Bilbo Baggins was, he had determined, quite possibly the worst parental figure on Earth. Certainly, he was the worst parental figure in Scotland to have wound up caring for three damaged boys, none of whom were technically his own yet.
The first and most pressing issue, naturally, was young Frodo. It had been a full week since Frodo had swept into their lives in a confusing whirl of paperwork and inspections and hurried advice on dealing with traumatic grief in youngsters. When he had agreed to take Frodo in, Bilbo would have to admit that he was really thinking a good deal more about himself, and less about the lad. He didn't know Frodo, aside from a passing familiarity with his tragically deceased parents, and he had honestly had no idea the depth of grief in the little lad - though he should have known, he should have, because how could Frodo possibly be fine? He had seemed very well adjusted at first - a calm, composed lad, very well behaved.
He still was. That was the problem.
In a week of living with Bilbo, Frodo had never once let down his guard at all. He had not relaxed, or spoken except when directly addressed, or touched a single item. Mostly, he sat politely on the sofa staring at the pages of books he did not read, or lay, curled up in a little ball, on the small bed in the bedroom that Bilbo had set up for him. He never complained about Bilbo's sad excuse for home cookery, or how little there was to do in Linlithgow, or even about the long hours he had to spend in the shop while Bilbo worked. He just - endured, perhaps, was the best word. And Bilbo had no idea how to even begin to make anything well again in the little lad's life.
And of course it wasn't just Frodo, because how could a Baggins ever have only one insurmountable problem to overcome? No indeed. He had two others on top, both of whom addressed him as Uncle Bill, and were as close to him as any people had ever been, and who seemed to be spiraling down into the sort of trouble that Bilbo had no idea how to prevent or alleviate.
It was supposed to have been easy, once they were hale and healthy again. Bilbo had invited them to stay with him without a single thought, at least partially because two months of knocking around his quiet, empty flat were enough to drive him half mad. They were meant to have come and stayed with him while they did their social rehabilitation programmes, and finished healing up, and learned to be proper and law-abiding citizens.
That… wasn't really working out.
Well, Kili, at least, did attend his programme, but Bilbo was certain that it was more out of a deep and abiding fear of what Beorn might do to him if he didn't show up. Fili seemed to be missing his at least half the time, from what Bilbo could gather, and judging by how often Gandalf stopped by to loom over Bilbo, looking for his wayward sometime-nephew. When Bilbo asked him about it, he never could get a straight answer. Fili still had the gift of dancing around the truth and winding it into bewildering new configurations that might not exactly be lies, but were certainly not truth any longer - and Kili always, always helped him, even though Bilbo thought he had no better idea of what Fili was up to than he did himself. He had found smartphones more than once that he knew Fili was not supposed to have, and tried to content himself with the fact that the boy had promised not to do any more crime.
The lads were as close as ever, despite spending more time apart - but they were not happy, and Bilbo could see it. Kili seemed to have no peace in him. He swung back and forth from delighted enthusiasm about anything and everything, to black moods so deep that he could not be stirred, and there was no telling which Kili he would see at any given moment. The boy was mourning for his family, that much was clear, but Bilbo had no idea how to help. He seemed likely to twitch out of his own skin. They went to visit as often as they could - but the family had only just been sentenced, and they could spend years like this, with only a few hours a week of contact with the family that were the only thing that Kili wanted in life. He had even seen the lad crying a time or two, when he hadn't thought anyone was around.
And the problem, Bilbo thought bitterly, with the lads' codependency, was that when Kili was unhappy, so was Fili. He watched his brother constantly, with a growing urgency that Bilbo did not much like. There seemed now to be nothing in the world that mattered to Fili but keeping the two of them happy and together, and his rehabilitation was suffering for it.
The real last straw, though, came the night that he woke up at three am for no apparent reason, and found himself dreadfully thirsty. Grumbling uselessly to himself, Bilbo crept out of his room toward the little kitchen, so eager for a glass of water that he almost missed the little conspiracy taking place in his own sitting room.
Fili and Kili were both sitting on the floor by the sofa, heads bent together over a set of hand-drawn plans, all illuminated by the glow of a laptop that Fili definitely was not supposed to have. At Bilbo's startled little cough, their heads came up in unison, and they stared at him with wide, frightened eyes that were far too reminiscent of the times he had seen them in real peril. Part of him wanted to reassure them at once that he was not bothered by their being awake - but the part that sounded more like his own mother was already taking over. He folded his arms as sternly as he could, given the fact that he was in his pyjamas, and pressed his lips together in a line, and waited them out.
"This isn't," Fili said after a minute. "I mean. You shouldn't think-"
"Fili Oakenshield," Bilbo said quietly. "I have taken you into my home, and loved you as though you were my own children. Please don't lie to me now."
Fili looked down at that, clearly ashamed, and Kili's chin came up sharply as the innate reflex to protect his brother kicked in.
"He wouldn't! We wouldn't!" Kili said fast. "Trust us, Uncle Bill!"
"My dear boy," Bilbo said fondly, and took a seat on a chair facing them both. "I thought you might have learned by now that this old grocer is a bit harder to con than your average citizen. I trust you entirely - to be yourselves, that is. And I'm rather afraid of what that entails here."
They looked at one another, exchanging the glances of wordless conversation that still mystified Bilbo, even after several months of close companionship with the lads. Kili caved first, moving into a crouch in front of Bilbo as he proffered their notes. "We can do it!" he whispered, dark eyes alight with excitement. "We've been studying and figuring for weeks now, and it can be done. We can get them all out! Thorin will be trickiest, that's certain, but especially if you help us -"
Fili hissed a sharp negation at him. "We're not involving him, Kili!" Then he shrugged apologetically at Bilbo. "Sorry, Uncle Bill, you know what his sad excuse for a brain is like. I've told him and told him that we're leaving you out of this one. You've already risked enough for us."
Bilbo blinked at them both, with warring sensations of fondness and anger and fear for the lads all churning up within him faster than words. "Oh, my lads," he murmured quietly, and shook his head. "You cannot do this. I'm so sorry for what you're going through, but this isn't the way to make it better." There was an ache in his throat as he looked at them, sitting on his floor in the dark, looking up at him as though he might be able to provide the answers he was looking for. They suddenly struck him as little different from young Frodo, other than in age. All three were adrift, not quite sure where they could set their feet and find solid ground - and Bilbo knew, with a sick twist in his gut, that he was not yet that place of certainty he wished to be for them. "They've agreed to serve their sentences, you know. They'll do their time and come out free men. If you do this now - if you break them out - you'll all be on the run again, possibly for the rest of your lives!"
Kili's jaw clenched at that, and Fili frowned stubbornly. "We lived that way our whole lives!" Kili protested. "We're used to it! It was better that way."
The lad didn't mean to be hurtful. He was frightened of the way their lives had changed so fast, and missing his family dreadfully. It still hurt. Fili nudged him sharply with an elbow, and Kili shut up fast, looking angry but contrite.
"It wasn't better," Fili corrected quietly. "Remember how it was? We were hungry all the time, and scared, and running. Half the time we didn't see any of the family for months at a time, anyway."
"But they were still our family!" Kili turned on him, looking like a wild thing in the darkness of the room, his eyes shining with what might have been tears, had the light made it easier to tell. "We had them, even when they were far away. We could always go home."
"And this isn't home to you," Bilbo said quietly. Kili glanced away, looking wretched and guilty, and Bilbo forced his knees to cooperate as he slid to the floor to sit with the boys, putting out a hand to pat each of them on a forearm. "Don't worry, lads. I won't take offense. I never thought to replace them for you! I'm just sort of a placeholder while they're away."
"It's not you, Uncle Bill, honest," Fili assured him. "You've been amazing! But it's not the same as having the family."
Bilbo patted them both again for good measure, and then sat and thought for a little bit. There simply was no way that they could be allowed to go through with this absurd idea of a prison breakout. It had barely worked the first time, and that was with external assistance and extreme good luck on Bilbo's part. The two hot-headed youngsters would wind up in prison themselves, and any chance the Sons of Durin had to rehabilitate themselves in the public eye would evaporate. But it was clear that their current situation was not working. He cursed himself quietly for a while, berating himself for his own lack of understanding of young people and how to repair their lives for them.
"Family," he said after a while, thinking hard. "Your family has always been a bit unusual, lads. Tell me - when you were small, how did they look after you?"
They exchanged a glance at that, and identical smiles spread slowly across two very different faces. "They did their best," Fili said carefully. "But somehow we always managed to be getting ourselves into scrapes and having to be rescued from the police, or getting ourselves lost halfway across the country from where we were meant to be. Never our fault, of course," he added virtuously. "The adults were just a bit preoccupied at times."
"We were happy," Kili said nostalgically. "I mean, sometimes we didn't have much to eat or wear-"
"Or wore girl's clothes for a year," Fili muttered darkly, and then let out a huff of air as Kili elbowed him cheerfully in the stomach.
"But we were happy," Kili concluded. "They never stopped trying. Birthdays were always important, whenever there was money and not too much heat on us. They used to throw us parties like nothing you've ever seen, Uncle Bill!"
"Oh, I wouldn't be so sure of that," Bilbo said wryly, thinking back on the truly astounding parties he remembered with his very extended family as a youngster. "Birthdays, you say?"
The lads shared a meaningful look, and then grinned. It was all the answer he needed.
"Well, my lads, I may have a bit of a job for you, then," Bilbo told them, leaning forward with hushed solemnity. "I've just discovered that it's Frodo's birthday in just a few days. I'm afraid I have very little idea how to arrange things so that he has a nice one."
That, unfortunately, was all he had time to say. The next thing he knew, Fili and Kili had shoved all of their highly illegal preparations for crime aside and were furiously plotting the birthday party of an eight-year-old orphan.
He got nothing sensible out of either of them for the next day. Every time he spotted them, they had their heads pressed together, talking solemnly, or were making notes or phonecalls with their usual lack of care for the typical ways of doing things. They would conduct two phone conversations at once, barely pausing between words to throw their mobiles to the other, who would pick up the thread of conversation effortlessly. Bilbo tried hard not to listen in on the plans they were making - but his fingers were getting a bit itchy at the thought of how much this whole affair might cost him when he heard words like "bouncy castle" and "fireworks" tossed around, and when the packages started to mount up.
The night before Frodo's birthday, he finally did have to stop them. The mountain of gaily-wrapped presents had reached an alarming height for one very little boy.
"Fili, Kili," he began hesitantly. "I know I asked for your help in this, and I ought to leave it up to you, but-" Bilbo sighed. "Where have you been getting all of this? You know we can't keep up the stealing and whatnot."
They looked genuinely hurt at that - none of the artifice they were so good at displaying. Kili blinked at him, wide-eyed and solemn, and Fili looked offended. "We wouldn't, Uncle Bill! Steal presents for Frodo? That would almost be worse than none at all!"
Bilbo blinked at him for a minute, then shook his head. "Has anyone ever told you lads that you've got a rather warped set of priorities?"
"All the time!" Kili said lightly, seeming to shrug off the sting with ease. "But we bought all of these, Uncle Bill - properly! With our own money! Proper, legal money that we earned!" They looked suitably awed at that, and Bilbo felt a little gleam of hope begin to grow in his heart. Perhaps they weren't lost causes after all. "It matters," Kili said firmly, and that was that.
"There was a lot we didn't have as kids," Fili said later, when they had almost finished decorating the flat. It looked like a party supply store had been violently ill all over the inside of Bilbo's tidy home. "Decent haircuts and homes in one place and regular baths."
"A mum," Kili muttered, and then squeezed his brother's shoulder tight. He brightened, then, though it looked like it took real effort. "But that doesn't mean we were missing much. Frodo won't either."
"Lads," Bilbo said slowly. He was beginning to recognise their manic determination. "You're adopting Frodo, aren't you?"
"Well, naturally!" Fili said, laughing. "If he'll have us, of course. I'm an excellent older brother. Very good at raising kids."
"That's all you know." Kili ducked away when Fili would have grabbed his hair, and grinned over his shoulder at his brother. "But we are good at adopting people, and Frodo needs adopting."
"I'm doing that legally, you know," Bilbo felt obligated to point out. They both laughed at him, and he had to shake his head in weary understanding. Legality would always take something of a back seat to their other concerns, even if they lived to be a hundred, he thought.
The party itself was a smashing success. Somehow, Kili had managed to find and invite every decent child from Frodo's new school - and even convince the parents to let their tender young offspring attend a party at Mad Baggins' house, which was an accomplishment to rival any of his acts of fraud, back in his old life. Fili played the gracious host, welcoming everyone and making them feel at home with an ease that took Bilbo by surprise. Fili caught him staring at one point and winked cheekily at him, and then Bilbo could relax, and not feel like his young ruffian had been replaced by an alien.
Frodo looked, at first, like he was about to fall over in shock. He said nothing to any of them for the first while, and then he found Bilbo in a quiet corner of the kitchen and tugged at his jacket.
"Um, Uncle Bilbo?" he asked uncertainly. "Is this really for me?"
"Of course it is, Frodo!" Bilbo said cheerfully. "We weren't about to let you miss your birthday!"
"But," Frodo said, staring up at him with the biggest blue eyes Bilbo thought he had ever seen, "birthday parties are something parents do!"
"Sometimes," Kili said soberly. He had appeared from thin air at some point, and now hopped up on the counter, his long legs dangling down and looking slightly ridiculous. "But sometimes kids haven't got parents - not properly. We didn't either, you know." He jerked his head sideways to indicate Fili as well, and Frodo stared up at both of them with his mouth open.
"You didn't?" Frodo turned to Bilbo to confirm this amazing news. "They really didn't?"
"No, they didn't," Bilbo said sadly. Fili came in closer, and Bilbo ruffled his hair absent-mindedly. "But they still had a family - just as you do, Frodo. For as long as you'll have us, we'll look after you and organise parties and whatnot."
"You promise?" Frodo's question was almost inaudible, and Fili and Kili shared a quick look, and then both dropped to one knee in front of him, as if pledging fealty.
"I promise," Fili said brightly, "to help you research all your essays, and to carry you on my shoulders if you're about to be buried in snow, and to tickle you until you scream whenever I see fit."
"Believe him," Kili said earnestly. "He'll do it, too." Fili swatted him on the back of the head, and Kili smacked him back. "Well, Frodo, I'm not sure I'll be quite as good at this older brothering thing - but I did learn from the best. I promise to teach you all the best tricks for getting people to give you things for free, and to help you sneak around Uncle Bill when it's really necessary, and to-" he hesitated for a minute. "To learn how to be a part of this family." .
Frodo stared at both of them, all amazement, and Bilbo smiled gently down at them - all three of them, learning how to find solid ground beneath their feet. Frodo's face twitched a little, and Bilbo understood. He was trying to smile, and trying not to, all at the same time.
"Frodo, my lad," he said, with as much warmth as he could muster. "We do understand. What you have lost is beyond words, and you can be sad about it for as long as you like. Part of you will be sad for the rest of your life, I think." Fili and Kili both nodded at that, and Bilbo had to suppress the urge to pat them all again. "But it's also fine to be happy, when you're ready again. It might happen slowly, or all at once. Perhaps some days will be very hard, and then the very next will be brilliant again. But I knew your parents, my boy, and I know they would want you to be happy - even if you're still sad at the same time."
Frodo looked up at him for a long while, and then, like a star peeping out from under cloud cover for a brief and shining moment - he smiled.
It wasn't the end of his sorrow, and Bilbo knew it well. It wasn't the end of Kili's miserable longing for his own family, either, or of Fili's obsessive watch over his brother. But it was what they had needed, all of them, to begin to move forward.
It was hope.
I needed this one, for many reasons. I've meant to write it for a long time, but apparently the correct time was after having my heart destroyed by the third film. These characters, in this world, are so unreasonably important to me, and it's been my true honour to share it with you. I only have a few more to go in this particular series. Thank you guys so much for all the support!