“Can we? Can we please?”
Thorin stared at the bookstore ahead of him, already feeling the weight of the packages resting on his forearms. No one ever gave women that shopped on a regular basis enough credit, as far as he was concerned. He could see multiple women now dashing about the mall with various bags on their arms, not even so much as faltering. Thorin thought he was going to tip over. And that was if the holiday music didn’t do him in, first.
Kili tugged on his arm again, nearly upending three bags. “Can we please?” he asked again, little eyes pleading. “There’s a new book out soon, and it might be out already. Can we just look?”
There were a thousand things that Thorin needed to do today that did not involve losing his nephews in the huge bookstore looming before them, and lose them he would. Their love for books was only eclipsed by their love of mischief, Dis liked to say. Had liked to say, he amended with a flicker of pain.
He glanced at his other nephew to his right, silent and stoic as ever. But his eyes were locked on the bookstore, and he actually glanced up at Thorin, askance in his gaze. And Thorin couldn’t deny Fili that.
“Fifteen minutes,” he ordered nonetheless. “We need to get home and get dinner on.” A little chicken from the grocery store’s prepared food section, some macaroni and cheese, and the vegetable medley that the boys both agreed on. Dis would’ve had them eating some magnificent lasagna or something, he was certain of it. His sister had always been good at that.
I’m trying, Dis, he thought helplessly as Fili grabbed Kili’s hand and ran ahead. I’m trying to do right by them, by you.
Their first Christmas without her, and Thorin had been dreading each day counting down to the holiday. Their cheer hadn’t seemed to dampen – all right, Kili’s cheer at least, it was so hard to tell with Fili these days – but Thorin knew that come Christmas, someone’s heart was going to be broken. Because Fili was old enough to know the truth, that wishing for miracles at Christmas didn’t get you anywhere, but Kili? Kili was only seven, and Fili had come to Thorin two months ago and spoken the longest he had since they’d laid Dis in the ground, and it had been to tell his uncle off. And Thorin hadn’t even done anything.
Still, Fili had been adamant. “Pretend that Santa’s real, okay? Kili still believes in Santa Claus. I caught Mama two years ago, placing gifts under the tree, but Kili doesn’t know. Don’t ruin it for him.”
Thorin knew. Dis had called him the next day after the boys had been too wrapped up in their gifts to notice, and she hadn’t been certain who’d been more stunned, Fili or Dis. Then Dis had started laughing, and Fili had started laughing, and they’d wound up sitting beside the Christmas tree and talking all night long.
Fili was too smart for his own good, that was part of the problem. It made explaining things easy, but it made Thorin hate doing it. It almost made him wish for a girlfriend, a boyfriend, some significant other who could explain it in better terms than he could.
You could have one, you know, he could hear Dis echo in his mind. She sounded amused. She usually did. Having children doesn’t stop you from dating.
No, but it wasn’t fair to them, and that was his story and he was sticking to it. Never mind the fact that his last relationship had ended so disastrously that. Well. He was content being single, the guardian of two cute little boys. He could handle that.
“Look, look!” he heard Kili say as soon as he walked into the bookstore. It always made him think of Dis, whenever he came in, and thankfully the nine months since her passing had eased the ache of walking in to a bookstore. The smell of books, the hint of coffee, the multitudes of titles that he remembered her reading through the long fight with cancer. It got better, over time.
Suddenly he had Fili in front of him, tugging on one arm, and Kili grabbing his other, and he was being dragged through the store towards the children’s section. “Wait wait wait,” he demanded, trying to pull them back without destroying what precious balance he had. His bags, for as tiny as they all are, were heavy. His forearms couldn’t take much more abuse. “What are you two doing?”
“Look!” Kili said, doing his little dance from foot to foot. He pointed upwards, too excited to say anything. Thorin followed his gaze to the large sign near the entry to the children’s area.
Today at 4 p.m.
Author Bilbo Baggins reads his newest book
“Mr. Took and the Dragon”
A short book signing will follow at 4:30 p.m.
It was ten past four now, and with his ears focused intently inside, Thorin could hear a soft voice inside, lilting this way and that in a story-teller fashion. The esteemed Bilbo Baggins, he was certain.
Fili was all but vibrating beside him, and he had a small smile on his face. Kili was still bouncing, and as one they both turned to him, eyes wide and hopeful.
As if Thorin was going to deny them a chance to meet their favorite author. “You can’t have missed much,” he said, and Fili caught Kili’s hand again and ran inside. Thorin watched them go, shaking his head a little. They’d be glued to whatever seat they found, and it was suddenly a free half hour that Thorin had to himself in a bookstore. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been able to wander on his own, without feeling guilty that the boys were being babysat by Dwalin, though his best friend insisted he didn’t mind, laddie, and just get out of the house already.
But here, they were safe, and Thorin could peruse the magazines, maybe glance at the latest sci-fi and fantasy novels that Dis had gotten him hooked on over the years. Or get a coffee. He would give his right arm for a coffee, though he wasn’t certain who would take it, as ravaged by his multiple packages as it was at this point.
Yet he hesitated, not going any further than the entry to the children’s area. The soft voice inside rose to a falsetto, and a loud chorus of giggles followed. In spite of himself, Thorin grinned. Apparently Mr. Baggins was just as good at telling the stories as he was writing them.
All right, he was curious himself. The “Mr. Took” series was Fili and Kili’s favorite, and had been since Kili had been old enough to sit up and listen to a tale. Ongoing for nearly ten years now, the books were as diverse and fantastical as any other Thorin had ever seen for children, nothing dumbed down but instead written with a young audience in mind. Mr. Took went on great adventures, and Thorin was fairly certain he could recite a few of the books at this point, he’d reread them so many times. They dealt with funny creatures and spooky adventures, yet always had a point. They always drove some moral home.
Thorin couldn’t remember how many times he’d read Mr. Took and the Golden Quilt in the wake of Dis’s passing. It had dealt with loss through a story about Mr. Took’s friend, the Golden Quilt, which had one day been caught by the wind. The Golden Quilt had been chased by Mr. Took until he finally accepted his soft friend was gone forever. Thorin wished he couldn’t recite that one by memory, either, but he could.
So yes, he was curious, because in that children’s area was a man who’d created such a world of fantasy and kindness, one that had helped Fili and Kili more than the man could possibly ever know. It was suddenly stupidly important that Thorin know who this man was, and maybe, just maybe, thank him. It had been the Mr. Took books that had gotten them through some very dark days, last spring.
He stepped inside the brightly colored area and passed the various painted walls filled with murals of beloved children’s literature characters. Mr. Took was up on the wall, too, he noted, always running with a broad smile on his face. Thorin paused to look at him for a moment, then followed the voice.
There had to be at least fifty children all wrapped around a man seated on a single chair. Off on the carpeted floor, to the right, were Fili and Kili, listening with rapturous wonder. Something in Thorin’s chest settled at the sight of them, together and content, and his gaze moved to the reader himself.
And froze. Somewhere, wherever she was, Dis was laughing at him, he was certain of it.
Because Bilbo Baggins was, without a doubt, one of the most handsome men he’d ever laid eyes on. He wasn’t a muscular model the likes of which most magazines favored, the kind Thorin wanted nothing to do with. He was slender, hair a curly mess that seemed as if the author had tried to tame it and failed. His nose was small and his cheeks were rosy, and his eyes were so soft looking, and his smile, his quick grin that turned up at the corners of his mouth and dimpled-
Oh god, Thorin was screwed.
Then Thorin began listening, and he realized he was truly screwed, because that light, melodic voice was enough to do anyone in.
“’The Dragon looked Mr. Took up and down, starting with his little hairy toes and going all the way to his little hairy head. “You’re nothing special,” the Dragon declared. “I am special, for I am big and grand and I can breathe fire!” And he huffed a little, and fire did indeed come from his mouth.’
“’Mr. Took watched the Dragon’s fire and was quite impressed. “That is very special,” Mr. Took agreed. “But can you play hide and seek?” And he quickly hid behind a large rock, where the Dragon couldn’t go.’
“’The Dragon sounded as if he were scowling, the type of scowl that one makes when they are very annoyed.’ Like this,” Mr. Baggins added, and he gave the children a mock scowl that set them all off into giggles again. Thorin wondered if anyone had told him that he looked adorable doing that and not at all annoyed, and then he gave himself a mental slap upside the head. “So the Dragon scowled, just like that. Let’s keep going, shall we? ‘The Dragon sounded as if he were scowling, the type of scowl that one makes when they are very annoyed, and told Mr. Took, “I do not need to play hide and seek! I have more fun huffing and puffing fire than I do playing silly games like that.”’
“‘”Yes, but don’t your friends like to play hide and seek?” Mr. Took asked him. “Perhaps they’d like to play. You should ask them.”’”
Thorin watched as his fingers carefully turned the page, deft fingers that Thorin imagined wrapping his own hand around. He shook himself and wondered if maybe, maybe he ought to just go find a cup of coffee and sit and wait for the boys.
Then Mr. Baggins’s eyes roamed over his audience and, somehow, his gaze landed on Thorin. Thorin stared, caught by the gaze, and he wondered what a fright he had to look like: beard getting a little long, having not trimmed it back to its usual scruff in a few days, eyes probably still red from whatever perfume they’d sprayed a few stores back, and a multitude of bags littering his arms. Of all the times to not look presentable and clean cut, of course it had to be today.
Surprisingly, Mr. Baggins didn’t look away immediately. Instead, he held Thorin’s gaze, and he actually gave a quick smile. He almost seemed reluctant to turn back to his book, but after one last lingering look at Thorin, he finally turned back to the illustrated pages in his hands. With a lowered voice he continued, saying, “’The Dragon got very quiet, and when he spoke again, he sounded quite melancholy and upset. “I don’t have any friends,” the Dragon told him. “I suppose I’m not really all that special, am I? I’m just alone.”’
“’”No one should be alone,” Mr. Took said, and he came out from behind the large stone. He looked all the way up to the Dragon’s head and said, “You are most certainly very special. Everyone is special, and no one should be alone!”’
“’”But they all go away,” the Dragon said sadly. “Everyone always goes away, and then I’m all alone. What am I supposed to do then?”’”
Thorin swallowed hard and glanced to his nephews. Kili seemed just as enraptured as before, but Fili was like a stone statue, hands tightened into sharp fists. It was suddenly more important to be over next to his nephews than it was to be standing in the back with the rest of the parents and guardians. Yet he couldn’t interrupt the story, and he refused to humiliate Fili that way. Ten was a risky age.
When he finally tore his gaze away from Fili and Kili, he found Mr. Baggins watching him again, this time without a smile. He seemed to be assessing him, and finally, after a moment, he caught his finger in the book and shut it soundly around where he’d placed his digit. “Well, I think that’s all for today, what do you think?” he said loudly.
Instantly cries for more and laughter filled the area. Thorin took his chance to move over by the wall where his nephews were seated, and he crouched down, gratefully sliding the bags off of his arms to do more important things, like catch the two boys who were scurrying over to him. Relief flooded him, having them there, even though they’d never left his sight. There was still something more settling about having them leaning up against him, his arms wrapped around them.
“All right, all right,” Mr. Baggins said, laughing a little, and it made his eyes light up. His grin was bright and broad, and the image he made suddenly left Thorin aching to drag him into his arms, too. Especially when he glanced over at Thorin and the boys, his smile going a bit soft at the three of them together.
He really should’ve just gotten a magazine and a coffee and called it a day.
Mr. Baggins exaggerated clearing his throat, making Kili and several others giggle, and the story began again. “’Mr. Took bravely went up to the Dragon and rested a hand on his scaly claws. “Sometimes people go away,” he said. “But that’s all right. They’ll always be there in our hearts, but we need to leave room in our hearts for someone new! New friends can make us happy, too.” Then Mr. Took gave his usual quick two nods, which he always did after making up his mind about something. “And now you have a new friend: me!”’
“’”You’ll be my friend?” the Dragon said, surprised. “Even though I said you weren’t special?”’
“’”Of course,” Mr. Took said. “I’ve never been friends with a dragon before, and I think it’d be just swell!”’
“’The Dragon gave a grin that showed all of his teeth, but it was a friendly smile. “Thank you, Mr. Took! I’m sorry I said you weren’t special. You’re the most special person I’ve ever met.”’
“’”That’s all right,” Mr. Took told him. “I forgive you. I promise we’ll be friends, even when I have to leave, for I have more adventures to discover. But for today, I think we should have tea and biscuits.” So they had tea and biscuits, and the Dragon was very happy, and so was Mr. Took.’”
The story didn’t last much longer. Mr. Baggins quickly wrapped it up, with Mr. Took going on his way and the Dragon left behind but feeling much better, knowing that he had a friend. Applause met him upon finishing, and Fili and Kili both lent their hands to join in the praise. Mr. Baggins gave a quick little bow, and then someone from the store came over, letting them know that they’d have a table set up soon, and if anyone wanted something to sign, he would sign it, and happily.
A line quickly formed, and Fili stood, looking for all the world like he was ready to leave. “Did you want him to sign something?” Thorin asked him.
Fili bit his lip, and Thorin figured he’d get a headshake as an answer. “I don’t have any of my books,” Fili said, shocking Thorin. “They’re at home.”
“I have mine,” Kili said, pulling at the little backpack Thorin had brought with him. He quickly tugged a book out, and Thorin wasn’t at all surprised to see the title as Mr. Took and the Golden Quilt. “You can have him sign this one, Fee.”
Fili shook his head. Thorin thought about the dinner he still needed to buy, the amount he’d already spent today on various gifts for the boys that neither knew about, the clothes he’d bought them, the bills he needed to pay, and promptly shoved them all out of his mind. “Here,” he said, and pulled a crisp bill from his wallet. Fili stared, eyes wide. “Your books have been falling apart, anyway. Go find a new copy of your favorite.”
His nephew’s eyes were still all but falling out of his head. “Really?” Kili asked for him.
“You don’t hurry, you won’t get a good place in line,” Thorin warned, and Fili was off like a shot, racing for the bookshelves. Kili followed after him, ever his shadow, and Thorin ran through the book titles in his head. Which one would Fili pick? Mr. Took and the Goblin King? Mr. Took and the Apple Tree? He had a bit of a love/hate relationship with that book, for reasons Thorin had never been able to figure out. What his nephew had against apples, he didn’t know.
Soon Fili was hurrying back with a bookstore bag and change in his hand for Thorin. He didn’t say anything, but his smile said everything and more. “C’mon, in line with you two,” Thorin said. He ruffled their hair, though, earning groans from them both, and he hefted all of his bags into his arms again with a much lighter heart.
They wound up at the end of the line, and Thorin was certain the woman working at the store only let them in upon seeing Fili’s bag with his book that he’d so anxiously hurried to buy and Kili’s well-worn book clutched in his own hands. Plus, his nephews had a tendency to get what they wanted. He had yet to meet someone who could say no to their puppy-dog eyes.
Finally it was their turn, the other children and parents already disappearing back into the store. Mr. Baggins looked up from the table, his smile broadening when he saw who it was. “Did you like the story?” he asked them.
Fili suddenly pushed Kili forward first, oddly shy for the first time in years. Kili, however, didn’t seem to have that problem. “I loved it,” Kili gushed, and Thorin snorted in amusement. Mr. Baggins glanced up at him and grinned, and it was so infectious that Thorin couldn’t help but grin back. He felt like a schoolboy with a crush all over again, and even his failed relationship of a few years past wasn’t enough to stop the swell of emotions he got when gazing at the man.
What was he thinking? A prize-winning author who was probably married and straight, and if he wasn’t, he was looking at Thorin as a father of two. Thorin didn’t stand a chance.
Mr. Baggins diligently signed Kili’s book, listening to Kili ramble on and on in a very patient manner. Then it was Fili’s turn, and Fili seemed to freeze at the attention being poured upon him. Mr. Baggins, seeing his distress, softened his tone and gave him a gentle smile. “Which book is your favorite?” he asked.
Fili slowly pulled the book from the bag and set it down on the table. Mr. Took and the Dragon was bright and fresh and new, and Thorin blinked in surprise.
“Ah, I’m glad you liked the new story so much,” Mr. Baggins said. “I had a lot of fun writing it. What was your favorite part?”
Kili glanced at his brother, waiting for the answer. Fili bit his lip. “Did you like the Dragon and his scales?” Mr. Baggins coaxed. “I always liked the idea of being able to breathe fire: I could make s’mores whenever I felt like it.”
Fili’s lips finally turned up. Mr. Baggins waited patiently, not a single sign showing that he had thoughts of leaving or doing something else. All of his attention was focused solely on Fili, and Thorin’s emotions went from viewing Mr. Baggins as attractive to a gentle heart, and the combination of the two was about going to do him in.
“I liked him not being alone,” Fili said, voice almost a whisper, and Thorin froze. “And Mr. Took saying he shouldn’t be alone. No one should be alone.”
Thorin shut his eyes tight and forced himself to breathe. There were days that he thought he had it together, that he was doing all right by both of Dis’s boys, that he was raising them in the way that she would’ve. And then there were days where he knew he wasn’t coming even close, that she’d raised them singlehandedly after her husband had died, and Kili didn’t remember his father but Fili did, and it was two parents he’d lost, not just one.
When he managed to get his breathing under control and the burn in his eyes blinked away, he found Mr. Baggins leaning across the table towards Fili. “No, no one should ever be alone,” he said quietly. “It’s hard, being alone. And sometimes you can be in a full room of people and still feel so very alone. Have you felt that way?”
Fili nodded jerkily, eyes still on the book he’d rested on the table. Mr. Baggins watched him, pain in his eyes. “It’s all right to feel alone sometimes. Sometimes we like being alone. But…but I know what it’s like to be alone, and it can be very sad.”
“My mama died, in March,” Fili said, and it was honestly the first time Thorin had ever heard him acknowledge Dis’s death. “My da died when I was little.”
He caught Mr. Baggins glancing at him briefly before turning back to Fili, mind obviously putting together the pieces of both parents gone leaving him with guardian of two orphans. “My mother and father are gone now, too,” he said. “And I didn’t have a little brother to keep me company. It was just me. But I did have cousins, and I had friends, and you know what? I realized that I wasn’t as alone as I thought I was. Things got a bit better.”
When Thorin glanced down, he found Fili taking Kili’s hand tight in his. Kili didn’t seem to mind, more concerned about Fili. “Even after Mr. Took left, and the Dragon was by himself, he wasn’t alone anymore,” Mr. Baggins said. He waited until Fili finally glanced up before smiling and saying, “Even when you’re by yourself, you’re not alone, either. I promise.”
Fili nodded, then suddenly let go of Kili to fling himself forward and wrap his arms around Mr. Baggins. Mr. Baggins just smiled and patted him gently, and there was a shared understanding there, when they parted. It was more than Thorin had ever been able to give Fili, and he was suddenly so glad that Kili had dragged them into the bookstore, if just to give Fili this moment.
Kili began chattering away again, and this time Fili joined in, just as he used to do before Dis had passed away. It felt like a miracle, watching Fili come alive again, and Thorin jutted his jaw forward to keep his emotions at bay. Fili was still in there, the Fili he’d known for so long. His nephew was still in there. There was still hope that the pain in his eyes would pass.
Mr. Baggins finished signing Fili’s book and gave him a wink, which Fili returned with a grin. “Did you want me to sign something, Mr…?” And it took half a minute for Thorin to realize Mr. Baggins was talking to him.
“Durinson. Thorin, I mean. Thorin Durinson. Uncle Thorin Durinson, though Mr. Thorin Durinson is the title anyone else besides my nephews would use,” and Dis wasn’t just laughing somewhere, she had to be downright howling. He managed to shut his mouth and wondered when life had started hating him so much.
Mr. Baggins just grinned all the broader, though. “You don’t seem to have a book,” he pointed out. “I’d be willing to sign something other than my stories, though I really shouldn’t be saying that, as an author. I should only be willing to sign things attributed to me, but in your case…I’d be willing to make an exception.”
Thorin stared, pulse starting to pound a little harder in his ears. Mr. Baggins was still grinning, but there was a hint of uncertainty starting to creep into his eyes, and Thorin quickly spoke in the hopes of dashing it to the ground. “I have paper,” and he hoped to hell he actually did. He scrambled for Kili’s backpack and found a few scraps of paper he’d tossed in there to give Kili something to draw on during the long shopping lines. Kili’s attention span still didn’t hold past a few minutes.
He handed one of them to Mr. Baggins, somehow not dumping the contents of his purchases everywhere. Mr. Baggins was grinning again, full blast, and how was Thorin supposed to manage a single solid thought when faced with that grin? “You could make it out to Thorin, Mr. Baggins, no last name needed,” he said, taking a gamble. When was the last time he’d honestly flirted with someone?
It seemed to pay off: Mr. Baggins chuckled and quickly began signing the paper. “You could do the same,” he said, and handed the sheet back. “Please, call me Bilbo.”
Thorin held the paper tight between his fingers, only making his arm ache all the more but he didn’t care. His gaze caught Bilbo’s and held. The other man’s eyes were like stars, but they were so warm and so gentle. His lips turned up, just a little, and Thorin wanted to take them into his mouth. He wanted to hold his hand, he wanted to tug him in and inhale the scent of his wild hair. This beautiful, kind-hearted man that Thorin just wanted to adore for everything he’d done for Thorin and the boys, for everything he was. Everything he’d said, not just to Fili and Kili, but to Thorin a little, too.
Maybe, for once, he wouldn’t be alone anymore, either.
“Thank you,” Thorin said quietly.
Bilbo’s smile was so warm that Thorin’s heart twisted in his chest in longing. “No, thank you,” Bilbo said. “I’m so glad you three came out. I truly am.”
“Uncle, dinner,” Kili reminded him dutifully. Thorin rolled his eyes and glanced down at his nephews.
“Yes, you bottomless pit, I heard you.” Fili and Kili both giggled.
Bilbo chuckled. “I should, um. Probably get moving myself.” He still seemed reluctant to leave, however.
“You could come to dinner,” Kili piped up, and Thorin quickly caught both of his nephews by the shoulders.
“Thank you for staying late to sign,” Thorin said, and Bilbo looked highly amused. Thorin scowled at him, much as the Dragon in the story had, and Bilbo’s grin only extended further. Insufferable man. Of course it only served to make him look more attractive.
The woman from the store gently nudged Bilbo down towards the Employees Only entrance, and Thorin finally managed to wrangle both of his nephews out of the store and towards the exit where his vehicle was. Once they got to the car, Thorin froze, the trunk halfway open. “Tell me you both got your books,” he said. He wasn’t certain he could survive going back into that store.
But two hands dutifully held up two books, and Thorin let them settle into their seats before finally setting the purchases into the trunk. His arms ached, and he was certain he’d have red lines across his forearms from where the bags had hung. He rolled his shoulders and went to close the trunk, then realized he still had the small piece of paper in his hand. Slowly he opened it to see what had been written.
In neat, concise handwriting, he found:
You aren’t alone, and neither are they. They’re lucky to have such an uncle as you.
(If you would like more company at some point, I’m fond of cooking, and often make too much for myself. I could use someone else to help eat it all.)
Beneath his note was a phone number, and it was local. Thorin stared at it for a long moment, heart beating a little faster at the potential of…god. More than he’d had in years.
“Uncle, I’m cold!”
“Hold on, Fili,” he said, then paused. It had been Fili. Speaking, talking again.
He tucked the note carefully away in his pocket – the most precious note he’d ever been given – then went to secure the boys in their seats. Properly sorted, he buckled himself up and headed for the grocery store.
Thank god he can cook, given that you can’t, his sister’s voice echoed, amused as ever, and Thorin’s smile began to grow.