Bilbo realises he’s had enough of rolling hills the day his mother asks to be buried among them.
“Why would I want to be laid to rest in a crowded old cemetery when I can be home?” Bilbo didn’t want to talk about it, not then, not ever, so he changed the subject as quick as he could, reaching over his mother’s shoulder for her patterned oven mitts. She had grabbed his forearm, her fingertips like paper against his skin, and made him promise. And of course he did. He promised her that he would bring her home, but he never promised to stay. Bilbo is not his mother’s son. He is neither strong nor brave nor resourceful, and so he does the one thing he’s always been rather good at— he runs.
Primula cries into his shoulder as Drogo shifts awkwardly by the door, their four year-old son squirming in his arms. “We can’t accept this, Bilbo, you know we can’t.”
It’s a rather moot point seeing as their things had been brought in the afternoon before and they had already began unpacking their wedding china while Bilbo helped with the books, but he pats her back and hums regardless. Everything is a bit of a production with Primula, and he loves her dearly for it.
“Well it comes with the condition of my mother’s body buried in the back, so you know, downside to everything.”
“And I’ll visit her everyday,” she sobs, wiping her eyes on his waistcoat. “And Frodo will too, she always loved Frodo.”
“I’m guessing her actual nephew is not invited,” Drogo says, a little unsure of what reaction his humour will afford him. Bilbo smiles gratefully as Primula sighs.
“You know I didn’t mean that, darling.”
“I do,” he says solemnly, setting Frodo down on the tiled floor of the entryway. He wraps his little arms around Bilbo’s knees and for the very first time he feels a small amount of regret for what he’s about to do. He mumbles incoherently into his slacks as Bilbo gingerly detaches Primula from his side and steers her in the direction of Drogo’s welcoming arms. He picks Frodo up, holding him high in the air while he squeals in delight.
“I’ll see you soon, my lad.”
“Soon enough,” he says. “Soon enough.”
The last time Bilbo stepped foot in Aberdeen it was with a broken heart and a bachelor’s degree. All things considered, this time isn’t so different.
“If it isn’t Mister Baggins. What a surprise, seeing you here.”
“Well I’d hope not,” Bilbo says. “You did hire me.”
Gandalf, always a tad eccentric, foregoes Bilbo’s outstretched hand for a hug. “I’m terribly sorry to hear about your mother. She was an amazing woman.”
He manages a smile in response, though it feels more like a grimace. “So,” he sighs, following Gandalf’s lead though the stone arched entrance of the courtyard. He feels a tug of nostalgia, walking this path again after what feels like a lifetime has passed. “Where do we start?”
“Well you’ll hardly be needing a tour of the campus. I’ll introduce you to some of your colleagues in the History Department, but unfortunately it’ll be straight to work for you. You need to choose your masters students rather quickly I’m afraid. Their application deadlines are on Monday so you’ll have time, but not much of it. You know how things run around here.” With poor planning and little to no time management, but that goes unsaid.
“And then there’s the matter of housing. I understand you’re staying at a hotel, but-”
“I’m sorting that out,” Bilbo says, waving his hand in dismissal and preempting whatever undoubtedly invasive setup he has in mind. “I have a meeting with an estate agent this evening.”
Gandalf frowns and has the gall to look disappointed.
The one thing Bilbo kept of his mother was her wedding ring. His father died years before, long enough for the pain to dull into something akin to acceptance. He now fears his mother’s loss will be one he carries, open and festering, for the rest of his life. So he takes her ring, the only bit of jewellery she ever saw fit to wear. He is unsure if it will aid the infection or stall it, but either way it feels right, heavy and cold on his finger, weighing down his heart.
She would scold him for it and for a fleeting moment it makes him feel just the slightest bit better.
“Listen,” he says with a sigh as his estate agent offers him yet another flat far too close to the university. “I’ve lived in the city before and I’ve lived right off campus. Neither of those are experiences I wish to repeat. I already have a car, I’m very comfortable with a commute. Find me something isolated. Trust me, I know Scotland, that isn’t too much to ask.”
She aggressively types his requirements into her database. If Bilbo was five years younger he may have agonised over her less than pleasant reaction to his less than pleasant tone. Thankfully, he isn’t. Photographs filter across her screen as she scrolls idly through a handful of listings.
“Wait,” he says, standing. “Go back.”
She flips to a photo of a terraced flat and he shakes his head. “The one before.”
It’s old, that’s for sure— with bits of pre-war stonework set around the foundation, unsealed shuttered windows, a mossy tiled roof. “It’s gorgeous,” he breathes. “Are there photos of the interior?”
“I’m not sure this would be the right fit,” she says, skipping far too quickly through pictures of a brightly lit kitchen, an open back garden. “It’s the full house, not a contained flat.”
“It’s well within my budget,” he says, looking at the price marker on the edge of her screen.
“There’s a reason for that, Mister Baggins. It’s an old house-”
“Yes, I’m well aware.”
“And renters never stay long. They can hardly give this house away. It’s really not worth your time.”
“I want to see it.”
She frowns. “Would tomorrow morning work for you?”
“You’re a quick learner,” he says cheerily, reaching for his phone and typing the address into his calendar.
“You appear to be impossible to reason with,” she says with a sigh. “Tomorrow at nine.”
The house is beautiful. Bilbo always did have such a weakness for slated wood and open floor plans. He imagines he inherited it from his parents, or perhaps it grew with him from the walls of Bag End. Either way, he’s rather taken.
“When can I move in?” He asks, admiring the garden from the glass paneling of the kitchen door. It is a tad overgrown, but nothing a weekend of weeding couldn’t fix. It will have to wait until spring, as frost has already begun to settle in the mornings and there’s no use in fixing what will inevitably be blanketed in snow in two months' time.
“Perhaps you should speak to the owners before making any final decisions.”
“I hardly see the point.”
She chews her lip. “We’d rather avoid the transaction fees, if you decide against staying.”
Bilbo scoffs. “If you’re trying to imply-”
“They think it’s haunted.” She says suddenly, cutting him off.
Bilbo cannot help the shout of laughter he gives, though he quickly presses his hand to his mouth at the look on her face. “Oh dear, I am sorry. It’s just, a haunted house? What is this, a Dickens novel?”
“As I mentioned earlier, we’ve had difficulties with this place. Tenants moving in and out so frequently is costing us more than we make from it, and the company is considering dropping the property altogether and letting the owners hash it out. You’ve gone ahead and picked the one house we’re told to steer clear of.”
She looks frustrated, maybe a tad embarrassed, and Bilbo bites his lip in a valiant attempt to keep from smiling. “Look, I get it. The winter gales come along and old houses like this shift and settle, mould pops up in questionable patterns, rats make noises in the walls. It’s unnerving to some people. But despite every appearance to the contrary,” he gestures vaguely at his deep yellow waistcoat. “I am no stranger to Scottish winters, nor houses with old foundations.”
She sighs. “If you insist.”
“Oh yes, I most definitely do.”
It starts with the smoke alarm. It has a terrible habit of going off at the most inconvenient times— while he’s struggling to light the hob, the second he steps into the shower, at four twenty-two in the morning after a night of already restless sleep. After three days of plugging his ears against what has become physically painful screeching, he caves and buys new batteries.
Low battery, it appears, was not the culprit.
“Often these things get dusty on the inside,” the repairman assures him. “Happens all the time. Just needs a good clean.” Bilbo thanks him profusely and sends him off with a generous tip, however it doesn't take long to come to the conclusion that dust was not to blame.
It's two in the morning and Bilbo is laying in bed listening to the deafening howl of his smoke alarm when he decides he’s had enough. He lugs his step stool up the stairs and pulls the battery pack out altogether. The screeching continues and Bilbo feels vaguely ill. So he does the only thing he can do— he sleeps in his car and the next morning he pays to get the whole damn system ripped from the ceiling.
“I’ve found a house,” he tells Gandalf over tea. “Faulty smoke alarm aside, it’s perfect.”
Gandalf hums politely. “A whole house,” he says, before Bilbo waves him off. “Where abouts?”
“Just behind Middlemuir Farm’s southern fields. Not a twenty minute drive from here.” It is well worth the trip— not a single office building or rolling hill for miles and miles.
“Off of Rack Burn?” He asks innocently, picking at his salad.
“I have an old friend who just retired to the area,” he says and Bilbo has to resist the urge to roll his eyes. Gandalf’s friends could map the world twice over. “Brilliant man, rather fond of knitting if I remember correctly. Sadly his brother got into a spot of trouble, sticky fingers,” he murmurs. “They live together now and you’d be splendid neighbours, I imagine. I’ll give you his number, should you ever need a hand.”
Bilbo thanks him when he offers a scrap of paper with a telephone number written in green ink pen, and forgets all about it the next day.
November is far colder in Scotland than the gentle bite of fall that he used to so love in the south. It is damp and brutal and it seeps into his chest like mildew spreading its spores. Bilbo is more or less unsurprised to wake in the morning to chattering teeth. The windows though, they are less expected.
Both of his bay windows are flung open, blinds clacking against the frame as another gust of wind sends them flying. “Christ,” he murmurs, reaching for his patchwork dressing gown and pulling it tight around his chest. He’ll need to start locking them if fall breezes are tearing the poor things nearly from their hinges.
The sun is almost up and Bilbo resists the call of his warm duvet, instead forcing himself to get ready for work, albeit nearly an hour early. He pads into the bathroom only to find it similarly drafty. Bilbo’s breath catches at the sight of both windows pushed open. He pauses, for just a moment, then turns towards the stairs. In every room in his house, the windows are flung wide.
“Right,” he says to himself and goes about closing them.
He nearly stays the night at the university, hunched over a half dozen second year research proposals and revisions of his own article on cathedral mosaics in the Eastern Mediterranean. Bilbo very nearly convinces himself that the atmosphere is simply better for his attention span, after all, the smell of burnt coffee and whispered arguments over symbolic relics from the antiquity have always done well to settle his nerves. It has absolutely nothing to do with a broken smoke detector and open windows. He’s just busy, that’s all, and he’s grown rather fond of campuses at dawn.
When he returns home one afternoon to find his things pulled from every drawer and cabinet, Bilbo calls the police.
“Anything missing?” The officer asks, holding a pen that looks likely to snap between his massive fingers.
“Well I haven’t exactly checked. I didn’t want to disturb anything.” He gestures at the wreckage that used to be his sitting room.
The officer raises a single, bushy grey eyebrow. “What am I supposed to report if you don’t know what’s missing?”
Bilbo taps his foot impatiently. “A break in, for one.”
“Is there any sign of a forced entry?”
“No,” he admits, eyeing the pile of cutlery on his sofa.
“Was the door open when you got here?”
“It was still locked,” he says, biting at the skin on the sides of his fingers.
The officer closes his notepad, the page empty for all but Bilbo’s address. “Right,” he says. “You do a bit of inventory and we’ll start processing.”
It takes the better part of two days, but by the end of it his house is back in order and he confirms with the department that nothing is missing. They assure him they will stop by with any leads, and Bilbo thanks them politely, knowing nothing will come of it.
It turns out Bilbo was right about the rats, though he rather wishes he wasn’t. He begins to hear the scratching in his bedroom, high in the walls, near the ceiling. It reminds him of his very first flat, where crows had found a hole in the attic and roosted just above his room. He spent many nights lying awake to the eerie sounds of shifting and scratching above his head. Bilbo is thankfully no longer nineteen and he is certainly no stranger to rat poison.
He sets out little blue blocks of poison all over the house and finds himself perfectly comfortable tuning out the persistent sound of movement through the walls. The poison proves to be rather ineffective when the rats no longer appear to be limited to his bedroom. He hears the shuffle of claws in the wall above his stove, behind cabinets, through the tile on the bathroom wall. Bilbo seriously considers calling an exterminator, but then the banging starts.
Well it’s more like tapping, in the beginning, a broken Morse code through the drywall in his bedroom. It is particularly windy that night, so he assumes the culprits are anything from willow branches to a loose gutter attachment. He wakes the next morning and heads immediately round to the back garden, pulling old Wellington’s over his bare feet. He sees nothing that could account for any of the late night sounds so he waves it off and heads to the university a few minutes behind schedule.
The tapping doesn’t disappear, instead it grows louder. Three nights in, it has turned into a rattling banging which shifting his mattress with the force of it. So Bilbo carries a pile of blankets down to the sofa with a set of sponge earplugs and holds them up victoriously. “Try waking me through these,” he tells the empty living room and settles in for the night.
“You’re looking rather peaky, if you don’t mind my saying.” Gandalf is improbably stealthy for his seventy-something years and Bilbo spares a moment to wonder how he got around the de-tenure policy while he tries to still his hammering heart.
“Jesus, Gandalf. You could give me a warning.”
“Didn’t I?” He takes the empty seat across from him, usually belonging to a shy medieval history doctorate student whose name Bilbo can never be bothered to remember. He brings him coffee sometimes, peaking nervously from under razor straight fringe, so perhaps he should make more of an effort. “Is everything alright?”
“I had a break in a week or so back,” he admits. The thought that it feels good to tell someone leaves a far fouler taste in his mouth than his admission. “And now I’m having a bit of a pest problem.”
“Oh how terrible. Don’t you live alone?”
“Yes.” He begins gathering up his papers and shoving them into tabbed manila folders. Gandalf’s arrival is usually sign enough that it’s time to head home.
“It’s not too late to take me up on my offer, you know. Two brothers and a cousin, though I fear the cousin isn’t much of an English speaker but not to worry, they’re a charming crowd. Quite the cooks as well, which I know you appreciate, and they live in a lovely part of the city-“
“Really,” he says, holding up a hand. “I’m fine. It’s fine. I’m not interested.” He attempts to flee before Gandalf can try and maneuver him into some kind of questionable house share, but is stopped by his cane on the strap of Bilbo’s messenger bag.
“It doesn’t do for you to live such a secluded life at your age. What would Belladonna say, seeing you like this? She was such a lively-”
“Yes, yes, I know,” he snaps, twisting his mother’s wedding ring around his finger with the pad of his thumb. “I did have two parents, you know. My father was an accountant, he was boring. Is it terribly hard to believe that I may have taken after him instead?” Gandalf smiles and Bilbo rips his strap out from under his cane and shoulders his bag, folders held tightly to his chest.
“I think you’ve forgotten something, my dear boy. Bungo Baggins wasn’t boring,” he says, ignoring Bilbo’s scoff. “After all, he married your mother.”
Bilbo wakes one morning to a rather curious smell. For a moment, it reminds him of when he used to wake to bacon frying or freshly baked bread. But that moment is gone the second Bilbo’s eyes are open because there is something very, very wrong. The smell begins as sickly sweet, but when he shuffles to his door and steps out onto the landing, he inhales decay. He takes the stairs two at a time, covering his nose and mouth with the collar of his dressing gown, and steps into the kitchen.
His bowl of fruit is black and rotting, mould grows in spots along his breadbox, the fridge is full of putrefied meat. He opens the pantry to find flies swarming his potatoes. There is movement in his flour bag, and he is certainly not going to investigate any further. Bilbo slowly walks upstairs and sits on the edge of his bed, looking blankly at the wall.
“Bleach,” he says to himself, after five solid minutes of mental preparation. He is going to need a lot of bleach.
“Mister Baggins,” she sounds at best apprehensive, at worst like an estate agent about to be saddled with an unfortunate amount of paper work.
“Hello, how are you?”
“I’m well. Busy,” she amends. “What did you call about?”
Bilbo fiddles with the hem of his sweater, hating himself a little bit for what he’s about to ask. “You recall the conversation we had before I signed the lease?”
“Regarding winter gales and loose foundations, I believe.”
“Yes well, I just have a few questions.”
She sighs. “What’s happened?”
“Well just a lot of little things, really.” He admits.
“I bet.” Her voice sounds muffled for a moment and Bilbo shuffles his feet and waits for his notoriously shoddy service to clear.
“You said there had been a few residents over the years,” he continues, as the static lifts. “I just wanted to know how long they lived here.”
“Two months,” she says immediately. “Which means, in a week you’ll have been there the longest.”
“Right.” They’re both silent for a moment.
“Has all the food in your kitchen rotted yet?”
“Yep.” He stares fondly out the window; his back garden really is beautiful, even in winter. He inherited nothing of his mother but her fondness for growing things. It’s enough, he thinks, and she would have loved this house.
“Well that’s as far as anyone’s gotten.”
It feels vaguely like a challenge and in a sudden fit of self-righteous confidence he nods his head and says, “Well thank you for answering my questions.”
“You’re- that’s it?” Her voice comes through as static.
“Yes, I believe it is. Have a lovely day.” He has grand plans for a tomato patch and perhaps some aubergine.
Bilbo isn’t sure what woke him, but he thinks it must have been a sound, the remnants of which echo in his subconscious. But now all is quiet, save for the wind that has howled for three nights straight. Half an acre away, his neighbour’s floodlights turn on and off with each wave of a bent oak branch. The flickering stream of light filters dimly through his window, casting a single ray across his duvet. Bilbo rolls over to glance at his alarm clock, and in the half light he sees an unfamiliar outline in the centre of his room. His breath catches in his throat at the sight of something black, shapeless, and undoubtedly solid. His rational mind catches up with him before his heartbeat and he thinks it must be laundry, a pile he left before bed but never quite got to sorting. He watches, unblinking, for any shift of movement, and after a few minutes he begins to feel ridiculous. It is absolutely still and so Bilbo takes a deep breath and stands, reaching for the lamp just beyond his bedside table.
The mass in the centre of his room raises with him like a misshapen, backwards shadow. Bilbo’s stomach turns, he can’t help his sharp intake of breath as he stumbles in his desperate search for his lamp switch. In the seconds it takes to catch his footing, the thing is inches away, radiating heat with a shifting, breathless rattle. He gasps once his fingers find the switch and the room floods with light. Immediately, the shadow shies away; like liquid it pulls back across the floor and up through the ceiling.
Bilbo lunges for the overhead light switch and flings open the door. He moves through the hall, turning on every light he owns, until not a single dark corner lingers. Taking the steps two at a time, he returns to his bedroom, snatches his phone from the bedside table, and sits in the corner, facing the door. He begins to dial his home phone number in Norwich, until he remembers with a sudden jolt of nausea that Primula and Drogo live there now. There is no one left for him to call. And so he sits and he watches, his alarm clock blaring 4:27 in harsh green numbers.
Dawn begins to break once Bilbo finally moves again. Exhaustion and adrenaline are catching up with him, coupled with the growing fear that he may in fact be going insane. The first glimpse of aquamarine in the sky makes rationalisation a tad easier, and he’s beginning to wonder if he hadn’t dreamed the whole encounter. Bilbo thinks back to night terrors, a topic covered in his mandatory and much dreaded Intro to Psychology course. Though he was eighteen at the time, he still remembers the accounts of people who swore they were abducted by aliens or worse.
Stress, he thinks, stress and grief. That is all this is.
It's four days before he begins to turn the lights off again, but he hasn’t quite found the courage to sleep without the aid of his bedside lamp.
The sun is beginning to set and Bilbo is struggling to finish his chapter with barely enough light to read by. He has come to hate weekends. By Sunday he is stir crazy, having completed all of his lesson plans and his own research aside. He thinks of calling Primula as he twists his mother’s wedding ring around and around his finger.
His eyes linger on the same sentence without taking in a single word, and as he reaches to turn the page, the ring slides off his middle finger and clatters onto the floor. Bilbo sets his book aside, but before he can stand a shadow slips out from under his chair, like a stain spreading across the hardwood, swallowing up his mother’s ring in a tidal wave of black. He shouts, a wordless sound, and fumbles with the lamp.
“Give it back,” he yells, as it shifts away from the growing ring of light. “Give it back to me right now.” The shadow doesn’t disappear altogether, instead it stays flush against the opposite wall, outside the reach of his soft lit lamp.
“Give it back.” His voice cracks, out of fear or desperation he isn’t sure. It lingers for a moment, and Bilbo sees a glimpse of gold among its folds of black. “Please,” he whispers, and in an instant, it is gone.
Bilbo wastes no time. Furiously, he flips every light switch while he searches for his keys. With his coat hooked around his arm, Bilbo slams the door behind him, fumbling with the lock. It's late, but if he hurries, he’s sure he can make it to the centre of town before the shops begin to close. He speeds through intersections, navigating winding back roads by muscle memory, his heart pounding with something akin to blind fury. He refuses to lose his mother’s ring, not even to a monster. He cuts off a broken old sedan as he turns onto the main street and ignores the blaring horn and muffled shouts through an open window.
By the time he reaches the pawnbroker, it is well past sundown and the streetlights are flickering on in quick succession. He pushes through the door, a bell chiming above his head, and all but runs to the jewellery case. “Excuse me,” he shouts.
A man with an egregious mane of red hair steps from the back room. “Was just closin’ shop, laddie. But if it’s quick.”
“It is.” Bilbo says, his voice catching. “I just need a ring, a gold one.”
His bushy red eyebrows nearly reach his hairline and he smiles, baring his teeth. “Any particular occasion?”
“Nope, no. No occasion. I just need a gold ring, quick as you can. Thank you.” He shrugs and squats down, a considerable feat for a man his size, to pick through a variety of rings cushioned in blue velvet. He places a selection in front of Bilbo with a questioning look and he immediately reaches for the largest, thickest one. It looks like it belonged to a man once, a simple gold band, hardly any different from his mother’s.
“This will do,” he says, digging his wallet out of his coat pocket. “Name your price.”
Bilbo unlocks the door, and steps inside. One hand remains in his pocket, clutched around the ring, fingers tight enough to offset the tremor that’s been building since he set off. He turns off the hallway light. He moves next to the bathroom, then the kitchen, turning off every light until it is dark save for the lamp in the centre of his sitting room.
“I’m here, come out.” He says, his voice surprisingly steady as he reaches for the cord on his lamp. He closes his eyes and pulls. Taking a deep breath, Bilbo counts to ten and murmurs, “I’ll trade you.” He opens his eyes once more to the shadow standing before him, shifting and shapeless. It is no longer inanimate, undoubtedly alive.
“It’s my mother’s,” he says, “I want it back. But I’ll give you this.” He holds the ring in his outstretched palm. “It’s gold, just the same. I promise.” A tendril of black reaches out for it and Bilbo gasps as it touches his skin, hot and catching on his fingertips like burrs. It holds up the ring, as if inspecting it, before it offers his mother’s wedding ring in return.
“Thank you,” he whispers, as it places it gently in his palm. “Thank you.”
A distorted seam opens through shadowed jaws and it swallows the ring whole. Then it is gone.
He returns from class to an empty office and the beginnings of a storm stirring outside the window. Bilbo rests his head on the edge of his desk, taking what are meant to be calming, deep breaths, but they come to nothing as his stomach continues to churn. Without looking up, he feels around for his mobile and grudgingly scrolls through his contacts until he finds Gandalf’s name.
It rings for what feels like an intentionally long time before he finally picks up. “Bilbo, my boy. How are you?”
“Yeah, I’m alright.” He doesn’t sound it, but he’s just about beyond caring. “I called for a favour,” he says, not giving him any chance to point out what he already knows.
“Oh? Decided to take me up on my offer?”
“Not quite,” he says with a grimace. “Actually my house is being fumigated and I was hoping you’d allow me to stay the night at yours while everything gets aired out.” All he needs is one night; one night without lights on, one night of relative certainty that he’ll wake up alone, one night of sleep and Bilbo is sure everything will be just fine.
“Of course,” he sounds skeptical and Bilbo can hardly blame him. “Do you have a pen on hand?”
Bilbo scribbles his address into the corner of a lined notebook and breathes his thanks. “I’ll see you after work.”
He returns home for an overnight bag, something he hasn’t needed in many years, and begins his daily ritual of standing resolutely outside his front door while summoning the courage to open it. He manages, though it takes slightly longer this time around. He kicks off his shoes and hurries up the stairs, flicking on lights as he goes.
He digs out an old duffle bag and a change of clothes, trying to keep his shirts folded as neatly as possible. Bilbo reaches for his contacts lens case on the windowsill, but pauses as a glint of silver catches his eye. Placed rather carefully on his pillow is a pocket watch. He picks it up, glancing around as he does so, surprised at how heavy it feels in his palm. It looks old, antique, but no less beautiful for it. It is silver and sparkling, with a case of clear glass and metal accents, black roman numerals painted onto an ivory face. The chain is just as stunning as the watch itself, with a small silver key hanging off one end to wind the gears.
He traces the numbers with the tip of his finger and turns to his bedroom door just in time to see a shadow slip away down the hall.
Bilbo still remembers Gandalf’s old flat in Norwich. It was situated above a corner store that sold the sweetest lychees in the fall and his mother would take him there every Friday afternoon, laden with books while Bilbo enjoyed honey crisp apples and soft raspberries. It was cluttered and dusty and smelled vaguely of cigar smoke, but it held enough treasures to entertain him for hours.
His house in Aberdeen is hardly any different. It still feels temporary, like Gandalf moved in without caring to unpack and all that he has acquired simply accumulates on old boxes and builtin bookshelves. It certainly still smells the same, Bilbo thinks, as he sets his things down on the dusty sheets of the spare bed. He unzips his bag and looks around for a free surface to lay his clothes out.
“Thanks again for letting me stay,” he says as Gandalf appears in the doorway. “I’ll be out of your hair by morning.”
“No need.” He ducks through the door, still towering over Bilbo even with his cane, and takes a seat on the bed. He has to move a considerable amount of books to the side in order to find room, but he manages. “Are you sure there isn’t anything you’d like to speak to me about?”
“Nothing,” he assures him. “Unless you know a way to keep pests out of my house.”
“Rats are endemic in the winter, my boy. There’s no getting rid of them. Now that,” he says suddenly. “That is an old piece.” He is pointing at the pocket watch, visible as a silver glint at the bottom of his bag.
“May I see it?” He asks, and Bilbo nods, his throat half a step behind on whatever lie he had been ready to spout.
He handles it carefully, threading the chain through his fingers. “It’s off time.”
“I’m not sure how to wind it,” he admits.
“Shall I teach you?” He nods and Gandalf uses the small key to open the back, displaying the movements, a perfect polished silver puzzle. “Just here,” he says, glancing at the clock on the wall for reference. “Old things like these need reminding every week or so. May I ask, where did you get it?”
“It was a gift.”
“A very fine gift indeed,” Gandalf says, and hands it back.
A full night’s sleep does him well, and Bilbo faces his undergraduate students the next morning with slightly more patience than he can generally muster. A set of two brothers perpetually reside in the back of his history courses like loud, mirror images of each other. Today they pass his desk, a flurry of auburn and blonde, as one states rather loudly, “You seem to be in a good mood today, Mister Boggins.”
Bilbo has long since given up on correcting him, so he waves them off with a simple, “Winter holidays are coming up. I get to go a month without seeing any of your faces.” They pout and huff until he ushers them from the room. “Enough of that,” he says. “I have work to do.” It’s definitely a lie; he finished his work the evening before, lounging in a cloud of cigar smoke on Gandalf’s sitting room floor. But he does have a monster to face, and really that should be enough of an excuse.
He returns home before sundown and begins digging through the cupboard under the steps for an unopened box labeled 'silverware.' It is the set his mother and father were given at their wedding and has been treasured ever since. They are sterling, beautifully decorated with oak leaves along the handles. Bilbo will likely never need them, but he couldn’t quite stomach leaving them with Primula.
His mother adored every piece. He would always help her clean them after holidays or family gatherings, and the smell of silver polish still makes his chest ache. The set is imperfect though, it always has been, as much to his mother’s confusion it came with an extra spoon.
He removes a spoon and runs his finger gently over the hollowed curve. After packing everything back into its rightful place, he leaves the spoon on the kitchen table and begins to work on dinner, convincing himself that he is not watching the sun set below the trees. Within the hour, the kitchen is dark, lit only by the dim stove light.
“Are you here?” He calls nervously. It is silent for all but the risotto simmering in the pot behind him. “I have something for you,” he says. He looks at every darkened corner but the shadow isn’t there. He sighs and begins to stir idly with a wooden spoon. When he turns around, reaching for a lemon from the fruit bowl, he sees it in the doorway.
“Hello,” he says, taking a step back, despite himself. “Thank you for the pocket watch. It’s not much, but there’s a spoon on the table. It’s silver, part of a set that belonged to my parents. I always thought they were beautiful.” He’s rambling, but talking never hurt anyone so he doesn’t feel particularly inclined to stop. “I’m not sure if you like that kind of thing, or if you just have a taste for jewellery but-”
The shadow slinks into the kitchen, stopping at the table in front of the spoon. “Go ahead,” he says.
Just as it had the ring, it swallows the spoon whole. But this time it doesn’t disappear, not immediately, instead it moves closer to him. Bilbo’s breath catches as a shapeless appendage reaches out to brush a single lock of his hair, just above his ear. It feels feather light, and a moment later, it's gone again.
Bilbo dreams of dinner parties and polished silver and when he wakes, it’s to rain. He tugs on his dressing gown and gently opens his bedroom door, half expecting to find the shadow waiting just outside. But the landing is empty and the house is quiet for all but the creak of the stairs.
On the counter just before the kettle he sees a shimmer, a shift in light. They are paper-thin gears of gilded gold, like he remembers seeing in the old music boxes his grandmother would fix with shaking hands. He runs his fingers over the largest, leaving a smudged fingerprint across the surface. He sets to scrubbing them away with the sleeve of his robe before he is startled by a sound behind him, something solid against the wood. The shadow is just outside the doorway, moving slightly, a shift of anxiety, as Bilbo scoops the thin gears into his palm. He has spent a significant portion of his adult life running from what little family he had left. Surely, of the many mistakes he’s made, this won’t be even close to the worst.
“It’s okay,” he says. “You can come in. I’m not afraid of you.”
Winter holidays have Bilbo at home more and more often, but now he is rarely alone. The shadow lurks outside the reach of his lamps, in the folds of his curtains and in between his bookshelves. It follows him from room to room, slithering up the backsplash in his kitchen, pouring like liquid between the gaps in the bricks.
Sometimes, it leaves him gifts on the kitchen table. At first they are all metal— a delicate chain of copper, a heavy silver key. Then it begins to leave other things like ink pens and guitar strings and a single ivory coat button.
He collects trinkets to bring home to the shadow, and as long as they are metal it scarfs them down just the same. Today he has an old tiepin of the St. Andrew’s Cross. He found it in the back of one of his desk drawers. He has a sneaking suspicion it may have belonged to the professor who sat there before him— but seeing as he is a very large, very bald, tattooed man who wears kilts to staff events Bilbo feels rather reluctant to ask. Instead he brings it home to the shadow, which inspects it carefully before it disappears from sight.
He sits down in his favourite armchair, a collection of books open on the coffee table, as the shadow lingers awkwardly in the doorway. “Well come on,” he says, gesturing vaguely. “Don’t just stand there.” It doesn’t move like liquid this time, instead it stays solid and bulky, with something akin to a gait as it makes its way across the room, staying just beyond the soft edge of the lamplight.
“I have an article review due on Monday, and I haven’t been able to concentrate on it all day,” he sighs. The shadow shifts along the wall, flicking tendrils of black over book spines and picture frames. Bilbo leaves it to its inspecting and starts on the article. He is five pages in before his concentration begins to fracture. Frustrated, he reads aloud, a quick monotone jumble. It keeps him focused, at least for a while, until his attention is caught once more by the shadow. It has stopped its nightly peruse through his belongings in order to linger by his side.
Once he realises he’s being watched, Bilbo stutters to a stop. “Sorry,” he says, “I know this isn’t the most fascinating thing to listen to. This is my area of study and I can hardly pay attention. Am I bothering you?” He knows it won’t respond, but he asks anyway. “Maybe if I had some fiction lying around here, we’d both be better off.”
The next morning, he wakes to an old copy of Peter and Wendy on his bedside table.
They spend Bilbo’s first official week off in his sitting room with the curtains pulled closed against the bright winter sun. He reads aloud from the sofa with the shadow at his side. It looks more and more human these days, with discernible limbs and a stocky figure. They read Peter and Wendy in a single afternoon, and for every book they finish, a new one appears in his sitting room. Sometimes they are old and damaged with wet pages that dried in waves and crackle when he turns them. Others have marbled end pages or gilded edges and some are brand new without a crack along the spine. Still, every few days, despite his increasingly crowded bookshelves, the shadow will stalk over to him with Peter and Wendy in its hands and a questioning tilt to its head.
“My parents used to read to me,” he says one afternoon, turning a page of Gone With the Wind. He has gotten rather used to the shadow, warm and static by his side. “They all had pictures though, quite a different set up.” The shadow is ever silent, so Bilbo continues to read. Barely a day passes when he finds their usual stack of novels replaced with thin illustrated children’s books. He thumbs through an old copy of Where the Wild Things Are with a smile that he can’t quite push down.
“So you have been listening to me,” he says, as the shadow peers over his shoulder at the glossy pages. They make it through The Giving Tree and a handful of Doctor Seuss before the sun begins to set and Bilbo can no longer make out the words. He reaches for the lamp, but the shadow shies away, skirting across the room to stand against the wall.
“Ah, right. Sorry,” he says. He snatches a scarf from the hall tree and tosses it over the shade, dimming the light to a soft, blue glow. “Candles,” he promises. “We’ll get a lot of candles.”
Bilbo plays Vivaldi from his phone while he cooks and remembers how he used to swing Frodo around his kitchen in a faux waltz, making him squeal with laughter. “Pass the coriander, please.” The shadow hands him a bowl of chopped herbs, looking over his shoulder with what Bilbo imagines to be a dubious expression.
“I am an excellent cook, I’ll have you know.” He says. “You’re welcome to have some if you feel like eating something that isn’t metal.” It shakes its head and Bilbo shrugs. “Your loss. Toss me that lime?” It does as he asks, though grudgingly, as it trudges around the kitchen with a slight slump to its increasingly impeccable posture. “I’m considering this your amends, you know.”
The shadow stops its pacing, and turns to face him.
“For trying to haunt me out of this house. A few more nights playing kitchen assistant and you’re as good as forgiven.”
Bilbo hums under his breath to La Cetra and the shadow’s fingers skirt across his wrist, squeezing his hand for a brief moment before it’s across the room once more. “Apology accepted,” he says. “Now hand me the grater.”
Today he’s reading Dickens’ Bleak House. “I always hated this book,” he sighs, cutting himself off mid-sentence. “And here you are making me read it again.” The shadow nudges his shoulder and Bilbo bites back a smile. “You’re rather demanding, you know.”
Before he can resume his reading, the shrill call of his landline sounds from the kitchen. He groans, unfolding himself from the couch to shuffle into the hall. “Hello,” he says, shivering slightly from the cold now that his personal heater has abandoned him to the chill of the kitchen.
“Uncle Bilbo,” Frodo’s voice is, for a moment, the most beautiful sound he’s ever heard.
“Well hello darling, what a surprise to hear from you.”
“Happy Christmas!” He can hear Primula in the background, encouraging him to hand her the phone.
“Don’t listen to your mother. Talk to me for a moment. Now it’s not quite Christmas yet, but I imagine you have big plans.” He fiddles with the cord to his telephone, wondering briefly why he hasn’t replaced it with a wireless set. But there is something oddly satisfying about wrapping the thick rubber cord around his fingers, a whisper of a childhood habit.
“We’re going to see Granny,” he says, sounding slightly putout— an entirely reasonable reaction in Bilbo’s opinion, as Primula’s mother is harsh and unyielding. It was no small number of times that Bilbo had been subjected to her parenting methods, often involving an old wooden spoon to his backside.
“Well Santa will surely make it worth your while to visit that old witch.” The Baggins family have a long and grueling tradition of opening presents at night on Christmas day, fueled by what he imagines is a desire to sleep in and avoid having to drag chocolate covered children away from their new toys to visit a vast extended family.
“I’m asking for a bike,” he whispers conspiratorially into the receiver.
“And what would you like from me? You’ll have enough surprises on Christmas, tell me the one thing you don’t think your parents would ever let you get. But say it quickly before your mother rips the phone away.”
“An Xbox,” he screeches, just as Primula snaps, “Don’t you dare, Bilbo Baggins.”
“Give Frodo my love,” he says, as Primula commandeers the phone. “And tell him his wish is my command.”
“I’ll have your balls for breakfast. You’re not getting my four year-old video games as a gift.”
“Frodo will reliably tell you he is almost five. Now, what have you done to my house while I’ve been away?” His minor diversion works like a charm. Primula chatters incessantly for the better part of an hour; it’s a wonder really that she wasn’t born a Baggins. He can hear Frodo laughing in the background, the soothing hum of a washing machine, Drogo’s murmured greeting into the receiver.
“He’s been chopping up what’s left of that old oak we felled. Really he’s just been terribly manly this afternoon, isn’t that right?”
“My evening plans include a bubble bath and a rom com.”
“Oh, really? Because you see, I had other evening plans.” Primula snickers and Bilbo sees this conversation entering very awkward territory very quickly indeed.
“Right, I am still here.”
“Oh, of course you are darling.”
“I’m starting to feel like I should let you go.”
“I can still talk,” she assures him, but he hears Frodo calling for her and the timer she set on the stove begins to chirp.
“No, no. I have things to be doing anyway. I’ll leave you to juggle the boys.”
They sigh their goodbyes and exchange promises to call again soon, and when Bilbo sets the phone down it hits him how quiet his house is. He’d always imagined himself having a large family, and in a way he does, but no one thinks of distant cousins when you have children and spouses and siblings enough to fill the hours in a day.
He is torn from his thoughts by the shadow’s hand pressed to his shoulder, returning a bit of warmth to his chest. “I’m sorry that took so long, it’s my cousin- well my cousin’s wife. But we’ve been best friends since we could walk, so she might as well be blood.” The shadow’s hand moves to his wrist, where is traces a pattern against his skin. Its touch is still rough and tacky, like something pulled straight from the earth, but Bilbo finds he hardly notices it anymore.
“It’s fine,” he says softly, “I’m fine. How about we watch a terrible film and call it a night? I promise I’ll finish reading to you tomorrow.”
Bilbo wakes to a somewhat familiar smell. For a moment he is reminded of the food rotting in his kitchen but he waves it off without another thought. Instead he reaches for his dressing gown and opens the door. The shadow usually meets him on the landing in the morning, coming from the guest room down the hall, which is empty save for a bed and a chest of drawers. He waits, leaning against the railing.
“Hello,” he calls. “You coming, or what?”
The guest room door opens of its own accord and the smell lingers, bitter and pungent and reminiscent of summers spent running barefoot through the hills of Norwich. He walks slowly down the hall and peaks his head through the door. The room is covered in dandelions, pinned to the walls with sewing needles and coloured tacks. He laughs aloud as he spots the shadow arranging a row of dandelion heads on the windowsill.
“But it’s winter,” he says. “Where did you even find these?” It shrugs but there is stiffness in its shoulders that Bilbo isn’t used to seeing. It looks almost nervous, and his smile grows.
“It’s beautiful,” he says. “Absolutely beautiful.”
Bilbo has spent many Christmases alone and far more in worse company. He hated Christmas mornings as a child, doomed to be paraded in front of aunts and uncles and cousins who scream their laughter and tear over hardwood floors, plucking his books from his hands and questioning the covers. It was almost a blessing when they stopped attending Christmas with his extended family, but only just. He remembers the first Christmas after his father died, spent with his mother in front of a collage of home movies that she watched with an expression akin to stone. Last Christmas, perhaps, was the worst, with his mother’s failing health, unable to stomach dinner. He had scrapped everything and made soup instead— she tried to make the best of it, then again she always did.
So being stuck in Aberdeen while frigid wind beats at his windows is hardly the worst-case scenario. He calls Primula early and wishes them all his love, listens as they open his presents over the phone, and lets them go with fading laughter and promises to be safe. The shadow has lingered about all morning, watching as he makes breakfast and dropping occasional reassuring touches to his wrist as it hands him ingredients.
“I’m going to the beach,” he tells it. “Just for a while. I’ve never gone out much on Christmas day, but I’m reliably told it’ll be deserted no matter where I go. I’ll be back in no more than an hour.”
The shadow walks him to the door, adjusting the buttons on his coat before he leaves, and when he returns it is waiting for him, A Christmas Carol closed in its hands.
They spend New Years Eve in the dandelion room with the curtains flung open, watching distant fireworks turn the sky hazy shades of blue and green. The shadow brought him a collection of Aesop’s Fables, which has entertained them for the better part of two days. Bilbo is curled up on the bed under a small mountain of blankets while the shadow sits cross-legged on the sheets. It has taken to changing its shape with every new character— from a fox to a black cat with a crooked tail.
“You’re getting rather good at that,” he says, as it shifts into a raven and lands on his shoulder.
“Not my worst new year’s by far, I have to say.” He murmurs as he thumbs through the index. The shadow shifts into a human again, sitting pressed against his side. It points to The Rose and the Amaranth. Bilbo reads the poem as firecrackers snap and pop and the shadow rests its head against his shoulder.
He falls asleep with the book still cradled in his arms and wakes to the sun and the smell of dandelions. He is not sure where the shadow goes at night, but he hopes it sleeps. He hopes it dreams.
Bilbo returns to campus in the snow. The shadow was reluctant to let him leave, adjusting his scarf a number of times until Bilbo finally had to bat its hands away. “It’s not that cold, don’t worry. I’ll see you tonight.” It is in fact that cold, he realises once he steps out the door and trudges a path to his car. The shadow had pulled his scarf nearly up to his ears and Bilbo is suddenly terribly grateful as he fumbles with his keys.
It’s a slow, careful drive, but Bilbo doesn’t have a mind to rush. It’s the first day of term and snow usually means very few students. He makes it to his building at half past eight, only to find nearly every room empty with the exception of his ever punctual boss. He ducks his head as he passes his office, hoping to slip by unnoticed— though he is rarely so lucky.
“Mister Baggins, my office if you please.” He flinches at the soft Scottish lilt.
“Yes, hello,” he says, poking his head through the doorway. “Sorry I’m late, old car, snowy start,” he waves his hand.
He smiles kindly. “Not to worry, I just wanted to check and make sure you’re settling in.” He has always been the epitome of good manners, but something about him reminds Bilbo distinctly of Gandalf.
“I’ve more than settled, I think. It’s been a long time since I’ve been subjected to Scottish winters though, and I can’t say I’ve missed it.”
He laughs, a full body action that has his white beard moving with him. “Aye, don’t let my brother catch you saying that. He lives and breathes this city, but just between you and I, I could use a bit of sun every once in a while. Especially in my old age. Now off you go, I know you have a lesson to prepare. I just wanted to check in, laddie, but you seem to be doing just fine.”
He rarely reads out loud anymore, though he hardly misses it. Instead, the shadow reads along with him. Sometimes it hovers over his shoulder as a shapeless mass, other times it lies with its head against his thigh or as a raven perched on his wrist. They spend their evenings in the dandelion room among stacks of books and dozens of tea candles. It suits them, and when Bilbo falls asleep at night it is to the shadow’s fingers tracing linear patterns against his shoulder blades.
Bilbo falls ill one week into February, right on schedule. He wakes in the middle of the night in a cold sweat. He groans softly, a broken, breathy sound, and in an instant the shadow is at his side, wrapping itself around him, running its fingers through his hair.
“I’m okay,” he manages, its warmth helping to stave off some of the chill though he can hardly keep himself from shaking. “I’m alright.”
He falls back into a feverish sleep and wakes to find the shadow at the foot of his bed, pouring through an old pre-war copy of The British Pharmacopoeia. He laughs when he sees it, though regrets it almost immediately after the damage it does to his throat. “That won’t do much for either of us,” he says gently as the shadow sets down the book and sits forward to press its hands to Bilbo’s cheeks.
“It’s just a cold.”
The shadow holds up the book, fingers pointing to a single word, doctor.
“Not going to the doctor,” he mumbles into his pillow. He’s been to the NHS clinic in his area before and it was a nightmare. The practitioner is old and very close to deaf, with a single working hearing aid that produces a high pitched wail every time he fiddles with the dials. He can manage on Lemsip and chicken broth and tells the shadow as much.
Its fingers brush across infection followed by possible dehydration.
“Then bring me a glass of orange juice, kill two birds with one stone.” The shadow does exactly that and Bilbo falls asleep with it curled around his shoulders, silent for all but the muffled sound of pages turning.
Bilbo is slow to improve, trudging to and from lectures with his pockets stuffed with tissues, breathing deeply over mugs of menthol infused peppermint tea during breaks. He returns home every afternoon to the shadow waiting at the door, pressing its too-warm hands to his too-warm cheeks, until Bilbo finally shakes it off.
Fevers have always brought out the worst in Bilbo. He prefers to be alone, untouched, like an injured dog. The first time he got the flu, Bilbo’s grandmother sat beside him and ran her fingers through his sweat drenched hair, whispering old lullabies to put him to sleep. Her closeness was uncomfortable and the pads of her fingers made his scalp itch. He remembers having to fake nausea, buying his time away from his family, lying on the tiled bathroom floor.
He is no more patient now than he was at seven, and after three days of the shadow hovering constantly at his side, Bilbo has had enough.
“Listen,” he says, his voice raw from the deep, chest rattling cough that has plagued him since the weekend. “I don’t need you following me around like I might drop dead at any moment. What I need is a small bathtub worth of oranges and some beef stew. Now come and sit and watch trashy television with me while I try to breathe like an actual human but for fuck’s sake stop agonising over whether or not I have enough blankets. I’m fine, I promise.”
When Bilbo returns home the next evening, it is to the smell of broth and rosemary. “Oh,” he says, dropping his bag by the kitchen door. A large pot of stew is simmering on the back burner, with a selection of herbs laid out across a cutting board on the counter. In the centre of the table, his previously empty fruit bowl is overflowing with oranges.
“Oh, my shadow,” he sighs, crushing a dried bay leaf between his palms and stirring it into the pot. “You’ve rather shown your hand. Now that I know you can cook I won’t ever leave you be.”
The shadow brushes its fingers briefly against the nape of his neck before it seems to catch itself. “You’re not banned from touching me,” he says with a smile. He takes a sip from the wooden spoon, and sighs happily. “You are certainly not banned from cooking. In fact, I may begin to make it a requirement.”
Its fingers press against his shoulder blade, steadying him as Bilbo reaches for the bowls in the cabinet above his head.
Bilbo can smell spring coming from his open window. He rests his arms on the sill in the dandelion room, and looks out over his garden. The snow has only just melted away and the ground is still half-frozen but this smell is like nothing else in the world. “I think I’ll do my reading outside today,” he says.
Behind him, the shadow is rearranging dandelions on the wall. “You could always come with me,” he says rather pointedly and it waves him away without turning.
So Bilbo lugs a chair out onto the tiled walkway of his back garden, props up his feet with an overturned plastic bucket, and spends the morning tearing through anthropology journals with a blue highlighter. There is still quite a chill, but he is well armed with a sweater and a cup of hot tea.
It hardly feels like an hour passes before he hears the glass door sliding open behind him and Bilbo turns to find the shadow sulking just beyond the threshold. “Well hello,” he says. It appears to shuffle its feet. “I know you don’t like the light but I have a sneaking suspicion it won’t kill you. I’ll be spending a rather large portion of the summer out here, I’ll have you know. So get used to it now or you’ll never be seeing me.”
It hesitates, fingers clutched around the edge of the door, but it eventually caves, stepping out onto the tile. It stands with folded arms by his chair, eyeing the surrounding wildlife before promptly seeking refuge under the old willow beside his house. “Yes alright,” Bilbo says, picking up his chair and clutching his journals close. “A compromise.”
“Do you have a name?” He asks one evening while the shadow sits bent over a battered copy of Wuthering Heights and Bilbo does his marking. It pauses for a moment before shaking its head. “But everyone has a name,” he says before he can stop himself and the shadow shuts its book, reaching for the red ink pen clutched between Bilbo’s fingers.
Gently, it writes a series of linear signs along his palm. “Oh,” he says, inspecting them. “Do you sometimes trace these on-” The shadow abruptly hands him the pen, picks up its book and flips it open to an entirely different page than it had left off on. Bilbo grins and it resolutely does not look at him. Perhaps it’s embarrassed.
“Well I can’t read this.” The shadow shrugs. “And you’re not being very helpful,” he continues. “But I’ll think of something. I can’t keep calling you shadow, now can I?”
Though he is rather fond of the accidental nickname, especially after his many afternoons spent reading Peter & Wendy, for few things are more important to Peter Pan than his shadow. Bilbo doesn’t say it, but as the shadow glances at the bookshelf, he imagines it might be thinking the same thing.
It is far too early to be out pulling weeds, the ground has yet to fully thaw, the soil is rough and unyielding. But it’s sunny for the third day running, it still smells deceptively like spring, and Bilbo’s mother would scold him to kingdom come if he stayed inside on a day like this. The shadow lingers under the willow tree, watching his progress. He hears a familiar whistle and looks up to see a Robin with a pale orange breast perched on an outstretched branch.
“Look,” he says, smiling, and the shadow follows his gaze. Robins are a dime a dozen come summer, but this is the first he has seen all year and its cheery call nearly takes his breath away. The shadow stands, hand outstretched, and reaches for the branch.
“Oh,” Bilbo whispers, as the Robin hops onto its palm. His mother would have been so envious. She loved Robins dearly. She put out birdhouses every winter, stocking seed nearby and chasing the squirrels away in the snow.
“Someone’s got to protect the Robins,” she would whisper into his hair. “They haven’t a vicious bone in their body. Humans have to be vicious for them and scare those squirrels away from their food.”
The shadow gestures for him to come closer, so he does, walking slowly, barefoot in the grass, hoping not to scare it away. But it doesn’t appear to notice him, much less care, and when the shadow takes Bilbo’s palm and holds it open, the Robin steps into his hand, nudging the gaps between his fingers with its beak.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” He asks the shadow, as it steps back away from them. “I wish I could keep you,” he tells the Robin. It dances along his forearm, claws catching on his sleeve. It quickly grows bored of his touch, and returns to the shadow in a flurry of grey and gold. It tries to coax the Robin back in Bilbo’s direction, but it wants nothing to do with him any longer, content to stay perched on the shadow’s arm. It takes the bird in hand and cups its palms around its small body before opening them. The bird lays limp and unmoving and Bilbo feels suddenly quite ill. The shadow presents it to him as it would any number of its gifts, but Bilbo steps back.
“What did you do?” He asks. The Robin’s claws are curled inward, frozen and rigid. “Bring it back.”
The shadow tilts its head to the side, a silent question, but Bilbo is already turning away. “No, no, no,” he says, stumbling over his words. “Bring it back, I know you can. I didn’t want to- this isn’t what I meant.” The shadow doesn’t move, the Robin’s body is still clutched in its hands.
“Can you?” He feels sick over a bird and he hates himself for his racing heart but he never did cry for his mother and someone must protect the Robins.
Slowly, the shadow shakes its head.
“Right,” he whispers, and turns towards the door.
The shadow is in his room before he’s even half way up the stairs, sitting on the edge of his bed. “Please,” Bilbo says, feeling tired and just a little bit heartbroken. “Please leave me alone for now.” The shadow reaches for him and he pulls away.
“I’m not angry, not really. I just need some time alone.” The shadow hesitates, until he whispers “please” with a tremor he cannot quite swallow and without a sound it is gone.
He wakes to dusk and dried tears painted along his temple. He feels drained, stretched thin, and oddly alone. Standing, Bilbo opens his bedroom door to the shadow waiting on the other side, Peter and Wendy clutched to its chest. It follows him slowly, a step or two behind, before it joins him on the bed. Bilbo wraps himself in his duvet and watches the shadow flip through sun stained pages.
It holds up the book and runs its fingers over the letters like braille, I’m so sorry. It searches again before showing him, Peter could not understand.
Bilbo smiles and takes the book into his lap, turning back two pages before showing it, And I know you meant to be kind. The shadow reaches for his hand and before it can pull away Bilbo entwines their fingers, watching with a smile as its shoulders slump in relief. It points to a single word: forgive.
“It wasn’t you, not really.” He says, his voice rough from sleep and crying. The shadow moves closer to his side, and Bilbo allows himself to lean against it, tucking his head against its shoulder. “Well it was a bit,” he amends. “I would rather have something living and far from me than dead in my hands, do you understand now? I would have loved the Robin to have stayed with me a while longer, but it’s just not in their nature. They come and go, and we let them.” The shadow nods. “I miss my family sometimes, that’s all. Did you have one, a family?”
It shakes its head no, and Bilbo feels the knot in his throat tighten into a noose. “Well,” he whispers. “You have me now.”
It flips to the end of the book, and runs its fingers along never leave.
“Never is an awfully long time,” he quotes with a breathy laugh. The shadow tightens its hold on him, and they sit together, thumbing through Peter and Wendy until the last of the light is gone.
“There’s something missing,” Bilbo says, inspecting the walkway to his front door. He has spent the better part of the weekend planting bulbs and a handful of fully bloomed white petunias but he is not yet satisfied. The weather has only continued to clear, with warmer and warmer days followed with bouts of spring rain so he’s sure it won’t be long until his gardens are flourishing. If nothing else, he is patient, and once everything is in bloom he is certain he’ll know what it is he needs.
He repeats this to the shadow as he scrubs the soil out from under his fingernails. “Something purple,” he says. The shadow sits at the kitchen table, flipping through a book of glossy, coloured photos with flower names listed in Latin. It flips to the index and points to the letter D rather accusatorially.
“Dandelions are weeds you know. No less beautiful for it,” he says, patting its shoulder. “You just won’t find them in a gardening book unless it’s under a section labeled pest control.” The shadow snaps the book closed and pushes it into Bilbo’s hands.
“No need to pout,” he shouts after it as it disappears from sight.
Bilbo spends his time grading papers and answering emails while waiting for the shadow to quit sulking and choose a book for them to read. “There you are,” he says, as it appears in the doorway. It gestures for him to follow, leading him into the kitchen and over to the sink where two large northern marsh orchids lay uprooted in shallow water. “Oh!” He says, reaching gently for the nearest one. “Where did you find these?”
He points at the book Bilbo had left on the counter and he can’t help the laugh that bubbles up from his throat. “You don’t need to keep apologising, you know.” It shrugs. “Well I have to plant them right away, I can’t leave them like this.”
It seems to deflate slightly at the suggestion that he will have to spend even more time in the front garden, away from the shade of willow trees. “I’ll be quick,” he promises. “Go pick out a book.”
He returns covered in soil to the shadow holding up a copy of Kafka’s The Castle. “Good lord,” he says. “You’re like a pretentious lit student.” He doesn’t refuse though, he never does.
Two days later, Bilbo wakes to rather loud banging on his front door. The dandelion room is painted in soft light and the shadow is warm against his side and he has every reason in the world to stay in bed. The banging continues and with a groan he pushes himself up and makes for the stairs with the shadow close behind him.
He barely has the door open when he is confronted with a sharp, “Excuse me,” from a squat man with grey hair and a rather large nose.
“Yes, hello.” He says with a yawn. “How can I help you?”
“Well by giving me back my orchids, for one.”
The man is turning a rather dangerous shade of red as he flings a finger in the direction of the newly planted marsh orchids at the entrance to his front garden. “I came home on Sunday to find my orchids had been unearthed and imagine my surprise when I drove by yesterday and found them flourishing in front of your house.”
Bilbo is caught between laughing and gasping an apology, and instead all he manages is a soft sound in his throat. “Now Gandalf told me you were a good sort and I believed him, but this- this- orchid napping is absolutely uncalled for. They’re a rare species you know, very hard to cultivate away from water, and I’ve worked for two years-”
“My nephew,” Bilbo says suddenly, realising that this is the man whose number Gandalf had given him so many months before. “I’m so sorry,” he continues. “My nephew, he’s very young you see, he was visiting this week and I sent him out to play.” He pauses, taking a breath, looking resolutely at a spot beyond his neighbour’s shoulder. “City boy, really, thought he might need some fresh air. And when he came back with these flowers, well I thought for sure he’d found them down by Ram’s Pasture. I never dreamed he’d taken them from someone’s garden.”
“Ah,” he begins, his face slowly returning to a more natural colour. “That I understand. I have two younger brothers that I practically raised on my own, never could keep their hands to themselves. One of them still can’t,” he says with a sigh. “And he calls himself an adult.”
Bilbo nods sympathetically, offering a stilted pat to his shoulder. “I really am very sorry. I’ll dig them up this afternoon and bring them over to you in temporary pots, with some extra fertiliser as an apology.”
He waves him off with a flourish. “Take your time, no need to rush. I’m number twelve, just down the way. Keep an eye on that lad of yours.”
“Two eyes,” he promises, shutting the door behind him.
He turns to the shadow standing innocently against the hall. “You,” he growls. It makes a desperate lunge for the stairs with Bilbo just a few steps behind. “You’re on cooking duty for a week,” he shouts, though he can’t quite keep a straight face. When he finally corners it, the shadow throws a dandelion at him in self-defence, and Bilbo laughs until he can hardly breathe.
“You look half asleep.” Bilbo glances up blearily at his department head who is eyeing him with an amused smile. Gandalf stands towering over his shoulder, looking far more devious.
“Quite awake.” He stifles a yawn and tries to ignore the flush of embarrassment that he knows will creep in red patches along his cheeks. Bilbo had insisted last night that he be allowed to choose a book for once, and the shadow grudgingly allowed it, though it crossed its arms and shifted in its seat when he came home with a copy of The Time Traveler’s Wife from the library.
“I’m pulling you into 21st Century literature whether you like it or not,” he’d said as the shadow stared longingly at their bookshelf full of Tolstoy. In the end, neither of them had been able to put the book down and they stayed awake, furiously turning pages, until four in the morning.
“Are you struggling with grading?” His boss asks kindly.
“Oh yes,” Gandalf says. “Bilbo here is a terrible procrastinator.”
Bilbo shoots him the dirtiest look he can manage without giving himself away entirely. Exams had finished up just days before, and most of the professors were swamped with term papers and class projects. But Bilbo never has been one for putting things off and Gandalf knows it. He has a dozen exams to finish marking and that’s the whole of it. Everything else he’d managed over the weekend while the rain kept him locked away in the dandelion room with the windows pulled shut.
“Not to worry,” he says. “It happens to all of us our first time around. And many others even after that. Time management, it’ll come to you.” He leaves Bilbo with a friendly pat on the shoulder and unfortunately fails to take Gandalf with him.
“So,” he says, propping himself up on the edge of Bilbo’s desk. “What exactly has been depriving you of your much needed sleep?”
“Certainly not my marking,” he snaps.
“What were you up to last night?”
“Reading,” he says.
“Oh, indeed.” He grins like the Cheshire Cat, holding all the world’s secrets between his teeth.
“If you’ll excuse me,” he begins, pushing back his chair. “I have a library book to return.” Gandalf chuckles to himself and Bilbo ignores him, walking away with as much dignity as he can muster.
Bilbo had promised to be away no later than Sunday morning, but the conference ran well over its original schedule and he ended up missing his flight back from Brussels. He usually rather looked forward to European Association conferences, but all he could think about for the past three days was his garden and the rigid edge to his shadow’s shoulders. Bilbo has never been one for homesickness, but this is what he imagines it must feel like as he bounces his knee up and down in the back of a cab.
“Eager to get home?” The driver asks, as Bilbo takes a peak at the dashboard clock, which reads half past two in the morning.
“Very,” he says.
Bilbo digs through the bottom of his bag for his keys as the cab disappears down the road, and he barely has them in hand when the door opens and the shadow all but lunges at him, its arms wrapped tightly around his shoulders, fingers clutched in the folds of his shirt. “I’m sorry, I missed my flight,” he says, attempting to maneuver them both inside but his shadow appears to have other ideas. It stays wrapped around him as he tries to murmur reassurances into its neck.
“I’m sorry,” he repeats, and it finally pulls away only to retreat back up the stairs. Bilbo leaves his bag by the hall tree and follows it, kicking off his shoes at the door of the dandelion room. The shadow is tucked away in the corner, Peter and Wendy open in its lap.
“I hope you aren’t angry with me,” he says. It shrugs in response. He sits down and doesn’t miss the way it moves a fraction of an inch closer to the wall. “It’s not as if I could call you, you don’t tend to answer the phone.” Bilbo pauses. “Though you could do, I suppose.” That is a thought of another time. “Besides, these things are more or less mandatory in academia, you know.”
The shadow doesn’t respond, and Bilbo eyes the flowers on the wall. The dandelions have been rearranged what looks like multiple times since he’s been away. A set by the door form linear symbols like the ones the shadow once wrote on his hand in red ink pen. “I’ll sleep in my room tonight if you’re angry with me,” he says with a sigh.
The shadow reaches for him then, hand tight around his wrist, and pulls him closer. It flips to the end of the book, and runs its finger over, Certainly not. I have got you home again, and I mean to keep you.
Bilbo regrets buying an old house. More specifically, he regrets not buying a window unit. “How is it this hot in Scotland?” He is laying shirtless on the sofa, taking refuge from the sun and breathtaking humidity in the shade of his sitting room. The shadow appears at his side and Bilbo immediately shoves it back.
“No, no, you’re worse than a radiator. You’re literally hot to the touch, I can’t have you near me right now. I’m melting.” Bilbo is very much a byproduct of English weather. He does not handle heat with any measure of grace or self-control. The shadow disappears and Bilbo shuts his eyes with a groan. He needs to invest in a fan.
What he gets instead is a bowl of water tipped over his head and the shadow stomping up the stairs. Bilbo lets out a rather undignified yelp as he shuffles away from the ice cubes pooling at his sides, and follows it down the hall.
“You are an absolute prick,” he snaps as freezing water drips from the ends of his hair onto his shoulders. The shadow watches him for a moment before holding up Cherry-Garrard’s account of Arctic exploration. “The worst,” he says, grabbing the book out of its hands and opening to the first page.
He’s not certain when it is that he stops wearing his mother’s wedding ring— somewhere between afternoons spent in the garden with it tucked safely in his pocket, he simply stops putting it back on. He forgets for daylong stretches, then weeks, and before the first ghost of fall rattles through the willow trees, he hardly wears it at all.
The shadow finds him bent over an article on the ruins of Constantinople and holds out its hand, his mother’s ring in its palm. “Oh,” he says. “I must have forgotten it on the washing machine. Thank you.” He takes it, spinning it around in his fingers, gazing for a moment out the window at the overcast sky. It feels odd now when he slips it on, just a touch too heavy and a touch too cold.
So instead he searches through the back of his wardrobe for a small wooden box filled with the shadow’s many gifts. He pulls out a thin copper chain and threads the ring onto it, securing the clasps around his neck. The shadow watches him from the doorway.
“It was time,” he says. It kneels before him, holding something, and it takes a moment for Bilbo to recognise the golden glint in its fingers as the ring he gave to it nearly a year ago, more a bribe at the time than a gift.
“No,” he says, pushing it back into its fingers. “That one’s for you. I’ll keep mine around my neck.” He thinks of thanking the shadow, of whispering every echo of his heart into its ears. Instead he tucks his box away and sets about making dinner.
“So you do want to renew the lease?” His estate agent sounds skeptical at best.
“Yes. If you could mail me anything that needs to be signed, I’d appreciate it.”
“Right,” she says. “And you haven’t had any issues with the property? No-” she pauses and Bilbo bites the inside of his cheek. “No rotting food?”
“You know,” he begins, as the shadow’s thumb brushes against the nape of his neck. “I think I’ve just about figured that out. I’m not used to the humidity, and I imagine in these old houses a day or two of fruit on the counter just summons decay. I’m sure the other tenants made the same mistake.”
She is silent on the other line and the shadow twines a lock of his hair around its finger. It has grown out far too long and Bilbo reminds himself to get it cut before classes begin again. “Do you have plans to stay in Aberdeen long term, Mister Baggins? Because I have it on authority that the owners are looking to get rid of that place on nearly anybody’s terms.”
Bilbo has tried rather hard not to think about the future, but he doesn’t tell her that. “Ask me in a year,” he says instead. His mother would always remind him to leave when it feels right, but she gave no advice on when to stay. Though honestly, he shouldn’t be surprised. It was a miracle they lived at Bag End for as long as they did, and sometimes Bilbo wonders where she would have run off to if she never had a child to keep her in one place.
“For now,” he continues, “I just want to extend my lease.”
“Right. I’ll send everything along shortly.”
He thanks her and hangs up the phone.
The shadow trudges into the kitchen and waves his vibrating mobile before his eyes. “Oh sorry,” he says, taking it. “Has this been driving you crazy?” It nods and Bilbo glances at the screen. His cousin Otho’s name is displayed in tidy white letters, just above four missed call notifications.
“Odd,” he murmurs, before answering. “Hello?”
“Bilbo, it’s Otho. It’s been- I just, I have some news.” He sounds exhausted, a tad unsure of himself, and Bilbo’s stomach turns. He’s received these calls before and he’s made enough of his own.
“Tell me what happened,” he manages, letting himself sink to the floor. “Tell me now.” The shadow is at his side in seconds, clutching his shoulders, inspecting him for injuries and finding nothing but shaking hands. He hears Otho sigh on the other end. “Prim and Drogo were in an accident. Neither of them made it.”
“Oh,” he whispers, and that’s all he can say for a moment. This is familiar territory, he thinks. “Frodo?”
“Frodo is fine. He’s with Prim’s parents. I’m so sorry, Bilbo,” he says. “It happened two days ago, but it’s just been such an ordeal and I didn’t think- it was Prim’s mum who asked for you. The funeral is the day after tomorrow. I’m sorry,” he says again.
Bilbo’s breath catches in a staccato burst and the shadow holds him tightly against its chest. It gently pries the phone from his fingers and hangs up, before cradling Bilbo in its arms once more. They remain like this, splayed across the kitchen floor until Bilbo’s sobs give way to shallow breathing and the shadow wipes at his cheeks.
“I don’t know if I can do this again,” Bilbo whispers finally. The shadow runs its fingers through his hair. It’s a silly thought because he has to go. This at least he cannot hide from.
“Come on,” he says, his throat raw. He pulls himself up, and the shadow after him. “I have to buy a plane ticket.”
They spend the morning before his flight curled against each other in the dandelion room with a book he’d never read before. It is contemporary, written in long, languid sentences. It’s for his benefit, and he knows it, this is hardly the shadow’s type of story. But they read together regardless, jumping along characters on a timeline he has barely enough attention to grasp.
He glances at the clock and sighs into the shadow’s neck. “I have to pack,” he says but the shadow pushes on his shoulders, laying him back down, pressing the book into his hands. Bilbo allows himself ten more minutes, a handful of pages, while the shadow collects his things. He cannot help the tears that fall across his temple, that pool along the bridge of his nose. The shadow finishes packing but leaves his suit laid out carefully on the chest of drawers.
He lets out a shaky breath and the shadow sits by his side, wiping at his tears with rough fingers. “Three days,” he tries to say but his voice breaks and the shadow squeezes his hand. “I really do need to go.”
He dresses quickly, digs out an old garment bag for his suit, and makes for the stairs. The shadow presses their foreheads together, its fingers lingering against the nape of his neck. “Thank you,” he whispers, and he hopes it understands. It wipes one last tear from his cheek and he shuts the door behind him.
Frodo is asleep on his shoulder as Bilbo sways to the sound of empty chatter. He is grateful for the child in his arms, keeping him grounded in a sea of family members, most of whom he had seen a year and a half earlier at a funeral far less somber than this. Frodo spent the service clutching at Bilbo’s fingers with his small, soft hands, refusing to leave his side. And so Bilbo gave his eulogy to Primula and Drogo with their child in his arms and tried to the very best of his ability not to sound as bitter as he felt.
“Bilbo.” He turns to see Primula’s mother behind him, alone and clutching a mug of tea in her hands. He used to be so terrified of her, so afraid of her wooden spoons and snarling threats. But now she looks small, she looks tired.
“Misses Brandybuck,” he says and she seems to manage the skeleton of a smile.
“Please, it’s Mirabella now. Come sit with me,” she says. “You and I need to talk.”
He follows her up the stairs and away from the other guests, into what he recognises as Primula’s childhood bedroom. He lets out a soft, involuntary sound at the sight of Peter and Wendy tucked away alongside dozens of other old books on her shelf. Frodo shifts in his arms, but doesn’t wake. He sits on the edge of the twin bed and stares resolutely at his shoes. Bilbo hasn’t cried since he left for the airport but every corner of this room holds a memory that he cannot bear to relive hours after they buried Primula in the ground.
“It’s about Frodo,” she says, sitting straight and stoic by his side. “We discussed what would happen to him should Primula and Drogo pass, and it was agreed that my husband and I would take him. But we are old, my dear,” she says, and for the first time in his life, she looks it. “We will keep Frodo for as long as we are able, but there is no telling how long that will be. I fear-” she stops, and looks away. They sit in silence until she regains her composure, staring at the wall ahead of her, like she sees something in it that he cannot. “I fear giving Frodo a new home, only for it to be stolen from him in a few years time.”
“You want me to take him,” he whispers.
Mirabella turns to look at him and presses a papery hand to his knee. “I am offering,” she says. “We can raise him, we will manage, but he is your family too and you love each other dearly and I’ve always known the soul of you. You’ve never been waiting on the right lass and I don’t think you’re about to start. It’s an offer,” she repeats. “Not a request, not a demand. I want you to think about it and mention nothing to Frodo until you are absolutely certain.”
He nods, unable to say anything else, so she stands with no small amount of trouble and pats his shoulder before turning away. “I always considered you a child of mine Bilbo Baggins, don’t you forget it.”
Bilbo’s mother always told him to leave when it feels right. He would amend her oft-whispered advice, adding leave when it is necessary. This doesn’t feel right, the thought is burning a hole in his chest, but it feels necessary. Frodo clings to him outside of airport security, crying into his shoulder as Bilbo makes soft, soothing noises into his hair. Mirabella watches them with a look he cannot quite place.
“It won’t be for long, my darling,” he whispers into his ear. “Not long at all. I’ll see you soon.”
“How soon?” He sobs. Bilbo can feel his eyelashes flutter shut against his neck.
“Two weeks,” he says, meeting Mirabella’s eye over Frodo’s shoulder. “I’ll be back in two weeks.” She nods and Frodo sniffs loudly into his jacket. He glances at the clock, and reluctantly puts Frodo down, cleaning his face with a tissue from his pocket.
“I love you very much, you know,” he tells him, holding a hand to his wet cheek.
“I love you too,” he whispers, and then he is crying once more, his face pressed into his grandmother’s leg. Bilbo stands with a sigh and Mirabella kisses his cheek, lingering for just a moment to whisper, “Thank you.”
Bilbo doesn’t make it through the doorway before he is collapsing, folding in on himself like a paper doll, kept together by the shadow’s arms wound tightly around him. They lay with their backs to the front door, and Bilbo feels like a child again, scared of what will happen when it finally lets him go. He falls asleep in the hallway with the shadow’s fingers entwined with his, and wakes in the dandelion room.
For a single, beautiful moment, he looks at the yellow glow of flowers along the windowsill and he forgets everything— the funeral, Frodo, his decision to leave. But the moment doesn’t last, and so he sits up and reaches for his dressing gown. The shadow tries to pull him back, tries to keep him by its side but he shakes his head, mumbling something about a shower, and avoids every mirror he passes. Lying has always felt like a bit of a moral grey area to him, something he never quite minded in the past. But this is poison, seeping into his veins like lead paint, toxic and bleeding into his heart.
“I’m alright,” he whispers, as the shadow lingers like a question by his side. “I have to go in to work tomorrow, but for today I’ll stay.”
They cook lunch to Chopin and curl into each other with Peter and Wendy between them and when it starts to rain, a soft, steady, drip, the shadow runs its fingers over pages in the half light; my love, my love, my love.
“Oh,” he breathes, as Bilbo knocks twice on the door and steps inside. “I wasn’t expecting you back so soon.” His department head looks at him with a sad smile that speaks of experience.
“I-” he begins, but pauses, because for once he hasn’t really thought of what to say. The words are stuck in his throat, a constant, choking reminder. “They have a son, had a son, my cousins. He’s just turned five and he’s staying with his grandmother but I’ve agreed to take him.”
“I’m so sorry,” he says and Bilbo is silent for a moment, before he manages what he hopes may pass for a smile. “So this is my two weeks. I know you usually require four months but-“
“We’re no strangers to family emergencies here, Mister Baggins. Do not worry on it for one second. I’ll have Gandalf get things in order, and know that you’ll always have a place in Aberdeen should you find your way back up north.”
Bilbo can’t bring himself to say anything, so he nods, taps the desk with the tips of his fingers, and leaves.
Bilbo is packing his clothes into suitcases when the shadow appears before him. It is frozen in the doorway, unmoving, a silent monument to the pain in his chest. “I need to leave,” he says softly. “I’m moving back to Norwich to be with Frodo. And I can’t-” he keeps folding shirts, refusing to turn around because if he does he fears he may stop speaking altogether. “I can’t bring him up here, where he doesn’t know anyone. He’s lost enough, I need to go home.”
He turns, and his shadow is gone, replaced by the shapeless, shifting mass, the monster from his bedroom so long ago. “Please,” he whispers, his voice breaking. “Come with me. I know you can.” It doesn’t move. “You need to come to Norwich with me,” he says, raising his voice. “You need to come with me because I cannot stay here.”
For a moment it looks fuzzy, distant, like the static connection on his television, and then it is gone. Bilbo doesn’t yell, he doesn’t cry or shout or plead for it any longer. Instead he packs in silence, flipping on the bright over-head light for the first time in a year. He calls the moving company, his voice a distant hollow sound, and arranges to have everything picked up tomorrow.
He leaves the books, every one of them, where they are— nestled in shelves, piled on furniture, propping open doors. He leaves the books, and locks the front door behind him.