If it was up to Bilbo, their little group would have departed for Erebor the day Gandalf arrived. Knowing the whole truth made waiting a pointless delay. When something was difficult or frightening, it was best tackled directly. Watered by wariness and fed with trepidation, a task soon became insurmountable in the mind. Unfortunately, the roads of the Shire were still coated with ice, and Kili put his foot down. If they were going to leave Bag End for at least six months, he had to make sure their home was in good hands.
Bilbo cared about his books and clothes, but Kili could barely bring himself to leave their mother’s pottery behind.
“You cannot bring a seven piece tea set on a journey over the Misty Mountains,” Bilbo said in total exasperation.
“I will not trust Dandelion North-Took to look after it,” Kili said darkly. “He’s going to break a saucer.”
“Hopefully the one that matches the calla lily. We have a few spares, after all, now that a cup has been lost.”
“Don’t you dare joke, Bilbo Baggins!”
“Dandy is a fine fellow, and will enjoy getting out of Long Cleeve for a year to look after our affairs. We can hardly ask Parsifal to do it. With the new baby making four, he needs the support of his family at Great Smials.”
“Dandy will let Lobelia steal our silverware. You know he won’t insist on searching that umbrella of hers.”
“Well it is only silverware. Apparently, you are a very wealthy prince. You can probably afford new spoons.”
“Those belonged to our grandmother! They’ve been in the Baggins family for generations!”
“And the Sackville-Baggins family is so very distant?”
“You don’t mean that. No brother of mine could suggest such a thing.”
“I’ll tell Dandy about her umbrella.”
“He’ll forget. You don’t know how wily she is. She’ll wait until he’s had a late night at the Green Dragon, and visit while he’s recovering the next morning. Dandy doesn’t know how to be on his guard.”
“Drogo, then,” Bilbo suggested, nearing his wit’s end.
Kili blinked at him.
“He is newly married, but unsettled. They are living in Brandy Hall, but I’m sure he’d prefer Hobbiton. As a Baggins, I am equally confident that he will understand the complexities of defending our possessions from the Sackville-Baggins side.”
Slowly, Kili nodded. “Fine,” he said. “If you trust him.”
“I do trust him.” Bilbo paused. “I think we should tell him why we are going, as well. Not that you are a prince, but the truth of your origin.”
Kili shrugged, as though he did not care about that at all. “If you do not think he will mind being cousin to a dwarf. Dad always said telling the truth was the simplest way to keep a story straight. And of course we must bring Mum and Dad with us to Erebor.”
“You cannot bring full portraits on a journey over half the world,” Bilbo cried, starting the argument all over again.
So it was that they were still waiting in Bag End for Drogo and Primula to come all the way from Buckland. While they waited, Bilbo packed and repacked for his brother and himself. It was a distraction from his lonely bed.
Thorin offered to stay with him that first night. Since he was not a complete fool, Bilbo declined. He appreciated that Thorin enjoyed a distraction from the looming prophecy, but Bilbo could be that no longer. He knew his own dreaming heart too well. He could not casually be with a prince. In any case, Gandalf made a good excuse.
“There are few people in this world that I would want to know my nature less than Gandalf the Grey,” he told Thorin, pushing the dwarf softly toward his guest room. “I would no sooner share a bed with you in a house where he was present than I would in a house with my own father.”
Bowing his head in acceptance, Thorin said, “You are not angry with me?”
As anger did not quite describe Bilbo’s feelings, he said, “Not at all. In the end, you did not lie to me. Not truly.”
Thorin’s eyes were too sharp. “You do not forgive me.”
“There is nothing to forgive.”
Smiling thinly, the dwarf said, “Perhaps I may earn absolution on the road, or in Erebor.”
Bilbo did not look forward to that attempt, but he put it from his mind. He was putting a great deal from his mind these days. Most of it had to do with the future. While the hobbit might occasionally dream of adventures for himself, the last thing he wanted was for Kili to leave the safety of the Shire. There might be orcs, goblins, dragons, and all kinds of foul things along the road. Yet Kili was the one who had to go, and so Bilbo must go along. There was no choice for either of them.
He would have to be with Thorin every day and never touch.
Letting himself be with Thorin in the privacy of Bag End was the greatest mistake of his life. Sitting at the fire in the evening without the dwarf’s strong arm around his shoulders was torture. Sleeping in a bed alone was frigid despite the warm west wind of early spring. Feeding his guests without making special little presentations for Thorin’s plate felt unnatural. Surely an apple cut into a rose would not give him away to Gandalf. But of course it would, and so Bilbo did not present one to the prince.
How much worse would it be camping on hard ground when Bilbo wanted comfort? Imagining such situations was borrowing trouble, but the hobbit could not help himself. He missed Thorin already. How much more would he miss Thorin when they reached Erebor and a prince could no longer even speak to a lowly hobbit?
Not a prince, a king. A king destined to be childless. How much scrutiny was Thorin under among his own people? Would they look at a simple hobbit and see the seducer who kept their king from finding a wife? There might be dangers at their destination worse than any on the road.
So he folded and refolded clean handkerchiefs for Kili, packing and repacking his own clothes, pipe weed, and other necessaries. The road would be long. The road would be dangerous. The road would lead to places Bilbo did not want to go. Yet go he would. Leaving soonest seemed safest for his peace of mind.
Fortunately, once Drogo and Primula Baggins arrived to look after Bag End, Kili stopped delaying. Mostly.
“Are you really sure you want to go?” Bilbo’s brother asked one final time.
“As I have just set up Drogo and Primula in my own bedroom and given Drogo leave to wear my clothing if he wishes, I think we’d better get out of here. He’s like to murder me to keep the privilege if we stay.”
Kili frowned. “He knows we’re coming back.”
“Yes, yes,” Bilbo agreed hurriedly, not wanting to start Kili worrying about their possessions again. “Don’t be selfish. This will give them a chance to build up a little nest egg, and not rely so heavily on the kindness of Primula’s father.”
“Oh.” Kili relaxed. “I didn’t realize. Well, I’m glad to help them, of course.”
“And we can help them best by going,” Bilbo said firmly. Indeed, the dwarves were already astride their ponies. Gandalf had a tall horse, but he was standing yet, watching the brothers intently.
“Alright,” Kili said. “Together.” Then, although he had not done so in many years, he took his brother’s hand to walk down the path.
Bilbo shook his head. “You needn’t lead me to my pony,” he said. “I am accustomed to the idea of riding.”
Grinning, Kili squeezed his brother’s hand even tighter, and brought him to the head of the pony instead of the saddle. “Myrtle, this is Bilbo. He’s going to feel like a sack of potatoes in your saddle, but you must not throw him. Tolerate his poor riding, and I shall give you a carrot.”
Shoving his brother away, Bilbo rolled his eyes. “Yes, yes, you are the funniest fellow in the Shire.”
Laughing, Kili went to mount his own pony. All at once, Bilbo regretted pushing his brother away, for it was quite difficult to mimic Kili’s movements. Gripping the stirrup with his toes, Bilbo tried to hold onto the pommel and climb up. The swinging of the stirrup made standing impossible. Bilbo tried three times, but it kept swinging out from under him. Myrtle was extremely tolerant, standing very still. Yet Bilbo felt the eyes of all the dwarves on him as he tried and failed repeatedly. Red filled his cheeks, and frustration began to cloud his vision.
Suddenly, the stirrup under his foot was solid and large enough to support him. Looking down, Bilbo saw Thorin’s broad hands cupped beneath his foot. Bright blue eyes devoid of judgment shone up at him. It was wrong for a prince to kneel in the road, but objecting seemed trite. Taking advantage of the firm foothold, Bilbo swung himself up into the saddle easily.
Nodding, Thorin did not answer. Rising fluidly, he remounted his own pony at the head of their party. When he lifted his reins, all of the ponies began to walk slowly down the road to Hobbiton.
As soon as they were underway, Kili pushed up alongside Bilbo, his face a picture of apology. “I should have helped you, bookworm. Oh! I am so sorry. I know you’ve never ridden a pony before.”
“Don’t be silly! I must learn to do it myself eventually, and I ought to have spent the last week practicing instead of packing. Myrtle is not so very frightening.” To punctuate his point, Bilbo stroked the coarse mane of the pony beneath him. Despite this show of bravery, he still felt strangely high, as though he might tumble on his head at any moment. Walking was a much more sensible way to travel.
Over his shoulder, Kili looked back at Bag End. “I suppose we must both change somewhat over the course of this adventure.”
Daringly, Bilbo let go of the reins with one hand to reach over and pat Kili’s arm. He wobbled a little in the saddle, but did not fall. “Not all change is an evil.”
“Indeed it is not,” Gandalf said. “Though I am hardly surprised that a dwarf raised by hobbits would have such trouble leaving home. No people in the world love their homes and comforts the way hobbits do, after their long journey to found the Shire. Given the innate instinct of a dwarf to protect his crafts and his possessions, I wondered if you would be able to leave at all, Prince Kili.”
“Now who is being silly!” Bilbo laughed. “Kili and I have gone off to visit Tuckborough or Buckland for weeks at a time before now. We both enjoy a good ramble through the Shire and are hardly afraid to leave home.”
Kili was strangely quiet. Once again, he looked over his shoulder to Bag End and the Hill, which began to be hidden from view as Hobbiton rose around them. “Exactly,” he said. “It is just like going to Buckland. In truth, we are going to Buckland. We have to pass through there on our way to meet the rest of the dwarves. And we are coming back.” But although this was exactly their plan, he did not sound convinced.