According to half of the city council, Phryne Gandalf is a dear friend and valuable business associate; she’s frightening to the other half, probably because of what happened with Erebor’s incredibly corrupt mayor after Miss Gandalf appeared out of the blue off a steamship from Harondor, but she is nothing to Thorin so much as an enormous pain in his arse.
“Miss Gandalf,” Thorin says, tiredly, because this is the third crime scene he’s come to this month where Phryne Gandalf had beaten him to it by a solid ten minutes. “To what do we owe this pleasure.”
“Detective Inspector!” Miss Gandalf says, awfully cheerful for someone of her breeding standing ankle-deep in dirty water. “I was visiting an old friend and I just happened across him. I called the police, of course, once I was sure he was dead.”
Of course. Thorin wants to throttle her, but then the chief superintendent would have his head and his badge and his nephews would starve before their mother returned from Ered Luin. “Naturally,” he says, through his teeth. “How kind of you, to include us in your investigation.”
Ignoring Thorin’s sarcasm as per usual, Miss Gandalf says, “I’ve been contracted to discover what happened to the man.”
“By whom?” Thorin demands. “We don’t even know who he is!” The constable who had come by with a car to pick Thorin up from the station had told him that the only thing anybody was sure about was that the man was dead, presumably due to the seven or eight knife wounds in his back.
“By the woman who owns the shop he died in front of,” Miss Gandalf says blithely, which is ridiculous. Any business owner with a lick of sense would ignore a dead body and hope their customers did the same. When Thorin looks up to read the lettering above the shop entrance—it’s nearly impossible in the sleeting rain, but Thorin has sharp eyes and determination in spades—he sees that it spells out Baggins Books in thin, golden letters. The front windows of the shop are dark, but the door is propped open by a brass doorstop in the shape of an elephant.
“Pleased as I am by civilian engagement with the police,” Thorin lies, “perhaps in this instance we might value professionalism over enthusiasm.” He tilts his head towards the body that a pair of constables are valiantly attempting to cover with a tarp, and three fat drops of rainwater fall off the brim of his hat and onto his nose. “Good night, Miss Gandalf,” he adds.
Phryne Gandalf’s eyes narrow on Thorin and she frowns for a very brief second, a canny look rising in her eyes that discomfits Thorin nearly as much as the rain seeping through his coat, and then she turns on her heel and disappears inside Baggins Books, the tail of her grey coat whisking after her. Thorin knows better than to think that that’s the end of it, but he spares a brief moment to hope. Maybe one day Miss Gandalf will pick up a new hobby suitable for her talents—like espionage, or sea pirating—and leave Thorin to finish his career in peace.
“Ha!” Thorin barks quietly to himself, and then he goes to see if the constables have fished out any identifying documents from the pockets of their victim.
The stabbing turns out to be fairly straightforward—cuckolded husband, fleeing wife, lover caught on the street unawares—so Thorin has a full nine days’ rest free from Phryne Gandalf before Constable Thakâl knocks on the doorframe to his office and says, “Miss Gandalf on the telephone, sir.”
“I’m on my way out to the courthouse,” Thorin tells him. He sets his cup of tea back in its saucer and picks up his pen. “I’m likely to be in court all afternoon, so tell Miss Gandalf she should call back tomorrow morning.”
“Right,” Constable Thakâl says, looking vaguely miserable and browbeaten. He disappears out into the hallway but leaves the door to Thorin’s office open, all the better for Thorin to hear “yes ma’am” and “no ma’am” and “right away, ma’am” leak out of him in small, weak bursts.
“Miss Gandalf says she’ll call on you this evening at half past seven,” Constable Thakâl says upon his return to Thorin’s office, looking twice as browbeaten now. The ends of his moustache are limp with exhaustion. “In your office, if you would be so kind as to wait for her.”
Thorin goes home at six, just in time to catch Fíli on his way out the door to the pictures with a girl from St. Eru’s. “It’s just a film,” Fíli says irritably as Thorin attempts to wrestle an estimated time of return out of him. “We’ll probably walk along the high street after for a bit. I’ll be home before morning, I promise.”
“Before morning?” Thorin thunders and Fíli melts out the front door, yelling an aborted good-bye over his shoulder as he sprints for the walk.
“I bet it’s Ori Ryson,” Kíli says when Thorin finds him in the kitchen. He has one fist in a jar of honey and the other holding a slice of bread the thickness of Thorin’s wrist. “Fíli’s gone completely soft over her. He says she’s the most beautiful girl in the world and he needs to marry her before anybody else at the university gets the same idea and beats him to it.”
“Always a romantic, your brother,” Thorin says. “For God’s sake, use a spoon, Kíli.”
“What’s the point, it’s nearly done,” Kíli points out, tilting the jar so Thorin can see that they’re yet again almost out of honey. It’s nice to have the boys back in the house for a few months but Thorin’s at the point where he’s going to have to nail down the food to keep it from disappearing into one of their stomachs.
“Is that dinner?” Thorin asks disapprovingly, and Kíli grins at him in a way that’s probably supposed to be winsome. It nearly would be, if not for the pieces of half-chewed bread stuck between his teeth.
Kíli says, “Nah, just dessert.” That probably means there’s no roast left, which means Thorin is going to be having a cheese toastie for dinner for the second time this week—provided Kíli’s left him any of the bread.
“Remind me to tell Fíli he’s going to the market tomorrow,” Thorin says as he attempts to unearth something edible from the depths of his ravaged pantry. “Why’s there an empty tin of sardines in here?”
“S’not empty,” Kíli protests. “It’s got one sardine left and Fíli’s promised it to Ori’s boss for her cat.”
“Can’t Ori’s employer buy her own cat sardines?” Thorin says, but it’s mostly a rhetorical question. Fíli in love is a ridiculous creature. “It’s going to go bad if he just leaves it here,” Thorin points out, and he eats the sardine before Kíli has a chance to offer more than a token protest. “Fíli can buy more sardines at the market if he feels that strongly about Ori Ryson’s employer’s cat,” Thorin says, and he hopes desperately that this marks the end of their conversation about Fíli’s love life.
At half past seven, when Thorin is sitting in his study with a cup of coffee at his elbow and a stack of files pertaining to the recent stabbing arrayed in front of him, the doorbell rings. Thorin lifts his head just in time to hear Kíli’s footsteps thunder from the front drawing room as he yells, “I’ll get it!”
Thirty seconds later, Miss Gandalf appears in the doorway to Thorin’s office and Thorin yelps and almost elbows his coffee off of his desk. “Detective Inspector,” Miss Gandalf says once Thorin has fumbled for and caught the china cup. “I see we had some miscommunication as to the location of our meeting, but this will work nicely. The charming young man who answered the door—your nephew, I presume?”
Thorin tries not to laugh at the idea of Kíli being thought of as charming, and he manages it because he’s too busy being furious. “I can’t image what we need to discuss that required you breaking into my house,” he bites out.
“I hardly broke in,” Miss Gandalf says as she pulls the armchair by the window closer to Thorin’s desk. “I rang the doorbell.”
“How can I help you?” Thorin says flatly.
“It’s this matter of the stabbing in front of Baggins Books,” Miss Gandalf says. “I’ve told Bilbo that it was completely unrelated to the shop, of course, but she’s a nervous creature. Quite concerned. Perhaps you could stop by the shop some time and reassure her?”
Thorin does not throttle Miss Gandalf, but he gives in to the urge to rub at the bridge of his nose with his thumb. “While a noble task, I’m sure,” he says, “I do not have the time to go about placating the delicate nerves of the shopkeepers of Erebor, Miss Gandalf. Your friend will have to make do with a secondhand assurance that the murder will not be linked to her place of business.”
Miss Gandalf says, “harrumph,” pointedly, as if it’s a word, and tugs at the trailing sleeves of her grey and white suit. Her insistence on wearing such pale colors makes her look like some kind of wraith. Thorin almost wishes she were a ghost, because then he could ignore her with complete impunity and without having to worry about city councilmen paying him visits.
“I see civic duty does not drive you very far,” Miss Gandalf says.
“I am completely confident that any friend of yours can withstand a murder in their proximity,” Thorin says. “So you will excuse me if I don’t see the need to make a pointless house call.”
“Not even as a favor?” Miss Gandalf says. Thorin cannot imagine the full horror of owing Miss Gandalf a favor and immediately plans on never putting himself in a position to find out.
“No,” Thorin says. He rises to his feet, waits for her to do the same, and then puts a hand on the small of her back so he can shove her out into the hallway. “Good night, Miss Gandalf.”
“Good night to you, Thorin Oakenshield!” Miss Gandalf says frostily.
After the front door slams shut behind her, Kíli pokes his head out of the drawing room and says, “Christ, she’s a corker, isn’t she?”
“Go do your homework,” Thorin tells him.
Thorin finally gets his chance to meet the elusive and purportedly weak-nerved proprietor of Baggins Books in late September. It’s two in the morning on a Tuesday and Thorin had been wrenched out of a screaming argument with Fíli about what does or does not constitute a respectable date for a girl with brothers as scary as Dori and Nori Ryson to attend to an attempted shooting in Tablzars Park.
When Thorin pulls one of the station’s cars up to the entrance of the park it’s to see the grey-clad figure of Miss Gandalf stalking between constables, throwing her arms in the air and saying things in a familiar, over-dramatic fashion.
“Detective Inspector!” she says when she sees him climbing out of his car. “Marvelous timing, as per usual.”
“Miss Gandalf,” Thorin says. He’s spent the last hour yelling at Fíli and there’s a hoarseness to his voice that makes it hard to hide how frustrated he is. “Why am I not surprised to find you here.”
“It really was the strangest thing,” Miss Gandalf says. “Bilbo and I were out for an evening stroll and we happened across Mr. Bolg here. Bilbo couldn’t help remarking on his pistol to me and, naturally, I thought it was our civilian duty to intervene before he shot that poor dear.” Here, Miss Gandalf nods at the enormous man giving a grave interview to Constable Thakâl. He looks like he could build a brick schoolhouse and then fistfight Thorin’s cousin Dwalin and come out cleanly.
“Yes,” Thorin finally says. “That poor dear.”
Miss Gandalf has taken advantage of the distraction of Thorin’s sarcasm to turn to her companion. “There, there, dear,” she says in a failed attempt at sympathy. She pulls a handkerchief from the small bag looped around her wrist and all but shoves it in the face of the woman behind her; all Thorin can see is curls, lots of them, and a neat blue dress that looks more suited to a grocer than the proprietor of a bookstore. Then again, what does Thorin know about bookstores? He reads nothing but case reports nowadays and getting Kíli or Fíli interested in anything academic takes force of will known only to Thorin’s sister.
The Baggins Books woman takes the handkerchief and turns away. She’s now almost completely shrouded from the lamps at the front of Thorin’s car and, frankly, Thorin has more pressing matters to deal with than the delicate nerves of one of Miss Gandalf’s numerous female acquaintances.
“Don’t wander off,” Thorin says forcefully, pointing at Miss Gandalf and sweeping his eyes to include her friend.
“I would never,” Miss Gandalf promises. Thorin will believe her some time after hell completely freezes over.
Constable Thakâl appears to have the interview in hand, but Thorin introduces himself to Brandon Bolg’s purported victim and gets a firsthand account of what the man is insisting was an interrupted robbery.
“Really,” Thorin says. “A robbery?”
“Yes,” the man says, like Bolg doesn’t have the wardrobe of an investment banker. His wristwatch probably cost more than what the city of Erebor paid Thorin for the entire month of August.
“All right, well, leave your contact information with Constable Thakâl,” Thorin tells him. “Don’t be leaving town any time soon.”
The man says, “Of course,” which is obviously a lie told straight to Thorin’s face. He’s going to have a passel of uniforms sitting right on top of him until any of this makes sense, although presumably it has something to do with the Gundabadian mob and Thorin’s chief superintendent is notoriously leery of tangling with them.
After their poor victim has stomped off and Thorin has dispatched a pair of constables to shadow him on his way home, Thorin has time to track down Miss Gandalf. She is, unsurprisingly, in the middle of exchanging a series of veiled threats with Bolg. He’s handcuffed and half-stuck in the back of a police car at the moment, so Thorin is more worried about his safety than he is about Miss Gandalf’s. There’s a small shadow behind Miss Gandalf, half-covered in mud and still clutching a white handkerchief.
“And who’s this?” Thorin asks. He nods at the constable hovering nearby—he’s one of Dwalin’s, fresh-faced and impossibly young-looking and clearly not equipped to dealing with lady detectives of this caliber—and ushers Miss Gandalf and her companion away from the car. “A friend of yours, Miss Gandalf?”
“Oh!” says the shadow, straightening slightly. In the low light, Thorin can see that it’s a small woman with a round face. He knows who she is, of course, but there’s no reason to let Miss Gandalf think she or her friends are memorable. “Hello,” she says, offering Thorin a hand that appears to be just as splattered with mud as the rest of her. She’s rather too pretty for Thorin’s peace of mind. It would have been nice if Miss Gandalf’s friends all looked like gargoyles and had off-putting personalities. “I’m Bilbo Baggins.”
Thorin offers her another handkerchief, which, he realizes a few seconds later at the startled expression that crosses her face, she has undoubtedly interpreted as a refusal to shake her hand. This is why Thorin’s only friends are other policemen and family members. He’d only—meant to be polite.
“Thorin Oakenshield,” he says, a shade too aggressively. To rectify some fragment of the situation, he attempts, “Do I have another lady detective I must deal with now?” Naturally, he sounds accusatory instead of humorous. Good God, Thorin needs to retire the field before he ends up throwing her into the lake or shouting at her.
“Not at all,” the lady promises him. She presses his handkerchief to her hair and grimaces at it when it comes away smeared with mud. “Miss Gandalf and I are neighbors.”
“Bilbo is an old friend,” Miss Gandalf interrupts. “Absolutely brilliant, fantastic to have about. Don’t be surprised if you see more of her—I’m determined to purloin her for my own purposes!” This naturally turns all of the blood in Thorin’s veins to ice. Only in his nightmares are there two of them.
As Miss Gandalf swans off to say something irritating to one of Thorin’s numerous constables, Thorin takes the chance to say, “We are likely done here for the night, Mrs. Baggins.” The Baggins woman looks cold and Thorin, bloody-minded as he is often accused of being, is not completely heartless. According to the statement Constable Thakâl had collected, she’d fallen into the lake diving for Bolg’s gun. “I will need to speak with Miss Gandalf in the morning, so please accompany her to the station.”
With a nod, Thorin turns to leave. He’s stopped a brief second later by a sharp, “Most certainly not!” Thorin should’ve known better than to expect any friend of Miss Gandalf’s to have the basic human decency to listen to a detective inspector. Thorin reminds himself that throttling booksellers is a terrible idea when she continues, “I have an obligation in the morning. I will, however, come to the station in the afternoon.”
“An obligation?” Thorin says, turning back to her. Her face is angled so that her nose is projected into the air; she looks like a surly pile of mud and God help Thorin but it’s actually rather attractive. Her eyes are glinting at him dangerously.
“Yes,” she says. “An obligation. I will see you tomorrow afternoon, DI Oakenshield.” She hands him back his handkerchief, adds, “It’s Miss Baggins,” and off she stomps, mud speckled up the back of her stockings, to flag down a cab. She’s left four round fingerprints on Thorin’s handkerchief. To make himself feel better, Thorin goes and yells at the remaining constables. It’s fine, they’re all morons. They need to get used to being reminded of their own incompetence.
Halfway into Thorin’s write-up of last night’s disaster, Constable Proudfoot appears in Thorin’s doorway and says, “Please, sir. She’s—a nightmare.”
“I thought Miss Gandalf had already left the premises,” Thorin says.
The constable looks, if possible, even more haggard. “Miss Baggins,” he says. “Miss Bilbo Baggins, bookstore proprietor and upstanding citizen of Erebor, who believes that I ask foolish questions.”
She’s not alone in that, but Thorin’s already feeling enough regret about his angry remarks to various constables last night; they were milling around the bullpen this morning like sheep when he’d arrived at seven, big-eyed and scared.
“Miss Baggins,” Thorin says in lieu of an actual greeting when he enters the interview room.
“Good afternoon, Detective Inspector,” Miss Baggins says, with a kind of frosty disapproval.
“It is,” Thorin agrees. Miss Baggins is no longer covered in mud; she’s wearing a dress the color of fresh peaches and her hair is as neat as a nest of curls can ever really be. Under the bright lights of the interview room her skin is a dark, beautiful brown and Thorin has never wanted to be trapped in a room with an individual less than he does at this very moment. “I have a few questions for you about yesterday; how kind of you to take time out of your schedule to meet with me.”
Miss Baggins levels him a very unimpressed stare and says, “Sarcasm is hardly likely to make me more cooperative, Detective Inspector.”
“I wasn’t aware you were being uncooperative, Miss Baggins,” Thorin lies. “Didn’t you have an unavoidable obligation this morning?”
She glares at him from between narrowed eyes. “Yes,” she says. “I did. Thank you ever so kindly for remembering.” She sounds like she wants to skin him. It’s very unfortunate for Thorin that she’s so pretty, because it’s making him enjoy her frustrated anger more than he should.
“Of course,” Thorin allows. He would try to say it grandly, the way Nori Ryson had when he’d seen Thorin and Fíli at the market last week and made veiled threats about the longevity of Fíli’s lifespan if he continued to keep Ori out past her curfew, but Thorin was not made for flourishing gestures, even ones designed to couch sarcasm. “If you have no other constraints on your schedule, maybe you could answer my questions.”
“You mean all those ones you haven’t asked yet?” Miss Baggins says waspishly. “Yes, right after you, Detective Inspector.”
Miss Baggins leaves the station thirty minutes later, having given Thorin the complete run-around and confirmed his suspicions that Miss Gandalf has found herself a conspirator in her flagrant law-breaking activities.
“There are two of them?” Constable Thakâl says as Miss Baggins leaves the station, her handbag hooked over her elbow as she pins back on her hat. It’s a far more sensible one than Thorin has ever seen on Miss Gandalf’s head and pleasing in a serviceable way. Thorin has always found competence attractive, which hadn’t ever been a problem due to the unsatisfying individuals with which he’d found himself surrounded. Until now, of course.
“Yes,” Thorin says. He can’t hold back his sigh. “It appears that there are.”
Constable Thakâl turns the corner onto Baraz St just quickly enough that Thorin has a clear view of a pair of stockinged calves disappearing through a third-story window. The shoes at the end of the stockings are so pale that they glint in the afternoon sun, which is just the sort of depraved idiocy that Thorin has come to expect from Phryne Gandalf.
“Is that—Miss Gandalf?” Constable Thakâl asks, sounding horrified. It’s hard to tell if he’s more shocked at her breaking into a closed crime scene or that she’d done it by apparently climbing up the outside of a building.
Thorin wishes he could be more shocked. “Yes,” he says, “I imagine it is. And if Miss Gandalf is here—”
He spies Bilbo Baggins a bare second later; she’s holding a lit cigarette and standing nestled back into the front stoop of the office building in which Paul Fallohide had been horrifically murdered two days ago, looking stiff-necked and uncomfortable.
“—Miss Baggins is sure to follow,” Constable Thakâl finishes as he pulls their car to a jerky stop. “Shall I arrest them, sir?”
Thorin wants to say yes so badly that he can almost taste it, but he needs to solve this murder without half of the city council raining hell upon his head. “I’ll take care of it,” he says grimly, pulling his hat down and stepping out of the car.
Miss Baggins doesn’t seem to notice him until he’s half a dozen steps away; she’s lifting the cigarette to her mouth in an extremely poor parody of some kind of femme fatale pose when she sees him, badly muffles a shriek, and drops the cigarette.
“Please, allow me,” Thorin says, stepping forward and grinding the cigarette into the pavement with the toe of his shoe. She doesn’t have the chance to do anything except stare at him like an inconvenient, law-breaking deer.
“Good afternoon, Detective Inspector,” says Miss Baggins, voice pitched just loudly enough that it will probably carry up to the third story. “What on earth are you doing here?”
“Investigating a murder,” Thorin says. “I can only hazard a guess as to what brings you to this part of town, Miss Baggins.”
“Oh, you know,” Miss Baggins says. She promptly fails to elaborate on this when she adds, “Won’t Mrs. Oakenshield want you home for tea?” It’s only just gone three but Miss Baggins blinks up at him, the picture of solicitous concern. Thorin can’t remember the last time he was home for tea.
“She will not,” Thorin tells Miss Baggins, “as she is in Ered Luin with my sister. If you would be so kind, Miss Baggins?” When she fails to move, Thorin puts a hand on her shoulder and none too gently guides her away from the door to the building. “Thank you. Kindly be on your way now. I’ll be sure to pass your concern for my health on to my mother.”
“Oh,” Miss Baggins says. “Your mother?” She has very long eyelashes, so it’s difficult to say if she’s always blinked slowly—in deference to their length—or she’s doing it now in a bad attempt to flirt Thorin away from the door.
Not that Thorin doesn’t want to be flirted with, hypothetically speaking, but he’ll give Phryne Gandalf and her associates an inch the day that he’s forced into retirement. “Yes,” Thorin replies, with exaggerated patience. “My mother, Mrs. Oakenshield, who has not wanted me home for tea since I was sixteen.”
“Sixteen?” repeats Miss Baggins. Blink blink blink go her long eyelashes. “Did you grow up in Ered Luin, Detective Inspector?”
“Yes, Miss Baggins, I did,” Thorin says. Her flirting isn’t working, obviously, but Thorin is willing to play along to—lure her into a false sense of security.
“Oh,” says Miss Baggins. She’s wearing a russet-colored jacket with the collar turned down, despite the cold, to reveal the long, high planes of her neck. She’s not wearing her usual sensible hat. “Me too—that is, I was not raised in Erebor. My family is from Hobbiton, you know.”
“No,” says Thorin as pleasantly as he can manage. He has to speak through his teeth, but Miss Baggins is still doing her best impression of a useless woodland creature and doesn’t appear to notice. “I had not known that, Miss Baggins.”
“No other Bagginses in Erebor, I’m afraid,” Miss Baggins says. Surely her eyelids have begun to tire by now. Thorin’s are nearly aching just watching hers go up and down. Eyelashes were not made for such constant fluttering. “Just me at 121 Bag End. Oh—and Frodo, of course.”
Thorin says, “Frodo?” at the same time that the putatively locked door behind Miss Baggins bursts open and vomits Phryne Gandalf out onto the stoop.
“Detective Inspector!” she says brightly. “What a marvelous surprise, seeing you here.”
“At my crime scene?” Thorin snaps. Miss Gandalf appears out of breath and her sleek bob of silver hair is mussed, although the rest of her outfit is pristine. Thorin can’t keep the polish on Fíli and Kíli’s shoes for longer than half a day but Miss Gandalf appears to float through life on a cloud of laundry detergent and starch.
At least Miss Baggins has put off her ridiculous blinking. She’d straightened at the sight of her co-conspirator, which had naturally drawn Thorin’s attention to how she’d been leaning towards him. Textbook and obvious flirting, really. Laughably ineffective against a detective of Thorin’s caliber.
“I’d really prefer to think of it as our crime scene, Detective Inspector,” Miss Gandalf says. “I’ve made the most delightful discovery, though, do come upstairs. And bring Constable Thakâl, won’t you? I’m afraid we’ll need another set of hands.”
Thorin turns towards the street and gestures irritably for Constable Thakâl to come join him. He’s perfectly placed for Miss Gandalf’s “Marvelously done, Bilbo” to echo down the stairs and beat him upside the head.
“Shhh,” hisses Miss Baggins. “And it wasn’t—God, that was terrifying. The next time you want a distraction, Phryne, you’re going to have to do it yourself.” It must be her shoes clomping so loudly up the stairs; the beats match her words perfectly.
“I haven’t the height for it, you know,” Miss Gandalf says musingly. “Men always seem to know I’m not a helpless infant.”
“Oh, because I am?” Miss Baggins snaps, somewhere in pitch between a broken gramophone and a pissed-off alley cat. Constable Thakâl, taking the steps up to Thorin two at a time, winces. His moustache waggles in apparent sympathy.
“Come now, Bilbo,” Miss Gandalf continues. Her voice has begun to peter off; third floor, then. “We use what tools nature has made available to us. Those enormous eyes of yours, for instance.”
“These eyes will be going right back to the shop after this,” Miss Baggins grumbles. The acoustics in this building really are remarkable.
“Reckon if there really was a struggle, somebody must’ve been able to hear it,” Constable Thakâl says to Thorin. He’s probably the least useless of the entire pool of constables, although Thorin would need to be dragged across a bed of hot coals to admit it. “Do you think the secretary was lying, saying she didn’t hear anything?”
Thorin frowns at the desk across the hall, then up at the stairs. “Miss Baggins,” he says in his regular speaking voice, “has the least infant-like eyes I have ever seen.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” demands Miss Baggins, muffled but still clear from the third floor, where she and Miss Gandalf are undoubtedly rifling through Thorin’s crime scene and making themselves even worse nuisances than normal.
“Perfectly audible,” Thorin tells Constable Thakâl. “Go get the secretary and bring her back to the station—either she heard the struggle or she wasn’t at her desk. And find out who else was working that night!”
“If you would be so kind, Constable, to lend us your strong back before you leave,” Miss Gandalf yells down the staircase, which is how Thorin and Constable Thakâl end up carrying an antique chest full of falsified tax documents down three flights of stairs under the debatably helpful direction of Phryne Gandalf. Miss Baggins follows behind them, carrying Thorin’s coat and the constable’s jacket, and Thorin can feel the press of her eyes like sticky fingers between his shoulder blades.
The boys take the train up to Ered Luin to spend the holidays with Dís, so Thorin signs up for the Sad Bastard double on Christmas.
Constable Thakâl actually looks guilty for leaving Thorin as he puts on his coat. “Are you sure I can’t bring you anything, sir?” he asks. “My brother’s pies are really something. The best in Erebor.”
“I’m fine,” Thorin tells him. It’s not even a lie; Thorin hasn’t had any peace since the boys had come to stay with him and there hasn’t been a murder in going on two full weeks. Thorin is going to drink his weight in tea and put on the wireless and wait for someone to set their house on fire with their Christmas tree.
“Well, if you’re sure,” the constable says extremely reluctantly. He pulls on some kind of ugly monstrosity of a hat, with furred earflaps that appear to be positioned perpendicular to his head. It will protect him from the cold, undoubtedly, but at what cost?
“I’m sure, constable,” Thorin says, saving his eyes and looking down at the kettle.
Constable Thakâl says, “Happy Christmas, sir,” as he leaves, and Thorin mumbles something of the same at him, occupied with willing the kettle to boil faster with the power of his mind. The small camp stove in the station’s canteen is the only thing on this earth that Thorin has encountered more stubborn than Phryne Gandalf and it’s almost twice as irritating.
Thorin’s taken his tea back to his office and has gone so far as to prop his feet up on his desk and toyed with the idea of stealing the tin of biscuits from the bottom drawer of Dwalin’s desk when the phone in the bullpen rings.
“South Street Station, Erebor Police,” Thorin answers.
“Happy Christmas to you, Detective Inspector,” says Miss Gandalf cheerfully. “I heard from a little bird that you were on duty tonight but I hadn’t dared believe it.”
“Try,” Thorin suggests. “Do you have a situation requiring a police presence, Miss Gandalf, or is this purely a social call?”
“Oh, no, no murders,” says Miss Gandalf, sounding a little glum about it.
“Well then,” Thorin says, “perhaps we might not tie up in the line, in case anyone does decide to be murdered tonight.”
“A Christmas miracle if ever I heard one, I suppose,” says Miss Gandalf. “Very well, I will accept your gracious hint and—”
Thorin says, “Yes, good-bye,” and hangs up before Miss Gandalf has a chance to find herself a new tangent. He has no idea what that massive waste of money was for, but he’s learned not to question Miss Gandalf’s motives too closely; she seems to be attempting to raise eccentrically wealthy to an art form.
It’s hardly the worst Christmas Thorin has ever had. During the war, after the first truce had been so spectacularly poorly received by anyone in a position of authority, the Christmases had been terrible. Thorin had spent the morning of December 25th, 1916 retrieving bodies from no man’s land in Azanulbizar. In comparison, an empty station and a cup of chilled tea is positively festive. It would have been better with Dís and the boys, of course, but the thought of roasting chestnuts with his parents in Ered Luin had been so massively unpalatable that Thorin had all but shoved the boys on a train by themselves. He’s better served by being on the opposite side of the country from his father.
Thorin pulls himself out of his thoughts in time to find that his tea has gone from slightly chilled to bitterly cold; no wonder this shift is called the Sad Bastard.
He’s back in the kitchen, waiting on the godforsaken kettle again, when the bell in the front door of the station jingles sharply and someone calls out, “Hello? Detective Inspector?”
Standing in front of the door like some kind of terrible winter sprite is Phryne Gandalf, of course, dressed head to toe in white and wearing something absurdly feathery in her hair. “How are you this Christmas evening, Detective Inspector?”
“Fine,” Thorin says warily.
“Marvelous,” Miss Gandalf beams. “Radagast is just parking the car, he’ll be along swiftly with the rest of the baskets. Bilbo is occupied with Frodo, of course, but she’s promised to duck out for a drink once he’s sleeping.” There is a white basket hooked over Miss Gandalf’s elbow and the mouth-watering smell of roasted poultry is coming from either it or her hairpiece.
“Dare I ask why you’re here,” Thorin says, although he’s been a detective for going on ten years and, contrary to Miss Gandalf’s opinion, is not a complete idiot.
Miss Gandalf waves a hand dismissively and says, “I was having Radagast cook for a larger party, of course—I thought we’d have Bilbo and Frodo, maybe that helper of hers in, but the helper is with her family and Bilbo wants Frodo to have a quiet Christmas at home.” Miss Gandalf’s nose crinkles at quiet. “God knows why, but that’s what she wanted. So we’ve brought the Christmas to you.”
God help Thorin, but it had been a long night and an even longer morning; “I’m sorry?” he says, instead of gathering his wits and booting Miss Gandalf out on her arse.
“I told Galadriel to stop by whenever she’s finished at the women’s hospital, but you know how she gets. Dr. Nenya is always on call, I suppose.” As Thorin is blinking at Miss Gandalf like an idiot, she’s occupying herself in stripping off her coat and draping it over the desk sergeant’s chair and then once that’s done, she reaches into her basket and pulls out two bottles of wine. “Trust me, there’s a lot more where this came from,” she tells Thorin as she sails past him into the canteen.
“I’m not drinking on duty,” Thorin sputters; by the time he’s gathered himself together in a way that’s even vaguely approaching imposing, Miss Gandalf’s driver and man-about has appeared with a flotilla of baskets, all of which smell delicious and look even better, and then the bell jingles again and Dr. Nenya has apparently joined them, on a brief dinner break from the women’s hospital.
“There are many babies to be born tonight,” she tells Thorin as she accepts a plate of roasted goose and new potatoes from Radagast. “One of Radagast’s dinners is just the thing to build up my strength.”
“And a glass of wine won’t hurt,” Miss Gandalf points out. Radagast had opened one of the baskets and revealed acres of white linen, crystal glasses, china plates, and the tiniest, stupidest-looking gravy boat Thorin had ever seen in his life, all of which he had unpacked and used to dress the rickety table in the back corner of the bullpen that usually serves as the probationary constable’s desk.
“Of course not,” Dr. Nenya agrees with a grave smile. “Steadies the nerves.”
At that point, really, it’s all that Thorin can do to accept his plate and thank Radagast for it. Miss Gandalf fiddles with the wireless on the front desk and gets them some kind of twinkling holiday concert; she shimmies across the floor to it and slips into her seat with a wink at Thorin. “We can handle modern music for one night,” she says, like she and Thorin are co-conspirators, not frequently at each other’s throats.
“I—suppose,” Thorin allows. Maybe he’s shell-shocked and that’s why he’s not putting up more of a fight. Then he takes a bite of Radagast’s goose, and the battle’s completely lost. “This is delicious,” he says.
“Yes, yes, bit of a specialty of mine,” Radagast preens at the other end of the table. “Phryne won’t have it the rest of the year—says it’s for Christmas and nothing else—but Phryne doesn’t know how to appreciate a good roasted goose.”
“Of course I do, Radagast,” Miss Gandalf says. “I just know the exquisite pleasure of self-denial. Pass the potatoes, won’t you, Galadriel? You’ve nearly outdone yourself this year, Radagast. Absolutely marvelous. Make sure to save some of the goose for Bilbo—we might be able to trick her into making us some pies.”
They’re lingering over the last of the wine and trifle almost an hour later when the doorbell rings for the fourth time that night. Thorin has found himself unexpectedly trapped in an intensely interesting conversation with Radagast about the recent economic upswing in Khand and he’s been weakened by wine and trifle and therefore is not prepared for Bilbo Baggins to be standing in the front of the bullpen, dusted with snow like a sugar cake.
“Goodness, please tell me you’ve left a spot of trifle for me,” Miss Baggins says, breathless with cold. She’s in red like she knows it’s going to do Thorin’s head in, her hair in some kind of neat nest of braids. The back of her neck is exposed when she turns to set her coat down on top of Miss Gandalf’s.
“Of course,” Miss Gandalf says as Thorin gets to his feet and rustles up another chair. He’s forced to steal the one from behind Constable Thakâl’s desk for her, which has a broken wheel and squeaks like a colony of baby mice.
“Thank you, Detective Inspector,” Miss Baggins says. “Happy Christmas to you! Oh, Galadriel, how lovely to see you. Radagast, this all looks delicious. Oh, just a spot of trifle. Well—I suppose a little more than that.” She settles in to Thorin’s left, licking whipped cream off of the back of her spoon and red high in her cheeks. “Frodo was a nightmare to get to bed; he wanted to keep reading until morning.”
“Just like his Aunt Bilbo, I’d imagine,” says Dr. Nenya. This would probably be pointed coming from anyone else, but she flashes Miss Baggins a small smile in the corner of her mouth and it soothes her words. Being around Dr. Nenya makes Thorin feel like he’s twelve and constantly three seconds away from tripping and falling into the Gulf of Lune.
“Oh, yes, no need to remind me that this is karma,” Miss Baggins says with a laugh. “I was a frightful child,” she tells Thorin, digging her spoon into the bottom of the cup to get at a recalcitrant piece of sponge. “Always sneaking candles into my room in the middle of the night to keep reading.”
“Better that than the alternative,” Thorin says. “My older nephew’s nearly illiterate. He reads music like it’s English, but actual English is a whole other story.”
“Oh, is this Ori Ryson’s Fíli?” Miss Baggins asks. She leans in towards Thorin, leagues more casually than she had when she was badly attempting to flirt him away from a ransacked crime scene. “I’ve heard that your nephew is extraordinarily talented on the violin. And quite handsome.” Here, Miss Baggins winks, her tongue caught in the corner of her mouth. The top of Thorin’s head is approximately five seconds away from exploding off, so he forces himself to lean back in his chair.
“He’s good,” Thorin allows. “Very good.”
“High praise from you, Detective Inspector,” Miss Gandalf says, widening her eyes at him playfully. Thorin doesn’t want to strangle her immediately, which is another sign that the wine has kicked in. It’ll be just Thorin’s luck that somebody calls in with a Christmas tree house fire now when Thorin’s had a glass and a half of Miss Gandalf’s shockingly good Gondorian red. “You’ve two of them, don’t you? Nephews?”
Thorin says, “Yes, they’re with their mother in Ered Luin,” as Miss Baggins watches him. She’s still picking at her trifle, eating each strawberry individually in a series of small bites. He wonders how much wine she’d had at dinner with Frodo, who is her nephew, not her—well. “Fíli’s at the university, Kíli’s twelve. Both of them are nightmares.”
“Oh goodness, I would murder someone if I had two of Frodo running underfoot,” Miss Baggins says. “You didn’t hear me say that, of course, Detective Inspector.”
“Of course,” Thorin agrees, and he surprises himself with his own good humor. Rather than deal with that, he takes a sip of his wine and watches Miss Baggins pick a perfect curl of shaved chocolate off of the remains of her trifle and place it on her tongue. The Christmas of 1916, Thorin would have killed for a piece of chocolate, and now, ten years later, he gets to watch Bilbo Baggins eat delicate curls of it to her heart’s content, her eyes slit like a happy cat. Thorin wants to lick the sweetness out of her mouth until she tastes like wine, drunk on it, and then he wants to take out all of the braids in her hair. He’d make love to her on top of all of Phryne Gandalf’s expensive table decorations, just feel her skin.
“Goodness, what a lovely Christmas,” Dr. Nenya says. It feels abrupt—Thorin can’t help startling—but the same idiotic carol is warbling out of the wireless that had been when Thorin had gotten caught up staring at Miss Baggins like a pubescent idiot. “However, if any of those babes are to be born with a doctor present, I must be off.”
“Oh yes, of course,” Miss Gandalf agrees, so they all get up to see Dr. Nenya off and then, some kind of holiday spell broken, they clear up the dishes and linens and help Radagast repack the baskets. One of them gets put aside for Miss Baggins and her purportedly delightful goose pies, but Thorin helps cart the rest out to Miss Gandalf’s car.
It’s begun to snow again when Thorin leaves Radagast and Miss Gandalf to fuss over the best way to strap down their belongings and returns inside to collect Miss Baggins. She’s managed to put on her coat but she’s standing in front of the wireless, listening with her head tilted. “It’s—it was my mother’s favorite,” she says quickly when she sees Thorin the doorway. “‘Gesu Bambino,’ I mean. She made my father sing it every Christmas after dinner. He had a beautiful voice.”
“It’s nice,” Thorin agrees. His voice has gone rough, because he was an idiot who succumbed to the lure of a reprieve from being a Sad Bastard and drank two glasses of wine during an active shift and came very close to attempting to make love to a young woman on top of a table.
Miss Baggins hums a few bars along with the wireless and then grimaces playfully at Thorin. “I’m completely tone deaf. Can’t sing a note. Frodo’s the same. There doesn’t seem to be much point to caroling when you just sound like dying roosters, I’m afraid.”
“Mmm,” Thorin says, noncommittal. He feels in this instant like he would cut off his right foot to have someone warbling Christmas carols in his house, even if they were incomprehensible Italian ballads.
“Oh!” Miss Baggins starts, her hands jumping to the front of her coat. “I’m sorry, I’ve completely—that is, we can’t take up much more of your Christmas, should we? I suppose you had a lot of work to do and we just. Well. That’s Phryne, you know.”
“I’m not such an ogre that I’m going to complain about a delicious dinner brought to my door, Miss Baggins,” Thorin says. He can’t keep himself from smiling at her; he’s not drunk but he almost feels it.
“My God,” Miss Baggins says as she crosses the room, “an actual smile, from Detective Inspector Oakenshield. I think that very nearly is a Christmas miracle, don’t you?”
“Good night, Miss Baggins,” Thorin says. He’s still smiling at her, because he’s a moron.
“Happy Christmas, Detective Inspector,” she replies, passing him and stepping out into the snow. Almost instantly she’s been lightly covered, looking like some kind of fetching coat advertisement. “And a Happy New Year!” she throws over her shoulder. “I don’t suppose I’ll see you in the coming week, unless someone has the misfortune to find themselves murdered in an interesting way.”
“I wouldn’t hold your breath, Miss Baggins,” Thorin calls after her.
Thorin manages to avoid stepping foot in Baggins Books for six entire months of regretting the fact of Bilbo Baggins’ existence, but in February the station receives a phone call at half past six in the morning and Thorin is, unfortunately, the first one to answer it.
“Detective Inspector?” says Miss Baggins immediately. “It’s Bilbo Baggins.”
Thorin says, “Good morning?” in a demanding way.
“My shop was broken into,” Miss Baggins says. There’s a slight hitch to her voice, like she’s trying to force her breaths to come evenly. Thorin freezes with his hand halfway to disconnecting their call. “Your presence would be greatly appreciated.”
“Are you alone?” Thorin demands. He snaps his fingers at Constable Thakâl, makes a brief sign for the car, and points at the back door. Constable Thakâl nods sharply and disappears.
“Yes,” Miss Baggins says. “Well, for now. My assistant should be here in a few—oh, that must be her. I’m in the back, dear!”
Thorin scowls at the wall behind the phone and does not punch it, even though he very much wants to. “Are you inside of a crime scene right now? Did you even check if whoever had broken in had left first?”
“It’s my shop,” Miss Baggins says, finally sounding outraged instead of emotionally fragile. “Of course I came inside. What if they’d stolen something?”
“What if they’d murdered you?” Thorin points out. “I realize running with Miss Gandalf has probably given you an overinflated sense of your own immortality but—for God’s sake, borrow a neighbor’s phone next time.”
“Hopefully there won’t be a next time,” says Miss Baggins waspishly. “Can I expect you some time this century, or are you going to continue to shout at me over the phone?”
“Oh no,” Thorin says, “I’m going to come and shout at you in person.” He slams the phone receiver down and stomps off to collect his coat and hat from his office. God save him from lady detectives.
The front window of Baggins Books is broken and the door is propped open with that ludicrous brass elephant when Constable Thakâl screeches to a halt outside of it ten minutes later.
“Christ Almighty,” whistles Constable Thakâl. “Someone has a death wish.”
Thorin is too busy slamming the car door shut behind him to reply. “Miss Baggins!” he yells as he steps over ragged pages being blown down the sidewalk. When she fails to respond in a timely manner, he roars, “Baggins!”
From the dark depths of the shop, Thorin hears, “For God’s sake, Detective Inspector, it’s barely seven in the morning.” Miss Baggins emerges out of the gloom, picking her way through the path of destruction that was once likely a neat room of bookshelves and armchairs. It would be cozy were it not for the shredded pages lying over everything like snow.
“What part of crime scene is incapable of penetrating your skull?” Thorin demands. When she’s within arm’s reach he closes his hand around her elbow and yanks her out onto the street. “I don’t care if you assist Miss Gandalf and regularly throw yourself into the middle of gunfights, the next time you see something like this you will turn around and call me from a safe distance.” Thorin points so emphatically at the broken window that the shock of the movement waggles Miss Baggins back and forth like a cloth doll.
Miss Baggins glares at him and tugs on her elbow. Thorin does not deign to release it. “I appreciate your professional concern, Detective Inspector, but—”
“No!” Thorin shouts. “Do you not understand the concept of personal safety, Bilbo?”
“Well, excuse me, Thorin, if I was more preoccupied with the state of my shop than thinking to call the police immediately—”
“You should always think to call the police, for God’s sake, that’s why we’re here—”
“Oh, really? Because I thought you were being paid by the city to shriek at me in the middle of the street!”
Before Thorin has a chance to actually throttle her, there’s a sudden crashing noise from inside the shop. Thorin uses his grip on Miss Baggins’ elbow to swing her behind him and then he reaches for his gun, which turns out to be mostly useless when Miss Baggins ignores his implicit order and instead barrels back into the building with a panicked, “Ori? Are you all right?”
They find Ori Ryson standing over a pile of broken pottery, distress writ clear across her features. Thorin is not surprised at all to learn that Miss Baggins is Ori’s mysterious employer with the fiendish cat. “I’m so sorry, Miss Baggins,” she says, “I was just looking for the lending ledger and then—I must’ve upset the shelf—I’m so sorry—”
“Not to worry,” Miss Baggins says briskly. She hooks one small, round arm over Ori’s shoulders and rubs gently along Ori’s bicep as she says, “Never did like it, besides. A gift from my cousin Lobelia, who has hideous taste in ceramics and finds perverse joy in sharing it with the world. I’ve been looking for an excuse to be rid of that tea set for ages, and now I have one.”
Instead of looking soothed, Ori puts her face in her hands and begins to cry. “I’m sorry,” she sobs. “I’ve—completely broken it.”
“No, no, dear,” says Miss Baggins, and she draws Ori in so that Ori’s tears are soaking into the neck of her dress. Over Ori’s head, Miss Baggins exaggeratedly mouths something unintelligible.
Thorin widens his eyes at her and lifts his arms up in an aborted gesture of confusion. CRIME SCENE, he mouths back, pointing at the cash register lying on its side to Miss Baggins’ left.
“There, come on, it’s all right,” Miss Baggins murmurs, drawing a hand up and down the back of Ori’s head. She glares at Thorin like her eyes will be able to incinerate him on the spot, but her voice betrays none of her ire. “Do you want me to give Fíli a ring, dear?”
Ori chokes out, “No!” and starts to cry, if possible, even harder. “You—you can’t,” she wails.
“Oh, that doesn’t sound good,” Miss Baggins says. “Come on, we’ll have some tea and cakes at Mrs. Gamgee’s and you can tell me whatever’s happened with your young man. We can leave DI Oakenshield with his crime scene.”
“You have to give a statement,” Thorin reminds her. Miss Baggins flaps a hand at him dismissively and guides Ori back to the front door with a hand on each shoulder. He tries, “Miss Baggins!” but both of them are out and gone and Thorin now has sole possession of the blasted crime scene, which naturally is next to useless without anyone to tell him if anything has gone missing.
“Constable Thakâl!” Thorin barks. “Get in here!”
Thorin gives them half an hour, which is twenty-nine minutes longer than he’d give anyone else. Across the street from Baggins Books is Mrs. Gamgee’s tea shop, which is not actually open for business yet but still apparently open to Bilbo Baggins and Ori Ryson, the latter of whom is splitting a meringue the size of her head with a young boy.
“—and then they said that unless I was ready to be married that very night, I couldn’t be stepping out with him anymore,” Ori is saying. She still exudes palpable misery but appears to have been rejuvenated by sugar.
“That seems rather harsh,” Miss Baggins says. “Frodo, please leave at least some of the meringue for Ori.”
“Oh, I don’t mind, Miss Baggins,” says Ori, pushing the plate towards the little boy. “Too much for one person, I reckon.”
“Aunt Bilbo can eat two,” replies the little boy, who is apparently Frodo. “All on her own. She says it’s because she can unhinge her jaw, like a snake—“
“Yes, thank you, Frodo,” Miss Baggins hastily interrupts. None of their party appears to have noticed Thorin entering the shop, so he coughs aggressively into his fist. Miss Baggins’ eyes snap from Frodo to Thorin and then back again. “Oh, Detective Inspector. Done with your crime scene already?” She makes crime scene sound like something recently scrapped off of the bottom of her shoe.
“I’d really prefer to think of it as our crime scene,” Thorin replies, which has the unexpected result of forcing a bark of laughter from Miss Baggins. She looks just as shocked by it as he must.
“Are you really a detective?” Frodo asks. He has inherited Miss Baggins’ eye condition; they’re the size of marbles and an unsettling shade of blue. “Do you know Fíli’s uncle? He’s a detective. Fíli isn’t, though, he’s studying music.”
“This is Fíli’s uncle,” Miss Baggins says. “Don’t you see the resemblance, Frodo?”
Frodo stares up at Thorin. His eyeballs look about three seconds from popping out of his face and rolling onto the floor of Mrs. Gamgee’s tea shop. “No,” he finally says. “But I don’t look like you either, Aunt Bilbo.”
“Very astute,” says Miss Baggins. “Do you have your bag for school, dear?”
“Yes,” Frodo says, taking an enormous bite of meringue. “Must I go to school? We’ve had a trial, Aunt Bilbo.”
Ori stifles a watery giggle. “You’ll have such a story for the other children, though.”
Frodo obviously considers this as Bilbo plucks a handkerchief out of the pocket of her skirt and dabs it in a glass of water. “I suppose,” he finally allows, tilting his chin up as Bilbo scrubs at crumbs of sugar in the corner of his mouth. He’s very small; smaller that Kíli and Fíli were at the age, surely. “Can I tell everybody what happened, Aunt Bilbo?”
“If you go and wash your hands before you leave, yes,” Miss Baggins says, with one last vigorous scrub before she sends Frodo off to clean his hands. “Do you mind walking with him, Ori?”
“Oh no, not at all,” Ori says. Her voice is still weak but she’s gotten her color back and she looks grateful for the excuse to avoid Thorin’s eyes. “Will you—that is—I can come back? Afterwards? You’ll need me to help you clean up, won’t you?”
Miss Baggins pulls another handkerchief out of another pocket—good lord, how many does the woman have secreted on her person?—and hands it to Ori. “Oh no, dear, I won’t hear of it. Take Frodo to school and then go see that young man of yours and tell him that he’ll have dinner with your brothers or you’ll throw him over for Bofur Thakâl. And then you’ll go see your brothers and tell them that you’re a grown woman and it’s your choice whom you’re stepping out with, no matter what thoughts they’ve let grow wild in those heads of theirs.”
Ori nods firmly, crushing Miss Baggins’ handkerchief to her chest, and then she seems to remember Thorin’s there and sneaks a very quick glance at him, her face gone almost as red as her hair. “I don’t—Constable Thakâl and I aren’t—”
“I know,” Thorin says, lest Ori expire of embarrassment on the spot. “Follow Miss Baggins’ advice, Ori.”
“Right,” she says, steady but nearly inaudible. When Frodo comes back, she has him out the door in under a minute. Frodo kisses his aunt good-bye on both of her cheeks and he nods at Thorin before he allows Ori to lead him out onto the street.
“That nephew of yours ought not to let himself be bullied,” Miss Baggins says as the door slams shut behind the children. “Really, one timid person in that relationship is quite enough.”
“Despite that egregious interpretation of his character, you seem very familiar with my nephew,” Thorin says. The itchiness under his skin has abated now that he has Miss Baggins cornered and can question her to his liking. “Does he come by and stare at Ori while she’s working?”
“Ah,” Miss Baggins says with a quirked smile. “Familiar with young Fíli’s courting efforts, are we? Yes, he does. He can be counted upon to help with stock, though, and that young back of his is worth its weight in gold.”
Thorin can’t think of anything to say to that that won’t be inane, so he says, “Good,” gruffly and then, in an awkward and abrupt change of subject, “Has enough tea been consumed that you can now help me with our crime scene?”
“Yes, of course,” Miss Baggins says, standing up and fussing with the tea things. “I was worried about Frodo and Ori—the shop is their home as well, you know, Frodo more literally than Ori, and it’s so unpleasant to have one’s home ransacked.”
“Yes,” Thorin agrees drily, “unpleasant.”
Miss Baggins squints at him repressively and says, “Extremely unpleasant.”
“Well, if you can possibly bear to subject yourself to it,” Thorin says, “I think we better go take a look. I need to know if anything is missing.”
“I need to clean up—” Miss Baggins tries, in a transparent attempt to delay police proceedings, and Thorin latches his hand around her upper arm and carts her off to Baggins Books, Mrs. Gamgee’s tea things be damned. Thorin wants to get as much out of Miss Baggins as possible before Miss Gandalf shows up and becomes inconveniently entangled in the matter. “Really, Detective Inspector, there’s no need for manhandling,” Miss Baggins says. “I am generally considered capable of walking under my own power.”
“Come now, Miss Baggins, it was Thorin only an hour ago,” Thorin says. He grins at her with mostly his teeth; antagonism was his goal at one point so he could interrogate her properly, but now he’s frustrated and thwarted and he wants Miss Baggins irritated at him so he can have a good reason to yell at somebody.
“I’ll call you Thorin when you cease being so beastly,” Miss Baggins says irritably. “Oh, do let go of my arm, I’m not going to run off if you let me off my leash.”
Thorin lets go of her, because he is being beastly, and she straightens her dress and cardigan, eyes focused on the broken front window of her shop. “You want to know if anything is missing?” she asks him. “Well, let me check the expensive things first.”
Miss Baggins takes Thorin on a brief tour of her shop, checking in on the various nooks where she apparently keeps first editions and rare copies of things like a complete 1870 edition of the Encyclopedia Sindarina and single pages of woodcut illustrations. Nothing appears to be missing, although Miss Baggins shrieks when she catches sight of the cupboard holding the illustrations; there’s a huge scratch down the middle, slicing a carving of a fat oak branch in half.
“This is an antique,” Miss Baggins tells Thorin, like he’s going to care more about the cupboard once he knows that. “My great-grandfather built this for my great-grandmother when they were married. Oh, Lobelia’s going to skin me once she finds out.”
It’s exceptionally well-carved, but it’s also ugly as sin and Thorin can’t find it in his heart to have too much sympathy for Miss Baggins’ predicament. “Is nothing missing?” he asks, to get her back on track.
“Well, nothing of much interest,” Miss Baggins allows. “I’ll have to finish a complete inventory to know for sure—once Ori’s calmed down about this mess with her brothers and Fíli she’ll be able to help—but it doesn’t look like anything worth stealing has vanished.”
“Robbery might not have been the goal,” Thorin points out, and then he bites back something mean when he sees Miss Baggins go tight-lipped and a little pale. “Have you made many enemies in your adventures with Miss Gandalf? One of them might have gotten aggressive.”
“No! Well, that is—Phryne can be a bit off-putting, yes, but I don’t know if we’ve done anything recently to prompt something like this.”
‘Off-putting.’ For God’s sake.
There’s a list of questions in Thorin’s notebook, helpfully recorded by Constable Thakâl from whatever Thorin had bellowed at him earlier while stomping around. “Do you lock the door to the second floor?” Thorin asks, reaching the end of the list. “It doesn’t look like it’s been tampered with.”
“Well,” Miss Baggins says.
Thorin looks up from the notebook to see Miss Baggins with her arms crossed over her chest, one hand up and tugging at a loose curl from her hair. “Well?” Thorin echoes.
“Well,” Miss Baggins repeats. She looks at Thorin and then very quickly swivels on her heel and steps closer to the ugly oak cupboard. “Not—often, to be honest. There hasn’t been a need!”
“Hasn’t been a need?” Thorin says, through his teeth.
“I’m hardly a child, Detective Inspector,” Miss Baggins says waspishly. “I lock the door to the shop very securely every night, but we’ve never had trouble in this neighborhood and the lock to the upper floor can stick; I don’t want there to be a fire and have Frodo unable to get out.”
“Oh, but him being murdered in his bed by one of the myriad people you and Phryne Gandalf have pissed off, that’s far more acceptable,” Thorin says.
Miss Baggins hisses, “That’s very unfair!
“You’re lucky this is the first time this has happened,” Thorin tells her. “Change your bloody locks, Miss Baggins. And call Miss Gandalf! I'm sure she’s very eager to start interfering in my investigation and making a nuisance of herself. There’s no need to deprive her of the joy of the experience.”
“You’re an extremely unpleasant man,” Miss Baggins informs him, her nose inching higher and higher.
“I’m well aware,” Thorin says.
“Do you know how to make requests, or is everything an order with you?” Miss Baggins continues, still not making a visible move towards the telephone.
“I make requests of reasonable people,” Thorin tells her.
“With your standards, I’m surprised you know any,” Miss Baggins retorts.
Thorin doesn’t, really, which is why he almost never makes requests. “I’ll be sure to make it my life’s purpose to surprise you in the future, Miss Baggins.”
The infamous cat doesn’t make itself known until Thorin comes back the next morning to compile a full list of suspects with Phryne Gandalf actually present. The broken window has been boarded up and there’s a sign on the front door that says CLOSED UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE; DEEPEST APOLOGIES in the kind of neat handwriting that Thorin sees from his constables approximately never.
When Thorin tries the doorknob it turns, of course, and he’s completely unmolested as he crosses the store’s front room to the door behind the cashier’s desk, beyond which lies Bilbo and Frodo Baggins’ private residence. Thorin is crafting the opening sentence he’ll use on Miss Baggins—something terribly cutting about security measures, he’s thinking—when there’s a horrid yowling and something orange and spitting appears out from behind the desk.
“Hello,” Thorin says cautiously, and the cat glares at him, baleful and angry-looking under a mass of speckled orange fur. Thorin feels fairly confident that he has never before seen so hideously ugly a cat.
The cat hisses.
Thorin tries to step around it and is promptly bitten for his trouble in the spot of his ankle left exposed by his shoes. By the time Thorin is cursing the cat to high heaven and attempting to pry its teeth out of his flesh, he’s realized that he should’ve worn his boots this morning and also that Miss Baggins and her nephew are probably well-protected if this beast is anything to judge by.
Apparently attracted by the furious hissing, Miss Baggins opens the door to the second floor and says, “Detective Inspector? Oh, I see that you’ve met Smaug.”
“No wonder Fíli bribes it with sardines,” Thorin grumbles under his breath as he fits his fingers under the hinge of the cat’s jaw and finally levers its teeth free of his leg.
“And you were worried about us,” Miss Baggins says, sounding smug about her awful attack cat. It must weigh at least one stone; it’s the largest cat Thorin has ever seen outside of a zoo.
“I wasn’t worried,” Thorin says, attempting to gather back the shredded remains of his dignity. “I was concerned, as the police officer most likely to be called to the scene of your murder, but I wasn’t—worried.”
“Of course you weren’t,” Miss Gandalf says from behind Miss Baggins, in a tone of voice that suggests that Thorin has recently lost his mind. “I think you’ve bested the cat now, Detective Inspector, so you really should come up.”
Every flat surface in Miss Baggins’ parlor is covered in doilies and there’s a china tea set out on a side table steaming gently and smelling of bergamot. It’s a cozy arrangement and it’s set to domestic effect very well by the presence of Frodo, who is sprawled out on the floor in front of the fireplace with a train set. Thorin can’t keep his chest from doing something painful and clenching, so he does what he usually does and ignores it.
“How’s the heist coming?” Miss Gandalf asks Frodo as she settles into a green velvet chaise, leaving Thorin to share the small couch with Miss Baggins. Instead of accommodating her perverse machinations, Thorin chooses to stand by the fireplace, looking down on Frodo’s landscape.
“Very well,” Frodo says. “They’re planning their assault.” He frowns down at the train and the complex mountain he’s built out of blocks and carved wooden trees. “I’m concerned that they’ve left their right flank exposed.” He points to a spot to the right of a host of tin men on the mountain, all of whom are painted to be dressed in the furs and leather armor of the old Ereborian rebels. “Of course, the train doesn’t expect them.”
Miss Baggins appears as silently as her cat at Thorin’s elbow to hand him a cup of tea. “Frodo is exploring how the battle of Esgaroth might have ended had the rebels fought against modern technology,” she tells Thorin, in a kind of pointed way that suggests Thorin keep his thoughts on this endeavor to himself.
“Fascinating,” Thorin tells Frodo, as sincerely as he can manage. “How is it looking for the rebels?”
“Bad,” Frodo says seriously. “But I think they’ll pull it out.”
“Will you stay and be his tactical advisor, Phryne?” Miss Baggins says. “Come join me in the kitchen for a moment, won’t you, Detective Inspector?” At Miss Gandalf’s dismissive wave, she leaves Frodo and the Ereborian rebels in Miss Gandalf’s capable hands and drags Thorin to the back of the flat. She has the fixings of some kind of luncheon being assembled and she returns to work as Thorin settles at the small kitchen table, her back turned to him. Her shoulders are tight under the thin silk of her blouse.
“It would be easier to assemble a list of suspects were Miss Gandalf actually in the room,” Thorin points out, and Miss Baggins chops through an onion so forcefully that part of it skitters off of her cutting board and into the sink.
“Phryne and I had a talk this morning,” Miss Baggins says to her onion. “The list is there for you, on the table.” Thorin has to push around a few pieces of fruit and what looks like a primary reader but he finds a sheet of paper with a list of names on it. They run towards the absurd—Brandon Bolg, really?—but there are a few he doesn’t recognize from any of the cases he’s been forced to work with the lady detectives.
“Who’s Peter Sackville?” he asks and up go Miss Baggins’ shoulders again, hovering tightly near her ears.
“He’s a distant cousin—that is, when Prim and Drogo died, Frodo’s parents, Peter thought it would be best if I married him and we took care of Frodo together. I was not very circumspect about how much I disliked his plan.”
Thorin grins down into his tea and then realizes what he’s doing and immediately wipes the expression from his face. “Is anybody else on here a disgruntled suitor?” he asks.
“No, just Peter, I suppose, although, really—it was about Frodo’s inheritance, I think. I’ve put it away in the bank and a few safe investments until he’s of age, but Drogo’s will left it to be used at Frodo’s guardian’s discretion.” The onion chopping has returned to a normal volume and Miss Baggins’ voice is less tense as she adds, “They’re mostly names from cases I’ve helped Phryne with, or people who’ve been troublesome at the shop. I felt terrible adding Mr. Haldir to the list but he was deeply unhappy when I wouldn’t sell him a first edition of The Tales of Bombadil last month—I have it reserved for a lady in Rivendell until she can come and collect it in person, but it’s not for sale and he didn’t like hearing that.”
At some point, Thorin will cease to be surprised by what drives people to violence, but—a copy of The Tales of Bombadil? Really? “Are you absolutely certain that this is everybody you can think of?” he asks Miss Baggins.
“Yes,” she says. Her knife bangs rhythmically against the cutting board in a series of wet thwacks; it’s a sound Thorin associates with his childhood in Ered Luin, which would make anyone uncomfortable, but he’s surprisingly relaxed as he sips his tea in Miss Baggins’ small kitchen. “I honestly don’t know who would break into the shop and create such a mess. If something was missing, perhaps, or they were—that is, wishing violence against my person. But why on earth do that to the shop?”
“Are you really unhappy you weren’t murdered in your bed?” Thorin asks her drily.
“I hardly think what I’m doing now would qualify as looking a gift horse in the mouth,” Miss Baggins says as she scrapes up handfuls of onion and dumps them into a cast iron skillet on the stove. “You have to admit that it’s a strange set of circumstances.”
“Could be someone expressing frustration with you,” Thorin points out. He’s liking this Peter Sackville character more for this by the moment, but he hardly needs to go out and question him right this second.
Miss Baggins says, “Maybe it’s fretful of me, but we deal with—well. So many deeply violent people, you know. Phryne always manages to find a murderer, it seems.”
“It’s strange to deal with a case for the living?” Thorin says. “Well, neither of you were trained for actual police work.”
“Yes, thank you,” Miss Baggins says, not quite as waspishly as she might’ve wanted. She’s moved on to cutting vegetables now: carrots and potatoes. The only thing Thorin knows how to make with carrots and potatoes is roast, and even then it’s a fairly bland experience. Whatever Miss Baggins is making smells delicious.
“You don’t need to worry,” Thorin says some indeterminable period of time later; the smells from the stove and the warm tea have made him relax back in his chair. Out in the parlor, he can hear Miss Gandalf and Frodo’s excited murmuring. “I’ve got constables watching outside in shifts. We’ll find whoever broke into your shop.”
“Of course you will,” Miss Baggins says. She uses a wooden spoon to nudge at the contents of her skillet. “I’d have been deeply unimpressed with the use of my taxes otherwise. And you hardly need to make them wait out in the cold just for us—I know how much you despise Phryne—”
“Miss Baggins,” Thorin interrupts, before she really gets going on trying to talk him out of a protection detail, “how much I want to strangle Miss Gandalf on a daily basis has no bearing whatsoever on how I feel about you and Frodo.” This is such a deeply stupid thing for him to say that it takes him a few good seconds to add, “We’re not going to let anything happen to you, that is. Because we’re policemen and this is our job.”
Miss Baggins’ face is in profile over the stove and Thorin cannot read her expression at all, only her eyebrows set low and firm, as she says, “I never doubted that for a second, Detective Inspector.”
Later that week, Thorin returns to the station after the world’s most awkward dinner with Fíli, Ori Ryson, and the Ryson brothers—its main item of discussion had been Fíli’s upcoming concert, although the Ryson brothers had spent a lot of time asking pointed questions about whether or not Fíli felt qualified to audition for the Erebor Symphony Orchestra at the end of the school year—to find a note on his desk from the desk sergeant reading, Call from Miss Gandalf at 7.20pm, requesting yr. presence at her home at yr. earliest convenience.
“Of bloody course,” Thorin bites out, shoving his hat back down on his head. “Constable Thakâl!” he yells.
Radagast meets Thorin and Constable Thakâl at the door and offers to take their coats before even showing them into the front parlor, where Thorin finds Miss Gandalf holding a small-caliber gun with a mother of pearl handle on Brandon Bolg, who is tied to a Queen Anne chair. Miss Baggins is sitting across from him on a matching leather couch, her mouth pressed into a thin line.
“For—bloody hell,” Thorin says. “What’s going on here?”
“There was a trespasser,” Miss Gandalf says almost lazily. Although her wrist is relaxed, Thorin notices that she has excellent trigger discipline. “Bilbo, understandably rattled by her recent experience with housebreaking, hit him over the head with one of my grandmother’s candlesticks.”
“Did you really?” Thorin asks Miss Baggins, honestly a little shocked.
“I was startled,” Miss Baggins says through her teeth. She narrows her eyes at Thorin and then looks meaningfully from him to Bolg, who is glowering theatrically at the Rohirrim carpet under their feet. There’s a thick knot rising out of his hairline that looks a little raw.
“Well,” Thorin says, turning his attention to Bolg, “do you have an explanation for what happened, Mr. Bolg?” Maybe if Thorin is very lucky, the candlestick rattled his brain enough for him to make a mistake such as forgetting to ask for a lawyer.
“A misunderstanding,” Bolg says in a lethal, unsubtle way. “One my lawyer can clear up. If you’re putting me under arrest.”
Thorin would like nothing better than put an important member of the Gundabadian mob in a cell and wait for him to rot into nothingness, but Thorin can’t afford to bend the law while dealing with the likes of Brandon Bolg, not with the chief superintendent so terrified of Max Azog’s long shadow.
“Fair enough,” he says. “Untie the man, won’t you, constable?”
Constable Thakâl gives Thorin an incredulous look but does as he’s asked, untying Bolg and putting him into handcuffs that look laughably fragile around Bolg’s meaty wrists. Thorin waits just long enough for them to disappear out the front door before he opens his mouth to start yelling.
“Oh, don’t you dare,” says Miss Baggins before he can do anything but inhale. “He broke a window and crawled into Phryne’s kitchen. What on earth was I supposed to do? Hide?”
“Yes!” Thorin says. It comes out so loudly that his whole chest roars with it.
“There’s no hiding from someone like that,” Miss Baggins says staunchly. “I had an opportunity to—disable him, and I took it. I wasn’t going to stand by and let him murder Phryne and Radagast in front of me.”
“You are incredibly lucky,” Thorin says. “Do you have any idea how lucky?” Miss Baggins opens her mouth, presumably to make some kind of smart comment about it, but Thorin continues, louder, “We had him locked up for two days after you two caught him trying to assassinate that man out by Tablzars Lake. We had a gun and two witnesses, and his lawyer had him released within forty-eight hours. Do you understand how dangerous a man this is?”
Miss Baggins has gone paler but she still stares up at Thorin with her stupid enormous blue eyes and says, “I will not let my friends be murdered by a man like that, not while I’m hiding in a wardrobe.”
“I hope you’ve picked someone with a shred more self-preservation to be Frodo’s guardian in your will,” Thorin says, which is the nastiest thing he can think of under the circumstances. “Neither of you are staying here tonight. Get Radagast to drive you to the station.” When neither of them move, he adds, “Now!”
“Actually,” Miss Gandalf says, reaching out to place her free hand on Miss Baggins’ shoulder, “we had rather—a different idea.”
Thorin says, “No. Absolutely not. Get the—Radagast! Get the car!”
“Was this really Miss Gandalf’s idea?” Constable Thakâl asks in an undertone. His elbow is lodged in Thorin’s kidney but their opportunities for movement are extremely limited by their location.
“Yes,” Thorin says quietly.
Constable Thakâl breathes through his front teeth in an aborted whistle and whispers, “It’s just—well, it sounds like one of your ideas, sir.”
Thorin says nothing to this, as he is too occupied attempting to make any sense out of the conversation happening on the other side of the door. Azog and Miss Gandalf are mostly exchanging veiled pleasantries; there’s an agreed-upon signal for when Thorin and Constable Thakâl need to join the scene, of course, but that doesn’t mean Thorin is happy about being stuffed in a cupboard.
“Do you suppose we might get a commendation for this?” Constable Thakâl muses. “I only ask because—well, there’s this—um, person—”
Under no circumstances can Thorin imagine himself interested in Constable Thakâl’s romantic drama, let alone when they’re both stuck in a cupboard as Phryne Gandalf attempts to talk Max Azog into a confession. If anybody can annoy someone into admitting to various charges including first-degree murder, criminal conspiracy, grand larceny, and petty theft, it’s Miss Gandalf, but that doesn’t mean Thorin has faith in her ability to keep herself from getting shot.
He’s not thinking about Bilbo Baggins. It’s probably better that way.
“I have no idea, constable,” Thorin says. “Although we might have a better chance of it if you could keep quiet.”
“Oh, yes,” says Constable Thakâl, who had been until this nightmare the most professional of the entire South Street Station staff. “Right. Of course, sir.”
Thorin ignores the rest of this and presses his ear to the door. He’s thus perfectly placed to hear Miss Gandalf’s thinly-veiled insinuations get more direct until she’s goading Azog into admitting that he’d sent Bolg to wreck the Baggins shop and set both its animate and inanimate contents on fire. It’s hardly a confession for being the head of an organized crime syndicate, but it’s enough for Thorin to feel like the evening is looking up. He’s become cautiously optimistic about the extent of Azog’s potential prison sentence when there’s suddenly a lot of shouting and a loud gunshot.
“Dammit,” Thorin hisses, and he throws himself out of the cupboard, pistol in hand, in time to watch Azog crumple onto a wing-backed chair; a gunshot wound in his shoulder is already beginning to leak blood out onto his white seersucker suit. He’s holding a gun in his bad hand that Constable Thakâl leaps forward to confiscate.
“That’s going to be impossible to get out,” Bilbo Baggins tells Azog in a very cold voice. She’s holding Miss Gandalf’s gun in a slightly unstable two-handed grip, braced out in front of her. “Of course, what do I know? I’m just the help.”
“Bilbo,” says Thorin quietly, as Azog presses a hand to his shoulder and glares at her. “That’s a girl, give me the gun, please.” He inches forward and makes sure to stay in her line of sight as he comes up to her. He reaches up and pulls Miss Gandalf’s fancy piece out of her hands; she’s finely trembling, curls caught up in a frizzy aureole around her face. There’s a firm set to her face belied by the glassy look of her eyes. “Are you all right? Bilbo?”
“I’m all right, Thorin,” she says, blinking twice at Azog and his bloody suit and then up to Thorin. “Oh, goodness. I might—um. Need a moment.” She doesn’t crumple into a dead faint, which would not be the most inconvenient thing to ever happen to one of Thorin’s crime scenes, but as a preventative measure Miss Gandalf comes along and grips her at the upper arm and near the wrist in a two-handed grab that looks very stabilizing.
“Go get her something, won’t you?” Thorin says to Miss Gandalf under his breath.
“Yes, thank you,” Miss Gandalf says dismissively. “Do make sure this one doesn’t get away, won’t you?” She fixes Thorin with a very sarcastic eyebrow, which is especially frustrating coming from someone so damnably tall.
“Without your interference, I think I’ll manage fine,” Thorin says. He realizes a second later that this might be reasonably construed as bitter, so he adds, “Thank you,” in a gruff undertone.
“You’re welcome,” Miss Gandalf and Bilbo say in discordant unison and off they go, leaving Thorin with the immense pleasure of putting Max Azog under arrest.
“Don’t look so smug,” Azog bites out as Thorin cuffs him. “If you don’t take me to a hospital, I’ll sue you and then I’ll break both of your girlfriend’s legs.”
“I’m terrified,” Thorin assures him, borderline cheerful and brutal with it.
“Good evening, Thorin,” says Bilbo when he meets her in the lobby of Hurmulkezer Hall at quarter past seven. “You’re even on time!”
“Yes,” Thorin says drily, “it’s a modern marvel.” He can’t decided whether or not to say anything about how lovely she looks—her dress is pale yellow and covered in beads that catch the light, making it glow against her skin like some kind of sunlit prism—so he swallows and looks over her shoulder and says, “Where’s Ori?”
“Corralling her brothers, I’d imagine,” Bilbo says. Her mouth is painted dark purple. Thorin has noticed how flawless her skin is before, but now he feels like he’s been hit over the head with the knowledge. “I’ve got our tickets, though, if you’d like to head in.”
“Er,” Thorin says, “yes, let me just—Kíli—”
“Oh, he’s with the Rysons and Bofur Thakâl,” Bilbo says. She’s looking pointedly at Thorin’s elbow, so he lifts it just far enough out that Bilbo can wedge her hand into the crook of it. “Have you noticed that bit with Constable Thakâl and the younger Ryson brother?”
“What?” Thorin barks inelegantly.
Bilbo steers him towards the orchestra entrance and says, “Constable Thakâl is apparently deeply enamored with Nori Ryson. Ori says it’s very obvious. Did the constable not say anything to you?”
“I can’t say that Constable Thakâl and I have ever discussed his romantic prospects,” Thorin replies. He realizes while Bilbo pulls a pair of tickets out of her purse that that’s not strictly true, but he doesn’t want to play semantics with her all night.
“Well, now you know,” Bilbo says. She beams the usher as he accepts the tickets and leads them down to their seats. “Do try not to give Constable Thakâl too badly a time of it.”
“I’ll do my best,” Thorin tells her. They’re sitting in the stage right section of the orchestra level in a patch of empty seats that will probably be filled soon with people Thorin won’t want to talk to nearly as much as Bilbo Baggins. “Was Frodo upset about not being able to come?”
“A little,” Bilbo admits. She lets go of Thorin’s arm to unpin her wrap. “I told Mrs. Gamgee he could stay up to listen to the first half of the concert, though, so I’m sure he’s glued to the wireless at the moment.” She makes a moue of frustration as her wrap catches against the back of her necklace; Thorin’s hands reach to untangle her before he can think it through, his fingers pressing against the soft brown skin of her neck.
“There,” he says, unnecessarily, when it’s free.
“Thank you, Thorin,” Bilbo says quietly. She smiles up at him and blink blink blink go her eyelashes, gentle and slow.
“You’re welcome,” Thorin finally says, just as softly. It takes him too long to realize they’re standing in front of their seats and staring at each other instead of sitting down; the likelihood of someone catching them at such behavior is increasing by the second. Thorin aggressively clears his throat and looks down to adjust the sleeves of his shirt.
Before they even have the chance to settle in they’re swarmed with Kíli and Ori and Miss Gandalf, trailed by Constable Thakâl and Nori Ryson; Thorin tracks the path they’d traveled and sees Dori Ryson further up by the doors, caught in conversation with Galadriel Nenya and a tall, pale lady of similarly regal bearing. “Oh!” Bilbo squeaks, leaning around Thorin to ask, “Are Galadriel and Celeborn here together tonight?”
Miss Gandalf smiles down at her and says, “One might suppose,” in an arch way.
“How terribly exciting,” Bilbo enthuses. “Oh, I think it’s starting, we’d better sit.”
Thorin ends up between Kíli and Bilbo; both of them have hardly settled into their seats before they’re leaping up again to applaud as the conductor takes to the stage, followed closely after by Fíli. Thorin just barely manages to catch Kíli before he sticks his fingers in his mouth to whistle; “Not at the bloody orchestra, Kíli,” Thorin hisses at him.
“Ugh,” Kíli says, reluctantly acquiescing.
The first piece of Fíli’s introductory concert with the Erebor Symphony Orchestra is Mendelssohn and almost mesmerizing. Fíli, that overdramatic swot, is intense but also vaguely pleased with himself as he moves through it. Next to Thorin, Bilbo has two fingers pressed to her mouth and she looks like she might cry. Thorin is slightly alarmed until she leans over in a break between movements to squeeze his arm and whisper, “Oh, Thorin, he’s marvelous,” in his ear.
Thorin doesn’t mean to ply her with quite so much champagne during the intermission, but—well, it’s there to be drunk and she laughs more with each glass of it. Thorin hasn’t been so entranced with someone else’s laughter since Kíli was a baby and Dís couldn’t get him to stop crying long enough to get a proper night’s sleep. His intentions had been much purer with Kíli.
The piece after the intermission is more Mendelssohn—the fifth symphony this time, with Fíli back in with the rest of the violins—and Thorin concentrates on it, slightly, but without Fíli overtly there to catch his pride and attention he’s distracted by the noises that Bilbo makes as she shifts in her seat, the tiny glass beads on her dress clinking together. It’s so dark with the house lights dimmed that all Thorin can really see of her is her eyes and the lights on the stage lamps reflecting off of her mouth, wet and reflective from the lipstick she’d reapplied after all of the champagne.
After the concert they all crowd around Fíli—there are actual tears from Ori Ryson and begrudging respect and congratulations from her brothers and excited yelling from Kíli and a quiet, happy kiss on the cheek from Bilbo—and Thorin, who has heard the Mendelssohn concerto practiced so many times in the last month that he’d wanted to kill someone, pulls Fíli into a hard hug.
In the fuss, Miss Gandalf offers to take Fíli, Kíli, and Ori out for a treat and Thorin is hard-pressed to refuse her. “No uncles allowed,” Miss Gandalf tells Thorin, with a casual flick of a glance towards Bilbo. “I’ll get them home in some semblance of one piece, Detective Inspector.”
“Oh, please, Uncle Thorin,” wheedles Kíli, who’d been in sincere danger of falling asleep during the last movement of the final piece.
“Yes, fine,” Thorin says after a protracted pause. He’s left with Bilbo, who had apparently been driven by Miss Gandalf and now needs a lift home. It’s so obviously a trap that Thorin would feel insulted if he didn’t want this outcome so desperately.
Bilbo is quiet on the drive to 121 Bag End. It’s an especially warm night for June and she’d never put her wrap back on after removing it in the concert hall. Thorin focuses on the road instead of her bare shoulders and lets them be quiet together. It’s a nice respite from their usual squabbling.
“Would you like some tea?” Bilbo offers when Thorin stops the car outside of her shop. She’s blinking at him again but Thorin still thinks it’s unconscious; it’s so much more affecting than her deliberate and terrible flirting had been so many months ago.
Thorin thinks about accepting, but he thinks she really is just offering tea and it seems like a senseless test of his own willpower. “No, thank you,” he says, and when Bilbo draws back and her eyelashes stop moving, pressed closed for a long second against her cheeks, he adds, “that is—I don’t—”
“Yes?” Bilbo says, opening her eyes
“I don’t want to wake Frodo,” Thorin finally says. “But I would like to—very much.” He puts his hand against the back of her neck, where he’d freed her shawl from her necklace, and rests his thumb against the hollow on the side of her throat. He can feel her pulse catch against his fingers.
“All right, then,” Bilbo says, and she’s the one to lean over and kiss him. Her shawl tumbles out of her lap with a silvery sound and Thorin forgets about it completely as he moves his mouth against hers, sliding his free hand up along her jaw. She tastes like fresh lipstick and champagne, sweet and chalky, and Thorin keeps kissing her until his chest hurts.
“Good night, Bilbo,” he finally says, when they’ve stopped really kissing and are just breathing together.
“Good night, Thorin,” she says, brushing her mouth against his quickly one last time and then pulling back, completely out of reach. She slides back across the seat and then pushes the door open and half-stumbles out onto the street, drunk on champagne but maybe also the same feeling that’s made Thorin’s head so light. “I had a lovely evening.”
“Sleep well,” Thorin calls after her, in a spot of uncharacteristic fancy, and he doesn’t realize until she’s locked the shop door behind her and waved good-bye through the glass that she’s left her shawl on the floor.
Kíli wakes Thorin up the next morning by banging through his bedroom door so quickly that it hits the wall with a loud crash.
“What the fucking—“ Thorin yelps as he comes awake unpleasantly quickly.
“Uncle Thorin!” Kíli yells. He scrambles across the room and up onto Thorin’s bed, still wearing his pajamas. “Miss Gandalf just called. She says there’s been a murder!”
Thorin groans and deeply considers pulling the covers over his head.
“She says it’s the concertmaster from last night,” Kíli continues, bouncing essentially on top of Thorin’s spleen. “Do you think Fíli will be the concertmaster now?”
“No,” Thorin mumbles, which works as a response to both Kíli’s question and his presence.
“He seemed very snooty,” Kíli muses. He shifts his weight so that all of it is bearing down on Thorin’s inner organs. Kíli is small for a twelve-year-old but he’s hardly Frodo Baggins; Thorin rears up out of bed and dumps Kíli on his arse. “Uncle Thorin! Can I come and see the body?”
“No,” Thorin says, this time in direct response to Kíli’s question. “No, you may not. Where’s Fíli?”
“Talking downstairs with Bofur,” Kíli says blithely. “You should get dressed, Uncle Thorin. There’s been a murder!”
“Yes,” Thorin says, with what he’s certain is admirable patience. “I know, Kíli.”
“How exciting!” Kíli says, mostly to himself. “And to think, Miss Gandalf just found him in his parlor. Do you find dead people in parlors very often, Uncle Thorin?”
Thorin mutters, “Not nearly as frequently as Phryne Gandalf,” and throws the covers off. Thorin probably won’t even have time for a cup of coffee before he leaves. This is vile.
“Wow,” Kíli says. “I want to be a detective like Miss Gandalf when I grow up, Uncle Thorin.”
“No,” Thorin says, startled into honesty because the clock on his bedside table says that it’s four in the bloody morning. How on earth did Miss Gandalf find a body at this hour? Some torrid assignation, no doubt. “Oh God, absolutely not.” The last thing the world needs is more people like Phryne blasted Gandalf.