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Bilbo’s older sister is sobbing after Friday meeting. Bilbo can hear it even before she sets foot on the porch. She didn’t observe what happened, or hear it – all she knew of it was Thorin, his color patchy and faded with embarrassment, as he fled the scene. But Bilbo knows Thorin Thrainsson, and she knows her sister. It’s not hard to guess.

Bilbo extends her cane, tapping the ground in front of her until she reaches the stairs. It’s mostly a formality. She knows the distances between each building in the village she was born in like the back of her hand, but there have been rare occasions where she’s been distracted by her own thoughts and missed the house entirely. There are always plenty of people nearby to catch Bilbo by the arm and steer her in the right direction, but her pride’s wounded a little more every time. She may be blind, but she’s not stupid. She’d stop long before her wandering led her to the edge of the woods.

She climbs the steps and pushes open the door. Gandalf sits in his rocking chair near the empty hearth, the window open to catch a summer breeze. His color is grey, soft and hazy. Sometimes it darkens to silver; others it bleaches to almost white. Today it’s hazier than usual. Bilbo asks a question she knows the answer to. “What happened with Thranduil?”

“It seems she proposed to Thorin,” Gandalf says. He sighs.

Bilbo thought that was it, but still – “Why?”

“Your sister is a mystery to all of us,” Gandalf says. “Herself included.”

There’s a wail from upstairs. Thranduil’s heard them.  “I’m going to talk to her,” Bilbo decides. “Don’t come up.”

She imagines Gandalf smiling. His color brightens, at least. “You have a good heart, Bilbo Baggins.”

“She’s my sister,” Bilbo says. She starts up the stairs.

Thranduil isn’t Bilbo’s real sister, any more than Gandalf is her real father, but that doesn’t matter to Bilbo. The plague that swept the village the year after Bilbo was born killed her parents and Thranduil’s both, and Gandalf, who lost a family of his own in the pestilence, took them both in and raised them together. Bilbo can’t recall her parents’ faces. She was too young when they died, and the plague stole her sight when it stole them away. But Thranduil remembers her mother and father, and Bilbo’s parents, too. Sometimes, on nights when she can’t sleep, she tells Bilbo stories about them.

Thranduil is sharp and brilliant, like the way glass sounds when it shatters on the floor, and Bilbo knows everyone thinks she’s beautiful. But Thranduil’s old enough to court now, has been for a year, and no one’s come to call. Thranduil’s not patient. Bilbo’s not surprised she took matters into her own hands, just as she’s not surprised it’s gone poorly. Lost in her own thoughts, she forgets to tap the way with her cane on the upper floor, and walks straight into the door with a thud. It stings, but at least she’s saved the trouble of knocking.

“Thranduil,” she says softly. “Let me in.”

“Go away.”

“It’s my room, too,” Bilbo says. She finds the knob and turns it, pushing open the door.

Thranduil doesn’t have a color, but most people in the village don’t. Besides, Bilbo knows Thranduil well enough that she doesn’t need a color to tell her how Thranduil feels. It’s seven steps from the door to the bed. Bilbo counts them out until she’s standing beside it, then puts out her hand until she encounters Thranduil’s shoulder, her silken hair. “If you don’t move, I’ll sit on you.”

Thranduil huffs, or sniffles. Then she rolls to the side, and Bilbo perches on the edge of the bed. She goes for the obvious question first. “What happened?”

“Don’t ask me that,” Thranduil hisses. “You heard. Everyone did! I’ve made a fool of myself – again – after this no one will ever look at me –”

“Why did you pick Thorin?” Bilbo asks before she can stop herself. “Of all the young men in the village, why him?”

“He’s handsome,” Thranduil says. Bilbo will have to take her word for it. Thranduil sniffles again. “And he’s the only one who’s not afraid of me.”

Her voice is muffled, like she’s speaking into a pillow. Bilbo hopes it’s not her pillow that Thranduil’s using as a handkerchief. But Thranduil’s words are savage enough that Bilbo forgets about the pillow for a moment. “He certainly is now – they all are! I repel them. I’ll be alone all my life, and I’ll die boarded up in this stupid house, and by the time anyone notices I’ve vanished, my collection of cats will have long since consumed my body.”

Bilbo snorts at that. She can’t help it. A silence falls. “Don’t laugh at me,” Thranduil says frostily. She sounds a little more like her old self. “It’s true.”

“No, it isn’t,” Bilbo says. She stretches out on the bed next to Thranduil. “First of all, you won’t be alone in spinsterhood – I’ll be right there beside you. Secondly, our cats will eat me before they eat you. I’m the one with meat on my bones.”

Thranduil is slender, or willowy. The only words that describe Bilbo accurately are sturdy, when she’s feeling kind to herself, or plump, when she isn’t. She nudges Thranduil with her shoulder. “Besides, I know of someone who cares for you most ardently. Someone who is certainly as heartbroken as you are after hearing you propose to Thorin.”

“I didn’t propose to him,” Thranduil says. For somebody who rarely looks where she’s going, Thranduil is unusually averse to tripping on her own feet. “Don’t lie to me. They’re all fearful of me now. I’m repulsive.”

“No. Intimidating, maybe,” Bilbo says. She nudges Thranduil again. “The ones who keep their distance are right to. They’re not man enough to handle you, and they know it.”

“Truly.” Thranduil sounds skeptical. “You believe Thorin’s not man enough to handle me?”

“Not the right sort of man,” Bilbo says. Her stomach clenches oddly at the thought of her sister walking hand in hand with Thorin Thrainsson, and she swallows hard. She thinks over all the young men in the village who aren’t spoken for. One name stands out in particular. “Bard Bowman is the right sort, I think.”

“Bard Bowman?” Thranduil scoffs. “He’s handsome, it’s true. But he’s the only man in the village who never looks at me.”

Bilbo wonders what the ceiling looks like. She’s stared up at it so many times. Once she asked Thranduil, and Thranduil said, It’s wood, and left it there. Gandalf is the only person who describes things with the detail Bilbo would wish them to. Gandalf, and –

She pushes the thought away and tries to think of a way to make Thranduil understand. This idea of Thranduil and Bard Bowman is a better one than she originally thought. The longer she thinks of it, the more sense it makes. “Sometimes people don’t do the things they want to do, so others won’t know they want to do them,” she says. The bed shifts as Thranduil rolls over to look at her. “I think he never looks at you because he knows he won’t be able to look away.”

It's quiet in their room. Thranduil sniffles again. Her breathing is beginning to even out, and when she speaks, she’s hesitant in a way Bilbo’s rarely heard. “How do you know?”

“I know things,” Bilbo says. More accurately, she hears things. Some people forget that she’s only blind, not deaf, and they talk as though she’s not in the room. She’s never heard Bard Bowman speak of Thranduil, but she’s heard the absence of his voice, the reverence in how he falls silent when he hears her name, rises to his feet when she enters the room. “And I know you.”

“Then you should know that I am through with men,” Thranduil says. She flops onto the pillow again, and when she speaks again, her voice is watery with despair. “There’s nothing about me worth chasing after.”

So Thranduil won’t go to Bard Bowman. Bilbo’s fairly certain she can bring Bard Bowman to Thranduil. She rolls over in the bed they’ve shared since they were children and hugs Thranduil from behind. Somehow it brings on fresh tears, because Thranduil always feels things too much. When she’s happy, she’s the happiest of anyone in the world; when she’s angry, the village flees before her in terror; when she’s lonely, like she is now, it's a pit deep and black enough to pull Bilbo in.

Bilbo won’t let it. She strokes Thranduil’s hair and sings a lullaby Thranduil taught her, one she learned from her parents, and lets her mind wander until Thranduil falls asleep. Then she sits up, grasps her cane from where she leaned it against her nightstand, and heads down the stairs. Her sister’s happily-ever-after isn’t going to write itself.

Two sets of footsteps follow her as she makes her way through the village, one fast and uneven, one steady and sure. Bilbo pitches her voice to be heard. “I know you’re there, Sméagol.”

Giggling. “Not me,” Sméagol wheezes. He puts on a scratchy voice, as though he’s been smoking Gandalf’s pipe since the day he was born. “Gollum. Gollum.”

Bilbo affects a huff. “Gollum handed me a frog two weeks ago and told me it was a rock. I don’t want to talk to Gollum right now. Tell him to come back later.”

“No.” More giggling. Sméagol speaks again, this time normally. “Sméagol is here.”

“Good afternoon, Sméagol,” Bilbo says, and Sméagol scurries up at her side. They’re the same age, but just as the pestilence stole Bilbo’s sight, it stole part of Sméagol’s mind with it. He’s grown up, just like the rest of them, but not the same as they have, which means he requires careful watching most of the time – likely the source of the second set of footsteps. “And who is your companion today?”

The footsteps draw alongside her, and she turns her head. Her stomach jolts. “Thorin Thrainsson,” she says. “As I live and breathe.”

“How did you know?” Thorin asks. “You cannot have known by my gait.”

For a moment Bilbo thinks of pretending, cloaking herself in mystery. But something stays her tongue, and replaces her coyness with truth. “Some people have a color to them,” she says. “I saw yours.”

“A color?” Thorin repeats. Sméagol is trying to hand something to Bilbo, but after the incident with the frog, Bilbo’s not inclined to take it. “Do you remember colors?”

“Yes,” Bilbo says, although her memories of them are faded, even more faded than the faint memory of her mother’s voice. “And no – I won’t tell you what yours is.”

“Not red.”

“Don’t say such a terrible thing,” Bilbo says, sharper than she means to. “The bad color could never be yours.”

“Mine?” Sméagol pats Bilbo’s arm a few times. “My color?”

Sméagol doesn’t have one. Bilbo’s told him that before, and he always cries. This time she lies. “Yellow,” she says. “The safe color. Of course.”

Sméagol crows with triumph, and hurries up ahead. Thorin’s voice sounds odd. “You will tell Sméagol his color, but not me?”

“Stop asking,” Bilbo says. She picks up her pace.

Thorin keeps pace with her. “Where are you going?”

“Where are you going?” Bilbo challenges. “Undoubtedly there is an errand I am distracting you from. The blacksmith’s apprentice is a busy man.”

Thorin’s color goes patchy with embarrassment again. “I was going to your house,” he says, “to –”

“To break my sister’s heart twice in one day?” Bilbo’s own heart sinks far and fast. She raps the ground ahead of her with her cane more sharply than before. “I must insist you do not.”

“When I saw you, I knew you would be able to tell me if she was well,” Thorin says. “I wished to check on her only. I did not mean to slight her.”

“You are likely to receive many proposals. You may want to practice a response,” Bilbo says. “Standing there with your mouth open like a wooden post with a hole in it is unlikely to make a young lady feel respected.”

Thorin is silent for a few moments. “Is she well?”

“She will be,” Bilbo says, “once my errand is complete.”

Thorin’s color brightens. “And what errand is that?”

“I’m going to the carpenter’s, to visit Bard Bowman,” Bilbo says. She tries not to be too pleased with herself. Immodesty ill becomes her. “He holds a torch for my sister, does he not?”

“Indeed,” Thorin says. Bilbo smiles. “You perceive a great deal, Bilbo Baggins.”

‘Perceive’, rather than ‘see’. Thorin always has the right words for Bilbo. “Yes, I do,” she says, forgetting modesty for a moment. “How did you know?”

“His voice changes when he says her name,” Thorin says. Bilbo blinks. “But at the moment, he and I are on unpleasant terms. If you are paying him a visit, your errand would be better served without me.”

“Don’t be absurd,” Bilbo says. If she was walking with someone else, they would offer her their arm, male or female. Thorin’s arms remain at his sides, and so do hers, by default. “If you accompany me, perhaps we might solve both our difficulties at once.”

Sméagol keeps trying to hand Bilbo things, and Bilbo continues to demur, the entire way to the carpenter’s shop. Bard Bowman, like Thorin, chose a trade early. He’s Thranduil’s age, soon to be done with his apprenticeship. Like Thranduil, he has no color, and Bilbo’s less familiar with the layout of the carpenter’s shop than she is with other locations in the village. “Thorin,” she says. “Where –”

Another person might take Bilbo’s arm and turn her in the proper direction. It’s fastest, and Bilbo rarely minds. Instead Thorin says, “Turn to your left, and walk three steps. Then face right.”

Bilbo follows the instructions, and hears a clatter as Bard sets down his bucket of nails. “Miss Baggins,” he says. “How may I assist you?”

“Miss Baggins? So formal,” Bilbo teases. “No one calls me that but the children at school. Now – tell me what you think of my sister.”

The silence between them feels distinctly shocked. “Your sister?” Bard repeats.

“My sister Thranduil,” Bilbo says, and the silence shifts in an instant. “I’ve noticed you’ve yet to court anyone, although you’re the age for it. Might I recommend her?”

“Thranduil?” Bard says. Just as Thorin said, the way Bard says her sister’s name tells Bilbo everything she needs to know, and she’s borne up on a rush of triumph. “I am beneath her notice. And even if I was not, she has her heart set for someone else.”

From the way Thorin’s color blanches, Bard must be glaring at him. “She has her heart set on evading loneliness,” Bilbo corrects. “My sister is strong-willed, but not always prudent, and she often looks before she leaps. And she will continue to leap if she does not see anyone else looking.”

The quiet falls again. Bilbo loses patience quickly this time. “Thorin has wounded her pride. She will not come to you,” she says. “And if you are too reserved to go to her, then both of you shall be unhappy. Go to her this afternoon and speak your mind. See where it leads you.”

“It cannot feel worse than you feel now,” Thorin adds.

“I – Sméagol, put that down!” Bard’s voice sharpens, and he hurries away. Sméagol makes a startled, unhappy sound, and Bard’s voice softens as quickly as it gained an edge. “I spoke harshly. Forgive me. But the saws are very sharp, and dangerous. You could be hurt.”

“I’m not stupid.”

“I know,” Bard says. “Neither am I. But see these?”

Bilbo steps back, closer to Thorin. “What is Bard showing him?”

“His hands,” Thorin says quietly. “The scars.”

Oh. Bard’s voice quiets as he explains to Sméagol that the saws are dangerous to him, even though he uses them every day. A thought crosses Bilbo’s mind, and without considering it further, she shares it with Thorin. “He’ll make a fine father, don’t you think?”

“It comes naturally to some,” Thorin says. His color darkens.

Thorin lost his parents in the plague. Like Bilbo and her parents, he can’t remember them. But unlike Bilbo, orphaned and raised by a stranger, Thorin had a living grandfather, and his grandfather was as unlike Gandalf as a pet dog is unlike a wolf. She shies from the thought and asks Thorin a most imprudent question. “Do you want children? How many?”

“I don’t know,” Bard says. Bilbo was so focused on Thorin that she missed Bard’s return, with Sméagol in tow. “Does Thranduil?”

“Does she know how many children you want? No,” Bilbo says. Sméagol giggles. “If you’re asking how many children she wishes to have, I think that’s a question best left for her to answer. Now – do you intend to come to my sister willingly, or will Thorin have to drag you there like a sack of flour?”

Bard opts to walk on his own. He tells Bilbo, Thorin, and Sméagol in no uncertain terms not to follow him, but Bilbo’s not about to risk Bard changing his mind on the way. She and Thorin creep after him, hiding behind the buildings to track his progress. Off the beaten path, and on such a wild and looping route, Bilbo’s less certain of where she’s going. Time and time again, she expects Thorin to take her arm, to show her the way. But Thorin’s directions are given out loud. He never touches her.

It seems that once Bard commits to a course of action, he is steadfast. They’re too far away for Bilbo to hear what’s happening, so Thorin narrates. “He’s speaking to Gandalf now. Gandalf looks very serious. He’s going back inside, but Bard isn’t leaving. Gandalf must have promised to bring your sister.”

Bilbo’s brought Bard across the village to Thranduil. All Thranduil has to do is come downstairs. Bilbo sends up a prayer that her sister won’t take refuge in her pride and waits. “The door is opening again,” Thorin says. “She looks –”

He breaks off, and his color splits, patchy embarrassment deepening into shame. “Terrible,” Bilbo concludes, but her heart lifts. She explains to Thorin, even though he hasn’t asked. “If Thranduil came down looking as though she’s been crying all afternoon, it means she’s hopeful. My sister – she’ll never say it, but she wants someone to see her at her worst and choose her anyway. Do you believe Bard is up to the challenge?”

“Undoubtedly,” Thorin says. But he sounds skeptical, and a moment later, Bilbo finds out why. “What can she offer him?”

Bilbo raps him smartly on the shoulder. “My sister may not be to your taste, but she is worthy of any young man in this village,” she says. Thorin makes a conciliatory sound, and Bilbo thinks on the question. “My sister loves fiercely. She will be his greatest champion, and once she is sure of his affection for her, she will be strong enough to accomplish anything she sets her heart on. She has a great many ideas for how to improve our lives here. And she will make him happy. She does that, you know. When she’s happy, she could light up the village without a single torch.”

Bilbo thinks of what the house will be like once Thranduil’s gone, how quiet it will be when only she and Gandalf live there. “I will miss her terribly.”

There’s silence between Bilbo and Thorin now. Bilbo tries to parse it, but Thorin is a mystery to her these days, in a way he never was when they were children. When he speaks, it has nothing to do with what she said. “They’re sitting on the porch swing,” he reports. “A good sign?”

“Very promising,” Bilbo agrees. She swallows hard, then smiles. “I believe we’ll leave them to it.”

She turns away and sets off in a direction she knows will lead eventually to the woods, calling for Sméagol as she goes. Sméagol comes to her side. This time, she takes whatever he’s trying to hand her. It’s not a frog this time. “Berries?” she says, and Sméagol laughs. “What a thoughtful gift! But I’ll need more if you want me to make you a jam with them.”

Sméagol scurries off, and Bilbo continues to pick through the field. They used to play here as children, all of them – Thranduil came up with the game, and Bilbo would come up with the story, and they’d spend all day in the field, acting out Bilbo’s stories, taking it in turn to play the hero. Bilbo always thought the role suited Thorin best, and as if she’s summoned him on a thought, she finds Thorin walking at her side. Thorin’s color is heavy and dark. “Careful,” he says, and his voice sends a chill down Bilbo’s spine. “You are holding the bad color.”

Red. Bilbo drops them as though they’ve burned her hands, then drops to the ground, clawing at the dirt with her bare hands. Thorin falls to his knees beside her. With his help, Bilbo breaks through quickly, carving out a shallow hole, just deep enough for the sprig of berries. Red berries. Thorin buries them again. His color is still dark. “Where did you find them?”

“Sméagol,” Bilbo says. “Sméagol?”

Sméagol comes to them, and Thorin must grab him at the shoulder, because Sméagol protests. Thorin is not as patient as Bard, but saws and carpentry tools are one thing. The bad color is another. “Sméagol, where did you find the berries? Show me!”

Sméagol’s footsteps set off, and Bilbo gets to her feet to follow them, or tries to. Thorin pushes her back down. “Stay here,” he orders, then chases after Sméagol.

Everything stings at Bilbo now – her tailbone from striking the dirt, her nails from clawing at it, her pride at being pushed and treated like a child. She gets to her feet, seizes her cane, and sets off after them both. The ground grows rougher and rockier beneath her feet, and she knows where they’re headed, knows even before the cold, damp smell begins to pervade her nostrils. The closer she gets, the colder the air becomes, and the more the smell becomes laced with decay. Shadows fall over her face, then swallow her whole, and she picks up the pace, until she collides with Thorin’s back and falls over in the dirt again.

Thorin doesn’t notice – or if he notices, he doesn’t worry. His color is nearly black. “Speak truthfully,” he says to Sméagol. “You found them there?”

“Gollum found them,” Sméagol says. “There. And there and there and there –”

Bilbo doesn’t need eyesight to know that he’s pointing into the woods.

Chapter Text

For public meetings, when a decision’s already been made behind the scenes, the elders gather in the meeting hall with the village around them. For matters of a more sensitive nature, they meet inside one of the elders’ homes – usually Gandalf’s. Gandalf usually sends Bilbo and Thranduil away, but this time, Bilbo’s involved. She was the one who found the red berries. And Bilbo suspects Gandalf’s more than a little concerned that if he sends Thranduil away, she’ll get herself into trouble with Bard. Thranduil sits at the windowsill daydreaming. Bilbo’s eavesdropping on the meeting with a glass cup to the floor.

Thranduil plunks down on the floor beside her. “Feel this,” she says, and presses an odd shape of smooth wood into Bilbo’s palm. “Bard made it for me.”

Bilbo doesn’t want to be distracted from the meeting, but she’s so glad at seeing Thranduil even close to her old self that she abandons the glass for the moment and sits up. She runs her fingers over the shape, trying to discern it. Four legs, but no tail. An uplifted head, and on the head, antlers. “A deer,” Bilbo says. “It feels pretty.”

“He whittles when he’s nervous,” Thranduil says. “He made it for me while we were talking on the porch.”

Bard must have taken Bilbo’s advice to heart. “What do you think of him?”

“He’s – quiet,” Thranduil says, almost haltingly. “But he laughs with me.”

Bilbo’s heart stings, but she smiles. “Good.”

She hands the wooden deer back to Thranduil and stretches out again, ear pressed to the glass, glass pressed to the floorboards. She can just barely pick up the voices. Her hands are still tingling from the berries, a full twelve hours after she buried them, and she didn’t like the shade of Gandalf’s color when she told him what Sméagol had found, and where he had found it. Bilbo knows Thorin went straight to Aule with the bad news, and she told Nienna, who looks after Sméagol, when she walked Sméagol back home. She can’t hear the elders’ words, but she can hear their tones of voice. They sound worried, but not frightened. That makes her feel better.

The length of the meeting makes her feel better, too. It’s very short. Her eyes are getting heavy, and it takes some effort to pry herself up. Partway through the process, Thranduil starts shaking her shoulder frantically, and Bilbo swats her hand away. “What? I –”

The door to their room opens. Bilbo knows before he speaks that it’s Gandalf, and she knows she’s been caught red-handed trying to eavesdrop. Gandalf’s voice is dry when he speaks. “Tell me what you heard, so that I may correct it.”

“I didn’t hear anything,” Bilbo says. “You spoke too quietly.”

“By design,” Gandalf says. “I wished to explain to the pair of you without the influence of the others.”

“What influence?” Thranduil asks. “Is there trouble?”

“No. Not at the moment,” Gandalf says. He sits down in the rocking chair in the corner of Bilbo’s and Thranduil’s bedroom. “It seems Sméagol has ventured into the woods on more than one occasion, and always returned unharmed. Nienna will impress upon him the dangers of wandering, but he will not be disciplined. We are not sure how much he understands, and to punish him would be unfair.”

“If he endangers the rest of us, he should be punished,” Thranduil says, more sharply than Bilbo’s heard her speak all day. “Whether he understands or not.”

“Gentleness, child. I know you speak from fear, but we cannot let fear rule us,” Gandalf says. “And there has been no danger yet. Those-We-Don’t-Speak-Of have not crossed our borders in many years. Not since the dark days.”

The dark days. The days of the plague. Thranduil sits beside Bilbo on the floor, close enough that Bilbo can feel her shiver. Gandalf keeps talking. “Perhaps the creatures sensed that Sméagol was harmless, and let him pass. In any case, it will not happen again. There is nothing to fear, so long as everyone in the village remembers the rules.”

“We remember,” Bilbo says.

Gandalf’s color darkens ever so slightly. “Say them for me.”

Bilbo and Thranduil speak in concert, just as they always have. “Let the bad color not be seen; it attracts them. Do not enter the woods; that is where they wait. Heed the warning bell; they are coming.”

“Very good,” Gandalf says. “Now sleep, both of you. It has been an eventful day.”

Eventful is one way to describe it. Bilbo and Thranduil bid Gandalf goodnight, then undress for bed in silence. They have their routine to a science – Bilbo gets in bed first, then Thranduil douses the light. Not that Bilbo can tell when it’s dark. Thranduil is uncomfortable to share a bed with. She’s all angles and bony limbs, and she prefers to take her half out of the middle, on the rare occasions when she deigns to take only half. But as Bilbo fights to get comfortable, nostalgia sweeps strongly over her. How many more nights will her sister be here? Thranduil’s grown up. She’ll be gone soon, and then Bilbo will sleep alone.

“Thranduil,” Bilbo whispers into the dark.


A hundred things to say queue on Bilbo’s tongue. She asks the least fraught of them. “Do you remember Those-We-Don’t-Speak-Of?”

“You should know better than to ask. The name is warning enough.” Thranduil thrashes for a few seconds, then lies still. Bilbo waits. “I do, but faintly. The village was quiet, but for the wailing when the plague struck down someone new. When we emerged each morning, there were marks on the doors.”

“What kind of marks?”

“Claws,” Thranduil says, and she shivers again. “They came each night. The houses they marked were the houses where sickness fell. When they marked in red, it meant a death.”

Bilbo wonders if red was the bad color before the plague, or if the plague changed its significance for the worse. “Did you ever see one?”

“Of them? No,” Thranduil says, but the silence between them is a string pulled tight. Thranduil’s voice quiets until she’s nearly whispering. “I saw their shadows as they passed the windows. They were –”

She breaks off, and says nothing more. Bilbo pats her arm and huddles closer. She doesn’t need Thranduil to say anything more. What little she said is more than enough to fill Bilbo’s nightmares.

The discovery of the berries, and of Sméagol’s ventures into the woods, is kept quiet. Sméagol, thoroughly chastened, sticks close to his minders, and most often to Bilbo. Thranduil tells Bard – Gandalf gave her explicit permission to do so, likely out of awareness that she would tell him whether she had it or not – and Bard keeps his own counsel. As does Thorin.

The smithy is at the far end of the village, so the smoke will not disturb the dwellings, but each day Bilbo picks her way down to see Thorin anyway, always around the time he takes his lunch. She brings a lunch of her own, of course. She’s almost always hungry. She keeps it up for nearly three weeks before Thorin asks what she’s doing there.

“Visiting you, of course.” Bilbo takes a bite of an apple, the better to keep herself quiet. Silence is one of her better tools for tricking Thorin into talking.

It works this time, too. “Why?”

“Do I need a reason?” Bilbo asks. The silence says yes. “I never needed one before.”

“We were children then,” Thorin says.

Something about the way he says it irks Bilbo. “And what has changed since?”

Thorin says nothing. He was quiet when they were children, and when he spoke, there was weight to each of his words. In comparison, Bilbo chatters constantly, filling the world she can’t see with sounds she can hear. But Thorin’s quiet never felt unfriendly to her before. It feels unfriendly now. What has changed between them? She can’t name it just yet. She needs his help.

But before she can press the point, Thorin speaks up. “Do you ever think about the towns?”

“The towns?” Bilbo stumbles for a moment. It’s so far from what she expected Thorin to say that her mind is utterly blank. “In passing, I suppose. Do you?”

“They’re said to be full of wickedness and inequity,” Thorin says. “The people there are cruel. But they have things there that they do not have here. Medicines.”

He’s quiet for another moment. “Medicines that might halt the plague.”

“What plague?” Bilbo scoffs. “The plague burned itself to death. It’s gone.”

“There could be another,” Thorin says. “The elders said it came from the woods, and Sméagol has gone into the woods time and time again. We are lucky he did not bring a pestilence back with him. But if he did, and we were unready –”

Another plague would wipe the village from the map. “And you believe we’d be safe with medicines from the towns?” Bilbo forces herself to speak calmly. “Medicines you would need to pass through the woods to retrieve?”

“I am not like Sméagol. I could be careful,” Thorin says. “I’ll avoid the places the contagion dwells, and cleanse myself when I return.”

“And what of the creatures?” Bilbo asks. A chill runs down her spine.

“They will sense that I mean them no harm,” Thorin says simply, “and they will let me through. And even if they do not, I would exchange my life for the village in a heartbeat.”

Bilbo doesn’t want to think about it. She doesn’t want to consider the village without Thorin in it, even if things are strange between them, even if they aren’t half as close as they once were. She shifts the subject. “Why is it that you never touch me?”

Thorin drops whatever he’s holding – a waterskin, if the cold splash on Bilbo’s shoes is anything to go by. “What?”

“The others do. I know my own way well enough, but the others see no problem guiding me when necessary,” Bilbo says. A flush runs from her chin to her hairline. “You are the only one who persists in steering me by word of mouth, in spite of the fact that it’s slower, and you are not as good at giving directions as you believe yourself to be.”

Thorin remains silent. His color shifts in a way Bilbo’s unfamiliar with. There’s nothing for her to do but continue. Better to continue than to retreat, and begin the process all over again on another day. “Once when we were walking together, I stumbled and nearly fell,” she says. “And still you did not help me.”

Thorin says nothing, and in the silence, Bilbo loses her nerve. “I was faking, of course,” she reassures Thorin. “But it was strange, don’t you think? That my friend would let me fall in the dirt rather than give me a hand.”

“Bilbo,” Thorin says, and stops. Bilbo can divine nothing from the way he says her name.

A new sound begins to intrude into the silence. A cluster of insects buzzing somewhere close by, the sound snarling in her ear. Bilbo finds her cane, then levers herself to her feet, setting off in pursuit. Thorin follows her, and Bilbo, of course, talks. “If there is a beehive here, that is good news,” she prattles. “If it is wasps, less so, and yellowjackets even less. Is it not strange that the most irritable creatures should be named for the safe color?”

The buzzing is getting louder. Not the gentle buzz of bees, but the harsh droning of blackflies, the sort that come to rest on food left to spoil in the sun. Bilbo’s foot strikes something her cane missed, and she stumbles. She expects no help from Thorin, and receives none, but in the course of picking herself back up, a terrible stench fills her nostrils. It coats her tongue, the back of her throat, and she gags. “Thorin –”

“Come away,” Thorin says, and Bilbo staggers towards the sound of his voice, leaning on her cane rather than using it to chart the way. “It is an animal of some sort – a squirrel, perhaps, or a rabbit. Its fur has been peeled back, and its head twisted. It cannot have been here long, or we would have heard the sound. You would have heard it.”

“Where did it come from?” Bilbo breathes through her mouth.

“I don’t know,” Thorin says. “We must show the elders. I will bring Aule. Go and retrieve Gandalf.”

Bilbo nods. She looks towards Thorin, towards his color. “Stay to the path,” Thorin says softly, and turns away. Bilbo grasps her cane so tightly she’s surprised it doesn’t snap and hurries back the way she came.

The elders say nothing of the animal Thorin and Bilbo discovered, just as they said nothing about Sméagol’s excursions into the woods, but when they’re all woken from their beds in the middle of the night by terrible, inhuman screams and howls, the elders can no longer avoid the issue. They call a meeting on a Tuesday afternoon, and Bilbo and Thranduil sit on a pew on either end of a long row of schoolchildren. Bard sits a few pews back, where he knows Thranduil will be able to see him if she turns her head.

Bilbo looks for Thorin, but he’s nowhere to be found.

Gandalf rises from his seat at the center of the arc of chairs at the front of the hall. “We have called this meeting to assuage the fears that have taken hold of our village,” he says. “The screams we heard in the night were terrible to behold, and I blame no one for feeling frightened. Would anyone like to speak to what they heard or saw?”

“Someone saw something?” Thranduil hisses to Bilbo over the tops of the children’s heads. “Who?”

“It wasn’t me,” Bilbo says. Sméagol, on Bilbo’s other side, snickers.

The other villagers rise, a few at a time, and Bilbo listens intently. All of them heard the same set of howls and screeches, noises all of them fail to imitate properly. Sméagol hops up to help, producing such a skilled imitation of the sounds that three of the children Bilbo and Thranduil are supposed to be watching start to cry. Bard steps forward to help Bilbo, but Bilbo stands up and shoos Bard into her former seat. “He needs some air,” she says to the group at large, then tows Sméagol outside.

Sméagol is sulking by the time Bilbo gets him clear of the meeting hall. “I was helping –”

“It’s not help if no one asked for it,” Bilbo says.

“But what if –”

A shadow falls over the pair of them. “Listen to Bilbo,” Thorin advises. “She’s wiser than most.”

Bilbo’s face heats, even in the heat of the late-summer afternoon. It’s cool in Thorin’s shadow. She sidesteps it, and Sméagol follows, giggling. “Bilbo’s pink,” he singsongs. “Careful, careful! You don’t want to turn the bad color –”

He mimics the sound again, the low, rumbling shriek of Those-We-Don’t-Speak-Of, and a whimper passes Bilbo’s lips. “Enough,” Thorin says firmly to Sméagol. There’s a rustling sound, as though someone’s being shaken firmly by the collar. “You can make that sound better than anyone in the village. You win.”

“I do?” Sméagol sounds delighted. So delighted, in fact, that he skids off around the corner of the meeting hall, cackling his Gollum cackle.

Bilbo follows him at a more leisurely pace, and Thorin marks Bilbo’s steps. Bilbo speaks first. She’s resigned herself to forever speaking first when Thorin is concerned. “Skipping meetings, are we?”

“There’s no point,” Thorin says. “I heard them at Aule’s last night. They will deny that it is Those-We-Don’t-Speak-Of, as they always do.”

“Gandalf wouldn’t,” Bilbo says automatically, but she’s distracted almost immediately by something else Thorin said. “You eavesdrop on the elders’ meetings? How do you do it? I always try, and I can never hear anything.”

“What do you use?”

“A glass.”

“Through a wooden floor?” Thorin must be shaking his head. “I forged a funnel out of scrap, and I tucked it behind the curtain, just inside the window. I forged a tube, too, and affixed one end to the funnel. The rest of it runs through the wall up into my closet, with a smaller funnel at the top. I can hear everything if I put my ear to it.”

That’s the most Bilbo’s heard Thorin say in half a decade, and more than surprised, she’s impressed by his ingenuity. “How did you figure that out?”

“Trial and error,” Thorin admits. “I made several mistakes before creating one that works, and unfortunately it travels both ways. If I fail to muffle it, everyone on the lower floor can hear anything that happens in my room.”

Bilbo’s face flushes again, for some ridiculous reason. “Is anything happening in your room?”

Thorin makes an odd sound. “No more than is happening in your room, and likely less, as I have no sibling sleeping in my bed.”

“I’ll be alone soon enough,” Bilbo says. She tries to make light of it. “If Bard and my sister are not married within the year, I’ll eat Gandalf’s hat like a goat.”

Thorin laughs quietly, and the sound of his laughter emboldens Bilbo – perhaps too much. “With my sister all but betrothed, I am blessed as well,” she says. She imagines a questioning look on Thorin’s face. “I am now free to receive interest from – er, anyone who might be – interested.”

In the blisteringly awkward silence that follows, Bilbo realizes that they’ve lost track of Sméagol. Looking for him provides an excellent excuse to permanently table the conversation with Thorin. Just as she begins to grow nervous that Sméagol has run off somewhere dangerous, he hurries back around the corner, laughing. “Look what I found,” he enthuses. One hand slides into Bilbo’s, warm and sticky. “Come see, come see!”

Bilbo can’t see whatever it is. But she knows by the dull whine of the blackflies.

It’s part of their livestock herds this time – a lamb – which means that whatever did it was able to breach the border. The elders deliberate for mere seconds. Bilbo turns her head to watch Gandalf’s color shift and misses the arrival of Thranduil and the train of children the two of them were supposed to be watching. Sméagol still bobs by Bilbo’s side, and Thorin hovers somewhere in the offing.

He must back away when he sees Thranduil, because Thranduil says, “Stand your ground. You had no trouble with it before.”

Sméagol giggles. “I never meant to leave you adrift,” Bilbo says to Thranduil, trying to recapture her attention. “I hope it was not too onerous.”

“Bard helped,” Thranduil says. Her voice sharpens suddenly. “Bilbo, your hands!”

“What?” Before Bilbo can ask a cleverer question, Thranduil’s dragged her off her feet, and she’s shouting to Bard to grab Sméagol, too. “What is – oh!”

Cold water splashes over her hands, and a moment later Thranduil attacks them with either a handkerchief or a piece of burlap. “The bad color,” she says quietly in Bilbo’s ear, and Bilbo’s blood runs colder than the water. “It’s on Sméagol’s hands, and yours.”

“He must have touched it,” Bilbo says. She remembers how sticky her hand felt and nearly throws up.

The chaos around them is too great for Bilbo to hear footsteps. She’s reduced to looking for colors – Thorin’s, and Gandalf’s. Thorin gets to them first, and Thranduil snaps at him. “You saw blood on my sister’s hands and you didn’t think to aid her?”

“I – I did not think –”

“When do you ever,” Thranduil says dismissively, and returns her attention to Bilbo. “It’s on your dress, too – Sméagol, whyever did you touch it?”

“Gollum did it!”

Thranduil makes a disgusted sound. “Next time, restrain yourself. Or stay closer to Bilbo. She’ll keep you out of trouble if you let her.”

Bilbo wonders when she got a reputation for being responsible. She’s not entirely sure she likes it. Then again, anyone in the village is responsible compared to Sméagol. “The elders are gathering,” Bard says – to Thranduil, but Bilbo hears anyway. “Would you like to go, or shall I?”

Setting up Bard with Thranduil was truly Bilbo’s masterstroke. “Both of you should go,” Bilbo says. “You’ll need a few voices of reason amidst the mob. I’ll stay with Sméagol and the children.”

“And me,” Thorin says. Something nudges at Bilbo’s hand – the handle of her cane, retrieved from wherever she dropped it in the grass. “Go.”

In the end, Bard and Thranduil go, and Bilbo and Thorin stay. None of the children saw the dead animal, but all are keen to hear what it looked like. For once, Thorin’s taciturn nature serves them well. He lets the children spin their own tales and keeps the truth to himself. It must say something about the peace of life in the village that none of the children are able to accurately picture what such violence would look like.

It’s an odd thought, and like all Bilbo’s thoughts, it comes out of her mouth directly, headed for Thorin. For once, Thorin responds. “We can,” he says. “We saw the plague. We know what the woods are like.”

“Neither of us saw the plague,” Bilbo points out. “We were infants.”

“But we grew up in its shadow,” Thorin says. “It touches everything, still. Don’t you feel it?”

Thorin’s silence is expectant. If only Bilbo knew what to say. “I have no idea what I feel,” she says. “This frightens me. The idea of the elders keeping secrets frightens me worse. And the creatures – Thranduil says she saw them, during the plague. They marked the houses death visited in red.”

Thorin is close enough to Bilbo that she feels his shiver, and sees the way his color ripples. “I have often wondered which to fear most – the creatures or the plague,” he says. “Sometimes I fear they are one and the same.”

“Connected, at least,” Bilbo muses. “They both come from the woods.”

The village and its valley are separated from the woods by a guarding fence. When Bard and Thranduil come back, they report that the elders have decided that the fence was breached in some way, widely enough to let something from the forest in. They’re careful not to call it a creature, but no one is foolish enough to believe them. Every adult in the village not needed for some other task has been pressed into service to search the border – tonight, because it cannot wait until tomorrow. Bilbo, blind as she is, would be useless searching the fence. Instead she’s left to watch the children.

Unfortunately, she can’t watch them alone. Thranduil’s told to stay behind with her, and Thranduil loses her temper. “I can help,” she insists. “I can hold a lantern as well as anyone, and my eyes are far clearer than yours.”

This last is to Gandalf, whose color darkens in response. “It is not help if it is unasked for,” he says. “We all must go where we are needed – and you are needed with Bilbo and the children.”

Bilbo prays Thranduil won’t argue any further. She and Gandalf fight on occasion – more since Thranduil grew to courting age – and it’s always terrible. But today’s fight is one Thranduil doesn’t choose to pick. Instead she bids Bard a surprisingly restrained farewell and comes back to Bilbo, towing Sméagol in her wake. Sméagol’s not enjoying it. “She grabs us, Gollum! She grabs our wrists and squeezes –”

“Enough,” Thranduil says. “If you’re here, Sméagol, you must help, too. We must go where we are needed, after all.”

The sarcasm stings Bilbo’s ears, but Thranduil isn’t angry with her, and her mood dissipates as the evening continues. Bilbo still wishes that she were able to care for the children alone. She knows Thranduil’s ambitions are greater than being a wife and mother – she’s eyeing a seat on the elder’s council, once the oldest among them step down, and Bilbo thinks she’d be well-suited for the role. But in order for Thranduil to be considered, she needs moments where she can shine. Moments she won’t have with Bilbo slowing her down.

But Bilbo won’t be slowing her down much longer. Thranduil will be married soon, and Bilbo will have to fend for herself, without anyone to grow old at her side. She’d hoped that Thorin would say something in response to her hint about courting, but he didn’t. Perhaps it’s not that Thorin didn’t wish to marry Thranduil, but that he doesn’t wish to marry anyone at all. Bilbo decides to remove Thorin from her plans. What can she offer to the village? What is she good at?

Storytelling, for one thing – the children like her stories best of all. Cooking, because both Gandalf and Thranduil are terrible at it, and Bilbo knows her kitchen like the back of her hand, scarred here and there from spills and burns obtained while she was learning her way around. Gardening, too. She loves the smell of freshly tilled earth, and the texture of it between her fingers. And perhaps there will be other things, too, things she hasn’t thought of yet. There is a place for everyone in the village. Undoubtedly she’ll find her own.

Just as soon as Bilbo’s set Thorin aside, she sees a flash of his color passing beneath the window. “Thranduil,” she says, and Thranduil comes to her side. “What is Thorin doing out there?”

“He has a bucket,” Thranduil says. Bilbo hears the distinctive creak of the window opening, and a moment later, Thranduil’s voice, much louder than before. “Bilbo wants to know where you’re going.”

Bilbo’s face bursts into flames, and she swats Thranduil like they’re children again. But Thorin comes closer and answers them. “The breach in the border is north, near the livestock pens,” he says. “I was sent for links to repair it.”

He shakes the bucket, and Bilbo hears metal rattling about inside. “No other breaches have been found, but we will walk the perimeter again when the work is concluded. Does that answer your question?”

Bilbo knows he’s looking at her. Her face must be red enough to risk attracting Those-We-Don’t-Speak-Of. “Yes,” she says. “Good evening.”

“Good evening,” Thorin says.

Bilbo turns her head away, but Thorin stays – a moment, and another moment, until Thranduil says, “You may leave now,” and shuts the window. Then she sits down on the other side of the window seat from Bilbo with a sigh. “The fence is made of metal links. How do they expect us to believe an animal broke through?”

“They don’t wish to frighten people,” Bilbo says. She draws her knees up. “Would it be better if everyone was frightened?”

“Perhaps,” Thranduil mutters. “If everyone was frightened, I would not feel as though I have lost my mind.”

She’s quiet for a moment. Bilbo wonders what Thranduil’s looking at – the children playing quietly, tired enough to wish for their parents’ return, the late-summer night that’s fallen over the village, Bilbo herself? Thranduil’s next words make Bilbo think it’s the latter. “Does it frighten you?” she asks. Bilbo raises her eyebrows. “Spending so much time in the dark?”

“No,” Bilbo says. “If it did, I’d spend all my life in terror. I know nearly all of what I need to know about the word without sight. And for the rest I have others to lean on – like you. I’ll always need someone to holler at Thorin as he passes by our house.”

“You seemed flustered,” Thranduil says. There’s a knowing note in her voice Bilbo doesn’t appreciate. “You pay quite a lot of mind to Thorin Thrainsson.”

“So did you,” Bilbo shoots back, and Thranduil laughs, affronted. “Why should it be right for you and wrong for me?”

“Who spoke of right and wrong? I only asked –”

“And because you wanted him, I cannot look his way?” Bilbo has a temper of her own, when she lets herself, and she lets go of its leash. “I never thought you jealous, Thranduil.”

“Jealous?” Thranduil demands. “If you think –”

The sound that cuts across Thranduil’s reprisal is unfamiliar to Bilbo, but that is by design. There’s no other sound like it in all the village, for when it’s heard, everything must come to a stop. The litany Bilbo learned as a child rings through her head, an alarm all on its own. Let the bad color not be seen; it attracts them. Do not enter the woods; that is where they wait. Heed the warning bell, for –

“They are coming,” Thranduil whispers, and Bilbo’s blood turns to ice.

Chapter Text

They’ve practiced drills a hundred times for just this thing, drills the elders assured them they’d never need, but everyone has a role to play, even Bilbo. While Thranduil goes to corral the children, Bilbo crosses the room in thirteen paces until she’s standing just shy of the trapdoor that leads to the shelter. She leans her cane against the stair-rails, bends to grasp the handle of the trapdoor, and heaves it open with all her strength. It’s impossibly heavy. She wasn’t strong enough to shift it even slightly before last year. But now she pries it up with a grunt of effort and props it open. “Thranduil, here!”

“The windows,” Thranduil orders. She brushes past Bilbo and down into the shelter, undoubtedly carrying one child and leading another. A moment later she’s back up the stairs to retrieve the rest. “And Sméagol –”

Sméagol isn’t Sméagol, at the moment – he’s Gollum, capering and laughing before the door. The open door. Bilbo detours away from the windows to grab him. “Sméagol, come along –”

“Not Sméagol! Gollum, Gollum!” Gollum yanks his wrist out of Bilbo’s grasp, singsonging to himself, beside himself with glee. “They’re coming, they’re coming!”

Bilbo can’t possibly restrain Gollum and shut the windows in time. She leaves him to it and runs, colliding hard with a table and bruising her leg. Inside her own house, she doesn’t need her cane. She feels along the wall to the first window and yanks the shutters closed, barring them from the inside. At the sitting room window, the one Bilbo and Thranduil were sitting at together when the bell rang, she pulls the curtains shut before pulling the shutters down. On the far side of the room, the shutters are closing, too. Thranduil must have finished herding the children down to the shelter. “I’ll handle Gollum,” she shouts to Bilbo. “Get the door!”

Thranduil’s not very good with Sméagol, but she’s taller and stronger than Bilbo is – she can handle him if he fights. Bilbo heads for the front door. They’ve had it propped open all night for the fresh air, and now Bilbo kicks the wedge aside, stepping out onto the porch to grasp the handle. Standing there, she can hear the chaos in the village, as parents shout for their children, spouses call for one another, friends separate from friends and run for the safety of the nearest home. Bilbo remembers that from her childhood, when a drill would come midday and disrupt their games. It didn’t matter where they were. Thranduil caught Bilbo’s hand or Thorin caught her elbow and they pulled her to the nearest house. Thorin touched her back then. Thorin –

Bilbo freezes in the act of pulling the door shut. “What are you doing?” Thranduil demands. “Close the door!”

Thorin. “He’s out walking between the houses,” Bilbo whispers.

Somehow Thranduil hears her, even over the sound of Gollum’s gibbering and the frightened children hidden in the recesses of the shelter. “No, he isn’t! He’s inside safe somewhere!”

“He’ll come back to make sure we’re all right,” Bilbo says. If she bars and locks the door as she’s supposed to, Thorin will have nowhere to go, and they’ll find him. Those-We-Don’t-Speak-Of will find him, and the next time the blackflies buzz in Bilbo’s ears, they won’t be hovering over a dead animal. “He will. I can’t –”

“Close the door,” Thranduil begs Bilbo, but Bilbo can’t. Bilbo steps forward until her bare feet touch the threshold where the safe, sanded floors of their house become the rougher boards of the porch. “Bilbo – Bilbo, please!”

Bilbo takes one more step. She holds out her hand, palm up, waiting for Thorin.

The noise in the village has died away. Everyone else has taken shelter already, and Bilbo listens closely, listens as closely as she can – but she can hear nothing but the sound of her own racing heart. She closes her eyes, as if that will matter. She can’t face scanning the darkness, looking for Thorin’s color, finding nothing. Cold sweat drips down her spine when she thinks of how exposed she is here, how a creature could be coming for her from the left or the right or straight ahead, and she would never know until –

The sound comes from her left, a terrible sound, a sound like a knife sharpened on a whetstone. A moment later a smell washes over Bilbo, dry and fetid, and she nearly gags. The scraping comes to a halt, and a moment later, Bilbo hears something worse – a low, heavy grunt, transforming into a growl. Bilbo bites back a whimper – a whimper, and the urge to run. “No,” she says, in a voice choked with tears and terror. “No, I –”

She hears footsteps on the porch, feels the displacement of air as something moves with speed, and a moment later a broad, warm hand closes around her own. Bilbo’s eyes fly open, and in the darkness, she sees Thorin’s color. She didn’t need to see it. She knew by his touch, and by the way he pulls her backward with him into the house, careful not to run her into the doorframe even as something terrible pursues them. For a moment Bilbo thinks she sees a flash of another color, not Thorin’s, but it must be a trick of her mind. Thorin slams the door shut, then locks it behind them, and Bilbo hears the thud of the bar coming down across it, a moment before something heavy slams into it from outside.  

Bilbo’s knees go weak when she thinks of how close she came to letting them in, but there’s no time for that now. Thorin hurries her across the room, then down into the shelter. Bilbo barely gets three steps before Thranduil yanks her off her feet and down to safety. She doesn’t take a deep breath until the trapdoor to the shelter comes down, plunging everyone else into the same darkness Bilbo lives with every day.

Thranduil hugs Bilbo fiercely, almost angrily. She’s shaking even worse than Bilbo is, and another stab of guilt sinks into Bilbo’s back when she remembers how much her sister fears Those-We-Don’t-Speak-Of. Bilbo will be lucky if Thranduil forgives her any time soon. Gollum has calmed himself into Sméagol once again, and Bilbo pats his shoulder as she feels her way through the cramped shelter, hand outstretched.

Thorin’s hand closes around hers, just as before, only this time, Bilbo knows it’s by choice, not simply something he does because he’s in fear for her life. She squeezes Thorin’s hand tightly, and Thorin holds on just as tightly in response. His hand dwarfs hers. “What were you thinking?” he asks quietly.

“I knew you’d come back,” Bilbo says. She doesn’t know how she knew, except that she knows Thorin. “Did you see them?”

Thorin doesn’t say a word, but his color darkens. “Did they see you?” Bilbo asks. His color darkens further, and Bilbo’s stomach clenches. “Why –”

“Be silent,” Thranduil hisses into the darkness. “Those-We-Don’t-Speak-Of may return, and they have a hunter’s hearing.”

One of the children lets out a dry sob at that, and that sets off the rest. Bilbo lets go of Thorin’s hand and reaches out to soothe the children. Thranduil is doing the same, and for the first time in Bilbo’s memory, the children prefer Thranduil to her. It stings, but only slightly. Only until Bilbo thinks about what the children would have seen – Thranduil protecting them, and Bilbo waiting at an open door.

In the drills they ran as children, they always remained hidden until an elder came to find them, knocking on the trapdoor with a secret knock to let them know it was safe to emerge. It never took very long. The longest Bilbo can remember was forty-five minutes, and she knows it was forty-five minutes exactly, because she needed the bathroom and was counting every second. This lasts longer than that. Much longer. One by one, the children fall into an exhausted sleep, until only Bilbo, Thranduil, Thorin, and Sméagol are still awake.

Thranduil breaks the silence first. “Where were the elders when last you saw them?”

“Out at the border.” Thorin’s voice is heavy. “I do not know where they would have sheltered.”

Thranduil sucks in a breath, and Bilbo remembers who else was with the elders tonight. She hurries to reassure her sister. “Perhaps Those-We-Don’t-Speak-Of came only to the village. We are a more attractive target.”

“They all wore cloaks of the safe color when I saw them,” Thorin adds. “The creatures would have passed them by.”

Thorin hasn’t reached for Bilbo’s hand again since Bilbo let go to aid the children. Bilbo reaches out for Thranduil again, and Thranduil shakes her off with a violence that knocks Bilbo onto her heels. “The creatures hunt most often at night,” Thranduil says, her voice brittle. “If we have heard nothing by daybreak, one of us must go and look around.”

“I will,” Thorin says. His color shifts and wavers, but his voice is steady. “At daybreak.”

The elders’ knock on the trapdoor startles them all, but Bilbo’s heart steadies just as quickly as it began to race in the first place. Thranduil rises from next to Bilbo to open the door, and Gandalf’s voice drifts down to them. “The creatures have gone,” he says. “You are safe. Come out.”

There are other voices in the house, and the floors creak with the weight of so many footsteps – the parents of the children they were watching, Nienna here to retrieve Sméagol, and even more people outside, on the porch and around the house. Gandalf helps Bilbo out of the shelter first, and Bilbo helps corral the children as their parents come forward one by one to retrieve them. But there’s one voice Bilbo has yet to hear – no, two voices. Bard’s voice, and Thranduil’s voice in response, fractured with relief. When Bilbo has a moment, she turns to Gandalf. “What of Bard?” she hisses.

She sees Gandalf’s color darken. “I have not seen him since we left the fence to seek shelter.”

“You left him behind?” Bilbo’s voice pitches too loudly, and Gandalf hushes her. But he hushes her too late. Footsteps hurry across the floor towards her, and she hears her sister’s ragged breathing long before Thranduil speaks. “Thranduil –”

Thranduil shakes Bilbo’s hand off again, but this time, Bilbo will not be deterred. She grabs Thranduil and hangs on tight. “He must have sought shelter elsewhere,” Gandalf continues, but Bilbo can see his color. He’s lying, or concealing something at the very least. “Rest assured, we will search –”

“The woods,” Thorin says shortly. He’s at Bilbo’s side now, his hand steady on Bilbo’s lower back. Bilbo’s face flushes at the contact, and worse at the thought that everyone can see. Worse still for thrilling at Thorin’s touch, when her sister is collapsing at her side. “I will search the woods. Anyone who is brave enough is welcome to join me.”

“Thorin,” Aule warns. “The woods are forbidden.”

“By whose law? The creatures’?” Thranduil leaps in on Thorin’s side, her voice shaking. “We have not broken their rules since Sméagol entered the woods, but they have broken ours thrice over. If they come into our village with impunity, there is no reason why we should not enter the woods to rescue one of our own. I will accompany Thorin.”

Thorin’s color blanches sharply. “You will not,” Gandalf says, his voice like thunder. “I forbid it.”

“I’m not a child,” Thranduil snaps back. “Nor your child, neither.”

Bilbo sucks down a breath. She’s heard Thranduil level that charge against Gandalf before. On rare occasions, she’s leveled it herself. But never as a near-adult, never publicly. Never like this. If Thranduil feels regret for the line she crossed, her voice doesn’t reveal it, and she has no color for Bilbo to perceive. “I will find him and bring him home, even if I must carry him myself!”

“No need.” The voice is rough and raw, and the footsteps on the floor are unsteady, but Bilbo knows Bard Bowman when she hears him. Her heart lifts so far and fast that it steals her breath away. “I’m home already.”

Thranduil bolts from Bilbo’s side, and Bilbo hears the sound of a body hitting the floor, followed by a pair of bony knees doing the same. Thranduil sounds frantic and fearful, so much so that she can barely speak. Bilbo turns towards Thorin, and Thorin, as always, explains before she can ask. “He does not look well. There are scratches on his hands and face, and his clothes are torn. His boots are covered in black mud. There are red berries in his hair.”

“The woods,” Bilbo breathes. “The creatures took him?”

“Or he got lost in the dark,” Thorin says, but they both know how unlikely it is. Bard and the others were repairing the fence, checking every post and link – where on earth would Bard have slipped through? “We must not speak of it now.”

“But we will speak of it,” Bilbo says. Thorin is silent. “We will, Thorin –”

Thorin takes her hand, raises it, raises it again, until her fingertips rest against his mouth. Bilbo feels his lips form the shape of the word: Yes.

Bilbo’s face flushes. She nods, and Thorin lets her hand fall. Bilbo turns on her heel and starts feeling her way through the crowd, searching for her sister. Gandalf is doing his best to funnel people back out onto the porch, and as they file past Bilbo, she asks them to point her in Thranduil’s direction. It’s a formality, for the most part. She could have followed the sound of Thranduil’s voice, tense and threaded with fear. “Thranduil,” she says when she’s close enough to be heard even over the noise. “What can I do?”

“Can you see him?” Thranduil’s hands find Bilbo’s, and Bilbo tightens her grip on instinct. “I know you see colors.”

“He doesn’t have one,” Bilbo says. “Like you.”

“I know,” Thranduil says. The first time Bilbo told her that, she was upset, but that was years ago. When she learned Bilbo could tell how someone felt from the shifts in their color, she changed her tune, and Bilbo never told her that she was easy to read, color or not. “Do – do they have colors?”

For the life of her, Bilbo can’t understand what Thranduil’s asking. Or perhaps it’s otherwise – perhaps she does understand, and flatly refuses to consider the prospect. “They aren’t people,” she says, sharper than she should be. “Only people have colors, and they –”

But Bilbo saw a color, didn’t she? A color other than Thorin’s, flashing across the blackness, in the moments before Thorin slammed the door. Thranduil seizes on Bilbo’s silence. She turns Bilbo from wherever Bilbo was facing before until she’s facing the couch where Bard’s been laid out for tending to. “Can you see him?” Thranduil asks again. “Please.”

Bilbo looks.

She remembers colors, barely. Just enough to recall that the hazy, changeable color she associates with Gandalf is called grey, and to know that Thorin’s color is blue, blue, blue in all its forms. Bilbo knows little else in the darkness. But she knows which colors are safe and which aren’t. She sees a faint yellow haze, shifting slowly in the dark, and there’s something comforting about it. And she sees a stark thread of brilliant, bloody crimson tangled within it, pulsing and fading, as if with the beating of a heart.


The thread fades. Although Gandalf flatly orders Thranduil not to ask Bilbo to do so, Bilbo keeps looking at it until it’s gone. Bard seems to suffer no ill effects for the thread. He’s tired and rattled, just like they all are, and there are plenty of scratches and bruises on his skin for  Thranduil to tend to. Gandalf dares to raise the topic of the elders who live closest to Bard’s home, Nessa and Tulkas, escorting him back there this evening, and Thranduil’s tone of voice in response tells Bilbo everything she needs to know. “If he goes, I go with him.”

Bilbo tries to imagine a situation in which she’d speak to Gandalf that way, and can’t. She has a feeling her sister and Bard will be married much sooner than she expected. Bilbo knows Thranduil, and knows that Thranduil fears absence and loss more than anything else – even Those-We-Don’t-Speak-Of. After such a brush with it, Bilbo doubts Thranduil will be letting Bard out of her sight any time soon.

Bilbo wouldn’t blame Bard if he found it frustrating, but she eavesdrops on their conversations as she goes back and forth carrying hot water and supplies and a set of Gandalf’s old clothes, and she hears nothing of the kind in Bard’s voice. It wouldn’t set Bilbo’s teeth on edge if Thorin were here, but Thorin isn’t. As soon as everyone was ferried safely back to their homes, Thorin set out alongside Aule and anyone else who was willing to search the fence, looking for another breach.

Aule returns before long, but Thorin doesn’t – Thorin’s gone home, under strict orders to rest. Bilbo ignores the way her heart sinks and focuses on eavesdropping. The fact that she’s responsible for making tea gives her plenty of excuses to wander into the elders’ conversations in the dining room. Gandalf’s never been anything but keenly aware that Bilbo’s hearing works perfectly well, but the other elders aren’t so conscientious. Perhaps one of them will let something slip.

She’s patient, and her patience is rewarded – a small reward, at first. “It gladdens me to see that Thorin took your suggestion to rest,” Vána says. “That boy would work himself into the ground if no one stopped him.”

“He has ever been tenacious,” Aule agrees gravely. Tenacious. Bilbo likes that word for Thorin. “A tendency I fear will get him into trouble sooner rather than later.”

Bilbo sees Gandalf’s color darken out of the corner of her eye. “We are lucky he did not accept my eldest daughter’s proposal, or our days of guiding this village would be at an end. Both of them would be prudent to listen like Bilbo here – her ears are always open.”

Bilbo curses her own obviousness and retreats back out into the main room on the lower floor. Thranduil and Bard are there, but they’re quiet. Bard’s breathing is slow and relaxed, but Thranduil’s is short and sharp. Bilbo goes to meet her sister. “How is he?”

“Sleeping.” Thranduil’s voice is soft, but Bilbo hears the rage beneath it. Those-We-Don’t-Speak-Of had best hope they never encounter Thranduil out on the border one night. “He has no memory of how he found himself in the woods, or where he broke through the border. He found his way back alone.”

Thranduil forces herself to take a deeper breath, then lets it go. “They left him there.”

“Everyone was frightened,” Bilbo says.

“They’re the elders. They shouldn’t be,” Thranduil says. Bilbo agrees and doesn’t, all at once. “If they are not brave enough to lead us, they should step aside. What are they saying in there?”

Nothing that speaks to stepping aside. Everything that speaks to acknowledgment of the threat Thranduil and Thorin pose to their authority. “Gandalf caught me,” Bilbo says. “I mean to try again. Is there anything you need?”

“No.” Thranduil reaches out and takes Bilbo’s hand, covering it with both of hers. Bilbo imagines her sister searching her expression anxiously, looking for clues – but Bilbo won’t know how she feels until she knows what Thranduil plans to say. “I won’t be here much longer. I mean to leave as soon as Bard and I can be married.”

Bilbo knew it was coming. To hear Thranduil say it hurts in its own way. “I wish you every happiness. You are my cherished one.”

“And you are mine,” Thranduil says. Her hands tighten on Bilbo’s. “Which is why I will not leave you here, if you do not wish to stay. If you wish to live with Bard and I, we would be honored to have you.”

Bilbo’s heart lurches. “Thranduil –”

“I agree,” Bard says sleepily. One of Thranduil’s hands leaves Bilbo’s, undoubtedly reaching for him. “You will always have a place with us.”

A place with her sister, rather than with Gandalf – with her sister, and her sister’s husband, and her sister’s children one day. It would mean a house that wasn’t quiet, a house that was never empty. But it wouldn’t be Bilbo’s house. And there wouldn’t be a place for – Bilbo stops herself. She’s thinking too far ahead. All she must do is respond to her sister. “That is a kind offer,” she says. “I will think on it.”

“It is a standing offer,” Thranduil says. “For as long as we both shall live.”

Bilbo squeezes Thranduil’s hand. “Save that for your wedding,” she says, and Thranduil laughs. Voices are rising from within the sitting room. “I will try my luck again with the elders. Whatever I hear, you will hear shortly afterwards.”

The elders’ conversation is in full flow when Bilbo steps into the room, and they don’t moderate their tones as Bilbo refills teacup after teacup. “We must adapt to the times,” Gandalf is saying sharply, talking over Oromë and Este at once. “The conditions have changed. If we do not change with them, all will be lost.”

“And if we alter the structure, we may lose everything,” Vairë shoots back. “There is already dissension in the ranks. The culprit has yet to be revealed. Now is not the time for change.”

“Then when?” Nienna asks. “Is this not a sign that change is necessary? Change is our nature. If we accept it, we have the opportunity to shape it. If we do not, it will topple us.”

“You do not know that. None of us do,” Yavanna says. Bilbo knows Yavanna, has worked in her garden for many a summer, and she has never heard Yavanna speak so sternly. “We must watch and wait. Give the children their wedding, and a quiet winter, and we will address this again in the spring when tempers have cooled. Now is not the time for hasty action.”

“You presume that nothing will change before spring,” Nienna says quietly. “It is a dangerous presumption to make.”

“Better to wait than to act rashly.”

It’s silent. Bilbo stands in the middle of it all, clutching the mostly-empty teapot, wondering if they’ve forgotten about her. Gandalf’s color is dark and murky, turbulent in a way Bilbo’s rarely observed. Of the elders, Nienna’s the only other one with a color, and her pale purple is blanched almost to transparency. “Well?” Yavanna demands after a long moment.

“We will think on it,” Aule says, stepping in on his wife’s side. “Until spring.”

A deep voice rings out, one Bilbo hears rarely. Mandos hasn’t held out his cup for tea, or spoken hardly at all – but now he speaks, three words that set Bilbo’s teeth on edge. Gandalf’s, too, if the way his color roils is anything to go by. “So be it.”

The elders go home shortly afterwards, but Bard stays, fast asleep on the couch in the living room. Gandalf evicts Thranduil from her seat at his side, ordering her to sleep, and Thranduil comes up the stairs grumbling. Her fear has lessened with Bard out of danger, but her irritation with Gandalf hasn’t, and she’s sharp with Bilbo as she asks after the elders’ conversation. “Did you hear anything of consequence?”

“There is something they fear to discuss – some of them, anyway,” Bilbo says. “Gandalf and Nienna advocated for addressing it promptly, but were overruled by the rest.”

Thranduil makes a dissatisfied sound. “They did not say what it was?”

“No,” Bilbo says. “But I doubt we have to guess.”

“Their argument for doing nothing was stronger before Bard was injured,” Thranduil says. She settles onto her side of the bed, and Bilbo pulls the blankets up over the pair of them. At first Bilbo thinks that will be it, but then Thranduil’s voice drifts out of the darkness. “Thorin came back for you.”

“For us,” Bilbo corrects, and Thranduil snorts. “He came back for us, Thranduil.”

“Maybe,” Thranduil says. She rustles around in the blankets, then steals half of Bilbo’s. Bilbo yanks them back. “But he looks at you like you’re the only one who matters.”

Bilbo’s face heats up in the darkness. She thinks of Sméagol’s jokes, the ones about how she blushes brightly enough to attract Those-We-Don’t-Speak-Of, and wonders what Thorin thinks of it. “And he should,” Thranduil continues, speaking around a yawn. “I have yet to decide if he’s worthy of you.”

“Since when is that your decision?”

“Since you dragged Bard out of his shop to confess his feelings for me,” Thranduil says, and Bilbo’s jaw drops. “Did you think he hadn’t told me?”

Bilbo supposes that’s what she gets for meddling in her sister’s romances. “The elders decided you and Bard will be married before winter.”

Thranduil doesn’t have a color, but if she did, Bilbo’s certain it would be glowing brightly enough to see by. Even if it means she’ll lose her sister, it’s worth it to know her sister is so happy. Thranduil’s voice is soft, hopeful, in a way Bilbo almost never hears. “I can’t wait.”

There’s no use for Bilbo in most of the hasty preparations for Thranduil’s wedding – she can neither sew nor cook in a shared kitchen – and all the tasks the others would usually take fall to her. There’s no use for Thorin, either. Or so he says. Sméagol used to be Bilbo’s only shadow, but as summer turns firmly to autumn and the date of her sister’s wedding approaches, Bilbo finds herself with two, both familiar since her childhood. Only one of them makes her heart beat faster.

“Have you seen it again?” Thorin asks as they corral a scattered clutch of chickens back into their coop. To be fair, Thorin and Sméagol are doing most of the corralling – Bilbo is standing there, her skirt fanned out between her hands, flapping it at any chickens who get too daring. “The thread?”

Thorin’s thoughts are consumed by what happened to Bard in the woods, a predicament he now has in common with Thranduil. “My sister asked me the same this morning. Perhaps I should hold daily briefings for the two of you, so you will not pester me separately.”

“Pester you?” Thorin repeats, almost affecting outrage. “I would not dream of it.”

Bilbo’s mouth twitches at his tone of voice, but she reminds herself to be stern. “You have all the choice in the world of topics to discuss with a young lady. Why on earth would you pick that one?”

“What would you rather discuss with me?” There’s a sudden squawk, and Thorin curses under his breath. “The chickens agree with you, it seems. They are sharper with their opinions than you are.”

Another squawk. Sméagol scurries up from Bilbo’s right. “Bilbo, Bilbo! Look here –”

Bilbo can’t look at anything, but she turns her head. Sméagol giggles. “No, over here! Look!”

Bilbo turns the other way, but she still doesn’t know what Sméagol’s trying to show her. Thorin’s voice goes harsh in an instant. “Give that here, Sméagol. Now!”

Sméagol never listens to Bilbo the way he listens to Thranduil or Thorin or Bard. Likely because Bilbo’s never brought herself to take that tone with him. Bilbo hears the rattle of the chicken coop’s gate as it swings shut, and a moment later Thorin is before her. “Put your arms out,” he instructs. Bilbo lets go of her fistfuls of skirt and holds her arms out. She’s not sure quite how to hold them out. She has no idea what she’s supposed to be holding. “Here.”

Something warm and wriggling and alive drops into her arms, and she flinches, almost dropping it herself. Whatever she’s holding lets out a faint whine. “A puppy,” Thorin explains. “Sméagol found it. Its leg is injured.”

“Was not! Gollum, gollum!”

“He was holding it by its injured leg,” Thorin says in a low voice. Bilbo shivers. “Keep it still until I get back. Don’t let him have it again.”

Bilbo adjusts her grip on the puppy as best she can. Its heart is beating rapidly against her hands, and it’s shivering. There are dogs in the village, but when she runs her hands over its snout, the shape of its ears, it feels like no dog she’s ever encountered before. It licks her hand and she hugs it closer to her, humming to herself. Gollum bobs at her side. “Mine,” he says. “My precious.”

“No,” Bilbo says, and turns slightly, angling the puppy away from Gollum. Thorin said she wasn’t to let Gollum have it again – why? “It’s hurt, and you need to be careful with it. Do you know how to be careful with a puppy?”

Gollum is silent, and after a moment, his footsteps slope away. He’s sulking, and it’s not ideal, but Bilbo has followed Thorin’s instruction. He said Gollum had been holding the puppy by its injured leg, and the tone in his voice was unfamiliar when he said it. Bilbo wonders what Thorin saw, what Gollum’s expression was. Did Gollum know that the way he was holding the puppy was hurting it? Or did Thorin think – Bilbo’s heart drops suddenly. Did Thorin think Gollum was the one who injured the puppy in the first place?

It is an unkind thought, not the sort of thought Bilbo wants to have, but when she thinks of it, a pit of unease yawns open in her stomach. She grew up alongside Sméagol and Gollum. Sméagol wouldn’t hurt a fly. Gollum would. Where did Gollum find the puppy? Why would he hurt it?

“Gollum,” Bilbo calls softly, to no response. Gollum always responds to the sound of his name. Perhaps Sméagol’s back. “Sméagol, where did you find the puppy?”

“There.” Sméagol is pouting. He often has little memory of what Gollum said or did when he comes back to himself, which means he’s got no idea why Bilbo rebuked him – just as Bilbo has no idea where Sméagol is pointing at the moment. “The fence. Stuck.”

It was stuck in the fence. That must be how it injured its leg. But if it was stuck in the fence, it came from the woods, and Bilbo knows how things from the woods are treated in the village. “Say nothing of the woods,” she urges Sméagol. “When the elders come, tell them Gollum found it, and you don’t remember a thing.”

“Nienna says not to lie,” Sméagol protests.

“Nienna says to show mercy to things that need it,” Bilbo counters quickly. “The puppy needs it, don’t you think? Here, touch its ears. Aren’t they soft?”

Allowing Sméagol near the puppy again is a risk, but it pays off. He’s so impressed with the softness of the puppy’s ears that when the elders arrive – Oromë and Yavanna, trailed by Thranduil, who was with Yavanna when Thorin sought her out – he lies to them without blinking. But it’s all for naught, because the instant they see the puppy, Yavanna and Oromë know. Bilbo knows a shocked silence when she hears one, and it surprises her not at all that Thranduil’s the only one to speak. “It looks like Huan,” she says. “Doesn’t it?”

“Aye,” Oromë says after a long moment. His voice is choked with emotion. Bilbo’s never heard him sound that way before. “It does.”

Huan, it appears, was a dog of Oromë’s – his favorite, and unlike any other dog in the village. Huan disappeared sometime during the plague and was never seen again, and it was assumed that he had been taken by Those-We-Don’t-Speak-Of. Apparently not, or if he was, he lived long enough to sire at least a few litters of puppies. With Oromë on their side, and Yavanna unable to resist an animal in need, Bilbo knows she and Thorin need not fear that the puppy will be harmed. The fact that Thranduil, who’s otherwise rather leery of dogs, is clearly charmed by it, is merely icing on the cake.

Sméagol trails Thranduil and the elders as they walk back to the village proper, leaving Bilbo to walk alongside Thorin, and when Thorin allows them to fall behind the others, Bilbo’s nerves hum. She voices a thought. “The puppy was stuck in the fence,” she says. Thorin’s color shifts. “Sméagol did nothing to it.”

“No, but Gollum did not care that he was hurting it,” Thorin says shortly. “We do ourselves no favors when we ignore the differences between the two.”

“He has no control over it,” Bilbo argues. “We cannot blame Sméagol –”

“We cannot separate him from Gollum, either,” Thorin says. Bilbo almost argues with that, too, but finds that she can’t. Thorin’s voice softens. “Be careful. We are not children anymore. If Those-We-Don’t-Speak-Of notice Gollum in their woods again, I do not want them to come after you in the bargain.”

Bilbo remembers the terrible rasp of Those-We-Don’t-Speak-Of and nods – but she remembers something else, and speaks her mind before she thinks. “Those-We-Don’t-Speak-Of noticed you, too. Should I be careful with you, as well?”

“I am more than capable of protecting myself,” Thorin says. “Do not worry for me.”

Bilbo would not, if not for the fact that Bard is equally as capable as Thorin, and Those-We-Don’t-Speak-Of still caught him. But that was bad luck, and Bard was all right in the end. Thorin’s elbow brushes against Bilbo’s arm once, then again, and Bilbo realizes that Thorin is offering her his arm. Her heart leaps, and as she takes his arm, she almost forgets the rest.