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Changing Seasons

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There was a rock in Thorin's boot. It'd been there for the past few miles, which could only mean that somewhere in his boot there was a hole. He considered calling a rest to remove it, but discarded the idea immediately. Stopping would only put off the inevitable and he wasn't sure if any of them would be able to move again should they halt their march.

 

Of all the futures Thorin had imagined for himself and his people, this had never darkened even his worst nightmares. To be driven from the mighty halls of Erebor, to listen powerlessly while bairns lucky enough to escape the fire drake whimper in hunger as their parents weep into their helpless hands. The world thought dwarrows a greedy race, but in this moment Thorin would have traded all the gold in Erebor for food enough to fill the gaunt cheeks of his sister-sons.

 

They flanked him, with Dwalin and Balin trudging in their shadows. The bright midday sun and gentle breeze did nothing to spark their eyes. Their clothes, meant for younger dwarves, hung limp. Thorin had not heard his sister-son’s laughter in far too long.

 

“Almost there, lads.”

 

His heart ached watching Fíli struggle to focus on him as Kíli tried to smile, his face ashen.

 

“Maybe this time will be different. The halflings can’t be near as bad as Men, right?” Kíli’s smile wobbled and Thorin cursed their foul fate again. “I mean, they’re smallish too? We’ve got to stick together, us small folk, right? They’ll have work for us and...and we can find a pub to eat at and we’ll be fine. Won’t we, Uncle?”

 

Small? Dwarves were not small, it was Men and Elves that were stretched too long. Thorin had tried to keep the worst of their customers away from his sister-sons, but if Kili thought himself small now… What belittling had his people been forced to face in the hands of others?

 

That was the heart of it, really. Driven by the hunger of their children, Ered Luin had sent out parties of skilled craftsmen to find work and ease the strain on the food stores. They wandered, scraping together everything that could be spared to be sent home. Never enough, if Dís’ letters were any indication. Thorin’s small group (numbered only thirteen) had been returning to the mountains when a passing Ranger had shared their fire one night. They had scraped a bowl together while Bofur, amicable dwarf that he was, passed a pipe with the stranger. Though no dwarf revealed their sorrows, the Man spoke of a land filled with small folk, prosperous and unconcerned with the outside world.

 

To hear it told, these people seemed more insular than even the most secretive of dwarrows, for even a purist must sell their goods. They had no care for the goings on in the world, no army, no battles against dark enemies. According to the Man, this Shire was almost entirely self-sufficient and protected by their god’s favor and the Rangers in exchange for herbs and safe haven. The Ranger was gone before the sun rose the next day, but left a note with a detailed map and promise that his order would not impede their approach should they work in the Shire.

 

Whether or not these Shirelings accepted their presence was another matter entirely. This had led to a drawn out debate on the merits of enduring the scorn and foul prices of yet another race or if it were better to return to Ered Luin entirely. Surprisingly, it had been soft spoken Bombur who had settled the matter.

 

“I’ve four bairns and a bearer waiting for me back home. They’re depending on me to bring back food enough to feed them and Mahal have my beard if I fail them without trying everywhere.” He had then proceeded to sit down and ration out the last of their shared food to last them the journey. Thorin only hoped he had not led his people to folly and false hope again.

 

The gentle, rolling hills surrounding the Shire would have been beautiful any other day. His sister-sons would have frollicked over them, hunting rabbits and ambushing the older dwarrows whenever the fancy struck them. Instead, their heads hung low and they panted weakly. Balin and Dwalin, though their loyalty never faltered, their reserves were fading fast. Thorin cursed the soft hills and the fine day for mocking his family. He no longer bothered to step over the wildflowers in his path.

 

“Halt in the name of the Thain! Bounder Grubb speaks to you, so keep civil tongues!”

 

Thorin jolted to a stop, Dwalin’s snarling curses behind him. A testament to their weariness that none (not even sharp-eyed Balin) had spotted the brightly dressed lad in front of them. He carried a long staff and had a feathered red cap set jauntily upon his head.

 

“A Bounder? What’s that, Uncle?”Fíli murmured in Khuzdul. “He can’t be older than Gimli. Look! Not a speck of hair on his face.”

 

“Well? Speak quickly, strangers. What business do you have on these paths? Not everyone has a day to squander.”

 

Balin’s elbow to his ribs cut off Thorin’s sharp reply to the little upstart.

 

“Good morning, young master. We are the dwarves of Ered Luin and we’re looking for the Shire. Do you think you might point us in the right direction, good sir.”

 

The lad sneered. “Strangers, indeed! You’ve been walking through the Shire for near on an hour already”

 

“But we haven’t seen any people at all!” Kíli glanced at his brother, looking for confirmation.

 

“Nor would you have, with all that stomping about. No self-respecting hobbit would be caught by such bumbling!” The half-man straightened his coat and peered down his nose at them. “As a Bounder, I must see to the safety and well-being of all Hobbits in my region. With that in mind, I can not let you pass. Be on your way and they’ll be no trouble.”

 

Dwalin sputtered. “Trouble! Why I could snap this lad between my fingers.

 

Fíli’s best smile was in place as he stepped forward. “Sir, we are simply traveling tradesmen. Surely we could find wo~”

 

“Begone I say!” Grubb stomped his massive foot and waved his staff. “We don’t want any wandering hustlers, knock-off tinkerers, or disease-ridde~”

 

“Barnabas Grubb! Is that you talking such rubbish! Oh! Just you wait. I’m having your great aunt over for tea in two days and don’t think I won’t mention such disrespectful behavior!” An even smaller Hobbit came hurtling over one of the hills, skirts aflutter and long streaks of silver in her dark hair. “I’ll not hear such awful talk and abide it.”

 

“Now- now see her Mistress Baggins, I’m no faunt to be taken by the ear and scolded. I’m a Bounder, I am, and you~”

 

“Oh, listen to you! I was there when you came into this world, fauntling. And don’t you Mistress Baggins me or I’ll take you across my knees here in front of these here fine folk and give you such a tanning.” The new Hobbit, Mistress Baggins apparently, turned to them, patted her hair and skirts into some order and smiled. “Well now! It’s not often we get visitors in the Shire. Why might you fine fellows be doing in this quiet part of the world, hm? Will you be staying long?”

 

Balin opened his mouth to answer when yet another Hobbit came charging towards them, this one carrying a basket over one arm. “Mother! Don’t go wandering off!” The lad bent double, sucking in breath before standing with his hands on his hips. “That was a fine thing to do, leaving me to talk with Old Bracegirdle while you spirit off. Imagine my surprise when I turned to ask whether we should buy one of those cream pies or not and you were gone! Had to ask directions twice to find where you went.”

 

“Oh hush. You honestly expect me to stand around gabbing with a Bracegirdle when there are Dwarves running about? It’s like you don’t even know me, son.” She turned back to the dwarves. “Goodness, listen to us. Haven’t even introduced ourselves proper like. My Bungo would be horrified! Belladonna Baggins, at your service.” The lass cut a neat curtsy.

 

The dwarves bowed back, thoroughly baffled, but the hobbits weren’t done yet. “Bilbo Baggins also at your service. Apologies for our manners, it’s not often grocery day is so exciting.” Bilbo bowed as well, careful of his basket which was full to the top of pastries, cheeses, and other small necessities. Thorin was hard pressed to keep his eyes from so much food. It was easily enough to feed his whole company for a few days if they were careful.

 

“That’s all well and good Masters Bagginses, but I have to insist that they leave. Yavanna knows what such folk would do within the Shire proper! Some of us have to have good sense around here, unlike some hobbits.”

 

Bilbo’s spine stiffened, his eyes narrowed on his countryman. “Barnabas, I think you should move along.” He lifted his hand and shooed off the other hobbit. “My mother and I have this quite in hand and you would do well not to insult my family so blatantly.” He turned to Thorin. “Master Dwarf, might I inquire why you and your fellows have come to our lands?”

 

Thorin stared for a moment as the Bounder shifted back on his heels, clearly peeved at his dismissal. “We come to offer our services. My men and I, we have come from Ered Luin looking for work. I am Thorin Oakenshield, son of Thrain, at your service.”

 

The hobbitess perked up. “What trades do you practice?”

 

“I am a blacksmith of some skill. My sister-sons practice a little as well, though they seek their masteries in jeweling and silverwork specifically. Balin, son of Fundin, has a steady hand for script work, both in pen and engraving and his brother, Dwalin, is a master engineer and constructor. There are eight more that follow our path, though a few days behind.”

 

“Splendid! Oh what great news indeed! Bag Hill alone could very well keep you elbow deep in work for a month solid, if you’ve any hand at fixing plumbing. Do let us know where you set up, yes? There’s a few knick knacks around Bag End that need looking after.” Belladonna smiled prettily and dipped a second, deeper curtsy.

 

Barnabas harrumphed, face turning a deep red. “Now see here! We can’t just let these ruffians into the Shire let alone Hobbiton! You may be the favored daughter of the Thain, but I won’t stand for your oddities and nonsense. Why a sensible hobbit like Bungo ever married someone as remarkable as you, I shall never know.”

 

Thorin did not like the dark look brewing upon the Baggins’ son face, but Kíli collapsed against his brother who had not the strength to hold them up. They tumbled into the grass at Balin’s feet, Fíli already shaking his brother’s shoulders.

 

“Kíli! Wake up. You’re alright. Come on!”

 

Indeed, his sister-son was already stirring and flushed deeply at the eyes on him. He mumbled his apologies, but made no move to stand.

 

Thorin stepped forward, intent on pulling the lads to their feet, but Belladonna was already there, palm pressed to Kíli’s forehead. The other two hobbits pressed forward as well, cautious concern on their faces.

 

“Well that was a fine bit of excitement. You don’t feel over-warm, did you sleep well last night, Master Dwarf.”

 

Kíli’s flush deepened. “Well enough, ma’am, well enough. Please don’t trouble yourself. I’m fine and ready to work.”

 

“Oh, hush you. Don’t think I don’t know when you faunts are trying to hide something. Bilbo was a right terror when he was younger, believe you me!” She cupped his face, took his pulse, and, strangely, felt his stomach. Her toes dug into the soil and Bilbo was suddenly watching his mother carefully. “My dear boy, when was the last time you ate a solid meal?”

 

Yesterday, breakfast. His sister-sons had split an apple between them. The days, weeks before were little better.

 

Kíli looked terrified. “Just recently! We, uh, we had a nice coney stew just this morning with onions and…” Belladonna was pulling back, hands on her hips. “... and it was really tasty and I’m completely fine.”

Bilbo stepped forward then, eyes shadowed. “When was the last time you ate decently, Master Oakenshield?”

 

“I find that isn’t your concern, Master Baggins.” Drat and thrice be-damned these halflings. If there was one thing worse than scorn and belittling, it was pity. There was a soft hand on his cheek and Mistress Baggins tried to cup his face.

 

“Hush, dove. No need for that. Tell us true, now. Are you hungry?”

 

His stomach rumbled an avalanche before he could lie. “We’ve… we’ve been rationing of late, Madame Hobbit. Dwarves are a hardy folk though, do not concern yourself.”

 

“How rationed.” Bilbo pressed closer and Thorin could feel his shoulders coming up, an itching in his palm. Thumbs stroked along his cheeks when he tried to pull away. He turned his growing glare on Mistress Baggins, to deflate entirely. How could a creature so small have his mother’s eyes?

 

“There’s been little food among us for a time now. The lads haven’t eaten anything more than a half apple each since yesterday.”

 

All hobbits present gasped in horror and Barnabas in particular seemed terribly stricken. “Lads? Faunts! I was going to send faunts out into the world hungry? Oh, foul day indeed. Oh! I am ashamed.”

 

“Quickly! Bilbo, empty your basket, there should be enough. Oh you poor dears. Don’t you worry none, we’ll get you settled.” Belladonna hefted the basket and set about with a will, passing out the many treats and little bottles of milk to both his sister-sons and then to his cousins. Bilbo, however, stayed at his elbow and spoke softly.

 

“Master Oakenshield, you say your faunts have not eaten much at all, though they ate some yesterday. How long since you ate?”

 

Thorin could not recall and so spoke nothing. Bilbo seemed to take that as answer enough, staring down at his tremendous feet and muttering to himself. Barnabas had taken to helping Belladonna, fluttering about with his little canteen of water and apologizing profusely. A scone of some sort was pressed into his hands and a cut of meat. Thorin felt too lost to eat and simply pulled it close, watching as Belladonna sat between his sister-sons. She quietly encouraged them to eat, praising their bravery and strength. That they both ate in hurried bites and clung to the food as if it was to be snatched away was proof enough of their hunger.

 

Bilbo spoke suddenly. “Well! Well now, indeed. That settles it then, the matter is quite decided.” He turned to his mother. “We’ll be having guests for a time, I believe. As long as you agree as well, mother. As a Baggins of Bag End, I simply cannot let it stand as it is.” He nodded to himself, thumbed his suspenders and looked quite satisfied.

 

Balin leaned closer, puzzled. “What is decided, laddie?”

 

“Why you and your company will be staying with us of course! We’ll get you settled just as soon as you’ve eaten.”

Chapter Text

A long beat of silence followed Master Baggins’ declaration.

 

Bounder Grubb stood from where he had been sharing his canteen with Dwalin and scrubbed his hands over his pants before firming his shoulders. “Master Baggins, sir, I am in agreement that these dwarves could use a spot of help, but wouldn’t the Main hall be a better place for them? The Thain could deal with them directly before we send them on their way. With plenty of food, of course.”

 

Thorin’s heart clenched at the idea of food enough to fill their packs, and so remained quiet.

 

“Ah, but you misunderstand me, Barnabas.  I intend to house these dwarves and their whole company in Bag End. They can find work at their leisure until such a time as they must return to their mountain.”

 

Kíli’s head shot up from his food, eyes wide with a terrible hope. “Truly? You would take us in?”

 

“Of course we would, dove, now finish your tart. There’s a good faunt.” Mistress Baggins smoothed back his sister-son’s hair with gentle fingers.

 

“But... but they’re outsiders! Surely it is~”

 

“It is my decision as a Guardian of Bag Hill. Come now, it would not be the first time we have housed tradesman in such a manner, Master Grubb.”

 

“Yes, but those were proper hobbits! Now I won’t stand for any faunt going hungry out in the Wild places of the world same as you, but this goes beyond simple kindness. It is one thing to feed a hungry traveler and quite another to invite them into your home!”

 

Belladonna Baggins stood and brushed off her skirts briskly. “It is done and decided, assuming these fine gentle-dwarves agree to it. Though I do ask that you take your boots off before tromping around my smial. Treading mud into my carpets and floors is not a way to earn your desserts.” This last bit was directed at Fíli and Kíli, a stern look on her brow. They nodded meekly and, apparently satisfied, she faced the rest of them again. “Bilbo, my dear, send word forward. See if Mistress Gamgee won’t start airing out a few of the rooms for us.”

 

Grubb subsided ungracefully, muttering under his breath about “stubborn Bagginses” and “daft, remarkable Tooks”. He went back to sharing his water. Balin edged his way around the frustrated hobbit to speak to the Bagginses himself.

 

“Pardon, Madame. Your offer is truly most generous, but if I may protest~”

 

“You may not, Master Dwarf.”

 

Balin leaned away, taken aback. Thorin tried instead. “We have no money to pay you.” And they would not accept charity. Aid, perhaps, from proper allies, but not pity. They would not accept reliance on another race ever again. “Perhaps you could house Fíli and Kíli, but the rest of us~”

 

“Are equally invited and expected.” Bilbo finished neatly, adding another pastry to Thorin’s stack. “My mother and I are Guardians of Bag Hill and, as such, we are quite encouraged to bring in, house, and make comfortable any who do work for the families in Bag Hill and Hobbiton. You may think this a passing fancy, Master Dwarf, but it is what any respectable Guardian would do. In return for your services being easy to access, we house and feed you, though if you stay longer than a few weeks you might be expected to help wash dishes and launder your own clothes.”

 

Bilbo turned away and let out a strange piercing whistle. A few moments passed and then a small herd of tiny, curly-headed hobbits came tumbling over a nearby hill, jostling to be first. Even the smallest toddled forward with determination. Five. Five bairns, healthy and whole, stood before Bilbo Baggins of the Shire. What miracle was this?

 

So many wee ones! And allowed to run without chaperones! What strange land is this, cousin? I cannae fathom it.” Dwalin’s voice was soft with reverence.“No walls, no fortifications, no guards to speak of! How do they keep such precious gems safe? Perhaps we should have a talk with this Thain.

 

“Settle down now! Yes, thank you. I have messages enough for all of you, so no more of that~ Goodness what have you got tangled up in your foot fur, lass? Never mind. A cookie each for a message delivered so listen close.” Master Baggins went down the line. “I need you to go to the Gaffer’s wife, Mistress Gamgee, yes, and ask her if she wouldn’t air out a few of our choicest guest rooms.  Tell her that my prize winning tomatoes are waiting for her in the first pantry. You, my dear, I need you to run down to Old Bracegirdle and tell her we’ll take the rest of her cream pies, two strawberry ones, and that lovely cinnamon apple. Repeat that to me? Good.”

 

He continued in such a fashion, with a message both to the butcher and the Thain, ordering more food and informing the authorities that Bag End would be housing guests. After ensuring that each bairn knew their message, he handed them each a cookie seemingly snatched out of the air and sent them all scurrying on their ways. Then the smallest bairn, not even to Thorin’s knee, puffed up and tugged on Bilbo’s trousers insistently.

 

“Mister Baggins, ‘m big ‘nough to run messages too! Where should I go?”

 

Bilbo made a great show of thinking, scrunching his nose and tilting his head to one side. “You’re the cheesemaker’s youngest aren’t you. Not yet five if you’re a day. Your mother won’t thank you for following your cousins.” The bairn opened her mouth to protest, but the older hobbit persisted. “However, I do believe we’ll be needing some fresh cheese.  Have your parents send a few wheels round to Bag End, little one.”

 

After dishing out one final cookie, Bilbo surveyed the bewildered gathering of dwarves before nodding firmly to himself. “Well, no time like the present to get you lot settled in.  I expect you’ll want to bathe and perhaps send out a letter to your fellows to let them know where you’ll be staying. Come along, Master Dwarves, and my mother and I will see to your comfort like proper hobbits.”

 

He stooped to grab the basket, hooked his arm through Thorin’s and started off at a brisk pace. Thorin was far too surprised to do more than follow. A quick glance over his shoulder revealed that Mistress Belladonna was ushering the lads in front of her, with Dwalin and Balin firmly tucked to her sides. Their dark skin stood in stark contrast to her’s. Grubb stayed behind, speaking to several more hobbits who had popped up.

 

Thorin inhaled sharply when he looked closer, seeing the clear lines of a door and stoop. There a little garden! When he turned around he was shocked to clearly see the obvious outlines of a settlement, with a clear path and tiny fences. How had they missed this?

 

Bilbo spoke, having seen his confusion. “There’s no small amount of magic that protects the Shire, Master Oakenshield. None of us were sure of your intention, but my invitation will allow both you and the rest of your company to easily find your way until such time as it is revoked. Your eyes work fine and do finish your pastry.”

 

“That is incredible, Master Baggins.” he breathed. “What I would not give to have had such mighty protection for our home.”

 

Bilbo laughed brightly. “Oh there’s nothing mighty about hobbits! Just a bit of favor from taking care of the land, really. It keeps the goblins out and the occasional drunken man, but it has its limits.” The hand on his arm tightened ever so slightly. “We know those limits now. But come! Tell me more of your company. I’m afraid we won’t have rooms enough for everyone, so some will have to share.”

 

So Thorin spoke of the company, all the time watching in awe as more and more homes and hobbits appeared before him (so many young ones!). “Those with us now are my closest family members: my sister-sons, Fíli and Kíli, and my cousins, Balin and Dwalin, sons of Fundin. I have more distant cousins within the company, Oin and Gloin. Oin is a skilled healer and sells many of his ointments and liniments. Gloin is a banker by trade, but is an excellent fire-starter and is talented in anything concerning axes.”

 

One of the runners came up to them, chirping that the butcher would have everything delivered by supper, if not dinner.  Thorin took a moment to puzzle that, but moved on instead, careful not to trample a particularly broad hobitess’ flowers when she scowled fiercely.

 

“Dori, Nori and Ori are distant relations through their mother’s line. Dori and Nori run a tailoring shop together; Dori sews and none can weave so finely as Nori. Ori is Balin’s apprentice, but is also talented in art and portraits.” Bilbo hummed. “Dori dreams of opening a tea shop, but things are… difficult in the mountain of late. Finally, there are Bifur, Bofur, and Bombur. Tinkers, toymakers, and Bombur is a particularly fine chef. I am considering putting him in charge of our kitchens, once we return.”

 

“Oh? So you have some standing in your mountain, Master Oakenshield?” Thorin bit back a curse. It would not do for the halflings to know of his standing, fallen as it may be. “Don’t bother. I guarantee no Hobbit will care one way or another. Only that you do decent work and charge fairly.” He grinned up at Thorin. “We’re rather unconcerned with the rest of the world, you know. No need to stir up the waters, yes?”

 

They continued walking and Bilbo pointed out the market as they passed. It was still going strong and appeared to have no organization what-so-ever. How did these people manage? There was a carpenter next to a baker? Was that a soap seller offering a deal with… what even was that? It was a far cry from fine multi-tiered markets of Erebor, where every good could be found on the appropriate floor. Oh, to walk through the overflowing food stalls and ride the ropes down through the trinkets of gold and silver.

 

“That’s where I suggest your merchant fellows to set up. Just throw up a stand anywhere, no one’s particularly attached. Except Farmer Maggot. Never take his spot, just over there. It will only end in suffering. I’ll speak on your behalf to see if some of my acquaintances have room in their workshops for those of you used to producing. The Shire may not bother with the outside much, but there’s always a keen interest in having the latest what’s-it or do-dad.  The town forge is empty. Our blacksmith broke his arm apple-picking and has had trouble getting back to it, though having a new faunt on the way certainly didn’t make him eager to return. You and your… sister-sons? Yes, you can most likely work there, but I’ll send along a note and a cake to smooth the way.”

 

Thorin allowed the talk to wash over him. He nodded when needed, but his weariness had finally caught up to him. It was all he could do to put one foot in front of the other. He half expected to wake up in his bedroll. It was a ridiculous thought that two non-dwarrow would invite him and his into their home. To have a place to craft and sell with respect. Laughable, really. Probably just a strange hunger dream.

 

Bilbo tugged him to a halt and the door before him did not seem an illusion.

 

“Welcome, Master Dwarves, to Bag End! Of course, you’ll take the rest of the day to rest, maybe tomorrow as well.  We can make better arrangements, then, for your stay. Let’s get you into some nice hot bathes. Perhaps some fresh bread and stew for a nice dinner, then one of the hams and some roasted vegetables and tarts for supper.”

 

“Oh! We have those lovely scones from this morning, Bilbo darling. They could munch on those until we can set up a proper meal.” Belladonna pat-patted Dwalin’s hand and smiled brilliantly up at him as they walked in together. “Mayhaps, once you’ve recovered properly, you could tell me of those lovely tattoos of your? Dwalin wasn’t it? We shall have to compare ours! I’ve never seen Dwarvish markings before.”

 

Dwalin murmured his assent, though his ears blushed. Such a tiny creature able to get proper markings? She must be a truly formidable warrior or a great master, despite her size. Bilbo was turning a brilliant shade of red as he shut the door. “Mother! Goodness, comparing tattoos! Why the neighbors will never stop their muttering. Indeed!”

 

“Oh hush, you.  Let your poor mother do as she pleases.” She clapped her hands. “Now then, it’s time for baths. I think the faunts should go first, while Bilbo takes the rest of you to your rooms.  I’ll stay with them, of course, wouldn’t want them dozing off and catching a cold. Bilbo, make sure you start feeding our guests and find clothes for them.  Some of your father’s old clothing might fit some of them.  If not... a long sheet will have to serve.”

 

Thorin paused where he had been taking off his boots and Fíli began to flush. “Madame, we appreciate the thought, but perhaps that would not be, ah… proper for you to attend us. I’m sure we’ll manage.”

“Oh? Would you prefer Bilbo to stay with you?  He’s not nearly so skilled in healing and herbwifery, but he’s a fair hand as well.” She looked at Thorin and she was his mother again. “I understand if your culture forbids it, but I won’t see any of you suffer prolonged sickness because of your recent… fastings. I would like to perform a more thorough examination to make sure we’re doing everything we can for you.”

 

It was not a matter of culture, but of pride and no small bit of humiliation at their condition. Wouldn’t do to be seen as weak. Thorin went to insist that they needed no such attentions, but Bilbo placed a hand on his arm. “Mother is one of the best healers and midwives in the whole of the Shire. Even the Proudfoots bring their faunts to us. I can vouch for her skills, if that eases you. There is no shame in needing my mother’s tending.”

 

His family was looking to him again and Thorin was keenly aware of the vulnerability of their position. When he glanced at Balin, all he got was their sign for deferment. It was his choice only, then. Belladonna waited patiently, hands neatly folded atop her skirts, while Bilbo seemed a more anxious, eyes wide and earnest. Thorin nodded slowly to the hobbitess.

 

“We would be grateful for your care, Mistress Baggins. The work we do for you will be of no charge.”

 

She beamed before tutting. “None of that ‘Mistress’ rubbish and we’ll pay you fair. You may all call me Belladonna from here on. I wouldn’t be a proper Hobbit if any guest fell ill under my care, let alone faunts! Follow me, my doves.”

 

Thorin caught her arm as gently as he could before she could pass him. “I would be grateful, Madame, if I could sit with you and my sister-sons. I find I am wary to let them out of my sight, even here.”

 

Bilbo was puffing up in indignation, but a sharp word from his mother in a language Thorin did not recognize sent the lad off, leading the Fundin brothers down the hall.

 

“Of course, Master Oakenshield. Follow me. Forgive Bilbo, he is rather protective. Doesn’t much trust folks from outside our little family.”

 

They walked down the long single corridor, following behind his cousins. Mistr~ Belladonna opened a door on their right and ushered them inside.

 

“Get undressed boys.  There’s always a bit of hot water ready, but I need to set more to heating if everyone wants a hot bath tonight.”

 

She flipped a tap and the large tub began filling rapidly. Fíli and Kíli stripped and clambered in together before she returned, groaning in appreciation and flicking water at each other. Thorin struggled between amusement at their antics and horror as he counted the knobs of their spines.

 

Belladonna, for her part, placed towels nearby and presented them with scented soaps and tonics for their hair. She checked them over in a strange, but practiced way. Nothing seemed improper, though she did at one point massage Kíli’s throat and ask to see his tongue. Thorin found himself relaxing slowly in the steamed room as Belladonna planned the menu (seven meals!?) for the next few days. Kíli was enthusiastically offering Dwarvish dishes to add while Fíli combed both their hairs. They were in a heated discussion on the merits of leafy vegetables when Kíli yawned widely.

 

“Sorry,” he mumbled, knuckling an eye. “might need a nap before supper.”

 

“It’s dinner first and of course you do. All that tramping around. I used to go on adventures, you know. Made it all the way to Bree regular, before I got married. Visited the elves over in Rivendell a couple of times. Up you get and I’ll see you to bed. How about a nice ham and cheese scone and a glass of milk before, hm?” She ushered them about, fussing with towels and picking up robes that had been set outside the door.

 

“Ah, I forgot about the master of the house.” Truly his exhaustion must have been tremendous for him to forget even his most basic manners. His mother would be horrified. “When may I pay him my respects for his fine family welcoming me and mine.”

 

Belladonna’s hands paused over the tub for a moment before she deftly pulled the plug. “That won’t be necessary, Master Oakenshield. My… My Bungo died near on fifteen years ago now.” She straightened and fiddled with the ties of her apron, refusing to meet their eyes. “It was a bad time. Died of chest rattle that just wouldn’t leave. I rather not darken our grand meeting with such unhappy thoughts, truly. Let’s get the boys to bed.”

 

She gave them one last plate of treats as they went further into the hill. Thorin had no chance to apologize for his misstep and it sat ill and heavy in his stomach. He saw his cousins murmuring together just inside a door, heads bent together over a paper and quill, no doubt writing up directions for the rest of the company. Their brown fingers flicked through a few words in Iglishmek: food, work, hairy-foots. The Durins were let into another room just beside, with a great airy window and soft coloring.

 

Though there were two beds, his sister-sons crawled into one together. Kíli, to his brother’s great amusement, promptly fell asleep and began to snore loudly. Fíli, at least, murmured his thanks before wedging himself next to his brother. One of Kíli’s hands fisted his moustache braids and that was that.

 

Thorin had not seen them so peaceful and satisfied in far too long. His family was fed, safe, and there was promise of food tomorrow. His hands began to tremble and he stumbled into a chair to watch them for a time, though Belladonna hovered nearby.

 

“The faunts are always the worst aren’t they?” She murmured, stepping close. “In the bad times, seeing them hungry. You’ve done well by them.”

 

Thorin let out a harsh laugh. “Done well? They could barely walk from weakness. My company trusted me to lead them, but what have I done? We went hungry. We camped because we could not afford rooms, nearly froze. The Men treated us like filth, like junk metal, and we had to stay quiet. My people starve in their homes. We survived so much, and still… How have I done well? Ho~” He tore at his hair and beard, voice cracking.

 

Belladonna tugged him forward and Thorin buried his face in her stomach. He should scold her for petting his hair so, for being so bold. Instead, he wrapped his arms around her waist and wished fiercely for his mother. Fris had been wide and sturdy; the mountain itself could not move her from her family. Here, he had only one small hobbit, delicate boned and soft.

 

When he felt he would not shatter, Thorin pulled away, startled to realize the hobbitess was singing in that strange language. A lullaby, by the cadence. He cleared his throat and stood.

 

“I would be obliged, Madame, if I could take that bath now.”

 

She smiled at him softly. “Of course, dove. Biblo already has your cousins bathing, so you’ll join them iffin you’re not opposed.  There’s another tub in that room for you to use.  I need to get started on dinner now, but don’t any of you feel like you have to be up for it. At your leisure.”

 

They walked together to the bathroom and Thorin bowed slightly before he pushed inside. Bilbo was fussing about the boiler before he swore quietly and gave it a swift kick. It dented deeply, but didn’t appear to submit.

 

“I’m quite fine with cold water, Master Baggins, if it’s too much trouble.”

 

“Oh nonsense. There’s plenty of hot water. Dratted thing only just gave out and perhaps it could be the first thing you lot fix once you’re more up to it. Into the tub you get Master Dwarf. I’m curious what color your hair actually is. Why, Balin here has white hair, if you could believe!”

 

Neither of his cousins commented on his reddened eyes, for which he was immensely grateful. He set about undressing and then scrubbing his hide nearly raw, so much grime was settled in. Dwalin seemed to be enjoying his soak, while his brother across the tub from him was using a narrow-toothed comb to get all manner of nasty things out of his beard. Neither seemed overly guarded or unhappy, Dwalin happily leaning over to grab more… cookies?

 

This is something I could grow into, cousin. Here try these! Do you think there’s more?

 

“Good thing indeed I outgrew bathing in my parents tub or you’d all be squashed in together. My but you dwarves are a solemn bunch. I don’t mind if you sing, just pretend I’m not here at all.”

 

Thorin blinked as he looked at the hobbit. “Sing? Why would we sing?”

 

Bilbo looked aghast. “Dwarves don’t sing in the baths? Why how perfectly strange. Bath time is a joyous thing indeed. Oh to be clean! Better still with family to scrub your back and share your happiness.” Noticing the dwarves’ increasing confusion, he continued. “It is an old tradition, from long ago when we Hobbits wandered the wide wastes. To bathe was to be safe, to sing let those on guard know that all was well. Oh, the Great Smials in Tuckborough, now those are proper baths! A whole hall. My parents and I used to bathe there when we visited. I could laugh with my cousins while my father tried to untangle my hair. Though there you must wash before climbing into the pools. Really, there are songs only from the Took line that take nearly thirty voices to do proper.”

 

He continued to regale them with tales of the great bathhouses of the Shire and the proper etiquette should they ever need to use one. Apparently, it was divided between males, females, and family bathes (strangely), though a handful also had rooms for “folks in between”. It was impolite to stare, but acceptable to offer assistance. Never touch another hobbits feet, especially their foot fur. Ever. It was free to enter, but polite to leave some money or food in payment. Bilbo, with some prodding, also sang them a few of his favorite bathing songs. By the time he had finished, Thorin had washed and oiled his hair and braided it neatly into a long queue.

 

Soon enough, they climbed out, their skin pruned beyond recognition.  Bilbo led them to their rooms again. Thorin was pleased when he was returned to his sister-sons. He paused in the doorway, taking in the twisted coverlet and steady deep breathing.

 

“Thank you, Master Baggins, for helping my family.”

 

Bilbo thumbed his suspenders and rocked back on his heels. “None of that now. Go rest and we’ll have a meal ready for you all when you wake.”

 

 

Chapter Text

Smaug crashed towards him.  A great swipe of his paw and he swept Thrain aside and little Frerin. Thorin stumbled over their bodies searching for the others. Smoke choked his lungs and Dis fell to flames, her face hidden in their mother’s skirts. Screaming, endless cries as dwarves splintered and crumpled around him (there was Dwalin and Balin, Fili and Kili when they were young) around him until he stood alone. Who was screaming?

 

Thorin snorted awake and reached for his blade. His fingers met soft fabric instead and he took a moment to puzzle that as he scrubbed his face. Oh yes, the hobbits.  He sat up, pleased to see that his sister-sons had not been disturbed by his night terror. He snuck over and carefully smoothed their blankets back into order. And if he placed his palms over their hearts for a few moments, well there was no one to see.

 

Satisfied, he straightened his borrowed clothes, far too tight across his shoulders, and went to search out their hosts. He was determined to do this properly, strange hobbit customs be-damned! For a moment, he was intensely grateful the Baggins’ home seemed to only be one long hallway, for he found them in the kitchen not far away, a pot of tea between them.  They spoke for a few moments more before Belladonna noticed him.

 

“Oh! Master Oakenshield, we were not expecting any of you to wake for some time yet. Oh, drat, it was the tea kettle wasn’t it? I forget how loud it can be, how shrill.  Please, come sit yerself down and have a cup. Bilbo, the biscuits.”

 

He was settled, in short order, with his tea in a dainty little cup (West Farthing, almost a hundred years old!) and another plate of food at his elbow. The Bagginses were bickering back and forth over whether he would prefer the raspberry preserves or some fresh peaches with clotted cream. Quite the amusing affair, but not conducive to talking business.

 

“If you must know, I prefer blackberry jam, but I am completely fine as I am.” They scoffed and Bilbo was sent to find the jam in the second(!) pantry. Once he returned, Thorin squared his shoulders. “Masters Baggins, I would like to formally thank you for the aid you have given my company thus far, but I find I must insist that we discuss this arrangement. You have been kind to us, but we must do this properly. Why, we did not even discuss a contract! Or terms of agreement!”

 

“A what? Oh hush dove, this is proper Hobbit business to be sure.  No need for such stuffiness.”

 

“A contract would ensure that no one gets taken advantage of and~”

 

“Are you accusing my mother and I of… of sneak-thievery! Oh of all the confounded- Now see here~”

 

“Hush, the both of you! The others are still sleeping.” When Thorin and Bilbo had properly settled their ruffled feathers, she continued. “Perhaps, Master Oakenshield, it would be best if we explained our position and then you told us yours.  We are, after all your hosts and it would be terribly rude of us to speak poorly of your ways.” She stared at her son for a long moment before he huffed and nodded, looking thoroughly put out.

 

“I find that acceptable, Madame.”

 

“It’s Belladonna. Now then, where shall I begin?” She drank her tea deeply before continuing. “Ah, yes. My Bilbo and I are what we Hobbits call Guardians, in Westron at least. As such, we have been chosen by the Thain, who is also my father, to look after the well-being of the Hobbits in our hill. We share responsibility for Hobbiton at large with other Guardians in the area. All clear so far?”

 

Thorin nodded and she took another sip of tea. “Because of this, we have a number of duties. One, which you are calling upon, is to lodge tradesmen so that all hobbits may have a chance to obtain your goods and services. We are responsible for housing and feeding you, at our own expense. In return, you will stay at least a week and offer your services at decent prices.  Other hobbits will also come to call on us, bringing a contribution of food or some such thing to help. This is the work of a proper Guardian.”

 

She waved her hand lazily. “Most of the rest won’t concern you lot. We’ve a hide-away to keep all the fauntlings in our hill plus twenty percent should the Shire be invaded. We’re also responsible for keeping enough food in our pantries and cellar to feed our hill for a number of months, should winter be poor and such.”

 

“Well, it’s more than that, isn’t it?” Bilbo frowned at his mother. “We’re responsible for looking after all under our care, be it ensuring a good harvest or looking after faunts for a spell. My mother and I are responsible for Stomping the earth and representing our line in festivals. It’s important work, indeed.”

 

“Of course it is, dear. Of course.” She patted Bilbo’s hands and turned back to Thorin. “Well then? What is your concern, Master Oakenshield?”

 

What… was stomping the earth? How did one ensure good harvests? Thorin put it down to hobbit oddities. “It is customary in formal arrangements among Dwarrow to form contracts, or at least rough understandings of the services to be provided. This allows all parties a say on the guideline and gives both sides something to call upon should some part of the proceedings not be to satisfaction.  A contract is particularly important in… unusual circumstances such as this. If my company had simply set up shop in the marketplace or on the fringes, there would be no need. This is why I said all our services to you would be free of charge.”

 

“Ah, I see. You’re rather like Men in that, then. Well, I’m sure we could come to some kind of agreement. Bilbo, fetch us a quill and paper would you, from your father’s old study? If a contract makes our guests feel at home, then so be it.” Belladonna nodded to herself and poured more tea. Once Bilbo was gone though, she leaned close to Thorin, her silver streaked curls nearly touching his own. “Now, you need to understand some things about the Shire, Master Oakenshield and I’d tell you now why he fusses elsewhere.”

 

“If I must call by your name, Madame, then you must call me mine.”

 

She grinned, then fell serious. “I’ll not mince words then, Thorin.  You and yours may face some… unpleasantness from folks. Rather like young Grubb earlier. We’re a quiet people and we don’t care much for anything beyond our borders.  I’m considered quite strange to have traveled as far as Bree, let alone Rivendell! That alone has tarnished my reputation nearly beyond salvage. You’ll get paid fair, make no doubt of it, and most Hobbits won’t say nothing to your face, but you’ll likely hear it all the same. Give it time and they may come to accept your presence, but until declared otherwise by someone of good Hobbit standing and respectability, you are outsiders and will be treated thusly.”

 

Thorin took a moment to consider this, tapping his fingers against his tea (which was surprisingly good). There was the certainty of foul treatment, though not near as bad as what the Men had done. The promise of fair pay, though, and plenty of work could not be sneered at.  Why, the boiler alone would be a beast to fix and clearly the Bagginses had it in their minds to pay well. He would speak to the company as a whole to settle the matter, then. He nodded.

 

“I understand and thank you for your warning, Belladonna Baggins. While we may start this contract, I cannot sign until I have the approval of all under my command. Is this acceptable?”

 

“Of course it is! Oh Bilbo, did you find what we needed? Excellent.” She rubbed her hands together with gleam in her eye.  “Now then, let’s see what this Dwarfish haggling is all about!”

 

The next several hours were dedicated to one of the most thorough negotiations Thorin had ever had the privilege of partaking in. He had sat in on council meetings of his grandfather’s and not been nearly so impressed as he was with the Bagginses.  His cousins wandered in sometime around the bathing schedule and both chipped in (Dwalin apparently would agree to inspect the back half of the smial in exchange for daily cookies and Balin thought it important to add in work rotations), but eventually moved on to tend to their laundry and go over the message for the company one final time. Only the stumbling arrival of his sister-sons halted their progress.

 

“We aren’t late for dinner are we?” Kili gasped out, clutching at the door frame.

 

“Or supper?” Fili knocked over his brother and they splayed out on the kitchen floor, cursing as they tried to untangle their limbs.

 

Thorin absolutely did not bury his face in his hands.  He was a Dwarf of the line of Durin. He did however roll his eyes towards Mahal’s forges and count quietly to himself.  

 

“Of course not. It’s some time between dinner and supper now, but my Bilbo and I were chatting and we both agreed that straight onto a correct meal schedule might be a bit much for your systems.  We’ll ease you in a bit. Three meals a day, with tea of course, and we’ll work you up to the proper seven.” Belladonna stood and fussed over the lads for a moment, tutting at their wrinkled (and still loose) hobbit clothes. “We’ll see you filled out proper, make no mistake of that!”

 

“The stew then, mother? With the bread from the baker’s.”  Bilbo carefully gathered up their many pages of writing. “I’ll set these aside to work on later. Need to get everything heated. Lads, would you mind going to fetch your companions? Tell them dinner will be on soon.” They nodded and hurried off.

 

“Oh goodness, Bilbo, it’s Dwalin and his brother Balin. Do try to learn the names of people outside the family.” Belladonna filled the kettle again and set it to heating. “Honestly, sometimes I think it’s a miracle you know my name or Hamfast’s! Yavanna have mercy, you do know my name, yes?”

 

Bilbo scoffed as he deftly stoked the fire, a giant cauldron of stew already simmering on top. “I know you name, mother, and the names of all our wards. What more matters?  I am a Baggins of Bag End, Guardian of the Hill.  What use is anything else?”

 

“Oh, you! Ugh, your father and his insistence in keeping you locked up away from the world.” Belladonna yanked down a pan, clanging it onto the stove. “Not all the world is bad outside the borders, my boy. And don’t posture that it doesn’t interest you; I’ve seen all those adventure books you try to hide. If nothing else, it incredibly impolite to treat guests as such.”

 

Bilbo sniffed, though the tips of his ears reddened. “As you wish, mother.” To Thorin, he said. “ I apologize for my behavior, it is unbecoming of a proper hobbit. I’ll fetch some ham slices, shall I?” And he was gone.

 

Belladonna muttered under her breath about “stubborn Baginses” and “fool fauntlings” as Thorin’s family tip-toed in, cautious of her temper. “Oh I could give him such a wallop!” She waved her ladle about in disgust. “Now I love my boys, I do. Would tear down the whole of the Shire for them. But, ooh, sometimes they are such proper, respectable imbeciles I should like to shake them. I’ll set him straight, not to worry. Having some outside folk will do him good, I reckon.”

 

“It’s no trouble at all, Madame, but it does make a body curious.” Balin stroked his beard thoughtfully. “Why would the lad offer us a place in your home himself if he has no love of outsiders. That Bounder fellow was right that filled packs would have been kindness enough.”

 

“Well, firstly, most hobbits in the Shire have known hunger like yours, Master Dwarves, though it is bad form to bring it up. Otherwise,...my Bilbo is a strange one. Half Baggins and half Took. It’s a miracle he can even walk about really, with all that contradicting heritage. Wary of outsiders, but craves adventures. Perfectly pleased to satisfy himself, but the first to hobbit in line to help. A Bagginses’ sense of responsibility but a Took’s fire and mischief.  Giving you lot a place to recover was probably the first time all his instincts agreed, all Baggins decency and Tookish curiosity. He’ll come round soon enough. Just don’t stomp his tomatoes and he’ll cosy up real soon.”

 

Thorin cleared his throat and busied himself with fixing Fili’s hair. “Twice now you’ve mentioned stomping, but I think you mean something else. May I ask what it is to a Hobbit?”

 

“No, and you’d do well not to mention it again, Master Oakenshield.” Bilbo handed a couple of cold slices to the lads and passed the rest to his mother to heat up. “You’re guests here, true enough, but we’ve secrets of our own to mind. Only if you’ve been declared Hobbit-friend can you learn such things.” He looked over the dwarves. “To my knowledge, there was perhaps one named friend in all our years, but that could just be a legend. My research into our history has been rather hampered since we rarely wrote before settling into the Shire. Tea?”

 

“There are some things we may share, Thorin-dear, but much we must keep hidden. Our secrets protect us and the magic only goes so far. Now then, let’s get started! Take what you like, but be sure to eat it slowly. Don’t want it all coming back up. I’ll show you all the first pantry, so if you feel snackish later just help yourselves.”

 

It was a good stew, though Thorin could not identify half of the vegetables in it. The bread was warm and soft inside the crust, with plenty of blackberry jam to slather on it. The tea was also very good and, when Dwalin of all dwarves inquired, Belladonna revealed it was her own brew. Designed to help with stomach strain and ease sleep, she said. Balin held a lively conversation about the struggles of reading old scripts with Bilbo and his sister-sons entertained Belladonna with tales of their misadventures.

 

No sooner had they scraped the bottoms of their bowls then the lads clamored about exploring the smial more. Belladonna led them for a “grand and merry tour” of the Hobbits’ home. Dwalin proclaimed he was going to finish sleeping for the rest of the week and Balin fetched the letter to send off to the company by raven.  Finally, it was just Thorin and Bilbo in the kitchen.

 

“Well, no time like the present to get cleaned up! You should take more rest, Master Oakenshield, especially since you slept the least. Wouldn’t want you feeling uncared for.” That said, Bilbo proceeded to gather up an armful of dishes and set about scrubbing them with a will, humming lightly to himself.

 

The clear dismissal… rankled Thorin for some reason, though he was not entirely sure why. He snatched up his own pile of dishes and joined the hobbit at his sink. “I will assist you.”

 

Bilbo’s head whipped around and he glared up at Thorin (the top of his head was just barely to Thorin’s shoulders!). He opened his mouth, no doubt to snap, but reined himself in at the last moment when his mother laughed down the hall. When he opened his eyes again, Bilbo had a rather wry twist to his mouth, though his eyes were saddened. “It seems I am meant to be constantly snapping at you. Apologies, but you are a guest in my home and it would not be proper for you to help so soon. It is a slight against my abilities as a host.”

 

He cocked his head. “You know, I have not heard my mother so invigorated in nearly fifteen years, Master Dwarf. We thought her fading for the first years after my father passed. She has laughed, to be sure, but she shines brighter now and she spoke with such excitement earlier. If this is what having outsiders in our home does, then you are most welcome here, sir, for as long as you like. However strange you might be.”

 

“I am no Hobbit, Master Baggins, nor had I heard much of your folk until a little while ago. I will endeavor not to antagonize you as much as I can, though your ways are strange to me.” Thorin leaned closer and softened his voice. “You and your mother have helped my family, when I could not do so myself. I have not heard their laughter at all in far longer than I should like. I am forever at your service.”

 

“A truce, then, for our families that we cannot help ourselves.” Bilbo grinned up at him suddenly, all fey mischief. “In light of this, I feel I should put flowers in your braids and weave you a proper flower crown like a proper Hobbit! Imagine how the Big Folk will tremble in the face of our alliance.”

 

Thorin was struck by the absurd image of a host of dwarves, led of course by a roaring Dwalin, charging to war with flowers in their beards and he laughed so hard his ribs ached. Bilbo look stunned for a moment while Thorin tried to explain and then he was a giggling mess.

 

“Oh! Oh only imagine a similar herd of Hobbits, bedecked in shining metal armor stomping about and looking terrifying. With great war hammers and...and beards.” They both paused to consider, before collapsing once more into the counter, their shoulders brushing. Eventually, Bilbo tugged his waistcoat into some sort of order and set about washing the dishes. “I shall wash, Master Dwarf.”

 

“And I shall dry.” And they continued so for quite some time, washing all the dirty dishes and, occasionally, whispering “flower beards” to each other and snickering. Though neither noticed, the other guests and their host briefly dropped by to stare. They were deaf to the hushed and hurried whispers down the hallway of laughter long since forgotten and perhaps no small amount of strange magics at work.

 

 

Chapter Text

Thorin’s raven had made good time or else the promise of food and bathes spurred the rest of the company forward, for they arrived late in the evening the following day.  Thorin and the rest had spent the morning washing clothes and working more on the contract, which was already a full twenty pages. Belladonna had quietly pulled the adult dwarves aside for a quick examination, but they were otherwise left to their leisure. The rest of the food the Bagginses had ordered arrived and a messenger from the Thain bid them formal welcome and asked that they not “disturb the peace.”

 

The full enormity of his invitation did not seem to register with Bilbo until he opened the door to eight more dwarves, several of which tumbled inside as soon as he turned the latch. Fortunately, Belladonna was already rushing about to learn everyone’s names and the hobbit seemed to shake himself. Nevertheless, Thorin lingered after hauling Bombur to his feet, restraining himself from fiddling with his beads.

 

There was a minor argument where Bilbo refused to let anyone passed until they had taken off their boots and several members took exception. Even Belladonna remained firm, citing again her threat about desert and mud-tracking. Thorin ended the grumbling before they all got tossed out.

 

“Contract terms. Get your boots off and divide up. Four people can bathe at a time. We’ve got work to do.”

 

The dwarrow hurried to obey, but now the hobbits protested.

 

“Now, now there’s no rush on that paperwork. Surely a day of rest would be advantageous. Goodness, they haven’t even eaten anything yet!” Belladonna wrung her hands a bit and fluttered around his company, taking in the slack clothing. “Oh you poor darlings, don’t you worry one bit.”

 

“I’ll take the first of the lads down to the bathing room, Bell, so don’t you worry except for dinner.” Dwalin clapped a hand to the back of Nori’s neck and tucking him against his side. “I’ll sit with ‘em too. We dinnae want them getting lost.” He steered Nori away, while Bifur, Bofur, and Bombur trailed behind.

 

Dori stepped up to Belladonna and clasped her hands.

 

“Oh Mistress Baggins, thank you and your boy so much for lodging us! I know some of this lot may seem a little rough around the edges, but don’t you worry. I’m Dori, at your service. Might I just add that this is an absolutely lovely shade of yellow you’re wearing! Rather like a nice topaz. Very refined. Truly, Madame, at your service!” He had obviously put work into his braids, but they were still a sad sight indeed. At least to those that knew him. Ori was presented in all of his blushing glory and stuttered a stilted compliment on “the lines of your home. Love to draw it sometime”.

 

“Ach, enough of your fluttering about tailor!” Oin pushed his way past a gaping Dori. “The message said there was a healer here who had taken to examining my patients and I’ve words enough for them.”

 

“Ah, that would be me, Master Dwarf. I could not abide it if one of your fellows was ill and I did not care for them properly. I must say, the sturdiness of dwarves impresses me greatly for other than their prolonged hunger and some exhaustion, I found no great illness. Kili, though, worries me a bit. I fear he may be developing a slight cold or perhaps allergies. It might be different for dwarves though. I’m sure your care has helped much, besides.”

 

Oin stroked his mustache, seemingly appeased. “Aye, as you say! Come, tell me what you learned here in your homelands of healing.”

 

What followed was a bizarre and serious conversation and soon enough Oin was led away for a deeper comparison of medicines in the parlor. There were mentions of “humours” and “bile” and other such things.

 

“Well that could have been a great deal less pleasant.” Gloin finally wrenched off his other boot, his toes poking out of his socks. “Though I fear we shan’t see them again until the morrow! My brother is terribly long winded about his Craft.”

 

“Craft, you say?  I’ve heard of your occupations, but that sounded greater.” Bilbo murmured, already straightening the many packs and cloaks. “Is a craft important to dwarves?”

 

Gloin sputtered and even Thorin could not help but gape. “Is it not so for Hobbits? Do ye not feel in your fingertips a great calling to create? Do you yerself not have a craft?”

 

“No, of course we don’t! Why the notion is fairly ridiculous. Imagine a gentlehobbit lowering themselves to, to make bits and bobbles.” The boots were neatly ordered now.

 

“Now see here, laddie. Craftin’ is at the very heart of dwarrow culture and I won’t stand for no slanderous speech.”

 

“Oh! Forgive me. The idea of a Hobbit’s hands wanting to create things is strange, truly. We have craftsmen, of course, and great many who are passionate about what they create, but it’s our feet that lead us.”

 

“Yer feet?” Gloin furrowed his eyebrows. “How d’yer feet make any difference at all. They’re just… attached.”

 

Bilbo looked thoroughly scandalized. “Attached! Why, how would I move about without them? Indeed, it would be difficult to Stomp the good earth and… and how would I dance? No, Master Dwarf, a Hobbit’s feet are the important bit. Sacred even. Few Hobbits have lost feet or been born without them, but ooh, the very thought is chilling. Though… I suppose that explains why you wear boots, if feet aren’t how you connect to your world. But please, enlighten me on what a craft is. You are Master Gloin, yes?  Master Oakenshield mentioned you were a banker…?”

 

“Aye, that is my job, but my craft is another thing separate. Like as not Thorin did not tell you mine Craft because it is rare outside of the mountain. I am a banker to make my wealth but my hands crave searching out the best of the veins in a mine. My Craft is less a thing to make money and more a way of going about life. Though the brighter miners might come to me to find their new paths.”

 

“If I may, Master Gloin, how does one find the best veins?”

“Ah, I ask the mountain, simply put. Well, less the mountain and more the Stone. Many dwarrow have some range of Stone Sense, but most know only how to hear safe paths and load bearing lines. Some few of us can hear the riches. Just on our journey here I found several likely spots! Not all crafts are like this for many are creating objects that can be sold, but not all Craft is profitable.”

 

“My but that is impressive!” Gloin puffed up a bit. “I had no idea such things were possible. I’ve a cousin who can tell the good earth from the regular and another that can find wild mushrooms like a hunting hound, but this! I apologize doubly for doubting, sir. We have, perhaps, a mirror to this, though it doesn’t involve stone and I cannot tell you more.” Bilbo put his hands on his hips and stared at his foot fur for a moment. “Oh! But listen to me, asking questions and not a cup of tea to be seen. Follow me, Master Dwarves, and we’ll break your fast while the others bathe. I’m afraid you’ve missed dinner, but supper is soon enough.”

 

With that, he scurried down the hall towards the kitchen.

 

“What did he mean, missed dinner and supper soon?” Ori asked.

 

“Hobbits are strange about food. Careful or you’ll be eating seven meals soon.

 

Thorin led Ori, Dori, and Gloin to the kitchen and found his sister-sons already there, munching happily on leftovers from earlier.

 

“Ori!” Kili cried. “Come sit down.  There’s a wonderful bit of dumpling stew left.”

 

“And blueberry cake!” Fili hurriedly pulled a fresh plate forward to heap with food.

 

“You two are going to spoil your supper if you keep on.” Bilbo smiled down at them. “Give my mother and I a chance and we’ll have a proper feast set up to celebrate!”

 

Both Fili and Kili froze, then leaned together to hash out whether or not to eat the blueberry cake before Bombur got wind of it or if they should wait to eat as much as they could at the “hobbit feast”.

 

Bilbo rolled his eyes. “You know, you have only to ask and my mother will bake you another blueberry cake. Each!” He placed a tray of tea cups and selection of fruits down in front of the gathered dwarves and leaned forward, eyes bright.  “Now then, if you might tell me more of these Crafts of yours, I am mightily curious. Do they run in families? How do you know what it is? Are there dwarves without Crafts or more than one? Oh, I wish I had my notebook!”

 

Ori looked up. “You’re curious about Dwarrow Crafts, but why? Hobbits don’t have them you said.”

 

Bilbo waved away the question. “I am a historian and a researcher. I have done as much as I can with hobbits, the histories of Men are mostly battle and have few magic ties and Elves know their history all the way back to the very beginning of their race, but believe we mortals unable to truly comprehend. Dwarves, though! You’re far closer to us than the other races and I’m rather curious on a whole. Perhaps I shall write a book on how to entertain Dwarven guests!”

 

“A fellow writer!” Ori practically vibrated. “We must chat later, with Balin of course. Have you written other books?”

 

“I have indeed.” Bilbo laughed. “Though I doubt you’d find them interesting. A book of old Hobbit legends and one on the finer points of herbcraft. Not something Dwarves would find fascinating, no doubt.”

 

“Dwarrow.” Dori insisted. “I’m not sure who came up with Dwarves, but we’re Dwarrow to be sure, Master Baggins.”

 

“Indeed? Apologies, I know the pain of being called wrong. Men and Elves seem certain that we’re Halflings, “ he spat the word, “but we’re half of nothing, thank you very much. If anything, they’re the ones abnormally tall. A miracle, really, they survive. But come, we were discussing Dwarrow Craft.”

 

Gloin brushed the crumbs from his beard. “Right. As to your questions, no Craft does not run in families.  There are no Dwarrow without craft and I’ve not heard of a Dwarf with more than one Craft, but maybe several Masteries. A Craft is something intrinsic to a Dwarf and manifests fairly early.” He glanced at the others. “As to knowing… my mam always said I just up and pointed at stones until someone opened them and found the treasures inside. My wife is an axe-dancer and learns the old and new dances, so swift are her hands. A Craft can be many things, but it is always something no Dwarf could live without.”

 

“Are some crafts more important than others? More respected?  Is it rude to inquire after one’s Craft?”

 

“No, to all.” Dori answered, snagging a piece of food from the center tray. “Craft is a sacred gift from Mahal, who first crafted us. To sneer at someone’s Craft is an affront before Him. Most Dwarrow would be more than happy to regale you with stories of their passion.  In many cases, this passion for Craft overtakes all other passions and they become like Stone, having no passion for flesh. This doesn’t mean that they don’t crave a partner, only that they don’t fuss much with, ah~”

 

“They don’t tupp each other.” Ori said, much to Dori’s horror and his sister-son’s amusement. “What? It doesn’t matter. Why do you pretend that I don’t know about you and Ba~”

 

Quiet!” Dori snapped. “Hobbits could be like men. Don’t risk our safe haven here by revealing that Dwarf men can lie with each other.”

 

Ori went very pale and quiet.  Fortunately, before Bilbo could make inquiries, the first group of bathers appeared.  Dwalin maintained his hold on a now grumbling and damp Nori.

 

“Lads! Go take the others to the baths and stay with them. Balin’s found the soap and such, but the damned boiler needs to be minded and fixed soon.” Dwalin plunked down at the table and dragged Nori beside him.

 

His sister-sons hurried to obey, though Kili took a moment to cram an entire (!) piece of blueberry cake into his mouth. Gloin shouted for his brother and they were off.

 

“Bilbo! Get dinner started. I’ll get the rooms ready.” Belladonna popped her head around the corner. “And do be polite, dear. I know it’s stew again tonight, but we must remain strong.”

 

Bilbo sniffed. “I am the picture of Hobbit gentility, mother.” He set about filling more cups for the arrivals and took down a great pot for the meal. “I’ll get started here in a moment, not to worry.”

 

While the others had sat themselves around the table (save Thorin himself, who could not settle), Bombur hovered. His large body was greatly diminished by their famine and he wavered on his feet, twisting his hands in his beard braid and shuffling.

 

“Is there something you need, Master Dwarf?”

 

Bombur started. “Ah, begging your pardon, Master Baggins, but do you need some help preparing our meal.”

 

Seeing Bilbo already beginning to stiffen, Thorin jumped forward. “Bilbo! This is Bombur, one of my company.  His Craft is the making of fine food, though, I am sorry to admit his has had little chance to practice it in recent months.”

 

“His Craft, you say?” Bilbo perked up, then turned to assess Bombur. He stared for a time and whatever he found made his mouth tighten. “It is a great cruelty that you should not have had a proper kitchen to cook in, Master Bombur. Come and share mine, though the stew will be the host’s claim. Perhaps you could prepare a more Dwarven side? Our pantry is open to you.”

 

Bombur nearly bounced so great was his excitement. “Truly? Many thanks, Master Hobbit. Oh, to Craft again! Bread, certainly, and perhaps some apple tarts?”

 

“I leave that entirely to your discretion, sir.” Bilbo pointed out the pantry and Bombur bustled away, more lively than he had been for many months. Indeed, the prospect of cooking had brought more color to his cheeks than the bath. Bilbo, knowing none of this, returned to cooking the main course, muttering under his breath.

 

The two cooks worked quietly together, sometimes comparing techniques but mostly sharing a peaceful silence. Bilbo, being a clever host, never allowed their tea cups to empty and they chatted mildly together. Every minute that passed made Bombur stand straighter and he smiled brightly even when his arms trembled from kneading dough.

 

“Oh! Oh, Master Baggins, I’ve had an idea! Do you have any honey? My mam used to glaze these tarts with honey before and after baking and it would do my heart good to have something of home.”

 

Bilbo told him where it was and the Dwarf hustled away, an old Broadbeam cooking song on his lips. As soon as he was out of sight, Bofur burst into tears, his narrow shoulders heaving. “Months! Months o’ watching my brother suffer for lack of Craft. I thought I’d never see this day. Hear how he hums?” He tugged his hat off and buried his face in it, shuddering. “Oh, my heart. Master Hobbit, me an’ mine forever at yer service. I couldna’ even buy him flour to bake with and now he sings again. I thought he’d die a broken dwarf.” He continued to snuffle and Thorin gripped his shoulder. He knew the miner’s suffering.

 

“Truly, Master Baggins, forever at yer service.”

 

Bilbo, for his part, looked completely floored and stared for several long moments. He gathered himself when Bombur returned. “None of that now, my good Dwarf.” He turned to Bombur. “You are welcome to use our kitchen whenever you like, my friend, as long as you clean afterwards. Let us know if you need some other ingredients for I am eager to learn of Dwarvi~ Dwarrow cuisine!”

 

Now Bombur stared before he too began to sob into his beard. Bilbo was utterly frantic, fluttering his hands about. “Not to worry, Master Hobbit. I’ll just glaze these tarts and maybe tomorrow I’ll make some nice sausage bread. Thank you, good sir, thank you.”

 

Belladonna came skidding into the kitchen, clearly ready to take Bilbo to task before Thorin shook his head. Straightening her skirts, she stormed forward, dropped a kiss on Bofur’s head, and took over the kettle. “Honestly, I was barely gone an hour and two guests are crying and… what exactly is one of them doing cooking, Bilbo.”

 

Bilbo replied in their tongue, a long passage that sounded like bird song and the wind through wheat. Belladonna’s face darkened before she reached up and took down the cookie jar. “This calls for extreme measures, then.”

 

While she passed out cookies to all the dwarrow, Bilbo returned to cooking and began to sing.

 

Mind the fire, heat the pots

Unless burnt crisps be-got.

Melt the fat down, dry your eyes

add the onions to their surprise!

 

Stew! Oh, a fine meal.

Hide the recipe none can steal

unless they be friends to we!

Ho! A mighty meal this be.

 

He spun his chopping blade and began to do a sort of hop-stomp in place. Belladonna joined him in the next verse while the dwarrow watched wide-eyed.

 

Then the meat, off the bone

maybe grain, if it be sown.

Add the flour, swift and true

to make a mighty fine rue.

 

Stew! Oh, a fine meal.

Hide the recipe none can steal

unless they be friends to we!

Ho! A mighty meal this be.

 

The rest of his company had wandered in from the baths and Bofur at least had caught the beat, shaking off his tears. They joined him, clapping their hands together.

 

Make the stew thick and whole,

fill each and every bowl.

Two potatoes to each guest

will feed us through our merry quest.

 

Stew! Oh, a fine meal.

Hide the recipe none can steal

unless they be friends to we!

Ho! A mighty meal this be.

 

The company roared along with the chorus this time and Belladonna danced in place. Sometimes, she spun Bombur and sometimes Bilbo. Thorin marvelled at the bright faces of his sister-sons and company.

 

Season it now with the herbs.

Say a few kind words

to our Lady, honey sweet!

For our fine and merry feast.

 

Stew! Oh, a fine meal.

Hide the recipe, none can steal

unless they be friends to we!

Ho! A mighty meal this be.

 

He fought back tears and Kili, noticing his distress, hurried over to hug him. Thorin clutched him close and dragged Fili to him as well. This could not be a dream. The Valar were not that cruel.

 

While it simmers, tend the tea.

To good neighbors, be no fee.

Come now, fauntling, break the bread

so we all be safe and fed!



The company roared and stamped their approval. Their hosts flourished bows and began to set the table for supper. Thorin tightened his hold on his boys for a moment longer. Bilbo caught his eye while filling Bifur’s bowl and smiled gently. Finally, Thorin let go.

 

 

Chapter Text

Dwalin would be the first to tell any would-be merchant that intimidating customers was a bad idea. The way Thorin was pounding the piece in front of him like Smaug himself had asked for it fixed was not helping business. At all, if the increasingly panicked looks being shot towards the smithy was any indication. His King had passed along Bell’s warning about Hobbits and their general suspicion of outsiders, but none of them had realized just how… grating it would be. He glared over the sea of curly headed little fiends, ignoring his brother’s scolding.

 

No one who made the princes hunch over like that deserved his respect. Now, Dwalin had no real problem with gentlefolk. He begrudged them nothing of their soft lives and peace. He enjoyed spending time with the Bagginses and their many kinds of sweets. Bell was a spitfire caught in the wrong species or he wasn’t a Dwarf. Just yesterday they had compared tattoos, with Bilbo chaperoning of course (odd lad). Hers had started at a shoulder and woven its way across and down her back, a mixture of plants and the Hobbit language.  “An old spell and recipe, passed down through generations of herb wives” apparently.

 

In return, he’d bared all of his own and told their many stories. His many battles, both the victories and the catastrophes. Both of his hosts had listened with rapt attention, though only Bell had deigned to touch. Later, he had pulled aside his comrades to tell them of the sheer size of her tattoo. Truly, there was strength to be found in Hobbits, though not much in the way of warriors.

 

Bilbo had witnessed Kili struggling with forming his letters and promptly set up schooling four days a week for the younger Dwarrow. Balin assisted with history, but the Hobbit alone created a rigorous course and was patient in teaching where he was short-tempered elsewhere. Fili and Ori were bullied into joining as well.  Thorin often sat in, though Dwalin suspected it was more to bask in his sister-sons spirits than to encourage good behavior.

 

Nothing like meeting more of the little folk to break the golden haze. One morning, after an extremely hearty breakfast from Bombur, a group of them had fairly skipped down to the riverside to set up stalls. The first Hobbit put a stop to that nonsense right quick. A Chubb, apparently by Nori’s telling (though Dwalin had no clue how he told the difference). They were all used to some level of disrespect, traveling among Men had hardened them to that. This was quieter, though. Whispers around corners and strained smiles. A few openly sneered at them, but those were few and far between.

 

Bilbo had attempted to help ease the way, coaching them in proper Hobbit etiquette and a few, like Dori, had been able to overcome the cultural barrier.  His tailoring stand was doing exceedingly well while he and Nori embroidered handkerchiefs and sold a variety of dresses.  Ori was off doing portraits, as the last artist of some skill had a tendency to overcharge. Bofur was raking in piles of coin selling his little toys and bits. The others struggled.

 

Bifur was openly avoided by all the Hobbits in the marketplace, though one or two had attempted communication. The poor bastard was back in Bag End. No one would buy toys from a mad dwarf. So the others watched as the children marveled at the clever contraptions while their maker was locked away from sight.

 

Keep quiet, fauntling, or outsiders will come take you away.

 

Bombur had some difficulty selling his sweetmeats and tarts until he had assured each and every one of his customers that he was only using Shire ingredients. He had leftovers in the evening, even then.

 

If it’s not Hobbit grown, it’s not safe to eat.

 

Dwalin was the only dwarf that struggled to sell any of his craft. He had spent a few days examining various smials and the blueprints from Bungo Baggins’ old books and had developed his own designs which were much more practical and sturdy. Every Hobbit that glanced at his drawings, sneered and walked on.

 

Never trust a stranger to make your den.

 

On and on it went. Hobbits seemed to have a saying for everything. Dwalin did his best to hide the beginnings of his own Craft sickness. If Bombur could last months without proper Craft, he could to. Ach, but it ached terrible in his chest.  He was no worse off than his brother. Poor Balin, forced to restrain himself from showering his betrothed with affection as was tradition. Even now, the poor fool stared across the marketplace at Dori’s great beauty. His brother’s body might be like stone, but it was his heart that reached for his One. They couldn’t risk it though. Hobbits might be like Men and this set up was too good to be run out of town. Again.

 

Fortunately the pay was good here and the food steady enough that he didn’t have to watch Nori for sticky fingers too much. Dwalin might not agree with the Dwarf’s methods, but there were nights when he could have kissed the redhead for the stolen foodstuffs that quieted the young ones’ stomachs. Dori was the only one of the Ri brothers old enough to remember Erebor; Nori had been born on the roads during a foul winter and Ori in Ered Luin. Dwalin wondered some nights if Nori would have been different had he not known the famine first and only.

 

He shook himself back to attention. No point wondering about “might haves” and “maybes”, Nori was a thief and a scoundrel even if he loved his brothers dearly. There were more important things to worry about, like the exceedingly portly Hobbit approaching the princes. Where Dwarrow wore their wealth on their bodies and hair, Hobbits apparently put it into their bodies as great girth was a sign of health and good fortunes.

 

The Hobbit (a Chubb again, Nori had developed a hand-signal for these ones and their ill-disguised disgust) shoved a giant fry pan onto the table.

 

“I need this fixed by dinner! I have guests coming over and I cannot make a decent meal without it. Be quick and don’t use any of that nasty metal you lot brought with you! Can’t trust you outsiders to make anything quality, but what can we do if our respectable blacksmith is laid-up? No, indeed use the fine metals of the Shire!”

 

The wooden handle of his hammer creaked ominously in Thorin’s hand and he went back to smithing. They would endure this. Dwalin lent half an ear to the lads explaining that Shire copper couldn’t be used to mend the pot properly and maybe it might take a while to mend because there were so many other orders while he sketched out a new floorplan. Maybe one with a skylight? Hobbits did love their sun. Thorin’s boys had grown much on this journey and Dwalin squashed down the little flair of pride in his chest. The Hobbit, however, was having none of it.

 

“Now see here! I’m offering good coin for this work and I’ll be damned if some Dwarvish wanderer is going to swindle me. You’ll fix this as I say or, so help me, I will take this up with the Thain himself! You lot may live with that Mad Took lass, but she can’t protect you forever. The dratted woman could have died with her fool husband and saved us all the trouble!”

 

Dwalin snarled from his spot and slammed his fist on the table. “Mad! I’ll show you mad you pint-sized, beardless wretch! Belladonna Baggins is the height o’ gentleness and I’ll not have some grocer badmouth her.”

 

He moved around the table and advanced on the terrified little weasel.  No Hobbit, Dwarf, or any other creature under Mahal’s Forges was going to speak so of his favorite Hobbit lass! Damn the money, some things were more important.

 

He was so focused on wringing the Chubb’s neck that Dwalin almost missed another Hobbit sticking out her foot to trip up the offender. She stood, hands on her hips, over the sprawled brat.

 

“What’s all this then? You townies really are the worst. Anyone with half a brain in their skull knows the truth of the Dwarves’ words. Honestly, this is just embarrassing. I’m right ashamed to call you kin-folk. And to speak such about my Godmother? You Chubbs just don’t know how to let go of those nasty little grudges do you? My Aunt Bella and her husband got Guardianship fair and square and I won’t have you besmirchin’ their good names in front of me!”

 

Chubb sneered up.  “A Brandybuck’s taking on airs then? Your whole lot brings nothing but bad blood into the Shire, with all yer trusting of outside folk. Don’t you remember the Winter, hmm? Remember what your kind brought down upon our heads!”

 

“We don’t control the river, fool. I know well what was lost during the Fell for I lost the most of it. And I won’t stand here listening to you and your suspicious pettiness any longer!”

 

Dwalin flanked the lass now and drew himself to his full, foreboding height. Chubb opened his mouth for a parting shot, but Dwalin growled and the lass stamped her foot. The flagstone beneath her cracked clear in two and nearly shattered besides. Strength in Hobbits, indeed!

 

Chubb nearly fell again as he sped away, tripping over his over-sized feet. The lass turned her glare to the rest of the market. “And you lot! Standing to the sides when guests in our lands are treated so? You should all be ashamed. I’ve never seen such despicable behavior. And letting him bad-mouth Mistress Baggins like that?  Have you all forgotten the sickness three years past?  All the fauntlings in the whole of the Shire might have wasted away if not for her courage and knowledge. Truly, this is a sad day to be a Hobbit!” Now finished, she swiped the sun-kissed curls from her face and smiled up at Dwalin.

 

“Look at you Dwarves, all ready to jump to my Godmother’s defense.  My thanks for defending her honor and my sincerest apologies for the behavior of my kin. We’re a simple and rather foolish folk, but our fears are often well-founded.  Old warnings are held in high regard here.” She looked about and fetched a woven basket set not far away. “Now then, I heard there was a Dwarf trying to sell blueprints of all things and I’d like very much to speak with them.” She looked at Balin hopefully.

 

“Aye, lassie, I’m trying to sell designs.” Dwalin stumped over to his stall. It would have annoyed him that another had assumed he couldn’t be an engineer if it didn’t happen so often. “Ye’ve got too many load bearing walls in yer homes, ruins the open flooring and constricts movement. And the weight distribution could be fixed. And yer plumbing! It’s a miracle it’s lasted this long.”

 

She hesitated, clearly having thought a less intimidating Dwarf was a master at building. She proved her relation to Belladonna, though, as she scurried over to examine the drawings. “I agree with the plumbing bit, but metal is hard to find in the Shire and we’re loathe to import or tear up more of our home to find more. Not sure about this whole “open” concept though. Aren’t all the archways openings enough?”

 

Dwalin snorted. “Not that kind of open, lassie. The ability to see and move through your home without having to turn a corner every three steps. Imagine a large room that was both a dining and living room. Huge even. The flow of the design marking the separation instead of a wall.” He scribbled a rough design out for her to look at.

 

“But wouldn’t it collapse under the weight?”

 

“No, that’s why ye’ve got this bit here, see? It redistributes so fewer pillars can manage.”

 

They bent their heads together and jabbed the papers, muttering to each other while the whole market gaped.

 

“Ha! Silly Dwarf. No decent Hobbit would live in a smial without a parlor for entertaining. A mighty flaw, but remedied easily enough. Here, you can split this room in tw~ Is that an armory? What use is that?” The cheek!

 

“Why not just take them to the kitchen? Foods closer and ye dinnae have to waste materials on a separate room.”

 

The lass pressed a hand to her heart and gasped, though her grin spoke another story. “How presumptuous! To lead an acquaintance to the heart of your home. Will you take them to bed next? There’s only three reasons to take a visitor to the kitchens: they’re family, you want them to be or they’re about to collapse from hunger and only the dearest of family is allowed.”

 

Dwalin grumbled. “O’ course Hobbits would make a kitchen the important room, what was I thinking.”

 

“You weren’t, my dear sir.” She patted his hand. “Kitchens feed the family and that’s where recipes are discovered and shared. There are few treasures more precious than a recipe made with family. Why, they’re more heavily guarded than the good silver!”

 

“I see.” It made a Hobbit sort of sense, really. “Rather like a technique passed through generations, then? Aye, I could see that.” Dwalin stroked his beard. “You know, lass, Dwarrow locks are nigh impossible to open without a key. Mayhap I add a sturdy safe to these designs, for the keeping of great treasures.”

 

“Ooh! A fine idea if I’ve ever heard one. Och, but listen to me? All this business chatter and not an introduction to be heard. I’m Bluebell Brandybuck, Goddaughter of your hostess! A great pleasure to be making your acquaintance.” She curtsied.

 

“Dwalin, son of Fundin, at yer service lassie. Ye know yer craft well enough. How long have ye been building the homes of yer people?”

 

“Oh, a short time really. I studied under my father when he yet lived. I’m mostly an advisor, but there are a few who’ve come to me for den building. Our burrows are where we ever stay, so a fine one is a great treasure. Won’t have more business till I hit my coming of age in a couple of years.” She scowled heavily. “Goodness knows I’m not likely to learn a terrible lot more in two years, but there’s tradition for you. I mostly tend my family’s orchards. If you’ve eaten a fruit off a tree, it’s likely from my lands.”

 

“Yer not of age yet? How old are ye?” Surely the girl wasn’t so young! Supplying so much food to her lands and learning a Craft!?

 

“Oh, thirty-one and a few months. My cousin Bilbo is only three years older than I, but ooh does he lord it over me! Here, look.  I’ve been tossing about this idea about resetting a kitchen. Like so.” She scribbled on a spare sheet. “See? A double oven here for baking and a side bit for smoking meat. If you cross beam the ceiling like this? Lots of space for drying bits and bobs. Put a sink here and you can halve the plumbing stress.”

 

Dwalin stroked his beard and considered. Clever within the confines of Hobbit means. There was promise here. “It’s a start. Do it like this though.” He added his own lines, dark fingers easily drawing his vision. Bluebell murmured in surprise and bent closer to examine. “I can get plenty of quality metal out here with a letter to our mountains and promise of decent pay. The stove’s a clever design. We’ve similar in our homes, though our chimneys have to be different. It’s the draft in the mountains. Don’t get the proper pull on the smoke and we’ll all suffocate.”

 

“I should like to see that someday, I think. The townies might sniff at outsiders, but even they can’t deny these feats of engineering.” Bluebell’s stomach growled so loudly that Thorin nearly dropped his hammer. Served him right for listening at keyholes. Her ears flushed deeply and she patted her sizable stomach. “Well now! I quite forgot I was here for lunch, what with all this denning talk. Little one’s getting cranky!”

 

“Little one!” Dori hustled over (who all had been listening to their conversation!) and grabbed up her basket. “Why didn’t you say anything? We would have found you a chair and, oh, you’ve been carrying this heavy basket the whole time. Nori, fetch her some tea. Now don’t you worry, Madame, we’ll get you fed right. Bombur here has four bairns himself and knows a thing or two about caring for bearers.”

 

“But I’m fin~”

 

“Fili, Kili! Find her a chair.” Dwalin swept up their drawings and muttered to himself. “Standing there gabbin’ on when a bearer’s wearing herself out. Durin’s beard, I must be losing my edge.”

 

“Now wait just a moment!”

 

“Not to worry, Miss.” Fili set down a chair and Kili a smaller crate for her feet. Nori brought over a cushion and one of Dori’s clever lace umbrellas. “We’ll get you settled. Any family to the Bagginses are friends of ours.”

 

In short order, the Brandybuck lass was sat down with a cup of tea at her elbow and a plate of Bombur’s best scones on her lap. Thorin brought her a glass of fresh water himself. Dehydration wasn’t any better for bairns than hunger, he murmured. Dori fussed a bit more but otherwise the Dwarrow calmed. Dwalin clapped Nori on the shoulder.

 

“Good thinking with the umbrella, lad.”

 

Nori gaped, then ducked his head a bit. “Ma always had a damned time with heat carrying Ori. Makes sense, is all.”

 

“Well, it’s a bit much, isn’t it? I’m not going to fall over from a bit of walking around and late elevensies. I appreciate the concern, but I’m more than capable of looking after meself.”

 

“Oh hush. Of course you can look after yourself. Just shouldn’t have to. Where’s your partner at? Letting a bearer run around without help, goodness! Such disregard for your health, don’t they understand the precious gem you’re Crafting? For shame. And not even of age yet, either.” Dori swatted the lap blanket a bit harder than necessary and tutted.

 

“A partner? A ridiculous idea to be sure. I’m not of age yet, am I? My dress shows clear enough that I’m unbonded.” She bit into one of her treats. “Oh, this is quite good. My compliments. No, I’ve no mate. It happens sometimes that a healthy lass carries without the help of another. Some say it’s Yavanna herself trying to make sure her second children stay plenty and whole. Though it never seems to happen with any sense. Why, the last to carry like this already had four faunts!”

 

Nori gaped down at her. “Ye mean ye didn’t… ye know. Lie with no one.” Dwalin rather liked the blush that was showing up around the thief’s collar.

 

“That’s what I said, isn’t it? Oh! Are you lot more like Men then? Must be awfully nice to have a better sense when little ones be coming along. My smial isn’t near big enough for a faunt just yet. O’ course, there’s no guarantee I’ll keep it.”

 

Dwalin’s heart clenched. “Do many Hobbits lose their children unborn? It happens amongst our own too, though mostly during hard times.”

 

Bluebell looked up at him, horrified. “Goodness no! I meant only that I might give the faunt to another pair! Some folks marry for love and two lads can’t make a babe themselves. They might approach one like me. Single parenting is admirable, but not everybody can handle it, no shame in that. If I can’t, I’ll become Aunt and my faunt will have two fathers instead.” She blinked and an ugly look crossed her face. “You lot aren’t uncivilized like those Men are are you? I won’t hear no foolishness about lads not being able to lie together.”

 

Dori sputtered. “No, thank Mahal. Why we were worried you Hobbits were like that! What with your strange customs of propriety. Very odd indeed. No, lass. When a Dwarf has the fortune of finding their One or someone to love, we do not stand in their way. An afront to Mahal’s Craft, that would be.”

 

Bluebell’s face cleared. “Oh, well that’s a relief. Was going to have to give you a long lecture, I was.” She stood. “Well, thank you kindly for your care, but I’m quite late to see my Aunt now. You should speak to her about pregnancy herbs to help your females keep their babes, she the best for it. Good day to you all!” She reached for her basket, but Dwalin snagged it.

 

“No. No bearer walks about without an escort. I’ll walk you there. Nori, grab that umbrella and join us.” Wouldn’t want the rascal out of his sight. “If Dori can spare you, that is.”

 

“Oh, I’ll be fine tending the stall by myself. Most who wanted embroidery done have gotten already.” He fiddled with Nori’s collar while the other swatted at his hands. “Now you be helpful, hear? See that you don’t get underfoot.”

 

“Blast it, Dori, leave off! ‘M not a dwarfling anymore. Get off me, you fussy old git!”

 

Dori sniffed. “Honestly, you! If I wasn’t around, you’d run amuck looking like some wild thing.”

 

“Now, now.” Balin stepped up and patted his betrothed on the arm before sneaking their fingers together. “Why don’t I help you with your stand for a bit, ghivashel? There’s little engraving to be done after all.”

 

Dori flushed around his mithril braids. “Oh, well now. I think that would be most enjoyable! A cup of tea?” Balin nodded and they wandered off.

 

“Maybe I should stay behind. Chaperone them and the like.” Nori muttered.

 

Dwalin snorted. “No, you’ll come round with me and the lass. Leave them be a while. Mahal knows they’ve missed each other.”

 

“If you lot are quite done making a fuss, I’m going to my Aunt’s now, with or without my things.” And so saying, Bluebell started off at a brisk pace with the Dwarrow scurrying to catch up. Soon enough, they settled into a bright pace, her with a Dwarf off either arm and Nori doing his best to shield them all from the sun. Dwalin held a rousing conversation about the merits of foundations and different bracings. The ache in his heart faded just slightly to have his Craft so thoroughly appreciated. Nori piped in every so often, but mostly kept quiet. Dwalin saw him sneaking soft looks at the lass and occasionally lifted her over an offending rock.

 

It wasn’t long before the green door of Bag End stood in front of them. Dwalin found himself oddly disappointed and Nori’s star points drooped a bit.

 

“Oh, very well. I can’t let you both wander off back to the markets looking like that, can I? Stay awhile. I sure don’t mind someone watching me getting checked over and I’m sure Auntie Belladonna wouldn’t mind none neither.”

 

Bluebell pushed open the door and called a greeting. Bilbo poked his head out of one of the rooms with a grin. “Look who finally decided to wipe her feet! I was just about to come looking for you. Figured you’d gotten lost looking at the berry bushes again.”

 

She scowled back. “That happened once near twenty years past and you know it. I’ve well out-grown that. I popped off to the market for a snack and got beset by all your Dwarves!”

 

“Dwarrow, dove. and how is my new niece coming along, hmm?” Belladonna appeared out of the front room already tying back her hair.

 

“It could be a nephew, mother? We could use another sturdy lad in the family.”

 

“Bah, let your mother hope. Come along now, dear.  You’re late to elevensies and I’m sure my nibling wasn’t pleased about that.”

 

“Oh, your Dwarv~ Dwarrow took care of that. Wouldn’t let me carry my basket around or nothing. I might get a partner yet, if this is the kind of attention I’d get.” She leaned in towards her Aunt. “We need to talk, serious like. Those Chubbs are starting up trouble and there’s talk, Auntie.”

 

Bell waved her away. “There’s always talk, my girl. That’s all it ever comes to.”

 

“No. It’s bad this time. Talk of trials and judgements.” Dwalin leaned forward. What kind of crimes was their host accused of? Nori looked up at him and he nodded back. The lad slipped out, no doubt to stick his ears against some doors and find out the whole of what was going on.

 

“It won’t come to anything. Now worrying isn’t good for the faunt, so let’s get you tucked away for a checking, hm? Oh Dwalin, I’ve got this well in hand if you’d like to return to your stall.”

 

“Actually, Aunti, I thought he might sit in?  I’d like someone to chat with and my friend here has a head for constructing.  Might ask for some help finishing my new den. Or at least with the supports. Dratted heavy those things are.” They walked into one of the side rooms that the Dwarrow had been (politely) asked to stay out of and the lass sat down on a low bed.

 

A shiver crawled up Dwalin’s spine. “Dinnae tell me that ye’ve been building a new home while ye carry?” Bluebell attempted to look contrite and Dwalin swore in Khuzdul. “Yer not to enter no unfinished houses again, you hear? Ye tell me where this den of yers is and me and the lads’ll get it fixed up right good.”

 

She opened her mouth to protest, but Bell cut her off, may her axe be ever sharp. “I agree. You’re a sturdy girl, Bluebell, but asking for help is no bad thing.  I vouch for my guests. You can trust them to build you a fine new den for you and your faunt. Now lie back.”

 

Bilbo slipped in the door and placed a cup of tea near his cousin. “Now, what’s this I hear about you causing a ruckus done in the markets?”

 

“Heard about that already, did you? Well if you must know, one of them Chubbs was hassling the blacksmith’s boys and carrying on. He had quite a few nasty things to say on Auntie Bell and your guests.”

 

“Did he now. I’ll have to speak with him.” Bilbo scowled deeply. Dwalin shifted away and sent up a short prayer that he’d get to see the Hobbit in action. Any child of Belladonna Baggins was sure to fight mean.

 

Belladonna paused where she had been massaging Blue’s stomach. “Hassling our guests? Well trust a Chubb to be ungrateful scamps.”

 

“It’s worse than that. All up and down the river there’s rumors of what crooks you Dwarrow are. How they’ll bring bad luck and another Fell Winter upon us. The Chubbs feed the fire and a few of the other clans too. There’s whispers of running them out, but most folk are too pleased with their services to take up their tools yet. Them helping me with my den will only add to the fear.”

 

Dwalin twitched and loosened his fists. “Why would us helping ye with yer den spell doom?” Really, Hobbits were so fussy.

 

“You haven’t been told?” Bluebell glanced at her kin. “Well… that explains why you lot have been trying to sell blueprints and the like.” She settled in and took a deep breath. “I’ll expect you to pass this on to your own, for I doubt any of us could stand another retelling.”

 

“Fifteen years ago the Shire was a far more open place. We had a relatively healthy trade with the Men from Bree, though outsiders and adventuring were still frowned upon. We had taken to growing more tobacco to trade for metal works and we bought our backup stores of foodstuff from Men. My father had just been granted a Guardianship and hired traveling Men builders to speed along our hill’s construction. The majority of my blood family was to move in with us as the other hills were overcrowded..”

 

Bilbo clasped his mother’s hand. “The winter that year was bad, the worst in the history of the Shire. It got so cold, the river froze over and it snowed for months and months. The grain we had bought from the Men was diseased and what hadn’t rotted made even the stoutest Hobbit ill. My father brought our whole hill into Bag End and we combined our remaining stores. Luckily, the Gamgees had had a good harvest and canned plenty. Many were not so lucky.”

 

“My family was, undoubtedly, the hardest hit.” Bluebell stared at Dwalin and he felt it all the way to his toes. For a moment, he thought of Azanulbizar.  “The Men who had built our home had skimped on the insulation. Most of my family froze to death. A few that survived the cold wasted away until I was the only one left. The snow was too deep to fetch help or even leave, so I burned every piece of furniture and rationed heavily. I am the last of my branch. Or I was.” She stroked her stomach.

 

“Those who survived the initial cold and hunger were hounded by great wolves that came across the river. The beasts were driven by hunger and tore to shreds any Hobbit brave enough to fetch more wood or seek aid. Many of the weapons and tools we had bought from Bree bent double and failed. I fear what would have become of all of us if the Rangers hadn’t arrived with Gandalf.”

 

Belladonna began to crumble. “So many were lost.” She whispered. “So many faunts and… and family. My poor Bungo never recovered, you know. That damned cough just wouldn’t leave him. I tried everything and it just wouldn’t stop. That’s what killed him. The cough and grief. Oh, oh my poor baby!” She fled down the hall weeping and shut herself away in her room.

 

Bilbo sighed and stared down at where their hands had been clasped. “I had a little brother, Master Dwalin. He was… ten at the time and so very, very small. We don’t speak of him. My mother fades anew when she thinks on him.” He shook himself and narrowed his glassy eyes at Bluebell. “And we don’t speak of this. You can answer any more questions they have, cousin.  I must see to my mother.” He stormed out of the room and snapped the door closed behind him.

 

“Well, Dwalin.” Bluebell sat up and fussed with her skirt before looking up at him. “Do you have any questions about Hobbits?  I’m not nearly so bound by rules as those two.

 

Dwalin offered her his hand. “Come on, lass. I’ll make ye some food and make Bell a pot o’ tea. I expect my cousin’ll be wanting to ask some questions of his own.”

 

Chapter Text

Nori knew how to muck about without being seen, was what he was good at. Dori might carry on about how neat his stitching was or how well he wove, but he knew why his own fingers were so clever. A thief’s hands had to be quick and nimble to cut a purse string without getting caught. Wasn’t his Craft, but it served.  Nori had cursed for days when they had first got lumped together with the rest of their company. Trust their luck to be put with the Exiled King and his chief of guards. Dwalin had tossed Nori into the lock-up oft enough he was watched like a hawk anytime his hands moved. Their damnable honor would starve the whole lot of them for sure.

 

It had been a surprise the first time he had stolen bread to feed Ori (who shared it with the princes, the sucker) and Dwalin came over and stared for a bit before sharing the last of his pipe weed.

 

“I dinnae have to like it, but you keep your hands feeding the young ones, you won’t hear nothing from me.”

 

Nori had agreed and that was that.

 

It was undoubtedly the strangest deal he had ever made. Ori stayed fed and Nori wasn’t hounded. More than a few times Nori had scurried back to camp and used Dwalin’s charm to send Men packing. The two of them were often sent in first to the towns, to investigate possible employment or easy pickings. It was odd to think even the immovable King could be swayed to less than rosy past times when hunger came knocking.

 

From there, it seemed easy to fall into a routine. Dwalin puffing up and being the loud “dumb” brute the world saw and Nori slipping through the crowd, nabbing enough to feed the brats. He taught the guard how to spot a good mark and in turn, Nori was trained in proper combat techniques and proper Khuzdul.

 

“You cannae protect yer brothers if ye cannae guard yer left side proper! Get up and do it again, ye damnable thief.”

 

Now, as Nori sipped an ale in the Green Dragon, he pondered how quickly Dwalin had trusted him to find out what was troubling the Bagginses. Maybe the old guard was getting soft… or Nori was becoming reliable. Both thoughts were unsettling. He settled into his dark little corner and pricked his ears. It would be a long day before his work was done.

 

 


 

 

As eager as Dwalin was to have Thorin hear this new information, he couldn’t justify pulling his liege away from the forge. Important though it was, the story of the Hobbits and their past was not critical enough to forfeit a half-day’s worth of pay, not in the Shire. And Thorin’s work in the forge brought in the most constant pay, besides the Ri brothers. So he waited. With Bluebell’s help, he made a decent lunch and left plates outside of Bell’s room. He drank tea, chatted about the lass’ new smial, common engineering tricks, and waited for the market day to end. People often mistook his straightforward nature for impatience, but Dwalin could wait when needed. Mining a shaft before supports were built guaranteed a collapse.

 

He refused to leave the smial when their hosts were so vulnerable, so he made their guest comfortable and digested what he had learned. When Bluebell laid down for an afternoon nap, Dwalin paced the hall.

 

He gathered Grasper and Keeper and sharpened them, the repetitive motion taking the tension out of his spine. There was nothing to do until Thorin or Nori returned. He may as well run through some light exercises.

 

 


 

 

Tromping up Bag Hill, Thorin kept one eye on his nephews, who now had the energy for all kinds of mischief, and turned the other towards Dwalin. His cousin was in the front garden, bare to his waist and moving through his battle forms with single minded intensity. Indeed, there was a joke amongst their companions that only real combat could make Dwalin forsake his practice, though Thorin was beginning to suspect cookies and perhaps a certain burglar might entice him away.

 

Dwalin spotted them, dropped his axes to his sides and nodded.

 

Thorin felt the day’s warmth leave him and he fought to keep his stride even. What had happened? Were the Bagginses hurt? The lass? Had the Hobbits finally decided to throw them out? His predictions became darker and darker as he finally came abreast his cousin and waved the others inside.

 

“Tell me.”

 

“I’ve learned much today, cousin. Let me fetch Bluebell and I’ll share it with you.”

 

Thorin didn’t remember how he came to be seated in the kitchen, but he recalled in absolute painful detail the look on Brandybuck’s face as Dwalin told him of the Fell Winter, of the Men’s betrayal, and the deaths of so many Hobbits. They sat in silence for a few moments before he worked up the gumption to question the girl.

 

“Bilbo said the Shire was protected by magic. Why didn’t it save you?”

 

Bluebell heaved a sigh and snagged another cookie. “It’s to do with intent and the strength of our protection. The Shire turns away those with malicious desires and confuses them. Goblins can’t find us most times, but they could if they poured themselves into searching. The wolves were hungry, but not evil. The Men wanted to scam us, but likely didn’t wish us to die.” She laughed bitterly. “It’s a damn sight harder to sell bad goods to a corpse, after all. A number of prominent families named Men the cause of our sorrows and now only a select few are allowed to deal with them at all. Those would be some of the loudest protestors to you lot. See, you muck up their little monopoly.”

 

Dwalin grunted. “And the fading?”

 

“Ah, that’s a sorry misfortune, it is. It’s to do with a blessing of Yavanna, that we would share the lives of our mates. Supposedly, and you’d have to ask Bilbo for sure, there was a Took ages ago who took a fairy wife (an elf, mind you) and mourned that she would suffer the ages without her there. Yavanna took pity on their plight and made it so we live with our beloveds. It’s also a bit o’ a curse. It’s tricky to survive as a widow or widower. Folks need new things and people to tie them to this world. I don’t fade because I’ve yet to find my other half. My Godmother, though. She struggles with it.”

 

“Yes she does, and this reminder of what she’s lost isn’t going to help, Bluebell Brandybuck.” Bilbo stomped past them to pour a cup of tea. “She was finally doing so well and then you just~” He made an irritated noise and abandoned the empty pot.

 

“You can’t hold that against me, Bilbo. They needed to know.”

 

He waved his hand. “Why? What does it change except to make my mother sick. And you talking about those nasty Chubbs and trials isn’t helping none either. Bad enough half the Shire thinks she lives yet because she doesn’t love my father without you digging up the past.”

 

“You can’t just ignore it! You’ve been locked away in your smial too long, cousin, if you think your Guardianship is going to protect you much longer.”

 

Thorin stood and quickly moved to placate Bilbo, signing for Dwalin to settle the pregnant hobbitess.

 

“Is there anything we can do for her?”

 

“I don’t know.” Bilbo made a frustrated gesture, his mouth screwed down. “Remind her that she is needed here, I suppose?”

 

Thorin nodded. “I’ll send in the lads.”

 

He moved to go tell his sister-sons to attend Belladonna, but Bilbo made such a noise of disgust and moved to wash the dishes that Thorin paused. He scrubbed the pan from breakfast with a vengeance.

 

“Oh yes, send in your nephews. That’ll fix everything, won’t it.”

 

“Fili and Kili care for your mother gre~”

 

“That’s right.” He slammed the pan aside and grabbed a plate. It cracked in his hands and he tossed it aside for another.“She’s my bloody mother, not theirs. If there’s anyone who should be drawing her out of fading, it’s me!”

 

Thorin bit the inside of his cheek and spoke softly. “Do you wish to return to her?”

 

“No. No, send in your boys. Send in the whole lot for all I care. That’ll bring her back. You all are much more interesting and remarkable than me. Yavanna knows I’m not enough! I can only force her to linger in blasted agony. I’m not enough. I’ve never been enough. I’m not~” Bilbo’s voice cracked and he tore at his curls with soap covered hands.

 

Thorin gathered up the distraught Hobbit, making soothing noises, but Bilbo wasn’t done. “I’m not enough, Thorin. I just sit there and make her remember. I can’t bring her back. I can’t protect her from her enemies. I can’t even bloody wash the blasted dishes right. I’m not enough. I’m not my father or my brother. I’m not...She’s so unhappy here. Maybe if one of the others had lived she might be, but it was me. It was me.”

 

“I know.” Thorin tightened his arms and stroked Bilbo’s back, thinking back to the dark days after Azanulbizar. “I know.”

 

Bilbo beat his chest. “You do not! You’ve no idea what it feels like to… to watch your family fade in front of your eyes, you blasted Dwarf.”

 

Thorin shoved Bilbo away and glared down. “You dare speak to me of loss!? I watched my family starving for decades, Hobbit. I saw my home fall and my people scattered with nothing but  the clothes on their backs and not a friend in sight. My grandfather went mad and I held my brother as he died, a child in a fool battle. My father lost himself to grief and I know not whether he lives or…” His own voice broke. “Do not speak to me of loss.” He looked away and fought back the tears in his eyes. Damn the Hobbits anyway.

 

A tentative touch on his elbow stopped him from storming out.

 

“You… you had a brother too?” Bilbo’s eyes were wide and wet. “My bro~ Bundo was the very sun in the sky. He could… he had this smile that just, just got him out of any trouble.”

 

“Frerin was golden, like Fili. His laugh could bring joy even in our darkest hours. He was so alive, so vibrant. Everything I wished to be and couldn’t.” Thorin drew a shuddering breath. “Not a day goes by that I do not wish it had been me and my bright little brother had lived instead.”

 

Bilbo’s face crumbled and he launched himself back into Thorin’s arms. “Why? Why do we keep going while they lie cold? It’s not fair! It’s not right. My baby brother was the very best in the whole Shire and I lived instead. Mother would have been happier with him or father. Instead, she just hovers on the brink. Please don’t leave too. I couldn’t stand it again. The house was so very quiet without him. Stay, please, stay. I’m so sorry.”

 

“Easy, we’re not leaving, lad. I don’t know much about this fading business, but your mother loves you dearly. I see it every time she looks at you. If she has stayed, it is because you are enough of a reason all on your own. Belladonna Baggins is a fine and good Hobbit and her heart is boundless in kindness for others, but that doesn’t mean she loves you any less.”

 

Bilbo sniffled into his shirt and Thorin remembered that he was only just of age. “I am sorry, though. About how I’ve been acting. And about… about your brother. I should have liked to meet him. I think my brother would have liked yours.” He laughed wetly. “Though I can’t imagine the amount of trouble they would make together. Bundo was already all sorts of devious.”

 

Thorin chuckled too. “They would have run circles around the both of us and gotten away with it besides. Frerin had this… this thing he could do with his tongue and he’d make the worst faces when we were in meetings. Always got me in trouble.”

 

“Thank you. I’m a terrible Guardian and a worse host.” Bilbo pulled away and tugged his shirt back into order. “Honestly, you try to help me and I get nasty. Not proper in the least bit. I’m selfish like that, you know. I would trade the whole Shire to make my mother happy, the whole thing. But being a Guardian is what my father was and he was the very best. So I must try, mustn’t I?  It’s all we have left of him, really. He built Bag End for my mother, but now it’s just… empty.”

 

“It’s not empty while we’re here!” Fili piped up from the doorway while Kili nodded vigorously. “We can be extra loud if you’d like.”

 

Bilbo laughed, bright again. “You rascals, how long have you stood there? No, nevermind. Go chatter at my mother would you? She’s had a poor day and could use some liveliness.” His sister-sons scampered away, already discussing which stories they should share. Bilbo murmured to himself. “Not empty indeed.”

 

“Well! You Bagginses really do know how to liven up a lass’ day, don’t ya!” Bilbo groaned about nosy Dwarrow and relatives. “Oh now, don’t be like that. I was sitting right here the whole time, you know. And I’ve never heard such nonsense, cousin. Not enough! Pah. Your Dwarf there has the right of it; your mother loves you dearly.”

 

Bluebell stood and swiped crumbs off her vest. “I’ve certainly caused enough trouble for one day. I’ll be heading home, I think.” She walked right up to Bilbo and brushed noses with him. “I’m sorry, truely, for upsetting Auntie. You’re not the only one who’d give the Shire for her happiness. You’ve both been my family and I’m sore to have those louts mistreat you. You need me, I’m there. But you can’t ignore this, dove.”

 

Dwalin gripped her elbow. “Yer word, lass, that ye’ll let me and my lads build that new smial of yers. No carrying bearer should be fooling about with that sort of work.”

 

“Fine, fine. But I’ll not wait forever. Goodness knows the babes only a month and a half away!” And with that she left.

 

“Well now. I think it’s time I started dinner, isn’t it. Out you get!” Bilbo turned towards the pantry but Thorin pulled him back. The Hobbit’s hands were shaking too badly for him to be anywhere near the kitchen.

 

“Bombur was talking about making a proper Dwarrow feast. Be a kindness to let him practice his Craft for a full meal, lad.” He steered the Hobbit towards the back garden. “Come and speak to me, instead. Perhaps you could show me how you tend your tomatoes?”

 

Bilbo huffed. “Oh fine, Master Oakenshield. But don’t expect me to let you lot carry on so.  I’ve not been a particularly good Guardian, but it’s what I am. If nothing else, I should keep you fed.”

 

“That is not what the Gamgees say at the market. Is it true that you single-handed taught all five of their bairns letters and arithmetic?”

 

“Of course.” Bilbo pulled on his gloves. “Yavanna knows those faunts were eager, though. Why little Sarah learned so fast, she was reading my old adventure novels before I could blink. Now the trick with weeding, Master Dwarf, is to go for the roots.”

 

They continued in that manner for a long while, with Bilbo showing Thorin a great many gardening tips. Soil composition, sunlight exposure, the proper way to water. Their conversation turned with the setting sun towards closer topics. Thorin shared how his brother had followed him throughout the mountain even before he could walk. Bilbo, in turn, told of his small brother’s many illnesses and how they had oft shared beds to keep warm. Fris used to make the best soups when her family was sick and always sang while she Crafted. Bungo had taught the lads how to bake and had the very best voices for stories.

 

On and on they shared until Bofur poked his hatted head out a window and called them for dinner. Thorin felt strangely weightless as he joined the others. The company tried to keep a merry air, but somberness leaked in where Belladonna’s empty seat was. Dwalin quietly confirmed that the story had been passed to all members and several were changing their wares to compensate.

 

Soon enough, it was only him and Bilbo again, washing dishes side by side. The broken plate had been dealt with at some point and now they simply washed and dried in silence. Bilbo’s hand were steady again and he had sent Thorin’s sister-sons back to his mother with treats aplenty. Thorin marvelled at the endurance of Hobbits. Truly, to have faced so much loss and continued. Perhaps the children of Mahal’s wife were not so fragile as he’d thought. Already, there were orders taken for breakfast and a market run planned.

 

“Thank you.”

 

Thorin blinked himself out of his meditations. “What for?”

 

“For being a decent sort? For caring about my mother? Sharing memories? I could go on.”

 

“Nothing less than you both deserve. Pass me a fresh towel, please.”

 

Bilbo did so, but continued. “I was so very wrong.  I thought to myself that just giving you rooms and food would be plenty, but I forgot. Mother’s always on about me not being concerned enough about folks outside my wards and I’ve proved her right again. It was wrong of me to assume I could lock the two of us away and let you lot muddle through on your own.”

 

“It was more than plenty!” Thorin protested firmly.  “The kindness you’ve shown us is already so great. Please, put it out of your mind.”

 

“No, I don’t think I shall.” Bilbo looked up at him. “Bluebell said you all defended my mother in the marketplace, then looked after her. That is more regard than most have shown my family in some time. I know you sent Nori out to listen, but I’ll tell you myself. Many Hobbits were terribly put off that my parents got this Guardianship. It was meant to go to the Chubbs and my parent’s marriage was sudden and them young. It was a terribly scandalous affair all around.”

 

He scrubbed a pan before nodding to himself. “I think I’ll take Dori and Bombur out to tea with me tomorrow to old Grubb’s. If there’s anyone who can win over that old codger, it’s Dori’s impeccable manners and Bombur’s enthusiasm for food. Old bloke’s a terrible gossip and their good reputation will spread like dandelions. I’ll also set up a few meetings for Bifur. There are Hobbits who struggle with similar afflictions and seeing him with others, especially the little ones, will soften his image considerable. Honestly, I should have put more thought into your respectability as a whole.”

 

Thorin gaped down at the lad. “You would do more for us! Why? Surely you’ve more than satisfied you duties.”

 

“I have.” Bilbo twitched his nose and continued seriously. “I’ve not the reputation to name you Hobbit-friend, Master Oakenshield, but I swear on Yavanna’s green pastures that I will do everything within my ability to help you on your way. We made that pact. To care for each other’s families when the other could not? You defend mine and I defend yours. I must admit that I’ve grown rather fond of you lot, terrible manners and all.”  He grinned up at Thorin. “Mark my words, by the Harvest festival, your whole troop will have flowers in their beards and be running about barefoot!”

 

Thorin snorted gracelessly. “Perhaps we’ll teach you the sensibility of shoes instead!” He quieted down. “There’s no need to bother. But if you must, I would prefer if you called me by my name as you did earlier. I would like to formally offer my friendship, Bilbo Baggins, Guardian of Bag Hill.”

 

Bilbo ears turned pink and the blush continued down his neck into his collar. “Wha! But, but… but I’m a shoddy Hobbit! Selfish and cranky and set in my ways.  Surely you’d prefer someone more adventurous like my mother! Or kind like Hamfast.”

 

“I would have you over all of them, my dear Hobbit. You were the first to offer your home, as much as your mother insisted. I have found you honorable and no more prickly than myself. Will you accept?”

 

“Yes! Of course, goodness. Oh.” Bilbo tossed aside his rag. “Bother the dishes, they can wait. I’m tired as you surely are too. Let’s go check on the lads and then I’ll bid you goodnight.” He fiddled with his sleeves, refusing to look Thorin in the eye. “I am glad to be your friend, Mast~ Thorin. I confess I have great admiration for you. I could not be more pleased.”

 

“As am I, my friend.” Bilbo beamed up at him.

 

So saying Bilbo led them down the hall to the master bedroom. The lads were stuffed on either side of the Hobbitess. Thorin gasped at how pale she looked, how very small and frail. Fading was fell business indeed. Kili was cuddled up to her side and sprawled. Fili was still awake and looked to be guarding his companions, though both had taken hold of his braids. He nodded to Bilbo and settled more firmly down, clearly intent on staying.

 

Bilbo led him back down the corridor. “We were fortunate that your boys were here. It could have been worse. Goodnight, Thorin. I hope you sleep well.” He let himself into one of the studies.

 

Thorin moved down to his room and was surprised to Dwalin lingering outside his own.

 

“What news?”

 

“None important.” Dwalin hesitated for a moment. “I’ve not heard ya speak of yer brother in years, cousin. Methinks that the Hobbit is good for ye. Ye’ve the approval of the company, if ye needed it.”

 

Thorin nodded his thanks, confused, and pushed into his room. What approval was needed? He shook his head and sat down to think of more ways to earn the approval of the Shire.

 

 

Chapter Text

To My Dear Storm cloud Brother,

 

Would it kill you to send more than “Boys are fine, money included” with the ravens? I appreciate the increase in funds, but surely one measly scrap of paper would not break the anvil. I am pleased to hear that my sons are well, but would like to know how my brother is faring too.

 

These Halflings sound like an interesting lot, from what the caravan guards say. It is good that you’ve begun some loose negotiations for metal exports with them, though most have a terrible sense of what is a reasonable trade is. Did you know one offered an entire wagonful of potatoes and radishes for set of mid-ranged cooking pans, but refused to pay more than a few pies for a golden hair pin? Odd sort. Regardless, the bairns and carriers get first picks of the incoming food and the additional herbs your lady Halfling suggested has slowed sickness to near stillness.

 

We had a light feast to celebrate last week. I’ve not seen our people so lively in long time, brother. Thick stew did wonders and I wished you could have been here to see.

 

I expect a full update on your company (and yourself you great lout).

 

May your Craft flourish,

The Honorable (and patient) Lady Dis

 

P.S. I’ve attached a rough ledger for the next couple of months. See if you can’t get these small folk to agree to a more robust trade.


To my ever Lovely Sister,

 

Never call a Hobbit a Halfling; they take great exception to that.

 

Your sons are doing well. Kili came down with a small cold, but he recovered with all the speed of youth and has been trying to find the Heart of his Craft. I was thinking of making him some hair clasps for his Name Day to encourage him to braid that mop, but I fear that is sifting gold with a pickaxe. He now has the energy for mischief which is both a relief and a curse. Bilbo (our host) introduced him to “scrumping” which is a Hobbit youngling past time. Apparently, all who can afford it have a special window where they put fresh treats and baked goods. The children sneak up and swipe a few (though the truly brave make off with the whole plate!). Belladonna explained that it teaches them how to sneak past “Big Folk” and allows them their fun. I have reintroduced training into their schedules for they were getting rather plump

Dis they are so healthy and happy here. I can’t count their ribs anymore.

 

Fili has been quiet for the past week. He charms the customers but there is a weight on his brow. I hope he will share it soon, lest he mar his face like mine.  He scrumps with Kili some days, but he walks the Shire paths most evenings. Fiddles with his male braidings often. Belladonna has needed aid recovering from her fading incident and Fili is her closest helper (though Dwalin and Bifur are often there as well). They have both become attached to our hosts. Bilbo has taken them under his wing and seems determined to show them all the exciting things in the Shire. Last week he took them on a “walking holiday” and they fished the entire afternoon.

 

You should know that both Belladonna and Bilbo have offered to house the lads after the rest of us depart if we feel they will be safer here. Bluebell (their cousin? goddaughter? Hobbit families are complex) has also offered her family’s old hill for any other bairns (fauntlings as they call them). She says that she has food enough to feed a fair number without any trouble.  As stiffly as they refuse the outside world, I have met none that would allow a child to suffer. Which is more than can be said for Men.

 

I am well. Bilbo and I have grown close these past few weeks. He understands, Dis. He lost a Frerin too. He has a sharp mind and asks frequently about our history and culture. I told him of the Fall of Erebor and Azanulbizar. He speaks of the Fell Winter and of Hobbit politics. His hair glows like copper in the sun and he is so very passionate. Do you know there are several blood feuds for old wrongs? But only in public and children are never involved. One family has been feuding for five generations! Over a patch of flowers and a wandering pig! One must be both polite and disdainful to a rival in public, but some are friends behind closed doors.  Like this Lobelia. An unpleasant Hobbit outside, but doting in private. It is a strange place we have come to.

 

May Mahal guide you,

Your Exceedingly Put-upon Brother Thorin (Not a storm cloud)

 

P.S. I’ve attached a revision. One farmer has agreed to exchange wheat for a better grinding mill for four years.

 

Thorin leaned back and stretched away from the writing desk. He had established a more regular correspondence with Ered Luin when it became apparent he and his company were going to linger for a time. News of their relative success in the Shire had spread and now it was all Dis could do to keep half the mountain from swarming here. Still, the money his company was sending back was making a difference in the mountains.

 

He really should go help put the finishes touches on Bluebell’s smial with the others. Thorin wandered out into the hall and passed by one of the sitting rooms. Dori and Balin were lounging together in the sunlight, speaking quietly and redoing braids. They were more affectionate with each other knowing that Hobbits allowed similar unions. Indeed, it was hard to find one without the other cuddled close in recent days. News of their betrothal had been exceedingly well received.

 

“Here you are, Master Hobbit. I’ve engraved your lass’ names here along the side.  I took the liberty of etching in a few flowers as well, though I made sure to consult my betrothed on the matter.”

 

The Hobbit beamed with surprise. “Betrothed! I had no idea you Dwarves had such things. A pretty lass you have waiting for you back in your mountain, Master Dwarf?”

 

Balin scratched his beard and flushed slightly. “No, my betrothed is among my companions. Several of the lads, my brother included, offered to chaperone us. Master Dori, the tailor over yonder is my One.”

 

“Oh felicitations! When is the wedding? What does a Dwarf wedding even look like?”

 

“Oh, well.” Balin looked embarrassed. “As I’m sure you’ve heard recent times have been a mite… difficult. I wished to wait until I could provide my beloved with a celebration deserving of him. We’ve been waiting for near on a decade now.”

 

“Ten years!” The Hobbit gaped. “Now that’s just cruel.”

 

“Indeed, indeed. Times must have been truly scarce for you lot.” More Hobbits were gathering, all muttering back and forth about bad luck and “dratted, stingy Men, keeping decent folk from marriage”. Thorin was getting worried that the whole lot might storm off to Bree for a good row.

 

“Oh! I’ve an idea. What about a proper Hobbit wedding. I’m sure we could find someone to help you make the wreaths and crowns. Invite all of Hobbiton! Guests are to bring food anyways, to share our wealth and you could give out those little charms Master Dori makes.”

 

“Splendid idea!”

 

“Oh a wedding! I’ll need a new pair of trousers. I’m off to the tailors.”

 

“I’m bringing the roast apples! I claim them. You all know my recipe’s the best besides.”

 

That had sparked an intense argument and it was soon decided (with both Dori and Balin being consulted afterwards) that they should have a Harvest wedding (Good luck that. Promises wealth.). His cousin had been walking on Mithril ever since. There was serious talk about what kind of flowers would be woven, both on their heads and into their beards. Thorin and Bilbo had fallen into giggles when they heard.

 

He left them to their cuddles and strode out the door barefoot. It had been a part of Bilbo’s Super Great Plan to Get the Dwarrow Accepted (name courtesy of a sugar laden Kili). There was something to be said about pressing the soft grasses and good dirt of the Shire underfoot. He jogged down the lane and continued down towards the Brandywine. Dwalin and Nori had taken lead on building Bluebell’s new hole as their Crafts aligned nicely.

 

Dwalin’s urge to build and fill space and Nori’s desire to create empty spaces worked well with excavating and designing the new home.  Dwalin’s Craft was straight-forward: engineer and create works of skill. Nori had been gifted (or cursed) with an Abstract: a skill that was more a loose feeling of talent than a hardened concept. He thrived in empty spaces: creating them (by excavation, crochet or thievery), exploiting them, and discovering them.  It made him an exceptional help in exploring the forgotten mines of Ered Luin and would be a handy skill for a spymaster, if he proved himself trustworthy. No Dwarf would speak against a Mahal given Craft, but there were times he hoped that Fili and Kili did not have an Abstract. He was a weaponsmith himself, delighting in a proper edge and weight to make deadly works of art. It was simple and that suited him fine.

 

Bilbo and his mother were coming out of Bag End more often and made sure to be seen as often as possible with the Dwarrow. Their plan had been working splendidly. Bombur and Gloin often entertained a small horde of Hobbits with stories of their families and Bofur could frequently be found singing at the Green Dragon. Bifur had started a carving club of all things and it was difficult to find Dwalin without a faunt attached to him somewhere. Slowly at first, but ever faster more and more of the small folk warmed to his company. This meant they were often invited to tea and occasionally lunch.  Prices became more generous and food was also passed freely. It was an odd thing indeed to be accepted in the Shire. Thorin wondered if the Rangers got the same treatment.

 

He strolled towards the newly excavated hill, taking in the marked out garden and freshly laid stepping stones.  Bluebell and Dwalin were huddled over the floor plans on the smoking bench, bickering.

 

“I cannae understand why we can’t make another floor. Yer fine with a lowered cellar, but naught else. Tis a foolish waste o’ space, lass.”

 

“Foolish my foot! Why you lot all insist on having levels is just boggling. How do you connect? How could you possibly stand being so far away from your roots? Daft Dwarrow and Big Folk wanting to float away to the sky.”

 

Nori swaggered over and slung his arms around both of them. “You still fussing about this? Well if you can pull yourselves away, me and the lads have got the bathroom mostly done. Final check?”

 

“Ooh, with all that fancy piping you ordered from your mountain was it? I’ll come around.  Should probably break soon anyways. It’s got to be nearly mealtime.” She struggled to her feet with the Dwalin’s help (and Nori’s hovering) and waddled off with considerable speed.

 

Dwalin let out a heavy sigh. “She shouldnae be pushing herself so. The bairn is coming soon enough. And she intends to live alone! Right dangerous, that is.”

 

Nori leaned more heavily over his shoulder. “Maybe we could get Belladonna to convince her to stay at Bag End? At least until the babe is born. She’s an independent lass is all. Stop being such a fusspot.”

 

“Fusspot am I.” Dwalin growled and reached around to wrestle Nori into a hold. “Our brother’s might be getting married, but that dinnae mean I’ll take lip from a half-sized horse thief.”

 

“It was a pony. And fifteen years ago. I’m a changed Dwarf, honest! Haven’t stolen nothing in at least twelve hour!” He elbowed his captor and Dwalin released him with a huff of air. “I’d a thought we’d let bygones be bygones. Besides, I’m big ‘nough where it counts.” He tugged on Dwalin’s moustache braids and sauntered away.

 

Dwalin gaped after him. Thorin snickered to see his friend so thrown off. “Should I be planning a second wedding, cousin?”

 

“Dinnae start with me, lad. It’s been like that for… ach no matter. Naught will come of it.”

 

“Why not? You both seem agreeable.”

 

“We’ve our duties to see to.” His jaw twitched. “And I doubt he’d be inclined to settle in with someone who’d tossed him into jail so often.” Dwalin clapped his shoulder and steered him inside. “It’s good yer here.  Bilbo could use some help setting up the kitchen. Chased us out when he thought we weren’t doing it proper.”

 

“Sounds about right.” Thorin muttered.

 

Bilbo loosening up around the Dwarrow had been interesting to say the least. They had quickly learned that the kitchen was his domain and he would tolerate no tomfoolery. More than once they had been chased out of the smial for “getting under foot”. He was passionate about history and maps, but was disinclined towards “needless, mind-numbing socialization”. This was apparently considered extremely odd by his neighbors. Thorin had found he greatly enjoyed chatting with Bilbo while the latter weeded the extensive gardens at the back of Bag End.

 

“Why do you waste time with this? Do you not employ the Gamgees as gardeners?”

 

“Waste time, he says!” Bilbo tossed an uprooted dandelion at his head. “No Hobbit of any standing would let another tend their personal garden. Even faunts get their own little sections. No, the Gamgees tend the lawn and do some trimming. It helps them make ends meet.”

 

He stroked the leaves in front of him with a faraway look in his eyes. “Do you know some plants are passed down through generations? My mother has roses from her great, great, great grandfather over there. We Hobbits feel the good earth and all that grows in it differently than most folk. Perhaps like you lot feel Stone. It is as unthinkable for a Hobbit to not garden as it is for a Dwarf to not Craft.” He shuddered. “A terrible thought. Come now, let’s have a lighter conversation. Why by Yavanna’s mercy do you insist on smoking that foul junk from wherever when you could be having some nice Longbottom Leaf? Really, no account for taste at all.”

 

“Bah, there is pleasure in some spice, Hobbit. Not everything in life is sweetness and there are times when heat adds enjoyment.” He grinned around his pipe. “Perhaps someday I will have Bombur make you proper Dwarrow cuisine. Or maybe I’ll teach you my grandmother’s chili recipe. Even the Elves weep at our feasts, so great is the flavour. I’d like to see you breathless and gasping.... because of the spice!”

 

They stared at each other for a moment before chuckling awkwardly. “You should be careful, Thorin. Offering to teach a family recipe to a Hobbit is near as good as a proposal, though a truly traditional one. Of course I know you meant in in jest! Preposterous idea, really that we should be betrothed. A cultural exchange at best!” Bilbo quirked his lips and tugged out another weed. He hummed under his breath and the sunlight caught the silver earpiece Fili had made him.

 

Thorin was brought back to the present by a string of muffled cursing. He looked into the kitchen to see a coppery head poking out behind the new stove. Bilbo muttered and snarled at the offending piece, apparently trying to tug it into place. Thorin hurried forward before the Hobbit could tear it apart.

 

“Let me, Bilbo. Tell me if it’s crooked.” He set his shoulder against the massive stove (really, who needed a double oven?) and strained to push it against the wall. It was heavy, but he was a Dwarf.

 

“A little to the left, if you please.” Bilbo sounded breathless, but Thorin obeyed.  When he turned around, Bilbo was flushed from exertion and staring at his arms glassy-eyed.

 

“Are you well?” Thorin pressed a hand to Bilbo’s forehead. “You did not overexert yourself did you.” Bilbo stared at him before licking his lips and looking away.

 

“I am fine, you worry wart. Come on. We’ve still got the wash basin and table to bring in.”

 

They worked in relative silence, though both were prone to humming while they toiled. Thorin shared a Dwarrow song of tidying while they swept the floors. Bluebell came by and tried to help before Nori found her and ushered her into a chair.

 

“Honestly, I haven’t been treated this much like a faunt in ages. How do you put up with it, Bilbo?” She peeled an apple and shared slices with them. “I half expect those two to move in with me once the smial is done.”

 

“Oh, it’s just Dwarrow culture, really. Creating children is considered the greatest Craft of all since it mirrors Aüle’s creation. It just means that pregnant lasses are better looked after.”

“All bearers are looked after.” Thorin wiped down the countertops (polished granite from the mountain) and continued. “Not just the females.” Someone choked behind him.

 

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Bilbo demanded.

 

“Exactly what I said. All who chose to carry children are well cared for, not just the female bearers.” Thorin furrowed his eyebrows. “Do you not also care for your others?”

 

“Do you mean the… lasses who realized they were lads and ended up carrying with their partners?” Bluebell stared up at him and offered him an apple slice.

 

“Them as well, but I was referring to those of us who can both sire and carry children.” Thorin munched and had a thought. “Do you… not have them?”

 

“Not that I’ve ever heard of.” Bilbo exclaimed. “There have been a few who are born with both male and female bits, but they tend to be rather rare and aren’t always fertile. Are you saying that this is common among Dwarrow?”

 

“Yes. Gender and sex among my people is nowhere near as… clear cut as Men seem to prefer it. Only about a third of our population is born as the female sex, so Mahal made it so some of us can both carry and sire. We would have died out long ago otherwise. None of us are assigned either sexes or genders at birth, we choose those ourselves. Some choose to wear braids of bearers but it is not required.”

 

Bluebell slumped back. “Imagine. The world is a marvelous place indeed. It must be nice to know when you’ve a faunt on the way. Much more practical. Are any in your company one of these… Dwarrow capable of both parts of the dance?”

 

“Indeed. I am, for one.” Thorin nodded to Dwalin and Nori as they entered. “Though I do not wear the braids. I must think of my people first and foremost and I could not bring a child into the world while we lived as we did. Bombur is married to one and they have four bairns together. I’ve a feeling Kili is one, though we haven’t discussed it.”

 

“I was one.” Dwalin snagged another apple and took a hearty bite. “Lost my ability to carry, though. Battle scars from Azanulbizar.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry, Mister Dwalin.” Bilbo bit his lip. “I… Is it rude for me to ask if you wanted to have a child?”

 

“No, and I greatly desired to carry a bairn of mine own. To feel their heartbeat beneath my own. But that is gone from me and I cut my female braids from my head and left only the male in my grief.”

 

“That’s rubbish!” Nori said. “You know that bearin’s got nothing to do with being female. You shouldn’t have had to cut away your lass braids!

 

Dwalin shrugged and pulled Nori back down. “I could not find it in my heart to wear the braids of my mother after the battle. Mayhaps one day I will again take up my skirts, but for now I am content to be only male.”

 

“Dori’s both and he can’t bear neither.” Nori straightened. “If you ever decide to put ‘em back in, you let me know.  I can weave a neat set of braids, if you’d like.”

 

“Thank you.” Dwalin reached over and clasped Nori’s hand for a moment.

 

“I know it can’t ever compare, Dwalin, but I’d welcome the help if you’d like to be around my faunt. You can both come. I’ve a feeling you’d both be fine fathers.” Bluebell got a sly look on her face. “You know there’s an old legend that when a lass carries on her own, that the babe is needed somewhere. Since I’ve felt no great desire for companionship, maybe it’s meant for you.”

 

Dwalin laughed. “That will be the day! Imagine a great beast like me carrying around one of your tiny bairns. No, I am content, but I will help you lass. Parenting alone is admirable, but difficult. I’d be happy to be of service.”

 

“Well, I think we should head back to Bag End. Mother was planning a particularly delicious

roast duck if I remember correctly.”

 

“Oh very well.” Bluebell swallowed the last slice of apple. “Not much more we could have done today anyways. You lot have fun, I’m going to go sort out my linens. It’s mostly just finishing touches now isn’t it? ”

 

“Aye, though ye shouldn’t be doing work anyways, lass.” Dwalin grumbled. Nori patted his arm consolingly.

 

 

Thorin was helping set the table while Bilbo kept trying to shoo him out of the kitchen.

 

“For goodness sakes, Thorin. At least let me keep up the illusion that I’m taking care of my guests.” He fluttered about for a while longer before giving up and throwing his hands up. “Ugh. You lot will be the death of me, mark my words. Are all Dwarrow so stubborn?”

 

“No, laddie.” Balin poured Dori a cup of tea and snuck in a kiss. “We’re all stubborn as Stone, but the line of Durin is a class above the rest.”

 

Thorin heaved a sigh. “You share my line, cousin. And I am not overstepping my bounds, Bilbo. Helping set the table is hardly an arduous ordeal.”

 

“Hmph. I should withhold the jam for this, truly I should.” He scurried over to pull the rolls out of the oven. “Oh drat, I forgot the fresh butter, let me go grab that.”

 

“I hadn’t expected so many of you to be gone to tea.” Belladonna nibbled her thumb as Bilbo hustled out. “I fear we’ll have a veritable heap of leftovers.”

 

“I doubt that, Miss Bell!” Kili sat down close to Thorin, though he left a space for Fili. “Fee and I worked the forges all morning and didn’t even stop for a snack. We’ll likely eat more than Bombur!”

 

“I should hope so. You’re all still much too thin. We need to put a respectable belly on all of you. Bombur’s the only one who looks decent fed.” Belladonna smiled and pushed a bowl of honey drizzled pears towards his sister-son. “Don’t you worry though.  We’ll get you up to the proper seven meals.”

 

“We’ll have to be rolled home.” Thorin muttered and Kili giggled around a mouthful of food.

 

“Fili lad! Why are you hovering over by the door?” Belladonna looked puzzled.

 

Thorin turned and his breath caught. Fili had taken out his male braidings. Instead, the braids of those who walked without gender curled around his ears.

 

“Fili?”

 

“I’m sorry, uncle! It’s just… it didn’t feel right. I tried the other braidings too. I walked all the way to one of those standing pools. But female didn’t look right, nor did both. Nothing else worked.” Fili wrung his hands and glanced up at him. “Is it… is it okay?”

 

Thorin’s throat tightened. Too long had they walked among Men if his sister-child feared their reactions. He pulled Fili into a tight hug. “They suit you. I am so glad you have discovered this about yourself. And that you chose to share it with us.”

 

“Fee?”

 

Fili tugged themself away and stumbled closer to Kili. “I’m still me, Kee. I just…”

 

Kili reached up and yanked his sibling to his side. “Let me see! Tsk. This one’s lopsided. Here let me redo it. Can’t have you walking around looking wild like me.” He busied himself with tidying Fili’s hair, whispering to his sibling the whole while. Fili shook and buried their face in their brother’s shoulder.

 

“Um, not to interrupt, but what just happened?” Belladonna set down another bowl of fruit, peaches this time.

 

“Fili has realized that they are not male, but without gender. They have changed their braids and I could not be prouder of their courage.” Fili flushed at squirmed closer to their brother.

 

“Oh is that all? Well I’ll be sure to keep that in mind. It might take a few days for the whole Shire to find out, though, so try to forgive them if they call you wrong, dove.”

 

Bilbo staggered in, carrying a new heap of food. “Lads! Give us a hand. I found the butter and some more of those tasty smoked meats that Bombur made! I thought we might have sandwiches for tea.”

 

Fili and Kili lept up to help the Hobbit. Belladonna called from the stove. “Oh Bilbo! Fili isn’t a lad anymore. They’ve become like Donnabell.”

 

“Oh? Apologies, I was quite distracted.” Bilbo set down the last of his burden and wiped his hands. “Do you need any new clothes? I know a tailor down the lane who does fine work.”

 

Fili looked wide eyed for a moment and then they wrapped Bilbo in a crushing hug.

 

“Thank you.” They sniffled into Bilbo’s shirt.

 

“Whatever for, fauntling?” Bilbo awkwardly patted Fili’s back. “It’s important to you and that’s what matters.”

 

“I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t this. I thought you all might… might be angry.” Fili pulled away and slumped down next to their brother. Kili caught up their hand and gripped it tight.

 

“Well, that’s quite enough of that. You may not be a lad, but I’m sure you’re hungry and that’s the only thing we need to fix.” Belladonna set down the last of the food. “Let’s eat!”

 

The meal passed pleasantly though Thorin pressed Fili to his side and Kili refused to let go of their hand. Thorin swore that he’d sit them both down and have a good long talk about what Dwarrow culture meant. No bairn should fear their family, not for this.

 

He and Bilbo ended up cleaning the kitchen. Again.

 

“We always seem to be the ones cleaning the kitchen.” Thorin wiped down the table and set aside the leftovers.

 

“That because you’re a stubborn ass who refuses to act like a decent guest. Honestly, my father must be rolling in his grave to see a guest cleaning in his home!”

 

Thorin grinned and bumped his hip against Bilbo’s side. “Everyone cleans up after a Dwarf meal. It builds unity. The others simply have more to do.” He sobered slightly. “Thank you for earlier, Bilbo. I hadn’t realized my sister-children had been so affected by our time among Men. Yours and your mother’s easy acceptance meant much to them.”

 

“Why, though? You’re their family.”

 

“You are dear to them. Both of them. They crave your approval and your mother’s. I am glad that they chose such fine folk to put their hopes in.”

 

Bilbo’s ears flushed cutely. “Well! Well then indeed. I am terribly fond of them both as well. And Fili has taken such good care of Mother.” Bilbo glanced up at him through his eyelashes. “I do mean it, you know. They're welcome to live with us for as long as necessary. You as well. I would be glad to have you here.”

 

“Perhaps, Master Hobbit. Perhaps. We have our duty, but I find I would also like to remain here in the Shire. With you.”

 

They smiled at each other for a moment and then got down to washing the dishes, chatting about the upcoming wedding and a thousand useless things. Neither noticed how close they stood or that they often leaned together to whisper. Belladonna hovered in the doorway, a quiet smile on her face, remembering a time past when she had stood like that with Bungo. Maybe it was time for Bag End to have a proper family again.

 

Chapter Text

“Don’t be daft! Copper bottom pans are the only way to prepare a proper meal! Why, any chef in the Shire will tell you such.” Bilbo nodded and waved his crocheting needle as he worked.

 

“Bah, cast-iron is the way to go, lad. There’s no better way. If I had my pans, I’d show you.” Bombur nodded while he braided his brother’s hair.

 

Thorin reclined nearby, dozing lightly as his company bantered. This was an old argument and comfortable. It was good to hear his followers so at ease. Months of steady food and sleep had brought color to their faces and Bombur’s fine belly was finally starting to fill. Bifur sat near his cousins, clever fingers carving away (was that a fat Hobbit?). Likely for one of his friends over in Across the Water. There were a couple of younglings without voices there.

 

Bilbo sniffed. “Iron, he says! So slow to heat up and heavy to be sure. No, my dear dwarf, I shall be happy with my copper-bottoms and good day to you!”

 

“Slow to heat, aye, but it keeps it nicely. And it never goes bad, if taken care of. Just you wait, Mr. Bilbo! I’ll get my hands on a set of good Dwarrow cooking pans before you know it. I’ll make you a meal so fine, you’ll be begging the lads to forge you your own set.”

 

“Ach, all this talk of food is making me hungry!” Bofur stretched his legs out. “What’s say we get another bite? Maybe some o’ that cake Bell made last night?”

 

“You ate a whole half yourself already.” Bilbo grinned over his doily. “And to think, you were all so frightened of a proper meal schedule. We can hardly keep our pantries stocked!”

 

Thorin snickered at Bofur’s offended look. The cake had been rightly delicious, but he himself had been rather distracted by Bilbo eating the messy glazed meats… and licking his fingers clean.

 

“Bilbo, dear, could you run down to the market and grab some more of that delightful corn meal? I’m going to make Fili and Kili that cornbread of your father’s. Bluebell’s craving some onions and taffy, Yavanna save us, so grab those too.”

 

“Speaking of which.” Bilbo muttered. “Of cour~”

 

“And for goodness sake, take Thorin with you. Those bags are heavy and I’ll not be pleased if you spill it all over the lane because of the blasted Baggins’ stubbornness you inherited!”

 

Thorin snorted and ducked his head when Bilbo glared down the hall and stuck out his tongue. Bilbo grumbled as he set aside his crochet to snatch up a basket and a little purse of money. Thorin neatly took the basket from him and opened the door. Belladonna had recently taken to sending both himself and Bilbo out on tasks together. While Thorin was grateful for the time alone, he wondered if the matron didn’t have ulterior motives.

 

“Farewell, Mother. I’m taking Thorin to do your bidding and I doubt we’ll return anytime soon for our journey shall be long and arduous! Don’t start any scuffles while we’re gone and don’t feed Bofur anymore lemon cake! We’ll have to widen the doorways soon enough. I leave all my personal effects to my least boring relations should I not survive.” Bilbo turned on his heels and flounced away. They strolled down the path together.

 

“Such dramatics, Master Hobbit. One would think you are given over to fits of flair.” He fought to keep his face straight and instead focused on how the light caught Bilbo’s hair.

 

Bilbo side-eyed him, nose stuck in the air. “My dear Thorin, I have no idea what you are suggesting. I am the absolute picture of composure and propriety. I am a representative of my people and, therefore, am always correct in my bearing!” They stared at each other for a long moment and promptly doubled over in a fit of giggles. “Oh, oh stop it, you fool! I’m, ha, I’m the Guardian of Bag Hill! I couldn’t possibly be so… so unrespectable as to have flair.”

 

“You are absolutely right. My apologies.” They straightened and Thorin stared down with the most serious “wartime negotiations” face he could muster. “I can only say to you, my dear friend, this one last thing…flower beards.”

 

“Oh I see.” Bilbo stared up at him, ears twitching with effort before he burst into laughter again. His smile struck Thorin breathless. “Goodness! We really must learn how to control ourselves. Why, Balin and Dori are to be married tomorrow evening and they’re both to have flowers… in their beards.”

 

“Aye, little yellow and pink ones.” Thorin snickered. “I wonder if I could get Ori to do a portrait of them covered in their Hobbit wedding regalia. For posterity of course.” Bilbo smacked his arm. “It would be a treasure of my line! Passed down father to child for centuries to come. How our cousins once married with tiny flowers stuck into all hair available and not a gem in sight!”

 

“At least not in their ear hair.” Bilbo shuddered as they continued to walk. Several Hobbits stared at their passing, no doubt shocked at their proximity. One particularly dour Hobbit scowled heartily at their laced arms. “I swear I saw Bombur braiding his yesterday. And Nori’s eyebrow braids! Sweet Yavanna, the strangeness of Dwarrow.”

 

Thorin flicked his ear. “That is entirely offensive. Braids are a core part of our culture, Bilbo, and Nori’s braids are a fine demonstration of skill and dexterity! Why, the Ri brothers are the very picture of Dwarrow beauty, though Ori has yet to fully grown into his own. Alas, for I am not so blessed.”

 

“Truly? Gloin had mentioned that Balin was lucky in his choice of partner but I had assumed he meant that Dori was quite respectable. You lot must have a different view of beauty from us. What is beautiful? Are you not considered attractive amongst your own people?”

 

“A full beard and neat braids are quite pleasant to see. Lots of hair means good fertility, it is said. Probably why those damned tree-shaggers have so much trouble. Large, prominent noses are a sign of future wealth. Dori’s mithril hair is the talk of all seven clans. Big hands for crafting. And no. In the best cases, those of my line are considered plain to see. Not unattractive, but nothing exquisite.”

 

“And in the worst cases?”

 

Thorin hunched his shoulders and tried to look away. Curse his blabbering! They passed by a rose bush and he grasped for some way to distract Bilbo. “Ah, are the flowers very important in Hobbit weddings?”

 

“They are. They usually carry messages and signify feelings or blessing being bestowed. That was a poor diversion. I’m embarrassed for you, truly. What are you considered in the worst cases, Thorin?” Bilbo scowled nastily. “Has anyone said anything to you? Oh, I’ll tear them to shreds! Tea will be spilt!”

 

“No! No, nothing like that. It is… it is only embarrassing.” Thorin heaved a sigh and stared down at where Bilbo had hooked his arm through his own. “I have a great respect for you and I would not color your perception of me, Bilbo.”

 

“Thorin, I have literally seen you fresh out of bed before combing that giant mess you call hair and saw you try to eat Hamfast’s hottest peppers on a dare. There was also the incident with my tomatoes, may I remind you. You could not possibly damage your image.”

 

Thorin fought down a flinch. So that's what Bilbo saw in him. “I am… Oh Mahal’s steel balls! I am considered cute to look upon!”

 

Bilbo stared up at him wide eyed, mouth agape. “What?”

 

“It is a curse in my family. Straight noses and little hair to braid. We look like… like innocent dwarflings. Our eyes are too large and our brows! Kili is particular is adorable. My grandfather was decently robust, but…” Thorin jumped when Bilbo snorted so loudly a pig three hills over stumbled.

 

“Oh merciful Yavanna! Oh goodness!” Bilbo flapped his hands at Thorin’s expression. “Oh take off that face, I am not laughing at you. Cute. Ha! The very idea. I assure you, my friend, that you are in no way cute. Why, one might say you and your line are the very height of masculine beauty even with your delicate, thin frames! I’ve had to chase away more than one suitor already!”

 

Thorin blinked in confusion. “Suitors?”

 

Truly, Hobbits were strange. They did not reserve their ardour for their other halves (or thirds in some cases), but loved rather freely. Thorin had heard of such… relations amongst Dwarrow, but he was of the Line of Durin. Such was forbidden of him. Belladonna had pulled them all aside to explain that her people did not have a concept of Ones, but instead found their matches through great searches. Her Bungo had been her sixth courtship, though the only successful one! Once sure of mutual satisfaction, the bond deepened and their life-spans intertwined.

 

“Oh yes. Quite the scandalous affair really. Lads and lasses from all over the Shire. I’ve sent most packing. Honestly, anyone with eyes could see Fili and Kili are underage. Why, just the other day I had a lad come round to see if Dori and Balin would care to expand their union. Not unusual per say, they’re both considered quite reputable now, but to ask so soon to a wedding! No, no. Proper etiquette should have left for a least a few months of adjustment before asking.”

 

“But…” Thorin stared down in consternation as Bilbo looked about unconcerned. “If there are suitors, shouldn’t they have been asking us?”

 

Bilbo gasped in horror. “Goodness, no! The nerve of that. No, to do so seems so… underhanded, as if they were ashamed of their feelings! At the very least, family should be informed or asked for blessings. Generally though, the more public the announcement, the better. I am your host, so any who wish to court you must speak to me first, though could have also spoken to my mother.  I wasn’t sure how you Dwarrow handle these things, so I’ve quietly pulled aside a few of your number who had promising courtship offers. Part of the trouble with my parent’s courtship was that it didn’t start out terribly public.”

 

“I see. Then I have had no requests.” Thorin mumbled. That should not sting as much as it did. He had no time for courting or starting his own family. Not while his people starved.

 

“Ha! No, indeed, I have had to chase off a dozen of them already! You were barely here a week before one of my Took cousins came round. The only one who’s had more offers than you is dear Bombur and he only for his great round beauty! The tears that were shed when he announced his heart only had room for his One. Lost more than a few handkerchiefs to that.”

 

Thorin stumbled. “But if I had had suitors, why did you not tell me? I may not be looking for a partner, but their interest at least deserved to be turned away face-to-face.”

 

“Well, that’s just it. Not a damn one of them was a decent match for you. I looked at every one of them and could not find a single bloody Hobbit even close to deserving a place at your side. Unworthy, the lot of them.” Bilbo sighed and rubbed his thumb over Thorin’s knuckles. “I do hope you’ll forgive me for keeping them from you, but I wish only for your happiness. I consulted my mother to make sure she agreed. I find I am rather too fond of you to be entirely objective. Goodness, I had to duel one particularly earnest lass!”

 

Thorin’s heart did a little flip. Did Bilbo know that accepting combat on your beloved’s behalf was considered extremely romantic? Could his regard be returned? “You dueled for me?”

 

“Of course I did! I am your representative after all. Don’t worry, I didn’t do much more than scare her off. We Bagginses are known for our fast feet and I’m sure you saw Bluebell’s Brandybuck hard heel!”

 

“Fast feet?” Ah, as a representative. A chaperone only. His heart could not take much more of these bursts of hope.

 

“Oh yes. We’re terribly good dancers, we Bagginses. It’s how my father wooed my mother in the end. Asked her for a dance and stomped circles around her the whole evening. Lots of stamina in my family. Tooks, of course, are known for particularly wild steps. It’s why they maintain the brambles of the Shire and are forbidden from dancing too close to the fields.”

 

Thorin paused. “Why would dancing affect the fields? Would they crush the produce?”

 

“Oh, oh. I’ve gone and said too much. You’re not to repeat any of that.” Bilbo grumbled under his breath. “If it wasn’t for those damnable Chubbs stirring up problems, I’ve no doubt that you all would have been declared Hobbit-Friends by now. My grandfather can’t do anything, with them controlling half the council and what not.”

 

It was true. Just when Bilbo’s plan seemed to be about to flourish, a group of Chubbs and their followers and kicked up a stir, citing the old harms that Hobbits had suffered at the hands of outsiders.

 

“We all know it was those daft Brandybucks and Tooks that trusted men too much and let them close. How many of us died for their naiveté? No, there’s a reason we should have been granted Guardianship instead of these… these thin furred fauntlings!”

 

“Everyone knows you can’t trust outsiders to respect our ways. So they don’t have all those ridiculous laws that Men do? They still call us “half”! We were driven from our ancient home because of greed, who’s to say that Dwarves won’t turn out the same? Better to shun them all. Think of the faunts!”

 

“Beasts, the lot of them. So that Took woman and her spawn taught them a few tricks. Like dogs walking on two feet. They’re still dogs at the end of the day.”

 

“Have you all forgotten the old days? Fauntling taken from their holes, crops destroyed! Hobbits were nearly ended by the greed of outsiders. Trust no one, live a long life. That’s the Hobbit way!”

 

Needless to say, more than a few scuffles had happened. What was surprising was that it wasn’t the Dwarrow fighting. They were angry, to be sure, but it was their friends among the small folk that leapt to their defense.

 

A few of the lasses that were particularly fond of the Ur family had trounced a whole mob of Hobbits at the market last week. Bifur had taken a shine to one of their children, a faunt that was born without a voice, and had been teaching them all Iglishmêk. Both families were often found gossiping by the carrot farms. Witnessing Hobbit duels for the first time was a vision. It was almost a dance, twirling about to land kicks on one another. The first to lose their footing lost and they could last for hours!

 

Many wore their charms and embroidered handkerchiefs openly and told anyone who would listen about the “absolutely respectable” family of Dwarrow that stitched so neatly. Getting married under the Party Tree all proper like, they are. And that Ori! Why he could capture the true emotion of the Shire with a pass of his pens and brushes!

 

Hamfast had publicly declared that Belladonna was “a fine and honorable Guardian” and proceeded to toss about giant bags of wheat that took two Dwarrow to lift as though they were pillows. Dwalin often joined him. Any and all disrespectful chatter died quickly when either passed by. Strangely enough, this had led to a fast friendship and the two of them could often be found over a pint at the Green Dragon discussing cabbage growing and weapons drilling, respectively.

 

The whole of the Shire was split on the subject of Dwarrow. One day, it seemed in their favor and the next Thorin feared they’d be driven out with pitchforks. Bluebell assured them all that this was actually quite common.

 

“It’s a family feud, you see.” She loaded her plate with fish and Brussels sprouts drizzled with raspberry jam. Ori turned faintly green when she shoveled the concoction into her mouth and washed it down with milk. “Big families like the Tooks always end up dragging the rest of the Shire into their spats, since we’re all related one way or another. No one will hurt you. The whole bit with Belladonna and Bungo getting the Guardianship is just the latest in a long line of slights. It’s the oldest one in the Shire! Supposedly, the feud started during the great migration from the other side of the mountains. Before there were even family lines like Took and Chubb.”

 

“What started it?” Nori asked as he refilled her glass, carefully not looking at her plate.

 

“According to the stories, it was a dispute over where to head to. Chubbs said East and Tooks said West. It’s why Tooks have the Thainship, since they lead us here. Never got over that, really. Most of the families that side with the Chubbs were the ones most effected by the traveling and the later losses. They actually do a lot to protect us all, just a bit too full of fear for my liking.” She patted Ori’s hand. “Don’t you worry. It’ll settle itself soon enough. We enjoy a bit of scandal and puffery, but it never devolves into actual fighting. Too few of us to waste lives on hurt feelings. They’ll find a compromise for sure.”

 

Despite the support and reassurances, Thorin had put several measures into place, quietly. No one moved alone, the youngest weren’t to wander after dark without protection, and everyone was to report in regularly. Time amongst the towns of Men had taught Thorin caution. For every helping hand, there was a knife in the dark.

 

Bilbo and Thorin continued to the market, just as lively as every other day. He nodded to Nori, who was hawking wares and keeping his keen ears open for signs of trouble. More than a few merchants sneered at him from their stalls, but he kept his back stiff. He was an heir to the throne of Erebor; no petty beet seller could tarnish him. He stooped to look at some cleverly designed hair ornaments of polished wood. One in particular, an acorn in a twist of leaves, would look particularly fetching in Bilbo’s hair. In a braid perhaps. One that Thorin had put there…

 

“I’ll not sell any of my wares to enemies o’ the Shire, ya hear! You take your Dwarf and you walk on, Baggins.”

 

Thorin spun around to see Bilbo puffing up in indignation, facing down a portly older Hobbit. “Now see here! You sold us corn meal just last week, Tunnelly! And there are no enemies in the Shire. The Shiriffs would have driven them out. My grandfather wouldn’t stand for it!”

 

“Bah, your grandfather. You Tooks and your idle fantasies of companionship beyond the Shire. Everyone knows your brother was sick because your ma left our borders. Her lot have always brought hardships and suffering to the rest o’ us. Probably for the best there’s only one of ye now.”

 

Bilbo sneered and Thorin clasped his shoulder. The Hobbits muscles were iron hard beneath his fingers. “My brother was ill because he was born early, Mister Tunnelly. Not uncommon at all. You should not speak of my mother so, especially not within my hearing.”

 

“Or what, boy?” Tunnelly leaned forward. “You gonna kick me, you tender-footed fairy-child? Yer father must be screaming in his grave to see outsiders in his smial and his wife frolicking about. Why don’t you take your pet home, you forgot his leash.”

 

Bilbo roared and landed a punch right on Tunnelly’s nose. “How dare you! You pathetic flat-eared, toad licking, bumbler! You couldn’t find the sun if it were mid-day, you had a map and a field of sunflowers!” Thorin tried to pull him away, casting worried looks at the growing crowd. “Get up! I’m going to give you such a thrashing! Oh, I’ll kick you all the way back to that slimy little cave you call a smial! You!”

 

Bilbo yanked himself away and tore off his good blue coat, tossing it to the ground. “And if any of the rest of you have words to say about my mother or Thorin, get in bloody line! I’ll not have any of my family spoken of so. Especially not by a bunch of foul-tempered, dead rooted, tiny toed scamps!” His eyes blazed as he shook with rage. “I’ll fight every last one of you, here and now!”

 

Thorin tried to pull Bilbo away, gut clenching. “Bilbo, my friend, please. Do not concern yourself with this… this Mahal forsaken fool. Come away.”

 

“No.” Bilbo looked up at him and gave a tight grin. “You’re mine now.”

 

Thorin’s heart beat wildly in his chest as Bilbo’s words echoed inside him. Tunnelly stood up and stripped off his own coat. The two Hobbits circled each other and the crowd cheered them on. A hand at his elbow tugged him off to the side and out of the way. Hamfast’s wife, Daisy, leaned in hurriedly.

 

“Don’t worry. Tunnelly’s all talk. Haven’t won a duel in three generations, that lot. He’s done declared himself, Bilbo has. Named the whole lot of you his kin!” She grinned fiercely. “And rightly he should. The Tooks have supported your presence the whole time. ‘Tis only proper.”

 

“Kin?” Thorin felt dizzy. Perhaps the sun was getting to him. Bilbo lashed out with his heel and Tunnelly skittered away clumsily.

 

“Oh yes. Not blood-kin, but heart-kin. Family of his choosing. An official status, not entirely unlike him adopting you all into his family. Not as fauntlings though, Yavanna preserve us.” She cheered as Bilbo landed a particularly fierce kick to Tunnelly’s rump. “Bilbo must really like you. He’ll have to fight every last challenger for the next week to prove his devotion.”

 

More dueling? Thorin’s chest squeezed when Bilbo took a kick to his thigh. To prove devotion? This wasn’t Hobbit courtship; he knew that, but… Why wasn’t there any air to breathe?

 

The crowd gasped as Bilbo did a particularly graceful spin and landed a hit to the back of Tunnelly’s knee, forcing him to the ground and defeat. He whirled about, fire on his tongue.

 

“Who’s next? You’ve all heard me. Spread the word. Bilbo Baggins takes the Dwarrow as his kin and will go through the seven-day trials! Starting this instant!”

 

No one spoke and Thorin tried to catch his breath. His Hobbit was so fierce, but so very, very small. How could he possibly fight half the Shire?

 

“Hear, hear!” A small voice called out. “I’ll stand as second for Baggins! These Dwarrow have been naught but kind. I’ll fight for them!”

 

Daisy stomped her foot. “And I! Yavanna knows the Bagginses have been good to my family and that Dwalin cares for my faunts near as much as I do.” Daisy? Little Daisy Gamgee with her herd of fauntlings and her garden full of potatoes?

 

More cries of support rang out as more and more Hobbits joined with Bilbo. So this was how a Hobbit could fight his whole country. A small group pushed forward.

 

“We challenge. Got no protest against you Dwarrow in the Shire, you do good work. But we have to see if Baggins here is sincere in his vow. Don’t be taking kin you can’t care for.”

 

Bilbo bowed. “I thank you for your test. I must ask that on the morrow no challenges be asked. I’ll tack a day on the end, but I’ll not ruin a wedding.”

 

“Sensible, sensible.”

 

“Oh, that’s right! Need to put the finishing touches on my cake!”

 

“Hope the ale is good.”

 

Thorin pushed forward as the Hobbits began to disperse. Bilbo’s second was a loyal customer to Bofur and generous with his pay. Thorin couldn’t remember his name, could barely remember his own name. “Bilbo~”

 

Bilbo raised a hand. “Hush, Thorin. You are my friend and I have great regard for all of you. This is my choice. Here,” He handed Thorin the purse. “Would you mind very much picking up our groceries? I shan’t be long.”

 

With that, he strolled over to the challengers and they quickly organized themselves.

 

Thorin went about gathering their orders, watching his hands gather up the taffy and pay. Declaring the Dwarrow kin, by Mahal, what was going on? Would the Hobbits honor such a vow? What if Bilbo got hurt because of this? Thorin’s head swam.

 

“Oh well, no one wants to be late for elevensies. Why don’t I go against two of you at once? Should cut down the time.”

 

He carefully counted out the copper for onions and then hovered, unsure. Nori wrapped him in a one-armed hug and led him to a chair. Bilbo was hopping around avoiding the strikes of three (!) separate Hobbits, though he was laughing at something Daisy said. Mad. Mad, mad Bilbo Baggins, dancing like spun glass and gold.

 

“Daft, crazy folk, Hobbits are.” Nori scratched his head. “All that nonsense about being respectable and quiet folk and then he goes and challenges half the bleedin’ world to kick him in the arse.”

 

Thorin choked out an agreement. The duelers had changed, Bilbo having apparently already won. Seven days of fighting. For his Company, for his people. “I…”

 

Nori glanced over and sighed. “I know it ain’t my place to say nothing, Thorin. But there aren’t many in this world who would go to such lengths. You should talk to him.”

 

“I will.” Thorin watched Bilbo wrestle his last opponent, face red and eyes narrowed. “I must.”

 

 

“So… don’t start any scuffles, huh. Not likely to survive your journey, were you?” Belladonna stood with her hands on her hips while Bluebell trimmed green beans at the table. “Why is it exactly, my beloved son, that the whole Shire is just bursting with news that Bilbo Baggins, Guardian of Bag Hill, has decided to take the seven-day trial and take on more kin-folk?”

 

“Er… because it’s true?” Bilbo’s hands fluttered around, tugging at his button-less waistcoat and snagged trousers. “Mother, I… Oh, blast it all I couldn’t stand to let them be talked about so any more. Nor you. I do hope you’ll forgive me for stirring up trouble, but I won’t apologize for my decision.”

 

“Apologize!” Belladonna engulfed her son in a tight hug. “I couldn’t be prouder. Imagine, my proper little faunt being such a rabble-rouser!” Bluebell cheered as well. Truly, Hobbits were strange folk. Thorin propped himself up on the door sill, still trying to find his legs.

 

Bilbo scowled and flushed. “That’s hardly an endorsement. And don’t encourage her, cousin. We already struggle with our reputation. I fear it won’t take much more.”

 

“You’re right.” Belladonna sobered. “Your father and I, we never intended our marriage to cause so much strife, nor you some much suffering. We had hoped that our love would be enough to convince others to leave us be. We were wrong, dove. I’m so very sorry, my love.”

 

“Oh hush.” Bilbo squeezed his mother. “None of that. We’ll figure something out, you’ll see.”

 

“Your father was so very proud to be a Guardian, do you know? He wanted nothing more for you than to follow in his footsteps. A Baggins Guardian to protect the Shire for all the rest of time, he said. Oh, he loved us so much.” She began to sniffle and moved to envelop them both in a hug. Bilbo paled and looked to him. Hopefully, Bell wouldn’t sink into another bout of fading.

 

Fili and Kili came tumbling in, the younger still kicking off one boot. “Why is everyone saying Uncle Bilbo is fighting the Shire?!” Fili panted, their eyes wide.

 

Uncle? Thorin’s heart warmed.

 

“Oh, toss. He’s not fighting the whole Shire.” Bluebell popped a green bean into her mouth. “He’s fighting representatives and challengers. Likely no more than a hundred total. Nothing my cousin can’t handle.”

 

“A hundred?” Kili cried. “What on Mahal’s crafted earth is worth so much?”

 

“Well you lot, to be sure.” Bilbo hooked his thumbs in his pockets and rocked back on his heels. “Goodness knows I’d not go through the trouble for anyone else. You’ll all be kin to me, if you’ll have me.”

 

“Us?” Fili’s voice was so quiet, so very young. “You’re fighting to make us family?”

 

“Of course. Well, you’re already family, but this just makes it rather more official.” Bilbo grinned. “Mother’s rather attached to you two in particular after all. Can’t have you two sticking around without proper protocol. Right disrespectable that is.”

 

His sister-children stared at Bilbo, then at each other. They launched themselves at their Hobbit uncle and crushed him in a hug. Bilbo, for his part, flailed a bit with a squeak. Thorin tugged Belladonna to his side and out of the way.

 

Fili pulled away first, bowing formally. “We’d be honored to be a part of your family, Bilbo.”

 

Bilbo patted Kili’s head where it was tucked into his shoulder and waved Fili back into his arms. “Oh come off it. It’s a formality, but no need to be so stiff about it.” He stroked their back. Bilbo’s voice was soft when he murmured to them. “I rather like that Uncle Bilbo bit. Do you think you could call me that?”

They both nodded and they remained in Bilbo’s embrace for a long while. Eventually they pulled away and gathered a small pile of cookies to munch on while writing their mother. Dis was going to sprain herself laughing at the idea of Hobbit gentry adopting the royal line of Durin. Thorin’s heart gave a little squeeze of delight at the thought of being Bilbo’s family.

 

“Not that I want to break the moment, but maybe we should be finishing the food for tomorrow? And the flower crowns?” Bluebell wiggled her way out of her seat, her heavy belly slowing her. Bilbo hopped over to help her up. “I’ll be glad when this babe is finally out. I’m off to the bathroom and then I’ll find some of the others to help.” She smirked. “I’m going to teach Dwalin how to braid a proper crown and weave flowers into hair! And he’s practicing on Nori once he gets back from the market. Oh I can hardly wait!”

 

Belladonna sighed heavily as Bluebell wandered off. “She’s right. Bofur, Bombur and Bifur are all down at the Party Tree setting up tables and bales of hay for seating. Gloin ran off to get ale and Oin is doing his best to find another flutist. Wilfred caught a nasty summer cold and can’t breathe properly let alone perform.  Balin and Dori are nearly useless, so we set them to making their gifts. That leaves us to get everything else ready.”

 

“Well no time like the present.” Bilbo shucked off his waist coat and rolled up his sleeves. “What do we do first?”

 

 

“I shouldn’t have asked.” Bilbo groaned, rubbing his arms and threw himself down on the smoking bench. Thorin eased himself down beside.

 

They had spent the last several hours kneading dough for all of the various tarts the Bagginses would be bringing to the wedding. Thorin was grateful for his long hours of weapons training and smithing otherwise his arms might have fallen clean off! Though, it had been worth it to see Dwalin, blushing ruddy, present Nori with a heartfelt, if lopsided, flower crown. Nori had proved particularly skillful at weaving a convincing waterfall of flowers into Dwalin’s moustache. Bluebell had laughed heartily and guided them along between long sessions of stroking her child.

 

“I can’t feel my arms! I better get to eat at least half of all those tarts myself.”

 

“And shall I eat the other half as my share.” Thorin’s lips quirked as he prepared his pipe.

 

Bilbo waved his hand lazily. “Don’t be ridiculous. You’d eat a part of my share of course.” A share in his wealth, another fine courting gift. Though Hobbit wealth. “Say, could we share?  I left my pipe inside and I could use a smoke.”

 

“I thought you couldn’t stand my taste in pipe weed.” Now sharing of personal effects. Truly, Bilbo would cut a pretty picture in proper Dwarrow attire, in Durin blue of course.

 

“Bah, I am a desperate Hobbit.” He wiggled his fingers at Thorin’s pipe and pouted. Bilbo’s face lit up when Thorin passed it over. “Ah, the finest friend you are, my dear Thorin. Truly, all others pale in comparison. May Yavanna’s grace always fill your larder.”

 

“A proper Hobbit blessing if ever there was one.” Thorin laughed.

 

They smoked for a time, enjoying the sunset. Fauntlings went racing by on their way to dinner and lights were being lit in every doorway. The fireflies floated about like fallen stars. This was a blessed and beautiful land. Thorin would be loath to leave it when the time came. Bilbo blew smoke rings, though they were often lopsided.

 

“So, these suitors of mine, none of them passed your inspection?” He smiled down at Bilbo. “You must be a difficult lad to please. Is your mother so stern with yours?”

 

Bilbo sighed and scrubbed his face. “Thorin, I have never been courted. I’ve had a few dalliances, but between my role as Guardian and my family history, there few Hobbits in the whole of the Shire who would risk me. I resigned myself to bachelorhood long ago.”

 

Thorin gaped down. “Never?! But you are a fine Hobbit and honorable.”

 

“You are too kind, my friend. I am a poor Hobbit, not nearly interested enough in idle chatter and slow Sundays. Too much Took blood, you see.” He leaned back and blew out another ring. “There’s always this little taste for adventure in the back of my throat. Used to spend my days running amuck, scrumping and exploring the woods in search of Elves and such. There were a few who joined me, but they either grew out of it or hid their curiosity. You are the first fast friend I have had, besides perhaps the Gamgees. I have never liked anyone so well as you.” Bilbo grinned up at him. “I would not give this up for all the good Longbottom Leaf in the Shire.”

 

“I see.” Thorin leaned back and took back the pipe. A friend only, but a dear one. Dratted Hobbits. One moment they’re declaring an utterly romantic battle of devotion and the very next stating their desire for friendship. But if Bilbo had never been courted perhaps he would not know how to proceed. Dori and Balin’s courtship did not begin until they were already friends. A more concerted approach, perhaps? Bah, he needed to write Dis.

 

Mind made up, he loosed his own (perfectly round, thank you) smoke ring. “I am fond of you as well, my dear Hobbit. I would not trade my feelings for you for all the gems in the world.”

 

Bilbo’s ears flushed and he settled closer, tucking himself to Thorin’s side. “I hope you’re ready, my friend. A Hobbit wedding is a night to remember!”

 

Dwalin knocked away Balin’s fidgeting hands and straightened his brother’s vest… again. It was a fetching Shire green, with neat golden stitching. A fine example of Hobbit and Dwarrow trades united. His brother would look a damn sight in it if he didn’t worry the seams apart before getting to the Party tree.

 

“Would ye stop it? All this fretting about. As if you haven’t known this day was coming.” Dwalin struggled with the scrap of fabric meant to go around Balin’s neck (ascor? Ascop?) but gave up. Not like it would show under the beard anyways.

 

“Oh, I did, but it seemed so far away.” Balin tugged at his shirts and Dwalin resigned himself to perpetually fixing it. “Oh she’s going to be so very fetching. Nori worked endlessly on her regalia, but I’ve not seen it.” He touched the lone metal pin on his chest, the only heirloom they couldn’t bring themselves to sell. Their mother’s brooch. “Do you think it’s enough? I know we traded gifts and vows, but I haven’t a lick of wealth to my name, brother. No gold nor gems. Barely even a business. Dori could have any Dwarf in the whole of Arda and they still wouldn’t be worthy of him.”

 

Dwalin hummed. “I think, of all people, Dori is the only one who can decide who to spend the rest of her life with and if he’s chosen you, then be happy. You’re getting married today, nuddel (brother of brothers). Mahal smiles upon you and our line rejoices.”

 

Balin’s eyes misted over. “I’m getting married. To Dori. To my One.” Oh Mahal save them all, there he went. Dwalin squashed the warmth spreading through him. His brother had not looked so happy in many years, not since before Azanulbizar.

 

“Yeah, ye are. But not if we donnae get these bloody flowers in yer hair.” Dwalin walked over to a bowl of scented water and lifted out a crown of tiny roses. “Nori an’ me made this one. I especially like the little pink ones. Bluebell says they mean devotion and true love, or the like.” He grinned. “A fine crown, all soft like ye’ve gotten.”

 

Balin sniffed. “Jealous, brother? Do you hope to be crowned so on your own wedding?”

 

“What wedding?”

 

“Do not pretend with me, nadadith (younger brother). I have seen how you are with that thief. Only the very foolish would miss it and I’m sharp enough for the both of us.” Balin’s eyes twinkled. “Should I be expecting courting braids in your hair soon?”

 

“Not likely.” Dwalin sighed and draped the crown on his brother’s white head, twitching it into place. Fortunately, they already had put his beard flowers in, lilac and lily of the valley. “I care for him, I willnae deceive you. But how can I chain him to me, brother, when I am so… I am broken, elder brother, and I am beyond repair.

 

Balin tutted. “Nonsense! You are fine the way you are. Your wounds do not define your future, do not let them. Nori is a fine lad and knows his own mind. He would be lucky to have you.

 

“But I cannae give him children.” Dwalin spread out his hands, trying to make his brother see. “My forge from Mahal lies cold. I cannae craft within it. I cannae give him anything.”

 

“What of love?” Dwalin snorted. “What of someone to come home to? To care for and be cared for by? You have so much to give, nadadith. You are loyal and sturdy and I am so very proud of you. Dori cannot give me children, should I love him less? Should I call off this union?”

 

“Mahal, no!” Dwalin gripped Balin’s arms. “Ye’ve wanted this for decades and ye love Dori with yer being. Ye’d fade like Bell does if ye let him go.”

 

“I would, most assuredly.” Balin sighed. “I am sorry. You were born after the Fall and we’ve all been so busy surviving that we let so much slide. First, Fili is frightened to share themself with us. Now, my brother has some daft idea that marriage is about children. Now you listen here.” Balin drew himself up to his full height, eyes stern. “Marriage and bonding is about love and naught else. You are no less now than when you were born. If you love Nori, you have my blessing. Do not let life slip away from you because of some strange belief that you are incomplete.”

 

Dwalin heaved a breath and ducked his head, blinking away tears. Balin wrapped his arms about him. “I am frightened.”

 

“Of course you are. That’s what love does to you. Makes fools of the lot of us.”

 

Dwalin snuffled and dragged a hand over his face. “Ach, come on. We need to get ye ready or the Hobbits’ll start yer wedding without ye just to get to the feast.”

 

“I’m getting married. To Dori!” Dwalin rolled his eyes skyward. Mahal wept!

 

“Aye, brother, ye are.”

Chapter Text

Thorin spun out of the way as two Hobbits scurried past, a large keg of ale balanced between them and planning a drinking contest. The band had started a lively jig and he was drawn into a number of quick whirls as he worked his way across the dancing greens. Even a Chubb clapped him on the shoulder as he passed.

 

All-in-all, a Hobbit wedding was entirely overwhelming. It seemed half the Shire was skittering about, laughing loudly and making toasts to the happy couple. Several party-goers were already rather red in the cheeks and the officiation hadn’t even begun yet. The Party Tree was nearly groaning under the weight of the lanterns hung on its limbs. Every smial attending was obliged to bring a light of their own design, to draw Yavanna’s eye and wish her blessings upon the soon to be married couple. To bring a shoddy design or forget was the height of impropriety.

 

Thorin had feared the tree would catch alight with so many fires in it, but the Hobbits were clever-fingered and practiced.  There were delicate flowers of wax paper, boxes that had shapes cut out, even a few that had a distinctive Dwarrow flair. Every color imaginable was strung through the tree like a wildflower field at the height of bloom.

 

The tables were laden with food. Roast duck, smoked fish with crisped skin and lemon, a whole pig stuffed with fruits and vegetables. Tarts in more flavors than there were stones in the world. Potatoes of every imaginable preparation. The dessert table alone took up nearly a quarter of the whole clearing, not to mention the ale! The whole of the Shire’s bounty was laid out for his cousin’s wedding and there always seemed to be another platter being wedged where space was available. It could have easily fed the whole of Ered Luin for a week, a month if they were careful. Thorin swallowed past the lump in his throat. This was what his family, his people deserved.

 

Bilbo grinned at him where he was chatting with his grandfather, dressed in his best coat and trousers. He had the ear cuff from Fili on, a small jeweled ring on his largest toe from Kili and a smattering of other gifts about his person. He looked entirely fetching, with his hair glowing copper in the lantern light.

 

“Ach, just court him already and put us all out o’ our misery.” Dwalin grumbled from his shoulder. “Ye make cow eyes at him every time ye see him. A miracle he hasn’t caught on already.”

 

Thorin sniffed. “You have no right to fuss at me, cousin, what with your dancing about that thief of yours.”

 

“His name’s Nori! And I’ll do as I see fit.”

 

“Aye, I know.” Thorin clapped him on the shoulder. “Why don’t we enjoy this wedding before we start planning more, eh?”

 

“Confident aren’t ye.” Dwalin grinned. “Ye made yer courting gift yet, oh King o’ mine?”

 

“I’ve not thought of something worthy of him yet. Now go get us some ale before those Grubbs drink it all.”

 

Dwalin laughed and wandered off, a small horde of fauntling gathering about him, asking to ride atop his shoulders.

 

“Oh, drat! I was hoping to get here before he wandered off. Wanted ale myself.” Bilbo said. Thorin absolutely did not jump. “I thought chatting with relatives was tiring, but this is downright thirsty business. What were you talking about?”

 

“Oh this and that.” Thorin steered Bilbo towards the Tree and squashed the flood of joy when he saw his beloved wore the cufflinks Thorin had made, tiny oak leaves of brass. “When does the officiating start? I’m sure Balin is eager to be tied to his betrothed. At least before he worries the sleeves right off his coat.”

 

“Soon, soon!” Bilbo laughed, waving to Daisy across the green. “No one likes sitting through a ceremony on an empty stomach. Rather surprised you lot let us do it to our traditions rather than yours.”

 

“Ours can be simple enough. Depends on the couple. It can be a long drawn out affair with speeches and feasts and long to-dos. My parents wedding, I’m told, took over a week.” Bilbo sputtered. “But that’s mainly a formality among royalty and a few nobles. Most do simple dinners with family, declare themselves with braids, and then tell the record keepers so it’s officially recognized. We’re rather treating this as an… extended family celebration speech before they put in their braids.”

 

“I wonder what Hobbiton would think should they know they’re being regarded as extended family to Dwarrow nobility.” Bilbo snickered and snagged a plate of blackberry tarts. “Oh the look on their faces!”

 

Thorin slung an arm about his shoulders and leaned close. “Try not to rile up the natives too much, my friend. Dori would be mighty fearsome if this should not go smoothly.”

 

“I believe that.” He smacked Thorin’s sneaking hand away from his plate. “Get your own you daft Dwarf! I should think you would know better than to take food from a Hobbit!”

 

“Ah, but I’m your favorite!”

 

“Oh, bother. You are, aren’t you? Go on, have one but if I waste away to nothing, know that it was your encroaching that finally did my spirit in. I go to the green fields of Yavanna, farewell Mother.”

 

Thorin snorted even as his heart glowed. “Dramatics again. What stories do you conjure of this demise of yours?”

 

“I am a writer, I’ll have you know! I rather think I shall write a biography. There will be a chapter entitled ‘The Dangers of Befriending Tart-Stealing Dwarrow and My Inevitable Slide into Starvation”. Catching don’t you think?”

 

“Rather too long I’m afraid. What chapter comes next in your life, my dear Hobbit?”

 

Bilbo paused and glanced up at him, nibbling his lip. “I’m not sure yet, but my Took blood thinks maybe an adventure.”

 

Thorin didn’t have time to respond before a middle-aged Hobbit hopped up on one of the front tables and called for order. It took a few moments, but soon enough the crowd was fairly quiet.

 

“My dear Hobbits! We are gathered under the Great Tree of Yavanna, the first seed planted in the Shire from our long wanders, to celebrate a union!” The crowd cheered heartily and he waved for silence. “Our fine home welcomes the Dwarrow Dori and Balin to take their vows under the gentle light of Yavanna, may she keep us all in her soft heart. A few words from our Thain before we get down to business.”

 

Bilbo’s grandfather heaved himself up onto the table, surprisingly spry in his old age. “Thank you, Mayor. My fine companions, I have never been prouder of you. Why, I don’t believe I have seen a feast half so fine since my cousins wedding near on fifty years ago. Truly, you have welcomed this couple into our traditions with fine fashion. It shows us Yavanna’s greatest gift; that even in the darkest time, one can find happiness amongst friends and family. And a good ale of course.” He took a hearty swig of his own while a ripple of laughter played about. “I wish the happy couple many years of joy and Yavanna’s blessing upon both of them. Now someone lend me a hand so I can get off this table and we can get started!”

 

Ori was there to help and then Balin and Dori climbed onto the table. It had taken quite a bit of convincing to assure Dori that doing so was not “improper” or “unhygienic”, at least on a wedding day. Now the crowd fell well and truly quiet.

 

“By the grace of the Green Lady, we are gathered to witness the bonding between two souls, Balin and Dori. Here, under the first Tree, you will take your vows and be entwined forever more so that you may find each other when you quit this earth. Do I have two witnesses that this union is done under no duress, that both are of sound mind and consent in full?”

 

“Aye.” Dwalin stood and raised his tankard (the turn-coat didn’t bring one for Thorin). Nori similarly raised his ale.

 

“Then let us begin.” The Mayor clapped his hands together and a low humming began in the crowd. “Yavanna! Green Lady, hearken to our call, for we beg of you to gaze upon us and rejoice! Here, we’ve two who have found their greatest love and wish to be bound together for all time. Hear us and send us your blessings, for the seasons turn and though our feet grow weary, we shall come ever homewards to your embrace!”

 

The humming increased, a myriad of voices rising together in harmony, resounding off the little hills in the setting sun. Bilbo vibrated in Thorin’s arms, his own silvery voice soft and clear in Thorin’s ears. The air felt heavy on his skin, like sliding into the bathing pools in Erebor. Refreshing and all encompassing. The lights in the Tree began to shine brighter and the torches seemed to dim, far away. He couldn’t hear anything beyond the song and the Mayor’s voice.

 

“In this moment, the sun sets so we each find the people who light our lives from within. Hold them close and witness!” He turned to Dori and Balin, their flowers glowing in their hair. “Do you both swear upon all that is good in this world to hold each other beloved, however the fields lay? Plowed or fallow? Overflowing or barren?”

 

“We do.” Their voices echoed around the clearing and the lights shone brighter.

 

“Will you provide for one another? Softness in this hard world, tenderness before winter’s bite? Will you be the very roots of mountains to hold each other up? Will you give the other devotion when all others leave? Do you swear this on the very air you breathe, the food you eat, may it all turn to ash if you lie?”

 

“We will. Should every mine in the world run dry. Should every stronghold fail, we shall be each other’s forges and shields.”

 

“Do you, above all fury and need, swear to respect your partners? To see that they are their own being, whole and deserving of your regard?”

 

“We swear upon the stones Mahal laid at the beginning of the world and at the end. Upon the beards of our forebears and the hands of those yet to come.”

 

“Before the eyes of Yavanna, say any vows you would take for each other now.” The humming had reached a crescendo and all light seemed to hover close to his cousins.

 

Balin turned to Dori and clasped his hands. “My beloved, my one. Hear me, please. Your brothers are as mine own, your woes be mine forever more. No diamond, no mithril could shine as brightly as my heart does for you. Honor me with your hand this day and every day after until Mahal rebuilds the mountains anew.”

 

“Oh, dear.” Dori dabbed at his eyes with his kerchief. “Oh goodness, yes. I swear upon the great works crafted by our Maker’s hands that I shall follow you hence for the rest of time over every last one if you like. May your voice be the first music I hear in the morning and the lullaby that carries me to sleep. Our families tied from now on, may Arda be kind to us all. Beloved, so I claim you.”

 

They touched foreheads, eyes tearing up and smiling. The mayor raised his voice.

 

“So have the vows been exchanged and witnessed. The sun has set on this day and we hold our lights close to our hearts.” Thorin pulled Bilbo closer to him as every light went out. He could just barely hear rest of his company murmuring over the swelling music. “By the sun and moon, summer and winter, this bond is sealed. So it is and ever be!”

 

The crowns that Balin and Dori wore glowed gently, wreathing both in a fragile light that pushed back the darkness. Slowly, ever so slowly, the Party Tree’s lights began to flicker to life, one by one. One voice raised above all others, Belladonna.

 

Green Lady of the Valley

Hear us call you hence.

Now, we join together

to ask your deference.

 

Bilbo joined, voice rising pure and lilting.

 

Our Fair Lady, hold us sweet.

The path is long and we are weak.

Hold us tender in your heart

while we blunder home to hearth.

 

Now every Hobbit raised their voice.

 

Sweet lady, we rejoice,

finding kin and friends.

You gave us feet to walk the world

but the stones, oh, they rend.

 

So you gave us our true loves

scattered on the winds.

We float together, swift and sure

‘till our wandering ends.

 

The lights blazed now, warm in the Tree branches. Thorin gave half a thought to checking for his company, but was entranced by Bilbo instead. His small Hobbit, so brave and bright. Bilbo looked at him and smiled through the next verse.

 

Give us strength our Green Lady,

to find our lost loves.

Let us see clearly

though our burdens they tug.

 

See us now, found together

bind us forever more.

May we join you in your gardens

to bask in this fair love.

 

The humming swelled and slowly began to fade, but no one moved once it ended. Thorin risked a glance away from the Hobbit caught in his arms and saw Dwalin caught in Nori’s embrace, neither seeming to notice that light had returned. Bilbo stroke a thumb down his hand and Dori burrowed his face into Balin’s shoulder.

 

“Well, then. Let’s have an ale shall we. A toast to the newly-weds, may their pantries be ever full!”

 

The thick magic broke and seemed to sprinkle across everyone. Thorin threw back his head and laughed and Bilbo spun them in an incomprehensible bouncing dance. Fili and Kili came bolting in from somewhere and he grabbed them up in his arms, spinning them as he had not in years.  The Hobbits were all shouting and laughing again, some were already busily heaping plates full of food to take to Dori and Balin. His heart felt over-full as it had not since he held sister-children for the first time.

 

“Now, my dear Dwarf, the party truly begins! Come on; let’s see if Hamfast convinced Bombur to join in that pie eating contest. I want to see how he holds out against the Stonebelly’s.  They’ve won every eating contest for the last ten years running!”

 

Thorin was pulled by his wrist and his nephews stumbled along with them. A plate was pushed into his hands and he ate without looking. It would all taste good anyways. He shared a hot apple cider with Bilbo and danced until his bare feet were sore. There was nothing but laughter, bright music, and a copper-headed Hobbit taking his hands.

 

 

Dwalin gulped down another ale (brewed near the Bywater apparently) and cheered Bombur on in the feasting contest. For all their fuss about handkerchiefs and the order of forks, Hobbits new how to throw a party. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been to one so lively (never to one with so much food, they kept hauling in whole roast pigs!).

 

Nori, the scamp, was taking wagers and working the crowd as only a scoundrel could. His fire-hair shone bright in the lights and torches, fierce among the sea of earthen colors. There was a… joy to his movement though and a merriment in his step. Nori wasn’t working to feed his brothers or trying to scam a bunch of louts out of gold. In the Shire, he wagered tarts and side of bacon with folk too joyous and bountiful to care (likely give it regardless of the outcome).

 

Dwalin left him to his antics and wandered over to the feasting tables to heap his plate again (so many cookies to try!) and looked for Bluebell in the crowd. She was sitting will Belladonna and a handful of others off in a corner… drinking ale! He stomped over and swiped it out of her hands.

 

“Are ye daft, lassie? Ale is no good for bairns.” He shoved the vase of water closer to her, plunked down his plate and chugged down her draft. Couldn’t trust her to be sensible, after all.

 

“Bah, I’m close now you fussy old dwarf! Just giving my faunt a taste of life out here to hurry it along.” She leaned in close. “Promise, t’was my first sip o’ the night and I’ve not tasted it at all my whole bearing. I may not have wanted it, but I’d not hurt a faunt for all the Bywater brew and ale in the Shire.”

 

The tension eased from his shoulders and he handed her a cookie, to her amusement.

 

“So your brother looks right happy up there doesn’t he?”

 

Dwalin looked up at the impromptu stage and saw Balin wrapped up in Dori’s arms, clearly misty-eyed and sighing. They cut a fine picture surrounded by the delicate lights and flowers. He snorted around his meat pie.

 

“Aye. Reckon they’ll both be useless for a good couple of weeks. Never thought I’d see my brother go so soft for anyone.”

 

“Ah, but there are few better feelings in the world, my boy.” Belladonna spoke up, eyes on the couple. “To feel the arms of your beloved surrounding you, it’s the safest thing, the very best.” Her fingers stroked over the brooch at her throat. “It’s something to live for.”

 

Dwalin floundered for something to say, but Blue cut him off. “Maybe, Auntie, maybe. But I’ve had no better than waking up after a nice lazy morning, all warm and such, and stretching me toes. Or sitting down after a long day o’ carving.”

 

“What about you, Master Dwarf?” The lad across the table leaned over, red-cheeked and grinning. “Any loves to cuddle at home or d’ya prefer other forms of luxuriating?”

 

Dwalin found his eyes wandering back to Nori across the dancing greens.

 

“I, ah…” Nori’s eyes met his, a smirk on his lips and a twinkle in his eye. “I…”

 

Bluebell gave a gasp and gripped his arm tightly.

 

“Oh!”

 

Dwalin turned to her, wincing at her grip. “Oh?”

 

Her eyes were huge looking up at him. “Perhaps I shouldn’t have given the faunt a taste. It’s coming.”

 

“Coming?” Dwalin felt a single drop of sweat slide down the back of his neck. When had the clearing become so hot?

 

“Coming!” Bluebell made to rise (her skirts slightly damp) and doubled over whimpering. “Ach, and fast too.”

 

“Oh… Oh!” Dwalin lept to his feet and gently, so gently, lifted her off of the benches. Belladonna was already waving down Bilbo and miming that the bairn was coming. “Oh, Mahal’s crafted balls!”

 

“Such language around t’ children, Guardsman. What would yer king say?” Nori piped up from his elbow, hands shaking.

 

Bluebell giggled. “Not much I reckon, way he looks at my cousin all day long.” She grunted and grasped Nori’s hand. “Oh, not yet ye daft thing. Let me get in a bed at least!”

 

Belladonna hurried over. “Back to Bag End, I should think. You two come and help as well. Come along.”

 

“Wouldnae Oin be a better choice, being a healer and all?”

 

“No time to find him and I’ve delivered more than my fair share of faunts, Dwalin. Just help her walk for now and we’ll take it all one step at a time.”

 

“Better step quick, Auntie. She’s coming on fast.” Bluebell said, chest heaving. Dwalin stared in awe as her stomach rippled and she gripped his arm harder. Nori was swearing under his breath in more dialects of Khuzdul than Dwalin knew existed.

 

Oh this was going to be an absolute joy.

 

 

Bluebell knelt on one of the beds in a guest bedroom, puffing and swearing heartily. Dwalin knelt by her side, supporting as much of her weight as he dared while Nori and Belladonna hurried about the room gathering towels and clean water.

 

“Oh, the is not what I had in mind the next time a lad saw me with me pants off.”

 

“Hush! You’re supposed to be pushing, dove.”

 

“I am pushing! You want more? Push it yerself.” Bluebell snarled and promptly hunched over as another contraction hit her.

 

“Is it supposed to happen so fast?” Nori whispered? “Ma took nearly two days with Ori. It’s not even been an hour yet.”

 

“Oh is that how long it is for you lot? Almost never like that for us, though I did tend a birthing that took the better part of a day. Four faunts and fat ones at that!” Belladonna dabbed at Bluebell’s face. “No, I’d wager we’ve less than an hour to meet the little one.”

 

Dwalin gripped Bluebell tighter, ducking his head close.

 

“You alright? Gone pale you have.” Blue looked up at him, eyes blurred with tears. Daft, crazy Hobbits! Moaning in pain and all she can think is to worry.

 

“Fine, lass. Just nervous is all. Never got a chance to do this meself.”

 

“You should talk to Aunt Bell; she’s helped a few lasses out with finicky fields. Even we Hobbits have trouble getting the seed to stick sometimes.”

 

Dwalin could feel his ears burning as Nori waggled his braided eyebrows. “I’ll, ah, keep that in mind.”

 

Bluebell went to answer him and doubled over swearing instead. “Yavanna’s hanging green tits! Just come out already you… you… Why does it hurt so much? I want it out!” She gasped and then Nori was at her side, petting her hair and murmuring. Their eyes met over the Hobbitess’ head and he could see the tightness in Nori’s mouth.

 

“Soon, dear, very soon.” Belladonna crawled up on the bed, a small heap of towels with her. “Just focus on pushing out your faunt and let me and the lads worry about everything else.”

 

“I want, “ Blue panted. “I want my ma. It‘s how it’s supposed to be. It’s supposed to be her helping. I want her. It hurts. Go get her, right now!” Sobs began to wrack her small body.

 

Dwalin buried his face in Blue’s hair. “It’s alright, lass. Me ‘n Nori have ye. We’ll look after ye.”

 

“Yeah, Dwalin ‘n me, gonna be right here the whole time. Got nothin’ ta worry about.” Nori stroked her hair, fingers trembling. “Yer baby’s gonna be the damned cutest little thing, ya know that? Give us push, love.”

 

Bluebell cried out and Dwalin could feel the strength in her even as her tears fell. He adjusted his grip. “Got ye right here. Fierce wee thing, ye are. Another push. It’ll be over soon. Ye’ll be running amuck making yer daft stairless holes in the ground before ye know it.”

 

“It’s a smial!” Another great effort and Belladonna signaled.

 

“Aye, lassie it is. One last one.”

 

“I can’t. It hurts. Where’s my ma? I want it out. I want my ma!”

 

Nori cradled her close. “One more, little songbird. It’s yer time to be a ma now.”

 

Bluebell sucked in a gulping breath and bore down with a shout. The bones in Dwalin’s hand creaked under her fingers and it seemed to last forever.

 

A wail sounded and they all sighed. Bluebell slumped against him and he tucked her close under her arm while Nori patted her face dry.

 

“Ye did it, lass. Ye did so well.”

 

“Yeah. The hard part’s over. Almost done now.” Nori reached around to arrange some pillows. “Lay her back; be easier to clean ‘er up that way.”

 

Nori muttered about his mother’s birthing while Dwalin set about getting Bluebell settled into the bed. Nori pulling away the dirtied sheets while Dwalin gently cleaned her after the afterbirth was delivered. Belladonna hummed softly as she tended the fussing bairn.

 

“Oh, you did so well, Bluebell. Got all her fingers and toes and good strong feet!”

 

Dwalin paused. Strong feet? Mahal’s ever striking hammer does that mean? He glanced at Nori, who shrugged and tucked in some extra blankets.

 

“Sweet Yavanna it felt like it.” Bluebell said before wriggling her fingers at her Aunt. “Gimme my faunt. Want to see what all that work and no fun was about.”

 

“Keep your skirts in order, girl. Haven’t finishing washing her yet.” Bluebell huffed and fell back on her pillows. “Oh drat, I need more water. Dwalin? Hold her for a moment while I go get some.”

 

Before he could protest, the small (still squalling) bundle was pressed into Dwalin’s arms and Belladonna hustled out of the room. He fumbled for a moment. Their bairn was so much lighter than a dwarfling, he worried he would crush the wee thing.

 

He tip-toed over to a rocking chair (Blue snorted at him, but damned if he would harm a bairn) and sank down to look the babe over. It (she, apparently Hobbits assigned gender on birth) was tiny, barely larger than his cupped hands, and already sported a mess of hair (which was starting to curl). Her ears were wrinkled and pressed against her head and her feet! Already so large.

 

“What’s she look like? How’s my girl?”

 

“Healthy, far as I can tell. Good color, strong lungs and those great feet you lot sport.”

 

“Big feet are a good sign.” Bluebell murmured from her nest, head beginning to droop. “Good health and she’ll be up and moving about ‘ere long.”

 

Dwalin hummed and rocked the babe. Her wee arms waved about until brushing his beard and latching on. She quieted and yawned widely. Warmth spread through his very being.

 

“Recognizes you already does she?” Nori whispered above him. “She’s got good taste.”

 

“Perhaps.” Dwalin’s voice was rough. “I never thought a bairn would…”

 

“You look right like this, Guardsman.” Nori breathed. “So very right.” He pressed a soft kiss to Dwalin’s mouth.

 

 

Before Dwalin could decide how to react Nori stiffened and tore himself away.

 

“Mahal! Apologies. I shouldn’t o’ done that. Ya didn’t give permission and… and I’m a thief and ya deserve better and forgive me! I’ll just… I should go.”

 

It was a testament to how very off kilter he was that Nori’s first choice of escape was a closet door. He whimpered when faced with a line of brightly colored skirts. Dwalin almost laughed.

 

 

He considered the thief for a long moment. His sharp cheekbones had filled out some on their Hobbit diet and Nori no longer looked like a hunted animal. He was brave and loyal and clever. Dwalin glanced down at the dozing babe in his arm and made his decision.  

 

“Yer right, lad. Ye shouldnae of done that.” Dwalin rocked the wee babe and breathed deep. “I think ye should come over and try again to apologize.”

 

Nori whipped about, wide-eyed. “You mean…”

 

“Get over here and kiss me, ye damnable thief.” Dwalin growled.

 

Nori made a breathless noise and dashed over to cup his face.

 

“You’re sure?”

 

“Aye.” Dwalin kissed him right proper this time and Nori rocked down, hands fluttering before settling on his shoulders, careful of the babe.

 

“About bloody time.” Bluebell chimed in and they broke apart to muffled laughter.

 

“I have to agree, dear niece. It is about time.” Belladonna set down a bowl of water and held out her arms. “Come on then. No idea how you got her to quiet down, but that faunt needs a proper bathe ‘ere she dries fully.”

 

“Ach, best not wake her. She’s just drifted off.” Dwalin pulled himself to his feet and Nori wrapped an arm about his waist.

 

Belladonna looked at him sharply. “Sleeping? Is she still breathing?”

 

“Aye, she is.” Dwalin furrowed his brow. “Babes do fall asleep ye know, though not often afore they’re fed.”

 

Belladonna hurried over and gasped. “By my foot-fur, she is! Goodness, I’ve never heard of the like!”

 

“Wha~”

 

Bluebell rose onto her elbows. “My faunt’s got a Dwarf as a Godfather?”

 

“It seems she does.” Belladonna’s eyes twinkled. “Welcome to the family, Dwalin. I’m sure you’ll do the faunt proud.”

 

Nori leaned forward. “What’s going on? The kid dozes off and all a sudden Dwalin’s a father? I don’t follow.”

 

“Hm? Oh, he’s a Godfather now. Men apparently have godparents too, though the birth parents choose them, crazy as it sounds.” At their blank looks, she continued. “Is this… do Dwarrow not have this?”

 

“Not even sure what this is, lass.” Dwalin rumbled.

 

“Oh. Oh, well you see a faunt doesn’t sleep until they lie in the arms of one chosen by Yavanna. My Bilbo was awake for near on three weeks before we put him in Hamfast’s arms. The chosen Godparent is tasked with preparing the child in ways the actual parents can’t and get first claim should the worst come to pass. I, for example, prepared Bluebell for adventures.” She hummed. “Not terribly uncommon for a lass who carried an unseeded faunt to give the child to the Godparent for adoption. Lots of pairs who can’t beget their own end up chosen.”

 

“Ooh, a fine idea, Auntie. Mayhap after she’s weaned proper. Ah, assuming your agreeable that is, Dwalin.”

 

“I… ye mean…” Dwalin’s head spun. Could it be? A bairn of his own?

 

Nori squeeze grounded him. “Easy, amarilime. We’ll mine that shaft when we come to it.”

 

Belladonna nodded. “True enough. Hand her over and we’ll get her cleaned up.” She pointed at Bluebell. “And you! No ale until the babe’s been weaned.” Bluebell huffed. “And bedrest till I say otherwise.”

 

“Oi! That ain’t fair, Auntie.”

 

“I am your Godmother, faunt, and your doctor. You’ll stay in that bed till I’m well certain you’ve healed proper. That was a fast birth even for us and I’m not satisfied your body didn’t tear itself in the rush.”

 

Bluebell grumbled and settled back as Dwalin handed over the babe (his daughter?). Nori tugged him over to the bed.

 

“I’m glad you’re by faunts Godfather. Auntie Bell taught me all that stuff about surviving in the Wilds and that’s how I lived through the Fell Winter. You can only be good for her.” Bluebell snuggled down and yawned widely.

 

“Now that that’s settled. We need to think up a name. Might I just say that Nori a fine name and in fashion the season for young warriors?”

 

 

Life continued. There were several days of casseroles appearing on the Baggins’ doorstep labeled either “For the happy couple” or “For the faunt” and Thorin and his Company feasted well and celebrated. The tradition of “Godparent” had to be explained several times and most had settled on the explanation of a living will establishing that Dwalin was to be the guardian of the child should Bluebell fall ill or worse. His sister-children had latched onto Bilbo to sate their curiosity.

 

“Come on, Uncle Bilbo. You can’t tell me that the wind blew the torches down then relit them at key points of the ceremony.”

 

“Of course not, Kili. Finish your porridge.”

 

“And the faunts not sleeping for weeks on end! That can’t be normal.”

 

“Normal is a false term, Fili. No one can be normal. You’d know that if you paid attention to Gloin’s arithmetic lessons”

 

“But Bilbo!”

 

“Hush, you’ll wake the faunt. We’ll speak of this later.”

 

Bilbo continued his trials and everyday more Hobbits came to duel him. Some were polite, bringing platters of scones for tea afterwards. Others hurled barbed words that made Bilbo’s temper glow like molten mithril. Thorin didn’t care for those Hobbits, who made Bilbo lash out harder and forget guard himself in his rage. All were sent away, sporting bruises and limping. Dwalin sat outside in the sun, Bluebell’s bairn cradled in his great arms. It was… strange to see his warrior friend analyzing Bilbo’s footwork while entertaining a babe wrapped in lace and cooing.

 

Thorin lifted his head and sucked in the clean air. The air tasted different. Too early for fall, but change was on the winds. He rocked back on his heels as he waited for Bilbo to return from the markets. Fili and Kili were skilled enough now to be trusted alone in the forges. Dwalin had taken Bluebell, Nori, and the faunt for a stroll and a picnic down the lane. Dori and Balin were nowhere to be found, though Ori had left a note that he was spending the day at the Mathom house. The rest were scattered around, some crafting in the smial, others wandering the rolling hills of the Shire.

 

Thorin heard a bright walking song and turned to greet his beloved. Bilbo was dressed simply, only in a fine cotton shirt, suspenders and the half pants that Hobbits favored. He was resplendent.

 

“How goes it today, Hobbit?”

 

“Well, well.” Bilbo walked inside the gate, grabbing the mail as he walked. “A couple of duels down by old Maggot’s stall, but naught that I couldn’t handle.” He looked up and smiled. “Do you know, my dear Dwarf, that this is the final day of the trials?”

 

Thorin shook his head. “What does that mean?”

 

Bilbo put the mail aside and thumbed his suspenders, rocking back on his heels. “What it means is… come tea time you and yours will be my kin in all but blood. A foul word to you is as to me. You will be mine to represent as head of the Bag-End Baggins’.”

 

“Kin, eh?” Thorin ducked his head to hide his smile. “So I am to be a Baggins?”

 

“Of Bag-End, yes. Home is important to us after all.  My father established the Bag-End line and it is mine to manage now. Without it, I would lose all status in the eyes of my neighbors. If anyone addresses me.. or you lot now I suppose, in a formal manner and drops that bit? That’s grounds for a duel. Few things worse than being told you are without a place in the world. Hearkens back to bad times, you see.”

 

Thorin led him inside. “Was it a great deal when your father established his own line?”

 

“Oh yes. One of the most important things a Hobbit can do really. I’m told our systems are rather confusing to outsiders, but it all makes sense when you think about it. The family lines, home lines, regional families, blood kin, heart kin, God-relations, field-brothers and such. Not to mention we remain fertile for most of our lives. Why I have an uncle who’s five years my junior! In another hour or so, you will be of Bag-End. For the rest of time, none of you or your descendants may be turned away from these halls. It will always be a home for you as long as the Baggins’ of Bag-End exist.”

 

‘Oh.” Thorin blinked away the tears blurring his eyes. “I… I have not had a home in…” He broke off, clearing his throat.

 

Bilbo’s hand came to rest on his elbow. “I know. I’m going to petition on your behalf at the next council meeting, now that you’re kin. My voice has some power in the grand scheme and you all are well beloved now by many.  I may be able to secure a more formal and plentiful trade for your people.”

 

Thorin spun and gripped Bilbo’s shoulders. “Truly?”

 

Bilbo leaned back and looked him in the eye. “No kin of mine will know the bite of hunger as long as I have something I may do about it.”

 

Thorin let out a shuddering breath and pressed his forehead to Bilbo’s. “Thank you, my dearest Hobbit. This is a debt I can never repay.”

 

Bilbo swayed into him, smiling. “There is no debt among family. You are mine now, Thorin, until the very ends of time.” Thorin’s heart clenched tight. “Well, that and Bluebell would likely have my hide if Dwalin wasn’t well cared for. You should have heard her plans for expanding her family’s orchards so the faunt will be well provided for.”

 

Thorin snorted. “Dwalin is already trying to decide which weapon to teach his Goddaughter first. Nori’s going on about stealth training and trying to find a lockpick set small enough. Dori and Balin are over Mahal’s forge, designing dresses and planning lessons already. Ori’s just happy to no longer be the youngest.”

 

“Oh, is that all?” Bilbo laughed brightly and tugged him toward the kitchen. “Come along, Dwarf. We need to get started on tea scones.”

 

“Scones?” Thorin stared at where their fingers were intertwined. “I thought we were having the cold cuts from yesterday?”

 

“Originally maybe, but I want my first tea with Thorin Baggins of Bag-End to be memorable.”

 

Thorin’s knees nearly gave out on his next step.

 

 

Tea was enjoyable. Fili and Kili had slipped in a few minutes beforehand to join them, though Bilbo shooed them away until they had washed up. They both sat closer together than strictly necessary (Fili’s head was nearly in Bilbo’s lap!), but it was too peaceful for much fuss.

 

Thorin was working the tangles out of Kili’s hair when Dwalin entered. Bluebell followed behind with her faunt in her arms and Nori’s arm slung across her shoulders.

 

“There was a raven, Thorin. Likely, ye didn’t hear it over yer slurping and carryin’ on.” Dwalin held out a letter which Thorin snatched.

 

“I do not slurp my tea.” His sister-children snickered. Thorin opened the letter (Hush Bilbo, he absolutely did not).

 

He read through the letter and the air went cold, the light wane.

 

“Uncle?” Fili looked at him, their hair unbound. “What is it?”

 

Thorin swallowed once. Again. “We must return to Ered Luin.”

 

Dwalin drew back, agape. “We send plenty of coin. More than we’ve ever been able to. Even established some good trade. Why would they call us back?”

 

The paper crinkled along the edges in his hands.

 

“Dis has taken ill.” His sister-children gasped. “Much of the mountain has fallen ill.”

 

Bilbo recovered from his shock first. “Then you must leave, post-haste! Was the illness described? My mother would happily send as many herbs as she can and I’m sure more healers would be willing to~”

 

A knock on the door interrupted them. Nori disappeared to answer it and returned with a faunt.

 

“I have a message, Mister Baggins!” The lad stuck a finger in his ear and gazed about.

 

“Yes, yes. What is it, m’boy?”

 

“The council calls upon you and Missus Belladonna Baggins to appear in court to face charges against yer names.”

 

Thorin’s heart dropped as Bilbo sank back into his chair. “What charges?”

 

“Oh! Treason to be sure, Mister. The hearing’s tomorrow.”

 

Chapter Text

Dwalin dug underneath his bed, searching for the traveling pack he had not needed in months. His knees ached as he hunched over further. Clearly, the damnable thing had been pushed back in favor of storing the wealth he and his brother had received from their Hobbit friends. Furniture, mathoms, some bits and bobs. Gifts they would likely have to leave behind in favor of returning to the mountains with speed. He pulled out a finely carved pipe, clearly not Dwarrow quality, but exquisite in that comforting way of Hobbits. It was of a rich, dark wood common along the Eastern borders with a long stem. The rim was wrapped with crawling ivy and lazy bumblebees and the bottom had a handful of symbols carved into it.

 

“It’s for good luck, see.” The lad thumbed over the markings, before stuffing his hands in his pockets. Dwalin had repaired his mother’s favorite stew pot the week before. “Old Hobbitish, powerful stuff that it is. This here is a wish for safe travels. This one calls the mercy of Yavanna. Oh! And I added this one here too. Thought it worked well what with you lot being the Children of Aule and all. Or… Mahal is it? Well, this one is what Yavanna carved for her beloved on their wedding day. Doesn’t mean much, but rather poetic, yeah? Now then, how about an ale and a smoke? I hear blacksmithing is mighty thirsty work. My treat.”

 

Dwalin cupped the pipe in his hands for a moment before carefully setting it aside. He could squeeze it into his pack, he was sure.  His brother was on the other side of their room, already mostly packed and sorting through what he could take and what they would send for later. Balin’s bag bulged out awkwardly and Dwalin heaved a sigh. He was going to have to force his brother to leave wedding gifts here. A foul day indeed.

 

Bag-End was quiet and somber in a way it had not been since Dwalin had first entered its warm hallways. None of the company had reacted well to the news, but all would come. Bombur feared for his family and so his brother and cousin would follow. He and Balin were Thorin’s closest advisors and the Ri brothers were tied closely with them now. Gloin and Oin would return for much the same reason as the Ur family, though Oin hoped that his ever increasing skills in the herbs of Hobbits would be of some use.

 

Belladonna had tried to throw a feast the night before, filling the table until it groaned under the weight of all their favorite foods (so many blackberry tarts and cookies and roast meat), but there was no merriment in their hearts. Fili and Kili had wept through dessert, plastering themselves to their Hobbit family. Dwalin himself had simply held his Goddaughter close through the evening as the babe slept. Breakfast was a lonely miserable affair, with most already resigned themselves to the unhappy task of farewells and packing. What little talk to be heard was stilted and quiet.

 

Thorin had given them the day to pack and, in the evening, they would accompany the Baggins’ to their trial, fool thing that it was. What even constituted Hobbit treason? Bilbo and Belladonna clearly had not murdered or assaulted one of their leaders. They had stolen nothing from others, let alone those with less than them. Mahal’s beard, they had housed the whole of Thorin’s company for months so that his kin could provide services.  Hobbits. Strange folk indeed.

 

Balin heaved a sigh behind him and sat down.

 

“I knew we could not stay forever, brother, but…” Balin stroked his hand over a fine vest of yellow with daisies embroidered into it. “It hurts my heart to leave like this. We’ve made fine friends here, a home even. Mahal, you have a daughter, or near enough of one.” Balin looked up, tears in his eyes. “Must the Dwarrow always be punished so? Are the Valar still so angry at our creation that they must steal away any happiness we cobble together.”

 

Dwalin stared down at his hands (nicked from his axes and little burns from the forges) and went to sit heavily next to his brother. Balin was too refined a Dwarf to sniffle, but it seemed a near thing.  Dwalin clapped his shoulder.

 

“Maybe, brother, but we’ll do as we’ve always done. Endure. We wandered for years after Erebor, lived through Azanulbizar, and we’ll survive this too.” He butted his head against his brother’s. “We can always come visit. That’s what being kin to the Bag-End Baggins’ means. I’ll visit my wee lass as oft as I can and we’ll write… or you will.  I’ve little patience for quills and ink, always splattering all over my page.”

 

Balin chuckled. “It would not be so messy if you had the patience to prepare properly.” Dwalin shoved him lightly and rose to finish packing.

 

“Come on then.  Bluebell’s letting me and Nori take the wee lass for one last picnic afore we leave. Mayhap she’ll find a name worthy of the babe ‘ere we leave.”

 


 

Fili and Kili sat morosely in front of Belladonna’s skirts, letting her fuss about their hair one last time.

 

“Kili, lad! What on Arda did you do to your lovely tresses? I keep expecting a mouse to come scurrying out of this mess.”

 

“Didn’t sleep well.” Kili turned his head and leaned into his sibling. “Didn’t sleep at all.”

 

Belladonna began to comb his hair gently. “Oh, my little fauntling. Your mother will be fine. From your stories, she’s likely the fiercest she-Dwarf to walk the world yet. Don’t you worry none; you’ll see her soon enough.”

 

“Dam, Auntie Bell. Female Dwarrow are called dams.” Fili muttered. “And you can’t be sure. You didn’t see the last sickness that hit Ered Luin.  It was awful. It smelled and the food stores started to rot and…” They ducked their head to Kili’s shoulder. “... And a lot of other Dwarrow our age didn’t make it. Kee almost didn’t.” They shuddered and Kili gripped their hand.

 

“Hmm. I suppose you’re right, sweetling.” She switched to Fili’s hair. “But I can hope and I’ll send prayers to Yavanna.  I also thought I’d send along my stores of herbs and tea.  My personal brew of course. Gives the body strength to fend off illness.  Brew it for her twice a day, more if she needs it.” She handed them a box from her side.  “I said a few of the older blessings over it too, for good luck.”

 

The young Dwarrow stared at the box for a long moment before they both turned and wrapped Belladonna in a great hug.

 

“We can’t stay, Auntie.”

 

“But we don’t want to leave either.” They burrowed into her, shoulders quivering.

 

“Oh my wee little faunts. Oh my sweet doves.  It’s cruel that you should suffer so. You’ll both come visit won’t you.” Belladonna squeezed as hard as she could.

 

“Yes!”

 

“Absolutely!”

 

“If you’ll have us of course.”

 

She scoffed. “If I’d have you, what nonsense.  I’ll keep your room exactly as it is until you get back.  And bring your mother with you too. I want to hear all about my little rascals when they were younger.”

 

Fili groaned. “Oh no, what have we done. Ours moms together. Talking!”

 

Belladonna went rather still for a moment before she stroked their backs. “Yes, my fauntling. Your mothers are going to have such a laugh at your expense.”

 


 

Thorin stood quietly in the kitchen, sipping the last dredges of his morning tea and watching Bilbo hustle about.  The lad had prepared rations for their trip back and was constantly trying to slip little treats into every pocket he could. Mahal, but Thorin loved him.

 

“Now Bombur, I insist.” Bilbo pressed a container into his hands. “A cook without his spices is only half of what he could be! And make sure your brother remembers that little whittling set he got. The one with the carved and inlaid handles? Yes those.  And your cousin! Goodness has he had time to say farewell to the little ones?”

 

“Bilbo, calm yourself.” Bombur smiled quietly and patted his shoulder. “We’ve traveled before y’know.”

 

Bilbo wrung his hands. “Oh, well of course you have, but I didn’t know about it then.  Adventures are dangerous things after all.” He chuckled nervously. “Make you late for supper and all that. Oh, I do wish you’d let us pay for a few wagons at least. Maybe some ponies?”

 

Thorin spoke then. “No, Bilbo.  Wagons would slow us down and we’ve not the space to care for ponies in Ered Luin.” He grasped his beloved’s hands. “Thank you. For worrying.”

 

Bilbo snorted. “Fat lot of good it’s doing.” He turned back to Bombur. “Now you’ll visit won’t you? What am I saying, of course you will. You lot won’t be able to leave all this delicious home cooking behind. Or the copper pots.”

 

“I still say cast iron is better.” Bombur tutted. “Next I come round, I’ll bring me own set. And some of the spices of home.  I’ll convert you yet, Master Baggins, you count on that!”

 

He bowed and turned away, no doubt to finish packing. Thorin opened his mouth, but Gloin came bustling in.

 

“Ah, there ye are, Bilbo! Was having a damnable time finding ye. Wanted to thank ye for the poetry and history books. My wee lad Gimli will surely enjoy them, my wife too. I was wondering though if perhaps…” He paused and fidgeted, staring down at his hands.

 

“Ask, my friend.”

 

“Ach, well I was wondering if I could perhaps send Gimli here?  There’s plenty o’ food and he’s a good lad.  He could do with some sunshine and some training. He’s strong and he wouldn’t be no trouble and ~”

 

“Yes.”

 

Gloin peered up. “Yes?”

 

“Of course! Why we’re kin already Gloin and I’d be right cross with you if I didn’t get to meet your boy after how many times we talked of him.  Your wife too, at some point. I’d like to meet her. You are, of course, always welcome.” Bilbo grasped Gloin’s hands and leaned forward seriously. “You and yours will always be welcome in this home. And if you want space, Bluebell has willed her old smial to the public lands. To be used to house travelers, especially those of Dwarrow descent. No one can stop or reverse that now. So as long as there’s a Shire, there’ll be a place for you.”

 

Gloin’s eyes had overflowed somewhere in that speech and he dabbed at them with his beard. “Thank ye, Bilbo. It does my heart good to know it. I hope to see you again, little heart kin of mine.” He gathered Bilbo into his arms for a proper Dwarf hug, though Bilbo wheezed a bit.

 

Thorin waited quietly while Gloin continued with his thanks and promises and one last story of his wife and child.  When he stepped forward to exchange his farewells with Bilbo again, Dori bustled in from the kitchen, already chattering on about handkerchiefs. Thorin watched Bilbo, already dressed in his best for court with the many gifts from the company about his person, and sighed.  Perhaps there would be time later. One simply did not interrupt a gentle-hobbit when they spoke of the proper folding of handkerchiefs and neck-scarves.

 


 

The Shire was a beautiful land, full of laughter and bountiful. Today was especially beautiful. The sun lit up the endless rows of flowers and the faunts ran about trailing long ribbons behind them. It seemed to be a land hand crafted for the youngest children of Yavanna, the soft hills and little rivers. Perhaps a gift from her husband? His final day in the Shire and again, Thorin could not help but be jealous of it. It’s bright, rolling hills to the disease ravaging Ered Luin. The day bright and hopeful when he walked his beloved to trial with a line of his kin trailing behind.

 

A foul day indeed.

 

Bluebell, Belladonna and Bilbo had at first tried to remain lively, but that had faded quickly in the face of their fellows. Some Hobbits greeted them with smiles and nods, but many stared and whispered.

 

Treason I hear. Not all that surprised, that Took lass and her spawn. Did you hear she once~

 

Too young a family to have that much responsibility. Much too young. You don’t hand a faunt a kitchen knife and let them run amuck!

 

Oh, look.  The Bag-End Betrayers and their little Dwarf followers. No shame at all! And look at all that nonsense they’re wearing! Who ever heard of a Hobbit wearing that much metal? Maybe they’re not Hobbits after all. I heard the Tooks have fairy blood and~

 

Yavanna have mercy on them, but they’ve called their own doom upon themselves. Look at the Fell Winter! Why no other family was hit as hard as those two! Asked for it though~

 

Bilbo walked with his chin up and his spine straight, but his fingers trembled around his mother’s arm and Belladonna looked paler and older with every step. Fading again or Thorin was a tree-shagger. Bluebell was tight lipped and marched to funeral bells, her babe asleep in her arms. This is what Thorin had brought in his wake. Wherever he went, tragedy followed and he was powerless in its face. A poor heir of Durin.

 

Finally and all too quickly, they reached the Courthouse, it’s door broad enough to allow four Hobbits abreast (or two Dwarrow). The room was filled and already over hot and muggy from the press of bodies.

 

“If there’s one thing Hobbits love as much as food and comfort, it’s good gossip.” Bilbo muttered to him, eyes steely. The Baggins’ led them to the very front, where they sat in the front two rows of one side of the room. There was a long table raised up in the front where a group of Hobbits (Old Took included) already sat and a lone low box set in front.

 

“Finally decided to show up did you?” A Hobbit (Chubb by his handkerchief) scolded. “We might as well begin, no point in missing dinner for this lot.”

 

Bilbo stiffened and nodded, his mother pressing a soft hand to his. Old Took rapped a long handled gavel and the courtroom quieted down. Chubb rose, an important looking set of papers in his hands.

 

“We’re here today for the trial of Belladonna and Bilbo Baggins for~”

 

Balin cleared his throat. “Excuse me sir, but I believe you mean Belladonna and Bilbo Baggins of Bag-End, laddie. Oh, and their Guardians as well. Perhaps that little fact was lost in your notes?”

 

Thorin felt a surge of warmth towards his cousin as Chubb sputtered and shuffled his notes. Trust his chief advisor to brush up on Hobbit law on short notice and put the little upstart in his place.

 

“Yes, of course. Apologies. We’re here for the trial of Guardians Belladonna and Bilbo Baggins of Bag-End under the charges of treason against the whole of the Shire.”

 

His kin muttered and grumbled amongst themselves at that. Chubb nervously tugged on his ascot when Dwalin glared up at him.

 

“So let’s begin, shall we?” He squeaked and sat back down quickly.

 

Old Took rose, looking ancient and weary. “My daughter and grandson have been accused of treason, carelessness, impropriety, aiding enemies of the Shire, and disregarding the well-being of their fellow Hobbits in both their duties as Guardians and as citizens of the Shire.”

 

Bofur lept up. “Why I’ve never heard such hogswash!” Old Took stared down at him and the Dwarf had the decency to look sheepish. “Ah, beggin’ yer pardon sirs and madams. It’s just… I’ve not had the pleasure of living with such respectable folks as these here Baggins’ and they’ve done much for my family. Why, my brother Bombur here was ‘bout as sick as a Dwarf can get and they fixed him right up!”

 

“And that, Dwarf, is part of the problem.” One of the other’s on the board said and she rose. “We are all aware of what the Baggins’ of Bag-End have done, there’s no point fidgeting about that. They brought in not one or two but thirteen Dwarrow into our homeland and let them run free!”

 

“Oi, we’re not animals to be locked up!” Nori hopped up and several others grumbled into their beards.”

 

“Animals or not, you are outsiders!” Chubb rose again. “Non-Hobbits. Imagine my horror when I saw my youngest faunt following one of you lot about! Why, you could have snatched her right up and I never would have seen her again.” He pressed a hand to his heart and looked quite (and honestly) terrified.

 

“Rubbish!” Hamfast rose, Daisy at his side. “These Dwarrow have been nothing but polite and I’d trust them with our faunts till the sun fell from its hold in the sky!”

 

“And you would, cozying up with that Took and her boy like you do!” The whole of the courthouse (which Thorin realized was split between supporters and defenders) was on their feet shouting.

 

“Enough!” Old Took roared and beat his gavel. “We’ll not get anywhere with you lot all hollering over each other. Why don’t we hear the reasons behind the allegations of treason and then Belladonna can defend herself.”

 

“I’m sorry, Father.” Belladonna whispered. Thorin gasped in horror when he looked at her, so pale had she become. “I think Bilbo will have to stand in for me, I no longer feel well. He’ll do well by me.”

 

Old Took made to rise, no doubt to check on his daughter, but she waved him away.

 

“Let’s be done with this.” She slumped back and Fili and Kili hurried over to support her, with Dori dabbing at her forehead. Thorin bit back a curse, hating how her breath whistled.

 

Chubb rose, glancing at Belladonna. “I suppose it’s my duty as lead accuser to sort this out. If Missus Baggins is not well, we can set her up in a smial nearby, run messages back and forth?” Belladonna shook her head. “As you wish, Madam.”

 

“I do not bring these charges lightly. Though the Bag-End Baggins’ may have come to their title early and taken one meant for my family, they have done honorably and I’m sure none under their care could find something to complain of if we gave them a full year to think on it.” Daisy cheered lightly, followed by the other tenants. “Yes, thank you. However, the Tooks have always been quick to forgive and quicker to forget. We Chubbs, though, it is our place to remember and be the voices that call out against the drive of Tooks. So it is and so has it always been.”

 

He cleared his throat and nodded a few times to himself. “Tooks led us to the Shire, but we Chubbs tried to ensure that the safest paths were taken. Our very bloodlines were such that we would always run parallel to each other and we have protected our fellow Hobbits together ever since. Now, though, it is time to remember the old hurts.”

 

The Courtroom settled back, attentive. Thorin knew before the lad opened his mouth that this was an old story, a history, spoken and told again and again. He thought of his father as he once had been.

 

“Long ago, when we lived far to the East, we lived openly, much as Men do now. We walked amongst the races of Arda and were… liked. We were not as proud as Elves, nor as secretive as Dwarrow, nor even as power-hungry as Men. We kept no secrets and were free with our trust and we paid for that.”

 

Chubb mopped his lip and continued.

 

“Learning of our secrets, gifts given to us by Yavanna, the other races turned upon us. Faunts were lured from our borders; travelers were captured and sold near as soon as they set foot outside our own borders. We became a commodity and tools. Elves used us to grow their rare flowers and sit about as entertainment, so endearing did they find our make. Men took our women and forced them to unspeakable labor, and Dwarrow…”

 

He looked at Thorin, jaw tight.

 

“They took us to their mountains and hid us away from the sun. None of those were ever heard from again. Long did we suffer, our numbers dwindling.  Our foremothers made the decision to leave in hopes that their unborn children would be free of the terrors of the East. We Chubbs said head further East and the Tooks said West and we were correct all those years ago in heading West.  We wandered for a long time beforehand, careful and quiet. Through the Misty Mountains and suffering until we found the Shire. Here, we planted the first Seed and stayed, no longer the naive folk of the East, but weary and wary of the West.”

 

He inhaled deeply and sipped at a glass of water. Thorin felt a pit low in his stomach and his kin no longer muttered between themselves.

 

“I bring forth these charges because Bilbo Baggins of Bag-End and his mother have brought Dwarrow into our homes again and now he has taken the seven-day trial to make them kin. Privileged to learn our secrets and welcome within our borders. How can we sit by and allow him to do so, when history shows that the other races are, above all else, a danger to us? Even the Rangers, who protect our borders, have not been given such access. These outsiders have been here for a handful of months, and we would trust them with this? No, no we cannot. In this, the Tooks will lead us astray.”

 

Chubb nodded one last time and there was a general round of murmuring from the room. Thorin was struck into silence. No wonder he and his kin caused so much turmoil. To be preyed upon so by others, it was miraculous that Hobbits hadn’t closed their borders entirely or kept their march until they were beyond reach from all others. Clearly, they were not a fragile and foolish folk they seemed. Other Hobbits, once not on the council, rose and said their pieces. Old stories of old hurts and terrors. Fear from a half-forgotten age, brought to the forefront by Bilbo’s actions. His Dwarrow sat silent through it all. Few understood betrayal from outsiders better than his kin, especially of the Erebor line.

 

Once they had spoken their piece, the Hobbits supporting the charges fell silent and the whole of them contemplated darker times for a long moment.

 

“Well then, Bilbo, my lad. What will you say for yourself?” Old Took asked quietly.

 

Bilbo sat with his head bent staring at his foot fur, before rising slowly and straightening his jacket. He moved forward, footfalls soft and sure, and stood upon the low box so all could see him. He looked back at Thorin, his mother cuddled between his sister-children, Dwalin supporting Bluebell, the company.

 

“I have heard what Master Chubb has said and I understand why these charges have been brought forth. I, more than many of you, have studied our history, translating old texts and compiling them. I thank him and all the others for their concern.” Bilbo paused for a moment and fingered the acorn cufflinks. “No doubt, my father would have been horrified by my choices. He was a proper Baggins and I, for as long as I can remember, have wanted to live up to his hopes and example. He established my line, hoping that it would endure and we would protect our wards for ages to come.”

 

Every Hobbit in the room nodded along and Bilbo twisted his hands.

 

“I have always been proud of my home and responsibility. Should any of my tenants feel that I have neglected them, I apologize for that. Truly, I have loved my father, his memory and his dreams, above all else. Every time I… fall short, I hear my brother’s last moments. How many other faunts would die like him if I wasn’t prepared, wasn’t perfect?”

 

Bilbo’s hands stilled and he stared for a long moment at the ceiling, trying to steady his breathing. Thorin closed his eyes and waited to be accused. How could anyone, even his bright Bilbo, deny the dangers?

 

“But I cannot apologize for my actions, nor do I regret them, whatever my sire might have thought!”

 

Belladonna gasped and leaned back. Bilbo turned to face the council now, shoulders back.

 

“In the beginning, I would have thrown them to the streets had you asked, with proper supplies of course. Perhaps even if you had only hinted that it was the least bit unrespectable. But they have lived with me and I have watched them closely.  I would stake my honor, my respectability, my very life on them now. I did not do the trials in some fauntling tantrum. I know these Dwarrow and they are my heart-kin as surely as I am a Hobbit.”

 

He leaned back, thumbs in his pockets. “I understand your terror, but I trust them wholly. By Yavanna, one of them is a Godfather to a faunt now!”

 

“Objection.” An elderly Hobbitess from the back stood. “There were none to witness the birth outside of yerselves and those Dwarves. Who’s to say it’s not someone else, yerself perhaps, and you just said it was one of yer Dwarves to win favor?!”

 

“How dare you!” Bluebell lept up, shaking with fury. “How dare you say that I would use my child for something as petty as politics!”

 

“Everyone knows ye didn’t wa~”

 

“Be quiet!” Bluebell’s stomp echoed around the room and her faunt began to whimper. She lowered her voice. “If you were not so much my elder, I would haul you to the front and give you such a kick! The very suggestion! I wouldnae dishonor Yavanna such and yer words shame us all for their very voicing.”

 

“Look here, she’s even starting to sound like them! A disease most surely. Send them away!”

 

A round of jeers went up and his company rose. So many were calling for them to be thrown out, to be chased away. A few had even brought pitchforks!

 

“You lay one hand on them and you’ll deal with me, you hear?” Daisy was up in arms, as was Hamfast, pushing towards the divide. Bluebell pressed her babe into Dwalin’s arms and stood on a bench to shout at the elderly Hobbit in the back, promising to ship all of next year’s produce away before even one Hobbit from that family ate so much as a seed.

 

“Quiet!” The gavel sounded again.

 

“No. No more being quiet.” Bilbo was mithril wreathed in dragon fire. Thorin stood breathless as the Courtroom fell into silence. “I will not stand for my kin to be talked about as such. These Dwarrow are a fine and good folk. The old ways may have kept us safe, but they have also put us in danger! The Fell Winter came and yes we trusted those traveling Men and they hurt us, but the wolves would have come regardless. How many were lost before we could muster ourselves? If not for Gandalf and the Rangers, we all may well have perished in that terrible season with none to call on. Locking ourselves away? It can only lead to sadness!”

 

He whirled about, pointing like damnation itself. “And you lot! You would throw them out into the Wilds with barely the clothes on their backs! They were starving on our very doorstep and still you called for them to be turned away. Now, they return because their fellows have fallen ill and I hear no call to aid, no mercy.  I am ashamed! Ashamed to be a Hobbit of the Shire, in this moment! If you turn them away like this, throw them into the world without help, how are you any better than those Men? You would let their children die while you sit fat in your smials. Shame! Shame upon us all.”

 

He turned back to the council, all but glowing. “What would you do to me? What would your charges require to be repaid?”

 

Chubb trembled, eyes bright and wide, in the wake of Bilbo’s fury. “We… we want the borders closed again. No outsiders in or out, save perhaps the occasional Ranger. Yourself and your mother, you’d be reeducated in the duties of Guardianship. Forfeiture if you could not be taught the proper Hobbit ways. That’s all. It’s not too much, really.”

 

“I assume, should the borders be closed, that we will be forbidden from contacting our Dwarrow kin.” Bilbo said.

 

“Well… yes. Would be a dangerous thing indeed.”

 

Bilbo closed his eyes and leaned back, clearly centering himself. Thorin gripped the shoulders of his sister-children and held his breath. Bilbo blew out a sigh and nodded to himself.

 

“I do not find these terms satisfactory.”

 

“Well, I suppose we coul~”

 

“I would invoke the Rite of forfeiture, sir.”

 

Belladonna gasped and lurched towards her son, still caught in Kili’s arms. Old Took shuddered and covered his face. Bluebell breathed out a sob.

 

“No…”

 

Bilbo straightened, jaw tight. “You all know well enough what this is about. In the face of crimes, a Hobbit can forfeit more if they believe the community to benefit from their ways. This was how the Tooks of Old led us here. My ancestor forfeited her right to be a part of the community and, in so doing, convinced the whole to come West. Others forfeited as well, but nothing so dear, nothing so necessary. I invoke these laws again.”  He smiled wryly. “I seem to be doing that a lot these days. In return, I ask that the council enter into a formal alliance with the Dwarrow of Ered Luin, the first since our creation.”

 

Thorin moved forward, Hobbit laws bedamned. He was going to shake some sense into this damned creature.

 

“First, I forfeit my Guardianship.” Gasps. “I propose Lobelia as my replacement, as long as she allows my current tenants to stay and keep their present rates.”

 

Thorin stumbled. A Hobbit (a guard?) had caught his arm, but the Dwarf shrugged him off.

 

“Secondly…” Bilbo paused.  He looked back at his mother, face twisted. He continued quietly. “Secondly, I forfeit my claim to Bag-End.”

 

Thorin’s feet froze to the ground.

 

What?

 

Fili cried out and rushed forward to grasp at Bilbo’s hands, other’s in the company calling out as well. Ori was particularly loud, though Gloin was nearly there.

 

“You can’t! Uncle Bilbo, you can’t. You love Bag-End. Your father made it for your mum. Your smoking bench. Your desk! The library with all your books.  What about your armchair?”

 

Bilbo looked at Fili, eyes soft. “None of those things are as important as you and yours.”

 

Fili sank to his knees, overwhelmed.

 

Bilbo turned back to the council, spine straight. “Finally, finally… I forfeit my place in the Shire.”

 

Belladonna wept openly now and Thorin managed to stumble to Bilbo’s side.

 

“Ghivashel… Bilbo you can’t.”

 

“Of course I can you daft Dwarf.” Bilbo’s smiled weakly, lips trembling. “I’ll do as I like.”

 

“But… this is your home. You can’t let go of that, not for anything.”

 

“You’re wrong, my dear.” Bilbo reached out and cupped his cheek. “You see, my home has been Bag-End and the Shire for a long time. But now… now I think it’s you.”

 

Thorin loosed a weak cry and pressed his face into Bilbo’s hand. Fili similarly pressed forward.

 

Chubb, still limp limbed from shock, moved to stand before he was cut off.

 

“I also forfeit as my son has.” Belladonna leaned heavily on Kili, but stand she did, chin up.

 

Old Took made a miserable sound and reached out. Protest from the company climbed higher, stark in the silence of the Hobbits.

 

“Ye can’t!”

 

“Don’t do this lassie. We’re not worth this.”

 

Bifur was shouting, his old Khuzdul coming out so garbled Thorin had no idea what was being said. Kili was hunched close, speaking quickly in his earnest way. Bilbo was gaping back at her with horror.

 

“Hush, now. What’s done is done, and I’ll not regret any of it.” She stood, brightening some. “I go to my family and kin now.”

 

Bluebell spoke from her perch. “I’ll forfeit as well. My line, my holdings.  There’s a will saying where it’s all to go, I’ll see it to the proper hands.”

 

Nori howled and threw himself to her feet. Dwalin clutched the babe close and was clearly trying to talk her out of it.

 

Chubb rose then. “No, lass. You’ve a faunt to think of. Just because you never wante~”

 

“Do you know what happens to faunts when they’re denied their Godparents, Chairman Chubb?” Bluebell stared up at him. “Well I do. You may be fine with damning my baby to a short life of misery, but I’m not. She needs her Godfather. If he cannot come to her, I must bring her to him. Maybe she’ll die on the road, but she’ll surely die here. And out there, she’ll have Dwalin looking after her.” Her face fell. “I’ve seen too many of my family die already.  I’ll not let her die while I can do something for her.”

 

Chubb sat down hard and looked away. More Hobbits rose. Hamfast and Daisy promised away six months of labor and half their produce. The little family with the mute faunt promised spun wool blankets. More and more. Wagons of food. Medicine. Some would travel to work, others would help from the Shire.

 

Thorin was… numb as he stared around the room. More Hobbits squeezed in from the outside, shouting their support. Someone had taken to writing up a list of all that would be sent with them. It would be enough. Enough to save Ered Luin from the illness. Food to feed them all for a year (by Hobbit reckoning). What was happening? A fauntling, a little lass with wild foot fur and ribbons in her hair, pushed her way right to the front and walked towards him.  Thorin knelt in front of her and she held out a closed hand.

 

“Here, Mister Thorin.” Her face was deadly serious. She dropped an acorn into his hand. “It’s my treasure. It’s from the Party Tree, the only one I’ve ever seen. I’ll forfeit it for you.” She grinned suddenly. “You’ve got the prettiest singing voice and you spin me whenever I ask.”

 

Thorin stared for a long while at the tiny seed in his cupped hands. A sign? From Mahal? Yavanna? Thorin couldn’t think for the fire in his heart. He gathered the girl into his arms.

 

“Thank you, lass.” He buried his tears in her hair. “Thank you. I’ll treasure it.”

 

When the room finally fell quiet (though the list-maker had to go outside to keep taking a tally), Thorin stood, the girl in his arms. The council had bowed their heads together, though Old Took sobbed into his hands apart from them.

 

“Oh foul day. Blast our damned blood. My wee little girl and my grandson, lost to the Wilds. Cruelty. I hope you lot are satisfied. My family pays the heavy price.”

 

Chubb rose. “We have heard the sacrifices made.” He looked at Bilbo seriously. “My lad, you understand that whatever decision we have made, you and yours cannot take back what you have given. You have exiled yourselves for these Dwarrow, no matter the outcome. This is your last chance. Speak now, and we will forget what you have said and carry out our original punishment.”

 

“I thank you, sir, but I will not abandon them, though the road darkens.”

 

“So be it.” Chubb looked out across the gathered Hobbits and Dwarrow and inhaled deeply. “These sacrifices are made before the eyes of Yavanna and every Hobbit here. We have reached a decision, though the forfeits seem to continue.”

 

Thorin held his breath, leaning close to Bilbo and holding the acorn tightly in his hands.

 

“We accept. In the face of such loyalty and compassion, what kind of Hobbits would we be if we didn’t?” He looked down at Bilbo. “Mister Baggins, we will do as you desire, the consequences be on your head. Our feud too, is over.”

 

“Thank you.” Bilbo bowed shakily, struggling with Fili still wrapped around him. “I will see it done.”

 


 

 

To Dis,

 

I’m bringing aid. Send out riders to carry back some of our burdens, for the Hobbits have sent a caravan of supplies.

 

Dis, sister. What have I done?

 

I am accompanied by a handful of representatives. Hold out until we arrive.

 

Your brother,

Thorin

 

Chapter Text

Thorin breathed deeply as he looked at the doors of Ered Luin in the distance. An hour or two, no more, and he would be home. Home to the hollow, darkened halls that smelled of disease and never rang with laughter. The home of his own making. Had he but a fraction of the wealth of Erebor, no Dwarf under his rule would go hungry; every dwarfling would have boots for their feet and a heavy cloak about their shoulders. If only he had had the courage to stand against the dragon, or his father had not lost his mind, or his grandfather’s greed had not consumed them all. Thorin was drowning in ‘if only’.

 

He looked back over the caravan heaped with Hobbit goods, driven by a combination of Dwarrow and Shire-folk. Bilbo was directing a group of riders, apparently sending another batch of medicine forward. An hour or two could make all the difference to some of his people and a surge of warmth radiated up his spine. Thorin rode past the singular wagon filled with the possessions of the Baggins’ and Bluebell.

 

The sun was shining brightly, another fine Shire day, while his Dwarrow loaded a wagon with the few things that the Baggins’ would be permitted to take and could not part with. Hamfast worked alongside Dori to carefully store the more delicate wares (some of the crockery and bulbs). Bluebell had fastened her bairn, Iris, to her back and was lifting a box full of tools into the back. Dwalin was at her elbow, squeezing a basket of baby clothes in while Nori tried to straighten the little sun bonnet atop Iris’ head.

 

Belladonna, to her ire, was wrapped in blankets and sitting out on the smoking bench with Kili and Ori there to keep her company. No one wanted her to exhaust herself before the journey even began. Thorin walked back into Bag-End and stood looking at the armchairs in the parlor for a moment. They were too large to fit in the wagon and both Bilbo and Belladonna had insisted that as much space as possible be used to carry the forfeited goods. Neither had realized that he had seen them stroking the backs every time they passed. Perhaps Thorin could convince Lobelia to send them along with the next caravan for a little gold…

 

He walked further into the smial, looking into each room for Bilbo. The wagons were nearly ready to leave and he had not seen Bilbo for a long while. Thorin found him in a large closet near the back of the house.

 

“Bilbo, it is nearly time to~” He looked at what Bilbo was holding and his throat seized.

 

Portraits. One was of a typical looking older gentlehobbit, though his nose was familiar. The other was a bright lad, smiling and wild. His eyes were alight and crinkled like Bilbo’s did when he laughed heartily.

 

“Your brother?” Thorin tentatively laid a hand on Bilbo’s shoulder.

 

“Bundo, yes. Do you know, he was born in this very house? Came over a month early right in the bathtub. It’s why we still haven’t replaced it.” Bilbo looked at him, but his gaze was leagues away. “He was so small, Thorin that I could hold him in one arm. I loved him with all that I was.” He looked back down. “All I’ll ever be.”

 

“Frerin was bright like this too.” Thorin swallowed. “Happy and clever. I don’t think there was a soul that ever met him that was not better for it. I watched my grandfather beheaded, my mother lost in dragon fire, and my father go mad. None of it hurt as much as finding his little body on the battlefield.” He shuddered. “He hadn’t even reached majority yet. I loved my grandfather, but to take one so young out to war…”

 

Bilbo clenched his jaw and briskly wrapped both of the paintings in a cloth.

 

“Mother will want these.  We’ll have to find them somewhere safe.”

 

“Bilbo I…” Thorin stopped. What could he say? This brave little Hobbit was losing his home, his history. He had given it up for Thorin and his people. Because Thorin wasn’t strong enough to do it himself.

 

Bilbo looked up and grabbed Thorin’s chin. “Now you see here. I don’t like that look in your eye. I made my decision and so did my mother. None of that is your responsibility so don’t burden yourself with it.”

 

“I know what it is like to lose home, Bilbo. It is a pain I would not wish on even my most hated enemy.”

 

“I’m not losing my home, silly.” Bilbo patted his face and turned to leave. “I’m going to a new one. Now help me make sure I’ve packed enough handkerchiefs. Don’t want to go tripping out the door without enough, after all.”

 

“I still think Norin or maybe Dwali would have been a better name.”

 

Thorin jerked back to himself and looked at Dwalin, Nori, and Bluebell who were steering a large wagon full of blankets. Iris dozed in Dwalin’s arms.

 

Bluebell huffed. “I’ll thank you to keep such nonsense clear of my faunt. Iris is a plenty fine name, I’ll have you know.”

 

“We Dwarrow tend to keep family names similar. What the thief is trying to say, is he wanted the bairn named into our family.” Dwalin shifted the babe to his other arm and shoved Nori.

 

“Oh is that it?” Bluebell paused and chewed on the weed sticking out of her mouth. “You lot do a lot of ‘son ofs’ and such. I find last names for family far easier to keep track of. Besides, Iris here is going to need all the courage and wisdom she needs.”

 

“You name your children with meaning so openly? Shouldn’t you keep that for their Dark Names?” Nori stuck his tongue out at Dwalin and slung an arm around Bluebell.

 

“What’s a Dark Name?”

 

Thorin moved away when he saw Balin (riding nearby with Dori) perk up.  He loved his cousin dearly, but he had no desire to listen to another lecture. Balin seemed determined to get their Hobbits caught up on the entire history and open culture during their journey. They had all taken it good naturedly, though Bluebell often used caring for her faunt as a way to slip out early.

 

Bilbo was handing a bag up to a rider when Thorin reached him.

 

Lobelia, in a dress of putrid green and an over-sized hat on her head, stared him down from the door of Bag-End.

 

“You take care of him, Dwarf. He’s found his heart again and if you make him lose it, well...” She straightened her skirts. “My umbrella will have something to say about it.  Good travels.”

 

“How goes it?”

 

“Well enough.” Bilbo wiped his hands and pulled out a bit of paper to squint at. “Mother is keeping busy making up her tea and reports from the mountain say that it’s been helping.  I’ll have to thank Oin for sitting with her, I couldn’t think of a way to watch her and not be obvious myself.”

 

Belladonna had not recovered yet from her fading. Each day seemed to be a toss of a coin whether she would have the energy to care for herself. When camp was made at night, she paced around a bit, even if she had to be supported between his sister children.

 

Can’t let my body think I’m done with it just yet, can I?

 

“I hope that she will recover speedily once we reach Ered Luin.”

Bilbo smiled wanly. “So do I. I do so wish she had stayed in the Shire for her health, but I fear she would be no better off there.”

Thorin pulled him to his side. “It was her choice to stay with her family.  Come, I need your advice on how best to set up distribution.”

 

“Don’t you have advisors for this?” Thorin’s heart gave a squeeze of delight at how easily Bilbo allowed himself to be steered.

 

“Yes, but they’re both busy harassing your cousin.”

 

“Oh, well then. Lead on I suppose.”

 


 

Bilbo stared up at the gates of Ered Luin and marveled at the skill with which they had been crafted… and the sheer size.

 

“Who on this good earth is wide enough, leave off tall enough, to need doors these big?” He asked Bofur. There was a mob of Dwarrow bustling about and the shouting. Fili and Kili went shooting past, shouting about their mother.

 

“Ah, well y’see Bilbo, it’s not all about use.  They work fine, mind, but they make a statement.”

 

“What kind of statement needs to be quite so… enormous?  You could stack trolls atop one another and still have plenty of room.”

 

“Seen many trolls have you, Master Baggins.” Thorin passed by his elbow, clearly hiding a smile in his beard. He kept moving towards the back of the caravan, intent on bullying his fellows into line, no doubt.

 

Bilbo sniffed. “I have an active imagination, I’ll have you know, and plenty of written accounts to go off from.” Thorin had passed already and he turned to find Bofur gone as well. The crowd moved in some incomprehensible dance, quick to steps Bilbo didn’t know.

 

“Yer books can’t really tell you what a troll is, laddie.” Dwalin brushed by, arms piled high with goods. “Like the smell. Books say they smell bad, but yer nose will tell the truth. I’m taking these off to the medical wards.”

 

“Ah, Dwalin wait a moment.” Bilbo snagged the Dwarf by his shirt. “We’ve got a system devised to keep some semblance of order and~”

 

“What does a Halfling know of the needs of Dwarrow... or order for that matter?” A Dwarf, wide as Dwalin with wilted hair shoved close, pressing himself well into Bilbo’s personal space.

 

“Good sir. I have been in counsel with Thori~”

 

“You speak with such familiarity? Makes me wonder what our great king has been up to all these months.”

 

Well. That simply would not do, never mind that Thorin was a king. Bilbo drew himself up (though he only barely reached the Dwarf’s shoulders) and put on his most important business face. Clearly, he was going to have to set some things straight.

 

“I’ll have you know that your… king, was working hard in the Shire to provide money and aid for Ered Luin. Thorin worked with barely a breath to himself most days! You shouldn’t take that tone about him and most certainly not around me.” There, that should do it. A good solid public dressing down and his neighbors would take care of the rest. Anyone with sense would~

 

“Is that so?” The Dwarf sneered, tucking a hand into his sword belt. “Well, then. That’s that. Certainly explains why he returns fat while the rest of us starve! Those brat princes and all his friends get first pick, is that it?”

 

Dwalin had emptied his arms and was returning quickly, an axe in each hand. Bilbo ignored him.

 

“Do not speak so of this company.” Bilbo felt a trickle of fury in his skull. “I will not have it.”

 

“Oh, I’m quaking in my wee little boots.” The Dwarf shoved him and Bilbo stumbled back a few paces. “Who are you to say such? What could a weak little Half-creature like you do? Too fat and stupid to even wear boots.”

 

He spat and the glob of spittle landed in Bilbo’s foot-fur. Someone (a Hobbit no doubt) gasped behind Bilbo.

 

“Uh-oh, you’ve gone and done it now.” That was Bluebell. Bilbo gave half a thought to shooing her back, but drew himself up and squared his shoulders.

 

“I’ll have you know that I am Bilbo Baggins of… of…” Oh drat it all. Bilbo blinked back a sudden surge of tears. “Never mind of where or who. I took these Dwarrow as my kin and ensured that these supplies were given to you lot here. Apologize now, and I may let you leave without taking more offense.”

 

“Ooh, a Baggins of nowhere that nobody wants, is it.” The Dwarf leaned in close, his hard and coal black. “You can't do nothing, Halfling.”

 

For a moment Bilbo was back in Bag-End, Bundo trembling in his arms.

 

“I'm scared, Bilbo.”

 

“Don't be.” Bilbo grabbed another blanket. “Papa went out to find medicine. You'll be fine. I'm going to take care of you.”

 

Bundo sniffled and tried to lift himself up. Bilbo’s throat went tight at how weak his brother was.

 

“But Bilbo, I heard…” He fell into a coughing fit, moist and wracking. Bilbo did his best to help his brother and not listen to his mother sobbing in the other room, no doubt trying to stretch the last of the food stores. Finally, his brother fell back pale and exhausted. His voice was barely a whisper.

 

“You remember Old Tom? The dog from South Farthing. He was sick like me wasn’t he?”

 

Bilbo blinked. “I suppose.”

 

“Those Men that were here saw me trying to help him one day and they said something not nice.”

 

“Oh? What did they say?” Bilbo leaned forward and patted his brother’s feverish face. Good thing too, or he never would have heard what Bundo said next.

 

“He said… said I couldn’t do anything. He called me a Halfling. Bilbo, what’s a Halfli~”

 

His brother, once so bright and lively, fell silent. He never spoke again.

 

Bilbo came back to himself staring down at the fallen Dwarf. The ass was curled up on himself and wheezing satisfyingly. He wondered for a moment what exactly he had done while thinking, but couldn’t find it in himself to care. Instead, he leaned down.

 

“I’m not half of anything, Dwarf. You’d do well to remember that.” Bilbo stood and raised his chin, staring at the gathering crowd.

 

What did it matter? He had nothing but his family name, no neighbors, no responsibilities, certainly no respectability.  Let them whisper and gossip. Let them see his foulness. His mother faded, his cousin was homeless and rocked her faunt to trembling lullabies and now his kin was insulted in his own halls. Bilbo was beyond caring.

 

He began to storm away and caught Dwalin’s eyes. For a moment, the Dwarf studied him like one of his blueprints, searching. In the next, his eyes widened and he let out a strangled half-cry, arms outstretched. Bilbo turned to look and the Dwarf had risen, the dagger in his hands descending.

 

Thorin caught the attacker’s wrist mere inches from Bilbo’s chest.

 

“That is not the honorable way, Krilwen.”

 

The Dwarf, Krilwen, wrenched himself away while Bilbo stumbled away. Thorin stood, broad and hard, between them.

 

“What do you know of honor, brat?” Krilwen menaced them with his blade. “You been living with soft folk and~”

 

“Bilbo,” Thorin gestured to him. “was instrumental in gaining aid for our people. He and his family have given much.”

 

“Given because they had it to throw away!” Krilwen’s shoulders trembled, his eyes bright. “I saw their little lands. They go untouched! What tragedies have befallen them? None while we suffer!”

 

Krilwen raised his blade again, casting about for another Hobbit to unleash his rage upon. Thorin rushed him and they struggled. Krilwen’s rage, though, was no match for months of steady food and rest. Instead of casting the assailant down, Thorin tossed away the dagger and brought his forehead to Krilwen’s tenderly.

 

“Hush now.” Krilwen tried to pull away, but Thorin was the mountain itself. “Hush, my friend. I know that your One lies in sickness, your bairn growing weak inside her. It hurts and I would spare you your suffering.” Krilwen made a desperate noise and clasped Thorin’s forearms weakly. “My body has returned but my thoughts never left our people. I am here now and I have brought help.”

 

Krilwen shuddered and ducked his head. Thorin took his weight, a king of Old, kind and wise.

 

“My lord.”

 

“Bilbo and his family helped me. The food, the medicine? None would have been possible without their presence.”

 

Krilwen risked a glance at Bilbo and the Hobbit cautiously nodded. His voice failed him, so fragile was Krilwen’s gaze.

 

Thorin raised his voice, heard but not shouting.

 

“My friends. Kin of my halls. I present Bilbo Baggins and the Shire-folk. They have entered a formal alliance and this caravan is just the first of many. They bring doctors with knowledge of this region and herbs grown under the gaze of Yavanna.” He pressed his forehead against Krilwen’s. “I will do everything in my power to keep our people whole. Bilbo’s mother, Belladonna, is a mid-wife and a healer. She goes to the Medicine Halls first to see to those sick within. She has great skill. I cannot promise your wife’s life, but I will do what I can to make sure you live long lives together.”

 

Krilwen nodded and gathered himself before pulling away.

 

“Hail King Thorin, long may he reign!”

 

The cry was taken up by Dwarrow, young and old alike. Thorin stood in the center, confidence and majesty were his cloaks. For the first time, Bilbo looked at his Dwarf and began to truly understand his heavy brow.  Thorin needed to crown nor fancy ornaments like in the stories and adventures. Here, he was King as surely as the sun rose in the East. It was breath-taking.

 

“Right then.” Bluebell dusted off her hands and hopped down near Krilwen (who startled quite badly at the tiny lass and the tinier babe). “Now that that’s all right and settled, where’s your fields at?”

 

“Bluebell.” His mother scolded and popped up, her doctor’s bag in one hand. “That is entirely rude. Clearly they were having a moment.” Bilbo hoped the ground would suddenly open and swallow him up.

 

Bluebell shrugged. “I’ve no interest in Kings and great deeds, Auntie.  I’m a Hobbit, true and through.” She looked at Krilwen critically and curtsied awkwardly, made even more ridiculous as she wore breeches. “I can’t help you lot with sickness and I’ve not the patience for negotiation like Bilbo, but I know the earth.  Show me your fields and I set them growing proper. Show me a space and I’ll make an orchard out of a swamp.”

 

A voice called out from the crowd. “Orchard? What good is that? It’ll take years to grow.”

 

She hesitated and glanced at Bilbo. “Cos, they’re allies right? Privileged and trusted and all that?”

 

“They are, indeed.” Bilbo turned and raised his voice, keenly aware that it was not as rich as Thorin’s. “The first in the histories of our people. You are all considered kin of the Shire-folk and thus may learn all that there is of us. And no proper Hobbit would let family go hungry.”

 

“That’s all well and good, mind.” A Dwarrow lass (dam, was it?) said. “But what secrets could you lot even have.”

 

“Well now.” Belladonna stood atop a wagon and smiled slowly. “I do believe we should show them soon.”

 

“Indeed.” Bilbo turned to his cousin. “Bluebell. Walk the lands. Learn them and report back. Find the best areas to plant a crop and put in this orchard. Mother will tend to the sick and I’ll get the supplies sorted out.”

 

Thorin stepped forward. “Bilbo, I appreciate your enthusiasm, but it is too late in the season to plant a second crop. It will freeze well before the plants are ready.”

 

“No, dear, they won’t” Belladonna hopped down and patted his arm. “You’ve brought some of the best Stompers with you now. Blue is probably the most skilled in her dance for ten generation! I do expect getting a solid orchard going shouldn’t take more than a week.”

 

There were gasps and cries of confusion.

 

Bilbo, for his part, rocked back on his heels and grinned at Bluebell. “Well, little cousin, I do believe I feel a Stomp coming on.”

 

Chapter Text

Bilbo was utterly and thoroughly flummoxed. First, the nonsense with that Dwarf Krilwen and now Thorin was trying to get the Hobbits into “decent” housing, inside the mountain! This adventure was not turning out like how he thought it would at all!

 

“My dear Dwarf, you have gone quite bonkers.”

 

Thorin’s eyebrows did a complex dance that was momentarily riveting. “Bilbo~”

 

“No! I shan’t even hear of it. We are Hobbits, Thorin. Not Dwarrow or Men. We need good clean air~”

 

“There’s naught wrong with the air inside the mountain!”

 

“... and sunshine.” Bilbo finished. “No, we shall set up tents.”

 

His mother smiled. “Ah, like the long walking holidays we used to take.” She turned to a nearby Dwarf. “Do you know that a good rug is quite handy for making a decent shelter?”

 

Thorin was gaping like a fish (which Bilbo absolutely did not find endearing).

 

“Tents? You want to stay out here? What kind of host would I be? What shame would you bring to my name if we did not have rooms at least to shelter you?”

 

“No shame, dove.” Belladonna patted his arm. “We Hobbits have our own ways and we’ll stick to those.”

 

Bilbo nodded (ignoring the beseeching looks of his heart kin) and looked around the gates of Ered Luin. Surely there would be somewhere suitable to set up the Hobbit volunteers. Dwarrow had poured out of the mountain and were now efficiently unpacking the whole caravan and greeting their kin. The Hobbits either handed goods down or stood out to the side, waiting to be of use. Bluebell had taken his orders to heart and was already scouting about.  

 

Well, speak of a relative and they shall appear, there was Bluebell now, speeding along.

 

“Oh drat, I wish I had thought to wear trousers.” His mother fussed with her skirts. “This lot is only going to get in the way while I work and dirty besides.”

 

“I’m sure you’ll be allowed a moment to change, Mother.” Bilbo said idly, watching his cousin leap over fences and stones. “Hopefully, Blue will have found somewhere where we can set up decent.”

 

Dwalin shoved forward to greet Bluebell, already scolding her for jostling Iris. There was a small group of Dwarrow in armor that he had been taking to task about not sticking to drills, but they stood abandoned and confused. Nori stood to the side, shaking his head.

 

“Ach, she’s fine. Got her secured and she well liked the wee adventure.  See, she’s laughing still.”

 

Dwalin subsided, crossing his massive arms, and Nori poked his side.

 

“You’re worse than Dori you are!”

 

“Say what ye like, but I havena forgotten that she was born not a week before we left the Shire and she’s so wee yet.”

 

Bluebell grinned at Bilbo and winked. “You know Dwalin, she’ll be up and running in a month give or take a couple of weeks.”

 

“What!? How’s that possible?”

 

Bluebell tapped the side of her nose. “It’s all in the feet, my dears. All in the feet.”  She turned to Bilbo. “Hallo, cos.  I found something you need to see… well I suppose we all need to see.”

 

“What is it?” Belladonna asked.

 

“Hobbit hills, Auntie! A whole lot of them, near as many as the Shire!”

 

Thorin drew himself up. “There are no Hobbits other than yourselves in my kingdom.”

“Ah, that is true, but it takes a special kind of hill to make a Hobbit smial.” Bilbo hopped onto large rock (why on Arda had it not been removed? It would be a right pain to plow around) and stomped his feet. Every Hobbit looked at him in sync, which seemed to unnerve a few of the Dwarrow present.

 

“My friends, Bluebell believes she has found Hobbit hills for us.” A round of cheers and shouts of surprise. “May I suggest that we all grab up our supplies and follow her over? The sooner we’re settled, the sooner our work can begin.”

 

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Thorin had known of Hobbits for some years and had known a few personally for several months now.  He maintained that they were daft, fussy, and strange creatures that ate far more than they should be able to. He had followed the ragged and disorganized troupe of Hobbits (all talking loudly and laughing) to an area on the eastern side of the entrance. It was a strangely hilled landscape that his own folk had long abandoned for more profitable or easily farmed areas.

 

The Hobbits though gasped in delight and raced about, what little structure there was melting away in their excitement.  Bluebell ran to stand atop a hill, declaring it hers alone and had a round of friendly duels to keep it. Dwalin fairly swooned as she whirled through the fast footed fights of her people, tiny Iris squealing with laughter from her back.  Others were stomping the dirt and muttering to themselves. Bilbo and his mother were only slightly more sedate in their approach, choosing a sizable hill near Bluebells and skipping around the base a bit.

 

When the lot of them began to sing on their own hills (those with more than one Hobbit dancing a strange hop-skip), Thorin turned to his own kin in desperation.

 

Bofur, uncharacteristically serious looking, nodded solemnly. “That’s that then. They’ve all lost their hammers. Too long out of the Shire and not enough jam, I reckon.”

 

Several among the company nodded their solemn agreement.

 

“Nori! Dwalin! Get up here!” Bluebell waved madly. “This one’s better’n my last by a time and a half.”

 

Nori shrugged and sauntered over, followed more slowly by a narrow eyed Dwalin. They stood staring as Bluebell jabbed her finger into the dirt and chattered. Thorin had to smother a laugh when she dumped a large handful of soil into Dwalin’s hands, clearly waiting for his input.

 

“It’s, ah, this is some nice dirt?”

 

She beamed happily and carried on, clearing rocks from the top of the hill. Nori buried his face, snickering, in Dwalin’s shoulder as he cleaned his hands very, very carefully.

 

Bilbo hurried over to the gathered Dwarrow, a flush high on his cheeks.

 

“Oh, but this is a good bit of luck! I do think with a proper Stomp and some work we could set up nicely here.”

 

Thorin nodded, but Bilbo must have heard his inner turmoil.

 

“Not to worry.  We’re all just finding out if the hills are proper or not.” He gestured towards the muttering group of Hobbits. “That lot is probably just surprised that we found somewhere like this outside of the Shire. There was a lot of talk about the Shire being a land promised to Hobbits, regardless of how we obtained it from Men.”

 

“It takes a special hill to make a Hobbit hole.” Thorin offered and Bilbo smiled at him broadly, before looking confused.

 

“You all look rather put off.  Do you not test the structure of your mountain?  That seems awfully dangerous.”

 

“We do, but there’s a lot less… dancing involved. More careful study and tests.”

 

“Huh. Seems rather cold, but I suppose mountains are not Hobbit hills.” Bilbo pushed his hair back and Thorin buried the urge to braid it for him. “Well it shouldn’t take long to set up camp, then we can get our hands dirty.  Bluebell will continue her investigation, though I’ll send a couple of the older farmers along as well.  If she deems your situation dire enough, we’ll Stomp a bit tonight.”

 

“So we finally get to know?” Ori asked.

 

“Well of course you do! You are my kin after all, even if I’m barely a Hobbit anymore and you’re all allies besides.”

 

“Oh, a moment!” Belladonna hustled over. “I think I should like to go to your infirmary. I doubt this lot will need me, but I think I’ll be able to help there.”

 

Thorin nodded and gestured for Bofur and Ori to lead her.

 

“Bilbo, I’ll have some of my people out here to help you set up in a few minutes.”

 

The Hobbit was already shaking his head. “No, no don’t bother.  You get the supplies sorted out and we’ll finish up here. We’ll be done before you know it.”

 

Behind him, a group of Hobbits were setting up very large poles (how had they dragged those over here?) and one overbalanced. They all scattered, squealing with laughter as the log tumbled down a hill. Bilbo’s smile never wavered.

 

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Belladonna entered the mountain and felt all her breath rush out in shock.

 

“Goodness! Look at how large everything is! You’d think Giants lived her not Dwarrow!”

 

Bofur grinned beside her. “Ah, well. We’ve got ta show up the Tall Folk somehow haven’t we? Just wait till you see the central hub! Can see all the way down to the mines, you can.”

 

Belladonna repressed a decidedly fauntish desire to bounce. “Oh, oh that sounds right marvelous! But to work first, I should think. They’ll be time to explore later once all of your folk are hearty again.”

 

“That might take a while, Ms. Baggins.” Ori said. “We’ve been struggling to fight this illness since we first began noting it and none of the scribes can find any mention of it in the archives.” He shuddered and tugged at his knitted gloves. “My mam was taken by it, you know. Can barely remember her face anymore.”

 

“Hm.” Belladonna tugged Ori close to her side. “Well I shall do my best, dove. We are family after all.”

 

“We’re here.” Bofur said, though his following bow and flourish lacked his usual flair.

 

The hallway reeked of sickness and death. She had been an herbwife for a long time, but that didn’t stop her urge to run or the cold prickle of sweat under her hair. This was a bad place, full of despair and suffering. It smelled like the Fell Winter and the aching, empty years afterwards. She wasn’t in the a mountain but by the graves of her family. Belladonna’s spirit remembered and began to wilt. Oh, where was the sun?

 

Fili and Kili’s mother was in there.

 

She breathed deeply (through her mouth) and moved toward the doorway. Ori and Bofur called their good lucks softly, but came no closer. She wrapped her hands around the door handle.

 

His arms are sapling thin and pale as the snow outside. Bundo smiles faintly as she sings at his bedside. He’s far too small.

 

Bungo had gone out and hadn’t returned. Not yet, soon. Very soon. She sent Bilbo out to the back garden to chop down the garden fence to keep the fire going. So she’s alone with her youngest, her very last faunt.

He whimpers and asks for the bucket. She hauls him up and holds him while his little body shakes and retches.

 

Her darling son, her little beetling. Blessed Yavanna, why did his breath smell of rot?

 

Belladonna’s fingers ached, her knuckles creaking around the door handle. Bofur and Ori were gone now. It was just her and the smell, that awful, awful smell. Her breath shuddered.

 

Fili and Kili, her newest children, were depending on her.

 

She stiffened her spine and nodded. No dratted smell or terrible memories were going to stop a Took and a Baggins from helping her family! She put her shoulder to the door and pressed in.

 

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Bilbo was hunched over a map in the main hall (his people had gotten their tents up easily, thank you very much) trying to find and organize the best areas to plant in. The Dwarrow, for all their lack of experience, had chosen decent areas and done their best to use those spaces efficiently, though there was a frightening lack of vegetables and variety. They had also taken incredibly detailed notes. Several of his kin were bent close and muttering between themselves over those. All to no avail.

 

There was just no reason that these fields weren’t producing enough food! The care they had received lacked finesse and an understanding of growing things honed by generations of study, but there was very little to fault. Oh, they hadn’t compensated for certain soils, sure, but they had known enough to compost and fertilize. Their watering schedules weren’t perfect, but really.

 

There were whispers that maybe the Dwarves of Ered Luin were forsaken by Yavanna, so great was the discrepancy between care and harvest. Utter hogwash, to be sure, but there was little Bilbo could do until Bluebell returned with her on-site examinations.

 

He told Thorin so and the Dwarf had only nodded solemnly and offered up some watery tea. He walked around, Dwalin at his heels, answering questions where he could and greeting the odd Dwarf that came to him.

 

Bilbo sipped at his “tea” and twitched his nose. Perhaps terraces? And Bluebell’s orchard might work over to the West a wee bit if they could divert th-

 

Bluebell burst through the doors, shouting at the top of her lungs.

 

“Cos! Bilbo! We have to burn it!”

 

“Bluebell what-”

 

“Burn it!” She raced forward, darting between Dwarror and Hobbits alike to grip his arms painfully. “Burn it all. Tell them. The fields, the stores, all of it!”

 

Thorin hurried over, Dwalin at his elbow. The dull muttering in the hall was rising quickly. “What are you talking about?”

 

Bluebell turned and grabbed their hands. “Don’t eat nothing that wasn’t brought. Swear to me!” When they began to protest, she spoke over them. “I’ve lost too much family to lose any more.” She looked at Dwalin, trembling. “Swear to me or to Iris or whomever you like, but you’ll not eat another bite of that… that poison.”

 

“As you wish.” Thorin was solemn and Dwalin nodded. “No one else shall eat it.”

 

She shuddered and breathed out a sigh. “Burn it, Thorin. All of it. Every last scrap of that crop is tainted. The fields, the seeds, the stores. All of it needs to go.”

 

“But we can’t burn the stores!” A Dwarf hobbled over, one of the advisors. “Winter is on it’s way and the Hobbits didn’t send enough to tide us all over through it!”

 

“You let us worry about that.” Bilbo said and pulled Bluebell to the table. Iris was whimpering on her back and Dwalin reached out to soothe her. “Now, then. Drink some tea and tell me exactly what has you so upset.”

 

The cup clattered something awful as she took a sip, but none of his people spoke a word.

 

“Cos, it’s-”

 

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Belladonna was greeted by a combination of suspicion and utter relief. The Dwarrow doctors swept her up in a flurry of brewed teas and poultices. They didn’t release her before all of their questions had been answered and all the while they kept her from the patients. Finally, Oin blustered over and shooed them away before tugging her to a side room.

 

“This is where the Lady Dis is resting now. I would be much obliged if you would give your diagnosis. Few of our treatments help and I fear…” He trailed off and fiddled with his ear trumpet before being called away.

 

She slipped into the room quietly after a moment, a pile of fresh linens and herbs in her arms. Fili was dozing, their head on the covers, and Kili was slowly, tenderly combing his mother’s hair. Belladonna tip-toed forward and was struck by the Dam in front of her.

 

Dis was, in a word, impressive even in her sickened state. Her beard was full and her shoulders broad. She was darker than her brother, but the nose was the same and the eyes. Which were staring at her quite piercingly.

 

“Oh, excuse me! I’ve heard so much about you from your faunts that I rather forgot myself for a moment.” Belladonna scolded herself mentally as she carefully set down her load. “I’m Belladonna Baggins and Master Oin has asked me to have a look at you.”

 

“I had thought, Mistress Hobbit, that you had your look already.” Dis’ voice was clear and low. Kili tutted and gently swatted her shoulder.

 

“Don’t be rude, Ma.” Dis stared at him in disbelief. “I… Belladonna is a healer and Fili and me trust her.” Her took her hand carefully. “She can help.”

 

Dis sighed. “Very well. Carry on then, Mistress Hobbit.”

 

“Belladonna will do just fine.” She softly moved Fili off to the side, careful not to wake them. “Well then, let’s have a look, shall we? Open your mouth please and stick your tongue out as far as you can.”

 

The Dam complied with minimal grumbling while Belladonna took her pulses. Dis’ nails were… not the right color, her skin was scaly and cracking in places.

 

“I’ll need to listen to your lungs next, please.”

 

Fili woke at some point, and the boys joked with their mother as Belladonna continued the examination. She tried very hard not to give away her horror as the evidence mounted. Poultices for the skin, a tonic to settle the stomach, a desperate plea that the sores were not as frighteningly familiar as they were.

 

“Well then, Belladonna, what do you think?” Dis lips twitched at the corners. “Do you have an idea what my mysterious illness is?”

 

Her little beet stares up at her, unaware of the sores marring his back?

 

“What is it, Mama? Am I sick?”

 

She steadied herself against the bed posts before she nodded.

 

“I do, Mistress Dis, and I’m hoping that our Creators made us similar enough that my medicines will work.”

 

Fili rose. “Bell? Are you alright? You’ve gone pale.”

 

“Apologies, dove. I am… I must speak with Oin and Bilbo and Thorin with as much haste as I can muster.”

 

“What is it?” Kili’s eyes were so very wide and young.

 

“This… my dear this is the sickness that nearly wiped out the Shire. I, you cannot eat… where did you get the seeds for your wheat?”

 

Dis pushed herself up. “How did you know we grow wheat?”

 

Belladonna smiled grimly and removed her apron with more force than necessary. “Oh, that’s where it comes from. A very specific strain of wheat from a very specific group of Men. We had been told that they were hunted down and imprisoned for their crimes.”

 

She pointed at the faunts as she walked away. “You stay here and keep your mother company. I must start mixing some medicine. It will be foul and she’ll likely lose most of it into a pot, but you must make sure she drinks it all today and every day until she is recovered.”

 

Once outside, she motioned for Oin to join her.  “We have work to do.”

 

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Thorin stood quietly as he watched a full season’s work go up in smoke. Years of careful rationing and study burned in a moment. Between Bluebell and Belladonna reaching the same conclusion and the rest of the Hobbits utter horror, few of his own people had protested to the burning.

 

His visit to Dis had been short and brutal. His sister-children were shaken and refused to leave her side and his sister… Thorin scrubbed his face.  Dis had not looked so weak since her three day struggle to bring Kili into the world. Her tongue was sharp as ever when she looked at the slump of his shoulders though.

 

“Stop that you great lump and give me a hug. I’m not in the halls of Mahal yet and I want to see you. Good, you’ve all put on weight. Maybe some good will come out of all this mess after all.”

 

For all her posturing, her strength waned quickly and Dis had been able to keep down very little of the medicine that Belladonna sent. He stayed until she had drifted to sleep, if only to be sure her retching was done.

 

Years. He had been feeding his people poison for years. When the illnesses had started, they were mild and off-putting, easily dismissed as bodies adjusting to a new mountain. The harvest had been adequate, but it had felt like a feast after so long wandering. Rationing and study had been the clear solution. Mahal, why hadn’t he seen it? How many had they lost? Thorin doubted he could survive the loss of any more kin.

 

“You can stop blaming yourself, you know. Even we hobbits couldn’t tell the difference for a while and we were made by Yavanna.” Bilbo appeared at his shoulder, a heaviness to his brow.

 

“Don’t, Bilbo. You have not walked our Halls of the Dead. We’ve lost too many to this, too many of the young.” Thorin turned away from the burning fields. “How can I let this go?”

 

“You don’t really.” Bilbo pulled out his handkerchief to fold, shake out, and refold. A nervous habit. “Bundo died like that. Cold and starvation and sickness. Father died later, though we tried our best. It took months to develop the proper treatment and not a family went without loss.” He tucked the little square of cloth away. “But we know better now and we can help you. Not one more, Thorin. We’ll plant the fields and Mother will treat the sick and I won’t let one more die.”

 

A bubble of hysteria rose in Thorin’s throat. “Fields?! Bilbo, we are halfway through the planting season already. There is no crop, no plant that can grow now before the snows come.” He buried his face in his hands. “I have failed my people and now they will go hungry again! My family is naught but a curse upon them.”

 

His eyes burned and all he could hear was the crackle of fire (not dragon fire, he reminded himself) and his own tortured, despicable breath. Hands roughened by earth and ink took his.

 

“You have no more failed them then I failed my own brother, Thorin. I know it doesn’t feel like it now and it may not for a long time, but this is not your fault. I am here for you, my dear, and I will help you however I can.”

“Why?” His voice cracked. “Why do you stay? You give and you give and I have nothing to offer. I am not… I don’t deserve this.”

 

Bilbo tugged his hands down and leaned in very close until he could brush their noses together softly (a gesture between Hobbits). “You are upset, my Dwarf. You are right to be, for this is a tragedy and you have a good heart. I will carry you until you can carry yourself again. Come along to my family’s tent. I’ll put on the kettle and you don’t have to say a thing if you don’t want to.”

 

Thorin’s feet followed, though his heart was with his people. The Hobbit’s field of tents were… bright. Sturdy structures of heavy carpets and twine. He was fairly certain the rug that served as a door had been in one of the study back at Bag End. Bilbo bustled about, pulling together anything soft into the center of the room. They sat for a time, curled in a great pile of pillows and blankets, towels and cloaks. Thorin wept and dozed and his Hobbit stroked his hair softly and sang lullabies. Time was for outside their walls. Bluebell wandered in after a while and burrowed underneath Bilbo’s arm while Iris played in front of them.

 

“I’ve got the rest of them organized, cos. We’ll Stomp tonight, when the ashes are cooled. Double checked with Balin and got the orchard seedlings planted.”

 

“Good. Thank you, Blue.” Bilbo sighed heavily and crawled out of their nest. “I better go get my area set up. I’m thinking a little ways away from the fields, but just off to the side of the orchard. Where the mountain will protect from stray wind and rough weather.”

 

Bluebell hummed. “Good spot.”

 

“What’re you planning?” Thorin struggled out of the blankets next, though Iris protested.

 

“Oh the brambles. Not the most critical of good, I know, but I’ve little talent for anything else and we’ve got plenty to Stomp the vegetable patches.”

 

“That… still doesn’t make any sense.”

 

Bilbo smiled. “Of course not. You should tell your people they can come. No boots though. Bare feet is the only way to have a proper Stomp. The Company should attend at the very least. No one outside of Hobbits have witnessed this in generations, save maybe an old traveler.”

 

“It will be done.” Thorin leaned in close enough that he smell Bilbo’s pipe smoke on his breath. “Thank you, though my people should have been my first concern.”

 

“You can help them better now. We are all here to help you: me, my kin, the company. Name your need and we shall fill it.”

 

Thorin’s throat closed up and he had to blink very quickly to keep his tears from falling. He bowed low for there were no words and left to begin preparations.

 

----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

Word spread quickly that the Hobbits were going to be replanting the fields and were guaranteeing food for the whole of winter (Thorin suspected Nori and Bofur had spread the news). The area around the former fields was full of barefoot Dwarrow milling about waiting for… something to begin. None of the Hobbits had arrived yet, but perhaps it was a little early.

 

Seeds from the Shire had been planted, ground broken and dug into neat rows. The lands used for production had nearly doubled, so great was the Hobbits’ fury. Apparently, seeing the plant responsible for so much loss had sealed a good number of doubters into supporters.

 

Thorin flexed his toes in the cool grass and stared up at the moon. It was full, Mahal no doubt needing full light for his next project. It lifted his heart to see so many of his people up and moving. Balin had estimated that near every Dwarf able to had come, though a few had stayed behind to care for those too sick to come. The Company to a Dwarf had come. Oin was even there, confessing that he would only stay a while before returning.

 

Gimli, his beard loose and fire red, raced passed shouting at his friends. So much life for one so young.

 

“You look much better when you don’t carry the weight of your mountain on your shoulders, my dear.”

 

Thorin turned to greet Bilbo and was overcome. His Hobbit, wrapped in a formal looking cloak, was cast in silver. He bore the gifts of the Company and an assortment of other finery (a crown of twisted branches, an anklet of seeds, a wild design painted on his skin). He was story and myth in blood.

 

He smiled and Thorin could breathe again (for the first time).

 

“Are you ready, Thorin? I’m glad to see you left your boots elsewhere.” Bilbo bent double to inspect Thorin’s feet. “Why look at those delicate toes! No wonder you need to wrap them up, I doubt I let anyone out the door with those.”

Thorin grumbled and flicked his Hobbit’s ear. “Not all of us have feet like a shod horse.”

 

Bilbo smiled. “Of course not, of course. Pay me no mind. If you’ll get your people lined up along the edges there and there, I’d like to get the Stomp started. Some faunts should be in bed soon, no matter how important this one is. We’ll do smaller ones later, but this first Stomp is the most critical.”

 

Thorin nodded and soon enough the Dwarrow were lined up in a loose semi-circle, watching the cloaked Hobbits mill about. Bilbo stepped forward and cleared his throat.

 

“My dear Dwarrow of Ered Luin, welcome! For those of you who don’t know I am Bilbo Baggins. Tonight, for the first time in centuries, the Hobbits of the Shire shall perform a Stomp in the eyes of outsiders. Take this as it is meant; that you are us and we are you and there shall be no walls between us. As our allies, I invite you to watch and partake as feel inspired to. By the soft light of Yavanna, so shall we dance.”

 

They turned away and Thorin watched as Bluebell moved towards the center of the main field, back to all else. Her steps were measured and she held Iris in her arms, swaddled to her chest with a cloth. Bluebell shed her cloak and beneath she was ethereal, immaterial. Thorin blinked and, no, it was simply a pale cloth caught on the winds. She threw her head back and loosed a ulating cry, piercing and melodic.

 

“Mother! Mother, our fields lie ready, our seeds are sown. Give this land your blessing so your children and the children of your Beloved may feast! Tonight we honor you. Are you watching Mother?”

 

She twisted upon herself(a vine, an ancient tree) and stretched her arms as wide as she could. Her next call was in the language of Hobbits and the others responded in turn, casting down their own cloaks. The humming started. Bluebell turned, face bright and impossibly dark, and called out once more.

 

As one, the others tossed their heads and howled. Then, they scattered and sang. They flickered between shadows, dancing and fading. Their clothing caught the light and they were fae and feral.

 

Thorin was breathless. There were no drums but he felt a pulsing in his very core as the Hobbits’ song rose and fell and crashed high again. Old magic, old as the stones. A song forgotten by all the Valar save Yavanna. He closed his eyes and felt the blood rush through his veins. Alive, he felt well and truly alive.

 

“Thorin.”

 

His eyes opened and there was nothing but Bilbo. Bilbo wreathed in flaming moonlight, the gleaming metal on his body brightest of all. Thorin leaned forward, pulled, pushed and looked into Bilbo’s eyes. They were black, no iris or pupil, utterly foreign. His smile was not.

 

“Are you a spirit?”

 

Bilbo blinked his new eyes and then tossed his head back to laugh. It was the same and yet…

 

“No, my dear. I am simply as I was meant to be. Come, come dance with me.”

 

Thorin caught Bilbo’s hand even as it came forward and Bilbo led them, racing, and he followed. The Hobbits’ danced on all sides, harmony and chaos. Dwarrow were scattered between them. Dwalin and Nori danced together near Bluebell, Iris cradled between them. Hobbits who could not walk without canes lept like children and the faunts raced in wild, intricate whorls. Fili and Kili were with Belladonna, hopping between and under the structures meant to hold up vining plants. Further still, Bilbo pulled him.

 

They came to a little area nearby, but out of the meticulous organization of the other fields.

 

“Here is my bit.” Bilbo gestured to the twigs sticking out of the ground, the bracelet on his wrist blazing. “Blueberries, blackberries, raspberries…”

 

He continued, but Thorin could not hear him over the exultations in his bones. Bilbo clasped his hand and did not let go!

 

“You haven’t heard a bit, have you?” Bilbo’s mouth twitched and Thorin swayed forward before catching himself.

 

“Berries, they’re yours.”

 

“Well, that’s the jist of it. Come, dance with me. Not that I can dance in a straight line to save my life”

 

Thorin stopped counting Bilbo’s freckles. “I do not know the steps.”

 

Bilbo laughed, untamed and new. “There are none!”

 

So saying, Bilbo clasped both of their hands together and spun them briskly. Thorin stumbled before letting Bilbo lead (he would follow anywhere). They separated only to come together again, fast-footed and bright stepped. Bilbo sang, his voice clear and all that Thorin could hear. Thorin danced until he could not take another step and danced a bit more before finally collapsing in a heap. Bilbo giggled and danced on, meeting his eye as he pranced and sang.

 

His blood soared and roared, a forge in his heart. Thorin gasped for breath and shuddered. When he opened his eyes, he started. The little twigs (starts! Bilbo would say) were gone. In their place were young bushes. Even as he stared, they grew, twisting up towards the light. Thorin turned and the fields were full. Waves of grains and full plants greeted him. Even the seedlings were taller, nearer to five years old now or more! Bluebell danced, hitting her heels to the roots and throwing her arms up and each one pushed the trees higher. Nori held Iris as Dwalin mimicked her. He could see nothing else over the the growing plants.

 

“Have I lost your attention so soon?”

 

Thorin turned back. “How?”

 

Bilbo smiled and was fierce again. “We are the children of Yavanna, tenders of earth. This is how we were meant to be.”

 

Thorin was on his feet before his next breath and caught Bilbo into his arms.

 

“Bilbo, I…” Thorin’s voice failed him as his body ached as it had not in years. Yearning to be one with another, to be filled. “Bilbo.”

 

The Hobbit’s brow furrowed. “Thorin?”

 

“I burn. I…”

 

I want you. I love you. Be with me!

 

“Oh dear. I had not thought it would affect you lot!” Thorin could not find his tongue, but Bilbo answered regardless. “Thorin, the Stomp is a fertility rite! Oh drat, here lie down now. It will pass soon enough.”

 

Thorin didn’t care where they went as long as Bilbo was there. His head was laid in Bilbo’s lap (the finest of pillows) and Bilbo sang to him again while he burned. Bilbo reached up and plucked a berry(!) from the bush beside them and fed it to him. The blackberry burst on his tongue and he lapped at Bilbo’s fingers to get it all. Bilbo’s breath shuddered and he reached for another. They continued for a while until Thorin was so undone by the sirens in his veins that he buried his face in Bilbo’s soft stomach. Time raced by and yet didn’t move at all.

 

Ages later, a handful of moments, it passed and Thorin felt empty and drained. Bilbo greeted him with a soft smile, his eyes still black.

 

“Come, I shall walk you back to the mountain.” Bilbo pulled him to his feet.

 

Thorin followed again, staring at their clasped hands as his mind cleared. He had all but thrown himself at Bilbo, the savior of his people. He had taken so much and then demanded more. Thorin guts clenched.

 

They reached the gates and Bilbo looked at him closely.

 

“Forgive me, my dear, I did not think. I would not have your memory of this tainted by discomfort. Rest well.  I must return to make sure the roots have taken hold.” Bilbo squeezed his hands and smiled. “We danced well together. I do believe our patch shall be the healthiest.”

 

Thorin nodded, numb. Of course, this was all for feed his people, nothing else. Bilbo gave a last squeeze and strode back towards the singing. Thorin swiped a hand down his face and turned towards the medical wards. He needed to remind himself that his people came first, always.

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

Bilbo moved through the shadows before finding a crevasse large enough to wedge himself into comfortably and fall to pieces.

 

By the Valar, Thorin had been a King of old in the moonlight. The breadth of his shoulders, the silver in his hair! The way he had smiled and danced, his hands warm in Bilbo’s.

 

The last broke any reservations Bilbo had and he scrabbled that the fastenings of his trousers.

 

Blast, he was going to have to come up with proper courting gift now. Bilbo could not stand a future without that smile.

 

Chapter Text

Dwalin stretched his shoulders, trying to ease their tension. After Bluebell’s panicked warnings and the burning of the fields, he’d gone to the barracks to inspect his guard and tire himself. He’d found them lounging about, weapons full of nicks and armor dulling. They likely still hadnae caught their breath, but it t’was their fault for becoming so complacent. As if he would not be returning to keep them on their toes! Tomorrow, he’d take them running until they had to check to see if their legs were still attached. Their path had taken them away from the fire for the day, but the fields still smelt of fire and ash. There were already seeds and starts planted in neat little rows and clearly marked sections of earth. The Hobbits may be small, but they worked with a passion any Dwarf could respect.

    “Only you would walk around wit’ out a shirt on this late. They said bootless, not bare as a babe.” Nori grumbled beside him, briskly rubbing his own arms. “It’s bloody freezin!”

    “I dinnae feel like changing into a new one so late in the day. Ye went soft in the Hobbit’s land. Some of us havenae forgotten we’ve hot iron in our blood.”

    Nori muttered about hot rods of iron in other places, but Dwalin elbowed him when he saw the Hobbits approaching. Bilbo and Bluebell walked at their front, painted and proud. Bilbo went off to Thorin (who stared like a magpie at mithril) and Iris burbled a greeting from her mother’s arms, little fawn spots of blue painted on her face and a delicate flower crown still on by the grace of an overly pointed ear.

“Hullo, lads. Beautiful night innit?” Blue shifted her (their?) child. “Council up and decided that Bilbo and I should lead tonight, him with the talking and me, me! actually leading the blessing. How daft is that?”

Nori tickled Iris. “Sounds like some big honor. Is Iris going to alright like this? Shouldn’t she be wearing something heavier than these wisps? She’ll catch cold!” Dwalin nodded and offered to run inside for some sturdy wool or velvet, but Bluebell waved them off.

“She’ll be fine for a while yet and I don’t plan to stay longer than necessary.  Trees take months, sometimes years to Stomp and shape proper. This is mostly just to get everything set and started off right. Yavanna knows you’ll need every bite from the fields.” Bluebell hesitated and shuffled for a moment before she leaned closer and whispered. “Once it starts, find me by the saplings, yes? I haven’t Stomped like this since my family…” Bluebell trailed off, eyes pleading.

“We’ll find ye lass. Nori an’ me’ll stay as long as ye do, should ye wish it.”

Blue smiled blindingly and did that strange Hobbit/rabbit skip before she hustled off. Nori waved at Iris and leaned against him.

“Oh, so now you get to volunteer me, do you? I don’t remember being in enough trouble that the captain of the guard should have to babysit me.”

Dwalin snorted and shoved the smaller Dwarf. “Ye would have stayed besides. Now ye just don’t get to skulk in a corner.”

“I do not skulk!” Nori protested, but Blue began to sing before they could continue bickering. Her voice rang clear, but echoed as though they were in a cavern instead of beneath the stars. Though he could not understand the words, Dwalin felt his blood pulse like a battle cry, but wilder. His feet itched and it took all his training to not go leaping off like some pebble excited to see the sky.

Nori shuddered next to him. “Do you feel that? It’s like I’m young again and yet not.” Dwalin nodded and listened as the Hobbits called back to Blue. “Dwalin, I… I need to move.”

“Aye, but not just that.” Dwalin breathed in and his lungs were bellows, fueling a fire in his core. He reached over and gripped Nori round the shoulders. He couldn’t tell which of them was trembling, maybe both.

Bluebell shifted in the moonlight, Iris strapped to her chest, and they flickered in his sight. The air vibrated from song, from power and Dwalin was vast and infinitely small. The Hobbits suddenly rushed forward, melody and cacophony, and Dwalin threw back his head to howl. Fire raced across his skin and he ran.

Dwalin’s feet pounded against the earth, but he was floating: a hawk on the biting air. Nori whooped beside him, inside him and he bared his teeth in a feral grin. They ran past the others. Gloin spinning his wife in the air as Gimli bounced around them. Balin and Dori locked in an embrace while Ori danced merrily with a group of Hobbits. The Urs tumbled and jigged with their own dwarflings and a mob of faunts. But they stopped for no one and raced on. Fili and Kili called out and spun in quick circles together and with Belladonna. Hamfast swayed by his patch of potatoes. But they still ran. Past the wheat fields and the cabbage patch, through the tomatoes and corn, until they saw the saplings and Bluebell leaping over them.

Iris smiled at him as Dwalin drew close and his heart burst and all he could do was lift his Hobbit lasses into the air, laughing. Nori took Blue into his arms once they were back on the ground and danced with her, clever footed and sly. Blood roaring in his ears and joy on his tongue, Dwalin felt full for the first time in a very long time.

 


 

 

    Bluebell lept over the apple starts and spun away from Nori only to swoop in again, whirling about the peach saplings. Dwalin had taken Iris at some point and so she could Stomp all the more firmly. She twirled with a Hobbit lad who was moving past (a Fallowhide?) and brought down her heel. The roots beneath her sing-songed back and dug a little deeper, stronger. Bluebell breathed in and threw her arms toward the moon and the branches reached with her. She was exhausted and near delirious with joy, unaware of any passage of time.

    Years. It had been years since she had Stomped a new orchard. The old trees in the Shire had whispered memories of her family, had mourned with her and echoed her family’s presence, but here… Here there was new life and a different song. It had been overwhelming when first she ran over, to be so alone with a faunt in her arms and all the little plants shouting greetings. But Dwalin had come and so had Nori and they danced with her now. The saplings felt them, though not quite like they connected to her, and remembered. This would be the orchard for her faunt, unburdened by sorrow.

 

    Dig deep, dig strong my burrowing little one!

    A tasty treat for all.

    Raise your delicate shoots to the sun.

    Ere the winter fall.

   

    She Stomped again, pulling her power through her and her many children sang. Here, she could weave a new song, free of those long, lonely years.

 

    Deeper deeper we do grow

    A worm! Here, before the snow.

    Teach us how to twist and sprout!

    Mother, mother hear us shout.

   

Bluebell froze as a new song, soft and unsteady, filtered through the roots.

 

    Joy. Joy! Raise my feet

    Bring them down amongst the peat.

    Daddy’s hands are big and warm

    Shelter me from coming storm!

 

She turned and there was Dwalin holding Iris’ hands as she wobbled and stomped her feet, Nori doing an odd squatting hop in front of her. Tiny creeping Veronicas bloomed at her toes as she giggled and wiggled with her Dwarrow fathers. Bluebell laughed as her feet spun her close to her new family. The Dwarrow’s footsteps rumbled through the earth, adding a heavy tone, too deep for a Hobbit. It rolled, farther and farther, until it struck stone and reverberated back. Strangely, it filled the gaps in the Hobbit song and the plants dug stronger for it. Bluebell closed her eyes and felt the mountains singing in her bones.

    “Well, it appears that this Stomp is deep in your people’s veins, Mistress Hobbit.” Nori scooped Iris and did a fast waltz with her through the cherry trees, a merry baritone to her daughter’s trembling flutes. “I do believe I have the finest dancer right here!” Iris looked back and bounced purposely until Dwalin began to dance across from her.

    “Of course she is! She’s a Brandybuck through and through. Do try to spare some of her little flowers there. I’ll show them off tomorrow.”

    Dwalin waggled his fingers at his daughter and then wrapped an arm around Bluebell.

    “I had noticed the wee things, but I couldnae remember if they had been there before. So…” He gestured broadly, encompassing the new wheat field and the already laden vegetables. “This is the great Hobbit secret. I cannae say I am surprised it is so close to yer one true devotion of food.”

    She sniffed. “I’ll have you know that we can do so with most every plant we come across, though a few resist or ask us to refrain. As for food.” Bluebell shrugged. “I didn’t hear you lot complaining back at Bag End now did I? Plenty of tarts and sweet things to be had.”

    Dwalin grinned and gently knocked their foreheads together. “Peace, wee lass. I willnae complain when yer preserves are smeared over every bite I eat and our people grow fat once again. It will be good to see them full and hale once more.”

    Bluebell hummed as Nori came swinging back with Iris and Dwalin stiffened against her. She blinked, took in both his and Nori’s flushed faces as they stared at each other, and smothered a giggle. Bilbo had already led Thorin back to the mountain. Perhaps her Dwarrow would need to step back inside sooner rather than later.

“Oh yes, at the very least. We shall have you all proper sized before long. I shall have to remember, though, that Aunt Bell or I must warn Oin. It’s not uncommon for there to be a surge of faunts after a Stomp.” She grinned when Dwalin blinked in surprise. “Well, it is a fertility dance after all and Yavanna isn’t always sure which seeds she’s supposed to be blessing.” Dwalin blushed ear to ear and ducked his head.

    “Ah, well. That will bring joy to the mountain as well. Suppose that I dinnae have to worry about such things given I am…”

    Bluebell frowned as Dwalin’s shoulders dipped and he looked away from Nori.  They had not spoken of… whatever this was between the four of them. They were Iris’ fathers sure as the sun rose in the East and she was her mother, but no one questioned when the lads slept in her tent or she in theirs. She didn’t desire them, though they made excellent furnaces, but nor could she imagine a future without the lot of them in her home. Regardless, no father of her faunt was going to look so utterly defeated.

    Bluebell reached forward, focusing her energy for a moment away from the saplings and towards Dwalin, and whispered in the old tongue. She bit back a cry as his fire engulfed her and she sorted out what was what. Their Gods had not made them so different that she could not parse out what she searched for. Dwalin murmured above her, but she pressed her hand firmly to his stomach, questing. Finally she found his children, sleeping peacefully, and she spoke to them. They roused themselves and called back, healthy and eager to chatter. Bluebell twitched her nose. There was damage, severe scar tissues, but it looked to be something a skilled healer might fix, with the right song and time. It could take years, but Dwalin would be able to carry his own children should he wish it. She dropped her hand and grinned up at him.

    “What did ye do?”

    “I looked asking questions and found answers.” She patted his arm. “I shall tell you in the morn, but for now Nori is staring at you something fierce. Mayhaps you should take him back into the mountain.”

 

 


 

    Nori could smell the magic in the air, feel it thrumming through his veins. The saplings that had hovered around his ankles now brushed his shoulders and the stone beneath him sang. His stonesense had never been terribly powerful, but now he could hear the mountain’s voice from root to summit, and every vein and gem in her. Finally, Nori could understand how a Dwarf could wander into the darkness in a mining haze. More, he could feel every step, every breath of the people surrounding him. Iris was a steadying weight in his arms, but he could feel her and her wee little flowers. He looked at Dwalin and understood. Overwhelmed, Nori stumbled towards the guard, Bluebell a bright beacon next to them and yet he only had eyes for his One.

    Tongue heavy in his mouth, Nori felt a deep flame roar and he needed. Bluebell said something and took Iris from his arms. He ached at the gaping emptiness and Dwalin leaned forward, eyes blown wide. There was a giggle and a shove.

    “For Yavanna’s sake, get the both of you to a room. Iris is too young for this bit yet.”

    Dwalin shook himself and Nori felt a wounded noise crawl up his throat when he lost his One’s gaze. This newfound responsibility wasn’t alway as rewarding as he liked.

    “We said we’d stay with ye…”

    “And I’ll go in soon enough. I release you, my dears. Run along now.”

    Freed, Dwalin crashed into him and Nori surged up to ravish his mouth. Dwalin’s hands were large and powerful, tugging his body so close it hurt. Nori bit his One’s lip and Dwalin made an satisfyingly breathless sound.

    Nori grabbed a muscled arm and dragged them both towards the mountain.

    “My room’s closest.”

    Sparks danced across his skin every time Dwalin dragged him against his massive chest. Nori could feel their excitement, both of their trousers straining. They stumbled frequently, too caught up in the exquisite fire between them to notice corners or anything else. Dwalin crushed him into an alcove just inside the gates and hefted Nori off the ground, licking and biting at his neck. Nori keened and wound himself around Dwalin, rutting against him.  They lost themselves to the sensations, feeding the flames until near bursting. Nori shoved him back reluctantly.

    “Oil,” he panted, “we need oil. And preferably a bed. I’ll not disrespect this with a tumble out in the hallways.”

    Dwalin grumbled. “Didnae take ye as having such sensibilities.”

    “Only for you.” Nori grinned and swayed his hips as he moved further down the hallway, dancing out of reach when Dwalin grabbed for him. “I have plans. Naught but the finest sheets for our first bedding, bought them new ‘fore we left the Shire. And I plan to ruin them before dawn. Thoroughly.”

    “Be happy ta oblige ye.” Dwalin rushed him and Nori turned to run, laughing. He led them on a merry chase edged with hunger, taking every shortcut he could think of. Finally they reached his door and he fumbled to get the key turned while Dwalin ground against him, growling. They fell through the door and Dwalin slammed it shut, locked it, and tore at Nori’s clothing. Nori raked his fingers down Dwalin’s chest once his own shirt was off, tweaking a gold nipple piercing that shone against dark skin.

    “Get on the bed, ghivashel. I’ll get the oil.” Nori hustled toward a hidden cabinet filled with his toys. He pried it open and struggled out of his shoes. “I can’t tell you how much I’ve wanted this. Almost had to gag myself every time I thought of you. The very idea of you inside me does-”

    “No.”

    Nori stuttered to a halt, trousers hanging loose around his waist and his finest oil (pilfered) in his hands.

    “No?”

    Dwalin twisted his mustache braid before dropping his hands and straightening.

    “I would have ye.”

    “Well, yeah I-”

    “In me. Ye don’t need the oil for that.”

    Someone whimpered, maybe him.

    “We don’t have to if you don’t wanna. I’m good either way.”

    Dwalin stared at him and shucked his own trousers off. He sat back on the bed, a beautiful onyx amid the cream sheets, and spread his legs.

    “Get over here and attend me, lad.”

    Nori shoved his pants down and all but brained himself trying to get to the bed without looking away from his One’s core. Thankfully Dwalin caught him and they giggled a bit while trying to sort themselves out. Finally, Dwalin lifted him, arranged him against the pillows, straddled Nori and grinned.

    “Yer so fuckin’ hot when you do that.” Nori gripped Dwalin’s thigh and kneaded them. “I could get used to being man-handled.”

    “Ye were moving too slow.” Dwalin pressed into the mattress and went back to devouring him. Nori tugged him closer and rutted up against his captor. It seemed endless and too quick, his desire utterly consuming. He wriggled a hand between them and set his clever fingers to work. Dwalin arched and gasped. Nori was enraptured, eyes locked on Dwalin’s face as he gripped Dwalin’s hammer in one hand and worked his forge with the other, stoking the heat he found there. Dwalin’s cries and gasps fueled the coil of heat in Nori’s loins and for all that he ached, the very thought of moving one of his hands to himself was repellant. He protested when Dwalin caught his slick hands and trapped them against the sheets.

    “Enough o’ that, or I’ll finish before we start.” Nori strained against his lover’s grip, the idea of Dwalin’s pleasure in his hands too much. “Easy, lad, I want ye now. We’ve got all night for the rest.” Dwalin ground down and they shuddered together. “Yes,” he groaned, “all night. Just let me...”

    Nori cried out when a hot hand moved from his wrist to his straining shaft, guiding it. He reared up and kissed Dwalin, pressing their foreheads together when Dwalin drove himself down. Nori gasped into Dwalin’s neck and wrenched his other hand free to bury it in Dwalin’s hair. They stayed like that, clutched in each other’s arms until Nori regained himself enough to stroke his lover’s hair. His fingers brushed a new braid, buried under the others.

    “Wha’s this?” He pulled it forward gently and stared down at the gender braid in his hand. It was slightly lopsided and coming loose. “You didn’t tell me you were wearing lass braids now.”

    Dwalin grunted and nibbled across his collarbones. Nori poked him in the side.

    “Just felt like trying ‘em out. I wasnae sure if I was ready.”

    Nori hummed and flexed into his lover, reveling in the gasp it caused. “Well, if you ever need help putting it in, I’ve a fair hand at them. Ori spent several years female. Taught him while Dori was working.”

    Some tension drained out of Dwalin’s shoulders and Nori felt a gentle kiss pressed to his jaw before a sharp bite.

    “Enough talk, more fucking.”

    Nori smirked and laid back on the bed. “As you wish, my warrior lass.”

    Dwalin shuddered and started a slow rhythm. “Say that again, lad.”

    “My fair maiden.” Dwalin snorted and ground down. “My fierce lad. My lovely, strong dam who could break me in two with a thought.”

    Nori continued to murmur praises as Dwalin rode him and no doubt he babbled. The great warrior moved with iron discipline, slow and molten. Intimate in a way none of his past tumbles had been. Nori reached up and brushed his fingers over all he could reach: caressing piercings, tracing scars, dragging his nails over bunching muscles. On and on, until there was only this moment and all else had faded away. He dragged his fingers down to his lover’s center and stroked gently.

    “I would see you come apart like this, ghivashel. So beautiful. Will you come for me, my One?”

    Dwalin, his eyes glazed with pleasure, moaned and moved harder, faster. His thighs bunched, coiled, and released, the finest of Mahal’s creations.

    “So lovely, my perfect lass. You feel so good. I’m yours for as long as you’ll have me.” Nori moaned, hands working to pleasure wherever he could reach.

    “Is that right, lad”

    “Yeah, “he thrust up and gripped Dwalin tighter, “yeah. Gonna make you so happy. Feed you cookies and fuck you full of…” He whimpered.

    “Of what?” Dwalin’s eyes were dark, his breath heaving.

    “Of, fuck! Bairns, many as you want, So pretty, you heavy with my child. Gonna give you all of me, ghivashel, my beloved.” He choked back a cry. “Adopt ‘em too. Feed you. Fuck you. Love you!”

    He crashed over the edge so hard his toes tingled. He couldn’t see, couldn’t think and it was all ecstasy. Dimly, he heard Dwalin cry out and the delicious heat gripping him tightened and he was gone again, spiraling. He spent a lifetime floating before he slowly started to come back to himself. Dwalin was draped over him, shuddering still, and Nori kissed his bald dome as soon as he could muster the strength. Then he collapsed back and waited for the rest of his soul to come back from its joy ride.

    “Well, that was something.”

    Dwalin snorted. “I had thought ye’d be quiet given yer profession. Now, I’ve no doubt that most of the mountain knows.”

    “What, that I have the best dam of our people here in my bed and we’re enjoying ourselves? You weren’t terribly quiet yourself, lover.”

    “Mmm,” Dwalin nuzzled him, “think I’ll leave in the braids if you keep talking like that.”

    “You should leave them in if it’s who you are, my One. I don’t want you hiding from me.”

    Humming, Dwalin languidly flexed around Nori (no he did not whimper) and rolled to the side. Nori immediately cuddled up, tucking himself firmly around his lover and studiously ignored the mess on his stomach and Dwalin’s snicker.

    “Loud and a cuddler, hm?” Dwalin tweaked hair.

    “Shut up. I’m basking.”

    “And since when is feeding me one of yer fantasies? Spending too much time with the Hobbits?”

    “Shut up!” Nori felt a little thrill of delight at the unbidden image of Dwalin gone soft round the middle, happy and beautiful.

    They laid there for a while and Nori took the opportunity to explore Dwalin’s body, investigating scars and examining his various tattoos and piercings. He caressed the swells of muscle and the little roll of fat new from the Shire. He teased and stroked and kneaded. All the while, he ignored his own excitement and Dwalin’s growing one. He had just finished a perusal of Dwalin’s hands (knuckles past broken, nicked and gorgeous) when Dwalin growled and shoved him off.

    “Where’s yer damn oil?”

    Nori stretched, preening a little. “Oil?”

    Dwalin was draped over the edge of his bed so Nori reached out to pinch his ass. Dwalin spun back, pinning him with one hand and popping the cork on the oil with the other.

    “Ye said ye had plans, laddie. I think it’s time we went over a few of my own.”

    Nori was so, so fine with that.