Most years, snowdrops and crocuses signaled the end of long hibernation for the Shire. It was the end of canned food with fresh seeds and strawberries right there on the horizon. Usually, spring was Bilbo’s favorite time of year, or perhaps second to his joint birthday with Kili at harvest time. Yet when he saw those first brave snowdrops peeking up from under the icicles still hanging about his rose bushes, trepidation filled his heart.
Shaking his head at his own absurdity, Bilbo Baggins reached beneath the rose bush, plucked two of the flowers, and tied them together with a bit of red ribbon. They were such a very small flower, and time did not stop for elves or men. It certainly would never do so for a hobbit. He put the flowers beside Thorin’s place at supper and thought nothing more of it.
At least, he intended to put it from his mind. When Thorin made a show of picking up the flowers to inspect them, Kili shattered his wine glass. For a terrible moment, Bilbo thought he’d cut his hand, and did not believe his brother was alright until all the wine was washed away. Which meant that the wine on the table cloth had time to set. It would be a pain to get out on laundry day, and required a good soaking at once. All in all, the snowdrops were trouble, plain and simple.
They disappeared before the end of dinner, and Bilbo did not see them again for quite some time.
“Red ribbon?” Kili hissed at him as they did their best to soak the tablecloth in the laundry room while the dwarves washed the supper plates.
“Hush,” Bilbo said. “Don’t be tiresome.”
“Snowdrops tied with red ribbon?” Kili repeated. “Are you trying to get your heart broken? Thorin plans to leave once the snow melts. You know that.”
Bilbo did not look at his brother. “My heart has nothing to do with it. I thought he should know the first flowers were up and about, that’s all. As you say, he must begin preparing for his journey.”
Huffing, Kili did not dignify this obvious lie with a response. Instead, he muttered all evening about red ribbons and was in quite a bad temper the next day.
“Would it be alright for our traveling companions from the Blue Mountains to meet us here in the Shire?” Thorin asked over breakfast a few days later. “If not, we must set out to meet them in Bree all the sooner.”
“Will it buy Bilbo five minutes more with you?” Kili scowled. “I’m sure he’d cut off his left hand for that.”
Bilbo elbowed his brother hard. “How many dwarves?” he asked cautiously.
“Eight,” Thorin said. “Our traveling company numbers twelve. Few enough to move swiftly and unencumbered, but numerous enough to defend ourselves if we encounter trouble on the road.”
Bilbo nodded. “That’s fine then. Kili and I will make up the other spare rooms so that you can all have one last restful night here before setting out. Unfortunately, with eight more, two will have to take the couches in the living room and someone will be on a cot. Naturally, you shall have to move back to your guest room. I suppose Fili and Kili might bunk together if everyone in your party knows of their supposed relationship.”
“Supposed relationship?” Fili’s chair hit the floor as he rose to his feet, slamming his hands palm down on the breakfast table. “After an entire winter, you still do not trust us!”
Thorin looked tired. Bilbo opened his mouth carefully.
“No,” Kili growled. He rose more slowly, but his palms also pressed hard against the sturdy wooden table. “And the sooner you are gone, the better.” Then he stormed off without even taking his toast along.
Sighing, Bilbo followed his brother.
The ground was quite muddy in places, though lumps of snow were only just beginning to melt as the sun rose over the Shire. It would have been a lovely morning to sit and smoke in a warm jacket. Trudging through muck and mire was less pleasant.
Bilbo found Kili shooting at his targets, where he always retreated when his temper got the best of him. Clearing his throat so that his brother would know he was there, Bilbo waited patiently until Kili ran out of arrows. Although he struck every pillow, the archer did not turn to Bilbo with a triumphant grin. Instead, he stared into the trees, as though some other distant target yet remained hidden.
“Do you want to go with them?” Kili asked finally. “To Erebor, I mean? Fili talks about it all the time. Me going, at least.”
Brushing some melting snow off a fallen log, Bilbo sat down. “Do you want to go?”
“Of course not,” Kili said quickly. “I can’t just close up my forge for a year or more to go haring off on an adventure. Anyway, they don’t even want to go hunting the orcs from my nightmares. Fili says they did enough of that already, and will be steering clear of dark creatures on their journey. Apparently, the Company of Thorin Oakenshield has already earned much valor. Many of them fought with him at that Khazad-dûm battle, and even the ones that did not have been out looking for me in all manner of places. Fili says they are all great heroes.”
“Fighting orcs is not the only way to be a hero,” Bilbo said.
Kili shrugged and met Bilbo’s eyes steadily. “If I did go, it would be to face them. Erebor does not matter to me. And if the dwarves do not want to meet the orcs, then traveling with them does not tempt me.”
This speech worried Bilbo rather more than his brother likely intended, for he believed it was entirely true. “You are not going to go out hunting orcs alone, are you?”
To the hobbit’s great relief, Kili shook his head and smiled. “No bookworm, I will not. I say that the dwarves could tempt me to join them if their goal was to face down my nightmares. But I’m not so foolish as to hunt such phantoms alone.” Turning back to the wood, Kili looked at Bilbo unsubtly from the corner of his eye. “And you? Are you tempted to accompany the dwarves?”
“Don’t be silly, dilly-weed,” Bilbo said. From the sudden widening of his eyes, Bilbo could tell that Kili remembered the last time a hobbit called him by that name. In case he did not remember the rest, Bilbo added, “I shall always choose you, Kili. Always. The truth is, while I like the dwarves a great deal more than when they showed up, we still have no way to verify their stories. We still have no proof of their good intentions. I hope that everything they have said is true. Indeed, it would quite break my heart to find out we have been deceived. And yet.”
“And yet.” Kili sighed and unstrung his bow. “I should apologize to Fili. He and I are sparring with Dwalin this morning.” As they spent every morning doing so, that was no surprise. “Race you back to the smial?”
Rolling his eyes, Bilbo watched his energetic little brother sprint away. He would never achieve even half of the speed that a dwarven body was capable of over such a distance, and he felt no need to try on such a cold and muddy day. Happily, Thorin anticipated Bilbo’s mood after his long slog, and there was a hot bath already drawn for the hobbit when he returned home.
“I will miss you,” Bilbo admitted, settling into the big copper tub with Thorin. It felt like a dangerous concession, but Thorin only smiled softly.
“You will have other companions to warm your bed and bath.”
“They will not be you.”
“I shall have the memory of your peaceful Shire to warm me, and I will always know that you are safe.”
“Well, yes. But I don’t see how that helps me at all.”
Thorin laughed and splashed some of the soapy water at Bilbo. “Letters cannot be frequent, given the distance, but letters we shall have. And I will come again, if I can. Someday.”
Forcing a smile, Bilbo said, “You will be welcome,” and turned the conversation to more pleasant things.
Shortly thereafter, a loud knock came at the front door.
Bilbo leapt to his feet. Water and soap bubbles cascaded down his back. No one paid calls in the morning during the winter. It was terrifically rude. After all, most gentlehobbits spent the morning in their warm, cozy beds. Wandering about out of doors before noon was a good way to catch a cold. At most, a bounder on their rounds might deliver the mail, but they would never be crass enough to knock on the door of Bag End before elevenses at the earliest.
Scrabbling for a towel, Bilbo dried himself hurriedly. Between Thorin’s hair and his own, there was no choice to make. Grabbing a second dry towel, Bilbo scrubbed his head furiously. “Bathing in the morning, in winter, oh we have been fools!”
“Will they not simply assume we have shared a tub to conserve coal for the hot water?”
Sometimes Thorin could be so naive that it was physically painful. “They will not get the chance to speculate, for only you will be damp,” Bilbo said, snatching up a third towel. “If they ask, you’ve been out exercising, as overactive dwarves are wont to do. As Dwalin, Fili, and Kili are off doing the same just now, that will be reasonable enough.”
Still in the tub, Thorin blinked as the hobbit pulled on his pyjamas and shrugged into a housecoat. “You will not dress properly?”
“And give them cause to wonder about my hair? Thorin, think! Now, you may dress at your leisure and come out with damp hair. Indeed, give it a few minutes, so it will not occur to them that we were together.” Bilbo hesitated. “If you do not want to come out at all, such is your prerogative.”
Thorin’s chin tilted sharply at that, but Bilbo slipped out of the bathroom before he could answer, closing the door silently behind him.
Stretching and yawning performatively, Bilbo squinted his eyes and padded along the corridor to the living room. “Balin?” he called, yawning again. “Have we a visitor?”
“Yes,” Balin said. “An unusual one, at that. Did you go back to bed?”
“Oh, just a little winter’s nap.” Bilbo rubbed his eyes as he entered the parlor, hoping he wasn’t overacting. Then, he saw his visitor. Blinking, he looked up, so that he could see his visitor’s face. Then up a little more to the pointed hat that grazed the ceiling despite the fact that the visitor was seated.
“Gandalf!” Throwing himself at the wizard as though he was still a fauntling, Bilbo hugged the old fellow fiercely. “Gandalf, you came!”
The wizard’s deep laugh boomed through Bag End, and his craggy hands came up to embrace Bilbo fondly. “How could I not when my finest assistant asked my aid?” When Bilbo stepped back to grin at him properly, he saw that the old fellow’s eyes were twinkling like the last sparks of a firework. “It is good to see you again, Kili Baggins.”
“Oh, hush.” Bilbo’s own laugh was not as deep or as long as Gandalf’s, but it was just as earnest. “If you received my letter then you know that I am Bilbo. You should know as well that I made myself quite sick over lying to you when you were so very kind. I believe my father never quite forgave my mother for the idea. But you are still wearing your hat! Allow me to hang it for you. I cannot believe Balin seated you without taking it and your cloak.”
“I did not seat him at all,” Balin said. The dwarf’s face was wary and suspicious as he peered up at Gandalf. “I did not know the wizard was an old acquaintance of your family.”
Suspicion was catching. Trepidation crept into Bilbo’s heart. He’d written to Gandalf because the traveler might be able to catch the dwarves out in a lie, if there was one to catch. From Balin’s face, it seemed that was the case.
Indeed, as Bilbo was taking Gandalf’s hat, Thorin entered the parlor and said, “Tharkûn,” in a very loud, accusatory way.
Gandalf only smiled.
“Shall we have some tea?” Bilbo offered, as much to delay the inevitable conversation as to play the host.
“Thank you,” Gandalf said. “Is your brother home? I should like to meet Kili at last, not simply you multiple times in different jackets and hairstyles.”
That seemed to settle the dwarves a little, but Bilbo’s hands shook as he put the kettle on. Everything would out now. There was no more time for dallying.