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Home for the New Year

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“I suppose you'll be heading off to visit your dwarves soon?” Mirabella Brandybuck asked politely over tea. The hospitality of Brandy Hall was preeminent throughout the Shire, but so was the inquisitiveness of Bilbo’s aunt.

“Not this year, I think,” the hobbit said.

Every year since the Battle of Five Armies, Bilbo Baggins returned to Erebor to visit his friends. He spent months of grueling travel on a dangerous road with barely a stop in Rivendell so that he could celebrate Durin’s Day with the dwarves. They would have a lovely visit with feasting, festivals, and merriment worthy of the mythic kingdom. Then, after two weeks of fun, it was back on the road. Yuletide, the hobbit’s own holiday, would be kept in the Greenwood or at Beorn’s house if he managed to keep it at all. Nearly half his year was lost in transit, but it was worth every hardship to be with his friends.

Or so Bilbo thought.

Unfortunately, when he dared mention those hardships to Thorin—angling, it must be admitted, for an invitation to put his feet up in the mountain a bit longer—it seemed Bilbo’s friends had a different opinion.

“Then do not return next year,” Thorin said. And nearly six months later, the words still echoed in Bilbo’s mind.

“Do not return next year.”

So he wouldn't.

“Good for you,” Mirabella said. “You could use a bit of a break from all that go, go, go.”

“Indeed I could,” Bilbo agreed, forcing a smile. “Why, it's been ages since my last cozy winter at home. My old bones deserve to curl up next to a good Shire yule log, instead of freezing my toes on mountain snow.”

A quiet tapping at the parlor door interrupted Mirabella’s answer to this, and she bade the visitor enter. Said visitor was quite a little chap, with dark curls and a broken toy in his small hands.

“Ah, Frodo.” Mirabella sounded tired, but she smiled kindly while Bilbo tried to place the name. “What is it, lad? Speak up.”

“Biffy threw it away,” the fauntling said, his voice little more than a whisper. “Can you fix it?”

Bilbo could see that the little wooden horse was only missing a leg. Frodo held up the tiny appendage to show his grandmother, and Bilbo placed him in the family tree at last. Poor Drogo and Primula drowned some time ago, leaving behind an orphaned son: Frodo Baggins.

“Leave it on the table there, dear,” Mirabella said. “I’ll look at it when I have the time.”

Setting the horse and its leg carefully side by side on the end table, Frodo whispered a small, “Thank you, Gran,” and took his leave.

“Sorry about that.” Turning back to Bilbo, Mirabella poured more tea and offered him another slice of cake which he was grateful to accept. Mirabella’s carrot cake was particularly delightful. “Not a moment’s peace about this place, but I suppose that’s why you visit us. Things must be awfully quiet in Bag End with you all alone. Any plans to change that, now that you’ll be staying year round?”

Bilbo laughed. “I doubt it, Auntie. But you are quite right that I visit Brandy Hall to enjoy the noise of my happy relatives. I would not mind in the slightest if you wanted to see to young Frodo’s horse.”

“Oh, Frodo.” Mirabella sighed. “That boy is always bringing me broken toys, sick hens, and torn papers. Mounting a defense of a little thing that Biffy’s too old for anyway is just like him. He ought to learn that sometimes broken is just broken, and can’t be fixed.”

“I am surprised at you, my dear aunt.” Bilbo set his cake down so that he could look at the old hobbit properly. These days, her hair was almost entirely white, and the laugh lines on her face were deep, well worn grooves. “An orphan certainly knows that perfectly well.”

At once, her face broke into a picture of regret. “Oh! You’re quite right, Bilbo. Of course you are. Only, it has been over a year since my daughter passed. I did hope another of my children might take an interest in his welfare. I have so many grandchildren, and so little time.”

“And none of us are getting any younger,” Bilbo agreed quickly. A hobbit who spent six months of the year entirely absent from all family obligations could not afford to be overly critical about how others chose to handle them. “Uncle Gorbadoc will be ninety-eight next week, unless I miss my count?”

“Yes,” Mirabella said. “And I am not so very much his junior. You are staying through his birthday party?”

That was not really a question, so Bilbo gave the only answer possible. “Best of aunts, of course I am. The invitation was the reason for this visit in the first place. You did receive my letters, did you not?”

Mirabella smiled. Naturally she had, and the conversation turned to the reliability of the mail. Bilbo had much to say in praise of the Bounders, who usually got letters around the Shire within the same week they were written. Like all hobbits, his aunt was happily smug to learn that letters to Bilbo’s friends outside the Shire often took months to be answered, if one reached its destination at all. So their little tea continued politely enough.

Yet young Frodo’s situation weighed on the hobbit’s mind throughout. After all, Bilbo knew very well what it was like to be unwanted and cast aside like a broken toy. Finding a gluepot and mending the horse was easy enough. Finding a small fauntling in the busy press of a full smial was rather more difficult.

Eventually, Bilbo discovered the lad sitting alone next to a creek. Dropping sticks into the water, the fauntling watched them float away with a strange solemnity. The game was common enough among fauntlings, though usually played in pairs who raced the flotsam and cheered when their sticks crashed. To play alone—to do anything alone at Brandy Hall—smacked of sorrow.

“Hello there, Frodo,” Bilbo said, approaching casually with his hands in his pockets. “Mind if I join you?”

“No, sir,” the lad said, more to the creek than to Bilbo.

It was invitation enough. Bilbo sat on the grassy bank next to the boy, pulling the little wooden horse out of his pocket as he did so. “Here you are, then. I have something of yours.”

“You fixed it!” Accepting the toy with both hands, Frodo’s quiet voice was full of wonder. As though mending a broken bit of wood was something out of the ordinary. “Thank you! Biffy will be so happy to have it back.”

“Didn't young Biffy throw his horse away?”

Stroking the top of its wooden head as though it was an actual animal, Frodo said, “That doesn't mean he won't be happy to have Percival back.”

“Percival, eh?” Bilbo grinned. And, it must be said, fell a little bit in love. Not every child could use a double negative properly. “A fine and storied stallion, I've no doubt.”

Frodo looked back down at the brook. He was a shy fellow, apparently. “Are you one of my uncles, sir? I forget.”

Laughing, Bilbo realized, “We have not been properly introduced at all, have we Frodo my lad? Well, uncle will do well enough, though technically we are first cousins once removed on either side. My name is Bilbo Baggins of Bag End.”

For the first time, Frodo looked straight up at Bilbo. “Are you really?” His eyes were wide and blue. Only one other person of Bilbo’s acquaintance had eyes quite that shade of blue.

“I am indeed! I suppose you may have heard of me. Well, Mad Baggins will do well enough if you forget yourself, though I prefer Uncle Bilbo.” The hobbit winked at the fauntling, who giggled.

“And do you really go on adventures all over the world? Why do you leave the Shire so much? What are mountains like? Do you really speak elvish?”

“Most of my adventures take me to the same place, though it is a long way off. I leave the Shire to visit my friends. Mountains are like the tallest hills you can imagine, so tall they scrape the sky, and sometimes when you are at the very top, you look down and see clouds. When you are that high up, though, it is very cold, so I do not recommend it if you can go around instead of over. As for elvish, mine is rather poor. Though I do speak enough to say: elen sila lumenn’ omentielvo, Frodo Baggins.”

“Elen sila lumenn' omentielvo,” the boy repeated carefully. His pronunciation was phenomenal for a beginner. “What does that mean, Uncle Bilbo?”

“It means: a star shines on the hour of our meeting.” Bilbo smiled. “I think you and I are going to be good friends, my lad.”

And so they were. Frodo turned out to be a very friendly child with the other fauntlings, when he was not sad about broken things which could not be mended. The little horde at Brandy Hall got into all sorts of mischief, of course. Stealing mushrooms from the nearby Farmer Maggot, chasing hens, racing through the halls, and spying on the birthday party preparations: the children were constantly under foot. Frodo was scolded, washed, fed, and sent off to bed just like all the rest.

The trouble, as far as Bilbo could tell, was that no one took a direct interest in the lad. He was just part of the scrum. Old enough to feed, dress, and bathe himself, Frodo was too young to be put to any useful work without a great deal of supervision. So he had nothing to do and no one to mind him as anything more than part of the crowd.

It was uncharitable to think it, but Bilbo wondered if the situation might have been different had Drogo any inheritance to improve the boy’s material prospects. There was no way to know. Still, Bilbo considered settling a little property on the lad, just in case it helped. Anyway, most of the adults were busy getting ready for the party. Perhaps Frodo usually received more attention, on an ordinary day. Since it was not an ordinary day, Bilbo was there to give it.

Once he realized that Bilbo’s undivided attention was his for the asking, Frodo began following him around like a duckling waddling after its mother. Though perhaps he quacked a little more, for the lad was a font of questions. He asked everything from “Why is the sky blue?” to “How do Big Folk walk in boots without falling over all the time?” to “Must I really wash my hands?” And he seemed to enjoy that Bilbo’s answers ranged from “Because if it was gray, we would not be walking outside,” to a silly story about the time Bofur’s boot lost its sole and Bifur had to cobble him a new one on the fly, to a thirty minute diatribe about manners and cleanliness. In fact, Bilbo later overheard Frodo repeating some of the finer points about cleanliness preventing illness to his friends among the other fauntlings.

He was a good lad.

Gorbadoc’s birthday party was a fine affair. Everyone east of the Brandywine, and indeed, most of East Farthing, came to celebrate with a day of feasting, drinking, and music. The presents were almost entirely mathoms, but no one minded that at such a large event. Bilbo received a new inkwell, though, which was very thoughtful. Frodo was also singled out with a new waistcoat, which was much needed. The hobbit couldn’t help noticing that the other fauntlings Frodo’s age all got toys. Merry, the grandchild who would one day inherit Brandy Hall itself, received a magical toy bird that could really fly. But it was none of Bilbo’s business, and Frodo did not complain.

The only blight on an otherwise marvelous event was that Mirabella had obviously spread the word that Bilbo would be remaining in the Shire. Knowing his aunt, she likely added a few pointed reminders about the size and emptiness of Bag End as well. Every single unmarried hobbit of a remotely respectable age asked Bilbo for a dance, a drink, or a moment over the course of the party. Most of them were far too young. The few respectable widows and widowers who were somewhere near his own age had an overtly predatory air which did not suit the hobbit at all.

When he approached his aunt on the subject, she was completely unrepentant. “As you’ve said, you aren’t getting any younger.” But she poured him another glass of very good wine before introducing him to the next surprisingly enthusiastic widow with only three children who absolutely loved to hear about far off places.

Bilbo hadn’t been so hunted since he came of age at thirty-three and inherited Bag End officially. Not even in the wild, where he was sometimes literally hunted by orcs.

Initially, Bilbo’s plan was to return to Hobbiton the day after the party, but somehow a day turned into a week, and then two. His aunt and uncle never once hinted that he should go. It was clear they both took a great deal of pleasure in his company and conversation, when they weren’t trying to set him up with a spouse. Likewise, he was always happy to entertain the fauntlings with stories of his adventures, which all of the adults at Brandy Hall appreciated. Still, one did not always realize when one began to impose. Moreover, as everyone knew, two weeks was the outside limit of an invitation to stay unless a longer period was explicitly requested by one’s host.

Thorin’s voice echoed again in Bilbo’s head. “Do not return next year.”

Well, he wasn’t going back to Erebor, but the time soon came for him to return to Bag End. That meant taking his leave of the Brandybucks. Bidding farewell to Frodo was particularly difficult. The fauntling’s big, blue eyes welled with tears, but he bit his lip and bravely didn’t shed them.

“It was nice to meet you, Uncle Bilbo,” Frodo said, his voice returning to the shy whisper that Bilbo had not heard in weeks.

“Good lad, Frodo, chin up! I’ll be back before you know it. Send me an invitation to your own birthday party, and I will be here with bells on!”

“Oh.” Frodo looked down, quickly swiping at his eyes with one sleeve. “I probably will not have a birthday party. Last year I had a special dinner. Will you still come? Even if it is only a special dinner and not a birthday party?”

Shocked, Bilbo was at a loss for words. Everyone had a birthday party. Even the poorest hobbits threw something together, and Brandy Hall was anything but poor. Kneeling down so that he could look the boy squarely in the eye, Bilbo said, “I am very sure you will have a party this year.” And he would, even if Bilbo had to organize and pay for everything himself. “When is your birthday?”

“September 22,” Frodo said softly, and the whole world started to spin.

Instead of Thorin’s impolite request, Bilbo heard Frodo’s voice echoing in his mind. “Elen sila lumenn' omentielvo,” the boy said, and Bilbo felt the truth of it in his heart. A star shone on the hour of their meeting. Hobbits did not believe much in fate, but Bilbo could not ignore a lad with Thorin’s eyes and his own birthday.

“That is my birthday, too, you know,” Bilbo said, smiling.

“Oh!” Frodo looked crestfallen. “Then you will be having your own party. Of course you cannot come to Brandy Hall in September.”

“In that case, you had better come and live with me at Bag End, Frodo my lad,” Bilbo said, “and then we can celebrate our birthday parties comfortably together.”

So that is what happened.

Mirabella took credit for everything, of course, which eased the way considerably. Some hobbits, even Brandybucks, balked at the idea of a fauntling going to live with the eccentric Baggins who was known for constantly adventuring and disappearing off into the blue. With the mistress of Brandy Hall telling anyone who would listen that it was all her idea—a fauntling would settle Bilbo completely in the Shire, and wouldn’t they be good for one another—the naysayers kept their mouths shut.

In the end, the only strenuous objection came from the Sackville-Bagginses. Since everyone knew that they wanted Bag End for themselves and did not want Bilbo to have a proper heir, the adoption papers were finished a full month before Frodo and Bilbo’s joint birthday.

Bag End was beautiful in late summer, and Bilbo’s tomatoes were redder than any ruby in Erebor. If he sometimes heard the echo of Thorin’s voice saying “Do not come,” Bilbo more often heard the soft padding of Frodo’s little feet racing down the hallway.

Thousands of things needed to be done to make Frodo a proper resident of Bag End. The best guest room needed to be made over completely for a child. A toy chest, better bed, and sturdier wardrobe were all absolutely necessary. Then, once the wardrobe was acquired, it needed to be filled with proper attire for a young gentlehobbit. The state of Frodo’s things from Brandy Hall did not bear contemplating. Waistcoats, new shirts, trousers, warm woolen jackets, and a dozen other things all needed to be procured from Bilbo’s tailor. Those first few weeks, they were really very busy.

When the knock at the door came precisely at four o’clock, not a second earlier or later, Frodo dashed off to answer it. He was, after all, at home. Bilbo loved that the fauntling already felt comfortable enough to answer the door. Knowing what was about to come, however, Bilbo dithered in the kitchen.

The dwarves all knew that they would be welcome at any time, of course, but tea was at four. Thus, Bilbo’s friends took great pleasure in always arriving exactly at four. It was a joke about that first meeting that never seemed to grow old. The Company liked to turn up promptly when expected, if unannounced. Except for Kili. Unless his brother was with him, the young prince drifted in like a cat. All the rest, though, arrived at four on the dot. And if it was a dwarf at Bilbo’s door there was a chance, a small chance, that they had an apology from Thorin. If the king apologized, if he asked Bilbo to come this year— Well. Bilbo had other commitments. Family took precedence. He simply couldn’t. Not anymore.

“Uncle Bilbo!” Frodo scampered in looking eager and impressed. “There is a dwarf at the door! A real one! He said that he is at my service, and his name is Balin. His father’s name was Fundin. His cloak is red with a yellow lining, and his beard is all white. Is he the same Balin you went on the adventure with?”

“He certainly sounds like him,” Bilbo said.

“And looks like him, I hope, if the last few years have not aged me overmuch,” Balin agreed, following Frodo into the parlor. “Though life in Erebor might have softened me some. I swear the road gets longer each time I travel it.”

Rising from his seat, Bilbo strode quickly over to his friend and embraced him. When the dwarf pulled away, it was only to press their foreheads together affectionately. “It is good to see you, my friend,” Bilbo said. “What brings you to the Shire?”

“Teatime, of course!” Balin’s eyes twinkled like stars, and Bilbo laughed.

“Of course!” Bilbo fetched a third cup and saucer out for Balin. “We are having strawberry tarts just now, but if you’ve an appetite, I could put together a few sandwiches.”

“The tarts look delicious,” Balin said. “I am happy to join your tea exactly as it is. Will you tell me who I am joining, though? I introduced myself to your young companion, but he did not say two words to me.”

“Ah, forgive my nephew, he’s a bit shy with new people. We’ll train that out of him soon enough!” Looking down, Bilbo saw that the fauntling was trailing after him while he fetched out tea things instead of sitting with their guest. “Frodo, you must say at least two words to Balin, and probably a great deal more. He is a very friendly dwarf, I promise.”

Obediently, Frodo said, “At least two words,” then buried his face in Bilbo’s trouser leg.

Laughing was probably the wrong response to this, but Bilbo couldn’t help himself. Balin joined as well. It was a fine jest. Even so, Bilbo put a kind hand between his nephew’s shoulder blades and pushed him gently toward the center of the room.

“Now now, my lad. Balin is one of my dearest friends, and among the kindest people of my acquaintance. Stand up straight, show him what a proper bow you have, and tell him who you are.”

Stepping forward, Frodo executed a perfectly charming bow, and spoke up firmly. “Frodo Baggins, son of Drogo Baggins, at your service.”

“Nicely done.” Bilbo beamed.

Balin smiled very broadly as well. “It is my great pleasure to make your acquaintance, young Mister Baggins. But do please sit down. I would hate to delay your meal.”

At the mention of food, Frodo sat down with alacrity, as any fauntling would. Bilbo poured the tea, passed the first tarts, and then lost any hope of the lad contributing to the conversation as the child inhaled tart after tart.

“A compliment to your cooking, to be sure,” Balin said.

Bilbo laughed. “He would do the same thing with a bag of raw oats, I suspect. Hobbit children require a prodigious amount of provender. But tell me: how fares the Lonely Mountain? Was everyone well when you left?”

News from Erebor was good enough. The big playhouse in Dale, which had been under construction during Bilbo’s last visit, put on its first show just before Balin’s departure. A comic retelling of Kili’s second visit to Mirkwood, the actors apparently consisted of elves, dwarves, and men, with dramatic confusions, mistaken identities, and unintended romances all over the place. Kili claimed that it was the furthest thing from true that a play could be, but he and his brother apparently laughed more than all the rest of the audience combined.

“Thorin has commissioned a more serious work as part of the Durin’s Day festivities this year,” Balin continued. “I daresay you will enjoy it. The part of a very notable hobbit will, necessarily, be played by a dwarf. But otherwise it promises to be very true to life.”

“Ah.” Coughing politely, Bilbo poured more tea into the three cups. “I am afraid I shall not be able to attend the festivities this year. The journey is such a long one, after all, and I have obligations here.”

“Yes,” Balin said. “We’ve received your letters, and your response to the usual invitation. I have to admit, that is why I’m here. I thought perhaps the journey would be less arduous for you if you had a friend to share it with.”

“Thorin told me not to come, Balin.”

The dwarf looked down at the entirely empty tray of tarts. Frodo had, with charming aplomb, cleaned it of every crumb. “I know. He informed me of your conversation. But you must know that the invitation you recieved was written in his own hand, and just as genuinely meant. The celebrations this year will be unrivaled, Bilbo! Feasting, dancing, music, theater, fireworks, and anything else your heart could possibly desire. Will you not come?”

So Thorin had not sent a letter, nor actually retracted his words. Bilbo took a deep, relieved breath. “Thank you, Balin, that does sound lovely. But as I said, I have obligations here.”

Frodo slid closer to Bilbo on the settee and slipped his little hand into his uncle’s larger one. “Obligations means me, Mister Balin, but I don’t mind. We can go to the Lonely Mountain for the party, Uncle Bilbo, if you want to. Is it tomorrow? And then all of the dwarves can come to Bag End for our birthday party!” He looked shyly over the tea set at Balin. “Uncle Bilbo and I have the same birthday, you know.”

“Do you indeed?” Balin asked politely, glancing from Frodo to Bilbo.

“Frodo my lad,” Bilbo began carefully, “Durin’s Day is some time after our birthday, and Erebor is very far away. We would have to leave quite soon, and spend our birthday on the road, traveling all the time in order to get there for the party.”

“Oh!” Frodo’s eyes were wide when he turned back to Balin. “No thank you, then. Please do consider coming to our party instead. It is going to be right here on September the twenty-second. You will not need to travel at all.”

Balin blinked. “Thank you for the invitation. I shall consider it carefully.”

“Frodo, if you are finished your tea, you may be excused,” Bilbo said, reading more understanding in Balin’s expression than he liked.

At once, Frodo’s attention was focused entirely on Bilbo. “May I please go outside and play with Sam?”

“You may.” Bilbo smiled.

Without bothering to say goodbye or clear his plate, the fauntling leapt up and dashed for the door.

“And Sam is?” Making himself at home, Balin poured another cup of tea and refilled Bilbo’s as well.

“My gardener’s grandson,” Bilbo said. “Frodo is tremendously taken with him already. I don’t think it’s just a matter of being the closest fauntling of a similar age, either. They get on well.”

“And Frodo is?” Balin asked. He sipped his tea casually, but there was a knowing glint in the dwarf’s eye.

“My nephew, as I said; and my heir, as I suppose I did not. His parents died, and I am looking after him.”

“And so you cannot come to Erebor this year,” Balin agreed, setting down his teacup. “Likely, you will not come again for many, many years.”

Meeting Balin’s eyes squarely, Bilbo said, “Yes.” Then he looked down and away, piling the plates neatly and stacking the tea-things. “I shall miss all of you terribly, of course, but you are always welcome to visit here. If you can stay through my birthday at least this year, I would be so very glad to have you, Balin. But. It was too much. Going all that way for only two weeks at a time every single year. And Thorin— Thorin said— Well, none of that matters anymore anyway. Frodo needs me.”

“I see.” Balin followed Bilbo into the kitchen, helping him clear up and watching as the hobbit put a little mutton together in a roasting pan for dinner. “Of course I understand. This was not unexpected, only earlier than I would like. But there is never a perfect time for change. Erebor is strong, well positioned, and as stable as it can be. If you will excuse me, Bilbo.”

Alarmed, Bilbo seized Balin’s elbow, staring at him. “You will not even stay for dinner?”

Covering Bilbo’s hand with his own, Balin bent his neck to press their foreheads together as well. “I will stay the week, if you will have me, and count myself honored. But I must send word to the companions who will accompany me on the road to Erebor.”

Sheepishly, Bilbo smiled. “Of course,” he said. “Of course. Will you be back in time for dinner?”

“An army of orcs could not keep me away,” Balin promised. “Your roast mutton is a particular favorite of mine.” Which naturally explained why Bilbo was making it.

The week of Balin’s stay was a delightful one. Bilbo and Frodo took him trout fishing in the stream that ran through the Old Wynards. Frodo proved to have excellent luck with a line, though the fauntling needed help reeling in his catch. Once that catch was cleaned and in the cold larder for dinner, the trio went walking in the woods. Balin taught Frodo how to whittle like a proper dwarf. After that, Frodo greatly enjoyed learning his first runes and seeing them writ in a dwarven hand. For the most part, however, Frodo was equally happy to leave Bilbo and Balin smoking and reminiscing while he dashed off on adventures with Sam and the other fauntlings of the Hill.

When the time came to part, Bilbo had to make some little effort to avoid crying in front of Frodo. It might be a year before he saw another of his friends from Erebor. But he could be strong for Frodo, and the prospect of their upcoming birthday party cheered him. In fact, Bilbo put a great deal more effort into planning it than he had any other party in his life. And so the last days of summer passed into fall. The apples ripened on the trees. Tomatoes and zucchini gave way to pumpkins and cabbage.

All of Hobbiton, most of Tuckborough, and a goodly contingent from Brandy Hall came to Bilbo and Frodo’s birthday party. Only lunch, tea, and supper were served formally—with five courses each, not counting deserts—but the sideboard was well supplied for hobbits to fill in the corners as they went. Drink flowed like a river; lively music filled the air; jugglers, acrobats, and animal trainers all plied their trade. When there were not entertainers and dancers performing, there were always laughing, running children.

Among the playful fauntlings, Frodo was their quiet center. His closest companions were Sam, his cousin Merry from Brandy Hall, and Freddy Bolger. Toddling after them wherever they went was one of the Took lads who Bilbo couldn’t quite place. They made a darling set. All of them laughed and spun about the birthday boy, who grinned and looked as though he could not quite believe that he was the reason for such happiness.

Finally, the time came for presents, and everything else stopped. All of the hobbits gathered around Frodo and Bilbo, who sat together with their massive pile of gifts. One by one, Frodo brought each carefully wrapped gift to the friend he’d chosen it for and say, “This is from Uncle Bilbo and me, but I picked it out specially for you,” or “I hope you like it.” In return, the child would wish him happy birthday before tearing the parcel open and marveling at the wonderful gift. The toys were dwarf-made, of course, and brand new. Most were magical, or at least clockwork. As a rule, birthday presents were not meant to be expensive, but it was a very special occasion.

Bilbo’s presents were nearly as thoughtful, and certainly as expensive, but he was much more careless about the giving. Waving a hand at the pile, he said, “Have at it, you lot. They’re all tagged. Only pour me some more wine and start the music back up!”

Laughing, his guests joyfully obeyed. It was a birthday party to remember: Bilbo and Frodo’s first joint celebration. Only one thing marred the beautiful day. That was, of course, the vast number of unattached hobbits who thought they might rather like to be hosting such a party instead of attending it.

Some of them were really quite shameless. Lavender North-Took even shoved Bilbo quite roughly into a garden shed and tried to kiss him, though he did not want her to. After all, she was nearly thirty years his junior, along with being the sort of person who thought kissing someone in a garden shed after a scant five minute conversation was romantic. And she was not the worst of the lot. Once she realized he wasn’t interested, Lavender left him alone. That was more than Bilbo could say for most of his pursuers. They seemed to think hints were for other people and a flat out “No thank you” meant try again later with more wine.

So although Bilbo enjoyed much of the party, he was not at all sad when the night ended. Tucking Frodo quietly into bed was just as agreeable in its own way.

For the most part, Bilbo and Frodo lived quietly indeed. Frodo’s education had been woefully neglected at Brandy Hall, where knowing one’s alphabet was considered the height of erudition. The lad was an eager pupil, however, and delighted in reading almost as much as Bilbo did. Many evenings were spent in front of the fire at Bag End with Bilbo perusing some weighty epic in Sindarin or Quenya while Frodo meandered through a big book of fairytales next to him.

In addition to being studious, Frodo was also tremendously helpful. Or he wanted to be. Whenever Bilbo was baking, canning, or doing anything in the kitchen that took more than ten minutes, Frodo asked to join the fun. Of course these tasks took twice as long with Frodo helping as they would for Bilbo to do them alone, but it was time well spent. After all, Frodo needed to learn just as much about cooking as he did about writing. Perhaps more.

On the afternoon just before Durin’s Day, while Bilbo was doing his level best not to think about dwarves of any sort, they were baking bread together. Naturally, this meant Frodo’s hands, face, and apron were covered in flour. Bilbo did most of the kneading and shaping of the loaves. As they worked, Frodo told Bilbo all about his latest adventures on the Hill with the other fauntlings.

“And then, Sam’s Gaffer put all the leaves in a big pile. Do you know what we did then?”

“No,” Bilbo smiled and did not think about fireworks, theaters big enough to seat all of Hobbiton at once, or dwarven kings with smiles like the setting sun. “What did you do then?”

“We jumped into the pile! It was better than jumping on the bed!”

Frowning a little absently, Bilbo said, “Certainly much easier on the furniture. What did you do next?”

Before Frodo could answer, there was a knock at the front door. Bilbo froze and looked up at the clock. It was only two in the afternoon. Not teatime. No dwarf would want to be far from Erebor on the day before Durin’s Day in any case. The visitor was likely just Sam, stopping by to see if Frodo could play outside for a bit and enjoy the last of the autumn sunshine.

Clearly, Frodo thought the same. “I’ll get it!” he cried, dashing for the door.

“Wash your hands!” Bilbo called after him, but as he was quite certain that no one of any importance would be at the door uninvited, he didn’t chase the lad down to insist. Instead, he finished shaping the loaves and set them to rise before taking a moment to wash his own hands.

Frodo came rushing back into the kitchen. He was still, Bilbo had to note, covered in flour.

“Uncle Bilbo! It is a dwarf! He knew my name, though he did not tell me his. He said, ‘You must be Frodo Baggins. Is your uncle at home?’ and so I came to fetch you.”

“I hope you asked him inside,” Bilbo said, mock sternly.

Ducking his head shyly, Frodo made to grab Bilbo’s leg as he was wont to do on such occasions.

“Oh, no you don’t!” This time, Bilbo managed to inject genuine firmness into his tone. His trousers were brand new, after all. “Just you wash your hands and face, Frodo my lad, and I will go see about our guest.”

Laughing, Frodo obeyed, and Bilbo went to answer the door.

Standing there on the front step was the only dwarf of Bilbo’s acquaintance who would not simply come inside without an invitation. Thorin Oakenshield had his hands folded politely behind his back, and he was inspecting the door jamb as though it was a great work of art. Draped in a fur cloak over sturdy armor, he looked almost exactly as he had during their quest all those years ago, except for the prominent veins of silver winding through his hair and beard.

Bilbo went to him at once.

“Thorin!” he cried, wrapping his arms around the dwarf.

Over the years, Bilbo had enjoyed hugs from all of his friends. Dwarves are very expressive folk, once you know them well. Hugging Bombur was like sinking into a featherbed, while embracing Fili or Kili was not dissimilar to being tackled by a friendly warg. Some Big Folk, like Bard and Sigrid, were given to the occasional friendly squeeze. That was always a bit of an experience, since they were twice Bilbo’s height on average. Nothing compared, however, to being held by Thorin Oakenshield.

Wrapping Bilbo in his arms, enfolding him in the cloak of his personality, Thorin pulled the hobbit to his heart and held him there. As Bilbo looked out over the dwarf’s shoulder, he saw the afternoon sun shining down on the hills of the Shire. A wooden wagon full of enormous pumpkins was slowly making its way around the winding roads to Hobbiton. The last of Bilbo’s begonias were still cheerfully lining his front walk in their autumnal reds and pinks. He could have stayed right there with Thorin for all the rest of his life.

Eventually, Thorin drew back, his hands still on Bilbo’s arms. Leaning in, the dwarf pressed their foreheads together for another long moment. “It is good to see you, my friend,” he murmured, his voice a low rumble that shook Bilbo to the core.

“Yes,” Bilbo said, rather breathlessly. “Do come in! I am so happy to have you here. Are you hungry? Would you like a cup of tea? Scones? I’m afraid the kitchen is a bit of a mess at the moment, but I could throw something together in two ticks. Ham and eggs, perhaps? Let me take your cloak.”

The cloak was relinquished with a warm smile. “Tea or water would be very refreshing,” Thorin said. “I am not hungry.”

“I am hungry,” Frodo said from down next to Bilbo’s waist.

“You cannot possibly be.” Bilbo frowned. “We only finished lunch an hour ago.”

Looking up at him with wide, pleading eyes, Frodo said, “But if we are having tea, Uncle Bilbo—”

Sighing, Bilbo relented. “You will eat me out of smial and larder. But yes, I’ll bring out a few scones. Show Thorin into the parlor, if you please.” Then he bustled off to see about a little tea.

Quick as he could, Bilbo got out his very best silver tea set and a few little tidbits. Then he hastened to the parlor.

Thorin and Frodo were sitting in silence. Perched on the edge of the settee, Frodo was twiddling his thumbs, looking down at his own toes. Opposite him, enthroned upon Bilbo’s best armchair, Thorin stared fixedly at the boy, as though the fauntling was a mountain waiting to be conquered.

“Everything all right in here?”

Thorin smiled up at him as Bilbo set down the tea tray. “Absolutely perfect.”

Smiling back, Bilbo barked his shin on the table, tripped forward, and landed on the settee next to Frodo. Coughing to cover his embarrassment, he leaned in and poured the tea. Once Thorin had his cup in hand, Frodo started in on the scones.

“What brings you to the Shire?” Bilbo asked, settling back comfortably. “I suppose you are on your way to the Blue Mountains?”

“I am here to see you.” Thorin’s smile was very fond. “As soon as Balin sent word that you truly would not come this year, I made my departure from Erebor. I would not want to spend Durin’s Day without you.”

Blushing deeply, Bilbo sipped his tea. “You old flatterer. I am sure a king cannot take off as he pleases to spend months on the road just to visit with a friend. Surely you have some other business?”

“No more,” Thorin said. “I am freed at last.”

“Whatever do you mean?”

“Fili is King Under the Mountain.” Thorin’s eyes sparkled, and he took a slow drink of his own tea. “I did send you a letter, but I am not surprised to have beaten it here.”

Bilbo stared at him. He looked real enough. The seat cushion beneath him was dimpled by the weight of an armored dwarf. Thorin’s cup clinked gently when he set it down perfectly into his saucer. Clearly, Frodo could see him as well, because the fauntling occasionally paused in the process of wolfing down scones to glance up curiously at the dwarf. Yet the hobbit wondered about strange dreams, bad mushrooms, or visions that might be brought on by missing Durin’s Day for the first time since his adventure all those years ago.

“Balin thought I should wait. He has been counseling patience for the last five years at least, but Fili is ready. If he is not, Dis and Balin can keep him in line. In any case, I have lived my whole life for my people. Now that they are safe, prosperous, and justly ruled by my heir, I deserve the freedom to seek my own happiness.” This last Thorin said rhythmically, as though the words were oft repeated. Bilbo did not think they came from Thorin himself, either.

“Did Fili tell you that?”

Thorin’s cheeks reddened slightly, and he looked down at his teacup. “And Kili. And Dis. And Dain. If I did not have steadfast faith in their love for me, I would suspect sedition.”

“But surely you cannot be happy away from Erebor,” Bilbo pressed. “Not after all you went through to win back your home.”

Looking up at Bilbo, Thorin hesitated. Just for a moment. Anyone who did not know him well would never notice it, but of course Bilbo did. “That remains to be seen,” the dwarf said regally. “It may be that I return there in a few years, but for now it is best that I should be away. My presence in the mountain might challenge Fili’s authority, at least during this time of transition.”

“And so here you are.” Unadulterated joy bubbled through Bilbo like elderflower cordial. He grinned helplessly at his friend. “That is why you told me not to come this year. Because you knew you might not be there.”

Smiling back, Thorin hesitated again before speaking. “Say rather that I could not have left the mountain if you planned to cross half the world to visit us, and you will be closer to the mark. But I am glad to lay down the burden of my crown at last. Your Shire is an emerald without price. It is good to see it again after so long.”

Puffing up proudly, Bilbo said, “You cannot be half as glad to be here as I am to have you here. Frodo and I did not have anything planned to celebrate Durin’s Day tomorrow, but we should put together a little party. Perhaps some of the neighbors would like to join us.”

With one hand, Thorin reached across the coffee table to touch Bilbo’s knee. It was an innocent enough gesture, though as always it thrilled the hobbit in a less than appropriate way. “To spend the day with you and Frodo would be celebration enough for me.”

Before Bilbo could answer, Frodo looked up from his empty tray of scones. “Durin’s Day? Wasn’t that the party that Mister Balin invited us to. Will we really have music and fireworks and a feast?”

“Not fireworks, I think.” Bilbo tried to mitigate Frodo’s disappointment by explaining. “We would need a wizard or to have sent away to the Blue Mountains months ago for that. However, we will certainly have a little feast and some music.”

Frodo bit his lower lip, clearly trying to decide if this was a sufficient celebration for a holiday that he’d heard about only once and knew nothing of. “Can Sam come?”

Bilbo grinned and cast a sidelong glance at Thorin. A corner of the dwarf’s mouth lifted slightly. “If his folks give him leave,” the hobbit said, knowing that they would.

“Great!” Leaping to his feet, Frodo made a mad dash for the door. “I’ll go ask him.”

“A fine lad,” Thorin said.

“I suppose I’m rather fond of him,” Bilbo agreed, looking down at the perfectly clean tray. Every crumb of scone was gone. “Although I’m not entirely convinced that he’s a fauntling instead of some new breed of locust.”

The laughter of Thorin Oakenshield was a booming sound. Filling the smial like the smell of baking bread, it was a gift to be treasured. Long acquaintance taught Bilbo to think of it as an achievement, for Thorin’s laughter was usually rarer than diamonds. Yet here he was, laughing at a silly joke about how much Frodo ate. Perhaps it was the laughter of a king that must be rare, and Bilbo might be treated to his favorite sound more frequently during this visit.

He hoped so.

Between his luggage and his pony, Thorin had a few things to see about before dinner. That was just fine with Bilbo. If he was going to treat his unexpected guest to a proper Durin’s Day feast, he really needed to clean up the kitchen.

Putting together a traditional dinner for the dwarven new year was an all day affair. Fortunately, Bilbo had some unexpected aid. Thorin joined him quietly after breakfast and said, “Tell me how to help.”

“It would be very helpful of you to entertain Frodo while I cook,” Bilbo suggested.

Thorin smiled. “You will not be rid of me that easily,” he said. “Frodo has gone off to play with young Sam. Come, set me to chop or wash dishes. I will not be in your way.”

In fact, it was the opposite. Thorin was not a cook by any stretch, but he knew his way around a knife and had a perfect dice. He also made an adequate dishwasher. More than anything, though, he was the most pleasant companion Bilbo could want. They sang traditional dwarven songs for the New Year while they worked, joked, poked each other out of the way, and generally spent a wonderful morning cooking.

Around teatime, Frodo, Sam, Bilbo, and Thorin sat down for their Durin’s Day Feast. Aside from the big roasted ham and seared winter sprouts, most of the dishes were ones the boys did not recognize. The sweet potatoes were whipped with brown sugar, cinnamon, and spices. Ordinary potatoes were sliced thick and layered in a casserole with mushrooms and goat cheese. Sweet, creamy soup sat to the side of the plate as a palate cleanser for the arasharg.

Of course he served arasharg. If you are ever expected to cook for the dwarven new year, you must serve arasharg. Long, spicy buckwheat noodles are the most important dish on such an occasion. Dwarves like a challenge, after all. The length of the noodle is considered good luck for long life and continued happiness, and the more of them one can eat, the happier the year to come will be. Often in Erebor, Bilbo’s friends slurped down the longest noodles with tears in their reddened eyes, pleasing themselves with their tradition despite great pain.

Naturally, dwarven palates and hobbit tastes are a little different. Bilbo rather liked the spicy burn of arasharg. It was clear that Frodo and Sam did as well. The faunts ate with their best manners, twirling the noodles around their forks with the help of their little spoons as they enjoyed plate after plate.

With the usual tears in his own eyes, Thorin laughed. “I am blessed indeed to be among you. Hopefully, some of your luck will rub off on me!”

“Why don’t you tell us a little bit about Durin’s Day?” Bilbo prompted.

Thorin was happy to do so. He spoke at length about the seven fathers of the dwarves, and Durin who walked alone. Among all the dwarves, Durin was the most curious, and so he quickly became the most learned. He named the nameless hills and dells, learned the mysteries of the stone, and counted out all the days of the moon, establishing the dwarven calendar.

“And so it is that the last moon of autumn, when we are on the cusp of winter’s frost, we begin the new year. To remember he that taught us this, we call today Durin’s Day, in his honor.”

“Above all,” Bilbo said, “it is about the light. Leave your plates and get your coats. We go outside to observe the sun setting and the stars coming out. We shall return by moonlight. I’ll fetch some candles, to complete the picture. For at this time of year, the dwarves also celebrate the fourth, most important kind of light that Mahal, their maker, taught them: firelight which they can make themselves.”

Thorin coughed. “I have candles,” he said. “Brought from Erebor. It was my hope to arrive in time to celebrate this day with you.”

Bilbo raised an eyebrow.

“Longbeard candles,” the dwarf confirmed.

Grinning, the hobbit said, “Well, I’m sure the boys would like to see those. We best walk out to Holman’s south field for that, though.”

“Because we can see the whole sky there?” Frodo asked.

“Indeed.” To avoid ruining the surprise, Bilbo did not mention that Holman’s south field was lying fallow. There would be nothing to burn on accident.

Sam and Frodo obediently put on their little jackets. Bilbo bundled each of them in hats and scarves as well. Although it was only the cusp of winter, night tended to get a little nippy. Frost had been edging the few green leaves left in Bilbo’s garden for days now. Still, with the proper clothing, it was a beautiful evening. The last golden rays of the sun painted the hills of Hobbiton in pinks and royal purple shadows. As the world sank into darkness, the pale moon held onto its light. Then, one by one, the stars joined it in the sky.

Thorin sang. A long, dwarven ode to days that came and went just as in ancient times—that would continue to come and go unto the remaking of the world—sank into the hobbits’ bones and settled in their hearts. Hobbits were not crafted from stone by the great Mahal, but when Thorin sang, all of them felt part of that seemingly endless tradition.

When the song ended, the world was silent, still, and cold.

“Do we light our candles now?” Frodo whispered.

“Yes.” Bilbo could hear the smugness in Thorin’s voice. “Yes, we do.”

Longbeard candles were not like Gandalf’s fireworks. They were not great rockets that filled the sky with new stars, illusory flowers, beautiful sailing ships, or great dragons. Instead, Thorin held a long hollow stick in his hand. Sparking the end as he would a pipe, he lifted it high and pointed it over the field. A glowing blue globe shot out of the end, illuminating the night in a quick flare of glory. As the blue light faded, a red orb followed. The timing was slightly unpredictable, and a long moment of darkness came before the green orb flashed out over the field. Finally, a brilliant gold ball seemed to mimic the vanished sun, signalling the end of the candle.

Frodo and Sam cheered.

“Do it again!” Sam cried.

“Can I try?” Frodo asked.

Thorin’s grin shone in the moonlight. “Let your uncle have the next one.”

“Oh!” Drawing his hands from his pockets at the unexpected honor, Bilbo accepted the candle. Beneath his fingers, it felt like a present wrapped in tissue paper. “Thank you. How do I—?”

Thorin slid around to stand beside Bilbo, so close that the hobbit could feel his body heat through the layers of his autumn clothes. “Firm yet flexible.” Warm air ghosted over Bilbo’s ear. Suddenly the crisp night was full of summer heat. “Just like you would hold a sword in battle.”

A bright spark from Thorin’s hands lit the end of the Longbeard candle. Bilbo watched it sparkle in the darkness. A steadying hand went to the small of Bilbo’s back, and a warm leg pressed against the back of his own. Then the candle exploded. Each orb that shot out made the staff in Bilbo’s hands pulse forcefully, and he was grateful for Thorin’s strong arms bracing him. Just as with the first, blue, red, green, and golden orbs hovered briefly, flared to illuminate the fallow field, and then faded.

“Frodo next, then me,” Sam insisted, tugging on Thorin’s pant leg.

“Ah,” Bilbo hesitated. “I don’t think that is entirely wise.”

Thorin squeezed Bilbo’s hip briefly before releasing him. “Here are candles for boys,” he said. Handing a small silver stick to Frodo and Sam, he lit them one at a time. They flared to life, brighter than candles, sending sparks into the air with a crackling hiss.

Shrieking with delight, the boys ran about the field, waving their sparkling candles joyfully.

“Be careful,” Bilbo cautioned, but the boys did not seem to hear him. Fortunately, Bilbo recognized the little candles. They were made with iron filings and some kind of paste, spread along a thin steel stick. The sparks burned out before traveling a handbreadth. He still worried about them poking one another with the burning points.

Soon enough the lads came running back to Thorin, begging to trade cold metal sticks for new candles. Happily, the dwarf obliged.

“I say,” Bilbo said. “I know those are for the faunts, but how many do you have?”

Fondly, Thorin fished two more out of his jacket pocket, lighting one for Bilbo and one for himself. Bilbo had played with the little fireworks before many times in Erebor, and was very fond of waving them through the air to spell words which seemed to burn briefly before vanishing. Thorin, with his dwarven speed, was even better at the game than Bilbo. He wrote his full name, Bilbo’s, Frodo’s, and a little picture of a flower for Sam. He also wrote amrâlimê for Bilbo, whatever that meant. The astounded boys did their best to emulate him, but both could only just manage their own names. Their attempts were very sweet, however, and Bilbo watched them contentedly.

Eventually, they came to the end of the sparklers.

“Shall we head home?” Bilbo asked. “We have trifle, apple pie, and a very nice dessert wine waiting for us.”

“One more,” Thorin said. “Stand back.”

Walking alone to the center of the field, the dwarf set up a square little box. It did not look like much; however, Thorin clearly thought it was something dangerous. Once he sparked it, he backed away very quickly.

A few red sparks crackled up from the top of the box. Then a fountain of them showered up into the air, cascading like a rainbow into the sky. Red was followed by yellow, green, blue, and purple. The sparks rained through the air, spraying the whole field with light and color. Then, with a pop, a gold sphere and silver crescent shot out, hovered in the darkness, and were gone.

“Beautiful,” Bilbo said when he could speak. “Absolutely beautiful.”

Thorin’s arms wrapped around Bilbo’s shoulders and their foreheads pressed together briefly. “Come,” he said. “Dessert awaits!”

And the boys cheered again.

Having Thorin at Bag End was a pure pleasure. Not only was he a thoughtful houseguest, he was the most agreeable company Bilbo could ever wish to have. To sit and blow smoke rings with him was the most contented feeling in all the world. Those peaceful evenings when Bilbo and Frodo sat reading side by side were now set to the soft strumming of a golden harp.

Indeed, Frodo warmed up to the dwarf almost as quickly as he’d warmed up to Bilbo.

One day, after the first dusting of snow, Thorin took Frodo and Sam out hunting. Bilbo appreciated the chance to get a few things done around the house without fauntlings or guests underfoot. More than that, he appreciated the big, fatty buck that Thorin brought home. They would have venison enough to last a month, between roasts, sausages, and stew meat.

“And did you take him down yourself, Frodo my lad?” Bilbo asked, trying to gauge the solemn expression on the fauntling’s face.

“I got these, Mister Bilbo,” Sam said, holding up a brace of coneys proudly.

“I did not get anything,” Frodo admitted shyly.

Bilbo smiled. “That is just fine. I never even cooked meat that did not come wrapped in brown paper from the butcher before my own adventure. The important question is whether or not you had fun.”

“I did.” Frodo grinned up at his uncle. “You should see Sam with the slingshot. It was great!”

“Bring those rabbits to your mother, then,” Thorin said. “And if she does not wish for the furs, bring them back to me. I will make you something worthy from your first kill.”

Hooting like great warriors, the boys ran off down the lane to Sam’s house. Watching them go fondly, Bilbo beckoned Thorin into a shed where they could butcher the deer properly without mucking up his kitchen.

“He has your aim,” Thorin mused, still gazing after the boys as he followed Bilbo.

“Who? Sam?” Bilbo frowned. “We are related, of course. Everyone in the Shire is one way or another. But he’d be—yes, the closest I can reckon him would be a fifth cousin. His maternal grandmother is a Boffin by birth, but not on the same side as my father’s grandmother, if you take my meaning.”

“No,” Thorin said. “Frodo.”

Bilbo raised an eyebrow at his friend. “He said he didn’t hit anything. I’ll have you know that I’ve a rather good eye when it comes to throwing things. Ask your nephews if they have ever beaten me at darts sometime.”

Smiling, Thorin said, “Well do I know it. Frodo did, in fact, miss every shot he took. Shots that even a novice would have to try very hard to miss. And always suspiciously within a hair's breadth of his target. He did not want to strike true.”

“Ah.” Skinning and jointing the deer with Thorin’s help and a large butcher knife, Bilbo considered the matter carefully. “Well, it is difficult to take a life, and he is very young. I hope you will not dislike him for it.”

“Dislike him!” Thorin stopped their work with hands on both of the hobbit’s shoulders. “Bilbo, I am not so governed by my envy as that. I think it a beautiful thing that the children of the Shire may grow up in such peace, never taking a life without need. If long ago I thought it made you soft, the years and your valor have educated me to the contrary.”

If they were not both covered in blood and butchery, Bilbo might have done something very foolish. Instead, he only grinned and shoved Thorin away. “You are just angling for a good cut of the roast for dinner.”

“And some of your trifle,” Thorin admitted peaceably.

So that night Bilbo made the best trifle he could, with three whole jars of preserves and freshly whipped cream. Staring at it with wide eyes, Frodo asked what they were celebrating. Bilbo told him that they were celebrating Thorin’s company. The dwarf, who knew the truth, gathered both hobbits in his arms and said how very glad he was to be with them.

As the days passed and Thorin made no hints about the Blue Mountains or the road, Bilbo began to wonder how long the visit would last. Two weeks came and went without a word. Although he knew it was silly, Bilbo hoped Thorin might consider staying on for the entire winter. After all, traveling in the deep snows would be unpleasant, no matter how accustomed one was to mountains. It was not entirely ridiculous. Thorin was enjoying peace and leisure for the first time in his life. Bag End was the best place in the world for both of those. For added insurance, Bilbo made trifle three times a week and served his best strawberry jam with every meal. Most especially, he repeatedly and explicitly expressed the opinion that Thorin ought to remain in Bag End until Spring, though he was careful to do so only when he was about to leave the house so that the actual topic of Thorin’s travel plans could not be discussed.

Unfortunately, the matter became unavoidable one morning over second breakfast as Bilbo was perusing his mail.

“Hmm. You were probably planning to leave the Shire before Yule, weren’t you?” he asked Thorin as casually as he possibly could.

“What?” Looking up from his toast—a shamefully light second breakfast, but the dwarf only ever paid lip service to what he called Bilbo’s extra meals—Thorin’s eyes were dark and serious.

“Oh, not that I want you to,” Bilbo said quickly. “I just, well, I was wondering how long you were planning to stay.”

“As long as my welcome lasts,” Thorin said. Setting down the jam jar, he looked as though he would rise and leave that very moment if Bilbo so much as sneezed.

“Good,” Bilbo said firmly. “Then, at least until we run out of strawberry jam.”

At last Thorin smiled. “Perhaps through the raspberry and the marmalade as well.”

Gesturing with his letter, Bilbo said, “I was only wondering how to answer my Aunt Mirabella’s question about whether or not Frodo and I had plans for Yule. If you are staying, of course, our plan will be to show you a proper holiday at Bag End.”

“I am staying,” Thorin said. And that was that.

Only it wasn’t.

The next letter Bilbo received from Brandy Hall was ten pages long. Beginning with a rant about ungrateful nephews, Mirabella railed against the many months without a visit from her orphaned grandson, and made several truly dire threats against Bilbo’s reputation. Comparatively, her closure was charity itself.

“You are, of course, very welcome to bring your guest,” she wrote. “If dwarven propriety calls for a separate invitation, merely say the word and I will emboss one for Mister Oakenshield directly. Please, do not feel that anyone here would be so crass as to try to steal you away from the fellow. I’ve made it clear to everyone that your choices are your own in that regard.”

Morbidly, Bilbo noted that his choice to remain single hadn’t been his own to make. Then he sighed. “I’m afraid there’s no getting around it,” he said.

“Getting around what?” Frodo asked.

Thorin also looked up from his tea with interest.

“We have all been invited to spend Yule at Brandy Hall,” Bilbo announced.

“Hooray!” Frodo leapt up from the table to do a little jig. “Yule with Merry!”

Snatching up his sweet roll, the fauntling made to eat it while continuing his dance. However, when Bilbo cleared his own throat in a pointed manner, the child sat down at the table, putting his napkin back in his lap before finishing his second breakfast.

Smiling at these antics, Thorin waited until Frodo settled before asking, “I am included in the invitation?”

“Rather pointedly,” Bilbo admitted.

“Then I will be happy to attend,” Thorin said softly. He did not sound remotely happy. Nevertheless, they left the subject alone until after Frodo went down the lane to bring a basket of the warm sweet rolls to the Gamgee family.

Clearing the dishes was a more awkward affair than usual. Thorin was bizarrely insistent on washing the baking sheets himself. Then he cleaned the oven, though it was not necessary.

“Look,” Bilbo said desperately, “we really don’t have to go. Mirabella would forgive me. Eventually.”

“You would not hesitate to accept if I were not here.”

“Well, no.” Bilbo frowned. “Of course not. But you must know that I would rather spend time with you than my relations. I can see them whenever I like.”

Thorin’s mouth was a thin line in the center of his beard. His voice was perfectly flat when he said, “You think I will shame you.” Nothing more, and delivered so coldly that Bilbo almost didn’t understand him.

The hobbit’s mouth opened and closed a few times. “I think,” he said at last, “that you will be uncomfortable.”

“I am not entirely unpracticed in social grace. Were I as undiplomatic as you seem to think, I would have been a poor king indeed.”

So not only was Thorin feeling insulted by Bilbo’s hesitance, but his pride was on the line as well. Wonderful.

Leaning forward, the dwarf placed both of his hands flat on the counter, staring intently at Bilbo across the divide. “Nor am I entirely unfamiliar with the manners of hobbits or the indulgence of them. You will note that I have partaken of every gluttonous meal served in this smial, and complimented all of them. How will I be out of place? Tell me, then, the failings of my manners, Master Baggins!”

“My aunt thinks we’re together!” Bilbo snapped.

Thorin’s face went blank. His mouth closed. After a moment, he stood up properly, folding his hands behind his back.

“Obviously, I’ll try to disabuse her of the notion if we go. But then one of two things will happen. Either she will not believe me, in which case you will be subjected to a great deal of inappropriate conjecture about our reasons for keeping a relationship secret. Or she will believe me. Which might be rather worse, because then she will put me back up on the auction block as a marriageable prospect for every hobbit in Buckland. The imposition of the suitors she will set to chasing me cannot be overstated. You should have seen how they behaved on my birthday.”

Nodding slowly, Thorin admitted, “That is truly different from dwarven custom. At most, family would encourage one who loved to pursue that love. We would not—the idea of chasing a marriage with someone before falling in love is very strange to me.”

“Yes,” Bilbo said. “Yes, exactly! They all think I am strange for not marrying, but how could I marry someone who would hunt me like a trophy?”

Turning, Thorin looked out of the kitchen window. The light dusting of snow on the hills made the morning sun particularly bright and beautiful. “I would not like to see you so importuned.”

“Good.” Given the choice, Bilbo would disappoint his aunt a thousand times before causing Thorin a moment of discomfort. “So I will decline the invitation, and we will celebrate Yule here.”

Thorin’s back was still to Bilbo as he looked out over the snow. The hobbit wondered if there was a bird in the garden, or if Frodo could still be seen bringing his basket to the Gamgees. “What would happen if you did not enlighten your aunt?”

“Excuse me?”

Facing Bilbo with a soft smile, Thorin asked again. “Why must you correct the assumption, if doing so will only lead to such inconvenience?”

Bilbo could not deny the appeal of the plan. In fact, it had a number of advantages unrelated to his aunt. Thorin would be seated next to him at every meal, and no one would raise an eyebrow at how physical the dwarf could be. There might even be mistletoe, and as a couple, they would be expected to—

“It might inconvenience you more for everyone to believe we are attached,” Bilbo admitted. “My aunt is likely to wonder why we have not made the matter official as it were.”

Thorin shrugged. “I will tell her I intend to do so in the summer when the flowers bloom, as is customary for your people.”

For a moment, the hobbit’s heart stuttered in his chest. Thorin looked so normal and at home in the kitchen of Bag End, as though he did not belong anywhere else. As though he was not a tremendously important dwarf, far too big for the Shire. As though he might actually stay.

Stepping forward, the dwarf took Bilbo’s hand between his own. “There is no harm in letting others make what assumptions they will about us,” he said. “Especially not if it helps you. Since I can now speak for myself instead of a nation, I say there is nothing that I would not do to aid you, my dearest friend.”

One day soon, Thorin would leave, but it seemed he would be staying through Yule. Patting the dwarf with his free hand was hardly enough. Bilbo tugged him forward and folded him into a hug. Soft hair fell across Bilbo’s cheeks, tickling his neck. Thorin still smelled of tea, cinnamon, and sugar from second breakfast, but also a little like Bilbo’s lavender dish soap. After adventures, mountains, gold, and jewels, the attractions of the Shire were not very great. Books and armchairs did not hold much value to dwarves. Even so, Bilbo would hold onto the one in his kitchen for as long as he possibly could.

Getting to Brandy Hall for Yule was a very big adventure for young Frodo, though scarcely a challenge to seasoned travellers like Bilbo and Thorin. Still, Frodo was so very small. With at least six inches of snow on the ground, the lad was practically wading through the drifts just walking down the lane to the Gamgee’s. A hobbit’s feet didn’t get cold, but the rest of him surely would. The trip from Bag End to Buckland was a very long one for such a little fellow. Fortunately, a sledge and a pair of sprightly ponies were easy enough to come by.

Since it was the first Yule Bilbo would have with Frodo, and likely the only Yule he would ever spend with Thorin, the hobbit invested a bit in presentation. The entire sledge was painted robin’s egg blue with swirls of gold along both runners. Drawn by two ponies as black as soot, Bilbo paid a good deal extra to have their harnesses dyed green and strung with silver bells. It was worth every penny to see the look on Frodo’s face when he drove up to the gate. The investment paid dividends hourly as the lad snuggled comfortably between Bilbo and Thorin, warm enough with his hat, blanket, and scarf, despite the whipping wind.

Their journey was measured by the distance between inns. Second breakfast, elevenses, and tea all had to be taken from a hamper, but the trio always stopped at a nice warm inn for lunch. Then they drove on a little ways and found a different one for the night. Bilbo believed in the joy of a meandering adventure; however, with a fauntling in the middle of winter, there was no harm in knowing exactly how long it would take to get from the Sunny Tulip to the Golden Perch.

Besides, touring the best public houses on the road to Buckland was a delightful way to show Thorin the Shire beyond Hobbiton. From the food at the Blinkered Goat and the beer at the Golden Perch to the decorations at the Blue Goose, Bilbo arranged for them to see all of the finest establishments on offer.

Thorin seemed particularly partial to the Goose. Bilbo understood. It was a beautiful inn. Garlands of holly and pine twisted over every doorway, with little sprigs of mistletoe. All of the woodwork, from the bartop to the benches, was lacquered golden pine, which matched suit despite being there year round. Seated at a prominent table near the fireplace, Bilbo noted that even the tables in the back had wreathed centerpieces with beeswax candles and cedar garlands draped anywhere that would not be entirely in the diner’s way.

Fingering one of the garlands on their table, the dwarf asked, “Is this greenery for Yule? We have seen it in other places, though less prominently, but I do not recall seeing it anywhere on my last visit to the Shire.”

“Indeed!” Bilbo grinned. “At the heart of things, that’s all we really do for Yule. Bring a bit of greenery inside and light a nice fire to chase away the long dark.”

Rubbing a bit of the evergreen between his forefinger and thumb, Thorin examined the garland. Meanwhile, Frodo examined the last of his own stew and began making stealthy inroads on Thorin’s brown bread. Bilbo decided that the dwarf would need to learn to guard his own plate among fauntlings sooner or later. Bilbo would not be able to protect him in the crush of Brandy Hall.

“Is it for the Green Lady, Yavanna?” Thorin frowned. “I have never asked. Do you honor her as we honor our Maker?”

Bilbo laughed. “Not at all.”

The proprietor, Ivy, passed her wife Lily in the doorway, bringing more bread and butter out for Frodo. Catching her elbow with a coy smile, Lily pointed up at the mistletoe hanging from the garland above. Sharing a quick, cheerful kiss, the couple returned to the business of running an inn.

“You should know,” Bilbo said more seriously, “that we are not religious. Of course we do honor Yavanna, and Aule, and all the rest really, but I might be the only hobbit in this common room who could name the full list of Valar for you. Our traditions do not have the weight that dwarven traditions do. In fact, most of them are only family traditions. For instance, my aunt Mirabella will likely serve pumpkin and apple soup on Yule, but that is because she’s proud of her orchard. It won’t bring you luck like eating arasharg.”

“I see.”

Once again, Bilbo’s eyes drifted to the mistletoe in the doorway. “So if any of our traditions make you uncomfortable, you must simply say so. Making a guest happy and comfortable is the most important tradition in the Shire.”

Smiling, Thorin looked down at Frodo, who had swapped his empty stew bowl for Thorin’s mostly full one so quietly that even Bilbo didn’t notice. “But perhaps not well fed?” he said sternly.

Frodo managed to look both guilty and hopeful as he stared back up at Thorin with wide eyes, slowly putting another spoonful into his mouth before anyone tried to stop him.

Laughing, Bilbo flagged down Ivy for another round of stew. They’d had a long day on the sledge in the cold, and they’d have another long drive in the morning. All of them deserved as much warm food as they wanted.

Brandy Hall was quite a sight, especially covered in the sparkling white snow. Bright winter sunlight glimmered on the glass and the icicles hanging down from the windows in equal measure, making the big hills look like a tiered palace made of crystal. Mirabella and what had to be half the Brandybuck clan were waiting out front to greet the sledge.

Before Bilbo even had the ponies fully stopped, Frodo was squirming out of the lap blanket and leaping from the bench. Bounding through the deep snow like a puppy, the faunt leapt into his grandmother’s arms. Despite her age, Mirabella lifted him from the snow, kissing his cheeks and holding him close.

Looking up at Bilbo in the sledge, Mirabella said, “Thank you for coming.” Her voice was so full of gratitude that the hobbit was quite ashamed of his earlier reluctance.

Of course that reluctance had not been wholly unfounded. When Bilbo and Thorin were shown to their accommodations, the hobbit’s heart nearly burst from his chest.

“Frodo can bunk in with Merry, of course,” Mirabella said.

Ignoring Frodo’s cheers, Bilbo stared at the large double bed in the center of the guest room. Vaguely aware that this was one of the nicest chambers in the Hall, Bilbo noted the south-facing windows, the crackling fire, the attached bathing room, and the rich carpets absently. There was nothing he could possibly object to. Especially given how crowded Brandy Hall would be for Yule.

Slinging an arm around Bilbo’s shoulders, Thorin said, “We will be very comfortable here, thank you.”

“Yes,” Bilbo added hurriedly. “Quite. I’m only surprised. I thought we’d be shunted off to share somewhere. One usually thinks of a room like this going to the aunts and uncles.”

Mirabella laughed. “You, my nephew, are not as young as you remember being. In fact, you are an uncle yourself, isn’t he Frodo?”

Frodo looked up from his conversation with Merry. “What about Uncle Bilbo?” he asked, right on cue.

“He thinks he doesn’t deserve a room so grand as this,” Mirabella said, which wasn’t Bilbo’s point at all.

Frodo frowned. “You do so, Uncle,” the lad said. “And Thorin is a king, anyway.”

That made it Thorin’s turn to laugh, “No longer, lad, no longer. Other heads now bear the weight of that crown.”

While Mirabella looked powerfully curious at this, she left them to get settled. A hostess had any number of things to do two days before Yule.

“I will sleep on the hearth,” Bilbo offered, the instant they were alone.

Thorin frowned, letting the hobbit slip out from underneath his arm. “Surely there is no call for that? The bed is large enough.”

“Yes, but you are a guest.” Trying to hide his flushed cheeks, Bilbo busied himself with putting away their luggage and unpacking his clothes. “You should not have to share, and as a member of the family here, it is my duty to ensure that you are comfortable.”

Taking Bilbo by the arm, Thorin looked deep into his eyes. With the fierce intensity that he brought to any topic, the dwarf said, “As your friend, it is my desire to see you happy. If the prospect of sharing discomfits you so, then I will speak to your aunt at once. But know this: I will not enjoy a warm bed while you lie upon a rug, Bilbo Baggins. If you sleep upon the floor, you will not sleep alone.”

At once, Bilbo laughed. Although it was clear that Thorin’s offer was in earnest and the dwarf disapproved entirely, he was so serious that the hobbit could not help himself. “In fact, you and I have slept together upon rocks often enough, haven’t we? I recall being quite grateful to share a hay bale in Beorn’s barn with you, once upon a time.”

Thorin’s eyes were very soft, but the hand he put upon Bilbo’s shoulder was as firm as the stone of the hearth. His thumb brushed over the tender skin of Bilbo’s neck, just above the hobbit’s collar, and Bilbo had to duck his head to hide a shudder. “There is no need for either of us to sleep on rocks in this bountiful hall. Tell me what you desire and it will be done. I will see to it.”

Looking up from the floor, Bilbo’s eyes seemed to fix themselves on the pink of Thorin’s lips, outlined as they were by his dark beard. As it happened, Bilbo desired a great many things. “Lunch,” the hobbit said quickly, stepping away. “My uncle Gorbadoc sets an amazing table, and we have not eaten since breakfast. Would you like to change first?”

Thorin sighed, though even the most stoic of dwarves wants a nice, hot lunch after a long, cold morning driving. “Yes,” he said softly. “Changing would be a good idea.”

Then he proceeded to do so. Taking off his clothes piece by piece, Thorin hung them by the fire to dry the last remnants of snow away. Bilbo wouldn’t have thought that Thorin’s trousers would be all that wet given the lap blanket and the solid walls of their sledge, but Thorin doffed them anyway. Soon enough, he was wearing nothing but his underthings. The dark hair on his chest gave the impression of an arrow, pointing toward the last remaining covered places in a tantalizing way. When Thorin began to pull on fresh clothing, Bilbo realized he was staring. Appalled, he took his own things into the bathing room to dress.

Lunch was an informal affair with folk catching as they could from the sideboard, but it was every bit as good as Bilbo promised. There were nine separate courses, if you knew how to navigate the place as Bilbo did. Hovering protectively beside Thorin, Bilbo ensured that he got the best of everything despite the haphazard way Brandybucks served and snatched their food. Frodo, of course, was used to the scrum and could look after his own interests well enough in that regard.

Folk were very curious about Thorin, his relationship to Bilbo, and whether or not he was really a king, a blacksmith, magic, wealthy, married, or whatever else the rumors said about him. Fortunately, Bilbo was able to curtail the questions with a few stories about their shared adventures, and no one bothered Thorin too much after that. It was a little too easy to deter them, and Bilbo was highly suspicious when the strong dwarf was drafted to drag the drying yule log into the smial proper.

“I am happy to help,” Thorin said amiably.

“And I will go with you,” Bilbo said firmly.

“Ah,” Mirabella said, and Bilbo’s heart sank. “I was hoping to have a word with you in the study, Bilbo.”

So Thorin went with the younger hobbits while Bilbo spent two hours being gently interrogated by his aunt over tea. At least the dwarf was not subjected to the questioning. He likely would not have known how to casually evade the many innuendo, nor understood Mirabella’s oblique references to marital intent.

In a way, it was a relief to get that conversation over and done with immediately. Although by the end of it Bilbo’s head ached, and he longed to simply tell his aunt that he would never marry anyone. If Thorin did not want him, then Bilbo was destined to live alone.

Not alone. With Frodo, who was a delightful lad. Bilbo did not understand why that was not enough for everyone. Unfortunately, he could not simply say so to his aunt, because then she would know that Thorin did not want him. At which point she would go back to setting Bilbo up with every hobbit of marriageable age in remote proximity to him, and he would get no time with Thorin at all. So it was for the best to gently hint at the possibility of a dwarven wedding in the Shire sometime in the distant future. By the end of the tea, Bilbo was glad to be done with it. Very glad.

Needing fresh air rather desperately, Bilbo retrieved his coat from the pegs by the door, noting the absence of Thorin’s big cloak, and went out into the bright afternoon sun.

Frodo was crying.

Kneeling before the lad, Thorin wiped the frozen tears from his ruddy cheeks with a handkerchief as white as the surrounding snow. Clearly, the dwarf had the matter well in hand. Bilbo rushed over to them anyway.

“What happened?”

“Dody said I was a crybaby.” A little sob interrupted Frodo’s story. “I didn’t want to have a snowball fight.” The lad’s voice hiccuped again. “So Biffy washed my face. With snow.”

“I see.” Unfortunately, the older boy was not in evidence. The only person at hand other than Thorin and Frodo was young Merry Brandybuck. So Bilbo turned to him. “Where are they?”

“They went to have the snowball fight over by the creek.” Little Merry looked torn. His eyes kept darting from his cousin to the creek in the other direction. “If Frodo’s okay now, I’m going to go wash Biffy’s face right back.”

“That will not be necessary,” Bilbo said. “Why don’t you, Frodo, and Thorin head into the house for some tea? I’ll just nip off to have a word with the lads about the appropriate way to play with smaller children.”

Merry’s mouth pressed tight. “I’m little, but I can still knock Biffy down good.”

“Maybe so.” The cold snap in Bilbo’s heart began to thaw a bit, and he smiled at Merry. “But as an adult, I’m claiming the prerogative.”

Frodo’s blue eyes went wide, and all evidence of tears was gone. “You’re going to knock Biffy down?”

Bilbo laughed. “That would be bullying, just as he did to you. No, I am going to set young Biffy right. If the three of you can get by without me.”

The smile on Thorin’s face was both gentle and proud as he looked up at the hobbit. “Your uncle has this well in hand,” he told Frodo. Folding his handkerchief, the dwarf tucked it back into his pocket. In order to do so, he had to look down slightly, which was extremely fortunate. He likely did not see the way the compliment made Bilbo preen.

Turning quickly, the hobbit strode through the snow in the direction of the frozen creek. Four lads, just on the cusp of being tweens with all that that entailed, were having a great snowball fight across the natural barrier. It looked to be an epic and enjoyable battle, judging by their hoots and hollers. Had they been more perspicacious about selecting participants, Bilbo would have been very happy to leave them to it. As the matter lay, however, he cleared his throat.

The two lads closest to him, Biffy and Dody, turned to face him. On the other side of the creek, one young hobbit caught a snowball in the face while the other threw his at the back of Dody’s jacket. As if on instinct, Dody raised the snowball in his hand, like he intended to throw it at Bilbo.

“Just you try it, my lad,” the hobbit said, colder than the frozen creek.

At once, every snowball fell to the ground.

“Listen,” Biffy said quickly, “We were just playing with Frodo. He was always hanging around us when he lived here, and we thought he might like to join in the fight, once we got going.”

“So you thought you’d give his face a wash?”

“Er. Yeah.”

With three steps, Bilbo crossed the distance between them and caught Biffy’s ear between two fingers. “Wonderful.”

The lad made a face, but as long as he didn’t try to pull away, the grip wouldn’t hurt him.

“I am so glad to hear that you like to wash things. All of these guests mean that there’s a great deal of washing up to be done.”

“We’ll go,” Dody said instantly. “We’re happy to help, aren’t we?”

All four boys nodded, even Biffy, despite the fact that moving clearly pained his ear.

“Please, Mad—er, Mister Baggins.” Biffy was trembling. “I’m sorry.”

Bilbo released the lad. “Good,” the hobbit said. “Be sure to tell Frodo as much on your way to volunteer for dishwashing duty.”

“I will,” Biffy said. “We will.” Before Bilbo could answer, the four scampered off quickly in the direction of Brandy Hall. They were only lads after all, not so very much older than Frodo, despite their size.

Spotting a rock on the bank that was mostly cleared in the construction of barricades for the snowball fight, Bilbo sat down. The frozen creek was a long, winding path covered by windswept ice and snowdrifts. In other seasons, it was a tributary to the mighty Brandywine, which did not freeze in winter. Unfortunately, the Shire was mostly little rivers that froze over. There were not very many stones along the bank, even, just dead grass and snowy ground. The Shire was a land of grass, which bent under snow, green and cheerful as soon as a thaw came. It was a country of small changes, not well suited to big, solid boulders.

A cracking sound disturbed the snow muffled landscape. Looking up, Bilbo saw the dark branches of an oak tree knocking together in the wind. This movement was not quite enough to shake away the white snow that lined them, making the mighty tree appear soft, like a gingerbread tree covered in icing. It was only an illusion, Bilbo knew. Soon enough, the snow would melt away. So he resolved to enjoy the experience while it lasted.

Eventually, he rose to his feet and headed back toward Brandy Hall.

Along the way Frodo greeted him, racing toward Bilbo with all the speed that someone wading through waist-high snow could manage. Even on a path that longer legs had broken, the fauntling struggled. “Uncle! Uncle!”

“What is it?” Frodo was grinning broadly even as he bent over to catch his breath.

Straightening up, Frodo said, “May I please borrow your pipe?”

“My pipe?” Of course there was nothing that Bilbo would deny his ward, but it was a rather strange request. “Whyever do you need it? You are a little young yet to smoke one. Is this some mischief of Biffy’s? Did he apologise to you?”

“Yes, oh yes, ages ago. Of course I forgave them at once, and then they all went inside. However, I did not want to go inside because it is not dark yet and Merry still wants to play. So Thorin, Merry, and I are having a snow-hobbit contest. We are all building them to look like you, and that is how they shall be judged. May I give mine your pipe? It will look exactly like you then.”

Laughing, Bilbo took Frodo by the hand and agreed to help him cheat. Following the lad back to the place where Thorin and Merry were working hard on their respective snow-hobbits, Bilbo took a moment to appreciate Frodo’s hard work. The snow-hobbit was made as most were, with three large snowballs stacked one on top of the other. It was nearly as tall as Bilbo himself. With long sticks for hands, coal for eyes, and five acorn caps for buttons, it was one of the best snow-hobbits Bilbo had ever seen. He told Frodo as much at once.

Then Bilbo doffed his own hat, mittens, and scarf, giving all to the snow-hobbit. Popping the pipe from his pocket into its snowy smile, Bilbo turned to look down at his nephew. “Well?” he asked. “Does it look like me?”

Giggling, Frodo tugged the scarf straight. Then he called out to Merry and Thorin. “I win!”

Merry looked up from his own snow-hobbit, which was taller than Frodo’s and had a toy sword on a loose rope about its expansive middle. “Hey! That’s not fair!” he cried. “Look! Mine’s got Sting!”

Merry’s snow-hobbit did indeed have a sword, but as it did not have hands or a face, Bilbo felt comfortable with his partisan judgment in Frodo’s favor.

“Oh?” Thorin looked up from his own work, which was not so much a snow-hobbit as a flat pillar that seemed to be made out of a single long roll of snow. “Is it time to finish already?”

Given that the sun was sinking over the hills, casting red and golden light across the bright snow, Bilbo said that it was. “After all, I have given my hat to the cause, and the night will be a cold one.”

Thorin frowned at his snow pillar. “Mine is very poor.”

“Well, I imagine you have never made a snow-hobbit before.” Bilbo and the boys went to stand beside Thorin. “Yours is tall enough,” he said, “but it lacks definition. Usually one would—” He paused, staring.

From the front, looking at Thorin’s snow-hobbit was like gazing into a strange mirror. Thorin’s hobbit seemed to be striding out of the block of snow as if heading out on an adventure. In one hand, the snow figure held a walking stick. The other reached out from the snow, as though beckoning Bilbo to take hold and follow. From the figure’s shoulders, the first lines of a cloak seemed to billow back into the solid snow behind it, looking as though it might move in the wind. The face was exactly his own, smirking a little as though he’d just told a joke.

Thorin stepped back, still frowning. “The eyes are not right, and I have not even begun the backside. Putting you in a cloak seemed a good way to speed that, but your hair will take time.”

“Yes,” Bilbo said fondly, “Yours is clearly the worst of the lot.”

“Uncle Bilbo!” Frodo sounded positively appalled. “It is you exactly!”

“Can you teach me how to do that, Mister Thorin?” Merry asked.

Turning to look at the competing snow-hobbits, Thorin went rather red beneath his beard. “Ah, yes, of course,” he said to Merry. “In the morning. Snow is easy to sculpt with. Very forgiving.”

Overwhelmed by fondness, Bilbo pressed a kiss to Thorin’s rosy cheek. “Tomorrow is the first Yuleday, but if you get a move on in the morning, you might have time to finish your snow-hobbit.”

Then, Thorin’s eyes were very bright, meeting Bilbo’s with an intensity wholly unsuited for snow-hobbits and smials. In Thorin’s face, Bilbo could see mountains, dragons, carrocks, and adventures. But the sun was setting and the boys were getting cold. So they went inside.

Esmeralda Brandybuck absconded with Frodo and her son the second they stepped through the door, chiding Bilbo and Thorin to dress quickly for dinner. It was one of the few meals which everyone was expected to eat together. Therefore, it could not begin until the entire hall was present and seated.

Changing in haste meant that there was no time for Bilbo to worry about sharing a bathing chamber or to spy on Thorin’s ablutions like a naughty tween. In fact, the two old campaigners were ready to go within fifteen minutes of reaching their room. Thorin only hesitated once, consulting Bilbo about whether a particular sapphire pendant would be considered inappropriate for the occasion.

Bilbo shrugged. “It is a holiday, and you are a dwarf. So long as you do not wear a crown or full armor, a little jewelry is just right.” Greatly daring, he added, “Besides, it brings out your eyes.”

Indeed, with it on Thorin looked every inch the proud king, retired or not. He was so elegant and mannerly as they took their seats near the head of the table, in fact, that Bilbo wondered a bit at the change wrought by a single necklace.

Usually at a feast or large party, Thorin would sit back and allow others to carry the conversation, making no comments and passing no judgments, until it was time for him to give one of his tremendous speeches. However, on this occasion Thorin engaged Bilbo’s aunt and uncle with an easy poise that reminded Bilbo very much of Balin or Kili. Proud, yet undeniably pleasant.

If he had been his usual self, perhaps Mirabella Brandybuck would not have imposed so terrifically on a guest.

If the wine had been watered, perhaps Bilbo would not have inched ever closer to him over the course of dinner.

If Thorin were a hobbit, perhaps he would have understood what was meant when Bilbo’s left foot tangled a little with his right leg. Footsie was an innocent enough game. Far more innocent than the firm hand he placed on Bilbo’s thigh, courting disaster in front of the entirety of Brandy Hall.

But disaster fell.

Thorin’s hand was innocent enough. Like the gentle pats he so often gave Bilbo’s knee, it was no more than a friendly gesture from the dwarf. Yet they were not seated across a coffee table from one another. Side by side, their chairs were so close that they might as well be sharing a single seat. Thorin’s hand and Bilbo’s leg were entirely hidden from view by the tablecloth, despite the fact that their faces could be seen by all and sundry. Shifting slightly, Bilbo tried to dislodge him without drawing attention. Likely annoyed by what he probably saw as fidgeting, Thorin tightened his grip. He squeezed Bilbo’s thigh.

Suddenly unable to move or breathe, Bilbo sat wholly unaware of the conversation passing him by. His mind whirled with a thousand inappropriate thoughts about Thorin’s hand moving. Not away. Bilbo did not want Thorin to take his hand away at all. Instead, the hand would move just a shade higher on Bilbo’s leg. Then perhaps over a bit.

“Bilbo Baggins, whatever are you doing?” Mirabella said, her voice crisp and accusatory. “You have not finished your dinner, and you have missed dessert.”

Spluttering, Bilbo tried to look across Thorin’s place to meet his aunt’s eyes, but he didn’t know what to say. The hand left his thigh, and he wasn’t sure he could forgive her for that.

“I believe he may be ill,” Thorin said, placing the warm hand innocently against Bilbo’s forehead.

“I am not,” the hobbit said, recovering his wits.

“An illness we know well in Erebor,” the dwarf continued, as though Bilbo had not spoken. “Red cheeks, slow speech, and a distinctive smell of wine. I predict a hard morning, but he will be well enough by afternoon.”

Bilbo’s uncle and all of the hobbits seated nearby laughed at this proclamation, but Mirabella’s eyes narrowed. “Drunk?” she said, but it was not a question. It was a denial.

“Yes,” Bilbo said quickly. “Very drunk.” Though of course this was the worst way to convince anyone that his rude behavior could be blamed on the wine.

Fortunately, the denizens of Brandy Hall were mostly very drunk indeed, aside from those seated at the low table with Frodo and Merry. All of them laughed at this. Saradoc, Merry’s father, even elbowed Bilbo in the ribs.

“To be drunk on love at your age,” he said. “Mad Baggins. Mad like a march hare, maybe.”

“Oh, do go easy on him.” Esmeralda laughed playfully, chiding her husband. “It was not so long ago that you were drunk on sitting next to me, instead of six cups of wine.”

A great deal more was said in this vein. Bilbo hoped fervently that Thorin would attribute his embarrassment to their agreed upon pretense, and not to the very real discomfort filling his lap even in the absence of Thorin’s hand.

“All right, all right,” Mirabella said finally, after everyone had a chance to mock Bilbo at least once. “We’re very happy for both of you, I’m sure. But I’ll be happier still to move these tables and get the dancing going.”

Everyone laughed again, and rose from the table to help clear. Bilbo stayed seated. Stacking the plates in front of him, he passed them to Thorin, citing dwarven strength as the best way to get them into the kitchen. The dwarf obliged, so at least he would not see when Bilbo stood. Only the entirety of the Brandybuck clan would witness Bilbo’s mortification.

“Need a hand there, Bilbo?” Saradoc asked. “Only we’d like to swing this table out of the way to make a dance floor.”

Bilbo didn’t say anything, but he stayed in his seat. Willing his embarrassment to recede seemed to be the only viable option, but he needed time.

Suddenly, something icy splashed down the back of his shirt. Yelping, Bilbo turned to look at young Merry, whose hands were wet with the snow that he’d pushed beneath Bilbo’s collar.

“Mum told me to,” the fauntling said quickly.

Laughing, Bilbo rose from the table, his little problem entirely gone. “Told you to attack the Mad Baggins, did she?” he asked. “Well, be prepared for my revenge.” Then he chased the boy down, tickling him until the music struck up and the dancing began.

As a couple, Bilbo and Thorin were expected to share a few dances. Fortunately, this was nothing they had not done before. They danced sometimes in Erebor, and hobbit dances were similar. Spinning one another about in a lively way was simply enjoyable, not seductive. Bilbo’s heart did not leap every time their hands touched. He did not shudder every time the dance allowed him to put his arm around Thorin’s waist. At least, not in a manner so oblique as to make Thorin uncomfortable.

Clearly, Thorin was not discomfited by Bilbo’s affections, for they danced significantly more than they would have in Erebor. Every other reel, Thorin would turn to Bilbo diffidently. Somewhere in the back of his mind, Bilbo suspected that Thorin would have asked for every single dance had they both been ten years younger. If it was a show for the Brandybucks, it was a good show, but Bilbo thought Thorin was having fun. The dwarf was lighter on his feet without the responsibility for an entire people resting on his shoulders. He deserved a every dance he wanted. Long after Frodo and the other fauntlings were sent to bed, Bilbo and Thorin spun about the dance floor with couples and friends, merrily whiling away the long winter night.

When the last of the musicians finally packed away their instruments, BIlbo slung a companionable arm about Thorin’s shoulders to lead him through the winding corridors of Brandy Hall to their shared room.

“Bilbo,” Saradoc Brandybuck said with an air of conspiracy, “look up.”

Sure enough, just above them in the doorway was a sprig of mistletoe.

“The plant is significant?” Thorin guessed after a long moment of contemplative silence.

“A kiss is traditional,” Bilbo explained hesitantly, “but if it is too public for you—”

“I welcome it,” Thorin said quickly. His eyes seemed to shine in the soft light from the wall sconces, and his mouth turned up in a slightly rueful smile. “Unless you prefer to wait.”

The idea that they would wait was clearly intended for their audience. Saradoc was not the only hobbit pointedly looking away from Bilbo and Thorin. In truth, Bilbo knew that this was the best excuse he would ever have to kiss Thorin. Taking advantage of it would be wicked, but Thorin didn’t seem truly adverse to the idea.

Sliding a hand along the soft bristles of Thorin’s beard, Bilbo drew him forward until their lips met gently. For a moment, that was all. Then Thorin’s arms wrapped around Bilbo, their mouths opening in tandem, and Bilbo was wholly overcome. Never before in all of his experience had a kiss been so sweet, so powerful, and so entirely diverting. It was several minutes before they parted. Bilbo would have been quite happy to never part, but to spend the rest of his life there beneath the mistletoe. He always felt that way in Thorin’s arms, though, so he pushed the feeling aside and continued leading Thorin back to their room.

Their room where they shared a bed.

“Thank you,” Bilbo said when they were alone. “It is very good of you to go along with hobbit customs so readily.”

Thorin raised an eyebrow. “For my coronation, you memorized all forty-nine blessings of the dwarven fathers and recited them in a language you do not speak. Is our friendship so unequal that you are surprised I should make an effort to dance in the hobbit style?”

“Not at all,” Bilbo said quickly. “Only, well, kissing is—a kiss is rather—” And there he had to stop. He could not come up with words to ask if Thorin enjoyed the kiss without sounding like a tween who had never kissed anyone before.

Leaning forward, Thorin pressed his lips just to the left of Bilbo’s mouth. A kiss on the cheek that might have been more if either of them moved even a fraction of an inch. “A kiss from you is a treasure,” Thorin said plainly. “But if it bothers you, we can simply avoid the mistletoe tomorrow. Though you may need to help me spot it. All of the garlands look alike to me.”

Stepping away, Thorin changed into his sleepwear, took the braids out of his hair, and began turning down the blankets. Finally, Bilbo shook himself enough to say, “It doesn’t bother me.”

Looking up at him, Thorin smiled. “Good. Come to bed.”

Bilbo changed with alacrity. Slipping into his flannel pyjamas, he joined Thorin under the covers at once. Extinguishing the lamp, Bilbo said, “Good night, Thorin,” very hopefully.

“Good night, Bilbo,” Thorin said, but that was all. The bed was too wide. They did not touch. Although Bilbo was very aware of Thorin breathing softly in the darkness beside him, the rhythm of that breath settling easily into sleep, he did not find such ease himself. Not for a very long time.

When Bilbo woke, Thorin was sitting on the edge of the bed, looking down at him with a very soft expression. “Good morning, ghivâshel.”

Yawning, Bilbo returned the greeting, snuggling deeper into the warm covers. Although the sunlight through the window was very nice, there was a slight chill from that corner of the room. That only made the bed more inviting, however. As pleasant as it was to see Thorin first thing in the morning, it would be even more enjoyable to continue sleeping at his side.

Unfortunately, when Bilbo gave voice to this opinion, Thorin only laughed. In fact, he was already dressed and ready to go. “I have promised to show your nephews what I know of snow sculpture.”

“Frodo.” Bilbo blinked his eyes and tried to stumble toward true wakefulness.

Curling over Bilbo like a leaf unfurling in spring, Thorin pressed his forehead against the hobbit’s. Long hair draped about Bilbo’s face, shielding him from the morning light. “I shall mind him,” Thorin said. “Sleep.”

So Bilbo did.

A nice long lie in on the first day of Yule was the best present anyone could ask for. By the time the hobbit toddled out to observe the last day of the year and greet his family, lunch was well under way. After that, he went outside to judge the snow-hobbits and was delighted to find a little snow-Frodo next to the snow-Bilbo, looking every bit like the beautiful statues in Erebor.

“We helped,” Merry declared.

“So they did,” Thorin proclaimed. “Both shall make fine sculptors, if they apply themselves to the pursuit.”

But Frodo said, “I would like to apply myself to some scones, please Uncle Bilbo.” And so they went inside.

As they were taking their coats off in the entryway, Thorin unwrapping his long cloak from his shoulders, the dwarf paused and turned to Bilbo. When Bilbo faced him, he found a cool hand on the back of his neck, and warm lips brushing over his own. The kiss was brief, much shorter than he would have liked, and completely out of the blue. All the hobbit could do was stare at his friend in shock.

“Mistletoe,” the dwarf said, gesturing upward vaguely.

At once, Merry and Frodo burst into laughter.

“That is holly, Mister Thorin,” Merry said.

“It does look rather like mistletoe.” Taking Thorin by the hand, Frodo led him from the foyer into the hall beyond. “That is mistletoe up there. See how the berries are white instead of red? The leaves are not as pointy either.”

“I am corrected.” Thorin smiled down at Frodo with great fondness. “You are wise in the lore of plants for one so young.” Bending down, the dwarf pressed a kiss to the lad’s forehead. If Bilbo thought his was heart in danger from his own exercises beneath the mistletoe with Thorin, he quickly realized that was nothing compared to seeing how good the dwarf was with young Frodo.

“Anway,” Merry said, “mistletoe is mostly just for married folk. Or people who are going to get married. Are you and Uncle Bilbo going to get married?”

Suddenly, Bilbo was very aware of everyone else gathered in the hall near the fire, preparing to light the yule log. His aunt Mirabella’s ears visibly perked up. His uncle Gorbadoc was scarcely better. They at least were subtle about listening in. Merry’s parents and a fair few other hobbits turned to face Thorin, watching him avidly.

The dwarf did not appear phased by the attention. As a king, he was used to the public eye. Kneeling down, he told Merry, “Bilbo thinks that because he could not be happy in my mountain, which is full of vast caverns and no flowers, I cannot be happy in his Shire, which is small and has no gold. But when I prove him wrong, we will be married. Until then, I am his guest.”

After that, things happened in rather a blur. Bilbo had some sort of conversation with his aunt, though he had no idea what was said. Speeches were made. As the sun sank from the windows, the yule log was lit. A yule log is very important to hobbits. On that longest, darkest night of the year, it is the only fire they make, the only light they allow. Distantly, Bilbo heard Frodo explaining the significance to Thorin. Bilbo himself was quite unequal to the task.

There was a dinner. At which he quite likely ate food. Of some type or quality. Precisely what was served the hobbit never after could recall. Eating in the relative darkness was always a bit tricky, but Bilbo must have managed. Probably.

Thorin’s words echoed in his mind once more. Everything which passed between them from that first meeting in Bag End on seemed different in the light of the yule log. Strange, the things one could see when the world was reduced to shadow and flame.

“Fauntlings first,” Gorbadoc called out, snapping Bilbo into the present. “I think Frodo is old enough to start us out this year.”

Frodo’s little face was quietly pleased. In fact, his eyes shone so brightly that Bilbo thought they would give light enough to see by even if the yule log was also extinguished and all the hall plunged into darkness. Accepting a small, tapered candle from his grandfather, the lad stepped forward smartly.

“I wish that everyone who is here for Yule this year will be here next year as well,” the boy said in a clear, solemn voice. Then he added, “And also my friend Samwise.” Leaning forward, he lit the candle from the fire of the log. Then there was one more light in the dark hall.

“Well, I wish for my own pony,” Merry said, stepping forward to light a candle of his own. Everyone laughed, and the other fauntlings sprang forward to light their candles and make their wishes.

Meanwhile, Frodo came over to Bilbo and Thorin, his little chest puffed up importantly as he carefully guarded his flame. “I can light your candles if you like,” he offered magnanimously.

“Thank you my lad,” Bilbo said. “You did very well lighting your own, and I think your wish a fine one. I hope it comes true.”

“It will.” Frodo smiled as he looked at the little candle cradled carefully in his hands. “I shall not let the flame blow out.”

“I admit,” Thorin said, “I am confused by this custom. You told me there was no religion to your celebrations this night. Who grants the wishes?”

“Parents, for the most part.” Bilbo laughed lightly. “At least, that is who will give young master Meriadoc his pony come springtime, if they deem him responsible enough for one. Only fauntlings say their wishes aloud. Adults make our own wishes come true.”

“I see,” Thorin said.

Bilbo wondered if he did. Once again, the hobbit studied Thorin’s face, watching the quirk of his smile and the steady tilt of his chin. Surely nobody in all the world had eyes more expressive or a beard so fine. Making his wish, Bilbo tipped his own candle into Frodo’s flame, lighting it with the fire of the yule log.

“But this is unfair!” Thorin proclaimed jovially. “For the candle I have been given is thrice the size of yours, Master Frodo. Surely there has been some mistake. Shall we not trade?”

Frodo giggled. “My mom always said that adult wishes are more trouble than a fauntling’s, so they need more fire. But I think it’s just so we can’t stay up late like the adults do.”

Bilbo laughed as well. “I think you might be right, Frodo my lad.”

“What merriment can there be to stay up for?” Thorin asked playfully. “We have feasted enough to sate even a hobbit’s appetite, and surely we cannot dance without risk to our candles.”

This was true enough, and it was the reason that Yule was Bilbo’s favorite party of the year. In the Shire, music is always lively enough to dance, stories are generally for children, and gatherings are always busy, crowded affairs. Except at Yule. Yule is the time when long ballads are sung, almost elvish in their style. Audiences sit quietly while stories are told, guarding their candle flames and listening politely.

Indeed, Bilbo was prevailed upon at once by his aunt to take the place in front of the yule log first. Feeling slightly mischievous, Bilbo did. Looking out at the dozens of flickering candles, Bilbo told the story of Thorin Oakenshield and Azog the Defiler. It was an epic that spanned decades, mountain ranges, wars, and kingdoms. If he was not there at the start, he had witnessed many of the events first hand. Very little poetic license was needed to make his audience gasp, sigh, and laugh in relief in all the right places. When he came to the end, not only was he applauded, but Thorin was asked to take a bow as well, which was very gratifying.

After Bilbo’s story, his cousin Esmeralda sang. She had a voice as clear and high as the elves of Rivendell. The song was of her own composition, but this was not the first time Bilbo heard it. It spoke of the Fell Winter, the frozen Brandywine, and the Bullroarer Took who saved the Shire. Long and winding as the Brandywine itself, the song began in the cold, but brought them all through to the warmth of fire and family.

There were many songs and stories that night, and Thorin Oakenshield saw a side of the Shire that not many are privileged to witness. Unlike a birthday party, when any accidentally uninvited neighbors would simply show up anyway, Yule was for family.

Suddenly, Frodo gave a cry of delight. All around the hall, other fauntlings began to echo him. “Look, Uncle Bilbo! My candle has burnt out.” Sure enough, the little tin candle holder in Frodo’s hands held only a small puddle of cooling wax and the blackened remnants of a wick entirely burned away.

“So it has my boy! Do you know what that means?”

“My wish will come true!”

“And also?”

Frodo’s mouth turned downward, and his face became less pleased. “It is bedtime. But I am not sleepy! I want to hear more stories.”

Bilbo smiled. “Then Thorin and I will use our own candles to guide you to bed. Once you are all tucked in, we shall tell you one last story.”

Collecting Merry from his parents was easy. Esmeralda made a token offer to see both boys to bed, but she clearly wanted to remain in the great hall. When Bilbo insisted he was happy to tuck them in, she accepted with grace and volunteered to check on them later.

Merry’s room was cozy interior one, with no windows and thick, warm blankets even without a fire in the grate. With the promise of a story in the balance, both fauntlings changed into their pyjamas very quickly. After they snuggled into the bed, Thorin told them the story of how Fris the fair, his mother, acquired her first harp. It was a charming tale about a young dwarf making her own wish come true, and so perfectly appropriate for Yule.

Carefully guarding his candle, Bilbo leaned down to kiss both boys on their foreheads, bidding them goodnight.

“Happy New Year, Uncle Bilbo.” Frodo yawned.

“Happy New Year, my lad,” Bilbo said softly, shutting the door.

Without the wall sconces to light the winding corridors of Brandy Hall, directions could be difficult to distinguish. Nevertheless, dwarves live underground just as hobbits do, and Thorin soon realized that Bilbo was not leading him back to the main gathering in the great hall.

“Bilbo?”

“I was quite surprised by your words earlier.” The hobbit opened the door to their chambers, ushering Thorin inside.

“Which words?” Flickering candlelight cast strange shadows about the dwarf’s face and beard, but he looked genuinely confused.

“Tell me now if they were just a show for my relations, Thorin. Do you really intend to marry me if I can make you happy in the Shire?”

In the yellow light, Thorin’s face was as grave as a statue. “Marrying you, Bilbo Baggins, has been my intention for many years. It is a goal upon which I set no conditions, but I believe that we will be very happy in your soft, green land of food and flowers. I can be a helpmeet to you, especially now that you have the care of a child. The assistance I gave Dis in the raising of my own nephews can be quantifiably expressed.” Thorin frowned briefly. “Fili turned out well.”

At that, Bilbo had to grin. “Kili is also a prince among dwarves.”

“Yes.” Thorin’s frown morphed into an expression of resignation. “But you would be within your rights to point out that his position in life is one that might have been avoided by a more attentive guardian.”

Barely stifling a laugh, the hobbit said, “Oh, I don’t know. In the Shire, an elf might be considered marrying up.”

Thorin frowned again, very sternly. “Don’t.”

“After all, she is nearly twice his height.”

Against his will, Thorin laughed. A short, truncated bark of laughter was quickly forced away with a frown. “I take it all back,” the dwarf groaned. “You are the least attractive person of my acquaintance.”

“I don’t know about that, either.” Carefully setting his candle down on the nightstand, Bilbo slowly turned toward Thorin. A few steps closed the distance between them. Very gently, giving the dwarf every opportunity to withdraw, Bilbo ran a hand along that soft, dignified beard, and drew Thorin in for a kiss.

It was nothing like kissing under the mistletoe. Thorin’s mouth opened at once, allowing Bilbo to taste and explore to his heart’s content. In the greater privacy of the bedchamber, Bilbo had no qualms about exploring with his hands either. Tracing his way up Thorin’s beard, the hobbit found those long braids, smooth and ropelike beneath his hands. The gentlest tug was rewarded with an eager moan and an exposed throat to kiss and bite along.

Of course, that freed Thorin’s mouth for speaking. “How unlucky would it be to let this candle fall so that I could place both of my hands upon you?” the dwarf asked shakily.

Laughing, Bilbo realized the reason he was not quite as engulfed by the force of Thorin’s personality as usual, and he found he rather enjoyed the measure of control it gave him. Still, there was no sense in risking one’s yuletide wish. He would be quite disappointed if his own did not come true.

Taking the candle gently from Thorin’s hands, Bilbo set it on the nightstand next to his own. Struck by a sudden suspicion, Bilbo opened the little drawer there for the first time. Sure enough, he found a generous jar of Mirabella’s famous lamb’s ear salve. Whether or not the mixture contained any actual betony was a matter of hot speculation among those in the know, for she kept the recipe secret, but everyone gifted with the ointment agreed it was the finest lotion of its type. Soft as a lamb’s ear. After a moment’s thought, Bilbo decided to be grateful to his officious, interfering aunt instead of annoyed. Opening the jar, he placed it atop the nightstand next to the candles. Next to it, he set his nice clean handkerchief.

“Now,” he said, turning back to Thorin, “you are my guest. So I am going to take very good care of you. Provided you are amenable to that suggestion.”

The dwarf swallowed visibly. “Yes.” His voice was as deep as the roots of a mountain, as rough as gravel. “Extraordinarily amenable.”

Bilbo grinned. “Good.”

Slipping out of his jacket, the hobbit hung it up carefully. It was, after all, new for the season. Despite the fact that the same could be said for the rest of his clothing, Bilbo retained his waistcoat and shirtsleeves for the moment. It was much more interesting to slowly divest Thorin of his clothing, exposing soft hair and velvety skin that Bilbo could kiss and stroke contentedly.

“This I shall leave, I think,” Bilbo said of the sapphire pendant, which hung over Thorin’s bare breast like a lonely star.

Thorin shuddered. “Does it make me becoming to your eye?”

“Fishing for compliments is not at all becoming,” Bilbo chided, freeing Thorin’s cock and ridding the dwarf of the last remnants of clothing. “You know that you are the most handsome fellow I have ever seen, rags or riches notwithstanding.”

The sound that sprang from the depths of Thorin’s throat then was a helpless one. Instantly, they were kissing. Thorin began to rub against Bilbo’s trousers with tremendous eagerness. Gratifying as it was to feel his friend so overcome, the hobbit put a stop to that after a minute or two by stepping away. He had no desire to soil his neatly tailored trousers if it could be helped.

“Make yourself comfortable on the bed, please,” Bilbo instructed, and Thorin obeyed with alacrity.

As the hobbit undid his waistcoat button by button, he held Thorin’s gaze. Splayed upon the bed wantonly, the dwarf stared up at him, unabashedly stroking his cock. Three starry sapphires burned from that bed, and Bilbo was rather flattered by the intensity of the stare. Even so, he took his time. In truth, he took slightly more time folding his trousers and stowing his clothing than he would have under other circumstances. Between the glass windows and the lack of fire, the room was quite cool. Joining the dwarf on the bed, Bilbo discovered that his friend was better than a hot brick.

The heated embrace which followed—accompanied by hungry kisses and eager moans—was pleasurable to the extreme, but Bilbo had a plan. So before either of them could spend like tweens in a haystack, the hobbit flipped the dwarf over and pressed him face down into the mattress.

“Yes,” Thorin groaned. “Please, amrâlimê, whatever you wish.”

This was very agreeable permission. Especially as what Bilbo wished was to fetch the salve from the nightstand and begin rubbing it into Thorin’s skin. Feeling mischievous, the hobbit began at the shoulders.

Understandably, Thorin hissed at this teasing. “Bilbo, you need not take things so slowly, I am—”

“My guest,” the hobbit said firmly. “You are not a king any longer, Thorin Oakenshield. The Shire has no kings. So be mine, and let me take care of you.”

The sound Thorin made in answer to this was more of a sob than a speech. Every muscle in the dwarf’s body seemed to relax at once, and Bilbo massaged the salve gently into that velvety skin. Traveling slowly down the plane of Thorin’s back, Bilbo appreciated every scar and curve, and especially the soothing nature of the ointment. Soft as the leaves of lamb’s ear, indeed.

Upon reaching Thorin’s rump, the hobbit continued to take his time. Rubbing the muscles, spreading the cheeks, anointing the entrance, and opening up the body of his friend was an immensely enjoyable activity. But even Bilbo’s gentle patience had its limits.

Placing his hands on Thorin’s hips, Bilbo barely had to hint at lifting them before the dwarf arched to meet him. Thorin rose up onto his knees, and Bilbo, kneeling between his legs, finally allowed himself to sink into that glorious dwarven heat. Pressing forward, Bilbo tried to set a steady rhythm with his eager thrusts, to go slowly and ensure Thorin’s pleasure. At first, he managed it. But Thorin was so tight. The sounds he made were so sweet. Bilbo’s cock felt so good engulfed in the forge-fire of Thorin’s heat. All too soon, Bilbo fell to a wild greed: taking, plowing, spending, and collapsing over his lover. Miraculously, somewhere in there Thorin cried out in ecstasy and collapsed as well.

Bilbo could not quite attain the level of hospitality required to get up and change the soiled sheets for fresh, but he did clean them both up with his pocket handkerchief. After that, he let Thorin curl against his chest. The dwarf’s long hair pillowed over Bilbo’s racing heart as it slowed toward sleep. That kept them both out of the wet spot, at least.

On the nightstand, one of the yule candles flickered and burned out. Seconds later, the other followed suit.

“Well, what do you know?” Bilbo drawled smugly. “I got my wish.”

In the darkness of the longest night, Thorin’s laughter was unbelievably bright. Through the snow-crusted glass of the window, Bilbo could see the stars.