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Unexpected dwarflings

Chapter Text

Not for the first time, Bilbo asked himself why he had agreed to come along with his uncle on this hunting trip. Isembard was his most Tookish uncle and had unexpectedly stopped at his door the previous evening on his way to Bindbale Wood. He was accompanied by his oldest son, Flambard, as well as Bilbo’s older cousins, Fortinbras Took and Asphodel Brandybuck. They all stayed the night in Bag End and woke Bilbo up at four o’clock to leave with them, despite his protests.

Hobbits were possibly the best hunters in Middle Earth, despite the fact that most hobbits preferred to raise livestock. But the hobbits natural skills at treading silently and their excellent aim made stalking out a deer and shooting it a task they were natrually suited for. Bilbo still preferred to buy his meat on the market.

Yet this fine spring morning found him following Asphodel on a small track formed by deer. Leaves were rustling above them, and there was the occasional bustling and cracking of tiny twigs as birds and small animals noticed the big feet approaching them and scrambled away.

Just as a spiderweb tickled Bilbo’s nose, and he nearly suffocated while trying to suppress it, a loud scream pierced the calm morning air.

Bilbo sneezed loudly in answer, before Asphodel put his hands over his face and made a soft “shhh” noise. Even more silently and stealthily, the two hobbits moved towards the source of the scream.

Another scream cut through the air, followed by loud yelling. Recognizing Isembard and Flambard’s voices, they hurried, bows knocked. Bilbo felt silly, but like every hobbit he could shoot a bow if needs be.

A dwarf crashed through the undergrowth near them, not even noticing the hobbits, one of Isembard’s red-feathered arrows in his shoulder. Another arrow buried itself in a tree just above Bilbo, as they came closer. They came to the road cutting through the forest, where Isembard was overwhelmed by another dwarf, while Flambard was struggling with yet another.

One dwarf was slumped against the broken wheel of a cart. A blond dwarf crouched next to him, knives in both hand, but he was just watching the fight, and was no obvious threat.

“You watch them,” Asphodel demanded, jerking his head towards those two, before he ran to help his brother, uncle and cousin. Hobbits were good archers, but not much of a match for dwarves in close combat. Still, Bilbo could see that both dwarves were injured and it did not take long before they ran into the forest, followed by Asphodel and Flambard.

“Came upon them fighting,” Isembard explained to Bilbo. He frowned and looked down at the blond dwarf who slowly got up and scowled. “What in Yavanna’s name was going on?”

“Nuthing.”

“Don’t be an idiot, man.” Isembard had never been a patient hobbit. “They had nearly killed that other one before we came along.”

“I fought them,” the dwarf proclaimed, brandishing his knives.

“Not with much success.” Isembard rubbed bridge of his nose. “ Alright, first things first. We need to check your companion, and…”

The dwarf brandished his knives again.

“No! You don’t come closer.”

“He is injured,” Bilbo interjected now. “He’s going to bleed out if we stand here arguing much longer.”

He took a step closer. The blond dwarf tried to lunge himself at Bilbo, but Bilbo easily sidestepped him. When the dwarf stumbled to the ground, nearly stabbing himself, Bilbo crouched down next to him and gently took the knives out of his hands.

“It’s all right,” he said as soothingly as he could. “We’re not going to hurt you, we just want to help your friend.”

The dwarf turned his face towards him, blue eyes full of suspicion. Bilbo smiled as well as he could, putting the knives away in his own pouch.

He glanced sideways to where his uncle had ripped the brunet’s tunic open to see his injuries. He noticed that the blond dwarf looked that way too. Bilbo cleared his throat to distract him, “Are there others following you?”

“Dun know.” The dwarf still sounded sullen, but frightened.

Asphodel looked over, “This one does not seem too badly injured, they missed any vital organs and most of the cuts are superficial. We can carry him off safely.”

“Good,” Bilbo smiled at the blond, who was pushing himself upright.

“Where d’you wanna take us?” He looked up at the hobbit with a frown.

“To Hobbiton,” Bilbo explained, “It is not far from here, and we can sort out your friend there.”

“I’m going to ride to the bounders,” Flambard declared, just having joined them again. “They have a camp near here. We can’t have any stray dwarves around here, causing harm,” He looked to the blond, “They’ll want to talk to you.”

“Not going to,” the dwarf mumbled, the picture of dwarfish sullenness.

The hobbits did not argue their point, yet. It seemed more important to get away.
They let the blond dwarf collect some bags from the broken cart and made their way to their own little camp.

Their arrival at Bag End was as unnoticed as it could be in Hobbiton. The dwarves lay quietly in the cart and could not be seen. By now the afternoon had progressed and Isembard sent his son straight to get Hildigrim, Isembard’s brother and one of the most skilled doctors in the Shire. Luckily, he had left Tuckborough a few years ago and lived closer to Hobbiton. Still, it was late evening when he arrived.

They had to carry the brunet dwarf inside, as he had lost all signs of consciousness on the way. It was not easy, Bilbo was not a strong hobbit, and the blond dwarf had tried to stop them from doing so in the first place. But he finally gave up, when Bilbo asked him if he really thought that the back of a cart was the right place to leave his injured companion.

They brought the dwarves to one of the inside chambers, without windows, it was the one chamber Bilbo had always ready for unexpected guests.

Bilbo and Isembard went to the kitchen to prepare some tea and sandwiches, while they waited for Hildigrim

The blond dwarf refused the offer of either tea or sandwich.

It was also difficult to persuade him to let the Hildigrim get close to the brunet. He refused to answer any questions, but they could see that he was very attached to the other dwarf. Bilbo had to interfere and allow the blond to take off the other dwarf’s coat and ripped tunic himself, which he did somewhat clumsily.

Hildigrim wasn’t pleased by Bilbo’s interference, but he could finally apply some powder to the dwarf’s wound.

He also examined the blond’s light head wound, that Bilbo had not even noticed in the excitement.

“They should be all right,” Hildigrim pronounced finally, “I am not an expert on dwarf anatomy, but from what I know they’re sturdier than hobbits.”

Bilbo thought it was very rude of his uncle to talk about the dwarves as if they were not there, but the dwarf didn’t seem to mind. He appeared to be very drowsy by now and didn’t protest when Bilbo helped him onto the bed.

***

“They must still be young,” Isembard said once they were all seated in Bilbo’s dining room, enjoying some cold cuts and ale.

“How can you tell with dwarves?” Hildigrim did not like to be outdone by his wild brother.

“I don’t know much about them, but those two have no beards,” Isembard pointed out. “All the dwarves I encountered during my travels had beards. Those barely even have a stubble.”

Hildigrim grumbled something and Bilbo grinned into his ale. Of course, being hobbits, the lack of beard hadn’t occurred to them.

“They’re also very slight for dwarves,” Isembard continued, “They might be adolescents.”

“Where are their parents then?”

Isembard shrugged, “The bounders will comb the area, I’m sure. If there are other dwarves, dead or alive, they’re going to find them.”

Bilbo went out to get more food as his uncles, very predictably, started to argue about the skills of the bounders.

Chapter Text

Bilbo’s uncles and cousins left the next morning before the dwarves woke up. On his way out, Hildigrim told Bilbo to go to the apothecary in Hobbiton -- who, according to Hildigrim, wasn’t much good, but the dwarves’ injuries were so simple that even that fool of an Underhill would not be able to mess the prescription up.

When it was time for second breakfast, Bilbo checked on his guests to see if they were hungry. He also brought the biggest shirt he could find in the house, as the brunet’s tunic had been ripped.

He was startled to see the brunet sobbing in the blond’s arms. At least he had woken up. Bilbo wanted to retreat softly, but the blond dwarf seemed to sense his movement and turned around, frowning. The hobbit flushed and smiled awkwardly.

“My name is Bilbo Baggins,” he introduced himself. “I am sorry I forgot my manners last night.”

The blond just stared at him for a beat, then he frowned again. He seemed to consider his next action carefully. “I’m Fíli,” he revealed. And then, pointing his chin to the other dwarf, who was still in his arms and rubbing his eyes with the back of his hand, he added, “This is Kíli. We’re brothers.”

“Nice to meet you.” That seemed like a slightly stupid thing to say, under the circumstances. Bilbo coughed. “I brought a shirt for - Kíli. I thought you might be more comfortable wearing one.”

Fíli eyed the shirt, and Bilbo could see Kíli peering at him from behind his fingers, which were still covering his face. What strange creatures dwarves were.

“Yes,” Fíli finally said. “Thank you.”

Bilbo put the shirt down on the dresser by the door.

“It’s time for second breakfast already. You two must be hungry after yesterday.”

There was a pause again, and he could see that Fíli was struggling with himself. Kíli finally removed his hand from his face and stared at Bilbo with big eyes.

“We don’t take food from strangers,” Fíli finally said. Kíli looked at his brother as if wanted to disagree, but remained silent.

Bilbo sighed. Dwarves were known for their strange customs -- though, as far as he knew, those that travelled through the Shire tended to eat at the Green Dragon -- but maybe that wasn’t true of all dwarves. “I am sorry if it is insulting to you. But you did not carry any food with you and you do need to eat something, no?”

“We don’t take food from strangers,” Fíli repeated, even though his voice was tinged with hesitation now. Maybe they were simply cautious?

“How about this,” Bilbo began. “You serve the food; I’ll eat first, whatever you give me. To prove it’s safe to eat.”

Fíli looked at Kíli, and then back at Bilbo.

“All right.” He got up from the bed and then helped Kíli up, too. Their hair stuck in every which direction. Fíli was the one who took a few steps forward and took the shirt, very cautiously.

Bilbo shook his head as he returned to the dining room. Those dwarves really had no manners at all. Still, he couldn’t be angry, not when he heard how hesitant their footsteps were as they followed him. Bilbo chided himself. The dwarves who attacked them might have been people they trusted. After such an event, it was understandable that their distrust overrode any manners.

He took three plates from the shelves and put them on the table. Then he turned around to see where the two dwarves were standing, holding -- or rather, clutching -- hands. Kíli was wearing the shirt Bilbo had given him.

“There we go. Would you plate the food?”

The dwarf (Fíli, Bilbo reminded himself) nodded and dragged Kíli to the table. Once Kíli had reluctantly let go of his brother, Fíli inspected the food. The dwarf was sloppy as he ladled the eggs, the bacon, and the tomatoes onto the plates. Bilbo had no doubts that he was the one who would clean the mess later. But he sat down at the other side of the table and waited for Fíli to shove a plate and a piece of bread towards him. Both dwarves watched like hawks as he started eating.

When he had almost finished the plate, Fíli appeared satisfied and made an even bigger mess as he hastily put food on their plates. They were wolfing down the food, barely taking the time to chew. Bilbo had hoped that the bread and the bacon would form part of elevensies as well, but instead he had to bring out a second loaf of bread. Of course, the dwarves hadn't had anything to eat since the previous lunchtime. They were quiet during their meal.

Once even Kíli sat back and pushed his plate away to indicate that he was full, Fíli looked at Bilbo. “Thank you, that was nice,” he said politely, just a hint of shyness in his voice. He poked Kíli who looked up at Bilbo and nodded quickly. There was still some egg stuck to his chin.

“You’re very welcome, I’m glad you liked it.” Bilbo smiled. “Now, do you want a bath, or…”

“No!” Fíli said quickly. Then he bit his lips, “We want… we want to go back to our family.”

“Of course you do.” Bilbo looked at Kíli. “Do you know where they are? Are they in Bree?”

Fíli and Kíli looked at each other, and Fíli ducked down his head.

“I don’t know.” His voice wobbled slightly. “I don’t know.”

“Alright, alright.” Bilbo tried to be as upbeat as possible. “We will have to see if they can be found. You are welcome to stay here in the meantime. Of course, there’s also the Green Dragon, if you’d prefer an inn, but as I said, you can also stay here where it’s a bit quieter.”

It occurred to him how lost the dwarves seemed. Fíli put his arm around Kíli again, then he nodded hesitantly. “Thank you. We like your room. And Kíli needs more rest.”

“I’d say so. Would you like me to check on the wound, or would you like to do it yourself?”

“I’ll do it,” Fíli said haltingly.

Bilbo put up a kettle to boil some water for Fíli, and went to fetch rubbing alcohol and fresh -bandages.

***

When he went down to Hobbiton to the apothecary, he could only hope that the dwarves would not attempt to get away and look for their family. They were not, technically, prisoners, but Bilbo had a feeling that the Thain would not be impressed if they disappeared. Not that they could, really, with the state Kíli was in.

Fíli seemed very suspicious of the medicine that Bilbo brought home, but eventually consented to use it.

Both dwarves were silent apart from that little interaction, and it grated on Bilbo’s nerves. Whenever he had visitors from his large family, they were loud. He was not used to the smial being so quiet when he had guests. But they only shuffled out of the bedroom when they needed the bathroom, or when Bilbo came and fetched them for a meal. They always waited for Bilbo to start eating, and then shovelled down food as if they were afraid there would not be another meal.

Just before elevensies the next morning, Bilbo received a letter from the Thain himself. His uncle wrote that there had been reports of dwarves riding north, but they had not been caught, nor had any other dwarves been found in the Shire so far, apart from an old merchant. He asked Bilbo to bring his guests to Tuckborough within the next few days: “as soon as the brown-haired one is better.”

Bilbo wrote back to him that apparently the family of the two young dwarves was nearby, and that maybe discreet enquiries could be made in Bree.

**

When he told his guests that they had to go see the Thain, they seemed terrified. After he had explained who the Thain was, of course.

“We didn’t mean to do anything naughty!” Fíli protested. “We didn’t.”

“You’re not accused of anything,” Bilbo soothed them.

“Why does this — Theen— want to speak with us then?”

“Thain. And to find out what happened, of course.”

“Nothing happened!”

Bilbo gave Fíli a look and then let his gaze wander pointedly to Kíli’s torso.

“Nothing that concerns hobbits,” Fíli amended.

“It happened in the Shire, on hobbit land.”

“Maybe.” Fíli seemed to be unsure if he should concede that point.

“So we need to know what happened.”

“Dwarf business.” Fíli crossed his arms. “Our family will come. And they will get us.”

“That is good to hear,” Bilbo said encouragingly.

“And…” Fíli chewed his lip thoughtfully. “And, this was dwarf business.”

“So you said.”

“Yes, but. Only dwarf business. No danger for hobbits.”

Bilbo nodded, resigned that he would get no further with his strange guests just then.

***

When Kíli came for lunch, his bandages were almost undone and hanging out from underneath the shirt he was wearing.

Bilbo sighed. “Kili, we need to do your bandages again.”

And that blasted dwarf looked to his brother, who crossed his arms.

“Why?”

“They’re not done properly.”

Bilbo did not have much experience, but he could see that much.

After another meal that had not poisoned the dwarves, Fili graciously allowed Bilbo to unravel the bandages on Kíli’s torso, clean the wounds -- which made Kíli cry, much to Bilbo’s horror -- and redo them.

He then applied some more powder to Fíli head wound, which had Fíli squirm. But at least the blond muttered a “thank you.”

Kíli was already sleeping on the bed when Bilbo was finished with his brother.

The next few days passed quietly, and with much the same routine. Bilbo roused the dwarves, took care of their injuries, asked if they wanted a bath (which they always refused, even though they got dirtier and smellier by the day), and then served them meals.

Kíli’s injuries were healing at an astonishing rate, but they heard no more from the Thain or from the bounders.

Fíli once asked shyly if they had found their family, and when Bilbo said he had not, he looked ready to burst in tears. Neither dwarf came out for afternoon tea that day.

By the time the dwarves had been his reluctant visitors for nearly a week, Bilbo had finally had enough of their oddities. The dwarves were more relaxed now, but they were still very quiet. Kíli was smiling at him sometimes, but it always fell quickly as he was not sure he should. Bilbo still had heard no more than two words here and there from him. Fíli wavered between the behaviour of skittish kitten and an infuriating arrogance. Just the day before, he had told Bilbo that dwarf bread was superior to all that Bilbo offered.

They had a pillow fight two days earlier - and had tried to hide the evidence of the broken pillows. And Fíli had looked like he was about to cry when Bilbo had scolded him because this was not good for Kíli’s injuries. And then tears fell when Kili took off his shirt and indeed, blood had seeped through the bandages.

Bilbo had fetched new bandages and done everything again. And for the first time Kíli had mumbled, “thank you.”

The sun was shining now, and Bilbo had set the table in his gardens. The fuchsia his mother had planted was blooming spectacularly, as were her roses. And he had used his best china and doilies. He had baked his mother’s favourite scones as well -- though they probably held no shine to dwarf scones.

He knocked on the door, which was opened by Kíli, who smiled again.

“Tea time,” Kíli said, before Bilbo had a chance to announce it. “Tea time!”

Fíli appeared behind him. “Tea time?”

Bilbo had to bite on his tongue not to laugh. “Yes, I’ve served tea in the garden,” he explained.

“Thank you.”

At least Fíli had sufficient manners to say that before every mealtime.

“So,” Bilbo said, watching as his guests wolfed down the scones. (They obviously passed dwarvish standards.) “So… you two have lived here for almost a week. Don’t you think it is time we became better acquainted?”

“Akkainted?” Fíli looked up at him, clotted cream and jam clinging to the faint beginnings of a moustache.

“Get to know each other better,” Bilbo amended.

“What do you want to know?” Fíli asked, his eyes shielded again.

“I thought I would start,” Bilbo said. And he began to tell the story of the reluctant hunting trip, and how he was related to the other hobbits they encountered.

And grew a bit annoyed when the dwarves giggled when he told them the name of their temporary home. He did not see what was comical about the name “Bag End.”

“I am a Baggins,” he said, for emphasis, “A Baggins of Bag End. The name makes perfect sense.”

“Boggins,” Kili giggled.

“Baggins,” Bilbo corrected.

“Boggins.” More excited giggles. “You’re Mister Boggins.”

“Baggins,” Bilbo repeated slowly. He was getting a tad angry. He wasn’t used to being made fun of. As Baggins of Bag End he commanded a certain amount of respect among his fellow hobbits.

“Boggins!”

Bilbo glared at him. “My name is Baggins. Honestly, I don’t know anything about dwarven customs, but let me tell you, it is quite rude to insult your host among hobbits.”

Kíli’s face fell comically, and he sunk down on his chair. “’M sorry.”

Before Bilbo could recover from this strange reaction – was this still some kind of odd joke? – Fíli straightened his back and turned his chair, as if to try and shield his brother with his only slightly taller body.

“Kee’s only 25,” he said. “He meant no harm, honest.”

Bilbo blinked. “25! He doesn’t act like it.”

“Does too!” Fíli protested, patting Kíli’s knee. He looked at Bilbo defiantly. “I bet you were like that when you were 25.”

Bilbo cocked his head, “I was very well behaved with 25, let me tell you.”

“’M well-behaved!” Kíli insisted. To Bilbo’s horror, he put his thumb in his mouth.

“Is this your idea of a joke?” he demanded. Fíli put his arm around his brother.

“No!” he assured Bilbo, his blue eyes opened wide. He bit his lower lip. “We’re very sorry, really. Please don’t be mad.”

Bilbo took a deep breath. “Tell me…” he began, but then he couldn’t think of how to phrase the question. Was this possibly normal for dwarves? He sighed. “You said Kíli is only 25…”

“He is!” Fíli confirmed, still looking wary and hugging his brother with one arm. “I’m 30 already.”

Understanding began to dawn in Bilbo’s mind. “Fíli - at what age are dwarves considered adults?” Bilbo asked.

“40 when we come off age, and 50 when we move out of our parent’s homes.” Fíli looked at him with big eyes.

Bilbo was sure they weren’t joking, even if it seemed impossible that somebody as tall as Kíli, and sporting some sparse stubble, could actually still be, for all intents and purposes, a small child.

“I’m 45,” Bilbo said smiling. Fíli gaped and Kíli released his thumb, wide-eyed.

“45?” Fíli repeated, dumbfounded. “Where are your parents then?”

He looked around as if he expected Bilbo’s parents to jump out of hiding somewhere. This was probably not the moment to tell him that they had died 10 years earlier.

“Fíli, hobbits are considered adults at the age of 33, and we come of age, as you put it, at 25.”

“But…” Fíli stared at him, and Kíli giggled.

“I’m a grown up!” He hiccuped in his mirth. “Fíli, I’m grown up here!”

Fíli let go of his brother and looked at him sternly. “Kíli, you’re a dwarf, and you’re daft.”

“‘M not!”

“And I’m still older.” Fíli sat up very straight and glared at his brother.

Bilbo ignored their bickering as his mind was whirling. He had to write to the Thain. This changed things. They could have arranged it with their conscience to let adolescents go off and look for their family, but not children.

“So…” he started again. This situation was awkward. “I guess until we find your family, or they find you, I’ll be the one to take care of you.”

He told it to himself as much as to the dwarves… no, the dwarflings. They stared at him, then Fíli smiled shyly. And Bilbo wondered how they could not have seen before that while these dwarves were quite tall, their faces were that of children.

“Thank you.”

Kíli put his thumb back in his mouth. “I want my mam,” he mumbled.

Fíli scooted next to him and put his arm around his younger brother. “Me too,” he said with a valiant attempt to keep his voice steady.

“And we will do everything we can to find her,” Bilbo assured them. “Tomorrow, we will go to the Thain, and you can tell him what we need to know about your family. He will send out the best hobbits, all right?”

They nodded tentatively. Bilbo still smiled, feeling a bit hysterical. It was not often that you found yourself in the role of a caretaker of two small children who happened to be taller and stronger than yourself. They still looked at him as if expecting him to go on.

He sighed. “Let’s look for my old toys. Do dwarflings play with toys?”

“Course!” Fíli’s eyes lit up again. “Dwarves make the best.”

The hobbit laughed. “I’m afraid I only have hobbit toys. Do you want to see them?”

“YES!” Kíli shouted. Poor child, he’d probably been thoroughly bored cooped up in a strange house without anything to distract him.

Kíli was able to get the crates from the shelves without the small ladder Bilbo usually used. He made a mental note that keeping things out of these children’s reach would be tricky. He would probably have to visit the local carpenter and get some nice sturdy boxes with locks.

And possibly toys that were a bit bigger and sturdier. Though Kíli squealed when he saw the spinning tops, he was not sure how long his poor toys would survive in his big, clumsy hands.

Bilbo left Kíli and Fíli in the living room, happily spinning the spinning tops. He needed a moment alone in his garden. What a mess. He wondered for a moment if the dwarves were lying, but he had to crush that faint glimmer of hope. No. Them being children explained all of their strange behaviour. But what was he supposed to do with them? He was a bachelor who had always avoided the children of friends and relatives.

He could only hope that Kíli and Fíli’s family would come and look for them soon.

Chapter Text

Now that Bilbo knew his guests were children, he was sure their lack of hygiene was due to their age, not their culture. They had been wearing the same dirty clothes ever since they had arrived, and they hadn’t taken a single bath in all that time. The hobbit was determined to change that. He made sure the fire in his kitchen was out, and then reminded the dwarflings not to go outside, before he went into Hobbiton.

On his way, he stopped by the Gamgee’s to ask Bell if she needed anything. And, of course, she asked after the dwarves. She gasped when Bilbo revealed that they were actually children.

“Children! Oh, the poor dears! To be all alone among a strange race without their mummy.”

She clutched baby Sam closer to her chest.

“Yes,” Bilbo agreed. “I think that’s why they’ve refused bath time so far. I’m on my way to the market to get them some fresh clothes, I just didn’t want to take them with me, they are still distrustful. And, of course, Kíli is wounded.”

“I can understand.” Her voice was still full of sympathy. “What are you going to do with them now? They can’t travel onwards alone, can they?”

“Absolutely not.” Bilbo shook his head for emphasis. “Fíli has done his best to protect Kíli, and he is putting on a very brave face, but he’s clearly not mature enough to cope on his own.”

“Especially with nasty dwarves out there who want to kill them!”

Everyone in Hobbiton knew about that adventure by now.

“So, they will just have stay with me until their family can be found,” Bilbo concluded. “Hopefully soon.”

“That’s mighty good of you, Master Baggins. If you have any trouble with them, you know you can always ask Hamfast or me for help.”

Bilbo doubted they knew much about dealing with overgrown children, but he thanked her for the offer nevertheless.

***

Bilbo’s announcement that they were going to take a bath was met with resistance.

“I dun wanna!” Kíli crossed his arms where he sat on the rug.

“Me neither.” Fíli also crossed his arms. “Baths are nasty.”

Kíli nodded vigorously.

“You’re very dirty,” Bilbo admonished.

“No.” Fíli was also pouting now. “We travelled before. We were always dirty.”

“But when you had an opportunity to wash? Didn’t you?”

How else would they know they didn’t like it? And their hair had looked much better the week before. Fíli bit his lip.

“We didn’t,” he claimed, but he wouldn’t look at Bilbo as he said it.

“Fíli.” Bilbo tried to imitate Bell’s tone when she was scolding Hamson, and, to his surprise, it worked. Fíli flushed and bit his lip.

“Mam made us take a bath whenever we could,” he finally admitted.

“I dun wanna!” Kíli repeated. “Can’t make me.”

Physically, that would indeed be impossible. Bilbo remembered how his mother had just picked him up and dumped him in the tub whenever he had acted up as a child, but that was clearly out of the question here. He sighed. “Kíli, look at your hair. And the state of your shirt.”

Kíli didn’t. He just glowered. “No.”

Bilbo suppressed an irritated huff and turned to the older brother. “Fíli, you know you need to take a bath. You’re filthy, and you can’t go see the Thain like that...”

The blond dwarf stared at him with a defiant look in his eyes, but he was clearly coming around. Contrary to Kíli, who was still pouting alarmingly. Bilbo frowned. How else could he make somebody taller and stronger than him take a bath?

“There won’t be any sweets if you don’t take a bath,” he threatened.

The brothers looked at him for a moment.

“Sweets?” Kíli asked then, his eyes big and round.

Bilbo nodded. “I have some nice berries in the kitchen; we were going to have them with clotted cream and fresh honeycake from the market. But I can take them to the Gamgees, I’m sure the children over there were well behaved today, and deserve the treat.” (Knowing Hamson, Halfred, and Daisy, that was quite unlikely.)

“You wouldn’t!” Kíli protested.

“I will,” Bilbo said calmly, and walked out of the room and into the kitchen. He had just put his big basket on the table when both dwarves appeared at the door.

“We’ll take a bath,” Fíli promised.

“Good.” Bilbo smiled. “You’ll need to help me with that, Fíli.”

“I can help too!” Kíli cried. Bilbo had to bite back a chuckle. Clearly, Kíli didn’t like being left out, even if it involved preparing a bath he didn’t want to take.

Bilbo tsked. “You’re still healing, Kíli. You can’t carry heavy buckets right now.”

“I can!”

Bilbo rubbed his forehead. “All right. If you want to help, then why don’t you hold the doors open for us?”

“Yes, Kíli, hold the doors open,” Fíli said, unexpectedly supporting Bilbo, and Kíli nodded and grinned. Apparently carrying buckets was not that attractive to him after all.

He was allowed, however, to help Fili bring in the logs for the fire, though Bilbo warned them afterwards to stay away once he had it lit. But it soon became clear that he would not have needed to; Bilbo could see their family had already taught the boys to have a healthy respect for fire, because as soon as flames started crackling from the first log, they retreated.

When the first big pot of water was on the stove, Bilbo asked the dwarflings if they had any spare clothes.

As it turned out, among the things Fili had rescued from the wagon were two tunics, one pair of trousers (Fili’s), and one pair of socks (Kili’s). Of course, Bilbo had not remembered to get any socks for them while he had been in town, and so, made a mental note to find some.

Some hobbits in the East Farthing wore boots and socks on occasion, so he just needed to remember to ask somebody travelling that way to have some sent to Hobbiton. Children sized, of course, because the dwarves might be bigger than Bilbo, but their feet were truly kid sized.

Meanwhile, Kili sullenly admitted that the hobbit trousers Bilbo had organised for him in Hobbiton would fit him, and reluctantly, he agreed to wear them.

It took some work to fill two bathtubs for the two dwarves. Kíli complained that the last time he had taken a bath, he had shared a tub with Fíli, but Bilbo assumed that must have been in a human settlement. Hobbit bathtubs weren’t big enough for two dwarves. And there was also Kíli’s injury to consider. The wound was healed enough that a bath should do no harm, provided Kíli kept his chest out of the water. But, in a tub with Fíli, Bilbo suspected they would play around, and that would not be ideal.

Once the tubs were filled, he gave them both a bar of soap, and then waited for them to undress so he could collect their dirty clothes.

When he had just put their shirts in a basin in the laundry room (to soften the dirt before he could properly wash them), he heard Kíli calling for him.

The bathroom floor was as flooded as Bilbo had expected. Luckily, hobbit trousers ended mid-calf. Fíli was standing next to Kíli’s tub, pouting, and Kíli glared at him. They both turned to Bilbo.

“You need to wash m’hair,” Kíli said simply. “Fíli’s being mean.”

“Am not,” Fíli stuck out his tongue.

“You pull too hard!”

“Boys…” Bilbo held up his hands. “I’ll try, Kíli, all right? Fíli, why don’t you start on your own hair.”

“I’m not being mean!” Fíli repeated, still pouting, but he turned around to get back into his own tub.

Kíli’s hair was a challenge. The boy had obviously just been brushing the top layer of his hair for quite some time. Bilbo pulled out little clumps of dirt and leaves from the felted mat of hair, and, in the end, announced that they would need to work on this more later.

It also turned out that Fíli’s hair was not in a much better state. In fact, it was even more difficult to handle: although the wound on Fíli’s head was closed, the area was still very tender. And he just had even more hair than Kíli.

In the end, Bilbo sat them down in front of the fire in the living room, as it was getting a bit chilly now, and tried to do his best. He really wished he had made them take a bath earlier in the day so he could have taken Bell up on her offer to help him handle their long hair.

A lot of berries and honeycakes were needed to dry the tears later that evening, when their hair was finally in an acceptable state again (and not without having to cut some of it off).

Still, Bilbo was amazed that he had actually succeeded in making his new charges take a bath and take care of their hair.

Scrubbed up like that, they looked much more respectable - and ready to present themselves to the Thain the next day.

Chapter Text

Kíli complained about his chest wound as they walked down to the Green Dragon to get a cart for the day. It had not seemed to bother him at all the day before when he had played in the living room. And he was also complaining about how short his hobbit trousers were, so Bilbo did not think there was much cause to worry.

As they passed the Gamgee’s house, the Gamgee brood immediately stopped playing and stared at them. Kíli and Fíli stared right back.

“Why are the babies alone outside,” Fíli whispered to Bilbo.

“Babies?” Bilbo looked back at the Gamgees. Hamson seemed to be in charge of his siblings today. “Fíli, they’re not babies, Hamson is starting his apprenticeship soon.”

Fíli and Kíli stopped and looked back again. Some of the Gamgee children hesitatingly waved, and Bilbo waved back.

“Hobbits age differently,” Bilbo explained. “We only reach our full height as adults.”

“Wow.”

It took some effort to nudge them into walking on. And the closer they got to Hobbiton, the quieter they became, staying close to Bilbo’s side as they became aware of the stares they were getting from the other hobbits, both young and old.

Bilbo made a point of greeting his neighbours by name and they, for the most part, returned the courtesy.

Hamfast had ordered the cart for them the day before, and when they made it to the Green Dragon, it was already waiting outside.

The cart drive was less stressful than Bilbo had imagined. Kili and Fili were clearly used to travelling by cart, and they soon fell asleep in the back while Bilbo sat on the edge and let the ponies trot along.

When the sprawling smials of Tuckborough came in sight, Bilbo stopped to wake the dwarflings. “Nearly there, boys! Come on now, sit up and straighten your hair.”

That was met with some mild whining, which Bilbo ignored. Instead he helped straighten their ponytails, the only way any of them knew to tame their long hair.

****

Inside, they were greeted by the usual gaggle of Tooks. A Took never came alone; there always seemed to be at least 10 of them. Isembard and Flambard were among their welcoming committee, as well as some of the fauntlings (Bilbo could never remember all of their names). The fauntlings were hiding behind their mothers’ skirts, but peered at the strangers.

Bilbo told the assembled Tooks that he would speak to the Thain alone first, and asked that they make sure to feed the dwarflings in his absence. They looked startled at the term, but Primula immediately invited the two dwarves to the sitting room.

Everyone was even more startled when Kíli unexpectedly grabbed Bilbo’s hand and said he wanted to stay with Bilbo.

Fíli nodded, taking Kíli’s other hand, but stared at Bilbo with big, blue eyes. “Don’t leave us alone, Bilbo.”

“No one will harm you,” Bilbo assured them. He looked at his family. “As it turns out, our visitors are still children.” As there was no time for explanation, which he was sure would be demanded, he turned to Kíli and patted his hand. “Look, you know Isembard and Flambard, don’t you? They saved your life!”

He felt that deserved a bit of gratitude, as did his uncle and cousin, if their vigorous nods were anything to go by.

Recognition dawned on the dwarflings’ faces, and Kíli let go of Bilbo’s hand.

“Oh, yes,” Fíli said, blinking at them. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” Isembard smiled. “Now, why don’t you join us in the sitting room for some tea until the Thain calls for you?”

It was a high honour for children to be allowed at the table in the sitting room. Usually, the children ate their cake in the kitchen, but these were special circumstances. So while the rest of the children trotted off to the kitchen, Kíli and Fíli were herded to the sitting room, looking back at Bilbo, who did his best to smile reassuringly.

***

Fifteen minutes later, Bilbo had finished relating all he knew to his uncle. The Thain frowned at Bilbo.

“Children, you say?”

“Yes. They have the bodies of adolescents, but their minds are those of fauntlings, no older than 10.”

“And you are sure they are not deceiving you?” The Thain had a healthy respect for his nephew’s judgement, Bilbo knew, but also a healthy dose of suspicion.

Bilbo gave a curt nod. “Yes. It does explain much of their behaviour. And can you picture adult dwarves allowing a hobbit to help them bathe and brush and cut their hair?”

The Thain, who had the occasional contact with dwarves, could not.

But there was still the matter of determining who had wanted to kill Bilbo’s visitors, and so the Thain decided that talking to the dwarves in question, young though they were, would be necessary. To make the whole situation less threatening, Bilbo suggested that they join the family in the living room. It was highly inappropriate, but luckily, the Thain was a Took, and soon agreed that Bilbo’s reasoning was correct.

Uncle and nephew soon joined the family in the sitting room, where Fíli and Kíli had relaxed enough to do justice to the cakes that the Took ladies had prepared. No one who saw their cream smeared faced could doubt their lack of maturity.

Bilbo cleared his throat, and the two dwarves immediately began to grab napkins and clean their faces, to the indulgent chuckles around them. Lily Took, née Chubb, helped Kíli with the spots he had missed. The poor young dwarf flinched a bit, but apparently he had already realised that there was nothing to stop a determined Took.

The Thain, meanwhile, had sat down next to them at Fíli’s side, while Bilbo sat down next to Lily, just one spot removed from Kíli.

“Welcome to Tuckborough,” the Thain said, as one of his sisters poured him tea. “And welcome to the Shire.”

“Thank you,” Fíli mumbled at his plate. Kíli just nodded while his brother spoke.

“My brothers and nephews have told me about what happened,” the Thain continued. “But I hope you understand that we need to know a bit more.”

Fíli bit his lip. “It was just dwarf business,” he said, with much of the same sullenness he had displayed when he had first arrived.

“Dwarf business in the Shire?”

Fíli seemed to contemplate his next words. Then he nodded. “They wanted to kill us, not hobbits.”

“Were they your family?”

“NO!”

It had been Kíli who had shouted, and once he realised what he had done, he sank down in his chair, trying to make himself appear smaller. Bilbo reached over to him and patted his hand, while Fíli was still shaking his head.

“Our family is nice,” Fíli insisted, while Lily and Bilbo discreetly swapped seats.

“Where are they, then?”

The Tooks, rowdy as they were, could be a patient bunch. They had numerous offspring to have practised with, after all.

Fíli finally spoke. “Looking for us.”

“But where did they leave you?” the Thain insisted. “Are you from the new settlement in the Blue Mountains?”

The two dwarflings seemed to be impressed that the Thain knew there was a new settlement. So they nodded.

“These dwarves were friends of our uncle,” Fíli finally revealed, after an encouraging nod from Bilbo. “They said they’d bring us to the Blue Mountains, because our … our family had business.”

“And where did your family leave you with those friends of your uncle?”

Fíli looked at Kíli, who clearly was not a big help. Fíli drew some circles on the table with his finger.

“Near a forest.”

The Thain looked at Bilbo, who shrugged, but asked:

“Was it the big old forest? The scary one?”

Fíli looked at him, hunching his shoulders. “Maybe?” he hazarded. “They said they would come after us in one month.”

Everyone felt that this was all they were going to get at this point, and the dwarves probably did not know much more themselves.

“I will have the bounder increase the patrols around Hobbiton,” the Thain decided. “Just in case the dwarves who attacked you come back. I am very sorry we did not manage to capture them.”

Fíli immediately moved closer to Kíli. The thought that the dwarves who wanted to kill them would return, rather than their family, had obviously not occurred to them.

***

A little bit later, an intrepid young fauntling appeared in the sitting room and told the assembled adults that they were playing football outside - and then asked if the dwarves could come and play with them.

And, because these were Tooks, the family was delighted that the children wanted to make contact with strangers.

But Bilbo vetoed the idea immediately, telling his young relatives that, as Kíli was recovering from an injury, he would absolutely not play football.

“I can play!” Kíli put in. “Honest. They are so small, it is not that hard!”

“No, Kíli.”

The little Took fauntling was not so easily deterred.

“What about playing croquet? We’ve got the balls for it.”

Bilbo conceded that croquet was acceptable, though Fíli and Kíli obviously had no idea what croquet was. But they knew the word “playing”, and that it had to be more fun than sitting inside with adults.

“Bilbo, come with us!” Kíli demanded, tugging at Bilbo’s hand.

“But …” Bilbo looked into Kíli’s big brown eyes, and his objection died on his lips. It seemed that Kíli was beginning to trust him, but he was obviously still afraid that he was going to be abandoned.

And so the entire family went outside, as a Took would never suffer a hobbit to do something on his own.

Soon everyone, including the grown up Tooks, was playing, until they all decided they were hungry - at which point they finally went back inside for cold cuts and bread.

Fíli and Kíli had laughed every time Bilbo failed, and that was a surprisingly beautiful sound.

***

As it was getting late, the Tooks suggested that they stay the night.

Bilbo was touched, although slightly put out, when the dwarflings insisted that they share a room with Bilbo if they stayed.

He was a bachelor. A bachelor with his own smial. He had never shared his room with anyone.

Still, it was impossible to deny the pleading eyes of the dwarves, however much taller than him they might have been, and so he agreed. A large bedroom was found for them.

Kili and Fili took the big bed, while Bilbo made do with a straw mattress on the floor next to them - after he stopped them from fighting for the good side, sternly reminding Fíli that the cart drive must have been hard on his brother.

In the middle of the night, he was woken up by sobs. It took him a while to orient himself.

Then he sat up, still unsure what to do.

The moon was nearly full, and when Bilbo pulled open the curtains, the room was bathed in a soft light.

And he saw that it was Fíli who was curled up on the bed and shaking, while Kíli still seemed to be asleep.

“Fíli?” he whispered. The shaking stopped for a moment.

Very tentatively, Bilbo walked around the bed to sit down at Fíli’s feet. He patted them awkwardly. The sobs became a bit louder as Fíli struggled to sit up, his eyes glittering in the dim light as he looked at Bilbo.

“Bilbo?”

“You can’t sleep?”

Fíli shook his head mutely. Bilbo knew what was bothering him, of course he did. But he could hardly discuss Fíli’s fears in the middle of the night. So he whispered: “I’ll go and make some milk with honey for you, to help you sleep. I’ll be right back.”

That had been his mother’s cure-all, when Bilbo had been a child.

He was glad he had had the foresight to prepare two mugs, because when he came back, Kíli was sitting up too, hugging his knees.

Bilbo sat down on the edge of the bed and they immediately scooted closer, sitting on either side of him.

“Our family …” Fili began hesitantly. “Our mam …”

“Will be looking for you, I am sure.” Bilbo patted the boy’s arm. “Do you know when she meant to be back to the Blue Mountains? In a month, you said?”

Fili nodded hesitantly. “She won’t even know anything happened until then, will she?”

“Probably not.”

On Bilbo’s other side, Kíli struggled suddenly with getting his milk down once his mother was mentioned. Bilbo slapped his back helpfully.

“It’s hard to say when your family will be back to find you.”

“Can you not …” Fíli looked at him. “Can you not send a message to the Blue Mountains?”

“That is what the Thain intends to do,” Bilbo assured him.

“Okay.” Fíli’s voice faded, and Bilbo took the mugs from the sleepy dwarves.

Fussy hobbit that he was, he brought them back down to the kitchen and washed them before creeping back to the bedroom. There he found the dwarflings dozing on top of the sheets, so he went through some considerable trouble to tuck them in again, pushing and turning the two half-awake, massive children around until they were covered by cozy sheets again.

This was going to be exhausting.

But, tired though Bilbo was, it took a while before he was able to fall asleep. He had not been entirely honest with Fíli - yes, the Thain intended to send a message to the Blue Mountains, but that message was not to say that two young dwarflings had been found. After all, it was still unclear who wanted Fíli and Kíli dead - and, until they knew the answer, it was impossible to know whom to trust with that particular message. Instead, the Thain would simply send word that he requested to speak to the leader of the settlement, as he had an urgent question.

One could only hope that they would be able to find out what happened soon so they could deliver the two dwarflings into the safe hands of their family.

Chapter Text

Back in Bag End, the boys and Bilbo were still struggling to find a routine.

Bilbo had neglected his duties as a landlord over much of the surrounding area, and was trying to get behind his correspondence and arranging repairs to ditches. It was difficult to concentrate when one had two overgrown children insisting they needed to be in the same room as him.

They did not like to play silently, and even when Bilbo gave them something quiet to occupy themselves with, like building blocks, they would end up fighting sooner or later because Kili liked to destroy the structures they built, while Fili took great pride in building magnificent castles.

Sometimes when the dwarves get bored, Bilbo tried to come up with something to entertain them. Fíli loved playing riddles with Bilbo, but Kíli’s mental abilities were not up to the game yet, so he generally just doodled something on Bilbo’s wastepaper while his brother delighted in solving the simple riddles Bilbo posed and tried to come up with his own. Bilbo always pretended to puzzle over them, though some of them were indeed actually unsolvable for hobbits not acquainted with the language of smiths and miners. Particularly the garbled version of smithing and mining processes of a child. It all got especially confusing when Kíli tried to help explain something to Bilbo.

Bilbo had originally hoped that he might get some work done after the children were in bed. But that was much harder to accomplish than he had anticipated. Bilbo wanted them to go to bed after supper. Kíli never wanted to.

And how did one make a sleepy child go to bed if there were no sweets to promise? They got their hot milk and honey in the kitchen, as Bilbo had always done. He had contemplated letting them have it in bed, but then shuddered at the mess they would make.

But there were too many evenings when Kíli simply fell asleep in the sitting room, or in the kitchen, and then Fíli would insist on sleeping next to his brother, so Bilbo would need to physically rearrange Kíli into a comfortable position, and find some blankets and cushions to tuck his dwarflings in wherever they happened to fall asleep. By the time that was done, he usually felt too exhausted to do much work, he just waited for them to become half-awake again so he could steer them to bed before he fell into his own.

At least Kíli’s wound continued to heal at a rapid pace, which was a good thing. The boy was getting antsy, bursting with energy that had nowhere to go. He broke two spinning tops and several building blocks when he was in a bad mood and threw them through the room. Afterwards he was very sorry, of course, but Bilbo wished he could just let the two dwarves run around outside until they were tired.

***

The dwarflings were not happy about the buckwheat groats that Bilbo served for first breakfast. But they soon found that when they tried to skip first breakfast, second breakfast would be buckwheat groats again. If they wanted their toast and jam, a bowl of buckwheat had to be eaten first.

Kíli was still hiding whenever somebody visited and would not even talk to Hamfast, the gardener. But when it was just the three of them, the boy was hardly ever shutting up and became quite rambunctious, now that his wounds were nearly completely healed.

So one morning, two weeks after they visited the Thain, Kíli simply decided to go to the pantry before first breakfast to get the food he wanted.

Bilbo had come running when the first jar of jam crashed to the ground.

By the time he arrived, a glass of fresh honey was laying on its side and the thick honey was slowly flowing towards the cheese.

Kíli and Fíli were standing in the middle of the mess, Fíli trying to clean up the floor with a towel, spreading the jam around, while Kíli was munching on a piece of bread.

“WHAT have you DONE to my PANTRY???”

Bilbo realised that he had screamed when Kíli dropped his bread and both of them looked at him with big eyes. He took a deep breath.

“What. Are. You. Doing.”

“I wanted the yummy food.” Kíli explained, eyes still wide.

Bilbo closed his eyes and counted to ten.

“Go.”

“But ….”

“NOW!”

Bilbo felt light headed. This was not something he was equipped to deal with. At all. He had no idea how to discipline children. And especially not children physically superior to him. What could he do if they refused?

To his relief, they both shuffled off. Bilbo ignored them as he took in the damage.

He would deal with them later. First, he had a pantry to clean.

And later, he would finally go down to Hobbiton to order sturdy boxes. With locks. And if it took as long as they feared to find the relatives of the dwarves, he’d need to have the carpenter come up to Bag End to put in locks. Yes, locks. Locks were the key, so to speak.

***

Once he was done, Bilbo passed the door to the dwarflings’ room and heard sobbing. Rather alarmed, he knocked on the door.

There was a pause in the crying, and then he heard a loud hiccup. And then small feet padding toward the door. It was Fíli who opened it, of course.

When the dwarf would not look at him, Bilbo pressed. “Fíli? What is the matter?”

Fíli shrugged and continued to look at the floor. Bilbo peered behind him to see Kíli laying on the bed, his face hidden in a pillow.

“What is going on, boys?”

There was no answer and Bilbo huffed. “Look, if you don’t want to tell me, fine. But can I bring you some tea or milk?”

Kíli turned his head a little to peer at him, and Fíli looked up quickly. “But … but you don’t want us here anymore.”

Bilbo blinked. “Don’t be silly, Fíli.”

“You told us to go.” Fíli chewed on his lip, his eyes on the floor again.

Kíli hiccuped on the bed. “You told us to go,” he repeated. “‘M so sorry.”

“Please don’t make us go away,” Fíli continued for his brother, looking up again, tears shining in his blue eyes. “We won’t do anything naughty again, we won’t.”

Kíli pushed himself up and nodded vigorously, hiccuping too much to add anything.

Bilbo felt like the worst person alive.

“Boys …” He took a deep breath. “I did not mean to send you away. I would never send you away. Come on …” He gently shoved Fíli closer to the bed and the dwarfling dutifully stumbled along and sat down. Bilbo sat down too, between the brothers, and awkwardly reached out to smooth some stray strands of hair out of Kíli’s wet face.

“Boys, I only meant that you should go to your room. I would never kick you out.”

“You …. you would not?”

Bilbo looked at Fíli’s anxious face. It struck him that there were only five years difference between the brothers. Given the dwarves’ long childhood, that would translate to barely more than 2 years in hobbit years. Fíli was good at putting on a brave face and acting as if he was older, but he was also still a child. He reached out even more awkwardly and patted Fíli’s arm.

“No, I would not. I promised you, I will take care of you until we find your family, did I not? And I keep my promises.”

Fíli smiled hesitantly. “Even when we’re naughty?”

“Well … all children are naughty sometimes, I am aware of that. I don’t expect you two to be perfect.” Bilbo dared to smile back a little. “Please don’t raid the pantry again. I understand that jam is tastier than buckwheats, but it is a treat, all right?”

“Yes.” It was Kíli who answered, slowly edging closer to Bilbo and looking down at him with big eyes. “But I really don’t like the bookweet.”

“Once we’ve finished the buckwheat groats in the pantry, we can try porridge,” Bilbo conceded. “Maybe you like oats better?”

It was getting a bit exhausting to look left and right to reassure both of them. Turning to Fíli again, Bilbo also smoothed some of the blond’s hair back once he noticed how anxious the poor child looked.

“Fíli, you may consider Bag’s End your home until you are back with your family. I am sorry I lost my temper today. But if I ever tell you to go again, it just means I am too angry to talk to you. Understand? It just means you should go to your room.”

Fíli nodded hesitantly and edged a bit closer, as did Kíli. Their faces wavered between expectation and hesitation, until Bilbo picked up on the clue and put his own shorter arms around both of them as well as he could, and they immediately melted against him, their long, skinny arms encircling him.

Bilbo had not hugged anyone in a long time and it felt very weird, especially when Kíli rested his head against his. But it seemed agreeable enough to the dwarflings, especially Fíli. The blond dwarf put nearly all his weight on Bilbo, his head on Bilbo’s shoulder as he was curling himself against the hobbit, who was struggling to remain upright.

“All right then,” he said after a while, when another issue became ever more evident. “It is time for another bath, boys.”

And his arms were immediately empty as the dwarves recoiled.

“Do we have to?” Kíli whined

“You do,” Bilbo said, as firmly as he could. He was still feeling a bit shaken. “You’ve got jam and bread crumbs in your hair, Kíli. And, to be perfectly honest, you both smell a little.”

He braced himself for the refusal and the complaints, but surprisingly, this time Fíli and Kíli relented immediately. The both pouted, but they nodded slowly and got up from the bed.

Chapter Text

A month passed, and still there was no sign of any dwarves other than the traders who often passed through the Shire. If they noticed the bounders looking at them more closely, they did not show it. None of them acted suspiciously in any way, nor did they ask after any dwarflings. Bilbo was glad that the Hill was not directly on the route through the Shire, which meant there was no danger of any random dwarves passing through to get a glimpse of Fíli and Kíli. And the secretive nature of both the hobbits and the dwarves made it unlikely that any hobbit would divulge what happened.

And trade was slowing now in autumn, it would almost come to a standstill in winter.

*

On a beautiful, sunny yet slightly chilly day, Bilbo let Fíli and Kíli play in the front garden, which he tried to encourage them to do more and more often. He had even got them some warmer clothes and had managed to find warm socks for them. They needed to get used to the sight of hobbits, and the neighbours needed to get used to the sight of them.

For the moment, they were still trying to keep themselves out of side, sitting on the cold ground and playing with marbles. They had build a ring with the fallen leaves. Fílli seemed more interested in building the perfect playing arena, while Kíli had been impatient to get going..

Bilbo sat on his bench, smoking his pipe as he watched them. He was quite engrossed in wondering if and when he should take them for a nice walk to show them the land, to the point that he did not realise there were hobbits coming up to his smial.

“Bilbo.” The voice of the Thain startled the three of them, and Kíli toppled backwards to the ground in shock. The Thain, as well as Isembard, Flambard, and Lily stood at the gate, smiling.

Bilbo got up. “Welcome! What brings you all to Hobbiton?”

The Thain opened the little gate and walked into the garden.

“I needed to speak with you. We left our ponies at the Green Dragon, knowing you did not have the room.”

He looked around with a faint air of disapproval. All Tooks had stables, but a Baggins would not keep a pony. Why, a Baggins would scarcely venture beyond his immediate surroundings, of course, so he had no need.

“Let me make you some tea.” Bilbo smiled at the dwarves. “You can stay outside if you like.”

Fíli and Kíli looked at each other, clearly torn. Then they followed the adults inside, and Bilbo startled his relatives when he admonished the dwarves to take off their boots.

After they all had some tea, and the Tooks had questioned Fili and Kili about all the games they played, Isembard, Flambard, and Lily got up.

“Fili, Kili, we’ve got a present for you.”

That took even Kíli’s attention away from the very important task of finding the last crumbs of scones on the plate.

With a flourish, Lily pulled croquet mallets out of a bag, and Isembard pulled hoops out of another.

Fíli cheered and Kíli grinned broadly. Bilbo suspected that the dwarflings were used to more energetic sports, seeing how often he saw Kíli starting to run and then flinch when his chest reminded him that he had been seriously hurt. But for now, croquet seemed enough to raise their spirits.

“So, shall we set it up?” Lily suggested. “My brother-in-law needs to discuss some boring things with Bilbo, why don’t we go outside and find the best spot?”

Fíli and Kíli glanced at Bilbo, who plastered a cheerful smile on his face.

“Just be careful with the flowers, all right? We will join you soon.”

There was just the tiniest hesitation in the dwarves, then they seemed to decide that joining their actual saviours right next to the home they had stayed in for the last few weeks was safe enough.

The Thain only waited until the door had closed, before he put his mug of tea down.

“I had no direct response to my letter,” he started, frowning at Bilbo’s immaculate table. “One letter from what appears to be the new leader, advising me that they would be interested to start trade negotiations in the coming month. I suppose that’s what he thought my letter was about.”

Bilbo nodded. “That is not helpful.”

“No, and even more worrying.” The Thain rubbed his hand through his unruly curls. “Even more worrying is that a group of dwarves got into a fight with the bounders.”

“They what?”

“It appears that these particular dwarves were intent on interrogating hobbits on the comings and goings on the road. The bounders interceded and … well. The dwarves are, unfortunately, dead.” The Thain sighed. “For such a hardy folk, they seem remarkably easy to accidentally kill in a fight.”

Bilbo bit his lower lip. “This is worrying.”

“Yes.” The Thain sighed. “We are lucky that no bounder died. I have sent a letter to the Blue Mountains, of course, to let them know. But I will not send any more letters even hinting at your visitors.”

“That might be best.” Bilbo gave a nod that was more decisive than he felt. “Their family knows which way they travelled.”

“Precisely. And we cannot risk the lives of hobbits by giving any more hints.” The Thain got up to signal that a decision had been reached. “If they had started out nearer the Blue Mountains, their family certainly would have gone with them there first. It would make sense for them to look for their children along the way they would have travelled.”

“One would hope so.” Bilbo walked over to the window, from which he could just see Kíli stomping on some ground, presumably to even it. “They are delightful children, and I am growing fond of them, but I am not well suited to look after dwarflings.”

“You seem to be doing a remarkably good job.”

Bilbo wanted to retort something to that, but he had been spotted at the window and Kíli waved at him, motioning for him to come outside.

*

Bilbo’s garden looked better than he had feared. A very modest croquet course had been built, and only one of his flower bed’s was trampled on.

Just as he took a mallet from Fíli, he saw the entire Gamgee clan coming towards them. Hamfast and Bell were carrying their two youngest: May, a cheerful toddler, and Sam, a very serious baby. Their older children were carrying baskets: Hamson, a sturdy young adolescent; Halfred, the cheekiest fauntling all around; and their sister Daisy, who was small but so fiery it worried her staid parents.

Keep calm, Bilbo reminded himself. Children, it turned out, were very much like dogs. Not that Bilbo had much experience with dogs, either. But he knew that the key was to remain calm, and to not get flustered. If he acted like it was a completely normal occurrence to be ambushed by the Gamgee family, Fíli and Kíli would likely not be spooked.

Still, both dwarves jumped next to him, once their visitors knocked at the gate.

“Seriously,” Bilbo tutted, “you know Mr. Gamgee by now, surely.”

The dwarves mumbled what could be counted as a Hello.

Hamfast smiled at them - he may have been suspicious of the dwarves at first, but he had quickly become used to them.

“And this is his wife, Mrs. Gamgee, as well as Hamson, Halfred, Daisy, little May, and baby Sam.” Bilbo pointed at the various family members.

Bell nodded pleasantly. “We have come to properly introduce ourselves, but we didn’t want to intrude, of course!”

She looked at the Thain, her hands playing with her apron strings. The Thain smiled broadly.

“Oh, you do not!”

There was no mistaking the way that the Tooks peered at the baskets, and Bell quickly smoothed her hair with her free hand.

“I have prepared some cakes, and of course the children insisted on carrying them.”

Halfred and Daisy had a brief struggle over who could hold up their basket the highest..

“Thank you very much.” Bilbo smiled broadly. Then he nudged the dwarves at his sides. “Boys? What do we say?”

They shuffled their feet noisily. “Thank you.”

They did not take their eyes off the Gamgee children, who in turn eyed them just as curiously, while Bilbo took over the baskets.

Daisy was the first to speak. “Are you real dwarves?” she demanded.

Fíli and Kíli looked at each other, and then at her, their eyes big. “Course we are. The realest.”

Not to be outdone by his little sister, Halfred put his small fists on his hips. “And are you really children?”

Fíli and Kíli looked at each other again and nodded, obviously confused by these silly questions.

Daisy piped in again: “So why are you so big?”

Kíli looked down at her and blinked. “Why are you so tiny?”

Daisy giggled. “Because I’m a child, silly.”

“We thought you were babies. When I was your size, I couldn’t even talk,” Kíli revealed.

“I could,” Fíli claimed. Only to be hit in the arm with a croquet mallet by his brother. Gently enough for Bilbo not to intervene.

“You couldn’t,” Kíli said in his sternest voice.

“Could too!”

Halfred and Daisy giggled, and the sound made Fíli and Kíli look at them again.

“My left front tooth is loose,” Daisy informed them, and opened her mouth proudly.

“Wow!” Kíli inspected the tooth with interest. “I already got my second set of teeth. Is that your first set or your second?”

Daisy closed her mouth. “First of course! If you lose your second, you have to have fake teeth. Like grandma.”

“Dwarves have three sets.”

“You’re a liar!”

“No, we’re not!”

Bilbo watched with fascination as the discussion went on. It seemed like in no time they had covered several other fascinating topics and then Kíli and Fíli were holding a rope, which Hamfast had produced from the shed, and swung it so Daisy and Halfred could skip.

Flambard and Bilbo went inside to prepare some more tea bring and lay out plates in the dining room, so everyone could enjoy some tea and cakes.

Bilbo ran out again in alarm when he heard some high-pitched screaming, but was intercepted by Bell and Isembard, when he tried to demand what was going on.

“Just children playing,” Bell laughed. “Little dears are always screaming about, that were just May and Daisy being silly.”

Isembard nodded shortly. “You’ll soon learn to know when it is a real emergency, my boy.”

Bilbo rubbed his nose and watched the children. Indeed, there seemed to be nothing wrong with any of them. He did have much to learn about children.

***

It became a common occurrence for the Gamgee children to come up with their father when he came to work in the garden so they could play with the dwarves.

Bilbo had admonished them to be careful with the comparatively fragile fauntlings, which had deeply offended the dwarves who informed them that they knew to be careful with “babies.”

They also became more comfortable with playing outside alone, often repurposing sticks to enact swordfights. Kíli was well enough now for the exercise, but they soon both sported many bruises. It was worth it though, because more often than not, even Kíli was too tired to do any damage after that.

On rainy days, they would play hide and seek inside with Bilbo, or Took and Gamgee visitors.

There were some hiccups, of course. Bilbo was not impressed when, after a rainy day, they had wrestled in the mud outside the door, destroying some of the grass, and then dragged mud all through the smial when they dashed to the kitchen in hopes of some nice tea. Bilbo had sent them straight to the bathroom, amid much pleading, apologies, and whining. They had all cleaned up together after that, which probably had an even better effect than the bath of making sure that from then onwards, the dwarflings always took their dirty shoes and clothes off in the hallway. They had not enjoyed cleaning.

*

Isembard and Lily brought a message one day to let Bilbo know that a very strange delegation had visited the Thain. They had not made their purpose clear, but some veiled talks about hunting and the wood had made the Thain suspect they were fishing for information about the incident that had brought Fíli and Kíli to live with Bilbo.

The Thain had thought them suspicious and not let anything on. Bilbo worried that this might have been the family - but, then again, if they were, would they not have been desperate enough to directly ask?

Isembard got Hamfast, and the two of them installed locks on all the windows and the door. “Just in case.”

Fíli and Kíli did not seem to find anything unusual about installing locks, and insisted on “helping” the two hobbits. This resulted in Bilbo hovering anxiously over the whole procedure until his uncle chased him off with the remark that both he and Hamfast had children and knew very well how to handle them, thank you very much.

*

And then Lily found a solution to getting the dwarflings into bed, which made Bilbo feel very silly. She simply told them that once they were in bed, she would come and tell them a bed time story. To Bilbo’s utter surprise, that made the two dwarflings get ready for bed without grumbling, and they eagerly listened to Lily telling them a very simple fairytale.

The following evening, when their visitors were gone, Bilbo asked Fíli and Kíli if he should tell them a bedtime story. They wanted to hear one, of course. And they fell asleep before he had even reached the end of the second story.

Bilbo couldn’t help the impulse of tucking them both in, even though they already looked very comfortable. He had to wipe some moisture from his eyes as warmth welled up in him when he looked at the sleeping dwarves.

He had never wanted a family. But now that he had two children in the house, he felt himself feeling sorry that it might not be too long until Fíli and Kíli’s family would come to take them away again.

Chapter Text

The days grew shorter, the mornings frostier, and some trees started to turn orange. Conker season was almost upon the Shire. And still, no sign of the dwarflings’ family.

Sometimes it made the dwarflings stroppy. Kíli would push his oatmeal away and announce he’d rather starve than eat the stuff. Or he’d start a silly fight with Fíli. On one occasion, Fíli suffered a bloody nose when Kíli smacked him with a book Fîli had meant to show him. On another occasion, he pushed Bilbo to the floor when he wanted Bilbo to get out of the way. On both occasions he was tearfully sorry.

Fíli was just quiet sometimes and pretended not to hear Bilbo when Bilbo told him something. Or he would deliberately misspell things when he practised writing. Little things designed to drive Bilbo up the wall far more efficiently than Kíli’s outright defiance did.

But there was many an evening when Bilbo found himself hugging a very large child, Kíli, and holding the hand of another, Fíli. He struggled often to think of ways to soothe them.

“I was naughty that day,” Kíli hiccuped one morning, choking on his apple juice just after breakfast.

“Only a little bit,” Fíli assured him, while he crumbled his half-finished bread roll. “No more than usual.”

“Maybe Uncle got fed up though. Maybe we could have stayed with them if I’d been good.” Tears started to roll over Kíli’s cheeks. “Maybe he’s glad to be rid of us. We were always in the way.”

Fíli’s blue eyes started to shimmer. “He did get very angry. Maybe he’s glad.”

“No, no …” Bilbo hastened to say, even though he did not know their uncle. “Kíli, Fíli, no one could be glad to be rid of you two.”

“You think so?” Fíli peered at him from behind his bangs (they really needed a way to tame that hair).

“I am sure.”

“Maybe they’re dead.” Kíli’s eyes filled with tears again “Like dad and Keira.”

Before Bilbo could ask, Fíli sniffled and explained. “Our sister. Her and dad. They died.”

“I am so sorry, boys.”

Fíli tried to shrug, but his shoulders did not get far up before they slumped down again. “Mam and Uncle may be dead too now.”

“Let’s not assume the worst now,” Bilbo hastened to say, shoving the remainder of breakfast to the other side of the table and then fishing handkerchiefs from a drawer before wedging himself between the chairs of the sniffling dwarflings. He handed each a handkerchief. “Boys, we simply don’t know what happened. If they are still out there, they are sure to miss you, and they will come for you. When they can. And, until then, you’ll stay here.”

Kíli nearly pushed Bilbo off balance when he leant heavily against the standing hobbit while he was cleaning his face. Fíli put his large hand against Bilbo’s arm.

“We’re happy you found us, Bilbo.”

Kíli nodded against Bilbo’s side, while Bilbo had to hold on to Kíli’s chair to keep his balance.

“I’m glad too, boys.”

“You are?” Kíli finally sat up straight again and looked up at Bilbo.

“I like having you two rascals around. Now, let’s clean up the kitchen, and then I will finally show you how to play conkers. All right?”

Fíli and Kíli nodded mutely. It was almost eerie now to have the kitchen so quiet while everybody shuffled around. Kíli was never normally this quiet: if he was not talking, he found some other way to make noise.

But the boys remained quiet as they all roamed the little wood behind the smial to collect their conkers. Horse chestnuts, he had to explain to the boys who thought that word hilarious. By and by, however, the dwarflings took more interest in the selection of the most appropriate horse chestnuts, even though they had never played the game before, and Bilbo began to breathe a bit easier.

Back home, Bilbo served a hearty elevensies during which he explained the game, yet again. He could tell that all of their minds were still preoccupied with the matter of their missing family, but there was nothing they could do. Nothing Bilbo could do apart from making sure that Fíli and Kíli remained in good health and spirits.

After lunch, the Gamgee brood arrived with their father, bringing their own conkers. And soon the chatter of the Gamgee children banished all remaining brooding. Kíli and Daisy were giggling even while they ruined several promising conkers.

Halfred and Fíli were chiding them even while they concentrated on perfecting their conkers under Bilbo’s expert tutelage. It was not that easy, after all, to put a hole through a horse chestnut just so it would be perfectly balanced on a string.

And by the time conkers was played outside and Daisy destroyed Fíli’s first conker, much to Kíli’s delight and Fíli’s consternation, even Bilbo had forgotten the sad mood of the morning. He was serving tea cakes, but found himself all too happy to put the tray aside and join the game, even convincing Hamfast to join in. Hamfast muttered something about the mess they made in the garden, but promised his children that he’d help them find more chestnuts soon.

***

One day in late autumn, Fíli decided to stay inside by the warm fire and read a little in one of Bilbo’s books. Kíli had run down to the Gamgees by himself. Just before tea time, the time Bilbo had told Kíli he needed to be back by, a loud knock startled both hobbit and dwarfling. Kíli never knocked.

When Bilbo opened the door, he found farmer Underhill, his round cheeks flushed, and Kíli huddling behind him.

Bilbo frowned, looking from the farmer to Kíli. “Did Kíli …”

“Your boy did nothing wrong,” Underhill blustered.

“I’m glad …. come on in then, and you Kíli, come on dear.”

He grabbed Kili by the elbow to pull him in, rubbing Kíli’s upper arm once the boy was inside.

“What on Earth happened?”

Kíli was quiet, and it was farmer Underhill who answered. “I came upon your boy here on my way back home and found him with Rolf Proudfoot’s louts.”

“Oh dear.” Bilbo made sure to draw Kíli a bit closer to himself. Fíli came closer too, rather shyly, standing next to his brother.

When Underhill looked at him and actually smiled, Fíli almost cringed, but put on a brave smile in response.

“Should I make tea for your visitor, Bilbo?”

Fíli had just learned how to make it, after Bilbo had assured himself that the boy could handle the pot well enough not to burn himself.

“Oh, yes, I am sorry, where are my manners?” Bilbo felt his face arranging itself to a nervous smile. “Why don’t you come through to the parlour, Underhill, Fíli and Kíli are going to fetch some tea and teacakes, right boys?”

“Oh, I would not want to intrude, Mister Bilbo …”

In true hobbit fashion, they were soon seated in the parlour. Bilbo manfully ignored the clanging and banging from the kitchen, trusting that no irreparable damage was being done.

The farmer mopped his forehead.

“As I said, Mister Bilbo, I was on my way home from the south field, you know the one …” Bilbo was indeed well aware of where the field was, but got a rambling description of it anyway. “So, I was just passing the hill when I heard laughing, something being hit, and then somebody begging someone to stop. So naturally I was worried and looked over the hedge, just to see those two yobs hitting the poor boy with sticks.”

“And Kíli did not run away?”

“They had driven him into the corner of the hedgerows, you know, the end of Proudfoot’s pasture.” He mopped his brow again. “Although, what I do not get is why he did not fight back. Alf and Ulf are only half his height.”

“They are babies.” Fíli had crept up behind them, tray in hand, and was trailed by his brother. He took a small step backwards when the two hobbits looked at him, startled.

“Babies?” Underhill repeated. “They are hardly babies, my boy. Alf is no younger than 10.”

“Like babies,” Kíli amended from behind his brother. “They’re tinies, and Mam told us never to push them, or shove them, or grab them, or jostle them, or box them, or ….”

“We need to be careful,” Fíli cut his brother’s recital off. “Mam said we might hurt them, because we’re not so good with knowing our strength. Kíli ‘specially.”

Kíli shrugged, looking at the floor. But Fíli was quite right; Kíli did tend to break things simply because he had no idea how much force to use.

“But those two were beating him with sticks,” the farmer pointed out, quite reasonably. “He could have defended himself.”

“They were mean, but ....” Kíli shook his head and sniffled a little, and Bilbo hastily patted the chair next to him, so Kíli could sit down and hold Bilbo’s hand.

“They were very mean,” Bilbo assured him, once Kíli was next to him. “Were you hurt, dear?”

Kíli shook his head. “They’re weak.”

Bilbo inspected Kíli’s forearm nevertheless, where a red welt was forming. “Just a little,” Kíli admitted, poking at the aching mark..

“You’re a brave boy,” Bilbo praised him, watching the farmer accept a cup of tea and a small plate with a teacake that had been over-generously buttered.

“And he is very grateful you helped him,” Fíli told the farmer, awkwardly sitting down on a free chair. “Aren’t you, Kíli?”

Bilbo had to bite down a smile at Fíli’s attempt to be stern. Kíli looked from his brother to the farmer.

“I am. Thank you.”

“He already thanked me on the way here, very properly.” Underhill actually laughed now and smiled at Bilbo, a rare sight. “Those boys have wonderful manners, have they not?”

Bilbo thought that much of their nice manners at the moment had to do with the experience Kíli had had and Fíli’s insecurity in this unfamiliar situation, but if Underhill wanted to believe that the dwarves were modest and mannerly, he would not say anything to the contrary.

While the adults ate and the children were quiet, like the most well-behaved little fauntlings, the conversation soon turned to the harvest and the upcoming harvest festival.

By the time Underhill finally left, he had invited Bilbo to bring Fíli and Kíli along for a visit if they ever happened to be passing by his home.

That was not the end of this particular episode, though.

The next day brought Rolf Proudfoot to Bilbo’s door, a surly tenant whom Bilbo had never much interacted with. He had his two sons in tow, whom he forced to apologize to a very embarrassed Kíli.

“They thought they were playing,” Rolf defended his unruly brood when he was in the parlour later, while all the children sat very uncomfortably around them. “They naturally thought that somebody that big would fight back if he really meant them to stop. He is hardly a boy, is he? And those dwarves are known to be rowdy, so how were my boys to know that dwarves don’t touch children?”

Fíli and Kíli shrugged mutely while Alf and Ulf just looked uncomfortable on Bilbo’s nice chairs and looked everywhere but at the dwarves.

*

Underhill, one of the Green Dragon’s most regular patrons, soon spread the story of the well-mannered and peaceful dwarflings, and attitudes in Hobbiton changed seemingly overnight. The next time Bilbo was at the market he was pressed from all sides to bring “his boys” along to the harvest festival, and more than one hobbit woman assured him they would make sure there would be enough food at the children’s table to feed two big boys.

Bilbo had originally planned to go to the Tuckborough harvest festival, but had to change his plans. Fíli and Kíli’s social circle grew from the Gamgee children to all the fauntlings in the area. Even if they tried to avoid Alf and Ulf. And while Daisy remained Kíli’s best little friend, Fíli soon became friendly with one of farmer Underhill’s sons, Wulf, a boy as blond and serious as he was.

And the dwarflings’s new friends were so excited about the maze that would be built for the harvest festival, not to mention the various contests that would be held, that Bilbo could not bring himself to admit that he had ever even considered depriving the dwarves of all this fun.

The harvest celebration was a huge success. At least for Fíli and Kíli. Bilbo, who had always been a bit of a loner, felt his nerves being sorely tested. But for the sake of the happiness of the dwarflings, he forced himself to be friendlier to his neighbours than he had been in years, and suffered through many well meant lectures on how to raise and feed children. He only threw in the odd sarcastic remark that nobody got.

Shortly after the Harvest celebration was Durin’s day, as the dwarflings informed him. Bilbo make sure they both got a bag full of nuts, oranges (that he had to order from Bree), and dried fruits on Durin’s day, which, as they had told him, was the tradition.

Still, it was not a happy day. Bilbo listened to disjointed recollections of times past, with Fíli and Kíli’s father and sister when they were very small, and later, with their mother and their uncle. Their uncle seemed a stern personage, but it was evident his nephews admired him greatly.

*

Soon, whenever a dwarf trader or traveler was spotted miles off, somebody would come running to Bag End to warn Bilbo to hide “the boys.”

It did not happen often, and mostly, there was no need to hide anyone. The fields the kids played in were far away from the main streets, after all.

And so, Fíli and Kíli prospered. Fíli was often rambling about the hedges with Wulf, while Kíli and Daisy dominated conker games far and wide.

Most days now followed an easy routine. Bilbo got his work done again, secure in the knowledge that his dwarflings were out having fun. Of course, sometimes he had to suffer an invasion of fauntlings and, often enough, their parents in his home. But other days, he enjoyed a peaceful day in his study while the Gamgees, the Underhills, the Chubb-Baggins or the Brockhouses fed the children during the day.

There were dark moments, too. Sometimes, Fíli and Kíli came home earlier than expected and started crying, because something had made them miss their families.

While they enthusiastically dove into Yule crafts and enjoyed learning hobbit Yule songs with their friends, at home they told Bilbo about all the dwarf traditions they missed. Bilbo just had no idea how to even start figuring out how to make dwarvish gingerbread.

All Bilbo could do was let them teach him the songs they remembered and listen to more stories of their family. Some evenings this ended in tears, and some evenings in laughter. Bilbo amused them by talking about his own childhood and his parents.

For Yule, Bilbo brought the dwarflings to Tuckborough. Around this time of the year, his mother’s family was always at its most rambunctious, but it was his tradition. And Fíli and Kíli, it was easy to tell, had a wonderful time. They were naturally roped into helping with the decorations. Only Isembard was as tall as Kíli, so the two of them were employed to decorate those hard to reach areas above door frames and along the ceiling.

Fíli helped drag in the enormous tree, much to the admiration of the Took fauntlings. Later, both Fíli and Kíli had the little ones sitting on their shoulders, a much more fun way to decorate than using a ladder.

***

Time seemed to fly. Soon, the last snow in the Shire was melting. Fíli’s shoulders grew broader, and Bilbo had to commission new clothes for him, something the dwarf was very proud of.

Kíli did not grow much. But he became more coordinated and had fewer little accidents. Both of them grew much more slowly than fauntlings, physically as well as mentally, but there was progress.

And Bilbo could not complain about the enthusiasm with which they helped to plant his garden in spring. Of course, Hamfast grumbled that it would have been quicker had he done it on his own, but by now they were so used to the grumbling gardener that they just laughed at him.

*

“It’s been one year now.” Fíli stood in the doorway of Bilbo’s study one day in early summer.

Startled, Bilbo turned around. He had assumed Fíli was down at the Gamgee’s place, helping with the potato harvest like Kíli. But there Fíli was, slightly broader than the previous year, his blue eyes serious. And suddenly Bilbo remembered that it had indeed been only a year since this precious boy had entered his life. He smiled.

“Yes, Fíli. One year.”

The dwarfling took a few step into the study. “You, Isembard, Flambard, Asphodel, and Fortinbras saved us.”

“Yes.” Bilbo rose from his chair. “I feel that this conversation is going to require some tea and cakes. Come on then.”

Fíli nodded, following quietly. Only once he had his cup in his hand did he speak again.

“Mam and Uncle had one year to find us. And they didn’t come.”

Bilbo sighed. This was a topic he had been discussing with the Thain and the other Tooks regularly.

“Fíli, we might have missed them. I think the bounders and all the other hobbits might be overly cautious, and-”

“No.” Fíli shook his head, looking at his tea. “I always asked about those dwarves. None of them was Uncle or Mam.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.” Fíli nodded slowly. “Uncle and Mam make an impression. They were not looking for us. People would complain about them, if they did.”

Bilbo remained quiet. He was running out of comforting things to say. After a while, Fíli choked out:

“I think they’re dead. I talked with Kíli, and … they would search for us, they would miss us.”

Bilbo grabbed Fíli’s hand and squeezed it.

“Certainly.”

“So they must be dead.” Fíli hunched his shoulders. “So I came home. I mean ...”

“I understand.” Bilbo squeezed Fíli’s hand again and pulled out his clean handkerchief to dry the dwarfling’s tears. “And I’m glad you consider Bag End your home, my dear boy. I told you, you are most welcome to stay here however long you need and want.”

“Without our family …”

“You’ve still got me,” Bilbo said firmly. “Fíli, dear, even if your family is well and truly gone, you still have Bag End, all right? I actually put it in writing …” He actually hadn’t, not yet, but he would finally do it now. “Should anything happen to me, you will still be able to stay here, and the Gamgees will look after you. You will never be abandoned, I promise you.”

Fíli sniffled, and they sat silently for a while. Then Fíli gave Bilbo a wobbly smile.

“So … can I just stay with you this afternoon?”

“Certainly.”

Bilbo smoothed Fíli’s hair and was rewarded by a steadier smile.

When Kíli came home that evening, he was also crying and in need of a hug. By now it did not feel awkward at all anymore to comfort the child. Indeed, Bilbo sometimes thought it odd how tiny fauntlings could be, now.

Bilbo also no longer felt he could deny the very real possibility that the two dwarves were orphans.

So when they asked what hobbits did to remember their dead, Bilbo bought four big candles for them to light in memory of their mother, their uncle, their father, and their sister.

*

Acceptance of their family’s death helped the dwarflings throughout the dark winter. They were more often in good spirits than not, even if they often had to clean up all the mud and puddles they brought back in after playing in the snow.

The slope between Bag End and the Gamgee’s house became the favourite sledge route for all fauntlings far and wide, as Fili and Kili were all too happy to demonstrate their strength by dragging their friends on their flour bags up the hill again.

Bilbo always had baked apples ready in the oven, as a treat for the dwarflings and whatever friends came home with them in the afternoon.

*

In the following spring, they planted four new trees next to the ones Bilbo had planted for his parents.

Only two weeks after they had planted the trees, Farmer Underhill came back from one of his visits to Bree.

Bilbo was having tea with the Gamgee parents when Underhill knocked at the door to bring the various bits and bobs Hamfast and Bell had asked for.

Sitting down for tea, he looked around to make sure there were no fauntlings or dwarflings lurking, and announced:

“There were some mighty strange dwarves asking ‘round about dwarves in the Shire. But I set them straight, I did! Told them we wouldn’t put up with that.”

Hamfast nodded sternly. “Well done, Tom. We don’t want any nasty dwarves upsetting our boys.”

“No, of course not.” But Bilbo frowned. It seemed odd that the dwarves who had meant to harm Fíli and Kíli were still looking - whoever they were, they knew they had left them in the Shire. Why wait nearly two years to come back? He would have thought they’d return a bit sooner. But after that one deputation that had worried the Thain, relations to the Blue Mountains settlements had resumed their usual, rare character.

Could it be?

Chapter Text

*~* Dis POV, Eighteen month ago *~*

They were camped just a day’s journey from Bree near the Old Forest. Fíli and Kíli were busy setting up their beds, a task they took very seriously.

Dis and Thorin were standing a little apart from the group, Dis’ arms crossed over her chest, and she was glaring at her older brother.

“You cannot be serious, Thorin. I will go to the Blue Mountains with them. I know you trust Cronin, Hunin, and Olris, but I cannot let my poor children be without their family for months!”

Thorin glared right back. “Dis. I need you at the talks. You are better at these things than I am. Fíli and Kíli will be fine. You coddle those boys too much.”

“Excuse me?” She looked back at her darling boys. Fíli was evidently just telling Kíli the proper way to lay out a bedroll.

Thorin gave a sharp nod. “This will help them mature!”

“They don’t need to mature! Kíli is only 25!”

“And acting like he’s 15!”

Dis felt ready to slap her brother. He was always picking on poor Kíli, who was perhaps a bit more rambunctious than Fíli had been at his age, and had the attention span of a gnat, but he was still only a child. “Do you not want to take him east because you’re annoyed by him?”

“That’s not it.” Thorin rubbed his face. “Dis, the road between here and the east is more dangerous than the road south was. We need to meet with Dain’s delegates to convince them to establish proper trade with us in the Blue Mountains. But we need not put Fíli and Kíli at risk. We have lost too many already.”

Their parents. Frerin. Dis’ husband Nali. Her daughter Keira.

When Thorin had asked Dis to come along on a journey south of Rohan to meet with a group of “Wild Men” for trade, Fíli and Kíli immediately convinced her to go. Fíli and Kíli had spent the first few years of their life on the road and were used to it. But Thorin was right, the road east was too dangerous. Dis was not worried about Thorin and her not being able to defend themselves against the small bands of orcs that sometimes roamed the area. But defending themselves and the children at the same time would be more precarious.

So although her heart broke when Fíli and Kíli started crying at the prospect of being separated from their mother, she remained firm. She would not be able to live with herself if anything happened to her sons. The road west would be safer for them.

She hugged them for a very long time before she put them them on the cart. Her precious babies. Growing up so quickly.

She did not understand how humans coped with seeing the childhood of their babies flash by.

*

The talks with the Iron Hills went well. But a torrential rain and mudslides had delayed them, and Dis and Thorin were back in Bree almost a month later than originally planned.

As they travelled through the Shire, Dis suggested that while they passed Tuckborough, they might visit the Thain. Thorin scoffed.

“The king of farmers? I thought you wanted to see the boys. They will already be worried about us.”

Dis had to agree that her precious boys were more important than a courtesy to hobbits. Trade deals with the Shire would have to be made, but not now.

So they did not stop in Tuckborough, making camp a few miles further west.

*

To Dis’s surprise, the dwarves they encountered on the road were silent as she and Thorin approached their new halls, bowing with grave faces. The usual hustle and bustle was absent.

Nobody approached Thorin with any grievance, no dwarrowdam approached Dis with a piece of news. All just watched as they approached the official gate, where the guards also bowed.

A captain appeared to take them to Balin. Dis smiled.

“Thorin, go ahead. I will go to see Fíli and Kíli and let them know we’re here.”

The captain bowed. “Ma’am, with all due respect, it would be better if you went to see Balin first.”

Even Thorin started. “What do you mean by that?”

“Balin will explain.”

With a deep sense of foreboding, Dis followed the captain.

Balin did not say a word before the captain had closed the door to his study.

“Out with it!” Thorin spat, when Balin still seemed reluctant to speak. “What is going on here, Balin!”

“Fíli …. and Kíli.” Balin bowed his head. “There is no easy way of saying this Thorin ….”

“NO!” Dis heard herself scream. “NO!”

She recognized that face and that tone. The same as when they had brought her the news that her husband and daughter had met with an accident.

She barely noticed Thorin holding her up, Balin’s words coming as though from far away.

“There was an ambush on the road. Orcs. A large group of them. Why they ventured so far south, we don’t know. Their guards fought bravely, but Kíli and Fíli were hit by poisoned arrows. They never even made it back to the Blue Mountains..” Balin swallowed, his voice less steady than it had been at the start. “I’m so sorry for your loss, Dis. Thorin. We all are.”

Dis heard herself screaming again. Dwalin came in, helping her to sit down, and Balin encouraged Thorin to sit as well.

*

 

A month later, Dis felt strong enough to travel east with Thorin to see her son’s graves by the road. There were no obvious grave mounds, so as not to lead orcs to their remains, and by now the precise spot where they were buried could not be found. All that was left was a small pyramid of stones near the road to commemorate them.

Dis and Thorin commissioned a proper stone to be put there to remember Fíli and Kíli. Her brave little boys.

But Dis could not forget that it had been Thorin who had insisted on sending Kíli and Fíli back west early.

She and Thorin hardly talked after this. She knew he was grieving, too. He had greeted the arrival of his sister’s children as a sign of hope, one that he sorely needed. And he had been very attached to his nephews, though he was stern with them.

One day, she would forgive him. But it would take some time.

*

A few months passed, and it was then that Dis first began to hear the whispers that her sons’ deaths had been the work of Mahal.

The whispers stopped as soon as she was noticed, of course. But she still heard enough, and she was aghast. How could anyone believe that the deaths of her precious children could be a good thing?

She needed answers.

And she finally got some after quietly returning to her chambers one day, only two find two maids still inside, cleaning it. She had nearly announced her presence when she realized the maids were talking, and the topic of their conversation was her sons. “So terrible what happened, but all for a purpose,” one of the girls murmured. And that was when Dis snapped.

Blocking the door, she demanded an explanation. The maids curtsied.

“We are sorry, ma’am, we are just talking.”

“You said my sons’ deaths had a purpose.” Dis leant heavily against the door. “Let a mother know to what purpose her sons had to die.”

They curtsied again.

“We are so sorry for your loss.”

“Out with it.” She glared at them which caused the maids to cower. “Out with it, or I’ll have you locked up for treason.”

“Not treason, ma’am!” The bolder one played with the beads in her beard. “It’s about the prophecy, ma’am.”

“The prophecy.”

“Yes, ma’am. About how Durin V will lead us to glory, and to Khazad-dûm again.”

Dis could not stop herself from rolling her eyes. Ever since Azanûlbizar, it seemed that some dwarves had started to become obsessed with the return of Durin. If only Durin had been there, the dwarves would have been victorious. They all seemed to have forgotten that it had been Durin IV who had lost Khazad-dûm in the first place.

“What,” and her own blood nearly froze from the ice in her voice, “does Durin V have to do with my sons?”

“Just,” more curtseying, “just that it has been prophesied that he will be born to the line of Dain.”

“Who prophesied that?”

The maids looked at each other. “It has been prophesied, ma’am.”

“By whom!”

“We don’t rightly know. But dwarves say that Durin V would not be born while the Longbeards are divided. So, you see, if he is born in the line of Dain, then Dain must succeed Thorin.”

“And not Fíli.”

They curtseyed again.

Dis dismissed them and made sure they were never allowed near her own chambers again.

*

A month later a dwarf in the assembly mentioned “the rebirth of Durin in Dain’s line” and suggested that the Longbeards had made a mistake by retreating to the Blue Mountains. Clearly, they were meant to be in the Iron Hills.

Thorin banished the councillor immediately, who announced that he would remove himself to the Iron Hills. A few dwarves went with him, agreeing that it was Dain’s line that carried the future of the Longbeards.

Small incidents like these increased. While some dwarves grieved that Thorin’s heirs were dead, others seemed to consider their deaths providential. Durin V would be born sooner than expected, now that Dain was Thorin’s heir.

*

A year after Dis and Thorin’s return, almost 18 months after they had seen her boys last, Balin called for a small meeting. Just Thorin, Dis, Balin, Dwalin, Gloín, and Óin.

“Dwalin made an arrest,” Balin announced once everyone was there.

Dis nodded, not quite sure what was going on. Of course, Thorin, Gloín, and Óin immediately demanded details, as if they thought Balin was not going to tell them.

It was Dwalin, however, who told the story.

He had made an arrest of a petty thief, Nori.

A petty thief who, as it turned out, was surprising loyal to Thorin.

“As soon as we were alone, he told me he had let himself be caught on purpose. By me.” Dwalin crossed his bulging arms. “He had overheard a group of dwarves earlier. Planning to convince Balin to let them travel to the Shire to renegotiate some trade deals.”

“Bunin,” Thorin said immediately. “He’s the brother of Hunin. He has travelled there before, but I think the last time he was not very successful.”

Hunin, of course, was the leader of the group that had been tasked with bringing Fíli and Kíli to the Blue Mountains; he had been killed defending them. Hunin and Bunin were also distant relatives who had always been on the council.

“Yes.” Dwalin nodded heavily. “To Nori, it did not sound as if they wanted to make any trade deals.”

“Bunin and Hunin have served faithfully,” Thorin said, though Dis’ could hear the uncertainty in his voice. “What made this thief think ill of Bunin?”

He heard them talking about ‘finally finding out what happened to those blasted boys.’”

“What?” Faint hope blossomed in Dis, though hope of what, she wasn’t sure.

“They heard rumours about dwarves in the Shire.” Dwalin frowned. “Young dwarves.”

Thorin had grabbed his old friend’s shirt, almost on reflex. “Young dwarves?”

Dwalin smiled grimly at his king. “I brought in Bunin who kicked up a major fuss. He did not talk, but one of his associates did. He was in his cups already when we rounded him up. Gloated that once they made sure Thorin’s heirs were out of the way, Durin V’s rebirth would happen sooner - and, in one generation, the glory of the Longbeards would be restored.”

Dis froze. Around her, the male dwarves shouted, arguing about Mahal knew what.

She stood. “I am going to Bree.”

“Bree?” Everyone stared at her.

“The best place to learn about rumours in the Shire.” She started for the door. “And if I don’t find anything there, I will turn every stone in the Shire to find my boys.”

“Dis, we’re not even sure if it is them and why …” Balin began, but Dis cut him off. She had no patience for politics right now.

“I will find my boys. That is more important than getting to the bottom of this. My boys.”

She let the door fall shut behind her, before anybody could reply.

Her babies. Her babies might be alive. That was all she cared about.

Chapter Text

After Farmer Underhill had mentioned the dwarves in Bree, Bilbo immediately sent word to the Thain.

Soon after, a group of four dwarves arrived in Tuckborough (as Bilbo was told by the hobbit informant network, even before he had received a letter from the Thain informing him of the same). With a cautious hope that these dwarves were the ones they had been waiting for, Bilbo began making arrangements to discreetly bring Kíli and Fíli to Tuckborough, just as the Thain had instructed him.

As expected, the boys kept asking questions about what was going on once Isembard and Flambard had arrived to fetch them. Despite Isembard’s and Flambard’s warning looks, Bilbo felt it was better to prepare them.

“A group of dwarves have arrived,” he told them. “And they’ve asked about dwarflings in the Shire.”

“Dwarves?” Their faces wavered between hope and fear, reflecting the feelings of the hobbits around them.

Isembard nodded as he held the door open for them. “That’s right. We picked them up in Bree; the Thain thought it best to have them brought here.”

It was impossible to curb Fíli and Kíli’s excitement on the road after that. They travelled to Tuckborough quite regularly, so there was no actual reason for them to ask every 10 minutes how much longer it would take.

*

“You’ve got to be quiet,” Isembard instructed them once they had nearly arrived. “We want you to stand quietly at the end of the hall so you can tell us later if you know these dwarves, all right? But they don’t need to know you’re here.”

“No problem.” Fíli nodded in excitement, grabbing Kíli’s hand as Flambard opened the door to the hall.

The hall was not very big, but there were no windows on the side they had entered from, and the candles had not been lit. It would be hard, therefore, for the Thain or the four dwarves standing next to him to make out any details of the people who had just entered.

Almost immediately, they heard a female voice demand, “When are you going to tell us if you have dwarflings in the Shire? I want to know if you have my sons.”

All thoughts of staying quiet were immediately forgotten as Fíli and Kíli both screamed out, “MAM!”

There was no way to stop the two dwarflings from running towards the dwarrowdam, who turned around immediately, her mouth dropping open. She fell to the floor when her sons tackled her, and all that could be heard was the children laughing as the dwarrowdam’s arms wrapped around them, squeezing them tightly.

“I could be wrong, but I think we may have found their mother,” Isembard remarked next to Bilbo. This eased the tension among the hobbits a little bit as everyone chuckled - everyone except Bibo, at least, who had come to the sudden realisation that he was very nearly disappointed that they had.

Before Bilbo could get lost in his thoughts, the dark haired dwarf next to the Thain cleared his throat. Fíli and Kíli immediately looked up.

“Uncle!” Fíli beamed and got up from the ground, while Kíli still clung on to his sobbing mother, who struggled to sit up.

“Fíli.” The dwarf smiled, but his mouth wobbled. “Kíli. It’s you. You are here.”

“Yes.” Fíli looked up at his uncle. “We’ve been here for more than a year, Thorin.”

Kíli looked between the two older dwarves, practically on his mother’s lap by now. “Why did you not come to find us?” he asked, his voice uncharacteristically subdued.

And this got the attention of everyone again.

“We will not discuss that here,” the dwarf, Thorin, declared.

The Thain glared at him. “Oh, but I think we will.”

Quite right! Bilbo found himself thinking, strangely pleased to see the dwarf’s stubbornness would not go unchallenged. After nearly two years spent wondering and worrying about what had happened to the boys’ family, Bilbo felt they all deserved an explanation nearly as much as the boys themselves did.

Oblivious to the hobbit’s train of thought, Thorin put his arm around Fíli’s shoulder and glared back at the Thain. “This is dwarf business, and does not concern any of you,” he growled.

“If you think we will let you take Fíli and Kíli away without first making sure no harm will come to them, then you are sorely mistaken. This is the Shire, this is hobbit land, and we make the rules here. Fíli and Kíli have lived in the Shire for almost two years now, my dear dwarf, ever since my brothers and nephews rescued them from an assassination attempt.”

Before Thorin could speak again, the boys’ mother exclaimed, “Assassination attempt?” She struggled to stand while still clinging onto Kíli and, once standing, grabbed onto Fíli’s hand as well. “It’s true, then?”

“What does assination mean?” Kíli asked, and despite the situation Bilbo heard himself answering automatically:

“Assassination means murder, dear.”

“Let’s all go and sit down,” the Thain declared, getting up from his chair. “I believe there are some refreshments in the hall.”

Because whatever the situation, hobbits always had food ready.

Thorin seemed reluctant to take the offer, but the dwarrowdam, the mother of the dwarflings, nodded.

She took Kíli’s hand, and Thorin took Fíli’s, as the Thain led the way to the dining room. Of course, there were more hobbits assembled in the hallway now to see what was happening. Fíli and Kíli greeted them enthusiastically and introduced their mother and uncle.

Isembard and Flambard politely shut the door to the dining hall in the face of their relatives.

Even while she was sitting down the dwarrowdam asked: “My darling jewels, you must explain everything to me. What did the Thain mean by assassination attempt?”

Kíli frowned at the word again, clearly about to demand another explanation, but Fíli was quicker.

“Hunin and Cronin and the others were nice to us at first, and then they got really impatient and did not talk to us, and then we came to a big forest. And then …” He shuddered. “Then they took us down this small road, and I asked if they were sure it was the main road, because it did not look like a main road, and then …” He swallowed, and Kíli edged closer to their mother. Thorin stood behind them, growing more rigid with every word.

“And …” Dis gently prodded, curling her arm around Fíli.

“They … suddenly they had knives, and Hunin jumped Kíli and stabbed him. Then I pushed Hunin, and Cronin hit me over the head and … and then the hobbits appeared, and we did not know what was going on, and I was so scared, Mam; I tried to stab Bilbo when he came to Kíli and me, but I am glad I didn’t because then Bilbo took us to his home, and we have stayed there ever since because Bilbo is the nicest hobbit.” He took a deep breath. “You’re hurting me, Mam.”

She relaxed the hand she had clamped around Fili’s arm, but the ferocious look on her and Thorin’s faces prevented anyone from even reaching for the food.

Bilbo cleared his throat, deciding it was time he introduced himself now that his role in all of this had been revealed. “I am Bilbo Baggins, ma’am. The hobbits who fought off the attack were Isembard, Flambard, Fortinbras, and Asphodel.” He pointed at the relatives in question. “Luckily they had convinced me to go hunting with them that day, and it was when they heard Fíli and Kíli scream that they came to investigate.”

Dis made a clear effort to relax her brow as she turned to him.

“We are in your debt, then. My name is Dis - sit down, Thorin.” She glared at her brother, sat down stiffly next to Fíli. “Our companions are Gloín, our cousin, and Bofur.”

Gloín bend his head, while Bofur gave a cheery little wave.

At this point the Thain obviously felt he needed to take the reins again. “So, as I asked before, why has it taken nearly two years for you to come looking for your sons?”

“We were told they were dead.” A dark look passed over Dis’s face again. “I have mourned my sons for over a year. As soon as I heard rumours about young dwarves in the Shire, my brother and I went to Bree immediately to find out more.”

“You thought we were dead?” Kíli looked at his mother with big eyes.

“I was led to what I was told was your grave, darling.” Tears were streaming down her face again. “I … I can’t … I am so happy that it wasn’t ...”

Still looking slightly confused, both dwarflings patted their mother’s shoulder. And then, demonstrating the good manners he had learned in the Shire, Fíli poured his mother a cup of tea and put a slice of cake on her plate. That made her chuckle wetly, a chuckle that transformed into a laugh when Fíli repeated the action for Thorin.

The Thain cleared his throat. “I suggest you remain in the Shire for a few days,” he declared. “Until we can be truly satisfied that you have Fili and Kili’s best interests at heart.”

“What?” Thorin growled, and immediately put his cake down.

“But …” Fíli looked at the Thain. “It’s our mam. And Uncle.”

“That’s right, my boy.” The Thain turned to the boys and smiled, his whole demeanour transforming. “Don’t you think it would be a marvellous idea to show them Bag End and Hobbiton? You can show your family all the new places you’ve discovered.”

“And honeycake!” Kíli added, quite unexpectedly. “The market in Hobbiton has the best honeycake, Mam.”

While the dwarves were still too stunned to react, Bilbo, remembering his manners, added: “You’re all very welcome at Bag End, of course. There are more than enough guest rooms for all of you.”

“I’d love to try the honeycakes!” Bofur exclaimed and Kíli beamed at him.

That seemed to settle it, and soon they prepared to make their departure.

*

It was an odd procession by any standards. Fíli and Kíli were at the back of the dwarves’ cart now, dozing after all their excitement. Their heads were in their mother’s lap, who was smiling down at them, and their uncle rode alongside, wavering between smiling down at his nephews and glaring at every hobbit around him.

That included Bilbo, steering his now empty cart, as well as Isembard, Flambard, Violet, Lily, and five bounders. Not a word was spoken.

Until they were near Hobbiton, at least. The road circled a little hillock, over which a young fauntling was now running towards them. The bounders and dwarves ignored the waving fauntling, but as soon as Bilbo recognized who it was, he shouted for everyone to stop.

Wulf, the oldest son of Farmer Underhill, was panting as he made his way over to Bilbo, who smiled at him. He then looked at the dwarves with big eyes.

“Wulf? What is it?”

“Dwarves, Master Bilbo.”

“Well spotted, lad,” the bushy bearded dwarf (Gloin, or something like that) grumbled.

Fíli popped up from the cart and grinned at his friend. “Wulf! My Mam is here! And Uncle!”

He pointed at the dwarves in question. Wulf bowed a little. “Pleasure.”

“Wulf is my friend,” Fíli explained, while said friend regained his breath.

“Nice to meet you, too,” Dis said with a confused smile.

Wulf took a deep breath. “There are dwarves in Hobbiton, that is what I came to say. They are asking all the fauntlings if they’ve seen dwarves. I thought you might be coming back from the Thain by now, so I wanted to see if I could find you before you reached Hobbiton.”

“Thank you.” Bilbo turned to Thorin. “Your friends?”

“No. I did not send anyone else.” Thorin frowned at the poor fauntling who stepped closer to Bilbo. “What kind of dwarves?”

Wulf blinked. “Just… dwarves. They have big beards. And they’re loud.”

Isembard nodded to the bounders. “Go ahead and round them up.”

“And Wulf,” Bilbo added, “run back to Hobbiton and tell all fauntlings to stay away from the strangers. Understand?”

Wulf nodded. “Dad already told everyone not to talk to strangers.”

“And you go and tell them again. And make sure you keep out of their way as well!”

Wulf nodded, his eyes impossibly big, and he ran off again.

“Fauntlings,” Bilbo growled. “They are targeting the fauntlings.”

“It’s clever,” Isembard conceded while the bounders, along with Asphodel and Fortinbras, rode on to Hobbiton. “They must have realised the older hobbits wouldn’t let anything on.”

“It was probably fauntlings who caused the rumour to spread in the first place. Somebody visiting relatives, and a young fauntling babbling.” Bilbo sighed.

A high-pitched “Watch out!” made them all turn to see Wulf running west to hide behind some boulders.

On top of the hillock were three dwarves who were about to let the arrows from their bows fly. The outlines of two more dwarves behind them were barely visible in the sun.

Bilbo saw Isembard and Flambard nock their own bows, but before he could react himself, Bilbo’s pony started. An arrow had flown just over its head, straight towards the dwarflings.

Bilbo toppled off the cart, landing on his hip, and he barely managed to roll out of the way of the wheels as the pony ran off.

Fíli and Kíli were screaming. The pony in front of their cart whinnied and kicked. With a deft flick of her hand, Dis cut the harness free just before it ran off, its sudden movement toppling the cart over. The dwarflings tumbled right next to Bilbo.

Dis was in front of them immediately, shielding them with her body - and, without thinking, Bilbo crawled next to her, helping to cover Fili and Kili, who had pressed themselves flat against the dirt and stones of the road.

Thorin was barking something at the other dwarves.

“Behind the cart,” Dis murmured, pushing Fíli carefully, and Bilbo, getting the idea, put his hand on Kíli’s back. Keeping his body between their ambushers and the child, he moved as quickly as possible.

A scream from the top of the hillock told them that a hobbit arrow had found its mark.

From behind the safety of the cart, Bilbo saw Thorin holding up his shield and advancing up the field, followed by his two companions. Soon, they heard two more screams from the top, and Bilbo dared to stand to peer over the edge of the cart.

He could not make out everything, but he could see that a group of hobbits had appeared behind their attackers.

It was all over relatively quickly after that. The group of dwarves still standing on the hillock soon surrendered themselves to the hobbits that had just taken them by surprise, and it was only then that Isembard and Flambard lowered their weapons.

Bilbo breathed out with relief and immediately winced.

“Bilbo?” Isembard came sprinting towards his nephew. “Are you hurt?”

Bilbo waved him away. “Go look for poor Wulf, he must be scared out of his wits.”

Soon, Bilbo could hear Asphodel shout something at Thorin, though he could not make out what it was. But it seemed Asphodel and Fortinbras had been the ones to surprise their attackers up on the hill, forcing their surrender. Good.

Bilbo breathed out again.

“Mam?” a scared voice called out. “Bilbo?”

It was Kíli who brought Bilbo crashing back down to reality. This had really happened; they had just survived an attack on their lives. But he would have to come to terms with that later. Squaring his shoulders, he turned his head to smile at the dwarflings.

“Everything is all right now, dear.”

“Yes,” Dis ground out. “Don’t worry, jewel. Mam will protect you.”

“They were aiming at us.” Fíli was trembling. “Mam, they were aiming at us, not anyone else. Why do they want to kill us?”

Dis didn’t reply, she just pulled her sons into a hug. Bilbo looked up when he heard ponies trotting. But it was only Lily and Violet who, unlike Bilbo, had managed not to be thrown off when their ponies had run off.

By now Isembard was back, half carrying Wulf.

Bilbo held out his arms to take the fauntling, even though he could hardly keep himself up. Nothing was broken, but his bottom was in agony, and his back seemed to be on fire.

Still, he gave Fíli’s best friend a hug.

“Wulf, that was very brave; you saved Fíli’s life!”

“I was scared, Master Bilbo.” Wulf, although he was nearly Bilbo’s height now, pressed close. “Who were these dwarves?”

“Religious fanatics,” Dis growled, even though she was valiantly fighting for a smile. In a softer voice she continued, “Thank you, Wulf. You have saved my son.”

“He is my friend.” Wulf moved away from Bilbo, blushing. He looked at Fíli. “Fíli. What …”

“I don’t know.” Fíli’s voice was small. “I don’t know why the dwarves who brought us here wanted to kill us, or why they’ve come back to try again. I …” He started crying. “I don’t want my friends to be in danger, Mam.”

Bilbo was relieved when Fortinbras strode over.

“The strangers will be brought to Tuckborough.” He looked at Dis. “And you will not be allowed to murder them, as we have already told your brother. Asphodel, myself, and two of the bounders will escort the prisoners. The rest of you will go to Bag End as planned. I will join you tomorrow.”

Thorin and Gloin were arguing with Asphodel as they came towards them, Thorin hotly insisting that dwarves should deal with dwarves.

There were only three of them, the bounders up on the hill were busying themselves with the bodies.

Fíli and Kíli shrank when the prisoners came near. Two of them were bleeding, but both glared at the poor dwarflings. One spat.

“You will die, and Durin will rise.”

Before anyone could stop her, Dis had punched him. He, as well as the bounder who held him, tumbled down into the dirt from the impact.

“My son will die of old age in his sleep,” Dis yelled.

Nobody moved for a moment.

Surprisingly, it was Thorin who stepped between his sister and the prisoner. But he didn’t say anything, which left Bilbo feeling like it was once again up to him to be the adult here.

“We need to get Wulf back to his father. And Fíli and Kíli need to sit down with some milk and honey.”

Dis took a step back and turned to her sons. She closed her eyes.

“Let’s go before I actually kill them.”

She bent to pick up some of their scattered belongings, quickly helped by her sons.

Lily took Wulf up on her pony, and Thorin and Gloin took Fíli and Kíli while Bilbo and Dis walked.

Before they reached Hobbiton, they were met by Farmer Underhill, Hamfast, and a few other hobbits armed with pitchforks. With them were the two missing ponies.

Unsure what was going on, Bilbo hobbled to the front.

“Hamfast? Underhill?”

“Dad?” Wulf peeked out from behind Bilbo. “Asphodel and Fortinbras and the bounders took care of the nasty dwarves.”

“And what about them?” Underhill pointed at the dwarves with his pitchfork.

Bilbo quickly explained the day’s events. But it was probably Bofur who endeared their group to the assembled hobbits by saying:

“We are terribly sorry to have brought this onto your peaceful town, sir. And for involving your plucky son.”

“He ran off without permission.” Underhill glared at Wulf, but everyone who knew him recognized the pride in his voice.

“My brother will send more bounders here,” Isembard added. “There won’t be any more nasty surprises.”

There was some grumbling behind Underhill, and Bilbo suspected the dwarflings would not be quite as welcome in Hobbiton as they had been after this episode. But for the moment, he was too shaken to care.

Hamfast grumbled, “Let’s get you all to Bag End, then.”

The other hobbits dispersed, everyone going home or to the Green Dragon to discuss the day’s excitement.

*

When they made it to the Gamgee’s house, the children came running out, Daisy fiercely hugging Kíli.

Hamfast, however, shooed his children back inside. “They’ve just had a nasty shock. You can pester them later, rascals.”

Once at Bag End, Bilbo’s nerves were almost restored. Enough to immediately spring to action. He was to host the boys’ family, and hosting was something every hobbit knew. He asked Fíli and Kíli to provide themselves and their family with refreshments in the parlour while he got the rooms ready.

With the help of Violet and Lily, Bilbo had three guest rooms ready in no time. As he suspected Dis would like to be close to her sons, they put up a bed for her in the boys’ room.

Meanwhile, Isembard and Flambard had gone to stable the ponies at the Green Dragon, and to wait for more bounders to arrive - as well as organize a watch around Hobbiton.

Bell and Daisy came up shortly after to help, and to invite Lily and Violet to stay the night with the Gamgees.

And to satisfy their curiosity, no doubt.

Still, help with cooking dinner for no less than four unexpected guests was welcome. Especially as part of that help included a big basket of fresh produce.

Kíli soon came hopping into the kitchen when he heard his friend’s laugh. Daisy had matured much more than he had in the year the two had been friends, but they were still as thick as ever.

And where Kíli went, his brother soon followed.

Fíli tugged at Bilbo’s sleeve even though he already had his attention. “I forgot to make tea, I’m sorry. We just sat with them. Kíli needed a cuddle.”

“You did too! You got to sit on Mam’s lap first!”

Fíli shoved his brother and continued: “Mam and Uncle told us about what happened. I … I can’t believe they’re here.”

Bilbo reached out to squeeze his shoulder. “I know, dear. I am sorry about the shock on the road …”

“Uncle was sorry too.” Fíli shrugged. “Nobody could have known.”

Bilbo nearly asked Fíli what exactly the older dwarves had explained, but this was not the time. Especially because Kíli was fidgeting now. He reached out to pat Kíli’s arm.

“I am glad nothing happened. Now, we need to prepare dinner …”

“We can help!” Kíli exclaimed.

Of course they didn’t need any more help, but Bilbo sat the three children down at the table to butter slices of bread, which they did very sloppily as Fíli and Kíli recounted the adventure of the day to their friend.

Soon Dis stuck her head into the kitchen.

“May I come in?”

“Of course. Can I offer you some tea?” Bilbo beckoned her in. His manners were really all that kept him together.

She stood and smiled at her sons for a moment, before she turned to Bilbo.

“Yes, thank you. For my brother and our friends as well, if it is not too much trouble.”

“Oh no, I am sorry. You must excuse my manners, this was an eventful day.”

“Yes.”

She looked around. Her sons had not noticed her yet, as their backs were to the door.

“I mourned them,” she whispered. “And when I heard there were young dwarves in the Shire …”

She did not go on while Bilbo put a big kettle on the stove. Only then she continued.

“Never in my wildest dreams did I expect to find them in such good spirits and such good health, in fresh clothes, and cared for by somebody who did not hesitate to shield them with his body.” She pursed her lips in an attempt to stop them from trembling, but she could not stop the tears from rolling down her cheeks. “I can’t thank you enough.”

Bilbo swallowed, feeling awkward over the sudden display of emotion. “It was a great pleasure to look after them. They are lovely boys. Never gave me any trouble.”

That startled such a laugh out of her, loud enough that her sons finally looked up to see her.

“Mam? When did you come in?” Kíli beamed at his mother.

“A moment ago, my jewel. Bilbo just told me how you never gave him any trouble.”

“Course we didn’t.” Kíli nodded emphatically.

“Apart from the one time we broke into the pantry,” Fíli admitted then. “And when Kíli knocked over the inkwell and ruined some records. And the pillows we broke when we had pillow fights.”

“Never gave me any trouble,” Bilbo felt a smile tugging at his lips. “In fact, there were a lot of compliments about their good manners.”

“I’m happy to hear that.”

Not being able to resist any longer, she stepped up to her sons and ruffled their hair.

Bilbo turned to ready the tea as the dwarflings hugged their mother.

Soon after, he carried the tray into the living room where the other three dwarves sat silently. Bilbo cleared his throat.

“Dis seemed to think you could all do with some tea.”

Bofur looked up and chuckled, but Gloin grunted, “Ale would be better.”

“We shall have some ale with dinner then.” Bilbo sat the tray down.

Thorin looked at it for a moment as if he was not sure what to do with a cup of tea, but then he took one gingerly.

“So this was my nephews’ home for the better part of the last two years.”

“That’s right.” Bilbo followed Thorin’s gaze to the corner, which housed a pile of spinning tops and building blocks. He took a deep breath, and in a voice that sounded a lot more confident than he felt, he added: “And if you do not give my uncle an answer as to why so many of your fellow dwarves want your nephews dead, it will remain their home.”

Thorin’s eyes grew wide with outrage. “You have no right to keep my nephews,” he said, putting the cup down with so much force Bilbo was afraid it might break. But he still crossed his arms over his belly, projecting an image of nonchalance.

“As the Thain said, this is hobbit land. And we are fond of your nephews. I am extremely fond of them.” Bilbo paused for a moment, then recollected himself and continued: “You have already failed to protect them once, I might remind you.”

Bilbo did not waver when he was subjected to a fierce glare, and in the end it was Thorin who gave in and looked away.

“I will not make that mistake again,” he whispered. “Fíli and Kíli will be protected.”

“And how are you going to guarantee that?”

Silence reigned, and was only broken when Dis entered again without her sons.

“What are you talking about?”

“The hobbit has threatened to keep Fíli and Kíli here,” Thorin growled, his voice cracking near the end and sounding altogether less fierce than he had probably intended.

“If you cannot guarantee their safety,” Bilbo amended, suddenly feeling a bit contrite. “As the Thain said …”

“I know.” Dis glared at her brother. “Bilbo, I cannot tell you … I cannot tell you how ashamed I am that I did not realise those dwarves meant to harm my babies. I understand that you don’t trust us with their safety.”

“Dis …” Gloin stood up and gently made her sit down. Bilbo sat down as well and took a cup. After Dis had taken a sip of tea, she continued.

“Thorin is our king - he has refused the title for as long as we do not have definitive proof of our father’s death, but for all intents and purposes, he is king of the Longbeards of the Blue Mountains.” She smiled slightly as understanding dawned on Bilbo. “Fíli and Kíli are his heirs and, for religious reasons that would make little sense to a hobbit, some dwarves think this is wrong.”

Bilbo blinked. “Wrong?”

Thorin, clutching the cup of tea as if it was a glass, addressed the table when he spoke.

“Our people are exiles, many of them desperate, longing for what we once were. There is a prophecy that the son of my cousin will bring the Longbeards to new glory. Some dwarves were insane enough to suppose Fíli and Kíli, as my heirs, are obstacles to that glorious future.”

“And decided to help fate along by killing innocent children?”

“Yes.”

Bilbo almost flinched, the pure hatred in Thorin’s voice and eyes shaking him.

“And you … you did not realise that you entrusted your nephews to lunatics?”

The cup burst in Thorin’s grip, shards springing down from the table to the floor.

“Oh dear.” Bilbo jumped up. “You are bleeding.”

“Never mind that.”

Bilbo ignored him and hastened out of the room to find bandages.

He encountered Kíli, who proudly told him dinner was ready, and, without thinking, he told the dwarfling to start setting the table while he looked for bandages.

Predictably, that led to Kíli and Fíli running to their uncle and asking what happened, followed by the hobbits in the kitchen, who all gave Bilbo helpful hints while he bandaged Thorin’s hand.

The hobbit ladies declined the invitation to dine at Bag End. They had enough gossip to last them for weeks now, and it was getting late.

During dinner, Fíli and Kíli regaled everyone with stories about their adventures in their time in the Shire. More than once, Dis looked over at Bilbo and smiled at him.

*

Bilbo was the first one up the next morning, kneading dough to prepare a few rolls for second breakfast. For first breakfast, it would have to be porridge as usual, which was bubbling away in a big pot.

“Master Baggins.”

Bilbo jumped at the deep baritone that addressed him out of nowhere. He turned to find Thorin at the doorstep of the kitchen, and forced a smile.

“Good morning, Master Thorin. Can I offer you a cup of tea?”

“Water will do.”

Bilbo was almost tempted to offer a nice soothing cup of milk, but instead inclined his head to the pitcher on the counter.

“You’re welcome to help yourself then - my hands are a bit dirty, you see ...”

“Certainly.”

Silence fell as Thorin poured himself a glass of fresh, cool water, and Bilbo continued to knead the dough.

Just as he was cleaning his hands before giving the porridge a good stir, the dwarf decided to talk again.

“So you took my nephews in.”

“Indeed I did.”

“It never occurred to you to send for their family?”

Bilbo felt way too tired for this. With a clang, Bilbo removed the pot of porridge from the stove and set it down on the counter.

“Are we going over that again? You know very well that we could not just send a message to the Blue Mountains explaining what had happened. We had no idea why grown dwarves would want to kill dwarflings, nor what relation they had to the boys, or to whomever reigned in the Blue Mountains. We could have risked inviting assassins to the Shire to finish the job.”

“We mourned those boys. My sister would not talk to me for nearly a year.”

“We had no idea you would believe them dead.” Bilbo put the rolls in the oven and cleaned his hands before helping himself to water too. He sat down next to Thorin.

“Fíli and Kíli mourned you too.”

“They what?”

Bilbo nodded. “Did you notice the four young trees in front of the house?” Thorin’s blank look told him he hadn’t. “We planted them in your memory. Well, yours, their mother’s, their father’s, and their sister’s. They believed you would be looking for them if you were alive.”

Thorin started to tremble, and Bilbo thought it might be prudent to remove the water glass from his bandaged hand. No need for another accident.

“My nephews.” Thorin rubbed his forehead. “My greatest treasure. I trusted those dwarves with them. I thought they’d be safer with them than with us.” He cleared his throat. “I promise you that we will get to the bottom of it. My cousins who remained in the mountains are already rooting out the conspirators. Those dwarves we met in Hobbiton today must have slipped out before they could be apprehended. The prisoners taken today may lead us to more. Fíli and Kíli will be as safe in the Blue Mountain as here. Or safer. If more of these lunatics escape before we catch them, they will know where to look now. But in the Blue Mountains, they will be guarded only by people who have proven their loyalty.”

Dis came in before Bilbo could reply. “Let’s not talk about this now, Fíli and Kíli could barely sleep all night. Let’s not worry them more.”

And indeed, two very sleepy dwarflings came shuffling in a little bit later. Fíli was slightly taller than his mother, but she was strong enough to lift him up when he leant against her and set him down on his chair. That made him laugh, and Kíli demanded that his mother pick him up, too.

*

Asphodel, Isembard, and Flambard came up to Bag End around noon, just in time for lunch. After they all had eaten, Bilbo sent them away with a letter to the Thain, advising his uncle to let the dwarves go.

And then Bilbo went for a long walk so Fíli and Kíli would not see his tears. The dwarflings were overjoyed to have their mother again, despite the shock they had received, and Bilbo didn’t want anything to dampen their happiness.

It was a short-lived goal, however, when, later that afternoon, he found himself getting into an argument with Thorin once the dwarf had declared croquet a game unbefitting of their kind, and that he did not understand why his nephews wasted time with a silly game like this.

To which Bilbo replied that fun was certainly befitting anyone and, besides, croquet fostered patience, restraint, and aim.

Thorin scoffed that this was just what he expected a hobbit to say, and that his nephews had to relearn to be proper dwarves.

The hurt that shone on their faces made Bilbo lose whatever restraint he had, and he practically yelled at the dwarf that he was not the one to talk about propriety.

At which point Dis very firmly interrupted them by reiterating her interest to learn the game from her sons, and to sternly remind her brother not to judge before he watched.

Thorin watched, his arms crossed, but while he did not participate, he did not utter another word against the game.

And later he let himself be persuaded by Bofur and Dis to join a game of chasey.

Bilbo had to hold back his tears as he watched. Now this was something that hobbits had not been able to offer the dwarves - whenever Thorin caught one of his nephews, he would pick the squirming child up and twirl them around as if they were as small as fauntlings.

Their laughter filled the garden, and, if it weren’t for Bilbo’s backside, which was still aching from his fall, he would have almost forgotten what had happened.

*

The next morning the Thain himself arrived with much of his family in tow, in order to officially allow the dwarves to take their dwarflings to the Blue Mountains. There was also the matter of the prisoners to consider - the first thing everyone immediately agreed on was that they would not travel with Fíli and Kíli.

Violet and Lily came to Bilbo’s rescue when he did not know what to say, and announced that there was a lot of work to do: they needed to organise a farewell party and send word to the entirety of Hobbiton so they could all see Fili and Kili off. So obviously, the dwarves would have to wait another two days before starting their journey home.

*

One hour later, Bilbo was on his way down to Hobbiton. There was much to be bought, and he wanted to be alone.

A wish that was not granted as he soon heard footsteps running after him. The rebuke died on his lips as he turned around to see Fíli and Kíli running towards him.

“Bilbo?” They stopped beside him, looking down at him with big eyes.

“We are going away soon,” Fíli said, and Bilbo nodded, swallowing around a big lump in his throat.

“I know, my dear boy, you are going home.”

“But here is home too,” Kíli said, hunching his shoulders. “We … we will be so far away from you. And Daisy. And Hamish. And all of them.”

“We will miss you,” Fíli said simply, and Bilbo nearly broke down right there and then on the road between Bag End and Hobbiton, in plain sight of anyone passing by. Instead he turned and started walking with determined steps, and the dwarflings followed him. As soon as he trusted his voice again he said, firmly:

“And I will miss you. Bag End will be very empty without the two of you. But I am happy you found your family, and I am sure you will be happier in the Blue Mountains with them.”

“Can we help you with shopping?” Fíli asked. “We can help with the baskets.”

“Always, my dear boy.”

Kíli took his hand, which he hadn’t done for over a year, as they walked towards the market.

Where they practically emptied the honeycake vendor because there was no way Bilbo was going to say no to any wish he could fulfil. And Kíli could never have enough honeycakes.

*

The farewell party was splendid. Bilbo had to chuckle when he overheard Farmer Underhill, who was already in his cups, admonishing Gloin that the hobbits would come and fetch these dear boys if they heard of any mistreatment. To which Gloin gravely replied that the two lads were the jewels of their family and would always be treasured.

Later though, he had to find an empty corner to sit down and take out his handkerchief.

He was found by Dis and Thorin. Dis sat down next to him, putting a kind hand on his shoulders.

“My boys will miss you. As you will miss them I am sure.” She glanced at Thorin. “So my brother and I would very much like to invite you to spend the winter with us in the Blue Mountains. We can have a small escort come to fetch you before Durin’s Day. That would leave you enough time to organise everything here before your absence.”

She looked at Thorin again, who nodded. “As my sister said, we would be honoured if you chose to visit us, and I am sure my nephews would be delighted. And you may then assure everyone here that Fíli and Kíli are safe.”

Bilbo dried his tears. “I am only too happy to accept.”

*

It was with a much lighter heart that he could wave goodbye to the dwarflings the next morning, who shouted, “See you on Durin’s Day!”

The smial was indeed empty without the dwarflings. But Bilbo would see them again in just a few months. And, until then, there was work to do and presents to be organised.