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A Road from the Garden

Chapter Text

When Bilbo was very young, he had an older brother. They would sit together in the afternoon sun and Kili would braid clover into crowns for Bilbo to wear. Sometimes their mother would plop them down in a berry patch and Kili would find all the best ones for Bilbo to eat. One of Bilbo’s earliest memories was blinking in the summer sunshine as Kili presented him with a huge, ripe strawberry. At lunchtime, Kili helped their mother by fixing Bilbo’s plate, and no one cut a cake like Kili. He always managed to give Bilbo the biggest piece.

When Bilbo was very young, he didn’t know his brother was unusual. Kili was much bigger and stronger than Bilbo, but he would sometimes step on a broken stick when they were running outside and hurt his feet. Bilbo’s feet never got hurt by anything. Their mother said that Kili had poor health, and he never went out visiting the way Bilbo had to. That wasn’t so strange. If Bilbo could stay at home and not have his cheeks pinched by one million aunts, he’d choose that in a heartbeat. Besides, if he stayed home, he could stay at home with Kili.

Being at home with Kili was great. He told the best stories, even better than their father, about fighting dragons and finding hidden treasure. Bilbo loved hiding under the covers with his brother, whispering in the secret language that Kili invented.

“It’s a language only for brothers,” Kili said. “We can’t tell anyone else, ever.” And so they didn’t, but Kili had words for everything. Sometimes he would tell his stories about great armies fighting entirely in the made up language. Bilbo loved knowing that only the two of them would ever understand these tales. Even their mother wasn’t privy to all of the brothers’ secrets.

Once, Kili found a little kitten in the grass. It was the softest thing Bilbo had ever touched, so Kili whispered the words for gentle, baby cat, and small in their secret language.

“Darfûn,” Bilbo contradicted as the little orange tiger wriggled his tail, preparing to pounce on a beetle. “He’s a killer.”

Kili laughed in agreement, and then the two boys fell over each other giggling as the kitten missed his prey and rolled clumsily onto his back. The poor thing’s pride was badly wounded, and when Bilbo picked him up, the little fellow swatted him painfully with its tiny claws. Bilbo cried out in shock, and his mother rushed over to scold them for playing with a strange animal.

If any proof was needed that secrecy was sometimes necessary between brothers, surely that was it. Obviously their mother would not have allowed them to play with the kitten at all, if she had been told about it from the first.

Still, Belladonna Baggins was the smartest, silliest hobbit in all the Shire, and they didn’t keep too many secrets from her. If she kept Kili home all the time, she also played with them far more than other mothers would have. She was never too busy cooking or gardening to play hide and seek, one of her very favorite games. In fact, sometimes she would suggest it, or even goofier games, to entertain her sons.

“Now, your grandfather has been very insistent that Kili should visit the Great Smials,” she said once to Bilbo, “but he is too ill to come.”

“I am not too ill,” Kili said stoutly. “I will go and Bilbo can stay home, since he does not like visiting.”

Smiling at his brother gratefully, Bilbo said, “Can’t Kili come, Mother? Please? It would be ever so much more fun if we all went together.”

“Your mother already said he may not.” Bungo Baggins was happy to put his sons to bed with a story every night, but for the most part he left the business of childrearing to his wife. When he chose to speak, the boys tended to listen. “Kili and I will stay here and be grateful for the excuse to avoid the chaos of visiting Tuckborough.”

“Then why must I go?” Bilbo demanded. “I want to stay with Kili!”

“Because I must go and visit my parents,” Belladonna said, putting on a very silly frown. “You would not make me go all by myself, would you?”

Bilbo’s frown was not at all a mockery. “You stay home, too, Mum.”

“But it is your grandfather’s birthday! I cannot miss his party. Gandalf the firework wizard will be there again. You loved him last year. Besides, you have not even heard the very good joke we are going to play on everyone, Bilbo.”

“A joke?” Bilbo might have stubbornly insisted on getting his own way, but Kili looked interested. Truthfully, their mother did play excellent tricks.

“We are going to let your grandfather meet Kili at last, because you are going to tell everyone that you are him. All week! Won’t that be a great game?”

“Ah, yes,” Bungo said. “Taking advantage of the natural confusion of age. What larks!”

Ignoring Bilbo’s father as she always did when he spoke in that dry tone, Belladonna continued. “You and I will both have to be very careful, and we’ll lose a point every time we make a mistake.”

Before Bilbo could answer, Kili laughed. “But Bilbo is so little! No one would believe that he was me.”

“Not if you were standing right next to each other,” Belladonna agreed, “but my family has not seen you since you were a very little baby. All they know is that you two are twins. So if Bilbo introduces himself as Kili and is careful to answer only to that name, I think there’s a fantastic chance that he will fool everyone. Although, it will be a challenge. Tooks are hard to trick, being very tricky ourselves.”

“Tooks are as easily distracted as squirrels in springtime. Consistently change subjects when you’re speaking, like a bumblebee determined to visit every flower in the conversational garden, and you’ll be fine.” Bungo frowned. “That said, I’m still not sure about this plan, dear.”

“You don’t think Bilbo can manage it? It’s true that he probably won’t beat my score, but—”

“I can!” Bilbo didn’t want to spend a whole week away from his brother, but he was dearly fond of games. He was not about to concede without trying.

“That’s settled, then,” Belladonna said, smiling. So Bilbo had to go after all.

In the end, it was a pretty fun game. Bilbo got to wear Kili’s old blue jacket and he sang all of Kili’s favorite songs for his aunts and uncles. He even ate his sprouts, because Kili liked them though Bilbo hated them, and refused his pudding despite desperately wanting it. His mother gave him twenty points for doing that, which meant he was well on his way to winning the game before the birthday party even started.

The Old Took did have wonderful birthday parties. It was very hard to talk to everyone, chase the other fauntlings, and dance about as Kili would when all Bilbo wanted to do was sit and listen to the Old Took’s stories. Still, Bilbo did his duty and chose a present that Kili would like as a birthday gift. It was a real wooden sword, and he ran around fighting with everyone else who chose similar toy weaponry.

When he saw the Big Person, Bilbo did what his big brother would have, and challenged him to a duel.

“Kili!” Rushing over, Belladonna pulled Bilbo away from the giant in the gray robes. “I am sorry Gandalf. I have no idea where he gets these notions.”

“It’s quite alright, my dear.” The giant bent down and Bilbo saw his blue eyes sparkle beneath his bushy gray eyebrows. “I will not fight you, Kili Baggins, for I am a great friend of your mother’s. No matter which of us triumphed, she would weep, and so there must never be a battle between you and I.”

Bilbo laughed, delighted by this. “You have a beard! I have never met anyone with a beard before. K—my brother talks about them in his stories sometimes.”

“Is your brother here?” Gandalf looked at Belladonna politely. “I believe I saw him in the throng last year, though I don’t think we were introduced.”

“No,” Bilbo said quickly. “Bilbo is sick at home.”

“Bungo stayed with him.”

“Oh, that is a shame,” Gandalf said. “Nothing serious, I hope.”

“Just a summer cold,” Belladonna said.

“Kili is quite an interesting name for a hobbit,” the Big Person observed. “I don’t think I’ve heard it around the Shire before.”

“Ah, a little fancy of my own,” Belladonna said. “We were quite settled on Bilbo, of course, and when we had twins, I just thought, well: Kili and Billy! An actual rhyme seemed cruel, but a nickname to be chosen if so desired felt just right.”

When Gandalf smiled, his whole beard moved. It was fascinating to watch. “Charming. And are they alike? From what I recall of Bilbo, they certainly have a similarity in looks.”

“Like two peas. Always getting up to mischief together and teaming up against their poor parents! Why, there is scarcely an argument won by an adult in my house, Gandalf, if you can believe it.”

“Not true! I wanted to stay at home with Bilbo, but Mum said one of us had to come.”

“And are you having a dreadful time without him?”

Bilbo frowned at Gandalf. He did not like to be teased by anyone except his mother. “I would have more fun if he were here, for then Bilbo would be having fun as well.”

Smiling gently, the old man took Bilbo by the hand. “I am sure you would, Mister Baggins. Since you are not having any fun without your brother, perhaps you would be good enough to assist me with my work. For you know, I am not only here as a guest, but the entertainment as well.”

“Are you a musician?” Bilbo asked eagerly, for he dearly loved music.

“Not quite,” Gandalf said.

In fact, Gandalf was not a musician at all, as you will have already realized. He was a wizard. Bilbo can, perhaps, be forgiven for not remembering this earlier. After all, he was only a fauntling. He had been too small and dazzled by the fireworks at previous birthday parties to wonder where they came from. This year, he found out.

Great crates of rockets were stacked to one side, and Bilbo was privileged to fetch them one at a time, holding them steady for Gandalf as he lit them with his staff. With a whizz and a bang, the rockets shot high into the air, exploding into flowers, colors, and glorious shapes of flame and smoke. The wizard even let Bilbo light a few once he proved to have steady hands. Perhaps Bilbo’s assistance slowed the progression of the display somewhat, for the little fauntling watched each explosion in awe before fetching the next rocket for Gandalf. It was the most wonderful thing he had ever been a part of.

Guilt didn’t catch up to him until later that night, curled up in a borrowed bed with his mother, as it occurred to him that the glorious duty ought to have been Kili’s.

Two days later, when they finally returned home, he exploded with tears, confessing all to his brother. This reaction alarmed both of his parents, but Kili simply pulled Bilbo into a big hug.

“It’s okay,” Kili said, rubbing Bilbo’s back. “It’s okay.”

“But you should have been the one to shoot the fireworks,” the fauntling sobbed. “He only let me because he thought I was you.”

“Oh, sweetheart, no,” Belladonna said. “Gandalf let a boy who missed his sick brother play a game with him. That was you, Bilbo, no matter what name was used.”

“Really?”

“Really, really,” she said comfortingly.

That might have been the end of things, but Bilbo’s father said, “I would call this a failed experiment,” in an angry voice that Bilbo had never heard before. Nervously, the little hobbit looked up at his mother. She seemed very tired.

“We’ll talk about it later, dear.” Which meant they would talk about it when Bilbo and Kili weren’t around. That was all right. Bilbo didn’t like the twisted look on his father’s face. Taking Kili by the hand, he went off to play with his brother.

Later that night, Bilbo had a strange dream. His father was standing between him and his brother, refusing to move. Trying to go around him was futile. So was pushing him out of the way. Slowly, his father grew bigger and bigger, his toes digging into the earth like roots as his arms stretched into branches. Kili cried out for Bilbo, but the dark forest between them was impassible.

Waking with a start in the familiar darkness of his bedroom, Bilbo heard a soft whimpering coming from the parlor. Padding silently down the hallway, he peered through a crack in the door. Kili was sitting on Belladonna’s lap in her favorite rocking chair, while Bungo paced back and forth.

“I’m going back to bed,” Bilbo’s father said angrily.

“Good.” Belladonna’s voice was warm and gentle, like the low fire crackling in the grate.

“It has been eight years,” the hobbit said, ignoring his wife. “When will these nightmares stop?”

“When Kili realizes he is safe, and that we will never, ever let anything bad happen to him,” Belladonna said soothingly. “Go back to sleep, Bungo. Things will look better in the morning.”

Huffing, Bungo Baggins left the parlor, walking right past Bilbo’s hiding place in the shadows. Belladonna stayed up with her troubled son, rocking in the chair and singing softly, until he stopped crying. Then she carried him back to his bedroom, tucked him in, and returned to her husband. Creeping silently over the soft, red rug, Bilbo slipped into his brother’s room.

“Kili?” he whispered. “Are you asleep?”

“Bilbo?” Kili’s voice was thick with exhaustion.

“Shamuk, nadad.”

Sitting up in his bed, Bilbo’s brother peered through the darkness toward the door. “Are you okay?” he asked in their secret language.

“Yeah.” Clambering up into Kili’s bed, Bilbo struggled to get underneath the covers. Obligingly, Kili moved over and helped his brother with the blanket.

“Why are you in my room?” Kili always sounded a little gruff when he spoke in their secret language, but his brother knew that just using it meant they were the closest twins in all the Shire.

“Had a bad dream,” Bilbo said.

Kili took Bilbo’s hand and laced their fingers together. “Well then, I will tell you a story. To help you sleep.”

Wondering how many times his mother had said exactly those words to Kili without Bilbo knowing a thing about it, the little fauntling agreed. “Okay.”

“In a kingdom so wealthy that everyone ate off golden supper plates,” Kili began, telling Bilbo’s favorite story about the handsome prince who handily defeated a monstrous dragon. It was a wonderful tale, just frightening enough to be engaging, even though the dragon was bigger than a house and wanted to eat little boys for supper. Anyway, it ended well, with both tragedy and happiness. The prince always protected his kingdom, despite what he lost along the way.

“We should stick together,” Bilbo whispered when Kili finished the story. “That’s what brothers do.”

Snuffling a little in the darkness, Kili yawned audibly. “Always. I promise.”

“I promise, too,” Bilbo said softly, and he meant it. His brother would never need to face his nightmares alone again.

Chapter Text

It made sense that Bilbo and Kili would share a room, since they were twins. They also shared everything in it. As they were exactly the same size, there was no harm in them sharing clothes, and it made everything less confusing on washing day. Bilbo loved washing day. In the summer, he and Kili splashed each other with the water and hid from their mother behind the billowing sheets hanging from the clothesline. In winter, the heat from the steaming wash water fogged up all the windows of Bag End, so he and Kili could draw pictures while they told stories.

Every day was a good day in the Shire. In the morning, just after breakfast, Belladonna would curl Kili’s hair with a hot iron. After that, they could spend the whole day playing. If Kili sometimes forgot a meal or two, Bilbo made sure that they managed to catch them all. If Bilbo sometimes lost himself staring at clouds and daydreaming, Kili made sure that they always accomplished whatever little task Belladonna set for them. Running around the Hill together, they made friends with all the other fauntlings in the neighborhood. Together they would play games, pick flowers, and steal fruit from whatever garden was nearby.

The leader of the children who lived under the Hill was indisputably Podo Proudfoot, an auburn haired lad a few years older than Kili and Bilbo. He always knew which apple trees were the best to climb and whose raspberries were ripe for the picking. If Kili sometimes got bored with always stealing food and never seemed as hungry as Bilbo and the other fauntlings were, Bilbo thought Podo was brilliant. When he smiled, teeth stained purple with blackberry juice, curls shining red like the sunset, Bilbo thought he looked like a fairy prince.

Sometimes Kili would hang back or stay at home with Belladonna while Bilbo went out to play with the others. That wasn’t such a hardship. After all, the brothers did everything else together. They wore identical clothes, even though Kili’s darker, straighter hair meant they didn’t look at all alike. They ate identical meals that their mother cooked for them, even though they liked different things. They read identical books, even though Bilbo had picked up reading and writing much faster than Kili and might have liked something a little more challenging. Bilbo was even learning to play the violin because Kili wanted to and their father refused to pay for lessons until Bilbo also expressed an interest. Given all of that, it didn’t seem unreasonable to play with the other neighborhood children, whether or not Kili enjoyed their company.

Of course, if Bilbo realized why Kili was so reluctant to play with the other children, he would never have abandoned his brother. But he didn’t notice the looks they gave Kili. He didn’t hear the whispers. So he assumed his brother was simply too good to pilfer from the neighborhood gardens. In truth, their little posse was very naughty and often in trouble for stealing. It would be greatly to Kili’s credit if he had taken a moral stance. However, it was not morality that caused Kili to avoid Bilbo’s friends.

Enlightenment on several subjects came to Bilbo one hot afternoon just before his fifteenth birthday. Podo’s wonderful idea on that particular day was to wade around the creek near Bywater looking for watercress. Indeed, the fauntlings—though this term might be used very loosely for Podo Proudfoot, who was edging along toward his tweenage years—found a great deal of cress and a few frogs besides. Still, it was nearly tea time, and most of their friends said goodbye.

Bilbo didn’t want to leave. He knew that Podo was going to say goodbye one day soon and start hanging around the Green Dragon instead of at the creek. Podo already had a job in his uncle’s grocery, loading carts and carrying heavy purchases for customers. This was the way of the world, but Bilbo was in no hurry to see his friend grow up or to do so himself. So he sat, dangling his feet in the creek water alongside Podo for a few minutes after everyone else had gone home.

“Suppose it’s almost tea,” Podo said.

“I rather suppose it is,” Bilbo agreed.

“Should probably be heading home.”

“Yeah.”

When neither of them made any move to go, Podo leaned over and pressed his lips against Bilbo’s. It was a dry, chaste gesture, and Bilbo flushed from the tips of his ears to the hair on his toes. Podo smiled. Very gently, Bilbo copied the motion. Kissing Podo for a bit longer this time, he placed one hand on the older boy’s shoulder. Then he shifted back. For a little while, they just sat, grinning at one another. Like so many secret ways over garden walls, Podo had discovered something wonderful to share with Bilbo. Just as with stolen cherries and filched mushrooms, Bilbo was thrilled with both his prize and the secrecy.

Suddenly, Podo’s face hardened into an unfriendly scowl. “What are you doing here, Baggins? Spying?”

Turning, Bilbo saw Kili looking down at his toes. “Mum sent me to find you, Bilbo,” he mumbled. “We’re having gooseberry tarts for tea.”

Podo snorted. “Run along, Tenderfoot, and tell your mother that Bilbo is having tea with me.”

If Bilbo had been looking into Podo’s eyes, he might not have noticed the casual insult or the imperious way the older hobbit commanded his brother. Fortunately, he was not looking at Podo. He was looking at Kili, and so Bilbo saw the way the insult made him flinch. At once he was uncomfortably aware that Kili still wasn’t looking directly at Podo or Bilbo. In the back of his mind, he recalled the unhappy look on Kili’s face every time he spent a few moments alone with Podo or their other friends. Slowly, it occurred to Bilbo that this was not the first time Podo had said something hurtful to his brother.

“Perhaps I shall go with Kili,” he said, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. “If my mother wants me.”

Strutting over to Kili, Podo looked quite large, and almost menacing. “Nah,” he said amiably. “Dilly-weed here can tell her he couldn’t find you. Can’t you Dilly-weed?”

“Yeah.” Kili’s voice was soft and he still wasn’t looking up at Podo. “Of course.”

Bilbo felt rather sick.

“See!” Shoving Kili, Podo gave Bilbo a rakish grin. “There’s no reason for you to go home.”

Stumbling, Kili tripped among the sharp rocks at the edge of the creek. Then he yelped and sat down hard. Bilbo could see blood welling from a cut at the bottom of his foot. The dark-haired fauntling began to cry.

Podo laughed. A bright, joyful sound that was so at odds with Kili’s pained sobbing that Bilbo wondered for a moment if he was dreaming. “Tenderfoot has stubbed his toe!” Podo turned to Bilbo, expecting him to share the joke. Expecting him to laugh at his brother’s pain.

Growling incoherently, Bilbo launched himself at Podo. Punching him in his nose, Bilbo bloodied the older boy’s stupid, perfect mouth. Although he was surprised by the sudden assault, Podo gave as good as he got, blacking Bilbo’s eye and knocking him to the ground. Bilbo refused to concede the point. Kicking out, he tripped Podo and they scrabbled ferociously around the creek bed, tearing their clothes on the rocks, and pounding one another with fists and feet. When they finally broke apart, bruised, bloody, and panting for breath, Bilbo made sure that he was between the bully and his brother.

“Don’t you ever speak to Kili again,” Bilbo growled, trying to sound as menacing as a young hobbit at the end of his fauntling years could.

Still looking furious, Podo spat some blood onto the mud of the creek bed. “I’m never going to speak to either of you ever again!”

“Perfect!” Bilbo shouted, not sorry at all.

Podo stormed off, and Bilbo looked down at his little brother. For Kili was smaller than him, though Bilbo wasn’t quite sure when that had happened. “Are you okay?”

Looking up at him with shining eyes, Kili grinned. “You beat him up!”

“Of course I did,” Bilbo said, kneeling to inspect the cut on Kili’s foot. “He hurt you. Brothers have to stick together.”

“Right!” Kili frowned a little. “Should I have fought him, too?”

Bilbo’s handkerchief was all over mud, of course, ruined in the fight, so he took the clean white handkerchief from Kili’s pocket and hummed thoughtfully. “Just you let me handle the fighting for now, Great Warrior. This cut looks nasty.” Wrapping the wound with the clean cloth, Bilbo helped his brother to stand and offered him a supportive arm as they limped home together.

Naturally, their mother was both shocked and appalled to see them coming home so battered. Abandoning her tarts, Belladonna quickly rushed Bilbo into a bath before settling Kili down to tend the wound on his foot.

“What happened to the two of you?” she demanded.

“Bilbo fought Podo,” Kili said, looking at Bilbo like he was some kind of hero of legend.

Ducking his head under the bathwater, Bilbo scrubbed the mud out of his hair.

“Bilbo Baggins! Stealing Farmer Maggot’s mushrooms while we were visiting your cousins was one thing, but fighting? I should never have imagined a son of mine treating a neighbor violently! What reason could you have to fight another hobbit?”

“None, Mum. I’m sorry,” Bilbo said contritely.

“But—” Kili very clearly wanted to defend his brother, but Bilbo shook his head quickly.

Belladonna looked at both boys sternly, then sighed. As no further explanation was forthcoming, she shook her head at both of them. “Well, so long as you don’t do it again. Kili, my dear, go fetch a steak from the cold larder. We need to put something on your brother’s black eye to keep it from swelling shut.”

Kili skipped off to do as their mother asked, but once they were alone Belladonna didn’t lecture Bilbo any further. She just ruffled his wet hair gently. “You’re a good boy, standing up for your brother.”

Feeling his mouth fall open, Bilbo wondered how she could possibly know what had happened. She smiled. Tentatively, Bilbo smiled back.

“You know that Kili’s a little different from other hobbits, don’t you Bilbo?”

At once, Bilbo felt his shoulders tense. “There’s nothing wrong with Kili.”

“I didn’t say wrong.” Belladonna gently wrapped a bandage around a cut on Bilbo’s arm, focusing on her task. “I said different. Though perhaps you can be forgiven for conflating the two, growing up in Hobbiton. The opinion is unfortunately prevalent throughout the Shire.”

Bilbo frowned. “We’re twins, right Mum?”

“I’ve only ever been pregnant the once,” Belladonna said jovially. “So I suppose you must be.”

“Right, just. Today. I thought, I think, maybe Kili is younger than me.”

“He is.” For some reason, Bilbo’s mother spoke with a forced cheerfulness that confused the young hobbit. “By a full minute, according to your birth certificates. Your father is quite traditional, you know, so you’ll be inheriting alone. Though I expect you to look after Kili’s interests in that unfortunate event.”

“What?” The information was rather too much for Bilbo to take in when he desperately wanted his mother’s guidance. He’d had his first kiss and his first fistfight with the same person just that afternoon. All told, it had been a very trying day. “I just mean, I don’t know. I don’t feel like I was ever bigger than Kili before today.”

Softening, Belladonna pressed a tender kiss to her son’s forehead. “I trust you’ll make an excellent big brother, Bilbo. Kili needs us to look after him.”

“I will.” Something in Bilbo’s tumultuous heart settled with the pronouncement, as if simply saying so made it true. “I’ll always look after Kili.”

This vow was put to the test almost immediately. That night during dinner, Bungo Baggins couldn’t look at either of his sons without scowling. Though he tersely inquired about their music lessons and language studies, he made no conversation with his wife whatsoever. After the awkward meal ended, he practically pulled Bilbo into his library, shutting out Belladonna and Kili.

“Your mother tells me you were in a fight today,” he said, gesturing for Bilbo to sit.

Taking the chair, Bilbo plucked a glass paperweight from his father’s desk and toyed with it. “Yes, sir.”

“Would you care to tell me what happened?”

“Not really.” Bilbo didn’t look up at his father, just twirled the little ball in his hands, watching the firelight play in the mirrored depths.

“Bilbo.” Bungo sighed. “Can I offer you a few tacks to make that chair more comfortable?”

Unable to keep his lips from twitching upward, Bilbo said, “Maybe just a hot poker.”

When he dared to look up, the fauntling saw that his father’s face was very solemn, but not angry. “So we’re agreed that dreadful torture is the best way to proceed here.”

“Absolutely.” Daring a smile, Bilbo looked for an answer in his father’s face. Unfortunately, he didn’t find one. Bungo remained stern, with only a hint of lightness around the corners of his eyes to show that he’d been joking.

“Son, I need to know. Did Kili provoke Podo?”

Dropping the glass ball to the desk, Bilbo stared up at his father in surprise. “No. What?”

“It’s going to be okay, Bilbo,” Bungo said gently. “Just tell me exactly what happened.”

The firelight was just as warm as the afternoon sunshine. Now that Bilbo’s eyes were new, he recognized something about his father that he had never before understood. Bungo wanted the fight to be Kili’s fault. Because Bungo didn’t like Kili as much as he liked Bilbo. It didn’t make sense, but it was true.

“Podo kissed me,” Bilbo said.

“He what?” Bungo stood up. The absent anger bloomed across his face in red, righteous fury.

“Kissed me.” Bilbo shrugged, shrinking back into the depths of his chair. “I started the fight, but it was after that.”

“Well, of course you did,” Bungo cried. “I’m going to speak to that boy’s parents!”

“No, don’t!” Bilbo knew that kissing Podo was wrong, but his father’s anger alarmed him with its intensity.

“No,” Bungo agreed. His hands were trembling, but he sat down next to Bilbo, right on the same chair. It was big and plush enough for two when one of them was only a fauntling. “No, I won’t tell anyone, Bilbo. It’s all right. I quite understand that you don’t want anyone to know. If that boy starts spreading rumors, we’ll deal with it then, but for now it’s best kept a secret.”

Bilbo blinked up at his father. “Is it that bad? I mean—”

“Oh, my dear boy, you didn’t do anything wrong. Well, perhaps next time you might make your position clear without the violence. Not that I don’t understand the impulse. Podo is larger than you after all, and I am sure you did what you had to do to resist such unnatural attentions.”

“Right.”

“Bilbo, oh Bilbo! Did he hurt you terribly?”

Bilbo blinked at his father. “He blacked my eye.”

“Yes, yes. While you were fighting.” Bungo was not at all the sort of hobbit to be physically demonstrative, but he gathered his son in a warm embrace.

“Dad?”

“You’re all right now. Anyway, I heard you broke his nose. Tragically, that won’t keep the little cowpie from smelling.”

“Dad!”

“I heard that after Goody Holman set it, she recommended he eat only freshly gathered berries.”

“Why?”

“She said he deserved a treat and it was clear he liked picking.”

Helplessly, Bilbo laughed. After a moment, he said, “I tried to knock it more toward the middle of his face.”

“Why?”

“Well, it’s the scenter.”

One of Bungo’s rare laughs rang out, filling the study. Gathering his son in another warm hug, the hobbit said, “That’s my boy.”

Bilbo left his father’s library that evening more confused than ever, but at least no one seemed to be upset any longer. He was allowed to return to the room he shared with Kili, and neither of his parents ever spoke about the fight or the prospect of Bilbo kissing another boy ever again.

Chapter Text

“What was your nightmare about?” Since they were alone in the dark of their shared room, Bilbo asked the question in the secret, brotherly language that only he and Kili knew.

Kili shuddered. The thundering rush of blood in his ears sounded like the stampeding feet of terrified people. Bilbo was there, speaking the language that always calmed Kili. He was awake. Wasn’t that enough? Did he have to talk about his dream? Whenever he blinked, he saw the big, pale monster in the moonlight. Speaking about that thing couldn’t ever bring any good.

Bilbo, however, pushed. He always pushed. “Was the bearded fellow in it?”

Pulling his brother down into his bed, Kili gave in, but only after Bilbo hugged him close.

“Yes,” Kili admitted. “His yellow beard was red with blood. He told me to hide.”

“Did you?”

“Yeah, but the monsters came anyway. The monsters always come.”

“Oh dear.” Bilbo stroked his brother’s hair. Though the twins were well into their tweens, Kili didn’t feel like a tweenager. He was so much smaller than Bilbo. Especially after a nightmare. But it was nice that Bilbo was big. Bilbo could, and would, protect him. The safest place in the world was wherever Bilbo happened to be.

“You must have been so frightened.”

“Yeah,” Kili mumbled, burying his face in Bilbo’s nightshirt. “Their swords were black. One of them was going to cut you to bits. Mum took you and rode away.”

“Well that’s good.”

“You left me.” Kili couldn’t say it in the secret language. It was hard enough to dream about it.

Bilbo hummed and tugged a tangled strand of Kili’s hair. “That didn’t tip you off to the fact that it was a dream?”

“What?” Kili didn’t bother extracting his face from his brother’s armpit.

“After all, Mum and I would never leave you in danger. Better than a flying goat to let you know it was a dream. After all, we have both seen Farmer Morrel’s goat on the roof of that old barn. Do you know how it gets up there? I don’t.”

Kili laughed. Just like that the spell of the nightmare was broken, and he grinned up at Bilbo. “What would you do against monsters with swords?”

“Fight them, of course! Though I expect they would retreat from a good tongue lashing.” Bilbo winked. “A scolding from our mother is far mightier than iron or steel.”

“And she’ll scold indeed if we aren’t in top form for the trip to Tuckborough tomorrow.” Kili yawned.

“Indeed she will.” Bilbo gave Kili a squeeze and rolled out of his bed with a yawn of his own. “Good night, Kili.”

“Good night, Bilbo.”

Without any further distraction, Kili drifted off into a deep, dreamless rest. No time seemed to pass at all before the sun streamed through the curtains and Bilbo pulled all the covers off his bed. Then the boys were up, dressing hastily in the light of dawn.

Once clothed, Bilbo puttered in front of the mirror for ages. He always did, tying his cravat repeatedly and messing about with his hair. Kili had to make both beds so they would be ready to go in time for breakfast. At least that earned him an approving smile from their mother. After a quick bowl of porridge, the family piled into a wagon with baskets of scones and mugs of tea.

Going to Great Smials was always entertaining, even though the Old Took was gone and Gandalf the firework wizard didn’t come around anymore. The Tooks were very wealthy, and played far more adventurous games than the ones available in Hobbiton. Kili thought it was the most wonderful place in all the Shire.

“Play nice,” Mum said.

“Be good,” Dad warned.

But Cousin Parsifal said, “I know how to shoot a bow and arrow.” Which was much more interesting than either of those things. So the twins followed him out to his makeshift shooting range.

The range was really just a fallow field, but Parsifal had a canvas target painted in bright concentric circles and stuffed with straw. A hay bale set thirty paces away from the target made a nice resting place for a few arrows.

These did not look much like the arrows of Kili’s imagination. Long, straight pieces of wood, the arrows had whittled points and a few feathers notched on the back end. In Kili’s mind, an arrow ought to have a metal tip, sort of barbed, so it stuck where you put it. The fletched feathers should be a triangle, with three feathers, instead of only two going straight up and down. Still, the weapons fascinated him.

Warily, Bilbo lifted a wooden shaft in one hand and poked the tip of the arrow with the first finger of his other. Flinching, he immediately put the digit in his mouth. “These are sharp!”

“Of course they are,” Parsifal said. “They wouldn’t fly right otherwise.”

Kili picked up the bow. Then he took a few steps forward. Twenty paces away, the target winked at him. The bright circles on the white canvas looked remarkably like a friendly eye. In his hand, the lacquered wood felt smooth and right. He notched an arrow against the string and took aim, just as Parsifal had.

“Perhaps we should not,” Bilbo said, which was rich, coming from him. On their last visit to Buckland, Bilbo and his friends were chased away from Farmer Maggot’s mushrooms by big dogs with sharp teeth and loud, baying voices. Compared to that, shooting arrows was as safe as sleeping.

Kili let the string go. The arrow whipped away over the grass with a pleasant twang, striking the top of the hay bale high above the painted circles.

“Pretty good for a first go!” Parsifal said. “Try squaring your feet a bit. Shoulder-width apart, my dad says. Relax your bow hand a little, too.”

Following this advice, Kili took a second shot. His arrow whizzed through the air and struck the outermost blue circle on the target.

“Good show!” Bilbo cried. His distaste for the sharp weaponry was momentarily overcome by joy in his brother’s success.

“You try,” Kili said, presenting him with the bow.

Bilbo looked at it. He did not lift his arms to accept the weapon for a long moment. Finally, he took it, frowning a bit. As always, he was much more thoughtful about things than Kili.

Placing his feet exactly shoulder width apart, Bilbo asked Parsifal to check the way he was gripping the bow three times before he ever picked up an arrow. Then, with great reluctance, he touched an arrow to the string and made his shot.

It flew halfway to the target before landing in the grass.

“Well, that’s my turn over and done with,” Bilbo said quickly, handing the bow back to Kili.

They went on like that all afternoon, with Kili and Parsifal each taking three shots for one attempt on Bilbo’s part. Once he got the hang of it, all of Kili’s arrows hit the target. He even managed to strike the bright yellow circle in the center more than once, though it was barely the size of a saucer and could only fit three or four arrows at a time.

None of Bilbo’s attempts even reached the hay bale. All of his arrows landed quite harmlessly in the grass, only a few feet away from where he stood. At least he eventually took off his jacket to play only in his waistcoat and shirtsleeves. Unfortunately, Kili knew that was only a nod to the warm sunshine and not an indication of effort.

“You need to put more power into it,” Parsifal advised. “You’re not drawing the string back to your ear, either.”

“Someone could get hurt,” Bilbo said. “I’ll stick to conkers, if it’s all the same to you.”

“It’s too early in the summer for conkers,” Kili said. “Go on, try again.”

Rather than taking up the bow again, Bilbo looked up at the sun. “It might not be too early in the day for tea, though. What do you think? Shall we head inside?”

“Oh!” Parsifal looked up and grinned. “Auntie Wisteria made trifle for tea today. With loads of blueberries. I helped her pick them.”

Returning the grin easily, Bilbo said, “That sounds like something worth going inside for. Blueberries are Kili’s favorite.”

“No,” Kili said.

“They aren’t?” Bilbo furrowed his brow in confusion. “What do you like better, then?”

“No,” Kili said, “you can’t quit before you really try, Bilbo! You could hit that yellow circle with a rock right now, throwing, and don’t you deny it. I’ve seen you knock a peach out of a tree at just this distance, with tree branches in the way and everything.”

“Well, climbing is more work.” Bilbo seemed to think this was a sensible argument. It wasn’t.

“You should be able to hit the target better than me!”

Shrugging, Bilbo put his hands in his pockets. “What does it matter?”

“It matters because you aren’t playing right! You aren’t trying!”

“Let’s go in for tea,” Parsifal said, trying to make peace. “We’re probably all just in a temper because we’re hungry.”

“I am not!” Kili stomped his foot in the grass, cracking a stick beneath his heel. He was never hungry. Everyone always wanted to stop doing fun things just to eat. Kili would much rather play, even with blueberry trifle on offer.

Bilbo sighed. “If I shoot the target properly can we go in?”

Kili hesitated. “And come back out after?”

“And come back out after we’ve had tea,” Bilbo promised.

“Okay. Only if you do it right, though,” Kili said.

Once again, Bilbo picked up the bow. Taking his time to carefully square his feet and eye the target, the tween notched an arrow against the string and sighted along the shaft. Then he drew it all the way back to his ear. With a slow, even breath, he let it fly.

It struck the exact center of the target.

Whooping with joy, Kili and Parsifal both tackled Bilbo from either side, cheering and slapping him on the back. “I knew you could!” Kili said again and again. “I knew you could!”

Blushing faintly, Bilbo asked if they could go in for tea.

“And come back out afterward,” Kili agreed, quite determined to rival his older brother for accuracy now that Bilbo was taking the game seriously.

“And go hunting properly tomorrow,” Parsifal said. “If you can shoot like that, we should be able to get a bird for supper easily!”

“Er, maybe,” Bilbo said, but he looked a little pale at the thought of actually killing an animal.

Kili couldn’t imagine why. Bilbo liked to eat roasted pheasant as much as anything else, and he would probably get a double portion if they brought the bird to the kitchens themselves. Besides, Kili quite liked the idea of hunting. It was a much better adventure than tromping about raiding gardens as Bilbo liked to do. Hunting was productive, and would not get them into trouble. Certainly it would be more entertaining than gathering about a fancy parlor eating trifle out of crystal glasses.

Though, it must be said, the trifle was very good. And blueberries really were his favorite. Despite the fact that he was not hungry, Kili ate his whole portion and half of Bilbo’s as well. Bilbo gave it to him voluntarily, and then proceeded to eat six pieces of the grainy brown bread which was not very nice. Kili did not touch the bread at all. Only Bilbo, Parsifal, and a few other young hobbits ate it, with the slightly rushed manners of scavengers eager to get as much as they could.

“Don’t you want any bread?” Aunt Wisteria asked Kili.

“No thank you,” he said politely, not daring to remark upon the suspect quality.

“Kili can be quite economical about his eating,” Mum said.

His aunt raised her eyebrows. “That must be a blessing! Especially with Bilbo entering his tweens. I imagine he’s eating you out of smial and larder.”

“Bilbo is a good lad,” Bungo said firmly. “You’ll note Kili had his trifle.”

Guilt pricked Kili, and he wondered suddenly if he should have declined the extra desert.

“I don’t much like blueberries,” Bilbo said, taking a seventh slice of bread and butter. “Although your skill in the kitchen surpasses anything that might be found in the finest palaces of princes and kings, my dear Aunt Wisteria. If any blueberry trifle might have tempted me, yours would have, for the cream was as light as air and the cake as sweet as spun sugar. What I tasted, I relished, only sacrificing it to my brother because I knew he would enjoy it more. But this bread is fantastic! I don’t suppose there’s another slice or two of it about?”

Aunt Wisteria blushed and leaned across the coffee table to pinch Bilbo’s cheek. “Well, we can’t let a sweet little flatterer like you go hungry, can we?” And then she brought out another loaf that she had been saving for dinner.

Kili would have sighed, but it was clear that Bilbo really did need to eat. Eventually, they could go back out to play. Until then, visiting with the adults wasn’t the worst thing in the world. At least the aunts never pinched his cheeks.

Chapter Text

When Bilbo visited Tuckborough alone as a fauntling, he liked to hole up in the wonderful library listening to stories and reading. Visiting with his brother was a very different matter. Kili wanted to play at shooting and tracking constantly. As they were always together, Bilbo went along with his twin during the day. Their nights were occupied with music and storytelling with all the family. Although Bilbo was less skilled than his brother, the twins were in high demand to entertain with their matching violins. Apparently, their Took relatives found the discrepancies between the pair as amusing as their music.

Despite these obligations, Bilbo did find a few spare minutes now and again to peruse the rare, valuable books of the wealthy Tooks. There were few things he would not do to spend time in that library.

Tall shelves stretched from the floor to the place where the ceiling of the smial started to curve. So tall, in fact, that Bilbo had to roll an old oak ladder along the outer edge of the room to reach the upper shelves. Here and there, he had to dodge around a cozy armchair or an end table, but for the most part, the entire room was filled with shelves. And all the shelves were filled with books.

Many of these books were simple histories, memoirs, and genealogies of the Took family. Even that would have been interesting enough to keep Bilbo entertained for weeks, but the collection got better. One wall was covered with informative books about gardening, cooking, and observations of the natural world. Another had books in elvish languages, telling wonderous stories from long before the founding of the Shire. Many more were filled with imaginative fancies, telling tales that never happened and solving mysteries that never were. The library was a magical place.

It was in the library that Bilbo first met Dandelion North-Took. Given the vagaries of his parentage, he could not be properly called anything but a very distant cousin, but he was a decent chap. Although he was close to the twins in age, he resided in Long Cleeve and had never before been in Tuckborough during one of Bilbo’s visits.

Apparently, Dandy loved the library just as much as Bilbo did. He was always there when Bilbo found a spare moment to peruse the collection.

Clearly intelligent and well read, the studious fellow always had a different book every single time Bilbo saw him. The subjects varied from gardening to medicine to history to genealogy, yet he sped through them at phenomenal pace. Bilbo tried not to be envious. Perhaps he could have read just as much without a little brother dragging him all over the countryside during the daylight hours.

Early in their acquaintance, Dandelion North-Took begged Bilbo’s assistance most eloquently. Educated as he was, Dandy needed more than a little help translating some of the elvish poetry he wanted to read. Bilbo didn’t mind. Languages were a hobby of his, and he positively adored poetry. Besides, Dandy was a very well dressed young hobbit, with several different waistcoats ranging from aubergine to plum. Bilbo rather admired him. Spending time with the fellow was not exactly a hardship.

Making his way through the Saga of Beren and Luthien, Dandy had some trouble with his translations. That particular saga was both a lovely story and a wonderful poem for a student of the classics to start with, as Bilbo told him many times. Unfortunately, even the most serious young hobbits don’t love spending sunny days in stuffy libraries, Bilbo himself being something of an exception which proved this rule.

“Come along,” Dandy said. “You must know the whole thing by heart. We can go for a walk and you can simply tell me the translation.”

“Oh, but you have to know you will never learn that way! You simply must read it yourself in the original language. I couldn’t possibly do it justice.”

“Bold of you to assume I’m literate.”

Dandy said this with such a straight face that both tweens burst into a fit of laughter. Bilbo was so taken by the joke that he nearly fell off the arm of Dandy’s chair. This perch, which seemed the best place to peruse over Dandy’s shoulder while assisting with translations, was not nearly stable enough for such antics. Dandy put a warm hand on Bilbo’s shoulder to steady him.

“You may bring your books outside,” Bungo suggested, not looking up from the weighty tome he was perusing.

“We may?” Startled, Bilbo turned to where his father was installed comfortably in another one of the armchairs that dotted the library. “They are quite dear.”

“Not so dear as silence in a library.”

“Father?”

Bungo smiled, but his eyes did not leave the page. “If it gets the tweens to stop giggling together when I am trying to read, you may take them into the pools of Bywater. I shall pay for any damages.”

“Brilliant, Master Baggins,” Dandy said. “Thank you!”

And before Bilbo could argue, he gathered up both of their books and left the library. Bilbo hesitated at the door.

“We will be careful,” he promised.

“As careful as a cat in a mint patch, I’ve no doubt.”

Torn, Bilbo stood in the doorway for a long moment. He wanted to argue, but he wanted to follow Dandy more. Deciding to prove he was right by returning both books safely, the young hobbit dashed off after his friend.

Dandy wasn’t waiting in the hallway for him. In fact, as Bilbo raced through the corridors of Great Smials there was no sign of the other hobbit at all. Bursting outside into the bright sunshine, Bilbo quickly spotted his friend lounging beneath one of the broad leafed chestnut trees that shaded the smial. He made a beautiful picture with his lavender waistcoat and crisp white shirtsleeves against the dark trunk of the tree. Emerald grass spread out beneath him like a cloak arranged perfectly to compliment the rest of his outfit.

Just a little out of breath from running, Bilbo unbuttoned his jacket and sat down on the grass. Snatching his own book from Dandy’s lap in dignified silence, he opened it up and tried to find his place. The gentle scent of roses wafted from the nearby gardens to join the pleasant odor of crushed grass in his nose. Somewhere in the branches of the chestnut tree, a warbler sang an ode to summertime. Sitting shoulder to shoulder with Dandy in the dappled sunshine was very companionable, and Bilbo settled happily into his own reading.

“Sorry,” Dandelion said quietly after a minute or two, “I’m having a little trouble with the declension here. Would you mind taking a look?”

“Of course!” Bilbo leaned over happily to look where Dandy was pointing in the text. Then he blinked. “It says, ‘Aiya Eärendil Elenion Ancalima!’, which means ‘Hail Eärendil, brightest of stars,’ in Quenya. This is The Voyage of Eärendil, not the book you were reading in the library. Did you, er, did you not notice that it was not written in Sindarin?”

From the rose bushes, Bilbo heard a delighted giggling. Heralded by his own laughter, Kili sprang forth, the branches of his hiding place rattling behind him.

“I don’t think he can read elvish at all,” Bilbo’s brother said, still laughing.

Staring at Kili in amazement for a moment, Dandy broke into laughter of his own. “You little goblin,” he chuckled. “You swapped my book, didn’t you?”

Doubled over with the force of his amusement, Kili could only nod. Bilbo wanted to be peevish, but their joy was contagious. Helplessly, he laughed along.

“How?” Dandy asked.

“While you were arranging yourself like a model waiting for an artist.” Kili chortled some more. “Worse than Bilbo in a mirror, you were.”

“But why would you have been pretending to study Sindarin in the first place?” Bilbo asked finally, mastering his mirth.

Still smiling, Dandelion ran a hand through his golden curls and looked up at Bilbo through lowered lashes. “I suppose I needed an excuse to talk to you.”

“That’s stupid,” Kili declared. “Bilbo may be a bookworm, but he talks more than anyone in the Shire once you get him started. You only had to ask him about the weather or something.”

“Enough out of you,” Bilbo cried. Taking both books, he shoved them at Kili. “You take these back to the library, since you’re the one responsible for the mixup. Be sure Dad sees you return them. Dandy and I are going for a walk.”

Rolling his eyes, Kili said, “Fine. I’m going to go fishing with Parsifal afterward, though, and you are not invited.”

“Sorry about him.” Watching Kili dash away with boundless energy, Bilbo shook his head.

“I’ve younger brothers of my own,” Dandy said amiably. “I don’t mind at all. He’s a good natured little rascal.”

Bilbo grinned. “I rather think we have better things to discuss than my little brother. After all, you asked me to translate the Saga of Beren and Luthien for you. Some think it is the greatest love story ever told.”

Dandy raised an eyebrow. “You don’t say?”

“Let me tell it.”

Taking Dandelion by the hand, Bilbo led him away from the smials, into the little woods. As happened, Dandelion Took knew a great deal about love already. Bilbo soon went from instructor to grateful student, eagerly learning all that Dandy had to teach.

Indeed, over the course of that summer he shared many secrets with Bilbo. Little ways to tell if a gentlehobbit was inclined toward love. How to ask without running the risk of offending an ordinary fellow. Ways to please and be pleased in return. Bilbo found that he was very pleased indeed with Dandelion Took, who was funny, handsome, and amiable to a fault.

If their attachment was not the deep, fate defying love of Beren and Luthien, that was probably for the best. Bilbo did not want to be blindly enamored the way he had been with Podo. Dandy had faults. Many of them. Fibbing about studying elvish barely numbered among his misdeeds. The North-Took made most of his pocket money at cards, rarely answered correspondence, and only seemed to think about people when he was in their immediate company. Outside of the Took family, he was considered a complete wastrel. Knowing that, Bilbo was quite comfortable being friends with him.

Theirs was certainly a friendship for the gossips, pleasantly remarked upon by all in Tuckborough and Hobbiton. The only obvious interest they shared seemed to be in sartorial matters. Otherwise, they could not be more different. Dandy was far more inclined toward the pub than the page. In truth, Bilbo often encouraged the Took to seek other company there when he was personally indisposed to that sort of thing. It was enough that when they were together, they had a great deal of fun. When they were apart, Bilbo had other considerations. He did not dwell on Dandelion’s activities until their next meeting.

In fact, following Dandy’s advice, Bilbo soon learned to make similar arrangements with other young hobbits of their acquaintance. None of them were much concerned with propriety or romance. In the manner of the young, they had discovered something pleasurable and forbidden. Nothing could be more natural than pursuing the interest with enthusiasm. Despite being a relatively cerebral fellow, Bilbo did not worry about being found out. Privacy was hard to come by in the Shire, but he was clever enough to keep his nature secret. There was no danger in being himself.

At least, that is what he thought. In the happy manner of privileged tweens, he was allowed to enjoy his youth without consequences for many years, though danger and consequence fell upon others much earlier.

Chapter Text

Parsifal was Kili’s very best friend. Hunting with him in the forest was great fun, and he wasn’t afraid to fish over deep water the way everyone but Brandybucks seemed to be. He even dared to swim a little bit with Kili during the hottest part of the summer. Fortunately, Bilbo was off amusing himself with whatever it was that big brothers liked to do, or they would never have gotten away with it. Although Kili was considerably older than Parsifal, technically, he had never met anyone so like him in temperament and opinion.

He had never before had a friend other than Bilbo.

When the time came to leave Tuckborough and return to Hobbiton, Kili teetered on the edge of a great precipice. Screaming, crying, and breaking everything in sight all seemed like viable options. But he was a Baggins. He did none of that. He didn’t even say anything. There was nothing to say. Parsifal lived at Great Smials. Kili lived in Bag End. The distance was too great for them to see each other every day. Still, it broke Kili’s heart to go. Worse, no one else seemed to care.

Bilbo didn’t even talk to him about it. During their last day at Great Smials, he refused to go hunting with Kili and Parsifal. Instead, Kili saw him making nice with Parsifal’s parents of all people. They were talking about classical educations and responsibility. As though Bilbo was bragging about how much better he was than Parsifal.

Calling Bilbo a Baggins would be silly. Kili was a Baggins himself. Even so, it was a very Hobbiton attitude. Kili would rather be a Took in Tuckborough. Then he could stay with Parsifal: playing outside always and never going in for tea.

Putting his suitcase into the back of the wagon as they prepared to leave Tuckborough, Kili tried to swallow his tears down. He could feel them stinging his eyes. He did not want to cry. A Baggins did not make a scene. He expected a Took did not blubber like a little baby either. At the side of the wagon, Bilbo seemed to be talking to Belladonna and Bungo somewhere far, far away.

“I am halfway through my tweens, you know,” Bilbo was saying. “It’s about time I took a job.”

“Who are you taking it from?” Bungo asked. “No son of mine will play the burglar.”

“Think of your poor father’s nerves, Bilbo,” Belladonna said. “He could not bear to see you in a common profession. Why not help him with the management of Bag End, if you want some responsibility?”

“I assure you,” Bilbo said, “It’s perfectly respectable. Tutoring, as a matter of fact.”

“Tutoring?” A sharp, curious note colored Belladonna’s tone. By that note, Kili knew Bilbo would get his way.

Kili didn’t look up, but he could hear the frown in his father’s voice, as though Bungo knew it as well. “If you want to stay in Tuckborough, I’m sure we can come to a different arrangement. You needn’t board like some sort of live-in servant.”

“Actually, I’ve offered to board my pupil at Bag End,” Bilbo said brightly. “And I’m being paid slightly less than my pocket money. Does that makes things easier on your nerves, Father?”

“Bilbo?”

The frown seemed to be dissipating. Kili could hear his father’s confusion. He was rather confused himself. Confused enough to forget his troubles and look up, in fact, when Bilbo said, “Ah, here is my student now!”

Coming down the lane from Great Smials, Parsifal seemed to be struggling with a heavy suitcase. Forgetting his tears and everything else, Kili rushed to help his cousin. Happily taking the case with one hand, Kili wrapped his other arm about Parsifal companionably. “Are you coming to Hobbiton with us, then?”

“Yeah,” Parsifal said, not at all as joyful as he ought to be. “My parents want me to learn respectability. And figures. They say adventures are one thing, but running wild with no understanding of maths is another.”

“So Bilbo will teach you!” Overcome with feeling, Kili could only laugh and toss the suitcase into the air, catching it easily. “Brilliant! We shall have loads of fun in Hobbiton, you know. We can set up a shooting range of our own. And go hunting every day when you are not in lessons. I already know all the best places to fish.”

Smiling in a lopsided way, Parsifal said, “I suppose if I am around, you won’t have to share a room with your brother any longer.”

And that is exactly what happened. Bilbo moved out of their shared room and into the second best bedroom with nary a complaint. Parsifal and Kili took up the twin beds, whispering secrets late into the night. Parsifal did not speak their brotherly language, but that was alright. Kili was old enough to keep his dreams to himself. He could go back to sleep without crying all over someone else. It was worth the sacrifice of Bilbo’s comforting presence to keep the privilege of rooming with his very best friend.

As promised, Kili took Parsifal hunting and fishing all over Hobbiton. Parsifal caught a trout so big he could barely hold it up without its tail touching the grass. Kili had to carry the big fish home in both arms. Another time, Kili shot a goose through the eye while it was flying high above the trees, joining a flock of its fellows as they took their annual journey south. Both boys rejoiced in the other’s accomplishments as much as in their own. All around them, midsummer turned to late summer and the best blossoms ripened into fruit.

Only one spot blighted the otherwise pristine canvas upon which they painted their days. Because Bilbo did insist upon actually teaching lessons. That wasn’t so bad for Kili. He’d already learned most of what they were studying from his mother and father the first time around. Although he didn’t have Bilbo’s head for books, everything was familiar enough that he could puzzle out answers to Bilbo’s questions. Things were different for Parsifal.

Parsifal hated the lessons. Whenever Bilbo started talking about mathematics or literature, Parsifal’s eyes drifted toward the window. If he didn’t know an answer, Parsifal fell into the habit of saying something very rude to Bilbo instead of admitting his ignorance. It was like he didn’t want to learn.

“You know Bilbo only offered to tutor you so you could come to Hobbiton with us,” Kili told Parsifal carefully one afternoon while they were wading in Bywater Creek.

“Perfect Bilbo.” Parsifal rolled his eyes. “I don’t know how you can breath with him about.”

“He’s kind,” Kili said. “Why don’t you like him?”

Parsifal shoved Kili’s chest. It was only a light touch, but the young Baggins took his meaning and happily splashed backward into the shallow water. “Perfect Bilbo would never get his shirt muddy.”

“Nope!” Grinning, Kili kicked his feet, sending a fountain of water up to douse his friend. “Playful Parsifal would, though!”

Laughing, the Took shoved great armfuls of water toward Kili in waves. By the time they returned to Bag End for tea, both had their hair plastered to their faces and mud coating their feet as thick as a leather boot. Although they were dripping on the clean kitchen floor while the rest of the family was already at the table, Belladonna didn’t scold.

She smiled instead and sent them to bathe.

“Indeed,” Bilbo agreed. “They aren’t nearly wet enough.”

“I have seen drier boys in my time,” Bungo observed.

“Where?” Bilbo asked.

“The bottom of the Brandywine.”

“Hush you two,” Belladonna said. “Kili, Parsifal, get cleaned up quickly or your tea will go cold.”

And so they did. While Kili would not mind missing tea entirely to play some more, he knew that Parsifal would. Just as Parsifal minded the jokes and the lessons. He felt small in Bag End. Kili did, too. Yet that feeling of everyone around him being bigger and stronger pleased Kili. It kept him safe. It only annoyed Parsifal.

To make it up to Parsifal, Kili got him the very best birthday present possible. Under the guise of helping his mother with her errands, Kili skipped out on lessons one morning and went into Hobbiton. There, they commissioned a brand new bow from Freddy Boffin, the finest woodworker in the whole Shire. It had beautiful scrollwork along shaft and Parsifal’s name inscribed just above a soft leather grip.

“You have never taken much interest in your birthday presents before,” Belladonna observed mildly.

“Well, Bilbo is usually best at choosing,” Kili admitted. “But I know Parsifal will like this.”

“Yes, I think he will.” Spontaneously, she spun around and smacked a kiss to Kili’s forehead. “I’m so glad you’re finding your place at last.”

Rolling his eyes, Kili rubbed the kiss away. He knew his place. It was just to the left of Bilbo’s center stage. As long as he had Parsifal, Kili didn’t mind that at all.

Their birthday party was a splendid one. Lights sparkled on the party tree, musicians played all day, and there was so much food on the tables that Kili could see them bowing under the weight. Bilbo drank, danced, and delighted everyone in sight.

Unfortunately, if Kili thought he could sneak off with Parsifal after presents were opened, he was soon disappointed. Parsifal Took was just as invested in the details of the sideboard as any other young hobbit. As the only person under thirty not wholly interested in the food, Kili was soon cornered by one of his many aunts.

So he did what he could to amuse himself.

“Happy Birthday, dear boy, happy birthday.” A bead of wine sloshed over the edge of her glass, landing on her finger like a pinprick of blood.

“Thank you, Auntie.”

“I’m sure you helped set everything up? It’s a beautiful party.”

“Yes Auntie. I carried the tables.”

“Carried the tables! You’ve always been such a strong lad. To each their own, that’s what I always say. I’m sure you’re a help to your family, despite your, well, your difficulties.” Swallowing down almost half a glass of wine, she refreshed herself from the decanter on the table.

“Yes, Auntie.”

“And did you help with the cooking? Everything is delicious.”

Deciding to play his favorite game, Kili said, “Not today. But I have done before. Cooked, that is.”

“Oh?”

“Made my mum some bean soup just the other day.”

“Did you now?”

“Yes, ma’am! I boiled up some water and set a bean to float in it just as sure as anything.”

“—a bean?”

“Yes, Auntie. A black one. My mum sure does love black bean soup.”

“I’m sure,” the hobbit said faintly. “Did you season it with anything else? Carrots and onions, perhaps?”

“No, ma’am. Just good old fashioned black bean soup. My mum said it was the best she ever tasted.”

With her smile twisted in something like horror, Kili’s aunt simply stared at him. Finally, as though even common courtesy could not keep her from asking, she blurted, “Did you taste it?”

“Why would I do that?” Kili put on his most puzzled expression. “It was for my mum.”

“Oh dear.” Reaching out with one hand, she patted Kili’s arm very gently. “Well, you are a sweet boy to think of your mother so. And I’m sure you do your best. Excuse me, my dear, I see Primrose over at the sideboard. I simply must have a word with her.” Then, without a goodbye, she stumbled away in a daze.

Turning to hide his laughter, Kili met Parsifal’s steady brown eyes.

“You think that’s funny?” Parsifal’s cheeks were red. Kili wondered if he’d been sneaking wine.

“Don’t you?” Kili grinned, but Parsifal did not return the smile.

“She thinks you’re stupid.”

“Nah, just slow.” Kili bounced up to sit on the table beside Parsifal’s plate, kicking his feet against the bench. “I’m never going to look quick next to Bilbo, am I? So the folk in Hobbiton got used to thinking of me as a bit slow. Bilbo says it only proves how thick they are, that they don’t realize how smart I am.”

Grunting, Parsifal turned to his food. After a few mouthfuls, he said, “Bilbo encourages you to let them think of you as odd.”

Kili blinked. “No. They were always going to think of me that way. Because I am. I cut my feet sometimes if I’m not careful, and I don’t ever get hungry. Bilbo just taught me how to laugh at them so they can’t hurt my feelings.”

“Perfect Bilbo,” Parsifal said, but he didn’t say anything else until after he finished his meal. Then, abandoning his dirty plate, he left the table. “Where is my tutor anyway?”

“Dancing, probably,” Kili said. “Let’s go join him. Sulking at a party is no fun at all.”

“No, I think he snuck off that way.” Parsifal’s eyes narrowed and he gestured toward the bushes down by the water. “Let’s go see what Baggins the Brilliant is up to.”

Although he did not much like the look on Parsifal’s face, Kili was always interested in spying on Bilbo. He was probably just comparing waistcoats with Dandelion North-Took, who had come down to Hobbiton especially for the birthday party. Even so, there was always a chance that Bilbo would be doing something silly like fixing his hair up with a new lotion or practicing a fancy flourish with his walking stick. That was always good for a laugh.

So the two boys crept away from the party, down the hill, and into the dark bushes. Hobbits live underground and can see very well in the dark, of course. Kili in particular had the best night vision in the whole Shire. For him, the path was as easy to find as it would have been at noon. Moreover, both boys were eager students in the way of tracking wild animals. They could see where something hobbit-sized had gone into the bushes. Sharing a mischievous grin, they followed the trail.

Bilbo was with Dandelion North-Took. Kili could see that much. They were not, however, comparing waistcoats. They were not wearing waistcoats. They were not wearing trousers.

They were kissing. At least, Kili thought it was kissing. It was like no kiss he’d ever seen. In truth, it looked a lot more like Bilbo was trying to eat Dandy’s face. And Dandy had Bilbo pinned to the ground in some kind of wrestling move, with Bilbo’s legs wrapped around his upper back. Kili had no idea what he was seeing. When he opened his mouth to inquire, a hand covered it.

Parsifal dragged Kili silently back out of the bushes and up the path a ways. Lost in confusion, Kili went along helplessly. What had Bilbo been doing? It looked—well, it looked like the sort of thing the brothers spied on Farmer Morrell’s rams doing in spring. But Dandy could not be tupping Bilbo. Bilbo wasn’t a lass.

Finally, Parsifal stopped pulling Kili along and turned to stare at him with bright, gleeful eyes. “This is terrific!”

“It is?” Kili wondered why Bilbo had never told him about it if it was. Was Bilbo getting married? To Dandy? A wedding was always good news, but not if Bilbo moved to Long Cleeve. Perhaps Dandy would live at Bag End. That would be all right. Terrific, rather, if Parsifal thought so. If it made Bilbo happy.

“He’ll be ruined!” Throwing his head back, Parsifal howled with laughter. In the darkness, the flickering light of the distant party played across his face like orange fire. He did not look like a hobbit.

“What?”

“Your father will disinherit him! He’ll have to! Stars, if Perfect Bilbo can find a place to live one inch closer to Bag End than Bree, I’ll eat an arrow. A farmer’s son in Frogmorton might be able to get away with something like this, but a Baggins? Never. They’ll be talking about this one for centuries! How’s that for history, eh?”

“Bilbo will go?”

Living fire flickered in Parsifal’s eyes. The roaring noise of the party was so loud. Screaming. Kili could hear screaming. “You won’t ever see him again,” Parsifal promised. “Not ever.”

“Don’t.” Kili tried to stand up straight. He tried to square his feet against Parsifal. His hands trembled uncontrollably. “Don’t tell. I won’t let you.”

“Just you stop me!” Parsifal crowed with laughter again. “Let’s see him harp on about maths when he’s begging in the streets of Bree.”

Red from the fires flooded Kili’s vision. He had to do something. So he punched Parsifal in the face.

It didn’t hurt. He almost thought he’d missed, striking only air. Parsifal’s cheek yielded like a pillow beneath Kili’s fist. The Took fell backward with the blow. Crumpled on the dirt path like a pill bug. But he didn’t cry. He didn’t do anything. Parsifal was perfectly still. There was blood on his face. So much blood. And he wasn’t moving.

Kili screamed. He screamed and screamed and kept on screaming. Then, Bilbo came, wrapping his arms around Kili, pulling him away from Parsifal while other hobbits gathered around the fallen Took.

“Hush,” Bilbo said, pressing Kili’s face to his brand new, embroidered waistcoat without any hesitation. “Hush, now.”

“I murdered him,” Kili wailed, clinging to his brother. “I murdered my best friend!”

“No, no, he’s not dead. They’re just bringing him inside so he can be comfortable while the doctor takes a look at him. He must have hit his head on a rock when he fell, Kili. It’s not your fault. Come now, hush.”

Suddenly, through the blur of tears, Kili saw his mother. Flinging himself into her arms, he swallowed the urge to keep shrieking. Nothing could stop him from weeping. If Parsifal wasn’t dead, then he would tell. They would lose Bilbo. Everything was ruined. Forever. No matter what.

When his father pressed a glass of water into his hands, Kili realized that he was in his own bedroom at Bag End. He had no idea of how he’d gotten there. Mum was still holding him. Her warm arms cradled his shoulders. After Kili sipped the salty water, Bilbo offered him a handkerchief from where he was hovering, just beside the bed.

“I really didn’t murder Parsifal?” Kili asked.

“No,” Bungo said firmly. “I spoke with both the doctor and the boy. Parsifal is going to be fine. The sudden blow rendered him insensible for a moment, but there’s no permanent damage. The doctor thinks he must have struck his head on a rock when you pushed him.”

“I didn’t push him.” Tears spilled over the edges of Kili’s eyes once more, but he had to tell. He had to. “I punched him. I was so angry. I wanted to hurt him. I did hurt him. On purpose. I hurt him on purpose. I’m wicked! A murderer! I might have murdered him!”

Belladonna rocked Kili back and forth in her arms, murmuring soft, soothing noises. “Dear Kili, no. You didn’t mean it, of course you didn’t mean it. See how upset you are? You wouldn’t hurt a wasp, my sweet boy.”

“Let me have a word with Kili in private, my love.” Bungo’s face was very solemn. Not a hint of his usual wry humor edged his eyes.

Belladonna went still. Around Kili, her arms became solid and strong. She was like a statue, but still holding him. When he was a baby, he remembered she always felt that way. Steady, and not so soft.

“Please, dear. Some conversations belong between a boy and his father.”

At once, Belladonna melted. Giving Kili a final squeeze, she pressed a kiss to his forehead as she rose from the bed. Putting a hand on Bilbo’s shoulder, she lead him from the room. Shutting the door firmly behind them both, Bungo took her place on the bed.

“Parsifal is really going to be okay?” Kili asked, wiping his face again with Bilbo’s handkerchief.

“Yes,” Bungo said firmly. “He really is. Because you were very lucky.”

“Dad?”

“I’m not surprised by this, Kili. I’m not even disappointed.” Bungo’s eyes were very soft. When his hands wrapped around Kili’s, they were soft, too. Gentle. Kili didn’t deserve gentle things. He ought to be punished. Punched and kicked a thousand times for what he did to Parsifal. “With the example Bilbo set, it was inevitable that you’d get into a fight one of these days.”

“Bilbo hasn’t done anything wrong!” Kili said sharply. If Parsifal told, then Kili would just call him a liar. Surely no one would believe Parsifal over both Bilbo and Kili.

“Bilbo has gotten into more fights than any other Baggins in the history of the Shire. I cannot comprehend how my own son has such a temper, but there you have it. Children exist to surprise their parents, I think.”

Kili felt hot tears spilling down his cheeks once again, and he swiped at them with the handkerchief. It was so wet now that it did little more than spread the dampness across his face. “Bet you didn’t think I’d be a murderer.”

“I never thought you would be so kind.” Taking the wet handkerchief from Kili’s unresisting hands, his father gave him a clean one.

“I did not punch Parsifal out of kindness,” Kili wailed.

“No, no you didn’t. Sometimes our friends can hurt our feelings far more than strangers. That is perfectly natural, son. Lashing out in such a moment is perfectly natural.”

“I could have killed him!”

“Yes.” Bungo’s face was very grave. “I’m so, so sorry, Kili, but I have to tell you the truth about this. You could have killed him. You could have killed him very easily. You are very lucky that you did not.”

Kili’s eyes burned, and he buried his face in the new white handkerchief, unable to answer with anything more than a sob.

“You aren’t normal, Kili. Surely you are old enough to understand that by now.”

“‘M a murderer,” Kili mumbled through the white cotton.

“No, none of that. Enough dramatics. The time has come to face this head on, my boy. You are not normal. You are so, so much stronger than any hobbit in the Shire.”

Shaking, Kili looked up at his father. That didn’t sound like an accusation. “I don’t feel strong.”

Finally, Bungo’s lips twitched with a hint of his usual humor. “So it is every hobbit that can lift the oak tables around the party tree with one hand?”

Kili blinked.

“Son, you are strong. The same accident of birth that caused your feet and hair to be different from the usual line has given you incredible strength. It is very much to your credit that you never realized it, but you must realize it now. Because you need to continue to be as gentle and kind as you have always been. You cannot strike another hobbit. No matter how angry you get, you can never do this again.”

“I won’t,” Kili promised. “If Parsifal is alright, I’ll do anything. I’ll be so careful, Dad. I swear.”

“I know you will.” Bungo squeezed Kili’s shoulder. “This has worried me for a long time. Seeing you now, it doesn’t anymore. You are a sweet boy, Kili, just as your mother has always said. You would never do anything to hurt—anyone. Not now that you understand the danger.”

“I promise,” Kili repeated. “I promise.”

As an answer, Bungo pulled him into a warm embrace.

Some time later, there was a soft rap at the door to Kili’s bedroom. Slowly, Bungo released his hold on Kili and sat up. “Come in.”

The door creaked open, just a little, and Bilbo peered through the crack. “Sorry to interrupt, but Parsifal is here. He wants to talk with Kili. If you’re up to it.”

“I think that’s a good idea.” Bungo rose from the bed, catching Kili’s hand in his.

For the first time, Kili was aware that his father couldn’t pull him up if he didn’t want to go. And he didn’t. He didn’t want to face Parsifal. He didn’t want Parsifal to tell Bilbo’s secret. He didn’t want everything to be over. But his father was holding his hand, so Kili followed.

Parsifal was pacing back and forth in the parlor. Clearly, Belladonna had offered him a chair and tea. There were two steaming cups on the table and she was seated. Just as clearly, the energetic young Took was too agitated to sit. Typical Parsifal. For a brief, heart-stopping moment, Kili thought he was perfectly fine. Then he stopped walking to look up at Kili and Bungo as they entered the room. His nose was swollen and full of cotton. His left cheek was covered in a purple bruise so big that it almost shut his eye. He looked terrible.

“Kili!” he said. “Kili, I’m so sorry! I should never have called you all those bad names.”

Kili’s brow furrowed in confusion. Parsifal hadn’t called him any bad names. Kili opened his mouth, but found he couldn’t ask a question, because the tears started again. All he could say was, “I’m sorry. Parsifal. Parsifal, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it.”

“Me neither.” Parsifal’s mouth stretched into a confident grin that almost managed to make his swollen face normal. Pulling a hand from his pocket, he offered it to Kili to shake. “Friends?”

Ignoring the offered handshake, Kili dove forward to hug Parsifal, still weeping openly. “Friends,” he promised. “Forever.”

Later that night, after plenty of warm milk, when they were safely in the dark of their shared room, Parsifal answered the question Kili did not dare to ask.

“I won’t tell. About Bilbo, I mean,” the Took said awkwardly. “Someone will find out eventually. If he keeps on. It’s not safe. But I won’t tell. I wasn’t thinking before, about you and your family. That it would hurt you to lose him. I really am sorry, Kili. I won’t tell.”

Tooks are many things, but they are always true to their word. Even when Bilbo set them a particularly tricky math problem, Parsifal never breathed a word about what they’d seen. So the boys finished out the summer beautifully, with all of the hunting, fishing, and playing that the woods and fields around Hobbiton had to offer.

By mutual agreement, they never spied on Bilbo ever again.

Chapter Text

Every golden summer must fade into fall, and all that is green and growing in Middle Earth eventually withers, even in the Shire. So it was that shortly after celebrating the twins’ twenty-seventh birthday in Bag End, Bungo Baggins was struck down by a sudden illness. They found him in the garden among the roses, lying still. His hands were cold and there was no life left within him.

Kili wailed and Belladonna trembled, so Bilbo ran to find a neighbor who would fetch the coroner. Whatever his faults might have been, Bungo Baggins was the great love of Belladonna’s life. She was utterly devastated by his passing. Without him for the first time in nearly half a century, she did not eat or drink except when prompted, and could hardly speak without breaking into tears. Kili was scarcely better. Every night he woke screaming, convinced that Bungo had been murdered by the monsters that stalked his dreams.

So it fell to Bilbo to make funeral arrangements. Hobbits take care of their own, and the Baggins clan perhaps even more than most. Not a meal went by without one family member or another bringing over enough food to provision an army. Fortunately, there were many helpful friends eager to press Belladonna to eat, or to watch over Kili while Bilbo arranged for grave diggers and flower wreaths.

Since Shire-folk have no religion to speak of, funerals are not lavish affairs. Mostly, they are simple gatherings held shortly after the loved one passes. Even so, speeches needed to be made, proper wine needed to fill the glasses, and a life well lived needed to be celebrated. For the first time, Bilbo had to organize an important event without parental help.

Despite the inexperience of his son, Bungo Baggins was laid to rest in a manner befitting the most respectable of hobbits. While his widow and younger son continued to mourn, Bilbo was left wondering if he was, perhaps, the worst, most ungrateful hobbit ever to walk the earth. Even during the funeral, he did not shed a single tear for his father’s passing.

Several days went by. Bilbo took care of his mother and brother. Making sure they ate a reasonable amount at each of their meals, he served all their favorite foods. Getting them outside for long enough to feel the sun on their faces, he cajoled both of them to help in the garden. Every other moment he had was spent coaxing smiles from his mother and brother in any way he could.

The deluge of visitors slowed to a trickle. The corresponding number of thank you cards he had to write every day dropped to a more manageable stack. Eventually, Bilbo found a little time to seek out a book in his father’s library.

Somehow, his hand fell upon an old primer instead of a learned tome. He opened it, looking at the illuminated letters. A was for apple. B was for blueberry. C was for cornflower. Suddenly, Bilbo dropped into memory. He was sitting in his father’s lap, smelling candle wax, ink, and old paper, learning to read. Bilbo’s father loved books more than anything. In the library of Bag End, he passed that love down to his son. Kili might enjoy telling a story and Dandy might indulgently listen to a bit of erudite babbling, but only Bungo ever truly discussed poetry or literature with Bilbo. Bungo Baggins prided himself on being a very ordinary hobbit, but his love of the written word had been remarkable. It had been something for them to share, and it felt like something that Bilbo would never be able to share with anyone ever again.

“Bilbo!” Belladonna knelt beside him, gathering Bilbo into her arms. “What are you doing on the floor?”

“Sorry!” Bilbo quickly wiped his eyes with his handkerchief. “Sorry,” he repeated stupidly.

“But whatever is the matter, my son?”

“I shall never hear his thoughts on the Brandybuck Floral Treatise!” Bilbo cried. Which was not a very sensible thing to say, but mourning is rarely a sensible activity. The truth was that Bilbo loved his father fiercely, and had been loved just as devotedly in return. For a time, shock masked his grief, but that only meant he had a great deal more to feel when it surprised him in the library.

Losing Bungo Baggins devastated the whole family at Bag End. It was deep winter before Kili and Bilbo once again picked up their violins, rested their cheeks against the instruments, and played anything but the most mournful lament. Spring came before Belladonna would again bake the scones which Bungo had loved so much in life. Only with a great deal of chivvying from Dandy—who visited Hobbiton expressly for the purpose—did Bilbo rediscover the joys of tasting beer and making merry at the Green Dragon.

Life eventually went on, but it took nearly a full year for the little family to find an even keel. So it seemed a deeply cruel joke that Kili and Bilbo should lose their mother only five short years later.

Belladonna Baggins took ill just after Yule. At first it seemed to be nothing more than a bad cough, but after a few days she went to bed. She never rose from it again. Lost in a lingering, wasting sickness that caused her great distress, her trouble was all the worse because the doctor could do nothing.

In the face of his mother’s pain, Bilbo felt truly helpless, unable to offer even the small comforts of the table. Belladonna could barely swallow tea with her sore throat, soup was far beyond her capacity, and toast was an inconceivable dream. Kili proposed that he and Bilbo should go questing to Rivendell, to seek the fabled healing magic of Lord Elrond. Sadly, Belladonna herself stayed him.

“It would take a month for you to travel there and another month for your return,” she said. “I do not doubt that you could convince some elf to come to my aid, only my own strength.”

“Indeed,” the doctor said. “She will not last the night.”

For the first time in a week, Bilbo saw a glimmer of his mother’s spirit as she glared at the doctor. He was half convinced that she would live simply to spite the fellow, and his heart rejoiced to see it. But then the Tookishness seemed to fade from Belladonna’s eyes, and she collapsed back into her pillows, wracked by terrible coughing.

“Perhaps I will not,” she admitted.

Deeply upset, Bilbo ushered the doctor to the door. Then, he paused in the kitchen to make his mother more tea. She would not drink it, but he could not shed tears in her sickroom. His sorrow would only damage her spirits even further.

“I think it’s a good plan,” he said brightly, returning to his mother’s bedside with three cups of tea and plenty of scones for Kili. “Or half a plan at any rate. Obviously that doctor is completely worthless. I shall go to Rivendell and fetch another. The road is a bit dodgy after Bree, as far as I understand, so Kili ought to wait here with you. But it cannot truly take me a month. Why, Dandy showed me a shortcut through Bywater that will have me to Bree in two days. And I have friends in Bree, you know. One of them will show me the fastest way to Rivendell.”

Belladonna interrupted Bilbo’s planning with another terrible cough, but she sat up a little and actually sipped at her tea. The small act gave him a great deal of hope.

“You are the strongest hobbit in all the Shire,” Bilbo said softly. “Surely with Kili to look after you, you can wait for me to return.”

“I visited Rivendell once,” Belladonna said. Her eyes were glassy, and it seemed to Bilbo that she was looking out on that fabled valley, and not seeing her sons at all.

“You had so many adventures before you married father,” Bilbo said, “and you will have so many more now that we are grown. Once you are well again.”

“This was after I married your father,” she murmured, turning to stare vacantly at the fire in the grate. “While I was pregnant with you. One last adventure before I became a mother. Though parenting is its own sort of adventure, one cannot travel with small children.” Belladonna coughed. “One should not travel with small children.”

“I will not take any children with me, mother,” Bilbo said. Suddenly he was resolved to go. It seemed to be the only hope of saving her.

Belladonna’s hand whipped out and grabbed Bilbo very tightly around his wrist. “You must not leave Kili alone.”

Instantly, Kili was at her bedside, stroking her hair. “I will not be alone, mum. I’ll stay here with you. I’m going to look after you.”

“You’re such a sweet boy,” she said. “I am so glad that I found you.”

Kili froze. “What?”

Belladonna coughed, great furious spasms that shook her entire body. When she finished, she straightened up and looked deep into Kili’s eyes. “I am dying, and you must know the truth before I go. I suspect your father kept a journal somewhere, but I have never found it. I think perhaps he burned it after, well, some time ago. So I am the last alive to tell you how you came to the Shire.”

“How I came to the Shire?” Kili looked dumbstruck. “I was born here!”

Bilbo was scarcely less shocked than his brother. “Whatever do you mean, mum?”

“It is as I said.” Belladonna reached for her tea and took the smallest sip, grimacing. Bilbo could not believe that so little tea could actually aid her, but when she spoke again her voice was a bit clearer.

“When I was pregnant with Bilbo, I went on one last adventure. In truth, I was rather upset with Bungo at the time. Though I do not now recall why. Whatever the reason, I decided to go to Rivendell. I thought perhaps the elves could tell me if I was to have a boy child or a girl. More importantly, I hoped they would tell me whether that child would be a stuffy Baggins or a fun-loving Took.”

Bilbo laughed in surprise. “And instead you got twins, mixing both traits in equal measure.”

Belladonna looked at him gravely. “No. I was pregnant with but one child, and Lord Elrond himself told me that it would be a very healthy boy. Whether that boy chose adventure or the pleasures of the hearth would be entirely up to him, but he would always be welcome in Rivendell if he chose to visit that place.”

Blinking, Bilbo did not understand.

Kili seemed to. “Then I am not your son!” he cried in distress.

“You are my son,” Belladonna said firmly. “In every way that matters. But it is true that I did not give birth to you. On my way back from Rivendell, I happened upon a frightful scene. A large dwarven caravan, probably heading to the Blue Mountains, was in absolute ruins. The wagons were burning, and there were dead bodies everywhere. I faced a difficult decision.”

“What do you mean?” Bilbo was not sure if he was speaking in the general or particular. None of his mother’s words made sense. Kili was his brother.

“A hobbit’s best defense is to hide. If I went poking about in the destruction, I risked not only my life, but yours Bilbo. For I could not exactly set my unborn child aside to go adventuring.” A cough interrupted Belladonna’s speech.

Recalling himself, Bilbo pressed her to take a little more tea, but she refused. She did accept a handkerchief.

“What happened?” Kili demanded. “You found me among the wreckage and decided to raise me as your own?”

“No,” Belladonna said hoarsely. “I did not find you. Walking in the dark, everything lit only by the dying embers of the burned wagons, someone grabbed my ankle. A dwarf in muddy armor with a blood streaked yellow beard. ‘Save him,’ he begged me. ‘They will never stop looking for him.’ I did not know who he was speaking of, but I promised I would do my best. Indeed, I could hardly have said anything else. The moment I offered that assurance, the poor fellow died.”

“He was talking about me.” Kili’s voice was faint and he seemed unable to formulate the question.

“Yes,” Belladonna said. “I noticed that this brave warrior was lying half across a large iron chest, which he clearly died defending. When I opened it, I found his treasure. You were huddled within. Very frightened, but unhurt.”

Once more, their mother broke into a coughing fit. Bilbo fussed, Kili stared, and both of them tried to reconcile what they knew of the world with what she was telling them.

“I think he was your father,” she added when she was able. “You reached for him and called him something that sounded like Dad.”

“Adâd,” Bilbo murmured.

Whipping his head around, Kili stared at his brother with wide eyes.

“Yes.” Belladonna coughed. “Yes, that was it. But how could you know, Bilbo?”

“It means father in our secret language,” Bilbo said. “The language Kili taught me when we were children.”

Closing her eyes, Belladonna smiled. “I did not realize. You were always babbling in those days, Kili, but I thought it was baby talk. Perhaps it was dwarvish.”

For a moment, there was only the sound of coughing. Kili sat blinking, clearly trying to think of something to say. Finally, he spoke. “So my father entrusted me to your care. Did you ever learn who was hunting me? Or why? Was the caravan attacked because of me?”

“No. A hobbit’s best defense is remaining hidden. Once I had you in my arms, I didn’t linger. Indeed, I have always blamed myself for not getting you away from there more quickly. What you saw that day gave you the nightmares that plague you still.”

The hobbitess did not break into another coughing fit, but every breath seemed to rattle in her chest. When Bilbo could not bear the sound of her laborious gasping for a second longer, he continued the story for her. “You hid Kili in the Shire, then. When I was born, you told everyone that you had twins.”

“Yes. Bungo wanted to turn you over to the next dwarven trader that passed through, but I couldn’t. You were such a friendly little thing, and we never knew who the monsters that attacked your caravan were. They might have been another clan of dwarves. Besides, after a while, you were just our son. Perhaps you needed more protection and guidance than Bilbo. You grew up so slowly. But you are such a fine boy, Kili. I am so proud to have a son like you.”

With his eyes full of tears, Kili could not seem to answer. Yet he took his mother’s shaking hand in both of his and held it very tightly.

“My boys,” she whispered. “My sweet boys.”

“We need you to get better,” Bilbo said softly. “Won’t you take a little more tea? Or have a rest?”

“Rest.” Belladonna’s eyes fixed on a point very far away from her sons. “Soon. But you must promise me. Bilbo. Kili is a dwarf. And so a child, yet, I think. He must be. Barely a tween, even now. By their reckoning. Take care of him. I promised his father.”

“I will,” Bilbo swore. “I will always keep him safe. He is my brother.”

“Kili.” Every word seemed to be a struggle, but Belladonna Baggins was not a hobbit to give up without a fight. “My son.”

“Mama!” Tears spilled down Kili’s cheeks shamelessly.

“Be safe. I love you.”

With that, she closed her eyes and slept. She did not wake again.

Kili threw himself against Bilbo’s chest, sobbing. Bilbo felt he was on the edge of a precipice. Only Kili’s arms around his middle held him steady. Of course he knew. He had always known. That Kili was different. That Kili was his mother’s favorite, even as their father favored Bilbo. Yet a part of him wanted to give in to the fury that swelled in his heart. For the whole of his life, he had been lied to. Over and over again, he had chosen Kili’s happiness instead of his own. Looking down at the choking, tear streaked face of his little brother, Bilbo knew he would make the same choice a thousand times more.

“Don’t let it go to your head,” he said gruffly.

“What?” Kili’s brown eyes were as wide and confused as a baby faun’s.

“Technically, you may be older than me, but our birth certificates say differently. I shall never treat you as my big brother.”

A surprised laugh sprang from Kili’s mouth, and he blinked up at Bilbo. “But you heard mum! I am the eldest, and you have to do as I say.”

Huffing, Bilbo smiled his most put-upon smile, but then he looked at his mother’s still, lifeless form, and it fell away. Clutching Kili close, Bilbo ushered him out of their mother’s bedroom. “When treacle rains from the sky,” he said, doing his best to raise Kili’s spirits.

“Bilbo.” Kili paused. “You heard what mother said. I am not really your brother.”

“Oh? So it was someone else who walked in on me kissing Dodinas Brandybuck in the toolshed at Brandy Hall last year and spent a month writing songs about a non-existent romance in a language that only he and I speak?”

A smile twitched in the corner of Kili’s mouth. “No. That was me.”

“Then you must be my brother, for I should never have tolerated that from anyone else.”

“Do you—” Kili paused. “Bilbo, do you really think the people who killed those dwarves are still hunting me?”

Fear filled the hobbit’s heart then. He had always been quite certain that Kili’s nightmares were only imagined monsters. Now he knew better. In his mind, he heard his mother repeat the caution. ‘They will never stop looking for him.’ Taking a deep breath, he answered his brother.

“I think you are protected in the Shire, as long as you are hidden. No one will come to Bag End looking for a dwarf named Kili Baggins, and there will be no gossip to suggest that there is such a person living here to spread outside of Hobbiton. After all, none of our neighbors will ever suspect that my twin brother is a dwarf. Mother and Father kept you secret, and so they have kept you safe.”

Nodding, Kili bit his lip. He still seemed very nervous.

“Try to get some sleep, little brother.” Bilbo sighed. “Tomorrow we will have to. Well, there is quite a lot that needs to be done tomorrow.”

“Will you tell me a story?” Kili asked softly in the secret language that always gave him comfort. He had not asked for a bedtime story for several years, but only one answer was possible.

“Of course,” Bilbo said warmly. ”Something distracting? The Witch King of Angmar? Eärendil the Mariner?”

“The one about the prince and the dragon.”

Bilbo laughed. “That is your story, though. You made it up.”

“I know,” Kili said. “But it gives me comfort. The Prince Under the Mountain can beat any monster.”

“Very well.” Smiling sadly, Bilbo pulled the covers up around Kili before getting into his own bed. “In a kingdom so wealthy that everyone ate off golden supper plates, there lived a mad, greedy king...”

It was a good story, and so familiar that it managed to comfort the two brothers for a time. Eventually, Kili fell asleep. Bilbo lay awake, though, worrying that dawn was too early to summon the coroner.

Chapter Text

Few things in life were as enjoyable as sitting in front of Bag End, savoring a lovely pipe, on a golden afternoon in late autumn. The grass held onto its green, but the trees along the Hill were glorious explosions of red and gold. From his little bench, Bilbo could see all the way to Hobbiton. He watched the miller’s wagon making end of the week deliveries along the winding road. Puffing a particularly large smoke ring, he appreciated the way it floated up to join the little white clouds in the bright blue sky. As dearly as he loved his brother, it was always nice when Kili took a few days to go hunting in the woods. The dwarf could burn off some of his boundless energy and Bilbo could have a little time alone with his thoughts.

Someone coughed very politely.

Coming down from the clouds, Bilbo thought for a moment that he was looking at a cloud personified, standing in the road. The fellow had perfectly white hair and a long white beard, both straight and styled like wisps of smoke.

“Good afternoon.” Bilbo gave a friendly smile. When he noticed the three others standing a little ways behind the elderly fellow, however, trepidation stole into his heart. Four dwarves standing in front of Bag End could never be a good thing.

“A very good afternoon to you as well, Master Hobbit,” the polite dwarf said. “Allow me to introduce myself. I am Balin, son of Fundin. At your service.”

“It is very nice to meet you, Balin,” Bilbo said, though he meant no such thing. “I suppose by that form of address, I would be Bilbo, son of Bungo, but you would have a hard time sending me a letter by that name. Ha! Baggins might serve you better, if it is service you require. Bilbo Baggins.” His goal in making this speech was to appear rather tedious—in hopes that the dwarves would go away—but Balin’s eyes lit up.

“It is a Baggins we are looking for!” one of the other dwarves exclaimed happily. He seemed to be the youngest of the group, with golden hair and a short, neatly braided mustache.

“Well, it is a Baggins you have found,” Bilbo said. His heart sank. “Although I cannot imagine what use four dwarves would have for one.”

“Ah.” Balin smiled. “It is the Hobbiton blacksmith we are looking for. Perhaps he is a relative of yours? We have heard that he goes by the name Kili Baggins.”

Of course, it was possible that four travellers might have need of a blacksmith. It was even possible that, upon discovering his shop was closed, they might seek him out at home to shoe their ponies in a hurry. However, Bilbo was rather too clever to believe in such a coincidence. He was also too smart to lie. Kili’s best defense was remaining inconspicuous. He did not want to make the travellers suspicious with obvious falsehoods.

“Naturally.” Bilbo grinned broadly. “My twin brother.”

All four dwarves started. “Your twin brother?” Balin asked. An air of disbelief colored his friendly tone.

“Indeed. Of course, our parents would not have approved,” he prattled, “so I certainly understand why it would surprise you. A Baggins of Bag End laboring! Who would have thought? We were quite identical as children. No one in all of Hobbiton could tell us apart. But now we could not be more different. Why, he even has darker hair than me! His is more of a chestnut, while, as you can see, mine is rather sandy.”

“Your twin brother.” The young dwarf with the yellow hair looked so crestfallen at this news that Bilbo very nearly took pity on him. In defense of his brother, however, the hobbit was relentless.

“I am afraid he has gone hunting. That he gets from our mother, you know. She was a Took, after all. A very capable woman, our mother. Could drop a rabbit with a stone at forty paces, then have it cleaned, broiled, and on a plate for supper within forty minutes. Still, Kili brings home rather larger game. I have had to learn to be a proper butcher to deal with it. Truthfully, I do not mind. A little venison is nice enough, now and again. Unfortunately, it is his habit to stay out in the woods until he finds something quite impressive. I do not think he will be around to open his shop for a few days at least. There is another blacksmith in Bywater. Or old Deacon Smith out in Michel Delving. Neither is far, and I imagine they are nearly as good as my brother.” Bilbo winked saucily. “Not that there is any blacksmith in the world to match a Baggins, of course, but they have both been at it for much longer than he has.”

Judging by the fallen faces of the dwarves, this speech had its intended effect. Bilbo was quite sure that the hunters would look elsewhere for their prey, assuming that no dwarf could ever be the brother of such a silly hobbit. Indeed, the tallest of the dwarves stepped forward.

“We are wasting our time with this little grocer, Balin,” he said, sounding deeply unhappy. “Speaking to these halflings is always a waste of time.”

Focused as he was on his own dissembling, Bilbo had not taken the time to properly look at the dwarves. Now he saw that he was face to face with the most handsome fellow he had ever been privileged to meet. With long, dark hair gently streaked with silver highlights, eyes as blue as the sky which so mesmerized Bilbo only minutes before, and a short, dignified beard, the dwarf had a regal countenance. To match that, he was wearing armor. Underneath his fur cloak, he wore a leather hauberk studded with a honeycomb of steel plates. The bald dwarf and the yellow haired dwarf wore rather dubious coats of leather and fur. Those might have been mere protection on the road, but there was no question that the handsome one was dressed for a fight.

“Well,” Bilbo said, feigning offense. “I am very sorry to hear it. I shan’t offer you tea, since I am sure it would only waste more of your precious time. For courtesy’s sake, however, I will recommend the Green Dragon to you. If you care to press on to Bywater tonight. They have very good beer, and quite inexpensive rooms.”

“Thank you, Master Baggins,” Balin said. He alone bowed politely. The other dwarves had already turned away. “Forgive Thorin’s short temper, please. We have traveled many miles to be met with such a disappointment.”

Bilbo sniffed, though he understood what Balin meant much better than he wished to. “Well, it is the weekend. You cannot expect a Baggins to keep weekend hours. It is not as though a brother of mine needs the custom, in any case. And Bywater is not so very far.”

“No indeed,” Balin said. “Good afternoon.”

Bilbo wished the dwarves a good afternoon, and that was very nearly the whole of it. The dwarves might have gone off. Bilbo might have found Kili in the woods and taken him for an extended visit to Great Smials until they were quite sure the strangers were gone from the Shire. The two brothers might have continued to live quiet, uninterrupted lives, if at just that moment, Kili himself had not crested the hill.

He was dressed in his hunting leathers—quiver slung across his back—and he was carrying a deer that must have been three times his own weight. With his hair dangling in loose clumps around his face and the shadow of a beard that had recently begun darkening his cheeks, he looked every inch a young dwarf.

“Bilbo,” he cried. “See what I have caught! A twelve point buck! Oh. Do we have guests for dinner? Well, there will be venison enough for all and no mistake.”

“Liar!” Overcome with rage upon the discovery that Kili was their quarry after all, the yellow haired dwarf sprang at Bilbo with a knife.

Fortunately, a long swath of Bilbo’s childhood was comprised of fighting bigger bullies in defense of Kili. Dodging nimbly to the side, the hobbit managed to twist the knife away from his attacker. Unfortunately, the rest of the dwarves had much larger weapons, and they outnumbered the brothers two to one.

An arrow pierced the shoulder of the young dwarf who was now facing Bilbo with a sword in one hand and a second knife in the other. Daring a glance at his brother, the hobbit saw that the deer lay discarded on the side of the road. Kili already had a second arrow on his bow. It was a distraction Bilbo could not afford. A big hand grabbed him from behind, and there was a sword pressed against his throat.

In other circumstances, Bilbo might have enjoyed having such a handsome fellow at his back, one arm wrapped around his chest. As the matter stood, he screamed for his brother to run.

“I am not going anywhere,” Kili said steadily. To the dwarf holding Bilbo, he added, “If you draw a single drop of my brother’s blood, my next arrow goes between your eyes. Shooting to wound your friend was a mistake I’ll not make again.”

“Your brother?” Thorin was apparently as strong as he was handsome, but he didn’t seem all that clever. Despite having Kili’s arrow aimed at his forehead, he continued to antagonize them. “Any with eyes to look can see you are a dwarf. You share no blood with this miserable creature.”

“Can you do it?” Bilbo asked. Speaking their secret language was a risk. Indeed, Thorin’s arm tightened painfully around the hobbit’s torso, but Kili’s only hope was a solid plan. “Can you take the life of a thinking being?”

Blinking, Kili shifted his gaze to meet Bilbo’s eyes.

“If they harm a single hair on your littlest toe, I will kill all of them,” he said plainly, in a voice loud enough for the entire Hill to hear.

Bilbo smiled. “Then, once I move, shoot the bald one. Aim to kill, but don’t stick around to watch me in action. Run to Tuckborough. I will take care of the rest and meet you there.”

Shaking his head minutely, Kili said, “I won’t leave you to fight three armed dwarves alone.”

“There is no need for us to fight,” Balin said in a soothing, reasonable voice. “Lower your bow, Kili.”

“They’re after you, remember.” Bilbo hardened his voice. In the years after their mother’s death, he had been the one to shepherd Kili through the dwarven equivalent of his irresponsible twenties. He was the older brother. It was his job to set boundaries. It was his duty to protect. “Trust me. Run. I will find you once they are dealt with.”

“I believe you have quite mistaken our purpose in coming here,” Balin continued. “We suspect that you may be a kinsman of ours who was lost as a child. We do not mean any harm to you or to those who have sheltered you. Indeed, they will be richly rewarded.”

“All right,” Kili said, lowering his bow a fraction of an inch. All of the dwarves watched him do it.

Taking advantage of this distraction, Bilbo levered himself up on Thorin’s arm and aimed a powerful kick at the dwarf’s crotch. Of course, he had not the height to land the blow where it would be most effective. Instead, he hit the inside of the fellow’s thigh, knocking him off balance. Rolling to the ground, Bilbo came up with his sword. Just as the hobbit was doing this, Kili loosed his arrow and sent it flying toward the neck of the bald dwarf. Somehow, the big warrior was ready for the attack and managed to deflect the shaft with one of his axes.

There was no time to be impressed. Trusting Kili to run, Bilbo used Thorin’s sword to slap yellow beard on his ass and cut Balin’s purse. With the heavy sword in his right hand and the jingling coin purse in his left, Bilbo raced down the Hill heading North. It was a direction that took him away from Tuckborough where Kili would head.

All of the hobbit’s energy went into sprinting, but he dared a single glance behind. The four dwarves were following him. He had that much luck. Unfortunately, the bald one had given Thorin one of his axes, and even Balin looked deadly serious.

One way or another, Bilbo’s luck was going to run out in the little wooden shed at the edge of the Gamgee’s property. Slamming the door open, he rushed through the shed, twisting dials, turning nozzles, and tugging several spiraling lengths of copper piping from their barrels. He had little enough time to work. The four dwarves were right behind him.

“Ha!” The yellow bearded dwarf grinned wickedly. “We have you cornered! So much for your plan!”

“Yes.” Bilbo smiled at the dwarves. It was a peaceful smile, not a cruel or victorious one. From the moment he had seen Balin in front of Bag End, his heart had been racing with fear. Now, at the end of his dash, it beat a calm, steady rhythm.

Suddenly, Thorin threw down his axe and raised his hands above his head. “We surrender!” he shouted. “Throw down your weapons! We surrender!”

The other dwarves obeyed Thorin immediately, though they looked puzzled. Meanwhile, Bilbo couldn’t help hesitating. All he had to do was knock over the lamp, and Kili would no longer be in danger.

“It’s a still,” Balin whispered, horrified. “I did not recognize the scent.”

“Can you do it?” Thorin asked, his blue eyes burning with a desperate intensity as he unknowingly repeated the question Bilbo asked his brother earlier. “Can you kill four people who have done you no lasting harm after they have surrendered?”

Bilbo swallowed hard. “That is disingenuous,” he said, though he did not knock over the lamp. “I have only won through trickery. The moment we are outside, you will find it easy enough to murder me and go after Kili once more.”

“But if you blow up the distillery you will be killed as well!” The yellow haired dwarf was quite late in coming to the realization. Bilbo supposed that big, strong dwarves did not often need to risk everything they had in a fight.

“If this is to end in fire,” Bilbo said, quoting the bedtime story Kili whispered to him so often when they were children, “you and I will burn together.”

“None of us need burn!” Thorin said vehemently. “We are not here to harm your brother. Someone has lied to you, telling you that any who come looking for him intend him harm. That is not so! Long ago, a child of our kin went missing. His name was Kili. When we heard word of a blacksmith of unusual stature going by that name in this village, we came looking for him. That is all. Let us go, and we will go in peace.”

Bilbo wanted to believe Thorin. Authority and sincerity imbued the dwarf’s voice with power beyond his words. Besides that, his eyes shone like the sun on morning glories. But Bilbo couldn’t risk Kili. Not for anything. He’d promised his mother.

“Bilbo?” Kili’s voice was hesitant, but it wasn’t nearly distant enough. He ought to have been halfway to Tuckborough, not right on the other side of the door to the Gamgee Distillery. “Sorry for not doing my part. Do you need help?”

Halfway to the lamp, Bilbo’s hand froze.

“Back away from the building or your brother loses his head,” Thorin shouted. “I’ve my sword to his throat, and he’ll not wriggle away so easily this time.”

Bilbo stared at the dwarf.

“We can both agree that Kili must not end in fire here,” he said softly to Bilbo.

Nodding jerkily seemed to be the only option available to the little hobbit.

Thorin licked his lips. “My nephew, Fili, is only five years older than Kili. Headstrong—and perhaps at fault for some portion of our misunderstanding—but young. As young as your brother, or very nearly. Will you not allow him to leave as well? Let him live long enough to learn that he ought not judge peaceful folk harmless.”

Taking a deep breath, Bilbo said, “We are coming out, Kili. Don’t shoot anyone right away.”

“Fili, Balin, go,” Thorin ordered. Trying to ignore him, Bilbo took a few moments to correct the pressure valves and reconnect pipes, ensuring that the Gamgee’s still would not explode the next time someone came in with a match. The two named dwarves slipped outside at once, but Thorin and the bald one waited for Bilbo to finish his work.

“If you do intend to harm Kili,” Bilbo said, very quietly, “I would advise you to kill me at once.”

Surprisingly, Thorin laughed at that. “You speak wisely, Master Baggins. It is fortunate, then, that I mean neither of you any ill. For I expect Kili would never forgive one who caused harm to come to you. Brothers are like that.”

Chapter Text

Tea at Bag End was perhaps the most awkward occasion in Bilbo’s experience. And he once hosted Lobelia Sackville-Baggins and Delphinium Boffin at the same small dinner party. Striking a balance between hosting a group of dwarves who might be Kili’s long-lost family and four well-armed travellers who had recently tried to kill them both seemed impossible. Eventually, he got out his mother’s second-best tea set, currant scones, and sugar, but no honey.

Kili frowned about the honey, but he didn’t complain.

The dwarves were surprisingly polite. Settling in the parlor without any objections, they looked about with courteous interest. All except Fili, who openly stared at Kili’s bare feet. Since Bilbo spent a large portion of his childhood defending the honor of those small, scratched toes, this put him even more on edge.

Balin made a few polite noises about the quality of the tea. Responding in kind was automatic, but it did not make Bilbo relax.

Finally, Kili huffed. “Will someone please tell me what is going on? Bilbo! I thought these fellows were here to kill me, but now we are all having tea.”

“Well,” Bilbo said sensibly, “it is tea time.”

Fili, the youngest dwarf with the yellow beard, snorted and hid a smile with his tea cup. Then he winced and shifted his recently bandaged shoulder.

“Please forgive our rudeness,” Balin said. “Allow me to make the introductions. I am Balin, son of Fundin, at your service. This sniggering fellow here is Fili, son of Dis. To his right, my brother Dwalin. And, of course, the leader of our company: Thorin Oakenshield.”

Bobbing his head, Kili took his teacup from the table. “Pleased to meet you, I’m sure. Kili Baggins, at your service. I believe you already know my brother, Bilbo Baggins.”

Watching carefully, Bilbo saw Fili’s mouth tighten at the mention of Kili’s name and his relationship to Bilbo. None of the other dwarves reacted at all. But then, they were old enough to school their faces.

“They have come for you, Kili, but I am not entirely sure that they are the ones we were warned about,” Bilbo said, trying to be fair.

Leaning forward, Thorin narrowed his eyes. “Who was it that gave you this warning? Who told you to hide Kili from us?”

Shaking his head, Bilbo set his own mouth into a firm line. “No. You first. You have told me that you were lost and looking for a blacksmith. You have told me that Kili is your relation and you are overjoyed to see him again. You have told me that we will all be showered riches. Now, you will tell me the truth.”

Fury twisted Thorin’s face, but Balin squeezed his shoulder. “My apologies for misleading you, Master Baggins. It was never my intention to lie, only to avoid alarming you.”

Bilbo put his teacup down with a gentle clink.

“Of course,” he said evenly. “Allow me to offer my own regrets for failing to convince you to leave before Kili came home.”

Apparently, it was Kili’s turn to hide a laugh in his teacup. Bilbo was glad to amuse his brother, but it was not the time.

“The truth is,” Fili said, lifting his chin and looking straight at Bilbo, “Kili is not your brother. He is mine.”

Kili leapt to his feet, but Bilbo only laughed. “So I suppose it was your best blue waistcoat that he spit wine all over the first time he had some of the Old Winyards.”

Anger diffused, Kili flopped into his chair and turned toward his brother. “I have apologized for that! And anyway, you deserved it for not watering my glass. Or at least warning me.”

“The truth is,” Bilbo informed Fili, “my brother is a great trial. Under other circumstance you would be more than welcome to him. Unfortunately, I promised our mother that I would look after him.”

Kili sniffed. “I don’t suppose you should like to take Bilbo away to be your brother instead. He is stuffy, overbearing, and never forgets a slight.”

Balin smiled. “The truth is, there is more to family than blood. However, you would be the first hobbit I have ever seen with the beginnings of a beard on your cheeks. Indeed, your feet are rather smaller than your brother’s, though you have nearly a foot on him in height.”

After many years of adulthood, Bilbo did not immediately leap over the tea tray to punish the fellow who insulted Kili’s feet. Instead, he calmly took a sip from his own cup, and cut where it was more likely to hurt.

“So tell me,” the hobbit said. “How did your family lose a child barely old enough to speak?”

The cup in Thorin’s hand shattered. Seeing the furious pain on his handsome face assuaged Bilbo’s own anger somewhat. Hurting another person can be a balm for many wounds, but always at a cost. Such a spiteful remark was bound to have dear consequences, and so it proved. Kili was instantly, disproportionately upset.

“The calla lily!” he cried. “You have ruined the set!”

Giving the broken pottery a cursory glance, Bilbo saw that it was, indeed, the one painted with calla lilies which Thorin had broken. However, it was only a teacup.

“My apologies,” the dwarf grunted. “I will pay for it.”

“It cannot be replaced,” Kili said, kneeling on the floor and gathering up the pieces without taking any care for the still seated dwarf in his way. “It belonged to Mum.”

In Kili’s intense distress, Bilbo saw clearly the emotional tumult which battered his poor brother’s heart. “Well, it was an eight piece set, so now it shall simply serve seven. That is still better than Bedelia Bracegirdle’s Southfarthing Gardener set, and I suspect that is all Mother would have cared about.”

Kili smiled tremulously, still clutching the porcelain shards.

“Right,” Bilbo said. “This has all been more than enough excitement for one day. Thank you very much for coming, but I fear my brother is overwrought. We can continue this tomorrow.”

“No,” Thorin said.

“Excuse me? Perhaps I should rephrase in a manner that dwarves might understand. Leave now, or I shall find a way to make you leave.”

“You intend to run.” Though his voice was steady, Thorin had his hands clenched in his lap. He appeared to be restraining himself from some terrible violence.

Until Thorin spoke, Bilbo had not been aware of the fully formed plan in the back of his mind. They would wait for nightfall and then cut through the fields. Circumventing Hobbiton, they could be in Tuckborough shortly after midnight if they were quick. Once inside Great Smials, the dwarves would need an army to get Kili out. Parsifal and the rest of their cousins would make sure of that.

“Whatever do you mean?” Bilbo blinked stupidly up at the handsome dwarf. “I am a Baggins of Bag End. Where would I possibly go?”

“Since you are predisposed to distrust, it is the most reasonable course. Let us compromise. Allow me to tell you how Kili was lost to our family. A single attempt to persuade you that our claim is the truth. If I fail, we will go in peace.”

Bilbo did not see how this was a compromise, for it seemed to him very like giving Thorin his way, but he was uncomfortably aware that he could not force the big dwarves out of Bag End. Not without risking injury to Kili.

“Very well.” The brothers returned to their seats and their tea, but neither Baggins made a move to fetch Thorin another cup.

Apparently, receiving permission to tell his story stymied Thorin. He sat quietly for a moment, staring at the teapot. Finally, he spoke. “It was supposed to be me.”

This was quite a surprising beginning, and Bilbo did not understand what the dwarf meant. He could not possibly intend to suggest that he ought to have been the one adopted by Belladonna Baggins. Besides, knowing what he did about dwarven ages, Bilbo rather suspected Thorin to be over a hundred years old. Older than Belladonna ever was, though he seemed roughly the same age as Bilbo seated across the coffee table.

“We hail from the Kingdom of Erebor. It is the richest and most glorious kingdom you could wish to set eyes upon.”

“The streets are paved with candy and it is never bedtime, but there is always music and dancing in every public place.” Bilbo sniffed. “You needn’t tell us that you wish for Kili to go away with you, that is quite plain to everyone.”

Laughing nervously, Kili took a big sip of his tea. Bilbo realized that he was not helping his brother relax. This was just as well in his view. Especially given that he still believed relaxing around the strange dwarves might yet prove to be a fatal mistake.

Ignoring him, Thorin continued. “All dwarven kingdoms thrive on trade in one way or another, and Erebor even more than most. Our mountain is rich with gold and precious gems, so naturally all of our people wish to work as artisans and miners. Thus it is that we must trade for food and similarly necessary incidentals with other places. One of our most important partners in trade are the dwarves in the Blue Mountains. Though the distance is very great, the dwarves of the Blue Mountains produce certain teas, spices, and liquors which we value highly. Unfortunately, some decades ago, the greed of Erebor’s king grew too great, and the Blue Mountains threatened to end all trade.”

“Greed so great he summoned a dragon,” Kili murmured, half to himself.

All of the dwarves immediately looked at Kili. “Yes,” Thorin said. His voice was hoarse. “Do you remember him? King Thror?”

Bilbo blinked. “You cannot mean to suggest that Kili knew the king from his bedtime stories. We are not that gullible.”

Thorin’s eyes slid to Bilbo’s face. “I do not mean to say that King Thror ever held Kili in his arms, but the kings of Erebor dress in splendor. Thror most of all, in his greed. So it might be that Kili remembered seeing him, as a small child.”

“Oh.” Bilbo felt somewhat mollified by these words.

“Did he have a great gray beard, banded with black and gold?” Kili asked, offering the description of the king from their story about the Prince Under the Mountain.

“Aye,” Balin murmured. “That he did, lad.”

“And eyes that never looked up,” Bilbo added, “but were forever counting the gold in his hands.”

“Yes.” Thorin looked very surprised that Bilbo would know such a thing.

“It is from a story I tell,” Kili said softly. “The Prince and the Dragon. I suppose someone must have told it to me as a child.”

Thorin’s eyes were very soft, and for a moment Bilbo thought that maybe he really was some member of Kili’s family. Perhaps he truly had been fond of Kili as a baby. “My sister Dis, most likely. But the dragon was defeated several years before the events which I now relate.”

“Sorry. Do you mean to say the dragon was real?” Bilbo could not help the question, but he was conscious of how rude his continuing interruptions were.

“Aye lad,” Balin said softly. “Dragons are quite real, though I am happy that none have ever disturbed the peace of your little village.”

“Oh, Bilbo does not care if the dragon is real.” Clearly Kili was recovered from his earlier emotional turmoil. The teasing lilt in his voice was unmistakable. “He wants to know if the prince is real. And if so, does he really have hair like waving wheat and lips like rose petals?”

“Excuse me?” Thorin looked rather shocked. He could be nowhere near as startled as Bilbo was.

With no other option, Bilbo bent forward and knocked over the teapot. Kili rushed to help him clean it up, slowly realizing the weapon that he had given the dwarves to use against his brother.

“We always thought the story was about big folk,” Bilbo said, mopping up the tea. “From Kili’s description, I thought maybe the prince was an elf. That is often how they are described in books.”

“Right,” Kili said quickly. “Anyway, Bilbo does not care at all what fellows look like. He once proposed marriage to Astoria Holman, you know. But she was already promised to Biffy Boffin.”

It was in fact true that Bilbo had once proposed to Astoria—knowing how deeply in love she was with Biffy—happily curtailing any suspicions about his nature among his neighbors. Unfortunately, he rather thought that announcing this gossip in relation to the fact that Bilbo did not care what fellows looked like would serve only as confirmation of his preferences. All the hobbit could do was hope that the dwarves were the sort of people to whom such deviance did not even occur.

Kili was extraordinarily loyal, but he was not particularly good at dissembling.

Balin and Thorin exchanged a glance. “I believe your story describes Prince Frerin,” Balin said slowly. “He had golden hair. Tragically, he fell to the fire. It was the eldest son of Thrain who defeated the dragon, in honor of his brother’s sacrifice.”

Vaguely, in the back of Bilbo’s mind, he remembered whispering in the dark of their shared bedroom as fauntlings. “We switched them.”

“Oh yes,” Kili recalled. “You thought that the one with golden hair should be the hero.”

“Well, I did not know it was a history!”

“Revisionist!” Kili crowed. “What would Father say?”

“He would say that you should take care criticising my historical acumen, when you still cannot name any of the Thains except for Isengrim.”

“Which one is Isengrim?”

“The current Thain! Our uncle!”

“Well then, I can also name the Old Took,” Kili said triumphantly. “Our grandfather.”

“All right.” Bilbo narrowed his eyes. “Name him.”

“What?”

“Say his name, if you know so much about history. What was our grandfather’s name?”

“The Old Took? Er.”

“Gerontius!”

“Well how am I supposed to know that? I never met him.”

“Yet I am the poor student for conflating two princes that I believed to be fictional!”

“I am quite certain the princes of Erebor would take no offense,” Balin said gently. “Indeed, Frerin would likely think it a splendid joke.”

Bickering with Kili was comforting, but when Bilbo turned back to the dwarves it was with a wary heart. “And how would you know what princes and kings think? I suppose in the land of stories from whence you have come, such lofty folk often confide in ordinary people.”

“I make no such claim,” Balin said carefully. “For you have made it very clear that you distrust all mention of honor and titles. But it was not for nothing that Frerin was called the Laughing Prince. His good humor and friendly nature were known throughout Erebor. All of his people remember him fondly. He was only in his thirties when he died.”

Remembering Kili at the side of their mother’s sickbed, Bilbo understood that Frerin had been little more than a child. Anyone would call that a tragedy. “Then I am sorry for the loss,” Bilbo murmured sincerely.

“The dragon destroyed many families that day,” Thorin said in a low, mournful voice. “The royal family not least. Though Prince Frerin was lost, it was known to all that the king, his grandfather, did not shed a single tear. The eldest of Thrain’s sons was lauded and rewarded for defeating the dragon. Not for saving their people, but for protecting the treasure hoard of Thror. Our people narrowly escaped the fire of one dragon, only to live under the rule of another.”

Bilbo nodded, though he did not truly understand. The Thain of the Shire did not so much rule as advise. A peace loving hobbit could not wholly conceive of tyranny.

“So it was that some member of my family needed to travel to the Blue Mountains, bringing gifts and attempting to repair trade relations that had been badly damaged by the greedy taxation of the King Under the Mountain.”

This seemed reasonable enough to Bilbo. Or at least it was the kind of thing a family of merchants might do.

“I should have been the one to go,” Thorin said again. The guilt in his eyes did not seem feigned. “My father could not, and I was the eldest. Unfortunately, my grandfather would not give me his blessing to leave the mountain. So my sister was sent instead, though she had two young children. Her husband did not want her parted from them for the long months such a journey demanded. And so the four of them went together. Fili, his father Vili, my sister Dis, and Kili, the youngest.”

“How did they travel?” Bilbo asked evenly.

“With a large retinue, in a caravan of wagons full of trade goods and gifts, surrounded by guards. Perhaps they presented too tempting a target, perhaps they were hunted down, or perhaps they were merely the victims of circumstance. As they neared their destination, they were attacked by an even larger band of orcs. Orcs and dwarves have hated each other since the conception of that foul species. Always when we meet we fight. This was no exception. Though, given the outcome of that battle, a part of me wishes it was otherwise.”

Thorin sighed, and looked at Kili. “Among the beasts of burden in the caravan, there was a great horse, a black gelding of Rohan stock. Dwarves do not ride such animals, of course, but my sister saw that her band was vastly outnumbered. Leading the attack was Azog the Defiler, the foulest of that evil species, who has sworn to end the line of Durin. Taking her eldest son, Dis rode for help. You were both so small. She could not hold you both in the saddle of such a mount. Not on what she knew would be at least a two day ride to Rivendell. Besides, your father was a mighty warrior, and it was her first time astride such a steed. She had every reason to hope that you would be safest with him.”

“Nevertheless,” Fili said, “A choice was made, and she has regretted it every day since.”

“That is not so,” Dwalin said harshly. Bilbo had been convinced that the fellow was the type to only grunt politely now and again, as many Southfarthing farmers were wont to do, but he actually spoke quite eloquently when he had a mind. “Your mother mourns the loss of her One, and is bereaved by the uncertainty surrounding your brother’s fate. But she does not regret saving you. She could never regret saving you.”

“You look like him.” Kili’s voice was a wisp of smoke on the wind, but he suddenly had the full force of Fili’s attention.

“It has been said by many that I am the image of our father.”

Kili ignored this reference to his dwarven paternity, but he said faintly, “I know what happened after that. The shadow kisses him and floats away. Thunder fills my ears. The dwarf with the yellow beard smiles at me. Adâd! Adâd! There is a monster, but its stomach explodes and all of its insides spill on the ground. Adâd has blood on his axe. I have to be quiet. There is a monster, but its head falls to the ground and its body topples in the other direction. I have to go in the box. It is noisy and smelly and I don’t like it, but I have to go in the box. Then Mum comes, and I wake up.” Kili blinked and shook his head. “It is a dream I have had many times.”

Squeezing his brother’s shoulder, Bilbo said, “I am quite willing to believe that you know the circumstances of Kili’s misfortune, and perhaps it all happened precisely as you say, but you have yet to explain the most important part of the story.”

“And what is that?” Thorin asked, looking at Kili like a starving hobbit seeing a pie fresh from the oven.

“The dwarf’s—Vili’s—last words.”

Thorin blinked. “If those are known to Kili, they are known to no one else. The elves of Rivendell did come to my sister’s aid, but it was days later when they searched the desecrated bodies of the fallen dwarves. No sign of Kili was ever found. Vili was long dead by then.”

“They were not spoken to Kili, but to our mother. ‘Save him,’ he begged her. ‘They will never stop looking for him.’” As Bilbo spoke, he heard the echo of his mother on her deathbed, and felt the ache of a promise etched into his heart. “What say you to that?”

Thorin’s blue eyes shone with a fierce, determined light. “I say that I have not broken Vili’s faith. Indeed, we have never stopped looking for Kili. Dis sent to the mountain for aid, and I ignored my grandfather’s edict to lead hundreds through the fields and forests surrounding the place where the caravan was attacked, searching for any sign of my missing nephew. Azog made his home in Moria, and so our mad king was convinced to make war on that place. Thus did King Thror fall honorably in battle. Many warriors fell at his side, but I do not call the cost too great. For my family became certain that the lost child had not been made a slave in those mines. We have even come to Bree and to the Shire before this day. We would have found him before now. Except, in misunderstanding Vili’s words, your mother hid Kili well, and we saw no sign of him.”

Bilbo stared. He had nothing to say. Thorin’s version of events was plausible, but the price of trusting him might be inconceivable.

“I can see you two lads have much to think over,” Balin said. He gestured and the dwarves rose. “May we call on you tomorrow?”

“What?” Kili looked completely dazed, but also slightly reluctant for the dwarves to leave. If they truly were not dangerous, they could answer some of the questions that had plagued Kili since Belladonna’s death.

Thorin stepped forward, looking down at Bilbo, demanding his gaze. “May we call on you tomorrow?”

“Yes, of course,” the little hobbit squeaked. “Elevenses?”

So that was decided, and the dwarves left peaceably enough. Though Bilbo did not like the way Kili stared into space without speaking long after the visitors were gone.

Chapter Text

Supper was a stilted affair. Bilbo did not know what to say. Kili simply stared at the candles for a long while instead of eating. When the hobbit finally made a polite noise about the venison, though usually he would never have complimented his own cooking, Kili noticed it on his plate for the first time. At least that got the proud hunter to tuck in and eat something.

What bothered Bilbo most was the uncertainty of it all. He had learned long ago not to put trust in handsome faces or seeming goodness, but he did not know enough about Thorin or his story to discount it out of hand. So he was in a bit of a pickle. If he took the safer option and ran away to hide with Kili, he risked hurting people who already suffered a great deal. On the other hand, trusting Thorin might very well risk Kili’s life.

Bilbo needed an outside opinion from someone who knew a thing or two about dwarves. Unfortunately, hobbits who traveled outside of the Shire were rare. The only ones who might know about dwarves were innkeepers, or Bree folk. Bilbo didn’t need to know if dwarves in general paid gratuity and kept their rooms relatively clean. Bilbo needed to know if Thorin Oakenshield had a reputation for deceit.

When Kili picked up his violin—as was his habit when he needed to calm his mind—Bilbo went to his writing desk. Just sitting down gave him a brilliant idea. Immediately, he dashed out a letter. Sealing it and scribbling a direction was the work of seconds. Racing to the door, he bid Kili a hasty goodbye.

“Where are you going?” Kili’s violin screeched in alarm as his playing ended.

“Only to send a letter,” Bilbo said, throwing on his overcoat.

Kili’s nerves were not eased by this pronouncement. “I will go with you. Let me get my bow.”

“The only bow you should worry about tonight is the one in your hand. Go back to your violin. If you are so worried, I shall use the back door and go quietly. A hobbit’s best defense is remaining hidden. Besides, I do not think the dwarves would tell us such stories only to knife us in the dark. They had several opportunities to murder us in broad daylight, if that was their only goal.”

Nodding reluctantly, Kili looked down at the instrument in his hand. “Do you believe them, then? That they were my family before Mum found me?”

Bilbo did not know what to say. So he admitted as much. Kili was old enough for truth, if he wanted it.

“I don’t know. If you went missing, I would certainly spend the rest of my life seeking you. But that is only because I still haven’t gotten back at you for telling Poppy Mugwort that I do not like her sponge cake.”

“You loathe her sponge cake. Every time you eat some, you spend the rest of the afternoon complaining about how dry it was.”

“It does not follow that I loathe her company, and she has not had me to tea in a month! She may very well never forgive me!”

“Even so,” Kili said, and Bilbo knew that he had not been distracted from the point.

“Even so.” Bilbo sighed. “Ever since Mum died, it has been my duty to keep you hidden. To keep you safe.”

“I can keep myself safe.” Kili bristled.

“Indeed.” Smiling at his brother, Bilbo said, “But I hope you will forgive me for wanting to help.”

“So you don’t trust them out of habit?” It was a remarkably insightful question, and it cut right to the heart of the matter, as Kili often did.

“I do not think it is only that.” Bilbo frowned and tried to formulate his thoughts. “They did lie at first, and I feel that they have not yet told us the entire truth. Did you notice how often Balin and Thorin shared significant looks? As though they were deciding how much to reveal?”

Kili blinked. “I did not, but I believe you did. You always see more of that sort of thing than I do. So you do not trust them?”

“I am sorry, Kili, but I truly don’t know. It may only be that they are less fortunate than we are. Perhaps upon seeing Bag End, they doubted you would welcome relations without wealth. Or perchance they have some bad news. Your—Thorin’s sister Dis has not come with them to search. I wonder why. Certainly Mum would have lead the charge if you went missing while under her care. It’s also possible that you are in danger, and they do not want to tell you. That bit about orcs and dwarves was very carefully phrased. It’s likely they are still at war, or at least not at peace.”

“I would not mind that,” Kili said abruptly. “I think I would like to fight some orcs, now that I have a name to put to the monsters from my nightmares.”

“Well, I do not like to think of you fighting anyone,” Bilbo said firmly. “Anyway, this is all speculation. We need more information.”

“But if you do not believe Mister Oakenshield is telling the truth, how can we get it?”

Smiling suddenly felt quite natural. “I am writing to Gandalf.”

“The firework fellow?”

“Yes. He travels all over, you know, and he is acquainted with all sorts of elves and dwarves. I believe he must have performed in half the villages of Middle Earth. If the Oakenshields are a good family, he will have heard of them.”

Kili did not seem to share his brother’s confidence. “Well, certainly. But, er, Bilbo, he has not come to the Shire since the Old Took’s last birthday party. Do you not think he might, ah, be out of business?”

Bilbo blinked. He’d been so pleased to dredge up an acquaintance who might be able to assist that the thought hadn’t occurred to him. Big Folk did not live as long as hobbits. As far as such things went, Gandalf was probably quite old. “Oh dear.”

“It’s not a bad idea,” Kili added quickly, seeing how disappointed Bilbo was. “Even if he has retired, he might write back with some information.”

“Yes, of course,” Bilbo said, but his enthusiasm for the plan was markedly less. Still, it was the only idea he had. Bundling up with his favorite scarf and a nice warm hat against the autumn chill, he slipped out into the night.

Mail in the Shire was carried by the Bounders, who doubled as watchmen and criers, so the Hobbiton office was open even late at night. The outpost was a small one, as all Bounder offices were, with the usual round hawthorn door to match the walking sticks they carried. Marching into the well lit office early in the evening was not at all unusual for a hobbit, though Bilbo was not there to complain about a neighbor’s goat getting into his tomatoes.

While Bilbo was unsurprised to find Tad Underhill speaking to another visitor when he arrived, he was a little nonplussed to see that it was a Big Person. Big Folk and dwarves in the same day seemed too strange to be a coincidence when the Shire sometimes went two months together without seeing hide or hair of either.

“Master Baggins!” Tad put down his tea, stood up from behind his small desk, and came to the door to greet Bilbo. “Strider and I were just talking about you.”

Surprise quickly turned into alarm as Bilbo noticed the sword carried by the dark stranger. It was possible that the dwarves were more thorough in their attempt to trap Kili than anticipated, and had sent armed men to keep the Bounders from acting in their capacity as guards. Before Bilbo could excuse himself and flee, the man spoke.

“More precisely, we were talking about these strange dwarves that have come to the Shire. It seems that they were asking after your brother, but it would be bizarre indeed for dwarves to need a hobbit blacksmith. Nor do they travel as dwarves usually do when passing through the Shire. They have no goods for sale here or in Lune, and Tad tells me that they have let their rooms at the Green Dragon for a full week.”

“It seems to me that you know a great deal about their business, Mister Strider,” Bilbo said evenly.

Strider shrugged. “Simple curiosity. A traveller such as I cannot help but notice the travelling habits of others.”

“Strider is a ranger. Comes through the Shire every so often because he likes the beer at the Golden Perch,” Tad said. “Helped us find young Esmeralda Took when she got lost in the woods last spring.”

Bilbo relaxed. “I heard about that. Or at least I heard it was a Big Person. My brother and I are both rather fond of young Esmeralda. She’s a cousin on my mother’s side, you know, and we are no strangers in Tuckborough. Do come for tea at Bag End any day, if you care to.”

When he smiled, Bilbo saw that Strider was much younger than he’d first supposed. “Thank you for the invitation, Master Baggins. I shall take you up on it one day soon. But you had business with the Bounders.” The man’s face hardened. “Perhaps because you feel threatened by someone. I care a great deal for the peace of the Shire. If you are troubled, please allow me to offer my assistance.”

For a moment, Bilbo pictured Strider and his big sword facing Thorin as he had been that afternoon. The hobbit did not know much about arms or fighting, but he thought Strider would have to be very impressive indeed to see off all four dwarves at once. Anyway, it seemed that the dwarves were not an immediate threat.

“It is not a matter for swords,” Bilbo said slowly. “At least, I hope it will not end up being one. What I need is some good advice. I was hoping to send a letter to an old friend of my mother’s.”

“Of course,” Tad said helpfully. “Leave it with me and I’ll see it goes out on our rounds first thing in the morning.”

“That is just the thing, Tad.” Bilbo frowned. “I do not have a proper address for him, and I am quite certain the Bounders do not pass his home on their rounds. I don't even know that he rightly has a house.”

“What sort of hobbit does not have a hole?” Tad asked, thoroughly confused.

“As it happens, he is not a hobbit. I am writing to Gandalf the Grey.” Thinking for a moment, Bilbo turned to Strider. “I do not suppose you know him? You are both Big Folk, after all.”

Strider laughed. “In fact, I do know him, but only because I have met him in Rivendell on occasion. We are both travellers, and travellers tend to meet on the road, but not all Big People know one another.”

“I do not see why they wouldn’t,” Tad said slowly, “I reckon I know most every hobbit in the Shire.”

It was a reasonable claim. Tad’s career as a bounder spanned nearly fifty years. During that time, he had walked most of the routes, and likely conversed with everyone he met along the way. He was a very friendly fellow, and if he did not know every single hobbit in the Shire, he certainly knew at least one member of their family.

When Strider smiled, he looked very fond of Tad. “But do you know the hobbits in Bree?”

Bilbo, who knew a great many hobbits in Bree, said nothing. Tad blinked. “Well, no. Can’t say I do. That is a fair point. But you do know this Gandalf fellow?”

“I do,” Strider said. “He will certainly give plenty of very good advice, when asked for it. What is more, if Master Baggins will entrust his letter to me, I believe I can get word to him. Though it may take a little time.”

“Oh! That is better than I could have hoped,” Bilbo said, offering Strider both the letter and a purse for his expenses. Strider politely attempted to decline the silver, but eventually he was pressed to accept it and a more serious invitation to dine at Bag End whenever he was next in Hobbiton. “For you will likely save my brother’s life, delivering that letter.”

Once again, Strider’s smile fell away. “If these dwarves mean you harm, I am at your service. Do not fear for my safety. I can send word to my kinsmen. I need not face them alone.”

“Oh, no. I do not mean literally,” Bilbo said, hoping, rather than knowing this to be true. “Only the direction of his life, and that sort of thing.”

“Very well.” Strider nodded seriously. “Thank you for your trust, Master Baggins.”

Bilbo did trust him, and he trusted Gandalf to come. The old wizard was too kind not to. Hopefully the hobbit had stated his case well enough. After the usual pleasantries, asking about the wizard’s health, fondly reminiscing about their mutual acquaintances, and that sort of thing, Bilbo had written most seriously.

“You may not remember meeting me, for my mother introduced me to you by my brother’s name. It was a part of a grand deception that has gone on for all of my brother’s life. We have kept him hidden. We have kept him safe. Now, that secrecy is no longer an option. He has been found. Dwarves have come to the Shire seeking him specifically, and I do not know what to do. They are very strong. I believe they hope to take him away with them. Of course, he is an adult and whether he consents to accompany them will be his decision, but I should like it to be an informed one. Unfortunately, there is very little in our father’s library about dwarven customs. All I really know is some few lines about their history from an elven perspective and the fact that they are perceived to be a quite secretive people. I hope that in your travels you have learned more.

“The leader of their company is called Thorin Oakenshield. The other dwarves gave their names as Balin and Dwalin, the sons of Fundin, and Fili, son of Dis. If you cannot come yourself to advise me, please write with anything you know. Are the Oakenshields a good family? Can you think of a reason why they would hunt my brother for so many years? My books do say that dwarves are very fond of gold. Do you think I could bribe them to leave us alone? There is nothing I would not do to keep my brother safe, and money is certainly not a concern.

“On that note, I shall, of course, be very happy to compensate you for your time and any travelling expenses. Perhaps you do not remember me, but I shall be forever grateful to you for comforting me when I was a lonely child and missed my brother. If you will allow me to impose upon your good nature a second time, you will have a friend for life. Please come.

“Your Obedient Servant,
“Bilbo Baggins of Bag End”

Thinking about this letter and wondering how much time it would take to receive a reply, Bilbo almost did not notice the dwarf sitting in his hedge. It was Fili, the youngest. He was watching Kili play his violin through one of the round windows along the eastern side of Bag End. While Bilbo was quite willing to admit that the golden light and the solemn expression on Kili’s face made for a welcoming picture on a cold evening, he did not at all approve of people hiding in his bushes.

Still, there was something about Fili’s face. He was looking at Kili as though Bilbo’s brother was a magic ring, the solution to all of his problems. More than that, he looked young, cold, and hopeful. Bilbo sighed.

“Here.”

Fili jumped in surprise and turned to face Bilbo with a knife in his hand. When he saw who was behind him, the dwarf quickly sheathed it and apologized. “You surprised me, Master Baggins. I thought you were still inside.”

“Hobbits don’t wear great clunking weights on our legs, and so we are light on our feet. However, that would not excuse you pulling knives on any of my neighbors. I will not help you if the Bounders are called.”

“No,” Fili said quickly. “Once again, I am very sorry for doing so to you. Allowing myself to be so distracted was inexcusable.”

Bilbo shifted on his toes uncomfortably. “Well, go on then,” he said, once again extending his scarf to Fili.

Hesitantly, the dwarf took the cloth. “Thank you, Master Baggins.”

Shrugging, Bilbo retreated to that comfortable refuge of all awkward conversations: the weather. “Ah, it is an unseasonably cold night for so early in November, is it not?”

“Indeed.” Fili followed suit admirably. “I would not be at all surprised if winter snow comes early this year.”

“Tell your uncle to outfit you more warmly the next time he orders you to sit in my bushes all night through.”

Laughing, Fili said, “I promise I shall not be here all night.”

“Oh? Are you taking turns?”

Uncomfortable with this line of conversation, the dwarf frowned. “It is for Kili’s safety as much as anything. We have only just found him. If something was to happen, my uncle would never forgive himself.”

“Of course,” Bilbo said peaceably, not believing a word of that explanation. “And if we should happen to do a runner, you would quite naturally follow us for our safety, as well.”

Poor Fili was at an utter loss to answer this, but Bilbo took pity and did not leave him stammering for long.

“I would bring you a cup of tea, but if you had any sense, you would not drink it. For if I had any sense, I would use the opportunity to drug you to sleep. Unfortunately, neither of us have any sense, and so I shall see you tomorrow for elevenses.”

With that, the little hobbit went inside and to bed. Though he did not sleep a wink the entire night, he was soothed somewhat by the eventual sound of Kili’s snores echoing down the hallway.

Chapter Text

The dwarves did come to elevenses. It was not a particularly nice meal, though Bilbo served freshly made venison sausages along with a very good cabbage and potato mash. Stilted conversation and awkward silences did not make for a delightful morning, but the dwarves came anyway. More importantly, they left afterward. Apparently, they were quite content to come to Bag End once a day, enjoy a quiet meal, and wait for the brothers to take the next step. Whatever that might be.

After a few days of this, Kili nervously admitted that they came to his forge as well. “But I never speak to them unless you are there,” he assured his brother hurriedly.

“Why not?”

“I don’t know what to say.”

“So you just stand in silence staring at one another?”

Kili rolled his eyes. “I do work in my forge, you know. I understand it is difficult for you to conceive of actual manual labor, but I do not go there to daydream.”

Hiding his smile, Bilbo focused on his crocheting. “Oh, yes, you must be very busy making your mathoms.”

“Not mathoms! Today I shod Fern Dooley’s new pony, Mungo’s geldling, and two other thrown shoes besides. That’s ten horseshoes in one day. It isn’t easy, you know. I would like to see you shoe a pony!”

“See me within two yards of one, and I shall give you ten silver pennies.” Bilbo laughed. “The dwarves did not offer to help?”

“It was only Dwalin today. He looked at the pots I had for sale, as though he was thinking of buying one, but he did not speak to me or stay long.”

“Well, there is no reason for you not to say hello if he comes again tomorrow. We might as well remain on friendly terms with them until Gandalf can tell us if there is any possibility of truth in their claim.”

If Bilbo thought this advice was a caution to remain neutral where the dwarves were concerned—avoiding the appearance of rudeness—he had cause to regret it the next day. Kili did not come home for second breakfast, elevenses, lunch, or afternoon tea. Before the arrival of the dwarves, this would not have concerned Bilbo in the slightest. Kili tended to forget meals when he was working. Occasionally he took tea with customers after making a delivery. Just as often, Kili skipped some meals entirely. He said he did not feel hunger, and perhaps a dwarf’s appetite was not as strong as a hobbit’s. Perhaps it was nothing to worry about. Yet worry Bilbo did, for his brother had been faithfully coming home at every single meal since the arrival of the dwarves.

Just as the hobbit resolved to go seek his brother, Kili burst into Bag End. Grinning like a fool, he was trailed by all four dwarves. At once the hobbit felt his temper swell. Kili smiling like that while surrounded by dwarves was a very bad idea, for reasons his brother could not possibly articulate.

“Bilbo! See what I have made you!”

“Oh,” Bilbo said, putting his overcoat back on its peg by the door. “A present?” Indeed, this mollified him greatly. All hobbits dearly love presents.

“Yes! Thorin showed me how. It is a kitchen knife, but there are scallops in the blade.”

“Scallops in the metal? How do you mean?”

Kili laughed. “A sort of indentation: they will keep cheese and meat from sticking to the blade. That slows the knife when you are chopping, you know, so this will be a great improvement. We also tempered the steel in such a way that it is quite sharp. Thorin knows many tricks of that nature. He says he will teach me!”

“Among my people, I am considered a master of the craft,” Thorin said immodestly. “I have much experience as a smith. One does pick up a trick or two over the years.”

Bilbo took the knife. He did not stab Thorin with it. So his manners were good enough.

“What’s for dinner?” Kili asked. “I’m starving.”

“Help yourself,” Bilbo said. “There are scones, soup, and roast left from the meals you missed. I pray you will excuse me. I am unwell.”

Indeed, this was very much the truth. After spending the whole day worrying and convincing himself that he was being unreasonable, the little hobbit felt light-headed and quite nauseous. Going to lie down for a little while seemed like the best possible course of action.

Naturally he was happy that Kili was happy, and even happier that Kili had not been kidnapped off to a mountain somewhere. Happiness simply overflowed from his heart, twisted his guts, and turned to bile in his throat. Or maybe it was some other, less kind emotion.

For suddenly, all of the interests that Bilbo had reluctantly indulged Kili with were shared by his true family. They knew everything of smithing, which Bilbo had never understood in the least. They were great fighters, while Bilbo had never managed to use a weapon more sophisticated than his fists. They were dwarves, like Kili, and Bilbo was a strange, bookish hobbit. All his life, he and Kili had been strange together. Now Bilbo discovered that Kili had been a perfectly normal dwarf. So Bilbo was alone in his abnormality. Perhaps that was how things ought to have been from the start. Kili deserved every happiness. If they truly meant him no harm, Kili ought to go with the dwarves, to a home where he would be able to be himself.

After living with Kili for over four decades, Bilbo should have anticipated the invasion of his privacy only minutes after closing his bedroom door. Unfortunately, he was not quick enough with his handkerchief. Kili saw him wiping his eyes. Beneath the short stubble of his growing beard, the dwarf’s face went white as new paper.

“Kili,” Bilbo said helplessly, “I—”

Without pausing, Kili turned and stormed back toward the dining room.

“Out!” he bellowed. “Get out!”

Scampering after him, Bilbo tried to grab his arm. “Kili. Don’t. I am sorry.”

Ignoring him, Kili faced the dwarves who had clearly only just paused in setting the table. “Get out of my home! You are not welcome here!”

“Kili Baggins,” Bilbo hissed, “You will not speak to guests that way.”

“They are not guests,” Kili said furiously. “We did not invite them to come, and we did not ask them to stay. They are not friends. You gave them permission to call because you couldn’t fight them off when they cornered you in the Gamgee still. You could not outrun them, you could not outfight them, and you could not hide. So you gave them tea. That makes them robbers. Nothing else!”

“Kili! They are your family!” It was only when he said this that Bilbo realized the full scope of the truth. “They are your family,” he repeated quietly.

Kili stared at Bilbo with wide eyes. After a long, silent moment, he said, “Wow.” A smile twitched one corner of his mouth, and he looked almost amused. “I can hardly believe it. You know, after you made that joke about dandelion fluff when I caught you in the shed on our thirtieth birthday, I thought it would never happen. I just assumed you would always have something clever to say. Just goes to show that Father was right: there really is a first time for everything.”

“Kili.”

“No, Bilbo. After saying something truly stupid, I think you’ll have to be quiet for a little while.” Kili’s face hardened and he turned back to the dwarves. “Go. Away. Perhaps Bilbo and I cannot beat you alone, but we are not alone. If you make me call the Bounders, you will find out just how many friends we have.”

Astonishingly, the dwarves rose to leave. Or at least Thorin, Balin, and Dwalin did. Fili stood, but his face was red and his eyes flamed.

“He is manipulating you! Trying to keep you for himself! You are a dwarf, and my brother. Not his!”

“I would kill you before I called you brother!” Kili screamed. “Be gone!”

“Fili.” Thorin’s voice was like a stone wall. “Enough. We have seen that Kili is well and happy. We have no right to demand more. I apologize for disturbing the peace of your home. I hope that any injury caused by our intrusion is of short duration. On the morrow, we shall depart the Shire. Although I have no claim on you beyond an accident of birth, I ask that you send us a letter from time to time. Only as the mood strikes you. Any dwarf who passes through the Shire will take one, and be paid upon delivery in Erebor. Finding you alive is a miracle beyond hope. Hearing from you would bring your distant kin great joy.”

“That is not enough!” If Bilbo was unwell at Kili’s perceived rejection, Fili looked to suffer ten times as much at the overt one. The dwarf went pale and began shaking, as though in the grip of a deadly fever. “What about Mother?”

“Our family business is of no concern to Kili,” Thorin said, putting a very firm hand on Fili’s shoulder. “Come. Now.”

Bilbo could not be sure if Fili stumbled out of his own accord. It certainly seemed as though Thorin was dragging him bodily away from Bag End.

All too quickly, Kili slammed the door shouting, “And stay out!”

Turning to Bilbo, Kili clapped his hands together as though knocking away imaginary dust. He smiled. “That will be the end of that,” the young dwarf promised. “We shall not see them again.”

While he believed this very likely true, the idea did not cheer Bilbo the way it clearly cheered his brother. Kili might regret his haste one day. Even if he did not, there were Fili’s final words to consider. The hobbit sighed. Sometimes being the older brother was more trouble than it was worth.

Abruptly, Kili grabbed Bilbo, pulling him close for a tight hug. “I love you, you know.” The dwarf’s voice was muffled slightly by Bilbo’s hair, but the sentiment was pure enough. “You are my family. My only family. Excepting Parsifal and all of our cousins, of course. There’s no need to worry about strangers who will only make us unhappy.”

Patting his back gently, Bilbo agreed with Kili. Then he led him into the kitchen and fixed him a proper supper, feeling guilty for his earlier thoughts. Kili was worth any discomfort.

There was nothing ominous about The Green Dragon. It was the cleanest pub in Bywater and had the best beer for miles about Hobbiton. Indeed, Bilbo favored it heavily on evenings when he felt sociable but had no invitations to answer. The moment he stepped through the door, he was greeted by name with a nice half-pint fresh from the barrel.

“Hullo Tom,” Bilbo said. Sitting down, he accepted the beer.

Savoring his first sip, the hobbit glanced around the common room. A fire was roaring cheerfully in the hearth, but the room was practically empty. In one booth, a pair of tweenagers were playing checkers. They were clearly on a ramble through the Shire of the sort tweens often enjoyed. Otherwise there was only Old Sandyman the miller. Slumped over the bar—deep in his cups—the miller was utterly unaware of his surroundings.

“You’re in late tonight,” Tom observed, as if to explain the lack of revelry in his usually merry establishment.

“Suppose I am,” Bilbo said easily. “My brother wanted an early night, but I felt like a bit of a jaw. You don’t mind, do you? If you’re closing up I’m happy to toddle home.”

“Not for the world, Master Baggins,” Tom said. “I’m that grateful for the company. My missus knocked off herself near three hours ago, but I hate to close up early or turn anyone out.”

The innkeeper cast a significant look at Old Sandyman. The miller wasn’t well liked in the neighborhood. But since his wife passed, he was clearly lonely. Everyone said his son ought to visit more, but he was too consumed with courting some lass off in Frogmorton.

“You’re a good hobbit, Tom,” Bilbo said, taking another. “I hope Zinnia is well? It’s late enough now, but I’d call eight o’clock a very early bedtime.”

“Aye, aye. No worries there, Master Baggins.” Tom went back to cleaning his mugs with a snow-white cloth. “Zinnia’s fit and fair as the day I married her. Only one of us has to be up before dawn tomorrow, and she said it might as well be her. She’s always been able to fall asleep anytime she likes. I’ve no doubts I’d be lying in bed wide awake right now if our places were exchanged.”

“I call that a talent,” Bilbo said, because it was expected. “But why the early morning?”

“Those dwarves we have staying asked for their breakfast at dawn. Strange folk, dwarves. They want to head out at first light, not even waiting for second breakfast.”

“Oh, are they leaving in the morning? That’s a shame. I was hoping to have a word with that Thorin fellow.”

The light of suspicion entered Tom’s eyes. He lifted his chin a bit, looking down his nose at the Master of Bag End. Hanging a little too heavily on Dandelion Took’s shoulders while Bilbo was deep in his cups was one thing, especially since those displays ended entirely with the death of Bilbo’s mother, but visiting strange dwarves late at night was not so easily overlooked.

With a casual air, Bilbo confided, “I wanted to talk to him about getting a little gold shipped here from his mountain as a birthday surprise for Kili. You know how my brother likes to make his mathoms.”

At once Tom’s face cleared. “You spoil that lad, Master Baggins. You really do. Letting him keep a shop and all. Not to say he isn’t the best cooper this side of the Brandywine, mind. And that new vat he made me brews up a right treat. Still, can’t say I see much call for him to be making things out of gold and jools.”

“Oh, do go easy on him Tom. He’s barely of age. He was so young when our parents passed away.”

Tom smiled and put away another clean, well polished mug. “Aye, he’s a good lad. You’ve done right by him. If you’ll forgive my being so bold, I expect your parents would be very proud of you both, shop or no shop.”

Bilbo returned the smile and took another sip of his delicious beer, making a show of enjoyment. “Thank you very much, Tom. Your opinion means a great deal to me.”

“Aw, go on you. Tell you what, Master Baggins. I’ll just nip down to the guest rooms and see if those dwarves are wanting anything. If I happen to mention that there’s a business deal for them to make out here in the common room, I’m sure they won’t object. Very interested in making deals, dwarves are.” Tom gave Bilbo a broad wink.

Laughing indulgently, Bilbo watched the innkeeper leave his bar and head down the winding hall to his guest rooms. Sure enough, a few minutes later Thorin Oakenshield followed him back up through the well lit corridor and into the common room.

The dwarf looked out of place in the Green Dragon. His long hair fell about his shoulders in a wild, untamed way. Even so late at night, Thorin Oakenshield was dressed in the same honeycombed armor he always wore. As though there could be any danger in Bywater to justify it. Bilbo wondered with a start if he had anything else to wear. Naturally, he then felt tremendously guilty for judging.

“Master Baggins,” he said with a wary nod. “You have some business to discuss with me?”

“Indeed I do,” Bilbo said. “May we have another pint on my tab, Tom?”

When the innkeeper obliged with a smile, Bilbo led Thorin over to the fireplace. It was well away from the bar and the two checker players. They could have a private enough conversation. As long as it did not devolve into shouting.

Unfortunately, that might have been too high of a hope. Thorin’s first words were, “I did not break my word. You would not have seen my face again. Why seek me out?”

So they were doing without pleasantries, then. That was just as well. “What is wrong with Fili’s mother?”

Thorin leaned back in his chair. “Ah. I did not think you would care about that.”

“Of course I care. If Kili’s—if you have come here for our help, that is quite different than simply wanting to take Kili away.”

When Thorin tilted his head to the side, his long hair spilled over his shoulder. It made him look soft in a way that belied his armor and his strong features. “Is it? You would welcome beggars over princes?”

“I welcome the truth,” Bilbo said firmly. “More importantly, Kili’s temper runs hot, but he won’t be angry forever. In a few years, he probably will send you one of those letters you asked for. If that happens, I would hate for him to learn about a tragedy we could have prevented.”

“I see.”

“What is wrong with her?” Bilbo blushed faintly to be so bold, but he added, “If you need money or medicine, I am sure I would be happy to—”

Thorin’s laugh was loud and sudden. It changed his whole face. If Bilbo thought he was handsome before, that was nothing compared to the warmth of his smile and the bright twinkle in his blue eyes. “You really would welcome beggars, wouldn’t you?”

Quite red now, Bilbo said, “I wish to protect my brother. If I can save him from some later harm by offering you material assistance now, I will do so.”

“Unfortunately, it is nothing quite so simple.” Turning, Thorin looked into the fire. Flickering shadows gave his face a melancholy cast, and it was a long moment before he spoke again.

“My sister is mad. There is no gentle way to put it. She is mad. Our line carries a weakness. A love of gold that devolves to a love of nothing else when one falls to it. In times of stress, or after a great loss, one walks among the gold and loses their cares. Dis does not eat unless she is forced. She does not sleep, except when alone with her treasure. She does not look at her remaining son.”

“I see.” In truth, it sounded like the worst fate Bilbo could imagine. No rest, respite, or joy at all in life. Part of him wondered if death would not be preferable to such an illness.

“You need not fear for Kili,” Thorin said softly. His face was unreadable. “There is not enough gold in your entire land to tempt such madness. His love of delicate teacups and the tools of his craft is only the usual dwarven tendency to seek perfection.”

“I was not thinking of Kili at all,” Bilbo admitted honestly. “I was wondering about your sister. Can nothing be done to ease her torment?”

Thorin’s eyes returned to the fire. “No,” he said. Then, “Perhaps.”

“What do you mean?”

“None have ever cast off the madness. At best, those like King Thror can manage to mitigate it in some way that allows them an honorable death instead of wasting away among the glittering gold.”

“But you believe there is something that can be done for your sister?” Bilbo paused. He didn’t want to say it. He had to. “You believe that Kili can save her.”

Thorin sighed. “My father believes it. For decades we have consulted with the best and wisest healers. Even elves, long the enemies of our folk, have come into the Mountain to judge her condition. None have given any hope. Some even suggested we end her suffering.”

“No.” Bilbo could not help the outburst, though it was hardly his place to pass judgment on people so wholly unconnected to him.

Thorin met his eyes and offered a tight smile. “Indeed. Those healers were shown from the Lonely Mountain at swordpoint. Unfortunately, the others were scarcely more helpful. A few offered ways to make her sleep. Ways to keep her clean. Ways to induce her to eat. Nothing that could be called hope. Only one had a different suggestion.”

After another long moment of silence, Bilbo said, “Oh?” in his most encouraging manner.

“Elrond Half-Elven does not often leave Rivendell. He did not come to the Mountain. He saw my sister once when he aided her and Fili, but never in the depths of her madness. Never among the gold. Even so, two years ago he sent word to us. Some vision or augury advised him that she could be cured. After decades of madness, it was hope unlooked for. My father—my father believes. Having lost so much himself, he desperately desires her salvation.”

“And that is Kili?” Bilbo pressed.

“It is a riddle, as is ever the case with elves. ‘The storm comes, but salvation runs ahead of it. When the youngest son of Dis comes from the Kindly West, she will see him with clear eyes and a steady heart. Doom shall crack first upon the dwarves of Erebor, and the King Under the Mountain will be childless.’”

“I see,” Bilbo said, even though he didn’t. “I presume the king that you have now does, in fact, have children.”

Thorin’s mouth pressed into a flat line. “Yes.”

“I meant no offense. Oh dear, is it terrible of me to suggest that the fellow might not have heirs?”

“No,” Thorin said. “I take no insult. The king has children, but his direct heir has none. Some worry—I worry—that in bringing Kili to Dis and effecting her cure, we will doom our king to death.”

Bilbo took out his pipe, filled the bowl, and lit it carefully, offering his pouch of weed to Thorin. After a moment’s hesitation, the dwarf accepted it. “A conundrum indeed,” Bilbo admitted. “To save one life at the expense of another. And what does it mean about the salvation of the kingdom from a storm? But this can hardly be a philosophical question for you. She is your sister. Does your king know the prophecy? Did he try to stop you from coming here?”

Lighting his own pipe, Thorin took a long drag before shaking his head. “He is not so very old. Barely two hundred and seventy. But he thinks of himself as aged, having outlived one of his sons and his wife, among many other losses. He says that if it is his fate to die, he will meet it on his feet.”

Bilbo hesitated. It was strange to hear Thorin repeating the words of a king as though kings were people one might converse with over tea. Yet in light of a prophecy tying his family to the royal line, it was not completely unbelievable. Moreover, the way Thorin puffed on his pipe as though deeply unhappy about the connection lent much credibility to the story.

“He sounds like a good king,” Bilbo said neutrally.

Frowning around his pipe, Thorin said, “A great one. His son will not be his equal.”

Returning the frown, Bilbo said, “Perhaps the lad will surprise you.”

From the widening of his eyes, Thorin was surprised indeed. Then he laughed. “A fine lad he is,” the dwarf said, “at nearly three times your years, if not necessarily your age, Master Baggins.”

Laughing along with Thorin felt natural, and for the first time, Bilbo was not nervous in his presence. “Ah, well.” The hobbit sighed. “We are all lads when the time comes to lose our parents. I hope you will not judge him too harshly. Why, when my father died—oh, but you don’t need to hear about that.”

“I wish to know you.” Reaching out subtly, Thorin brushed a calloused finger over the back of Bilbo’s hand. A shiver followed in its wake. “Anything you would tell me, I wish to hear.”

Wondering if perhaps he and Thorin had more in common than simply Kili, Bilbo coughed. Changing the subject to a neutral one, he said, “I have looked up your mountain on my maps, you know. Unless they are quite incorrect, Erebor is all the way on the other side of the Misty Mountains. Surely you do not intend to cross them with such a harsh winter looming?”

“No,” Thorin said. “We go to the Blue Mountains to winter with our kinfolk.” The dwarf hesitated. “If Kili changes his mind, and wishes to see the homeland of his people or meet Dis, he has time to consider. We will not head east until the first spring thaw.”

“Stay,” Bilbo said, surprising himself. “Stay here.”

Thorin glanced around the common room. “I do not know that dwarves would be welcome for such a long stay. These inns seem designed for guests of shorter duration.”

“Yes,” Bilbo agreed quickly, not mentioning the expense of such a proposition. “In truth, you have probably already stayed here longer than any other lodger yet this year. Mostly, one stops at an inn overnight on the way to visit family or friends elsewhere. When a hobbit arrives at his destination, naturally he stays with those he came to visit. So I invite you to do the same. Bag End can certainly accommodate the four of you. No one will even have to share a bedroom.”

Thorin’s lips twitched slightly. “Pity,” he said softly, looking Bilbo up and down.

Which answered that question very nicely.

Bilbo coughed again. They were, after all, still in a public place. “It will give us time. Time to get to know each other. I will not promise to let Kili go with you. In truth, even the acquaintance of several years would likely not be enough for me to trust his welfare to another on such a venture. However, if you are not setting out for Erebor until spring, it would be best for us all to think through our choices carefully.”

Nodding gravely, Thorin agreed. “Some decisions cannot be rushed.”

Chapter Text

Kili was suspiciously ambivalent about the dwarves coming to stay at Bag End for the winter. He asked Bilbo six times if it was really his idea. Then he was pointedly rude to their guests: refusing to speak unless prompted and not helping with the luggage as he usually would have done.

He also did significantly more of the housework than his own share. All four guest rooms were cleaned from the windows to the doorknobs before Bilbo could even think about changing the sheets. The contents of the pantry doubled, then tripled as Kili brought more and more back from the Hobbiton marketplace with him to keep the extra mouths from burdening their winter provisions. Even the mantlepiece in the sitting room was dusted. Kili never dusted.

Clearly, he didn’t want the presence of the dwarves to stress or inconvenience Bilbo in any way.

Just as clearly, the dwarves were on their best behavior. From stowing their own belongings to doing the washing up after every meal, they also seemed determined not to tax Bilbo’s hospitality.

Long experience taught Bilbo that this behavior would not last. So he took tremendous advantage of it in that first week. Setting Fili to chop more wood than they would burn all winter, Bilbo took Thorin on a long meandering walk through the fields of the Shire.

It was a cold day in late autumn, but Thorin had his great fur cloak and Bilbo wore his best burgundy coat. The bold color was highly approved by Dandy, who often said it flattered his complexion. With a bright green cravat, Bilbo was confident that he could catch Thorin’s eye just as readily as the colorful leaves that covered the ground and clung to the trees.

In fact, Bilbo never once glanced at the dwarf during their ramble without meeting his eyes. Thorin seemed not at all ashamed to be caught looking. Soon their conversation grew into the boldest flirtation of Bilbo’s life, with Thorin openly admiring everything from Bilbo’s eyes to his figure. Such compliments belonged behind closed doors, and in truth, far away from the Shire. But the little wood felt private enough. The trees would keep their secrets. And perhaps it mattered less now that Kili had been found. Drawing attention to Kili was always the real danger. Bilbo’s secrets were not deadly like his brother’s. Despite being in the open air, Bilbo took Thorin’s hand in his. Not his arm. His hand.

After that, he could not look at the dwarf at all.

Bilbo could talk, however. Bilbo Baggins could always talk. Much as he treasured Thorin’s compliments, he turned the conversation to the safer topic of literature. Despite the fact that no one else of the hobbit’s acquaintance ever seemed quite solid when it came to literature, Bilbo felt most comfortable with it. If a fellow was going to start complimenting his hands in public—where anyone might hear—Bilbo needed to talk about the elvish classics for a bit.

Astoundingly, Thorin was conversant. Having read most of the greats in multiple transcriptions, usually in both Sindarin and Quenya, Thorin had opinions. Of his own. Not simply literary criticisms that Bilbo recognized and knew well. Particularly when it came to those Noldor most famous for crafting.

“They try to paint him as a dwarf,” Thorin said of Fëanor, “One who was too selfish to give the work of his hands freely. One who hoards his treasures. One who does not bow to his betters. In many transcriptions, they refer to him as emotionally or morally ‘stunted’ specifically. As I am sure you know, that is what they call us. The Naugrim. The Stunted People.”

“Oh, yes,” Bilbo agreed, “but I did not realize about the metaphor. I rather think you’re right!”

“It is a false equivalency,” Thorin said flatly. “There has never been a dwarf who refused Lord Mahal anything. He is our Maker. He is our better. That elves think we have other betters who have a right to the work of our hands is no concern of ours.”

“I see.” Squeezing Thorin’s hand, Bilbo dared to meet his eyes. “So dwarves are not proud after all?”

Thorin laughed. “I am trapped! If I say we are not, you will laugh at me for boasting of my own humility. If I say we are, you will paint us with the colors of Fëanor.”

“Say rather, then, that not all pride is hubris, and not all dwarves are alike. I shall be willing to believe you. For wicked kings and heroic princes may spring from the same line.”

Red colored Thorin’s cheeks above his beard, but he met Bilbo’s eyes steadily. “And you are fond of dwarven princes, are you not? Even if they are not lucky enough to have golden hair?”

“Perhaps I am,” Bilbo admitted.

Bold as a bunny in springtime, Thorin put a calloused hand on Bilbo’s cheek, drawing him into a kiss. The hobbit’s heart beat out a hare’s alarm, but he did not pull away. Thorin’s lips were soft and sweet. The rough brush of a beard against Bilbo’s face was exotic and exciting. When the dwarf drew back, he took all of Bilbo’s breath with him. They were still in the middle of the path. Anyone might come along and see.

Slowly, Thorin smiled. He really was appallingly handsome. “I was under the impression that hobbits played at love more readily than dwarves, but I am not disappointed to learn otherwise, arimelda.” Unfairly, the dwarf switched to Quenya to say, “I would court thee, Bilbo Baggins of Bag End. For thou art clever, brave, and loyal beyond reproach. Thy kind nature is equalled only by thy elegant stature and fine face. Let me win your heart!”

“My heart is my own,” Bilbo said firmly. Then, squeezing Thorin’s hand, he lead the dwarf away from the path.

There was a stand of old growth oaks not far away, with at least one big fallen log to shield them from view. All of the acorns had been gathered already by farmers and fauntlings, so the damp ground was soft with fallen leave. It was not a warm day, but at least no frost edged the brown and red oak leaves which carpeted the spot alongside dead and drying underbrush.

“Always,” Thorin agreed, following him readily. “Yet it is my hope that one day you will share it with me. You will give in to my desire, and meet it with your own.”

“Ah, well.” Bilbo grinned, reckless and happy. If Thorin was telling the truth, then drawing attention to himself would not endanger Kili. If Thorin was lying, then Kili was already in danger, and Bilbo should make the most of his time. “A meeting of desires can certainly be arranged.”

Dropping to his knees, the hobbit made quick work of Thorin’s belt. Shifting the armored tunic was rather more difficult, but he managed it. Then the dwarf’s trousers were down around his ankles.

“Bilbo!” Thorin sounded surprised.

The hobbit was pleasantly surprised himself. The big dwarf was happily proportional and offered up the largest mouthful of Bilbo’s life. As a test of skill, however, it was not very great. Massive in stature was one thing, but ideas about dwarven stamina seemed to be exaggerated somewhat. Thorin barely managed five minutes, falling apart at the earliest opportunity like an inexperienced tween.

Feeling smug, but slightly short-changed, Bilbo hopped to his feet. Instantly, he was swept into a deep, passionate kiss that put paid to any doubts about this endeavor being less than a brilliant idea. Thorin kissed like an avalanche, covering every inch of skin he could reach and filling every empty place with the overwhelming nature of his touch.

“Shall I kneel now as you did?” Thorin’s words brushed their lips together once more. The dwarf seemed to desire no greater space between them than could fit a light breeze.

Bilbo grinned, his eyes crossing a bit as he tried to meet Thorin’s. “Hand, please,” he requested. “And if you are so very fond of kissing, we can do with a bit more of that.”

Eagerly obliging, Thorin delved once more into Bilbo’s mouth. Pulling Bilbo closer, he let the folds of his cloak fall forward, wrapping around them both. In Thorin, Bilbo found perfect shelter from the cold autumn wind. Kissing him had all the glory of a summer sunrise. Being a bit of a hedonist, the hobbit wanted more.

He had to open his own trousers, as Thorin’s hands were busy toying with Bilbo’s hair. Once he did, however, Bilbo was not shy about claiming one of the dwarf’s hands with his own and guiding it where he wanted. There was some truth to the rumors of dwarven skill with handcraft.

A great deal of truth.

A great deal of very excellent truth.

Kissing Thorin was a particularly intelligent move, and the hobbit congratulated himself for thinking of it. Had Bilbo’s cries not been muffled by the dwarf’s mouth covering his own, they would have heard him all the way in Frogmorton.

While he was an old hand at buttoning back up in a hurry, Bilbo felt an icy chill when he stepped out of the warm circle of Thorin’s cloak. He missed the dwarf’s heat almost at once, but he did not permit himself to clasp their hands together again.

“We must head back to the real world,” the hobbit said regretfully. “No more to walk in the enchanted forest.”

Thorin smiled softly, reaching for him. “Yet every place where I might have the pleasure of your company is magical indeed, Bilbo Baggins. Shall we walk along the bewitching path and return to your smial of rainbows?”

“Thorin.” With great effort, Bilbo forced the grin from his face. “You do understand this must be secret. We cannot go around holding hands. Especially not if you are to stay at Bag End all winter. Someone will suspect.”

Raising an eyebrow, the dwarf said, “Then we must simply cease acting in a dishonorable way. Marry me, Bilbo Baggins. It is early in our acquaintance yet, but my heart is true.”

Laughing and laughing, Bilbo was sure that he had never heard such a good joke in all of his days. When he finally caught his breath and saw what a straight face Thorin was maintaining, he collapsed again, giggling in the dwarf’s arms and pressing kisses to his beard.

“Do you know, I think I would marry you,” Bilbo sighed after a great while. “Handsome, well read, a sense of humor: I could not do better. If only we did not have to go back to Hobbiton.”

Thorin’s face was strangely serious for the moment as he tucked a stray lock behind Bilbo’s ear. “Is it so unheard of for a hobbit to wed a dwarf?”

Bilbo blinked. “Now that I think on it, that would be peculiar. I have never heard of anyone doing so, though some of the hobbits of my acquaintance in Bree are wed to Big Folk.”

“Then why should you not marry me?”

Stepping away from Thorin, Bilbo crossed his arms over his chest, feeling his cheeks go red. “That is enough teasing now. You know why not. You know why this must be secret.”

When the dwarf did not answer, Bilbo began walking back toward the path. Before they reached it, however, Thorin spoke. “Will you be with me again? In this way, secretly?”

Turning, Bilbo saw that the dwarf regretted taking the joke so far. So he smiled broadly. He had a forgiving nature when it suited him.

“Of course I shall. I take very good care of my guests.”

Chapter Text

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?”

Kili did.

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.

Kili stared.

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.

Chapter Text

Bilbo felt a great fool for not seeing Kili’s distress sooner. Once Kili relaxed, it was very obvious just how worried the lad had been. He laughed more, deigned to play music with Fili, and stopped cleaning obsessively. Bilbo did not realize just how much cleaning had been going on until he noticed three hours together without Kili dusting and thought it odd. Caution was good, but not if it gave Kili indigestion or a sore back. Fortunately, discovering that Bilbo had his own motivations ended Kili’s worries.

Impure as those motivations were, therefore, Bilbo could not regret them.

The grower’s shed in the south vineyard was freezing in the early morning, but not as badly as it could be. Deep snow actually served to keep out the draft. It piled high enough to block the space a the bottom of the door, icing over every crack and crevice in the weather beaten wood.

Unbuttoning his shirt remained a punishment. Bilbo’s nipples tightened, and his skin turned immediately to gooseflesh. Fortunately, the second he let the garment fall, Thorin’s hot mouth pressed against his chest, sucking wet, glorious kisses in a long slow line.

Had he once thought Thorin inexperienced? Bilbo knew better now. The dwarf lifted him easily, pinning him to the wall for more convenient access to the sensitive place just beneath Bilbo’s armpit. It would be easy for that strength to bruise, but Bilbo never came away from their encounters with so much as a love-bite. Thorin’s power was controlled, banked, like a fire in a grate. Like fire, danger might be part of the appeal, but Bilbo had no desire to burn his home down. The real thrill came from Thorin’s control.

Thorin lowered Bilbo, just a little, to kiss his neck. The exotic brush of a beard still made Bilbo shiver, even after over a dozen encounters. So did Thorin’s unerring ability to find the spot just at the base of Bilbo’s throat. Shuddering and trying not to moan, Bilbo caught Thorin’s jaw with an eager hand, pulling him up for a proper kiss.

“Will you tup me?” Thorin’s voice against Bilbo’s lips was so low and enticing that the hobbit nearly soiled himself early, ruining their fun.

Instead, Bilbo huffed a little laugh, meeting Thorin’s eyes ruefully. “We’d freeze to death during the lead up.”

“You want to.” No one’s eyes should be that heavy so early in the morning. “You are all the heat I need. At your side, I feel no cold.”

Naturally, Bilbo had to kiss him again for that. Then once more because Thorin’s kisses were so very sweet. Unfortunately, hot as Thorin was, pressed against Bilbo’s bare chest, the hobbit could feel cold stone against his back. Squirming a little, he made Thorin put him down.

“Come along,” he promised, ridding himself of his trousers quickly. “We shall have the next best thing.” On another day, with another partner, the cold might have been enough to cause Bilbo’s desire to wane. Happily, the sight of Thorin naked and erect could arouse Bilbo from the deepest sleep, and he was hardly feeling lethargic at the moment.

“I would have you tup me,” Thorin said, with what Bilbo had come to think of as dwarven stubbornness. “If you desire it.”

By force of will, Bilbo kept himself from rolling his eyes. He also managed to quash the deep fondness that filled his chest. Both were inappropriate. Instead, he said, “This is not the time or place for birthday cake. You may have the scones on offer, or you may go hungry.”

Thorin’s mouth set in an unhappy line. Which was fair. Bilbo meant to tease, but his words were too condescending by half. Arching up on his tiptoes, Bilbo pressed another kiss to Thorin’s mouth. Soon enough, the dwarf softened to return it. A strong, calloused hand slid down Bilbo’s back to grip his bottom firmly. Thorin began to rub slow circles in the muscles there, and Bilbo’s cock twitched eagerly against the dwarf’s thigh.

“I thought you wanted me to tup you?” Bilbo’s voice was little better than a gasp. If Thorin pressed the issue, if he pressed one of his thick fingers into Bilbo, the hobbit might relent. It had been a year or more since his last good tupping.

“I want to pleasure you in every way I can.” Thorin’s other hand cupped the back of Bilbo’s neck and his tongue filled Bilbo’s mouth. Sucking on it obligingly, Bilbo spread his legs just a little, leaning into Thorin’s body as much as he could. But Thorin did not breach his body, and eventually Bilbo came to his senses.

“Then turn around for me.”

Thorin obeyed eagerly. Bilbo had never met a fellow so eager to please. Nor had he ever been with a fellow with such a perfect, muscular bottom. Getting his hands on it was a treat. Sliding his cock between those two glorious globes was even better. Bilbo poured a little oil down Thorin’s backside and enjoyed the friction for a moment. It was not the tight heat of entering a body, but it was warm enough on a cold winter morning.

“Please,” Thorin growled.

Smiling, Bilbo leaned forward to kiss Thorin’s shoulder blades and wrap a hand around the dwarf’s enormous cock. As he thrust along the crevasse of Thorin’s seat, he jerked his oil slick hand in the same rhythm. Thorin’s own hands curled against the wall of the shed.

“Can you feel me?” Bilbo asked. “Inside of you, just the way you want, as hard as you want, as deep as you want. Just for you, Thorin. Isn’t it good?”

“Yes,” Thorin breathed. “Yes. Inside me. In the very heart of me.”

Of course, Bilbo could do no such thing in a small shed, but it was a very sweet nothing. Bilbo murmured a few more which Thorin answered with gratifying intensity. Each compliment built on the next: faster, better, slicker than the last. Bilbo’s breath came in pants. Thorin’s voice became nothing more than a guttural grunt. Until finally, finally—

Bilbo cleaned them both up with his pocket handkerchief and began to dress. Without the heat of Thorin’s body, the ice around the corners of the shed was a bit too noticeable. There would be tracks in the snow outside as well. Once might go unremarked upon, but even that was too risky.

“We cannot come here again,” Bilbo admitted softly.

Inclining his head in acceptance, Thorin dressed more slowly than the hobbit did. His new blue shirt suited him very well, but he needed a jacket to compliment it. Perhaps a waistcoat as well. None of the dwarves wore waistcoats, but Thorin would look very dashing in one if he could be persuaded to it.

“Where will we meet tomorrow morning?” Thorin asked, kneeling on the cold ground to scrounge for the wool coverings he wore on his feet beneath his boots.

Bilbo looked down at the snow which had drifted under the shed door at their entry. Despite the heat of their activity, there was only a small puddle of water around the edges. Most of it was still soft, white powder. “There is nowhere private that our tracks would not be suspicious.” He took a deep breath. “In a few weeks, after Yule, we might go to Bree. I know an inn there with lovely beds.”

“Bree!” Thorin paused in lacing his boots to look up at Bilbo. “That is four days journey from here at least, in snow this deep.”

And several weeks was very different from clandestine meetings every morning, Thorin did not say. Bilbo leaned seductively forward, pursing his lips to their best effect.

“I will make it worth your while,” he said in a low, sensual voice. “When we are in Bree, in a nice soft bed, you shall be in me, and not in my mouth. In fact, I shall give you my back. To turn away can be an invitation. Is not the journey worth the wait, if you can finally tup me?”

Thorin’s head tilted to the side, his tousled hair cascaded over his shoulder as his eyes narrowed thoughtfully. “I would prefer to have you tup me.”

Bilbo’s mouth went dry. That was unexpected. Not unwelcome, just unexpected. Usually fellows with callouses on their hands had ideas about what was and was not acceptable for them to do even among the set of socially unacceptable activities. “Oh?”

“Yes.” Thorin smiled. “At your earliest convenience, in fact. Ideally, in your bed.”

“We have to be careful.”

“Would it not be safest to be together in your comfortable home? Kili seems willing to keep our secret.”

Bilbo looked sharply at Thorin then, but there was no hint of apprehension in the dwarf’s face. He seemed to genuinely trust Kili with his safety. Which was just. Kili might be thoughtless and quicker to speak than to think, but he would never knowingly endanger Bilbo.

Softening, Bilbo said, “You forget, there are three other residents in Bag End this winter. I’m grateful for them, of course. You staying the winter alone would be terribly suspicious. I’ve never let Dandy stay more than two days together, you know, and no one else may stay alone at all. Once I learned Kili’s secret, I knew I must only ever take to a bed in Bree, where I am unknown.”

“Dandy.” Thorin frowned. “One of your other lovers.”

“Jealous?” Bilbo grinned. “He’s never been the sort to stay for more than two days anyway, but I’ve always enjoyed the time we spent together.”

“You have taken him to your bed.” Thorin’s mouth was a hard line that unnerved Bilbo and killed his teasing mood.

“We must be more careful than that, Thorin. You are staying all winter. If we fall into reckless habits, we will be caught.”

“Then let me tell my people,” Thorin said, as though it was a simple matter.

“Absolutely not!”

“Dwarves understand the importance of secrets.”

“Clearly they don’t! Two people can keep a secret. Six people is a conspiracy and someone will spill.”

“If I command their silence—”

“All it takes is for Fili to let his tongue wag a little too much at the Green Dragon, even just to be overheard gossiping with Kili, and I’ll be run out of town. I could lose everything! Not to mention the danger of attracting attention to Kili.” Bilbo’s heart went cold. “Unless that’s what you want.”

If Thorin’s face seemed hard before, it was granite now. “Still you do not trust me.”

“You aren’t giving me a lot of reasons for trust right now.”

“I give you every reason!” Thorin exploded, red faced and wild eyed. His voice was far too loud in the close shed, and Bilbo could only hope that no hobbits were out walking through the fallow fields on such a cold, snowy day. “The prophecy! My sister! My promise! My heart! I have laid all bare before you. Yet still you will not grant me the same trust you give to any hobbit willing to tug your cock.”

“You have told me many things,” Bilbo said, trying to keep his own tone low and even. “But I have no way to know if any of them are true. The plain fact of the matter is that you have far less to lose than I if this affair becomes public. Yes, both of us would be ostracised from Shire society. But for me, that means a rough life in Bree after the loss of all my property. For you, that means returning to the lands beyond the Misty Mountains come spring. Which you plan to do anyway.”

Abruptly, Thorin sagged against the wall, looking defeated. His eyes closed and his head leaned back against the stone. Beneath his dark beard, Bilbo saw the long, pale column of his throat, exposed and vulnerable. “Is there no way for me to win your trust?” The question was rhetorical. Thorin’s posture indicated that he knew the answer well enough.

“I have spent nearly two decades believing that the only way to keep Kili safe was to mistrust every outsider.” But the idea of believing Thorin, holding him close for as long as he could, was an awful temptation. So when Thorin did not say anything in reply, Bilbo continued.

“Trust is not won. It can only be given. Like any gift, it loses some of its value every time it is asked for. A present made of obligation does not come from the heart.”

Finally, Thorin opened his eyes to look at Bilbo once more. “Then, since your heart is my goal, I will stop asking.” His smile was wan, but real.

Relieved that they were back in the more comfortable territory of empty flirtation, Bilbo returned the smile. “You may not have my heart. I need it.” Then. “Do you really believe that none of your companions would care? That Balin would not care?”

This was not a shot in the dark. Balin suspected, Bilbo knew. The old scholar was too observant not to suspect, and too good to approve. He looked at Bilbo sometimes, when the hobbit returned to Bag End after a clandestine meeting with Thorin. It was a look that suggested a scolding would be in the offing if the dwarves had a way to winter peacefully in the Shire after offending Bilbo. In all, this was rather a pity. Bilbo thought he could have otherwise been friends with the clever old fellow.

Thorin winced slightly. “It is not their place to approve of my behavior or disapprove. I am the leader of our company.”

In a way, that reassured Bilbo more than any other answer could have. It was honest. “So you believe they would not gossip, even in their disapproval.”

“They would not,” Thorin said, standing up straight. “But that does not matter. If you wish to cease these assignations, I will not press the issue. As you say, our time together is a gift. I will not take what is not offered.”

His hands on Bilbo’s waist were hesitant. Just like kiss that Thorin bent down for, so slowly that it took almost a full minute for their lips to meet. Bilbo would have pulled Thorin in more quickly, but he needed the time to think.

When they broke apart, he said, “Tell them.”

Thorin’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. “What?”

“Tell them.” Bilbo smiled shakily. “I cannot go weeks without you.”

Thorin’s hand came up to cup Bilbo’s cheek, stroking along the line of his jaw with a calloused thumb. “That is not why.”

Shrugging, Bilbo looked down at the icy floor of the cold shed. “Better that you should betray me now than Kili later. I can survive it. Mere indiscretion on my part will not bar his continuing on in Bag End. Nor prevent me from protecting him.”

Thorin sighed. His forehead pressed gently against Bilbo’s in a dwarven gesture of affection. He did not seem overly upset by this logic. “I will make you no promises,” Thorin said, “but when spring comes and we depart never having betrayed your trust, perhaps you will think better of us.”

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

Trusting the dwarves with his nature was the best decision Bilbo ever made. Waking up in Thorin’s arms, warm and slow on a cold morning, was an incomparable delight. Each night, he plowed Thorin into the mattress. Each morning he woke pillowed on the dwarf’s fuzzy chest. Rising in such comfort added hours to the short winter days and lightened Bilbo’s heart immeasurably. It was an extremely agreeable arrangement.

Baking a nice hot breakfast for his guests before Kili, Dwalin, and Fili made themselves scarce to wrestle and swing swords about was a different sort of pleasure. Bilbo enjoyed looking after his brother. But he enjoyed it even more when Balin excused himself to the library so that Bilbo and Thorin could do the washing up together. The sweetest pleasure by far was that leisurely part of the morning when Bilbo had nothing more to do than enjoy second breakfast alone with Thorin, talking and laughing quietly together.

In fact, Balin was the only dwarf who seemed to disapprove of their relationship at all. Dwalin smirked at Thorin as though he might have some experience in the arena himself, and Fili admired his uncle too blatantly to judge. Meanwhile, Balin often pointedly invited Bilbo to join him in the library, obviously of the opinion that the couple spent too much time together. But it was a mild sort of censure, and Bilbo did not let it affect his happiness.

After lunch, of course, Thorin would go off with Kili to the forge. This was most convenient of all. Spending every minute of the day in company with the same person would soon grow tiresome. However, with the afternoons to himself for errands, scholarly pursuits, and tea invitations, Bilbo was always ready for his evenings with the dwarves. They told stories, made music, and laughed late into the nights. Never was Bag End more cheerful and full of mirth than it was that winter.

If he wondered occasionally at Thorin’s lack of interest in plowing Bilbo through any mattresses, it hardly lessened his enjoyment. The activities Thorin was interested in were pleasing enough to them both.

“Enough music,” Kili said one night as they gathered in the sitting room. Drinking with Fili put him deeper in his cups than was usual, and he was clearly worse for wear. “I want a proper story: The Prince and the Dragon.”

“Oh, yes please,” Bilbo agreed. “I should very much like to know the truth of the matter.”

Waving dramatically, Kili collapsed against his brother, a crushing weight at an uncomfortable angle. “No, no. You tell it Bilbo. I said a proper story, not some dry history.”

Shoving his brother away, Bilbo scooted closer to Thorin on the sofa. “I am not going to tell our bastardization of actual events that everyone else here lived through.”

“I wasn’t born yet,” Fili volunteered.

“Let’s have something more exciting,” Bilbo suggested. “What about the Witch King of Angmar, whom no man, mortal or otherwise, may kill?”

Thorin wrapped an arm around Bilbo’s shoulders. “I should like to hear the stories you told each other as children. We promise not to mock.”

“Please!” Making puppy eyes was cheating. Kili always cheated. Especially when he was so very inebriated.

When Bilbo capitulated, he was once again treated to the pile of bricks that was his brother slamming against his stomach. How was a hobbit supposed to tell a story with no wind in his lungs? By waiting for everyone to settle and get comfortable, of course.

“In a kingdom so wealthy that everyone ate off golden supper plates,” Bilbo began, “there ruled a wicked king. He had a great gray beard, banded with black and gold, and eyes that never looked up, but were forever counting the gold in his hands. If you ever meet such a person, I advise you to turn around and walk in the other direction. For the mad king was very greedy. Anything he liked, he took. He would take the shirt off your back if he fancied it, and your best pair of cufflinks besides. All the people of his kingdom were quite miserable, because they were not allowed to do as they liked. Instead, they had to spend all of their time bringing treasures to the king, which was very dull.”

Kili shifted in Bilbo’s lap, looking up to meet his brother’s eyes.

“Only two people in the whole kingdom were happy: the princes. They were brothers, of course, but very different, as brothers often are. The elder had hair like waving wheat, lips like rose petals, and was taller than even the king. The younger had eyes like warm tea, hair as dark as mahogany, and a smile like a leaping fish. Every time his grin flashed in the sunlight, his brother was surprised and amused to witness it. Because they were princes, the greedy king left them alone for the most part. Because they were brothers, they never wanted for companionship or good humor.”

Fili shifted uncomfortably in his armchair, but Dwalin snorted while Balin smiled at him.

“In truth, these brothers were a remarkable pair. For they did not fight or bicker as brothers sometimes do. Whenever they disagreed, each was concerned primarily with the other’s happiness, and so common ground was quickly found. Nothing ever came between them until that fateful day. The day the dragon attacked.”

Balin’s smile faded into a more serious mein.

“Greed is bad enough in itself. As I am sure any of the people in that kingdom would tell you, it is not nice to have a king who simply takes from his people, giving nothing in return. However, if a king is very greedy—if there is a tremendous hoard of treasure just sitting around uselessly—worse things follow. For in this world, evil is drawn to gold that goes unused. And this king was worse than most. His greed was so great that it summoned a dragon. A vast fire-drake with wings wide enough to blot out the sun like ink spilling over a candle, Smog flew in on an eastern wind. His black scales were as hard as iron, and at first, everyone thought him just a terrible summer storm. Until he drew his first breath. Fire spewed forth from the sky, scorching the gingerbread houses, boiling the golden toffee of the streets, setting the gumdrop gardens aflame.”

“What?” Dwalin’s usually impassive face looked nonplussed.

“Gumdrop gardens?” Fili asked.

“In magic kingdoms, the streets are always paved with candy and it is never bedtime,” Kili explained without lifting his head from Bilbo’s lap.

“But it shall be bedtime for all of you if you interrupt my story again,” Bilbo warned automatically.

Looking dreadfully amused, Balin said, “Pray continue.”

“All around the princes, people were burning or drowning in the hot, melted candy. Good natured as they were, the princes rushed to help. While his brother climbed a rooftop to gain a better vantage and fight back against the dragon, the younger prince found a wooden boat. Such a boat did not melt in the toffee any more than a spoon does. He sailed through the chaotic streets, rescuing many people from drowning, dodging burning houses, and bringing folk to safety. The dragon did not like that.”

Squirming a little, Kili buried his face in Bilbo’s stomach. The hobbit did not pause in telling the story.

“With a single gout of flame, Smog burnt the boat and everyone inside of it to ash. From the nearby rooftops, the elder prince screamed in rage. Seeing his brother die, the prince knew that he must end the dragon, whatever the cost. So he hurled insults at the beast, calling it a fat, old wyrm. It was no natural disaster, he said, but vermin like any other. In which case, the prince intended to slap it away as he would a biting fly.”

The three dwarves in chairs leaned forward, clearly more engaged in the story now that the conclusion drew nigh. Bilbo did not smile.

“Because the king was so greedy, there were many caches throughout the city of various things. People were not allowed to use them, since they belonged only to the king. So it was that there was an entire barn full of powdered sugar. Sacks and sacks were stacked all around the walls, and there was even loose sugar floating in the air. The dragon followed the prince into the barn without hesitating. Smog did not fear a simple prince.

“Roaring, the dragon cried, ‘I shall burn you as I burnt your brother! All your kingdom will die in my flames.’

“But the prince only smiled. ‘If this is to end in fire,’ he said, ‘you and I will burn together.’”

Thorin’s arm around Bilbo’s shoulders tightened a little.

“Without his brother,” Bilbo said, “the prince did not care if he lived or died. As the dragon breathed another gout of flame, the whole barn exploded. Yet the prince was as quick as he was clever. Springing for a hanging rope, he swung up through the old hayloft and out of the exploding barn. Behind him the dragon burned.”

Kili turned again to grin up at Bilbo.

“For monsters are always defeated, and even dragons have their endings.” Sometimes, the story ended there, but Bilbo felt he might as well tell the rest. “Cheering the prince as a great hero, the people made him their new king. Learning from his mistakes, the old king was happy to live a peaceful retirement in moderation. But the prince did not live happily ever after. Although he was a very good king, he never again smiled as he did with his brother.”

Silence filled Bag End as the story finished. Only the crackle of the warm fire and the whistling wind of the snowstorm outside broke it.

Eventually, Fili said, “You quoted him. The prince in your story. When you were going to blow the still and kill us all.”

“When?” Kili sat up abruptly, his wild eyes no longer heavy with drink. “When?” he demanded.

“Ah.” Bilbo licked his lips.

“Blow the still?” Kili shouted. “The Gamgee Still? When you were cornered. You weren’t. That was your plan?”

“Kili.” Bilbo reached for his brother’s hand only to have his own batted away.

“No! You’re supposed to know what to do! You were going to blow yourself up?”

“To protect you,” Bilbo said.

“Bullshit!” Kili cried. “The dwarves weren’t going to kill me! I’m fine! We’re all fine! And you were going to kill yourself!”

“I didn’t!” Bilbo stood, raising his voice at the same time. “I stopped. Thorin proved his peaceful intentions, so I stopped.”

Breathing hard, the brothers stared at one another for a long minute. Around them, the dwarves were still and silent.

“I don’t forgive you,” Kili whispered. “You’re all I have, Bilbo. If I lost you—if you chose to leave me—I would never forgive you. Promise me. Promise that you will never do anything so reckless ever again.”

Looking around at the dwarves made such a promise impossible. So Bilbo looked at the crackling fire instead. “I’m sorry. I never want to hurt you, Kili, but I promised Mum. I shall always look after you. Whether you forgive me for it or not.”

Crying out in pain, Kili clutched his hair as though Bilbo’s words were a physical blow. “Then be my brother no longer! I shall be brothers with Fili instead, and you need never again worry about promises or protecting.”

This cut Bilbo to the quick, as it was meant to. He stood, unhappily at a loss for words, in the middle of his living room, yet all alone.

Quietly, Fili said, “I am very sorry, my brother. But if you would choose a brother who refuses to die for you, you cannot choose me either.”

“I do not want anyone to die for me,” Kili shouted. “I do not want anyone to die at all!”

“I will not die for you,” Thorin vowed. His voice cut through the histrionics with a deep, serious note. Although Bilbo would naturally never expect anyone to die for his brother excepting himself, he could not help the twinge of betrayal plucking at his heart.

Kili did stop shouting, however, and turned to meet Thorin’s eyes.

“If ever I die in your defense, you may rest easy knowing that I did so because Bilbo would be miserable without you, and for no other reason.” The corner of Thorin’s mouth twitched.

Kili’s did the same.

As one, they laughed. Kili fell forward helplessly, wrapping his arms around Bilbo, collapsing against his brother’s neck. When he was drunk, Kili always forgot that Bilbo could not support his weight. Staggering beneath the unexpected burden, Bilbo managed to get them both back to the couch, where Kili laughed and wept for long minutes while Bilbo stroked his hair.

“Tell the true story,” he mumbled eventually, face still buried in Bilbo’s shoulder. “If I keep thinking about this, I will go mad. Tell me of the Prince and the Dragon.”

The dwarves exchanged looks. Something passed between Thorin and Balin, though Bilbo was too worried for Kili to try to decipher it. In the end, Thorin was the one to speak.

“The streets of Erebor are not paved with candy, only stone, but it was King Thror’s greed that summoned the dragon. It came for gold, as dragons often do. Smaug, not smog, was large indeed, and a firebreather as you said. He killed many in Erebor and Dale.”

Thorin took a deep breath, “For Dale is a city of Men, at the base of the Lonely Mountain, and it was Girion, Lord of Dale, who struck the first blow against the dragon. Using a wind lance crafted by the dwarves of Erebor, he knocked a scale from the armor of the dragon’s underbelly. This wound enraged Smaug, and he toppled the tower upon which the wind lance stood, killing Girion. The prince, who was on the battlements of Erebor at the time, witnessed this.

“Racing to the ground, he found the remains of the wind lance and carried them to a nearby rooftop. Around him, the tar beneath the clay shingles burned, but he stood in the flames. It was not in revenge that he was willing to die. The only death he was yet certain of was Girion. Dwarves are not so very close to men, even their near neighbors. Yet he was willing to die, defending the mountain and his people. His family.

“Rigging the wind lance in place was not easy, but he was a smith, as many dwarves are. The prince knew the workings of a wind lance even as he knew the workings of a forge, and luck was with him. Sighting the narrow chink in the dragon’s armor, the prince made his shot. So it was he, not Girion, who brought down the dragon. But ever after he honored Girion’s sacrifice and bravery.

“Yet there was sacrifice for the prince as well, though he knew it not. When he came down from the rooftop, beard and clothing badly burnt, but with only a few cuts and bruises on his person, he believed all could be well. That is when he learned of his brother Frerin. The laughing prince was dead. So he felt no victory over the dragon and refused the title of Dragonslayer, which could have been his by right. The only reward he asked of his grandfather Thror was a year of mourning, which the king declared. So he mourned, and it was many long years before he smiled again.”

Bilbo sighed.

“That is much sadder than our version,” Kili mumbled. “For the people still had to live under the greedy king.”

“The truth is often less satisfying than fiction,” Thorin agreed.

Balin shrugged. “Reality is not as neat, but it does eventually right itself. Our king now, Thrain, son of Thror, is a good dwarf, beloved of his people.”

“That is something to be glad of,” Bilbo said, still stroking Kili’s hair. And, in fact, it was.

Chapter Text

“Would you be with him?” Thorin asked. Naked and unashamed, he stood in Bilbo’s bedroom. The dear dwarf did not even look at Bilbo while he spoke. Nothing about his manner seemed designed to entice, other than the mere fact of his nudity. Folding his clothes neatly, Thorin acted as though there was nothing at all unusual about the situation.

“Who?” Bilbo was always a good deal less clever when there were nude fellows to stare at. He was also quite a few steps behind in the disrobing department, distracted by the view.

“The Dragonslayer.” Turning to look over his shoulder, Thorin was posed in such a way that Bilbo could see the perfect curve of his spine, the ripple of his beautifully muscled back, and his striking face all at once. It could not be an accident. Yet the dwarf was so very casual about his question.

Bilbo licked his lips. “You said he declined the title.”

Thorin shrugged. “The one from your story, then, not mine. Would you give your heart to him?”

“Ever the romantic,” Bilbo laughed. “And folk accuse me of flowery language! Say what you mean, Thorin. Ask me if I would suck his cock.”

That cut through Thorin’s equanimity easily enough. Indeed, his eyes were ablaze and his own cock was half erect when he turned fully to Bilbo, though it had been placid enough mere moments before.

“I would, you know,” Bilbo said cheekily. “I’ve always been very fond of lads with golden hair.”

Surprisingly, Thorin’s eyes softened and he did not rise to the teasing. “That is not why you gave Kili’s features to the young, kind prince as a child.”

Bilbo blinked. Having Thorin in his bedroom nightly was still new, but in many ways having a such an insightful lover was even more astounding. Reminding himself that Thorin’s attention might be dangerous grew more difficult by the day. Perhaps that was the dwarf’s goal. Bilbo knew he could easily be persuaded to make bad choices by such a handsome fellow.

Crossing the distance between them slowly, Thorin reached down to unbutton Bilbo’s suspenders.

“No longer curious?” Bilbo’s voice was not nearly as playful as he wanted it to be.

“I am.” Rather than moving on to Bilbo’s trousers, Thorin untucked the hobbit’s shirt. Then he slowly unfastened the lowest button. The simple action should not feel so much like a tease. “Tell me he was your first love: the prince who killed the great dragon Smog. Tell me you desired him before all others.”

“Oh, I’m quite certain he was,” Bilbo said, finding his levity at last. “I had many a youthful dream about the Dragonslayer. Mortifyingly so, at times, since Kili and I were sharing a room by that point so I could help with his nightmares.”

“Your loyalty is admirable.” Sliding his hands up so that they just barely grazed over Bilbo’s skin, he unfastened the next button. “Yet we are not speaking of Kili. The prince: you desired him?”

“Well.” Bilbo blushed. “You must understand I had no idea he was a real person.”

In the firelight, Thorin’s smile was shadowed by his beard and the proximity of their bodies. Bilbo didn’t need to see the perfect bow of his mouth to read the amusement in his eyes. “Did you dream of that, then? Marrying the prince and taking to your wedding bed on a mattress of spun sugar?”

Chuckling at the image, Bilbo shook his head. Then his breath caught in his throat as Thorin’s clever fingers continued unbuttoning Bilbo’s shirt, brushing gently over his breastbone. “Even as a child I was not so fanciful as to imagine two lads marrying or living together. No, even then, I understood my nature. My fantasies were not as light as you expect.”

Thorin leaned even closer, the dark curtain of his hair falling across Bilbo’s face as hot breath teased the tip of the hobbit’s ear. Those dexterous fingers unfastened the buttons of Bilbo’s collar. The hobbit marveled absently that such large hands had room enough to work in the scant space between their bodies.

“Tell me,” Thorin murmured, his lips brushing against Bilbo’s earlobe.

Giving up any hope of containing his arousal, Bilbo shuddered. Then he smirked up at Thorin. “I dreamed of him taking me.”

Thorin’s hands paused on Bilbo’s bare shoulders, halfway through the act of ridding him of his shirt entirely. “Taking you?”

“Oh yes,” Bilbo purred. “This was long before I made friends with Dandy. I had no idea how such things could actually be done between two fellows, but that matters little in dreams. I imagined myself his prize, the prince’s object of desire. For that is the point of princes, you know. They can have anything they want, but they choose you. He was not gentle, my prince. He was fierce. Passionate. A dragonslayer laying claim.”

Bilbo’s back hit the bedspread before he registered the strong hands lifting him. Trousers slid up and away, tossed over Thorin’s shoulder without a second glance as the dwarf came to kneel between Bilbo’s legs. Once all clothing was out of the way, Thorin dove forward, capturing Bilbo’s mouth in an unrelenting kiss. In the distance, a drawer slid open. A small clay jar clicked against the top of the nightstand.

“Let me have you, then,” Thorin growled. “As you wanted him.”

The hunger in his eyes made for a delightful change. Even once they had regular access to Bilbo’s beautiful bedroom, Thorin was strangely reluctant to play in this fashion. He was not fastidious about cleanliness or squeamish about the concept. Bilbo tupped him the very first night they shared a bed, and nearly every night since. Most hobbits were happy enough to take turns—or preferred to be the one doing the tupping—but Thorin repeatedly declined Bilbo’s suggestion that he might enjoy it.

Whatever his initial objections had been, it seemed Thorin’s interest was peaked. Bilbo resolved to make the most of the situation. Reaching up, his hand joined Thorin’s on the clay jar. “Shall I get myself ready for you?” he offered. Making his voice sultry did not require an effort. It was as low and eager as a hobbit’s voice could be.

“Would you deny me the pleasure of the work?” Thorin asked, and Bilbo melted so much that he was sure the contents of the jar were quite unnecessary.

“I would deny you nothing,” Bilbo said. Then, guessing at the game piquing Thorin’s interest, he added, “My Prince.”

Visibly shaken, Thorin claimed another kiss. His mouth moved slowly and irresistibly over Bilbo’s, much like the hand which slid down to delve into the valley of Bilbo’s ass. When he lifted his head to gaze steadily down at Bilbo, his fingers were already teasing and stroking across the opening.

“Then call me by the name of a prince.” The steady thread of command in Thorin’s voice was extremely attractive. “Thorin, son of Thrain, son of Thror, Prince of Erebor, Protector of the Western Slopes, High Marshall of Durin’s Army, Guardian of Ravenhill, and Heir Apparent to the Arkenstone.”

Lowering his eyes, Bilbo gazed up at Thorin from beneath his lashes. “As you wish, Your Majesty.” It was a splendid game, though Bilbo did not know how he would manage to work all of those titles into their bedplay.

“Will you kneel for me?” Thorin asked softly. “To turn away can be an invitation.”

Sitting up slowly, Bilbo knew he should take to his hands and knees at once. Thorin had done the same for him many times, after all. “I will do anything my prince commands,” he said. But. If it was to be the only time Thorin gave him this, Bilbo did not want to turn away.

Since he was still Thorin, and not a prince at all, Bilbo’s lover placed a hand upon his shoulder. “Tell me what you desire. That is my command.”

Smiling at Thorin was the easiest thing in the world. Quick as he could, the hobbit propped two pillows beneath his lower back and another under his left knee. “I would like to see your face,” he said plainly. “We shall be comfortable enough this way, unless you have a strong preference.”

Thorin’s eyes were warmer than a summer sky. “And I would look upon my subject, to be sure I rule him well.” Which was a very compelling thought. Instantly, Bilbo was far more invested in the game than simply as a means to cajole a specific act of love from Thorin.

“Then rule me, sire,” he said softly.

Rewarding him with a kiss, Thorin set to work between Bilbo’s legs. He was not gentle. Bilbo knew many hobbits who would feint and tickle for hours before daring to proceed. Not so with Thorin. Yet the dwarf was thorough with the oil. Masterful. Without question he went at his own pace. Took pleasure in Bilbo’s body and reactions with little care for the hobbit’s opinion. Busied himself kissing and biting the hobbit’s face and neck while his hands worked independently.

“You like this,” he said more than once. Whether it was an observation or a command, it was truth.

Bilbo wanted to be good, wanted to serve, but before long he was squeezing his own cock, desperately trying not to spill too soon.

“You may do as you please,” Thorin said carelessly. “If I am a prince, I shall have you for as long as I wish, whether or not you finish with me.” As he punctuated this with a particularly wicked twist of his fingers, Bilbo could do nothing but squirm and whine wordlessly.

Swallowing hard, the hobbit finally managed to pant out, “Please, my prince.”

Thorin raised an eyebrow, seemingly unmoved. Then he said, “Oh, very well,” and finally moved to mount Bilbo properly.

Stretching to accommodate him should have been easy after so long a wait. Indeed, Bilbo felt no pain. But he was overwhelmed by the sensation and the intensity of Thorin’s gaze. It was too much, too big, and too soon, though Thorin pressed in slowly, inch by inch. Then Thorin began to withdraw, and Bilbo might have wept for the lack. Unable to speak, he desperately clutched at Thorin’s arms, and received what he sought immediately.

Driving forward once more, Thorin shifted his hands, rearranging Bilbo’s weight once more. The hobbit saw stars. Thorin laughed, a low, friendly chuckle that made Bilbo’s whole body tremble in his grasp.

“Royalty can be magnanimous,” Thorin murmured softly. “When the mood strikes.”

Bilbo could not remember the game at all, nor why the talk of princes was important, but that did not matter. Soon Thorin began to move in earnest, delving deep and striking true with every single thrust. Clinging to him, Bilbo saw blue eyes and fireworks in equal measure, spilling into pleasure with nothing but the pistoning of Thorin’s hips to drive him over the edge. Even more satisfying was the cry Thorin gave shortly thereafter, shaking and slumping over Bilbo, hot, heavy, and sated.

Since he did not have to move at all to do so, Bilbo pressed a kiss to the beard tickling his nose. Then he knew no more.

Waking in the middle of the night, Bilbo found that he was clean, pleasantly sore, and cuddled against a warm, fuzzy chest. A hand stroked his hair absently.

“Can’t sleep?” he asked muzzily.

“Enjoying the moment,” Thorin murmured.

“Want milk?”

The hand in Bilbo’s hair paused.

“Warm milk. For sleep.”

A low chuckle shook Bilbo’s pillow slightly, and the hand resumed its stroking.

“Thank you, no,” Thorin said. “I love that you offer, though. I love your solicitude.”

Which woke Bilbo to fullness, though he was careful not to move.

Thorin did not speak for a while, and Bilbo let himself enjoy the warmth of a body and the closeness of a hand in his hair.

“Bilbo?” The voice was soft. If Bilbo pretended he was yet asleep, it would not speak again.

“Thorin,” he mumbled, hoping the question that he feared would not come. It was too late to hope that the statement he feared even more would go unsaid.

“You prefer to make love as we just did, do you not? That is your favorite manner of bedsport.”

“Mmm.” Relaxing further, Bilbo smiled. “Very much so, yes. In all honesty, you were spectacular. Even better than I could have hoped. I don’t know if it was that prince business which drove you to such excellence or merely your innate perfectionism, but do I beg you to consider having it off that way at least once more before the end of the winter. I know it is a great deal more work for you than the other way around, and I am positively useless afterwards until I’ve had a nap. But I would consider it a great favor.”

Thorin did not answer this speech for a little while. Abashedly, Bilbo realized that he’d given away a great deal more than his wakeful state in making it. Then Thorin said, “My favorite thing is spilling into you. Your mouth. Your body. It makes little difference. I believe that I shall spend the rest of the winter alternating between the two on a daily basis. Though I fully expect there shall be some days when I spill down your throat several times.”

The effect of this speech was instant arousal. As he was curled against Thorin’s thigh, there was no way the dwarf did not know it.

“Will I do so now?” Thorin mused. “Use your mouth for my pleasure?”

The fire was very low in the grate and only a little moonlight shone through the crack in the curtains. Even so, when Bilbo looked at Thorin’s face, he could see the hint of bitterness behind his playful facade.

“Have I been using you?” the hobbit asked quietly, ignoring his body entirely. “My intent has only ever been to please us both. If you are unhappy in any way, pray tell me.”

Breaking, Thorin looked away. Unsurprisingly, his eyes were tired. It was very late at night, and they had not been idle. “We have so little time together,” he said softly. “I did not expect my own feelings to be so intensified by what seemed a simple act.”

Bilbo put a hand on his beard, tracing the outline of Thorin’s face. Then, stretching up, he kissed him. “It does change things, of course it does. Part of me wishes this winter would never end.”

“And I,” Thorin agreed, leaning down for a second chaste kiss.

Dropping his head back to Thorin’s chest, Bilbo looked to the embers of the fire. He did not want to see the dwarf’s face when he asked. “Is there no way you could stay a while longer? Send Fili or Dwalin home to look after your interests, but remain with me through the springtime. If only one of the others remained with you, it would not look so very odd to the neighbors.”

Thorin’s arms tightened around Bilbo and he did not answer. When he did, it was not at all what the hobbit expected. “And if I wanted to stay forever?”

Sitting up abruptly, Bilbo studied Thorin’s face. The smile was soft, the blue eyes were twinkling, and the long hair was so delightfully mussed. Bilbo grinned. As his heart blossomed in his chest, he felt that springtime was come early and all the world was in bloom.

At once, Thorin’s face twisted and he pressed a large hand to his brow, covering his own eyes. “No,” he said quickly. “No, please, do not say it. I have responsibilities. Not least, the care of my sister. Leaving her to my father and Fili is unsustainable and unfair. I could never stay, even if you would have me.”

“Of course you could not stay,” Bilbo said quickly, lowering himself back to the bed. Away from Thorin, he was rather cold, and too close on the mattress to the slightly damp, crusty place which was the inevitable result of vigorous activity. “I was not going to invite you. It would be far too suspicious to have a dwarf in permanent residence at Bag End. There is no respectable explanation for such a thing. At best, folk would think you a lodger and that my finances were depleted to a disreputable degree.”

The hand slid up, away from Thorin’s eyes, tangling itself in Thorin’s hair. He looked sideways at Bilbo from beneath the dark curtain. “You could come to Erebor with me.”

At once, the chilly air of the room froze solid, driving into Bilbo’s lungs like icicles. Stupidly, he made to rise and leave. He would not agree to such an obvious temptation. He refused to betray his brother for simple, bodily pleasure. He could not forgo his promise to his dying mother in exchange for a competent lover. He was weak, but he was not that weak. He was selfish, but he would not be that much of a fool.

A warm hand caught his elbow gently. With a shrug Bilbo could free himself. But he did not want to. Therein lay the trap.

“I’m sorry,” Thorin said. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have asked. Of course you cannot. I did not think. I was not even thinking of Kili. You will not believe me. Perhaps it is a credit to your wisdom that you do not believe me, but I forgot about him entirely. Only for a moment. I just wish we had more time. That is all.”

Slowly, Bilbo allowed himself to be coaxed back into bed, but it was a long while before he fell asleep.

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

One of the Big Folk ambled up the twisting path to Bag End, leaning on his walking stick to steer around the melting ice and muddy snow. His clothes were gray enough to blend in with the dreary sky, but there was no question that he was a big person destined for Bag End. Kili was so distracted by the sight that Fili knocked him to the ground far too easily.

That could not go unanswered. Kicking out, Kili wrestled Fili down, locking the dwarf’s head between his knees, and planting that arrogantly braided mustache in the mud. Fili struggled, but could not escape.

“Enough,” Dwalin said. “You’ll drown him like that.”

Kili released Fili at once. It was such a relief to be able to wrestle and play rough without the risk of injuring someone that he sometimes forgot dwarves could be hurt at all. “I’m sorry,” he said quickly, bouncing to his own feet and pulling Fili up. “Are you alright?”

Spitting out mud, Fili looked thoroughly disgusted, both with the dirt and himself. “As if you could injure me with only three months of proper training. Let’s go again.”

“Another time,” Kili said. “There is a big person in Bag End. Do you know him?”

Dwalin and Fili exchanged a look.

“No.”

“There is no Man in Thorin’s Company,” Fili said. “I can think of no reason for one to visit us here. Perhaps he is visiting your brother?”

“Bilbo? Visit with Big Folk? I see more of them than he does in my smithy, and even there I do not see many. I cannot envision one making a house call on a winter morning.”

“Then we should go see what he wants,” Fili said. And so they did.

When Kili, Fili, and Dwalin tumbled into Bag End covered in mud with apple-red cheeks from the cold, the big person, Balin, Thorin, and Bilbo were just sitting down to a cup of tea. Instantly, Bilbo fetched the requisite additional cups and saucers. He was so out of sorts that he did not even insist his brother wash, let alone their guests. If Kili were a better Baggins, he would do so without prompting. Sadly, he was too curious about the big person to bother with good manners.

Ensconced in the only armchair that would fit him, the big person looked like a clever old goat who’d found his way into a rabbit hutch. His gray beard was longer than Balin’s, and his gnarled walking stick rested in the corner behind him. Being somewhat familiar with Big Folk, Kili wasn’t surprised by the way the fellow’s head nearly grazed the ceiling even while he was sitting.

He was surprised when the man nodded at Fili and Dwalin as though they were already acquainted, naming them in turn. Then smiled at Kili. “So, you must be Kili Baggins, the Lost Prince of Erebor. It is a pleasure to meet you after all this time. I am Gandalf, an old friend of your mother’s. I thought an old friend of yours as well! I have since learned that your brother Bilbo is my friend and former assistant. And I must say that if dear Belladonna had confided in me, much heartache might have been saved over the years.”

Kili dropped his teacup, but Fili caught it deftly so it did not break. In the act of pouring tea, Bilbo continued to do so, staring at Gandalf as the cup overflowed and tea spilled all over the table.

Frowning, Gandalf leaned forward to right the teapot. At once, Bilbo came to his senses and began cleaning up. Kili ran to fetch a tea towel and the mess was soon righted. The mess in his heart, however, only grew.

“I am surprised at your reaction.” Gandalf looked hard at the dwarves. “Naturally, your letter was full of confusion, Bilbo, but you wrote me as soon as the dwarves arrived. I hope that after three months, you know exactly what sort of family Thorin Oakenshield comes from.”

Abandoning the tea, Bilbo sat down hard. Less overwrought but more confused, Kili returned to his place beside Fili on the settee.

“Well, he told us the Oakenshield bit was because he saved a king in a battle,” the younger Baggins said. Thorin was very still and stiff in his chair.

“And so he did.” Gandalf’s face was hard, and his focus was entirely on Thorin as he answered Kili. “His father, Thrain II, who is the current king of Erebor. You are grandson to that king, Kili, and a prince in your own right.”

“Oh.”

Fili seized Kili’s hands in a rough, dwarven gesture. “Come with us to the mountain! Thorin said we must not tell you for you only be more suspicious, but I see that you trust the wizard’s word. In Erebor you shall want for nothing. Gold will flow through your fingers. If you continue to forge, you shall work in only the finest metals. Be a farrier no more! Let your dreams be the only limit to your craft!”

Pulling away from this enthusiasm, Kili looked to Bilbo. The hobbit was still staring at the teapot. “You have been lying to us,” he said slowly. “Hiding things. Just as Bilbo always said.”

Gandalf frowned, still looking only at Thorin. “Dwarves naturally tend toward secrecy, but to hide your own heritage once they found you seems extreme.”

Kili’s focus remained on Bilbo, who could not meet his brother’s eyes. Abruptly, the younger Baggins leapt to his feet. “I would not follow Thorin Oakenshield to Erebor if the streets really were paved with candy! In fact, I think it would be best if you all left at once.”

“We’re going.” Bilbo’s voice was flat, but it brooked no dispute.

Kili blinked at him. “Thorin is a liar, Bilbo. You were right. He’s been lying to you all this time.”

Bilbo seemed to look past Thorin without seeing him. “He is Thorin, son of Thrain, son of Thror, Prince of Erebor, Protector of the Western Slopes, High Marshall of Durin’s Army, Guardian of Ravenhill, and Heir Apparent to the Arkenstone.” Turning to Gandalf, the hobbit asked, “Is that correct?”

Gandalf nodded, looking slightly relieved. “I believe those are the current titles.”

“He told you?” Kili frowned. “Why would he tell only you the truth?”

“Because the mother of your birth is sick,” Bilbo said, turning to his brother gently. “There is no cure.”

“Oh.” Kili sat down again. He did not know what to feel. Glad that Bilbo did not say his mother? His mother was dead. But he had another. And that mother was sick. Soon to be lost, just as Belladonna was.

“You can cure her.” If Fili’s voice was intense, his eyes were aflame. “It is prophesied that if the Lost Prince returns to Erebor, he shall bring his mother’s cure. Come with us. Thorin says you owe no duty to your family, as we lost you to fear and ferity long ago. Then do not do it for duty. Do not do it for family, if you will not have a second brother. Save her for friendship, if we have earned any from you. Save her because you are kind hearted and she suffers. Save her for no reason but that you alone can do so.”

In his confusion, Kili retreated to anger. “How could you keep this from me?” he demanded of Thorin. “You lie and manipulate. How can we trust what you say now?”

“Leave him alone,” Bilbo said. “What Fili does not say is that Thorin’s father, the king, will die as the other half of this prophecy.”

Suddenly, Kili was aware that Bilbo was the smallest person in the room. Bilbo never seemed small. Kili knew he was taller than his big brother. He stronger and older as well, technically. But he never felt that way. The force of Bilbo’s personality made him a giant. Yet Bilbo looked so small. Hurt in some unknown way. Kili rather suspected he knew who was to blame.

“Yes,” Gandalf confirmed. “It is said that when the princess is cured, the king will fall. Yet I have heard tell that is the king’s greatest wish.”

“Even so,” Thorin said. He sounded like a fool. What a non committal thing to say!

“Even so.” Bilbo was staring at the teapot again, not meeting anyone’s eyes. “If Thorin’s quest succeeds and he brings you to the mountain, his father will die and he will be king. Some might call that treason, or seizing power by another means.”

“They would not be the dwarves of Erebor,” Balin said. “Thrain commanded this quest publicly, and all know his greatest wish is to see his daughter cured of her pain. The king is old. Secure in his line with Thorin and Fili. He does not fear death.”

“Erebor is the watchtower of the north,” Gandalf said. “It stands between Mount Gundabad—the last outpost of the wicked kingdom of Angmar where orcs breed in great numbers—and the peaceful lands to the south and west. While its ruling line languishes in uncertainty, the foundation is not firm. Thorin’s quest is a noble one, that could have consequences for all of Middle Earth.”

Kili’s stomach churned. Like a proper Baggins, he took a sip of his tea.

“Who could make such a choice?” Bilbo asked, still looking at the teapot. “It is his father you speak of. Who could give their all in pursuit of such a goal? If there was a convenient excuse, if the lost prince was happy with his home and family, then perhaps it would be best to leave him where he was.”

“The wise do not ignore the advice of Elrond Half Elven,” Gandalf said firmly. “To act against a prophecy only ever leads to heartache. In any case, such visions are of what might be only. The future is ever mutable.”

“I am no healer.” Kili’s own voice was soft after Gandalf’s weighty proclamation. “I am not a doctor or an herbalist to ease a sick person’s pain.”

“Your presence will save her,” Fili said. Of everyone, he was the most animated. Fierce in his belief that Kili was the answer to some riddle. But Kili was not a prophecy or a prince. He was only a Baggins of Bag End, and a blacksmith. “She has mourned you for nigh fifty years. If you are returned to her, that mourning will be at an end. She will be saved.”

“It is a sickness of the mind,” Bilbo explained dully. “Like Gaffer Holman, Daisy Cotton, or Old Widow Boffin, but not caused by age or birth. This was brought on by grief, and the dwarves believe an end to grief will cure it. You must go.”

The bottom dropped out of the world and Kili felt he might sick up all of his tea. “Without you?”

At once, Bilbo’s eyes were sharp and steady. Straightening in his chair, he looked squarely at Kili.

“Of course not! Don’t be ridiculous. Look at you, all over mud. You’d catch your death of cold in five minutes without me around. I cannot believe you greeted Gandalf in such a fashion. He shall think we’ve raised you to be a savage. My word! We have had quite enough talk for such an hour of the morning. And I in my housecoat! Dear me. Kili, you must go wash up and change at once. I shall put on something respectable, and a little something toothsome in the oven as well. We will all feel much better after a proper luncheon.”

Just like that, Kili did feel better. After all, he did not need to know what to do. Bilbo was the clever one, and he would take care of everything.

Chapter Text

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.

Bilbo worried.

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.

“Thank you.”

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.

Chapter Text

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?”

“I am.”

“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.

Chapter Text

Leaving Bree, the road became rough and wild. The company was little better. Bilbo thought he was used to dwarves after a long winter, but he soon realized that Balin, Dwalin, Fili, and Thorin had been on their best behavior. Everywhere he looked, dwarves picked their teeth, expectorated, used sleeves instead of handkerchiefs, and were generally uncouth. They were also the noisiest group of travellers imaginable.

Oh, Big Folk might have been worse in general, but with only Gandalf for comparison it was hard to remember that. The wizard rode along in a calm, stately manner.

Meanwhile the dwarves Nori and Ori made awful jokes. That Bofur fellow sang nothing but rude songs. His cousin Bifur spoke Bilbo and Kili’s secret language exclusively, which proved to be dwarvish after all. Rather dramatically so, in fact, when he observed something less than flattering about Kili’s hair. Since it was true that Kili ought to keep it shorter if he wasn’t going to manage it, Bilbo’s umbrage was all the greater.

”My brother’s hair is his own business,” Bilbo scolded in the same language. ”He shall do what he likes with it, and that is no business of yours.”

All of the ponies drew to a halt. With glittering eyes, Dori drew a bright sword from his belt. “No tongue but a dwarven one should speak such secrets.”

Dori was one of the few dwarves that Bilbo thought he could be friends with. The fastidious little fellow had a very dashing red tunic, with meticulous embroidery and very fine fabric. Bilbo admired it tremendously. Despite dressing in the dwarven fashion, it was clear that Dori shared Bilbo’s respect for sartorial matters. Unfortunately, this did not seem to give the dwarf any pause when it came to the idea of cutting out Bilbo’s tongue.

Big, burly Gloin loomed next to him, an ax in hand. “One who would steal such words from a helpless child does not deserve hands to write with, either.”

Quite in fear for his life, Bilbo said, “Hold on a minute. I did not steal your language. Kili and I were children together, you know.”

But all of the dwarves crowded around Bilbo with stony expressions. Even young Ori and jovial Bofur looked menacing. Off to the side, Bilbo saw Balin, Dwalin, and Fili holding Kili back. Gandalf was making himself scarce as well. There was no help forthcoming from that quarter. Then, Thorin was beside Bilbo, putting himself between the hobbit and the other dwarves.

“Bilbo has leave to learn my language,” the prince said firmly. “He may learn anything about me that he wishes to know, by the oldest laws. You who would gainsay him must challenge me first.”

Dori’s eyes went wide, but he put the sword away. All of the dwarves relaxed, though several looked at Bilbo with something very like shock. The throng dispersed in the end. That was the most important thing. Shakily, Bilbo thanked Thorin for the intervention.

“I did not realize my understanding Kili’s baby talk offended you so,” he said.

Thorin smiled a little grimly. “More than anything, those words were the reason the four of us chased you upon first meeting. It is a sacred language, only for dwarves, and we guard it closely.”

“Then I shall be careful about showing off my fluency in future!”

“Fluency?” Thorin’s smile turned sly. “Your accent is terrible. Anyone could tell you learned from a child. And I am convinced that some of your vocabulary is entirely invented.”

“Is that a fact!”

“I could tutor you, if you like, in the proper way of speaking Khuzdul. Languages interest you, do they not?”

Bilbo’s breath caught, but he soon steadied himself. He’d just seen a demonstration of how unfriendly and violent the dwarves could turn at the slightest provocation. Surely they would do something quite awful if he flirted openly with their prince. “I do not think that would be appropriate.”

Which earned him very sad eyes from Thorin, though the dwarf returned to the head of their party wordlessly. All around Bilbo, the dwarves were stiff and shocked. Kili in particular was very uncomfortable and did not know what to say. In true Kili fashion, he began teaching Bofur and Fili a rather rude tavern song. While that endeared him to the Company, it did not help Bilbo. The hobbit rode in uncomfortable silence.

In an attempt to diffuse the tension, Bombur, a pleasantly plump fellow, began asking Bilbo for his family’s secret recipes. Given that this was just as shocking to Bilbo as asking to learn Khuzdul would be to a dwarf, the hobbit did not respond.

Happily, another dwarf misunderstood the question and began reciting the recipe for some sort of medicine. Oin needed an ear horn. While this was not at all something to be ashamed about, he was constantly cleaning earwax off of it with things that were not meant to be covered in earwax. Gloin, his brother, seemed to think asking Bilbo about his finances was pleasant conversation, not nearly as rude as Bombur seeking family recipes. In all, the dwarves were generally an unpleasant lot.

Bilbo might have liked them far more had Kili liked them less.

The younger Baggins became a fast favorite with the entire group. They wanted to teach Kili dwarven songs, dwarven jokes, and the dwarven way of spitting between one's teeth. It was disgusting. Kili would pick up all manner of bad habits. Yet Bilbo did not object. Kili wasn’t a child. He could make his own choices. As could Bilbo.

Bilbo chose to hold himself apart from the group around the campfire. Sitting on a flattish rock, Bilbo observed the dark trees above, the brambles of the undergrowth, and the way the orange light of the fire painted the loud, laughing dwarves in shadows.

A strange insect came to share the rock with him. Like a crayfish, it had two pincers—almost little hands—that reached in front of it. They clicked open and shut as though grasping at the air. Its six legs clicked a little against the stone. Dressed in handsome black armor, it looked like the most debonair crayfish in the world. For instead of the flat, swimming tail of the crayfish, this creature had a graceful, arching appendage, like a cat. It curled up over its body in a stately loop, ending in an elegant point.

Idling wondering if the thing would taste as nice as a crayfish boiled up with garlic, bay leaves, and a bit of lemon, Bilbo watched it approach. The bold little critter did not seem at all afraid of him. Perhaps like a newt or a garden snake, it was attracted to the warmth of a hobbit sitting still. Since it did not sport the bright, warning colors of something poisonous, Bilbo was happy enough to let it crawl on his hand. Opening his palm slowly, he awaited its approach.

A knife sprouted from the center of the thing’s back, pinning it to the rock. Crying out in shock, Bilbo leapt up and away. Immediately the dwarves stopped their laughter and their merriment. Even Gandalf lowered his pipe. One of the dwarves, however, was already turned toward Bilbo with a hand outstretched. Fili’s breath seemed uneven and his eyes were wide.

“Did you just throw that knife at me?” Bilbo demanded. “You might have had my hand off!”

“Fili?” Thorin’s voice was stern as he rose to his feet, setting down his own pipe.

A terrible smell filled Bilbo’s nose, like stumbling across the rotting corpse of some unfortunate animal on a hot summer day.

“Scorpion,” Fili said succinctly. “It was about to sting him.”

“Oh.” Bilbo looked down at the poor critter. “Was that a scorpion? I’ve read about them, of course. I thought they were a bit more like spiders than crayfish. Anyway, you didn’t need to kill the little fellow. A word would have done the trick. I have two feet, you know. It might not have stung me at all. Even a wasp will leave you alone, provided you do not startle it.”

“Nay.” Gandalf crossed the camp to look at the knife imbedded in the rock, and the scorpion’s body pinned between there. “That is a night-bile scorpion, though small for its kind. It is no natural creature! Fili was not wrong to slay it, though we must dampen the scent at once.”

Bofur, the dwarf with the mustache and the floppy hat, instantly presented the wizard with a bucket full of sandy dirt for damping the fire. Pulling Fili’s knife from the stone as easily as he would withdraw it from a butcher’s block, the dwarf poured the sand over the creature’s body. At least it would have a proper burial. Indeed, the vile smell diminished, though it did not vanish entirely.

“Clean the blade in the fire,” Gandalf advised. “Quickly!”

Taking his knife back, Fili squatted close to the campfire, thrusting the blade into the heart of the burning wood. The dark blood of the dead insect burned away, and the knife began to glow with heat and darken with soot simultaneously. All of the dwarves were still and quiet, watching Fili.

From the depths of the trees, Bilbo heard clicking. At first, it was only a small sound, like the noise of the little fellow who approached him on the rock. Then there was more of it. A lot more.

“Gandalf?” Bilbo backed toward the fire, away from the wizard and the dark wood.

“They are drawn to the scent of their fallen kin,” the wizard said quietly. “Hopefully, we damped it in time. They may not swarm.”

Click, click, click, echoed from the trees. Click, click, click. It was too loud for such a small creature. Bilbo wondered how many scorpions there would have to be in order to fill the forest with sound. A swarm of bees could kill an unwary hobbit. Could a swarm of scorpions kill a party of dwarves? They seemed to be worried about it. Around Bilbo, all of the dwarves readied their weapons and waited.

Out of the darkness whipped a black knife, easily as big as the one still in Fili’s hand. Bofur spun to the side, evading the strike, and swung his mattock at the enormous tail. With a powerful blow, he drove the scorpion’s tail down into the armor of its back. Stench exploded throughout the camp, but the monster twitched, then did not move. It was massive. As big as a large dog.

The one that entered the circle of firelight from the other side of the camp was even bigger. Fat as a pig, the scorpion snapped at Nori with its pincers. One of Kili’s arrows sprouted from its eye, and it stopped rushing forward. As it whipped around wildly with its tail, Dori’s big hammer crushed its head, and it collapsed to the ground entirely.

After that, Bilbo did not know where to look. All around the edges of the camp, monstrous scorpions attacked with clicking claws and whipping tails. The dwarves fought back, but Bilbo could do nothing. He had no axe or sword. Instead, he clung to his walking stick, close to the fire with Kili, who was at least shooting arrows in a helpful way. The stink of dead scorpions grew until it was so overpowering Bilbo thought he might faint.

In terror at the smells and sounds of battle, the ponies shrieked, pulled up their stakes, and stampeded away. Bilbo wondered if they had the right idea.

A small scorpion, no bigger than the first, skittered up to Bilbo’s bare foot. He smashed it with the end of his walking stick. Then he noticed more of them on the ground, scampering unnoticed through the camp as the dwarves focused on the massive monsters. Setting about with his walking stick, Bilbo saw that Ori was doing the same with his sling. The little stones he shot bounced harmlessly off the armor of the larger beasts, but they were perfectly capable of smashing the smaller bugs.

“We cannot stay in this place, Thorin Oakenshield!” Gandalf’s voice boomed like thunder. In response, the fire behind Bilbo leapt from the encircling stones. Bright tendrils of flame spouted out, enveloping three of the largest monsters, immolating them in an instant.

“How many can there be?” Thorin’s shouted question seemed reasonable. “If we flee into the darkness, we lose our best advantage. They see poorly in the firelight.”

At once, Bilbo realized why none of the dwarves were taking hits from their attackers. The scorpions struck fiercely, but inaccurately. He breathed a sigh of relief. As long as they were in the light, they could hold out.

“Bilbo?” Kili’s voice sounded faint and far away. Turning, Bilbo saw him drop his bow. He was staring at his hand in shock. It was bleeding. There was blood on the tail of the dog-sized scorpion beside him.

Bilbo screamed. Whacking the scorpion with his walking stick was futile. A stick could do nothing against the thick armor of the larger monsters. Fire, on the other hand, could do much. Thrusting his stick into the fire, Bilbo flipped one of the burning logs out and onto the scorpion’s back. It scrambled and clicked, but soon enough it burned and withered.

Kili fell to his knees, clutching his hand.

Rushing to his side, Bilbo opened his waterskin and poured the entire contents over Kili’s wound. “We’ll wash it out,” he said quickly. “Never fear.” Another small scorpion skittered up and Bilbo crushed it with his stick.

Sweat beaded along Kili’s face. “It burns,” he said shakily. “It burns.”

“Then we need more water.” Bilbo found other canteens, strewn about on the ground, and began pouring them out over Kili’s hand. Some were not pure, clear water. Instead, they were flasks of amber liquor. That would probably do no harm. Alcohol could clean a wound, after all.

More little scorpions swarmed about the place. Bilbo smashed them all furiously with his stick. He had no time to deal with them. He needed to help his brother.

Suddenly, Oin was there. The dwarf with the big gray beard and the waxy ear horn. Pushing Bilbo out of the way, he wrapped some sort of poultice about Kili’s hand. Almost at once, Kili stopped sweating and shaking.

“Oh!” he cried. “That is better than jewelweed for a nettle sting.”

“Smart thinking, flushing out the poison.” Oin grunted as he pulled Kili to his feet. “Glancing blow, too. You got lucky. Others won’t.”

Looking around the camp, Bilbo immediately understood what he meant. In his desperate attempt to kill the scorpion threatening his brother, Bilbo had destroyed the base of the campfire. The logs that remained burned too low and far apart to maintain a mighty blaze. As such, the circle of light cast by the fire was dramatically reduced. Safe places for the dwarves to fight were now few.

“Retreat!” Thorin shouted. “This way!”

“Can you run?” Bilbo asked Kili, not sure of what he would do if the answer was no.

“Faster than you.” His little brother smirked, picking up his bow.

In fact, this was very much the truth. Kili seemed to forget it as he sprinted off along with the rest of the dwarves, leaping over scorpions and flaming logs scattered from the fire. Bilbo ran after his brother into the dark forest.

Now, the hobbit was not in the kind of trouble you or I would be in, racing through tall trees in the dark with monsters all around. For hobbits live underground just as dwarves do, and so the sliver of a moon high above the treetops gave him enough light to see by. The problem was that away from the bright firelight, the scorpions could see as well. Their striking tails were much more difficult to dodge when they were not simply whipping wildly about.

Suddenly, strong arms lifted Bilbo from the ground. A familiar smell of sweat and hair oil momentarily replaced the stench of the scorpion bile in his nostrils as he was slung across a broad back.

“Hold on, if you can,” Thorin said. “I need both hands for sword and shield.”

Bilbo did not need the direction. Sticking like a limpet to Thorin’s back seemed his only chance of survival. All of the dwarves were racing ahead. Only Gandalf was behind them, setting about with his staff in a significantly more effective parody of Bilbo’s earlier efforts with a walking stick. For Gandalf’s staff was a wizard’s. Where he struck the monsters, they burst into flame.

Out of the darkness loomed the largest scorpion yet. Its arching tail was nearly as tall as Gandalf’s shoulders. Each of its massive pincers was the size of a hobbit’s leg. Moreover, it was lightning fast. Skittering out of the path of Gandalf’s swinging staff, it came up directly alongside Thorin. The barb of its tail lanced forward, and Bilbo saw his doom. The knife-like appendage came directly for his eye.

Before the hobbit could blink there was an oaken branch between him and danger. Thorin spun deftly to face the monster, stabbing at it with his sword. In the darkness, the scorpion was not so easy to slay. Grabbing the sword with one of its pincers, it tried to snap at Thorin’s legs with the other. As the dwarf struggled to free his sword while keeping the poisonous tail occupied with his shield, he danced to avoid the third striking appendage.

Kicking down with all of his weight, Bilbo managed to plant his heel in the scorpion’s gelatinous eyes. They squished grotesquely beneath his foot, but it gave Thorin the opening he needed, for the scorpion released his now notched sword. Twisting it around, Thorin sliced the wretched monster in half and began to run again. Yet the pair did not get far before another scorpion struck.

Horrified, Bilbo realized that the woods were full of the monsters. Fast as the dwarves were, they could not escape. Then he saw hope unlooked for through the trees.

“There!” he cried, pointing off to the left over Thorin’s shoulder. “I see another fire! Someone else is camping in these woods.”

“We will bring death down upon them,” Thorin said grimly.

“Where night-bile scorpions swarm, none are safe,” Gandalf called from behind. “It may be that well armed dwarves will stand between that camp and the death that already stalks this forest.”

Bilbo felt Thorin’s back swell with a sudden breath. He felt the scales of Thorin’s armor vibrate beneath his heavy fur cloak as he bellowed. “To me!” Turning from the group, Thorin lead the dwarves toward the other camp, carving his way through scorpion after scorpion as he ran, barely slowed by the monstrous creatures.

Trees loomed overhead as sapling branches slapped Bilbo in the face and brambles scraped his arms. In other circumstances, the hobbit might have complained to the dwarf who carried him at such a breakneck pace through the dark forest. In other circumstances, it might have been safe to slow down. Yet Bilbo wished only for more speed. He would much prefer the bite of a thorn to the sting of the monsters who chased him.

Something tall broke through the brambles to the right and Bilbo squeezed Thorin’s back even tighter in fear. Then he saw the balding head of Dwalin and relaxed. The running dwarf paused, his twin axes flashing in the moonlight as he sliced the tail off a scorpion the size of a billy goat. Then he resumed running.

All around Thorin and Bilbo, the forest was full of fleeing dwarves and swarming scorpions the size of farm animals. To make matters worse, Kili was out there somewhere injured, and Bilbo could not see him. Clinging helplessly to Thorin was the only thing Bilbo could do. He tried not to restrict the prince’s movement or distract him in any way.

At least they were headed toward hope. Fire was the bane of all dark creatures. Gandalf the wizard was setting the biggest monsters on fire with the tip of his staff as he ran, but that only thinned their seemingly infinite numbers. It would not save the dwarves. Growing in the distance, however, Bilbo could see an enormous bonfire. A bonfire that just might be bright enough to let them last the night.

Dawn would save them.

In front of Thorin, the trees opened up into a clearing edged up against a stone cliff. At the center of the clearing, a bonfire roared, much larger than what Bilbo anticipated. As Gandalf suspected, those who started the fire were already swarmed by scorpions. They stomped about, smashing the monsters with foot and club. Unfortunately, what none of them had considered was that the bonfire’s tenders were, in fact, monsters of a different kind.

All three of the gigantic cave trolls looked up from the scorpions they were smashing as the dwarves rushed into the clearing.

Hefting his club, one of the trolls took a swing at Bombur. Given the dwarf’s rotundity and the troll’s height, it looked for a moment like a strange game of croquet. Bilbo shook his head. This was no more a garden party than it was a walking holiday. Bombur dodged the club and the troll cursed.

“Stinking dwarf! Hold still ‘fer I can smash ya’,” one of the other trolls said.

“I quite agree with you about the smell of infrequently bathed dwarves,” someone said. “However, I must declare that these night-bile scorpions stink to an exponentially greater degree.”

The troll who called Bombur stinking stopped swinging his club and stood blinking at Bilbo. Oh dear. Bilbo was the one speaking.

“What’s that then, Bert?” One of the larger scorpions snapped the troll’s toe in its pincers, but the troll barely seemed to notice. He stomped on it absently, still staring at Bilbo. “That dwarf has two heads.”

“For starters,” Bilbo said, “I am not a dwarf. Nor do I have two heads. Thorin is merely carrying me. Why don’t you put me down for now, Thorin, so I can have a proper word with our new acquaintances?”

As Bilbo tried to clamber down from Thorin’s back, the dwarf dropped his sword to clutch the hobbit’s legs, keeping him in place. “Stay with me.”

If Thorin’s voice had only been commanding, Bilbo might have ignored him. Underneath the steady tone of a leader, however, the hobbit heard a thread of real concern. He stayed on Thorin’s back. A scorpion no bigger than a lamb struck at them with a wildly whipping tail. Thorin caught the tail with his bare hand, just behind the barb. Stepping on the scorpion’s head, Thorin ripped the creature in half with his immense dwarven strength. Stinking black blood splattered all over both Thorin and Bilbo.

Bilbo looked back up at the big troll. “Really, there’s no comparison. These bugs smell much worse.”

“What are you?” Bert asked, looking rather mesmerized by Bilbo.

“Can we eat him?” One of the other trolls inquired. “There’s good eating on a dwarf.” As if to illustrate, he ducked, trying to grab Kili around the middle. Fortunately, the younger Baggins dodged out of the way. Unfortunately, he stepped right into the pincers of a scorpion. It gripped him by the boot, tripping him up. Hacking the offending pincer from the scorpion’s body, Dwalin tugged Kili away from the trolls and toward the fire.

“You can certainly eat me,” Bilbo said. “I suspect any recipes you have for dwarf would work equally well on a hobbit.”

“You want us to eat you?” The third troll actually stopped fighting long enough to scratch his head in confusion. He paid for his inattention immediately as one of the largest scorpions stabbed its barb firmly in the back of his calf. Bilbo noticed that the blade did not go deep. Troll hide was apparently quite thick. Still, the poison did its work. At once, the troll was leaping about, yowling in pain, and squashing scorpions indiscriminately.

“Of course I do not want to be eaten,” Bilbo said calmly, once the troll’s curses quieted enough for him to be heard. “However, I would much rather be the supper of an august personage like yourself than the poisoned prey of insects.”

“Makes sense, that.” Bert grunted as Dori caught him hard across the knee with a warhammer. “Hold still and let me eat you, then.”

“I believe it would be in all of our best interests to focus on the scorpions for now,” Bilbo suggested. “Once they are all dead, I promise to let you eat me.”

“You’re not much of a mouthful.” Apparently being stung made the troll hopping on one foot skeptical.

“You may eat all of us,” Bilbo lied. “And our ponies, as well, if you can find them. I can show you where we were camped and which direction they ran, at any rate.”

“Fresh nags.” Bert licked his lips.

“And dwarf pie.” The hopping troll rubbed his belly.

“Alright,” said the third troll. “It’s a deal. We won’t kill you until after you help us kill the buggies. I don’t want to get stung like Tom.” Just as he said this, one of the scorpions caught him in the toe. Then it was his turn to curse, hop, and lay about indiscriminately with his club.

“Ha ha.” Tom’s laugh was as slow and lumbering as the troll himself. “Who’s getting stung now, William?”

All of the trolls were stung repeatedly as the attack wore on. They did not work together as the dwarves did, and the dwarves did not protect them. Even so, Bilbo was glad of the trolls. The massive creatures stomped about slaying scorpions almost by accident, and in so doing gave the dwarves space to breathe.

Kili stood with his back to the fire shooting arrow after arrow into the darkness. None of the scorpions came close to him. Every so often Fili would return to his side with a sword in one hand and a fistfull of filthy arrows in the other.

Thorin fought along the edge of the firelight, always against the largest monsters, yet Bilbo began to feel safe on his back. Consistency dulled the terror into the clash of sword against the crunching armor of the scorpions. Only one thing worried the hobbit.

He could not see Gandalf. The wizard should have been working wonders with the flames of the bonfire, but he was entirely absent. As there was nothing to be done, Bilbo did not mention this to Thorin. Yet he was terribly concerned about the old man. After all, he was only one of the Big Folk. They did not live very long. Bilbo did not like to think of him lying poisoned somewhere in the darkness.

Burying his face in Thorin’s hair for just a moment, Bilbo cleared the stench of bile from his nose and tried to remember what it was to hope.

“When we gonna eat the dwarves, Bert?” William asked. “I’m getting tired.”

Apparently, the scorpions were getting tired as well. They still swarmed mindlessly, but some of them seemed to want to push past the fire to the stone wall behind the camp.

“Alright,” Bert said. “Take the dwarves.” Then he reached for Fili and would have had him if Balin did not step in at the last moment to knock the tired prince out of the way.

“Dawn take you all!” a booming voice cried. With a crack, part of the wall surrounding the camp fell away and sunlight flooded into the clearing.

As the light struck them, the three trolls turned to stone. On the ground around them, something even stranger happened to the scorpions, which smoked and shriveled up like squibs, fizzling away to nothing.

Haloed in the light of dawn, the gray wizard stood upon the broken rock, leaning against his tall staff. Staring up at him, Bilbo felt very small and relieved.

Beneath the hobbit, Thorin shifted. Belatedly, Bilbo slid from his back to the ground. Thorin turned to face him, placing heavy hands on the hobbit’s shoulders. Grinning up at him was the only possible response.

“Imagine, fighting all night and carrying my weight besides.” Bilbo watched the black splatters evaporating away from Thorin’s face in the sunlight. Beneath the unnatural goo, Thorin’s face was bruised and cut from their flight through the forest. Strangely, the dwarf looked happy.

“Thank you for allowing it,” Thorin said. “Your weight is nothing to the back of a dwarf, and I could not have fought well knowing you were in danger.”

Bilbo laughed. “You could not fight poorly if you tried, Thorin Oakenshield. Don’t tell stories to a storyteller!”

A calloused hand slid up Bilbo’s neck to cup his cheek. Leaning into the warmth changed everything. Thorin’s eyes went dark, despite the bright light of dawn. Bilbo licked his lips. A handsome prince had saved him and was waiting to be kissed.

“You are unhurt?” Thorin murmured. “The poison of those monsters can linger, even in a scratch.”

“Kili!”

Jerking away from Thorin, Bilbo raced over to where his brother lay on the ground. Staring up at the sky, Kili was breathing heavily. His bow lay near his bandaged hand, and an empty quiver had been thrown haphazardly aside.

“Hullo, Bilbo!” The younger Baggins grinned lazily up at his brother and the blue sky. “The monsters treated you alright, then?”

“Of course I am alright you goof! What about you? Show me your hand!”

“It’s fine, it’s fine,” Kili said, waving the offending appendage toward Bilbo without getting up. “But I’m knackered. Thought I was ready for this adventuring bit, but running through the night has done me in. Not to mention all the fighting. These boots might have saved my life from scorpion stings, but I think I’ve a blister.”

“So, now that you’re a prince you will complain about everything?” Seizing his brother’s hand, Bilbo checked the bandage. It was, in fact, bloody. Fortunately, although he did not have his pack, he had a clean handkerchief in his pocket with which he could rebandage the wound. “Shall I present you this fresh bandage on a silver platter?”

Kili laughed. “And call me Majesty while you do so. I am a prince, you know.”

“As you command, Your Majesty.” Bilbo cinched the makeshift bandage a little tighter than was strictly necessary. Then he threw his arms about his brother and hugged him where he lay, unhelpfully upon the dirt.

Chapter Text

“What is all this lying about?” Dwalin barked. “On your feet, my lads. We’ve ponies to find and supplies to recover, if we may.”

Around the camp, the spent dwarves groaned and levered themselves to their feet. Bilbo felt much the same, despite having been carried instead of running. Terror created its own sort of exhaustion, and a whole night fearing for your life is never restful. Still, he rose alongside his brother. Finding the supplies was necessary, and he hoped the ponies were unhurt.

“Not you, old friend.” Gandalf’s craggy hand was gentle on Bilbo’s shoulder.

“I can manage,” Bilbo said, stifling a yawn. “We must find the ponies.”

“Someone must,” Gandalf agreed, “but not you. These trolls will have a cave nearby to hide from the sun, and I know of no person more suitable to help me look than you.”

“I am no expert on trolls or caves,” Bilbo objected.

“Perhaps not, but you are an observant fellow. Moreover, I have never found a fortress or hold secure enough to be impregnable against a curious hobbit.”

Bilbo laughed. “Still the entertainer! No hobbit would enter a locked place like some kind of sneak-thief. Well, not an adult. Obviously one must make allowances for children. But I am not about to go stealing mushrooms as a fifty-year-old. How silly you are, Gandalf!”

“Quite.” Gandalf’s lips twitched in a smile. “Nevertheless, I should like your help looking. Have you any thoughts about where the cave might be?”

Rolling his eyes, Bilbo wandered over to the stone hill. “I suppose it must be in the mountainous bit of the camp, mustn’t it?”

Thorin snorted, hiding a laugh. Bilbo realized that all the dwarves save Thorin were off already, recovering the supplies. And Kili was gone as well. Kili must be counted separately from the dwarves, of course. Or perhaps Bilbo should get used to lumping them all together. He looked at Thorin out of the corner of his eye.

“Send me not from your side,” the dwarf said quietly. “I will behave.”

Flushing wildly, Bilbo’s eyes darted to Gandalf. Fortunately, the wizard seemed not to have heard. He was rapping the stone with the nob of his staff, listening for echoes. Naturally, he heard many. The cave was clearly a large one. Troll caves must be, for their residents are extremely large themselves. Yet there was no obvious entrance. Bilbo saw the shriveled husks of several night-bile scorpions along the stone. Apparently, simply being a creature born of darkness was not enough to grant one entry into the cave.

Knowing what they were looking for was half the battle. Casting his eyes about the campsite, Bilbo soon came up with a large gold key. It would have been quite small to the trolls, something to pinch between two fingers, but in Bilbo’s hand it was as big as a doorknob. He found the place in the wall where it screwed in, and opened the door very easily. Ignoring the impressed look on Thorin’s face was the most difficult part of the whole endeavor.

“There,” Gandalf said, as pleased with himself as if he’d been the one to find the key. “What did I tell you? Nothing beats a curious hobbit.”

Ignoring him was simplicity itself.

A troll cave was not a pleasant place. Certainly it had nothing at all in common with a cozy little hobbit hole. No furniture lined the bare stone walls. Instead, piles of bones and bloody rags were tossed about callously. Bilbo did not look too closely at the bones, but he could tell that they did not come entirely from animals. In fact, the skull of a Big Person was prominently displayed upon a pike, still wearing a steel helmet, though no flesh remained upon the bone.

Shuddering, Bilbo stepped closer to Thorin. Instantly, the dwarf wrapped a comforting arm about the hobbit’s shoulders.

“Courage, my love,” Thorin murmured. “For here we find the spoils of victory.” Gesturing with one hand, he indicated a dusty weapons rack and an enormous wooden chest.

Bravely, Bilbo left the warm circle of Thorin’s embrace and went to open the chest. Struggling a little with the heavy lid, he pried it open, staring down in amazement. Golden coins, jeweled chalices, and silver chains filled the chest almost to the brim. Grinning, Bilbo looked up at Thorin, whose eyes were wide and impressed.

Gandalf snorted. “Nothing of value in there,” he said matter of factly.

Thorin scowled at him. “It may be mostly coin, but there is value in the weight of the gold if nothing else, Tharkûn. Coin will make a fine reward for the Company after a night spent in fear and fighting.”

“Weight being the operative term,” Gandalf said. “You cannot carry that lot over the Misty Mountains. I’ve no objection to everyone replenishing their purses, but otherwise such treasure is of little use to us. Come, see what I have found.”

What Gandalf found was apparently swords. Normally, swords would be of even less interest to Bilbo than treasure, but these were rather beautiful. A hobbit was no judge of such things, but a blacksmith’s brother developed something of an eye for elegance.

“Forged in Gondolin by the high elves,” the wizard said, handing one to Thorin. “These swords glow blue in the presence of orcs, and will warn a traveler of certain dangers. You could not ask for a finer blade.”

Thorin accepted the sword gracefully. Drawing it from its sheath, he tested the edge. Despite sitting idle for who knew how long, it remained sharp. “Useful indeed, Gandalf. I take back my words. You noticed then, that my Deathless was notched in battle?”

“Perhaps.” Gandalf smiled enigmatically. “In any case, I shall claim one blade for my own use. It is only right that you have the other, as the leader of our Company.”

Laughing, Thorin slid the blade back into its sheath. “I suppose I cannot call you a miser if you share in such a way.”

“And indeed, I am not finished,” Gandalf said. “This one is for you, Bilbo Baggins.”

Unable to hide his surprise, Bilbo accepted the third sword from Gandalf. Much smaller than Gandalf’s or Thorin’s, it still looked rather like them. There was a gentle curvature to the blade that reminded Bilbo of a leaf.

“Thank you, yes.” The hobbit laughed uncomfortably. “I ought to have got something better than a walking stick for myself before now. I was nothing but dead weight on Thorin’s back last night.”

“Never that,” Thorin said. “The ease of my mind when you are close frees my hands to fight. I could bear you all the way to Erebor. If Myrtle is not found, I will. Just as it pleases you.”

Bilbo laughed uncomfortably once more and looked at Gandalf. The old wizard was smiling gently. He must not have understood the sentiment behind Thorin’s words.

Thorin cleared his throat. “It is well that you now have a sting, to match any scorpion who tries for you again.”

Grinning in delight, Bilbo looked down at the little sword with new eyes. “Sting,” he said. “Yes, that is very good. My Sting.”

Thorin smiled. “Then you are pleased?”

“Enough of that! You can please me best at the moment by setting your dwarven eye to this treasure. We shall give the finest piece to Kili as a present, to cheer him up after his wound.”

“Shall we?” Thorin cocked an eyebrow.

“If you help me choose, I do not see why it cannot be a present from both of us. If we are all done with swords and such.”

“We are done with swords,” Gandalf said. “Distract yourselves as you see fit. I will be filling my pipe in the fresh air, if you care to join me when you finish.”

That sounded like a fine idea, but before Bilbo followed suit he was serious about choosing a present. Kili liked baubles, and he deserved some cheering up after being injured. Helpful up to a point, Thorin suggested a thick gold chain for Kili. Once that was done, however, he insisted on choosing a reward for each of the eleven other members of their party. Otherwise, it would be favoritism.

“Of course Kili must be our favorite,” Bilbo argued. “He is my brother and the object of your quest.”

“Our favorite.” Thorin smiled. Bilbo was suddenly aware that they were quite alone in the troll cave.

“Thorin.”

“Speak for me.” As the dwarf stepped close, Bilbo realized once again just how tall Thorin was. It was entirely unfair that someone so handsome should also be so tall and so very brave. “Share with me. I have no objection. Let all that is yours or mine be ours.”

When the calloused fingers lifted his chin, Bilbo did not pull away. A clean break would be best. Sneaking off together during the journey could only add danger to an already perilous quest. Yet Thorin did whisper the sweetest nothings. And his kisses were stronger than wine.

Eventually, Bilbo pushed Thorin back with extreme reluctance. “We cannot have one off in a troll cave with all of these grisly things about. It is too awful. And that skull is watching me.”

Thorin’s grin was fiercely triumphant. Clearly, he did not feel rejected by Bilbo’s words. “Not here,” he agreed. “But we will be together again. You desire me still, my love.”

Hooking into the very core of Bilbo, Thorin’s eyes pulled him ever closer. In truth, had the dwarf pressed, Bilbo would have allowed him anything at all. But Thorin never did press. He only accepted what was offered. After all, he was a prince. He could have anything he liked. Enjoying the distractions Bilbo provided was not the same as wanting him.

Shaking his foolishness away, Bilbo followed Thorin out into the sunlight where they enjoyed a quiet smoke with Gandalf. Then he got to work. By the time everyone returned with ponies and packs, Bilbo had a very passable mutton and barley stew on. It was not really proper for breakfast, but it was all he could make with the few trustworthy provisions in the troll camp. Fortunately, everyone was too hungry to care.

Even more than breakfast, the dwarves all appreciated the tokens selected from the treasure. Thorin presented these with no little ceremony, complimenting each member of the Company on some specific act of bravery during the fighting. So it was that Kili received his gold chain for not allowing the poison of the scorpion to fell him, and Oin received a jeweled chalice for having a poultice ready to save Kili’s hand. Fili got a beautiful golden brooch for thinking to collect Kili’s arrows. Balin’s prize was for protecting Fili from the trolls, and Dwalin’s was for killing the most scorpions over all. The giving of tokens took a rather long time, but it bucked the dwarves up tremendously. Besides, Bilbo liked listening to Thorin speak.

Surprisingly, when Thorin finished handing out the things they selected together, he turned to Bilbo.

“Bilbo Baggins,” he declared, “more than any other here, you saved us in the battle. By quick thinking and your clever tongue, you delayed the attack of the trolls. Without your action, we would have been caught between two evils and surely would have perished. This was crafted for a Man, and will not fit the wrist of a hobbit, but I think perhaps you might make use of it in another way.”

Then he dropped to his knees. Naturally, Bilbo was very familiar with the site of Thorin on his knees. His reaction was instantaneous and absolutely mortifying. All of the dwarves were looking at him. His brother was right there, grinning at him proudly. On his knees, Thorin caressed Bilbo’s bare ankle as though they were entirely alone. Flushed and fevered, Bilbo thought he might faint. If he did, he would not have to look at Gandalf to see what the wizard suspected. Nor was looking at Thorin safe. The bastard smirked at Bilbo before rising, but he also kept his body angled in such a way that no one would notice the obvious.

“Let us rest a while here. It is not wise to stay long in a place of such violence, but a little food and sleep will keep us on our feet. We travel at midday.”

Bilbo looked down at his ankle. A shiny silver bracelet now adorned it. Such fripperies did not look right on a hobbit, but it seemed to please dwarves to give them out. Obviously, Thorin chose this one to tease Bilbo specifically. Deciding not to give him the satisfaction of complaining, Bilbo claimed his pack from Kili and threw himself onto his bedroll. He was too exhausted for worries.

Chapter Text

Two of the ponies were lost. Bilbo hoped that they simply ran too far to be found, but he did not inquire too deeply into the matter. Bofur’s face was uncharacteristically grave when they spoke of it. Thankfully, Myrtle was well enough, but as the smallest and the lightest, it was clear that Bilbo would need to be the one to share a mount. The supplies which had been carried by a single pack pony were redistributed to all the rest as the party made ready to leave the troll camp.

“Bilbo will ride with me,” Thorin said, putting a hand on the hobbit’s shoulder.

Knowing he should object, Bilbo wondered if he would be too much of a burden for Kili. It was clear after the night before that despite his un-hobbitish interests, Kili was not a seasoned adventurer like the others. Yet suggesting he share with a dwarf other than Kili or Thorin might cause more problems than it solved. Fortunately, Gandalf stepped in.

“Bilbo’s weight may be a blessing to you, Thorin Oakenshield, but it is a burden to a pony. The hobbit will ride with me. A horse is better able to bear two riders.”

So that was that. Thorin frowned, but he did not argue. Everyone was too tired to fight. A morning nap was not the same as a good night’s sleep, and night could not come soon enough for anyone. Even Gandalf seemed tired, speaking little to Bilbo as the horse beneath them plodded along.

Riding a horse was even less comfortable than a pony, for Bilbo’s legs stretched too much around the broader seat, but the forest was pretty enough. Dappled sunlight danced between the new green leaves of spring. Ash, oak, and elm made beautiful guardians of the path. Beneath their eaves, Bilbo should be almost as safe as smials. Even so, he was uneasy. If his own feet could touch the dirt of the path, the hobbit knew he would feel better.

“Tomorrow, we will come to the house of Elrond,” Gandalf murmured as the sun sank low on the horizon. “Not soon enough to rest in safety this night, but tomorrow. Perhaps half a day more of travel, Bilbo. Courage!”

At these words, the hobbit realized he was trembling. In a firm voice he said, “I have never been afraid of the dark in all my life.”

“You did not know the dangers that lurked within it,” Gandalf said, still softly enough that the other riders could not hear him. “This fear is not cowardice; it is wisdom.”

“Will the scorpions come back?”

“No. The night-bile scorpion breeds quickly and in numbers so vast a hobbit can hardly countenance them, but they are easily eradicated. When they swarm, they lose any semblance of the instinctual self-preservation possessed by natural animals. Thus, they are caught out in the light of day, which destroys their kind. Few likely survived the swarm last night, and Elrond’s people will seek out the nest to end the infestation entirely.”

“Good.” Bilbo relaxed. “Then we shall have a lovely evening under the stars tonight. I am sure we could all do with some peace.”

Which was, of course, when the orcs attacked.

The horse crumpled beneath Bilbo, screaming horribly. Bilbo did not know a horse could scream. Falling to the dirt path, Bilbo banged his arm against a rock and rolled to the side. Air slammed out of his lungs. For a long moment, he couldn’t breathe. All around him was clashing steel, shouting voices, cries of pain, and fading light.

Blinking, he saw Thorin’s back. The dwarf stood tall above him, fighting another person with a sword. An orc, Bilbo realized slowly, as it gurgled around the sword in its throat and then fell. He saw it lying on the ground opposite him with empty gray eyes. Mottled, pock-marked skin covered its face, and black blood oozed from various wounds. Inside of its half open mouth, Bilbo saw sharp, twisted teeth. The monster did not look so very frightening, dead on the ground.

Thorin dropped low, catching an arrow with his wooden shield before it could strike Bilbo. While he crouched, a big brown beast with an orc on its back charged him. The slavering mouth was huge, each knife-like tooth as big as the dwarf’s fist. Thorin gave no ground before the monster, stabbing his elven sword up through the roof of its mouth and into its brain. The beast dropped on top of the orc, pinning it to the ground. Without pause, Thorin leapt forward and beheaded the downed orc, snarling a challenge of his own.

Bilbo sat up.

An arrow whizzed past his head.

Thorin spun around like a dervish, throwing a little ax from his belt at an orc with a bow. Bilbo was not certain this was the same orc who shot at him. Even so, the orc was dead. An ax sprouted from the center of its forehead. The blood that covered Thorin’s hands was black, but his face was red with fury.

Suddenly, Kili was there, pulling Bilbo all the way to his feet. “Are you hurt?” Kili did not look at Bilbo as he asked, turning to fire an arrow at some attacking orc.

“Just my arm,” Bilbo said. “I’m fine. How are you?”

“No complaints.” Kili grinned, which was so out of place that Bilbo wondered suddenly if he was dreaming. This was Kili’s dream, after all. His nightmare. He should not be smiling. “I’ve already killed three orcs,” the younger Baggins offered by way of explanation.

“Three?”

Kili shot another arrow, then laughed outright. “Four,” he corrected. “They are smaller than I remember.”

“Well, you are larger,” Bilbo said, looking about. Orcs and monsters were everywhere between the trees. It seemed to the hobbit that the dwarves were rather badly outnumbered.

Someone agreed, for Balin shouted, “Thorin, Thorin, we must retreat!”

Thorin only growled incoherently and tackled one of the big furred creatures, wrestling it to the ground before stabbing it through the heart. Finally connecting his knowledge of history to the evidence of his eyes, Bilbo realized that the furred beasts must be wargs. Their blood was black, like the orcs, for they were wolves twisted in the darkness to unnatural creatures. Darkness gave them strength.

Panicking, Bilbo looked to the last rays of sun sinking between the trees. Soon it would be gone entirely.

“Gandalf!” he cried. “The light is going!”

“Run, you fools!” the wizard commanded. “Out of the trees and into the open! We must make for Rivendell.”

Obediently, Bilbo ran with Kili at his side. They were of a pace, for Kili ran slowly, firing arrows into the trees as he went. All around, dwarves clashed with orcs as they ran. Thorin was not with them.

Looking back, Bilbo saw the dwarf at the site of the ambush, still battling ferociously. He was a terrible sight, covered in blood, full of rage. Neither blade nor arrow could touch him, but surely weight of numbers would bear him down eventually. Surely he realized they must run.

“Call out to him,” Balin said, beating a warg away from the tight group with his big staff.

Bilbo did not understand.

“Please Bilbo,” Balin said. “I know he frightens you right now, but you must call out to him. He will not hear me.”

Although he did not understand why this would be, Bilbo shouted Thorin’s name. Nothing happened. The path turned, and Bilbo could not even see the dwarf through the trees anymore. “Thorin!” he screamed. “Help! Please, Thorin! Please!”

With unbelievable speed, Thorin Oakenshield came charging through the trees like a ram, cutting down any orc in his path as easily as breathing. His eyes locked on Bilbo. In the dim twilight, Bilbo saw recognition there, despite the wild fury that seemed to lend wings to his feet and power to his blows.

As Thorin reached the group, the forest opened up into grassland and the last rays of sunlight left the company in darkness. Bilbo ran. Surrounded by fighting dwarves, snarling orcs, and hungry wargs, a hobbit could do nothing but run. At the head of their group, Gandalf’s staff shone with a bright light as the stars blinked into existence. The light gave Bilbo hope, but it also seemed unwise. There was no way they could lose the pursuing orcs while Gandalf bathed them all in light. There was no hope of hiding in the grassland.

So they ran.

Once again, Bilbo’s abject terror lessened somewhat as the pounding of his feet grew repetitive and the clash of swords began to sound ordinary. Bilbo was not simply a burden on Thorin’s back this time. Running on his own two legs, Bilbo had a sword of his own. He drew it.

One of the warg-riders struck at Kili’s unprotected side, and Bilbo parried the blow away with his little Sting, cutting the orc across his hand.

“Well done!” Kili cheered, turning to loose an arrow into the warg’s eye. The beast dropped back snarling, then charged again. Kili shot the riding orc through its throat and Bilbo stabbed the warg deep in its other eye. Both fell.

“Brothers have to stick together.” Bilbo grinned, flicking blood off of Sting.

“So they do!” Kili cried. “And that is a good thing, for I am almost out of arrows.”

Running and fighting at the same time was impossible, so Bilbo did not try it. Instead, he merely ran and poked his small sword at anyone who threatened his brother. In the dash and clash of the larger folk, a sharp little poke from a quick witted hobbit was quite effective. Many orc fell, but many more came on. Like the scorpions, Bilbo did not understand how there could be so very many orcs in a place only a few days away from the Shire.

“Who did you tell about finding Kili?” Gandalf demanded of the dwarves, but all he got in response was a chorus of denials.

By the light of the rising moon, Bilbo saw Thorin run up the low snout of a charging warg to battle with the orc sitting on its back. Once the orc was dead, the warg ran madly about, trying to buck the heavy dwarf off, but Thorin’s weight kept him balanced. Stabbing down into the warg’s spine, Thorin drove the beast into the ground. He was a hero. A dragonslayer out of myth. Even in darkness and terror, watching him made Bilbo feel safe.

Distracted and exhausted as he was, Bilbo did not see the spear driving toward Kili until too late. He parried the blow with Sting, but the orc was much stronger than a hobbit and had the momentum of a charging warg besides. Bilbo’s deflection only resulted in the spear slicing across his own belly instead of piercing Kili’s back.

Turning, Kili caught him in both arms as he fell. Pain unlike anything Bilbo knew in the Shire burned through his abdomen, and he felt quite dizzy. Kili bounced up and down as he ran, crying out for help.

“Put me down,” Bilbo said, “I will help you. What do you need?”

But Kili did not answer him. Bilbo wondered if he was speaking aloud. His eyes were full of tears and his throat hurt from crying out. Perhaps he was too hoarse to make himself heard.

Oin appeared, running beside Kili. His broad hands pressed hard against Bilbo’s pained stomach. “You must press here,” Oin said. “Keep the blood in.”

Then Kili was the one pressing hard against Bilbo’s stomach with the hand that also wrapped around his lower legs. It was an exceedingly awkward way to be carried, but Bilbo couldn’t really complain. He felt no pain. He felt nothing. Looking down at his waistcoat, he despaired a little. His third best waistcoat was lovely mustard yellow, but now there were ridiculous white bandages wrapped over it, soaking through with red despite the press of Kili’s hand. A bloodstain would quite ruin the fabric. Bilbo wondered where his pack was. It held his other clothes.

“Kili,” he said. “I have to change. I cannot be seen like this.”

His brother did not answer. Kili’s eyes were focused on the horizon as he ran. Bilbo could see the stars above his head, like a crown drifting into focus.

“The crown is a challenge from the Valar to the forces of darkness,” Bilbo remembered.

Kili did not answer him, or tease him for bringing up an ancient myth.

“Can you believe Thorin was the prince who killed a dragon?” Bilbo asked. “I should have liked to see him in a crown. I kissed him, you know. Really and truly.”

The stars swirled overhead as Bilbo’s vision began to blur. “This is nothing to do with you, Kili, so don’t think it for a minute. I’d have gone chasing after Thorin no matter what. And it was worth it. It was worth it. You were right. I was happy, for a while. Happier than I knew I could be. So don’t you worry about what comes next. It was nothing to do with you.”

Kili said nothing. Darkness came.

Chapter Text

Bilbo said goodbye. Kili would never forgive him for that. Not until he begged, bribed, and baked Kili all of his favorite foods for a month. Bilbo would have to get better, and quickly, to have even half a hope of Kili’s forgiveness.

Bilbo weighed nothing in Kili’s arms. Nothing at all. He was already gone.

Kili should have answered him. Should have said goodbye. Should have put an arrow in Thorin Oakenshield’s forehead the moment the dwarves set foot in Hobbiton. Bilbo’s last words were to tell Kili not to blame himself. So he didn’t. He wouldn’t. He put the blame where it belonged: with the dwarves.

And he ran.

Much as he wanted to stop, to weep, to turn and murder every last orc until he fell himself, Kili ran. Rivendell was a place of miracles. Rivendell was the place where Bilbo might be saved. They were so close. Gandalf said they were almost there. If Kili was fast enough, good enough, his brother might live. So he ran.

In the distance, a horn sounded. The triumphant fanfare was so incongruous with the orcish shrieks and ringing swords that Kili ignored it at first. Then it sounded once again, clear and strong, accompanied by the thunder of hooves.

The horses that ploughed through the grassland, trampling the wargs and crushing orcish skulls beneath their shoes, had little in common with the simple beasts Kili sometime shod in the Shire. These were not the muscular workhorses one might strap to a plough. They were elegant, graceful, and just as bloodthirsty as their riders.

In the light of Gandalf’s staff, the armor of the riders shone gold and silver, as did the armor of their steeds. The orcs who were not crushed beneath the calvary retreated. Fled in terror might be the way Bilbo described it in one of his stories. Kili did not care. Rushing headlong out of the circle of protective dwarves, he called out to the riders.

“My brother! Please! My brother is hurt! Can you take him to Rivendell? Please!”

The whitest of the horses galloped straight at Kili, stopping inches from his face. He did not flinch. Astride the great stallion was a tall elf with long, dark hair. Unlike the other elves, he wore no helm, only a circlet about his forehead.

“What tale is this?” the elf exclaimed. “That is no dwarf you carry, young master.”

“Nevertheless, he is my brother,” Kili said. “And he is dying.”

“I see this is no time for the telling of stories,” the elf agreed. “Hand him up to me.”

Kili did so at once. Bilbo’s body was so small and limp as the elf gathered him up. Lifeless, Kili thought, then cursed himself for thinking it. He knew he should say something more. Something to spur the elf to save Bilbo. Bilbo would have spouted some elvish pleasantry to instantly endear himself. But Bilbo could not speak. And Kili could only watch as the elf galloped away, disappearing into the darkness.

Other elves rode off following Bilbo. Kili watched them go. Vaguely, he was aware that some remained, walking their horses in a protective way around the injured and exhausted dwarves. At the front of the plodding column, one dismounted to walk alongside Gandalf and speak with the wizard. Bilbo would have understood their words. Bilbo was always so good with languages.

“Here.” Fili was walking next to Kili. Kili did not know how long that had been so. In his hands was Kili’s bow. “You dropped this. I thought you might want it back.”

Kili took it. He could make another, but he liked this one. It had been a bit of an experiment at the time, and no other hobbit in the Shire could draw it. Bilbo puffed and panted when he tried, unable to pull the string back even an inch.

“He was never any good at archery,” Kili said. “Perfect aim, of course, but rubbish at any distance. Not much use in a fight, either, though he was always fighting. Anyone who insulted me also got to black Bilbo’s eye as a bonus. At least that’s how it seemed. He always got hurt defending me, but he never stopped. He should have stopped. He was not made to be a warrior.”

“Is not.” Fili’s voice was steady, and his eyes glittered in the silvery light of the moon. “Bilbo is not made to be a warrior. Your brother is no good in a fight.”

Kili stopped walking to stare at the dwarf helplessly. A tear slipped down his cheek, swiftly followed by others.

Gripping Kili firmly by both shoulders, Fili said, “Bilbo is not strong, but he is as stubborn as cast iron and as loyal as a boar. He will not leave you. He will follow you anywhere, even into the Black Land itself, and complain about the state of your clothing the entire way. Do not lose your faith in him at the first difficulty! To love is to hope.”

Unable to hold Fili’s fierce gaze, Kili bowed his head, sobbing. Then, something warm pressed against his forehead. It was Fili.

They walked on.

Trees rose up from the grassland once more, but Kili took little note of them as he passed beneath their boughs. Nor did he listen to the talk of the dwarves or the singing of the elves. Instead, he put one foot in front of the other and steadfastly did not weep.

After some time they came into an open courtyard with statuary and other embellishments. Much has been said of the beauty of Rivendell, but Kili did not see it. He saw only stones, plants, and the place where his brother was. An elf came forth to greet them.

“Welcome, Gandalf,” he said lightly. “Lord Elrond told us you would be coming soon. Rooms and food have been prepared for all of you to take your rest.”

Before Gandalf could answer, Kili pushed forward, practically knocking Bofur over in his hurry to get to the front of their group. “My brother,” he demanded. “Is my brother here? Does he yet live?”

Stupidly, the elf looked down at Kili, blinking. “You are the first dwarves to arrive.”

“My brother is not a dwarf,” Kili growled. “He was carried here by an elf. Surely he has arrived before us!”

“Ah.” The elf’s brow furrowed. Clearly elves were not as intelligent as Bilbo’s stories indicated. Or perhaps this one was simpler than the rest. “The halfling? Lord Elrond returned with an injured halfling. Even now he is at work with it.”

“Him.” Kili’s vision clouded with red. “My brother is Bilbo Baggins of Bag End and he is not half of anything! He is a hobbit known throughout the Shire for his manners and eloquence. He is not an it!”

“I see.” Since the elf took a wary step backward, he might not be as moronic as he seemed.

“Yes, thank you Lindir,” Gandalf said, putting a restraining hand on Kili’s shoulder. “As I’m sure you understand, we are all overtired from our many trials. Last night we had a swarm of scorpions and three trolls. Tonight, we had orcs! Indeed, the peace of Imladris is a welcome respite. We are deeply grateful for your hospitality.”

Lindir nodded to Gandalf, but his eyes remained on Kili.

“Can I see him?” the younger Baggins demanded. “Can I see Bilbo?”

It was Gandalf who answered, not Lindir. “Would you put yourself in the way of Lord Elrond’s work? No, Kili. While Elrond toils, there is hope for Bilbo. Try to content yourself with that. Lindir will show you to a place just outside of Bilbo’s room where you may wait and know the instant a conclusion is reached, one way or the other. But you must be still and silent so as not to disturb the healers.”

“Yes,” Kili agreed instantly. “They will not even know I am there.”

Lindir looked reluctant, but he showed Kili through the winding stairs and paths of Rivendell to a bench which faced a door. It looked no different than other doors in that place, but Kili would not call it plain. The wood was carved with swirling patterns of leaves and wind. Some in the Shire might call it ostentatious, but Kili appreciated good craftsmanship. Bilbo would like it. He liked ornate things.

After a time, someone sat beside Kili on the bench. He also stared at the door with hard, unblinking eyes. As though he was worried about Bilbo. As though he had any right to worry about Bilbo.

Unable to suffer such an affront to his brother, Kili seized Thorin by the arm and dragged him some distance away. Finding an open garden full of fireflies where his voice would not disturb the healers, Kili said, “Stay away from my brother.”

“Kili—”

“No! Stay away from him. You were supposed to be a hero. He trusted you to be a hero, and you know how easily he trusts! Where is he now? What use was your protection?”

Thorin’s sad eyes had no effect on Kili’s temper. “I tried.”

“I don’t care! I don’t! He only came out here for you, you know. He would never have agreed to leave the Shire if you were not the handsome prince who slayed a dragon. Never! You seduced him!”

“Kili, you know that is not so.”

“He told me it was.” Kili’s breath came in pants and his eyes were full of tears once more. “His last words were that he’d only come into the wild to chase after you. So just you stay away from him now. Once he’s well, we’re going home. We’re going home, and he’ll be safe. I don’t care what happens to the rest of you, but stay well clear of the Shire!”

Understanding dawned over Thorin’s face. Furious, Kili hoped the dwarf would be hurt by knowing how bad he was for Bilbo, but Thorin only looked accepting. Bowing his head, he said, “As you say. The fault lies with me and no other. I will not burden you with my presence further.” Then he turned and walked away.

Part of Kili wished he would argue. Shouting at Thorin felt much better than worrying or waiting, but in the end he returned to the bench.

The sun rose before the door moved, casting golden light across the pale wood. Eventually, the shadows were banished to the corners and the door opened. Out came the tall elf who first accepted charge of Bilbo. Seeing Kili on the bench, he smiled. “Your brother will live.”

Leaping to his feet, Kili threw his arms about the elf’s middle, squeezing him with the affection born of joy. “Thank you!” he cried. “Thank you, good sir!”

The elf patted him a bit awkwardly. Kili quickly drew back. Fortunately, his eyes were soft and held no offense. “You are welcome. Rivendell will always stand against the darkness, and try to heal those wounded by it. Your brother is fortunate. Well do I know that hobbits are a hardy folk, but I should not have thought one could lose so much blood and live. Perhaps some power greater than I looks after him.”

Wiping the tears from his eyes, Kili said, “Aw, he’s as stubborn as bindweed, that’s all. Roots ten feet deep and just as suffocating when he’s trying to take care of you. But it’s my turn to take care of him now, and he’ll just have to cope! Can I see him?”

“You may.” The elf opened the door wide to show Bilbo resting peacefully in a large bed with white linens. His face was too pale, but his breath was slow and even.

At once, Kili rushed to his side. Taking his brother by the hand, he felt the warmth of Bilbo’s skin. He was sleeping. Only sleeping.

“Do not wake him,” the elf advised quietly. “His body has a great deal of healing left to do. I can stitch together skin and muscle. Strength is another matter. It will return in time, with care, but he must rest to recover.”

Nodding, Kili wiped away a few more tears. “Thank you. Yes, I’ll let him rest. Of course I will. He’s a right badger if you wake him too early, you know. Especially in winter.”

Once again, the elf smiled kindly. “You need rest yourself, my friend. Come. I will show you to a place nearby where you may lay your head.”

“No need,” Kili said, gesturing to a chair in one corner of the room. “I’ll do just fine in here with my brother.”

Smile fading, the elf looked at Kili like a stern father. “You will not. Covered in orc filth and road dust, you endanger his health. Others will guard your brother’s rest. When you have bathed, slept, and eaten, you may return to his side. Not before!”

Too tired and relieved to fight, Kili bowed his head. “As I am forever in your debt, I will not argue. May I know the name of one to whom I am so indebted?”

Surprised, the elf smiled again. “I am Elrond, master of this house.”

“Oh.” Staggering after him on weary feet, Kili remembered to be polite. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Lord Elrond. I believe you knew my mother.”

Chapter Text

The ceiling above Bilbo’s bed arched strangely. Curved in a natural way, it was nevertheless distinctly unlike the round dome of a room in a smial. Nor was it flat and square like rooms in the wooden houses of Bree. This ceiling arched with twisting embellishments like wooden vines and swirling patterns.

All three windows along the southern wall had similar arches. Bilbo questioned their qualifications as windows. These were not the friendly glass circles one would expect. No, they were great big holes in the wall, more like doorless doorways, and nothing prevented a hobbit from stepping through one and falling thousands of feet into a deep valley except a little ledge with a rather spindly railing.

Yet the valley was glorious in the sunlight with rainbows springing from great waterfalls and all of the trees showing off their new green leaves. Bilbo did not fear falling into such a depth as that. In fact, he was more at peace than he had ever been.

A shimmering blue butterfly fluttered into his room. After flitting about the corners and inspecting the wooden statue of an elven maiden over his bed, the butterfly landed squarely on Bilbo’s nose. It was very beautiful, but Bilbo’s eyes crossed to look at it. So he wriggled his nose and it flew away.

As Bilbo watched it soar down into the valley, Kili appeared in the doorway. His face lit with a brilliant grin. “Bilbo!” he cried, rushing over to the bedside and gripping his brother’s hand eagerly.

“Good morning!” Bilbo tugged his brother down to embrace him. The movement hurt his stomach a little, but having Kili firmly in his arms was entirely worth the price.

“Once again, you lie abed, my lazy bookworm of a brother,” Kili said. “It is nearly lunchtime.”

“That explains why I am so hungry!”

“You are always hungry.” Kili looked like he would not stop grinning for a good, long while. “I shall bring you something. You’re not to get out of bed at all today. Lord Elrond says tomorrow at the earliest, and that only for short jaunts.”

Bilbo scowled. “We are finally in Rivendell and I am stuck in bed?”

“Well, I shall bring Rivendell to you, starting with breakfast and followed by a healer. Lady Arwen wanted to check on you once you woke. The elves all thought it would be yesterday, but I wasn’t worried about that. I told Elrond you’d lie abed three days in a row if you were tired enough and someone brought you meals.”

“That was one time! I can’t believe you’re carrying tales about me to Elrond Half-Elven.”

“Don’t worry. I didn’t tell him it was because a lad you used to kiss was getting married.”

“I hate you.”

“Oh!” Kili flung himself forward again to hug Bilbo fiercely. “I am so glad that you are well. Breakfast first!” Then he raced away, leaving Bilbo in the quiet once more.

In truth, he did not feel much like getting out of bed. Quite beyond the familiar pangs of hunger, Bilbo’s stomach ached. Peering beneath the linens, the hobbit moved his shirt and saw white bandages. Like an unwanted flash of lightning, he was struck by the memory of the orc spear slashing across his skin. Warm as he was, the hobbit trembled.

Ever true to his word, Kili returned mere minutes later with fresh strawberries, honeyed pastries, and a very nice porridge for breakfast. Ravenous, Bilbo tucked in eagerly, pressing Kili for news of the Company.

“They are perfectly well,” Kili reassured him. “No one else was injured at all, unless you count a few bumps and bruises. Now that we’ve had a chance to rest up, the dwarves are all fighting fit once more. Rivendell is a marvelous place for resting.”

“I’m sure.”

“And of course practically everyone has inquired about your health. Gandalf got the news straight from Elrond, naturally. They are old friends, you know. Dori is mending your waistcoat, since I know you’re fond of it. Nori is helping him with getting the stain out, apparently he’s got all kinds of tricks for that. If I did not like him so much, I would wonder about his familiarity with bloodstains. And their brother Ori is writing you some kind of poem about heroism. You’d understand it better than I. Apparently he’s a scribe chronicling the doings of the line of Durin. That is how he came to be a member of the Company. Usually, someone as young as he is would not be allowed.”

Bilbo nodded, “Yes, we’ve spoken a little. Dwarven classic poetry is very different from the elvish kind. In fact—” Noting Kili’s look of fierce attention, as though he was entirely determined to actually understand poetry, Bilbo stopped himself. “Well, you don’t want to hear about that, and I want to eat my breakfast. How is everyone else?”

“You can tell me about poetry,” Kili insisted. But when Bilbo took a big bite of his pastry and made a point of chewing, Kili continued. “Well, Balin, who is first in line to visit you after the healers, has been hard at work in the library. After getting to know your own books so well this winter, he’s amassed more than a few titles to entertain you. Bofur also has big plans to come play you some music. He’s deeply critical of the elvish stuff.”

“I can imagine.”

“Speaking of critical, you should hear the dwarves go on about the food here. Bombur is convinced that you’ll never recover on vegetables alone. So if you want me to sneak you a few sausages, he has a whole plan about how to do that while they’re still hot. Oin seems equally skeptical about elvish medicine, and may try to dose you with some dwarvish concoction when he visits.”

“Oh dear,” Bilbo said. “I am quite content with my current care. Especially as it does not involve castor oil.”

Kili laughed. “Remember Aunt Rose? If you so much as twitched your nose, out came the oil!”

“Far too well.” Bilbo shuddered. “Please tell Oin I do not require medicine of any kind.”

“I shall do so,” Kili promised, “but you may want to accept his brother’s gift. Gloin and Bifur have worked together on a leather sort of jerkin for you. I told them how picky you are about clothes, and they are certainly not tailors, but they insist it’s folly to go about in the wild without any sort of armor.”

“I suppose I see their point after the last few days.” Bilbo sighed. “I just don’t know if I can bring myself to do it, Kili. Carrying Sting is one thing, but wearing dwarven clothing?”

Kili bounced to his feet, spinning around. “I think dwarven togs look well enough!” Only then did Bilbo notice how changed his clothing was. He wore a thick leather coat that matched the new brown boots Bilbo picked up for him in Bree. Down the front of the coat was beautifully embellished dwarven knotwork, which matched the hard leather bracers he wore over both wrists. These were scaled leather, slightly darker than the coat, and studded with bright steel. Upon his shoulders, he wore similar armor. With the short stubble of his beard growing darker by the day, Kili looked entirely dwarvish.

Bilbo grinned at him. “They suit you, of course, but a burlap sack might be an improvement over the soot stained shirts you wear to your forge. I have slightly higher standards.”

Kili returned the grin. “We can talk about it later. It will be a few days before you’re even allowed to try anything on.”

“Oh dear,” Bilbo said. “I should not like to wait days before walking around these beautiful gardens.”

Flopping into a chair close to the bed, Kili smile twisted into a smirk. “Don’t be in too much of a hurry! Fili and Dwalin are as worried about you as anyone. They’ve decided you ought to join in my fighting lessons.”

“Absolutely not! I’ve seen the way they throw you about. I won’t stand for it.”

“No, I’m very sure you won't.”

For a moment, the brothers simply looked at each other. When their laughter rang out, it echoed through the valley and cheered everyone who heard it.

Visiting with Kili lifted Bilbo’s spirits, of course, but visiting with Lord Elrond was far more interesting. All his life, Bilbo had been curious about the elves who so rarely passed through the Shire. Unfortunately, with Kili to look after, the hobbit never quite found time to make the acquaintance of one. Now he was in Rivendell with the greatest and wisest of that race. So he dusted off his elvish and tried to make a good impression.

Whether or not he was impressed, Lord Elrond was very gracious. Speaking with Bilbo for a good long while, he confirmed that the hobbit must stay in bed and rest in order to make a full recovery. Only a few visitors would be allowed at a time.

Even given that constraint, the dwarves did their best to overwhelm Bilbo with their attentions, just as Kili said they would. Exactly as Kili said they would. With no exceptions.

Dropping hints was futile. No one would address the matter. When Bilbo asked if anyone else was injured, Balin assured him that the rest of the Company was in perfect health. After Dwalin and Fili left, Bilbo asked if he would have any more visitors.

“Probably some of the elves,” Kili said, so casually that Bilbo knew he was obfuscating on purpose.

So Thorin was very badly hurt, or he was—probably just very badly hurt. And Kili didn’t want Bilbo to worry. Undeniably, Bilbo would have done the same thing had their situation been reversed. However, as he was already worrying—and the older brother—Bilbo decided that enough was enough.

“It’s such a shame these elves don’t know how to make a proper sweet bun,” the hobbit lamented loudly. “I think a good, warm Hobbiton Bun would have me back on my feet in a trice.”

“Oh!” Kili looked at his hands the way he always did when he had a particularly good idea. “I’m just going to step out for a minute, if you don’t mind, Bilbo. I’ll make sure someone else comes to sit with you.”

“No need for that.” Bilbo waved a hand. “I think I’ll have a nap. You enjoy the wonders of Rivendell.”

It would take Kili an hour and a half to do the baking. More than enough time for a hobbit to do a little searching of his own. Unfortunately, Bilbo did not anticipate how stiff his limbs would be, nor the pain that stretching his stomach muscles would induce. It took him nearly a quarter of an hour just to get out of bed. By the time he did so, Balin was in the doorway.

“You are meant to be resting all day!” the dwarf exclaimed. “If you require something, pray ask for it.”

“Very well.” Bilbo glared at Balin. “I require honest news of Thorin. None of this hiding as though I cannot face the truth. Is he dead?”

Balin blinked, taken aback. “No! No, he is well, Bilbo. I promise you that. Return to your rest.”

“I will not!”

“Return to your rest,” Balin continued, “and I shall bring him. With my apologies. I did not countenance the conclusion you would draw from your brother’s plan.”

Bilbo collapsed against the side of his bed. “Then he is well enough to walk?”

“He is.”

“Oh, alright then.” Levering himself back into his sickbed, Bilbo nodded his acceptance. “For I, as it happens, am not.”

When Balin smiled, his eyes twinkled in the sunlight. “Didn’t seem like that was going to stop you.”

Mortified, Bilbo hoped that the red in his cheeks would be attributed to exertion. “I don’t enjoy being lied to.”

“No one does,” Balin agreed, serious once more. Without another word, he slipped away.

For long minutes, Bilbo wondered if he was being tricked once again. Balin might be fetching Kili. Balin might simply be playing for time until Kili finished his baking and returned to Bilbo’s side. As yet, the hobbit was unwilling to force a confrontation with his brother. If Kili came back before Balin, Bilbo would have to let the matter lie.

A fat robin landed on the spindly balcony railing. He whistled at Bilbo in a cheerful way. Smiling, Bilbo whistled back. Springtime in Rivendell made brooding rather difficult.

Soon enough, Thorin himself appeared in the door to Bilbo’s room. His long hair framed his face with two even braids, and his short beard was neat and freshly groomed. He wore the blue shirt created by Bilbo’s own tailor. It brought out the sky in his eyes. The hobbit felt his smile growing into a grin.

“You look well.”

“Thank you.” Thorin bowed elegantly. “Please allow me to apologize for giving you cause to think otherwise.”

“Why ever did you? And don’t stand in the doorway. Come over here where I can see you properly.”

Obeying with slow, measured steps, Thorin seemed reluctant to even give his hand to Bilbo. Of course they must be careful, but Bofur, Balin, and Gloin had all given Bilbo’s hands a little squeeze. There was nothing suspicious about holding hands with someone in a sickbed. “You are returning to the Shire.”

Bilbo blinked in surprise. “Well, yes, but that has always been our plan.” Peering carefully into Thorin’s face, the hobbit added, “And things might change. Once we see Erebor. Depending on Kili’s feelings, naturally.”

“Naturally,” Thorin whispered. His eyes went wide. Both of his hands wrapped around Bilbo’s, warming the little hobbit up a treat.

Biting his lip, Bilbo had to look away. Between the enormous windows and the rumored perceptivity of elves, it would not be safe to share a kiss anywhere in Rivendell.

“But that is not to be.” Thorin released Bilbo’s hand and stepped backward, away from the bed. “When I say you and your brother are returning to the Shire, I mean at once. Some of the Company will escort you there, though I will remain here to speak of matters of state with Lord Elrond.”

Turning back to Thorin, Bilbo couldn’t help staring. The dwarf was stone faced and impossible to read. “You can’t be serious. What about the prophecy? Your sister? The salvation of Erebor?”

“Your brother and I agree that your safety is more important. The wild is no place for a hobbit.”

“Don’t I get to make that decision?”

“No.” Without another word, Thorin strode away from Bilbo’s bedside.

“Thorin! I don’t understand why you will not at least speak with me. Surely there is more warmth than this between you and I. Can we not discuss the topic in a civil way?”

A heavy, dwarven hand pressed against the door frame. Thorin hesitated. Not bothering to look at Bilbo again, Thorin said, “That is over now. There is nothing in the wild for you save danger, Bilbo Baggins. Danger that you are too weak to face. Return to the safety of your Shire.”

Chapter Text

Holding onto anger was impossible once Bilbo woke, but Kili tried. It helped that Thorin did not speak to him. In fact, the dwarven prince would bow and excuse himself from any room Kili entered. As though Kili was the one who ought to apologize.

Overhearing Thorin speaking to Gandalf did not help. “He must be wroth with someone,” Thorin said gruffly. “Better me than his injured brother or himself.”

“Best to put the blame where it lies,” Gandalf said. “With the orcs.”

“But they are not here to be angry at,” Thorin said with an easy sort of acceptance.

After that, clinging to fury was difficult indeed. So other emotions began to fill Kili’s heart. Bilbo was so small and frail in the center of his big white bed. He could be hurt so easily. He certainly wasn’t in a position to protect anyone else.

Cornering Thorin as the dwarf approached to visit Bilbo, Kili said, “You aren’t welcome here.”

Bowing, the prince made to excuse himself again. Then, he paused. “I will not impose my company upon you, my sister son. But I would see him with my own eyes.”

“Absolutely not.” Fear could give the voice just as much vehemence as fury, Kili realized. Hopefully Thorin could not tell the difference. “You will stay away from my brother entirely! We are going home. Home, where he’ll be safe. He doesn’t need you clouding the issue by being handsome at him.”

Thorin’s lips twitched. As though he would laugh at Kili.

“He nearly died!” Kili shouted, finding his anger once again. “He will die, if we keep on this mad journey. Don’t you understand that? Whatever you might think of me, you cannot deny that he is a Baggins of Bag End. That is where he belongs. That is where he is safe. So that is where we are both going.”

Thorin didn’t answer. His opinion didn’t matter. Kili returned to Bilbo’s side, undisturbed by the prince’s silence. Even if Thorin did start some sort of campaign to win Bilbo over, Bilbo wouldn’t choose him. Bilbo wouldn’t go to Erebor without Kili, and Kili was going home. Just to be on the safe side, he warned all of the dwarves not to mention Thorin to Bilbo. Bilbo didn’t need to be upset by his other visitors, any more than he needed a visit from Thorin.

Bilbo deserved every comfort in the world. The elves were even happy to let Kili use their kitchen, if slightly bemused by the request. Working in a larger oven than usual presented an interesting challenge, but Kili could make sweet buns in his sleep. Anyone in Hobbiton could. It was a point of pride for them with the rest of the Shire. Steaming, fresh from the oven, he wrapped them in a cloth napkin, put them in a basket, and delivered them to Bilbo within an hour of the request.

They were not met with the cheer Kili expected. Bilbo smiled very weakly when he accepted the first. Tearing the soft bread in half, Bilbo watched the steam rise. He did not even butter it before putting it in his mouth.

“Is something wrong?”

“Oh, nothing. These are very good. Thank you for making them.”

“Bilbo?”

“You might have mentioned that you don’t intend to continue on toward Erebor.”

“Oh.” Kili straightened his back. “I don’t. I’m going home now. I’ve had enough of adventures.”

“Yes. So I heard.”

“From who?” Kili narrowed his eyes suspiciously.

Bilbo took a second bun. An incongruous tear slid down his cheek, but he quickly brushed it away.

“Bilbo?”

“It’s nothing. I—is there tea?”

Kili instantly fetched the teapot from a side table. “Are you in pain? Should I get a healer?

“No, no, sit down and have a bun while they’re still hot. We can talk about it later.” He did not look up to meet Kili’s eyes.

Unable to help, unable to do anything, Kili obeyed his brother. He poured two cups of tea. Then, he sat and ate a bun. Bilbo did not speak again. Eventually, he fell asleep. Kili did not stay.

Positively out of sorts, the younger Baggins went walking in the garden. It was a lovely place, in full bloom despite the fact that it was a muddy spring, and Kili would not be surprised to see ice along with dew first thing in the morning. One wouldn’t know it to look at the lush chrysanthemums bursting open all over the place, despite the fact that it was far too early for them. Kili plucked some blue delphinium for Bilbo, gripping it tightly as he continued to pace the garden.

Looking down at the flowers, Kili nearly crashed into Lord Elrond. “Sorry, Mister Elrond, sir! I didn’t see you.”

“No.” The elf’s lips twitched in what might have been a smile and he bowed to Kili. “You see only your own thoughts.”

Kili laughed uncomfortably. “I suppose that’s the problem, yeah.”

Gesturing with an open hand, Elrond indicated the path before them. “May I join your walk?”

“It’s your garden.” Kili shrugged.

“And yet I see some of it in your hand.”

“Oh!” Flushing, Kili looked down at the blue flowers in his clenched fist. “My apologies. I thought, well, for Bilbo. But I know it’s rude to go picking flowers in another person’s garden.”

“Peace,” Elrond said. “You are as welcome to the flowers as you are to everything else in my household, though it is strange as ever to me that a dwarf should value them. Yet once again, I correct my thinking. As I recall, the hobbits of the Shire assign meaning to certain flowers. Why are these appropriate for your brother? Do they wish him good health?”

“Er, no.” Once again, Kili felt his cheeks heating up beneath the short stubble of his beard. Bilbo would have done that. If Kili was the one in a sickbed, Bilbo would have a bouquet of daffodils, chrysanthemums, and baby’s breath done up in a cheerful yellow ribbon within the first hour. All Kili had was a handful of delphinium. “Lighthearted. They’re just to ease worry, you know?”

“Ah.”

For a while, they walked in silence. Kili didn’t know what to say to such an ancient, lordly fellow. He’d probably seen all the weather that there would ever be. Even so, a Hobbiton lad only had so many options. “Rain tomorrow, do you think?” he asked politely.

Elrond smiled. “Rain tonight. The flowers need it. But at an hour when all will be abed or in the Hall of Fire. The grounds will dry within the first hour of sunrise.”

Kili stopped walking to stare at the elf. “Do you control the weather, then?”

“I am the master of Rivendell,” the elf said enigmatically. “Tell me, is your brother’s heart heavy with fear? The next step of your journey crosses the Misty Mountains, and he will be the first hobbit to do so in a hundred years.”

“We are not crossing the Misty Mountains.” Kili tried to keep his voice even and friendly. He failed.

Elrond raised an eyebrow. “You have come far to the north if your goal is the Gap of Rohan.”

“We are not going there either,” Kili snapped. “My brother and I are going home. As soon as he is able.”

“Ah.” Folding his hands behind his back, Elrond walked in silence once more.

Kili couldn’t take such censure. “We have to go home! He could have died! It’s not safe outside of the Shire.”

When Elrond looked down at him, Kili had the distinct feeling of being measured. “You are a Prince of the Line of Durin.”

“I am a Hobbiton blacksmith, and happy to be one.”

“Birth is not so easily denied.”

“I don’t care. It doesn’t matter that folk know I’m a dwarf now, and not really a Baggins. All that matters is Bilbo getting home safe.”

“And how safe might your home be?”

Wind rustled through the gorse bushes, sending bright golden petals sailing through the air.

“What do you mean?”

“What prevents the dangers you encountered on your journey here from entering the Shire?”

“Well, they never have before.” The garden path wound toward one of the waterfalls. Kili looked at the cool placid pond full of yellow and orange fish. It seemed placid and protected, until his eyes lifted a little and he saw it hurtling off the cliff into space.

“Not in force, not since what you call the Fell Winter, but you would be surprised to learn some of the things which have drawn close. Only a year ago, a ward of mine rescued a hobbit lass overtaken by serpents in a forest. From what I hear it was a very near thing.” Elrond looked hard at Kili. “Rivendell protects these lands somewhat. We hunt the creatures of darkness who encroach upon our territory, but our numbers are not great. Rivendell is a house, not a kingdom.”

“Then what keeps the Shire safe? If those scorpions found their way to Frogmorton or some place—”

“Luck.”

Kili whipped his head around to stare up at the elf. Elrond did not laugh.

“You give the example of the night-bile scorpion, which is a good one. It only takes a single female to come down from the mountains to begin an infestation. Their numbers grow at an astonishing rate in the darkness, as long as they do not swarm. By Gandalf’s report, I judge that five or six days more would have given the scorpions enough time to reach the borders of the Shire. At that point, the swarm could not be dealt with by a small party of travelers, even with a wizard.”

“Impossible.” Kili forced his neck to turn back toward the pond. One of the yellow fish blew a little bubble. An orange one began nibbling at the stem of a water lily.

“The Rangers of the North patrol the borders of the Shire, and they are strong. Strong enough to rescue children that wander too far into the forests. Yet like the elves, their numbers are diminishing. There may come a time for the strength of men to grow once more, but I see that like a shadow on a road at a great distance, and I do not trust such visions.”

“You are saying that you and the rangers are not enough to keep the Shire safe. That something awful might wander into the Shire at any moment. But what can we do? I don’t think even the bounders would have much of a chance against those trolls.”

Elrond looked out over the waterfall, and then up at the big gray clouds gathering in one corner of the blue sky. “I would not say this to a hobbit, for you are correct. A Hobbiton blacksmith could do nothing about these events, except practice his archery and hope that he passes peacefully before the approaching calamity.”

Kili’s hand tightened on the flowers in his fist. At least he could probably keep Bilbo safe. They could go to Tuckborough. Great Smials was a fortress. If they closed up the doors and shot arrows through the slots, the Tooks could easily outlast any darkness.

“A Prince of the line of Durin might do much,” Elrond said.

The elf did not look at Kili. He seemed to be talking to the wind.

“Dwarves have forgotten their strength. As elves retreat to the safety of their forests, so too the dwarve hide away within their mountains, and all of us let the darkness grow. I wonder sometimes if these western lands would be safer if there were more dwarves in Ered Luin. Or if the roads were sturdy enough to encourage more to travel for commerce.”

Kili didn’t know the answer to that. Bilbo might have, with his maps and histories. For all that he did not belong in the wide world, Bilbo Baggins knew much more about it than his brother did.

“Do you not even wonder why Thorin Oakenshield, great hero of his people, travels with an entourage of eleven?”

“I, well, given all these dangers and things, doesn’t it make sense to have a few friends on the road?”

“Only eleven? A dwarf of his station should have an honor guard of fifty, at least.”

From one of the balconies, a bird took wing. Kili squinted at it, but all he could make out was a flash of red. Perhaps it was a robin. Perhaps not. “I don’t know. Why don’t you ask him?”

“It is because of you, Kili Baggins. Roads are not safe. The dwarves of Erebor know it well. I do not even call it cowardice, for dwarves are not a craven folk. Say instead that they weigh what might be gained in trade and travel against the danger and remain within their mountains. But as fewer folk travel the roads, the darkness in the wild festers and grows. What will happen when the blood of the rangers is spent? What will happen when even valiant dwarves like Thorin cease to turn their attention outward?”

Kili bit his lip. He did not like any of the answers that came to mind. A spring breeze blew across the surface of the pond, creating ripples that seemed to move toward land, belying the true direction of the current. “It can’t be my fault,” he said. “I was only a baby.”

“Fault lies only with the darkness.” Elrond stretched out a hand slowly, and a blue butterfly came to land on him. It fanned its wings a little, seemed to realize that an elven finger was not a flower, then flew away.

“What could I do, even in Erebor? I’m not half the fighter Fili is. I’d have been dead three times over just coming here if Bilbo didn’t keep rescuing me.”

“Remind them that there are things beyond the mountains worth seeking. There are places in the world beyond their homes worth protecting. That quests, even those long thought impossible, can come to fruition. The dwarves are strong. Strong enough to turn the tide of darkness that I see rising even now. But only if they act.”

Kili looked down into the water once more. There were more orange fish gathered there now, like ducklings begging for breadcrumbs at Elrond’s feet. “What about Bilbo?”

“Your brother’s path is more difficult for me to see. Yet he is unlike any hobbit I have ever met. If he desires it, he would be welcome to remain in Rivendell. All are safe here.”

Kili frowned. Bending down, he picked up a smooth, flat stone from the edge of the pond. Then he dropped it among the fish with a loud plunk. They scattered instantly, darting away from Elrond and into the deeper water.

“You will not separate us,” he declared, stomping away. Retreating into a bad temper seemed the only way to keep himself from thinking awful things.

Chapter Text

The feminine carving presiding over Bilbo’s bed mocked him. So did the elven lady in his room.

“Come now, Master Baggins. I have seen the rabbits in the field and Lindir in his cups, I assure you, there is nothing you could show me that would surprise or affront.” Then she gestured cheekily to the bath, expecting him to strip off simply because she told him to.

“And I assure you, my young miss, that I have absolutely no intention of exposing myself to anyone of the female persuasion.”

Laughing, Arwen said, “I am a daughter of the house of Elrond, Master Baggins. Compared to you, I am a matron at least.”

She was pretty enough, even beyond the beauty which was the lot of all elves. With hair like night and skin like starlight, she must be considered a jewel indeed by her father. “Perhaps so, Daughter of Elrond. Yet in you the blood of Luthien the Fair runs pure, and I cannot be the first mortal to look upon you and see spring after long winter.”

“Oh!” Her eyes, which seemed dark during distant conversation, were quite blue when they went wide. “You flatter me.”

“I speak only the truth, and the plain truth is that a small creature must always shy away from the eyes of the tall and the beautiful.”

“Then I shall avert my eyes,” she promised. “Even so, I would prefer to remain in the room should you experience any difficulty. I shall sit behind the dressing screen. Upon my word, I will not peek.”

Bilbo softened, perfectly aware that she did not deserve to have his ill temper vented in such a way. “Perhaps we could arrange the screen in front of the tub? Then you might still have access to the better part of the view and the room.”

Arwen smiled.

So that was what they did. In fact, saying they did it together is too generous. Bilbo lifted no more than a tenth of the weight of the large, painted screen. However, he was able to prove his earlier point. Bathing himself was easy enough. Dressing thereafter stretched his healing stomach a little uncomfortably, but the hobbit managed in the end. Unfortunately, he had to make do with his fourth best waistcoat. He wanted to save the second best one for occasions, of course, and he’d left the very best at home.

The mustard yellow coat was still in Dori’s keeping. It would likely prove unsalvageable. Blood stains were difficult under the very best of circumstances, and a giant slash straight across the front was hardly the best of circumstances.

Even so, the fourth best waistcoat of Bilbo Baggins was nice enough for anyone. It was a lovely green tweed with brass buttons. Many people in Hobbiton and beyond would be extraordinarily happy to have such a waistcoat. He resolved not to be upset about the loss of the other. Bilbo’s luck was very good, and he would do well to remember as much.

He had, of course, a pair of golden cufflinks that would compliment the outfit nicely. Those, he did not wear. Those, he did not even look at.

“A small creature you may be, Master Baggins,” the elf said when he stepped out from behind the screen, “but you have a beauty of your own. Moreover, I think you know it.”

Then it was Bilbo’s turn to laugh, and tousle his curls just a bit more. “Well, when one has very few natural advantages, one learns to accessorize. Yet such things are better done in private, so that others think the results effortless.”

Arwen smiled. “Privacy among elves is not easily found.” Tilting her head gently to one side, she indicated the balcony. Willingly, Bilbo walked alongside her to look out into the valley. “Do you see that waterfall there? The third from the right?”

“Yes.”

“Behind that waterfall there is a cave. Between the roar of the falls, the water to damp any scent, and the darkness of the cave, I believe it is the only place in Rivendell where one can be entirely unobserved. Anywhere else, your heartbeat will be audible to at least one elf.”

Bilbo laughed. “However did you discover such a place?”

“When one’s father sees even the future, a child may long for privacy just as you do. I understand the chafe of constant observation, my friend, better than you think. But in a cave such as that one, you will see neither the stars nor your own beloved companions. Better to walk in the garden, to see and be seen.”

“Much better, I should think,” Bilbo agreed. “And the observation of elves is no hardship, when they are as kind and lovely as you, my lady.” Playing the galant, he offered her his arm with a flourish. Graciously accepting it, Arwen led him out on a tour of the gardens the hobbit most wanted to see. They were stunning: all that he could dream and more.

But the waterfall did not leave his mind.

Several days later, when he finally worked up the courage, Bilbo asked Balin to deliver a note for him.

Thorin:

Good morning! I hope you are keeping well. My own recovery is complete. I am healed. In fact, according to Lord Elrond, I am now as hale as I have ever been. Yet I still feel unwell.

Despite what you may believe, you are not the first lover to take his leave of me. Many fellows who have spent time with me have married over the years, or otherwise wished to change the nature of our friendship. Always before, I have been able to part with someone in an amiable, agreeable fashion. My dearest wish is that you and I can do the same.

For the sake of the good memories I have of our winter together—which I would not have spoiled by such an unhappy break—let us meet for a last goodbye. Please. If you have any fondness for the time we spent together, meet me at noon today beside the purple lilacs. I can bear an ending either way, but it would ease my heart greatly if we could speak in private one final time.

Yours in Hope,
Bilbo Baggins

Giving the note to Balin before breakfast ensured that Thorin would have plenty of time to read it and consider, but that did nothing for Bilbo’s nerves.

He had seen the dwarven prince several times at Elrond’s table in recent days, but Thorin sat in state at the Lord’s right hand. They spoke of great matters. The swords found in the troll cave were identified as Orcrist and Glamdring. Intelligence about the movements of goblin armies and the strength of Mount Gundabad was shared. Murmured hints about the ancient dark kingdom of Angmar were given. There was no place in such talk for a hobbit. Indeed, Thorin did not look at Bilbo once on those occasions. Not even coldly. It was as though Bilbo’s chair was empty, and Thorin’s eyes could not focus upon it.

Bilbo did not dare speak to him in public.

Even so, he hoped that a private farewell might ease the tension and allow them to part as friends. Kili was making noises about returning to the Shire sooner rather than later, now that Bilbo was up and about.

So Bilbo waited. Just after elevenses, the hobbit went to the grove of lilacs near the base of the waterfall with Arwen’s cave, and he waited. Noon came. The scent of lilacs mingled with the cool mist of the falls. Noon went. The gentle thrum of the waterfall was just distant enough not to blot out the birdsong entirely. Bilbo enjoyed the trill of a wood thrush chorus. Warm sun drifted from directly overhead to a distinctly westward angle. Bilbo waited. To leave would be to admit that Thorin cared nothing for his misery.

He was not going to be miserable. Bilbo resolved that he would not shed a single tear over Thorin Oakenshield, no matter what. For fifty years, he had been perfectly happy without Thorin. That would hold true for the next fifty years. It had to.

Suddenly, down the winding flagstone path, Bilbo heard the pounding of boots. Thorin burst around the corner and stopped abruptly, staring at the hobbit. Framed by lilac bushes, Thorin looked as handsome as ever, even with a reddened face and wild, windblown hair. Taking an obvious breath, the dwarf straightened his tunic and walked forward with more dignity.

“My apologies, Master Baggins. I have been awaiting you in another part of the garden, next to what I have now been informed, is lavender.”

Bilbo did not know if this was a polite excuse or if a person of Thorin’s obvious intelligence could really mistake a flower for a bush. In the end, it didn’t matter. “I quite understand,” Bilbo said. “Thank you for coming.”

Thorin bowed his head. “I have caused you pain. If it is within my power to ease that burden, I will.”

Bilbo swallowed. Then smiled. “Come. Let us talk in private.”

Raising an eyebrow, Thorin turned his head in an obvious manner, as though searching the bushes for hidden spies.

Bilbo rolled his eyes. “Elves do not need to be seen to see us, you know.”

The humor left Thorin’s face, but he agreed. “I fear we chance being overheard no matter where we speak. I know you must dislike the risk—”

“I do.” Bilbo had to cut Thorin off, before he lost his nerve. The dwarf allowed it. He also assented to Bilbo taking his arm and leading him to the falls, and along the narrow, rocky path behind the thundering water.

It was a considerably damper prospect than Bilbo envisioned. The misty spray was more of a summer shower than a thin fog, and it plastered his hair to his face, wetting his jacket. No natural light entered the cave, save that which came through the thick curtain of the waterfall. This was was enough for hobbit eyes to see, but it cast the world in a strange shade of blue. Thorin was in a similarly damp state, his silk shirt clinging to his body like tangled bedclothes on an early morning.

“Apologies,” Bilbo said, finding a dry handkerchief in his interior jacket pocket and offering it to Thorin. “I learned that privacy was possible here, and the prospect so excited me that I did not anticipate water being wet.”

As he used the little white cloth to dry his face, Thorin did not quite hide a smile. Then he returned Bilbo’s handkerchief. “An easy mistake to make.”

Just like that, Bilbo was at ease. Being teased in that warm, familiar manner made all the coldness of the past few days evaporate like snow in summer. “Who is the more mistaken? The eager leader or the one who trusts him blindly?”

Thorin’s laugh was low and huffy, as though he begrudged his own amusement. “I would trust you to the very edge of the world, Bilbo Baggins.”

“Oh, none of your flattery, Thorin.” Bilbo slapped his arm lightly. “We are here to speak honestly.”

Catching Bilbo in his arms, Thorin pulled him into a desperate kiss. Bilbo’s mouth opened immediately, and his hands found the old familiar places along the plane of Thorin’s back. The soaking wet clothing did nothing to cool their building ardor.

Eventually, Thorin broke the kiss. Tempting as it was to stretch up on his toes and claim another, Bilbo restrained himself. In compromise, he tangled his fingers in the dripping fabric, holding the dwarven heat close for as long as he could manage.

“I know what it means when you find a private place for us, Master Baggins,” Thorin said. “We are here to be together one last time.”

Naturally, Thorin would think that after all of their many assignations. Bilbo swallowed. In truth, a dark, damp cave was not at all where he wanted to be with Thorin. Not after that wonderful winter in a warm bed.

“I only want to talk,” Bilbo promised.

“Oh?” Thorin stepped backward, and Bilbo did not cling. Slowly, the dwarf’s hands went to the hem of his wet shirt, peeling it away from glistening skin to reveal that thick thatch of chest hair. In the green-blue light of the sun through the waterfall, Thorin looked like a visitor from fairy land. The prince of a magical kingdom that Bilbo should never have known. No one else of Bilbo’s acquaintance had such a downy coat. No other lover he would ever take would look at all similar. There could be no balm or palliative for missing Thorin. The shirt hit stone with a wet slap. Thorin raised an eyebrow.

“Is that so?”

Bilbo ached with desire. Just once more, one last time, he could have Thorin. All he had to do was reach out and accept the offer. “Yes,” the hobbit said, surprised by the strength in his own voice. “It is.”

Seeming to take this very hard, Thorin screwed his face up unhappily. “Then you are truly finished with me.”

“Come now,” Bilbo said sensibly. “You are the one who ended things, and in a rather cold way at that.”

“Why bring me here then?” Thorin demanded. “To punish me?”

“Of course not.” Bilbo looked at the blue sunlight filtering through the waterfall. “If you are truly so disappointed as that, I will oblige you. If you insist. Only you must promise to let me keep my own trousers on. A Baggins has his pride, after all.”

Perhaps it would be for the best to have Thorin insist, as so many lovers had done before him. Marring the memory of that perfect winter would let Bilbo carry on, knowing his prince to be imperfect. Thorin could have what he wanted, and Bilbo would know for certain that Thorin had only ever been interested in gratifying his own desires. The waterfall roared in his ears.

After a time, Bilbo turned to look at Thorin. Frozen in abject horror, the dwarf was only staring silently at him. Bilbo’s gaze seemed to break the spell. At once, Thorin snatched up his wet shirt from the ground, pulling it on. “No, not that,” he said. “Never that. Tell me, Bilbo please, for pity’s sake, tell me I have not—Has it not been, as you said on the night of our storytelling, only ever to please us both?”

A perfect prince to the last, then, Bilbo thought, and he felt very warm despite the chill, damp air. “It has,” the hobbit said. “You never do hurt me, Thorin. That was one of the things I liked best about you.”

“Obviously I do not hurt you!” Looking tremendously relieved, the dwarf passed a hand over his face which was once again damp after pulling on a wet shirt. “I love you!”

Bilbo sighed a little at that, but he allowed it to pass unremarked.

Calming, Thorin met Bilbo’s eyes steadily. “I understand now that I have misapprehended your intentions for meeting entirely. Pray, enlighten me as to your expectations on this occasion.”

“Just as I said in my letter,” Bilbo explained. “To part with warmth instead of coldness. It is possible, you know.” The hobbit shivered as the wet of his jacket began to soak through his shirt.

“A promise, then,” Thorin said softly. “To remember and to cherish the time we had together as the happiest of my life, to love and to honor you for all of my days. Will that ease the pain of our parting?”

Well did Bilbo know that such a promise fairly demanded an answer, so he laughed lightly. “Nothing like that! Only tell me that you enjoyed our time together, shake hands, and promise to write.”

“I did enjoy our time together,” Thorin said. “I love you.”

“Perhaps a little more honesty and a little less sentimentality,” Bilbo suggested, “now we are parted.”

“I do love you,” Thorin repeated. “I will never love again as I love you.”

As his skin pimpled with cold in the damp, inhospitable cave, Bilbo found he had no patience for the soft demand in Thorin’s voice. The dwarf clearly expected a response that the hobbit would not give. “I do wish you’d stop saying that.”

Thorin’s stillness took on a certain rigidity. “Why should I not speak the truth? This place is private. No ears save yours are here to risk offending.”

“Because it is not the truth,” Bilbo snapped, turning once more to face the blue waterfall.

“I am not a hobbit, to give of myself so freely without love.” Thorin’s voice was low. Dangerous.

Bilbo didn’t care. “You don’t know the first thing about a hobbit’s love.”

“Of that, I do not doubt.”

“You keep saying you love me.” Bilbo found growling at the hard stone floor much simpler than facing Thorin. “I understand that you mean something rather important when you say it, but you don’t mean love. You mean something dwarvish about being able to hear me when your blood is high in battle. Some intensity of feeling and desire that you have never experienced before. Infatuation, perhaps.”

“How dare you! How dare you tell me what I feel?” Thorin’s voice thundered through the cave, louder than the waterfall.

Bilbo stepped away, toward the path. Coming here was a mistake.

“Answer me!”

Turning toward the furious dwarf, Bilbo shouted right back at him. “Love is a choice, you fool! Love is a promise! Love is snowdrops in spring! It is adding someone new to the family! You can’t do any of that! You won’t give me any of that! So I do wish you would stop pretending.”

“I do choose you,” Thorin yelled. “You are my choice.” His voice softened. Broke. “The only choice I will ever make.”

Bilbo stopped. “Really?” Hope, like nothing the hobbit ever felt before, fluttered in his throat.

“Yes.” The anger drained from Thorin’s face until only sorrow remained. “I have chosen you. I would be with you, make a family with you, if I could.”

“Oh.” Bilbo blinked. He looked down at the dark stone of the cave floor. “You’re certain?”

“More certain than I have ever been of anything in my life.” Thorin’s voice was so firm. A promise.

“Well.” Bilbo grinned, looking up to meet Thorin’s steady gaze. “That changes everything, doesn’t it? Kili is old enough to look after himself in the day to day, and he’s not in constant danger as I always believed. Yes, yes I think we can manage something.”

Thorin’s eyes widened and the tension in his jaw released so much that Bilbo might even dare to call it slack.

The hobbit laughed joyfully. “Oh, it shan’t be easy, Thorin. Don’t think that for a minute! We can’t return to Bag End, of course. It will have to be Bree. They’re queerly understanding about that sort of thing. A very small smial, I think, on the funds I can justify diverting from Kili’s inheritance and Bag End. But I should rather have crusts with you than feasts without, Thorin! We won’t need much. You’re tremendously easy to feed, given that you only want three meals a day. Actually, I’ve a bit of notoriety in Bree as a writer already. A little book of poetry I wrote—the kind I could never publish in the Shire—has sold rather well there. I think I could make a living at it. Keep you in style. And we shall be invited to Bag End a few times a year, of course. Not that I intend to rely on my brother’s kindness. Far from it! But you know Kili. He’ll be very kind indeed. We’ll probably go home with considerably more venison than we can stomach.”

“Bilbo.” Thorin’s voice was little more than a whisper. The hobbit barely heard it over the rush of the waterfall.

“Yes? You have some amendment for the plan?” Bilbo went to Thorin, so happy that he had to wrap his arms around the dwarf’s soaking wet shirt at once, squeezing him playfully. “Anything you want, Thorin! Anything at all.”

Thorin’s arms did not come up to embrace the hobbit. It was like hugging a statue. “I meant in Erebor,” the dwarf whispered. “I would be with you in Erebor.”

“Ah.” Bilbo released him. He took a step backward. Then another. Erebor remained on the other side of the Misty Mountains, where Kili could not reach him. Even in the greatest need. Bilbo bit his lip. Happiness that filled the heart so completely was a very hard thing to let go of.

“Alright,” he said slowly. “Alright. If that’s—if that’s the only way. If we can see Kili safely back to the Shire first. If we can be sure that he is completely out of danger. I think—”

“Do not!” Thorin’s voice was a short, sharp bark. “Do not offer to give up your brother for me. Not when you have just offered to give up every other thing you value. Not when you have just learned I do not love you, for I will not give up a single one of my own comforts.”

In the throws of battle, Thorin’s face was always a picture of rage. A dark, red fury that set fire to his eyes and bared his teeth with frenzied snarls. Yes, Bilbo had seen Thorin’s anger many times. Yet he had never before seen a sneer of such loathing on that handsome face.

Only one answer was possible. Bilbo laughed.

“Of course I will not give up my brother! The very idea! You think too highly of yourself, Prince Thorin.” Turning, Bilbo wrung out the tails of his jacket. He was wholly unconcerned by the entire conversation.

Behind him, Thorin sank to sit upon the stone. He seemed to become one with the rocks of the cave in perfect stillness. Bilbo chattered aimlessly at the dwarf. After resolving not to shed a single tear, and talking was his only other option.

“Imagine thinking I would put myself wholly beyond Kili’s reach! I am not so selfish as that, you know. I promised my dying mother that I would always look after him. That is not the kind of promise one just forgets. And aren’t you lucky that I wouldn’t? What would you do if I actually did follow you all the way to Erebor? You would have to introduce me to your father, at the very least. Since my own father thought a broken nose was appropriate for any fellow trying to kiss me, I shudder to think what a king among dwarves would do to a hobbit who dared to defile his eldest son.”

“My father would love you,” Thorin said softly.

Daringly, Bilbo looked up at him. The dwarf remained expressionless, giving no sign that he’d broken his stillness. Bilbo smiled tentatively. “In Erebor, where the streets are paved with candy and it is never bedtime.”

Thorin rose like a striking snake, catching Bilbo’s hand. The hobbit allowed it. All around him, the damp cave felt quite cold. He longed for Thorin’s warmth, but they stood apart, joined only by their hands. “It is important to me that you understand the streets of Erebor are paved with stone.”

Bilbo looked away toward the falling water and the blue sunlight beyond. “I was only joking.”

“I know.” Thorin squeezed his hand. “Erebor is my beloved home. I do not know if it could be so for a hobbit. The halls are filled with golden light, but there are few places within the mountain where one can see the sun. We have no gardens, no flowers, and no birthday parties. Outside of the mountain, our winters are much colder and darker than the mild blankets of snow which drape the Shire. We drink ale instead of wine, and work more often than we make music. But we do make music, Bilbo. I would sing to you every single day. I would build a garden for you also, if you taught me how to fill it with roses. More than that, I would marry you.”

Bilbo stared at him, but Thorin’s face was steady and serious. No hint of a joke twitched his lips or sparkled in his eyes.

“You would not be the first husband to be consort to a dwarven king. I have not mentioned it before, because I thought you would not believe without seeing, but I will not have you give up your brother for anything less than this. Marriage is not restricted among dwarves as it seems to be among hobbits. Many dwarves have husbands. Many dams have wives. Many more devote themselves to crafting and make no marriage at all. If you come to Erebor, if you choose me, your slightest whim will command the entire mountain, for none there would naysay the one I love. I cannot forsake my duty to live secretively with you beside the borders of the Shire, but I would bring you to the light of my city as my husband.”

Bilbo could not stop staring at him. The words did not make sense. The implication was too impossible to be believed.

Thorin lifted their joined hands to his lips and brushed a kiss over Bilbo’s knuckles before releasing him. “Please consider it. Speak to Balin, if you doubt my veracity. Or even Lord Elrond, who will be familiar enough with the Line of Durin to tell you which of my forefathers had husbands instead of wives and thus relied on siblings to produce heirs.” Thorin bowed his head.

“Rightfully have you chastised me, Bilbo Baggins. My love is weak. I cannot choose it over my duty. But if yours is strong enough to overcome my failings, I will spend the rest of my life ensuring you have no cause to regret the choice.”

Then he turned, and left the cave by the narrow path behind the waterfall.

Bilbo did not know how long he stood alone in that dark, damp place. He could not seem to breathe. He could not seem to think. Finally, he managed to blink. Racing along the slippery stones, he almost fell twice. Scrambling up again each time, Bilbo made all hast and paid no mind to his safety. Emerging into the bright, sunny garden, Bilbo saw that Thorin was just rounding the curve of the path away from the lilac bushes, disappearing from view.

“Thorin!”

Stopping at once, the prince turned to look at the hobbit. His face was expressionless, but he tilted his head to one side, willing to listen.

“Indulge me for a moment?” Bilbo was breathless, and he certainly did not look his best after once more passing through the mists of the waterfall. Nevertheless, Thorin strode back toward him without hesitation.

“Thank you.” Bilbo took him by the arm and lead him to a bench well framed by the glorious purple lilacs. Beneath his hand, Thorin’s shirt was nearly dry. Obviously, the dwarf had spent some little time in the sunshine already, while Bilbo remained below. Still, he sat where Bilbo put him.

When Bilbo went about gathering a few of the best sprigs of lilac from the trees, Thorin even smiled. The hobbit had no ribbon for his hastily assembled bouquet, so he tied it up with his cravat, aware that this did no favors for his already disreputable appearance. Shaking his head fiercely, he ran a nervous hand through his damp curls.

“Right,” he said.

Thorin grinned at him openly, looking far too composed.

“Right,” Bilbo repeated.

The prince laughed aloud. Perhaps it would have been easier if the dwarf were not so unfairly handsome, but Bilbo thought not. In as much as the hobbit could think at all, he was aware that a certain amount of nerves must always be present in a situation such as his.

Kneeling on the flagstone path, Bilbo thrust the bouquet up at Thorin. His mouth opened, but no sound emerged.

“Thank you for the flowers, Bilbo.” Thorin’s smile was soft and fond.

Bilbo squeaked.

Slowly, Thorin reached into his pocket and withdrew a small glass disk, rimmed in gold. Within it were two pressed snowdrops, still bound by a red ribbon. Bilbo recognized the ribbon. “I still know nothing of flowers,” Thorin said. “But I know now that love is snowdrops in spring.” The glass gleamed in the sunshine. “Can you tell me the meaning of lilacs, Bilbo?”

“You kept them.” Instead of discarding the gift Bilbo knew he could not possibly understand, Thorin had pressed the snowdrops as carefully as any maiden would have. More carefully, in fact, to use glass instead of an old book.

“In my foolish, dwarvish way,” Thorin admitted. “I knew they meant something to you—a sign of affection. So I cherished them hopelessly, thinking the whole of your heart unattainable.”

Bilbo grinned. Suddenly, speaking was the easiest thing in the world. “The whole of my heart is entirely yours, Thorin Oakenshield, and it always shall be. Will you join your family to mine in marriage, and share all parts of my life from this day forward?”

“I will,” Thorin said.

So Bilbo climbed slowly up from his knees to sit beside Thorin on the bench, claiming a chaste kiss in the warm sunlight. If he had come to it in a round-about fashion, it was every bit the proposal that a son of Bag End ought to make. An old, aching wound in his heart healed, vanishing as though the pain was never there at all.

Chapter Text

“I never thought the son of Belladonna Took would be a coward,” Gandalf said. And that was all the old wizard had to say on the subject.

Everyone was mad at Kili. Dwalin thought he needed to toughen up. Balin was visibly disappointed and hoped he would reconsider. Worse than that was Bofur’s grinning promise that Kili would find his strength if he just kept trying. Even Lord Elrond just raised a judgmental eyebrow whenever he saw the young Baggins.

“Please,” Fili said, his blue eyes solemn and serious. “Please, Kili, my friend. Save my mother. Only you can. I swear to you, I shall let no further harm come to Bilbo. I will die in his defense if need be.”

Turning, Kili tried to walk away, but Fili grabbed his arm. Falling to his knees, the dwarf offered up the hilt of his short sword.

“Ask anything of me, Kili. Even my birthright! As the elder, I can step aside, that the crown of Erebor should go to you, if you wish it. My mother suffers, Kili. You do not know how she suffers. Please. I beg you. On bended knee, I beg you.”

Horrified, Kili pulled his arm from Fili’s grip and fled. He did not want Fili’s sword, or his birthright, or his tears. He did not want anything from the dwarves at all.

Kili didn’t care about any of them. He only cared about Bilbo, but Bilbo was the worst of the lot. Bilbo didn’t try to argue, cajole, or manipulate Kili the way he usually might. He didn’t try to convince Kili that they would be safe in the wild or object to the idea of returning home. Instead, he was just sad.

Kili recognized the symptoms well. Bilbo ate as though his food had no flavor, an insult to the delicious elven cuisine. Sometimes, Bilbo had brief, manic bursts of frivolity and good humor, charming everyone nearby, paying special attention to Kili’s amusement. When he was not making that obvious effort, however, the hobbit was utterly listless, barely hearing anything Kili said. Bilbo would sit staring into the distance, without a book, a pipe, or any kind of an excuse for his lethargy. This was not the dramatic, attention demanding depression that sometimes appeared when Bilbo ended things with one of his gentlehobbit friends. This was what Bilbo looked like in mourning.

Kili had seen the posture twice before.

He never wanted to see it again, of course. He did not mean to cause Bilbo such pain, but he knew in his heart the pain was his doing. He forced Bilbo to choose him over Thorin, and so Bilbo had. And so, Bilbo was hurting.

Kili hardened his heart. However much Bilbo’s feelings were hurt, his skin was intact. That was the most important thing. To keep Bilbo safe, they had to return to the Shire. It would have been nice if anyone else understood that.

Kili threw a rock into the stupid pond with the stupid yellow fish. He watched it skim across the surface, skipping five, then six times before bouncing over the edge of the waterfall. In the distance, he heard voices. Elves were talking about the night-bile scorpions, mourning the fact that such dangers were present even between the mountains and the sea, and saying something about taking boats to an even safer place than Rivendell.

Leaving the pond, Kili went to find a different part of the garden.

Finding a place in Rivendell that was not gloriously blooming with verdant foliage and lush, perfect flowers was nearly impossible. No fields were there to lie fallow. None of the early spring beauties had lost their petals yet either, for the arts of the elves preserved them past their time. The best Kili could find was a berry patch. Raspberry and blackberry brambles intertwined with thorny obstinance, and not even the elves seemed capable of cajoling fruit out of them this early in the year. Instead, the thin petals of their flowers fell beneath the thorns, leaving bulging stamen along with the occasional hard, white blob that would eventually be a berry. Throwing himself on the ground, Kili looked up at the shadowed thorns, aware that he was being dramatic and moody enough to make his older brother swell with pride.

If Bilbo noticed anything other than his own sorrow, that was.

He knew he had to change his course. Not for Bilbo. Hopefully, he could still trick Bilbo into returning home safely. But Kili had to go on. If he could save Fili’s mother, if he could do something to stop all the orcs and evil creatures filling up the wild, then he had to go to Erebor and do it. Even if he didn’t know exactly what he was supposed to do.

It was what his mother would have wanted.

Stupid Gandalf knew that much, didn’t he?

“I do not want to be a hero,” Kili told the blackberry thorns. The bushes failed to commiserate.

In the distance, he heard an elf singing. Even without understanding the words, elvish music could be very beautiful, like a nightingale trilling elsewhere in the garden. As the song grew closer, Kili did not move. He only listened. The elf’s voice rose and fluttered in a joyful tune that leapt and danced. In fact, as it grew close, he saw leaping, dancing feet spinning about the path. Suddenly, the song broke off, and the elf’s voice began laughing instead.

“What are you doing down there, Master Dwarf?” asked the elf, still laughing.

“Mister Baggins, if you don’t mind,” Kili corrected, extracting himself from the thorns. “You’re in a good mood, Miss Arwen.”

“And you are not,” she said, her smile barely dimming. “Do hobbits always crawl into a bramble when the world does not turn their way?”

“I am not a hobbit,” Kili said. “And I do what I like.”

“As do I.” Arwen winked, as though nothing Kili said could possibly diminish her good mood.

Thus, all Kili could do was allow himself to smile. “And what causes elven maids to sing this fine afternoon?”

“This is Rivendell, Mister Baggins, and I need no more excuse to sing than the birds! Yet if I did require such an excuse, I might tell you that my brothers and I rode with my father’s host all night to clear the last remnants of scorpions from these lands. Other fell things which I might name have fallen yet further, and will threaten no travelers on the road home to the Shire.”

“Oh!” Kili brushed the dirt from his trousers and offered her the very best bow he could manage. “That is very kind of you, my lady.”

Arwen burst into laughter. “You look exactly like your brother when you do that!”

“Well.” Kili straightened his extremely disheveled waistcoat. “Thank you very much.”

Letting her laughter turn into a fond smile, Arwen said, “If you are going to go home, you should go soon. The wilds do not stay clear of danger very long, these days.”

“If I am going to go home?”

The smile on her fair face faded even further. “Do you ask if I, like all others in Rivendell, believe you are making a mistake to ignore my father’s council? I do. His visions are rarely as clear as this. If you do not go to Erebor, the mountain will fall to evil. Already the footsteps of doom echo in the distance. Radagast the Brown comes from the Greenwood to tell us of necromancers and dark magic building there. The Wise are called to council. I sense war on the horizon. War, and something worse, though I know not what it is.”

A warm spring breeze ruffled the leaves of the raspberry bushes. Kili watched the thorns knock together like hundreds of little swords. Overhead, a perfect white cloud passed in front of the sun.

“Are you a great warrior, my lady?”

Arwen tilted her head to one side. “Who can say such a thing without being truly tested? I am better than my brothers, but I shall never equal my father who faced the armies of the Black Land, and stood beside Isildur at the defeat of Sauron. It is the doing of deeds by which we measure greatness. Fate may play as much a part in that as any skill.”

Closing his eyes, Kili shook his head. He did not have the concentration to spare on philosophy. “If I, if I do what everyone wants, if I go to Erebor, will you see Bilbo safely home?”

Arwen was silent. More wind rustled nearby leaves, and Kili heard a robin whistle somewhere nearby. Opening his eyes, he saw mortal sadness in her ageless face. “I do not think your brother will agree to such a plan.”

“Then how can I go?” Tears stung the corners of Kili’s eyes. “How can I ever risk him so?”

A very gentle hand touched Kili’s elbow. “The risk is not yours to decide, Kili. Your brother’s life is not yours to live. You cannot bid him stay. No more than he can order you go, though any with eyes can see that his preference is to continue on.”

The world blurred. With a curtain of salt water drawn over his eyes, Kili could see nothing at all. He did not even feel Arwen’s hand on his back. Nothing could break through the grief of what he knew he must do.

Not until Kili’s brother said his name.

Bilbo’s voice was somewhere nearby, and full of laughter as it had not been during most of their time in Rivendell. “All shall be revealed in time, you silly fellow, but we will speak with no one until I speak with Kili. I say again, have you seen him?”

“Looking for him myself, aren’t I?” Gloin rumbled. “Want a word with him about this staying in the west business. But he came down this way a few hours ago.”

“Well, that’s not very promising.” Bilbo laughed aloud, although Kili did not understand the joke. “And you leave my brother alone. He must do as he thinks is best.”

Someone else said something beyond the edge of Kili’s hearing, and Bilbo laughed again. “No! No, not here. Sorry, Gloin, can’t talk now. Must find Kili!”

“Here I am,” Kili called out, forgetting himself for a moment. Then he had to scramble for his handkerchief to clean up so that Bilbo would not know he had been crying. Arwen was very helpful there, producing a second cloth of very fine, dry silk, when Kili’s first was completely soiled.

Fortunately, the paths in Rivendell were the winding sort. Despite being only a shout away, it took Bilbo several minutes to round the corner into view among the raspberry bushes. He was not alone. Beside him, Thorin Oakenshield had changed his hairstyle. Instead of the two dignified braids that usually framed Thorin’s face with the rest of his hair flowing freely down his back, Thorin had a plait. All of his hair was meticulously and inexpertly plaited with lilacs. White lilacs for familial love, and purple lilacs for the passion of the heart. Kili squeaked.

“You’re getting married?” he shouted, though Bilbo was still halfway across the berry patch.

“I am getting married!” cried Bilbo, bouncing joyfully as he walked alongside his intended.

Kili did not remember running, only he must have, for he closed the distance instantly. Gathering his brother into a gleeful embrace, he swung the hobbit around like a child. “Bilbo! Congratulations!” Setting his brother down, Kili turned to shake Thorin’s hand. “Best wishes! Er, congratulations! I say, Bilbo, do I congratulate you both? For you are neither one to be a bride.”

Laughing yet again, Bilbo patted his brother’s head like a condescending tutor. “You may give us congratulations, felicitations, and all manner of well wishes! None shall miss the mark today, Kili. We are engaged!”

“Oh, well done! Well done, Thorin!” Turning, Kili shook his hand again.

Thorin accepted with a bemused smile. “Thank you.”

“It’s brilliant,” Kili said. “Just brilliant. Thorin’s father is the king: you can do whatever you like. Of course you can be married! I never would have thought of it. Well, to be fair, I did think of it, I just didn’t remember the bit about your father being a king. Brilliant!” Kili paused for a moment. “You don’t think he’ll give you any trouble, do you?”

Bilbo, seemingly capable of nothing else just then, laughed. “Kili! It is better than that. Oh, it’s such a good joke, you’ll never guess!”

“Guess what?” Kili’s smile faded a bit. “You are not going to marry in the Shire, are you? That’s—I mean to say, I’ll help in any way I can, of course, but I’m not sure that would be—”

“No, no,” Bilbo said. “We are marrying in Erebor. Thorin is a prince; he must marry in his homeland. But Kili! We shall need no special dispensation. Dwarves marry one another every day!”

“Yes?” Kili didn’t see the joke. Was it funny that there were a lot of dwarves in the world? After all, hobbits really only married each other every few weeks. Unless it was June. Everyone wanted to be married in June. There might be a wedding a day in June.

“I mean, dwarves marry other dwarves. Dams marry other dams. They don’t mind at all! All this time.” Bilbo giggled. “All this time, that disapproving look on Balin’s face was not because Thorin and I were courting. It was because.” Bilbo giggled again. “Because Thorin was meant to be a virgin on his wedding day. On account of being a prince and everything.”

Kili blinked. Happy as he was for his brother, he had to say, “Please don’t give me any details.”

Throwing his head back, Bilbo laughed and laughed.

Shaking his own head, Thorin smiled indulgently. “Fear not, Kili. I shall endeavor to keep my beloved silent on that score.” Bowing his head slightly, he pressed a kiss to the top of Bilbo’s head. Then his eyes slid sideways to look at Kili. “We have your blessing?”

“Naturally!” Kili wondered if he should shake Thorin’s hand again, but it no longer felt quite right to do so. “I have known ever since you gave him those cufflinks that Bilbo would not be happy without you.”

“Have you?” Thorin straightened up. His head tilted backward in surprise.

Waving a dismissive hand, Kili said, “I know my brother. Just because I have not seen him hopelessly besotted before does not mean that I fail to recognize when he’s twitterpated over someone.”

“Hey!” Bilbo pinched Kili’s arm.

Kili took his turn at laughing.

“And you approve?” Thorin asked.

“I didn’t! Not when I thought you were only as involved as any of his other fellows. Less so, even, for you must go home to the other side of the mountains, and could not even come round for a friendly cup of tea when things ended. Oh, when Bilbo gave you those snowdrops—”

“He still has them,” Bilbo said eagerly, grinning from ear to ear. “Set in glass. He just—carries them around in his pocket all the time.”

“Well then,” Kili said, grinning right back, “you must not be the only twitterpated fool in this garden.”

“I must still go home to Erebor,” Thorin said. “Bilbo is coming with me.”

“Then I suppose I shall come along as well.” Kili looked back at Arwen, who was observing their antics with a quiet joy. “Fate and philosophy are one thing, but I would not miss my brother’s wedding for all the world.”

Chapter Text

Much has been said of the hospitality of Rivendell. In truth, the Baggins brothers thought they had been enjoying it for weeks. Those days were full of song, storytelling, kindness, healing, and beauty, but they were nothing compared to the celebrations which followed. When Lord Elrond learned that a prince of the line of Durin was engaged to be married, the wine flowed like water, the music grew lively, and all the Hall of Fire, usually given over to storytelling, filled with dancing.

Thorin took Bilbo by the hand then, leading him through the steps of a complicated elvish reel. Never in all his life were the hobbit’s feet so light. Never had he been allowed to dance with someone he truly desired. Elrond claimed the second dance with Bilbo, and though they were mismatched for height, they managed to clap hands easily enough. The tall elf matched his steps to a hobbit’s with graceful ease, laughing hospitably with Bilbo over their few shared missteps.

His third dance was for Thorin, and all the others thereafter, until he kissed the dwarf’s neck, just below his beard, and suggested they have an early night.

Technically, Bilbo continued on in his sick room. At least, he left all his things there that first night. Propriety remained a fact, and the couple was not yet actually married. However, he slipped himself into Thorin’s larger bedroom at once and did not leave it until the Company quit Rivendell entirely.

The chambers for a visiting prince were much nicer than his plain white sick room, anyway. For one thing, Thorin’s bath was in a separate room, not simply relegated to a corner out in the open. For another, he had five of the large, arched, open windows instead of three, and a commensurately spacious room. His bed was not simply large; it could have slept the whole Company. There was more than enough room for Bilbo, and plenty of pillows besides.

“I shall hold you close and sleep chastely at your side,” Thorin said, nonsensically. “Let me only lie beside you, my love. No more do I wish for peace and contentment.”

“Well, I should like a little more than that for true contentment,” Bilbo said, “but if you are overtired, I quite understand. You indulged me terribly on the dancefloor, and I thank you.”

Then, overcome with feeling, he reached up to caress one of the lilacs still badly braided into Thorin’s hair. “Allow me to take these out, at least.”

“I—you may have anything of me you desire, Bilbo.” Thorin’s words were carefully chosen. “I would have you know first that to touch the hair of a dwarf is an intimate act. Any elf aware of us will understand that my feelings when you unbraid my hair are—intimate. Quite intimate.”

Bilbo laughed, cupped Thorin’s beard in both hands, and kissed him gently. It was all too wonderful. He looked out the wide, open windows over the moonlit waterfalls. In the distance, crickets sang and frogs chorused down around the pond, but there was no sign of secret spies.

“Are you shy, my love? Fear not! I shall guard your honor. Any elf excited by you must first contend with me. Let them look and perish with envy, for they will know it is my touch—not their own—which pleases you.”

“No, I.” Thorin bent down for another kiss. Then a third. Bilbo would happily kiss him until Angmar and Mordor rose again, ending all the world. “I have been rough with your feelings, I think,” Thorin said. “I have asked things of you which you did not wish.”

“If anyone should say that it is I.” Bilbo laughed again, and slowly drew the bead which bound the end of Thorin’s braid away. He set it on the nightstand next to a flickering candle. “I still cannot believe you were a virgin when we met. I have never been so thoroughly pleased with anyone as I have been with you, and that is not only because I love you.”

Above his dark beard, Thorin’s cheeks glowed red. This was plainly not an effect of the candlelight. “Some of my teachers have thought me a quick study in the past.”

Humming with approval, Bilbo pushed Thorin’s shoulder gently to turn him around. With fingers unused to the task, he began unwinding the flowers from the dwarf’s long hair. Sinking to the bed to provide better access, Thorin let his head fall back in pleasure.

“My perfect prince,” Bilbo said.

“I am not that.” Thorin’s eyes were closed, and he seemed to be speaking to the open window. “In the discovery of such pleasures, I lost my wits. Pursuing them, I lost sight of my true goal, which has always been your happiness. Only ever your happiness.”

“Are you still so upset about taking your shirt off at me in that little cave?” Bilbo laughed again. “I forgive you. Indeed, if I am ever again displeased with you once we are married—much as I doubt the possibility now—I highly advise that course of action. You are exceptionally attractive without your pesky shirt in the way.”

Turning, Thorin let his loose hair cascade down his shoulders in a messy tumble. His soft, blue eyes held no hint of sleep. “You truly do not mind that we are likely observed, even now.”

“Thorin, if every single person in Rivendell lined up to watch us celebrate our engagement, I should not care a bit.” Bilbo paused, giving this due consideration. “Except for Kili, of course.” Then he laughed. “I am freed, Thorin! Oh, you cannot understand the weight I have been under. If we were not to be married, I think I should kiss every single fellow in Rivendell, and there would be no consequences at all.”

Something glittered in Thorin’s eyes at that. “We are to be married,” he said.

Bilbo laughed again. “And I am yours alone. Never alone again! I do not care who knows it! I would shout it to all the world, if I could. However, if it is your own wish to celebrate in true privacy, we can go back down to that dank little cave. Seems a waste of a perfectly good bed, though.”

Thorin licked his lips. His eyes darted toward the flickering candle. “Are you certain?”

Standing beside the bed, Bilbo offered his hand to Thorin. “The choice is entirely yours, my love, and I shall be happy either way. Take me down to the secret waterfall where our understanding was reached, or help me with my cufflinks.”

Taking the hand in both of his, Thorin turned it to face the ceiling. Bowing, he pressed a kiss in the center of Bilbo’s palm. Then he unfastened the golden flower, placing it gently on the nightstand beside his beads and the wilting lilacs. Bilbo’s cuff draped gently away from his wrist, and Thorin pulled him closer. A beard filled Bilbo’s palm, and a soft kiss traced his fluttering pulse. Linen dragged up the hobbit’s arm as Thorin shifted his sleeve further out of the way, scraping his teeth against the inside of Bilbo’s forearm in a teasing little nip.

“Yes,” the hobbit said, missing casual by several octaves. “I can see you are not terribly experienced at this sort of thing.”

“I have learned what you like.” Thorin’s voice was deeper than the root of a mountain. “You like these,” he said, taking Bilbo’s other wrist. Unfastening the cufflink there, Thorin set it carefully aside and kissed the tender wrist revealed.

“Oh yes,” the hobbit admitted. “They are by far the most thoughtful present I have ever received.”

Slipping off the edge of the bed, Thorin slid gracefully to his knees. His fingers caressed Bilbo’s ankle, and his posture was very familiar. “And this?” he asked, drawing forth the silver anklet. “Do you like this?”

Bilbo ran his fingers along the curve of Thorin’s scalp. “I like everything you give me.”

“Was there something else you wanted me to give you,” Thorin asked, “when I gave you this?” His hands went to Bilbo’s trousers.

“Indeed there was,” Bilbo said. In other circumstances, he would have been very happy to take receipt of such a present immediately. Just then, however, the hobbit had a different idea. “But our first time after our engagement should be special.”

“Oh?” Thorin was so beautiful on his knees. His strong, regal jaw tilted up so elegantly to meet Bilbo’s eyes. In his gaze, there was nothing of reluctance or uncertainty. He waited upon Bilbo’s pleasure.

Catching both of Thorin’s shirtsleeves, the hobbit pulled the silk tunic up and over the dwarf’s head, tousling that dark cascade of hair beautifully.

“Better?” Thorin asked. He was still kneeling at Bilbo’s feet, but now he grinned.

Bilbo returned the grin. “Much.”

“I hope that all of my gifts improve so as we progress,” Thorin said. “When we reach Erebor, I will give you an engagement present surpassing any other seen in this age.”

“That sounds lovely.” Instead of putting his hands back in Thorin’s hair or on those gloriously muscled shoulders, the hobbit bent a bit to take Thorin’s hands in his. “Up you get,” he ordered. “I have a good idea.”

Rising up past Bilbo’s face to his natural height, Thorin caught the hobbit’s mouth in a sweet kiss. “All of your ideas are good,” he said.

Bilbo laughed. “I shall reward you for that, Thorin Oakenshield! Flattery will get you everywhere.”

“There is nowhere save here that I desire to be.”

For that, Bilbo had to kiss him again. And take off his trousers. In short order, both of them were entirely naked. Once that desirable state of affairs was successfully attained, Bilbo encouraged Thorin up onto the bed.

“You really are so beautiful on your knees,” the hobbit murmured. Stroking the back of those perfectly formed joints, he felt the soft, smooth hair of Thorin’s legs. “Kneel right here for me.”

Piling a few pillows in front of the dwarf, Bilbo was able to assume the same posture facing him. With this artificial adjustment, they were of a perfect height. His cock brushed right up against Thorin’s, measure for measure, and even that grazing contact thrilled him so much he needed to brace both of his hands on Thorin’s arms for balance.

“Like this?” Thorin’s words were little more than hot breath against Bilbo’s lips.

“Together,” the hobbit agreed. “This first time, now that we are engaged, let us come together in a perfect meeting of pleasure.”

Barely moving at all, Thorin opened their mouths into a kiss, tasting Bilbo’s tongue and exploring with his own. “Brilliant,” he said, wrapping a strong, calloused hand around them both together. “The best idea I’ve ever heard.”

Responding to the warm grip, Bilbo rocked forward slowly. Thorin matched the rhythm easily. Outside, crickets chirped. Bilbo sighed. Thorin grunted. Frogs sang. Bedframes creaked. Wax spluttered. Bilbo moaned. Thorin gasped. Skin slicked.

“Please,” said Thorin.

“Soon,” said Bilbo.

“Now,” said Bilbo.

“Almost,” said Thorin.

Bilbo whimpered, hands clutching.

Thorin groaned, franticly nodding.

In perfect time, they came together, collapsing down onto the soft bed. After a bit, someone blew out the candle.

Chapter Text

Welcomed back into the circle of dwarven fellowship, Kili spent his remaining time in Rivendell learning many elvish and dwarven dances, as well as taking his turn fiddling out the music. He could have spent the rest of his life studying music in that place very happily. Bilbo was ecstatic, of course, and they both were safe. Rivendell is the sort of place where anyone can live happily. Unfortunately, all too soon for Kili’s liking, the quest continued.

High beyond the valley loomed the Misty Mountains.

If all know of the hospitality of Rivendell, so too is it known that the mountains just beyond that happy valley are treacherous beyond words. The many paths up those steep, gray slopes are all tricks. They bend and shift with slides of rock and melting snow. Most lead nowhere. An unlucky few lead to the dens of creatures that even the bravest of warriors would not dare to face. Things worse than dragons dwell beneath the Misty Mountains.

Fortunately, the dwarves had Gandalf. The wandering wizard knew his way through the mountains, and could tell which paths were false from the outset. While he could not eliminate the dangers, he mitigated them greatly. Better still, he had quite forgiven Kili for his earlier cowardice, and let the youngest Baggins walk with him near the front of their party. Since Bilbo and Thorin kept grinning soppily at each other and holding hands while trying to climb a mountain, Kili was very grateful for the invitation.

“A dwarf should be able to tell this one,” Gandalf said when they came to a fork in their path. “Which way would you choose?”

On the left hand, the path lead downward and looked normal. The right hand path went up and had a scattering of small stones, as though recently crossed by a rock slide. Kili prodded the path to the left with his walking stick. Something about the ground felt off.

“Right,” he said. “It’s too soon to be going down if we’re going over.” After a pause, he added, “I think the left side is going to rock slide soon. If that makes any sense.”

With a proud smile, Gandalf said, “It does, indeed. That ground is weak, unsupported from beneath. You have the stone sense of one of Durin’s folk, Kili Baggins. Trust your instincts in the mountains. They will serve you well.”

Puffing up proudly, Kili lead the group for a little while, only turning to Gandalf occasionally for help. The wizard would have corrected him if he chose badly, but that wasn’t necessary. Nothing could have prevented the disaster which struck next.

Three days into their crossing of the mountains, a sudden rock slide crashed down unexpectedly from above. Perhaps it was caused by a late snow melt. Perhaps some mountain goat or larger beast passed above them in ignorance. Perhaps it was only the wind brushing one more pebble into a pile of stones that could take no more weight. Whatever the cause, the group had only seconds of warning: a cracking, crashing sound from the slopes above them. Then, rock rained down.

Deftly, Kili dodged out of the way, partly shielded by Gandalf’s glowing staff. Nothing struck either of them. Looking back, he saw Fili spinning deftly around the falling stones. Behind him, Gloin shielded himself and his brother with the flat of his massive ax. Beyond them, an enormous white boulder, as big as a miller’s cart, landed right in the middle of the group. Right where Bilbo and Thorin had been.

Ignoring the small pebbles that bounced off his shoulders, Kili rushed to the massive boulder. “Hello!” he called out. “Is everyone safe?”

“We’re back here,” Bofur answered. “Help us shift this boulder out of the way. Count of three?”

“Is Bilbo with you?” Kili asked.

There was a pause.

“Is Thorin with you?” Balin shouted back.

“One, two, three,” Fili called out, moving with Gloin to lever the boulder up away from the path and down the mountain with the rest of the rock slide.

Beneath it, Thorin and Bilbo were kissing. Kili stared at them. Thorin had clearly pressed Bilbo into a crack in the cliff face beside them, so that the rocks would slide harmlessly past, bouncing off the path and leaving the couple safe. Only the landing of the large rock barred their escape. That was very clear. Kili understood all of that. What he did not understand was why they were now kissing.

“You couldn’t say something to let me know you were okay,” he demanded of his brother.

Cheekily tweaking Kili’s nose, Bilbo said, “Worried about me, were you?”

“As a matter of fact I was!”

Bilbo softened. “Sorry, Kili. It won’t happen again. Only, I had just been saved from death by a very handsome prince, and some opportunities cannot be missed.”

Kili rolled his eyes.

“I think I’ll marry him as a reward.” Clasping his hands to his cheek, Bilbo sighed in the dreamy way a lass on the cusp of her tweens might.

“You are already engaged,” Kili said.

“That saves time, doesn’t it,” Bilbo agreed brightly.

Kili pushed him off the side of the mountain. Unfortunately, his brother only skipped deftly backward, laughing as he went.

As heart stopping as the rock slides could be, the party actually had very good weather for the first week of their journey over the Misty Mountains. Kili only realized as much, though, when the weather turned bad.

The storm began slowly, with just a few drops of rain. “We must find shelter. Quickly,” Gandalf said.

“Surely it’s only a little rain?” Kili looked up at the gray sky. The clouds were rolling in, but they were hardly the black of a great thunderstorm. The dwarves had ridden through worse while they journeyed through the woods between the Shire and Rivendell.

“Best not to take chances. A storm in these mountains can be deadly.” As if to punctuate the wizard’s words, a spear of lightning rent the gray sky with a crack. The subsequent low roll of thunder sounded very like one of the rock slides.

Kili straightened his back, blinking the now swiftly falling rain from his eyes. “What do we do?”

“Fili, Kili, as the most dexterous, you must forge ahead to see if you can find any shelter. We will wait here. Be careful! To slip during a storm like this might mean death.”

Just as the wizard ordered, Fili and Kili went slowly and carefully up the path, scouting for a place where their friends could take shelter from the storm. Kili was the one who spotted it, the nice deep cave close to the path. With a narrow entrance facing away from the wind, the cave was both dry and spacious inside. A perfect place to weather a storm, Kili thought.

So everything that happened after that was his fault.

Worn out from a long day’s trek through the mountains even before the cold, wet rain dampened their spirits, the adventurers crawled into the cave, ate a few quick rations, and went to sleep. Not being fools, a watch was posted, but that watching dwarf sat at the entrance to the cave. He did not see the crack opening up behind him until he was falling through the cave floor with everyone else.

Kili woke tumbling down tilted stone, just managing to grab his bow as it smacked him in the forehead. Bouncing off Bifur as he rolled, he noticed the incline was nearly vertical. Then he was falling through the air briefly, before hitting the ground hard.

“Seize them,” someone with a high, nasal voice cried.

“Bring them to Goblin Town!” said someone else.

“I think not.” Between the goblins and the dwarves, Thorin rose. In one hand, he held Orcrist, unsheathed. Upon his other arm was the oaken shield which bore his name. He had never looked more like a hero out of legend, and Kili was surprised once again to remember that Thorin was the prince who killed the dragon.

Throwing himself at the little squad of goblins, Thorin slew three immediately with a single swing of his sword. His great blade crashed against the lesser arms of the goblins, rending their shields and knocking away their blades. Falling back from the ferocity of Thorin’s attack, the goblins left the discombobulated dwarves alone.

A flash of white light illuminated the whole of a large cavern. Kili saw far above a mechanism of iron gears and the massive stone trap door upon which he had been sleeping. Around the cavern, Kili counted six different tunnels.

“Take up arms!” Gandalf’s voice echoed across the stone, waking the stunned dwarves, who suddenly saw how drastically outnumbered their prince was.

Kili rolled to his feet, finding his quiver of arrows nearby. Fitting one to his bow, he sent it flying into the throat of a goblin striking at Thorin’s briefly exposed back. The creature gurgled around the shaft, falling. Finding a second target, then a third, fourth, and fifth was all too easy. More and more goblins came through tunnels, looking to bear the dwarves down by weight of numbers.

“Nori, Bifur, get that door open!” Thorin ordered.

At once, the two dwarves broke off from the fighting, racing back to the mechanism. Nori scrambled up a rickety wooden platform, and Bifur threw himself upon a massive chain. With Nori turning one of the gears and Bifur pulling mightily at the chain, the stone slab slowly went from a flat ceiling to a vertical platform. The base of that platform, however, was at least eight feet above the ground by Kili’s reckoning.

Instantly, the young Baggins turned to look at his brother. Bilbo was, in fact, moving rather stiffly as his little gleaming blue blade crossed with the sword of one of the smaller goblins. A hobbit could not easily shake off the pain of such a long fall, not like a dwarf. More so because Bilbo still refused to wear the leather armor that the dwarves favored for traveling. Kili adopted it gladly when they left Rivendell, but Bilbo called it unfashionable and uncomfortable. After this, Kili planned to insist. No more waistcoats in the wild, Bilbo was going to have some proper protection.

“It’s no good,” Nori shouted. “We’ll be shot trying to climb up there. It’s an entrance, not an exit.”

“If we cannot go back, we must go through,” Gandalf cried. “Thorin, the center tunnel!”

Thorin beheaded one goblin and kicked another in the sternum, making space in the swarming throng. He did not use that space to lead the dwarves to the center tunnel, however. Instead, he ran back to Bilbo. “On my back, ghivâshel. We must go quickly.”

“Thorin!” With a deft twist, Balin cut the swordhand off a goblin trying to backstab the prince. “Not you. Not against armed goblins with arrows. We’ll never make it though unless you’re free to fight. I shall carry the hobbit.”

“The hobbit can carry himself,” Bilbo said, parrying another sword blow from the same small goblin he’d been fighting since the beginning. “I’m getting rather good at this adventuring business.”

Catching an arrow whizzing dangerously close to Bilbo with his oak shield, Thorin twisted Orcrist around to deal neatly with a large, ax wielding enemy in three quick strokes. Then, almost as an afterthought, he brought the pommel of his sword down on the small goblin fighting Bilbo, sending it to the floor. Kili could not tell if it was dead or only unconscious, but it did not move again.

“It would be my honor to remain near him, my prince.” Somehow, in the middle of braining a goblin with his mace, Dori managed a small, respectful bow. He could almost be hobbit-like at times. “Should Master Baggins desire to be carried at any time, I will feel his weight the least. Though naturally no member of this company could consider the privilege of carrying your intended consort a burden.”

Thorin frowned, killed another goblin, then gave a tight nod. “Thank you, Dori.” Turning, he would have gone to lead the group once more, but Bilbo caught his arm.

A quick, stealthy kiss was pressed to the prince’s beard, because Bilbo was the sappiest hobbit in the entire world. “For luck,” he said, winking.

So Thorin went to the head of the party grinning instead of frowning. Kili couldn’t really find fault with that.

The tunnel was long, narrow, and poorly lit. This last was not an impediment to dwarves or hobbits, for both live underground naturally and see very well in the dark. The narrow nature of the tunnel, however, meant that only those toward the front and at the rear of their group wound up fighting goblins. Safely in the middle with Bilbo, Kili need do no more than jog lightly.

“This isn’t so bad at all,” he said conversationally. He had his sword in hand, but it went unused. Shooting might have been possible, but it would have to be over the heads of several dwarves, and that felt terribly unsafe. Better to conserve his arrows for when he had room to breathe.

“Bracing, I’d call it,” Bilbo agreed, but Kili noticed he was huffing. And why shouldn’t he be? For every two strides Kili took, Bilbo had to take three. A gentle jog for Kili was racing to Bilbo.

“Keep up, little brother,” Kili warned.

Bilbo looked at him in absolute shock.

“If you will prove yourself little, I shall call you it.” Kili grinned.

“Sheer cheek!” Bilbo’s face went red, and not with exertion. “I’ll box your ears when we get out of this, Kili Baggins. See if I don’t!”

Laughing, Kili ran on, slightly ahead of Bilbo, now being chased by something much more pleasant than goblins.

In truth, even once the tunnel opened up into a broader cavern and the dwarves were forced to fight while running along sheer ledge, Kili did not feel threatened by the goblins. Mountain goblins were much smaller and less clever than the large orcs who haunted Kili’s nightmares. Certainly, they numbered many, but they died so easily. All Kili had to do was put an arrow through a foot or kick one off their spindly ladders, and the goblin fell down the vast crevice to its death. Fighting while racing was almost fun.

And it was a race. The dwarves ran along a winding cliff edge, over rickety bridges, and through hazards of all kinds. Growing up in the little holes of Hobbiton, Kili had never imagined that there could be such spaces beneath a mountain. Many of the crevasses and pits their path crossed over were so deep and dark they seemed bottomless. Perhaps they were. Perhaps they went all the way down to the center of the world, but Kili did not have time to ponder it. Goblins with hammers and chisels knocked stalactites down to crash among the running dwarves, and more attacked with swords, spears, arrows, and clubs.

Every moment brought a new obstacle, but they were only obstacles, not dangers. Kili privately suspected that being struck by one of the little arrows would not drop him. It would certainly not hurt as much as the scorpion sting he suffered in the wilds near Rivendell. Nothing could happen beneath the Misty Mountains which he was not prepared to face.

Snatching the club from one goblin’s hand as he kicked it down into the bottomless pit, Kili threw it into the face of another snarling creature, felling that one as well. Pleased with his own cleverness, the young Baggins turned to grin at his brother. Bilbo was indeed watching. Watching Kili’s proud face enough to roll his eyes, at least.

That was when it happened. Dori smacked a goblin away from Bilbo with his mace. As it bowled backward over the edge, it caught the hobbit’s ankle with a clawed hand. Jerked toward the ledge, Bilbo’s feet went out from under him. His chin bounced against the hard stone, and he slid. He slid. Time seemed to slow. Kili could not move his body. No more than a second passed, but that second when their eyes met stretched into eternity.

Then Bilbo was the one falling. Down he went into that black, bottomless pit.

Time resumed its normal pace. Kili raced to the edge of the path, leaping out into space. He would follow his brother. Always.

Something jerked hard at his neck, nearly choking him. Arrested in midair, Kili’s back slammed hard against the cliff face. Below him stretched the black, bottomless pit. Twisting, the young Baggins saw Fili. Lying on his belly at the top of the cliff, Fili had one hand on the collar of Kili’s jacket. It was a poor grip, easily broken.

“Please, Kili.” Fili seemed very pale in the half light of goblin torches. There was dirt on his face, and blood in his yellow beard. “This is my fault. I promised to protect him. I failed.”

“No,” Kili said, hating the hurt in the dwarf’s eyes. “No, we haven’t failed. He’s down there, somewhere. He’ll be alright. I just have to fetch him.”

“Kili.” Tears gleamed in the corners of Fili’s eyes. “Bilbo would not want you to follow him into such darkness.”

Facing forward once more, Kili looked down. He could see nothing below. Nothing at all. No hobbit could survive such a fall. And Kili did not want to die. Reaching blindly backward, Kili found his hand caught firmly. Dori hauled him up as easily as a hobbit might pick a strawberry from the garden. Fili did not release his hold on the collar of Kili’s jacket for several long minutes. Around them, the fighting continued.

Kili saw darkness. In that darkness, the dwarves blazed.

Chapter Text

Bilbo blinked in the darkness. Something wet and sticky was coating his cheek. Levering himself into a sitting position, he put his hand into an awful, squelching mess. It smelled like a goblin. The goblin who pulled him over the edge. Fortunately, it was no longer a threat.

“I am much too old to sleep on uneven ground,” the hobbit said to himself, getting to his feet despite the ache in his back and a throbbing headache. At once, he realized that speaking might not be a good idea. Then he wondered if he should call out so that the dwarves could find him.

Near the dead goblin, he found Sting and put it back into the sheath on his belt. Unfortunately, he could go no further than that. The way became too steep to climb only a few feet behind the place where he woke. Bouncing down it while unconscious was one thing, but going up seemed impossible. So he sat down to wait.

Thorin would find him eventually. All Bilbo had to do was be patient.

Patience was difficult when he had no food to eat, no water to drink, and the stench of a dead goblin filling his nose. He wanted a pinch of pipe weed more than anything—to clear his lungs and calm his nerves—but his pipe was lost with his pack.

Nothing dangerous loomed at him out of the darkness, but neither did a boisterous party of dwarves come calling his name down the tunnel. Once, Bilbo was struck by a strange panic, and he checked his wrists. His pack was lost, along with all of his possessions, but he still had both of his cuff links. That was something. He could wait forever, with the promise of those cuff links.

After a few hours, Bilbo realized he was being quite silly. Searching the tunnels for Bilbo would put Kili in very great danger. Thorin would know Bilbo’s preference on that score, and would bring his brother to safety first. So it made sense for Bilbo to find his way out of the mountain and meet up with them there. Naturally, he was only following them to save time. He had no doubt at all that Thorin would come to rescue him. In which case, he knew he had to move quickly and catch the prince just outside of the mountain or they would cross paths entirely.

Getting up, the hobbit proceeded hastily down the tunnel.

Now, hobbits are not like clumsy Big Folk who stumble around lost and blind when underground without a light. Bilbo Baggins did not bump into walls or trip over stones, for he lived in a hole and was well used to moving in the dark. However, he was in an unfamiliar place. He did not know east from west, only that he must go east to find his friends. This was very stressful and he soon felt quite lost, despite the progress he was making through the twisting, winding passages.

Since those passages were often used by armed goblins, it is easy to understand why Bilbo threw himself to the ground to hide when he heard a strange noise. After all, hiding is always a hobbit’s best defense, and he was not in a position to fight a troop of goblins all by himself.

His hand landed on something smooth and cool. It did not feel like a rock, but the hiding hobbit had no time to inspect the thing. Shoving it into his pocket, he pressed back into a break in the wall, listening.

What he heard was not the tramping of feet. Nor was it the chatter of goblin voices raised in raucous laughter. Listening carefully, Bilbo could hear water.

“You silly old fool,” he said to himself. “You would mistake mint for horehound, you really would! Lucky your brother was not here to see this! What he would say, I have no idea. Where there is water, there may be a way out.”

Bilbo said all of this aloud, and a great many other things as well. In truth, his heart was racing. He was not afraid of the dark, nor the narrow walls of the tunnels, but he was afraid. Talking soothed him.

But his words did not go unheard.

As the tunnel opened up into a cavern, Bilbo realized that the water was not a rushing underground river that would lead to a flowing mountain stream in the open air. Instead, it was a vast, cold lake. The sound that called him there was a strange sort of rain, single droplets of water falling from the stalactites above. Each drop echoed, and the slightest sound was magnified tremendously between the water and the walls.

Edging along the rocky shore carefully, Bilbo dipped his hands into the water and drank greedily. It was far too cold, and much deeper than he liked, even so close to the shore, but it was water. After his long run through the goblin tunnels, not to mention his long wait where he landed, he was desperately thirsty. He drank his fill, handful after handful, and then he washed his face. Dousing even his hair in the cold water, he tried to clean off the smell of goblin as best he could without undressing. He was not quite silly enough to try to clean his jacket in that dark place.

Instead, he filled his wooden canteen and crept silently along the shoreline, as only hobbits can. The last thing he wanted was to catch the attention of some foul denizen of the darkness. Unfortunately, he already had it.

Out toward the center of the lake, a shape moved in the darkness. Although it paddled through the water just as silently as the hobbit’s feet fell upon the land, Bilbo could see ripples in the water. He could sense movement in the dark. As it drew up on the shore, he saw a little boat with two bright eyes hovering above the prow, shining like lamps in the darkness.

“Not a goblin, is it Precious?” said the thing. “Gollum, gollum.”

“No,” Bilbo said quickly. “No, not a goblin at all. I am Bilbo Baggins of the Shire, a hobbit. And you are?”

“Gollum, gollum.” Springing from the boat like a frog, the creature landed in front of Bilbo. It was smaller than him, but only because it had very little flesh on its wiry frame. Since it wore only a ragged loincloth, Bilbo could count the unfortunate fellow’s ribs. “Not a goblin, no. We likes goblins, though. Likes to crunch their bones, don’t we Precious? Likes to suck the marrow and chew the meat. Goblins are nice enough, when we can get them.”

Stumbling backward, Bilbo drew his Sting, waving it in front of him to ward the creature back. “What sort of game are you playing? Trying to frighten me?”

The creature, Gollum, stopped creeping forward. Tilting its head to the side, it looked at Bilbo with a long, unblinking stare. “Does it like games, Precious? Does it want to play a game?”

In fact, Bilbo did not want to play a game. He wanted to find Kili. He wanted out of the cold cave and away from the water. “Will you show me the way out of the mountain, if I win?”

Gollum laughed, wracking out a few more “gollum, gollum” sounds as he did so. “Oh yes, Precious. Yes, we will. And if it loses, we eats it!”

Bilbo swallowed. While his heartbeat roared in his ears, he heard also the dripping water from the roof of the cavern into the vast lake. Mountains and lakes do not care for the problems of hobbits. “Fair enough.” Sting trembled in his hands.

“Riddles?” Gollum sounded strangely young and excited. Barring the darkness, the lake, and the threat of unwanted dinner invitations, he seemed almost friendly. “Does it like a game of riddles, Precious?”

Since he happened to be rather good at riddles, Bilbo modestly agreed to this plan.

“Well, go ahead and ask us one, then, Precious. Ask us! Ask us!”

Clearing the nerves from his throat, Bilbo went with a classic. “Round as a rabbit’s tail, bright as a bee, I have two eyes, but I cannot see.”

Although this was a very easy riddle, Gollum blinked at Bilbo for a long moment. Seconds ticked past. Water dropped into the lake. Then, the creature laughed. “Buttons, Precious! Buttons. We sees them winking from your jacket, though we don’t waste time with them ourself.”

“Yes.” Bilbo did not sigh. He had not really hoped to win the game in the first round. “That’s right. It’s your turn.”

Leaping like a frog onto a nearby boulder, Gollum raised his hands dramatically. Out of the shadows, Bilbo could see now that he was almost hobbit like, though there were only a few thin hairs on his head.

”Can’t be moved, can’t be beat
Blocks the most determined feet
Cold as ice where clouds it bites
Only safe away from lights
Roots deeper than trees
And taller than the leaves”

In another situation, Bilbo might have applauded. He appreciated showmanship just as much, if not more than, the next hobbit. Fortunately, this riddle was just as easy to answer as the first had been. It was all around him, for all that he disagreed with the relative safety of the darkness beneath. “A mountain,” he said. “It’s the mountain.”

“Gollum.” Coughing and baring its jagged teeth, the creature sneered at Bilbo. “Guesses very quickly, doesn’t it, Precious. Gollum, gollum. A mountain. Yes, a mountain. Ask us another.” But this last lacked the things earlier childish glee.

Frightened, Bilbo wished for Thorin. So only one riddle came to mind. “The jauntiest cap in the forest is mine. Beneath my hard shell, a treasure you’ll find.”

Disappointed in himself for asking such a simple, obvious riddle, the hobbit didn’t notice for a long while that Gollum was stumped. On his boulder, the crouching thing put its hands down, swung its legs out in front of it, and sat, obviously thinking hard. In the distance, water dripped. Bilbo wondered, not for the first time, just how deep that cold, dark lake must be.

Counting droplets, keeping his eyes on Gollum, Bilbo decided not to hurry the creature along. Years of living with his tempestuous brother during the dwarven equivalent of the tweens had taught him that some people did not react well to being rushed.

Finally, Gollum said in a small, soft voice, “Give us a hint, Precious?”

“If you promise not to eat me,” Bilbo said promptly.

“Gollum, gollum.” Notably, the creature did not make any such promise. Instead, it said, “What is in forests, Precious? Trees.”

“Is that your guess?” Bilbo asked.

Continuing without answering, Gollum mumbled, “Treeses, flowers, birds, and bees. Fruits and seeds. It has a shell, Precious. Not a snail. No, not a snail, but has a shell. Like a seeds. Seeds, Precious. Seeds and trees.” Suddenly, triumphantly, he cried out, “Acorn! Acorns, Precious, acorns. Grandmother had us gather them in. Feed to the piggy, roast them in the fire, dip them in honey. Acorns, Precious, yes, though it was so very long ago.”

“Yes.” Disturbing as it was to think of Gollum with a family, a home, and a grandmother, keeping pigs, Bilbo tried to stay on task. “You’re very clever. Yes, it’s an acorn.”

Preening, Gollum bounced over to a different boulder. “My turn to ask,” he cried. “My turn!”

“Yes.” Bilbo’s heart sank. “Yes, it’s your turn to ask.”

”He stalks me everywhere I go
In sun and rain and wind and snow.
Fly the moon and fear the sun,
Beneath the earth you needn’t run.”

At least this one was another very classic riddle, of the sort that came up in nearly every riddle game. Mindful of the creature’s temper, Bilbo pretended to consider for a while. Only when Gollum crouched low, creeping forward down his boulder on all fours to leer at Bilbo and say, “Well?” did the hobbit answer.

“Perhaps a shadow?” Bilbo guessed modestly.

Snarling and spitting, the creature admitted the point with no grace at all. “Ask us, then, Precious. Ask us another stinking riddle. Gollum, gollum.”

Terribly aware that he needed to not only win, but remain in Gollum’s good graces, Bilbo wanted desperately to run away. He could not ask Gollum an easy riddle to keep it happy, but he also could not afford to frustrate the creature into violence.

“Flies without wings, best friends with strings, I’m never low, when tied to a bow,” Bilbo said, feeling that something long and poetic might try Gollum’s patience.

Gollum laughed again, and answered far too quickly. “An arrow, Precious. Goblins shoots them, don’t they, Precious, but only when they sees us.” With a cough of “gollum” the creature’s demeanor changed into something darker and he added, “They never sees us.”

In this same dark mood, the creature crept close to Bilbo. His final presentation was low voiced and dangerous. Bilbo could only back away as he listened.

”Thief of voices, thoughts, and deeds:
Lurks within the deep ravine,
On quiet ponds among the reeds,
Between sharp rocks with edges keen,
And in the darkest, blackest caves.
Noise is taken. Silence saves. “

Trembling with fear, all thoughts deserted Bilbo entirely. All he could see was Gollum’s lamp like eyes and sharp, jagged teeth. Somehow, he did not think the answer was death by strangulation, yet that was all that came to mind from the way Gollum clutched and grasped the air in front of him with his large hands.

Bilbo’s foot touched the icy water of the underground lake, shocking him to his senses. He would not allow the creature to drown him. That, most of all, he would not allow. A Baggins of Bag End did not drown. Pulling his foot from the water, he heard the drips. Drip, drip, drip, all around the cave. Then, he knew.

“Echoes,” he said, loudly enough that his own voice answered.

“Gollum!” Once again, the creature snarled, but it relented. “Last riddle, Precious. Tired of games, aren’t we Precious? Ready to eat.”

As Bilbo had no doubts whatsoever regarding the nature of that meal, all of the riddles he knew flew from his mind. He could not charm Gollum, and somehow he did not think that even winning the game would save him. Desperately, he put his hand in his pocket to still its trembling. There, it encountered the smooth surface of the thing he’d picked up and forgotten about in the tunnel earlier.

“What have I got in my pocket?” he wondered aloud.

“What?” Gollum’s voice lost its dark quality and became the whine of a cheated child instead. “Can’t ask us that, Precious! It’s not a fair question.”

Since it seemed his only hope of keeping Gollum in the childish mood instead of the dark one, Bilbo repeated, “What have I got in my pocket? You must answer, or show me the way out.”

“Give us three guesses,” Gollum demanded. “You must give us guesses. It’s not a proper riddle, Precious.”

Suddenly, Bilbo realized what Gollum reminded him of. Being a good example to Kili meant that Bilbo often took tea with and helped around the houses of the very old in Hobbiton. Kili had done far more yard work at old widow Holman’s place than he’d ever done at Bag End, and Bilbo had drunk a commensurate amount of tea there. The sudden shifts in mood, the regression to an earlier, childish self, was not dissimilar to certain affect of advanced age. Gollum spoke of a youth in the sunshine, but he had clearly lived in the darkness for a long, long time. He must be quite old.

Shameful as it was, Bilbo knew how to take advantage of that. “I shall give you unlimited guesses.”

“Unlimited!” Gollum crowed like a child and bounced around Bilbo on all fours like a frog. “I’ll win then, Precious. I’ll win! Unlimited guesses!”

“But,” Bilbo said sharply, “for each guess, I am going to ask you a question, and you must answer it honestly.”

Humming, Gollum sank into a crouch. “Alright,” he said. “Knife.”

“No,” Bilbo answered, gesturing to Sting. “My knife is in my hand. What is the best way to exit the mountain on the eastern slopes?”

“Goblins back door,” Gollum said, though this told Bilbo precisely nothing. “Hands.”

“No.” Bilbo waved his free hand, which he had thankfully withdrawn from his pocket during the earlier answer. “Which way do I go to get to the back door?”

Gollum pointed vaguely. “String.”

“No,” Bilbo said. “What obstacles will I encounter on the way to the back door?”

“Goblins.” Gollum shrugged, then narrowed his eyes and coughed his peculiar little cough. He seemed to be tired of guessing. “Baggins might be too fat to squeeze through the tunnel, mightn’t he, Precious? Oh yes. Time to guess. We’ll guess. Nothing! That’s what he has in his pockets. Nothing! And he must show it to us to prove otherwise. Gollum, gollum.”

“Alright, alright,” Bilbo said quickly, putting his hand into his pocket. “I’ll show it to you.”

Gollum’s eyes narrowed, but he sat back and waited to see the answer to the riddle. Rather than show it to him, Bilbo turned and sprinted in the direction of the so called back door.

Howling, Gollum bounded after him, speeding along on all fours. If he was as old as Bilbo suspected, none of it showed in his ability to run. With every step, the hobbit heard Gollum’s eager breath growing closer. Each second, he expected to feel those grasping hands close around his neck. Then, he tripped.

Slamming onto the ground hard, landing on the arm that was still in his pocket, Bilbo Baggins twisted in the gravel, expecting to feel the heavy weight of a predator and fingers about his throat. Instead, he felt nothing. Just above him, Gollum stood, looking around wildly.

“Gone?” Gollum felt at the pouch of his loincloth for something. Not finding whatever it was, the creature ripped the pouch open, tearing it in half. It was empty. “Gone!” Gollum wailed. “Gone, gone, gone! Baggins! Thief! What has it got in its pockets? Precious! Precious!”

Slowly, silently, Bilbo drew his hand from his pocket. On his finger there was a bright, golden ring. Gollum did not see it. Although they were only a few feet apart, Gollum could not see him. The ring made him invisible.

Panicking, Gollum looked around. “Gone,” he repeated. “Gone, but not lost. Goblins back door, Precious. Beat Baggins to it. Get the Precious back.” Then he tore off, racing up rocks and into a tunnel leading away from the lake, clearly headed for the aforementioned back door. Still invisible, Bilbo followed behind. He could not ask for a better guide.

In fact, it was a very good thing for Bilbo that Gollum lead him to the back door. The tunnels and paths they raced along twisted and branched. Alone, the hobbit would soon have lost his way. Fortunately, even though panic lent wings to Gollum’s feet, the creature was not much faster than a hobbit. Bilbo was able to keep up, and soon enough they came to the narrow place that Gollum warned of.

Ahead, there was a narrow crack through which Bilbo could see goblin torchlight. Gollum did not squeeze through the tight place. Instead, the creature crouched in front of it, waiting. “Did we beat him here, Precious? Gollum, gollum. Must have. We must have, Precious.”

There was no way for Bilbo to get past, so he sat as well, invisible, waiting. It occurred to him that being invisible gave a distinct advantage in a fight. He could simply stab Gollum. The creature would never see it coming. Yet Gollum looked so very old and tired. As the hours wore on, and Bilbo could see the light through the crack change, sunlight adding to the torchlight, Gollum began to cry. Bilbo Baggins was not hard hearted enough to murder someone while they were quietly sobbing. So he waited. The sunlight seemed to hurt Gollum’s eyes, for the creature flinched, and winced, and eventually crept away. Hopefully, he would go back down to his lake peacefully and think no more about the ring.

That was Bilbo’s now.

Chapter Text

Vaguely, Kili was aware of fighting. He did not shoot, but he defended himself with his sword. Beside him, Fili and Dori did more. Kili should have been able to fend off goblins easily, but his hands felt numb. His body was weightless. His mind blank. Ahead, the tunnel opened up and he saw the sun, red and sinking over the horizon. Behind, the goblins shrieked and shrank back from the light. Soon enough, all would be darkness. They would come again. Kili did not care.

“Where is Bilbo?” Thorin’s voice was rough. Lost in his wrathful fighting, he had not noticed. Kili wanted to wail and blame him. To say that Thorin should have known. But that was not fair. Kili knew that was not fair. And he had not the energy to do it, anyway.

“He fell,” Fili said.

“I failed,” Dori said.

“Dead.” Kili’s own voice was as empty as his heart. “My brother is dead.”

Thorin strode forward to stand directly in front of Kili. With a hard face and a bare, bloody sword, he did not seem to be looking for shared grief or commiseration. “And we know whose fault that is.”

Kili’s eyes went dry as the sun set over Thorin’s shoulder. He could not mean that Kili caused his brother’s death!

In fact, the prince did not mean that. Which was made plain by his next words. “You would have brought him home after Rivendell. He only came to the mountains for me. But for me, he would yet live. I did this. I struck him down, as surely as if I put a sword to his flesh. So you must take your revenge.”

“No,” Kili whispered.

“I order you!” Thorin bellowed, rage and grief twisting his face into a terrible mask of pain.

“No,” Kili said again. Lunging forward, he pulled Thorin into a tight embrace.

Gandalf came to stand beside them. The slopes of the mountain were beautiful, dotted with pine trees and painted in orange light. Tears sprang once more to Kili’s eyes. He did not release his hold on Thorin. Orcrist fell to the gravel beneath their boots with a gentle clatter. Thorin’s arms crushed Kili to his chest.

“He was the best of hobbits,” Gandalf said quietly. “I knew it the moment we met. Barely more than an infant, and he already lived for others. Surrounded by everything that might interest a hobbit, he wanted only his sick brother to be well. For many generations, I have walked this world. I knew his mother, his grandfather, and his great-grandmother before, but never have I known a more charming fellow. Nor one who could take joy in a celebration only after being given a useful occupation to bring joy to others. Bilbo Baggins, I shall miss you.”

Kili wept freely, knowing he should say something, and wholly unable to speak. Only once Thorin’s repeated murmurings of, “I did this, I cursed him,” registered, did he find the words.

“I was so happy in the Shire. That was all Bilbo’s doing. After our parents passed, he was as much father as brother to me. Anything I wanted, anything I needed, anything that bothered me, he dealt with, and I was happy. With my smithy and my hunting and my brother at home, I was so very happy.” Drawing back from Thorin so that he could meet his uncle’s eyes, Kili said, “But he wasn’t.”

Thorin drew in a sharp breath.

“Bilbo wanted adventure. Always. He wanted love: a great, sweeping romance like the ones in his stories. But he also wanted dragons. Make no mistake, Thorin Oakenshield: he would have come into the wild just as readily for the promise of a dragon as he did for the promise of a prince. Though I rather suspect he would have left me at home in that case.” Kili laughed, and tears spilled down his cheeks. “He was always so worried about keeping me safe. He’d have found his adventures years ago without me to hold him back.”

Both of Thorin’s hands went to Kili’s shoulders. “He would not have traded you for all the world.”

“Well do I know it!” Kili smiled through his tears. “But I also know I never saw him happy—really, truly happy—until the world, and you, came to him. I think that is a trade he would gladly have made: all the years of his life for one winter with you.”

Then, it was Thorin’s turn to weep. Covering his mouth with one hand, the prince turned slightly away from Kili. Perhaps he could not bear to look at Bilbo’s brother. Perhaps he only wanted to hide the tears making swift tracks down his cheeks to the beard that lined his jaw. Suddenly, he reared back, turning his face to the sky and clenching both of his hands into fists.

“Can I not have one moment to grieve?” Thorin bellowed. Kili did not know what he meant by that, until the wolves howled once again in the distance.

Not wolves. Wargs.

“Run,” Gandalf said. “We cannot be here when the sun sets, or we will face more than just wargs.”

And so the dwarves ran.

All know of the great stamina dwarves were gifted by their maker. A hardy folk, they can work or walk for many days on end without tiring. Unfortunately, the dwarves had already been doing that. From climbing a terrible mountain in a storm to running and fighting in the goblin tunnels for an entire day, the dwarves had not eaten or slept in far too long. Moreover, the orcs and wargs chasing them down the mountainside were fresh, if hungry.

The dwarves could not outrun riders on foot. Especially not when they reached the edge of a sheer cliff. There was nowhere to go.

“Climb,” Thorin ordered.

At first, Kili thought he meant down the rocks, slow and impossible as that would be. Instead, the dwarves all scrambled up into the pine trees. The even spacing of pine branches makes such trees very easy to climb, and Kili was an old hand at doing so. All of the dwarves were up in the trees within seconds. However, that did not mean they were hidden. Dwarves are not hobbits to vanish quickly from view. The orcs saw them easily, and Kili saw the orcs.

One orc in particular stood out from the rest. A leader of sorts. He sat astride a white warg, larger than the rest, with fur like a blizzard and teeth like swords instead of knives. The orc himself was pale as well, white like the belly of a dead fish. There was a jagged scar across his face and a sword where his left arm should be, attached just above the elbow.

Kili knew him.

That was the face which haunted his nightmares. That was the orc who put blood in Adâd’s yellow beard. Azog the Defiler.

“Here!” Gandalf handed Kili a flaming pine cone. Kili bounced it between his palms, trying not to catch fire himself. Then he threw it hard at one of the wargs circling the base of the tree. Upon striking the beast’s fur, the pine cone exploded, burning both the creature and the orc riding it.

Howling in pain, the warg threw its rider, trampling the burning, screeching orc. The carpet of pine needles around them sparked and snapped, bursting into flames. Flames which did not discourage the orcs and wargs filling the clearing beneath the pines. Growling and snapping, the wargs circled the trees. Hooting and laughing, the orcs wrapped chains around the base of the pine.

Fili dropped one of his knives straight through the skull of the orc tying off the chain. Knocking him off his warg, the knife pinned him to the dirt, dead. But another orc took up the chain. At the very edge of the clearing, Azog shouted orders in some dark language Kili did not speak.

Gandalf passed another pine cone to Ori, who used his sling to fling it. A warg very near Azog caught fire, but before it could panic and set the bushes near him alight, Azog beheaded it callously.

With pine cone after pine cone, the dwarves set the bracken and loose kindling beneath the trees ablaze. Wargs feared fire, as all things twisted in the darkness do. Some reared, threw their riders, and ran. The orcs, however, feared their pale master more.

Fire slowed the orcs, but it could not keep them at bay. Soon enough they had the iron chain in place. Then, they pulled. The tree beneath Kili cracked and crashed into another. He leapt from one branch to the next, but that tree fell as well. All he could do was hold tight. There was nowhere else to go. He hung from a pine branch over the edge of a vast cliff, and he knew he would fall. Just as his brother had. At the hands of Azog, just like his Adâd.

Thorin rose. Striding down the trunk of the pine tree as it dangled all the other dwarves over the edge of the cliff, the prince stood between his people and danger. Kili’s heart leapt. Surely the prince who killed the dragon could save them.

Roaring in anger, Thorin raised his sword high and charged. Lowering his warg into a crouch, Azog pounced. At the base of the tree, ringed by fire, the two clashed. Eager to see the whole confrontation, Kili pulled himself up at last. The view was not what he hoped. Thorin fell, and lay unmoving as Azog’s warg padded away.

Azog said something. It did not sound triumphant. It sounded dismissive. As though Thorin Oakenshield, the prince who killed the dragon, the dwarf who would have married Bilbo Baggins, was nothing at all.

One of the largest orcs dismounted from his warg. Going over to Thorin’s body, he raised a wicked, curved sword high. Kili put an arrow through his throat.

Azog snarled. Turning to face Kili, the big orc bared his jagged teeth.

“No more,” Kili said, and put an arrow through his eye.

When Azog fell, the other orcs went mad. Swarming the base of the pine, they ignored the fire. Kili had no time to draw a third arrow. Instead, he raised his ax.

At his side, Fili stood with two short swords. Kili did not need to see the dwarf to sense where he would be. After their winter training together against Dwalin, the two knew how to move in tandem. And so they did. When Kili struck high, Fili parried low. If Fili spun out, Kili dodged close. Kili hacked. Fili slashed. Kili blocked. Fili stabbed. Together, they barred the way. Not one orc or warg made it past them to the tree.

“No more,” Kili said, and he meant it.

Falling into the rhythm of a fight was easy, but the orcs were innumerable. Orc blades and warg claws kept up a relentless assault. Fili and Kili could hold the line forever, but they could not drive back the attackers. They could not end the fight.

Then, the eagles came. Out of the stars above, Kili heard a piercing cry. Instead of fear, it gave him courage. Somehow, he knew that these predators meant no harm to the innocent or the good. So it proved.

Giant birds with golden feathers plucked the dangling dwarves from the tree. Others shrieked and dove, slaughtering orcs by the dozen with their razor sharp beaks. One lifted Thorin’s body from the ground, and Kili saw the oaken shield drop from his lifeless arm. Wanting to grab it for him, Kili barely managed two steps before being plucked up by his shirt collar and tossed onto the back of a swooping bird. Feathers were soft beneath his hands. The eagle felt solid and strong. It did not listen when he said they had to go back.

Circling up and up, the eagles soared high above the fallen pines. The blaze below shrank into a single point of light on the side of the great mountain. It was so much smaller than the silver moon to which they flew.

As the eagle rose, the pink light of dawn began to color the sky. Shadows in the darkness resolved into other eagles. Finally, Kili could see his friends. Fili was nearby, as was Gandalf, but it took Kili a long time to spot Thorin. The prince was still unmoving in the claws of a giant eagle. Kili wondered if he would rise again.

Chapter Text

Bilbo stumbled down the side of the mountain, blinking in the early morning light. Slipping the ring off his finger, he put it back in his pocket. Useful and beautiful as the little thing was, wearing it made the hobbit rather uncomfortable. The world looked different through the veil of invisibility.

Besides, Bilbo did not want to be invisible. He wanted to find his friends. They would certainly not spot him if he was hiding away.

Part of Bilbo had hoped to see Thorin sitting just outside the mountain. Perhaps artfully arranged with a book, as though supremely confident in Bilbo’s ability to find him. Thorin had a lovely profile when he was reading. That regal nose and dignified beard gave him a very bold aspect which contrasted beautifully with the peace of reading.

Unfortunately, the grass was too sparse on the mountainside for that sort of picture. Pine trees were terrible for growing ground cover, and the earth was too gravelly beneath Bilbo’s feet. So he looked around for Kili instead. Surely, Kili would be hanging from a pine bough somewhere nearby. Swinging upside-down to startle his brother, the younger Baggins loved to make trouble. Bilbo just had to find him.

“Kili!” he called loudly, “Where are you?”

There was no answer.

“Kili! Thorin! Gandalf! Is anyone there?”

Bilbo’s voice echoed lightly among the pines, reminding him uncomfortably of the terrible dripping in Gollum’s lake. For the first time, it occurred to Bilbo that the dwarves might still be in the goblin tunnels. They might not have made it through the mountain. Turning, Bilbo looked back up along the path. The entrance into the mountain looked like an empty, gaping mouth. But he would go back there. For Kili. For Thorin.

Happily, before he could return to the darkness, Bilbo spotted a bright scrap of cloth snagged on a jagged rock. It was a bit of the embroidered red silk that lined Dori’s tunic. Bilbo would know that dashing stitching anywhere. The dwarves were nearby, waiting for him.

“Balin! Dwalin!” Raising his voice even more, Bilbo cried, “Fili! Are you near?”

Now that he was looking, Bilbo saw all sorts of broken branches, footprints, and kicked pebbles. They were as good as a sign post pointing the way to his friends. Heartened, the hobbit skipped down the path, shouting every few minutes for one of his fellows. “Dori! Ori! Nori!”

He came to a place beside an old stump where the dwarves must have stood for a little while. A few scraps of bandage lay upon the gravel. Clearly, Oin had taken the opportunity to redress some wound.

“Oin! Gloin!” Bilbo shouted. The only answer was his own voice, echoing among the tall trees.

Hurrying along, Bilbo continued to search the area for signs of his friends. Certain as he was that they were all waiting for him somewhere, he was well aware that he was tardy. A Baggins ought to be punctual, and Bilbo had been dragging his feet in those caves for hours. Kili was sure to give him a smug look when he caught up.

“Bifur! Bofur! Bombur!” he called, but all he could see was rocks and trees.

Then, he saw more.

In a stand of pine beside a high cliff, Bilbo saw burned and blackened trees. He saw bodies. Dead bodies. Swallowing hard, the little hobbit crept closer. Once he could see the bodies properly, he let out all his breath in a whooshing sigh. They were only orcs.

Which was not to say he would have been happy to meet any one of those orcs on a dark night. The orcs were much larger than the mountain goblins, and even mountain goblins were serious opponents to little Bilbo Baggins. On his own, in the wild, he had very little defense against either. Judging by the felled trees and burnt corpses, the big orcs presented a challenge even for the dwarves. In the grass, beside the torn up roots of the largest tree, Bilbo found Thorin’s shield.

They must have fled in haste, to leave behind something so important.

Bilbo sat down hard.

Fingers tracing the smooth, lacquered surface of the wooden shield, Bilbo eyed the smelly corpses. The largest, a pale monster with a bald head, had an arrow embedded in its skull. Recognizing his brother’s work gave the hobbit a little surge of pride. It was enough to get him back on his feet. Resolving to think of only positive, helpful things, the little hobbit searched the grisly place.

The dwarves were well. Kili was fighting fit. Thorin was safe. If they had to leave behind a few cumbersome things along the way, that was only for the best. Rooting around the discarded remains of the battlefield, he found a few strips of leather. With those, he made a little sling for the oak branch, so he would not have to carry it in hand. It was no heavier than any other piece of firewood. Since Bilbo had no pack, it did not weigh him down.

Unfortunately, the lack of supplies was a mixed blessing. True, Bilbo could move very lightly with only the big shield and his little sword to carry. However, he also had no food, no water, and no bedroll. Worse yet, all of his spare clothes were somewhere in the goblin tunnels, likely being mutilated beyond recognition by the foul creatures.

Sighing, Bilbo straightened up. He needed to go east, down the mountain, and then north a bit to the Lonely Mountain. In the interim, he would pass through a forest known to some as the Greenwood and to others as Mirkwood. It was neither complicated nor difficult. If he could not find his friends, he would meet them at their mutual destination. Moping about would do no one any good.

Drinking the last droplet of water from the wooden canteen at his belt, Bilbo set off. A little after noon, he had the great luck of happening across a stand of pine trees which he knew to be a good and helpful sort. The cones were not quite open all the way, and the nuts within were very small, but they gave him something to chew on as he walked. Around tea time, he found a clear, rushing stream. In the sweet, babbling water, Bilbo was once again able to drink his fill, wash his face, and fill his canteen.

Indeed, everything seemed to be going very well. Until the sun set and the goblins returned.

Eager as he was to go all the way to Erebor in single day, Bilbo was utterly exhausted by the time the sun began to sink behind the mountain. Long shadows made the pine trees loom ever more ominously, and the little hobbit decided that bedding down for the night sounded like a fine idea. His stomach grumbled about a pine nut supper, especially given that the pine nuts were not really ripe enough to harvest.

Wedging himself between two boulders, Bilbo looked out over the land beyond the great shadows cast by the Misty Mountains. He could see a vast forest, and he fancied, beyond that, a single, solitary peak still bathed in light. The Lonely Mountain: where he would never be lonely again. Tucking his chin against the shoulder of his jacket, he closed his eyes and fell fast asleep.

Bilbo did not dream. Instead, he woke suddenly in the dark, blinking up at the silver moon. The rock was uncomfortable against his back and shoulders. His cheek ached with an imprint from his improvised pillow that might just bruise. Despite his jacket, he shivered in the wind. At first, Bilbo thought it was only discomfort which woke him. Then, he heard the harsh, guttural language.

Bilbo Baggins spoke many languages, but he did not understand the tongues of goblins or orcs. Quickly ducking behind one of the boulders, Bilbo peered through the darkness. A band of six goblins had a beautiful stag lashed with thick, rough ropes. Shrieking and laughing, they pulled the thing in opposite directions.

The stag tried to fight, angling his antlers this way and that. Kicking one goblin hard, he sent it sliding down the gravely slope. When the goblin stopped sliding, it snarled, putting a hand to its bloody face. Getting to its feet, the creature drew a wicked knife. The other goblins laughed and whipped the stag. It screamed. The fallen goblin trudged back up the mountainside. Bilbo knew that when the knife reached the stag, matters would conclude unhappily for the elegant animal. Yet he also knew that he could not fight six goblins alone.

Bleating in pain, the stag made a soft, sad sound. It was more heartrending than the screams.

Slipping on his ring, Bilbo became invisible. Creeping down the path silently, Bilbo slipped around behind the climbing goblin. Drawing Sting, he drove the blade into the goblin’s back, straight through the heart. The goblin crumpled to the ground. His fellows didn’t notice, only continued to torture the stag.

Taking a deep breath, Bilbo flicked the blood from Sting. Once he started in on the goblin band, they would notice him, invisible or not.

Before Bilbo could move, an earsplitting roar shook the mountainside. Crashing through the trees, a gigantic black bear bowled into the goblins. Biting the legs off one, the bear slapped another with its massive paw. Since the goblin was no larger than the bear’s paw, it was finished. Morbidly, Bilbo watched the half goblin breathe its last. By the time he was able to tear his gaze away, all of the other goblins were dead.

The stag, still covered in ropes and blood, stared at the bear. It did not flee.

Slowly, the enormous bear shrank, rising up on two legs as it did so. Horror turned to wonder as Bilbo saw a man standing in place of the bear. The man was still tremendously large, taller than Gandalf and much, much broader. Moonlight spilled over his naked body, and Bilbo saw far more than he wished to see of a stranger.

Removing the heavy ropes from the stag’s back, the man began cleaning its wounds. “Come to my house,” he said. “Rest. Eat. Heal.”

Bilbo did not know if the stag understood these words, but it did lick the bear-man’s hand.

Putting his ring back in his pocket, Bilbo called out at once. “Sir! Rarely have I seen such bravery or charity embodied in a single person. I wonder if your kindness could extend to one more beggar. I find myself separated from my companions and in desperately reduced circumstances after a similar encounter with goblins on the other side of these mountains.”

Turning with a snarl of surprise, the bear-man looked at Bilbo. Slowly, the curl left his lips and he stopped showing his teeth. “The blood of that dead goblin is on your sword.”

“Oh, yes.” Bilbo looked down at the goblin just behind him. “Although I am no great hero like yourself, I did wish to help this poor creature.”

Not wanting to muddy the matter with too many facts, the hobbit did not mention that it was torture and cruelty to which he objected. Nor that venison often made an appearance at his supper table.

“My name is Bilbo Baggins of Bag End and the Shire.” Bilbo bowed as formally as possible under the circumstances. “Nothing would please me more than to make your acquaintance, sir.”

“I am Beorn.” The man smiled. “You have nice manners, Bilbo Baggins.”

“You are very kind to say so. My father used to say that even a hobbit who has nothing can still have standards.”

“You are a hobbit. I have heard of your people. Never met one.”

“Then you have me at a disadvantage, Master Beorn. I have never even heard of people who can be a bear one minute and a man the next.”

Beorn looked up at the moon for a long moment. Bilbo did not know if he was sad or merely thinking. “Skinchanger is the old name for my folk,” he said at last. “You will come to my house, Bilbo Baggins. For food, rest, and healing if you need it.”

Nearly collapsing in relief, Bilbo thanked his new friend profusely. In fact, he did not stop thanking Beorn all the way down the mountain. Even when the injured stag began chewing on Bilbo’s hair while they walked, the hobbit did not object. He was perfectly aware that he would not do well alone. Despite the fact that Kili and Thorin clearly had faith in his ability to manage.

Beorn’s house was beautiful when the first pink light of dawn struck the golden thatch of his roof. While it did not rival the grandeur of Rivendell, the stature of the place was all the more impressive for being a structure Bilbo knew well. Rivendell’s architecture seemed to grow from elven magic. In contrast, Bilbo had seen many houses with stone walls and thatched roofs in his time. They were very popular with the Big Folk who farmed the lands around Bree. Yet Bilbo had never imagined a house as large as Beorn’s.

Beorn’s garden gate was twice Bilbo’s height, for all that it only came up to the giant’s chest. Despite feeling rather undersized, the hobbit was tremendously relieved to hear the weathered wood creak shut behind him. Within the walls of that garden, he was once again safe.

Clearly, the stag felt the same, for it immediately skipped off to graze with some fat, lovely ponies nearby.

All manner of creatures lived on Beorn’s land. Bilbo saw sheep, goats, cats, and dogs, which he would naturally expect to find on such a homestead, but he also saw mice, gophers, and rabbits. Most farmers would chase away such rodents. Not Beorn.

“All are welcome here,” the skinchanger said. “All are friends of mine. They do not harm one another. If they did, I would not let them stay.”

“Do the bees understand that?” Bilbo asked playfully. For they were the most prominent resident of all. Beorn had over thirty beehives dotting his land. Almost every flower had a bee drinking its fill, and one buzzed lazily over Bilbo’s jacket, attracted by the bright color.

“Bees are bees,” Beorn said. “Do not bother them. They will not bother you.”

“And it’s impossible to grow a good tomato without them,” Bilbo agreed quickly. Apparently, Beorn was not given to light humor. Eager to ingratiate himself, the hobbit said, “Your tomatoes are quite lovely. I’ve been known to grow them myself, you know, in the Shire. They must get excellent light here, but how do you water them? You cannot grow tomatoes like this relying only on the rain.”

So Beorn showed Bilbo around his garden, and the hobbit admired every plant, flower, fruit, and vegetable in sight. Blossoming under the compliments, the skinchanger answered all of Bilbo’s questions. He even deigned to ask the hobbit’s opinion once or twice. Bilbo was able to give him some very good advice about the location of his snap pea patch, which was not doing as well as it had in previous years.

“That is my garden.” Beorn looked up at the sun, which was nearing its zenith. “Would you look at more? I am hungry, and would go inside. But you may keep looking.”

“Oh!” Bilbo felt his cheeks run hot. “I hope you were not extending the tour for my amusement. If the invitation to dine is an open one, I should be quite happy to join you.”

Beorn blinked. “Come inside and eat.”

The first thing Beorn did upon entering the hall was to don trousers. This was naturally a great salve to Bilbo’s sensibilities. The hobbit had been beginning to wonder if the skinchanger knew what trousers were. While the garments themselves were rough spun wool, not at all something Bilbo would commission for himself, in comparison to no trousers at all, they made Beorn look extremely civilized. Though he did not, it must be said, don a shirt as well.

Once clothed—if trousers alone can be called clothing—the skinchanger brought out bread, cheese, honey, and milk. Each was the finest Bilbo had ever tasted. The bread was thick, spongey, and full of seeds, making it quite sturdy enough to bear the bold, sweet honey. A sharp contrast, the cheese was hard and full of flavor. Washing it all down with good, creamy milk, Bilbo enjoyed the meal more than any other in his life. Hunger is, after all, the best spice.

Upon polishing off his third block of the sharp cheese, Bilbo noticed that Beorn was staring at him. What did not always occur to a guest hard at work on a sideboard that kept being filled occurred to him then. Blushing once more, Bilbo said, “My apologies if I am over indulging. I do not mean to take advantage of your hospitality.”

Laughing, Beorn tousled Bilbo’s hair with a massive hand. Somehow, it felt more like affection than condescension. “Little Bunny, be at home. Get fat on bread and honey.” Then he showed Bilbo to his storerooms, which put even the three pantries at Bag End to shame.

The hobbit did not worry overmuch thereafter about stinting himself.

In fact, to show his gratitude, he took over the cooking for the next few days. Treating Beorn to a few elaborate puddings, trifles, and casseroles seemed like a small gesture. They shared many meals and stories. Bilbo told Beorn all about the dwarves, his brother, and his journey. In turn, Beorn told him quiet tales of woodland creatures. He was a simple soul, and though Bilbo could tell he hated goblins with a deep passion, Beorn never spoke of darkness.

Unfortunately, the skinchanger liked the hobbit’s cooking a little too much. Three days after arriving, when Bilbo felt well rested enough to broach the matter of supplies for his departure, Beorn was displeased.

“You will stay here,” the skinchanger said. “The wild is no place for you.”

“I’m afraid I cannot,” Bilbo said. “You have been most kind, but I must find my brother and my friends.”

“No.” Beorn did not raise his voice, but he spoke as though this simple denial ended the matter. It did not.

“Mister Beorn, you are generosity itself, but I have no intention of living out my days here as one of your pets.”

Beorn frowned. “Friends. Not pets.”

“If that is the case, then you must treat me as a friend, and respect my wish to go.”

The giant hesitated, but he did not give in. “Next year. If you still want to leave. Mirkwood is too dangerous now, but it has been less dangerous in the past. Maybe it will be less dangerous next year.”

“Absolutely not!” Suddenly, Bilbo could not keep hold of his tongue. “I am engaged to Thorin Oakenshield, you know. Nothing is going to bar me from him. Not some forest. Not your garden wall. And certainly not you!”

Beorn blinked. “Engaged? To be married.”

Bilbo hesitated. Although he’d shared a great deal with Beorn about his brother and their journey to Erebor, he had not let that little tidbit fall. One never knew how certain news might be met. It seemed that the wide world was more accepting of such things than the Shire. After all, Elrond threw them an engagement party. But Bilbo had lived his whole life in secrecy for a reason. He did not know what to do.

Deciding to take a chance, the hobbit said, “Yes.”

“Not a bunny,” Beorn muttered. “A bird.” Which made no sense at all.

“Listen,” Bilbo tried. “You must understand, I love him. I love him a great deal. And there is my brother to think about as well. I simply cannot stay here for a year. They are probably already quite worried about what is keeping me.”

“You are bringing that stick to him,” Beorn said slowly, “and then getting married?”

“Well, I think he would be jolly displeased to hear you call it a stick.” Bilbo shrugged. “It is his Oakenshield. He’s named for it. But essentially, yes.”

Beorn nodded gravely. “If that is how it must be for hobbits, I will help you.”

Not knowing what being a hobbit had to do with anything, Bilbo said, “Thank you. I should be very grateful for any provisions you might be able to spare for my journey.”

“I will see you to the edge of Mirkwood myself,” the skinchanger said. “And give you all the provisions you can carry. You must not eat or drink anything you find in that forest. To do so would be a deadly mistake. And you must stay on the path.”

“I will,” Bilbo said. “Thank you, I will manage.” But he wondered if his friends had such a warning when they entered Mirkwood. He wondered if Kili and Thorin were alright.

Chapter Text

The eagles deposited the dwarves at the base of the Misty Mountains, just before a dark, oppressive forest. Kili had no heart to worry about trees. Instead, he rushed to Thorin’s side. Pale and bloody, the prince lay terribly still upon the grass.

Gandalf knelt over him, placing a gnarled hand upon the dwarf’s brow. For a long, tense moment, the wizard muttered in some foreign tongue. Then, the old man sighed and stood, looming as tall as the trees. Kili thought he was giving up and wanted to yell. On the ground, Thorin opened his eyes.

“Oh!” Kili collapsed against Fili, hugging the dwarf close. “I was so worried!”

Patting Kili on the back in a conciliatory manner, Fili said, “Not me. Not for a minute. It would take more than orcs to bring my uncle down.”

Thorin stood slowly, ignoring Dwalin’s offer of help. Without a word to anyone else, the prince went over to the chief of the eagles. Bowing low, he said, “Pray, accept the gratitude of Erebor and all of Durin’s Folk for the kindness you have shown to us in our hour of need.”

The great eagle craned its long neck regally in acceptance. “Where good folk stand alone against the darkness, the eagles of Manwë are charged to intervene. Assisting is no more than our duty.”

“If ever Erebor or I can aid you in that duty, you have but to speak.” Thorin’s body was stiff. His wounds must pain him terribly. Yet his voice was unwavering.

Raising its wings, the massive bird said, “Noble is the line of Durin! Farewell wherever you fare, Thorin Oakenshield, ‘till your eyries receive you at the journey’s end.”

“May the wind under your wings bear you where the sun sails and the moon walks,” Thorin answered, bowing again.

Gandalf came forward and clapped the prince on the shoulder as they watched all the eagles take wing, soaring away into the sun. “That was well done, but you are yet hurt,” the wizard murmured.

Looking at the soft grass, Thorin said, “I could lie down right here and sleep for a week.” His eyes misted slightly. “Nay. Longer. Let me sleep. Let stone cover me. Let the world end and be remade. But who shall I see in the halls of my fathers? What joy waits there for me? Do not take me then, but only let me sleep.” Tears watered the grass beneath his boots.

Kili felt his own eyes burning.

“Shut up.” Dwalin’s voice came hard and harsh. There was real vitriol in it, of a kind Kili had not heard over months of violent lessons with the warrior. “You have a duty.”

The young Baggins thought this scolding most unfair. Surely a prince had just as much of a right to mourn as anyone else. It was a great tragedy to lose an intended before the wedding, and Thorin had a right to grieve. Kili grieved with him. The world was a colder, less colorful place without Bilbo in it.

But Dwalin did not look to the northeast, nor did he speak of mountains. Instead, he nodded pointedly toward Kili. Thorin’s face cleared. Kili did not like the intensity of his gaze.

“Yes,” the prince said forcefully. “I have a duty.”

“You have to rest,” someone said sensibly. It was just what Bilbo would think, if he were present. Thorin looked awful. With a jolt, Kili realized he had been the one to speak. So he went over to Thorin’s side to press the matter. “We both have the same duty, I think,” he added softly.

Tears shone in the dwarf’s eyes as he smiled. “I suppose we do, Master Baggins.”

At that, Kili’s heart raced. With his brother’s death, Kili was the master of Bag End. That title was far more meaningful to him than any promised princehood. It was also one he never wished for. He would give it back, if he could. He wanted more than anything to give it back.

Thorin crushed Kili to his chest in an engulfing embrace. Kili’s eyes and mouth filled with fur from the prince’s cloak, stifling his tears.

“How do hobbits mourn?” the dwarf asked eventually. “How do they remember?”

“Flowers,” Kili mumbled, looking up.

Thorin raised an eyebrow. “Roses?” he asked skeptically.

Laughter burst from Kili’s chest in an explosion of relief, bordering on hysteria. The young Baggins remembered, of course, another time when he advised Thorin to give Bilbo roses. Weeping and laughing, Kili lay a hand on Thorin’s shoulder to steady himself.

Finally, he said, “Definitely roses.” The smile on Kili’s face shrank to something soft and melancholy. “Roses in some place where there were never roses before. Bilbo would like that.”

“Roses and lilacs,” Thorin agreed. “You will have to help me grow them. A garden in Erebor, for Bilbo.”

“I look forward to seeing it,” Gandalf said.

Kili jumped, surprised to realize that all the other dwarves were standing silently nearby, watching the pair grieve. Mortified, he cleaned his face with a handkerchief.

“Unfortunately,” the wizard continued, “I must leave you here. There is business away to the south which requires my attention.”

Behind the tall wizard, the forest towered. Black and forbidding, it was like no wood Kili had ever seen. Compared to Mirkwood the Old Forest near Buckland with its dangerous, moving trees was light and sunny. The trees did not frighten Kili, but the darkness that seemed to fill the spaces between the boughs like a tangible threat made him tremble.

Thorin clapped his shoulder with a heavy, comforting hand. “We have allies other than the wizard in the Greenwood,” he said. “There is nothing to fear.”

“Indeed.” Gandalf smiled. “On this side of the Misty Mountains, a dwarf of Erebor may walk as safely through the wild as a hobbit through the fields of the Shire.”

But Kili remembered what Lord Elrond said about luck and scorpions. He was not entirely reassured.

After Gandalf left them, the dwarves made camp. Although it was yet early in the morning, they had not slept or eaten in far too long. The meal was a haphazard one. Only Bombur managed to carry any supplies through the long flight. His potatoes and jerky were brewed into a thin soup, which satisfied no one.

Still, soup was good for Thorin’s injuries. After bandaging his wounds, Oin gave strict instructions for the prince to lie down. Others followed suit, bedding down close to the camp fire despite the warm sunlight. Soon enough, Fili and Gloin were competing to see who could snore the loudest. For a while, Kili watched Thorin stare at the fire. Bundled in his cloak, the dwarf looked terribly cold. Slowly, Thorin’s eyes drifted shut.

Kili slipped away from the camp.

For the first time in his life, Kili was truly hungry. It was a novel experience. Something that Bilbo would never have allowed. Bilbo had very strong opinions on going to sleep hungry. Namely, that it was the worst fate to ever befall anyone. So Kili would not let it happen. He was an experienced hunter. He would simply bag some game.

With a nice fat pheasant, he could make Thorin a proper soup. Something that would really cure his ills. Thorin needed looking after. That was what Bilbo would want. Far more than he would want a garden.

Creeping through the long grass, Kili searched for the well known signs of birds and beasts. Hearing a rustle, he stilled. Low in the grass, he waited and watched, but he saw only some wild garlic. This was a good find, and he pocketed it. It was not, however, what he was looking for. He continued on through the field.

A twig snapped. Kili froze. Looking around, he saw no sign of anything more than a few swallows and field mice. He waited. Nothing happened. He continued on.

The grass grew taller the further he got from the rocky outcropping where the dwarves slept. It was up to his chest. Wind blew through it like waves across the surface of a pond. He would be lucky indeed to spot any game. Instinctively, he went still once more.

A stag exploded from the grass in front of him, bounding through the field toward the treeline. Startled, Kili loosed his arrow too late. It struck the stag’s hindquarters. Not a clear shot at all. The stag continued on, pain spurring it to greater swiftness. Kili gave chase. He could not injure an animal without making the final kill. That was cruelty.

When the stag bounded beneath the eaves of the nearby wood, Kili followed. His first step into the darkness staggered. Like plunging into a frozen pond, his senses were assaulted by the change. Everything swirled in a most disorienting way. The wood was far too cold and dark for a summer’s day.

Ahead, the stag banked around a tree. Kili saw his shot and took it. His second arrow went straight through the beast’s elegant neck and up into its brain, dropping it instantly.

Swaying with the trees, Kili wandered over to his prey. Its dead, glassy eyes looked up at him without censure. Venison would feed Thorin just as well as quail. There was no wind in the forest, but Kili heard tree branches clacking together. Slowly, he bent to lift his game. That alone saved his life.

The creature that pounced forward onto the carcass of the stag had sharp, extended talons like a hawk. They raked across the brown fur, exposing flesh. Because the stag was dead already, no blood came. This seemed to disappoint the thing. Its long, snake like neck twisted around to snap at Kili with long, razor sharp fangs. Rolling backward, he avoided the first bite, only to stare in horror at the thing.

It was immense. Larger than the stag, it seemed to require six legs to move about. Two were the grasping, talon-like claws that tried again to steal the dwarf’s kill. Trembling, Kili shot an arrow at them, but it glance off the monster’s armored claws. Still, it took this as a warning, skittering backward on its other four pointed, strangely jointed legs that looked more like an insect than anything. Apparently, its body and claws had the armor of an insect, but there was fur along its lashing tail. Once again, the snake-like mouth opened so wide that Kili could not see the slits of its eyes as it whipped forward to bite him.

Barely, Kili dodged, dropping his bow.

While Kili preferred his bow, he was not weaponless. Drawing his ax, he faced the monster once more, just as Dwalin taught him. That is when he saw two more, even larger than the first, creeping through the trees above him. They looked exactly like his death.

An arrow pinned one of the head of one monster to the trunk of the tree where it perched. Dying without a sound, the monster’s body flopped down behind the branch. The arrow was strong. For a long moment, the beast dangled from it morbidly. When it finally fell to the earth, it was because the flesh of the dead neck tore away. The head remained pinned to the tree.

While Kili was watching this with rapt horror, the second lurking monster was dying. Three arrows drove through its tail, neck, and head. It screeched and shrieked with ferocious agony, but it fell. The third monster pounced on Kili.

Managing to block the biting fangs with his ax, Kili still found himself bound by the monster’s lashing, whip like tail. All of its weight descended upon him as those sharp talons raked across his leather armor. Then, the weight pressing into his chest doubled. The biting jaws snapping against the blade of his ax went slack. The monster fell away, revealing the most beautiful creature Kili could imagine.

She spun her two, bloody knives as she pulled them from the monster’s brain pain, sheathing them expertly. Her hair shone like a guiding flame in the dark wood. Hopping elegantly down from the monster’s back, she kicked it off of Kili. Then, she extended a hand to help him up. Such a hand should have been larger than his own, but where she was long, he was broad. And so they fit together perfectly.

“Are you injured?” Her face was calm, almost uncaring, but the question showed a great kindness of spirit. Kili was sure she was the kindest person in all the world.

She was certainly the most beautiful. Of course, elves were mostly beautiful in a general kind of way. Bilbo had written several poems about Lady Arwen being a nightingale reborn and other such rot while they were in Rivendell, despite the fact that Bilbo did not usually find ladies at all inspiring. Arwen was nothing compared to this elf, though. This elf had emeralds for eyes and steel for a spine. Kili had never really understood about lips being like rose petals, but he was suddenly sure that hers were softer and smoother than any flower in all the world. They were certainly as red.

Placing a hand on his shoulder, she bent low. Kili’s heart stopped. She was going to kiss him.

“Can you speak?” she asked, very slowly and clearly. Here eyes searched his, but did not seem to find what they were looking for. “Did you hit your head?”

“Baggins!” he blurted.

Straightening up, she blinked at him. Her height gave her the elegant grace of a willow or a lily.

“Is my name,” Kili clarified. “Kili Baggins, of Bag End. Master, I am. I mean. I have inherited Bag End. It’s very nice,” he added hopefully.

“I am sure it is, Master Dwarf,” she said slowly. “The confusion of the forest should leave you soon. But how did you come beneath the eaves?”

Shaking his head to clear it, Kili asked himself what Bilbo would say. Belatedly, he bowed with all the dignity he could muster. “I am on a great journey, my lady. My friends and I have crossed the Misty Mountains—” There, he paused, and could speak no further. The grief of what was lost beneath those mountains remained too near.

Amazingly, the elf maid nodded. “You travel with the Company of Thorin Oakenshield.” It was not a question.

“Yes,” he said, surprised. “Do you know him? He is my uncle.”

“Your uncle!” She seemed no less surprised than Kili. “You are the lost prince whose coming was foretold?”

Kili nearly swallowed his tongue in his haste to assure her that he was, in fact, a prince. The most princely prince ever to be prince of anywhere. He knew all about crowns and thrones and things, and incidentally, his uncle could probably arrange for her to have some of them, if she liked.

Fortunately for him, they were just then interrupted by another elf.

Kili hated him on sight. Flipping down from one of the trees like an overpaid acrobat, he tossed his long, golden hair like a ray of sunshine to clear away the darkness. He seemed to be exactly the sort of handsome hero that Bilbo always described with relish. Worse, he smirked at Kili’s elf with a horrid sort of familiarity.

“It cannot take you this long to deal with three morhlócë, Tauriel,” the elf said. “You are losing your touch.”

Answering him in elvish made her sound exactly like a songbird. Kili hoped Tauriel was saying something rude. Tauriel. It was a beautiful name.

“Is your name Tauriel, my lady?” he asked, bowing again for good measure.

The stupidly handsome elf looked at Kili the way Bilbo sometimes glared at a dropped stitch. “What are you doing in the forest, dwarf?”

“Hunting,” Kili said, gesturing to his quarry.

The elf with the yellow, straw-like hair, which wasn’t that great anyway, frowned. “It is forbidden for any to take game in this forest save by order of the king.”

Kili frowned right back. “I didn’t bring him into the forest, he brought me. I shot him in the field over there, but it wasn’t clean. What was I supposed to do? Let him run about with an arrow in his rump?”

“I made the kill,” Tauriel said quickly.

The not-very-handsome-really elf looked at Kili, looked at the arrow in the stag’s neck—obviously not fletched with the white feathers Tauriel favored—and then raised an eyebrow at his friend. No, his sister. She was probably—definitely—his sister, Kili thought.

She blushed. While this was extraordinarily flattering to her complexion, it was not, it must be said, particularly sisterly. “I inferred that the dwarves of Thorin’s Company might be hungry, given Prince Kili’s foray into the forest without an escort. So I thought a gift of game might not go amiss.”

The elf’s smirk grew a little more, but he did not dispute her story. “As you say, Captain Tauriel. You have the right to make such an overture at your own discretion.”

“Thank you, Legolas,” she said, giving a queer little half bow.

“Right. Well, am I allowed to help field dress it?” Kili asked, rather rudely.

“By all means, dwarf,” Legolas said. “We will keep watch.” Then he leapt up into the trees in a rather showy, but all together unimpressive way.

“Would you like help?” Tauriel offered sweetly. She was charity itself, but of course Kili could not ask her to get blood all over her clothes for him.

“Work of a moment,” he promised. “I do this all the time. Bilbo doesn’t mind butchering, but he’ll give me a scolding indeed if I don’t—”

Kili fell silent then, and focused on his work.

The dwarves were all tremendously ungrateful for Kili’s stag. Dwalin whacked Kili hard on the back of the head. Balin scolded him in a fierce, low way that Kili suspected would be much worse if the elves were not right there listening.

“What were you thinking?” Fili cried, greatly distressed. “After everything! How could you go off alone? Do you not know I would go to the ends of this earth to keep you safe?”

“Well, you were asleep.” This perfectly reasonable point was accepted by exactly no one.

Even Thorin did not take Kili’s side. “You knew the forest was dangerous, yet you entered alone. Why?”

The young Baggins squirmed uncomfortably beneath the prince’s steady gaze. “It all worked out in the end,” he argued. “Tauriel was there to save me when I got into real trouble.”

Turning to the elves, Thorin bowed very low. Kili could not remember ever seeing the prince give much more than a dignified nod. Suddenly, he did feel guilty for his actions. Going into the forest was stupid. Worrying Thorin by disappearing was exactly the opposite of what Bilbo would have wanted.

“Thank you, Prince Legolas. Captain Tauriel. I am deeply indebted to you both for your actions this day.”

Tauriel blushed very prettily to be thanked so. It was not only Legolas who could make her blush, then. Perhaps she did so often. She was so very fair, it was easy to notice. Although he was dismayed to learn that Legolas was also a prince, Kili took some heart in seeing her blush for Thorin.

He also heard Balin draw a very sharp breath. It was not the kind of thing Kili would usually take note of, but it seemed rather significant in the moment. Slowly, he puzzled out that a prince of one kingdom being indebted to the prince of another kingdom would probably affect more than the quality of birthday present the first prince received from the second.

“It was all Tauriel,” Kili said quickly. “Legolas wasn’t even there. She was brilliant.” Then, although it definitively proved that going into the forest alone was silly, Kili told Thorin the whole tale of Tauriel’s valor against the monsters.

“She also killed that stag, in the end,” Kili said, looking sideways at Legolas. “Because it’s tremendously important that only elves be allowed to hunt. But you do need to eat much more than thin soup, Thorin. Truly. It is a shame we haven’t an oven. I really ought to make you some venison pie. Bilbo always says—”

Once again, a warm, heavy hand squeezed Kili’s shoulder. The young Baggins took great comfort in the gesture, but he still needed a moment with his handkerchief to gather himself.

“Bilbo would disapprove of that soup entirely,” Thorin said softly. “He would want both of us to eat more.”

“Yes,” Kili said. “Yes, exactly. So you take my point?”

When Thorin smiled—so sad and brave—one almost didn’t notice the scrapes and bruises all over his face. “I do. But we must go into danger together, Kili, if there is danger to face. That must be our pact. Bilbo would not smile on us for doing anything less.”

And because he knew this was quite true, Kili gave his word. Then he went to help Bombur see about a proper supper.

Between the venison, Kili’s wild garlic, a few scavenged mustard greens, and some waybread provided by the elves, the meal was a hearty one. In truth, it was one of the best meals of Kili’s life. Not only did it sate his hunger and put a smile on Thorin’s face, it let him talk to Tauriel.

Sitting next to her was a great honor, and he did not take it for granted. Especially because the other elf—who might be a prince but was certainly not a very interesting one—made himself scarce around the edges of their camp. Unlike him, Tauriel was not the least standoffish. She was very interested to learn Kili’s story and share her own.

Like Kili, Tauriel lost her parents at a young age. Raised in the court of King Thranduil, she felt a sense of duty and service to her people which was extremely admirable. Sympathizing deeply with her, Kili agreed that all good people really ought to stand against the darkness and wicked creatures whenever they could.

“I will not deny that it was partly a desire to fight orcs which brought me into the wild in the first place,” Kili said. “Though now I feel a much greater dislike of goblins.”

“Trouble in the mountains?” she asked innocently.

Opening his mouth, Kili found he could not speak at all. Her green eyes grew ever softer and more understanding. So he tried again. Eventually, he managed to say, “Bilbo.” But after that, he could say nothing further.

“Kili lost his adoptive brother,” Fili explained gently. “Bilbo cared for him after their parents death. Practically raised him. He was murdered by goblins as we passed beneath the Misty Mountains.”

“He fell,” Kili said. “He fell, and we cannot even bury him.”

Tauriel took his hand to comfort him. He was not comforted.

According to Legolas, traveling at night through the Greenwood was just as dangerous as traveling alone. After their dinner, the dwarves bedded down once more, continuing their rest.

This time, Kili managed to square up to the prospect of his nightmares enough to sleep a little. He thought he would dream of Bilbo’s fall, but he was wrong. Instead, he dreamt of Bilbo puttering about the kitchen. It was no particular day. Bilbo was baking blueberry muffins, pausing in his work every so often to smile and joke with Kili.

The young Baggins woke weeping.

Entering the Greenwood with the elves on a path created by their people was very different from stepping through alone. Untroubled by the strange, disorienting mist, the group made very good progress. No monsters attacked them. Although the forest still loomed in a dark, threatening way, walking beside Tauriel let Kili see its beauty. She spoke of days when flowers bloomed, and sunlight filtered through the trees. In his turn, Kili told her of the little woods around Tuckborough and Hobbiton where he liked to hunt and fish. He spoke also of the flowers in the garden at Bag End, but he did not mention how much he longed to make her a posy.

Never one for subtlety, Kili’s obvious affection was soon noticed by his friends.

When night fell and the forest grew too dark for even elvish eyes to see, the Company camped in platforms high in the trees. These were small, made only for a few elves each, so Thorin, Fili, Kili, Balin, and Dwalin were given one to share in the central, most protected position. That was where Fili cornered him.

“Kili, I wonder if you know what it means to be a dwarf?” Fili said diffidently.

As Kili was a dwarf and had no choice in the matter, he said, “Pray tell me.”

So Fili spoke at great length about a smith only ever having one forge, which was poppycock. Kili worked in several smithies throughout the Shire while he was learning the craft. Rather than interrupt, he let Fili drone on about duty, loyalty, honor, and a number of other abstract concepts.

Because Fili deserved it, Kili asked brightly, “Oh, are you talking about sex?”

His only regret was not seeing the look on Fili’s face. In the darkness, the dwarf coughed, spluttered, and obviously squirmed. Kili heard Thorin’s laugh. He would have liked to see that, as well. For Bilbo.

“He is, indeed,” Balin said. “While such things are best left to family, I wonder if I might take the liberty of speaking.”

“By all means,” Kili said, though he was suddenly as discomfited by the conversation as Fili.

“We simply want to be sure that you understand,” Balin said. “A dwarf must be careful with their heart. You will love once, Kili. Only once. Dwarves cannot give themselves over to idle infatuations the way you may have seen hobbits doing. To do so is to risk your heart.”

Kili snorted, not believing a word of it.

“It’s true.” Dwalin’s voice was a rumble in the darkness.

Kili scoffed. “Oh, and I suppose Thorin did not give himself over to an idle infatuation with my brother? They hardly planned to marry from the first. Bilbo barely trusted that Thorin had actually given his proper name.”

“I did not give myself over to idle infatuation,” Thorin said softly.

“No.” Kili swallowed, feeling an absolute heel. “No, I know you would have married him. I know you did love him. I only meant—”

“It was too late for me,” Thorin said. His voice was so quiet in the absolute blackness. Kili wondered if that made it easier to speak of painful things. “I lost my heart in the Gamgee Distillery. At the end of a fifty year quest, I found you Kili. Not tortured or enslaved, but beloved. Quick, clever, dexterous, and brave, that dapper little fellow was willing to die for you. When he said that we would burn together, I knew in my heart that I would never burn without him.”

“Oh. Well. That is very romantic. Did you—did you ever tell him so?”

“No.” Thorin was quiet for a long while. Kili thought, perhaps, he would not speak again. In the silence, he heard wretched black squirrels skittering through the trees. They could see in the darkness. Or they did not need to see to climb.

“The way I behaved was dishonorable,” Thorin said eventually, “but I would not caution you against such dishonor. I do not regret a single moment that I spent with Bilbo, even when I knew he could never return my love. My heart was lost. My heart is lost. It belongs with Bilbo, wherever he is. I shall never love again. That we were happy together, for a time, is nothing but a gift.”

“Oh, Thorin!”

“What is, is. I wish to caution you, nephew, only against giving your heart too quickly or too easily. You can give it only once. Dwarves have only one chance at happiness. To give your heart to someone who is not free to love you in return is to give up any chance at love or marriage.”

“I see,” Kili said, though all the wood was blackness and no one could see anything.

Chapter Text

Although he was in a great hurry to be off, Bilbo spent another week with Beorn. Arranging provisions and devising a way to carry the oaken shield without feeling the weight too much took time. Beorn also wanted to weave a new cloak for Bilbo. The skinchanger knew some little art to help Bilbo go unscented by predators. Coupled with a hobbit’s natural ability to move silently, such a cloak would help him greatly in the dark of Mirkwood.

When Beorn at last opened his garden gate once more, they went together with four strong ponies. One of these was saddled for Bilbo to ride, but as Beorn was walking, the hobbit walked along. For the most part.

They stopped frequently as they went for lavish picnics on the grass from the food carried by the ponies. Water was plentiful in lovely streams, brooks, and little rivers that reminded Bilbo very much of the Shire. Even so, they drank milk and mead from the ponies as often as they drank water. It was a very comfortable way to travel. Despite the lack of inns at which to stop for a pint, it was not unlike taking a walking holiday with Kili.

Bilbo enjoyed Beorn’s company. They told stories, sang songs, and had a very merry time of it. Of course, Bilbo did a greater share of the talking and singing, but when Beorn chose to speak, he was always worth listening to. He spoke of other skinchangers, long ago, taken and enslaved by orcs. He sang of long, quiet sleep in winter and ancient battles between peoples Bilbo did not know. Most of all, he told Bilbo about Mirkwood.

“I shall set your feet upon the Old Forest Road, Bilbo Baggins. If any path through that black place be safe, it is the ancient road. You must stay upon it, and never stray.”

“I will.”

“It is further south than other paths. Closer to the Black Tower.”

“That does not sound promising.”

Beorn looked deeply unimpressed. “The tower of the Necromancer is not a joke.”

“I only meant that perhaps I ought to take this other path you mention,” Bilbo said placatingly. “Especially if it is further north. As you know, I mean to head north once I’m out of the woods. That is the way to the Lonely Mountain.”

Beorn walked in silence for a little while. Eventually, he said, “No. That path is too dangerous for you alone.”

He had been saying a great many things of that nature as Mirkwood loomed large ahead. Bilbo knew that if he pressed, Beorn would escort him through the forest. Escort him, but abandon all of the creatures who relied upon the skinchanger’s protection for sanctuary. Bilbo could not ask so much of such a new acquaintance.

“I will take the road, if you think it best.”

“Yes,” Beorn said. “It is best.”

To change the subject, Bilbo told the heroic tale of Thorin Oakenshield and the Dragon Smaug. It was not his first rendition of the story for Beorn, but the skinchanger seemed to approve of it very much.

“He is a worthy mate for you.”

Sometimes, Bilbo wondered about Beorn’s language. He really did.

On their last night together, camping at the very edge of the dark forest, Bilbo and Beorn built a tremendous bonfire. Feasting on all the remaining pies and pastries—which were only just still good after their long trip from Beorn’s house—they laughed and sang late into the night. When they woke with the dawn, however, there was no trace of that merriment.

One by one, Beorn repeated his cautions over breakfast. “Drink nothing.”

“Yes, you’ve said. The only water you know of in the forest is a river that sends the unwary into an enchanted sleep. I’ll be careful.”

“Stay on the path.”

“I plan to. What reason could I have to leave it? I am hardly going to invent a shortcut through an unfamiliar wood.”

“Above all, do not go south. Stay away from the Tower. Stay away from the Necromancer.”

“I will. Of course I will. As long as I stay on the Old Forest Road, I cannot go near Dol Guldur, can I?”

Accepting this promise, Beorn lifted the hobbit in a great hug, squeezing him and petting his hair. This was tremendously undignified. Bilbo would never have stood for it in ordinary circumstances, but he was very fond of Beorn. Without the skinchanger’s generosity, Bilbo would not be so close to catching up with his friends, and he knew it.

“Thank you,” he said. “Thank you for everything. Your hospitality and kindness are virtues unmatched in all the world, Beorn, and they have won you a friend for life. I shall send you an invitation to my wedding! Though naturally you will not be able to attend, it being so far away. I quite understand that you cannot leave your other friends and your lands unprotected for so long.”

“No,” Beorn agreed. “I cannot leave my lands. But perhaps I should.” He looked down at the little hobbit very seriously.

“Oh! That is such a very kind offer, dear Beorn. Believe me, I wish I could accept it with all my heart, but I will manage. I will manage the way small creatures in a large forest always do: by being smart and staying hidden. I can creep along quite subtly when needs must, you know.”

“Yes,” Beorn said. “That is best. I could not stand against the Necromancer if all my clan lived to fight beside me. Go quietly, then, and go with haste.”

And so Bilbo did.

The Old Forest Road was wide enough for two carts to pass and paved with stone in ancient times. Although the forest encroached upon it—with moss growing over the broken flagstones and weeds springing up in every crack or crevice—the trees did not. On either side of the road, the forest was as black as night. However, the road itself, though over-canopied by the trees, was the grateful recipient of the occasional shaft of sunlight. It was dim and shadowy, but Bilbo could see.

He could see eyes, mostly, glowing at him in the darker forest. Only when one darted across the path did he realize these eyes belonged to large black squirrels. The squirrels chittered and scolded, but they were not very frightening.

Bilbo tried to ignore the fact that some of the eyes were rather larger than others.

While he knew that his supplies must last him through the entire wood, Bilbo kept a hobbit’s schedule. He stopped for second breakfast, took off his pack, and enjoyed a sip of water paired with a few walnuts. For elevensies, he treated himself to an entire apple, though no water. At lunch, he had half of one of Beorn’s twice baked cakes. These were made with honey, and very nice, though they were quite dry and would keep for a long time. By necessity, he had two sips of water with it. During afternoon tea, he had three grapes. These were very good, so he had three more and the other half of the cake for dinner.

The important thing was to set aside the weight of the oak shield for a while and have a rest. And to be very, very careful with his supplies. For the most part, Bilbo did well on that first day, until the time came for supper.

Stopping at sunset was imperative. Darkness in Mirkwood was pure blackness, so dark that Bilbo could not see his hand in front of his own face. To ward off the eyes, the darkness, and the fear which crept up on him as subtly as any hobbit, he built a watch fire. For a little while, the merry blaze gave him comfort. Then he noticed the eyes gathering around in the darkness. More than he could count blinked at him from the woods, and not all paired in the usual sets of two. The little hobbit trembled.

Then, the moths attacked. They were big, black things that flew at his fire and beat their wings about his head. Although they did not bite, they were a terrible nuisance, slapping him about. He got no rest until he doused the fire. Even then, he could still see most of the eyes.

Bilbo did not sleep that first night.

At breakfast, he was so hungry he ate an eighth of a wheel of cheese, half a cake, and another whole apple. After the terrible night, he needed the comfort. Weak, gray sunlight could not offer it. No birds sang in Mirkwood.

Fortunately, Bilbo Baggins was a quick learner. He went back to rationing carefully. The second night he made no fire. A small hobbit—curled up beneath a brown cloak woven by a skinchanger—went unnoticed in the blackness. The glittering eyes still filled the forest, but they no longer turned toward him.

Several days passed this way. Despite Bilbo’s best efforts, his pack grew lighter and lighter. In particular, the water he carried diminished. The wooden canteen on his belt went empty first. Then, one of the three enormous waterskins given to him by Beorn. He did not miss the weight, but as his days ran together one very like the next in scenery and mood, the only change seemed to be his diminishing provisions.

One day, it rained heavily. On that day, the hobbit made no progress, but instead lay with his head back, trying to catch water from the sky in his wooden canteen and upon the lining of his cloak, which he used to replenish his first waterskin. This was very clever of him, but it was rather miserable at the time to be soaking wet with no recourse. Even doing this, he only managed to fill the skin halfway. Soon enough, it emptied again.

When the second water skin emptied as well, Bilbo ran out of the fresh fruit he’d been using to make the water less necessary. But he pressed on. He was a Baggins. He would not shrink in the face of a trifling little difficulty.

Besides, Kili was waiting for him. Somewhere.

In the end, the state of his provisions became the least of Bilbo’s concerns. When he was very near the end of his road—though of course he did not know it—Bilbo was surprised by flashes of light off to his right in the usually dark wood. He heard also a great wailing and the crash of arms. Casting up his hood, the hobbit hid himself as best he could without leaving the path. Warily, he stared into the forest, trying to understand what he saw.

First, there came a column of green fire and a clap like thunder. In answer to this, Bilbo saw red flames and swirling dark clouds outlining a black tower. Realizing with a start that this must be the tower of the Necromancer, the hobbit decided to run. Hiding at the foot of such a tower during a great battle was risking too much. Running down the road was his best chance of getting well away.

Then he heard the elf. She had a mighty voice, and spoke in the high tongue. She spoke the name of Elbereth Glithoniel and called upon many other great powers besides. Hers was a white light in the darkness, pushing back the flames. A noble calling to stand against great evil.

Well, one could respect such a person while still not taking on a hopeless battle for oneself, Bilbo reasoned.

She cried out in pain and rage. Her light glowed ever brighter against the shadow. Against the fire. Against the darkness.

She did not stand alone. Bilbo could hear other voices shouting, other swords clashing. He could see flashing lights beyond her steady, starlit glow. Yet he knew the Necromancer must not stand along against her, either. For Beorn said all of his people combined could not face the Necromancer. And one did not get to be called a necromancer without more than a little unpleasantness regarding animated corpses.

“Do not be a fool, Bilbo Baggins,” the hobbit told himself. “You could be of no use in such a struggle.”

Unfortunately, he had already experienced enough melees to know that small acts could have very large effects.

“You would only be in the way.”

Unless he put on his ring and was therefore invisible to friend and foe alike.

“You will be killed. You will never see your brother again, if you go that way. You will never find Thorin.”

This was very true. Even if he did manage to find the battle—and survive it—he would never make it back to the path. Sadly, that fact did not greatly alter the complexion of what he must do.

Abandoning his pack, except for the oak shield, Bilbo put on his ring and became invisible. The shield was too heavy for him to wield, of course, especially as he raced through the dark forest toward the black tower. Instead, he wore it across his back where it might at least provide him a little armor. Sting and the little gold ring were all he really needed.

Dol Guldur was strangely protected, with nothing at all barring the wide open front door. As lights flashed above and a man’s voice shook the stones with thunderous curses, Bilbo realized that there might have been defenses at some earlier time. Plucking up his courage, he dashed inside. The stones of the tower trembled again, mortar raining down from the spiral staircase. Reminding himself that he was no help to anyone standing about, he raced up those stairs to the top of the tower.

Atop the tower of Dol Guldur, a great battle raged. Who did Bilbo Baggins see fighting right in the thick of everything, but his old friends Gandalf and Lord Elrond. He could not have been more surprised to see his own brother! Alongside Gandalf and Elrond were three others, and against them were tall kings made of shadow, but these were not the Necromancer.

Bilbo saw the Necromancer. It was not a person, as he expected, but a great eye. A wheel of fire that spun about a dark center in which he could almost see a figure. But as Bilbo looked upon the eye—although he was invisible with the power of the ring—it looked at him.

At once, all the shadow kings wailed horribly, abandoning their individual fights and charging toward Bilbo. This made it very easy for Elrond and the rest to dispatch them, but Bilbo hardly noticed. The eye pulsed and thrummed as the Necromancer spoke directly to the hobbit.

”COME TO ME.” The words split Bilbo’s head open. He dared not obey, but one of his feet stepped forward of its own accord. ”COME TO ME. YOU WILL BE REWARDED. YOU WILL BE GIVEN DOMINION OVER ARMIES. YOU WILL BE GIVEN ALL THE KINGDOMS OF THE WORLD. BRING ME WHAT IS MINE.”

The ring on Bilbo’s finger burned hot, but the pain could not block out the voice. Instead, the ring seemed to amplify the Necromancer’s demands, pulling Bilbo’s hand toward that great wheel of fire.

Falling to his knees, Bilbo Baggins wrenched the thing off his finger. “You shall not have it!” he cried. “I did not come here to help you!” Then he cradled it, weeping with pain and fear, certain he was about to be killed.

Between him and the flaming eye of the Necromancer stepped an elven woman made of starlight. Her hair was as golden as the summer sun and her clothes were white silk that seemed to glow in the darkness like starlight. Lifting both of her hands, she pushed back the shadow. On her finger blazed a blue jewel brighter than the sky.

“Go back to the void!” she cried. “I abjure you! I cast you out!”

Tendrils of shadow wound around her, trying to get to Bilbo. The voice in his head grew louder and more demanding. ”THE RING. GIVE ME THE RING. GIVE ME THE RING AND BE REWARDED. GIVE ME THE RING AND BE HAPPY. GIVE ME THE RING AND LIVE. WITHHOLD IT AND I WILL NOT LET YOU DIE.”

Bowing over the burning ring, the little hobbit tried to guard it with the whole of his body.

“Begone!” the elven woman roared. “To the void! To nothingness! You are defeated!”

With a great burst of light, she pushed the pulsing eye away, and it was gone. The voice in Bilbo’s head went also, though the pain remained. The pain was so great that he could barely see the woman as she swooned, catching herself on Gandalf’s gallant arm.

Slowly, the other fighters gathered around. Bilbo saw that the two he did not know were both wizards, by their staffs and their wands. One was tremendously disheveled with all sorts of sticks, leaves, and unmentionable things in his hair. The other, however, wore white like the lady and was very well kept.

Closing his eyes against the pain, Bilbo heard the lady speak in a soft, almost defeated tone. “He is not gone. This was a feint. It was only ever meant as a feint. He intended to let us think him defeated and go somewhere else to gain strength. At the end, I saw his true power. Had he shown it from the first, more than one of our number would have fallen here today.”

“Mordor, I expect.” Gandalf sounded truly exhausted. “In that land has he ever been able to grow his armies and work his foul experiments.”

“Yes,” said Elrond. “But this was a great victory. Do not lose sight of that! For in the end, he showed his true power. And his true desire. Bilbo Baggins! What a tale you must have to tell! How did you come to be in this place and in possession of such a thing?”

If Bilbo did not feel so very indebted to Lord Elrond for all of his earlier help and hospitality, he might have continued to lie on the floor cooling his temple against the stone. The hobbit was that out of sorts after the voice in his head. Nevertheless, he respected the elf greatly, so he rose to his feet.

The ring no longer burned his hand, but it was very heavy in his palm.

Bilbo bowed. “My apologies, Lord Elrond. Gandalf. Lady. Truly, I had no idea. No idea at all. I—well, I thought I might be able to help. Foolish of me. Quite stupid. Thank you for—for saving me. I never imagined. No, I never imagined anything like that. I thought, well. I mean, goblins. Orcs. I might have. Well, I heard the fighting, and the Quenya. Pride. Damnable pride, that was it, and please believe I have learnt my lesson. No place for a hobbit in a battle like that. No place at all.”

“You are babbling, Bilbo,” Gandalf said, but not unkindly.

The white wizard stepped forward. “The Ring,” he said. “Give it to me.”

His voice sounded very like the Necromancer’s to Bilbo, pulling as it did on the hobbit’s already aching head.

“Er. Why?”

“Because it is not for you, descendent of rats! On your belly before your betters, little fool. Give me the Ring! It does not belong with a worm of a halfling, grubbing about in his little hole, licking the dirt and thinking nothing of the wider world. That Ring is the cornerstone of the world. It is power. It is precious. It is not yours. You will give it to me now!”

Lightning crackled between the white wizard’s fingertips, and Bilbo feared something truly dreadful would happen. Fortunately, the brown wizard whacked the white one very hard in the back of the head with his knotty staff. This seemed to encourage the white wizard to have a little nap there on the flagstones. Bilbo swallowed hard in relief.

Looking down at the heavy Ring, Bilbo saw that the beautiful gold band now had writing encircling it. The runes were elvish, but he did not understand the language they inscribed. He looked up at Gandalf.

“It does seem to be very dangerous,” he said. “In truth, I would be glad to be rid of it. Will you take it?”

In so saying, he held his hand out to his old friend.

The gray wizard looked at the Ring for a long, long time. Eventually, he said, “No. Thank you, Bilbo, but I dare not. Your offer is a generous one, but such a thing is not meant for one of my kind. I would be sure to use it, and through me it would work terrible mischief.”

“Oh.” As his head still hurt and he did not quite understand this refusal, the hobbit offered the Ring next to Lord Elrond. “Perhaps it would be safe in Rivendell? You could make sure that awful Necromancer does not get it.”

Lord Elrond smiled sadly at Bilbo. “I fear even in Rivendell, such a thing would not be possible. But this is not the place to discuss such matters.” He looked at the beautiful elf woman. “Lorien is nearest.”

“And Lorien will make you welcome,” she said.

Bilbo blinked. He did not even know her name. But she was very beautiful, and she had been the one to send the Necromancer away. “Very well,” he said, holding the Ring up to her. “You may certainly have it for this Lorien place, if Elrond and Gandalf both vouch for you.”

Her bright blue eyes widened in surprise and she laughed, throwing her head back in a sweet merriment which brightened all the dark corners of the black tower.

“For Lorien! For Lorien I would take it, and Lorien would grow strong indeed.” Slowly, her voice grew deeper and strangely terrible. “In the place of deserts and black lands you would have a golden forest, beautiful and awful in its absolute perfection, watered by the blood of any who did not bow to my will. All shall love and all shall lose!” She seemed to grow as she spoke, glowing with green light that filtered down through the trees of Mirkwood. Then, that light went out.

“No.” She shrank, and once again only starlight lit her eyes. “No, I will not take it either. Lorien may fade, and beauty may leave these lands, but I will not lead my people down that dark road.”

The hobbit looked at the only remaining member of their council, the ratty man who definitely had bird droppings in his hair. No way was Bilbo Baggins going to entrust more than a penny to such a person.

“Bilbo,” Gandalf said gently, “I am afraid you must carry the Ring for now. I understand that it frightens you. Believe it or not, that is a very good thing! I do not ask you to put it on ever again, indeed, I should advise quite strongly against it. You only have to carry it, and come along with us to Lorien. We shall be safe there, and able to have a little talk about how best to proceed.”

“Absolutely not,” Bilbo said sharply.

“Master Baggins,” Lord Elrond began, but Bilbo raised a hand very rudely.

“I am going to Erebor,” the hobbit said. “Stepping off the road to assist a Lady in trouble is one thing, but I have no intention of going to Lorien, or any place other than Erebor. My friends are waiting.”

“Bilbo,” Gandalf said. “They are not.”

Which, of course, Bilbo had known all along must be true. They would not leave him, otherwise.

“Don’t you think I know that? Kili! My poor brother, thinking I’m dead all this time just because my legs are so damnably short that I can’t run to keep up with a party of dwarves. And Thorin! We are to be married, but he’s off grieving, surrounded by a strong bunch of good-looking fellows, thinking he’s free of his promise. Why, I am not going to allow this state of affairs to continue one second longer than it must! I am going to Erebor! Thorin may have the Ring for a wedding band.”

Lord Elrond drew in a short, sharp breath. “To say such a thing in this place is dangerous, Bilbo Baggins. Even now, we must be sure someone is listening. Yea, I feel the threads of fate knotting. The Ring will go to Erebor. Darker things will follow it.”

“Listen,” Bilbo said, “I am sure I don’t want that. All of this about the Ring and the Necromancer does seem dreadfully important. It just, well, it isn’t as important to me, don’t you know. I would certainly like to help you, and you may have the Ring if you like, though it is properly mine.”

“Yours?” Gandalf raised an eyebrow sharply. “How so?”

“I won it in a game of riddles,” the hobbit said.

“Try again.” The lady had a very friendly smile, of the sort that made her very difficult to lie to.

Bilbo sighed. “Oh, very well, I found it in the goblin tunnels. But I did win a game of riddles against the previous owner shortly thereafter. So it is almost as good.”

“And what happened to the owner?” Gandalf’s voice was rather stern. As though the provenance of such an artifact was of great importance. And perhaps it was. Bilbo would quite willingly admit that he had no real understanding of magic.

“Gollum? Well, yes, we did disagree a bit about whether or not my victory was entirely on the up and up. So he tried to catch me and eat me, which should tell you exactly what sort of person he was. I do not feel at all guilty for not giving him his property back, though I should have been glad to do so if he had shown me the way out of the tunnels as he promised.”

“Where is he now?” Gandalf demanded.

Bilbo was taken aback by the force in the wizard’s demeanor. “I imagine he went back to that horrid lake under the goblin tunnels.”

“Alive?” the wizard asked.

“What do you take me for,” Bilbo cried. “Of course I did not murder him!”

At once, Gandalf softened toward Bilbo and said gruffly, “I had to be sure,” which was as close to an apology as he was likely to give.

“I never!” Bilbo was more perturbed by this failure of manners than he was by anything else which had taken place so far. In fact, the little hobbit was rapidly approaching the limits of his strength. He felt that he should weep or faint or do something terribly drastic very soon.

The Lady turned to Lord Elrond and said, “Introduce us.”

Elrond raised an eyebrow at her.

“We are all being very rude,” she said. “The rules of civility exist for a reason.”

Lord Elrond gave a very formal half bow. “Bilbo Baggins,” he said, “Please allow me to present the Lady Galadriel of Lothlorien, sometimes called the Golden Wood. Here also is Radagast the Brown, a member of Gandalf’s order who is most concerned with the care of animals and the natural order of things. I cannot properly introduce Saruman the White, who fell to the temptation of the Ring, but I would apologize for any distress he caused you. Pray, forgive him.”

These familiar, polite words had a very soothing effect upon the distressed hobbit. Returning Lord Elrond’s bow, he bowed also to the Lady Galadriel and Radagast. “I am very pleased to meet you both,” he said. “Bilbo Baggins, at your service.”

“But not enough to come to Lorien,” Radagast observed dryly.

“No,” said Bilbo succinctly.

“Then I shall have to see you to Erebor,” Gandalf said. “Though I expect it will be tremendous trouble.”

Chapter Text

The palace of King Thranduil and the elves of the Greenwood was resplendent. Where the rest of the forest was so very dark and gloomy, the palace was beautifully carved out of white stone caves with enormous doors and well lit halls. Kili’s eye for craftsmanship noticed the similarity to the architecture at Rivendell. And the differences.

Rivendell was all openness and light. Dwelling in the safety of the valley and protected by magic, it seemed to exist in a world apart. Thranduil’s palace was more solid. It was real in a way that Rivendell was not, protected by spears and sturdy stone.

Kili remembered Bilbo telling him long ago that the wood elves were less noble—or maybe less wise—than other elves like Lord Elrond. As far as he could recall, the wood elves did not go off to fairyland across the sea when all the other elves did, so they never learned all the magic and wisdom from the folk in that place. Yet it seemed that many of the things Bilbo learned in his books were not entirely true. For those same books also said that elves and dwarves were not fond of one another.

“That may be so, in other circumstances,” Balin said, “but Thrain, your grandfather, worked hard to repair relations with this kingdom after Thror, your great grandfather, nearly started a war between the Greenwood and Erebor. King Thranduil is very fond of Thorin. First, because the elven king hates dragons particularly, above and beyond all other calamities. That Thorin is a dragonslayer gives him great credit in that quarter. Beyond that, however, Thorin has spent many years hunting monsters in the Greenwood alongside the elves. We give our aid freely to them, in their war against the dark forces which would make this forest Mirkwood. In so doing, we have built a great friendship.”

“When you say we?” Kili asked.

“Yes, most of us who travel with Thorin have patrolled here at one time or another. We are his loyal company. We follow him on any adventure. From the gates of Khazad-dum to the rolling hills of the Shire, to the throne room of a king.”

So it proved.

King Thranduil was a picture of glory on the woodland throne. A crown that seemed grown of winding branches and set with white jewels perched upon his brow even as he perched upon his throne. That throne also grew quite naturally of decadently spiraling wood, with fruits and flowers that may have been real or may have been clever facsimile. Even Kili’s expert eye for craftsmanship could not tell. Thranduil dressed with far more splendor than the elves of Rivendell, but once again Bilbo’s voice echoed in Kili’s memory. “Less wise.”

Wise or not, King Thranduil was gracious. He greeted each dwarf by name, starting with Thorin Oakenshield, slayer of Smaug the terrible. Kili was surprised to hear his own name from the king as “Kili, son of Dis,” between “Fili, son of Dis,” and “Balin, son of Fundin.” It was not correct. He ought to be Kili Baggins of Bag End, but interrupting a king was unconscionable.

In the end, Kili listened politely while King Thranduil offered a regal welcome and declared three days of feasting and dancing to honor the visit of the foreign princes. Then, he complained furiously to Thorin in private.

“Getting my name wrong is one thing. After all, it is our first introduction. That is almost to be expected and I am not offended at all,” Kili said, tremendously offended. “However, I refuse to spend three days in this place. We are on a quest. We ought to get on with it.”

“Peace,” Thorin said. He took a glass disk from his pocket and set it upon the nightstand next to his luxurious guest bed. “Our allies show us great favor by guiding us through the forest. Three days of feasting here will save us three weeks of walking through the wood. That is how long it would have taken us to come here, had Legolas and Tauriel not guided us along their secret paths.”

“I do not feel like dancing.” Kili meant for this to be a definitive declaration, full of dwarven stoicism, but it came out plaintive.

Thorin looked up at him. A soft smile crossed his lips. “Nor I, Kili Baggins. Nor I. The day I feel like dancing may never come again. Yet a prince’s duty is not only in battle. Enjoying the hospitality of our allies in time of peace—and showing them such hospitality in our turn—is how peace is kept. We must dance.” Thorin looked down at the glass disk. “Though our hearts cannot be light, our mouths must smile.”

“If they were really our friends, they would not insist upon it.” Kili said. “Tauriel would not insist upon it. She would sit with me and talk.”

“Allies are not friends.” Thorin laughed. “If I teach you nothing else about princehood, please remember that. You need not like an ally. Only understand that there is a sympathy between you as people. You will always be stronger standing against the darkness, if you do not stand alone.”

“Very well,” Kili said. “I will dance. But I will not enjoy it.”

And this was a lie.

Kili Baggins did not have a brooding nature. Nor would his brother have wanted him to brood. The songs and dances in the woodland realm were very like the ones that so engaged them both at Rivendell. Although Kili’s heart was heavier, he could not be entirely melancholy when kicking up his heels. Tauriel even agreed to take his hand for a reel, and that numbered among the greatest delights of his entire life.

She refused to sit with him at supper, though. In truth, she blushed and said a sylvan elf had no place at the high table where Kili sat. This was a pity. The food there was remarkable. Bilbo would have marveled at it. There were pan-fried songbirds, meant to be eaten in a single bite, that filled the mouth with music. Glorious pheasants roasted with apples and walnuts graced the table, as sweet an juicy as any meat Kili ever tasted. Light, honeyed pastries cleansed the palate, and strong, heady wines filled their glasses. Any hobbit in the Shire would call such meals a treat.

After the three days passed, the dwarves were shown to a great boat, shaped like a golden goose. Nervous as boats made Kili in general, this one seemed tremendously sound, being as large as the average house in Bree. All the dwarves fit aboard quite comfortably, along with several elves tasked with steering the craft down the river.

Tauriel did not come.

Bidding her farewell at the bank of the river was a terrible wrench. Kili gave her the gold chain he had for being steadfast in the face of scorpions and trolls. “Bilbo would want you to have it,” he said softly, “for saving me.”

For once, she did not blush. “You owe me nothing, Kili Baggins. Protecting the innocent is no more than my duty.”

“Then do not take it for duty.” He pressed it into her hands. “Take it to please me. Hobbits dearly love giving presents, you know.”

She smiled. “You are not a hobbit, Master Baggins.”

“I might be! We might get to Erebor and realize that I am not this lost prince after all, just a terribly tall hobbit. How embarrassed everyone would be then!”

Laughing, Tauriel bent down and kissed Kili’s cheek.

He was not aware of anything else that happened until he was on a boat, quite a long way down the river. He put his hand to his cheek.

“I say,” he said.

“Coming around?” Fili asked.

“To what?”

“You’re hopeless.”

“She kissed me.”

“I saw.”

“She kissed me.”

“So she did.”

“Fili! She kissed me.”

“Yup.”

“She didn’t really?”

Fili put a strong, warm hand on Kili’s shoulder. “You do realize that this is exactly what we tried to caution you against, right?” he asked, not unkindly.

Kili blinked. “Against Tauriel? What’s wrong with Tauriel? Tauriel is—well. She’s got—I mean. And she’s a brilliant fighter. You should see her flipping around with her knives and everything.”

Fili laughed, shaking his head. “Your heart is gone, my brother. You will not get it back.”

“I do not want it back.” Kili looked over the side of the boat at the green trees which flashed along, whizzing past as their sprightly goose bounced down the rapids. “It is safest in her keeping.”

“Then let her keep it,” Fili said mildly. “You will have your forge and our family. Many dwarves have lived happily with less. And perhaps you will see her again someday.”

“I shall give her roses.” Kili sighed. “Roses and impatiens. Oh, her hair would look brilliant braided with forget-me-nots! Lilacs in spring. I say, do you think next spring would be too soon for lilacs?”

Fili had no opinion on the matter, other than to caution Kili against expecting to see the elf again so quickly. “She is a Captain of the Greenwood, and has many duties in her own land.”

Kili nodded sagely. She was certainly very dutiful and important. Then he went back to dreaming of flowers. It was a pleasant way to pass their journey down the water.

Eventually, their bouncing journey down the river ended in a long, placid lake. Sailing peacefully over it in the elven craft, the dwarves pointed out the Lonely Mountain, the village of Esgaroth, and any number of little landmarks to Kili as they passed. This was their homeland, and they were all quite proud of it.

Kili liked the mountain. It stretched above the lake like a protective friend. Bright sunlight lanced through the clouds to illuminate green slopes and a snow white peak. Beautiful, it seemed to him, but not distant. Only when they disembarked from the boat in the city of Dale did Kili realize just how large the mountain really was.

Dale was enormous. It had towers.

The village of Bree had houses built on a scale for men and not normal sized people. Rivendell and the woodland realm had great and delicate structures made for tall, elegant elves. Neither of those places gave such an impression of immensity as Dale. The towers of Dale were built of sturdy stone blocks, as solid as the mountain beyond them. Hung in those towers were bright bells cast entirely out of gold, each one as large as three dwarves. But they were so high that Kili needed to crane his neck to get a look at them.

“Can we go up there?” he whispered to Balin as the bells rang out a joyful welcome to the returning dwarves.

Balin smiled indulgently. “We will tour Dale another time. King Bard will be very happy to show you all. Today, we must proceed to the mountain to greet our own king.”

Kili frowned. The “musts” involved in being a prince seemed to be multiplying as they got closer to the mountain.

Once the buildings of Dale opened up to reveal the path to the mountain, however, Kili forgot all of his objections.

The gates of Erebor were amazing. At either side of the mountain fastness, they were guarded by stone dwarves easily as tall as any tower in Dale. Along the battlements, trumpets rang, drums thundered, and horns blew so deeply they reverberated in Kili’s bones. The doors to the mountain, which were so wide that twenty dwarves might walk through them abreast, swung open as effortlessly as the little green door at Bag End.

Thorin smiled, and entered as confidently as anyone would step through the threshold of their own home.

Kili’s eyes burned, but he could not bear to blink. Everywhere he looked there was something new and amazing. He saw the dwarves of Erebor arrayed in bright armor, with long spears and strong shields. He saw impossible stonework, sculpted into lifelike figures and beautiful, complicated designs. Passing down a wide boulevard, he looked out onto cheering crowds of dwarves who threw little, brightly colored pieces of tin into the air that caught the light and sparkled like fireworks. All of them had long beards, except for the children, and all of them were so happy to see him.

Eventually, they came to another door, and beyond that door a throne room.

This throne was solid stone, but Kili barely noticed it or the king who sat upon it. For above the king’s head was the most remarkable jewel. It glowed like moonlight caught within the frosted facets of fallen stars. All of his attention focused on the thing, and he could not look away.

“Welcome home, Thorin, my Oakenshield.” King Thrain’s voice had the rasp of age mixed in with an undercurrent of dwarven strength.

“Thank you, my king.” Thorin bowed. All the other dwarves did the same, in perfect practiced unison. When Fili elbowed Kili in the ribs, Kili followed suit.

“You have succeeded in your quest.” This was not a question. Clearly some messenger had carried word ahead of the Company so that all the people knew to line the streets and everything. “Stand forward, Kili, son of Dis. I would look upon you.”

Kili stepped forward and gave the king a little wave. Then, he looked at the gray haired old dwarf. Not at the golden crown like two ravens worn with dignity upon his brow, nor at the elaborate braids that bound up his long beard in beads and jewels. Kili looked at the little wrinkles around the twinkling eyes, the bulbous curve of the craggy nose, and he knew him.

“Udâd,” he said, quite out of nowhere.

Behind him, several dwarves of the Company gasped in shock. Kili realized that this was not at all the way one addressed a king, and he quickly bowed, apologizing.

“Sorry, Your Majesty. My deepest apologies.” He bowed again. “I’ve the worst manners in the Shire, everyone always says.”

“Peace.” The king’s voice broke a little. “I was your Udâd long before I was anyone’s king. Kili. Welcome home.” Rising from the throne, the elderly dwarf marched forward to place his hands upon Kili’s forearms.

Kili wondered if they would hug. In truth he did not feel entirely comfortable with the idea. Recognizing the old dwarf alarmed him a little, for it seemed strange that he should remember this person but not recognize Thorin or Fili. Then again, anyone might be changed by fifty years. Whereas in a dwarf who was already a gray grandfather, those changes might be less noticable.

Fortunately, the king did not embrace him. Instead, he smiled warmly and said, “We will go together and see your mother.”

“Ah. Yes, of course,” Kili said. “I am looking forward to it.” Though he still had no idea what he was supposed to do when he met her.

The chambers of Princess Dis were exactly the opposite of King Thrain’s throne room. Where in the throne room, a single glowing jewel drew all of Kili’s attention, in Dis’ chambers, one did not know where to look. Everything was made of gold. Every single thing. The floor was a smooth, golden surface, the walls were covered with ornate tiles, alternating gold with colorful jewels. A similar mosaic decorated the ceiling, though this at least formed a picture of a great dwarf standing between two trees, one silver and the other gold.

In one corner of the room, there was a four poster bed, made of solid gold. The mattress and bedclothes looked golden as well, though they had the familiar ripple of silk to Kili’s eye. In an opposite corner was a golden table with four golden chairs. Upon it sat a single place setting, with golden cutlery and a golden goblet. Kili saw that there was water in the goblet and cold chicken upon the plate, but the food and drink appeared untouched.

All about the rest of the room were golden chests, each one fitted with a heavy iron lock. One of these was open, and kneeling in front of it was the princess. She was counting the golden coins from the chest, putting them in little piles on the floor, and muttering to herself. She wore a stained nightgown of the same gold silk as her bedclothes, and her hair and beard were tangled in a way that Belladonna Took would despairingly compare to a rat’s nest.

Kili stepped forward. “Er, hello there! I’m Kili. Your—um, well, your son, don’t you know. I was lost for a bit, but I’m quite well now.”

Turning with alarming speed she glared up at him, baring her teeth. Her cheeks were gaunt and sallow, but her teeth looked sharp enough. “Begone thief! You will get not a coin from me!”

Kili stumbled backward, worried she would bite him.

An attendant stepped forward in very simple, form fitting clothing. She touched Dis gently on the arm. “My lady, please, this is the lost prince. He has come a very long way to see you.”

Rather than calming Dis, this speech only served to turn her ire toward the attendant. “Thieves! Thieves the lot of you! You tried to steal my comb this very morning! Do you deny it?”

“My lady, I only meant to—”

“Out! Out! You will not take what is mine!” Leaping up, she shook a fist at the attendant, as if to beat her, but the attendant was easily able to dodge away. Dis would not go far from the coins laid out upon the floor. Once the attendant was out of reach, the princess’s eyes slipped over her father, brother, and son to land upon the coins. She sat to resume her counting.

“You were meant to make her ready,” Thrain hissed to the attendant. “Is this the state in which she is to greet her son? You did not even change her clothes!”

“My king,” the attendant began, but Thrain seized her by the arm and pulled her from the room. Even after the door shut, Kili could hear shouting in the corridor.

Thorin stepped forward. “Sister, did you not hear Kili? He is your son. Your long lost son. I found him in the lands beyond the Misty Mountains and sacrificed much to return him to your side. Will you not look upon him with clear eyes?”

Dis did not turn, but she paused briefly in her counting. “I am not in the mood for your heroics today, Thorin. Go away.”

Tears welled in Thorin’s eyes. He put a fist in his mouth and bit down hard upon it. Turning away from his sister, Thorin obeyed her.

Kili wondered if he should go as well, but Fili indicated with a palm that he should stand and wait quietly.

Slowly, but with boots ringing against the golden floor, Fili crossed the room to kneel beside his mother. “Must I go as well?” he asked softly.

Dis did not look up from her counting. She finished a little pile, then gruffly ordered him to double check. This seemed to have meaning to Fili, for he bent over the coins, verifying that each little pile consisted of ten.

After a long while of Dis muttering to herself and Fili counting silently, the princess spoke in a short, clipped tone. “Thorin kept you long enough.”

“It was a very long journey,” Fili agreed, “but I missed you every day. I brought you something. Found it in a little cache on the other side of the Misty Mountains.” Fili held out the broach which was his own reward from the troll treasure. Dis snatched it instantly from his hands.

Turning it over, she inspected every facet with a keen eye. Biting it, sniffing it, and examining it like a terrier with a new bone, she quickly decided that it was a treasure worth keeping and fastened it to her nightgown.

She did not thank Fili. Instead, she returned to counting her coins.

After a few more piles were made, Fili spoke again. “Vreya tried to steal your comb this morning?”

“She always tries to steal from me,” Dis muttered. “That is why she is not allowed to have pockets. She is a thief. A thief, a liar, and an assassin. She means to poison my food and take my gold, Fili. I know her thoughts. She wants my treasure for herself.”

“Then you will not see her again,” Fili promised. “Grandfather should have changed your attendant ages ago, before things got this bad.”

“King Thrain is too busy for my concerns.” Dis grunted, returning to her counting. Three piles later, she blurted out, “Once they have finished with me, the thieves will come for him. He’ll believe it then! Oh yes he will!”

“He should believe you now,” Fili said, not looking up from his own counting. “You do not eat when you do not trust your attendant.”

“They are all thieves.”

“I am not a thief.” Fili continued to count the little piles diligently. “I am your son, and I do not need to steal from you.”

Dis did not answer. She counted. After a very long while she said, “It’s a nice comb. I like it.”

“May I see it, please mother?” Fili looked up at her then with imploring eyes, like a small boy and not a dwarven warrior with a full beard.

Dis did not meet his eyes, but she reached into the tangled mass of her hair and drew out a golden comb. “Be careful,” she grunted, handing it to him.

“I will be,” Fili promised. “But may I please play with it for a little while, mother? I shall not take it or hurt it in any way.”

“As you like.” Grunting again, she returned to her counting.

Kneeling behind her, Fili began to tease the tangles from her hair one by one. She did not pause in the counting of her coins, but she allowed him to comb her hair. As he combed, Fili told her of his adventures. He did not speak of goblins and orcs, but of the snow capped Misty Mountains, the music of Rivendell, and the rolling green hills of the Shire. He told her about meeting funny little Bilbo Baggins in the Shire, and a family who took in a lost boy long ago.

When the story was done and Dis had all of her hair neatly braided down her back, she cast a sideways glance at Kili. “You were raised by hobbits?”

“I was, ma’am,” Kili said. After several hours of standing without drinking or speaking, his voice was rougher than he’d have liked.

“Silver currency, hobbits. They don’t value gold.”

“Not really, Lady,” Kili agreed. “There isn’t enough gold in the Shire to interest anyone very much. But I am a blacksmith. I like most metals well enough.”

Turning, she looked at him full on, her eyes searching his face. Kili wished suddenly that he looked like Fili, the perfect image of her lost husband. There was no way she would recognize the child he had once been in the face of the dwarf he was now.

“Tea,” Dis said. Her voice was very firm, not the muttering, lashing thing it had been.

“Ma’am?”

“Hobbits like tea,” she said, with great certainty.

“Oh, yes,” Kili agreed. “Very much.”

“Do you like tea?” she asked.

“I’m partial to it,” Kili admitted. “I don’t always take as many meals as a hobbit, but a nice cup of tea in the afternoon can buck anybody up. I say, I don’t suppose you’d like one?”

Her thin lips twitched in what Kili thought might be the hint of a smile. “Fili,” Dis said, not looking away from Kili, “Please send an attendant for tea.”

Obediently, Fili rose. He did not run or move quickly to startle his mother. He walked to the door and called for tea. As he passed the place where Kili stood so awkwardly, he gripped his brother tightly on the arm. So completely was Fili transformed by the look of joy upon his face that Kili barely recognized the dwarf.

Chapter Text

Sharing a saddle with Gandalf was not very comfortable, as Bilbo had noted on their previous journey to Rivendell after the tragic affair with the scorpions. It was even worse this time around. The horse galloped at a tremendous pace. No dwarves gathered about them on ponies to laugh, dawdle, and sing. Indeed, they fair flew up the road—with the forest on one side and the river on the other—the horse bumping beneath them the entire time.

At least the horse could not keep up such a pace for a very long time. In fact, they stopped regularly to drink from the river and enjoy little meals from the wizard’s saddle bags. Or rather, Bilbo enjoyed little meals and stretched his aching legs. Gandalf groomed the horse and stared about as though they would be attacked by goblins at any moment.

When night fell and they had to stop, Gandalf relented enough to build a fire. It was the first Bilbo had seen since Mirkwood. Just watching the dancing flames cheered him greatly.

“Kili and Thorin were both well when you parted?” he asked for what felt like the twentieth time.

Gandalf did not like to talk while they were riding, but now that they were camped, he was friendlier. “Yes. Perfectly well. I saw them safely into the hands of other guides. Elves of the woodland realm, who took them on a much safer path through that forest than the one you trod. By now, they will be at home in the Lonely Mountain.”

“Oh.” Bilbo watched the sparks from the fire float up toward the stars. “Perfectly well?”

“Of course they mourned you, you ridiculous hobbit.” Getting out his pipe, Gandalf began to smoke. “And I am sure they will mourn you far more now that they are not running for their lives.”

Bilbo looked on in envy. He wondered just how many handsome fellows Thorin knew in the Lonely Mountain. He wondered how Fili and Kili were getting on. “Is what we are doing? Running for our lives?”

“It is.” Gandalf blew out his smoke, shaping it into a swooping dragon. “You were seen by a great evil—the name of which I will not speak here in this unprotected place—Bilbo. He wants what you found beneath the Misty Mountains. Truly, he will not hesitate to send an army to claim it from you.”

“I suppose I cannot just give it back to him?”

“To do so would be to give him the keys to the entire world. You would plunge the rest of us into darkness and slavery.”

Bilbo tugged the warm brown cloak given to him by Beorn a little more around his shoulders. Sweet as the summer wind was, he felt a chill.

“You are not smoking,” the wizard observed. “If you need leaf, you have only to say.”

“Lost my pipe,” Bilbo admitted. “Beorn doesn’t smoke, so he didn’t have a new one to spare.”

“Well, friends may share in a pinch,” Gandalf said, passing his own to the hobbit. It was long and unwieldy in Bilbo’s hands, but he was tremendously grateful nonetheless. The familiar scent of home filled his nose, and the sharp flavor of the leaf calmed his nerves.

“Tell me, who is Beorn? I have heard that name before.”

Very happy to talk about a friend to whom he was so indebted, Bilbo told Gandalf all about his adventures between the mountains and Mirkwood. The wizard knew some history of the skinchangers as a people—had even heard of Beorn by reputation—but he was terrifically interested in everything Bilbo had to impart. Overall, it made for a better conversation than speculating upon great evils or friends who mourned for no reason.

Riding to Erebor took five days. Plainly, Gandalf would have liked to ride constantly through day and night at great speed. Fortunately, their poor horse had trouble enough at the pace they kept. It could no more manage such a race than Bilbo. Even so, this did not mean they had the sort of pleasant, meandering journey Bilbo might have enjoyed with the dwarves.

Gandalf was also terrifically strict about not taking in any sights. At the mouth of the river, along the edge of the vast, shining lake, Bilbo saw a charming little village. He would have liked very much to visit, just to see the place and exchange a few words with someone other than the wizard. Gandalf completely forbade the idea and avoided the place like pestilence dwelt there.

“Do you truly not understand you are being hunted, my fine fellow?”

Bilbo sighed and continued to bump along like a sack of potatoes in Gandalf’s saddle. Being hunted was one thing, but it seemed a great shame to be out in the wide world without talking to the people who lived there.

Happily, they could not avoid Dale. Gandalf’s horse had to be stabled in the city. Under the mountain was no place for a horse. Dwarves kept only goats and pigs. Horses needed sunlight and pasture. Therefore, there would be no good accommodations for it in Erebor. While Gandalf dealt with the stable master, Bilbo crept off for a little wander.

He could hardly be blamed. It was such a beautiful marketplace. Silks, velvet, spices, mathoms, trinkets, and toys were all on display in every shop and stall. One who knew Bilbo well might be surprised that the toys fascinated him farm more than the rich fabrics and decadent foods. Yet all the toys were of dwarf-make, and most of them were magical. He spent nearly twenty minutes with a little windup bird that could really fly. The proprietor of the shop was very kind and offered to hold it for him until he could return with coin.

All of the proprietors were kind. Meeting so many charming, civilized Big Folk quite astounded the little hobbit. Although he was more used to Big People than most Shire Folk, the farmers of Bree were nothing like the merchants of Dale.

And the golden bells rang out every hour.

“I should think you would be more anxious to see your lost companions,” Gandalf said with poor grace. He seemed put out, but it was not Bilbo’s fault that he’d been so long about finding accommodations for the horse. The wizard had been dallying all the way on the other side of the city, as well. In contrast, Bilbo had been moving quite steadily toward the mountain. If slowly. And without mentioning the direction to his chaperone.

“Yes, yes.” Tearing his eyes away from a golden seed that grew into a little yellow daisy before folding back up into a seed again, the hobbit looked to Gandalf. “Naturally. To the mountain! Kili and I can come back here tomorrow. Do you think those lost companions of mine will be quite surprised to learn that I am alive?”

“Astounded, I should say,” Gandalf said. Leaving Dale reluctantly behind, they carried on toward the great gates of Erebor.

“Then I shall put on my ring,” Bilbo declared happily. “And you must give me a good buildup. Something about meeting an old friend on the road. Oh! Perhaps, ‘Not all those who wander are lost,’ eh? That’s a good little chestnut of mine, but you may have it for the occasion.”

Gandalf stopped walking to stare at the hobbit. “Bilbo Baggins: you must not put on the Ring!”

“Not even just this once? It would be such a good joke, Gandalf!”

Gandalf closed his eyes. He seemed to have a bit of a headache. “When we are safe, you and I are going to have a long talk about the Great Eye. For now, trust me. You must not put on the Ring ever again! Not for any reason.”

“Oh, all right,” Bilbo said, but it was a wrench giving up the idea. Kili deserved a little surprise, after leaving him for dead and everything.

The pair walked along in silence for a few paces. Then Gandalf said, “Put the cloak Beorn gave you over the oak shield and your pack, then pull up the hood. It is an artfully woven garment, and hobbits are not well known in this part of the world. All will take you for a dwarf. Your presence at my side will not be questioned until we reach the king.”

Brightening at once, Bilbo did as Gandalf suggested and cast up his hood just as they were reaching the gate. This little deception meant leaving all the talking to the wizard, but that was alright. Gandalf knew the polite dwarven greetings and secret passwords necessary to get them past the gate. Sadly, it also meant not exploring the dwarven city within the mountain, which was even more expansive and fascinating than Dale. Promising himself that he would return soon, Bilbo hurried along. Padding quietly next to Gandalf, he tried not to draw the attention of the four dwarven guards who escorted them.

The guards seemed to be very well attired fellows, with gleaming suits of metal armor. They carried long spears, wore short swords on their belts, and had shining shields slung across their backs. As they marched along, Bilbo noticed that their footsteps all rang out in perfect time, like dancers stepping to a beat.

Eventually they reached the throne room. Bilbo saw the king, seated and crowned. He looked rather like an older version of Thorin, though his beard was much longer and grayer. His clothing was ornate armor, more like the plate worn by the guards than the practical studded stuff that Thorin favored. The comparison was easy to make, since Thorin stood at his right. He appeared to be quite comfortable in a blue silk tunic, and Bilbo did not see so much as a black armband about his person.

Beside Thorin was Balin, and on the king’s other side were Fili and Kili. Kili did wear black: a black silk tunic with gold embroidery, which complimented the little gold beads in his carefully braided hair very well. He looked fine, and very princely.

Lining the walls were more of the armored guards, and Dwalin stood with those. He, however, had some added decorations on his armor and spear that indicated importance. Perhaps he was their chief. All of them were grave faced and serious.

In the shadows of his hood, Bilbo grinned.

“Welcome to Erebor, Tharkûn,” the king said. “My son tells me you escorted his Company from the Shire to the eastern side of the Misty Mountains, through no little danger. You will find us suitably grateful.”

Bowing deeply, Gandalf said, “May your beard grow ever longer, King Thrain! I am honored to be welcomed into your halls. Yet I come bearing grave news. The Council of the Wise has learned the nature of the evil which beset Mirkwood from the tower of Dol Guldur lo these many years. Thinking to destroy it, we forced him only to fall back, and that to a location of his choosing. For he is Sauron, the Dark Lord, risen to power once more. I fear, in his new chosen stronghold, the ancient black kingdom of Mordor, he will only grow in strength.”

King Thrain nodded solemnly. “We have been expecting a storm, now Kili is returned to us. You shall tell me your story in the fullness of time, for I see that there is more to impart. But who is your companion? Why does he lurk in my throne room without speaking?”

“An old friend met unexpectedly on the road.” Gandalf smiled. “Not all tidings a wizard may bring speak of oncoming storms. My companion means no harm to your kingdom, and perhaps some good. I will let him introduce himself.”

“Step forward and do so, stranger,” commanded the king.

Bilbo did so. Casting off his hood with a flourish, he bowed low before the throne. “I am Bilbo Baggins of Bag End in the Shire, your majesty, and I am entirely at your service.”

The king raised an eyebrow, clearly recognizing the name. His was by far the most subdued reaction. Balin’s jaw fell slack. Fili gave a most undignified squeak. Among the guards, Dwalin dropped his spear.

Kili folded his arms over his chest saying, “And what sort of time do you call this, then?” He was the exact portrait of Belladonna Baggins on many a long ago night when Bilbo staggered home in the wee hours after meeting Dandy at the Green Dragon.

Bilbo had never been so proud of anyone in all his life.

Before he could make some answer to this delightful sarcasm, a rockslide struck the hobbit. Bowled over by the force of it, Bilbo took a few moments to realize that the stone enveloping him was not painful, only powerful and irresistible. It was also kissing him, and smelled rather like Thorin. That was alright then. Bilbo opened his mouth. The stone tasted like Thorin, too. Like Thorin, and a little like salt.

When they parted, Thorin did not go far. His hand tangled in Bilbo’s hair and his forehead dropped to press against the hobbit’s. “You came back to me.”

“Try getting rid of me!” Bilbo wiped a tear away from where it threatened to fall into Thorin’s beard. “You made me a promise, Thorin Oakenshield. I shall hold you to it.”

Laughing, Thorin ducked down to kiss Bilbo again. Once that was accomplished, he turned—with his arms still about the hobbit—to face his father. “My king, I wish to marry.”

“After such a display,” the king said dryly, “you had better.”

Chapter Text

Kili liked Erebor. His chambers were very nice, and not at all gilded as he feared after seeing the accommodations of Lady Dis. Happily, his bed was not gold, but a nice sturdy maple. His wardrobe and writing desk matched it. There was a proper bathroom, with nice copper plumbing just like Bag End, and a sitting room where he might entertain. Not that he spent much time there.

He was also given a forge. Kili would have spent all the day long in there, if he could. It had every tool he could imagine and many more he did not recognize. Thorin promised to instruct him in the use of all, despite being rather busy with princely duties. That was just fine. A blacksmith could entertain himself in a forge full of tools and materials.

Kili’s first project was to make himself all sorts of new arrowheads so that he could experiment with the different styles, shafts, and fletching that he noticed in use upon his journey. For the elves of Rivendell used very different arrows than the elves of the Greenwood, orcs, goblins, hobbits, or dwarves. Kili wanted to try them all out so that he could decide for himself which worked best.

Unfortunately, he did not have much time for this experiment either. Most of his days were spent with Fili and his—Dis.

She was a very unusual dwarf. Whenever they left her golden room, she locked the door with six different locks and hid the keys about her person, trusting one of them to Fili. Asking if this was a symptom of her sickness was a mistake. Fili looked utterly betrayed at the suggestion.

“Of course not,” he said. “She is cured! You have come and cured her. We are touring the city together. She has not left her room in two decades, but now we are touring the city!”

Kili supposed this was so, but Dis also stopped a dwarf in the middle of the thoroughfare and insisted on buying the gaudy necklace he was wearing. The price they eventually agreed upon was far, far lower than what the dwarf initially asked, and Dis paid it very reluctantly. Kili noted that Fili handed the fellow a bag of coin while Dis hurried away with her purchase. Gold in hand, the princess needed to stash it in one of her chests behind many locks and curses.

“She is greatly improved,” Thorin said, more honestly. This was definitely so.

When they took meals in her golden room, she was as composed as any hobbit in the Shire. She poured tea from her gold teapot with perfect manners, and clearly enjoyed tales of Kili’s upbringing among the hobbits. No longer mumbling and muttering, Kili soon learned that Dis could be as charming as her brother. She told stories and sang quite readily, playing upon her golden harp with great skill. Fili provided a pair of violins, and the three of them made a rather excellent trio once they were all in tune.

“Bilbo would have loved to hear that,” Kili said.

“He was fond of music, your brother?” Dis asked. She never belittled Kili’s adoptive family or tried to point to Fili as his true brother. Instead, she listened with honest interest to his stories, and encouraged him to grieve.

They even left the mountain together, which nearly sent Fili into some kind of strange fit. He insisted that the guards who came with them bring blankets, food, bandages, wine, ale, water, a hammer, a tree saw, rope, coal, six different lanterns, and enough armaments for a platoon of soldiers. All of this was for one hour in the sunshine to see Kili shoot at targets with his experimental arrows.

Dis caught her son by his bearded chin. “You have been taking care of me for a long time. That is not how matters between us should be.”

Fili swallowed hard. “I just want you to enjoy the outing, Amâd. You never leave the mountain. Not since—”

Pressing their foreheads together, Dis said, “I am not well. But I will get well. For you.”

Which Kili thought was really rather beautiful. It soon became clear—to him at least—that Dis was making a powerful effort. Whenever Fili was in her room, she looked at him instead of the gold. The amount of time she spent outside of that room lengthened, and Kili caught her measuring it more than once with a golden pocket watch. He wished he could do something more to help her, but he did not know how.

She patted his arm in a matronly way. “You are sweet to worry, but this is for me to do.”

“I thought it was my job, Amâd.”

For a long moment, both Kili and Dis were very still. Kili did not know if he should take back the word, which felt natural to use. Dis seemed to be afraid of reacting. Perhaps she did not want to frighten him off. Finally, she shook her head, and answered only the first part of his declaration.

“No, the prophecy says that I shall see you. So it is up to me to do so. You have already done the hard part. You came back from the dead.”

Once again, Kili’s thoughts turned to his brother. “How I wish that was so!” he said. “If only there was some trick to it, and I could bring back others, similarly lost. But people cannot really come back from the dead.”

So naturally, Bilbo turned up three days later, looking as smug as a cat.

Giving Thorin a chance to be soppy was only kind. Once he was finished, however, Kili claimed his turn. Hugging his brother, he thumped him for good measure. “Bookworm! However did you manage to survive in the wild without me?”

“I might say the same.” Bilbo looked his brother up and down. “Black doesn’t suit you.”

Together they laughed, falling into another embrace. “No color in the world suits me less!” Kili declared. “Do not give me cause to wear it again, please.” If that came out a little more sincerely than intended, everyone was kind enough not to call attention to it.

“You must be fatigued after your journey,” Thorin said solicitously. “Are you hungry? Do you want to rest?”

Kili rolled his eyes. “Bilbo is always hungry. But let us have your story, at least in part!”

“Nay,” King Thrain commanded. “I see from the wizard’s face that the hobbit’s story is entwined with intelligence that must be held close. Have food and drink brought to my council chambers. Dwalin and Balin may stand as guard. In their trusted ears, no information is a risk.” For an odd moment, the king seemed to hesitate. Turning to Fili he added, “Ask your mother if she wishes to take part in our conference.”

Fili bowed to the king, then grinned at Kili. Kili punched him in the arm as he went. The dwarf was far too certain of both himself and his mother’s recovery. It could not be allowed to go unchallenged.

“So the Princess Dis is well?” Bilbo asked with studied caution.

“She wants to be,” Kili said casually. “And I think that must be better for her than the alternative, all things considered. Perhaps you can do something for her, now you are here.”

The king looked slightly put out by this discussion of his daughter, but he did not object.

Indeed, as Bilbo said, “Anything within my power,” very warmly, there was nothing to object to.

They adjourned their little party to a very nice sitting room, leaving guards and thrones behind. Bilbo sat up very straight on his chair. He looked thin and uncomfortable. Kili noticed then that the blue velvet cushions on all of the furniture were thin as well. Although it was solid, elegantly built stuff, the chairs, settees, and sofas were not the plush, cozy sort that one would find in the Shire. Without Bilbo there, Kili would not have noticed. It was comfortable enough for a dwarf.

While Kili worried about his brother, Thorin solved the problem. Tugging the hobbit off of his chair, Thorin pulled him into an embrace on the sofa. After a quick, nervous glance at the king, Bilbo’s bones seemed to melt completely. He snuggled into Thorin’s side with his plate in hand, occasionally turning to feed some little tidbit to his new cushion.

Positively disgusted by this display, Kili began composing a song in his mind. Cloying rhymed very nicely with both toying and buoying.

Then Dis entered with Fili.

With neatly braided hair, a red silk tunic, and leather breeches that matched her boots, Dis looked very well. She had only gold earrings, gold beads, a gold belt buckle, and a single gold medallion about her person. It was very restrained, for her. When she saw Bilbo and Thorin cuddled on the sofa, she laughed aloud.

“Oh, you must be Bilbo Baggins,” she cried. “I am so very pleased to meet you! The great kindness your family showed to Kili can never be repaid. But if there is ever any service that I can render you, know that it will be done.”

Rising to greet her, Bilbo bowed formally. “Princess Dis, I am honored to make your acquaintance. Perhaps the conversation with my parents might have gone differently, but you can owe me nothing. Kili is no more or less than my brother, and I shall never treat him otherwise.”

Dis smiled. “I am glad to hear it. Call me sister, then, strange as our family is. For according to Kili, you intend to marry my brother.”

“I do, indeed!” Losing his formality, Bilbo offered Dis his hand. “I have dared great dangers to hold him to his promise, and I shall not let him wriggle off the hook no matter what!”

Although it was not a dwarven gesture, Dis knew what to do with a handshake. The pair shared a smile. Kili thought they would get on well. Their family was strange indeed. Bilbo seemed much closer in age and temperament to the mother of Kili’s birth than the brothers were to one another. Thorin made up for this maturity by tugging Bilbo down into his lap once more.

“Great dangers, in truth,” Gandalf said gravely.

“Yes,” said the king, “let us hear of them.”

Taking this permission, Gandalf began telling a very long story about a bunch of people whose names all sounded the same. One was a lord of werewolves, which sounded promising, but the werewolves didn’t do anything interesting. Now that Kili had met actual wolves, stories about battles that simply recounted winners and losers could not hold his attention.

Listening with one ear, he studied his brother.

Bilbo was too thin. His waistcoat hung loose about his belly, and his belt was cinched by a new notch clearly made for the occasion. Red his cheeks might be—with fire and Thorin’s proximity—but they were not the plump apples of Kili’s memory. He looked hardened by his journey, like steel, purified through a crucible of fire.

“Of course, you will be familiar with the seven rings given to dwarven kings,” Gandalf said.

Apparently, Thrain was. “My father’s was lost at Azanulbizar, however. I know not if any yet remain to the other tribes.”

“That is for the best,” Gandalf said firmly. “For the Lord of Gifts was ever a deceiver. One Ring, he crafted, to master all the others. ‘One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them. One Ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them.’ Thus he spake beside the fires of Mount Doom where he forged it. With the One Ring, he could unmake all of the good things crafted with the three elven rings. He could control the will of those who wore the rings he gifted to dwarves and men, thus would he rule the greatest kingdoms of the world without conquest. And so all the good people of Middle Earth went to war.”

As Gandalf continued on with his story about people Kili didn’t know fighting wars in long ago places that didn’t exist anymore, the young Baggins watched Thorin. The prince listened carefully to Gandalf, but he kept finding little ways to pet the hobbit in his arms. He stroked a thumb against Bilbo’s shoulder. He refilled Bilbo’s tea when it emptied. Once, notably, he even pressed a kiss to the hobbit’s hair. So Thorin didn’t have any illusions regarding Bilbo’s time alone in the wild, either.

“At which point, the Ring went to the bottom of the river Anduin, and there passed out of history,” Gandalf said, ending his story.

Kili yawned and clapped politely. He was the only one to do so. Bilbo cast him an amused glance.

“And it was the remnants of Sauron in Dol Guldur all this time?” asked King Thrain, politely ignoring Kili’s misstep.

“Indeed,” Gandalf said. “He has been gathering his strength, preparing to move, and now he has moved. He is in the Black Land now. There, his power will grow exponentially.”

“But he will never be as strong as once he was,” Dis suggested hopefully. “You said he put too much of himself into the Ring.”

Gandalf looked at Dis for a long time. “Yes. His essence is locked in the Ring. If it were to be destroyed, then so too, it might be hoped, the Dark Lord would fall completely.”

“Then we must find this Ring.” Thorin frowned. “We must find it, destroy it, and rid the world of this evil before it can threaten our people or our allies.”

Smiling for the first time since he began his story, Gandalf said, “You speak the words of a hero, Thorin Oakenshield. Yet the effort will be great.”

Thorin’s eyes slid over to Kili. “I have found impossibly lost things before.”

At that, the wizard laughed. “Indeed you have! And the finding will not be nearly as troublesome as you imagine. Bilbo, my friend, if you have eaten your fill it is time for your story.”

“Finally!” Kili cried. “What happened to you when you went over that ledge? How did you survive?”

Grinning cheekily, Bilbo leaned forward to meet Kili’s eyes. “I have absolutely no idea.” Laughing, he dropped back into the circle of Thorin’s arms. “Is that not ridiculous? I completely lost consciousness after my little tumble, and woke in an odd little tunnel with no idea of how much time had passed.”

Kili shook his head in disbelief.

“Fortunately,” Bilbo said, “it was a very pleasant place compared to those awful goblin tunnels up above. I followed the stone path down to a lovely little underground lake. The water was delightfully refreshing, and I was able to get cleaned up. Near the shore, I found a nice patch of brown mushrooms. They could have made a lovely omelette, had I just a bit of butter and a few eggs. Even so, it was a pleasant meal, and I found another little something among them, though it was too dark for me to see what it was. Putting it in my pocket, I continued on my way.”

Leaning back in his chair, Kili settled in to listen to the story. It was a great relief to know that Bilbo had been just fine from the moment he woke up. Of course, it also made Kili feel supremely foolish not to have realized the possibility much sooner.

“Now,” Bilbo continued, “while there were no goblins down there, the lake was not wholly uninhabited. It was full of little black fish with no eyes at all. Deep underground, where there is no light, I suppose fish do not need eyes. I found them very interesting, though I could not see them very well in the darkness either. Naturally, where there are fish there is a fisherman. He was a funny little boatman named Gollum. I might call him frog-like in appearance, but recently I have heard hobbits described as rabbit-like and I did not enjoy it at all. Instead of comparing him to an animal, then, I shall say that he had large eyes, and large hands and feet which he used to paddle his boat through the water.”

“Was he friendly?” Kili asked.

“Oh, very,” Bilbo said. “He would have quite willingly shown me the way out of the caves, but he did not like to leave his lake for so long, you know. So he proposed a game of riddles. If I won, he would show me the way out, and also let me keep the little trinket which I found in his mushroom patch.”

“Bilbo.” Gandalf’s voice broke into the story like a warning rumble of thunder. “The real stakes.”

Casting a rather nervous glance toward Kili, Bilbo corrected his story. “Well, perhaps not that friendly,” he admitted. “It was agreed that he would show me the way out if I won. Nothing was said of the trinket I found. And, er, well, I was to let him eat me if I lost.”

Kili’s lungs collapsed.

“But!” Bilbo added hastily, “That was because he knew he could not get me any other way! I had my Sting, and he was completely unarmed. He could not have done me any real harm, except in failing to show me the way out.”

Bilbo went through the riddles he exchanged with the creature one by one. They were very good riddles, if slightly ordinary. Listening to them gave Kili the space to remember how to breathe. Slowly, Kili managed to put the fact that he’d left his brother to be eaten alive beneath a dark mountain out of his mind.

“Gollum was right, of course. ‘What have I got in my pocket?’ is not a fair riddle, but I did give him three guesses. He might have shown me the way out. I would have been very happy to leave the whole matter there. Unfortunately, he attacked me. Although I could have bested him very easily, having a sword to his utter lack of weapons, I did not want to hurt him. He was not a goblin, after all. He was just a fisherman living a very hard life in an unforgiving place. So I ran away. In so doing, I tripped and wound up putting on the ring in my pocket. To my absolute surprise, this turned me invisible! I was able to follow Gollum to the back door and out of the mountain quite safely.”

“A Ring?” Dis asked.

“Yes,” Bilbo said, meeting her gaze. “I found a Ring under the Misty Mountains.”

“I see,” said King Thrain.

Kili did not.

Apparently, just outside of the mountain, Bilbo met a tremendously generous fellow named Beorn. Kind, gracious, and possessed of every virtue including the ability to turn into a bear at will, Beorn took Bilbo to his home for a nice rest.

“For I had an injury or two after my fall.” Bilbo waved a hand dismissively. “I would have been quite well continuing on, but Beorn is a very soft fellow and insisted on feeding me up for a bit before sending me into Mirkwood.”

“You mean the Greenwood,” Kili said.

Bilbo looked at him curiously. “Did you find it so? Then I am glad for you. To me, it was a little dark. Not a very nice forest at all. But then, I have always been the hungry one between us. That bit about not being able to eat or drink anything other than what I brought into the forest with me was rather hard, I must say.”

“Oh,” Kili said helplessly. “We were with the elves. We feasted.”

“Good!” Bilbo grinned. “How wonderful! I should like to meet the elves of the Woodland Realm someday, see their buildings, and smell their flowers. Sadly, I was further south than you, and I did not see the palace of their king. Instead, I saw the tower of Dol Guldur, where Gandalf was having his battle. Since he is such a dear friend, I thought I had better go and save him.”

Gandalf scoffed.

“I’m not saying I did save you,” Bilbo objected, “only that it was for that purpose which I left the path. Leaving the path was rather foolish, I admit. Going to Dol Guldur was more so. As soon as I arrived, my little Ring proved significantly less useful than expected. Not only did it not render me invisible to the wicked undead kings, it rather attracted the attention of that Sauron fellow. I dread to think what would have happened without that lovely Lady Galadriel. Beautiful as the dawn of the world, she stood between me and the darkness like a pillar of light. According to her, she is not a match for Sauron, but I saw no evidence of that. She cast him out quite easily.”

“Not easily,” Gandalf said. “And it would not have been possible at all had he not already begun the process of removing to Mordor. Where he grows now in strength.”

“You were wise to bring this thing to the dwarves of Erebor,” King Thrain said proudly. “We will see it destroyed in our forges. No gold band can fail to melt in our flames.”

Gandalf hesitated. “That is worth a try,” he said. “Though wisdom holds that only dragon fire can destroy a ring of power, and the One Ring can only be unmade in the fires of Mount Doom whence it came.”

“You will destroy the gold.” Dis’s voice was soft. Thin.

“We will,” Thorin said firmly.

Smiling bravely, Dis said, “That is good. After this tale, I cannot question that course of action. But I pray you will excuse me from witnessing that portion of events.”

“Of course!” Fili leapt to his feet. “You are overtired, and we have been talking too long. Let me see you back to your room at once.” He offered her his arm gallantly.

Dis accepted the gesture gracefully.

To Kili’s surprise, Bilbo rose as well. “Would it be a terrible burden if I accompanied you?” he asked. “Although I know as well as anyone how awful the Ring is, it did also save me from having to hurt Gollum. I do not care to take part in the destruction.”

“You would be most welcome,” Dis said.

Drawing the Ring from his pocket, Bilbo took a moment to look at the gleaming gold in his palm. Something strange passed over his face, but he quickly turned, pressed the Ring into Thorin’s palm, and kissed him for good measure. “This, I will leave to the greatest smith in all of Erebor,” he said. “Destroy it for me, will you?”

“I will,” Thorin vowed.

Chapter Text

Bilbo was going to like Erebor. He was firmly decided on the subject. If Thorin disappeared and Balin whisked the hobbit away from his brother, that didn’t have any bearing on the mountain. In fact, Balin brought Bilbo straight to a tailor, which was a wonderful starting point.

“You’ll want to look your best tonight,” Balin said. “Knowing Thorin, well, he’s not going to waste time.”

“Waste time?”

“You’re engaged by hobbit custom, of course,” Balin explained, “and I know Thorin considers himself already bound. He will want to formalize matters at the feast tonight.”

“Formalize.” Bilbo’s heart decided to break free of his chest, beating violently against the bars of his rib cage. “The wedding will be tonight?”

“No.” Balin smiled. “No, not the wedding. A royal wedding requires at least a week’s notice, I am sorry to say. We must invite our allies from Mirkwood and Dale, and the elves require some little travel time to arrive. Still, that gives you a chance to be formally engaged. Tonight is nothing for you to be concerned about. Just accept whatever gift Thorin gives you. I’ll have something for you to offer him in return. After the exchange, the king will present you to the kingdom, and the wedding invitations can be sent.”

“Right.” Bilbo took a few deep breaths. “It’s just a formality.”

“Just a formality.”

The hobbit looked down at his threadbare waistcoat. “I haven’t a thing to wear!”

Balin very kindly did not laugh. “That is why we’re at a tailor’s.” To the tailor, he said, “Something formal for tonight, something better for the wedding, and start working on a full wardrobe. Charge everything to the crown.”

A very pleasant hour passed between Bilbo and the tailor. An amiable dwarf named Lori, the tailor happened to be cousin to Dori, Nori, and Ori, all of whom popped up in short order. Bilbo discussed the fashions of Erebor with his friends, his preference in fabrics, his ideas about double stitching on seams, and his personal appreciation of waistcoats. Measurements were taken, and Bilbo sat with Dori, Ori, and Nori drinking tea while an army of assistants brought out different swatches and styles for him to approve or reject.

In the end, Bilbo wound up with a very daring silk tunic cut in the dwarven style. Deep blue in color, it had gold trim, a gold belt, and gold trousers to match. Bilbo was able to wear his golden cufflinks with it, and Lori assured him that he looked tremendously fashionable. Checking with Dori was natural, but the well dressed dwarf simply went misty eyed.

“You’re perfect.”

“Wearing a courtship gift when you receive an engagement present is commonly thought to be very good luck for a wedding,” Ori said.

Nori sniffed. “Most suitors are just too cowardly to hand over the goods until they’re sure you like ‘em.”

“Oh, not at all,” said Ori. “There’s a great deal of historical precedence. Did you know that Durin himself—”

And they were off discussing the dwarven cultural history of engagement presents all the way to Bilbo’s rooms.

Bilbo’s chambers were beautiful. His sitting room rivaled the king’s private one, but there were extra throw pillows on every single chair, as though someone had taken careful note regarding what was necessary for a hobbit’s comfort. A bed that might have slept an entire family of Big Folk stood proudly in the center of another room, draped in silk and covered with fine, woven blankets. A third alcove was given over entirely to a massive marble bathtub that would easily have bathed that same giant family, but Bilbo could choose how deep to make the water. He was sure he could splash around quite comfortably with Thorin, for the copper plumbing in Erebor was just as good as what he had in Bag End.

A little kitchen would have been nice, in case he felt like whipping up a snack or two, but Dori showed him a rope to pull. Just touching it made dwarves in bright armor appear. The fellows were extremely eager to bring Bilbo anything and everything he might desire. Even an omelet at midnight, they assured him.

Fortunately, this did not need to be put to the test right away. Bilbo Baggins had a feast to attend.

The great feast hall of Erebor had vaulting ceilings and dozens of tables full of bejeweled dwarven nobility. Upon a dais was a great stone table for the king and his family, and closest to that dais was a table for Thorin’s Company. Bilbo hesitated between the two, but Balin took his arm gently and lead him to a seat just one away from the king. On Thrain’s left, Dis sat with Fili and Dwalin beside her followed by Gandalf at the very end. On Thrain’s right, there was an empty chair. Bilbo sat next to that, with Kili at his own right and Balin on the other side of him.

The king made a little speech and all the plates were filled with meat. Bilbo barely tasted the food in front of him, waiting for Thorin to make whatever dramatic entrance he had planned. Eventually, awkwardly, the king leaned across the empty seat to speak to Bilbo.

“It seems my son is set upon completing his task,” Thrain said. “He sends his apologies, but he is not able to attend you tonight.”

“Oh.” Bilbo forced his most charming smile. “I quite understand. What we spoke of with Gandalf obviously takes precedence over any personal considerations.”

“It does,” the king agreed, but he did not look happy. “Tell me of yourself, Bilbo Baggins. The grief was too near for me to press my son or grandson to speak of you, but I would know you well ere the coming of the storm.”

“There is not so very much to tell,” Bilbo said. “I am but a simple hobbit from a simple land away to the west. Yet I was privileged to share a childhood with someone who is known to you well.” In so saying, Bilbo continued on, telling Thrain the little tales of Kili that a grandfather would most like to hear.

It was a pleasant enough meal, and Bilbo found the old king to be perfectly charming. If the hobbit might have preferred a different dinner companion, he was determined not to show any disappointment. When the time came to part, however, it was clear that he had not been entirely successful.

“I hope you enjoyed dining in state, Bilbo Baggins,” Thrain said, “because we will do so again tomorrow.”

“Oh? Do you often take your meals this way.”

“No,” the dwarf said plainly. “But we will do so tomorrow. Thorin can hardly propose to you in private, can he?”

Laughing, Bilbo flushed. “Oh dear. I’m sure I don’t expect—”

“Yes, he does,” Kili cut in quickly. “He does expect, as he should. They’re already engaged by hobbit customs.”

Thrain’s laugh was a loud, pleasant sound that drew smiles from all the dwarves in the hall. He put a warm hand on Bilbo’s shoulder. “My son is no fool. Tomorrow, he will prove it.”

Despite the assurances of tomorrow, Bilbo hoped Thorin might attend him a little sooner. As he slipped into a bed far too big for any hobbit, the little fellow wondered if he might not have company after all. Thorin might not like to turn up for a big show in front of all his kingdom, but the two of them had always done very well in private. Sadly, that was not to be. Eventually, a small dot in the center of the expansive bed, Bilbo Baggins slept.

Kili turned up for breakfast with passable eggs and tea. Neither of them spoke of Thorin. Instead, Bilbo mentioned Dale, surprised to learn that Kili had not visited since passing through.

“I’ve been spending all my time mucking about in my new forge, or with Fili and Amâd.” Kili froze, staring at Bilbo.

Bilbo grinned. “Amâd, eh?”

“I don’t—”

“It’s perfect.” Bilbo took his brother’s hand in his own. “I think it’s perfect. She isn’t Mum; she is your Amâd. Does she like it?”

Kili flushed and ducked his head. “Doesn’t seem to mind.”

“Good. Now, it really is very silly that you haven’t explored Dale. Besides, I asked a shopkeeper to hold something for me yesterday. It was rather prideful of me, for I haven’t any funds at all. Think you can see your way to lending your brother ten crowns?”

Kili blinked. “I could make some crowns in my new forge, probably. Do they have to be gold? I certainly have enough of that, but I think ten all gold would be rather dull. I’ve some lovely bright copper.”

“Coins!” Bilbo laughed. “They call those gold coins they use here in Erebor and in Dale crowns, you silly fellow.”

“Oh.” Kili paused to consider this. “I do not think I have actually seen any money, though Fili’s used a little. People just give me things when I want them.”

Remembering his experience at the tailor’s the day before, Bilbo understood. “Well, we shall have to speak with Balin, I think. I’m sure he will lend us a little walking around money. We cannot go exploring Dale empty handed. I promised the shopkeeper to return.”

In fact, Balin did not agree to lend them the money at all. Instead, he laughed at the request. “You will shame your shopkeeper, Bilbo, when they realize who you are. Royalty do not sully their own hands with trade.”

Bilbo flushed. “I am not royalty.”

“You will be soon enough. I ask you to follow our customs in this as you move through Erebor and Dale. Anything you like, simply accept as a gift.”

“How could I possibly take anything from a hardworking crafter under such circumstances,” the hobbit demanded.

Holding up a forestalling hand, Balin continued. “One of your attendants will pay for the item at the merchant’s asking price. This leads to a much greater profit for the folk involved than the usual round of haggling and barter that accompanies dwarven transactions. Watch a few purchases in the marketplace when you visit, and you will understand. Even a small purchase might lead to a long battle to sort out an agreement. An argument in which royalty would always have the upper hand. By circumventing the fight and overpaying with grace, you show yourself to be a benevolent ruler.”

“But we haven’t any attendants,” Kili pointed out.

Balin smiled. “You have me. If you will accept my services as a tour guide, that is. I am well versed in the history of Dale, and may know a few spots that will peak your interest.”

“Amâd bargains for things. I have seen her. And Fili has given people gold as well,” Kili argued.

A shadow passed over Balin’s face. “Sometimes it is necessary for a member of the royal family to make an apology of sorts. And your mother is still recovering from long illness. Her behavior is not yet all the example to you which it might one day be. Please, just allow me to accompany you to Dale. I will take care of everything.”

At that, Bilbo understood the full extent and reason for the custom. What could he do but agree to follow it? “As if we would refuse a local guide, Balin! Thank you so very much for offering to come along. I warn you, I intend to do a fair bit of exploring.”

The dwarf smiled. “I would expect no less, Master Baggins.”

Dale was just as wonderful as it had been the day before. All the people and shops thronged about with as much energy and excitement as Hobbiton during the free fair, though it was clearly just an ordinary day for the large city. Somehow, it felt a little emptier than the day before. As though one notable person was absent from the adventure. Shaking off the feeling, Bilbo lead Balin to the shop with the flying birds.

Balin knew a great deal about everything in Dale. Answering Kili’s architectural questions as easily as he gave Bilbo lyrics for the snatches of tavern music they heard walking past open windows. Once they realized how fascinated Kili was by the great bells, Balin had a quiet word with the keepers at one tower. Just as the hour struck noon, Kili was allowed to pull the rope, ringing the bell in time with all the others.

It was a beautiful day, made all the more glorious for the sunshine and flowers, so that Bilbo hardly worried about anything until he was once again seated next to an empty chair for dinner.

King Thrain did not bother to mask his disapproval. “Once again, my son does not deign to grace us with his presence.”

“Well, I am sure he is doing very important work,” Bilbo said.

“Nothing is more important than choosing the companion of one’s life. It is a decision that will greatly affect his entire reign: his legacy. He shames himself.”

Bilbo wondered if, perhaps, Thorin was not attending dinner for that reason. If the prince was reconsidering certain decisions made on the road. Romance was one thing, but what Thorin thought best for Erebor might require a different path.

“Enough about my shiftless son,” Thrain grumbled. “Tell me of Dale. Did you enjoy your visit there today?”

“Very much so,” Bilbo said. Indeed, there were so many marvelous sights to discuss that he was able to carry on a very pleasant conversation with the king despite the empty chair between them. The distance closed, and Bilbo hardly noticed the empty space.

He noticed his empty bed a little more, without company to distract him.

Bilbo’s second day in Erebor was spent with Fili and Dis. They walked the markets inside the mountain and explored many wondrous caves and caverns. A dwarven mountain might not have traditional gardens, but Bilbo saw places where crystals grew like roses and gold that ran like rivers through the rocks. Natural and beautiful, these polished halls were incredible. The hobbit was deeply curious about the dwarven teas and spices he found in the marketplace, but he was quickly informed that any cooking he wanted to experience could be done by others.

“I notice they don’t tell you that anything you want forged can be taken care of,” he grumbled to his brother.

Fili stopped walking and Kili bumped into him. A brief scuffle ensued that Bilbo stayed well away from. It ended with Kili in a headlock and Dis laughing at them both.

When Fili released him, Kili fixed his hair and said, “I was watching where I was going. You’re the one who forgot how to walk.”

“Kili,” Bilbo said.

Sighing, the young dwarf offered a bow. “My apologies Fili, for fighting and for bumping into you. It was unmannerly.”

“No, not that.” Fili waved a dismissive hand at Kili and looked to Bilbo. “You miss the way of things at Bag End.”

Bilbo’s heart turned over. Suddenly, he missed his cozy little smial very much. Far more than he had at any other point in his journey. He ached for the freedom to wander about with a few coins in his pocket, to do as he pleased without worrying about the plans of others, to cook what he wanted to eat when he wanted to eat it. The weight of stone overhead felt like a prison. Bilbo wondered why he was there. He wondered when Kili would want to leave.

“Not at all,” the hobbit said. “Your family has been most hospitable. If you don’t mind the imposition, Kili and I will probably stay for a nice long visit.”

Kili stared at his brother. “This is not a visit. You are marrying Thorin.”

“Yes, yes, of course.” Shaking his head quickly, Bilbo patted his brother’s arm. “I misspoke. I think I’m overtired.”

“Would you like a nap before the feast tonight?” Dis suggested.

“Probably wise,” the hobbit agreed.

“Thorin will be there tonight,” Fili promised. “I know he will.”

Bilbo only smiled.

Chapter Text

Deep among the forges of Erebor, far below the wonderful little forge given to Kili for personal use, lay a great blast furnace. Burning with secret fuels and many spells, it used all the art and skill of the dwarves to heat metal to an impossible degree. Meant for massive projects like the creation of enough steel to build aqueducts, the entire furnace was now purposed to a single task. For three days and three nights, it burned.

A small door in the side of the furnace was outlined in glowing white. Kili knew that color well. It was the very hottest flame imaginable. Thorin opened the door with an iron rod. Just touching it to the furnace made the tip of the rod glow red. Gazing into the blaze was bright, but not blinding to dwarven eyes. Kili could see clearly. There, at the center of the furnace, the Ring showed some glowing elvish writing, but was completely unharmed.

“More fuel!” Thorin cried, slamming the panel shut. “Where is the liquid fire?”

On the scaffolding around the great furnace, dwarves sprang into action, adding more fuel to various chutes. Two dwarves, walking very carefully, poured a great vat of something into the furnace. Roaring and shaking in response, the furnace continued to glow. Unfortunately, there did not come a telltale snap or explosion to indicate the added heat made any difference to the ring.

Turning, Thorin beat the iron bar against the ground until it snapped in half. His face and beard were covered in sweat soaked soot, but Kili could see the furious red of his skin beneath.

“Very dignified,” he said. “Princely.”

“If you wish to play the prince,” Thorin growled, “go entertain your brother. If you stay here, you will be a smith. You can start by shoveling some of those Hearts of Coal into a wheelbarrow.”

“It is on my brother’s account that I am here,” Kili said. “He has not seen you for three days.”

“He saw me yesterday.” Thorin stiffened perceptibly. “When he reaffirmed his faith in my ability to complete this task.”

“Let me guess. He said something like, ‘Obviously you’ll be staying down here until the Ring is destroyed, since it’s clearly more important than your health,’ right?”

By Thorin’s lack of answer, Kili knew he was correct.

“And since you’re not an idiot, you know he was being sarcastic. Thorin! Bilbo is alive. Why on earth are you avoiding him?”

“I am not avoiding him.” Thorin said. “I have a job to do.”

“Doing it as well as anyone could expect, I suppose,” Kili said, and he meant it to sting.

Thorin’s eyes glowed with wrath, brighter than the furnace. “Speak to me again when I have destroyed the Ring. Not before.”

The young Baggins just sighed. “Gandalf doesn’t think this will work, you know. He’s said time and again that we ought not get our hopes up about it. Either way, the other smiths are working in shifts. They are eating, sleeping, and spending time with the people they claim to love. Balin says you refuse to do the first two things. And since I caught Bilbo moping this morning, I know for a fact you aren’t doing the last.”

Thorin’s face twisted into a snarl. “I am doing this for Bilbo! He has set me a hero’s task, and I will see it done. I could not save him. I can never—I have one purpose. I am the Hero of Erebor. Heroes are not given the luxury of rest when great deeds are at hand. I must do what he asked of me. That is what a hero is for.”

“You’re an idiot, is what you are!” Kili was shouting now. His father would be ashamed, but he could not reign in his temper. “You aren’t a hero! Bilbo is the hero! Bilbo is the one who found his way through the wild alone without help. Bilbo is the one who faced some great evil thing that terrifies wizards. Don’t you think for a minute that things there went as breezily as they did in his story! He found this Ring, snatched it from the baddie, and protected it all this way. He’s the hero! Just you be his prince!”

“His prince?” Thorin looked slightly nonplussed.

Kili waved a hand expressively. “You know, his prince. He gets to marry you now and rule half your father’s kingdom. Or maybe the whole thing but both of you together. I’m not sure how it works with a prince. Usually it’s a princess. It doesn’t matter! The point of you is to be his happily ever after. So get going with that, or I’ve very little use for you, Thorin Oakenshield.”

The dwarf stared at Kili for a long moment. A face covered in soot could be very difficult to read. Suddenly, Thorin burst into laughter, a loud, musical laugh that echoed over the roar of the furnace.

“I am not joking,” Kili said. “Not one word.”

“I know you aren’t,” Thorin said, still smiling. “Bilbo is your hero. He always has been.”

“He deserves better than you ignoring him.”

“He does.”

“By which I mean, you need to get cleaned up and come to dinner.”

“I do.”

Kili looked hard at Thorin, trying to read him. The dark cloud surrounding the prince seemed to have cleared. In fact, Thorin looked quite calm and collected, much like he used to in Kili’s little smithy back home in the Shire. As though all the steps were laid out ahead of them, Thorin seemed ready to follow the plan. It was too easy.

“Dinner tonight,” Kili pressed. “The fourth big feast your father has thrown for Bilbo since his arrival. You’ll come to this one, and sit next to him. Because you didn’t come to the other three.”

“I will,” Thorin promised.

“It’s only a few hours from now,” Kili said. “You’ll have to take a bath first.”

Thorin laughed again. This time it was his rumbling little chuckle with the huff at the end. Usually, only Bilbo managed to coax that laugh from him. “Then let us quit this place together, Kili Baggins.” Turning, he called up to one of the dwarves on the scaffolding. “Frar! You are in charge until I return. Keep the fires burning!”

Upon receiving acknowledgement from Frar, Thorin strode away from the blast furnace. He did not look back.

Leaving the prince to get ready, Kili went to join the rest of his family for tea. Bilbo had a habit of ordering Princess Dis little treats from the kitchens made especially for her. Usually, these were things Kili particularly enjoyed so that Dis might gain a better understanding of Kili’s childhood. Today, Bilbo had given instructions for a blueberry trifle. Kili had no intention of missing that on Thorin’s account.

In truth, he was a little late. To the surprise of no one, Fili, Dis, and Bilbo waited for him. Four places were set with generous helpings of trifle, but the tea remained in the pot at the center of Dis’s golden table.

“Sorry,” Kili said.

“You’re right on time,” Bilbo corrected warmly. “Princess Dis was just telling me about your first word. Apparently, it was no, which I find very contrarian of you. Although I am not at all surprised.”

So no one asked Kili where he had been or what had kept him. Instead, they drank tea and talked about things he couldn’t remember. Bursting with his news, Kili interrupted a silly story about some bath he took with Fili once upon a time. “Thorin is coming to dinner tonight!”

Bilbo went very stiff. “I doubt it. Of course, one could not blame anyone tempted to the table by Bombur’s suckling pork roast. I had a little chat with him about the courses while I was in the kitchen asking for our tea.” Then the hobbit was off, talking about all of the various food that would be served for their fourth feast running. He detailed each dish well enough that Kili could have replicated all the recipes. As though dwarven recipes were particularly complicated.

“Bookworm,” Kili said, completely exasperated, “he is not coming for the food.”

That made Bilbo eye his brother warily. “Well, he is certainly not coming to report the destruction of my little ring. Since that is the only thing he cares about, I should be very surprised to see him at all.”

“He is sorry about that,” Kili said awkwardly. “He’s going to make it up to you.” Though the young Baggins had no idea if that was so, or, indeed, if it was possible.

“I don’t see what he has to be sorry about.” Bilbo sniffed and took a sip of his tea. “We are not married yet, after all, and perhaps we never shall be. I always said our silly little romance would not last once we reached the mountain.”

Fili gasped. “You cannot be serious!”

“He is never serious,” Kili said, in quite a temper.

Dis laughed. “Good for you, Bilbo. Say exactly that to him, and don’t forgive him until he showers you with gifts. My brother is behaving appallingly.”

“Here now,” Kili said, trying to be reasonable. “Thorin is—it was a bit rough on him, thinking you were dead.”

“It was a bit rough on me, being left for dead!” Bilbo snapped.

Kili felt rather lightheaded.

“Sorry,” Bilbo said. “I’m sorry. You didn’t deserve that. But really, Kili, you cannot take his part over mine in this.”

“I’m not taking his part,” Kili argued. “I just want you to be happy.”

“I should like nothing better. If Thorin cannot put this whole messy affair behind him, I shall find a handsomer fellow who snores less.”

“Good luck,” Fili said, mastering himself. “Thorin snores the least of anyone in the Company.”

Bilbo grinned at him, looking terribly grateful. “That is unfortunately true, though it can hardly be counted as a virtue on his part.”

“Someone more handsome should be easy enough to get,” Dis said. “My brother has some good qualities, but he was never particularly fortunate in his features.”

“And of course you don’t miss him at all,” Kili said, testily.

“Of course I don’t.”

“Bilbo! You braided lilacs into his hair!”

The hobbit went stiff again at the reminder. “That didn’t mean anything to him. He simply let me.”

“You should give him a gift,” Dis suggested. “Before he gives one to you. That would show him.”

Bilbo blinked at her. “I have done,” he said. “Why would that show him? I hardly think he deserves a present just now.” The hobbit sniffed. “Especially not a good one.”

Dis waved a hand. “Not your courtship presents. Fili told me about those. Very suitable, I’m sure.”

Rising, the princess went over to one of her many golden chests. This one had three sturdy locks upon it. The first, she opened with a key. The second, she opened by pressing four of the engraved runes in quick succession then spinning one of them three times clockwise. Finally, she took the third lock in hand, and muttered a password. It glowed with silver light, and the chest opened.

Within the chest were many treasures, all gleaming gold. Kili did not like the way Dis’s eyes gleamed in response. Slowly, she withdrew a crown. She held it solemnly in both hands for a long moment. Then, in a frantic burst of energy, she locked the chest once more.

“An engagement present finalizes matters before the wedding,” Dis said. “Thorin ought to have given you one the moment you arrived at the mountain. Traditionally, the first gift is the family claiming a spouse. The intended spouse then offers an answering gift. If Thorin had given you an engagement present when he should have, your marriage would bring you into the house of Durin. Instead, you should give him this. Make a Baggins of him, and teach him a little humility.”

Accepting the crown, Bilbo studied it carefully. Wonderful etching circled the band in an elaborate square labyrinth. Inlaid upon the gold was true silver, the glorious metal mithril that Kili was privileged to see rarely in Erebor. Before Bilbo’s return with the Ring, Thorin suggested he might show Kili how to work a small quantity of the silver. Of course there was not time for it now, but Kili admired the metal tremendously. It was a beautiful crown.

“What makes it different from a courtship present?” Bilbo asked.

“The value,” Dis said bluntly. “This was worn by Durin the Third when he ruled in Khazad-dûm; it is an heirloom of our house beyond price. To give this is to be engaged in truth. No one could receive it as a courtship present.”

“I see.” Bilbo ran a finger around the edge of the crown.

“Balin has not spoken to you about this?” Fili asked. “He ought to have prepared you to give an acceptance present already.”

“Yes, he mentioned something,” Bilbo said. “He said that Thorin would give me a present at that first feast with the king, and that he would arrange an appropriate response for me. I shouldn’t worry about anything. Only Thorin did not come.”

“Oh,” said Fili.

“How can giving him an heirloom of the house of Durin make Thorin a Baggins,” Kili asked.

Dis shuddered a little. “I give it to you now, Bilbo Baggins. All know this is mine. Part of my treasure. It belongs to me.” She cleared her throat. “But I give it to you now, and so it is yours. It is the perfect engagement present for Thorin. A crown shows that you admire his ability to lead, and that you will be a good steward to his kingdom when the time comes.”

“So there is symbolism.” Bilbo studied the mithril lines thoughtfully. “What would giving something other than a crown invoke? Say a sword, or a shield?”

“You’d have to give him something better than he’s got,” Fili said. “An engagement present is a once in a lifetime gift, so it must be spectacular. That elvish sword he found in the troll den is unbeatable.”

“A shield would do,” Dis said. “To show you still have faith in his ability to protect his people.” She frowned. “Actually, that’s rather romantic, Bilbo, given what happened and how the Oakenshield was lost.”

The hobbit bit down a smile. “I thought so. Any famous, irreplaceable shield would do, would it?”

“Yes.” Dis looked around at her treasure chests. “But I don’t have one. Shields are not often made of gold.”

“Not to worry!” Bilbo handed the crown back to her. “I’ll speak to Balin. We’ll figure something out.”

Kili knew the smile his brother was trying to repress. Bilbo was up to something. Good for him. He deserved to make as much mischief as he wanted, as long as he was not also making himself miserable.

“Do,” Fili said. “Hopefully he’ll give Thorin some warning about this.”

“I don’t see the problem with Thorin being a Baggins,” Kili said magnanimously. “I shall be happy to have him.”

Bilbo grinned at him. His eyes were twinkling and he seemed to have more than the usual number of dimples. Whatever he was planning would likely be very funny.

“It is a problem if I wind up being king before my time!” Fili looked genuinely upset. “I do not know if a Baggins can rule Erebor. No one has ever been audacious enough to offer the first gift to a member of the royal line.”

Patting him comfortably on the shoulder, Bilbo said, “I will wait to the end of dinner to make my presentation. He shall have every opportunity to go first. Does it matter which of the two gifts is more valuable?”

“It doesn’t,” Dis said. “Only the order in which they are given.”

“Good.” Bowing cordially to her, he took his leave. “I must have a word with Balin about the manner of presentation.”

Not three minutes after he left, Fili rose, looking about the room shiftily. “I’m just going to go—”

“Warn Thorin?” Kili asked.

“Someone has to.”

Dis laughed. “Go.”

When they were alone, Kili said, “Well, I’ve another new design for an arrowhead, if you would like to come to my forge and see, Amâd.”

Dis looked very much like Thorin, with her dark hair and blue eyes, but Thorin never looked quite so soft or warm. “Kili Baggins,” she said, “Nothing in the world would give me greater pleasure.”

And so, leaving the crown of Durin III on the table with the used tea things, they went.

Feasting in the Great Hall of Erebor was rather monotonous. For the fourth day in a row, dinner consisted of great hunks of roasted meat, potatoes in every form potatoes might be served, and an ocean of ale. All the dwarves seemed to like it. In truth, the food was very good. It just wasn’t what one would call a feast in the Shire. No one really feasted much in the Shire. Instead, one hosted a dinner at which it snowed food and rained drink. Part of that was variety, however, which did not seem to be a staple of dwarven cuisine.

At least Kili was seated between Bilbo and Fili. That meant he was very well entertained. Moreover, Thorin was on Bilbo’s right, just between him and the king. Finally, the prince was being properly attentive: serving Bilbo extra roast pork, cutting him a slice of bread from the large loaf, insisting he try a different kind of beer.

Flushed with both pleasure and drink, Bilbo seemed far more comfortable than he had sitting next to the king at the previous feasts. Kili even noticed Thrain smiling rather fondly at his son.

When all the serving dishes were down to bones, just before the cakes were wheeled out for dessert, Thorin rose from his chair. The hall went silent.

“Bilbo Baggins, I have a gift for you.”

“Do you?” Bilbo toyed with his glass for a moment, smirking up at Thorin. “It’s about time.”

Many around the hall gasped at this audacious response, but Thorin only grinned. “Long overdue,” he agreed.

With a gesture, he beckoned forward a guard in gleaming armor, holding a silk wrapped parcel. Taking it, he unwrapped the silk to reveal more mithril than Kili could have imagined existing in one place. The chain mail Thorin raised for all to see was like spun gossamer, shining with all the stars caught in a single garment. Nothing in the world could match it for beauty, except maybe Tauriel’s hair in the wind.

There was no wind in the feast hall, no noise, no breath. Not a single dwarf moved, for all were captivated by the beauty of Thorin’s gift.

“Will you accept this, Bilbo?” asked the prince softly, “And my desire to keep you safe forevermore? Will you plight your troth to mine, binding our lives together?”

“I will,” Bilbo said, taking the shirt in both hands, then letting Thorin help him into it. There was a beautiful pearl belt to go about his waist, making fit perfect and tremendously flattering. Kili’s brother looked like a jewel, or some star fallen to earth.

A cheer thundered through the hall, all the dwarves shouting their approval. Kili did not know if they approved of Bilbo, or only the gift, but it didn’t matter. His brother was flushed with happiness, bouncing up on his toes to kiss Thorin in front of all assembled. The cheers did not diminish, though a few hoots and whistles punctuated the roar of the crowd.

Balin stepped forward, and quiet filled the hall once more. The old dwarf had something wrapped in silk as well, but Bilbo waved him away. To the shock of the crowd, Bilbo disappeared quickly underneath the table. Murmurs filled the hall. Soon enough, he popped back up, holding something bulky. Technically, it was wrapped in silk. More accurately, it was wrapped in one of the silk sheets from Bilbo’s guest room.

“Many dwarves offered me heirlooms to give to you in this moment, Thorin,” Bilbo said over the hushed whispers of the crowd. “I’ve been told that only a sufficiently famous dwarven artifact would do.”

With eyes full of longing and consummate love, Thorin said, “I would marry you for a bent twig, Bilbo Baggins.”

“Oh, good.” Bilbo looked tremendously pleased with himself. “Because I only found this old tree branch in my travels.”

Unwrapping the bed sheet, Bilbo revealed the Oakenshield.

Stunned silence fell. The shield was not beautiful or captivating. It was shocking. The shield fell when Thorin did. It was lost. Lost when everything was lost on that desolate mountainside. Now, it was found with Bilbo. Kili hooted and clapped and danced in place, heedless of the thousands of dwarves all around him doing the same. The young Baggins barely even noticed the couple’s second kiss.

All was well.

Chapter Text

Bilbo put on a good show for his brother and the crowd in the feast hall. He loved a good show, after all, and he deserved the cheers. However, he wasn’t sure accepting Thorin was the right thing until the prince walked him to his door, took one look at it, and was immediately disapproving.

“This is the chamber you were given?”

“Yes. Is it not appropriate? It seems to be—er, a good neighborhood?”

Thorin frowned. “It is not the honor of the placement to which I object. This is the room for foreign royalty. Princes of elves and men have slept here with no insult to their kingdoms, but it is not the room for you.”

“No?”

Thorin met his eyes steadily. “Do you like it?”

“No.”

The prince laughed. It was that soft, huffing chuckle that shot straight through Bilbo’s core. As long as Bilbo could make Thorin laugh that way, he knew he could hold on to that feeling. But was that true happiness?

When the laughter faded, Thorin’s eyes settled into something soft and serious. “I have not kept my promises to you.”

“Oh, Thorin. I don’t give a damn about that silly old ring. Yes, it was quite frightening at the tower with Elrond and Gandalf and all those great, tall, proud folk, but it doesn’t matter here. I wish you wouldn’t let it matter here.”

Taking Bilbo’s hand in both of his own, Thorin brought it to his lips, kissing the back in a gentle, courtly fashion. “Not that promise. I pledged to make a place in the mountain for a hobbit to be happy. I spoke of a garden, and of comforts you would appreciate.”

“Thorin.” Bilbo took a step closer to the dwarf even though it meant craning his neck a little to look him in the eye. “I don’t care about comforts or gardens. I would rather sit on a wooden barrel in the wild with you than all the cushions in the world.”

Thorin nodded gravely. “That would be a very tall pile of cushions. Given your natural athleticism, you’d roll right off.”

The hobbit slapped his shoulder. “I’m trying to say something here, you know.”

“I know.” Thorin licked his lips. Bilbo had never seen him nervous before. “Kili told me. Fili warned me that I would be better off giving you a kitchen than a jewel, and he was right as well. You may have brought me the Oakenshield, but that was for its symbolism to my people. For my customs, not yours. Your own engagement happened with the braiding of hair. You will sit on a barrel with me, or you will not be mine.”

Bilbo felt rather sick to hear it said aloud, but he couldn’t argue the point. “That’s about the shape of it, yes.”

Surprisingly, Thorin smiled. “A dwarf is always most comfortable when he knows the terms. I would like you to know that my first instinct is to leave you now and build for you a proper home. Something with a kitchen, a garden, and a bed just big enough for two.”

“Thorin, I—”

“And I know now how unwise that would be. Instead, I ask you to join me in my own room this night. In the morning, we will see how industriously the dwarves of Erebor can turn my personal armory into a kitchen. I will need your help overseeing the work, to ensure it is to your liking.”

Kissing the prince was the only possible response to that particular proposal. “Isn’t it a problem if we share a room before marriage?”

“I don’t care,” Thorin said. “A kitchen in the morning, a garden the day after, and a wedding next week. If Balin is not already planning that, however, he is out of a job.”

Bilbo laughed. “I’m fairly certain he’s been planning it for three days.”

Thorin’s mouth twitched guiltily.

“Thinking of Balin, I am also fairly sure that it would be a problem for us to share a bed before that wedding.” Casting a significant glance to the guards in plate mail spaced evenly along the corridor, Bilbo raised an eyebrow at his prince.

Thorin flushed a little. “We are engaged to be married, and it does not matter.”

Bilbo kissed him gently. “I will see you bright and early tomorrow morning.”

“I choose you.” Thorin’s face was a picture of dwarven stubbornness. Bilbo had to laugh again.

“Show me tomorrow,” the hobbit said. “I have never asked you to choose me over common sense and social decency. I have no more desire to be a public embarrassment to you than I was to my family name in the Shire.”

Parting would have been much easier if Thorin continued to be stubborn. Instead, the prince had the audacity to look disappointed.

“We might have been spending our time together for the last three days,” Bilbo said firmly. “Good night.”

As he closed the door, he heard Thorin say, “Good night, my love.” So that was alright. Unfortunately, the wages of virtue were a big, empty bed with cold linens. Bilbo liked them not at all.

The morning was much better. Opening his door to request breakfast, he found Fili and Kili blinking at him with bleary eyes. Thorin was holding the breakfast tray.

“My royal nephews are sufficient chaperones,” the prince promised.

“Tea,” Kili begged, very pitifully.

“He’s made us stand here for an hour,” Fili groaned. “I don’t want tea; I want to go back to bed!”

Bilbo only laughed at them both, for they proved awake and animated enough around his breakfast table. Fili devoured more than half the sausages, and Kili had six blueberry scones. Meanwhile, Thorin sat next to Bilbo and poured tea for him, exactly as a good host should. When they were married, of course, they would bicker amiably about the privilege until one claimed it.

His mother always poured the tea at Bag End. And took the last slice of cake. And was the first to greet guests. Thinking back, Bilbo couldn’t remember any precedence given to his father during his childhood, but perhaps he was only misremembering. Perhaps it just seemed as though his mother was the one around whom the marriage revolved because of what he knew now about Kili and the major choice of his parents lives. Bilbo put it from his mind. To start, it was very pleasant to be welcomed into the home of one’s intended as a guest.

For the first time since the thrill of his daring arrival in Erebor, Bilbo actually felt welcome.

“I have a report from Frar, if you would like to hear it,” Thorin said diffidently.

“Oh?” Bilbo considered. Frar was the burly, red-bearded dwarf who had been seconding Thorin at that great blasting furnace which was meant to destroy the Ring. He seemed a decent fellow, but the hobbit found he did not want an entire report. There was only one question which needed to be answered. “Is it done?”

“Not yet,” Thorin said.

“Does Frar intend to keep working?”

“He does.”

“Then that is all the report I need,” the hobbit said.

“You need more tea,” Thorin observed, pouring again to fill his cup as Bilbo smiled receptively.

Fili frowned at the teapot. “Don’t you like to do that, Master Baggins?”

“And he shall again once they are married,” Kili said. “Don’t you think otherwise for a second. Just because Thorin is a prince, doesn’t mean Bilbo will be letting him pour the tea.”

Bilbo blushed. “I am sure Thorin and I will share the duty.”

Thorin smiled softly. “Hosts pour tea in the Shire,” he told Fili. “I will pour until we are married, and thereafter whenever Bilbo wishes me to do so.”

“Oh!” Bilbo had to kiss him for that.

After breakfast, they went to Thorin’s chambers. The rooms were even larger than Bilbo’s but less spacious and more comfortable in places. Serious dwarves were already milling about, taking measurements and moving furniture. Many, many questions about the size of the kitchen, the best location for the plumbing, and the benefits of granite instead of wooden countertops were asked. Bilbo answered all he could, growing more animated as certain efficiencies and amenities occurred to him. Apparently, putting up new walls and taking down old ones was no trouble; the dwarves were that eager to please. Thorin, especially, was extremely indulgent. He had only one request for himself, which was the instillation of something called an ice box in the second pantry.

“We bring ice down from the peak of the mountain regularly, it will be slightly colder than your cold larder at Bag End, but I hope you may find some use for it.”

“Some use,” Bilbo agreed, thinking of all the ways he knew to make ice creams and sweet, frozen sorbets. To have such treats in the height of summer would be luxury indeed.

Once the planning for the kitchen finished, they proceeded to the bedroom. It was entirely unfurnished, with only a bare mattress on a bed that was identical to his own in Bag End in every respect save that it was made of sturdy oak instead of golden pine.

Frowning at Thorin, the hobbit said, “I am quite sure that whatever furnishings you had in here were fine.”

Thorin only smiled. “My furnishings in my office will stay as they are, if you please, and you may have a study of your own as recompense if you like. I shall keep the second wardrobe for myself as well, for my clothing is sorted there in a manner that pleases me. However, this is our bedroom. We shall share it. And so, we should choose how to furnish it together. I like this blue silk for one set of bedclothes. What do you think?”

“I think silk can be tricky to clean.”

“You will not be doing the laundry, my love.”

Bilbo’s cheeks went hot. “Surely I must wash the sheets sometimes.”

The gentle smile playing across Thorin’s mouth turned knowing.

“I enjoy washing up,” the hobbit claimed.

Unforgivably, Thorin laughed. “Beloved, I cannot be a help-meet to you in the way a hobbit would. My own time is too dear to spend it cleaning, and so I hope your own will be one day as you learn the ways of ruling a kingdom. I would never take something you truly liked away from you. You shall have your kitchen and your books, but someone else must do the washing up to free your hours for our greater duties.”

“Thorin.” Bilbo looked furtively around at the many strange dwarves in what would be his bedroom. “Thorin, you must know—”

“There will be gossip?” Thorin’s eyes sparkled, but he did not laugh again. Instead, he took the hobbit’s hand. “There will indeed. Dwarves gossip more than any other people in this world, I am sure, when we are left to our own devices. Royalty is always a favorite topic. There will be gossip about the meaning of each and every jewel you wear on your person, what colors you choose for your clothing, especially if you care to dress in the Shire style. There will be gossip about who you spend your time with, and some of that will be cruel. Some of that is already cruel, Bilbo, for not all see the hobbits who raised a lost prince in secret as the heroes they were.”

“Yes, of course. I expect all that, but—”

“The gossip about our marriage bed will be happy. Only ever happy. Those who look after us will be pleased to know that you—” Thorin coughed and fell silent.

“Oh dear.” It was Bilbo’s turn to laugh, and he did. Quite loudly. “Is that one of my duties as your royal spouse? To keep you happy?”

“No,” said Thorin in a very firm, solid way which absolutely meant yes.

“It is!” Bilbo crowed. “What would they think of me in the Shire? A whole kingdom going around expecting me to please its prince every single night. Oh, how I shall please you Thorin! Don’t you doubt. We will find the time, my love, and quite a bit of it.”

“Bilbo!” Thorin looked around at the other dwarves, clearly embarrassed by this speech.

In answer, the hobbit ducked his head to look up at his betrothed through his lashes. “Fear not, Prince Thorin. You will do your share of the kneeling.”

If he’d been struck hard upon the head, the dwarf’s eyes could not have gone more vacant. His lips parted slightly, but he did not speak. Bilbo grinned.

“We’ll take the blue silk,” he told the dwarf with the bolts of cloth. “It brings out Thorin’s eyes beautifully. I should also like to see that red, however. Can you spread it out a little so that I might judge it better in the lamp light?”

Chapter Text

Bilbo straightened his crown in the mirror. It was only a golden circlet set with sapphires. Given that it weighed next to nothing, the hobbit couldn’t understand why it kept slipping back on his head or down around his ears. He tried to fix his hair around it. Perhaps he just didn’t have the head to wear a crown.

Behind him, the door opened. Bilbo turned to warn Kili against stepping on the tremendously long blue cloak he was expected to wear, only to see Thorin’s father.

“Your majesty!” Flustered, the hobbit tried to bow, which flipped the crown down over his eyes.

King Thrain stepped around the train of Bilbo’s cloak with practiced, practical ease. Naturally, the trappings of royalty were comfortable to him. He belonged here. A hobbit did not. Taking the crown gently from Bilbo’s head, the king inspected it.

“I wasn’t expecting to see you until the ceremony,” Bilbo said inanely, wondering if the king would return the circlet. Perhaps he would keep it after judging a hobbit unfit to wear such a thing.

“This circlet was worn by the younger son of Durin IV, you know,” the king said.

“Yes, Balin told me.” Bilbo swallowed hard. “I’m honored to be trusted with it.”

“The craftwork and history of our treasures is the heritage of Erebor, but that is not what I am trusting to you, Bilbo Baggins.” In an incredible display of strength, the gray bearded old dwarf popped one of the sapphires out of its setting and pinched the gold beneath it together. Twisting it off like a bit of wire, he replaced the crown on Bilbo’s head.

It fit perfectly.

“I am entrusting you with my son,” Thrain said. “My son and all his people, but most of all my son. In a few moments, we will speak of duty, honor, loyalty and many other things. You will make many vows to my family and my kingdom, and in exchange you will receive my greatest treasure. Before all of that, I ask—” Overcome, the dwarf seemed unable to continue.

Smiling, Bilbo took his strong, gnarled hand in both of his own. “I am a hobbit, King Thrain. I can safely promise you to never value a crown more than the head that wears it.”

Brushing his eye with his free hand, the old king returned Bilbo’s smile. “I saw my father and daughter fall victim to the same darkness. My greatest fear was never losing myself to it. Always, always the hope of this kingdom has been my son. He is the one our people cannot afford to lose. Now, seeing his heart embodied before me, I know that I never had cause for concern.”

“I will take care of him,” Bilbo promised.

“Good.” Thrain ruffled Bilbo’s curls around the twisted bit of gold at the back of his crown so that it would not show. “He needs it. Forgets to eat when he’s got his teeth in a project, unless someone makes him.”

“Don’t I know it! Any word on that little ring of mine?”

The king chuckled kindly. “Anything to take your mind off the wedding? I was the same way before mine. Give me a thousand orcs and a blunt ax any day, but I was petrified of my beautiful bride.”

“Oh, I am not nervous at all,” Bilbo lied. “Only I do worry about the Ring. It will ease my mind greatly when it is finally destroyed.”

“Doubtless, that would put all of us at ease.” The old dwarf sighed. “I begin to believe it is not possible with our resources. Frar tries. Indeed, he is as devoted to the task as Thorin once was. Those working with him say he neither eats nor sleeps. All his thought is bent upon the Ring and the fire, but it is not enough. The time may come when we must acknowledge Tharkûn’s wisdom in this matter and discuss bringing the thing to the Cracks of Doom for its ultimate destruction.”

Bilbo shivered.

“After the wedding,” Thrain said.

“The wedding!” Bilbo leapt as high as he could in a cloak three times longer than he was tall. This, of course, was not very high at all, but he nearly ran out the door. “Where is Kili? We are going to be late.”

A firm hand gripped Bilbo’s shoulder, calming him. “You cannot be late, Bilbo. The wedding will hardly take place without you.”

Smiling sheepishly up at his soon to be father in law, the hobbit admitted, “Perhaps I am a bit nervous.”

“Not too late to make a break for it.” The old dwarf waggled his bushy gray eyebrows. “Thorin will follow you, of course, but if you marry him in your Shire, you shan’t have to worry about ruling a mountain.”

“He would not marry me in the Shire.”

“Ah. Does that make you doubt him?”

Bilbo thought about the kind of person who would not forsake duty for love. A dwarf who would slay a dragon to protect a mountain instead of saving only his brother. A soldier who continued to lead forward when someone he cared about was left behind.

“I am not worthy of him,” the hobbit whispered. “Luck has made you all think that I am some kind of hero, but I am only quite a little fellow. I do not care about great matters or the wide world. I only want to pass my days pleasantly at home with my books and my family.”

Bending down, the king pressed his forehead to Bilbo’s. A soft chime sounded in the room when the hobbit’s circlet touched the Raven Crown, but their warm skin met as well in a familial gesture.

“That, my dear son, is precisely why you are perfect for him.”

Before Bilbo could respond, the door slammed open behind him and Kili tumbled in.

“Sorry it took me so long. I had to help Thorin—well, you’ll see.”

“Is he doing a runner?” Bilbo asked.

“Worse than that,” Kili confided. “He’s gone vain. Usually that’s your field, but he’s plowing it today and no mistake. I wouldn’t be surprised if he carried a mirror to the ceremony to check his hair halfway through. Seems convinced that you won’t go through with it if he isn’t as handsome as dwarvenly possible.”

All at once, a deep fondness filled Bilbo’s heart. As if he would ever consider any course of action other than marrying Thorin Oakenshield. As if Thorin could ever be anything less than absolutely gorgeous.

Kili tripped around Bilbo’s long cloak and pinned a perfect red camellia to the front of his bejeweled tunic. The hobbit stared at it, blinking his eyes rapidly to stop the tears that threatened to swell in them.

“Oh, Kili!”

“Balin said it would be alright.”

Careful not to crush the blossom between them, the brothers fell into an embrace.

“If it brings you joy on your wedding day,” Thrain said, “it is not only right, but necessary.” Then, the old king winked. “Give me a thirty-count to get into position before you come out.” So saying, the dwarf strode from the room.

Wiping tears from his own eyes, Kili went to pick up one corner of Bilbo’s long cloak. Checking himself one final time in the mirror, Bilbo saw that his crown fit perfectly. Twinkling blue sapphires complimented the sparkling green emeralds lining his tunic, both flattering his complexion and honoring the House of Durin. While the cut of his clothing was dwarven, his proud feet were bare upon the stone, and the soft, spiraling petals of the camellia would bring him all the luck a newlywed needed.

As he stepped out into the corridor, five other dwarves in gleaming armor joined Kili to lift up Bilbo’s long cloak. Although the armor was all exactly the same, the hobbit recognized Bombur by his build and Bofur by the twinkle in his eye. Dori’s stature was distinctive enough, as was the way Nori held his hands, even in gauntlets. And of course young Ori did not lift the cloak silently, but murmured a soft wish for Bilbo’s happiness.

Down the corridor they went together, only to meet with Thorin and his own honor guard of six at the entrance to the hall. Absently, Bilbo noticed that Fili, like Kili, did not have to wear armor. This was in the way that a hobbit might notice the moon hanging about during the daytime while a garden full of ripe fruit spread before him. Thorin had flowers in his hair.

Forget-me-nots threaded through his dark mane like a crown. He had a true crown as well, of course, some shining band of gold to match Bilbo’s circlet, but there was a rose behind one of his ears, pinning back some of his hair, and forget-me-nots enough to match the stars in the night sky. They were exactly the color of Thorin’s eyes. Bilbo’s own eyes could not be forced away, even as they walked together through the enormous hall filled with what seemed to be every dwarf in Erebor.

When they reached the king, the couple stood respectfully to face him. At least, Thorin did. Bilbo’s face refused to turn in any direction save Thorin’s, even as Thrain began to sing.

Long and beautiful, the wedding song of Durin’s Folk spoke of loneliness as ancient as their people. Hearts that walk alone might find glorious solace in the heart of another. Jewels of love are beyond compare with any gemstone. It was a lovely song, and Bilbo heard perhaps one word out of every ten. Every so often, Thorin glanced at him sideways to wink or smile. Then, as Thorin looked properly toward his father, so too Bilbo would turn to gaze respectfully at the king. Like a lodestone, however, his eyes were drawn inevitably back to Thorin.

At some point, the song opened to a chorus. The Company behind Thorin and Bilbo joined their voices in support of the union. Then, it was Bilbo’s turn to sing a verse, and Thorin met his gaze with easy acceptance. Words of love, promises of fidelity, and pledges of care sprang easily from Bilbo’s tongue. Words were always easy for him, even in the gabbled language of childhood.

After that, Thorin sang, and the world ended. His hands reached for Bilbo as his deep voice reverberated with love. Bilbo took his hands. Fortunately, this was exactly what he was meant to do, because he was not capable of doing anything else. Thrain sang again, proclaiming the union for all the mountain. And the mountain answered. Every dwarven voice in Erebor joined the song. It seemed to Bilbo that the rocks and stones themselves began to sing. All the world gave its approval.

Bilbo Baggins was married.

He was married to Thorin Oakenshield.

Thorin Oakenshield, the prince that slew the dragon, who still had flowers in his hair.

In quite a different hall, Bilbo shook hands with Gandalf, accepting his best wishes.

A tall elf crowned with branches and berries handed Bilbo a glass of wine.

Finally, finally, Bilbo was allowed to dance with Thorin. Spinning in the arms of his love, Bilbo told him how fine he looked, how well forget-me-nots brought out his eyes, how true Bilbo would always, always be to the promise of those little flowers.

Kili gave Bilbo a piece of cake. It was sweet. Very probably containing some form of sugar.

Dis claimed a dance. Bilbo definitely said something which made her laugh.

Kili danced with a red-headed elf, but she was graceful enough not to make him look silly. Bilbo might have surfaced enough to observe that further, but Thorin kissed his cheek.

His husband kissed his cheek.

“You are my husband!” Bilbo said suddenly.

“I am.”

Bilbo just grinned at him for a good, long time. Thorin returned the smile with interest.

“The hour grows late. Shall we go to bed?” the prince asked.

“Oh, yes.” Bilbo sighed, taking the offered arm. Then he paused, “No, wait, ask me properly, please.”

“Husband,” Thorin murmured. Bilbo shivered in delight. “Come with me to our bed?”

“Oh, yes,” Bilbo said again. Walking through a dream, the hobbit followed his husband through the corridors of Erebor, relatively private with only a few armored guards standing at attention as the passed. “Once more? Will you say it once more?”

“Husband.” Thorin kissed his neck.

Their bed was dressed in blue silk for the occasion, with golden lamps, dozens of pillows, and a scattering of cheeky rose petals. Bilbo laughed. “That will be Kili.”

“I am sure it was well meant,” Thorin said. “He was a great help with my hair.”

“Oh!” Once again, Bilbo could look nowhere but his new husband’s profile. “I suppose it is dreadfully uncomfortable and you would like to take it down?”

With knowing eyes, Thorin bent for a kiss, slow, sweet, and full of promise. “In the morning. After my husband has had his fill.”

“Oh, yes.” Bilbo’s hands trembled with such need that he could not manage Thorin’s buttons or his own. Fumbling and desperate, he could do little more than pet Thorin’s skin as it began to show.

Catching Bilbo’s shaking hand, Thorin pressed a kiss to the palm. “If you are overtired from the exertions of the day, I am sure Kili would help me fix my hair in this way a second time.”

“No, please!” Bilbo kissed his beard, his neck, his ear. “Please, Thorin. I need—I need—”

Pulling the shaking hobbit against his sturdy chest, Thorin slowed his begging with a kiss. “Can you tell me what you need?”

Helplessly, the hobbit shook his head, pressing his hands hard against the muscles of Thorin’s back, clinging to him. “I will—Let me think. I can—anything—have you a preference?”

Holding Bilbo closer, the dwarf stroked his hair, his arms, and his bare shoulders in a calming manner. “I should like, very much, to take care of my husband,” Thorin said.

Since this was hardly stating a preference, the hobbit tried to force his desperate mind into reasonable lines of thought. Doing so was useless. His hands refused to cease their shaking.

“Will you trust me?” Thorin asked. “As I trust you to stop me if I err?”

“Oh, yes,” Bilbo said. Then, because more felt necessary, he added, “You could never err, Thorin. Not with me.”

“I have before,” the dwarf said. “I will again. You have stopped me before, and you will again. Yet I dare hope that tonight I know how to proceed.”

So saying, he kissed Bilbo once more. The hobbit buried his trembling hands in thick hair, careful not to card through it and disturb the flowers. As Thorin removed the remainder of their clothing and settled Bilbo on the bed, the hobbit grew ever more helpless. Barely able to continue petting his lover, Bilbo fell to pieces the second Thorin’s hand brushed his cock.

Culmination went through him like an arrow, barely even pleasurable. He could not help himself. Shame did not have a chance to strike a second blow, for Thorin was there with a smile and a warm cloth. Nor did regret follow with a finishing stroke, as the dwarf continued easily onward. Bilbo need only enjoy a warm tongue laving across his chest as he looked down at a night filled with forget-me-nots. When Thorin’s clever hands began working him open, enough strength returned to Bilbo’s own to bring his husband up for a kiss.

No pillows were placed for better comfort. No clever positions were discussed. Thorin merely drew one of Bilbo’s knees up with a firm hand and entered him. Filled him. Sound tore from Bilbo’s throat, contradicting the habit of a lifetime. Each thrust beget a wordless cry from the hobbit, moans and gasps that could not be contained. Ecstasy pressed outward from his core and Thorin’s eyes shone bright in the golden lamplight.

As the dwarf moved, the rose dropped from his hair, bouncing off of Bilbo’s cheek and coming to rest on the pillow beside the hobbit’s head. Half a laugh turned into another shout of pleasure and Thorin smiled, continuing his work.

With each driving thrust, Bilbo’s body canted toward his husband ever more, his head rocking back deeper into his pillows. His eyes fell upon the golden lamp above their bed. Every time Thorin moved in him, the dazzling lamp grew more intense. Brighter than the sun, it filled his vision, filled the world with an all encompassing radiance.

All was light.

When Bilbo woke, the lamp above his bed was still illuminated, though all the others in the room were extinguished. His body was clean and warm, tucked cozily between the blue silk sheets. Beside him, pillows had at last been put to clever use. Thorin was artfully arranged upon them, sleeping on his side as was not his usual custom. Once more, the rose was pinned in his hair and those forget-me-nots which had not been lost during vigorous activity were swept up over his shoulder to keep them safe in the night. He even had low slung pyjama trousers in a soft cream which showed quite well against the blue sheets.

He was so very beautiful.

Always before, love was a transaction. Even with Thorin, Bilbo gave him a mouth in exchange for a hand, played to a fantasy to receive a good tupping, offered up a series of negotiations and furtive compromises in exchange for silence and secrecy. Always before, that was necessary. Pleasure existed only on the edge of a knife. Strict control ensured that a partner was always satisfied, for a dissatisfied partner might lead to rumor and ruination.

Those days were over. That need was ended. Bilbo was safe. Safely married to a dwarf who loved him deeply. One who took joy in Bilbo’s pleasure and would not keep a tally starting with two-to-one. Slowly, the hobbit reached up to extinguish the lamp. In the silent darkness, he wept.

When strong arms enveloped the hobbit, he knew he would not be required to repay the comfort.

Chapter Text

So much had to be done to ensure that Bilbo’s wedding day went perfectly that Kili barely even noticed Fili’s interruption. He was far too busy plucking rose petals for sparring practice or tea, and he told his friend as much.

“The elven king has arrived with a large entourage. We must greet him, even as he welcomed us to the Greenwood,” Fili said. “It is your duty as a prince.”

Kili rolled his eyes. “Today, I am not a prince. I am Bilbo’s brother. Give King Thranduil my regards.”

“If you do not accompany me, I shall tell your brother you are shirking your duty. Would you be responsible for adding to his cares on his wedding day?”

“You’re terrible. Even you would not go so far. Thorin would kill you. I will not go.”

“Tauriel will be there.”

Kili dropped his roses.

As expected, the greeting of the elven king was essentially just a lot of very long speeches between King Thrain, Thorin, Dis, and Thranduil. Some other elves made speeches as well. To Kili’s tremendous displeasure, Legolas was one of those. Tauriel did not speak at all, but she did catch his eye and smile once.

She was so beautiful when she smiled.

Because Fili was not, in fact, terrible, he found out which chambers Tauriel would be staying in. It was a small, single room with shared plumbing between two other rooms, but it was quite close to the suite given to the elven king. Presumably, that was what a captain of the guard cared about.

Happily, Kili already had a great number of roses which he’d procured in Dale for Bilbo’s wedding. Of course he did not dare to offer any in red, but pink was appropriate. Yellow was practically necessary after all they’d already shared. And Tauriel deserved all the white roses in the world. Putting together a small posy, Kili tied it up with a blue silk ribbon. Then, quite daringly, he changed it to a pink one. Then, he changed it back to blue.

Knocking nervously on her door, he thrust the posy forward as soon as it opened.

“For me?” Legolas asked, raising an eyebrow.

“No! Not for you. Terribly sorry. Must be mistaken. Is this your room?”

“It is not.” Folding his arms, Legolas leaned against the doorframe.

Kili cleared his throat and pointedly did not ask what he was doing in a room other than his own. “Good morning, Prince Legolas. I was hoping to call upon Tauriel. Is she in?”

Legolas looked lazily over his shoulder and said, “Tauriel. Your dwarf is here.”

Upon consideration, Kili did not object to that characterization. Tauriel was radiant in a bright green dress that looked like something Lady Arwen might wear in Rivendell. Though naturally, she was considerably more beautiful. Trying to think of the sort of compliment Bilbo might give was futile. Kili could only thrust out his posy once more and say, “Here. To brighten up your room.”

She accepted with a smile, which just proved that he was right to play it safe with a blue ribbon. “Thank you, Prince Kili. I did not think to see you until tonight. Are you not taking part in the ceremony soon?”

“I am.” Kili puffed up a bit. “And I have to help Thorin get ready. But I wanted to make sure your accommodations were to your liking.” The young dwarf was very proud of that phrasing, which Bilbo used whenever particularly finicky relatives stayed overnight at Bag End.

“The hospitality of Erebor is always ample,” Tauriel said graciously, “but these flowers are lovely.”

Kili gave her the most formal bow a Baggins could manage, which was at least rather better than anything a Took might have to offer. “Would you consider walking out with me tomorrow?” he asked. “I checked with Balin and there’s no gift opening or anything, just another dinner.”

“Walking out?” Tauriel tilted her head to the side slightly, which sent a waterfall of red hair over her shoulder. “Out of the mountain?”

“If you like,” Kili said. “We can go anywhere you like, really. There’s a pretty bit of woodland down the mountainside along the road from Dale that I have not yet explored. Or Fili tells me there are some lovely waterfalls along toward Ravenhill, but it might be getting a bit chilly for lakes and hills. Unless you like the cold? Do you like the cold? I find it much more tolerable now that I have boots.”

Tauriel’s smile grew. “I prefer springtime to winter, but I do not dislike the cold. Choose our path, Prince Kili, and I will go walking with you.”

So that went very, very well. Indeed, it could not have gone better. Kili did not like that Legolas seemed to spend time alone in Tauriel’s room, but clearly she was not promised to him. At least, she was open to the idea of other suitors. He thought he might dare the pink ribbon on his next posy. He was not, however, so overconfident that he thought it anywhere near time for the forget-me-nots he wove into Thorin’s hair.

The dwarven ceremony was beautiful. Kili did not trip or miss a word, which was all he really worried about. Bilbo was so happy. From the moment he saw Thorin, Bilbo smiled and kept on smiling. Through song, promise, and pledge, Bilbo Baggins grinned. He kept on grinning, too, even once they were out mixing with elves and men in a fancy sort of party which only very noble types were allowed to attend.

In truth, Kili sometimes missed home. He missed the subtle, daily changes in the gardens along his walk from Bag End to his smithy. He missed the smell of Bilbo’s cooking and the red of his brother’s perfectly ripe tomatoes. He missed a thousand little things from the Shire that could never exist in Erebor. But in that moment, seeing the dazed, impossible joy on his brother’s face, Kili loved the mountain like he had never loved any place before in all his life. Kili could be a prince, for that smile. Kili could do anything in the world if it made his brother that happy.

Being a prince was dead easy, anyhow. All he had to do was stand next to Fili and Dis beside Thrain accepting an endless series of congratulations from people of varying heights.

“Where is Frar?” Dis asked. “He is one of Thorin’s oldest friends. His only friend who is not a member of the Company, in fact, yet I did not see him at the ceremony.”

“I spoke to Frar this morning,” Thrain said. “He remains dedicated to the task Thorin entrusted to him. By remaining with his charge, he thought to free the other smiths to attend the greater ceremony.”

Dis frowned. “Surely some junior apprentice could have kept the thing running for an hour.” But she said no more about it, because King Bard of Dale came forward to offer his congratulations with his children.

All of them were very well turned out in red velvet, making a lovely portrait. Bain, the middle child, looked as though he enjoyed the finery as much as Kili did, which was not, it must be said very much at all. In fact, he reminded Kili a little bit of Parsifal’s eldest lad. The sort of lad who did not like to stand still for more than five minutes together. Having been that sort of lad himself, Kili sympathized greatly with the fidgeting fellow.

“What is the protocol on dancing?” he asked.

“We’re mostly done here,” Fili said. “Dance with whoever you like.”

“No more than two dances with the same partner,” Dis said at exactly the same time.

“Enjoy yourself,” Thrain added. “Someone should, and I see the head of the merchant guild coming this way for a word with me.”

Laughing, Kili skipped away to dance with Bain. They were of a height to dance very happily, and moving clearly put the young prince in a better mood. Then, because she was laughing and clapping her hands very sweetly, he danced with little Tilda. She did not know the steps as her brother did, but that was all right. Kili simply picked her up as needed and put her where she ought to be so as not to disturb the other dancers. As this made her laugh all the more, he thought it a very good solution. After, for the purposes of completion, he danced with Sigrid, the eldest. Naturally, she was the most skillful dancer of the three, but she was also very rigid and polite. In all, he preferred dance with the children.

Then, he saw Tauriel. She was wearing the same green gown, and her hair was down as usual with just the two thin braids to keep it out of her face. There was nothing out of the ordinary about her appearance at all. Except she also happened to be wearing the gold chain about her neck. The gold chain which Kili won from the trolls so very long ago. The gold chain which Kili gave to her when they parted last. She was wearing it out and about. She liked it.

In a dream, Kili crossed the room to ask for her hand. She gave it to him with a smile. Dancing with her was like walking on clouds. All the world slowed around him, fading away. There were no other dancers in the reel. Only she existed. Her laugh was the only music he needed, and he won it twice. First with an overly earnest compliment about her dress, then with a speechified request for her to grant him a second dance later in the evening that would suit the propriety of any Proudfoot.

She agreed to save him the dance, though.

Before he could claim that second dance, he had to take a breath. He shared some cake with his brother, who stared at Thorin the entire time he was eating, as though shocked that he’d managed to marry someone so incredible.

Kili understood the feeling.

He also danced with Gimli, Gloin’s son, who was as light on his feet as any elf and only a few years younger than Kili himself.

After that, he judged it was not improper to beg Tauriel for the pleasure of her company once more. Naturally, she obliged. She was a tremendously honorable warrior, and would always keep a promise, but she seemed uncomfortable. Kili had the ominous sensation of being watched, and noted more than a few eyes around the room following their dance. Almost the entirety of the elven contingent had their attention focused on the dancers in a way that it had not been before.

“Your Prince Legolas is watching us,” Kili observed. Rather neutrally, he felt.

Tauriel blushed. For once, seeing it did not send his stomach fluttering. “My king does not approve of second dances.”

“Oh! I am terribly sorry. By my own customs one may dance as much as one wishes, and I only found out from Amâd that matters were different for dwarves tonight. I should have thought to ask what the elven custom might be. Would you like to quit the dance floor?”

Tauriel’s hand tightened on Kili’s briefly, then released him to return to her own line as the dance required. “I would not,” she said firmly. “Loyal to my king as I may be, some choices are not his to make.”

“I say!” Kili tried to be serious, but he couldn’t tamp down his grin. “If you will not be limited in your dance partners by the whims of others, than neither shall I. How about a third?”

“Why would I want to do something like that?” A teasing smile flirted with the edges of Tauriel’s lips.

“Because I’m the only person here other than Bilbo who knows how to dance properly,” Kili said with no little confidence. “The dwarves all stomp too much, the elves flit about like butterflies, and the men have no grace at all. It’s either dance with me, or dance with the children, which is at least good fun.”

Tauriel laughed. “Why then would you want to dance with me? Do I not flit about like a butterfly?”

“You float like a cherry blossom on the summer wind,” Kili said. One could not live their entire life with Bilbo Baggins without occasionally happening upon a good turn of phrase.

Tauriel gave him the third dance, and a fourth, and a dozen more thereafter until the musicians put away their instruments. Even then, he would not have parted from her, save that Fili dragged him off good naturedly.

“Elves may not sleep,” the prince said, “but the sun is rising beyond the walls of the Lonely Mountain, and you must.”

“You are my least favorite brother,” Kili said, but he allowed himself to be lead away.

Fili looked unaccountably pleased.

“I could never sleep now,” Kili said. “We are to go walking, you know. Out along the waterfalls near Ravenhill, I think. Is that not a good spot?”

“It is,” Dis said. “I’ve a little gilded map in my rooms to the best place to view the falls. I shall give it to you, that you and your elf may visit without a guide, if you promise to at least try to sleep before going.”

Sighing and much put upon, Kili agreed. Following his Amâd and his least favorite brother through the halls of Erebor to her golden chambers would have been much more enjoyable had they laughed at him less. Laugh they did, however, and tease, until Kili opened her door and found his arm seized roughly. A sharp knife pressed into his throat.

Chapter Text

When the door to his bedroom banged open, Bilbo Baggins was instantly aware of three things. First, that the usually silent dwarven doors were, in fact, made of rocks and could be far, far louder than ordinary wooden doors when striking a wall. Second, that Thorin made an excellent pillow, right up until he rose like a thundercloud, dropping unwary hobbits into tangled bedsheets. Third, he was still completely naked.

This last took swift precedence in his mind. Yelping, he scrambled to cover himself with a sheet as Thorin, clad only in thin, white trousers, hefted his oak shield from the bedside and went to the door.

Gimli, Gloin’s son, stood there breathing hard, as though he’d just run a terrible race. “The chambers of the princess, Prince Thorin. You must—” It made no sense. He was still wearing the fancy clothes from the wedding reception. Surely there had not been time enough for danger to come while Bilbo slept.

“Guard him with your life,” Thorin ordered, pointing to the bed. “Stay here.”

Muzzily, Bilbo wondered what he was meant to guard. There was no chance to ask, however, for Thorin took up Orcrist and was out the door without another word.

“He is not wearing boots,” Bilbo observed stupidly.

“No, Your Royal Highness,” Gimli said. “It’s a rather urgent matter. The princess—but, I am terribly sorry to disturb you on your wedding night.”

“I am not wearing anything at all.”

“No, Sir.” To Gimli’s very great credit, he neither blushed nor joked at Bilbo’s discomfort. Instead, he closed the door and turned around to face it with an ax in his hands. “Don’t trouble yourself on my account, Highness. I’ll just guard the door until Prince Thorin returns.”

Yawning, Bilbo slipped out of bed to pull on some trousers. “Not sure there’s a need for that,” he said. “I’ll pop into the kitchen, I think, and put a little something together for Thorin when he comes back.”

“A fine idea, Your Highness,” Gimli said, sounding a little surprised.

Bilbo tugged on a white shirt and his new green waistcoat, cut in the Shire style by an Ereborian tailor. It made a comfortable contrast to the formality of his earlier wedding clothes. Besides, he didn’t expect to be wearing it for long. Once Thorin returned, they would have a quick snack, and then—well. They were newlyweds. Surely a little more time abed wasn’t entirely out of the question.

“You can turn around now,” Bilbo said, fixing his cufflinks.

Gimli did so, keeping one wary eye on the door.

“Oh, really.” Chuckling lightly, the hobbit ran a comb through his hair. “All that ‘guard him with your life’ business wasn’t serious, you know. We had a very long day yesterday, and Thorin’s sister isn’t well. It makes sense that she might have a—well, an episode. Naturally, I’m very happy that you didn’t scruple to fetch Thorin. Must be much more pleasant and calming than anything a doctor might do.”

There was no response to this cheerful little speech. Turning to look at him, Bilbo saw that the young dwarf’s face was nearly as red as his beard.

“Gimli. What is the emergency in the chambers of Princess Dis?”

Hesitating, the lad said, “I don’t know I should rightly say, Sir. Da’ says you’re braver than any dwarf in the world, but you’re not much of a fighter.”

“I think you’ll find that it doesn’t matter at all what your father says. As a member of the royal family, I am giving you a direct order to tell me what is happening in the chambers of my new sister.”

“Frar has a knife.”

Racing out the door, Bilbo wasn’t sure how exactly he got past Gimli or the other armed guards standing in the hallway. He felt them chasing and grabbing for him, but their mailed hands were like soap bubbles on the wind: easily evaded.

An array of armored dwarves made a wall outside of Dis’s chambers, but Bilbo could see Thorin beyond. He saw Dis, weeping and begging. He saw big Frar with his red beard and bright eyes. And he saw the knife. Pressed to Kili’s throat. A thin rivulet of blood outline the sharp edge. On the first finger of the hand clutching the hilt, Bilbo saw his ring.

The Ring did not make Frar invisible. Instead, it seemed to make the dwarf more solid. Glowing red with heat, it scorched his skin black, and Bilbo could see that unreadable elvish verse shining along the band.

“—that only she should enjoy the work of our labor!” Frar was shouting. “I am the greatest gold smith in all of Erebor! In the world! I shall not submit to tyranny.”

“Take it back, then,” Dis sobbed. “Take it all back, only let Kili go.”

“The lost prince! As though he is worth any more than you. Just another thief! All of you! THIEVES!”

“I am not a thief, Frar.” Thorin took a half step forward, Orcrist low and at his side. “For my part in any wrongs done to you, I apologize. I would hope to redress them in friendship. There is no need for this.”

Bilbo made eye contact with Fili, creeping along the outer edge of the room. It seemed Frar was not paying attention to him.

“You are worse than a thief, Thorin Oakenshield.” Frar’s voice dropped to a rumbling sneer. “You would destroy a thing of beauty. Of magnificence. Of unrivaled perfection. Something so very precious: you would cast it into flames.”

Frar’s grip on Kili tightented, and the young Baggins cried out. Bilbo slipped between the legs of a distracted guard.

“It was not Thorin who wanted it destroyed,” the hobbit said.

“Bilbo!” Instantly, Thorin tried to step in front of his husband, as though his half naked body could prove to be a shield. The hobbit pushed him away, stepping closer to Frar and raising his empty hands.

“Thorin only sought to destroy the Precious because I asked him to,” Bilbo said. “I am the one who wants to hurt it. I still want to hurt it. I will take it from you. I have taken it from others before.”

Frar’s face twisted into a snarl. Lunging for Bilbo with the knife, he nevertheless maintained his hold on Kili, keeping the young Baggins between himself and Thorin. He did not see the flash of Fili’s ax.

Hand, knife, and Ring all dropped to the floor, along with a good amount of blood. Frar released Kili, screaming and clutching the stump of his wrist to his chest. Bilbo ran to his brother.

Hugging him quickly, the hobbit immediately began cleaning the wound with his white handkerchief. Thin and shallow, no worse than a papercut, really, it still made him very nervous. “Someone call for a doctor,” he cried, but a doctor was already there. Or at least, Oin was. He seemed to be the dwarven equivalent of a doctor, and he had poultices and bandages all around Kili’s throat in a trice.

“I’m fine,” Kili said. “Really, I’m fine. He didn’t cut me very much at all. I could have gotten free at any time, I just didn’t want to hurt him. He seemed rather unwell.”

“He is unwell,” Thorin said. “Though glad am I that Fili did not share your scruple about injuring him. Oin, see to Frar’s wounds. He must be imprisoned, and kept away from the Ring, but I would not have him die.”

Obediently, the old dwarf moved on to his next patient. Frar seemed pained enough to accept a potion from the healer, and that made him pliant, indeed. Putting him into some sort of drugged sleep, Oin quickly bandaged his arm with many dwarven salves and spells. Then he signaled to the guards to help bear the injured dwarf to some other place.

Thorin picked up the severed hand. Blood from the stump stained his fingers as he wrenched the Ring free from the fist, then dropped the limb back to the floor. Rubbing the blood from the Ring as best he could with filthy fingers, he lifted it up to the light.

“Yes, Frar was unwell,” he murmured to no one. “It is such a small thing, is it not? But it weighs on the mind. When you look upon it, other concerns seem to fall away. I would not have Frar punished for finding it too precious to destroy.”

Bilbo did not like hearing the word “precious” from Thorin’s lips.

“It whispers,” said Dis. “Do you hear it whispering? It wants me. It wants to come to me.”

“No, Sister,” Thorin said. “No, it does not want to come to you. That is your own weakness, like Frar’s. The Ring is too dangerous to be wielded by any but the strongest.”

“Gandalf said it should not be wielded by anyone.” For the first time, Bilbo felt how very true the wizard’s words had been.

“Yes,” Thorin agreed absently, still staring at the Ring. “The risk is great, but so it is with any weapon. After all of our work, after the greatest fires our forges could muster, there is not a single crack or stain upon it. Our arts cannot rival it. Does that not make it well made? Who then could call it unfit for the hand of a king?”

“So you’re giving it to your father, then?” Bilbo asked sharply. Thorin’s eyes blinked away from the Ring to look at him. “What other king might wear it, Thorin?”

Thorin blinked again, and did not answer.

“I think you should give it back to Bilbo,” Kili said firmly. “It is his. You’ve only failed him by not destroying it. Again. Or did you marry my brother to despoil him of his property?”

Blinking a third time, Thorin cleared his eyes. Swiftly, he placed the Ring in Bilbo’s outstretched hand. Closing his own fingers around it, Bilbo stuffed the thing into his pocket. Doing so immediately brightened the room, like a breath of fresh air.

“It must be destroyed.” Dis’s voice ground like gravel beneath the boulders of a mountain avalanche.

“It must,” Thorin agreed. “Yet the time has come to admit we have not the art to do so here. One who can carry it safely must be found.”

While Bilbo felt his own job of carrying the Ring had been anything but safe, especially through the dark of Mirkwood and the black of Dol Guldur, he said, “I don’t mind. I think, perhaps, it’s a bit easier for hobbits, since we never learned to care about gold the way dwarves did.”

Thorin’s eyes went sharp and his face paled. “We will find another. Our duty to Erebor is great in this time of an approaching storm. You and I cannot be spared for a journey into Mordor. We must remain here, to help our people weather that which comes.”

“Surely the storm has something to do with the Ring,” Bilbo argued. “If we destroy it—”

“Too many ears,” Thorin snapped, looking out at the platoon of guards still standing in the corridor, with burly young Gimli standing in their midst looking both contrite and openly curious. “We will consult my father and come up with a plan of action.”

Conceding the sense of this, Bilbo reached for Thorin’s bloody hand.

“It is still technically our wedding night,” he said. “How about a bath, a snack, and a return to bed first? We can deal with all of this in the morning.”

Smiling, Thorin pressed his lips to the back of Bilbo’s wrist. “That is the wisdom for which I married.”

And so that was what they did. When another messenger disturbed them in their bed barely three hours later with word of an approaching army, Bilbo almost expected the interruption.

Chapter Text

Kili’s throat didn’t hurt, but he slept rather poorly. It was not the bandages that itched the back of his neck nor the slight pressure that threatened to inhibit his breathing which kept him awake. Instead, he tossed in the darkness worrying about the gossip that would inevitably find its way to Tauriel’s ears.

When Frar attacked his Amâd in her private chambers, Kili did not play the valiant hero. Instead, he was once again rescued by his brothers. What had never bothered him a whit before troubled him that night. For it seemed to him that a warrior like Tauriel would only be interested in someone of like ability. Not a fellow who constantly needed saving.

Dressing with particular care in the green tunic that Bilbo most approved of, Kili decided to give breakfast a miss. His stomach was too twisted up for food. Tucking the little gilded map into his pocket, he hoped against hope that she might still be willing to walk out with him. In his other pocket, he put a little silver archer’s ring, which he forged some time ago with slender elven fingers in mind. Then he went forth to seek Tauriel.

She was standing outside his door.

“Oh!” she cried while he was still clutching the doorknob. Stepping past his guards, she gently touched his bandaged neck. “They told me you were wounded.”

“Yes,” he said, because her face was so very close to his. “Terribly, gravely wounded. On my death bed. Can only be cured with an elvish kiss.”

At that, she smiled. “Legolas is of higher stock than I, no lowly sylvan elf. For your healing, I will fetch him and ask that he administer the cure.”

“I’m fine!” Kili tore the white cloth from his neck. “See? It was only a scratch.”

Elegant fingers traced the thin line, and the amusement in Tauriel’s smile shifted to relief. “A scratch,” she agreed, “but one that really ought to be bandaged. Come.” Taking his hand she led him back into his room.

Instantly, painfully aware that he had no kitchen to offer her so much as a fresh baked nibble, Kili was at a loss. “Shall I send for tea?”

Tauriel laughed. “Sit down.” Once he did so, she spread a gentle line of salve across his cut and rebandaged it with some elvish cloth she had about her person. It was the work of a moment, though Kili would gladly submit to such ministrations until the mountain crumbled around them. When she finished, she pressed a small, soft peck to his cheek.

Grinning at her seemed the best way to pass the next hour. Tauriel’s smile was sweet, then broad, and it soon turned into a laugh.

“Prince, they say you are,” Tauriel cried, “but I know the truth. You, Kili Baggins, are a jester and a clown. Never in my life have I laughed so much as I laugh with you.”

Unaccountably pleased, Kili took her hand in his. “Then let us go walking, as we planned, my lady. We shall see if there is anything to amuse us at Ravenhill.”

Just as they rose together, the door opened and Fili came rushing in.

“Really,” Kili said. “We are walking out just now. There is nothing improper for which we need a chaperone.”

“An army comes,” said Fili. “Marching from Gundabad, they have been murdering ravens with swarms of their foul Crebain so we would not learn of their approach. Roac escaped the slaughter to warn us, but they are only hours away now. Worse, there comes a Black Rider ahead of their army, doubtless to sue for surrender, given their numbers.”

“What are their numbers?” asked Tauriel.

“As the stones on the mountainside, according to Roac. At least a hundred thousand. If every dwarf in the mountain could hold an ax, still they would outnumber us ten to one. And every dwarf in the mountain cannot hold an ax. Dale will stand with us, but it will not be enough.”

“Then it is as well that my king took heed of the messenger we welcomed from Rivendell ere we received your uncle’s wedding invitation.”

“Whatever do you mean, my lady?”

“Such is for my king to say. But you would be wise to ask him to hear this herald with you.”

“That has already been done.” Fili bowed. “And I invite you as well, though I am sent only to fetch Kili.”

“I will come,” she said.

And so they went.

Once again, Kili realized that being a prince involved a great deal of standing around looking dignified while waiting for other people to do things. In this case, he was expected to stand on the battlements of Erebor wearing some very nice armor waiting for the Black Rider to cross the fields before the mountain. Dis and Fili were beside him, both wearing heavy plate mail which was much more elaborate than the chain Kili wore. Bilbo, of course, looked finer than the kings in his lovely mithril shirt. He might have been attending a dance instead of a battle, with his pearl belt and his little coronet. Sweetly, he was holding Thorin’s hand. Not so much for reassurance, it seemed to Kili, but because the hobbit was obstinately clinging to the idea that as newlyweds, the world should stop interrupting their time together.

While they watched the lone rider crossing the plain ahead of the approaching army, the royalty upon the battlements watched many others enter the gates of Erebor. All the people of Dale filed into the mountain carrying baskets and bags of precious things they did not want to be despoiled. Carts full of provisions came as well. Within the mountain, all would be safe, and they could last that way for a very long time.

Kili remembered how secure he’d felt fighting the goblins beneath the Misty Mountains.

Reaching out, he took his Amâd’s hand. He did not do so out of obstinance.

Unlike his brother, Kili had a friendly appreciation for horses. One had to, to be a blacksmith in a place like Hobbiton where farrier work constituted nearly half of the local need. Tall as the beasts were, Kili never felt overawed by them. Instead, he respected a well looked after animal, and was quite used to the muscles of a plow beast. Strange, then, that he should hate the Black Rider’s horse on sight.

Something was very wrong with it. Not the way it galloped across the plain, for its stride was very like any other horse, but the way it moved, twitching and stamping when still. Its eyes were red, and seemed to be aflame. Beneath a barbed bit, the horse’s mouth foamed like a mad dog. Kili knew—just by looking—that to try to shoe such a horse was to be bitten. A kick from it would be deadly to a hobbit, perhaps even to Kili himself, for it was nearly twice the size of any other horse he’d seen in all his travels.

Upon its back, the rider wore black robes and dark armor. Tall as a man or elf, Kili could not tell anything more about him than that, for he seemed faceless within an empty helm. He did notice that Gandalf drew in a sharp breath when the rider approached, and that the elven king put a hand upon the hilt of his sword despite the great height of the battlements and the impossibility of direct conflict with the rider.

“Is the Black Land so weak that no herald could be found?” Gandalf called out. “Do generals now ride courier there?”

The rider laughed. It was an awful scraping sound like flint over chalk. “I lead my army from the front, old man. What is there for me to fear within this mountain? I shall crack the husk and find my prize soon enough.” His voice was like wind blowing across the open mouth of a tomb.

“By what right do you make war upon our mountain?” Thrain demanded. “Who are you?”

“I am an eternal king, little dwarf, and a servant of the Great Eye. Prepared as I am to make war, that may yet be avoided. Lord Sauron has no desire to obliterate the helpful, and Mordor has ever been friendly toward the obliging. For a tribute of gold and steel, along with a few other trifling incidentals to be named upon your surrender, our two kingdoms may enjoy a long and prosperous friendship.”

“The dwarves of Erebor do not bend our necks for the iron collars of orcs,” said Thrain. “Return to your own land, and we will let you go in peace. That shall be the whole of our mercy, and if you do not leave now, you shall not have even that.”

“The dwarves of Erebor are rats scrambling over a dung heap, and I extend no mercy to them now. King Thranduil, however, and his entourage may leave. Our business is with dwarves, and no elves of the Greenwood need suffer today.”

“Sooner would I trust a scorpion not to sting,” said Thranduil mildly, “than the safe passage of Mordor.”

“So be it.” The rider had no face, but Kili felt its eyes scanning the royalty on the battlement, as though looking for someone in particular. “Let the king of Mirkwood die with the kings of Dale and Erebor. All the North shall fall. I say to you, King Under the Mountain: try to stand against me and your mountain shall be rubble. Dwarves may think themselves stone, but stone can be ground into gravel. So will it be. None in this place could hope to face the Great Eye. None in this place could brave the Black Tower. Crushed before the might of Mordor, all will perish.”

“We are not afraid of you!” cried Bilbo. “So you can jolly well stop this nonsense at once!”

Once again, the Black Rider laughed his terrible scraping laugh. “There he is! Don’t you look fine in your crown and armor, Bilbo Baggins. Married to a handsome prince, I hear, and certainly dressed the part. What a dowry you must have given him.”

“Thank you for your congratulations,” the hobbit said coldly.

Kili wished he could stop his ears against the rider’s laugh. Each time, it carved into his ears and turned his skin to goose-flesh.

“I hope you have been very happy. After today, you will never be so again. You alone will survive the destruction of Erebor, Bilbo Baggins, once the slaughter of each and every living thing within the mountain begins. A promise was made to you in Dol Guldur. That promise will be kept. You will not die, Bilbo Baggins. You will never die. Throughout all the ages of the world, from now until the end of time, you will beg for the release of death. It will never, ever be granted.”

“A dark threat, indeed,” cried Thorin, “had you the steel to carry it out! Erebor stands against you, foul creature. You will not have him!”

“You must be the husband.” This time, Kili did cover his ears against the terrible laughter. He was not alone, and so many folk then realized that nothing could stop the rider’s voice when it wanted to be heard. “Thorin, called Oakenshield, prince of Erebor, slayer of Smaug, and hero to Durin’s Folk, is that not so?”

“It is so,” said Thorin. “And before the day is out, I will add another deed to my name.”

“You will try.” The rider did not laugh, but looked up at Thorin in what seemed to be a thoughtful manner. “Yes, let us start with that. Your death will precede the slaughter of the rest, so dear Bilbo Baggins is not too numb to feel the force of it. Face me now in single combat.”

“What terms?”

“If you kill me, my army will depart,” the rider promised. Kili did not believe the promise for a moment, and he saw that no one else upon the battlements did either.

Even so, Thorin said, “Agreed. Yet I need time to prepare for such a battle. I will face you at noon.”

This time, the rider’s laugh went on for so long that Kili felt his head cracking open beneath the assault. “That precaution will not save you, Thorin Oakenshield. My master grows in strength, and so do I. Nor will your own power be at its zenith beneath the noonday sun, dwarf, whatever you believe. But I agree to your terms. A few hours will only whet my appetite.”

So saying, the nasty rider withdrew, trotting back toward the approaching army.

“He is the Witch-king of Angmar,” Gandalf said. “No man can defeat him in combat.”

“Thorin is a dwarf,” Bilbo said sharply, “and we do not need your naysaying here.”

“It buys time for further evacuation.” Thorin glanced at King Thranduil. “Treachery may be expected, but he seems the type to toy with us as a cat may do with a spider. Yet he will find our flavor poisonous indeed.”

“Indeed he will,” said Thrain. “The might of Erebor musters, and witch, king, or wraith, he shall choke upon it.”

Kili looked out from the battlements toward the army swarming over the plain. They covered the ground like ants, seeming more numerous than pebbles on a riverbank, and a grave uncertainty filled his heart.

Chapter Text

The Witch-king of Angmar was the Lord of the Nazgûl and the Black Captain of the armies of Mordor. Wielding one of the nine rings of power given to mortal kings in the Second Age, he was a ghastly, undead wraith. Not only a mighty sorcerer beyond the understanding of the modern world, he was a fell warrior of old. When Angmar waged war against the splintered kingdoms of Arnor near the beginning of the Third Age of the world, the elf lord Glorfindel prophesied, “Far off yet is his doom, and not by the hand of man will he fall.”

That was a shame. Not the bit about a nightmare from the ancient world being real and out to kill him. Bilbo was growing rather used to that sort of thing. Far more unfortunate was the fact that Glorfindel made the prophecy in the first place. Getting to know Glorfindel in Rivendell had been a pleasure. It was truly regrettable that Bilbo was going to have to kick him in the shins at their next meeting.

“You cannot fight him in single combat,” Bilbo said, very sensibly.

“It bought us time,” said Thorin, looking pointedly at King Thranduil of Mirkwood. “Three hours we might not have had, and far more than that, it is to be hoped. Perhaps my hand cannot kill him, but trust my ability enough to believe that I can keep him busy. Hopefully, for as much as another hour.”

“Another hour.” Thranduil looked up at the sun, but he said nothing further.

Thorin nodded.

“My son accepted the challenge, and he will win it!” Thrain butted his head against Thorin’s with a force that belied his many years. “Speak not of doom before Thorin Oakenshield takes to a battlefield.” Then, in a lower voice that could be heard only by Thorin and Bilbo, he added, “but risk not beyond the gamble you already make. As soon as you feel the tide turn, signal us and we will come. If he cannot be defeated, then he cannot be defeated, but we will keep him off of you.”

Again, Thorin only nodded.

“Perhaps I should go with you,” Bilbo said inanely. What could a hobbit do to an evil being so much older than even his own homeland?

At least the idea animated Thorin. His whole face turned to his husband, flushing red with something unnamed. “You must stay with your brother and the other archers.” Stepping in close, he pressed a subtle hand against Bilbo’s breast, where the Ring now hung upon a chain. “Remember what is truly important, husband.”

Grabbing his beard in both hands, Bilbo pulled Thorin down into a fierce kiss. “This is what matters to me. This is the only thing that matters to me. Everything else can go hang.”

Thorin chuckled a little, a small, forced thing. Then he kissed Bilbo again with rough, desperate passion. When their lips parted, still he remained close, pressing his forehead to his husband’s.

“How dreadful it is, that you must love a prince,” the dwarf said softly. “How terrible that I must be one. Duty calls us each to different roles: me to guard, and you to be now guarded. I beg you to serve, for love of me if for no other reason.”

“For love then,” Bilbo said, with bad grace. “But if you do not return to me, Thorin Oakenshield, I make no guarantees of my conduct.”

“Then I had best return.”

“Yes, I think you better had,” said the hobbit, kissing him again for good measure.

“It is time.” Gandalf’s voice was not unkind. Indeed, the compassion in his eyes was so great that Bilbo could not bear to look at him. Allowing himself to be lead up to the battlements with Kili, the hobbit watched the doors of Erebor open and the dwarven army march forth with Thorin at their head.

In their perfect lines and rows, the dwarven army seemed to number like bricks in a wall. There were more soldiers in the army of Erebor than there were people in the Shire, Bree, and all the lands in between. Each dwarf wore full, bright armor and carried a sheild. In addition to their battle axes, many carried long spears, which meant that the blood and fighting could happen a long way from their bodies, on the other side of those sturdy shields. They seemed even safer than a wall.

Until Bilbo’s eyes rose, and he saw the orcish horde.

The orcs did not line up so much as sprawl like pebbles on the mountainside. They covered the land in darkness despite the noonday sun, a swarm of ants pouring over a picnic, turning every ridge and crevice black by dint of their presence.

“I thought they hated the light.”

Gandalf was not there to answer, but King Thranduil was. All the elves of his retinue lined up with the archers, where they would not need to be in such direct danger, but could still help the fighting below.

“They hate it, yes, and it weakens them. Despite what the Witch-king may say, dwarves do not hate the noon sun, for all they might see in the dark. Yet these Gundabad orcs will be at half strength fighting in this light. I wonder they do not hold stalemate until nightfall.”

“Won’t the dwarves attack if they do that?” Kili asked.

“They will,” Thranduil said, “if I may judge King Thrain by his past campaigns. Yet they would be disadvantaged to do so. A charging army has momentum, but the defending army has pikes and a shield wall.”

Since Bilbo was only vaguely familiar with martial tactics from his reading of history, he didn’t quite comprehend the significance of this. Even so, he knew enough to say, “Perhaps they want something in the mountain very badly.”

Taking his eyes from the armies below, Thranduil looked directly at Bilbo. “Yes. Thrain spoke to me, but said little. Dwarves keep their secrets. Will you tell me what they seek?”

Bilbo did not put a hand to the Ring beneath his shirt. He remembered the way Thorin looked holding the Ring, and that even the white wizard, friend of Gandalf, had been corrupted by wanting it. “Something which the Lady of the Golden Wood deemed a danger to her people, and so refused.”

Thranduil nodded his acceptance and looked out over the armies once more. “Good,” he said. “I would not like to think all of this was for one of the paltry seven.”

Thus Bilbo understood that his words were enough to enlighten the elven king beyond his intention.

“Legolas.” Thranduil did not look at his son, but his words were a hard, incontrovertible order. “No matter what, stay with the new prince consort. He must not fall into the hands of the enemy under any circumstance. Your death is acceptable, in his defense.”

The elven prince bowed in acknowledgement of this order, but Bilbo heard the red haired elf beside Kili gasp.

“Your death is most certainly not acceptable,” he said, looking from the father to the son with an expression that only just managed to convey how appalled he was by the concept. “No deaths are acceptable.”

Legolas smiled at him. “If only it could be so, in war.”

Bilbo looked out over the assembled armies once more. “It’s going to be fine,” he said, but he did not believe it.

Below, Thorin strode forth from the dwarven ranks. Across the divide, the Witch-king came. When he was not astride his dark horse, Bilbo saw that he was a giant, easily half again the height of an ordinary man, taller than even the elven king. For the first time since that initial meeting outside of Bag End, Thorin Oakenshield looked small to the hobbit’s eye.

“I give you one final warning wraith!” Whatever power made the Witch-king’s voice audible to all listeners seemed to work upon the field. Either that, or Thorin’s voice was simply so known to Bilbo’s heart that distance could not quiet it. “Leave Erebor now, or face my sword.”

The Witch-king only laughed. From his cloak grew a dark, spreading cloud that seemed to reach for Thorin. From the army at his back, five darting arrows shot toward Thorin.

“Treachery!” Bilbo screamed.

Legolas and Tauriel both fired arrows from the battlements, striking down two of the black darts. The third and fourth were caught by Thorin’s deft use of his fabled shield. Which meant only one dart struck the prince. Surely one dart was not enough to hurt a hero who survived a dragon. But as soon as it pierced his shoulder, Thorin Oakenshield crumbled to the ground unmoving.

Bilbo could do nothing but scream as those around him shot arrow after arrow down at the Witch-king, striking only the dark cloud which enveloped him. The monster loomed over Thorin.

From the dwarven army, a white flame shot out. It struck the darkness of the Witch-king, seeming to dispel his cloud a little. Only a little. Even as the white flame burned before him, the cloud around the Witch-king roiled like steam from a kettle. He laughed. “Is that the best you can do?”

Looking down, Bilbo saw Gandalf slumping heavily against his staff. The wizard did not answer.

“That has cost him,” Thranduil said, unnecessarily.

Even so, the wizard’s working was not for naught. Around Thorin and the Witch-king, orcs and dwarves clashed together in fierce battle. Arrows from Kili and the other archers felled any orc that approached the fallen prince. Bands of men from Dale stood with the dwarves as well, guarding the flanks of their force with long spears and grave faces. The armor they wore was of dwarven make, and their weapons were equally as fierce. As the orcs attempted to swarm around the dwarves, engulfing the smaller army and pressing them back toward the gates of Erebor, the spears of Dale held them back.

King Thrain bowled into the Witch-king with his mighty ax. Unhurt by this attack, the dark giant was nevertheless pushed away from Thorin by sheer force of momentum.

“Come not between the nazgûl and his prey, little dwarf,” the monster snarled. “You do not want my attention. You will not survive it.”

“Nor do I fear it,” said Thrain. “Coward! You knew you could not best my son and so resorted to base treachery.”

Swinging his giant mace in one hand, the Witch-king set the broadsword in his other hand aflame. “I win my battles, King of Dirt. I cannot be killed. Will you say the same? Stand against me, and you shall die.”

Bilbo could not see the faces of the dwarves so far below, but he imagined Thrain smiled. He knew his father-in-law well enough to think that he did. Like Thorin, he was the sort to smile at danger.

“What better death for any dwarf than to face the evil one, for the tombs of all my fathers, and the salvation of my son?”

Thrain charged once more, putting himself bodily between the nazgûl and Thorin’s slumped form. The Witch-king swung his blazing sword. Thrain’s head and the Raven Crown went tumbling, spinning through the air, bouncing along the ground, before coming to rest beside Thorin’s shoulder. His headless body dropped, lifeless, still clutching his ax.

Bilbo could only stare in horror. He did not understand how it could happen so. How could the Witch-king once again be marching on Thorin’s prone, unprotected form?

Golden in the light of the sun which shone upon his armor, Fili stepped up. Brave, quick-tempered Fili put himself between his uncle and the monster. “You shall not have him!”

The massive mace of the Witch-king struck him across the chest, knocking him down like a bowling pin. Crushing him. He did not rise.

Kili howled beside Bilbo and one of his arrows made it through the dark cloud only to be blocked by the nazgûl’s flaming sword. Bilbo could not comfort him. There was no comfort to be had. Fili and Thorin were so still. Thrain was dead. The dwarves were outnumbered so dramatically by the orcs.

“Courage.” Thranduil’s hand was much softer upon Bilbo’s shoulder than a dwarven hand would be. Too large, too light, such a hand could give no comfort. Bilbo could barely see the elf through the veil of his tears. “Look: hope.”

At the back of the Gundabad army, coming down from Ravenhill, a great host clad in bright armor appeared. Their arrows flew straight and true, felling many orcs in the first assault. Half the orcs were forced to turn to face these new arrivals, relenting somewhat from their great press against Erebor.

“The elves?” Blinking away his tears, Bilbo saw that there was, in fact, some hope. Although the orcs still outnumbered elves, dwarves, and Dale men at least five to one, they were caught between the two forces. The unexpected appearance of the new army from behind caused panic in the orcish ranks, making them easily mowed down by the skillful elves.

“My people,” said Thranduil proudly.

Below, the Witch-king laughed. He raised his flaming sword. Down the Long Lake, great ships rose up like shadows. Black sails and dark wood made storm clouds over the water. Even in the distance, Bilbo could see swords flashing like lightning along the decks. Clearly, the attackers had reinforcements of their own.

“Despair!” the Witch-king crowed. “None can stand against the might of Mordor.”

From the ground before the nazgûl, Fili pushed up to his knees. “The mountain—” He got one foot underneath him. “Erebor—” Shaking, his other foot managed to join it, and he rose to stand. “Will never fall.”

Laughing again, the Witch-king only spun his giant mace. Some of the spikes were as big as Fili’s ax. The whole ball was the size of his body. Another hit would surely kill him. Suddenly, the chain snapped, the ball of the mace flying off into the orcish army, hopefully to crush many of the enemy.

There, in the middle of the swirling darkness was funny little Bofur with his silly mustache and the mattock he wielded instead of an ax. He seemed to be sitting on top of the handle, and Bilbo saw that the head of the mattock was pinning a single link of the giant mace’s chain to the ground.

“Faulty craftsmanship, that,” he said cheekily. “Should have gone with dwarven-make.”

Howling, the Witch-king struck him with the club of the mace. He flew through the air as the ball of the mace had. Bilbo did not see him land. Fili swung his ax, but it was parried by the flaming sword. A single kick sent him back to the ground. The dark cloud stretched out over all of them.

“You will not deter me,” the nazgûl shrieked. “No man may harm me. Your prince is beaten! Beaten I say, and all of you shall fall.” Once again, he loomed low over Thorin’s still body. Then he stiffened and rose as Dis wrenched her ax from his back.

Turning, he looked at her. Even if he had a face, Bilbo would not have been able to see the expression upon it.

“I’m hardly a man, am I? And no one beats up my brother but me,” Dis said, striking his head from his shoulders.

It did not bounce along the ground as Thrain’s had. Instead, it shriveled up like the scorpions had so long ago, unable to withstand the sunlight now that the dark cloud holding it together was gone.

“This battle is not won,” Thranduil said.

“No.” Bilbo saw the fierce, tall men pouring from the black ships to catch the elves between their assault and the orcs, mirroring the initial elvish assault.

Below, some of the nazgûl’s working lingered, because Bilbo heard the clattering of Dis’s ax as it struck the ground. Leaving Thorin, she sank to her knees beside Fili.

“Open your eyes,” she said. Bilbo’s heart broke to hear her. “Open your eyes, my son. Please. Your hand is not cold. This blood upon your lips is not much. Nor your own, I think. You have only bitten your tongue as you fell, perhaps. No, no, you are well. You are well. Open your eyes, Fili, and show me that you are well. It shall not be as it was before. I shall be the mother you so wanted me to be. I swear to you. Only open your eyes. No gold will touch my hand again, save the golden hair of my beloved son. Please, Fili.”

Losing their captain seemed to enrage the orcs, or terrify them. Wailing in hatred, they threw themselves at dwarf and elf alike with no regard for their own safety. By sheer numbers, they bore down the defenders. Then, in the distance, Bilbo heard the roar of a bear. Beorn crashed through the orcs, wrecking their lines and savaging them with tooth and claw. From the sky, golden eagles dove down upon the attacking army, lifting orcs high into the air and dropping them upon their fellows.

Fili and Thorin lay still.

Chapter Text

Orcs kept trying to take Thorin’s body. Kili shot them. He shot them over and over again. More came. The whole battle boiled down to the single field right in the center, where orcs tried to take Thorin away and dwarves tried to bear him into the mountain for healing.

Kili hoped it was healing. The dwarves were able to take Thrain from the field. Carrying him in state to a place where his body would not be ruined by stamping soldiers was honorable, but Kili did not want that for Thorin. He did not want that for Fili.

Amâd clung to Fili’s body, even as others lifted him up on a white stretcher. She wept. All of Erebor could hear her weeping. So all of Erebor heard Oin’s gruff, “He lives.”

With new hope, Kili shot the orcs who tried for Thorin’s body. All of them. Sometimes his arrow struck in tandem with another, and Tauriel or Legolas would apologize. It was not much cause for apology. No one was going to run out of arrows in Erebor. Dwarves too young or otherwise unsuited for battle refilled buckets of arrows at the feet of the archers. The only limitation faced by the archers was time and the possibility of fatigue, but Kili would never tire. He would never flag. Not while the orcs were so focused on capturing Thorin’s body. Most of the archers focused with the same determination, desperate to keep the swarm away from Thorin. It was, just barely, enough.

On the field below, Balin, Dwalin, Dori, Gloin, and Bifur formed into a wall between the leader of their Company and the orcs. With the archers filling in as mortar, dead orcs piled before them. The dwarves simply stood atop their defeated foes, holding the line. Finally, Nori and Ori were able to get Thorin onto a stretcher, dashing away.

A screaming howl went up from the orcs, who lost all sense. They did not seem to see the dwarves who stood in their way. Throwing themselves toward Thorin’s retreating body, they were cut down easily, yet the massive crush of their numbers might easily have born down the dwarves anyway without the great bear which joined the line. It crashed through the orcs in a monstrous, bloody manner. Kili had never been so grateful to see a wild creature in all his life.

“Are animals part of the elven army?” he asked Tauriel, hoping to come off as flippant. Likely, she’d seen many retaining walls built from the bodies of dead orcs in her time, and was therefore unmoved by the carnage below.

“No. The eagles are of Manwë, and we are blessed to be thus visited. Yet I know not whence came that bear. He is larger than any I have ever seen.”

“I sent him a wedding invitation.” Bilbo’s voice was a dazed whisper. Kili could not look at him, could not possibly see whatever expression lay upon his brother’s brow.

“Ah!” Kili managed a clever shot, pinning an orc by the throat to the chest of the orc behind it. Two for the price of one was always a good deal. “Your friend Beorn! I will be delighted to meet him. Shame he missed the wedding, but I’m sure Thorin will want to throw another party once we all win this battle.”

“Thorin is—”

“Safe in the mountain,” Kili said forcefully. “Oin will fix him up, right as raspberries.” He put an arrow through the eye of an orc trying to flank Dwalin.

“I have to go.”

Kili shot an orc through the throat. He wanted to go with his brother. Bilbo clearly needed the support. Yet he could do nothing down below. On the wall, he might make a real difference in the battle. By remaining at his post, he might protect all the injured brought into the mountain. Keeping them safe was important. It could turn the tide of war.

“I will go with you,” said King Thranduil. “Long decades have I been friends with the Dragonslayer. If I do not have the gifts of the line of Luthien, I am yet a king. It may be that healing him lies within my power.”

“Thank you.” Bilbo’s voice broke. “Please—”

He said nothing further.

Kili pinned the foot of the orc fighting Balin to the ground, giving the tough old warrior a chance to finish the job. He put two neat arrows into Dori’s opponent. Then, he put down his bow. Just for half an hour. He put an arm around his brother. Bilbo was shaking.

“I’ll see you there. Our friends have this well in hand.”

Tellingly, Bilbo didn’t argue. The hobbit just folded into his brother’s embrace as they followed the elven king down from the battlements. Bilbo felt small in Kili’s arms. Terribly small. Once they were inside the mountain, with the cries and clamor of battle shut out by thick stone, the hobbit’s trembling became more pronounced. Thranduil left them behind. Others rushed past in the broad corridors of the mountain, bringing arrows and water to the archers, bearing great loads that Kili did not recognize.

Down near the gates of the mountain was a vast, well organized room full of cots upon which injured soldiers lay. Healers passed among them working diligently. Kili did not see his family, nor King Thrandui. Fortunately, he and Bilbo were recognized at once and a tall young woman from Dale directed them to a different, smaller room off to one side.

“Thank you, Princess Sigrid,” Bilbo murmured, still half buried against Kili’s chest. “Your father fights well. Tales of his valor beyond the gates have surely reached you already, and his renown this day will live in memory forever.”

“So long as he lives as well,” she said with a wan smile. “I care not for his valor.”

Only then did Kili see past the streaks of blood on her face and clothes to recognize the proper woman with whom he shared a dance at Bilbo’s wedding.

Bilbo made a pained noise.

“Sorry!” cried Sigrid. “King Thorin lives yet. I am sure he lives.”

“Thanks,” Kili said, pulling his brother along toward the private room indicated. The sooner Bilbo saw Thorin breathing, the better.

Three cots were set within the room, but only two had occupants. Upon the first lay Thorin, pale and unmoving, with the elven king chanting over him as two other healers fussed above the second patient. Kili was astonished to see Dis lying there, almost as pale as Thorin.

“Amâd was not hurt in the battle,” he said. “She triumphed.”

The dwarf fussing over her looked up. “They say it is called Black Breath, Prince Kili. Any who struck to wound the nazgûl or breathed in that dark smoke which surrounded him have fallen thus.”

At once, Kili went to her side, taking her cold hand. Because she wore no armor, he could see the rise and fall of her belly, but she did not squeeze his hand. She did not react to his presence at all. “And Fili?”

“Still in the surgery. Evil magic is the least of concerns with him, after such a grievous blow.”

“Fear not,” said the other healer. “One of the elves in King Thranduil’s retinue was the Greenwood’s finest surgeon. She shall mend his body, if any can.”

Suddenly, a warm, homely smell filled the clean room, casting Kili back to the fields of the Shire where he played with baby Bilbo at their mother’s feet. Between Thranduil’s hands were bruised, nearly crushed leaves. The Baggins recognized kingsfoil when he saw it, though he considered it a weed. Had the scent always been so lovely?

“Wake, Dragonslayer,” the elf king commanded. “Your people need you.”

Thorin opened his eyes. “Bilbo?”

“Your husband is here.”

Like an oak leaf in autumn, Bilbo drifted toward Thorin’s bedside, almost swaying as he stepped, stopped, and seemed to float. “Thorin? Thorin, I’m here.”

Reaching for his hand, Thorin smiled. “I have not kept my promises to you.”

“But you will,” Bilbo said. “When all of this is over. When the danger is gone. I shall have my garden, and you your crown. Never doubt it.”

“Yes,” said Thorin. “When the danger is gone.” Then his eyes rolled shut once more.

Bilbo looked frantically up at the elven king, but Thranduil only smiled.

“Rest is needed now. Even an elf could not rise immediately after such a hurt. Let your heart rest as well, new prince. See how the pallor of poison is gone from his cheeks?”

In truth, it was so. Thorin’s skin was a healthy golden color. He no longer looked hurt, only asleep. Moving from one royal dwarf to the next, Thranduil proceeded to treat Dis with the same kingsfoil he had used upon her brother. It worked to the same effect. Her eyes pinched and squeezed. She spasmed and gasped in the throes of some nightmare.

“Wake, Princess,” commanded the elven king. “Thy enemy lies defeated, but thy kingdom remains in peril!”

She did not wake.

Thranduil beckoned Kili forward. “Call to her,” he said. “She has spent so long in darkness already. Stubborn dwarves will not heed elven voices. Let her hear her son instead.”

Not quite knowing what to do, Kili took her hand once more. “Amâd? Amâd, it’s me. Kili. Please wake up.”

And so she did. Her eyes fluttered open to focus on Kili’s face. “Fili?”

“He’s still with the doctors,” Kili reported dutifully. “But he’ll be fine. He’s Fili. Tougher than smoked mutton, our Fili.”

She smiled. A hand came up unexpectedly to cup Kili’s cheek. “Even if he is not,” Dis said, “I will not leave you. When I lost you, I left him. That mistake I’ll not make again. No matter what the voices in the darkness say. I do not belong to them.”

Before he could answer, she too returned to slumber.

Thranduil turned to one of the healers. “Show me to your surgery,” he commanded. “I will do what I can for the prince.”

Both healers hastened to obey, leaving Bilbo and Kili alone with the sleeping dwarves.

Kili didn’t know what to do.

Bilbo stood over Thorin, seemingly oblivious to the world. Dabbing a handkerchief to his husband’s brow, the hobbit smoothed the dwarf’s beard with gentle hands and arrange his hair softly against the white pillow. The scene was far more intimate and embarrassing than witnessing a kiss.

“You should go back to your friend,” Bilbo said softly, not looking away from Thorin’s face. “You were safe enough on the wall. The orcs cannot shoot so high. We are lucky they had no time to plan or prepare for this attack. Surely they would have siege towers and giants, were that the case.”

“Will you be alright?”

“What is her name? The elf with the lovely hair. I’m not sure we were properly introduced at the wedding. If we were, I’ve forgotten. Everything is happening so quickly. It’s all just a blur.”

“Tauriel.” For want of anything better to say, Kili added, “We were supposed to go walking out today.”

Sure enough, Bilbo looked up for that. “Walking out? With someone who I haven’t met!”

Kili’s face went quite hot and he looked down at his Amâd. “I’m older than you are. I can go walking out with anyone I please.”

“What possible reason could you have to bar me from meeting someone you’re sweet on? There must be something wrong with her.”

“No,” Kili cried. “Nothing like that. It’s only that you were so busy with the wedding. When we met in the Greenwood, you were not there. It’s no different than me not knowing your friend Beorn, really. As you say, everything seems to be happening all at once.” Kili blushed even more. He absolutely was old enough to go walking out as he pleased without regard to anyone else’s opinions on the matter. Even so, he added, “Amâd gave me her blessing.”

“Oh?” Bilbo calmed a little.

Fishing the gilded map from his pocket was a little tricky with all of his armor, but Kili managed. Presenting it to his brother, he said, “She even gave me this, so that we could walk together without any locals to guide us.”

Bilbo looked at the pretty map for a long while. Not only was the gold leaf quite lovely, but the details were incredible. Little etchings tracked every hill and creek around the mountain for miles, going west to the Greenwood and all the way south down the River Running.

“Isn’t it nice?” Kili asked, feeling terribly stupid.

“Beautiful,” Bilbo agreed. “Will you lend it to me? You must go back to the battlements with your Tauriel, to shoot your arrows and protect the mountain, but I should like to look at this. It will take my mind off things.”

It seemed impossible that Kili’s face might redden further, but it did so. “She is not my Tauriel.”

Bilbo actually smiled, meeting his brother’s eyes. “Not yet. But she’s a fool if she allows that state of affairs to persist one moment longer than propriety dictates.”

“Thorin is going to be fine.”

“Yes. He is. I look forward to meeting this Tauriel properly. The four of us can have tea.”

“I’ll introduce you,” Kili said firmly, because he was not remotely embarrassed by the proposition. All his life, Bilbo had only ever been a help to him when he was making a new acquaintance. Introducing him to Tauriel could only aid Kili’s prospects. “After the battle.”

For some reason, Bilbo hesitated. “When the danger has passed,” he agreed.

Kili moved to the door, still looking at his brother. Every minute he did not return to his archery felt like a gift he was giving the invading army. Each orc not felled by one of his arrows would have the opportunity to kill a dwarf. Yet tears streaked his brother’s cheeks, and fetching him tea seemed almost as wise as fending off their attackers.

“We’re here, in Erebor,” he said. “Happily ever after is right around the corner, you know.”

Letting the map in his hand fall to one side, Bilbo stroked Thorin’s beard once more. “I know.”

Chapter Text

Bilbo pressed a kiss to Thorin’s lips. Although his beloved was unmoved, his skin was warm and his mouth was soft, surrounded by that lovely bristle that made kissing the dwarf such a unique experience. Yet it was not a unique kiss. Thorin slept, as he had slept beside Bilbo so many times before.

“I will come back to you,” he vowed. “Once this danger I brought to your people is delt with, I am going to hold you to all of your promises, Thorin Oakenshield. Just you wait: I’ll pop up like a snowdrop in spring.”

So saying, he slipped away from his husband and out of the sick room.

Hobbits are very good at not being noticed when they take the trouble. Moreover, the entire mountain was working to support the war at the gates. Everyone not out in the fighting was helping the healers, or providing food, weapons, and other needful things. Most of the hallways Bilbo passed through were empty.

Bilbo packed his bag very quickly. An old hand at traveling and deprivation, he made sure to have his cast iron pan and his tinder box first. After that, he essentially filled the thing with walnuts, candied chestnuts, dried raisins, and a bag of oats which he had on hand in the kitchen for baking. Then he dumped the contents of his fruit bowl atop everything else, which would make for something nice during the first few days. He carried the water skins empty. Since he intended to stay with the river for as long as he could, keeping his weight down seemed most important.

Likewise, the weight of a bedroll or a change of clothes was an unnecessary encumbrance. Instead, Bilbo belted the brown cloak Beorn gave him over the mithril armor he was already wearing. Soft and sturdy, the cloak would serve him well enough for sleeping under the stars. With Sting on his belt, Bilbo was far more prepared to go than he had been upon first leaving Bag End. If his destination was far less enticing, and his company nonexistent, at least this time he knew what he was getting into.

He left.

Sneaking out of the mountain unnoticed was easy enough with dwarves running in and out with wounded folk on stretchers and battle clashing so very close to the front gate. Surprisingly, the battle itself was relatively easy to creep around as well. Between the dwarves, the elves, the men, and—most importantly—the eagles, the orcs had been pushed well back from the mountain. It seemed to be a matter of time before they were all slaughtered. Many of the piratical men from the tall ships were fleeing back to their vessels, though Bilbo saw that some of those were burning on the lake.

He was leaving, but he was not leaving his friends to die. Hopefully, the danger would follow him, anyway.

Sticking close to the mountain, Bilbo skirted along the outer edge of the battle without encountering a single enemy. Unfortunately, when he was past Dale and almost to the edge of the lake, he met a friend. While that meeting explained how so many of the ships were on fire, it did not bode well for the hobbit going off entirely unnoticed.

“Bilbo Baggins! In the name of all that is good, what are you doing outside of the mountain?”

Gandalf’s face was so stern that the hobbit regretted not putting on his ring to assist his departure. Despite knowing that it could only hide him from friends and lesser foes, not the truly evil creatures he ought to be avoiding, Bilbo thought it might have been useful after all.

“Er, shouldn’t you be closer to the actual fighting?”

Gandalf glared at him. “I was. Then I saw you.”

Unlike a hobbit trying to be stealthy, a wizard attracted attention wherever he went. Three orcs descended upon them. Whirling his staff and sword in a blaze of light, the wizard decapitated one, sliced open the belly of a second, and knocked the third to the ground by hitting it in the back of the knee. Bilbo finished that one off with Sting.

“If you must know,” the hobbit said, “I am going on an adventure.”

Gandalf looked down at him once more. “Alone?”

“I have a map.”

“You have a map of ways into the Black Land, through the impassible gates, beyond mountains created to contain a darkness you yourself cannot possibly comprehend?”

“Well, it’s mostly of the river and how to get there. I shall figure out the rest when I come to it.”

Five more orcs broke away from the battle to attack them as the wizard laughed. Bilbo only managed to defend himself with Sting, but that was all right. He provided sufficient distraction so the orcs could not overwhelm Gandalf with their numbers. Instead, the old man was able to handle them all at his convenience.

“My dear friend, you will not have to. I know many secret paths into those lands.”

“Only, I did rather think to go alone,” the hobbit said weakly. “I brought this trouble to Erebor. I should be the one to fix it.”

“Oh, you were not going alone in any case.” The wizard laughed again. “Is that not so, Legolas?”

From the high rocks behind Bilbo, an elf vaulted down, landing lightly and with no apparent effort. “My father has commanded me to see the hobbit’s errand done, though I know not the nature of that errand.”

“Well, I un-command you,” Bilbo said. “It’s too dangerous.”

As if to prove his point, more orcs rushed their position. Legolas dispatched them before they arrived with an arrow for each, right through the eye. Even Kili couldn’t have done it. “I fear no peril.”

“We might as well bring him along,” said Gandalf. “I know Legolas of old. He’s a very useful fellow to have at your side in a tight corner.”

“I am not bringing you along! There is no we!”

Naturally, the argument drew more attention. Over a dozen orcs broke away from the main fight with a great bear right behind them. Massive, slamming paws dispatched the invading soldiers from behind. Snapping, dagger lined jaws ripped entire heads from orcish bodies. Into this furious assault, Legolas shot a few more arrows. So it was that only one orc actually made it to their little group, easily slain by Gandalf.

The bear could not speak, but he sat in front of Bilbo, showing the hobbit his back in a very pointed manner.

“Thank you, Beorn, but no. I’m not going back to the mountain, much as I appreciate your offer. It is lovely to see you again. Even in such dreadful circumstances.”

The gigantic bear cocked his head to the side, meeting Bilbo’s eyes like a confused pup. He made a gentle, curious sound.

“All of these orcs are after me, you know. After something I found. I have to go destroy it. Then—” Bilbo paused. “Then I can come home to Thorin.”

One would think that the low growl of a bear could only be threatening, but Beorn simply sounded sad.

“One of the ships of our enemies would be the fastest way,” Gandalf said. He indicated a smaller craft that had an intact mast and no scorch marks. “If it could be cleared of the pirates.”

Beorn growled, leaping into action. Legolas raced after him, shooting the pirates and the orcs indiscriminately. It was probably for the best, both of them returning to the battle. They were terribly good fighters, and would help put an end to things quickly.

However, “I have no intention of taking a boat.”

Gandalf raised an eyebrow. “You said yourself that the quickest route on any map leads down the river.”

“I’m going to walk alongside it. Like a sensible hobbit. Not take a boat like some sort of—some sort of—Brandybuck!”

“Bilbo, be reasonable. This will be much faster. Where is your sense of adventure?”

Gaping, the hobbit did not even notice the company of orcs bearing down on them until the wizard was spinning his gleaming sword to sever limbs from bodies.

“My sense of adventure? My sense of adventure?”

There were too many orcs this time. Bilbo found his back pressed against the rocks. Although he wielded his glowing Sting to the best of his ability, he could do little but dodge his attackers. He was painfully aware that he would not be able to dodge forever, and Gandalf seemed unfortunately busy.

Footsteps pound against the stone and earth. A cry of “Du Bekar” echoed off the rocks behind Bilbo, ringing from the onrushing dwarves. Orcs surrounding the hobbit fell in sprays of blood and bile, one after the other. Behind one geyser of blood was Nori’s face and a spinning knife. The next revealed young Gimli, but only briefly. His ax soon found another target. Unlike Dori, who took plenty of time to chide Bilbo.

“You’re supposed to be safe in the mountain!” the fastidious little dwarf cried. “What will King Thorin say?”

Unfortunately for Dori, Bilbo knew the answer to that very well. “Thorin would say that duty comes first.”

“You’re a hobbit! Your duty is to be safe. My duty is to keep you that way. Come along, Nori and I will see you back to the mountain. Ori is already there with an arrow to the calf. He can keep you company.”

Distracted as he was, Dori didn’t notice the orc rising over his shoulder. He must have seen Bilbo’s horrified expression, however, because he turned. He turned, and was thus stabbed in the gut instead of the back. As he floated through the air, his sword came up very slowly, slicing the orc’s throat clean across from one end to the other. Blood oozed from the wound, rather than gushing. The cloth hem of Dori’s armor fluttered in the wind. It had such a lovely pattern.

Then he hit the ground. The orc fell atop him. Someone screamed. That was probably Bilbo.

“In your defense.” Dori’s eyes were as grey as the clouds above. “For Erebor.”

Shoving the orc away, Bilbo pressed a hand to the dwarf’s wounded belly. Everything was sticky with blood.

“Dori!” Nori tore open some sort of vial and poured the contents over his brother’s bleeding stomach.

“Don’t waste that!” Dori scolded. “Leave me. Get the prince-consort into the mountain.”

Nori’s blood spattered face twisted in pain, as though he was the one with a gut-wound. “Dori.”

“Get your brother into the mountain,” Bilbo ordered.

Clearly torn, Nori looked from his injured brother to the husband of his king. Straightening up, the hobbit tried to look confident and capable of doing more with Sting than simply waving it about.

“I’m fine,” said Bilbo. “I’ll stay with Gandalf. I promise.”

“You have a duty,” said Dori. He lifted a hand to cover his cough. Red dwarven blood mingled with the black orcish bile which previously stained his fist. “Forget about me and do it.”

Nori chose his brother. Lifting the wounded dwarf, he met Bilbo’s gaze steadily. “Remember, if you get killed, Thorin will probably put us both to death.”

Bilbo grinned. “You’ll just have to chance it.”

“Gimli!”

Wrenching his ax free from the fallen form of a particularly large orc, the young dwarf turned to Nori and saluted. “Master Nori?”

“Stay with Bilbo,” the dwarf ordered. “Get someone else from the Company to talk him into doing the right thing. Your father, if you can find him.”

“Yessir,” Gimli said, saluting briefly before bowling into yet another orc ax first.

Without another word, Nori sprinted off toward the mountain with his brother still shouting about duty and negligence.

Bilbo looked up at Gandalf and sighed. He had promised, after all. “We’re taking a boat, then?”

Chapter Text

Kili stayed on the battlements. Long after all the orcs were dead or fled, Kili stood at his post. Every other archer save Tauriel went down into the mountain. They would rest and help the wounded. Kili could only watch.

Down below, dwarves piled the bodies of the orcs to be burnt. Fallen pirates were tossed into a pit and would be buried all together. Just piling up bodies was so much work, but it had to be done. One could not leave corpses to rot on the doorstep, after all.

There were no corpses in the Shire. Hobbits died one at a time. Only a phenomenal tragedy would take two folk at once. There was no need for a plural. One simply used names. An awful fever took Lily and Bill Cotton one winter. Brother and sister were buried side by side on the green hill when spring came. Kili hadn’t known them well, but he made a silver wreath for the grave all the same, embellished with lilies and rosemary for remembrance. All of Hobbiton mourned. It was a devastating sorrow, to lose two members of the community at once.

Each dwarven body on the field was born into the mountain upon a white stretcher, as if missing heads and pallid skin were wounds to be treated by a healer. Kili did not know their names. He did not know the names of any of the Dale Men or Greenwood Elves who were born respectfully by their own people, either. He knew the name of Thrain, his grandfather, and he hoped against all reason that he knew the names of no other fallen heroes.

Tauriel took his hand. There was no joy in the gesture. There could be no joy in such a place or time.

“Is it strange that I remember him?”

“In memory, we honor the fallen.”

Without feeling it, Kili smiled. “That is not how I remember him. All I have of Adâd are nightmares. I don’t remember Amâd at all. When I try, I just see my mother in her place. But Udâd? He used to sing to me. I remember it so well now. His arms were warm. His face was funny. I remember him.”

“He was your grandfather.”

“He was.”

“What did he sing?”

All the screaming was at an end. No wounded soldiers cried out for aid. No more deceptive orcs leapt up from the bodies of the dead to attack the unwary. The burning ships smoldered and sank into the lake. Other fires dwindled to ash. Kili sang.

“Slumber sweet my golden boy
Let fall your burdens and your toys
Diamonds, emeralds, rubies fine
Anything you like is thine
Stars that dance like fireflies
Crystal jewels adorn your eyes
These the dreams I wish for you
All that’s beautiful and true

Sleep so deep my golden boy
Leave all your cares and all your joy
Beneath the mountain rest your head
There’s no fear and naught to dread
Enter now the land of dreams
Troubles only as it seems
Something now to leave behind
Gentle rest you shall soon find”

Tauriel said nothing as the last notes of the lullaby lingered in the air. Smoke and death wafted up from the battlefield below toward the grey, cloudy sky. Even the sunset was muted, not gold or red, but pale white on the dark horizon. In all the world, there was only silence.

“Your brother asks for you,” Balin said softly. He stood in the stairwell at Kili’s back. The young Baggins knew not how long he stood there. Even so, he was glad of the summons. If anyone could make sense of so much pain and death, if anyone could help Kili understand his own feelings, it was his brother.

With Tauriel at his side, Kili descended once more into the mountain. Passing through the rows of cots, he marveled at how many were still full. After so much time, those whose injuries were light ought to have gone home. Indeed, he saw a dwarf with a bloody stump in place of her left leg leaning on two young, beardless children to help her along. It was better to rest and recover in comfort. Within the mountain, no dwarf’s home was far. Then he noticed most of the occupied cots did not shake with fever or writhe with pain. Instead, they were covered with silver cloth. Shrouded.

“So many?” He stopped walking.

Balin’s strong, calloused hand landed softly on Kili’s shoulder. “And not a one who would have chosen any other death. Erebor is our home. Here are our children and our elderly. Here are our crafts and our history. Here are our teacups and our memories. For each and every dwarf who fell, Erebor was Bag End. Can you not understand their choice?”

Tears spilled from Kili’s eyes unhindered. “I can understand and wish it had been otherwise all at once.”

“Aye lad,” Balin said, pulling him into a warm embrace. “As can I.”

Only one of the three beds in the smaller sickroom was occupied, for Dis sat at Fili’s side, holding his hand. Fili’s skin was sallow and pale beneath his beard, but his eyes were bright and grew still brighter when he saw Kili.

“Brother.” His voice was weak. The hand reaching out to Kili trembled with exertion. “Brother, I must ask you—”

“Anything.” Crossing the room quickly, Kili took the hand in both of his own to warm it.

“Teach me to shoot arrows from a safe position,” Fili whispered. “I cannot bear the valor of actual combat.”

Astounded, Kili punched him lightly in the arm before laughing. The hands which grabbed him then were weak. Tossing Fili to the floor would have been terribly easy. However, Kili happily allowed himself to be put into a headlock.

“You were a bit brave,” he admitted. “I should have liked to be down there with you.”

“I am very glad you were not,” said Dis. She looked so well that Kili barely recognized her. Apples blushed in her cheeks which had never been there before, and there was a light in her eyes which gave him great heart. Clearly, there had been heroes enough to face the evil. Kili was honored to be the son of the greatest of that number.

“Thorin wouldn’t allow it,” Fili said plainly. “If you were in the crush, there’d be no keeping Bilbo out.”

Giving a pointed nod toward Thorin’s empty bed, Kili said, “I suppose they’re back on their newly-wedded agenda?”

Dis frowned. “I know not. My brother and I rose at the same time. We broke our fast together. Thereafter, he left to find his husband while I waited here for Fili’s surgery to end.”

Kili’s stomach lurched. “Bilbo was not here when you woke?”

“No.”

“He was on the battlements with you,” Fili said.

“Only until Thorin was brought into the mountain.”

“I’m sure he is resting,” Tauriel said soothingly. “It was a trying day for all, especially those who have not known war before.”

Kili wanted to believe that. In his mind’s eye, he could almost see it. Bilbo, exhausted from the grief of so much loss, violence so far beyond the scale of anything a Shire childhood could prepare someone for, curling around himself in his marriage bed. Thorin, newly healed and healthy, would join him there. They’d do the things that Kili did not think about regarding his brother. Or they wouldn’t. Perhaps the newly married couple would simply hold fast against the tragedy. Thorin would bury his head against Bilbo’s chest and weep for his father as Kili used to do so many nights after Bungo passed. Kili knew well that Bilbo was an expert at the art of comforting.

Yet if that were so, why would Bilbo not wait with Thorin until he woke? Kili tried to think of reasons that would be sufficient to keep his brother from his side in a time of such grief. None came to mind.

As if on cue, Thorin appeared in the doorway. “Kili.” Worry smoothed from his brow. “There you are. Uninjured?”

“Yes.”

“Where is Bilbo?”

Kili could not say. He wanted very much to believe he did not know. How did Bilbo put it? Kili promised to introduce him to Tauriel when the battle was over, but that was not Bilbo’s plan. “When the danger passed.” That was Bilbo’s plan. How stupid Kili had been not to understand his own brother’s meaning! How foolish to give him a map! Bilbo was gone. Hero or not, he was gone to a place from which there was no coming back. Where the Shadows Lie. Where eight more of those terrible wraiths waited for him. Where the Eye watched all roads. How could Bilbo go alone?

It was Kili’s fault, of course. Kili spent his entire childhood waiting for Bilbo to fight the battles. Waiting to be protected. Now, when the danger was at its greatest, Bilbo was off to face it alone. As he always had. To protect his brother. Selfish tears pricked Kili’s eyes. He was always so selfish. So safe. Everyone around him fell, Bilbo walked in darkness alone, and Kili remained behind unhurt.

Tauriel embraced him. At any other time, it would have been a joyous occasion. Kili took no pleasure in it now. “We will find him,” she said soothingly. “I am sure he is perfectly fine. He was not in the battle.”

“Every able bodied dwarf is to join the search.” Thorin’s eyes were wild. Balin’s face was worried.

“He’ll be with the wizard.” Nori stood in the doorway. His arm was in a sling and a bloody bandage ringed his upper arm. “Dori and I found him on the battlefield. When Dori took that gut wound, nearly died I might add, we left him with the wizard. Best protection a hobbit could have, since Dori wasn’t up to the job anymore.”

“What was he doing on the battlefield?” Thorin demanded.

“Gandalf went with him?”

For the first time, a spark of hope kindled in Kili’s breast. Gandalf’s magic could make the impossible come true. Perhaps, with the wizard to light his way, the darkness of those terrible shadows would not be entirely impassable.

“Went where?” Whirling on Kili, Thorin looked as desperate as the Baggins felt.

Kili met his eyes. “You know where.”

All color left Thorin’s face as he slumped against Fili’s bed. Balin reached out with both hands to steady him. Shrugging him away, Thorin began pacing the room. “I must—no. The army—we can’t. A messenger—a raven—he won’t listen. He won’t come back.”

“He will.” Swiping at his own eyes with a clean handkerchief, placed in his pocket by his brother, no doubt, Kili tried to give Thorin hope. “You’ll see. He’s Bilbo.”

“He doesn’t lose,” said Thorin, but it was not an agreement. “You forget, Kili. I know what your brother will do against overwhelming odds. I have known it since our first meeting. I do not doubt his triumph. I do not doubt that he will do what he must to save those of us lucky enough to have his love. I only know—”

Thorin said nothing more. What could be said to the memory of the Gamgee Still? What argument could be made that Bilbo might value his own life and happiness over others? He never had before.

Burying his face in Tauriel’s shoulder, Kili wept shamelessly.

“He’ll be fine,” Nori said. “He’s with the wizard. They’ll be just down by the lake finishing up the fires. Gandalf won’t let any harm come to him.”

“Nori.” Balin silenced the dwarf with a word.

“There must be something we can do to aid them,” said Dis.

Balin shook his head. “Dori took his wound six hours ago. The wizard can travel at speed with only Bilbo for a burden. No dwarf could hope to catch them now.”

“Gimli was with them as well,” Nori said. “I ordered him to stay with Bilbo.”

“Gloin’s son?” Something distant flickered through Dis’s eyes. Gloin was her cousin, her neighbor, and her close kin. Yet she did not know his son. The years of his life were spent in a golden haze, but that no longer clouded her vision. Despite the desolation filling his heart, Kili reached out to take her hand in his.

“Aye.”

“Ravens,” said Thorin firmly. “I know they were hit hard by the crebain, but the healthy must go South. Determine Bilbo’s position. Tell us who is with him. Bilbo alone might be hard to spot, but surely the wizard can be found.”

“The sun has set, my king,” Balin said respectfully.

“At dawn then.” Thorin grit his teeth. “They must go at dawn.”

Chapter Text

Shafts of sunlight pierced through the grey clouds, sparkling upon the icy water of Long Lake. At a distance, all looked placid and calm, but a cold wind whipped harshly against Bilbo’s cheeks. Above, black sails billowed. The deck of the ship creaked alarmingly as they skipped along the surface of the water, bouncing like a stone.

Once, in Buckland, Bilbo’s cousins teamed up with Kili to force the hobbit into a rowboat. It had been an anxious, uncomfortable hour, but it was nothing compared to the way the sailboat rocked and swayed. Part of him was sure they would tip into the lake at any moment, but Legolas and Gandalf seemed to know their business. Leaving them to it, Bilbo lay down in the center of the deck where the dips and bobs were least noticeable.

Gimli sat beside him. “Poorly designed contraption, isn’t it? Dratted uncomfortable, too.”

Smiling weakly, Bilbo agreed. “I have never been fond of boats. What can be the point, really? A fellow may fish perfectly well from the water’s edge.”

“Aye, that you can, Sire. So maybe we should be heading back soon. Smart to get out on the lake away from the battle. Very safe. But it seems like that’s all breaking up now.”

For the first time, Bilbo really looked at Gimli. Although he had a great, wild mane of fiery red hair like his father, he had no beard at all. Little curling muttonchops trailed down from his ears like those which might be worn by a Stoorish hobbit, but he did not even have the hints of stubble Kili proudly sported. He was young. Younger than Kili.

Sitting up, Bilbo patted his knee. “We’ll drop you off at the far side of the lake, my boy. Perhaps Beorn will be kind enough to see you home. You do not know the journey I am undertaking, and you cannot possibly be prepared for it.”

Gimli’s jaw set. Beard or no, he looked very like his father. “I’m to guard you.”

Behind Bilbo, Beorn stretched, rising up on his hind legs. Receding fur became hair. Muzzle shrank into a nose. Sharp claws grew into strong fingers. So the bear shifted into a man. Surprisingly, this change in posture did not materially affect the position of the boat in the water. Bilbo wondered a bit at that, since the giant man was somewhat smaller than the massive bear. Then, he thought of pumpkins much larger than goats which nevertheless weighed quite the same when placed on the measure at the Hobbiton Free Fair. After that, he considered the burden of the Ring, pulling on the chain about his neck like a lodestone in the presence of the Witch-king, and how it weighed next to nothing now that he was gone. Some things in the world were beyond a hobbit’s understanding.

Bilbo put a hand to his breast, reassuring himself that the Ring had not escaped.

“Once, I sent you alone into danger, little bunny,” Beorn said. “Now, I am a coward.”

“My friend!”

“I am a coward,” the skinchanger repeated, cutting short Bilbo’s objection. “When you are home with your Thorin, I will be one no longer.”

“Beorn.” Bilbo’s heart broke. “I cannot go home. It is as I said upon the battlefield: danger dogs my steps. If I go to Erebor, another army will soon follow me.”

“I think it no bad thing to add two such doughty warriors to our company,” Gandalf said. Tying off the rope in his hands, he seemed to take them in all at once, from Legolas at the prow to Beorn at the stern. “Truly, it is a wonder that a group so quickly formed in battle happens to have one of each of the free peoples of Middle Earth. Such a thing cannot be chance. No more than a hobbit beneath the Misty Mountains can be chance. Each of us has been chosen for this task, Bilbo Baggins. Just as you were.”

Sick at heart, Bilbo flopped backward to the wooden deck. “I did not ask to be chosen.”

“No, you did not,” Gandalf said. “But as you were going to fulfill the duty without aid, I do not see why you would complain about it to me.”

“Mithrandir.” Prince Legolas spoke with great respect, although part of his attention was still on the sail and the lake ahead. “Will you tell us now of this great deed? My father understood it, but I do not. To be of aid, I would know our ends.”

Looking up at the grey sky, Bilbo wondered why no rain fell. Occasionally, water sprayed up from the side of the boat to soak his traveling cloak, but the clouds did not break. Some clouds only blotted out the sun without doing anything useful like watering the garden. High overhead, he saw a flock of ducks. Against the grey, they had no coloring, but from their rapid wing beats he knew them to be waterfowl. Winging away from the coming cold, ducks had no care for war or darkness. Hunters, hawks, and bad weather were all a duck knew to be wary of. Despite those dangers, every year ducks made a circuit of the world. Every autumn saw them go, and every spring saw them return.

“Bilbo.” From the tone of Gandalf’s voice, the hobbit knew it was not the first time his name had been said.

“Sorry.” Bilbo sat up. “What was that?”

“Let our companions see the Ring.”

Drawing it forth from beneath his traveling cloak, Bilbo felt the Ring grow heavy in his hand. Chain bit into the hobbit’s palm as the Ring whispered to his companions, daring them to steal what was so very precious and powerful. Quickly, Bilbo stuffed it back beneath his shirt.

“This vile thing which burned the hand of Frar—greatest goldsmith in a mountain of goldsmiths—and drove him mad, we shall destroy,” said Gimli.

Bilbo saw Legolas and the others staring at Gimli with something akin to amazement.

“Yes,” the hobbit said. “You have seen it before, Gimli. You know what it can do. You know why I must destroy it. So too, you must understand why it would be best for me to go alone.”

“Nay, Sire,” said the young dwarf. “Allow me to set aside all of the respect and love in my heart to disagree with you but once. In all other things, you shall command me, for you are husband to my king and I am your servant. In this, however, I must beg to remind you of the danger of this errand. To enter the Black Land is to risk death. Loath am I to admit that such a failure in my duty could occur! My greatest hope is that I should give my own life to prevent that calamity. Even so, we must admit the possibility, with all the forces of darkness arrayed between our small company and the Cracks of Doom. If you should fall, there must be another at hand to finish the journey.”

“From the voice of youth I hear great wisdom,” Legolas cried. “Let us all swear together to see this errand done and the Ring cast into fire, yea though it costs our lives to do it.”

But Beorn said, “No. I will protect the hobbit. I will not touch the Ring.”

So too, Gandalf refused the very idea of taking up the Ring if Bilbo should fall. In fact, he lectured the elf and dwarf quite sternly for the thought. “Take care to search now your hearts to see whence your desire for the task comes. If it be only that glory should fall to you instead of Bilbo, the folly of youth may be forgiven. Yet if you find a desire to hold the Ring in your possession, better you leave us now than betray our cause later for such lust.”

Greatly abashed, Legolas and Gimli both apologized. Leaving all mention of the Ring aside, they swore up and down to die in Bilbo’s defense ere thinking of the greater quest. This, in turn, annoyed the hobbit.

“Unless you can all swear to take no injury in this adventure at all, I shall leave you behind!”

Naturally, the others laughed at this, which put him in a very ill humor. Between his mood and the rocking of the boat, he entirely ignored Gandalf’s suggestion of tea time. After the battle and nearly an hour of sailing, the others were all happy to help themselves to Bilbo’s provisions, but the hobbit himself took nothing.

This, at least, convinced Gandalf that he was not simply pouting. Producing a flask from beneath his cloak, the wizard offered it to Bilbo. When opened, the scent of fruit and flowers briefly cleared his nose of smoke and death, overwhelming even the smell of fish and weeds which rose on the wind from the lake.

“That is the miruvor of Rivendell, a cordial of great potency,” Legolas said, staring at the flask.

“I do not think I could stomach strong liquor just now,” said the hobbit, though he wished it were otherwise.

“Try,” Gandalf ordered.

Thus pressed, the hobbit took a small sip. Warmth flooded his body, soothing his lurching belly and calming his nerves. Bilbo scowled at the flask.

“I was rather enjoying my foul mood,” he said.

“I know.” The wizard smiled.

“I was only married just yesterday. I can be in a snit about having to go so soon.”

“You can.” Gandalf’s face was not entirely devoid of compassion.

“And it would serve you right for making us sail if those boats behind you were full of pirates.”

At once, Bilbo’s four companions leapt into action. Legolas, shamed to have a hobbit spot what he himself was too distracted to see, quickly reassured them all.

“They are the boats of the Lakemen from Esgaroth. We near that place now, and it is not strange that those folk should come out to challenge us.”

Gimli put away his ax and Beorn paused in the act of growing fur to reverse the transition. Gandalf, however, did not lower his staff.

“I wonder they challenge us now when they did not challenge the pirates as they came to make war upon Erebor,” Bilbo grumbled. Soon, he had cause to regret those words.

As the boats drew nigh, BIlbo saw many scratches, splinters, and burn marks upon the wooden hulls. These were not ships of war, but barges and fishing boats. Meant for moving barrels and hauling fish, the boats of Esgaroth bore no weapons. The men carried long hooks and fishing spears, but they too were much the worse for wear. Many sported bandages and mean looks.

When Legolas called out to them, those looks faded and the weapons fell away. Elves of the Greenwood were no pirates. Though the Lakemen were confused to find one upon the ship of the enemies who had so recently passed by their village with such cruelty, they accepted Legolas’s explanation of an important errand down the river whence the pirates came. Drawing up alongside the faster craft, they asked for news of the battle. As Gandalf told them Thorin was now king in Erebor, Bilbo shrank deeper into his cloak.

“What other tale of the battle can you tell us?” one of the Lakemen asked.

“Only my own,” said Gimli, “which is thirty-eight orcs cut down by my ax.”

“Thirty-eight!” cried the man. “Surely not! For you are little Gimli, Gloin’s son, who plays Dragons-and-Villagers with my children whenever he comes to trade.”

“Aye, I am he. More, I would play with thy sweet children even now and count it a pleasure, Ivor. That changes not the truth, which is that I come victorious from great battle. Straight from that great battle, if you please, and unprepared for the journey which I now undertake. You see that one of our number is not even clothed due to the circumstances of our departure. If Laketown could supply us now, I would give you a letter to bring my father for generous compensation. Indeed, since I did not see him before going, he will likely reward you handsomely merely for news that I am well.”

Happy to oblige, especially given the honor in which they held Gloin of the Company, the Lakemen brought them many things. Some, like trousers for Beorn, a tinder box for Gimli, additional rope for the boat, and stores of smoked fish, were necessary. Others, like a shirt for Beorn, casks of ale, small tools, and a strange food called cram, were unasked for, but might later be appreciated. Finally, there were some things like boat hooks and fishing nets which seemed entirely unnecessary, yet refusing the kind Lakemen would be churlish. Gimli took down a careful accounting of each item in a letter to his father.

“Normally, I would not deliver this. A good meal and help on your way is little enough to share with a friend,” said Ivor, “but I think perhaps after the dangers of the last day, your father will be glad of news.”

“That he will,” Gimli agreed. “And I thank you for carrying it to him.”

Bilbo considered writing a letter of his own to be carried back to the mountain, but he decided against it. There could be no point in long farewells, or expressing the desire not to be followed. Likely, Kili would follow. Hopefully, Thorin would put a stop to that. Just as Thorin would not venture after Bilbo. A king could not leave his mountain, and with Thorin, duty always came first. That was a great comfort, but it made any letter full of flowery abjurations of assistance disingenuous. Thorin would not come. Bilbo would not pretend to believe he might. If only Thorin would keep Kili safe, the hobbit wished for nothing further.

“Will you not stop the night in Laketown?” Ivor asked. “We are happy enough to ferry supplies out in this way that you need not pause your journey, but there are barely two hours of light left for sailing. Surely a bed in our town and an early start would serve you better than another hour of travel only to sleep on a muddy bank.”

“Nay,” said Legolas. “We shall journey through the night. Elven eyes see as well by starlight as by sun. The river holds no perils for us, save only those enemies we might meet along our way.”

“Then I hope you meet them not.”

“Ah, but if we do, the ax of Gimli the dwarf shall save us.” Those elven eyes of Legolas’s sparkled with some mischief. “Thirty-eight is a tale well told.”

“It is, indeed!” The men all agreed, and soon there came a parting of ways as the Long Lake narrowed into a rushing river.

With the miruvor still settling his stomach, Bilbo could not blame his discomfort at the bouncing rapids on sickness. Instead, he was forced to own his fear at the pace, depth, and breadth of the water. Even if he could swim, he could never swim in such speeding water. And as he could not swim, if the water were as calm as a lake, he would never make it to the bank. Beorn put a comforting hand on the hobbit’s back and offered him a cup of their newly acquired ale.

“Then don’t fall in.”

This was very sensible advice, and the hobbit was so upset with Beorn for giving it that he became quite cruel. “Who exactly is looking after your friends while you are off on this adventure, sir?”

“My friends.”

“The sheep can hardly pump water from the well themselves,” Bilbo said. “And the ponies will soon be wanting hay with winter on the way.”

“My other friends,” said Beorn. “A farmer’s daughter will come. I spoke to her.”

“Oh?” Bilbo’s nose twitched, sensing a story. “Does she have a name?”

“Inge.”

“What’s she like, Inge?”

“Sturdy.”

Bilbo laughed happily. “High praise indeed! I see that she must be a great friend of yours, Beorn, and I suspect her of a good nature as well. I should very much like to meet her one day.”

Beorn did not blush, but it seemed to be a near thing. “Yes,” he said. “She is kind. Birds like her.”

“And there can be no recommendation as high as that,” Bilbo agreed. Then, he sighed. “Perhaps you should go home to her.”

“I will,” Beorn said. “After.”

“After.” Looking back, Bilbo could only see the very peak of the Lonely Mountain dropping into the Long Lake. The bouncing river bore them too swiftly away.

That night, Bilbo slept very fitfully, wrapped in his brown cloak and curled against the fur of a great bear. Every so often, he would open his eyes, hearing the laughter of the Witch-king, only to see calmly blinking stars. The noise proved to be the rushing river and, once, Legolas singing softly. So the hobbit tried to sleep.

Waking in truth, sometime shortly after dawn, Bilbo saw leaves above as they passed beneath the eaves of a forest.

“The Greenwood,” said Legolas. “The Celduin visits my home for a short while here.”

“Yes.” Drawing the little gilded map from his pocket, Bilbo saw that they were very near the Old Forest Road. “Yet if that is so, it took Gandalf and I five days on horseback to cross the distance we managed in a single night!”

“You may not enjoy sailing, Bilbo Baggins,” the wizard said, “but under Legolas’s practiced hand, we are managing seven knots, nearly eight on some stretches of the river. A horse might be faster over a short distance, but a boat does not neet to rest or water. What we did in a day with a horse, we do in four hours upon the river.”

“A pity, then, that the River Running cannot race all the way to Mordor,” Gimli said.

“A pity indeed,” Gandalf agreed, “but another day on the water will save us much walking.”

And so, breakfasting on smoked fish and cold potatoes from Laketown, the continued. As it turned out, travel by boat was just as dull as traveling silently on horseback. At least, it should have been without Legolas to sing, Gandalf to smoke, and Gimli to talk. The young dwarf was a very good conversationalist, especially for one of his years, and far more educated than Bilbo expected.

“It is all my cousin Balin’s doing,” Gimli confided, “from the pointed turns of my runes to the way I wield an ax. He made a hobby of me from the first. Says that nobles just sitting around courts need hobbies now and again, especially as he has no intention of children of his own.”

“Even the ax?” Bilbo was somewhat surprised. “Surely studying with Dwalin would be more useful there.”

But Gimli said, “Nay. I have been privileged with a lesson from Captain Dwalin upon occasion, and even your honored husband once or twice, but Balin is my teacher. No matter how much he complains about old bones, I will have no other.”

“Is that wise? Could not a more dexterous master teach you more?”

Gimli laughed. “So my own father has said, and many times too! Sadly, I have not the gift granted so many of Durin’s Folk: the great strength which comes in battle through anger or wounds.”

“That is no great loss,” Gandalf observed. Until that moment, he watched the trees warily, but Gimli’s words drew his attention. “With such strength comes a loss of intellect and control. Better to keep your wits than to fight with abandon.”

“Whether that may be or no,” Gimli said, “I shall never equal my great kinfolk in style or strength. So I must have some wit, and my cousin Balin is the most equipped to teach it to me. He is a legendary warrior among my people, you know, and very wise.”

“Indeed I do,” Bilbo agreed warmly. “Many were the books and conversations we shared during our winter in the Shire.”

“I beg you to tell me of them, that I might learn from you as I have done from my cousin.”

Very much aware that Gimli was trying to cheer him up, Bilbo nevertheless gave himself over to a pleasant discussion with the silver tongued young dwarf. From literature, they passed easily on to music, art, and, quite suddenly, birds. A raven landed on the prow of the ship.

The note on its leg was perfectly simple. Just three words. “Bilbo, come home.” Home was Erebor now. That was indisputable, after a wedding. But home had never been a place to bring troubles. Troubles were for Bree or to be hidden away in garden sheds. Home was a place to protect. To keep pure.

Bilbo wrote, “I will,” on the back of the note, and sent the raven away once more.

After that, the little fellowship sailed in silence.

Chapter Text

Thorin was crowned before all the mountain with even more grandeur and ceremony than the wedding. Kili stood beside him with Fili while Dis placed the crown upon his head. Everyone else knelt, and the three of them bowed. After, there was a great feast celebrating the new king and glorious victory in battle. Compared to the solemn funerals of the day before, it was rather beautiful. Unfortunately, it was nothing close to what Kili wanted to be doing, which was chasing after Bilbo with all speed.

Through the long preparations for the ceremony and especially during the feasting, he heard whispers. People wondered where Bilbo was. They said he was injured. They said he was dead, but Thorin could not bear to entomb the body alongside his father. They said the king trusted only elvish healers with a hobbit’s wounds. They said Oin of the Company alone was allowed to touch Bilbo. They said Bilbo ran off like a coward, afraid of the reality of wedding a dwarven king. They said Bilbo was not wounded at all, but was tied up in Thorin’s chambers to prevent his flight.

People said a lot of stupid things. Kili had not realized that dwarves could be such gossips, but he thought of the Hobbiton rumor mill. He supposed that people were people wherever you went.

“I would appreciate if your healers did not deny treating Bilbo for injuries if asked,” Thorin said to Thranduil.

One king nodded solemnly to the other across the oblong stone table of the council chamber.

Other than Tauriel, the elven king, and Dis, the meeting of Thorin’s council was entirely his Company. Fili sat in a special reclining bed, which was carried about by Bifur and Bofur. They were the least injured of the entire company. Somehow, the ax blade which had been embedded in Bifur’s skull for his entire acquaintance with Kili had been removed in the battle. Therefore, while others took injuries, the great fight actually healed Bifur. Bofur was not quite that lucky, though he’d been very lucky indeed. Apparently, the miner fell to the Black Breath shortly after his encounter with the Witch-king. While this meant he ventured closer to death than any other member of the Company save Thorin and Fili, it also meant he had only a few bruises made by his own armor during his little stint as a golf ball. Seeing him lying still on the ground, none of the orcs bothered to drive a blade home to finish the job.

His brother Bombur had not been lucky at all. Like Fili, Bombur was not walking about as usual. Although he did not need others to carry him, his left leg was gone below the knee and he hauled himself about on two walking sticks called crutches. Balin said the dwarves of Erebor would soon craft him a new leg, which would be a great improvement, though it would never be quite the same as his natural one.

Balin and Dwalin only had cuts and bruises between them, though Kili overheard a healer telling Dwalin he would be lucky to keep his eye. According to the rumors, which Kili knew better than to listen to, one of the elves was needed to draw some poison from Balin’s cuts as well. Oin and Gloin were in similar condition, though one would never know it to look at Oin’s craggy, care worn face. All through the council, he alternated between grumbling over Fili and scowling at Dori’s wounds. He seemed to believe that neglecting either one of them for long would lead to calamity.

Like Fili and Bombur, Dori had a special accommodation. His was a wheeled chair, pushed by his brother Ori. Despite taking an arrow early on, Ori was very nearly hale. Nori was a little worse for wear, but Kili wondered if that had more to do with Dori’s obvious displeasure than the sling about the dwarf’s arm.

“Would you like my healers to look in upon your beloved in truth?” Thranduil offered with a small smile.

A small twitch in the corner of one eye was the only indication that Thorin did not appreciate the elven king’s gesture. “I have asked you here to give you news, King Thranduil, though I have no doubt sources of your own have shared as much with you. My bravest raven, Roac, reports that Bilbo, your son Legolas, Gandalf, Beorn, and Gimli son of Gloin, have made good time down the River Running. Their boat is a sprightly craft, and they will soon be far to the south, beyond our reach for good or ill.”

“Which do you think it is?” There was something cruel about the curve of Thranduil’s smile. “Good or ill? Your father confided not the nature of this battle to me.”

Thorin took a deep breath. “We must trust that it is good. Bilbo bears the One Ring to the Cracks of Doom. If he destroys it, the Enemy which threatens us with war will be cast into ruin as well, according to Tharkûn—Gandalf. We must trust the wizard’s wisdom.”

“And help,” said Kili. “Obviously, we’re going to help, right Thorin?”

“He has been given help already,” Thorin reported. “Gloin has had a letter from Laketown, detailing supplies offered to his son by those good people. Our friends are well equipped for their journey. The expense of that equipment will, of course, be discretely repaid to you by the crown, Gloin.”

“Nay,” said Gloin. “It shan’t. Camping gear and food for my own son? If I can not send him on this quest with feasting and a proper farewell, I’ll at least know that my own gold put a little food in his belly.”

Nodding in acceptance, Thorin looked as though he might move on to some other topic.

Kili didn’t let him. “I mean real help. You and I must go after him to help.”

Thorin did not meet Kili’s eyes. “That Bilbo has taken this task unto himself is a deed of great heroism. In seeing how Frar fell to the influence of the Ring, he understands that any who accompany him on this venture might eventually become a danger to it. Therefore, the wisdom of travelling in a small party is plain. Tharkûn is powerful. I did not witness the bear in battle, but by all accounts Beorn, too, is strong. The feats of Legolas Greenleaf are well known, and young Gimli is incorruptible. I have every faith that they will achieve their goal.”

Thranduil nodded, as though this was very wise. Kili couldn’t believe his ears.

“He’s your husband!”

“He will come back to me.”

“We have to go after him!”

“He will come back to me,” Thorin roared, standing up so quickly that his hands cracked the massive stone table. Instantly recollecting himself, Thorin met Kili’s eyes for the first time. “Bilbo is beyond our help. We could not hope to assail the Black Gate with the might of Erebor if our army numbered ten times the strength we had but a week ago, and we have not even that much now. Most of the valiant here are wounded. Stealth is the best hope of getting the Ring into that evil land, and the hobbit can manage that best with few companions. More, that Bilbo alone is unaffected by the call of the Ring is clear evidence that powers greater than the one which created the Ring are at work. Mahal will guard him and guide him.”

“The Valar do not act in Middle Earth,” Thranduil said. The coolness in his voice seemed to affect every dwarf at the table, all of whom took great offense. Seemingly oblivious, the elf said, “I believe there is a will much greater than your Lord Creator at work.”

As Kili struggled to remember Bilbo’s lessons about Valar and the history of the world, all of the dwarves settled back into their various seats. Whatever the implications of Thranduil’s words, they seemed to appease everyone. Thorin even looked grateful. Kili was not.

“Bilbo is going to the land of nightmares,” he cried. “This is Mordor, from which all bad fairies spring. If he were here, he could tell you a hundred vile names for the place, and a thousand wicked stories which originate there. Surely you cannot trust to fate to see him through. We must give him help!”

“I agree with Prince Kili,” King Thranduil said unexpectedly. “Fate can only triumph when coupled with bold action. We cannot join the hobbit on his quest. Indeed, you are wise to let the rumors of his injury within the mountain spread. You would be wiser still to give some indication that you yet hold the Ring, as the Enemy so clearly believed in battle.”

Thorin nodded gravely. When Kili made to object once more, Thranduil held up a forestalling hand.

“What we can do is draw attention away from the true quest. Other plans are already in motion to do so.”

“What do you mean?” Thorin stared hard at Thranduil. “Who knew what Bilbo planned?”

For the first time since their council began, the elven king met Thorin’s eyes with a kind, almost gentle manner. “I suspect any who know you well, Dragonslayer. All must know that you would not wed with one who put himself before others. Though perhaps being from the other side of the Misty Mountains, my chief informant knows your husband better than I. When he sent me word to expect an attack on Erebor and to hie my army hence to aid my allies, Lord Elrond of Rivendell told me also that his folk intend to join a greater alliance still. The might of Lorien and Rivendell shall soon attack Mordor, drawing the attention of the Eye.”

Low murmurs echoed around the council table, but a sign from Thorin silenced them.

“Elrond sent forth from Rivendell one who should be able to garner men for the cause from Gondor and Rohan. We shall see what strength there may be in the arms of men after the failing of the line of Isildur. What I know is that the strength of elves will draw the Eye. Sauron is recently settled in Mordor. He has not had time to build up his army there. What strength he has is from growing fat in my kingdom, at the expense of my people, in darkness and secrecy. For that crime alone, I would destroy him.”

“Yet that destruction is not in our power,” Balin said quietly.

“Nevertheless,” said Thranduil, “My army marches as soon as can be.”

“And I will join you!” Kili cried. “If I cannot join my brother as he ventures into Mordor, it seems to me that attacking from another front to draw attention away from him is the next best thing.”

Thranduil had eyes only for Thorin. “None would draw attention as you might, Thorin Oakenshield. It is clear from the words of the Witch-king that Sauron believes Bilbo gave the Ring to you as a marriage-price. It is clear from the actions of every orc on the battlefield that capturing you was the main intention of this attack. If you were at his gate, Sauron’s eye would not look elsewhere.”

Thorin took a deep breath. Then another. When he finally spoke, his voice was barely a whisper. “I cannot.”

Amazed, Kili leapt to his feet. “Can you not? Will you not come to the aid of your own husband, if not the entire world? Was my brother so deceived in your character as that?!”

“I am a king,” Thorin said. “My people suffer. My army is ravaged. Dwalin will lead every healthy soldier capable of the march to accompany you, King Thranduil, but I myself cannot go. My kingdom is too damaged to lose another king.”

“My kingdom has suffered long beneath the shadow.” Censure filled Thranduil’s voice. “Still, I came to your aid.”

“With one son.” Thorin looked down at the table, his own voice full of nothing more than exhaustion. “Your eldest son is not here. Nor did your second accompany you, only the youngest. Many are the warriors you brought, and I thank you, but more, I think, did you leave behind to guard your own people. So too, I know you have fewer people to guard. How many elderly among the elves of the Greenwood are incapable of raising arms in their own defence? Dwarven children may be rare by the count of men, but rarer still are babes in the Greenwood. Have you a hundred folk below a hundred years of age? No. I have not the luxury of ruling as you might. I have too many who depend upon me for protection, and I have no son to leave as regent if I go.”

Fili straightened up in his bed, though it made him very pale to do so. Balin shook his head, and the prince fell back once more. A dwarf with so many injuries that he could hardly rise under his own power could not be expected to rule a kingdom. When Fili was well, perhaps he could take the job, but until then Thorin was stuck.

“You have a sister,” said Dis.

Light entered Thorin’s eyes and color filled his face. “I have.”

She smiled. “Therefore, I think, you have a regent.”

Thorin laughed, a loud boom that echoed through the chamber with more relief than joy. “So I do,” he said. “Forgive me forgetting!”

“Oh,” she waved him away nonchalantly. “Go be heroic. It’s what you’re good at.”

Chapter Text

In those days, the lands south of the River Running were called the Brown Lands, for nothing grew there. At first, Bilbo attributed this to the yellow grass, crisp with frost, which was so long and curling that it tripped up everyone save Legolas. No road went through those lands, and so the companions crossed fields and rolling moors simply by heading south. After a few days of walking, even the grass dried up and vanished. Then, Bilbo truly understood the nature of the Brown Lands, which were arid desert with only the barest hint of scrub brush.

Often, Beorn would heft Bilbo onto his shoulder. Since he was also carrying the better part of their supplies, the hobbit always protested. He was also always secretly grateful that Beorn paid no mind to his token objections. For the companions traveled at a much quicker pace than a hobbit would by himself, and Bilbo tired far sooner than his long legged companions. Although it pained him to be a burden, the hobbit was intelligent enough to know that anything which sped their journey was worth his personal discomfort.

“Why are these lands so brown?” Bilbo asked as they stopped by a merry little brook babbling incongruously over the rocks. “There is water enough, and they are not particularly warm.”

“Once, they were the greenest garden in all of Middle Earth,” Gandalf said. “Greater in splendor than even the Shire, every fruit and flower ever to grow blossomed in these lands. Here in days of old walked the Ena, and in their footsteps all was green. They tended to their gardens with a care you would know well, Bilbo Baggins, but they were not like hobbits. Reflected in them was the spirit of their charges. When the War of the Last Alliance came to these lands in the Second Age of the world, the Ena vanished. Sauron burned the land ahead of the Alliance, that there might be no provision for them as they approached his gate. Some say the Ena burned as well.”

“I have never thought it so,” Legolas said. “Well do I know the tales of the Ena and the Ena-husbands hidden in their trees. Such legends of happier times are shared freely in the Greenwood. Our people say the Ena fled Sauron and dwell even now near the Sea of Rhûn.”

“So say many,” Gandalf agreed, “but I have been to the Sea of Rhûn, and met many people there. I did not meet the Ena.”

Legolas sighed, and for some time the group plodded over the rocky ground without speaking. Bilbo thought it was strangely foresighted, or at least serendipitous, that Sauron had destroyed what provisions a green land might provide his enemies so many centuries ago. Although the land provided water enough, their packs grew lighter every day with no way to replenish the food within. Already, the fresh bread and fruit given them by the Lakemen was gone. Smoked fish, dried oats, and cram remained, but most nights the companions chose not to build a fire, so there was no way to cook the oats.

Uncharacteristically, Beorn was the one to break the silence. “I know no Ena. My grandmother spoke of Flower Women.”

“What stories did your people tell?” Bilbo asked eagerly.

Beorn’s cheeks reddened a little in late afternoon sunlight, but he consented to share.

“Bright was the morning of the world
when laughing, the Green Lady blessed
all the trees and flowers and plants
so too laughed the trees, and became men
so too laughed the flowers, becoming women
all laughed together, in the morning of the world
flowers turned to fruit
children came of tree and flower
choosing in their own time
forest or field
fruit or seed
farm or wilderness
flower or tree
That was the morning of the world
when the Flower Women walked
when the Tree Men sang
when the Green Lady did not weep
But weeping came
And shadow
And flame
burning the gardens of the Flower Women
Burned Cherry
Burned Peach
Burned Lemon
The Shadow said: Grow for me
grow in my lands
you will not be free, but you will not burn
But they would burn
Burned Apple
Burned Orange
Burned Pear
Gardens cannot blossom in the darkness
weeping, they chose to burn
and the shadow was cruel
The Flower Women burn forever
until they will serve
they will never serve
Listen my child and learn:
Sometimes it is better to burn.”

Those final words seemed to echo over the stones, as if the ground remembered burning in that long ago time. Bilbo thought of the cracks ahead, full of fire, and he wondered just how necessary burning would be.

“Long has it been since last I heard a song of the North-men,” Gandalf said quietly. “Thank you, Beorn.”

“Yes,” Bilbo agreed. “That was very beautiful. Only, it’s all so terribly sad.”

Beorn hummed. “The Flower Women are gone. The land is scarred. It is sad. Truth is sad.”

“And necessary.” Bilbo watched a little bit of scrub brush blow across the barren dirt, bouncing off a large boulder and rolling away toward the setting sun. The chain around his neck grew heavy, biting into his skin. “People ought to be allowed to live as they like. The Flower Women had a right to keep their gardens in their own land. Erebor certainly should not have been forced to choose between bending a knee to evil and that terrible slaughter. If a few folk have to burn to keep evil from spreading, I suppose that is the right of fate.”

“Perhaps only one to burn?” Gandalf stopped walking, and his eyes were sharp, almost angry. “Bilbo Baggins—”

Legolas shot an arrow into the twilight. “Aiya,” he cried, “We are under attack.” Three more arrows followed the first in quick succession.

Hearing the thunder of hoof-beats against the dirt, Bilbo drew Sting. To his surprise, it did not glow blue in the half light of sunset.

Beorn shucked his shirt as his hair grew into fur, sliding down his back in swift transformation. His hands paused at his trousers, and he reversed the change, becoming fully man once more. “That is no enemy,” he said sternly.

Out of the dim mists came a wild boar, as tall as Gimli, with cruelly pointed tusks. From one eye sprouted an arrow, and the other gleamed sunset-red with fury. Legolas’s other arrows stuck in its hide, but seemed to do it no hurt. Charging the elf, the massive beast would have gored him, save he was able to flip dexterously up on the rocks and out of reach.

Turning next to Bilbo, the boar tried to rend him with a tusk as long as Sting. It would have succeeded, save the strong arms which plucked the hobbit up and away at the very last second. “No,” Beorn said sternly, as though scolding a child.

Another arrow pierced the boar’s cheek, but that only seemed to enrage it further.

“Stop,” the big man shouted. “Stop now. There is no need to fight.”

Pawing the dirt, the boar turned its slavering mouth toward Gimli. The dwarf stood his ground, ax at the ready. When the beast charged, the dwarf stepped nimbly to one side then severed its head from its neck with a single, mighty blow. Blood spattered against the dwarf’s smooth, hairless chin. The body of the boar fell into slowly pooling blood.

Beorn keened as though he himself had been wounded. “No need,” he repeated. Kneeling beside the boar, he placed a hand upon its side. Then he looked up at Legolas with real anger. “He is not evil. This is his home. He could have helped us. If not, there was no need to kill. This is his home. Not ours.”

“The pig was charging us in the darkness,” the elf said coolly. “I have no doubt that he has set upon travelers before, and triumphed to their detriment. That scar upon his rump is old, and speaks of a man’s sword.”

“Aye,” Gimli agreed. “A boar will eat a dwarf, if he’s big enough. This fellow is surely big enough.”

“You had no right,” Beorn repeated. “He was not evil.”

Gandalf stepped between the giant man and the elf. “What is done is done,” the wizard said. “And perhaps it is for the best. I cannot be the only one to notice that our provisions dwindle. Meat such as this will extend them greatly.”

Beorn looked utterly appalled. “You cannot.”

But it turned out that Legolas certainly could skin and butcher a pig with his long knives. A bit of scrub brush was all it took to build a fire capable of roasting the hams, frying some bacon, and grilling the loin. The scents teased at Bilbo’s taste buds, promising the first meal since Laketown that would be worth eating.

Legolas offered the first plate to Beorn. Bilbo was not sure if it was a challenge or a gesture of peace. Beorn certainly took it as the first.

“I will not eat your victim,” the bear man snarled.

Nodding in acceptance, the elf offered the same plate to Bilbo.

A voice in the hobbit’s mind whispered that they could not afford to be picky. Proud insistence bloomed warm against his breast. On a mission through inhospitable lands, the companions must eat. Beorn must eat, and Bilbo must make him do so. That was the duty of a leader. What was one pig’s life in service to the greater good? Beorn must be strong to protect Bilbo, and so he must be well fed. It would be easy enough to make him eat. His will existed to serve Bilbo’s cause. Other bears ate meat.

Since these were obviously all thoughts that no Baggins would ever have, Bilbo put them from his mind easily. Remembering the way Kili used to complain about second breakfast when they were children, wanting to play instead of eat, the hobbit reminded himself that different folk needed different things. Dwarves did not eat as often as hobbits, on the whole, and that was only the simplest discrepancy to understand. Beorn’s requirements were more complex, and they were just as important. Kili’s smile flashed in memory, gap-toothed and childish. How very happy it made Kili on those rare occasions when Bilbo would forego his own elevenses to play outside for another hour. Sometimes companionship was more important than a growling belly.

With a tremulous smile, the hobbit declined the plate. “Oh, none for me either, thanks.” The Ring cooled beneath his shirt.

Everyone looked at him in surprise. Gandalf frowned. “Bilbo, much as I respect Beorn’s philosophy, you must keep up your strength. You are not a vegetarian.”

“No,” Bilbo agreed. “I like ham and eggs as much as the next hobbit. Perhaps even more, but tonight I think I’ll refrain. Beorn and I can do up some oatmeal very nicely, I think, since we’ve a fire.”

Beorn grunted. Then he said, “You can eat. You did not kill.”

“With you convinced that all of this was home invasion and murder?” Bilbo laughed uncomfortably. “No thank you. I do think it’s good not to let the meat go to waste,” he added quickly. “I mean, dead is dead and bacon is bacon. You three should eat up. But, well, I’ve always been suggestible, and I don’t think I could stomach it.”

Gandalf’s eyes narrowed. “Suggestible indeed, Bilbo Baggins.” The wizard took a big, obvious bite of his own ham. “You will change your tune after a few more days of walking, but the meat will not be such a treat then.”

In fact, Bilbo did not change his mind even after a week, though his mouth watered with envy every time he saw Gimli savoring some of the salted pork. Perhaps his obvious desire spiced the meat a little for the elf and the dwarf, for the pair took to complimenting it whenever they ate and never seemed to grow weary of the repetitive meal. The rewards for virtue were very few. Bilbo dreamed of Thorin every night. More often than not, the dwarf was making his husband a bacon sandwich.

The rewards for friendship were innumerable. If anything, Beorn looked upon Bilbo with more fondness than ever before. The skinchanger had a knack for finding little mushrooms along the streams and brooks that brought water through the Brown Lands. These he shared with the hobbit alone, and mushroom porridge was a great improvement over simple oatmeal. More plentiful were the smiles the giant shared, and the songs. By Bilbo’s sacrifice, he found the grace to forgive the others, and he did not draw away from the group.

Legolas even apologized to Beorn by not shooting down a black swan which wheeled overhead until the skinchanger confirmed that it was, in fact, a spy of Sauron and no natural creature, though it wheeled low indeed before any eyes but elven ones could spot it.

As the rocks grew into boulders and mountains loomed before them like jagged teeth, the companions gathered together. They were not afraid.

Chapter Text

Kili hardly even stepped on the twig. It was such a small twig. Barely the length of his boot, it was, and entirely disproportionate to the snapping sound that seemed to echo among the trees. For a moment, he thought he might get away with it. Then the bats attacked.

Swarming down from the treetops, they beat about his face and bit into his leathers with tiny teeth. Fortunately, they couldn’t do much damage to him through his dwarven armor. Unfortunately, the elves with him did not wear heavy armor. Sendir cursed as one of the flying rodents got him in the neck.

Naturally, Tauriel was unhurt. She whirled through the swarm like a dervish, a knife in each hand to slice the dark creatures to ribbons. Between her, the other elves, and Kili’s arrows, the bats were soon nothing but little bodies which smoked whenever the wind blew through the canopy, sending shafts of sunlight down to the ground.

Much as he enjoyed Tauriel’s homeland the first time through, Kili was enchanted by it now that the darkness was lifted. Light and air filled the beautiful, green woodland, and Kili adored wandering through it. Unfortunately, a second rush of bats came screaming from the treetops. These were the size of lambs in spring, and Kili suspected their long fangs could pierce even his armor.

“We should never have agreed to a dwarf in the scouting party,” Sendir grumbled, facing off against two bats with a knife in each hand. “He draws too much attention.”

“And why shouldn’t he?” Flipping backward through the air toward the lower boughs of a tree, Tauriel shot an arrow at the apex of her vault, sending one of the big bats to the ground before she herself landed. “Our job is to clear the way for the army, and to spot any danger.”

“Convenient, then,” Kili said, “that every danger in the forest wants to attack me.” He got one of the bats through the eye with an arrow, however, so he was doing his part.

“It’s not convenient,” Sendir said.

“No,” Tauriel agreed. Throwing herself into the air, she leapt onto the back of one bat, stabbing it through the neck. As it fell, she bounced onto the back of another, knifing it in turn. This procedure she repeated three times before ending high in another tree with a vicious grin. “It’s fun!”

“I am going to marry her,” Kili said, but only to himself. He had many concerns to manage before he could possibly consider romance. Not least, the yellow, dripping fangs of the bat diving toward his face. Dropping his bow, he spun his ax, cleaving the monster in twain.

Wind ruffled the canopy above, sunlight fell upon the bodies, and a black smoke rose. Through the trees ahead, Kili saw a different darkness rising. It was the Black Tower, called Dol Guldur when Thorin, Bard, and Thranduil mentioned it in their plans. The army had to pass it, but the kings were concerned about venturing too close.

“Should we head in?” Kili asked, nodding toward the tower.

“No,” said Tauriel. “It is time to go back. We have cleared the path this far, but we must report the camp beside the blue weed pond secure for an evening’s rest. Perhaps tomorrow we will be honored with an instruction to clear the tower.”

“At your command, my lady.” Kili bowed.

Tauriel didn’t blush. Instead, she shoved his shoulder which was much better. “I suggest you to get a move on, Kili Baggins. I do not command princes. I advise.”

“Then I am grateful for your advice.”

Kili was more grateful than he could express to be included in the scouting parties when other dwarves were not. Marching with the army was torturous. Not because of the pace, which was much easier than the rushing about which scouts had to do, or the songs, which were cheerful and a brilliant way of keeping time while walking, but because of Thorin. Thorin brooded. Constantly. He scowled at maps, sneered at scouts, and disapproved of everything, even perfectly good camping places.

Calling the glittering lake beside which the army camped Blue Weed Pond seemed a great injustice to Kili. True, the still water was nothing like the size of Long Lake, but it was much larger and deeper than any pond in the Shire. Lily pads dotted the surface, unlike any waterlily Kili could name. On the cusp of winter they had no flowers, yet they were no less strange and beautiful for being only leaves. They were a deep blue, like cornflowers in the height of June. The elves called them blue weeds, most unjustly. In elvish, the word was apparently luinuil, which sounded very musical and nice, but Tauriel assured him laughingly that it only meant blue weed.

All the elves laughed a great deal as they marched through their own land. The dark oppression which made a Mirkwood of the Greenwood was gone. If many evil creatures still clung to the land, marching an army through it would do much to scare them off. Even the slow progression they made toward Mordor did great good against the forces of darkness, reclaiming from that long night formerly conquered territories.

At least, that was what Balin said to try to poke Thorin out of his brooding. It rarely worked. The dwarven king would either be performative in his confidence or quietly scowling at everyone as though they offended him by not racing headlong toward the Black Tower.

“Dare we give this water to our soldiers?” Thorin asked Thranduil.

“Tauriel and I drank some three hours ago,” Kili said helpfully. “If it was poisonous, I’m sure I’d have stomach cramps by now.”

Thorin shot him a look, but continued to give Thranduil the main portion of his attention.

“Sunlight breaks foul enchantment more certainly than any elven art,” Thranduil said with great composure. “The center of this pond is not even shaded by trees. So close to Dol Guldur, it was, of course, once cursed. This was the home of a great serpent when all the forest was plagued by shadow. My scouts checked the depths, however, and the black serpent is gone.”

Kili, who had thought some of the elves simply liked to dive into ponds and swim around when scouting, was surprised to learn they’d been looking for a giant monster. “Where’s it gone to?” he asked.

Thorin’s mouth twitched into a smile. Thranduil’s eyes narrowed in annoyance. Bard looked on impassively.

“Likely, Dol Guldur,” said the elven king. “By all reports the wyrm was large enough to eat an elf with a single snap of its jaws. Arrows could not pierce its hide. I doubt sunlight dispelled it.”

Bard drew in a quick breath, as though this monster would be somehow worse than the other dark creatures faced and fought by the scouts all day.

“Fire breather?” Thorin asked sharply.

“No. Nor could it fly. I would not suffer a dragon in my own lands.” Thranduil’s casual posture became straight and haughty.

Thorin inclined his head in apology. “If it is gone from this place, then we can rest peacefully.”

Bard nodded in agreement.

Thranduil relaxed a little. “Our last reports of it were a century ago. It may have withdrawn alongside the Necromancer’s other forces.”

Looking up to where Dol Guldur loomed above the trees in the fading light, Thorin said, “We cannot assume that tower is empty.”

“No,” Bard agreed, looking in the same direction, “but we can hope.”

So camp was set. The elves, dwarves, and men who made up the alliance all had very different ways of marching and camping. The elves moved like water, flowing around the trees, and when they camped it was with white silk pavilions with harps and sweet wine. The dwarves marched in strict lines, and could not have gone through the forest at all without the material assistance of the elven king and his paths. The heavy siege engines pulled by massive boars and mountain goats would be of great use against the walls of Mordor, but they slowed the marching army. Dwarven tents were sturdy oilcloth and as warm as houses within. To further ward off the chill of night, they shared flasks of strong liquor and bawdy tales. Like a happy mix between the two, the men of Dale had no siege engines, but big supply wagons drawn by horses which were glad of the same wide paths. Their tents were plain canvas, and they took their rest with mugs of brown ale. They also took their rest sooner and longer than dwarves or elves, making little music and telling few stories before all falling asleep.

It was Kili’s habit to visit various tents and fires indiscriminately, bringing Tauriel along, of course, in search of the best entertainment. At first, everyone welcomed him because he was a prince. Wanting to secure that welcome, however, he happily took a turn with his fiddle whenever the opportunity presented itself. Soon enough, he knew which songs best pleased which audiences, and even received some very gratifying requests.

Beside Blue Weed Pond, however, he did not have to pick and choose. Many elves and dwarves were gathered together at the water side with one big bonfire. A scouting party less plagued by monsters had apparently bagged several deer, and there were great roasting racks of venison for all to share. Some of the best musicians, all of whom Kili knew well by name, arranged themselves into a little band, which Kili was happy to join.

“Play that frog song.” Sendir waved a goblet of wine at Kili with a drunken air of command. “You owe me after the day we had.”

“He owes you nothing for doing your duty,” Tauriel said hotly, but Kili didn’t mind at all. He nodded to the other musicians to see if they were up for a Shire tune, and then launched into the sprightly song.

Behind the bonfire, a bright moon outlined Dol Guldur, even in the dark of night. Kili saw a dark figure rise up from the top of the tower. Dismissing it as a cloud or a trick of the light, he continued to play. Then, he saw that the dark shape was moving against the wind. Growing larger, it seemed to be approaching the camp. He stopped playing. Sendir called out rudely. Kili lowered the fiddle from his chin to his side.

“What is that?” he asked, even as the great winged snake took form between the moonlight and the firelight. Black as pitch and as big as a house, it seemed to wind through the air like a bit of ribbon. As it dove low over the pond, Kili saw glowing yellow eyes.

Dodging to one side, he pulled Tauriel out of the monster’s path, looking back at the enormous thing. It sprayed some sort of yellow acid from its mouth, causing all those gathered to scream and flee. One unlucky dwarf was snatched up in mighty jaws, swallowed in a single gulp. Even so, the dwarves of Erebor were valiant. Kili noted a dagger stuck in the dragon’s tongue for its trouble.

It was a dragon. It could only be a dragon. Perhaps it was not exactly like Smaug the Terrible, seeming smaller and more snake-like, but it had to be a dragon.

Sendir looked at Kili, screaming as the acid melted through his body, dissolving him into a yellow puddle beside the dark pond.

Tauriel had her bow out, already firing arrows into the dragon’s hide. She was not alone. Many of the elves sent arrows into the air in such numbers that they blotted out the moon. Even so, Kili could see them bouncing off the dragon, splashing harmlessly into the pond below. They seemed to annoy the creature, but the missiles did not hurt it. Kili’s only weapon was a small ax on his belt. The only bow he had was the one for his fiddle. Much as it galled him to leave Tauriel in danger, she could handle herself well enough. Turning from the fight, he raced toward the central tents belonging to the kings. In particular, toward the one he shared with Thorin; his uncle needed to be told.

Thorin was already on his feet, fully armored, with Orcrist in one hand and the Oakenshield in the other. Thranduil was beside him, dressed and alert but not armed or armored. Bard at his other side seemed to be half asleep. This discrepancy was naturally explained by the fact that Thorin insisted upon sleeping in his armor even though Kili told him frequently that Bilbo would not in the least approve of such unnecessary discomfort.

“Dragon!” Kili cried.

“Yes,” Thranduil said coolly. “We do have eyes, little prince.”

“We cannot afford losses here,” Thorin growled.

Thranduil’s voice went from cool to icy. “What do you suggest we do, Dragonslayer?”

Snarling at him, Thorin shoved his oak shield at Kili. “Stay safe,” he ordered. Then, turning the Thranduil, he pointed at Kili. “Keep him safe.”

Thranduil raised an eyebrow. “Is that an order, King Under the Mountain?”

There was no way to know if Thorin heard him. Already racing away, Thorin clambered onto one of the great siege catapults of the dwarves, unchaining the safeguards which kept the things from bouncing around while on the march.

“He’ll never hit it,” Bard said. “We need a windlance. Something that shoots faster than a catapult.”

“What do you suggest,” Thranduil asked, “as we have no windlance?”

“Thorin!” Kili cried, but it was too late. Thorin Oakenshield was already sailing through the air, having placed himself in the basket of the catapult as the most appropriate munition.

Kili’s mouth was dry, and he had no eyes for anything except the dark figure disappearing into the dark sky.

“He won’t hit,” Bard whispered.

“The beast dodges.” Thranduil’s voice was no longer cold. Kili could not possibly name the emotion which filled it. Thorin was going to fall to his death. For nothing. Without even striking the dragon once.

A length of chain shot out from the little dark dot that was Thorin, wrapping around the dragon’s tail. Kili gasped as the dragon jerked in the air, circling back toward its own tail. The Thorin-dot moved up the chain inch by inch, but yellow acid sprayed across the sky. The dragon screamed in pain, apparently scalding its own tail. Unfortunately, it seemed somewhat immune against its own venom, and the acid did not seem to dissolve it in any way. Worse yet, as the beast twisted and snapped through the air, something happened to the dangling chain.

Thranduil gasped. He, of course, could see much better than Kili at such a distance. Kili could only see Thorin free falling through the air once more.

What made him pull his eyes from his imperiled kin, Kili could never afterwards say. Only that something made him look down to see four shadowy figures lurking only a few feet away from the watch-fire shared between the tents of the three kings by their closest guards. Robed in black and clad with dark armor, they looked not unlike the Witch-king, though they wore no crowns. Ringwraiths, Kili thought.

“Oi!” he cried, alerting Bard and Thranduil. That was all he had time to say before one of the wraiths was upon him. Blocking the sword blow with the oak shield was easy. Stopping the terror that filled his heart as the wraith leaned close and seemed to sniff him was impossible.

“Where is Thorin Oakenshield?” the wraith hissed into Kili’s ear.

Wordlessly, Kili pointed a trembling hand up at the dragon. Somehow, Thorin had avoided falling. His chain was now around one of the dragon’s claws. The dwarf swayed dangerously through the air like an impossible pendulum, but every so often, he managed to stick Orcrist into some part of the dragon’s flesh deep enough to make it roar.

The ringwraiths did not have faces. Nor were they capable of expressions. Nevertheless, as all four looked up at the dragon, Kili was tempted to say they looked nonplussed. Slowly, the one pressing a sword against the oak shield backed away.

“Oh no you don’t,” cried Bard. Seizing a torch from nearby, he lit it in the fire and flung it at the nearest wraith. With an unearthly screech, the monster burned away.

Thranduil drew a sword from somewhere and traded a flurry of blows with another. Snatching up a log from the fire, Kili tried to copy Bard, but to no avail. The two remaining wraiths vanished into the night, even as Thranduil cleverly severed the hand of the one he was fighting. Unlike the one which burned, it did not scream. Instead, it vanished in a puff of black smoke, disintegrating down to a small gold band with a red jewel.

“Brilliant,” Kili said, snatching up the ring. In his hand it burned like ice.

“No,” Thranduil cried, but Kili ignored him.

Racing down to the water side, Kili found one of the yellow pools. He was sure it was the one that had been Sendir. There could be no justice for such a gruesome death. There might, however, be some small revenge. He tossed the ring into the puddle. With a high pitched hiss—like the whistle of a tea kettle boiling out—the ring disintegrated. He looked up at Thranduil.

“Sorry. Did you have a different idea?”

Thranduil blinked at him. “No,” he said slowly. “That was clever.”

“Thanks!” Kili’s joy at the praise was short lived when the dragon roared overhead. In the moonlight, Kili could see Thorin dancing about on the beast’s neck. The long chain still dangled from its claws. If Thorin fell now, he had no way to catch himself. Orcrist flashed high above his head in the moonlight, then vanished behind the dragon’s ear. All was still. The dragon did not roar again.

Plummeting from the sky, the beast dropped soundlessly.

“Thorin!” Kili shouted, not knowing how the king planned to survive the fall.

As it happened, Thorin had no plan. Trajectory sent the beast into the pond, and a great wave splashed up, soaking Kili thoroughly along with everyone else at the water side. Kili searched the waters frantically, but Thorin did not rise from the depths triumphantly.

After a few seconds, Thranduil’s voice sounded like a hunting horn. “Get him!”

Dozens of elves dove into the pond, disappearing beneath the surface for minutes that stretched like hours. Tauriel was the first to rise up from the dark water. Her long red hair splayed about her like a strange new lily pad, and upon her shoulder lay Thorin’s head. He was very still. She moved through the water like a frog, in jerking darts rather than her usual smooth elegance, but she brought him to the shore before anyone else surfaced to assist. Once in the shallows, Balin and Dwalin caught him up, setting him on dry land and rolling him onto his side. Water streamed from his mouth and his skin was terribly pale in the moonlight. Only a bleeding cut on his forehead gave Kili any hope. The dead did not bleed.

Suddenly, Thorin coughed, rolling onto his belly and hacking water into the dirt. A curtain of dark, wet hair shielded his expression from view. When he levered himself into an awkward sitting position, his eyes were dazed and dizzy. They found Kili very quickly, however.

“Injured?” he rasped between coughs so forceful they rattled his strangely melted armor.

“I should say you are,” Kili cried. “You’ve a head wound at the very least, and you must have swallowed half the lake! It is a lake, whatever anyone says. I cannot believe you went in like that with your armor and everything. Was that your plan all along? I don’t think it was very clever, Thorin. You might have drowned!”

Indeed, Thorin’s armor was all over burned with acid, though he seemed to have fortunately avoided getting any of it on his skin. Nevertheless, if the cuts on his face were any indication, Kili expected he was terribly bruised beneath everything. Thorin tried to make some objection, only to fall into another fit of coughing.

“Kili isn’t injured,” Balin said soothingly. Apparently this was what the king wanted to hear, for his rattling and hacking subsided slightly.

“Losses?” he managed to ask after another minute.

“We haven’t had time to make an accounting,” Balin murmured. “Not many. Let’s get you to your tent and see Oin.”

Thorin’s eyes were fever-bright in the firelight as he gripped Balin’s arm forcefully. “Numbers,” he demanded.

“Nine elves, fourteen dwarves, and one man,” Thranduil said clearly. “All lost in the initial assault. Our force remains sufficient to at least challenge the Black Land. Your quick action forestalled further attack, and did more good than you know.”

Thorin coughed again, but it was a smaller, less forceful noise than his earlier expectoration, and he looked up at Thranduil with slightly clearer eyes.

“While you fought, a sneak attack came behind our lines, in a clear attempt to steal that which gives you the right to rule our alliance.” Since Thranduil clearly believed their alliance had no single ruler, unless it was, of course, himself, Kili figured he was still worried about spies. Even in his current state, Thorin was easily able to decipher this code. He pressed his hand to his breast where he wore a plain gold ring upon a chain as a decoy.

“Four came,” Bard said, “but we were able to destroy two.”

“One,” Thranduil corrected gently. “Burning hurts them, but I believe that wraith managed to transport away before true death took hold. Your nephew, however, dissolved one of the Nine in draconic acid. It was very neatly done.”

Smiling up at Kili, Thorin’s voice was gravelly but clear when he said, “He is a Baggins. They are a notably clever family.”

Which made Kili preen enough that he entirely forgot to be annoyed with Thorin for risking his life so recklessly.

Chapter Text

“We will camp here tonight,” Gandalf declared. It was as pretty as any spot in the Brown Lands could be, with a lively stream flowing over the rocks allowing them all to pretend that the desolate place was not completely void of activity. Bilbo was as happy as anyone to pretend a great many things.

Even so, “There are two hours of daylight left,” Legolas objected. “We could make it to the mountains in that time. Perhaps even begin the climb toward your secret path.”

“We could,” the wizard agreed. “That is why we should camp. This may be the last drinkable water we encounter on this journey. We should all partake of as much as we can tonight, rest, drink again in the morning, and fill the extra waterskins. Tomorrow, we will need to begin rationing.”

Legolas looked as though he might object, but Gimli said, “Very wise, Gandalf! Dwarves can walk to the ends of the world, but that is because we know when to rest.” Tossing down his pack, he pulled off his boots and went downstream a ways to bathe his feet. Breathing in relief, Bilbo left his own pack besides Gimli’s. It did not weigh very much anymore, mostly being just his handkerchiefs and a few empty waterskins. Over their long trek through the Brown Lands, Bilbo’s heavier possessions had migrated one at a time into other packs. So putting down his pack did not decrease his burden.

Sitting beside Gimli, Bilbo bathed his feet in the cool water and looked up at the dark mountains. Like the Misty Mountains, Ered Lithui looked to the hobbit like a set of jagged teeth trying to bite the sky. More than that, the mountains reminded him of a strong and terrible fence. They were put there not to keep others out of Mordor, but to keep the evil within. Entering would not be impossible. Bilbo could get where he needed to go. That would have to be enough. After that, there would only be fire and gold.

The perfect ruby on his right cufflink caught the light. It was so beautiful. “Did I ever tell you about the time Thorin gave me these?”

“Yes,” Gimli said dryly. “You have.”

“Well, it was terribly romantic,” Bilbo said. “He called them ‘just a little present,’ you know, as though they were not worth as much as all the rest of my accessories put together. No one but my brother ever gave me a set before, either.”

“So you’ve said,” Gimli murmured.

“Nice cufflinks are a little expensive for a birthday present, and of course one generally wants big boxes to open at a party so everyone can see. Also, I suspect I have a bit of a reputation for being particular about my clothing. Likely, none of my cousins would dare to choose something for me. Though I have, of course, always been fond of Kili’s efforts.”

“You don’t say,” Gimli said.

“Still, it was ever such a surprise when Thorin gave me these. They’re so beautiful. Just look at the way those rubies catch the light! And gold, too! There is not much gold in the Shire; all my other cuff links are silver or brass. He must have brought it with him, and it was so thoughtful for him to shape them into flowers. I am very fond of flowers as a rule, but I don’t think they’re a common theme in dwarven jewelry necessarily.”

“Not necessarily,” Gimli agreed.

“They’re ever so meaningful, my cufflinks,” Bilbo said, admiring them openly. “I believe they mean a lot to Thorin, as well, given that he made them. I am very sure of it, in fact. He can be terribly helpful when I want to put them on. Of course, I can put on my own cufflinks. I’m not a child. But it’s one of those things that’s easier with two hands, and he has helped me do so on occasion. He always smiles when I want to wear these ones. It’s really—”

“Stop talking like you’re going to die!” Gimli shouted, his voice echoing along the rocks like thunder. Legolas, Beorn, and Gandalf looked at him in alarm, but the dwarf continued to yell. “Yes! Yes, if you fall, one of us will bring the blasted cufflinks back to King Thorin. You’ve made your wishes very clear! But you must stop planning for death. You must fight, Bilbo.”

The young dwarf ended on his feet, his cheeks as red as his hair, breathing as hard as any colt run through its paces.

Bilbo thought shouting in that desolate place was not a good idea. There might be orc patrols about, even on the wrong side of the mountains. There were certainly those black swans, and likely other spies of Sauron flying through the air. Gimli needed to calm down. He needed to fall in line. Bilbo was the husband of his king. Thus, the duty fell to him. Gimli needed to learn discipline.

“Sorry.” Shaking his head, the hobbit pressed a hand to his eyes. Once the late afternoon sunlight was blocked out, fire filled his vision, turning like a wheel within his mind. His back bent beneath the great weight about his neck. “Sorry,” he repeated. “What was I saying?”

“You were telling us about the most precious thing you carry,” Gandalf said gently.

“I never!” Bilbo cried, his own voice nearly as loud as Gimli’s had been. The chain bit deep into his shoulders.

“Yes, Bilbo, you were.” Gandalf’s eyes were infinitely sad within his patient face. “The most important thing you carry: your golden cufflinks.”

“Oh!” Looking down at his shirt sleeve, Bilbo was almost surprised to see them there, sparkling in the dying light. He tried to swallow around the great lump in his throat. “Nice, aren’t they?” he asked weakly.

“A jolly thoughtful present,” Beorn said carefully. The words were not his own. Bilbo recognized the phrase at once as one he himself had been repeating frequently over the last few days. It seemed better than focusing on other things.

“They really were,” he agreed, sounding strange and squeaky even in his own ears. “Match my tweed waistcoat perfectly, you know. Although I haven’t that one with me just now. But Thorin must have designed them with my wardrobe in mind. He made them himself. Jolly thoughtful. Have you seen the way they catch the light?”

“Show me again?” Beorn came to sit beside Bilbo, pointedly admiring the jewels.

Gimli sat once more on Bilbo’s left. His face was pale, and he looked unwell. For a moment, the hobbit wondered if he’d actually shouted at him. His throat was hoarse, so it seemed possible. He couldn’t quite remember. He remembered wanting to. Perhaps he had. Although they descended into winter and the weather was quite cool, the days seemed longer and longer as they traveled. His temper stretched thinner and thinner. The Ring about his neck grew ever heavier.

“Setting a gem into cast gold like that is no easy task,” Gimli said. “I have tried my hand at the art once or twice, and I can recognize a masterwork when I see one. Especially to make the pair identical in such a way! King Thorin is an admirable smith. Not one dwarf in a hundred within Erebor could make a piece so fine.”

“Oh, yes!” Bilbo agreed, stroking a finger along one of the cool, golden petals. “Thorin is so very clever.”

“Your husband,” Gimli said, “is an exceptional dwarf in all respects.”

“My husband.” If he’d spent the weeks after his marriage in the company of said husband, perhaps the word would not faze him so. Yet it delighted him to hear it, and amazed him even more to say it. “My husband made these for me,” he said, fixing his mind on the gems. “I don’t know where you got that silly idea about me dying, Gimli. I made him a promise in my own turn. I have to go back to him.”

“Aye,” the young dwarf agreed. “That you do.”

Much later, when the stars dappled the sky like diamonds and then faded into the mists of sleep, Bilbo heard Gimli’s voice again.

“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I didn’t realize.”

“I, too, thought it was the voice of fear,” said Legolas.

“Little bunny is no coward,” Beorn said. “Should be afraid more often than he is.”

“You know now.” Gandalf’s voice did not sound kind or stern. More than anything, he seemed weary. The hour was very late. “It will be worse within Mordor. Close to Barad Dur, it may be intolerable for him. Be prepared to help, as we can.” Which was a very nice thing to say. They couldn’t help, of course, no more than they could save him from the fire that filled his dreams, but as long as no one mentioned it directly and they all kept pretending nothing was happening, all might come out right.

Dawn cleared Bilbo’s mind, as it often did, and the mountains did not look nearly so foreboding. Drinking their fill, and then a little more for good measure, the companions filled their numerous waterskins. Neither black swans nor orc patrols troubled their morning stroll through the last of the Brown Lands. Looking back, Bilbo admired the stark landscape. Even desolate and devoid of all life, there was something beautiful about the scenery. Large golden rocks and rolling hills of barren dirt were painted pink and yellow by the sunrise. Compared to the stark grey cliffs which next they faced, the lands were as smooth as lemon cream.

There at the base of Ered Lithui, their luck ended. Like the Misty Mountains, the Ash Mountains sounded soft. The name evoked campfires, smooth bark, and shady leaves, not the sheer, impassible rises which stretched hundreds of feet straight up. For hours, the companions wandered in shadow and saw neither the path Gandalf sought nor the sun. Beorn lifted Bilbo onto his shoulder for a time, and to his shame the hobbit fell entirely asleep, only waking when the sun drifted toward its zenith, passing over the mountains into view.

“Did I miss it?” the hobbit asked, bleary after his short, dreamless sleep in the sun.

“No.” Beorn patted Bilbo’s back gently. “Sleep more. We did not find the path.”

Laughing to stifle a yawn, the hobbit squirmed his way down to the ground once more. “You are too kind, my friend, but I will walk. I can carry my own weight.”

“Yes,” Beorn agreed. “But this walk is slow. Your weight is little. Rather carry you than slow more.”

“Oi!”

Gimli and Legolas both laughed then.

“Of course you can keep up, Sire,” Gimli said with good humor. “Since Gandalf will stop at every shadow that looks like a crack.”

“When you have found the path, Gimli son of Gloin, you may make as many cracks as you like,” said the wizard.

All laughed at that, the young dwarf most of all, and despite their failure to find any way up the sheer, cliff-like mountains, the party continued to explore in good humor. Sadly, they only had an hour or two of direct sunlight before being cast into shadow once more. Although no snow fell, and it was not as cold as it might be, Bilbo had an idea that they were entering the winter months. The arc of the sun was low along the southern horizon, mostly behind the mountains.

“If only we were coming at these mountains from the north,” Bilbo said, “everything would be so much easier.”

“So it would!” Legolas laughed. “For then we could simply turn about, as we should already be within the bounds of the Black Land.”

Gandalf, however, spared a moment from his muttering inspection of the cliffs they passed to look sharply at Bilbo. At once, his gaze softened and he said gently, “The sunlight eases many burdens.”

“I have no idea what you could mean by that,” Bilbo said, and he meant it to sting. With a conscious effort, he lifted his feet a bit more and matched his stride to Gimli’s.

“Sire,” the young dwarf said respectfully, “I have wondered. You say that there is very little gold in the Shire, and I have never heard of hobbits carrying sword or shield, saving your good self, of course. Will you tell me of Prince Kili’s smithy in that land, then? As an diletant smith myself, I have wondered.”

The change of topic was a surprise, but not an unwelcome one. It did not do to dwell upon unchangeable things like the arc of the sun or the weight of the millstone about one’s neck.

“I am sure I don’t know anything about that either.” Bilbo laughed happily. “Mostly what he called farrier work, I believe, which is the shoeing of various ponies and plow animals. He also made plow bits. The first time he sold one of those, he was very pleased with himself. They last a good while, being steel and hobbits being careful folk, but Fosco Holman settled a field on his second son Dunny when Dunny married Iris Proudfoot, and he decided they should have a plow of their own as well. It was a very good match for the Holman family, you know, the eldest Proudfoot girl. She brought a field of her own, a flock of sheep, three pigs, two ponies, a gaggle of geese, three dozen hens, and a good well. Of course they needed a plow, with that many mouths to feed. By rights, they might have gone to Michel Delving. Probably should have, because Kili made his a bit differently. He’s always had his own ideas about things, my brother, he’s just so quiet about it that folk don’t always notice. But Fosco went to him anyway.”

Bilbo coughed.

“I suppose Prince Kili sold at a discount?” Gimli inquired politely.

Bilbo blushed. “You must never tell him.”

“My word of honor.”

“I—well—I convinced Fosco to go to him for it. The Holman family is not—not as respectable as the Baggins family. I arranged matters so that patronizing my brother’s business for the large purchase would be the most attractive option. If it turned out that the new design was a bad one, I would have gotten the couple an ordinary plow from old Deacon Smith over in Michel Delving.” Very quickly, the hobbit added, “But I didn’t have to! Kili’s plow impressed young Dunny so much that he loaned it to his bothers. I’m sure I don’t understand the particulars, something about the angle or the curve of the blade made plowing with Kili’s design faster and smoother than a traditional device. Soon, every time someone needed a plow repaired or a new one made, they were going to Kili right there in Hobbiton.”

“You needn’t convince me that dwarf-make is the finest in any land,” Gimli said with feeling. “I am sure your brother’s business prospered.”

“It did,” Bilbo said. “Eventually. The plows helped. Hobbits can be set in their ways. Even if having a blacksmith there in Hobbiton was closer and more convenient than going out to Michel Delving, they were mostly used to going out to Michel Delving. Change took time.”

“Change often does,” said Legolas, “but it is also as inevitable as the turning of the seasons.”

For the rest of the afternoon, the companions spoke of pleasant things like Beorn’s honey bees, Bilbo’s garden, and Gimli’s mother. It would have been a lovely way to pass the time, if they were making any progress instead of walking along beside a sheer cliff getting no closer to their goal.

When they finally stopped to camp for the night, Bilbo felt rather bleak and hopeless. His neck ached, and he untied his cravat to rub at it. From behind him, in the dark, a thief came upon him, trying to snatch the chain which held the Ring. At once, the hobbit slashed out with Sting. Only Legolas’s quick reflexes saved him. Flipping backward, the elf raised empty hands in a gesture of peace.

“I was not trying to take it, Bilbo. I swear to you.”

“You must not,” the hobbit said. “You must not. Oh! I knew I should have come alone.”

“What is the meaning of this, Legolas?” Gandalf demanded.

“He is bleeding,” the elf said wretchedly. “Ai! It is not a spiritual weight. He is bleeding. I would treat the wound.”

Bilbo’s racing heart slowed. Obviously, the ideas about putting on the Ring and fleeing into the Brown Lands were not his own. He blinked. Slowly, he sheathed his sword.

“That is sensible enough,” he said. “Wounds ought to be treated, and it does—it doesn’t feel pleasant.”

Turning around, Bilbo lifted the Ring from about his neck. Doing so made breathing easier, but it did not lessen the weight. If anything, the Ring grew heavier in his hands. Looking upon it, Bilbo could not resist admiring it, so bright and beautiful even in the dark of night. Perhaps especially in the dark of night. Long minutes passed before he put it in his pocket. Even then, he kept his hand closed around it. Managing to turn back to Legolas, he offered the elf his most charming smile. “I thank you for your offer. Should I take off my shirt?”

“Nay,” said Legolas. “Untying your cravat was sufficient. If you will allow me to unbutton your shirt a little, I should be able to treat the wound. You needn’t remove your armor.”

“Very well.” Although Bilbo did not breathe easily while the elf bathed the back of his neck with a damp cloth, he had to admit that the ointment felt very soothing. In fact, he was very happy to thank Legolas profusely for the service, and neither of them mentioned how readily the hobbit would have knifed him in the gut.

Some things were best unmentioned.

Chapter Text

Searching hopelessly along the base of the Ash Mountains for a secret path for a third fruitless day wore on everyone’s nerves. Bilbo’s temper was frayed enough already. Every time he closed his eyes, fire filled them. Walking dragged his toes in the dirt, and the stone of the mountains was sharp and cold beneath his hands. The impassable wall barred him from his goal, and so barred him from his much longed for homecoming. Bilbo was not alone in his frustration.

Beorn only seemed happy when he was carrying Bilbo. That, in turn, made the hobbit happy enough, or at least gave him a small respite from his weary plodding. Gandalf never seemed happy at all. Grumbling and mumbling to himself, the wizard did not deign to speak to his companions even once. In contrast, Legolas and Gimli offered a forced joviality, singing and joking until Bilbo snapped at them for quiet.

Overhead, grey clouds swirled. Identical in color to the peaks of the aptly named mountains, the clouds filled the world with grey. Even when noon came, the hobbit doubted he would see the sun. He so wanted to see the sun, but seeing anything above seemed impossible. He did not even see the danger, but he felt it. There was a certain thrum against his chest, a sensation of kinship that couldn’t quite be placed.

Narrowing his eyes, Legolas shot a single arrow into the sky. One of those awful black swans plummeted like a stone. A fiery red eye was blotted out by the pale, elven shaft. The insistent hum against Bilbo’s chest ceased.

Sighing in relief, the hobbit rested his head once more against the skinchanger’s shoulder. He was so very weary, and a swan was not a great danger. Gimli praised the elf’s accuracy, then went to collect the kill, volubly lamenting that the dark creatures could not be eaten.

“We need water,” Beorn said. “Not food.”

“We’ll need both soon enough, unless Gandalf can find a path.” The young dwarf laughed, hiding the bird among the rocks, where it would not be spotted by its fellows. In the air, the swans looked small, but in Gimli’s arms, the bird showed a wingspan as long as a dwarf was tall. Bilbo did not like the idea of facing the onyx beak with only his little sword, and the swans were the least of their concerns. They needed a way forward.

Bilbo blinked his heavy eyes open. It was almost noon. Despite the clouds, he could feel a hint of warm sunlight on his face. “What is that?”

Gandalf stopped walking and muttering. He looked at the cliff side, then at Bilbo. “What do you see?”

The dark fissure in the rock was more of a crack than a path, but the stone steps looked made, not natural. Each was tall, smooth, and broad, hewn from a darker slate than the ash grey of the mountains. Once again, without the hobbit’s leave, his eyes were shuttered. The wheel did not burn in the sunlight, no matter how weak and pale. Nevertheless, Bilbo forced his eyes open and slid down from Beorn’s shoulder. “This here,” he said, stepping into the fissure. “Doesn’t it look like a path?”

Gimli gasped. Gandalf only frowned.

With his long staff, the wizard tapped the stone on either side of Bilbo, trying the steps and scowling at the arching stone. “This goes into the mountain,” he said. “The path we’re looking for goes over.”

“Does it matter?” Legolas asked. “It is a path. We have wasted time enough looking for one. I have been tempted before now to simply scale these cliffs.”

Gandalf raised an eyebrow. “Does it matter that this path goes into the mountains while we have no evidence that it goes through? Could even an elf safely climb a sheer rock face of such a height?”

While his mouth twitched in disapproval, the elf did not openly argue. That, he left to Gimli who growled like a frustrated dog. “We must do something. Drinking up all of our water at the base of this mountain does us no good. Either we go in, we go over, or we go west to the Black Gate and force our way in. We have no other options.”

“We could go home,” someone said. With a start, Bilbo realized he was the one to say it. Shamed by his own cowardice, he looked down at his feet, less dirty than the boots of his compatriots, for he did less walking than they. He was coddled and carried by them, but it did needn’t be so. They had done enough. “That is an option. That is always an option.”

“It is,” said Beorn. “One I will take now, if you will come with me. We will go to my house. Light fires to keep the winter at bay. Sleep. Get fat on mead and honey.”

Bilbo smiled, but he couldn’t look up. “I suppose I mean to say you could all go home. I’ll take this path. Gimli’s right. I can’t keep going east or west, killing time. What I carry must go south in any way that opens to me. But this looks like a dark road. There will be no sunlight to—there will be no light. None of you need accompany me.”

Gimli snorted. Legolas laughed, but there was no humor in the sound.

“Ridiculous hobbit,” Gandalf said, entirely dismissing Bilbo’s offer. “At least it doesn’t look like the rocks will cave in on us, and I know it cannot be Cirith Ungol, which approaches through Ithilien. No, this is not that road. It dares not that ancient danger. Yet dangers are not less because they are unknown, Bilbo Baggins. I know nothing of this road. No lore. No rumors. No history. Nothing.”

Looking up was an effort. In the dark of the cave, away from the sunlight, the mill stone about his neck weighed a great deal. Even so, the hobbit met the wizard’s eyes squarely. “What do you suggest?”

Gandalf smiled. “Let us go south. What dangers there are, we will face together.”

Leaving the sun behind was a great wrench for Bilbo, but the hobbit was not the most uncomfortable on the dark path beneath the mountain. Legolas and Beorn tied for that honor. Both had some experience with caves and caverns, but neither naturally lived beneath the earth as hobbits and dwarves did. Fortunately, the stairs they climbed were tall and broad, a great effort for Bilbo to scramble up, in fact, and spacious enough for Beorn to walk comfortably. They were also well illuminated by the soft grey light of Gandalf’s staff, which was an improvement over Bilbo’s earlier experience beneath the Misty Mountains.

Despite these benefits, the skinchanger complained for the first time. “These could face the sky,” he said. “We are not deep. No reason for them to be buried. No reason for us to be buried.”

“Reason enough.” Gandalf’s contradiction came quietly in the darkness. “Orcs and other residents of this land hate the light to varying degrees. Some, like trolls, cannot walk abroad in the sun without turning to stone.”

Beorn’s grumble was that of a bear, but he bore the discomfort stoically. Unlike Gimli, who was very comfortable in a tunnel, but complained a great deal about their dwindling supplies and the height of the stairs.

“Not natural, making steps so high. Come up to my knees, these do, almost. Even the men of Dale don’t build their towers on such a scale. Bad engineering, I call it. Unless they were made for trolls or giants, they’re made to trip up ordinary folk. Made to be a problem. Should have asked some dwarves in. Could have seen to a few water fountains along the way, dwarves could. Three hours now, climbing, three hours and not a single landing or side-way for rest or food. What sort of person were these made for. Even trolls need to eat.” Without assistance or input, the dwarf continued his litany of issues, talking as much to himself as anyone else.

Hearing him complain so was strangely reassuring. Bilbo thought any talk in the still, silent dark might be. Without Gimli’s words, only the footsteps of the companions gave any life to the stairs. There was no wind or water to break the stillness. No worms drilled holes in the dirt, no insects crawled beneath their feet. After hours of climbing, seeing a rat or spider would have relieved some of the weight on Bilbo’s mind. Eventually, even Gimli fell quiet, unable to bear up in the oppressive dark.

“There is only death in this place,” the hobbit said helplessly.

“Not even death,” Gandalf corrected. “Death is natural. The end of life. This place holds not even that. Here, there is only nothing.”

“How cheering,” said Gimli.

Legolas laughed. Unlike the gleam of the wizard’s staff, the chime of an elvish voice served well to brighten the passage. Even Bilbo’s burden lightened for a moment. “The son of Gloin could find fault with the stars themselves.”

“Hardly stargazing, what we’re doing now,” the dwarf muttered, but when Bilbo peeked backward, he saw a smile on that beardless face.

Walking through the darkness was not so bad when accompanied by such friends. In truth, Bilbo greatly preferred it to the fear he felt when alone in the goblin tunnels. Selfishly, he also preferred his current company to traveling with his brother. He was not worried about harm coming to Gimli or Beorn, except in the general way where he wondered if they were all walking into fire and death.

More importantly, he wondered what Thorin and Kili were doing, safe in Erebor. He decided they were probably planning a garden for him. One couldn’t plant in winter weather, but they could set aside a little land, fence it off, and plot. Knowing those two, it would have the most elaborate wrought iron fence that could be made, and irrationally shaped plots unlike any garden in the Shire. He could practically see them working and laughing in the shifting folds of the back of Gandalf’s robe, and he concentrated on their smiles.

When he blinked, he saw only the fire.

Gimli was right to dislike the stair. The smooth stone steps leading up through the dark passage were built on Beorn’s scale, not that of a dwarf or hobbit. Each step was tall. Bilbo wasn’t. His toes caught upon the smooth edge of his next step and he tripped forward, inches away from crashing face first into the stone. Strong arms caught him about the waist, pulling him upright. Looking over his shoulder, Bilbo met Gimli’s relieved grin with one of his own.

Then the dwarf’s eyes dropped. Swallowing visibly, Gimli stared Bilbo’s shirt with wide, unblinking eyes. If he were not so very young, Bilbo might have misread the gaze. Misunderstanding would have been a kindness. A different sort of glance would not awaken the fierce, clawing thing in Bilbo’s chest that howled for him to push the child before him backward down the long stair to his death.

Legolas or Beorn would catch him. Pushing him would be fruitless. Telling himself as much did not assuage the monster within. Instead, it only whispered about swords and daggers and strangling hands in the dark.

“Could you put it away?” Gimli’s voice was small, almost frightened. “I’m sorry. I don’t like looking at it.”

That was a lie. It had to be a lie. Gimli’s eyes couldn’t look away. No one disliked looking at the precious object. Nevertheless, Bilbo shoved the Ring back beneath his shirt instantly, turning his back forcefully on the dwarf. In front of him, Gandalf had stopped to look back at Bilbo. Grey eyes were sad, and saw too much.

“Are we stopping?” the hobbit snapped up at him.

“Not yet.” The wizard continued his ascent. “I don’t think this is a good place for it.”

And as Bilbo quite agreed, the companions pressed on.

Chapter Text

After the dragon, Kili did not scout ahead with Tauriel. Thorin’s ill temper meant he refused to ride in a cart and rest his cracked ribs properly. Instead, the stubborn king insisted on riding on a goat or marching with his soldiers to make a show of pointless heroism. That is, he insisted with everyone but Kili. Threatening to tell Bilbo was enough to get Thorin into the cart. Pretending he preferred riding to walking himself was enough to keep him there.

“I am not fooled,” Thorin grumbled. “Even in the depths of a Shire winter, you did not take to stillness or placid reading like your brother. Go walk. Join the scouts as your heart so clearly desires.”

Playing up to Thorin’s expectations, as he always did when he was annoyed with someone, Kili sighed. “Yes, I, uh, I suppose I should. Tauriel is out there. I should be with her.”

The dark scowl upon the king’s face deepened. “I bid thee go.”

“Bumping along over tree roots in a cart is hardly as pleasant as walking under your own power. And I shall be with the elves. Perfectly safe.”

“Kili, I order you to go. I need no nursemaid.”

Biting his lower lip and widening his eyes, Kili arranged his chin so that he was looking up at Thorin, despite the dwarf’s reclined position in the cart. “I will go then. We’re probably done with dragons for now. All the other monsters are on the smallish side.” Wondering if it was pressing the matter too far, he tacked on, “I’m not afraid of the big ones, though. Obviously.”

Like a well oiled block and tackle, the second Kili made to rise, Thorin’s hand upon his arm pulled him back down. “Stay,” the king ordered firmly. “Your brother would have it so.”

Offering up a shy, sheepish smile, Kili agreed. “I suppose he would. You need looking after; you’re hurt.”

“I am,” Thorin said freely. “My injuries are a great inconvenience. Please, speak to me of lighter things that I need not linger here in unnecessary pain.”

Very happy to oblige, Kili road comfortably alongside Thorin in the cart for hours before realizing that his little untruth had convinced more folk than his brother’s husband. Bilbo would have noticed at once, of course, but Kili was not his brother. When Dwalin and a phalanx of guards in full armor closed in about the cart, the young prince thought nothing of it. Naturally, he smiled when Thorin gave Balin very specific orders about seeing to the safety of the injured and those dwarves who marched in the center column, but he didn’t catch the way the old dwarf’s eyes softened when they met his own.

Understanding dawned when Balin brought him a blueberry scone. Marching through Mirkwood with three armies involved better rations than crossing the Misty Mountains in a small company, but Kili wouldn’t have thought there was a blueberry on offer this late in the year. Jam might be available, but a scone seemed too much like magic.

“You’re comfortable then, lad?” Balin pressed, and Kili almost laughed.

In truth, leaving the kind fellow to labor under such a misapprehension during a time of so many other difficulties gave a rather leaden taste to the otherwise sweet scone on Kili’s tongue. Keeping up the pretense smacked of base ingratitude. A Baggins had no choice.

“Perfectly comfortable, thank you,” he said. “After all, the safest place in the world is wherever Thorin Oakenshield happens to be. That’s two dragons he’s slain now, you know.” Subtly, keeping his face well turned away from the king, Kili winked at Balin.

The old dwarf’s face lit up with a brilliant grin, and he quite clearly swallowed a laugh. With twinkling eyes and tremendous warmth in his voice, Balin said, “Aye, lad. You’re right where you ought to be.”

As he returned to his duties overseeing the marching dwarves, Thorin spoke. “I thought your brother to be the liar in the family.”

Kili met his gaze, which was steady and not at all accusatory. Then he let his own eyes fall to the silk tunic Thorin wore in place of his acid scorched armor. Mentioning the bandages beneath that shirt was unnecessary. Instead, the young prince smiled. “I dare say he’s better at it than I,” he admitted. “Bilbo thinks on his feet. Still, he taught me a thing or two about how to get my way when we were children.”

Thorin snorted. “By showing weakness to a family member who would do much to please you?”

Kili laughed. “Not in the least! I’ve never needed to use any of it on him. Probably wouldn’t work if I tried. He’s always been able to read my real feelings at a glance. But if people expect things from me, Bilbo taught me how to turn those expectations to my own amusement or profit. Usually it was just laughing at aunts who thought of me as the Hobbiton simpleton.”

“I see.” Ice melted within Thorin’s blue eyes. “Tell me of those days,” he said, and nothing more about Kili’s deception. They bounced along very pleasantly discussing the little jokes and teases shared by two brothers incapable of properly fitting in with their neighbors. Thorin’s enjoyment of stories about Bilbo was boundless, and fortunately Kili’s supply was similar. His childhood had been longer than most in the Shire, and Bilbo’s personality was larger than any in the world, Kili was sure.

Even when night fell over the forest, returning the Greenwood to a semblance of Mirkwood, Kili remained at the side of the king, and for all the following days as well. Thorin’s humor waned like the moon above, bright between the baring branches of the trees. Sometimes, Kili’s did the same. When he noted that one of the leaves the cart wheels crunched over was precisely the shade of Tauriel’s hair, he desired greatly to be at her side. He resented the slow, plodding ride, but he remained.

One morning they woke with a soft dusting of snow over all the tents, but it faded in the sunlight like a shadow. Only then did it occur to Kili that he’d known Thorin for over a year. That night, their last night in the Greenwood, Kili searched out a particular fire in the camp. He did so not for his own amusement, but because it was the only fire in the camp which burned hot enough to suit his needs.

The traveling forge of Erebor was drawn by two enormous pigs during the march, but at every stop it unfolded great slabs of stone, heaps of coal, and a bellows as tall as any elf. Dwarves swarmed around it like dancers in a reel, moving in perfect synchronicity, hammers ringing out as musically as any of the drums at other fires. Knowing his way around his own forge didn’t make Kili qualified to join the dance. Even so, his birth was enough to break one of the dancers away. A burly smith with soot in her grey beard stepped away from an anvil to greet him with a bow.

“Prince Kili! Agi daughter of Bragi at your service.”

“A pleasure to meet you, Master Agi,” Kili said with a bow of his own. He knew from Fili that a prince ought to meet a subject with something more in the way of a nod, but as a Baggins, he could only bow.

“Has your uncle sent you for his armor?”

“We understood from Balin that it will not be ready for three more days,” Kili said carefully. “As I learned from Master Oin that my uncle should not put weight upon his ribs until at least tomorrow, I would be grateful to continue to understand the same.”

Master Agi’s laugh was gruff but her eyes twinkled merrily in the firelight. “Aye, Lord Balin has given us instructions to a similar effect. But we’ll not deny our king his armor if he asks it, and we wouldn’t have for the last four days, either!”

Grinning at her gratefully, Kili said, “I shall simply make sure he does not ask directly. He recovers very quickly, and I’m sure he’ll be ready for it soon.”

“What can I do for you, my prince? Some repairs to your own armor perhaps?”

Cheeks going hot, Kili thanked her for the offer. “My own armor has been undamaged,” he admitted. “Other than a scuff or two that I can buff out easily enough.”

“A blessing.” The dwarf’s voice was firm and full of kindness. “One that I am sure your uncle is most grateful for.”

“I was hoping I could impose for a little place at the forge.” Biting his lip he quickly added, “Just an out of the way corner. It isn’t for anything important, only a quick bit of iron work. You must tell me no if I would be at all in the way. Obviously the needs of the soldiers come first.”

Agi smiled and bowed again. “I would never. We’re all only playing today anyhow. There were a few necessary repairs. One of the goats ate part of her rig. An axle on a supply wagon needs to be replaced, but most of us are simply stockpiling disposables: daggers, arrows, rivets, vambraces, and other things that might be wanting after the first bit of fighting breaks out. Work as you like right over there and let me know if you need anything.”

True to his word, Kili needed only a few minutes in the fire with his little piece of iron. After that, he settled quietly into a corner with wax, water, acid, and a few readily available tools. Too long had the scent of coal and the heat of glowing iron been absent from his days. Working with both, even in such a small way, was more restful than sleep. Fortunately so, because he did not notice the sun rising until Agi kindly informed him that the time had come to pack away the forge. Thanking the master smith one last time for her welcome, the prince returned to his uncle.

Arrayed with his long fur cloak over his tunic, the king was three steps away from mounting the back of a goat. At the sight of Kili, he raised an eyebrow. “I presumed you were with your Tauriel.”

“Oh, no. I went to the forge.”

Thorin smiled. “I can see that. And smell it. What business had you there?”

“I missed my birthday this year,” Kili explained. It fell shortly after Bilbo’s departure, during the first days of the army’s march, so Kili had said nothing about it to anyone. Keeping a birthday without his brother felt wrong, but at least Kili was not wearing black.

Thorin shook his head. “Little could you ask of me that I would not indulge, Kili Baggins, but some sort of hobbit feast in the middle of a marching army may not be practical.”

Laughing, Kili steered him away from the goat and toward the cushioned carriage where they rode. Merely being allowed to do so underpinned the truth of Thorin’s words more fully than any speech or promise could. “Never would I ask,” the young Baggins declared. “That bit was always for Bilbo. I’m happiest at a party in a corner with my fiddle. I do like presents, though.”

The king smiled. “What present would you have of me?”

“How silly!” Kili laughed again. “For my own birthday? No, I have made a present for you. Just a mathom, you understand, though I’ve a thought that you and Bilbo might use it to trellis snap peas in the garden some day. It is about the right height.”

With a suddenly solemn face, Thorin accepted the iron statue. Sliding the rough work cloth wrappings away, he inspected first the dragon’s mouth, touching the sharp teeth of the wyrm’s snarl. Then he ran his fingers down the scales, feeling them etched across every inch of the twisting iron. He smiled. “It is very true to life.”

“Good!” Since it had never once occurred to Kili that Thorin might not like the great weight of such a present during a time when swift marching was of the highest importance, his anxiety over the acceptance of his gift lasted barely seconds. Even so, his relief was potent. “Bilbo will want to see what it was like, you know. He’ll be ever so put out that I saw a dragon and he didn’t, but now you may show it to him.”

“I will.” Grabbing Kili suddenly, Thorin engulfed him in a hug so warm and fierce it felt like an assault. Returning the gesture, Kili tried to take a little care with Thorin’s still injured ribs.

“Balin will tell the story,” Thorin said, “and Bilbo will learn that if he wishes to see his husband slay dragons he must stay by my side.”

Kili forced another laugh, doing his very best to pretend he could not see the tears in Thorin’s eyes. “Exactly. I am so very glad you like it.”

“Bilbo will want it in his garden—our garden?”

“Of course he will,” said Kili. “Just you see how well everything grows at the conclusion of this adventure.”

How he hoped it would be so!

Chapter Text

They climb the dark stair for years. Always they go straight up without pause. Never is there a single light or a landing to offer relief. Sometimes, they stop to rest. Bilbo can stretch out completely upon a stair, though he would not call it comfortable. Even so, he is better off than Beorn, who must slump against the wall or become a bear and sprawl across many pointed steps at once. Conversely, Beorn ties with Gimli for snoring, while Bilbo barely manages to blink. Without sunlight to banish his foul dreams, Bilbo does not sleep. He closes his eyes and watches the wheel of fire, or he climbs the stairs. Exhaustion belabors his every breath.

There is no real way to know how much time passes as they climb, only that it is thirsty work. All of the remaining rations are too unpalatable to tempt Bilbo’s appetite—salted fish, salty cram, dry biscuits full of salt—though he is distantly aware that he ought to be ravenous. Like sleep, the dark of the stair makes food unappetizing. Only water remains a respite, cooling his tongue and bringing the smallest joy to the lifeless place. Slowly, step by step, the place grows warmer. It feels no more alive than it did at the base of the mountain, but an acrid heat radiates from the stones.

Bilbo stowed first his jacket in his pack, then his waistcoat, leaving his mithril to shimmer obviously beneath his linen shirt. He could not bring himself to care. If Legolas’s hair and Gandalf’s glowing staff did not draw enemies down upon them in the dark, surely a little silver reflecting the light would not do so. A voice in the back of his mind reminded him that a hobbit’s best defense was remaining hidden, but he could not place it. Surely she was a hobbitess, but he did not know her face. Closing his eyes showed him only fire.

One by one, the soiled clothes disappeared from his pack to be carried by others, easing the weight on his back. The hobbit didn’t mind that. He had trouble caring even about the waistcoat from his new dwarven tailor, though once he’d thought it fine.

He did care about the Ring.

Without his jacket buttoned up over his waistcoat to hold everything in place, the Ring slipped out into the open as often as it could. Always when it did so, he felt the hungry eyes of his companions. They wanted it, of course. It worked upon their minds. Only Bilbo could keep it safe. In the darkness, he was ever vigilant.

Rationing water in the heat of the tunnel was more necessary than ever. Bilbo trusted the others with that much. Left to his own devices, he would sit down and slurp skin after skin of the stuff until it was all gone. Instead, he drank but a sip when someone passed him a canteen, and tried to hold it in his mouth for as long as he could, cooling his throat.

He wanted water almost as much as he wanted proper light from a source more natural than the tip of a wizard’s staff. Drinking, he remembered the chill of the waterfalls in the Valley of Rivendell. He remembered all the trout streams near Bywater and Tuckborough where Kili whiled away days at a time fishing. Thorin was probably a marvelous fisher, living with the Long Lake at his doorstep, but all of those places seemed far away and impossible.

The acrid smell that permeated the darkness grew sulfurous and strong. Thick air filled Bilbo’s mouth like steam as he climbed up step after step. Condensation slicked the steps beneath his feet, but a hobbit’s toes were better suited to such a climb than dwarven boots. Nevertheless, he paid close attention to his feet, and imagined lapping at the water in the little puddles like a dog. He walked far too with his head down, dragging his weary feet up each individual stair. When he finally looked up to the pale grey light radiating from the wizard’s staff, he realized that the air was filled with steam.

“Gandalf?”

“We knew there would be some danger,” the wizard said. “All paths into the Black Land are guarded, one way or the other. Keep heart, Bilbo. Do not decide to turn back until we know what this road faces.”

Soon enough, it was revealed. A far greater obstacle than any dragon or dark creature from before the making of the world. The stair came to its pinnacle beside a smallish pond which seemed to be the source of the steam and smell which dripped down the stairs. Beyond the pond, the path ended in a pile of rocks as solid as a wall.

“No.”

Bilbo fell to his knees, staring at the wall. All of those stairs: they would have to climb back down again. All of that time wasted in the darkness. They could not go through. Instead, he must return to the fruitless searching for Gandalf’s path at the base of the Ash Mountains. Despair was too mild a term to encompass his feelings.

Gimli stepped forward, running his thick dwarven fingers over the rocks barring their path. Pressing his ear against one of the largest boulders, he tapped it with the handle of his ax. Then he straightened up, rubbing a little grit between his forefinger and thumb.

“Not a dwarf-made blockade, that’s for sure,” he announced. “Best guess, erosion caused by water knocked these loose. Only to be expected, y’ ken, if this place is thousands of years old and that puddle’s been here the whole time. To start with, it was probably broader and less deep, or maybe there’s a geyser. Mountain springs can be that way. If it’s a hot spring, there might be serious heat down below. That water boils and the whole thing whistles up like a tea kettle. Then the water up top cools off a bit, recedes, until eventually it either has the space it wants to do the whole thing all over again. Whoever put the stairs here might have thought the springs were stable. Wanted a way to their baths.”

“I do not think there can be an explanation so innocent as that in this place,” said Gandalf.

“Oh, what does it matter?” cried Bilbo. “This way is shut. We will have to find another.”

“Think I could shift it without bringing the roof down on us, but it will take me about a day. Not a good idea for anyone but me to pull rocks, unless some of you’ve spent time in a mine I don’t know about.” Gimli frowned. “That said, if it is a hot spring, there’s no telling but that it’s a dead end on the other side anyhow. The stairs might lead here and no further.”

Gandalf considered this. “We have come a long way up the mountain already. You are sure there is a chamber beyond this blockage?”

“Corridor or tunnel, at least fifty feet long, probably longer,” Gimli said with great certainty. “No more stairs, either. That much I can tell by the echoes.”

Slowly, the wizard nodded. “Then let us continue on. We know that roads into Mordor cannot be easy. I think this path may yet bring us to our destination.”

Heartened greatly by Gimli’s sensible, dwarven nature and Gandalf’s thoughtful, strategic answer to their trouble, Bilbo rose to his feet. “And we have found water,” he said, trying to add a little Shire cheer to buck everyone up. “I call that a great blessing. Do you think it’s safe to drink?”

“Oh, aye,” said Gimli. “My uncle Oin swears by the stuff for both bathing and drinking. Puts hairs on your chin, it does.”

“Then I shall abstain,” Legolas murmured dryly.

“Perhaps we all should.” Gandalf frowned, turning his attention from the wall to the pool. “We know not the source of this spring. Water that flows out of the Black Land is not safe to drink.”

“I don’t mind risking it,” Bilbo said, sweating in the hot steam. “If Gimli is going to be working hard in all of this heat, he might need a good drink. I’ll give it a taste, and if I don’t feel sick after an hour or so, everyone else will know it’s safe.”

“I will drink,” said Beorn, just as Gimli said, “Let me.” In unison, Legolas and Gandalf said, “Not you.”

They all had such identical expressions of concern despite their different sizes and faces that Bilbo could not help it. He laughed as he had not done in what felt like days. One by one the others joined him, even Gandalf, until he sighed and smiled at them all. “It seems I am overruled,” the hobbit said. “Much as I believe myself the obvious choice, since Beorn can carry me if I take ill, I will not drink.”

“Good,” said Gimli, looking tremendously relieved. “Let me, then. Dwarves are a hardy folk, and the minerals in ground water will do me the least harm.”

Legolas snorted. “Elves cannot be poisoned,” said he. “I will make the test.”

“You would make a poor test,” Gandalf murmured, “if you truly could not be poisoned. But I think Aredhel, the White Lady of the Noldor, would be surprised to learn of your immunity. As would many others in the Halls of Waiting.”

Flushing, the elf said, “That is history, old and ancient. Eöl’s poisons were crafted in great darkness.”

The wizard merely raised an eyebrow.

Legolas scowled at him. “If I am as susceptible as anyone to the miasmas of this place, then I will make the test.” Before anyone could naysay him, the elf scooped up steaming water in both hands and drank deeply from the pool.

“Well, that’s that.” Bilbo noted a small quaver in Gimli’s voice, as though the young dwarf would have chosen a different member of their company to drink, but he said no more about it. “I had best get to work.”

Gimli’s work was slow going, for he had not the tools a dwarf would bring for mining. A battle ax differs from a mattock in many respects. Nor did he carry the levers, wedges, and pegs which he might have used for such a careful shoring under ideal circumstances. Instead, he made do, pulling rocks one at a time and handing them off to Legolas and Beorn who scattered the detritus down the stairs where it would be out of Gimli’s way.

Keeping themselves out of the way, Gandalf and Bilbo sat down for a smoke. Smoking in such dank, oppressive humidity was not very pleasant. However, it filled their noses with a smell other than sulfur and gave their mouths an occupation other than frowning. As always, Gandalf blew beautiful smoke rings. The first he sent bouncing down the stairs like a ball. Since hobbit smials do not, as a rule, have stairs, Bilbo was as amused as any child at the effect. Seeing how appreciative his audience was, the old conjurer sent a waterfall of smoke flowing down the steps next, but brought a flashing silver trout leaping back up toward Bilbo’s feet. A dragonfly darted out of Bilbo’s own pipe, quick as anything, only to be snapped up by the trout. When they collided, they combined with more of Gandalf’s pipe smoke, twisting into a ship, sailing off down the waterfall.

“I am so very glad not to be alone,” the hobbit admitted quietly.

“I will be with you, Bilbo Baggins,” the wizard promised. “As long as this burden is yours to bear.”

But in truth, watching the swirling smoke and Gandalf’s light, Bilbo’s burden did not feel so very heavy after all. When they finished their pipes, Gandalf even said that enough time had passed. If Legolas was feeling no ill effects, the water must come up from the Brown Lands and not flow out of Mordor. Cheering the decision, Bilbo immediately went to drink, bathe his face and neck, drink some more, wash his feet, and drink some more.

As a beverage, the spring water was middling at best. Certainly, it did not deserve the praises of Gimli’s uncle Oin, for whom Bilbo normally held a great respect. Somewhere between terribly weak tea and slightly fetid water, the hot beverage did not cool or sooth as the fresh streams in the Brown Lands did. Even so, Bilbo returned to it every few minutes. Drinking was a great comfort in the steaming heat of the stairwell, even such rank water.

So it was that all of the others were working to clear the passage when Bilbo leaned over the pool once more to draw some water. Slipping out from underneath his loose, steam damp shirt, the Ring dangled over the water. Pulling at his neck even more than usual, Bilbo wondered playfully if it wanted to drown him. Perhaps it simply liked pools below mountains. Gollum spent long enough in such a lake, after all. He smiled down at the pretty golden bauble. Even it could not be heavy enough to pull him down into the pool.

The water rose up, crashing into his face, bowling him off his feet, tossing him about like a bean in a boiling pot. He was boiling. Around him, the water burned and scalded his skin. Screaming in pain only sent a new stream of bubbles into the swirling maelstrom. Something hard struck him in the stomach, wrapping around him in a strangle hold. Squirming and fighting, he tried to break free of the creature’s grip. That grip only tightened in response, like a choking vine wrapped around a rose bush. A garter snake squeezing a helpless mouse. The hobbit tried in vain to draw his sword, but before he could he was pulled up and out of the water like a fish on a line. Legolas landed him neatly upon a rocky shore, for Legolas was the one who had him.

Bilbo coughed a bit when trying to speak. “Thank you,” he said, and also, “sorry.”

A mercurial smile flashed over the elf’s mouth. “I was glad to feel you fight. The drowning always do. Between the heat and the force of the water, I greatly feared you might stop fighting all too soon.”

“Yes.” When Bilbo covered his next cough, he felt the raw, scalded skin of his cheeks and saw how red his hands were. That last might have been a trick of the light, for Legolas’s face and armor were cast in the orange flicker of flame, not the cool grey of Gandalf’s wizardry. Bilbo looked about.

They were not where they had been. The water beside which they sat was not a pool, but a rushing underground river, steaming and bubbling as it went. Around them, a cavern echoed, but it was not a great expanse to be filled with half a city such as some of those in Erebor. In size and shape it reminded Bilbo very much of the Hall of Fire in Rivendell, large enough for many to gather and dance, but not so large that one could not see all the walls at once. Behind the river there was a wall of stone and across from it a similar one. To Bilbo’s right, a dark tunnel snaked away from the cavern, off into the mountain. To his right, there was fire.

An entire wall of the cavern was roaring flame.

Without fuel, origin, or explanation, the flaming wall blazed in the darkness. This was the evil fire that filled Bilbo’s dreams. These were the flames of Mordor. These were the flames of its master.

“We’re here,” he whispered.

Legolas started. “This cannot be our destination. We were not down the spout of Gimli’s tea kettle for so long as all of that.”

A tremulous smile lifted Bilbo to his feet. “You will say that no matter how swift the water, we cannot possibly have fetched up at Mount Doom so quickly. That we must still be beneath the Ash Mountains. But I tell you, my friend, I know these flames. They fill my dreams. These are the flames of Mordor, Legolas. We are here.”

The elf looked uncertain, but he did not bar Bilbo’s way as the hobbit stepped slowly toward the wall of fire. Every inch of Bilbo’s skin stung and chaffed against his clothing as he moved. Each step sent sharp pain across the leathery pads of his raw, burned feet. Yet every step lead to the next as Bilbo made his tentative way to the wall of fire.

Solemnly lifting the chain from his neck, he drew forth the Ring. It glinted beautifully in the firelight. Never before was there an item so precious and perfect. Never again in all the world would there be another. Caressing it with two fingers, he slid the Ring off its chain, smiling.

“Goodbye,” he said, and cast it into the fire.

Chapter Text

Kili left the Greenwood with the last of the leaves. Red, yellow, and brown, they dropped before Thranduil, as if to make a carpet for the departing king. Above, bare branches reached for the grey sky, blackened by contrast, if not by their natural bark. The land opened up before them with yellow grasses and rocky soil. Compared to the narrow paths and massive trees, it made for easy going. Half a day brought the army to the edge of a river.

Across the tumultuous water, Kili saw another forest, still adorned with a single, autumnal color, waving like a river of gold in the brisk wind. Arrayed before it was an army. Equal in number to the elves of the Greenwood, the soldiers of the Golden Wood were so alike in face and feature that their bright golden armor shone in a single great mirror, as though the sun walked upon the earth. Utterly dazzled, the young Baggins stared.

Beside him, Thorin snorted. “Showy.”

Turning to scold his uncle, Kili saw King Thranduil’s mouth quirk sideways, as though pleased.

“Some would call the Land of Lorien the greatest stronghold in all of Middle Earth, it is a bastion of elvish power and beauty the likes of which may soon be lost to the world,” the elven king said mildly.

“Always they underestimate the North,” grumbled Thorin.

Thranduil smiled a little more, but that might have been diplomacy as he and Thorin went to the river side to greet the other elves. On the other side of the rushing white water, one of the elves raised a bow and shot an arrow straight toward Thranduil. As it whipped across the river, Kili saw a rope trailing behind it. Sure enough, Tauriel sprang forward to secure the rope about a convenient rock. On the other side of the river, the elf did the same with his end of the rope. Then, as nimbly as a squirrel dancing along a fence-post, the elf bounced across this precarious, makeshift bridge. With a final, flourishing leap, he came to stand before the three kings of the northern alliance. To them, he bowed low.

“King Thranduil, King Thorin, King Bard: I beg to present the greeting and compliments of Lothlorien, on behalf of the Lord and Lady of the Galadhrim.”

“We are honored to be welcomed so,” said Thorin graciously. “Our business is with the Black Land, whose armies threaten all free peoples of this Middle Earth. We seek no quarrel with any other place.”

“Quarrels we do not offer,” said the elf. His hair was so fair that it looked white in the sun, but the gleam of his armor gave it a golden cast. “Rather we wish to aid in your endeavor. We bring food, supplies, and would join our host to yours.”

“Then let your Lady come forth.” Something unkind seemed to lurk in Thranduil’s eyes, though Kili knew not why that should be so. “Surely in her wisdom and power, she might lead our alliance to victory.”

Stiffening, the fair elf spoke carefully. “Leadership of the host of Galadhrim that will march with you has been granted to me. My name is Haldir, Captain of Lothlorien. I will follow any choices made by your lofty triad, with due deference to be granted unto Thorin Oakenshield.”

“While the Lady may wait in comfort to see if our endeavor succeeds or fails,” Thranduil said, malice now plain in his voice. “In either case, her own fate is safe enough. One way or another, a peaceful grey ship will bear her hence. Let the lesser folk struggle with doom and great deeds. The Lady of the Golden Wood is above such matters.”

“You dare speak so?” Haldir drew himself up to his full height, looking Thranduil squarely in the eye. “It was in the salvation of your own wood and the clearing of the Tower of Dol Guldur that she faced alone the enemy whom you now gather great armies to face. When you have faced him alone, King Thranduil, the host of the Galadhrim will bow to you. Until then—”

“Oh, your lady is Galadriel,” Kili realized, inadvertently interrupting Haldir’s speech.

Haldir stared down at him with even greater affront. “The Lady of the Golden Wood deserves the respect of all people, Naugrim!”

Kili did not know the meaning of that word, but from the way Thorin stiffened suddenly at his side, he expected it was an insult. Nevertheless, he pushed himself forward. It was what Bilbo would do, and it didn’t seem like a terribly good idea to let the elves fight amongst themselves when there was more important work to be done.

“I’m very sure she does!” the young Baggins cried. “She saved my brother in that tower, you know. According to him, it was quite terrible, and he should have been entirely lost without her. Uncle Thorin, may we give her some sort of present before we go? I should like to cook for her, of course, as is traditional, but there does not seem to be quite time for that.”

“Cook for her?” Haldir blinked down at Kili in utter confusion.

“My nephew was raised by hobbits in the Shire,” Thorin said with amused indulgence. “Their ways are unlike those of elves and dwarves. I assure you, he means no offense with the suggestion.”

Confusion seemed to cure Haldir’s anger, for he bowed again. “I take none. We have heard the fascinating tale of Prince Kili from Lord Elrond of Rivendell, even as the plan for this alliance was revealed to us.”

“The plan for this alliance?” Bard asked mildly.

Haldir nodded to him once. “All the Galadhrim know that this shall be a War of the Rings. We know what Thorin Oakenshield carries, and that it gives him the right to command alliance from our Lady and Rivendell. This host is our pledge. Though fewer elves dwell in Rivendell who might march to war, I believe the army Lord Elrond intends to send will be numerous enough to present a challenge to the Black Land even without the rest of the alliance.”

Thorin raised an eyebrow. “I did not know Lord Elrond intended to send an army at all.”

“It may yet fail,” Haldir said. “The Galadhrim will not.”

“You are not actually pledged to the service of the Ring.” Seeming to forget his antagonism, Thranduil looked genuinely concerned for his fellow elf.

Haldir’s lips quirked in a slight smile. “All those who march with me are pledged to serve Thorin Oakenshield in the name of what he carries, as they would serve our Lady. I alone know the nature of that ite