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Embers in the Wind

Title: Embers in the Wind
Fandoms: The Hobbit & xxxHolic
Pairing: None
Warnings: Angst.  So much angst.  With a tiny bit of crack.
Word Count: 3806
Disclaimer: If I owned the Hobbit, it would be ridiculous.
Summary: 5 People who Wouldn't Pay Yuuko's Price + 1 Who Would Have Given Everything He Had


Thorin finds the house after Azanulbizar. The dwarf is worn and weary, his shoulders bent with sorrow as he picks his way across the corpse-strewn battlefield. There are so many dead and injured; so many lost for what? Durin’s Folk still lack a home and Thorin doesn’t know how he’s going to protect them. He may not be a king without a kingdom but he’s still the only leader that his people have.

That’s when the dwarf lord sees it. The house is small but sturdy, bright and clean and out of place amidst his fallen dead. Every surface is carved in an unfamiliar style: too fanciful for men or dwarves, too sharp for elvish hands, and Thorin has never seen such fine glass windows in his life.

The dwarf thinks he must be dreaming. That’s the only explanation. Perhaps Azog’s final blow was harder than he’d thought. Perhaps he’s truly dead and this strange building is the entrance to his people’s afterlife.

Curiosity or fatalism, something draws him closer and the door swings open easily beneath his bloodstained hands. Thorin isn’t sure what he’s expecting but it’s not the crowded room before him – a thousand strange contraptions piled on the shelves – or the dark-haired woman who turns to glance his way. She is tall and very slender, her skin as pale as mithril, her outfit quite bizarre, and while she’s clearly not an elf, there is something ageless in her eyes.

“Hello, Thorin son of Thráin,” the woman says with a faint smile. “I have been expecting you.”

“You know me?” the dwarf attempts to answer, though it takes him several tries to clear the dust out of his throat. Even then his voice is hoarse from shouting and the woman’s face darkens with concern as she gestures him inside.

“Please sit down,” she tells him. “Sit down and have some tea.”

Thorin should refuse. He doesn’t know this woman and he certainly cannot trust her. But when he opens his mouth to say that, the dwarf finds himself accepting her hospitality instead. Soon he’s sitting on the divan, a tiny cup of fragrant tea cradled in his hands.

“That’s much better, isn’t it?” she asks as she settles in the chair across from him. “But you would not be here without a wish so tell me what you need.”

“Who are you?” the dwarf lord finally manages. “What is this place?”

“This is my home and I am Yuuko,” the woman answers easily. “I am a witch of the dimensions and I come when I am called. Tell me your wish and I will grant it if you agree to pay the cost.”

“The only thing I want is to protect my people,” Thorin tells her quietly, the battle of Azanulbizar still at the forefront of his thoughts. He’s not sure why he’s saying this – admitting his fears to this odd stranger – but perhaps it’s simply that this place does not feel real. “I want Durin’s Folk to have a home where my sister-sons can grow up without fear of cold or hunger and I think I would give anything for that.”

“Then I can offer you a deal,” Yuuko replies. “I know a place where your clan could settle freely, where all your kin would prosper and your nephews lead long and happy lives. I will tell you where and offer my protection in exchange for one small thing.”

“And what is that?” the dwarf lord asks suspiciously.

“Your birthright,” the woman tells him. “Or more specifically, a promise. You must give your word to forget your fallen kingdom and never seek to reclaim the lands of Erebor. If you make the attempt, then our bargain would be broken. Hitsuzen can only bend so far.”

As soon as Yuuko mentions the Lonely Mountain, Thorin knows that he had lied. He would give up much to save his people, would give his life and gladly. But he cannot lose his father’s kingdom. Azsâlul'abad means everything; tradition, love, and duty are twined within his memories, built into the stonework that his people dearly loved. The dwarf could not face Durin’s Folk if he agreed to let the dragon keep what he had stolen. He would not be able to face his sister-sons.

“Thank you for the offer, but I cannot accept your bargain,” Thorin says as he sets his empty cup back down. “My people need the hope of Erebor.”

“Then that is your choice.”

Yuuko does not seem angry. Instead she meets the dwarf lord’s refusal with grace and understanding and though he sees a touch of sorrow in her eyes, she does not try to stop him when he takes his feet again.

“May I offer some advice?” the woman asks as Thorin reaches for the door. He pauses and looks back to nod permission. “I’ve heard the mountains to the west are beautiful around this time of year. You may have that free of charge.”

“Thank you for the tea and the suggestion,” the dwarf replies before pulling open her front door. When he steps across the threshold, the world around him shudders faintly and then he finds himself standing on the battlefield, neither Yuuko nor her house anywhere in sight. Indeed, the whole encounter is fading quickly like the wisps of a sweet dream.

Soon Thorin has forgotten about the house completely. He’s left only with the sour taste of a bad bargain and a faint sense of certainty. The dwarf is not sure exactly where he heard this rumor, but he thinks that the Blue Mountains might suit his people’s needs.

---

Beorn wakes up next to Yuuko’s fireplace. The skin-changer has no memory of his arrival; his last clear thought is watching Azog kill his daughter, the pain of his own injuries nothing compared to the torture of that sight.

When Beorn looks down, there are still chains around his wrists, the ends torn and broken where he had ripped them from the wall. He must have fought his way out of the tunnels before collapsing but he can’t imagine who would have brought him here. Beorn doesn’t know where here is; other than the crackling fire, the sounds and smells around him are not familiar.

So the skin-changer yawns and stretches, marveling at the utter lack of pain. Although his kind heals quickly, injuries such as he had born should have taken days to mend. But the pain is gone completely, leaving nothing to distract Beorn from the embers of his rage.

“Did you sleep well?”

He startles at the voice, bringing up his arms defensively. Beorn doesn’t know where the woman came from; he could have sworn the room was empty and this woman is not the sort who might be overlooked. She’s tall for a human, slim and strangely dressed, and there’s something otherworldly in her scent. She watches Beorn fearlessly as he stands to his full height, the skin-changer's head almost brushing the ceiling of the room.

“Who are you?” he asks. “Where am I?”

“I am Yuuko and you are in my home,” she tells him. “You passed out on my doorstep so I healed your injuries.”

“Thank you,” Beorn replies. The words seem inadequate for the service that she’s done him and yet, he’s not sure he’s truly grateful to be the only one alive. He remembers watching his fellow skin-changers be cut down one by one; he remembers the tortures and the endless cruelty. Beorn remembers and he hates the orcs with every fiber of his being, the bear’s fury surging hot beneath his skin. He wants to tear into Azog and all the pale orc’s kindred, wants to hurt them as he was hurt with razor fangs and claws.

“You do have a wish then,” the woman says, watching Beorn calmly as his hands clench into fists. “I thought perhaps you might.”

“A wish? My only wish is vengeance for what those orcs have done,” he snarls, a rumbling growl rising from his throat. “I want to bathe the mountains in their blood.”

“And perhaps you shall,” she tells him. “But first you should eat. Some decisions are best made on a full stomach and I heard yours growling in your sleep.”

The abrupt change in topic throws Beorn off his stride. The skin-changer is suddenly reminded that he’s starving, truly starving, and he follows the woman willingly when she waves him toward the next room. Inside he finds a feast laid out on her table – the dishes like none he’s ever seen but every scent divine. Beorn’s host waits patiently while he eats his fill, pulling out some sort of liquor and sipping on a glass. She empties two whole bottles before the skin-changer sits back in satisfaction, but she doesn’t seem intoxicated when at last she speaks again.

“Down to business then,” Yuuko says, her dark eyes pinning him in place. “I can give you the retribution that you wish for. With my help, you would have the strength to destroy your enemies.”

Beorn almost says yes without asking for more details. He can almost taste the blood upon his tongue. But something in him balks; some shred of rationality slices through the rage.

“And what must I give you?” the skin-changer questions warily.

“That which lets you change your form,” the woman answers. “If you take my bargain then you would no longer be a skin-changer. You would only be the bear.”

“No!” Beorn roars in visceral denial, every fiber of his being rebelling at her words. And yet, when he stops to think about it, that doesn’t seem too harsh a bargain. He has nothing left to keep him on two legs instead of four. He has no home, no children, and if he must be alone, the bear does not feel that pain as sharply. At least the bear could kill his enemies.

But even then, Beorn knows he cannot do it.

“No,” he says again more quietly. “Azog and his kin tried to destroy my people. I will not finish the job for them, not even to claim vengeance for the wrongs that they have done. As long as I still breathe, there are skin-changers in the world. That will have to be enough.”

“You are wiser than I feared,” Yuuko replies with a sad smile. “And I wish you luck in your endeavors. I will not return here once you leave.”

“You have done enough,” Beorn tells her. He stands to his full height once more, the bear prowling restlessly underneath his skin. It has been too long since he changed his form and even without this woman’s bargain, tonight he will be hunting orcs again.

---

Lobelia has always known that she was meant for better things. Although her life is comfortable – her parents’ table never empty, her pockets never bare – the hobbit’s heart is filled with jealousy. No one else should have something that she doesn’t. No one else should dare.

So Lobelia takes where she can and bullies where she can’t, enforcing her rightful place among her peers with sneers and thievery. The child fights for dolls and playthings, for ribbons and nice clothing, no other lass permitted to outshine her finery.

As Lobelia grows older, her interests turn toward lads and jewelry but her faith in her own dominance remains. Instead of arguing over toys, she quarrels over fabric and the most expensive gemstones. Instead of taking cakes and ribbons from her rivals, Lobelia steals first kisses from the hobbits they adore. She doesn’t choose to court them – most lads her age are fools – but the lass wants to own their interest anyway.

She must always be first choice even when they marry others and she wants every hobbit jealous when she finally deigns to wed. Because Lobelia does not fight for second-best. She will marry into one of the richest, oldest, and most respected families in the Shire or she will marry none at all.

The hobbit thinks perhaps a Brewer; they make good money with their craft. Or perhaps a Took for power, though they’re known to be quite odd. Lobelia has ranked every eligible bachelor in the Shire by looks and family, by connections and ambition, and on that list the Baggins come somewhere close to last.

However, on one cool autumn morning, she takes a different route to market and her first sight of Bag End stops Lobelia in her tracks. She doesn’t know the smial’s name then. She only knows that it is beautiful, looking down upon its neighbors with an air of regal elegance. The garden outside is twice the size of Edmun Brewer’s and there are half a dozen real glass windows set into the walls. Everything about it screams position and old money, and oh, Lobelia wants.

“That’s the nicest home in Hobbiton,” she learns when she asks around. “One of the nicest in the Shire and it’s such a shame that dear old Bilbo is still a bachelor. A hobbit hole like that deserves a proper family.”

That home deserves Lobelia and living in Bag End becomes her singular obsession from that moment on.

She tries to court the owner first – or rather, get him to court her – but Bilbo Baggins proves oblivious. He doesn’t seem interested in Lobelia or marriage; he’s only interested in books and gardening. On the bright side, he’ll probably die alone – the daft old fool had better – and so Lobelia turns her sights on his more distant relatives. Those prove far more willing to see her many virtues and soon she’s planning a whirlwind wedding to Lotho Sackville-Baggins, her ceremony to be the biggest that the Shire has ever seen.

Lobelia travels all the way to Bree in order to buy fabric – only the finest satin will adorn her wedding gown. But when she’s looking for the seamstress, the lass stumbles into a shop that she has never seen before. Every shelf is adorned with the tackiest of knickknacks, the furniture is worn and tattered, and the woman in the center of the chaos is not dressed for company. She appears to be wearing a robe and nothing else, her long limbs draped languidly across the sofa as she glances toward the door.

“So, you have a wish then?” the woman asks. She doesn’t sound particularly welcoming – rather more indifferent – and Lobelia bristles at the tone.

“I shall show myself back out if that is how you treat your customers,” the lass snarls, conveniently forgetting that she entered by mistake. “I will not buy fabric here.”

“I do not sell fabric,” the human scoffs. “I deal in dreams and wishes, girl. So tell me what you need.

Lobelia does not mean to answer. But she finds herself admitting her heart’s desire anyway.

“I want Bag End. I want to possess it utterly.”

“There is always something,” the woman replies with a chill smile. “Although I admit that is a new one. Most people come to me for more than the fulfillment of their greed. But a bargain is a bargain. Pay my price and you will have the home you seek.”

“You think I need your assistance?” Lobelia asks scornfully. “I will have Bag End through my own efforts and I do not intend to pay you for the privilege.”

With that, the lass storms out of the building, dismissing the strange woman from her mind. She has no time for nonsense when she must plan a wedding and this is only the first battle in a long ongoing war. Indeed, Lobelia does not need some human to help her claim her smial. Bag End is hers by right – or will be – and she will win through perseverance; Bilbo Baggins cannot live forever after all.

---

Thrór has been dreaming about dragons. Ever since the Arkenstone was found, he has dreamt of crimson dragons destroying Erebor. They sweep through his kingdom on wings of hate and fire, slaughtering his people without mercy beneath their massive claws. Thrór cannot stop the rampage, he can only watch it helplessly, and he wakes up every morning with screams still ringing in his ears.

But dwarves do not bow their heads to nightmares. Thrór will not give up the King’s Jewel to some shiver of ill omen. Instead he displays the gem upon his throne for everyone to see.

With the Arkenstone shining behind him, the dragons that he dreams of are easy to dismiss. Only a fool would try to challenge the might of Erebor and even the elf lord Thranduil is forced to bow his head in recognition when he seeks an audience.

That submission is the sweetest. Thrór's dealings with the elves have long been fraught with chilly smiles and banked hostility, hidden insults on both sides accompanying each deal. Thranduil is the type to haggle over every piece of silver while demanding sheer perfection and the dwarf has often wished to tell the elf king where he can shove his pretty sneers.

So Thrór does exactly that and watching Thranduil eat his pride is well worth the nightmares. The dwarf would bear much greater tortures to see the lord of Mirkwood bow.

But the dreams refuse to stop. Night after night he sees his city burning. Night after night, he sees his treasures stolen and the dwarf king begins to watch his people with suspicion in his eyes. Perhaps the dragons are a warning sent by Mahal; perhaps Thrór should be watching for treachery within. So he guards his secrets closer and swallows down his weakness; the dwarf lord does not need to sleep when he has the Arkenstone.

Of course, force of will can only do so much and Thrór is dozing on his throne when a strange human woman suddenly strides into the room. She is two heads taller than his guards and dressed outlandishly, yet no one seems to notice her presence except him.

“Greetings, Lord of Erebor,” the woman says with a short bow. “My name is Yuuko Ichihara and I know the dreams that haunt you. I know the dangers of red dragons and I would help you if I can.”

“Are you a witch then?” Thrór asks, raising a skeptical eyebrow. “Only a witch or a lunatic would claim to see the future and only a fool would believe the words you speak. But perhaps I shall oblige you in this nonsense. Tell me, what would be the price of your assistance? What must I give you to dragon-proof my kingdom with your great magic now?

“The cost would not be high,” Yuuko answers calmly, ignoring or oblivious to the king’s sarcastic tone. “Merely that which holds cosmetic value: the shining Arkenstone. Give me the symbol of your pride and I will end your dreams of fire. Although you cannot deny Hitsuzen, what must come may be more gentle if we try.”

At this, Thrór bursts into mocking laughter. The king has guards and warriors – the best of seven kingdoms – but one frail human woman thinks that she can turn the tide? Yuuko thinks that she alone can stop a dragon and Thrór is almost tempted to say yes just to see the woman fall. But he will not pay his greatest treasure for the chance. He will not give up the Arkenstone for peaceful dreams or martial power; he will not give up the gem for anything.

No, this bargain is a swindle. This witch is trying to cheat the King Under the Mountain and such deception cannot stand. Thrór will have the woman executed and see who’s laughing then.

“Seize her!” he shouts, leaping from his throne and waving at his guards. “Do not let her escape!”

“You are a fool,” she says even as his guards ignore him. “A greedy, stubborn fool.”

Then Yuuko snaps her fingers and Thrór wakes up in his chambers. His blankets are tangled all around him and when he looks down, the Arkenstone is clenched in his left fist. Not just a dream then, but the dwarf lord stands by the choice he made. The King’s Jewel is his alone and no witch of dreams will steal it from him, no matter what the cost.

Two months later, Smaug attacks.

---

Thranduil is holding his wife’s body when the woman finds him, kneeling in the bloodstained mud where his beloved fell. Silent tears stream down his face, salt burning lines of agony across his ruined skin. Yet that is a minor irritation compared to the endless well of sorrow that splits his heart in two and he doesn’t notice the woman’s presence until she sits down next to him.

“I am sorry for your loss,” the stranger says but Thranduil only snarls.

“What do you know, human?” the elf lord sneers, made vicious in his grief. “What do you know of living for eternity while those you love are gone?”

“I know more than you think, Lord of Mirkwood,” she answers quietly and Thranduil is shocked to silence by the eons in her eyes. “I cannot bring her back. That is beyond my power. But if you truly wish it, I can help to ease your pain.”

“How?” he asks, voice cracking on the word.

“You are injured,” the woman tells him, raising her hand and pointing at his flame-ravaged face. “Such dragon scars will not mend naturally. However, I could heal them with my magic if you agree to trade me all your loving memories. You would not forget your wife existed but you would not remember why you grieve.”

Thranduil doesn’t know where this woman came from or if she truly has the power to heal him as she claims. No human has such magic and she does not seem a wizard; if she had come to his palace with this offer only a few short weeks ago, the elf lord would have laughed her out the door. But that was before his lady fell. Now the thought of being numb is a seductive siren’s call.

But when he looks down at his wife’s body, the elf knows that he cannot take this deal. Thranduil doesn’t stop for her sake. His beloved would never wish him misery. But he doesn’t truly know how this bargain would affect him and he cannot risk the danger to his son. Legolas contains the best of both his parents and the elf lord cannot risk forgetting him as well. His child may have lost his mother but he deserves to grow up with a father who hasn’t sold his heart.

“Thank you for the offer, but I am afraid I must decline,” Thranduil tells the woman and when he blinks, she’s gone. Only a faint impression in the dirt proves that he did not dream their meeting and the elf strokes a few strands of hair away from his beloved’s face before rising to his feet.

Thranduil buries his grief beneath his duty and returns to the Mirkwood in a joyless victory. He gives his wife’s body to the forest as is their people’s custom and he holds his child gently when the boy begins to sob. The elf lord does not join him. He has wept already and if he allowed himself to cry again, he does not think that he would stop.

Over the centuries that follow, Thranduil watches Legolas grow into the spitting image of his mother and he doesn’t think he’s ever been more proud of anyone. His son is strong and brave and skillful, everything a prince should be, and yet the elf lord cannot seem to tell him just how deeply he is loved. Instead his words of praise all turn to poison as an endless tide of bitterness pours like silver off his tongue.

Thranduil can’t forget his grief and sorrow no matter how he tries and he drinks almost constantly from morning until night. The elf drinks to ease the ache of his old burn scars and the agony of loss. He drinks until he cannot see straight and then staggers to his chambers, Legolas often the only thing keeping him upright. Every time he wakes, Thranduil hates himself a little more. But that only makes him crueler when he spirals down again and in his deepest cups, the elf lord knows that he should have taken that fell bargain.

He cannot bear to tell his son about his mother anyway.

---

“She told me this would end in tragedy,” Thorin tells his burglar when the hobbit sinks down next to him. “She told me that my people could be safe and happy if I abandoned Erebor.”

“Who told you?” the hobbit asks a little wildly. He looks around the hilltop, hoping for someone – anyone – who might help save the dwarf lord. Thorin is clearly badly injured but maybe... maybe an elven healer could close that gaping injury. Although the dwarf has made mistakes, Bilbo does not want to lose him. He does not want to see a dear friend die.

“The witch… The witch of the dimensions,” the dwarf gasps, coughing up blood as his burglar watches horrified. “She offered me a bargain but I would not take it… I wanted to give my sister-sons a future, that’s what I told her. But all I’ve done is cost them both their lives.”

“What? What are you talking about?” Bilbo demands. Fíli and Kíli can’t be dead. They were always so full of life, so young and happy, and the thought of their cold bodies sends the hobbit spiraling. “You… You must be mistaken. Maybe they were injured, just like you are. Maybe… You’ve got to stay alive. I’ll go get help. We’ll find them. We’ll patch you up and everything will be just right as rain.”

The hobbit starts to stand but Thorin grabs his arm and while Bilbo could have pulled free, he just doesn't have the heart.

“No, my friend,” the dwarf lord tells him, every word a struggle. “It is much… too late for healers. I am sorry, truly… but I do not want to die alone. I only wish that we might part in friendship and… that… you can forgive me for my actions earlier. If more people cared… for love and family over the bright… shine of treasure, this world would be a… far more welcome place.”

“Of course, you’re forgiven,” Bilbo replies before he sinks back to his knees. “And I’m sorry too. I’m so sorry for everything.”

The burglar starts to weep as he sits there next to Thorin, holding his hand gently while he slowly breathes his last. Bilbo would have given anything to change the dwarf lord's fate. He would have stolen back the Arkenstone and traded it away. He would have made a bargain with a wizard or a dragon or the witch that Thorin spoke of, begging them to take his life in his companion’s place.

But no one comes to join the hobbit. No one offers him a deal. Bilbo holds his lonely vigil with nothing but the shriek of wind and the distant sound of battle to keep the burglar company.


End.