Bifur noticed the anomaly during one of his morning sweeps of the Erebor and Durin systems. He had backdoors into every electronic wi-fi-friendly device that the Durin circle owned – for their own good. Every morning, he did a check for anything out of place, any patterns he should look into, anything that might add to Thorin’s paranoia. And that morning, there was something amiss.
He took a sip of herbal tea and squinted at the screen. The line of code was innocuous, except for a tiny part of it, like the barest scratch left on a door lock after a burglary. It was a very sophisticated attempt to piggyback Dori’s internet usage and so get into the Durin network, to likely burrow away, worm-like, gathering scraps of information before pinballing back to its creator. Very clever. Bifur took another sip of tea and grinned.
He’d let the worm stay loose for a while, rendered harmless of course, and see where its path back home led. It was a risky strategy but if he simply cut off its head now, then Smaug would know and so would be able to assess Bifur’s level of skill and Bifur had put a lot of work into appearing as though he was only a mid-level hacker at best. Smaug thought Bifur was a simple-speaking, simple-minded fool, with only some vaguely-impressive skills. Best to let him keep thinking that.
An unobtrusive bleep let him know that Florella was online and greeting him. Her moon icon winked at him, he smiled back, rubbing at his ring finger. It was a good morning when he got to talk to his wife.
How goes the morning patrol? She typed.
A spot of something interesting.
Bifur’s writing came out almost as scrambled as his speech, but Florella had known him for years and after he’d been mugged, she’d applied herself rigorously to understanding his new way of communicating. According to her, he made as much sense as he always did. It was that sort of reassurance that made Bifur roar with laughter. It was why he’d married her in the first place.
He talked to her about the nibble he’d noticed and what he intended to do about it. She logged a copy of the code and said that she’d keep an eye out for anything similar. Smaug had his fingers in a lot of pies, but there were some areas that he hadn’t yet made headway into. It was probably only a matter of time.
Another couple of weeks, and I’ll be home again.
Nothing was likely to make Bifur happier. He bared his teeth in a smile and raised his mug of tea towards the screen. She couldn’t see the gesture but she’d know that he’d done it. She’d mixed the tealeaves for him herself, her first successful attempt at finding the right mix to soothe his terrible headaches. They’d been overwhelming ever since he’d first come round after the mugging. Initially he hadn’t been able to open his eyes, let alone walk or talk. Florella had always believed in the restorative powers of tea and had immediately set about creating something to help him. Her hard work had paid off.
The plants miss you.
I'll have my hands in the dirt again soon.
They both signed off from their very secure instant-messenger. No one could get into it except for them. Florella had work to get back to – the kind of top-level electronic security that required her particular set of skills live and in person. She preferred to stay hands-on anyway, rather than sitting behind a desk and overseeing everything from bureaucratic isolation. Bifur loved that about her.
He’d have time to see to the plants before going to tell Thorin all about Smaug’s latest gambit. Bifur and Florella's plant collection consisted of a couple of trays of flowering greenery – many colours and a beautiful combination of smells – as well as some larger plants in pots. It wasn’t safe to have a patch of green land of their own; a place to grow herbs for his tea along with flowers and vegetables, Smaug had made sure of that. The smell of crushed sweetpeas still made Bifur’s temper roll.
Smaug had made it clear that he'd go after the soft underbelly of each Durin. He’d sent some trusted friends after Florella a few years ago when she'd been in Hawaii for work. They’d cornered her outside a bar, apparently intending to attack and make it look like a mugging as a clear message. She’d kicked a couple of them, her stiletto boots making an impression, and had maced the one who’d thrown a punch. Then she’d screamed as loudly as she could, running back into the bar, knowing it would garner attention that Smaug didn’t want. The police had her attack on record. The moment she'd gotten home, she'd wiped out the biggest credit-card account belonging to Smaug’s mistress.
It was her version of a battleline being drawn. Smaug could play all the games he liked with her – she’d played them before, there were scars on her wrists and a parcel of memories she rarely shared to attest to that.
Bifur finished attaching the tiniest piece of tracking data to Smaug’s virus. None of the Dragon’s Den hackers would be looking for it, and it would delete itself once it reached Smaug’s system, once it had sent Bifur the information he needed. It hadn’t failed him before, and an unexpected attack was always the plan likely to be the most successful. He ate scrambled egg piled onto toast, thinking about Florella. She’d be working deep in a server room today, her silver-edged black hair all piled up, skewered with at least two biros, her full curvy figure clad in a brightly-coloured print dress over black leggings, her feet bare if she was doing delicate work. He liked thinking about Florella.
The flat felt empty without her. It wasn't large, but it was all they needed. It was every inch theirs and it was secure. Dwalin had made sure of that, along with Nori and his extensive knowledge of locks. Several other flats in the building were also occupied by Durins - Bofur, Bombur and his wife, Dori and Nori. The others all lived close by in other buildings, it was sensible to both spread out a little but stay within easy distance of each other, like a spider's web, or perhaps the points of a Venus flytrap.
Bifur ran a hand through his beard and sent a message to Thorin detailing that there was something urgent they needed to talk about. All in code of course, Smaug's hackers were good and any tiny mistake on Bifur's part could result in them gaining access to far too much. He was determined not to let that happen.
The plants were looking good. Bifur talked to them as he watered them and turned containers so that they all got the access to sunshine that they needed. They responded to his words and he felt better for having talked to them. It was a good feeling, pressing his fingers into the wet earth. It might have seemed like a strange combination of interests to some – high-security technology and gardening, but Bifur found he needed them both equally. They both helped soothe the frantic parts of his brain, particularly when Florella wasn't around. A combination of all three was best. Anything was better than the heavy fog caused by medication.
The white-and-purple violets were looking hopeful. Bifur nudged a knuckle against a petal. Once he got them looking just a little sprightlier, he'd present the pot to Bilbo. There'd be a tiny little device secreted in the container of course, something to keep an eye on who came in and out of the café when no Durins were around. If Bilbo complained and threw it out, well, Bifur had plenty more little secrets set up to keep an eye on their Baggins.
A violet motif would be a perfect tattoo for Bilbo. It would certainly be the most suitable; having anything Durin-related etched onto his skin permanently would be asking for considerable trouble. But violets, they were packed with hidden meaning. Bilbo had been looking at some of the Durins' tattoos with great interest lately. He'd end up with a couple at least. Florella had several, some she’d gotten years before meeting Bifur.
Bilbo had asked about Bifur's tattoos and Bifur had told him their stories, with Bofur translating as Bilbo didn't quite get his meaning yet. That wasn’t Bifur’s fault, he was being crystal clear – his family understood him perfectly. Hopefully Bilbo would pick up the trick soon enough, he should do with the amount of time he spent around Durins. Anyway, Bofur had worded it just about right – that Bifur had a sprawling tangle of ivy leaves tattooed down his left arm, from his shoulder to just past his elbow, beautifully detailed, like creeping shadows, like what Bifur saw so often behind his eyes, awake and sleeping.
Amongst the ivy peeped a couple of tulips, dusky pink and vivid yellow, a little unexpected burst of spring. They exactly matched the tulips that Florella had tattooed on her thigh. Everybody needed a little dash of light.
Bilbo had asked about the other tattoo of Bifur's that he'd caught sight of. He had a keen eye; most people didn't notice that one. Bifur had used to wear a wedding ring, but when he was mugged, the ring was ripped from his finger and never recovered. It still made him angry to think of that, his fists clenching and his diction harshening. He knew it'd been Smaug's people, but there wasn’t a scrap of evidence, certainly nothing to link to the man himself. But somewhere, Smaug had that wedding ring, a little trophy. Bifur knew it in his bones. One day Bifur was going to take from that bastard and he wasn’t going to stop.
Florella had used to wear a wedding ring too. Now, both of them had a tattoo on their left ring finger instead, a simple dark green band, a ring that nobody could steal.
Bifur ran a finger over his. He drained his mug and got to his feet decisively. The plants were smiling towards the sun and for the moment, the usual twisting shadows were only faintly invading his vision. He had a meeting with Thorin to get to, he’d likely take Bofur or Bombur with him – no Durin walked the streets alone if they could help it. Bifur slipped on fingerless leather gloves with a sharp greedy smile; of course if they met any of Smaug’s people on the way, well, that was a good start to the day too.
He raised his empty mug to the quiet computer screen. Florella would likely agree with him.