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Bilbo Baggins arrived home late one afternoon in the middle of the week and the entire west Farthing is still talking about it.

Poor Mister Baggins. He was doomed to be a nine-days wonder no matter what he did and is it any wonder after a year-long adventure? Even the Tooks haven’t the influence to hush that up, but Mad Baggins (as they call him these days, but only in hushed conversations well out of his hearing) seems to have managed to silence every tongue in the Shire on that subject which would be awe-inspiring ...if not for the way he’s decided to go about it.

Hamfast Gamgee is the first to notice the freshly turned earth in Bilbo’s back garden and as well he should, he’s only been the Baggins family gardener since before dear old Bungo passed away.

“Master Bilbo,” says he. “Whatever are you doing in the rear garden this time of year? The earth’s been turned over, but I’ve seen no seedlings in your windows and it’s not yet time to start the vegetable patch. Tell me so that I can be of service. Your family has always trusted the grounds at Bag End to me and mine.”

“Forgive me, Gaffer.” Mister Bilbo says to him and pats his right breast pocket, which is something he’s been observed to do often of late. “I would if I could. You know I only hold the greatest respect for you, but we’re meant to sow our seeds alone.”

“Oh!” says Old Hamfast. “I see! Yes, of course. You’re correct. I’ll leave you in peace then, my boy.”

Hamfast Gamgee is as good as his word, but his sons are terrible gossips. It’s a failing many of the Shire share and so it doesn’t take long for word to get around that Bilbo Baggins is gardening.

‘About time!’ some say, most of whom are old and like to see the old family names stay in the proper sort of hands. What would Hobbiton come to, after all, if the Sackville-Branch ever got out of Hardbottle? There’d go the neighborhood.

‘It this wise?’ others whisper. It’s no secret that Bilbo Baggin’s Tookishness got the better of him and his sort are usually happiest when they’re fresh home from a good long ramble. The Tooks enjoy a good adventure, but such things settle those wild-blooded types. Mister Baggins doesn’t look like he had a good ramble at all. In fact he’s come back odder than ever before; sad, almost.

‘Never mind all that,’ the rest demand. ‘What we want to know is: when’s the wedding?

In truth, there will be no wedding.

There is no blushing bride helping Bilbo Baggins turn the good earth behind his house nor is ther any obliging widow. He works alone and if it’s not from inclination then his neighbors have no way of knowing.

He plants rosemary in his front yard two weeks after his return home next to clary sage and the little white flowers called Weeping Martins in their part of the Shire, which is the sort of subtle understatement that the Baggins are so well-known for.

After that people stop wondering about weddings. Mad Baggins has all but announced that he’s in mourning and while some would question his choice to start a garden now, well… he wouldn’t be the first Hobbit in memory to want something living to remember a lost loved one by.

Old Hamfast waits until the Moon is right and then visits Mister Baggins’ back yard while the owner is busily enriching the soil there with all the sorts of things one needs in order to reap healthy fruit.

It goes against tradition, but Bilbo does not stop his work when Hamfast approaches. He keeps turning the soil with the bronze tools he had to ransom back from Lobelia Sackville-Baggins for twice their value.

“It’s a bit odd, tilling stones into your field.” Hamfast observes at length. “…but perhaps it’s different, when sowing a dwarf.”

Bilbo’s hands falter and he finally stops his labors with a sigh. “I think so.” He admits. He looks a bit glad, perhaps because someone has guessed and that means he doesn’t have to explain. “The old stories say the first Dwarves were carved from the living stone. It occurred to me that one would be happier, growing among the rocks.”

…and not just any rocks. Hamfast has never seen stone like the broken and jagged chips that Bilbo Baggins has plowed into his garden. It’s green and striped all the way through with darker bands of color. It’s certainly not the good gray granite found in the West. Bilbo must have brought it from abroad, although to what purpose Hamfast can only guess.

“You’ll be needing a good mulch.” Hamfast decides aloud. The rest of it can wait and may never be his business. “To keep the earth from going hard; one wants loose soil for thing like this. My boys will bring you a parcel of pine straw in the morning.”

“Thank you, Gaffer.” Mister Baggins gives him a tired, but grateful smile. Poor lad. Normally a Hobbit would have their parents around for advice at a time like this, but Mister and Missus Baggins died long before the urge to plant seedlings ever fell upon their son. Hamfast feels he owes it to the boy to be his friend in a time like this.

Besides, it’s been too long since Bag End heard the sound of tiny feet.

Bilbo takes to sleeping out of doors after that and when someone finally asks, he has to tell the story of coming outside to find one of his cousins (he won’t say who, but people can generally guess) putting noxious things in his irrigation trough.

Rumor has it that the unnamed cousin tries a few other nasty tricks, but eventually gives up arriving in Bilbo’s garden one time too many only to find the owner waiting and sharpening the Elven pig-sticker that he brought back from his time abroad.

It’s a blustery morning in early November when Bilbo finally puts the wreath out on his front porch. His neighbors wait until he’s closed the front door before they hurry out their own to see the news …and what news it is!

There’s only one cluster of holly berries, which is a shame, but few in Hobbiton are still holding out for the possibility of a new Missus Baggins at this point. More important than that, Bilbo Baggin’s holiday wreath has juniper berries on it this year –and not just one bunch! There’s two!

“Oh! How delightful!” His neighbors murmur to each other. “Twins!”

It’s Solstice-tide when Hamfast Gamgee looks to his employer and says to him, “It’s time.”

“Yes.” Bilbo agrees as he feels the earth underneath the sumptuous vine that shelters it. There are shapes under the earth. They rise and fall under his hands in a steady rhythm that bodes well for the harvest. “I think you’re right. Gracious me. I’ll have to get the bunting out of storage. Should I have new banners made for them, do you think?”

“It’s good luck if you do, I hear.” Hamfast takes a puff of his pipe and examines the broad diamond-shaped leaves of Bilbo’s vine. “Me old Mam used to say that white spots on the underside of the leaf meant a boy.”

“That’s an old wives’ tale.” Bilbo disagrees. “I saw my wee cousin Prim’s vine and it hadn’t a single spot, but now they’ve little Frodo. It has something to do with how much sun the vine gets, I’m told. Still… I shan’t mind all boys. I’d love daughters just as much, but I’m not sure I’d know what to do with one.”

“You do what you’d do for any child; feed them, cloth them, soothe their hurts, teach ‘em to read and dig the earth. Then when they’re older you stand back and hope for the best.” Hamfast sighs. “We all play the hand we’re dealt.”

Bilbo’s banners arrive not a moment too soon. No sooner was he hanging the grand swashes of blue satin out on his fence then he noticed his vine start to shake. “Bless my soul!” says he and hurries over to start clearing away the pine-straw shielding his little faunts from the sun.

The first part of his eldest son that Bilbo ever lays eyes on is a wee little nose, already hooked and hawk-like, sticking up from dark loamy soil. The nose is joined shortly by a set of fingertip and then a little mouth. The nose and mouth go still for a bit, just resting and breathing this new air.

“Come now, dearest.” Bilbo urges him, fists clenched before him. He wants very badly to go digging, but it’s bad luck and said to result in weakness for the fauntling later in life. “I’m here and waiting for you. You can do it!”

“Mmmph!” There’s a heave under the soil, then another and Bilbo’s firstborn sits up in the loose dirt with a little scowl of frustration that is so familiar that Bilbo’s heart would break all over again if it weren’t already overflowing with joy.

“Hello there, little one.” Bilbo chuckles at his son clambers out of his little hole on legs every bit as shaky as those of a new born faun. He’s stubborn though and does not give up on trying to stand until he’s free of the soil and Bilbo scoops him up into his lap. “Oh my sweet one, you are just like him.” Bilbo holds him close and murmurs into his silky black hair.

His eldest squirms a bit, but doesn’t seem dissatisfied with being held. Rather he’s looking back at the ground he came from and on an adult Bilbo would call that expression as ‘impatient’.

“Don’t rush your sibling.” Bilbo croons as he wraps his son up into the warm folds of his jacket. “Now, perhaps you can tell me already; what is your name, my love?”

The child blinks at him and then burrows his face into Bilbo’s throat rather than speak.

“Ah, shy are we?” Bilbo chuckles. “That’s all right, my love. We have all the time in the world.”

 “Mmmph!” Is his eldest’s only comment.

Bilbo’s second son is born somewhat later in the afternoon, by which point his older brother has gotten bored with all this waiting and has fallen asleep cradled in their father’s lap.

He takes his time with wiggling free of the dirt, stopping often to rest, and is still sleepy-eyed when he finally crawls out of his own little hole and directly into his father’s arms.

“Welcome to the world, little ones.” Bilbo says as he carries them inside for the important business of their very first bath, soon to be followed by first breakfast, and first clothes.

The boys don’t think much of the bath, but they make a good showing at breakfast where Bilbo feeds them both thick sweet porridge with soft ham. However, it isn’t until he’s wrestling his eldest into a light nightshirt that one of them finally says his name.

Already the twins are jealous of Bilbo’s attention and he can tell that he’s going to have a job keeping them both assured of his affection, while still maintaining order. His youngest, especially, seems annoyed with his place in the birth order which means that his brother gets things like baths and meals and shirts first, even if Bilbo suspects his eldest would gladly give up the privilege.

Isengrim.” He announces to the world at large just as his older brother manages to get his head through the collar of his nightshirt.

“Gracious!” Bilbo smiles and transfers little Isengrim onto the stool in front of him, while his brother clambers onto one of the great wing-backed armchairs in front of the fire. “That’s a grand old Took name. My mother’s family will be very pleased with you.”

Isengrim hums happily and sticks his arms up so Bilbo can drop the shirt right over his head then nothing will do but he curl up next to his brother by the fire. Bilbo has an idea about starting a pot of tea, but it’s difficult to leave the room without his little faunts starting to whine for him.

He’s starting to get an idea why people don’t generally do this without a husband or a wife around. He just doesn’t have enough hands to go around.

His eldest doesn’t introduce himself until the sun has set and Bilbo is settling them both into bed. Isengrim is already asleep, sprawled out with arms and legs akimbo taking up more than a third of the bed.

D-aah!” He breaks on a yawn and blinks, trying to fight off sleep as he holds onto the front Bilbo’s shirt. He tugs Bilbo’s ear down to his level and whispers a name, soft and secret-like, just before he nods off for the night.

“What a good name.” Bilbo praises him. The name sounds familiar, but he can’t remember where he’s heard it before. Still, it’s a good strong Dwarfish name. “I’m very pleased to hear it.”

Bilbo sits up that evening with a pipe and blows smoke rings into the dusky air. If he sheds a tear or two then it makes no difference. There’s no one there to see.

The next morning he records his sons into the Baggins family book of names. He smiles at the shape the words make in Hobbit script. They have good names, both of them, albeit weighty ones for such wee faunts.

Hobbiton seems to agree and Bilbo’s boys become Grim and Bobbin before they’re even six months old.

They’re good boys (for the most part) and run in a little herd of Took and Brandybuck cousins, who terrorize the neighborhood and go scrumping in Farmer Maggot’s orchards with wild abandon.

Grim is more aggressive and at the same time lazier than his brother Bobbin, who is an old soul in a young body with unfortunately soft feet. There has been more than one tiny war fought over Bobbin’s sandals among the neighborhood children. Bilbo suspects, but cannot confirm that the Sackville-Baggins’ noxious offspring (named Lotho, but better known as ‘Pimple’) and his crowd have been trying to bully Bobbin, which is something his brother and cousins take extreme umbrage to.

Things come to a head one summer during the sun festival. Bilbo is not privy to the details, but it ends with Pimple lashed to the miller’s water wheel and convinced he’s about to drown even though he never getd more than chest deep into the water before the miller wades in to rescue him. Rumor blames Grim’s little war party of boys, but Bilbo noticed at the time that Grim, Merry, Pippin, and Frodo were slack-jawed as anyone else. Bobbin was the one standing in Bilbo’s shadow with a secret satisfied smile.

In any event, it’s a while before he hears anyone call his eldest ‘Tenderfoot’ again.

When the boys are eight years old or so Drogo Baggins takes his wife out for a day of boating –and sadly never returns. There’s some back and forth between Bilbo and the Master of Buckland about who should take Frodo, but in the end there are simply fewer children running around Bag End.

So that is why Bilbo Baggins has three small faunts underfoot the day Gandalf the Gray returns to darken his door once more.

“Gracious!” The wizard’s bushy eyebrows soar as the boys scoot past him, intent on escaping Bilbo’s study and the school books inside in favor of the sunshine outside. “Nephews, Bilbo?”

“One of them.” Bilbo ushers his old friend inside with smiles and a glass of wine that he had cut especially for a Big Person’s needs. It’s never been used yet and Bilbo is pleased to finally have occasion to bring it out. “The other two terrors are my own.” He ducks his head so he won’t have to see the wizard’s reaction, but perhaps he needn’t have bothered. Gandalf’s only response is a thoughtful hum.

“A shame you didn’t send out announcements.” He says instead. “I’d have gladly made fireworks for your wedding and I think there would have been guests all the way from Erebor…whether you invited them or not!”

“Hah!” Bilbo laughs. “They would at that, wouldn’t they? Dear old sods. Well, rest easy. I had no wedding and the boys aren’t yet ten. I’ll surely invite you to their first proper Birthday.”

“Ah yes.” Gandalf nods to himself with a wry smile, looking up to the heavens as though chiding himself. “I forget sometimes how things are done among the Shirefolk.”

“Clearly then you’ve been away too long.” Bilbo says and pours him some nice Hornblower red. It’s young, but perfectly acceptable as a table wine. He’s learned from experience not to share the Shire’s more complex pressings with Big Folk as they don’t seem to have the head for it. 

“Clearly.” Gandalf agrees. “I bring you word from Erebor, although you may have already heard it. They entrusted a similar message to a ranger bound for these parts.”

“I’ve spoken with no ranger.” Bilbo takes a seat and tucks his hands into his sleeves. They don’t seem to be shaking. Perhaps he’s finally ready for this sort of thing.

“Then I’ve beaten him here. He’s probably stopped in Rivendell.” Gandalf sighs. “Soon it will be ten years since the dwarves reclaimed Erebor from the dragon, Smaug. There is a ceremony of remembrance being held to honor those lost in the Battle of Five Armies, including those humans and elves who died in the fighting as well if you can believe it!”

“I can well believe it.” Bilbo says peaceably. “Dain Ironfoot was a good and fair ruler when I knew him. I didn’t expect that to change.”

“Hmmm. Yes.” Gandalf allows. “Good, noble, and fair he is indeed. All who know him sing his praises, but he has not had the Regency of Erebor for a good many years. Thorin Oakenshield rules now without aid. Time has healed his wounds, although I think his shield arm will never be the same. He asked me most cordially to persuade you to visit and attend the ceremony, since it would never have been held if you had not been there at the end.”

“I… oh!” Bilbo finds himself very glad to be sitting. He hardly knows what he might have done if he’d been standing, fainted maybe! A small mercy that. None of the boys would let him hear the end of it if he did. They’re at that age where they’ve realized their parents are not immortal and after the passing of dear Frodo’s parents, they tend to fuss.

“Dear Bilbo, bless me. You’ve gone pale.” Gandalf kneels at his side to check his eyes and whatever other omens it is that those versed in the healing arts used to diagnose illness. “Whatever is the matter?”

“You’ll forgive me, please, Gandalf, but… I was told Thorin died.” Bilbo coughs and reaches for his own glass. “He, Fili, and Kili; all dead after the battle.”

“How can you say that?” Gandalf wondered aloud. “You spoke to him yourself.”

“I did and he was grievously wounded. He said his goodbyes and asked my pardon for… things that no longer matter if, indeed, they ever did.” Bilbo’s heart is thumping in his chest, although whether from fear or some kind of desperate joy even he can’t quite say.  “Then later Balin came to tell me that they’d sent him to sleep amongst the stones. I thought… I thought he was being gentle with me. Tell me, Gandalf, did I misunderstand?”

“Yes, my dear fellow.” Gandalf doesn’t quite laugh. It’s more of a carefully timed cough, which Bilbo appreciates. “Although, I can see where the misapprehension would lay. What Balin meant, Bilbo, was that Dain’s healers felt it was safe to move Thorin into the deepest caverns of the mountain where Aulë’s influence is the greatest. There they put him into a deep slumber and tended to his wounds. It was a desperate gambit, I think, and not one anyone expected to succeed.”

“I see.” Bilbo says. “Of course. Balin looked so very old and worn when he told me. That was what convinced me. Oh, dear me. All this time…” He puts his head into his hands. “Dear me.”

“I think,” Gandalf says after a long pause, “that there is something you ought to tell me, Bilbo.”

“Tell?” Bilbo looks up and then back down at his hands. He opens them and then closes them again. “Yes. Perhaps I ought.”

That is when, of course, the window falls open under the weight of three tiny busybodies.

Chapter Text

“You do know, my loves, if you wanted to listen in on our conversation you might as well have stayed inside with your arithmetic.” Bilbo points out with the long-suffering patience that has come to define his approach to fatherhood as he picks each of his boys up off the floor and dusts them off. Some suffer it better than others. “Here now, go make yourselves presentable and I will introduce you to my friend.”

“But, Da!” Grim cries out, having never mastered the art of subtlety even with his brother there to elbow him in the ribs. “We want to hear the rest of it!”

“Then perhaps you ought not to have gotten caught.” Bilbo replies. “Bobbin, make sure the others wash thoroughly and put on fresh shirts. There’s a mince pie in it for you if you get Grim to wash behind his ears.”

“Yes, Da!” Bobbin sets to herding his brothers into the back and Bilbo waits until he can hear splashing before he continues.

“Bobbin is the clever one, I take it?” Gandalf guesses.

“It’s a busy life, keeping up with those three. Frodo is sweeter than my little crop of mischief, if a bit too biddable. Where they lead, he’s sure to follow.” Bilbo sighs. “…but yes, if I hadn’t given Bobbin a distraction he would have crept back down the hall while the others made noise then reported back what he heard. Probably in exchange for both their puddings.”

“He never got that from his other father.” Gandalf takes his tobacco pouch out from his voluminous sleeves and Bilbo fetches him a light from the stove.

“No, perhaps not.” Bilbo agrees. “I think he takes after my mother, truth to be told. She was the subtle sort too.”

“So, Thorin is their father?” Gandalf takes a puff on his pipe and exhales a cloud of smoke that resolves itself into an Oliphant. “I had guessed before. Bobbin has his father’s nose and Grim shares his temperament.”

“Yes.” Bilbo admits in defeat. “It… he… before things came to pass the way they did at the Gate, Thorin gave to me a token. Perhaps I read too much into it. It was only a lock of hair, but afterwards it was all I had of him… all I believed to remain of him. When I came home I felt so dreadfully alone. I’d gotten used to the sounds of other people and the bonds of kinship. I couldn’t go back to having just my books and my armchair there to greet me at day’s end. So I braided his hair with some of my own and made a seed to plant.” He looks at his hands once more. They’re still steady, which is surprising. Perhaps he’s stronger than he ever gave himself credit for. “You’ve seen what grew from it.”

“Indeed, I have.” Gandalf agrees. “Fine healthy lads. Lads who, I think, their other father would dearly like to know.”

“I… yes, you’re right of course, but the journey…?” Bilbo frowns. It’s such a long trip, especially by the routes he’d have to travel with little ones in tow. There will be no cutting through Mirkwood, no matter what Thranduil’s people have done to secure the road there since. They’ll have to book passage on a river barge, if such a thing can be had. Oh, what a bother! And to think, by comparison that first trip was all short-cut!

“I have business in the East, but I think that perhaps it must wait.” Gandalf decides aloud. “I can take you to Rivendell and from there arrange for you a trustworthy escort.”

“I don’t suppose I have the luxury to decline, do I, Gandalf?” Bilbo asks and is not surprised by the other’s grave nod.

“No, you do not.” Gandalf agrees. “Now the children have finished washing and are hoping we have not noticed so lets us talk of more cheerful things.”

“Of course.” Bilbo says, but the heavy hand of dread is on his shoulder now. He is not looking forward to this trip at all, although his boys take to the news with much so much rejoicing that it’s all he can do to get them to sleep that night.

Gandalf leaves the next morning to arrange for a pony cart while Bilbo goes next door to leave his key with old Hamfast for the duration.

“Going visiting are you?” Hamfast asks with a queer squint and an oddly guilty shuffle.

“I am.” Bilbo tells him.

“Be seeing elves, will you?” Hamfast asks again.

“Some, yes. In Rivendell and beyond.” Bilbo agrees again. “What of it?”

“Then perhaps you’ll allow me to ask of you a favor.” Hamfast sighs and it’s a sigh of defeat. “You see, I’m not getting any younger and my littlest, Samwise, is owed a Birthday wish. He wants to meet some Elves and I’ve yet to find him any. They pass through here on occasion on their way to those gray ships of theirs, but they’re never in a mood to chat with a curious fauntling, you ken?”

“Oh, I see.” Bilbo nods and it is a thorny problem, although not one he would have predicted. The elves he knows are kind to a fault and generous with the young, but perhaps it’s different at the end when they feel themselves being called out of this world. Maybe their minds are on other things. “It’s not an easy journey I’m going on, Gaffer Gamgee. I’m already of mixed feeling bringing my own boys, but it’s not entirely my choice. I will gladly take him, but this is not a holiday. There may be danger before we return home.”

“Perhaps that’s for the best.” Hamfast says thoughtfully, as he taps out his pipe with his heel. “Big wishes like that. They’re costly and he ought to learn the truth of that. He’ll be of use to you, I dare say, being a bit older than your littles. He’s had his first growth and I think you’ll be glad of someone to help you mind them all before it’s over. Think on it, will you? I’ll mind the house either way you decide.”

Gandalf arrives with the cart later that afternoon, while Bilbo is still doing up buttons and checking various pockets for handkerchiefs. “I see we have one extra, Mister Baggins.” He observes with an amused drawl that makes young Samwise scowl, but his attention is soon diverted when Grim and Frodo start a scuffle.

“Gaffer Gamgee asked a favor of me.” Bilbo explains and then winces as the youngest Gamgee gets each fauntling by the ear and drags them off one another. “I think he’ll be useful.”

“That he will be.” Gandalf agrees with a slow nod. “I can tell already.”

The route to Rivendell is blessedly quiet. There are fewer orc parties these days, although not for any good reason. Rumor has it that they’re migrating to the South-East, where no good things live. They give the Trollshaws wide berth, much to Grim’s vocal disappointment. One of his chief ambitions for the trip was to see the stone statues left behind by the trolls in his father’s stories.

“They exist, young one.” Gandalf assures him. “I have seen them myself, but you’ll have to be a bit larger and able to run faster before it would be wise to risk that exact route. Do not fret. They still stand and will continue to do so for a great many years.”

“I’m going to go on my own adventure when I’m bigger.” Grim tells Frodo, all full of confidence. “And slay my own dragon too!”

“Let us hope you don’t need to.” Bilbo laughs and ruffles his curly blonde hair. “I, for one, have seen what a dragon will do to the surrounding area when it settles in. It isn’t at all nice for those who have to clean up after it.”

“If one does then, me and Bobbin, we’ll go a-slaying.” Grim insists. “Frodo can come too.” He allows graciously and his cousin looks pleased at being included. Usually Samwise can count on an invitation to Grim’s prophesied adventures as well, but he has yet to be forgiven for hitting his first growth ahead of the others.

“Perhaps you will, my dears.” Bilbo looks up at the sky, glad that his days of looking up and finding death in the skies are well over. “…but adventures have their way of surprising you, so don’t set your heart on dragon-slaying, hmmm?”

“No, Da.” Bobbin agrees and Grim grumbles his own assent while Frodo nods sagely.

The Elves of Rivendell greet them warmly and Lord Elrond turns out to be particularly fond of children in the same way many of Bilbo’s own uncle were, which his hellions interpret as license to run wild. To his surprise, Lord Elrond not only permits it but seems to enjoy the experience.

“It has been a very long time since my own child was this size.” The Elf Lord explains once a meal has been both served and then tidied away. Even at their worst, Bilbo is pleased to see that all his sons make better guests than that long ago party of dwarves. There is much that Bilbo is willing to tolerate, but bad table manners means being banished from the meal. No Hobbit is willing to suffer that fate more than once.

At the same time, Bilbo has met the Lady Arwen and has a hard time envisioning her being anything other than a sweet and biddable girl. Lord Elrond laughs when he says this out loud. He laughs and laughs and laughs and when he is finally done, he allows that his child has grown up well.

“It is a shame their mother could not be here with you.” Lord Elrond muses as one of his serving folk sets out trays of both sweet and savory afters.

(There has been all-together more meat at this one meal than Bilbo remembers Elrond’s people serving during the entire week Thorin’s company stayed with them all those years ago. He would not have believed it at the time, but Bilbo now realizes that Elrond may well have enjoyed a small prank at the expense of his Dwarfish guests.)

“We haven’t got a mother.” Grim announces with a perplexed crinkle to his brow. Bobbin elbows him, but not as hard as he usually does.

“The boys have the right of it.” Bilbo explains. “I never married, but I did want children. So here we are.”

Lord Elrond frowns. “… but what of the woman who bore them?” He asks and looks first to Bilbo, then to Gandalf when he fails to get any answer other than a confused frown.

“I’m not sure what you mean?” Bilbo hopes he hasn’t offended their host, but… “…why are you assuming there was a woman involved? In what capacity?”

Gandalf lays a hand on Elrond’s wrist and murmurs something in the high Elven tongue, of which Bilbo knows very little. His Sindarin is better than his Quenya and fatherhood has made him into an inconstant scholar.

Elrond answers in that same language only to receive an answer that seems to flummox him all the more, but he does not seem angry at least. “Forgive me.” He says after another exchange. “Elven customs are very different from yours it seems and I made a hasty assumption.”

“Not a problem at all.” Bilbo hastens to assure him. “Big Folk in general seem to be a bit confused about how we do things in the Shire. It’s nothing to worry over.”

“Indeed.” Lord Elrond coughs into his napkin and then calls for another topic.

They stay with the elves for a few days in order to let the faunts rest. Frodo is coming up on his first growth and while it would never have been Bilbo’s choice to travel at a time like this, one does what one must. He is approached on a few occasions by elves draped in healer’s green and they question him about Hobbit childbirth. Bilbo answers as honestly as he may within the boundaries of tradition and good manners, but his companions often leave these conversations with more questions than they arrived with.

Gandalf arranges a guide for them in the form of a young ranger by the name of Strider, who is a quiet sort and has a confusion about proper meal times that seems very typical of the Big Folk. Bilbo learns quickly to arrange meals that can be eaten on the move because what Strider lacks in social niceties he makes up for in his woodscraft.

Still, it’s a bit frustrating and makes him miss his dwarves all the more. After all, he never had to explain the difference between dinner and supper to any of his old companions. Imagine not knowing about second breakfast and eating three whopping great meals a day. Bilbo can hardly imagine what digestion must be like for Big Folk. It probably explains Strider’s general sour outlook. Dwarves, at least, have a proper understanding of such things!

Bilbo has never been so glad to see a boat as he is the river barge Strider arranges passage for them on. With four exhausted fauntlings in tow and a long-shanks setting their pace, Bilbo is actually looking forward to a week or two spent in constant terror that one of his charges is either about to or in the process of tipping over the side and drowning.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how one looks at it) nature decides to grant them the blessing of a constant cold drizzle that keeps the fauntlings below decks and huddled into Bilbo’s sides for warmth.

“Are they really so cold?” Strider asks one evening as he observes Bobbin trying to wedge his entire body into Bilbo’s armpit.

“Yes.” Bilbo sighs. “They don’t produce much of their own heat until their first growth. You see young Samwise is doing a bit better.”

“Only a bit, Mister Bilbo.” Samwise mutters and shivers in abject misery.

“Come here then and add your heat to the rest of us.” Bilbo says and shuffles Frodo into his lap to make room.

“Here.” Is the only warning Strider gives them before the damp warm weight of his cloak settles over them all. “This will help.”

“Thank you.” Bilbo tells him and moved the edges around until they’re sealed in on all sides.

“Make no mention of it.” Strider tells him and departs for the upper decks. Perhaps it’s his imagination, but Bilbo could swear that he heard the man murmur ‘What odd little creatures’ before going.

All told, Bilbo is grateful to see Lake Town although it is much reduced in these later years. Many of its people relocated to Dale and those who do live here do so on a seasonal basis. Still, there’s a small inn that has hot baths and a good meals for reasonable prices.

“This is where I leave you.” Strider informs Bilbo. “There will be a patrol from Dale in the morning and they provide escort for travelers to their city. I will be by this way again in a month and seek you out at the Mountain.”

“Thank you for your help, Strider.” Bilbo presses a parcel into his hands. It’s not much, but it’s the last of the sweet travel bread he brought with him from the Shire. It’s his own recipe based on Beorn’s honeycakes, although never so cloyingly sweet. “It’s not much, but I think it might be nice to have a break from those queer little loaves the Elves gave to you.”

“I thank you, Master Hobbit.” Strider says in his grave way. “I appreciate your thinking of me. Travel safely and I hope we all meet again in good time.”

That is the last Bilbo sees of Strider, or rather Aragorn as he shall one day come to know the man, for a while. It is a peaceful parting, if not a wholly happy one for no patrol arrives in the morning. It is in fact an entire week before they appear.

“There have been raiders in the vicinity.” Is the explanation the guard captain gives to Bilbo. “Some patrols were suspended, but we received word that there were travelers with small children in Lake Town so my Lord Bard had some of us make the time.” He cocks his head. “You are like no Dwarf I have ever seen. What manner of creature are you?”

“I am a Hobbit, sir.” Bilbo tells him. “Mister Bilbo Baggins of Bag End at your service and these are my sons.”

The guards have up until this point regarded him with the sort of weary indulgence he’s come to anticipate from Big Folk, who look at him and see something very close to one of their own children, but they take notice of his name and are more respectful after. Someone pays his tab at the Inn without leaving a name and the Guards all ride close by when they depart Lake Town. They do not ease up at all until they reach the walls surrounding Dale. Even then they deliver him and his family directly into the household of his old friend, Bard, who is now Lord of Dale.

“Bilbo Baggins!” Bard greets him with as much joy as Bilbo has ever seen in him, which in another man would be mild amusement. From Bard it is every outpouring of good fellowship. “I thought you might come for the Dwarves’ ceremony. Your name is well known in these parts and my men have standing orders to bring you here to enjoy my hospitality. You and your children are welcome here.”

Bard at least asks none of the impertinent questions Bilbo has come to expect. Instead he gives them a meal and beds for the night. He feeds them again the next morning and sends them on to the Mountain with another guard, which endears him to Bilbo like no other. Bard must have a Hobbit’s soul, he thinks, housed in too large of a body.

They make good time to the Mountain and when they arrive at the front gate, which is now unblocked, Bilbo sees something he never thought to expect; a welcoming party headed by Fili and Kili.

Time has not changed either of them much and even though they both carry scars from that old war Bilbo has never seen a merrier pair of Dwarves. They flank him on either side with much back-pounding and happy greetings that nothing seems to be able to stop until young Samwise calls out to Bilbo for help getting Bobbin and Frodo down from their pony. Grim is already on the ground and looking dangerously bored.

“What’s this?”Fili murmurs and plucks the faunts out of their saddle, one in each hand. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen Hobbits so small.”

“Nor will you this far out of the Shire.” Bilbo agrees and takes Bobbin from Fili when it looks like the faunt is about ready to bite. Frodo, on the other hand, seems to be enjoying the treatment so Bilbo lets Fili keep him. “The two here are my sons, Bobbin and Grim. The one you’re holding is my nephew, Frodo, who lives with us. The last is Samwise Gamgee, who helps me as a caretaker.  Boys, these Dwarves are Fili and Kili, who you will know from the stories I’ve told you.”

Grim squints up at Fili with a deep skepticism. “Did you really shoot a warg in the nose with your bow and arrow?”

“No, lad.” Fili corrects him and tucks Frodo under one arm so that he might kneel down. “That was my younger brother, Kili. Knives and the axe are my weapons. Tell me: are you the younger or older brother?”

“Bobbin was first.” Grim makes a face. “…but Da says I’m loudest.”

“Then we have something in common!” Kili lifts Grim up onto his shoulders. “I’m the youngest and loudest as well. We will get on well, I think, young Master Baggins. You’ve been holding out on us, Bilbo! You should have written. Bofur at least would have sent toys.” He chuckles. “Maybe too many.”

“Forgive me.” Bilbo adjusts Bobbin on his hip and chuckles as his eldest holds on all the tighter. There have been too many strangers of late and Bobbin has never been particularly fond of being handled by those he doesn’t know. “I haven’t been a very faithful correspondent of late in recent years.”

“Think nothing of it.” Fili tells him. “That you’re here now is enough. Come, you’ll want time to refresh yourselves.”

“You know, Brother…” Kili chimes in with a smile that Bilbo does not like the look of. “With the little ones, Bilbo may need the use of a suite rather than a berth in the guest quarter.”

“A suite?” Fili’s answering grin seals their doom. “Oh, I see. Yes. You’re right, brother. That would be best and I think I know of one not in use.”

“It’s good to see that time and responsibility haven’t changed you.” Bilbo tells Fili as he resigns himself to whatever clever trick the brothers have up their sleeves.

“Hah!” Fili chuckles and leads the way into Erebor’s lofty halls. “Never.”

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

Bofur is the one who gets him the tea and sits with him as Bilbo sorts himself out after what is now the most distressing conversation he’s ever had the misfortune to be a part of ---and that includes the whole ‘potential incineration’ exchange some ten years back.

“…but wasn’t it upsetting?” He asks Bofur. “Being…” He shudders, unable to even vocalize it. “Grown inside a person? How did they ever get you out?” He blinks and adds in a hurry, “Wait. Please don’t tell me. I’m not sure I want to know.”

“Well, no one really remembers being born.” Bofur tells him soothingly. “Or anything much at all for the first few years.”

“Gracious me.” Bilbo feels a world of empathy for all his friends now. Being born as a Dwarf sounds terribly traumatic. He’s sure he’d block a similar experience out as well. “Well, this does rather explain a conversation I had with Lord Elrond several months back. Do you suppose Elves have children the same way you do?”

“To be honest, I try not to think on it.” Bofur says and pats him on the shoulder. “Although I do think I’d have liked to have been a mouse in a corner for that conversation if only to see the look on his face. Here now, are you feeling better?”

“Yes, yes. I didn’t mean to cause a fuss.” Bilbo assures him and Bofur waves to the assembled company, who have retreated a bit to give him space.

Feris gives him a great big kiss on his forehead and a hug to apologize, but for the most part there is a concentrated effort to change the subject that Bilbo has a great appreciation for. Imagine the stories he’ll have to tell the neighbors back home! At last, he has the explanation for why the Breefolk are so queer and sour. Poor creatures.

It is much later, although not very late by the standard of Dwarves who keep their own hours, and Bombur has called to the kitchen for refreshments when the door opens once more to admit the last of the visitors.

Bilbo is reminded, despite himself, of opening his door all those years ago to find Thorin Oakenshield standing on his front step –looking remarkably the same.

Monarchy doesn’t seem to have changed Thorin much. His clothes are newer, but not much richer and he has Orcrist buckled at his side. He has a few more braids and silver in his hair, but other than that it is as if no time has passed at all.

“Master Burglar.” He says with a nod. “You’ve been missed.”

“As have you, old friend.” It’s just as well no one can hear the irregular thumping of his heart. This is what he came all this way to see, after all. “I’d have come sooner if… well. Never mind. Come in! Come in! We’re all here and it’s a merry party.”

“Uncle! Is Mum with you?” Kili asks, slinging an arm around his uncle’s shoulders. “You won’t guess what we’ve found out, but I won’t say if she’s on her way. I rather like Balin’s head where it is and it might not stay there if the news isn’t broken to her carefully.”

“Dis is staying behind to supervise the closing arguments.” Thorin rumbles giving his nephew a sideways glare. “She asked me to give her apologies to our guest and invite him to family breakfast. She is looking forward to meeting you, Burglar.”

“And I her.” Bilbo says, which is only the truth. He has a new awe of Dwarfish ladies that is bordering on unbearable and will probably take a while to fade.

Thorin is… well, there’s no other word for it; he’s staring at Bilbo like he could drink him in using just his eyes. Then he abruptly turns his head and says, “Please leave us.” He looks to the assembled company. “I would speak with him alone.”

“Ah, Uncle, that might not be…” Kili deflates a little under his uncle’s stare. “As you wish.”

Bilbo stands rooted in place, unable to speak or even twitch as the room empties and he is left alone with someone he never thought to see ever again this side of death.

Thorin closes the distance between them in three short strides and his mouth comes down hard on Bilbo’s. Just like that, it’s like they’ve never been apart and Bilbo is kissing back, chasing that elusive taste that nothing has ever been able to match inside the realm of his experience.

“I should be…” Thorin pulls back panting before diving back in again. His hands are almost bruisingly tight on Bilbo’s shoulders, but the pain feels good. It feels real like nothing else ever does. “I should be furious with you.”

“You can.” Bilbo agrees as he fumbles with the catches on Thorin’s brigandine. Confounded dwarf! Why is he wearing so many layers? Bilbo has met iron nuts that were easier to get into. “You should.” Something is blurring his vision and his blinks furiously. “Balin told me you’d been ‘sent to sleep’ … I thought he was breaking it to me gently.”

You…” Thorin swears and does something enormously clever that Bilbo will appreciate later that ends with his mail coat discarded on the floor and Bilbo’s following close behind. “We won’t talk of that now, but we will discuss it.” He growls and drags Bilbo down to ground.

So, of course, that is when there is a small noise from the doorway and Bilbo looks up to see Bobbin standing there only half-awake. “Da, I need the water closet.” He mumbles and then blinks. “…what’re you doing? Who’s that?”

“I, ah… half a moment.” Bilbo feels his ears go hot as he hitches his trousers up. “This is… this is a friend of mine, Bobbin. We were just saying hello.”

Thorin pulls away, looking at Bobbin and then back to Bilbo. There’s confusion in his eyes and a growing darkness.

“Stay there.” Bilbo tells him. “I mean that. I’ll be back in a heartbeat.”

Bobbin doesn’t need much help in the bathroom, but he isn’t much fond of the dark and tends to get lost when he’s not fully awake. Bilbo takes the opportunity to clear his head from the fog that Thorin inevitably clouds his brain with. Really, he should have anticipated this. He remembers all too well the way the Dwarf King always had of making Bilbo’s brain head straight for his trousers.

Thorin is still there and staring into the fire in his shirtsleeves when Bilbo returns with Bobbin mostly asleep on his hip.

“One moment. I need to put him down with the others.” Bilbo doesn’t expect Thorin to follow him, but he does and stands silently as Bilbo lays Bobbin down next to his brother, who promptly squidges over to over him with little octopus limbs.

They leave quietly and Bilbo doesn’t let out the breath he’s holding until he’s able to close the door without anyone waking up in need of a glass of water or reassurance after a nightmare.

“You’ve started a family.” Thorin observes and makes no move to touch Bilbo again. “Forgive me. I had not realized.”

“I… did, yes.” Bilbo agrees. “Shortly after I got home.” He huffs a laugh that doesn’t quite deserve the name. “I blame your lot, actually. Spoiled me for company after that. Bag End just wasn’t the same after. Too cold. Too quiet. I almost packed it up for Erebor half a dozen times, but… well. I couldn’t bear seeing it without you there.”

“You should have come for the others then.” Thorin replies in that same quiet slightly distant voice. “…but I understand. We did not part well. The others tell me we –spoke before I was taken to the Stones. I don’t recall it and there were no witnesses to the conversation. Did we?” He looks to Bilbo now. “Did we make our peace?”

Bilbo’s throat is dry and clicks when he replies. “We did. You told me your goodbyes and we… oh, blast it, Thorin. I said it then and I still mean it. I still love you no matter what damn fool things you said and I… I regret all the things I said in return.”

“I am glad of it then.” Thorin bows his head and lists against the mantelpiece, bracing himself with one forearm. “I was unaware that you had married. Forgive me, I should not have presumed as I did.”

He did not think that he would ever have cause to be glad of the many awkward conversations he’s had in the past few months on the subject of his sons, but Bilbo is now. This time, at least, he knows what to say. “I’m not married, although I can see why you would think that. I’ve had a very distressing conversation with Lady Feris on the subject where we both learned to our shock that Hobbits and Dwarves go about the business of making little ones very differently.” He pauses to appreciate the look on Thorin’s face. “In the Shire, it’s perfectly possible for a bachelor to have children if he likes with no need of marrying –although I’ve learned since why most people do. It’s a very busy occupation, being a parent, but… well. I was lonely and it seemed a shame that everything I had would go to those Sackville-Baggins should I die.” He pauses to wet his lips and gather his courage. “So you had every right to presume and I would hope that you continue to do so.” 

“Then you are still unattached?” Thorin reaches out and brushes his thumb along Bilbo’s lower lip in an echo of the way they used to steal minutes together here and there for snatches of hidden contact.

“I am.” Bilbo smiles, leaning into it. “Unless you’ve staked a claim.”

“…and if I have?” Thorin asks, pushing away from the hearth and stepping closer. “What if I am staking my claim?”

“Then we’ll have a lot to discuss.” Bilbo sighs and catches Thorin’s hand so that he can turn his face into it. This is what he’s missed the most, to tell the truth; that elusive alchemy of touch and contact. “Including my boys. I will not lie to you, Thorin. It’s a concern.”

“I could provide them with a good life here in the mountain.” Thorin says and wraps his free arm around Bilbo’s waist. “I have raised children before. I am no stranger to it and I believe I would like any child that came from you. Their other parent cannot object or else she would be here with you.”

“That’s what we must talk about.” Bilbo says with a leaden feeling where his stomach used to be. “You see, you are their other parent. When I said we did things differently in the Shire, well… I really meant that.” He braces himself, prepared for the outburst …and then fails to receive one.

Thorin is merely staring at him with brows lowered in thunderous confusion and a silent invitation to keep talking until something starts making sense.

“You must understand, until recently I thought the way we have children in Shire was –you know, the way things are generally done. We became involved and you gave me your token before I went into scout Smaug’s den.” Bilbo hurries to explain.

“My gharâf. I recall.” Thorin replies, searching Bilbo’s face for…something. “It was meant as a connection… in case you died. So that we might meet again in the next world.”

“I…oh.” Bilbo coughs. “Dear me, you see I did not know that. I thought it was something else; something we Hobbits do.” He looks down. “Such a gift is an offering of –well, a future together, I suppose you could say. I thought you were giving me incentive to be careful. Then we fought and I assumed that offer to be rescinded even though you did not request its return.” He takes a breath. “Then we mended our fences after the war and I thought… I thought you wouldn’t mind if I used it.”

“Used it?” Thorin cranes his head down to get a look at Bilbo. “Used it how?”

“I braided it with my own hair and made it into a seed.” Bilbo clears his throat and looks Thorin in the eye. It’s a good sign, perhaps, that Thorin has not stopped touching him. Perhaps they can get through this without shouting. “And I… well, I planted it. I more than half expected it wouldn’t grow. After all, what do I know of gardening? But –you have strong children, Thorin. Two of them. Twins. They’re asleep in the other room. Please, you must understand that if I’d known you lived I’d have never presumed to do this without your permission and if you are angry I will understand. We can leave and you need nev-”

He goes obediently quiet as Thorin stops his mouth with a hand.

“Show them to me.” He says and there’s a rich vein of words left unspoken lingering in the air between them.

The fauntlings are dead to the world and tangled up in a knot of limbs and snores when Bilbo brings Thorin into the bedroom. Bilbo guides Thorin’s hand first to Bobbin’s silky cap of inky black curls and then to Grim’s blonde halo.

“There are more than two.” Thorin’s whispers.

“Frodo is my nephew and Samwise is the child of a friend.” Bilbo explains. “Come, if we wake them again they won’t go back to sleep and everyone will pay for it tomorrow. You can meet them properly in the morning.”

Thorin allows himself to be guided back out into the sitting room where he remains silent and still standing while Bilbo waits for his reaction.

…he does not expect it when the Dwarf’s legs suddenly give out under him and he lands on the carpet hard.

“Thorin? Thorin!” Bilbo kneels at his side, careful of touching the man as he has no idea whether the contact would be welcome any longer only Thorin reaches out blind and grasps him by the shoulder.

“You will not leave.” Thorin focuses in on Bilbo and hauls him closer, almost into his lap. “I will send… I’ll send soldiers for your belongings. You will stay here. They will stay here. The Shire has had them for ten years. Erebor has an equal claim. You will not leave again.”

“We won’t leave, Thorin.” Bilbo promises. “We won’t leave you.” Can’t is perhaps a better word for Bilbo at least. There are things he’s always been strong about, but this was never one of them. He’s sure he could leave if it was Thorin’s wish, but otherwise…

Thorin looks to him and drags him in close without warning to cover Bilbo’s mouth with his own. “I am displeased with you, Burglar. I have sons who have lived apart from Dwarves, who know not their mother tongue or the eddas of their ancestors.” Still, he kisses Bilbo again –softly this time. “However… you have given me children when I thought I would have none and I will welcome a blessing that is delayed over one that is denied.”

“I will make it up to you.” Bilbo promises and allows Thorin to settle him across his thighs. “I have no idea how I’m going to do that, but I will do it.”

“Indeed you shall.” Thorin agrees. “You’ll begin by showing me your bed and then you will tell me everything that I have missed –starting from the second your feet left my lands.”

“That…” Bilbo feels some of the apprehension that has settled in his limbs start to trickle away and be replaced by a fragile and tenuous hope. “I can do that.”

“Begin immediately.” Thorin suggests.

Chapter Text

Thorin doesn’t particularly want to return to his own apartments and he flatters himself to think that Bilbo’s no more eager to see him go than Thorin is to leave, but the marks of a long hard journey linger on his burglar’s face and he keeps nodding off whenever conversation lulls only to jerk back awake half a heartbeat later. He blinks furiously and tries to pretend it didn’t happen -which Thorin allows to pass the first few times- but it is soon apparent that their evening together must come to an end.

“I should take my leave.” He murmurs, pressing a kiss again Bilbo’s forehead. “I should not be here when they wake.”

Bilbo frowns thoughtfully, propping himself up on one elbow. “I’m not sure as they’d notice, really. They aren’t at their best in the morning.” He grins; a soft and intimate little expression that Thorin has missed more than the touches, more than the heat of another body against his own, and almost more than the sight of a small man with tousled blonde curls tangled in his bedsheets. “I wonder where they got that from.”

“I wonder.” Thorin replies and nips Bilbo’s shoulder.

It’s been far too long since he last had Bilbo in his arms and much has passed in the interim –more than even Thorin himself was aware of.

Even now he can feel the ghost of silky curls in-between his fingers, softer even than Kili’s had been as a newborn and at the time Thorin had been convinced that nothing else in the world could ever be so fine to the touch.

That Bilbo allows Thorin to tuck the blankets in around him is as much a sign as anything that the hour has grown too late. Perhaps his burglar has mellowed with time and become less stubbornly independent, but Thorin rather seriously doubts that.

“I will send a valet for you in the morning.” Thorin pauses, wets his lips, and… Bilbo still tastes good to him. Better than good. He tastes right and opens up under Thorin like a flower turning towards the sun. This, at least, is nothing his memories could improve upon and he’s spent enough time with only those for comfort to know. Bilbo kisses him back, every bit as hungrily as the first time when they first came together under the influence of too much mead and long denied mutual attraction in a dark corner of the skinchanger’s hall. The feeling that rises up inside him in response is every bit as strong as the first time, but Thorin isn’t impaired right now and there is no excuse.

“You could stay.” Bilbo offers and puts a surprisingly strong forearm behind the nape of Thorin’s neck to coax him back down onto the mattress. It’s tempting –very, very tempting- to stay and acquaint himself with the changes time has wrought on one Bilbo Baggins. He’s stronger now, for one, and sun-bronzed with hidden muscles under that layer of tenacious Halfing fat that only the worst of deprivations can banish and Thorin would like nothing better than to map them out with his hands in the darkness.

“If I stay, you will not be allowed to sleep.” Thorin tells him and kisses him one more time. “I like you too well to inflict my sister on you without proper rest.” It’s not wholly a lie, but it’s… a mercy. For Thorin, at least. For now.

He tries to make himself believe it, anyway.

“Sleep well, Bilbo.” He makes himself let go and leaves.

Thorin lets himself out through the doors connecting through the family bath and is only half-surprised to find Dis sitting up for him in his own receiving chamber with his dog asleep on her feet and a ledger open in her lap. She looks up at him with candlelight sparkling off the golden rim of her rounded spectacles.

“The servants have informed me that your lost Halfling has arrived with children in tow.” She says to him instead of ‘hello’. “Shall I have an assassin sent to the Shire? I’m told Halflings can remarry when they’ve been widowed. It will be a sad time for your burglar, I’m sure, but he and his sons will have the comfort of the royal family. Surely that will soften the blow somewhat.”

“Keep your knives sheathed, sister.” Thorin sighs and drops himself in an open chair, which creaks alarmingly under the accumulated weight of both him and his court armor. “That will not be necessary.”

“You think to buy the wife’s absence then?” Dis clicks her tongue in disapproval. “I have no great opinion of one whose honor can be purchased and they usually end up dead anyway. A removal would be more cost effective and less likely to result in future -unpleasantries.”

Enough, Dis.” Thorin drops his hand from where he’s been shielding his eyes from the fire and stares her down. “There is no need of silencing. He is unwed.” He pauses, considers his options, and finally adds; “…he informed me tonight that the children are mine; conceived in the tradition of the Shire when he believed me to be dead.”

Dis, his beloved flinty-hearted sibling, merely raises one jet-black brow in response. Thorin rather doubts she’d show upset even if another dragon were to storm their walls. She was born hard and their years of exile only made her harder. What softness remains is something she rations and usually chooses to spend only on her sons and immediate family members who aren’t her older brother.

My.” She says. “I had heard rumors about the Halflings, living as we did in Ered Luin, but had not thought to lend them any credence.” She marks her place in the ledger with a worn satin ribbon, and places it on the ground. “I will have to change my opinion. How did this come to pass?”

“The details are of no matter.” Thorin leans back in his seat to stare at the ceiling. At least it has no expression to judge him with. “I gave him a token of myself intended as one thing and he received it as another. Then he was given to believe that I had passed into the halls of our Ancestors so he returned to his home to find comfort where he could.”

Dis’ silence is all but damning, but she is studiously observing the fire when he dares to look.

“Dis…” He says.

“What is done is done.” She says, flicking her skirts in his direction. “You need not worry that I will heap ‘I told you so’s on your head. The situation is not so dire. I had hoped for better, but feared worse. This is yet salvageable.”

“I have invited him and the children to join us for the family meal.” Thorin doesn’t particularly want to know what his sister means by ‘salvageable’, but has learned that ignorance is no defense when it comes to Dis’s way of doing things. “There, we will be formally introduced.”

Dis cocks her head. “Have you met them informally?”

“They were asleep, but Bilbo showed them to me. They are…” Thorin thinks of a word to sum up the strange welter of emotion he’d felt looking on those two tiny faces in the dim light. Given half a chance, he thinks he would have gladly stayed seated by their bedside, watching them sleep. One was very nearly the image of Bilbo with messy blonde curls and fierce little brown eyebrows over a snub nose, but the other… “They are fine and well formed. One will bear close and careful watching.”

“How so?” Dis blinks, which is fine display of emotion from her.

“He has a strong family countenance.” Thorin looks up to the statue seated above his mantelpiece; a heavy thing carved out of black granite that actually forms part of the fireplace and has been there since the earliest days of Erebor. It is a likeness that every member of his family is taught to recognize as soon as they are able to in preparation of the day when its owner chooses to be born into this world once more.

Dis follows his gaze and gasps softly as she realizes what exactly he means.

“Perhaps it is only a resemblance.” She tells him. “Mother once told me she worried over you as well, but nothing came of it. We share his blood. Many of our line are born to look like him.”

“Perhaps.” Thorin allows while thinking of a small body tucked into the curve of his brother’s side. For the boy’s sake at least and for that of his people at most he hopes it is just a family resemblance.

Erebor isn’t prepared for more than that.

The next morning either comes too soon or not soon enough. Thorin finds his opinion changing by the minute as his valet bustles him through the carnival that his mornings have become.

He wakes before the sun rises after only a few hours of sleep and allows his body servant to shove him through the daily ritual of washing and dressing. Someone brings him strong tea and a roll to break his fast as he listens to one of Balin’s aides give a report on the reconstruction of a region he vaguely recalls as having been a low-rent red light district serving the mines back in the days before Smaug. Balin has vague plans to turn into a community park or a site for mushroom cultivation since there doesn’t seem to be much else to do with it.

For once, few emergencies seem to have arisen during his slumber and while there are plenty who would dearly like his attention he can’t identify anyone who truly needs it, so Thorin is quite happy to let Dis send the crowd scattering when she arrives to collect him for family breakfast, which is one of the few meals during the day for him that no one is allowed to disturb. Normally he looks forward to it.

“I will give the Halfing due credit.” Dis sniffs as she escorts him out of his receiving room, sending courtiers running with a few well-placed glares. “He rises at an acceptable hour and maintains good discipline. Perhaps his presence within the family will give you good cause to put an end to the dawn receiving hour.”

Thorin chokes on a cough. “When did you meet Bilbo?”

“I haven’t.” Dis replies in her cool manner. “My door is thin and I heard him and the little ones in the family bath chamber. You need not worry that I intruded on his privacy. I only had a body servant sent to attend to their needs, which were surprisingly few.”

…which meant that she’d interrogated the poor soul she sent in there afterwards as well.

Thorin lets it pass. He’s learned to pick his battles and accepts that Dis has taken an exceptional interest in Bilbo for reasons that are no one’s fault, save Thorin’s own.

Fili and Kili are awake, dressed, and already seated in the family dining chamber which is a rare sight. Usually they come straggling in late within some ten or twenty minutes of one another, occasionally hungover, and often in their nightshirts. Thorin would blame them, but he remembers his own stint with the home guard and that had been during the peace years when the worst they could expect was an unannounced visitor. Ten years in and the region still isn’t settled enough to deter raiders or goblins.

Today, however, they are bright-eyed and attentive and it isn’t hard to guess why when a guard opens the door to admit three very small and wide-eyed fauntlings followed by Bilbo and his young aide. Two of them home in on Fili and Kili, but the dark one (your firstborn, a traitorous part of his mind whispers) lingers at Bilbo’s side. He has pale intelligent blue eyes roam restlessly over the room settling briefly on Dis and then finally coming to rest on Thorin.

The boy tugs at Bilbo’s sleeve and is rewarded when his father kneels to listen. Bilbo gives Thorin a smile and murmurs something into the boy’s ear. He glances at Thorin with a question in his eyes.

Thorin nods. As stressful as his night has been, he doesn’t particularly want to wait.

“Grim, come here for a moment and let Frodo have Fili and Kili to himself.” Grim favors his father with a look of extreme skepticism that is identical to the one Bilbo wore once when Thorin called him a green grocer to his face, but disengages from Kili who’s been giving him a pony-ride on one knee and obediently goes over to Bilbo’s side. “I would like to introduce you to someone who has been waiting a very long to meet you both.”

Bilbo turns them both to face Thorin and places a hand at the back of their heads. “Thorin Oakenshield, I would like to present to you Isengrim Baggins and Durin Baggins.” Bilbo takes a breath and misses Dis’ soft intake of breath. “Boys, this is your other father.”

Chapter Text

Grim is, unsurprisingly, the first to warm to Thorin and sits next to him during the meal. Bobbin suffers from a sudden attack of shyness and keeps Bilbo between them, which would be more effective if he weren’t stealing glances down the table at Thorin every few seconds.

For his part, Bilbo isn’t offering Thorin any help beyond an encouraging smile and a soft, “You’re doing fine.”

Frodo has a pair of ardent admirers in Fili and Kili, who are doing an admirable job of not staring at Bobbin like he’s the seventh coming of Durin the Deathless. Dis meanwhile is either keeping Samwise entertained with conversation, or amusing herself by seeing just how long it will take her to make the poor child faint from sheer nerves. It’s hard to tell with Dis sometimes.

“Bobbin’s shy.” He tells Thorin in a conspiratorial whisper. Grim started the meal sitting in the chair next to him, but has since migrated off his seat and into Thorin’s lap where he is magnanimously allowing the older man to cut up the cured pork belly on his plate. “He’s afraid of people sometimes, says you have to be careful before you let them close. I think he’s just touchy because of folk like Pimple and Pimple’s mum.”

“And who is ‘Pimple’?” Thorin asks, while handing Grim a napkin to tuck into his collar. The utensils at their table are a bit large for smaller-than-usual hands and Grim at least is having difficulties managing.

“Pimple’s our cousin Lotho. We call him Pimple on account of he’s got so many an’ sometimes I think he ought to be popped like one. He’s a scab. He used to give Bobbin grief, but Bobbin don’t put up with that much –only Pimple ain’t so smart that he remembers it for long.” Grim explains with most of his attention focused squarely on stabbing himself a slice of melon without it skidding across the table. His manners are good for one so small and he seems dedicated to them, which is a stark difference from what Thorin recalls of teaching his nephews table etiquette. Perhaps the Hobbits are onto something. “His mum is our cousin Lobelia and she’s fierce with her umbrella. Da likes to play the quiet game when she visits. He wins sometimes, but Cousin Lobelia is stubborn and will come in the back door if it’s not locked.”

“…and what, pray tell, is this ‘quiet game?’” Dis asks, proving that she’s been half-listening to Grim’s babble all while putting young Samwise in fear for his life with her mere presence at the same time.

Thorin feels for the boy.

“Ah, well… someone has to knock on the door in order for you to play.” Grim explains with his small face screwed up in a mask of concentration. “The game is to find a place to hide with no windows and if you’re in a part of the house where there is a window, you’ve got to get past it without the person outside seeing. If the person on the step goes away then the person inside wins. If the person outside sees the person inside then they win and get to come in. I guess the prize is a glass of brandy because Cousin Lobelia always makes Da get her one when she gets in and if Da wins, then he pours it for himself once he’s sure she’s gone.”

“Play this game often, does your Da?” Kili asks and feeds Frodo a rasher of bacon off his own plate. Frodo giggles and nods emphatically.

“Only with Cousin Lobelia. I don’t think other grown-ups know about the quiet game. My cousin Merry tried to play it once when his sister came home and she boxed his ears when she finally got in.” Grim gives a little shrug at the whimsical behavior of adults and finally spears his melon. “This is good.” He tells Thorin. “…but why do you wrap it in ham?”

“Sweet flavors and salty ones are enhanced by each other.” Thorin tells him. “Both taste better together than they do alone.”

“You talk a bit like my Da’s friend.” Grim informs him. “But that’s okay. Mister Gandalf is a…” He pauses and continues with the air of one reciting something. “Very Important Person who is very respectable no matter what your neighbors tell you, young Baggins, who also makes the most excellent fireworks and pay no attention to that hack in Michel Delving who would not know foh-phos-fer-us from his back end even if someone gave him a map and let him use both hands.”

Bilbo covers his face with one hand and groans and Fili and Kili burst into laughter.

“Mercy…” He groans. “Grim, dearling, perhaps you needn’t repeat everything he told you word for word.”

“But Da, he said if I told people that when they asked about him then he would make fireworks for Frodo’s next birthday and mine and Bobbin’s!” Grim objects, having rather missed the point. “I was to say exactly what he said!”

“I think that Gandalf wouldn’t pass up an opportunity show his wiz-poppers, love.” Bilbo hastens to assure him, only barely concealing his smile. However, I think it might be best if you didn’t mention Gaffer Proudfoot in Michel Delving no matter what feud he’s got on with old Gandalf.”

“Perhaps someone ought to have a word with your wizard friend about what is and isn’t safe to say around tiny echoes.” Dis suggests. “It is amazing what they will repeat.”

“Please believe me that I’ve tried, Lady Dis.” Bilbo sighs. “It’s difficult to say how much of that would have been said on purpose because he thought it might be funny.”

Grim leans back against Thorin’s chest in a half pout. “All right.” He agrees. “…but if there’s no fireworks then I will be cross.”

“Even Gandalf the Gray would hesitate to break a promise with the blood of Erebor. The wizard is here often enough that he will understand that we would be displeased by such disrespect.” Thorin tells him and is rewarded by the look of awe in a wide pair of blue eyes.

“Really?” Grim looks to Bobbin and then back to Thorin. His gaze turns thoughtful. “…are you really our Da? Because Pimple says his Da says that our Da made you up as a fairy story and if he didn’t then you’re really probably a tinker from Bree.”

“Grim!” Bilbo sits up, but holds when Thorin holds up a staying hand.

“I was not always a King, little one.” Thorin tells him. “I was never a tinker, but I was a travelling smith in the region around your Blue Mountains. I made plows and mended kettles. Perhaps that is what your cousin’s father was thinking of and he was merely confused.”

“Is that why you weren’t around then?” Grim cocks his head. He doesn’t seem angry, merely curious. “Did you have to go away to be a King? Da says Kings are very busy.”

“That is part of it, but the whole story is more complicated and would be a bit boring for you.” Thorin temporizes. “I gave part of myself to your father and he used it to help make you, so I am indeed one of your parents. Do you know how I can tell?” He holds up his hand for Grim’s inspection. “Look… do you see? We have the same crooked little finger.”

Grim holds his hand up and squints back and forth between it and Thorin’s. Thorin spares a prayer that his son hasn’t also inherited Dis’ poor eyesight along with his father’s golden curls and his other father’s stunted pinky fingers. He makes a high-pitched noise when he sees the resemblance and holds his hand out to his older brother. “Bobbin! Look! He’s right, I have got it. See, the first knuckle points to the left a little!”

Bobbin obediently peers out to look and nods to Grim’s great delight.

“Come over here and show him yours.” Grim beckons his brother out of Bilbo’s shadow and before long Thorin has lap full of both sons and a heart that is rapidly catching up to it.

Thorin has never been one to shirk duty, but he’s also never wanted to return to work less in his life. Still, the time comes when the servants have cleared away the dishes and little Frodo is listing to one side in Kili’s lap. Bobbin tugs on his hair for attention and says in his grave little fashion, “It’s time for lessons soon.”

“I see. Do you take lessons with your father?” Thorin asks.

“Um… Da teaches us arithmetic, reading, and language, but Samwise’s been telling us the Little Stories because he knows them all then in the afternoon Da tells him the Middle Stories and quizzes his maths and earth lore.” Bobbin sighs. “We haven’t got earth lore yet. We’ve only got sums and Sindarin. Do Dwarves have to learn Elvish?”

“Some of us, yes.” Thorin agrees. “I learned because I would need to know. Our children also learn khuzdul and iglishmêk, the secret languages of our forebears.”

“If you like…” Dis offers silkily as she leans forward in Bilbo’s direction. “I can arrange for an additional tutor to teach the little ones. It is their heritage as well.”

Thorin fixes her with a look that she ignores and turns to Bilbo. “It is your decision. You have had their education from the beginning.”

“If they’re going to learn they had better do it soon.” Bilbo tells him, but he’s smiling; happy and accepting. “We Hobbits don’t pick up languages very well once we get past a certain age. I do all right, but I think it’s only because the elves in Rivendell are too polite to correct my accent.”

Thorin has to smile. If Bilbo had been a dwarf he might have said the blasted long-ears were laughing at him behind their sleeves, but Thorin has yet to meet an elf that hasn’t adored Bilbo on site. He has a way with the entire contrary race that defies all Dwarfish expectations.

“Then it is settled.” Dis says, looking pleased with herself as she stands. “Brother, it will be time for the common sessions soon.”

Thorin grimaces and isn’t pleased to be reminded. Sitting here like this reminds him breakfasts with his own father that inevitably ended with a summons from his grandfather when they ran over too long. He’s beginning to understand why his father always delayed so long over his pottage only to end up bolting it on the way out.

Bobbin and Grim slither off his lap and go to cluster with their cousin who is busily recounting everything Fili or Kili said over breakfast to Samwise, who in turn is listening with every evidence of fascination even though he was present for the entire conversation.

It’s an image he carries with him for the rest of the day and uses as a bulwark when the urge to throttle someone gets to be too strong. Even Dis seems calmer and gets her knives out to clean them in front of the entire open courts only the once. As such he’s feeling positively mellow when they break for the noon meal.

Dis is quiet for the most part, focusing on her food and nothing else as is her habit. Thorin is used to the quiet and has come to appreciate it, but that day she sets her knife down in the middle and says, “I was not expecting to like your Halfling.” She says, sounding a bit surprised with herself. “He seemed so small and fussy at first, however… I like his manner with the little ones.” She looks at Thorin. “I like his manner with you. I was prepared to tolerate him and defend his place within our family for your sake. I ask your forgiveness, Brother.” She inclines her head. “You may have chosen imprudently and without forethought, but you chose well.”

“Thank you.” Thorin waves away the young dwarf attending their meal and waits until they are alone. “We have not spoken regarding the impact this will have on the line of succession.”

“Fili will inherit or not as the Gods dictate.” Dis replies coolly. “I would be pleased to see him on the throne, if that were his wish, but I suspect it is not. I know that it is not Kili’s. My sons were not raised to this life and I…” She looks down at her plate. “I cannot wish it on them. I can only ensure that they know their duty and are prepared to do it should they be called upon. What more can a parent do?”

Thorin looks back down to his plate and wonders, “What indeed.”

“I believe…” Dis continues. “Your Bilbo seems a temperate and forgiving sort, especially now when he is aware of his own mistakes. If you confess all to him, I think he will take it well.”

“I will tell him in my own time.” Thorin replies and stabs his meal even though his appetite seems to have fled for now.

“Tell him, Thorin.” Dis frowns and directs her fork at him to emphasize her point. “The time is good now, but that will remain so.”

Chapter Text

There are many of the old policies put into place by Thorin’s ancestors that he’s discarded since ascending the throne. Most of them he altered in exile to make accommodation for their suddenly nomadic society, but there’s one that has withstood the test of time which Thorin has reluctantly come to appreciate even though it was bitter to him for a time; the hour of contemplation in the afternoons where all civic and social labor halts until Durin’s bell rings in the throne room.

It has historically been a time of peace and reflection, but in the years of exile it became an hour of mourning when his people would sing to each other of their lost home in order to keep it fresh in their collective memory. Perhaps they believed that Erebor would never truly be lost to them so long as they kept it in their chants.

The first time that Durin’s Bell rang after the death of the dragon and the Battle of Five Armies many of of the old ones, those who –like Thorin- still remembered its haunting tone from the old days, sank to their knees and wept to hear it. Thorin will always remember that first day when the hour of grief became an hour of celebration once more.

It is his habit of late to spend that hour in his grandmother’s private rock garden, a place left miraculously untouched by Smaug’s long occupation. The crystals there have become overgrown without his nana’s careful hands there to grind down unwanted growth, but even in (or perhaps because of) their wildness Thorin finds them beautiful.

He does not expect to find anyone waiting there for him, but even so there is Bilbo sitting on a padded bench with a large leather-bound book balanced on one knee as he writes in it. Thorin approaches quietly and reads over Bilbo’s shoulder for a moment as he scribbles away.

“I know you’re there, Thorin.” He comments as he finishes a line and sets down his quill. It’s a shabby thing that’s lost most of its feather and has been trimmed so much that it’s almost spent. Thorin makes a note to have him gifted with a metal stylus; perhaps a gold one with steel nibs and a tooled leather grip. How fine that would look in a Hobbit’s sturdy hands.

Bilbo fixes him with a look. “You’re targeting my stationary now, aren’t you?” He sighs and smiles. “Do you know, I’d forgotten how you look when you’re plotting something. Tell me, did you ever have a bow crafted out of ebony for Kili? Or a mithril hauberk for Fili?” His blue eyes are laughing at him, but Thorin finds he doesn’t mind.

“I was able to find the hauberk, but Kili disabused me of the notion that ebony would make a good hunting bow.” Thorin sits down next to Bilbo and closes his eyes. This, this is what he’s been missing most. “Apparently it’s too heavy. We commissioned a blackwood recurve from Bard’s bowyer that seems to make him happy.” He cracks an eye and peers back at Bilbo’s book. It seems to be a recounting of the company’s arrival at Bag End …only…

“I don’t recall falling in the door with the others.” Thorin glances at Bilbo with suspicion. “I arrived later.”

“Did you?” Bilbo asks. “Oh, yes. I suppose you did. You were lost. I remember now.” He smiles and starts to cross out the last sentence he wrote only to pause with Thorin’s hand over his.

“I was not lost.” Thorin corrects him. “I was only delayed.”

“Is that so?” Bilbo tilts his head and grins. “How would you have me tell it then? That you arrived on time and got squashed under Bombur when I opened the door too quickly or that you arrived several hours late having gotten lost in the four and a half square miles that is Hobbiton? I clearly remember one of those things happening, but you’ve just told me that I am confused.”

“Leave it as it is.” Thorin grumbles and is pleased when Bilbo sets the book aside with the most recent page under a blotting paper. He is better pleased when Bilbo allows himself to be pulled into an embrace. “You are writing our story.”

“I am.” Bilbo agrees as he relaxes into Thorin’s side. This is not a thing they ever had much opportunity for. Sitting and enjoying each other’s company shouldn’t feel like a decadent treat, but it does. “I started it before we left Bag End, but I haven’t had much time to work on it. It was a fine adventure. I think it needs to be remembered.”

“Perhaps not all of it.” Thorin murmurs, thinking back to one particular evening after they’d escaped the Misty Mountains and woke to find the pelt of Azog’s white warg nailed to a tree outside Beorn’s door. That was the first night Thorin allowed himself to touch Beorn’s excellent mead, only to discover first hand why his men had been suffering such splitting hangovers since they arrived. Many things happened that evening. Some of them he regrets. Others he can’t quite force himself to.

“Ah, yes.” Bilbo chuckles with his eyes closed. “Some parts of it I do plan to keep for myself. Future generations only need so much edification.”

Thorin leans his cheek on the crest of Bilbo’s head and breathes in the smell of him. It’s heady and familiar. “Do you recall our time in Beorn’s lands?” He asks softly.

“Do I remember Beorn or do I remember when you pinned me to the wall underneath the stairs and started talking to me in Khuzdul?” Bilbo guesses and laces their fingers together when Thorin nods. “Yes, I remember. I’m frankly surprised you do since I also remember how much you had to drink that evening. Do you know? I had no idea what was going on until you started kissing me. I thought I’d made you angry again.”

“Did I frighten you?” Thorin asks and thinks back on his past conduct. There’s no excuse, not really. Only he can remember those days when every morning brought a new danger (or sometimes an old one) and it seemed like the ground was crumbling under them as they tried desperately to outrun it.

It was not, perhaps, the best time for him to see –to truly see the strange little creature who’d followed him out of the kindly western lands and into certain danger. It was an even worse time to discover the most unlikely of kindred spirits residing in a small soft body with quick, clever little hands. They spoke more words to one another in those days after the Eagles delivered them to the Carrock than Thorin has ever said to anyone not his sister… not since Erebor fell.

Dwarves do not love easily. Less than three-quarters of his people take lovers and only half of them ever marry, but when Dwarves do feel love then they love greedily and without warning. Thorin has since learned his lesson about that particular vice, but this happened long before the Arkenstone was uncovered from Smaug’s ill-gotten horde. He had never expected to desire another person and having come to do so in the last century of his life made him impatient. It made him demanding. It made him reckless.

“Not once I understood what was on your mind.” Bilbo ducks his head and may well be blushing. “Fear was the furthest thing from my mind after that. You know I always wondered, but never had the chance to ask; what exactly was it you were saying that night? I assumed it was a little dirty at first, but later I thought it might have been some kind of poetry.”

“It was… poetry of a sort.” Thorin can hear Dis’ admonition echoing in his ears. “It was more like a set of promises set to verse.”

“Oh?” Bilbo smiles. “Did you make good on those promises?”

“Some of them.” Thorin sighs. “Not others, not the way I meant to; not the way I ought to have.”

“…ah?” Bilbo goes quiet for a little while. Finally “I never properly apologized for what I did back then. I tried when Bombur brought me to your sickroom, but there was… there was no time. You hushed me and I let you. What passed between us at the Gate was my fault more than yours, if that is what you are speaking of. I did it knowing you would be angry with me. You cannot blame yourself for that.” He coughs and turns a dull red. “If you are. Were. I realize I’m assuming a great deal and…”

Thorin closes a hand over Bilbo’s mouth to stem the tide of words. “That is one of the promises I failed to keep, but perhaps not in the way you are imagining.” He releases Bilbo’s mouth. “Had anyone else done to me what you did, I might have reacted better. I should have reacted better. I should have listened. If I had remembered my honor then I would have.” He drags his thumb across Bilbo’s lower lip. If they were in a ballad then perhaps his Halfling burglar’s lips would feel like rose petals under his calloused touch, but this is reality and the truth is that they’re a bit chapped from wind and the dehydration that inevitably comes from a long journey. Still, Thorin finds he prefers that Bilbo’s clever little mouth and easy smile over all the velvet his fortune could buy. “One of the promises I made to you that night was to value your counsel above all others. I broke it. History will say that I lost my honor when I failed to receive Bard’s men into the mountain, but that isn’t true. It will always be when you called me a fool and I did not listen.”

“I never said that.” Bilbo huffs, but he’s blushing so perhaps he isn’t angry. “Many things I did say, but never that.”

“Perhaps I said it to myself then.” Thorin agrees. He’s certainly called himself worse things in the small hours of the morning.

“Here now, that…” Bilbo swallows and shakes his head. “Thorin, that… what you said. Perhaps I’m hearing what I want to, but that didn’t sound like courting verses.”

“No.” Thorin says and glares at a hovering aide he can see out the corner of his eye. A servant arrives to shoo him away and he swears that he can see the hem of Dis’ skirt when the door closes behind them.

She would take it on herself to see to it that they aren’t disturbed. He wonders what would happen if he tried to leave right now without confessing all.

Probably nothing good.

“It was a pledge.” Thorin turns to look out onto the sparkling crystal garden. It’s a safe direction. “My kind do not love easily and some will tell you that we do not love well, but -whatever else we may be- we are at least constant. Our hearts, once given, are gone for good …even if the sentiment is never returned. That is reflected in the vows we give to each other. If you are wondering why I never contacted you then it is because I wished to return a freedom that I took from you.” He takes a breath. “I do not say this to create a sense of obligation in you. That was never my intention and was the reason I kept my distance, but with the… children… I had hoped that you would… that is to say…”

Bilbo catches him by the chin and turns Thorin’s face to his. He is frowning and is sitting with one hand braced on his knee. “Thorin Oakenshield, did you get soused on mead and marry me underneath Beorn’s staircase?”

“I may have done that. Yes.” Thorin’s hands close over his knees of their own volition as he braces himself for Bilbo’s reaction.

“Well.” Bilbo deflates and releases Thorin’s chin. “Well.” He says again, blinking in confusion. “We are a bass-ackwards pair, aren’t we?”

“It does look that way.” Thorin reaches out (still cautious after all this) and takes Bilbo’s hand in his own. “If you permit it, I would perhaps like to do that again. Properly this time.”

Bilbo gives him a searching look before closing his free hand over Thorin’s. “Thorin, when I thought you’d died I went home and planted your children in my garden because I couldn’t bear to live in a world without at least some part of you still in it.” He leans forward and presses his lips against Thorin’s in a chaste kiss. “Of course I’ll marry you. Thank you for asking this time.” He pulls away with a smile that is very nearly wicked. “…I’d have probably said yes the first time too. You’re a compelling person.”

“You’re the one who bore my children, Halfling.” Thorin pulls Bilbo into his lap and into a deeper kiss. “Dis will be insufferable. She’s been on me to have you fetched from the Shire ever since I confessed to her what I had done. Dwarfish women do not suffer their families to be divided easily.”

“I knew I liked her for a reason.” Bilbo muses and soothes Thorin’s hair away from his face. “Must you be anywhere soon?” His voice drops to a husky murmur. “Only it occurs to me that we were interrupted in the middle of our ‘hello’s then we were side-tracked.”

“There is nothing I must do that cannot keep or be done by another.” Thorin lies and lifts Bilbo to his feet. “Come.”

Bilbo allows himself to be tugged into what is technically a servant’s stairwell, but has always been used as a private shortcut for Thorin’s family from the public areas of the Royal quarter into the private ones. Bilbo makes a soft surprised noise when the hidden stair leads them up to the rooms that he has been sharing with their sons –technically the Dowager Queen’s suite for all that it has been reappointed with the old shabby furniture that Dis brought with her in the caravan from their settlement in Ered Luin.

“Gracious.” He breathes, half laughing and half groaning. “You Dwarves are certainly fond of your secret passages. Come, there is a bed through here…” He says and pulls Thorin in the direction of the small bedroom he appropriated as his own; a lady companion’s chamber, unless Thorin is misremembering. The boys –born, adopted, and borrowed- all share the larger bed in the main chamber.

“No.” Thorin says, much to his beloved’s confusion. “I know of a better one.”

He becomes further confused when Thorin leads him through the sitting room, into the communal bathing chamber, and through the locked door that leads into the King’s receiving room.

Thorin’s valet blinks slowly at the sight of his master arriving through the bathroom, takes in the sight of Bilbo at Thorin’s side (prettily flushed and attempting to hide behind him), then bows and takes his leave all without saying a single word.

Good man.

“Thorin…” Bilbo is looking about with a crinkled brow and Thorin does not blame him. The furnishings here are in no better shape than those in the dowager’s suite.

For all that Thorin once dreamed out loud of chairs carved out of solid gold and silk carpets, luxury is at a premium in Erebor. Too many families still sleep together in barracks intended for soldiers and unwed miners with only a few blankets as a mattress. Now that the mines are producing once more and no longer under the constant threat of collapse everyone’s focus must be on repairing the damage left behind by Smaug. It is extensive and difficult to diagnose.

Bilbo looks around them, taking in the small dais where Thorin receives reports from his lawyers, politicians, courtiers, and soldiers in private. He looks to the ancient reliefs carved into the walls depicting the Longbeards being driven from Khazad-dum and the subsequent founding of Erebor. He looks at Thorin’s old reinforced oak branch shield, retrieved from the Misty Mountains and mounted with honor above his throne. Then he turns to Thorin and sighs.

“Your nephews placed me in the Royal apartments, didn’t they.”

“They thought to help me.” Thorin chuckles and draws him back towards the bedroom. “Come here and if you are upset with them then I will soothe you.”

“Soothe me?” Bilbo asks with a smile. “I like the sound of that.”

In the end, Thorin thinks perhaps he is the one who ends up being soothed. Bilbo takes great pleasure in mapping every inch of his body with eager hands and a gentle mouth. Thorin returns the favor and takes leisure in taking Bilbo apart piece by piece until the only word his Halfling can remember is Thorin’s name and ‘more’.

Time has altered them both in equal measure. There are veins of gold in the rich honey-gold of bilbo’s hair and his flesh is thinner in some places yet harder in others. He still looks like a grocer, but perhaps one whose stall it isn’t entirely safe to pilfer from. Thorin knows he looks like the veteran that he is. Two wars and a life of hard labor have all left their marks upon him, but Bilbo takes his time in searching out every last scar and kissing them until Thorin feels like the young able-bodied prince he once was.

Climax comes not as an earthquake, but as a gentle tide of warmth breaking over them both and Thorin basks (as he has not in just under a decade) in the glow of its aftermath.

“You will move in here with me.” Thorin informs his drowsing lover. “I will brook no arguments.”

“Well certainly.” Bilbo agrees sleepily. “Unless you were planning on hiding in my bed instead? I would not mind, only I think they would come looking for you after a while. I must warn you. Bobbin is prone to nightmares and when that happened then nothing will do but everyone sleeps together.”

“It is of no matter.” Thorin says and turns the inviting image over in his mind. He is a dwarf, after all, and it’s no secret that dwarves are happiest when all their treasures are within arm’s reach. “My bed is large. There are some privileges of rank left to me.”

“Is that so?” Bilbo brushes his hair out of his eyes. “Then perhaps I will hand over the problem of how to get poor Samwise home to the Shire to you. He came with me to see Elves, but the ones he did meet asked him a great many questions that he felt they had no business asking him. Now he’s off the idea of them all together. I am hoping that meeting Dwarves will have been of some consolation.”

“What did he expect from Elves if not nosey questions and a disrespect of proper boundaries?” Thorin snorts.

“I think he fancied the idea of having some drift past him close enough to see properly and look down at him with an aura of superiority and mystery.” Bilbo guesses and settles his head on Thorin’s good shoulder, which is most agreeable. “The reality was a disappointment.”

“If that is the case then I will send him home with a troop of my soldiers via Mirkwood.” Thorin says. The treaty between the forest and the mountain is holding up well so long as neither race attempts to speak to one another in person. “Thranduil’s people excel at that sort of thing and enjoy having an audience.”

“Only if someone has put a bridge up over that blasted river.” Bilbo grumbles. “…or if your men know not to send the supplies over in a single go.”

“I will advise them.” Thorin promises and kisses the crown of Bilbo’s head. “You will not regret staying here, my love. I will do all in my power to ensure it.”

“Thorin, the only thing I ever regretted was leaving in the first place.” Bilbo tells him with a soft secret smile. He settles back against Thorin’s side and they doze for a time until Bilbo stirs and sits up. “There is nothing you can give me that will make me happier than I already am… except…”

“…except?” Thorin prods him.

Bilbo props himself up on one elbow and idly swirls his fingertips in Thorin’s chest hair. “…perhaps you can tell me why people keep bowing to Bobbin in the corridors.”

“Ah, yes.” Thorin coughs. “About that…”