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Golden Opportunity

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Hobbit-folk were not much of diplomats as others among Middle Earth.

While most folks had to learn how to reach a tenuous balance between themselves, through trade or treaties or both, Hobbits kept to themselves and settled their quarrels rather peacefully, either by having fierce words or avoiding each other for a season or two.

However, Hobbits were much better at diplomacy than stubborn, thick-headed dwarves; and some, such as a certain Bilbo Baggins, discovered rather surprising qualities to their character in moments of sheer despair.

Bilbo was experiencing rather a lot of those, as of late.

 

So when he finally reveals himself to the dragon, when all other options seem moot, his mouth acts before his mind can put a stop to it.

 

“I’ve come to bargain.” Bilbo states, and looks straight into the beast’s eye.

“Indeed?” The dragon says, mockery dripping through its tone like thick tar. “What have you to bargain for, thief?”

“Peace.”

There’s a beat of silence, before the dragon roars in laughter; the echoes of it rattle through Bilbo like the punishing beats of a war drum. Mounds of gold break into avalanches, and Bilbo can only hope he wouldn’t to be buried alive under them.

“Peace?” The dragon snorts, its fangs bared, each of them a sharp pillar sprouted from its jaws. “Those who are bound to the Earth know nothing of this kind. They know only to trample others like the gravel beneath their dirty paws, to steal and reave and tarnish, as they did to this mountain, shredding its innards piece after piece, like a disease.”

It’s more than Bilbo had ever hoped to hear; the fact his ears aren’t burnt to a crisp make him brave through a possible argument with a being as big as the mountain itself.

“Who fashioned the coins around you, who make for your bed? The goblets who make for your trophies?” Bilbo challenges, gesturing around them. “Who harvested the gems, polished them into shape, made them into jewellery and finery?” Bilbo shakes his head. “It’s true, us of Earth can do terrible things. But isn’t the grandiosity around you–“ he gestures around them both “– also proof that it could be otherwise?”

The dragon huffs in annoyance, having no response, and Bilbo sees steam thicken in the air, feeling the humidity against his skin even as it dissipates.

 

“You said you haven’t smelled my kind before”, Bilbo treads ever so lightly with his words, “so perhaps we are different from the others, whom you have. Us Hobbits.” He gives away, a small offer – a dangerous tribute – to try and appeal to the dragon’s sense of curiosity.

Bilbo dearly hopes it has any.

“I haven’t eaten one, either.” The dragon sneers. “You’d make a tiny morsel for your errs, little Hobbit.”

Bilbo feels his heart hammering in his chest, as his mind clears and the answer lies before him, shining and unmistakable.

“Perhaps.” He swallows. “But what do you plan to do, after?”

“After?” The dragon drawls. “I’d eat your traitorous dwarven friends, one after the other. I’d pierce their armors and shatter their axes. I’d crunch their bones and swallow their pitiful screams.”

Bilbo nods through the possible gruesome faith of his friends, clenching his shaking hands in an effort to carry on the conversation.

“And after that?”

Smaug bares its teeth. “Raze the town floating in the lake, if it hadn’t yet suffered its much deserved ruin.”

Bilbo nods again.

“What then?”

“What matters it to you?” The dragon growls irritably, and its snout is so close Bilbo can see each of its teeth are longer than himself. “You’d be long dead before that.”

“You can’t eat gold.” Bilbo says simply. “The land is dying. There is a great evil, rising again in the North. What would you eat, when it’d come here?”

 

The dragon pauses and makes a slow blink, as if to make its eyes gleam ever more menacingly at Bilbo.

“Are you trying to lie your way out, thief?”

Bilbo shakes his head. “It is true I came here in the company of dwarves,” he speaks, detached from his mouth. “But it is only because they are dying, and the winds bring bad omens for us all. You haven’t listened to the winds as you slumbered, have you?” Bilbo looks as the dragon’s pupil narrows in annoyance. “It has changed. The forest southwest of here is now Mirkwood, when its been Greenwood before. It’s festered with Spiders and misery and dying trees. There are Orcs festering the mountains with their wargs, bringing war all across the lands.” He braves through, and looks the dragon straight in the eye.

“Aren’t you a part of those lands, as well? But you seek to carry out vengeance against people who have done you no wrong, a dying breed trying to save their children.”

“I care nothing for the children of dwarves.” The dragon sneers.

“Dragons can’t forge, can they?”

 

Smaug, a being of an eternal flame, freezes.

 

“All this treasure you hold, would you content yourself with it? As time would nip at its glow and its shine, as dust would settle deeply into it. When the Dwarves would die out, then the Men, then the Elves. Who’d be left, to make new treasures?”

The dragon pauses. Its tail is slinking across the gold, but Bilbo is deaf to all but the hammering heart in his chest.

“What would you suggest, then, little Hobbit?” The dragon taunts. “For your peace?”

“Let the dwarves return to the mountain.”

“Never!” It roars, like wrath itself, stretching its wings as they fill the hall to the clatter of gold falling against the stone.

 

But it hadn’t burnt Bilbo dead.

Not yet.

 

“Hear me, O Smaug!” Bilbo holds out his hands in front of him, trying to appease the beast. “If not anything else, let me have one answer. Why would you not part with your gold?”

“It is mine.” The dragon snarls, possessive, and stretches its wings some more for good measure.

“But why?” Bilbo presses. “What use you have for it?”

“What is mine is mine,” the dragon answers, its logic parallel to Bilbo’s, never meaning to meet it at any point. “No one else’s.”

“What of the sky?” Bilbo asks.

“What?”

“The sky. Which do they belong to?”

 

The dragon stills.

 

“You think yourself clever, little morsel?” It asks in a tone as sweet as poison, as it brings its head closer to Bilbo. “I have seen the mountains here as mere hills of dirt. I have seen those forests as patches of weeds. You think you can twist your words against me, to fashion yourself a dagger from a bent truth?”

Bilbo shakes his head. “It is as you’ve said, O Smaug the great. You are awesome and magnificent, and I am a mere Hobbit at your mercy. I beg you to listen to my words.” He swallows. “For Hobbits, food is our greatest pleasure. We eat breakfast, and second breakfast, and lunchteon, and lunch, and then the in-between, then an evening tea and then dinner, and another before we go to bed,” he counts the different meals, finding it soothing.

“We know nothing of gold, or mountains, or such riches as you hold. I know only the pleasures found in food. The journey from my home has been long and has been tiresome, and though I have never grown too hungry, I was never quite full. I traveled with tasteless food and pangs in my stomach, with tongue that has nothing but memories of better times. It is here my feet brought me, it is by your grace my tongue still speaks, and with all of that being told, I think that an age spent chewing on Orcs would be an unfortunate way to spend one’s time, indeed.”

 

The silence stretches, and Bilbo still stands.

 

“More so,” Bilbo tries, when Smaug says nothing. “More so, O Smaug. The Dwarves are of crafts – of jewellery, of smithery, of armors – there surely are bellows in this mountain, are there not? Is there a fire purer than that coming out of a dragon, fire made flesh? Are there treasures greater than those fashioned in it? Of gold and glass and shields and spears and beads and plates and crowns and crests – all bearing a dragons’ mark, so no other dragon could ever keep it without being a thief themselves?”

The horns around Smaug’s head flare and puff as its pupil narrows until it’s but a thin slit.

The silence thickens, stifling and choking.

“Very well, little Hobbit,” Smaug bares its teeth, this time in a fearsome grin. “Let us bargain.”

 


 

No one is happy with the bargain.

Then again, diplomats are not meant to make people happy.

Bilbo isn’t quite sure what their job is, exactly, but he can see why the Hobbits of the past were clever enough to avoid the profession altogether.

 

Thorin – when he’s calmed down enough from his tantrum and stopped frothing from his mouth – claims Smaug a monster who slaughtered his people, a thief, a fat slug.

He does that on the very doorstep of said dragon.

Dwarves are very loud. And Thorin is nothing if not the finest Dwarf among the company.

“ – and you wish to give it your fourteenth share of the treasure,” Thorin snorts like a curse, “The treasure of my people, a treasure that you have no right–“

Bilbo nearly chocks when his heart leaps to his throat, and in a brash move he silences Thorin, placing both hands on the other’s mouth in an attempt to shush Thorin less he ruins the slim chance they have to avoid death as they came knocking on its door.

It helps that Gloin and Dwalin are holding Thorin back, or Bilbo would have his arms cut clean off long ago.

 

“You’d have war,” Bilbo bristles, “you’d risk the lives of your people, for what?! Gold?!”

The company’s eyes speak volumes what their tongues keep out of respect for their King. Thorin lowers his eyes for a moment, lips thinning.

 

“We can’t trust it.” Thorin finally speaks.

“You’d rather face it?” Bilbo asks, his voice taut. “Because I have, Thorin. I have faced Smaug, and it is not as the legends tell of it. Smaug is greater, stronger and fiercer, and it would bring ruin upon all of Middle Earth unless you’d stop being such a stubborn, short-sighted fool.”

There are gasps, but Bilbo is beyond caring.

“I have risked my life for you, many times over. Do you think so little of it – of me – that you’d simply toss it all aside?”

Thorin’s gaze burns through him, but Bilbo have faced a dragon and lived to tell the tale, and he bares through it.

“My ancestors would turn in their graves to hear of such blasphemy.” Thorin grits out.

“With all due respect, Thorin,” Balin intervenes with a grim face, “Our ancestors are long dead.”

Speaking the words is clearly painful, but someone must say them.

“You’d have peace with it?” Thorin spits.

“You can only have peace with those who had once been your enemies.”

 

Thorin rages, but the flames of his wrath can’t compare to those of a dragon.

Eventually, they're bound to die out.

 


 

But the Dwarves don’t make even a half of Bilbo’s problems.

 

“You’d need something to convince the Elves, as well.” Bilbo peeps up as Smaug noses through the gold. “Their King is… weary of dragons, or so I’m told.”

“Elves,” the dragon snorts, rolling its eye. “And why, pray tell, should I care for those wretched little faes?”

“They do live longer than dwarves,” Bilbo answers, half-apologetically. “Think of it as a long-term investment.”

The dragon’s eye stays on Bilbo much longer than he’s comfortable with.

“Perhaps I will.”

 


 

Thranduil is not happy.

And he does have an army of some five thousand at his back and at his call.

Bilbo thinks that at least it means he shares one trait with Thorin, which makes one more than either of them are willing to admit, standing at the gates of Erebor.

The Dwarves have yet to reconcile with Smaug, as Bilbo keeps going back and forth between them. He knows the company discuss things between themselves when he’s away, and hopes they’d come to the right decision. He also knows they ache to step once more into the halls of their ancestors, rather than to keep to the very edges of it.

Bilbo’s not sure why the Elves came forwards, along with a small group of Men. A frowning Bard sits on a pure white steed, impressive even with the Elf King’s elk by his side.

He hopes neither of them is still mad about those wine barrels.

 

“King Thranduil, Lord of the Woodland realms and all that’s within it,” Bilbo says at the gates of Erebor, and finds the King’s cold gaze much more bearable than he did before. “I come before you in the name of Smaug, the Fire Drake in Erebor–“ Bilbo stumbles a bit with his tongue, unsure of the proper titles, and clears his throat. “It offers you, as a gesture of good will, a piece of its treasure.”

Bilbo sees something harden in Thranduil’s eyes at the mention of the treasure being Smaug’s, and the Dwarves at his back aren’t giving out better vibes. The man at Thranduil’s side, Bard of Laketown, is the only one who isn’t glaring at Bilbo – even with his constantly frowning face, and Bilbo finds a small fondness for the man for this grace.

 

“I have no need for gold,” Thranduil speaks with all the warmth of a harsh winter wind, attempting to smother whichever accomplishment Bilbo is at the brink of.

“It is not gold that is offered.” Bilbo clears his throat once more, nervous. “Smaug thought hard and true for whichever piece would most befit you, my Lord. It tells me of a piece that smelled of Elves before Men came to dwell on this land, even if the smell is long gone from it. That the gems told it they were held in great care, and basked in the moonlight spilling between evergreen leaves. That despite that they were forged in Erebor, they wished to have that once more – the moon upon them, listening to the song of the harp.”

Bilbo hears Thranduil sharp intake of breath as he pulls the necklace out of his worn satchel, with gems so purely white Bilbo is afraid of tarnishing it by his mere proximity.

Sadly, his proximity is rather needed for this exchange.

“If you’d be willing to leave all whichever wrongdoings in the past, and start anew, without grudges or mischief – and even if not, Smaug would still let you have this piece, which was kept under its care, as the gems have asked themselves.” This was the thinnest Bilbo was allowed to stretch the truth, since Smaug had said no such thing – but it did tell him the story of the gems, and it did, apparently, could learn small histories from whichever piece of treasure he held – like tokens of memories it bathed in, even if they were not its to keep.

 

“What price comes by this?” Thranduil asks, and his voice is even colder than his eyes.

“N-Nothing, my Lord,” Bilbo stammers. “It’s just a token of good will, to set the past where it belongs.”

 

The elk comes forth and Thranduil plucks the gems from Bilbo’s grasp, ignoring him. He seems mesmerized, ignoring the Dwarves muttering behind him. It’s only because Bilbo is so close he can see something soften in his eyes, and a great sorrow behind it, so deep even glimpsing at it leaves Bilbo feeling as if he is dipping in despair.

“Consider it done, then.” Thranduil speaks, voice soft.

 

Bilbo is incredibly pleased for all of two moments, before the earth starts to shake.

 


 

“You’d be the first dragon to make peace. Your name would be legend, in song, in paintings, in murals– “

“It’d be mockery,” Smaug snorts. “The first dragon to steep as low to grovel at the two-leggers.”

“It’d be praise, and gratefulness,” Bilbo argues. “The first dragon to open its heart and wings to take others under them. The first dragon to bring with it a New Age.”

 


 

The earth rumbles and the mountain side splits apart like a dry leaf. A monster emerges from a cloud of rubble, with a maw filled with the promise of death. As it screeches, two others emerge, then another.

“Wereworms.” Gandalf speaks, and tension is high in the air as they watch the monstrosities tear at the ground and hear the battle horns of Mordor.

 

Then the earth beneath their feet shakes, and for one dreadful moment they all fear the same faith – that the maw of the beast would open under their feet and swallow them like gravel.

“Wereworms!” Smaug bellows as it breaks itself an exit at the side of the mountain, rubble and dust scattering, sending some scampering away but harming none.

“You dare brings those to my lair?” It roars, outraged, at no one in particular, as everyone brace themselves with their weapons, torn between having their back to one death or the other.

 

Smaug’s gaze soon fixes on Bilbo’s.

Along with the eyes of thousands of others.

And arrowheads and swords pointed in their direction. Some pitchforks, too.

 

“How do you think any of those here would even command a Wereworm?” Bilbo barks back, half in desperation and half in frustration. “Why would anyone call upon such a thing?”

Smaug’s anger deflates somewhat as some of its scales flatten across its body. It lets itself inspect the army of Elves at its feet, barely glancing towards the Dwarves.

“It’s the Orcs.” Bilbo says to draw its attention away from them less a hasty mistake would be made. “I’ve told you they are on the hills!”

By now, said Orcs were literally on the hills, spilling from the tunnels dug out by the monstrosities, who inexplicably retreated.

“That you did, little Hobbit.” Smaug inclines its head just so, and spares a glance to the others beneath him, all but Bilbo, the company, Bard and Thranduil petrified with fear.

“Watch closely, two-leggers.” It speaks, calm and deadly. “If you break faith with me, you’d suffer the same faith you are about to witness, and any offsprings you might have would experience it thrice-over.”

 


 

It seems that in the company of Dragons, battles draw rather short.

Each beat of Smaug’s wings covers an incredible distance, as its scales gleam in the sun like precious rubies. Some gold is still stuck in-between them, and some is falling with each beat of its wings; Bilbo is sure some unfortunate soul would be sent to collect those pieces from where they fell, later.

For now, they all watch as Smaug grows smaller – though still considerable in size – in the sky.

As the Orcs halt, unsure.

Hear its tremendous roar, so loud many have to cover their ears.

It is then Bilbo witnesses for the first time in many years as a Dragon torches the earth so nothing would ever grow upon it again, and despite the terrifying sight, his heart gladdens.

It is not them who are facing this horror; this horror of the past is now their savior, even if none shall call it by this name for some time to come.

 

Smaug, for its part, seems to enjoy itself. The arrows glide off his scales like toothpicks, the Orcs organized troops scramble away from it like ants.

It picks a few between its jaws and scrunches on them, armor and all – before spitting them out and scorching their bodies.

 

“You thought an arrow could kill this thing,” Bilbo hears Kili hissing – probably to Fili.

“It could. It would!” Fili shoots back, confirming Bilbo’s assumption. “It’s a Black Arrow! There’s no hide it can’t break.”

“And if the arrow would miss its mark?” Kili counters. “What then?”

Smaug sends some more fire into the tunnels themselves. Bilbo can distinctly hear the screams, but has little pity for Orcs.

He startles when a hand clasps his shoulder, and turns to see Balin.

No words need to be said.

(Balin doesn’t need to guess the answer to Kili’s query, after all – he’d been there, once before.)

 

As Smaug lands back in their lines, smelling of smoke and ash and gore and death, it gives Bilbo a long stare.

“You were right, little morsel,” It speaks to Bilbo as if no one is around them, “they do taste rather rotten.”

 


 

In the aftermath of battle, the atmosphere is still chagrined and tense. It is then all sides meet, face to face. It is then Bilbo’s bargain is put to the test.

Smaug is first, to incline its head and inhale the air around them, as all wait in bated breath.

“You smell of dragonfire,” Smaug breathes towards Thranduil, and Bilbo sees how much Thranduil struggles not to reach for his sword.

“I’ve slain it.”

As Thranduil speaks, a rather horrid sight appears – as the flesh of his right cheek melts off, showcasing a scar worse than Bilbo had ever seen on the living and the dead both.

“Saleg,” Smaug snorts the name in disdain, not caring much for the change in Thranduil’s appearance or any of the choked gasps from the crowd, and about a score of soldiers faint, “– stole from me.”

“What did it steal?” Bilbo asks, seeing as Thranduil’s lip are so thin Bilbo’s not sure they could form words.

“A goblet.” Smaug’s eyes narrow in anger. “We battled for twenty and a hundred moons and twenty and a hundred suns.” It seems to puff its breast. “Saleg ran away with holes in its wings and shame upon its scales.”

It looks at Bilbo expectedly, as does about ten dozen thousand people of all different races of which Bilbo prayed dearly, from the bottom of his heart, would not open their mouths to mention Smaug had stolen a whole mountain and its treasures.

 

“It does seem unwise, to try stealing from you.” Bilbo said. “Good fortune it is that no one’s going to steal anything from you, again.”

Smaug curled its lip upwards, at a display that was either a sardonic smile or a perpetration for a fleshy feast. There was a scorched arm still stuck in between its teeth, but none deemed it awfully important to mention it.

“On the word of a Hobbit.” Smaug said, and Bilbo nodded.

“On the word of this Hobbit.”

“Come now, Hobbit. Let us rest.”

 

Dragons weren’t great diplomats either, Bilbo assumed, what with their awesome power and their tendency to ignore others as if they were insignificant as mere insects. Perhaps they all were insignificant to Smaug, Bilbo thought, as he climbed through the rubble and after Smaug.

Or perhaps, a thought occurred to him, Smaug just didn’t care much for things that were of no interest to it, and acted accordingly.

That was certainly a trait a Hobbit could come and learn to appreciate, and would do good to be more common among all folks, indeed.

 


 

The stories would later tell of Bilbo Baggins, who had made friends with death and had it fly to wipe out his foes. Some would say Bilbo bewitched it; others would claim it was the wizard who played his hand at this turn of events.

They won’t tell of breakfast, and second breakfast, and lunchteon, and lunch, and then the in-between, then an evening tea and then dinner, and not of another before one goes to bed, all partaken in the company of a dragon, which claimed it slumbered long enough.

They won’t tell of a people gone back to their lost homes, like ghosts returning to the world of the living (but some would sing of it, at some point).

They would whisper about an Elven King, at times, that opened his court whenever the moon was brightest and played the harp for the first time in living memory, allowing all to enjoy it.

They would exchange coins adorned with the stamp of a dragon – not of any King or Queen, that couldn’t be melted down in any furnace other than where it was forged.

They would tell many other tales, and after many years, Bilbo would sit down and write some of his own, with the warmth of a dragon at his back, easing the ache in his old bones.

 

“Are you enjoying your peace, Hobbit?” The dragon would ask between the nuzzling of its gold, while Bilbo would set aside his quill and his paper and lean back with a full stomach and a full heart.

“Very much so.”