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Solmath 27, Shire-reckoning 1331 (February 17, Year 2931, in the Third Age of the Sun)

In the Great Smials of Tuckborough, known as the Took Ancestral Home to some, there lived not just the Tooks, but many other families, such as the Brandybucks, the Bagginses, the Bolgers, the Proudfoots, the Greenhands, and more. Many orphans, widows, and widowers also lived there, as their homes and families had been destroyed almost eight years ago. Children with no parents were taken care of by a small legion of mourning mothers and fathers. The mansion was massive enough to hold dozens of Hobbits, and each room had at least one occupant, depending on how large the family was. Some families had been reduced to a few members -- and still more had been almost entirely destroyed, with only one last Hobbit to carry on the name. Some families had not survived at all.

One room in particular held a single Hobbit, another orphan, but a Took by blood still. His room was one of the few with a window, and even better, a window seat. The room had once belonged to his mother, a cherished daughter of the Tooks, and it was just as precious to its young occupant.

In the small window seat, there slept a young Hobbit, thin limbs curled in over his head as if to protect himself from a blow, though he was relaxed in slumber. The window seat was unlike a normal Hobbit seat, in that most of the pillows were gone, and those that remained were getting a bit threadbare, as if the owner had not had time to patch them or stitch up new ones. The curtains were pulled closed to keep out the cold. Still, the Hobbit looked cozy, snoozing beneath a thick and colorful quilt, his dark blonde curls peeking over the fabric, while outside, a blizzard brewed.

There were a few scribbles on the walls here and there, and some of the colors were quite bright. There was a bed big enough for an adult Hobbit, though it was missing its quilt. There was a small closet left open with a few shirts, some trousers, and a single green coat hanging inside, seemingly too big for the small occupant of the window seat. It was nothing like a normal Hobbit's closet, which usually held dozens and dozens of cheerful, colorful outfits.

Against one wall was a small fireplace with logs stacked to the side, the embers burning low, a thick rug of colorful cloth laid before the hearth. Two delicate teacups and an old hairbrush rested on the mantel, and a dried flower chain hung over the side, yellowed with age. There was a small table with a single lamp, and scattered along the floor were a few books, some of the covers burnt and worn. A chest lay against the wall, propped open, most of the contents carefully arranged, showing a past that was much beloved but long over: a few more books, a delicate tea cozy, a dark wooden pipe, a gardener's hat, among other small things. A small sword hung from a hook on the wall, Elvish in make but small enough to fit the Hobbit who slept nearby. Two pictures were hung on the wall beside smaller pictures of penciled artwork, the wooden frames darkened from exposure to fire, but the Hobbits drawn inside were easy enough to recognize.

Bungo and Belladonna Baggins, deceased. Their only son, Bilbo Baggins, slept in the cramped window seat, in a room that had once belonged to his mother as a girl. The room was nothing like a proper Hobbit's room, missing many of the normal comfortable and cheerful decorations. Everybody who stayed in the Took ancestral home had a room like this, mostly empty save for who slept in it and their few belongings. Everything that could be spared had been given away to other families, many of whom stayed with the Tooks, and still more in the nearby Hobbit homes that had not been ravaged by Orcs.

Outside, the smial hall was long and winding, with several Hobbits passing by the door, most ignoring it. Occasionally, someone would stop by the door and lean in to listen for movement inside. Otho Sackville-Baggins, Bilbo's cousin and once-aggravant, though he seemed more anxious than irritable now, his face a bit bruised. Linda Proudfoot, his aunt through his father, her face weary and thin. Rorimac Brandybuck and his little sister Primula, wanting to play but deciding to leave upon hearing no noise. Oftentimes other children, who would try to sneak into the room, only to be caught up in an aunt's or mother's arms and carried off to be scolded.

Bilbo slept on, having curled up in the window seat not long after breakfast (which had been early for him, early enough that the Hobbits who cooked in the morning had not even stoked the fires, leaving Bilbo with leftover porridge and an apple). He had sat and watched the sun rise, but not long after dawn, clouds had set in and snow began to fall, leaving Bilbo to drift as the snow did, his thoughts faraway. He could have gone to the family library if he had wanted, but he knew that the parents would have lessons for the children that morning, so he had chosen to stay in his room. Beneath the quilt he was warm, though the air in the room was chilled.

When one of the logs in the fireplace broke and let off a few sparks, Bilbo woke suddenly, blinking in the dim light and breathing in deeply. He knew by the smell of the room that he was home and safe, and he let himself relax, his racing heart slowly easing back to a normal beat. He pushed aside the quilt but then shivered and rubbed his arms, glancing at the low fire.

"Bugger," he muttered, pulling his thick wool sweater -- Dwarvish in make -- more tightly around his thin body. Then he dropped from the window seat and hurried across the room to the fireplace, picking up some logs and twigs, to stoke the fire back to life. When the flames were high enough to leave his cheeks flushed, Bilbo scurried back to the window and took his quilt, going to sit at the end of the bed.

While he waited for the room to warm up, Bilbo pulled a necklace from beneath his clothes and looked down at it, letting it pool in his palm. On the necklace, of a pretty silver, were strung three items: an ornate key of the same material, a thick gold ring that may have fit a Man once, and another thick gold ring with a heavy blue gem, cut square and large. These were Bilbo's treasures, as important to him as the chest of his parents' belongings, the last two cups of his mother's Westfarthing porcelain, and the Elvish sword which his cousins had begun to call 'Sting,' for its small size and sharp edge.

The two rings had come to him while he had been a slave in Azog's halls, and they had kept him company for years. The key, on the other hand, had come to him rather recently, from the hand of a Dwarf that had saved Bilbo's life. His family had been astounded by his tale, and sometimes his cousins had teased him, but Bilbo cherished the key, for its meaning and intentions.

Thorin.

The thought of the stoic and kind Dwarf King caused a small ache in his chest, and Bilbo sighed, dropping the necklace beneath his shirt again and closing his eyes, thinking of his promise.

A promise, to become a better person, so that he could stand tall again and meet his savior as an equal, someday far in the future.

Bilbo clung to that promise every day, because some days it did not seem to be enough. Some days were so dark for him that he could barely see spring, let alone a future that was several years away.

He was very grateful for his family, who had remained by his side throughout the last several months, who had supported him and defended him when others pointed fingers and lay accusations. What they had accused him of was cruel, but within the details were the lie -- the rumor was half-wrong. His accusers did not actually realize how true their words were. They whispered all the same, and Bilbo had not wanted to bother anybody, so he mostly stayed out of everyone's way.

His cousins Drogo and Otho, tweens as they were, always scolded him for hiding away in his room, but Bilbo could not help it. He felt ages older than his cousins, even Rory who had survived Azog's halls with him. All of them could smile and laugh and talk easily, but Bilbo could barely speak to other Hobbits, except his family, the children, and the Hobbits who had been in Azog's halls -- but he did not see them often, either, as they lived in different parts of the Great Smials, and he rarely left his own hall.

So many members of his family were gone. All of his Baggins aunts and uncles, cousins and second cousins, except his first cousin Otho, his second cousin Drogo, his aunt Linda, and his father's cousin Rosa. The grand and respectable Baggins family, reduced to three orphans, two widows, and their sons.

All murdered by Orcs. Their names were written, along with Bilbo's parents and dozens of other Hobbits' names, on the massive wall in the front hall of the Took estate. There was another list on the opposite wall, with MISSING scrawled across the top, but many names had been crossed out, many rewritten on the other side of the hall.

*

Standing between Otho and Drogo, who despite their childhood feud had clung to each other for the past seven years, believing themselves the only Baggins boys left, until Bilbo walked into Tuckborough one late afternoon --

Bilbo picked up a heavy feather pen and touched it to the thick paper on the wall --

Belladonna Baggins, he wrote on the paper, and his hand was shaking hard enough that Baggins almost looked like Boggens --

And when he was done, they pulled him away and took him to where Aunt Mirabella was sitting holding onto Primula, and she pulled him close and held him too, while Rory reached over and took his hand.

*

At least he still had his Took and Brandybuck aunts and uncles, and his Baggins family. Bilbo had arrived in Tuckborough only six days after his kin had, as he and Bofur had moved at a good pace, small as their company was. Thus his cousins and aunts and uncles had waited every day for sign of him, and the thought still made Bilbo's eyes prickle with happiness.

It still struck him how happy he had been to see Otho and Drogo, two cousins who had always tested his temper, standing there at the front of the crowd that had gathered to wait for him. Otho had been the first to grab him in a hug, and not even the panic from being touched had stopped Bilbo from holding onto him tightly.

*

They were walking along the path into Tuckborough, and Bilbo saw a few children spot them and wave, then run off, no doubt to find their parents. Bofur was singing loudly and Bilbo was humming along, though when they reached the top of the next hill, the notes died in his throat when he laid eyes on the Great Smials. There were people waiting for him --

Drogo, thinner than he had ever been, and behind him Otho, looking severe and sour as usual, and beside them Rory, who started shouting when he saw Bilbo and Bofur -- all of Rory's siblings, down to little Primula who was jumping in her place, Aunt Mirabella holding her shoulders tightly -- and Aunt Donnamira and Uncle Isengar, even Aunt Linda and cousin Rosa, and their children --

Then his cousins all broke out into a run, and Bilbo choked back a sob and began to run as well, and when he wrapped his arms around Otho, he started crying, holding out a hand to grip Drogo as he pulled close, feeling Prim and Amy grabbing onto his sweater, touching him, but he did not care --

His family was alive.

*

He and his Baggins cousins had been inseparable ever since. At first Drogo and Otho had treated him normally, trying to pull him into hugs and wrestling and whatever other things they used to do as children, but Rory must have shouted at them, because one day they stopped, though they did not leave him alone. They gave him the space he needed, but stood close nearby, so that he knew he had their support.

To his surprise, Drogo and Otho had been rooming together in the same hall as Aunt Mira and her children, and when Uncle Gordy and Rory came home, they had befriended Rory quickly, because Rory had told them about Bilbo. All of them were orphans, the only Baggins boys left, and as the eldest, it was Bilbo's duty to make sure they were both taken care of. He made sure they were happy and comfortable, that they had proper clothes and linens, that their room had enough firewood, and anything else that he could do. In turn, they dragged him out of his room or the library or the nursery, the three places where he spent most of his time, to eat lunch or have a snowball fight or explore the oldest and dustiest of closets in the deepest parts of the Great Smials, along with Rory and sometimes Jago Boffin.

Knowing that his family was alive, that despite everything they had survived -- even though they had all lost their parents, aunts and uncles, and so many other relatives and friends -- it made Bilbo think everything would be okay. Even the rumors would pass, hopefully, and then perhaps he could return to the nursery and tell the children stories again. Perhaps tomorrow he would go to lunch with Drogo and Otho, and not be whispered about by the old busybodies at the next table...

Perhaps.

*

"That's the one, the children keep talking about him --"

"I thought he just reads them stories in the evenings. Aunt Myrtle says he's really nice to them."

"No, you don't get it, he's a bad one. It's the Took in him, of course, they always were odd sorts --"

"Shh, you shouldn't say that, after the Thain himself took us in!"

"It's true though! He might be a Baggins, but that whole family has gone sour, I'm telling you. I heard Primrose Bracegirdle telling her cousin the other day that Otho Baggins is always getting into fights, and that Bilbo Baggins was one of those -- those goblin-servants, the improper kind. Someone said he liked to poison the others so he could keep his place --"

"No! But he's so polite! Should he be near the children?"

"I'm about to go talk to Myrtle myself --"

*

It hurt, so much. Yet he could not deny the accusations -- because Otho was getting into fights a lot lately, and Bilbo had been a slave, and worst of all, he had poisoned some of his fellow Hobbits --

Why couldn't they understand how hard it had been, living in that place --

They never would, though. Even though they had been attacked by Orcs themselves, the old gossipers would never understand despair as he and his fellow slaves did. If in fact they did understand it, they chose to deny it, resolutely believing in the old ways of nay-saying and propriety.

Bilbo sometimes wished he could yell at them that nothing is proper anymore, you old cows --

At the thought, Bilbo had to sigh and hide his face in his hands. Perhaps he had been spending too much time with Drogo, who had an oddly foul mouth for someone who had once believed so firmly in that old propriety.

He turned his gaze to the window. He had not visited Bofur in a while. The blizzard outside made it difficult, but of course there were other ways to visit, underground paths that connected most of the smials around here, though Bilbo doubted they were often used. No doubt the Dwarves, miners and cavers as they were, already knew about them, but something left Bilbo hesitant to visit his friend.

Perhaps it was because whenever he was with Bofur, he felt as at home as he did with Drogo, Otho, and Rory.

In the past several months, Bofur had become a fast friend. He was kind and cheerful every time Bilbo saw him, and the two of them could spend hours just talking, sharing stories about Erebor and the Shire. Bofur had told him all sorts of things about his family back at home, and in turn Bilbo had shared stories of his mother's adventures and his father's business dealings. They were good friends, and Bilbo was always glad to see him.

Lately, though, with these rumors popping up... he had avoided Bofur, out of shame. He had avoided his cousins and family too, at first, until Rory had dragged Otho and Drogo into his room and told them Bilbo was being thick-headed and stupid, which had spurred Bilbo into sputtering that Rory was the thick-headed one, and an epic fight had erupted that had burst three pillows and left his entire room a mess.

He had not avoided his family after that. The rumor-mongering Hobbits, yes, but not his cousins or aunts or uncles. Bofur, though...

He did not want Bofur to hear of the rumors and look at him differently. He did not want any hint of what he had done to ruin their friendship. He especially did not want Bofur to return to Erebor in the spring and tell other Dwarves (like his king, Bilbo's mind thought traitorously) of Bilbo's darkness.

It was bad enough that the rumors had started in the first place. No doubt someone had been told of their relative's death and had questioned how, and someone had whispered pain-bearer and pointed a finger at Bilbo. The truly horrible thing was --

It was all true. Bilbo was a murderer. He did not deserve to be here. He should be shunned and kicked out, and the fact that he desperately did not want to leave his home, his family, made him feel all the more guilty, despite his actions and the accusing looks.

It hurt, to know that someone had told someone else of his actions. He did not know or care who had given him away, but it left a deep ache within him, to know that someone who could not understand knew of what he had done. The Hobbits here -- the ones who had never known torture at an Orc's hands -- would never understand what had brought Bilbo to the decision to give the black mushrooms to those who would not survive. They would never understand the fear, the despair, the complete loss of hope and dignity -- they would never know how some of his fellow slaves had begged him for help, had clung to his hands and chains and sobbed into the scars on his stomach and pleaded with him to give them death.

He did not want them to understand, either. He was glad that they did not know that pain, that there were still normal, proper Hobbits in the world, who muttered and gossiped and huffed and fretted like a Hobbit should. He did not want to defend himself; he knew he deserved to be shunned. It still hurt, though.

Perhaps when Bofur left in the spring, Bilbo could ask to accompany him... Thorin had said that Erebor was open to Bilbo, anytime he wished to visit -- perhaps he could get a job in Erebor's library...

Bilbo drifted, soaking up the warmth from the fire and wondering about the future he still, sometimes, could not believe he had been given. If he could spare his fellow Hobbits the pain and anxiety his presence caused, then he would. Maybe Otho and Drogo would like to come with him for a while, see some of the world that they had always ignored before. A little Tookish adventure for them, before they found proper spouses and settled down.

Like Bilbo never would.

That was one thing he had noticed upon returning to the Shire. He no longer held any attraction toward anyone around him. Otho and Drogo, even Rory who had suffered beside him, along with the other young tweens and teens who had known destruction and pain, had begun to ease into normal relations with other Hobbits their age. Otho often made eyes at Evanthe Brown, and Rory had begun pinching the elbows of the Goold sisters (as well as their younger brother on occasion). Even Drogo eyed the girls sometimes, though he was usually more surreptitious about it.

Bilbo felt none of that. He felt absolutely nothing. No interest, no attraction, no flutterings in his chest -- and Bilbo had once known these feelings well, having flirted and kissed and teased quite a lot in the long and blissful years of his tweenhood. Azog had broken something in him, and he knew in his heart that he would never find the happiness that his mother and father had shared.

He knew other Hobbits shared his pain, but some of them had spouses they could turn to, and others found comfort in their families.

For Bilbo, he found comfort in telling stories to the children, who always looked to him with awe and happiness. He had not visited them in a while, thanks to the gossipers, some of whom had children in the nursery, but he knew he should visit soon --

Because there were also children like him, who had been brutalized, who had been pets to Orcs, as he had been to Azog. Not very many children, maybe six in all, but they were already known to be different -- quiet, solemn, with large dark eyes that shuttered if there were too many adults in the room. The other children gave them space and let them read their books and play with their toys alone in the corners, and Bilbo had made it a point to visit them several times a week and sit with them. He was one of the few adults they allowed close to them, other than the nannies who tucked them in and made sure they ate, and their parents if they still had them.

Perhaps enough time had passed that he could ask for a plate of cookies and visit them later. Someone had seen him last week, taking a bowl of apples and nuts (with permission from Aunt Linda) to the children, but he had not realized it and could not defend himself later from the accusations, as he had slept through dinner that night. Otho, Rory, and Drogo had defended him in his place, though, much to his amusement and horror when he had seen the bruises.

*

Bilbo stared wide-eyed at Otho, who looked rather proud of himself for having a rather lurid black eye and blood under his nose. "You didn't," he whispered, and Otho grinned viciously. Bilbo looked pleadingly at Drogo. "You're two years older than him -- why didn't you stop him?" he asked furiously, and Drogo glared.

"Because I threw the first punch, Bilbo. Couldn't let those Burrow sods get away with it, could I? Not with Bruno Bracegirdle's cow of a mum muttering like she was -- even that Lobelia girl was in on it!"

Otho started to grin, but at the mention of Lobelia, he turned a scowl on his older cousin. "Lobelia's been playing with Rory's sister Prim, you know, she's nothing like her mum --"

"She's exactly like her mum --"

Bilbo hid his face in his hands as the two began to argue loudly. Why did he have to be the eldest?

*

It would be nice to sit with the children again. The nannies did not mind him, even encouraged him to visit frequently, and the children held no expectations of him, only asked him for stories and to play with them. Maybe when the snow stopped falling, they could go build a proper snow fort outside -- and he could easily convince the kids to take on Rory, Drogo, Otho, and Jago in a snow fight, who would be no match against thirty squealing Hobbit children and teenagers (no doubt the Brandybuck children would join in). Bofur would probably side with him if he pleaded nicely enough, too, and of course Prim would likely take the whole lot under command, so that she could defeat her brother.

Thinking of the lovely hot cider they could enjoy afterwards, Bilbo finally felt warm enough to drift off, dozing lightly for several minutes and imagining a silly winter afternoon with no rude neighbors or worrisome rumors, just the laughter of children and the joy of spending time with his family.

Not twenty minutes later, he was woken by a knock on the door.

Blinking, Bilbo shook the sleep out of his eyes and stared at the door for a long moment, confused. He crawled out of his quilt and walked over to the door, pulling it open slowly. Standing at the entrance to his room was his cousin Fortinbras, the current Thain of the Hobbits, and Bilbo's eyes widened at the sight of him. Had someone made another complaint? Was something wrong?

Fortinbras offered a smile, and Bilbo relaxed a bit, realizing that Fortinbras might just be visiting him as family and not as Thain.

"Fort, um, sorry -- I was napping... what can I do for you?" Bilbo asked, glancing past Fortinbras worriedly.

"Got some lunch before it was hauled off by that mess of tweens from Eastfarthing. Since I'm rather certain you didn't go near the meal hall this morning either..." Fortinbras held up the basket, and the smell of bacon and warm buttery quickbread filled the room. Bilbo blushed, and Fortinbras' smile widened. "Can we have a chat?"

Bilbo eyed him for a long moment, but soon enough he nodded and opened the door for Fortinbras, going to light the lamp. Fortinbras followed him in and closed the door, going to sit on the rug in front of the fire, and after a moment Bilbo went to join him, basking in the warmth. Fortinbras pulled the cloth off the basket and pushed it over to Bilbo, who hesitated just a moment before pulling out a bacon sandwich and biting into it with a deep sigh.

"Thanks," he said after swallowing, and Fortinbras gave him a smile.

"You're welcome, cousin. I know Aunt Mirabella and Aunt Rosa look after you, but I worry about you, too. We all do," Fortinbras said.

Bilbo smiled a bit, feeling happy for the words. Then he gave Fortinbras a somewhat wary look, after taking another bite of his sandwich. "So... you wanted to have a chat?"

Fortinbras nodded, but he made no move toward the scrolls he had placed at his side. "In time. Finish up those sandwiches first."

So Bilbo sat quietly with his cousin and ate three bacon sandwiches, surprised at himself as he had eaten that morning, but apparently the small bowl of porridge had not been enough. He washed his lunch down with a glass of water he kept on the table, and after rejoining Fortinbras, who had remained silent while he ate, his cousin picked up the two scrolls beside him and offered one to Bilbo. It was wrapped in a deep blue ribbon, and Bilbo recognized it immediately.

"That's from Thorin Oakenshield," he said quietly, and Fortinbras nodded.

"Go on and read it, and tell me what you think," he said, so Bilbo took the scroll and untied the silk ribbon, laying it at his feet and slowly unfurling the heavy paper. A beautiful script in Westron curled across the paper, and Bilbo reached up to touch the key underneath his shirt. Then he held up the scroll and began to read.

To the Thain of the Hobbits of the Shire,

I extend greetings and salutations on behalf of the Kingdom of Erebor, to the Thain and his kin and people. In these dark times, I hope to continue the alliance between our peoples, to the mutual benefit of both our realms.

I have thought a great deal upon your travails in the months since my last letter to you. I understand that we are not yet friends, and that in these times you are wary. Despite what has befallen your people, I wish to offer a solution to your plight.

To the East of the Misty Mountains, there lies a valley, lush with life and good land. It situates around the River Anduin, beside the forests of Greenwood, a few weeks' walking distance from Erebor. In the North of this valley lives a Northman named Beorn, who guards the valley and nearby Greenwood from orcs, and sends to Erebor any news. He has been our ally for years, and together with him and the elves of Greenwood, we have kept the North and Western portions of Greenwood free of dark creatures.

When I sent news of the Shire's fall to Beorn, he responded with an offer: come to Anduin Valley. I am like-minded in this venture; the location could benefit the ties between your people and my people greatly. As my carriers have surely told you, I am on a quest to purge the Misty Mountains of orcs and reclaim it for my people, as it was once our home a thousand years ago. With this letter delivered, I am pleased to announce success in this march.

In the coming years, as my people return to Khazad-dûm and the Misty Mountains to rebuild, we will need aid and assistance. The Kingdom of Erebor has a partnership with the nearby city of Dale, belonging to men, in that the farmers and agriculturalists of Dale will provide Erebor with produce and meat, and Erebor in turn will provide aid and protection, as well as priority trade rights to some of our ores.

I and the other leaders of the Dwarf clans wish to offer the same partnership with the Hobbits, should you come to live nearer to the Misty Mountains. The valley of Anduin has land aplenty for agriculture, and I have heard that Hobbits are great farmers and producers of fine food. Past what you require to feed your people, I would ask that you sell your produce and goods to the Dwarves of Khazad-dûm, and in return we will grant protection alongside the watchful eye of Beorn, as well as some rights to our ores and wares.

There are some rules to living in Beorn's land, but they are few, and I have heard enough of Hobbits to believe that these will be little trouble. Namely, not to hunt or kill any animals that live there with the exception of fish, and to pay respect to the land.

I have chosen to winter in the halls of Khazad-dûm, and in the spring we will return to Erebor. If you have any need of assistance, do not hesitate to send any request with Bofur, who accompanied the carrier of this letter to you. When spring comes, he will return to the Misty Mountains, to join us as we return home.

I hope to see a greater partnership between our peoples in the future. To you and your kin, I offer again friendship and alliance, and as ever,

I have the honor to remain,
Thorin Oakenshield
Son of Thráin, son of Thrór
King under the Mountain

Beneath the last line of Thorin's titles, there were a few more lines, written more hastily than the others, and Bilbo's cheeks turned pink when he read them.

Please regard Bilbo Baggins, the carrier of this letter, as a great hero, for he saved my life and did many great things for my people in the final battle of this war march. I have named him Dwarf-friend for his great and honorable actions. My people and I would welcome him to Erebor, should you wish to send an ambassador for your people.

He sat there for a long moment, rereading the elegant script and thinking of what Thorin had said to him all those months ago. More than ever, he felt the desire to go to Erebor and see Thorin again -- but he knew he was not ready, emotionally or otherwise. He could barely stand to be in the same room as the majority of the people in the Great Smials, let alone a mountain of Dwarves. He hardly felt like himself, for all that he had been through, and he wondered if he would ever properly heal.

The idea of going to the old Vale, though... it had promise. A new place, with good land and a river full of fish, near a beautiful forest of legend? He liked the idea. He also rather liked what Thorin proposed, that the Hobbits create a business partnership with the Dwarves. Though he hesitated at ever returning to the Misty Mountains, he knew it would be a good thing for the Hobbits, to leave this place of death and go somewhere new -- and truly, somewhere they had been before, once a very long time ago. He knew the old legends as well as any Hobbit.

After a time he looked up at Fortinbras and smiled, and Fortinbras' eyes warmed. His cousin had lit his pipe while Bilbo was reading, and the scent of Old Toby filled the room, making Bilbo yearn briefly for a good smoke. He had no pipe of his own, though he had recovered his father's pipe, from the ruins of Bag-End many months ago.

*

Two weeks after his return to the Shire, Otho and Drogo convinced him to go to Hobbiton and look through Bag-End, to see if anything was salvageable. They went together with Aunt Linda leading all three, and Bilbo felt his heart seize in his chest when he saw the door with its deep scratches. He pushed it open slowly and looked down, only to see a dark stain on the floor.

His father had fallen there.

Aunt Linda's expression tightened, but she pulled Bilbo deeper into the torn home, holding up a lantern. Everything was broken, torn, scratched -- the pantry had been emptied long ago, the good cushions and blankets sent on to the Great Smials when Aunt Linda had taken control of Bag-End.

Aunt Linda had not lingered long in the once beautiful home, too sad over her brother's death. She had not cleaned the mess, only taken what was still useful and moved on, and Bilbo did not blame her for it. He might have done the same, but now they had the time, so they went into the sitting room where he used to read stories to his parents in the evening.

Beside the fireplace, beneath a pile of broken wood, Bilbo found his father's pipe, and on the floor by the door, his mother's garden hat, somewhat crushed.

Bilbo stood there and stared at the items in his hands for what felt like hours, until Otho came up to him muttering about how he was being silly, and that he needed a chest to carry everything. So Bilbo shook himself out of his reverie and followed Otho to the next room.

The four of them picked through the house carefully, finding what was left, and each item gave Bilbo a rush of memories, of fond times when he had been happy.

No more.

A glance into the kitchen -- what pots and pans that remained were broken or bent, but Bilbo saw two cups sitting in the far corner of one of the window sills, unbroken. He took the cups and tucked them into his pockets, and walked on.

Some of his books had not been burnt. His closet full of bright, colorful clothes -- given away to other Hobbits, though Aunt Linda promised that some might be given back to him. Aunt Linda herself had his mother's favorite quilt, and she would give it to Bilbo.

Going into their bedroom had been the worst. It had been untouched by the violence, and it still smelled of them, of his father's pipeweed and the flowers his mother would bring inside every day. He found a dusty green coat hanging on the closet door -- his father's. He took it and pulled it on, and though Otho gave him a bewildered look, Bilbo refused to take it off for the rest of the day.

He had nothing else of them, except memories and these broken treasures. Everything he could keep, everything he could carry away with him, he would take, no matter how silly it seemed. They were his parents, and he missed them so, so much.

*

Bilbo shook the thoughts of his parents' lost home out of his mind and looked down at the scroll.

"Thorin's idea... I think it is a good one. I think... we need to leave this place, in order to start anew. Thorin, he's... he's already done so much for us. It astonishes me that he wants to do this, too. But it would be something good. I think so, anyway," Bilbo said, and Fortinbras nodded.

"I believe so as well. The older ones, you know how they are, they don't want to leave, think we can just plant some more seeds and everything will be fine. But out there?" Fortinbras lifted his pipe and pointed at the window, past the curtains and into the grey outside. "Everything is dead, Bilbo. Crops won't grow out there. All our good memories of this place... they're ruined by that day. I know not everyone will want to go, but I think, for the good of everybody, that we have to go."

Fortinbras pulled out the other scroll and unrolled it across the floor, revealing a map of the continent. He pointed out the space that Thorin had spoken of, circling it with his finger. "This is the old Vale, and it'd be a long journey... we'd have to go through the Misty Mountains, which a lot of folks would be hesitant to do. But it'd be a safe place, with the Dwarves and that Beorn looking out for us, and even Elves live in the woods nearby, from some kingdom up north."

Bilbo nodded slowly, watching the white-grey of the snow swirling outside. Though it had been years since Shirefall, apparently there was not often sunlight anymore, more often clouds and grey rain. Little had grown, as his cousins had told him, and what did grow was hardly any good. They had only survived this winter so far based on the stores bought from faraway cities of Men.

He looked over the map, drawing a finger from the Shire to the Anduin River, and sighed deeply. "What are you going to do?" Bilbo asked after a moment, and Fortinbras frowned.

"I've talked about it with some of the older folk, and they've requested that we wait a bit, see what spring brings. Some of the better farmers tried something new with the land, but I've got my doubts... though, who knows? When spring comes, we will wait, and if it's worked, then we'll discuss everything again. And if it hasn't worked... then I'll call all the Hobbits to Tuckborough for a great meeting and give everyone the chance to shout about it."

Bilbo snorted, imagining the great shouting that would occur at such a meeting. He glanced longingly at Fortinbras' pipe, and Fortinbras chuckled and passed it over. Bilbo brightened, and he gladly took a long suck of the heady smoke, sighing it out slowly.

"I guess we'll see what happens when the snow melts, then," Bilbo said, thinking of green pastures and bright sunlight, already dreaming of a new life in a new place.

For a while they passed the pipe between each other, until the embers ran out. Fortinbras knocked the ashes into the hearth, then sat back and gave Bilbo a considering look.

"Bilbo," he said, drawing Bilbo's attention. "I don't like how you've been avoiding meals. Aunt Mira's told me that you go get breakfast and supper after everyone else, but not all the time. As your cousin and the head of the Took family now, I can't let you miss meals any longer. The gossipers are just old busybodies. It's winter, and they're bored. Ignore them, and it'll pass. Starting tonight, I want you to come to every meal, okay? Sit with Rory and your Baggins cousins if you want, but come anyway. If you don't, I'll drag you in myself and make you sit with Great Aunt Aldadrida for every meal until the snow melts," he said, fixing Bilbo with a stern look.

Bilbo glanced at his cousin with wide eyes, but he slowly nodded, feeling sheepish and anxious at the same time. "Are you sure? I don't want to cause trouble," he started, but Fortinbras only increased his glower.

"You're my cousin, and a Took to boot, even if Aunt Belladonna did marry a Baggins. You're more welcome at my table than any of those old bats, and if they don't like it, they can shut themselves up in their rooms instead. Aunt Mirabella's already scolded me four times about it, and it doesn't make me feel good to be scolded like a fauntling because some old gaffer's got an opinion about something! You're coming to dinner tonight, and you're going to stop avoiding everyone, just because some people are being rude," Fortinbras finished with a flourish, and Bilbo felt his cheeks turn pink again.

He did not want to say yes, because he did not believe he deserved this... but he could not deny his family anything. Slowly he nodded, and Fortinbras looked somewhat mollified. "Alright," Bilbo said quietly, and he gave his cousin a smile. "Tonight, I'll come to dinner, I promise."