On a nice autumn Tuesday, Bilbo heard a knock at his door.
He immediately stopped pouring tea into the pot and strainer so he could listen for more clues as to who was there.
There was another knock, a little louder but still very polite, so that meant it wasn’t anyone he knew in Hobbiton. The people he knew in Hobbiton he knew so well that they would have escalated to yelling after the first knock, and would surely have come around to the windows to see if anyone was home.
His windows remained clear, so Bilbo put the kettle back on the stove and went to answer the door.
“Hello,” said the young dwarf at the door. “Are you Mr. Bahhh-ggins? Boggins?”
“It’s just Baggins,” Bilbo said.
“Ah,” said the dwarf. “Hello, Baggins. Haft, at your service.”
“At your service,” Bilbo said. He stood in his doorway, carefully guarding the entrance because though this was a very polite (and young!) dwarf, the last time a dwarf arrived at his door unannounced—well. “May I help you?”
“Oh, yes, my apologies,” said Haft. “I’ve never been this far west before and I’ve seen so many hobbits today.” Haft raised his eyebrows and asked, “And you are Baggins the burglar, aren’t you?”
“NOPE,” Bilbo said loudly. He tried to close his door, but looked down when it wouldn’t shut. Then Bilbo noticed that Haft had literally stuck a thick-booted foot in the door. “My burgling days are rather well behind me, Haft, about five years behind me, so if you don’t mind—”
“I came by with a message from Bofur, Dwarf of the Council of the King, Dáin, King Under the Mountain, Lord of the Dwarves of the Iron Hills, King of Durin’s Folk.”
“Sorry, I think it got lost somewhere in there—did you say Bofur?”
Haft looked confused for a moment. “Yes, that’s what I said. Bofur, son of—oh, don’t get confused by the—the titles sound better in our language, and Bofur isn’t king, but all those titles refer to their antecedent—”
“But it’s Bofur—I’m sorry, where are my manners, please come in and have some tea,” Bilbo said, finally stepping aside.
“Come on, come inside,” Bilbo said, suddenly feeling quite protective of the dwarf who, yes, was about head taller than him and could probably swing more axes with one arm than Bilbo had in his shed (two, actually, thank you, that he kept for his gardener’s use in chopping firewood). Yet this dwarf was very young, judging by the close-cropped scruff that barely covered his jaw, not even long enough for braiding like the dwarves of his acquaintance. “I’ve never known a dwarf to turn down some ale and a tea cake, and I doubt you’ll be the first.”
“He did mention that your pantry was very well stacked,” Haft said as he stepped inside the foyer. “Or stocked. Or both.”
“Stay for tea,” Bilbo said as he led the way into his kitchen and returned to the kettle, “And for the night before you continue on your journey. The least I could do for a friend of Bofur, Councilor of the King, Lord of More Titles Than You Can Shake a Stick At.”
Bilbo stopped pouring the tea and looked up at the scratching noise in front of him. He hadn’t known Haft very long at all, but he seemed almost hobbit-like in his habits. He hadn’t scraped his muddy boots on anything inside the house, nor had he dove into Bilbo’s pantry to grab any such thing he pleased. Now, Bilbo looked up and saw that he had pulled out a small book and was writing as Bilbo spoke. “What’ve you got there?” he asked.
“Oh, a record,” Haft said as he continued to write. “My lord Bofur—well, actually, he’s more of my uncle, but I’m here on official business for him and so that’s the title I’m supposed to use in referring to him, but he’s my uncle. Actually, he’s uncle on my father’s side and on my mother’s side he’s also related through some creative marrying on my father’s grandfather’s part, and he’s—”
“Right, but the note taking,” Bilbo said.
“Not note-taking. Well, not only,” Haft said. “Bofur provided me with several responses I should offer you from him, and mentioned I should note your answers because he quite liked your turns of phrase.” Bilbo’s eyebrows rose and Haft nodded seriously. “Your turns of phrase and burgling are the stuff of legend, Baggins.”
“So. You’re not spying.”
“Well,” Haft laughed, “Not on you.”
Bilbo turned back to the tea and tried to remember the last time Gandalf had been in Hobbiton, and whether there had been any chance he had engraved something on his door again without Bilbo knowing.
“Ah, you’re quiet,” Haft said as he flicked some pages. “I’m to say: How is your doily collection?”
Bilbo wished he hadn’t brought out the tea cakes quite so soon so that he could skimp the little dwarf on them and show... Bofur... a thing or two.
“So, that message?” Bilbo asked as he tried to collect enough jam to spread on the one tea cake he would be allowed that afternoon. “From Bofur? Did he write it or—?”
“Right, the message,” Haft said. He swallowed the tea cake whose crumbs hadn’t flown out of his mouth and onto Bilbo’s vest and shirt, and wiped his mouth on his sleeve (all right, the hobbit characteristics were fading the longer he sat in front of the tea cakes). “The message from Bofur is: Hi.”
“...hi?” Bilbo asked. “Did you say hi?”
“Yes! It’s all the rage in Lake-town, a shortening of all those hello, hullo, halloo greetings, there are so many of them”
“So, if I can get this straight,” Bilbo said, “Bofur sent you all this way with a message for me, and that message wasn’t written down—”
“He said it was extra short to ensure I wouldn’t forget,” Haft said.
“And that message was also one word, which isn’t a word, but a hi.”
“He thought you might say that,” Haft said as he dug back into his little book. For good measure, Haft shoved another tea cake in one side of his mouth. Bilbo had a momentary screaming flashback to Dwalin sitting at this table, eating his entire dinner, tattooed knuckles staring at him with strange uppercase writing that seemed to scream at Bilbo ASK US ABOUT YOUR FISH, MATE, which Bilbo had certainly not done. “Hold on, he did give me...”
“Can I just—right thanks,” Bilbo said as he leaned over and, not at all rudely for this kind of nonsense that had already deprived him of some tea cakes and most of his afternoon patience, took Haft’s book away and began to read the notes from Bofur.
TEA IS AT 4 PM. THE LATER THE BETTER. IF YOU CAN INTERRUPT DINNER: WELL DONE.
BREAK A DISH OR TWO: HOBBITS LOVE THAT.
IF HE TRIES TO CLOSE THE DOOR ON YOU: Stick a foot in and be very very nice, like you’d speak to your grandmother. Hobbits are like grandmothers, minus the presents and unconditional love.
IF HE LETS YOU IN WITHOUT QUESTION: Run. He’s not right. Very likely possessed by some hobbit parasite.
IF HE GRUMBLES ABOUT THE TEA CAKES: Pantry, left side, second shelf: help yourself to all his cheese. Really, he said it was all right.
IF HE GETS UPPITY: Remind him I once let him wear my hat. Tell him the dwarves of Erebor sing songs about the great dragon-burglar (and yes he does have a nickname in Khuzdûl, but it roughly translates to Fartdragon)
“They don’t call me the Fartdragon, do they?” Bilbo asked, taken aback.
“No...” Haft said. “Of course we don’t.”
IF HE GETS QUIET: Go for the doilies. They are legion. Ask him if there’s a book of patterns because I’d like to ask the King about expanding into the doily industry.
“This is far too many doily jokes,” Bilbo muttered.
“That’s a pity,” Haft said. “I think Bofur was joking, but one can’t be sure.”
“And I don’t have that many of them!”
IF HE’S GOTTEN VERY FAT: Tell him you’re there to take him on another quest. Payment this time: a chest full of handkerchiefs (all the handkerchiefs a pony can carry!) and all the rabbit stew Bombur and I can make.
IF HE’S HIS USUAL PLUMP ADORABLE SELF: Give him a hug and tell him he’s very missed. Hug mandatory, sentiment optional. Extra hard claps if he’s not very friendly.
Bilbo flipped the pages, but the rest was written in letters clearly not meant for his understanding, until a few pages later:
AND IF YOU’VE MANAGE TO READ THIS FAR, BILBO BAGGINS: WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO HAFT???
Bilbo said, “Hmm,” and offered Haft some more tea. “Stay the night,” Bilbo said. “And when you leave in the morning, I’ll give you a letter to take back to Bofur. That all right?”
“Yes! Of course! That would be ideal!” Haft said, reminding Bilbo far too much of bright-eyed Kili for his comfort. “Yes, you should do that! And I’ll bring it back to him.”
“When do you expect to be back there?” Bilbo asked as he sipped his tea.
“Well, allowing for the journey, the detours such as these, possible kidnappings, daring escapes from dark creatures in the forests and mountain passes—I’d say about a year,” Haft said.
Bilbo choked on his tea and Haft added, “Barring I’m not murdered, of course, but that’s to be expected, isn’t it?”
“Have the last tea cake,” Bilbo said as he stood up from the table. “I’m going to start making dinner.”
“Brilliant,” Haft said as he opened his little book again to continue writing Bilbo’s every non-witticism. “You’re nothing as mean or terrible as my uncle led me to believe, Baggins!”
Bilbo grumbled a little as he went to the pantry, wondering if he had missed the page about grumbling under his breath, but then decided he didn’t care since Bofur wasn’t there, was he?
Bilbo didn’t hear from any dwarves for another three years. Quite suddenly, his tea time was interrupted again, this time by Gandalf and Balin. It was autumn again and once they had caught up on the rebuilding of Erebor and Dale and Lake-town, Bilbo turned the talk to their old company.
“Do you know, Gandalf, you haven’t been back in these parts in a few years,” Bilbo said. “I had a visit from a nephew of Bofur’s—Haft? Is that right?”
“Gentle-hearted lad,” Balin agreed. “Scouting here was the furthest west he had ever been.” Balin thought about it for a moment and said, “Not that there’s much reason for our folk to come this far west, of course. What’s beyond this besides more hobbits and the elf harbor?”
Gandalf puffed a single, ordinary puff of smoke from the corner of his mouth, a tight-lipped hmph if Bilbo had ever seen one communicated solely through pipe smoke.
“He was doing some scouting for me,” Balin said, “And then Bofur, of course, cooked up a side journey for him—that he was to go as far west as here to check the safety of these parts, as you’re very bad at staying in touch and you may have been devoured.”
“Now—hey—now—Balin—now there, hey,” Bilbo said. “I am not. I sent a letter with Haft! There isn’t—how would I even—?”
“Really Bilbo,” was Gandalf’s only contribution.
“I can barely get the little girl next door to carry a letter down the road to the edge of Hobbiton for me!” Bilbo protested. “Am I supposed to—”
“Travelers constantly stop at any of the inns between here and Bree, especially Frogmorton, which isn’t a long trip from here,” Gandalf said. “Was our quest the only quest you ever intended to take? You returned, safe and sound, never to leave again?” Bilbo was about to respond, but Gandalf seemed to catch himself and puff on his pipe again. “Not, of course, that you should go very far,” Gandalf said. “But—you could go to Rivendell. The Last Homely House is always open to visitors, especially to you.”
“I would hope so!” Bilbo said. “After all, I didn’t break that 2000-year-old coffee table.”
“Or challenge Lord Elrond’s steward to a hair-braiding contest,” Gandalf said.
That was enough talk of elvish nonsense for Balin, who reminded Bilbo that he still had friends in Erebor. “So when you are old, burglar, and wish to spend your days in comfort,” Balin said, “Perhaps you will think of your old friend Balin and his sons, and visit us as well as your elves.”
“Perhaps,” Bilbo said, but truth be told, he was thinking more of Gandalf’s words than Balin’s, because Gandalf had opened the front door of his entire world and called him out once more. Gandalf’s advice led to the woods, the outdoors, to Rivendell, and not a cave under a mountain—fine for visiting and fine for dwarves, surely, but Bilbo—he had been cooped up for long enough.
HALLS OF THE KING UNDER THE MOUNTAIN
TO THE ATTENTION OF BOFUR,
SON OF BROTHER OF BOMBUR
An old mutual friend of ours has called me from retirement, in that subtle way he has. Barring kidnapping, ambush, and/or murder, I plan on traveling as far as the last homely house for every midsummer, should the lord of the house allow it. (Why shouldn’t he? I didn’t grill lettuce or burn a nightstand for an indoor campfire.) Perhaps business will bring you that way one year; perhaps business will bring me your way another. In any case, I remain
Yours in burgling
When Bilbo handed his sealed letter to the innkeeper in Newbury, he also handed over the last of his respectability. He decided to seal the trade-off with a pint, and he was satisfied with that.
Bilbo passed the next 18 months preparing for his first great journey to Rivendell. He would be traveling alone, as not one of his acquaintances held his fascination with elves or leaving the direct vicinity of their local pub.
(Not that he had been much better since returning from his quest, or before his quest, but! He had gone on a quest, hadn’t he? He had the chest! He had the stories! He had gone on a quest! He wanted more, and that had to count for something.)
He prepared for his journey in little ways: seeing which of his relations was the most trustworthy to look after his house while he was gone (in the end, he decided to lock up the house and have a mostly trustworthy cousin look in once in a week). He traveled the 20 miles to the villages at the edge of the Shire once every month and went as far as Bree during the Yule season. It was a great deal of traveling (for a hobbit), but it helped to have made half the journey once when the time to make the full journey came.
For his first time out on the great road on his own, he was extremely vigilant, refused to light fires at night, and made it to Rivendell by midsummer with no mishaps.
It had been a year since he sent his letter. More than a year? He couldn’t remember, as he had sent and re-sent the letter a thousand times in his memories and could barely remember what it said anymore, let alone to whom he had actually addressed it. After all, Bofur came from a family of dwarves with hideously unoriginal names (not that his was much better).
After midsummer’s festivities, Bilbo watched the night sky above Rivendell as the singing refused to die down (just like when he had last been here! Did the singing never end—did elves never sleep?) He pulled the sheets closer around him and, eventually, fell asleep.
At some point in the night, he half-woke when something disturbed his bed, but a kick of his feet and pulling the sheets closer was enough to forget and let him return to sleep.
When Bilbo woke again, he was on his other side and facing away from the window, clutching the sheets and a well-worn, fur-lined leather hat with two giant earflaps. He blinked once, closed his eyes, then yelled and threw the hat across the room.
He sat up and looked around wildly, but there was no sign of a plaited dwarf that (of course) had disturbed his already broken sleep to drop a hat on his bed during the elves’ Greatest Hits concert outside his window (outside every window, since walls were still sorely lacking at the Last Homely House).
Bilbo searched his room: no Bofur. He got out of bed, dressed, and searched again: no Bofur.
He left his room, the hat in hand, and as he wondered how he could find its owner, an elf paused mid-glide in front of him.
“Your friend is in the hall, the smaller one off the reading room,” the elf said in a very serene tone to a less than serene Bilbo.
“How do you know he’s my friend?” Bilbo asked.
“Oh,” the elf laughed. “He told us about the hat joke when he asked us which room was yours. It was very amusing.”
And when Bilbo entered the hall, there was Bofur—a different hat on his head than the one Bilbo was clutching in his hands but no less obnoxious—and he was explaining to a small audience of elves about what dwarves typically ate for breakfast. He spotted Bilbo and grinned as he said, “Oh, our children, usually. Why do you think we give them such similar names? One’s as good as the next, don’t you think?”
“He’s—no, that’s not right, it’s a joke, I swear,” Bilbo said as the elves laughed because they were all about 5000 years old and what wasn’t a fun cannibalism joke between species?
(What would Thorin say! What. Would. Thorin. Say. Bilbo had to swallow that thought down and not think about What Would Thorin Say with regard to any of this, really.)
“Was that you last night, yelling at the elves to keep the noise down?” Bofur asked.
“We’re quite used to Mr. Baggins’s company now,” one of the elves said as Bilbo sat down next to Bofur at the bench of the long, low table. “He comes for the rest and relaxation, and we remind him of his obligations to Bag End.”
“It’s quiet there,” Bilbo said.
“It’s quiet here!” Bofur said. “You haven’t lived in a dwarf city, any of you, and can’t imagine the noise constantly echoing off the walls because it’s inside a mountain!”
As Bofur began his detailed glimpse into the heart of the dwarven city he called home, Bilbo served himself some breakfast, took a gratuitous chunk of bread off Bofur’s plate, and traded the bread for the disgusting hat that he gently laid on Bofur’s lap.
Bofur shot him a grin and clutched his shoulder, a greeting that had Bilbo wincing for a moment until he brushed him off and continued eating and smiling and listening and interrupting and laughing.
A time later, when Bilbo was contemplating another helping, the elves in their company excused themselves. “Mr. Baggins, your lullabies don’t compose themselves,” one of them said. “Perhaps tonight will be an ode to breakfast.”
“Nothing rhymes with breakfast,” Bilbo replied.
“...that can’t be right,” the elf said. “We must consult with our choirmaster. That really can’t be right.”
“Blast,” Bofur suggested. “Unsurpassed?”
“It’s all right,” the elf assured them. “We have several dialects to choose from.”
“Flabbergast,” Bofur said.
“Cheating,” Bilbo replied.
Bofur propped an elbow up on the table so he could look at Bilbo head-on; the elves took that as their cue to glide away, gently singing the word breakfast over and over again in their quest to find a true rhyme in the common speech.
“And really, their songs don’t rhyme, so I don’t know what the fuss is,” Bilbo added.
“Eleven summers wasn’t enough to mellow you,” Bofur noted. “Should have stayed in that corked jug you call home a bit longer.”
“Corked jug?!” Bilbo huffed.
“Or maybe you have been corked and turned back into vinegar,” Bofur mused.
“So glad,” Bilbo began as he lifted his cup and saucer, “So glad we both came all this way, and you came through Mirkwood and the Misty Mountains—basically our entire quest—to come here—”
“Done with that tea yet?” Bofur asked. “Is tea so rare in the Shire that you have to discuss travel routes with it, when your dear friend, your dearest dwarfiest friend, who you haven’t seen in years, sits right here—”
“You didn’t even take your hat off indoors,” Bilbo interrupted. “The elves find that very rude. They didn’t say so, of course, but I can tell.”
“It’s not a hat,” Bofur said. “It’s a dwarfish circlet. And did you notice there’s no walls? We’re barely indoors. The hat stays.”
Bilbo choked and snorted his sip of tea, and earned a few heavy smacks on the back for it. Bofur’s hand stilled at the back of his neck and he leaned in to say, “I heard your room is much nicer than mine.”
“I haven’t burned any of my furniture yet,” Bilbo said as he leaned in against Bofur’s hand.
“Well that’s what I’m here for, isn’t it?”
A finger and thumb had begun to creep along Bilbo’s ear and its slightly pointed tip, and Bilbo could hear himself react—the sharp intake of breath, the crack in his neck as he leaned closer and into Bofur, the noises of the room around them and—
“So, come on then,” Bilbo said quickly.
And as Bofur opened his mouth to shoot back a retort, Bilbo shrugged off his hand and kissed Bofur, a chaste thing at first yet once their mouths had met, Bilbo realized it was real. Not a dream, not an imagined warm body at his back, but a real mouth open against his, a tongue darting out to brush his lips and meet his own. Bilbo turned on the bench and grabbed at Bofur’s shirt, fisting the fabric in his hands as he pulled Bofur in closer. He closed his eyes as he both ignored and relished the scratch of hair from that one strange and deliberate patch on Bofur’s chin, and the taste of drink and sausage and bread and jam, and the faint smell of tobacco all over.
“Come on then,” Bilbo repeated, his eyes still closed and his fists aching as he refused to let any of this go. He felt Bofur nod, maybe breathe yes, or maybe he imagined it, but that was enough for both of them to stand and scrape the bench on the smooth floor with more noise than strictly necessary.
In Bilbo’s room (which at least had a door and was some distance above the ground, if not as private and walled as he was used to in Bag End), Bilbo was glad that they had both dressed casually for the occasion of greeting and fucking, and Bilbo made sure to mumble something along those lines as he pushed the suspenders off Bofur’s shoulders and threw his hat as far from them as possible. Bilbo leaned in and kissed him again, this time pulling their bodies flush against each other and trying not to become too giddy as his every bit of skin screamed IT’S REAL, IT IS. It had been too long, far too long, since anyone had caught his interest like this, and too long that he had imagined what this might feel like again, once they were properly indoors somewhere. The edge of Bofur’s teeth on Bilbo’s lower lip, drawing it out slightly as he pushed Bilbo’s waistcoat off and worked on his trousers—Bilbo would take that as a succinct me too.
“You’re softer than I remember,” Bofur said as he pushed Bilbo back into bed, sheets still wrinkled and slept-in from the night before. Bilbo raised his eyebrows and pulled Bofur down with him. He wrapped one of his legs around Bofur’s hips and his hand slipped between them where Bilbo could bring their cocks together and give them both one long, slow stroke in response. Bofur leaned in to lick a stripe along Bilbo’s jaw and say against his skin, “Not where it counts,” so they both laughed too loudly in each other’s ears.
It would almost sound like they were two friends catching up on old times, Bilbo thought as Bofur dug his fingertips into that softer than he remembered body (fat, he means fat, and Bilbo doesn’t care). Bilbo already knew he would remember for long, long after this: Bofur’s rough touch and hard drag along Bilbo’s chest and sides, the sturdy weight of him keeping Bilbo down and sinking into the Rivendell bed. Bofur took Bilbo’s cock in his mouth and hummed around him, and hummed harder when Bilbo couldn’t help arching his hips and reaching for one of the stupid braids hanging off Bofur’s head.
Of course, Bilbo would remember this for long after, but that didn’t mean he lasted as long as he liked. No, he and Bofur were in the third round of a vicious cycle: Bilbo gripping Bofur’s hair harder than Bofur might have liked and Bofur retaliating by tightening his hands on Bilbo’s hips but returning to licking his cock, not sucking, just to drive Bilbo completely out of his mind and lead him to grip Bofur’s hair even harder. It was around then that Bilbo forgot to laugh, forgot to tug on a braid—forgot about everything except the weight of Bofur on him, the heat of his mouth, Bofur’s slick and busy tongue on Bilbo’s cock. Then Bilbo shot his load into Bofur’s mouth, his every muscle tensing, a shout or a cry caught in his throat.
After a moment, Bilbo looked down and Bofur’s proud look, like he was about to crow, was almost insufferable, even now when Bilbo found he couldn’t quite be bothered to... bother about many things. He would always make time to swat at Bofur’s hair and poke fun at the amusement hiding behind all that mustache. “I was—” Bilbo began, but then the words were lost. He had Bofur’s attention, but that irritating look was gone.
“I was thinking—how young you look like this.” He ran his fingers through the long hair hanging into Bofur’s face and pushed it aside, clearing the part and smoothing it all down. “Wearing that dead calf on your head does you no favors. Like this you look—”
“Only wore it for you,” Bofur said suddenly. He’d made his way up Bilbo’s body, folded his hands on his stomach, and leaned on that so they could see each other properly. “We have a home now under the mountain, so there’s no need to worry the next time I take off my hat someone will make off with it. And, of course, my traveling hat.”
“Really? So you—well—you might say—”
Bofur raised his eyebrows.
“—That you now have a place to hang your hat.”
And Bofur nodded. “Don’t say I never give you nice things, Bilbo Baggins, because that was gift-wrapped and hand-delivered straight to you.”
“Yes it was,” Bilbo said.
Bilbo discovered later that afternoon that Bofur hadn’t traveled alone—no, down the hall and with a very insistent knock was his nephew-cousin-young ward-escort-guard person, Haft of the tiny book of one-liners, who had come as far as the Shire to see Bilbo all those years ago.
“He’ll be fine, he’s young,” Bofur muttered. “He can knock for hours if he pleases.”
“That doesn’t make sense,” Bilbo said as he smothered himself with a pillow to drown out the noise. “Just go answer it.”
“But pants. No.”
“I’m not answering; he doesn’t even know me.”
“Doesn’t know you—he’s mad about you. Came back after that trip and couldn’t stop talking about hobbits this and green hills that and did you know the sky was blue oh it is uncle it is and did you see that Mr. Baggins’s home is under a tiny hill oh he’s practically a dwarf that one—”
“Uncle,” Haft whined through the door. “It’s part of my contract to make sure you haven’t died so—”
“I’m not dead,” Bofur yelled back.
“Contract?” Bilbo asked.
“Mr. Baggins says hello!” Bofur added.
“Now he knows we’re here,” Bilbo hissed. Bofur looked at him as though he had sprouted six more ears on his face. “What?”
“He knows everything,” Bofur said.
Bofur thought about it and said, “Yes, everything. Probably not every single thing to have ever happened in the entire history of the world, but he’s quite keen and—”
“Discretion,” Bilbo whined.
Bofur snorted and looked like he was thinking about where he put his pipe.
“And what’s this about a contract!”
Bofur slipped out of bed and went off in search of his clothes. “Haft’s got my pipe. Do you not have contracts in the Shire?”
“Well, yes,” Bilbo said. He realized he was sitting up in bed and clutching the sheet to his neck, so he loosened his grip on it and settled against the headboard. “For houses, properties—”
Bofur, clothed again, opened the door and there was Haft, holding his uncle’s pipe and pack. He looked over Bofur’s shoulder and waved. Bilbo weakly waved back.
“We’re going on a hike!” Haft announced. “If you’d like to join us, of course.”
“Hike? We just spent two months hiking! Don’t talk to me about hiking.”
“Don’t worry, I will!”
Haft waved again at Bilbo and left as Bofur called after him, “You’re a disobedient child! See if I don’t tell your father about this!”
Back in bed, first pipes of the day lit, Bofur said, “We have contracts for everything. I suppose it’s our argumentative nature, but it also keeps the lines between things quite clear.”
“What lines?” Bilbo asked. Now that no one knocked on the door and the serene elf-chanting had given way to one voice speaking petulant Elvish in the universal cadence of an annoyed choirmaster, Bilbo felt he could relax again and think about having a breakfast or two, and whatever Bofur was on about.
“I’m actually here on assignment,” Bofur said after a moment. “For Ori.”
Bilbo puffed on his pipe for a moment and then said, “Right, you’re going to have to give me a bit more than that.” He looked at Bofur and said, “That’s why people write letters, by the way. To convey pertinent information and update each other on the lives of their mutual—”
“Wah wah wah my name is Balin and I’m going to talk about life insurance until you kill yourself and I don’t have to pay out,” Bofur replied. “Since now you care about the lives of your former quest companions, I suppose I—”
“Didn’t I send a letter with your nephew eight years ago!” Bilbo replied. “And—and others! Sent from town!”
“And I would have replied!” Bofur said. “But isn’t this more fun than writing and being witty and here are etchings of the children and does your underhill get damp like the inside of a mountain because my knees are killing me and ooh your underhill I just laughed at how funny I am—” Bofur decided then and there: “Letters are terrible, sad things, one-sided conversations between you and a sheet, and then they might not even get to that hovel you—”
“I’ll thank you to remember that I live in a hole not hovel,” Bilbo huffed.
Of course Bofur was right, but Bilbo wasn’t going to admit that, not now, not ever, and not about anything. Hadn’t Bilbo thought of recounting his adventure with Thorin’s Company before—not just for the children who had heard of his adventures with dwarves and elves and trolls and a dragon, but a full telling of the story beyond the little diary he kept.
If he sat down at his desk and picked up his quill, he would start writing. He would find a beginning, a middle, and an end, and then the story would be over. He would close the book, put it away in a trunk, and that would be the end of it. That would be the end of his part in the quest, and didn’t that just—
Bilbo puffed on his pipe and refused to even finish that thought.
“Oh, that. Long version or short? Medium, I suppose. Right: Ori thought it would be a terrific idea to bring literacy to the new kingdom,” Bofur replied. “So after two or three years of attempting to create and then break into the narrative poetry scene, as it were, and realizing it wasn’t quite taking, he... well, he lost it in a pub one night.”
“Little Ori?” Bilbo asked. “Little sweet Ori, glove-knitter, diary-keeper, complimented me on my dishes?”
“And loser-of-his-shit,” Bofur confirmed. “So he went off and began to shout a poem about everyone in the pub that night, all they got up to—juicy stuff, I tell you, so next time you see him don’t think he’s not listening to everything you do and committing it all to memory. And everyone loved it.”
“Of course they did,” Bilbo said with some derision.
“It’s the spirit of the times, hobbit,” Bofur said. “No one wants sprawling epics and dragon nonsense—we’ve all lived it for long enough.” Bofur looked away, examining his envelope of tobacco as he said, almost inaudible, “Our hero stories are shit, anyway. They end too soon, and there’s no sense to them at all.”
Bilbo shifted a little, made himself known, but said nothing.
“Anyway,” Bofur said. “Ori, the wealthy storyteller of the people that he is now, decided to put together a big book on the quest for the ten-year resettlement anniversary and said we couldn’t very well have a book about the quest without hearing from our burglar, so I volunteered to come through the forest and past the mountains and see what you were up to, maybe even without getting any of my nephews and nieces killed.”
“You realize that now you have to tell me about these nephews and nieces you’ve dragged out of the mountain with you,” Bilbo said.
“It’s one nephew, one niece, and her friend,” Bofur said. “Trading and selling is in their families but isn’t quite their thing—they like adventuring, though. Of Bombur’s children—by the way, he and his wife have taken it on themselves to repopulate the entire city so there’s that to look forward to in my old age—Haft is the eldest, though you wouldn’t know it from how he still believes in things, like Dwalin’s hangover cures.” Bofur looked over and said, “It’s a punch to the face, by the way. Don’t ever tell Dwalin you have a hangover.”
“Don’t think I’ve forgotten that he still owes me a fish dinner.”
Bofur set the pipe aside and turned so he could lean over Bilbo, still smoking in bed but that was all right when neither of them were about to sleep any time soon.
Bilbo thought, modestly of course, that he was a great storyteller and could recognize other great storytellers with ease.
Bofur, he thought with some misplaced guilt, wasn’t a great storyteller.
Bilbo put out his pipe and set it aside so he could rest his head by Bofur’s shoulder and listen to him list Bombur’s children and talk about each of them in turn. Though he wasn’t a great storyteller, Bilbo could still hear the story untold—here were three brothers (what was Bifur at this point if not a brother?), two wives, living in a great city under the mountain, all these different names chattering constantly in all these different voices all grown from the same one. Bilbo could hear the arguments, the dinners, the alliances, the whining, the clank of so many metal things. He thought of his quiet Bag End (missed as always), but thought back to that night of too many scraped boots, dirty plates, cackled jokes, a map and a song—the quiet that stayed in the house when no one else did.
“And you?” Bofur asked after some time.
“And me?” Bilbo asked. Bofur raised his eyebrows, but allowed him to stall.
Bilbo knew what to say; hadn’t he practised it on the journey to Rivendell, in the weeks leading up? Hadn’t he taken great care to whittle his life in the past ten years down to its brightest and most amusing parts, even rehearsing the tone, the pauses, the asides?
Didn’t all of that want to fall away just then, ringing as small and quiet as his footsteps in Bag End as he prepared for bed each night?
“Quiet,” Bilbo said. “Amusing at times, and busy at others—always careful, never dangerous.”
Bofur looked unimpressed. He nodded and replied, “Just as you expected. Just as you wanted, remember?”
“Come on,” Bilbo said. “We can still have second breakfast in the hall and have enough time for elevenses.”
Bofur wasn’t the smartest of the dwarves in Thorin’s company, or the gentlest, or the bravest, or the best in battle, or the best at riding, or the best at singing. Bilbo dressed for breakfast and Bofur didn’t push the point or demand Bilbo explain himself. No, Bofur was the kindest of the dwarves Bilbo knew because he knew when to hold on and when to let go.
After a day or two, Bofur agreed (with less reluctance than he showed) to let Haft and Hilda take them around on a walking tour of the valley of Rivendell.
“It’s fine if you like trees,” Bofur said after a while.
“Haft, Vif, and I are part of the Erebor Horticultural Society,” Hilda told Bilbo. “Vif and I are hoping to make that our trade, taking care of everything living outside the mountain.” She thought for a moment and said, “No, not everything, just. Tree-related, you understand.”
“How we’ve raised a pair of elves in the mountain, I’ll never know,” Bofur sighed.
“You’d like trees if you gave them the chance!” Bilbo said.
“I don’t dislike them—I just don’t care for them,” Bofur said as he walked ahead of them across one of the six million bridges that wrapped around the edges of the valley. “And honestly, what’s it say about us that Bombur has four children and none of them want to be toymakers!”
“Only four?” Bilbo asked.
“Four children, five parents—we barely stood a chance, and that’s more than most families,” Bofur replied. “Hang on, did you say only four?”
“I have a large family,” Bilbo said. “My father had four siblings, his father had four siblings, they married hobbits with three or four siblings. Actually, my mother was one twelve.”
“Twelve? I see why you like the quiet.”
“Ha! As if that keeps anyone out.” Bilbo asked Hilda, “And what are your siblings called? Why don’t you and your brother’s names rhyme as excellently as Bofur and Bombur?”
“Because Bombur and Hon aren’t cruel,” Bofur interrupted. He looked over his shoulder at each of the young dwarves as he said, “You should be glad for that. I wanted to name you all after rocks.”
“You always say that,” Hilda said, waving him off. “And we sort of do, Mr. Baggins: from eldest to youngest, we’re Haft and Alfi, Hilda and Helgi.”
“It could have been worse,” Vif said. “I’m Vif and my sister is Lif.”
“That kind of cruelty is more common than you’d think,” Bofur said.
“What kind of names do hobbits have?” Haft asked.
Bofur turned around, blocking the way on the bridge. “Yes, what kind of names do hobbits have? Somehow, you’ve never said.”
“Well. Um. We.” Bilbo swallowed hard and that only made Bofur’s eyes widen more. “We do a very similar—similar kind of thing, to—to keep all the children straight, and—the family names—with similar sounding—”
Vif clutched Hilda’s arm in excitement and asked, “What was your father’s name?”
The Baggins family was a proud family, Bilbo said to himself. There was no reason, none at all, to be ashamed of their wonderfully traditional names. They were distinctive and memorable, and traditional of a Baggins living at Bag End.
Of course, when he told the dwarves that, they likely laughed loud enough to alert everyone alive to the location of Rivendell.
“My father was Bungo,” Bilbo said very proudly. “His father was Mungo, and his father was Balbo. I’m named after him, Balbo, after a fashion.”
The young dwarves laughed, but Bilbo looked to Bofur, who was pulling at the long end of his mustache, smoothing it out as he smirked at him.
“If you think I will ever forget that,” Bofur said, “You are mistaken, Bilbo son of Bungo.”
“Son of Mungo,” Hilda added.
And Vif began to clap her hands and sing:
Bilbo son of Bungo,
Bungo son of Mungo,
Mungo son of Balbo,
These are hobbits we know!
“Oh not again,” Bilbo sighed as they sang around him. At least they weren’t throwing his dishes around this time. “And to be fair, you don’t actually know them, you know of them, so that’s rather inacc—”
“What about the ladies’ names!” Hilda demanded. “We need to know the ladies, too! What of your aunts and cousins!”
“Ha! You’ll have a hard time making fun of ladies’ names,” Bilbo said. “They’re all named after flowers and plants: Pansy, Daisy, Lobelia, Rose—my mother was named Belladonna. Why they would name her after a poison—”
Vif clapped again and sang:
Lobelia and Daisy
Marigold and Lily
These are hobbits, really!
“I’ll be humming that under my breath forever, won’t I?” Bilbo sighed. “And I’ll have you know, the Tooks aren’t much better in naming their sons!”
“We’re going to need a detailed genealogy if we’re to bring the culture of the hobbits back to Erebor in irritatingly cheerful folk songs,” Vif said. “And compete with those elves that are always singing outside!”
“Oh that is a good reason,” Bilbo said. “Haft, take notes.”
It would be the warmest part of summer were he still at Bag End, but Rivendell seemed a perpetual autumn—never too cold, but never very warm, either. Bilbo mused on this fact as they sat around in one of the book rooms with the other guests and residents of Rivendell one night. Bofur sat next to him and lit another pipe as Haft said, “Uncle, I’ve started preparing for our return.” Bofur choked and upset the delicate tamping of leaves at the end of his pipe. Bilbo hit him hard on the back and shot a hard look at Haft, who had the decency to look concerned. While Bofur cleared his throat and coughed some more, Haft asked Bilbo, “Have you been thinking on your return as well, Mr. Baggins?”
“Autumn,” Bilbo said, his hand resting at the top of Bofur’s shoulders, stilled at the nape of his neck. “It’s much easier going west than east. There’s a large party of elves going west to the harbor in autumn, so I’ll join them.”
“The harbor?” Hilda asked. “Where are they going?”
“Do you know,” Vif said as she looked to Hilda, “I’ve never thought of what’s west.”
“How does the whole west use only one harbor?” Hilda asked Bilbo.
“Of course not,” Haft scoffed, but he looked to Bilbo to clarify.
Biblo’s hand stayed on Bofur, resting in the middle of his back. “It’s a special harbor,” Bilbo said. “There’s lands to the west, across the great sea, and only elves can reach them. As I understand it, that’s where many of them came from, and it’s where they all go.”
“So they go there to die?” Vif asked, horrified.
“No, no,” Bilbo said, but then, he wasn’t sure. He felt strange asking any of the several elves in the room with them as... well, they weren’t very open on the subject. Even when he had arrived and discussed leaving, which was when the journey west was mentioned, Bilbo hadn’t wanted to ask. It was simply called our journey west or our journey to the harbor, not our journey to the harbor to do anything in particular. Gandalf had explained it to him once when he was very young, but he hadn’t gone into great detail. There was something about the reverence he used in speaking about it that made Bilbo not want to ask, as if it was too private.
“No,” Bilbo said again with a little uncertainty. He had heard and read stories of elves while he was at Rivendell and they did, of course, mention slaying and dying like all the other stories there were to tell in Middle Earth, but the truth was that he didn’t know what happened when they went west.
“No, they don’t die,” Bilbo repeated. “But something in the west calls them home.”
Bofur sat up and Bilbo let his hand stay trapped against Bofur’s back and the back of the chair. He had packed his pipe again while Bilbo spoke about the elves and now he lit the pipe again, his eyes fixed on the end as if there was nothing else in the room to catch his attention.
“You’re technically the leader of this expedition, Haft,” Bofur said, eyes still down. “Name the day and we’ll head back.”
“I’ll talk to someone about supplies in the morning,” Haft said. “I don’t expect it’ll be for another few days at least.”
Bofur looked at Bilbo and smiled, a sad little thing that didn’t reach his eyes. “Looks like our breakfasts are numbered, friend. And doubled, because you and your second breakfasts, but still.”
“Looks like it,” Bilbo repeated.
“WELL,” Bofur said. “Since we’ll be leaving here soon, Mr. Baggins, didn’t you have a book in your room you wanted to show me?”
Hilda said, in her young and sweetly snide tone that had become so familiar to Bilbo already, “That’s funny, since this room is right next to the library. One of the biggest in the whole world, Uncle, did you know that?”
Bofur walked over to her, leaned down, kissed the top of her head, and said to her with all his kindness, “Good night and shut up.”
Bofur couldn’t quite remember the title or subject of the book he had been thinking of, but that didn’t stop him and Bilbo from searching for it for a very long time, repeatedly, and with great gusto for the search.
A few days later, Bilbo stood in a courtyard, eye-to-eye with Bofur, about to tell him goodbye.
Bofur had already bid several of the elves farewell, left a message for the master of the house (mostly apologizing for the broken railing of the balcony in Bilbo’s room, but Bofur claimed that it needed better weatherproofing if they wanted it to withstand the elements for another 3000 years), pocketed absolutely no books, and now all who was left was Bilbo.
Bilbo, meanwhile, had said his goodbyes to Haft, Hilda, and Vif. He also apologized to the elves for the broken railing and the obscene farewell limericks and sneaking behind the waterfall to find the moon rune desk again (why guard a giant block of crystal that had only been buffed on one side?) and generally disturbing the peace and quiet of the Last Homely House—all of which the elves laughed off with their melodic voices before gliding off to do whatever they had been doing for the past several thousand years.
Now they had to say goodbye to each other so Bofur and his family could finally leave. His family, Bilbo thought, and he thought he could see that laughter in Hilda’s eyes and the thinky twist of his mouth in Haft. They were staring, as was Vif, so Bilbo looked to Bofur again.
“Well,” Bilbo said. “This was... an experience.”
“Aren’t you going to say anything?” Bilbo asked.
“Well,” Bofur said, “If that’s all you’re saying.”
“I didn’t realize I was supposed—”
“No need to evaluate it on its merits or value or even—”
“I enjoyed myself!” Bilbo said, louder than he usually spoke, and then asked aggressively, “Did you?”
“I did!” Bofur looked to his companions, who nodded their encouragement. Bofur turned back and said, “I enjoyed it very much. The elves aren’t so awful without Thorin whispering DID YOU SEE THAT LOOK, THINKING THEY’RE BETTER THAN US every few moments.”
“He really did do that,” Bilbo admitted. “Quite a lot.”
“As I don’t have a personal blood feud with every elf I ever meet,” Bofur said. “Maybe we could do this again.”
“Oh,” Bilbo said.
“But send a letter,” Bofur said. “From that inn, Craghuffin or whatever your terrible penmanship says. I’ll get it in a year or so. Or ask Gandalf to send some of those eagles. Surely they can travel from one point to another without much delay.”
“Right, I will not abuse the eagles of the world to deliver my mail, but I appreciate that you think we hobbits have that kind of sway.”
“Not hobbits,” Bofur said, “Just you.”
Bilbo saw Hilda shift the weight of her pack and lean down to Vif, who nodded and, together, they turned around and took a few steps away from them. Haft got the idea after a moment and followed. Bilbo had seen this done with his very young hobbit relations, hoping to lure them away with the threat of abandonment (in an adorable way).
Bofur took the hint, frowning like he had been the one to play this trick before not have it played on him, so he looked back to Bilbo.
“Right,” Bofur said. “So. We’ll be seeing each other.”
“Yes, of course,” Bilbo said.
“Because they’re grown,” Bofur said with a jab of his thumb over his shoulder. “So.”
“You should come west,” Bilbo said, and then clarified, “With me.”
“I don’t think you got a very good idea of how nice the Shire was because of that quest for home and glory hanging over your head,” Bilbo continued. “And it would be terrible for you to go all the way back to Erebor and have nothing to report back except, Burglar fine, gained a few inches around the middle, still a prat, when really the west is very nice.” Bilbo swallowed hard and said, “It’s very nice indeed. And I—there are so many little hobbits who need to be introduced to toys that singe their eyebrows and curls off! And my standing in Hobbiton had almost reached respectable levels again before I left, so I have to fix that, perhaps by bringing a friend back for a time to, well, ruin our lives in the best way possible.”
Bofur stared and his eyebrows climbed a little higher as Bilbo took a breath.
“And I bake a very good scone, I don’t know if you had the chance to try them last time—”
“I did,” Bofur said. “They were very good.”
“We should have spoken about this sooner, I know—”
“Nah,” Bofur said. “What’s the rush?”
“Well, contracts and all that. Don’t you…” Bilbo spread his hands open and said, “Contract?”
“Bilbo,” Bofur sighed. “We live in ridiculous times. Anything could happen.”
“And what is that supposed to mean?”
“Come on,” Bofur said. “We have to say goodbye to those,” he shouted at them, “loudly giggling creeps by the gate that I call my family.”
“And you’re coming with me?” Bilbo said.
Bofur stopped and took both of his hands. “If you’d like. Would you like me to?”
“Well yes but—”
“If you don’t, that’s fine,” Bofur assured him. “If you’ve had enough, if you’re well and truly done with having an interesting life, then—” Bofur’s hands tightened around Bilbo’s. “Then we’ll part here as friends, Mr. Baggins, and this will have been enough.”
“Well,” Bilbo said once he cleared his throat and could speak again. “If it’s all the same to you, I’d rather we didn’t.”
Bofur nodded and tried very hard not to look too pleased, but he failed miserably.
“Let’s hear what new songs those ingrates have written in the last few moments,” Bilbo said.
“And if you’re sick to death of me in the next few seasons, don’t worry,” Bofur said. “Ori will likely send Dwalin your way—they’re something of a team, those two. The brains and the brawn, you understand. He's had so many tattoos done since you saw them last. He might be even scarier, I think.”
“We’ll keep extra scones in the pantry for him,” Bilbo said.
“Yes, we will.”