It made sense that Bilbo and Kili would share a room, since they were twins. They also shared everything in it. As they were exactly the same size, there was no harm in them sharing clothes, and it made everything less confusing on washing day. Bilbo loved washing day. In the summer, he and Kili splashed each other with the water and hid from their mother behind the billowing sheets hanging from the clothesline. In winter, the heat from the steaming wash water fogged up all the windows of Bag End, so he and Kili could draw pictures while they told stories.
Every day was a good day in the Shire. In the morning, just after breakfast, Belladonna would curl Kili’s hair with a hot iron. After that, they could spend the whole day playing. If Kili sometimes forgot a meal or two, Bilbo made sure that they managed to catch them all. If Bilbo sometimes lost himself staring at clouds and daydreaming, Kili made sure that they always accomplished whatever little task Belladonna set for them. Running around the Hill together, they made friends with all the other fauntlings in the neighborhood. Together they would play games, pick flowers, and steal fruit from whatever garden was nearby.
The leader of the children who lived under the Hill was indisputably Podo Proudfoot, an auburn haired lad a few years older than Kili and Bilbo. He always knew which apple trees were the best to climb and whose raspberries were ripe for the picking. If Kili sometimes got bored with always stealing food and never seemed as hungry as Bilbo and the other fauntlings were, Bilbo thought Podo was brilliant. When he smiled, teeth stained purple with blackberry juice, curls shining red like the sunset, Bilbo thought he looked like a fairy prince.
Sometimes Kili would hang back or stay at home with Belladonna while Bilbo went out to play with the others. That wasn’t such a hardship. After all, the brothers did everything else together. They wore identical clothes, even though Kili’s darker, straighter hair meant they didn’t look at all alike. They ate identical meals that their mother cooked for them, even though they liked different things. They read identical books, even though Bilbo had picked up reading and writing much faster than Kili and might have liked something a little more challenging. Bilbo was even learning to play the violin because Kili wanted to and their father refused to pay for lessons until Bilbo also expressed an interest. Given all of that, it didn’t seem unreasonable to play with the other neighborhood children, whether or not Kili enjoyed their company.
Of course, if Bilbo realized why Kili was so reluctant to play with the other children, he would never have abandoned his brother. But he didn’t notice the looks they gave Kili. He didn’t hear the whispers. So he assumed his brother was simply too good to pilfer from the neighborhood gardens. In truth, their little posse was very naughty and often in trouble for stealing. It would be greatly to Kili’s credit if he had taken a moral stance. However, it was not morality that caused Kili to avoid Bilbo’s friends.
Enlightenment on several subjects came to Bilbo one hot afternoon just before his fifteenth birthday. Podo’s wonderful idea on that particular day was to wade around the creek near Bywater looking for watercress. Indeed, the fauntlings—though this term might be used very loosely for Podo Proudfoot, who was edging along toward his tweenage years—found a great deal of cress and a few frogs besides. Still, it was nearly tea time, and most of their friends said goodbye.
Bilbo didn’t want to leave. He knew that Podo was going to say goodbye one day soon and start hanging around the Green Dragon instead of at the creek. Podo already had a job in his uncle’s grocery, loading carts and carrying heavy purchases for customers. This was the way of the world, but Bilbo was in no hurry to see his friend grow up or to do so himself. So he sat, dangling his feet in the creek water alongside Podo for a few minutes after everyone else had gone home.
“Suppose it’s almost tea,” Podo said.
“I rather suppose it is,” Bilbo agreed.
“Should probably be heading home.”
When neither of them made any move to go, Podo leaned over and pressed his lips against Bilbo’s. It was a dry, chaste gesture, and Bilbo flushed from the tips of his ears to the hair on his toes. Podo smiled. Very gently, Bilbo copied the motion. Kissing Podo for a bit longer this time, he placed one hand on the older boy’s shoulder. Then he shifted back. For a little while, they just sat, grinning at one another. Like so many secret ways over garden walls, Podo had discovered something wonderful to share with Bilbo. Just as with stolen cherries and filched mushrooms, Bilbo was thrilled with both his prize and the secrecy.
Suddenly, Podo’s face hardened into an unfriendly scowl. “What are you doing here, Baggins? Spying?”
Turning, Bilbo saw Kili looking down at his toes. “Mum sent me to find you, Bilbo,” he mumbled. “We’re having gooseberry tarts for tea.”
Podo snorted. “Run along, Tenderfoot, and tell your mother that Bilbo is having tea with me.”
If Bilbo had been looking into Podo’s eyes, he might not have noticed the casual insult or the imperious way the older hobbit commanded his brother. Fortunately, he was not looking at Podo. He was looking at Kili, and so Bilbo saw the way the insult made him flinch. At once he was uncomfortably aware that Kili still wasn’t looking directly at Podo or Bilbo. In the back of his mind, he recalled the unhappy look on Kili’s face every time he spent a few moments alone with Podo or their other friends. Slowly, it occurred to Bilbo that this was not the first time Podo had said something hurtful to his brother.
“Perhaps I shall go with Kili,” he said, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. “If my mother wants me.”
Strutting over to Kili, Podo looked quite large, and almost menacing. “Nah,” he said amiably. “Dilly-weed here can tell her he couldn’t find you. Can’t you Dilly-weed?”
“Yeah.” Kili’s voice was soft and he still wasn’t looking up at Podo. “Of course.”
Bilbo felt rather sick.
“See!” Shoving Kili, Podo gave Bilbo a rakish grin. “There’s no reason for you to go home.”
Stumbling, Kili tripped among the sharp rocks at the edge of the creek. Then he yelped and sat down hard. Bilbo could see blood welling from a cut at the bottom of his foot. The dark-haired fauntling began to cry.
Podo laughed. A bright, joyful sound that was so at odds with Kili’s pained sobbing that Bilbo wondered for a moment if he was dreaming. “Tenderfoot has stubbed his toe!” Podo turned to Bilbo, expecting him to share the joke. Expecting him to laugh at his brother’s pain.
Growling incoherently, Bilbo launched himself at Podo. Punching him in his nose, Bilbo bloodied the older boy’s stupid, perfect mouth. Although he was surprised by the sudden assault, Podo gave as good as he got, blacking Bilbo’s eye and knocking him to the ground. Bilbo refused to concede the point. Kicking out, he tripped Podo and they scrabbled ferociously around the creek bed, tearing their clothes on the rocks, and pounding one another with fists and feet. When they finally broke apart, bruised, bloody, and panting for breath, Bilbo made sure that he was between the bully and his brother.
“Don’t you ever speak to Kili again,” Bilbo growled, trying to sound as menacing as a young hobbit at the end of his fauntling years could.
Still looking furious, Podo spat some blood onto the mud of the creek bed. “I’m never going to speak to either of you ever again!”
“Perfect!” Bilbo shouted, not sorry at all.
Podo stormed off, and Bilbo looked down at his little brother. For Kili was smaller than him, though Bilbo wasn’t quite sure when that had happened. “Are you okay?”
Looking up at him with shining eyes, Kili grinned. “You beat him up!”
“Of course I did,” Bilbo said, kneeling to inspect the cut on Kili’s foot. “He hurt you. Brothers have to stick together.”
“Right!” Kili frowned a little. “Should I have fought him, too?”
Bilbo’s handkerchief was all over mud, of course, ruined in the fight, so he took the clean white handkerchief from Kili’s pocket and hummed thoughtfully. “Just you let me handle the fighting for now, Great Warrior. This cut looks nasty.” Wrapping the wound with the clean cloth, Bilbo helped his brother to stand and offered him a supportive arm as they limped home together.
Naturally, their mother was both shocked and appalled to see them coming home so battered. Abandoning her tarts, Belladonna quickly rushed Bilbo into a bath before settling Kili down to tend the wound on his foot.
“What happened to the two of you?” she demanded.
“Bilbo fought Podo,” Kili said, looking at Bilbo like he was some kind of hero of legend.
Ducking his head under the bathwater, Bilbo scrubbed the mud out of his hair.
“Bilbo Baggins! Stealing Farmer Maggot’s mushrooms while we were visiting your cousins was one thing, but fighting? I should never have imagined a son of mine treating a neighbor violently! What reason could you have to fight another hobbit?”
“None, Mum. I’m sorry,” Bilbo said contritely.
“But—” Kili very clearly wanted to defend his brother, but Bilbo shook his head quickly.
Belladonna looked at both boys sternly, then sighed. As no further explanation was forthcoming, she shook her head at both of them. “Well, so long as you don’t do it again. Kili, my dear, go fetch a steak from the cold larder. We need to put something on your brother’s black eye to keep it from swelling shut.”
Kili skipped off to do as their mother asked, but once they were alone Belladonna didn’t lecture Bilbo any further. She just ruffled his wet hair gently. “You’re a good boy, standing up for your brother.”
Feeling his mouth fall open, Bilbo wondered how she could possibly know what had happened. She smiled. Tentatively, Bilbo smiled back.
“You know that Kili’s a little different from other hobbits, don’t you Bilbo?”
At once, Bilbo felt his shoulders tense. “There’s nothing wrong with Kili.”
“I didn’t say wrong.” Belladonna gently wrapped a bandage around a cut on Bilbo’s arm, focusing on her task. “I said different. Though perhaps you can be forgiven for conflating the two, growing up in Hobbiton. The opinion is unfortunately prevalent throughout the Shire.”
Bilbo frowned. “We’re twins, right Mum?”
“I’ve only ever been pregnant the once,” Belladonna said jovially. “So I suppose you must be.”
“Right, just. Today. I thought, I think, maybe Kili is younger than me.”
“He is.” For some reason, Bilbo’s mother spoke with a forced cheerfulness that confused the young hobbit. “By a full minute, according to your birth certificates. Your father is quite traditional, you know, so you’ll be inheriting alone. Though I expect you to look after Kili’s interests in that unfortunate event.”
“What?” The information was rather too much for Bilbo to take in when he desperately wanted his mother’s guidance. He’d had his first kiss and his first fistfight with the same person just that afternoon. All told, it had been a very trying day. “I just mean, I don’t know. I don’t feel like I was ever bigger than Kili before today.”
Softening, Belladonna pressed a tender kiss to her son’s forehead. “I trust you’ll make an excellent big brother, Bilbo. Kili needs us to look after him.”
“I will.” Something in Bilbo’s tumultuous heart settled with the pronouncement, as if simply saying so made it true. “I’ll always look after Kili.”
This vow was put to the test almost immediately. That night during dinner, Bungo Baggins couldn’t look at either of his sons without scowling. Though he tersely inquired about their music lessons and language studies, he made no conversation with his wife whatsoever. After the awkward meal ended, he practically pulled Bilbo into his library, shutting out Belladonna and Kili.
“Your mother tells me you were in a fight today,” he said, gesturing for Bilbo to sit.
Taking the chair, Bilbo plucked a glass paperweight from his father’s desk and toyed with it. “Yes, sir.”
“Would you care to tell me what happened?”
“Not really.” Bilbo didn’t look up at his father, just twirled the little ball in his hands, watching the firelight play in the mirrored depths.
“Bilbo.” Bungo sighed. “Can I offer you a few tacks to make that chair more comfortable?”
Unable to keep his lips from twitching upward, Bilbo said, “Maybe just a hot poker.”
When he dared to look up, the fauntling saw that his father’s face was very solemn, but not angry. “So we’re agreed that dreadful torture is the best way to proceed here.”
“Absolutely.” Daring a smile, Bilbo looked for an answer in his father’s face. Unfortunately, he didn’t find one. Bungo remained stern, with only a hint of lightness around the corners of his eyes to show that he’d been joking.
“Son, I need to know. Did Kili provoke Podo?”
Dropping the glass ball to the desk, Bilbo stared up at his father in surprise. “No. What?”
“It’s going to be okay, Bilbo,” Bungo said gently. “Just tell me exactly what happened.”
The firelight was just as warm as the afternoon sunshine. Now that Bilbo’s eyes were new, he recognized something about his father that he had never before understood. Bungo wanted the fight to be Kili’s fault. Because Bungo didn’t like Kili as much as he liked Bilbo. It didn’t make sense, but it was true.
“Podo kissed me,” Bilbo said.
“He what?” Bungo stood up. The absent anger bloomed across his face in red, righteous fury.
“Kissed me.” Bilbo shrugged, shrinking back into the depths of his chair. “I started the fight, but it was after that.”
“Well, of course you did,” Bungo cried. “I’m going to speak to that boy’s parents!”
“No, don’t!” Bilbo knew that kissing Podo was wrong, but his father’s anger alarmed him with its intensity.
“No,” Bungo agreed. His hands were trembling, but he sat down next to Bilbo, right on the same chair. It was big and plush enough for two when one of them was only a fauntling. “No, I won’t tell anyone, Bilbo. It’s all right. I quite understand that you don’t want anyone to know. If that boy starts spreading rumors, we’ll deal with it then, but for now it’s best kept a secret.”
Bilbo blinked up at his father. “Is it that bad? I mean—”
“Oh, my dear boy, you didn’t do anything wrong. Well, perhaps next time you might make your position clear without the violence. Not that I don’t understand the impulse. Podo is larger than you after all, and I am sure you did what you had to do to resist such unnatural attentions.”
“Bilbo, oh Bilbo! Did he hurt you terribly?”
Bilbo blinked at his father. “He blacked my eye.”
“Yes, yes. While you were fighting.” Bungo was not at all the sort of hobbit to be physically demonstrative, but he gathered his son in a warm embrace.
“You’re all right now. Anyway, I heard you broke his nose. Tragically, that won’t keep the little cowpie from smelling.”
“I heard that after Goody Holman set it, she recommended he eat only freshly gathered berries.”
“She said he deserved a treat and it was clear he liked picking.”
Helplessly, Bilbo laughed. After a moment, he said, “I tried to knock it more toward the middle of his face.”
“Well, it’s the scenter.”
One of Bungo’s rare laughs rang out, filling the study. Gathering his son in another warm hug, the hobbit said, “That’s my boy.”
Bilbo left his father’s library that evening more confused than ever, but at least no one seemed to be upset any longer. He was allowed to return to the room he shared with Kili, and neither of his parents ever spoke about the fight or the prospect of Bilbo kissing another boy ever again.