"Alright," Balin whispered just before the final turn into the treasury, "I think we should wait here and send Bilbo ahead to make sure Smaug hasn't returned; if you are agreed, Master Baggins."

"I suppose it's for the best," Bilbo muttered. While he was loathe to leave Thorin and tempt death once more, but it made far more sense for him to go and scout ahead with his ring than for them all to walk blindly into Smaug's waiting maw.

"Thank you," Balin replied. "Now, lads, once he gets back, if the coast is clear we will creep into the chamber as quietly as we can," he paused to shoot Bilbo a glare as the hobbit snorted at the idea of stealthy dwarves but said nothing since Nori had snorted as well, "and make for the main gates. Even if Smaug's not there, that's no guarantee he won't come back."

"Only one problem with that plan," Dori said.

"And what's that?" Dwalin asked, his tone revealing his exasperation with Dori shooting down every plan they concocted.

"I don't know how to get to the front gate," Dori said, staring down the larger dwarf. "Do you?"

"Well," Dwalin admitted gruffly, rubbing one tattooed hand over his head, "I don't. I wasn't even born when the mountain fell. Brother?"

"I think I can get us there," Balin said. "It's been a long time and my memories are a bit hazy but . . . I can get us there."

"Are you sure?" Bofur asked, his normally cheerful demeanor disappearing at the thought of being lost in the halls of Erebor with a dragon roaming about.

"Yes," Balin said, his tone not as strong as it had been moments before.

"You don't sound sure," Kíli pointed out. "You actually sound anything but sure."

"Well, I was only a child when Smaug came, but I assure you," Balin began only to be cut off by Thorin.

"I know the way," the king said, even if the idea of fleeing his own kingdom once more was a galling one, he could see the wisdom of the act. "I remember how to get us out."

"You do, Uncle?" Fíli asked softly. "If you don't—"

"I know every inch of this mountain, Fíli," Thorin cut in. "Or I did before the worm destroyed it. But he can only have done so much to the entrance. He still had to get out, after all. The way from the treasury will be clear. Go, Bilbo. Check that he's gone and I will lead us out." The hobbit looked as if he wanted to say something, but simply nodded and offered Thorin a small smile.

"I'll be right back," he promised, hoping the words sounded more sure to the company than they did to his own ears, before slipping the Ring on his finger and vanishing.

He was only gone for a few moments, but for the waiting dwarves they were the longest few moments of the quest thus far. Even waiting in complete silence and listening for either sounds of Bilbo's return of sounds of his demise, they were startled when the hobbit reappeared in their midst.

"He's gone," Bilbo said just as he materialized between Dwalin and Bofur, the first reaching for an ax in his shock.

"Don't do that, lad," Dwalin snarled just as Bofur clapped the hobbit on the shoulder with a smile saying, "Good. Now let's get out of this mountain." At that Bilbo looked a bit nervous and glanced around before clearing his throat.

"About that," he said, "what I mean to say is . . . well—"

"The dragon is gone, isn't he?" Kíli asked suspiciously.

"Yes," Bilbo replied, "but—"

"Then let's go," Fíli crowed his own hand coming down on Bilbo's shoulder.

"It's not that simple," Bilbo continued only to be cut off once more by Glóin.

"Why not?" the red-haired dwarf asked. "He's gone so we can go. What are you babbling on about?"

"It's just that you're dwarves," Bilbo said snippily.

"And what of it?" Dwalin asked sharply, affronted that Bilbo would make such a statement.

"You're not exactly quiet," Bilbo replied. "And even though he's gone, it doesn't mean that he's not coming back."

"So what?" Dori snapped. "You think you'll have better odds of survival without us? Just because the dragon knows the smell of dwarf?" The other's grumbled in distaste at the thought that Bilbo might be thinking that about them.

"No!" Bilbo sighed throwing up his hands before pinching the bridge of his nose and taking a calming breath. "Just listen for a moment, will you? All I'm saying is that you need to attempt to be both quick and quiet. He could return and stealth will be our best bet."

"And just what does us being dwarves have to do with that?"Óin asked.

"It has to do with the fact that most dwarves wouldn't know quiet if it snuck up and bit them on the arse," Nori said cutting off the argument. "And the hobbit's right. Stealth is key here."

"Are you saying we can't be stealthy?" Kíli asked loudly causing Dwalin to wince and cover the lad's mouth with his hand.

"He's saying that you need to keep your trap shut, lad." Dwalin hissed.

"So the way is clear, Bilbo?" Balin asked rolling his eyes at his brother's hands-on approach to silencing Kíli and turning his back on the resulting scuffle.

"Yes," Bilbo said, his eyes darting back towards the opening. "For now. But we have to go."

"Then go we shall," Thorin said. "Follow me. And Bilbo, if you don't mind, remain by my side and check ahead with your ring when we come to corners." Bilbo wasn't sure how he could do both of those things at the same time but nodded all the same.

"Mahal preserve us," Dori whispered as Thorin began to lead them out of the tunnel and into the wide expanse of the treasury. Though the king said nothing, he wondered why Dori bothered. If Mahal had not listened to the pleas of the thousands that had been trapped here when the dragon first invaded why would he listen to the prayer of one dwarf now. Soon even Thorin's morose thoughts disappeared under the wonder that filled them all at the sight of the treasury.

"Mahal's hammer," Dwalin breathed. "I know you said that the gold in the mountain would make us wealthier than we could imagine but . . . "

"There's so much of it," Nori sighed.

"More than I've ever seen," Fíli muttered, his blue eyes wide and his jaw hanging open.

"It should have always been yours, Lad," Thorin sighed putting his arm around Fíli's shoulders and reaching out to draw Kíli to him as well. "You should never have wanted for anything. Neither of you."

"They won't want for anything ever again if we're still here when that dragon comes back," Bilbo said impatiently. He was just as awed with the gold as they were—anyone would have been—but at the end of the day, Bilbo was a hobbit and it just didn't call to him in the same way as it did the dwarves. Or at least that was what he tried to tell himself as he fingered the golden ring in his pocket.

"Bilbo's right," Bofur said, standing up and pocketing a handful of coins. "We need to go. No harm in taking a bit with us though, is there?"

"None at all, lad, none at all," Glóin agreed bending and filling his own pockets, the rest of the company soon following suit, comparing gems they found with the other members before pocketing them.

"Dwarves!" Bilbo growled before raising his voice. "We don't have time for this," he called. "We need to go now. Smaug could return any minute."

"He's right, lads," Balin said. "Enough's enough. Let's go." There was a bit of grumbling but they couldn't argue against that truth and picked up their final handfuls and waited for Thorin to lead them away from the hoard.

"Seems a shame to leave all that to the dragon again, eh?" Nori asked to no one in particular. No one answered him, but everyone—Bilbo included—agreed with him. But, shame or no, they had no choice but to do just that. After all, thirteen dwarves and a hobbit couldn't take on a dragon.

ooOO88OOoo

The trip out the gate was mostly uneventful. There were a couple of moments where nerves nearly got the better of Bilbo, a sudden sound ahead causing him to fear sudden death—or more worrisome yet, a drawn out death—but none of them turned out to be Smaug lying in wait for them. In fact, there was no sign of the dragon even once they were standing among the twisted remains of the great gates that Smaug had wrenched from their hindges over a hundred years before.

"So much destruction," Thorin muttered placing his hand over a hole that had been rent in the gate where Smaug had removed a gem from the metal—the act evidently his by the great claw mark in the iron. "Craftwork that should have lasted the Ages: destroyed. The names of the makers, forgotten." He ran his finger over some runes that had been below the setting. The were nearly obliterated in the dragon's attempt to claim the jewels, but the tops and bottoms of the runes could still be seen.

"Perhaps it can be repaired," Balin said gently. "The names are nearly legible. We can work to preserve the memory of their work if not the work itself. We can restore it just as it was before."

"My memory is not that fresh," Thorin argued. "I cannot remember which stones were in the gate. Their work is undone. As is ours. The dragon has won yet again. Once more I've had to flee my home for fear of him."

"We're not leaving," Bilbo argued.

"You're mad!" Nori countered. "We've got some of the gold, we can't fight the dragon; we should leave."

"And go where, Master Dwarf?" Bilbo demanded. "How do you propose we cross the Desolation if the dragon is seeking us out? Where would we hide if he came?" There was a general grumbling at this as they realized the hobbit was right.

"But where will we go here?" Fíli asked. "We can't go back into the mountain and it's not like he'd miss us if we stay on his front porch. We'd have better luck of avoiding him on the plains."

"There's an old gurad house," Balin suggested. "It's just around the face of the mountain. An outlook of sorts. We could go there. It would offer us shelter from the elements and perhaps from Smaug."

"It's as good a place as any," Thorin agreed. "Move along this ridge. You can't miss it. Bofur lead the way and watch for unstable rock. Fíli, go with him and watch for the dragon." They nodded and began the task of leading the company to the old guard house.

"How on earth did you remember that was there?" Thorin asked his cousin quietly as they set off.

"Easily," Balin replied with a smile. "I used to hide there when it was time for my lessons. Mother never found me. I figured if it would conceal me from her then it would have no difficulty with Smaug."

"Your fortunate she's not around to hear you say that," Dwalin said with a laugh. "She may be old, but I would put it past her to take you over her knee even now for comparing her to Smaug the Terrible."

"Am I wrong?" Balin countered. Dwalin said nothing, but his silence spoke volumes on his opinion on the matter. Thorin's quiet chuckle at the comparison was music to Bilbo's ears as they made their way along the ledge. He hoped that his lover's good humor marked the end of the troubles from Mirkwood, even if he knew that such a hope was foolish optimism.

ooOO88OOoo

Fanfiction Queen: you're welcome :) I do like to reaffirm genius when I find it :)And thank you :) I'm glad that this fic qualifies as a good fix-it :) And yeah . . . sadly darkness will be creeping back in at least through the BOFA and perhaps longer, but it will still end well before it's all said and done. And sorry that it was no where near soon, but I do hope you are still enjoying it :/