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Hobbit 2 (cozy)

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Dragon’s cave, dragon’s cave. Find a white jewel inside the dragon’s cave. You’ll know it when you see it. Very helpful advice. Oh, along with, ‘Don’t wake up the dragon,’ Bilbo thought sarcastically as he pawed through the loose gold. There was a massive cave full of gold, jewels, paintings, vessels, statues, tapestries, books, because apparently this dragon didn’t believe in being tidy and organized, and Bilbo was supposed to find one particular jewel. Why? Was it magical? Or merely symbolic? Symbols could be very powerful, of course, but Bilbo wasn’t sure this entire perilous journey was really worth it if all he did was retrieve a symbol.

The gold shifted slightly near him, a little gold-fall tumbling down a gold-cliff. Coincidence? The result of his disturbance of the treasure strata?

Or something worse?

More gold-falls, everywhere he looked, and a rumbling almost too low to hear that shook his bones, and the gold rising up like a tidal wave before him—Quickly Bilbo pulled out his magic ring and slipped it on his finger, heavy and oddly comforting, like he was meant to wear it always. Instantly his view drained of color, became shadowy and distorted, and he knew he was invisible. Neat trick, that. Of course, invisible or not he could still be easily crushed by the tumbling treasure, so he fought his way uphill, behind a wide pillar. Possibly he could climb it if his footing became unstable.

Bilbo glanced around one side of the pillar, then snapped back. There was an eye. A huge eye with a vertical slit for a pupil, surrounded by reddish-gold scales, almost blending into the gold coins but not quite. Maybe it was just some kind of—Bilbo checked again, and the eye blinked. So, real then. A dragon eye. An open dragon eye.

Bilbo peered around the opposite side of the column, where something twitched in the gold. He thought it was a snake at first—because that would just be wonderful—but then realized it was the tip of the dragon’s tail. A quick calculation showed that with an eye here and a tail there, the dragon was in total—well, quite large. Of course Bilbo had realized that—being a Hobbit he was used to things being very big compared to him—but seeing it laid out concretely, understanding what those great lumps under the gold were as they rose and fell with irregular breaths… that was a different thing altogether.

Balin had said to find the Arkenstone if he could. Well, clearly he couldn’t, not with the dragon starting to wake up, shaking and turning, shifting the treasure and rattling the walls. Time to get out the way he’d come and see what Thorin had in mind for Plan B. Probably, it involved beating and stabbing.

Bilbo made a break for it, hoping the dragon hadn’t fully awakened yet. Behind him there was a roar like a waterfall and the clanging of ten thousand coins changing places. He can’t see you, he can’t see you, he told himself frantically as he hopped over the treasure towards the door.

“I know you’re here,” said a voice, deep, silky, vaguely amused. “I can smell you.” The dragon inhaled deeply, almost obscenely, and his massive reptilian head swung around to face Bilbo, who had foolishly stopped and looked back. “I can hear you,” the dragon continued, flicking his long tongue out of his scaly lips. “I can hear your tiny heart pounding in your ribcage. Your bones would be too small to pick my teeth with,” he predicted disdainfully. “But I have been waiting for you.”

At this Bilbo paused. Partly it was because a huge claw, attached to a wing of leathery fineness, had come down to block his exit, inadvertently perhaps. But partly it was because there was something in that sinister, seductive voice that he found familiar. Elation shot through him, but also dread, deep despair—to meet again, but like this! There could be no hope for them, surely.

“Show yourself, little creature,” the dragon persuaded, his head turning from side to side to give both eyes a chance to hunt. “Show yourself to me now.”

Almost against his will, as if hypnotized, Bilbo pulled the magic ring off his finger. The world snapped back into color and he staggered slightly, and the dragon’s golden eye fixed on him. Slowly Smaug lowered his head until it nearly rested on the gold-covered floor—then proceeded to nudge Bilbo with his muzzle, none too gently, sniffing all the while like an overeager hunting dog.

“Here, stop that!” Bilbo insisted, pushing on his warm, scaly nose.

Smaug pulled back, enough to see Bilbo, and his lips seemed to curl back from his teeth in a smile. “Just making sure I know your scent,” he claimed, a threat implicit in his tone. “You stink of Dwarves, yet aren’t one yourself,” he judged, curious. “What are you?”

Bilbo glanced around, looking for any other exits. They’d be a run, across shifting terrain, and wouldn’t necessarily lead him to safety or his companions. “I’m—I’m a Hobbit,” he responded, trying to sound conversational as he hopped around, aiming for a rocky outcropping. The most salient feature of a dragon was its ability to breathe fire (which he supposed excused its rather noxious breath) and he wanted to have some protection from that, no matter how scant. “From the Shire?” The golden eyes watched him expectantly, wanting more. “I am Bilbo Baggins,” he added, trying to sound grand. “Riddle-maker, Barrel-rider, Spider-slayer—“

“How amusing,” the dragon interrupted with some impatience. “Where are your Dwarvish friends? Waiting outside for you to return to them?”

“No, no one else here,” Bilbo insisted, ducking behind the rocks.

“Come out where I can see you,” Smaug demanded, suddenly peevish, and Bilbo hurriedly climbed on top of the rocks, reasoning he could quickly jump/fall back behind them if necessary.

“Just getting a better vantage point,” Bilbo claimed. “But, er, as I was saying, no one around but me.”

The dragon’s long neck undulated like a huge serpent, waving his head in front of Bilbo. “And the Dwarves you smell of?” he asked tolerantly.

“Dwarves? Oh, hmm—oh, bought the coat from one,” Bilbo told him casually. “That must be it. He claimed it was new, but I suppose—“

“Enough.” He stopped talking and Smaug sighed, sour breath washing over Bilbo. “Alright, just for the record, why are you here? To help the Dwarves regain their home?”

“I already said—“

“You already said you were alone, yes,” Smaug acknowledged, sounding bored. A bored dragon was probably bad. “Well then, you must be an ordinary thief,” he concluded. “I like them extra-crispy.” He smiled again, baring his teeth.

“No, no, wait,” Bilbo insisted, mind turning rapidly. “I’m not a thief! I came here—to see you!”

Smaug blinked at him, momentarily startled, and Bilbo felt a thrill of (very minor) victory. “To see me?”

“Yes, great Smaug!” Bilbo proclaimed. “To gaze upon your magnificence! Smaug, the Treasure-guarder, the Dwarf-roaster, the City-leveler—“

“Oh please,” Smaug interrupted, rolling the eye Bilbo could see.

“Well, I thought it was rather good myself,” Bilbo commented.

“’Dwarf-roaster’ is amusing,” Smaug conceded, “though I hardly think your friends would agree.”

“I told—“

“Stop.” The dragon’s great head dropped level with Bilbo. “Enough of this nonsense, Bay,” he purred. “I have been waiting for you for a very long time.”

“It’s Bilbo, actually—“ The dragon snorted, the wind powerful enough to shut Bilbo’s mouth for fear something would fly into it.

“Shall we argue about our names?” Smaug snapped in irritation. “If I fill these tunnels with flames and roast all your Dwarvish friends, will you then cease your play-acting and address me properly?”

Bay gave a slight huff. “Play-acting is rather the point,” he noted, but he put an affectionate hand on the dragon’s muzzle. “Magnus.”

A flash of teeth indicating a smile. “Watch the scales, if you rub them the wrong way you’ll slice your fingers off,” he warned.

Bay patted up and down, then removed his hand entirely. “Well, that would be unfortunate,” he replied dryly. “Alright, shall we go back to it, then? No, no Dwarves, came to see you—“

“No, we shan’t go back to it,” Magnus insisted, a frown in his voice.

Bay tapped his foot impatiently. “Alright, look, you’re a dragon, I’m sure you’re very pleased about that—“

“It’s d—n boring, actually.”

“—but unfortunately I’m a Hobbit, and a Hobbit with the goal of defeating you,” Bay went on, trying to remain matter-of-fact. “Shall we just skip to the part where I escape?” He feared they were running behind now.

“You’re not escaping,” Magnus refuted, and he reared up to his full height, filling the vast cavern with his spread wings. Most of his lower body had still been buried in the gold and the treasure clanged noisily as it fell from him, his great hips, back, legs, and tail stretching to their full height. Bay was roughly the size of one of his claws, a middling hors d’oevre at best. The sight made his heart leap into his throat and his eyes sting with tears—what hope did any mere mortals have against such a beast?

One of the dragon’s paws came down and caught him, holding him in a cage of scaly skin and horn as solid as rocks. He was carefully not crushed, however, and set gently atop a stone ledge at a height presumably more comfortable for the dragon. “I have been waiting many a long night and day for you, the prize of my collection,” Magnus declared, “and I will not give you up.”

Bay sighed and relaxed his posture. “Won’t give me up? Come on, that’s not supposed to happen. Magnus, would you just—“ He could be so terribly frustrating sometimes.

“Oh, I know what’s supposed to happen,” the dragon assured him, with a touch of menace. “You and your Dwarvish friends are here to kill me, and take back their home. Why should I sit back and allow that?”

Bay saw his point, but really, options were limited. “Well, it’s not as if I want to see you dead,” he explained. “I mean, we’ve just met, haven’t we?” He held out his hand and the dragon lowered his head carefully to meet it, letting Bay pat his nose again. He felt the connection between them, the eternal link, no matter how strange Magnus’s appearance was. If he closed his eyes he could see the usual face that went with that voice, imagine it was the warmth of skin, not scales, under his hand. No, he did not want to lose him again so soon. “Uh, an alternative,” he continued, opening his eyes, “is to just give up and leave on your own.” He could predict how well that would go over.

The dragon let out a snort that nearly knocked Bay flat. “An alternative,” he snarled, rising up to the rafters of the hall, “is to burn those Dwarves and drop their carcasses in the nearest village, as a warning to all other adventurers!”

This was no idle threat, Bay knew—Magnus could be filled with malevolence sometimes, his disdain for those around him given free rein by the character he played. What better persona than a dragon, covetous for gold that belonged to others?

“No, okay, no,” Bay insisted, trying to calm him down. “Listen, I’m sure we can work something out.”

“Yes, perhaps Thorin Oakenshield will give up on his life’s quest and slink quietly back to the Blue Mountains!” Magnus suggested scornfully.

“Mmm, yes, that seems unlikely,” Bay agreed. “Look, come on and help me think outside the box here. Let’s talk about your goals.”

“You’re so tiny,” Magnus observed instead, his head invading Bay’s personal space again. “How do you function? Look at your coat. Like doll clothes.”

Bay rolled his eyes. “Well, where I come from this is a perfectly normal size,” he pointed out briskly. “Now what do you—“

“I could have a whole collection of Hobbits, and keep them in a glass case in the corner,” Magnus mused. Bay hoped he was just being obnoxious, not serious. “Little Hobbit homes and gardens and carts and wheelbarrows! Do you have miniature animals as well?”

“Magnus,” Bay said, trying to leash his patience before it could escape. “Let’s focus on the here and now, alright? So what is it you most want?”

“You, and treasure,” Magnus listed promptly. His tail curled up to Bay’s perch and poked inquisitively at his coat buttons, as if seeing how they were affixed. “This is a very nice place,” he purred to Bay. “I suppose living in a cave doesn’t sound immediately appealing to everyone, but trust me, these Dwarves were hardly roughing it. There’s kitchens, great halls, bedchambers, even indoor plumbing—“

“All of which belongs to Thorin, and his people,” Bay insisted stubbornly.

Magnus’s tail flicked at him dismissively. “Oh, why do I bother arguing with you?” he asked rhetorically. “You just sit there and I’ll go take care of those Dwarves. Back in a tic.”

He started to turn and Bay felt a wave of panic wash over him. “No, don’t hurt them!” he shouted, feeling completely helpless. “Please, they’re my friends!” His companions he had journeyed so long with, through so many dangers, proving himself worthy of them—to let them die now would be something he could never forgive himself for.

Magnus was unsympathetic, as usual. “Well you shouldn’t have let yourself get attached,” he tossed off. “Honestly. Dwarves are hardly endearing.”

With a blink Bay cast aside his mortal limitations and willed Magnus’s tail into his grasp, fingers clinging to the slick scales with strength a mere Hobbit could not possess. Magnus stopped short and looked back over his shoulder. “Are you playing tug-of-war with a dragon’s tail?” he accused, equal parts incredulity and menace.

“You will listen to me!” Bay demanded, yanking on the tail. “I will not let you harm them!”

Magnus whipped around suddenly, flexible tail curling around him as he glared down at Bay. “Oh, you will not let me, hmm?” he repeated in a sneer. “Shall we see which of us is stronger this time? Who has more cunning and will?”

Bay did not like to be at odds with Magnus. Personality-wise, there was always some friction, yes, which made life interesting, but he didn’t want to be enemies. He didn’t want to defeat Magnus—or live with him after letting him kill his friends. With reluctance he let the tail go, and pulled out his sword instead.

“I think you’re outmatched,” Magnus noted dryly. Then Bay laid the blade of the sword against his own wrist and saw the dragon tense up immediately. “Don’t—don’t be ridiculous, Bay,” Magnus snapped. “You would die for a bunch of Dwarves? They would not do the same for you, I promise you that!”

“Actually, they would,” Bay asserted confidently. “These particular Dwarves, they would.” They had demonstrated this many times on this quest.

“Alright, let’s just calm down,” Magnus soothed, in an ironic reversal of their roles. “Let’s think about this a moment, Bay. Cutting your wrist is hardly instantaneous death, is it? I would bind your wounds before you died.”

“Oh, you would bind my wounds?” Bay scoffed. “You can’t even pick up a goose with those gigantic claws, let alone wrap a bandage around my tiny wrist!” He did rather get tired of being called small. Everything was relative, wasn’t it? In Hobbiton he’d been considered slightly tall.

Magnus’s golden reptilian eyes narrowed at him. “There are things I could do,” he threatened.

Bay met his gaze. “Before the things I could do?” he countered.

For a long moment they had a standoff, each assessing the other’s resolve. Bay felt his strength flowing through him, exhilaration and adrenaline, like he felt when facing down wargs and Orcs and Trolls in the company of his fellows, when all that mattered was defending himself and the others. He didn’t want to die, he never wanted to die, but if death were to happen he wanted it to be in a good cause. And this was the best cause he could think of. He laid the edge closer to his flesh.

Magnus growled low in his throat, a rumble that filled the cave and rattled the precariously-stacked treasures around them. After a moment he blinked and turned his head slightly, and Bay had the feeling he’d won. He relished the fanatic gleam he imagined was in his eye, almost disappointed that it was no longer needed.

Magnus moved his head very close to Bay. “What are your requirements?” he ground out, slowly.

Bay didn’t put his sword away, just in case. “First,” he began with some delicacy, “a breath mint?” The dragon blinked at him several times, then suddenly the hot, sour breath that wafted over Bay became cool and minty. “Thank you,” he replied.

“You could’ve just said.”

“Second,” Bay went on, before they could get distracted, “you and I will leave this place, and do the Dwarves no harm.”

Magnus did not like this provision. “Leave? And go where?” he snarled.

Bay obviously didn’t know as yet. “Well, somewhere,” he insisted.

“Somewhere!” Magnus huffed, gazing over his stores of gold regretfully. “They do not exactly make suburbs for dragons!”

“Look, we’ll find a place,” Bay told him, finally putting his sword back in his belt. His dragon was not happy, but he was resigned. “A cave, or an abandoned palace somewhere, with a stash of forgotten gold, unguarded—“

“You might as well ask a fortune to fall from the sky!” Magnus snapped sarcastically. He scooted his tail end down into the gold, as if enjoying it one last time.

“We’ll find a place,” Bay repeated more gently. “And we’ll be together.”

Magnus turned to look at him then, and poked him with his muzzle again. “And what shall I do with a tiny little Hobbit, hmm?” he asked in a low voice, both amused and seductive.

Bay’s mind had not really gone down that path yet. “Um, well, we’ll have to be creative, I guess,” he stammered. Magnus looked like he was already coming up with ideas. “Um, okay, focus, please,” Bay requested, clearing his throat. “There’s Dwarves about, you know, don’t want to make a scene.”

Magnus bared his teeth in a grin that was somehow very Magnus-like, for all his dragon form. “What else do you require?” he wanted to know.

Bay tried to think. “Uh, generally no killing people, or hurting them,” he specified.

Magnus growled. “What if they’re trying to hurt me?”

“You’re a dragon, you have the advantage in most situations,” Bay reminded him.

Yes.”

“So you can simply… withdraw,” Bay suggested optimistically.

“Oh, is that what you would have me do?” Magnus scoffed, his tone acidic. Bay rolled his eyes. “The mighty Smaug, who runs away from Dwarves, and peasants with pitchforks, and children with stones—“

“If that’s what it takes,” Bay confirmed coolly. He might well have the first pacifist dragon in Middle-Earth. Magnus rose up on his hind legs and roared his frustration to the stone ceiling, shaking Bay off his feet and rocks down from the wall. Bay could only imagine what the Dwarves thought of that—they could probably hear him all the way in Lake-town. “Well if you’re just going to be in a strop about it,” Bay complained, brushing himself off, “just refuse my terms, and we’ll see each other in the next life.”

“You’re bluffing,” Magnus accused.

“Oh yes,” Bay replied with sarcasm. “Yes, this whole thing has just been a gigantic bluff.”

Magnus huffed, which at least was cool and minty now. “Fine, I agree,” he snarled, with ill grace. He scooped Bay up and set him on the ground, less gently than before. “Go tell your Dwarves. Make it fast,” he ordered, petulantly.

“Right. Thank you,” Bay added awkwardly, feeling like he ought to say something else. “Hey, it will be great, we’ll be together—“ Magnus snorted in displeasure and turned his back on him, nearly whipping him with his tail. “Well, fine then,” Bay decided, and he ducked back out the way he’d come.

The passage was not long and he paused to pull Bilbo back on like a warm coat, trying to think what he was going to tell the others. There suddenly seemed like so much he wanted to say to each of them. Slowly Bilbo came within sight of the exit, tasting fresh air and blinking in the moonlight. Thorin and the others jumped to their feet immediately, and he felt quite guilty all at once, like he’d betrayed them somehow. But he hadn’t, he told himself. In fact he’d made all their hopes come true, and without bloodshed. It just seemed a little anticlimactic, he supposed.

“Well?” Thorin prompted, eyes blazing.

“We felt the mountain rumble like a volcano was at its heart!” Balin told him. “Did you see the dragon?”

“Did you find the Arkenstone?” Thorin demanded, crowding Bilbo.

“Oh, the Arkenstone,” Bilbo remembered suddenly, with disappointment. “Sorry, I forgot.”

Thorin’s eyes widened slightly, his expression torn between hoping Bilbo was joking, and finding that joke in very poor taste. “You… forgot?” he repeated in a choked tone.

Bilbo realized how pathetic that sounded. “Yes, I got into a conversation with the dragon,” he tried to explain, as the Dwarves glanced nervously at each other, perhaps wondering if he’d suffered a head injury recently. “I’ve made a bargain with him.”

Thorin’s lips, and eyebrows, moved like he wanted to repeat Bilbo’s words, but didn’t want to be reduced to a parrot. Instead he stole a glance at Balin, and the older Dwarf stepped forward carefully. “A bargain, lad?” he asked quietly.

Bilbo knew this was going to be tricky. “Right, the dragon has agreed to leave peacefully and you can have the mountain back!” he told them brightly, trying to sound upbeat.

“What do we give up in return?” Thorin demanded shrewdly.

Bilbo thought maybe he and the dragon should’ve taken another moment to work out a more plausible story—like maybe Smaug would leave in exchange for half of the treasure or something. Well, that would be a logistical nightmare, wouldn’t it? Whatever. “Well, er, I have to go with him,” Bilbo admitted. “That’s the thing. I go with the dragon, and we both leave quietly, and you get the mountain back.”

“Is he going to eat you?” inquired one of the younger Dwarves, with some interest.

“No, I don’t think so,” Bilbo promised reassuringly.

“Then what does he want you for?” Thorin insisted suspiciously. He, like everyone, had been expecting a battle to the death—someone’s death, hopefully the dragon’s. “Where will you go?”

“Um, well—it’s hard to explain,” Bilbo hedged. He wondered if he was going to have to fudge a little and just will them to get past this part. “It’s… magic,” he claimed, lowering his voice and glancing between Thorin and Balin. “Hobbit magic. Can’t say anymore.” He waited a moment to see if they were going to accept this reason on their own.

Thorin looked to Balin, who shrugged. What did they know about Hobbit magic? Every other race on Middle-Earth had arcane magic of some kind, why not Hobbits? At first glance one might have assumed their magic would deal in encouraging plants to grow or bread to rise, but who really knew?

Then a look came into Thorin’s eyes, and Bilbo knew he was going to be stubborn about it. “I will not allow you to sacrifice yourself—“

Bilbo held up his hands in a placating gesture. “Look, let’s not be foolish here,” he interrupted. “You’re getting your home back, and no one’s going to die. It’s wonderful!” He put just a tiny bit of force behind his words, knowing Magnus would be getting impatient. “I will be fine, I promise.”

It didn’t take much more than that. Bilbo suspect Magnus was pressuring them a little, too. It was admittedly hard to believe, not following the traditional epic arc of one final glorious battle for the homeland—Bilbo suspected that when this tale was put into song and recited in the great hall, this last bit would take on a much grander quality.

Then he had to say goodbye to everyone, everyone who was present anyway. Several of the Dwarves had remained in Lake-town, and they hadn’t had any word from Gandalf in a while. Bilbo hoped the meddlesome wizard hadn’t gotten himself into trouble. When he finally heard the news about Bilbo, he probably wouldn’t be surprised; what were Bay and Magnus’s powers but another form of what this world called magic, and who knew more about magic than a wizard? He surely had recognized there was something unusual about Bilbo, even if he couldn’t quite articulate it; maybe that was why he’d sought him out for this quest. Good thing, too, or Bilbo would never have met the dragon—perhaps, deep down, he understood that, and that was why he’d agreed to join them. Otherwise it was rather unlikely a Hobbit and a dragon would ever cross paths in this world.

Dwarves took a long time to say goodbye, and they all felt the mountain shake with the dragon’s irritation. “Hurry up, Hobbit!” he growled, the first time the Dwarves had heard his voice since he’d routed them from their home decades earlier, and it was enough to make them all reach for their swords.

“I fear this may be some kind of foul trick,” Thorn muttered darkly.

“It’s not, I promise,” Bilbo assured him once again. He tried to distract him. “I never did see the Arkenstone, but it’s probably in there somewhere, rather a mess, though. I’m sure you’ll find it. King Under the Mountain again, and perhaps the city of Dale will rise again!”

Thorin lightened up marginally. “Yes, our triumph is nearly complete! We will celebrate our victorious return with feasting and song!”

Feasting and song did sound rather nice. Bilbo hadn’t been properly warm or dry for a long time, and the rather pitiful provisions they’d been given in Lake-town were hardly a feast. Somehow he doubted his physical position was going to improve anytime soon. Did dragons even like song? Their musical proclivities were not the first thing one heard about dragons.

“NOW!” a deep voice roared from inside the mountain, and Bilbo gave the others an apologetic look.

“Better go now,” he told them quickly. “Um, bye.” With that he ducked back into the tunnel.

Magnus was literally stamping his feet with impatience when Bay saw him again—then he realized he was actually pawing the loose treasure away from a large, battered doorway. Right, they were probably in the treasure room, which didn’t have an outside door big enough for a dragon to fit through.

Bay did not offer to help, fearing he would be sucked down into a sinkhole of gold; he merely found a stable place to wait, and tried not to snicker as Magnus’s rump got stuck in the doorway when he attempted to wriggle through prematurely. It was rather undignified. He kicked at some treasure with his back foot, quite like a sea turtle flipping sand over her eggs, Bay thought with amusement, and finally the dragon had enough give to squirm into the next room.

“Are you coming?” Magnus called back peevishly.

“I don’t know,” Bay replied dryly. “I’m not sure I’ll fit.”

He heard an irked huff in response and, grinning, finally slipped off his rock and padded across the treasure, for once glad his slight Hobbit stature made him less likely to sink in. It was somewhat like walking across hard, rough snow—cold, uneven, relatively stable but prone to slippage, especially as he neared the part Magnus had disturbed. He didn’t think the dragon would let him drown in treasure at this point, though, and so kept on wading through, until it became shallower, spilling out into a grand, though wrecked, hall. He had only a moment to look around—the dusty banners, the chipped mosaics, the huge throne shrouded in darkness at the far end—before Magnus was chucking rubble around, allowing shards of sunlight to pierce the gloom through what were once the magnificent entry doors.

“Should I just wait here?” Bay inquired from the side.

Yes.”

“You’re not happy about leaving, I understand,” Bay sighed, climbing up on a large boulder. “You found a nice place, and I’m disrupting you—“

Magnus stopped shoving the rubble aside and turned to face Bay, his golden eyes glowing in the dim light. “I have been waiting for you,” he said again, his voice low and silky. He lowered his head until Bay could nearly reach out and touch him. “I have been sleeping for over sixty years, dreaming of when you would come to me,” he went on in a purr, and Bay barely suppressed a shiver. “You have not disrupted me.”

He pulled back abruptly and resumed digging. “But yes, I am unhappy about leaving,” he confirmed shortly. “This is a very nice place, very cozy and quiet. A battle with Dwarves would’ve cemented my reputation, and no one would’ve bothered us.”

Bay couldn’t help any of that, and didn’t waste his breath trying to change Magnus’s mood. The Dwarves would have a difficult time fixing all the damage the dragon was causing, but then again, with that gold hoard they could afford to hire the best craftsmen in Middle-Earth. “Sixty years, huh?” he went on conversationally. “You were just… sleeping?”

“Sort of hibernating, I suppose,” Magnus told him. “Dragons don’t need to eat much if they’re just sleeping. And I had quite a lot of Dwarves to digest.” Bay thought that sounded appropriately reptilian. “Dragons like to sleep buried under gold,” he added, and Bay shrugged a little—of course they did. If he had all that gold, he’d probably roll around in it, too. “No, I mean we need to sleep under it,” Magnus emphasized. “It’s part of our physiology. That’s why we covet it so much.”

“Oh.” Bay frowned. “Are you going to be… hurt now, without your gold?” Maybe they could still come up with some other plan—

“I just need to find some more,” Magnus replied, with deceptive casualness. “I wanted you to know, so you wouldn’t think I was just greedy,” he added, giving Bay a sideways glance.

“No, of course not, darling.” The corner of Magnus’s large mouth quirked up slightly at the endearment, which had just slipped out. Bay glanced around to make sure the Dwarves hadn’t made it far enough in to hear. He expected they were being very cautious at this point.

Finally Magnus decided he would be able to get out with ease and he turned to Bay, stretching out his long neck almost at floor level. “Come on,” he encouraged. “Get on.”

Bay had not thought of this. “Oh, you want me to, er—“

“Well we’re not going to prance out hand in claw, are we?” Magnus suggested sarcastically. “Get on.”

Bay stood and awkwardly stepped onto Magnus’s head. It was warm, smooth despite the scales, solid. “Where do you want me to go?”

“Back,” Magnus murmured, trying not to move his head and thus dislodge his passenger. Bay carefully padded down his neck and settled between the dragon’s shoulder blades. He was too broad to straddle like a pony, though. “Ready?”

“Mm, I guess,” Bay agreed dubiously, and Magnus launched himself through the doorway and skyward. The rush of wind was terrific, the cold going straight to Bay’s bones and nearly knocking him off Magnus’s back; he had to use a little magic to keep himself affixed. They swooped above the ruined city of Dale, its towers blackened and crumbled by decades-old dragon fire, then up, up over the mountains with their snow-covered peaks. They flew into the clouds and everything became foggy and damp; Bay couldn’t see a thing. Then they broke above the clouds, and light from the rising sun glinted golden off Magnus’s outstretched wings and shimmered on his scales. Bay sensed he was enjoying himself, for all that he professed to prefer being curled up under his golden blanket.

They spun and twirled, the muscles bunching and relaxing under Magnus’s skin, his flight at once strong and delicate. After slogging up mountains and over plains and through forests, always relentlessly on the trail, always with one goal in mind, this freedom of movement was incredible—nowhere they had to be, but going wherever they wanted. Bay laughed aloud at that thought—he was a Hobbit riding on the back of a dragon, and they could go anywhere they wanted in Middle-Earth, and not be constrained by what anyone thought they ought to be doing.

Okay, well, not strictly true. They couldn’t settle down just anywhere, Minas Tirith or Edoras or Rivendell—hmm, Rivendell would be a possibility actually, it had been so beautiful there and Bay thought the Elves seemed a little more open-minded than the leaders of Men. The Shire was completely out, of course, which gave him a little pang of regret—one of his grasping relatives would get Bag-end, with its books and cozy nooks and family heirlooms. Ah well. He and Magnus would make a new home for themselves, somewhere—somewhere Bilbo Baggins had never dreamed of.

Bay fell asleep after a while and half awoke delirious with cold, shivering so hard his muscles ached, dreaming he’d been riding a dragon, when surely any moment the cold ground and lots of snoring, smelly Dwarves would come into focus. Only they didn’t, and he grew more disoriented instead of less, the mortal and immortal fighting inside him for control. “Magnus,” he choked out, his jaw tight, and the ground seemed to drop sickeningly from beneath him.

“Why didn’t you tell me you were cold—“ a familiar voice fussed, and then he was enveloped in warmth, blissful, stinging warmth, suffusing life back into his body.

Bay opened his eyes, or meant to, but everything was still pitch black. He felt he was still upright, something holding him across the waist, and he reached out tingly fingers to brush a thick but soft substance hanging before him like a curtain.

“Are you alright?” Magnus asked, very close to him, but invisible in the dark.

“Where am I?”

“Under my wing.”

“Oh right,” Bay remembered drowsily. “You’re a dragon.”

“I do wish you would’ve mentioned getting cold, Bay,” Magnus chided, his tone patronizing. “Or just not gotten cold, could you have tried that, perhaps?”

“I quite forgot,” Bay claimed, with a tolerant smile. He reached out a hand towards Magnus’s voice and hit something hard and scaly.

“Ow.”

“Oh, poor dragon.”

Magnus snorted. “Well, what shall we do now?” he wanted to know. “Shall we stop for a while?” There was a draft of cool air. “I could leave you here,” he suggested, “and go search on my own.”

“And come back?” Bay checked.

Naturally,” Magnus assured him, affronted he would suggest otherwise.

“Where are we?” Bay asked, instead of addressing his question. He didn’t really want to be left, even temporarily.

“Some forest,” Magnus replied vaguely. He sensed dissatisfaction with this answer. “Well they haven’t got labels, have they? I’ve flown quite far south, and we’ve gone over the jungle to pine trees again.”

“Where are we headed?” He clutched the arm that held him safe against the dragon’s belly.

“There’s some mountains in the extreme south, before the Sea of Ice,” Magnus explained. “I did look at a map once, you know. There just seem to be a lot of trees around here.” He was evidently a bit defensive about his lack of geographic knowledge. “Dragons navigate according to magnetic field lines, anyway.”

“Oh, I didn’t know that,” Bay remarked, stroking the scaly arm gently. He was becoming quite drowsy, in his warm, minty cocoon.

Magnus shook him awake, which he did not appreciate. “So, I could leave you here for a while, while I look around the mountains,” he repeated. “There’s probably things to eat in the forest, if you like that sort of thing. Berries and squirrels or whatever.”

He sounded so disdainful that Bay chuckled. “What do dragons eat?”

“Meat,” Magnus told him succinctly. “Meat worth our while. Sheep, horses, mountain goats. Dwarves, Men, though things like clothing and weapons choke a bit going down. All gets melted down in the end,” he added, meaning this reassuringly. “Elves taste funny, like the plastic was left on when you microwaved them.” Bay laughed, knowing what he meant even though Middle-Earth had neither plastic nor microwave ovens. “I am rather hungry,” Magnus went on leadingly. “I’ve been flying quite a lot on an empty stomach.”

This seemed a more concrete concern to Bay. “Oh, well, you must find something to eat,” he agreed. “No people, though.”

Magnus huffed his disdain for this restriction. “Perhaps I could find a giant bear, or some kind of large carnivorous cat,” he mused.

“In this forest?” Bay asked dubiously. He liked the idea of staying here alone even less. These were snacks to a dragon, but to them, he was the snack.

“Honestly, I don’t see how you enjoy life at all, being so small and afraid of everything,” Magnus scoffed.

His tone irritated Bay. “Well I was doing quite fine in the Shire,” he shot back, “until I was recruited to hunt down a bloody great dragon!”

“Yes, and you’re mine now,” Magnus purred unexpectedly. Something warm and wet, almost sticky, brushed Bay’s cheek.

“What was that?”

“My tongue.”

“Oh how nice.”

Magnus chuckled darkly, which made Bay remember theirs was not exactly a partnership on equal footing. “I think I’ll take you with me after all,” the dragon decided. “Will you keep yourself warm?” He meant artificially, breaking the rules of their characters here. “Or shall I do it?”

“Well, I’ll keep a bit warm,” Bay conceded. He was already using some power to make sure he stayed attached to the dragon in flight; what was a little more? “I suppose you don’t really get cold?”

“It’s difficult to imagine.”

Magnus started to unfold one wing, letting in daylight and cold air; Bay realized the dragon’s head had been tucked beneath his wing also, so they could chat. “There, can you climb up?” Bay turned around, not gracefully, and began to clamber up the dragon as he would a gnarled old tree. He decided not to tell Magnus about this comparison.

“Alright here?” Bay asked, positioning himself where he was before.

“Fine. Your feet are dirty,” Magnus complained, brushing at his chest. “You’ve left footprints on me.”

Bay was not sure how to take that. “Sorry?” he offered with a frown. “Hobbit feet are often dirty, I suppose.”

“Don’t you have shoes?”

“No,” Bay told him, peeved at his tone. “Look, you’re not wearing any clothes at all, are you? So there.”

Magnus spread his great wings and took off abruptly, jolting Bay a bit. “Dragons like to be clean,” he rumbled, and Bay wasn’t able to respond because the wind took his breath away. Rather unfair that, but he got the feeling Magnus would happily press any advantage he could, so perhaps he’d better get used to it.

**

Alright, riding on the back of a dragon lost some of its novelty after a while, especially as a form of long-distance transport. For short flights, certainly, it was remarkable; but one did grow a bit weary of being in the same position, just hanging on while the dragon did his acrobatics. Magnus swooped, low and silent, over a mountain stream to snatch up an enormous cave bear that was fishing for salmon, and it was thrilling; they were so close Bay could smell the fresh, clean scent of the icy water and see the silvery-pink scales of the fish flash in the fading sunlight.

But then there was the part about having an up-close view as Magnus tossed the bear down his throat, one, two crunches to get it small enough, loose bits of fur and possibly worse whipping back in Bay’s face. After that he kept his head down as the dragon plucked horned sheep from the mountain crevices and chased a herd of wild horses through a valley. Bay heard no shouts of alarm from people, at least, so he assumed Magnus was sticking to their bargain.

Night fell, and the stars above the clouds were glorious, silver specks in the velvety blue cloak of the sky. It was not the sort of cloak that kept one warm, however, and Bay patted the side of Magnus’s neck firmly, hoping this would induce him to land. Instead the dragon slowed and perched on the side of a mountain, near a ledge of sufficient size for perhaps only a Hobbit. Bay climbed off anyway, glad to feel solid ground beneath him again.

Magnus poked him with his muzzle and Bay patted it absently. “Can you sleep here tonight?” Magnus asked. “What will you need?”

“Wood for a fire,” Bay decided. He had fortunately kept the food and water rations he’d been issued in Lake-town; actually he’d forgotten about them being in his bag. “Where are you going to sleep?” he questioned Magnus, after he had helpfully uprooted a twisted pine growing from a crevice a few meters away and dumped it before Bay to be hacked up.

“I’ll just stay right here,” Magnus replied, hooking his claws over a rocky outcropping and folding his wings around him.

Bay busied himself building a nice pile of wood, then invited the dragon to light it for him. A delicate tongue of fire, unlikely to terrify anyone were it to drop from on high, shot from Magnus’s mouth to set the camp fire ablaze. Bay couldn’t resist poking a bit of fun at him. “That’s not all you do, is it?” he checked.

He saw at once the joke had fallen flat, but then they often did with Magnus. “No, it’s not all, Bay,” he answered, a bit irritably. “I can produce quite enough fire to char that whole valley down there!”

“Alright, I know,” Bay assured him, making a placating gesture.

“Well, you oughtn’t to say such foolish things.”

“I’m afraid you’ll have to get used to them.”

Bay kept quiet for a while after that, though, eating his dried beef strips and bread and drinking his warm water. Well, he’d have a home of his own soon, with Magnus there, and knowing him they would have luxury aplenty. “Where do you think we are?” he asked conversationally. He knew the dragon was still awake; his golden eye was fixed on Bay at all times.

“We’re in the southern mountains,” Magnus informed him. “I forget their name. Some kind of color. Silver or red or something.”

“Did we come straight south from Erebor? The White Mountains then, I think,” Bay suggested. “I like maps,” he added to Magnus’s unswerving gaze. “This is where the Sea-Kings buried their dead.”

“I know,” Magnus assured him. “They had tombs cut into the mountains and filled with treasure. That’s what I’m hoping to find.”

“Clever,” Bay praised. “Many will be looted by now, though.” The Sea-Kings’ empire, like many before and since, had fallen into decline, and the ability to buy bread became more important than reverence for long-dead ancestors.

“We’ll start looking in the morning,” Magnus declared. “Don’t die in the night.”

“I’ll try not to,” Bay responded dryly. With that he curled up in his cloak by the fire and closed his eyes, dreaming idly of their past adventures together. Or were they future adventures? Time really had no meaning for them, nor place. They were born somewhere, grew up in the conventions of their era, and only slowly came into their knowledge of each other, of what they had shared, of the need to find one another.

Sometimes, the need was less urgent, some instinct telling them the time was not yet right—as with this time; Bay had lived easily a third of his normal lifespan, well past the age of recognizance, before he began the quest that would lead him to Magnus. And even then he hadn’t fully realized what he was headed towards. As for Magnus, he had just laid there sleeping, letting Bay do all the work. So typical. But here they were again at last—a most unusual pair, in a most unusual setting.

**

Bay awoke to a low rumble in his bones and saw that the sun was up, and that a great dragon eye was inches away, staring at him. He tried not to jump. “Time to get up, is it?” he croaked.

“It’s so dull when you’re asleep,” Magnus complained. The ground trembled again when Bay didn’t rouse himself fast enough and he realized it was the dragon humming, his jaw resting on the ledge.

“You’re going to cause an avalanche doing that,” Bay predicted, stirring up the fire.

“So grouchy!” Magnus teased. At least he was in a good mood. “Look what I brought you!”

Bay had somehow failed to notice the large bird carcass nearby. “You brought me… a dead eagle?” he surmised. Just a regular one, not the giant golden kind that had saved them from Azog the Defiler that one time.

“Is it an eagle?” Magnus asked curiously, peering at it more closely. “I thought maybe it was a pigeon.”

“Mm, no, a pigeon is about this big,” roughly the size of the eagle’s head. Bay did not think a dragon could purposefully catch anything that small. “But thanks so much, it’s lovely,” he added hurriedly, when Magnus began to give off an irritated vibe.

“Well, can you eat it?” he wanted to know.

“Yes, I think so,” Bay decided. “It will take a while to prepare, though.”

Magnus blinked at him. “Oh, I suppose you have to remove the feathers,” he realized.

“Yes. Eagle feathers, though, very nice,” Bay continued, trying to sound upbeat. “I’ll keep them for something.”

Magnus was not entirely fooled. “You’ll eat it, then? Well, I’ll start looking around for sites to investigate,” he decided. He started to swoop away, then returned. “Don’t go anywhere!” he added cheekily, and Bay glanced down at the sheer drop beyond his ledge. The comment did at least prove Magnus had a sense of humor, of a sort.

One could eat eagle, Bay discovered, but he doubted the species would go extinct from over-hunting for food anytime soon. Not exactly the most delicate meat, and a lot of work to get at it. It was certainly the largest meal he’d had in a while, though.

Magnus never left him alone for long, wheeling by every hour or so. He’d spotted several tomb entrances, but had examined them more closely and confirmed they’d already been looted. When a dragon wanted to examine something, it turned out, they just stuck their head in and breathed some fire for light; no matter if there was someone or something already in there that might be damaged or frightened by fire. The world was a plaything for dragons, evidently.

When Magnus had exhausted the options nearby, they packed up and moved to a different ledge on a different mountain. Bay didn’t dare suggest dissatisfaction with this setup, because he knew Magnus would just remind him of the ‘perfectly good’ home they’d left behind. But it was a little dull, and Bay didn’t feel like he was helping much.

“Maybe I could come with you today,” he said to Magnus one morning. He was roasting an unidentified animal the dragon had brought him part of—it had hooves, that was all he was sure about. “Maybe I could help you spot things. I’ve got sharp eyes, you know,” he added proudly. “I’m the one who spotted the secret entrance to Erebor.”

Magnus was not impressed by this credential. “It’s right next to a gigantic statue carved into the mountain,” he noted flatly. “Which the stairs are part of. Rather obvious.”

“Well, no one had found it before, had they?” Bay insisted.

“No one could open it before,” Magnus corrected, and Bay rolled his eyes. “And, there was a dragon inside, which I’m sure was somewhat of a deterrent.” He sighed, nearly snuffing out Bay’s fire. “All that lovely gold… I could bury myself under it completely, just keep sinking down, however I moved…”

Bay reminded himself what he’d told him before, that the gold was a biological necessity for dragons. “How long can you go without more?” he wanted to know.

“Oh, a while,” Magnus dismissed. “This searching is very tedious, though. I might just make something.”

“Oh,” Bay chided, cutting off a bite of the meat. Not bad, actually. “Come on, you can’t just make everything you want happen. Where’s the challenge in that?”

Now Magnus rolled his eyes. “There’s interesting challenges, and then there’s mere toil,” he sneered. “Dragons do not toil. We take what we want! Or make it.”

Occasionally he gave into these pompous little speeches; Bay tried to tolerate them. “Lovely for you. Here’s some sort of organ, you want it?” Magnus opened his maw eagerly and Bay tossed the shiny mass in, a tiny morsel to the dragon but appreciated, it seemed. “Well, let me come with you,” he repeated. “Maybe we can find a real place, and modify it a bit.” He’d been giving this some thought as he waited for Magnus’s return. “I’d like indoor plumbing, for one thing. Not likely to find that in a tomb.”

This made Magnus chuckle—not at Bay’s wit, just at him. “Poor little Hobbit, used to the comforts of his cozy Hobbit-hole,” he teased. Bay had waxed nostalgic about it the other night. “Shall I recreate it for you, deep inside a mountain?”

“That’d be rather hard to explain,” Bay noted, but Magnus merely scoffed.

“Who is there to explain to? We will retire under our mountain and quite possibly never be seen again.” His tone was equal parts seductive and sinister.

“No,” Bay corrected. He needed to make Magnus realize there were practical constraints involved. “I’ll have to come out to get fresh supplies. Maybe you can sleep without food for decades, but I can’t.”

“Well, you could.”

“Doesn’t sound like much fun, though.”

Magnus couldn’t deny that. They hadn’t waited for each other all this time to merely sleep the rest of their existence away. “Well, trekking off for supplies sounds laborious,” he complained anyway. He shifted his hold on a crag of rock and caused a small landslide, which was beneath his notice. “You’d have to do it all the time, you’re so small you couldn’t carry much.” Bay opened his mouth with a counter-suggestion but Magnus interrupted him. “And don’t say I could carry it,” he insisted disdainfully. “Dragons are not pack animals.” Less loftily, “Also, a dragon can’t just land in the middle of the market. Panic tends to ensue.”

“How foolish. I could load up a cart,” Bay went on, his actual suggestion if Magnus would let him finish, “and push it along the road to the foot of the mountain, then you could come down and pick it up. I could have a pony to pull it,” he continued happily, getting a bit involved. “Maybe two ponies, and more a wagon than a cart, that would hold more. Of course then I’d need food for the ponies, but maybe there would be a mountain meadow nearby where they could graze. I could cut hay for them in the winter. Some chickens and a cow would be nice, too, for fresh eggs and milk—“

“Are you quite finished with this little agronomic fantasy?” Magnus interrupted acidly, which obviously Bay wasn’t.

“What’s wrong with it?” Bay demanded, slightly hurt. He picked up some hoof and bone detritus. “Here, eat this. I’m just trying to balance practicality and quality of life.”

Magnus’s huge teeth, each the size of Bay’s forearm, crunched the bones like they were mere peanuts. “Why feed and clean up after a smelly cow when you can just say, ‘I’ll have fresh milk whenever I want it’?” he asked. “Or eggs or cheese or vegetables or whatever else Hobbits eat.”

Bay gave him an exasperated look. “That’s your solution, is it? Just make things exactly how you want them. It’s not following the rules.” As soon as he’d said it he knew he shouldn’t have; that was very nearly the last thing Magnus cared about.

“Following the rules?” he repeated, loudly enough to cause another mini-landslide, and Bay winced. “Following the rules is for tiny beings with tiny brains! We have seen the stars, Bay! The life and death of universes! Why should we concern ourselves with anything like rules?”

Bay nodded as if he understood where Magnus was coming from. It was an old argument. “I gave you some rules, though, didn’t I?” he pointed out gently, wondering if he was being foolish.

Magnus huffed. “Personal preferences,” he corrected. “Ridiculous ones, I might add. I note I didn’t get to make any stipulations.”

Sometimes Bay really couldn’t believe his cheek. “Stip—You want stipulations?” he repeated in astonishment. “You’re a dragon! I’m the one who needs assurances about your behavior.”

“Well that’s hardly fair,” Magnus insisted. He had a way of sounding so sensible sometimes, when he wanted to. When it suited his purposes. “Why should it be me doing whatever you want?”

Bay dropped his head, exhausted from trying to reason with Magnus. That was how he wanted to spin it, that Bay was the pushy one? Since when did ‘please don’t roast people alive’ constitute an onerous demand? Since Magnus became a dragon, he supposed. That was what dragons did, wasn’t it? Roast people alive, take over treasure hoards, snuggle down in the gold like a child in a cozy bed—and Bay had made him give up all of that. No, no, don’t give in, Bay told himself, not completely. This was Magnus being difficult… even if he somewhat had a point.

Something warm and sticky smacked his face and he sat up suddenly, watching crossly as Magnus’s long, thick tongue snaked back into his mouth. “I wanted to check if you’d fallen asleep,” he claimed insolently, as Bay wiped his face off. “I couldn’t tell, you’re so tiny, it’s hard to see you properly.”

“Honestly, can we stop with the remarks about my size?” Bay sighed. “You wait until we’re settled, then we’ll see who has trouble making the tea and cooking an omelet.”

“Come over here,” Magnus requested, and Bay did so automatically. “I’ve got an itch, right behind my eye.” Bay rubbed the spot and Magnus puffed pleasantly, almost guttering the fire.

“Big, silly dragon,” Bay told him affectionately. The red-gold scales overlapped like shingles on a roof and Bay was careful to only stroke them in the proper direction. “You seem a bit dingy to me, you might need a bath.”

Magnus chuckled, his eyes still closed. “I’ll let you give me a bath,” he purred. “A Hobbit could be very useful for that sort of thing.”

Bay thought he knew exactly what ‘sort of thing’ Magnus was talking about, but this was neither the time nor the place to go there. Instead he stepped back to what he judged was a good focal length for the dragon. “Alright, what stipulations would you have, that I ought to follow?” he asked tolerantly. “And please, don’t waste them on things I would do anyway,” he added as Magnus opened his mouth.

The dragon blinked at him. “I suppose you would be happy to have a bath, were facilities available,” he suggested anyway.

Absolutely.”

“Well I think you ought to be more flexible about our new home,” Magnus went on, as if Bay was being totally unreasonable about the whole thing. “Let’s make it nice, and cozy, so we don’t have to go out unless we want to.”

Bay closed his eyes and felt the dragon nuzzle him persuasively. It could be regular-sized Magnus talking to him, weaving his darkly tempting fantasy, until an overeager push knocked Bay off his feet. “Oh, sorry,” Magnus sputtered, flustered. “Are you alright?” He lifted a front claw as if to help Bay up and his wing bumped into the roasting spit, dumping Bay’s meal into the fire and scattering ashes over the campsite, including onto his bedroll. Bay scrambled over to put out the small flames. “Bother,” Magnus huffed. Clearly, this was the fault of the universe, and nothing to do with him being so many times Bay’s size.

“Okay, it’s alright,” Bay assured him anyway, smothering one more glowing piece of ash. “Um, I was done eating. Do you want the rest?”

“Well, I suppose.” The dragon didn’t seem to mind the ashy coating on the meat, or the charred sticks his tongue scooped up as well. The remainder of the animal provided a mouthful of food for him, at least. “We were talking about my stipulations,” he reminded Bay, who settled for some leftover hard cheese from his rations.

“Yes. I suppose it would save a lot of logistical trouble, to have a fully-stocked larder,” he conceded. “Less chance of bothering people, drawing their curiosity.” It wasn’t the fully-stocked larder he objected to, by any means, just how it got that way. Seemed a bit lazy to just conjure it, was all. But, a Hobbit in these parts, trekking off into the mountains with a wagon of food every few months—that was bound to stir up questions, and next thing you knew some fool would be following him, trying to rob him, telling people about the dragon who ‘attacked’ him, and so forth. Then there’d be heroic expeditions to slay the dragon, Magnus would get mad and destroy the village, and they’d never have any peace and quiet. “I should like to have a garden, though, somehow,” Bay went on musingly. “Hobbits like gardening.”

“And running water,” Magnus added, smug now that he was getting his way. “And light and warmth and a comfy bed, I suppose.”

“This was your idea,” Bay pointed out, feeling slightly mocked. “I certainly don’t want darkness and cold and an uncomfortable bed.” Magnus made a tsking sound meant to soothe. “And I’d like some books, while we’re daydreaming,” Bay added stoutly. “Maybe some wood to carve and some yarn to knit. I’m quite good at crochet, I could make you some giant dragon mittens,” he continued, now poking fun at himself.

Magnus chuckled and rubbed his head sideways on the ground. “Come scratch behind my other eye,” he requested, so Bay climbed on top of his head and stretched out on his stomach to reach the spot. “Mm, that’s nice,” Magnus decided. “See how nice it is when we work together?”

“When I do whatever you say, you mean,” Bay corrected dryly.

“Yes, that is nice.” Magnus straightened up a little. “Shall we find our new home?”

“Well, let me get my things,” Bay protested, sliding off the end of his nose.

“Raggedy blanket, moth-eaten bag, nasty cheese, toothpick you call a sword—“ Magnus listed derisively.

“I’ll have you know, this toothpick was forged by the Elves, and it glows blue when there are Orcs around,” Bay countered, packing quickly.

“How very useful. Orcs don’t taste good. It ought to glow blue when there are bighorn sheep around,” Magnus judged, licking his scaly lips hungrily.

“Yes, well, sheep aren’t very dangerous, even to Hobbits,” Bay noted understatedly.

“Have you noticed,” Magnus replied in an innocent tone, as though just now realizing this, “that there’s nothing that’s dangerous to a dragon?”

Bay rolled his eyes and let him see it, since this was the reaction Magnus was going for. It wasn’t strictly true, though, and Bay had spent some of his alone time on the mountain ledges worrying about this. A large enough crowd of warriors could bring down a dragon. Bay didn’t want to take the chance that a mob would come for them from a village, armed with farming implements and insults—that sort of thing was bound to hurt Magnus’s feelings, though he would try to hide it—or that some nut would take it in his head to slay Magnus to impress a pretty girl and get in a lucky shot. So he supposed that isolated was good, even if they were technically breaking the rules.

“Must protect my dragon, after all,” Bay muttered to himself as he rolled his pack.

“What?”

“Nothing!”

Bay smothered the fire, then clambered onto Magnus’s back. When he was secure the dragon pushed away from the mountain, deliberately flipping over and pointing down before grazing the valley floor and soaring back upwards. “Show-off,” Bay murmured, but he was grinning.

They flew around for a while, each imagining the sort of place they’d like to live in, what it ought to look like, where it should be located. Bay was not consciously projecting anything yet; he doubted Magnus was showing similar restraint. “What’s that?” he shouted above the wind, pointing downward at a mountain peak. Then he remembered Magnus could neither hear him properly nor see him well from his current position, so he transmitted the image in his mind to Magnus’s, and the dragon wheeled back around.

He perched on an outcropping of rock and let Bay hop off, onto a relatively large, flat clearing. “This is nice,” he commented, pacing around it.

“Nice for what?”

“Our front porch,” Bay suggested. He carefully peered over the edge, to the bank of clouds below. They were rather high up, which should give them plenty of interior volume to work with—maybe they could incorporate snowmelt into their water system. The rock face below would be a difficult climb, he judged, though not entirely impossible. “We could have big stone doors right here,” he went on, patting the smooth rock at the back of the ledge. “Big enough for a dragon to get through.”

“With a little Hobbit flap at the bottom?” Magnus teased. “You’d never get them open on your own.”

“You’re the one who said we wouldn’t be going out much.”

Magnus shrugged a little and looked around. “Alright. Shall I do it, or you?”

Bay took a step back. “You go ahead and start.”

Magnus gave him a warning glance. “Because if we do it at the same time it’s liable to be messed up,” he reminded.

“Yes, I know.” Been there, done that. Turned out it was far easier to just wipe the slate clean and start over, than to try separating matter accidentally co-mingled by conflicting desires.

“Okay.”

As Bay watched, an outline began to form in the rock face, like someone was drawing two gigantic rectangles stretching upwards many times his own height. Their margins became carved with strange, sinuous symbols before his eyes.

“What are those?” he asked in fascination.

“The ancient runes of the Sea-Kings,” Magnus claimed mysteriously.

“Really. Did you just make them up?”

Magnus looked offended at this suggestion. “No, I did not,” he insisted. “They’re copied from a looted tomb I saw the other day. This chamber was allegedly built as the tomb of King Ragnar Lothbrok, the Monk-Slayer”—Bay grimaced a bit—“but really it’s just a decoy.”

“So when future archaeologists fly by here in helicopters, they’ll be totally confused,” Bay predicted dryly.

“I don’t care.”

“Okay. Please continue.” The carved runes took on a weathered appearance, their nooks and crannies filling with soil and organic matter, the crisp edges wearing away as though they had indeed been on this mountainside since the First Age of Men. “Monk-Slayer, hmm,” he repeated idly. “One doesn’t normally think of monks as being very dangerous.”

“Well, the Sea-Kings were basically all just thugs anyway,” Magnus judged—not too negatively, more because he felt they lacked style than anything else.

Bay waited another moment, while Magnus just clung there, staring at the door. “Ah, that’s lovely,” he praised, just in case Magnus hadn’t gotten that. “Can hardly see it, surely no one will spot it casually. Though if they do, entirely plausible story.” He paused. “So… can we go in?”

“Well, I’ve got the interior hollowed out,” Magnus replied, with some frustration, “but I’m not really sure what to do with it. There’s some bits of what I saw earlier, and things I read about the Vikings and the Dragon Men and the Pale—“ He paused. “Have you noticed how every world seems to have some thuggish culture that crosses the sea and beats people up and steals things? Often large and blond.”

“Well, of course they’d be large, if their culture depended on beating people up,” Bay reasoned. “And fair skin and blond hair indicate a lack of melanin, high latitudes with indirect sunlight, likely to have a poor growing season that further necessitates—“

“You’re such a know-it-all,” Magnus claimed in exasperation.

“Well that’s ironic.”

Magnus acted as though he didn’t get this comment, which may well have been true. “Get back on and I’ll open the doors,” he said, and Bay did so, watching from the safety of the dragon’s back as the stone panels began to creak open for the first time.

“Those doors must be incredibly heavy,” Bay observed, as pulverized rock rained down on the clearing. “What sort of hinges did you use to hold them?”

“Hinges?” Magnus sputtered in return. “Why would I think about hinges? I’m not a door engineer. The doors are meant to open, so they do.” Bay rolled his eyes but patted Magnus’s back as if in agreement; sometimes he did not pay much attention to details he considered irrelevant, like hinges on doors.

The doors were several feet thick, marvelously hewn from the rock by the power of Magnus’s will; those future archaeologists would marvel at the skill of the ancient craftsmen. Finally they parted widely, revealing a pitch-black interior, and Magnus folded himself inside, spreading his wings widely once there was room and taking a soaring spin around the hollowed-out mountain. Or so Bay assumed; he was busy gripping the dragon with his face pressed against his scales and his eyes closed, terrified they were going to ram into something in the dark. Magnus chuckled, the sound echoing around the chamber.

“Of course I would make it big enough to fly around in,” he chided Bay with amusement. “A dragon doesn’t want to crawl around his hoard.”

“Mmm. Have you made provisions for lighting?” Bay inquired instead.

“Naturally. Hmm, you may get slightly warm,” the dragon warned, which was enough to make Bay open his eyes in alarm.

A golden glow began to emanate from the dragon’s belly, steadily turning orange then red and rising up the underside of his throat, rather like a bad case of acid reflux, Bay thought prosaically. He felt the heat when it passed beneath him, but fortunately it was more like sitting a smidge too close to the fire than being in the fire. Then the dragon opened his mouth and spewed a great torrent of flame, blindingly bright to Bay, and ignited something hung from the ceiling of the chamber. It was like a giant candelabra, and from it issued streams of fire to the walls, which in turn set ablaze two spirals that raced around and around the room, crossing paths, splitting apart, like flaming domino runs, finally ending in a massive stone hearth that illuminated a kitchen set into a niche in the wall.

“Wow,” Bay breathed. It really shouldn’t have worked at all. And yet it did, and it was magnificent.

Magnus was terribly pleased with himself, but in a way that delighted equally in Bay’s joy. “There’s not really going to be fire going across the floor,” he admitted, extinguishing a couple lines of flame. “I just wanted to end with the fireplace.”

“It’s beautiful,” Bay assured him.

With a flourish Magnus landed in a pit on the floor, ducking his head so Bay could dismount onto the walkway surrounding it. He turned in every direction, trying to take in all the crags and niches the fire illuminated, his mind overwhelmed by shape and form.

“Mmm, lovely gold,” Magnus purred happily behind him, and Bay turned to see the extraordinary sight of the dragon snuggling down into the pile of treasure. The pit was filled with it—gold coins and bars, loose gems and jewelry, vessels, boxes, statues, charms, all twinkling in the firelight. It was not the mind-numbing volume of Erebor’s treasure store, of course, but apparently sufficient to cosset a dragon, who wriggled his hindquarters underneath the gold as a person might scootch into bed. Bay laughed; he couldn’t help it. It was a joyful release of mirth as well as tension as he suddenly realized they had done it, they had made it home—made their own home, safe under a mountain with the thick doors sealed shut.

Magnus looked up at him disdainfully, gold coins and jewels already plastered over his head. “I’m going to take a nap,” he announced. “Don’t wake me.”

“Alright,” Bay agreed easily. “Seems like there’s much to explore.”

Magnus yawned, his mouth opening wider than Bay was tall, his teeth gleaming like daggers. “It’s not really finished yet,” he noted sleepily, burrowing his head down into the treasure. His back foot twitched at the gold repeatedly, trying to get himself fully covered, and he whined in frustration, scattering gold everywhere as he kicked.

Bay set his pack down. “I’ll get it, my silly dragon,” he said affectionately, jumping down into the pit. Magnus muttered something, probably snooty, but it was muffled by treasure. Bay hopped lightly over the loose gold, his eye caught by the other items—chests and urns, small carvings, glittering trinkets the like of which he’d heard of only in fairytales. Of course he did not need treasure for what it could buy him; but it was pretty, and some of the worked pieces might be interesting to examine. He could do that later, though—neither it nor he was going anywhere.

Bay picked up a golden vessel, perhaps a helmet or a chafing dish or a chamber pot (hopefully, ceremonial only) and used it as a bucket to scoop up gold from around the pit to pour over the dragon’s bare patches. In the fading light—Magnus seemed to prefer dimness for sleeping—he could hardly tell where the gold ended and the dragon’s shimmering scales began, but he took special care to fill in any questionable spots—tucking his dragon in, he thought with an affectionate smirk. When he was finished he stepped back and beheld the great mounds of treasure, which pulsated only slightly with the dragon’s breathing. Magnus was so silent and still, for so great a beast—you would hardly know he was there. Until he rose up on an intruder in a fury, Bay imagined, and then it would be too late. He grimaced, hoping it wouldn’t come to that in their new, peaceful home.

Carefully Bay climbed out of the pit and took his pack into the kitchen to look around. The lower ceiling made the room cozy and warm, in contrast to the monstrous great hall. With willpower he fitted the hearth with arms and hooks for cooking and conjured himself a set of iron pots and skillets, which Magnus hadn’t thought of. Well, he was never much concerned with the normal ways of eating. There was a deep double sink, which Bay lowered a bit for greater comfort; the taps ran both cold and hot water. Lovely. A sturdy oak table and chairs sat in the center of the room, with various counters and cupboards around the edges. A very satisfactory kitchen, all in all, Bay thought—he had always done all his own cooking and cleaning, since he’d come into his inheritance.

That was what his parents—well, Bilbo’s parents—had intended, that he spend his energies in keeping up the family home and pursuing his studies, rather than laboring at a trade. The thought made Bay sigh a little, at the memory of all the once-deeply-held convictions he had elected to shatter when he joined the Dwarves’ quest. Unlike many of his adventures with Magnus, this time he had grown up in a nice place, with a nice family; but still, the heart called to him to forsake what he knew and embrace things foreign and strange to Bilbo Baggins. Families, countries, worlds rose and fell; but love was forever.

The dragon form of Magnus gave a snort in his sleep, as if agreeing with him. Or mocking him, it was hard to tell the difference sometimes.

Bay lit a taper from the fire and opened a door in the kitchen, curious to discover all the surprises Magnus had in store for him. This particular surprise went straight to his Hobbit heart—maybe he had always been a bit Hobbity—as his candle illuminated a larder stocked with all he could ever desire to eat. It was cool and dark, and he heard water rushing by as though in a springhouse. Everywhere he turned shelves were laden with eggs and butter, bread and cheese, sausages and roast chicken, apples and pears, flour, sugar, and canisters of tea. Oh yes, he would have a feast soon, Bay planned, and backed out of the larder quickly before temptation overwhelmed him.

Bay left the kitchen and stood on the broad stone path that encircled the dragon pit. The walls rose up high around them but threw irregular shadows in the firelight, as though they might contain stairways and platforms, other chambers to explore. On the other side of the pit a long staircase hugged the wall as it rose up to the entrance doors; Bay could get up there himself, should he ever need to.

He turned slowly and caught sight of a door next to the kitchen, a Hobbit-sized door, albeit rectangular and not round as Hobbits preferred. When he opened it Bay was greeted by a spacious but snug bedchamber, a fire already blazing in its hearth. Magnus had good intentions, but a strange grasp of Bay’s size; the bed was too large to climb into comfortably, and the desk too small to sit at. Bay just shook his head and adjusted the sizes accordingly.

He had a chair and ottoman for reading and bookshelves everywhere… sadly empty at the moment. The printing press had not yet been invented on this world and all books were hand-lettered; thus they were scarce and valuable, though literacy was commonplace in most societies he was aware of. In Hobbiton all children were taught to read and write, and scribes made good money copying popular texts for families to share.

Another door led to a large closet, which was also empty. Well, Bay needed one set of clean clothes now, to change into after he bathed—and there they were, folded neatly on a shelf. Hobbits were not fond of ironing and had therefore developed the first wrinkle-free fabrics in Middle-Earth, so they could fold their clothes instead of hanging them. Let no one say Hobbits had never innovated! Aside from these new clothes, though, Bay was determined to conjure only fabric and sewing notions, and hone his tailor skills to fulfill what other wardrobe needs he had. That seemed a little more in keeping with the rules, and would keep him productively occupied as well.

There was yet another door in the bedchamber and Bay opened it curiously, eyes widening when he saw the luxurious bathroom. It had its own fireplace to warm the cold tiles, the privy tucked discreetly to one side, and an enormous bathtub, which you could easily boil a Hobbit in for stew without leaving any dry bits poking up. This thought did not deter him, though, as he examined its creamy white contours longingly. He felt almost too dirty to bathe in it, which was, he supposed, a little ridiculous. Add a bath to the list of treats he would indulge in, while Magnus had what Bay suspected would be a rather long nap.

He went back through his bedchamber to the great hall—the mounds of gold signifying the dragon hadn’t moved—and kept traveling along the walkway to see what else his candle brought from the dark. A little ways on was another door, which opened onto a library, a room lined with bookcases and stuffed with comfortable places to study and read. Alas, the books were still few, whatever random titles had popped into Magnus’s mind: appropriately, the sagas of the Sea-Kings and their blond, thuggish ilk from other worlds; Pride and Prejudice; Volvox’s Intragalactic Guide. Well, room for improvement there, Bay thought optimistically. At least Magnus had thought of a library.

He opened yet another door, down from the library, and his nose was immediately assailed by the scent of fresh, tilled earth, moist and ready for planting, as impossible as that seemed. The smell took him straight back to the Shire for a moment and he felt so torn between his new life and his old one, his true life and the one he was used to. Then he shook it off, and was grateful he could have them both together in some way, because he really did love growing things, nurturing plants, seeing them change day after day.

Bay stepped into the room and saw that it was laid out like a garden, with large beds of soil crossed by tile paths. The first thing he did was change the tile to mulch, which was easier on feet and knees, though he kept a little patio before the door for brushing himself off—he had been known to get frightfully dirty while gardening, and he wasn’t sure Magnus would appreciate that. Next, some shelves and benches along the wall, storing some tools, and a water faucet with a hose. He thought about conjuring seed packets or even seedlings already growing in neat rows, but paused, and decided that taking things a little more slowly might be more rewarding. There were lots of fresh fruits and vegetables in the larder; he would start by saving their seeds and planting them. Of course, there were temperature and light variations to consider—

Ah yes. How to grow plants indoors, with no sunlight or natural temperature changes. Bay indulgently sat down on the rich, fluffy earth and dug his toes in luxuriantly, thinking it over. This situation sounded familiar to him… Right, in certain times and places, they used artificial lights in place of the sun, and deliberate sources of energy to keep the room at the desired temperature. A chandelier of dragon-fire candles hanging from the ceiling could surely provide light and warmth at the appropriate levels, he judged. Dragon-fire, as everyone knew, had special properties, such as brightening and dimming to replicate a pleasant and productive yearly growing cycle in coordination with the temperature. Right? A delightful muddle of magic and science.

As the temperature rose in the garden room and the candles glowed from the ceiling, Bay laid back in the soft soil and closed his eyes. With the warmth and light and clean, fertile scents, he could almost imagine he was back in the Shire again—though it was rather too quiet, there should be birds trilling, bees buzzing, carts creaking by on the road, children’s laughter drifting in on the breeze…

The last bit pained him slightly. He and Magnus could never have children, in any world, with anyone. It was part of their curse, though Magnus usually didn’t care. It was a particular sorrow for Bay, though, because he loved children. As a young man he’d resisted marrying—even a pleasant widow with several children—because he knew Magnus was out there, and he would be drawn to him someday and have to leave whatever family he’d made. Bay figured there was no way the universe could force Magnus into the shape of a Hobbit, so there was no hope of them spending their days pleasantly together in Bag-end. A Man or an Elf or a wizard might have been expected; a dragon was almost too perfect to be believed; but never a Hobbit.

A warm breeze wafted over Bay, oddly minty, which roused his attention just enough that he wasn’t completely startled out of his wits when Magnus said, “Did you faint?”

Bay sat up and turned to face the door, where Magnus’s head was bobbing curiously. Gold coins and jewels fell from his scales like water droplets. “If I’d fainted, asking me about it wouldn’t be very effective, would it?” he replied. “I thought you were taking a nap.”

“Well, I wanted to know what you were doing,” Magnus claimed. “I thought perhaps you would be taking a bath, but I see that instead, you’re lying in the dirt.” His tone made clear what he thought of this occupation.

Bay stood and brushed himself off. “Just enjoying my garden room,” he assured Magnus. “Thank you for making it, it’s a lovely idea.”

The dragon grimaced. “I don’t suppose you could garden in a… cleaner fashion?” he suggested, and Bay smirked.

“No, sorry,” he replied, stepping out into the hall and shutting the garden door behind him. He bent to pick up a pearl necklace and several gold coins. “Look at you, leaving bits of your bed all over the house,” he teased, dropping the items back into the pit. He rubbed Magnus’s snout affectionately. “Are you done with your nap?” He didn’t think he’d been exploring that long.

“No,” Magnus confirmed, settling back down into his treasure. “I—well, I wanted to make sure you weren’t getting bored,” he admitted, with unusual hesitation.

Bay grinned, walking around the pit to chuck gold back into it. “We just got here,” he pointed out. “I haven’t even eaten yet.”

Magnus curled up like a great dog, folding his wings over himself and resting his head on his front claws. “I get bored when you’re asleep,” he offered by way of explanation.

“We’ll have to synch up our sleep cycles, then.” Bay kicked a few more coins in—Magnus was certainly rather sloppy with them. “Are you going to get bored?” he asked curiously.

“How much do you plan to sleep?”

Bay rolled his eyes. “No, I mean just sitting there,” he clarified. “I can read, work in the garden, cook, sew—“

Magnus did not seem concerned about his own inactivity. “I’ll watch you,” he murmured sleepily.

Bay was not sure about that. “Watch me cook and sew? How thrilling.”

“Like an ant farm,” Magnus compared as Bay tucked him back in. “Or a living dollhouse.”

“Very sweet.” Bay rubbed the dragon behind his eye, watching with affectionate amusement as he made little sighs and noises of satisfaction, which tapered off until all that was left was his peaceful breathing. Carefully Bay climbed out of the pit and returned to his bathroom for a luxurious hot bath—and hoped that dragons didn’t snore.

**

“You’re so funny. It’s like obsessive-compulsive disorder. Are you counting them? What are you writing down? What are you going to do with them?”

Bay looked up from the edge of the dragon pit, where he was candling a red gemstone to decide which bucket of other red gemstones it ought to belong to. “Am I bothering you?” he asked in a mild way, which another sort of person might interpret as, ‘You’re bothering me.’ Magnus was not that sort of person/dragon, though.

“You’re organizing my treasure hoard,” Magnus stated, delight and amusement in his tone. “I think the word ‘hoard’ implies a certain amount of disorganization, don’t you?”

“You said it was alright for me to tidy things up a bit,” Bay reminded him. He flipped to a well-worn section of the Dwarven Geological Society’s Field Guide to Rocks and Minerals and set the gemstone on a scale. “You said you only needed the gold and that the rest was ‘filler.’” After recording the weight of the stone in his notebook, Bay dropped it into a cup of water on another scale and noted this number as well, using the two to determine the stone’s specific gravity. Regarding the result with a frown, he picked up another red gem and carefully scratched them together. The first gem bit into the second one.

“And you’re scratching them up,” Magnus added, though Bay doubted he really cared about that.

“I’m being very careful,” Bay assured him, scribbling his conclusion in his notebook and placing the red gems into their proper buckets. “This is a corundum, red, so more commonly known as a ruby,” he told Magnus, though he knew he wasn’t interested.

“Of course it’s a ruby,” Magnus replied. “It’s a red gemstone.”

“Well, they can be very similar to feldspars—“

“Why would I have a feldspar in my hoard?” Magnus scoffed in disbelief.

“—and also pyrope garnets,” Bay continued anyway. “Fortunately their specific gravity and hardness allow them to be differentiated.” He chose another specimen from his bucket of unidentified red gems and began examining it.

Magnus watched him, still mystified enough to find this intriguing. “Do you think we’ll find Ruby this time around?” he finally asked.

The thought of her made Bay pause for a moment, then he kept on examining the gems. “I don’t know.” Of course, neither of them knew. It was a pointless topic.

Bay classified several more gems, all obscenely large—there were few uses Hobbits had for jewels but he’d seen them worked with by professionals a time or two, and they were always tiny things, involving tweezers and magnifying lenses. In other words, the right size to fit on a ring for a Hobbit hand, or a bit larger for a necklace. In contrast the colorful gems he had plucked from Magnus’s pit could be comfortably held in his fist; indeed, sometimes he couldn’t close his fingers around them. What would any race do with such massive jewels? Even on a Man or an Elf they would look ridiculously large.

“Ruby,” Magnus guessed, a bit smugly, when Bay dropped another stone in a bucket.

“I’ve found several garnets,” he countered, rattling a basket. “It could also have been cuprite, vanadinite, rhodochrosite, beryl, tourmaline, or realgar.” He frowned at the last name he had authoritatively read from the gemstone guide—deluxe edition, with the hand-tinted color plates of specimens—and flipped to the text section. “That doesn’t even sound like a real substance,” he judged, checking up on it.

Magnus blinked at him. “I made the gems appear here, out of nothing,” he reminded Bay. “If I’ve never even heard of it, it certainly won’t be here.”

Bay gave him a serious look. “So I should scratch realgar from the list of possibilities?”

“Um, yes.”

“Mm-hmm.” Bay made a brief notation in the guide book, but did not hold it high enough to completely conceal his smirk.

Magnus huffed and rolled his eyes when he saw it. “Is this your idea of some absurdist joke, then?” he judged disdainfully. “Some sort of long con?”

“Oh,” Bay chided, leafing through more of the color plates. “I’m hardly doing something mean to you, am I? I just thought it might be fun to sort through the pretties a bit. You don’t have to sit there and stare at me.”

Magnus snorted as though of course he did. He had lain still and watched, for several days, as Bay had fished out the tapestries and furniture, vessels and jewelry, scrolls and bolts of cloth, commenting that they might get damaged with Magnus wallowing around on them, and could be useful to Bay as well. Why, even the richest of Hobbits didn’t have a tea table made of ebony and inlaid with silver and pearls, or a tapestry of the great Elven battle of Brockthrall to hang in his bedroom, or ceramic jars of various exotic spices like cinnamon and dried orange peel, or a bolt of yellow silk so fat he could hardly get his arms around it (Bay was thinking of making a waistcoat first—an entire suit in the vibrant color seemed a little much), or—his particular favorite, and by ‘favorite,’ he meant not really—a drinking cup made from a Man’s skull, gilded and bejeweled to emphasize the eyes and teeth. The cap of the skull came on and off, so you could help keep your tea hot, which was useful because a Man’s skull held an awful lot of tea for one Hobbit. It was in fact sitting beside him on the floor right now.

Actually, since this wasn’t a real Sea-King burial vault, and as Magnus insisted he had thought up, to some degree or another, all the items within it, he must’ve known Bay would appreciate some of these things. That also kind of explained the skull drinking cup. Seemed like something Magnus would find clever, anyway. Appreciating those items had made sense to Magnus. But the ‘filler’ as he called it did not hold much interest for him, and he failed to see why it should so enrapture Bay.

Bay took a sip from his jeweled skull tea mug. “They’re just very pretty, and fun to play with,” he tried to explain. “You’ve got a fertile imagination.” Some of the jewelry in particular was very elaborate.

“Well, I didn’t think of every single piece,” Magnus clarified. “There was quite a bit of random generation.”

“Ah. Also it’s kind of fun to hunt for,” Bay continued. “Like an Easter egg hunt, but with rubies and sapphires instead of colored eggs.”

“And you are generally entertained by Easter egg hunts?” Magnus asked carefully, then grinned and Bay knew he was being teased.

“I think I ought to have a bit of fun in the dragon’s hoard, too!” Bay mock-protested. “I mean, look at this wonderful tea mug I found in it.”

Magnus chuckled, a dark, rich sound. “Well, I don’t want you to get bored, after all.”

Bay was not bored. Well, it had only been about a week since they’d arrived, so he really hadn’t had time to get bored yet. He’d been cooking and baking; he’d planted some pumpkin seeds in the garden room and was trying to get an apple tree started (a copy of Bricklebrucker’s Planting Almanac, the foremost guide to agriculture in the Shire, had been a necessary extravagance, he felt). To Magnus’s amusement he’d started not with woven wool on a bolt or even just finished clothing, but rather raw wool, to be carded, spun, and woven into cloth by himself (which necessitated additional conjuring of equipment and supplies, but Bay felt they were an investment). He’d found some skeins of beautiful fiber in the hoard, made from animals he’d never even heard of, and was presently knitting himself a scarf. He’d been reading Pride and Prejudice aloud to Magnus, who confessed that he did rather miss reading—of course no one made dragon-sized books.

Bay had also been exploring the cave. He’d found a chamber with a dark and peaceful river running through it, populated by curious blind fish (which he had not yet been brave enough to try eating); hot springs decorated with riotously colored stalagmites and stalactites; and endless cozy nooks with benches or chairs worn from the rock, always with a gentle light source and a soft cushion.

Most magnificent of all was what he had dubbed the Ship Hall—a large cavern adjacent to the main one, with an entrance large enough for Magnus to use but cleverly concealed from easy view of the main hall. The cavern had a large, flat plain of sand (perfect for playing a game of football) and—the namesake of the room—a full-sized Sea-King ship propped up by scaffolding, its sails a bit tattered but everything else perfectly intact. Well, also excepting the body of the Sea-King himself, who was a rather disturbing skeleton held together by armor, laid out in the hold of the ship. Bay surmised that this had seemed far more appealing in Magnus’s mind than it turned out to be in reality, so they respectfully reinterred the (fake) monarch’s bones in a wooden chest, and then Bay could range about the ship freely, pretending he was raising the mizzenmast and tightening the yardarm or whatever, and Magnus had readily played the part of an intimidating sea serpent (rather too well, which was why the sails were now tattered).

So no, Bay wasn’t bored. It would be a quiet life; that was fine with him. Actually it was Magnus he was more concerned with. He tended to bore easily, and then to cause trouble, no matter what form he was in. Though a dragon was rather better suited to causing trouble than many other things.

**

Magnus was restless. He would not be still in his golden bed, shifting around, turning from one side to the other, changing position. Bay frowned at him over his shoulder and decided his stew could simmer a while on its own.

“What’s wrong, big dragon?” he asked affectionately, walking to the edge of the pit. “Do you have an itch?”

Magnus made a noise of frustration and rolled over on his back, displaying his belly like a cat, and Bay climbed on to rub it. He could tell his dragon was not enjoying it as much as usual, though. “Shall I read to you more?” They were on the Sagas of the Sea-Kings now, and Magnus liked to correct his pronunciation of the names.

“No,” the dragon denied, grumpily.

“Do you want another bath—“

“No.”

Bay was starting to get a bit desperate here. “Do you want to watch me bake—“

“No!”

Bay sat up in exasperation. “Well, what do you want, silly dragon?”

Magnus whined and rocked side to side a little, which Bay took as a signal to get down—good thing, too, as the dragon abruptly rolled back over without further warning and started to stand. “I think I’ll go out,” he decided. “Get behind a door.”

Bay saw what he was poised to do and quickly scrambled behind his bedroom door, just before Magnus shook himself like a big, wet dog, sending gold pieces flying like water droplets. Bay shut the door completely as the golden missiles thunked off it, and was glad he’d thought to hang a tapestry across the opening of the kitchen, which protected his crockery and his stew. When the noise stopped he peeked, then dashed out; Magnus was already in the air.

“Shall I come with you?” he shouted upwards.

“No.”

“When will you be back?”

“A while,” came a rumble down from the doors, which opened to admit fresh sunlight. “Don’t wait up!” Magnus blotted out the sun as he went through, then the doors shut tightly behind him.

Well.

Bay knew he would come back. He wasn’t worried about that, about Magnus deciding to abandon him. That was one thing you could always count on. No, the problem was, what would Magnus get up to out there? He surely remembered their bargain, though Bay hadn’t had cause to remind him of it in a while.

He fretted about this a little as he poked at his stew and served himself up a bowl. Suppose Magnus did attack a village, burn it down, eat some people. What was Bay prepared to do about it? It was all well and good to threaten to kill yourself when discussing these things beforehand, with life-threatening adventures as fresh memories and the knowledge that you were saving your friends. It had seemed a valiant sacrifice then. But what about now, after weeks of comfort and companionship? Bay had to ask himself, logically, what would come next. With him dead, Magnus would have no incentive at all to act like anything other than a ruthless, rapacious beast, destroying and killing all in his path. Maybe he would even attempt to lay waste the great cities of Men, until their armies were forced to contend with him, to bring him down. Then he and Bay could meet again in the next round.

Such thoughts were depressing, and Bay lost his appreciation for the stew he’d been working on for two days. He ought to take the opportunity of Magnus’s absence to do something he couldn’t normally do, like… like… dig through the side of the gold hoard Magnus preferred to lay on. Or maybe he would see if it needed cleaning—surely the gold would get dingy over time.

Thus resolved, Bay went back out to the dragon pit to survey it. A wooden rake ought to help, without being too damaging to delicate treasures. Less damaging than a dragon lying on them, anyway! Bay began to comb through the gold, finding that some of the coins had already begun to clump together, from pressure or heat or both, and he worked to separate them, setting warped or smudged coins aside for later cleaning. He felt like he was doing something nice for Magnus, which he himself wouldn’t have thought to ask for, and that made him feel good.

Bay found more gems and jewelry buried in the gold as he dug down, fluffing it like he was tilling the soil in his garden and picking out the stones. He discovered a large sword in its scabbard, an elaborately carved wooden mask with feathers adorning it, a small flute, some jars of colored powder that became paint when water or oil was added. As the hours dragged by without Magnus’s company, the latter two items proved especially useful—he figured out how to play the flute and began working on a composition, and tried to create a picture with the paints. He was not a particularly gifted artist, he thought—Magnus had always been the more creative one—but he could draw things that looked like what they were, and he enjoyed doing so. When Magnus was absent for a second day, Bay indulged and made a new room for himself, with a sun-like light in the ceiling, which he dubbed his studio.

On the third day worry crept back in. Suppose Magnus had run afoul of someone else—through no fault of his own, or maybe some fault—and been detained, or injured? Bay sent him a message: Are you okay?

The response was gratifyingly immediate. Yes. Home soon.

That evening Bay had a little tingly sense on the back of his neck, and he realized what it meant just in time to see the massive stone doors open high above him. They admitted a dark shape—which did not descend towards him but rather turned in flight and swooped into the hidden entrance to the Ship Hall—and the doors shut again with a definitive thud. Abandoning his reading, Bay took the concealed stairs and passageway to the Ship Hall himself, and found Magnus poking at some large things he’d dropped on the sand. Bay saw four legs on them and relaxed.

“Magnus!” He embraced the dragon’s neck, extended low for this purpose, and crawled onto his snout to rub it. “I missed you. Where did you go?”

Magnus slid him back to the ground and snuffled at him with his nose, as if reaffirming his scent, then scooped him up in a claw to hold him at eye level. “I was just hungry,” he revealed dismissively. “I’m not used to being awake so much.”

“Oh.”

Magnus set him back on the sand and fairly danced around with excitement, as much as a dragon could dance, anyway. “Look what I brought you!”

Bay turned his attention to the carcasses. There were five, and they appeared to be mountain sheep with large horns. “Oh my,” he commented with appreciation, still not sure what Magnus was expecting him to do with them. “Well, those are certainly very fine, thank you! Er, no marks at all.”

Magnus bared his teeth in a grin. “There I was, plucking these sheep off the sides of mountains and eating them,” he began, “and I thought—what a waste! I should be bringing the furry bits home to Bay instead. Not much nutritional value in wool,” he confided. “Only it turned out the furry bits are rather difficult to remove undamaged”—Bay shuddered to think of that scene—“so I just brought you some whole sheep.”

His expression was eager and Bay grinned and reached out a hand to pat his muzzle when he lowered it. “How sweet!” he declared. “Five whole sheep! Well, let’s see, I can certainly shear them for wool…” He walked around the bodies thoughtfully—their necks appeared to be neatly broken, no mean feat of dexterity for someone with claws instead of fingers, and those the size of a Hobbit. “Perhaps I could skin them, too,” he planned. “Never know when you might need a bit of sheep skin or leather. I could leave the wool on one and use it as a cozy rug in front of my fireplace.” He knelt in the sand to examine them more closely. “The horns could certainly be used for something. And that will be plenty of mutton for—“

“Well, when you’re done with them, I’ll eat the rest,” Magnus interrupted, and Bay realized (with some relief) that he was not expected to make use of the entirety of the animals.

“Well that’s fine,” Bay agreed. He climbed onto Magnus’s back, trying to hug him again. “You were gone a while, I was starting to get worried.”

Magnus took off in a lazy flight. “Er, sorry,” he said, which was rare for him. “I wanted to go to another mountain and eat the sheep there, so as not to deplete the local supply.”

Bay patted his shoulder. “Is this something we should deal with?” he asked seriously. “Should we keep some sheep in one of the caves, so you can eat one a week or whatever?”

The idea seemed to tempt Magnus. “Mmm… no,” he finally decided. “Too much trouble. And the smells! Plus, I bet you get attached to things.”

“I have killed and eaten many animals in my life,” Bay assured him. “Usually more like chickens, though, I must admit.” He was really more of a plant person, though he could clean and gut a sheep, fish, or duck as well as anyone in the Shire. Circle of life and all.

“I’ll just go out and get them sometimes,” Magnus demurred. “I just forgot I would need to, not being asleep all the time.”

Bay looked around at where they had alighted. “Did you want a bath?” he asked innocently. They were on the Bath Rock Magnus had created for himself—a pillar of rock with a bowl-shaped depression on top, a crack for a drain, and water from a hot spring.

“Yes, I did get rather dirty out there,” Magnus agreed without concern. As soon as Bay was out of the way, he flopped over and stretched. “You may bathe me,” he allowed imperiously.

Shaking his head Bay started to wipe the sand and dirt from the dragon as he lay there limply with his eyes closed; then he scrubbed the stubborn stains away (definitely some dried sheep blood) and finally polished his scales and claws until they were bright and shining in the dim light. While he worked he told Magnus about the flute and the paints, and the great beast smirked as though he’d been waiting for him to discover them.

“There you go, all done,” Bay pronounced, patting him.

Magnus rolled up onto his feet. “Good. I’m going to take a nap now.” He pushed off, leaving Bay to walk down on his own; Bay knew the ‘thank you’ was implied.

He watched as Magnus rooted around in his gold, burrowing into it. After a moment he paused, and his head came up.

“Bay.”

“Yes, darling?”

“Did you do something to my gold?” He was trying not to sound upset and suspicious, Bay could tell.

“Yes, I broke up the clumps and fluffed it a bit,” Bay described, reaching the walkway. “And I cleaned some of the pieces and put them back in.” He suddenly thought maybe this wasn’t going to go over as well as he had hoped. “Is something wrong with it?”

Magnus was looking between him and the treasure, which he pawed at idly with a back foot. His hesitancy, which Bay chose to interpret as an attempt at tact, was endearing. “It’s a bit… slippy now,” he finally admitted. “Usually it’s firmer.”

Bay nodded. “Do you like it firmer?”

“Yes.”

“Well, too bad,” Bay declared breezily, patting him on the nose. “It needed to be cleaned and turned up, things were getting damaged and soiled.” He gave a big, cheerful grin as he said this and watched the indignation rise on Magnus’s face.

“I don’t soil them!” Magnus protested hotly (which for a dragon was really saying something). “It is perfectly natural for the nest to conform to my shape over time, I like it better that way—“

“Oh, a clean dragon is a happy dragon!” Bay insisted, rubbing him behind his eye. “Don’t be so fussy. Besides, I found a sword under there, what if you had moved the wrong way and it cut you?”

Magnus was somewhat mollified by the rubbing. “Well, I don’t think it would’ve cut me,” he muttered, laying his head back down.

“Well, I’ll leave it alone from now on if you want,” Bay assured him with a smile.

“No, it’s alright,” Magnus claimed.

“Seriously.” Magnus just huffed, as if he was done with the issue. “I did miss you,” Bay went on.

“You can take a nap with me,” Magnus decided sleepily, and cuddled Bay in the crook of his wing.

“Well, for a little while.” He had sheep to skin, after all. But it was cozy and warm tucked into the dragon’s wing like that.

“I missed you, too,” Magnus murmured.

**

After that Magnus went out every month or two, whenever he got hungry—Bay suspected he liked being out, which perhaps he had forgotten, when he knew he had Bay to come home to, or else he would just conjure a sheep to eat, or conjure not being hungry at all. He did think to suggest Bay come with him now and then, but fall was turning to winter, not that there was much difference between them this far south, and Bay better liked the thought of staying in his warm cave for the moment. The world was hard and cold enough as it was for a Hobbit. Maybe when summer came he would pop out and see if there were any towns with markets big enough that a Hobbit wouldn’t be entirely out of place.

Besides, Magnus always brought him something back from his travels. Once he’d flown in and deposited a decent-sized walnut tree, pulled straight from the ground roots and all, at Bay’s feet, rather like a dog fetching a stick. Bay ate a lot of the walnuts it carried, planted others in his garden, made dye from the husks, and carefully contemplated what he could build with the wood. He was thinking maybe a chest to go in his bedroom—that seemed simple enough for an amateur wood-worker, just a box, but it would give him an opportunity to practice his carving skills on the decorations. Though he had to confine his work to his studio as the wood shavings made Magnus sneeze.

Another time it was a huge block of marble, slightly chipped, which Magnus swore he’d pulled from the ruins of a castle—the old ruins. It was mostly white, but shot through with sky blue and glittering gold. Magnus almost regretted bringing it by the end because it was so awkward to carry, dragging down the foot he clutched it in as he tried to fly. Bay was therefore extra effusive in his praise, before he pushed it into his studio, wondering if he had the skill to turn it into a countertop without magic. If you had to ask…

Magnus brought him other (dead) animals as well—elk and giant fish and mountain lions. Once he swooped through an alpine meadow to which spring had newly come and scooped up a clawful of dirt to bring to Bay. A dragon clawful of dirt was quite a lot indeed, and Bay managed to transplant three species of wildflowers and some grass, which he laid out beside the river of blind fish to make it a little more cozy, and some wild strawberry for his garden. Another time it was a huge piece of battered canvas, torn from the wreck of a ship on the beach.

One day, after Magnus had been gone a little longer than usual and Bay was starting to think about his absence more, the doors to the cave burst open (which gigantic stone doors shouldn’t really be encouraged to do) and Magnus flew in, something large and boxy hanging from his mouth. He flew straight to the Ship Hall and Bay left his flute practice (which the dragon disliked anyway) to join him.

As he entered the cavern a foul stench assailed his nostrils and he put his hand up to cover them, willing to risk offending Magnus by indicating his gift was smelly. The thing he’d been carrying was a huge woven basket with a lid and handle—Bay could easily have fit inside and been quite comfortable. Magnus was positively gleeful, his tail twitching patterns in the sand and his front claws clinking as he rubbed them together. It would have been adorable, except for the smell.

“You’ll never guess what I found!” Magnus predicted, which was not in fact an invitation to guess. He really didn’t think Bay would ever figure it out.

Bay’s mental resources were currently devoted to not gagging, however. “I’m sorry, darling, but it smells wretched,” he confessed, eyes watering.

“I know,” Magnus admitted freely. “I’ve gotten used to it.” Carefully he tipped the basket over and Bay jumped back, afraid something truly horrid would ooze out. Instead, it was treasure—gold coins, jewelry and loose gems, a fair bit of fine armor and weaponry. The entire basket was full of it and Magnus lovingly shook out every last bit onto the sand, then chucked the basket aside and began poking through the treasure to spread it out, more delicately than Bay would’ve thought possible.

“Where did you get this?” Bay finally had to ask, when it seemed like Magnus was just going to sit there and fondle his treasure.

“Hmm? Oh, a troll-hoard!” Magnus conveyed, remembering the story he had to tell. “I found these two trolls in the valley one night and ate them, and then I followed their trail to this cave where they’d—“ He froze suddenly and gave Bay a look that could only be described as nervous.

“What?”

“I ate two trolls,” Magnus repeated warily.

Comprehension dawned. “Oh. You can eat all the trolls you want, I don’t care,” Bay assured him heartily, remembering the trio that had wanted to eat him and the Dwarves, and their ponies too. “Orcs and goblins, too—“ He paused and frowned. “Mm, I guess that’s rather racist of me,” he admitted, not liking what this said about him. “I suppose there must be trolls, orcs, and goblins that are good, mustn’t there?”

“No,” Magnus judged shortly, but he may have been biased by wanting to eat them.

“Well, their children must be innocent, at least,” Bay argued, mostly with his conscience. “Even if, due to their environment, they grow up to be bad.”

“I don’t think they have children,” Magnus claimed. “I think they sort of… clone and mutate. Like bacteria.”

Bay grimaced at the imagery. “Okay, well, please don’t eat any children,” he revised. “Um, but if the adults seem aggressive, I don’t really care. Am I a bad person?” he wondered, feeling slightly troubled.

Magnus was not the person to turn to with these weighty philosophical questions. “No, of course not!” he insisted, trying to nuzzle Bay with his nose.

Bay was forced to stop him, though. “Honestly, you and this treasure smell terrible.”

“Trolls have poor hygiene,” Magnus noted, of which Bay was well aware. “They’re a substantial meal, but rather fatty and sometimes they give me gas.” He put his claw on his stomach, looking slightly dyspeptic, and Bay wondered if they would have to conjure a giant bicarbonate tablet for him. “Orcs taste terrible, in case you were wondering, sort of rancid,” he went on thoughtfully. Bay had not been wondering. “Goblins are pretty good, remarkably like chicken, not that I eat a lot of chicken these days, too small. Fried goblin is quite good if you can—“

“Okay, ready to move on,” Bay decided.

“Okay. Look, I brought you treasure!” Magnus redirected proudly.

Bay smiled indulgently. “I think you brought yourself treasure,” he corrected. “But I can sort through the non-gold items, at least. Seems like a lot of nice weaponry.”

“You’ll probably want to clean it,” Magnus predicted/suggested.

That was not Bay’s idea of a good time. “Why don’t you spread it out to one layer, and we’ll cover it with sand,” he proposed, “and the sand will absorb most of the nastiness.” At least, it would now. “Then I’ll just wipe things off.”

He let Magnus do the touching, since he was already contaminated. “What if I lose some of it?” the dragon worried, scuffing sand over the treasure.

“It’ll turn up eventually. Roll around in the sand, too, before I give you your bath,” Bay added. “We’ll just have to conjure the basket clean directly, I think.”

“As opposed to using the magic sand?” Magnus asked, somewhat disdainful of Bay’s convoluted plan.

Bay ignored this. “It’s a nice basket, where did you get it?”

“Made it.”

“Easy to carry is it?”

Magnus shrugged. “It’s alright.”

“Well, it could be useful in the future,” Bay decided. “Are you ready for your bath?”

Magnus flopped down in the sand, spraying it everywhere, and rolled around thoroughly, scritching his spine on the ground all the way from his head to the tip of his tail. “This is quite pleasant,” he decided. “Scales get itchy sometimes.”

“Might be a good pre-bath exfoliation step,” Bay suggested, straight-faced. “We could do a whole dragon spa. Sand scrub, steam facial, claw-dicure—“

Magnus huffed, blowing more sand around, and stood up. “Just a bath is fine,” he replied imperiously, flying off to his bath rock to wait impatiently.

Bay followed behind a couple minutes later and started wiping him down. “It’s like saying all dragons are bad,” he commented, going back to his earlier moral crisis.

“They are,” Magnus sighed, relaxing under Bay’s attention.

“You’re not.”

Magnus chuckled in a scoffing way. “One, I’m only not-bad to you,” he countered, “and two, I’m not really a dragon.”

Bay rolled his eyes. If you were going to use that argument, you couldn’t have a proper debate about anything. “You were raised as a dragon,” he pointed out. “You must’ve had a dragon family. Surely they were nice to you.”

Magnus actually gave this some thought. “Well, I was rather close to Mummy for a time,” he agreed. “But dragons are generally solitary creatures. Once you’re out of the nest you’re on your own. Anyway, pretty much everything is seen as food for dragons, whether it squeaks, roars, or talks, so from your perspective they are all bad, because they all want to eat you and take your stuff.”

Bay raised an eyebrow at his nonchalant description. “No vegetarian dragons, then?” he presumed.

“Dragons are rather strict about survival of the fittest,” Magnus agreed, stretching out comfortably. “We also practice cannibalism, just to help natural selection along.”

“Well, that’s lovely,” Bay said dryly as he polished Magnus’s scales.

“I’m just saying, if I met another dragon, we’d probably fight,” Magnus explained. “Dragons don’t even get on with each other, let alone anyone else.”

Bay knew he wasn’t going to win this argument and at this point, had even forgotten what his argument had been. “Oh, right, for nasty things like Trolls and Orcs, don’t eat children, but aggressive adults are fair game,” Bay summarized. Magnus harrumphed but offered no objection. Bay still felt a twinge of conscience, but simply couldn’t advocate sparing the creatures he’d never heard anything good about. Maybe if someday a kind, noble Orc arose—thus proving it was possible—he would revisit that opinion. With that crisis resolved, he could refocus on cleaning his rather smelly dragon.

**

Magnus had been gone a couple of days when Bay felt the tingle that meant he was returning, a bit sooner than he’d been expecting—he’d been planning to work on his block of marble while the dragon was out, to avoid Magnus’s complaints about the constant pinging of the chisel. But then the doors opened and Magnus swooped in, landing on a perch of rock overlooking the pit.

“Hello, dar—“

“Pack some things and come with me,” Magnus interrupted. He seemed eager, not upset, his claws flexing and unflexing.

“Why? To where?” Bay asked.

Magnus huffed at the questions. “You’re not packing!” he urged.

Bay set aside his preliminary plan of the marble countertop and stepped out onto the walkway surrounding the dragon pit. Clearly this matter required his full attention. Magnus growled low in the back of his throat as he sensed a further delay. “Where do you propose we go?” Bay asked patiently.

Magnus moved his feet like a cat kneading a bed. “I found something exciting and I want you to come help me get it, before someone else finds it!” he exclaimed rapidly.

“Okay. Where is it?” Magnus made a frustrated noise. “Darling, I need to know what to pack,” Bay tried to explain. “Is it warm or cold? How far away is it? Should I bring rope or sacks or—“

“I should’ve just blinked it here,” Magnus claimed petulantly. “I just thought it would be fun showing it to you—“

“Magnus, come down here,” Bay requested, firmly, and with a great minty sigh the dragon plopped down in his gold and rested his head on the walkway. Bay rubbed his nose and behind his eye soothingly. “I’m so excited to hear what you found,” he promised Magnus. “It’s so sweet you came right back here to share it with me. Tell me about it.”

“There’s a ruined building to the northwest, about two days’ flight,” Magnus began.

Bay had to stop him. “You’ve only been gone two days,” he pointed out.

“Two days with cargo,” Magnus clarified, and Bay rolled his eyes at being lumped in with packages and crates. “I think it’s a church, or a monastery or something,” he went on. “I was pawing around to see if they had any leftover golden chalices or something and I found—“ He paused to build anticipation.

“Yes?” Bay prompted indulgently, still rubbing his scales.

“A basement!” Magnus revealed. “Full of things. It had been covered up.”

“What sort of things?”

“Oh, I dunno,” Magnus claimed casually. “Smelled like there might be books, or something.”

Books?!” Bay repeated, with genuine excitement. He abandoned the dragon mid-scratch and ran off to the kitchen to start packing food. “Why didn’t you say so?” he demanded. “Did you cover them back up before you left? They could be ruined, exposed to the weather!”

Magnus watched with smug amusement as Bay rushed into his bedroom to grab some extra clothes. “I covered them back up,” he promised. “But, you know, a dragon flying around is bound to attract attention. Someone might want to see what I was investigating.”

Bay had the feeling Magnus was teasing him a bit now. Well, he could tease all he wanted, if there were books to be had. It was rather hard, conjuring books from nothing, because you either had to remember the whole text yourself, or really cheat if you didn’t. And Bay’s mind tended to go completely blank whenever he tried to think of a new book to read, anyway.

“Are we talking a lot of books here?” he called from his bathroom, where he was rapidly packing his toiletries. Couldn’t go out without his toothbrush, now that he’d gotten used to it again. “Should we take that big basket?”

“Oh, that might be a good idea,” he thought he heard Magnus respond; but when he presented himself, dressed and packed and ready to go in the main hall, there was no dragon to be found. Bay’s face fell. Surely Magnus wouldn’t have left without him, after all that?

Then he saw the dragon return from the Ship Hall, carrying the handle of the large basket in his mouth, and Bay grinned and waved. Magnus set the basket down. “Do you want to get in, and I’ll carry you that way?” he suggested. “Might be warmer.”

“Okay,” Bay decided quickly. He’d forgotten about the bone-chilling heights the dragon flew at. There was some awkwardness with climbing inside, since it was nearly as tall as he was, and Magnus had to boost him with his claw. “Will we be stopping nights?” he inquired, adjusting his extra cloak around him.

“Straight through,” Magnus denied. “We’ll stay onsite a day or two, then straight back. Not many isolated places to land,” he explained.

“Okay,” Bay agreed, preparing himself for a long and uncomfortable ride. “Thank you for thinking of me,” he added quickly, and Magnus grinned before he shut the lid of the basket.

“One Hobbit in a box,” he murmured with amusement. “What convenient packaging!”

Bay rolled his eyes. “Don’t forget to lock up when you leave!”

He felt the basket begin to move, with a disconcerting wobble, then it was lifted straight up and he lurched a little, trying to find a good balance point. After a moment he was hit with a blast of cold air, and sunlight streamed through the gaps in the weave. If he nudged it apart a bit Bay could see out, the greening valleys and meadows before them as summer finally reached this extreme land. Altitude still made it cold, though, and he kept himself artificially warm, just a bit, and daydreamed about what books he might find, and what books he might treat himself with if Magnus turned out to be wrong, to avoid the crushing disappointment that would otherwise follow.

They indeed traveled for about two days—uncomfortable, dull, frustrating. Magnus was so near, yet Bay couldn’t talk to him. And he hadn’t brought along anything to do. Well, could be worse, he kept telling himself. It would all be worth it, once they were back home with new books.

Finally Bay felt that they were descending, and then the basket came to rest on something. He waited for Magnus to flip open the lid, just in case. “G-d, I missed you,” was the first thing the dragon said, sticking his muzzle into the basket.

Bay laughed and rubbed his nose. “I missed you, too! Are we there?”

“Yes. Can you get out?” Magnus gently tipped the basket sideways and Bay crawled out onto a flagstone floor, now cracked and weedy and entirely open to the sky, and looked around. The crumbling remains of stone walls hovered above him, the pointed archways where windows had once been indeed reminiscent of a church. The hall had been huge; Magnus rested comfortably on part of it, the rest of him lounging across what used to be the yard. Bay took a walk around first, giving his legs a much-need stretch, and looking for any signs of the building’s identity. Time and looters had stripped it bare, though.

He froze suddenly on the spot. “Oh G-d,” Bay realized. “We’re looters!”

This was met with predictable sarcasm from Magnus. “Oh my G-d, let’s leave right now,” he suggested flatly, “and leave all the treasures here to rot.”

Bay turned towards him with an annoyed look. “Oh, I forgot, you were here pawing around for treasure earlier, so I suppose it doesn’t matter to you!”

“No, it doesn’t,” Magnus agreed. “What did you think we were coming here to do?” he added disparagingly. “And let’s not forget that when I first met you, you were a thief!”

Bay sighed and kept walking around, though he wasn’t looking closely at anything anymore. Magnus cross his paws and laid his head down on them, and Bay wondered suddenly if he was tired. He climbed over some fallen stones to rub the dragon’s nose. “You’ve been flying for nearly four days straight, haven’t you?”

“Well, I wanted to show you this nice thing I found,” Magnus said, a bit defensively. “Which other people just abandoned and forgot about.”

“Yes, it certainly looks that way,” Bay agreed. The building had been situated on an island, a very small island, it appeared to him. No doubt some residual folk memory kept people from returning here readily. “You’re right, the treasures would just rot otherwise,” he conceded.

“And we’re going to keep them and appreciate them,” Magnus added persuasively. “That’s not what looters do.”

It was splitting hairs, Bay felt, but as archaeology had not yet been invented on this world—and who knew when it would be, at the rate things were going—he supposed certain items might be better off in his hands, where they would at least be preserved from the elements in their cozy dragon hoard.

“You’re right, sorry,” Bay repeated.

“Besides, I like looting,” Magnus added, which absolved Bay of further apology. “That’s what dragons do, steal things that belong to other people. Like huge Dwarf mountain palaces stuffed with shiny, delicious, cozy gold…” Bay thought he was starting to drool a bit.

“Let’s stay focused, shall we?” Bay prompted. “So where is this basement?”

Magnus reached out and brushed aside a pile of huge broken stones like they were wooden toy blocks, revealing a hole in the flooring. It was much too small for the dragon to even see into well—but a Hobbit would fit easily. Bay lay down on the ground and tried to see inside. There was a certain musty, parchment-like odor that he associated with old libraries, though all he could see was dark shapes. “Hmm, okay, I think I’ll need a rope and a torch,” he decided.

Magnus blinked at him. “Oh, we’re going to do this the hard way, hmm?” he surmised.

Bay retrieved the rope he’d brought. “Well, I’ll use an electric torch,” he compromised, making one. “I don’t want to accidentally set anything on fire. Say, do you think these were the monks Ragnar Lothbrok was famous for slaying?” he asked excitedly. “Where are we?”

Dragons were not big on place names. “An island. To the northwest. Rather far afield for the Sea-Kings, I would think,” he added discouragingly.

Bay rolled his eyes. “Alright, do you want to hold the rope,” he asked, tying it around himself tightly, “or shall I anchor it on something?”

“I’ll hold it,” Magnus agreed, twining the rope through his claws. It looked like a strand of yarn in them. “A Hobbit on a string! How droll. Perhaps they will sell them as pets.” He grinned, showing all his teeth.

Bay was not really in the mood to appreciate his sense of humor right now. “Ready?” he asked, shining the torch down into the hole.

“Yes.”

Carefully Bay lowered himself inside, with Magnus letting out the rope as required. “Stop,” Bay called, still in mid-air, as he turned around surveying the area with his torch. “It’s a crypt of some kind,” he reported. Niches in the walls contained bundles of cloth wrapped in fiber ropes, with more bundles and barrels on the floor. “Okay, keep going.” His feet touched the cool, packed-earth floor and Bay could feel how dry it was down there—everything must have been very well-preserved. Which did beg the question, what exactly was ‘everything’?

The light from above was blotted out and Bay looked up to see Magnus looming over the hole, peering down with one great, golden eye. “Well, what do you see?” he wanted to know.

“Bundles of cloth, and barrels,” Bay replied, which was not very interesting to Magnus. He approached one of the niches and decided to examine its contents using his powers, rather than disturb it. In his mind’s eye he zoomed in as if with an x-ray, beneath the first layer of cloth to a second, then a third. Nice textiles, very well made, intricate patterns. Objects started to show up—beads, bits of gold jewelry, small weapons and tools, bird feathers. A layer of cloth, then some artifacts, then another layer of cloth, then more artifacts, then more cloth, then—oh, horrible mummified corpse.

Bay actually jumped back a bit when he got to that, then shook his head at his foolishness and zoomed back in. It was just a mummified corpse, preserved in a sort of crouching position and fit into a niche. Obviously someone important, given the time taken to make him into an everlasting gobstopper of valuable objects.

“Is there any gold?” Magnus called down eagerly, sounding very much like a looter.

“Not much,” Bay assured him.

“That means there’s some,” Magnus concluded. “How shall we bring it up?”

Bay looked up at him. “I’m not disturbing the bodies to get a few gold trinkets,” he said firmly. “I will look for any that’s loose.” Magnus huffed in irritation, but Bay turned his attention to one of the bundles on the floor. Upon x-ray vision examination this turned out to be, delightfully, a book of some kind, wrapped in only a couple layers of cloth. He set the torch on the floor and delicately unwrapped the fabric, revealing a heavy wooden cover carved and inlaid in a pattern or picture he didn’t recognize. He opened the book and saw the beautiful hand-lettering, the first letter of a chapter elaborately decorated with a castle or a boat or even a dragon. The writing system didn’t make sense to him so he cheated a bit and got it sorted out—it seemed to be some kind of adventure tale, bloody and brutal like the old ones always were.

“Are you standing down there reading a book?” Magnus accused, making Bay jump.

“Oh, sorry, yes, I found one,” he confirmed.

One? I better not have flown all this way with that silly basket in my mouth for one!” Magnus protested.

Bay shown the torch around the small room. Every niche seemed to have one or more book-sized bundles piled in front of it. Obviously part of their funerary rituals, he assessed, feeling slightly bad about disturbing them again. A quick peek showed that the books all seemed to be different—perhaps they chose their favorites to take with them to the afterlife? A valuable honor indeed, considering this would take the book out of circulation for everyone else.

“I think there’s several,” Bay corrected, when he remembered Magnus was still waiting. “How should we bring them up?’

“What size are they?” Magnus wanted to know, and Bay estimated for him. A moment later a basket of about the right size, with a rope tied around its rim, thumped to the ground beside Bay, nearly on him. “Put some in that and I’ll haul it up,” Magnus instructed.

Well, if he was going to take the books, he should just do so, and not feel bad about it, Bay told himself, and began collecting them, about a dozen in total. He took the fabric they were wrapped in, too—it would protect them during the journey home, he could make use of it later, and somehow it seemed better to not leave any sign of their existence for future investigators.

Magnus hauled the books up when signaled. “Is that all?” he complained.

Bay was a little disappointed, too. “Might be another room down here,” he suggested, as the torch hit a patch of inky darkness. He started to walk towards it but was stopped short by the rope around his waist. “Could you let out some more slack, please?”

Magnus hesitated, unusually. “If you go into another room, I won’t be able to see you,” he noted with displeasure.

Bay was torn between exasperation and affection, not uncommon when dealing with Magnus. “Well, I’m not sure what you want me to do, darling,” he responded patiently.

“Figure out what’s in the next room, without actually going in there,” Magnus described, as if it should be obvious. “Do you want me to do it? Ooh, what if it’s booby-trapped?” Somehow he sounded more excited than alarmed about this.

Bay rolled his eyes. “It’s not booby-trapped,” he determined. “I think it’s safe to just walk in. You’ll have the rope to hold on to.”

“Well, fine.” It was clearly not fine, but Magnus let out some rope anyway, and Bay turned the corner into the next room, which had a similar setup to the first. “WELL?!” Magnus insisted loudly after a moment, tugging on the rope in an annoying way.

“More books!” Bay confirmed, gathering them up.

“Any gold?”

“No.”

“Did you even look?”

“I’m looking,” Bay assured him, sweeping the ground with his torch. “No gold.” He made a couple of trips and piled the books into the basket. As he waited for Magnus to pull them up, he thought to examine the barrels nearby—no one ever put gold into barrels, it seemed, but it might contain something else of interest. It seemed to be a liquid of some kind, and upon closer inspection—beer! Which was still good. Bless the monks and their handicrafts. Bay could make wine from the fruit he had, but beer required more inputs be created first, so he happily rolled a barrel into the basket when it returned.

“What’s that?” Magnus wanted to know, refusing to pull it up.

“A barrel of beer!” Bay replied excitedly.

Predictably, Magnus huffed. “You’re going to take up room with that?” He always had to make things difficult.

“Is there a problem?” Bay asked pointedly.

“No,” Magnus claimed, and raised the basket again, though his tone was very put-upon. Then Bay went back to look for more burial chambers.

He found several, though so far no main room or entrance—who knew how far the warren of small rooms extended underground? As he signaled to Magnus to haul up another load, the dragon added, “I think you should come up now.”

He sounded oddly serious, which alarmed Bay. “Why?”

“It’s dark now,” Magnus pointed out, which Bay hadn’t noticed, “and you might have enough to fill the big basket.” Pause. “Also, a passing ship might have seen me.”

Well then. “Pull me up,” Bay agreed.

It was quite late, though the full moon cast shadows across the ground, including dragon-shaped shadows. “I have a distinctive silhouette,” Magnus pronounced, making dragon-claw shadow puppets on the ground. They all sort of looked like dragon claws, which were plenty terrifying in shadow form.

“Well, it’s good you were keeping track of things,” Bay assured him, gazing between the piles of books and the large basket. “I got quite caught up in looking around. How are we going to do this?” he wondered of the books. He was too short to pack the books properly in the basket that was nearly as tall as he was, and as previously established, Magnus’s Hobbit-sized claws were not good for fine detail work. “Let’s see, we could tip the basket… or I could climb up on a rock… we could build a crane from the leftover wood… or maybe if I got up here—“

Magnus, who had been boredly drumming his claws on the ground (which had sent many a small creature diving for shelter thinking there was an earthquake), blinked and then suddenly all of the books were packed into the basket, along with the barrel of beer.

Bay did a triple take. “What did—you just—“ he sputtered.

“I’m not going to sit here all night while you write equations in the dirt and construct a crane,” Magnus declared disdainfully.

Bay narrowed his eyes at him, even as he discreetly scuffed out one little notation he’d made in the dust. “So you just packed them all in an instant, without even asking me?”

“Well, yes.” Bay was most put out about this. “Do you want me to unpack them?” Magnus asked rhetorically.

“No, of course not,” Bay replied, and he turned his back on the dragon, ostensibly to untie the rope around himself. “I just—really don’t like it when you just—take over because you think I’m being too slow,” he tried to explain.

“You were being too slow.” This did not help the situation. “Well, alright, what ought I have done?” Magnus asked, sounding a tiny bit like he really wanted to know.

Bay turned back around. “You could have suggested it to me first,” he noted.

“You would’ve said no!”

Bay rolled his eyes. “So you just took that choice away from me, hmm?” he shot back, tugging futilely on the knotted rope. “In case I didn’t choose what you wanted. That’s not very nice, is it?”

Magnus paused. “Do you need help with the rope?” he asked.

“Yes, d----t!” Bay snapped in frustration, then tried to calm himself.

Magnus grinned, showing all his teeth in the moonlight, and slowly the rope untangled itself from Bay, sliding away into a neat coil as sinuous as a snake. “Are you saying, my little gem,” he purred, “that you find me too… controlling?” He leaned down to brush Bay with his muzzle. “Too dominant? Me, really?”

“Okay, sometimes it’s charming,” Bay conceded, refusing to pet him, “but other times it really irritates me. I feel—disrespected.”

“You’re a Hobbit who lives with a dragon. You’ve lost all respectability already.”

Bay’s eyes, which had shut, popped open at this. He saw that Magnus was trying to lighten the mood and sighed. “Well, I wish you would think about me more, that’s all.”

“I think about you all the time, darling!” Magnus was not going to apologize, of course, but maybe he would do a little better, for a little while. Sometimes Bay didn’t even know why he bothered, they’d been together for how long and it seemed like they had to adjust anew every time. Well, maybe if he really thought about it, he would say Magnus had mellowed somewhat over time.

Still, room for improvement.

“Okay,” Bay said, moving on. “They’re all packed. That’s great. You got them all? Can you lift me up to see?” Obligingly Magnus lifted him in his scaly paw. The books were neatly stacked, still wrapped, with the beer barrel tucked in. “The barrel won’t leak,” Bay decided. That would be terribly disappointing.

“I agree.”

“They all fit remarkably well,” he added.

“I made a few adjustments,” Magnus admitted. “Nothing damaging. Do you want to get some more?” he offered earnestly. “I’ll make them fit.”

This was his way of trying to say he was sorry, Bay knew. Bay would have preferred that Magnus learn from his mistake instead, but he didn’t think that was going to happen. “No, that’s alright,” he decided. “Thank you, though. Could you cover the hole back up, so it stays protected?” Magnus pushed some large rocks across in. Bay couldn’t even budge them when he tried. “What’s the next step?” he went on. “You wanted to stay the night here?”

“Well, I wanted to eat something,” Magnus explained. “I thought I could fly out to sea and scoop up a shark! I so rarely get seafood…” he dreamed.

“Okay. Well, I’ll just build a fire here—“ Bay began gathering some twigs.

“Mmm, I don’t think you should,” Magnus countered, obviously trying to sound reasonable and not pushy. The strain of doing so showed.

“Oh? Why not?” Bay realized his first instinct was to assume Magnus was just being pushy, and keep gathering wood. Instead, he stopped and turned to face him. Let no one say he couldn’t learn as well.

“If you light a fire up here, I think they’ll see it from the mainland,” Magnus explained. “And they might come to investigate. Even at night.”

Bay glanced around at the crumbling walls. “Sensible suggestion,” he agreed, putting the wood down.

“Yes,” Magnus couldn’t help adding, and Bay tried not to smirk.

“Okay, why don’t you go eat something, and I’ll stay here and eat what I brought,” Bay encouraged. “Then perhaps we can get a bit of sleep and leave at first light. Alright?”

“Yes, that was rather what I had in mind,” Magnus agreed politely. Then, unable to keep up with politeness, he added, “Only I would’ve said it faster. You use entirely too many words.”

Bay laughed and patted his nose. “Too many words. Right, I’ll work on that. Oh, no, I won’t, because I just got a bunch of new books!” He grinned broadly.

Magnus rolled his eyes, but affectionately, and turned around to take off. Bay had never noticed before, but he was somewhat ungainly on the uneven ground, with a distinct tendency to waddle, and his tail carelessly knocked things over as it swayed from side to side. Bay accidentally let a snicker escape and quickly disguised it as a cough, not wanting to offend the dragon.

Having become used to his cozy home in the mountain, Bay felt the chill of the night keenly, and bundled himself in his extra blanket as he chewed on an apple and waited for Magnus to return. First he thought of all his wonderful new books and daydreamed about carefully sorting them and putting them on his library shelves. He would read them while Magnus was away or asleep, as a treat, then recite the best bits to him later (Magnus tended to get impatient during long descriptive parts). He wouldn’t consume them too quickly; he’d pace himself, maybe do some writing about each book when he finished it, so that he wouldn’t reach the end of the ‘new’ so fast. Never knew when he might find another cache like this.

Then, after a while, he laid back on the ground and admired the stars. That was something else he’d missed while being indoors. His garden room was so realistic, with the timing of the lights and temperature, that sometimes he strolled through it in the cool of the ‘evening’ and was always surprised to look up and find no moon or stars. He should go outside more often, he decided, and sit on their ‘front porch’ and look at the sky. It was early summer, he reckoned, and he hadn’t so much as thought about finding a market town to explore. Not that contentment was a bad thing. Just that it could easily turn into complacency.

Energized, Bay got up and began hunting around the ruins. There was a white, night-blooming vine crawling over much of the stone; he tore some off and put it into the basket to be transplanted when he got home. A little moss, too, and something he thought might have been flowering when they landed earlier—of course now he couldn’t see as well to identify things. Some plucked leaves from various plants, some fist-sized pieces of marble that could be useful, this was rather a nice oak board—

“Why are you picking up trash to take with us?” Magnus asked mildly, and Bay jumped in surprise. For a huge creature who occasionally waddled, Magnus could be very stealthy. He was perched on what was hopefully a sturdy bit of wall, peering down at Bay curiously.

“Well, I thought we oughtn’t to waste the opportunity to get some other things that might be useful,” Bay tried to explain, dropping the oak board into the basket. He did feel a little silly now, though.

Magnus climbed down to the ground, graceful and sinuous this time, and curled up on the stone tiles. “I will find you some pebbles and twigs and weeds when we get home,” he offered.

“Thanks. Breath,” Bay pointed out, trying not to grimace. “Guess you got your seafood.”

The dragon’s breath abruptly changed from fishy to minty. “Sorry. Yes. Might have been a dolphin,” he remembered, his tongue picking at his teeth for stray bits. “Kind of slippery and greasy. Yum.”

“Yum indeed,” Bay agreed lightly. Obviously he and Magnus had different taste in cuisine. “Going to sleep now?”

The dragon laid his head down on his paws. “Yes. Just a few hours until dawn. Come here and I’ll keep you warm.”

Readily Bay tucked himself under Magnus’s wing, his side cozy and warm (if you were careful about the scales). “Goodnight, Magnus,” he said. “Thank you for bringing me here.” The dragon let out a sleepy ‘hmmff,” which Bay took as polite acknowledgment, and went to sleep.

**

The sky was pale with a tinge of dawn when Bay and Magnus awoke, right on time. There was no camp to break—and luckily, no intruders to fight off—so they were on their way home quickly, with the large basket hanging from Magnus’s mouth and Bay magically stuck to his back, magically not freezing, though just barely. Magnus flew straight through, and frankly it was a miserable two days. Dragons were not meant to carry burdens in their mouths like that, and Hobbits were not meant to ride on their backs.

So it was with great relief that Bay finally realized their mountain was coming up. The heavy stone doors opened and Magnus swooped in, straight to the Ship Hall, where he dropped the basket and Bay on the sand then flopped down himself.

“That was not a good idea,” he finally rumbled.

“I love sand,” Bay replied, weakly flipping more over himself. “It’s so warm and soft.”

“Wake up,” Magnus insisted at some point, which may not have been much later. “Quit lying about and get up.” He bumped Bay firmly with his muzzle.

“What?” Bay asked in irritation. “Just let me lie here. It’s alright.”

“It’s not alright. Get up.” Heaving a great effort, Bay turned his face away from the unpleasant dragon. “Someone’s been here,” Magnus finally hissed.

That got Bay up right away, as he shed his mortal discomfort. “What? Here?” The thought of someone violating the safety of their retreat made him feel cold and queasy.

Magnus picked him up and flew back to the main hall, setting Bay down near the doors and perching on a rock outcropping. “Not inside,” he determined. “But outside.” The stone doors opened slowly and Magnus stuck his head out to sniff the ledge, holding Bay back with his paw. “Several. Men. Climbed all over here,” he judged. “Of course they couldn’t find a way in, I wouldn’t leave the place unprotected.” He pulled back and the doors snapped shut with a thud.

So much for sitting on the front porch watching the stars. Now all Bay wanted to do was hide behind a series of locked doors.

“How did they—why would they come up here?” he demanded, not of Magnus but of the universe. “They couldn’t have seen the doors.” They were trying to be good, to be isolated, to not bother anyone—why did people have to bother them?

He was squeezing one of Magnus’s giant claws tightly and the dragon leaned down to rub him with his nose. “It’s alright, they didn’t get in,” he repeated soothingly. “They won’t get in.”

Bay refused to be comforted. “But now they know! And they’ll be back,” he predicted darkly. “And I’ll worry, whenever you go out—“

They both had the same thought at the same time. “Maybe they saw me coming and going,” Magnus finally said. “A dragon would mean a dragon’s hoard—“

“Who would specifically go looking for a dragon’s hoard?” Bay snapped. “I mean, who’s that bloody stupid?”

This moved Magnus to chuckle. “Present company excepted,” he replied lightly.

“Yes, well… That wasn’t exactly a good plan,” Bay grumbled.

“Forget about it,” Magnus advised, as if it was that easy. “They’re not going to hurt us. If they come back, I’ll give them a surprise,” he planned, grinning toothily.

Now Bay found he had to rein himself in, so he could rein in his dragon. “I’m very angry at them,” he stated.

“Yes.”

“But I still don’t think you should kill them.”

Magnus growled in the back of his throat. “Even thieves who come to invade our home?”

“We have several advantages over them,” Bay was forced to argue.

“Couldn’t I just kill them a little?”

“No. Think of it—think of it as an opportunity,” Bay tried.

“An opportunity for lunch.”

“No, an opportunity to scare them,” Bay explained. “To get the word out that there is a dragon here, and he’s not to be trifled with. But we won’t bother them, if they don’t bother us,” he added.

“You know, nobody ever believes that,” Magnus noted dryly.

Bay sighed and rubbed his nose. “Well, one thing at a time,” he conceded. “Come on, I need a shower and some food.”

“I want a bath!” Magnus insisted, swooping away with Bay. “You have to give me a bath first. I carried those books all the way here for you in my mouth, like a dog…”

**

Something tickled in the back of Bay’s mind, and it took several days before it crept to the front and showed itself. “You haven’t been out in a while,” he realized.

The dragon rested his head on the walkway, watching Bay sketch. “I know.”

“Don’t you usually go out around now?”

“It varies,” Magnus claimed mildly.

“Are you not going out, because of those people who were here?” Bay asked. It was not much of a stretch. Magnus shrugged a little, which just pointed out how worried he actually was about it, even several weeks later. He was not a laidback sort of character—if he was acting like something was not a big deal, it was likely just the opposite. “Won’t you get hungry?”

Magnus snorted, which blew loose pieces of Bay’s paper around the room, and he gave the dragon an exasperated look. “There’s no need for me to be hungry,” Magnus asserted, as Bay picked up his papers.

“I suppose. But you might also get bored,” he noted. “And there’s no way to short-circuit that.”

Magnus was quiet for a long moment. “I’ve thought about setting a trap,” he revealed.

“Oh?”

“An illusion of me, flying away from here,” he proposed. “If they’re watching, they might try again to get in.”

Bay nodded his understanding of this. “And then what happens?”

“Confrontation.” Said by a dragon, the word was chilling.

“Of what sort?”

Magnus sighed again, but this time turned his head away from Bay’s papers first. “Non-deadly, I suppose,” he allowed, sounding thoroughly unimpressed with this idea. “Though if one of them has a heart attack in terror at my magnificence, I refuse to take responsibility for it!”

“Perhaps,” Bay mused, “they’re penniless orphan boys, driven by desperation to attempt this suicidal act, to free their siblings from a cruel master.”

“What rubbish you read,” Magnus scoffed. Clearly he was referring to a particular anthology of inspirational adventure stories Bay had favored lately. “Why anyone would want to be buried with that kind of drivel, I have no idea.” Bay rolled his eyes. “Most likely they are fortune hunters whose only virtue is daring, if you can call that a virtue,” he went on. “Shiftless good-for-nothings unable to hold down an honest job.”

At this Bay barked out a laugh. “Well that’s rich,” he claimed. “As if you have a long history of honest jobs. In any lifetime.”

Magnus clearly did not think this was a prerequisite for judging others. “Well, what do you think?” he prodded. “Of my cunning plan?”

Bay sighed. He was apparently serious about this. “So you send an illusion of you out. They climb up and try to break in. We confront them and say—“

“Not ‘we,’ me,” Magnus corrected. “You’re going to stay hidden.”

“Why? I think it would be better if—“

“No one is scared of Hobbits,” Magnus interrupted rudely. Then he added, more gently, “And I don’t want you to get hurt. So you just stay in here, out of sight. Alright?”

Bay appreciated the ‘Alright?’ even if he knew it was largely nominal. “Are you sure you don’t want me to invite them in for tea? I’m kidding,” he assured the dragon, after enjoying the look on his face. He picked his sketchpad back up. “Alright, you handle it. But non-lethal,” he reminded Magnus.

“Of course.” He attempted to smile innocently, but that was pretty much impossible for a dragon.

**

They didn’t have to wait long after Magnus sent his illusion self flying away from the mountain, which just proved to Bay how closely they were being watched. Creepy. After only a few hours they detected some people climbing up the rock face, and after a while Bay began to hear a pecking noise, which was apparently the climbers chipping away at their front doors with some tools. And if that wasn’t a sound to give you the shivers, he didn’t know what was. He was feeling less and less inclined towards mercy for these would-be home invaders and was frankly glad Magnus had insisted on handling it.

As the dragon rose out of his gold pit Bay went defiantly into his cozy, warm bathroom, shutting all the doors along the way. He still felt the thump of the stone doors being flung open and heard Magnus’s roar—didn’t seem very non-lethal to him, but he found it difficult to care as he gave his feet a nice soak in some mineral salts and trimmed the hair on them. He came out when he was good and ready, to a silent main hall.

“Magnus?” Bay queried, growing suddenly apprehensive.

“Oh there you are,” Magnus replied in a satisfied purr. He was buried in his gold pile but rolled over lazily so Bay could climb on his tummy. “I took care of our little pest problem,” he began leadingly, as Bay rubbed his scales.

“And how did that go?”

“Rather well, to judge by the expressions on their little faces,” the dragon reportedly villainously. “I’d forgotten the scent of real, sentient fear.” He tipped his head back so Bay could scoot up and massage his long neck.

“Well let’s not luxuriate in it too much,” he suggested dryly.

“Why not?”

Bay ignored this question, assuming it was largely rhetorical. “Did anyone, er, expire?” he asked tentatively. Maybe it was better not to know.

“Well, I didn’t eat anyone,” Magnus promised, sounding slightly regretful. “Or roast them or squash them or rend them or run them through with my claws.”

“Very restrained of you.”

“Someone may have fallen off the mountain at some point, but I don’t think that should really count, do you?” he went on.

Bay rubbed the underside of the dragon’s chin. “What did you say to them?” he persisted.

“Oh, something about them daring to invade my domain, when I’d never bothered theirs,” Magnus sighed contentedly, stretching. “I wanted to work that bit in,” he added, as if he’d done Bay a special favor.

“Thanks.”

“Mighty dragon, don’t disturb my hoard, roast you all like goats if you come back, that sort of thing,” Magnus finished. He rolled over and Bay deftly moved aside, then returned to rubbing the back of his neck.

“Standard speech, hmm?” he guessed.

“Well usually I give it, then kill people anyway, so I don’t have to worry about whether it was good or not,” Magnus admitted. “I hope I enunciated properly. Sometimes I don’t when I get excited.”

Bay smiled faintly. “I’m sure they got the message,” he told Magnus. “Thank you for doing it. And letting them live.”

“Mmm. Tomorrow I might go out for sheep again,” Magnus planned. He cracked an eyelid. “If you’ll feel safe here alone.”

“Of course,” Bay told him. “I doubt they’ll be back.”

**

Bay and Magnus were left in blissful isolation as summer blossomed, then waned—a brief time, at this latitude, though the days were extremely long. Magnus brought back flowers, fruits, and vegetables for Bay’s garden, which was building up towards its first harvest of his earliest plantings. The stars hardly shown during the brief nights but Bay sat outside sometimes anyway, enjoying the fresh air and carving a little something out of wood, or knitting. Every once in a while he thought about going somewhere, then he remembered something he’d wanted to do around the cave, a new recipe to try or a new riddle for Magnus or a new tincture of flower oil to rub on the dragon’s claws to keep them shiny but not too strongly scented, and he just didn’t get around to going out. Besides, according to Magnus, the only village nearby (where the bandits had likely come from) was a rickety, impoverished stockade on the edge of a swamp. Not very appealing for tourism.

The nights grew longer. And chillier, though Bay did his best to stargaze, while Magnus scoffed at him. It was nice to come inside to a warm bath and/or a warm dragon. But then it was too cold to be pleasant out, and it was the days that were noticeably short instead of the nights. Winter was truly here, and even a dragon didn’t like to go out in a blizzard. He didn’t feel cold, but it was terribly embarrassing to bump into something due to poor visibility.

Magnus and Bay were having their usual argument over whether Bay put too much cinnamon in his oatmeal—dragons were especially sensitive to the scent of cinnamon, apparently—when suddenly Magnus stopped mid-sentence, as if he’d heard an odd noise. Bay froze too, knowing it wasn’t his sense of hearing that had been triggered.

“Someone’s climbing up the mountain,” Magnus finally said, rousing himself from his gold pit.

Anger surged through Bay and he barely restrained himself from throwing his cooking spoon at the wall. “Why?” he demanded, though he knew Magnus didn’t know. “It’s the dead of winter. That’s utterly ridiculous.”

Magnus shook off some coins and flew up to his perch near the door, as if that would help him detect them better. He seemed unusually antsy when he flew back down, refusing to settle. “Could be interesting,” was all he said to Bay. Bay harrumphed and went to soothe himself with a hot bath, trusting Magnus could deal with them.

A while later Magnus was poking at him, though. “They’re almost here,” he told Bay, sounding excited. “I think you should go up and meet them.”

“Alright, why?” Bay wanted to know, and not for the first time. “What is going on that you won’t tell me about?”

“It’s a surprise!” Magnus said gleefully, baring his teeth. That could go either way: good surprise, like they were bringing a stack of books, or bad surprise, like Magnus was going to have fun roasting them alive with Bay’s heart consent. You could never tell with a dragon’s sense of humor.

“Fine,” Bay sighed. He put on his coat and let Magnus carry him up to the doorway, the dragon perching just out of sight. “Now?”

“Well, wait a minute,” Magnus judged. After more than a minute, just as Bay was thinking of going back down to get a book or something, there was a heavy thumping on the doors from outside, scaring Bay half to death.

“Are they knocking?” he asked in disbelief. “Do they just expect me to open the door and let them in?”

“I won’t let them hurt you,” Magnus promised, which was sweet but not really what Bay was worried about.

“Fine,” he sighed, and pushed open the huge stone door as though it weighed a lot less than it really did.

The first thing he saw was a Man, tall and roughly dressed, who admirably restrained his surprise at being met by a Hobbit instead of a dragon. “Yes?” Bay asked in a business-like way, as though he was just another traveling salesman.

“Uh, hello,” the Man replied, which was not what Bay would have expected from a bandit. “Sorry, I thought there was a dragon here…?”

“Don’t tell me we hauled all this up the wrong bloody mountain!” complained another voice in the background, and Bay pushed the door open wider. There were several rough-looking Men there, surrounded by bundles of wood that they were arranging around a pole.

Another Man, better-dressed and older, admonished them. “You’re the one who said this was the dragon’s mountain, it’s Midwinter’s Eve and we haven’t got time to—“

“Sorry, excuse me,” Bay interrupted forcefully. “What, exactly, are you doing here on our front porch?” He let his irritation show.

“Does someone else live here with you?” asked the first Man curiously, trying to peer into the darkness behind Bay.

A silky and sinister chuckle rumbled around them, making everyone pause for a moment. “Answer his question,” Magnus encouraged them, keeping out of sight. “What are you doing here?”

“Who’s that?” someone asked.

“The dragon Magnus,” Bay replied grandly. “A ferocious and temperamental beast.” Magnus scoffed at this description. “Don’t make him come out here, I’m not going to stop him from eating you,” Bay warned angrily. “You know, we’ve never bothered any of you lot, I don’t know why you keep coming—“

“Oh great and powerful dragon!” the older Man interrupted, loud and obsequious. Bay rolled his eyes. “To ensure your continued protection of our village, we have brought you a sacrifice on this Midwinter’s Eve!”

Bay’s eyebrows rose. “A sacrifice? That’s really not—“

“Hmm, I like sacrifices,” Magnus cut in from inside the cave. He sounded vaguely amused. “Whatever could it be? I hope it’s shiny.” Bay looked back at him with a frown.

The older Man, who seemed like he was some kind of high priest, clearly had a script prepared and didn’t want to deviate from it. “Behold, the witch!” he announced grandly, and two of his companions pulled another figure, swathed in a heavy coat, to its feet. “A scourge upon our village, she will make a fitting sacrifice for your magnificence!”

They were tying the woman to the pole, which Bay realized suddenly was actually a stake—as in, ‘burned at the.’ “No, hang on, you’re not going to set someone on fire!” he exclaimed in horror. What kind of barbarians were they dealing with here?

“I thought the dragon was going to set her on fire,” someone complained in the background. “I didn’t bring much oil.”

“I’ve only got a few matches,” someone else added.

The high priest shushed them; clearly they were ruining his scene. “Oh great and powerful dragon, won’t you accept our offering, do us the honor of—“

“Enough of this nonsense!” Bay snapped, marching up to the stake. The woman was precariously balanced atop the firewood and he wasn’t sure how he was going to reach her. “No one’s being set on fire, untie her this instant—“ Poor girl, dragged all the way up a mountain, thinking she was going to be sacrificed to a dragon—

An unnatural breeze, slightly minty, caught the hood of her cloak and blew it back, and Bay froze. “Ruby,” he breathed, looking up at her heart-shaped face and sky-blue eyes. Her presence struck him suddenly and he realized Magnus must have been shielding her from him, must’ve known she was out here, that’s why he was so excited—Magnus’s chuckle filled the frigid air, confusing everyone. “Untie her!” Bay ordered, and any trace of silly Hobbit was gone from his tone.

The other Men hurried to obey, even though the high priest was put out. “Er, is the witch not a good sacrifice?” he checked nervously. “She practices unnatural arts—“

“It’s really just herbalism,” the first Man pointed out mildly, helping her down.

Bay hugged her close, though his head was at an awkward height on her. “Ruby, are you alright?” he asked, gazing up at her. “Do you remember me?”

She seemed on the young side, but she smiled and touched his cheek with a cold hand. “I think I do,” she revealed. “A face from a dream. An impossible dream.”

“Not impossible,” he assured her. “Do you remember Magnus? You won’t recognize him, that’s for sure—“

Their reunion was interrupted by the high priest. “Look, it’s Midwinter’s Eve, and we need to make a sacrifice to the dragon so he won’t destroy us,” he said crossly. “Now do you want the witch or not?”

Bay did not like this man. “Oh, we’ll take the witch, but alive, thank you very much,” he announced frostily. “That is, if you want to stay,” he added quickly to Ruby.

“Yes,” she responded immediately. She glanced at the high priest. “There’s nothing for me in the village.”

Bay understood what she meant. Being accused of witchcraft could really put a damper on neighborhood relations. “Okay. Why don’t you go on inside, out of the cold?” he suggested, guiding her towards the doorway. “There’s stairs, and then the kitchen at the back. Have something to eat.” Ruby smiled at him, the connection tugging at his heart even if she didn’t fully recall everything they’d been through together. They weren’t always together; not like he and Magnus were—even they sometimes missed each other, but that was unusual. But sometimes it was just him and Magnus, and they knew that Ruby wasn’t there, and that they shouldn’t waste time worrying about her. But now the three of them could be together, and there was a satisfying balance in that.

Bay saw her go inside the cave, then turned back on the high priest, his eyes cold. “Magnus isn’t going to destroy your village,” he stated, offended at the idea. “He was never going to destroy it. We weren’t bothering anyone up here! He doesn’t even eat people, only sheep. Did you send those people to spy on us before?” he accused.

The priest didn’t seem to know how to answer, since Bay had ruined the ceremony he’d prepared, and he stomped away muttering. “Just some local lads trying to prosper,” said the Man who’d been first at the door. “It’s a poor village.” He held out his hand. “Asger,” he introduced.

Bay shook hands. “Bay. You’re all from the village? The one by the swamp? What’s it called?”

“Sakari.”

“Oh. Well, look, we’re not your enemy,” Bay tried to explain.

“I figured,” Asger claimed. “Never heard of a dragon who confronted robbers without killing any of them,” he added by way of explanation.

“Well—what’s with all this sacrifice nonsense, then?” Bay wanted to know, exasperated.

Asger shrugged. “We’re good climbers, and the priest pays,” he responded. “Hard times.”

Bay could understand that, at least. “Yes, I suppose. Er, you’ll still get paid, won’t you?”

“Oh yes,” Asger assured him, as though he wouldn’t rest until he did, and neither would the other climbers. He took his turn packing up some gear.

“Right then.” Bay was not sure of the proper send off for someone who’d tried to sacrifice a witch on your doorstep, but yet didn’t seem like such a bad chap after all. “Good-bye,” he decided, and stepped back inside, closing the door firmly behind him.

It took his eyes a moment to adjust to the dimness and then he realized Magnus was still perched on his rock by the door, his scaly lips drawn back from his teeth in a smug grin.

“You knew Ruby was with them!” Bay mock-accused. In reality he was relieved things had gone so well, and excited to get to know her again.

“The look on your face!” Magnus crowed with delight. “Like someone smacked you with a board.” Bay raised an eyebrow at what dragons found amusing. “Oh, my sides hurt from trying not to laugh!” Magnus claimed, his claws clinking over his rib scales.

“You did laugh,” Bay pointed out fondly. He reached out a hand and Magnus immediately lowered his head to be patted.

“Only a little. Not nearly as much as I wanted,” Magnus said. “It’s inadvisable for dragons to really let loose with a laugh, you know. Because sometimes we snort, and then there are flames.”

“Yes, it’s all fun and games until someone gets roasted alive,” Bay agreed dryly. But then this thought made him angry. “I can’t believe they were going to—sacrifice—when you hadn’t even—“ He started to get a little sputtery with frustration.

Magnus nuzzled him with his nose, sending Bay backwards a few steps. “Yes, you certainly told them off!” he agreed with amusement, though he seemed genuine rather than mocking. “They will think twice before coming up here and bothering the fearsome Hobbit of the Mountain again!”

Bay shook his head, trying to put the incident behind him. They were gone now, and they had brought them Ruby—Ruby, who was downstairs by the fire, possibly feeling neglected. “I’m so glad we’re together,” he told Magnus, “and that she’s not away in that village, by herself—it sounds very unpleasant.”

“Well, for most of the time she didn’t know any different,” Magnus pointed out, in his usual sympathetic manner.

Bay grinned anyway. “Let’s go down and see her, then.” Magnus picked him up, cradling him carefully in his claws, and swooped down towards his gold pit, circling low a few times to show off his magnificent wings and tail before landing, with great delicacy, on the golden coins. Ruby peeped out from behind the doorframe to the kitchen, awed but still fearful, which Magnus didn’t necessarily mind. Bay had to clear his throat rather loudly before the dragon remembered to stop eyeing Ruby and set him down.

Bay went to her right away, taking her hands. “Are you alright? Did you eat something?”

She nodded, then asked awkwardly, “Um, is there a privy around here, or…?” Her cheeks flushed slightly.

“Oh, of course, sorry!” Bay replied. “Here, you can use mine.” He led her through his bedroom. “We’ll have to make a room for you, that will be fun,” he added, demonstrating the flushing toilet and faucet for her. “Think about what you want!” He gave her some privacy and went back out to the main hall, where Magnus was lounging in his gold and boredly drumming his claws on the ground. It made the pots rattle in the kitchen and Bay stopped him.

“Well, where is she?” Magnus demanded. “I want to play!”

“Hush!” Bay told him. “Give her a few minutes. And mind your manners,” he warned. “You can just wait until she gets used to being around us again.” Magnus sighed dramatically, fluttering the tapestries.

After a couple minutes Ruby reappeared, somewhat reluctant to join them. “Come out here,” Magnus coaxed, displaying all his teeth. “It’s so much more fun!”

Bay smacked his paw in admonishment, not that he even really felt it, and went to Ruby himself. “It’s alright, I promise,” he told her. “He’s the same Magnus you remember, and he won’t hurt you.”

“I don’t remember any dragons,” Ruby commented dubiously.

“Close your eyes,” Bay suggested to her, “and listen to his voice.”

“Ruby, you’re going to love living with us,” Magnus purred on cue. “Forget that stinking rat trap of a village. They couldn’t appreciate you there. But we have warmth and all the food you can eat, and we could live like princes if only Bay weren’t so stuck on his silly rules—“

Ruby opened her eyes with a smile just as Bay was about to protest this characterization. “Magnus,” she realized.

“Just bigger and pointier,” Bay judged dryly, “to suit his ego.” Magnus laid his head down on the walkway, inviting Ruby to approach, and Bay showed her how to rub his scales in the right way so she didn’t get hurt.

His eyes fluttered shut. “Mmm, two attendants,” he decided with satisfaction. “I shall have to come up with new needs for you to meet.”

Bay rolled his eyes and Ruby laughed. “Yes, it’s all about you, isn’t it, big silly dragon…”

“Oh, if it was all about me,” Magnus countered, scooting away to burrow into his gold, “Ruby would be a dragon, not a Woman.”

“That would be something,” Bay commented, trying for only a moment to imagine sharing the cave with two dragons instead of one.

“Show her how to tuck me in,” Magnus commanded, laying his head down, and Bay encouraged Ruby to get into the gold pit and start scooping loose gold over the dragon.

“Could I have been a dragon?” Ruby wondered idly, fascinated with the idea.

“You know, I don’t think something other than a human has ever been an option before,” Bay replied thoughtfully.

“Vampire,” Magnus reminded him. “Werewolf.”

“Yes, I suppose so,” Bay agreed, feeling those were not quite in the same vein. “This world has several sentient species, so I guess anything is possible. I’m a Hobbit, by the way.”

“Oh,” Ruby replied with some surprise, so Bay was glad he’d mentioned it.

Magnus chuckled. “She thought you were just a short Man with hairy feet!” he teased, which made Ruby glance down at Bay’s feet.

“Oh, well, I’m sure they’re very warm,” she tried nobly. “Er, Hobbit? I don’t think I’ve ever heard of them, sorry.”

Bay ignored Magnus’s continued amusement, deliberately stepping on his tail as he walked around him. “We live in the Shire?” he explained to Ruby. This drew a blank. “It’s pretty far from here, in the northern latitudes, and we don’t travel much, so really it’s not surprising you haven’t heard of us.”

“People call them halflings,” Magnus added helpfully, well aware Bay hated that term. Like he was only half the person a Man or Elf was.

Unfortunately Ruby seemed to recognize this name. “Oh, I think I’ve heard that before—oh, this is so beautiful!” She stopped to pick up a pearl necklace that had turned up in the helmet she was using to scoop gold over Magnus.

“Put it on,” Bay suggested to her with a smile. “Here, I’ll do it—well, I can get up on the—“

“I can kneel—“

“Come over here where I can see you, you tiny, silly creatures,” Magnus ordered, so Bay and Ruby went back around to his eyeline.

“Of course, everyone is tiny to a dragon,” Bay told Ruby dryly. She stood in the gold pit and he stood on the walkway above and fixed the pearl necklace around her throat. “Beautiful,” he praised warmly, and she blushed a little.

“I’ve never seen treasures like this!” she went on. “I hardly ever even saw a bit of gold in that village.”

“Well, dragons have a need for gold,” Bay explained, sitting down on the edge of the walkway by her. “Like needing food or air. So it’s not just greed.”

“Greed plays into it, too,” Magnus admitted, not at all ashamed.

“I have quite a lot of other jewelry, loose gems, armor that I’ve found in amongst the gold,” Bay went ton. “I found those tapestries, a flute, silk, paints… Anything non-gold I usually pull out when I find it. Otherwise it tends to get squashed.”

Magnus huffed at this characterization. “I go out sometimes to eat, and I bring nice things back,” he pointed out. “Plants and books and things.”

“Oh yes, I have to show you my garden and the library,” Bay planned excitedly. “I have so much to show you! It’s really very nice here. Oh, we have to make your room.” He turned to regard the series of doors lining the wall that looked down into the dragon pit. “I think there might be room over here—“

“Are you doing it?” Magnus asked.

“Yes, I thought I would,” Bay replied. “Why, have you already started?”

“Well, I was going to.”

Bay shook his head with a smirk. “Alright, you go ahead then,” he allowed. “No, really, I’m not doing anything.”

“Well, fine.” Somehow Magnus managed to make the thing he insisted on doing sound like a favor to Bay.

Ruby had been looking back and forth between them in confusion. “How can you just make a room?” she asked. “Do you mean you’re going to carve it from the rock?”

“No—“ Bay began.

“Yes,” said Magnus. “Well, technically,” he added when Bay gave him a look.

“It’s magic,” Bay said to Ruby eagerly. “Do you remember doing magic before? Have you ever done magic here?”

Magnus flicked a coin at him (fortunately he had practiced and it no longer hurt). “She was going to be burned at the stake for practicing magic,” he reminded Bay, as though he was being gauche to mention it.

“Well, magic is good here,” Bay assured Ruby, taking her hand. “In fact, we have a special kind of magic that no one else has.”

“Come sit closer to me,” Magnus demanded. He sounded just slightly jealous—obviously Bay and Ruby could do things together, like hold hands, that were a little more challenging when you tried to involve a dragon, and Bay realized he would have to be sensitive to that.

Quickly he hopped down into the gold pit, gently tugging on Ruby’s hands. “Come on,” he encouraged. “I’ll show you how to cuddle with a dragon. Good way to warm up.”

They settled against Magnus, tucked under his wing. “Mmm, this is so nice,” Ruby sighed. “It seemed like it was always cold in the village. And wet.”

“Have you lived there your whole life?” Bay inquired.

She shook her head. “No, I came there when I was a child, with my parents—“

“Who would come to that dump?” Magnus derided, and Bay poked him in the sensitive spot under his wing joint, making him giggle automatically. “Stop that!”

“Dragons are ticklish,” Bay told Ruby seriously.

“I did not know that.”

“Don’t abuse your cuddling privileges,” Magnus scolded.

Bay faced Ruby attentively. “You were saying?”

“Well, my parents came to the village looking for work, I don’t know why,” she went on, as if she fundamentally agreed with Magnus. “My father died not long after and my mother remarried—it’s a harsh place, there’s not much help for widows or orphans,” she added. “No one has enough to give away, it seems. Anyway I started treating people with herbs for some income—fevers and headaches and that sort of thing. I thought maybe I could learn more from the midwife or wise woman and help people that way.” She started to get a little bit excited as she spoke. “Sometimes, when I really, really wanted someone to get better, they would, even though I didn’t understand why! Do you think that was magic?” she wanted to know.

“Could have been,” Bay agreed. “That sometimes happens when we’re just beginning to realize what we can do—but there are rules we’re supposed to follow,” he added more seriously, “about what we should and shouldn’t change—“

Right on cue Magnus registered his disagreement. “Rules are chain, to choke and bind you,” he pronounced. “Made by people who are afraid of your power.”

“Made by people who have very good reason not to trust us,” he reminded Magnus steadily. “Who will enforce them if we break too many.”

“Oh, I would love to see Lestrade or Mycroft come in here now!” Magnus boasted, starting to get a bit worked up. “Can you imagine the look on their tiny faces when I rise up out of the gold—“

“Easy, easy,” Bay soothed, rubbing his side. The look on Ruby’s face was one of alarm. “Settle down, darling,” he continued. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have mentioned it.” If Ruby learned nothing else her first day here, she would learn how to placate a stroppy dragon.

Magnus shook out his wings, undoing all of Bay and Ruby’s tucking, and squirmed back down into the gold. “Well, you know I’m sensitive on that subject,” he muttered.

“Yes. You don’t have to worry,” Bay added to Ruby, in the same calming tone. “Magnus won’t hurt you. Definitely not on purpose, and usually not on accident.” Not seriously anyway, they had safeguards against that. He waited for Ruby to relax next to him again. “You don’t know who he was talking about, do you?” he guessed. “Or remember how we came to be like this.”

“No,” Ruby confessed.

“Don’t tell her, it’s tedious,” Magnus claimed.

That was not the word Bay would have chosen. “It’s complicated,” he hedged instead. “I think you’ll remember on your own, that might be best.” Magnus snorted. “It’s hard to tell the story without bias,” he tried in addition, his tone a bit pointed.

“Oh.” He could see Ruby really didn’t understand what he meant. “Okay.”

“But we have magic,” Bay continued, from before they were interrupted, “and it can be really wonderful sometimes. But you have to be careful with it. You can’t just snap your fingers and take whatever you want.”

“Well, dragons can,” Magnus interjected. “No so much with the finger-snapping, though.” He actually tried to snap his fingers, or rather his claws, but they weren’t really meant for that, and he accomplished little besides flipping some coins around and making an unpleasant metal-against-metal screech.

Bay gave him a look, which Magnus couldn’t really see. “Yes, I suppose in the natural context of this world, a dragon is expected to be ruthless and powerful,” he allowed, treating Magnus’s aside with more weight than it deserved. “But, for example, it wouldn’t do for a Hobbit to start flying around or wielding a sword like an expert or something. We’re generally quiet agrarians.”

“Though this one did join a party of Dwarvish warriors to take back their home from a dragon,” Magnus couldn’t help pointing out.

“Yes,” Bay conceded. “And this dragon lay silent under his mountain for decades instead of terrorizing people, waiting for me to turn up.” He wasn’t sure which path was more unlikely, sometimes.

“I was perfectly comfortable,” Magnus tried to dismiss. “I had a lot of gold. Much more than here.”

Bay rolled his eyes and turned back to Ruby. “The point is, we have this magic, but we have to use it responsibly, and sparingly,” he tried to emphasize. “I mean, sure, it’s nice to have a comfortable life. But it shouldn’t be used to change big things, even good ones. Like curing all diseases in the world, for example.”

Ruby’s eyes widened. “Is that possible? Can we do that?”

“You have to think of the consequences,” Bay warned, not answering the question directly. “Okay, people would be healthier. And likely they’d be happy about that.” Ruby nodded eagerly. “But how would they explain it?” Bay continued, trying to sound reasonable. “They wanted to sacrifice you as a witch because you used a few medicinal herbs to help people get better! Wars have been fought because people saw a comet or a solar eclipse. If all the diseases in the world were suddenly cured, people would put their own meaning on it, and a lot of them would see it as an excuse to increase their own power.”

“Oh,” Ruby replied, looking rather crestfallen.

“You are incredibly cynical,” Magnus declared, with no trace of irony. “How about, why bother?” he offered instead, sounding slightly bored. “People aren’t real, their suffering is merely an illusion for our benefit. Crying over them is like crying over characters in a story.”

“I do that sometimes,” Ruby countered, and Magnus huffed as though he couldn’t expect better of her, but was willing to tolerate it.

“Well, it’s a philosophical issue,” Bay allowed. “The main thing is, we have a quiet life here under the mountain, where we aren’t hurting anyone. And I think it’s okay to make it comfortable enough that we don’t need to go out.”

“Hobbits have been known to terrorize the countryside when they get bored,” Magnus claimed, this time with self-awareness. “Next thing you know they’re talking everyone’s ear off about who grew the largest pumpkin in the Shire this year and eating every bit of mutton and pie in sight.” Bay, of course, knew it wasn’t the Hobbit who was really the problem here, and he knew Magnus knew that, too; so he just smiled sadly and stroked Magnus’s scales.

“It seems there’s a lot to learn,” Ruby commented tactfully.

Bay straightened up. “Oh yes,” he assured her, more upbeat. “But it’s very interesting, and as I said, you can be quite comfortable here. Magnus, do you want to do her room now?”

“I will,” the dragon promised, “once I’m ready for you to leave.” He folded his wings more tightly over them, trapping them in dark warmth.

Bay made sure he was holding Ruby’s hand. “Alright, we’re not going to leave,” he assured Magnus. “But we will if you fall asleep.” Magnus liked his day-long naps, and Bay had too many things to show Ruby to wait that out. “Do you like to garden?” he asked Ruby. “Or paint? Can you read? I’ve got a garden and a studio and a library…”