“We leave for Sauron’s stronghold tomorrow,” Thorin announced to the company the next morning, his tone leaving no room for argument. He watched their faces fall, but he had no choice. All he could do was move forward. “Make your final preparations today. Any who wish to remain behind may do so without judgment. All of you have braved enough to be the subject of many ballads.”
Every dwarf there protested loudly. How dare he suggest that they would stay behind, their honor was impugned at the very notion, etc. He hadn’t expected anything else. Bilbo wasn’t joining in, but there was a determined set to his jaw. Of course he was coming with. Even if they could get into Sauron’s fortress without him, Bilbo would hide in someone’s pack if necessary.
Thorin felt the ghost of a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. He was beginning to realize that he wouldn’t have it any other way.
He was destined to be surprised that day.
Their elven visitors were still in residence, and when they were told of the plan, insisted on being included as well.
“Our spiders were sent by Sauron,” Tauriel insisted firmly. “It is my duty to help defeat him.”
“It is our duty,” Legolas added.
Thorin didn’t even need to ask Glorfindel. The older elf was simply seen sharpening arrows and checking his bowstring, and they knew he intended to come.
As for the Lady Galadriel, Thorin wasn’t surprised to hear that she had other plans. “While your people attack, mine will set about closing every portal they can find,” she told him, her eyes distant. “By the time your work is done, all that will remain is for Bilbo to cut a portal leading back here.”
“What of his sword?” Balin asked, his tone carefully neutral. Ranakâl watched Galadriel with a careful eye, as if watching for a lie. “And what of any others with the same power? They are not all accounted for.”
“They just have to break them,” Dwalin pointed out.
“Is that even possible?” Ori asked, his dæmon examining Sting, which had been left on the table. “Aren’t they supposed to be magic?”
“They may be magic swords, but they’re still swords,” Dori said confidently. “Like all weapons, they can be broken.”
“It may not be necessary to do so, but it is possible to do,” Galadriel assured them, stroking her dæmon’s feathered head.
“Why would it not be necessary?” Bilbo asked suddenly, setting Myrtle on the table as he stood. “I thought leaving any portal open, even for a short time, would cause the light to drain, and could let evil into the world. Under what circumstances would it not be necessary to destroy a sword that can open portals?”
She turned her mysterious smile on him, and Thorin watched Bilbo wilt a little. “Even the very wise cannot see all ends,” Gandalf observed lightly, ending the subject without answering it.
Well, that was hardly unusual.
Balin waited until the company had dispersed to voice his more private concerns to Thorin. “Why now? We can take a little more time to rest and recover.”
“The longer we wait, the harder it will be to leave,” Thorin replied firmly. “This must be done, and if there is no cure to be found for me, better we set off sooner than later.”
Balin patted his arm sympathetically. “Have you tried what I suggested? Just to be sure before we leave?”
“No, but I will,” he swore, returning the touch. “Thank you, Balin.”
With nothing left to do, Thorin wandered down to Mingalaz’s beach, shucking off his boots and digging his toes in the sand. Mingalaz said nothing, and found that he was glad for her silence. Just having her beside him was a rarity these days, and he took comfort in her presence, even if it wasn’t the form he had known for so long. Stroking her smooth scales, it almost felt like similar mornings spent on this same beach, before the world had gone mad.
Well, and before he had been King.
“Has anyone disturbed you while you’ve been here?” he asked Mingalaz, dipping a toe into the water.
“Aside from you, no one leaves the safety of the walls,” Mingalaz said with a shrug. “I wish I could be inside with you, but even the wraiths leave me alone.”
Not because she carried elvish steel, though. Because they knew her as a creature like themselves, born of dark anguish. Thorin’s heart beat painfully in his chest. Yes, he was going to try what Balin suggested, because at this point, he would try anything if there was a chance it would work.
As if summoned by those thoughts, Thorin heard the crunch of familiar footsteps, and Bilbo appeared on the beach, Myrtle held securely in his arms. She started to thrash as they approached Mingalaz, and at first he thought it was from fear. When Bilbo set her down though, she was right up to the dragon, and in one of the bizarrest sights he had ever seen, they bumped noses. Maybe Mingalaz had learned to master the intricacies of her new form quicker than he’d thought.
“Dwalin said you’d be down here,” Bilbo said by way of explanation, sitting down beside him. “I don’t have any preparations to make, except to tell you what my decision is.”
“I see,” Thorin replied, not sure what else to say. He settled for looking at Bilbo expectantly.
“I decided to stay,” Bilbo said without looking at him. He was tracing a pattern in the sand with one of his fingers, and Thorin wondered if it was a coincidence that it resembled the pattern on one of his rings. “Erebor may not feel like home right now, but the Shire hasn’t felt like one since my mother died. Even if-” Bilbo cut himself off, taking a deep breath. “I think I would regret it if I went back to the way I was living before.”
“I see,” Thorin repeated dumbly, earning a snort from Mingalaz.
Bilbo sighed. “Is that all you have to say?”
“I never dared to hope that you would agree to stay,” Thorin admitted, running a hand through his hair. “I didn’t think of anything to say.”
“Oh, Thorin,” Bilbo sighed again. “What would you have said if I decided to go back to the Shire?”
“That I understood why you made that choice. Stable homes are important to my people, which is what makes it so hard to believe that we forgot Khazad-dum. The loss of that home would have been deeply traumatic,” Thorin explained. “And, I would have asked you to try one last thing for me.”
Bilbo tilted his head curiously. “Try what?”
Mingalaz snorted again, fencing in Myrtle with her tail.
“Balin thought that recreating the circumstances that caused Mingalaz to settle on her form might make her return to it,” Thorin told him heavily.
“So you want me to touch her?” Bilbo asked, the corners of his eyes crinkling with mirth. “You might have said something sooner.”
“Oh no, no hobbits near the dragon,” Mingalaz yawned. “I might scorch the hair off your feet, or something equally unpleasant.”
“She’s dangerous,” Thorin argued weakly.
“But not vicious,” Bilbo pointed out, eyebrows raised as he plucked Myrtle from Mingalaz’s grasp. “Here, take Myrtle. It’s only fair.”
Touching Myrtle sent a giddy thrill through Thorin’s body. There was none of the unpleasantness from when the orcs had grabbed Mingalaz, and judging by the shiver that ran through Bilbo, he felt the same. If Thorin had been less stubborn, he would have known that they would end up this way all the way back in the goblin tunnels, when Mingalaz had kicked Bilbo. It hadn’t felt quite like this, but there had been none of the usual discomfort that came from breaking the taboo. Any other dwarf would have taken that as a sign.
Myrtle settled snugly into Thorin’s arms without any of the grumbling or thrashing that he associated with Bilbo carrying her, so he gave her snout an experimental stroke. Myrtle made a pleased sound in the back of her throat, while Bilbo gasped, and gave him a sharp look.
“Later, if you please,” he said, his breath hitching slightly, and Thorin stilled. He had asked Bilbo to do something after all, might as well let him do it.
He expected Bilbo to touch whatever was closest, but he reached for Mingalaz’s head, which she lowered obligingly. As his hand drew nearer, Thorin realized that his nerves were practically singing in anticipation, and not entirely because Mingalaz could turn back. He wanted Bilbo to touch her again, more than he had ever wanted anything.
When Bilbo’s hand settled on Mingalaz’s snout, it was like every muscle in his body relaxed at once. It was like coming home to a warm meal and a warm fire after an entire day spent in the rain. Like the first inhale after staying too long underwater. There was none of that foreign feeling that sometimes came out when he looked at Bilbo, as if it were being burned away by Bilbo’s touch. He felt so, so good… but Mingalaz was still a dragon.
“I guess it didn’t work,” Bilbo said apologetically, not removing his hand from Mingalaz, who was clearly leaning into his touch.
“It’s not your fault,” Thorin replied firmly. “It was just an idea Balin had.”
Bilbo knew that Thorin was trying to reassure both of them in that moment. As far as he knew, that was the only viable suggestion anyone had come up with, and it had failed. Of course Thorin would be disappointed. But maybe it wasn’t the end of the world?
He scratched at Mingalaz’s scales, watching her pupils dilate with what he hoped was pleasure. “Cheeky hobbit,” she muttered, a puff of smoke rushing out between her sharp teeth. “Didn’t anyone ever tell you not to tease a dragon?”
“No, just not to laugh at one,” Bilbo replied tartly. “But you’re more of a large lizard, really.”
Thorin let out a choked laugh. “‘A large lizard?’”
“Technically true,” Myrtle agreed cheerfully. “Except for that fire-breathing business.”
“A significant exception,” Thorin observed, his voice surprisingly close. Bilbo turned, barely managing to avoid jumping in surprise. Thorin and Myrtle were directly behind him, and he’d been too focused on Mingalaz to notice the change in his bond with Myrtle. He found himself hoping that holding Myrtle had a similar effect on Thorin, considering that he hadn’t set her down yet.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen Mingalaz spit fire,” Bilbo observed, wincing at the way his voice cracked on the last word. “With just the smoke, it’s easy enough to forget.”
Thorin chuckled. “I think you’re the only one who feels that way.”
Bilbo was seized by the urge to say something corny. To tell Thorin that he could make him forget. Clearly Thorin holding Myrtle was dangerous for his state of mind. It was like being drunk on the Gaffer’s homebrew. All sorts of bad ideas were born under those kinds of circumstances.
He turned back around to avoid the temptation, rubbing Mingalaz’s scales fiercely. Thorin’s sudden intake of breath sent shivers down his spine, or maybe that was Thorin returning the gesture on Myrtle’s fur. His knees weakened, and he stumbled backward, knocking into Thorin and Myrtle. Bilbo had to resist the urge to laugh. It seemed like even though Mingalaz was supposedly the problem, Myrtle was always the one between them.
What did that say about their chances, he wondered?
“You’re really going to stay,” Thorin said softly, and Bilbo stifled a laugh. Thorin’s reaction to that revelation had been lackluster, but apparently that was because he was still processing it.
“Yes you silly dwarf, I’m really going to stay,” Bilbo replied tartly, keeping his back turned to hide his blush.
“Your ears are turning red,” Thorin observed, rustling behind him. Bilbo felt one of Myrtle’s claws tap against his bare foot, and guessed he’d been setting her down.
“Well if they are, it’s your fault,” Bilbo said, turning to face him with his hands on his hips. “You always have to be so dramatic.”
There was more they could have said while they were being unusually honest with each other, about dwarves and dragons, family burdens and never quite fitting in, about dreaming mothers and more practical fathers, but there would be time for that later. For now, as their eyes met and the distance between them seemed to close ever so naturally, all that mattered was the feel of their bodies pressed together and stolen kisses under the watchful eye of an ocean-eyed black dragon.
Out there on the beach, hidden by Mingalaz’s bulk, none of the various problems plaguing the worlds seemed to have any bearing on the present. They would tomorrow of course, but wasn’t that always the way of things? Tomorrow he would have to face the prospect of never seeing the Shire again. Tomorrow, after opening his last portal, there would be nothing special or useful about Bilbo Baggins once again.
But for today, he was the portal-finder, the world-cutter, King-kisser. Lovely titles, really. And they would have to do.
Kíli wasn’t usually a nervous wreck around women. Fíli told him that he was sometimes a little awkward, but it felt genuine. A point in his favor rather than a deduction.
Elves were an entirely different matter.
If Kíli was being completely honest, he’d been carrying an itty bitty torch for Tauriel from the moment she’d dropped out of the tree. Kurdaz would roll her eyes at this, and say that Mingalaz’s flames must be positively miniscule then. Kíli did his best to ignore her, trying everything he could think of to strike up conversation whenever he saw the flame-haired elf maid. Sometimes she stopped and her eyes would soften with genuine interest in whatever he was saying, and sometimes she would look like a trapped deer and scamper off.
“What do you think I’m doing wrong?” Kíli asked, scratching his still depressingly sparse chin. He’d assembled his best minds, which really just meant Fíli, Ori, and their dæmons.
“We don’t know much about Elven courting,” Ori pointed out, keeping his dæmon tucked in his scarf. She did tend to get tossed back and forth between Kurdaz and Bundâl like a ball. “Maybe you’re breaking one of the rules.”
“She’d know that he doesn’t know anything about that though,” Fíli argued.
“An oversight during our visit,” Kurdaz lamented. “Ori should have asked someone. It wouldn’t have looked suspicious.”
Ori sputtered indignantly. “Yes it would’ve! And anyway, if she knows Kíli doesn’t know, then he must be doing something else wrong.”
“Do you think it’s because I’m too tall?” Kíli asked seriously. “I know my beard still hasn’t come in, but-”
“I don’t think their standards of beauty are the same as ours,” Fíli said placatingly. “They’re all tall and thin, and have you seen many elves with full beards? If anything, you might be too short.”
“Or just smell of desperation,” Bundâl added teasingly.
“I don’t actually smell, do I?” Kíli asked nervously, taking quick sniffs of his clothes. “Or maybe I just smell like dwarf, and she doesn’t like that-”
“Or, we could try asking Prince Legolas,” Fíli suggested.
That seemed too mortifying, even for Kíli, so in the end, Fíli was left to carry out his own idea, asking one prince to another, if there was a reason that his guard captain seemed so nervous at times.
“Being without her dæmon makes her apprehensive, and he needs to fly outside the mountain regularly,” Legolas answered. If he suspected their purpose, he didn’t show it. “She means no offense.”
“And she has given none, we were just concerned that maybe her accommodations were not to her liking,” Fíli explained smoothly, and was able to report back to the group without any trouble.
“Of course that was it,” Kíli exclaimed, slapping his forehead. “How could I not have seen it?”
Not even the warnings of his best minds that maybe trying to woo an elf-maid who would probably be going back to her own world permanently very soon was enough to hold him back. Which was why, hours later when his uncle returned from a very long trip to Mingalaz’s beach, he found Kíli deep in conversation with a red-haired elf-maid on the battlements under the stars. Kíli didn’t even notice, but if he had, he would have seen a fond smile on Thorin’s face.