When Bilbo was very young, he had an older brother. They would sit together in the afternoon sun and Kili would braid clover into crowns for Bilbo to wear. Sometimes their mother would plop them down in a berry patch and Kili would find all the best ones for Bilbo to eat. One of Bilbo’s earliest memories was blinking in the summer sunshine as Kili presented him with a huge, ripe strawberry. At lunchtime, Kili helped their mother by fixing Bilbo’s plate, and no one cut a cake like Kili. He always managed to give Bilbo the biggest piece.
When Bilbo was very young, he didn’t know his brother was unusual. Kili was much bigger and stronger than Bilbo, but he would sometimes step on a broken stick when they were running outside and hurt his feet. Bilbo’s feet never got hurt by anything. Their mother said that Kili had poor health, and he never went out visiting the way Bilbo had to. That wasn’t so strange. If Bilbo could stay at home and not have his cheeks pinched by one million aunts, he’d choose that in a heartbeat. Besides, if he stayed home, he could stay at home with Kili.
Being at home with Kili was great. He told the best stories, even better than their father, about fighting dragons and finding hidden treasure. Bilbo loved hiding under the covers with his brother, whispering in the secret language that Kili invented.
“It’s a language only for brothers,” Kili said. “We can’t tell anyone else, ever.” And so they didn’t, but Kili had words for everything. Sometimes he would tell his stories about great armies fighting entirely in the made up language. Bilbo loved knowing that only the two of them would ever understand these tales. Even their mother wasn’t privy to all of the brothers’ secrets.
Once, Kili found a little kitten in the grass. It was the softest thing Bilbo had ever touched, so Kili whispered the words for gentle, baby cat, and small in their secret language.
“Darfûn,” Bilbo contradicted as the little orange tiger wriggled his tail, preparing to pounce on a beetle. “He’s a killer.”
Kili laughed in agreement, and then the two boys fell over each other giggling as the kitten missed his prey and rolled clumsily onto his back. The poor thing’s pride was badly wounded, and when Bilbo picked him up, the little fellow swatted him painfully with its tiny claws. Bilbo cried out in shock, and his mother rushed over to scold them for playing with a strange animal.
If any proof was needed that secrecy was sometimes necessary between brothers, surely that was it. Obviously their mother would not have allowed them to play with the kitten at all, if she had been told about it from the first.
Still, Belladonna Baggins was the smartest, silliest hobbit in all the Shire, and they didn’t keep too many secrets from her. If she kept Kili home all the time, she also played with them far more than other mothers would have. She was never too busy cooking or gardening to play hide and seek, one of her very favorite games. In fact, sometimes she would suggest it, or even goofier games, to entertain her sons.
“Now, your grandfather has been very insistent that Kili should visit the Great Smials,” she said once to Bilbo, “but he is too ill to come.”
“I am not too ill,” Kili said stoutly. “I will go and Bilbo can stay home, since he does not like visiting.”
Smiling at his brother gratefully, Bilbo said, “Can’t Kili come, Mother? Please? It would be ever so much more fun if we all went together.”
“Your mother already said he may not.” Bungo Baggins was happy to put his sons to bed with a story every night, but for the most part he left the business of childrearing to his wife. When he chose to speak, the boys tended to listen. “Kili and I will stay here and be grateful for the excuse to avoid the chaos of visiting Tuckborough.”
“Then why must I go?” Bilbo demanded. “I want to stay with Kili!”
“Because I must go and visit my parents,” Belladonna said, putting on a very silly frown. “You would not make me go all by myself, would you?”
Bilbo’s frown was not at all a mockery. “You stay home, too, Mum.”
“But it is your grandfather’s birthday! I cannot miss his party. Gandalf the firework wizard will be there again. You loved him last year. Besides, you have not even heard the very good joke we are going to play on everyone, Bilbo.”
“A joke?” Bilbo might have stubbornly insisted on getting his own way, but Kili looked interested. Truthfully, their mother did play excellent tricks.
“We are going to let your grandfather meet Kili at last, because you are going to tell everyone that you are him. All week! Won’t that be a great game?”
“Ah, yes,” Bungo said. “Taking advantage of the natural confusion of age. What larks!”
Ignoring Bilbo’s father as she always did when he spoke in that dry tone, Belladonna continued. “You and I will both have to be very careful, and we’ll lose a point every time we make a mistake.”
Before Bilbo could answer, Kili laughed. “But Bilbo is so little! No one would believe that he was me.”
“Not if you were standing right next to each other,” Belladonna agreed, “but my family has not seen you since you were a very little baby. All they know is that you two are twins. So if Bilbo introduces himself as Kili and is careful to answer only to that name, I think there’s a fantastic chance that he will fool everyone. Although, it will be a challenge. Tooks are hard to trick, being very tricky ourselves.”
“Tooks are as easily distracted as squirrels in springtime. Consistently change subjects when you’re speaking, like a bumblebee determined to visit every flower in the conversational garden, and you’ll be fine.” Bungo frowned. “That said, I’m still not sure about this plan, dear.”
“You don’t think Bilbo can manage it? It’s true that he probably won’t beat my score, but—”
“I can!” Bilbo didn’t want to spend a whole week away from his brother, but he was dearly fond of games. He was not about to concede without trying.
“That’s settled, then,” Belladonna said, smiling. So Bilbo had to go after all.
In the end, it was a pretty fun game. Bilbo got to wear Kili’s old blue jacket and he sang all of Kili’s favorite songs for his aunts and uncles. He even ate his sprouts, because Kili liked them though Bilbo hated them, and refused his pudding despite desperately wanting it. His mother gave him twenty points for doing that, which meant he was well on his way to winning the game before the birthday party even started.
The Old Took did have wonderful birthday parties. It was very hard to talk to everyone, chase the other fauntlings, and dance about as Kili would when all Bilbo wanted to do was sit and listen to the Old Took’s stories. Still, Bilbo did his duty and chose a present that Kili would like as a birthday gift. It was a real wooden sword, and he ran around fighting with everyone else who chose similar toy weaponry.
When he saw the Big Person, Bilbo did what his big brother would have, and challenged him to a duel.
“Kili!” Rushing over, Belladonna pulled Bilbo away from the giant in the gray robes. “I am sorry Gandalf. I have no idea where he gets these notions.”
“It’s quite alright, my dear.” The giant bent down and Bilbo saw his blue eyes sparkle beneath his bushy gray eyebrows. “I will not fight you, Kili Baggins, for I am a great friend of your mother’s. No matter which of us triumphed, she would weep, and so there must never be a battle between you and I.”
Bilbo laughed, delighted by this. “You have a beard! I have never met anyone with a beard before. K—my brother talks about them in his stories sometimes.”
“Is your brother here?” Gandalf looked at Belladonna politely. “I believe I saw him in the throng last year, though I don’t think we were introduced.”
“No,” Bilbo said quickly. “Bilbo is sick at home.”
“Bungo stayed with him.”
“Oh, that is a shame,” Gandalf said. “Nothing serious, I hope.”
“Just a summer cold,” Belladonna said.
“Kili is quite an interesting name for a hobbit,” the Big Person observed. “I don’t think I’ve heard it around the Shire before.”
“Ah, a little fancy of my own,” Belladonna said. “We were quite settled on Bilbo, of course, and when we had twins, I just thought, well: Kili and Billy! An actual rhyme seemed cruel, but a nickname to be chosen if so desired felt just right.”
When Gandalf smiled, his whole beard moved. It was fascinating to watch. “Charming. And are they alike? From what I recall of Bilbo, they certainly have a similarity in looks.”
“Like two peas. Always getting up to mischief together and teaming up against their poor parents! Why, there is scarcely an argument won by an adult in my house, Gandalf, if you can believe it.”
“Not true! I wanted to stay at home with Bilbo, but Mum said one of us had to come.”
“And are you having a dreadful time without him?”
Bilbo frowned at Gandalf. He did not like to be teased by anyone except his mother. “I would have more fun if he were here, for then Bilbo would be having fun as well.”
Smiling gently, the old man took Bilbo by the hand. “I am sure you would, Mister Baggins. Since you are not having any fun without your brother, perhaps you would be good enough to assist me with my work. For you know, I am not only here as a guest, but the entertainment as well.”
“Are you a musician?” Bilbo asked eagerly, for he dearly loved music.
“Not quite,” Gandalf said.
In fact, Gandalf was not a musician at all, as you will have already realized. He was a wizard. Bilbo can, perhaps, be forgiven for not remembering this earlier. After all, he was only a fauntling. He had been too small and dazzled by the fireworks at previous birthday parties to wonder where they came from. This year, he found out.
Great crates of rockets were stacked to one side, and Bilbo was privileged to fetch them one at a time, holding them steady for Gandalf as he lit them with his staff. With a whizz and a bang, the rockets shot high into the air, exploding into flowers, colors, and glorious shapes of flame and smoke. The wizard even let Bilbo light a few once he proved to have steady hands. Perhaps Bilbo’s assistance slowed the progression of the display somewhat, for the little fauntling watched each explosion in awe before fetching the next rocket for Gandalf. It was the most wonderful thing he had ever been a part of.
Guilt didn’t catch up to him until later that night, curled up in a borrowed bed with his mother, as it occurred to him that the glorious duty ought to have been Kili’s.
Two days later, when they finally returned home, he exploded with tears, confessing all to his brother. This reaction alarmed both of his parents, but Kili simply pulled Bilbo into a big hug.
“It’s okay,” Kili said, rubbing Bilbo’s back. “It’s okay.”
“But you should have been the one to shoot the fireworks,” the fauntling sobbed. “He only let me because he thought I was you.”
“Oh, sweetheart, no,” Belladonna said. “Gandalf let a boy who missed his sick brother play a game with him. That was you, Bilbo, no matter what name was used.”
“Really, really,” she said comfortingly.
That might have been the end of things, but Bilbo’s father said, “I would call this a failed experiment,” in an angry voice that Bilbo had never heard before. Nervously, the little hobbit looked up at his mother. She seemed very tired.
“We’ll talk about it later, dear.” Which meant they would talk about it when Bilbo and Kili weren’t around. That was all right. Bilbo didn’t like the twisted look on his father’s face. Taking Kili by the hand, he went off to play with his brother.
Later that night, Bilbo had a strange dream. His father was standing between him and his brother, refusing to move. Trying to go around him was futile. So was pushing him out of the way. Slowly, his father grew bigger and bigger, his toes digging into the earth like roots as his arms stretched into branches. Kili cried out for Bilbo, but the dark forest between them was impassible.
Waking with a start in the familiar darkness of his bedroom, Bilbo heard a soft whimpering coming from the parlor. Padding silently down the hallway, he peered through a crack in the door. Kili was sitting on Belladonna’s lap in her favorite rocking chair, while Bungo paced back and forth.
“I’m going back to bed,” Bilbo’s father said angrily.
“Good.” Belladonna’s voice was warm and gentle, like the low fire crackling in the grate.
“It has been eight years,” the hobbit said, ignoring his wife. “When will these nightmares stop?”
“When Kili realizes he is safe, and that we will never, ever let anything bad happen to him,” Belladonna said soothingly. “Go back to sleep, Bungo. Things will look better in the morning.”
Huffing, Bungo Baggins left the parlor, walking right past Bilbo’s hiding place in the shadows. Belladonna stayed up with her troubled son, rocking in the chair and singing softly, until he stopped crying. Then she carried him back to his bedroom, tucked him in, and returned to her husband. Creeping silently over the soft, red rug, Bilbo slipped into his brother’s room.
“Kili?” he whispered. “Are you asleep?”
“Bilbo?” Kili’s voice was thick with exhaustion.
Sitting up in his bed, Bilbo’s brother peered through the darkness toward the door. “Are you okay?” he asked in their secret language.
“Yeah.” Clambering up into Kili’s bed, Bilbo struggled to get underneath the covers. Obligingly, Kili moved over and helped his brother with the blanket.
“Why are you in my room?” Kili always sounded a little gruff when he spoke in their secret language, but his brother knew that just using it meant they were the closest twins in all the Shire.
“Had a bad dream,” Bilbo said.
Kili took Bilbo’s hand and laced their fingers together. “Well then, I will tell you a story. To help you sleep.”
Wondering how many times his mother had said exactly those words to Kili without Bilbo knowing a thing about it, the little fauntling agreed. “Okay.”
“In a kingdom so wealthy that everyone ate off golden supper plates,” Kili began, telling Bilbo’s favorite story about the handsome prince who handily defeated a monstrous dragon. It was a wonderful tale, just frightening enough to be engaging, even though the dragon was bigger than a house and wanted to eat little boys for supper. Anyway, it ended well, with both tragedy and happiness. The prince always protected his kingdom, despite what he lost along the way.
“We should stick together,” Bilbo whispered when Kili finished the story. “That’s what brothers do.”
Snuffling a little in the darkness, Kili yawned audibly. “Always. I promise.”
“I promise, too,” Bilbo said softly, and he meant it. His brother would never need to face his nightmares alone again.