When Bilbo had finished reading the story that Esmeralda had interrupted, he peered out of the window at the lowering clouds, wished again that Fili had taken an umbrella, and then turned to his bookshelf.

"Now, then, master dwarf," he said, carefully selecting two volumes and turning to Kili. "Which book would you like me to read from next?" He held up the two books so that Kili could see them and made a questioning face.

Kili stared at him and then looked away with a frown. "You are choose," he said. "I not know book."

"Well, why do you not look at them?" Bilbo asked. He laid the two books on Kili's lap and waited expectantly.

Kili made no move to open either of them. "I not know," he insisted. "I not can read. Not can choose."

Bilbo pressed his lips together and restrained himself from making a comment about the stubbornness of dwarves. He did not want to order Kili to choose, for the contradiction in this was by no means lost on him. On the other hand, he suspected that the only way to persuade Kili to start making his own choices was to force the issue, for certainly the little dwarf would never volunteer to do so, and it seemed he was most reluctant even when asked politely.

"I have told you that you must learn to do this, have I not?" he said finally, in as gentle a tone as he could. "There is no wrong choice here, my lad. All you need do is pick one." And he leaned forward and opened both books, flicking through each one until he found the first illustration. "You see, this one is about fairies," he said, pointing to the picture. "And the other is about elves."

Kili ignored him for a moment, but when Bilbo patted him insistently on the arm and pointed at the pictures again, he turned his head to look at them. He touched the faces of each of the figures portrayed, slowly and carefully, and then he looked up at Bilbo.

"I must choose?" he asked, and Bilbo found himself on the verge of giving in at the look on his face, but he succeeded in hardening his heart (so far as a hobbit's heart can be hardened, which is not very far at all) and nodded firmly.

"Please," he said.

Kili looked back down at the pictures, then touched the faces in one of the pictures again. He did not speak, but looked quickly up at Bilbo and back down at the book.

"That one?" Bilbo asked. "The fairies?" He had, of course, anticipated that Kili would not want to hear about elves, and for that very reason had chosen a book about them as one of the two choices. Nonetheless, the obviousness of the choice did little to quell the little flame of victory that lit in his heart.

Kili nodded once and pulled his hands abruptly back from the books, hunching over himself a little so that Bilbo had the feeling that if he had not had the two open books on his lap, he would have pulled his knees up in front of him. It was a mildly disturbing reaction, but Bilbo affected not to have noticed, and simply took the books from Kili's lap (and indeed, the little dwarf did now curl up rather), replacing the one about elves on the shelf and opening the one about fairies to the first page.

"And you are happy to listen to more stories?" he asked before he started. "You don't want to do something else?"

Kili peered up at him through his hair, and Bilbo decided that perhaps one choice was enough for now.

"Well, then," he said, and began to read.

Fili had still not returned by afternoon tea, and Bilbo set out the dishes and cups and worried a little as the first fat drops of rain spattered against the window, and then worried a little more about how agitated Kili appeared to be.

"What is the matter, master dwarf?" he asked, but Kili simply stared at him and shook his head as if he was not sure what Bilbo meant. Bilbo decided it was most likely just a reaction to the various happenings of the day, and wondered how a day spent entirely in and around his comfortable hobbit hole could manage to be so fraught with difficulty and exhaustion. Bilbo had certainly never imagined that dealing with dwarves would be a simple task, but even when they had been knocking his door down and throwing food around his kitchen, he had not conceived of just how complicated life might become if he threw his lot in with them.

But thrown his lot was, for better or worse (and on most days, Bilbo thought it was probably for better, or at least if he had been offered the choice to retreat to his comfortable old solitary life and lose Fili and Kili's company, he would certainly have turned it down), and so he spent half an hour offering Kili choices of food and drink, until the little dwarf began to look rather morose and to draw back into himself more than Bilbo liked, at which point he decided that perhaps enough was enough. And when the dishes were cleared away and it had begun to rain in earnest, he peered once more out of the window and frowned.

"I do not know where that brother of yours has got to," he said. "He must be getting thoroughly soaked!"

Kili followed Bilbo's gaze and stared at the rain. "Where he is gone?" he asked. "He is be come again soon?"

"It is will," Bilbo said. "You remember will? Will he come back soon."

"Will, yes," Kili said, turning to stare at Bilbo. "He will?"

Bilbo frowned at him a moment, then turned to frown at the window instead. It seemed almost dark outside, though it was still mid-afternoon, and the sky was an odd sort of grey-green.

"I will go and find him," he decided. "I can at least take him an umbrella." He turned to Kili. "If I go out, will you be all right on your own? You will not get lonely?"

"I will not lonely," Kili said. "You will come again soon?"

Bilbo patted his shoulder. "Of course I will," he said. "If you get hungry, there is some food left in the pantry, although I think I will need to send your brother to the market again tomorrow."

And with that, he took two umbrellas from the stand by the door, found the waxed overcoat that he very rarely wore, for it was heavy and rather large on him, and stepped out of the door, wondering how on earth he was going to find one dwarf in the whole of the Shire.

As it turned out, though, he did not have to look far at all for Fili: the young dwarf was seated on the bench up against the hillside, his hair plastered to his head by the rain and his moustache braids dripping onto his lap. Bilbo made a squeak of surprise and hurried over to him, opening his second umbrella as he did so.

"Why, Master Fili!" he said. "What in the world are you doing sitting out here in the rain? You are quite soaked through!"

"Mr. Baggins," Fili said, and smiled weakly at him. When Bilbo got a closer look, he saw that Fili looked rather dreadful: his eyes were red and raw, and his skin seemed sallow, although that might perhaps have been the strange thundery light. Bilbo hesitated for a moment, then sat down beside Fili and held the umbrella over his head.

"Surely you have not been out here all this time?" Bilbo asked. "Why did you not come inside?"

Fili wiped the water out of his eyes with the back of his hand and cleared his throat a little. "No, I was not here," he said. "I was walking, as I said, but I turned back when it started to rain."

Bilbo tutted. "And then when you got here you decided to sit outside in it anyway?" he asked. "I do not believe I shall ever understand dwarves!"

Fili laughed a little at this, though he seemed rather hoarse. "I just wanted-" he said, and then shook his head. "I was certainly going to come inside in a moment. It was only that I felt rather - hot. I was afraid it might be quite stuffy in there."

"Hot?" Bilbo asked in some astonishment, for the air was much cooler than it had been that morning, and surely it must have felt cooler still to Fili, drenched as he was.

Fili gave him a rather despairing look, and Bilbo saw that although he was now sheltered from the rain beneath the umbrella, his face was still wet.

"Ah," he said, feeling both enlightened and rather worried. "I see. Hot."

Fili nodded and turned his face away, and Bilbo felt a great pang in his heart. He considered for a moment simply allowing Fili his comfortable fiction and letting him be. But he had learned a great deal about dwarves in the past year, and one of the things he had learned was that it did not do to let them stew in their own juices for very long.

"But my dear friend," he said, shuffling so that they both could fit under one umbrella and then discarding the second one so that he could lay his free hand on Fili's arm, "there is no shame in a few tears now and then. It is certainly unnecessary to let yourself get half-drowned just so we will not see you."

Fili looked rather pained at this being stated so boldly, but, to Bilbo's relief, he did not try to deny that he was crying. "I know, Mr. Baggins, and you are very kind," he said, though he still kept his face turned half away. "It is only that I do not want to worry Kili. He would not understand."

"No, I am sure he would not," Bilbo said. "He is quite confused already, I must say. But you cannot always be thinking of your brother, my lad. Sometimes you must also think of yourself."

Fili's lips twitched into a small, strange smile at that. "I do not understand, either," he said quietly, and wiped his hand across his eyes again.

Bilbo frowned at him. "What is it that you do not understand?" he asked.

"Why it is that I am weeping," Fili said, his voice cracking on the last word. "And why it is that I cannot seem to stop." And now he turned to look at Bilbo, and Bilbo saw that his strange smile was crooked, and seemed perhaps more like a grimace.

"Oh, my poor dear Fili," Bilbo said, and he put an arm around Fili's shoulders, although he could barely reach. "Things have been rather difficult for you lately, that is all."

"But it is as you say, Mr. Baggins," Fili said. "Everything is so much better than it was. My brother is alive, and he is safe, and I think he understands what he is to me, at least in part. Why, it was not much more than a year ago that I thought him long dead. I have no cause to weep, none at all - in fact, it is quite the opposite." And yet, even as he said this last, his shoulders shook slightly and his breath seemed to catch in his throat.

"Well, I suspect there was a great deal of weeping that you should have done before and did not," Bilbo said. "You dwarves are determined to pretend you are made of stone, but we hobbits know that it is better to let these things out when they first come to you, else you may find them pursuing you for many years to come. But now look here, master dwarf, there is no need to worry about whys and wherefores. If weep you must, then weep you may, and not fear to do so, for you are in the safest place in the world, and no-one will be out in this weather to see you."

Fili swallowed hard, and Bilbo smiled at him and pressed the umbrella into his hand.

"I am going back inside to see to your brother," he said. "I will not come out again for a little while. But mind you keep that umbrella up! I do not want you taking a chill."

Fili glanced up at the umbrella in some wonder, as if he had not even noticed it until this moment and was quite astonished at such a contraption. Bilbo patted him on the arm.

"Dwarves are quite ridiculous creatures, really," he said, and then stood up without waiting for an answer and hurried back through the rain to his front door. He glanced back before passing through, and saw that Fili was hunched over, his free hand covering his eyes and his shoulders shaking. Bilbo hesitated, for his first impulse was naturally to go back and pat the young dwarf a few more times. But of course, he had all but promised Fili he would let him be. And so he did, and slipped back into the cosy hobbit hole, leaving his friend alone in the rain.

Fili came inside perhaps an hour later, and Bilbo smiled and welcomed him and fussed over him a little, finding dry clothes and lighting a fire. Kili said nothing, but kept a careful eye on his brother from his corner. Whether he noticed Fili's bloodshot eyes and flushed cheeks, and whether he understood the significance of these if he did, Bilbo did not know. But certainly none of them spoke of such things, and when Fili was dressed and settled in front of the fire, Bilbo sat down in his armchair and lit his pipe again, and the room sank into a comfortable silence, broken only by the sound of the rain roaring through the trees and clattering on the window panes. As all creatures who have a cosy home know, the sound of rain outside when one is warm and safe inside serves only to make one feel warmer and safer, and so it was a peaceful and pleasant time of exactly the kind that Bilbo had envisioned when he had thought of how it would be spending the winter in the Shire with his friends. Dinner and supper passed away without incident, except that the rain grew even louder, and Bilbo shooed both dwarves off to bed when the supper things were not even cleared away, for Fili was plainly still exhausted, but Bilbo suspected he would not sleep if he was not close to his brother.

After he had finished setting the house in order, Bilbo sat by the fire for a time, smoking and listening to the rain. It was just as it had been on many, many nights in his life, when he had sat alone after supper with only his thoughts and his books and the gentle sounds of the Shire for company. And yet, so many things had changed in his life since Gandalf had appeared at his gate less than a year and a half before. Where once he would perhaps have been daydreaming about elves and the strange worlds that lay beyond the Brandywine, now he knew more than perhaps he might have wished to about those lands, and about elves, too, and the tenor of his memories was quite different and more distressing than the safe sort of thrill that had accompanied his daydreams of old. And where once he might have felt entirely peaceful, now there was a quiet concern that had been so long settled beneath all his other thoughts that he barely noticed it except at times like these. He wondered if he should ever quite banish it, even should his dwarf friends one day recover themselves enough that there was no cause to worry about them further. Perhaps he would not. And at that thought, he found himself pondering again whether it had been better, to be the hobbit he had been before, with only the ties of kinship and obligation and little to worry about beyond what he would have for breakfast the next day.

But such thoughts were quickly banished, for hobbits as a rule do not like to spend too long in introspection, and prefer instead to simply enjoy what they are given of life without regretting what they cannot have. In this, they differ greatly from dwarves, and that is why they are such a cheerful race on the whole, while dwarves are so frequently sunk in melancholy. Some see this as a lack of wisdom, and perhaps indeed it is, but if wisdom brings with it only sorrow, then hobbits want no part of it, but prefer to be foolish and happy - and perhaps that is the wisest choice of all. At any rate, Bilbo did not brood long upon his thoughts, but instead rose and put out his pipe and made his way to bed.

When Bilbo awoke, it was still dark, and the hobbit hole was quiet but for the muffled sound of rain hissing on the hillside. He was not sure what had awoken him, but he had had quite some experience of being awoken in the middle of the night in recent days, and so he shook off the fog of sleep and climbed out of bed, lighting a lamp and padding to the room where his guests were staying. Fili lay sprawled across the bed, fast asleep, with one arm thrown out towards the wall, the hand wrapped around Kili's ankle, but Kili, in his pillow-filled corner, had his eyes open, and stared at Bilbo as he entered the room. Bilbo paused, regarding him, and was about to ask if he had slept badly when Fili shifted in the bed and coughed sharply. The sound made Bilbo jump, and after a moment he identified it as the noise that had woken him up. It seemed Fili was weary enough that he was able to sleep through it, however, for he half-opened bleary eyes, coughed again, and then sank back into the pillow, his fingers flexing and tightening around his brother's ankle. Bilbo frowned at him a moment and tutted quietly to himself. Certainly he should not have allowed his young friend to sit outside in wet clothes for so long. But it was done now, and he padded over to the bed and laid a gentle hand on Fili's forehead to check for a fever. There was none, and Bilbo felt some relief at this, and smiled at Kili, whose eyes glittered a little in the lamplight.

"Did your brother wake you?" he asked in whisper, patting the little dwarf's arm. He paused, then, for although it was not obvious in the dim light, he could feel fine tremors running through Kili's body. He looked a little closer and saw that sweat was standing out on Kili's forehead, and the glitter of his eyes looked a little brighter than Bilbo would have liked.

"You had a bad dream, did you?" he asked then, and although Kili did not respond, Bilbo was sure from the way his head dropped a little that that must have been the case. After all, there had not been even one night since they arrived in the Shire when Kili had slept without being woken by whatever spectres of his past haunted him in the dark. He supposed he ought to be grateful that this dream, at least, seemed not to have set off any kind of violent reaction in Kili, although of course it would be much better if there were no dreams at all.

"I cannot take you outside, not in this weather," he whispered. "And there would be no stars anyway."

Kili shuddered then, a great shudder which had Bilbo setting his lamp down and leaning forward across the bed, reaching out to stroke Kili's sweat-soaked hair in what he hoped was a soothing manner.

"There, now," he murmured. "There, there. It was only a dream. You are safe now, my lad, you are quite safe."

Fili muttered something in his sleep, and Bilbo stopped speaking, for he did not wish to wake the young dwarf, knowing that he would be quite unlikely to sleep again unless his brother did. He cast around for something for Kili to focus his attention on, since the stars were out of the question, and was about to take down one of the pictures from the wall and give it to him to look at when his gaze lighted on Esmeralda's little doll, lying on the table beside the bed.

"Ah!" he said quietly, and snatched it up, holding it out to Kili. "Now, here is your doll, master dwarf," he said. "She is here to help you when you are sad, just as your friend Esmeralda said."

Kili just stared at him for a moment, but then he reached out a shaking hand and took the doll. At first, he simply clutched it, still staring at Bilbo. Then he slowly turned his head to look down at it in his hand, and stroked its hair with his fingertips.

"That's right, my boy," Bilbo murmured. "There is nothing to be feared."

He watched Kili until it seemed the little dwarf had become quite absorbed in staring at the doll, and then he took a step away from the bed. But Kili's head jerked up immediately, and he stared at Bilbo again with those glittering, unsettling eyes. Bilbo shook his head.

"I am not going anywhere," he said. "I will sit right here, in this chair, do you see? I will sit here until you go back to sleep."

And sit he did, in the old armchair that he had placed in the room because it was rather uncomfortable and therefore unsuitable for any room where anyone might be sitting for long periods of time. It seemed that his dealings with dwarves were always leading to unforeseen consequences, of which this was certainly not the first and would most probably not be the last. He sighed a little and shifted around until most of the lumps were pressing into relatively well-padded parts of his body (although, of course, most of a hobbit's body is normally well-padded), but he found he did not resent the discomfort when he saw how Kili seemed to relax back into his pillows, watching Bilbo for a few more minutes until he was apparently convinced that he would not leave, and then turning his attention back to the doll in his hand. Whether it was Bilbo's presence, or the doll, or simply that he was very tired, Bilbo could not be sure, but in a few minutes more Kili's head had sunk onto his chest, and Bilbo smiled to himself and leaned forward, blowing out the lamp and letting his own head nod on the chair back. He knew he would pay in the morning with aches and pains, but at this moment, he cared little for anything but that both his guests were sleeping, and so he closed his eyes and let himself drift away.

Bilbo awoke early due to the wide variety of uncomfortable objects that were digging into various soft and tender parts of his body. Fili was still asleep, but Kili was awake, and Bilbo got to his feet with a quiet groan and reached over, carefully unclasping Fili's hand from Kili's ankle. Fili made a drowsy noise of protest, and Bilbo patted him between the shoulder-blades.

"Now, do not fret," he murmured. "It is only me, and I am not taking your brother far."

This seemed enough for Fili to sink back into sleep, and Bilbo tugged Kili's arm until he extricated himself from his pillows and blankets and climbed carefully over his brother to follow Bilbo out of the room. Bilbo closed the door as quietly as he could, and then smiled at Kili.

"Well," he said, "it is good to see your brother getting plenty of rest."

It was Bilbo's hope that a good night's sleep would stave off the consequences of his drenching the day before, but when Fili finally appeared in the living room some two hours after the almost imperceptible lightening of the glowering thunderclouds that suggested that sunrise had occurred, it took only one look at his heavy eyelids and flushed cheeks for Bilbo to see that his hope had been in vain. He tutted, and immediately went to the kitchen to set the water to heat for tea.

"Good morning, my brother," Fili said, sounding rather stuffed-up, and then, as Bilbo came back into the room, "good morning, Mr. Baggins. Is it still night-time?"

Bilbo glanced out of the window. The rain was still coming down in sheets, and with the lamps lit inside, it looked even darker out there. "It is almost time for second breakfast, master dwarf," he said. "And you will be having plenty of tea and going back to bed."

"Back to bed?" Fili asked in some surprise. "Whatever for? I have slept quite long enough."

"You are obviously coming down with a cold," Bilbo said, steering Fili into the chair closest to the fire and fussing with it until the embers flared up. "I can't say I'm surprised, given your behaviour yesterday."

Fili looked rather chastened by this. "I assure you, I am quite all right," he said, but the effect of this declaration was somewhat spoiled by the coughing fit that immediately followed it. Bilbo tutted again and went to the linen closet, coming back with a blanket and a large collection of pocket handkerchiefs.

"You will sit there and not move," he ordered, and Fili meekly complied, though he smirked at his brother when he thought Bilbo wasn't looking. Kili just looked confused by all the activity, and watched both Bilbo and his brother carefully, as if trying to understand what lay behind it all. Bilbo shook his head at them both, and went to make the tea.

After second breakfast, Bilbo relented, and allowed Fili to sit up in the living room, provided he stayed near the fire and kept the blanket wrapped around himself. In fact, it seemed that his cold was not terribly bad, and he had no fever or signs of anything more serious developing, for which Bilbo was very grateful. Nonetheless, it did not do to let one's guard down, for the surest way Bilbo knew to exacerbate a cold into something worse was to act as though one was perfectly fine, and so he glared at Fili every time he tried to get out of his chair and pressed as many cups of tea upon him as he could, sweetening them with a decent quantity of honey. Fili, despite his running nose and persistent cough, seemed to be increasingly amused by this behaviour, and Bilbo affected to be annoyed by his flippancy, but was secretly pleased to see him apparently having recovered from his emotional difficulties of the day before.

Of course, Fili's illness was not the only problem that Bilbo faced: the pantry, while still well-stocked in many respects, was becoming alarmingly short on several important staples. It happened to be market day in Hobbiton that day, but the torrential rain made the prospect quite unappealing, and of course Bilbo could not send Fili or Kili to do it for him. And so he watched the weather anxiously for much of the morning, and when the rain began to ease towards midday, he quickly collected his galoshes and wet-weather gear and found his pack with all the other things he had brought back from his adventure and never got around to putting away.

"I am going to the market," he announced. "I hope I will not be washed away!"

"I can do that for you," Fili said quickly, starting to get to his feet, but Bilbo quelled him with a glare.

"You will stay where you are and drink your tea," he said.

Fili groaned. "Mr. Baggins," he said, "I do believe if I drink any more tea I shall start to turn brown."

"Well, better that than dying of pneumonia!" Bilbo said. He did not miss the rather delighted face Fili made at this assertion, but he was quite happy to be made fun of, fussy old hobbit that he was, if it meant that Fili would do as he was asked. "Now, stay here and look after your brother for me."

"Yes, Mr. Baggins," Fili said, sounding like he was trying hard not to laugh, and Bilbo harrumphed a little and then turned his back on the pair of them and stepped out of the door.

It was barely raining any more when Bilbo made his way down the hill towards the market, although the clouds still lowered and threatened overhead, and it was dark enough that it seemed like evening rather than noon. The Water had risen a great deal in the last day, and Bilbo had to hop over a minor torrent in order to get onto the bridge, and when he reached the market, the stalls were hastily being set up, although on a normal day they would have been there since dawn. Bilbo was not the only hobbit who had taken advantage of the break in the weather: it seemed that all of Hobbiton and half of Bywater was milling around in the little market-place, hastily buying everything they needed before the rain started again. Bilbo followed suit, exchanging a few words here and there, until he almost crashed into his cousin Begonia Took, who was rounding a corner with a basket overflowing with carrots and potatoes hooked over one arm.

"Oh! My dear Begonia," he said. "I didn't see you there. Are you quite all right?"

"Bilbo!" Begonia cried. She embraced him quickly, and kissed his cheek, as is the way with hobbits who know each other well, and Bilbo kissed her back, for she was rather a favourite of his, and the mother of little Esmeralda, to boot. "I heard that you were back, though I didn't quite believe it," Begonia said. "You have caused quite a stir, and no mistake!"

Bilbo laughed at this. "It does not take a great deal to cause a stir in Hobbiton, my dear," he said.

"That's as may be," Begonia said, "but Lobelia Sackville-Baggins told me that she was chased out of Bag End by an army of knife-wielding dwarves!"

"Well, that is not at all what happened," Bilbo said. "I requested politely that Lobelia leave my home - she had been squatting, you know, the very nerve of it! - and she did so, though not with particularly good grace, I must say."

"And glad I am that she did," Begonia said. "I should not have liked to see her and Otho move into Bag End all together, and I think that if you had delayed your return a few weeks more, that's exactly what they would have done!" She paused then and frowned. "But there are no dwarves then? Only Holman Greenhand said there were, too, and any number of other respectable folk."

"Oh! There certainly are dwarves," Bilbo said. "Two of them, as it happens, both excellent fellows and very good friends of mine. They are staying with me for the winter."

Begonia looked somewhat surprised by this announcement, as if she had not truly believed it possible that Bilbo could have done something so outlandish as make friends with dwarves. "And - and do they indeed have knives?" she asked, sounding rather faint.

"Well, certainly they do own knives," Bilbo said. "It is quite the necessity outside the Shire, you know, for there are all kinds of creatures abroad that may wish to do harm. But they are no more dangerous than any hobbit, I assure you."

Begonia did not look entirely convinced. "Lobelia told me one held a knife to her neck," she said. "I suppose that was only a tale."

"I - well, Lobelia beat Kili around the head with a ladle when he had done nothing wrong at all," Bilbo said. "It is only natural that his brother should try and protect him."

"I'm sorry," Begonia said, suddenly looking quite alarmed, "what did you say the dwarf's name was?"

"It is Kili," Bilbo said. "They are called Fili and Kili. They are brothers, you know, and it seems dwarf brothers often have rhyming names."

"Well, that is-" Begonia started, looking rather pale. "Oh dear."

"Are you quite all right?" Bilbo asked.

"No," Begonia said, and sat suddenly down on a low wall. "Cousin Bilbo, I must ask you - have you seen my little Esme at Bag End lately?"

"Why yes, we have been seeing rather a lot of her!" Bilbo said. "She has become quite attached to Kili, and he is - well, I think he is rather fond of her." This last he was not entirely sure about, but Kili had allowed Esmeralda to weave daisies into his hair without any apparent serious discomfort, and Bilbo could only conclude from this that he found her presence tolerable.

Begonia made a small squeak, and Bilbo sat down next to her and put an arm around her shoulders.

"But my dear Begonia, what on earth is the matter?" he asked.

It took a moment for Begonia to pull herself together enough to answer, but when she did, it was an answer that Bilbo was not expecting at all.

"I am quite shocked at you, Bilbo Baggins," she said. "Allowing my little daughter to associate with a dwarf of all things!"

Bilbo gaped at her. "And why should she not associate with a dwarf?" he said. "She likes him very much! As well she should, for he is a kind and gentle soul without a cruel bone in his body."

Begonia shook her head. "I thought Mr. Kili was simply another imaginary friend," she said. "You know that Esme is given to flights of fancy - there is more Took in her than Baggins, that is for sure! But if he is real, and a dwarf at that-" Her eyes suddenly grew round, as if she had remembered something horrifying. "Bilbo, you say that this dwarf friend of yours is harmless, and yet not two days ago she came home and told me that he licked her hands! Can this be true?"

"Well," Bilbo said, understanding immediately that it would be hard to explain this in a way that would not upset Begonia further, "he was teaching her an important lesson about what she might do if she were injured in the wilderness."

"Injured in the wilderness!" Begonia cried. "And do you think that such a lesson is suitable for a hobbitling of six, cousin Bilbo? Why, she is determined now to go to places where there is no clean water to drink, of all things! And she is so easily led, I can't help but worry that she will simply run off one day to look for these places. And you tell me that this Mr. Kili's brother did indeed hold a knife to Lobelia's throat? He does not sound to me like a kind and gentle creature in the slightest, I must say."

Bilbo bit back an angry reply - for if he was honest with himself, Kili's peculiar behaviour did sound rather damning when laid out in this way by a worried mother - and took a moment to gather his thoughts. "My dear Begonia," he said, "I understand you are concerned, but I assure you there is no reason for it. Kili is not used to hobbitlings, of course, and he is still learning how to behave around them. But Esmeralda is a delightful child, and they are learning so much from each other, and I do not think he is doing her any harm."

Begonia frowned at him and stood up, brushing off her skirt. "I am sorry, cousin," she said, "but I cannot let her come and visit you again, at least not while your - guests are still with you."

"Oh," Bilbo said, jumping to his feet as well. "Now, please, cousin Begonia, I'm sure we can come to some better arrangement." He racked his brains for an argument that would have a worried hobbit mother allow her child to consort with a strange dwarf, and in the end could only come up with the truth. "I must tell you," he said, "Kili has been very badly hurt, and he is still recovering. Esmeralda has been so very good for him."

Begonia's face softened a little at this, but still she shook her head. "She is my baby," she said. "Of course I hope your Mr. Kili feels better soon, but he is a grown dwarf, after all, and he has his brother to talk to. I'm sure he will not miss the company of a little hobbitling very much at all." She paused a moment, looking a little guilty. "You must understand, she is my little girl."

Bilbo did understand, somewhere deep inside himself, but most of the rest of him was too busy being quite furious on Kili's behalf to pay attention to this. He shook his head stiffly. "Well, I'm afraid I do not understand at all," he said. "But she is your daughter, after all."

"Well," Begonia said, looking rather uncomfortable, "it has been very good to see you, cousin. You must come over for supper some time."

"As long as I leave my guests at home, I suppose?" Bilbo said, and felt a cruel satisfaction in the way Begonia's face fell. "Thank you for the kind invitation, but I'm afraid I must decline."

Begonia gave him a rather pleading look. "Come, now," she said. "Surely it cannot be as important as all that?"

"I'm afraid I rather think it is," Bilbo said, and then he turned away. "Good day, cousin," he called over his shoulder, and hastened away before he said something that he might later regret. For regret there was aplenty already that day, and there was no sense adding to it further.