The March of Time

47: The Throne of Erebor

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

Quick A/N: Well, if there's one thing Christopher Columbus is good for besides landing in America many centuries ago, it's to give me an extra day of the weekend to write this chapter and post it for y'all. Yay!

Much thanks to my reviewers, Obi-wan's girl forever, PK-chan12, mh21, KelseyBl, Luckygirl1013, BrooklyntheElf, Miriel Tolkien, Guest, and Its moi (Guest). You guys rock!

HOLD UP!

Before you read this chapter, a word or two: some of you may have caught this last chapter, where I did, indeed, announce a sequel for this story. So, as a little treat (I love giving y'all those, don't I? Man, I dote too much), I decided to reveal the title! And here it is:

The Stars of Dawn

Unfortunately, that is all I can give away right now, but I hope it sates some of your curiosity. And now, on to the chapter!

Enjoy!

Chapter Forty-Seven: The Throne of Erebor

Bilbo was tired of gold.

Whether he had been running for his life through it to escape Smaug, searching through it to find the blasted Arkenstone, or, like now, sifting through it aimlessly just to pass the time, it was starting to grate on his nerves a bit, and he thought that if Nori held up a trinket one more time and pretended to be royalty with it, he would lose it completely and end up throwing a solid gold platter at his head or something.

Bilbo sighed, rubbing his eyes and sitting down on a small hill of gold shoveled together in the treasury; he knew he was exhausted and that he should sleep, but every time he told himself he was going to, it seemed his body propelled itself right back to his feet, off to do one thing or another.

Or maybe it was just his emotions that were keeping him awake; after all, it was the only source of energy all of them had been running on for the past few hours or so, buzzing with jittery apprehension and anticipation and undulated relief, mixed with the ever-present fear that still seemed to haunt them, despite the events of the past night.

It had been only a few hours until dawn (from Balin's own estimation, considering a thick blanket of smoke had been clouding the sky at the time), and they had all been huddled together in a quiet, tense group, facing the lanterns Ori had found in a storage room of sorts as they had had no firewood for a fire, not speaking and not looking at each other as thoughts of what was happening in Lake-town lingered unbidden in their minds, and wonderings of the dragon's triumph or demise casting a shadow on their hearts.

It wasn't until Bifur had come skidding into the corridor they had taken shelter in, gesturing frantically and yelling in Khuzdûl, that had spurred the Company into action, and Bilbo scrambled to stand up as the others jackknifed to their feet, their eyes widening and their jaws gaping as they listened to what Bifur was yammering on about.

"What is it?" Bilbo said frantically, hating that he had to rely on the others' interpretations as he could not speak Dwarvish. "What's happening? Has the dragon returned?"

He swallowed nervously at this last one, his hand automatically reaching for his sword, but Dwalin shook his tattooed head quickly from beside him, still staring at Bifur in astonishment.

"Quite the opposite," the burly dwarf said hoarsely, and Bilbo looked to him sharply. "He's saying that Smaug is dead."

Bilbo's heart skipped several beats, his breath catching in his throat. "What? How?"

"He doesn't know," Glóin translated, a wide, toothy smile beginning to creep across his face as Bifur went on. "He had just been on watch out at the Gate, looking over Lake-town, when he saw Smaug descend on the eastern edge of the town and perch there for a few minutes; then the next thing he knew, the beast was shrieking something terrible and tried to flee back to the Mountain before it shriveled up and plopped into the lake."

"You're kidding," Bilbo whistled, as suddenly Nori and Dori gave jubilant shouts and started doing some strange, jerky jig together, knocking over the lanterns as they stomped around and whooped in delight.

As the news sunk in that Smaug was truly dead, the other dwarves began to join in on the festivities, hollering and cheering as they stamped their feet and head-butted each other; only Thorin and Bilbo stayed put, the raven-haired dwarf looking as if the weight of the world had been lifted from his shoulders as Bilbo's face split into a wide smile, relief blossoming in his chest and seeming to soothe his frayed nerves.

The dragon was dead.

It appeared Bard had come through, after all, and Alison's story had proved true. The only grey in this new ray of hope, however, was that they still did not know the extent of the destruction of Lake-town, or whether or not their friends had lived.

Apparently this thought was shared by the others, for their celebration ended shortly, and soon they were all sitting back down on the ground in a circle, looking amongst themselves, and, more importantly, Thorin, who stared into one of the flames of a lantern so intensely it seemed as if he had started it with his mind alone.

The silence was eventually broken by Balin, who cleared his throat and said, in a hushed, reverent tone, "Well, Thorin. This is it." He suddenly sucked in a deep breath, blinking back tears that had just rushed to his eyes, and Thorin looked to the white-haired dwarf, suddenly looking very emotional himself.

"The dragon is defeated," the old dwarf went on. "The Mountain is yours. And now you are King."

The corridor grew deathly silent then, every eye turning to Thorin as the full implication of Balin's words hit them, and Bilbo looked to Thorin, as well, suddenly seeing him in a very different light, because Balin was, of course, completely right.

Thorin was now the King under the Mountain. Not the king-in-exile, not the dwarf king who yearned so deeply for his home that he had been willing to risk death by a dragon just to reclaim it; but the rightful heir to the throne of Erebor. The true King under the Mountain.

When it was clear no one else was going to say anything, Thorin only nodded, his voice raspy and low as he said, "So I am."

"Well, then, Your Majesty," Nori said, after another brief silence, and the sly dwarf was smirking wickedly, though his grey eyes glittered with a deeper respect. "What would you have us do, then, as your first order as King and everything?"

Everyone looked expectantly to Thorin, who gazed back with a slightly exasperated expression at the thief's words, but after a few seconds, he only said, "Whatever deems fitting for the companions of this successful venture." He grinned wryly as they all let out snickers. "It is not just my kingdom now, friends, but yours, as well. Our new home."

And that was how Bilbo had ended up in the treasury along with the others, who had pulled him along excitedly to bask in the newfound wealth free of any guarding dragon. That had been several hours ago by this point, and Bilbo was sick of the treasure, no matter how fascinating; a sentiment that was obviously not shared by his companions, who still delved deeper into the treasury and were seemingly determined to look at every single piece of treasure in the kingdom.

It was at this point in time, when Bilbo was sitting on the gold-mound, that he realized he had not seen Thorin at all since the news of Smaug's death and their departure in the corridor, and he wondered where the dwarf had gone off to, seeing as there was a very good reason for him not to be anywhere near the treasury right now due to the looming threat of his sickness.

Maybe that's what I'll do, Bilbo thought, as he stood up and brushed off his filthy clothes, more from habit than anything. I'll go find Thorin; it's better than looking at any more of this blasted treasure.

With this thought in mind, he turned and started up the mound of gold, though he hadn't taken more than a few steps before his foot slipped on the very platter he had imagined throwing at Nori's head earlier, and before he could regain his balance, he tumbled down the hill of treasure, sliding on coins and hitting other protruding objects as he yelped and then landed, quite uncomfortably, on a rare empty stretch of stone floor below.

"Oh, bollocks," Bilbo grunted in pain, as some of the air was knocked from his lungs and a dislodged goblet landed alarmingly close to his head.

He sat up with some difficulty, wheezing in air as he looked around to get his bearings. With a start, he realized that he knew exactly where he had landed; there was the island of stone amidst the gold, right above him, and the stretch of floor he was on was the very same stone he had been standing on not even a day before, as he confronted Smaug – yes, and there it was. A large black scorch mark on the floor, from where Smaug had tried to roast him.

Bilbo didn't realize until then just how far he had fallen as he clambered awkwardly to his feet, rubbing his spine where he had landed and feeling like Old Took with his back problems as he did so.

He traced his path back up to where the others were with his eyes, huffing out an irritated breath at how much climbing he was going to have to do just to reach the main hall of the treasury again.

"This should be pleasant," he sighed, and he debated on shouting for one of the dwarves to just come get him as he trudged over to the half-buried stairs stemming from the lone platform, but he had barely moved before something winked at him out of the corner of his eye, and he turned his head sharply, his eyes widening at what he saw.

"By Eru," he breathed, sprinting over to the spot amongst the scattered treasure on the floor that was glowing a brilliant white, almost having to shield his eyes at the radiant light as he approached it.

"The Arkenstone," he whispered; and he was right.

The Heart of the Mountain, the King's Jewel, twinkled innocently up at him, its molten hue shifting through every incandescent shade of gold, blue, silver – any and every color imaginable.

Now that Bilbo could see it clearly for the first time, not having to worry about a murderous dragon, he wondered how he had never noticed before just how beautiful the stone truly was. No wonder why the Dwarves had revered it; it was simply mesmerizing.

After gawking at it for several minutes, Bilbo shook his head and scooped up the stone carefully, placing it into an inside pocket of his coat gently, a thrill going through his fingertips as he did so; at last, he had finally obtained the thing he was roped into this quest to get in the first place!

It seemed awfully final, though, placing the Arkenstone on his person, but he tried to shake off the feeling; he had spent months leading up to this very moment, fighting through all sorts of horrible things and discovering truths almost too terrifying to bear, but he now had the Arkenstone, and he was going to enjoy it however much he could.

Thorin, his mind seemed to whisper insistently, and Bilbo shrugged off his stupor at the thought of the dwarf king, hope filling his heart for what felt like the first time in ages.

Perhaps Bilbo had found the Arkenstone in the nick of time; it seemed like fate that he had stumbled across it again, right when Thorin needed it. Maybe the recovery of the King's Jewel was the very thing he needed to fight the gold-sickness, to have his hope restored that he could rebuild his kingdom without fear of falling prey to the disease residing inside of him.

In a burst of energy, Bilbo turned and scaled the mounds of gold more quickly than he had thought himself capable in his battered state, reaching the main hall where the others were still rifling through the treasure in only a few short minutes, barely out of breath.

No one paid any attention to the hobbit, now too absorbed in selecting various finery and armor to adorn themselves in to notice him, but Bilbo didn't mind, instead turning and padding out of the treasury, now on a mission to find Thorin.

The Arkenstone seemed to weigh nothing yet held an air of heaviness in his pocket as he stopped in one of the intersecting corridors, trying to think of where Thorin would go. This was what all of them needed, some light amidst the darkness of their journey, and Bilbo was eager to deliver it. But where would that brooding dwarf be?

Bilbo chose the most obvious path first, retracing his footsteps back to their makeshift campsite, but he wasn't surprised when he stepped into the hallway to see it completely empty, save for their supplies and the still-glowing lamps, though devoid of any dark-haired dwarf.

I wasn't really fancying a trek throughout the entire mountain, but I guess that's what I'm getting now, Bilbo thought, putting his hands on his hips as he determined where Thorin would have gone.

He looked down, stumped, then did a double-take as he realized another set of footprints were stamped into the grime and dust coating the floors, just one set that branched off from the direction of the treasury and turned right, heading deeper into the heart of the mountain.

Bilbo trailed after the footsteps, looking up occasionally to see if he was going to run into anything, but so far he was just walking through another empty corridor, albeit bigger and wider than the others, and, for some reason that baffled him, looking much more abandoned than anything else he had seen so far within Erebor.

Plumes of thickly layered dust puffed into the air with every step, tickling Bilbo's nose, and he fought the urge to sneeze as he took in the unblemished walls, the perfectly preserved stone, and he wondered what was down here that had compelled Smaug to never come near it in his long years of inhabiting the kingdom.

After several minutes of walking, the corridor came to three branching hallways, and Bilbo halted, staring at each of the three entryways.

Each threshold had runes carved over the entrance, though Bilbo couldn't read them and moved on from those quickly, instead turning his attention to the dark openings each passage tunneled into; the right one, from what he could see, had dilapidated images of grandeur, with tattered and sagging tapestries on the walls and yellowed canvases in cracked frames he assumed had once been very important portraits, while the left entrance looked the most used, for the dust had settled on stone that looked as if it had been worn down by thousands of feet over the years, though he could not see what was in it or where it led.

Bilbo looked down and saw that the footsteps had gone through the center entrance, the largest of the three, and so he sucked in a breath (which was a mistake, as it had consisted of nothing but disturbed dust) and continued through the center passage.

Here, the walls seemed to sparkle with something like silver, veins of shimmering light that mimicked the stars winking out at him, and Bilbo put out his hand to touch the wall on impulse as he walked.

Immediately, the stone seemed to heave a shuddering breath beneath his touch, warming under his fingertips as he trailed his hand along the wall, and that same sense of power, of aliveness, tingled his nerves, just as it had the first time he had entered Erebor and touched the stone of the kingdom, and he had no doubt now that something ancient thrived in this mountain, a magic untouched by time and immeasurable by comparison.

He was so focused on the feeling of the stone that he barely registered when the tunnel had ended, and he looked up, a quiet gasp escaping his lips as he took in the sight before him, for he knew, as long as he lived, that he would never see something as incredible again.

He had stepped into a chamber, a yawning chasm in the very center of the mountain, where the ceiling disappeared into tendrils of darkness, yet gold and silver lights seemed to shine gently upon him from the shadows all the same, cascading down to the entirety of the kingdom that stretched out below him as he glanced over the edge of the bridge he was on, seeing a maze of crisscrossing, spiraling, and swooping walkways, leading to anything and everything imaginable, an entire city that was as silent and eerie as a grave, yet no less awe-inducing.

Bilbo looked back up from the sprawling kingdom below him, his eyes coming to rest on probably the most breathtaking feature of the chamber; a huge, glittering spire of rock that hung down like a stalactite of the sky itself, gilded with gold and seeming to spawn from it an exquisite golden throne, and giving light to the stunning depictions of great Dwarven warriors and kings, miles high, that lined the bridge Bilbo was standing on, gazing down at him with blank, stern expressions, their polished hands gripping their weapons, and suddenly Bilbo felt small, so small and insignificant standing in the wake of such majesty.

Before he could be truly overwhelmed from the heart of the kingdom, his eyes landed on a familiar figure kneeling on the center platform where the many other bridges connected before the dais of the throne of the king, and swallowing down his sudden pinging nerves, Bilbo made his way to the platform, trying not to feel like the statues were glaring at him judgingly.

When Bilbo approached the kneeling form of Thorin, he stopped a few feet behind the dwarf king, wondering if Thorin was going to bade him to speak or whether he should just say something himself, forcefully reminded of a similar situation that had occurred only hours before, when Thorin had promised him to fight the gold-sickness, though he hurriedly pushed those thoughts away; once Thorin had the Arkenstone, there would be no more fears of the sickness ever again. He had to believe that.

After several long seconds of silence, Bilbo opted for the latter of his choices, and he cleared his throat, about to share the good news, when Thorin spoke up before him.

"I never thought I would see this place again." His voice was low, and grated with emotion, and Bilbo wondered if the dwarf was even aware that he was there, but he stayed silent as Thorin went on.

"I spent nearly two centuries, trying to carve a life out of my wandering existence, to give my people at least a shred of their life back to hold on to," he continued, his voice so low Bilbo imagined it as stemming from the mountain itself. "But I never forgot Erebor, even with my home in Ered Luin; it was always there, a shadow of a thought, a whisper of what had been lost, and it never left me alone.

"Balin once compared my feeling of longing to a guttering flame; he said that if I did not at least try to reclaim my kingdom, then that flame would extinguish, and then…"

He trailed off, and Bilbo watched his head bow, his fingers clench tightly on the hem of his tunic, as if he were reining in any ghosts that had escaped with his words, trying to take them back.

"But now we are here," he said, and Bilbo's ears pricked at the new edge that laced Thorin's tone; something he couldn't quite identify, but undoubtedly there. "And the kingdom is freed. But I…feel as though something…is missing."

He suddenly lurched to his feet, startling Bilbo, and he turned to face the hobbit, his blue eyes sparking with that same unidentifiable light that made Bilbo's skin prick the longer he noticed it.

"Look above the throne," Thorin said, pointing. "What do you see?"

"Um…" Bilbo stammered, turning his bewildered gaze to where Thorin's finger pointed at. It was a design of some sort on the head of the throne; a pattern of interlinking gold, with a blank space set in the middle about the size of Bilbo's fist.

He was about to ask Thorin what he was supposed to be looking at, not understanding the significance of it, when he suddenly recalled the carving they had seen above the hidden door when they had first entered the Mountain, and the light he had asked about, that had been shining over the throne…

"That's where the Arkenstone should be," Bilbo answered, and Thorin nodded grimly, turning back to look at it as Bilbo's hand twitched to the pocket where the Arkenstone was, suddenly feeling some trepidation as he watched Thorin pace to the foot of the throne.

"Yes, it should be," he said, stopping just beneath the throne and staring up at the sigil. "It is the only thing that can secure my rule, the only thing that can unite the seven clans of the Dwarves – and I should have it."

Bilbo swallowed, his throat suddenly going dry as a growing sense of alarm spiked his heart. He wondered why he hadn't spoken up about the Arkenstone yet as Thorin began to pace once more, but it was like his voice had abandoned him, his unease increasing as Thorin seemed to be getting more agitated.

"You were supposed to obtain it," he suddenly fired at Bilbo, and the hobbit blinked at Thorin's sudden scowl. "It was what you were hired to do. So, tell me." He stopped pacing and faced Bilbo head-on, who only stared back, confused at Thorin's riled behavior. "Where is the Arkenstone?"

"I…don't know," Bilbo said, his throat refusing to say anything else. "I…haven't found it yet."

What are you doing? His mind screamed. Just tell him you have the damned thing and get it over with! You've played your part; it is done!

But it's not, though, is it? Bilbo suddenly realized. Alison had warned Thorin of the gold-sickness that plagues him, and Elrond himself confirmed her truth without even knowing. I was a fool to think this sickness would end with Smaug; it is only just beginning.

Thorin's eyes narrowed to blue slits, taking in Bilbo with a look that unnerved the hobbit, before the dwarf seemed to come back to himself, blinking and frowning.

"No matter," he said, in an offhand voice. "It will show up soon enough."

Bilbo, confused and slightly frightened at this sudden mood swing, only nodded. "Yes, I-I believe it will," he said, trying not to fidget under Thorin's piercing gaze.

The dwarf king nodded his own head before turning to look once more at the empty sigil above the throne, and Bilbo thought of something to say to change the topic, before Thorin whipped his head back around, scowling.

"This cannot wait," he growled. "I need to find the Arkenstone now."

He suddenly stormed off the dais and brushed past Bilbo, who only gaped as a horrible feeling swelled in him, almost like a warning.

"Thorin, wait!" he cried, dashing in front of the king and forcing him to stop, looking down at Bilbo with a scowl similar to the one he had once deigned to give him at the beginning of their quest; but now it looked uglier, meaner and…darker.

It terrified Bilbo.

"You know what going into that treasury might trigger," he said, refusing to be deterred by the dwarf's attitude. "We discussed this, remember? We shouldn't risk this, not this soon, before you've had time to truly acclimate to what being here will do to you. Just wait, all right? Wait until we've had more time."

"This cannot wait, Bilbo," Thorin said, trying to step around the hobbit, but he just blocked Thorin's way again, causing the dwarf to roll his eyes in exasperation. "There is too much at stake now; do you not remember Alison's warning of the battle to come? The Arkenstone could help us; we could use it to muster an army that would crush Johnathan Ashburne's. We could change the outcome of the story; that was our whole purpose after reclaiming the Mountain, was it not?"

Bilbo wavered; he was completely right, of course. Johnathan Ashburne was still going to wage war on them, no matter if they had won back the kingdom or not; he wanted that Lesser Ring too much, and not to mention revenge, for all of them thwarting his plan the first time.

"It's still too big of a risk," Bilbo said finally, shaking his head. "What if you were to fall prey to the madness, Thorin? What kind of state would Erebor be in then?"

Thorin looked away, his jaw working, but Bilbo knew he had his attention now. "Alison warned you that it would blind you through greed, and you said so yourself that if you were to fall, then you would be the root of so much loss and turmoil—"

"I know what I said!" Thorin snapped, and he faced Bilbo once more, his jewel eyes blazing, and Bilbo's mouth pressed into a hard, flat line, his heart pumping anxiously.

Realizing what he had done, Thorin made a visible effort to calm himself, suddenly looking guilty. "I apologize," he said gruffly. "I don't know what overcame me."

"I do," Bilbo said boldly, and Thorin raised his head, his eyes wide. "And so do you, Thorin. Even just being here, in this kingdom, is affecting you. And you have to fight it –"

"I am trying, Bilbo!" Thorin shouted, shocking Bilbo into silence as his voice echoed ominously around the throne room, seeming to amplify with every reverberation.

Thorin closed his eyes, clenching his fists until the knuckles were white, and breathing deeply through his nose as Bilbo stared.

"I know what could happen to me better than anyone else could," he said, and though his voice was lower, it still quivered with rage, or fear – or both. "I saw my grandfather succumb to it before my eyes, and later my father, as well. It ended their lives in tragedy and regret, it corrupted them from the inside out. I know I could just as easily become them. But I have to believe that I can change that."

Bilbo started to smile, his shoulders slumping in relief – until Thorin's next words nearly stopped his heart.

"Yet this in itself changes nothing. I will never know if I am stronger than my forefathers if I do not try to overcome what they could not. And finding the Arkenstone is one of those barriers I must break firstly, before I do anything else."

"Thorin, wait – " Bilbo tried to protest, but Thorin finally managed to push him aside this time.

"I am sorry, Bilbo," he said gravely, without turning or stopping. "But I must face these demons before they can twist me any further and lead me down a path I may not be able to free myself from."

He continued on for a ways before pausing, and looking at Bilbo back over his shoulder, his face lined and tired. "If something should happen, if I should…" He took a deep breath, shutting his eyes before turning his solemn gaze on Bilbo. "Do not think any less of me."

And with that, he turned and strode in the direction of the treasury, being swallowed into the darkness of the kingdom as Bilbo stood before the throne, wondering if the next time he saw Thorin, the king would be the same.

Dawn was just breaking the horizon when Bard and Alison finally made it out of Lake-town, nearly stumbling from exhaustion and barely able to breathe from the ash and smoke still lingering in the air in the wake of the burning town.

Bard felt as if his body was moving on its own accord, dutifully keeping pace with Alison beside him as his eyes roved over the destroyed town; his home was hardly recognizable anymore, the creaking, rundown buildings reduced to nothing more than columns of ash and cinders, and there was no sign of life anywhere, no evidence that a civilization, however small and poor, used to live here.

It was a graveyard of what used to be, one giant tombstone that Bard tried to see as a good omen, a sign that they could all start anew, but it was hard trying to think so optimistically when everything he had known since he was a boy was now nothing but remnants of a vicious attack.

By the time the two crossed the bridge and made it to the edge of the Wood-Elves' territory, shafts of sunlight were beginning to pierce through the heavy cloud of smoke still churning over the town, and a cold, bitter wind had begun to blow from the north, bringing with it the scent of rain amidst the sickly sweet smell of the fire drifting on the breeze.

Bard's heart lifted slightly at this prospect; perhaps another good omen, then, one of rebirth, and change. Perhaps something finally seemed to be going right, after all.

They walked for a half-hour more, not speaking and not breaking pace. They trudged through the bordering tree-line that marked the beginning of the Woodland Realm, following the trail of many footsteps through broken twigs and impressions in the mud until the babble of many concerned and scared voices could be heard, and Alison and Bard stepped around a wide tree to see a densely packed clearing before them, crammed with hundreds of people.

Immediately, Bard was assaulted with the scent of fear, and the many cries and jumbled, panicked words of the refugees from Esgaroth, his eyes taking in the families huddled together silently, sharing blankets and comforting arms, and the people lingering uncertain amongst the makeshift camp, the ones who had lost family and friends to the dragon, if their haunted eyes and white faces were anything to go by, and their obvious isolation from the other citizens who still had their loved ones.

The hastily assembled soldiers of the Master's guard were scattered around the perimeter of the clearing, looking quite afraid and perplexed and disordered, but the Master himself was nowhere to be seen, and Bard tried not to get his hopes up too much as he scanned the clearing apprehensively, searching for any sign of familiar brown curls from any of his children.

"Don't worry, Bard," Alison spoke up suddenly from beside him, and he turned to look at her, her own eyes raking the clearing anxiously. "Your children are safe. The dwarves would have made sure of that."

Bard only jerked his head in acknowledgement, refusing to believe that until he saw them, and he was just about to start forward into the clearing when a shrill voice shrieked, "Da!"

Tilda appeared out of the mass of people, her eyes shining as she hefted her skirts and began to run to Bard, closely followed by Sigrid and Bain, and Bard felt such a strong surge of relief run through him that his knees went weak, and it took what remaining strength he had to stay upright and close the distance between himself and his children, his long legs flying over the snow-smattered grass with newfound vigor.

"Da! Da!" Their lovely voices chimed his name as they ran to him, and Tilda reached him first, pummeling into his torso as he bent down and lifted her up, her skinny arms nearly squeezing the life out of him, but he hardly noticed, hugging her back just as tightly as something hot rushed to his eyes, his throat burning, but not from the smoke he had inhaled all night.

A few seconds later, Sigrid and Bain crashed into him, tangling their limbs with his and Tilda's as he let out a hoarse chuckle, wrapping his arms around the other two as Tilda still clung onto his neck, tears soaking his shirt, but he didn't mind. They were all here, all alive. They were together again.

"My children," he managed to choke out around the tight ball of emotion in his throat. "You're all safe, you're all—"

"We're fine, Da," Sigrid said reasonably, smiling up at him, and Bard brushed away some of the tears splattering her cheeks as she embraced him impossibly tighter. "We're all fine, and you are, too. We're all fine."

She repeated this like a mantra to herself, and Bard felt his own tears begin to roll down his face, not even realizing how afraid he had been of losing them until they were all safely back in his arms.

"Shh, Da, it's all right," Tilda whispered, gazing at him with her young innocence as she swiped away his tears, and he buried his face in her curls until he had regained his composure.

After several minutes of embracing, they all let go of each other and seemed to truly drink in one another's presence until Bard cleared his throat, his voice coming out in a croak as he said, "A father could not have asked for better children. You are brave, so very brave, and I am so proud."

Sigrid and Tilda gave watery smiles and Bain nodded seriously, and Bard put a hand on his son's shoulder.

"You proved yourself to truly be a man last night, Bain," he said, looking into his son's dark eyes, a mimic of his own. "You faced danger with a clear head and a steady heart, and took care of your sisters instead of coming back for me, no matter how tempting. Take pride in that, my son, for I shall, as well."

Bain nodded his head solemnly, though his face flushed with pride, and Bard squeezed his shoulder, just as there was a cry of, "ALISON!" from behind them.

Bard and his children turned to see three of the dwarves hurtling to where the Hero stood, still on the edge of the clearing as to give Bard a respectful moment as he reunited with his children, and he watched in amusement as Bofur barreled into the warrior, nearly knocking her off her feet before wrapping her in what was sure to be a bone-cracking hug.

"Hey, Bofur—ow!—What's u—okay, spine—spine!"

Tilda giggled and Bard smirked as the hatted dwarf spun her around, crying, "You're alive! You're alive!"

"Of course she is, you dolt," Fíli said, rolling his eyes. "Now budge over."

Bofur reluctantly released Alison, who dropped back to the ground rubbing her ribs but smiling widely as Fíli in turn hugged her tightly, but not to the point of near suffocation as Bofur had, and after him came Óin.

"I guess there's no use in telling you that you're too damn reckless for your own good, is there?" the healer dwarf said sternly, and Alison shrugged, grinning.

"I guess not," she said, then repeated, louder, when he looked confused, "I guess not!"

The old dwarf cackled at this before embracing her and patting her back, and he had just pulled away when there were two blurs of red and white, and Bard openly stared when two Elves materialized before the Hero, a striking male with eyes the color of a frosted sea and a dangerously beautiful female with long, vividly red hair.

Before Bard had any time to speculate on the two Elves and how they seemed to know Alison, Bain spoke up from beside him, his eyes latched onto the longbow Bard was still carrying as he said in awe, "Da…did you…kill the dragon?"

Bard shifted uncomfortably as his words carried over to Alison's group, whose heads all snapped in his direction, but before he could say anything, Alison walked over, smiling at Sigrid and Tilda before saying, "Yes, he did. Your father saved us all."

"It's true, then!" A voice gasped from behind them, and they all turned to see a boy of about Bain's age, skinny and soot-stained, standing there in shock, his mouth wide. "Girion's heir slayed the dragon!"

"Um…" Bard said intelligently, but his breath was wasted, for suddenly the boy gave an ecstatic cheer and took off toward the camp, running as fast as his thin legs would allow.

"It's true! It's true!" he cried. "Girion's heir has slayed the dragon! Bard the Bowman killed the beast with a Black Arrow!"

"Prepare yourself," Alison muttered from beside him, as heads began swiveling in Bard's direction and the boy's words were soon spreading like wildfire through the amassed people. "You're about to become the Benedict Cumberbatch of Middle-earth."

"What the hell does that mean?" Bard spluttered, but he had a faint idea as more people began to take up the boy's cries, and the air was soon punctuated with more shouts.

"The Dragon Slayer! Bard the Bowman! Girion's heir has slayed the dragon! Girion's heir has stepped forward to take his forefathers' place!"

"And you doubted yourself so much in the beginning," Alison said wryly, poking his shoulder, but Bard's retort was cut short when suddenly the Master pushed his way through the throng of surrounding people, looking like a greasy pug stuffed into a high, fur-lined coat and muffler, closely followed by Alfrid as he took in Bard with his beady eyes.

"So," he said, his jowls quivering, and Bard faced down the man evenly; he had never been afraid of the Master, but after just confronting a dragon and killing it, he seemed even more comical than he had before. "You were the one to kill the beast, eh, bargeman?"

"Actually, it's bowman now," Alison said, smiling sweetly at the Master, who spared her only a glance before looking back to Bard with a raised brow.

Bard shrugged nonchalantly. "She does have a point," he said, causing the Master's mouth to purse as if sucking a lemon. "And, to answer your question, yes. I did kill the dragon."

The Master paused, his jaw working as if to find some sort of dig at Bard, but obviously he had nothing, for he just grumbled, "Could have made a cleaner job of it," before waddling off in a flurry of fur, Alfrid scrambling to keep up in his wake.

"What a disgusting little man," Fíli remarked distastefully as they watched him slip back into the still-staring crowd. "I had to deal with him half the night hovering over my shoulder as I tried to bring some order to this place; he was about as helpful as a stick in the mud."

"Well, then I guess it's up to us to organize this camp," Bard said, gazing around at what was left of his town with some apprehension. "We have no supplies whatsoever, and it's the start of winter. We won't be alive for long if we don't come up with something to help us survive."

"I believe we can help with that." The she-Elf spoke up for the first time since Bard had first seen her, and her green eyes glowed warmly despite her icy features as she met Bard's quizzical gaze. "I am Tauriel of the Woodland Realm, Captain of King Thranduil's Guard, and this is my companion, Legolas, Prince of the Woodland Realm."

"Well met, Master Bowman," the male Elf said, bowing his head as Bard did the same, slightly flustered at this Elf's title. "You have my thanks for killing the beast and thus protecting all lands of the East. I am sure many songs will be written to tell of your noble tale."

"Thank you, my Lord," Bard replied respectfully. "You have my gratitude in return for such kind words, and for helping the people of my town."

"Thranduil's Halls are not far from here," Tauriel went on. "Legolas and I can call for aid to assist you and your people, and we can offer you shelter and provisions temporarily until your town is usable again."

Bard blinked in surprise. "That is a very generous offer."

"We have traded with the Lakemen for as long as I remember," Legolas said. "There is an alliance between us long withstanding, and I am sure my father will agree with me when I say we should honor this by helping in your time of need."

Bard nodded slowly. "Very well," he agreed. "I will not turn down an offer of help in such a dire situation. You have my thanks, my Lord, and I'm sure the Master's, as well."

"And what of you, Lady Ashburne?" Tauriel said, turning her attention now to Alison and the three dwarves, who had been observing quietly during this whole exchange. "Will you be journeying to the Woodland Realm with us, or will you be continuing your journey?"

The four exchanged a significant look, and as if some unspoken agreement passed between them, Alison turned back to the she-Elf and said, "As tempting as it is, we can't. Our friends are still in the Mountain, and we have to go to them." She took a deep breath, expelling it into the frosty air. "This is only the calm before the storm. We still have a battle coming, and we need to prepare for it."

"Agreed," Tauriel said, nodding. "Legolas and I can leave now and seek out a patrol to carry the news to Thranduil, and we can also get supplies for you for your journey. We'll be back no later than dawn, and you can leave then."

"Great," Alison said, smiling. "Thanks, Tauriel."

The she-Elf inclined her head before turning back to Bard. "Stay sharp. You are safe here for tonight, but the darkness of Mirkwood lies not far away, and you must be on your guard. We will return at dawn, and tomorrow we can begin to relocate."

Bard nodded, and the she-Elf gave him one last appraising look and brilliant smile before her and Legolas whirled away, disappearing into the trees with noiseless movements.

"You might want to close your mouth before you swallow any bugs, Bard," Alison said amusedly as the three dwarves and his children began to move away, back to the spot where they were camped, and Bard looked down at the girl questioningly. "I mean, I know Tauriel's an eye-catcher and everything – "

"Oh, no," Bard said, shaking his head quickly and cursing himself for the sudden heat that rushed into his face. "You are not implying what I think you are."

The Hero snickered, her green eyes shining wickedly before she moved away after the others, singing something that sounded suspiciously like "Den-ial" under her breath.

Bard shook his head in exasperation before following, thinking that if he were to take his chances between a teenage girl insinuating he was captivated by a she-Elf and a bloodthirsty, fire-breathing dragon, he would almost rather face the dragon again.

"I can't believe you guys drugged him," Alison said for about the tenth time, shaking her head as she looked down at the prone figure of Kíli sprawled out on one of the extra cloaks Sigrid had brought with her.

She had wondered why the dark-haired prince had not been at their little reunion, but when she had followed the others back to their makeshift camp near the farthest edge of the Lake-town refugees, her question had been answered when she had seen Kíli snoring on the ground, his mouth hanging open as he slept, nearly dead to the world.

"We didn't drug him," Bofur explained for also about the tenth time, rolling his eyes as he chewed on the tip of his unlit pipe (how he had managed to hold on to it for so long, she had no idea). "He's momentarily incapacitated, is all."

"But you still drugged him," Alison pointed out, and the hatted dwarf just shrugged, looking wholly unconcerned.

"It had to be done, lass," Óin said, not looking up as he redressed Kíli's wound, which was not infected, thank the Valar, though he had ripped it open again moving around so much, leaving Óin to stitch it up again as Alison watched. "He would never have sat still long enough for me to properly patch him up, and he needed the rest. He's been through hell these last few weeks."

Alison sighed, wanting to argue, but knowing the healer was right. Instead she flopped onto her back and gazed up to the sky, wishing she could sleep herself, but knowing it was futile to try.

The sky was streaked orange and grey as she looked up; the smoke that had been hanging over them had dissipated around midday, and when the sun began to set, rainclouds began to build on the northern horizon, bringing the promise of rain and even colder weather, much to her disdain. She was from Texas. She didn't do cold.

Despite them being relatively safe after the death of Smaug, Alison couldn't find it in herself to be calm and relax, still too wired for rest. The events of the past day still thrummed through her veins with enough energy to power a city for a month back in her world, and she was finding it harder and harder to find any peace amidst it all; the fight with the orcs, Kíli almost dying multiple times, Smaug attacking, and, as much as she tried not to think about it, her kissing Kíli and telling him she loved him… yes, how freaking dandy her life was at that moment.

And that wasn't even mentioning her worries over what had become of the group in the Lonely Mountain, and if they were still alive, and Johnathan on his way to destroy them with his army, and the looming threat of Thorin's gold-sickness—

Ugh, brain, go away, she groaned in her head. You're not helping anything.

Alison wondered if this was how the rest of her life was going to be; never being able to settle down and rest, always moving and fighting and preparing for whatever was to come, stuck in this constant limbo between security and peace. She hoped not. It seemed like too much of a lonely existence for her to live.

The sun was truly beginning to set and the first stars were appearing in the sky when Alison sat up, having to take in her surroundings for a moment when she realized no one else was there besides her and the still-sleeping Kíli, though a small, pathetic little fire had been started, much to her relief.

Bard and his children had meandered off sometime after noon and hadn't been back since, which was understandable to Alison, as they probably needed some time to themselves as a family; the thought sent a spear of homesickness through her chest, images of her mom and her siblings coming to her mind before she pushed them away sadly, wanting to think of them, but not being able to bear it right now.

As for the others, she knew Fíli had gone some hours before to coordinate defenses around the clearing and make rounds amongst the people to see if they were all right, but she had no clue where Óin and Bofur might have gone. The healer dwarf was easier to place; he had probably gone off to treat anyone who needed help, either with minor burns and aches or the on-set of sickness, but Bofur she didn't know. Maybe he had gone to help Óin with his patients.

Kíli shifted in his sleep, letting out a grunting snore, and Alison snickered, reaching over and closing his mouth as he slept on, oblivious to the outside world.

"And I thought Bombur's snores were horrible," she joked, gazing down at the dark-haired dwarf for perhaps a tad too long than was considered average.

He looked more at peace than he had in a long time; and not just because of the poison and his wound, she realized. She hadn't seen him this calm since the very beginning of their journey, when they had met in Bilbo's hobbit-hole more than six months ago.

This journey was taking a toll on all of them, she thought. Especially, now that she thought about it, Fíli and Kíli.

They were the rightful Princes of Erebor, the heirs to the Line of Durin and Thorin's kin; they had a responsibility on them as great as Thorin's himself, to uphold their line and become leaders for not just eleven other companions, but for all of their people, every dwarf throughout Middle-earth, as well. They had to be everything to their people; warriors, counsellors, leaders, kings. This journey was not just them helping their uncle reclaim their kingdom; it was about finding their own places in this world, also, and creating names for themselves that would be upheld for generations.

She never realized until then how daunting of a task that must be for them, and her heart twinged in sympathy as she looked down at Kíli; she was a nameless Hero, a temporary entity in this world that would fade into legend and myth – but they were royals, of a line whose blood ran deeper than the earth itself. They had a weight on their shoulders greater than her own, and she suddenly felt guilty for losing herself all of those times around them, complaining that she didn't want any of this and wanted to go home, when they had been handling their load a lot better than she ever could.

"Guess we know which one of us is the true Hero, huh?" she said quietly, absent-mindedly brushing a piece of hair away from his face and then cupping his cheek in her palm, the stubble scratching her skin as his heat warmed her chilled fingers.

Looking down at him, she was forcibly reminded of his words to her in Bard's home, and her own to him, the mere remembrance making her heart beat faster in her chest, fluttering against her ribcage.

She thought of their kiss, of the way he had tasted on her lips and the way his touch seemed to awaken every nerve in her body, making her skin dance and her heart sing out for him, and she wondered how this had happened, how her feelings had built up for so long that she felt she would drown in them, but gasp for them like air if they weren't there.

"I thought you'd be asleep by now," a voice said from behind her, and Alison snatched back her hand, turning to see Fíli standing over her with two tin cups in his hands.

Alison shrugged, glad it was dark so he couldn't see the blush creeping up her cheeks as she said, "After all that we've been through? I doubt I'll ever be able to again."

"I figured you'd say something like that," he said, settling down on the ground beside her. "Which is why I thought you could use this."

He handed her one of the cups and she sniffed it curiously, the sweet aroma of tea reaching her nose. She took a sip, letting it soothe her throat, and she sighed in pleasure, feeling it settle onto her empty stomach; it was thin and cold and had the faintest hint of bitterness, but it was good nonetheless, and before she knew it, it was gone in a few hasty gulps.

"Thanks," she said, setting the cup on the ground before her. "I needed that. Though I didn't know you could materialize tea out of thin air; that's a pretty cool superpower."

Fíli snorted into his own cup. "Never underestimate the love between a woman and her grandmother's favorite tea cups," he said. "She offered me some when I was making my rounds, and I was too polite to refuse; though I must say, it isn't half-bad, given the circumstances."

Alison nodded, and they retreated into silence for a few minutes, watching the shadows lengthen around them as she poked at the small fire to keep it going.

"How are you holding up?" he asked, once he had finished his tea, and she raised one shoulder.

"As good as I'll ever be," she replied. "I just want to get moving again, get to the Mountain, you know?"

"I do," he said, nodding slowly. "A part of me just worries at what we'll find."

Alison wondered if she should say something about the story, about how the others should definitely be alive according to what had been written, but she decided against it, figuring he might still be upset over what she had told him about his fate in the ending, a thought that was obviously plaguing him, as well.

"You know, I tried not to blame you for not telling me about what would happen to Kíli, Thorin, and I at the end of this journey, but it was hard," he said, gazing at his brother as he talked, and Alison looked at him tentatively. "I was furious—and still kind of am, actually—for keeping it to yourself, just until the time suited you to tell us."

"And I'm sorry, Fíli—" But she cut off as he held up a hand.

"I know you are," he said. "But when I started to get over my anger, I tried to put myself in your shoes. I remembered in the Misty Mountains, when the Stone Giants had begun to fight – I remembered looking at you next to me, clinging on to the cliff-face for dear life before we were separated, and I wanted to tell you that we would be all right, even though I knew we wouldn't. I honestly thought we were going to die, and that'd be the end of it; but I wasn't going to tell you that. I wanted to protect you until my last breath, even if it was with a false hope, or not telling the truth until I had finally gathered my courage."

He gave her a significant look, and she smiled softly, feeling tears prick her eyes. "I understand now why you didn't tell us in the beginning, Alison," he said quietly. "You wanted to protect us, to let us go forth without this constant fear hounding our every step; and that was admirable, I realize now. So, thank you, for finding your courage and telling me, despite your own fears. It was an honorable thing to do."

Alison said nothing, too moved to speak, but Fíli seemed to understand, wrapping an arm around her shoulder and pulling her in for a one-armed hug, which she returned gratefully.

"We still need to tell Kíli," she said eventually. "He deserves to know."

"Yes, he does," he agreed, releasing her shoulder and leaning back on his elbows, gazing thoughtfully at his brother. "He's a strong lad; he'll handle it better than I did, at least."

There was a moment's hesitation, until he said, in that same, quiet voice, "It's him, isn't it? You chose him."

Alison stiffened, looking to him sharply, though it didn't take a genius to know who he was referring to. "I didn't choose him," she said awkwardly. "It just sort of…happened. And I'm not even sure what choosing him would entitle."

He shrugged, looking as cool as ever as she stared. "Still. A tad hypocritical, though, don't you think?"

"Oh, no," Alison said, narrowing her eyes at the blonde dwarf. "We are not having this discussion."

"And why not?" he challenged, looking wholly unruffled at the whole thing, but his grey-blue eyes were serious. "It won't work, Alison, it can't, and you know that; we're the walking proof."

"He does not have the same responsibilities as you do," she said stiffly, but even to herself it was an unconvincing argument, something Fíli knew, as well.

"But he is still a Dwarf, and you a human, who will sooner or later have to return to your own world. It is unfair to give him that kind of hope." He pointed out. "Mahal knows I'm glad he found love in someone like you, but it will hurt him, deeply, when you are gone – especially if it turns out you're his One."

Alison paused in her swirling thoughts, distracted. "Wait, his what?"

"Dwarves only love once in their entire lives," he explained. "That's why so few of us marry, because it is such a rare occurrence. That's why, if you are his One, it will cut him greatly after you have gone."

Alison could think of nothing to say to this, her chest burning as she looked to Kíli, still sleeping, and it was all she could muster to breathe out a soft, "Oh," into the silence.

Fíli sighed from beside her, though she did not raise her eyes to meet his, feeling strangely hurt over something she so obviously knew already, having used it as a defense to hide behind for months to guard from any emotions forming – which had worked so spectacularly, she thought bitterly.

"I'm not saying I don't approve, Alison," Fíli said gently. "You and him have something good together, a balance to each other – I knew that since the beginning, even though I pursued you myself. But…" Here he sighed again, and Alison looked over to see him gazing at her intently.

"Please spare his heart, if you can," he said softly. "I do not wish to see my brother mourn for lost love."

Alison stayed silent, trying to swallow past the hot lump of emotion she could feel in her throat as Fíli stood up and walked away, presumably to make another round through the camp.

As his footsteps faded away into the night, Alison's eyes sought Kíli's face, swathed in the shadows, and said, so lowly Fíli could not possibly have heard her, "Neither do I."

Author's Note

Well, a little happy, a little sad, a little depressing; you know, the usual. But it was a filler chapter, and it plods things along, nonetheless.

I am so sorry in advance for what's coming in future chapters, by the way. Just...please don't hate me.

And this is all the commentary I have for this chapter (except that this is the first chapter since 35 that's 10,000+ words, HUZZAH), because I just want to know what YOUR thoughts are, lovely readers. So you know the drill: anything you liked, disliked, are looking forward to? Let me know in a review!

Thank you to all my readers/favorites/followers, as well; y'all are what keeps this story going!

Next chapter we get a Tauriel POV and some frosty reception from our fave Thranduil, another Bard POV where a deal comes back to bite, and another Alison on their way to the Mountain to reunite with the others, where she finds something that's about to change the whole game...again. But anyway.

Thanks again, lovelies! Until next chapter...

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