One of the best features that his father had thoughtfully included when he'd commissioned Bag End to be built was that none of the bedrooms had easterly facing windows. Not that dawn wasn't a lovely time; the glorious hues of the approaching sun coloring the sky and the brilliant rise of it over the hills, casting its warm glow over the Shire.

No, Bilbo had a fine appreciation for the sunrise and on occasion, he did rise early to enjoy its silent approach, smoking his pipe as he listened to the chirping birds, the occasional cockerel crowing in the distance. On occasion, that was, rare occasions.

Aside from those times, Bilbo was more than happy to stay with the traditional response of hobbits to morning; if it was too early for breakfast, it was too early to be awake. Though that opinion had changed for him somewhat recently, ever since he'd taken to living with someone who did not share it.

It began with a feeling, one that reached through the embracing arms of his sleep to drag him close to the surface of waking. A feeling of being watched, and Bilbo could wryly thank his travels with a group of Dwarves for making it impossible for him to sleep through such a thing. He might resist it for a time, struggling to remain in the sweetness of dreamland, but in the end, he would relent and open his eyes.

To find a small face close to his own, large blue eyes staring at him unblinkingly. Bilbo met that stare, raising one sleepy eyebrow and Frodo's solemn expression split into a smile, bright as the dawn that surely had yet to come.

"Good morning, Uncle Bilbo!" Frodo said happily, rising to his knees with a bounce that shook the entire bed and Bilbo could not help but groan aloud. Not that it wasn't a relief and a pleasure to see the young lad so happy; when he'd first come to Bag End, Bilbo had despaired at ever seeing the child smile again, so deep was his grief.

Now, some months later, he was nearly back to the boy Bilbo remembered seeing at various family affairs, equal parts sweet and mischievous, and now, surely hungry as young Hobbits often were.

"Good morning," Bilbo told him and if he seemed grumpy, Frodo did not seem to notice. He beamed at his Uncle, or really, his cousin, though Bilbo had corrected that when Frodo arrived. He could never be the boy's father but an Uncle seemed to him more a comfort than a mere cousin, of which Frodo had in droves. "I suppose you'll be wanting breakfast then?"

"Yes, yes!" Frodo cried, bouncing on the mattress until Bilbo felt as though he were sailing on a rough river, nearly as awful as traveling one in a barrel. He groaned a protest and Frodo stopped instantly, a worried expression crossing his face. "I didn't wake you, did I, Uncle Bilbo?" he asked timidly, and Bilbo silently cursed Lobelia for whatever it was she'd told this boy in the few weeks Frodo had stayed with the Sacksville-Baggins.

Primula would have snatched that hag baldheaded had she returned as a ghost and since that was impossible, Bilbo instead did what he could to reassure his young charge that his presence was no burden and never mind what nonsense he'd been told.

"Of course not," Bilbo told him stoutly, tossing back the covers and hardly pausing at all to regret their loss. "I've been up for ages, waiting for you to come in! "

"You didn't look awake," Frodo said doubtfully, though some of the cheer had returned to his eyes.

"And who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes," Bilbo asked. He opened his own wide, pointing at them. "Never trust your eyes, Frodo, my boy, they'll trip you up."

Frodo giggled, whatever fugue he'd had passing over, and he climbed to his feet, bouncing on his toes impatiently as Bilbo drew on his robe. "If I don't trust my eyes, the furniture will trip me up and then where shall I be?"

Bilbo laughed aloud, following his nephew through the doorway, "Aren't you clever? Very well, then, trust your feet for walking and me on whether or not I was sleeping. Now, let's see what's in the kitchen, shall we? I think perhaps this is a morning for oat cakes and sausages."

The lad's cheer echoed through the room loud enough for Bilbo to wince, though he could not help a smile. Perhaps he rarely got a chance to sleep in but Frodo had filled a loneliness in his heart Bilbo had not even been aware he possessed.

They walked past his study on the way to the kitchen and Bilbo paused, his eyes drawn briefly to a map leaned against a shelf. Carefully framed and preserved, the very last thing he'd burgled while he still possessed the title.

Thorin's map.

It was a relic of his people and Bilbo had certainly had no right to it. Even now it should be in Erebor, conserved for the generations to appreciate and Dwarven scholars should be the ones in ownership of it, not a little Hobbit from the Shire. Bilbo knew all of this and own love of histories made no reasonable excuse for his thievery. And Bilbo had taken it anyway, set it in his study where he might see it in passing and every glance made his heart clench, his fading loneliness flaring back to life.

He would never have believed how much he missed Dwarves, with their mad table manners and ferocious tempers. When he'd chosen to leave Erebor and return to Bag End, his homesickness had been enflamed by other losses; Kili and Fili, their bright smiles forever lost. And Thorin, so terribly wounded in body and heart that he had hardly seemed himself. Bilbo had stayed only long enough to see him recovered, though barely, still pale as he'd been officially crowned King Under the Mountain.

Thorin had stood straight and tall, unbending as the cheers of his people rolled over them all. The King and his heroes and Bilbo had been amongst them.

And Bilbo had left that behind for the comforts and peace of his little Hobbit hole, his adventures at an end, and now, only a few years later, he'd felt that unexpected itch returning, the urge to see mountains again, to walk through the forest of Mirkwood, and Erebor…to see Erebor again.

Bilbo shook his head and his memories aside and instead returned to his own kitchen, his nephew waiting on him eagerly. His adventures would have to be at an end for now, for this one depended on him.

Besides, Frodo tended to be an adventure all his own.

After breakfast and dishes, Bilbo sent Frodo off to enjoy the sunshine and fresh air with the other children, a packet of morning treats tucked into his pocket in case he got the nibbles. It gave Bilbo a chance to dress for his morning appointment and goodness knew he'd best not be late; Mungo Danderfluff was the best tailor in the Shire and he waited on no Hobbit, no matter how rich or interestingly peculiar.

Bilbo put on his second-best waistcoat - soon to be his third-best if Mungo had done well by him and there was no reason to think he hadn't – and gave his feet a quick, thorough brushing before heading out the door. It was certainly an indulgence and the rumor mill would soon be grinding along at how Bilbo had commissioned yet another waistcoat from Mungo and, my, was that a matching cravat, surely it was.

It was a minor irritation. What coin he had was his to spend and Bilbo rather thought he'd prefer a new waistcoat than leaving any gold to any of his distant relations, some of whom already seemed to be greedily examining him, as though he were doddering along in his dotage rather than in the prime of his life and health.

Besides, he hadn't heard anyone complaining about his frivolous ways at his last birthday, when the presents he'd handed out had been generous, indeed.

He took a deep, contented breath as he stepped out the door. The snipping of gardening shears caught his attention and Bilbo saw Hamfast Gamgee tending to the shrubbery, whistling cheerily as he went.

"Good morning!" Bilbo called and Hamfast paused, doffing a large red handkerchief and mopping at his brow with it.

"Good morning, Mister Bilbo, sir," Hamfast returned and he set aside his shears, trotting up the path. He held up his hands in dismay as Bilbo held his own out for a shake. "Oh, no, you'll not want to be dirtying yourself up, you won't, not with my grubby hands. Only, I was wanting to talk to you, if you have a moment, sir."

"Of course," Bilbo said warmly. He'd long since given up on getting Hamfast to call him by name. Any time he suggested it, his gardener had been appalled, claiming stoutly that the garden was Bilbo's, Hamfast only worked in it. It weren't proper, he declared earnestly and Bilbo had let it be.

Now, Hamfast stood before him nervously, shuffling his feet like an oversized child. "Only I'm not one for gossip, you know that, Mister Bilbo."

In all honestly, Bilbo knew no such thing, Hamfast had a quicker tongue than a lake lizard. "Yes, you're a soul of discretion," Bilbo agreed, "But perhaps you've heard a whisper or two you think I need know about?"

Hamfast nodded unhappily, "I have, sir, I have indeed. It's only, there's talk of strange folk about, traveling through the Shire. Folks say they've gotten as far as Frogmorton."

Bilbo frowned. "I don't see as there's anything strange about that. Travelers do pass through from time to time." He let out a chuckle, "Usually on their way to Southfarthing to the Hornblower's farm for a stock of Old Toby."

"Possibly, possibly," Hamfast agreed, though looked to be agreeing for the sake of politeness. "They say there's something odd about these two, though, Mister Bilbo. Some folk think…" And Hamfast's cheeks went pink, though he plowed on determinedly. "Some folks think perhaps it's to do with you, what with your adventuring and all."

"It was one adventure, one!" Bilbo said exasperatedly. "I honestly can't imagine that so little of interest has happened in the Shire these past few years that nothing has replaced my one adventure for a more interesting event."

"Begging your pardon, sir," Hamfast said apologetically, "But I'm thinking no one's like to forget the sight of thirteen Dwarves on ponies leaving Bag End one morning just yet, not till another Hobbit makes it twenty. Not that I'm one for gossip, Mister Baggins, sir," he added hastily, "But you know how tongues get to wagging. And when tongues get to wagging-"

"Visitors come calling," Bilbo finished, wryly. "I suppose I should set out an extra serving of cake at tea today for anyone nosey enough to stop by. Thank you, Hamfast, for the warning. Perhaps you and Samwise might come?" At the wavering hesitation on his gardener's face, Bilbo added, slyly, "Frodo would be quite happy for a chance to share a few treats with friends rather than any snooping busybody who might drop by."

At that, Hamfast puffed up, pink with pleasure, "Why, I don't see why we shouldn't! A spot of tea always make a bright day even better." He glanced up at the sun, squinting, "You'd best be off now, Mister Bilbo, shouldn't be late to your appointment."

Bilbo fumbled out his pocket watch and gasped at the time, "Oh, dear, yes. I'll be home for tea," he called over his shoulder, scurrying down the path. "Good morning!"

An echo of his good morning followed him as he hurried on his way, already despairing at Mungo's temper. The exquisiteness of his work more than made up for it, but my, he could be atrocious!

It seemed quite unfair to Bilbo that Mungo was only seen as eccentric whilst he was seen as odd. He supposed tailoring added some small bit of respectability to his tantrums while there was hardly anything respectable at all about coming back with a horde of Troll gold.

Even now, whenever something odd happened, like strange visitors passing through, he was regarded with great suspicion. This was the price one paid for adventures, though if one was rich enough, the cost wasn't terribly dear.

And now there was Frodo to think of as well. Bilbo made a mental note to bring the lad along with him next time, if Mungo could be made amicable enough for an appointment. He could use new trousers and shirts, growing like a weed he was, and there wasn't a single reason Bilbo could think of that he shouldn't have the finest available.

Let the gossips of Hobbiton put that their pipes and smoke it.

It turned out to be a good plan to put out a few extra cakes at tea, as well as extra biscuits alongside a jar of Missy Turnbottom's peach preserves. Barely had he returned from Mungo's with his exquisitely fine new waistcoat – and only barely singed by the rough side of the tailor's tongue—than a few of his neighbors had dropped by for a visit.

Most Hobbits were polite enough, though curious, and their veiled questions were easily set aside unanswered. Bilbo gave them tea and his attentions and then sent them on their way, only to be disturbed yet again by a knock on the door. Bilbo had quickly grown weary of the unexpected guests, though he had not shirked in his duties as host. He was already regarded as odd; it wouldn't do to be seen as unsociable as well, not with Frodo young as he was.

But even the heartiest of Hobbits would be sick of tea after a dozen servings, as well as roundabout questions and nosey assumptions. Only Gorbadoc Brandybuck, who was quite old enough to care little about respectability himself, had been bold enough to outright ask Bilbo.

The elder hobbit had wobbled in with his stout cane and helped himself to the cakes, gumming them with visible satisfaction and something about that put Bilbo to mind of a group of Dwarves who had once barged in much the same. It sent a pain to ache in Bilbo's gut, though perhaps that was simply too much tea. Homesickness was not the right word, for home he was, there was something else that ached within him when Bilbo thought of Dwarves and Erebor, and passing time had not eased it. A pain that refused to heal.

Gorbadoc hadn't wasted a moment with idle chitchat about the weather or the state of the early tomatoes. He'd slurped his tea, making Bilbo wince, before looking at him over the cup rim with eyes still sharp despite his age. "The gossips in town are speaking of strange visitors."

"Are they," Bilbo asked vaguely, and though his stomach, and bladder, protested vigorously, he took a sip of his own tea.

Gorbadoc nodded shortly, "Aye, they are. Talk of strange folk about. Dwarves, I believe."

Bilbo's stomach lurched again and it had nothing to do with the tea. "I'm afraid I wouldn't know anything about that."

"No?" Gorbadoc wet his finger and ran it over his plate, catching any loose crumbs. "Not one of yours then, Baggins?"

"Oh, I shouldn't think so," Bilbo assured him and held up the tea pot. "Would you care for another cup?"

It had turned out that Gorbadoc did, as well as another biscuit, and the moment he doddered through the door, cane thumping before him, Bilbo had closed the door tightly and thrown the bolt. There was being hospitable and then there was being a doormat, and Bilbo thought he'd had quite enough of guests for a time.

The only teatime company he had appreciated had been Hamfast, who had wiped his feet on the doormat far longer than Bilbo had thought necessary, and Samwise, a fine young lad only a little younger than Frodo. The two of them had become thick as thieves since Frodo had come to Bag End and Bilbo approved. Sam was quiet and shy where Frodo was, well, was not, and the two complimented each other well.

As for Hamfast, talk of early tomatoes was no chitchat for him, and the two of them had enjoyed their gardening conversation while the children drank their milky tea from Bilbo's second-best set with solemn importance. At least this company had no interest in asking him about strange visitors!

Dinnertime saw a cessation in busybodies and soon after Bilbo had bundled a yawning Frodo off to a bath and bed. Lobelia would have been appalled at the state of the lad's feet, Bilbo thought fondly, though he saw no harm in childish play. His clothes would wash and so would the boy.

Tucked into his bed, Frodo had clamored for a story and Bilbo was happy to indulge, relaying his oft-told tale of the monstrous trolls who'd nearly consumed their company that long-ago night. A bit of a bloodthirsty tale for a child, perhaps, but one Frodo delighted to hear time and again.

He was already asleep against his pillows by the time Bilbo got to the part where Gandalf had arrived, his mussed hair still damp from his bath. Bilbo pressed a gentle kiss to the lad's forehead and tucked his blankets close around him before escaping, his mind already on the blank pages in his study that seemed to call for him to write. Telling the tale of the trolls to Frodo gave him an itch to write it down.

A loud knock at the door made him jump and Bilbo heaved an irritated sigh. Visitors, at this time of night? He'd hardly be called unsociable for turning that sort of rudeness away and Bilbo tightened the belt on his robe as he went to do just that.

"I'm terribly sorry, but we're already retiring for the night," he began, yanking open the door. Only to fall silent, mouth agape, as he took in the figure before him. Tall as Bilbo's memory recalled, his head still quite bald, although Bilbo thought he saw a new tattoo or two etched into the skin. Dwalin grimaced down at him with his customary welcome.

"Still at your service, Master Baggins," Dwalin said roughly, "And I'd be in your debt as well if you'd invite me in for dinner."

"Yes…why, yes, of course!" Bilbo stammered, opening the door wide. Dwalin ducked inside, already unbuckling his cloak and Bilbo took it automatically, struggling with both the heavy cloth and the door. He'd nearly had it shut when Dwalin spoke up again.

"Might want to leave it open just yet," he drawled, "He's only seeing to the ponies."

"He—" Bilbo broke off, confused. He peered around the door into the night and saw nothing but the occasional lantern, the landscape speckled with the faint light from windows. Then he heard footsteps, heavy boots that could only be of Dwarvish nature and another tall figure stepped into view, very much as familiar as the first.

"Thorin?" Bilbo asked, his voice shrill with disbelief. It was not possible that Thorin of all Dwarves would be standing at his front stoop and yet it was. He looked quite the same, though his beard was longer, threaded with a single, intricately engraved bead. There was a great deal more silver in his hair, visible even in his traditional braids, and perhaps a few more lines on his face. Still, it was him and he was here. On Bilbo's front stoop.

Thorin smiled and bowed to him, "At your service."

"Ah, no. No, no, I shan't have a king at my service, though I will always be happy to be of yours," Bilbo told him. He still stared, watching and Thorin's smile widened and showed a hint of teeth.

"And may I come in?" he asked politely. "I would hate to think that Dwalin is a more welcomed guest than I."

Behind him, Dwalin snorted loudly and Bilbo realized he was standing there with the door mostly closed, leaning out as he goggled at Thorin. Hurriedly, he stepped back and allowed Thorin inside. "Of course, of course, you're both quite welcome."

"Thank you," Thorin said, gravely, and he drew off his own cloak, hanging it himself on the row of hooks in the foyer. Beneath it, his clothes were simple, nothing like the extravagant robes he'd worn the last time Bilbo had seen him, standing before the throne with his eyes still weary, his face creased with pain. Both Thorin and Dwalin's clothing was travel-stained and Bilbo wondered how long they'd been on the road.

"I…er…were your travels well then?" Bilbo blurted, hastily hanging Dwalin's cloak next to Thorin's.

"Aye, not bad. Only got lost the once this time," Dwalin said gruffly, ignoring Thorin's hiss, "After that, he let me take the lead." Whatever argument seemed to be broiling between the two of them was interrupted by a small, sleepy voice coming from the hallway.

"Uncle Bilbo?" Frodo knuckled at his eyes sleepily, "Is something going on?" As one, they all went still and Bilbo watched as the three of them took in each other in silence.

Slowly, Thorin folded down to one knee, giving Frodo a grave look, "And who might you be, akhûnith?"

Even kneeling, Frodo had to look up to meet Thorin's eyes and he gave the Dwarf a suspicious frown. "I don't know that word."

Dwalin snorted and turned away, and Thorin smiled, "I called you 'young one' in my own tongue, but perhaps I am mistaken. I know little of Hobbits; perhaps you are Bilbo's grandfather, then? If so, I'm honored to meet such a venerable Elder."

Again, Frodo blinked up at him, chewing his lower lip as though trying to decide if he was being mocked. "No, I'm Bilbo's nephew. He takes care of me."

"Indeed," Thorin said gravely. "He does well at taking care of people."

That, it seemed, finally endeared him to the boy and Frodo smiled brightly, then seemed to remember his manners, bowing to Thorin, "Frodo Baggins, at your service!"

Thorin returned it, solemnly, "Thorin Oakenshield, at yours."

"Would you like some tea?" Frodo asked him politely, "There are oat cakes, too, I think, and if not, Uncle Bilbo is a very good cook."

"Aye, that I well recall," Dwalin broke in. "Well then, Master Baggins, are you to feed us dinner or shall we stand gabbling in the foyer for the night."

Bilbo startled, jolting into motion as he quickly gathered the satchels Dwalin had dropped in the middle of the floor, setting them aside as he prattled out, "Of course, of course, come in the both of you. Another dinner is hardly a fuss and Frodo and I both enjoy a late night snack, don't we, my boy?"

"Yes, sir, Uncle Bilbo, sir," Frodo agreed, his large eyes still a trifle wary but less so now that food was an option.

"Thank you," Thorin said to them both. Dwalin only grunted and strode in the direction of the kitchens, and likely the pantry if Bilbo knew him. Already he was calculating in his head its contents; leftover ham, he thought, and plenty of sausages, and the tomatoes were just ripe, that at least was a vegetable Dwalin would eat.

If it were possible, Dwalin's table manners were even worse than Bilbo recalled. He ate with his hands as much as the silverware and when he did deem a fork worthy, he wielded it as though it were a shovel. Naturally, Frodo found this entire exchange to be fascinating, not at all put off by Dwalin's scowling expression.

Thorin's manners were more befitting a King, though he did eat with the marked enthusiasm of one who was either extremely hungry or extremely appreciative of the cook's efforts. Bilbo chose to believe it was both and where his neighbors had tried his patience with their comings and goings, Bilbo was more than pleased to offer his skills to these two.

When they finally pushed their plates aside with a sigh, mugs that Frodo had been helpfully refilling for them in hand, Bilbo's curiosity had reached the boiling point. Just what were these two doing here in the Shire, of all places?

Of course it would be Frodo who beat him to the questions. "Are you Uncle Bilbo's Dwarf friends?" he demanded, his eyes wide and curious.

"I would like to believe so, yes," Thorin replied. He and Bilbo both blinked as Frodo took it upon himself to climb up on the Dwarf's knee. Bold as the lad was, he was not usually taken with strangers. Thorin brushed aside Bilbo's automatic protest, settling Frodo so that the boy might look up at him solemnly.

"And were you really nearly eaten by trolls?" Frodo asked and Thorin pursed his lips, obviously fighting a smile. Dwalin didn't bother, laughing aloud and pounding the table with a fist hard enough that the silverware jumped about.

"Aye, that we did!" Dwalin chortled, "I'd nearly forgotten that!"

"Not our finest moment," Thorin agreed, slanting Bilbo a glance, "Though it was a testament to your Uncle's cleverness. I can see why he might have told you that story."

Frodo nodded eagerly. "He tells me lots of stories! He told me that you traveled through Goblin caves and rode on Eagles and fought a dragon!"

"Yes, yes, and yes," Thorin laughed. He lowered his voice, peering down at Frodo solemnly. "And did he tell you there were spiders as well? And how he helped us escape when we were imprisoned by Elves?"

Frodo nodded so vigorously that his hair bobbed along with his chin. "Yes! Is it true? Did he really fight the spiders and then name his sword Sting for it?"

"Doubting the word of your Elders, boy?" Dwalin growled and Thorin hushed him with a hard glare.

"Oh, it's all true, and more than that, I'm sure," Thorin looked up at Bilbo and his eyes were fond. "He was quite the hero, our burglar."

Weakly, Bilbo smiled in return, ignoring the warm flutter in his belly. Far too much tea today, he supposed. "I don't know if I was all that heroic."

"And now you doubt the word of a King," Dwalin shook his head as though despairing the minds of Hobbits. "I see it is a family trait."

Frodo's eyes went wide as a tea saucer. "Are you a King then?" he asked, hushed.

"Aye, he is," Dwalin said firmly. "So mind yourself, lad."

Frodo nodded again, then promptly seemed to forget, bouncing lightly on Thorin's knee. "Is that a sword?" he pointed at Thorin's back, where Orcrist was still strapped. "Do you have a sword like Uncle Bilbo?"

"I do." Thorin set Frodo on his feet and pulled the sword free. The shimmering hiss of it leaving the sheath struck such memories in Bilbo that he shivered, closing his eyes as he remember carrying the weight of Sting. Thorin held the sword out for Frodo to see, though he cautioned, "Do not touch. Eyes only, akhûnith."

He needn't have bothered with the caution. Frodo tucked both hands behind his back, fingers clenched, as he leaned over the sword and devoured it with his eyes. It was as lovely as in Bilbo's memories, still unmarked, and he longed to join Frodo and simply stare.

Finally, Frodo frowned, looking up at Thorin, "It's not like Uncle Bilbo's sword at all."

Dwalin guffawed, "No, good to know you have your Uncle's sharp eye and can see that the blade of a King does not resemble a pocket knife!"

Bilbo sputtered in dismay and Thorin shook his head with a sigh. "Pay him no mind," he said, casting Dwalin a sad glance. "Travel, I think, has softened his mind."

Dwalin snorted, "Aye, my mind has been like a pudding since we left Erebor and soft beds to venture here."

"Yes, here," Bilbo added, weakly, "Why are you-"

"Your Uncle's sword is not like mine," Thorin said, sheathing Orcrist and drowning out Bilbo's timid question. "Yet, it served him well. It served us all." He knelt again to Frodo, to meet his large eyes. "Never forget, it is not the sword, but the one who wields it."

From Frodo's worshipful expression, this would be a lesson he would certainly never forget.

With swords put away and another round of drinks and dessert set out, the dishes laid in the washbasin, Bilbo finally joined them at the table. His only drink was a small glass of wine, as he'd had enough tea today for a week's worth of teatime and Dwalin could probably finish off the keg in the pantry on his own.

Somewhere between clearing the table and returning, Frodo had clambered up into Thorin's lap again and now the boy was drowsing, one small hand clutching Thorin's shirt front as the Dwarf braced him with an arm around his shoulders.

When Frodo began to burrow into Thorin's chest, his mouth leaving a patch of dampness on the fine fabric, Bilbo finally stood, holding out his arms to take him, "Here, I'll get him back to bed."

Only to have Thorin resisting Bilbo's attempts, gently lifting Frodo's slight form into his arms. His little nephew never stirred, arms curled laxly over his chest. "I have him," Thorin said, low, "Only lead me to his room."

There seemed no reasonable way to protest that a King did not need to be tucking a small Hobbit child into bed, and so Bilbo did as he was asked, tidying the mussed covers and helping Thorin tuck the limp child beneath them. It was Thorin who pulled the blankets up to Frodo's chin, smoothing the coverings and his eyes were oddly soft.

Bilbo swallowed a thickness in his throat and thought it did not take much imagining to realize just who Thorin was remembering. They crept back out silently, Bilbo always padding quietly on Hobbity floors and Thorin simply light on his feet despite his heavy boots.

When they got back to the kitchen, Bilbo noted with quiet bemusement that Dwalin was already halfway done with the cookie jar, crunching through them enthusiastically.

"You keep them in the same place, I see. Good, these," Dwalin mumbled around his mouthful, his beard scattered with crumbs. "Left a few for the boy."

Bilbo eyed the jar and its two lonely occupants, "Kind of you."

Thorin settle back into his chair with a barely masked groan, "He seems a good boy, polite. Curious as well, a good sign of a clever mind. How did he come to stay here with you?" Thorin slanted him a sharp look, "I thought at first he was yours, but he's a little too old for that, unless you left him tucked away somewhere while you were off with us."

Bilbo's wine was a decent vintage, though the taste seemed to sour on his tongue as he thought back on that. "No, not mine, though he's of my blood. I've only had him this past year. His parents were lost some six months before that, terrible business." He raised an eyebrow at Thorin, "You might recall that Hobbits are not much as swimmers?"

Despite the graveness of Bilbo's tale, Thorin's mouth quirked up for a moment, "I do recall something like that, yes."

Bilbo nodded, taking another sip of wine to wet his dry mouth, "His parents were no exception, though they were fond enough of boating. There was an accident of some sort and both were drowned."

"A grave loss for a young boy," Dwalin said gruffly, startling Bilbo. He added nothing more, taking a deep draught from his mug.

"It was," Bilbo agreed softly. "His mother was quite an interesting lass herself. I do still miss her. Frodo stayed with other relatives for a time, but—" Bilbo thinned his lips said nothing at how he'd found the child when he'd gone to visit. Pale and listless, he'd seemed little more than a ghost himself, existing rather than living. The Sacksville-Baggins children took after their mother more than not and Bilbo could not have stood leaving his sweet cousin's child in that household a moment longer. "It took a little convincing and some coins out of my pocket, but eventually I was allowed to take him in."

"You seem to have done well by him," Thorin said, softly, and there it was again, that soft, unsettling fondness in his eyes and Bilbo took a nervous sip of his wine even as a blush crept up his cheeks.

"I've tried," Bilbo admittedly, then cleared his throat pointedly, very certain that these two hadn't traveled all the way to the Shire to talk to him about his orphaned nephew, "And how goes the rebuilding of Erebor? And the others, how do they fare?"

"It goes apace. The dragon kept mainly to the treasure rooms and so most of the city had fallen to neglect, not destruction, and stone endures," Thorin said. "Not a day passes without travelers arriving at our gates; those returning to their long-lost home and those who wish our sanctuary alike."

A low, muttered growl came from Dwalin, as though perhaps he had a thing or two to say about that. He kept his words to himself or else buried them into his mug and Thorin paid him no mind.

"The others, now," Thorin took out his pipe, filling and lighting it while Bilbo waited with impatience, his memories warring with curiosity over how his friends were faring. "They are well, all of them. Bofur and his kin have riches aplenty from their share and yet they've returned to their old professions, delighting the children of Erebor and Laketown alike with their toy making skills."

Bilbo nodded, smiling warmly at his memory of Bofur's easy face and it was not difficult to imagine his delight at gifting children like Frodo with the fruits of his labor. Though he wondered curiously what sort of toys Bifur might create and thought perhaps it better not to ask.

"Ori took on a 'prenticeship with the scholar folk," Dwalin added unexpectedly. "Another bright lad, he is. Dori stays alongside him and coddles him as much as ever." His mouth twisted, "And Nori is still getting into far too many scrapes for a Dwarf of his age; he's lucky to be rich enough to buy himself free of them."

"Gloin called for his wife and son to join him, and they are well. Oin stays with them," Thorin said thoughtfully. "They seem content as they are, I see them but rarely."

"And Balin?" Bilbo asked, a touch worriedly that they had not included him. He had not been young even when they'd begun their quest. "He is well?"

Dwalin let out a contemptuous snort, "My brother has resumed his position as an advisor to the King," he said distastefully. "He is there now, cooing at the elbow of the Steward, no doubt. Couldn't join us, he said, someone with a grain of intelligence needed to remain behind, he said."

"And he was correct," Thorin said mildly, "I trust Dáin to rule well in my absence, but no leader should be without advisors to guide their choices."

That seemed the moment to ask just why they were traveling to begin with; though Bilbo was more than pleased to have them at his table and hearth, he was admittedly curious as to what these two were doing off on their own, far from home and here of all places. Perhaps they had business in the Blue Mountains, though why Thorin could not send an ambassador, Bilbo did not know.

Before he could ask, Dwalin's face split with an enormous yawn, hardly able to be smothered beneath his large hand. Aghast, Bilbo took in the hour and of course they would be exhausted, given how far they'd been traveling.

"Oh, and here I am keeping you up!" Bilbo fussed, leaping from his chair. "You must be ever so tired. Come now, I'll show you to a room—"

"Think we recall where they are," Dwalin broke in around another yawn. "Get yourself to bed, we can find our own."

"At least allow me to pretend to be a host," Bilbo told him, exasperated, "Come along, this way. Sleep as long as you like, breakfast can wait for you both."

"Kipped in front of the fire, last time," Dwalin rumbled out, casting a sly eye at Thorin, "Kings need softer beds, though, I'm sure, delicate things that they are."

The slap at the back of his head was hard enough to echo, and Bilbo winced, cringing away from Thorin's fierce glare even not directed at him, "How is it that traveling with you has led to such disrespect?"

"Once you've pissed with someone long enough, respect falls off to the wayside," Dwalin said easily and Bilbo blushed again. That was, admittedly, a part that was not often mentioned about adventures. Eventually, everyone needed to void their bladder and he'd quickly learned there was not always a nearby tree to hide behind.

"If it wouldn't wake the boy, I'd take a moment to show you just how delicate I am," Thorin warned darkly.

To see Dwalin grin in such a way that could only be described as cheeky would surely give Bilbo nightmares, "Keep your promises," he sang out, stepping into the guest room that Bilbo hastily pointed out. "I prefer your threats and those you can give me on the morrow."

He shut the door behind him firmly, leaving Thorin to glower at the wooden barrier until Bilbo cleared his throat, drawing his attention. Irritation shifted to rueful and Thorin shook his head, sighing out, "And he used to be such a loyal guardian."

"Seems as though he's more like a loyal friend, these days," Bilbo ventured and Thorin's smile deepened.

"Aye, he is at that," Thorin agreed, "It'll be a shame to behead him in the morning. Good night, then." He nodded at Bilbo and took to his own room, seemingly oblivious to Bilbo's aghast face and his silent, fervent hope that Thorin had only been teasing. Surely a decapitation would put all the Shire off breakfast for the next decade.

Well, perhaps a week.

His own bed was calling; his early morning combined with a late night was mixing into a fair case of exhaustion. Still, the blank pages in his study clamored louder, begging for his attention and Bilbo gave in to their plea, padding silently in and setting his candle atop his desk.

Thorin's voice was fresh in his mind as he wrote, forgoing the tale of the trolls for that of Erebor and a Dwarven Prince, his home lost and his people destitute, and his determination that they not remain so. He wrote of strength and loyalty and bitter loss, until the candle burned low and his eyes were aching with sleepiness and only then did Bilbo retire for the night, setting out his pages to dry.

end chapter one