating from within the mountain. Claiming him. And he knew he must find it, though he knew not if it was the gold of coins or of curls bathed in sunlight that he sought, for his mind screamed with two voices. The shadows deepened, darkness sucking at his limbs, his throat, and lips, sucking the air from him, blinding him.

He looked up, to the pinpricks in the stone far above, bringing light as distant and pitiless as the stars, as the shadows closed over his head.


And voices are
In the wind's singing
More distant and more solemn
Than a fading star.

Chapter Text

The conversation with Thorin had been so pleasant that Bilbo momentarily forgot the reason for their presence here: namely, that of Thorin’s alarming transformation. Instead, he was excited at the prospect of finally being tasked with work at which he had some skill. He first began by sorting out which titles were likely to contain any history of dragons, careful to mark their locations so they may be properly returned. He did not wish to earn the wrath of the next librarian of Erebor, for if all went well he’d like to spend considerable time amongst these shelves, perhaps one day even adding a book of his own to the hallowed collection. A tempting thought, but he was getting ahead of himself.

He started first with the lowest section of the shelves, for despite his bravado to Thorin, he would rather put off climbing to the highest ones if it could at all be avoided. Unfortunately, the dwarves’ efficient system seemed to have broken down somewhat in this section, and there was no rhyme or reason to the sorting as far as language went. They all seemed to be arranged first only as “Not Khuzdûl” and then based on subject, so Westron, Sindarin, and even Quenya works sat side by side. He lit the candles and set to work, skimming the pages and unraveling scrolls, his eyes scanning for key words like “drake”, “dragon”, or “wyrm” in the books in Westron, and “lhûg” and “amlug” in the Sindarin works. Many times he had to stop himself from reading them cover-to-cover, for they held such a wealth of information that he could hardly contain himself.

Still, after a few minutes he would inevitably put the book or scroll aside with a sigh and return to his search. He found more than one account on the Fall of Gondolin, in which dragons had played a major role, various translations on the tragedy of the Children of Húrin, and a reference in a Gondorian work about the Rohirrim to a Lord of the Éothéod, Fram, who was killed by dwarves over a dispute regarding the dragon Scatha’s hoard. He marked that one as of special interest and set it aside.

It seemed no time at all had passed, indeed, the sun still poured through the chinks of glass in the ceiling, when he heard the tread of feet. Looking up from what was proving to be an unhelpful book of Sindarin poetry, wherein a rather self-important poet distinguished his own love of silver from a dragon’s love of gold, Bilbo espied Thorin walking toward him.

“Oh, Thorin! So soon? I only have a few promising leads. You know, we should have brought our packs with us; it makes far more sense to set up camp here as we work, and…my goodness, I imagine you must be hungry! I had completely forgotten in the excitement. I should have at least sent you along with a few of those apples; what in the world was I thinking? Thorin…Thorin?” Bilbo trailed off, for Thorin was hunched over and shivering within his cloak.

“Bilbo?” Thorin said as if coming out of a dream. “How are you here?”

The dwarf was drawn and pale, not just from the graying effect of the curse, and he flinched when Bilbo moved. Bilbo set aside the scroll and slowly stood, approaching Thorin with his hands open and visible, as if he were a wild animal that might bolt.

“I’m here to help you. We came to the library looking for a cure, remember?” Thorin met Bilbo’s eye. The blue glow was back and stronger than ever, washing his cheeks in a ghostly light. While the black scars had grown no worse, a greater swath of the skin visible beneath his cloak had taken on the grayish hue that preceded the emergence of scales.

“I have to go back,” Thorin said in a hiss. Bilbo realized with a start that the hiss was because Thorin’s teeth were chattering so hard he could barely speak, though sweat glinted on his brow.

“Fine, fine, we’ll go back, just let me put these away. Did you manage to find anything in your section?” But Thorin was already moving past him, towards the door. With a muttered curse, Bilbo blew out the candles, leaving them on the floor, and tossed the most promising books and scrolls into the pack. He winced at their ill treatment, but if Thorin got out of his sight he might not be able to find his way back to their camp. Once packed, Bilbo took off after Thorin, bare feet slapping against the polished stone as he ran. For all that Thorin was only going at a brisk walk, his stride was longer than Bilbo’s and he had nearly vanished out the crumbling door before Bilbo caught up to him.

Thorin seemed not to notice he was there, neither pausing nor acknowledging Bilbo at all as he drew alongside, and no attempt to get his attention succeeded. For a long stretch there was only silence and a clicking sound that Bilbo soon realized were the hooked talons that had sprouted in place of Thorin’s toenails. For some reason, that was the most unsettling part of it all. The scales, the glowing eyes, even the fire Bilbo had been able to take in stride. Perhaps because, all things considered, it rather resembled a bizarre bout of the flu. Bilbo had tended the ill before: discolored skin and vomiting were all part of the unpleasant package.

But to see Thorin without his heavy boots, his feet so pale and delicate compared to those of hobbits? And then to see them end in dark talons that clicked upon the ground with every step? The combination of the unseen with the unbelievable twisted Bilbo’s gut and somewhere higher in what felt like heartbreak. It was wrong, terribly wrong, to see Thorin so exposed and yet so twisted beyond recognition at the same time.

It struck Bilbo then, all at once, what he had been trying to avoid thinking about since he first came down into Erebor: the horrible, aching pit of worry and fear that opened inside him when he first saw Thorin like this. To see him trapped in a prison of his own body, that final place of refuge stolen from him… it was more than he could bear. He felt sick at the sight, worse even than the rage in Thorin’s eyes on the wall, when Bilbo had looked at him and seen no trace of the person he knew.

They burst into the treasure chamber, and Thorin slouched against the doorframe with a groan of relief at the sight of the gold and gems reflecting the light back a thousand times. It was like the moment at the hidden door all over again, when the very sight and smell of Erebor bled years of tension from Thorin all at once. Yet even while this moment appeared as fair, it felt foul. True, the sight of the treasure eased Thorin, but as it did something predatory came over him. He moved forward with the powerful, slinking motions of a stalking cat as he descended the stairs and stepped out onto the dunes of gold, climbing them with surprising stealth. Bilbo bit his lip, torn between following straightaways after Thorin and returning to their campsite, from where he might be able to survey the whole room.

His heart won out over his head, and he took off after Thorin. Bilbo scrambled over gold and around fallen pillars as he stumbled after the dwarf, who moved over the treasure as if it were no more shifting or treacherous than the stone floor. Thorin seemed to have some destination in mind, for he moved straight and sure.

“Oh for pity’s…!” Bilbo cried, thinking the dwarf had given him the slip as Thorin mounted the top of one of the steeper piles and vanished. But when Bilbo managed to climb the top of the dune himself, he looked down to see a crater that had formed amongst the gold. In that moment, he recalled when Smaug had awakened, and the great bowl left when he dragged his bulk free of the treasure. This may well be the same place, for Bilbo recognized some angles of the room from that vantage point, made sharp in his memory by the terror he had felt on seeing a great yellow eye peering at him from under the hoard.

Thorin was at the center of the crater, fallen to all fours. His hands were drawn into fists, gold coins spilling out from between his fingers, and his chest heaved as if from some great exertion. With some care, Bilbo set himself on the lip of the crater and skidded down on his heels, coins pinging off one another as he slid.

Thorin looked up at his arrival. The tension was gone from his bearing, the harsh lines of his face smoothed. A beatific smile spread across his lips and had Bilbo not known any better, he would have said Thorin was drunk, or drugged. The sight was wholly unsettling; for Bilbo had never seen Thorin breach that tight control he kept over himself, always remaining sober and aloof even while the rest of the company drank and made merry.

“Do you feel it, Halfling?” Thorin purred.

“I would thank you to not call me that. My name will do well enough,” Bilbo grumbled, but anxiety surged through him as he looked about the crater. There was indeed a feeling here, a miasma. He felt a flush rising to his cheeks, but not a pleasant one. It was a feeling like sitting too close to a stove, as if the gold itself radiated heat.

“It is warm here.” Thorin sighed, sweeping his hands over the coins. They jingled against one another as he did so, and Thorin smiled at the sound.

“I imagine it is. After all, if I don’t miss my guess,” Bilbo said, with another exaggerated look around the crater, “this is where Smaug slept. We should move away from here. I think this place may be cursed.”

Thorin’s eyes narrowed and the smile fell. “Move away?”

“Well, I once heard that the gold of a dragon’s bed may carry,” Thorin fixed him with so ferocious a glare that Bilbo’s voice trembled and he nearly sputtered over his words, “many fell enchantments.”

“I will not abandon the gold of my forefathers,” Thorin said, and something snapped in Bilbo.

“But this isn’t the gold of your forefathers!” Bilbo hissed, and pointed at their feet. “It’s gold that has sat under the belly of a dragon for over a hundred years. It’s the reason you’re turning into a monster!”

The words hung in the air between them, gone beyond recall. And Thorin looked at him, as if seeing him now for the first time, as if something had clicked back into place within him. He stared about with some bewilderment, as if not knowing where he was or how he got there. Bilbo watched with rising panic as his words filtered into Thorin’s consciousness. Monster.

 “I-I’m sorry, Thorin, I didn’t mean…”

“But it’s true,” Thorin said. Bilbo could have kicked himself then because he had finally wandered right into it, blabbing aloud what they had both been so carefully avoiding this past day. For naming it only made it so much worse, it dropped all pretense that this was a simple malady that could be cured. A monster?

“You are afraid of me. There is no need to disguise it,” Thorin continued. Bilbo’s face fell, and in him keened that screaming kettle feeling, that Thorin was slipping away from him and would soon retreat into himself beyond recall, and all his locked-up words came out in a rush.

“Of course I’m afraid! You’ve got bloody great talons at the end of your fingers, and you spit fire when you’re angry, literally now! It was only luck that you didn’t roast me up or tear me to pieces when I walked in the door!” But Thorin was withdrawing into himself with every word and it all broke upon Bilbo at once: in his fright he was babbling all the wrong things. He stopped, and took a deep breath, then crouched down so that he was facing Thorin on the same level. He stilled his breath and forced his voice to softness. The truth, just the truth, that’s what was needed here. “But… but more than any of that, I’m afraid for you, Thorin. How could I not be?”

“A simple matter,” Thorin said, without meeting Bilbo’s probing look. “You could leave this place, return to your home and think nothing further of it. It would be the better option, when there is no hope.”

Bilbo thought he might become frantic with frustration then, that they must rehash this argument of whether he should stay or go, that he must have yet another face-off with Thorin’s stubbornness, only now when he has said something truly unforgivable. Then he caught himself. The growl in Thorin’s voice that he had taken for anger, leveled at him again but this time for good reason, had an edge to it that was wholly unfamiliar. He looked closer at Thorin and saw then the tremble in his jaw, the way his hands opened and closed compulsively around the gold in a self-comforting gesture, the tiny shivers that wracked him. Bilbo’s heart sank as the picture came together in a flash of insight.

This was not about him, not even about what he had said. Bilbo had touched on something deeper, something that was tearing Thorin apart from the inside, and as usual Thorin was trying to hide it beneath that stoic veneer rather than simply ask for help. Bilbo settled fully onto the ground, and edged closer. “Thorin, what happened in the library?”

“You cannot possibly understand,” Thorin said, but there was no scorn in his voice, only anguish, and desperation.

“Just tell me,” Bilbo said soothingly. “I promise I will believe you.”

Thorin released an explosive gasp that ended in a shudder. He pressed a hand to his temple, looking away as he gathered his composure, and Bilbo saw that if Thorin had any calm left it hung by a thread, and that was fraying. “How can you when I do not believe it myself? I… saw things. Heard things. I…Bilbo.” Thorin looked up, eyes wide with naked terror. “I think I’m losing my mind.”

“No. No,” Bilbo said automatically, “you’re not, it’s… just tell me what you saw, alright? We’ll just talk this through. There are quite enough strange things happening in this place that we need not jump to conclusions.”

“You weren’t there,” Thorin said, and at first Bilbo thought he meant in the library, which he was about to assure Thorin he most certainly had been, when Thorin continued, as if each word was dragged from his body. “You weren’t there, you were somewhere…far away. I could not find you. There was only the mountain, and the gold, and… shadows. I could hear them, across all these years I could hear them screaming in the dark as he broke and remade them, and I could feel that touch in my mind.”

A chill swept through Bilbo that felt as if all the hair from the back of his neck down to his furry feet stood on end, and his hand went reflexively to the ring in his pocket, though he stilled it quickly. There was no use for invisibility here; how odd that he should seek it at a time like this. He swallowed, and said in as steady and measured a tone as he could manage, “Thorin, this is… a little difficult to follow. I need you to start from the beginning. Who…who was screaming?”

“The Nauglath,” Thorin said, and Bilbo’s brow crinkled at the unfamiliar word. “This happened to them first, there, in the pits. And they welcomed it. They were weak and he made them strong, even though he broke them, though he destroyed them. It was better than dying in disgrace and poverty, and they knew the end would come whatever they did. But their rage…there is no end to it, it will live a thousand-thousand years and what is worse… what is worse…” Thorin gave a shudder that rocked him crown to toe. “I cannot blame them for it.”

Bilbo tried to keep his bewilderment from his face, for Thorin was agitated, almost maddened by the words he spoke. Yet the hobbit could not follow the thread of Thorin’s words at all, save that some great crime had been committed and Thorin sympathized with the wronged party. But all this talk of breaking and dying and rage… it sent a wave of horror through him even as he struggled to understand.

They were our kin,” Thorin groaned. “And we did nothing. We turned our back on them while they died in droves, and we can never make amends. Don’t you see?” he said, fixing wild eyes on Bilbo. “The sickness of my line is their curse. Without a dragon's presence it cannot break us, it only drives us mad with sickness. But it waits, it waits in our blood and bone, it waits for them. Then they find us, in our mountains and fortresses, they chase us forth and curse our treasure with their touch. In our wanderings we are made to understand their loss, pursued as they were from place to place. But it’s the gold, the gold is where they fulfill their curse, that is where they steal from us the beauty crafted by our hands, as it was stolen from them. That is how they make us like them, like this,” he cried and pressed one clawed hand against his chest, the curved points biting deep into his graying skin.

Bilbo winced and found he had scooted closer before he even realized what he did, pulling Thorin’s hand back from where it dug into his flesh. He gently clasped Thorin’s wrist between both hands, keeping the sharp points away from both of them.

“Careful with those,” Bilbo murmured absently as his mind whirled, searching for the right words for so delicate a situation. “Now Thorin, please, you must calm down. This is…this is good. I think. What you’re saying is that you now know the source of this?” Bilbo said, tapping at the scales that ran up Thorin’s hand. “That’s very good news. Look at me. I know it was terrible, and I’m very sorry it happened. But now that we know what this is, we can start looking for a cure.”

Thorin hunched over and would have pulled away entirely if not for Bilbo’s hands wrapped around his wrist. “Do you not understand? There is no cure.” 

Thorin’s words struck Bilbo like a blow to the stomach, rocking him back, but swiftly in its wake came a second wave, one of resolve. “No,” he said, and dropped the hand to take Thorin firmly by the shoulders, turning the dwarf to face him. Thorin stilled beneath his touch, some of his anguish giving way to simple surprise. “No, absolutely not. I did not follow you across a thousand leagues of mountains, rivers, goblins, and other nonsense for you to give up here. Do you understand me, Thorin Oakenshield? I simply will not have it.” Thorin blinked. “Now, I don’t know where you read… whatever it is that has you so upset, and I likely wouldn’t understand it if I did. Maybe it’s true, maybe it isn’t, but it is only the first lead we have and I would be a very poor scholar indeed if I let us take it at face-value.”

“Mîm’s account is thousands of years old. It is the only account,” Thorin protested.

“Then there have been thousands of years since for someone to find a cure. Years this Mîm fellow would know nothing about. Why, just look at how few dragons there are in the world. If it really spread as easily as you say, then we should be swarming with them. Mark my words, there is a cure out there somewhere, even in these very halls, and we will find it, or my name isn't Baggins.”

Thorin stilled at this, considering Bilbo’s words. As he did, his breathing eased and was no longer the harsh, frantic beat of a hunted animal. So too did the hard lines of stress in his shoulders ease. A long moment passed until he finally calmed and he said in a soft, halting voice, “Then… let us hope we will not have to find you another name.”

Bilbo blinked, mouthing the words back as they clicked into place. He looked at Thorin incredulously and saw that there was the faintest echo of a smile teasing the edge of his lips. The remaining healthy flesh of his face was bathed in sweat, and his whole body bore the frail, transparent quality of one who has not slept in days, but he seemed aware and present for the first time since they parted ways in the library. Bilbo gave his own shaky, joyful chuckle at the sight, but ended it with a fond groan. “Oh, goodness. If you’re delirious enough to make jokes than matters truly are worse than I realized.”

“Even I know it was a poor one,” Thorin admitted, his voice barely above a whisper. His head nodded, and he seemed on the edge of collapse.

“All the same, perhaps it would be best if we rested. It has been a long day for both of us,” Bilbo said. He released Thorin’s shoulders then, having only just realized he still held them, so natural did it seem to hold Thorin steady when he was afraid. Surely it was a thought he would have found shocking only a few months prior. Bilbo rose to his feet, offering his hand to Thorin. “Not here though, if it’s all the same to you. I rather miss our warm little campfire, and I’d hate to leave the food unattended any longer.”

“As if there was anyone to steal it. Only you,” Thorin said in a worn but bemused voice, “could sit in the middle of the greatest treasury in the world and value food more than hoarded gold.”

“My word, sarcasm as well as jokes?” Bilbo said, but Thorin shook his head.

“It was no mockery. There is some… goodness, and wisdom in you… that our situation makes all the more clear,” Thorin said. He took Bilbo’s hand and stood before the little flutter in Bilbo’s chest at his words had time to be acknowledged, much less to subside, and Bilbo found himself staring at Thorin longer than might be strictly appropriate. Thorin raised an eyebrow in return and said, “Shall we go?”

“Oh! Yes, but of course!” Bilbo said and, flustered, took off in the wrong direction. He only realized he still held Thorin’s wrist when he jerked them both back onto the right course, stammering apologies at the whiplash and saying over his shoulder, “Sorry, sorry! Sense of direction aside, we will find a way out of this, Thorin. Of that I am certain.”

His back turned, he did not see as the small, fond smile Thorin had worn at his stammering melt away. If he had, he would have seen the shadow that fell over Thorin’s face, and read in it clearly that he did not share Bilbo’s certainty.

 


Let me be no nearer
In death's dream kingdom
Let me also wear
Such deliberate disguises
Rat's coat, crowskin, crossed staves

Chapter Text

Nightmares plagued Thorin’s sleep. Waves of gold crashed against the rocks of Erebor like a tide, receding from him whenever he moved to touch them. Shadows flitted at the edge of his vision. He saw Fíli and Kíli, their faces drawn and white in death, and when he looked down and saw himself in broken armor, torn by many wounds, and the stench of blood in the air. Armies clashed, roaring their defiance as they fell upon one another, and a monstrous, pale figure tore a path through the heart of the mêlée, twisted iron replacing the stump of a hand, and death in his eyes.

Thorin’s throat dried and his stomach burned. He cried out and thought he heard Bilbo’s voice call back but the hobbit was nowhere to be seen, though he sounded near. Then Azog appeared before him and the great mace came crashing down...

Thorin jerked awake to the smell of fire and burning flesh. Panic seized him by the throat and he wrestled against bindings that trapped his arms to his sides. His head struck the ground as he struggled, finally forcing his eyes open and he looked up to see… the ceiling of Erebor. Thorin tilted his head to the side in puzzlement.

“Ah, you’re awake! I was beginning to worry,” Bilbo said cheerfully. There was the clink of iron against iron that set off every warning in Thorin’s head then—

Bilbo set a plate of sausages beside him.

“I can keep them warm next to the fire if you need a little time to wake up,” Bilbo said.

In that moment, Thorin’s true position became clear to him. He was wrapped up, true, but in a bedroll, and beneath that his blue cloak had tangled around his arms, and trapped them against his body. The smell of flames came from the iron brazier where Bilbo was currently cooking more food, what looked like sausages thrown together with sliced potatoes, mushrooms, tomatoes and turnips, mixed with some spice he could not identify.

“Wonderful stuff, these coals. Barely had to touch them and they stayed alive all while we slept and well into the day. I just added a few now to get it hot enough for the fry-up,” said Bilbo.

“You had to add more?” Thorin said incredulously. “Those coals should have burned unaided half a day. How long have I slept?” For he could not have slept that long, drowsiness still tugged at him. He felt as though he could sleep several more hours simply by closing his eyes.

Bilbo glanced up as he made a quick calculation. “Twelve—maybe fourteen hours?” Thorin’s eyes widened. “Almost half the day again has gone since I woke up, but I thought it best to let you sleep. After breakfast, I retraced our steps back to the archives earlier and brought back the rest of the books I had my eye on. I’ve been reading those most of the day.” As he spoke, Bilbo made a flicking motion with his wrist that tossed the chopped vegetables and sausages in the frying pan, then looked at Thorin out of the corner of his eye. “You know, if you’ve been sleeping like this lately it’s no wonder you missed the battle. I’ve been walking around, banging pots and pans all day and you never stirred. I had to check your breathing a few times to make sure you were still alive.”

Thorin grunted and untangled himself from the winding cloth, catching sight of his arms as he pulled them free. The scales had spread no further in the night; though the dead skin had flaked away so the entire top of his forearm was armored. It seemed the sickness had halted, not traveling while he slept as it had the last time.

He propped himself up in his bedroll, sitting cross-legged as he took up the plate from where Bilbo had left it on the floor. The hobbit had given him the lion’s share of the meat, but there were some vegetable portions in there as well, tucked underneath as if Bilbo hoped he would not notice. Thorin felt no appetite in any case but shrugged, idly picking over the pieces with his fork before taking his first bite.

Flavor exploded over his tongue: salt, grease and fat, spices of fennel and pepper. His eyes widened and he made short work of the rest of the plate, unable to slow himself for even a moment. His stomach, which he had long ignored and only now realized just how long, felt like an empty pit. For the first time in days, warmth flooded him, and not the warmth of fire or the chemical burn of its alchemy, but a reviving energy that banished the emptiness that had hollowed him since the first days of the itching.

Bilbo watched him as he ate, a fond smile at the edge of his lips, and refilled Thorin’s plate without prompting. “Hardly fit for a palace such as this, but winter stores being what they are I did my best to make it palatable. It occurred to me that something hearty would not go amiss: you have not eaten for some time.”

Thorin at least remembered himself enough to swallow before he responded, “Winter stores? This may be the finest meal I’ve ever had.”

“Hmph, there you go with the flattery again,” Bilbo said, taking some of the leftover vegetables for himself and passing the remainder to Thorin. “We have a saying that hunger is the best sauce. That’s probably more to do with the flavor than any craft of my own.”

Thorin made a skeptical sound and returned to his meal. His hunger lead him to wonder if there would be enough to satiate it, but the hobbit had judged well enough and there was no lingering want once he finished his plate. He felt he could face the day, even the world, with more vigor. The horror of the previous day was receding from his mind, and even the curse that corrupted his skin no longer seemed insurmountable.

“I fetched us some water as well from those fountains in the hall, so you can go have a wash. Once you’re done I’ll show you what I found,” Bilbo said. “Oh, and I had a thought.” He took out a stoppered vial of green glass from the second of the packs, handing it to Thorin.

“What is this?” Thorin said, holding the bottle to the firelight and giving it a shake. It was a clear, viscous liquid, some kind of oil.

“One of Óin’s ointments. He labeled it for the treatment of burns and rashes. Once you’ve cleaned yourself up, you might put some of that on your skin to slow the breakage,” said Bilbo.

Thorin’s eyebrows rose. “You came remarkably well prepared for your errand.”

“Oh, well,” Bilbo said, dismissing his words with a wave of his hand. “With you gone so long we didn’t know what might have happened, and there are a lot of ways for a body to become injured down here. I’m sure Ga—I’m sure it only made sense to cover all eventualities. I’ve also got some bandages in here, willow bark tea, wood for splints.” He frowned. “None of which are of much use, unless you’re suffering a headache?”

“Nothing so severe that I would welcome the taste of willow bark tea,” Thorin said dryly.

“That being said, more tea is not so bad an idea, I’ll make some up while you wash,” Bilbo said, and went to get the kettle from the row of cooking implements he had set up lining the wall as if it were a kitchen shelf.

Thorin took the opportunity to pick up the water bucket, washcloth, oil vial and the soap beside it and had only just reached the top of the stairs when Bilbo’s voice came from behind him. “Not down there, Thorin, I’d like to keep an eye on you if at all possible.”

Thorin turned, giving Bilbo a frank look as he put down the bucket and unclasped the cloak with one hand. It fluttered to the floor, leaving him bare-chested, and he was rewarded by the sight of the hobbit turning bright red and spinning on his heels with a muffled squeak. Bilbo stared up at the ceiling with his back turned as he said, “The top of the steps will do! Just don’t go wandering off.”

With a satisfied smirk, Thorin turned back to the staircase. Nevertheless, he accepted Bilbo’s request and only went far enough down so that he as out of the hobbit’s immediate sight. The gold of the treasury unfurled like a sea below, calling to him, but he turned away, taking a seat and lathering the washcloth with soap and water. Like the hot meal, it was a wonder he had forgotten how good it was to feel clean once again, even if it did mean a sponge bath with frigid water.

Thorin stripped, then sloughed off the dead skin that peeled at the edges of the scales, cleaned his face and released the braids ragged from days of slumber, washing his hair as best he could before re-braiding it. There were bathhouses in Erebor that drew their heat from the forges, and he could not help but think longingly of them. But to go there would mean crossing the sea of gold, and it was unlikely in any case that the plumbing was still functioning after all these years. Furthermore, revitalized as he was by food and rest, he had to admit that he had made a promise to Bilbo. To go back on it for so trivial a reason would be unfair to one who had already done much for him.

Thorin finished his washing, putting back on the smallclothes and loose black trousers that were the only fabric he could bear to have against his peeling skin, when he recalled the vial of Óin’s ointment. He poured an experimental drop into his hand and instantly felt its cooling effects, the scent of mint biting and sharp in the air. Perhaps treating his skin thus would slow the breakage, perhaps it would not, but at least its touch was soothing. He rubbed the oil into the seam between scales and skin, his face, arms, chest, and feet, and the cool liquid brought instant relief to his heated flesh.

Only when he finished the spots he could reach and the bottle was half empty did he realize he had a slight problem. Thorin probed the back of his neck, feeling the hard ridges that went down his spine. He still had no idea how bad the damage was on his back, and flinched at the memory of when he first awoke, and the awful tearing sound.

When Bilbo arrived, the hobbit’s horror had been instant at the sight of Thorin’s shirtless form. He had gone from pale to bright red, babbling as he burrowed through his pack to find Thorin the blue cloak he wore now. As a result, Thorin had given the hobbit no time to see or comment on the damage to his back, and ever since had hidden it behind the cloak. There was really only one thing for it, though his stomach churned strangely at the thought of Bilbo probing at his ruined flesh. Thorin collected the bucket, vial and washcloth, and mounted the steps back to the campsite.

Bilbo was sitting cross-legged by the fire, his chin propped up on one hand as he read over a scroll draped on his opposite knee. The plates were cleaned and stacked beside him, but he appeared to have paused in the middle of making the tea and forgotten all about it as he became engrossed in the text. His eyebrows were drawn together, and one of his furred feet tapped rhythmically against the floor as his eyes scanned the paper. With a sigh he put the scroll aside, rolling it up with great care before selecting another from the stack.

Thorin paused, arrested by the sight, and withdrew into the shadows beyond the firelight. There was something calming about watching Bilbo read, something he did not wish to lose so quickly. Often Bilbo had a frantic energy to him that Thorin had taken for fussiness, but in retrospect may have been simple anxiety as he adjusted, day after day, to tasks at which he had little familiarity. It had been frustrating at first for him to deal with one who had such poor skills at living on the road, it had not occurred to Thorin at the time that Bilbo may have no training at all, and was in fact a very fast learner, picking up what was needed to be at least mediocre in a remarkably short time.

Yet with books Bilbo was, as he had said, in his element, and it showed in the air of calm that surrounded him now. For the first time since he sat at the heart of the treasure, Thorin felt a strange sort of… warmth fill him, that was nothing like that which came from the gold. It calmed him and, in the quiet of his mind, he thought that he might watch the hobbit read for many hours and not grow restless.

As he watched, Thorin’s mind drifted back to the early days of their acquaintance, and he wondered if the hobbit knew what power he wielded over the company and their quest. That he was the fourteenth member, the luck of the party. When Thorin had asked Gandalf to find such a one, only to be presented a hobbit, and on who appeared so weak, so frankly ridiculous, it had been a slap in the face. Thorin knew he held the hearts of the company by a thread, that the entire journey was like staring into the sun, damaging, doomed, and over the moment one of them blinked. But Gandalf, curse him, would not be swayed even though his “burglar’s” heart seemed so fragile with homesickness that there was no hope of him making it out of his sleepy little village, let alone across the wide world. What was worse, if Bilbo fell he would act as a domino, raising doubts in those who had their own homes to think of, their own families, who would again look at the odds and find them wanting. Thorin could clearly imagine the little burglar disappearing in a huff, and the ties that bound the company failing behind him. And for what? Why risk all on a wizard’s say-so, on a lucky number?

So he had pushed the burglar, spurned him, pointed out his flaws for all to see, dared him to abandon the quest. For the moment would inevitably come when Bilbo would leave. Let the others see that it was the frailty of hobbits, not the value of Erebor, that caused his heart to fail.

Then Bilbo had left as predicted, or tried to, if not for Bofur, and Thorin had not known why he felt only shame at the thought that he had caused this, that he had driven their luck away. But sure enough Bilbo vanished in the ensuing chaos and Thorin had cursed his own sense of shame, that he had allowed that little hope in for even a moment, a glimpse of the very disappointment he had tried to forestall. For they were a doomed party, hollow, pushed forward by fire and hatred and a desperate, painful longing to face the greatest calamity of their age. They had only a fool’s hope of survival, let alone success, and yet they forged on, defying the very laws of nature, flying and daring not to look down lest they inevitably fall.

Then Bilbo had stayed. Leapt out from behind a tree when only a moment before Thorin had cursed him. He could not help but have heard Thorin’s words, certainly Thorin heard his after. How, wonder of wonders, he would stay. Not for treasure or power or fame, only because he was homesick and he wished to end the homesickness in Thorin’s company, in his people… and in Thorin.

In that moment Thorin saw what it truly meant to have luck with them, for that terrible blistering hope came back ten times over, and he saw a quest not running on hollow hopes and empty longing, but honor and faith and loyalty. All those things he had dreamed of, all that had been denied them by their allies and by their own kin. And this…burglar, this frustrating impossible hobbit had brought it to them?

It was almost unimportant after that how Bilbo defended him with sword and body against Azog. Thorin was lost. He was lost to the vision of hope gifted to him by a stranger, one who wanted nothing for himself, who only saw a wrong that must be righted, who saw Thorin’s people and loved them as he did and would work to protect and aid them. To whom he was not even a king to command loyalty, only a friend in need.

How and when had that changed in Thorin’s mind? His brow crinkled as watched Bilbo bent over the scroll. The firelight caught the mithril shirt Bilbo wore under his blue coat, the one Thorin had gifted him so that he may be safe from harm. He had not counted on the harm Bilbo would bring to himself, or that he… He frowned, for that niggling annoyance that so easily turned to rage was back in the corner of his mind. It whispered that Bilbo had deserved it, that Thorin would have done the same to anyone who stole from him, as was his right as king. But threatening to throw him from the ramparts? It was…extreme, even for such a betrayal. And that shame was back, the shame he had felt when Bilbo had almost turned back to Rivendell. After all Bilbo had done for Thorin, and for his people, why had he leapt so quickly to such terrible rage? Why had he….?

Thorin lowered the pail to the ground, and pressed his freed hand to his temple. He wondered if a storm had kicked up beyond the hidden door, for there was the distant rushing sound like a blast of wind, like a distant hurricane, and he could not pinpoint its source. He squinted against the distant pounding sound of the wind, pressing his hand to his face and feeling the intense, feverish heat that built there, and as he did he looked at the hobbit. The rushing sound dimmed in his ears.

Bilbo had not shifted, did not even seem aware of the wider world while he read. He was utterly engrossed by the search for Thorin’s cure, still bearing hope even when Thorin had all but collapsed into despair. Bilbo had easily dismissed his fears with logic and kindness, helped him to his bedroll and done everything short of tuck him in before seeking rest himself. Even now he did not seem the least perturbed to be alone in a kingdom of ghosts, alongside one who had almost killed him.

Bilbo read quickly, his lips drawn to a thin, unmoving line as he did so. Silent reading, the mark of a scholar. He must have learned from early childhood to have mastered the art. His shoulders were relaxed as he lounged, as perhaps he had many nights back in his home in the Shire. He would need only his pipe to complete the picture, as he had so often related on their journey, and no sooner had Thorin thought this than Bilbo patted his breast pocket, then turned to look through the pack.

It was then that Bilbo espied Thorin. And as he did, the rushing died entirely, the pounding sound fading to silence, and once again Thorin remembered that he stood at the edge of the firelight like a recalcitrant child. He suddenly felt rather foolish to be caught watching Bilbo thus, and he quickly picked up his pail and stepped from the shadows as if nothing had happened. “I’m afraid I must beg a favor, Bilbo.”

Bilbo opened his mouth and Thorin waited patiently for his reply. Yet no sound came out but a strangled squeak. That deep red blush was back, staining his cheeks and travelling down to his collar, but then Bilbo was sitting closer to the fire in order to better read by its light, which could be the only explanation.

With a pang of realization, Thorin looked down at his exposed torso, covered as it was in foul black scales. So far the scales had not interfered with the hair on his body— neither his beard, the hair on his chest, nor the trail between navel and groin. There was no telling how much longer that would be true, before muscle and sinew broke and twisted into reptilian form and the transformation robbed him of all signs he was ever a dwarf. The thought alone brought a rush of humiliation, and with an inarticulate mumble he snatched up the cloak from the ground where he had dropped it before his bath and draped it over his arm. He considered tossing it back over his shoulders then and there, to retreat once more into the shadow of its fold, only to be reminded by the flash of firelight on scales of the necessity of his request.

He took a deep breath, and steeled himself, ignoring how Bilbo’s eyes traveled up and down a body that no doubt repulsed him. Thorin cleared his throat, “The corruption is spreading. I’ve treated it with the ointment where I could, but I must beg your assistance in the places beyond my reach.”

“Excuse me, where?” Bilbo said in a strangled yelp as he jerked his eyes from Thorin’s chest to his face.

Thorin frowned. “My back? If you would please check for any damage there, it would be a kindness.”

“Oh…oh! Your back, but of course!” Bilbo said. The scroll fell from his lap as he jumped to his feet. Thorin mentally retracted the thought that Bilbo was no longer so nervous as he had once been. The hobbit was positively twitchy now, tapping his fingertips together and looking at every part of the room except where Thorin stood in front of him.

Best to get the ordeal over with, for he did not like to admit even to himself the sick feeling that curled in his stomach at the thought that Bilbo could not even look at him without his cloak. Thorin nodded his thanks and knelt down beside the fire, angling the light to his back. He closed his eyes and tried to lose himself in the play of its warmth on his skin, for a chill had followed him of late when he did not lie at the heart of the treasure. What was worse, nerves at how Bilbo saw him now had chased away the pleasant glow of earlier.

Then he heard the sharp intake of breath from behind him.

Thorin’s spine went rigid and he gritted his teeth against the image of Bilbo recoiling in horror from what he saw. There was no pain, so it could not be a wound that caused such a reaction, only whatever fell transformation the curse had wrought. “Stop. It’s not important, I should not have troubled you,” Thorin said and began to rise.

“Oh, no you don’t!” Bilbo said, and seized Thorin by the shoulder, shoving him back down.

Thorin shivered as a gentle touch traced the back of his neck and he felt Bilbo’s fingers brushing his hair, gathering it up, and then carefully laying it over his shoulder. Then the light touch moved again, probing Thorin’s side, and he jerked away with a hiss.

“Would you stop that?” Bilbo snapped. Then Bilbo sighed and said, “I’m sorry, it’s just… There’s a lot going on here, Thorin, and it’s worse than I thought.”

“How bad?” Thorin said, as a wash of cold wash of dread swept through him.

“Do you feel that?” Thorin waited. There was nothing, no brush of air or pressure of touch. He shook his head.

“I was afraid of that,” Bilbo said. “The scales are much thicker back here.” Thorin heard a tapping sound. “Do you hear that? There’s a raised ridge over your spine, and scales to either side of it are hard as rocks. It’s all segmented, which may be why you can still stand as usual. It stops right here,” Thorin felt a light touch against the base of his neck, then Bilbo traced a narrow oval on either side of the spine from shoulder blade to hip. “The pattern is shaped a bit like a cat’s eye, the scales cover you from your neck to your, uh, lower back. No wonder you couldn’t see it.” Bilbo paused, his hands resting on Thorin’s hips. “There are no other injuries as such, though I imagine there wouldn’t be. You might as well be wearing armor.”

“Thank you,” Thorin murmured and exhaled. He closed his eyes and covered them with one shaking hand as he imagined the transformation Bilbo described.

There was a quiet plink and the gentle touch returned. The scent of mint filled the air and a pleasant chill spread across the edges of Thorin’s back. It took him a moment to realize that Bilbo was applying the ointment to the seams between skin and scales. “There’s no need,” Thorin protested.

“Please,” Bilbo said, cutting him off, and Thorin stilled at the pleading in his voice. “Just…let me do what I can.”

Thorin subsided, sitting in silence as Bilbo spread the ointment over his skin. He could feel Bilbo’s breath stir at the back of his neck, and shivered more at that than the cool touch of the ointment. Even if the ointment did nothing it was…pleasant, to feel another’s hand after weeks—no, months of the road, of isolation and command, of keeping himself aloof and clear-headed throughout the quest. More than pleasant, he all but melted at the touch, losing himself in the quiet minutes that passed between them, in how good it felt to simply be touched, in forgetting for a little while the reason for it. His mind drifted into vague imaginings that there was another reason, a happier one, for the gentle brush of hands over his shoulders, trailing down the back of his neck and along his sides. He sighed when it ended, inhaling the scent of mint that hung thick in the air. Bilbo stoppered the bottle, excusing himself with a murmur as he went to wash the oil from his hands.

Thorin opened his eyes slowly, only to be hit with the jarring reality. He snatched up the blue cloak from where it lay on the ground beside him, tossing it back over his shoulders, and by the time Bilbo returned he had pulled the hood up to shadow his face. “My apologies again that you had to see that,” Thorin said without turning to look at Bilbo.

Bilbo harrumphed from behind him. “Well, I’m afraid I cannot accept that.” Thorin’s stomach dropped and he looked resolutely forward, unwilling to meet the hobbit’s eyes. Little good it did him, as Bilbo walked around to face Thorin with his arms crossed. A scroll dangled from one hand. At the sight of Thorin’s closed expression Bilbo rolled his eyes and sat down across from him. “Call it what you will, but the fact is that you are ill, Thorin. I can no more blame you for this illness than I could if you caught a fever. And if I refuse to forgive you it is because there is nothing to forgive, at least not when it comes to this.”

Something unknotted in Thorin’s chest at Bilbo’s words and he gave a slight nod of acknowledgement. Though in his heart he could not find that he agreed he was…grateful, for the thought.

“Now, if you’re ready,” Bilbo continued, unraveling the scroll and placing it on the ground between them. “This to me seems the most promising text, since it’s the only one that carries any mention of dwarves.”

“Trust the Elves to have no care for the history or the suffering of my people,” Thorin said with a grimace.

“Well excuse me, I only got through one shelf before you went tearing out of there,” said Bilbo.  “But you’re right, they are mostly Elvish texts, so it’s Gondolin this, and Túrin that, everywhere you look. Now, are you going to listen to what I found or should I get comfortable while you go off on another rant about the elves?”

Thorin was preparing to do just that when he caught himself, or rather caught what Bilbo had said. “Do I really spend so much time talking about them?”

“To put it mildly? If you wrote as much as you talked, you’d already have several volumes on the subject. Indeed, if I hadn’t met any elves along our journey I would have assumed they were worse than orcs by your account.”

“And who is to say they are not?” Thorin said. Bilbo openly gaped, then caught sight of the tiny smirk at the edge Thorin’s lips.

“Remember what I said about how you might have charged the elves instead of the orcs had you been at the battle? I take it back: it’s not a possibility, it’s a certainty.” Bilbo laughed. “And if I didn’t know any better, I would say you made another joke just then. You know how I feel about those, I’m not sure my heart can take the shock any further.”

“Then it was clearly your imagination,” Thorin said loftily, and turned the scroll around so that he could see the Westron letters right-side up. “Nevertheless, talking of elves seems a habit I must break. They do not warrant the breath it takes to name them.”

Bilbo gave an exasperated chuckle, and leaned over the scroll. “Oh I don’t know; I may even miss it. Without elves to complain about you may never speak again.” Thorin snorted and with a grin Bilbo inclined his head and pointed to the scroll.

“Fortunately, this account has nothing to do with elves, rather it deals with a Lord of the Éothéod, by the name of Fram. Apparently he made a deal with some dwarves to hunt a dragon called Scatha.”

“I know of Fram,” Thorin interrupted. “We have another name for him, one he shares with Thingol, for those who refuse to pay the agreed price.”

“Elves again,” Bilbo muttered under his breath, then said louder, “And what word would that be?”

Thorin shook his head. “I cannot teach it to you. Suffice to say it is not a pleasant one. To bear such a name is to be marked for death by any dwarf who comes upon him.”

“Well, that does make sense,” Bilbo said, tapping a paragraph. “They dealt with him quickly enough. Fram and the dwarves agreed he would turn the hoard over to them once the dragon was dead, instead he gave them a necklace of Scatha’s teeth. They killed him soon thereafter.”

Thorin gave a grim chuckle. “He should have expected no less. None may be allowed to give such insult and live to tell of it. But what does this have to do finding a cure?”

“I was thinking,” Bilbo said, “that maybe it had something to do with the teeth? If perhaps it was this…dragon sickness, for lack of a better word, that drove Fram mad enough to deny the dwarves their pay?”

“Even if that were true, there is still no reason to believe that the race of Men suffers from this curse as we do. And if they did, why would you think it the teeth and not the gold itself?” Thorin said, frowning.

“Because if that’s the case there’s not much we can do other than to take the entire hoard and toss it down the nearest mine shaft, either that or wall it off until the corruption fades,” Bilbo said. Thorin’s eyes widened, his breath froze in his throat and his whole body seized as if he had been stabbed. “And since I gather that’s not a solution you would find acceptable, I began looking for other possibilities.”

“Then you are not a hopeless judge of character,” Thorin said once he caught his breath, though his heart still hammered in his chest at the mere thought of destroying all the great works in the room with them. He took a second to collect himself before continuing, “Yet even if the curse could pass to Fram, he only acted as a dragon, he did not become one.”

“Who is to say?” Bilbo said. “Perhaps he was killed too quickly for anyone to find out. Before you… found me in the library, I was thinking that there might be a curse put on whoever kills the dragon. But that cannot be true, otherwise it would have fallen upon Bard. So if we assume Fram was suffering the earlier stages: irrational acts, overwhelming greed, hoarding the treasure to himself, and…” Bilbo trailed off then slowly, as if he could not stop himself, his gazed climbed to Thorin’s face.

“Go on,” Thorin said flatly.

Bilbo cleared his throat. “Uh, that is, if we take Fram as a possible example, then the teeth he carried with him might have had some impact on his behavior when he went to the dwarves. If there was an enchantment, it didn’t lift when he distanced himself from the treasure. So maybe it wasn’t the gold itself, but something that was in the gold?”

“Then you believe there may be something, some piece of Smaug that remains, and exudes the disease?” Thorin said. He considered this. After all, that a physical piece of the dragon was what ultimately corrupted the gold did not necessarily contradict Mîm’s account. And there was the possibility that Bilbo was right earlier when he said that Mîm may not fully know or understand all aspects of the curse, for by his own admission he had not been in the pits of the Angband when the first dragon came forth.

Bilbo shrugged. “Smaug lived here for over a century, there could well be bits of him still lying about, teeth and toenail clippings. I should imagine every piece of that creature would be foul with magic.”

“So we find it where it lies and destroy it,” Thorin said. He found the idea…intriguing. Warmed by the food he had eaten, washed and feeling himself for the first time in days—weeks really, since they had first entered by the hidden door— he found himself nodding at the possibility as he leaned in closer to Bilbo.

“Yes,” Bilbo said. “And if that doesn’t work, we go to Gandalf for help.”

“Gandalf again,” Thorin muttered. “I have already said I will have no dealings with that charlatan.”

“If we destroy this piece of Smaug and nothing happens, then we’ll be right back where we started,” Bilbo said impatiently. “Unless you’ve got a better idea, this is where I put my foot down.” Bilbo tilted his chin up and looked Thorin in the eye, as if daring to be contradicted.

“Then perhaps I should be clearer: I will not go to Gandalf for aid ever again,” Thorin said.

“Well I’m open to suggestions.” Bilbo spread his hands wide. “Anything at all, and we’ll try it.” Thorin met his gaze with stony silence. “Thorin,” Bilbo continued, dropping his voice lower and leaning in, “this is serious. How long do you think it will be before this is irreversible? We only have one shot at doing it your way, and even this may take too long. I understand your misgivings about Gandalf, I really do.” He didn’t, to Thorin’s ears. “But it’s only fair that if we try it your way first we must next try it mine.”

“I do not recall this being a negotiation,” Thorin growled.

“It must be, as far as I’m concerned, or we’ve no hope of working together at all. I may not be a dwarf to kill people who break bargains with me, I’d have no relatives left if I did, but let me promise you that if you go back on this I will be quite upset with you.”

“And if I do not agree at all?” Thorin said. That twisting anger was waking, surging through his veins like living flame.

“It’s this or I fetch Gandalf right now, Thorin. I am a hobbit, not one of your subjects, and if I’m still here it’s out of friendship. I—”

Thorin’s claws flexed, and Bilbo’s head moved slowly as he turned to look down at them. It would be an easy thing to do, to be sure he would never leave this hall carrying tales…Thorin saw flashes of blood so clear he could taste it. Revulsion followed closed behind.

“Very well, I agree to your terms,” Thorin said quickly, and the anger flashed again but this time he pushed it ruthlessly aside. The image played still at the back of his mind, of silencing Bilbo forever and walling the last passage up against intruders. The image rode on anger that refused to be suppressed, that resisted as he tried to bury it. He could not recall being so easily enraged before the quest, but then there had been less at stake.

Or not, another portion of his mind reminded him, there had been many more worries in Ered Luin, and in their exile, but now it felt like every day was a gamble, there was still so much at stake and there was….

His life, and Bilbo’s life. What else was there? It was simple, the world narrowed to two beating hearts. And for the first time it occurred to Thorin what terrible danger Bilbo had risked in coming here, as he tasted the memory of blood in his mouth, hot and coppery, and set his teeth against it. What did it matter that he did not think Bilbo’s plan would work? What choice did he have if that were true, save to end it all or throw himself on the mercy of his enemies?

It may have been worth it in any case for the look of relief that dawned over Bilbo’s face, along with a slow smile. Shame flooded Thorin, so biting and sharp that he had to look down because he could not bear to look Bilbo in the eye, and see the hobbit’s simple happiness that he be allowed to help, when Thorin had done nothing but curse Bilbo and nearly kill him.

“Bilbo, there is something I must tell you,” Thorin said. Bilbo perked up, looking at Thorin askance. Thorin’s heart thundered in his ears and he exhaled to release the last of his nerves at what he was to say. It was a horrifying thought, and part of him rebelled at the very idea of it, at all which it entailed, but the possibility had plagued him since the first day of the itching. He paused to slide the scroll away as he gathered his words, and moved closer to Bilbo. “I think— I fear this illness may have begun some time ago. When we first entered the mountain.”

Bilbo’s breath left him in a rush. “Thorin, even if it’s been that long it doesn’t mean there isn’t a cure.”

Thorin shook his head. “That is not my meaning. I recognize now that my behavior since then has been…erratic; my treatment of you and the others has not been… as I would have wished it to be. I thought only that it was the effects of seeing my home once more, of having all so close within my grasp, and so I did not check myself, did not recognize it as I should have for—for the illness of my line."

"I do not say this to excuse myself, or because I believe I can change it now. I think… it will only get worse as this progresses, for I cannot say always what is my own will and what is not. I know only that every day it becomes stronger, and there may soon be a time when I can no longer pull myself back from this brink. Where I began, or how the intentions I had when we first set out for our home became so confused in the taking of it, is lost to me. I am adrift, so far from where I once was that if there is a way back I no longer see it.”

Bilbo opened his mouth to protest but Thorin held up a hand to silence him, and finally looked up, giving a pleading look. “I have already asked too much of you, taken you far from your home and threatened your life through my choices and by my own hand. I have no right to ask more, but I do not know how this will end, even if you are right and we find a cure, my behavior may grow worse before then. Much worse. So all I can do is beg you to understand: this is not who I am. This is not who I wish to be. If all fails please, remember that, and remember me as I once was. Not this. Not how I have acted since we entered here, or what I have done to you since then.” Thorin released a shuddering sigh. “I know it is a great deal to ask, and it would be well within your right to refuse—”

Thorin was cut off by impact, enough that were he not braced he might have toppled over. Stunned, he looked down to see Bilbo’s arms wrapped around him, his face buried in the crook of Thorin’s neck, scales and all, for Thorin’s stomach twisted at the thought of Bilbo pressed close to the corruption of his flesh, and he moved to disentangle him, but his clawed fingers hovered over Bilbo’s shoulders, hesitating.

Bilbo’s arms tightened around him, and Thorin stiffened as he felt dampness against his throat. Bilbo held on for a long, silent moment that was punctuated only by the hobbit’s harsh breathing. Then as if sensing Thorin’s shock, Bilbo gave a shaky, tearful laugh, “I’m sorry,” his grip loosened. “I suppose I’ve been a bit on edge myself. These past weeks have been quite stressful, and I just mean I… of course. Of course I forgive you, Thorin,” Bilbo sniffed, fighting to bring his breathing under control as he loosened his grip, and pulled away enough to look down. “I’m sorry, that really was a bit much. I promise I am not usually so… so… Anyway, forgive me, I know you do not like to be touched,” Bilbo said, and moved to pull away.

Something like panic welled up in Thorin’s heart, for he felt Bilbo tremble against him as he withdrew, could feel the reluctance with which he did so in the stiffness of his arm and the way his fingers trailed along Thorin’s arm. It struck him like a bolt through the heart just how much he had misjudged Bilbo. That he may not be disgusted by the change, but merely respecting Thorin’s space, while feeling as isolated and cut off as Thorin himself. That Thorin in turn had denied him the comfort and reassurance that Bilbo had so freely granted him.

He remembered Bilbo’s words, that it would have been nice to hear praise from time to time, to be thanked or acknowledged for his deeds. Thorin marveled that he had not seen it sooner: that he had failed to do something so simple as show Bilbo that he was wanted and appreciated. The entire realization passed through him between one breath and the next.

On its heels came a wave of desperation, knowing he could never put it all into words, and with that desperation in his heart, Thorin seized Bilbo before he could pull away and dragged him close. Bilbo started, but Thorin must have guessed aright for Bilbo melted against him, clutching him in return. After a moment his trembling slowed, then ceased altogether.

For a long time they only held one another, as if touch alone could anchor them in place, in this moment where there was still a glimpse of light. For beyond it, as far as Thorin could see, was only darkness.

 



In a field
Behaving as the wind behaves
No nearer—

Not that final meeting
In the twilight kingdom

 

Chapter Text

“You can let go now, if you like,” a muffled voice said against Thorin’s neck and he thought, to his own pleasant surprise, that he would not like to at all and demonstrated this fact by drawing the hobbit closer against him, him burying his face in his curls and breathing him in: tea and pipeweed and good earth, overwhelmed by the scent of mint that still radiated from his own skin. Bilbo sighed and relaxed against him and for a moment there was only heartbeats meeting in time, and warmth all around that banishes the cold and the loneliness of a dead city.

“Much as I’d like to stay here forever,” Bilbo continued. “I am having a bit of trouble breathing.”

Thorin started, and loosened a bit the death-grip with which he had clutched Bilbo to his chest. The hobbit gasped for air, albeit a bit theatrically, and gave him a wry grin as his face reemerged. It was flushed and warm and relieved, as if the last of the tension that had stood between them, that kept Bilbo separate as if by a layer of glass, had finally melted away. His hand fell to Thorin’s hip but did not stray from there and for a moment they only knelt beside each other and gave a sort of huff of relief, as if a great thunderstorm had blown through and finally passed on.

Thorin at least felt they could breathe easier now, and what with the watershed moment and the ointment across his skin he felt relaxed to the point of bonelessness. It was a strange feeling, one he had not felt in longer than he could remember, as was the tightness in his face which it took a moment for him to recognize as a foolish grin. He cleared his throat and straightened his expression, looking down in an attempt to recover some trace of dignity.

“It’s just that I thought…” Bilbo hesitated, gesturing towards the gold. “We should get going.”

“So soon?” Thorin said, some of the glow dimming within him. He felt better than he had in days and looking out across the gold.

“I’d rather not,” Bilbo admitted. “But there’s so little time, I’m afraid to linger. We don’t, after all, know how much time there really is. Unless… you would like to leave the mountain?”

Thorin thought of the pathway leading down from the hidden door, of the scales revealed in the light of day and his nephews’ eyes as he walked into the camp. Nausea rolled through him, so swift and violent that he shook his head as much in denial as to clear the image from his mind before it made him sick. “No, we will continue with your plan.”

“For now,” Bilbo said, and Thorin furrowed his brow as he gave him a look. “We give it a day, maybe two, but then we try it my way. As we agreed, right Thorin?” Thorin nodded vaguely, trying not to dwell on Bilbo’s words, lest it reignite the rage that left the coppery taste of blood in his mouth.

“You know, you needn’t come with me into the camp,” Bilbo said. “I can fetch help on my own. I understand your reservations about all this, even if I do think them a bit misplaced.”

“Then I cannot possibly explain it,” Thorin said, for in truth he could not, only that something within him rebelled at the idea. “Very well then, two days.”

“Two days,” Bilbo echoed, nodding.

“You have no idea how we’re going to find this claw of yours, do you?”

“Not a clue.”

“Right then, I’ll be back shortly,” Thorin said as he stood. Bilbo’s hand trailed along his side and the hobbit gave him a startled look.

“Where are you going?”

“To the forges to fetch us tools, Master Baggins.” Thorin raised an eyebrow. “Unless you plan to dig through the gold with your bare hands?” Bilbo opened his mouth to protest. “I will only be a moment.”

Thorin returned a short while later, dropping a second bucket of coals beside the fire and proffering a pair of shovels towards Bilbo. Bilbo eyed the tools and did not take his immediately. The wooden handle was crumbling and spotted with rust, even if the metal itself was still solid. “Are you certain they’ll hold?”

“They’re sturdy enough,” Thorin said, examining the shovels.

“If you say so,” Bilbo said, as he reluctantly accepted one from Thorin’s hand. His fingers were stained immediately with rust, which he glared at with offended distaste, as if a bit of iron dust on his fingers was the worst thing that had happened to him these past days.

“The rust will not harm you,” Thorin said dryly. Then he looked over to the campsite, which he noted was the same as he had left it. “You’re not bringing the bedrolls? With all the work that must be done…”

“Oh no you don’t,” Bilbo replied. “I’m not having us stay out there a minute longer than needed. When we’re done at the end of the day, we come back here.”

“Seems inefficient,” Thorin grumbled.

“It’s prudence, not inefficiency. I don’t know about you, but sitting right in the heart of a cursed hoard is not my idea of a holiday. I say we spend no more than an hour there at a time, at most,” Bilbo said.

Thorin caught his own irritation even as it rose within him, noted and remembered it so that he may begin to recognize which emotions were the curse and which were his own. Still, the blasted platform was cold, save for Bilbo, and he had not felt truly warm since he had last lain amongst the gold. Even knowing of the curse, the prospect of sleeping there again had been a welcome one.

“Very well,” he said. “Then there’s no time to waste. Where did you wish to begin?”

Bilbo released a sigh. “I’m afraid to say it, but the crater itself really is the most sensible place. The miasma there was so strong even I could sense it. With any luck the source of the curse will be somewhere near the surface, and we can be in and out of there quickly. If not, we move on to the next plan,” he said, hesitating and looking to Thorin out of the corner of his eye.

“As you say,” Thorin said, inclining his head, and trying not to acknowledge the relief that swept through him at the thought of returning to the gold.

In truth, the distance to the crater was not very far, indeed it would have been five minutes, but with the shifting coins under their feet and the hills and valleys, it took longer. The walls of the crater were steep, and they skidded down barefooted, the coins streaming to either side, before coming to rest at the bottom.

Thorin sagged as the warmth of the gold seeped in through his feet. There was nothing more he would have liked then than to lie down amongst the treasure and sleep for a year. His eyelids were heavy, there was the distant clank of his shovel hitting the ground and he was swaying, slipping…

“All right then, where is it?” Bilbo said. Thorin pried his eyes open and looked at the hobbit, eyelids falling as if they were weighted down with lead. Bilbo stood in the center of the crater leaning on his shovel as if it were a walking stick.

“Where is what?” Thorin said, noting how he had barely closed his eyes, yet his voice was thick and slurred as if he had woken from a deep sleep.

“The piece. The… claw, or tooth, whatever it is. Can you sense where it might be?” Bilbo said.

Thorin’s eyebrows drew together as he mulled over Bilbo’s words. They seemed to slip through his mind like quicksilver, forming no discernible pattern. “Sense it?”

Bilbo rolled his eyes and made no attempt to hide it. “Yes, sense it, is there an echo in here? Where should we start digging?”

Digging... digging where…? How should he…? “How in Durin’s name would I know that?” His eyes drooped again and when he opened them Bilbo was standing in front of him, his hand bracing against Thorin’s shoulder.

“Thorin, you said the gold is warm here. That you can sense it wherever it lies. It stands to reason then that if there is a source you should be able to sense it too. So where is it? Where do we start?” Thorin blinked at the rapid-fire questions, irritation flaring.

“Do you want an answer or the truth?” Thorin snapped, rousing himself.

Bilbo’s face fell. “Not good?”

“There is no source,” Thorin said flatly, sweeping out his hand to indicate the whole crater. “There is no particular spot in here where it begins or ends. It fills this place, like water in a bowl.”

Bilbo’s shoulders sank, and he pressed a hand to his forehead, shaking his head from side to side. “I don’t know, I don’t know what to do then, Thorin. It could take us weeks to dig through all of this, it must be ten feet at least to the floor.” He dragged a hand through his curls and looked up, his expression pleading. “Please could you…could you at least try?

Thorin looked at him stonily. It was impossible. The heat came from all directions, as if he was indeed immersed in a hot bath. It was soothing, bewitching, and robbing his senses of all focus. To try to find one point in that swirling tide was ludicrous, it was folly. Not to mention pointless, for in his heart of hearts he knew that he was only humoring Bilbo, that the chances were so slim as to be impossible.

Then again--Thorin thought as he looked upon the place where a dragon that robbed his home had once slept--he had never shied away from impossible odds.

“Very well.” Thorin sighed, and walked over to the center of the crater. Not far away lay his old shirt and boots where he had discarded them the first day, and the silver bowl where he had first caught sight of himself. He ignored them and crouched down, closing his eyes and pressing his fingertips to the gold as if it were stone. He waited, thinking on how ridiculous he must appear, how it had been foolish to entertain Bilbo’s hopes when he must dash them immediately.

Then a thrum passed through Thorin, and he felt as if his body rang from head to toe, like a bell that had been struck. Every coin, statue, goblet and gem in Erebor was here and it was his. The treasures did not only have a presence, they had a pulse, and that pulse was the song that lulled him to his sleep. He crouched lower and closed his eyes, placing his other hand on the gold. As he did, he dislodged one of the coins and as he did he felt it, he felt the infinitesimal shift in its position amongst millions of other pieces, like when a stone dropped into a pool left ripples on its surface that travelled in every direction.

There was something there, in the crater with them. Eyes closed, he could pick out Bilbo by scent alone, wool and pipeweed and earth on his feet. He knew where Bilbo stood by the way the gold shifted and buckled beneath him.

There was something else too. Something that had indeed been buried, and whatever it was it had power. Power radiating like heat from a forge, billowing in the air, spreading to the gold around them, calling. Its voice was weak, sleepy, for long it had lain below the earth, amongst the rock and stone, out of the light. But it had awakened now, just a fraction, at Thorin’s call, reverberating in the space between them, naming him. He knew how to find it, he wanted to find it and knew that it wanted to be found. It sang a clear golden note in the air. He merely had to take it from the place where it lay hidden.

He opened his eyes and stood in one languorous motion. His nostrils flared at the scent and the gold shifting beneath the talons of his feet. As he stood, his shoulders flexed and with a sound like the tearing of cloth his skin split and flaked away, armored scales emerging from the dead flesh to cover his back and sides.

“Do you know where it is?” a voice came and Thorin turned his head to face the source.

“It’s you,” Thorin mused, his voice a deep and harsh like the rumble of stones in the dark places of the world.

“Me?” Bilbo said, taking a step back that rang through the hoard. “What in the world does that mean? Did you feel the source of the disease? Thorin… Thorin, good heavens what happened to your back?” Thorin smelled the cold sweat of fear as it prickled the hobbit’s forehead, and he took another step forward.

“It is on you, a thing you carry,” Thorin said and sniffed the air. “Small.” He took another step and stood before Bilbo. Black claws, long again as his fingers and sharp as blades, delicately clasped Bilbo’s shoulders as Thorin leaned towards him. Bilbo’s breath brushed Thorin’s throat as he leaned in and yes, he could smell it there. He whispered into Bilbo’s ear, “Something made of gold. But it is more than that. It is…” he looked Bilbo in the eye, the glowing blue of his gaze bathing Bilbo’s face, “precious.”

Bilbo trembled beneath his hand, and his mouth fell open with a sharp intake of breath.

Then he vanished.


Metal shrieked and cloth tore as Bilbo dragged himself free of his enemy’s grip and in a second he was off, scrabbling up the edge of the golden bowl, coins and gems clanging and tumbling behind him. A sharp, hysterical cry rose at the back of his throat as he scrambled, expecting any minute to feel a hand close around his ankle.

So he ran.

But his precious did not grant him silence and he heard the sound of pursuit, a bellow of rage and the clash of feet on gold. The ring burned on his finger and he might have ripped it off in that moment if not for the ice of terror. 

Gold. He had to get off the gold, and onto hard stone where he would not be heard. Even with what light there was reflecting off polished metal the room was a muddle of shadows, the strange gray swirling mist of the spectral world. He dared turn once to see a figure with eyes that burned blue as the heart of a flame, a creature of obsidian and stone, its wild hair streaming behind it as it gave chase. With a strangled gasp, he ran on.

His breath was ragged in his lungs and loud, too loud, in his ears. The sound of the coins clashing together behind him grew nearer. He saw his chance: the door to the treasury lying open, unguarded, and beyond the many rooms and dark holes of Erebor. Hide, he needed to hide. To go down beneath the earth, dark and deep, like an animal to ground and wait, wait for this creature to give up.

His feet hit the stone floor and in a renewed burst of speed he was flying, quick and silent as a shadow.

The pursuit grew nearer.

Then his enemy stepped out of the darkness, in front of the doorway.

He skidded to a halt, swallowing back a cry. The enemy, the monster, could not see him. Its eyes roved, blue and baleful, seeking him out and he realized he had a knife, a small one, meant for eating meals, but enough to reach its heart and if that failed, he had his hands, clever fingers to wrap around the creatures throat and squeeze until its face was as blue as its eyes. He licked his lips, mouth gone dry from running and from the thought of killing this creature in front of him, the one that had tried to take his…

Ring. It was just a ring. Gold and magic but not…Bilbo swallowed. It was not worth Thorin’s life. He shook his head and the haze fell away. It was not an enemy in front of him, it was Thorin.

But even if Bilbo knew Thorin in that moment, the same could not be said for the dwarf. His eyes were those of a stalking predator and those horrible black scales now covered his entire chest and back save for a patch at the shoulders, and another on the left side of his chest, over his heart. Half of Thorin’s face too was scarred with them. There was no recognition in his eyes. His hard lips were drawn back in a rictus and he sniffed the air, turning his head slowly to look straight at Bilbo.

The halls. The halls were still as fine a plan as any. They were many and winding, filled with dozens of rooms that might buy Bilbo time. Like the caverns of the Misty Mountains all over again, he must make a leap.

He still had his knife, for Sting was back at the camp, where he would be expected. There was hardly any point to the little thing, but its edge was sharp. He took it from its sheathe, looking at it, then to Thorin.

Then he turned and threw it into the hoard.

It clanged off the side of a golden cauldron and struck a shield that rang like a gong. Thorin’s head went up like a hound and Bilbo knew this… creature… was not his Thorin. His Thorin would not have fallen for so simple a trick, but Bilbo could not question fortune when it came, even if the cause turned his heart to dust in his chest.

The creature, Thorin, or rather the thing that wore Thorin’s body, and who knew for how much longer his shape, charged back towards the gold, while Bilbo dashed up the steps and into the wide stone corridors of Erebor.

 


III

This is the dead land
This is cactus land

Chapter Text

Its head came up at the clang and clatter and it took off, body hunched low to the ground as it sniffed out its prey. It smelled gold and power, wool and earth. It smelled fear. Fear that stank in the sweat of the creature, newly sprung when it had wrapped its claws round the quarry and brought it close. 

The scent weakened even as it pursued and it snarled and snapped in fury, gnashing its teeth at being so eluded. Once the sound of clanging gold ceased, the trail faded all but entirely— its senses were not yet so keen that it could track by scent alone, but that would change. In time it would become huge, growing into size and power that would make its enemies quake.

There was no trace of its prey amongst the gold: the scent was cold, so it stormed away from there, prowling back up the stairs to the camp hidden amongst the platforms. It sniffed at the site, smelling charcoal and meat, the sharp tang of mint that puzzled its senses and masked its prey’s scent. The source was a vial of oil and the creature kicked it aside its fury, where it smashed on the stone below. Then it returned to the door of the treasury, where it had first lost the trail, and ducked out into the halls.

It followed the remnants of the scent trail as if it were a golden thread winding through the halls, noting with frustration how it became dimmer with each minute. It passed through long corridors and across bridges suspended over darkness. A chair sat in the middle of the great chamber, a stalactite reaching from the vault above to touch it like a benediction. It was carved from an obelisk of stone, and in the center was crowned with a single empty socket. The creature spared this only a glance.

It hungered for gold.

The scent waned further in the great open halls, the wind from deep within the earth muddling and confusing the trail. It was no tracking hound to pick up even the faintest odor, nor could even the keen eyes of a hawk have tracked bare feet over barren stone. It turned on its heels, surveying the halls for some sign of its prey. Pathetic dead things crouched in corners, the slow decay of time reducing their bodies and clothes to dust. It ignored them. They were of no use even to feed upon.

Its thoughts were instead filing with visions of fresher meat. Of falling upon its prey, descending from the heights, first blows to the hamstrings and neck, immobilizing and killing it in seconds, the taste of salt and iron. Or it could choose to be slow, to drag the pleasure out. It could seize its treasure before the prey’s dimming eyes and laugh as it did so, though it remembered little of why this would be, save that its prey was a thief and had something it desired. Already it could taste the blood on its lips and throat, and its claws curled at the thought.

Hours it searched. It tore rotting wood from rusted hinges, scoured rooms piled with the long dead, but the scent was cold. The siren call of the precious golden object was silent, as if it had returned to sleep after rousing itself only briefly. Still the creature wandered in hopes of rediscovering the scent, in and out of rooms without a care for their purpose.

The night had come and gone when it first began to feel ill at ease. There was a sound in its mind, like a bird beating its wings against a closed window. It stood in a room lined with great shelves like walls, filled with burnt paper and cracked clay. It had caught a scent here, faint as starlight, of the precious golden treasure that had escaped its grasp. The stacks called to it, for they held many hiding places where its prey might go to ground. The scent was maddening, tantalizing, and just out of reach.

But then the pain began. It gave a low, whimpering groan and clutched its head. There was a sound like glass breaking as it stumbled out of the library. Awareness was returning, memories dropping into its bloodthirsty mind like tesserae, building a mosaic that, piece by piece, turned hunger to sickened horror.

Yet one memory did not replace another. Would that it had. Instead it only filled in the blank spaces between them. First there was the headache, but the nausea that followed was no result of illness.

Thorin came awake in a body twitching with agony and a mind dripping horror. He remembered standing within the crater, sensing something that did not belong there, thinking it was the claw of Bilbo’s theory. He remembered tracing the scent back, back, like following a golden thread, to Bilbo. He remembered the thread snapping tight, pulling at him, pulling at his mind until he stood outside of himself. Then it was no longer Bilbo in front of him but a thief, prey that must be pursued. Devoured. Then Bilbo vanished, somehow, into the air itself but the gold thread did not. It tugged at him, at his soul itself, and the creature had known it must give chase.

The trickle of memories became a torrent, images flooding his mind without mercy. Of looking upon his dead kin and wondering if he might feed upon them, jaws champing through crumbling bones and blood turned to dust in their veins.

Thorin fell to his knees, retching. No flames this time, only the chemical bile and whatever remained of the meal from the day before. Only a day? The memory mocked him, of the warm fire and the savory meal that made the sickness no longer seem insurmountable. Of gentle hands and quiet laughter, and Bilbo…

Thorin gagged again as the memory fell into place: memories of what end he had planned for Bilbo. Torturing him and stealing the treasure he carried, before Thorin would turn his claws upon him and watch with delight as those eyes clouded with death.

He retched again, and in a sudden, cold-sweat soaked moment of clarity, Thorin wondered if this would always be his family’s lot. Would his line always be cursed to devour their own over trinkets, blood dripping from their jaws even as their fingers grasped for more, for jewels and gold and lordship, like a spider that ate its young?

Thorin hunched over, stomach twisting, and saw Thrór struggling in his arms as he dragged his grandfather from the treasury. How he had turned on his grandson after, wrath blazing in his eyes, swinging his fists, his teeth bared like an animal. Was it not only fitting then that he should follow that path? To destroy the living in order to lock hands around dead, cold metals and crystallized minerals? Fitting that they lose what they love, they who are not fit to carry it?

What good were his visions of glory now? He, who had dreamt of reclaiming Erebor for his people, returning to them the works of their hand, now he clung to the gold himself as Smaug had, had threatened the lives of his companions if they did not obey him. And look what he had become. The monster that haunted the halls of Erebor. Who had he once been? Where was the prince who had dreamed of home?

Thorin could no longer see him. He could not see anymore where his own thoughts began and the alien ones, dripping with blood and gold, ended. He was falling, melting into the creature that consumed his flesh and he could feel it, that distant roar of the wind when there was not a breath in the air, and knew it for the wings of its coming. Distant still, but for how much longer? How long until he fell to it again, and woke with Bilbo’s blood on his claws and the flesh of his own people in his belly?

Thorin would not sit idle and wait for an answer to this question. There was a blade he remembered well among the hoard. A silver poniard without edge, only a wicked point that he had seen punch through the finest steel plate armor.

A blade well suited for his final service to Erebor.


Bilbo slept in the library, leaving the ring on through the night. The gray mist swirled like morning fog and he knew soon as he woke that he was not alone.

He shifted, silent and creeping, to look over the edge of the alcove where he’d made his bed the night before. The stone around his resting place was scorched black and scrawled with claw marks, and he hoped it wasn’t too much of an omen. A gold statue had once made its home here, before Smaug dragged it off to the hoard. With any luck he’d fair better.

A figure detached itself from the shadows below, moving through the dust and fallen shelves, head turning this way and that at he sampled the air. Then his head turned and he looked up. Thorin’s face was caught in one of the chains of golden light that fell from the tiny points in the ceiling high above and Bilbo’s heart sank at the sight. The black scales now covered his back, shoulders and chest. Only a pale spot over the heart remained of the skin on his body, as far as Bilbo could tell. Of his face it was as if he wore a half-mask, the left side dark with black scales, the right side still the face Bilbo knew, but the scales wrapped around Thorin’s throat like a collar, disappearing into his beard. His eyes glinted even in the sunlight, until he passed again into darkness.

Bilbo eased back into the alcove, pressing against the cold stone wall and out of sight. He could hear the ruffle of crumbled paper and scrape of claws from Thorin’s steps as they paced this way and that. Then a terrible, whimpering groan and the steps were moving away again, back to the door, and were gone.

Bilbo released a long, shuddering breath but did not yet dare move from his hiding place. He must soon though: there had been no time to bring his pack and while the road had trained him to go a day, perhaps two, without collapsing from hunger it would mean failing reflexes, fuzzy thinking, and weakness of body that he could ill afford. He could not outlast Thorin, even without the curse. He must make his move, and soon. He had to get back to the door, to get out and find Gandalf. There was only one problem: with only the hidden door left for getting out of Erebor, he would have to get past Thorin and the treasury first.

A simple matter, he told himself. Hobbits were light and quick on their feet, and he was invisible to boot. It was only a matter of slipping by Thorin now as he had before.

Then again, nothing on this journey had ever been simple.

An hour more he waited before breaking from his hiding place, spending the time until then drifting in and out of a doze to save energy. Once out in the hall he found the nearest fountain, drinking his fill of the icy mountain water that still flowed through the city. It took the edge off and cleared his head, though he could feel, like a slowly descending blade, hunger as it teased at the edge of his senses. He had until sunset before that tease became a distraction.

Bilbo tried the other doors first: the great entrance hall, and the parapet where they had gone out to meet Thranduil and Bard, what felt like a lifetime before. All were closed off, locked down by slabs of stone that had fallen across the entrance: the defense mechanism of the mountain that Thorin had triggered, of no use against a dragon all those years before, but certainly impossible for a hobbit to pass. There may have been more exits, but Erebor was vast and he did not like the idea of becoming lost somewhere in its depths. No, he’d rather face Thorin than that. He felt a strange unease at the thought of those darkened caverns, at the memory of lantern eyes and the creeping creature that made its home beneath the Misty Mountains. How easy it might be to put on the ring and slink away, down into the depths…

Bilbo shook his head to clear it of the image, having no time for such odd musings. His thoughts was haunted enough as it was. There was no company now to keep his mind from dwelling on the bodies that lined the halls and rooms of the city. Mummified by time or charred by fire, at first they frightened Bilbo to his marrow, his imagination conjuring images of the risen dead, watching him as he passed, appearing in doorways or from behind darkened corners, reaching for him with crumbling fingers.

But he was a kindly soul, and it was not long before they only made him sad. There were so many, and too many of them were children, clutching mothers or each other in their final moments. There were rooms where corpses were piled by the door in their last effort to hold back their doom. It made him sick, and it made him angry, and not for the first time since the fire-drake fell over Laketown he felt a fierce satisfaction at the creature’s death, more than simple relief. He thought then too that he understood something more of Thorin’s rage. The thought of a dragon attacking his beloved Shire… His stomach roiled for he could see it all too clearly, the Party Tree burning, firing raining down from the sky. Bilbo shook his head once, then again violently for he felt he might be ill. He forced himself onward until he came to ceilings that vaulted like the sky itself, and found himself in the throne room. There, he froze.

Thorin stood before the throne.

It meant that, beyond him, the way was clear. Bilbo could make a dash now, through the treasury and up the stairs to the hidden door. There would be no way for Thorin to stop him, he could be free of these halls and down in the camp before noon.

Yet something drew him aside, drew him forward. The fell energy which had given Thorin size, that made him seem a monster in dwarven form, was gone. Thorin’s shoulders were bowed and he was hunched forward, holding something in his hands as he gazed up at the throne. Bilbo crept forward up the stairs and down the long path, telling himself he still had a good head start should he need to run. After all, Thorin could not see him.

“I know you are there, Bilbo,” Thorin said. Bilbo’s breath caught and his heart thundered as he stilled. “I smell you. Strange, that after so long on the road, and after so many foul things have befallen us, you still carry the scent of your home. Pipeweed and earth are not so common down here. I would know you in the dark.” He turned, exposing the good side of his face as he looked back. All life had fled his eyes. “I would know you if I were blind.” His brow drew together as if from some inner agony. “There is no need to hide; you will soon be free of this place. I ask only that I may look upon you one last time. It… seems I am always asking you for what I do not deserve.”

It was then Bilbo saw the silver poniard in Thorin’s hand. It had thin, edgeless blade with a deadly point that was now pressed to the soft spot above Thorin’s heart. Even as all wisdom and better sense told Bilbo this was a ploy to make him reveal himself, the sight of the blade drowned those voices out in a rush of terror. Bilbo dragged off the ring off and clenched it in his hand.

Thorin’s eyes widened as he appeared. “Even now?” he breathed.

“Thorin, please. Whatever you’re about to do, stop it,” Bilbo said, advancing a step. He held his hands open and flat in front of him, the ring pinched between thumb and forefinger.

Thorin’s expression closed. “I spent all the night and morning hunting you, all because I heard a golden voice calling to me, naming you my enemy,” Thorin said, his voice hollow. “You were right to flee.”

“No, no I wasn’t. I should have stayed instead of running like a…  I should have helped. Better yet, I should never have brought you back to the gold, Thorin. I am as much to blame here as you,” Bilbo said.

“It was as good a plan as any…” Thorin said but Bilbo was already shaking his head violently.

“It was a terrible plan. It was the worst… we should have just forgotten it entirely. Thorin, I wanted the plan to fail. I wanted you to admit we needed Gandalf. It was a trick, and I’m sorry. Please just… tell me you’re angry with me and put that away. There’s still time.” Anger did indeed fall over Thorin’s face, some of that suspicion that had darkened his eyes when they spoke of Bilbo’s theft, but then it simply… dissolved, swallowed by exhaustion, and that haunted shadow returned.

“Time?” Thorin echoed. “Had I found you I would not only have killed you. I would have tortured you. Devoured you.” Bilbo swallowed and Thorin’s eyes caught the movement, and became empty and horribly blank. “I have befouled the halls of my fathers, imagined…the dead….”

Thorin looked up then, the good side of his face pale and sickened. Then the horror fell back, pushed away, and in its place was a sort of weary resolve. His voice became gentle. “Tell me, is that ring the manner in which you saved us from Thranduil’s dungeon, and many times beside?”

Bilbo nodded, feeling cold and sick, desperate to keep Thorin talking if only to stay his hand another moment longer. “I found it in the goblin tunnels.”

“My clever burglar, ever resourceful,” Thorin murmured fondly.

Bilbo took another step forward, but despaired of reaching Thorin before he plunged the sword into his own heart.  “I would give it to you freely, if you would only stop this.”

Thorin stilled at his words, then shook his head and turned his gaze back to the sword in his hand. “I do not wish it. Keep it, and let it not be said that Thorin Oakenshield became no better than Smaug in his final hours.”

“No one will say that,” Bilbo said desperately, edging forward. Thorin’s back stiffened at his words, his hands tightening around the hilt.

“No, they will not.” Thorin looked away then, up at the great throne. As he did something in his expression changed, became at once noble and at peace. He looked up with something approaching awe at the great stone chair before him, the tension easing from his shoulders, as if remembering where he was, what had been gained and what had been lost in the taking of it, all encapsulated in the throne before him, and the sword in his hand.

“Farewell, good thief. I go now to the halls of waiting to sit beside my fathers, until the world is renewed. I go with sword in hand, falling in defense of my home, if not in the manner I once thought.” A drop of blood welled beneath the silver point and trailed down his skin, a shock of red against the gray and black of his body, until it was lost amongst the scales. 

“Stop!” Bilbo cried, taking a step forward. “Thorin, please wait. Let me fetch Gandalf, let me bring him here. He will break the curse, I know it. It’s not too late.” Closer now, Bilbo could see the edge of Thorin’s face, saw him smiling.

“Always your advice is good, and it is my own folly that I choose to ignore it. There is no shame in having failed in this errand, not when it was doomed from the start.”

“You don’t know that,” Bilbo insisted.

“I do,” Thorin said, his head lifting. “This curse is the work of the Enemy, the first and greatest Enemy, and there is no power left on Middle-Earth that can match him. It was foolish of me to think otherwise.”

Bilbo shook his head in denial, for he remembered laughter by the fire and the scent of mint, how the fell light had dimmed from Thorin’s when he looked at Bilbo. “I don’t believe that. If you had been so certain you would have done this before. You would never have searched for a cure with me, or come with me to find the claw.”

“It was as good an attempt as any and you, my burglar, always do seem to find a way out of impossible situations,” Thorin said, and his smile changed, no longer so sad. The smile touched only half his face, but it brought with it a light like the sun breaking through a storm, and Bilbo’s heart shuddered and cracked in his chest. The first tears welled in his eyes and, for a moment, blurred Thorin from his sight before they made their burning trails down his cheeks.

“Then let me try once more, please, just once more,” Bilbo said, his voice breaking.

Thorin shook his head. “There is no time. Once the sickness has consumed me I will not care for you, or my kin, or even the mountain, only for claiming the treasures of these halls. I will be a servant of evil. Let me die instead as I am.”

“I can’t do that, I can’t!” Bilbo choked and tried coming closer again but Thorin turned, holding up a hand.

“You no longer need to fear for me, Bilbo, only let me go. I would not have my last sight of you be your tears.”

“No,” Bilbo said, biting off each word. “I will never forgive you if you do this, Thorin, never as long as I live. Put the sword down.”

Thorin’s expression became grim. “Then perhaps I have found the one thing you cannot forgive.”

Thorin readied the sword, and something snapped within Bilbo and he found himself running. He slipped the ring onto his finger, barely registering Thorin’s look of surprise at his vanishing again. Thorin had only just managed to turn around when Bilbo slammed into him, driving his shoulder into Thorin’s stomach, sent the sword flying from his hand at the impact.

The two tumbled forward and he heard the crack as Thorin’s head hit the floor. A shudder ran through Thorin’s body and his eyes rolled in his head as he went limp. Bilbo snatched the sword from the ground and threw it as far as he could. It flew, streaking silver, end over end through the air before disappearing into the abyss beyond the walkway, like a shooting star vanishing into the night.


Here the stone images
Are raised, here they receive
The supplication of a dead man's hand
Under the twinkle of a fading star.

 

Chapter Text

Thorin awoke unable to move. Even the act of raising his head drew an answering tug at his wrists, and he tried to force himself forward only to be dragged back. He opened his eyes, and shut them again quickly as a blinding light assaulted him, sending pain like a knife through his skull. Thorin went still; eyes screwed shut, breathing shallowly through his nose as he tried to take stock of his situation. He could feel vaguely, as if through thick leather armor, that a rope bound his wrists to either side of him, and with a clever knot at that, for when he pulled at one hand, the other was pulled away in the opposite direction.

The present had not yet filtered back and he thought nothing of the thick covering on his arms, only wondered how he might break the ropes. There too was the question of who had done this, and when he had been captured, and where he had been imprisoned. A wave of nausea roiled over him, like standing on the deck of a tossing ship, and his vision sparkled behind his eyelids. 

“Thank goodness you’re awake,” said a voice softened by relief. Thorin’s head jerked up and he felt the hard tug at his shoulders and arms pulling him in either direction. He finally managed to open his eyes and squinted at the blur of blue that sat before him against gray stone. A cave? And…his burglar. Yes, the voice had been Bilbo’s. Some of the panic left Thorin then, for if Bilbo was there then already there was hope.

“How came we here?” Thorin mumbled, his tongue thick in his mouth and a taste like charcoal at the back of his throat.

“It’s all right. We won’t be here long. I just wanted to make sure you woke up. That was a nasty knock on the head you took there.” There was a watery quality to Bilbo’s voice, as one being cheerful despite recent tears. Thorin tried to open his eyes wider but the dizziness struck again and he flinched.

“How long until we can escape? Or are you bound as I am?” Thorin said. He heard a faint sound like a hiccough.

“No, I am free,” Bilbo said and never had Thorin heard such misery in his voice.

“Then unbind me so we may both leave this place,” Thorin said. His vision was clearing now, and though he twisted against the ropes he felt no pain against his wrists; a small blessing. There was something about the shape of the room they were in: dark on either side, with stone upon the floor and steps leading away. He was seated on something hard, a chair of some sort and of dwarven height for his feet were settled on the ground before him. He had seen a room like this once, from this vantage point too, long ago.

“I’m sorry, I can’t,” Bilbo said, and his voice broke. “I must go, but I will be back with help.”

“Where are we? You have not answered my question.”

“Oh, Thorin, I’m sorry…” Bilbo finally released a sob, strangled as if had been hard suppressed, fought off and fought down through every word he spoke, finally breaking free. It rose in Thorin an answering fear and he knew he must look, though the dim light strike his eyes like a blow. He forced them open, peering at his surroundings.

Great stone pathways stretched before him and the ceiling arched above, supported by enormous pillars taller than any tree. The halls of his fathers, the halls of his childhood. He knew this place, this dais, for many times indeed had he stood upon it.

He sat upon the throne of his grandfather. Bound there, rather, and the rope was knotted around the back of the stone chair. Above him the empty socket of the Arkenstone shadowed the stone like a missing eye. Bilbo knelt at his feet, looking up at him, his eyes bright and red-rimmed from crying. And all came rushing back.

“There was nowhere else and I was afraid you would hurt yourself when you woke up.” Bilbo wrung his hands as he spoke. “Now if you could just wait here while I go for help—”

“Did you do this to mock me?” Thorin said, his voice soft and dangerous.

“I—what?” Bilbo said. He had half risen to his feet and now stared, stopped in his tracks.

“I remember now. What I have become. What I was prepared to do, rather than dishonor the memory of my fathers, allowing a dragon once more into these halls.” Thorin said. “And you placed me on the throne.”

“There was nowhere else!” Bilbo protested. “What could I have done, dragged you down to the dungeons? Put you in a wheelbarrow?”

“You might have cast me into the darkness and let me die as I wished,” Thorin shot back. “Instead of defiling my grandfather’s seat!”

“When will you get it through your head that I’m trying to save your life?”

“When will you understand that I do not wish it? Do you think this is a kindness?” Thorin hissed. “Do you think you are aiding me by continuing this cursed existence? Look at me!” He pulled forward against the ropes and Bilbo flinched away. “I will not allow another monster to rule beneath the mountain!”

“And you won’t have to!”

“I will! This will be my legacy if we do not end this now. Soon my will shall no longer be my own. I cannot know when this madness will strike again or what I will do when it comes upon me. With every hour it draws nearer—do you not understand? There is no hope for me!” Thorin said in a pained snarl.

Bilbo faltered and looked at Thorin as if seeing something in the far distance, something receding with every moment. “Then what would you have me do? I cannot release you, or help you in ending your life, nor will you accept help in saving it. So, what would you have me do? What do you want?” Thorin took a deep breath, abjurations and commands coming to his mind and poised upon his lips…

…And fell away.

They say the dying may speak truth long hidden, at a time when all secrets and pride cease to have any meaning. So then fell Thorin’s many walls of silence, the cloak of solitude required of leadership that may have always in part been a crutch. He would have reached out then to run a hand down Bilbo’s face, to raise his chin and bid him look at Thorin in those final hours while he still bore his own face. Yet bound as he was, he could not, and so only spoke with what gentleness remained in him. “I want you to stay with me. Until the end.”

As Thorin met Bilbo's eyes he willed him to understand this final request, the depth of necessity and shame that brought him to it, and as he did so a change came over the hobbit. Bilbo’s shoulders fell as if a great weight had been dropped upon them.

Bilbo swayed, and when he looked up a tear glinted in his eye and he seemed dazed, his voice trembled as he spoke. “Then I will stay,” he said, and settled, almost fell, down upon the steps, half facing Thorin as if he could not bear to look upon him. He took several deep breaths and for a moment there was only silence filled with the promise of many words as yet unspoken. It was a fragile silence, and across it a bridge of understanding, that if Bilbo were to leave or Thorin snap the ropes that bound him there would be no going back. There was little time left, Thorin could feel it in the hardening of his skin and the cold turn of his thoughts, which longed even then for the gold.

But for now they had this, and the silence, and when the harshness of Bilbo’s breathing eased he settled back onto his hands and looked out over the throne room. “It is very grand, even now,” Bilbo said and turned his face a little so Thorin could see his profile. “Funny, I know very little about your life. It must have been a wondrous thing, to grow up here.”

“It was,” Thorin said quietly, and once he may have lapsed into silence and brooding then, remembering the days of Erebor when it was a great city and not a tomb.

Instead he discovered in himself a desire to speak, and it seemed a spark had been lit there, in the dark. He found it mattered to him, that there be one who remembered his life as he had known it, not with titles or deeds. And it seemed very strange to him, who had so long defined his life by those measures. What did the histories care that he had loved his grandfather, save that that filial duty drove him to take up an oaken branch as a shield in battle? What care did they have for the first time he had seen fireflies as a child and thought they were stars? None. So he had never told these things, these small and unimportant things in the life of an exile.

“I was born the eldest, though I have no memory of being alone. My brother, Frerin, was there from my earliest recollection. I am told my name was the first word he spoke…”

These things did not matter, in the great sweep of deeds in Middle Earth. And yet Thorin found himself telling them to Bilbo Baggins and found that it mattered to him that there should be one who heard these tales, that there be one who lived to remember them.


Two days passed in this way.

Occasionally Thorin would doze upon the throne, his head nodding on his shoulder. but his rest was brief, as if he was forcing back the periods of unconsciousness, knowing how few waking moments remained. At first, Bilbo had been able to convince Thorin to take meals along with him. He dared not risk leaving long enough to fetch wood for a fire, but there were plenty of apples, cheese, and waybread to keep them fed, though never in so satisfying a manner as that first meal.

Except with time they found Thorin could no longer eat, and by evening of the second day it was clear that the needs of Thorin’s body had simply…stopped. There was no longer any denying it, when he graciously accepted an apple Bilbo offered him, but then only held it, looking so long and silently at the shadow of his own form in the polished surface that eventually Bilbo accepted it back.

“All the more for you,” Thorin said, his forced smile not enough to cover the shadow in his eyes.

“I don’t need it that badly,” Bilbo said. It was the last they spoke of the matter. Both knew that dragons had no real need to eat; one such as Smaug could not have survived at that size even if he ate a herd of cattle a day. It was gold and fell magics that sustained them, and Bilbo felt in himself a desperate desire to scream, to find some way to rebel as he watched the daily needs of Thorin’s body dwindled and the beloved form Bilbo knew faded into the disease of his skin.

In those final days Bilbo found he could not go long without touching Thorin. At first the contact was casual, or accidental. As he leaned against the throne for their conversations his hand would brush Thorin’s. Another time, he had scooted nearer to rest his back against the stone and accidentally leaned against the soft fabric of Thorin’s trousers. He had started and moved quickly, but Thorin had not stopped him and Bilbo had settled back only a few inches away.

Once, while they were discussing the utter perplexity (to dwarves, at least) of giving away gifts on one’s own birthday, Bilbo’s hand brushed Thorin’s as he gestured to illustrate the many branches of the Shire family trees, and lingered. Thorin watched him from beneath lashes barely visible now against the dark stains of the scales, and his hand had move incrementally, as much as the rope would allow, until his fingers had entwined with Bilbo’s.

“You are no longer frightened, are you?” Thorin murmured. Bilbo’s breath seized in his throat, and he clenched his hands tighter around Thorin’s.

“I see nothing to be frightened of,” he said, and Thorin nodded, his eyes drifting back down to their hands. The soft, pink flesh of Bilbo’s hand, stubby fingers with short nails, wrapped around broad strong dwarven hands now armored as if with charred steel, the claws lending an inch of length to make the fingers seem unnaturally long. But what he said was true: he was no longer frightened.

Instead Bibo’s heart ached at the memory of sword-callused palms and rough, tan skin. The rest of Thorin’s body had been very pale, or so he had seen in these past few days. Dwarves were loathe to go without their many layers of clothing and armor, Thorin especially, and so only his face and hands were burnished by the sun and wind. Bilbo imagined he too must be unrecognizable from the soft creature he had been when he ran out his door. Though Bilbo was often outside in the Shire, he had not been callused by anything more severe than gardening tools. How much had changed.

Change was not something he wanted to think about anymore.

“Remind me to tell you the story of my coming of age. Fine and fertile ground for blackmail it is, but I trust you not to hold it against me,” Bilbo said lightly.

Thorin looked up with sudden interest. “Do tell.”

“Oh no, I’ve been talking over an hour, it’s your turn now while I have something to drink.”

“Very well.” Thorin laughed. “Let me tell you then of my sister’s wedding, I can assure it is very much the same...” 


Three days since he had bound Thorin to the throne. Three days of passing the time by exchanging stories, each telling the other of his life, starting with childhood. They had found in each other a mutual love of fireflies, an adventurous mother and in Thorin’s case a sister as well, who had eloped with a dwarf of a different clan. Not only that, but a dwarf so far below her station he would not have been allowed within ten feet of a princess had they not been in exile. Bilbo confessed the strictures were not quite so severe in the Shire, for there was no codified rank or nobility, but still he understood how a family might frown upon such a match.

They stayed away from such subjects as Gandalf, Elves, or the quest itself. Bilbo thought at times that he would dearly love a quill and ink to set down Thorin’s tale, for at almost two-hundred years he had seen much that was only distant history for Bilbo, many marvels and adventures that made his own life in the Shire seem quit stodgy and dull by comparison. Comfortable, Bilbo might once have said, and free of trouble, but he found that he no longer thought of it that way.

“My life too might have been quite dull had things gone differently,” Thorin pointed out, and there was no resentment in his voice. “Even on the road there were many days of boredom. Despite our exile, I was still held to certain standards, and not excused from my duties. I can assure you, tedium takes on new meaning after a fortnight of presiding over the same drawn-out property dispute from dawn until dusk.”

Neither did they speak of the present. If Thorin’s wrists ached, bound as they were to the throne, he did not complain. Neither did Bilbo leave the throne room, even when the second pack of supplies still waited back in the treasury. He had only fetched the first with some hasty supplies, including the rope, when Thorin was still unconscious from the blow, not daring to take more time or be weighted down.

In this manner they reestablished some measure of trust. Thorin did not attempt to break his bonds and injure himself, though Bilbo knew well that he could, and Bilbo did not leave Thorin’s sight to summon help Thorin did not wish to have. Those three days bought some understanding that wasn’t there before. Some peace came to them too, and Bilbo thought he would not mind the hard stone, the cold food, or general discomfort if he may only tarry there a little longer, listening to the deep rumble of Thorin’s voice.

Yet both knew time was not theirs.


Bilbo was drowsing when it happened, his back against the foot of the throne, his cheek pressed to the inside of Thorin’s knee. The warmth had lulled him, and he had taken comfort from the fact Thorin could not move without his knowing. Thorin in turn had not protested, saying only that it was practical that they should share body heat.

“It is time, Bilbo,” Thorin said. Bilbo blinked the sleep from his eyes, and realized guiltily that he had left a drool spot on the soft fabric of Thorin’s pant leg. Then Thorin’s words filtered through the haze of waking and the pleasant fog of slumber was dispersed by the cold, leaden feeling that dropped into the pit of his stomach.

“Time? Time for what?” he said, though he knew: there must be an end, that they could not hold back the world and time itself with pleasant conversation. Still there was that part of him that wished to delay it, even for a few more moments.

“Bilbo, look at me,” Thorin said, and there was a gentleness to his voice, a tenderness that told Bilbo all he needed of what lay before. It was the voice of the deathbed.

With great reluctance he stood and turned. As he did so he promised himself that he would not flinch at the sight, that he could give this if nothing else. He was glad of it, for even with this resolution in his heart a gasp came to his lips, choked back, at what he beheld.

Of Thorin’s skin there was almost no sign. A gray and flaking patch was still there above his heart, and over his right cheek. All other places were covered now by shining obsidian scales. The talons had lengthened in the night, and rested in scratched grooves that dug deep into the arms of the throne. At first Bilbo thought Thorin’s hair and beard were yet untouched, but closer now he could see that it thinned in patches along his left jawline, and that soon the rest would follow suit as the scales thickened. Thorin held himself hunched forward as much as his bindings would allow, the hardening scales stealing from him his upright form: the spines too had lengthened along his back.

His eyes flickered up to Bilbo and he saw that they were strange now, and fell, the pupils narrowed like those of a cat’s, the iris extending so little of the whites remained. They burned with an inner light, blue as the heart of a flame, and the world tilted as Bilbo looked into them. It took almost physical effort to pull his eyes away but, once freed, his gaze fell upon Thorin’s arms. Perhaps it was only the effect of the scales, but the forearms seemed harder, broader, as if they were gaining new muscles. Though Thorin still kept a dwarven form Bilbo could no longer deny the signs. Soon the new changes would set in, the wrenching of bone and muscle as the curse tore Thorin apart and rebuilt him.

All of this stuck in Bilbo’s throat and he could only manage to say, “You are changing.”

Thorin nodded. “It is coming. I will sleep once more, and when I awake it will be upon me. When that happens it will take my…my mind with it.” All this he said in a calm and measured tone, but the last words were strangled and choked off and he looked away. “Bilbo, I am afraid.”

Bilbo’s throat seized and he felt as if his heart would break in two. There was still so much waiting to be said. Words of comfort, one last attempt to offer help, hidden thoughts that began upon the Carrock and had been forgotten on the wall and only just remembered. All fell away, because they must, because here at the end of it all they were stripped down to no more than who they were: that was all that was needed, all that could be done and all that would never be. He put his hand over Thorin’s and this time there was no need to ignore the claws, for he no longer saw them.

“I am here.”

Thorin turned his hand, threading his fingers through Bilbo’s. Black scales stood out in sharp relief against the soft skin. “Amrâlimê,” Thorin murmured.

“What does that mean?” said Bilbo.

“I cannot say, and there is no time to teach you,” Thorin answered with a wan smile.

“Cannot?”

Thorin’s smile faded. “There would be no kindness in it.” His hand closed, spasmed, around Bilbo’s. “They are words I would have liked to say many times, over many years, if I could. Words written on the heart.”

A wild impulse came over Bilbo, something desperate and Tookish and later he would curse his Baggins side that it held him back, that all he did was lift his hand and brush it against the side of Thorin’s face, the place where the scales had not yet spread. Then he drew Thorin close, and pressed their foreheads together, feeling the feverish warmth of the dry, smooth scales, and the gentle brush of breath against his lips. Another heat was building behind Bilbo’s eyes, and his throat constricted such that he could barely breathe.

Bilbo heard a soft intake of breath and felt Thorin tremble against him, so faintly it might have been his imagination. Thorin pressed closer, their noses brushing, and Bilbo’s hand tightened around the nape of Thorin’s neck, fingers tangled in the mane of his hair. No more could he do, no more could he bring himself to do over that gulf so wide and filled with so much that was silent. Thorin went still beneath his touch and his lips parted and it seemed in that moment he may bridge that gap.

Then Thorin released a shuddering breath and drew away.

“Do not let my kin see me like this,” Thorin whispered his eyes finding Bilbo’s, his words replacing whatever other he might have spoken. Bilbo’s lower lip quivered and he nodded, not daring to speak. A look of peace swept over Thorin’s face at this assurance and he closed his eyes, his breath slowing into the deep, even fall of sleep.

He did not stir again, even when Bilbo squeezed his hand in return. The patch on Thorin’s chest beckoned and he knew what he must do to keep his word but he had not yet the heart to do it. A little longer, just a little longer, he told himself.

The mad Tookish side had its moment then, but too late, always too late, when Bilbo threw his arms around Thorin’s bowed shoulders and curled up in his lap. He leaned his head against Thorin’s chest and listened, dazed, to the strong, steady beat of his heart. The sound distracted him from the empty ache that was blossoming inside him like a wound, such that he did not even notice the first tears as they made their burning trails down his face.

Then, unbidden, a choked sob tore through Bilbo and he buried his face against Thorin’s chest and wept, until his eyes were red and his voice was hoarse.

 


Is it like this
In death's other kingdom
Waking alone
At the hour when we are
Trembling with tenderness
Lips that would kiss
Form prayers to broken stone.

Chapter Text

Bilbo moved from the throne room in a daze, leaving Thorin where he slept. It was the first time in days that he had left that place, and it was strange to walk again. The halls of Erebor were quiet in their emptiness and in his heart he felt a cold sort of awe at the great arching stones, the terrible silence, being so small and so very alone and lost amongst the grandeur.

He barely saw the gold as he walked through the treasury and back to their little campsite on the stone platform. All was as they had left it, there were even some coals still smoldering in the fire. His heart lurched at the sight of them.

Then, mechanically, because it seemed the right thing to do, he set the kettle above the coals and filled it with water from the skin. He began to tidy the site, repacking the food, bandages, ointments and cookware. He ignored the memory of warmth as he stored Thorin’s bedroll, even as his knuckles whitened and he had to stop for a moment to breathe.

Last of all he found Sting, carefully propped against the wall, safe within its sheathe. His fingers were numb as he belted it around his waist and there was a whispering in his ears like distant voices calling his name. The promise he had made came back to him, and he thought, not yet, not when his hands had no feeling. Then he remembered his tea and felt a tiny rush of a relief. Something hot in his stomach would make it all so much easier. Just what that would be his mind shied away from.

This would not be like wargs or spiders, a traitorous voice whispered through the cacophony of ‘not yet, not yet’, and he nearly spilled the tea as he poured, so badly did his hands shake. And whether by will or accident, he realized he had poured it into Thorin’s cup and at last his hands stilled as the warmth seeped through the tin. He placed his lips to the rim and for a long while did not drink, only stared into the embers. The tea grew cold and his mind fell into a soundless haze, for there was nothing left to do now. He had made a promise, and Thorin waited in the other room for the last gift Bilbo could ever give him.

The cup slid from his nerveless hands…

… and did not strike the floor.

A face appeared in front of him.

“Bilbo! I’ve been calling your name for five minutes, is something wrong with your hearing?” Bilbo blinked, his eyes refocusing as he came free of his daze and saw the face of Kíli. A hand closed over his shoulder.

“Did you manage to find Thorin?” Fíli appeared beside his brother. Bilbo’s gaze drifted over him. Fíli head was still bandaged and he winced as he crouched down. Otherwise he appeared himself again, free of the wounds he had taken from the battle.

“What are you doing here?” Bilbo breathed.

“Told you we would, didn’t we?” Fíli said. “Soon as we got better.”

“We’ve been worried about you!” Kíli said. “It’s been almost a week.”

Fíli and Kíli. Thorin’s kin. His promise. The blood drained from Bilbo’s face and his whole body went terribly cold. “You shouldn’t be here, you must get away now!” he cried. Fíli and Kíli exchanged a look.

“And why would that be, Master Baggins?” Another voice came from behind them and had Bilbo not already been sitting he might have fallen over.

“Gandalf!” Kíli said.

“These two were in such a hurry to find you they nearly left me behind,” Gandalf said, walking around the fire to stand behind Fíli and Kíli. “Hello, Bilbo. I trust we have not kept you waiting too long?”    

Bilbo looked to each of them in turn, and at length he did the only thing an exhausted mind and heart could manage.

He burst into tears.

After much fussing and flailing, in which Fíli and Kíli fell over each other trying to figure out what they had said to offend their hobbit, Gandalf took the situation in hand. Within minutes the tea was warmed again and a blanket wrapped around Bilbo’s shoulders. This time Gandalf made sure Bilbo finished the entire cup before they tried to tease the story from him.

“Yes, I found Thorin,” Bilbo said in a hollow voice, for the brothers would not let him have any peace until he did.

“Then why won’t you tell us where he is?” Fíli said.

“Right! Uncle could be hurt somewhere, or sick,” said Kíli.

Bilbo shot Gandalf a pleading look over his teacup. Gandalf seemed to catch on and placed his hands on Fíli and Kíli’s shoulders. “I think Master Baggins and I need to have a little chat,” he said. “In private.”

Fili’s brow drew together and he looked as if he might protest when Kíli butted him aside. “Right then, Fíli and I can go look for Thorin,” he said eagerly.

“You most certainly will not!” Gandalf said. “Back up the tunnel with the both of you.”

“Back up the tunnel?” Kíli echoed in outrage.

“A curse lies upon this place so thick it’s a wonder even you cannot see it,” Gandalf retorted. “I would not risk you two taking another step forward unattended.”

“We’re not children,” Kíli protested but Fíli put a hand on his arm, his expression intent.

“If this place is cursed, then shouldn’t we all be looking for Thorin, to find him more quickly?” Fíli said.

“No, you mustn’t!” Bilbo said, wringing his hands together as something sharp, hysterical rose within him.

“And why not?” Fíli said, rounding on Bilbo. “Unless you have had something to do with why he’s missing?”

“The dragon is dead, why would he need a sword down here?” Kíli said, nodding to Sting at Bilbo’s waist. Something seemed to come over them, a shadow. The brothers stood side by side, looking at Bilbo with eyes that were as pitiless as they were suspicious. Bilbo flinched back, until a towering gray form stepped between them.

“Because your uncle was not in his right mind when Bilbo came down here,” Gandalf interrupted, looking down at Fíli and Kíli with his back to Bilbo. “Suspicion and aggression, the first symptoms of dragon sickness. Look at you, only a matter of minutes and you two are already influenced! I’m sure Master Baggins was only taking reasonable precautions.”

“Why should we trust him?” Fíli snapped. “He’s been down here for days without sending for help, and Thorin’s nowhere to be seen. The last time they were together, Bilbo stole the Arkenstone.”

“Enough!” Gandalf said. “This is not a matter for debate. You two return to the entrance of the tunnel while I get to the bottom of this. If you do not hear from us in an hour you’re welcome to come looking, but until then you may not go further into the treasury, do I make myself clear?”

Fíli placed a hand on the hilt of his sword. Kíli started and looked at his brother in surprise. Bilbo shrank back, for the dwarf’s eyes were cold and hard and he thought he may well draw against Gandalf.

“If anything has happened to Thorin…” Fíli growled.

“Then I will do what I can to aid him, you have my word,” Gandalf said. Fíli held his gaze, eyes narrowed, but the wizard’s gaze must have been stronger for after a moment Fíli nodded. The steely look did not leave his eyes, but he grabbed Kíli by the elbow and stormed back the way they had come. “And do not linger out of sight; I will know you’re there,” Gandalf called after them. They grumbled, but their steps faded into the distance.

Gandalf turned back to Bilbo, whose face was a picture of misery. “Though I imagine that sword has something to do with it. Why don’t you tell me everything that has happened?”

But Bilbo found he could not speak and only sat there, shivering. He might have cried again had he any tears to spare. The sword was like a brand against his leg and he only knew there was little time left before Thorin awoke and looked at him with eyes that did not know him. He would do anything to stop that, yet quailed at the thought of what must be done, and the vulnerable spot above Thorin’s heart.

Gandalf’s face filled his field of vision, and Bilbo saw he was frowning. “Now, how in the world did you accomplish this, Thorin Oakenshield?” he murmured to himself. Bilbo did not resist as Gandalf pressed a cool, dry hand to his forehead. “I had been prepared for something of this nature, but certainly not in this form.” Bilbo looked at Gandalf in a daze, saying nothing.

“Not very strong, but then it wouldn’t be after so little time. This does explain a great deal,” Gandalf said. Then he moved his hand over Bilbo’s eyes, gently closing the lids and whispered, “Come back to us, Bilbo.”

Bilbo started, then shivered from head to toe as if he had been dumped into ice water. His mind came awake, the exhaustion that had clouded it dispersing, and he saw the world sharper and more clearly than he had in days. Then he looked down and with a cry took Sting from its scabbard and cast it to the ground. It rang like a bell as it struck the stone.

He then rounded on the wizard, blinked as if seeing him for the first time. “Gandalf!” Bilbo exclaimed.

“Yes, I’m here,” Gandalf said, but Bilbo was shaking his head violently and seized Gandalf by the hand, dragging him as much as he could towards the stairway.

“We’ve no time to waste. Gandalf, something terrible has happened to Thorin, I can’t even begin to describe it except to say that it is—”

“A dragon sickness?”

Bilbo stopped at the edge of the staircase and turned on his heels to glare at Gandalf. “How did you know?”

“Your eyes,” Gandalf said. “Many think that a dragon’s greatest weapon lies in its flame, though to be sure there are also the teeth and claws. But in truth it is the dragon-spell of their gaze that is the most fearsome gift of the Enemy. It has the power to bewitch, bending the victim’s mind to its will. I feared you might face it on your journey, but as a result of Smaug. However, you and I have met since your encounter with him, and I saw you were free of it then.  So I must assume you have encountered it since, and Thorin is the only other being down here who has the potential for its use.”

“The potential for its… are you saying Thorin has been controlling me?” Bilbo said. It was as if the ground had dropped out from beneath him. A tremor ran through him, at the memory of the pleading in Thorin’s voice as he asked Bilbo to stay with him in his final days of consciousness and ease his passing. How Thorin had begged him not to let his family see him when his body was sick, his flesh ruined. Bilbo’s throat constricted, and he could not tell if it was with anger or grief. Had there been malice in it? He did not… he could not believe Thorin capable of that. Not when there had been such terrible sadness in his eyes.

But now with the veil lifted from his sight, Bilbo saw the failure of their bargain, saw himself giving in to Thorin’s despair, and how he had no longer tried to navigate Thorin through it, but instead allowed it to drag him deeper. How had he not thought to question it? Why had he not tried harder to convince Thorin there was still hope?

And what else had been the dragon-spell? He thought of Thorin’s fingers threaded through his own, his breath brushing Bilbo’s lips and the feverish warmth of Thorin’s forehead against his own. No, that had been real. Even as he felt he skirted a precipice, not knowing where lay solid ground and where a perilous drop into fear and doubt, he knew there was truth in that touch. Thorin had trembled against him, their noses brushing together and that too had been true. But the rest, oh the rest… Bilbo had to find him, had to drag him free of this, to know what had been real and what had been… betrayal. There was no other word for it; he felt sick and grief-stricken and violated. He…

“Calm yourself,” Gandalf said, crouching down beside him. Bilbo still held Gandalf’s wrist, but realized he had been in another world. Gandalf’s expression was gentle.

“I’m not…” Bilbo protested.

“You’ve gone white as a sheet,” Gandalf said. “Whatever your thoughts, I can assure you things are not as bad as they seem. The dragon-spell’s hold upon you was very light, its power still in its infancy and clumsily applied. I highly doubt Thorin had even the slightest idea of what he was doing, or that he could have made you do anything that, on some level, you did not wish to do.”

Bilbo’s eyes widened and his breath froze in his chest. His expression contorted in agony. “Gandalf, I was going to kill him.”

“Perhaps,” Gandalf said. His expression was grave but without any trace of accusation. “Or you may yet have stopped yourself. You were in the process of shaking free from the spell when we found you, and I have no doubt you could have succeeded on your own, given time. You are stronger than you give yourself credit for. Even if you had not, it would not be your fault, for I do not believe anyone should feel guilty for their thoughts or actions while bewitched,” Gandalf said, and stood, leaning on his staff. “And I must confess, Thorin Oakenshield does tend to have that effect on members of every race.”

Bilbo gave a startled, watery laugh, and felt some of the darkness ease from his heart. For Gandalf was right, there was still hope. Thorin lived, and Sting was back at the camp. He had the wizard here, and Bilbo could appreciate, on some level, why Thorin would have acted as he did, even if he fully intended to give the dwarf a thumping for it once he was cured.

The greatest wonder was really that neither of them had noticed that Thorin had suddenly become so persuasive, but then, this was the dwarf for whom Bilbo had crossed half the world because of a song. Bilbo banished the dark turn of his thoughts, at least for now, for it was unfair to sit in judgment of Thorin’s motives when soon he could simply ask. Then a horrible thought struck him.

“You can help him, can’t you, Gandalf?” Bilbo said apprehensively.

“That remains to be seen,” Gandalf said. “But I will do whatever lies within my power, and I have high hopes. For so long as he has not fully changed, nor allowed the creature into his heart, then it should be a simple matter to cure him.”

Bilbo breathed a sigh of relief, and dared not think of what he would have done had Gandalf answered differently. There was still the patch of skin on Thorin’s cheek, and his form was still a long way from that of Smaug. They still had time, and the thought alone rose in him a rush of giddiness. Still… “Into his heart? Gandalf, what manner of curse is this?”

“A very old and wicked one, Master Baggins, as I’m sure you have seen. But old in this case does not mean strong. He who created it has long been banished from this world, bound beyond the reaches of the stars, and his lieutenants destroyed or in hiding. That Thorin suffers from it at all is more likely a function of how long Smaug lay here, and that Thorin did not wait for me to cleanse its taint before entering the mountain.”

“So you knew?”

“I suspected,” Gandalf corrected. “Dwarves are a hardy race, and may resist the curse for many weeks, but even the most stubborn usually seek help once the physical changes set in. There has not been a case of a dwarf succumbing before I or one of my order could lend aid in centuries, and those early cases, the unfortunate lost souls of the previous Ages, have for the most part been hunted from the earth. Only Smaug remained, and the danger was known.”

“But why didn’t you tell him?” Bilbo cried.

“Because it is a closely guarded secret of the dwarves, and not mine to tell,” Gandalf said patiently. “There is a fear that, should it be widely known, there may be those who would deliberately seek it out, who would accept the price of the curse for the power it gives. I gave many warnings about the gold and the dragon sickness to Thorin, in as specific terms as I dared, for one as desperate as he could well be tempted by such power. Even so, the reality of it, which I hoped to avoid, should have been enough to have him come to me for help before it progressed too far.”

Bilbo shook his head frantically. “You underestimate him,” Bilbo said. “Gandalf, he would never allow himself to become a dragon, all of this time has been spent looking for another cure. But he hates you for taking Bard and Thranduil’s side, and may well never trust you again.”

“He does not need to trust me, he only needs to accept my help long enough for me to expel the curse from his body. As of now, it should only be a simple possession by the spirit that lies within the gold, which would enter and change any dwarf who happened upon it. So long as Thorin remembers himself, and does not welcome the beast in, I might still easily cast it out. But I will require his consent, and your aid in making sure he is able to give it. Otherwise, there is indeed nothing I, or anyone else, could do.”

A prickle ran down Bilbo’s spine at Gandalf’s words. There was that phrase again, “simple”. Thorin was bound upon the throne, safe and still asleep. But Bilbo remembered Thorin’s absolute certainty that something was coming, that when he awoke he would no longer have control of his own body or mind, and must be slain before that could happen.

“Then we should make haste,” Bilbo said, tugging at Gandalf’s wrist again. The wizard followed him unerringly through the halls, as if he already knew them well. But he did not try to cut in front of Bilbo, or predict his path.

At least, not until they entered the great vaulting hall where Bilbo had spent his last three days. When they did, Bilbo froze, and the wizard bumped into him from behind. He nearly knocked Bilbo over, but in truth anything heavier than a feather could have in that moment.

The throne was empty.


 IV
The eyes are not here
There are no eyes here
In this valley of dying stars
In this hollow valley
This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms

Chapter Text

Thorin drowned.

The hurricane was upon him, and when it broke it did so with the tearing roar of a thunderclap, the rending of Thorin’s body, as all he knew fell into darkness. Thorin’s limbs spasmed and his eyelids twitched, but otherwise there was no outward sign of the storm within. Far away, a cup of tea was cooling in Bilbo’s numb fingers, a hollow ache gnawing at his heart, and the dragon-spell lay across his mind like a veil. Thorin’s breath rattled in his throat but he could not cry out, and no help came.          

Where once the cold turn of his thoughts had been a small, dark corner of his mind waiting to prey upon him, Thorin now felt as if it surrounded him, that his own self was shrinking, the cold beating down against him. His first instinct—to fight, to strike out against the darkness that encircled him—shot new terror through him as his limbs only twitched but did not obey him.

Then with a wrenching, jerking feeling that sent vertigo churning through Thorin’s stomach and left him bereft within his own mind, he stood outside of himself and, just as with that day in the treasury, looked upon himself. He looked, and wondered at this creature before him, this broken ruin of stone and obsidian, bound by knots it could so easily break, its head bowed, its chest rising in the even fall of sleep. Thorin saw, like sand running out through an hourglass, that last patch of soft flesh on its cheek flaking away. In its place emerged the hardened scale that now covered every inch of the ruined dwarf’s body save for that vulnerable spot above the heart, which all dragons must guard.

A tremor ran through his body, the shifting of muscle and bone as the curse worked the first stages of the alchemy of transformation, as it prepared to rend flesh and bone asunder. But whatever had forced him from his body lay too heavy for him to move it, and only the tightening of its body, as every nerve and sinew snapped taut, told the story of that hidden agony.

“Hurry, Bilbo …” Thorin breathed in the space between, this spectral world. He saw his own lips move in time with his words…

…Then the claws twitched, digging themselves into the stone arms of the throne, and knew he had not done that.

The creature upon the throne opened its eyes, and looked straight at Thorin.

“Oh, come now, we need no assistance in this, I should think.” The creature smirked, the expression so alien on Thorin’s own features that he was stood transfixed. The the creature broke eye contact and looked to its right. It inhaled.

Fire sliced like a knife through the ropes that bound its right wrist. The ropes fell in a charred heap upon the floor, the ends smoking. Its now-free hand slashed the ropes that bound its left wrist in a single movement, parting them like cobwebs. It stood, looking back at Thorin and beckoning for him with its claw.

“Why do you linger out there?” the creature said. “Return.”

It was as if chains wrapped around Thorin’s chest and dragged him foreword. He jerked away on instinct, digging his heels in insofar as he could in this incorporeal world. It made no sense to him, how he could stand here and be there at the same time? He only knew that the being that looked out from his own ruined body was not him, and it sent through himm a wave of raw and dizzying terror.

“You resist?” the creature mused. “If we do not leave soon, they will find us. Do you not hear them, O King? Do you not smell them?” The creature jerked its chin towards the honeycomb of corridors that led towards the treasury. “You are betrayed. Just as you were when you first allowed me in.”

Ice flooded Thorin’s veins as he stared at the creature before him. He turned, looking the way the creature had indicated, and their voices came to him, floating on the subterranean breeze along with their familiar scents. It was as if they stood before him, his senses grown so sharp they were almost painful.

“…Did you manage to find Thorin?”

“We’ve been worried about you!”

Fíli and Kíli. In Erebor, when not an hour before he had begged Bilbo let him keep at least that shred of dignity. To hear them after so long was like lightning through Thorin’s mind, and on its heels came anguish, swift and sharp and agonizing, twisting in his heart like a knife’s blade.

“No. No, he would not. He agreed…” Thorin said, and was pitifully aware of the falsehood in his own words even as he spoke them. Why should Bilbo not disobey him again, when he had already done so once, and for much higher stakes, for Erebor itself? Why should these past three days have made any difference at all? Gandalf he might have accepted but this? This was far too much, and though he was not in his own body he felt he could not breathe, that his vision spun and narrowed at the edges as panic clamped off his breath like hands clenching around his throat.

“Your burglar is not coming,” the creature said. “At least, not alone. Strange, that one you thought so loyal would betray you again so soon. Or perhaps not strange at all. Loyalty and honor seem a rare commodity in your life, O King.”

Despair surged through Thorin and he opened his mouth to retort, to deny the creature’s word, but felt something shift within him, the tipping of a balance, washing through him as darkness rose around him, not in shredded flakes as it had in the library, but a tide that rushed in, swallowed his vision, dragged him down. He did not even have time to cry out, only saw with his last moment the creature grinning at him with all its teeth.

 


 

The dragon felt the struggle, felt the spike of panic, and then as despair swallowed the second consciousness and sent it spiraling down into sleep. After that it was all too easy for the dragon to do as it willed, now in full possession as it was of their shared body.

The dragon left the throne room. Now it sought that final barrier: the Halfling that had so often thwarted and driven it back, who even now kept Thorin’s mind and heart separate from its own.

 


 

The throne was empty.

Bilbo froze, but the pause was brief before he was running again. He stopped at the throne, muttering, “No, no, no…” as he picked up the ropes that had fallen to either side of the throne, one end blackened by fire, the other shredded. “I- I don’t understand,” he choked, looking back over his shoulder at Gandalf. “He was just here.” Bilbo stared back at the throne, at the stone that had become so familiar in these past three days of keeping watch on Thorin, so recent and yet feeling so long ago all at once.

“This is where you left him?” Gandalf said, coming alongside him.

“It couldn’t have been more than an hour ago; he was asleep…” Bilbo said. Gandalf leaned in and gave a soft exclamation as he saw the char marks on the ropes.

“He is already breathing flames?” Gandalf said. Bilbo shivered. There was something in Gandalf’s tone, a wariness that had not been there before. It was never comforting to hear a wizard surprised. “How far has the malady progressed?”

“Mostly scales,” Bilbo said miserably, feeling the echo of that aching hollowness as he had watched Thorin’s skin consumed day by day. He closed his eyes against the image. “Claws. H-he doesn’t need to eat anymore, or drink. I saw him breathe fire once, but he didn’t have any control over it.” And he had joked about it then, joked so that he didn’t do something so foolish as scream. And Thorin had stormed off, as if the fire that had just come from his mouth was some embarrassing social faux pas. Bilbo had chastised Thorin for his grouchiness, not forcing the issue, not leaving then and there for aid, and Bilbo’s own misery only increased at the memory.

“Control or not, if he has already changed enough to breathe fire…” Gandalf said, and shook his head. “It has been an Age since I have heard of so swift a transformation. Not since a darker power bent its will to acquiring new servants.”

“A darker power?” Bilbo said, coming out of his musings, feeling a new wave of trepidation. “I should think Smaug the darkest power there is. ‘Calamity of our Age’ and whatnot

“There is another, greater than Smaug,” Gandalf said. “But he is far from here, chased from his fortress of Dol Guldur, his power there unmade. Regardless of whether he was fully destroyed, or has simply gone once more into hiding, he should have no influence here.”

Gandalf spoke slowly, as if searching out the shape of a thought that had not yet fully formed, and as he did a creeping anxiety filled Bilbo. It seemed the shadows grew darker with each word, and Bilbo’s hand went compulsively to his waistcoat pocket. Gandalf’s eyes flickered at the movement.

Bilbo pulled his hand free again, his fingers just inches from tracing the smooth surface of his little ring. It made him feel squirmy and uncomfortable to hear of the problems of the great, dark forces and ancient enemies. It all seemed very far away, and happily so, for a hobbit such as he. Such matters were better left to elves and wizards. Though it did occur to him that he might need to adjust his thinking a little, he who had exchanged riddles with a dragon and stolen from the Elvenking. But that had been a different matter altogether!

“But Smaug was here for so long, and there’s so much gold. Shouldn't that be enough?” Bilbo said.

Gandalf considered this, his lips twisting as he did so, before he finally nodded. “You are probably right,” Gandalf said. “It has been many centuries since a dragon has spent so long undisturbed over such a quantity of gold, and there is the problem of Thorin’s family to consider. The gold sickness lies heavy upon the Longbeard clan, and Durin’s line in particular, for they are the most direct descendants of the Indrafangs of old. That could well explain why it would take him so swiftly,” said Gandalf.

“But there is still hope?” Bilbo said anxiously.

“My dear Bilbo, there is always hope. Though I must apologize if I appeared dismissive of Thorin’s illness earlier. It had not occurred to me that it could have spread so far in only a few days. I had thought we could put this whole matter behind us, but if he is already at the tipping point…”

“Tipping point?” Bilbo echoed.

“Breathing fire means the curse has gone beyond the superficial. If it is already beginning to change his flesh and bone; it may well begin to change his mind. We have very little time,” said Gandalf.

“Then we must find him straightaways,” Bilbo said, rising to his feet, and allowing the ropes to slither free of his hand to coil on the floor.

“First there here is another task I must attend to, to remove the curse from the gold, and ensure the sickness does not spread further. Already I fear for Fíli and Kíli, and if we are to get the aid of the other dwarves in finding him it must be cleansed first. It will do little for Thorin's present state, but I dare not leave the matter a moment longer, not when the curse has proven to be so virulent,” said Gandalf and as he spoke he began to walk, beckoning for Bilbo to follow him as they traveled the long pathway back to the throne.

“Will it take long?” said Bilbo, trotting to keep up.

“It would have when you first came down here, for at the time I was not yet recovered from the assault on Dol Guldur. But I have spent these last days gathering strength and preparing myself. Part of my purpose in coming on this venture was to cleanse the gold should Erebor be reclaimed, and it was my intention to do so before any be allowed to enter the mountain. The possibility that I would be called away, that Smaug would be slain while I was gone, or that any would be so foolish as to linger alone inside the mountain before I arrived were all unexpected elements. This has become quite a fine mess, Bilbo, not the least because of those three outside. I intend to have some stern words with Thorin Oakenshield once we find and cure him. Much could have been avoided if he had only listened to me,” said Gandalf with a huff of exasperation.

“I’m afraid you’ll have to get in line to get your chance for those words,” Bilbo said grimly. He went quiet for a moment, frowning as they came to the end of the path, where it broadened into the larger hall. Bilbo stopped, and nodded to himself. “Right. You return to the treasury, I will search for Thorin.”

Gandalf frowned, stopping as well and leaning on his staff as he looked down at Bilbo. “I do not believe that would be wise. If his illness has advanced as far as you say, Thorin could be erratic. Once I have cleansed the gold we may call the rest of the Company to aid us in our search. They can be trusted to protect Thorin’s reputation and to face him in combat, if necessary.”

“Summon the--? Gandalf, we don’t have time for that, and Thorin would be furious if we did!” said Bilbo.

“Bilbo,” Gandalf said patiently, “even if we did search now, we would not likely find him. He knows the paths and halls of Erebor better than any. But the disease will draw him to the gold. Waiting for him in the treasury is our best course of action at present.”

Bilbo frowned, looking towards the treasury, then back into the wider halls of Erebor. A part of him rebelled at the thought of abandoning Thorin on a wizard’s say-so. But there was reason in Gandalf’s words and he sighed, his shoulders falling.

“Right,” Bilbo said. “The treasury it is.”

They turned back the way they had come, and as they entered those shadowed halls, Gandalf pressed a hand to the gnarled top of the staff he carried, whispering words Bilbo could not understand. The staff flashed alight, glowing white and banishing some of the shadows, but deepening the ones that remained. Bilbo flinched away from the brightness, feeling his dark vision burn away, and grudgingly took his place trailing a few steps behind Gandalf as they navigated the halls.

That was when he heard it: the rustle and scrape of claws on stone.

Bilbo stopped and turned, peering into the darkness beyond the light of Gandalf’s staff. His own shadow grew long before him, black upon the floor, stretched thin and growing thinner as Gandalf continued to walk. The tread of Gandalf’s boots receded behind him, but Bilbo hardly noticed, focused as he was, listening for another sound.

“Thorin?” Bilbo whispered, and his own voice echoed back at him. Nothing moved in the dark that was somehow deeper now with the passing of Gandalf’s staff. All of Erebor seemed darker, the dusty hollows echoing with the wind like the moaning of its ghosts. Somewhere its king wandered those halls, lost within his own flesh and mind.

Bilbo shivered and turned back. Gandalf had continued down one of the hallways that made up the many corridors between the throne room and the treasury, but the light still glowed and cast Gandalf’s shadow behind it. Bilbo opened his mouth to call for the wizard, to bid him slow down—

A hand closed around his mouth.

Bilbo seized, his fingers coming instinctively to claw at the iron grip, and his scream fell flat against the hard, scaled flesh. Then a second arm came up to wrap around his shoulders, pinning his upraised hands to his chest. His head snapped to the side as he was jerked sideways and pulled off his feet. Bilbo’s mind went blank, and the light of Gandalf’s staff grew dimmer as it receded around the corner.

A voice scraped across his ear and through the blank panic he only knew that it was not Thorin. It was pitched too low, a snarl that was sibilant and mocking, but he could not understand the word it spoke. Khuzdûl, it had to be Khuzdûl, and he heard the grinding of stone and stared wide-eyed as a door hewed itself from the stone, and opened at his captor’s bidding.

Bilbo’s eyes widened and he kicked out, dragging his heels on the floor to push himself back from the inky blackness of the doorway, struggling and tearing at his captor’s grip as he was dragged across the threshold.

The door shut behind them.

The grip vanished and Bilbo fell to the ground. His breath thundered in his ears and he stumbled back, searching with his fingers and nails for any sign of the door they had come in. Dwarf doors are invisible when closed…

“No, no I will not…”

Bilbo froze, a chill dripping down his back at the sound of Thorin’s voice pitched in a low snarl, speaking to the empty air. Bilbo turned, and only at the last second remembered to lower his gaze against the dragon-spell. But even out of his peripheral vision, Bilbo saw him; the corpse-light glow of Thorin’s eyes was the only light in that room. He was not looking at Bilbo, but was bent double, a clawed hand pressed to his forehead and his face twisted in agony.

Then a low, rasping chuckle came from Thorin’s lips that made Bilbo’s hair stand on end.

Not yet, perhaps, but soon. How many more betrayals will you accept?”

“Thorin?” Bilbo said, his voice trembling. And part of him could have cried with relief to see him again after the throne, still alive, still there to be saved.

The rest of him felt it would die of terror.

“Let me deal with him in my own way. You will stay back,” Thorin snarled in his own low voice. With that he stood and Bilbo could see, by gait and posture, that it was Thorin. He turned and looked at Bilbo, like a creature carved of dark granite, the light of his eyes growing brighter as Bilbo’s eyes adjusted. Bilbo’s breath caught in his throat and he pressed his back to the wall as Thorin advanced towards him, stopping just in front of him and placing his hands against the wall on either side of Bilbo’s head.

Let us out, Bilbo thought, but was too petrified to bring the words to his lips. Thorin was leaning against him, so close he could feel the stir of his breath, his body trapping Bilbo against the stone. But it was Thorin, at least, not whatever had been the source of that hissing, mocking voice. Thorin was fighting it, pushing it back, and there was still hope. They could fetch Gandalf, they could find Thorin his cure, they could—

“Tell me, burglar,” Thorin snarled. “Did you wait even an hour before going to fetch my kin?”

 


In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river 

Chapter Text

“Tell me, burglar,” Thorin snarled. “Did you wait even an hour before going to fetch my kin?”

“I—I—” Bilbo said in a strangled whisper. He trembled and pressed himself flat against the cold stone of the wall, his eyes screwed shut against the dragon-spell gaze. Then Bilbo felt the brush of scales as Thorin moved in close, and hot breath bathed his neck. His heart thundered in his chest, wild and terrified.

There was a warm touch against Bilbo’s face and suddenly Thorin was pressing their foreheads together, and he released a choked sob, his voice broken and erratic, half-mad as he said, “Why didn’t you listen to me?”

Bilbo stilled. Finally he heard, over the pounding of his own heart, the uneven pace of Thorin’s breathing, thick and frantic as if on the edge of tears or hysteria. Bilbo raised a shaking hand, not knowing if it was safe to do so, whether it was suicidal. Fumbling blind, he trailed his fingers up Thorin’s chest, over the hard slick scales that covered it, and clasped his hand around the back of Thorin’s neck. Even while he knew he should be terrified, there was a part of him that was already calming, because Thorin was here, alive, when not hours before Bilbo had thought him lost forever. Bilbo’s heart lurched at the ridge of scales that ran up Thorin’s spine to the back of his neck, barring the way for his hand, so Bilbo moved his fingers up to where the ridges was smaller, and traced them along the back of Thorin’s neck to soothe him. A shudder passed through Thorin, wracking him from head to toe.

“Shhh, Thorin… Thorin, I had nothing to do with that,” Bilbo murmured. “They came on their own.”

Thorin was silent for a long moment, his breath coming out in feverish pants, tickling the tip of Bilbo’s nose. “I wish I could believe you,” Thorin said, sounding utterly wretched.

“And why can’t you?” Bilbo said, his fingers tracing circles on the nape of Thorin’s neck and he could feel the tension bleeding out of Thorin from that spot and radiating outwards.

“Because you have already been false once,” Thorin said, his voice cracking. “I have always wished that I could believe you, for the world seems a brighter place when I do, but you lied when I trusted you. You told me you did not possess the Arkenstone when you did, and I cannot suffer that again. Do you understand, Bilbo? I would not survive it, and now my heart tells me again that you are false.”

“It’s not your heart, Thorin,” Bilbo said gently. “It’s this place, this sickness. I swear I didn’t summon them, I wouldn’t have had time. Fíli and Kíli came here because they were worried about you, because they care for you.”

“But for how much longer, once they have seen this?” Thorin said, and broke away from Bilbo’s grasp. He must have gestured towards himself; but with his eyes closed Bilbo only felt the movement of the air. There was a pause. “Even you cannot bear to look upon me.”

Bilbo’s breath caught in his throat. “Thorin, no! It’s not like that— Oh, blast!” How could he explain the dragon-spell, when it would undoubtedly make matters worse? If Thorin already believed himself beyond saving, how would he react to learning that he had hypnotized Bilbo to stay with him during those long days upon the throne? Bilbo did not yet know himself what had been his own will, and what had been the dragon-spell. Instead he bit his tongue, swallowing back the words. “Listen to me: Fíli and Kíli…they’re your family, they only want to help. We can still fix this. Gandalf is outside—”

Thorin laughed. It was not his usual soft, almost shy chuckle. It was barking, disdainful, and carried the edges of the low, snarling tone of the other voice. “Ah yes, Gandalf,” Thorin hissed. “That is what this is about, is it not? What is has always been about.”

Unraveling. The word appeared unbidden amongst the swirling confusion in Bilbo’s head. Thorin was unraveling. He had seen it once before, in those first days after they entered the mountain, when Thorin had tilted wildly between euphoria at reclaiming their home and despair as he looked on the smoking ruin of Laketown, not daring to leave the mountain or give up his manic search for the Arkenstone. Bilbo knew he must be careful with what he said next, but was too baffled to think straight. His thoughts chased the thread of how Gandalf, of all people, could somehow be at the heart of this matter, and he felt himself to be walking on crumbling stone as Thorin swung from one extreme of emotion to another in the blink of an eye.

Bilbo took a deep breath, screwing up his courage and wrinkling his nose as he attempted to master his scattering thoughts. He spoke slowly. “I can’t say as I follow you. We were looking for a cure, and Gandalf has one. Why not leave here now, and put this all behind us?”

“And in exchange, I need only place myself back under the power of an enemy, and allow him to work his witchcraft upon me?” said Thorin scornfully.

“We’ve been over this,” Bilbo sighed. “You and Gandalf need never speak again if you don’t wish to. But go to him for help this one last time, please.”

“Go to him? You would like that very well, wouldn’t you?” Thorin said, his voice low and dangerous. “You have never been what you seem, have you burglar? It is only a wonder that I did not see it sooner. I was blinded, first thinking you were only a simple hobbit, and then by affection, just as I was meant to. You were well suited to this quest, chosen with care, possessing unknown quality.”

Now Bilbo was thoroughly baffled. Were the situation not so dire, and Thorin’s voice not harsh as scraping stone, he might have barked a startled laugh. Being acknowledged for his accomplishments on the quest was one thing, but this was... well, this really wasn’t what he had in mind at all. “What are you trying to say?”

“What should have been obvious from the start. You say you are not a warrior, yet you slay wargs and spiders in battle as if you were born to it. You say you are not a thief, but found a manner to walk past goblins and elves unseen. Why would you come on this quest and claim no desire for treasure or glory? Why was it you that Gandalf sent to find me within the mountain, even when I had banished you and would have cast you to the rocks?” Bilbo felt the passage of Thorin’s movement and dared crack open an eye for a moment to stare at the floor. Thorin was circling in front of him as he spoke, as he had when they first met at Bag End, but the movement was tighter, more savage, like that of a caged animal. The tone of his voice was colder still, as if all they had gone through together since had never happened. “I will tell you why. Ever has the wizard sought to rule here on his own terms. He sent my father first, and when he failed, Gandalf lured me here with my heirs, then forbade us to enter unless he should come with us. Only you, of all the company, tried to stop us. Even now you act upon his will, seeking to put me back under his power,” Thorin hissed. “The spy in our midst.”

“A spy?” Bilbo gaped. “A spy indeed! Thorin, that is the most absurd idea I have ever heard. As if Gandalf would ever think I would have influence over you? Or that any of what has happened was intentional on my part; for goodness sake I didn’t even have the presence of mind to bring a pocket-handkerchief, let alone enact some master scheme!”

Thorin stopped his pacing and must have been regarding Bilbo. “No influence over me? I have taken your advice over that of my closest kin, and even now you seek to sway me. But reason tells me to study again all that you have done and see the pattern for what it is, rather than what I wish it to be. You are too good to be true, too perfectly suited to your purpose to be anything else. You have even found a way into my heart. Even as I look at you and feel as if I am being torn in two.” Thorin closed his hands around Bilbo’s shoulders and he flinched away, expecting the bite of claws even through the mithril shirt. Yet the touch was surprisingly gentle. “You saved my life, then stole the Arkenstone, helped me reclaim the mountain, then robbed me of my kin when they took your side against me. You gave me hope of release from this sickness, then violated my final wishes. I feel I’m being driven mad by the very sight of you. I wish to kill you and yet I wish to keep you.” Thorin let out a long, shuddering breath. “Which should I choose?”

“I think I would rather be kept, if it’s all the same to you,” Bilbo stuttered, nodding frantically.

“And yet I have never been allowed to keep that which I cherish, burglar. How convenient now that I need only give in to my enemy in order to have all I desire within my grasp. How could it not be a trick?” demanded Thorin.

“How could it be a trick?” Bilbo exclaimed. He felt himself grow incensed, as the situation spiraled away from him in the most baffling manner possible. “You have no enemies here, save for that thing inside your head! How could I be trying to trick you when I’m frightened half out of my mind? I don’t know what is happening or when this will end. I just want to leave this place, I just want this all to be over!”

“Then why did you stay?” Thorin said, the grip at Bilbo’s shoulders tightening. “Why did you not flee sooner, if you will only disobey my wishes, and cannot bear to look at me? Why did you linger, if not for some other motive?”

Because I love you!” Bilbo said and the words were sharp as a cry that rose from the depths of the soul. He was too stunned, turned around, and desperately afraid to stop them. “I’ve loved you from the moment you first sang, from the moment I ran out my door after you!” And Bilbo was clutching at Thorin, dragging him close by the shoulders, because it was that or lose him again. Bilbo’s heart still ached from the throne, and he could not bear the thought of that loss, not another, or surely he would break. “I love you, and I almost lost you because of that damned stone, and I am losing you again to this sickness, and I will not be silent and proper a moment longer! It doesn’t matter how much I want to leave this place or how frightened I am, because I will never leave you here alone! Do you understand me, Thorin Oakenshield? I will fight for you, and I will stand by your side so long as there is even a shred of hope, and I would stay even if there were none! Not because of a wizard’s orders, or for treasure or fame. I am staying for you!”

With each word, the terror had drained away to leave something sharper and far more painful, and Bilbo panted as if he had run a race. Once he would have been mortified to say so much, but that was before the Arkenstone, the great battle, and the sickness. He had not spoken these words on the throne, and thought to never have the chance. The thought alone had left a scar on his heart that even having Thorin in his arms, breathing and alive, though driven mad by suspicion, could not heal. Even now, they may have only hours left together.

Thorin’s silence was not helping as it stretched, and Bilbo did not dare look up at him. He could not risk the dragon-spell; he could not risk falling back into that place of claustrophobic despair, bound up and convinced that there was no hope. He needed to be strong enough for both of them. Eyes fixed on the floor, Bilbo knew nothing of what was going through Thorin’s mind, only that he had gone still beneath his hands.

“Please don’t do this,” Thorin said, and for all that Bilbo could feel him looming above, his voice sounded small. “Not this. Use any other weapon against me, kill me if you must, but I beg you do not attempt to manipulate me with this.”

“You don’t believe me,” Bilbo said. His shoulders sank, and his voice was as hollow as his heart suddenly felt.

“I have done nothing but insult you and ignore your worth. I have chased and terrorized you. I have almost killed you. These things alone might have justified your theft, as a matter of revenge. How could you harbor anything but hatred and disgust for me? I should not dare believe you.” Bilbo parted his lips to protest but choked on the words, not knowing how even to begin. He felt his heart was shattering, and his mind going blank, not knowing what he could say if Thorin rejected this, if even the most desperate of confessions was not enough to get through to him. Then Thorin was moving, and Bilbo knew that he was leaving, that there was nothing further that could be done—

—And suddenly Bilbo was being drawn close, crushed against Thorin’s chest and he felt Thorin bury his face against the side of his neck and they were flush against each other and he could hear the harsh flutter of Thorin’s breath against his throat and his heart hammering in his chest and the warmth of Thorin’s body surrounding him. “But I do. Mahal help me, I believe you. Though I am surrounded by enemies, and all hands are turned against me, I believe you. And I am afraid for how much I want it to be true, knowing how it clouds my reason. Even now my heart tells me you have simply found this greatest of weapons, and seek to use it against me. All I can do is beg that, if you lie, that you take back your words now, and not toy with this last hope that remains to me. Not this. Please.”

Thorin’s face was hot against his neck, and Bilbo trembled, fearing he would burst into tears again from the force and desperation of Thorin’s words. He freed his hands from where they were pressed between them and twined them around Thorin’s shoulders, drawing him close, his right hand coming up to cup the back of Thorin’s head. He felt he could not speak yet, not and trust his own voice to take on the calm and steadiness this moment demanded, so he only held Thorin in the silence while his own breathing slowed and his throat lost its tightness. There was too much to say, too much to ask, and his thoughts whirled until it appeared to him, a single question that felt long forgotten, that he thought to never would have answered, and Bilbo knew he must know.

Amrâlimê,” Bilbo murmured, and settled his cheek against Thorin’s hair. “What does that mean, Thorin?”

For a moment there was only the harsh sound of Thorin’s breathing, still quick and desperate and when he spoke the words were choked as if torn from his throat. “It means ‘my love’.”

Ah, Bilbo sighed within his thoughts, and realized on some level that he had always known. But now they had both said it aloud, and no amount of dwarvish stubbornness or his own fretful misunderstandings could undo it. “And am I, still?”

There was another pause as Thorin took a shaky breath that fluttered against Bilbo’s skin. “Yes.”

“Amrâlimê, Thorin Oakenshield” Bilbo repeated softly. His tongue stumbled around the unfamiliar syllables, but it was worth it for the effect it had on Thorin, how every muscle in his body seemed to tense and then relax at the same time. “Is what you are to me as well, and I want to say that many times, over many years, in every language. I would say it now in Elvish, if I did not fear that would give you apoplexy.”

Thorin snorted a laugh and it was such an unexpected, welcome sound that Bilbo could not stop the wide grin that spread over his face.

“And this is why you followed me here?” Thorin said and something of that haunted, erratic tone was fading in favor of his familiar rumble.

“It’s why I followed you half-way across the world, poor love-struck fool that I was, never mind down a nasty, clockless, timeless hole,” said Bilbo.

“Don’t call my palace a nasty hole,” Thorin grumbled against his neck. “You wait until it has been cleaned and redecorated.”

Bilbo threw back his head and laughed in great aching peals. That horrible sick feeling was diminishing and his muscles relaxing. A few latent tears prickled the corner of his eyes but mostly he felt light, with the burden removed from his shoulders and heart. “There’s nothing I’d like better. Now love, if you would be so kind, would you consider saying the word that opens that door?”

“The door?”  Thorin said, and Bilbo was only just able to close his eyes in time as Thorin looked at him. “I can’t.”

“What? Why not?” Bilbo said.

Thorin shook his head. “I don’t remember coming here. Bilbo, I don’t know where we are.”


Sightless, unless
The eyes reappear
As the perpetual star
Multifoliate rose
Of death's twilight kingdom
The hope only
Of empty men.

Chapter Text

Thorin’s body was warm around Bilbo's, and there was a feeling in the air as if a storm had blown through and passed on. Thorin’s trembling had ceased, as had Bilbo’s, and some paltry scraps of calm had been regained. It was absolutely not the time for hasty reactions, and Bilbo would have been completely mad to squawk in outrage at Thorin’s hushed and fearful words, which was what his brain might have told him had it been able to catch up with his mouth. 

“What do you mean you don’t know where we are?” Bilbo squawked with outrage, and no small amount of fear. Not the kind that came from facing dragons or armies, but the very hobbit-y fright that came from the prospect of being trapped in a dark and moldy cave with no possible way out. 

“I mean, that I awoke at the sound of your voice,” Thorin said patiently. “Before that I remember falling asleep on the throne and after... only nightmares. Of Fíli and Kíli, and a voice that named you a traitor.” Bilbo thought he knew what that voice might have been, having heard it speaking to Thorin when he was first wrenched into the hidden room. He suspected too that Thorin knew more than he was telling, but it seemed the least of their problems at the moment. At this point, Bilbo would like tohave sighed and buried his face in his hands, but as his arms were still thrown around Thorin’s shoulders, he had to make do with pressing his face against Thorin’s neck. 

“You stole me out of the hallway and dragged me in here," Bilbo said, his words muffled and his brow crinkled.

“Which hallway?” Thorin said.

“The third… no, the fourth… or was it the fifth from the right?” Bilbo said.

“Right of what?”

“… I don’t know,” Bilbo admitted, and at the noise of frustration Thorin made at the back of his throat, he exclaimed, “Excuse me, but I had other things on my mind at the time! I was hardly expecting to be swept off my feet and into a closet!”

Thorin harrumphed, then pulled free of the embrace, and covered his eyes with the palm of his hand. “Between the throne room and the treasury…” Thorin muttered, then swore under his breath as he removed his hand. “The armories. There is a network of store rooms hidden throughout these halls, hidden caches of weapons in case the city was breached.”

“How do you know?” Bilbo said.

“Because it is empty,” Thorin said simply, and Bilbo went silent. In his mind’s eye he saw what must have taken place that fiery day, when every weapon within the kingdom was mustered, every storehouse cleared.

“…But you must have known how to get into this one at some point, right?” Bilbo said. He kept his eyes lowered but he still sensed that Thorin was giving him a look.

“There are dozens of these rooms, perhaps hundreds,” Thorin said. “And it has been over a century since I left.”

“But you were king!” Bilbo protested.

“I was a prince, and not even the Crown Prince, only second in line after my father,” Thorin corrected. “Do you truly think I had access to every hidden room in the palace? I was barely more than a youth at the time, my grandfather did not trust me even with the knowledge of the hidden door out of the mountain, must less every secret cache of the elite guard.”

“But you do know it!” The thought struck Bilbo and his eyebrows shot up as the realization washed over him.

Bilbo,” Thorin growled. “What did I only just say?”

“No, no but you do!” Bilbo said, and spoke in a rush. “That thing…that creature knew the password, which means somewhere in that head of yours is the memory to open it. There is no other way it could have known!”

Thorin’s tensed, his breath left him in a rush. “That… is a truly fearsome possibility, Bilbo.”

“What? But why? It means that we might be able to get out of here,” Bilbo said.

Thorin shook his head. “If what you say is true, it means this creature can breach my thoughts even when I am asleep, or insensate. That it can read memories which are unknown even to me, that I had thought long forgotten.” Thorin took a breath. “I will do what I can, but you too must try to remember what you heard.”

Bilbo nodded, and at this Thorin turned towards the wall where the door had been. There was something to be said for giving Thorin a task, for with it the last of the wildness and panic that had so twisted him seemed to fall away, to be replaced by solid competence, the confident tones of the leader Bilbo had first known in the early days of the quest. When Bilbo dared look at Thorin’s back, he saw that it was straight: Thorin’s entire posture speaking of focus as he studied the wall before him, one arm crossed over his chest, holding his opposite elbow while he idly stroked his beard with the other hand, thinking. Then, as if a switch had been flipped in his head, he set to work, crouching before the door and running his hands in a wide arc over the stone, feeling for seams.

The faint glow of his eyes illuminated the stone before him, and Bilbo could hear Thorin muttering to himself in Khuzdûl. His voice was pitched low to its usual deep rumble, and his expression was so intent that, for a moment, Bilbo could see through the cursed appearance to the dwarf he had known. Thorin had worn such a look of concentration when opening the door to Erebor, and many times beside when studying the map, as if daring the object to reveal its secrets. Bilbo could not help but wonder, in a brief flight of fancy, what might bring out such an expression from Thorin in happier times. What books Bilbo might introduce Thorin to, or crafts that would so demand his attention. Bilbo thought he might enjoy very much discovering what those were, so that he might simply watch, as he did now, that dark brow furrow with something other than anger, to see that look of focused calm replace all the care that usually lined Thorin’s face.

Bilbo did do his best to remember what the creature had spoken when dragging him through the corridor, but a corner of his mind could not help but be a little occupied with watching Thorin. Admiring him.

The thought made him blink. Of course he had admired Thorin before, but it was an aesthetic appreciation, or so he had assured himself. There simply weren’t that many dwarf lords wearing velvet, fur, and armor to be found in the Shire. As something of a connoisseur of fine dress, Bilbo had been fascinated first by the lovely, exotic clothing Thorin wore, then by his bearing and dignity. Thorin had seemed so fascinating and strange and old, having witnessed wonders that had vanished years before Bilbo was born. The number of sights he must have seen was a marvel in itself. Thorin was almost an elf in that sense, not that Bilbo would ever voice such a thought aloud.

But Thorin’s dismissal of Bilbo, his gruff orders and cold shoulder had gotten those feelings all mixed up from the very first. By the time Bilbo realized he greatly appreciated the person as well, that his fascination with Thorin may be something more than fixation that comes from encountering someone so strange and wonderful, a figure from legend, it was after said figure was bruised, battered, and half-dead upon the ground.

Bilbo had not been lying when he said he loved Thorin from the moment he ran out his door, but he would admit that it had taken a little longer than that to sort out that it was love in the first place.

The moments of admiration had grown, become more frequent in the suffocating and at time claustrophobic closeness of Erebor. There was very little to pay attention to except Thorin down there, without the benefit of the other dwarves to lend some impulse for propriety. Bilbo had nearly swallowed his tongue the first time Thorin had removed the cloak and stood bare-chested before him. It had certainly not helped the times after that, in particular when Thorin had gone to bathe and given Bilbo such a brazen look, one eyebrow raised, as he undid the cloak with one hand and allowed it to flutter to the ground. Practical, it was only practical, Bilbo’s mind had squeaked, that he asked Thorin to stay within his sight and not go wandering off into the city. But then Thorin had smirked at him before ducking out of sight and Bilbo had known he was in quite a bit of trouble. Even cursed, Bilbo had not been able to ignore the fine cut of Thorin’s form and, once accustomed to the discolorations of his skin, it had been a simple matter to go back to appreciating the dwarf beneath. After those days bound to the throne, he now looked past the scales without realizing he did so.

As he did now. Bilbo noted the flex of Thorin’s broad shoulders as he traced his fingers over the wall, all that power and control poured into movements that were nonetheless gentle. Thorin was whispering words to the stone in that low, captivating voice of his, and it certainly did wonders to make that dusty little room feel suddenly warm.

“Why are you smiling?” Thorin said, interrupting the train of Bilbo’s thoughts.

“Smiling?” Bilbo started, and realized Thorin was correct. There really was no excuse for the rather silly grin Bilbo was wearing, as he still for the life of him could not remember the password. He averted his gaze from Thorin’s glance but did not close his eyes altogether. “I was only thinking.”

“About?” Thorin said, and arched an eyebrow in that way that made Bilbo’s heart do its little fluttering leap. He was quite glad for the darkness that surely hid his blush….

Except, it struck him, that there was really no reason to be. He no longer needed to hide or explain away his blushes, nor the way his heart leapt when Thorin quirked an eyebrow, or smiled, or laughed. It was still quite early, they had only just stated aloud that they loved one another, but surely that must confer some benefits? Might there be some allowance for honesty over propriety, especially since they still may not make it out of Erebor alive?

“I was just thinking that you are very beautiful,” Bilbo said, and felt that foolish grin broaden. Yes, it was quite nice indeed to be able to admit such things!

Thorin was silent at his words, but the second eyebrow rose to join the first, almost to his hairline, as he stared at Bilbo. The silence stretched and Bilbo shifted a little from foot to foot. Had he gone too far? Was it really too early for such things? He wished Thorin would laugh and dismiss it, or snap at him about wasting time, but he was only… staring.

"What?" Thorin said blankly.

“I – uh – find you quite attractive? That is I—I’m sorry, did I say something wrong? The staring is a bit unsettling.”

"I..." Thorin said, and Bilbo waited patiently for the rest of the sentence, likely said in a measured, solemn tone that made it clear on no uncertain terms that Bilbo's babbling about appearance was the height of foolishness. But it never came. "I..." Thorin repeated and it dawned on Bilbo all at once that he may have in fact committed a miracle greater than anything he had seen in all of Erebor.

Bilbo had just made Thorin Oakenshield stutter.

He was not a particularly vindictive person...all right, that was not strictly speaking true. Bilbo found a great deal of delight in making life difficult for his equally difficult relatives. It could rather be said that Bilbo never considered himself malicious, and certainly not towards those he cared for. But even at his stodgiest, Bilbo had always appreciated leaving a look of baffled surprise on the face of other hobbits and that little corner of him long dormant was awakening now at the realization that he had made Thorin Oakenshield stutter because of a simple compliment. No doubt the delight was a left over from the frizzy, hysterical feelings that remained from that rather mad confession earlier, but that corner of mischief was very nearly crowing. Every extended moment of silence only added to it, his grin broadening.

Until Thorin finally spoke.

"I wish you did not," Thorin said, and there was such simple honesty in his words that Bilbo's heart fell like a stone.

"Why?" Bilbo said, his mind gone suddenly blank, unable to think of what he might have done to offend.

“Bilbo, this…this is not me,” Thorin said, lowering his head as he looked back to the wall. “I accept that you cannot look upon me. I prefer it, in fact, if it means you understand. I hope this is some misguided attempt at comfort, because this form… I cannot bear the thought of it. I do not wish for it to be… appreciated. It is a foul and twisted thing. I am a…” Thorin stopped, which was as well because Bilbo felt his throat closing with every word, and he spoke in a rush before it might clamp shut entirely. This is not me. He remembered Thorin's words before they had gone in search of the claw, before it had all gone so horribly wrong.

As it was going horribly wrong now. A well of horror was opening up inside Bilbo and he almost wished the floor too would open up and swallow him as it dawned on him what he had said. "No! No Thorin it's not because of or... In spite of. Really, it's just you! You're rather magnificent, in general that is, and I've thought very well of you. Before and after. Well, more before, but I still do now. It's not all that bad really, once you're used to it. I hardly see it at all anymore! I just see… you…"

Bilbo heard Thorin’s breath hitch, but his shoulders remained taut, and his hands clenched at his side. Something more was needed.

“Thorin,” Bilbo continued. “There is a reason I don’t look at you right now, but it’s not the one you think. It’s… it’s not something I want to explain right now, we have other problems at hand, but I promise you I will as soon as we are free. This very afternoon even…which I dearly hope is when we get out of here, because we have a rather sorry lack of food.”

Thorin seemed to consider this, then slowly nodded. “Very well. Later then.”

Bilbo very nearly collapsed on the spot from relief, and the tension seemed to be easing, along with the hard set of Thorin’s shoulders. However, Thorin did not immediately resume his testing of the door. Instead, he seemed to be thinking.

“Magnificent?" Thorin said skeptically, looking over his shoulder. The corner of his lip twitched.

A grin broke over Bilbo's face. "Majestic? Handsome? Very fine indeed, as we say in the Shire."

"And on your oath, you are not making a joke at my expense?" Thorin said.

Bilbo shook his head, and said fervently, "I wouldn't dare!"

"Save for all the times that you have," Thorin said dryly, and turned back to the door.

A few minutes passed, and Bilbo thought the matter all but dropped. He had even begun to wrack his brains again for the syllables of the password, happy for the distraction, when Thorin spoke again, softly. "Thank you. I think very well of you, also.”

…And with that Bilbo was blushing to the roots of his hair, and there was really nothing that he could be expected to do than slip behind Thorin and wrap his arms around his shoulders. Thorin stiffened, for a moment, but then relaxed.

“I am trying to get us out of here,” Thorin remarked, flexing his shoulders to demonstrate how Bilbo’s embrace had trapped his arms against his body.

“And I’m trying to remember the password. This helps me think,” Bilbo said with a smirk of his own.

“Demonstrably not,” Thorin said with a soft laugh of his own, but made no effort to push Bilbo away. Bilbo grinned, pressing his cheek against the thick fall of Thorin’s hair.

Perhaps that was why he felt it: a chill that passed along Thorin’s skin like a winter blast. There was no stirring in the air; it was as if the shockwave only existed upon Thorin’s body, banishing the feverish heat that suffused him. If there was any other effect that came with it, it was a scent, like the sharp tang of a breezy day in early spring, fresh and clean and cold.

Thorin stood, and Bilbo squawked as his comfortable perch was upset. He loosened his grip, lest he be dragged off his feet, and fell to the ground. Meanwhile, Thorin had gone rigid, as alert as an animal that had caught a scent.

“Something is happening,” Thorin hissed.

“What…? Thorin, what are you talking about?” Bilbo said, looking around the dwarf to the direction of the blast.

“The gold. Something is happening to the gold,” Thorin said and Bilbo could only watch in horror as Thorin’s body tensed and he flexed his claws, as his words went from low rumble to a sharp growl.

“Thorin, it’s all right, the gold is safe. Nothing could possibly—” Bilbo began, when a realization struck him. Gandalf is cleansing the gold. The only way he could bring the other dwarves down there to find them. Bilbo seized Thorin’s arm, but the dwarf paid him no mind. “Thorin, listen!”

Get away from me,” Thorin snarled, and a horrible aching groan came from the back of his throat as he doubled over. Bilbo looked up then, could not help himself, and saw the panic in Thorin’s eyes, pain and terrible anguish. “Get back,” Thorin choked off and Bilbo was pulling away, backing up despite himself, and could only stare as a scream was wrenched from Thorin’s throat and he clutched at his forehead, claws fisting in his hair. It went on and on—and stopped.

Thorin stood, his scream cut off as if it had never been. He straightened his back and squared his shoulders, then he looked to Bilbo. Never before had Bilbo seen the face of the creature, and he thought his heart might stop in his chest at the sight.

It was not Thorin. Whether by some subtle shift of the muscles beneath the skin, or by the way it carried itself, this was a wholly different creature looking out from Thorin’s eyes. Though the familiar features were all there, they had shifted, were somehow worn differently. Scales or no, had Bilbo seen Thorin wearing such an expression he would not have recognized him.

You,” the creature said, in that same strange voice that had argued with Thorin when they first became trapped in the room. It was not mocking, as it had once been, but angry. The creature took a step forward and, almost casually, seized Bilbo by the throat and tossed him across the room. Bilbo hit the ground and skidded, his ears ringing and pain lancing through his back at the impact. Light cut into the room like a knife, blinding him.

The door had opened while he was still too dazed to hear the creature speak, and for a split second, he saw Thorin’s body silhouetted against the doorway. Were he not already dizzy from the impact, Bilbo would have been sick at this sight alone. The scales now covered Thorin’s face, and part of his jaw was exposed as his beard thinned in patches. What was worse, spikes like a crown had begun to sprout at his forehead. The blue of his eyes gleamed and he looked over his shoulder, once, before the door slammed shut behind him, leaving Bilbo once more in darkness.


When the dragon first awoke, it was a creature of hunger and instinct. Long might it have existed as such, only a small voice of greed and rage, turning the heart of the dwarf bit by bit to its purpose. Years might have passed before the first scale emerged, hidden beneath the rich velvet clothing of a king, concealed from sight and jealously guarded against those who would question it. It might have turned its hand to growing the hoard of gold that would become its home, twisting the dwarf’s mind until he welcomed the final moments of transformation, when the two would become one. A dragon king upon the throne might have stretched his hand far before any saw that it was tipped with claws.

Might have, if it had not heard the golden call, the item of power that spoke of greater glory, sooner to come and well within its grasp.

It was no longer a thing wholly of itself now. Another power fed it, the precious golden ring that held within it a voice, a memory of their first maker. It called to the dragon, drew it forth, and promised it more. More than any single dwarf could ever acquire, treasures and kingdoms beyond number, and it had heeded that call as it chased the golden ring through the halls of its kingdom, snarling when it escaped its grasp.

It snarled again when it was thwarted at the throne. So close, the path to dominance and freedom, snatched away by the lingering voice within it, by the heart it could not silence. It had been forced back when it last tried, lacking the strength to come forth again.

Until it felt the cold, and knew the hoard was threatened.

Now it stormed through the halls of its kingdom, feeling the blast of icy wind against its scales, its claws flexing at its side as it climbed to the galleries above the treasury, stalking its halls for a glimpse of the intruder. Figures moved amongst the dunes of gold like insects, unaware of the witch-light eyes that watched and hated from above.

“I distinctly recall telling you two to stay back,” Gandalf said, stopping at the base of the steps that climbed from the treasury to the hidden doorway. He was met by two others, one fair and one dark, who had dashed down the steps in a state of agitation.

Tharkûn. Fíli. Kíli.

“It’s been over an hour, Gandalf,” Kíli said.

“And where is Bilbo?” Fíli said, suspicion adding an edge to his words.

“Missing, for the moment. We must find him quickly, and to do so, I must finish my task which you two have already interrupted,” Gandalf said.

“He’s missing?” Kíli exclaimed. “How did you manage to lose him so quickly?”

“If I knew that, he would already be found, Kíli,” Gandalf retorted. “And if you wish to be of use in this, you may march right back the way you came.” The wizard trailed off, his shoulders hunching as if he could sense the eyes that watched them. He turned slightly, his hat tilting up, and the dragon saw a glimpse of piercing blue eyes even from the great distance.

“We are not leaving again without our uncle,” Fíli said.

“And were that in my power, I would grant it,” Gandalf said, turning back. “Now I’m doing my utmost to provide you with your wish and it would all go a great deal more smoothly if you would do as I say. I have another task for you, one that will go a long way towards rescuing both Bilbo and your uncle.”

The dragon watched as the wizard leaned in, his broad hat shielding his voice and the movement of his lips. Something he said must have electrified the younger dwarves, for they straightened as one, casting looks at each another, before running back up the passage without the wizard’s prompting, vanishing before the dragon could hope to stop them.

Let them go. It might block their passage before they returned, for to do ought else risked the wrath of the dwarf that still dwelt within its mind. The very thought of rending and tearing them as it wished to stirred the anger of the other being in its body, and it knew that such a course of action would fare no better than an attempt on the Halfling’s life. It would only give the dwarf within the strength to throw the dragon off, and so it waited, and watched, as the wizard turned back from the two young dwarves and returned across the dunes towards the indent within the treasure, to the sheltered bowl at its heart.

Gandalf came to a stop by the crater, and the dragon gripped the stone balustrade, its talons sinking into the stone as if it were no more than wood. The wizard spoke in a language the dragon did not know. Then he picked up his staff and drove it into the ground.

The dragon slammed against the back wall and even through its armored scales felt the hard crack of the stone. A shudder passed through it as it heard the distant voice and another shockwave blew through the room. Cold rushed through it like the great sweep of the blizzards coming down from the north. The dragon might have cried out then if it but had the strength to do so, but the shockwaves froze its voice in its throat and the fire in its belly. Its talons cracked against the stone and its skin felt raw, weak and fragile from the blasts. The heat from the hoard itself was lessening, growing cold. Where once there had been the blissful, soothing rays of warmth, there was now only the glow of any other metal. The gold may as well have been stone.

The dragon scrambled to its feet, pulling itself upright against the wall and staring in horror as with each blast from the wizard’s staff, the last of the heat bled from the room. It grounded itself now and did not fall back as shockwave after shockwave emanated, scraping the dragon’s skin raw.

The wizard stopped, and his head rose as he looked straight at the dragon, his blue eyes glinting even over the great distance, and a panic overtook the dragon’s limbs, the wild terror of a hunted animal.

It fled. All sense and cunning abandoned it as the loss of heat made its limbs grow torpid. Memories thronged in its ears and it saw images, flashes of books and broken columns under pillars of sunlight, the smell of mint. It was running then, flat out as if it could leave the images behind it and did not stop until it reached the hidden room. It snarled the words to enter, ducking inside once the door revealed itself. Once closed, the door vanished again, without leaving a trace.

The Halfling stared, blinded and dazzled by the brief flash of light, but the dragon could still see him perfectly. Then the buzzing returned and it clutched its head, bending double as flames licked the back of its throat but would not come forth. It choked on the smoke and chemical bile that churned there and threatened to suffocate it. The world spun, and it collapsed hard against the corner of the room, feeling nothing of the hard scrape of stone through its scales as it slid down into a crouch, hunched over. It was slipping, fading into darkness and it clawed for purchase within its own mind as it faded out of consciousness.

Thorin came awake with a strangled gasp, and buried his face into his hands, his breath shuddering as the cold sank into his bones. Shivers wracked him head to toe and the room itself faded in and out of vision, when he felt something heavy and soft fall over his chest.

“There you go,” Bilbo said. He was left in an oversized white shirt, with the mithril chainmail over it. His heavy blue coat was now draped over Thorin. Then Bilbo settled beside Thorin against the wall, crowding against him, shoulder to shoulder. Thorin sagged against the warmth of his body.

“I don’t suppose you learned the way out?” Bilbo said.

Thorin teeth chattered too hard to breathe let alone speak and he huddled beneath the heavy coat, the fire inside a small and pitiable thing compared to the warmth of the gold now lost. He curled in on himself as the torpor came over him, his shivers only dying down as darkness came over him and he fell into sleep.

“I thought not,” Bilbo sighed, and inched closer to Thorin to wait.

 


V

Here we go round the prickly pear
Prickly pear prickly pear
Here we go round the prickly pear
At five o'clock in the morning.

Chapter Text

Thorin’s head had fallen against Bilbo’s shoulder within the first hour of his slumber, his body unconcsciously seeking comfort. No dragon would ever do such a thing, or so Bilbo assured himself, as he threaded an arm around Thorin’s shoulder and drew him close. Thorin’s long hair fell in a curtain around his face, and tickled beneath Bilbo’s neck as he placed his chin on the top of Thorin’s head. The heat from his body banished the chill that permeated Bilbo’s, and his warm weight was welcome for that alone. Stone was never a comforable resting place, much less when it had never known the light of the sun, and there was a pervasive dampness in the air, some vestige of the many fountains that ran through Erebor.

Bilbo tried not to think too much of those, or of the beginnings of hunger that rumbled in his belly. He also tried not to think of what would happen if they were well and truly lost. Gandalf would find them, he assured himself, or one of the other dwarves. For now he simply pushed the thoughts of hunger aside, as he had learned to do in Mirkwood when there was no hope of sustenance for many days. It was a distinctly unhobbit-like thought, and he was quite sure his relatives would be scandalized if they knew.

They’d likely be scandalized by a great many things he did these days, Bilbo thought glumly. Serving as a pillow for a sleeping dwarf lord would be the least of those.

Bilbo wondered if he too should try to rest, in this first rare moment of quiet granted to them since that morning, when Thorin told him it was time they parted. Bilbo closed his eyes and pulled Thorin closer, feeling a peculiar sort of protectiveness, as if his arms alone could shield him from all harm, from the curse that ate away at him from the inside out. Someday he would very much like for them to sit like this again, Thorin’s larger body flush against his as they dozed, perhaps sitting in the sun somewhere with their pipes, or beside the fire while Bilbo read.

Sleep must have taken him then, his imaginings mingling with dreams, conjuring images of his sitting room far away, a fire crackling in the hearth and the smell of cooking food. Of Thorin nudging against him as they sat together and his low voice murmuring into Bilbo’s ear, “You’re drooling into my hair.”

Bilbo came awake with a snort, blinking rapidly and mumbling something garbled that was meant to be, “Just a moment!” but came out more like “Jusamimfugle!”

He saw by the blue glow beside him that Thorin was indeed awake, but with his gaze directed elsewhere and Bilbo settled back down. He noted that his arm was tingling and that it had gone slightly numb. Still, loathe to remove it, he leaned in closer to Thorin, but was mindful to wipe the drool from his mouth with his free hand. “Terribly sorry about that.”

“I’ve had worse,” Thorin said wryly, but nonetheless scrubbed a hand through his hair. “How much time has passed?” 

“No idea,” Bilbo admitted. “I must have dropped off as well. How are you feeling, love?”

The endearment seemed to startle Thorin, but he recovered quickly and said, “Like I have the mother of all hangovers.”

Bilbo clucked sympathetically. “That bad? I don’t suppose somewhere in there is the way out of here?”

Thorin shook his head. “It is as before. I remember speaking with you, and then awakening to the feeling of ice. But I was here both times, and if I left I have no memory of it. I do not suppose you heard the word spoken?”

“I’m afraid not,” Bilbo said. Thorin sighed beside him and shivered, pulling the coat tighter around himself.

“We’ll get out of here, Thorin, don’t you worry,” Bilbo said.

“You always have been the hopeful one,” Thorin said, with an air of resignation. There was doubt there too, but Thorin went silent then and remained thus for so long that Bilbo thought that he had fallen back to sleep.

“Why do you look away from me, if not for my appearance?” Thorin said, so softly that Bilbo wondered for a moment if he could pretend he had not heard.

“I promised I would tell you later,” Bilbo said, but could hear how pathetic the excuse sounded still in his own ears.

“Yes, in the afternoon, or whenever we escaped. It seems in the hours we have slept that one of those conditions has been met,” Thorin said, and the steadiness of his words gave Bilbo some confidence that perhaps it was indeed safe to tell him.

Bilbo leaned against the wall, closing his eyes and pressing his head against the stone. “Very well. Back in the library, before you found Mîm’s account, did you have any chance to read the other histories of dragons?”

“Not with any depth, but those tales are well known to my people,” Thorin said. Bilbo felt Thorin shift his arms, drape one out over his folded legs, as he settled in to listen.

“Of course, but did you have the chance to look up the…symptoms, of a fully grown dragon? Their, uh, characteristics?” Bilbo added in a smaller voice, “Their weapons?”

“Bilbo, I faced Smaug twice in battle,” Thorin pointed out. “I assure you, I am aware of their weapons.”

Bilbo swallowed and nodded. “Then you must understand that it’s not that I’m disgusted by you. Quite the contrary. It’s only that there are side-effects of this curse, more than the scales, and the fire. It’s…it’s the dragon’s gaze, Thorin. That is what I am afraid of.” Bilbo flinched, barely able to speak above a whisper, as if the words were wrested from him.

Thorin went still beside him. Then his breath hissed out from between his teeth. “Glaurung,” Thorin said. “The dragon-spell, that bends the victim to its will. But how could I…?”

“I don’t think you’ve done it on purpose,” Bilbo said hurriedly. “Like the fire, it’s just part of all of this. But I can’t take that risk, not again.”

“It has happened already?” Thorin said, and Bilbo’s stomach dropped. Stupid, stupid! He could have given the warning without hinting at that! He could still deny it now, but Thorin’s voice was a cold, harsh whisper that ground with painful memories all too recent, as he said, “Do not lie to me about this, Bilbo.”

“…Yes,” Bilbo said wretchedly, and Thorin made a choked sound at the back of his throat.

“When? How?” Thorin said, and while the threat had not lifted from his voice, behind it there was a breath of desperation.

“Just now, the last…attack. You told me to get away from you, and I had no choice but to obey,” Bilbo said. It had been fleeting then, perhaps knowing of the dragon-spell was enough to combat it, but that brief second of lost time might have been all that prevented him from escaping. What was worse, it may have been all that kept him from helping Thorin stave off the possession. He still felt sick and miserable at the thought. “And…other times.”

Bilbo,” Thorin said.

“I don’t know,” Bilbo said. “I don’t know how much it changed. It might have had no effect at all…”

“But you do not believe that,” Thorin said, and Bilbo was never more unhappy that they’d grown so much better at reading one another. There was no way around it, for Thorin was tense beside him, his body braced against a lie as if it were a blow.

“When we sat by the throne,” Bilbo said in a hushed and agonzied voice, “and you asked me not to seek help. Then again when you asked me to kill you. I would never help you die, Thorin. Never, and nothing you could have said would have convinced me otherwise.”

“You stayed… because of the dragon-spell?” Thorin said, and his voice was hollow. Bilbo could feel him squaring himself, as if the thought of rejection was such a surety that it lent strength of its own.

“That’s what I don’t know,” Bilbo said. “I think without the dragon-spell I would have gone for Gandalf sooner. We had a deal, after all. But all the rest? Thorin, if you were ever truly dying and asked me to stay… I would never leave your side.”

“But you cannot be sure,” Thorin said, and where his voice had been hollow before it was now dead. “Neither of us can be. All of it, all that took place there may be only because I forced you, because I stole your will.” There was a blankness to Thorin’s voice as if he dwelt on a horror too great to imagine and could only say aloud what the mind rejected.

“Forced me to... what? Tell you stories and keep you company?” Bilbo said, and even managed a small laugh. “Thorin, if that is what you do with the power to control others, than I really don’t think I have all that much to fear.”

Thorin’s breath hitched, but none of the tension went with it. “It is foul. It is the most vile of crimes. How can I trust anything that has happened here, that every moment you spend with me is not because I wish it, and have forced it upon you?” His voice grew fainter with every word. “How can I know I am not doing so even now?”

Alarm shot through Bilbo, he was immediately up and facing Thorin, his eyes downcast, taking in Thorin’s hard, scaled chest and the faint blue glow that illuminated the black scales. His coat had fallen from Thorin’s shoulders and was now folded over his lap. “I’m still here, aren’t I?”

“By your own will, or only because I wish it?” Thorin said, and Bilbo felt the tremor that went through him.

What could he possibly say to that? Thorin had regained some calm, some stability, but it was so terribly fragile and already unraveling with the onslaught of this new revelation. So much of his current calm seemed to come from his trust in Bilbo, and finally accepting that he was there of his own accord. Bilbo could almost see the faultline as it threatened to split Thorin, that hint of uncertainty as he questioned whether even the best of moments between them were only a product of the curse. Words were no longer enough to tread the treacherous paths of Thorin’s fears, with the creature lingering somehow at the edges of his consciousness and so little time left to them, and so much that was at stake. No amount of grand speeches or declarations would be enough to penetrate that doubt once it was given room to grow.

“Close your eyes,” Bilbo said desperately.

“Why?” Thorin said, but nonetheless obeyed. Bilbo saw the glow of his eyes wink out, plunging them into darkness that should have been be stifling, and it seemed worse somehow that Bilbo was growing used to it.

“Because I want to show you something,” Bilbo said, and if there was any Baggins side left in him it was thoroughly quashed by the Took. Perhaps it was the reminder of their days upon the throne, of chances missed but not gone forever.

“I cannot see,” Thorin said, sounding lost, as if he spoke of more than just his vision.

“Neither can I,” Bilbo said, his voice faint as an echo. He could feel the heat that radiated from Thorin’s skin, could tell from the slant of his body where his limbs were arranged. Bilbo propped himself up by placing a hand on Thorin’s shoulder, the other against the side of his face, against the patchwork of beard there. Thorin breathed in, and went still at the sudden closeness.

When Bilbo leaned in and pressed his lips to Thorin’s it was perhaps the hardest and most desperate kiss of his life. Bilbo felt the tremor that raced through him, felt Thorin stiffen at the contact…then crumble. Thorin’s mouth was hot against his, and he inhaled against Bilbo’s mouth as he pressed the flat of his hand against the back of Bilbo’s neck. Thorin’s other arm snaking around his waist to draw him closer, pulling Bilbo into his lap. There was no sight, only touch and taste and scent, the heat of Thorin’s body and the dry, hardened lips against Bilbo’s own.

Bilbo kissed harder, feeling bold, more bold than he dare even examine. It seemed imperative that he show it somehow, that he put it into something other than words that this was real, and that Thorin should know this. That it existed despite these days of madness, with the darkness and weight of Erebor pressing down around them, the curse that curdled Thorin’s skin, that made terror the most natural state of being, and when good sense was so twisted in survival that they were inextricable.

Bilbo freed a hand to comb his fingers through Thorin’s hair, bringing them around at the end to cup Thorin’s face. The muscles of Thorin’s arm flexed against his back, strong but not crushing, cradling him close. Bilbo lost himself in it all, in the taste of Thorin’s mouth, the sound of his breath in his ears, eyes clenched shut. He allowed the faintest brush of teeth against Thorin’s lower lip, and was rewarded by a moan from the back of Thorin’s throat, Thorin’s hand clenching around his side, tight, the claws nevertheless held back.

Their noses brushed as Bilbo pulled away, dazed and gasping. “Do you understand now?” he said, his breath still coming in a rush, and just the faintest of grins twitching his lips. Mad, quite mad, is what all the other hobbits would call him if he ever returned to his home, but how distant that all seemed here with Thorin breathing hard beside him and his lips still warm from their first kiss.

“I believe I have the shape of it,” Thorin said wryly and a bit breathlessly as he leaned in to claim Bilbo’s lips for his own—

—And faltered. Thorin’s lips trailed from Bilbo’s, leaving him feeling strangely cold and bereft. Thorin settled back against the wall with a long sigh, his hands falling from Bilbo’s waist.

“Thorin? Is something wrong?” Bilbo said, catching Thorin’s hand in squeezing it.

“Tired,” Thorin said, his words slurred and vaguely puzzled. “It struck all at once, but there is something.... I’m sorry, Bilbo, it is not you. I know we should be trying to escape from here but it is all so… exhausting. I am weary to the bone and nothing on the quest, in Ered Luin… not even the fall of Erebor could have prepared me for this. Enemies without I can understand, but enemies within, against which I must always guard but cannot hope to stave off, who can overwhelm and outwit me at any turn… The thought alone steals the strength from my limbs. And then there is you, whom I cannot hope to protect from this, whom I cannot even send away for your own safety. Were I alone here I would not be so fearful. I no longer need to eat, or drink. It might even be a blessing to be where I cannot harm anyone, hidden from sight. But you… we must get you out somehow,” Thorin said.

His other hand moved, and Bilbo could feel from the movement that Thorin was rubbing it over his face. “I don’t know the word, Bilbo. I have searched my mind and I cannot find it there. I feel as if even the memory of these store rooms is gone as well, as if it were hidden from me. I don’t know what to do, save that I would give anything to free you from this place, even my life.”

A chill went through Bilbo. “Don’t say such things. I would never leave you here.”

“It does not matter anyway, the point is moot,” Thorin sighed. “Do not misunderstand me: I do believe you, Bilbo, even that you wish to be here with all the danger that entails. It is only that I am weary with it all.”

“Then sleep, Thorin,” Bilbo said, though it was an effort to do so. He remembered too well Thorin falling into a sleep like the dead for hours at a time, and there was the rumble in his stomach and the first pangs of thirst on his tongue. “Goodness knows these have been a hard few days.” Thorin huffed a weary chuckle at this.

“It is not fair to you,” Thorin said. “Every hour I sleep…”

“Is an hour I can spend thinking in peace,” Bilbo said, offering a smile Thorin could not see it. “I’m afraid you are rather distracting, love. Who knows? Perhaps I will have us out of here before you wake up.”

“Perhaps,” Thorin said, and relented. “You will wake me before too many hours have passed?”

“You have my word,” Bilbo said. “Smaug slept for decades after all, and I really don’t feel like putting it to the test yet whether you can do the same.” Somehow it felt easier to joke about the curse, made it seem smaller and manageable. He was not sure if Thorin saw it the same way, but there was no tension in him now, no knee-jerk pained reaction, so Bilbo had some hope that it had worked. He leaned in, pressing a quick kiss to Thorin’s lips and one to his forehead. “Sleep, love. I will do what I can.”

Thorin nodded and leaned his head back against the wall. He was asleep between one breath and the next, and Bilbo wondered how deep his weariness must have been to be able to do so, sitting up and against a cold stone wall no less. Bilbo picked up his blue coat from Thorin’s lap and draped over the dwarf’s shoulders, tucking him as best he could.

Bilbo’s back cricked as he stood, and he raised his arms over his head to stretch before allowing them to fall swinging to his side. Sitting and sleeping on a cold stone floor was certainly not the most comfortable way to wile away the hours, and he doubted the various aches and pains would be swift to disperse when compounded with the time he spent sleeping on the stone next to the throne. Dreams of feather beds and hot meals, hot baths, were never far from his mind but they were ruthlessly pushed aside. If Mirkwood had taught him anything, it was that such thoughts only served to drive one mad.

Nevertheless, it seemed having Thorin awake was indeed a distraction. Now without having to worry about the dwarf Bilbo found his thoughts clearing. His brow furrowed and his fingers twirled in the air as he tried to dial his thoughts back to what he had seen as he navigated the corridors with Gandalf. There’d been no sign that there were rooms hidden within the walls, but he supposed that was rather the point if they were meant to be secret.

The creature had growled something just as they were dragged in, something like… “Amnar?” Bilbo said aloud. Nothing happened. “Amana? Ambar?” Still nothing. “I swear, if I do ever get my hands on that creature…” Bilbo growled under his breath.

“You’ll do what, exactly?” drawled a voice behind Bilbo that made his blood run cold.

“Thorin?” Bilbo said, whipping around, quickly remembering to drop his eyes to the floor.

“Asleep, I’m pleased to say. It was the only way to make him shut up. After all, I think it is high time we had a little chat.” There was a sibilant quality to the voice, the words smooth, hissing, and altogether menacing for all their pleasant tone. “You know, there is so much in here that is sentimental, and that was even before I awoke. Disgusting, really, it’s a terrible mess.”

“What are you talking about?” Bilbo said. The voice was nothing like Thorin's, more akin to the snarl of a beast, and seemed terribly amused by itself.

“His mind, of course. Our mind. With time I can polish those rough edges but, dear me, there is so much work to be done. But there is some hope, some fertile ground, for all that it is twisted up on itself. Like his love of gold, all bound up with his grandfather, this place,” the voice remarked.

“What are you?” Bilbo said, edging back a step.

“A ghost,” the voice said pleasantly, “and a memory. I know you, riddle-maker, just as I know that trinket you carry. It will do you little good in here. I smell you.”

“Smaug?” Bilbo breathed, taking another sliding step back, knowing it was useless. Then the voice did laugh, a dry and crumbling sound.

“No,” it said, “and yes.” A clawed hand appeared on the floor in the field of Bilbo’s vision. No, not just appeared, took a step forward, crawling towards him on all fours like a lizard. Terror rose in Bilbo’s throat and the wall bumped against his back as he stumbled back. He pressed himself to the wall, wishing he had the power to melt into the stone.

“Now you are the one who speaks in riddles,” Bilbo said accusingly, marveling at how little his voice shook.

The voice chuckled. “Then have a few more. Dragon gold has made me and dragon gold I make. I am newborn, yet long have I dwelled in the darkness of the mind. My sires are thought and memory, and my children are dominion. I am King under the Mountain, but soon king with mountains beneath me.”

“What have you done to Thorin?” said Bilbo.

“Nothing at all. He is in here, burglar,” the voice shifted, became softer, more familiar. It became Thorin’s voice, and the sound rose the hair on the back of Bilbo’s neck. “As ever I have been with him. Every silenced thought, every word locked behind discipline, his control and suppression goes back…back so long I don’t think even he knows where it began. But I do. It is the peculiar nature of such control, that in time all such buried things come forth.”

“Foul things are buried,” Bilbo retorted. “You are not him.”

“Not him?” The first flickers of anger caught at the edge of the voice. “I am his heart.” In a blink Bilbo was surrounded, talons piercing his shoulders, their points digging into his flesh, stopped only by the mithril shirt. “Do you not remember this? When he cursed you and would have cast you to the rocks? I was there, that was me. I am his desire and his rage. I am the heart that brought him to the gold and the one who reclaimed this city. I am all that he has ever wanted that he lacked the courage to seize!”

Bilbo kept his eyes low, and in the witchlight glow could see that the powerful muscles of Thorin’s chest and arms were now slick with the oily black scales and somehow broader, tougher. The tilt of his body was unnatural as he hunched forward. The creature in Thorin’s body stood without any grace, like a four-legged thing propped unnaturally on its hind legs. His hands digging into Bilbo was no longer the grasp of force and intimidation, but rather a prop to keep himself upright.
But strangest of all, Bilbo’s fear was draining away. It occurred to him why, and that was the sheer absurdity of it. He blinked and no longer saw a creature of nightmares, the shadow that crawled out from the depths of Thorin’s mind. The realization trickled in with the awareness that he was, against all probability, still alive, albeit pressed against a wall and locked within a darkened room.

Except even that perception shifted and he saw that it was not so much a pit of nightmares where this creature had trapped him, but rather a small and pathetic storeroom, with bare walls and dusty floors. Why, it was no more than a closet compared to the majesty of Erebor!

“I see,” Bilbo said. Gently, Bilbo disentangled the talons, unhooking the tips of the claws from where they caught on the fabric of his shirt. Then, prompted by that streak of his own madness, that peculiar brand which no doubt had only grown since he dashed out his front door, he said, “That does explain a great deal. But I’m afraid I must respectfully disagree.”

There was a stretch of silence and he released Thorin’s hands. Bilbo saw Thorin sway on his feet. The talons on his feet were not so good for remaining upright. The whole scaly body swayed along a line of tension, barely catching its balance. Then it gave a deep snarl of frustration, laced with a thread of confusion. “What?”
And it was just that, Bilbo realized. Even if it spoke from Thorin’s lips and used his body, that was all it was. Just a voice. “For starters, you may be many things but you’re certainly not his courage. You’re not very brave, or clever. Your long-term planning is frankly dreadful, and you probably couldn’t lead your way out of an open basket, let alone rule under the mountain. Oh, and your idea of a riddle is embarrassing. It’s no wonder Thorin buried you.”

Bilbo supposed he should have expected it, but his vision still spun as the claw closed around his throat and his head slammed against the wall. Darkness and stars exploded across his vision and the heated scales pressed into his throat, choking off air. He retched, bile catching beneath the talons and pain seared across his scalp, split by the impact.

Hot breath licked Bilbo’s face as the voice hissed in his ear, “You are one to talk of foolishness, who insults the one who could so easily kill you.”

“But you won’t,” Bilbo wheezed. He swallowed against the dizziness but managed to steady his voice, his feet finding purchase on the ground so he could stand and steady himself despite the hand locked around his throat.

“You know, I was terribly afraid of Thorin up on the wall,” Bilbo said conversationally. “Not only that he would kill me, but that I deserved it. You see, he’s a noble sort, but gets very caught up in matters of duty and honor. There was nothing I wanted less than to anger him, except that he should die because of his stubbornness. I suppose that won out. I feared I would lose his friendship, and what esteem I had in his eyes, but I feared that because I respected him. He’s a good leader, you know, I would have followed him on this journey twice over, even knowing what I do now. I hated the thought of losing his regard, I hated myself more than a little at the offense I caused.”

The blow to the head must had scrambled his thoughts, Bilbo realized as he rambled. “The point is…the point is, I was afraid because Thorin was angry with me. But you’re saying that was you? Well, I know what you are. You’re not his strength. He buried you and defeated you every day, with every part of himself. He was terribly afraid of letting you out, of giving in to foolishness and pride, of losing himself to that treasure like his grandfather. When he lost that battle against you he lost his followers, his kin, his companions, and he lost the goodwill of the Men that Erebor needed so very badly in order to rebuild the mountain.”

“I have no need for traitors and thieves,” the voice snarled.

“Which is why it’s probably for the best that your idea of being King under the Mountain is hiding away in a broom closet,” Bilbo remarked.

Bilbo’s esophagus flexed inward as the hands tightened and his vision speckled and darkened as he wheezed a breath, and yet the calm remained and sure enough the hands released their hold and he heard hard breathing, as if Thorin fought a battle of his own.

“Let us say I am wrong. What is your plan? What will you do with your kingdom?” Bilbo wished he had asked these questions sooner, when he first learned of the Arkenstone and seen the first glints of something more than resolve in Thorin’s eyes. Yet there had seemed to be little point at the time, when he might have said he knew all that Thorin was, and all he desired for reclaiming his homeland. What anyone would desire. Yet not this one. This one spoke only of his future rule.

“Erebor is mine,” the voice said and beneath the snarling strength there was a plaintive whine.

“Yes, I believe we’ve established that,” Bilbo said dryly. “But tell me, will you let it languish another hundred years? Close off all the doors and sit on your pile of gold? Will you let your city rot and the bodies of your people fall to dust?”

One of the hands fell from Bilbo’s throat and he heard a hiss of breath. Daring to crack open one eye, he saw Thorin bent nearly double, one clawed hand tangled in his hair as he clutched his forehead. His eyes were screwed shut against some silent agony, white teeth digging into his lower lip. Then a great shudder ran through Thorin and he straightened, his breath coming hard and Bilbo closed his eyes against the dragon-spell gaze.

“Erebor will not rot,” Thorin said but his voice grew increasingly ragged and the remaining hand clenched at Bilbo’s throat had no force behind it.

“There are thee armies waiting for you outside these gates,” Bilbo continued relentlessly. “Will you throw open your doors to them? Will you pay them from the treasury of Erebor to arm themselves? Will you share your gold with the dwarves who have come to settle here?”

“I swore they would have none and they never shall. I will not treat with armies at my door!” the voice said.

Then what will you do?” Bilbo snapped and suddenly he was driving Thorin back. The wall was no longer pressing against him. If the stodgy hobbit of six months before could have seen him then he might have fainted dead away on the spot, as he shook a finger at a creature of scales and claws as if it were a naughty child. “If you will not spend the gold to rebuild Erebor or, good heavens, to pay these armies to expand your ‘empire’, then what will you do? You will have to close the doors, because there is little chance Bard or even Dáin will march home without laying siege to the mountain. You cannot face them alone. You could lock the doors, and then you will have to wait, hiding here in the dark like a worm.”

“Silence!” The other hand came up to seize Bilbo anew and Bilbo barely glanced at it, knocking it aside as if it were a poor thrust with a practice sword.

“You are not Thorin,” Bilbo said quietly. “You have nothing of his courage or his leadership, you have nothing of his strength. You lack even base cunning. A ghost, you said, but nothing more than that. Instinct, poisonous thoughts and petty revenge. You are no better than Smaug.”

The sound of breathing was harsh and ragged, such that Bilbo could barely make out the words that were torn from Thorin’s throat. “I will kill you for that,” the voice said. Bilbo shook his head, though he regretted it when his stomach roiled at the motion.

“No, you won’t. Thorin is still in there and in the end, I know he is the stronger of the two of you,” Bilbo said.“Go back to the shadows, back into the corners of his heart where you are stomped on and suppressed. Thorin is a noble king, a good king, and a good leader, who only cared for the gold because it was the work of his people and could bring good to them. He loved his grandfather and loves his nephews and all his kin,” And me, Bilbo thought but would not say aloud, not to this creature. It was still too new, too fragile and wonderful to expose to this creature’s hatred. But fury was burning in Bilbo, and purpose, and desperate hope. He fairly spat: “And I will never let him lose this fight to the likes of you!”

Bilbo froze and his lips stilled as something trickled down his stomach and a dull, throbbing ache began just above his hip. He looked down, dreamily noticing the claws as they retracted from his abdomen. A black stain was spreading over his shirt, which would be quite a bother to get out even with soap or water, he noted with annoyance. Then a hot, searing sensation was spread across his torso and it seemed a good idea at the moment to lower himself to the ground.

Yes, a very good idea indeed, a part of his mind noted as the agony increased ten-fold. Bilbo gave a soft whimper of pain as his legs gave out beneath him.

“It appears your Thorin is not here to stop me.” A shadow loomed above him and crouched down, blue eyes gleaming in a face gone gray in the shadows. “Or perhaps he had no interest.” The creature flicked his hand and hot blood spattered across Bilbo’s face, and trickled down his cheek. Bilbo’s breath came in short, shallow gasps. How strange, he thought, for when he tried to breathe deeper the pain flashed across his body like a lightning bolt.

And in that darkness, there was no telling the difference when his eyes slid closed.

 


Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom

 

Chapter Text

Thorin came awake from dreams of corridors and opening doors, of walking through unending hallways, the gray stone of Erebor morphing into the fabled pillars of Khazad-dûm and then shrinking down again to sloping hallways that ended in a round door. He remembered only snatches as he returned to wakefulness: a feeling of being summoned forth, called. There had been a sense of urgency, and visions of fire curling between the pillars and outside windows, just out of the corner of his eye.

Whatever the cause of those dreams, they left only vague impressions and flashes on his waking mind. He was disappointed to see the door was closed and that they still remained within that bare room. In the gray half-light cast by his eyes, he saw Bilbo slumped against the wall, asleep. Anxiety prickled the back of Thorin’s neck at the sight, and a hint of annoyance that Bilbo had not wakened him as they had agreed before dropping off to sleep himself. Thorin dismissed it. Bilbo no doubt deserved the rest, and he was not so thoughtless as to rouse him merely for the pleasure of his company.

Instead he climbed to his feet, allowing Bilbo’s coat to fall beside him, and walked to the opposite wall, frowning as he considered words that might free them. That was assuming he was even correct that this was one of the secret armories: there were many hidden rooms in Erebor, meant for the king, or for meetings which must be held in secret, guard quarters and…

Broom closets?

Thorin snorted a laugh to hear the hobbit’s voice so clearly in his mind. Yes, broom closets. If only he could recall how they had traveled from the throne room, he might be able to narrow the options.

Yet he had already tried dozen combinations and as much as he wracked his brain, he could not think of any more. With a huff of frustration Thorin placed his hands against the wall, probing for cracks or a keyhole of any kind. His fingers clicked as they hit the stone. He stilled.

The dragon sickness. It had spread further than he remembered; his forearms were broader, more heavily muscled. Thorin swallowed and closed his eyes against the sight, but even in the darkness behind his eyelids he could see the talons, longer than he last recalled, and darker in their coloring, stained at the tips as if they had been dipped in tar. He flinched at the memory, glad for the moment that there was no mirror or bowl in which he could see his face and the extent of the damage there. In that the darkness was a blessing, and he was more comforted than he would admit aloud to be locked away in there, out of sight. It might have been an ideal solution, if not for the fact that the creature knew how to leave this place, and Bilbo was trapped in here with him.

Thorin took a deep breath and turned his attention back to the damned door, which remained stubbornly closed despite various commands, passwords, and eventually flat-out pleadings that he leveled at it. The oppressive silence of the place, with only the sound of Bilbo’s shallow breathing for company, was wearing on Thorin’s shredding nerves and patience, and his resolve to let the hobbit sleep was fading with them.

Thorin decided to wake him only briefly, to ask him to describe the corridors he had seen when they first came to this place. Then he would let Bilbo return to sleep. With this thought in mind, he turned to his companion and crouched by his side.

“Bilbo,” Thorin murmured. The hobbit did not stir, his head was tossed back and his eyes were closed. Bilbo’s face was terribly pale, but then they had been underground for quite some time. Perhaps he was suffering some nightmare as well, for his breathing seemed too shallow and erratic for sleep. Thorin brushed the back of his finger against Bilbo’s cheek, careful to keep the claws well away from the skin.

Bilbo’s eyelids fluttered and he recoiled with a thin cry of agony. A spasm ran through his body as he cringed, clutching at his stomach. Thorin froze, the tiny details he had overlooked dawning upon him. Sweat bathed Bilbo’s forehead, which was chill to the touch, and Thorin’s hand fell from Bilbo’s face to his throat, where the pulse struggled weak as a dying bird.

“Bilbo?” Thorin whispered, as a sickening cold spread through his stomach and limbs. He looked further and saw the black stain edged with rust red beneath Bilbo’s hand.

Thorin’s mind went blank. The mithril shirt was stained and glinting, and two of the links had been severed as if by a long, thin blade. More in denial than panic, he set Bilbo’s hand aside and pulled back the mail, and then the torn shirt beneath. The fabric stuck to Bilbo’s stomach and he gave a groan, his limbs trembling as the cloth peeled away from the bloody wound.

Nothing should have been able to part mithril: “hard as dragonscale” was no idle boast. Yet it seemed something sharper still had torn through it, severing the links and plunging into the soft flesh beneath. Yet what could have done it in such a place? For no metal wrought save a blade of equal strength could pierce the finely crafted armor. Thorin cast about desperately, his mind clouded and frantic by a shrieking confusion and a distant roaring like an oncoming hurricane. No blade was here in the room, nothing sharp enough to pierce but there was no time, no time, and he ripped at Bilbo’s stained shirt into a long strip to bind the gut wound—

And saw the claws that tipped his misshapen fingers, the black stain drying and crumbling away like flecks of rust, mocking him in the dim glow of his own cursed eyes. A dragon’s claw, the tips stronger and sharper than any metal wrought by dwarves, for only a dragon’s claw could pierce a dragon’s scale. The wicked point fit perfectly into the tear in the mithril shirt and the flesh beneath.

Bandages. Pressure. His mind babbled while his stomach roiled so much he thought he might be sick. “How” and “why” would have to wait. A gut wound might mean a painful end after days of suffering, it might mean death in minutes. It was all a matter of inches, and of luck.

Thorin’s hands brushed Bilbo’s pocket as he worked and something metal, perhaps a button, brushed against the scales of his hand. He ignored it. He had to focus, to bind the wound, to clear his mind of the confusion, and the rushing sound of a storm that filled his ears with its roar.

But why save him? A voice spoke, coming from everywhere and nowhere at once, echoing within the room and his ears as if the source was standing beside him.

The roaring in Thorin’s ears ceased as if snuffed out. A stillness settled over his mind, the whispered voices just out of hearing dying away, and he sensed the world as if he stood outside his body, watching his own lips as he spoke. “Who’s there? What are you?”

I am you.

Fire flashed in Thorin’s vision and he threw himself back and away, shielding himself with his arms against the blaze. Heat licked at his hands, crackling in his hair, and turning his blood to ash.

When he dared open his eyes again he saw himself transported. He stood once again upon the gold of his forefathers.

A shadow loomed over him.

Greater than Smaug, it filled every corner of his vision, massive as the mountain itself. The treasury was no less cavernous, yet it seemed diminished in size as it was filled with the massive bulk, so large that it seemed to take up the whole world, the great pillars that surrounded it appearing no larger that saplings.

A dragon. Black as pitch, it glinted as if from torchlight unseen, shining like obsidian. Each angled scale was larger than a tower shield, and its wings spread behind it were vast as storm clouds, their leathery membrane crackling with the boom of thunder as they unfurled. Its head, crowned by spikes, rose until it brushed the ceiling, and in its gaping mouth were teeth like swords.

It turned its great head, looking at him from the side, watching him. Its great golden eye was vast, lidless, and burned as if wreathed in flame.

“Why so silent, O King? Have you no words, you who look upon the promise of your future?”

The voice rumbled and crashed like the tumble of an avalanche, ringing Thorin’s body and brain, shaking him down to the sinew and bone, and he bent double as he clutched his hands to his ears.

The storm of its voice died away and he took his hands away, only then looking down to see what had felt so strange. He had felt no piercing claw, no hardened scale. When he looked down at his hands he saw soft flesh, familiar calluses, blunt fingernails. On his arm was silver armor, on his shoulders a fur mantle, and beneath it his dark blue tunic. He knew then that this could not be real, for that raiment had been lost in Thranduil’s dungeons.

A vision, then, but was it an evil one? For at the sight of his own flesh Thorin’s breath caught and his eyes stung so that he might have wept then and there with relief. Oh, to be himself again, and not some twisted, nightmarish creature! Yet all sense of peace washed away as he looked up from his hands, at the beast that towered before him.

The very sight of it made him feel small. Against a dragon that was vast as the mountain itself, the title of King felt like only a mockery. He lacked even hatred to bolster him, for this was not Smaug. Thorin did not know this dragon, though he felt the tug of familiarity as he looked upon the knotted sinews of its form.

Yet he was no coward to shrink away. He stood taller, challenging the creature as he spoke. “I ask again, what are you? For you seem to know me though I know nothing of you, save as a beast that roams our halls.”

“A beast? A beast no more than you, Thorin Oakenshield,” the creature said. “Still you do not recognize me?”

And as the dragon spoke, Thorin realized where he had heard its voice. In the darkness of his own thoughts he’d heard it, dogging his steps, the source of whispers that echoed from the darkness and filled his thoughts with visions of gold. It was deeper now, and bellowing with a noise loud enough to shatter the body, yet still the same beneath.

“No, nor do I wish to. I have no time for the words of a worm,” Thorin retorted. The dragon spoke in lazy, languorous sentences while somewhere Bilbo was even now bleeding out from a gut wound on the cold stone floor. Thorin’s fingers flexed and he pinched the back of his other hand, surreptitiously testing if so easy a mean might wake him from this dream.

“A worm?” the dragon said disdainfully. “Do you not recognize your own body, Oakenshield? Did you not see in your flesh the mark of greatness born?” So large a creature should not have been able to move so fast, yet it struck like a snake, bringing its great head down in front of Thorin. He stared into the golden eye reflecting his own image back at him, large and round as a mirror. “Behold!”

In that eye, Thorin saw himself not as he was now, but in the prime of his youth, before the mountain fell. Resplendent in blue, armored and armed with silver. Yet one by one those trappings of his rank fell away, the bracers and fur mantle, the silver armor so cunningly wrought. In their stead, the black scales spread like a plague, crossing his now bare chest and arms. They crawled like a pestilence, following his veins and sinew like a creeping rot, chasing gray flesh before it until it was swallowed by the oily blackness of the scales.

The transformation did not stop where he had last seen it, with his flesh replaced by black armor, his nails with claws. Instead it went further: spiked ridges grew like a crown upon his head, and the glow of his eyes was no longer muted, but instead had caught alight. His body twisted, growing in bulk, while the talons on his hands and feet lengthened, curling and digging into the stone beneath him. Reflected in those golden eyes, he saw all that he knew of himself vanish. Fire glowed in the great length of his throat, stretched and elongated like a serpent.

The vision did not stop there. Thorin saw the drake he had become sitting upon the gold of the treasury, and he was not alone. He recognized the sigil of the Iron Hills, the seven dwarven clans arrayed with their armies before him. Dáin stood at their forefront, holding his helm under one arm as he faced the dragon. Then he knelt, and behind him the armies knelt as one, each of the seven clans shouting their fealty to him, the King under the Mountain.

The scene changed and the armies marched. First to Laketown, where the Master knelt shaking as he pledged his own paltry army to their cause, asking only that they be spared the dragon fire. From there, the army swept west across the land, and in the sky above the black drake spread wings that eclipsed the sun.

Mirkwood burned next. The halls of the Elvenking fell to ash and Thranduil, with the remnants of his people, begged for clemency. The king showed his mercy then as he cast Thranduil into the ruins of his own dungeons. A dragon might live a thousand years, as long as an elf or longer. Thorin could wait as his enemy suffered the fate he once promised his captives. Let him know the pain of a home destroyed, let him languish in a cell for centuries without end!

Victory was rich and sweet as the treasure of the Woodland Realm was added to the hoard of Erebor and Thorin’s wealth and kingdom spread ever further. The other Elven kingdoms fell, as did the cities of Men. Meanwhile, the dwarves thrived, their armies winning glory as they swept through battle after battle, for none could stand before their warriors or before the might of a dragon.

No longer did his race diminish, no longer were they chased from their mountain halls or forced to labor in the cities of Men. They reclaimed Khazad-dûm and all the lost dwarven cities, driving out the filth within. Even Durin’s Bane was no match against a dragon. The next Age was not one of Men, but of Dwarves. Finally their time had come, they who should have been the eldest race, always cast aside, ignored, and spurned. A secret folk no longer, their dominion covered the lands and the crafts of their hand knew no equal. The threat of the dragon was enough to cow their subjects, and they never again knew want or insult. A Golden Age, ruled from a golden throne, and all dwarves lifted their voice in praise of the King under the Mountain.

The great eye closed and when it opened again Thorin saw himself as he had once been. Another tale unfolded, one of a mere dwarf: powerless, imprisoned within his own kingdom, a plaything for wizards, spurned by his kin and mocked by his enemies. Beyond the gates the vultures gathered, laughing as they decided how to divide his people’s legacy. The hearts of the dwarves faltered and soon they dispersed, Dáin taking his army with him back to the Iron Hills. Erebor languished, robbed and abandoned. In the years to come, Thorin’s name became one of infamy, he who had reclaimed his kingdom only to lose it again, its wealth lost, scattered and looted by their enemies.

There would be no united dwarven kingdom, and in time their numbers would diminish entirely. The cities of Men would rise in wealth and power, forging alliances with the Elves. Meanwhile, his people would become no more than a memory in the next Age, a tale for children, their histories forgotten, and the works of their hand lost to the earth.

Stop,” Thorin said, through teeth clenched so hard he felt his jaw would crack.

The dragon blinked and once again Thorin saw only his own reflection, the vision fallen away. The dragon’s mouth stretched, revealing rows of teeth in what might have been a smile. “Have you seen enough?” it said.

“More than enough,” Thorin said flatly. “I will not be seduced by tricks or twisted words, and I have no interest in your witchcraft.”

“Witchcraft?” the dragon mused. “Oh no, hardly that. The inevitable march of time, rather. Will you really let your people languish and fade when it lies within your power to save them?”

“And you would have me believe a dragon is the solution to our ills?” Thorin said disdainfully. The corner of his lips twitched upward. “I need only look so far to know your visions are false. Dáin bending knee? And where is the Company in your vision, where are my nephews?”

“Where indeed, O King?” the dragon said. “Banished, by your hand. Do you not remember that day upon the wall, when your burglar betrayed you? There is no place for them in Erebor. ‘Take them or slay them’ you cared not?  They are but disobedient subjects. As for the dragon,” it continued, voice sibilant, “have you so easily forgotten?”

And his aspect changed once again in the eye of the dragon, revealing a creature neither dwarf nor dragon, but something twisted between the two. The black scales covered all but a flaking and diseased patch above his heart, and the blue of his eyes left no room for the whites: wide and staring, they glowed with an inner light, the pupils cut to slits like a cat. Yet the transformation had gone further still: patches were missing from his beard and at his forehead began the nubs of spikes that ran along the edge of his hairline. Thorin grimaced, flinching away from the sight and saw that his own teeth had changed too, taking on points. Even the muscles of his arms were no longer his own, broader and thicker, and his hands had grown longer with their clawed tips. Monstrous.

“There is no end to this,” the dragon said. “What will you do? Allow your kin to slay you? Or will you offer them the service of your new form, to take back all that has been stolen from you. Look upon yourself!” it roared, and Thorin found himself obeying, staring deep into the golden mirror of its eye.

“This is all that is within you, Thorin son of Thráin. Your grandfather, your father—they had only the seed of it within them; they could not reach these heights. You have reclaimed what they have lost and you have done it alone. Will you not take it up your destiny? An army with a dragon at its head! Why, there has been nothing of its like in an Age, and never has so great a weapon been gifted to your people. You need only accept what you cannot escape.”

Thorin clenched his hands into a fist, looking down as his reflection mimicked him, the sharp points digging into his hand.

“You were right to banish them,” the dragon whispered. “They stole that which is precious. Let them all leave. They have already abandoned you in word and deed. You have no need of them.”

“And the price?” Thorin grated, looking up. “I am not so foolish as to think this power comes without something in exchange. If I accept what you offer, what would you require in return?”

The dragon raised its head, seeming surprised, and looked down at Thorin. “Price? There is no need for payment if you accept. Merely cease denying me. Stop playing the selfless princeling, so concerned with his sister’s sons, and the ragtag remnants of your scattered people. Cease to suppress what is within you in order to play what you are not.”

Thorin’s jaw clenched and he nodded to himself, pretending to contemplate the dragon’s words. “Release me from this place and I will consider it.”

“So soon?” said the dragon.

“My companion lies bleeding. There can be no decision while this matter weighs upon my mind,” Thorin said.

“That Halfling?” the dragon said, but the casual sibilance of its voice took on an edge. “Why not let him die? He is of no use to us. We have greater matters to attend.”

“If you will not help, then I will find my own way,” Thorin retorted.

“And how?” said the dragon. “You are trapped and know not how to free yourself.” Thorin stiffened, dread spreading through him, and the dragon chuckled, a great rumbling sound. “But I know. I know where you stand and where you may go. The word that will open the hidden door. The knowledge is here, Oakenshield, kept far away from your own mind so long as we are separate.”

“Then tell me the word and let us be done,” Thorin snapped.

“Hmm, but I do not think I wish to,” the dragon crooned. “You will think on my offer? Why, that seems no bargain at all! The wall between us is crumbling, but that will take time, time your Halfling does not have.”

Thorin gritted his teeth. “Then what do you want?”

Let me in,” the dragon hissed. “You will know the way out and may do what you wish to save his life.”

“And then?” Thorin said. “How do I know you will not hinder me?”

“Aha, now we are negotiating!” the dragon said. “An hour then. If you have not saved him by then there is little point, wouldn’t you agree?” The dragon blinked.  As if through a long tunnel, Thorin saw Bilbo and himself within that room. His own eyes were open and unseeing as the vision held him in its throes. Bilbo lay only a few feet away, blood spreading around him in a growing pool, black against the stone. He clutched at his side, cringing in agony. His skin was gray and his breath came in pants that grew ever more shallow.

Done,” Thorin snarled, wrenching himself free of the vision, spitting the word in the dragon’s face.

The dragon’s head moved and it brought it down, encircling Thorin in the coils of its neck. “Amnârabamâ.”

The treasury winked out. In its place was that darkened cellar and a small form curled in on itself. Thorin wasted no time, scrambling to his feet and over to Bilbo’s side.

“Bilbo, are you there?” Thorin said, kneeling beside the hobbit and brushing a hand across his cheek. “Come, burglar, you must wake up.”

Bilbo stirred, giving a weak cry, but at the sound relief flooded Thorin. The strips he had ripped from Bilbo’s shirt lay on the ground beside him and Thorin snatched them up, pressing them to the wound. “Listen to me. You need to keep pressure here, do you understand? We have little time. I must go find you help.” Thorin began to rise when he felt a hand, cold as ice, catch his arm.

“Thorin?” Bilbo whispered. Sweat bathed his forehead and his lips were tinted blue at the edges. His eyes were unfocused, but he smiled faintly up at Thorin. “You’re back.”

“Remain still. This will not take long,” Thorin said but Bilbo would not release him, and shook his head, teeth gritted.

“Please,” Bilbo wheezed, “don’t leave me. You might…vanish again.” He offered a weak smile. “And I don’t…want to be alone right now, if it’s all the same to you.” The smile fell away as another a spasm ran through him and his expression twisted in agony.

Thorin hesitated. There was no knowing how much time was left. Bilbo could well die here alone, in the dark, while Thorin wandered the halls. The thought sent a shudder of horror through him. He crouched back down and as carefully as he could manage, he looped his hands beneath the hobbit. “Then I will take you with me.” Thorin rose smoothly to his feet, drawing Bilbo against him. The hobbit was no weight at all in his arms, and he pressed his face against Thorin’s chest as spasms of pain wracked him.

“Remember, you must keep pressure on that wound. Can you manage?” Thorin said, looking over the body of the hobbit in his arms.

Bilbo nodded vaguely, his eyes closing. “And keep your eyes open. I am sorry, Bilbo, but you cannot sleep. You must stay with me.” Bilbo struggled to open his eyes, amd gave a faint nod.

“Good,” Thorin said, and turned to the wall. “Amnârabamâ.”


Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow
Life is very long

Chapter Text

Amnârabamâ.”

The door scraped open, and light flooded the room. It was only then that Thorin recognized where they had been. Carvings marked the outer wall, hidden so as to be near indistinguishable amongst the engraved patterns of the hallway, recognizable themselves only to a native of Erebor. Runes amongst the knotwork marked the location, reading: judgment, trade, and dispute.

Not an armory at all, then, but one of the hidden negotiation rooms of the king. A place where particularly brutal trade disputes could retire to continue in isolation until the matter was resolved. Over time, the trade deals had dried up with all partners except Dale, as the king became increasingly erratic, unwilling to give even a fraction of Erebor’s gold in exchange for goods. The room had fallen into disuse, and had ultimately been cleaned out and forgotten. Thorin remembered that much now, how he had been little more than a child when he passed down this hallway and glanced in askance as servants carried the chairs and tables from the room before it was sealed. He had thought no more of it that day, or any other. Erebor was vast, and he was too young to note the closing of a single meeting room for the trend that it was.

Belatedly too, he realized how long it would have taken him to recall this on his own. He had been so focused on the idea that they must be in an armory that it would have taken him hours, if not days, to retrace his memory back to that time. Even without his wound, Bilbo might not have lasted that long. The thought brought Thorin’s gaze flickering back down to the hobbit. Bilbo had sighed with relief at the opening of the door, but his face was drawn with pain and he bit his lip, burying his face against Thorin’s chest as another shudder wracked him. The muscles of Bilbo’s jaw spasmed, and even with his teeth clenched he could not completely hold back the thin whimpers that escaped his lips with every step.

But there was nothing to be done for it. Slowly, remaining as steady as possible, Thorin began the long trek down the hall towards the treasury. With each step the sound of Bilbo’s breathing seemed to grow louder in his ears, along with the fear that this one would be the last. One hour. Who knew how little was left, or what would come to call when his bargained time ran out?

Already he could feel the transformation breaking down more than just his outer appearance. Keeping a steady pace was made all the more difficult by the shifting of his muscles. He stumbled once, and nearly fell, a product of a weight imbalance that he had not realized existed when they had been within that dark room, where there’d been little cause or distance to move. Bilbo hissed against him, obviously biting back further complaint, and Thorin tried not to think on how his knees felt as if they were changing direction. Another corridor lay before them, laced with arching galleries, and beyond that the treasury. From there it was up the stairs to the hidden door, and then somehow down.

“I never asked… what made you remember?” Bilbo wheezed as they rounded a corner.

“You shouldn’t speak,” Thorin said, sparing Bilbo only a glance before looking forward. “Try to preserve your strength.”

Bilbo’s eyes narrowed and he gave Thorin a queer look that was strangely lucid through the fog of pain. “Thorin, tell me.” 

Thorin’s jaw tightened. “It was nothing in particular. I only recalled that there were rooms other that armories in these corridors.”

“A lucky thing that you remembered then,” Bilbo said.

“Yes,” Thorin murmured. “A lucky thing. We’re almost there. Try to rest.” Light flickered from within the depths of the treasury, and Thorin thought it might only be the glint of the gold until he heard sounds coming from within, and recognized it for torchlight. From inside there came a babble of many voices, familiar even at this distance.

The Company.

Thorin froze, his breath seizing in his throat. The door to the treasury loomed only a few yards away, but it stretched in his vision to miles. If he went in, they would see him. Not just Fíli and Kíli, but Balin and Dwalin, Óin and Glóin, and all the others would know what had happened to him. What he had become.

Or he could leave Bilbo here, call for their help and be gone before they arrived. There was still time to vanish back into the tunnels of Erebor, and none need see him pass. He could still get away. He could—

Bilbo’s fingers brushed against Thorin’s cheek, drawing him out of the chaos of his thoughts. He looked down. The hobbit’s eyes were heavy-lidded and he watched Thorin as if from a great distance. The dark patch of blood had spread, and when Bilbo’s lips moved the sound that emerged was so faint as to be barely louder than a breath.

“What was that?” Thorin said.

“I said,” Bilbo wheezed, “please, stay with me. Until the end.”

Thorin’s heart twisted and he looked, stricken, to the treasury door and the milling shadows beyond. It was same entreaty he had made to Bilbo all those days before, and whether by his own will or dragon-spell, Bilbo had stayed with him. But this was more. This was humiliation, and the fear of their eyes upon him was worse than any agony the curse had so far dealt him.

In the end, it was greed that decided him, and anger, and selfishness. Not greed for gold, but for something far more precious: for the final moments of his life, for a few more minutes in Bilbo’s company. It was anger at the creature for robbing him of that time, and at the curse that made him fear his own family. It was selfishness that he could not bear to tell Bilbo of the bargain, so that he would not have to watch the last hope flicker and die in Bilbo’s eyes like a guttered candle.

Thorin inclined his head, pressing a kiss to Bilbo’s sweat-slicked forehead, and tried not to think that it was their last.

“I will stay,” he whispered against the soft skin of Bilbo’s face. Then he raised his head, squaring his shoulder, and stepped forward into the light.

 

The Company milled about upon the platform where he and Bilbo had spent those few days of wary peace. Dwalin, Balin, Fíli, Kíli, Óin and the rest seemed ill at ease there, looking out onto the sea of gold with mixed expressions of desire and trepidation. Standing like a tree amidst boulders was Gandalf, blocking the stairway down into the hoard. At the sight of a figure entering the treasury they stilled, turning on the spot or peering around Gandalf’s gray robes to stare at the shadow in the doorway.

Thorin felt their eyes upon him like a brand. Saw Dwalin reach for his maul, saw Balin’s dawning expression of horror. Time slowed. Fíli and Kíli forced their way to the front. Stopped. Kíli’s hand strayed to his quiver and hovered there. He looked back to Gandalf, whose expression was drawn and grim. Looked back at Thorin.

“Uncle?”

A low exclamation, tight with shock and confusion, yet it echoed across the cavern, filling the air and Thorin’s ears. He felt as if he were caught in amber, unable to move back or forward. Bilbo’s breathing was ragged against his chest. Thorin felt every inch of his form, thought on how it must appear, and the awareness was like fire spreading across his skin.

And the voice at the back of his mind, that draconic whisper pouring anger into his veins said, Why are they here? Did I not explicitly forbid them to return? The rage simmered, racing along the currents that made his stomach twist and his blood cold.

Yet it is said one may see themselves clearest in the eyes of others, and even the dragon’s defensive wrath could not keep up with the shame that writhed and twisted beneath. He did not begrudge the Company’s drawn weapons. Would that they had acted sooner, would that Kíli had given in to his instincts, and loosed an arrow into the heart of the creature that gripped their burglar in its claws.

Would that they did not recognize him at all.

For the recognition struck deeper than any wound: that he might be thus changed and that there still would be no hesitation in them, no question as to the identity of this monster that intruded upon their halls. He felt skinned and exposed as their eyes widened, caught in that moment’s indecision. Would their faces crumple in disgust, as his own had when he had looked into the silver bowl? How could they not? Or would there be merely stony acknowledgment? Did it come as no surprise to them that the appearance of the one who had banished them upon the wall at last matched his inner heart? That he had become a scaled and grasping thing, one that hungered for gold and slew his own companions to gain it?

“Thorin?” He heard Fili’s voice, and bowed his head, closing his eyes so that he need not see whether it was fear or disgust in his nephew’s eyes. Head down, Thorin forged on, proffering Bilbo before him.

“Master Baggins is injured,” he announced, his deep voice echoing across the room. “Óin, you are needed. The rest of you, clear a space for him. Now!”

Only then, at the sound at the sound of the Company snapping to attention, did he open his eyes again. Gandalf pushed aside Fíli and Kíli with a sweep of his arm, descending the steps with his cloak flapping behind him. The Company piled after, news of their burglar prompting them to immediate action. And how was he to explain from whence this harm had come, when Bilbo’s blood still stained his hand?

“All right, all right, make way,” Óin said, pushing his way through the crowd of dwarves in front of him. “What are we dealing with here?”

“Gut wound,” Thorin said gruffly.

Óin sucked in a breath through his teeth. “I’ll need ye to put him down—gently! We’ll elevate his legs; keep his heart rate low to slow the bleeding. How long ago was he wounded? Do you know the manner of weapon?”

Thorin looked down at the claws that curled around Bilbo’s pale form, the words upon his lips. He was not one to shrink from blame, but in truth he did not know when it had taken place, and though it was by his hand he had no memory of the crime.

“Almost an hour ago, I think,” Bilbo wheezed. “It was…an accident. Nothing to blame but my own foolishness.” He offered a weak grin, and Óin nodded to himself.

“I’ll take a look at it,” Óin said just as Fíli and Kíli came dashing alongside with a bedroll between them. “Good, now put the pack there at the end, that’s where we’ll put his legs. You can put him down now, laddie.”

Thorin blinked at the endearment given so freely, as if nothing had changed, but nodded. He knelt down as smoothly as he could and draped Bilbo over the bedroll so his legs were on the pack at the end. Bilbo winced, his breath coming short and quick, but once flat on his back he let out a soft sigh, and relaxed against the makeshift pillow.

Thorin stood, withdrawing from the growing crowd as the dwarves huddled around Bilbo and Óin shouted at them to fetch his equipment or get out of the way, thank you very much. The door out of the treasury was open and unguarded. There was so little time left, and Thorin might still slip out and be long gone before the creature took him.

A hand closed around his shoulder and Thorin stiffened as he was pulled aside, looking up into the face of Gandalf, shaded by his broad hat.

“It is relief to see you well, Master Oakenshield,” Gandalf remarked, his blue eyes examining Thorin’s face. Thorin brushed the hand aside and stepped away.

“Is that meant as some mockery?” Thorin growled.

Gandalf raised an eyebrow. “Not at all. We’d nearly given you up when there was no word. I’m pleased that Master Baggins managed to find you, and that you are both in one piece.”

Thorin’s lips curled back and he turned away, his gaze inevitably drawn back to the Bilbo’s pale face, and Óin bent over him. They’d carefully removed the coat of mail and the shirt beneath it, which Thorin had not dared to do. His brows drew together at the sight of the dried blood caked around the wound on Bilbo’s stomach. “For a certain value of ‘one piece,’” he muttered.

“You did well, Thorin,” Gandalf said. “There is still hope. For both of you.”

Thorin opened his mouth to reply with just what little hope he saw in this situation, when something flickered at the edge of his vision and a small voice said, “Uncle?” He turned to see Kíli, with Fíli standing at his shoulder, their faces stricken.

“I’m glad to see you well, Kíli,” Thorin said warmly, and it was true. Kíli had been at death’s door, gray with pain, when Thorin last saw him, and Bilbo had spoken of a battle since in which they had both been injured. At the back of his mind he felt the instinct to flee, to retreat into the shadows so he need not see this form reflected in their eyes. He ruthlessly quashed it. A dead man walking, but not a coward, not now. Not in front of them.

“I wish I could say the same,” Kíli said. His eyes were wide as they flickered over Thorin’s form, taking it all in, too stunned to look away. “Uncle, what happened to you?”

“Nothing that concerns you,” Thorin said gruffly, feeling those eyes like a grater across his skin. Guilt rolled through him to be so curt with them, but there was no time. “It will be over soon enough.” Mere minutes left; why did he linger here? He scanned the Company in search of Dwalin. If there were any to whom he could trust this burden, it was his long-time friend and shield-brother. If Bilbo had only listened to him those days before and slain him it would never have come to his, and the hobbit would not be lying half dead.

“No, Thorin, that isn’t good enough,” Fíli said, stepping in front of his brother. “Why didn’t you tell us of this? We could have helped you!”

“There was nothing to be done.” Thorin shot back.

“Actually—” Gandalf began, before Thorin cut him short.

“Smaug infected the gold itself, turned the works and treasures of our people into an instrument of our ruin. Had you come after me then you would only have succumbed as well. Would you have had me watch that? Should my last sight be of my failure, my sister’s sons dead by my side, or worse? I would rather destroy the mountain itself!”

“Thorin—” said Gandalf.

“So we must watch instead?” Fíli said taking another step so he was face to face with Thorin. “And know that you did not trust us to stand by your side? Are you so focused on yourself and your own damned pride that you never thought of what this would do to us?”

“I have thought of nothing else!” Thorin shouted, slashing a hand through the air. Rage threatened to catch alight within him and he bit into his lip, hard, to keep back the tumble of words that threatened to spill forth. He never should have entered this room, he should have left Bilbo and run. He swallowed down the anger as if it were fire, a comparison that hit too close to home, and took a deep breath. He straightened, wishing he dared look Fíli in the eye one last time. “Attend to Bilbo. Forget you saw me here, and tell no one what has transpired.”

Thorin turned then, and knew to expect Fili’s hand when it closed around his arm. He pulled away, not unkindly, and looked back at Fíli. “You will be a worthy king.”

And what of our bargain, Oakenshield?

The dragon’s voice rang in the caverns of Thorin’s mind. It was a wonder none of the others could hear it; he could all but see its shadow looming before him as he turned towards the door of the treasury. So little time. Never was he one to break his word but he thought, all things considered, that oath-breaker would be the least of the titles he would wear with infamy if he allowed a dragon back into these halls.

“Thorin, where are you going?” Kíli called after him.

Indeed, where are you going, son of Thráin? We had a deal, and you have nowhere to hide.

Thorin gritted his teeth, staring at the ground as he strode to the door. He remembered a sword flashing silver, end over end into darkness. He might still make it in time. If not death, at least he could cast himself to the rocks, and let the dragon see what it could do with a broken body!

“If you would only listen to me, Thorin,” Gandalf said, exasperated, and reached once more for him. The sound had returned, that distant rushing noise, and Thorin went to smack Gandalf’s hand away. Fool, there were only minutes left to find somewhere high enough-- the pits above the mines, perhaps-- if not that he might snatch up one of the blades that hung at the side of his companions and put an end to the creature before it arrived.

Yet Gandalf’s hand caught and held and with impossible strength, turning Thorin around. “Thorin, I swear by all that is good on this earth—” Gandalf stopped, his blue eyes widening, and he drew back, though his grip did not ease. “What have you done?”

Thorin tried to pull away but the grip would not lessen and he glared up at Gandalf, prepared to demand his release.

Then he felt it.

Time is up, O King.

Thorin’s back seized, going rigid, and his mouth twisted in a silent cry as a sensation like a fiery brand plunged into his shoulder blades, wracking him, and he fell to his knees, supported only by Gandalf’s hold on his wrist. His thoughts blanked save for the rushing sound that was no longer like that of a storm but of an avalanche, walls of stone being torn asunder within his mind.

“Everybody back!” Gandalf shouted over his shoulder.

“You can’t expect me to move the burglar!” Óin yelled back.

Gandalf cast a frantic look back and then down at Thorin, crouching down to one knee as he grabbed Thorin by the shoulders. “Thorin, can you hear me?” he asked. Thorin’s eyelids fluttered.

Then he screamed as another massive shudder wracked him. A wet, tearing sound came from his back and his head fell forward. He would have fallen to the ground if not for that grip. A grip that was pinning him down, forcing him into submission and he looked up, eyes blazing with hatred at Gandalf. His stomach churn at the rage that shot through his heart like fire. “Get away from me,” he snarled.

“Dori, Dwalin,” Gandalf barked, “Hold him!”

They must have snuck up from behind him, because he did not see when they tackled him and their arms closed around his. Dwalin drew alongside Thorin, cheek by jowl, pressing his right arm to his body. Dori twisted the left arm behind Thorin’s back, seeming wary of coming too close to his face.

“Mahal have mercy, he has claws!” Dori exclaimed from behind him. Dwalin only grunted, giving Thorin a look as if daring him to try to throw him off. “Mister Gandalf, what is this witchcraft?”

“The dragon sickness, Master Dori, which I thought at this point should be obvious,” Gandalf said grimly.

“Well, forgive me for saying so, but this has all gotten a bit too literal for my taste! Is it contagious?” said Dori.

“It was, but no longer. The gold needed to be cleansed before you could enter. Otherwise, as Thorin said, Fíli, Kíli and all the rest of you could well have been its next victims,” Gandalf said, crouching down before Thorin and studying his face.

“Then why not banish it from Thorin too?” Dwalin said.

“Because it has taken root in his heart, Mister Dwalin, and what’s worse, he has allowed it in. What could have possessed you to do something so foolish?” Gandalf said, directing the last to Thorin.

But their voices seemed far away, as if spoken through water, and even through the shimmering air that distorted everything, Thorin only saw that Bilbo’s face was stricken. Óin hunched over him and the hobbit’s eyes were open, his gaze turned towards Thorin. His face was stricken, not from pain, but from the sight before him. The combined weight of Dori and Dwalin on Thorin’s back grew lighter by the second, and he knew it was not that they were releasing him. His muscles and bones were breaking, reforming to give him new strength, and the distant laughter of the dragon drew closer.

Gandalf still spoke before him, but the words were blown apart and away by the hurricane of noise. Dwalin and Dori cried out, and the rest of the Company looked on in alarm, drawing their weapons. All eyes were upon him, all knew. There was no escape.

A strange peace descended upon Thorin then, and silence settled over his mind.  The Company would do what must be done. There would no longer be a monster in the halls of his home. In that, at least, he had succeeded, and there was some contentment in that.

It was coming. Breaking down the walls of his mind, rushing over his own thoughts so he stood as if on a shrinking island within himself. In moments it would overcome him, and when it did, the creature would have him mind and body. There was nothing more he could do, nothing more to be done, and the Company’s weapons would flash and sing as they completed their quest.

So perhaps there was some blessing in it, that he might choose what he looked upon in his final moments. The image he took with him into the dark. He looked first to his nephews, remembering the first time he held them, and known the line of Durin was secure. Or so he had stated aloud, but in his heart he had been awestruck by smaller matters: by their tiny, perfect hands, the infant softness of their skin. Fíli would be a good king, with Kíli at his side as Thorin never had with Frerin. He nodded to them, each in turn a farewell and Kíli’s hand fell from his quiver and Fili’s from the hilt of his sword as their faces grew pale.

Last, he looked to Bilbo. He wished he could apologize for all of it, for bringing him on this journey, the insults and mistrust. For not making better use of the time given to them. Bilbo must have read some of it in Thorin’s expression, for he struggled to rise, propping himself up despite the obvious spike of pain that twisted his features. Thorin wished he could put Bilbo at his ease, tell him to lie back and heal so that he may return to his home and walk its peaceful fields. He wished he could tell Bilbo how he had been right all this time when he valued food and cheer above hoarded gold. He wished he could tell him one more time that he loved him. A sad world it was that he could only glimpse this now, and with it the possibility of a merrier future they might have had together. But sad or merry, he left it now.

Thorin closed his eyes then as the storm broke over him and consumed him.

 


 

Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom 

Chapter Text

Pain radiated from the wound, and even the slightest movement was enough to send agony shooting from it like lighting. It cut Bilbo’s breath short, and made him feel cold and hot all at once. His hands were numb; he had barely been able to feel the cloth Thorin had shoved into his hand to block the wound, let alone hold it over the spot. Óin removing his shirt and mail had been a torture all of its own, and he had all but blacked out as his arms were brought above his head and the mithril armor slipped over and free, pooling onto the ground beside him.

Óin grumbled to himself as he worked, and whether he was doing so in Westron or Khuzdûl, Bilbo could not say. It was all so distant, as the elderly dwarf washed the wound and spread over it some cream that cooled it, assuring Bilbo that it would help in preventing infection. He then wrapped bandages tight around the wound to stop the bleeding. All the while Bilbo clung to consciousness, drifting in and out.

A commotion brought Bilbo back from the edge. Gandalf was crouched in front of Thorin, speaking in hushed tones, but the dwarf king would not meet his eye. He stood illuminated and exposed for all to see, the changes to his body that had been invisible in the darkened room now outlined by shadow and torchlight. Ridges ran along Thorin’s arms, and his form was broader, stronger, but hunched forward, as if there was a millstone around his neck dragging him down from two legs to four. Spines ran the length of his back, and the claws had lengthened, making his hands appear longer. Fully half his beard was missing, though it was difficult to make out the loss against the dark scales beneath, their color matching his beard. The silver streaks at his temples stood out in sharp relief, and the fell glow of his eyes was aimed downward as he listened to the wizard. His taloned feet were angled towards the door as if he were seeking the earliest escape.

Even the act of lifting his head sent a whirl of nausea through Bilbo, and he settled back against the makeshift pillow. He felt battered within an inch of his life; even without the wound in his stomach, the recent days had not been kind. He had spent a week sleeping on hard stone, half of that time without a bedroll, the rest either leaning against the throne or the cold walls of the darkened room. That alone was enough to make any hobbit dream of feather mattresses, but there were also his back and throat, which were a mess of bruises from being tossed across the room, then slammed against the wall by that creature that had so pbriefly worn Thorin’s skin. He wanted to rest, and it seemed an excellent time to do so, with Gandalf and Thorin finally speaking and the end of the ordeal so near. He closed his eyes, quite prepared to drift then and there into well-deserved slumber.

A scream jerked him awake, ragged, despairing, and achingly familiar. He started at the sound of it, prompting a spasm of agony through his stomach. Óin muttered above him at the disruption, and pressed a gnarled hand to Bilbo’s shoulder to hold him steady, but Bilbo paid him no mind. His heart was in his throat as he turned to the sight of Dwalin and Dori seizing Thorin by the arms, pinning them to his body. Thorin doubled over, agony twisting his expression, his teeth bared and his eyes wild.

Another blood curdling scream tore the air and Thorin stumbled, his legs snapping beneath him, and he would have fallen if he were not held. It was impossible, Bilbo thought, the changes had never happened so fast. Yet before his eyes Thorin’s back began to boil, and Bilbo’s gorge rose as the flesh bulged and shifted as if something living moved beneath the skin. Gandalf shouted to Dwalin and Dori, but whatever he said was lost to Bilbo as he stared, his heart hammering in his chest, and the wound pulsing in his side. Thorin’s body was growing, his clothing strained, and the dwarves that held him were no longer strong enough to pin him down. All the Company stared, too shocked or terror-stricken to move.

Then, as abruptly as it had begun, the noise cut short and silence blanketed the room. Thorin looked up, and though his flesh still bulged and twisted. Calm had settled over his features, and his eyes were unutterably tired as he scanned the room, until he found his nephews. At the sight of them that gaze filled with equal parts terrible sorrow and terrible love and Fíli and Kíli stared back, transfixed. Something passed between them then, and it was as clear as if it were spoken aloud that it was a farewell. The brothers’ faces went pale at the sight.

Thorin then turned to Bilbo, and it seemed for a moment that the witchlight glow of his eyes dimmed. His expression softened, became wistful, and Bilbo struggled upright, propping himself up on his elbows. For a moment that felt like an eternity they looked on one another, and Bilbo thought he saw in that gaze all that had passed between them, and all that that had been said, and all that had not. There was love in Thorin’s eyes, and there was acceptance. A cry rose in Bilbo’s throat at the sight of it, the need to bid Thorin to fight, to not give in, not when they were so close!

But Thorin only smiled, one last time, and closed his eyes.

There was a rushing sound, like that of the subterranean wind, and the room darkened. Shadows like wings shook the air. Something warm pressed against Bilbo’s side, not where he had been stabbed, but rather from his pocket. He put his hand down by instinct to feel his ring hot against the fabric, burning like a brand.

“Everyone back!” Gandalf shouted. Dwalin and Dori gave him equally puzzled glances and looked down.

Smoke was pouring off Thorin’s skin, seeping from between the cracks in the scales in a black miasma. A noise came from the depths of his body, a roar that shook the room, belying his size. Thorin collapsed entirely, his hair falling around him like a veil, and a red glow pulsed beneath the skin of his throat. Then fire exploded over the floor in a boiling plume, and with shouts of alarm Dwalin and Dori threw themselves backward, falling hard and coming up again with weapons in hand.

“No don’t!” Bilbo cried, though he need not have done so, for the dwarves had frozen, exchanging helpless glances with one another. All had their weapons drawn, yet none seemed willing to make the first move.

“Lie back, laddie, I’ll get you out of here,” Óin said, pressing his hand to Bilbo’s shoulder to ease him down.

“No, let me up, someone has to help him!” Bilbo said, batting Óin’s hand away, when another spasm of pain roiled through him and the fresh bandages on his stomach blossomed red.

“The wizard will handle it, or Dwalin will see that he ends his life with dignity. One way or the other, there’s naught you can do but get yourself killed!” Óin said. Across the room the smoke thickened and parted by turns, showing flashes of a form caught in a transformation so swift and agonizing that bile rose in Bilbo’s throat just to look upon it. Hands that were no longer anything of the sort emerged from the smoke and struck the ground, as all pretense of a two-legged form melted in a chaos of breaking bone and boiling flesh, the limbs snapping and elongating, the flesh bulging obscenely. He turned back desperately to the wizard.

“Gandalf, please!” Bilbo shouted and the wizard turned from where he had been trying to shield the other dwarves, and back to the transformation taking place before him.

“Thorin, there is nothing I can do if you do not wish to stop this. It’s not possession if this creature grows within you by your own will!” Gandalf shouted.

Deep, horrible laughter came from within the smoke, and Thorin looked up, eyes burning with inner fire, half his face twisted and elongated into a reptilian muzzle. It should not have been possible for so twisted a form to speak, but speak it did. Thorin’s own voice was overlaid with the alien tones of the creature Bilbo had heard in that darkened room.

“And who says that is his wish, Tharkûn?” the voice rumbled, revealing teeth like daggers as it spoke. The head itself stretched, the neck lengthening wherever the smoke passed. On its back sprouted two dripping protrusions, little more than stubs, that quivered and flexed with the promise of wings. “Or that you could grant it, even if it were?”

“Because I have been reliably informed that Thorin Oakenshield would sooner perish than allow a dragon once more into these halls,” Gandalf said, sparing Bilbo a glance. Meanwhile the dwarves drew back, forming a loose ring around the face-off between Gandalf and the dragon. Fíli and Kíli brushed against and nearly tripped over Bilbo’s bedroll as they retreated.

“Fíli, Kíli, help me get the burglar away from here,” Óin called.

“No,” Bilbo protested, his breath hitching. “Wait—yes! Help me up, I need to get to Thorin!”

“Lad, I’d be no healer if I let you do that,” Óin said. “There’s naught but bandages holding you together right now.”

“Gandalf will save him, you’ll see,” Kíli said, bending and offering a hand to Bilbo. Bilbo shook his head and did not accept.

“He can’t. Thorin no longer trusts him and…” Bilbo wheezed, each word sending fire through the wound. “He's trying to die.”

What?” Fíli exclaimed, eyes widening.

“Thorin,” Bilbo lay back, struggling for breath as he spoke, “asked me to kill him. Before. So that you two wouldn’t see.” Fíli and Kíli took his words as if they were a blow, exchanging horrified looks.

“But you didn’t,” Kíli said, turning back. “And he’s still alive, so you must have convinced him. Can you help him, Bilbo?”

“I don’t know,” Bilbo said through gritted teeth, extending his hand. “Help me to my feet, and I will try.”

It was immediately clear what a terrible idea it was as the brothers hauled him up. The world spun and every movement of his body sent numbing shocks of pain through him. Passing out would have been a blessing, and indeed his vision darkened at the corners. Beside him, Fíli waved back Óin’s protests, while before him smoke roiled, and a creature all too familiar emerged from where Thorin had once stood. The dragon's blue eyes locked on Bilbo, and he thought he saw something of Thorin in them, despite the grotesque transformation. A flash of deepest anguish.

Then it was gone.

Bilbo pushed forward, bare feet dragging on the stone floor as he brought himself to Gandalf, Fíli and Kíli helping him remain upright. Already the dragon had grown to the size of a horse, and all that was soft and familiar of Thorin had burnt away. The last of the clothing he had worn had split and shredded, falling in tatters to the floor, and whether by the thickening of the scales or the fire beneath the creature’s skin, what remained of his hair had burnt up too, leaving only the reptilian curve of a dragon’s skull. The spikes upon its head had sprouted to a thorny crown, and the great mouth split its face and stretched to reveal its teeth. It looked at Bilbo, and he saw the same shift of muscles from before, when Thorin’s face had been worn by another creature, only now that awful leer was at home on the face of the monster that existed beneath.

“Hail, burglar,” the dragon purred as he approached. “Still clinging to life?”

“Indeed. I must compliment you on your aim,” Bilbo remarked, aiming for nonchalance he did not feel. “A few inches higher and you would have killed me.”

Irritation passed over dragon features that were quickly smoothed as it took on an expression of cunning. “Who says I missed? The stench of the grave is upon you, Halfling.”

A chill passed through Bilbo. It lied, obviously, as was the way of dragons, or so he tried to tell himself. But his limbs were growing numb from the wound, and he did not dare look down at the stained bandages wrapped about his midriff. If he did there was a fair certainty that he would be sick, or faint dead away. Bilbo plastered on a smile that felt like a grimace, a cold sweat gathering on his forehead, and hoped it looked suitably mocking. “Regardless, you did prove my point.”

“And what would that be?” The dragon’s flashed its teeth in what might have also been a smile.

“Bilbo, this may not be the best time to make Uncle angry,” Kíli hissed into his ear. Bilbo batted him away and took another, admittedly shaky, step forward.

“I told you Thorin wouldn’t let you kill me, and I was right,” Bilbo said. “Which means that even when you’re there, being thoroughly horrible I might add, he still has some control.”

“Had,” the dragon snapped. “I can assure you there will be no further flights of sentimentality. A voice you called me, yet here I am despite your efforts, and he only a shrinking whisper.”

“But not yet gone,” Bilbo said. “Not so much as you’d like, which is a good thing for you. Otherwise you'd already be dead.” The dragon’s tail lashed like a cat’s, even as it grew and lengthened before Bilbo’s eyes. The transformation was not yet complete; smoke still streamed from what had once been Thorin’s body like a dying campfire.

“You’re surrounded. And if you think any of this lot will follow a dragon." Bilbo said with a skeptical half-smirk and a nod towards the Company."Then I’m afraid you’ve got another thing coming." The dwarves still had their weapons were still out, and at Bilbo’s words they looked to them as if surprised to find themselves holding them. The dragon’s eyes widened and Bilbo had to bite his tongue to hold back an exasperated sigh. “You really don’t think things through, do you?”

“The dwarves of Erebor will follow their king,” the dragon growled.

“Will they?” Bilbo said in a tone of pleasant surprise. “Well, good luck convincing them of that. I think all they will see is another slug that must be removed before they can retake their home. Why on earth would they have anything to do with you?” The dragon’s head swiveled, its pupils narrowing to slits as it took in the dwarves. “What do you think, Fíli?” Bilbo said with a sidelong glance.

Fíli started in surprise at being called upon, but then his expression became grim. “Thorin would never stand for it.”

“They will not kill their own kin,” the dragon shot back, but its smugness was giving way to uncertainty.

“But according to you, Thorin’s good as dead anyway. It would be a mercy, I think.” Bilbo’s expression hardened. “And young dragons are not so difficult to kill.”

“Oh?” the dragon growled. Golden fire flashed along its throat as its chest expanded. The stubs of wings on its back, still only a skeletal outline covered in black skin so thin the veins visibly pulsed beneath the flesh, unfolded and flapped pitifully. It drew back its head.

--And choked. The dragon sputtered and coughed, and a tiny puff of smoke steamed out from beneath its teeth. It released a great whuff of breath and the glow died. Giddiness rolled through Bilbo, carrying more than a little hysteria because there was simply no way he would have been able to move, and to end as nothing more than a pile of ash was hardly the footnote he wanted for his role in this whole sorry business. Predictably, the Tookish side of him was riding high on the sort of exhilaration that only came from being shot at and missed.

“Let us speak to Thorin,” he demanded, feeling a heady sort of recklessness that might have been bravery but which, if he were honest, was more likely blood loss. “You are right, we’d rather not kill one of our own. Let us see if he can convince us.”

“You say that as if we were separate,” the dragon hissed. “I am inside his mind now, and he in mine. We are one, burglar. I know his every thought of rage and lust towards you. His secrets are written in blazing letters across the sky, his every weakness stripped bare.”

“That is a pity,” Bilbo said, and turned to Kíli, pointedly ignoring the reference to lust, for now was really not the time. “Kíli, your bow please? I would not make you do this, and Thorin did ask me after all.”

Kíli stared. “Bilbo, what are you doing?” he hissed. “Do you even know how to shoot?”

“Not really, but I don’t think it knows that,” Bilbo said under his breath. The dragon was eying him, craning its head to make out their conversation, its nostrils flaring in frustration. “Just give me the bow.” Kíli stared, then nodded, reaching back over his shoulder for an arrow and handing him the bow. Bilbo turned back, bow in one hand, an arrow in the other, not yet notched.

He remembered what Gandalf had said of the cure, how it would require that Thorin remember himself, a condition that Bilbo bitterly reflected had been a simple matter not five minutes before. He did not know if Thorin was still in there, or if he had been... burnt up. Consumed. His throat closed at the thought. But if there was hope, even a scrap of it, then he certainly did not trust this creature to tell the truth. If Thorin was still in there, Bilbo would have to goad the dragon into letting him out, and he doubted that such a brutal, stupid creature as this would understand any other language than that of violence.

“I will ask you one more time,” Bilbo said. “Let us speak to Thorin, and perhaps we can work out an accord. Your presence does not have to mean his death, whatever he might believe, and for my part I would rather have him alive no matter the form.” He could not stop the slight quaver in his voice. 

The dragon looked about, first to Bilbo, then to the dwarves, then to the door out of the mountain, though it was already too large to pass through it easily. “It's that or I shoot. Even if you burn me first, it will only serve as a signal to the others.” He nodded to Dwalin, who stood with his great maul in hand. Dwalin raised an eyebrow at Bilbo and hefted the maul experimentally, giving the dragon an appraising look. Bilbo could well have cheered right then were the whole situation not so deadly serious, for no other reason than it felt like the first time any of them had picked up a hint that wasn’t accompanied by a swift kick. Perhaps there was hope for Erebor yet.

Bilbo notched the arrow, hoping to hide his own clumsiness in doing so, but the shaft jumped and clattered against the side of the bow, for his hands shook with cold and he could not still them. “You are right about one thing,” Bilbo said. “A dragon would be useful in the defense of Erebor. If we could trust him.” He eyed the creature: its wings were larger now, but not yet fully formed, and it had abandoned all pretense of an upright form, crouching heavily on all fours. A wave of nausea rolled through Bilbo, his whole body cold, his extremities numb and the pain a distant pounding from the wound in his gut, but he stood firm.

“It is already too late for him,” the dragon hissed. “And he knows it.”

“Let us be the judge of that,” Bilbo said.

 


For Thine is
Life is
For Thine is the

 

 

Chapter Text

A torrent of images crashed over Thorin like a wave, and like a wave they caught him up, dragged him under, tossed and overwhelmed him. Where stood the ground or sky, whether he slept or woke, or even if his eyes were open, was lost in a chaos of colors and memories. He stood upon the wall and Bilbo twisted in his grasp, his face pale as he looked wide-eyed to the rocks below. Satisfaction swirled through Thorin to see the hobbit experience even a tenth of his pain at seeing the Arkenstone in the hands of his enemy. He could smell the wool of Bilbo’s coat, the dirt of the road, and the sharp tang of the winter wind as it carved the side of the mountain. I will throw you to the rocks, he hissed, and oh, how he wanted to. His fingers dug into Bilbo’s shoulder and he could all but taste his terror. To kiss or kill him, the desires warred within him and he leaned in…

But this was wrong. It had not happened like this, with lust and rage as equal fires within him.

He blinked, and Bilbo was gone, as surely as if he had put on that magic ring of his, and Thranduil sat before him on the great throne of antlers in the caverns of Mirkwood. The old familiar hatred burned as a fire in Thorin’s stomach, and when he spoke there were no words. Instead, flames washed over the room, licking at the wood and turning the roots of the trees that entwined above their heads to ash. The kingdom vanished from sight behind a wall of glowing red, until there was nothing left but gray ash that opened to a ruined forest.

Yet when the smoke cleared it was not Mirkwood that burned but Erebor, its statues blackened by soot, the walls torn down by the passage of Smaug. It was his people that died in droves, clawing for breath behind locked doors too inconspicuous to interest the dragon. No escape. No help ever to come as their brethren fled across the desolation, abandoning those left behind to their fate. And then it was not the dwarves of Erebor he saw, but the filthy pits of Angband and the huddled Petty-dwarves that awaited their fate, clawing for their children as orcs swept them up and delivered them to the Enemy, to be broken and twisted into creatures of fire and shadow.

Thorin’s vision tilted and he saw through the eyes of those who had been changed, roaming halls of stone on all fours, then he was stalking Erebor in Smaug’s place. The bodies of the dwarves crumbled to bone and dust with the passing of the ages. He slept upon the piles of gold, growing fat and powerful amongst their radiance, soon overtaking Smaug in size and strength. The beat of his wings could crumble walls, his teeth could bite through steel, and the fire of his breath left trails of molten stone in its wake. No force would stand before him. None dared.

Years passed, then decades in the blink of an eye. The dragon grew and the dwarf within shrank. That he’d had a brother and sister, or nephews, became a distant memory, their names beyond recall. Whether he’d had a father he knew not. Old he was, or so he thought, as old as the mountain itself where he had always dwelled. That another dragon came before him faded too into no more than a flash of red, and a memory of hatred, lost as the years marched on and he lounged amongst gold and dust.

Until one day, a fell voice on the air called to him. It spoke of war, and gold, and great armies marching upon a white city. It sang out a challenge, bidding him join the battle and raze the cities of Men and Elves. To rain fire from the sky. In return it promised dominion over all the West, serving only a single, watchful eye. All the gold of the world will be yours. You have been reborn for this purpose, it whispered. Now join us.

Like fire itself he erupted from the mountain, winging his way south to the fields of war. The ground below him turned gray with desolation, the beat of his wings a plague, the fire of his breath a meteor. Against him the white city stood no chance. The stone cracked and crumbled from the heat of his breath, while the Men left only the flash of their shadows upon the wall. Mirkwood followed, then Rivendell, for the worm of dread had joined the fight, and ever so his foes would fall.

The West fell to ruin, for who could stand against the combined might of a dragon and of his Master? Together they laid waste, until only one prize remained for the taking. Its absence was a thorn in the side of his Master. The one who kept it was a stinging gnat from the depths of his own memory.

 

In a green land, east of the Sea and west of the Misty Mountains, there was a green door atop a green hill. Like the shadow of death itself he flew, to this place he knew though he could not recall why. The beat of his wings buffeted the land as he hovered in the air above.

Here must the final battle be fought. Here he would snuff out his enemy, fetching back the precious treasure that belonged to his Master. He dove, lengthening his body as he swept downward, and fire built in his throat. He would erase this Shire from the land, leave it as nothing more than ash, and from that ash he would pull the glowing treasure, destroying anything that remained. Like an arrow, straight and true he fell, and landed—

“Let us be the judge.”

On two legs. Thorin stood before the door of Bilbo’s home, his hand upraised to knock. A hand of flesh, ruddy and callused from sword and hammer, bound with leather vambraces instead of scales. He looked from his hand to the polished wood of the green door. Light shone through the window, and from within came the sound of laughter.

Thorin remembered this night, when he waited at the door while the Company sang and made merry without him. He had not wanted to interrupt, for Durin knew there would be little cheer upon the road, and there was no doubt of the effect the presence of their leader would have on the Company. Even worse, he had come empty handed, with no aid to offer from the meeting of their kin.

His arrival would mean the start of business, and an ill start at that. He would have no choice but to set the solemn tone of this venture. To Dwalin he must be a commander and shield-brother, to Balin and the others a liege, to Fíli and Kíli a figure of discipline. In the coming weeks he would have to prepare them to take up the quest and leave the last of their childhoods behind should he fall. Either way, there would be little cause for merriment upon the road.

So he waited while they sang, one of many shadows that haunted the hills of the Shire. Inside the fire crackled, and the smell of food wafted through open windows, while he stood alone and in silence.

The door opened.

Thorin blinked as light bathed his face, unbidden and unexpected. It had not happened like this on that night. The green door creaked on its hinges and warmth flooded the doorstep, washing over him.

Bilbo stood in the doorway. The light was golden in his hair, his shirt was clean and white, and his face unlined by care. Yet he knew Thorin as he looked upon him, as he could not have that night, and there was love in the smile that lit his face. Love and welcome, from this one to whom Thorin had owed nothing, who owed him nothing, but who had come nonetheless, and braved the road by his side, staying with him through dragon sickness and terrible wounds. Shame swept Thorin in that moment to have taken so much, and given so little in return.

But Bilbo huffed a laugh and shook his head, as if he could hear every word in Thorin’s mind. He reached out his hand.

“Come in, everyone is waiting,” Bilbo said, beckoning. Thorin hesitated, looking at the hand, and within. He remembered his own solemn presence, how he could bring nothing but sternness and grief to the merry Company.

Bilbo sighed and seized Thorin’s wrist. His touch was soft as he pulled Thorin inward and Thorin started, his eyes widening as he was lead into Bilbo’s home, and at the welcoming smiles that lit on the faces of the Company at the sight of him.

The door closed behind them with a click.


Thorin opened his eyes, and thought that this must be what it was like to die, and to return. He felt bereft and oddly lost as the real world swam back into focus, and the warm hearth and golden light of Bag End was replaced by the stone arches of Erebor, cold and dark, a living home beneath the ground exchanged for a dead one. He felt a tug of longing to return, to go back to that night of unwitting innocence, when all had seemed so clear and certain. Now his head pounded, and his body ached like that of a drowning man pulled too quickly from the depths.

Only one part of the vision remained: Bilbo stood before him, but where his face had been bright, now it was drawn and gray with pain. His shirt and armor were gone, and there were bandages wrapped tight around his stomach. Bloodstains, red at their heart and shading to brown at the edges soaked the fabric, and he visibly shook with the effort of remaining upright. There was a bow in his hand, the arrow notched inexpertly, pointed at the ground. Fíli and Kíli flanked him, their hands hovering at his shoulders lest he collapse.

Thorin frowned. Or he would have, but the muscles of his face were stiff and strange, and he shook his head against a rush of vertigo. He was high above the ground, somehow, looking down on Bilbo as if he were mounted on a horse. He sat back, pressing a hand to his face to clear the haze in his mind. The dream was still with him as strong as reality, and he could all but feel the warmth of Bilbo’s hearth, and hear the laughter of the Company.

They were not laughing now. They surrounded him, weapons drawn, their faces strained and grim. Anxious.

Then he saw.

The world tilted and a chill of horror gripped through him. Had he ever been a dwarf? If so, there was no sign of it now. Thorin craned his neck, and would have gagged as it turned completely around, long and sinuous as a snake, to take in his own bloated form. The stub of wings beat pathetically on his back, the skin stretched tight over emerging bones that flexed and trembled as they grew. Beyond, a tail stretched across the ground, as long again as the gruesome body itself. He was not sitting as he had thought, but settled back onto his haunches like a beast. Only one gap remained in the scales that covered his body, a patch above his heart where the flesh was gray and pasty as the underbelly of a frog. A membrane that would soon complete the wings stretched from his back and joined along his arms, ending at the sharpened talons. Only his face, or what remained of it, he could not see but with one taloned hand he felt the elongated snout, the ridges that sharpened to a crown of spikes across his forehead.

Thorin looked up, staring wildly at the Company and at the gold behind him. All eyes were upon him, yet none had attacked? Why did they wait? Fíli and Kíli watched, and none of the rest had the mercy to strike him down?

A dragon upon the gold. The end of a long road to ruin, and for all the horror that festered within him, he could not find it in himself to reject it, even as a wave of self-loathing stole the strength from his limbs. The vision returned to him full force, of the monster that he had become rising up at the behest of a nameless evil, to rain fire down upon the Shire and the white city. He felt once more the fierce joy that had burned within him at the destruction of Mirkwood, and at the treasure that was added to his hoard with each conquest. Not a new sensation, not the imposed will of the creature, but a thrill he knew too well from within himself: the rush of victory, of gold, of rising in might to crush his enemies.

All within him, only now given its truest form, his skin reflecting what which was within his heart. What would he have thought, to see himself thus all those months ago at Bag End? The memory was so fresh in his mind that the answer came quickly: hatred, loathing, and disgust. How could the Company not feel the same? Why were they so still? Or were they only paralyzed by the sight of him?

He looked down to the hobbit before him. Bilbo was still, waiting for something, and Thorin’s expression twisted in anguish that must have been a horror to behold. “Why didn’t you kill me?”

The bow and arrow clattered to the ground. Fíli and Kíli cried out in alarm as Bilbo broke free of their grasp, and in a few steps stood directly before Thorin. The hobbit looked up at the dragon that loomed before him, an unreadable expression on his face, and Thorin flinched as he waited for that expression to crumble into one of disgust.

Bilbo surged forward, and threw his arms around Thorin’s neck.

“You stupid, stubborn… idiot! Of course we didn’t kill you, you great lummox!” Bilbo cried. “Though I may be severely tempted to clout you over the ear if you don’t put an end to this death wish of yours!”

Thorin froze, then craned his neck around so he may better see the hobbit, who was on tiptoes with his arms wrapped around the base of Thorin’s neck, the lowest and narrowest point of his grossly misshapen body. Bilbo pressed his face to the scales, and Thorin felt him tremble as he whispered against them, “How dare you, Thorin Oakenshield? You quite frightened the life out of me with that little stunt just now! I think you owe all of us an apology!”

“I’m sorry,” Thorin said automatically, and a bit stupidly. He blinked at his own words, feeling numb and rather out of his depth as he stared down at the hobbit who was even now hugging him without any sign of disgust. As caught up in surprise as he was, his brain did not have time to catch up to the ache in his heart as he ran the back of his hand tentatively down Bilbo’s back to soothe him. The claws were well away, but he still shuddered at the sight of this form touching Bilbo’s skin. Bilbo seemed not to mind at all, indeed he sighed and pulled Thorin tighter against him. There was a shuffling from amongst the Company, and it struck Thorin with a considerable twinge of embarrassment the manner in which they learned of the closeness that had sprung up between him and Bilbo.

“Yes, well, you should be,” Bilbo sniffled, pulling an arm free to scrub the back of his hand over his eyes. Then he looked over his shoulder at Gandalf. “Well. I think we’ve waited quite long enough. Gandalf, tell him.”

Gandalf took a step forward, planting his staff as he came to stand before Thorin. Thorin started, his eyes narrowing, his neck twisting to shield Bilbo as he brought his head down to glare at the wizard. Gandalf raised an eyebrow, but seemed otherwise unperturbed by the sight. “As I have been trying to tell you for quite some time now, Thorin: the curse upon the gold is gone, and all that remains of Smaug’s vengeance is that which you carry in your heart. Will you release it?”

“You speak as if it were that simple,” Thorin snapped. “How do I know you will not simply replace one witchcraft with another?”

“No witchcraft,” Gandalf said. “Quite the opposite, in fact. Tell me, in all the time you have spent under this affliction, have you ever once wished to be free of it?”

“And what would it matter if I did?” Thorin said. “It would not have changed anything.” From the first moment he had discovered the curse, he had known that he was doomed, whatever his own desires on the matter may be. What good would it have done to wish otherwise?

“On the contrary, our wishes carry a great deal of power, else we would not be cautioned to have a care with them,” Gandalf said. “For example, your wish to reclaim Erebor brought you and the Company all the way here from Ered Luin, across innumerable dangers, and led to the defeat of one of the greatest calamities of this Age.”

“It is not the same,” Thorin said.

“And why not?” Gandalf said, leaning against his staff. His tone was conversational, gentle even, as if they merely discussed the details of the road. As if Thorin had not taken the form of the very calamity he had set out to defeat. “Why is it that you can accept that you have come so far, accomplished so much through such a supreme effort of will, but you cannot acknowledge that there may be hope at the end of this road?”

“Again I say to you, it is not the same,” Thorin said, his voice dropping to a growl. He felt trapped by the wizard’s gaze and would have backed away if not for Bilbo’s arms around him. Gandalf did not budge, and seemed to be waiting for more, those eyes of his piercing and demanding. “That we are here now was at least within the realm of possibility, and even then I did not achieve it alone.”

“And you are not alone now,” Gandalf said, and Thorin winced.

“What do you wish me to say?” he shot back. How could he hope to explain it now, when the Company surrounded them? How could he admit that the quest had nearly ended in ruin because of him, that he had brought them nothing more than greater danger? Azog and his orcs, the burning of Laketown… Even the dragon he had set out to defeat had been killed by another while he was helpless within the mountain. The very battle for Erebor’s fate had been decided while he lay insensate! He might wish for a thousand different outcomes, but his doom was certain, and what hope had he to throw off a curse that had haunted his line for thousands of years? “This sickness is beyond any of us, Gandalf. Let it end here, now. If my life is the price, then it is a small one.”

“On the contrary,” Gandalf said. “It is a price that is much too high. To throw away a single life on a crime that was not committed is a waste beyond measure. And there are many here who would keenly feel your loss.”

“Erebor no longer needs me,” Thorin protested.

“Erebor does not need anything,” Gandalf said. “Erebor does not exist, except in the minds of the dwarves who believe in it. Nor does it lay in the mountain, or in the treasure. Your people have carried Erebor in their hearts for over a century, as have you. And regardless of how it is defined, you have already given more than any could ask. You have accomplished what you have set out to do, and regained the homeland of your people.”

“Then what more is there to do?” Thorin exclaimed before he could bite the words back. “And why should I, who have only brought ruin to them, be allowed any part of it?”

“The more topical question is do you wish to be a part of it?” Gandalf said. “There is a great deal that can be done to make Erebor strong again, but it need not be your responsibility. You may instead seek a new path, though many have found that to be a far more terrifying and dangerous road than any you have ever walked. Yet you are not alone in it. Even now you are surrounded by those who wish to travel it with you, if you will have them.”

Thorin recoiled, and looked about, to the dwarves that had gathered around him, and the hobbit that held him, and a shiver ran through him. He felt as if something broke within him, like a crack that races through the great shelves of ice that enclosed the mountain when spring came. He saw afresh the gathered Company, not as intruders come to gawk at his ruin, or executioners there to secure the future of their home. Wariness gave way to shame as his own words flooded back to him, when he had called them subjects and abandoned them to his enemies. “After all that has happened, it would be well within their rights to demand my life.”

It was Dwalin who spoke up then. He gave an exasperated snort and rolled his eyes as he said, “Enough with the dramatics, Thorin. None of us are here just for the kingdom, we’re here for you, as we have been from the beginning. And it was a damned long hike up those stairs, so I’ll have your hide if you waste it.”

Thorin blinked, beginning weakly, “I banished you…”

Balin stepped in then. “And we’re all alive and well, which is a sight more than we can say for you. Don’t worry about us, lad. For once, see to yourself first.”

It felt like permission, and it struck Thorin far deeper than he could ever admit or express. He looked to each of the Company in turn, and saw their nods and a few good-natured shrugs. All seemed to be in agreement with Balin or Dwalin, respectively. He looked last to Bilbo. The hobbit kept his gaze downcast, but sensing Thorin’s eyes on him he ran a hand along Thorin’s shoulder, where the long neck met the breastbone. Under his breath, too quietly for the rest of the Company to hear, Bilbo murmured, “Amrâlimê.” Thorin’s breath caught in his throat.

“Very well,” he said, looking back at the wizard. “What must I do?”

“It is a simple matter, if you allow it to be,” Gandalf said, a twinkle of amusement in his eye that Thorin found wholly unbecoming of the gravity of the situation. “You need only cast off your raiment, Thorin, son of Thráin.”

“Riddles again—!” Thorin growled. After all, he wore no raiment. It lay in tatters on the floor from the final throes of the transformation, and if the wizard would only use this opportunity to toy with him then he would have nothing to do with— Thorin felt a light swat against his shoulder, and he looked down to see Bilbo giving him look as if he could divine Thorin’s thoughts, and was thoroughly unimpressed by them. He bit back the rest of his retort, and bowed his head, looking away as he admitted, “I do not follow.”

“A dragon’s form is nothing more than that of an exceptionally large lizard, is it not? And lizards, as you may know, shed their skin,” Gandalf said, and then more gently, “You are still in there. Remove the scales, and come back to us.”

The last flicker of outrage within Thorin sputtered and died within him, and he flinched as a lump gathered in his throat that had nothing to do with chemicals or flame. Still in there? What an absurd notion. As if his own form was somehow nested within this twisted body, rather than torn apart and rebuilt into a nightmare beyond reversal. Absurd and impossible.

As impossible, perhaps, as reclaiming Erebor had ever been.

Thorin looked down at his arms, at the pulsing flesh that even now knit together to complete the transformation. His claw hovered over the inky black scales. Hesitated. The points were wickedly sharp, sharp enough to pierce mithril as he now knew all too well.

He shook his head, mentally chastising himself at his own cowardice. Had he not welcomed death not a moment before, and now he feared pain? He brought the claw down, unable to prevent a wince of anticipation. The hooked tips caught the edge of one of the glinting scales, indenting it but doing no further damage. Then, after a moment’s give, the scale tore away with the sound of shredding paper and a long strip fluttered to the ground.

All, remarkably, without any hurt at all. Instead there was a deep, satisfying sensation, like scratching an itch. Thorin stared after the fallen scales, pale and hollow as an empty snakeskin. Tentatively, wondering if perhaps the first layer had only been a fluke, the worn outer skin that was no longer part of him, Thorin scratched the opposite arm. There the skin fell away too with equal ease, but not totally without sensation. A bone-deep thrum of relief rang through his body, as beneath the dark outer scales there were more, but thinner, and of a grayish hue.

Bilbo released his neck, staring with awe and more than a little distaste as the skin flaked off of Thorin’s body in thin scraps and fine flakes with every fresh tear. He backed away, though he seemed reluctant to do so even as it gave Thorin more freedom of movement, returning to Fíli and Kíli’s side. Thorin stopped long enough to watch him go, but Bilbo shooed him to get on with it, then leaned heavily against Kíli.

With the loss of his touch, Thorin felt as if he was unbalanced, off-kilter, and even as he dragged the claws down over the scales he heard an echo within his mind that until then had been silent.

What are you doing, Oakenshield? We had a deal! snarled a familiar voice from within his head. Familiar, but somehow changed. It no longer came from all places at once, but rather from a single source, a small one at the back of Thorin’s mind.

He paused, claws digging into the scales but making no attempt to tear them free. Thorin closed his eyes, opening his senses as he had when searching for the claw, wandering those paths between waking and sleep where he had once been trapped against his will. Now he moved through them freely, finding them as familiar as the tunnels of Erebor somehow, though surely it could be nothing more than his imagination. Yet he started as a face blossomed from the darkness. Monstrous and twisted with rage, its golden eyes wreathed in flame.

“We did,” Thorin said, not knowing whether he spoke aloud, but he saw the creature draw back in shock and he flashed his own teeth to see it recoil, feeling the same thrumming satisfaction roil through him as when he had seen the scales fall, and before, in those first moments when Smaug toppled from the sky. “And I have fulfilled my part of the bargain. I have allowed you in. But I made no provisions for the aid of my companions, or for the wizard.”

The creature’s eyes narrowed. “The wizard has played no part, all of this you do unaided. What I want to know is why. I have granted you power. Through me you may know dominion over the West, see your people rise in might. Why then do you seek to expel me?”

“Unaided?” Thorin blinked, for a moment seeing the real world, his own claws poised over the scales. Saw Gandalf beyond and indeed the wizard’s staff was dark. He leaned against it now, only watching. Thorin closed his eyes again, and the twisted visage was before him. He frowned, and experimentally scraped the tips of the claws further down his arm. He felt nothing, but the creature winced in visible discomfort. “You say you would grant power to my people,” Thorin mused aloud, “And yet you cannot even hold on to this much?”

The creature snarled, its expression pained. “I have no need to hold on. Greater powers than you have rejected me, and their names are lost to time,” it said. “You are mine.”

Thorin’s lips curled back, and his hackles rose. He felt the first stirrings beneath that despair that had drowned him these past weeks, of something more than that mean, instinctive anger. This was fury, righteous and cleansing, surging from beneath that suffocating paralysis. Fury that this… thing, this small, pathetic creature that did not even require magic of any kind to expel it, should claim him as its own.

And he had almost surrendered to it.

“I am nothing of the sort,” Thorin retorted. “Know this, worm. If not for Bilbo’s life I never would have struck that bargain. I would have thrown myself to the rocks before accepting a scrap of what you have to give. Erebor was never yours to rule, neither were my people, whatever your whispers. You have no claim to me, to my person, or to my home. Not to the lives of my companions, my ancestors, or to my mind. I allowed you in because there was no choice. And this? This is me forcing you out.”

He dug the claws in deep, tearing off the scales from his arm and the creature howled, writhing, its lidless eyes burning with hatred. Yet its risen voice did not grow in volume—if anything it shrank, along with its size. The dragon spat curses and blasphemies down upon his head, which he ignored, enjoying only how freeing it was to do so as the creature’s voice receded to no more than a buzzing.

Then it vanished, as if it had never been. For it was of no account or importance, only a voice of old shadows and hatred.

When Thorin opened his eyes again he saw that the flesh of his arms was lighter now, gray and slick. The layers of scales were falling away in great pealing chunks, like removing the outer layer of an onion piece by piece. Something else was happening too, something thoroughly strange and impossible that seemed to distort his vision, for he knew that his efforts were concentrated at his arms and shoulders, but with each tear he felt as if his entire body changed in size, returning to its proper height. There was a glow beneath his skin as if he looked into the heart of a flame, and with each new tear it brightened.

He remembered then the gold as he once had, as a beautiful metal to bend to dwarven will, a canvas for the minds and hearts of his people. Of worth to be traded for other items of beauty, for time, for the goods of life. To be given as gifts or made into wares, but nothing more. Just as the Arkenstone had no true power to bewitch, but was only a symbol of power. His grandfather had forgotten this, lost himself to the jewel’s beauty, to the act of possessing it, and he had passed on that hunger to his son and grandson. Obsessed them with the need to hold it, to hunt and regain it even at the cost of their lives, and the lives of their kin, their children, of Fíli and Kíli, who could so easily have died upon the quest.

Thorin did not know when he began to weep, he only knew that dragons should not be able to shed tears, and he moved to brush them away, looking past to the vaults of Erebor. Yet the  hand that brushed his face was soft, the fingers blunt and callused, and he saw the torch light that shone between his fingers, and marveled at the ruddy flesh that was free of the obsidian glint of scale or the gray stain of illness. The breath left him in a rush, and Thorin felt for his hair and beard and found them miraculously intact, not fallen away in clumps. His fingers fisted in his unbraided hair as he gasped, his throat tight as he was overwhelmed by relief so searing it was an agony of its own. The tears gathered and fell unhindered, for each one seemed to carry out with it a piece of the darkness that had found a home within him, until he was left empty, exhausted and shaking.

He looked about him through his blurring vision, and saw that he sat nude at the center of a ring of scales, claws, and broken wings. Yet even as he watched they lost their color, the deep black scales and yellow bone fading, and crumbling until they were no more than mounds of colorless sand that scattered at a breath, fading like a nightmare in the morning light.

Once the tears subsided he looked up, seeking someone to share this moment with, seeking his nephews, Balin and Dwalin, Bilbo, and the others. He found them, gathered together in a tight circle, and a cold chill trickled down his spine. They were clustered together and staring at a single spot, but it was not at him. As he looked, Kíli glanced back at him, his eyes wide and face pale, and stepped aside to reveal what was at their feet. The blood drained from Thorin’s face, and with it all joy.

Bilbo lay still upon the floor.


 

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

 

 

Chapter Text

Bilbo awoke in a bed.

This alone was reason for pause. It had been some time since he last slept on anything softer than a bedroll. That was if he was lucky, and didn’t sleep on the stone itself. There was much to recommend it. No morning aches, for one thing. Why, he could leap up right that moment and—

No, there it was. Bilbo fell back, clutching his side as pain radiated from the wound in his stomach. He hissed through his teeth, then relaxed. It was… not so bad. Not as bad as he remembered. At some point he’d been dressed in a long pajama shirt and he lifted it to see that the wound was wrapped in clean, white bandages, and he felt the tug of stitches beneath them. Lower down, he was wearing loose pants to match the oversized shirt, and he blushed a little at the thought that someone had stripped him and put him to bed.

Where he was, or how he’d come to be there, was a mystery. The walls were stone, the room windowless, but that could mean anywhere. The bed where he lay was very large, larger than hobbits were accustomed to, but not as large as those of Men. The blankets were a rich burgundy, clean and smelling of soap, but otherwise threadbare and worn. A great number of candles lit the room, as if someone had sought to banish all the shadows from the corners, with the side effect that it made it even more difficult to tell the hour of the day, or how much time had passed.

Though answers were lacking, there was a cup of water on the nightstand beside the bed and Bilbo plucked it up once he saw it, downing it greedily, though the motion made him ache from head to toe. There was more than just the pain in his side to contend with. There was also all the other abuse of the past days, finally come to collect their due. There was the lingering discomfort of the days spent sleeping on stone, as well as the blows and bruises of the dragon, those hours when he’d slept little and pushed himself beyond endurance. Oh yes, and the part where he’d tried to walk with a gut wound. Bilbo groaned, putting the empty glass back on the nightstand and burying his face in his hands. He must have been running on pure adrenaline at that point. The Baggins side of him positively quailed at the memory of it all, and even the Took side was nodding in agreement and a bit of apprehensive admiration.

What had possessed him to insult a dragon to its face? Oh, and then he had knocked its hand away, and before that he’d almost drawn his sword on Thorin, and… and…

Bilbo’s hands fell to his lap as he tilted his head back and stared blankly at the ceiling as the past week replayed in his mind: every exhausting, horrifying moment of it. If there was any consolation, it was only that that the whole stretch of events was wild, so rife with emotional ups and downs, that he could barely comprehend it all. Bilbo took a deep breath, and attempted to observe it all dispassionately.

Even dispassionate observation made him blanche.

Especially that final hour—his face twisted in grief at the memory—when he had stood before the dragon, bow drawn. When each second had stretched beyond endurance as he and the Company waited for the creature to decide if it would accept their offer.

Give him back, Bilbo had whispered in the caverns of his heart as he glared up at the dragon. Give him back, you monster. You worm. Give him back to me.

He’d repeated the words as if they were a prayer, as if his will alone could tilt the balance. The dragon closed its eyes and Bilbo waited—his entire being poised as if on the edge of a knife— for those eyes to open, for the dragon to laugh in his face as it exulted in its trickery. How it would smirk to have made Bilbo believe for even a second that it would return Thorin to him, that he was even there to return. Then Bilbo would know for certain that he had just watched Thorin die right before his eyes, in that final moment when he’d looked out from his own breaking body with acceptance in his eyes.

The dragon did open its eyes, finally, and Bilbo’s heart gave a lurch as he waited for the inevitable. It looked about, and any minute that expression would twist with cunning, and the creature would lash out at him to finish the work of its claws. But Bilbo found he could not step back, or indeed move it all. Perhaps it would even be better this way, to fall here rather than live with the knowledge that there may have been more he could do to save Thorin, and that he had failed. Better that watching the Company put Thorin’s body to its final rest.

Give him back, he whispered one last time. Please, don’t let him be gone.

The dragon looked up. It brought a clawed hand to its face, shaking its head as if driving away a bothersome fly. Then it settled back on its haunches, and looked out over the Company with an expression that seared Bilbo to the core with desperate, fluttering hope.

Hope that swiftly became anguish as it said, in a voice thick with despair, “Why didn’t you kill me?”

The breath seized in Bilbo’s throat. It was Thorin. Somehow, impossibly. No soulless worm could feign so perfect an imitation. Just as Bilbo had known when the creature had worn Thorin’s face, he knew that it was Thorin within that body now. He knew him in the set of his shoulders, despite the changed body, the way he carried himself as if a great weight was borne upon them. He knew Thorin by the eyes lidded with pain and confusion, by his voice thought it was made deeper by the great lungs of this form. Bilbo knew him by the quiet sadness that never seemed to leave Thorin, and by the anger and self-loathing that Thorin wore of late as if it were a cloak. In that moment, Bilbo understood how Thorin had sensed him despite the ring’s invisibility, understood what it was to know someone even when you could not see them, and to know that you still would even blind. His heart ached, and he did not know if it was breaking or flying because there was agony in Thorin’s voice but at least it was him.

Was it possible to miss someone after being separated only a few moments? Yet it felt like hours, like an eternity spent knowing that Thorin was gone and Bilbo had done nothing to stop it but listen to his final words.

The pain of that thought was great than that of the wound in his side and Bilbo was moving, throwing his arms around Thorin’s neck and dragging him close. He buried his face against Thorin’s shoulder, holding him for dear life, as if he could pull him back from the edge by touch alone.

Only then did Thorin’s words filter back through the haze of fear that clouded his mind. Why didn’t they kill him?

Why didn’t they kill him?

Well, if Thorin didn’t put an end to talk like that, Bilbo was quite tempted by the prospect of finishing the job himself then and there! He was quite prepared to say so, he remembered very clearly how tempted he was to pull that great head down and box whatever passed for Thorin’s ears then and there. A desire that had not died. Once he got his hands on Thorin, he—

He didn’t know if Thorin lived.

He didn’t know how any of it had ended. If it had ended at all.

Bilbo’s stomach dropped as he came back to the present. He did not know the outcome of it all. He only saw the first glowing rift as it split Thorin’s skin, the black scales parting to reveal golden light, so bright it hurt look upon. It had been like staring into the heart of a forge, and he cried out for Gandalf, fearing that Thorin had caught fire within his own skin. The flames grew brighter with every tear, and Bilbo had thrown up his hands to shield his eyes from the blaze.

That was when he felt it. A horrible tearing, and liquid pouring down his stomach and legs. The breath left him, and his skin went terribly cold, his fingers number beyond recall and his head… floating. He’d been detached and utterly separate from the world, and even from Thorin burning before him, as he looked down and saw the spreading. The bandages were soaked black, and it seemed a very good idea at the time to lie down. Yes, a very good idea indeed, but quietly of course. He didn’t want to disturb Thorin. His last thought was that the boys were very polite to catch him like that, and lower him to the ground, as the mutter of panicked voices around him grew louder, then faded, along with light itself.

Had the sight of Thorin shedding his scales been real, or only the result of blood loss? Bilbo clutched his head as dizziness shook him. The room spun, and the wound in his side pulsed. He thought his vision would black entirely as he gritted his teeth against the pain, and closing his eyes only made the world tilt further.

The sound of his movements must have alerted someone, for he heard the door open, and there was a noise. A sharp intake of breath, and Bilbo opened his mouth to beg for water, for news, for anything better than waiting in pain and uncertainty.

A hand caught his. Warm, dry and callused. A broad, dwarven hand Bilbo saw as he cracked one eye open. Undecorated, but that could be anyone. Bilbo opened both eyes.

“Hello, Bilbo,” Thorin said. He stood beside the bed, Bilbo’s hand clasped in his. Bilbo’s eyes wandered, bewildered, up from their joined hands. Thorin wore a simple, dark-blue tunic, with the sleeves rolled to the elbows. The skin of his face was ruddy with health, and his hair was washed and braided with leather twine. And most important—oh, best of all—there was no glow in his eyes. They were only their own brilliant, sky blue. Bilbo’s hand traveled of its own accord, tracing Thorin’s bearded cheek, his own breath stuttering on his lips. Thorin’s free hand came up to clasp Bilbo’s against his cheek. Thorin’s gaze was soft, and he ducked his head, the way he looked at Bilbo almost shy as he said, “Well, I’m back.”

Bilbo gasped, a sound that was half laugh, and half sob. With it all self-control left him. Tears gathered and fell unhindered down his cheek and he blinked them away only to better marvel at the warm flesh of Thorin’s face, and he was moving. Unable to keep himself from touching everywhere he could get his hands on, pushing back Thorin’s sleeve to look at the unmarred skin of his pale upper arm, guiding Thorin to turn so he could see that his back was free of wings or ridges.

And his hands! Bilbo could not get enough of Thorin’s hands, twining their fingers together, running the pad of his thumb over the blunt nails. He was sniffling all the while, struggling to breathe. His throat closed, but his heart felt as if it had caught fire, for everything inside him was bright and light and wonderful. His vision blurred again, but it didn’t matter, and he could not stop smiling like a fool.

Thorin laughed under his breath when Bilbo spun him but did nothing to stop the exploration. His skin was warm beneath Bilbo’s hand, but it was a gentle warmth, not that painful, feverish heat. Bilbo checked for fever too, reaching up to press the back of his hand against Thorin’s forehead, and Thorin inclined his head to give Bilbo better access. His eyes were shining and beautiful and his skin soft, and oh how had Bilbo ever looked away from him before? How had he not spent every moment they were together just gazing at him?

Now he could not bear the thought of looking away, his gaze drinking in every inch of Thorin’s face. Why, his beard was neatly trimmed, perfectly intact and not falling out in those horrible clumps! Bilbo could not resist trailing the tips of his fingers along Thorin’s jawline, following it to the shell of his ear. Bilbo rubbed his thumbs along the white streaks at Thorin’s temple, and thought he might burst into fresh, wracking sobs as his fingers brushed Thorin’s right cheek, that final spot that been clear of scales when they parted at the throne.

Thorin watched him, but there was new uncertainty in his eyes and he tilted his head slowly, as if waiting for Bilbo to stop him, and pressed his lips to the palm of Bilbo’s hand. The kiss was soft, and fleeting, and Thorin’s breath tickled his hand as he pulled away, watching Bilbo out of the corner of his eye. It sent a shock through Bilbo’s body, beginning at his palm and coursing through his entire body until it was warm, alight and glowing like a candle. The breath went out of him; but that uncertainty in Thorin’s eyes only grew worse and they couldn’t be having that!

Bilbo could not summon an ounce of shame that he’d been crying, that his throat was tight and his cheeks damp, or that his lips no doubt tasted of his own tears because he was pulling Thorin down into the soundest kiss of his life. And as soon as Thorin sensed Bilbo’s hand pressing them against one another he gave in and he was kissing back hungrily, those sword-callused hands tracing the back of Bilbo’s neck.

It was altogether different from their first kiss. Thorin’s lips had lost their scaly dryness and now were soft against his. Not to mention that there was no longer that palpable sense of doom, the weight of fear upon them. Bilbo had to admit he preferred it this way: kisses that were warm and joyful as a summer breeze, that taste of falling in love all over again; and there his poet’s mind failed him because all he could think was oh as it swept his heart. How much he loved this person before him, that it hadn’t been the heightened emotions and desperation they’d found in that darkness that brought them together.

It was Thorin who broke the kiss, though it was probably for the best that someone did before they ran out of air. He did not pull away entirely, but pressed his forehead to Bilbo’s, their noses brushing. Bilbo knew he must be a horrible mess, all tear-streaked cheeks and puffy eyes. He could not even stop his sniffling, but it seemed very far away as Thorin’s breath fluttered against his lips and his eyes flickered downward to Bilbo’s lips as if he were only a thought away from reclaiming them.

“I feared that when you awoke you would want nothing more to do with me,” Thorin said, his voice low and hoarse. Bilbo blinked, his mind still too focused on the headiness of their kisses to immediately grasp Thorin’s words, or their solemnity. “And then you did not wake, and I thought it did not matter if you would not have me, if only to have you back.”

Once Thorin’s words caught up, Bilbo actually gaped. “Nothing further—?”

How could he want nothing more to do with this? With Thorin warm and alive before him, the scales gone and the taste of his lips still on Bilbo’s? But Thorin wasn’t joking, even one of his admittedly poor ones.

“You,” Bilbo said, pressing a kiss against Thorin’s cheek, “foolish,” then the other cheek, “stubborn,” to the forehead, “beautiful,” he finally kissed the tip of Thorin’s nose, “idiot! What have I been telling you for days now?”

Thorin at least had the grace to look shame-faced. “Words that might been given in moments of terror,” Thorin said, his eyes downcast. “Or under dragon-spell. I may have forced you to speak what was not otherwise in your heart, because it was what I wished to hear.” A shadow passed over Thorin’s face, and he seemed very lost and alone. When he spoke again it was in an earnest rush. “You must know, you owe me nothing after these past days, and what I owe you can never be repaid. If you wish to return to your home as soon as you are healed, I will understand. I have done you grave injury, stolen your will, and committed wrongs against you that can never be forgiven.”

“Thorin,” Bilbo said, cupping Thorin’s cheek, but found himself at a loss for words. He pressed another kiss to Thorin’s lips for good measure. Part of him wished to laugh at the very idea that his love for Thorin was a result of the dragon-spell, but the worry in Thorin’s eyes was real and he stopped himself. What would it have been like, to wait with that fear in his heart? Hours or days going by, and Bilbo could see how Thorin would linger in darkness, and in doubt, as he blamed himself for this as he did with all matters. First there was the wound, then the fear that all that was good and true between them was only there because he had willed it into existence. Bilbo had to admit that the idea was not entirely as impossible as he would have liked, for he remembered the terrible cold that had weighed his limbs when he left Thorin sleeping at the throne, the haze upon his mind that made it seem that death was the only answer. He wanted to say that the dragon-spell was not so strong, that it could only create cold, and hopelessness, and dread. That such light and wondrous things as the love he felt were beyond its reach.

But he could not know, and Thorin could not have known. Had he waited, guilt twisting him up inside as the fear rose in him that the loss of the curse also meant the loss of all that was between them? And then to wonder if Bilbo would wake at all, when with such wounds, it could easily be uncertain. All this Bilbo saw in a glimpse of his mind’s eye, and his hand clenched around Thorin’s shoulder. It hurt to see his Thorin so unsure of anything, and there Bilbo found his words.

“Listen to me,” Bilbo said firmly. “I told you I would stay, until the end, and I see no reason to go back on that promise just because we have a bit more time.” A smile ghosted over his lips. “Besides, I am not so easy to shake off as that. We hobbits can be quite stubborn on our own, and very private, so let me assure you that no amount of dragon-spell could have wrenched a confession like that out of me, much less a kiss, if it wasn’t true.”

Thorin still looked skeptical though, and Bilbo sighed. “Here now,” Bilbo said, patting the spot beside him on the bed, “Come sit by me. You’ll get a crick if you keep bending your neck like that, and I can’t twist around like this all day. Do take your shoes off first, though, I still have not had the chance to check all of you—” Bilbo choked as his own words caught up with him.

“Are you certain?” Thorin said, hesitating.

“About the shoes? Absolutely. Nasty, uncivilized things to begin with,” Bilbo said, babbled really. After all, he’d just invited Thorin Oakenshield into his bed, and what was worse, it was a proper one this time!

Well, perhaps it was a foolish thing to be embarrassed over. After all, they’d slept side by side for days now, notwithstanding the quest itself. They were both the masters of their own households, middle aged for their respective races, and certainly needed no permission to dally together, never mind that Bilbo truly had no idea where they stood now. Did a few kisses and a great deal of panic over one another make them lovers? Were they courting? Was all this going to go away now that sanity and a modicum of calm had returned to their lives, would they—

“I only ask because you have gone very red,” Thorin chuckled, wrenching Bilbo from his thoughts.

Bilbo huffed and would have thrown a pillow at him, but settled for rolling his eyes as he said, “Just get over here.”

Thorin smirked, but inclined his head in acquiescence before bending to untie the heavy iron-tipped boots he wore. He came around the other side of the bed so he wouldn’t have to clamber over Bilbo. His feet were bare, and indeed the claws were gone, as Bilbo knew he should have expected, but he could not keep the slight hitch from his breathing at the confirmation, nor prevent himself from hooking an arm around Thorin’s waist and tugging him closer when he hesitated at the edge.

“There, much better,” Bilbo said, and laid his head against Thorin’s shoulder. Bilbo peaked out of the corner of his eye, and saw Thorin watching him too. A silence fell that held a great deal more promise than Bilbo had the energy for at the time, so he opted for his usual refuge in words. “Well, tell me what happened.”

“I beg your pardon?” Thorin said.

Bilbo huffed a sigh, gesturing a circle in the air with his free hand. “What have I missed? Clearly you’ve got Erebor up and running again, at least this part of it. How are the others? Did you resolve matters with Bard and Thranduil?”

Thorin looked rather embarrassed, which made Bilbo instantly suspicious. “I sent a messenger the first day, telling them I am alive and their gold is forthcoming once we negotiate the amount. I have not spoken to them since, some four days ago.”

“Four days?” Bilbo sputtered. “And they accepted? Last I heard they were champing at the bit to settle the matter. How did you convince them to wait?”

“There was no ‘convincing’ needed,” Thorin said. “They will wait until I am prepared to see them if they wish to receive any gold at all without a fight. Once they understood my reasons, they accepted readily enough.”

“But what on earth could be so important that you would risk it?” Bilbo exclaimed in exasperation.

Thorin gave Bilbo a long, measured look, saying nothing.

Me?” Bilbo said. “But Thorin, the armies! Bard, the Elvenking! You can’t keep them all waiting for one hobbit.”

“I can, and have,” Thorin said. “They have already waited this long, and all their men are seen to. Thranduil especially may put his much vaunted patience to the test. Bilbo,” Thorin took Bilbo’s hand in his own, “It would have been impossible for me to focus while your fate was still uncertain. And I too had only just recovered. Would you truly expect me to go straight from my illness to facing that bastard elf?”

“Oh,” Bilbo said, feeling a bit foolish. “No, of course not, when you put it like that. But…you will soon, I hope?”

“Soon,” Thorin nodded.

“And… other matters?” Bilbo said. He did not wish to discuss the dragon sickness just yet. It all seemed too large and significant to grasp, but there was still all that they had missed while down there.

“We have begun the process of opening the doors again. There are certain, for the lack of a better Westron term, pressure points in the stone that may be struck to bring the shelves down again. A tightly guarded secret, of course, but Balin’s memory is long and by now we’ve cleared enough space so that goods may move freely back and forth, though the entrance is quite small,” Thorin appeared chagrinned at this. “Widening the door will take some time, and black powder. The stone is not a single block, but actually a constructed series of interlocking—I am boring you, aren’t I?”

“Not at all,” Bilbo said, stifling a yawn. To be honest he was already growing exhausted even after so short a time awake. All, no doubt, the effect of recovering from his wound, though he’d never say as much to Thorin. He had only the faintest idea of what Thorin was talking about, but he’d rather been enjoying the look of concentration on Thorin’s face as he described the process. After all, Bilbo could and had listened to the low rumble of Thorin’s voice for days without growing tired of it. “Go on. You were saying something about stone shelves. However did your people come up with that?”

Thorin gave him a skeptical look, but at Bilbo’s returned look of innocent interest he raised an eyebrow and continued, illustrating his words with his hands, “In my grandfather’s time, they realized the need for a system that would serve as a last resort against siege, without hopelessly trapping us all within the mountain. Hence the need for weak points throughout that were known only to a select few defenders…”


Despite Bilbo’s protests, it was only a few minutes into an explanation of mining operations and cascade effects that Thorin heard the first snore. Bilbo slept against him, and true to form, there was a tiny spot of drool on Thorin’s shoulder. He smiled wryly and shifted to lay Bilbo down on the bed. As he did so, he could not help but run broad fingers through Bilbo’s hair. The hobbit did not stir, but continued to snore, too exhausted to be wakened by so gentle a touch. The injury had taken a great deal out of him.

Thorin’s hand froze, hesitating an inch above Bilbo’s head. He withdrew it. Bilbo would no doubt call him foolish, reminding him that he had nothing to do with the wound, but Thorin knew there would always be a hidden doubt, locked secret and far away.

How much of it had been the dragon, and how much was him? What had the dragon even been? Some manifestation of an ancient curse, some memory of Smaug, something… other, a creature with golden eyes that promised dominion. But that was not all. He had been part of it, more than just a passive host. Even if the curse had sparked the rage that made him threaten to throw Bilbo to the rocks, it had been Thorin’s words, his hands, and on some level his will. There was no doubt that he had truly hated Bilbo in those moments, and he was not sure he would ever fully separate where the curse began and where his own will ended. For surely some of that anger had been his own at the sight of the Arkenstone in the hands of his enemies. Some of the outrage that had made him banish the Company had been born of his own heart after months of frustration on the road, every disappointment and annoyance bubbling up until it became something incandescent and explosive.

Perhaps he would never know. Perhaps there was no point in pursuing it, as he was sure Bilbo would advise, and what a novel change that would in itself if he managed to listen. To let past shame go, starting with that of losing of Erebor, of failing his people all those years before. Not overnight, and never fully over, but at least begun.

He looked down at his hands for what must have been the hundredth time since he was cured. He found he could only stare at them, turning them back and forth in the light, rubbing them together as if to search beneath the skin for some sign of returning scales. He wore no rings, for he could not bear the thought of reaching down and feeling anything cold where his own flesh should be. Gloves of any kind, much less gauntlets, were a nightmarish prospect.

Thorin released a shuddering breath and forced his gaze  back to the sleeping hobbit beside him. How close it had been. How easily it could have ended there, and no amount of magic or power in the world would have been enough to stop Bilbo bleeding to death before his eyes. He knew Bilbo wanted to know all that had transpired since he lost consciousness, but for Thorin the grief of it was still too near for words.

He had not even felt the cloak that was dropped around his shoulders as he felt to his knees at Bilbo’s side, all joy at the breaking of the curse swept away.

“No. No, no, no, Bilbo you cannot fail now. Not now,” Thorin said, pressing his hand to Bilbo’s cheek. The hobbit’s skin was gray, and his skin ice cold to the touch. Thorin’s hands—his own hands again, no claws or scales, and yet he unconsciously kept his nails well away from Bilbo’s skin—were numb. The tears he’d shed at being cured still stained his cheeks but no fresh ones emerged. Those had been like the melt water that flows from a frozen heart in spring, but he only felt cold to the depths of his heart. Each movement was stiff and leaden, when moments before he had reveled in the feeling of his own limbs returned to him. He leaned in, seeking any sound or flutter of breath from Bilbo’s lips.

He heard nothing and his body bowed as if cradling a mortal wound of its own and he pressed his forehead to Bilbo’s as his limbs were robbed of their strength. Once he had said that any price would have been worth it to secure his home, and his own words mocked him. He had only ever meant himself, and he saw that now. What did it matter if he chose to be part of Erebor’s future, when the one who had ensured it was lifeless on the ground?

There was pressure on his shoulder and he was pulled, unresisting, from Bilbo’s body. Warmth encircled his shoulders and he saw a flash of blond hair. Thorin blinked, every movement stiff and each sound echoing. Fíli crouched beside him, his arms wrapped around Thorin and drawing him from Bilbo’s prone form. Thorin swayed and suddenly he was encircled from the other side as well as Kíli wrapped his arm around his other shoulder, but he was looking at his brother.

“Fíli, you shouldn’t… if he needs to say goodbye…” said Kíli.

“He needs to let Bilbo go,” Fíli said, but there was no unkindness in his voice and he was drawing the cloak around Thorin’s unresisting body.

“But Fíli…”

“The lad is right,” Óin said, and Thorin’s gaze drifted vaguely upward to take in the elderly dwarf. He was forcing his way through the Company, hauling one of the packs with him. “How is he supposed to get any air with all of you crowding him like this? Ye’d think none of you have ever seen a bit of blood. Beardless younglings the lot of you. Everyone who isn’t a king, or future one, clear out or I’ll show you a real battle wound! Not you of course, Master Gandalf.”

And just like that the air was not so close. Fíli and Kíli hesitated at Thorin’s shoulder, and even he looked to Óin bewildered. “Óin, what are you saying?”

“Judging from the blood loss, his pallor, and the placement of the wound?” Óin sucked at his teeth, considering. “Well, he’s not a dwarf but this shouldn’t be enough to kill him, though I’d welcome a wizard’s aid until the worst of the danger is past.” Gandalf nodded at this, standing at Óin’s side.

Some of the haze began to clear and Thorin blinked as he said. “He’s alive?”

“Of course he’s alive! He’s as tough a one as I’ve ever seen,” Óin said. “A near thing, though. Supplies, and a proper bed would go a long way.”

Thorin swayed, relief like a shock of icy water, and then was on his feet. “Bofur, Bombur, Ori,” he barked and the named three snapped to attention. “Find the nearest bedroom and prepare it for Master Baggins. The royal quarters should be closest. Balin,” he turned to the older dwarf, “You know the defenses best. Take Glóin, Bifur, Nori and Dwalin and see if you can’t open us a passage to the outside. Then I need you to go straightaways to Dáin, Bard, and Thranduil. Tell them I am alive, but the negotiations must wait.”

“When will that be?” Balin said. “They’re bound to ask.”

Thorin looked down to Bilbo’s prone body, to his face so drawn and pale. “However long it takes.”

“They’ll not like that answer,” Balin said.

“But they will accept it,” said Thorin. “There is a fortune in gold waiting for them if they can hold their tongues and their armies in check. They will wait a few more days to have it.”

“You don’t need to be here, Thorin,” Óin said. “You’ll do naught but work yourself into a state.”

“He stayed by my side when much the same could be said about him,” Thorin said, turning back to the healer. “I will not leave him now.”

“Err… in that case, perhaps some clothing would not go amiss?”

The following days had been a blur punctuated by the crashing cracking boom of the rock walls crumbling on the outside of the mountain, allowing in the dwarves of Dáin’s camp and a bustle of activity that brought the ghostly halls of Erebor to life. These were the first steps of cleaning, of healing, and burying the dead long left unattended in the halls. Despite the sheer number, there would be no funeral pyres, and never would be again after Azanulbizar, not when cremation seemed the greatest insult to those who faced their end at the hands of Smaug.

And Thorin had waited, wondering if there would be one more to bury at the end. Óin had pronounced the danger past the day before, said there was nothing more to do but wait for Bilbo to awake on his own. Thorin had not left his side, watching the steady rise and fall of Bilbo’s chest, ducking out to meet with Balin only briefly before the fear returned: that if he did not wait, if he did not watch, Bilbo would slip away. The thought had occurred to him, how Bilbo may wake to look at him with eyes that did not know him. That he would learn for certain that all had been the dragon-spell, the soft touches and moments of laughter, and hands that dragged him back from the darkness, all there because he had willed it into existence with his cursed gaze. Yet as Bilbo’s did not open, he had found he did not care, that he would give it all up if only to have him back.

It still felt like a dream. The curse, the cleansing, and now Bilbo sleeping peacefully by his side. He knew he should be relieved, and perhaps it would sink in before long, and the tender scars within him would finally heal.

There was a tentative knock at the door, and it creaked open to reveal Balin. He peaked his head in, a faint smile dawning on his face to see Bilbo curled up against Thorin’s side.

“I didn’t want to disturb you two. So, he really is awake?” Balin said, a grin shining on his face at Thorin's nod. “The danger has passed then, and a near thing too. Will you join us? You’ve been cooped up in here for days.”

Thorin hesitated, considering, and looked down to the sleeping hobbit. Beyond the walls of Erebor were armies, and responsibilities. Beyond lay the future that must be met one way or the other. But not alone. Bilbo would be waiting here, and healing, and eventually would join him. He looked up to Balin waiting by the door. Then he gently disentangled Bilbo’s entwining arms and slipped from the bed, grabbing his boots and shutting the door quietly behind them. “Send a runner along," he said as soon as they were outside, "tell them I will be there immediately.”

“So soon? Do you wish to change first?” Balin said, nodding to the simple blue shirt and black trousers Thorin wore. He wore no other adornment; even the ties of his braids were leather. Someday, he would be comfortable with the sight of gold and silver again, the rings of his office and his ancestors, but for now? He shook his head.

“No. They will receive me as I am,” Thorin said.

“It doesn’t hurt to remind them who is king."

"If they need reminding of who rules here, then I am already dealing with half-wits, which will make it all go that much easier,” Thorin said, arching an eyebrow. "I need no adornment to know that I am king."

“Your grandfather would have a fit to hear you suggest such a thing,” Balin laughed. Nevertheless, the reminder swept Thorin in the twisting of his heart, and he looked away.

“I wish he was here,” Thorin said. It was all he could manage, and yet it encompassed it all that had brought them there and all that had been lost along the way.

“I do too, lad,” Balin said, clapping a hand on Thorin’s shoulder, and Thorin looked up and into the eyes of one of his oldest friends and mentors. There was sadness there, and understanding, as there always was, for all that Thorin could not say. “He would be proud of you today.”

Thorin’s breath caught, it struck him then that the nightmare that had begun all those years ago-- with the dragon, and the stone, and his grandfather wandering in delirium-- was over. That Bilbo slept in the room behind him, recovering but alive, that his nephews and companions were even now waiting for him whilst they rebuilt their home. All that remained was to meet with former enemies to make new allies, to rebuild all that had been lost and bury old bitterness and hatred along with the bones of the dragon. It swept through him, clearing the last of the dust and darkness that remained within.

Thorin looked out to the halls of Erebor that with dwarves, cleaning, carving, repairing, bringing their city back to life. Waiting only for his word to open the doors.

It was time.

 


“Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”

-Neil Gaiman, paraphrasing G.K. Chesterton

Chapter Text

The council chamber, if it could be called that, was a tent at the edge of the battlefield, set at a point of neutral ground between the gates of Erebor and the city of Dale. The armies had cleared their dead from the field, but the scars that remained painted a picture of a battle so fierce that Thorin balked at the sight. The landscape itself was torn beyond the effects of Smaug’s desolation, and now the land was spotted with the burnt-out pyres of the dead. A battle Thorin had missed, that had been fought in his name, and that shame would never leave him. Yet there was more that must be done than wallow in his own failures, measures that must be taken to ensure such devastation never returned.

Thorin hesitated outside the tent, and as he did so he cupped his wrist in his opposite hand. It was a nervous habit that afflicted him since he regained his own form, the need to test again and again if any sign of his illness remained, if even the slightest hint of scales lingered beneath the skin. The absence of any kind of armor, or even a heavy coat, was unfamiliar and somewhat unsettling. It was all new, the lack of weight on his shoulders both physical and imagined, as if he’d cast off a burden so long borne it had become part of him. He felt exposed, even as he felt lighter than he had in years. It was the loss of so much that had defined him – anguish at Erebor’s loss, fear of being taken unawares by his grandfather’s illness, the shame of his failure to give his people a proper home, and of the illness that claimed him despite it all.

He was not sure he knew who he was without exile, or fear for the sickness of his line. Who was Thorin Oakenshield when he was not weighed down trappings of rank, and the memories of a century of leading his people, the pain of old betrayals, and humility that came from standing upon the brink of destruction? Especially when he emerged from it only by the grace of chance, and the most unlikely of companions. The mountain was behind him, reclaimed and empty of the monster that had haunted it for centuries. Unfinished business lay ahead. In between, he stood, only a dwarf of Durin’s line with a purpose made clear.

Who was he now? No one but himself, whole within his skin, and only now able to appreciate it for the wonder it was. His hand fell from his wrist, no longer testing for scales that weren’t there. Guards flanked the door, both elves of Mirkwood and dwarves of the Iron Hills. The latter inclining their heads in welcome, heavy steel helms obscuring their features. He nodded back and took a deep breath, looking down once more at the simple black trousers and long-sleeved blue tunic, the heavy iron-toed boots. He looked no different than any other dwarf who worked to restore the mountain, as ever he had been.

It was time.

Thorin pushed aside the canvas door to the council chamber, and four familiar faces awaited him, a hush falling over the room. Gandalf, Bard, Thranduil and his cousin Dáin sat at a round wooden table that looked as if it had been scrounged from the ruins of Dale, based on its height and the scorch marks around the edges. Retainers were present in the tent, rough Men of Lake-town, impassive Elves, and the familiar armor and tabards of the Iron Hills. He was the only representative of the dwarves of Ered Luin and Erebor at present, a disadvantage he would have to live with. All eyes were upon him. The floor was his.

“Gentlemen,” Thorin said, looking to each in turn. “Thank you for your patience. I must apologize for my long absence, but as you may have heard, I had taken ill.” He allowed a moment’s silence at this, punctuated by a quiet snort of disbelief from Thranduil, and the nods of his cousin and Gandalf.  "Before we begin, I believe some thanks are in order that we may all sit together today, and were not destroyed by the plagues that have befallen us, from within and from without.”

He clasped his hands behind him, and when he spoke his voice fell into the easy cadence of his many negotiations with the merchant guilds of Ered Luin, rather than the more fiery speeches of Lake-town, or upon the wall. “To Dáin, Lord of the Iron Hills. Cousin, allow me to convey my deepest gratitude both for your swift aid in our time of need, and your leadership in my absence.”

 “Ach, none needed,” Dáin said, waving Thorin away. His voice was its habitual deep gravel, thickened by the accent typical of his domain. “I should be thanking you for the chance to cut down orcs! ‘Twas a good fight, shame ye missed it. Suppose this means we’re even, though, for not sending my warriors with you when you first asked. Congratulations on your success, by the way.”

Thorin nodded, the corner of his lip twitching. “Of course. It seemed a fool’s errand, and well did I know it. A leader cannot be faulted for not sending good warriors to die. You came when it mattered.”

“Aye, good to have that settled. Don't be thinkin' I'm leavin' ye here alone with these cutthroats. The Iron Hills will remain here as long as ye need us,” Dáin said, settling back into his chair with a final glare around the room at Thranduil and his entourage.

Thorin inclined his head once more in acknowledgement, feeling bolstered by the promise of arms, unnecessary as they may be if all went as planned.

He turned next to Bard. “Bard, or should I say King Bard of Dale?” Bard grimaced at the title, but made no attempt to correct Thorin. “Your aid to us in Lake-town should have earned you the everlasting and unquestioned friendship of Erebor, never mind my own personal gratitude.” Bard eyed him with some suspicion, warranted perhaps, given their parting words. “I have no excuse for my actions, save that eagerness clouded my judgment, and illness my mind. For those without a home, loss can be a constant hunger that robs us of that which makes us reasonable. It is my greatest regret that we did not heed your words, and that we set the beast loose upon your town, wreaking upon you the same fire that yet lives in the nightmares of my people. For what has happened I can promise you, without stint or hesitation, the full support of Erebor in rebuilding your home, be it Dale, Lake-town, or both. Any help my people may grant to yours will be given without question. I am only sorry it took this long for this assurance to be made, and the tragedies that made it necessary.”

 “I—” Bard began, his brow furrowing. He cast a glance at Thranduil at his right, then Gandalf at his left. “I accept your offer on behalf of my people, Thorin son of Thráin, but there is much to be discussed, and the price will be high. There is bad blood yet, and there will be for many years. I will not betray them by giving in easily to the one who brought calamity down on our heads with his actions.”

“Nor would I expect you to,” Thorin replied. “We must determine the extent of the damages, but rest assured aid will begin immediately. To begin, those treasures of Dale that lie within the mountain, looted by Smaug will be returned to you immediately and without question.”

“Just as there are treasures that are owed to you, Lord of Mirkwood,” Thorin said. He had struggled with how to address Thranduil while he planned for this meeting, the word king curdling on his tongue, and Thranduil's given name was out of the question for so formal an occasion. He had briefly flirted with the idea of calling Thranduil by some Khuzdûl curse, or even the title he so richly deserved: oathbreaker, gondkarkâl, but Dáin had not been informed, and it would not do to have his cousin give away the joke, or for Dáin to leap across the table to kill said oathbreaker. So Thorin had set the idea aside grudgingly, and settled for a title that was accurate if not exalted. “Within the mountain are certain gems promised you by my grandfather, King Thrór, called by some the gems of Eryn Lasgalen. These will be given to you immediately and, in a gesture of good faith that I hope will serve as seed for continued trade between our people, we will waive the fee for our work. I’m sure you understand that King Thrór only refused delivery because the work was not yet finished, and subsequent… events that were beyond our control prevented a timely delivery.” Throughout, Thorin kept his tone easy and even raised his eyebrows innocently as he continued, “I am sure you will not hold our tardiness against us, after all, what is a century to an elf?”

It took a great deal of self-control to keep a straight face, a task not in any way aided by Gandalf’s sudden coughing fit. He could not let the mask slip just yet. After all, he was not yet finished.

“As for the reconstruction of Lake-town and Dale—” Thorin continued. Preventing his smirk became that much more difficult as Thranduil stiffened with outrage.

“Is that all?” Thranduil said coldly. “Those gems are only the smallest portion of the wages owed to the Greenwood. Perhaps you are not aware as you lay insensate within the mountain, but a battle was fought in which the enemies of Erebor were put to rout by my armies, and many of my people lost their lives.”

Thorin’s eyes glinted, his trap sprung. “Indeed, there is the matter of your armies to consider. I must commend you on your foresight, to have detected the forces of Dol Guldur so soon, when no others knew of their approach. Would only that you had marched a bit sooner, when Elven archers could have also leant aid against Smaug. A true stroke of luck.” Thranduil’s gaze was icy and imperious as he drew himself up, no doubt preparing some response, but Thorin gave him no time. “Unless you came here as invaders, for which it would be ludicrous to think Erebor owes you anything at all.”

“Insolent princeling, do you so easily forget the alliance between our people? But for my armies you would have lost Erebor to the goblin hordes just as your kind did Moria and Gundabad,” Thranduil retorted.

Out of the corner of his eye, Thorin saw Gandalf press a hand to his brow. Dáin had gone purple with rage, and seemed to only hold himself back out of deference for Thorin, and Bard looked no happier now to be present at the infighting of elves and dwarves than he did when he first approached Erebor.

“We are not allies,” Thorin snapped. “Any connection between your kingdom and mine fell to ruin when you refused my people aid. Your people—,” Thorin stopped himself, clearing his throat, and took a deep breath. He skirted the edge of anger, but what he attempted now would require a delicate touch. “Your people owe us nothing, and with the free return of the gems of Eryn Lasgalen, nothing is owed in return. I will give the benefit of the doubt that you came to offer aid to Lake-town and Erebor, and had no designs on my kingdom, despite your timing. I am not against further dealings between our people, particularly trade, but clearly the terms of our old alliance were too onerous a tax on Mirkwood’s limited resources. You had your own borders to protect, falling as they were in to shadow, and I hold no further grudge with this fact in mind. It was our error to count on the aid of Mirkwood in our time of need, and that miscalculation of resources cost us our home. Erebor therefore has no desire to ask more of Mirkwood than it can give, including military aid. If you wish to establish trade relations at this council, I welcome them. As it is, you will be paid as befits what aid you gave.”

“And what is that supposed to mean?” Thranduil bit off, his eyes glinting with suppressed fury.

Thorin looked sidelong at Bard. “King Bard, what is the going rate for mercenaries in Esgaroth?”

Bard looked up, startled to be called upon. Then his lip twitched, as surprise gave way to some measure of amusement, and cunning. Thorin doubted there was much love lost between Bard and Thranduil, who had only just met in the past weeks, and Bard would have the interests of Dale to worry about before those of Mirkwood. His only interest in seeing Thranduil in the region was as a balancing point for Erebor, and it could still be possible to woo him away with gold and friendship, albeit belatedly applied. “Without promise of plunder? I should think ten coins per soldier would be a generous rate for a single battle.”

“Only ten gold coins?” Thorin exclaimed in undisguised shock, actually breaking eye contact with Thranduil to gape at Bard.

Bard gave a wry smile. “Silver, more likely. This region is not so prosperous as it once was.”

“This is outrageous!” Thranduil said.

“Of course we would not pay so little for the expertise of an Elven army,” Thorin said, holding up a mollifying hand to Thranduil. “Yet to repay only the commander would send the wrong message, that we do not value the efforts of his individual soldiers. I will personally see to it that your people are paid as befits their skill and long experience, either in gold or jewels as they choose, with their leader taking what cut a commander may expect in addition to the cost of fielding such a force. I entreat King Bard’s aid in working out the correct value, as he was present at the battle and I was not. After all, the armies of Lake-town lost much more in people and property, so it would be inappropriate for Mirkwood to take a larger share.”

Thorin firmed his expression; it was that or smirk at Thranduil’s expression, gone pale with fury. “If you should find the terms unacceptable, Lord Thranduil, you need only say so, though we will then expect a counter-proposal of how you wished to be paid. One which should include your exact reasons for coming to Erebor when you did, a tally of all aid given, and an explanation for why you stayed once you learned of Smaug’s death and before the armies of Dol Guldur arrived.”

“That’s enough, Thorin,” Gandalf broke in. Thranduil looked only inches from drawing his sword, while Dáin had settled back into his chair, crossing his arms over his chest with a self-satisfied smirk and a wink at Thorin. “Or should I say, your Majesty. My Lord Thranduil, the terms are just for what you have requested, and as a new ruler returned from exile, it is well within Thorin’s right to renegotiate old treaties. After all, I’m sure none of us are interested in starting another war?” Gandalf said, his blue eyes narrowing as he took in the room, and silence greeted his question. “Excellent. I will stay to see that a fair price is agreed upon for all. I trust they will be fair?” he said, directing the last at Thorin.

“Of course,” Thorin said, raising an eyebrow. “Erebor will need allies if it is to prosper.”

“Whereas I will not accept the Greenwood as mere a trade partner with Erebor. You will offer better terms,” Thranduil said, his gaze boring into Thorin.

That was the one predictable thing about elves: their pride. Thorin had known all along that Erebor could not prosper without a close alliance with Mirkwood, one that Thranduil would not accept unless it was denied to him. And it had only taken the breaking of Thorin’s own pride for him to see it.

“That will require some negotiation, as Erebor has had its faith betrayed once before,” Thorin said smoothly. “First, we must determine how much everyone is owed of the treasure.”

The fun could not last forever, Thorin thought, pinching the bridge of his nose as the cacophony began, each side arguing for their worth and share. This was going to be a long day.


Long indeed, as evening fell while the negotiations dragged on. They had taken two meals there, and only half-way through,  servants had brought torches to light their way, what with the early fall of night in winter. Bard had not come unprepared and the beginnings of a ledger were presented, detailing the material value of Lake-town, and each item gone over one by one. Meanwhile Thranduil’s much vaunted Elven patience had been put to the test as he bartered for his own troops, and the terms that would make Mirkwood an equal partner with Erebor while still requiring payment for the Battle of Five Armies, as it was now called.

Thorin had been all too grateful when Gandalf called for them to adjourn for the night, despite Thranduil’s snort of disdain at the need for lesser beings to sleep. Bard’s strength was clearly flagging and Thorin had felt the press of exhaustion on his own eyelids as well. Yet he had not gone two steps outside the tent when he saw a familiar form. Gandalf stood at the edge of the torch’s light, with his hat pulled low against the wind, his pipe cupped behind his hand as he lit it. Thorin watched as Gandalf blew a smoke ring, the wind snatching it upward and away.

Thorin stopped, struck by warring instincts. He still could not say how he felt about the wizard. It was clear that much of his hatred stemmed from the illness itself, some attempt by the dragon’s voice to keep him from seeking out the one force with the power to cure him. Yet even without that simmering rage he still mistrusted Gandalf, though he had to admit he owed the wizard a debt of gratitude, and no dwarf may allow a debt go unpaid, for good or ill.

Thorin made up his mind and approached, taking his place beside Gandalf and crossing his arms, staring out into the night to the gates of Erebor beyond. The air was chill, but Thorin hardly felt it as he sought the words to encompass all that had come before. He looked over, catching Gandalf’s eye.

“Gandalf,” Thorin said with a nod. “A moment of your time, if you please.”

“Your Majesty,” Gandalf said, taking the pipe from his lips, returning Thorin’s nod. “Is there some manner in which I can assist you?” Thorin’s lips thinned on instinct, searching for some hint of mockery in Gandalf’s tone and fighting back a need to contradict the wizard, no matter what words came out of his mouth. 

“I would not hold you if there is somewhere else you must be,” Thorin said, forcing himself to keep his tone neutral. He looked out over the fields surrounding Erebor, shrouded in the gloom of night, the gates of the city lit by the burning braziers.

“Not at all, I always have a moment to spare for a friend,” Gandalf said, “ and I wondered when you would seek me out. I imagine you have questions?”

Thorin’s brow furrowed, surprised to hear ‘friend’ thrown about so casually. “Many. You have not been exactly forthright in the past, and there is much that still troubles me of what has transpired. You seem to know much about the nature of this curse, and try as I might I cannot understand how dragon sickness could linger in our blood so many Ages, and yet be defeated by so little? Why was this knowledge hidden? Who was Mîm, that he left the only account in all our vast histories of its origin?”

Gandalf puffed out a contemplative sigh and leaned on his staff as he thought. “Perhaps I should start with the easiest of these, for there is no single explanation. As to why the knowledge was hidden, I plead the same answer I gave to Bilbo. Since the First Age, when rumor first emerged of the corruption of the Petty Dwarves, it has been a matter of utmost shame and fear for your people. The knowledge was kept to a rare few, the seven Dwarf Lords, leaders of each clan, for they saw the knowledge as so traumatic to the identity of the dwarves that it was a peril in and of itself to spread it. They feared what would happen if your people ever learned that their greatest natural enemy, the drakes of Morgoth, came from within, that they were brought forth by vengeance for past wrongs. More than that, they feared the unscrupulous, those so driven by greed for power or wealth that they may see such a curse as a boon to their ambition. I confess, I too feared this. The dwarves of Erebor were made desperate by their loss, and it did not seem a stretch that one may think to fight dragons by becoming one himself.”

“You thought I would choose this fate of my own accord if I knew of it, as long as it meant reclaiming my home,” Thorin said, and could not keep the anger from his voice, cracking like flint on steel. Anger sparked, threatening the fragile wounds within, the shame and helpless rage he still felt over his own fall. Why was he even surprised? Gandalf had never shown himself above the casual disdain with which all races viewed the dwarves. Why should it be at all unexpected that Gandalf would see dragon sickness, which had so terrorized Thorin’s family and brought them low, as anything else than a fate they justly deserved and even embraced?

“In that I was wrong,” Gandalf interjected, snapping Thorin free of the dark turn of his thoughts. “Bilbo was quick to chastise me for my error, and quite correct in doing so.”

“Bilbo?” Thorin said, blinking.

“Yes,” Gandalf said with a hint of amusement. “I believe his exact words were that I underestimated you. There seemed to be no question in his mind that you were stronger than any temptation the illness may offer, and he was quite outraged on your behalf that I would even suggest it.”

Stronger? Hardly, but Thorin could not suppress the flicker of warmth within him at the thought of Bilbo’s defense, faith in Thorin that overcame the wizard’s judgment and had not wavered. Who knew from whence such faith had come? Thorin still could not grasp what brought Bilbo back to him again and again, what prompted him to stand up in defense of Thorin and all dwarves, and so could only remain grateful for it even as he was baffled.

“He was right,” Thorin said, managing some dignity as he pulled himself free of thoughts of Bilbo, who even now was healing within the mountain as a result of that faith. “For no dwarf worthy of the name would ever consider such a path, no matter its benefits.”

“And yet this goes to the heart of your other question, for Mîm in his final years allied himself wholeheartedly with the Enemy, Morgoth, and would have taken the curse unto himself had he lived long enough to seize the opportunity,” Gandalf said. “Mîm died a servant of evil, yet he was not always thus, having seen many hardships and terrors that could turn even the strongest of hearts to the Shadow. He lost his sons, his people, and his home, and these tragedies made him bitter and vengeful. I have no doubt whatever account of his you read held in it a kernel of truth, meant to record the knowledge of his people, but it was a truth designed to drive the reader to despair. For it is in despair that the curse takes root, and it was Mîm’s design to bring new servants to the Enemy. Knowing that, and what he suffered, I think he deserves our pity, and perhaps our understanding, but not our trust.”

“So those tablets were meant as a trap,” Thorin said, grimacing to himself. A trap he had blundered right into in his eagerness to learn more of the ailment, sealing his own fate.

“Indeed, and may very well be the reason for the speed of your malady, though I confess that alone does not seem to be enough,” Gandalf said, looking owlishly at Thorin, his brows drawing together as he did as if studying a mystery that yet eluded him. “Never before have I witnessed anything like it, Thorin. Even in the First Age, when Morgoth prepared for his assault on Gondolin, I never heard of a transformation so swift. Such dwarves that could escape his grasp came to the healers of the Elves, or to their own people for aid. Many ended their own lives rather than give in to the disease. Even so, those unfortunate souls had only the first stages of the transformation, with scales covering their skin, and this after months of contact with cursed gold.”

Thorin stilled, a chill washing him through that had nothing to do with the winter wind. He remembered his own change, skin flaking away to reveal scales that covered his body in a matter of days. Dread settled into his body like a stone.  “How is that possible?”

Gandalf shook his head. “I know not. Bilbo suggested the cause lay the length of time Smaug spent upon the gold, the sheer quantity of it within Erebor, which surely surpasses all but the wealthiest kingdoms of the First and Second Age.”

“Perhaps it is only the weakness of the host,” Thorin said, a sick feeling twisting within him. Could that not be the case? A fault-line running through his family, made manifest within him, so that the steps between dwarf and dragon were only few, and quickly closed. He ran a hand down his forearm unconsciously, fingertips stopping to test again the blunt ends of his nails.

Gandalf’s brow drew together and he frowned down at Thorin. “Weakness? No, I should think it was not weakness at all. To tear oneself free of the Shadow by willpower alone is a remarkable feat."

Thorin snorted. "Remarkable? Against that creature? The only thing remarkable was how long it took for me to see how small and pathetic it truly was."

Gandalf shook his head, frowning. "Thorin, I sensed a darkness nested within you that set loose would have covered the mountain and all the surrounding lands in shadow. Can you imagine the power it takes to turn one living being into another, much less a dwarf, who is created from the bones of the earth itself? Your people are resistant to evil in a manner that no other race can boast, for anything to change a dwarf requires the most ancient and powerful of magic. Small and pathetic? A host of wizards would have been hard pressed to tear away a single scale."

Thorin's eyebrows rose and he rocked back, speechless, as he thought back to the voice within his head, the dragon that had seemed less than a garden lizard once finally confronted. "You ascribe such power to my people, and yet you seem to hold us in little better esteem than do the elves, thinking we may be easily tempted by evil," Thorin said, and it was as much a question as an accusation.

"Quite the contrary, if I am wary of the temptation dwarves may feel, it is because should they fall, other races will not be far behind. For when it comes to standing firm against the shadow, there is no force greater than that of the dwarves.”

Thorin eyed Gandalf, searching for some sign of mockery or deceit. “Thank you,” he said grudgingly, finding none. He looked back to the mountain, frowning.

“There is something more that troubles you?” Gandalf said.

“Why?” Thorin spoke the word softly, half to himself, then looked up to Gandalf.

“Why did I aid in the recovery of one of the greatest kingdoms of Middle Earth?” Gandalf said with some amusement, before sobering. “I think it cannot be understated the good it will bring to the world to have Erebor once again strong in the North. However, as to aiding your people, it was because in the end, it was your birthright, and you had been hard done by.”

“I imagine it fit very well in to your broader plans, whatever those may be, to have the ruler of a powerful kingdom in your debt,” Thorin growled. “A stronghold, and army you may call upon, and the ear of his—his closest companion.”

Gandalf leaned on his staff, frowning down at Thorin. “I think perhaps I should be flattered by your faith in me, but it is not my place to re-write the destinies of the people of Middle Earth. My power is not endless, and my knowledge is not infinite. All I may do is encourage those who already have the will to help one another. Yes it is true that I aided you and your people because you were enemies of Smaug, but it was because I am sworn to aid all the good races of Middle Earth, the Dwarves no less than Elves and Men."

"And Hobbits," Thorin murmured.

Gandalf chuckled. "And Hobbits, for whom I have been noted to have a particular fondness. One that I have been questioned for in the past, by certain parties that for the moment will remain nameless." Thorin kept his gaze downcast but could practically hear the damned twinkle in Gandalf's eye.

"Yes, yes. I was wrong in doubting Master Baggins," Thorin said, waving a dismissive hand and attempting to disguise his chagrin. He was not here to talk of Bilbo, or hear the inevitable- if deserved- ‘I told you so’ from Gandalf. "In the future I will not be so quick to doubt your... eye for quality." Had he spoken Khuzdûl he would have used a word for a miner’s unerring instinct to find pure veins even amongst the hardest dross. Westron could be wretchedly imprecise in such things, but no doubt Gandalf read more into their relationship than Thorin would have otherwise wished. They'd hardly been subtle about it when the curse broke.

"My eye for quality, as you say, does not stop at Hobbits any more than my aid does," Gandalf said, still in that infuriatingly gentle tone. There was a rustle of movement and Thorin started, looking first in shock then irritation as Gandalf crouched beside him. Did he think to mock Thorin's height with his own unnaturally tall form? Thorin bristled. Until he saw that Gandalf was looking up at him, and there was no mockery voice. There was sincerity, and he was no longer looking the quixotic and annoying Wizard who wore the guise of a Man. "It was not only my duty to lend you what small aid I could for your recovery, it was my privilege. And that is why I sent Bilbo to you alone.”

“To send him into the mountain, knowing the dangers he faced… that, Gandalf, I cannot so easily forgive. Another could have easily served in my place as king,” Thorin said earnestly. “The far wiser course would have been to slay me out of hand, even if the cure could be found. To attempt otherwise nearly cost Bilbo his life.”

“As for risking Bilbo, I’m not sure I could have stopped him—” Gandalf said wryly, then sobered. For he seemed to see something in Thorin that made him solemn. He searched Thorin’s face with eyes that held only kindness. “Thorin, Bilbo went to you under no one’s power but his own, because he believed it was worth the risk, and in truth, I don’t believe any cure I would have had to offer would have worked had I arrived with him. The darkness upon you was greater than the dragon sickness, and still I see its shadow upon you: this belief that your life is of little value.”

“Hardly a belief,” Thorin scoffed. Why had his voice gone hoarse? It was a labor to speak, his throat tight despite his efforts.

“Thorin,” Gandalf said, his brow drawing together, as if seeing something for the first time. “It is true that others could have served in your place, but as well? After all your battles and sacrifices? No. Erebor may have had another ruler, but it would not have had its king. Yet even if you had not been, had you lived utterly apart from all such great destinies, powers, and purposes," Gandalf took Thorin's slack hand in his own dry, wrinkled palms, "Thorin, you are worth saving."

Thorin tried to speak, but found that words had abandoned him. He could not bear to keep Gandalf’s gaze, and looked past him to the gates of Erebor. His home wavered in his vision, the braziers a golden smudge against the stone. He blinked, looking up to clear his vision, but still could not bear to speak. He nodded to Gandalf in acknowledgement and the wizard released his hand and stood.

“It is getting late, and my pipe seems to be finished,” Gandalf said, looking to the long stemmed pipe and away from Thorin. After a moment it was easier to breathe and Thorin cleared his throat, straightening. The wind was growing colder, sharper, which could be the only explanation for the dampness at the corner of his eye as he mastered himself. “I imagine you are expected?”

“So long as the rebuilding continues, I’m sure I will always be needed somewhere,” Thorin said, managing a soft chuckle, though his voice was thick.

“That,” Gandalf said, “was not what I meant.” But he said nothing further on the matter, and on some silent signal that Thorin had not known to exist between them, they began to walk back towards the gates.

They parted way at the entrance, Gandalf to the quarters leant to him within the city, and Thorin found himself wandering the corridors to the royal wing. A room of his own had been prepared, but so lost in thought was he, dwelling on Gandalf’s words, that he did not notice until long after he had passed them that he had wandered to Bilbo’s door. 

It was understandable, after all he’d spent his days and nights in a chair by Bilbo’s bed until the worst of the danger had past. He slept there often as not, unless Óin shooed him away to find his own rest, fretting as he did over any lingering hurt from Thorin’s encounter with dragon sickness.

Thorin’s hand hovered before the door, then fell back to his side. Bilbo would be within now, no doubt sleeping due to the late hour, recovering from injuries Thorin had inflicted. His presence could only serve to disrupt the hobbit’s much-needed rest. And what right did he have, in any case, to invite himself in to Bilbo’s room? Some days spent sleeping side by side, or camping on the road, were hardly excuses once the journey was ended. Thorin had his own quarters, and Bilbo his. They could see one another in the morning, when the days light made the lingering questions between them clearer. Thorin had no doubt that Bilbo would keep to his word, that he truly did wish to stay in Erebor and at Thorin’s side. That there was even affection, even love as Bilbo so often assured him.

But Thorin had been greedy once, and nearly lost all he had and all he was to it. It made him all the more aware of little moments of selfishness, of taking what was not given. Too much to process so soon after a day spent negotiating with enemies and tentative friends. Thorin turned away, seeking his own room, and only spared one glance back over his shoulder. If there was a light flickering beneath the door, then surely it was only his imagination.


Bilbo awoke to the sound of receding footsteps, and cursed himself for doing so. He’d only managed to snatch a few moment’s sleep the whole night, and the candle was burning low from his attempt to banish the darkness. His breathing was too loud in his ears, the room cavernous and empty. He closed his eyes again, squinching them shut as he tried to force himself back to sleep. The emptiness beside his bed was like a hole sucking the rest from him. It put his heart in his throat.

Foolish to expect Thorin to return here after the negotiations. He had his own quarters, his own life to attend to now that the illness was cured and Erebor reclaimed. He would find Thorin in the morning, find some time when he would not be a burden.

Bilbo had no claim on him, after all.

Chapter Text

No rest did Thorin find that night, for all his good intentions. The royal quarters were beyond repair— his own room and those of his family all those years before— for they had been lined with gold and precious stones and therefore had not survived Smaug’s greed. The chamber found to replace it was simple enough, if massive, and made all the more cavernous by how it lacked the many tapestries and decorative gilding. The dwarves of Erebor and the Iron Hills had clearly thought the size was deserving of Thorin’s rank, with only one problem.

Dragon sickness had conferred one benefit, if it could be called that, but since he’d fallen ill Thorin had not known true darkness. The glow of his cursed eyes had illuminated his way, and keen dragon eyes had made even the dimmest light seem bright as midday, the ability gone along with the scales and claws. The few candles that could be spared were hardly enough to illuminate Thorin’s room, and he was not so wasteful as to use them through the night. Despite how exhaustion had weighed down his limbs and eyelids during the council sessions, sleep eluded him, and Thorin found no comfort even in pacing. He returned to his bed, and stared up at the blackness that surrounded him, with only the sound of his own breathing for company.

It’s gone, it’s done, Thorin reminded himself in annoyance. He would not awake a stranger in his own body, the passing of each night bringing with it new transformations, scales spreading, claws lengthening. He would no longer lose days, no longer needed to fear another take over of his mind as well as his body in his moments of unconscious. These things he told himself, and still the night closed in around him, strange in its solitude.


Bilbo did not know when he dropped off finally, but he woke shivering, his hand reaching compulsively, seeking Thorin and finding nothing.

This brought Bilbo fully awake, terror clawing at his throat as his hand fisted in the sheet and his eyes flew open. Gone. Thorin was gone and the dragon had taken him, or he had finally given up, going off into the darkness to die, he’d left without a goodbye, without giving Bilbo a chance one more time to talk him out of his despair, just one more chance…

Bleary, nightmare-soaked thoughts dissipated as Bilbo’s frightened gasps brought him awake the rest of the way. His breathing slowed, and he looked around in confusion. At some point in the night he’d kicked the blankets free, and hence the goose bumps that dotted his skin. Of course Thorin was not here, he had quarters of his own.

There was no chance of falling back to sleep, not after that, and from the sounds of movement outside his door Bilbo suspected that outside the sun had risen. Erebor was stirring once more to life. Caution overruled the worst of his early-morning grouchiness, and before moving, Bilbo first ran a hand over his belly, testing at the stitches beneath his nightshirt. After a bit of careful shifting, Bilbo wiggled his toes and swung his legs over the edge of the bed, feeling quite bold as he risked standing.

Not…bad… Bilbo determined after a moment swaying on his feet. His vision spotted, but that was more likely the blood rushing from his head after so long lying down. The wound stung a little, but as far a he could tell it was quite manageable. He found the washbasin at the corner of the room, and though the water was cold, it was still a relief to wash his face and neck before changing into a set of the clothes that had been left in a pile beside the basic. They were clearly meant for dwarves, and so too broad across the shoulders and chest. At least he was not swimming in them, as he would have been clothing meant for Men, or worse: clothing meant for Men’s children.

Something glinted at the bottom of the pile, beneath a pair of completely unnecessary woolen socks, and Bilbo paused, his fingers tracing over the links of the mithril shirt. It spilled like water as he lifted it, the links slick and cool beneath his hand. Bilbo held it up, his eye was drawn to a slight discoloration in the metal at the bottom. Someone had taken the effort to mend the links pierced by the dragon’s claw with steel, or perhaps more mithril, and the imperfection was visible even to Bilbo’s untrained eye.

He stared at it a long time before slipping it over his head, wincing to feel the light tug of the stitches. Bilbo looked down at himself, still feeling faintly ridiculous to be clad in armor, but after the addition of a wide leather belt and a blue woolen coat over it Bilbo felt at least presentable, if not the gentlehobbit he’d once been.

The halls of Erebor were busier than the main square of Hobbiton on market day, with the same busy, cheerful air. Dwarves were hard at work wherever he walked, pulling wagonfulls of stone, clearing rubble, and sweeping away dust. Somewhere, in the great hall of the kings with its tapestried walls and a floor now paved with gold, the dead were laid out in state awaiting their final burial. Each day another hall was cleared, another room repaired, and that number grew. Yet there was a feeling of peace in it, of closure, as souls were put to rest who had already waited too long. Though the work would not be done overnight, Erebor was already well on the way to being a living city once again.

White light streamed in from high above and rounding the corner Bilbo saw the front gate, cleared now of most of the rubble that once covered it. Though he meant to continue on to the throne room, and the corridor that made up the new royal wing where Thorin now dwelled, Bilbo stopped and stared at the first glimpse of true sunlight he’d seen in weeks. It was a cold light— winter’s light, thin and pale—and the most beautiful Bilbo had ever seen. He closed his eyes, feeling the weak play of its warmth over his skin, breathing a sigh of relief he’d not realized he’d been holding.

A hand closed over his shoulder, jerking Bilbo from his reverie. He spun to see Óin glaring down at him.

“I’m sorry, did we have an appointment?” Bilbo said, baffled by Óin’s stern expression. Bilbo could have sworn that the palace was a maze, yet the dwarves seemed to have an unerring sense of Erebor, and where to find him within it.

You should still be abed, laddie,” growled Óin.

“I was just searching for Thorin. Look, I checked the bandages before I went, it’s healing just fine, and it’s not as if I’m doing anything strenuous…” Bilbo protested.

“Aye, and if you were a dwarf I’d already have you out running laps around the mountain, but I’ve not worked with many wounded hobbits before, and I’ll not be leaving anything to chance,” Óin replied, crossing his arms.

“Excuse me,” Bilbo said, his ire rising. It was not as if he were delicate. “I’m feeling perfectly all right, and I’ve been in bed for days as it is. Now, I trust your judgment Óin, and I’m grateful for your help, but I really must protest…”

“Leave your protests with Thorin, since he’s the one that’ll gut me if any harm comes to you. Anyway, you’ve already missed him, he’s been away hammering out those treaties since sun-up.”

“And how long will that be?” Bilbo said, exasperated.

Óin sucked at his teeth for a moment and shrugged. “That, my lad, depends entirely on whether Thorin can keep his temper.”


“I do not withhold the gold for my sake, but for yours,” Thorin explained for what felt like the hundredth time that day.

“How are we to know that you will not cheat us? It would not be the first time Erebor’s king has gone back on his promise of aid, and we have no time to lose. Winter will soon be upon us, and we must rebuild before it comes!” Bard said, pounding the flat of his hand on the table as he spoke.

“And you shall have enough gold to rebuild, I will not begrudge it to you,” Thorin said, in what he thought was a very patient and reasonable tone. Until Bard gave a derisive snort at his words and Thorin had to bite back a snarl.

Thranduil was blessedly absent from these proceedings, seeing to his own people, and his time would come the next day. Yet Gandalf was still there, and Thorin did not even need to look to see he was giving him a warning glance. As if Thorin needed reminding of the madness that led him to deny Dale’s compensation in the first place.

Thorin pinched the bridge of his nose, struggling for the words to explain what to dwarves was a simple concept, but to Men seemed incomprehensible. “If I give you the share you request all at once, your people will not have the gold to buy food by the end of next year. The very reason for this is that there will be so many coins flooding your market that no amount will be enough to buy bread. All will be worthless, and you will see the true value of gold when it cannot be eaten, or forged into weapons. Do you have no grasp of what I’m saying?”

“What is your proposal, then?” Bard said, the edge of suspicion still sharp in his voice.

“We will release the gold as needed, but in controlled amounts so that Dale may be prosperous but not destroyed by its wealth. Why do you think the coin of Erebor was guarded within the treasury, rather than put into circulation?” Thorin said, forcing himself to speak slowly, and with small words.

“Your Majesty, I’m sure I cannot speculate on why dwarves do anything,” Bard said, eyes narrowing.

All right, that was it.

“There are not enough goods this side of the Misty Mountains for us to spend it on!” Thorin exploded. “Had we tried, the value of gold itself would have been lost. I thought you were a smuggler, do you understand nothing of trade?” Thorin rose half out of his chair, and only realized he’d begun shouting when a hand closed over his arm.

“You’ve made your attempt, Majesty, perhaps it is time cooler heads prevailed? By your leave,” Balin said. Thorin gave a sharp nod and stood, gesturing for Balin to take his place at the negotiation table. Bard settled back and folded his arms over his chest, relaxing and nodding in agreement. More the fool he, Balin was the canniest bargainer Thorin had ever known, all hidden behind a twinkling eye and a grandfather’s snowy beard. Bard would be lucky to leave with his shirt if Erebor had truly meant to keep the promised gold. Thorin had not even made it to the door when Gandalf rose too, and he stopped in his tracks.

“I believe I shall take my leave as well. I trust Master Balin will hold to his king’s fair standard of treatment, and I’m afraid trade policies are not my strongest suit.” Gandalf turned to Thorin. “As such, I have little more to add to these proceedings. King Thorin, I believe you and I have the same destination, and person, in mind?”

Thorin was grateful for the high collar of his tunic that hid his swallow, though surely he was staring like a startled dwarfling. Was he truly so transparent? He’d not known himself until a second before that he now had time to seek out Bilbo. How had the wizard…?

“Of that I cannot be sure, Master Gandalf, as I have give up my attempts to predict the ways of wizards,” Thorin managed, recovering his decorum and with it a neutral expression. “But it is ever my pleasure to walk in your company.”

Balin looked about ready to swallow his pipe in shock at the exchange, understandably, given Thorin’s hostility towards the wizard only the day before. But to Thorin’s mind it was a pointed discussion, and not for Gandalf’s benefit. Thranduil may disdain the wizard’s advice, but Bard did not have the Elvenking’s arrogance, and it paid to remind him that one of the few wizards that walked Middle Earth had done so in the Company of Thorin Oakenshield. Especially when Bard was being difficult about measures that were intended for his own good. Perhaps he was beginning to understand Gandalf’s frustration with those he tried to help, Thorin included.

Now there was a frightening thought.

Thorin nodded for Gandalf to follow him into the city, where the hubbub was such that few even noticed the arrival of their king, and those that did only had a moment to incline their heads in acknowledgement, too weighted down by heavy beams or stone to offer more. Not that Thorin would have had it any other way, but at the moment his attention was elsewhere.

“It’s not as if I’m planning to haul stone from one end of the city to another; I’m going for a walk,” Bilbo exclaimed, and it looked very much as if he was trying to keep from exploding. He gestured as he spoke, each one more violent than the last. “Maybe you lot can stand months cooped up underground, but we hobbits need the sun! Not to mention I dread to think what is going on in those tents. You say Thorin is negotiating with Thranduil right now? Good heavens, we’re going to be at war again within the month!”

“I cannot say if it’s the poncy elf he’s talkin’ to as such,” Óin said, raising his impressive eyebrows and nodding over Bilbo’s shoulder. “But if you like, you can ask him yourself.”

Bilbo turned, and the breath froze in Thorin’s throat at the sight of Bilbo in the sunlight, the way the winter light bathed the flagstones and shone in his hair. It felt an age since he’d last seen such a sight. Not since their words at the gate, and that time was hazy with rage and sickness. How had he ever looked away? The life was back in Bilbo’s face and bearing, anger flushing his cheeks though that was quickly fading. He wore a dark wool cloak, and beneath it the mithril shirt that had been all Thorin could give to protect him the battle, and the dragon’s wrath. From his own wrath.

He loved him, so terribly much it felt he’d overflow with it all in that second. How had he ever forgotten? How terrible was the illness of his line that it could make him forget it, so lost in darkness he could see nothing else?

Thorin did not know if Bilbo wore the mithril shirt from fear, or because it was Thorin’s gift. Yet the sight made it real again, that he was alive, standing and not surrounded by the many pillows of his sick bed. There was sunlight around them, and other dwarves, and while he had known it for many days now in his mind, Thorin suddenly felt that it truly would be all right.

It was Bilbo who made the first move, padding towards Thorin who stood transfixed. Bilbo gives him a wry grin, uncertain and a bit sheepish, quirking an eyebrow up at Thorin. “I’ve been looking for you.”

“It seems a habit of yours lately,” Thorin said softly, inclining his head. The bustle of the halls fell away, and it was only the two of them, as much as it had ever been.

“Yes, for longer than I realized,” Bilbo said, quiet and somehow thoughtful as he looked up at Thorin.

“Council sessions. I am afraid those will be a habit of mine for the foreseeable future,” Thorin apologized. “There is much work yet to be done, and much I must make up for, thanks to my absence.”

“I understand,” Bilbo said, lip twitching. “Just as long as you’re not avoiding me.”

“I—” Thorin began, and saw the subtle shift in Bilbo’s expression. Worry, words building at the tip of his tongue, body swaying all but imperceptibly towards Thorin as his fingers curled at his side. Ah. “I’m sorry. I am here now.”

Bilbo relaxed. “Quite right.”

“It is only that I would not intrude on your rest,” Thorin said, feeling that something more was required, some explanation. “Or ask for more than was freely given.”

“My rest?” Bilbo blinked. “What do you…?” Words failed Thorin, and he moved in closer, so that Bilbo had to look up at him. He reached forward, perhaps some part of himself needing to be reassured that Bilbo was really here. His hand hovered at Bilbo’s shoulder then traced downward. It shook, and he could not bring himself to actually touch Bilbo.

Thorin’s gaze flickered to Bilbo’s face and his breath caught, expecting Bilbo to flinch away. How could he not, to be confronted once again with the cause of his injury?

Bilbo frowned, glancing down and back up again, nose crinkling. Then he took Thorin’s hand, Thorin stiffening at the contact, and pressed it to his side, just above the wound.

Perhaps Thorin’s expression gave it away, because Bilbo’s expression crumpled for just an instant, one of those flitting emotions that were so quickly covered. “Oh, Thorin. We talked about this.”

Thorin was silent, shame choking off the words when he felt fingertips on his face, guiding his chin up to look at Bilbo. “It’s healing just fine, I can assure you. Look, can this wait a moment?” Bilbo said, pitching his voice loud enough to carry to Óin, who was hovering closer than Thorin remembered, indeed he’d forgotten they had an audience at all. Bilbo cast an irritated glance over his shoulder at Óin, with a nod towards Thorin. Then he turned back, lowering his voice and leaning in a gesture of startling intimacy. “I know who did this, Thorin, and I know who did not. So I would feel much better if you wiped that kicked-puppy look off your face and stop needlessly worrying yourself.”

“I do not…” Thorin began, much at Bilbo’s little smirk he subsided, and huffed out a breath. Perhaps he was being excessive, certainly no dwarf would appreciate such concern, and Bilbo had proven himself tough as any. He offered a faint smile of his own back. “I am glad to see you on your feet again.”

“Glad to be there,” Bilbo replied, straightening. “Still, it seems we are overdue for a talk. Are you free now? It’s just about time for luncheon, and if I spend another hour in that bed I’m going to go stark raving...”

“Oh, no you don’t!” Thorin started as a hand clamped down on his shoulder, the other clapping down on Bilbo so his knees buckled. “Mister Boggins, glad to see you’re up!” Kíli then rounded on Thorin, who then saw that Fíli was a little ways off with his arms crossed. “As for you, dear uncle, I think you have avoided us long enough.”

“Excuse me,” Bilbo sputtered with no small amount of outrage, “we were having a discussion, in case you were unaware. A private one.”

Kíli perked up, and turned to Bilbo, taking his hand from Thorin’s shoulder and taking Bilbo’s in each. His expression became solemn and he fairly radiated sincerity. “And I swear to you, you will have the rest of your lives together, but we,” he pointed an accusing finger at Thorin, guiding Bilbo to follow it, “need to have a serious talk.”

“If you wish to spend your days in negotiations with Dale and Mirkwood, you’re welcome to take my place,” Thorin remarked. “I have not had a moment to myself until this very hour.”

“We know, because you spent every waking moment before that at Bilbo’s bedside,” Kíli said, rolling his eyes.

“Wait, what?”  Bilbo said, except Fíli stepped forward, cutting him off as he faced off with Thorin.

“Thorin, you still have not told us what occurred down here,” Fíli said. “We’re your family, and this affects all of us. The last time we saw you was before the walls came down around the mountain and you were…not well.”

Indeed, he had not been. Thorin remembered the suspicion that darkened his mind, when even his own family seemed to have turned against him. It was like a fever dream now, the world painted in shadows and gold. Fíli was frowning at him, and there was not the same humor about him that Kíli had. Fíli looked serious. He looked like a king. Thorin shifted, aware suddenly of how childish his actions were, unwitting as they may have been. He had not meant to avoid them, or any of them. He simply did not know where to begin. “I am recovered now,” Thorin finally said. “And you need not fear that this curse will spread to you…”

“That’s not what we’re worried about, Thorin,” Fíli said. “We were worried about you. We still are, and we will continue to be until you talk to us.”

“Oh, go with them,” Bilbo sighed. “They’re right, Thorin, we’ve been terribly selfish about this. You and I can catch up later. But,” he waggled a warning finger at Thorin, “I will be expecting you.”

“Never fear, Bilbo, we’ll return him to you in one piece,” Kíli said, and before Thorin could launch any defense, indeed even protest the interruption, there was a hand on each shoulder guiding him away from Bilbo. There was just the right amount of pressure to suggest that if he did not walk, they would drag him.

“You know, I once had respectful nephews, ones who obeyed their uncle,” Thorin muttered as they walked.

“Yes, Thorin,” Kíli said cheerfully. “That was before you locked yourself inside the mountain for a week.”


Bilbo could only shake his head as Thorin was dragged away by his nephews, head bowed as if he were already the victim of the inevitable tongue-lashing. Truth be told, he could not blame them if it was true that Thorin’s avoidance tactics had spread to all his kith and kin. He felt a thread of unease at the thought of the two plying Thorin with questions, as there were certain elements of their time dealing with Thorin’s sickness that were rather… intimate, and surely the Baggins side balked at the thought of airing that information, to close family members no less. Yet there was no choice but to trust to Thorin’s discretion, and Bilbo turned back to where Gandalf still stood waiting, leaning on his staff. Then, to Bilbo’s chagrin, he realized Óin was still there too, waiting expectantly.

“Yes, yes, back to my room, I know!” Bilbo huffed. Óin nodded and grinned, once again blessed with perfect hearing as he so often miraculously did whenever it meant getting his way. Bilbo sighed, and looked up to the wizard. “Though I’m quite certain I shan’t sleep a wink. Gandalf, would you consider joining me for luncheon?”

“I was just about to ask you the very same, my dear Bilbo,” Gandalf said, leaning down. “Business may call me away any day now, and I did not wish to depart without speaking to you first.”

“Excellent, I’ll have some sent around. I assume luncheon is acceptable?” Bilbo said to Óin.

“Oh, aye, just so long as you don’t go trotting off again,” Óin said, with far more self-satisfaction than Bilbo felt was strictly speaking warranted.


The food was polished off in short order, and Bilbo found he was far too hungry to do more than listen and chew as Gandalf gave him a recap of all that had happened in the council sessions. It was not until only crumbs remained that Bilbo realized, with a heavy heart only slightly offset by a full stomach, that he must now provide his own half.

“You don’t seem overly eager to share,” Gandalf observed as Bilbo settled back in the chair, wincing a little as the wound tugged. A minor discomfort, thankfully growing more minor by the day.

“Oh no, it’s not that, it’s only…” Bilbo trailed off, not sure how to encapsulate it all.

“Perhaps some tea then?” Gandalf said. “I know on my part it often helps matters.”

“Gandalf, my old friend,” Bilbo sighed. “I’m not sure there’s enough tea in the world.”

Nevertheless, he was not one to oppose the idea and this time Gandalf volunteered to play host, so that it was only a short time later that Bilbo accepted a steaming cup. He warmed his hands against it as he choose his words. Gandalf sat across from him, neither pushing not showing the least bit of impatience at all.

Then he began, well, where all such stories must. At the beginning.

“After you left me at the entrance which, by the way, I’m still a bit miffed about, I had just begun to make my way down the tunnels when I heard the most unearthly cry…”


Unlike Gandalf, the heirs of Erebor were not so patient when it came to allowing Thorin to finish his meal. They were mirrors of a sort, as Fíli settled back with his arms folded across his chest and a raised eyebrow, waiting, while Kíli leaned forward with his arms clasped in front of him, wearing an expectant smile for Thorin to begin his tale.

The rest of the food would have to wait, Thorin thought with a sigh as he pushed away the plate of bread, cheese, and far more greens than was proper for any dwarf. Not that beggars could be choosers, and at the moment Mirkwood was their main source of supplies.

He looked to his nephews, an unexpected and terrible wave of fondness flooding him suddenly, his irritation falling away as it struck him. He had never thought to have this again, and so easily might not have had matters gone differently. He had not thought of it as avoidance, but realized in retrospect it had been exactly that. A desire to have everything in order again, to make up for all his mistakes, Bilbo’s injuries, Erebor’s allies and the results of his absence, before he saw to matters closer to the heart. So much had been done to keep Fíli and Kíli from seeing the extent of the dragon sickness, all futile in the end. Perhaps that was why he’d kept his distance, fearing that he would see the reflection of the creature he’d become in their eyes, leaving that stain upon their image of Erebor, of a cursed place that brought out the monstrous in their kin rather than the home it had been to him.

Nothing but honesty would do now, as ever, and he would have to bear the cut to the bone it brought with it. Yet he was never one to turn away from pain, or from fear. Thorin squared himself, intent as he addressed each of them head on. Beginning at the end, because there was no other way to explain it.

“I lost myself, as I’m sure you know when you saw the effects of the curse, even if I wish you had not. Perhaps you will not believe me if I tell you the physical manifestation was the least of it. The mark of a path that I set myself upon by my own will. I lost myself to anger, and pride, and petty malice, as much as I did to a curse laid upon our line long ago. If not for Master Baggins, I may never have found my way back.”


“There is that name again, Mîm,” Gandalf remarked, while Bilbo took a sip of his tea to wet a throat gone dry from talking. He nodded, having already gone through several cups, and still he felt his nerves taut as harp strings, and that was before getting to the worst of it. That being said, there was something calming about relating it all, of putting it all to words and hoping to make some sense of it. There was still too much that was only between him and Thorin, and very little purpose in repeating what they had both seen, what words would never be sufficient to fully encapsulate. However, telling it to Gandalf allowed him to set some of that aside, to go down to the bare facts of the matter, without the swirling confusion and anxiety. The not-insignificant amount of love made it all so fraught and difficult at times, when walking away would have been easier if only that option had ever occurred to him.

“Yes, Thorin seemed to believe that the failure of his ancestors to protect the Petty-dwarves resulted in their fall to the shadows, as some matter of vengeance,” Bilbo added. “He found the tablets in the library, as I understand.”

“Indeed. Perhaps not all that willing, at least not all of them,” Gandalf said. “Though without a doubt there were Petty-dwarves who turned to Morgoth for aid after many wrongs were committed against them. As for Mîm, he is a…complicated figure. He resisted the Shadow, and escaped with his sons, yet regretted his decision to do so when tragedy found him in his home. As I said to Thorin, I believe he deserves our pity, if not our blind trust in his version of events. He had his own reasons for all he did, as a result of grief, as I’m sure many here with us today can appreciate.” Bilbo frowned at this contemplatively, and Gandalf continued. “Those were dark days for all, Bilbo. The Enemy worked many foul deeds upon the children of Middle Earth, but the lines were not so clear then between justice and vengeance, for goodness and wisdom were not always present. Elves hunted dwarves, dwarves killed elves, and caught in between were the petty-dwarves who found safety where they could. A great evil came of it, but they cannot be blamed for that, and certainly the Longbeards of this Age bear no responsibility for that crime.”

“But will it happen again, Gandalf?” Bilbo said, looking up from his cup, his feet swinging from the overly tall chair. “Is it possible for another dragon to arise, or Thorin’s illness to return?”

“There are some few cold drakes who still make their abode in the mountains of the north, but they are a solitary bunch with little interest in the treasure hoards of the warmer climes. Smaug was the last of the fire drakes in this realm, and gold may only be corrupted to the point of transformation by the presence of a living dragon. Anything is possible, of course, but I’m tempted to say no, this is truly the last time.”

Bilbo let out a breath he did not realize he’d been holding, and drained the last of his tea. “Well, thank goodness,” he said. “A nasty, uncomfortable business it was.”


“There’s still a matter I do not understand, Thorin,” Fíli said. “First you tell us that Bilbo waited for days with you while you were certain you were going to die, or worse.”

“Still not forgiving you for that one,” Kíli grumbled beside him.

“So you’re saying that you were completely convinced that our burglar had gone against your wishes, which, by the way that seems hardly fair given you broke your word first…” Fíli continued, ignoring his brother.

“What exactly is your question, Fíli?” Thorin sighed, feeling the sting of shame to hear it laid out so plainly. He tolerated the questions nonetheless. Explaining it all in such bald terms had left him reeling internally. At the time it had all seemed so sensible, so logical that all hope was gone, that he was only humoring Bilbo in his final hours. Now, though…

“What did he do to convince you, after the throne, that he had not sent for us? I hate to say it, Thorin, but you’re not the most trusting person, and he’s not even a dwarf. Now, we all saw the way you looked at him.” Thorin felt heat rise to his cheeks at this, and looked away. “But it must have taken something fairly serious for you to believe he was looking out for your best interests, what with the Arkenstone.”

“I… he…” Thorin stopped his fingers just short of his lips, where they had drifted without his knowing, and instead scrubbed a hand over his face, a common enough reaction when dealing with his nephews. He was hardly going to give them the details of that pain and confusion, when Bilbo had confessed that he stayed for love of Thorin, and all had suddenly made sense again. The silence stretched, and as Fíli looked more perplexed a broad, slow grin began to spread over Kíli’s face.

“I think I have some idea,” Kíli said, eyes sparkling. Fíli looked from Kíli, and then to Thorin, who was now glowering at his younger nephew.

“What?” Fíli said.

“What Master Baggins said to convince me was a private matter, and no concern of yours,” Thorin said, aiming for steady dignity, but at the slight waver in his voice at the word ‘private’ Kíli’s grin spread so far it seemed he would hurt himself.

“Of course, Thorin,” Kíli said, as Fíli’s look of confusion deepened.

“What in the… Come now, Kíli, what are you two on about?” Fíli said.

“Maybe when you’re older,” Kíli said with a sidelong grin at his brother, ignoring Thorin’s growing scowl.

Fíli’s eyebrows shot up as understanding dawned. His expression turned blank, then aghast as he whipped around to stare at Thorin. “Uncle? But you had scales, claws! I saw them!”

“What? What in Durin’s name does that have to do with anything… Kíli!” Kíli was doubled over now, laughing so hard it seemed he would choke himself to death.  “Whatever you are thinking, it is not what happened. Even if it was, it would be none of your business. Master Baggins was extremely…” Kíli howled, “eloquent, in his pleas that I should give him my trust.”

“Yes… None of my business… that at least is something we can agree on,” Fíli said, and Thorin had the inevitable feeling that of the three of them, he could no longer be counted as the one with the most dignity.


“There is one thing I do not understand, Bilbo. How in the world did you manage to convince Thorin that you were only looking out for him, once he levied accusations at you of being a spy? He is not the most trusting fellow, after all,” Gandalf said. The tea was long gone, the fire burning low as Bilbo’s tale dragged long past sunset.

Never let it be said that a hobbit could not hold his own when it came to the treacherous social fields of teatime conversation. He was hardly going to tell Gandalf, of all people, that confessing his love to Thorin was what drew him back from the brink. Bilbo’s face remained utterly impassive at the question; he even took a moment to appear to consider the question as he sipped his tea. “My dear Gandalf, I’m sure I have no idea what you mean. Even if I did, I should think that after all the secrets that have been kept from us, we deserve a few of our own.” He added an arched eyebrow to the last, along with a pointed glare.

“And I would not dream of intruding where I am not welcome,” Gandalf said, all too innocently for the fact it was a blatant lie. He did not add more, and as the silence stretched Bilbo entertained for a brief instant the possibility that the matter was dropped, preparing to continue with his story when Gandalf suddenly piped up. “Only, I imagine it took an act of kindness, and love, to keep that darkness at bay.”

“Perhaps,” Bilbo acknowledged, “but only a small one.”


“From there, I carried Master Baggins to the treasury for aid, and the rest you saw,” Thorin said, relieved to finally have the tale behind him after so many hours. Any peace he might have hoped to gain by relating the story was easily counterbalanced by the sheer amount of grief they gave him every step of the way.

Kíli gave a long whistle of shock. “Bilbo is going to kill you if he finds out you made that bargain to save his life.”

“Honestly, Thorin, what were you thinking, giving that thing a way into Erebor?” Fíli added.

“It’s not as if I had a choice in the matter,” Thorin snapped.

“No choice?” Fíli exclaimed, but Kíli was the one who stopped him this time, patting his brother’s shoulders to calm him.

“Not for him there wasn’t, Fíli,” Kíli said, with gravity Thorin had not come to expect from his younger nephew.

“Excuse me?” Fíli said, frowning.

“Just another of those things you’ll understand—” Kíli began.

“If you say, ‘when you’re older’, Kíli, I swear—! ” Fíli said. “And anyway, I’m the elder, where exactly has this great romantic wisdom of yours come from?”

“We’ve already talked about it,” Kíli said, and there was gentleness to his tone, a faint blush to his cheeks. “It changes you, you see things different when you’re in love with someone. There is no choice, in the end, and you’ll do all sorts of mad things to protect them. Tauriel, well… let’s just say I’m happy for Thorin. He’s a bit of a late bloomer, but it’ll be good for him, having someone around who makes him feel alive.”

Thorin was silent at this exchange. Love indeed, and alive? Yes, that could be said as well. Certainly it brought from within him the will to live, which he had not known was absent before. He loved Bilbo, truly, and at the thought an ache bloomed in his chest and he wanted nothing more than to quit this room, bid his nephews a good evening and scoop Bilbo into his arms, never letting him go. Still, something niggled at his mind. “And who exactly is this ‘Tauriel’?” Thorin said.

Kíli sat up, suddenly pale, and made a strange gurgling noise, which only served to deepen Thorin’s suspicion. “No one!”


Bilbo closed the door behind Gandalf after they bid their farewells for the evening and stumbled back to his bed. He was more grateful than ever to have taken luncheon in his quarters so many hours before; at least he did not have to use his waning strength to return, and thus give Óin the satisfaction of being right. The bed depressed under his weight as he sat, and with a sigh, he shucked off his mithril shirt and coat.

He’d learned a few matters of interest that day, not the least of which was how easy it was to request multiple meals from any passing dwarves. It seemed that it was a matter of some note to save the life of Erebor’s king from whatever malady had afflicted him, and the dwarves were falling over themselves to provide Bilbo any aid they could, in a manner that gave new meaning to the words, “At your service!” As far as he could tell, the details of what had happened to Thorin were not known. Word was that Thorin had fallen ill while defending Erebor from the armies outside the gate, and Bilbo had entered the mountain to nurse him back to health, thus saving his life. It was close enough to the truth that Bilbo was not one to feel shame in supporting that version. As far as he was concerned, it was Thorin’s tale to tell in any case. He had only been along for the ride.

A ride that now left him easily exhausted. Even with no exercise more strenuous than lifting a fork or teacup, Bilbo had felt his energy flagging when he finally begged off, and bid Gandalf goodnight. He slid under the covers, and had just leaned over to blow out the bedside candle when he heard the knock. With a startled yelp, Bilbo snatched the covers up to his chin just as the door opened.

“My apologies, did I wake you?” Thorin said, shutting the door behind him. Bilbo sighed, and let the covers fall, and with it any attempt at salvaging his dignity. The sight of Thorin alone bled tension away that he hadn’t known he was carrying. Thorin did not come closer immediately, instead eying the distance between them and shifting from one foot to the other in a gesture so minute, Bilbo might not have noticed if not for the days spent together.

Bilbo shook his head, gesturing to the still-lit candle. “Not at all. Long day?”

Thorin sighed, rubbing a hand against the back of neck beneath his hair as he nodded. “Indeed. My nephews were not satisfied until they had the details, and with the negotiations now gone to deliberation and revision, it was high time to do so. Though it might have gone much quicker if not for the interruptions.”

Bilbo clucked sympathetically. “It seems something they have in common with great wizards. Gandalf just left and we discussed much the same thing, I imagine.”

Thorin went still, not looking up as he said. “And did you tell him… everything?”

“Of course not, the busybody,” Bilbo scoffed, and saw Thorin relax. “Only what he needed to know. What about your nephews? Did you tell them… everything?”

“Most, but not all,” Thorin said wryly. “Though I believe Kíli divined the rest, and Fíli lost much of his curiosity after that.” Silence fell at that, Thorin not seeming quite sure how to continue, and Bilbo at a similar loss.

Then Thorin cleared his throat. “I have been set up in my quarters, though the royal wing has not yet been cleared, and are altogether in a wretched state, what with all the gold that once gilded them now gone. The new room is serviceable enough, if somewhat… cavernous.”

Thorin was still standing across the room from Bilbo, and the topic might have seemed a strange one for his mannerisms: arms folded, looking up at the corner of the room as if it was somehow fascinating, despite being quite bare. Even his tone was odd, rushed and a little breathless. If Bilbo didn’t know better, he’d think Thorin was babbling from nerves.

“It should be peaceful, yet I find when I close my eyes,” he took a deep breath, “I dream I am trapped again, alone without the sound of your breathing, and in those waking moments it is as if you truly died there, or left, though of course that would have been your right… and I find…I cannot sleep after.” He looked up at Bilbo then, and there was shame in the downward twist of his lips and the furrow of his brow. “My apologies, I should not have troubled you with this. You too need your rest.” Thorin turned to leave, and Bilbo’s heart leapt in alarm.

“Oh, don’t be ridiculous, Thorin!” Bilbo exclaimed. Thorin paused with his hand at the latch, and looked back over his shoulder. Bilbo was sitting straight up in the bed, leaning forward intently. “My dear, at our respectable middle age, I should think if we wish to share a bed it is no one’s business but our own!” A blush crawled up his cheeks as his brain caught up with his words. “To sleep, that is. We may share a bed to sleep and it means… nothing more than what we wish it to. Goodness knows, these beds are large enough for five, at least they’re a civilized distance from the ground, but still I…” Now it was his turn to babble, and the blush was only getting worse. With a huff, Bilbo closed his eyes to regain his composure, and tried again. “Thorin, last night I woke in the middle of the night and nearly died of fright when you weren’t here beside me. So yes, please come to bed. I would…appreciate it, very much.”

“You are certain?" Thorin said, but there was relief shining in his eyes and more than a little amusement at Bilbo’s stuttering. Well, there’d be time to avenge himself on that count soon enough: his feet were icy cold.

“Absolutely. Now, stop dithering and get over here. I was nearly dozing off when you came in, and in no mood to issue a second invitation.” Bilbo extended his hand, and could only wonder at Thorin’s soft expression as he closed the distance between them and took it.


Bilbo awoke feeling warm, which brought the first thought trickling into his brain that he did not remember falling asleep at all. The second thought to penetrate the wall of warm cotton fuzz that shrouded his brain was that he was indeed quite cozy and could well snuggle up and go back to sleep right then, a tempting thought. He could not recall the last time he had rested so comfortable, and he reached to draw the blankets around himself tighter, quite content to burrow his way into the warmth and stay there for the next few years, thank you very much, after all he must deserve it after all of…

Bilbo’s eyes popped open.

This was for a few reasons. First, he recognized that as delicious as it was, it was not a soft down comforter that was keeping him toasty, but something quite solid that was wrapped around him like a cloak, and a very warm one at that. Second, some memory of what had transpired these past weeks was seeping its way back into his brain, and he had not yet quite come to terms with even the first day of it, let alone the whole enormity. Even the first hint of memory dropped his stomach down to his feet. He might have sat up then and there and bolted from the room, gibbering quite hysterically and probably shouting incoherent accusations at certain wizards, had not a touch more awareness filtered back to his brain. This awareness took the form of strong arms wrapping around his stomach, and a soft yet plaintive grumble against the side of his neck that bade him on no uncertain terms to stop fidgeting and go back to sleep.

The voice was certainly a familiar one, and Bilbo's stomach did a queer little swoop to hear it grumbling low and close in his ear. He could not help himself but to tilt his head back, to take in the head of black hair streaked with silver that fell behind them, the sharp nose buried against his shoulders. Bilbo drank in the sight of Thorin, the way the pale skin of his shoulders gave way to the sun-burnished hands and throat, the faint lines of scars and the roughness of calluses against Bilbo's stomach, bare except for the bandages. He blushed a little at, at the fact that Thorin had apparently joined him in stripping to the waist to sleep, but it was a faint and frankly silly impulse that was quickly swallowed by a wave of contentment so strong it fairly melted Bilbo into a puddle. To think that Thorin was a clingy sleeper? Why, Bilbo never would have imagined with the way he kept so contained and wound up when he slept on the road. Perhaps not much had changed, though. Thorin still slept with his arms folded, curled in on himself, except that space now contained Bilbo as well, drawn tightly against him. Most remarkably, Thorin did not snore, a most singular trait amongst dwarves in Bilbo's experience. Bilbo shifted his head a little on his own pillow to avoid the spot of drool he'd left there, Bilbo's own sleeping habit that had mattered little in all his years sleeping alone. This drew another grumble from Thorin.

"All right, all right, I'll stop," Bilbo murmured back, quite content to do so in truth. The wound in his belly was a distant pang that he felt no desire to test, and the cozy haze of sleep still fell heavy upon his limbs and eyes. Thorin gave another grumble at this, but a more satisfied one, and shifted so his breath tickled hot against the back of Bilbo's neck and sent a delightful little shiver through him.

Yes, he could indeed become used to this, he thought as he drifted back to sleep.


Thus came the days of the king. More often than not, Bilbo and Thorin barely saw each other during the working hours of the day, running from one errand or meeting to another. Dale needed constant assurance of their regular payments, and Bilbo was more often than not called upon to handle communications with the Elves (in truth, he’d volunteered rather than risk Thorin starting another war. A grudge that lasted centuries was not thrown off overnight). Still, they found time where they could, stolen moments at the end of the day such as this one, when they went out to the parapet to watch the sun set over the Long Lake. The land unfurled below them, blanketed in white from the oncoming winter. Behind them, Erebor knew no such sense of time and the clanging of hammers and shout of dwarven voices as they worked to rebuild their city filled the once empty halls with noise and life.

“I’ve thought of an ending for my book,” Bilbo said without warning.

“I didn’t know you were writing one,” Thorin replied, looking at Bilbo askance.

“Oh, but I feel I must,” Bilbo said. “All those books in the library, I should think one of them must tell the tale of how the kingdom was reclaimed.”

Thorin laughed under his breath. “Bilbo, I promise you there will be no lack of songs and tales about our quest. It has hardly gone unnoticed.”

“Ye-es,” Bilbo said, drawling over the word. “But they weren’t there, were they? They won’t know the truth of what happened.”

“My reputation is not going to survive this book of yours intact, is it?” Thorin remarked, but Bilbo caught an underlying hint of concern in his voice that Bilbo jumped and stuttered to correct.

“Well, when I say the truth I hardly mean…” Bilbo began, “I’m not very well going to go and spill personal secrets!”

“You would hardly need to, to present Erebor with a far more humble account of its king,” said Thorin, the corner of his lips quirking.

“True, I’m afraid no amount of poetic license will be enough for the troll incident.”

“That’s not what I meant,” Thorin said. Twilight was descending over the mountain, casting black shadows over Thorin’s face. His breath misted in the air before him like smoke, causing a chill of familiarity to shiver through Bilbo.

“Perhaps someday,” Bilbo finally managed, and thought Thorin did not need the aid of bewitchment to arrest him so. “For now, it all seems a bit too near. I thought to end it sooner, when Smaug fell, and all seemed rather in order and everyone in their best light. We do have relations with Dale and Mirkwood to consider.”

There, that was about as delicate as he could put it. He hoped to begin the second book, should it ever be written, with the truth of what had transpired after. It did much better to begin with tragedy, so that one may end with happy endings. To do so gives a tale a nice, balanced feeling. After all, he intended to live happily ever after, but that was a tale for another day, one he could not yet see, for who knew what could happen before that. It seemed tempting fate to end a book with those words too soon.

Thorin grunted, and there was agreement mixed with the usual distaste at the mention of Mirkwood. Relations, as they were, were a great deal less chilly and every day improving along with the reconstruction effort and the flow of gold, in and out as trade returned to the region. Kíli had been extremely helpful in that regard, with the constant and inexplicable volunteering he did to play emissary to the Woodland Realm. Certainly the Elves had aided a great deal in the battle against the orcs, but Thorin was not likely to forget anytime soon that when they first arrived, there was no such threat to be had.

A silence fell, save for the wind as it breathed a sigh over the side of the mountain. Perhaps it was the place, and the wind and all those memories of darker times rising around them like the scent of old pipe smoke, but Bilbo jumped a little as he felt Thorin’s fingers brush against his neck. Then Thorin’s arm settled over Bilbo’s shoulder as he drew him close.

Bilbo sighed, and rested his head against the fur mantle of Thorin’s cloak, staring out at the shadow of the mountain stretching across the land, fading into the coming night. Warmth fluttered from the open door behind them into the mountain and the bracing air banished any thoughts of melancholy that threatened.

“What were they?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“The final words of your book,” Thorin said, his low voice rumbling deep in his chest. “Or must I wait until it is finished?”

“Oh, of course,” Bilbo, feeling a bit muzzy with contentment and the warmth of Thorin against him, contrasted with the cold of the winter wind. “Let me think… oh look! How appropriate.” Snowflakes were falling from the sky, whirling in the air above them, falling as little white pinpricks in the dark cascade of Thorin’s hair. Thorin looked up just as one flake fell on his nose, not yet melted when Bilbo saw his chance.

“Allow me,” Bilbo said, rising up on his toes. Then he pressed a quick kiss to the tip of Thorin’s nose, tasting briefly the cold snow as it melted on his lips, and because Took and Baggins were quite in agreement these days, he pressed kiss another to Thorin’s lips, content that they were perfectly alone here on the wall. It seemed time to begin re-writing the memories of there last time there.

“Are you trying to stall?” Thorin murmured against his lips, though he did not give up the chance to steal a kiss of his own.

“Hmm, well now it feels quite silly. Perhaps I should wait…” Bilbo said and smirked at the growl Thorin gave him.

“Bilbo,” warned Thorin. “Please. Tell me of your book.”

Bilbo considered prolonging the game just a bit before he sighed and settled back against Thorin’s shoulder. “Oh, very well. You must promise me you will not laugh. I thought it rather poetic.”

White flakes blanketed the world in quiet around them as the world took on the blue and violet of falling night. Over the wall of the parapet, Dale was beginning to come alight, its towers and windows flashing gold. Thorin shifted beside him, looking down to inquire when Bilbo cleared his throat, and pronounced, “So comes snow after fire, and even dragons have their endings.”

Thorin was silent a long moment, then settled his cheek against the top of Bilbo’s head. His beard pressed against Bilbo's curls, and the hand clasped around his own was warm despite the winter’s chill. “Indeed, they do.”