Traveling through the Shire in early spring was not nearly as nice as the sort of summer walking holiday Bilbo and Kili enjoyed. For one thing, the mix of mud and snow was not pleasant for either ponies or riders. For another, the cold rain chilled Kili’s exposed feet to the bone, though all the rest of him was covered by the slick, weather-proof cloak Bilbo insisted he wear. Kili felt a bit of a fool next to Fili. The proper dwarven prince rode with his head up and his eyes forward, as though the raindrops did not bother him at all in his leather and fur.
Despite the differences, the way to Buckland was very familiar to the Baggins brothers. Bilbo insisted that the group stop for at least two meals during the day time, whenever they passed a likely inn. Given his close friendship with Dandelion North-Took, Bilbo could reliably review every inn, tavern, and pub in the Shire. So they had very pleasant meals along the way and lovely warm beds every night.
They also caused a great deal of gossip.
Now that Bilbo knew for sure that Kili was not hunted by foul nightmare creatures, he seemed to delight in the story of their mother’s heroic rescue. At every place they stopped, he told the story to rapt audiences of hobbits. Neighbors and other folk who had known Kili all his life looked at him with new eyes. This despite the fact that Bilbo left off the bit about him being a prince under a prophecy. He said only that they were going to visit Kili’s birth mother, since she was still living.
“I don’t like the way they look at me,” Kili admitted from his bed at the Golden Perch one evening, looking across the nightstand to find Bilbo’s eyes in the darkness.
“I know.” Sighing, Bilbo rolled onto his back to stare at the ceiling. “But there are going to be rumors one way or another. It is best if my version of events reaches the most ears. After all, we do not want any complications about your place in my will when we return. Or if you return without me.”
Kili sat up abruptly, his heart beating fit to break out of his chest.
“Sorry,” Bilbo said. “Of course that is perishingly unlikely. I simply want to be prepared for every eventuality.”
Kili lay down once more, but it was some time before he fell asleep.
Another surprise, just as unpleasant if less frightening, awaited him in Bree. Bree was the first place Kili had ever seen that was built for Men instead of hobbits, although there were occasional hobbit-holes interspersed with the tall houses. The wall seemed to tower over Kili, even astride his pony, and everywhere he looked there were Big Folk who equalled his height while he was riding. It made Kili feel small in a way he never had, and that was before his surprise.
It seemed that the innkeeper at the Prancing Pony knew Bilbo on sight, though he did not know his name. “Mister Underhill,” the big man said. “Bill Underhill, as I live and breathe. It’s not even April yet. What a pleasure!”
“Good to see you again, Butterbur! How’s the wife?”
“Pregnant!” The man laughed. “Making that tea of yours every morning, too. Swears by it she does, for the dancing of her stomach.”
“I am hardly the first hobbit to brew peppermint tea,” Bilbo said, “but I’m glad it helps her. How far along is she?”
“Not nearly as far as she’d like to be! Reckon the baby will come around midsummer, but it’s plain enough to anyone looking that a babe is on the way. And she certainly can’t be bending all over the place lifting kegs, so I’ve hired on young Sally there to help. You’ll like her, Bill, she’s a sensible girl.”
“I’m sure I will!”
“But what brings you to Bree in such company, Mister Underhill?”
“Oh, right!” Bilbo looked behind him at the dwarves, his brother, and Gandalf. Then he shrugged comically. “Business and the book, as always. But perhaps more business than usual.” He winked broadly at Butterbur as though sharing a secret. “These doughty warriors have agreed to see me beyond Bree, where I shall be researching another chapter for it. We’re meeting a few more dwarves. They may come tonight, or they may come tomorrow. Our number will be fifteen in total, though Mister Gandalf there shall need one of the rooms for Big Folk.”
“Gandalf has come through here before, of course.” Butterbur nodded to the wizard. “He can have his usual room. As can you, though that room only sleeps two. Then I have three other nice, hobbit sized rooms available here on the ground floor that each sleep four. The numbers work out well enough.”
“So they do!”
The innkeeper’s book was on the tall table in front of him. Bilbo’s nose barely reached the desk. No hobbit could sign such a book. Yet Bilbo slid easily to one side, tugging at a clever wooden hinge beneath the book. The book flipped around, and Bilbo signed the name “Bill Underhill” along five different lines, reserving the rooms. Then, although no prices had been discussed, he handed the innkeeper a small purse, saying, “For our meals as well.”
“I’ll make out better than you think on that deal, Mister Underhill,” Butterbur claimed. “Dwarves do not eat as hobbits do.”
“But they drink far more,” Bilbo said. “Or they will once they’ve tasted your beer! Don’t be shy about letting me know if we need to settle up again at check out.”
Butterbur smiled fondly. “I’m sure you’ve been generosity itself, Mister Underhill. You always are. But never mind about that. Let’s get you settled in and those ponies out there stabled!”
Clearly, Bilbo and Butterbur were old friends, for all that Butterbur did not know his name. But it was Kili’s first time in beyond the borders of the Shire since he came to be Bilbo’s brother. This was a whole facet of Bilbo’s life that Kili knew nothing about. One that took two weeks of dedicated walking, no less.
Bilbo shrugged uncomfortably. “I ramble here sometimes on my own walking holidays,” he said, not meeting Kili’s eyes. “Usually when you’ve gone for a long stay with Parsifal. I’m sure I’ve mentioned it.”
No one would ever accuse Kili of being quick. Once, Bilbo told Ombi Proudfoot that his wit was only equalled by his sense of style. An hour later, Kili snorted ale from his nose when he realized that the hobbit’s yellow and orange check trousers could not possibly have been something Bilbo admired. Yet he was no dullard. He could think, and he did think about his brother. Since Thorin stopped sharing a bed with Bilbo, Kili had been wondering that no one else had ever done so. Clearly, Bilbo enjoyed that way of going about things. He’d been happy with Thorin. He’d never been happy like that before. And he wasn’t happy anymore.
Kili got an idea.
“Say, I know all the rooms are doubled up here. Do you think I ought to share with Fili? I should try to get some information about his mother’s situation, so I won’t be surprised when we arrive. He might feel more comfortable talking with me one on one, after Balin and Dwalin fall asleep.”
Bilbo’s smile was the easy, natural one that showed off his dimples and meant he was putting special effort into lying. “Great idea, Kili,” he said. But when they all stowed their packs in their rooms before taking supper in the common room, Bilbo wound up bunking in with Balin, not Thorin.
So that plan was a failure.
Despite Bilbo’s inexplicable familiarity with the place, the Prancing Pony was as merry as any other inn. Soon enough, their little group was dining on the hearty fare of stew and rich black bread. Kili quite liked stew, which was a good thing. It seemed to be on the menu at almost every inn, along with pease porridge in the morning. Bilbo looked like he might be getting bored with it. He only finished two bowls, despite the fact that they had not stopped for tea and were eating so late that it might as well be supper, not dinner.
Travel could be giving him indigestion. Kili looked at the wizard who was leaning back in a corner and lighting his pipe. Did magic cure indigestion?
“Are you sure you would not like another bowl?” Kili asked his brother solicitously. “Or some more of this bread? The butter is very nice. Almost as good as Holly Cotton’s butter.”
“No thank you.” Bilbo looked terribly tired. Of course he was. They’d been traveling all day, and hobbits did not have dwarven stamina. “I think I’ve left my new warm weather cloak bundled with Myrtle’s blankets. Could you fetch it for me, please? I do not like to think of it spending a night in a stable before I even have a chance to use it.”
“It’s in your room already,” Kili said, happy to put his brother’s mind at rest. “Don’t you remember? You were hanging it up when I came to fetch you for dinner. There shall be not a wrinkle on it when the rain clears, and you’ll look a proper robin’s egg, riding along in the sunshine.”
“Ah.” Bilbo licked his lips. “Well, will you go check anyway? Just to be sure. I am very tired, and it weighs on my mind.”
Before Kili could tell Bilbo how silly he was being—and remind him that a younger brother was not a servant, thank you very much—a hobbit approached their table. By the cut of his jacket, Kili thought he must be from Bree. Or very poor. Hobbits in the Shire did not wear such rough spun wool. Despite that, he seemed a good looking fellow, as much as Kili could judge that sort of thing. Between Bilbo and Kili for height, he was on the burly side for a hobbit. His hair was the golden sort that Bilbo found attractive, but Kili did not like the glint in his muddy brown eyes.
“Bill!” the strange hobbit cried. “I thought that was you! The snow melts, and the Shire’s fairest flower appears in Bree as always. Let me buy your next half, why don’t you?”
“Hello Matty, old boy,” Bilbo answered, smiling with the polite distance he used for Sackville-Bagginses and salespeople. “I’m unfortunately engaged at the moment, but I shall certainly take you up on that the next time I’m about.”
“Surely you have not abandoned your book on hobbit genealogies outside of the Shire so quickly, Mister Underhill?” the hobbit teased. “I have found some old papers belonging to my grandfather that I would like very much to show you.”
“And I look forward to seeing them. Another time. At the moment, I am engaged with this party of dwarves, as you can see. We are going a little further afield than my usual jaunts, and I hope to get a whole chapter out of our exploits. But never fear, I will be back to Bree one day soon, and you and I can meet up then.”
“Why wait?” The hobbit pressed. “Surely they can spare you for the evening.”
The strange hobbit tried to take Bilbo by the elbow, but Bilbo shifted away, evading him. “No thank you, Matty. I really must insist we speak another time.”
“He means bugger off,” Dwalin growled from across the table.
Ignoring Dwalin entirely, the hobbit grabbed Bilbo’s upper arm very tightly. “Listen,” he said quietly, leaning so close to Bilbo that only Kili could hear what he said. “I’m sorry about last time, Bill. My wife will go visit friends tonight. You shan’t have to do anything you don’t want to, this time.”
Which meant that something had happened on one of Bilbo’s secret visits to Bree. Something Bilbo did not want. Something this rough hobbit forced on him.
Vices pinched Kili’s arms, trying and failing to pull him backward. The hobbit’s throat fluttered like a hummingbird in his palm.
“Put him down right now, Kili Baggins,” Bilbo scolded, but Kili could not see why he would need to do such a thing. The hobbit in his hand weighed nothing. Was nothing.
Fili pried Kili’s fingers from the hobbit’s throat as Balin and Dwalin pulled him away. Kili kicked them both trying to get at his enemy, but that only lead to him scraping his bare feet painfully against their boots.
“You did not hear him, you do not know what he did.” Kili found Thorin watching them impassively. Not impassive: stone still. Perhaps one of the dwarves understood.
“You do not know anything either!” Bilbo stamped his foot. “You are leaping to conclusions like always, you daft fool! Matty is an old friend. And you must never strike another hobbit.”
Kili looked at his brother. The haze of red lifted from his eyes. Bilbo had one hand on his hip and a single finger waggling in Kili’s face. Which meant trouble. Deep, deep trouble. Instantly, the younger Baggins stopped struggling against the arms holding him. Suddenly, the rough hobbit had Parsifal’s face, and Kili lost the ability to breathe.
The burly innkeeper loomed over them, holding a big black club in one hand. “What seems to be the trouble over here?” he demanded. When his eyes landed on the hobbit clutching his throat and wheezing on the floor, Kili thought they might be done for. Then the big man dropped his hand with the club to his side and looked disapprovingly at the hobbit. “Matthias Holman, are you bothering Mister Underhill again?”
“Just leaving,” the hobbit wheezed as he staggered away from the dwarves and out the front door of the Prancing Pony.
The innkeeper watched him go. Turning to Bilbo, his big dumpling of a face was all concern. “Are you alright, Mister Underhill?”
Slowly, Kili was freed from the many arms holding him.
“I’m just fine,” Bilbo said. “My traveling companions took a little umbrage at some of Matty’s advances, but no harm was done.”
“Your business is your own, of course, but I think you can do much better than old Holman. He and that wife of his never think about anything but their own pleasures. Now, Archie Duggin, on the other hand, is a fine young fellow. Could use a friend these days, since his mother’s taken ill. And I happen to know he’s still carrying a bit of a torch for a certain writer.”
Bilbo’s cheeks flushed terribly. “Master Butterbur. Bartimus. Thank you. I appreciate your concern. I’m only passing through town for business. Really. As I said, we’re meeting some other travellers here and then heading off to do some more research for my book. I have no intention of spending time with any of my Bree friends this evening.”
“As you will.” The innkeeper shrugged. Then he eyed the dwarves sternly. “You take good care of Mister Underhill on your travels, mind. One of my favorite customers, he is.”
Because Bilbo came very frequently to this inn. Probably on every single walking holiday he took alone or with one of the fellows from his set. Why would he do that if he did not want to do the things he did here? Kili’s whole head felt foggy, as though clouded by drink, but he’d only had two halves. It was good beer, but he never got tipsy on anything less than two pints, especially not over the course of a dinner.
He could hear Balin making some answer to the innkeeper. Another round was ordered for their table, and some light chatter started back up, largely between Bilbo and Gandalf. Kili couldn’t pay attention to it. He couldn’t pay attention to anything. Bilbo’s business was his own, but it ran through Kili’s head in an unending loop.
Kili watched the little bubbles in his beer dance. The head was gone and his mug was only half full. Half a half was a quarter, but no one ever ordered a quarter pint. He wondered why not. He wondered how many people had forced his brother into compromising positions over the years. He wondered if anyone would have been able to do so if Bilbo did not need to worry so much about drawing attention to Kili’s secrets. Around him, the dwarves and Gandalf spoke cheerfully. Kili could not hear their words.
Suddenly, Bilbo jerked him to his feet and declared they were going for a walk.
There was no snow in the streets of Bree, but the mud puddles were cold enough that they ought to have ice in them, and there were sharp stones and pebbles everywhere. Kili felt one slice into his ankle and he winced. Bree was not as soft as the Shire, and it was hard to pay attention to where he was walking at night. The moon was bright overhead, at least. More than bright enough to see the outline of the houses and the daring green spears of the crocuses sprouting in front of the hobbit holes.
“You should know I have no intention of exposing myself or embarrassing you on this trip,” Bilbo said softly. “I know things with Thorin might give you cause to doubt, but I do have some sense.”
“Thorin?” Kili did not see what Thorin had to do with anything. Unless Bilbo meant that Thorin ought to help Kili thrash that Matthias Holman properly. Which of course the prince would want to do if he really cared about Bilbo. The fact that he did not greatly lowered Kili’s estimation of him.
“That is over, I assure you.” Bilbo looked up at the moon. “I will not do anything to reveal my nature to our companions who do not yet know it. At least no more than I can help. I will not shame you.”
“Bilbo, I don’t understand you,” Kili said plainly. “I am not ashamed of anything, except maybe not crushing that blackguard’s throat when I had the chance. He forced you to—well, I’m not sure what he forced you to do, but I do know he hurt you. This is nothing like what happened with Parsifal. That fellow deserves a thrashing!”
Turning to Kili at last, Bilbo’s eyes were wide with surprise. “That is? Oh no, Kili, you do misunderstand!” Bilbo laughed, looking positively relieved. “Do you imagine Matty was violent? He is a hobbit, for all that he’s from Bree and not the Shire. I agreed to everything that happened, never fear.”
That could not be the truth, but Bilbo wasn’t lying either. Kili’s head ached. It wasn’t made to contain such riddles. Especially after so much ale. “He did hurt you.”
Smiling, Bilbo patted Kili’s arm and resumed walking. “I’ll explain when you’re older, if you like. For now, don’t you worry about it. I am fine.”
“I am not a child,” Kili growled, confusion feeding his anger.
Bilbo rolled his eyes. “Then think of it like an adult. Unlike children, adults compromise. Last summer when I came to Bree, Matty wished to engage in certain activities with both me and his wife Rosemary. While I would generally not be inclined to do some of the things he requested, I agreed to do so when he proposed them, and did not object at any point. It was not, perhaps, the most enjoyable evening of my life, but one often makes such compromises for one's friends.”
Instinctively, Kili knew there was something wrong with that argument. Yet he could not find any part of Bilbo’s little speech to object to. Slowly, he asked, “What would you do if I went to Mister Holman right now and offered to do all of the things you did with he and his wife?”
Bilbo stopped walking. His mouth opened. Then it closed. Finally, he tilted his head and conceded the point to Kili. “Very well. It is not the same as sitting through an unpleasant tea.” Bilbo sighed. “I’d knock the teeth out of anyone who took advantage of you in such a way. But you must know you and I are different.”
Kili stiffened. Bilbo never, ever pointed out their differences. “Because I am a dwarf?”
“Because I am unnatural.” Which made no sense at all, until Bilbo sighed and started walking once more. “I want—I have very few opportunities in the Shire. If I come all the way to Bree, then I sometimes feel I must take advantage of any offer. For I have learned I cannot risk such assignations in the Shire.”
“It is not unusual to be lonely,” Kili said. “That is to say, although I am your brother, I know I cannot be everything to you. If you wanted to marry or have children you could, now that you don’t have to worry so much about keeping my secrets.”
Bilbo smiled wryly, and Kili knew he’d said exactly the wrong thing.
“Not with a lass, or anything,” he amended quickly. “I know you don’t want that. I just mean with Thorin. Or someone else. You seemed happy this winter. Happier than usual. That's all.”
For a moment, Bilbo actually let something like disappointment show on his face. Then, he sniffed. “Thorin Oakenshield? I wouldn’t have him for a new velvet smoking jacket.”
“I thought you liked him.”
Leaning in close to take his brother by the arm, Bilbo confided, “He snores. And he’s always leaving those boots of his in the middle of a room to be tripped over. Even talks in his sleep. Was going on and on about fluffy green kittens laying eggs the last time we shared a bed. I couldn’t get a wink in. ”
Kili shoved him away. “You can’t be serious.”
Laughing, Bilbo stumbled back toward his brother, knocking his shoulder against Kili’s bicep companionably. “My dear brother,” he said. “I am never serious.” And, indeed, Bilbo cracked jokes all the way back to the Prancing Pony.
Again, the landlord greeted Bilbo as an old friend. No more sanguine than he had been about Bilbo’s secret trips, Kili looked uncomfortably to the table where the dwarves were laughing with Gandalf. Suddenly, he did not feel like laughing anymore. Bilbo had not actually explained anything. At least, not in a way that Kili could understand.
“Whether or not you are really tired, I am,” Kili informed his brother. “I think I’ll call it an early night.”
Instantly, Bilbo was all solicitousness. He always was when Kili felt poorly. “Of course. Do you need anything? I convinced Butterbur long ago that an inn serving hobbits must keep tea available as well as ale, if a cup of camomile would see you off.”
“No, thank you.” Kili wanted to smile, but this reminder of Bilbo’s previously unknown friendship only exhausted the young Baggins further. “Just bed for me, I think.”
“Alright.” From the look on Bilbo’s face, Kili knew the hobbit wanted to follow him and tuck him in with a story like a small child. But they were not sharing a room, and Kili was not a child.
“Master Underhill,” Thorin called from the table, “We are comparing this Bree pipeweed to the Shire stuff. Won’t you have a fill and help us? There is a difference of flavor that I cannot quite put into words.”
Looking from Thorin to Kili, Bilbo shrugged. Ducking in to embrace his brother briefly, the hobbit murmured, “Sleep well.” Then he rejoined the dwarves.
Kili’s brother did not follow him, but he was followed. Moments after he shut the door to his room at the inn, Fili opened it. The dwarf grinned at him conspiratorially.
“Are we going to teach that Matty-hobbit some manners?”
Kili stared at him in surprise. “We?”
“Naturally. Your battles are mine, Kili, and Thorin will not punish us.” Fili’s smile twisted a little into something chiding. For a moment, he looked strangely like Bilbo. “It’s best if you don’t go alone, anyway. You really can’t kill him for the offense.”
“I’ve no intention of killing anyone.” Kili backtracked. “I’ve no intention of going to see that Holman fellow either. Bilbo wouldn’t like it.”
Fili raised an eyebrow. “Then you really are going to bed?”
“Ah.” Sitting down on the edge of his own bed, Fili began unlacing his boots. “Suppose I have to as well, after making my apologies to the group. Shame, though. I bet some of the lads arrive tonight. It’ll be a merry time in the common room. Always is, when the Company gathers.”
“You are welcome to join them,” Kili all but growled.
Fili just shook his head and continued to ready himself for bed. Wordlessly, Kili did the same. When the room was dark and they were both tucked beneath the covers of their own beds, Kili listened to the quiet sound of Fili’s breath. In the distance, he could here the low murmur of voices raised in merriment and the occasional clink of glass or cutlery. He remembered the years when he shared a room with Bilbo, and their parents would have neighbors over for a dinner party. Back then, he and Bilbo lived in one another’s pockets. They had no secrets from each other.
“Do you think it’s possible to make another person happy?” Kili asked the darkness.
“I know it is.” Fili’s voice was much louder than Bilbo’s would have been sharing a nighttime confidence. “You will make our mother happy and well, Kili. Just your presence. You shan’t have to do anything. So do not doubt yourself.”
Instead of easing Kili’s worry, this proclamation only added to the weight on the young Baggins’s mind. If he could not make Bilbo happy and content in the Shire—if he did not even know his brother was lonely—how could he be expected to cure a stranger?
Fili’s breathing evened out, deepening into sleep. Kili only fell deeper into his worries. After what felt like hours, Thorin and Dwalin came into the room. While they were not precisely noisy, they were certainly louder than hobbits would be as they sat on their beds and removed their boots. Eventually, they slept as well. Around him, Kili could hear three dwarves snoring in the darkness. So Bilbo had been telling at least part of the truth.
He should have roomed with his brother. Perhaps it was not too late to go back to the Shire entirely and forget this horrid trip ever happened. The cut on his ankle stung. Kili knew he would not sleep a wink in Bree.
When he woke, the sun was high and the other three beds were quite empty. Yawning, Kili rolled onto his side. As he did so, his eyes fell on a present wrapped in brown paper sitting on the nightstand beside his bed. Kili’s name was written in Bilbo’s neat calligraphy upon the card.
Sitting up, Kili opened the card. It read:
“No power in this world or any other
can change the fact that you’re my brother.
But it is always best to keep one’s secrets,
and one more booted dwarf is less suspicious
than a bearded hobbit.”
Unwrapping the brown paper made a lot of noise in the silent room, but what was revealed therein should not have been a surprise. The boots were heavy black leather. Holding them in his lap for a long moment, Kili inspected the crafting. Steel rivets lined the laces. Punching steel into leather was not easy. Often there would be wear at such a joining. There was none of that in evidence here. The double-stitching on the leather was very fine, as could be expected of clothing chosen by Bilbo Baggins. Clearly, these were tailored to Kili’s exact measurements and ordered in advance, for all that they were mannish in style and not dwarvish.
Next to them, the socks were even more interesting. Kili recognized the pattern of flowers along the top of the soft blue wool. Bilbo must have knit them himself. When the hobbit had done so was anyone’s guess. Obviously, Bilbo had anticipated the need once they went walking in lands rougher than the Shire. Happy as always to leave the planning to his brother, Kili put the boots on and went out to breakfast.
Breakfast in the common room of the Prancing Pony was a much more subdued affair than dinner, as one would expect. No local folk came in for a pint to break their fast first thing in the morning or catch up on the news. At breakfast, only travelers supped in the common room. So there were no big folk other than the innkeeper, the serving girl, and Gandalf. Bilbo was the only hobbit. All around the outside of the room were dozens of empty tables. To make up for that lack, the center table was full of dwarves. Three times the number who had been sitting there when Kili went to bed were gathered now.
They rose as one when Kili entered the room, all save Thorin. The dwarves stood up and turned to Kili, simply looking at him. Was it a gesture of respect? Was it curiosity? If they simply wanted a look at him, why would Fili, Dwalin, and Balin do the same? They knew perfectly well what Kili looked like, though the boots gave him an additional inch in height.
Putting his hands in his pockets, Kili nodded at them all. “Good morning,” he said. “Any breakfast left?”
At once, Bilbo pushed out his own chair and came over to take Kili by the arm. “Naturally,” he said. “How are you feeling? Any better for the sleep? You never lie abed so long. Do you think you’re coming down with something? It’s only pease porridge, of course, but there’s plenty of honey. Have a cup of tea.”
Seating Kili between himself and Thorin at the table, Bilbo proceeded to fuss so much that the younger Baggins stopped worrying about the dwarves, secrets, quests, or anything else. Convincing Bilbo that he was not about to die of fever took precedence.