I do not own anything written by J.R.R. Tolkien, and anything Araceil came up with in Fate be Changed belongs to her.


2941, T.A.:

"I'm looking for someone to share in an adventure."

Bilbo stared in shock at the tall, long-bearded, ancient Man leaning on his staff, that had interrupted his blissful morning blowing smoke rings (outside of Bag End — even if it hadn't been a beautiful day, Sakura had made it clear without saying a word that she didn't approve of smoking inside the burrow). Even the Man's mode of dress was odd, a gray robe rather than pants and shirt, and he was made even taller than he already was by a gray, pointed hat covering his long white hair. But it wasn't the strangely familiar Man's appearance that rendered Bilbo momentarily speechless, but what he'd just said. He's here for Sakura! Thankfully, she was off on one of her visits to her ranger friends.

"In an adventure?" the earth-haired Hobbit finally managed to say. "No, I don't imagine that anyone west of Bree would have much interest in adventures. Nasty, disturbing, uncomfortable things. Make you late for dinner. Good morning." Bilbo rose from his bench just inside the wood fence fronting the stone-paved path that ran past his round, green front door. He walked along to his mailbox and pulled out the morning's delivery and looked through the envelopes, studiously ignoring his unwanted visitor in the hope that the Man would take the hint and go away.

But the Man didn't take the hint, instead ruefully shaking his head. In a deep, gravelly voice, he said, "To think I should have lived to be good morninged by Belladonna Took's son, as if I was selling buttons at the door."

Wait ... his mother? This Man had known his mother?! Almost against his will, Bilbo looked up again at that craggy, weather-beaten face. "I beg your pardon."

"You've changed, and not entirely for the better, Bilbo Baggins."

"I'm sorry, do I know you?"

"You know my name, though you don't remember I belong to it. I'm Gandalf, and Gandalf means me."

"Not Gandalf the wandering wizard that made such excellent fireworks? Old Took used to have them on Midsummer's Eve! I had no idea you were still in business." Now, Bilbo abruptly knew where he had seen this Man before, a Man he hadn't thought of since the days just after Sakura had appeared out of nowhere. Then he had wished for Gandalf's presence, to solve the mystery that was his unwanted guest and to take her off his hands. Now ... one hand went to the pocket where he kept his mother's engagement ring.

"And where else should I be?" Gandalf huffed. "I'm pleased to find you remember something about me, even if it's only my fireworks." He thoughtfully gazed at the increasingly nervous Hobbit, then nodded decisively. "Well, that's decided. It will be very good for you, and most amusing for me. I shall inform the others."

"What?" Bilbo gaped. Gandalf was talking about him? Not Sakura? "No, no, wait," he babbled, "we do not want any adventures here, not today." He winced. We? "I suggest you try over the Hill or across the Water. Good morning." He bolted for his door, slamming and locking it behind him. Back flat against the wall, he shuffled along to the nearest window and leaned around to glance outside, then slumped in relief to see the gray-clad back of Gandalf vanishing around the bend in the path that circled around the Hill.

/oOo\

Eradon watched in awe from the underbrush as Sakura crept on bare, crimson-furred feet toward the browsing herd of deer. Oh, he wasn't surprised by her silence — she was a Hobbit, after all — but she was also well away from the edge of the clearing, and however little a profile she might present with the way she was crouched she was also in plain sight. Yet even though several of the deer had looked straight at her, none of them had so much as twitched in alarm.

Then came the part he hated with a passion: she had decided she was close enough and sprang forward toward her target, one of the young bucks. A quick rush, one prodigious leap (for a Hobbit), and she landed on the buck's back. Even as it started to whirl in place as the rest of the deer in the clearing bolted, she threw herself forward between its still-small rack of horns and her knife flashed across the buck's throat. Then she was throwing herself back and off, tucking to roll across the meadow grass even as the buck collapsed, kicking and spraying blood from severed arteries.

Eradon ran forward, heart in his mouth, then relaxed with a sigh of relief as Sakura rose to her feet — she'd pulled it off yet again. The two stood side by side in companionable silence as they waited for the buck to stop moving. When it was well and truly dead, he gave her a moment to walk forward alone and place a gentle hand on its head in regret and thanks, then the pair quickly went to work skinning the carcass and carving out and wrapping up cuts of meat in the skin for transport back to camp. He eyed her knife as they worked, a blade made to her own specifications by a blacksmith in Bree and more a shortsword (again for a Hobbit), and a vicious-looking thing with its reinforced back and single edge except for the double-edged curved tip. That blade was made for more than skinning carcasses, and now all the rangers had one like it.

"You know, it still amazes me to watch you practically walk up to the deer like that," he said conversationally as they finished up. Sakura glanced up from where she was wiping her knife clean of blood before returning it to its sheath. "You say that every time," she said with a grin for their now-traditional routine. "It's still a family Art that I'll be teaching to any future husband if he wishes and my children if and when I have any, and no one else."

He sighed with theatrical regret, delighting in her tinkling laughter at his traditional response. Then as nonchalantly as he could manage he asked, "Have you considered starting to use your bow for hunting? Your skill for archery has really improved."

Sakura's gaze sharpened, then softened as she noticed his forced ease. "Watching me stalking dinner bothers you that much?" she asked softly, then shook her head without waiting for a reply. "No. At least, not yet. I need to keep in practice with my Art. Besides, I'm not that good a shot yet, and I'd rather not waste a goodly part of an afternoon tracking down a wounded buck because I missed my shot. Not when I could spend it on other things like ... oh, I don't know ... practicing my archery?" She grinned at Eradon's rueful laughter, then slung her share of the skin-wrapped meat up over a shoulder. "Now let's head back to camp, so I can get started on that practice and you all can tell me the latest news — in Quenya this time, for practice. You never know when I might need to talk to some Elf," she finished with a grin.

/oOo\

Bilbo all but slunk out of the front door of Bag End, head twisting as he looked all around for the huge, gray-clad visitor of the morning. He almost hadn't left the house, he'd been so shaken by the earlier encounter, but in the end had decided he was being foolish — if Gandalf chose to return, Bilbo couldn't think of how he could keep the wizard out.

Besides, the Hobbit had a hankering for fish, and with Sakura (thankfully) away visiting her ranger friends he could indulge in the day's catch from the closest river without making her nauseous and have the burrow aired out by the time she got back the next morning.

So he made his nervous way down the Hill to the market, without catching so much as a glimpse of Gandalf — a good thing, too, since as soon as he reached the market he was mobbed by children, demanding to know where Sakura was and disappointed to learn that she wouldn't be joining them. It was the work of a few minutes to shoo them back to their mothers, and he soon had his fish wrapped up and was headed back home. So far, so good. Now he could only hope that Gandalf had taken his rejection seriously and moved on to look elsewhere.

That night, when he answered the knock on his door just as he was sitting down to enjoy his fish, and found a massive, tattooed, armored and heavily armed Dwarf on his doorstep, his heart sank as he realized that he had hoped in vain.

/oOo\

Sakura yawned as she walked through the dark up to Bag End, the stone-paved path hard under her weary feet. She had mentally kicked herself for her decision to return that evening several times during the long walk, but once started she had been determined to finish it and now finish it she finally had.

She unlatched the door and stepped through, careful not to trip over the circular opening, and gratefully swung the backpack full of fresh meat along with bow and arrow-filled quiver off of shoulders still sore from her archery practice. At least I'm improving, she thought, .then gagged slightly at the smell wafting through the burrow, a mix of fish and pipe smoke. Yes, she definitely should have spent the night with the rangers and given Bilbo a chance to air out the burrow before she returned. Ah, well, too late now, she'd just have to remember in the future.

"Bilbo, I'm back, with enough —"

She broke off as her tired mind finally registered the presence of one old Man and thirteen Dwarves, all staring at her along with an unhappy Hobbit. She stared back at everyone staring at her then, pitching her voice lower, said, "So, Bilbo, will you introduce me to your ... friends?"

/\

" ... and Thorin Oakenshield."

Sakura's eyes widened at that last name in the series of introductions. The identification of the Man as Gandalf hadn't been too much of a surprise, she'd had her ranger friends' description to go by (he played a rather prominent role in some of the stories they'd told her), but Oakenshield's came as a shock.

She bowed in her seat, cudgeling her mind for the proper polite response, then when the once-mentioned in passing phrase failed to come mentally shrugged. "So, what brings thirteen Dwarves and the Gray Wanderer to Bag End?" she asked instead.

Thorin glowered. "Our business is with Mr. Baggins. We have need of a burglar." He motioned toward a white-haired and -bearded Dwarf — Balin — and the other Dwarf reached into a coat pocket and pulled out a folded-up sheet of paper.

For a long moment Sakura simply sat and stared, trying to make the words 'Baggins' and 'burglar' fit in the same sentence and failing miserably. For that matter, 'burglar' and 'Oakenshield' didn't go together any better. "Just what does the king of Erebor in Exile want with a burglar?" she demanded, reaching out to accept the offered paper.

Thorin's ire eased as an eyebrow raised. He leaned back in his chair and gazed at her contemplatively. Finally, he said, "The time has come for the Dwarves to reclaim our home."

For the first time in years a wave of homesickness washed over her, as she remembered a century-old ranch house, wide open star-filled sky with the promise of rain in the clouds rolling in, a trip up into the mountains for sledding and while the men folk picked out a Christmas tree, her parents and older brothers and sisters, laughter and love around the dinner table...

With an effort that almost left her shaking, she thrust her childhood memories from before the War aside to focus on the present, and the Dwarves that inhabited it ... and frowned as she finally looked at them — as individuals and not just Dwarves. Yes, there were a few warriors among them, the one with tattoos across the top of his head — Dwalin? — was one, certainly, and the story behind Oakenshield's nickname proved his own qualities. And the young ones (at least, she thought they were young) were trained. But the rest ...

"You obviously aren't planning on a frontal assault," she finally said with a wry smile, "so just what do you need recovered" — the rangers' stories had Oakenshield's greatest fault a prickly, stiff, unyielding sense of honor that epitomized the Country song lyrics 'If I didn't earn it I don't want it', so there was no way he actually wanted to steal anything — "and what does it have to do with taking on a Dragon?"

/\

Thorin had to admit that he was reluctantly impressed with the addition to the evening's discussions. He had been very underwhelmed by their host when he had first arrived. If it hadn't been for Gandalf, he would have stormed out as soon as he got a good look at Mr. Baggins ... well, that and they desperately needed a burglar, but the more he saw of him the more he wondered just what Gandalf was thinking. Mr. Piper, though, was a seam of very different quality ore.

Oh, he was as stunningly beautiful as Mr. Baggins (was that how Men saw those anorexic pointy-eared noses-in-the-air self-important Elves?), though more modestly dressed in his leathers. Too thin for real beauty, but his ruby hair and sparkling lapis lazuli eyes added to his childlike size to make any Dwarf that saw him instantly protective.

Not that he was likely to take any offer of protection well. By the knife on his belt, the bow and quiver slung on the backpack he had set aside, the way he moved, and the way he had obviously just sized up the company, Thorin suspected that this was the first Hobbit he'd seen that could take care of himself.

And he knew what questions to ask, and Thorin doubted he'd be able to get away with the partial answers and misdirections that dealing with Men had taught him. And Mr. Piper was patiently waiting for those answers.

Finally, Thorin reluctantly growled, "We seek the Arkenstone. With it, I can command the service of the army I will need to defeat the Dragon."

"And this 'Arkenstone' is somewhere in Smaug's horde?" At Thorin's curt nod the Hobbit smiled cheerfully. "See? That wasn't so hard, was it?" He ignored the stirring among the Dwarves as some took offense at his cheek, and looked toward to Gandalf.

/\

Gandalf was actually finding it somewhat difficult to focus on the discussion, so fascinating did he find that discussion's interlocutor. He had never imagined that a Hobbit like Mr. Sakura (and where had that name come from?) Piper could possibly exist, not here in the Shire — outside of perhaps the Took. Worse, it had been too long since he had visited the Shire, or even west of the Misty Mountains. In his absence Belladonna Baggins — his best source of information for happenings in the Shire — had died too young, and that long absence meant he hadn't had the opportunity to cultivate a new one.

Not that he had truly needed a source before now, beyond a chance to rest his soul among a simpler, happier people that looked on him with a mildly tolerant suspicion rather that awe — to delight in their small affairs and forget about the fate of all of the peoples of Middle Earth for a time.

But as a result he had been blindsided time and again: by the too-early death of his friend; by the changes in her son from an adventurous youngling always running off on the mini-adventures possible for the very young to the staid, satisfied, settled mature Hobbit's Hobbit; and then by the existence of Bilbo's very unusual friend, and the obvious trust Bilbo put in him. It had become rapidly obvious that if Sakura wasn't satisfied with the answer to the equally obvious question, then Bilbo wouldn't be going.

Then he got blindsided yet again.

Sakura leaned back in his chair and gazed speculatively at the wizard for a few moments before asking, "Why you?"

"I beg your pardon?"

"Why are you involved in this?" He waved at the numerous Dwarves. "Their motivation is obvious, but you?"

"And why wouldn't I be involved?" he asked. "Is it not a worthy quest?"

"Certainly," Sakura agreed. "But while I've heard all about the wonderful fireworks of Gandalf the Wizard from the Hobbits, the rangers' tales of Mithrandir — the Gray Wanderer — are rather different. You are a busy man, and however powerful you may be a day for you is as long — or as short — as it is for us. You wouldn't be a part of a quest this long without a reason. So what is it?"

Intrigued, Gandalf cocked an eyebrow. He'd caught the reference to 'the' Hobbits, as if Sakura wasn't one, however covered his feet had been with fiery fur-like hair when he'd walked through the door. And then there was the mention of the rangers — there were Hobbits that knew of their guardians just beyond their borders, but they were few. Yes, this Hobbit was definitely a mystery, but he was also right ... there was only so much time in a day, and he was likely one mystery that the wizard wouldn't have time to explore for months, perhaps years.

A regretful Gandalf sighed softly, before answering. "I, too, am concerned about the Dragon," he admitted. "There is an Evil rising in the world, and it is likely to strike from South and East. If Smaug is allied to that Evil, the results will be catastrophic."

Sakura's gaze sharpened, then he nodded. "And with Smaug gone and a King once again Under the Mountain — and almost certainly a refounded Dale — not only is a weakness in your defense eliminated but you're stronger than ever."

Then before the Wizard could respond he asked the question Gandalf had been expecting and trying to come up with an answer for. "So why Bilbo?" Gandalf thought he could see humor lurking in the Hobbit's eyes, reflecting in the lamp-light. "I know all about the two abiding flaws of wizards, but I also know all about Need To Know," — (Gandalf could hear the capitalization) — "and I need to know."

"And just what are a Wizard's 'two abiding flaws'?"

Yes, the impish grin that spread across Sakura's face definitely was not feigned as he replied, "An unfortunate tendency to deal in half-truths and misdirections, and an equally unfortunate tendency to meddle." Thorin snorted, remembering his encounter with Gandalf in Bree that had been the catalyst for their adventure, as several of the other Dwarves grinned, and Sakura's smile broadened. "Well?" he asked again, laughter in his voice.

Gandalf chuckled ruefully for a moment — it had been a long time since someone had so thoroughly set him on his back foot, with a smile all the while — then shrugged. "I am afraid I don't know," he admitted.

"What?!" The exclamation burst from several throats, including Bilbo's, but Thorin quieted them with a sharp glance before turning back to glare at Gandalf. "Explain," he growled.

"Sometimes, when considering a problem, I receive ... premonitions, hints of what I will need," Gandalf replied. "I expected the Elders to reject your call to assemble the armies to deal with the Dragon — you have not yet recovered from your losses outside the gates of the mines of Moria, and they will not wish to incur even more." He paused when Thorin flinched — that battle had given the king in exile his title of 'Oakenshield' when he had lost his shield and picked up a wide oak branch to replace it, but it had also cost him his grandfather and younger brother. But when Thorin didn't say anything the Wizard continued. "I knew that we would need the Arkenstone to give you the authority to overcome the Elders' refusal, and so would need a burglar. While I was ruminating on who might fill that need, the thought of Bag End came to me with the crystal clarity of a true premonition."

Before Thorin could respond, Sakura spoke up, his good cheer vanished. "Gandalf, your premonitions — do they give you new knowledge, or simply focus on what you already know that's important?"

Gandalf looked over at the Hobbit, his interest again piqued at the question. "The latter," he replied. "You are familiar with such foretellings?"

"No, not personally," Sakura said, "but I had a friend that did." He paused, eyes darkening with memory, then started when Bilbo laid a hand on his arm. He forced a smile for his friend, then refocused on Gandalf. "Jason hated them, said it was like finding anonymous letters in his mailbox, with no return address and full of cryptic nonsense — that he might only understand in retrospect, or never make sense of at all. But they did prove useful from time to time.

"But you said that your premonition involved Bag End, not Bilbo?"

"Yessss, I did," Gandalf said slowly, realizing where Sakura was going. From the way Thorin straightened, so did he. And so did Bilbo, from the way the son of his old friend seemed to shrink down in his seat.

"And you didn't know about me," Sakura said. At the choking sound coming from Bilbo, he gripped his friend's hand for a moment before unfolding the contract. "It seems you have your burglar."