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The Mediator

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Waking up by degrees, Billa groaned at the soreness of what felt like every muscle in her body, including several she'd not previously been aware of having. She was mostly lying on Thorin, her skirt pulled over them as a makeshift blanket, and she was fairly certain that there was a hair bead pressing into her knee where it rested on the floor. "I'm sure there was supposed to be a bed involved in being taken to the marriage bed."

"You're the one who informed me I wasn't allowed to stop." Thorin's voice was a low rumble in her ear, and she shivered. "I seem to recall some threats being made."

"It's ungentlemanly of you to remind me of that," she said, poking at his shoulder since it was the closest thing available. "In fact, I'm certain it's not gentlemanly to even remember it."

Grunting, he smoothed a hand over her hair. "Your husband is not a gentleman, as I will treasure the memory until I am taken to Mahal's halls, and it will comfort me through the long sleep after."

Billa was torn between melting into the ground or tackling him for more kisses. The latter would have won, but when she tried to move, all of her bruises woke and she grunted from the pain. "Truly, I'm afraid I must insist. I'm much too soft for this hard, stone floor."

Biting off what she was fairly sure would have been a curse, Thorin scrambled to sit up, cradling her in his arms. "I should not have-- you needed care, not--"

"You gave me exactly the sort of care I wanted," she said, running her hand over his chest in much the same way she'd done when distracting him from her bruises after he'd taken off her mithril shirt. "Never doubt that."

"You are distracting me deliberately," he said, his touch on her sides feather-light. "This was a serious attack, to have left such marks, even through your armor."

"Thank heaven Dori's such a fusspot about my always wearing it," Billa said. "And that my husband presented it to me in the first place, since that's part of how they got me declared queen. Balin and Dori concocted a story about a ceremony--"

"It was no story," Thorin said. "My family and council accepted you as their queen, as did I. The blasted raven just interrupted before you could formally accept or reject my offer of courtship."

With a soft gasp, Billa said, "You... I thought... I'm a hobbit. I'm not a dwarf, I never can be. No one would choose someone like me to be royalty-- I'm not suited for airs and graces."

"You are the only person I could ever choose to share my life and heart," he said, stroking a hand over her hair. "I am sorry that they must come with a crown. I would spare you the weight of it, if I could."

"Yes, well, if you were a fishmonger, I would learn to live with the smell," she said, "And if you were just a smith, I'd need to learn how to work the bellows and repair leather aprons. As it is, I can at least use my existing skill at gossip for something useful."

Smiling at her fondly, he said, "Is it gossip you would call it? Balin's reports have said more along the lines of negotiation that could wring blood from stones and have them apologizing that they couldn't give more. Ruthless, he called you, and so cunning that no one notices until they're counting their fingers afterward and wondering how many they had to start with."

Gasping, Billa said, "But-- I never, I'm not... I thought Balin liked me."

"He would walk through fire for you," Thorin said, so obviously smothering a laugh that she felt hitting his shoulder was the only proper response. "Your tendency to violence is one of the reasons, yes."

"Why would he say such horrible--"

Lifting her hand to his lips, he said, "He could not have paid you any higher compliment. The ability to bargain well is highly prized among our people; it has been the difference in the past between feeding our children and watching them starve."

Billa felt heartily ashamed on behalf of her people, and of herself for never noticing that there was such suffering among a people that she had always dismissed as distant and conforming to what was said about them. "The few dwarves that ever came near the Shire were always so proud and unpleasant. Hilda Flaxenstile was reduced to tears when a group with children insisted on paying to pick up her windfalls as they passed through instead of bargaining her down from the first price she quoted. After that, I made sure everyone knew to quote the price they wanted, but I never thought to make sure they had enough."

"They would have refused any charity," Thorin said. "But as queen of Erebor, you may order every dwarrow to be fed as you please."

"Cream tarts for everyone." Billa, sitting up straighter, smiled down on him. "I'm going to end up changing things. I can't help it; I'm not a dwarf, and I can't act like one."

Smoothing her hair back, he smiled at her tenderly. "I did not fall in love with a dwarf, not in all my years of life. If you are never anyone but yourself, I will be content as I never expected to be."

"Good, because I really don't think any of the ladies are planning to give up their dresses." Billa grinned impishly, leaning down to kiss him quickly. "I think some of the ladies might be men, but there seems no delicate way of asking."

"It would be less rude to actually lift their skirts," Thorin said. "And even that would be enough for a lifetime of banishment. A dwarf is a dwarf; it is no one's business what is under a dwarf's clothes."

Feeling greatly daring, she ran a hand over his chest and stomach. "I feel like this might be my business. Just mine, mind you."

He pulled her into a hungry kiss, leaving her breathless and clinging to him. She was just starting to work out whether it was possible to indulge in marital intimacy without being intimate with the floor when his touch gentled and his kisses turned soothing. "I forgot myself."

"If you apologize, I promise I will hurt you." Billa shifted in his lap, trying to settle on a position that didn't make her ribs feel like they were on fire while at the same time not drawing attention to her pain.

She failed at the latter, and he scowled. "Dain was supposed to protect you."

"He did. He's the one that stopped Segun." She felt as if she'd said it a thousand times, and hitting her forehead against his shoulder seemed appropriate. Under her breath, she muttered, "Not that either of you cared to inform or even look at me."

"I looked at nothing else." Tilting her chin up, he said, "You were so distant, so formal--"

"I was distant?" Billa cried out. "You were so cold, I thought you were only tolerating my presence. I was bracing myself for having to leave rather than have to live with forcing you to keep me at your side."

With a small smile, he said, "You were foolish. A hint of warmth from you and I would have found the courage to beg you to stay."

She wanted to kiss him again, but managed to restrain herself. "Even though Dain disapproved?"

"He didn't disapprove," Thorin said, then backed down when she gave him a withering look. "Dain was worried that Balin was using you to plot something that might not benefit me, and then that you might be more loyal to your people than to me. I would have had the same concerns if it was his mountain."

"Never trust anyone without a beard, is that it?" Billa grumbled and poked him in the side when he laughed. "Who was with you all along, I ask you? It's a bit late to suddenly be concerned after the dragon is dead."

"He would have come if he could have," Thorin said. "If it had just been his decision, he would have been at my side as Fili and Kili always support the other."

With a huff, Billa said, "I hope you don't think I'm going to let myself be ruled by advisors or anyone that would keep me from your side if you're throwing yourself into danger. Dain may let himself be overruled by whoever he likes, but I'm the only one in charge of me."

"I cannot promise that I will ever be happy at the thought of you facing danger." Thorin's voice was a deep rumble as he caught and held her eyes with his. "I cannot even promise to always be reasonable or kind. I can only promise you that I will always try, and that you will always be the only treasure I truly need."

Smiling, she said, "I can live with that, just as long as you understand that I will do exactly as I please after I've listened to your concerns."

"I would expect nothing else," he said, smiling fondly. "You have never shown any talent for following orders."

Before she could decide if she was complimented or insulted, there was a tentative knock from the passageway. "Billa?"

Groaning at the sound of Dori's voice, she knocked her forehead against Thorin's shoulder. "Can't we just tell them all to go away?"

"At once," Thorin said, opening his mouth as if to shout only to have Billa slap her hand over it. Slightly muffled, he said, "I would have paid them and bid them gone weeks ago."

"That is because, my darling, you have no vision." Tapping his cheek, she said, "But it's good to know you won't cast me out for giving them money at all."

His eyes went soft again as he said, "I would follow you."

A voice from the doorway snapped, "Very touching, but not the point." Billa dragged her eyes away from Thorin to see Balin brought up short by Dori grabbing the back of his robes and pulling him back, only for Balin to feint right and then go left to get around him. "Would you stop fussing, you old windbag? No one cares about their tonkers, I need to tell the lass what happened after she left!"

"She ain't got a tonker, y' mardy can o' mabs!" This time Dori didn't let go after he pulled Balin back, leaving the other dwarf to struggle as his robes got pulled tight against his throat. Billa could see the muscles in Dori's forearm flexing as Balin's struggles pushed his sleeve up, but did nothing to actually break his hold.

After opening the door with his free hand, Dori somehow twisted his grip to send Balin sailing down the corridor. Dori turned back with an ingratiating smile, smoothing a loose strand of hair back. "Excuse me, your majesties."

He slammed the door behind him, and shortly they could hear shouting and curses coming from behind the door. "Oh dear," Billa said. "I'm absolutely certain that is not a nice word."

"No," Thorin said, standing up and helping her gently to her feet. "The bathing chamber isn't finished, but it will be better than anything we had on the road."

Trying not to wince, both at the increased shouting outside and the protests of her muscles, Billa said, "We should hurry. I don't want Balin to get hurt."

"He's a warrior," Thorin said with amusement, handing her a towel from a small stack and fiddling with a pipe to pour hot water into a basin.

"Who was just bowled out of the room like he was the ball in a game of ninepins," Billa said as she used the damp cloth to clean herself. Thorin stopped to look at her and she blushed, all thoughts going out of her head except for the things they had done together the night before.

Breathlessly, Billa whispered, "Stop that."

His eyebrows raised in question as he stepped towards her, burning intensity radiating from him. "Stop… Stop looking as if you intend to… to devour me."

"But I do intend that," he said, getting closer.

"We have to get dressed," she said weakly, trying to cover herself with a towel that was much too small for the job. "Really, we can't make all those kings wait around just because…"

Tugging at her towel, Thorin said, "Because your husband desires you?"

"Well, yes," she said, leaning her head to one side as he bent to kiss his way down her neck. "Oh, sweet mercy, you're… you're impossible."

"Do you want to stop?" His breath against her skin was the most sensual thing imaginable, the soft prickle of his beard making her tighten deliciously.

With a soft moan, she said, "No, but we must."

For all that it had been her idea, she felt bereft when he stepped away. "As my queen wishes. But tonight…"

"Oh, yes," she said, then blushed anew at her own eagerness. "Just as soon as we are done with the negotiations."

***

Walking into the council chamber with all eyes on her was almost as nerve-wracking as entering the mountain to face the dragon, with the added indignity of Gandalf's eyes twinkling in a most distressing way. "Gentlemen, I apologize for the unseemly way I took my leave yesterday. I should not have let my distress at the strife overcome me like that."

"Perfectly understandable," Dain said, glaring around the table as if daring anyone to disagree.

Beorn looked as if he were about to make a jest, but after looking at Billa's face seemed to decide otherwise. "I think your fun is drawing to a close, little majesty. The kings agreed to a plan while you were absent."

"Splendid!" She hadn't been able to get a clear answer from Balin as to what had gone on in the time that she'd had between dressing and arriving at the table, but she'd gotten the impression he was equal parts ecstatic and terrified. That would have helped more if it hadn't been his general state of mind throughout. "I'll do my best to understand it."

"The elves will provide a special wire thread, which will be included in the weaving of a sort of cloth paper," Elrond said. "It will then be written on with a special ink provided by the Men, so that it cannot be duplicated by anyone without the resources of this council."

Billa's brow wrinkled with genuine confusion. "Forgive me, gentlemen, it sounds more like my embroidery than a solution for the concerns we've discussed."

"That way no one can cheat and claim they've been issued more chits than they have," Bard said. "But it's easier to tally than gold pieces, since we each use a different standard weight."

"Aye, and varying levels of purity," said Dain, his disdain clear in every syllable. "There's no sense demanding good coin for goods and then spending dross."

Trying to keep her face from giving away her dawning delight, she said, "Of course, but they'd be equal to a certain amount of gold, wouldn't they? From the treasure that you're all splitting?"

"They've voted you a share as well," Coarc said. "So's you've got an independence from your husband if you need it."

Blushing, Billa said, "That's very kind, but I don't think that will be an issue."

"You must not prevent us from rewarding our friend," Thranduil said gravely. "It wasn't the queen of Erebor soothing my ailing kinsmen, but a simple hobbit."

"Gentlemen, this is…" She raised her hands to her flaming cheeks. "I'm speechless."

She chose to ignore the mutter of 'first time for everything,' especially since she couldn't tell exactly who said it. It shortly became obvious when War Song pecked Balin's hand before bursting into song. The King of Eagles gave a huff which she thought was a laugh, and Coarc's grandfather fluttered his wings and said, "Really! Why, I've never heard such language!"

Once she'd finished and fluttered back to her perch, Coarc cleared his throat and said, "Did you want that word for word? Because I don't know if groundlings even have some of those words."

"Perhaps just the gist of it," Balin said, dabbing at the blood on his hand with a napkin.

"Basically, anyone from outside that fights any of you will have her to contend with, but anyone at this table that fights against the hobbit will have their eyes pecked out by her imperial majesty personally."

From the doorway, Thorin said, "Erebor welcomes the alliance and will follow a similar policy."

"Thorin Oakenshield! So good to see you up and about!" Gandalf stood, sketching a half-bow before clapping him on the shoulder. "Your queen has been doing much in your absence."

"My queen has my full trust," Thorin said, somehow managing to look down his nose at Gandalf despite the height difference. "As can be expected."

Patting him on the shoulder again, Gandalf cleared his throat and said, "Quite right, my boy, quite right."

Billa couldn't help smiling at how regal Thorin looked, his dark blue robes and perfectly groomed hair and beard making him look so majestic that it would have terrified her if she couldn't see the answering spark in his eye as he reached for her hand and kissed it before taking a seat on his throne. "My apologies for the delay in joining you. I hope you have all been afforded all due hospitality."

"Quite." Thranduil's voice could not have been colder if there had been ice coming from his mouth, and Billa could see all her work going up in flames.

Without losing her smile, she stepped quite heavily on Thorin's foot. "I appreciate your faith in me, dearest."

"Shall we get on with the signatures?" Balin gestured towards the parchments laid out in front of each of them. "If no one has any further objections?"

If anyone did, they didn't say so, and each copy was signed by all attending with the help of attendants who passed them from person to person. It was only after the last one was signed that Thorin spoke again, and to her vast surprise it was to Thranduil and Elrond. "I would ask a favor of the elves, apart from the agreements."

Elrond inclined his head slightly, and Thorin continued haltingly. "My nephew… my heir. He has not woken and there is much told of elven healing. We would… I would pay in whatever coin was needed to see him well again."

"Let us not speak of payment," Thranduil said, his eyes softening for the first time since Thorin had entered the room. "Your healers helped my people during battle, with no thought of reward. Your own people can be no less dear to our healers."

Billa could have burst into song, although for considerably less bloodthirsty reasons than War Song. This went well beyond everything she could have hoped for, especially when Elrond also volunteered to help. She debated following them to keep the peace, but she had to trust them out of her sight at some point, and she needed to bid the others goodbye before they returned to their homes, armies and agreements in tow.

Taking a moment to gloat over the final agreement would have to wait until she was alone, and could compare the text with what she'd written before the conference as the exact goals she was working for. The majority of them would be identical; they had even copied word for word phrases that she had repeated throughout, no doubt thinking themselves original and clever.

She wondered when it would occur to anyone that she had just established a system of currency based on special paper and an agreed-upon value - while the dwarrows kept the gold that was sacred to them safely stored away. Probably not until well after they were all used to using it.

And almost certainly long after they realized they could not war amongst themselves without destroying their alliances and facing a combined army of all the nations surrounding them. All in all, she thought she was due an extra tray of cakes with her tea that evening.