The March of Time

38: The Sleeping Serpent

Disclaimer: All rights go to JRR Tolkien and Peter Jackson, respectively. Anything you don't recognize is mine.

Quick A/N: Well, I decided to post this chapter a day early, because once I saw that this story has reached 200 FOLLOWERS I was possessed by the writing demon and so this chapter came forth earlier than expected. But seriously, wow, thank you guys so much! The support you've given this story is astounding, and I'm so grateful to all of you, whether you're an avid reader/reviewer, a casual follower, or a new reader! Thanks so much again!

Anyway, sentimentality speech aside, enjoy the new chapter!

Chapter Thirty-Eight: The Sleeping Serpent

Nori knew better than anyone how luck worked.

Being someone of his - expertise - it wasn't all about stealth and wit and cunning; a great deal of it was luck, to sneak around unnoticed, to grab things out of tight places in the blink of an eye unseeing; it was a gift, and one that he wore well.

But in all his long years of thieving (or, that was what Dori called it, but Nori preferred more eloquent terms), he didn't think he had ever seen someone with as much luck as Bilbo Baggins.

The hobbit was a riddle wrapped in a mystery, as his ma used to say, and Nori thought that that quite suited the portly, overly-polite man.

When Nori had first laid eyes upon him, he had thought the same thing as the rest of the Company; this hobbit was no survivor of the Wild, with his round belly, cozy home, and baffled mannerisms, and even less so was he a burglar, especially when he balked at the idea of leaving the Shire and venturing off with thirteen dwarves, a Wizard, and a mortal Hero to kill a dragon. Oh, no, there was absolutely no way that Bilbo Baggins was a burglar.

And yet, Nori had always sensed something... different about the hobbit. He possessed a wiliness and a nerve that had only been hinted at that night in Bag-End when Gandalf and Thorin were speaking of the quest, and though none of the others had seen it, Nori had, and from then on, he had been intrigued. No matter how much the hobbit had protested, Nori had still seen the flame of adventure kindling in his sharp eyes, the longing to see the world that night, and it seemed his premonitions had been right; Bilbo Baggins was indeed an adventuring soul with a thirst for knowledge (something the hobbit had once referred to as his 'Tookish side,' whatever that was supposed to mean), and from then on, Nori knew that Bilbo was the burglar they would need for this quest.

But nothing sparked his interest more than the hobbit's luck. Out of everything they had faced, with the Orcs, wargs, Stone Giants, goblins, more Orcs, and those prancing, pretentious little Wood-Elves, Nori had been fairly surprised the hobbit had made it through in one piece; and if surviving this long on such an insane quest had to do with luck, Bilbo held all the cards.

The one thing Nori couldn't shake, however, was the feeling that that luck could come to an end, and very soon. Yes, congratulations, they had made it through the hidden door and entered Erebor; but now, the only thing standing between them and victory was one helluva fire-breathing dragon, and the longer Nori sat in the dark on watch with Bilbo, the more the feeling nagged at him until finally he couldn't stay silent anymore, and he turned to the hobbit, who was sitting against the passage wall next to him and tracing a cracked, dirty fingernail along the stone floor, seemingly lost deep in thought as the snores of the rest of the dwarves filled the small, yet eerily long passageway.

"So," he said quietly to break the silence, and Bilbo jerked a bit, halting his tracing and looking up to the dwarf with bright yet tired eyes.

"Yes?" Bilbo questioned, and Nori resisted the urge to snort. A few hours away from meeting a dragon, and he's still as polite as an uptight court lady.

Nori shrugged, unsure of what exactly to say; he hadn't really considered a conversation starter before opening his mouth, and he had never really spoken to the hobbit one-on-one before, so he was quite at a loss for words until Bilbo chuckled and spoke for him.

"If you're going to ask me if I'm fine, the answer is that I'm as good as I'll ever be," he said amusedly, but Nori detected the strain under the light-hearted tone, and it didn't take a genius to know why.

"You're scared," he stated bluntly, and Bilbo flinched a little bit, twiddling his thumbs like he did whenever he was nervous, as Nori had become accustomed to over the months.

"I think that would be a bit of an understatement," the hobbit replied, half-jokingly, half-bitterly, and Nori quirked a brow. Bilbo took a deep breath, and then looked to Nori conspiratorially, as if he were about to confide in him something secret. "Truth is, I'm terrified. In the beginning, the dragon and the burgling, they all seemed so far away, and now that we're finally here..."

He trailed off, but Nori knew what he was saying; hell, the thought had been going through his own mind for the last two days alone. He knew how Bilbo was feeling - how all of them were feeling.

"Well," he said eventually, wishing he had his pipe to occupy his hands as they fiddled in his lap awkwardly, but Bilbo paid no mind, focusing solely on Nori, and he realized that he liked that about the hobbit; his ability to give his full attention to whatever was at hand, without being overly scrutinizing like the Wizard or lacking in focus like Bofur or Kíli (it had to be said). "At least you have that lucky ring of yours," he continued, and he saw Bilbo's hand shift almost unconsciously to his filthy waistcoat pocket. "Doesn't it turn you invisible or something crazy like that? You can slip in and out of there, quick and quiet as a mouse. I reckon you'll be fine, Bilbo."

Bilbo nodded, though he didn't look entirely convinced, his hand drifting away from his pocket with a slight tremor that Nori did not miss, though he chose not to comment on it, figuring it was just nerves that was making his small and fragile-looking hand shake.

"I hope you're right, Nori," the hobbit said, almost inaudibly as he looked around at the sleeping dwarves.

Nori clapped him on the back, smirking when he jumped as he said, "Of course I'm right, Master Burglar. My word can be trusted."

Bilbo shot him a dry look, replying sarcastically, "Oh, yes. I trust in your word so much after that time you told me there was a nice spot to do my business on the Road behind a cluster of trees and I ended up falling into a hole filled with mud and worms. I couldn't get the stench out of my nose for days."

Nori chuckled, having forgotten about that incident, but he recalled the disgusted look on the hobbit's face after what had happened with a certain fond glee. "I had quite forgotten about that," he snickered, meeting Bilbo's sour look with a smirk. "Well, besides that one time, when have I ever led you astray?"

Bilbo rolled his eyes teasingly, earning another chuckle from Nori. "Dwarves," he grumbled. "I should've known I was getting into a lifetime of harassment and terrible pranks."

"Why, burglar," Nori said, putting a hand over his heart in mock offense. "I never!"

They shared a long look, and then they both broke into quiet laughter, having to muffle their voices in their sleeves so as not to wake the others, and Nori found that once he had started, he couldn't stop, and so they sat there, silently shaking and doubling over with renewed laughs every time they made eye contact again.

It was a good feeling, sitting side-by-side with someone Nori never expected to befriend, laughing into the darkness of a stone tunnel in a kingdom currently housing a dragon, but it was a good feeling, nonetheless, and Nori was glad for the small piece of light-heartedness in the puzzle of wretchedness their quest had become. And for the first time in a long time, he was happy, in the sort of way that friends were with each other; not that he was never happy around his brothers or the other dwarves, but they were like his family, too, while this was just plain, simple friendship, nothing more, nothing less. And Bilbo Baggins, he knew, was a friend.

Eventually, they wound down, Nori swiping tears away from his eyes and Bilbo quietly hiccupping himself into submission, and there was a heavy moment of silence where Nori could feel the worries and doubts settle back on him once more, making his shoulders droop and his brows furrow, but he tried to shake it off, as he always did. He was a role model for Ori, a rock for Dori, and an unwavering companion to Thorin and the rest of the Company. There was no room for him to look anything less than the sly, cool man he was, shrewd and collected.

He looked over to Bilbo, and then frowned when he saw how truly exhausted the hobbit was, hunched and staring off into space, and Nori remembered a comment mentioned in passing from Thorin about how the hobbit had not slept the night before, which deepened his frown.

"Bilbo," he said, and the hobbit raised his brows at him, giving a small hum in reply. "You should get some sleep. You look dead on your feet, and you'll need all your energy for tomorrow when..."

You sneak around the dragon for the Arkenstone, was what he was going to say, only he didn't, but Bilbo understood anyway.

"Are you sure?" he asked, with one small hiccup, and Nori smirked as the burglar pulled a face at the squeaking noise. "I mean, I'm fine, you need the rest too -"

"Nice try," Nori interrupted sweetly. "But I don't believe you for a second. Now, go to sleep, get some rest, or I will punch you into oblivion if that's what it takes."

"Dwarves," Bilbo scoffed again. "Such lovely, affectionate creatures." But he was already sliding his way over to his bedroll when he said it, and Nori snorted.

"Love you, too, sweetums," he replied, then snickered when the hobbit gave him an obscene gesture without turning around as he curled up beneath his blankets, gave one last hiccup, and then fell asleep almost instantly.

"Liar," Nori muttered to himself, shaking his head as he pulled out a knife from his boot and began to twirl it in his hand, missing his own twin daggers greatly and cursing the pretty little show-off Elves for taking them.

But as he watched over the sleeping Company, his thoughts from earlier that night came back to plague him, and he wondered what would happen tomorrow when Bilbo attempted to steal the Arkenstone out from under Smaug's nose. Maybe with some stroke of luck it would work, or maybe it wouldn't; there could be any number of possibilities: Smaug would awaken and burn Bilbo to a crisp before taking care of them and then going to Lake-town like Alison had said he would, or Smaug would awaken, stomp on Bilbo like a bug, and then take care of them before flying off to Lake-town. Really, any scenario was terrible, but they all had the same general idea: fire, death, and destruction.

But, again, there was any number of possibilities. Anything could happen; though the longer Nori sat in the dark, thinking, the more he began to wish that Bilbo's luck would hold out until then, and bring the hobbit back to them safely.

"So, uh, one more time," Bilbo said, walking alongside Balin down the tunnel as they made their way deeper into the passageway, the stone under their feet gradually beginning to slope downward as they walked, and Bilbo could feel the air becoming warmer and stickier with every step, something his body disagreed with as he began to sweat and his hair stuck to his forehead and neck uncomfortably. "You want me to find a jewel?"

It was an hour after the Company had woken up from their night's rest, and, according to Dwalin, who had gone and checked the hidden door, about two hours after the sun's rise, and Bilbo had never felt so scared yet so centered at the same time. It was like he was an insect encased in amber; petrified to the bone inside, but surrounded by this calming glow that allowed him to keep his head and understand what was going on, no matter how much fear he could feel. It was an odd sensation, but one that made him feel as if he had some small control over the reins of his eventual fate. And so it was, that after a rationed breakfast and a small good luck session with the dwarves, Balin had offered to escort him part of the way down to the main chamber where Smaug was rumored to be sleeping, buried beneath piles and hoards of treasure, and the two made their way down the tunnel, Balin being an excellent guide despite not having been there in over two centuries.

The white-haired dwarf nodded at Bilbo's question as they walked, the air becoming more humid and warm and now carrying the faint stench of something sooty as they went. "Yes, a large, white jewel," he confirmed. "The Arkenstone is quite the sight to behold."

"That's it?" Bilbo said blankly. "A large, white jewel? Only I expect there's quite a few down there."

Balin gave him a borderline patronizing look, saying, "Yes, that's what it looks like; what did you expect it to be?" Bilbo was spared trying to answer (he had been imagining the jewel to be something a bit more... spectacular than the dwarf's description) as he continued. "There is only one Arkenstone, and you'll know it when you see it."

"Right, then," Bilbo said, swallowing and trying to keep that information intact before his calm exterior shattered and he started running around in circles screaming.

He turned and saw Balin looking at him with an almost fatherly look, his cheery features looking serious but still as serene as ever, a look Bilbo was accustomed to seeing on the dwarf, and a look that he found familiar and comforting as Balin took a deep breath before speaking.

"In truth, lad, I don't know what you'll find down there," he said. "And what I mean to say is that... you needn't go if you don't want to. There's no - no dishonor in turning back."

Bilbo stared for a second, trying to wrap his head around the fact that just now, after everything they had done, just now was the dwarf telling him he didn't have to do this. But the Took in him was stirring for that sweet song of adventure, for doing something out of the ordinary, and, looking at Balin, he thought of the whole Company, and how over everything, their objective was to get to here, to this very moment. And he would not let himself turn away from that.

"No, Balin," he said gently, yet firmly. "I promised I would do this, and I - I think I must try."

There was a brief pause, and then Balin started to chuckle, a wide smile breaking over his face and making his long beard twitch as Bilbo stared, half-amused, half-unsure of what exactly was going on that was making the dwarf laugh.

"It never ceases to amaze me," Balin said, shaking his head as he caught sight of Bilbo's face, and Bilbo scrunched his brows together in confusion.

"And what's that?"

"The courage of hobbits," the dwarf replied, patting him on the shoulder, and Bilbo stayed silent, not sure how to reply to that but smiling and nodding all the same when Balin looked back to him.

"Go now, with as much luck as you can muster," he said, and Bilbo nodded again, patting Balin's own shoulder in return before a thought came to him.

"Wait, Balin," he said, and the dwarf hummed in reply. "I know I'm searching for the Arkenstone, but what about... this Ring Alison mentioned? The Lesser Ring her ancestor had? What do I do about it?"

Balin hesitated, a frown pulling on his lips as Bilbo waited for him to respond. "That I don't know," the dwarf said finally. "I would leave that up to Alison if she were here, but as of now..." He sighed, shaking his head. "I would avoid it if I were you, lad. We don't know as much as Alison does when it comes to this, and the longer it stays hidden, the longer Johnathan Ashburne may not know of its whereabouts, and that is a good thing."

Bilbo nodded again, not entirely satisfied with the answer, but he knew Balin's logic made sense. So with one last look and a quick smile, Bilbo turned and began to make his way down the tunnel, before he was stopped again by Balin's voice.

"Oh, and Bilbo," he said, pausing at the corner of the tunnel that would take him back up to the Company. "If there, um... if there is, perchance, a live dragon down there... don't waken it."

"Yes, Balin, I'll try not to," Bilbo replied sarcastically, but either the dwarf didn't catch his tone or he ignored it, for he shot Bilbo one last smile and wave and disappeared back up the tunnel.

"And as for that vote of confidence..." he said, before steeling his nerves and continuing down the passageway to the main chamber, and, ultimately, to Smaug.

The heat and humidity were becoming almost unbearable the farther Bilbo went towards the chamber, until he was soaked through with sweat and if he wrung his hair, probably about a pint of perspiration would come out of it. The air was becoming worse, as well, taking on the smell of something rotting and sweet, sour and ashy, all at once, until it clogged his nostrils and stung the back of his dry throat whenever he tried to swallow.

He kept one hand on Sting at his waist, and the other brushing against the wall of living stone next to him, the power of the mountain kingdom reverberating through his fingertips as he made his way, slowly and carefully, to the large doors at the end of the equally enormous and long corridor he was walking down.

One thing he had learned very quickly was that Erebor was massive; being built in a mountain itself, Bilbo had assumed as much, but now that he was actually inside... it was breathtaking.

The architecture of the stone, the sheer magnitude of everything, especially for such a small person - it was all overwhelming. Bilbo wondered how the dwarves lived like this, with no sunlight or outdoors, only stone and darkness, before he remembered that he was walking through an empty kingdom devoid of any life, where no lanterns burned, the braziers were cold and bleak, and the empty corridors he was wandering were no longer full and teeming with life and sound, the echoes of civilization and a sense of home, of belonging. It was terribly sad to Bilbo, and it made him feel much as the same way walking through Dale had; as if there was an ache in his chest that longed to be filled with comfort and vitality again, with all the feelings of life, laughter, and home. And he thought that now, now was the moment where he truly felt what the dwarves must feel every day, what it must be like to have a home ripped away. Now he understood.

He continued on, closer to the large doors that stood open and broken, as if they had been smashed through, though he tried not to think of what had did that as he looked around, beginning to notice some of the other signs that a dragon had taken up residence here. The stone floor was cracked in some places, ripples of pressure blossoming outwards from the looks of very large feet, and scratches scoured the ground, as well, deep furrows in the dense stone that sent shivers up Bilbo's back as he avoided a particularly large gash. Along with the floor, the walls were scorched with black soot, and when Bilbo pulled his hand away from the wall to look at it, he wrinkled his nose when he saw that the once weathered and tanned skin had become black and crusty, and he decided not to touch the wall anymore.

He stepped over fallen blocks of stone and shredded tapestries before coming up on the doors, and he couldn't see anything beyond except a dim golden light and a set of stairs that led to seemingly nothing, though the chamber was huge, to the point where he could barely make out the other side, or even the gigantic pillars somewhere he considered the middle of the chamber.

He paused at the threshold of the door, unsure of what to do. He could go marching in, find the Arkenstone quickly, and then get right back out, but for all he knew, Smaug was waiting down in that chamber, ready to set him ablaze as soon as he showed one hair of himself. Or he could use the ring and sneak in, but that option no longer appealed to him the way it used to. Ever since hearing about how Alison's ancestor had killed herself over a Ring that drove her mad and Johnathan's intent on finding said Ring, Bilbo had been careful around the gold trinket, wary of its mysterious properties now, no matter how useful they were. So, with nothing else left, he did what any respectable Baggins would do: he knocked.

"Hello?" he whispered, and then rapped his knuckles carefully on the stone, immediately leaping back into the shadows as the knock began to echo around the chamber ominously. After the echoes had faded out, though, there was still no sign nor sound of any life in the chamber, and Bilbo peeked his head around the corner, his heart hammering, but there was still nothing.

"Well," he said, sniffing and emerging from the shadows to walk carefully over the threshold. "He's not at home, then. Good, good. That's good."

He wondered why he was talking to himself, but it was reassuring, somewhat, so he continued to mutter small words of encouragement to himself as he walked over to the staircase that would take him down to the chamber, barely noticing when the faint golden glow from before was getting steadily brighter until he was right on top of it, and it shined up at him like a torch in the twilight dim.

"That's odd," he remarked, stepping closer to the top landing of the stairs and peeking out over the ledge before he sucked in a sharp breath. "And that, Bilbo Baggins, is gold."

And it was indeed. A sea of gold stretched out before him, coating the entire chamber in rolling waves and mounting crests of gold, silver, jewels, any finery he could think of; there was no doubt in his mind that he had found the dragon's hoard, where Smaug had taken all of his plunder and stored it, for whatever reason besides being a dragon and guarding it until death.

But there was so much. Even if Balin had said that he would know the Arkenstone when he saw it, Bilbo was suddenly sure that if that were true, it would still be nearly impossible to track down one jewel in the ocean before him. But he had to try. He had signed a contract, promised the dwarves; he had to at least make an effort, after how far they had come just to get here.

Bilbo began to search for what felt like hours, and in reality, it probably was that long as he climbed and rolled over mounds of treasure, trying to be as stealthy and reticent as he could as he sifted and clinked through coin after coin, gem after gem, silk after jewelry and any other damned thing that was not the Arkenstone.

"'A large, white jewel,'" he found himself mimicking as he shuffled through another pile of coins. "'The Arkenstone. You'll know it when you see it.' Yes, because that's so very helpful -"

On the last word, he jerked a golden goblet encrusted with rubies out of the pile, but he stilled when the whole pile began to clink and slide around him, cascading down in shimmering tones of slinking and clanging, and when he looked up, his heart very nearly stopped working when he noticed something only a short ways away, something that looked very much like an eye of a lizard, though this eye, thankfully closed, was almost as big as Bilbo's whole body.

He made a very un-heroic noise in the back of his throat and slowly set the goblet amongst the pile. Then, taking care to keep his eyes on the closed one before him, he began to creep backwards, one step at a time, making for the large carved pillars that would hopefully hide him from view if the sleeping serpent chose to awaken - though for how long it would hide him, he couldn't say; all he knew was that he had to move before he became a crispy critter and got snatched up as the dragon's next meal as he turned and made for the pillar more swiftly.

As he moved, there was a hissing of coins from behind him, and Bilbo felt the air leave his lungs as he crouched down, every curse and swear he could think of running through his head, even the new ones he had learned from Alison that conveyed his terror much better than the ones he normally used, though he knew his mother and father were probably rolling over in their graves at his language, no matter if it was spoken out loud or not.

Bilbo snuck a glance over his shoulder, and pure, hot fear rushed through his veins when he saw the dragon's head shifting, gold coins sliding off of his burnished, coppery scales, and without even thinking, Bilbo threw himself down another treasure pile and grasped the ring in his hand as the sure sounds of a dragon awakening from slumber came from behind him.

Hands quaking, he slipped on the ring just as a shadow fell over him, and he began to move, as quietly as he could, towards the pillars once more, fighting the urge to faint as the huffing noises of a predator smelling out its prey sounded behind him, and he had just made it to the relative safety of the pillars before his knees gave out and he had to grasp the stone for support, trying not to breathe too loudly as the sounds of more shifting and clanking coins could be heard as the dragon rose up. But the noises could be heard from Bilbo's left, too, and he poked his head around the corner of the pillar, his breath catching in his throat when he saw more rattling coins and what looked like a tail rising out of the treasure, and he was suddenly hit with the realization of just how big dragons were as the chuffing noises sounded again.

"Well, thief." A voice sounded from somewhere behind the pillar yet very close, a voice that was reptilian in nature and yet carried an ancient, sinister tone Bilbo had no words for, only knowing that he had never experienced true fear until this moment as the voice came again, deadly and lulling. "I smell you. I hear your breath. Where are you?"

By the Valar, the thing can talk, the dragon is talking, the dragon is talking -

"Come now," Smaug crooned, his voice sleek like a fine dagger but cloaked with poison, seeking to cut into Bilbo as he moved, his large body making the ground tremble beneath Bilbo's feet, even though he couldn't see him yet. "Don't be shy, little thief. Step into the light."

Bilbo clamped a hand over his mouth to cover his panting, sweat sliding between his shoulder blades as a head suddenly rounded the edge of the pillar, scaly and strong, with a sinewy neck covered with a copper armor of scales and the tops and bottoms of razor-sharp teeth poking out of its mouth, stained with something Bilbo refused to think about as Smaug continued to sniff, his horrible slitted yellow eyes, glowing like lanterns in the gloom, searching the air around him as Bilbo dared not breathe nor move a muscle.

"Mm," Smaug hummed, for that was what it could be described as, a noise of great intrigue growled low in his throat. "There is something about you... something you carry. Something made of gold." He paused, his head still mere feet away from where Bilbo stood against the pillar, too petrified to move, and not stupid enough to as Smaug tilted his head, his eyes slitting in thought. "But I sense that it is something far more... precious."

The reptilian voice echoed in his ears, grating on his eardrums and screeching as Bilbo flashed back to another voice, belonging to a gangly, pale-skinned creature with orb eyes living in an underground lake, quizzing Bilbo on riddles and screaming that it's 'precious' was lost after Bilbo won.

The word 'precious' bounced around his skull, giving Bilbo a splitting headache as he squeezed his eyes shut and bit his tongue to keep from crying out, and suddenly the ring was growing hot on his finger, too hot, like dragon-fire but a thousand times worse, and the voice from his dreams was laughing as there was a flash of an eye wreathed in flame, and the ring was scalding, his skin was blistering -

With a gasp, Bilbo yanked off the ring, and through the befuddled haze of his mind, he realized that his hand was not peeling or blistering like he thought it had been, just at the same time that he realized the grave mistake he had just made, that would probably result in his death in less than two seconds as Smaug whipped his head toward Bilbo, his scaly lips curling into a pleased snarl as his yellow eyes widened and fastened on him, capturing him in a terror-inducing light that locked his limbs.

"There you are, thief in the shadows. How nice of you to join me."

Author's Note

I love writing Bilbo. He's so sassy in my eyes, and I love writing characters like that; my little sassy hobbit.

Ahem.

So, not a long chapter, but one more part to go then we should be getting back to that point again. I know I've been terrible about updates, too, but I'm running around everywhere getting ready for this job and I've been taking time away from this fic to start planning a Supernatural fic that may or may not happen, but who knows? (Oh, and for clarification about the job thing and me not being here for three weeks to update, that starts June 29 and ends July 19, so head's up for that).

Anyway, next chapter we get a Bofur POV, another lovely Bard, and some more Bilbo/Smaug time! And a big thank you to reviewer Elise, who I cannot respond to by PM, thank you for your reviews! GAHH! *hugs*

Thank you all again for your amazing reviews/favorites/follows, and don't forget to drop a few words in a review if you have the time: anything you liked, disliked, are looking forward to? Let me know!

Thanks again, lovelies! Until next chapter...

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