A/N: Hello everyone~! I'm sorry for the delay in getting this chapter up, though, technically, it's on schedule. I was silly and messed up the posting schedule for last month's chapters, which is why there was a two week break between Sparrow and Drystan's upload and this one. I'm really sorry about that! Oh, and if you're also reading Azying, then you'll recognize a few names during the luncheon ;D

Also, I just want to give another thank you to everyone who's been leaving comments! I don't always have the spoons to reply to them, but I do read them all and appreciate them a heckuva lot~ ❤️❤️❤️

"Are you positive you're not feeling any symptoms?"

"Yes, da', I'm quite certain."

"Not even the slightest sniffle or chill?"

"None whatsoever."

"N-Not e-e-e—" Bilbo quickly brought the handkerchief to his face, just in time to both cover and muffle a rather loud sneeze. Three more followed before he groaned, letting his head fall back against the pillows. "I don't remember the last time I had a cold this bad…"

Baylee shook her head, holding a bowl of warm porridge. "We should have found a way to warm you up faster," she sighed, getting a spoonful of the porridge ready for him to eat. "I don't think you would be nearly as bad if it didn't take three hours to dry you out and warm you up." She held the spoon out for him.

Taking it from her, Bilbo sighed. "It doesn't help that I didn't get very much sleep over the last few days, either. Or that I went back out into the cold night with the others…" Popping the spoon into his mouth, he closed his eyes. "Speaking of that, though…I heard you gave Thorin quite the verbal lashing." He held the now-clean spoon back out to her.

Her cheeks flushed a bit; taking the spoon, she prepared him another bite. "I did. And, after I gave him quite the scolding, he apologized and started helping me make some food to take to Bard and his family as an apology to them."

"And how did—" He paused, his face contorting as he got ready to sneeze again, but it never came, "—that turn out?" His expression was now one of disappointment, as the sneeze was painfully 'stuck' near the top of his nose.

"From what I heard, it went over fairly well. I'm afraid I didn't get to help deliver the food, as I had fallen asleep in the middle of crimping pies." She held the spoon out to him again. "Fili and Bofur delivered the goods in my stead."

He nodded in understanding as he took the spoon and popped it into his mouth. After swallowing, he said, "That was smart of Thorin…I'm sure Bard would have thrown one of the pies in his face if he had showed up on their doorstep."

She quietly sighed as she nodded in agreement. "He would have deserved it, though." Giving her father a half-hearted smile, she scooped up more porridge. "Admittedly, I'm still a bit upset about the whole thing, but Thorin's apology—to me, at least—was genuine. He also promised that, once the mountain is reclaimed, Bard would be getting quite an expensive gift."

"We didn't quite give him the sort of thanks he deserved for helping us, did we?" he sighed. "It's good to hear that Thorin plans on making it up to him, though. And it was good of you to make Thorin realize the error in his ways." He took the spoon yet again and ate the bite. Afterwards, he let out a quiet sigh. "You do have this ability to humble him, you know."

"I don't think it's so much an ability as it is just embarrassing him," she sighed. "I mean, would you want to be scolded by someone who was half your height and a quarter of your weight?"

A tired, but amused, smile came to his lips. "Dear, you forget that I have been scolded by someone like that." He watched her brows furrow in confusion. "You when you were still a child."

Though she rolled her eyes, the corners of her mouth turned upwards in slight amusement. "I have not been scolding you since I was a child." She went to hand him the spoon again, but he held his hand up, declining it for now. Nodding, she set it back in the bowl before putting the bowl on the nightstand.

"Oh, yes you have!" he chuckled. "When you were seven, you scolded me because I washed your favorite hair ribbon wrong. When you were ten, you scolded me because I changed the ending of a story I was reading you. And let's not forget about how, when you were fifteen, you gave me quite the scolding because I had been out walking all day and hadn't come back until late." While he spoke, he watched her cheeks steadily grow redder and redder.

"Yes, well…If I didn't scold you, who would?" she retorted, her lips pursed in a small pout. Her brows furrowed as Bilbo suddenly clasped the handkerchief over his mouth and nose before sneezing twice in a row. Just when she was about to ask him if he wanted a fresh handkerchief, he started coughing. 'I know he's only been sick a few days, but I do hope he's not getting worse,' she thought, leaning over to grab the cup of lukewarm tea on his nightstand.

"Thank you," he wheezed, taking the cup from her when his coughing finally subsided. His face contorted slightly as he took a few drinks; he had never really been a fan of tea when it was anything but hot with sugar and cream in it. "I'm so glad you're here, dear…I don't know what I'd do if I was like this and you were all the way back in the Shire." Despite not at all liking the taste, he took a few more sips of the tea before handing it back.

"You wouldn't be getting any rest, that's for certain." Returning the cup to the table, she let out a sigh. "Dwarves don't get sick, so they would either be panicking while thinking you were dying or be acting as if you were perfectly healthy and making you help out with things."

"I assure you, Mouse-Lass, that we would do neither of those." Both hobbits' eyes widened and they looked over at the door where they found Thorin standing. An amused expression came to his face when he saw how surprised they were. "I'm afraid I must steal your daughter away for a few hours, Master Baggins."

"Hmm? Why for?" His brows furrowed as he looked back at his daughter only to have a look of realization come to his features. "Oh, that's right…you'll be dining with the Master for lunch." He gave her a tired smile. "It'll be over before you know it, dear," he assured her. "Just try not to retch too hard whenever you look at him, alright?"

She quietly giggled and heard a small laugh come from Thorin as well. "I think I can manage that," she joked. Not wanting to get too close to his face for fear of catching the cold herself, she instead opted to pat his leg before slipping off the bed. Brushing her dress back into place, she looked up at Bilbo. "You behave for the others—unless they try to put you to work. Then you're allowed to throw a tantrum at them, alright?"

He laughed, his brow rising. "I don't think I have quite enough strength for a full-blown tantrum, but I will get huffy with them if that happens, alright?"

"Good," she smiled. "See you later, da'. Get some good rest."

"Goodbye, dear."

When Baylee had left the room, Thorin closed the door behind her. "He seemed to be in rather good spirits," he commented.

"He might be…or he might be putting on a façade and just acting like he's in good spirits so I won't be worried." She slipped her hand into Thorin's and rested her head against his arm. "I wasn't terribly worried until I heard his cough. I'll have to tell Bofur to make sure he stays sitting upright."

His brow rose slightly. "Why is that?"

"So the phlegm in his throat rolls down to his stomach instead of stays in place and keeps building up."

"…I somewhat regret asking now, but that does make sense, I suppose." He looked down at her and gave her hand a gentle squeeze. "Being that he's resting in a proper bed and has been getting fretted over by both you and Bofur, I am certain your father will make a speedy recovery."

She smiled at his words. "It's mostly Bofur who's doing the fretting, if I'm to be honest. After all, I slept most of yesterday and ended up sleeping in quite late today." It had been nearly ten o'clock when she finally slipped out of bed that morning. A soft sigh then left her mouth. "And now, we're off to lunch with the Master…"

He gave her hand another small squeeze. "This is your last chance to decline the invitation, you know." Looking down at her again, he found a determined pout on her lips as she looked up at him.

"I told you that I would attend the lunch and I intend on keeping my word," she said, her tone betraying her stubbornness.

"Alright, alright," he chuckled, his brow rising. "I'll need someone there to keep Fili and Kili in line, anyway. Mahal knows I can't do it."

She couldn't help but laugh at that. "Oakenshield, do you really believe I'll be able to keep those two in line should they start acting up? They can hardly keep straight faces when I scold them for not helping with cleaning up after dinner."

"As true as that may be, you're the one who doesn't hesitate to reach up and flick the tips of their ears. That usually startles them into behaving."

"That is true," she admitted, laughing softly. "Though, it's been so long since I've had to do it, I wonder if it would still work?"

"I would assume it would work even better, since they won't be used to it anymore." As they started down the stairs, he let her head down first. "If all else fails, however, flicking the tips of their noses might work just as well."

"Are you two discussing how to best scold a naughty puppy or naughty princes?" Baylee looked at the bottom of the stairs to see Fili and Kili looking up at them. Kili, she saw, was a bit paler than he had been yesterday and he was keeping his weight off his injured leg—something he wasn't doing the previous day.

'Maybe that's why he's keeping his weight off it, though?' she told herself. 'By using it so much yesterday, he made it too tender to stand on maybe?' She didn't want to think about the wound getting worse, especially after she pulled that arrowhead out of his leg and Oin had cleaned the wound.

"Is there a difference between those options?" Thorin questioned, some amusement in his voice. He grinned when his nephews wore matching pouts. "We were discussing how to best punish the two of you if you start misbehaving while we're at lunch."

"So you told auntie to flick our noses?" Fili asked, his brow rising. He then laughed, leaning backwards in time to avoid getting flicked on the nose by Baylee. "Almost got me," he grinned.

"I don't see why you don't like us calling you 'auntie', auntie," Kili snickered. "We're just practicing for when you an' uncle are married, you know. Or would you prefer it if we started callin' you 'Queen Auntie' or 'milady auntie'?"

Baylee shook a scolding finger up at him, doing her best to ignore Thorin's futile attempts to keep himself from laughing. "You're lucky you're the injured one," she told the prince. "Otherwise, you would have a very, very sore nose right now!"

Three quarters of an hour later found the four of them at the Master's home. When they had arrived, they were brought by the Master's manservant into a large room. In the middle of the room, an elegant dining table sat, laden with expensive-looking dishware, rich-looking food, and plenty of candles to keep the room both warm and well lit. At the far end of the table sat the Master, who was already imbibing the wine. Upon seeing the arrival of the dwarves and hobbit, he set his goblet down and, getting to his feet, spread his arms out in greeting.

"Welcome, friends," he said, a wide smile on his face. Inwardly, his guests cringed; his front teeth were a bit bigger than the rest and somewhat pointed, making them resemble the teeth of a rodent. "Welcome! Though we briefly met the other night, let me reintroduce myself under these more favorable and hospitable conditions: I am the Master of Laketown and this is my humble servant, Alfrid Lickspittle." While he spoke, he gave a small bow before motioning at his servant, who did the same while wearing a smile that was clearly forced, making it look more like a wince than anything that resembled a smile.

The newcomers gave nods of acknowledgement before Thorin spoke. "I am Thorin, son of Thrain, son of Thror. These are my sister-sons, Fili and Kili, and my betrothed, Baylee Baggins." Fili and Kili bowed as their names were spoken while Baylee curtsied.

Upon hearing him say that she was his betrothed, Baylee felt her cheeks grow warm and her stomach fluttered slightly. She glanced up at the Master in time to see a curious expression leave his face—it almost seemed like he had been more intrigued by this information than he should have been. 'I hope it's just because I'm a hobbit,' she thought. She managed to suppress a shudder and instead wore a friendly smile.

"Ah, yes—one of the halflings I've heard about!" the Master chuckled. "I must admit, I'm quite surprised to see one of your kind here, Mistress Baggins. From what I've heard, halflings are quite the homebodies!"

She didn't quite like how he had used the term 'homebodies'; hobbits weren't ones for adventures, yes, but they certainly left their homes quite a bit to visit with friends and family. But, he was a Big Folk who had never seen a hobbit before, so she couldn't exactly blame him for thinking such a thing. "Some halflings do enjoy going on small adventures," she replied, "though my father and I wished to see more of the world than just the lands around the Shire."

The Master nodded in understanding. "Well, I'm sorry you had to see our lovely Laketown when it's on the cusp of winter. I assure you, our city is much more beautiful come spring and summer when the window-boxes are filled with all sorts of flowers." He then sat back down and motioned for the rest of them to come join him at the table. "Come, come—have a seat and let us dine! I assure you, it's all very good food."

Approaching the table, Thorin pulled out a chair for Baylee before helping her climb onto it. A small, amused smile came to his lips when he watched her get situated on her knees. "Would you like a cushion?" he asked her.

She shook her head. "No, thank you. I'm fine like this." She smiled, tucking her dress under her knees while Fili and Kili sat down across from her. Thorin took his seat beside her, sitting up as straight as he could in order to look at least a few inches taller than he actually was.

The princes almost immediately started to pile food onto their plates, not really caring what they grabbed so long as the majority of it was meat. In a much more delicate manner, Baylee started to serve herself, though she soon noticed that Thorin was occasionally sneaking small servings onto her plate from dishes she couldn't reach.

From the corner of her eye, she saw Alfrid grab a glass pitcher filled with wine before beginning to go around the table. One by one, he started to fill their goblets with the drink.

"I must admit, Lord Oakenshield, I find your timing to be a bit curious," the Master said after a few moments. "Not many would seek to reclaim The Lonely Mountain at the beginning of winter. I'm sure you know better than most how harsh the winters up here can be—and they're even worse further north!"

"We would have arrived almost two months earlier had we not been waylaid many times by monsters and then by the Elvenking," Thorin replied. Watching Alfrid as he filled his goblet, his brow rose ever so slightly; there was what looked like dried egg white on the shoulder of his tunic. He thanked the man before plucking up the goblet and taking a small sip; the wine was decent, but he had had better.

"Why, exactly, were you in in Thranduil's dungeons, if you don't mind my asking?"

"He wrongfully imprisoned us," Kili answered before Thorin could speak. "We were traveling through the forest an' had run out o' supplies. We saw his people having a feast and went t' go beg for food, but they disappeared. Twice more, we found them feasting and twice more they disappeared. And all that was before we got attacked by spiders."

"Then he had the audacity t' claim that we were attacking his people," Fili grumbled. "We even told them we were starving an' they still disappeared."

The Master chuckled. "They're elves, dear sir—they're not going to admit that you frightened them! Of course, they're going to claim that it was you who attacked them. They'd rather lie than admit that anyone was able to take them by surprise." He took a long drink from his wine. "And it certainly doesn't help that the elves of Mirkwood are a rather aloof breed of elf when it comes to outsiders. You're lucky they didn't stick you full of arrows when you barged in on them the first time."

"With how dark it was when they put the fires out, I don't think they would have been able t' see us," Kili said before taking a large bite from a chicken leg.

"Don't be ridiculous," Fili scolded. "They're elves. They could probably shoot us in the dark just because we breathe a little louder than them."

Thorin shot his nephews a warning look from across the table, though it went mostly unnoticed due to their focus being on their food. Upon seeing that, he quietly sighed before clearing his throat. "Does Laketown still do trade with Dorwinion, Rohan, and Gondor?" he then asked, changing the subject. The last thing he needed was for his nephews to come off as whiny and immature.

"Hmm…Yes, we do, though I'm afraid things aren't quite as bountiful as they once were," the Master replied. "Laketown has recently fallen on hard times. A combination of the fish population being down, poor harvests from the mainland farms, and most merchants being afraid to come to Laketown anymore has left our economy quite devastated, as I'm sure you can tell."

Baylee was thankful she had a mouthful of (rather chewy) pork, otherwise, she would have pointed out that the Master seemed to be quite financially well off.

"But," he continued, "I'm positive that, once that dragon is dead—if he isn't already, that is—business will return and we will become more prosperous than ever! Maybe even so much so that Dale could be rebuilt." He paused for a few brief seconds before glancing at Thorin and adding, "Then again, with Erebor's help, that will most certainly come to pass. I'm sure of it." He cut what looked like a small, round sausage in half and then in half again before taking a bite.

Thorin gave a slight nod of acknowledgement as he chewed a bite of roasted vegetables—he thought they could use more salt. When he had finished chewing and had swallowed, he said, "Of course, it will take a few years to get things going. No doubt, once people return to the city, parts of Erebor will need to be rebuilt as well as cleaned of the dragon's filth. It will take time for mining operations to begin again, and the same could be said of the metalworking."

Though he did his best to hide it, the Master seemed a bit disappointed by this answer. "Ah, yes, of course—of course. Good things take time, after all," he chuckled, "and this sort of thing is especially good." He took another bite from his small 'sausage'.

"I daresay it might even take ten or more years for things to return to the way they were a century and a half ago," Thorin added. He glanced at the Master from the corner of his eye, wanting to see his reaction so he could gauge how cautious he was going to need to be when it came time to gift the city with gold.

Baylee stole a look over at the Master as well, seeing the displeasure on his face. 'I'm certain he was hoping to see the gold and improved economy right away,' she thought. 'Or, at least, just the gold…' She took a bite of ham, feeling a bit of relief wash over her; the bits of food she had eaten so far had been either chewy and bland or mushy and bland. This ham, however, almost reminded her of the hams Halfast would make.

Her chewing slowed slightly and turned her gaze down towards her plate. 'I wonder how Halfast is doing? And Prim, of course…I do hope neither of them will be too upset with me. But, in Halfast's case, he deserves himself a lass who wouldn't be talked about behind her back.' As she picked up her wine goblet, she was surprised by its weight; part of her wondered if it was made of solid gold. 'It wouldn't surprise me if it was, given the opulence of this place…'


Fili's voice made her look up with somewhat wide eyes, as he had started her from her thoughts. "Yes?" she replied. "Sorry, I was just thinking about how delicious this ham is." An apologetic smile came to her lips; she felt relieved when the others chuckled.

"I was just asking if you could push the rolls towards Ki so he could hand me one," the elder prince said, his brow raised in amusement.

"Ah, let me, sire," Alfrid offered, stepping forward and grabbing the bowl before Baylee could. As he did such, she thought she could hear him mutter something about how she wouldn't be able to get the bowl within reach. Rounding the table, he bowed slightly and offered the rolls to Fili.

The Master, upon seeing which rolls they were, smiled, his brow rising slightly. "Ahh, I see you've managed to snag a dozen of Adela's rolls, Alfrid. Good, good—she makes the best breads and rolls in the whole city."

"It was quite the task, sire," Alfrid said, offering the bowl to Kili as well. After the dwarf took a roll, he moved to offer one to the Master, who took two. "As usual, the Hen was quite busy. There was already a line out of the door." He moved on to offer Thorin the bowl.

Having taken a bite of one of the rolls, the Master tucked the bite into his cheek, making him resemble an obese chipmunk. "If you and your company get the chance, Lord Oakenshield, I highly recommend paying a visit to the Flying Hen—they have some of the best drink in the city and the best baked goods. Made fresh every morning."

"I will be sure to pass that along to rest of our companions," Thorin replied, giving him a small nod of thanks. He looked at the remaining rolls and picked one that was a bit more brown than the rest.

When Alfrid reached her, Baylee took a roll as well, thanking the man. Splitting the roll in half and then into quarters, she popped a bit of it into her mouth; once again, she was left pleasantly surprised by how good it was. After chewing and swallowing, she then asked, "Is there anywhere in the city we should avoid going, my lord?" Baylee questioned.

"The Full Tankard," both Alfrid and the Master chorused. They looked at one another, surprised they had both spoken at the same time.

Clearing his throat, the Master continued, "The Tankard is a place where riffraff and vagabonds frequent. A shame, too, since the proprietor's wife is such a sweetheart…" There was something about the way he said that phrase that left Baylee and the dwarves with the feeling there were other reasons he found it a shame.

It also left Baylee wondering if, perhaps, the inn was really as bad as the Master and Alfrid claimed. If she had had any money on her, she would have placed a bet on the Full Tankard being a rather pleasant place to visit.

"You should also avoid the south-eastern portion of the city in general," the Master continued. "That's the part of the city where aforementioned riffraff and vagabonds tend to frequent."

Kili's brow rose and he glanced over at Fili, who wore a similar expression. "But…Bard lives in the south-eastern part of the city," the younger prince stated.

"Exactly!" The Master puffed out his chest somewhat in an attempt to make him look more authoritative. "Don't let that kind and concerned façade of his fool you—Bard is quite the troublemaker! One of his favorite past times is stirring dissent among the people of this city and cheating people out of their money." He shook his head, a frown on his lips.

"He didn't seem to be much of a troublemaker," Fili commented before taking a drink of his wine.

"Quite the opposite, really," Kili added.

"He helped smuggle you lot into the city, didn't you?" There was a strange, almost mischievous lilt to his voice as he spoke. "And, no doubt, he made you hand over every last coin you and your companions had in order to do such, correct?" Seeing the looks of uncertainty worn by the dwarves, he inwardly smirked. "You would do well to stay away from him. And his children, too, as they're quickly growing up to follow in their father's footsteps." He then let out a theatric sigh. "Ah, if only their mother still lived! Neither they nor their father would have become so roguish."

Knowing she was rather fond of Bard's children, Thorin glanced over at Baylee. She had her eyes fixed on her plate and, though she was eating, he could see that her knuckles were white as she gripped her fork. With a great deal of subtlety, he reached over and set his hand atop her unoccupied hand and gave it a gentle squeeze.

He knew she wouldn't be accepting any more invitations to dine with the Master.

"So how did the lunch go?"

"It…was decent, I suppose."

"Just decent? That's surprising, given how badly the Master wanted to impress Thorin."

"A lot of the food was bland and either too mushy or too chewy." Baylee carefully tipped the teapot forward, filling Bard's cup nearly to the top before moving to fill Tilda's cup. "The ham and rolls, however, were quite good." She didn't want to tell Bard or Tilda about the slander that was said about them—she had a feeling Bard already knew what the Master thought of him, anyway.

"I'm surprised you didn't get sick from the rest of the food," Tilda spoke up, adding some honey into her tea. "There can't be anything good in that house of his, since there's nothing good about him…"

Bard looked at his youngest, his brow rising. "Tilda, you know better than to speak ill of people, even if you don't like them."

The girl pouted slightly, but nodded. "Sorry, papa."

Baylee quietly laughed. "I'm afraid I have to agree with her," she said. "I can't place my finger on it, but something about that man and his manservant is just…off. If he invites us to dine with him again, I'm going to decline." She set the teapot down before climbing up into a chair and sitting on her knees.

Father and daughter nodded in understanding. "That's probably for the best," said Bard. "I know I just said it's best to not speak ill of people, but you're far too nice to be around people like them." He picked up his tea and took a drink.

"And she's too nice to have to eat Alfrid's cooking," Tilda stated. When Bard gave her a small glare, she pouted slightly. "I wasn't speaking ill of him, papa—just his cooking!"

Both Baylee and Bard couldn't help but chuckle at that. "She has a point," Baylee said. "His skills aren't necessarily part of who he is." She stirred a bit of honey into her tea with one hand while the other tucked some hair behind her ear. "Not to change the subject or anything, but did the food I sent over arrive alright? I know Fili and Bofur delivered it, but I don't know if it got packed away in the baskets well enough…"

Bard nodded. "Yes, it arrived in perfect condition. Some of the pies were even still warm. And I must thank you for all of that food. It was quite unexpected, but not unwelcomed."

"And that apple pie you made was really yummy!" Tilda chirped, her eyes wide. "Papa had to hide it because we all wanted to eat more of it, but he wouldn't let us."

"That was a good idea on his part, then," she laughed. "And it was the least I could do after what happened the other night." Her smile faded ever so slightly. "I'm still so sorry that happened because of us. You really didn't deserve such treatment, especially after helping us so much."

"It's not you who needs to apologize, little mistress, as you were not the one who threw the city into a frenzy over something that may not even take place." He let out a heavy sigh. "I apologize for saying such a grim thing, but…"

"No, you're entirely right," she agreed. "And…to be honest, I've been worried about that myself. Yes, the dragon hasn't been seen for sixty years, but that doesn't mean he isn't still alive inside that mountain." Picking up her tea, she took a small sip. "And, from what I gathered, there's a very specific way to kill him—a way that I don't think we'd be able to pull off."

Tilda frowned. "But you're so small, surely he wouldn't notice if you walked right up to him and stuck him with a spear or something?"

Once more, Baylee and Bard laughed, though it was quieter this time. "Even if I could get that close to Smaug without him noticing, I don't think my sword would be long enough to pierce his heart," Baylee smiled.

"I'm afraid your sword isn't even truly a sword—it's more of a long knife," Bard said. "But it is one you clearly wield well enough to keep you alive."

"And it's also one I can actually lift. I can somewhat use a bow, but I'd be utterly useless with any other weapon because they're too heavy for me." She took another small drink of her tea before setting the cup down. "You would need someone bigger and much stronger than a hobbit to bring down a dragon, I'm afraid."

Tilda let out a bit of a theatrical sigh. "A shame. I think it would make for a wonderful story, having a hobbit slay a dragon…" She then shook her head and took a drink of her own tea.

Bard quietly laughed at his youngest, his brow rising slightly. "You have the most active of imaginations, little one." Reaching over, he tousled her hair. "Though, now I have to ask you to head up to your room for a little while. I would like to speak to the little mistress in private."

Her brows furrowing ever so slightly, Baylee watched as Tilda nodded. The girl refilled her cup with tea before slipping out of her chair and crossing the room, heading up the stairs. She looked at Bard, a small frown on her lips. "What needs to be talked about that Tilda can't be around for?"

"I need to talk to you about Erebor," he told her, his voice quieter just in case his daughter was trying to eavesdrop. "Or, rather, I need to give you a warning about what else may lay within Erebor—and I do not speak of living creatures."

The frown on her lips grew in size and her brows practically knitted themselves together. "…What kind of warning?" she cautiously questioned.

A heavy sigh left Bard's mouth and he looked down into his cup. "It's said that the greed of dragons runs so deep, that any treasure they hoard becomes cursed," he began. "And, while this curse may pass to humans and elves, dwarves are especially susceptible to its effects. They call it Dragon Sickness."

Though she felt her stomach churn slightly at this information and could see where Bard was going, she couldn't help but wonder if the Sackville-Bagginses were born with a form of Dragon Sickness.

"Even before Smaug attacked, it was rumored that that line of Durin had been infected by this sickness. That some of the gold that had been amassed over the centuries came from infected caches. Over time, that cursed gold spread its effects to the rest of the great treasury of Erebor." Lifting his head, he looked at her, a grim expression on his face. "I'm not saying it will happen, of course, but I am saying it could happen."

"…What happens when someone gets infected with this sickness?" she asked, her voice a bit small. The idea of Erebor's treasury being cursed was one that frightened her. If they were able to reclaim the mountain, she didn't want anything to happen to the company, but Thorin most of all—and not only because she loved him. 'He's worked so hard to get here,' she told herself. 'He's gone through so much pain and suffering…he doesn't need any more of that. He deserves happiness.'

"I'm not entirely sure," Bard admitted, "but I do know that part of it brings about a dragon-like greed in the person." He let out a sigh and leaned back in his chair. "I also don't know if it's something that displays its symptoms straight away or if it gradually happens. Either way, I wanted you to know about in just in case it were to be true and your companions fall ill with it."

She nodded slowly, though she was quiet for some minutes. This was some rather unexpected information that he had divulged to her and she was finding it a bit tough to digest. 'Why haven't the others mentioned this sickness?' she thought. 'Were they unaware of it? Or maybe they don't believe in it?'

"Thank you," she eventually said, "for telling me this. The others hadn't mentioned anything about dragon sickness or cursed gold or, if they had, it wasn't to me." She gave him a weak smile before quickly hiding it by taking a drink of tea.

He let out a soft sigh. "I hope I didn't upset you. As I said, I just wanted you to be forewarned. For all I know, there may not be a curse and it was just a rumor someone came up with to keep thieves away."

"No, no, you didn't upset me," she assured him. "I'm just surprised. This is most definitely something I'll be sure to keep in mind, though I do really hope it's nothing more than a rumor."

"As do I. Thorin made many promises to the people of Laketown a few nights ago and it would earn him quite a bit of scorn if he were to turn his back on said promises." Grabbing the teapot, he refilled her cup before refilling his. "I may not like him much, but even I admit that the reclamation of Erebor would bring a great boost to my people's morale and give them hope that their children will see better days."

"If you could keep the gold away from the Master, that is." She added a bit more honey to her cup. "He and Thorin discussed the economic futures of both cities as well as Dale. When Thorin stated that it could take up to a decade to get trade and manufacturing going smoothly, the Master wasn't very happy."

"That sounds like the Master," he sighed, his brow rising. "I daresay he has a bad case of Dragon Sickness with how often he raises taxes—taxes most of us can't pay."

Her nose scrunched up slightly at the thought. "How did he even get to be Master if he's so greedy?"

"Believe it or not, he was one a fairly good leader." He chuckled softly when he saw Baylee's shocked expression. "He negotiated fair trade agreements with the elves of Mirkwood as well as with the people of Dorwinion. Gondor and Rohan even do trade with us when they're able. But times have been tough for most realms."

She nodded slowly in understanding. "The Master mentioned that the crops didn't do well on the mainland and that the fish numbers have been low."

He made a curious sound, his brow rising. "Did he now? That's interesting, given that both actually did quite well."

Her brows furrowed. "Then he lied to us…to try and squeeze more pity out of Thorin, no doubt."

"That would be my guess. After all, if we were doing so poorly on food, the city wouldn't be freely giving you and your companions so much of it, now would we?"

"I wish they wouldn't give us so much," she sighed, a bit of a pout on her lips. "What they've given us would be able to feed half the city for at least two weeks. And they keep bringing more!" Shaking her head, she lifted her cup and took a small drink of tea. "At this rate, I'll have to open my own eatery just so the food doesn't go to waste."

Bard smiled. "I wouldn't mind. Your cooking is very good and the way you were able to stretch some potatoes, onions, dumplings, and chicken into such a large batch of stew was quite amazing. Even more impressive was that it tasted good, too."

"Well, I'd be more than happy to make you some more potpies, breads, and dessert pies if you'd like," she chirped, returning his smile. "I don't really mind, as I don't have much to do. That, and I miss cooking and baking. Bombur's been the one to do the majority of the cooking while on this adventure—mostly because I had to stand on my tiptoes in order to see over the edge of his cooking cauldron." She shook her head slightly. "At least in the kitchens here, I can stand on a chair or sit on the counter."

"So long as the chair is sturdy," he told her. "We wouldn't want you to topple into the soup pot and become Baylee Stew."

Her nose scrunched up slightly at the thought. "I don't think I would make for very good tasting stew." She took a drink of her tea, her eyes closing for a few seconds as she enjoyed the way its warmth coursed through her body.

She and Bard were silent for a few minutes, simply enjoying the silence and their tea. Both looked up when there was a small thud from upstairs, but it was quickly followed by an 'Everything's alright!' from Tilda. Bard quietly chuckled and shook his head.

"She probably dropped a book," he told Baylee.

"That sounded like it was quite a large book."

He nodded. "We have a large book of fairytales that she likes to read whenever she's bored. Actually, I'm not sure if she reads it so much as she looks at the illustrations inside of it." He took a drink of his tea letting his eyes fall shut as he spoke. "It's filled with pictures of princesses and knights and various things that go bump in the night."

A soft laugh left her mouth. "That sounds similar to a book I had as a child, though it wasn't nearly big enough to make that loud of a thump—unless I threw it, but I never did that." She tucked a braid behind her ear and let out a soft sigh. "I still have it, though I suppose it'll be quite a while before I actually get to see it again."

"Why is that?"

Rubbing the side of her neck, she let out a small sigh. "Because, should all go well with reclaiming Erebor, I'll be marrying Thorin, which would make me queen."

Bard's brow rose in curiosity. "I knew you and Thorin were close, but I wasn't aware the two of you were that close."

Her cheeks turned a bit red. "We do our best to keep our affections private," she explained. "The lads like to tease us about it otherwise…and I don't want to make my da' uncomfortable." She quietly chuckled. "He's already gone through quite a bit on this journey, including watching me fall in love with a dwarven king."

"…So you and Thorin started courting while on this journey?" He watched as she nodded and his brow rose. "You can't have been together for more than a few months, then—if that, even. Don't you find it a bit soon to start thinking about marriage?"

"To be honest? A little bit," she admitted. "But I've quickly come to learn that, when dwarves fall in love, it's for life. They'll only ever love that one person—except in extremely rare circumstances." Taking a sip of her tea, she closed her eyes for a moment. "Thorin and I have discussed this, though. We wouldn't marry straight away—being a new king of a reclaimed land, there would simply be far too much on his plate to allow time for a proper wedding. But that would give us more time to properly court instead of having to sneak off for something as simple as a hug." Opening her eyes, she set her cup down before grabbing the teapot to refill it.

Bard continued to look at her with a mixture of concern and curiosity. "But do hobbits fall in love only once?" he asked.

"That…I can't answer, to be honest." She added a touch more honey to her tea before slowly stirring it in. "That seems to be the case for most of the hobbits I know, but there are a few cases where someone has either courted a few beaus before they found their spouse or had a crush on multiple people." She took a sip of the tea. "It really depends on the hobbit, I suppose."

He nodded in understanding. "That's how it is for us humans, too," he told her. "Some of us take a while to find our soulmate while others find them straight away."

She tilted her head somewhat. "Soulmate? I've never heard that term before."

"Really? Well, it's just as it sounds—a person whose soul matches their own perfectly. Not only are they in love, but they're also best friends." He glanced down at the little lass. "That's how I knew my late wife was the one for me…she and I began as friends and it grew into something more."

"Hm. I'll have to remember that term," she said. "I rather like it. It sounds…well, more romantic than just 'husband', 'wife', or 'spouse'. It makes it seem as if the couple was made for one another."

A small smile came to his lips. "It does, doesn't it? I suppose that fits well with dwarven beliefs, then, since they believe they were forged by Aulë."

She found it strange, hearing 'Aulë' instead of 'Mahal' after so long. 'I wonder if the dwarves have a similar term to 'soulmate' in their language?' she thought, taking another drink of tea. Her nose scrunched up ever so slightly; she had added too much honey this time around.

"What was that face for?" Bard asked, amusement in his voice.

"Too much honey," she told him, reaching for the teapot.

"That's hard to believe," he chuckled, his brow rising. "The sweet little mistress finds something too sweet to drink?"

Her lips pursed in a small pout as she looked up at him. "I'll have you know, I actually much prefer tart foods to sweet foods."

"Is that so? I wouldn't have guessed," he laughed. "What is your favorite dessert, then?"

"Lemon-strawberry cake."

His brow rose somewhat. "I've never heard of such a thing. I've heard of using lemon juice in pies, but in cake…?"

"You use both the juice and the zest in the cake," she told him. "When made correctly, it's like having some strawberry lemonade in cake form."

"I'm afraid I've never had strawberry lemonade, so I wouldn't know what that tastes like."

She pouted again, though this time around, it wasn't aimed at him. "Well, we came here in entirely the wrong season, then. Should all go well with the mountain, come summer, I'll pay you a visit and make you not only strawberry lemonade, but lemon-strawberry cake as well. And then you'll taste just how good both are." She spoke in such a matter-of-fact manner that Bard couldn't help but laugh again.

"I will happily wait for that day to come then, little mistress."

Thorin let out a sigh of content as he sank down into the bathing tub, the hot water making goosebumps cover his skin. Closing his eyes, he tilted his head back, letting it rest against the edge of the tub. He couldn't remember the last time he had had a warm bath, let alone a hot one.

He had forgotten how nice they were.

'I'll definitely be taking one more of these before we go to the mountain,' he told himself. 'There will be no telling how long it'll be before I get the chance again…Even if Smaug is dead or we're victorious in defeating him, the mountain's hot springs may have gone cold by now…'

Raising a hand, he ran his fingers over his hair, which he had washed earlier in the day. It was now pulled back in a single braid that had been twisted up into a bun, keeping it out of the way while he bathed. A quiet hum left his throat and he moved to instead rest his elbows on the edges of the tub.

'Kili's leg is still bothering him…Oin says that it's healing, but not nearly as well as it should be. I can tell he's also hiding something from me about the wound, but I don't know what.' Another sigh left his mouth and he allowed himself to sink a bit lower into the water. 'Surely it can't be infected? Oin's been keeping a close eye on it…Though, it was an orc arrow that made the wound. Wounds from orcish weapons take longer to heal and are more prone to infection. Regardless, if he still has that bad limp by the time we leave for the mountain, I won't have any choice but to leave him behind.'

The thought brought a deep frown to his lips; he didn't at all like the idea of having to leave anyone behind, least of all one of his nephews. But he also knew that they couldn't risk being slowed down if they were to make it to the mountain in time. And having an injured party member could be detrimental to their chances at victory, should Smaug still live within the mountain.

'If Smaug still lives, I wouldn't want both of my heirs there, anyway. The line of Durin must continue on, whether it's through me, Fili, or Kili. I can't have all three of us fall should things go ill.' A soft sigh left his throat and he allowed himself to slide down a bit further into the water. 'Not to mention, if I put both her sons into that sort of danger, Dis would hunt me down and shave me head-to-toe.'

Opening his eyes, he looked up at the ceiling; the room was fairly dark, with the only light being the two oil lamps on either side of his tub. 'I…don't think I want Baylee coming along for this portion of the journey. She's already been through so much—I don't even want to begin thinking about what could happen to her should Smaug live.'

The corner of his mouth drew back in a small scowl at the thought of his little hobbit lass getting hurt again.

'No. No, Baylee will stay here. She's far too precious to risk any more harm coming to her. And when Erebor is reclaimed, she will be my queen.' The scowl faded away only to be replaced by a tender smile. 'Well, not straight away, of course. There will be quite a bit for us to do once the Lonely Mountain belongs to the dwarves again…But, eventually, she will be my queen. My beautiful, tenderhearted queen…'

A soft sigh left his mouth and he let his eyes drift shut again. 'It would be nice for her if Bilbo were to remain in Erebor—or even Laketown—instead of returning to the Shire, but I know how much he misses his home and his garden. I'm sure he and Bofur will be happy together there. Though, I can't help but wonder how Bofur will adapt to living life among hobbits…? He'll certainly never be hungry or thirsty, that much I know. But will he have to forgo shoes like them? Or will he be allowed to wear his boots?'

He shook his head and, grabbing a washcloth, began to clean himself. "What am I thinking?" he murmured aloud. "Of course he'd still be allowed to wear his boots."