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B for Burglar

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Bilbo Baggins had always been a peaceful gentleman.

He was born, and then spent most of his life, in a charming little village in the countryside where the most eventful thing to ever happen had been his cousin Otto’s grandiloquent wedding and where people are so few and close that everybody could recite each inhabitant’s family tree up to the 6th generation. The area was called Hobbiton, a funny name that used up more place on maps than the actual town. Nature was dressed in soft shades of green, yellow and brown, except for the sky, the river and the pond, blue under the sunlight and grey when the weather was cloudy.

He lived in his childhood home, a lovely cottage his father had built almost entirely with his own hands, a bit removed from the rest of the village. Quiet, some would say boring, but it was home. The lovely almost golden colour the grey stones of the walls adopted under the sunset light. The round green door and large bow-windows. The cracking, but polished, wood on the floor and walls. His father’s comfortable armchairs and quilts and his mother’s family china. The books, all the books, from the old hardback of the history and botanic to the new paperback of the polars, sci-fi and other modern fiction. All of this was home, or part of it and therefore not separable of the general idea of it in his mind.

He preferred indoor activities and quiet pastimes such as reading and calligraphy, except for his Saturday’s gardening session, and entertained polite, although distant, relationships with his neighbours, colleagues, and numerous relatives. Nothing odd, nothing out of place, and no dirty secrets. Like his gardener liked to say “keep your nose out of troubles and no trouble will come to you”. Eru forbid that anything exciting and new happen to his person. Every Monday morning, he would drive in his little car to Oxford, where he initiated bunches of young adults to the mysteries of medieval history, and on Thursday evenings, back to Gloucestershire.

A most peaceful gentleman, indeed.

 

It was a recurring joke at work to call Bilbo the “gentleman farmer”, to ask him if his cabbages were growing strong and the like. Not in a mean way, really, but Oxfordians weren’t necessarily within the most “fond of green things” segment of the population. Most of them didn’t understand why Bilbo went back to the countryside every weekend instead of leaving it behind and buying a house in town. It looked, in their not-so-humble opinion, like an unnecessary waste of time. Well, the professor had to admit that the road was sometimes tiresome, especially after stressful weeks, but it wasn’t that long, barely an hour, and he needed the countryside. His kind wasn’t supposed to spend so much time in cities, even not-so-huge towns like Oxford. He was a nature-lover first, and teaching was in the end just a way to give himself a sense of purpose instead of just sitting in his study at home all day long. He needed both, actually. No matter what his colleagues said, this was the lifestyle that suited him, in which he found his balance. He would not change it for the world … or that’s what he used to think. For something was about to happen that would turn his neat and quiet life upside down.

 

It was a sunny Saturday morning, which meant dealing with the joy of mud and rebellious greenery. Kneeling in front of his patch of famous tomatoes with the legs of his trousers rolled up a bit, Bilbo Baggins was battling with the long stems of the plants, trying to wrap them around the props sticking from the ground. The frustrating activity distracted him enough to make him oblivious to his surroundings.

Or maybe he was used to the idea that people rarely came to visit him. His house was at the very end of a narrow and winding road where nobody went, except the occasional cousin. The very idea of someone entering this path and getting all the way up there was ridiculous in Bilbo’s mind. This is probably why he didn’t react to the tall figure leaning over the fence, looking at him with an amused curiosity, and why he nearly had a heart attack when the stranger finally made his presence known.

 

- Practising some outdoor activities, are we ?

 

Bilbo turned to the man like a rabbit caught in the middle of the road would look at the car coming his way. Yavanna, was the man tall. Bilbo wasn’t an overly large man himself, rather short actually, so he was used to people being taller than him, but this man was in the top five of the tallest people he had met. He was also fairly slim, something that his grey old-looking and ill-fitting coat didn’t hide well. But what really impressed Bilbo was the deep but light colour of his eyes, a kind of blue-ish grey, and the mischievous glimmer in them.

 

- Uh ... Good morning, he finally uttered, frowning slightly.

- What do you mean, the reply came, along with a little smirk. Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on ?

 

The Professor froze for a second, trying to decide whether the man was making fun of him or was very serious. In both cases, Bilbo thought, he was probably mad, and it would not have been wise to give him reasons to turn angry. He replied, carefully choosing his words.

 

- All of them at once, I suppose. May I ask what you are doing here ?

 

The smirk hadn’t left his face and Bilbo didn’t know if it was a good thing or not. The man turned a bit to the path behind him, making a wide gesture as if showing the world around them.

 

- Well, nothing extraordinary … enjoying the simple pleasures of the countryside, looking for someone to share in an adventure, the usual.

- An adventure, he let out with a hint of disbelief, ignoring the rest of the sentence. I’m afraid nobody around here is likely to take part in this kind of things.

 

The man stared at him, and it felt as if the blue eyes could see past his skull and read inside his mind. There was something like disappointment in the way his mouth pointed a bit downward, but Bilbo wasn’t entirely sure that he wasn’t imagining it. He often read things in people’s expressions that weren’t there. A habit that had gotten him in trouble with a lot of people through the years. After a while, the man wearing grey broke the silence.

 

- I must admit, Bilbo Baggins, that I did not think I would see the day when Belladonna Took’s son turn me down as if it is an insurance I’m offering.

- P… Pardon me but … do I know you ?

 

The man looked a bit annoyed, and sighed before replying.

 

- My name is Gideon Greyheim. I know you were not very old when I last saw you, but I thought I had made quite an impression. I was obviously mistaken.

- Gideon ? Oh my, yes, I remember now. You used to come to my grandfather’s birthday parties with your fireworks. Beautiful things they were, if not a bit loud.

- I am glad to be remembered for something, although it is just my fireworks.

 

He sounded amused, but not entirely displeased. Bilbo had been a kid after all. Bilbo hadn’t been listening to the last sentence, lost in thought instead. His memories came back to him suddenly now that he managed to put a name on the face, and something bothered him a bit.

 

- You stopped coming after a while. You were friends with my mother, but you were not there at her funeral.

 

He looked up to Greyheim, a confused expression on his face, just in time to see the cold light of regret and shame that flickered in the steel-blue eyes. It was so quick that he wondered if he hadn’t imagined it, too. The man had schooled his features into a calm and open expression, with a sad but friendly smile.

 

- I had many things to do, and little time on my hands. I could not make it in time.

 

Bilbo nodded silently. Greyheim seemed sincere, and he had no reason to doubt him. His forgiving state of mind broke however when the taller man started talking again.

 

- Well, it is settled then ! It will be good for you, and most amusing for me.

- What ? What, no, excuse me. I do not want any adventure ! We don’t do adventure around here, not now, not ever.

 

He had stood up, and performed a great gesture with his arms, his face animated in a succession of expressions ranging from grumpy hedgehog to excited ferret. There was no way this man would force him into any kind of funny business, and he told him exactly that.

 

- Nasty business, adventures. Turns people unrespectable, and I am respectable, thank you very much. Respectable home, respectable job, and respectable acquaintances. I have every intention of staying that way, Gideon, really. Yes, exactly, no adventures. Makes you late for dinner anyway.

 

He concluded his eloquent response by shaking his head, making his chestnut curls fly and glitter in the sunlight, before climbing the few steps leading to the front door of the house. Remembering at last a bit of manner, he turned to Greyheim, intending to say something less harsh to his mother’s old friend. He was at a loss of proper words. The only ones that crossed his mind were those.

 

- Good morning !

 

He casted a last look at the man and entered, shutting the door behind him with more force than his father would have deemed polite. He couldn’t bring himself to care about it, however. That man outside disappeared for years from his mother’s life after claiming he was her friend, without even a letter or two, and now he had the nerve to come here to try and drag him into whatever it was he was planning, like Bilbo would follow an almost stranger into the great unknown. My foot, he thought, irritated. Who did he think he was, exactly, remembering people only when he needed them ? What kind of person does that. Either not real friends, or friends who had something in their conscience, his mind supplied. The light he had seen in the man’s eyes, shame and regret, might have been real. His mother never said why he stopped coming, after all. Maybe the man was a criminal or something, it would explain a long absence. Bilbo shook his head, forbidding his thoughts to go that way. It was none of his business what his man did with his life, just like it was none of the man’s business to appear into his life like this.

He approached the window, slowly, to check if Greyheim had left, which he apparently did. Pity the window didn’t allow him to see the entrance of the little road to his house, because he would have seen the strange man fishing his phone from the pocket of his coat. He would have witnessed the almost twenty minutes long conversation which looked unpleasant and almost angry, Greyheim wearing a deep frown on his face. Even if he had stay by his window all that time instead of going to mind his own business in another part of the house, from where he had been, Bilbo Baggins couldn’t see that, nor the man lightening a cigarette before sliding into his grey land rover.

Chapter Text

The rest of the weekend passed without incident, and Bilbo Baggins had nearly forgotten about the old man. Only nearly, because such an unpleasant encounter can’t just vanish from one’s memory so easily, and it all came back to him the following Monday when he opened his eyes. He kept thinking about it while going through his morning ritual, checking his bag for the week one last time, and all the way to Oxford.

The quiet humming of the car was pleasant, and the radio played some folk songs. He had a soft spot for them, although his students were probably convinced that their respectable professor would have a fierce passion for 17th century baroque or something. Eyes focused on the road, Bilbo couldn’t stop his mind from drifting away to the old man. So many years without a sign, and he suddenly reappeared out of the blue to talk to him about adventures and good mornings. He honestly had no idea what to do with that.

He knew it was probably a bit unhealthy to start worrying about it now, and a bit late too. The man hadn’t come back after all, and he probably wouldn’t. He certainly realized that Bilbo was not suited for any kind of adventure, and went to bother somebody else. But no matter how hard he tried to convince himself that everything was fine, a weird feeling made itself at home in his guts for the rest of the morning. Luckily, his first group had been focused. He didn’t know if he would have been able to handle things otherwise. Or maybe it would have been better if they caused a bit of animation to stir him from his daydreaming state of mind.

 

At some point during the day, though, he managed to shake the feeling away and focus on his work. It took a lot of paperwork and a friendly conversation with his colleagues about the 13th century fashion in Scandinavia during lunch to achieve it. It had pushed the events of Saturday to the back of his mind. Of course it had to be the moment when things went downhill. What an interesting sense of timing life has sometimes.

 

The knocking on his office’s door sounded innocent enough, but had he known what was awaiting behind it, Bilbo would probably not have answered. He would have hidden under his desk, pretending not to be there, instead.

 

- Come in.

 

Greyheim came in, a smile on his face and exactly the same coat he wore on Saturday. Bilbo stared at him in pretty much the same way he had done that day. It was like witnessing a tempest entering the room and just sitting there, wondering which window he had left open. He didn’t know how to react, didn’t think of reacting even, and just looked at his mother’s friend with a blank expression. Gideon was standing in the doorframe, and Bilbo didn’t see the other man at first. But when he stepped aside, oh he did see him.

The man walked in like he owned the place, tall and sturdy, with a little something that made him look like a mighty lord from some old legend. Of course, Bilbo’s brain supplied him with images of knights in shinning armour and wandering heroes, he was a damn medieval history professor in Oxford, for Eru’s sake. He fought the sudden urge to bang his head on his desk. The man had a stern expression on his face when he took a look around the room, obviously not liking what he saw. Well, nobody let the professors make decisions for the furniture, they were just allowed to bring their books and papers, sometimes small decorative objects, so it wasn’t like Bilbo was responsible for this. But, wait. Why did he feel the need to justify himself ? Probably because there was something in the man’s demeanour which demanded respect and, more than that, untainted loyalty.

 

Blue eyes settled on him, cold and sharp, but somehow lively like a dancing fire. His lips quirked upward slightly, but not in a nice or polite way.

 

- You said you found the perfect man for this mission, Gideon, but he looks more like a scholar than a burglar to me.

 

The voice was as deep as the darkest mine, as rich as a million jewels put together in one crown, and … alright, Bilbo needed to stop with metaphors.

 

- Burglar ?

 

The man turned to Greyheim slowly.

 

- You didn’t tell him ?

- Ah, well, he didn’t exactly give me the opportunity. I thought we would have time to sort this out later.

 

The glare Bilbo sent his way didn’t seem to disturb him, as he smiled politely at the professor.

 

- Dear Bilbo, please allow me to introduce Thomas Durin.

 

He was almost tempted to answer “and what if I don’t allow it”, but his manners overcame his annoyance and he answered as pleasantly as possible.

 

- Charmed, I’m sure.

 

Thomas Durin didn’t answer, but studied him instead. What was Gideon thinking, exactly ? The man was wearing a waistcoat and a pocket handkerchief. What kind of person wears these things nowadays ? And even if the outfit was hiding some fierce personality, which he seriously doubted, Thomas was absolutely positive that nobody with feet that large could make an appropriate spy or burglar. He could see them pointing from under the desk. He would probably trip over them first thing and their plan would be discovered.

Anyway, Baggins didn’t seem really appealed by what was happening, so it probably meant that no burglar was to be found in this room. He didn’t feel relieved by the fact, since it meant more hours spent looking for the right person. He had felt so close. He remembered smiling to Baldwyn this very morning, telling his old friend that they would finally be able to start their mission. Maybe not, after all. He turned to Gideon, waiting for some sort of explanation. Bilbo had pulled a face before doing the same. The man in grey looked at them both, sighed, and sat in the nearest chair available, across from Bilbo.

 

- Well, let’s start from the beginning, shall we ?

- A good idea, indeed, the professor replied from the other side of the desk.

 

And so, Greyheim started his explanation. He spoke of an industrial company called Erebor inc based in Yorkshire, of its acquisition by some Russian oligarch through more than questionable ways. He said all of this with simple enough words so that even a simpleton in trade like Bilbo could understand. He even tried to force some heavy file into Bilbo’s hand, but the professor refused to open it. Meanwhile, Thomas Durin had made his way to the large window, arms joined behind his back and looking at the little paved yard bustling with students. Greyheim finished his speech, and Bilbo should have seen it coming, by stressing how it was a matter of honour and justice to give it back to its original owner. At this point, Gideon lifted his gaze to look at Durin, and it took the professor a moment to connect the dots between the story and the man standing in his office. The sharp blue eyes that landed on him helped him realize that, of course, it had to be about him, right ? That man, with his larger-than-life look, couldn’t be just an extra in this brilliant quest for the graal. Maybe the knight metaphor wasn’t too inappropriate after all.

 

- Ah, yes. I see.

 

To be honest, he didn’t see much. He had listened carefully to what Greyheim had to say, although he had pretty much wanted to throw him out of the window since he had walked in. He had understood the words, and the story they were telling, as well as the importance it probably had for Durin. What he had trouble seeing, however, was … well … What the actual hell were they doing in his office, telling him this story ? Mr. Dark and Rude had mentioned a burglar, but Bilbo was having a hard time figuring out what he was implying, and how it concerned him in any way.

 

- Look, Gideon, I understand the … hm … legitimacy of all of this, really, I do.

 

He looked up to Thomas Durin, but the intensity of his stare forced him to look down again.

 

- But what do you need me for ? This is what I fail to see.

 

He tried to ignore the snort coming from the taller man, focusing on Gideon instead. The man seemed to contemplate something in his mind.

 

- Well, Bilbo, we need you to infiltrate Erebor inc of course.

 

Weren’t people, upon learning some shocking information, supposed to start chocking on air, or something ? Because Bilbo had often thought it was the case, but he was just staring at Greyheim with a blank face, no sound coming through his lips. So, that was it ? Infiltrate the company ? Robbing from a rich oligarch … only to give all of it to another rich industrial, his mind supplied. He let out a little groan, not incredibly loud, just enough, and the man in grey looked a bit concerned.

 

- What ? Why me, Gideon ?

- I’d like to know why, too, Thomas added.

 

If the circumstances had been different, Bilbo would have probably laughed at Greyheim’s “done with your bullshit” expression. But there were no other circumstances, and he didn’t feel like laughing. Arms folded on his chest, he just looked at the man without a word.

 

- I remember a young boy excited for adventures and seeing the world. What happened to him ?

- I grew up, Gandalf.

- Your mother was a grown up when she became a war reporter, Bilbo.

 

The professor stood up so suddenly that Gideon made a strangled noise and Durin unconsciously took a step back. Bilbo looked angry, and pointed a finger at the man in grey.

 

- You … Don’t you dare bringing my mother into this. She is dead, Gideon, dead, and you didn’t even come. You have no right to use her memory to drag me into your nonsense. No offense, he said turning to the other man, but this is not my business.

He turned to Greyheim again, is voice cracking just a bit.

- Seriously, Gideon, can’t you just let her rest in peace ?

 

Silence fell over the room, none of them daring to utter a world. Thomas looked at the short man, chewing on his lower lip pensively. The outburst made him a bit uncomfortable, true, but it told him something new about the professor. Maybe Gideon wasn’t completely bonkers. Not completely. Baggins was still too policed and unwilling. He watched as the professor sat back in his chair, hands flat on his desk, and a tired look on his face. Way too policed. His anger hadn’t even last more than two minutes. It would require more of it for what they had planned, and he didn’t seem to have it in him.

 

- I … I am sorry. I don’t know what possessed me.

- No, my boy, I’m the one who should be sorry.

 

Thomas arched an eyebrow. You should … but are you, old man, he wondered.

 

- I should know better than poking at people’s pasts, by now.

 

It took Durin a great deal of willpower not to laugh out loud at the irony of it and school his face back into silent disapprobation. The same thought apparently went through Baggins’ mind, because he glared at Gideon for a moment before sighing.

 

- Well, it doesn’t change the fact that I’m not the right man for this, does it.

 

He had a point, Thomas thought. Obviously he wasn’t fit for this kind of excitement. He turned to the window again, wishing that Gideon would rush the end of the meeting so they could get out of there. He needed to think about what to do next. They had been so close. They often had been those past years. Sometimes finding this or that legal information that finally wasn’t really useful, counting on friends who never answered. Today was just the last thing to add to a long list.

Luck had failed him once again. He had been so caught up in this thought that he barely reacted when Gideon stood up and said his goodbye. He just followed the man out of the room without a glance back.

 

Bilbo Baggins was left alone in the room. The silence was defeating after all those words exchanged and the sound of footsteps on the soft carpet. It felt like reaching solid ground again after a trip on a big rollercoaster, when your legs are wobbly and you fight the urge to throw up your breakfast.

What was all of this about ? Yes, Gideon had explained to him at length, had told him what they needed him for, but he still couldn’t believe that the old man came twice, certain that Bilbo would give up everything and just follow. Was he so sure of his persuasion skills ? Or did he bring Durin with him for this purpose ? The man was damn frightening in a way, commending, dark, solemn … and the way he loomed over like some grumpy raven. Maybe Gideon wasn’t so sure of his success if he had felt the need to bring Sir Gloomy for the encounter.

And bringing his mother’s memory back, really. Did he seriously imagine for one second that Bilbo would buy that ? She would have been pleased by his little outburst, for sure, while his father would have face-palmed with a groan. He had almost heard his voice in his head. Did I raise you in a barn, son ? No, so you probably know how to react like a proper young man, hm ? Good, so now apologize to Mister Greyheim. Maybe the old man had been overjoyed to see him showing a bit of temper. Maybe he had been convinced for a moment that the temper would last and that Bilbo would stand, gather a few things, and follow them into the great unknown, the fire of anger and passion fuelling him. He must have been really disappointed. Not that Bilbo gave a damn, mind you, but he still regretted such a display of unbound emotions. Benjamin Baggins did teach him better than that, after all.

 

Anyway, the man had left, and for good this time, he hoped. Bilbo was free to return to his own activities and forget about the mad man with a mad plan. He leaned back in his chair, trying to turn his mind to other matters … his students’ assignments for example. Yes, that would do nicely. Nothing better than the beauty of the early gothic architecture to help forgetting unpleasant discussions. He reached out for the folder on his desk, only to find something entirely different. He almost threw the thing across the room, fuming … for Gideon Greyheim had left the file he had tried to coerce Bilbo into reading on the desk, and the professor was a hundred percent sure he had done it on purpose. He was so going to kill the man if he was to meet him again.

 

He didn’t toss the file in the end. Instead, he looked at it intently like he could burn holes in it with the force of his glare. That didn’t happen neither. It would have saved him a lot of trouble and confusion. Curiosity crept inside his mind, or was it doubt ? A quick look inside couldn’t kill, a voice in his head said … sounding suspiciously like Greyheim. Gideon and that Durin man had left, not to ever come back, so it didn’t matter anymore if he read it. He could just burn it in the ridiculously large fireplace of the boarding house where he rented a room. Just one quick look, come on Baggins.

He gave in. Of course he did. And what he saw in the file was different from what he had thought it would be. He had believed that there would be reports about legal procedures, pictures of violent death. Some kind of police file, in a way. There was none of it. He found papers and pictures, yes, but they were more like the kind of information a family would keep. Bits of newspapers, holiday photographs, birth certificates even. They felt misplaced, in that plain brown file, to be honest. They didn’t even have a real timeline or sense of wholeness. They did tell a story, but only part of it, in Bilbo’s opinion. As if someone had managed to gather a few items along the way and just stuffed them in there. Why did Gideon insist on showing it to him and, the question seemed to be repeating itself, what was he supposed to do with it ?

 

Bilbo recognized Thomas Durin in one of the pictures. He was obviously younger, certainly in his early twenties. The other person in the picture, however, looked like a teenager. His hair was a lot lighter, but they shared some features. A cousin maybe, or brother. Bilbo scratched his head, looking at the back of it. A neat but angular handwriting read “Thomas and Frederick”. The professor looked at the two men again. Thomas Durin looked a lot happier, different from the grumpy judgmental man who stood by the window not so long ago. It was like looking at a different person. Bilbo wondered what had happened to him. Was Erebor lost after it or before ? Or maybe it was more than that. It takes a lot to turn an obviously joyous and friendly young man into such a haughty statue of a man.

He tried to think about it while he proceeded through the rest of the papers. What turns people into a different person than the one they used to be ? What twists their path so much that they become a paler copy or a negative of their old selves ? What made enthusiastic and happy young people turn into boring and sad adults ? His jaw dropped suddenly, and he raised his head slowly, gazing silently at the wall. This is exactly why Gideon wanted him to read the file, right ? It wasn’t exactly about Thomas Durin and his life, to make him feel sympathy toward the man. The papers and pictures, they were meant to show that Durin and him shared something. Both of them could have turned differently. And both of them had let life turn them into bitter or average men. Damn, he didn’t plan on being on the receiving hand of some life lesson from an old manipulative man in ill fitting grey clothes. But, somehow, it made sense. He looked at the framed picture in his own desk where his mother was smiling at him warmly, and then toward the window and the deep blue sky.

 

Oh, crumpets. He was in big trouble.

Chapter Text

- It looks like fate is constantly mocking us.

 

Baldwyn flashed a sympathetic smile at him, a sad light in the depth of his eyes. When he had opened the door earlier, and met Thomas’ eyes, he knew that things didn’t go as planned with their burglar. Not that it had surprised him, but the resigned look on the man’s face as he told him about the encounter had saddened the older man.

 

- Aye, laddie. The odds were against us from the beginning, I’m afraid.

 

He had known the Durin family for a really long time, especially Thomas who was also his brother’s childhood friend. He had worked for his father. He had started working for the grandfather, actually, but he had been but a young lawyer, and his relationship with Trevor Durin had not been really close. The man was already old, and a kind of madness had crept into his mind during his last years. So Baldwyn couldn’t say that he remembered the man with the same friendship he had for his son, Tristan. Right after Erebor inc was lost, Tristan had invested himself more in their activities, leaving the leadership to his old father only in name. Trevor still had his say, though, and his words were received like gospel even when he was obviously wrong. They couldn’t exactly do differently.

But, of course, it was a long time ago. They were both gone now. They had been for a long time. Baldwyn tried not to dwell too much on memories. It wouldn’t help them much, and Thomas was their leader now. He had to follow the man and offer him his advice and friendship the same way he had done for his father. There weren’t a lot of them left, and they had to stick together not to fall back into the dark and painful days they had been through.

 

He looked up at the man pacing through the room. He always did that when things went badly and he was searching for a way to fix them. Baldwyn preferred that. He had seen him twice speechless and apathetic, and it had been scary to witness. If even Thomas didn’t find it in himself to stand and move on, it meant that things were beyond desperation.

 

- Why, Baldwyn ? There has to be a way, but every time we are close to a solution, it fails.

 

The old man didn’t know how to answer, nor if there was an answer at all. He just looked at Thomas with a concerned expression. Constant disappointment was hard to brush off, especially for someone like Thomas Durin who looked like he always felt the need to take the weight of the world on his shoulders.

If you asked Baldwyn, he would tell you that Thomas Durin was the bravest man he had ever met. The respect he had for Tristan, although tainted with grief, didn’t change that opinion. Even in the darkest hours, when all hope had seemed to vanish, he had stood up to lead them. After everything they went through, they had built a once again thriving firm called Ered Luin. That never chased the sorrow, nor the longing for their lost Erebor, mainly because it had been more than the company itself. They used to live in the town where the factories were located. It had been a little town without much to do, no jobs nor activities, before Trevor Durin had come and built the company. It quickly became a flourishing empire, dragging the town up with them.

 

If he closed his eyes, Baldwyn could almost breathe the smell of it. The light smoke carried by the southern wind, the damp freshly cut grass in spring, the market place and its rich goods. Dale had been a wonderful town to live in. Now, the taste of its memory was bittersweet. It was all ruins and poverty. A single man had been enough to make all of it crumble. Truth be told, Trevor had been fool enough to provoke things with risky investments and bad decisions, but they could have saved it if not for the living disaster who fell on them like the plague on peasants. A single man is all it takes.

Drogomir Smaug. Just the name was scary. In a matter of months, the Russian oligarch had bought their suppliers, investors … hell, he even corrupted some of their employees. All of this was done very carefully, leaving no legal evidence of his actions. The man was brilliant, Baldwyn gave him that. Smaug had sat in Trevor’s office, firing people and leading the once prosperous town to decline. They had nothing left of Erebor, and their hope to reclaim it had slowly died with each year passing.

 

They had hope again when Greyheim appeared with a plan last month. The man had often helped them in the past, so they had listened carefully. Baldwyn had to admit that he didn’t like that idea. Infiltrating Erebor inc to open a breech in its security and thus leading the way in. He was a lawyer, he didn’t like walking illegal paths and, obviously, this was far from legal, nor safe, not even healthy. But they didn’t have many options left, and some of them had started suggesting things like this before Greyheim came with his plan. At least this made much more sense than attacking the oligarch with a hockey stick, which had been one of the not-so-brilliant ideas evoked. Yes, they had some genius in this team. All of them meant well, but it wasn’t everything.

To be honest, he didn’t know exactly what it was that Greyheim was doing. With this plan in particular, but also in life in general. The man was a mystery and, if it hadn’t been for some old partnership, or at least that’s how he’d call it, between him and Thomas’ grandfather, he would have refuse to listen to him altogether. But he had to at least acknowledge the man and listen to him. Anyway, it wasn’t up to him to decide. He was just around to give advice. Thomas was old enough to make decisions. Stubborn enough too, to tell the truth.

Baldwyn wasn’t sure if Thomas was very fond of the plan, but he chose to trust the man on this, so they didn’t have a choice now.

 

Except that finding the right man for the job was tricky. They had their own personal thug on the team, although he would never admit that in front of Dorian, because the man had a really mean left hook and didn’t take kindly to people commenting on his brother’s lifestyle. But the thing with Norman Rydder was that Smaug probably had him on his records. He probably had all of them somehow. Therefore, sending Norman had been out of the question, as well as all the other persons they knew that would fit the criteria.

Greyheim had a solution to this problem, though. He seemed to have solutions for a lot of things these days. A man going by the name of Baggins, who Greyheim was certain would be perfect for the task. Baldwyn wasn’t too excited by the prospect, and apparently neither was Thomas. He didn’t like strangers poking at their business, and the lawyer couldn’t really blame him for having trust issues considering their past.

Was it really bad that Baldwyn had wished for Baggins to decline the offer ? Probably, yes, but he didn’t feel ashamed of himself. They had built a new firm from nothing, with work for everybody, and houses, and families. They had a good life. Maybe it was time to move on and accept the possibility that what was lost is sometimes better left in peace. Memories and places of old. Long lost relatives and past feuds. All shall fade.

 

The knock on the door was unexpected and startled both men. Their heads turned to the door, but neither of them moved.

 

- That’d be the door.

 

The grumpy voice of Baldwyn’s brother came from the kitchen. The lawyer blinked slowly, trying to figure out who would come at such an odd hour. The knocking came back, louder this time.

 

- Ain’t nobody gonna ‘nswer the door ?

 

Baldwyn almost stood up, but his brother’s stomp in the hallway made him sat back. He could hear the voices coming from the front door, though.

 

- Yes, what ?

- Uh, hm, good evening. Er … I’m sorry, I was looking for … but I must have gotten the wrong address.

 

Baldwyn didn’t recognize the voice. It was a man, quiet and polite as a mouse. He turned to Thomas to ask him if he knew who this was, but the words died in his throat. The tall man looked petrified. He just whispered a word before storming out of the room, leaving Baldwyn to sigh before standing to follow him.

 

- Baggins.

 

He was met with the sight of a short man, dressed elegantly, hair neat and glasses, looking up with a sort of mute terror at his brother. Baldwyn had always been told that his brother looked menacing. Well, he was tall and broad after all, with a constant scowl on the face. People were also impressed by the tattoos on his muscular arms and bald skull. Baldwyn was used to it, and knew that his brother’s huge figure hid a more complex personality than scary looks. He understood why people who met him for the time could feel overwhelmed, though.

 

- Dwain, I think you should give the man some space.

 

After a glance at his older brother, Dwain took a couple of steps back, arms crossed on his chest, but still looking at the short man. Sighing, Baldwyn then turned to Thomas, who had been looking at Baggins the whole time like an eagle watching a field mouse. Right, apparently he didn’t magically grow social skills to deal with people. Perfect. Between his leader and his brother, it was once again up to him to make civilised conversation. Fixing a smile on his face, he walked to the short man, extending a hand.

 

- Mister Baggins ? What a surprise. I mean …

 

He glanced back at Thomas while Baggins automatically shook his hand, visibly relieved to see someone polite.

 

- I was told that you wouldn’t join us, but maybe I misunderstood ?

- Ah hem, no, you understood well. I didn’t intend to come at first. I just … changed my mind, I guess.

 

Baldwyn looked at him for a moment, wondering what it was that Greyheim had seen in the man. He didn’t look like a burglar or spy … not that Baldwyn was sure of what those were supposed to look like, but he was fairly certain that Baggins wasn’t it. But if Gideon said so, better give it a try. Maybe the man in grey knew something they didn’t. Baldwyn wasn’t the kind of person to refuse help when it came knocking at the door, anyway, good plan or not. He was just glad that something went well, although he was curious to know what made the man join them in the end.

 

- Why did you change your mind ?

 

Baggins glanced at Thomas, then Dwain, and back to Baldwyn, scratching his chin thoughtfully.

 

- I’ve been sitting on my office for a long time and I … well, I thought it was time for a little change.

 

He smiled at the lawyer, obviously trying to look more confident than how he really felt. Baldwyn replied to the smile with one of his own. He couldn’t blame the man for being nervous. He was obviously not the adventurer type, so it probably was new and frightening for him. The lawyer pointed out the living room Thomas and him had been a few minutes ago.

 

- Shall we sit down ? We’d be more comfortable.

 

They sat in armchairs and uncomfortable silence. None of them really wanted to start a conversation, Baggins being too nervous, Thomas not liking small talks, and Baldwyn because he thought he had already made too much effort. Dwain actually left the room almost as soon as he entered, and Baldwyn could have sworn that he saw him fishing his phone from his pocket. He had a vague idea of who his brother would call, but he didn’t comment nor did he ask directly. Dwain was old enough to know what hell he was about to unleash. He went back to contemplating silence and glancing from time to time between the two other men. If they weren’t able to make the minimum conversation, Baldwin had no idea how they were supposed to work together on what promised to be the most risky and dangerous thing all of them had ever done in their lives. T

hey were just sitting without a word, and it could have lasted for hours if it wasn’t for other unexpected visitors knocking at the door.

Chapter Text

It turned out that Dwain had indeed made a phone call, and soon enough, the entrance, the kitchen, and even the staircases of Baldwyn’s house were filled with people talking, laughing, and failing miserably at not peering at the history Professor like an animal in a zoo. Bilbo acted like he didn’t mind, but really, he was incredibly nervous. Since the few words the man with white hair and him had exchanged earlier, nobody had truly spoken a word to him. As a matter of fact, the only person whose name he knew was Thomas Durin. He hadn’t even been told the names of the two other men who had originally been in the house, and nobody in the boisterous group that arrived after had introduced themselves. He had been left in the same armchair in the same living room without as much as a good evening.

Actually, if all of them had just acted like he wasn’t here, it would have been better, probably. They obviously knew each other, and he was a short and quiet man, easy to overlook. But all of them had looked at him with various level of curiosity and confusion, and it was awful. It felt like Bilbo had the plague and they were all too afraid to approach. Or maybe they weren’t afraid of him, but of Lord Broody who hadn’t left his armchair either and was looking intently at him as if trying to figure out a puzzle. Truth be told, it was frightening.

Relief came in the form of Gideon Greyheim who appeared in the room, looking far too pleased with himself for Bilbo’s taste.

 

- Bilbo Baggins. You decided to join us, after all ?

 

Good evening, captain obvious. Bilbo didn’t gratify the rhetorical question with an answer. Instead, he asked one of his own.

 

- So, now that you’re here, maybe someone is going to tell me what is going on, exactly.

- What is going on ?

 

The man obviously knew what he meant, but seemed for some obscure reason to play dumb. Bilbo huffed and made a wide gesture toward the rest of the house.

 

- Well, for example, who are those people, and what am I supposed to do exactly, now that I’m here ?

 

Gideon turned to Thomas Durin, who had stood up since the last time Bilbo had looked at him.

 

- I see that nobody introduced mister Baggins to the rest of the company.

- We were waiting for you before beginning, came the gruff reply.

 

Gideon nodded and, putting a hand on Bilbo’s shoulder, directed him towards the entrance where most of the men were gathered.

 

- Well, then, let’s get started.

 

All of them sat in the kitchen in a matter of seconds, following the bald man’s lead. The professor counted fifteen men, including Greyheim and himself. Most of them sat around the large wooden table, except three young men, almost teenagers, who took over the high stools around the counter. This was followed by a painful minute of people almost shouting their names at Bilbo who tried desperately to imprint all of them somewhere in his memory only to realize the second after that he couldn’t remember a single one. It was going to be a long evening, followed by a long headache he was sure would last for three days. What possessed him to come ? He lifted his head, meeting Thomas Durin’s stare. Ah, not letting life turn you into a grumpy bored old man, right. Not that Durin was very old. They probably shared the same amount of springs on this Earth, more or less. He looked at them, then at Greyheim.

 

- So, how exactly am I expected to break into this Erebor ?

 

They all began to mutter, looking at each others with dark expressions. The man who had talked to him in the entrance, Baldwyn his mind supplied, cleared his throat and clarified.

 

- To be honest, mister Baggins, we do not know. Mister Greyheim didn’t tell us this part of his plan. Well, you see, we thought that as a burglar, you would figure this out by yourself, so we didn’t ask.

 

He smiled politely, but gave a pointed look at Gideon, who seemed oblivious to the implied reproach directed at him. Bilbo began to understand at this point that most of the little company gathered in the kitchen actually knew as few information as him. Only Thomas, and probably Baldwyn, had a fairly good idea of what was going on. It wasn’t really comforting. One of the men, a sturdy ginger with a deep voice and a strong accent, turned to Baldwyn suddenly.

 

- The man’s got a point, though. How is he to enter the company ? It’s not like he can walk through the front door and sit at any desk.

- Actually …

 

Gideon stopped in his sentence when everybody turned to him, and hid a little smirk by scratching his bearded chin.

 

- Actually, mister Baggins could do just that.

- Oh, the professor squealed, can I ?

- Why, of course Bilbo.

 

He smiled, leaning back, while everyone in the room was looking at him with wide owl-like eyes. Baldwyn tapped his foot lightly under the table.

 

- Well, Mister Greyheim, if you could develop and tell us how Mister Baggins can walk through the door and be accepted into Erebor ?

 

The man took a few more seconds looking for something in the inner pocket of his coat. It was a plastic rectangle, the size of a credit card and exactly as flat as one. Bilbo doubted that it had anything to do with a bank account, though. Gideon held it between his thumb and index so that everybody in the room could see it. The professor tilted his head to read the words written in a greenish calligraphy on it.

 

- Minas Ithil ? What is it ?

- A town, Gideon replied, and also the company based there. Specialized in security and, hm, less legal business sometimes, depending on what their client wants.

 

Thomas Durin, who had remained silent and distant, at the other hand of the table, interrupted their discussion, looking at Greyheim with sharp blue eyes.

 

- I thought it had been deserted ?

- Oh, they had some issues with the police, but apparently they are back in business, which is a good thing for us.

 

Durin looked pensive, still frowning slightly at the man in grey, but said nothing else. The same ginger man as before stepped in again.

 

- And how is it good for us, Gideon ?

- Well, my dear Glenn, as I said, Minas Ithil is specialized in security, and Smaug called them about two weeks ago to ask them to find a trustworthy secretary.

 

A collective “oh” was released by the other fourteen men who understood suddenly what Gideon was implying. The man smiled at them.

 

- It happens that I managed to talk with the man they picked for the job. He didn’t seem very keen to take the job after that.

 

Bilbo looked at him with suspicious eyes, not entirely sure if Gideon was implying what he thought he was saying. He chose to not dwell on this. He didn’t know what Gideon was exactly, but if his friendship with his mother was any indication, he trusted that it was a tad dangerous. As Gideon had mentioned in his office, she had been a war reporter after all. Bilbo suspected that whatever Gideon was doing with his life, it wasn’t cute and peaceful, cocky smiles and grandpa looks be damned. Greyheim didn’t seem to mind his stare as he focused on his explanation.

 

- Anyway, here is the electronic card Minas Ithil gave him. It contains his identification that allows him to enter Erebor Inc.

- But, argued the man called Glenn, aren’t they going to wonder why mister Baggins doesn’t look like the man they were supposed to hire ?

- They never met him. Only Minas Ithil knows what the man looks like.

 

Glenn seemed satisfied with the answer, Baldwyn on the other hand wasn’t.

 

- It’s risky. What if Smaug realises, or if Minas Ithil comes checking ?

 

Gideon answered with a confident smile.

 

- Oh, I’m sure that Bilbo would find a way to sort it out if it happened. But there is no reason for Smaug to doubt that the man appearing with the right ID is the man Minas Ithil sent.

 

Bilbo would have liked to be as confident in his own spy abilities as Gideon was. Unfortunately, he knew his own limits and how was a Professor of Oxford supposed to lie and cheat at the face of a potentially violent criminal ? This was not going to end well, obviously. Then, why did Bilbo feel a hot wave of anticipation fill his body while his mind was whispering things like “ready for an adventure” and “allons-y” ? This didn’t make sense. He only half listened to the others speaking around the table, arguing over things with Gideon. He was too busy trying to figure out if he really wanted to launch himself into this madness. It wasn’t too late to turn back to old manuscripts and plants, right ?

He looked at the men around him. They all had a glow lighting their faces. Hope, Bilbo realized. After so long with only a few failed opportunities, they finally were given a real chance. No, it was too late to turn around and leave them like this. He lifted his gaze to one of the young men perched on the stools, a blonde with a juvenile excitement he was trying to conceal under a calm face. But his attempted poker-face still needed improvement. He was also desperately trying not too look at Thomas’ stern figure as he spoke, but kept glancing briefly at him with a mix of nervousness and hope.

 

- Well, if we have a key, it would be a shame not to use it. We may never have another opportunity to open the doors to Erebor.

 

Nice way to say it. The Professor in Bilbo appreciated the wording. The blonde gave a last look to Thomas, obviously in search of some sort of approval. It would have been cruel to smile at this, condescending too, so Bilbo tried not to let his face betray the fond feeling that it awoke in himself. It reminded him of his little cousins, Merton and Philip, and the way they used to glance at his mother’s father, their great grandfather, every time they told a joke or sang a merry tune at family gatherings to check if the old man was amused. Bilbo turned to Thomas, just in time to see the man nod calmly before clearing his throat.

 

- Fili is right, it is probably our only opportunity to have access to Erebor. We should not let it slip from us. But this discussion is unnecessary. It is not our choice to make.

 

He turned to Bilbo then, looking at him with the same intensity as some minutes ago in the living room, probably trying to gauge his ability to do the job correctly. The professor felt the sudden urge to turn into a mouse and disappear into a hole in the wall.

 

- Mister Baggins is the one that will have to face danger, after all.

 

The words in themselves were polite and wise, Bilbo guessed. Being given the choice to agree or not to being dragged into a mess is always good. But, somehow, it didn’t sound as kind an offer as it should have been. The last sentence had been delivered with the same slightly arrogant tone and a sort of implied threat but maybe it was just Bilbo’s mind tricking him. Did Bilbo step into a Mafia movie without realising ? Were they going to drown him in concrete if he refused, to make sure he wouldn’t talk ? He tried to calm his wandering thoughts. It really wasn’t the ideal moment to start daydreaming some improbable scenario.

 

- Oh, about this !

 

Bilbo turned his head to Baldwyn who was extracting papers from a folder before pushing them towards him.

 

- I took the liberty to compose some … hm … contract. Nothing complicated, just basic arrangements.

- Ah, right.

 

Bilbo took the papers with surprisingly steady hands but an anxious lump in his throat. He read through it, silently at first, and after a while, forgetting they were actually people around, commenting out loud every now and then.

 

- Uh … incineration ? What does that mean ?

- You never know, a man with a ridiculous trapper hat and strong Irish accent answered, if Smaug discovers you and decide to get rid of your body ? Much less trouble … using fire.

 

Bilbo looked at him dead in the eye without blinking for what felt like an eternity. The man shrugged before looking at the table. Gideon was obviously trying not to roll his eyes when he commented.

 

- Really helpful, Boyd.

 

Apparently, Gideon decided after this interruption to make all men but Bilbo exit the room. Apparently, because Bilbo was too buried in his own thoughts to notice them standing and leaving. He only realized this when he emerged from his silent meditation to the sound of Gideon putting a cup of tea in front of him.

 

- Thank you, he whispered.

- Penny for your thoughts, came the reply.

 

He looked at the man sitting next to him.

 

- I honestly don’t know what to think, Gideon.

 

The tea tasted a bit too strong and bitter for his taste, but it was probably for the best. Something sweeter, floral, would have felt out of place. At least, it suited the mood.

 

- Are you sure that I’m the right person for this ?

 

Greyheim sighed, his metallic grey eyes staring into the professor’s.

 

- Bilbo, I know what you can do. You may not see it yourself, but trust me on this.

- Right. But I have things to do, a job, a life, what about that ?

- Everything will be taken care of.

 

Bilbo stared at him intently.

 

- I guess you have people to deal with things. Like with the guy I’ll pretend to be ?

 

The man didn’t answer, but his heavy silence was enough. The professor preferred not to inquire further. The less he knew, the better. Probably.

 

- Is it truly risky, Gideon ? Or is all this drama just an exaggeration ?

 

Once again, no reply came, but now, Greyheim appeared to be uncomfortable in his chair. Bilbo didn’t want to let him escape on this one, and didn’t avert his gaze or change the topic. When Gideon finally answered, his voice was less confident.

 

- It may be.

- Gideon …

 

He knew that the threatening tone was probably not intimidating for the old man, but he needed him to be honest on this. He needed Gideon to verbally acknowledge the true gravity of the situation he was putting Bilbo in. If he valued Belladona’s friendship as he was claiming, he had to.

 

- Drogomir Smaug is a dangerous man. This is no unnecessary drama. He did awful things, Bilbo, much worse than stealing a business firm.

 

He stopped there and Bilbo didn’t ask for more precision. The haunted look on Greyheim’s face told him that he really didn’t want to know the full story, not now and not like this. He had his answer anyway. It was exactly all he needed to know.

 

- I see.

 

He probably sounded as bitter as the tea, but at this exact moment, he also felt as strong. Some form of trepidation and will to do the right thing. The same voice in his head as before was almost singing in his ears, like war drums and trumpets. Gideon was looking at him with a serious look on his face, conscious that something was happening in the professor’s mind and that he needed to be careful not to shatter it before it would settle fully.

 

- I’ll make sure my things are taken care of, and make a few calls. Write notes and letters too, perhaps. If you can assure me that it will be done correctly afterwards, then I’m on this.

 

Gideon nodded quietly before standing and joining the others outside the room, their voices carrying for a second when the door opened, only to be shut down again with it. Just as earlier that day, Bilbo was left with silence and raging thoughts, the one surfacing in the mess of ideas and emotions being quite simple and normal, yet impossible to solve.

Am I doing the right thing ?

Chapter Text

Later, Bilbo would describe the whole week as “surreal”. Starting from the Saturday when Gideon appeared out of nowhere like a malicious grey fairy, until the following Sunday when he suddenly felt like he was receiving a great push from behind before a fall. Thinking about it again, he would feel a deep sensation of vertigo while recalling how he decided to sign for all this madness in just one afternoon. But the following days seemed, actually, even weirder, if that was possible. It was cop-movie like, or perhaps a mix of secret agent books and choral comedy shows.

However, he would also remember with fondness the other men as he slowly got to know them better, the antics of the younger ones and the infinite patience of the elders. And, even if it took him time to admit it, this week had been the first time in about twenty years when he was actually excited about something new and had a real sense of purpose.

 

Gideon had nearly drowned him in information. All sorts of information. About the person he would pretend to be, about the kind of job he would be expected to do, about the industry he would join. Bilbo was absolutely certain that he was to become an expert on those topics. The only kind of information he found lacking was anything concerning his soon-to-be boss. He felt unprepared to meet the oligarch, and Gideon was avoiding discussions about him after the enigmatic warning he gave him the previous Monday night. Bilbo wasn’t sure if asking any of the other men was a good idea. He didn’t want to bother them or stir up sore memories. He was left with the only option available, which was looking on the internet, but even this didn’t give him more details about the man.

Smaug was a complete mystery. A few lines of biography telling that he brilliantly graduated from some apparently good business school in Russia that Bilbo had never head of. He didn’t even know how to pronounce the name. He also managed to find a list of his business activities, mainly acquired companies and firms across Europe, which Bilbo was certain he bought in the same unsavoury circumstances as Erebor Inc. But nothing about who he really was, where he was from exactly, was to be found. It looked like the man had appeared one morning out of a thick cloud of smoke and snow, and then crept his way through Capitalism.

It frightened Bilbo that so few information existed on him. It felt like chasing a dream, a chimera or another old folk’s tale about mythical creatures. Drogomir Smaug was nothing but a cold eastern wind which destroyed every thing and every life in its wake.

 

Leaning on the handrail of Baldwyn’s terrace, looking at the quiet nature awaking in front of him in the garden, Bilbo was reflecting on how he would be currently taking his breakfast in his own house before gathering his tools for his gardening session. It was just a week ago since Gideon had appeared in his ordered life but it already felt like ages. He sighed, rubbing his arms. It was still cold, even for the season. He should have put on a jumper before coming down, but he had other things in mind.

For example, worrying for his house and his job. It wasn’t much, perhaps, at least compared to Gideon’s great schemes, but it was his life. He agreed to put it to the side for a while, in order to help those men and have his share of adventure, but it didn’t mean he was fully at peace with the idea of leaving his stuff unattended. Hopefully Greyheim, or whoever was doing the job for him, would do things correctly and according to his plan. Because, yes, he was a bit afraid of what the man would decide to do once Bilbo was too busy to check up.

 

He turned around to the sound of footsteps behind him. Thomas Durin was padding barefoot through the kitchen, dressed in dark trousers and navy blue shirt. They hadn’t talk much during the past few days. Actually, it would be closer to the truth to say that they hadn’t talk at all. Bilbo had tried to say a few words to him twice, which gave no other result than the intense stare of doom he had been subjected on Monday. The only true exchange had been the “good afternoon” they had said to each other on Tuesday and, really, it shouldn’t have felt like a huge achievement for Bilbo, but it did. The professor cleared his throat, coming back inside the room.

 

- Hum, good morning.

 

The taller man turned to him with a scowl on his face. It seemed to be his default expression, so Bilbo didn’t see it as a bad omen, although he wouldn’t have been opposed to a smile every once in a while.

 

- Good morning.

 

He replied gruffly before turning back to his coffee preparation. Well, it was better than nothing. Better than what he had expected, too. Bilbo tried hard not to sigh as he sat down at the table and reached for the tea pot simmering on it. He failed. Not at reaching the tea pot, mind you. He failed at not sighing, which earned him a curious look from Durin. Oh, what now ? Why was he looking at him that way all the time ? Bilbo preferred staring into his cup before the urge to make some witty comment became too strong. It wasn’t a polite thing to do, and maybe the man didn’t mean any harm by his look. It wouldn’t be nice to sass him for no reason, although Bilbo would have appreciated if he directed his look towards someone else. It really started to be scary. He preferred looking away, and didn’t even look up when the man sat down too.

 

- I have to apologise to you, mister Baggins.

 

Bilbo stopped sipping his tea.

 

- Aaah ? Uh, what for ?

 

Yes, that was so articulate Baggins, congratulations. If, a moment before, Bilbo was the one avoiding eye contact, it was Durin’s turn to find a sudden interest in his own cup while the professor was looking at him intently.

 

- Yes. I have to admit that I had a serious lack of faith in Gideon’s idea. I was certain that you would not come. That you would …

 

He stopped there, evidently trying to find the right words. Bilbo supplied in a breath.

 

- Chicken out ?

- This is a way to put things.

- But an accurate way ?

- Yes, accurate.

 

Thomas Durin smiled into his cup, looking relieved. He was glad that this particular thing was said, even if the professor’s choice of words was not how he would have presented it. The fact that Baggins had taken it in a joking tone was also a good thing. Thomas had been worried that his words would be misunderstood, that Baggins would take it as an insult. People tended to take his words badly. Baldwyn had a deep and complex theory to explain that, though Thomas always put him on mute mode when he was trying to lecture him about it. Lawyers and their theories for everything.

Thomas never felt the need to question why his words were taken badly. The persons who mattered in his life followed him, knowing that he was a good man with just a slight communication problem. People who didn’t see the real him behind the short replies and silent demeanour weren’t really important in the end. He never needed them and their negativity, in the end. Well, until now.

Though, he had to admit that Baggins had never accused him of being haughty or anything, not vocally anyway, he could see that the short man wasn’t comfortable with it, annoyed even. This thought didn’t sit well with Thomas. Baggins had come to help them, even if there was not much for him to win. Well, he was promised interests and a certain percent of the benefice of the firm once they had it back, but Thomas would bet that the professor wasn’t interested in money. He seemed wealthy enough to pay for his fancy clothes and whatever it was that made him happy. No, Baggins wasn’t here for the money, but he was here, although Thomas couldn’t see why exactly. If he was willing to join them, the least the businessman could do was to … hm … be polite.

He had tried during the previous week. It didn’t end as well as he had wished, true, but he had tried. He knew that the looks he had sent in Baggins’ direction the Monday evening looked a bit like a serial killer and, in retrospect, so was the silent eye-stalking of the rest of the week. He needed to show the man that he was more civilised than that. He couldn’t expect him to trust him if he didn’t make any effort to appear more human.

 

- Well, I just wanted you to know that you are … em … most helpful, and that we … my company I mean … are grateful.

 

It was a long and unnecessarily complicated sentence. He made himself mentally wince at the awkward and tedious wording. Maybe he should have listened to Baldwyn’s theory after all. He levelled his eyes to meet Baggins’ ones. The man was staring at him, trying not to laugh apparently, which he was doing greatly until Thomas was staring at him. He erupted into a hysterical laugh, and the businessman wasn’t sure how to take it. His grip around the cup tightened, and he huffed unconsciously, looking through the window in indignation. Baggins sobered a bit upon seeing his expression, but only a bit.

 

- Oh, dear Yavanna, I’m sorry. I’m really … oh you should have seen your face. It was priceless. You looked like a sad puppy.

 

That said, he was back to laughing, though this time he tried to hide it behind his hand, which resulted in excited mouse noises and honey curls flying madly around his head. Thomas Durin wasn’t amused. He had complimented the man, in a way, and the man was making fun of him.

 

- Oh, and now you look like a grumpy puppy.

 

He looked back at the grinning man, and replied coldly.

 

- Well, I’m happy to know that my face is so hilarious.

 

He tried not to appear too smug when the man’s face turned pale.

 

- Oh no ! This is terrible, I’m terrible … terribly sorry.

 

Maybe the laugher was better then the babbling. Thomas could feel the headache spreading through his skull while the professor was apologising profusely. He sighed.

 

- Peace, mister Baggins. It was a joke.

 

Well, not entirely, but he needed Baggins to shut it or he would lose control and make him. Slamming the tea pot unto the short man’s face was starting to be too tempting, and it wasn’t a good idea if he wanted to keep their burglar … among other reasons. He didn’t want to risk Greyheim’s wrath and Baldwyn’s disappointed look. Though, the idea of Dwain giggling behind his big paws like a school girl would be a nice reward. Baggins didn’t look entirely appeased, and was still looking at him with an anxious expression. At least he stopped with the chatty apology

 

- I really am sorry. It’s just that … well, it’s always funny to see an intimidating man looking … em …

- Looking how ?

- Em … cute.

 

Thomas, who was in the middle of gulping down another sip of coffee, started chocking. The pallor in Baggins’ face was back forcefully.

 

- Not in a “cute girl” way, I mean … like a cub doing something funny or touching. You see, like a fluffy, lost … animal. And, yes, I … I think I should stop talking now.

 

He interrupted himself, eyes widening as Thomas was staring at him blankly. It was as if his mind had stopped functioning. His brained decided to quit and take a relaxing holiday in the Bahamas, leaving the rest of his body sitting there. What the hell was Baggins on ? Was there LSD on his tea or what ? Intimidating and cute shouldn’t appear in the same sentence, and especially not in a description of Thomas Durin. Oh, he was so glad Dwain wasn’t in the room, after all. Or worse … his nephews. Those two rascals would never let him have peace if they knew, not to mention that they would certainly tell their mother, and then it would be a better plan to exile himself on a removed island. The Shetlands sounded like a good idea, yes.

 

- Intimidating and cute ?

 

Bilbo Baggins was looking at him, absolutely terrified. Durin’s left eyebrow was arching so high it was almost painful to watch.

 

- It’s just a … way to say things. Hm …

- An accurate way ?

 

Oh, that smirk should be illegal, really, Bilbo thought as the urge to bang his head on the table rose in him. Wait a moment. Was Durin using his own words against him ? All hints of anger seemed to have vanished from the man’s face, as well as the blank surprise from before. He was now looking at Bilbo with amusement and sarcasm written all over his features, and that beard of his was not doing a good job at hiding the damn smirk. Bilbo was mortified, and thus frustrated.

 

- Oh, you can laugh, but I dare you to find a better description. And my puppy metaphor was really good, I’d say.

 

He pretended to drink his tea with dignity, but his ears were glowing red as a result of his embarrassment. The booming laugher of Thomas Durin didn’t help it. He gave him a side look.

 

- What is so funny, may I ask ?

- Well, mister Baggins, if I’m a grumpy puppy, you certainly look like an angry squirrel.

- Oh, hilarious.

 

Bilbo tried to keep drinking in mock indignation, but failed totally as he started giggling into his cup. He couldn’t believe the turn this conversation had taken. After a whole week wondering if the man was, at best not trusting him, and at worse angry, seeing that an awkward conversation and a good laugh was enough to make things less tense was a relief. Surreal, exactly.

As they managed to calm down, and the kitchen filled with more light and a few people, Bilbo went back to his cup and his own thoughts. He was aware that this conversation didn’t make everything absolutely idyllic. They still didn’t know each other, not really, and Bilbo knew that it would take more than small talks to win Durin’s trust. It was a good start though, knowing that the businessman didn’t hate him. It was already stressful to know that he was to infiltrate a firm where people could discover his lies and decide to get rid of him, he didn’t need to fear that the persons he was supposed to help were ready to do the same. Comforting.

 

- Mister Baggins ?

 

He looked up to Dwain towering him and his eyes widened.

 

- Uh, yes ?

- Gideon asked me to show you a few things.

- What things ?

 

Dwain cracked a little smile, which looked actually frightening, while Baldwyn’s voice carried through the room.

 

- My brother is in the police. You might want to learn a few tips from him. It could prove to be useful.

- Ah, right. Okay.

 

The smiled didn’t leave the bald man’s face.

 

- Perfect. Join me in the garden in half an hour. I’ll show ya some of my tricks.

 

After that, he got out of the room, leaving a stunned Bilbo staring at his cup, unaware of Durin and Baldwyn exchanging smug looks.

Chapter Text

In retrospect, he should have probably refused to join Dwain in the garden. The man spent the entire morning talking about weaponry, protocols of action, among other oddities. He also wanted to train the professor to the basics of shooting with a revolver, of all things. Now, Bilbo Baggins was a patient man. He was used to days of seminars and hours spent in a library, carefully bent over ages-old books, after all. But there was a huge difference between those activities, which he was interested in and were harmless and healthy ways to spend one’s time, thank you very much, and diving into the mysterious ways of paramilitary. Especially when a bunch of insufferable men were packed on the bench or the terrace, following his progress with mirth. They also started a bet, if the money passing from one to another was any indication. He didn’t know who he disliked the most in this precise moment between them and Dwain, whose own patience was slowly decreasing. The man was making less and less effort to hide his disappointment in Bilbo’s lack of power ranger skills.

Some time before noon, Bilbo had had enough of this and Dwain was forced to call it a day, ending the torture. The professor wasn’t sure he could actually recall anything about the bald man’s advice and explanation. His brain felt stuffed, and it seemed that the only thing they had achieved was to make him feel even more anxious than he already was regarding this mission. Trying to remember information about the fascinating mining industry was exhausting, but not impossible. Knowing that he would have to lie and pretend to be someone else was morally problematic, but he could tell himself that it was for a good reason. However, being reminded that he could be killed, threatened or generally harmed, and therefore had to learn how to defend himself, was beyond frightening. It was so frightening, as a matter of fact, that he wasn’t even shaking or having trouble breathing. No, he just felt as if his mind was overflowing with incomplete fragment of thoughts while his guts were hollow and twisted.

 

The professor joined Boyd and his brother Bobby on the bench.

 

After his clumsy intervention of the Monday, Boyd had redeemed himself greatly. Not the cleverest of men, nor the most delicate, but without any doubt one of the funniest, most welcoming and compassionate. The Irishman had grown on Bilbo with jokes and friendly smiles. Bobby was a nice fellow, too. It was hard to believe that they were indeed brothers at first, but they had the same kindness and their presence was immediately soothing. Where his brother had black hair, laughing eyes and a rather thin figure, Bobby was round, ginger, and his gaze was more cautious and calm. That said, they were pretty much the same. They loved to make jokes, sing songs, eat and drink good food … and live merrily. They had had nice talks about their families. Bobby liked to talk about his children, and Boyd was always ready to mention his nephews and niece too. There were five of them, but Bilbo couldn’t, for the life of him, remember their names, which embarrassed him a bit. They had been so open and nice to him that it felt a bit uncaring. Bobby had smiled and replied softly that he wouldn’t be able to remember all of Bilbo’s numerous cousins, so everything was fine. It had helped Bilbo to hear it from him.

Bobby gave him a sandwich that Bilbo ate with enthusiasm after thanking him profusely. The soft taste of salmon and cream on his tongue, enhanced by dill, felt like heaven after Dwain’s tiresome lecture. Boyd was looking at him, smiling broadly while smoking one of his disgusting cigarettes. Not that Bilbo didn’t enjoy a good smoke himself every once in a while, but he wouldn’t have called those things The Irishman was favouring “cigarettes”. To be honest, just the smell was horrible, acrid and strong as it was, and the professor didn’t want to imagine the taste. But somehow, Boyd managed to enjoy it. His trapper hat firmly planted on his head, he didn’t seem bothered by the reek.

Bilbo preferred a more herbal mix. He liked to smoke on the balcony of his room in Oxford, siting on the windowsill and closing his eyes as the cloud of fume reminded him of his house and garden. He closed his eyes, yes, and let his mind supply scents of freshly cut grass, rain, cedar and quiet evenings by the fireplace. Boyd’s cigarettes didn’t remind him of anything of the sort. Maybe it did remind Boyd of something, though. He couldn’t pretend he knew the feelings and memories it evoked to the man. Maybe Boyd’s tobacco told a story too, a different one than Bilbo’s, but a secret and comforting story nonetheless.

 

- I wanted to ask you …

 

The professor looked up to Boyd. He was chewing on his lip, the dreaded cigarette in hand, and seemed to be contemplating whether he should ask his question or not.

 

- Hm, yes ?

- Well, we were wondering … Bilbo is kind of an unusual name. No offense …

- None taken.

 

Bilbo smiled at him. He was used to this question, and being asked simply was better than the jokes and insults he’s always been at the receiving end of.

 

- Hm … does it have a meaning ? Is it from another language ?

 

Bilbo tried not to laugh. Boyd was apparently eager to know, and maybe learn something new but schooled his features in order to not look rude or offensive, and Bobby next to him was trying very hard to remain casual. It was a sweet thing to witness.

 

- Ah, no. I don’t believe it exists in another language. It’s not even my real name, actually.

 

Bobby had definitively given up all pretence of “no, don’t mind me, I’m totally not stalking the conversation”. They were both looking at him with wide expectative eyes. Bilbo was almost certain that he had seen Fili, who was “napping” a few feet away, lean a bit toward them on his deckchair.

 

- You see … I was given the same first name as my father, but it was a bit confusing sometimes, so we had to find a way to distinguish us. My cousin Paul was starting to speak at that time, and he always used funny sounds to call people … Bilbo was the least ridiculous one he found for me, really.

 

His smile widened, mirroring the grins that had blossomed on the Irish brothers’ faces.

 

- This is a cute story, Bilbo.

 

Bilbo nodded. It was, yes.

 

- So, what’s your real name ?

- Well, it’s Benjamin Baggins Junior.

- Benjamin sounds like a nice name.

- Thank you, Bobby.

 

Bilbo turned to the blond young adult, pointing his thumb at him.

 

- What does Fili stand for, then.

 

The kid didn’t move, but his voice rose in the air.

 

- If anybody tells him, they’re dead. The brothers laughed while Bilbo frowned.

 

- Come on, Fili, I’ve told you mine. It’s only fair that I know yours.

- No way.

 

Bilbo gave Boyd and Bobby a hopeful look, but both adults were pretending not to see him. Right, maybe the professor had underestimated the threatening potential of the young man. He sighed, giving up the topic as nobody seemed ready to give him an answer. Not that it was a matter of life and death, quite a trivial question actually, but he promised himself to ask Baldwyn, the only man who seemed immune to both Fili’s serious glare and the kid’s brother, Kilian’s, puppy eyes.

 

- Ok, as you like it. So … what exactly are you doing for … erm … mister Durin ? I was led to think that you guys work for him, although I’m not sure about Fili.

 

Boyd nodded quickly, exhaling a puff of smoke before answering.

 

- We do, yes. Used to work for them in Erebor, too … well, me and our cousin. Bobby was still in school back then.

- Your cousin … hm … the one with the scar on the …

 

Bilbo stopped at that point, suddenly unsure. He had been wondering for a while who was that man with the scar on his head, how did he come by it. Boyd had seem to stay around him a lot, sometimes talking to him softly in a language that sounded like Gaelic, though Bilbo wasn’t sure. It made sense that they were related, but the professor was afraid that the brothers would take his genuine curiosity badly. He didn’t know what they had had to deal with, after all, and he didn’t want to upset his new friends. But they smiled to him, and Boyd answered.

 

- Yes, the scar on the head. Got it when working at Erebor. Someone had not checked a machine correctly, and poor Bill got hit right in the head. But Mister Durin, Thomas’ father, had been really kind to him … made sure he was treated correctly, found him a nice clinic. Then he gave him another job in the firm, suited for his injury.

 

Something flashed in Boyd’s eyes. Sadness. With a sigh, he added.

 

- Yes, a good man, Tristan Durin.

 

Bobby made a noise of agreement next to his brother. Bilbo nodded, wanting to convey that he understood the respect they seemed to have for the man. He then asked.

 

- So, Bobby … you were hired after Erebor ?

- Yes, a while after they created EredLuin, they needed a new accountant. I am one so I took the opportunity to be with my brother and cousin.

 

Turning once again to the blond man, Bilbo asked.

 

- And you, Fili ? Are you working at EredLuin too ?

- No one told you Bilbo , Boyd said, his smile tainting his voice.

- Told me what ?

 

The brothers laughed, and Bilbo could see the grin on Fili’s face, though he still didn’t open his eyes. The young man replied calmly.

 

- Thomas is my uncle mister Baggins.

 

Oh, that surely explained a lot. For example, the equally worried and eager look on the youth’s face the previous Monday, or his attempts to look serious and mature anytime Durin was looking his way. See also, the fondness that the otherwise terrifying Dwain had on his face whenever his eyes landed on him and the young Kilian, or the small yet existing smiles the businessman flashed at the brothers. He should have seen that sooner, really. And he thought he had gotten his mother’s keen eyes. Maybe he was getting old and needed glasses.

 

- It makes sense, now that I think of it, he admitted.

- Don’t worry, mister Baggins, people don’t usually see it easily. Kili takes a lot after our father in features, and as for me, the blond hair tends to confuse people.

- You do look a lot like your uncle, though.

 

It was true. Looking closely now, he could see a lot of Thomas in the young man. The strong nose and sharp blue eyes were the most striking resemblance. The serious looks that Fili was trying to master were also clearly, whether it was consciously or not, mirroring his uncle’s.

 

- Yes … I’ve been told that we both look like my grandfather. Tristan I mean.

 

Boyd hummed in agreement behind the professor’s back, and Bilbo suddenly realised that Fili probably hadn’t known his grandfather for long, if he had ever met him. He tried to remember the folder Gideon had left him at his office. There had been an article in there about it, short, more like a little note from some newspaper. Bilbo frowned, trying to focus on what it said exactly. Something about two businessman disappearing. Trevor and Tristan, his mind realised suddenly, and his eyes widen in an expression that would have been comical in different circumstances. He sat back against the bench, as Boyd and Bobby exchanged concerned look, Fili blissfully ignorant, still siting with his eyes closed. Sweet Yavanna, he was starting to take the full measure of what Thomas Durin and his family had been through. It was terrifying. No wonder the man had spent the week looking at him weirdly, as uncomfortable as it was to experience.

 

- Everything all right, Bilbo ?

 

Boyd’s voice felt distant, but it somehow made him connect back with the real world. He turned to the brothers, trying to force a smile onto his face.

 

- Yes, I … thank you, I think I’m having the backlash of Dwain’s lecture. I guess it would be better for me to rest a bit.

 

Although they were still looking concerned, the brothers didn’t stop him from standing and walking slowly toward the house. The more time passed, the more right it felt to help those men. Every bit of information he managed to discover about them, their leader, and their past, made him want to help and be part of their plan. He closed the door of the guest room he had been given on this one last thought : Let’s hope that he could actually make a difference for those men.

Chapter Text

The rest of the weekend passed in the same fashion, between laughs with the rest of the company, strange advice from Dwain, and more Thomas Durin acting like a confused husky pup in the background. All the while, Bilbo was plagued with the lingering thought of everything those men had been through, and everything that was at stake with this mission. It was a good thing the professor wasn’t naturally prone to anxiety, though he suspected he would start to soon, seeing how things were going. He wouldn’t be surprised to turn into a wrecking mess of emotions by the end of this adventure. If he was still alive, indeed, which seemed like a small probability if he considered the partial truths and mysterious warnings he had received about Drogomir Smaug and his activities.

 

Yes, the rest of the weekend had really passed too fast for his liking. He didn’t feel ready to hop into the hoard of the dragon and start lying and spying around. Not. One. Bit. It felt as if he had closed his eyes on Saturday night, only to open them on Monday morning. Where did Sunday go ? It was a question he hadn’t planned on asking himself so many years after his student’s life. Monday morning had been something he had looked for eagerly over the past fifteen years. Being brought back to the years when that day was dreaded and cursed was a total fuckery, and he was actually being polite. Would it be bad to turn around in bed, pretending that he didn’t hear the alarm clock ? Yes, it probably was. He could already hear Baldwyn fretting around in the kitchen. He had promised something to them, after all. It was a little too late to turn around and leave. He got up, not bothering to supress a groan, and prepared himself slowly, with a sense of doom he didn’t know he was able to feel.

Breakfast was a quiet affair, none of the three men in the room wanting to start a conversation. Bilbo had half expected Dwain to give last minute advice and comment about this or that important information, but the bald man had his eyes focused on the contents of his bowl, eating as if the cereal had personally offended him. Baldwyn was fussing around, making toast after toast, grabbing bowls or glasses, than changing his mind and putting them back where he had taken them from. He was so collected and pleasant all the time that even someone less observant than Bilbo could have felt the nervousness. Thomas Durin was unsurprisingly nowhere to be found.

 

He appeared only as Bilbo had put his bag in his car and was about to shake hands with the two brothers. Even though he wasn’t expected in Erebor Inc before noon, he still had a long way to go, and preferred not to waste his time. He had a feeling that finding the way to Dale after reaching York would be a challenge. Bilbo Baggins wasn’t overly fond of losing his way in the wilderness, except for Hobbiton’s, which was more akin to fields and woods to be honest.

Durin appeared at the front door, looking at the professor’s little car doubtfully, as if he was fairly certain that the auto would never carry him safely to his destination. Bilbo preferred not to comment on the look, nor talk to the businessman at all. His own guts were apparently trying to tie themselves into a knot, and he wasn’t sure he would find his voice. Appearing as a shaking autumn leaf to their leader on the very morning he was supposed to leave bravely to defeat the enemy was probably not a good move. So he just nodded calmly to Baldwyn’s comment of “I hope there won’t be too much traffic”. He wasn’t sure if he should shake Durin’s hand. Despite their friendly chat, there wasn’t much familiarity between them, and Bilbo was afraid it wouldn’t be well received. The man didn’t seem very tactile most of the time, if he excluded the playful shoving and shoulder slapping he sometimes exchanged with Dwain, but that was a whole different story. He wasn’t even tactile with his nephews, although it was obvious that he liked them a lot.

Bilbo was therefore quite surprised when Durin approached and put a hand on his shoulder, a little smile gracing his austere features, and shook his hand in a firm, but surprisingly gentle, grip.

 

- Have a good trip mister Baggins, I hope you’ll manage to like Dale despite the grim circumstances.

- I … I hope so too.

 

He was pleased to note that he managed to conceal his fear more than he had thought he would, but it still wasn’t enough to fool the businessman, who frowned slightly in a concerned expression.

 

- Don’t be afraid Mister Baggins, Gideon promised that we’ll be able to communicate, though I have no idea how he manages that.

 

He interrupted himself for a second, glancing at Baldwyn as if wanting to check something on his face, before finishing.

 

- And, hopefully, some of us will join you in Yorkshire after a while. We’ll need to be discreet, but it’ll be good to know some people are around in case of …

 

He stopped again, abruptly this time, and didn’t finish. He probably realized that ending his sentence would lead to scary hypothesis which were best left unsaid. Bilbo just nodded his understanding, not knowing exactly what to answer to that. He was relieved to know that they would probably join him at some point, that he wasn’t expected to just go for months alone in the same town as a psychopath, but there was still the heavily implied threat that the mission contained. It was probably best to avoid dwelling on that idea, but he couldn’t bring himself to focus on something else. So, yes, nodding was the best answer he could come up with.

He climbed, because yes, given his height it was more like climbing at this point, into his car and slowly left the residential street in which Baldwyn lived, waving at the three men. It shouldn’t have filled him with such dread, but it did. It hadn’t really been a happy place for him to be in, this past week. No, his house was a happy place, the room he rented in the guesthouse of Oxford was a happy place, but Baldwyn’s house didn’t feel like the same to him. It was welcoming, he actually made new friends, but the idea of the mission he was there to prepare for had been dangling above his head like the damn sword of Damocles. Not exactly a happy thought. But somehow, knowing he was in a safe place, with people he felt he could trust, was a comfortable thing. Now, he had to drive north for a few hours, with just his twisting guts and fearful thoughts for company. More importantly, he was to meet a man he had been warned against, and probably a few of this man’s followers, which he imagined to be bulky, threatening people. People who could kill him without a second thought and nobody would ever find his body. Things were obviously going to end perfectly well.

 

At least, he didn’t encounter much trouble on the road. Reaching York was an eventless affair, filled with just the sound of Folk music coming from the car’s radio and the occasional speeding drivers who passed him without further ado. Surprisingly, he found a sign indicating Dale as soon as he reached the city, without even losing his way or needing to fetch his old map from somewhere in the depths of the car. All in all, he was early and without adding more stress to what he was already feeling. The knot in his belly was tightening, dread building and growing slowly as he approached his destination. Luckily, the road between York and Dale took him an hour more, and the sight of the countryside stretched around for all eyes to see distracted him enough to relax a bit. It was a different kind of landscape than Hobbiton, that was certain, but somehow, it was comforting, familiar, to be surrounded by things green and living. Not that Baldwyn’s garden had not been green, of course. It was just different. It didn’t have the same feeling. It was tamed, cared for, and arranged to meet the owner’s wants. The woods and pastures around Hobbiton, and this landscape now … nobody was taming it. People were working with it, at best, more than they were bending it.

Funnily enough, it gave Bilbo peace, to remember that some things were not made to be forced and changed, but worked with. You don’t get wonderful flowers in your garden by planting them in the wrong place, you find the right spot for them and work with that. In the same fashion, trying to behave like James Bond, breaking doors and acting proud, will get you nowhere when you’re Mister Nobody. You get the information by looking as innocent and as boring as possible. Nobody asked Bilbo to be a hero, just careful enough not to reveal himself, and grab whatever Smaug would leave behind him where he thought it was safe. He took a deep breath, trying to make the air chase away the pressure he felt in his chest.

It started drizzling at some point, but he didn’t really mind. Rain had never bothered him. Besides, there were more pressing matters on his mind.

 

 

Dale wasn’t a grand city. No tall and modern buildings, no large avenues and residential streets with cars and green lawns. Bilbo didn’t know what he had expected to be honest. After all, Glenn had told him, between two stories about his son, that Dale’s prosperity had substantially decreased during the past decade. But, somehow, he had imagined that there would be hints of its past splendour, reminders that it had once been the home of one of the most thriving firm of the country. There was no such thing. Dale looked abandoned, some houses looked like they had been burnt to the ground, or left quickly never to be filled with life again. Bilbo felt a shiver, and a feeling of loneliness and desolation invaded his mind. It was like emerging from an underground bunker and walking in the streets after a nuclear apocalypse. It was incredibly sad. He didn’t stay too much in the town, not wanting the nostalgia that seemed to impregnate the walls and streets to rub off on him.

The firm was actually removed from the town. It took him around ten more minutes to drive to it. There he was greeted with quite the sight. The buildings were majestic, there was no other word to describe it accurately. All in grey solid stone, the structure was massive, with big industrial windows. Everything was angular, the stone sometimes shaped in a strange geometrical pattern that Bilbo had seen when he had studied medieval Norse traditions, although he had to admit that old England was more his field of expertise. Standing against his car, he took a moment to appreciate the architecture, in total awe. Well, Glenn hadn’t been bragging when he had told him that their firm was worth the look.

 

Soothing the legs of his suit’s trousers with one hand, clutching the id card with the other, he made his way to the front door. He took one last deep breath, and opened the door. The inside was a punch in the gut, too. The whole height and width of the building had been used for the entrance, giving an intense sensation of vertigo. Somehow, the light coming through the huge windows was blue-ish, but without turning the space cold and grim. No, more like a surreal and soothing atmosphere. Bilbo found himself holding his breath.

 

- Impressive, hey ?

 

He turned around abruptly, startled by the nasal voice. A huge man was standing with his hands on his hips. He swallowed as two other came out of a little room behind the first one, more or less shaped as him. This wasn’t the moment to fuck up things, Baggins. One of the two others came and asked in a gruff voice.

 

- So, who’re ya ?

 

It took him a solid ten seconds to put some order in his thoughts and reply.

 

- Hmm, I am the new assistant.

 

He gave the card to the first man, praising himself for not sounding anxious or stuttering.

 

- Underhill. Ya’re a bit early.

- Well, hm, I like being punctual. It often results in me being early.

 

He gave a shy smile, to which the man replied with one of his own. Ow, his teeth were a disaster. The two others were studying him, or peering over the first’s shoulder, as if trying to figure if he really was the man he pretended to be. Bilbo decided to rely on Gideon’s information that nobody here knew what William Underhill looked like, and gave them his best version of the innocent smile. The last of them, the one who hadn’t talk, nodded.

 

- Right. Imma taking you to the boss. Follow me.

 

Bilbo did as he was told, following the guy through corridors and staircases, deep into the insides of the firm.

 

- Oh, by the way. I’m Bert. The two morons are Bill and Tom. We are security.

 

Bert smiled at him. Better teeth than the other, but still not George Clooney. He was led to a huge door, with the same Norse pattern engraved on it. It looked heavy, probably oak or the same kind of wood. A golden plate on it read “Drogomir Scathaievitch Smaug, CEO”. Right, that was the moment of truth, apparently.

 

- Good. Here we are.

- Thank you.

 

Yes really, thank you for the unnecessary precision, but I can read. This last part was left unsaid, obviously. Bert’s smile died as he knocked n the door, surprisingly not as hard as his bulk would have led to believe.

 

- Come in.

 

The voice was incredibly deep and velvety. Nearly as rich as Thomas Durin’s, and with the same commanding tone. But the similarity stopped there. Where Durin’s voice inspired loyalty and trust, the voice that came from inside the office was more arrogant and almost martial. Something was off with it, and he wasn’t talking about the faint Russian accent that lingered in the velars. No, this was a voice to bring people to falsely trust it, a voice for whispering lies and threats into one’s ear. Definitively not a voice you wanted to follow because you knew that its owner had honour and bravery. With a last look at Bert, who was waving at him, ready to return to his colleagues, Bilbo entered. Time to enter the dragon’s hoard. Hopefully, it wasn’t going to end in fire.

Chapter Text

The office was huge and the light very dim. That was the first thing Bilbo noticed upon entering it. The proportions of the room were massive, with a high ceiling and a great space between the door and the large desk occupying the far end. Another thing that caught the professor’s attention were the heavy curtains hanging in front of the windows, which seemed tall and wide from the glimpse he managed to get of it. It was blocking the sunbeam, making the lamps on the desk and on the small table next to the door the only providers of light. The room seemed like a realm of shadows. Everything was too big, from the bookshelves which covered the entirety of the opposite wall, stacked with antiques and old books, to the sofa covered in what looked like bottle-green leather. For someone like Bilbo, who favoured comfortable yet intimate enough space, the room was a nightmare. He couldn’t help thinking of how much time it took to clean and dust it. Though, he very much doubted that those practical matters were the main preoccupation of the occupant of the room.

Said occupant was conveniently half-hidden by the shadows. Conveniently, because Bilbo suspected that it was more a way of making a striking first impression, and not just because Smaug liked obscure places. The light projected an orange glim on his features, accentuating their sharpness. And Yavanna, were they sharp. Smaug was all angular face, razor-blade cheekbones, and pointy chin. He was smiling at Bilbo, with his large but thin mouth, but it wasn’t exactly a welcoming and kind smile. It looked almost like the grin of some predator, with just less sharp teeth. Bilbo was fairly certain that, even if he hadn’t known of Smaug’s unsavoury activities, the smile would still feel as threatening. He suspected that it was the businessman’s regular smile for employees and trade partners.

 

- You must be mister Underhill ?

 

That voice, really. Its depth was truly unbelievable.

 

- Yes, sir.

- Good, you are early. I like it when people are punctual.

 

Well, there’s always that. Bilbo wondered if it would play in his favour if his true identity was to be discovered. Probably not. He didn’t reply, thinking that Smaug wasn’t expecting an answer anyway. The oligarch was studying him intently, as if trying to find a weak spot in his armour, but the professor didn’t flinch. Time to steel your nerves and act like the perfect assistant you are supposed to be. Finally, his new boss pointed out one of the chair facing his desk, his great and slander hand waving with a stiff grace, and Bilbo didn’t waste time to comply. From this new distance and angle, the man’s face was even more intriguing.

His eyes were almond shaped, and despite his darker hair and brows, the eyelashes were a light brown, almost ginger, matching the sweet honey of his iris. They were a remarkable colour, these eyes, really. “Honey” was actually not giving them justice, it was lighter than that. The shade of some old whiskey would be more accurate, translucent brown with hints of red and a deep forest green, or maybe chocolate, contour. An unusual and fascinating colour, but Bilbo wasn’t here for this. Smaug neither, apparently, since he closed the file he was reading and stopped studying Bilbo like a bird of prey eyeing a field mouse. Bilbo released the breath he was unconsciously holding, and tried to sit more comfortably in his chair, pushing back the feeling of creepiness that had started to fill his brain under the man’s sharp eyes. He could do this.

 

- Mister King was particularly eloquent about you qualities, I have to admit.

 

Bilbo stepped out of his thoughts, addressing what he expected to be a professional smile towards his boss.

 

- Ah, well, I do my job as perfectly as possible. I … like to think that I am known to be serious.

 

Was it too much ? Apparently Smaug didn’t think so as his smile widened and he gave a little nod.

 

- I have known Angus for some time now. He is never exaggerating and doesn’t give praise for no reason. Which made me agree to hiring you.

- I am glad to hear that.

 

Not really. It meant more pressure on his shoulder to play a perfect assistant, or Smaug would understand that something was off. On the other hand, if the businessman thought that he was good, and trusted him with the job, that could also lead him to leave him alone in the office, or in the firm in general, while he was away. And this would bring more opportunities to discover useful information. He smiled at the oligarch across the desk, trying to play the “proud of himself, if not slightly arrogant, new employee” card. People felt more incline to believe in a flawed character than a perfect hero, or that was what one of his English teacher used to say. As Bilbo wasn’t much acquainted with the wonderful universes of literature or acting, he couldn’t be absolutely sure of this, but decided to roll with it anyway. He had to play something after all, and that was the more plausible line of acting he had found. If Underhill was really such a remarkable and praised assistant, Bilbo was fairly certain that going for a hint of haughtiness wasn’t too exaggerate.

 

- Would you like to see your workspace ? And maybe the rest of the factory ?

- Oh, yes, of course. I would really much appreciate to acquaint myself with the place.

 

Smaug stood up, and the rest of his body was as long and graceful as his hand. He moved with ease, albeit a certain heaviness in the way his feet practically stomped on the floor. He almost looked like a giant bird stirring after a deep slumber, splendid yet needing to remember how to move his feathers. It reminded Bilbo of a French poem he had read once, about a huge sea bird who had trouble walking on the land, or was it the deck of a boat, and he had to refrain from smiling like an idiot upon imagining the threatening man with wings. He followed the oligarch who crossed the space between his desk and the door in few strides. The professor sensed that he was going to have trouble keeping up with the long-legged man. Why was everybody in this adventure so bloody gigantic ? He never felt that short before, it was ridiculous.

 

Shortly after stepping out of the room, Smaug went to an open space by another huge window. It had a large wooden desk, stacked with papers and furniture, and shelves with heavy folders. Bilbo had the feeling that this would be his place for the next few weeks, which Smaug confirmed quickly, pointing at various items nonchalantly and adding a few commentaries on what was important and what wasn’t. Bilbo thought that he would have to ask someone else what was really a priority, because Smaug’s ideas seemed highly impractical in a daily office’s work, even for someone like Bilbo who never really had to consider those details too much before. Luckily, as they made their way out of what Bilbo understood was the offices part, they met a few persons that could hopefully give him the information he needed later.

Smaug didn’t even bother introducing them, barely acknowledging their presence with a side glance. It didn’t really surprise the professor, though, as he didn’t expect the terrible oligarch to be a polite person. To be honest, if the man had been entirely pleasant, it would have terrified Bilbo rather than reassure him. It would have probably meant that he suspected that Bilbo wasn’t who he pretended to be, and wanted to lull him into letting something slip. After all, he had probably seemed really innocent and well-mannered to Trevor Durin’s partners, maybe even to the man himself, and they had all been tricked and led to their ruin by his doing. If Gideon’s file was true, it was the most likely scenario to explain the whole mess. Smaug had wormed his way through the firm’s investor by charm and just the right amount of threat to still look like “slightly aggressive business”, or whatever a liberal CEO would call that.

 

Bilbo was following the man, eyes fixed on the back of his head as he let his mind drift to all of the things he remembered from the file, and from the glimpses of information he had gathered from the rest of the company. He would have time later to learn more, disguising it under the pretence of the simple curiosity expected from any new assistant about their boss. If he was really lucky, he could also access the oligarch’s office and find something in papers, or something. Though, he doubted that a man like Smaug would let such documents lie around, waiting to be found and read. But, hope was free and luck always unexpected, as his mother used to say.

 

Until then, he had to pay attention and take the opportunities he found along the way.

 

The factory itself was also really impressive. They arrived suddenly in the space designated for it, after following a long and narrow corridor, and Bilbo had to admit that he wasn’t expecting this. Like the rest of the building, it was indeed massive, its proportion borderline ridiculous in their excessiveness, and yet fascinating. He felt so small, neck nearly snapping as he tried to see the ceiling. There was a sound filling the place, as if the machines were humming quietly. He had expected loud bangs, people talking over the sounds of metal and wood rattling, but there were no such things. It wasn’t exactly peaceful neither, nor silent, but it was nothing compared to what he thought factories were like. It was almost soothing, the low rumble of the machinery, like the flight of some bumblebee.

The employees were actually wearing yellow and black clothes, which made the comparison with the sound ironically stronger. Men and women were working the engines, checking some measure, and generally doing their work. It did look like a beehive. Nobody was really paying attention to him, although some heads turned to Smaug, and Bilbo wondered what their facial expressions would tell f their faces weren’t hidden behind their security helmets. Would they look frightened or nervous upon seeing the man, would they just be surprised that their boss was here or, in the contrary, were they used to him paying visits ? The professor was certain that it would have been the occasion to understand more about the dynamics in the firm, but he didn’t get to have the answer. He would have to find another way to learn about it.

A really tall man made his way towards him, dressed in the same outfit as the other employees, except it was brown and not yellow. He didn’t wear a helmet, but his face was expressing nothing in particular. His heavy brows and his beard were impressive, and distracted from the rest of his face. He was insanely tall, probably taller than Drogomir Smaug and certainly taller than Thomas Durin. Once again, Bilbo felt ridiculously small, and he found it hard to supress his growing fright as the man approached them.

 

- Sir ?

 

His voice was deep, but not with the same mannerism as Smaug, or the severe tone of Durin’s. So, there stopped the similarity with the other men. He also had a strong accent that Bilbo didn’t identify right away. It sounded harsh, but not entirely unpleasant, as a fabric that would scratch you lightly.

 

- Ah, Bjorn ! Let me introduce you to mister Underhill. He will be your main contact from now on. Mister Underhill, this is Bjorn Beornsson, our supervisor for everything technical.

 

Icelandic then ? He could have thought of that, as he had had contacts with the country before, but it has been in an academic way, and not in the flesh. He wasn’t familiar with the accent as he was with someone Norwegian for example. Two chocolate eyes landed on him, and seemed to study him for a moment. What he saw in him was a mystery to Bilbo, but he breathed as the giant nodded before saying.

 

- You can just call me Beorn.

 

Wasn’t it his last name ? Or part of it ? It would be is … what … father’s first name then ? Bilbo got a bit puzzled, but he wasn’t going to ask the man why exactly he preferred being called Beorn. He did look threatening, after all, despite his collected voice and careful movements. Not that Bilbo had a habit to provoke people in general, but he certainly wouldn’t start with this man. He valued his safety. And if he was lucky, he could learn a few things from him about the firm. Beorn didn’t say anything more, though, and to be honest, he didn’t look like the talkative type. Or maybe it was Smaug’s looming presence. Anyway, the oligarch apparently didn’t want to dwell too much inside the factory, so Bilbo didn’t have the occasion to try to start a real conversation. They took the same long corridor to get back to the office part. Soon, Bilbo was left alone at his desk, his boss disappearing into his office suddenly, with just a remark on how Bilbo would probably want time to acquaint himself with his brand new work space. Well, he wasn’t going to complain about being granted some time alone after the meeting and visit. It had been rather tiring. No, really.

He sat in silence, eyes wandering around the room. It seriously lacked some greeneries, but luckily, the horrid curtains of Smaug’s office were also missing, allowing the natural light to come in. He tried to go through the events of the morning, to find a meaning in them, maybe understand things that he didn’t see in the heat of the moment. It was difficult, his mind always drifting to his boss next door. Smaug was human, that was a certainty that somehow should have been reassuring, as it meant he had weakness and could still fail. But the man was also frightening with his cold voice and falsely gracious way of moving. He had a sort of ethereal aura that made him not entirely real. Unreal enough to look like he had crawled off of some thriller novel.

 

Bilbo just hoped that he wouldn’t meet the same disastrous fate as some of the protagonists of this kind of adventures.

Chapter Text

Baldwyn stared at Thomas’s profile, pensive. He was silent, but for someone who had known him his whole life, like the Scottish man had, his face and general attitude was telling everything. He had never been able to hide anything from Baldwyn, since when he was but a kid and he and Dwain came back to Tristan’s office covered in mud, knees scrapped and a sheepish expression on their faces. Baldwyn had always been able to guess, as he was sill able to guess with Fili and Kilian, although they begin growing out of their mischievous years. Mahal be blessed. This time was not different, and Baldwyn could read him like an open book.

It was in the way he had been standing by the living room window, gazing at the road in front of the house were the professor’s car had left a few hours ago. It was in the tense line of his shoulders and the stiffness in his jaw. It was in the blue eyes which had turned their most icy shade, something that generally implied either anger or worry. It wasn’t the former, of course. Thomas Durin was worried that something might turn wrong. He would never admit it out loud, or even to himself, though. He always acted like the detached leader out of necessity, but also education. No, he would never … but sending an innocent man in the hoard of the beast wasn’t something he was comfortable with. Baldwyn could understand, having spent the rest of the morning pacing in the kitchen like a lion trapped in a cage.

They were all worried of course. For the mission itself, but also for the man … Bilbo, his mind supplied. He should have at least the decency to call him by his name. He was doing this for them after all, with no other reasons than benevolence. It was only fair that they called him by his own name, like a human being, or like an important member of their little company. Especially considering that the short man had wormed his way through the heart of most of them, including Bill who, because of his injury, tended to be wearier of strangers. His kindness and genuine interest in helping them had been more than welcome. In fact, it had been the first time in years that someone not related to them in one way or another had accepted to help them. Well, except Greyheim, but he had known them before, somehow, so Baldwyn didn’t count him as someone new.

 

He sighed and approached Thomas, still lost in his thoughts and presented him the coffee cup he had in hand.

 

- There is nothing you can do for him this morning, my friend. Torturing your mind certainly won’t help.

 

The businessman turned to him with a tired look on his face.

- I know, Baldwyn. I just …

- Wish you could slip into armour and burst into Erebor yourself. I know, Thomas, I know. We all know how you feel, even Boyd and his oblivious nature can see your worry. We are your friends, we know your ways.

 

Thomas voice had trailed but his friend had been quick to nod and complete his sentence. His words were kind and reassuring, but his tone was steady and emotionless, as if merely stating facts.

 

- You are good at negotiation, or rather at ending them by silencing everyone you’re your commanding tone and glares, or by slamming your fist on the table. You are good at leading people, and inspiring loyalty into them. That you are good at doing. But this, now, requires patience, tact, and subtlety. Three qualities I am afraid you lack.

 

Durin looked at him with an expression that clearly said “wow, rude”, but Baldwyn simply offered a smile.

 

- We have to trust Mister Baggins. We can’t do anything, but he can. And he, on the other hand, seems to possess the qualities required.

 

Thomas nodded. He knew all of this, he just wasn’t sure how to let go. Worry had been a constant default state for a long time, and it had become harder and harder to just shake it off. He turned his stare back to the window. Baldwyn sighed again, before leaving him to his thoughts. There was nothing more he could say to convince him to let things go. Not that it had ever worked, but you couldn’t blame an old man for trying once more. Time to rest his case.

To be honest, Thomas still wasn’t impressed with Bilbo Baggins. He understood what Baldwyn was saying about the professor being patient and tactful, and maybe it was true, but that hardly made someone fit for a dangerous spy mission. If anything, that would just help him surviving a few more days, weeks if he was lucky. Because it was just about luck at this point. No skills, no talent, just sheer luck. Well, he had to give credit to Baggins for being brave and selfless … or maybe it was just stupidity, he wasn’t entirely sure. He knew he shouldn’t be so condescending with the professor. He was being unfair with someone who was willing to help them and face actual danger while doing so. However, he couldn’t help but thinking that Baggins was totally unsuited for this whole mission. They had sent him to his death, and it wasn’t even a dramatic way of talking. He could die. He would die. He didn’t give him a week before his body was found floating on the lake. No, HE had sent him to his death, and it made him sick. Although Baldwyn wouldn’t approve him taking all the blame for this, Thomas knew he was the leader, and thus had a responsibility for what happened to his company. And, yes, Baggins was part of their company, even if he didn’t think it was a good idea. Well, at this point he had to deal with it anyway.

 

 

At some point of the day, he found himself sitting at his desk, in his office, gaze locked on the cell phone in front of him. Greyheim had promised to keep an eye on Baggins, and to tell him if anything new happened. A pile of files, letters, and various papers, were waiting on the desk, but he couldn’t find it in himself to care about them. He was just sitting there, expecting the phone to ring and bad news to fall on his head. No such things happened, of course, but he still watched the phone carefully, just in case. He was so deep, in fact, that he didn’t even hear Dwaine appearing at the door. And Mahal knew the man wasn’t exactly discreet.

 

- Ya need to stop doing that.

 

Thomas startled, and looked up to his friend with a scared doe’s expression.

 

- Doing what ?

- Staring into the void.

 

The businessman was still puzzled, but preferred not asking for more precision. Sometimes, Dwaine’s answers didn’t make much sense, probably because he didn’t care to make full sentences and spoke mostly by grunts and half explanations.

 

- Don’t you have criminals to arrest ?

- Don’t you have paperwork to read ?

- Fair enough.

 

Dwaine tilted his head to the side.

 

- Beer ?

- Too early.

- Coffee ?

- Yes, better.

 

He stood up reluctantly and put his phone in his pocket before following the bald man through the offices. People looked up at them as they walked by, some frowning and others arching a brow at the sight of their boss actually interrupting his work to go out, but they didn’t comment. Only Bobby gave them a soft knowing smile. It was a rather pleasant day, Thomas thought as they exited the building. He took a moment to appreciate the fact that, for once, he was out of his office when the sun was shinning. You’d thought it was a joke, but no. He indeed had the habit of starting working way too early, and to leave only in the dark hours of the evening … when he didn’t just sleep on the couch of his office. Nasty old thing that sofa was, not even comfortable anymore, but it held a sentimental value. It was one of the few things he had managed to keep from his grandfather’s office, back in Erebor. Now the poor excuse of a businessman that invaded it had probably changed everything in the room. He tried not to dwell on Smaug’s refurnishing, or generally on the idea that the man was walking the corridors like he owned the place. Rightfully own the place, he meant. No need to torture himself further.

They crossed the street, none of them talking, and entered a coffee shop, the little bell making its welcoming noise as they did. Thomas smiled at the short man behind the counter, who waved back at them shyly. He was a cute little thing, if one liked the short hipster kind anyway. The two older men sat down at a table as the younger approached them in his slow.

 

- Hi guys. What can I get for you ?

- Your strongest expresso for me. Dwaine ?

- Hmm, what ? Yeah, same.

- Okaaay

- Thanks Oliver.

 

He left to prepare their order as Thomas studied his best friend with a frown. It wasn’t like Dwaine to be distracted. He actually seemed a bit tense.

 

- What was that ?

- Shut up, the other man muttered.

 

Oh man ! Thomas grinned, trying not to laugh at the serious face the cop was desperately trying to maintain on his face.

 

- Come on, don’t tell me …

- I said shut it. I know where you live and I have a gun.

 

That was actually a sunshine on this dark day. Thomas was looking at him with mirth in his eyes, which got him a murderous glare in reply. Oliver, Mahal bless his soul, was totally oblivious when he came back with their coffees. He just smiled at them before going back to other clients.

 

- I hope for you that Dorian never learns about this.

- I know, right.

 

Dorian Rydders was a frightening man when he was in the mood for it, really. Total fusspot, and annoyingly chatty, but terrible, especially when one of his brothers was involved. If he ever was to discover Dwaine’s crush on his baby brother, the cop might as well dig a nice hole and await for his end inside of it. Thomas wasn’t sure if he was feeling sorry for him, or if he just wanted to laugh his ass off until he died. Probably the latter, at least until Dorian was aware of the situation. Then he would switch to the former. Dwaine was looking into the dark beverage angrily, visibly hoping that it would engulf him so he would never have to deal with Dorian. That would be an interesting encounter to witness, the businessman thought while scratching his jaw lightly. The cop didn’t give him much time to think about it, though, as he soon looked at him again, crossing his arms on his chest.

 

- So … the little professor must have entered the arena by now. Nervous ?

- What has Baldwyn told you ?

 

Dwaine’s eyebrows shot up, the turned into a frown as he sighed.

 

- Contrary to popular belief, I can think by myself. I’m not oblivious.

 

He snorted at Thomas’s incredulous expression.

 

- It doesn’t take a genius to know how you feel.

- Tell me something new.

- Hm… My brother and I saw the same thing, then.

 

He turned his attention to his cup again.

 

- Well, we don’t need to have this conversation then, seeing you already had a lecture by my brother.

- Were you really planning to have a deep emotional conversation with me about sending a stranger to do our perilous job ?

- No.

 

He was back to short sentences and grunts, then. But his eyes were conveying enough warmth and understanding. They didn’t need words, and that was what Thomas liked when he was with his best friend. Unlike his brother, he didn’t feel the need to state the obvious. Well, that probably was the difference between a cop and a lawyer, he thought. They had chosen well their careers, all things considered. It would have been hilarious if their jobs had been reversed, if Baldwyn was the cop, and Dwaine the lawyer. The older man had a cunning spirit, and had been rather athletic in his young years, that wasn’t the problem … but Thomas very much doubted that he would have been really happy. He liked riddles, but more of the puzzle kind, not in the constant chase after criminals. Pounding over legal issues, patiently unravel procedures. That was his passion. And Mahal knew the old fox was skilled. On the contrary, Dwaine was great at tracking down people. If he believed in reincarnation, Thomas would have sworn that the man had been some great Amerindian chaser at some point. Dwaine would be sad if he had to spend his days trying to find this or that way to make someone look guilty or innocent. He would be bored to death and anyway, he didn’t like cheating, or even altering the truth. He would also probably end up saying things like “kiss my ass, your honour”, which obviously wasn’t a good thing to say as a lawyer.

 

He stared through the shop’s window, trying to act oblivious to his friend’s longing looks towards Oliver. He ended up daydreaming, or rather his thoughts wandered to the north again. Many questions were cluttering his mind, making his head spin a bit, stuffed. Was it really a good idea ? Greyheim had been so certain about this, and it was difficult to not be convinced when the man had an idea. He always made things seem so natural, almost easy. No, not exactly easy, but riskless. Thomas had never been able to tell if the man was indeed fearless -a consequence of his job, perhaps, whatever it was- or if he was good at making believe. Anyway, the result was the same : people felt like they could follow his indication. It wasn’t exactly trust, for the man was too much of a mystery for people to blindly believe him, and he didn’t exactly hide the fact that he had secrets. No, it was more of the certainty that the man knew what he was up to, and that if he deemed an idea safe enough, his judgment was probably accurate.

That being said, it didn’t stop Thomas from worrying. They had, after all, sent a man with no particular skills on an almost suicide mission to face a dangerous man. Not to mention that, if he failed, Baggins would not only lose his life, but also endanger all of them. Smaug would know who was behind all of this. He had been content with ruining them, but he had already proved a few times that he didn’t take kindly to people attacking him.

 

He played with the ring on his finger absentmindedly. It was a simple silver band with runes carved inside and outside. His father had given it to him. He would remember it until he died. His wife’s death had been a hard blow for Tristan Durin. After the funerals, he had spent his days and his nights in his office, busying himself with paperwork. Then, one day, Daisy had fallen sick. She had taken to do long walks in the park, and the rain of November had not discouraged her. She always had been the most stubborn of them, no matter what she said about him. Tristan had stopped working suddenly, and spent the following days caring for her. He was an affectionate father. When Daisy had finally felt better, he had decided to take a two-week holyday to see their mother’s country. Freida Durin was from Sweden. It had been great, really, even with memories resurfacing and making them sad. And he had bought them the rings. Three silver rings with their names carved in runic symbols.

 

What had happened to him ? He had spent so much time asking himself this question, creating various scenarios in his head. Thomas glanced at Dwain, then at Oliver. And what will happen to them ?

Chapter Text

Days passed, and Bilbo was acquainting himself with the work, and the building. Erebor inc was a real maze, and he was rescued a few times by kind enough employees, who assured him that it was perfectly normal. He had wondered if the architect had been some wicked man who hated the Durin family, until he was informed by one of his new co-worker that Trevor Durin himself had designed it. The man had apparently been a truly gifted engineer, with a knack for conceiving structures of epic proportions. Well, that was something new.

The name was only whispered, though, just like anything related to the Durin family. It was as if they were afraid that talking about them aloud would summon Smaug from behind a door. Bilbo couldn’t figure out if they were truly afraid of the man, or simply didn’t mention the previous owners out of habit. He felt that he still was too “new” to make comments or ask the employees directly about the Durins. He had to satisfy himself from tiny pieces of information here and there. There wasn’t much he could do or ask, actually. He assumed it would take some time and he had prepared himself for the wait, sure. Obviously, he hadn’t expected to just burst into Erebor, march on Smaug’s office and break the door down, before being handed compromising files or whatever proof right away. But knowing that it would take time, and actually doing all the “waiting stuff” was rather dull. Not to mention that office work wasn’t exactly his favourite thing in the world. He had never been really good at keeping an agenda updated, going through reports to see if they were complete and ready for signing, and the other joys of the job.

 

Being Smaug’s assistant was indeed demanding and exhausting. He had barely enough energy left on the evenings to make it to the bed of his little hotel room. Said room had absolutely nothing to do with the comfortable and homely atmosphere of the one he rented on Oxford. It also lacked some human warmth as the owner, a twiggy man with pale unhealthy skin and oily dark hair, wasn’t exactly the nicest company. Bilbo hadn’t been raised to judge a book by its cover, but this Jeremy Wormtongue did not seem like a friendly fellow at all.

He missed his books and his armchair, his office of Oxford with the polished wood and ancient stone walls. He missed Bag-End and the sight of the garden under the evening sun, Bell and Alfred Gamgee waving at him in the market place. And, surprisingly, he missed Gideon’s enigmatic advices. The old man was an annoying riddle, but he was a guidance, some light on a cloudy day. The fact that he hadn’t contacted Bilbo was making the professor’s heart race up and his guts constrict painfully. What was he supposed to do, exactly, now that he was in there ? What exactly was he looking for, in the mess of Smaug’s files and human sea of the employees ? He didn’t know, and that was frightening him.

 

The Valar were truly punishing him for some reason, or just making the whole mission more difficult for their own amusement. Yes, that probably was the explanation.

 

On a Sunday morning two weeks after his arrival, he decided to break the infernal cycle of work, sleep, food, and fight the feeling of isolation that had settled in his guts. He was both a Took and a Baggins, and neither families were known for letting themselves sink into the deep pit of despair. He put on casual clothes, which in this instance meant straight beige trousers with a white shirt. He added a watch and sunglasses, hating himself for agreeing to this fashion charade.

One of the Company’s member called Dorian, a man of great taste and vast culture, had been appointed to brief him on his clothing, his mannerism, and his way of talking. He had been pleased to discover that Bilbo was a fast learner on the two latter, but had to battle firmly to make him abandon his beloved corduroy and rather eccentric patterns. Although he was aware that the Oxford Professor’s look would be misplaced in Erebor, he wasn’t ready to let go of it without pulling at least a little fight. They had settled on classic suits, nothing too fancy much to the Shireling’s chagrin. At most, Dorian had consented to let him wear waistcoats with them, at the strict condition that there would be no floral or arabesque pattern. Bilbo had agreed on that, defeated but not slain.

Still, he looked like your average banker on his weekend, and saying that he didn’t appreciate it would be a grave understatement.

 

Sighing, he headed outside the hotel, barely eyeing the owner, as his “cool and a tad arrogant” fake personality commended. Not that this too made him disgusted with himself, though the owner’s own personality made him feel better about himself. Damn, this man made him want to hiss and claw like an angry cat. Something looked off with him. But this was a matter he had to leave alone, for he had better things to investigate.

The hotel wasn’t located in Dale. Actually, he had learnt the day following his arrival that the city had been entirely emptied a few years ago. He had done the maths mentally and found that it had followed closely Smaug’s arrival at Erebor Inc. Right, so the man had really given the chills to everybody around. Most people had relocated to the town he was in now, some place called Esgaroth, except people close to the Durin family, who had decided to simply leave Yorkshire, for obvious reason if Bilbo was any judge. Esgaroth was … well … Bilbo didn’t have a habit of being condescending if he could help it, but the place was depressing. It looked rather poor, the buildings, houses or shops, weren’t well kept. People seemed tired and sad, with what felt like a sense of doom on their austere features. However, Bilbo couldn’t help but think that they must have been proud and strong people once, if the fire in their eyes and the lines of their bodies were any proof.

 

The city was built on a lake. Yes, on the lake, or rather part of it was. Most of the houses were on the land, to be fair, but there was such a complex structure made of shops, communal buildings, and what were probably warehouses, that it resulted in a large portion of the town being on the water. Bilbo had never seen anything like this, and he wasn’t entirely convinced by it. He was very much attached to the solid ground, thank you very much. Not to mention the illnesses that the inhabitants were probably facing, and the dampness of the air. It reeked of rotting wood and fish. It almost made the professor gag. Luckily, his hotel was on a hill, in the part built on the land, where the wind didn’t blow as forcefully as on the rest of the town. And that really was something else, this blasted wind, but he preferred not to dwell on that.

 

The sunlight was blinding him a bit as he bent his neck to look at the sky above. He was convinced that it would rain soon, perhaps later this day. That would probably not help with the sick air. He should probably had watched where he was walking, instead of just staring at the sky while moving down the street, because he soon found himself crashing into a solid form. Great, Baggins, he mentally berated himself, that is certainly a good way to start a day. He looked up, only to be met with two brownish eyes considering him with surprise.

 

- Er … really sorry sir, he started.

- It’s alright.

 

The voice was gruff, with a thick accent, but he didn’t sound annoyed like Bilbo had expected. Tired, the professor would have said. Yes, he sounded jaded. Maybe he was having a bad day too. Bilbo tried to think of ways to gain the man’s trust. He was the first local man he had truly met after all, he should probably try to be friendly.

 

- Ahah, yes. This day hasn’t start quite well. With the weather and all, I’m being a bit clumsy.

 

Yes, good, playing harmless. He knew how to do that, and people generally tended to relax. The man was still eyeing him suspiciously, though.

 

- The weather ? You’re not from here, right ?

- No, he replied earnestly. I came here a couple of weeks ago for … a job.

 

He wasn’t sure if telling the man what his job was exactly was a good idea. He supposed that people around here weren’t exactly on Smaug’s side, and he preferred not to risk anything by talking too much. Instead, he smiled and extended his hand.

 

- William Underhill.

 

The man eyed him strangely, but shook his hand anyway.

 

- Barthelemy Bowman. But just Bart will do.

- Charmed.

 

Well, it was a good start. The man clearly looked distrustful, but at least he knew his name. You have to start somewhere. It wasn’t enough, though. He had to be a bit more patient with this one.

 

- So, Bart ... you’ve been living here for a long time ?

- Aye, around twenty years.

 

One of the people who came from Dale, then ? Interesting.

 

- Ah, you must know this town well ! I’m still new to it and don’t know where things are.

 

He laughed a bit, and it seemed to do the trick, as Bart began to relax. He still didn’t smile or anything like that, but Bilbo could see the line of his shoulders dropping slightly from their previous tense position. The professor wasn’t used to playing dumb or trick people into thinking something about him, and a strange feeling of distaste filled his belly when he thought of what he was doing. He preferred being genuine with other people, but he didn’t have much choice. He needed to if he wanted to have answers.

 

As it turned out, Bart was actually a nice fellow, if not a tad suspicious around new people. Not that Bilbo could blame him really, he too tended to do so. Past the first moment of awkwardness and who-the-hell-are-you, the man took the time to explain to the professor how things worked in Esgaroth. The town’s population consisted mainly on fishermen. There had been people in trade once, but it seemed that the town had turned more and more secretive and isolated with time. Bilbo didn’t ask why. Bart had tensed when he said that, and there was a hint of “don’t you dare asking” in his voice. The professor was almost certain it had to do with Erebor Inc and its change of boss anyway, so what was the point in asking ? He just followed the taller man around as he was moving barrels out of his motored boat and talking about things. It wasn’t exactly a long and chatty speech. Bart was obviously a quiet man and all of it came bit by bit, in short sentences, in a low voice with grunts and huffs. He also spoke about the mayor, a man he probably didn’t appreciate much if the disdain in his tone was any indication, but if he did dislike him, he certainly kept his opinion for himself. Out of fear of being heard or because he was just a private person, Bilbo didn’t know. Once again, he wasn’t going to ask.

 

The professor tried to be his usual polite and charming self, nodding from time to time and mentally filing all the new information carefully. He would have to do a bit of research later, especially on this mayor. The more he understood about how things worked here, the easier his job would be. Or that’s what he hoped. After all, he still wasn’t entirely sure what his job here was supposed to be. He figured out however that any kind of information would be helpful.

 

All in all, it was really superficial information, and Bilbo knew it, but he couldn’t ask for too much from the first local man he found. He would have to try his luck with other persons, or work harder to force more words out of Bart. The professor looked at the man as he was working. Bart looked like a solid man, tall but with his shoulders slumped, which made him look a tad shorter. Something in his voice and his dark eyes told a different story than his attitude, but Bilbo couldn’t exactly put his finger on what it was. There was something righteous in him, solemn in him, so far away from his apparent wariness. He had the feeling that exploring the man’s life and psyche would give him more answers. He would watch the man closely when his work at Erebor Inc gave him the time. He could always pretend that he was still trying to find his way through the town, and needed some help. That wouldn’t be too far from the truth.

He left Bart after a while, sensing that the man had had enough of his presence, and before he would start to question the professor’s motives. He spent the rest of the morning walking around the town, watching people and trying to find some sense in all the things Bart had told him. A lot of information was still missing to start connecting the dots correctly, but it was a start.

 

The start of what ? He was unable to tell.

Chapter Text

He was looking through the window, lost in thoughts. Despite not being one of the main streets of the city, the little road was buzzing with activity. Students, mostly, a few teachers too, if their rigid walk and extremely classic outfits were any indication. Other town folk could be spotted, but the bulk of the crowd was definitively related to the colleges. People walking and listening to music, or discussing with big gesture to each other about this or that stuff they were studying, or about something going on with their lives. All of it produced a hushed sound that he had no difficulties to hear from the open window. He had always been bless with a good hearing, too, that aged spared, bless Illuvatar. If he wanted, he could have heard any of the separate conversations as well as if it was happening in the room. But no, he wasn’t in the mood for some casual spying.

The wind wasn’t chill enough to make him feel cold, and he suspected that they’ll need the fresh air to awaken their brains, anyway. The window was therefor open to the outside world. Actually, he thought it was a good thing, for the sounds of the street, of life, would perhaps ground them, remind them in its constant presence what it was they were here to protect. It was easy after all to let it slip off their minds while discussing the great scheme of things. They had serious matters to discuss. Very serious indeed.

 

Gideon turned to the room, taking in the sight of the fine woodwork, the embroidered cushions on the couch and armchairs, and the magnificent fireplace made of marble and carved in intricate vine pattern. Ronald always had good taste. He would trust him with any furniture and decoration hunting for any house. And, to be honest, it wasn’t the only thing he would trust him blindly. The man was sitting at his desk, calm grey eyes taking in the scene unfolding in front of his eyes with a blank expression. You could see with just one look that very few things could confuse Ronald Peredhil. Gideon knew what one of those things were, and it had already been taken from him, in a way, though the old man new that it still hurt very much. But Ronarld was really good at concealing.

 

Greyheim turned to eye the scene happening in the room, too. A man was sitting by the fireplace, older than himself, but with more dignity and wisdom in his features and stance than Gideon, he had to admit. And he had no problem admitting it. Solomon Curumo had been his mentor, and still was his friend. He had for the man an infinite respect, and a deep trust. Even though he found his old friend to be ways too careful and settled now, he knew his opinion to be correct most of the time. Stubborn, cautious, but wise. Anyway, he had good reasons to be cautious, Gideon knew that. He was there too, after all.

He shook his head, not wanting to think about it now, and looked at the woman in front of Solomon, instead. She was a mature woman, but with a striking beauty. Golden hair not whitening yet, and a delicate face that Gideon knew to be misleading. She was standing straight by the fireplace, her face turned toward it, but showing a great concentration as she was listening to the old man. She wasn’t entirely pleased with what he was saying, but didn’t intervene. Gideon could understand why, being the spark that started his friend’s ranting.

 

- Really, Gideon, what were you thinking ? Telling Durin to take back Erebor by … what was it ? Hiring a burglar ? A fine burglar indeed ! Benjamin Baggins, if you please. A History professor.

 

The woman turned to look at Gideon, curiosity in her eyes, but still not interrupting the older man, who kept talking. Greyheim knew what this look meant. He did a little “yes, I know” motion with his head, and her eyebrow rose a bit before she turned back to the fireplace.

 

- Why, Gideon ? Why Durin ? Why now ? What were you trying to achieve by this ? Things are finally settled, why did you feel the need to stir things ?

- Settled, Gideon interrupted finally. Things are far from settled, Solomon, and you know it. Or rather, you would know it if you hadn’t decide to ignore it.

 

The man turned to him slowly with a shocked expression, and even Ronald seemed interested, a look of interest on his face.

 

- Are you calling me blind, old friend ?

- Indeed I am. We all were. We preferred to think that our enemy had disappeared, and were way too happy to leave him there. Unfortunately, he used this time to prosper.

 

Ronald sat straighter suddenly.

 

- What do you mean our enemy, Gideon ?

- I believe our friend is seeing chimeras, Solomon sighed.

 

A voice interrupted them, and they all turned to the woman, respect showing on their features.

 

- I believe that Gideon has a proof of what he is saying. Why don’t you show us ?

 

He nodded slowly, taking his time to fetch something in the inside pocket of his coat and trying to ignore Solomon’s impatient stare. He liked to be a bit theatrical, and his old friend knew it. They had often bickered about this habit, in the younger days. Good old days. Well, not that good, all things considered. But they were younger, and thought that what they were doing could change the world and make it better. They had, at least, hope. Now they were mostly a bunch of bitter old people complaining about the world’s decay and stuff. Not Gideon, to be fair to him. He wasn’t ready to give up on the idea that the world could be better, which was why he was so adamant to help Thomas Durin and his company. But Solomon sure was.

He retrieved the thing from his coat, at last, placing it onto the coffee table in front of Solomon and the lady. They considered it with interest, the woman’s eyes widening slightly, and Solomon’s glaring daggers at the paper. Ronald’s voice came from Gideon’s left when he let a curse escape his lips, telling him that the man had left his chair for the first time since the beginning of their encounter. He, too, was looking at the thing intently.

 

It was some sort of electronic device. A civilian would probably have been slightly confused as to what the thing was, but they knew better. They had seen that kind of thing before, multiple times and on multiple hands. Long and slender, made in a rare alloy of metal which left little doubt as to what – or who- made it. For their expert’s eyes, anyway, it made no doubt. And, if that wasn’t evidence enough, the little symbol at one end of it, a moon with the initials MI, written in a sick greenish colour, would be enough to supply the answer.

 

- So … they’re back on business, Ronald sighed.

- I’m afraid so.

 

Solomon seemed oddly collected, probably to try to conceal his confusion to the others.

 

- Are you sure it’s not an ancient device that has simply been found ?

- It seems brand new to me, Ronald argued.

- It is.

 

They turned to the woman. She had been silent, and stoic as marble, since the device had been put on the table, visibly thinking, assessing the meaning of it and the consequences of such a revelation. She knew what all of it was about, perhaps better than her male counterparts. Her long blond hair barely moved when she walked to the window, stopping for a brief a moment to breathe some of the morning air. She had paled upon seeing the device, and even the fresh air didn’t manage to put back some colour on her cheeks. She had seen a ghost, in a way. The mark of someone she had hoped with all her heart never to see again. Memories had come crashing all at once, safely tucked behind her icy mask of strength.

 

- Gabrielle ?

 

Ronald’s voice came softly, bringing her back into the present. She turned to face the three men, her voice betraying the anxiety her face was carefully hiding.

 

- It is new, and we all know what it means.

- But, surely, Solomon began, only to be stopped by a look from her.

- I am not happy about it either, Solomon, but we have to face the truth. Gideon is right, we have ignored the signs for too long, and let our enemy get all the time he needed to come back.

 

She sighed.

 

- Angus King has returned, and it means He has too.

 

She didn’t even want to say that accursed name out loud. Just thinking about Him sent shivers through her body, and Illuvatar knew she usually was on the fearless side. Not many people could match her skill, after all. They were all afraid, she could tell. Solomon seemed to suddenly have found something deeply interesting in the carpet. Ronald was bracing himself on the mantel of the fireplace, and she knew how he was feeling, for the same mix of disgust and fear was twisting her guts. Gideon seemed older and sadder, the look of determination he had when entering the room had disappeared. She looked at him, pensive.

 

- Gideon ?

 

He looked up from where he was sitting.

 

- What does this have to do with Durin and his firm ?

 

The tricky part of the question, apparently, as the old man took a deep breath before answering, closing his eyes for a moment.

 

- There are strong evidence that Drogomir Smaug is in contact with Minas Ithil, since they sent him an assistant, that we luckily managed to intercept and replace by Mister Baggins.

 

He ignored the deep sigh coming from his old mentor.

 

- However, contrary to our first impression, I have reason to think that Smaug was the one contacted by Minas Ithil, and not the opposite.

- What would King want from Smaug ?

- Nothing is certain, but our theory is that, since they were forced to hide, our enemies would need an intermediary for their plans, someone at the head of several serious firms, such as Erebor Inc. Someone with resources.

 

It felt to her as if her breath had been stolen from her lungs. Swallowing, she asked him the question that rested heavy on her mind.

 

- Resources ? Gideon … is there a probability that He would use …

 

He shook his head.

 

- As far as we know, Smaug hasn’t been able to discover it, yet. Trevor Durin had gone mad in the end, and so paranoid that he hid the plans carefully. I doubt even Thomas knows were they are.

- Bless Elbereth !

 

Solomon looked at him with an eyebrow arched. Something in his eyes was unsettling, and set her on edge, although she couldn’t say what exactly.

 

- Then, who does know ?

- Probably his son, Gideon said reluctantly.

- But Tristan Durin is probably dead.

- “Probably” being the key word here.

 

Solomon shook his head, his eyes fixed on his friend.

 

- I know you had respect for the man, Gideon … even friendship, I dare say … but no news has been found about where he is. I seriously doubt that he is still alive.

 

Rain started to fall outside, but she didn’t close the window. The wind was making a few strands of hair flying slightly, and she knew her face was going to get wet, but she didn’t care. She was used to harder weather, and standing under it without moving for hours. What was a little drizzle to her ?

 

- It doesn’t matter whether Tristan Durin is alive, or not, we will probably never find him. Not after all this time.

 

Ah, Ronald, always the practical mind. She would have wanted to differ, but it wasn’t the point. Not at the moment, anyway. She had an idea that Gideon actually knew a few more things about Tristan Durin, but she wouldn’t question him now. All of them had their secrets, their ways, that they didn’t share with the others. He certainly had his reason, and who was she to judge him. She just hoped he would be careful. Behind her back, Ronald was following his idea.

 

- We will have to assume that the plans are safe, and won’t fall into Smaug’s hands. Gideon, are you sure it was safe to send Bilbo there ? To … stir everything even more ?

 

The man seemed to consider this question carefully, stroking his bearded chin carefully.

 

- I think, yes. He may look a lot like his father, but you can’t deny there is a lot of Belladonna in him.

- There is, indeed, the dark-haired man replied with a smile.

- I want to believe that Bilbo will know what to do, precisely because he is not a spy.

 

She wasn’t sure how, but somehow she understood what Gideon wanted to say. Spies have their protocols, their targets, their focus, deeply carved inside their minds, but Bilbo would be open to any information coming his way, and would look in any direction he could, without risking missing, or dismissing, something. As they didn’t know what King and his Master had planned, and what was in Smaug’s lair, maybe Bilbo’s qualities, or absence of professional strategy, would be useful. Solomon didn’t agree, obviously, as he huffed and stood up, giving a fair piece of his mind to Gideon, that she didn’t listen to, before living escorted by Ronald. When Gideon made to stand and exit too, she turned to him, calling.

 

- Why Benjamin Baggins, Gideon ? Why him and not someone else ?

 

His gaze searched her face for a moment, before wandering to the fireplace, pensive.

 

- Why Bilbo ? I don’t know. Maybe because I see Bella in him, and it gives me courage.

 

He tried to smile, but it was lacking some warmth. She could understand. He bowed his head to her and left the room. She turned back to the rain, eyes closed, letting it wash away the concern. When she opened her eyes again, blinking to chase water from her lashes, she felt the presence in the room, the eyes looking at her. She looked back to the black-haired young woman looking at her with a smile. She smiled too, not mirroring her smile but the smile Gideon gave her without exiting. Seeing a loved one in someone else.

 

Yes, she could understand.

Chapter Text

From what Bilbo had gathered from his various conversations and investigations over the course of the next month or so, a few conclusions could be drawn. Though, out of all of them, two seemed to Bilbo’s mind to be rather essential, or at least essential enough to get his full attention.

 

First, Drogomir Smaug wasn’t appreciated by his employees, nor by the people of Esgaroth. Of course, none of them went as far as to confide their negative views on him to Bilbo – who was, after all, supposed to be the man’s assistant – but it didn’t take a genius to realise that. Their body languages when they were around the oligarch, their extremely careful wording when speaking to and about him, the higher pitch of their voices, or the murmurs and mumbles between them when they thought neither him nor Bilbo were around to hear them… all of this were enough signs for an academic like Bilbo. He had spent most of his career navigating between his colleagues’ inimities and alliances, with sometimes the lovely addition of a few students’ ambition and venomous competition. And people still believed that English scholars are far too educated and polite to lower themselves to that kind of playground manipulation. Maybe some were above all of this, but alas, they weren’t necessarily the rule.

This being said, Bilbo had never had any illusion that his new boss could receive much sympathy from anyone. Though, one could always be surprised by people’s lack of clarity of vision. It was, however, strangely comforting to know that those people wouldn’t be too keen to protect Smaug. They could always need it, at one point or another.

 

The pendant of this, anyway, which truly made Bilbo extremely hopeful about the future of their mission and its potential success, was the astonishing faith the people from Esgaroth had that the Durin family would come back to reclaim their firm, and that it would drag the area back up to its former glory and prosperity. On this, really, Bilbo wouldn’t have dared bet a penny… but here they were.

Bart had been the one to tell Bilbo. They were sitting in a pub located in the area of the town built on the lake, to protect themselves from the icy wind, thought Bilbo still felt the dampness of the air soaking his bones. Bart had sipped his beer with his usual grim expression on his face, and they had talked about Erebor Inc. Well, not in long intense conversation, with words flowing without interruption between the two of them or anything. It had been more about short sentences or couples of words half grunted here and there than actual conversation, to say the truth. Not that Bilbo minded. As long as he obtained information from the man, even if it was only bit by bit, he was willing to invest time and pay attention.

Bart was a good man. Not necessarily friendly, not especially nice, but he had a strong idea of what he ought to do, of what was right and wrong, and he lived by those standards with an incredible amount of willpower and determination. Bilbo found he liked that in him. He tended to be extremely fed up with hypocrites. Bart also had three kids, was a widow and an orphan, and had obviously been through a lot, which made Bilbo’s benevolent heart feel compassion for the man. He knew he wasn’t here to befriend people, and he guessed that it wasn’t what Bart was after anyway, but there was nothing written in his contract against helping the locals while he was at it, right ?

 

The only person who didn’t seem too fond of the idea of the Durins coming back seemed to be Bjorn Beornson. The chief engineer didn’t seem overly fond of a lot of people, though, and especially not of their current boss, so Bilbo didn’t think it had to do with the Durins in particular. The bear of a man was obviously better left on his own to mind his own business without anybody getting on his nerves. Not that he was mean or misanthropist, Bilbo thought, but he liked his tranquillity. Apart from his employees of the factory, that he called “the beehive” with a fond smile illuminating his severe face, he hardly tolerated company.

And then there was Bilbo. Somehow, the man had decided to tolerate the professor-turned-assistant. Was it a breach in Bilbo’s character that he had spotted, or was he simply really good at reading people and their personalities, he wasn’t sure. Nobody else at his new work was behaving that way. They all distrusted the assistant, somehow learning about Underhill’s reputation of being inflexible and merciless. They kept their distances, and Bilbo couldn’t blame them. It made his task harder, because it isn’t easy to find information when people doesn’t talk to you, but it meant that his cover was working well enough, so he wasn’t going to complain.

 

Beorn had a house in the countryside surrounding Dale. It was removed from Esgaroth and the lake, separated from it by a dense and gloomy wood, and it usually took half an hour on a chaotic muddy road to go there, which was incidentally where Bilbo had to go on a rainy morning. He had been invited for lunch, if you can imagine, the engineer having promised a meal that sounded delicious to Bilbo’s stomach. He was rather fed up with the pub’s food and his tenant, Jeremy Wormtongue, didn’t count among his qualities to be a good cook. Not that he seemed to possess many qualities, the professor’s mind snorted. The hopes of getting a proper meal after this long month of culinary disappointment was too strong to resist, and he had accepted gladly.

Now, if he could get there without losing a bit of his car in the mud, that would be great.

 

He arrived there, at long last, and he would have laughed if he wasn’t so frustrated with the road still, because there truly was nobody else to live in such a house than Beorn. He could have sworn it.

The house was shaped in a rectangle, all in wooden panels and a roof made of some sort of dried wheat or whatever it was. The windows were large and Bilbo pondered that the light was probably exceptional inside, if the interior was made of wood as well. He was partial to wooden panels and floors, of course, considering how his own house had been constructed. But there was also the historian in him studying the architecture of the house with interest, because it looked too much like an ancient design – sort of Saxonic, with some Nordic influences here and there – for his eyes not to linger on it. The pillars were sculpted, and it looked like wild animals, bears or wolfs perhaps, and geometrical patterns were running around the windows, the entrance door, and right under the junction of the roof with the walls. It was truly spectacular.

And then, there was the garden, something else that Bilbo’s eyes took in with delight. It was luxurious, nature running wild and free, with bushes of flowers in vibrant colours, fruit trees standing tall and strong, rich grass a tender shade of green. After the historian, the gardener in Bilbo was internally jumping up and down in excitement, admiring and commenting on every plant with glee. What a beautiful place, he thought, sighing in contentment.

 

Shaking his dreamy thoughts away, he marched to the door, knocking on it. As the sound of footsteps approached, he looked at the garden again, and at the carvings on the wood – definitively bears. When the door opened, he turned around with a smile… which vanished as quickly as it had appeared.

 

- Gideon !?

 

The same light of mischief was burning bright in the old man’s eyes as it had a month ago when he had last seen him in Baldwyn’s house.

 

- My dear Bilbo ! I am so glad to see you.

 

Still stunned, Bilbo followed him inside the house and in a cosy living room made of wooden panels and floors, just as he had expected. Beorn was working a fire in the large fireplace and the atmosphere of the room was comfortable.

 

- What are you doing here ? You, he turned to Beorn, you know Gideon ?

- Aye, I do.

- Mister Beornson and I had been in contact for a while now, Gideon offered.

 

Bilbo’s eyes travelled to one man to the other, slowly and accusing.

 

- And you never saw fit to warn me ?

 

Gideon sighed, shaking his head.

 

- My dear Bilbo, Beorn isn’t the only person around here linked to the mission in a way or another. Giving you the complete list would have been too long, and a waste of time since most of them work with us anyway.

- Are you kidding ? Gideon, you’ve sent me there ! I was on my own, certain I couldn’t count on anybody else but myself, frightened. And all that time they were people around who could have helped me ?

 

He interrupted himself, trying to breathe and calm down the anger rising in him.

 

- A month, Gideon ! Completely on my own ! No news from you, or from Durin and his men ! Without the faintest idea of what to look for and who to contact. You’ve got to be fucking kidding !

- I am really sorry, my boy.

- Oh, don’t you “my boy” me ! Do you have any respect for people’s life ? Or do you only acknowledge their existence when it suits your needs ?

 

It was harsh, and he knew it. He wondered briefly what his father would have said to that, but he realised as soon as this question presented itself that it didn’t matter. His father was dead, his mother too, had been for a long time, and he was on his own. He had spent a month in this foreign land, surrounded by strangers that could turn out to be foes, and it really didn’t matter whether or not he was being polite. It crashed down on him suddenly just how lonely he had been. He hadn’t had the time to reflect on it, too busy working around the cloak for Smaug – a man who was definitively a foe – and having just enough time to eat, sleep, and go a couple of time to the pub. He had been lonely, yes, and more than that, he had been afraid that everybody could be a threat to his very life. If it hadn’t been for Bart’s company, he would have probably gone mad, he thought bitterly. And now, Gideon was showing up only thirty minutes away from Erebor, sitting in the living room of an employee of the firm as if it were nothing, as if their very lives weren’t at stake. Manners could go to hell, and Gideon with them, for all he cared.

 

Wisely, Greyheim chose not to say a world as Bilbo was pacing the living room like a lion in a cage. The Professor’s rage was founded, and he probably knew it. He was a clever man, after all. You don’t do whatever Gideon is doing without a healthy dose of intelligence. Oh, by the way…

 

- Tell me, Gideon, the southerner said suddenly, what is it you are doing exactly ?

- In what context ?

 

Bilbo flashed him an annoyed look, something that said “don’t play smart with me, old man”, and Greyheim sighed.

 

- I work for the British government, of course. I though this was rather obvious.

- Oh, yeah, sorry for not understanding right away. It’s not like I know a lot of spies.

- You’d be surprised, Gideon piped.

- Oh, for fuck’s sake ! Is everyone I know a spy, or what ?

 

Gideon didn’t answer this. He looked almost apologetic, as if he understood Bilbo, which probably was the case actually. The man in grey sighed once again, glancing briefly at Beorn, who was still standing next to the fire and looking at the scene happening before his eyes without talking.

 

- I am really sorry, Greyheim repeated, there was nothing Beorn could do to help you. He wasn’t supposed to know, actually.

 

Bilbo looked at them, frowning. There was something that didn’t make any sense.

 

- Gideon, if Beorn was already in the firm, what did you need me for ?

- As I said, Beorn wasn’t supposed to know. In fact, Beorn doesn’t work for us, nor for anybody, for that matter.

 

Bilbo glanced at the man, who folded his arms on his chest before speaking.

 

- I don’t like the Durins. They are selfish, greedy. They don’t actually care for anybody they think is bellow them.

- It was a long time ago, Gideon offered, Trevor Durin wasn’t the most charitable man, I agree, but his son, and grandson, are different.

 

Beorn hummed, sceptic, turning back to Bilbo.

 

- I don’t know how Thomas Durin is, and I don’t want to know. As for Tristan, I never met him, and I suppose I never will. It doesn’t matter. I don’t like the Durins. However… I like Smaug less, and I trust Gideon.

 

He seemed to consider Bilbo for a second or two, frowning slightly.

 

- I’m offering a shelter today, and my help if you need it, Mister Underhill or whatever your real name is. But I won’t do anything more.

 

Bilbo nodded slowly. Beorn was cleverer than him if he knew when to keep himself out of trouble.

Or maybe there was some selfishness in him, as much as he accused the Durins of the same thing. Sure, he owe the Durins nothing, and vice-versa, but wasn’t it a bit hypocritical to claim that they were selfish and didn’t care for other people and then… doing pretty much the same thing ? Well, of course Bilbo didn’t know everything that had happened between the family and Beorn, but he didn’t even try to know Thomas before judging him so harshly. He just decided that he was like his grandfather – who, if Bilbo’s information were right, had actually suffered from dementia in his old years, and maybe it explained a few things. For what Bilbo had learnt about Thomas’s father, he was a good man, caring for his family and his employees. As for Thomas Durin, well, he was certainly not the warmest and most sociable person, but he seemed to be a good man as well. It was rather unfair to judge them all without even trying to learn about them.

But who was he to judge Beorn ? There was probably nothing he could do to make him change his mind anyway. Ultimately, the man didn’t even have to help him, and yet, he offered to do that. It was more than he could hope for in his situation.

 

- Thank you for your help, he said in a breath.

 

He then turned to Greyheim, crossing his arms on his chest and glaring at the man. If he thought he could get away with it, running back to whatever it was men like him usually did with all his little secrets and dark schemes, well, he was sorely mistaken. Bilbo was angry, and he wasn’t ready to let go.

 

- Now, Gideon, I think you owe me some explanation !

Chapter Text

Once upon a time, when his greatest worry was finishing his homework on time and his favourite activity chasing after fairies through Old Maggot’s fields, his mother used to sit him down on rainy afternoons and before going to bed to tell him the most formidable adventures. The heroin was a very courageous girl braving the dangers of this world, escaping from troll, flying on eagles’ backs, roaming through enchanted forests, and he marvelled on those wonderful stories his mother was inventing. She had always been the best storyteller, something that he had inherited somehow, and had probably been a prompt to go and study History, and more precisely Old and Middle English traditions and tales. He had always wondered what his father would have thought of that, if his heart had been strong enough to resist to the day his son had entered College. Probably that he should have settled for a field with more rewarding and better-paid professions. Belladonna would have hit his shoulder lightly in mock indignation at that. She had always made sure that Bilbo would follow his dreams, and maybe go for an adventures or two of his own, just as the girl from the stories did.

 

It had taken him a long time to realise that his mother hadn’t made them up, only transforming and sugar-coating them slightly, telling her own experience through the lense of fairy-tales. And when he had realised, it had been too late to ask her why she did.

All the years since this epiphany occurred, this question had caught him at the weirdest moments. Why had she felt the need to tell him those stories, her stories ? A way to exorcise the horrors she had seen, or to transform it into something less threatening ? He wasn’t sure, but he had never believed that it was entirely innocent. Something – a voice in the back of his mind, strangely lucid given the kind of feelings dwelling on those memories should have awoken – had answered every time that she had had a purpose, right from the beginning. Maybe making him realise that there were greater forces at work in the World, that they required to start fighting sometimes, even if you didn’t want to, in the name of what is good. He wasn’t sure if she had predicted the kind of adventures he would find himself into, or if she had actually thought he would get caught in any kind of… cobwebs. For all he knew, she could have meant creating a political party, getting involved into charities, or something relatively harmless, and not being sent in a spy mission up north. But she had meant for him to take actions in time of needs, and not sitting idly as things occurred around him. He was absolutely positive about this, at least.

 

Staring intently at the grey-wearing man sitting in front of him across Bjorn Beornson’s kitchen table, however, he wasn’t entirely sure if “taking actions” was as heroic and brave as she had made it sound in her tales. It seemed more like a huge game of poker slash truth or dare to him. A bloody lie, and a chaotic and entirely too dramatic one, is what it was, his brain supplied helpfully.

 

- How much of this does Thomas Durin know of ?

 

Gideon squinted at him, his metallic grey eyes scanning Bilbo. He had told him a lot of things, though the Professor was not foolish enough to believe that he had indeed told him everything. As always, the man had a way to tell half-truths and talk through riddles, and Bilbo had to summon a great deal of patience – as little of it as was left anyway – not to slap him. Gideon had used his most patient-grandpa tone, but it had clashed with the words he had pronounced, like a love poem said through a robotic interface. It sounded fake, in a way, and totally misplaced in the peaceful and rustic kitchen, but what was he expecting, really ? Right from the beginning, the though that all of this was too big, too improbable, and much much larger than he could manage on his own, had lingered inside his mind. And, truth be told, he wasn’t even sure he remembered why exactly he had decided to agree to this madness.

 

The story went like this, in its summarized version : In the eighties, Trevor Durin and his special engineering branch at Erebor Inc had designed the first drafts for a new arc reactor using geothermic as its main source of energy. It was all very technic, and Bilbo didn’t understand half of the explanation Gideon had given him, but what he had understood clearly, however, was that the force of the reactor combined with a bombing system could be enough to wipe away the entire city of London in less then ten minutes.

It was frightening, the possibilities of chaos and destruction that it was implying. All this time, Trevor Durin had had the plans for this sort of technology sitting in is office, ready to be produced on a larger scale. But for whose use ? For what purpose ? Bilbo wasn’t entirely sure it would have been to the good persons, nor for the good reasons. As much good as he had heard about Tristan Durin, it didn’t seem to extend to Trevor, and everything he had heard about the man had been pretty grey. The CEO was ambitious, terribly so, and wished for a grand and flourishing business empire. It wasn’t really hard to imagine the plans falling into some evil hands, especially in the last months of his ruling of Erebor Inc, as the illness had made him all the most paranoid and prone to unreasonable decisions.

Beorn’s distrust of the man suddenly made much more sense.

 

Gideon still not answering to his question, Bilbo repeated it slowly, insisting on the vowels as if talking to a particularly stubborn child.

 

- How much of this does Thomas Durin know of ?

- Bilbo, you must understand-

- How fucking much ?

 

He repeated it yet another time, more bluntly – and rudely – not bulging an inch and refusing to be talked to like a child. He was well past politeness and pleasant conversations. Something… Tookish… had awoken in him. If Gideon had wanted to find much more of his mother in him after all this time, well he was going to be served beyond his expectations.

 

- Are you really interested in him reclaiming his firm or is he just another piece on your chess board ?

- Bilbo-

- Who is he supposed to stand for, I wonder… the bishop ? The tower ? Oh, you’re probably seeing yourself as the Queen, moving everywhere, appearing out of nowhere to claim a piece or two whenever you fancy.

- Listen-

- Oh no ! I know. He is the knight, isn’t he ? The bloody knight in his shining armour… suits him, don’t you think ?

 

Gideon sighed, and he suddenly looked very old and very sad, and so Bilbo stopped his ranting, crossing his arms on his chest and waiting.

 

- I am so sorry Bilbo. I… my job requires me to do this kind of things. Believe me, I’m not happy to do so but it’s a necessity. Discretion and efficiency are what must rule my conduct.

- I don’t care why you do it Gideon-

- And yet, it’s exactly the point.

- No, the point is you’re using people when it suits your needs. That you do it with your… agents or whatever… it’s their job, they agreed to it. But I am not one, and Durin neither. We are civilians, you can’t toy with us to achieve whatever it is you’re trying to do. Not while keeping us in the dark.

 

The taller man didn’t answer, though Bilbo couldn’t say if it was because he had no counter-argument to offer, or because he was tired of this conversation and saw that it was useless to keep disagreeing. The professor tilted his head to the side, responding to the man’s stare.

 

- The question is simple enough, Gideon. Please, answer me.

- He doesn’t know of anything past the mission to reclaim the firm. He thinks I’m helping him because of my friendship with his grandfather.

- For Eru’s sake.

 

Bilbo dragged his hand in his hair, squeezing his eyes shut.

 

- Bilbo, you have to believe me… I do want Thomas to reclaim his firm.

- Yes, but not in the name of your friendship with Trevor Durin, am I right ?

- Not only, I admit.

 

And that pretty much summed up everything about the issue, really. Summed up everything about Gideon too. “Not only”. Somehow, Bilbo could understand what he had to deal with, and the necessity of… what was it… discretion and efficiency. Still, he felt furious, and rightfully so he believed, by the way the old man had manipulated him – had manipulated them all.

 

- Well, I guess now I know what I’m looking for… finally.

 

He crossed his arms over his chest, looking at Gideon with a look that he hoped conveyed his disappointment and bitterness accurately, and the grey gentleman had the decency to advert his eyes for a second or two. Meanwhile, Bilbo kept talking.

 

- Plans for a revolutionary reactor. Well, you weren’t joking when you said ‘adventure’. A bloody James Bond film is what it is.

 

But he was in it deep now, wasn’t he ? And he had to see it done. What would his mother have said, if he quitted ? She certainly wouldn’t have approved. Nor would his father, for that matter. “Once you give your word, son”, his old man would say, “there is no taking back. A Baggins is true to their oath.” Gideon knew this, of course. He sure had managed to ensnare him in his plans. They both knew he couldn’t leave the ship in the mist of a tempest. Not just from a legal you-have-a-contract-signed perspective, no, but also because this was just not conceivable for him. Damn, if he was still alive at the end of this, he would kill Gideon.

 

- Oh, by the way, Bilbo…

 

The professor looked at the old man with suspicious eyes. What manner of bombs was he going to drop now ?

 

- I forgot with all this interrogation…

 

Bilbo closed his eyes briefly, deciding to let this comment slide as he didn’t want to get in trouble with Beorn for putting blood all over his kitchen.

 

- … but, you are going to receive visitors soon.

- Gideon, what did I say about stating thing clearly ?

- Sorry, professional deformation, my bad. The Durins plan to come up north.

 

Well, to be clear, now that was clear. Bilbo looked at the man in grey, frowning and in shock, trying to process what it implied.

 

- But… what about Smaug ? I mean, they didn’t come to… not be identified… in the first place, right ?

- Rest assured, Bilbo, they won’t be going anywhere near Erebor… nor Dale, for that matter.

- Where then ?

- Uh… it’s actually something I need to work on.

 

He resisted the urge to bang his head on the table in frustration, but only barely. He didn’t want to imagine Thomas Durin’s reaction to that hellish new plan of Gideon’s, no. He didn’t want to give himself a headache, and it as bound to bring one. But he did let out an exasperated groan.

 

- I don’t think I want to know that. I trust you’ll find a way, eventually.

 

The sparkle in Gideon’s eyes was enough to spell trouble, but he chose to ignore that and focus on the new information provided instead. So Durin’s company was coming his way, then. He didn’t know whether that reassured him or caused him more anxiety than he already felt. He was glad not to be left on his own to manage, in a way. He had felt so unsafe ever since he had set foot in Erebor Inc, and the lot of them arriving meant back up if things were to turn sour. That being said, it also meant more risk of Smaug discovering their plan. And thus, more need to be careful and secretive. He sincerely couldn’t tell if it was a good or a bad thing, and truth be told, that was the case since day one in this damn suicide-mission.

 

The rain was pouring as he drove back to Esgaroth, and it seemed almost as if Nature itself had decided to show its displeasure. Or maybe Bilbo thought as much for it mirrored his own feelings. Unease was drowning him better than any bad weather, though. It drenched him, washed through him, and made dread twist his guts. The Durins were coming, and the mission, which had seemed blur and unreal until now was acquiring some shape and texture.

A storm was coming. Bilbo could only hope that the eastern wind wasn’t going to blow them away.