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To say the boys are an instant sensation is to put it mildly.

Fili gives them a suite of rooms that seem completely suitable, no matter what he and his brother were hinting at back and forth between them. The layout is very Dwarfish though with square rooms and a large communal bathing chamber that lets off into other little clusters of living quarters where they are obviously not allowed without invitation. The furniture is comfortable and just shabby enough to reassure Bilbo that they haven’t been placed anywhere they ought not to be. They have two bedrooms and a sitting room with a spacious hearth, perfect for tea kettles and toasting sausages.

“The rooms are heated by hot water pipes through the walls.” Fili explains, when Bilbo notices the complete lack of a hearth or wood stove in any of the bedrooms. “It’s always cold this deep inside the mountain no matter what the weather is like outside. You should be cozy enough in here, but let one of us know if you aren’t. This section of the mountain has a slightly lower priority when it comes to labor.” He shrugs. “Repairs over improvements and the neediest come first. It’s Uncle’s policy.”

“It sounds like him.” Bilbo opens his mouth to ask… well, something, but his voice fails him and he loses his opportunity when the front door to the sitting room bangs open to reveal Gloin with his wife and son in tow.

“Mahal’s Anvil, boy! I thought those two scamps were having a joke on me.” He laughs and sets his squirming dwarfling down on the ground where he and all four of Bilbo’s boys immediately home in on one another. Bilbo half expects them to start circling and sniffing one another like dogs, but Samwise has some chestnuts and is good at distracting little fauntlings so it’s not long before they’re clustered in front of the fire playing conkers.

“My wife, Feris.” Gloin introduces the lady at his side, inadvertently giving Bilbo his first proper look at a Dwarfish female. She’s actually quite lovely, even with the –ah, beard and all, which is shorter than her husband’s and artfully shaved into geometric shapes on her cheeks. “Feris, my love, this is our Burglar of whom you’ve heard.”

“Welcome to Erebor.” Feris greets him with a kiss on either of his cheeks. “I’ve heard much of you. You have been missed in these parts. I hope that you will stay –my Gimli has few friends with whom he can play.” She looks fondly to where Gimli has successfully cracked the first chestnut and seems to be getting on quite nicely with Bilbo’s crowd.

“Thank you, Madam.” Bilbo says and hurries to find places for everyone to sit. “Gandalf found us a guide, but he won’t be back in the area for some time so it looks like this will be a long visit.”

“Excellent!” Gloin chortles and smoothes his beard down his stomach. “May he take his time with other business then.”

The others arrive in quick succession, each more pleased to see Bilbo’s boys than the last with Bofur and Bombur both bringing up the rear laden down with toys and treats in equal measure.

“Life in the Shire won’t be worth living after this.” Bilbo observes as the boys welcome their newest favorite uncles and the others actively plot ways to earn their way back up in the hierarchy of affection. He turns his head to Fili, who is resting his leg by the fire.

“Perhaps.” Fili agrees, “Our kind reproduces slowly. Children are rare and precious. To have so many at once …well, it’s a blessing, is all. Is it the same in the Shire?”

“Heavens, no.” Bilbo sighs, thinking of Buckland and Frodo’s many rough and tumble maternal cousins. “We Baggins are a bit odd among Hobbits. I was an only child, but my mother was the ninth of twelve and the oldest girl. Young Frodo there has eleven immediate cousins plus seven more once removed and that’s not even counting his mother’s people. We grow large families in the Shire. The earth there is good to us that way.”

“It must be!” Fili agrees. “Imagine that many cousins to play with… I think I’d have enjoyed it myself and I come from a comparatively large family with a brother so near my own age.”

“They tend to form little packs, I’ve found.” Bilbo chuckles and pats down his pockets for a pipe. Finding none he settles his hands in his pockets. “Feudal and territorial little creatures they are –and every one of them full of mischief. Gandalf says I was the same at their age, but I don’t recall it.”

“You knew Gandalf as a boy?” Kili asks because there is no having a conversation with only one of the brothers.

“I knew of him and I suppose he knew of me.” Bilbo thinks back to that long-ago morning when all he had on his mind was smoke rings and the morning mail. “He was acquainted with my mother, I think, who was quite remarkable although I never heard of her going on any adventures. Perhaps she was better at keeping quiet about it than I was because I’ve never heard the end of it about mine from the neighbors.”

“I always wondered if you set your village on its ear.” Fili chuckles. “Tell me, Bilbo, why did you never write or visit? We have missed you.”

“Well.” Bilbo wishes dearly for his pipe. “Bit of a misunderstanding, really, that old Gandalf only just recently cleared up for me. It’s why I came… you see, I thought you’d died in the fighting. You, Kili, and Thorin. Didn’t have the heart to see the Mountain again after that. Too many memories.”

“Oh, Bilbo.” Fili pulls him into a rough one-armed hug that Fili joins. “That would explain it. Poor fellow. I wish I couldn’t believe it, but… yes. I can see where you’d think so. It’s all right now.”

“At least we know what to tell Uncle now.” Kili points out in his phlegmatic way.

“That we do.” Fili agrees and gives Bilbo a half-smile. “He asked for you first thing when he woke up. I don’t think he remembered talking to you before they took him into the Deep Halls. I’m not sure he believed us when he told him you two had made peace.”

“I… oh, dear me… I see.” Bilbo hunches his shoulders. “Is he very angry with me?”

“Angry?” Fili shakes his head. “No, angry isn’t the word for it. You’ll see, I imagine, when he finally catches up. They’ve got him penned up in a meeting right now, but there’s a page waiting for when he gets free.”

Bobbin chooses that moment to abandon play and wanders –yawning and knuckling his eyes- over to where Bilbo is. “Da, I’m tired.” He says with a pointed look at Bilbo’s unoccupied lap.

“Come on up then, love.” Bilbo pats his knees and opens his jacket a little for Bobbin to make himself comfortable. He’s been anticipating this, really. Bobbin’s not as social as his brother or cousin and can only tolerate strange places for so long before he’s retreating to familiar territory.

“I think this is the first good look I’ve gotten at you, Bobbin.” Fili says as he peers into the fauntling’s face, despite Bobbin’s complete disinterest in him. “You should talk your da into staying here with us. You’d do well among Dwarves. Look, Kili, he’s got a lucky nose.”

“A lucky what?” Bilbo asks.

“A lucky nose.” Kili says. “Sort of sharp and blade-like that one could potentially use to cut gems with. You know, like our Uncle’s. I think he’s got the chin to go with it, Fili. Hard to tell at this age though.” He breaks off with a laugh when Bobbin buries his face in Bilbo’s shoulder. “Poor tyke, I’m sorry. We didn’t mean to tease!”

“He gets this way when over-tired.” Bilbo says. “Please pay it no mind.”

“They can’t possibly be offended. Little dwarflings are the same, or at least Gimli was before he got all gregarious.” Feris interjects with a warm laugh. “I seem to recall Kili being even worse. I don’t think he left his mother or his brother’s shadow until he was nearly twelve. I don’t think he ever quite forgave his father for teaching him to walk.”

“I forgave him that.” Kili says magnanimously. “What I objected to was his silly notion that he was due more of her attention than Fili or I.”

“Gracious, what was he thinking?” Feris murmurs with twinkling eyes. “Speaking of, is Dis coming tonight?”

“I believe so, ma’am.” Kili shrugs. “She’s in there with Uncle now as his second in case someone calls for rite of combat or decision of arms.”

My, His Majesty must want this meeting to go his way very badly.” Feris says and winks at Bilbo. “Princess Dis is a formidable duelist even after raising these two. I think most of the elder council is more frightened of her than they are her brother. Thorin at least lets them pretend that they have a chance before he puts an opponent down. Dis doesn’t see the point in wasting her time, but then Thorin was raised to be the diplomat of the family.”

“Are we talking about the same Thorin?” Bilbo asks, looking back and forth between Kili and Fili. He remembers Thorin’s approach to resolving conflict; specifically that one time where he settled a fight between his nephews by pitching one into a nearby river and the other into a cow pat.

Dwarfish diplomacy, Master Burglar.” Fili says. “It’s more like a blood sport than what the rest of Middle Earth is used to, I’m told. In the Second Age they used to let lawyers argue their cases in the Arena, but great-great-great Grandfather got tired of training new ones so he stopped letting them fight to the death. It’s to first blood these days.”

“Hmmm.” Is Bilbo’s reply. His first response is to think ‘how barbaric’, but then he thinks about the mayoral elections and all the endless maundering on at town council meetings that probably would have been hurried up by the prospect of a good fist-fight. Perhaps the Dwarves are onto something.

Grim arrives at Bilbo’s knee then with Frodo on his heels, both of them yawning and heavy-eyed.

“It may be bedtime, I think, Samwise.” Bilbo tells his young helper, who nods.

“I’m surprised what with all the sweets and excitement.” Sam mutters as he starts collecting fauntlings who flop over his shoulders like rag dolls. “Wouldn’t have guessed they’d go down until after midnight!”

“It’s been a long trip and none of you have had a proper sleep since Rivendell.” Bilbo tells him and sneaks a glance over at Gimli, who’s gone to sit on the floor by his mother’s feet and is barely hiding his own yawns. “He can bed down with my lot, if you like, Mistress Feris.” He offers. “They all sleep in a pile anyway.”

“Thank you, Master Baggins. I think that would be wise.” She grants Samwise a smile when he comes to collect Gimli, who is a bit too big to carry but is still small enough to benefit from a guiding hand.

“I don’t suppose that one’s for hire?” Gloin asks once Samwise has taken the little ones into the next room. “He’s got a good touch with them.”

“He’s travelling with me to see a bit of the world.” Bilbo says. “However, I think his father will want him back. He’s only a bit older than they are, but the first growth makes a difference. Frodo is a bit late with his. He should be Sam’s size now, but he’s had a poor year that seems to be putting him a bit behind.”

“I see.” Feris replies with a confused wrinkle in her forehead that implies she doesn’t really.  “Was it very difficult when your wife passed away?”

“I never married. It’s not required among Shirefolk.” Bilbo frowns. This again? What is the world’s obsession with this particular subject? But perhaps… ah. “Frodo is my nephew, ma’am. He came to live with me and mine after his parents died last year.”

“You never married at all?” Feris asks. “How curious, but if that how it’s done then I suppose that’s how it’s done. We Dwarves rarely have children out of wedlock. Does their mother visit them then?”

“I’m afraid I don’t understand.” Bilbo frowns and looks around, surprised to find himself the center of attention. “What mother? They haven’t got one.”

“No mother?” Kili sits up in his chair. “Then how… where did they come from if not their mother?”

“Well they came from the garden of course.” Bilbo replies and wishes very badly that he had a pipe to chew on right now. “Fool boy, where do you think fauntlings come from?”

…and that, as it turns out, is the heart of the problem.