Today is my Birthday (OK, so it's barely gone midnight, but it still counts.) As a Hobbit at heart, this dictates that I give you all a Present. Sadly, I don't know you personally, so all I have for you is words. I hope they will be accepted in the spirit of love and friendship that they are intended - and if they are unwelcome, there is a Mathom-house for such items!

A few notes. Firstly, this is a sort of fusion/tribute/takeoff of the story of Silas Marner. This is because I find it fun and amusing to do so, and no violence or offense is intended to the primary canons of either work. Secondly, this is not going to be a long, protracted series. God, no. There will be either one or two more parts to this, and I hope not to keep you waiting too long for them!

That said - to the words, and may they bring you enjoyment!

Halimath 22

Bilbo was thirty-three. A momentous occasion, to a Hobbit, marking the transition from the irresponsible tweens to the true beginning of adulthood. He was an adult, and a gentlehobbit, and possessed, if truth be told, of more money and property than he knew what to do with.

He was also sulking.

It wasn't hard to blame him, honestly - at least he didn't think so, but he might be biased. All of his relations, the pitiful handful that there were, had turned up early in the evening for the formality of the occasion - and to receive presents, of course - and now Bilbo was alone in his home. It truly was his now, though the transfer of legal ownership had been a mere formality. He'd had the management of Bag End since he was only twenty-nine, and had surprised the adults by his careful handling of the estate's affairs. The money had only grown under his careful (some might say tight-fisted) management.

For a half a Took, they whispered carefully, he seemed to be doing well.

They didn't dare say such things to his face.

It was raining hard that night, the sound of raindrops hitting the windows providing a fitting backdrop to Bilbo's melancholy. By rights, Bag End should have been a riot of noise and warmth, a party like no other to celebrate the young master's transition to adulthood. Instead he sat, surrounded by the sad remains of party food, and watched the fire slowly die.

The lightning flashed outside his dining room window, and the echoing crash of thunder shook him out of his near-slumber, enough to make him see that the fire had almost burned itself out, embers glowing dark beneath the charred remains of sticks and bits of bark that hadn't been consumed. He shuddered at the thought of going out in the rain, but he had used up all the tinder he had inside. Hamfast kept a neat pile of firewood in a dry nook built into the side of the hill, but he would have to venture out for it. He'd have done it before the party if he'd had the heart.

Bilbo dragged himself from his chair, relinquishing the comfort of his hearth, and wrapped himself in an oversized cloak that was hanging on a peg by the door. He would be able to cover the wood as he brought it in, even if his feet would wind up covered in mud and his face drenched by the downpour. He had to push hard to get the door open; the wind seemed determined to keep it firmly shut. His feet nearly slipped as they hit the path.

The whole of Hobbiton seemed to be sleeping, though it was hardly past nine pm. There were no cosy lights shining in round windows, no fires in the center of the town that would warm a weary traveler or provide easy companionship. Even the Green Dragon had shuttered its windows against the driving rain. It was unseasonably cold, and Bilbo wrapped the cloak around himself a bit more closely.

The lights from Bag End's windows were enough to see by, and he knew the path well enough. He scurried along as best he could in the dark, taking care not to fall, and ducked into the shelter of the wood nook. It smelt of clean pine and sawdust, and Bilbo let himself relax for just a moment, already shaking the cloak off to gather wood under its folds.

The lightning struck again - and something moved on the other side of the wood pile. Bilbo dropped the stick he'd already picked up, jumping back in alarm - which grew into near-panic when the thunder came, and the thing on the other side of the mountain of wood screamed. It was a high, clear cry of pure terror, joined by Bilbo's rather harsher yelp of alarm. Someone was sheltering in his wood pile.

The scream stopped when the thunder died away, only to be replaced by a whimpering sob that went on and on, even as Bilbo tiptoed around, peering cautiously over the wood to see what was making the noise. He could see a tangle of long hair falling over tiny, narrow shoulders, and a small frame curled into a tight ball, pressed back against the wall of the hill. Not a particularly frightening person, then - and he let out a sigh of relief.

"Hello?" he tried cautiously, bobbing his head above the woodpile a few times in quick succession. "Look, can I help you?"

The sob heightened in intensity, but the little ball of person didn't speak a word. Bilbo hummed a desperate, bewildered note in his throat, and then crept around the pile of wood to get a better look at his unexpected intruder. It was too dark to make out details, but from this angle, Bilbo could definitely see that it was a child - a young Hobbit lass, to judge from the length of the hair and the bare feet he could see poking out from the bottom of the child's clothing. He sighed. Shire customs carried the weight of law, for all practical purposes, and there was no getting around the rules about care for a lost child. He would have to take the wee creature into his home for the night, and then find the parents as soon as morning came.

Precisely what he had hoped to do with his Birthday.

He stepped closer, trying not to seem too intimidating. "I'm here to help," he offered, hoping he sounded kind. He hadn't had much practice at that in a while. "You can stop crying now."

The child just wept harder, burrowing tightly into a ball, and Bilbo sighed. He put out a hand to the child's back, feeling the little shoulder flinch away at his touch.

"You can't stay out here," Bilbo tried to reason with the child. "It's raining and whatnot. It's no place for a child. Come in with me and I'll make you some tea, and we'll find your family in the morning."

The sobbing quieted a little at that, and the child's head lifted until one dark eye could be seen peering under the curtain of hair.

"Fee?" it asked, in a high, querulous voice. Bilbo shrugged.

"I won't charge you anything. Come on, then, I'm getting cold."

"Fee?" the child said again, now close to a whine. "Fee!"

So it hadn't been a question about payment after all. Bilbo groaned and shook his head, and decided to take matters into his own hands. He knelt down by the child, reaching out slowly so as not to frighten the little thing. "We'll find your Fee tomorrow," he promised, and scooped the little body up in both arms. It was a startling moment. The child was shockingly light, all fragile bones and frighteningly cold skin, and Bilbo flinched at the feeling. He needed to take this little one out of the storm right away. The child froze, but didn't fight his hold, and he stood up, wrapping the ends of his cloak around the child, and flipping the loose edge over the dark head to protect it from the rain.

He hurried in, not minding the rain on his own head now, but mindful of the burden in his arms as he fought to keep his footing. Another crack of thunder sent tiny, ice-cold fingers up to clutch at the neck of his shirt. Bilbo half kicked the door open, ducking inside and sending it flying back to close again with a careful foot. The little body in his arms was trembling now - with cold or fear, Bilbo didn't know - and he hurried to the comfortable chair in front of the fire that he had abandoned such a short time ago, depositing the child in the chair, still wrapped in his cloak. He stepped back and waited for the little one to untangle the folds of the cloak - but the huddled lump just sat there, unmoving, curled in on itself.

Bilbo poked the fire, stirring it back to life as best he could, and then reached forward carefully to help extricate the wee nuisance from his second-best cloak. He pulled the cloak away, leaving a very small, very dirty child curled up on the chair, watching him with the darkest, widest eyes Bilbo had ever seen. From the colors and style of the clothing, Bilbo made a few quick deductions - namely, that it was a little boy, despite the length of the dark hair, and that it was not a Hobbit child at all. His feet were tiny and oddly narrow, lacking any warm hair at all, and they were bloodied on the bottom - a rare sight to a Hobbit's eyes. Tears had carved clean streaks in the dirt that covered the boy's face.

The boy was watching him, unblinking. Bilbo tried to guess at his age, but found it nearly impossible. If he had been a Hobbit, Bilbo would have said he was about five or six, though somewhat oddly shaped. He reached out with gentle fingers to brush the hair back from the boy's head, revealing the odd, rounded ears that made it clear he was neither Hobbit nor Elf. Man or Dwarf then, and Bilbo wasn't sure how to tell them apart in this young stage. The boy didn't move, hardly breathing, and Bilbo backed away as he realised he was frightening the lad.

"What's your name, lad?" Bilbo asked quietly, sinking down to sit on the floor, which put the boy's head slightly higher than his own. There was no answer, but a miserable hiccup of a sob broke forth. "My name is Bilbo," he offered. "Bilbo Baggins."

The boy turned his head a little, staring with undisguised curiosity at Bilbo's feet, and Bilbo nodded, stretching them out. "I'm a Hobbit - see, you can tell by the feet! What are you?" No answer, but Bilbo pushed on. "You're no elf, that's clear." The open disgust in his fine little features was enough to make Bilbo chuckle, genuinely amused. "Right, sorry! Are you - I don't know the word for young Manlings - are you a child of Men? Or a Dwarf?"

The wide, dark eyes blinked at him for a long moment, and then he whispered, lips barely parting. "Khazad."

"Right, that's - that's Dwarf, then," Bilbo said, casting his mind back to what he knew of Dwarves from his books. Almost nothing. There might be a slight flaw in his choice to read only the writings of the Elves. Did Dwarves - little ones - even speak Westron? He knew the older ones usually did, though with strong accents - but they also spoke their own secret language. He had to hope he was at least being understood. "Why are you alone? Where's your family?"

The dark eyes squinched shut, face screwing up in an expression of pure misery, and the wail of grief and terror started again. Bilbo had asked the wrong question - though the fact that the boy had understood him was something, at least.

It took nearly an hour to calm the boy down. Bilbo offered every type of food and drink he could think of, so desperate to stop that awful weeping that he didn't mind what the lad might take. He wouldn't take so much as a seed cake, though, and the only word he would say was the same plea, over and over - fee, fee, fee. Finally, in despair, Bilbo swept the little boy up into his arms and cradled him, rocking his body back and forth in a soothing motion while he murmured comforting nonsense over and over, until the sobs turned into snuffles, and the little boy fell asleep with his fingers wrapped around the collar of Bilbo's shirt.

He would have to find help in the morning. Someone would have to know how the Dwarves had lost a little boy, or how to talk to him, or at least how to deal with children, generally speaking. Someone would help him - but for tonight he was trapped by tiny fingers and a tear-streaked, filthy face. Bilbo sat down gingerly in his chair before his dying fire, draping a warm woolen blanket over both of them, and let his head fall back, eyes closing in sheer exhaustion. Most definitely not the way he had meant to spend his Birthday.

He woke to discomfort the next morning. The sun was streaming in the window, as if to erase the memory of the storm the night before, and Bilbo glared uselessly at the too-bright rays which hurt his head. His back ached, his arms were half asleep, and he felt as though his neck had been permanently dragged to one side. Blinking sleep from his eyes, he looked down at the little fellow who was the cause of his discomfort.

The child was wide awake, staring up at him with huge dark eyes that made Bilbo feel uncomfortably like he was being judged. In the light of day, he was an even more pathetic figure, all tangled dirty hair and bruises on his fair skin. Bilbo sighed heavily. Usually, at this time of morning, he would have been waking up in his own soft bed, and then wandering to the kitchen to make himself a quiet cup of tea and a bit of breakfast. That obviously was not going to happen.

He offered the child a smile, after a fashion, and rubbed at his tired eyes. "Morning," he tried. The lad blinked at him. Bilbo shook his head, and put out a hand to pick up one of the bloodied little feet, clucking his tongue ruefully. "We'd best get you cleaned up. We can't take you to find your family looking like this."

To his relief, the mention of family didn't set the little one off weeping again, and Bilbo stood slowly, hoisting the child into a comfortable position to be carried. He made his way to the bathroom and set the boy down, leaning over to fill the tub with warm, clean water. His own muscles ached in jealous protest.

It took a near-heroic effort to convince the lad to get into the tub. Bilbo wondered whether Dwarves didn't bathe the same way, or whether it was his own trustworthiness that the little boy questioned, but it took every ounce of patience he had to get the little one cleaned up. He washed the tangled hair as best he could, finding leaves and twigs matted into the mess that looked like they had been there for days.

"How did you get like this, little Dwarf?" Bilbo murmured, scrubbing industriously at the dirt beneath the short nails. "Who lost you?"

"Fee," the boy answered, blinking up at Bilbo. He stopped for a moment. That had almost seemed like a proper answer. He made himself start scrubbing again, though his lower back was protesting the awkward position.

"Is Fee a person?" Bilbo guessed. The boy nodded solemnly, never taking those huge eyes off his face. "Right, then. Fee is the person who lost you. Who are you? What's your name?"

The lad stared at him, little mouth drawn up in a worried pout. Bilbo gave up after a moment, and turned his attention to the strange little feet. The warm water had soaked most of the mud and dried blood off, but Bilbo needed to get them cleaned properly before he could dress the wounds. He reached for a fluffy towel, ready to lift the lad out and look after his feet before the scabs worked their way off, causing more pain.

"Kee," the lad said suddenly, and then ducked backward, letting his long, dark hair fall in wet strings over his face. Bilbo gave a little laugh, trying not to move too suddenly and spook the child.

"That's you, then? Kee?"

He glared up at Bilbo, shaking his head. "Kíli," he repeated - and this time Bilbo heard both syllables.

"Kíli. Very nice to make your acquaintance," Bilbo said formally. Kíli stared up at him, clearly not certain what to make of this, and Bilbo held out the towel. "Shall we see about looking after your feet? I think I could find you a bit of bread and jam to eat while I work."

Kíli's face lit up at the offer of food, and he scrambled to his feet - then gave a sharp cry of pain as the injuries made themselves apparent. Bilbo swept him off his feet, wrapping the towel warmly around him, and carried him out to the kitchen. It was shaping up to be a lovely, warm autumn day, and the sun streaming in through the windows had already made the kitchen lovely and warm. Bilbo was grateful not to have to worry about wood just yet. He sat the boy down on the edge of the sturdy wooden table, slathered a thick piece of bread with fresh apple jam, and handed it to Kíli, who stared at it suspiciously for a long while, and then began to eat like he was starving.

Bilbo cleaned and dressed his feet while Kíli was distracted, grateful that the lad wasn't crying about the process, though he knew it couldn't be comfortable. He wrapped clean strips of linen around Kíli's feet, and then nodded in satisfaction. The lad's clothes were an absolute disaster, though, and Bilbo couldn't see putting them back on the boy now that he was clean and dry. He handed Kíli another chunk of jammy bread, along with an apple and a hunk of cheese, and went off in search of something the boy could wear.

Away in a back bedroom that had once been his own, before his parents passed away, Bilbo found a set of well-worn clothes tucked neatly in a dresser, surrounded by cedar chips. The blue of the tunic was faded now, and the knees of the brown trousers were nearly worn through, but they looked like a close enough fit for Kíli. He ran a finger over the fine weave of the material, remembering days spent in the woods and wading in the little rivers of the Shire, and then he stood up and went back to the kitchen.

"Here," he told Kíli, laying the pile of items down gently. "These were mine, when I was your size. I was very keen on adventuring then, and my mother insisted I have spare things just for that purpose, so I didn't ruin my good clothes."

Kíli frowned down at the pile, then up at Bilbo. "Kíli's now?" he asked suspiciously, and Bilbo chuckled.

"Yes, if you like." It was the cheapest gift he had given in many years, but as Bilbo helped the little boy struggle into the tunic, he suddenly had the thought that it was the first that had meant anything.

Once he was dressed, Kíli gave an exploratory wiggle, then shook his head vigorously, sending drops of water flying around the room. "Make hair," he said imperiously, and Bilbo gaped at him. Kíli raised an eyebrow, and Bilbo found himself scampering away to find comb and brush. To his surprise, the little one sat still as Bilbo combed through the tangles of his hair, carefully working out the twigs and knots. Kíli seemed to relax as he worked, and was soon swinging his little legs over the edge of the table, singing a song whose tune and words were utterly incomprehensible. Bilbo told himself firmly that it was neither charming nor adorable.

He knew Dwarves wore elaborate braids in their hair and beards, but Hobbits did not, and Bilbo hadn't the faintest idea where to begin. When all of Kíli's hair was clean and detangled, he pulled back some of the long strands from the front and secured them behind his head, hoping it would be enough to satisfy his exacting little guest. "There," he announced. One little hand came up to pat at the arrangement, and Kíli looked satisfied. A jam-covered thumb went into his mouth, and he watched Bilbo expectantly.

It took a little while for Bilbo to get himself ready, and to eat a few bites of breakfast, but he eventually stood by the door and beckoned to Kíli. "We're going to go see if we can find your family," he explained. Kíli brightened, hopping down from the table in an easy jump - and then he stood frozen, face crumpling into tearful lines of pain. Bilbo had forgotten his feet. He dropped his walking stick and rushed over, dismayed to see fat tears forming in the little boy's eyes. "I'm sorry," Bilbo murmured, bending down to lift him up. "I had forgotten."

He wound up perching the little dwarf on his shoulders, injured feet hanging safely above the ground as they dangled on Bilbo's chest. Kíli clung to his head, little fingers weaving themselves painfully into his curls, and Bilbo humphed and groaned his way down the Hill. He passed Hamfast Gamgee, hard at work in the garden, and thought about ducking away into a bush to avoid questions about why the newly-made Master of Bag End was playing pony to a little Dwarf. He thought better of it after a moment: the Gamgee family was generally well connected to the rumour mills of Hobbiton.

"Morning, Mr. Bilbo," Hamfast said, sweeping his hat off respectfully. "I see you've got a little visitor!"

"So I have," Bilbo said ruefully. "He appeared in my woodpile last night. Do you have any idea where he might have come from?"

Hamfast scratched his head thoughtfully, honest face wrinkled with the effort of thought.

"Weeeellll," he said slowly, "my old mum was talking a few evenings past about her tea with old Mrs. Proudfoot, and as how Mrs. Proudfoot said she'd heard about Dwarves passing through these parts. Headed for the towns of the Big People, they were, down from the Blue Mountains."

"What would they be doing with children on the road?" Bilbo asked, slightly horrified. Hobbits did not travel much at all, and they certainly didn't hold with taking their children on long journeys.

"The homeless ones haven't got much choice, have they?" Hamfast asked, squinting sympathetically up at the little figure on Bilbo's shoulders – who was beginning to get quite heavy, despite his small size. "They pass through sometimes – whole troops of them, even the little ones. They try not to disturb the grander folk much, though."

Bilbo nodded. He rather took it for granted that, as one of the grander folk, he was spared many uncomfortable things. The passage of uncomfortably loud and often warlike Dwarves was certainly an aspect of life he did not mind avoiding. Which left him with a small, snuffling problem.

"Well, they'll notice they've left one behind, won't they?"

Hamfast glanced up at Kíli nervously, and lowered his voice. "There's word going round this morning that there were fighting on the borders yesterday. Like as not, the Dwarves found themselves in trouble with some of the Big People, and your little fellow was lost in the scuffle."

Bilbo groaned, readjusting Kíli's weight a bit. "I'd best go find the Shirriff, then. Good morning!" He wandered off, Hamfast's cheerful farewell ringing in his ears, and reminded himself that he should pay the man a bit more for his work. As it was the fourth such reminder he'd issued in the last twelvemonth, though, a guilty part of Bilbo's mind told him it was unlikely to be followed through on.

Kíli's fingers tightened in his hair as they approached the more populous part of Hobbiton, and people started to look at them strangely. It wasn't that often that Bilbo made his way down into the village unless he was on a particular errand, and they had certainly never seen him this way before. He raised his chin and ignored the startled glances and hurried, whispered conversations springing up on all sides.

"This is Hobbiton, Kíli," he said instead. "Did you come here before? You and Fee, maybe?"

"No," Kíli said flatly.

"Well, how about other places. Have you been to Hobbit towns before?"

"No." It was the same flat negative. Bilbo was growing a little tired of hearing it.

"But you've seen Hobbits before, yes?"


Bilbo groaned, and gave up on conversation for the time being. He made his way into the center of town, hoping against hope that the Shirriff would be there this morning. He had a way of making his way over to Michel Delving a bit too often for Bilbo's liking, even if he understood that the lad had a young lady there. But luck was with him that morning, as he saw the proud feather waving in the breeze just across the street.

"You there!" Bilbo called, trying to jog over, but finding it nearly impossible without unseating Kíli. "Shirriff!"

"Yes, Mr. Baggins?" Tolman Cotton doffed his cap respectfully, though there was a distance in his expression that Bilbo was well used to. He had not made himself well loved in Hobbiton, preferring the peace and solace of Bag End to the company of strangers.

"I've found this lad wandering on my property," Bilbo said quickly, shrugging his shoulders to make Kíli bounce a bit. "I'm looking for his parents."

"We haven't had any Dwarves through here since Trewsday," Tolman said, smiling sympathetically up at the little boy. "A whole gang of them passed through Michel Delving, headed to Bree. Had little ones with 'em and all, though, so they're likely the ones as lost him."

"He can't have been wandering lost since then!" Bilbo objected, horrified at the idea. "That's five days ago! Surely they'd have come back for him."

"It's more likely they lost him yesterday, in the skirmishing," Tolman said sadly, shaking his head. "Awful thing, it was. They were set on by Big People, not an hour's walk from here."

It seemed almost impossible that a child as small and helpless as Kíli had found his way all that distance alone, but Bilbo pushed that aside. "But they'll come back for him, right? Once they realise they've lost a child? Dwarves do have a sense of kinship."

Tolman shook his head, looking very sorrowful. "I wasn't there, Mr. Baggins, and I can only go on what I was told, but I heard things went very bad indeed for the Dwarves. Don't know as we can count on any of them being left to come for him." He kept his voice at a hush, speaking quietly and respectfully, but Bilbo felt Kíli's little body go stiff. He was understanding at least some of what they were saying. He reached up above his shoulders quickly, transferring Kíli into his arms.

"No," Bilbo said firmly. "They'll come for him. They can't all have been – well, you know."

"I do hope you're right, Mr. Baggins," Tolman agreed. He looked at the little Dwarf sadly. "My Rosie's about his age. It's not to be thought of, a little one growing up alone in the world."

"Well, what do I do with him?" Bilbo asked, making an abortive movement to hand Kíli over. "Will he be looked after by the Shirriffs until his family comes?"

Tolman looked confused. "We're not child minders, Mr. Baggins! We keep the peace, and protect against trespassers."

"One of your wives, then?" Bilbo tried, growing a little desperate. "I'm sure your own lovely wife wouldn't mind watching one more for a day or so, just until the Dwarves come back for him?"

Tolman shook his head, looking more than a little angry, and Bilbo saw they were beginning to draw a crowd. "You can't just put a child off on someone else like that, sir!"

"But I don't know what to do with him!" Bilbo protested. In his arms, Kíli was shaking a little, fingers clutching at his arm with a surprising strength. "I don't know anything about Dwarves – or children, for that matter! I can't possibly look after him!"

"Well, I'm sure we wouldn't want to put you out," Tolman said. His voice was cold now, and he approached, opening his arms to take the child. "We'll find somewhere for him."

Kíli howled in protest, burying his face against Bilbo's chest and sobbing, and Tolman froze in surprise.

"It's all right, Kíli," Bilbo protested, trying to peel him away. "Mr. Cotton will look after you now, until your family comes."

"No!" Kíli howled, clutching even tighter. "Bilbo!" There was a warm sensation creeping down the front of his shirt, which Bilbo belatedly realised was just the warmth of tears. Kíli was weeping now, clutching Bilbo tightly. His arms tightened around the tiny form without his consent, and Bilbo felt a pang in his chest.

Tolman put a gentle hand on the boy's shoulder, prepared to pull him away, and Bilbo shook his head. This was not the way to do it.

"Look, I'll do it," he said quickly, backing up a step. "Maybe it's for the best if he stays with me a day or two, just until they come back."

The crowd that had gathered to look on seemed torn – half giving approving nods or coos, the other half murmuring doubtfully – and Bilbo found he wanted to spite them both at the same time. He readjusted Kíli in his arms, freeing a hand to gently lift the little boy's face. Tears were streaming down two previously-clean cheeks, and Bilbo was instantly sorry for what he had said. "Kíli, it's fine now. You can come with me, you understand? Until your Fee comes back."

It was a more sober duo that climbed back up the hill to Bag End, with Bilbo's shoulders burning and heart burdened with dread. He didn't know how to look after a child. Kíli seemed to have lost his energy, slumping pathetically over Bilbo's head and still sniffling miserably every now and then.

"We'll be fine," Bilbo puffed to himself as they passed Hamfast Gamgee, still hard at work. "It'll be a day or two, and then I'll have my life back. It will be just fine."

But the Shirriff never came with word of Dwarves who had come seeking their lost child.

It took nearly a week for Kíli to start talking in more than one or two words at a time, and after that, Bilbo couldn't get him to shut up. He grew used to the layout of Bag End quickly, and as his feet healed, the sound of footsteps in corners of the house that had been shut up for years became a common occurrence.

Dwarves were a strange lot, Bilbo decided quickly, rejecting the idea that it was unfair to judge an entire race based solely on the behaviour of a single, very young, member. Kíli woke with the sun and never seemed to stop running. He ate with the intense ferocity of a young Hobbit, but Bilbo had never known a Hobbit lad so fond of playing at warfare. Kíli turned every fallen stick into a sword, hacking at imaginary foes, roaring battle cries that Bilbo could not make out.

As Halimath faded into Winterfilth, the leaves dropping sadly from the trees, the reality of the situation began to sink in for Bilbo. It had been nearly a fortnight since the little Dwarf had turned up on his doorstep, and no word had come of anyone who might be looking for him. Bilbo hated to ask, but he needed to know what he could. He sat Kíli down after supper one night, when his energy was happily fading, and bribed him with a huge pastry.

"Kíli," Bilbo started. "Tell me about your family?"

"Fee," Kíli said first – and of course he did, because it was the most used word in his limited vocabulary. Whoever, or whatever, this Fee had been, it was what Kíli looked for morning and night. He cried for Fee every night when Bilbo tucked him into the soft featherbed that had been his own growing up, and wandered the halls of Bag End, calling sadly for Fee, first thing every morning.

"Who is Fee, Kíli?" Two little hands came up to sketch something in the air, and Bilbo patted his fingertips gently, batting them back down. Kíli seemed to have some sort of sign language he used when his limited words were insufficient, but Bilbo didn't have the first idea how to read it. "Use your words! You can do it!"

Kíli's brow wrinkled, making his dark eyebrows all but meet in the middle. He was clearly thinking hard, and Bilbo gave him a moment before offering help. "Is that what you call your father?" Kíli shook his head, face clearing with amusement at the clear absurdity of that idea. "Fine, no. Who is your father, Kíli?"

He thought again, wrinkling up his snub nose in concentration. "Papa sleeping," he said finally, nodding in relief as he found the words.


Kíli gestured vaguely downward, nodding. "Mahal." That told Bilbo precisely nothing, and he pressed on.

"What about your mother?"

The little face lit up at that, looking around like she might have appeared. "Mama?"

"She's not here yet," Bilbo said quickly. "She'll come, though, I'm sure. What was her name, Kíli?"

"Mama," he said certainly. He knew this one! Bilbo dropped his head, rubbing his hands across his face.

"Who takes care of you?"

"Fee!" Kíli said joyfully, clapping his little hands, and then looked pensive. "An' Unca Sorin."

"Sorin?" Bilbo seized on that. It was the closest thing to a name he'd gotten from the lad. "And where did you come from? Was it the Blue Mountains?"

"Eralin," Kíli said, nodding solemnly. He broke off a piece of his pastry and handed it to Bilbo, patting his hand with sticky fingers.

"Ered Luin?" Bilbo asked, wanting to be sure. Kíli nodded again, and stuffed the rest of the pastry in his mouth, making his cheeks bulge comically. Well, that was something. He could send a letter to Ered Luin, at the least, and ask who had lost a little Dwarfling. Maybe this Sorin himself would realise where his lost nephew had gone and come looking for him.

Only, as Bilbo sat in front of the fire eating pastries and trying not to giggle at Kíli's comical faces, he suddenly didn't like the idea. What if the letter went astray, and someone with bad intentions came looking for the child? He had no idea about Dwarf lifestyles and politics, but there were always rumours of those who had foul intentions toward children, who would prey on the weak and parentless. If Sorin lived, surely he would come back on his own to find his kin?

He wrote the letter the next day, and tucked it carefully into a drawer of his writing desk, intending to post it straight away. He never did.

A fortnight turned into two, then stretched further, and Winterfilth passed away quietly, making way for the growing chill of Blotmath. Snow fell in light flurries, barely speckling the ground, and Kíli danced and shouted for glee. Bilbo wasn't sure if he'd never seen snow before, or if he had fond memories of it.

He had to send for the leather craftsman in Hobbiton, who usually earned his living in making belts and pouches of all sorts, for a most unusual purchase for a Hobbit. Poor Mr. Chubb gaped at him in near horror when he asked.

"Shoes, Mr. Bilbo? You're wanting a pair of shoes?"

"Not for myself!" Bilbo said hastily. "For my – well, for Kíli." Kíli galloped into the room at the sound of his name, crashing heavily into Bilbo's leg and nearly knocking him over, and Bilbo picked him up to show Mr. Chubb the little feet. "You see? He hasn't got the natural toughness to the soles, and he's always hurting his feet. Now that it's getting cold, I don't think we can do without."

Mr. Chubb stared at them both in a kind of startled, half-fond wonderment. "We didn't know he was still here, Mr. Bilbo! You've kept him all this while, then?"

"Well, of course!" Bilbo said, affronted. "Did you think I would throw him out in the wild?"

"Oh, no, sir!" he protested. "We just reckoned the Dwarves must've come, or you'd have brought him back to Hobbiton. To be honest, no-one fancied you much of a family man."

"I see," Bilbo said coldly. "Well, I'm not making any claims to it. I'm just asking whether you can make me a pair of shoes for a baby Dwarf."

Chubb bent down to look carefully at the tiny feet, and scratched his head. "I'm sure I can figure the thing out, if you give me some time. If the Big People can manage it, a Hobbit should have no trouble!"

He took careful measurements, as Kíli squealed with delight and kicked his feet wildly, and then took his leave with a careful little bow. Bilbo stared at Kíli absently, running his fingers through the wild, dark hair that was so prone to tangle.

"Kíli, my lad," he said with a quiet grin. "I think it's time we started getting out more!"

It took a week for the shoes to arrive – but Hamfast brought them by one morning, tiny and perfect, and Kíli roared with delight as he was able to run about in the garden despite the chill in the air.

"Shoes, shoes, shoes," he sang, hitting a rock with a very large stick. "Kíli shoes, baruk Khazâd!" Bilbo blinked at him. It was clearly a mangling of some song he had once known, not at all like the gentle Hobbit songs Bilbo had known as a child. This was a song of war, and Kíli sang it with a fierce joy. It was a sudden sharp reminder that despite his clothing, Kíli was not a Hobbit lad.

"Well, Bilbo," he told himself quietly. "If you're to be raising a Dwarf, you'd best do it right." He went back into Bag End, leaving Kíli to play under Hamfast's watchful eye, and started making a list.

Hair was the first thing on the list, and the first thing that Bilbo tackled. He wandered down into Hobbiton the next day, with Kíli hanging happily on one hand, babbling away in a mixture of common Westron words and the phrases that Bilbo didn't know – wasn't even sure whether they were Dwarvish words, or just Kíli-speak. He led Kíli through the market, smiling gently as he stared wide-eyed at sheep that towered above him, and Bilbo kept his eyes peeled.

Finally, he spotted a little Hobbit girl, not much larger than Kíli. Her hair had grown long, and was secured on her head in two complicated braids, tucked neatly about her head and strewn with flowers. She was hanging near her mother's skirts, and Bilbo made his way over, Kíli still clinging to his hand.

"Good morning," he said cheerfully. "I'm wondering if you might help me?"

"Bilbo Baggins!" she said, looking startled. "Why, we haven't seen you down this way in an age! What do you need help with?"

He dropped a hand on Kíli's head, ruffling his disheveled hair slightly. "My fine little fellow here. He's been blessed with a thick head of hair, and I haven't the first clue what to do with it, besides keep it clean. I'm hoping you might be able to teach me how to braid it." He gestured toward the little girl, whose hands flew to her mouth to cover a giggle.

"A boy with braids?" she asked, in between peals of laughter. Kíli scowled at her.

"Hush, Rosie," her mother scolded. "He's not a Hobbit lad. They do things differently in other parts." She looked at Bilbo oddly. "Are you sure, dear? We could always just have it trimmed like a Hobbit lad's, and then it won't trouble you."

"No," Bilbo insisted. "I don't know a great deal about Dwarf culture, but I know that hair is important. Cutting it would be wrong – sort of like cutting him off from his heritage. I'm likely to be all thumbs at this, but I want to do this right." He smiled helplessly at Daisy Cotton.

She reached out gently and coaxed Kíli close, slipping a sweet into his fingers as she started running her hands through his hair. It was quite long for a boy, reaching past his shoulders, and the straight length of it never failed to surprise Bilbo a bit. It seemed unnatural at first – but it had become part of Kíli, in his eyes, and now he was surprised to see that original curiosity reflected in others.

"I'm just a simple Hobbit," she warned Bilbo. "I don't know Dwarvish customs, or what all of their braids mean."

"It's fine," Bilbo said quickly. "Just teach me the basics, and Kíli and I can work on learning together."

It went so much worse than Bilbo had expected. His fingers would not cooperate at all, mixing the separate strands no matter how many times Daisy corrected his finger placements. Kíli sat still for longer than Bilbo could quite believe, but eventually he began to wiggle impatiently, quiet hummed songs turning into grumbles about his empty belly. In the end, Daisy had to take over, carefully finishing the few little braids they'd put in to keep his hair from falling in his face. He looked so different – almost alien, for a few moments, and Bilbo had to remind himself that this was how he was meant to look.

Daisy stood when the job was done, calling Rosie over from where she had slipped off to play with some other Hobbit children. "It's high time for luncheon," she said firmly. "Bilbo, won't you and Kíli join us?"

"Oh, we couldn't," Bilbo started, and Daisy laughed.

"You wouldn't make this poor lad walk all the way back to Bag End before he's had a bite to eat? Come now, Bilbo! I've got three young boys myself, and I know how they eat."

Before he could protest further, Bilbo found himself being marched off to the Cotton's home, Kíli skipping at his side as Rosie showed him some of the silly steps that she and her friends delighted in inventing. Daisy had them sitting around her wooden table, happily eating a hearty meal, before Bilbo quite knew what had happened to him.

Tolman was out on his patrols, but Rosie's older brothers had all shown up for the meal – Jolly and Nick and Nibs, they were introduced, but Bilbo couldn't tell them apart. Kíli sat very close to Bilbo as they ate, but quickly warmed up to the company, and little Rosie sat just next to him, chattering away.

"I've just turned eight," she said, sounding very proud of herself. "I bet you're younger than me. Are you?"

Bilbo frowned a little. He'd never bothered to ask how old Kíli was, though he'd thought him about the equivalent of a four year old. Kíli's speech was so limited, though, that he might be very off in his estimation. He should have asked.

Kíli wrinkled up his forehead in concentration, then put up all his fingers. Rosie giggled.

"You can't be ten, silly. Jolly's ten, and he's half as tall as Mr. Bilbo!"

Kíli scowled at her and said a word that Bilbo didn't recognize, then flashed the same number of fingers again. Bilbo whistled.

"I had heard that Dwarves live longer lives," he murmured to Daisy. "I suppose perhaps they take longer to grow up, as well?"

She was looking at Kíli sadly, as though just now seeing him. "He's no more than a baby, is he? Poor lamb. And where's his mother in all this?"

Bilbo just shook his head. He was beginning to wonder whether he ought to send that letter to Ered Luin just to let them know that their party had been lost here. There didn't seem to be anyone coming back, after all.

Bilbo took Kíli home after luncheon, and spent the evening practicing the braid that Daisy had shown him over and over on one small section of Kíli's hair, while he told the little boy stories. He told him about Bullroarer Took and his battle at Greenfields, fighting the vicious goblin leader Golfimbul, and Kíli roared with delight at the climax of the story.

"Sorin fight goblin," he said after a bit. His words were still coming together piecemeal, and it was a long statement for Kíli. Surprising, too – he didn't often talk about anyone but the ever-present Fee.

"Oh, did he?" Bilbo murmured, struggling as the strands of hair attempted to slip from his fingers again. Kíli nodded, tugging all the hair away at once, and Bilbo sighed and started over. Kíli was tucked up snugly on his lap, head lying against Bilbo's chest as he worked with the long strands of dark hair.

"Azanulbizar," he said certainly, and Bilbo choked a bit.

"You can say Azanulbizar, but not thread?" Bilbo chuckled, tugging teasingly on a chunk of hair. They had had a go-round that morning when Kíli declared he needed 'swed' and Bilbo had spent a good half an hour working out what he meant. "So your Sorin fought at Azanulbizar, did he?" That settled it. Bilbo needed some sort of reference for Dwarven history and customs. He wasn't going to be able to raise a Dwarf without some kind of assistance!

The hair took a while to learn. Bilbo's fingers grew slowly more confident, and Kíli learned to sit patiently as he struggled. In the end, Bilbo could produce neat, tidy braids that he used to contain enough of Kíli's hair to keep it from knotting and tangling dreadfully. Kíli would rather leave it all free, and hated sitting still the whole time.

It became something special with time, though. Bilbo told stories and sang Hobbit songs, and Kíli did his best to describe things he could see, or what Bilbo guessed were stories about his own life and his family. He sang, too – wild songs that set his eyes aflame. The days grew shorter as Foreyule came around, bringing snow in great quantities.

It was a surprise when, one day, a knock came at the door. Usually Hamfast was the only one who came round, keeping Bilbo supplied with food and necessities – but this wasn't his usual confident knock. It was hesitant, low to the ground, and Bilbo paused before opening the door. Rosie Cotton was standing on the doorstep, wrapped up in layers until her rosy cheeks could barely be seen. She grinned up at Bilbo cheerfully.

"I'm here to play with Kíli," she said, hopping inside as soon as the door was open. "Mama said he'd be lonely up here all alone."

Kíli came tearing into the room, drawn by the intrusion, and his face lit up at the company.

And that was the end of their peaceful days of solitude. From that day forward, if Kíli wasn't visited by Rosie and her brothers, or little Sam Gamgee who she often dragged along to play, he was begging Bilbo to take him down to Hobbiton proper to find his friends. They played all manner of Hobbit-children's games, and were usually very patient with Kíli as he tried to work out their patterns. In return, Kíli taught them to fight snowball wars with a ferocity and level of tactical planning that Bilbo had never before seen in such a small child. He learned more words every day, it seemed, and his fingers stopped moving in the strange patterns that Bilbo had never learned to read.

They couldn't walk into Hobbiton without being greeted by a friend, or having someone offer Kíli a biscuit or a meat pie from their shop, seemingly taken by his wide eyes and charming smile. Bilbo preened a bit, and knew he was ridiculous for it – but the strangest thing was that Kíli was not the only one who had found favour in the village. Hobbits who had never exchanged a kind word with him before now greeted him cheerfully, asking questions about his life as though they were old friends.

To be honest, Bilbo had to acknowledge that he had changed as well. With the new addition to his home, the purse-strings he had kept so tightly closed were opened in a rush, and the Hobbits of his hometown were feeling the effects. He bought clothes and toys and special treats for the little Dwarf, delighting in finding something new to make him smile whenever possible. The shopkeepers quickly found that all they had to do to get some of Bilbo Baggins' famed treasure was to make his tiny shadow giggle – and they worked hard at it! But the outcome was more pleasant than Bilbo could have believed possible. He was welcome in every store, and in almost every home.

Not every home, of course. There were those Hobbits – often older and set in their ways – who scowled at him as he walked through the town, and shook their grizzled heads at little Kíli. It wasn't right, they murmured, for a Dwarf to be living among Hobbits. You couldn't trust a Dwarf, and when Baggins woke up murdered in his own bed, they wouldn't be surprised.

Daisy Cotton patted his hand whenever she heard of it, and advised him to pay them no heed. "They're jealous of what they don't understand," she said quietly. "You just mind yourself and that boy of yours, and leave them to their grumbling, you hear?"

His heart may have skipped a beat, to hear Kíli referred to that way, but Bilbo just nodded gratefully and smiled at her. It came so much easier these days.

There was so much more he needed to do, but Bilbo thought much of it could wait until Spring came. He needed to find references on Dwarves, though he supposed Elvish books would be little good. He needed to find someone – an elderly Dwarf of some sort, he supposed – who would be willing to teach Kíli the Khuzdul he would need to be acceptable in his own culture. And if he was having a tiny bow and arrows made for Kíli for a Yule gift, he would be prepared to argue to his grave that they were modeled after Dwarven-made sets rather than Elvish.

Three months from when the child had appeared at his door, Bilbo Baggins was a changed hobbit. The letter for Ered Luin sat gathering dust in his writing desk, and Bilbo was seen in broad daylight, in the streets of Hobbiton, laughing aloud with his strange half-Dwarf, half-Hobbit child as they threw snowballs at one another. It was enough to set the tongues of all the gossips in the Westfarthing wagging, though they did so with a sympathetic delight that was not always found in their talking.

But Hobbits are not the only creatures who can gossip, and word spreads faster than fire. Bilbo thinks, much later, that he should have known that such strange news would make its way to unwelcome ears – but that is much later, when he has had time to reflect, and time to mourn.