The morning sky was admiring its endless stretches of blue in the sea-mirror. Clouds were a myth, only a trick of the light, and the sun, alchemical as ever, scattered gold coins across the gently rippling surface of the water. Beneath the waves, the world was bright and quiet. Shafts of sunlight shone down into the deep, creating soft and curling lines of white across the hills of sand.
The light wrapped itself around the underwater forest of rock, the submerged pillars huddled together and standing watch like the old gods. Cracks split their stone bodies like scars and in their uneven shapes and sizes they provided doorways through their gathering. Some circular holes in the rock appeared like portals to other worlds, some pillars leaned together to form archways. Starfish, still dreaming of the sky, clung to their stony skin and sea urchins, bright bulbs of colour, were nestled into jagged ledges like jewels.
“Keep up, Thorin!”
Thorin tore his eyes from a ruby cluster of urchins just in time to see Bilbo’s light blue tail disappear around a pillar of rock. Feeling slightly giddy, he decided to give chase, flicking his own dark blue tail and propelling himself into the stone forest after his mate. They had been teasing each other all morning, darting through the green expanse of kelp and out into the open ocean beyond Erebor’s borders, swimming just beyond the other’s grasp. Their play had brought them to this ancient ruin of rock, made by the sea’s own hand and not carved by his or Bilbo’s kin.
Catching sight of Bilbo watching him through a small opening in the stone, Thorin made to move towards him, but with a musical chuckle, he was gone, leaving an empty circle of honeyed light in his place. Thorin liked watching the morning sunlight come tumbling, in all its twinkling glory, through the water – its colour reminded him of Bilbo’s hair when he allowed it to dry above the surface and this was always a pleasing thought.
Bilbo was hiding behind the tallest tower of rock and his sing-song call was definitely a challenge. Thorin was well aware that they were behaving like merlings during their first courting, but he supposed they couldn’t help it. Even though he and Bilbo had been mated for almost three times the lives of men – as was evidenced by the bands of gold they each wore around one wrist – it was still the season and they weren’t completely immune to the insufferable behaviour that came with it.
Peeking out over a flattened, grey ledge, he caught sight of Bilbo’s blue freckled shoulder before he dodged out of the way again. Thorin slid over the rock and was about to take a sneakier approach to following his mate when he was distracted by a shell lying, half-buried, in the golden sand piled up at the foot of a thin pillar. Swimming down to retrieve it, Thorin’s chest swelled with warmth at his find: it was a beautiful pale purple and therefore Bilbo’s favourite colour. They were long past the time of courting gifts, but still Thorin couldn’t help but present his beloved with the occasional token of his affection and Bilbo was very fond of decorating their grotto with pretty things such as this.
It wasn’t the usual flattened scallop shell: this shell had an elongated spiral shape and had probably once been the home of a hermit crab, now long abandoned. It reminded Thorin of the tusks of the whales that lived in Bilbo’s native waters far to the west, for his mate was not born in eastern seas. His clan were meant for colder waters, which was why Bilbo had a pleasing amount of blubber on his bones and delicately pointed ears, but still his mate had adapted admirably to their life together and Thorin was very glad that a certain meddling land-dweller had brought Bilbo to him all those years ago.
An almost eerie silence had fallen over the stony crags as Thorin swam up, prize in hand, to peer around the pillar. Bilbo was nowhere to be seen and as even the swish of his shorter tailfins couldn’t be heard, Thorin guessed he was probably lying in wait somewhere, ready to pounce on him as soon as he strayed close enough.
“Bilbo?” Thorin called, the large gills beneath his jaw flaring as he raised his voice. “Ghivashel, I have a gift for you!”
He expected some kind of goading, witty retort to come flying back at him from behind the colonnade of rock, but none came… and the silence continued.
“Bilbo…?” Thorin couldn’t help but frown as he weaved his way through the grey maze, finding no trace of his mate. “Bilbo, where are you…?”
A large archway drew his gaze and for some reason it made his stomach tighten. He had reached the edge of the ruins and the water seen through this stony window was empty and blue. Thorin approached it with caution, uncertain as to why what lay beyond was prickling his scales.
Thorin floated through the archway, but then immediately brought himself to a stop with a jerk of his tail. There was an enormous jellyfish, known to his kin as a sea-spectre, hovering in the blue with a menacing quiet. Its thick, translucent tendrils hung from its bulbous, white head like the torn sail of a shipwreck. It was a horrifying vision that made Thorin’s heart give a painful double-thump as he backed away.
And then he saw Bilbo.
His beloved was drifting down towards the sea-bed, his face a mask of pain and his arms wide, as if reaching up for Thorin. Crying out, Thorin dropped the shell and dived after Bilbo, his hands clasping his shoulders just before he hit the sand.
“Bilbo!” he gasped, gently shaking him. “Bilbo, can you hear me…?”
Bilbo’s eyes remained shut, his body limp in his mate’s arms, and that was when Thorin heard the awful choking sounds struggling from his lips and saw that the row of gills on his neck was still. Bilbo couldn’t breathe. His gills were no longer working and he couldn’t breathe, he couldn’t breathe!
Thorin wrapped his arms around Bilbo’s waist and furiously kicked his tail, dragging him up towards the surface. The sparks of dancing light seemed maddeningly far away and for one horrible moment, Thorin thought he wouldn’t get Bilbo there in time, but then they both broke through the waves and the warm, honeyed air sent the water rushing from their hair and faces.
Thorin kept one arm around Bilbo’s waist and the other cradled the back of his head, his fingers tangled in the curls at his neck as he held him above the swell of waves.
“Breathe, Bilbo,” he said desperately, the words caught between an order and a plea. “You need to breathe!”
At first Bilbo made no response at all, but then his eyes suddenly flew open as he sucked in a shuddering gulp of air through his mouth, then another, and another, his chest heaving against Thorin’s.
“That’s it,” Thorin urged, his vision blurring with relief. “That’s it, just keep breathing… keep taking deep breaths…”
Bilbo’s eyes were half-lidded as he continued to draw in stuttering breaths and each one made a horrible, rattling sound inside his chest. His body was unmoving in Thorin’s arms and one glance beneath the water showed that angry, red marks were beginning to bubble up over his skin and scales, slashed diagonally across his torso as if the sea-spectre had gone at him with claws.
“Bilbo, can you hear me?” Thorin asked softly, trying to keep the panic from his voice.
Bilbo’s eyes only slid shut again as another wheezing breath left him and Thorin felt his stomach clench into a stony fist. He had managed to get Bilbo to the surface in time so that he could breathe as a land-dweller, but now his beloved had the vile sea-spectre’s venom coursing through his body and they needed help to stop the poison. Thorin tightened his arm around Bilbo’s waist, although still giving him space to breathe, careful not to press against his reddened skin, and stroked a soothing thumb over his cheek.
“Stay with me, ghivashel,” he whispered, heart pounding against his ribs as he scanned the glittering blue horizon.
He couldn’t bring Bilbo back to their healers in Erebor as his gills were still paralysed by the jellyfish’s sting and he wasn’t going to leave his mate alone and vulnerable on the shore whilst he went for help. No, there was only one way to save Bilbo and so Thorin carefully turned him in his arms so that Bilbo’s back was now against his chest. He guided his head to his shoulder so that the side of his face was pressed to his neck, ensuring that his nose and mouth would stay above the water on their journey.
Bilbo let out a sharp hiss as he was repositioned, but Thorin made gentle shushing sounds and ran a hand up and down his freckled arm. “It’s alright, just a little discomfort and then we’ll be with someone who can take the pain away.”
And then Thorin set off swimming. He murmured a quiet prayer to thank the gods that had seen fit to calm the waves that morning. Although moving through the water with his head above the surface and Bilbo clutched to him slowed his progress, at least he was not fighting against a high swell brought by the winds.
Thorin could feel Bilbo’s heart fluttering beneath his hand as he propelled them onwards through the seemingly infinite blue: its beat was worryingly fast, but the fact that it was there at all kept his powerful tail slicing up and down, carving out the sea as he swam. Bilbo’s rasping breaths continued, tickling at Thorin’s neck, but they too were a sign that hope was not lost, that Thorin would be able to save him.
The sun was warm as it approached a higher point in the sky and soon it had turned the top of Bilbo’s head to gold. Thorin huffed out a breath to blow the drying black and silver strands of hair from his face and watched as the rest gathered in the sea around them like a shadow. He turned his head to glance behind again and his heart stuttered at the sight of the rocky shore. They were nearly there.
“I can see the caves, Bilbo,” he murmured, continuing his steady stream of narration that had kept him from losing himself completely whilst he brought them across the sea. “Keep taking your deep breaths… That’s it…”
He wasn’t sure if Bilbo could hear him: his mate hadn’t opened his eyes again since they had first broken the surface, but he was going to keep speaking to him nonetheless. The panic was an icy shard within him, the fear of losing Bilbo becoming almost painful as his ribs seemed to tighten around his heart, but then another few slashes of his tail brought their destination within reach.
There was a large promontory jutting right out into the sea like an ancient beast leaning down to drink its fill. It housed a network of caves, which in turn housed the reason for their coming. Gandalf, a land-dweller with unnatural abilities most accredited to magic, had long since given up the pretence of being a fisherman and had retired from the towns of men, choosing to live a solitary life in the caverns by the sea, venturing out only to cause trouble for merfolk when his own life became too boring or he had gone too long without disturbing the peace.
Thorin came to a stop by the mouth of the largest cave, taking in the many grey-green nets hanging over the rocks, twisted with seaweed and a variety of drying fish, hoping this meant Gandalf was in residence. Bilbo made a soft sound of distress as Thorin shifted him forward ever so slightly, their shining blue tails now almost vertical in the water.
“Shhh, ghivashel, we’re here,” Thorin murmured in his ear. “You’re going to be alright.”
Thorin then turned his attentions to the cave before them and called out: “Gandalf!” After a moment, when no answer came, he tried again: “Gandalf! … GANDALF!”
There was a sudden scratching and shuffling from within the dark depths and then Gandalf himself appeared, wrapped in robes of tattered grey that matched his long, matted beard.
“Thorin, son of Thráin, I take it you have a reason for causing such a racket on my doorstep…?”
Gandalf stopped when he actually caught sight of Thorin and Bilbo, bobbing in the gentle swell of the waves in front of his cave. His blue eyes and his expression both darkened with concern.
“Bilbo is hurt,” Thorin gasped out. “Please, we need your help.”
Gandalf nodded. “Quickly, bring him to the ledge round here…”
Thorin gently pulled Bilbo with him as he followed Gandalf, who moved around the side of the promontory, away from the cave’s mouth, to where there was a large, flat stone protruding out into the sea, only an inch or so above the water.
“Lay him here,” Gandalf instructed, lowering himself onto his knees and rolling up his grey sleeves.
Thorin lifted Bilbo from the water, one arm around his shoulders, the other hooked under his tail, and carefully settled him onto the smooth slab. Bilbo gave a low groan, followed by a hiccupping cough, but Thorin murmured reassurances, taking his hand and tenderly brushing his hair away from his forehead.
“He was stung by a sea-spectre,” he breathed, the panic returning. “His gills stopped working, I had to get him to the surface or he would have…” Thorin’s voice caught as his eyes moved from Bilbo to Gandalf. “Please… Can you save him?”
Gandalf clicked his tongue as he put a hand to Bilbo’s neck, over his gills. “As melodramatic as ever, my dear Thorin – of course I can save him.”
Thorin forgave the land-dweller his chiding as relief washed over him and he squeezed Bilbo’s hand, closing his eyes for a moment as he exhaled slowly. Gandalf continued to examine Bilbo, cupping his cheek and running a thumb over his forehead. Bilbo inhaled sharply when Gandalf touched his raw and reddened skin, his breathing continuing to come in short, wheezy gasps.
“Did you remove all the stings?” the hermit asked, peering closely at the discoloured scales on Bilbo’s tail that had darkened with the jellyfish’s venom.
“I… I didn’t see any…” Thorin replied weakly, his stomach lurching as his eyes quickly scanned Bilbo for any evidence of remaining tendrils.
“Yes, well,” Gandalf said, with clear disapproval. “I cannot seem to find any either.”
He shuffled away from Bilbo’s tail on his knees and returned his hand to Bilbo’s forehead before moving his palm down over his face, muttering ancient words that Thorin could barely hear let alone understand. Bilbo gave another cough, but then he appeared to be breathing easier, his chest rising and falling with a more even rhythm as the wheezing stopped. His head rolled to the side as he exhaled slowly and steadily.
“Hmmm,” was all Gandalf said, as his fingers moved to Bilbo’s wrist, slipping beneath his gold band. “I have ointment for the stings and something I can brew for the pain.”
He then staggered to his feet, rearranging his grey robes. “If he wakes, keep him calm… I mean it, Thorin, no fussing, no morbid conversations.”
Thorin opened his mouth to reply, but Gandalf was already moving away along the rock to his cave. He supposed he couldn’t blame the land-dweller for his warning – merfolk were fiercely protective of their loved ones and he knew the season probably wasn’t helping. Thorin kept a tight hold of Bilbo’s hand as he pushed himself closer to the rock so that he could stroke his mate’s golden hair and press a kiss to his pale forehead.
He had never found himself in this position before. Bilbo was never sick, never injured – he had been the one who had saved Thorin when the White Leviathan’s claw pierced his side, had nursed him back to health all those years ago. Thorin seemed to remember Bilbo being very, very good at it… but now he found himself completely unprepared as his love lay before him covered in red, blistered wounds.
Thorin’s heart skipped a beat as Bilbo stirred, his eyes opening sluggishly, as if the movement itself hurt.
“I’m here, Bilbo,” he murmured, lifting his hand so he could kiss his knuckles. “I’m here and you’re safe… I’ve brought you to Gandalf, he’s getting medicine for you now.”
“I… I didn’t see it,” Bilbo said, his voice hoarse. “Just… just swam straight through…”
He winced, drawing in a pained breath, before his green eyes searched Thorin’s face.
“Did… did it get you too…?”
“No, âzyungel,” Thorin said softly, holding Bilbo’s hand to his face. “I’m fine… it’s you we need to tend to.”
Bilbo nodded, although his green gaze was still watchful. “You saved me… You brought me to the surface.”
“Only as you’ve saved me,” Thorin smiled. “Now I believe we’re even?”
Bilbo tried to laugh, but then the pain pulled him under again and his gaze moved to the angry streaks across his torso and tail.
“Thorin… I… I can’t feel my fins… s-something is wrong...”
Thorin could hear the rising note of panic in Bilbo’s voice and desperately tried to sooth him, knowing Gandalf would have him drying on one of his nets if he didn’t keep Bilbo calm.
“It’s alright, Bilbo,” he said, stroking his fingers through his mate’s hair. “It’s just the effects of the sea-spectre’s poison.”
“And to be expected, my dear boy.”
As if the mere thought had conjured him, Gandalf returned from the cave, carrying various pots, pans, bags and a collection of sticks with him. Thorin refrained from asking if the land-dweller had brought all his worldly possessions with him to the rock. He set everything down not far from them and then came to Bilbo’s side holding a squat, dusty-looking jar.
“I… I can’t feel anything, Gandalf…” Bilbo whispered, his eyes shining with fear.
“Thorin is right,” the land-dweller replied, making Thorin jolt. “The jellyfish has powerful venom, made to paralyse, but all feeling will return to you before the sun sets.”
Bilbo calmed a little at this, closing his eyes and turning his face into Thorin’s hand.
“This will help,” Gandalf said softly, popping the lid from the jar and revealing a thick, greenish ointment with a smell that stung Thorin’s nostrils. “I need to apply this to your stings, it may burn at first, but rest assured that it will do the job.”
Thorin kept up a steady stream of reassurances as Gandalf applied the medicine to Bilbo’s wounds. He whined a little as it was rubbed into the stings, but once all the raw flesh had been covered, he was left drowsy and quiet as the ointment soothed his sore skin.
“I will need to reapply another coat in a few hours,” Gandalf rumbled, as he wiped his hands and moved back to his sticks. “I’ll brew him something lasting for the pain now.”
“Thank you, Gandalf,” Thorin said seriously, holding Bilbo’s hand to his face again.
The old land-dweller smiled, his blue eyes twinkling as he lit a fire beneath his hanging pot with suspicious ease. “You are welcome, Thorin… It does not seem very long since I was tending to you in much the same way.”
Thorin’s eyes flitted beneath the surface of the water to the pink knot of skin over his abdomen. “I imagine Bilbo was much greater help to you than I am now.”
“Oh, nonsense,” Gandalf chuckled, sprinkling herbs into the pot. “He made a complete nuisance of himself, inconsolable he was.”
“And with good reason, I might add,” came the croaked response from Bilbo, the words a little slurred.
“We don’t need to think about that now,” Thorin said gently. “Rest, Bilbo, I promise I won’t leave your side.”
“You… need to tell everyone… what’s happened,” Bilbo replied sleepily. “Your sister will worry.”
“They can wait,” Thorin said, twining his fingers with Bilbo’s. “I won’t leave you.”
“Gandalf is looking after me… Please, Thorin, I don’t want to start a panic.”
Thorin wanted to argue, but he knew Bilbo was right. They had told their family that they would return to Erebor before the sun was at its highest point in the sky and now that they hadn’t appeared the search had no doubt already begun.
“I will be quick,” Thorin whispered, pressing his forehead to Bilbo’s and closing his eyes. “Sleep, ghivashel, and I’ll be back before you wake.”
With that, Thorin reluctantly released his mate’s hand and with a flash of blue scales, dove back into the deep.
As it turned out, all the fussing and morbid conversations Thorin had restrained himself from still came in the form of his very concerned kin who were adamant about joining him at Gandalf’s cave. Knowing Bilbo wouldn’t want to be crowded, Thorin had finally persuaded them to let him return alone, although he knew his nephews, Fili and Kili, had followed him as far as the kelp forest.
Thorin slowed when he once again found himself swimming amongst the tall pillars of rock, his heart thumping against his chest at the memory of Bilbo’s lifeless body falling towards the ocean floor. The sea-spectre was long gone, probably caught by the currents and pulled further out into the blue gloom… but something else had remained.
He saw it glinting in the sand almost directly beneath him and glided down to collect it: Bilbo’s purple shell. He wanted them both to have a happy memory of this place and so, shell in hand, he set off back towards Gandalf’s cave.
Breaking the surface a little way off to check all was well, Thorin was relieved to see Bilbo still lying on the smooth rock with Gandalf not far from him, tending to his fire. As he swam closer, he saw that Bilbo was covered with some kind of blanket woven from dark green seaweed. He approached them with a frown, his hand cautiously reaching out to touch the strange covering.
“Ah, Thorin!” Gandalf said, moving a little closer with a smile. “That is an invention of mine, excellent at keeping merfolk hydrated when they need to be out of water for a time.”
Thorin brushed his fingers over the seaweed, surprised to find it still wet, as if it had only just been pulled from the water. “It is enchanted…?” he asked carefully.
“Yes, but it will do Bilbo no harm,” Gandalf assured him. “I expected you to bring visitors.”
“Bilbo doesn’t need Fili and Kili prodding at his wounds,” Thorin replied, taking his mate’s hand whilst still holding the shell beneath the water.
“You can wake him,” Gandalf said quietly, ladling whatever was in his pot into a small wooden cup. “He needs another dose of this to help keep his pain at bay.”
Thorin nodded, releasing Bilbo’s hand so that he could push his curls away from his forehead. “I’m back, ghivashel,” he murmured.
Bilbo’s nose twitched as he let out a sigh. Green eyes fluttered open and he smiled up at Thorin, making his chest swell with warmth.
“Thorin,” he mumbled, with a soft yawn.
“I brought you something,” Thorin said, holding the shell behind his back.
Bilbo seemed surprised. “Oh?”
Thorin lifted the shell and carefully tipped the seawater from it before setting it down on the blanket so Bilbo could see properly.
“I, er, found it in the sand by the rocks,” he explained. “I was going to give it to you before, but…”
Thorin trailed off as Bilbo lifted a slightly shaky hand to the shell, his gaze bright as his fingers traced its spiralled point.
“Do… Do you like it?” Thorin asked, with a cough, feeling like an awkward merling again.
“It’s beautiful, Thorin,” Bilbo smiled, turned the shell over on the blanket. “Thank you… I know just where I’m going to put it in our grotto.”
Thorin smiled too, feeling relieved. “It’s your favourite colour,” he said, unable to stop the pride creeping into his voice.
Bilbo laughed, slowly reaching out to put a hand to Thorin’s neck. “It is.”
Gandalf gave a cough and when he was ignored he coughed louder, shuffling over to Bilbo with the wooden cup filled with a brew for his pain. Thorin helped him drink it down and soon his mate drifted back to sleep again.
When Bilbo next woke, it was to an orange and pink-smudged sky as the sun slowly retreated towards the dark blue horizon. Its dying light made the waves glitter, as if the water itself were glowing.
“I want to be in the water,” Bilbo said, an element of pleading in his voice as he twitched his tailfins beneath the seaweed blanket.
Thorin’s eyes were round and sympathetic, sharing in his pain: their kind were not meant to be separated from the sea for so long.
“Gandalf…?” Thorin asked cautiously, gaze moving to where the land-dweller sat, smoking his pipe by the fire.
“Keep his head above the water,” Gandalf replied, before looking to Bilbo. “And only gentle movements, Bilbo, I do not want you tiring yourself out.”
Bilbo was already beaming as Thorin pulled the blanket away, revealing the faded pink marks across his skin.
“Arms around my neck, âzyungel,” Thorin whispered, waiting until he was sure Bilbo had a firm hold of him before he slipped an arm under his tail and lowered them both slowly back into the water.
“Oh,” Bilbo sighed, leaning into the crook of Thorin’s neck. “Much better.”
Thorin hummed his agreement, flicking his tail and moving them a little way from the rock, resting his chin on Bilbo’s curls. Bilbo swished his tailfins lazily up and down, but was otherwise still, snuggled as he was into Thorin’s chest.
They were both quiet for a very long time, bobbing along with the steady ebb and flow of the water, content in their closeness to each other.
“I can’t believe I almost lost you today,” Thorin said finally, unable to stop the thought from leaving his lips as his chest ached beneath Bilbo’s cheek.
“But you didn’t,” came Bilbo’s answer, as he tangled his fingers in his mate’s dark hair. “I’m not going anywhere, Thorin.”
Thorin pressed a kiss to Bilbo’s forehead. “I love you.”
Bilbo cuddled closer into his chest. “Love you too,” he replied, sounding sleepy again.
Smiling into Bilbo’s curls, Thorin swam a little further out and turned them so that they could watch the sun set over the water, the red orb now sinking below the horizon and leaving everything behind it covered in beautiful, golden light.