Kili fed the fierce fire of his smelter, building it hot enough to work steel instead of iron. Beside him, Thorin powered the bellows. Learning from Thorin was much more interesting than Kili’s actual apprenticeship had been, because Thorin didn’t think it was beneath a teacher to pump a bellows. Then again, Kili was already an established blacksmith, not an over-eager tween. He and Thorin were equals, despite a certain disparity of information.
Not all the lack was on Kili’s side.
“What do hobbits give as gifts?” Thorin asked, as Kili filled his crucible with ore.
“We don’t give gifts at Yule like Big Folk do. There’s no need to worry about a rush.” Frowning, Kili added a little more charcoal to the crucible. He did not want to come away with pig iron, but being overly cautious would not get him steel. “At most, Hyacinth Proudfoot may come round for a few birthday presents. For winter birthdays, most people give mathoms. But according to Bilbo, Hyacinth has her eye on Hugo Boffin. She might want to make a show of things this year, giving lots of new presents.”
“No.” Thorin was quiet for a moment as Kili arranged the crucible in the smelter. Then, when it was balanced, he corrected Kili’s assumption. “I wish to give a gift to your brother. Like the shirt he gave to me. If he were a dwarf in Erebor, I would give him golden rings for his fingers and silver bells for his toes. A diadem of gold and rubies, for my passion and the color of his hair in the sunlight, would grace his brow. The finest diamond in the mountain might make a fitting pendant. Yet I know that is not the custom here.”
Kili grinned in surprise. Sometimes the dwarves were as imaginative and poetic as Bilbo, and they always referred to their homeland as though the streets really were paved with candy.
Bilbo was a great one for gifts, of course. In fact, Kili sometimes suspected that Bilbo was known for it among his particular set of friends. Usually, one of Bilbo’s friends would give him a handful of wildflowers and suddenly find the largest of their debts quietly settled. In his most uncharitable moments, Kili suspected Dandy and others of occasionally visiting for that express purpose. It was nice to think one of them was putting thought into a present for Bilbo. Nicer still that it was Thorin, who Kili was predisposed to like.
However, he was a younger brother. Teasing was his nature.
“Roses,” Kili said, very seriously. “Bilbo is tremendously fond of most flowers, of course, but roses would be particularly romantic.”
Thorin frowned. “Where can I acquire such roses?”
“Our gardener, Hamfast, grows beautiful roses. Just ask him for some when they bloom.”
The downward curve of Thorin’s mouth became more pronounced and lines furrowed across his brow. “I would not wait until summertime for this,” he said stiffly.
“Well, then you should probably bake something for him.” This was a shot in the dark, but Kili had excellent night vision. Thorin never volunteered to help Bilbo in the kitchen as Balin and Dwalin sometimes did. It worked. Thorin’s frown deepened further. “Sweets for the sweet, is the saying here in the Shire. Of course, it’s dreadfully important to make them yourself. Shows you care and all that.”
“Very well.” The frown turned into a look of grim determination, and Kili was certain that Thorin Oakenshield was going to teach himself to cook or burn down Bag End trying. “Does he have a favorite?”
Kili relented. It would be splendidly amusing to watch Thorin try, but Bilbo deserved a nice present from one of the fellows he liked. “Cufflinks,” he said.
“Cufflinks?” Thorin’s brow furrowed again in confusion. “Is that the name of a hobbit delicacy?”
“To hold his shirtsleeves together,” Kili explained. “The ones too fancy for buttons. Surely you’ve seen him wearing them?”
“Yes.” Thorin looked at Kili with new consideration. “That would be appropriate?”
Feeling slightly guilty for his earlier teasing, Kili said, “I’ve some raw silver over there that you’re welcome to use and more than one mold. After I get started on this ax blade, you can have the furnace.”
Thorin’s steady gaze lasted so long that Kili blushed and ducked his head. Then the dwarf said, “No. I have promised to teach you the secret to a blade that never dulls. We will work on it together.”
And so they did, but hours later when it was time to head home for afternoon tea, Thorin asked Kili’s permission to remain in the forge working. He was strangely formal about it.
“Of course you can,” Kili said, puzzled. “You know what you’re doing. Do you need any help?”
Once again, Thorin hesitated. “Is gold appropriate? For the cufflinks. The ones I have seen Bilbo wear are all silver or brass.”
Kili stifled a laugh. “It would be, but I have none for you to use.”
Sweetly, Thorin looked relieved. “That is well enough. Thank you for your advice, my sister-son. It means a great deal to me that you do not disapprove of my pursuing your brother.”
Abruptly, Kili felt more guilty than ever.
Thorin’s eyes were sharp but his smile soft. He clapped Kili on the shoulder. “It is the right of family to make a suitor’s path to his intended more difficult. You must assure yourself that I am steadfast. In Erebor, you would do far more than tease me.”
Which was to say that if Bilbo were a lass, Kili could sit Thorin down and interrogate him about his intentions. However, as two fellows could have no intentions other than the ones Kili did not like to consider closely with regard to his brother, there was no point in that.
Thorin missed both afternoon tea and dinner. Fortunately, Bilbo wasn’t around to fuss about tea. He had an invitation which made him tremendously smug all through dinner. “Aren’t you going to ask me where I was for tea?”
“I will.” Balin’s eyes were narrow.
Bilbo waved a flippant hand. “Oh, it wouldn’t mean anything to you, Balin.”
Shrugging, Kili took the biggest ginger biscuit for himself. “Did Hugo have you ‘round?”
This was a very good guess. Hugo Bracegirdle was one of the few great readers of Bilbo’s acquaintance. Bilbo always returned from a visit with Hugo abuzz with some theory about poetry or history that Kili could not comprehend.
“Poppy,” Bilbo said, clearly too excited to make Kili keep guessing.
“Poppy Mugwort? After what you said about her sponge cake?”
“She has forgiven me for the scurrilous lies you told about my opinion of her sponge cake,” Bilbo said loftily. “I ate three pieces today, and it was well worth the sacrifice. You will never guess what she told me about Violet Boffin’s new hat.”
Since this was very true, as he cared nothing for hats, Kili said, “How did you get her to speak to you again?”
“Oh, everyone is curious about our dwarves. You wouldn’t find yourself wanting for invitations, either, if you ever accepted any.”
“And you care about such things?” Fili was, as always, unpardonably rude.
Fortunately, Balin said, “Keeping up appearances is the best way to manage social expectations. You would do well to mind Master Baggins’s example. But what did you tell her of us?”
“Just that there is not enough kindness in the world and that travelling in winter is particularly unwise.” Bilbo grinned. “If she wants more of the story, she shall have to tease it out of me with plenty of gossip. Never fear about our secrets. I intend to hint that I have hired Thorin to give Kili lessons. Since the two of you are seen in your forge so often, it will be believable enough.”
Balin’s smile was very genuine when he complimented Bilbo’s social acumen. “You have missed your calling in politics. You would fit in well with courtly nobles, Master Baggins.”
“As would you, my dear flatterer.”
So Bilbo was already in a very good mood when Thorin came trudging up the path to Bag End just before supper. Bilbo met him at the door. Watching Bilbo take Thorin’s coat and brush the snow from his hair made Kili feel rather strange.
Quite out of nowhere, it occurred to him that Thorin might be dangerous in truth. Not to Kili, not physically, but to Bilbo.
Casually, Thorin took a little wooden box from his pocket and handed it to Kili’s brother. “For you,” he said. “Just a little present.” Which Kili noticed was exactly the same phrasing Bilbo used when giving the shirt. For all his confidence, Thorin did not know what he was doing.
Grinning, Bilbo thanked Thorin before opening the box. Then he looked down. His jaw went slack and his eyes wide. “Oh.” For a long moment, he looked down at the box in his hands. When he turned up to Thorin again, it was like a flower facing the sun. Bilbo’s eyes shone in the lamplight, almost as though he was on the verge of tears.
Although they were already standing right next to each other, Bilbo stepped in even closer. Going up on his tiptoes, he pressed a kiss to Thorin’s lips. Kili looked around wildly. The dwarves were all pretending to mind their own business, but the smirk on Dwalin’s face and the sideways squint of Fili’s eyes confirmed that they’d all seen. Bilbo never even kissed anyone where Kili might see.
“Thank you.” Bilbo’s voice was husky and he was repeating himself. Neither trait seemed much like the brother Kili knew.
“I would give you the stars themselves, if I could,” Thorin said.
That made Bilbo laugh at last, breaking the strange moment. “Good that you cannot. All I have for you is pot roast.”
Thorin laughed as well. His laugh was a soft little huff that sounded as though he half begrudged giving it. Kili thought it might be his real laugh, unlike the loud guffaw the dwarf sometimes used when Kili told a joke.
“Kili, will you see to the potatoes?” Bilbo gestured absently down the hall toward the bedrooms with his box. “I need to freshen up, but I’ll be ready to serve dinner in just a minute.”
Nodding jerkily, Kili watched as his brother practically skipped away, radiating happiness.
The potatoes were not burning. Kili stirred them. He would never be half the cook Bilbo was, but he knew how to keep potatoes from burning.
“Uncle said that you accepted his relationship with your brother, though Shire-folk in general would not.” Fili’s voice was gentle and devoid of judgment.
Kili looked at him.
Reclining against the counter, Fili fidgeted with a loose thread on his sleeve. Perhaps not meeting his eyes made him easier to talk to.
“Bilbo is happy,” Kili said.
When he said nothing further, Fili spoke. “One can know that such a thing matters most without feeling it in your heart.”
Kili snorted. So much for the wisdom of dwarves. “You lot are leaving in spring. He’s going to be—usually he’s more careful with his heart.”
“Ah!” Fili turned at once to Kili, beaming like the sun. “Then perhaps we might not part at all. If he loves Thorin, they will not want to be separated.”
But whatever suggestion the dwarf to prevent such a separation was silenced as Bilbo bustled in. He was wearing his best shirt, crisp and white with a high collar. Kili stared at him in shock. Wearing a starched shirt to a family dinner was a bit like wearing party clothes to garden. But it must have been appropriate, because Bilbo never made sartorial missteps. His waistcoat was a warm brown color that long hours of listening to his brother had taught Kili to think of as earthen. The jacket and trousers were a lighter tweed.
Feeling under-dressed next to Bilbo was natural, but Kili thought his brother was taking it to extremes. Then, he noticed the cufflinks.
Peeking out from beneath the sleeve of Bilbo’s jacket as he served dinner was a hint of gold. They were beautiful. Shaped like flowers, Kili noted, though he’d never seen a flower with yellow petals and a bright red center. He remembered Thorin mentioning rubies. If the source of the gold was a mystery to Kili, imagining where Thorin could have found two perfectly matched stones was impossible. They glowed in the candlelight as Bilbo cut the roast.
So did Bilbo.
Kili didn’t know what to do about any of it.