“Who’s here?” Arwen asked when the bell rang. She was seated behind the counter of Glorfindel’s Twenty-Four-Hour Donuts, where she was supposed to be working, but it had slowed down and working had turned into sitting on the floor reading, which she didn’t much mind. It was already eight. No one would be in for a long time yet, if they came at all this night.
Glorfindel’s Twenty-Four-Hour Donuts did not sell donuts. Glorfindel did not own it. He had sent a strange and rather brief note passing it on to the Peredhel family three years ago, in favor of hunting—well, whatever he’d gone after in the woods to the Northwest. And though they were often open in the middle of the night, they were usually not open for twenty-four hours straight. Thus it was an ill-named shop, but none of the Peredhels could bring themselves to take down the elegant lettering over the front window, and so they had never renamed the place.
The bell rang again. Apparently whoever came in wasn’t staying. Sometimes customers did that when they realized the place didn’t sell what it advertised. Usually they either knew what it was, or had been traveling long enough that they didn’t care what it was. Either way, the misnomers above the door didn’t hinder business very much.
Tauriel sat behind the counter as well, but in a tall chair covered in mismatched floral fabrics, so unlike Arwen, she could see what was happening in the shop before them.
“It’s Stoner Grandpa!” the redhead announced cheerfully. “He must’ve gone back out for something.”
Arwen yawned, nodded, and made no move to get up. Mithrandir was too much a fixture in town, and a regular at the store, for her to have to. His orders were always quite simple, and she’d long since learned there were no formalities with the old man.
He had been a friend of her family’s forever. In fact, she remembered assuming he was a wizard as a child, when she was still immersed in faery-tales, and asking him to do magic. When she had grown older and learned what magic really was, she realized Mithrandir's work in the world could never be labeled so easily.
That was for another day.
Tauriel was the one who invented the epithet Stoner Grandpa, and Arwen couldn’t disagree with it. It was too accurate. It acknowledged the pipe he was continually smoking, but also claimed him as a member of a family: he was not merely someone’s stoner grandpa. He was hers. It was nearly an honor.
“There’s people with him.” Tauriel said.
Arwen could see her friend’s eyes widen. And what beautiful eyes, too—she noted, and then—not this again. Rein it in.
She turned her attention to more practical matters, like the fact that Mithrandir usually rode a rickety bike and traveled alone, unless he was with her grandmother, who rode a less rickety bike, and didn’t. This had to be about something bizarre: the man was too attached to the old forests to be driving unless he absolutely had to. Too much driving hurts the trees, Arwen—she’d heard him say it more times than she could count, and consequently, never owned a car herself.
“Is he driving Shadowfax again?”
“Is Shadow-fax a hippie van?”
“Then yeah, he is. Wait, wait, he’s got—five, six—ten—it’s like he has a whole freakin’ band in there. Maybe two.”
It figured. If Mithrandir were to carry anybody around, it would be a couple of bands. Conversely, if any bands had to travel in a hippie van, he’d be driving it.
Arwen stood up.
Well, this was certainly bizarre. Mithrandir was just walking in, leading a large group of hipsters. The hipsters looked related. At least overly similar. They all certainly accentuated Mithrandir’s height. They also all had exceedingly elaborate beards, and were dressed as though it was freezing outside, which she didn’t think it was. And—hang on, was that a sword at one of their belts? Not unheard of, but bizarre around these parts.
Mithrandir gave a cheerful wave of his walking-stick, which he held under his arm like a jousting-spear when he rode his bike, and lent the usual conspiratorial smile. He had a particular smile, a different one, for every person he knew, though his most sizable grin was reserved for Telperion, who was technically Galadriel's cat, but nearly a person in most other respects.
“Tauriel! Arwen! Meet the Company I’m traveling with.” Arwen knew she’d never remember the names he rattled off, but tried to look attentive as he said:
“Ori, Dori, Nori, Balin, Dwalin, Bifur, Bofur, Bombur, Gloin, Oin, Fili, Kili, and Thorin Oakenshield.”
“They’re all Oakenshields? All thirteen?” Tauriel asked, as she began to brew shots of espresso.
“No, no, Thorin’s just the only one who cares about a last name.” one of them called out from the back. Thorin turned, presumably to glare. Arwen, meanwhile, wondered why their names all rhymed with one another.
“You got any beer?” One of them asked. Bombur? Pupper? Zucchini? Whatever his name was. Arwen glanced over to Tauriel. This might not be pretty.
“Green juice?” another inquired hopefully, before she had the chance to answer. This definitely wouldn’t be pretty.
“You see the sign?” she asked, a leading question for anyone who knew her, which sounded innocent to a stranger. The problem was that Tauriel rather famously hated anything even faintly hipster, and these guys reeked of hipster.
“Um, the Last Homely Café West of Boston?”
“What does that mean?” another voice asked.
Arwen shrugged. “Dad came up with it.”
“It says café. It does not say beer. It does not—” she gave a pointed glance at one of the hipsters — “mean protein shakes, or frappés, or chai-kale-harmonica-banjo kombucha.”
“It says donuts on the sign, though,” he pointed out sagely. “You got any of those?”
Tauriel nearly shouted that they didn’t, that this place was just about famous for not having donuts, and what were they doing here anyhow, while Arwen laughed and went to the back to see if she could scare up any beer for them. It was the least she could do—they had probably been traveling for an age.
Arwen wove her way through the maze of books and boxes that was their twilit back room, which she thought even in her later years must be enchanted, because it was far larger than the space between Glorfindel’s and the alley behind it should allow, and far colder than it ought to be in any weather. The noise of the cafe was almost shut out here. Something about it felt like being underwater, or like she was standing in a doorway between someplace she’d call here and someplace she’d call there, just for ease of speaking.
It was perfect for the keeping of old books and their stock of coffee, though more perishable things went into a proper refrigerator somewhere along a side wall. And she almost always found what she needed. Sure enough, there was a case of beer, near tomorrow’s bagels, on a long and low table that she didn’t think she’d ever seen before.
Enchanted, she nodded to herself, grabbing the beer and balancing a match-book on the box, in case Mithrandir needed a light. He usually needed a light.
It was thorough chaos when she swung the blue door open and stepped into full light again. Someone was throwing things. More than someone. Half of them were throwing things. One had produced a harmonica from his coat-pocket, and Mithrandir himself was smoking (hands-free smoking, however he managed that) and playing a banjo.
Tauriel walked over to her, and said quietly, “is this a nightmare?”
Arwen couldn’t help but laugh. Even after all that had walked into this place, and all that they’d gone out and found themselves, it figured that Tauriel’s nightmare was not breaking her bow in the forest, or losing the dagger she hid under her sleeve during work, but this.
“Perhaps it is. Or a daydream, or a song we must take part in.” She began humming under the banjo music, and went to pass out coffee and beer.
“Why are you always so cryptic?”
“Father’s daughter, I think.” That was the surface explanation. But she was starting to wonder. Mithrandir had never traveled with this many before. She never thought she’d see the day. And if he was here, it was because they had a part in it, whatever it was. He might be their Stoner Grandpa, but he knew what he was doing.
Best to put such thoughts aside for the moment.
Arwen began singing with the harmonica, making up some words about home and french fries and mountains, because that was what she was thinking about, home and french fries and mountains, which the hipsters seemed to approve of greatly. A few were clapping along. This was certainly Tauriel’s nightmare, but it wasn’t hers. If anything, it gave some life to an otherwise listless weekend.
When the song died down, Mithrandir came over to the counter to speak with them.
“Do y’all know if Mr. Baggins is in town?”
“He still lives on Green. Still making cakes, too, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“In fact, it is. This Company is looking for a pastry-chef. A fourteenth. And I think he may be just the person for an adventure.”
“What’s the adventure?”
“Not yet, dear friends, not yet. Not your part to be aware until it happens, nor is it mine. Now. Would either of you like a smoke?”
Arwen shook her head, wordless, while Tauriel laughed and thanked him, but still didn’t take any. Someday they might take him up on it. That wasn’t today.
Across town, Bilbo Baggins sat in front of his fire, quietly reading, with no idea of the tornado that was about to enter his house.