Bella made her way to the battlements, the letter crumpled in her tight grip. The icy breeze managed to draw her from her whirling thoughts and she let out the breath that she didn't realize that she'd been holding, the burning of her lungs easing with the winter air she inhaled greedily.
Nodding absently at the guards stationed there, she made her way over and leaned against the wall, peering out over the land outside of Erebor. They'd had the first significant snowfall just the past week, covering the land in a peaceful blanket of white that had sparkled like a jeweled blanket in the sun after the storm had passed. In the distant, she could see the lights of Dale twinkling peacefully in the evening, lazy curls of smoke indicating that the inhabitants were snug and warm in their homes for the evening. Speaking of which, she still needed to reply to Bard's latest later. Relations between the men and dwarves had improved immensely since she had taken over as liaison and she wanted it to continue that way.
Shifting slightly to get a better look, the quiet scritch of parchment over stone reminded her why she had come out here in the first place. The last caravan for the year had arrived from Ered Luin along with the letters that it had carried. Bella had been excited to receive several, having finally gotten in touch with the Thain in the spring after a long, harsh winter. Although the letter she had received in return had been full of scolding for running off to who knows where without letting anyone know, it was also filled with warmth and love. When she'd written back that she'd be staying in Erebor, at least for the foreseeable future in order to help them learn how to farm, her entire family had rallied and sent her wagon after wagon of seeds and supplies. A few of the more adventurous Tooks had even accompanied the caravan, although they had ended up returning to the Shire with the next caravan, satisfied that she had matters under control.
Because of their generosity coupled together with how long the land had rested, the harvest had been bountiful indeed, both Dale and Erebor would winter quite comfortably because of it. The harvest festival would've made even hobbits green with envy and it brought much joy to the men and dwarves after enduring so much hardship. Bella had been filled with joy, to celebrate with the entire company after such an eventful year and a half. She had danced for hours, whirled under the stars by the company and by others, laughter reaching for the stars along with the sparks of the bonfires burning brightly in the night. And she'd known then that she was finally home.
But that brought her back to her current dilemma. She'd known all along that she'd be staying with the dwarves in Erebor, if they permitted her to. But nevertheless, she'd taken the winter and thought it over deeply before making a decision. And even after a long winter on short rations in cramped quarters, she was still happier than she had been in many years in the Shire. And so she'd written to her uncle about sending her some of her belongs and dividing up the remainder of her estate since she wouldn't be returning. She'd received her items with this caravan and had immediately directed them to her quarters. But the news that she'd received from her uncle's letter had given her equal measure distress to the joy that she'd just felt.
Smoothing out the crumpled letter, she reread it more carefully, now that her mind was calmer. But it's contents had not changed since the first time that she'd read it. He hoped that she was doing well and that here were the items that she had requested along with a few keepsakes that her family had sent along so that she wouldn't be homesick so far away from the Shire. Then he dutifully added that she was welcome there any time she wished to return home and sent love from all her kin. That portion of the letter was quite long and contained several useful and sometime humorous pieces of advice from her family.
Then came the part that made her feel equal parts depressed, raging, and homicidal. She had decided to sell Bag End and had urged them to consider either the Gamgees or Primula and Drogo since they were expecting their first little one. However, her uncle had written that the hobbit council elders had decided that since the home had been built by Bungo Baggins and was called Bag End, it needed to remain in the Baggins family as part of their rightful legacy. Since she, the head of the family, had left, it had been handed automatically to the family member with the next seniority. Which meant Bungo's siblings. However, since most of them were in advanced years and settled quite comfortably in smials of their own, it was offered to their children. And since Aunt Belba had remained childless, that meant that it had passed to Longo's children. Or in this case, only child. Lotho. The very same Lotho who was married to Lobelia Bracegirdle who had made Bella's life quite miserable.
Bella didn't doubt that they had jumped on the offer immediately, without even the appearance of taking the time to carefully think over such a weighty decision. The letter informed her that Mr. and Mrs. Otho Baggins had taken possession of Bag End at the end of summer and that the matter could be considered closed, although she had two seasons to contest it if she wished. She could easily picture Lobelia parading around Hobbiton, acting like a queen now that she had Bag End.
Crumpling the letter again in her hand, she stared back over the valley. Sighing, she spoke absently, "Maybe I should return to the Shire after all." It wouldn't do to leave Bag End, something that her father had built with love for her wildfire mother, in Lobelia's greedy clutches.
A frigid breeze whisked her words away and she shivered, failing to notice the dwarf that hesitated several feet away from her, their expression a mixture of shock and concern.
However, the breeze had reminded Bella that it was indeed the middle of winter and that she shouldn't be lingering outside, lest she catch a cold. In which case, the company would become insufferable as they hovered over her until she was once again well. Slipping the letter into her coat pocket, she rubbed her arms in an attempt to warm them as she walked briskly back into Erebor. Best not be hasty but let things be for a little bit.
Besides, her things had finally arrived! She could finally treat her company as the family that they had become.
* * *
Bella was carefully putting the loaded tray into the oven when she heard a loud rapping on her door. Making sure that it was positioned just right so that it would bake evenly, she called loudly, "Enter!"
They didn't wait for her to yell again but opened the door, clumping in loudly. However, she heard the quiet tap of a cane, so she called, "In the kitchen, Fili."
She had just shut the oven door when Fili's head popped around the corner, a cheerful grin on his face even as he inhaled deeply. "Mahal's shield, Bella, it smells amazing in here. What are you cooking?"
Although the company's praise of her cooking used to make her blush when they first met, she wasn't used to people praising her cooking, now it just made her feel like she was home, the routine comfortable and kind. She grinned at him and shooed him gently over to a kitchen chair. "My things finally came, including my mother's recipe book. I'm just doing some holiday baking to warm up before I make some for everyone. It's been years since I've had any kin to share these dishes with, so I'm rather rusty, I'm afraid."
He got a mischievous twinkle in his eye as he slowly made his way over to the table. It had taken months for him to be able to walk again after he'd fallen, his legs and spine severely injured. However, as they had boasted over the course of the quest, dwarves were made of sturdy stock. It had taken time, but the young dwarf was mending well. In another year or two, he'd most likely not need the cane at all to walk.
Sitting, he set aside the cane and asked cheekily, "Can I be your tester then? I promise that I'll let you know when it's up to par to be shared with everyone."
She laughed at that, "You just want to keep it all for yourself, don't think that I don't know what you're up to. You're going to have to try harder to con food from a hobbit. We've made an art form of it, after all. You seem well, Fili, you're not leaning on the cane as much and your limp is less noticeable today. What brings you to my corner of Erebor?"
He had been pouting a little at her teasing but straightened at her words, "You really think so? That my limp is less?"
She nodded, tidying away the dirty bowl to the sink and starting a pot of coffee, "Yes, definitely. Usually it takes you eight to ten strides to cross my rooms and you did it in only seven today. Not only that, but it only took you half a minute to cross them, whereas you usually take anywhere from a minute to two, depending if you need to rest on your cane for a moment or not. Don't worry, Fee. You'll be dancing at the next harvest festival, I'm sure of it."
He beamed at that, undoubtedly thinking of Ruby, the dam he currently had his eye on. Still, his dreaminess didn't stop him from trying to sneak the batter spoon. It also didn't stop her from smacking his hand away and taking the spoon only to lick it clean herself. To the victor goes the spoils, after all. She smirked at his pout and he just rolled her eyes.
Tossing the now clean spoon into the sink with the rest, she sat down across from him. "There will be some time before they come out, what brings you here?"
He shrugged, his expression becoming serious yet sincere, "No one's seen you since the caravans came. We thought that you might've gotten some bad news from the Shire. Since you tend to isolate yourself since you don't want us to fret, it was decided that I would come check on you. After all, you won't beat on a hurt dwarf, now will you?"
It was her turn to roll her eyes. Nosy, overprotective dwarves, the lot of them. Wrinkling her nose at him, she shot back, "If I'd known what a pain the lot of you would end up being, I most likely would've taken my skillet to you the first night you appeared on my doorstep. However, as you are still technically injured, you're safe. Don't need another lecture from Dis and Dwalin about what is and isn't sportsmanlike behavior. And then Nori's follow up lecture about how to win at any cost. That is the only thing that's saving you at the moment."
He grinned at her, "You know you love us, Bella."
She threw up her hands, laughing. "I do, although Yavanna only knows why. And for your information, I'm perfectly fine. I did get some interesting news in my most recent letter, but it's not going anywhere. I'll deal with it after Yule is over, there's much too much to do right now. And I can finally share some of my family recipes and traditions with all of you."
The coffee chose that moment to boil and she hopped up to fetch a pair of mugs, missing the panic that flashed momentarily over Fili's face. However, he had his expression fully under control by the time she sat back down with the coffee and a plate loaded high with fresh cookies. Buying time to order his thoughts, Fili reached out and snagged a cookie, cramming it into his mouth in a way that would've made Dis smack him upside the head in she'd seen it.
Bella just laughed and selected one, dunking it into her coffee before nibbling on it daintily, "These are Aunt Belba's butter cookies. I've been trying to get the recipe from her for years, but she finally sent them along, now that I have a family of my own to feed."
He mumbled through the cookie, "It's good." Swallowing, he took a hasty sip of his coffee before asking, "Why don't you tell me about some of these traditions that you have and what they mean to each family member. I'll share some of the dwarven stuff too, although Ori would probably be better to ask if you want the history behind things."
She brightened at that, positively beaming, "I'll be sure to ask Ori later, but these are much more special to me. It's meant to be shared with close friends and kin. I haven't celebrated the twelve days of Yuletide in much too long."
He frowned at that, "The twelve days of Yuletide? I'm familiar with Yule, but nothing beyond that."
She grinned at him, "Oh, Fee, you have no idea what you've been missing. So the twelve days of yuletide mean the twelve days leading up to Yule itself. Not only is a great time for family to get together, but it's a special time of year for courting couples. I know that I've said that a lot of hobbit courting is done in the summer with walks and parties and flowers. But honestly, just as many couples are formed during the Yule season as any other. Maybe you and Ruby..."
His cheeks reddened but he shook his head gamely, "Nah, we're nowhere near that point yet. But I'd love to hear them. Maybe Kili and Tauriel could use them instead. You know how hopeless Kee is at this kind of thing, every little bit of advice helps."
She nodded, "Poor Tari. If the pair of them weren't so head over heels for each other, their courting attempts would be almost sad. So, let's start at the beginning."
* * *
It was nearly three hours later when Fili finally managed to escape, his head whirling with everything that Bella had told him, although she had given him a large package of goodies for his time as well. He'd barely made it halfway down the hallway before Nori appeared at his side out of seemingly thin air.
He demanded anxiously, "Well?"
Fili sighed, running his hand through his hair. "You were right. She did get some news from the Shire, although she didn't tell me exactly what it was. However, she said that she's not going to decide anything until after Yule, so there is at least a little bit of time."
Nori frowned, curling his hands into fists, "A fortnight? That won't be enough time, you know how stubborn that lass is, from her curly hair down to her toes."
Fili grinned at him, causing Nori's frown to deepen. Before the spymaster could accuse him of mocking him, Fili said cheerfully, "Very true. But you have a secret weapon that you can use."
Nori looked at him from the corner of his eye, "Oh, and what might that be?"
Carefully navigating a set of stairs, Fili announced proudly, "The twelve days of Yuletide."
Nori tilted his head, puzzlement writ plain on his face, "The what of what now?"
Fili said confidently, "The twelve days of Yuletide. Come to my office, we have a lot of planning to do."