Bilbo was half in a haze as his home was invaded. Fíli and Kíli clung together, both already chattering away at top speed, and Dwalin wandered in uninvited, favouring Bilbo with a familiar nod. There was another heavy footfall at the door, and Bilbo looked up, afraid he would find an unfriendly army, come to take his greatest treasure.

Two dark-haired Dwarves, scarcely shorter than Dwalin to Bilbo's overawed eyes, were staring in. They both had piercing stares and wore their hair half-braided, but one had a short, neat beard and the other had a hairless chin. Siblings, Bilbo thought absently, categorising their features, and looking for Kíli in them. There was no doubt of it.

The shorter of them started forward, her boots heavy on his floor, and Fíli and Kíli stopped spinning in circles and glanced at her, and Kíli disentangled himself from his brother enough to throw himself into her arms – though he dragged Fíli along with him.

She swept both of the little ones up into her arms, rocking back and forth in a frantic, disbelieving movement as she murmured to them in what had to be Khuzdul. Bilbo couldn't understand the words, but her meaning was clear. She had found her lost child.

"Mama!" Kíli said happily, burying his face into her neck and throwing one little arm as far around her as he could reach. His other arm was twined around Fíli, like he would never let go again. "Mama, mama!"

The other Dwarf let out a sigh of relief and leaned heavily against Bilbo's doorframe, like something had been restored that he believed lost. Three grown Dwarves, and two little ones, in a Hobbit-sized hall, were more than a little overwhelming, and Bilbo thought he could be excused a touch of faintness. He turned away from the sight of Kíli's little family, reunited, and looked to Dwalin. The huge Dwarf was watching the goings-on with a small, proud smile, and what looked like tears glittering in his eyes.

"Ah," Bilbo said, and then had to stop and clear his throat a time or three. "Tea?"

He nearly ran to the kitchen, eager to put some distance between himself and what was happening in his hall. They would not stay long, he knew. Dwarves never did. He hoped they would let him say a proper farewell, and then – well, he didn't know what came next. He had tried so hard not to let himself think of that. It took time to brew a proper pot of tea, and Bilbo was certain the Dwarves had too much on their mind to think much of the redness around his eyes when he brought tea and biscuits through to his wooden table.

They had eased themselves apart a wee bit while he was gone, and the Dwarf who was quite clearly Kíli's Uncle Sorin had let himself in properly, closing the door behind him. Not that it mattered; all of Hobbiton would know by now. Bilbo had a sudden wild urge to run to the town and shout for help, and see if his neighbors would fight with him, keep this thing from happening. Instead, he poured little cups of tea, and smiled wanly at the Dwarves.

"Right," Dwalin rumbled, pushing himself to his feet. "Introductions. This is Thorin Oakenshield, son of Thrain, son of Thror – King under the Mountain." Thorin – not Sorin, of course it wasn't Sorin – nodded regally, and Bilbo bobbed a strange sort of bow, and then felt foolish for doing so. "His sister Dís, mother to Fíli and Kíli; and this, of course, is Fíli."

Dís was watching him suspiciously, and Kíli was still clutched tightly in her arms. Bilbo nodded, swallowing hard, and Kíli struggled to get down. As soon as his bare feet hit the floor, he darted over to Bilbo and flung his arms around his waist, grinning up at him with such joy that Bilbo felt his throat go tight.

"Mama comed, Bilbo!" he crowed, dancing in place. "Fee and Mama and Sorin comed!"

"Came, Kíli," he corrected automatically, but the smile he sent back to the little Dwarf was genuine. It didn't matter that his heart was tearing in two. The half that would have to be strong was the part that was genuinely overflowing with happiness for Kíli, whose wishes had just come true. His little boy had never really been his, after all; for a year, he'd been a lost thing, an exile from his own people, and now that was about to be over. Of course he was dancing. "I'm so very pleased to meet them!"

It might have been true, once.

Dís started forward, as if to reclaim her child, but Thorin put a hand on her shoulder, restraining her.

"And this is Bilbo Baggins," Dwalin said, gesturing toward the Hobbit in an almost dismissive manner. "As I told you, he's done well by young Kíli."

"We thank you for your care of my son," Dís said stiffly, giving a formal nod. "It cannot have been an easy matter, caring for such an energetic child in such a place." Bilbo wasn't certain whether that was meant to be a compliment or some sort of insult to his home, but either way, he wasn't entirely pleased. He had the sense that this Dwarf would happily knock him into his own fire if he seemed to pose any threat to her child.

Strangely, that thought made him like her a great deal, and he chuckled a little, suddenly feeling much more at ease. There was a look in her eyes that his heart recognised at once. She loved Kíli, and was terrified that she was losing him to a stranger, and Bilbo's heart went out to her. He gestured for them to sit around his table, and carefully steered Kíli to sit between his mother and his uncle, eager to make it clear that he was placing no claim on the lad. How could he? Kíli had never been his.

"Kíli can certainly be a handful," he told them ruefully, running a hand through his hair at a thousand sudden memories of muddy boots on his good furniture and midnight adventures to the garden. "But he's a good lad. It's been my honour to have him as a guest."

He thought he might choke on the words. A guest, like Kíli had been nothing more? Like he hadn't walked in and taken Bilbo's heart, and woken it up, and set it free? As though he had not been a beloved son? Bilbo turned away to find more biscuits, and tried not to weep.

Dís seemed to relax a bit at his words, and Thorin nodded his thanks as Bilbo pushed a plate across the table to them. Fíli dove on the food without a word, and Bilbo gave a watery smile as Kíli scowled at him.

"Don't rush, Fee! Don't choke!" It was an admonition Bilbo had delivered to Kíli a hundred times, and he recognised the intonation as mirroring his own. Dís ran her hand over Kíli's head, marveling at her child, and raised a surprised eyebrow.

"Who has done your braids, my love?"

"Bilbo!" Kíli chirped, smiling at his mother, and tipping his head back to lean comfortably against her. "I sit still, Mama!"

Dís gave a choked snort of laughter at that, and turned to Bilbo with a new respect in her sharp eyes. "Then Bilbo has done what many a good Dwarf could not, in teaching you patience."

And then the ice was broken, and they could talk together, Hobbit and Dwarves. Bilbo fed them as much as he could without seeming to take note of how hungrily they fell on the food, and he watched Kíli with a sense of some pride. Of all the Dwarves, he was the only one who did not share that hungry look. With a pang, Bilbo realised that he would be going back to the uncertain fortunes that his family shared.

It took more than tea to get Thorin to relax even a little, but Bilbo plied the adults with his sweet brown ales and rich wines, more than a little pleased to have someone to share it with. Eventually, the Dwarf Prince stopped looking quite so hauntedly over each shoulder, and even chuckled as they shooed the children off to play.

"C'mon Fee!" Kíli cried, dragging his brother away by one hand. "See my room, anna worms, anna bow an' arrows!"

"Not outside the garden!" Bilbo called automatically, and Kíli nodded solemnly – an agreement forged after too many panicked searches for an overly curious little Dwarf. The four adults were left to stare after the tiny forms as Kíli led his brother away, chattering the whole time.

"I have never known him to talk so much," Thorin marveled, shaking his head. Bilbo ran a nervous hand through his hair.

"It's partially my fault, I suppose. I'd not had someone to talk to in a long while, and I think I haven't stopped filling his head with words since he showed up."

Thorin stared at him across the table, a challenge in his face. "Is that why you never sent word, or came looking for his family?" Bilbo gaped wordlessly at him, and he pressed on. "Why did you keep him? Hoping for a reward if he should be worth something to someone? Or were you simply lonely enough to keep a child from his family to ease your own misery?"

Bilbo felt like he'd been stabbed in the heart – because the last was closer to the truth than he cared to admit. He had been lonely, though he'd thought he liked his solitude, and it had been the fear of losing Kíli that kept him from sending the letter that was now thick with dust. But he shook his head wildly.

"No! I had no way of knowing! They told me you'd all been killed in an attack by the Big People! I didn't even know where he came from – just appearing out of the storm like that, that first night, and I couldn't leave him out in the cold!"

"You might have sent word to the Blue Mountains," Dís snapped, shoulders tense. "We thought him dead! For a year now, I have mourned my child!"

"You never came looking!" Bilbo shot back. "I told the Shirriffs to send you to me when you came asking for Kíli, and you never came!"

"They set on us at night, in a storm," Thorin said darkly. His eyes were heavy with remembered loss. "We lost many of our people that night through the fear and distrust of Men. Fíli hid himself and his brother, and took them far from the battle."

"So why did I wind up with one little Dwarf on my doorstep, and not two?" Bilbo demanded. His heart was pounding to think of his little Kíli in that danger, even though he knew it was already long past.

"Fíli fell," Dís said, and he could tell by her tone that it had not been a small fall. "He could not go on, so he sent Kíli ahead, and we found him hours later. But when we tried to follow Kíli, his trail seemed to lead directly into a river that had been swollen by the storm." He voice broke and she turned away, letting Thorin comfort her with a strong hand on her shoulder.

"We searched for as long as we could, but we had wounded, and the Men were returning again. We thought him lost." There was a bleakness in his tone that spoke to a vast knowledge of loss, and Bilbo tried to shut it out. He knew what it was to lose everything. He was about to do it again.

"Mahal was watching over him," Dwalin intoned solemnly, and Dís and Thorin muttered a few words in Khuzdul that Bilbo could not begin to understand. "He guided the child here."

"Or perhaps I was simply the only Hobbit hole with lights blazing from the windows!" Bilbo said impatiently. He'd never much liked the idea that his life was controlled by anyone, because if that were true, they would have a great deal to answer for. "Regardless, things have gone as they have gone, and it seems pointless to argue about them. You have him now, and I wish you every happiness!" Tears stung at the back of his eyes, making him sharp and brittle, and he wished them gone at once.

But it seemed he had opened the floodgates in their sometimes taciturn souls, and he could not be rid of them. They ate and drank, and talked at great length – history and war and politics, but also stories of Kíli and Fíli as younger Dwarflings, and tales of their travels. These details Bilbo listened to intently, treasuring them up – one last gift, a last set of memories of Kíli, though they were not his.

They were nomads, these Dwarves, crossing the expanses of peaceful lands again and again as they sought work to keep their children fed. They were familiar with hunger and cold, and violence at the hands of those who were threatened by them – but there was such love in their stories, and such pride and devotion, that Bilbo was somewhat humbled. And after all, he had always known Kíli was too wild and free a creature to be confined in the Shire forever. He was always going to lose him.

Fíli and Kíli came crashing in through the door as night began to fall, covered in dirt and crunched-up bits of fallen leaves, and Bilbo smiled at the sight of them. They made a pretty picture, the little family, and Kíli laughed wider and brighter than Bilbo had thought possible.

He wanted to hate the Dwarves, honestly he did. It would have been easier just to bundle them up into a ball of angry spite and tuck it away in a cold corner of his heart, and let himself forget the warm, bright days of sunshine. But Kíli was a little fountain of light, and his love for them shone out of every word he said, every gesture as he flung himself from one to the other. And if his love included Bilbo as effusively as any of the rest, then that was what Bilbo would choose to cling to. He found he half-loved them all – bright Fíli and strong Dís, and Thorin and Dwalin, whose strength was no greater than his own in the eyes of a little boy.

He fed them dinner that night, and showed them all to rooms in Bag End, and sat in front of the fire and did not sleep, remembering a sleepless night nearly a year since, and the way the shape of his life had changed.

They left the next morning. It was crisp and cold, and the sun shone brightly out of a cloudless sky, but seemed to give no warmth to the earth. Bilbo went around his home and found everything he had given Kíli, and then had to pick through carefully, sending only the most loved items; there was no room for such luxuries on the road. But the little bow and arrows had a place of pride, and Kíli wore his newest pair of leather boots with such enthusiasm than Bilbo feared they wouldn't last long.

He pulled Thorin aside as Dís and the little ones ate breakfast, drawing him into the room that had been his father's study.

"Now, look," Bilbo said awkwardly, fiddling with the edge of a sleeve. "I don't presume to know your business or how you live your life, but I know that when Kíli came to me last year, it had been a long while since he'd had a proper meal."

Thorin went all stiff and dignified, like Bilbo had known he would, and drew himself up tall. "I assure you, Mr. Baggins, I am quite capable of looking after the needs of my family."

"Oh, just shut up," Bilbo muttered angrily, and shoved a bag of coins into his hand. "Take it. Keep him fed. I don't care what you tell them."

"We have no need of your charity," Thorin snarled, shoving it back at him.

"And I have no need of that!" Bilbo shouted. He let the bag fall to the floor, refusing to take it back. "What good has gold ever done me? Gold won't fill my home, or give me a reason to get out of bed in the mornings! It will never make me happy, or complete, and I don't want anything of it!" His breath caught in a rasping sob, and Bilbo turned away, not willing to see Thorin's expression melt into something pitying. "But he made my days bright, and I cannot think of him being hungry or cold. Take the damn gold."

Thorin paused a long while, and then Bilbo heard the soft clink of coins as the Dwarf scooped up the bag and hid it away. "If more of us valued your ways above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world," he said quietly. Bilbo half turned to look at him, and Thorin inclined his head in a deep bow. "I will see to it."

He didn't ask them to stay longer, or to remain with him through the party the next day. It was a somber moment when they gathered by the door, though Kíli didn't seem to realize it. He was bundled in too many layers, bouncing excitedly on the tips of his toes, and he grabbed Bilbo's hand with his, swinging it back and forth.

"C'mon, Bilbo!" he sang, eyes sparkling. "Going home now!"

Bilbo dropped to his knees, putting his head nearly on a level with Kíli's, and smiled at him sadly. "I know you are, my lad," he said quietly. "But this is my home. I can't go with you."

Kíli tilted his head to one side, dark eyes completely puzzled. "We going," he said carefully, clearly trying to explain the matter so that Bilbo would understand him. "Bilbo comes too!"

Part of Bilbo – the Tookish part, naturally – wanted nothing more than to give in, and swing Kíli up on his shoulders, and just take off with them into the wild, not stopping to do so much as grab a pocket handkerchief. But he was the master of Bag End, and Kíli had his family. There was no room for him. He shook his head sadly.

"I have to stay here, Kíli," he said, swallowing hard as he watched understanding slowly dawn in the little boy's eyes. "But I shall write you letters, if you like, and if you ever come this way again, you must come and visit me."

"No," Kíli said stubbornly. He clung to Bilbo's hand with both of his little ones, and shook his head. "No, no, no. Not good, Bilbo. Come with Kíli!"

It was too much. Tears sprang to Bilbo's eyes, and he shook his head again, vision blurring. From ahead of him, Dís gave a sad sigh, and reached down to lift her son up, pulling his hands gently from Bilbo's. Kíli screamed, high and desperate, and Bilbo could hardly see him through the haze.

"Bilbo! No, Bilbo, please! Mama, Sorin, please!" His voice was a sob, and Bilbo's breath came in ragged gasps, though he struggled to contain himself. Dis started down the path, and Kíli's cries turned into wordless sobs. Fíli ran along at her side, patting Kíli's dangling foot and trying to comfort him, but Kíli just buried his face in his mother's shoulder and wept.

Bilbo found a hand extended in front of his face, and he took it, pulling himself back to his feet. It was Thorin who had helped him, and he clasped Bilbo's hand tightly, nodding with sad understanding. Bilbo snuffled, wiping the tears from his eyes, and tried not to listen to Kíli's wails of sorrow.

"I think you are very young yet," Thorin said quietly. "But you have a kind heart, and you have done us an immeasurable kindness. Name your price and I will repay it, no matter the cost."

"Nothing," Bilbo said immediately. It hurt his throat to speak. "There's nothing you can give me but what I was already given. This year was a gift."

Thorin reached around behind his head and unclasped something – a silver clip which had held some of his hair back, and pressed it into Bilbo's hand. "We travel through these parts often. If you ever have need of my assistance, send word for me, and I will come, or anyone who bears loyalty to me. Show this to any Dwarf, and if their allegiance lies with me, they will aid you in any thing."

Bilbo nodded, and then put out a hand to stop Thorin before he turned away. "If you are ever nearby, come to Bag End. I'll put out tea and biscuits." He paused awkwardly, looking to where Dís and her sons were already shrinking from sight as they walked away down the Hill. "It would do my heart good to know how he fares."

Thorin pressed his hand to his heart in a silent promise, and turned, and was gone. Bilbo slipped back inside his home, now quiet and horribly empty, and let the door fall closed behind him. It was over.

The autumn was cold and slow and sad. Bilbo's Party, after all the preparation, was more of a consolation. His friends and neighbors surrounded him with affection, but there was a dark-haired little bundle of energy missing, and Bilbo drank too much, and woke up with a crashing headache the next morning. It was weeks before his first thoughts were not of Kíli and how he might have passed the night, and months before he stopped watching the road where his heart had vanished away over the curve of the Hill.

But the sun kept shining, uncaring for his misery, and Bilbo found to his surprise that he was not alone. Rosie Cotton came skipping along the path a week after Kíli had gone, letting herself into the garden with an ease that came from long practice.

"I'm sorry, Rosie," Bilbo called from his seat on his bench. His fingers were playing over the edges of a toy that Kíli had left behind. "Kíli's gone away. I'm afraid he won't be here to play with you again."

"I know," Rosie said sadly. She padded over to him, not minding the chill that had settled into the ground, and sat down next to Bilbo, resting her cheek on his arm. "That's why I've come. Mama said you'd be feeling sad too."

Bilbo blinked. He hadn't fully realised that he wouldn't be the only Hobbit in mourning. Hesitantly, he patted Rosie's back, and she gave him a sad little smile.

"Mama says it's easier to be sad if you don't have to do it alone."

"Your mother is a very wise Hobbit," Bilbo told her quietly. And it was easier.

Rosie came most days after that – playing in the garden sometimes, or with the toys Kíli had left, or bringing one of her fluffy balls of kitten along to play. Within a few days, she was joined by Sam Gamgee, who stared up at Bilbo shyly, but left a small handful of flowers on his table.

The sun shone on the snow when it fell to cover the Hill, and it sparkled, coldly beautiful, as Hobbit children from all over Hobbiton came to sled down the Hill. Bilbo made them hot drinks and scolded them when they let their feet grow too cold, and walked them home to their parents as night fell. They thanked him, and smiled at him, and Bilbo felt that his heart was still beating, sluggish though it might be.

Sam Gamgee eventually worked up the courage to ask Bilbo to teach him to read, and that was good, too. He didn't have Kíli's brilliant, devious little mind, but he applied himself, and he read everything Bilbo could get his hands on.

"I want to know about Dwarves," he told Bilbo shyly one day, looking down. "I miss Kíli, and I just want to know more."

"So do I, my lad," Bilbo told him, and he wrote away for what books could be found on Dwarves. It was sparse pickings, but it felt like a connection.

Daisy Cotton looked after him, too. She brought him home-cooked meals and dragged him around to tea when he visited Hobbiton, and she never asked questions when his eyes were red or his handkerchief close to hand. She knew what it was to lose a child. It was Daisy who gave him the kindest gift of all, two months after Kíli had gone. She slipped a wooden frame into his hand and left with a smile, letting Bilbo open the gift in peace.

Kíli looked up at him from the paper, caught in lively lines of ink. His hair was its usual half-braided mess, and his eyes sparkled with wild delight. Bilbo touched the paper with reverent fingers, and knew he still had his heart, because it was a very painful weight in his chest.

In the spring, the sun began to warm the world again, and Bilbo watched with a fond smile as the flowers that Hamfast had planted with Kíli the previous year broke through the earth again, growing green and alive and wholly precious.

The knock at the door took him by surprise, just as he was finishing breakfast one warm morning in Astron, and Bilbo chuckled to himself. It was probably Sam, early for his lesson as usual, and still too shy to burst in on Bilbo despite being told a dozen times that he should let himself in. He swept at the crumbs clinging to his dressing gown as he opened the door, and was promptly knocked to the ground.

"Bilbo!" The voice was so familiar that Bilbo could not draw a breath, could not get his eyes to focus on the tiny, solid form that had knocked him to the ground and was now bouncing a little on his chest. "Bilbo, Bilbo! I back!"

It was Kíli, and Bilbo's arms went around him before conscious thought kicked in. Kíli giggled and squirmed in his arms, and Bilbo sat up properly, trying to figure out what had just happened. From the doorway there was another giggle, and a disapproving sigh. Fíli and Thorin stood in the door, Fíli's hands clapped firmly over his mouth to stifle his amusement, and Thorin looked longsuffering. Bilbo gaped at them stupidly.

"What are you doing here?" he asked, and then hurried on. "Not that I'm not happy to see you, of course! I didn't dream you'd be back this way so soon!"

"We're headed to the Iron Hills," Thorin said, putting a hand on Fíli's back and pushing them both inside. "Dwalin went back a few months ago, and has sent word that there's work there this spring and summer, building new mine workings. We'll do well enough to make it worth the trip."

Kíli squirmed away from Bilbo enough to reach down and tear off his shoes, throwing them happily in either direction, and then grinning at the sight of his bare feet. Thorin sighed and gestured tiredly at him. "We figure we can blame you for this one."

"You don't like your shoes?" Bilbo asked, confused. Kíli shook his head solemnly.

"Hobbit feet!" he insisted, pointing at his toes. "I a Kíli-Hobbit!"

"Notta Hobbit," Fíli told him, with a firmness that told Bilbo they had had this argument before. "You're a Dwarf!"

"Uh-huh," Kíli agreed happily, and patted Bilbo's cheek cheerfully. "Anna Hobbit, too!"

It took a while to convince Kíli to let go of Bilbo long enough to let him stand up properly, and a while longer to find tea and biscuits and everything appropriate to a second breakfast. Bilbo was pleased to see that while the Dwarves ate heartily, there was no desperation in it. He offered Thorin ale, but the dark-haired Dwarf shook his head.

"I cannot stay long, and should not tempt fate."

Bilbo's heart sank, and the arm he had curled around Kíli's shoulders tightened a bit, pulling the lad closer. "Oh. I didn't realise you'd have to leave so quickly."

Thorin looked almost nervous, somehow, and began poking awkwardly at the crumbs left on his plate. "Master Baggins, you have done me a great kindness in the past, and I am loathe to ask another."

"Ask away," Bilbo said, curiosity stirring.

"The road between here and the Iron Hills is a dangerous one, as we well know," Thorin said quietly. "And the Dwarves of the Iron Hills bear no love for us, or for our children. It is not a place for young Dwarves to live in peace."

Bilbo's heart quickened, and he shoved hard at the green shoot of hope that tried to break free. He nodded seriously, and kept his mouth shut.

"My sister has already been called away to help with a difficult political situation, beyond the Blue Mountains," Thorin continued. "If it would not be too great an imposition, might my nephews remain with you while we are occupied in these dangerous places? We will return before the first fall of snow."

Bilbo wanted to shout, to stand up and dance and toss Kíli high above his head and spin him around until they both fell, dizzy, to lie on the ground and watch the ceiling spin above them. Instead, he let a wild grin creep across his face, and felt the shoot of hope blossom into something that threatened to tear him apart with joy.

"Fee too," Kíli told him intently, holding his brother's sleeve tight in one tiny hand, while the other patted Bilbo's arm. "Fee staying too."

"I'm fairly certain there's enough room here for both of you," Bilbo said happily, already thinking about what he would tell Daisy, and how they might make room for one of Rosie's new fuzzy balls of kitten after all, and how very much sunlight joy could be packed into a spring and summer.

And so it was, in the spring of his thirty-fifth year of life, that Bilbo Baggins became temporary guardian to two Dwarf princes, and surrogate uncle to half the children of the Shire. His purse grew lighter, and his heart with it, and the halls of Bag End were filled with mud and living things, and the gossips of the town said that he was filling the children's heads with wild tales of adventure. He took Fíli and Kíli to the Litheday celebrations that year and danced with them both, wild and joyful under the sun.

And so it was that every autumn the Dwarves would come for their children, and force their sun-browned feet into shoes, and bear them away; and every spring, they would bring them back to Bag End, grown taller and leaner, their heads full of new words and skills. And Bilbo waited for them in their absence, and he was not alone.

And that is the end of a song.

This has always been conceived of as a compete AU in my mind, so I don't know what the effects of this would be on canon. Maybe they never go to Erebor at all. I'd like to think they find a happier road than the original story gave them. But this is where my story ends.

Thank you so very, very much for reading, and for sharing this little piece of a world with me.