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Hobbit 3

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“Gandalf?” Bilbo asked nervously. “Is this a good place to stand?”

No place was good to stand, he soon suspected; Elves and Men on one side, Dwarves on the other, multiple companies of Orcs attacking all. Gandalf seemed more inclined to side with the Men, running towards the ruined city of Dale as it became even more ruined, thanks to the Orcs and their poor, tortured cave trolls. Bilbo couldn’t keep up and soon lagged far behind the wizard, who was rather spry for an elderly fellow.

A snow-white horse cut across Bilbo’s path, drawing him up short. Orcs didn’t have such a creature in thrall, nor Dwarves, so Bilbo was expecting to look up into the face of an Elven warrior. But instead he saw—well, he wasn’t quite sure.

She had dark skin, unusual for these parts, and long dark hair, and a dress that seemed ordinary but well-made and clean—she was no bedraggled refugee from Lake-town. It was her expression that confused Bilbo the most, though—serenity and confidence, here in the midst of chaos and death.

“Let me give you a ride,” she offered, reaching down, and Bilbo had no objection, whoever she may be. The horse covered the distance to Dale quickly, Bilbo feeling a very long way from the ground on its back.

“Sorry, who are you?” he asked. “And thanks, by the way.”

“Daisy,” she replied with a mysterious smile. “And don’t thank me yet.”

Before Bilbo could ask what she meant by that they had galloped into Dale, now overrun with Orcs. He held his sword aloft, ready to slash at any who came near, but either Daisy or the horse was adept at avoiding conflict and they dodged the majority of skirmishes. With a clatter they ended up in a square where Gandalf and a few townspeople were bashing away at some Orcs.

Bilbo started to slide down from the horse to help, but Daisy stopped him. “They’re doing fine,” she insisted. As he watched he saw that every blow from his allies seemed to hit home, even the timid jabbing of an older woman with a kitchen knife. The Orcs took them as if frozen, and toppled over dead.

The humans moved off, to the next square, but Gandalf had caught sight of Daisy and seemed quite startled. “Gandalf, have you—Excuse me, I’d like to get down,” Bilbo said to Daisy with forced politeness. Somehow her single arm around him seemed strong enough to prevent his movement.

“Sorry, Bilbo, you’re to come with me,” Daisy informed him, though she was watching Gandalf.

The wizard came closer warily, and Bilbo began to wonder if getting on the horse had been such a good idea after all. “What is your claim on the Hobbit?” he asked of Daisy in a formal tone.

Bilbo glanced between the two of them. “Do you know each other?” he guessed. Right now was really not the time for a long reunion. “Are you a wizard too?” he said to Daisy. She smirked faintly.

“She is none of my kind,” Gandalf clarified, though with a certain respect. He was still waiting for her answer.

“My employer wishes the Hobbit brought to him,” Daisy finally said evenly.

“Your employer?” Bilbo repeated, totally confused now. “Who’s your employer?”

“I am very fond of Bilbo,” Gandalf warned Daisy. Having seen a wizard in action, Bilbo did not like to be in between the two of them.

“My employer will not harm him,” Daisy promised. She glanced around at the Orcs who raced by their position, but oddly did not stop to attack them. “And he would not have him harmed.”

“Look, what is going on?” Bilbo demanded. You’d think he would be used to people talking about him like he wasn’t there, but—he wasn’t.

“Will he be taken home?” Gandalf asked. It sounded like a negotiation. “To the Shire?”

“No, wait, I’m not leaving now—“

“It is not out of the question,” Daisy shrugged, ignoring Bilbo. “My employer wishes him to be happy.”

“What would make me happy,” Bilbo cut in with some irritation, “is being able to help my friends, instead of just sitting here! Gandalf!”

The wizard finally looked at him, and there was kindness in his eyes, but also resignation. And Bilbo suddenly knew he would not like what Gandalf said next. “Your part in this is over, Bilbo,” the wizard told him. “You have been more courageous than I could have imagined. And now you will be safe.” He directed the last part at Daisy as a challenge; she was not unnerved.

“No, Gandalf—“ Bilbo was already losing the wizard’s attention to the battle, and frustration welled up within Bilbo. “I don’t want to—I want to stay and—“ A chunk of wall nearby collapsed under a cave troll assault, and Gandalf went one way and Daisy another.

She seemed to be heading for the causeway out of the city, and no matter how Bilbo struggled he could not get free. It was infuriating, to be a fully grown adult who just happened to be small enough that others found it convenient to tote him around like a child, no matter what his own will.

“Who are you? Who is your employer?” he demanded. “You must let me go!”

“I’m sorry this isn’t what you want,” Daisy replied, and she seemed sincere, if distant. “But you will see later that it was for the best.” A spear flew past them. “It is rather dangerous here.”

“That’s the point!” Bilbo exclaimed. “Look, just stop for a moment. Just stop!” Amazingly, Daisy did so, and Bilbo stared down at the battlefield from this height, despair constricting his chest. The Elves had dispersed; the Dwarves were falling back. The Men had always been ragtag and were no match for Orcs, who had the numbers to attack on two fronts. He was witnessing a slaughter.

“Do you—can you understand?” he pleaded with Daisy. Her face was not cruel, but somewhat reminiscent of an Elf’s in its detachment. “Those are my friends down there, people I know—I cannot leave them now. Do you have friends? Would you do anything for them? Please, let me help them, and we can sort this out afterwards,” he suggested. “I won’t run away, I promise. I just need to help my friends. Do you understand?”

She smiled a little, more of a smirk. He was not sure if this helped him or not. “I do have friends I help,” she agreed. “That’s what I’m doing right now.” Bilbo groaned in frustration. “But my employer—my friend—predicted you would feel this way,” she revealed. She sounded slightly amused. “So he is prepared to strike a bargain with you. If you come quietly and stay by his side, he will enter the battle on your behalf.”

Bilbo frowned. “Who is he? What army does he have?” Were they lurking just over the hills, watching the battle in secret?

“No army, just him,” Daisy corrected. “But I think he will be enough to tip the balance.”

Bilbo’s mind was utterly blank, and he wished Gandalf was here to explain who she meant, what magical creature could win the battle by himself. Then again, Gandalf was not always the best at explaining.

Shrieks echoed from Dale, and the deep, sinister horns of the Orc leaders on the tower blared, their mindless soldiers massing for another attack. Even if permitted to rejoin the battle, Bilbo knew there was precious little he could accomplish against those numbers, and he made a quick decision.

“If your friend can help mine, then yes, I agree to the bargain,” he told Daisy. He did not know how she was going to convey this urgent information but trusted she had a method.

Satisfied, Daisy glanced to the side, away from the battle. “Did you hear that?” she asked someone.

“Why yes I did,” purred a voice Bilbo had thought impossible to hear again. “Very clearly.” A sinuous golden red dragon appeared from behind the wreckage of the city he had destroyed a century ago, his huge wings shadowing the ground like an eclipse. Bilbo thought his heart stopped in terror for a moment—Smaug was dead, he’d been shot down by a Black Arrow over Lake-town, and anyway he hated the Dwarves—“Surprised to see me, Barrel-rider?” he teased. Bilbo swayed on the horse.

“I should take him away,” Daisy suggested, prompting the dragon.

Smaug rolled his huge eyes, a very human gesture. “Let him see I honor our bargain first,” he countermanded, and sailed over the stone towards the plain of soldiers, his belly and neck beginning to glow with golden heat.

“The dragon—“ Bilbo finally said dully.

“Yes,” Daisy agreed dryly.

“He’s alive.”

“Yes,” she repeated. “I pulled the Black Arrow from his heart and revived him.”

“Why would you do such a thing?” Bilbo asked her, skipping over the ‘how.’

“He’s my friend,” Daisy shrugged. “And also he has something I want.”

Bilbo was really not following—not how someone could be friends with a dragon or revive one, or convince one to part with treasure (if indeed she meant treasure) by offering a Hobbit in its place. On the field below Smaug let loose a tongue of flame, aimed squarely at a contingent of Orcs, who roasted alive in their crude armor with a ghastly smell. As much as Bilbo hated Orcs there did seem to be something unsporting about it.

“What—why am I involved?” Bilbo wanted to know, and Daisy smiled peculiarly, something she was very good at.

“I suppose you made an impression,” she replied, which Bilbo could tell was not the whole story. “Have you seen enough? We should go.”

Bilbo stopped her. “How do I know he won’t turn on the Dwarves as well, and take back the mountain?”

“I will make sure he keeps his bargain,” Daisy promised, so casually that Bilbo realized there must be tremendous power behind her words. The power to bind a dragon. “And he has a new hoard some distance from here.”

“A new—“ Daisy set her horse in motion, and Bilbo strained to watch Smaug decimate more Orcs, giving the shocked Dwarves and Elves time to regroup.

Screams nearby tore Bilbo’s attention away, and he saw three children facing down two Orcs—the children of Bard, the smuggler who had given them shelter in Lake-town. “Bain!” he shouted helplessly to the teenage boy with his sword, though that was always a stupid thing to do wasn’t it, distract someone in the middle of a fight—

Only it wasn’t much of a fight, because the Orcs were just standing there, staring from under their heavy helmets. Bilbo risked a glance at Daisy and realized they were no longer astride the white horse, but seated side by side on a cart the horse was pulling. “Come on,” Daisy called to the children. “It’s alright, you’ll be safe with us.”

“Really?” Bilbo checked.

“Yes,” Daisy assured him.

“Right. Come on, Bain!” Bilbo encouraged. “Sigrid! Tilda! Hurry!”

The children recognized him and raced for the cart, away from the curiously placid Orcs. “What’s going on?” they demanded in desperate tones, climbing aboard. “Why aren’t they fighting? How is the dragon alive? Where is Da?”

“We’ve got to take them—“ Bilbo began, then realized he didn’t know where someplace safe was, in the chaos of battle. Inside the mountain seemed best, at least they would have a chance of running or hiding from invaders.

“We’ll take them with us,” Daisy said, urging her horse on at a trot.

“But Da is back there!” Bain protested, gesturing back towards Dale. “Why are you leaving?”

“It’s complicated,” Bilbo sighed. They turned round a bend and could no longer see the battle, though the horns and roars could still be heard. “The dragon is helping us, against the Orcs,” he added in a more upbeat tone. The children gave this nonsensical statement the blank looks it deserved.

“It’s Hobbit magic,” Daisy claimed breezily. “A little slow to kick in, but quite powerful once it does.”

Bilbo did not think her statement was helping. “What’s a Hobbit?” asked Sigrid, and Bilbo avoided rolling his eyes.

“Me, a Hobbit is me,” he was forced to point out.

“I thought you were a Dwarf,” remarked Tilda.

“Well, no, it’s quite different.” As there were no Dwarves present with which to compare himself, Bilbo was not sure they would be won over. “Um, Dwarves wear boots,” he said suddenly, “and Hobbits don’t.” He waved his bare, hairy foot at them.

This seemed to convince them, young as they were. Well, Sigrid looked old enough to contemplate marriage soon, but she kept her mouth shut. “But Da killed the dragon,” Bain protested. He had been quite involved in helping, so Bilbo had heard.

“He’s sort of a ghost dragon,” Daisy supplied. She was awfully good at making up stories, and Bilbo was slightly suspicious of people like that (himself included). “Your father killed the bad dragon, and Hobbit magic compelled his ghost to fight on our side.”

“It’s not what we do every day,” Bilbo downplayed, “only in desperate circumstances.” That, at least, could not be argued with. “And hang on,” he added suddenly, glancing around, “when did we reach the mountains?” The Lonely Mountain was so called for its distance from other peaks.

“Oh, that’s my magic,” Daisy non-explained as the cart drove up a winding road. “Otherwise ages pass before you get anywhere.”

“Could’ve used you earlier,” Bilbo muttered, thinking of the long and perilous journey he’d recently completed. One way, at least—though now it seemed that going back home might not be feasible. The thought depressed him into silence, while the children peppered Daisy with questions she artfully dodged.

“Here we are,” she announced serenely, driving the cart into a pitch-black cave mouth. When light dazzled them again they were standing on a stone landing, no horse or cart in sight, peering into a treasure hall mounded with gold. The children were dumbstruck, never having seen such a thing before; Bilbo felt sick, recognizing it as a dragon’s hoard. Were such things just scattered under every mountain? Was that why so many people in the world seemed poor, because the gold was kept prisoner by avaricious beasts?

“I think the tea and biscuits are this way,” Daisy said, setting off around the perimeter of the hall. The children followed her eagerly, Bilbo slowly. At the back of the room was a perfect little kitchen, looking like a doll set compared to the grand architecture of the hall. With familiarity Daisy set about making them a snack, and Bilbo tried to rouse himself enough to reassure the children.

“Will we see Da again?” Tilda asked hesitantly, clutching her ever-present doll.

“Of course,” Bilbo promised immediately. “You’ll go right back to him when it’s safe. We just happened to come upon you by accident.”

“Why did the Dwarf king want to go to war?” Bain probed. “He has so much gold, we just want a little…” His gaze strayed to the treasure pit just beyond.

“Thorin is a very good person,” Bilbo began loyally, “but sometimes decisions are very… complicated when you become a king. Too much wealth does funny things to people. Look at dragons,” he added, by way of example. “I mean you can’t eat gold, or read it like a book, or wear it. So why would one hoard it? That’s more than a rainy day fund, that’s for sure.” He feared he may have allowed his point to drift.

“It’s beautiful,” boomed a deep voice, and Smaug floated in through the entrance—soaring, gliding, his massive wings fully spread, even though the cave mouth had barely fit the horse and cart earlier. He sailed through the treasure hall and alighted on his hoard, overwhelming as ever when he pointed his head at the occupants of the kitchen assessingly. Then he turned and walked delicately over the gold, like a cat crossing a bed. “And it tingles when I touch it. That’s dragon biology. What are they doing here?” With the tip of his tail he gestured accusingly at the children.

“Pay him no heed,” Daisy advised, ridiculously. “Remember he’s only a ghost dragon now, and can’t hurt you.” The children did not seem reassured by this.

“Right, yes, just a ghost dragon,” Smaug agreed—unconvincingly, but Bilbo was shocked he was playing along, unless it was some kind of sick game. The dragon swung his head back around to stare at them, one great golden eye bigger than their heads. “I recognize you,” he told Bain. “You’re Bard’s spawn. How lovely.” His tone dripped with sarcasm.

“The hero of Lake-town,” Daisy added. Bilbo did not think it wise to rub in his defeat to a dragon.

But the golden eye merely rolled disdainfully. “Hero,” he snorted, making the pots rattle. “Lucky shot. Ridiculous, a Black Arrow after all this time.”

“It found its mark,” Bain said boldly, and the dragon zoomed in on him for a long moment. Then remarkably, Smaug backed off.

“Right. Dragon slayed, adulation, et cetera,” he muttered. “Never to trouble humanity again.” Bilbo glanced between the dragon and Daisy, wondering not for the first time which of them was more powerful. A few days ago, he could not have conceived of a single being more grand and terrible than Smaug. But now he had the feeling that Daisy contained multitudes.

“How goes the battle?” Bilbo managed to choke out, and the dragon turned his attention to him, eyeing him from top to bottom before answering. Bilbo flushed red and tried to hide it with his teacup.

“Poorly for the Orcs. Thanks to me,” Smaug replied. “The few left on the field should be easy for the pathetic lot of Dwarves, Men, and Elves to mop up.” Bilbo found himself sagging with relief. “There was a second Orc army coming in from the north,” Smaug added, and Bilbo became alert again. His friends had not been able to defeat one army without help, let alone a second, fresh one. “But, some crazed wizard was also due to arrive, leading some giant rabbits and a man who turns into a bear and other nonsense. I expect they’ll be alright.”

“Radagast the Brown and Beorn,” Bilbo murmured, feeling a tingle of hope shoot through him. “They’re friends of ours,” he explained to the children. “I’m sure they’ve—they’ve brought reinforcements, haven’t they?” he asked Smaug.

The dragon was pawing through the gold like a child playing in the sand, which was rather distracting. “Hmm? Oh yes. I’m sure. Those stupid golden eagles were with them,” he revealed with derision. “Everyone’s always glad to see the eagles. Why? Because they refuse to show up until the very end, then they swoop in and save the day.”

This was sounding better and better to Bilbo. Still, he could not leave this to chance. “I need assurances,” he remarked carefully, “that my friends will not lose.”

Smaug chucked away the golden sarcophagus he’d been playing with and put his great muzzle level with Bilbo again. “Cheeky one, aren’t you, Barrel-rider?” he purred, and Bilbo could feel his hot breath flutter over him. At least now it had a pleasant cinnamon scent. “Stealing the Arkenstone was very cheeky as well.”

“I didn’t steal it,” Bilbo pointed out quickly, as if this would invalidate everything. “I took it as my share of the treasure—“

“You stole it twice,” Smaug refuted, drawing back to observe them from his great height. “Once from me and once from Oakenbrain.”

Bilbo scoffed at the cheap jibe. “My point stands,” he reminded Smaug. It was pretty cheeky to be arguing with a dragon, but he hoped he was being polite at least. And he didn’t have much to lose.

“They’ll win,” Smaug finally harrumphed. He waggled his claws. “Whoo, dragon magic, make it so.” Bilbo did not appreciate sarcasm when there were lives at stake.

“I think,” Daisy interjected, “that since he’s only a ghost dragon with no need for gold, it would be alright for you to each take a bag of gold back with you.” She was speaking to the children. “For the survivors of Lake-town to rebuild with.”

Smaug started to protest, then stopped at her look. “Whatever. You won’t even make a dent,” he predicted, dismissively turning away. “I’m going to change.” He began to head off around the corner. “Get rid of those brats,” he added to Daisy. The dragon tail curved around to aim at Bilbo. “And you—don’t go anywhere.”

After the dragon disappeared there was silence for a long moment, then Daisy stood up and everyone jumped. “You should go get your gold,” she encouraged the children. “I’m sure you’ll find bags in there somewhere.” They needed a bit more pushing but finally got up and gingerly began stepping onto the treasure hoard, hardly daring to believe they were in the presence of so much wealth.

Bilbo waited until they were out of earshot. “What is going on?” he asked Daisy in a low voice.

“I had some friends in Lake-town,” she revealed, with a bit of satisfaction. “They made it to safety, of course, but I thought his temper tantrum was overdone.”

“Yes, rather,” Bilbo agreed faintly, as if calling Smaug’s trail of murder and destruction a ‘temper tantrum’ made perfect sense. And wasn’t it lovely Bilbo was now going to live with such a being.

“He always has to be over-the-top,” Daisy went on, with a familiar shake of her head. The children’s squeals momentarily distracted them; the girls were playing with a cache of jewelry, and Bain had found a sword. “It won’t hurt him to send a little gold back to the survivors.”

“Where did all of this come from?” Bilbo asked, indicating the gold, the food, everything, as if that was the biggest mystery here.

“Probably a lot came from Erebor,” Daisy assessed. “I think he took the entire Dwarvish library. I’d better go collect my fee.” The two statements seemed to be related.

“You’re paid in books?” This was a surprising but lovely idea to Bilbo.

“I prefer ancient books about magic,” Daisy replied, heading for a doorway. “Remember that if you ever need my help again.” With that she swept off, leaving Bilbo alone in the warm, cozy kitchen, which he could pretend belonged to a well-off friend as long as he kept his back to the treasure hoard.

So: Dragon attacks village, dragon is killed, dragon is revived by Daisy. For a fee of magic books (because Daisy clearly needed more magic), Daisy retrieves Hobbit for dragon. Dragon has second hoard of Dwarvish gold, how it got here and when unknown. Daisy can induce dragon to part with some gold. Dragon assists his former enemies to gain good behavior of Hobbit. Story to be spread says dragon is dead and will no longer bother anyone, suggests dragon will stay quietly in his hoard with new Hobbit friend. Dragon is giving up a lot, Daisy is very powerful, Hobbit seems to have some value.

That about summed it up. Bilbo just wished he knew what it summed to.

“C----t, do they have to be so loud?” said the dragon behind him, and Bilbo jumped in surprise and turned around. Then he jumped again, because there wasn’t a dragon at all, but rather a Man or an Elf in a fine suit of clothes—and Bilbo recognized him.

How could that be? Where would he have ever seen a pale-skinned, dark-haired figure like this, with impossible cheekbones and blazing blue eyes, who strode through the kitchen with utter confidence and fixed himself a cup of tea with large, elegant hands? The memory was faint, like it had happened long ago, but Bilbo was certain no one like this had come to the Shire—they would still be talking about it.

The person sat down at the table, watching Bilbo’s expression idly. “You remember me, do you?” he surmised. Same voice as the dragon, slightly less echoey. “I would’ve thought you’d realize that earlier, but better late than never, I suppose.”

“You’re the dragon?” Bilbo stuttered foolishly.

“Yes, we change shape,” Smaug replied matter-of-factly. “Didn’t know that? I’m sure there’s a lot you don’t know about dragons.” He said this with a slight smirk, from behind the teacup, and Bilbo flushed faintly. “But back to where you remember me from,” he commanded. “Describe it. Even if it seems strange.”

“Um… I don’t—There was a city,” Bilbo said suddenly. He knew this to be true, though a moment ago he couldn’t have recalled it. But what city? He’d never been anywhere for most of his life, and then recently he’d been quite a lot of places, but no cities, not the kind that had flashed through his mind. “Did we meet in Lake-town?” he tried anyway. That would be clever, the dragon turning into a Man and wandering through the town of his enemies—

Smaug rolled his eyes, however. The gesture was oddly similar to when he did it as a dragon. “Try again,” he suggested, with supreme patience. “Whatever comes to mind—sounds, scents—“

“Running,” Bilbo described, eyes unfocusing as he tried to articulate the sensations he remembered. “Running through the city, at night. We’re chasing someone.” Smaug leaned forward eagerly. “The streets are made of stone.” A prosperous land, then. “And there are—it moves fast, not an animal, with lights on the front—like a small ship, only on land—“

“Automobile,” Smaug dismissed. “What else is happening?”

“Well, quite a lot of running,” Bilbo repeated, feeling the memory slip away like a fish in a pond. “I think we were eating first.” His stomach gurgled on cue.

“Trust a Hobbit to remember eating,” Smaug commented, but there was affection in his tone. “I’ve put this kitchen and larder together just for you, my little gem, so you may feast to your heart’s content—well, I’d prefer you not get terribly fat,” he added with disapproval, “but I suppose I can always fix that with magic.”

Intriguing as that proposition was, Bilbo was not entirely comfortable with its implications. “That sounds rather long-term,” he observed mildly.

“More like permanent,” Smaug corrected. “I intend for you and I to live right here for as long as possible.”

That was an odd way to delineate it. “For the rest of our lives?” Bilbo clarified.

“That’s right.”

“And suppose I don’t want to?” Bilbo asked, keeping his tone light.

“Ah, but you swore you would,” Smaug reminded him. “And in return I saved your friends. Let’s not look for loopholes,” he added, when Bilbo started to speak. “We both understood the spirit of the agreement.”

“Yes,” Bilbo assured him. He did not go back on his word. “I’m just interested in the parameters. What may I expect, are trips allowed, what about visitors—“

The children came bounding back breathlessly before Smaug could answer, if indeed he had planned to. “Look at all the gold, Mr. Bilbo!” Tilda exclaimed excitedly. In her arms she carried a sack of coins like potatoes, and her hair, neck, and wrists were draped with jewelry. Even her doll wore a tiny necklace.

“I’m sure this will help a lot of people,” Sigrid added more practically, having filled a satchel that could be strapped to her back.

“Who are you?” Bain asked, frowning at Smaug.

If he spoke he would be revealed, and that seemed very bad to Bilbo. “A resident here,” he said quickly. Instinctively Bilbo touched his arm, meaning it as a warning to keep quiet, but he was distracted by the warmth under his shirt sleeve. “Uh, his name is… Max,” he sputtered. “He lives here. So I won’t be lonely.”

“Is this your gold, then?” Sigrid worried, looking around for Daisy who had told them to take it.

“No,” Bilbo answered for him. “He just found it here. It belonged to the dragon, but now the dragon’s dead, remember…” He was starting to get a bit confused with all these different stories.

“So who does the gold belong to?” Bain wanted to know. Obviously he thought it was just going to waste here.

Okay, this was bad too, because if people knew there was treasure here, they would come looking for it, and then Smaug would have to kill them, and Bilbo really didn’t want that. “This is an inn,” he blurted. “An inn for travelers through the mountains. So the gold belongs to the inn’s owner. Uh, that’s what Max was telling me.” Smaug sat with his chin in his hand, covering his smirk. “But it’s definitely alright for you to take what you’ve got there,” Bilbo assured the children. “Take that back to rebuild Lake-town. Or Dale, might be nicer to live there.”

“Lake-town was rather smelly,” Tilda agreed readily.

“There you go,” Bilbo seized. “Rebuild Dale. A gift from the inn’s owner. Only, the rest of the gold belongs to someone else, and he’s probably going to be removing it quite soon anyway. Rather careless, leaving it all over the floor that way.”

“Are you going to stay here, Mr. Bilbo?” Sigrid asked him.

“Yes, I think I shall,” Bilbo replied, managing a smile. “For a while, anyway. There’s some hot springs here, good for old war injuries. I’ll just stay a while, to recuperate.”

Daisy walked back into the room, not a moment too soon. Somehow Bilbo was not worried she would accidentally ruin his latest cover story. “Ah, I see you’ve met Max,” she said immediately. “Doing well, Max?” Smaug gave a shrug in answer. “Well there’s quite a fine library down the hall,” Daisy went on with satisfaction. “Well worth visiting. But, we had better be on our way,” she told the children. “Wrap up warm now. Do you have your gold?”

Bilbo followed them around the edge of the treasure hall to the entrance, where the horse and cart now waited. “You’ll see that they’re returned safely to their father?” he checked with Daisy. “And that, er, everyone is okay?” Everyone but the Orcs, of course.

Daisy smiled knowingly. “I will,” she promised. “Things may seem strange right now, Bilbo,” she added, in that mysterious tone Bilbo had grown to hate. “But I think in time you will be more comfortable.”

He could not forget Daisy was the one who had facilitated this—and brought the dragon back to life when he was safely dead—so Bilbo was a little leery of putting his trust in her, frankly. His polite smile said as much. “Please convey my regards to your father,” he told the children, “and—well—to everyone, Thorin and Gandalf and—“ There seemed to be so many, and he hadn’t made a proper goodbye. “Let them know I’m safe, and that what they saw was just a ghost dragon, no need to worry about that anymore.”

“Can you make the ghost dragon again, Mr. Bilbo?” Tilda asked curiously.

“No, afraid not,” Bilbo insisted, seeing them into the wagon. “One-time event only. Er, that’s why I’ve got to rest up at this special inn for a while. Convalescence. Takes a lot out of one, making ghost dragons.”

They said their goodbyes and Daisy drove the cart away through the dark cave, which was just barely big enough for them yet had admitted a dragon only a few minutes ago. After they disappeared from sight, Bilbo tried to follow, but quickly found himself in a pitch-black tunnel with no light source, his only guide his hand on the wall.

“Are you trying to escape?” Smaug asked curiously, from directly beside him, making Bilbo jump.

“No, I—“ It occurred to him suddenly how this might look a bit not good. “Sorry, I wasn’t trying to escape,” Bilbo promised in a calm, not defensive, tone. “I was just curious about how the entrance worked. I’m concerned people will try to find this cave once they hear about it, and I don’t want any trouble.”

“Oh, why would they even bother,” Smaug replied, with some sarcasm, “after hearing your tale of a travelers’ inn for weary soldiers?”

Since it was completely dark, Bilbo rolled his eyes. “I had to come up with something on the spot,” he pointed out, though he felt this ought to be obvious. “And I didn’t want them to realize you were really the dragon—“

A hand touched his face in the dark, warm and strangely thrilling. “You try to protect me, my little gem,” Smaug purred. “How very sweet. Rest assured, I shall protect you. No one will find our lair unless I wish them to. Are you ready to return?”

“Yes, alright,” Bilbo agreed after a moment, still thinking about the hand and the voice in the dark. “Did we—“

“Yes?” Smaug pounced when he hesitated.

“I remember a little cottage by the sea,” Bilbo told him slowly. “On an island, I think.” It was all very cozy in his mind, but yet at the same time something negative hung over it.

“Yes, the island,” Smaug dismissed. They stepped out into the treasure hoard, though Bilbo did not remember turning around at any point, and he shielded his eyes against the sudden light. “We get sent there when we’ve been bad again.” He sighed as if this was commonplace. “Well, when I’ve been bad,” he amended with a cheeky smirk. “Usually you’re trying to rein me in.”

“I can’t imagine,” Bilbo replied faintly.

“I’ll show you around,” Smaug decided, and took two long strides before he stopped and looked back at Bilbo. “Unless you would rather rest?” he offered solicitously.

The last thing Bilbo wanted was to be alone with his increasingly nonsensical thoughts. “No, no,” he answered quickly. “Er, I would like to see what’s here, if I’m to be living in it.”

“You most definitely are,” the dragon-man agreed, his eyes bright. Bilbo found himself captivated by them, staring upwards into the sapphire gaze, on the verge of… something. But then the moment passed and he drew back, too confused to be embarrassed.

Smaug seemed slightly disappointed, though not surprised. “I shall walk slowly, as your legs are much shorter than mine,” he announced loftily. “Design flaw, that.”

Hobbit legs worked perfectly well in Hobbiton, of course, but Bilbo did not say this. “Can you change into any shape you want?” he asked innocently. “Perhaps you could change into someone smaller.”

Smaug paused and looked as though he was seriously considering it. Then he dismissed the idea. “No,” he decided firmly. “I was meant to be tall.” Grand, impressive, magnificent would all have been synonyms for tall, his tone implied.

“Well, this is the treasure pit,” he went on, indicating the rather obvious mound of gold and jewels that stretched off to the horizon. “In my dragon form I like to sleep in it. You may poke about, see if there’s anything interesting in it,” he allowed.

Bilbo understood this to be a great privilege. “Thank you.”

“Over here is the kitchen. I wonder why you can’t remember me completely,” Smaug mused, turning abruptly on his heel in the warm kitchen. He gave Bilbo a pensive look that seemed a bit dangerous, as though reckless tinkering would soon commence. “I’d wager that blasted wizard had something to do with it.”

“Gandalf?” Bilbo repeated in surprise.

Smaug was becoming more and more certain of this theory. “Yes, he probably placed some hex upon you as a child, having sensed your extraordinary power,” the dragon predicted, which seemed so flattering as to be ridiculous to Bilbo.

“I haven’t got any extra—“

“Keeping it secret and contained, so he could use it for himself one day!” Smaug went on, contemptuously. “But did he know I was the dragon? Had to have known what would happen when I saw you—“

“Pardon me,” Bilbo interrupted, “but what happened was you tried to kill me and my friends, and then destroyed Lake-town.” If he was to live here for the rest of his life, he could not expect to stay silent on such fundamental issues.

“Yes, well…” Smaug tried to minimize. “I wasn’t really trying to kill you,” he claimed, which was not how Bilbo remembered it. “I mean, you would have survived, and we could have just lived there, but without those pesky Dwarves.”

“Who are my friends, whom you would have killed.”

Smaug drew a breath to protest, or wheedle, or something, but seemed to change his mind at Bilbo’s skeptical look. Instead he drew the Hobbit over to a chair at the kitchen table, and sat in one himself—this somehow allowed the two of them to be at the same height, although the chairs appeared identical. This distracted Bilbo for a moment, until Smaug took his hands and gazed at him soberly.

“I swear that I will never hurt you,” the dragon vowed earnestly, “nor allow you to be hurt, if I can prevent it. You must never fear that, Bay—Bilbo.”

Bilbo was about to be moved by this declaration, irrational as it was, until the name slip-up. “What did you call me?” he asked suspiciously. His hands were uncomfortably warm in Smaug’s and he tried to free them.

“Did it sound familiar?” Smaug asked eagerly. “Bay?”

Something sparked in Bilbo’s brain, like a scent he recognized but couldn’t place, and he tugged his hands away in frustration. “Is this dragon magic?” he accused angrily. “Are you putting these thoughts in my head?”

“What thoughts?” Smaug asked quickly, with enough pure hope that Bilbo believed him innocent of this trickery.

“Nothing,” Bilbo dismissed with a sigh.

“Gandalf,” Smaug repeated, with a nod. “A hex! I think it will wear off over time, now that we’re together again. You must call me Magnus.”

“Sorry, what?” asked Bilbo, who had, perhaps dangerously, begun to tune out the bits that didn’t make sense. “Did you say Magnus?”

“Where do you know that name?” asked the dragon sharply.

“You said it, just now.”

Smaug rolled his eyes. “Fine. Please call me Magnus,” he requested again. “It’s… a friendly nickname.”

“Okay,” Bilbo agreed helplessly. If one had to live with a shapeshifting undead dragon, it was best to be on a friendly nickname basis with him.

Smaug—Magnus—popped up eagerly. “Come along, I want to show you the library, if Daisy hasn’t completely plundered it,” he insisted, holding out his hand. “And your room, I think you’ll find it very comfortable. I’m very anxious that you be comfortable here.”

Bilbo went back over his earlier arithmetic. Hobbit seems to have some value. Well, as adventures went, someone promising him no harm and wanting him to be comfortable was a lot better than the other offers he’d been getting lately, which tended to involve being imprisoned, skewered, or eaten alive. As for the never leaving part—well, never was a long time, maybe there would be room for negotiation.

Bilbo stood and took Magnus’s large hand, and the taller figure smiled, something warm and genuine, his eyes sparkling with familiarity. Bilbo wanted to discover just what mysterious past linked the two of them—a quest for himself, instead of for others. “Alright. Show me.”