“Know that I love you beyond the reach of starlight, my dwarf,” Captain Tauriel said, “but you have no concept of romance if you think that a better love story than mine.”
“He crafted her a crown of a thousand sapphires.” Kili huffed and folded his arms over his chest. “Her eyes were blue.”
“Your story was not so very romantic, Tauriel,” Fili agreed. “All that talk of stars and fading and dying of longing. That’s just depressing.”
“I thought both stories were very well told,” Bilbo said diplomatically. He was very attached to these nights when the family gathered around the roaring fire of Thorin’s hearth, talking and telling stories. Of course, any time he was curled up under his husband’s arm was time well spent in Bilbo’s book, but it was nice to get everyone together.
“Which means,” said Lady Dis, “that neither captured your concept of romance, does it not?”
“Er. Would anyone like more hot chocolate?”
Laughing, Thorin squeezed Bilbo’s shoulder. Everyone else seemed amused as well.
“I should like to hear a hobbit love story,” Lady Dis announced, “for it is very clear to me that the concept differs somewhat among cultures.”
“If you like,” Bilbo said, “for hobbit stories often are love stories in the end, but I do not think they would be very interesting to dwarves or elves. Mostly they are quite gossipy about flowers given, food shared, feuding families intermarrying, and how many children came of it.”
“Let us have one.” Thorin’s voice was a soft rumble against Bilbo’s ear that made the hobbit shiver all over. Hopefully the dwarf did not know how utterly incapable Bilbo was of denying him anything when asked in such a way. “We shall judge for ourselves.”
“All right.” Bilbo took care not to squeak. “Perhaps one about my great-great-great-uncle on my mother’s side, Bandobras Took.”
“The Bullroarer!” Kili said eagerly.
“The one who struck off a goblin chieftain's head with such force that it went rolling down a hole?” Fili asked.
“And thereafter established the North Tooks in an area of the Shire never before settled?” Lea asked.
“I believe I have heard tell that he was tall enough to ride a horse,” Tauriel said.
“Yes, yes,” Bilbo huffed. “It is possible that I have mentioned him before.”
“There is no shame in being proud of a famous relative,” said Lady Dis. Her open approval was heartening, and Bilbo gladly continued his tale.
“Well, this story takes place before all of that, anyway, though he was still quite tall for a hobbit. It starts in 2737, when he had just turned thirty three. As you may or may not know, thirty three is when a hobbit comes of age, and it is quite common for a hobbit confirming his adulthood to stretch his legs a little on holiday. Bandobras, being somewhat exceptional, extended his walking holiday through the Old Forest, which is quite dangerous, and had many adventures all around the Shire.
“He should have been quite proud of himself for having a jolly good time, if only he did not end up covered in mud, half crushed under the weight of a giant wolf—likely a warg to a learned audience, but in the Shire we always call it a giant wolf—crashing through Hollyhock Hardbottle’s fence.
“Opening his eyes, he looked up into a sun so bright it blinded him. Silhouetted against it he saw the figure of a finely proportioned hobbitess. Looking down she saw a ruffian, likely one of the Big People, on her property without her permission. Quite within her rights, she gave him half a minute to be on his way before she would run him through with a pitchfork.
“Hauling himself up, he apologized very prettily for disturbing her. Once she saw his feet and knew him for a hobbit, she was willing to listen for another half a minute. So he gave her to understand that he was a Took, quite a wealthy family, if unrepentantly wild, and a son of the Thain besides. She gave him to understand that this did not impress her in the slightest, but if he got rid of the wolf carcass immediately, she would permit him to bathe in her barn and fix her fence.
“Now, young Bullroarer thought Miss Hollyhock was uncommonly pretty, with eyes like forget-me-nots and hair as golden as a yellow daisy, so he thought he might show off a little. With his great strength, he lifted the wolf, which was twice as big as the giant hobbit, and carried it back toward the woods. When he looked back over his shoulder, though, she wasn't watching. I must tell you that was something of a blow to his ego, for most hobbits were very impressed by his unusual strength. He hoped she might admire it a little as other people did. After all, there ought to be some benefit in a body that was always bumping its head on doorways. Still, he was not of a regretful disposition that would sit and lament while there was work to be done. Dutifully, he lugged the great beast deep into the woods where it would not attract scavengers to her land, even as he wished she might at least notice how far he was able to walk under the weight.
“When he returned to the farm, he still did not see her, but there was a tub of cold water in the barn as promised. She'd also left him a bar of soap and clean trousers, though they barely fit him. They had been her father's, and her father had not been as big as Bandobras Took. No hobbit was.
“Once Bandobras was clean and had washed his own shirt as best he could, he went into the house to find her hard at work in the kitchen. She scowled and told him that he might get to work on her fence, but it was lunchtime, so she fed him.
“It wasn't anything special. Hollyhock Hardbottle wasn’t trying to make nice with a Took as she might have if a Baggins or a Proudfoot had broken her fence. Then again, a Baggins or a Proudfoot would be too respectable to ever be in a position to break a fence. She gave him black bread, cold ham, and hard cheese. For dessert there was nothing but blackberries and cream. But her bread was as hearty as sugar is sweet, her ham was so honeyed it might have been born in a beehive, and her cheese was sharper than the knife that cut it. As for those blackberries. Well. One can't know if the virtue was in her fruit or her cream, but Bandobras thought he might have stumbled into the land of fairies tasting such a wonderful dish.
“Still, she didn't let him linger. Didn't trust him to fix the fence. She gave him a hammer and sent him out, but she half suspected he would sneak away now that he’d had a wash and a free meal. He would probably take the hammer, too, which she could not afford to lose.
“There is an unkind saying in the Shire, ‘Hardbottles can grow wheat on rocks, but then they have to.’ It means the family makes do, but they are poorer than most. Their land is rough and rocky. Poor Hollyhock Hardbottle’s life had been rougher and rockier than most, too. Her parents both passed well before she came of age, and her elder brother only let her stay in a run down cottage on a little corner of the land that should have been theirs together. Who knows why he didn’t want a woman in his smial, but he drowned a few years later so one expects he had his own troubles.”
“What does drowning have to do with it?” asked Kili, interrupting.
“Oh!” Bilbo lost the rhythm of his story, but he paused to explain the saying to the dwarves. “You see hobbits don't swim, except for Brandybucks and the occasional Took. So when a hobbit goes into the water. Well, often one expects that some trouble or other drove him to it. I always thought maybe he felt the responsibility of caring for his sister too keenly, and so sent her away where he wouldn't see her to worry about her. As he did not leave a note, we shall never know. And perhaps he was only drunk, anyway.”
“It has little to do with the story,” Thorin said, giving Kili a disapproving look. “Pray, ghivashel, tell us more of your noble ancestor.”
“Well, Bandobras did fix the fence, and returned the hammer, so Hollyhock forgave him for the damage. She even gave him tea. There was a lemon tree on the little plot her brother let her farm, which was about right for a Hardbottle, for a lemon nourishes without sweetness. Yet the tree gave good lemons, and Hollyhock was fond of them. So she served lemon crisp. She often served lemon crisp, and it was nothing special to her.
“Listen well my friends, for I tell you that it was special indeed. The lemon crisp of Hollyhock Hardbottle had custard so thick it filled the mouth with the smallest bite. It had crust so delicate that it simply faded away at the touch of a tooth. It had topping so fluffy that it would have floated away were it not covered by sugar so crisp it sparkled. And the flavors, my friends, it tasted so fresh, so sweet, so crisp, so tart—”
“I thought this was going to be a romance, Bilbo, not a list of things you wish you’d eaten for dinner,” Fili complained. Lea elbowed him hard in the stomach.
“It is a hobbit romance, Fili son of Vili,” Bilbo scolded, “and the lemon crisp is very important. When Bandobras tasted it, he knew he did not only admire Hollyhock’s pretty face or her plump, well fed form, but he wanted her to be his wife. Naturally, being a Took, which is synonymous with ‘impetuous fool’ in every corner of the world where Tooks are known, he proposed to her on the spot. Since she was a Hardbottle, and refused to be mocked in her own home, she kicked him out of her house and told him if he set foot on her land again she really would stab him with the pitchfork.”
“Smart woman,” Dis said approvingly.
“I like her,” Tauriel agreed.
“Indeed,” Bilbo said. “If Hollyhock Hardbottle had ever imagined finding a husband, and I think she probably did want one, she likely pictured a dignified hobbit, slightly older than herself, with a thumb green enough to make even her poor garden grow. A gentle help-meet who might love her quietly and give her children to fill her lonely house. I am quite certain that she wasn’t looking for an unusually large Took five years her junior, wealthy son of the Thain or no, who was more interested in adventuring than planting. Especially since she had only his word about being wealthy, and he had brought a dead wolf onto her property only hours before.
“It might be worth mentioning to an audience not familiar with Shire land, that the Hardbottle patch is in North Farthing near Bindbole Wood. Not so dangerous as the Old Forest, but not precisely Hobbiton either. A dead warg that fought with Bullroarer Took and crashed him through her fence with its weight might very well have been a live warg sneaking around the home of a lone hobbitess if the Bullroarer had not been there. Still, this did not occur to Hollyhock, and Bandobras was too kind to say anything about it. He was an adventurer, and a Took, but he was not cruel or selfish. He did not want to put her in fear just for a chance that it might make her like him better. She asked him to get off of her land, and so he did. As far as Hollyhock was concerned, that would have been a most satisfactory end to the whole affair.
“Tooks are funny people, though. Flighty enough to forget to respond to birthday invitations, they often show up anyway. Mercurial in their moods, they will often drop friendships and start fights just for the sake of amusement, though they make new friends and forgive just as easily. They live under the oldest hills in the Shire, and some say they have fairy blood. All say they are strange and unpredictable. But there is one thing you can predict about a Took: when they fall in love they stay there.
“Hollyhock asked Bandobras to stay off her land, and so he did. The next morning he walked along the top of her newly repaired fence until she noticed him. His reasoning being that the fence marked out her property, and he was not really on her land so long as he was only on the fence. She was not impressed. Without even speaking to him, she simply went over and waited with her arms crossed for an explanation. He did not take much of her time, just wished her a good morning and gave her some strawberries he’d found in the forest.
“Now, the Bullroarer was unnaturally tall, but he was not bad looking once he had had a chance to go home and put on a proper waistcoat and trousers that actually fit. Hollyhock might have objected to his presence, or refused to take the strawberries, but she did not. So he came back the next day with a fish he’d caught in the river. The day after that, he came with fresh cheese from the market. For a month he came every day, and for a month she never said a word to him, just took the food he offered as he balanced precariously on her fence, never setting one foot on her land. Who knows when she started to think his unusual form might be a bit pleasing? No one can say when she started to like the look of his friendly, eager face. Eventually she must have, because one day she deigned to thank him for a basket of eggs. As the weeks went on, they even conversed. He would brag of his adventures, and she would tease him.
“Not once did she invite him to come down from the fence, though. Even when she started giving him a little something every now and again, a few biscuits or scones when she baked too many, she did not ask him in. Perhaps they would have continued that way forever or until her eye drifted to a more respectable suitor, but there was another wolf.
“There are not many wargs in the woods of the Shire, but there were more in those days. It came just before dawn when Hollyhock was in the habit of milking her goats, though I do not doubt it had been creeping about her land in the dark well before that. Unwholesome things often creep and fail to announce themselves properly at the door. When she went out to do the milking, she saw it: huge and hulking against the red barn wall in that gray, pre-dawn light. At first she did not know what it was, but when it lifted its massive head to sniff the wind, she understood. When it turned those enormous yellow eyes to her, she knew to run.
“Of course she went back into her house immediately. Unfortunately, it was a cottage and not a well dug hobbit hole with the protections that come from living in the earth. The warg crashed right through the door behind her, splintering it terribly, chasing her through the house and out the back way just as easily as it would have followed her through the trees. Climbing trees seemed like a good idea to her, for she did not think wolves could climb, so she scampered up her lemon tree.
“Now you and I know that wargs can’t climb, but they can jump mightily. A lemon tree is quite tall for a hobbit, but it is not so very tall to a warg. The great beast began to throw itself against the trunk. Whether it should have knocked the tree down or simply knocked Hollyhock out of it, I do not know. Maybe it would have given up before either of those things happened and gone in search of easier prey, but that did not happen either. That did not happen, because Hollyhock screamed.
“Forgive her, but she screamed. She did not have a weapon big enough to fight a warg, and she did think she was about to be eaten by a giant wolf at any moment. She hoped screaming might bring her brother down from his smial, though she was not sure what her brother would have done about the wolf.
“Screaming did not bring her brother. I am sure you know who it was that heard her cry for help, and I am sure you know who it was that answered. Bandobras Took, the Bullroarer, sprinted from the wood, hopped her fence, and raced across her field. Leaping onto the back of the warg, he wrapped his arms around its neck and began to choke the fell creature. Before it could succumb to suffocation, it twisted around to claw at his nice clothing, quite ruining the shirt that Hollyhock once mockingly told him brought out the green in his eyes. Punching its jaw repeatedly in revenge, Bandobras knocked it to the ground. Snarling, the wolf regained its feet and faced off against him in front of the lemon tree.
“Who can say if Bandobras would have defeated the wolf barehanded? Just at that moment, Hollyhock dropped from her lemon tree directly onto the wolf’s neck, driving a sharpened branch straight through its eye, killing it dead. The Bullroarer’s arrival had given her time to find the little knife in her pocket, and she’d always been good at making do without much.
“So once again there was a dead wolf on Hollyhock Hardbottle’s property, Bandobras Took in soiled clothing, and to make matters worse, she had blood on her second best dress. She might have cried. She might have done any number of things, for she had been in fear for her life as she never had before, but she did nothing, because Bandobras acted first.
“Do you know what that thoughtless, flighty, irresponsible Took did? He apologized for being on her land without her permission. Asking her forgiveness, he assured her that he would never again trespass without her invitation.
“Well, of course she had to let him in the house after that. She allowed him to use the bath, gave him an old shirt that fit even less well than the trousers had, and made him an omelet for breakfast. Naturally it was the best omelet he had ever tasted, as it was the best breakfast he had ever eaten, so he said as much at length. She liked the way he ate her food. She liked how safe she felt having him in the house. She’d even come to like how the shirt strained nearly to the point of tearing across his overly muscled shoulders. And so she told him that she should like to make breakfast for him every day for the rest of her life.”
Sighing happily, Bilbo leaned back a little more against Thorin’s chest. He could quite understand how his great-great-great-aunt might have developed a fondness for unhealthily well defined musculature.
“And then what?” demanded Kili.
“What do you mean?” Bilbo asked.
“Well, there must be more to the story,” Fili said reasonably. “After all, they got married, didn’t they?”
“Yes, they did,” Bilbo said. “About nine months later. Hollyhock wanted wild roses in her wedding crown, so it had to be a midsummer wedding. Not a full year, but a respectably long engagement given that Bandobras courted her for nearly six months before she agreed to marry him. They had a passel of children as well, if you want to know. Enough to set up the North-tooks in Long Cleeve, and a few more besides, as I recall.”
“But how did they get engaged?” Kili huffed impatiently. “What made her agree to marry him?”
“I just told you. Did you fall asleep for the end of the story?”
“If he did, then so did I,” Fili cried. “The story ended with them eating breakfast.”
“Oh!” Belatedly, Bilbo realized the source of the misunderstanding. “That’s how we put it in the Shire, if we’re being romantic. I mean, she might have given him breakfast for saving her from the wolf even if she did not want to marry him, but an offer to make breakfast every day is an offer of marriage. A very, very loving marriage, if I may say,” he added, thinking of his own. “Sharing a meal every single morning, taking the time to cook and eat together. That’s romance in the Shire. I did say it likely wouldn’t appeal to your dwarvish sensibilities.”
“I like it,” Tauriel said gently. “It is the promise of being together and building a life. Elves tell stories of loss and love so that we do not forget those who gave everything to follow their hearts, but I find the hobbit way has its own appeal.” Turning to Kili she asked, “Shall I make you breakfast every day, Mela en' coiamin?”
Laughing, Kili took her hand and kissed it. “Only if you want me to fade away for hunger. I have seen what you consider breakfast, amrâlimê.”
“You make me breakfast every day,” Thorin said. For some reason there was a flat note in his voice that made Bilbo a bit wary.
“Well, yes,” the hobbit agreed. “We are married, after all. It’s not any less romantic to be the one doing the eating, if that’s what you’re worried about. In the Shire one to cook and one to grow is considered to be the very best recipe for a happy marriage. Two that each think they’re the one to do the cooking can only lead to squabbling.”
“It was not a week after I gave you the mine and you realized you might stay in Erebor that you began to make me breakfast every day,” Thorin said, as if Bilbo hadn’t spoken.
“Oh! Well, when you put it that way, it was not very respectable of me. But we had already known each other for the better part of the year. And you know I’m a Took on my mother’s side. I did not think you cared about hobbit propriety.”
Bilbo found himself being lifted as Thorin rose to his feet. Clearly the king wasn’t too upset by the revelation if he was still holding Bilbo in his arms as though the hobbit weighed nothing. His voice was a growl, however, when he said, “You wanted to marry me.”
“We are married,” Bilbo pointed out cheekily, “so I seem to have achieved my objective.”
The hobbit’s traitorous family all offered laughing farewells, wishing Bilbo luck as they cleared away and left him without help.
In dubious reward, Thorin caught Bilbo’s legs with his other arm so he could carry his husband cradled against his chest. “You loved me, even then. You proposed.” That deep voice was still an accusing growl.
“Well, I knew you did not understand it, so it cannot really count as a proposal.” Over the years, Bilbo had grown much better at reading Thorin’s moods, though he did not wholly understand why his husband was so upset.
“You wanted me, and so you had a hobbit romance of me without my knowing. Do not think me blind to the gratification it has always given you to feed me.”
“I did not see any harm in it,” Bilbo said softly. “It was not lascivious, if that is what offends you so.”
“No,” Thorin said. “It was your way of giving me diamonds every morning and I did not see.”
Realizing that he had been deposited on their bed, Bilbo’s understanding of the situation was significantly improved. He grinned. “Oh yes, it was almost elvish, the way I pined for you. A great king would never have a hobbit. Even so, I was your burglar, and I stole a little romance for myself. You cannot know the joy I felt, that you should allow me to have that intimacy every day. It is as though you kissed me each morning. Although I knew I would never have more, it was almost enough. Enough to pretend that you were mine, and that I should be allowed to continue always.”
As it happened, he was not even allowed to continue talking. Thorin pressed their mouths together and pressed Bilbo bodily down to the bed. Feeling a calloused hand on the soft skin of his stomach, Bilbo noted with some little surprise that the buttons of his waistcoat and shirt had already been undone with dwarvish dexterity and without his noticing. Of course, he did not mind in the slightest and quite happily shrugged his shoulders to divest himself completely of the garments.
“I am yours,” Thorin growled. “I have been yours since the moment you vowed to help me take back my home and sealed the oath with the blood of an orc that would have had my head. My love has been flawed, not nearly so true as your own, but my heart has ever been yours alone.”
“Your love is fine,” Bilbo said. “But your boots continue to be the bane of my existence.”
Once again, as seemed to happen so often when Bilbo got particularly excited and started undressing his husband instinctively, he’d forgotten about the boots. So once again, Thorin’s trousers were caught about his knees, since Bilbo obviously could not get them off without first unlacing the boots, the tops of which were now covered by the trousers.
Looking down, Thorin laughed that deep, belly shaking laugh of his that Bilbo could not help but join. It really was ridiculous. As long as they’d been married, and the hobbit still couldn’t manage to get his husband out of his pants. They laughed together until they were good and finished, and Thorin leaned his forehead against Bilbo’s sighing.
“Do you think we will ever understand one another?” the king asked.
Angling his chin up, Bilbo kissed his husband gently. “Don’t be silly. We understand each other more than well enough when we remember to talk. You are asking if we will run out of surprises, and for my part I hope we never do.”
“Not even the surprising boots, which I have worn every day for over two hundred years?”
“Not even those, curse them to the fires of Mount Doom though I do,” Bilbo said sweetly, offering his husband another kiss.
Chuckling, Thorin said, “Well, if it is surprises you want,” before proceeding to surprise Bilbo quite pleasurably. Several times over, in point of fact. Which proved that he knew his hobbit husband very well indeed.