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Dwarves And Damsels

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The strange thing was, the longer Bilbo spent in Erebor, the less she wanted to go back.

Oh, she missed her home, of course, missed her cozy little hobbit hole with her armchair and books and fireplace, she was still a hobbit after all. What she did not miss were some of the other things that came with being a hobbit, the neighbours who would shake their heads as they passed by and saw the Mistress of Bag End gardening in a pair of trousers again, or the oh so proper ladies clicking their tongues in disapproval as they shared the latest eccentricities of poor Belladonna's daughter, really, the poor thing would have been rolling in her grave if only she had known.

It was ridiculous, of course; Bilbo's parents had taught her to value being happy over being proper. Even Bungo, who was as Baggins as Bagginses came, had seen enough of his beloved Belladonna in their only daughter not to try and force her into being the perfect little lady his side of the family would have preferred. Oh, Bilbo was quite proper in her own opinion, thank you very much, but some of the things she considered quite fine and proper were less so if one where to ask the more traditional hobbits. Or, well, anyone who wasn't a Took, really.

She had felt so free when she had first run off with the dwarves, had wondered if this had been how her mother had felt when she ran off with Gandalf on her own adventure. They didn't care who or what she was, only about what she could do. And she had done her best, too, had tricked a dragon and almost stopped a war, and somehow she had managed to come out alive on the other side of it all. And now, as what little injuries she had sustained were healing and she was growing accustomed to the life of a dwarven mountain, the thought of going back and facing the judgment that was sure to wait for her made her sick.

It would be even worse than her mother's adventure, she was sure. At least while Gandalf was rather clearly odd, few would think him any threat to a young hobbit lass's virtue. A bunch of loud, boisterous dwarves was another matter entirely. No respectable hobbit lad would even look her in the eye after such a spectacle, never mind consider her as marriage material.

Well, at least something good had come out of this whole mess.

Perhaps she just wouldn't go back at all. This wasn't Bag End, no, but there were books and fireplaces and even tea here as well, and she was sure she could find an armchair somewhere that would fit a tired little hobbit in the evenings. The dwarves didn't seem to care one bit as to whether she was ladylike or not, if indeed they were even aware she was a lass in the first place. She might have worried about that, about whether their tolerance of her quirks was only because they didn't know she was female, but then she had heard the dwarves discussing some of the officers who had come with Dáin and at least one had been mentioned to be female. If a female dwarf could be at the head of an army and nobody batted an eye, surely a hobbit lass would be allowed her trousers and short hair.

And if not, well, she'd still rather wear skirts in Erebor than go back to listen the ladies of the village whispering about just what services the dwarves had hired her for on the journey. She did have her pride, after all, and was quite happy with the state of her virtue as well. She wouldn't listen to any jealous tongues besmirch either her honor or that of her companions, and if that meant not going back within hearing distance, well, she had been prepared to sacrifice more for this expedition.

But, yes, Erebor was a good place, at least now that some parts of it were starting to get reasonably clean and warm. Not that life there didn't have some downsides as well, such as dealing with childish little princelings.

"Kíli, I'm not warning you again." Because she hadn't already said that at least two times this morning. "Your uncle is going to come here next, and he's going to be rather cross with you."

"But I don't wanna." Kíli's whine was muffled by the pillow he had hidden his face in. "Just five more minutes?"

"You've already overslept enough." Bilbo sighed, crossing her arms over her chest. "Come on, Kíli. You're going to miss breakfast."

This got her another whine. "'M not hungry."

"Don't be ridiculous. Of course you're hungry." For all that dwarves didn't eat enough meals for her liking, when they did get to the table they had a very respectable appetite.

"I'm not, so go away."

Bilbo paused, then softened her tone. "I know you miss Tauriel, but hiding away isn't going to solve anything."

There was no response, but the way she saw Kíli's shoulders stiffen was indication enough that she had found her mark.

"You know he's not gone forever, right? He'll be back soon enough, I'm sure."

"What would you know?" Again a muffled sound, though this time more of a growl than a whine. "You've never even met him properly!"

"No, I haven't, but I did see him briefly after the battle. And what I saw rather convinced me he won't stay away any longer than necessary." Not that she knew what had made Tauriel leave in the first place, though she rather suspected it might have had something to do with Thorin and his not exactly hidden dislike for elves. Tauriel hadn't looked like a stupid creature, and not waiting for Thorin to calm down would have been stupid indeed.

"Right." Kíli sighed and finally sat up in the bed. He was clad in only a sleeping shirt and a pair of light trousers, and really it should have been very inappropriate for Bilbo to even be here, but then she had seen some of the dwarves in even less than that. Besides, they had just been talking about Kíli's male beloved; clearly his propriety around Bilbo wasn't of much importance here. Even so, she busied herself with adding some wood to the fireplace, her back turned to Kíli.

"Bilbo?"

"Hmm?" As she turned to look, Kíli hadn't made it further than the side of his bed, hands gripping the edge. There weren't any proper sheets on the bed, they were lucky enough to have found some blankets that hadn't disintegrated with the long years of the worm, but judging by the white-knuckled grip Bilbo rather suspected Kíli's fingers would have given trouble to the integrity of any sheet, no matter their age.

"I don't feel so good." And as she now looked closer, Kíli did look quite pale, the whiteness of his face emphasized in contrast with his dark hair.

Then, before Bilbo could do or say anything else, Kíli leaned forward and vomited on the floor.

Well. Perhaps he indeed hadn't been hungry.

*

Kíli was not feeling well.

Scratch that, he was feeling terrible. This wasn't just a case of being under the weather; that he had been dealing with enough in the past few days. It seemed he was tired all the time nowadays, enough so that he would have been quite surprised to be feeling just fine.

That was normal, though, that was simply to be expected. There was still a lot to do in Erebor before it could be called even habitable, never mind restored, and though some people seemed to be doing their best to forget it from time to time, Erebor did have two princes, not just one. Perhaps he wasn't as responsible as his brother — and many would have claimed that wasn't much of a statement in itself, either — but he did do his part where he could. With the weeks going by and things not letting up even once, it was no wonder he was getting rather exhausted from it all.

This wasn't just tiredness, though, not even exhaustion. To lose his appetite was bad enough, to lose his dinner a sure sign of something wrong.

He answered Óin's questions best as he could, enduring the poking and prodding. Yes, he had been feeling somewhat sick lately, but nothing this bad. No, he was certain he hadn't eaten anything off last night, he had shared his supper with Fíli and his brother was just fine, according to Bilbo. Yes, the mere thought of fried eggs made him sick right now, was Óin trying to make him feel even worse on purpose?

Finally the old healer straightened himself, taking a step back and giving Kíli a serious look as he pulled his tunic back on. "One more question, laddie." Óin seemed rather grave. "Is there any possibility you might be with child?"

"What?" Kíli froze, one arm halfway through a sleeve.

"I think you heard me quite well." Óin tsked. "Your symptoms are quite indicative of that particular condition. It's not my true area of expertise, but believe me, I'm experienced enough in the art of midwifery —"

That was as far as Óin got as the door flew open, revealing the rather grim King Under the Mountain. Bilbo peeked out from behind his shoulder, gesturing wildly at Kíli in an attempt at apology. Kíli shook his head, dismissing such pleas. There was no stopping Thorin when he was in a mood, certainly not by the strength of a little hobbit.

"Uncle." Kíli straightened himself, looking at Thorin in what he hoped was neutral enough a manner. "Why'd you come here?"

"I sent Bilbo to find you." Thorin was frowning, though exactly what it was that had drawn his ire was not quite so clear. "When he would not return, I went looking for myself. Imagine my shock when all I found in your room was a mess on the floor."

Kíli winced. He didn't want to even think about what his room must have looked like. "I was sick," he muttered, as though Thorin wouldn't have noticed it from the mess. "Bilbo brought me to see Óin. Luckily he hadn't gone to breakfast yet, either."

"Right. And what exactly is it he was saying just now?" Thorin's hard gaze turned to Óin, though it didn't become any more merciful.

"Merely shutting out the possibilities, that's all." Óin lifted a placating hand. "So, lad? Is there any chance you might be pregnant?"

He should have said no. Should have said there was no such chance, clearly he just had a stomach bug, nothing to worry about.

Kíli closed his eyes and swallowed. It was clear in his mind like a blazing fire, the memory of burning skin against his own, of silky hair and whispered promises and cries of pleasure swallowed into a kiss.

"It's… a possibility."

He heard a gasp, probably Bilbo, and then silence for a moment. Then there were quick, heavy footsteps. Kíli opened his eyes again to see Thorin rushing out of the room with an air of danger about him, while Bilbo looked at him in shock and Óin with a rather strange lack of surprise.

Kíli sighed. This was not going to end well for anyone.

Even so, he couldn't help the hand slowly rising to cover his stomach and the idea of a tiny little life within.

*

"Thorin!"

The King Under the Mountain, being his usual stubborn self, paid no attention whatsoever to Bilbo's cries. Instead, he rushed along the corridor with his blasted long dwarf legs, leaving Bilbo hurrying at a half-run simply not to fall behind.

Kíli was pregnant, or at least thought it was a possibility. Except wasn't Kíli a lad? That certainly was what Bilbo had thought. But then, she wasn't sure she could tell a female dwarf from a male one, wasn't sure if she had ever seen a female one before. For all she knew, they could all look the same, in which case there was no reason Kíli couldn't be a lass. Except for all the male pronouns and words and such, but then, everyone called Bilbo by those as well. Maybe it was a safety thing? They were now more or less safe within the mountain, but most of its inhabitants were still Iron Hill dwarves, the caravan from Blue Mountains not expected to arrive until the spring at earliest, perhaps more into summer. Or was it simply supposed to be a secret from Bilbo? She had heard rumors that dwarves kept their womenfolk closed up in the mountains, and while that didn't match up with what she had seen and heard, she also hadn't come up with many alternative theories.

Wonder about that later, Baggins. Right now you've got an obviously furious king to catch up with.

The rest of the Company was gathered for breakfast, as had become their habit of late. Most of them had been given positions of importance by Thorin as part of their reward, and it was quite useful to have the chance to coordinate their efforts and share information outside the official channels. Lunch was eaten while they were working and dinner tended to be in smaller groups, one or sometimes two families together with Bilbo usually joining Thorin and his nephews, but breakfast was when they all came together. Of course, any chance of useful conversation was lost as Thorin stormed in, ignoring all of Bilbo's attempts at calming him.

"All right." Thorin came to a very definitive halt, glowering at the gathered dwarves as though they were a herd of orcs instead. "Who exactly is responsible for this?"

"Responsible for what?" Fíli frowned. "And where's Kíli? Is he still not up?"

"Oh, he's up all right," Thorin growled. "Not quite all right, though."

"Oh?" Fíli was immediately up on his feet. "Where is he? He's with Óin, right? He's got to be with Óin since he's not here either. I'll go see —"

"Sit down." Thorin's tone left no room for argument. "Óin thinks," he drew a deep breath, "Óin thinks Kíli might be pregnant." At the consequent silence he threw another glare around the room before adding, "And I want to know who is responsible."

The silence broke as everyone started to speak at once. Thorin managed to hold himself back a moment, but as nobody immediately came up, his patience wore off.

"It has to be someone here," he ground out. "For the symptoms to show now the conception's happened a while ago, around the battle or earlier, and for all that Kíli is thoughtless at times I doubt he'd have taken with any of the Iron Hills warriors so quickly." He pointed an accusing finger at Bofur. "Was it you?"

"Me? Sweet Mahal, no." Bofur lifted his hands. "I've spoken with the lad a lot, yes, but not slept with him. I'll be happy to make some toys for the kit in time, but that's all."

"You, then?" Thorin spun on his heel to face Ori instead. The little scribe shrank back in shock. "You're so very friendly with them both, aren't you? Maybe you thought to see if you could push it a bit further?"

Bilbo saw from the corner of his eye as Dori and Nori both moved to their little brother's defense, but Fíli got there first. "Stop that, Uncle Thorin." He stood half between Thorin and Ori, not quite blocking the scribe from Thorin's view but clearly in defense. "You're being ridiculous."

"Oh, I am, am I?" Thorin growled. "He's the most likely culprit out of this lot!"

"The least likely, is more like it." Fíli sighed. "Uncle, Ori is also female! It's literally impossible for him to have gotten Kíli with child!"

Okay. That confirmed it, words proved nothing. Nor did appearances, though then that didn't surprise her too much. She'd seen Glóin's locket with his wife's portrait often enough to know that dwarven ladies could be as bearded as their male counterparts. Still, she had never even suspected such a thing about Ori.

Clearly Thorin was surprised by that as well, so at least she didn't have to feel too bad about it. "And how would you know that?" From the glares now directed at Fíli, Dori and Nori might have wanted to know the same as well.

"You said it yourself, Ori is friends with Kíli and myself." Bilbo couldn't help but feel the slightest bit proud as Fíli still met Thorin's gaze without wavering, even though he was probably all too aware of the gazes sent his way. "We practically grew up together! You really think Ori and Kíli would have gotten this far without realizing they're both female?"

Thorin still glared at Fíli, apparently not satisfied with this explanation. As he made to address the rest of the Company again, though, Bilbo stepped forward, touching his arm.

"Thorin, please stop this." Before there as any actual bloodshed. "You interrogating everyone isn't going to solve anything."

"And what is it to you, Halfling?" Thorin snapped, spinning around to glare at her. "You stay out of business that doesn't concern you. Unless you'd like to tell me you are the kit's father?"

"Yes." The word was out of her mouth before she could stop it, and once it was, well, she could just as well go with it. Placing her hands on her hips, Bilbo met Thorin's gaze head on. "Yes, I am. And what are you going to make of it?"

"I — what?" Thorin seemed taken aback at least, blinking at her. "You — when? How? Why?"

"How? The usual manner, I presume." Which was patently ridiculous, considering she was quite incapable of such a thing, but then if Thorin was choosing to be ridiculous she could just as well match him. "As for when and where and why, we were stuck in a bloody big mountain following a king who had lost his mind, not quite sure if we would meet our end at the hands of the enemy from without the mountain or our insane king from within. We didn't think we'd live to see the other end of the battle to come, so we chose to get our comfort where we could. Not the most decorous thing to do, I'll grant you, but I would claim your own conduct at the time was even worse."

For a moment, Thorin stared at her. It wasn't the glare he had given everyone else, but something more surprised, even shocked. Then, still without a word, he stepped past Bilbo and walked right out of the room.

Bilbo looked after Thorin, then sighed. "What exactly happened there?"

"Just Thorin being Thorin." Bofur came up to Bilbo, now, patting her shoulder. "That was good thinking, Master Burglar. Clearly you're not just quick on your feet when it comes to sneaking about dragons."

"I don't know what you're talking about." She couldn't admit it, not so easily. With this lie, she might be able to buy Kíli a moment's respite from Thorin's ire.

She wouldn't have needed to question anyone, of course. She'd heard Fíli's amused whispers about Kíli's pointy-eared love often enough, had even briefly seen the elf who seemed to have captured a dwarven heart. No matter how furious Thorin was with her, it was still preferable to the truth.

Bofur glanced around, making note of Fíli currently arguing with Dori and Nori while the rest were either trying to placate the argument or to ignore it completely, before leaning closer. "It was a good lie, Master Hobbit. One I would have even believed, if I hadn't spent most of that time with either you or the princes, certainly enough to know you had little time to sneak off together. Well, you did sneak off into Dale, yes, but that's not my only reason for not believing you."

Bilbo worried her lip. "Please don't tell Thorin just yet. I haven't seen him in such a mood since the battle; I'd rather not annoy him any further before we can clear things with Kíli."

"Fret not. I know what's at stake here, perhaps better than most. I was there with the lads in Laketown, remember; I saw the way Kíli spoke of his elf then." Bofur shrugged. "Not what I'd go for, but to each their own. Better Thorin be blaming you at least until he calms down; at least he won't be calling for your death in retribution."

"He's done so before." Under madness, yes, but he nevertheless had.

"Aye, and he rather regrets it. Besides, he saw then that none of us would abide with that." Bofur gave her a wink and a slap on the shoulder. "Don't you worry about a thing. Just try and keep our king from exploding and the prince from breaking down, and leave the rest to us."

"And what would 'the rest' entail in this case?"

"Oh, you know, this and that." Bofur grinned. "Such as getting a discreet word out there that we might be interested in the whereabouts of a red-headed archer, if one can be found around here."

"I'm not sure how sensible that is." Bilbo sighed. As much as Kíli would have surely loved seeing Tauriel, things just weren't that simple. "If he comes rushing in before we've got Thorin under control, this might all end in tears."

"We'll figure it out somehow. Thorin might be King, but there's only one of him and many of us who'd like to see this story get a happy ending." Bofur patted her shoulder again. "Now, maybe go and make sure he isn't yelling at poor Kíli instead? But don't get too close if he seems explosive, still. The rest of us rather prefer you in one piece."

Well. That was comforting to know, at least.

She'd just have to hope they were within shouting distance if Thorin did decide to get angry at her after all.

*

"Thorin?"

She had to have gone mad, Bilbo mused, standing behind the thick wooden door. She had to have lost all her senses, or she wouldn't have been standing here, quite content to be soon marching right into her doom.

If there had been any doubt, she chose to remove that by knocking again when there was no response. "Thorin? May I come in?"

This time, she heard a vague grunt that she chose to take as approval. The door opened easily enough at her push; though it was thicker than the normal hobbit door, it wasn't that much higher and it certainly wasn't quite as wide, and thus wasn't too heavy even for her.

Thorin stood brooding by the fireplace as she walked in, not even looking her way. He would probably have denied that he was doing any such thing, but given that the fireplace he kept staring at held nothing but ashes at the moment, it wasn't like anyone would have believed him either way.

"Thorin." Bilbo closed the door behind herself. It might not have been the best possible choice, but then if Thorin did attack her, she doubted running would do much good, anyway. "I believe we need to talk."

"We do?" Thorin did not look at her. She supposed she couldn't blame him, considering what she had let him believe.

"As though you don't know it." Bilbo drew a deep breath. Well, she'd made her bed, now better lie in it. "I, ah. I'm quite prepared to take responsibility." Though hopefully another solution would present itself before it got to that.

"I'm assuming you mean marrying Kíli." And still not even a glance. Clearly Thorin was upset with her.

"Well, obviously." What else could she have meant?

"No."

The curt answer made Bilbo blink in surprise. "Excuse me?"

"No, that won't be necessary." Finally Thorin turned toward her, fast enough that his hair swayed with the movement. "In fact, I absolutely forbid it."

It should have been a relief, really, or at the very least one less mess to clear up later, but for some inexplicable reason Bilbo found herself bristling at the comment. She had marveled at Thorin's apparent easy forgiveness earlier, had wondered if he wasn't still harboring some grudge over her actions, but she hadn't thought he still hated her that much. "So I'm not good enough, eh?" Sure, she wasn't royal, but she wasn't worthless rabble, either. Hadn't she at least proved herself on the Quest?

"Don't be ridiculous." Thorin gave her a look that on anyone else she would have called confusion. "I merely do not get the feeling you and Kíli are entirely in love, and if you think a child will change that, I'd rather you think again. I know it's common enough among Men, and perhaps your people, but we don't believe in a marriage over one night's fruit."

"Is this some strange punishment for Kíli, perhaps?" It didn't make sense, not from Thorin, but perhaps that was the custom of dwarves. "Make the poor thing pay for her foolishness?"

"What? No! And why would you think it a punishment to be spared from a marriage she never asked for?"

"You'd rather have her be an unwed mother? Raise a bastard child while everyone watches her every move? It's not like she can just slink away somewhere nobody knows her, given who she is!"

"I —" Thorin paused and blinked, then took on an expression of something approaching understanding. "Ah! Ah, yes, I see. That's it, then?" This made Bilbo confused in turn, but Thorin went on. "Say. How did my sister-sons introduce themselves to you?"

"Uh." Now where had that come from? "As Fíli and Kíli, I suppose?"

"Fíli and Kíli, sons of Dís. Do you recall ever hearing such an introduction from them?"

"Well, yes. Not that first night to me, but I remember hearing that at some point." Bilbo nodded. "Though now I'm rather wondering about that son part, knowing what I do about Kíli."

"That's — that's not the point." Thorin sighed, running a hand down over his face. "It's just, Dís is my sister."

"Yes, I remember them mentioning something like that once."

"Yet most dwarves introduce themselves through the name of their father."

"I'd noticed that, yes." Bilbo nodded again. "I thought that was just because, well, she is your sister. I mean, she is the reason they are your heirs, right? So that would be the important part of their heritage."

"That does factor into it, yes." Thorin shook his head. "But even if I had nothing for them to inherit, they would still call themselves that, for the simple reason that they have no father."

"What?" Bilbo blinked. Of all the possible things Thorin could have thrown at him, that was not something she would have expected. "You mean — they're fatherless? But they're your heirs!" Surely at least for royalty, propriety should have won over?

"And? As you said, it's through her that they are inheriting me. Their father or lack thereof doesn't change anything either way." Thorin gave a small shrug. "Dís isn't married, never seemed to have any interest for it. She wanted children, though, so she asked a friend for help. He must have done a good enough job of it, since the lads both have the same father; that's not as usual as you might think, not outside married couples. The brothers 'Ri each have a different father from what I understand, not that it's any of my business."

"And that's accepted?" Bilbo could barely keep herself from gaping. "Just, unmarried lasses going around asking lads to father their children?"

"Sure. Well, as long as neither of them is married, of course. If they are, then the partner's opinion must be considered. Not that it happens often if the lass is married; only if her husband is incapable of siring a child, or if she has a wife instead."

She was just going to go ahead and ignore that mention of lasses with wives, thank you. "And the children just grow up never knowing their fathers?" That at least seemed horrible to Bilbo. Perhaps she was just too proper, the way hobbits tended to be, but that just seemed like a recipe for disaster, or at the very least heartbreak. "Never even having that presence in their lives?"

"Well, many of them at least have some inkling of who their father is, regardless of whether the father has any part in their lives. And of course if their mother is married, or chooses to marry later, then they'll have two parents regardless. If a male dwarf marries a mother, then all her children are his, according to our laws."

"That just seems awfully messy to me." Bilbo sighed. "Not to mention strange for a people who hold family lines in such high regard."

"Why so? From what I see, among the Men the only assurance a man has of his fatherhood is his marriage claim to his wife. We simply acknowledge that, and now we are the strange ones?"

"I suppose you have a point there." Bilbo ran a hand over her hair. "I'm sorry, I don't mean to insult your customs or anything. It's just… in the Shire, an unmarried mother would be shamed and scorned by all and sundry."

"As it tends to be with Men, from what I have seen." Thorin gave a solemn nod. "If that is your worry, though, don't fret. Nobody is going to think any less of Kíli for this. I think she'll be quite happy to let you be around for the child, even if she does later find someone to marry."

"Right." Not that finding someone Kíli was willing to be wed to was the problem. "I… I apologize for my snappishness earlier. It's just, back in the Shire, there is hardly a worse insult to a lad than saying you'd rather see a lass bear a fatherless child than be wed to him."

"I imagine it would be, for a folk where that is such a shame." Thorin shook his head again, and Bilbo found her eyes drawn to the way the beads at the ends of his braids tumbled about with the movement. "As long as Kíli doesn't claim to have suffered any insult or injury, I will not demand any such penance, nor will my sister do so. Kíli is a bit young to be bearing a kit, but she seems happy enough, and I won't begrudge her that."

"You'll forgive me if it didn't seem like it earlier."

"Well, I didn't know the circumstances then, did I? I thought someone might have taken advantage of her while she was delirious with her injury, or even — Mahal forbid — that one of the pointy-eared bastards might have taken liberties while we were held prisoner." Oh, if only Thorin had known. "It was her own choice to lie with you, even if it was only for pleasure. Under such circumstances, a babe is nothing but a happy accident."

"You know, I could get used to the dwarven way of seeing things." It certainly seemed more gentle than punishing a lass for a moment's mistake with a lifetime's misery married to some witless bore. "And I notice you're calling Kíli her." Which probably wasn't the most important thing here, but it did rather stick out.

"It's the custom to do so, now." Thorin gave a small shrug. "Our own tongue makes no difference between the sexes in its phrases, and our young often struggle with it when learning Common. We tend to use the male words for everyone but those who have born children; there we go for the female ones, if only to lessen the confusion when dealing with other races. For us the words don't carry that much significance, but Men tend to look at you strangely if you mention a mother and his children."

"Is that why Kíli is called a prince as well?"

"Hm? Oh, no. That, I fear, is something of a mistranslation." Thorin looked almost sheepish now, though the expression faded soon. "You see, we noticed that among Men, it was the royal children who were called princes who then became kings. So we took this to mean that the king is the ruler, the prince his heir, the queen his spouse and any other family members are princesses. Kíli is a prince because she is part of the line of succession, and will remain so unless Fíli gains or names another heir to come after himself, in which case Kíli will
be a princess like her mother."

"I'm not sure whether to be amazed at the linguistic technicalities or just suffer from a headache." She certainly felt the latter coming, though she was still struggling against it. "So if a female dwarf were to inherit the throne, she would still be called King?"

"Well, obviously." Thorin's lips twitched as though he were amused at some joke Bilbo hadn't quite noticed yet.

"Even if she has born children?" Thorin nodded. "Won't that cause problems with other peoples, then? I'd imagine a king will have to have more contact with outsiders than your average dwarf."

"You'd be amazed at the kind of things people will ignore in the name of diplomacy. And if the king is married, outsiders tend to simply assume it is the Queen who has born the child." Thorin's lips twitched. "In those cases, though, we do tend to stick to His Majesty, and address the Queen by the female words instead. As I said, words like he and she do not bother us much either way."

"Truly, I don't believe I will ever truly understand you dwarves."

"And yet you may well have fathered our future King."

At least she managed not to twitch at that, beyond raising an eyebrow. "Are you that skeptical of Fíli's chances of getting himself an heir of his own?"

"I'm that fearful that Dori will not be able to hold himself back once he hears the first unsavory speculation about my sister-son and his sweet little sister. Just because we don't believe a lass loses her honor along with her virginity doesn't mean some of us don't get rather protective nevertheless."

Bilbo grimaced. "Is it entirely useless to say I hope that doesn't end too badly?"

"I wouldn't lose all hope yet, at least. Dwalin is rather fond of the lads, and while his strength does not quite match Dori's, he might at least be able to hold him back long enough for us to convince Dori he shouldn't kill Fíli over a few words. Then Fíli will only need to bear constant surveillance and suspicion until Ori finally snaps and makes his brother regret meddling with his life."

"You think that's going to happen?" Bilbo couldn't help her dubious tone. Ori was a sweet lad — lass, whatever — and brave enough, but somehow it was hard to see him standing up to Dori.

"I've met their mother, Bilbo, Mahal rest her soul. If Ori has a tenth of her spirit, he won't let anyone hurt someone he cares about."

"Assuming he cares about Fíli enough to stand between him and Dori."

"If he does not care for Fíli, then surely nothing has happened that Dori should be furious over." Again, Thorin's lips twitched. "Of course, convincing Dori of that will be another matter, but then that is where Dwalin comes in again."

At the new mention of Dwalin something woke up at the back of Bilbo's mind. "Say, Thorin." As the dwarf looked at her, she went on, "Do Fíli and Kíli know who their father is?"

"Not to my knowledge, no. Dís never saw any reason to share his identity with anyone."

"But you do know that they both have the same one. And you said he was a friend, and something in your tone makes me wonder if it was only a friend of Dís's or yours as well." Thorin's expression didn't waver, but then he wasn't denying anything, either. "They wouldn't happen to be Dwalin's children, would they?"

"They are my sister's children." Thorin's tone was firm, just for a moment, before he added, "But I have been given to understand they come by their height from both sides of the family."

"Right." That was… well. That rather made sense, come to think of it, with the way Dwalin sighed over their antics in much the same long-suffering way that Thorin did. "I'm glad their father has been close enough to see them grow up, in any case."

"Indeed." Thorin's expression turned into one of carefully schooled solemnity, though there was something in his eyes Bilbo couldn't quite read. "Fret not, Master Hobbit. I don't believe Kíli will deny you involvement, if that is what you wish for."

"I, ah. I do wish to be around, and not just because I think it the honorable way." Though she might have to keep an eye out for the rage that she was sure was just barely hiding underneath Thorin's deceptively calm surface.

She feared to think what would happen when Kíli's child came out with very pointed ears and not a hint of hair on his feet.

*

After leaving Thorin's rooms Bilbo took a moment to sigh in relief. She was still rather unsettled by how quickly Thorin had apparently calmed down, but she wasn't about to look a gift hog in the mouth, thanks. Of course, while she was still contemplating this, she found herself whisked away to another corridor.

"What the —" was all Bilbo could get out before she saw it was Bofur dragging her along. Assuming this had something to do with Bofur's earlier mention, she followed without protest. Even if Thorin seemed placated for now, she'd rather have allies in case his temper flared up again. As it would, without a doubt, once they could be sure of whether Kíli was pregnant or not.

Bofur herded her into a chamber not too far from either the area where most of the Company had their rooms or the dining room where they had their breakfasts. Bilbo was somewhat surprised to see it was already mostly occupied. Kíli was there, being fussed over by his — no, her, now — brother, but also Óin, Glóin, Ori and even Nori. They all looked to Bilbo as she entered alongside Bofur.

"So." Bofur waved his arm toward the gathered dwarves. "Our little conspiracy."

"Not really so little, I'd say." Bilbo found herself a free seat. "So… Kíli?"

Kíli glanced down, then met her gaze. She looked rather pale, still, but somewhat better than she had that morning. Of course, that wasn't saying much, but Bilbo would take what she could get. "Óin thinks it's quite likely that I'm pregnant," she said. "And at least everyone in this room knows you're not the father."

Bilbo nodded slowly. "I take it everyone in here also knows who the actual father probably is?"

"Right." Kíli sighed. "Fíli, Óin and Bofur were in Laketown, too; they heard my confessions to him, so it wouldn't have been hard to put two and two together. Ori heard from Fíli and me."

"I heard about it from my brother," Glóin added. "I've given my word not to speak to anyone of it, though I've got to say I don't quite understand it." He shook his head. "An elf! Thank goodness my lad isn't interested in such things; the headache would split my skull right open."

"Right, we get it." Fíli rolled his eyes and then snorted. "Nori knows because he knows everything interesting. Which is good, since we're going to need him."

"At the moment, we don't know where this elf captain is, since he went off somewhere after the battle." Nori shrugged. "Kíli here seems determined he'll get back eventually, since he gave his word. Me, I'm not too keen on trusting the word of a pointy-eared weed-eater, but it's the best we've got at the moment. So, if he's coming back, he'll get to Dale before Erebor."

"We have to intercept him there." Fíli kept a hand on Kíli's shoulder, ever the watchful brother. "Make sure he knows what's going on, and sneak him in to see Kíli before Thorin finds out. Now, Glóin is involved in the trade, and Nori has eyes everywhere; between the two of them, we'll definitely find out the moment Tauriel arrives in Dale. The rest of us will take care of the whole sneaking in and distracting Thorin business."

"Of course, you don't have to worry about any of that." Bofur grinned at Bilbo. "All you need to do is play scapegoat for a little while, until Thorin's calmed down."

"Right. About that." Bilbo frowned. "He actually was pretty calm already. Almost eerily so, in fact. After that outburst I would have expected him to still be angry, but really, he was perfectly reasonable, and we know that's not exactly standard for him."

Fíli snorted. "Well, that's kind of to be expected. He blows up first because he doesn't know what's going on, then when you stepped forward so he knew there was no foul play, he realized there's really nothing to be angry about with Kíli having a kit. Well, sure, she is a bit young still," he threw a grin at his sister, "but since uncle let us come along on the Quest, he can't really argue we're not grown-ups yet."

"And if he tries to argue, he'll be set straight." Ori seemed much calmer now that he — she? He? This was so confusing — wasn't being yelled at by an irate king. "Kíli is of age. If she chooses to have a child, it's her own business."

"The only say Thorin has in the matter is whether or not the baby will be part of the succession. Custom says yes, but it's still his right to say no if he wants to." Fíli shrugged. "Which doesn't matter much anyway, since chances are the next king is either myself or Kíli, and we can choose our own heirs well enough."

"I think it's a bit too early to worry about such things. I'd damn well hope the child is out by the time there's any question of heirs to the throne, and by then the ruse will be up no matter what." Bilbo sighed. "Unless, of course, Thorin keels over in sheer shock when he realizes the babe is half elf."

"He'll come around." Bilbo really hoped she could have shared Fíli's optimism. She wasn't at all sure Thorin would so easily accept a half-elf addition to his family.

They'd just have to hope Tauriel returned soon and they could clear up this whole mess without any further complications.

*

Thorin waited until Bilbo had closed the door behind himself, then another moment to make sure the Hobbit was out of hearing distance. It wasn't until then that he drew a deep breath, stomped over to an armchair, and dropped down in it with all the grace of a lumbering bear.

He was still there, seething to himself, as Dwalin entered without much ceremony. Thorin didn't bother to look up; he recognized his friend well enough simply by the weight of his footsteps.

Dwalin walked around to crouch down in his field of vision. "So. That bad, huh?"

Thorin sighed, running a hand through his hair. "Bilbo was here."

"Yeah, I figured." Dwalin took a seat as well, apparently unconcerned with Thorin's mood. "And how did that go?"

"About as well as can be expected." Thorin shrugged. "Apparently hobbits have much the same attitudes about unwed mothers as men do. Bilbo doesn't seem to agree with such views, but was worried about how Kíli would be treated, so he offered to marry her to prevent that."

"Right. And you told him that's not necessary, I take it?"

"Obviously. Even if I was stupid enough to consider such a thing, my sister would let me know just how stupid that was, regardless of how far she is from the mountain yet."

"I see." Dwalin nodded with a thoughtful expression that was so uncharacteristic, it was all too clear he was hiding his amusement. "So Master Baggins has done what he thought to be the honorable thing, you've explained that's absolutely not necessary, there seems to be no blood anywhere so clearly things went somewhat peaceably. And yet, you look like a bloody warg with a toothache. What gives?"

"You don't think I have reason to be upset?"

"After you got over the first shock? Not particularly, no." Dwalin shrugged. "Kíli's a grown-up, she can damn well decide who she goes to bed with, and you know Dís will back that right with her axe. Can't really get angry at her for not being more careful, either; might have been different on the road, but we're now in Erebor, safe and secure, and have enough trade going on with Iron Hills that food and warmth won't be a problem. If anything, I'd expect you to be throwing a party. Clearly this is a sign that Mahal's blessing our successful quest. At the very least that's how the people will see it."

Thorin did not dignify that with an answer, just leaned back in his chair.

"Which rather makes me think that you have some other reason for being in such a mood." Dwalin gave him a decidedly filthy grin. "Such as, say, being upset that Kíli got screwed by your hobbit before you did."

"Very amusing." By which he meant the exact opposite.

"I find it funny enough." Dwalin shrugged. "What gives? Clearly he's not entirely opposed to screwing dwarves. Really, you should see this as a good sign. If he chose Kíli rather than Fíli, seems to me you've got some hope at least of ending up in his bed."

"And you apparently missed entirely the part where he only slept with Kíli because they thought they were going to die." Thorin shook his head. "It's of no consequence either way. Whatever you may think, I'm not so desperate I would go crying to him for some remote chance at being touched."

"Suit yourself." Dwalin shrugged. "Stop looking like a disgruntled orc, then. There's no reason to ruin everyone else's day just because you're not dwarf enough to even try to get into a particular pair of hobbit pants."

"If all I wanted was a fuck, Master Baggins would be the last person I would go to."

"Ah, yes. Wouldn't want him thinking that's all you want him for, now would we." For all that Dwalin's grin was now somewhat less filthy, it managed to be even more annoying.

"As though you have any room to talk." Thorin rolled his eyes. "We both know my sister would have put her braids in your hair in a heartbeat if you'd let her. Clearly you are an expert on the matter of dragging your feet in the matters of the heart."

"What your sister and I do is between her and me." Dwalin snorted. "I refused her offer because I was too busy looking out for your hairy arse. Funny thing is, she seemed to completely agree with me about how much of my time that would clearly take up, what with you running around all the time."

"Except now I have no intention of going anywhere." Not anymore. He had come home at last, and home he would stay.

"I've noticed that, yes." Dwalin ran a hand over his tattooed scalp. "Which is why I'm rather hoping to carve some suitable beads in time for her arrival. Wouldn't do for me to put courtship braids in the hair of a princess without having the beads to go with it."

Right. Because he hadn't had enough shocks for one day already.

All of a sudden Thorin rather wished he'd had something to drink. Or toss at the nearest wall. That would have worked, too.

As it was, all he could do was hope fervently Dwalin would lose his smirk sometime soon, because he was damn well not looking at that face all the way until Dís chose to arrive at last.

*

For all that she was rather enjoying the company of her friends, Bilbo found she still needed a bit of silence sometimes. Years of living alone were not easily forgotten, and the hustle and bustle of the mountain did sometimes get rather overwhelming. Thankfully it was still possible to find some small refuges of silence within the mountain, to focus herself and gather some energy for the rest of her day. One such refuge was in the old royal library, now largely fallen to dust and disuse. Bilbo supposed they were lucky enough that the presence of a dragon had chased away any vermin that might have otherwise chewed right through all the old scrolls and tomes; as it was, they could still find some salvageable pieces among the multitudes that were falling apart. Ori spent a lot of his time there, doing just that, and Bilbo found herself joining in whenever she needed a moment of peace and quiet. Better yet, Ori had taken after his eldest brother enough that he did not protest at the occasional spot of tea.

They had paused for tea at the moment, Bilbo pouring them both steaming cups as they sat down for a break from their work. Bilbo blew at her hot tea in thought, waiting until Ori started drinking his own before she could bring herself to speak.

"Do you mind if I ask you something? It's, ah. I suppose it's rather personal, at least for a dwarf."

Ori lowered his tea cup and smiled. "Certainly. I'll answer any question I can."

"Right." Bilbo drew a deep breath. "Look… you're a lass, aren't you? I mean, you are a female dwarf, right?"

Ori gave an easy nod. "That's right."

"Does it bother you that everyone calls you, well, he?"

Ori blinked, looking surprised at the question. "Why should it? It's not like I'm a mother."

"Doesn't it seem kind of judging, though? Like you're not properly female if you haven't had children?"

"Of course not. We don't use those words to mean male or female, so it doesn't have that meaning." Ori must have seen the lingering confusion on Bilbo's face, as he added, "Look. If someone calls you cousin, does that change your gender?"

"Well, of course not."

"And being called he does not change mine, nor does it imply such. We don't have that kind of gendered words in Khudzul, so it seems silly to use them in such a manner when we're speaking Westron. For us, they only denote whether one has or has not born children."

"Why would you make that distinction, then? And don't tell me it's to avoid confusion with outsiders; Thorin already told me that theory, but I find it rather doubtful that such great numbers of dwarves would be discussing their family dynamics with anyone who is not a dwarf."

"I suppose it's similar to this, in a way." Ori picked out one of the braids in his hair, some complicated weave ending with a silver bead. "This braid means that I am a scribe by craft and trade. Most dwarves bear similar braids or other marks; it's how we build our identity. Each dwarf has a craft, and to us it is much more important to know another dwarf's craft than their gender."

"Right." Bilbo frowned. "So you mean that being a mother is a craft of sorts?"

"Why, obviously. To become a mother one creates something that wasn't there before. And it's not just any craft, it's the most important craft of all, because creating more dwarves is doing the work of Mahal himself. We use different words for someone who is a mother just as we would speak differently of someone who is a Master in any other craft."

"I think I get it, now." At least it was somewhat less confusing. "Ah. I know I've been quite nosy already, but could I ask something else?" At Ori's slightly amused nod, Bilbo went on, "Why are your brothers so very protective of you? I mean, I understand threatening potential suitors among men or hobbits when one night is enough to ruin the reputation of a honorable lass, but from what I've understood you dwarves are rather more open about such things until you marry. So why would Thorin be joking about Dori killing Fíli just because he happens to know your gender?"

"Well, for one thing, I've only just recently become of age; they were quite within their rights to keep away any suitors until then. As for why they still continue, well, our family is somewhat known for our beauty by dwarven standards." There was no pride there, no bragging, just stating a fact. "They have both had to deal with more than their fair share of unwanted suitors, so I suppose they want to shield me from that sort of thing. I'm sure that if I put my foot down now regarding someone specific they would relent." Ori paused. "That, and I suppose it has to do with our mother, in part."

"What do you mean?" She knew very little about Ori's family, except that the three had different fathers, which rather implied it was the mother that they shared. "I thought it wasn't a problem among dwarves to have children with different fathers? Or, well, without one, I guess you would say."

"That's true. However, just because our mother was not shamed for having us didn't mean it was easy for her to support us all by herself. I was too young when she passed to even remember her, but from what Dori and Nori have told me, she was always working just so she could take care of us." Ori shook his head. "And, really, not so long ago I would have been quite unable to support a kit on my own. Of course the situation is rather different now, since we all have our share of the treasure, but it's hard to let go of such fears."

Well. Wasn't that bleak. "Ah. So, is there someone specific you might like to court? Enough that you might ask your brothers to stand back?" Not that she didn't have her suspicions.

"I'm not entirely opposed to Fíli's attentions, if that's what you're trying to ask." Ha. She wasn't entirely blind, then. "Though even then their worries are rather unfounded. I'm working on my masterpiece at the moment, and I will allow no distractions until it is finished and accepted, be that distraction courtship or a kit. So, until I have become a Master, the poor prince would stand little chance even if Dori and Nori weren't being so unreasonable."

"Oh?" Bilbo smiled, taking a small sip of her tea. "And will he have a chance once you have achieved your mastery?" She supposed it was a pleasant thought, Ori and Fili courting each other like that. The two of them would be such a sweet couple, Bilbo was sure of it.

Ori snorted. "Master Baggins, the day I get my Master's braid, I plan to ride him like he was the last caravan out of Ered Luin."

It was a good thing Bilbo had only taken a small sip, because otherwise she might well have found herself choking on it as she coughed and spluttered in shock.

*

It really shouldn't have surprised Bilbo that there was more to Ori than met the eye.

She should have been ashamed of herself for not expecting it, really. She had seen enough outbursts and unguarded laughter during the journey to be fooled by the shy exterior, had heard enough of Ori's exploits in the battle to assume he could not wield anything but a pen. In her defense, though, in as much as she needed any defense inside her own head, neither of those had particularly prepared her for the decidedly improper thoughts that lurked just beneath the innocent surface.

Was it truly so improper, though? If what she had been told about the dwarf society was true, perhaps Ori's plans were quite normal for a young lass with her eye on a prize. Sure, no proper hobbit lass would have dreamed of even admitting she had any knowledge of what went on in the marriage bed, but then no proper hobbit lass would have run off with a dozen strangers either, so clearly Bilbo herself had long since abandoned the Shire moralities.

It was kind of sweet, she supposed, to now notice all the gazes Ori gave to Fíli whenever the two were in the same room. There might have been a kind of intensity there that was not quite in line with the innocence that was supposed to accompany young courting, but perhaps that just made it all the more honest. Bilbo held no illusions about the actual innocence of most young hobbits, thank you. She was not very old herself, yet.

Of course, for all that she might not have expected all the sneaky glances that she spotted while watching Ori more closely, she definitely hadn't expected an angry dwarf prince cornering her one day, demanding explanations.

"Don't think I haven't noticed you watching Ori."

"Excuse me?" If Fíli's expression had been any stormier, there would have been thunderclouds forming overhead. "What are you going on about?"

"You and Ori. I'm not stupid, you know; I've seen the way you keep watching her."

"And what of it?" Not that she couldn't already make an educated guess. "It's just —"

"Just what?" There was a clear challenge in Fíli's voice, his eyes, the way he postured himself in front of Bilbo. "Just thought to father some more dwarf babies?"

"Fíli, don't be ridiculous." Honestly. And here she had been thinking that perhaps not all male creatures had muscle for brains. "You know I'm not the father of Kíli's child." They had gone over this, right? She was fairly sure this had come up.

"Oh, I know. Except now you know that Ori's a lass, and that you could get away with such a thing. Why wouldn't you be thinking of it?"

"It doesn't just automatically follow from it, you know." Not that Fíli seemed to be listening to her.

"Ori'd probably agree to it, too," Fíli murmured, more to himself than Bilbo, now. "I bet he'd like a smart kit, and you're smart, just like Ori. He definitely wouldn't want a stupid father for his kits."

Bilbo bit back a remark about how that would mean Fíli had no chance whatsoever. After all, the poor boy wasn't actually being stupid, just jealous. Which, granted, could often make people do stupid things, but it was still not quite the same. Instead, she just sighed. "Fíli, stop that. There's no way I would ever get Ori with a child."

"And why not? Is he not pretty enough for you?" Okay, scratch that. Definitely being stupid.

"Okay, first off, don't get that way with me. You don't get to argue for the option that you're against and expect me to take you seriously." Bilbo set her hands on her hips. "Secondly, while Ori is a lovely person and I'm delighted to count him as a friend, I promise you I will never be the father of his child. Regardless of how you dwarves handle such things, I'm fairly sure it's still impossible for one lass to get another in the family way."

"But — what?" She could practically see the moment Fíli's thoughts screeched to a halt.

"Fíli, I'm a lass. A female hobbit. You know, like Ori, except with less beard."

"But — but I thought everyone but dwarves was all weird about, you know. Lasses." Well. That was certainly a rather succinct summation of the matter.

"Oh, they are, and hobbits are no exception. Now imagine being born a lass who rather likes to think for herself."

Fíli made a face. "Not easy, I take it?"

"Not easy at all." Bilbo sighed, running a hand through her hair. "From what I've seen, a free-spirited lass either gets slowly broken, or learns to keep her thoughts to herself. Me, my mother was something of a wild spirit herself and rather allowing of my quirks, and after my parents passed I had enough of an inheritance not to care much what others thought. Sure, nobody was too eager to marry me even with the temptation of gaining my wealth, but then I never was too bothered about that."

"And then we showed up."

"Indeed. Really, you gave me no choice whatsoever; after I let you lot spend the night, I could either run after you or live out the rest of my life in shame." At Fíli's suddenly horrified expression, she snorted. "Oh, I don't blame you for it, it's not like you even knew I was a lass. If anyone is to blame it's Gandalf, and much though I hate to admit it, I think he knew what he was doing. If I'd stayed in the Shire I would have died from the inside before long, because I never could have become what a lass was supposed to be."

"And here nobody cares either way." Fíli gave a slow nod. "I suppose I can see how that would be preferable."

"Oh, it definitely is. I do rather miss Bag End, but that is all I do miss. Why, here I am, talking with a young lad with no chaperon in sight, yet neither of us is ruined for life! You'd almost think there's more to me than what I have between my legs and what I do with it." She gave Fíli a teasing smile, hoping to chase away the worst of the poor boy's shock.

"Imagine that." Fíli managed a brief smile before turning serious again. "When uncle finds out about this, he'll know something's up."

"My lie was never going to be anything but a temporary measure in any case. Even if I were male, at the very least Thorin would figure it out when the babe comes out looking all elf-like."

"Yes, well, by that time we'll hopefully have Tauriel close at hand. Your gender, though, could be revealed long before that, and it's unfair besides to make you hide it. I mean, those things are important to your people, right?"

"Oh, sure, but since it would make no difference to the treatment of dwarves towards me, I see no reason to bring it up." Bilbo shook her head. "I prefer trousers anyway, and I'm used to male pronouns from the road. The only real effort I have to make is with the breast bindings, and I've been fine with those this far, so I doubt the situation will change soon."

To her surprise, Fíli frowned. "Bindings?"

"Uh, yes? You know, to keep it all more or less flat." Bilbo patted her chest in a gesture that would have made old hobbit ladies faint in shock, but then, she was the only hobbit in the whole damn mountain, and she could control her own terror at such impropriety. It wasn't like there was anything to truly see there, anyway. "Come now, you must know about this. I won't ask what you know of what goes on under Ori's clothes, but Kíli is your sister. Surely you must have some idea of what she wears."

"Oh. Oh!" Fíli's expression brightened. "Right, I think Amad has used something like that when she's gone outside the mountain. Tall folk can get so difficult when they know your gender, and then she gets difficult right back, and then somehow it's us who aren't welcome in the town anymore. See, dwarf lasses aren't that different from the lads in the chest area," he explained as Bilbo's confusion had to be well visible. "They fill out while expecting their first kit; no use for that sort of thing before there's a child to feed. So, Kíli wouldn't have had any use for such a thing on the road, since there was nothing there to hide."

"Right." She shouldn't have been surprised, really; dwarves seemed to like subverting proper hobbit sensibilities at every available opportunity. Lasses without bosoms was hardly more shocking than ones with beards. "Well, us hobbits aren't quite as practical in design, so I do have a chest to hide, but it's not that much of a burden. Saves me from the worst of the backaches, really, since it's not like I have any proper underthings at hand around here." She paused and sighed. "I'll have to have a talk with Kíli about that, too, won't I? Since I'm apparently the only one in the Company with any experience on such things."

"Ah. I think you might be, yes. I mean, Amad's probably already on her way, if I know her at all she'll have set out the moment she received the first raven from Thorin about the mountain being retaken, but Kíli will probably be in need of advice before then."

"Indeed." Now what had she got herself into? "Oh, and Fíli?"

"Yes?" He blinked, looking much calmer now than he had in the beginning of their chat. The silly thing.

"I'm not saying there is any lass in particular whose eye you're trying to catch, but if there was, that dark red tunic you wore the other day might not be a bad choice." She smirked at the hint of a blush that appeared on his face all of a sudden. "It really does look rather nice with your hair." It also made Fíli's well-built dwarven frame look even more impressive than usual, if Ori's lingering gazes were anything to go by, but then, she wasn't about to say that aloud. The last thing she needed was Ori overhearing and getting it into his head that Bilbo was interested in Fíli.

One more silly misunderstanding and she would scream.

*

The trouble with being an authority figure was that sometimes you needed to do things you really, really didn't want to.

Some of these were things one could face with grim determination, like fighting a dragon for the sake of reclaiming an old kingdom. Some of them merely took perseverance, such as mountains of paperwork waiting for the king. And some of them, some very dreadful few, required the suspension of all selfish desire for the sake of those more deserving.

It would not have been easy for any dwarf, never mind one as proud as Thorin Oakenshield, yet somehow he managed to face his sister-son without wavering.

"You wanted to speak with me?" Fíli seemed calm, collected. No sign that he might have had any idea of what the talk was going to be about. Good. The last thing Thorin needed was some misguided defensiveness.

"I did, yes." Thorin paused, trying to find the best way to put his message into words. He had thought this through beforehand, yet now all his careful plans seemed to flee without trace. "You know most folk don't view relationships the same way we do."

Fíli lifted his eyebrows. "I'd say that's become pretty clear lately, yes."

"And there are things they disapprove of, for whatever reason. As well as things that they view with rather too much importance." Such as sex, and gender. Thorin had to wonder how weak the hearts of other races were if they could be overruled by what was between their legs.

"I am aware, yes." Fíli cocked his head to the side. "Where exactly are you going with this? Because if this is your way of preparing me for diplomacy, let me tell you, you've picked a very strange place to start."

"Nothing like that, my lad. It's just…" Thorin sighed. No two ways about it. "I've noticed you watching Bilbo lately. Especially when you've done something new with your appearance. And while you know I only want you to be happy," however much it might pain him, "you must know that things aren't that simple with other races."

"You think I'm interested in Bilbo." Fíli's face was rather blank. Almost worryingly so, in fact.

"Aren't you?"

"Oh, Durin's balls, you can't be that dense. I like Ori, all right?" Fíli ran a hand over his hair. "Really, this shouldn't be a surprise to anyone, Nori's taken to sharpening his knives near me all the time, for Mahal's sake. But Bilbo is friends with Ori, and knows that I like him, so I'm hoping Bilbo could give me some help on how to catch Ori's eye."

"So that's why you've been so sneakily talking with Bilbo from time to time, too?" As though Thorin wouldn't have noticed.

"Bilbo's my friend, too, remember? And besides, there's a lot of things he doesn't really feel comfortable with discussing with just anyone. You know, about dwarves." As Thorin frowned, Fíli gave a small sigh. "Did you know hobbit lasses are like tall folk, and have full bosoms before any children?"

"Oh?" Thorin's frown deepened. What did that have to do with anything?

"Yeah. So, between that and the language differences, until he found out about Kíli, Bilbo was under the impression the entire Company was male."

"All of us?" Thorin blinked. "Surely that would be against the most base probability."

"Yes, well, you know most races can be funny about letting lasses wander about. And it's not like they know a lot about female dwarves, either." Fíli sighed again. "So, Bilbo has questions. He doesn't feel comfortable with bothering Kíli with them, since apparently her condition is somehow delicate or something, and I'm the next best choice. He knows I might tease him a bit about not knowing, but I won't go around laughing about it behind his back."

"And he can't come to me with such questions?" If anything, Thorin would have thought himself a more reliable source of information than either of his sister's children.

"No offense, but you're not exactly the most approachable person around. You'd probably just yell at him for being so stupid and ignorant, or at least Bilbo certainly feels so." Thorin made to protest, but then fell silent as he could not find much to complain about Fíli's statement. "Exactly. So he comes to me with his questions, and I answer them as best as I can and don't go around shouting about how much he doesn't know. And in return, he gives me pointers on how to better appeal to Ori, since they're so similar in character."

"Right. Well, I'm glad. Not that Bilbo isn't quite respectable and honorable, enough so to match any dwarf, but we simply don't know how he would take to such advances and I would hate for such misunderstandings to ruin everything."

"Well, I'm not about to do anything like that, so there's no reason for you to worry."

"As long as you're aware." Thorin nodded.

"Oh, and uncle?"

"Yes?" Thorin frowned. What more was there to discuss?

"I may not be trying to woo a hobbit, but even I know that sitting back and brooding isn't very attractive."

That kind of nonsense, of course, deserved no response whatsoever.

*

Tauriel wasn't sure what to think as he arrived in Dale.

Now, it was hardly surprising that the city would have risen again. The old Dale had been built mostly out of stone; even after dragon fire, a lot of it had been left standing. It took much less effort and resources to make the old city livable again than build anything even remotely resembling passable shelter in the ruins of Laketown. And there would be plenty of dwarves, with Iron Hills close by enough to provide a steady stream of eager immigrants into Erebor reborn; Tauriel imagined it wouldn't have taken long for the two sides to come to an agreement of, say, fish or game being traded for expertise in brick and stone.

Even knowing all this, and knowing that winter wouldn't have left any options or time for dallying, he was somewhat shocked to arrive only to find a lively city in place of an abandoned ghost town. Sure, there were still plenty of temporary structures and ruins beyond any efforts at salvaging, but there were also streets full of people and noise and life, men and dwarves alike. Many of the faces he saw were still pale and thin, but there was no desperation or despair. These people were going on with their lives, taking each new day as it came, and nothing was going to stop them.

There was a dwarf woman in the market, her beard in neat little braids, a young dwarfling constantly underfoot. They had to have come from the Iron Hills; there was no way any caravan from the Blue Mountains could have made its way here yet even if the mountain passes weren't full of ice and snow. Tauriel found himself watching them for a moment, the braids in long dark hair, the short and sturdy form and blazing eyes, and felt a deep ache within he couldn't quite banish.

Of course, it was about then that a dwarf tapped him on the shoulder, so he didn't have much time to dwell on that.

To be honest, Tauriel hadn't given much thought to how he would go about his business once he returned. He had to get into Erebor, that much he knew, and talking to both Kíli and his uncle, but actually coming up with a way to accomplish that without getting skewered on three separate dwarven weapons at once was somewhat trickier. As it happened, he never had to think that far. A dwarf, someone he was sure he had never met before, peered up at him as though evaluating him somehow.

"What's your name?" This wasn't just idle curiosity, that much was clear in the sharp tone.

"I am called Tauriel." Not of Mirkwood, never more. "Why do you ask?"

"If that's your name, I have a message for you." The dwarf pointed at a nearby street. "There's an inn down that street, one called the Black Arrow. Two hours from now, someone will be there to meet you. I've been told you don't want to miss them."

"Who is it who wants to meet me?" Not that there were many people who might send a dwarf to carry that message, but still more than one.

The dwarf, however, simply shook his head and slipped away, leaving him standing in the street without an explanation.

It wasn't like he could ignore something like that, though. Two hours later, he sat at the Black Arrow, keeping an eye on the front door. For a little while now he had perked up every time the door opened, only to be disappointed as an unfamiliar face came through.

He couldn't see the face of the new arrival, not under the deep hood, but he knew all the same that his visitor had arrived. There were a few dwarves scattered about the place, not numerous but still there, but the bearing of the newly arrived dwarf was quite different from those around him. Even with the hood and cloak the short figure stood straight and proud, only pausing for a moment at the door before striding toward Tauriel. It wasn't until he came to the table that the dwarf let his hood drop, revealing golden hair and kind eyes.

"Fíli." At least he managed not to let his disappointment show too badly.

"Tauriel." Fíli sat down opposite to him without asking, bringing them closer to eye level. "I was rather hoping it was you. Granted, the dwarf who brought the word had never truly seen you before, but we figured there couldn't be too many red-headed elves willing to claim your name around."

"I would be surprised if there were." Would be surprised if any elf in these parts would claim any connection to him whatsoever. "You seem well."

"As well as one can ask. We've got enough food and warmth to keep everyone going until the summer, and by then the caravans should arrive so we can start rebuilding in earnest."

"It does seem like you have been busy." The dwarves and men both.

"And what about you?" The kind smile was still there, but the eyes were sharp. "Where did you disappear to? I'm trying not to judge, but it has been a while for someone to disappear without a word."

"I went to Lothlorien." And for all that he should have been delighted to visit such a beautiful place, his thoughts had been rather far elsewhere. "There were matters I had to take care of, and I wasn't about to leave my life in Thranduil's hands."

"You think it might be in danger there?"

"Thranduil banished me." Though what had been his ultimate sin, Tauriel still wasn't quite sure. Perhaps it had been aiding dwarves, perhaps some suspicion of how his mere presence might lead Legolas into temptation. Perhaps Thranduil simply had tired of him, he didn't know and wasn't inclined to ask. "I wasn't about to see how merciful he would be if I defied his orders."

"I suppose that would be the wise course of action." Fíli nodded slowly. "And what is it you had to get done among your kinsmen?"

"I needed to obtain certain reassurances." It was a vague answer, but it would have to suffice. He wanted to tell Kíli first of all. "My turn, I think. Why are you here?"

"You mean, instead of my sister?" Well, that was strange. Kíli had told him dwarves used the male words regardless of gender. "I'm sure she would have loved to come, but at present, I'm afraid she is somewhat… indisposed."

"Oh?" Tauriel frowned. "He isn't ill, is he?" He knew it wasn't an injury; Kíli had made it through the battle with little more than scratches.

"Oh, nothing like that. She's just not too inclined to leave the mountain right now."

"Something's happened, hasn't it?" Fíli met her eyes without any hint of the truth. "Don't tell me he's dying or something." He couldn't bear that, not ever.

"You think I'd be sitting here if that was the case?" Fíli chuckled and shook his head. "No, nothing like that. Rather the opposite, I'd say."

"Opposite?" Tauriel frowned. Now what would be the opposite of dying? Coming back from the dead, or…

Wait. The opposite of ending a life would be the start of one, wouldn't it? And the way Fíli kept using female words for Kíli, in such a weighty manner…

Elves didn't faint. That just didn't happen. However, if Tauriel spent a moment just staring, well, he was sure Fíli wasn't going to tell anyone.

Not even if that moment was actually quite a while.

*

"I miss my trousers."

Bilbo gave the prince walking beside her a sympathetic glance. "I know what you mean," she said. "Skirts have their time and place, I guess, but I'm all too happy not to have to wear them all the time."

"You could get a pair like Bombur's," Ori suggested from the other side of Kíli. "You know, something you could tie up over your stomach. That should stay up, right?"

"I really don't think that would be my style." Kíli grimaced. "Besides, at least with dresses I don't have to get something bigger every bloody week." Despite her grousing, though, the hand she settled on her stomach was gentle. She was starting to show, now, her stomach rounding out enough that it was now well visible even underneath her clothes. The clothes which, of course, were the cause for her complaints, as she had been forced to change into dresses when her waistline started to expand past the limits of her trousers.

"Think positively. At least you'll be able to go back to trousers once the babe has been born." Ori paused. "Though you probably won't be able to wear your old tunics anymore."

"Ugh, don't remind me." Kíli glared down at her chest, which seemed to be rather busy growing alongside her stomach. By now there was absolutely no mistaking her gender, even for someone as uneducated on the matter of dwarves as Bilbo still was. "I sure hope I won't turn out as big as mother. A chest that size would get in the way of my bow even once the stomach is away."

"The thing with breasts, though, is that you can always bind them." Bilbo patted her own chest, which was as flat as it was ever going to get. "Patience. Soon enough you'll be busy crafting a teeny tiny baby bow."

"The kit is going to have terrific aim for sure." Ori grinned. "Between you and the father, those are going to be some very keen eyes."

"They had better be." Kíli gave her stomach another affectionate pat. "With all the trouble I'm going to, this had better be the best kit this side of Misty Mountains."

A dwarf passed them by, nodding respectfully and congratulating Kíli in a cheerful tone before continuing on his way. It seemed everyone was taking the time to pass their congratulations or blessings now that Kíli was starting to show, some several times. Aside from that and the way Bombur fussed even more than usual about getting the prince to eat properly, though, the way dwarves treated Kíli did not seem to have changed at all. It made Bilbo rather hopeful for when her own gender became public knowledge, as it inevitably would. After all, unlike dwarves, hobbit lasses had certain obvious differences from the lads that Bilbo had to go out of her way to hide.

It was somewhat easier now, of course, with some allies in on her secret. After her talk with Fíli they had come to the conclusion that those who knew about Tauriel should also be aware of Bilbo, if only to make it easier to keep Thorin in the dark. None of them had changed their attitude toward Bilbo one bit, if one ignored the obvious amusement on some of their parts — Bofur and Kíli most of all — that Thorin had yet again accused someone female of being the father. All in all, it was greatly assuring.

Well. Aside from the part where Thorin was going to find out eventually.

The conversation moved on as they walked along the long corridors of Erebor. Kíli started recounting the latest misadventure Fíli had taken part in, much to Orii's barely concealed fascination. There were enough holes and vague spots in the story to make Bilbo rather suspect Fíli wasn't the only one who had been misbehaving in this particular instance, but she wasn't going to push. She doubted anyone in any position of authority would be catching either of them in the act, and if someone did, Bilbo would just claim ignorance.

Of course, Fíli and Kíli were rather supposed to be in positions of authority, but she couldn't begrudge them their occasional fun. She saw how hard they were working for Erebor, how hard everyone in the Company was working. As long as nobody came to any actual harm, she wasn't going to tell on them for some innocent fun.

The story was just approaching its climax, if Kíli's wide grin was any indication, as the prince paused, coming to a halt. Ori seemed about to ask something, then stopped as well.

"Did you hear that?"

"Hear what?" Bilbo certainly hadn't heard anything. Not anything unusual for the tunnels, in any case, for what little she knew about them.

"The stone." Which was obviously an utterly nonsensical answer, and she was about to say so, when a bit of dust and pebbles fell down next to her. She stared at the scattered dust now on the floor, then looked up to the ceiling of the tunnel.

Then she, too, heard a very clear creak.

Bilbo was about to cry out when she was picked up clear from the ground, feet looking for purchase where there was none. The next moment she was flung away, out into another corridor, where she landed rather painfully in a rough patch and rolled away until she smacked herself against a wall. Somewhat dizzy, she had just enough of a presence of mind to be thankful there were no clear falls around this part of the mountain or she might have just ended up falling to her death. There was a thud and another body hit the wall, larger than hers, and with a startle she realized it was Kíli. Which meant…

"Ori!" She turned back toward the tunnel they had been in, ignoring the cuts and bruises her landing had caused to reach out. She could see Ori, he was rushing towards them now, except the stone was making more sounds now and —

Bilbo could do nothing but stare in horror as the tunnel collapsed, hiding Ori from sight.

She made to get to her feet, wincing in pain, but Kíli's hand on her arm stopped her. She glanced at the prince, who seemed no worse for the wear, and for once Bilbo found herself feeling grateful for the thick skulls of dwarves.

"Don't worry," Kíli murmured, even though Bilbo could clearly hear the concern in her voice as well. "I know Ori doesn't look like it, but his family is known for their strength even among dwarves. Ori is no exception."

"Strength isn't going to help him here!" Bilbo struggled up to her feet. "We have to —"

Before she could finish her sentence, there was movement in what remained of the tunnel before them. There were dwarves rushing their way as well, but Bilbo hardly even noticed them, staring as the rubble and debris started to move, little by little. Then some more stones were kicked out of the way, revealing Ori, who was holding up a large slab of what had been the ceiling of the tunnel, and which had apparently shielded him from the worst of what had come down.

Bilbo was no stranger to fainting. He had certainly fainted from fear before, and from pain, and other such things that were perfectly reasonable causes for such a thing.

This was, as she would later recall, the first time she had ever fainted purely out of relief.

And, well, maybe just a bit of pain.

*

Someone was going to lose their head.

Thorin wasn't sure he had ever been this furious. A cave-in! That kind of thing just wasn't supposed to happen in a living mountain, not even in the mines, never mind anywhere near regular living areas. Yes, there were parts of Erebor that had been left structurally unsound, but those were all supposed to be cordoned off! Except here they were, with a collapsed ceiling in the residential quarters, and very nearly with victims!

Victims who he could not bear to think of.

It wasn't right. Pregnant dwarves stayed in the mountain precisely so they would be safe, yet here was the mountain itself apparently trying to come down on Kíli and her child. And Bilbo, small breakable Bilbo who wasn't anywhere near as sturdy as dwarves and couldn't read the stone as they did, who would have been utterly lost if he had been alone at the time.

Oh, yes, someone would be quite a bit shorter by the time Thorin was done with them.

First, though, he needed to see Bilbo for himself. The messenger who had come to him in quite a hurry had told him that Ori and Kíli were more or less unscathed, but Bilbo had been taken to Óin for some treatment. In the absence of any further details, he really didn't have much choice but to fear the worst.

Mahal, he could not forgive himself if the mountain had hurt Bilbo.

The first relief came at the door to what had become Óin's healing chambers. Bofur stood there, and while there was a frown on his face, Thorin rather doubted he would have been so calm if Bilbo had indeed been in some great peril. In fact, so calm was he that he had the gall to step in front of Thorin as he made to enter.

"Ah. You'd probably best not go in there."

"And why not?" Thorin frowned. "Bilbo is in there, is he not?"

"Precisely." Bofur bopped his head. "And you know he's a terribly private little thing. Would probably be right embarrassed if you just barged in right that while Óin is sewing him up."

Thorin lifted his eyebrows. "The fact that he is seeing Óin is precisely why I wish to see him. And if you'll forgive me, your trying to stop me is not going to make me any less concerned."

"Bilbo's fine, it's just some scratches and bruises. But you shouldn't —"

That was as far as Thorin was going to listen before pushing past Bofur and opening the door. He was King under this Mountain, thank you, and he wasn't going to listen to anyone else telling him what he should or shouldn't do, particularly where it concerned his Company's burglar. His burglar. Bofur could talk until he was blue in the face, but Thorin wasn't —

He paused in the doorway, staring. Óin was there, as was to be expected, giving him a rather unimpressed look before returning to his task of patching up Bilbo. Bilbo didn't seem to be badly injured, that much was true, but there were a number of quickly darkening bruises and rather nasty scratches. Óin appeared busy cleaning them up right now, working on Bilbo's bare chest. Bilbo's bare, ah, full chest.

Fíli had told him hobbit lasses had full bosoms even if they hadn't born any children. Thorin felt rather safe in assuming the same was not true of hobbit lads.

"What," Thorin ground out between his teeth, "is the meaning of this?"

"Far as I can see? You barging in on people." There was a faint flush on Bilbo's face, though whether it was from embarrassment or anger, Thorin wasn't sure. He didn't care, either. Of course he didn't care.

"You know what I mean." Thorin barely resisted the urge to growl as he stalked closer. "You are female!"

"Gee, now what ever would have given you that impression?" Bilbo faced his glare head on, head held high, and some small part of Thorin managed to be impressed by that. The rest of him was too busy being angry.

"You told me you were the father of Kíli's child! You both did! And Fíli, too, should have known that wasn't true, but he never said anything." None of them had said anything to correct the clear impossibility. "Why would you lie about something like that?"

"Why?" It was Óin who replied, and Mahal, was everyone in on this but Thorin? "Because Kíli seems rather happy with the parentage of her child, and doesn't need you rushing around trying to burn down all of Mirkwood just because the father's ears might be a bit too pointy."

"An elf." Had the betrayal not ran deep enough before? "Kíli slept with an elf?"

"And quite willingly, too, from what I understand." Óin sniffed. "The father has not yet given his stance on the matter, so don't swear vengeance on that front, though we've been trying to reach him. It seems he went somewhere after the battle, but Kíli is confident he'll return, and I dare say she'd be upset if you ran your sword through the poor thing before she had the chance to tell him of his impending parenthood."

"What would it concern the elf, anyway?" Had they not stolen enough from Thorin's people already? "I know elves get strange about those things, but why would he have any claim on the child just because his people are so very possessive about where they spill their seed?" He'd be damned if he let some weed-eater get their hands on Kíli's child. And if that didn't suit the elf, well, he should have thought about that before sleeping with a dwarf, shouldn't he?

"Under most circumstances, it would not matter." Óin didn't even look at Thorin now, instead focusing on bandaging another one of Bilbo's wounds. "However, given how eager Kíli seems to be to wed him? I'd say it's fair to let him know before he agrees to anything."

"Kíli wants to marry him?" Surely he hadn't heard right.

"Kíli loves him." Bilbo joined the conversation again, his tone quiet but steady. "According to Fíli, she made promises to him even before the battle, and I have no reason to think she's changed his mind since then."

"Before the battle." There weren't many elves around before then, though, certainly not any Kíli would have had the opportunity to speak with. Except… "Please tell me she's not involved with Thranduil's spawn." That was one insult he could simply not bear.

"The prince? Oh, no. It's the captain of the guard from what I hear." Óin covered yet another wound. "Tolerably good at healing, that lad. Saved Kíli's life in Laketown, so, you know, we rather owe him. Certainly enough not to kill him on sight."

"Aren't you talkative all of a sudden." Thorin narrowed his eyes. Óin was not exactly a chatterbox, and often used the excuse of his poor hearing to stay out of conversations altogether. Yet here he was, speaking away about supposed secrets. "Dare I ask why?"

"Well, partly it's to keep you from yelling at my patient, who needs to be still so I can dress her wounds." Óin gestured toward Bilbo, who seemed remarkably calm about the whole affair. "Mostly, though? I'm just buying time, here."

"Buying time for what, exactly?"

"Well, we all agreed it'd be for the best if the elf could see Kíli before either of them gets yelled at, particularly seeing how she was almost injured just a little while ago." Óin held Bilbo's arm still, ignoring her slight wince as he spread something rather foul-smelling on a particularly bad scrape. "Since Fíli left to go and get him from Dale some time before the incident, I'd imagine they've managed to get all the way to the royal wing by now."

It took a moment for Óin's words to fully register in Thorin's head. As they did, though, he spun on his heel and rushed out, mind reeling at the absolutely obscene idea of his precious niece having anything serious to do with a pointy-eared bastard.

If he happened to almost run into Bofur on his way out, well, the toymaker should feel lucky he didn't get knocked over. Thorin had infinitely more important things to worry about.

*

Kíli was going to murder someone.

At this rate, she wasn't going to be particularly picky on who it was, either. Bilbo was hurt, and Ori had almost been hurt, and nobody was telling her anything except that Bilbo had been taken to Óin. Kíli and Ori, on the other hand, had been herded into a sitting room by concerned guards as soon as it was clear they were more or less all right, then left there without any further news.

"At least get my brother!" Kíli yelled at the unresponsive guard she knew to be standing behind the door. "This is ridiculous! What, are we prisoners now?"

"Calm down, please." Ori seemed far too calm for Kíli's liking, combing the dust out of his hair. "They are just worried, you know that. There are probably people running all over checking all the tunnels right now. Thorin's going to be angry enough when he hears about this as it is."

"Then why can't they at least bring Fíli here?" Kíli stomped across the room. "If they think I'm going to just stay put without any protest while Bilbo is getting patched up —"

"Just wait another moment, please. I'm sure they'll bring Fíli here soon enough."

For all of Ori's optimism, it still took far too long for Kíli's liking before anything happened. By the time the door was finally opened and she saw her brother, she was just about ready to explode.

"Finally!" She spun on her heel to glare at Fíli. "And what took you so long?"

"Sorry, sorry." Fíli gave her a grin, as though everything had been just fine. The idiot. "I know Dale is close, but it still takes a moment to get back from there."

"Dale?" Kíli repeated. "What on Earth were you doing there?"

"Oh, you know, this and that." Fíli smirked, now, and it was the smirk that meant something was up, something terrible or amazing or both at once. "Picking up a little something you had misplaced."

Kíli was about to ask what he meant, when someone else appeared in the doorway. Someone who had to duck down to walk through, for all that even Fíli had cleared it without a problem.

Tauriel stood there, it really was Tauriel, tall and proud and beautiful and there, and Kíli could hardly believe her eyes. She certainly couldn't find any words, her mouth hanging open in a very foolish manner as Tauriel strode towards her and dropped down to his knees in front of her.

"So it really is true." Tauriel's hand hovered just short of touching her stomach. "I — forgive me, my love. I should have been here from the start…"

"What are you doing here?" Realizing how stupid that sounded — stupid and snappish — Kíli shook her head, then tried again. "I mean — how did you get here?"

"Your brother sent word to me in Dale. He then helped me sneak in past the guards." And now Fíli was preening, and even Ori was grinning at the side of the room, and were they all in on this? "As for why I am here… I was rather hoping to stand by your side."

"Then why did you leave?" Okay, so her tone might have held a hint of bitterness, but Kíli rather thought she had the right to it at this point. "You just left without a word after the battle. I was lucky to know you were even alive!"

"There were some matters I had to see to." Tauriel drew away from her, now, only to produce a fine-looking scroll from his pack. "To be precise, I wished to obtain this."

Kíli took the offered scroll, eyeing it dubiously. "What is it?"

"It's a message from Thranduil Elvenking, to the Lady of Lorien herself." Tauriel met her gaze without any hesitation. "In it he confirms that I am banished from Greenwood for life, and have no position in his court now or ever."

"What?" Kíli's eyes widened. "Why — you didn't —"

"I didn't do anything. He had already banished me before the battle, though I do not know the precise reason. I went to Lothlorien afterward to ask the Lady Galadriel to obtain this for me. With this, I can prove that I have no allegiance to the Elvenking, nor can he try and demand my loyalty ever again." A hint of a smile curved Tauriel's lips, now. "It means, my love, that I am free to remain with you, if only you would allow it."

The sound Kíli produced at that was rather too high-pitched not to be embarrassing, but it didn't seem like anyone was going to call her out on it, anyway. Tauriel certainly didn't seem inclined to do anything except return the embrace Kíli pulled him into, and that, that was a very wise decision from a very wise elf and Kíli would not hear otherwise.

Of course, they hadn't even managed to get to a proper kiss as Thorin rushed in, looking like someone had just shot him in the arse.

"You lied to me." Thorin was practically growling. "You all lied to me, and hid the truth from me, and now you are having the child of some thrice-damned weed-eater?"

"We lied to you because you were already yelling at everyone even without knowing the truth." Oh, Kíli would be damned if she backed away now. From the corner of her eye she could see Fíli and Ori both stepping closer, ready to interfere if need be. For now, though, she faced Thorin by herself, and she had no intention of backing down. "And no, I am not. I am having the child of my One, and the one I wish to marry."

"You claim this is your One?" Thorin gestured toward Tauriel with obvious distaste. "This — this elf?" The tone of his voice made it clear this was intended to be a grave insult.

"Yes." That, at least, she knew to be true. "Yes, he is my One. I trust him with my life and my heart, and I will marry him and raise my kits with him, and you will have no say in the matter."

"And if he is deceiving you? If this is some scheme by the Elvenking?"

"He aided our escape, and saved my life." Kíli took a step closer to Tauriel. "And before you claim that to be a part of some evil plot, he was banished from Thranduil's kingdom. The reason he has been away was to obtain proof of that, so he would be free to stand by me."

"And when he tires of you?" Thorin looked at Tauriel, now. "When he decides a little game was all fine and good, but a lifetime is too much to ask, even if it's a short one?"

"An elf only loves once." Tauriel's voice was calm even in the face of Thorin's ire. "I will do what you deem necessary to prove my devotion, but I will not back away, now or ever. If it's but a short time I may share with my beloved, then that's all the more reason for me not to waste a moment of it."

"I should just kill you here and now." Thorin seemed moments away from baring his teeth and growling. "It would save Kíli a lot of pain and heartache in the long run."

"Except you won't, because for all your suspicion you cannot truly know I would bring her pain, but you know for sure that taking my life would, and do not want that burden on your own head."

Thorin frowned, and seemed about to say something. Before he had the chance, though, the door didn't as much burst open as it opened some more from its already rather wide position, allowing in a very frantic-looking hobbit.

"Thorin Oakenshield!" Bilbo yelled, the way only she seemed to have the courage to do at Thorin, and it most definitely was she, now, there was no way Kíli could have used another word. There was a twinge of worry at seeing all the bandages and salves covering Bilbo's body, but that was pushed aside very quickly by the realization that they were, in fact, all well visible. "If you dare even think about harming Tauriel now that he's finally come back to Kíli, I swear I'll take your beard and hang it above my fireplace!"

"Ngh," said Thorin. Nobody else seemed to find anything to add to that.

"I know you don't trust elves, but really, Kíli clearly has made up her mind and trying to persuade her otherwise is just foolish. Surely after everything she has gone through for you, she's more than earned the freedom to love whoever she chooses!"

"Right." There was no fight left in Thorin's voice. Though then, Kíli wasn't too sure he had heard a single word.

"She's a grown dwarf, and really what she does with her life is no concern of yours, just disinherit her child if that'll make you feel better, goodness knows the poor kit will have enough to deal with as it is -" Bilbo paused. "Thorin, are you even listening to me?"

"Ah... Bilbo?" Ori, thank Mahal, seemed to have regained his power of speech. "Bilbo, I think you might be missing something."

"What do you mean?" Then, as Ori gestured towards her, Bilbo looked down, as though only now realizing she had rather forgotten to put on a shirt. Then she looked back up, and quite against Kíli's expectations, did not look the slightest bit embarrassed. If anything, she looked even more annoyed. "What, all it takes to distract the great King Under the Mountain is a pair of bare breasts? Clearly your hatred of elves can't be as all-encompassing as you claim." And, just to drive her point home, Bilbo crossed her arms around her rather ample breasts.

Really, it just wasn't fair. Kíli was pregnant, here, and Bilbo still had a fuller chest than she did.

"Our poor uncle's just had an eventful day, that's all." Fíli opened his belt and took off his surcoat, offering it to Bilbo. It was too large for her, of course, but offered at least some modicum of modesty. "After all, it's not every day you get the relief of hearing your friends survived a terrible accident only to then discover you'll have to plan a wedding soon."

Thorin made some kind of a strangled noise, but there was a tone of defeat to it. It wasn't a war won yet, not by a long shot, but at least Kíli didn't think she had to fear for Tauriel's life just now.

Of course, the moment Thorin managed to speak again, he started laying down the rules of courtship, as though all that mattered at this point. Tauriel listened amicably enough, and Kíli was rather sure she loved him more than ever before, if that was even possible.

"I think," Fíli said as he stepped to her side, a grin spreading on his face, "I think this will be quite all right in the end."

Somehow, against all odds, Kíli found herself agreeing.

*

"Thorin, stop that."

"Hm?" Thorin did not look as he felt Bilbo drawing nearer, close enough that Thorin could feel the heat of the hobbit's body through the thin sleeve of his tunic. "Stop what?"

"Stop glaring at the poor creature. You'll set him on fire with your eyes alone."

"I'm not glaring at anyone." Even so, he tore his gaze away from where Tauriel and Kíli were deep in conversation, matching smiles on each of their faces, and glanced at Bilbo at his side. She was dressed in new clothes, as was everyone who could afford it for tonight, more dwarven in style than anything a reasonable hobbit would have chosen. Her curls glimmered in the torchlight, and Thorin found himself swallowing for some reason.

"Fine. Looking at extremely intensely. Honestly, I thought you were over this by now." Bilbo took a sip from the tankard she was holding, one fashioned for a human child and thus more fitting for her than the larger dwarven ones. "I mean, you've already announced Tauriel as Kíli's betrothed! Why are you still being so difficult?"

"This is different." Of course it was different. How could Bilbo not see that? "This is the first time they've appeared as a couple in close contact with anyone but the Company."

"And yet they have no attention for anyone but each other." Bilbo snorted. "What are you afraid of? That Tauriel would suddenly be ashamed of her when faced with all the other dwarves? You couldn't cut him from her side with a knife, that's clear enough."

"One never knows." Though Bilbo was right, in a way at least. He didn't truly think Tauriel would betray Kíli, not at this point. He had even come to some grudging acceptance of the fact that he would indeed soon be calling an elf his family, and that this particular elf was making Kíli very happy indeed, as had been proved to him over and over during the last couple of months. However, he couldn't help but dread that something was going to happen to prove him right all along, that something dreadful
would break Kíli's heart and what little trust Thorin had managed to build for Tauriel.

Somewhat to his surprise he realized he did not want that trust to be broken. Whatever satisfaction he might have drawn from having his suspicions confirmed would not have been worth the betrayal. And betrayed he would have been if Tauriel had now backed away, after all the trouble he had gone to in order to stand by Kíli's side.

"In any case, it's quite unseemly for a king to be so unhappy in such a lovely party. Come on! Your subjects are going to think something is wrong, and I would hate for Ori's celebration to be ruined so."

"Right." Thorin sighed, forcing himself to relax. "I will try not to look so upset, all right?"

"Good." Bilbo smiled, deftly sidestepping a slightly drunken dwarf blustering past singing very loudly and very badly. "I have to say, it's a lovely party."

"Of course you would approve of anything with plenty of food and drink at hand." Though Thorin had to admit Bilbo was right. Almost all of Erebor had gathered for the feast, and though their numbers were yet small as they awaited the caravans from Blue Mountains, they made loud enough a party. It seemed everyone was in the mood for some celebration, and in any case this was the first new Master since the retaking of Erebor. Most of the guilds weren't even operational yet, with efforts still focused on rebuilding; Balin had asked for special dispensation from Thorin to reorganize the scribes' guild so Ori's masterpiece could be formally received. Thorin was sure few would have protested even if Balin had announced him a Master all on his own, given Balin's own rank and his position as Ori's master, but he did agree that Ori had more than earned his formal acceptance. And, with the acceptance, this party.

"Well, not just anything. I do require that people are happy with their food and drink, and that certainly seems to be the case here." Bilbo smiled as they watched a few dwarves dance their way across the room with loud shouts of cheer. "And soon enough we'll get to have an even bigger feast, when your sister arrives with the caravan. It's a good thing the traders are making their way here, or we couldn't even dream of such things."

"Oh, don't remind me." Thorin groaned. "Dís is going to murder me when she finds out what Kíli's up to, and then Dori will kill Fíli and Kíli will be king with a half-elf heir. I'll go down in history as the most catastrophic successful king ever." Why, yes, he had informed his sister of the important things, such as Kíli's pregnancy and her plans to marry. He might have left out one or two teeny weeny details, though, such as the fact that her future husband was an elf. He'd probably have to hide behind Dwalin and hope his offer of courtship would distract Dís for long enough that Thorin could sneak away.

It was really too bad that Thorin was the older one. If Dís had been king, they would have retaken Erebor ages ago with the power of her tongue alone.

"Oh, don't be ridiculous. I have it on good authority that Ori won't let his brothers murder Fíli. Which is a good thing, really. I am quite fond of Kíli, but it's hard to see her as king."

"Mahal save us all if that ever happens," Thorin murmured. "Though it might be worth it just for the thought of Thranduil's face as the one he banished becomes a dwarven queen."

"I really don't think that's good enough a reason for you to die." Bilbo glanced around. "So, where is Ori, exactly? I don't think I've seen him in a little while."

"Oh, I spotted him speaking with Fíli some time ago. Which is partly why I am fearful of Fíli's chances of surviving until Dís arrives. Haven't seen either of them since then, though." He raised his eyebrows as Bilbo very nearly choked on her drink. "Something wrong, Master Hobbit?"

"No! No, nothing at all." Bilbo looked a bit flushed, though, and murmured something under her breath about caravans. Thorin figured it would be no use to push further right now. Bilbo would tell him if it was important.

"Perhaps we should go get some more food?" Thorin suggested. "I haven't had the chance to eat much yet; I had to spend some time earlier being very diplomatic with everyone." Which mainly consisted of not openly cursing at what few people of importance they had in Erebor at present, but he was sure Balin would appreciate his effort nevertheless.

He turned to head to the tables, but was halted by a small hand on his arm. He turned back to find Bilbo watching him with a rather intense look in her eyes.

"I'm going to ask you something that might be quite rude." Bilbo's cheeks were flushed but her eyes were bright, sharp and warm just as always. It seemed the ale had only served to give her courage and not confusion, for all that she had consumed a fair deal of it, from what Thorin had seen. It wasn't just the appetite of hobbits that rather defied understanding.

Thorin nodded. "Go ahead."

"Are you male or female?"

Well. That was not exactly what Thorin had expected, certainly not when accompanied by such a sly smirk. "Would it make a difference either way?" A hedging answer, but then he didn't want to get his hopes up just yet.

Bilbo shrugged. "After all this mess? Not really," she said. "After all the trouble I've gone to for your sake, that's really the least of my worries. I'd just rather not have too many surprises when I stick my hand down there."

It took a moment for Bilbo's words to register properly. When they did, it took another while before Thorin could put together anything resembling an intelligent response. As he finally did, he drew a deep breath, licking his suddenly very dry lips. "Perhaps this is something we should discuss somewhere more private?"

As it happened, he never made it back to the table for more food. That was fine, though; at some point past midnight there was a discreet knock at the door of his rooms, with a tray of food left in place of any visitor. There was drink, too, two tankards instead of one, with one smaller than the other. Thorin wasn't sure which member of the Company he should have thanked for the gesture, though he was certain the teasing would make things more than clear in the morning. At the moment, though, all that was quite irrelevant.

All he was concerned with was getting back to his bedroom to share the midnight snack with a really quite lovely hobbit.

*

The shared breakfast the day after the party was really rather closer to noon. Kíli and Tauriel were the only ones who seemed rather unaffected, with Kíli having held back because of her condition and Tauriel doing the same in sympathy. All the other dwarves seemed rather subdued for once, though they still had the energy for some smug looks and whistles when Bilbo and Thorin entered the room together. Honestly. You'd think they had never seen Thorin smiling before.

In what had become something of an ingrained habit by now, she glanced around to take stock of the Company. Thorin was beside her, of course, and Kíli was sitting with Tauriel and Bofur, explaining something with such excitement that her eggs almost flew right out of her fork as she gestured with it. Bombur and Bifur sat next to them, then Óin and Glóin. Dwalin and Balin were on the other side of the table, then Dori and Nori, and —

"Wait." Bilbo frowned, taking another glance to make sure. "Where are Fíli and Ori?"

Her question was met with silence, then some more smirks and murmurs from most of the company and rather murderous glowers from Nori and Dori. Nori took out one of his knives, starting to sharpen it, and Bilbo resisted the urge to tell him to put such things away at the table. Really, of all places, a table was a particularly sensible place to have a knife, even if Nori was obviously making a threatening display rather than making any actual use of it.

Kíli grinned, a hand on her rounding stomach, and was about to say something as the door behind them opened. Bilbo turned to look, expecting to see one or the other of the two missing dwarves. Much to her surprise, she found them both standing there, holding hands, in rather clear view of Ori's brothers and everyone else. And as though that hadn't been enough, Fíli still had a somewhat dazed look on his face, while Ori's expression could only be described as satisfied.

Oh, and then there were the braids. The ones that Bilbo recognized from Kíli's and Tauriel's hair as signifying courtship.

Now what on sweet fertile Arda had Fíli gone and done?

The two walked into the room, past Thorin and Bilbo, and came to a halt in clear view of everyone. As Fíli still seemed unable to do much except give Ori adoring gazes every couple of moments, Ori cleared his throat instead.

"Fíli, son of Dís, has made me several courtship offers in the past." And that was news to most people, judging by the widened eyes all around the table. "Now that I have my Master's braid, I, Ori, son of Vuori, have chosen to accept his courtship, and hereby make it known to both of our families, here and now."

The cheers and shouts, Bilbo had expected. Clearly she hadn't been the only one to see the gazes between the two, and most of the Company was likely sick from the waiting. However, Dori and Nori's reaction surprised her. She might have expected yelling, threats or even a plain attack. Instead, when Dori surged to his feet it was to draw Ori into a bone-crushing hug, while Nori's knife disappeared in an instant as he made to pat Fíli on the shoulder in what seemed to be a genuine companionable gesture instead of a veiled way of hitting him. They continued this delighted display as the rest of the Company came closer to deliver their congratulations as well, with Dori wiping away tears and Nori grinning like a cat in front of a saucer of cream.

Bilbo glanced at Thorin, confused, who just quirked his lips into an approximation of a smile. "Good to see they've come to their senses."

"But — aren't you even surprised?" Bilbo waved a hand toward the sight in front of them. "Just yesterday you were certain Dori would murder Fíli just for speaking with Ori!"

"Aye. At that time, Fíli was a potential suitor, nothing more." Thorin waved a hand toward the happy couple. "Now, Ori has accepted his courtship, or possibly the other way around. That's an entirely different matter."

"How is that any different?" Oh, Valar, she'd never understand dwarves if she lived as long as the oldest elf! "Shouldn't that just make the matter worse, if anything?"

"It's not all that simple, Bilbo." And if she lived until the end of all Arda, she wouldn't get tired of hearing Thorin say her name. "Courtship is a very serious matter for dwarves. We only marry once, and only for love. Sharing a bed is one thing, but if Ori has chosen to wear his braids, that's more or less an announcement that he considers Fíli his One."

"His One." Bilbo had heard this before, during all the arguments about Tauriel and what should and shouldn't be allowed. "That means they believe they've been made for each other, right?"

"Precisely. Not even Dori would mess with that. Besides, this means that no matter what happens, Ori and any potential kits will be well taken care of as long as Durin's line stands, so that's another worry less for his brothers." Thorin shook his head. "I presume there will still be some very serious talks ahead, but at least they won't involve threats of death or castration. Not serious ones, at least."

"Dwarves." Bilbo shook her head, then thought of something from the night before. "Hey, Thorin?"

"Yes?" Thorin's attention at the moment appeared to be over where Kíli was now fussing over her brother in a very loud manner.

"If dwarves only offer their courtship braids to their One, what did you mean last night when you said you couldn't wait to see your beads in my hair?"

Thorin blinked and then actually flushed, and sweet Green Lady, Bilbo had never seen a more endearing sight. He reached a hand to caress the side of Bilbo's face, then, his touch very light and tender, and seemed just about to say something as a guard rushed in.

"Your Majesty!" The guard was young and clearly eager, barely able to contain himself. "Your Majesty, word from Dale!"

"Oh?" Thorin frowned and drew away from Bilbo, and as he turned toward the guard he was every inch the majestic king. Bilbo wasn't sure she could entirely complain. "And what is so important that you must interrupt our breakfast?" Which really was well past elevensies already, given the time, but Bilbo wasn't about to point that out in front of one of Thorin's subjects. Well. A subject who wasn't also part of the Company and thus well familiar with the fact that Thorin was, in fact, not always right.

"Word from the scouts, Your Majesty." If at all possible, the guard stood up even straighter. "Your sister's caravan is expected to reach Erebor within a day or two, if all goes well."

Bilbo wasn't sure she had ever seen such a perfect mix of delight, relief and abject horror as the look that rose on Thorin's face at that announcement. Behind Thorin's back she could see Fíli and Kíli take on matching expressions.

Well. She had thought things were turning out a bit too neat and nice.

At least now she wouldn't be trying to ride herd on Durin's line of idiots all by herself.