A/N: This has got to be one of my favorite chapters of The Skipper. hahaha That's probably why the title of this chapter is the Skipper. Oops.

Read, review, and - most importantly - enjoy!


LXII: The Skipper

I was standing knee-deep in rushing river water. My black jeans were drenched and were slowly soaking up water to the thigh. My boots were flooded, weighed down by the thick water gushing about my ankles. I was standing towards the shore of a river, near these wooden docks that reached out into the deep rushing waters. It was nighttime and there were only a handful of men standing on the docks, drunk and chattering amongst themselves. They had come from the town—probably from the local tavern. The town was familiar. I couldn't make it out how I knew it at first, but, slowly, the name dawned on me. Laketown.

Which meant I wasn't in the right place. As far as I knew, Gandalf had never visited Laketown. Well, I might Skip if I tried downing myself…

"A girl! There is a girl in the water!"

I glanced up at the men. One burly man with a curling black beard pointed at me and his companions turned to stare.

I smiled awkwardly and waved. "Hey. Nice night for a swim, huh?"

They gawked at me.

"Though I think I've ruined my boots," I said, lifting one foot out of the river and watching as the water come down in buckets. "Dang. They were designer."

"Why is she in the water?" asked one of the men (the one with blue eyes)

"Maybe she is a water maiden," muttered another (with a moustache). "The kind that seduce men at night and lure them to their deaths."

"I certainly hope I'm not seducing you," I said. "Do the words—not interested—mean anything to you?"

"She must be a witch. She is using water magic."

"She is just a girl!" cried the man with curling black hair.

"Can we use the term woman?" I asked. "It's a little more flattering to a twenty-two-year-old."

"Aunt Ana!"

The group of men paused and turned to stare at a slender man with long, brow hair. His eyes were wide as he stared at Ana. He seemed unable to form words for a minute, his lips moving up and down without anything coming out. Then. He managed a strangled: "Aunt Ana?"

I blinked. "Who are you?"

"You do not remember me? Years ago. I was a lad. You dove into the lake waters and rescued me."

"Nope." I shook my head. "Don't know what you're talking about."

"I am Bard."

"Nope. Still don't remember you."

He hesitated for a second and then released a heavy sigh. "Bard the Brat."

And then it hit me. A wide grin spread across my face ad I clapped my hands together. "Oh. Bard the Brat. I remember. Wow, brat. You've grown up at lot these last few years."

"You have not changed at all," said Bard. "What kind of witchcraft do you use? Can you teach it to me?"

I laughed and lifted a finger to my lips. "Shush. That would be telling."

"Bard the Brat?" asked one of his companions.

"She knew me when I was little," said Bard, sighing. "She was not the nicest aunt I had."

"But I was the funnest," I said, cheerfully.

I waded my way through the rushing river water. The progress was slow and water sloshed everywhere, but eventually I reached the dock and I held up my arms to Bard. "Help Aunty Ana up."

Bard reached out and grasped my hands. He hauled me up out of the river—sending droplets of water flying in all directions and splashing some of his friends—and onto the dock.

"The river is not safe during the day," said Bard. "And night is no better."

"I have my reasons," I said, pulling my designer boots off my feet and dumping the water back into the river.

"I still think her to be a witch," said the man with blue eyes.

"How rude," I said. "I'll have you know that I am simply a manly she-dwarf. Get it right."

"A manly she-dwarf?" repeated Bard.

I nodded.

"Ah," said Bard. "How rude. Allow me to introduce my friends. This here is Holden." (The man with blue eyes.) "And this is Gale." (The black-bearded man.) "And here is Fiorde." (The man with the moustache.)

"Hi," I said. "I'm Aunt Ana."

"You are not from Laketown," said Holden.

"Wow," I said, rolling my eyes. "Way to state the obvious. Are you by any chance related to Legolas? What gave it away? Was it my clothes? My weird way of talking? Or the fact that I didn't recognize my own nephew?"

"We are not actually related," said Bard.

"Quick! Grab the docks!"

"It's hard!"

"Try harder!"

"Kili! Do not fall out the barrel again!"

There was a splash.

"Kili fell out of the barrel again."

I froze. My head was cocked slightly to the side, listening carefully to the sound of splashing water and dwarven shouts. At first, I dared not to believe it. Not here. No way. Then, I spun around and sprinted to the end of the dock. The men of Laketown were staring at the water in confusion. I didn't blame them. It was not every day that Laketown was visited by a company of dwarves.

"Thorin!" I cried, coming to a halt at the end of the dock.

A dozen barrels with dwarves floating in them were clustered together in the water. Dwalin was holding on to a section of the dock, while the others held onto one another to form a sort of chain, so that no dwarf floated away downstream and was lost forever. Kili had, of course, fallen out of his barrel and was thrashing around in the water like a drowned rat.

Upon my arrival, all the dwarves look up at my beaming face.

"You," grunted Dwalin.

"I thought you had disappeared over the waterfall!" cried Ori.

"How did you beat us here?" asked Gloin.

I placed my hands on my hips and grinned down at them. "Please. You should become accustomed to my bizarre behavior by now."

"I could never become accustomed to you," said Thorin.

As I laughed, the men of Laketown sprinted forward and joined me at the edge of the dock. They peered down at the dwarves in the water, their eyes wide with wonder.

"I did not believe you," said Fiorde. "When you said that you were a manly she-dwarf. But it appears now that I was wrong to doubt you."

"You were right to doubt her," grunted Thorin. "She is not a dwarf."

"Shush," I said. "You're ruining my disguise."

"Then what is she?" asked Fiorde. "And what are you?"

Thorin caught hold of the dock and hoisted himself out of the barrel. He pulled himself up onto the wooden dock, dripping water everywhere. Then, he pulled himself to his feet and stared boldly up at Fiorde. "I am Thorin, son of Thrain, son of Thror, King Under the Mountain. And I am a dwarf." He did not pause for the men's awe, but turned to me. "And this is Ana. She is an idiot."

I smiled. "You have no idea how much I've missed you."

The other dwarves (starting with Gloin and ending with Bombur, who had to be pulled out of his barrel by seven dwarves, and Kili, who had to be fished out of the water by his brother) wriggled onto the dock and joined Thorin as proud, albeit wet, members of his company. Bilbo stood at the back, trying to wring the water out of his clothing. I grinned at him and he managed a weak smile back. I don't think he liked being wet very much.

Bilbo was shivering. He looked chilled to the bone. His face was pale and clammy. There was a heavy thudding my chest. Bilbo's face was overlapping with a blue eyed hobbit. A blue eyed hobbit who lay at my feet with a trickle of blood flowing form his right eye to the stone ground.

I blinked the image away.

Bilbo was staring at me curiously. I found my smile again and grinned his worries away. I would find Gandalf soon.

"We have come to slay the dragon, Smaug," said Thorin. "We do not expect you to join us or to support us, we only ask for food and shelter for a night so we may rest and recover before we venture to the mountain."

Holden's jaw was somewhere about river level. Fiorde kept glancing left and right, waiting for Bard or gale to make a move. Gale seemed too confused to even open his mouth and Bard kept staring at me, waiting for me to explain something. I shrugged, unable to keep the grin off my face. Finally, Bard stepped forward and said, "We are not the correct people to ask for food and shelter. However, if you are who you claim you are the Master of Laketown will be keen to speak with you. I can take you to his abode if you choose and you may discuss such important matters with him."

I giggled. "My nephew sounds so grown-up. Maybe he's not the brat I remember him to be."

Bilbo glanced at me and then back at Bard. "You are Ana's nephew?"

"No," said Thorin. "She is just being Ana."

"Aw," I cried, jumping forward and trying to hug Thorin (he dodged me). "You know me so well."

Thorin turned to Bard. "Take us to see the Master of Laketown. We have serious matters to discuss."

"Very well."

Bard led the way through the streets of Laketown while the Company, the other men, and I followed. It was not as late in the night as I had first assumed. Many people were still up and, some of them hearing the voices of dwarves, came outside to see the newcomers. Men, women, and children of all shapes and sizes were exited and horrified to see the creatures of legend (dwarves were very legendary in those parts) returning to the mountain. I smiled and waved at them all. The Company had very different reactions. You had the dwarves like Ori, who acted shy under all the attention. Then, you had those like Thorin, who were too majestic to notice the attention. (Actually, only Thorin was majestic. But Dwalin, Bifur, and Oin ignored the attention too.) And then you had Fili and Kili and those like them who played up the whole scene and smiled and waved and made "dwarvish show faces" for the children.

I strolled along with Fiorde, Bofur, and Gloin, chatting happily about my recent activities.

"My dad's from Bree," I said.

"Is he?" asked Gloin. "How did he come to your world then?"

"I don't know," I said, rolling my eyes. "I Skipped before he could tell me the story. I keep waiting and waiting and waiting to be Skipped back home, but no avail."

"Skipping?" asked Fiorde.

"Too much effort to explain," I said. "Just know there's a reason I haven't seen too much of my nephew these past years."

"Bard is older than you," said Fiorde.

"Age means nothing to Ana," said Bofur, smiling at me. "She is unique."

"Aw," I said. "You're precious." I turned to Fiorde. "Isn't he ridiculously lovely?"

"Um." Fiorde glanced at Bofur, with his rosy cheeks and braided beard, and then glanced back at me. "Yes?"

"He's the loveliest dwarf I have ever seen," I said, cheerfully. "I should have decided to marry you instead of Gimli," I told Bofur.

"You married my son?" asked Gloin, his face turning red.

"Almost married," I said. "We were engaged for awhile and planning a wedding with dwarf bridesmaids."

"Almost?" asked Fiorde. "What happened to end the engagement?"

"A ghost," I said.

"Oh yes," said Fiorde, nodding. "The past does often hold us back."

"No," I said. "I literally mean a ghost. Somehow, through future events that I cannot describe, Gimli and I ended up in a mountain haunted by ghosts and this ghost king called Raoulidor fell in love with me and tried to kill anyone who he thought I was dating. So, Gimli broke off the engagement." I shook my head. "Bofur, you wouldn't have done that to me, would you?"

"Of course not," said Bofur.

"Gimli would not be so unfaithful," grunted Gloin. "Not my son."

"Raoulidor was very scary," I said.

"Raoulidor?"

I glanced up ahead to see Thorin staring at me over his shoulder. He had caught the other dwarves' attention and everyone was looking around to see what this ghost business was about.

"The ghost king," I said, nodding. "He mentioned you, you know. He agreed with me that you were very majestic. Though Aragorn might come to rival your majesticness. We thought a majestic showdown was necessary."

"When did you meet Raoulidor?" asked Thorin.

"When did you meet Raoulidor?" I asked.

Thorin hesitated. For a second, I thought he was going to tell me. Then, he turned around and started a conversation with Bard the Brat and I was left out in the dark.

"Well, that was rude," I said. "He's been demoted from maid of honor."

"Can I be maid of honor?" asked Fili.

"Of course, you can," I said. "The dress will match your blond hair perfectly."

We arrived at the Master's Hall not long after that awkward conversation took place. The Hall was pretty grand. Not as Grand as Moria or Erebor or Minas Tirith or any of the other grand places in Middle Earth. And, of course, nowhere near as grand as Elrond. Actually, when you think about it, the Master's Hall wasn't really that grand. It was average. Below average on the grand scale. It was a so-so two story building at the far edge of town that overlooked the lake. It was designed with carved wooden arches and a dimly lit hall that was covered in every kind of fish decoration imaginable. I would not have been surprised I had seen that annoying talking fish on a plaque they sold in stores and whenever you poked it, it spoke in annoying voice—Big Mouth Billy Bass. Oh my God, if the Master had Big Mouth Billy Bass on the wall, I would throw that thing on the ground and stomp the life out of it… that fish and I have an ongoing feud.

Anyway, sitting down at one of the long, wooden tables that filled his hall was the Master himself. He was a fat, pockmarked man with stringy gray hair and yellowed teeth. He wore thick furs draped over his shoulder and held mug of ale in his right hand, which e drank long and deep from. Let's just say that the Master of Laketown could hold his own in a drinking contest with elves.

"Bard, my boy!" cried the Master as we entered the Hall. "What have you caught tonight?"

"Dwarves, Master," said Bard. "And a hobbit. And my long lost aunt."

I smiled and waved at the Master. He did not seem to notice me as his eyes fell on the dwarves. Wonder and awe filled him and the Master hurriedly rose from his seat.

"Well, may I drown in my ale if I be—dwarves? In Laketown? I thought the age of dwarves had come to pass."

"It has barely begun," said Thorin. "Greetings, Master of Laketown. I am Thorin, son of Thrain, son of Thror, King Under the Mountain. Me and my kin have come to reclaim our place in Erebor. We ask that you grant us food and shelter before we embark on our journey to the mountain to defeat the dragon, Smaug."

I don't really feel obliged to report to you the whole conversation between Thorin and the Master. It's one of those political I'll-Be-Nice-To-You-If-You-Be-Nice-To-Me conversations that don't actually have any real sustenance, but are necessary for the sake of manners. Basically, the ridiculously long conversation of who can out politic the other ended with Thorin promising to do his best to rid Laketown of the dragon and the Master promising food and shelter for the Company until the dragon had been defeated. Then, the Master (being quite the party animal) decided to hold a last-minute feast for the Company and soon the ale and the food was brought out and the merrymaking began.

"Ah—do not give her anything to drink." Dwalin plucked the mug of ale right out of my hands. "She is a nightmare when wasted."

"Hey, hey, hey," I said. "I can drink just as well as any of you. I'll have you know that I drink with elves—and the men of Rohan—and the men of Gondor—and hobbits—and just about everyone I've met. I have a very long drinking resume."

"And I have been drinking far longer than you," said Dwalin.

I sighed. "You've got me beat there."

"I thought age meant nothing to Ana," said Oin.

We were sitting around the end of one table. The dwarves were enjoying their alcohol while I had yet to obtain any—they kept obstructing my Ana-to-alcohol connection. It was quite upsetting.

"Let me drink!" I cried as Fili snatched away another cup of the intoxicating substance.

"No," said Fili. "I think it would be best to keep our host's hall in one piece."

"But I want to drink!" I wailed. "I want to drink my sorrows away!"

"What sorrows?" asked Kili. "You cannot fool us. We know you too well. You have been smiling since the moment we arrived here."

There was a dull thud. And Kili yelped. He spun around ,ready to retaliate to the person who had hit him on the back of the head. Only to find himself face-to-face with his grim uncle. Kili flushed and rubbed the forming bump on his head.

"How did I deserve that?" asked Kili.

"There was a fly," grunted Thorin. He wandered back to the Master's table, leaving us to our drinks.

"I think you got it," said Fili, hiding a smile. He slid the mug of ale down the table to me. I grinned my thanks at him and took a sip. God, I needed the alcohol.

"She is going to be hammered by the end of the night," said Dwalin. "Could I just beat her over the head with a hammer and shorten the process? It would achieve the same result with a lot less collateral damage."

"I don't appreciate the gesture," I said, taking another swing. "Down the hatch."

Despite the fears of the Company, I was one of the few people left conscious at the end of the party having consumed only one drink. Apparently, the Master's parties had a tendency to close with three-quarters of the guests unconscious. I was one of the remaining twenty-five-percent. The lights in the hall had been dimmed and most people were fast asleep. Some on beds, some on table tops, and some on the stone floor. I won't report to you all the details of a drunken night (on some of the escapades, I was sworn to secrecy), but I will tell you that it included a game of charades (where I guess Kili was acting out a rat every time he got up), some elf-name-calling competitions (Gale was surprisingly good at these for some reason), and a majestic-showdown (where Thorin blew away all the competition by simply blinking).

The cheerful night came to a close and I fought of the inevitable sleep that had haunted my past few Skips. (I really don't follow a normal sleep schedule. I live by the rule of Sleep When The Skips Allow—which isn't often.) I managed to nap for a whole fifteen minutes before the nightmares came.

Dead hobbits. That's where it began. Two dead hobbits lying at the feet of gurgling orcs. And me. Useless. Unable to help, but unable to die. Just watching as the orcs took the ring to Sauron. And then, there weren't just two dead hobbits. There were many, many more. The faces of Merry and Pippin upturned towards the blackened sky, their eyes glassy and unseeing. The Shire was burning, burning, burning. Hobbits screamed and fled as bruised orcs ran along the cobblestone roads, cackling. And then, there was Minas Tirith. Faramir bleeding in his father's arms. Aragorn watching from afar as his city was consumed in smoke and fire. Legolas weeping to himself and Gimli turning away from the sight, unable to look upon such horrors. Gandalf's tarnished white robes as the witchking drives his sword through Gandalf's chest. The world consumed in darkness. Burning, burning, burning. Black.

I woke up with a half-scream, half-choke. I was sitting on the wooden bench after falling asleep with my head resting on the table. The glanced around the hall at the darkened shadows of sleeping figures. Fili and Kili were knocked out on either side of me and Bombur was drooling on the table top just across from me.

Gandalf.

I took a deep breath and stood up.

I had to find Gandalf.

Careful not too make too much noise, I carefully made my way across the hall.

Gandalf wasn't in Laketown.

I wove around the sleeping bodies. My footfalls were heavy, but I tried to lighten them. Not too loud, I didn't want to disturb the drunkards.

I had to leave Laketown.

The stairs weren't too steep. They were easy to climb. Step by step, upwards, upwards, upwards, until I pushed open the creaking, crooked door and stepped out onto the flat, wooden roof of the Hall.

There was only one way to leave Laketown.

The air was bitter and the night was still. There wasn't a cloud in the sky and yet I could see no stars. No wind rippled across the vast lake. There was only a stillness that could not be disturbed.

I would have to Skip.

I stood on the edge of the roof, my toes hanging off the ledge. Below the Hall, down the wall, I could see the black waters of the lake. Perhaps jumping off here would not kill me, but if I did land in the water, I would not be able to climb back up. I would probably down if I did not Skip away in time.

The stillness infected my heart. Its steady beating suddenly dropped away and all I felt was an icy fear. I was shaking. From my damp boots to my chapped lips, I was shaking. It was far. It was far, far below. A small, shrill "Eep" escaped me.

"I thought you were afraid of heights."

I whipped around so fast that I almost fell of the ledge. I managed to keep my balance and I gasped for air when I saw the other person on the roof. Thorin, his arms crossed over his chest and his face grim, watched me with masked eyes.

"I am," I said. "I'm about to throw up."

"Then why are you up here?"

"You don't want to see me throw up," I said. "It's not attractive."

"Unless you only pretended to be afraid of heights."

"You should go back down to join the others. I'm very ugly when I throw up."

"I have seen you at your ugliest," said Thorin. "I have seen you cry."

I opened my mouth to respond, but then I stop. Somehow, despite my trembling and despite my overwhelming sense of terror, I managed to smile. "Yeah. I'm pretty ugly when I cry."

"Very," said Thorin. "I have never seen anything uglier in my life."

"That's because you've never seen me throw up."

"You are not going to throw up," said Thorin. "You are going to jump."

I didn't deny it. I glanced over my shoulder at the black water. Throwing up was still a possibility though.

"I need to jump," I said.

"Why?"

"Because I have to Skip."

"Why?"

"Because I have to find Gandalf."

"Why?"

"Because I have to save Frodo and Sam."

"Why?"

"Because I have to save Middle Earth."

"Why?"

"Because I have to, okay!" I practically screamed at Thorin. I practically verbally threw the words at him.

He wasn't affected, though. He just stood there with his arms crossed, staring at me with that same masked expression he wore when he first came onto the roof. "You did not answer my question."

"I have to Skip," I said.

"No, you do not."

Before that moment, I had never realized how blue Thorin's eyes were. They were ridiculously blue. The kind of cold, piercing blue that made me wonder if he could read minds, if he knew what I was thinking at that very moment, if he knew that I could give anything to be able to step away from that vomit-inducing ledge and run across the roof to him and go back down to the festivities with him and ignore any responsibilities I had towards saving Frodo and Sam and all of Middle Earth until a later time. I wondered if Thorin knew that. His blue eyes said he did know, but common sense said he didn't. But, if his blue eyes could read my mind, then he knew that there was no way I would ever do what I wanted, because there are some things, some things that even I cannot be selfish about.

"You're wrong," I said. "You're wrong. I have to Skip. I have to find Gandalf so I can tell him to save Frodo and Sam so Middle Earth can survive. I have to do it. It doesn't matter that I was born in Ohio. It doesn't matter that my dad's from Bree. In the end, none of that matters. What matters is that I have to do it. Because I am the Skipper."

And with that, I jumped off the ledge.

Thank God, I Skipped before hitting the water because I really didn't want to drown.