Kili was usually a happy fellow. If he was also spoiled, at least he knew it.
All his life, anything he wanted was given to him at once. If he felt like blueberries, Bilbo would make him both muffins and scones served up with additional blueberry jam alongside a bowl of fresh berries if the season was right. If Kili admired a lass, she always asked him to go walking out. She always mentioned a conversation with Bilbo as well. That was almost as disturbing as those occasions when Kili’s feelings were hurt. Then, the young Baggins infallibly received a prompt apology. The offender tended to have a bloody nose—if they were lucky—and a suddenly terrible social reputation if they were not.
Hadn’t Bilbo arranged for Kili and Parsifal to have more time together once they became friends? And Kili had not even hinted then, nor believed that anything could be done to prevent a parting from his cousin.
Whenever Kili wanted anything, all he had to do was let his brother know. Which was not to say that Bilbo was particularly biddable or obliging. Kili would never forget the horrifying, fascinating books that Bilbo left in Kili’s room once he started noticing girls. Nor did Bilbo leave the matter at books. Kili was subjected to dozens of frankly mortifying conversations about the provenance of children and methods of enjoying oneself without risking such.
As though Bilbo had any idea of what went on under a skirt.
Saying that was, perhaps, the worst mistake of Kili’s life. Bilbo simply looked mildly amused. For a long moment, Kili was terribly certain that some of Bilbo’s exploits did involve skirts. Only he also knew perfectly well that there would be no girls in the story either way. Fortunately, Bilbo did not tell those tales.
Instead, he continued to smile his funny little smile and said, “Are you sure you would not rather take it as read that I am an expert on the topic? I can offer witnesses to vouchsafe my claims, if you need them.”
Gladly seizing upon this second chance, Kili vowed to take all recommended precautions as long as Bilbo would drop the subject. Mercifully, his brother did. Such precautions were hardly necessary, in any case. For all the girls who fell in love with Bilbo’s descriptions of him, Kili had yet to find one he felt truly interested in exploring such activities with.
Which was not to say Kili disliked the attention, or the girls Bilbo found for him. Kili liked everything Bilbo did for him, because Bilbo loved him and knew what he liked. That was the problem.
Only once did Bilbo ever balk at something Kili wanted. When Kili decided to apprentice with a blacksmith, Bilbo hesitated, and not for the usual reasons a Baggins might.
“Dwarves are very well known for smithing,” Bilbo said in a strained, quiet voice that was very different from his usual way of speaking.
“Then I shall be especially good at it,” Kili agreed happily.
“No one in Hobbiton would question you, of course.” Bilbo seemed to be trying to convince himself. Then, as though he could not help it, he added, “Big Folk who pass through might wonder. Spread rumors.”
Although Bilbo’s only motivation was to keep him safe, Kili chaffed like the spoilt brat he was. Talking his brother around was far too easy. All Kili needed to do was mention the feeling of shaping metal, the heat of the forge, the strength he felt there. Smithing was the most fun he had outside of target practice, and Bilbo would not deny him such pleasure. Yet maybe that was the biggest mistake of Kili’s life. The dwarves heard tell of a blacksmith called Kili. That was why they came.
He hoped it was not a mistake. Kili hoped every day that his worst mistake was learning more than he cared to know about Bilbo’s various endeavors with certain friends. Because he was lost when it came to the dwarves.
Bilbo gave Kili the dwarves, just as he gave Kili everything else. It was much worse than being spoiled for blueberries. Bilbo clearly hated, feared, and envied the visitors in turn. Kili tried to feel the same way. He tried to want the dwarves gone, as his brother did. But even when he saw his brother in tears, Kili could not wholly manage it.
He was the worst person in the Shire. Because he did not belong there, not really. Only hobbits did.
That was the crux of the matter. Kili was a curious fellow, but not about books, histories, and dead kings like Bilbo. He wanted to know about the real world. Ever since learning they actually existed, he brooded over the monsters of his dreams. Alongside the monsters there were other dreams: a bearded woman, a golden violin, a tall mountain. Like a compass that pointed north, Kili felt something in his heart that pulled him toward the lands beyond the Shire. Something that the visitors might be able to explain. In truth, Kili even suspected that boots might be a rather useful invention.
Not that he would ever side with the dwarves or take their part over Bilbo’s.
Except he already had, or Bilbo would not have invited them to stay the winter. So for the first time in his life, Kili lay awake at night worrying not about monsters, but how to ease his brother’s burden. Yet by the light of day, he always failed. A hard ball of thorns curled around his heart and stayed there.
“What happened to Azog?” The thorns squeezing his heart forced him to ask over an uncomfortably silent supper. “The orc who lead the attack on the caravan: is he dead?”
Bilbo’s fork clacked noisily against his plate. Dwalin looked at Thorin. Thorin nodded to Balin. Kili wondered if anyone was going to answer his question or if Bilbo would simply start prattling about the weather.
Finally, Balin spoke. “Azog is the cruelest, foulest orc of his kind. I hesitate to speak of such filth here in the comfortable peace of the Shire. Yet with my host’s forbearance, I will tell you of the last time I saw him.”
Bilbo nodded jerkily. A better brother would note how uncomfortable Bilbo was and stop Balin’s story, but Kili didn’t.
“Khazad-dûm, the ancient dwarf kingdom of Moria, was lost to our people long ago. Yet there is mithril there, and other wealth. So King Thror was persuaded to retake it. Persuaded by Thorin, as a matter of fact, for we heard many rumors that Azog dwelt there.”
Thorin looked down at his plate. He was not eating.
“Azog the Defiler is a giant Gundabad orc, with pale, fishbelly skin, and a twisted, misshapen mind. Yes, he was there that day. On the field of battle before the gates of Moria, he lead the legions of darkness against us. Sworn to wipe out the line of Durin, he began by beheading the king.” Balin paused. Silence filled the dining room, and all of Bag End.
“Thrain, son of Thror, stepped forward then. Cutting his way through the orcs who stood between him and the murderer of his father, the Prince of Erebor clashed with the Defiler and was struck down. I saw it myself. Azog raised his black sword high to strike Thrain’s head from his body, just as it was with Thror. We were lost. Leaderless. Defeat and death were upon us.
“That is when I saw him. Your uncle stood alone against the Pale Orc. His armor rent. His sword lost. Wielding nothing but an oaken branch, he stood between Azog and his prey. Driving the monster back from the wounded prince. Azog learned that day: the line of Durin would not be so easily broken.
“When Thrain rose, we rallied, and drove our enemy back behind the gates of Moria. Azog was carried with them. To what end, I cannot say.
“For there was no feast honoring our victory that night. Our dead were beyond the count of grief, and our king, whatever his faults, lay with them. In our deepest hearts, we hoped we might find you there, Kili: a captive in the mines. It was not so. There are no prisons in Moria. The orcs there do not keep captives alive. Not like the orcs of Mordor. So we had no solace for our losses.”
Beside Kili, Bilbo sniffed. The tears in his eyes were quickly blinked away. Kili’s were dry, and he felt strangely selfish to be so unmoved.
“No solace,” Balin repeated, “but some reward. Thrain is a good king. Better, I dare say, than his father. Erebor knows more peace now than ever before. Thorin was named Oakenshield for his deeds that day. Our family and our people have prospered commensurately. Upon returning to our mountain, we stayed. No dwarf has known battle or death in the decades since then.”
“And the Pale Orc?” Kili asked.
“It is to be hoped he died of his wounds,” Thorin said roughly.
“I’m sure he did.” Surprisingly, there was no sarcasm in Bilbo’s voice. “No orc could survive facing off with the heroic Thorin Oakenshield.”
Thorin ducked his head again. His face was red. Clearly, he was the modest type.
“Might not have.” Dwalin’s voice was low. His eyes across the table challenged Kili. “Might still be out there somewhere.”
Heat flared in Kili’s chest to think of the monster from his nightmares out in the world, but he said nothing.
“Well, he shan’t come here,” Bilbo said firmly. “If he does, I’ll see him off directly.”
When all of the dwarves laughed, Kili thought he might hate them after all. Bilbo was serious. Even if hobbits couldn’t do much in the face of evil monsters, Bilbo would always try to protect Kili. Whether or not Kili wanted protection.
He could not find Thorin the next morning. Bilbo disappeared with him shortly after breakfast, probably to argue outside the range of Kili’s hearing. That was for the best. Kili knew he should not spend time alone with the dwarves. He should not want to spend time alone with the dwarves. Any questions he might have for Thorin could wait until Bilbo was there to explain the answers.
Instead, he took off alone to the little wood on the other side of the Hill. Frost cracked beneath his feet, freezing his toes. His breath streamed through the air like chimney smoke. Kili did not realize he was running until he noticed how quickly those puffing clouds came.
Reaching his targets, he drew his bow. One arrow went into the red pillow propped in a chestnut tree, a hundred yards away. The second cut a string dangling from the top of a rowan some distance further, loosing the yellow pillow, which began to fall. His third arrow struck the blue pillow, almost three hundred yards distant, buried in underbrush. The green pillow was closer, but high in an oak, shielded by branches. Kili’s fourth arrow found it easily. Striking the pink pillow in the mid-range ash tree, Kili whirled quickly back to the falling yellow pillow. His sixth arrow pinned it to the trunk of the rowan before it hit the ground.
Standing still, Kili watched the puffing clouds of his breath smooth into an even stream. Then, something came whizzing out of the woods at his back.
Dodging the rock, which clattered harmlessly against a tree, Kili spun around with another arrow on his string.
Dwalin lifted his hands, palm up, to show he meant no harm.
Kili lowered his bow, but the thorns in his heart clenched.
“So that is what will happen if you see Azog at a distance,” the dwarf said calmly. “But what will you do if he gets close?”
Like a fauntling caught with his hand in a cookie jar, Kili shrugged sullenly. “Fight.”
Dwalin smiled. “Show me.”
The ax arced slowly through the air without spinning. If Kili failed to catch it, the handle would strike his face harmlessly. And no one could fail to catch such a gentle toss. Still, he might have dropped it. Heavier than the one he used to cut firewood, the battle ax felt large and unwieldy in Kili’s hand.
Putting it down calmly, Kili took a moment to unstring his bow and set his quiver in a place where melting frost would not get it wet as the sun rose. Dwalin waited patiently.
Taking up the ax again, Kili plucked a blade of frozen grass as well. Pressing it between two fingers, he melted the frost away, feeling the dewdrop trickle down the side of his hand. He tested the edge of the ax. Two perfectly severed halves fluttered to the ground, startlingly green against the ice-gray ground.
“Don’t worry,” Dwalin said. “You couldn’t hurt me if you tried. No more than you could hurt Azog, were he here.”
Obviously, Dwalin wanted Kili to attack. Kili obliged at full speed.
Seconds later, he was on his back, staring up at the clouds. Dwalin snorted. “No instincts. If your brother was worthy of the title, he’d have let you fight some of your own battles.”
Kicking out automatically, Kili caught the side of Dwalin’s knee with his bare foot. Unfortunately, this did not off balance the dwarf. Dwalin only laughed and pinned Kili’s ax to the ground with his own.
“Not bad,” the dwarf said, “but fighting from the ground is only an advantage if you know how to do it.”
Growling, Kili rolled backward and away, regaining both his feet and his weapon. Advancing more cautiously, he watched Dwalin’s eyes carefully, waiting.
With an offensive shrug, the dwarf obliged, swinging his own ax out slowly. Kili parried the blow easily. He meant to use the parry to get in closer, strike beneath Dwalin’s guard. It didn’t happen that way. Dwalin twisted his ax somehow and sent Kili’s flying from his hand. Then a solid kick from a heavy boot connected with Kili’s chest. Once more, he went sprawling to the ground.
“That all you got?” Dwalin asked.
“No,” Kili said, and attacked him again.
After that, Kili lost track. No matter what he tried or how he attacked, he always wound up flat on his back. Remembering the way Dwalin parried his arrow at their first meeting didn’t inspire confidence, either. Striking at him was as futile as trying to catch a cloud. Kili kept trying.
Once Dwalin stopped insulting him, it even started to be fun. The sun rose a bit more and the grass became less frozen under Kili’s heels. While it wasn’t slippery enough to trip Dwalin up, it made for softer landings. As he gave up hope of actually beating Dwalin, Kili enjoyed the purely physical feeling of giving his all. For the first time in his life, he could let loose. The only place in the Shire where Kili did not need to worry about accidentally injuring someone with his brutish strength was the forge.
Eventually, Dwalin laughed. Flat on his back, staring up the dwarf’s hairy nostrils, Kili laughed as well.
“Well,” Dwalin said. “You’re a Durin.”
Springing to his feet, Kili drew himself up to his full height. “I am a Baggins of Bag End,” he said, slightly offended.
Dwalin raised an eyebrow, looking almost chagrined. “That wasn’t actually meant to insult.”
“No,” Kili agreed. “Of course not.” Then, uncomfortably, he admitted, “Your family seems a fine one.”
“Want me to keep knocking you down like a stubborn nail,” Dwalin asked.
“Sure!” Kili grinned.
“Or,” the dwarf continued, as though Kili hadn’t spoken, “Do you want to learn to fight properly?”
So they fell into a routine. He spent a few hours every morning with Dwalin, learning everything he could about zones of defence, centering his weight, and a thousand other things he’d never imagined would apply in a fight. After lunch, he went to the forge. There was less work to be done in winter. Hobbiton in winter held no market days, and no one wanted a farrier when all of the plough-ponies were stabled. Sometimes Thorin would join him there, teaching him the secrets of dwarven steel. In both cases, Kili was able to learn from the dwarves well away from Bilbo.
It felt like less of a betrayal when Bilbo was not there to see and be hurt.
Learning from Balin did not seem like a betrayal at all. Balin was the dwarf Bilbo seemed most at ease with. In fact, Balin shared Bilbo’s interest in history and book-learning. Listening to Balin’s stories late at night around the hearth in Bag End was just as enjoyable for Bilbo as it was for Kili. Slowly, hesitantly, Kili began to hope that he could come to know all of the dwarves over the course of the winter without costing Bilbo anything.
Except Fili. Fili was the worst of the lot and Kili had no interest in him.
Constantly tromping along after Kili, Fili insisted on sticking his big, dwarven boots where they were not wanted. He tried to be part of Kili’s fighting lessons with Dwalin, but Kili simply walked away and did not participate while Fili was there. He tried to accompany Thorin to Kili’s forge, but Kili lost his temper and saw the dwarf off with a hot poker. Fili even tried to tell stories as Balin did late at night, but that was easiest of all. Kili went to bed early and did not listen.
Kili had a brother. He did not need another.
“What about some music tonight?” Bilbo suggested cheerfully, despite the fact that the first big snow of the winter was burying Bag End. “It’s been an age since you played, Kili.”
Because he would do anything in the world for his brother, and also because he was really very pleased to be asked, Kili took up his violin. The watching eyes of the dwarves made him a little self conscious, but he fiddled out a merry tune that soon had Bilbo clapping along. Indeed, all the dwarves, even Fili, joined in. Dwalin’s stomping boots were as good as a drum. Thorin hummed a wordless harmony that made the song feel richer. Balin was more reserved, but his joyful appreciation of the music was just as palpable as Bilbo’s.
Then Fili had to go and ruin everything. When Kili finished with a flourish, Fili said, “Our father played the violin.” His voice was husky and his eyes were dark.
Tremendously uncomfortable, Kili said, “My father did not have a musical bone in his body.”
“Oh, that’s unfair,” Bilbo said mildly. “He liked to listen well enough.”
Calming somewhat, Kili sat beside his brother, taking his arm very pointedly.
“Do you play, Fili?” Bilbo asked politely. “I should very much like to hear some dwarven music.”
“I do,” Fili said solemnly, “but I have no instrument with me.”
“He may not use mine.” Kili did not bother to blunt the knife in his tone. If he could, he would wound Fili with it readily. The knot of thorns in Kili’s chest quaked at the thought of dwarven music, but the Baggins shoved it down.
“Well, then you shall have to use mine,” Bilbo offered. “Though it might need tuning. I am not half as diligent in my practice as Kili.”
So then they all had to sit quietly while Fili wasted their time tuning a violin. Kili’s resentment grew with every twist of a peg. Each off note grated on his ears like an insult to Bilbo. The older Baggins looked after many things. If he did not have time to keep a violin in tune, it was no great fault. Yet Kili felt the dwarves judging him in their silent way. Finally, Fili took up a formal posture, pulling Bilbo’s bow across the strings to produce a single, high, clear note. The song was softer than Kili would expect dwarf music to be. Sweet and pure, it made him think of dark, moonless nights and a lake full of stars.
Fili trapped his eyes. Kili could not look away. The music was too much. It was some dwarven spell meant to befuddle him. But when the song finished, Kili was still caught.
“Do you remember it, my brother?” Fili asked.
“I’ve never heard a song like that in all my life,” Kili lied. Snatching the violin away from Fili, he thrust it at Bilbo. “Play with me,” he demanded.
“Oh dear.” Putting down his tea, Bilbo accepted the instrument, but he did not rise. “I really am terribly out of practice, Kili. Why not play another solo?”
“Please,” Kili said. “The Frogs of Bywater.” And because Bilbo never denied Kili anything, the hobbit rose to play.
It was a good song for them. Bilbo took the rhythm line, playing the bullfrogs and gentle chorus of the rain on the water. Based in that harmony, Kili’s violin leapt and sang with the spring peepers, pool frogs, and the dancing wind. Playing with Bilbo was always a joy. Although Kili’s brother frowned in concentration and never seemed to lose himself in the music, he always turned to wink at Kili when they made it through a tricky part. And there were many tricky notes in the complicated song.
Bilbo grinned when they finished, and all the dwarves clapped, even Fili.
“Breathtaking,” Thorin said, rising to clap Bilbo on the arm. That he credited Bilbo’s skill made Kili like him even more. Bilbo’s cheeks were flushed and his eyes brightened at the unexpected compliment.
“Oh, Kili only makes me sound good. I’m rubbish on my own.”
“I expect that’s true.”
Before Kili could start a fight, Thorin said, “Fili,” in a deep, commanding voice.
Fili fell silent.
“Perhaps the two of you should play a duet,” Bilbo suggested. “You are much closer in skill than Kili and I.”
“Bilbo!” Kili was so shocked he almost dropped his violin. “I would never! Never.”
Bilbo smiled softly, and Kili did not see anything fake about it. “Not even to please me?”
“We do not know the same songs.” Surprisingly, Fili looked almost as uncomfortable as Kili. His shoulders were hunched, and he did not meet Bilbo’s eyes.
“There’s sheet music on the shelf over there.” Bilbo gestured casually toward the only books Kili ever read, as though Fili had a right to them. Then he pressed his violin into Fili’s hands.
“You can’t be serious,” Kili said.
Bilbo shrugged. “We must get along all winter, Kili. Make our guest welcome and play with him.”
So Kili played. But he did not enjoy it. And he did not understand his brother’s insistence.
Usually, Bilbo hibernated a bit in winter. He would sleep through second breakfast, rising long after the dawn, and spend all his time reading by the fire, rarely going out. This year, he bounced out of bed at breakfast every day and often disappeared outside for hours at a time. Kili had no idea where he went, as the time corresponded very closely with his sparring lessons. Even so, he wondered. It was obviously due to the dwarves. Yet Kili couldn’t fathom how their presence might make his brother happy.
Understanding dawned one afternoon a few weeks before Yule. After finishing their work in the forge, Kili and Thorin picked up a parcel from Bilbo’s tailor on the way home to Bag End. This was usual enough. When Bilbo met them at the door, he was tremendously pleased to see it. Kili suspected a new waistcoat. Bilbo could be rather odd about waistcoats.
Instead, Bilbo turned right around and handed it to Thorin. “Just a little present,” he said happily.
Of course, Bilbo was always giving presents to people. Old Widow Holman down Bagshot Row received a pie or something at least once a week. Hamfast Gamgee was often the happy recipient of new gardening tools, handkerchiefs, or well made gloves. Cousins and friends always commented on Bilbo’s unexpected generosity. Indeed, when Bilbo was in a good mood, Kili might receive a present every day of the month and two on Highdays.
Thorin opened the parcel as though it was a matter of grave importance. Inside, there was a silk shirt, done in a sort of cross between the dwarven style and what was popular in Hobbiton.
“I thought the blue would bring out your eyes,” Bilbo said, gazing fondly at the shirt in exactly the way he looked when he paid Dandelion Took’s exorbitant bill at the tailor’s or gave Dodinas Brandybuck a new silk cravat. As though another other fellow looking fine was actually a present for Bilbo.
“Thank you.” Thorin’s face was far too serious for someone receiving a trifle. His eyes glittered in the last of the afternoon sun.
“You’re tupping!” Kili realized.
Instantly, Bilbo’s face went tomato red. “No one is tupping anyone!”
“You are,” Kili insisted. If they weren’t, Bilbo would have pretended to be shocked at the implication that two fellows could do anything at all and insisted Kili wash his mouth out with soap.
“Don’t be silly, of course we aren’t,” Bilbo said. Then he stepped between Thorin and Kili, pushing Kili subtly backward. “Go wash up for supper, you trouble-maker.”
Thorin frowned. Looking over Bilbo’s head, Kili met his eyes squarely. Although he supposed there was a need to keep up appearances, Kili never respected the hobbits who would deny their relations with Bilbo outright.
“I wish to court your brother,” Thorin said. His voice did not waver, and he did not blush. “If you feel my behavior in this matter is dishonorable, I invite you to correct me.”
Kili laughed, more at the shocked look on Bilbo’s face than Thorin’s gravity. “Courting! Is that what the lads are calling it these days? Well, don’t worry. You’re hardly likely to get him with child. I shan’t be forcing you to marry at arrow point like Farmer Cotton did to Fosco Holman.”
“Oh hush.” While he slapped Kili’s arm playfully, Bilbo’s eyes were as soft as melting butter.
“Children are unlikely.” Humor sparkled in Thorin’s eyes, though his face remained serious. “But you may force your brother to wed me, if you care to. I shall be quite willing to husband him.”
Kili laughed again, feeling lighter than air. He had never heard such a good joke in all his life.
“Do you know, I think he might be going mad?” Bilbo said after a time. “A mad Baggins. Our father would be appalled.”
Gasping for air, Kili took his brother by both arms, meeting his eyes happily. “You asked the dwarves to stay here this winter instead of going to Ered Luin because you wanted to tup Thorin.”
Taken aback, Bilbo blinked. The humor left his face. Caution entered his eyes. “I asked the dwarves to stay so we could get to know them. I would never—you know I would not endanger you for a pretty face.”
“No, no,” Kili waved a hand, keeping a firm hold on Bilbo with the other. “Of course not. But it was not just for me, either, was it? You are not risking everything just because I wanted—” Unsure of how to end that sentence, Kili waved his hand again, hoping Bilbo would understand.
Bilbo did. Eyes going soft again, he looked back at Thorin and said, “Not just for you, Kili. I think getting to know each other properly will be good for all of us.”
And the hard, prickly feeling in Kili’s chest unknotted at last.