Since his parents died, Bilbo Baggins had been a rather solitary hobbit. It was not that he had no other family - hobbits, of course, are almost all related to each other in some way, though often quite distantly, and he had many cousins all over the Shire, Bagginses of course but also Tooks and Brandybucks, to name just two branches of his sprawling family. But Bilbo, unusually for a hobbit, had no brothers or sisters, and although he had never really felt the lack, it had nonetheless left him rather alone in his large, comfortable hobbit hole for many years until the day he opened his door to find Dwalin standing on his doorstep.
It was not that he had not enjoyed this solitude, either. Bilbo was a friendly little hobbit, as almost all hobbits are, and he certainly enjoyed good company (especially when accompanied by good food), but he had grown rather accustomed to his quiet life over the years, and had been privately of the opinion that the hobbit holes of most of his relatives, overflowing with children and cousins as they were, were rather something to be pitied than envied. Indeed, if you had told him in those days that he would one day be content - even happy - to be followed around all day and sometimes all night by a strange little dwarf who could barely even speak his language and had been known to make unsettling remarks about eating people, he would have laughed in your face.
And even so, in the weeks following the arrival of Dis at Erebor, Bilbo found himself facing a rather unfamiliar feeling. He was lonely.
It was not that he did not spend time with Kili any more - they still had some lessons together, though not as many as before. But their more casual talks and the hours Bilbo had been used to spend teaching Kili Common had been severely curtailed, for Dis spent many hours every day wandering the byways of Erebor with her son. Bilbo certainly did not begrudge her that time - she was his mother, after all, and she had lost him for so many years - and what was more, she had graciously invited him to join them whenever he cared to. But he felt that he would have been intruding on something private, and so he sent his apologies, and thus he found himself alone more often than not, or, if not alone, then not with Kili. There had been times over the past few months when Bilbo would have dearly loved to have a little more time for himself, but now that he had that luxury, he found that he no longer wanted it.
But it was not merely unaccustomed loneliness that troubled Bilbo at this time, for when he did see Kili, the little dwarf seemed even quieter than usual. At first, Bilbo hoped that he was merely thinking deeply about the things he was learning from his mother, but as the cold heart of winter passed and the days began to slowly lengthen, he seemed to be more subdued every time Bilbo saw him, until on some days Bilbo was lucky to coax a word out of him at all.
So it was to his great astonishment - but also to his genuine pleasure - that Bilbo found Kili outside the secret door one day in late February, frowning down at a slate that was covered in dwarvish letters with a look of great frustration on his face. There was no-one else there, and Bilbo sat down next to Kili and offered him a blanket, for it seemed he had not thought to bring any out with him.
"Hello there, Kili," he said. "I did not expect to see you here! What brings you out into the cold?"
Kili looked up at him, and then nodded upwards.
"Sky," he said. "Not see sky five days."
"Oh," Bilbo said. He frowned now at Kili, for the poor little dwarf looked pale and rather thin, and there were dark smudges under his eyes as if he had not slept properly for some days. "Are you all right, my lad?" he asked.
Kili made a growling noise and flung down the chalk he was clutching. "I not understand," he said. "Why I not can understand writing?"
Bilbo peered at the slate. There were rows of neat words in Balin's careful hand, and underneath, Kili had tried to copy them, but it seemed he could not distinguish one letter from another, for he had made only a series of vertical marks with horizontal bars distributed among them apparently at random.
"I don't know," Bilbo finally admitted, for it was clear to him after months of watching Kili struggle that the problem was not merely one of lack of practice. "Perhaps it is something to do with what the orcs did to you?"
Kili's hand went to his neck. "Yes, orcs," he muttered. "Kili knew how write. Orcs break my head, not can be real dwarf."
"Now, that is just ridiculous, my lad," Bilbo said firmly. "Being a real dwarf has nothing to do with being able to write. Do you have the ears or do you not?"
Kili scowled at him a moment, then reached up to touch the tips of his ears. He looked away from Bilbo, frowning down at the slate.
"Hobbit," he said, "what is mad mean?"
Bilbo felt a twinge of unease at this question, but he endeavoured to answer it nonetheless. "It is - it is when someone's head is not right," he said. "Like your uncle just before we left the mountain."
Kili nodded at this, as if something had become clear to him. "Yes," he said. "Mad."
"But Kili, where did you hear this word?" Bilbo asked. "It is not a polite one to use, and I hope you will remember that."
"Men come from lake," Kili said. "Call me mad prince."
"What?" Bilbo said, and he was suddenly absolutely furious. "They called you that to your face?"
"No, not face," Kili said. "I hear." He shrugged. "Hear many things." He pointed at his ears. "Dwarf ears," he said.
"Well, that was a cruel and ignorant thing for them to say," Bilbo said heatedly. "And if I find out who they were I will - I will box their ears, you see if I don't!"
Kili was frowning at him now. "Why hobbit angry?" he said.
"Because those men should never have said such a thing!" Bilbo cried. "It was very wrong of them!"
Kili shook his head, now, looking quite confused. "Men not wrong," he said. "Mad is head is not right, yes? Men not wrong."
Bilbo scowled at Kili, and then tried very hard to rearrange his expression a little, for after all, it was not the little dwarf he was angry with. "You are not mad, Kili," he said firmly. "Your head is perfectly all right."
Kili stared at him in silence, and Bilbo patted his arm and tried to smile. But then it was Kili's turn to look furious.
"Hobbit not understand," he said. "Not can sleep. Dreams bad, all bad, see kulshodaru, see bad things. Scared, always scared." He shook his head, voice rising now. "Go away sometimes, not know why, cry and not can stop. Not can write, not understand marks. Why not understand marks if head is right?" And here he raised his slate and thrust it at Bilbo, jabbing a finger at the malformed letters, and then flung it down so hard that it cracked in two. He flinched violently at the sound and wrapped his arms around himself, hunching his shoulders and dropping his head so that his hair covered his face.
Bilbo was quite taken aback by this outburst, and he felt a wrench of pity, along with worry and guilt. "Oh," he said, stroking Kili's arm. "Oh, my poor dear lad. I am so sorry. I am so sorry that this is all so difficult for you."
Kili didn't respond to this, and Bilbo put a gentle hand under his chin and lifted it so he could look him in the eye.
"Those men were stupid and did not know what they were talking about," he said firmly. "You are not mad."
Kili looked away. "I not - I not -" He blew out a breath in frustration. "What is word not mad?"
"Sane," said Bilbo, and Kili nodded.
"I not sane," he said miserably.
"Well," Bilbo said, "I hardly think you are any less sane than any of your friends. What about your brother, who went running out into the wildlands on his own to see if he could find a pack of orcs to kill? Or your uncle, who thought it was a good idea to take on a dragon with only twelve dwarves and a hobbit burglar who had never burgled anything in his life before? Or the hobbit who followed that very uncle right into the dragon's den?" He smiled and patted Kili's arm. "You may be the sanest one of us all, my lad."
Kili did not look very convinced by this, but he uncurled himself a little and leaned back against the cliff, tipping his head back to look at the sky. Bilbo watched him, feeling really quite worried, but Kili did not seem to be interested in continuing their conversation. Instead, as so often, he changed the subject.
"Hobbit," he said, "why we stay in mountain two hundred years?"
"The mountain is your home," Bilbo said.
"I know, I know, mountain home," Kili said, but then he shook his head. "Not understand home."
"Oh dear," Bilbo said. "Well, it is-" But although he could think of any number of definitions of home, none of these applied to what Erebor was for Kili. Finally, he sighed. "It is where you live," he said, although this he knew was not really a good explanation at all. "Was there not a place you used to always go back to with the orcs?"
Kili thought about this. "No," he said. "Orcs always move. Go to mountain, go to forest, go to - big lake, not can drink water."
"The sea," Bilbo said. "You have been to the sea?" He had never seen a body of water larger than the Long Lake himself, but he had heard that the sea was a sight indeed.
"Yes, sea," Kili said. "Move, move, move, always move."
"Well, but do you not want to stay still now, Kili?" Bilbo asked. "You don't have to move any more. You can stay still in your home and rest."
Kili grimaced. "Hobbit want stay in mountain two hundred years?" he asked.
"Oh," Bilbo said, "but the mountain is not my home, master dwarf!"
Kili frowned. "Hobbit say mountain home," he said. "Say always, mountain home."
"It is your home," Bilbo said, pointing at Kili. "My home is somewhere else entirely, somewhere quite far away. It is where the other hobbits live." And he pointed westwards, as if they would be able to see it if they screwed up their eyes.
Kili looked quite astounded by this, though whether it was by the idea that Bilbo had a home somewhere else or by the idea of the existence of other hobbits, Bilbo did not know. "Hobbit not mountain home?" he said, tripping over the words a little in his confusion.
"No," Bilbo said. "The mountain is not my home."
"How you know?" Kili asked then. "How you know home is not mountain, home is far away?"
"Well," Bilbo said, "I know because I want to go there. Because that is where I feel safe. And - and I was born there. I grew up there. I lived there always, until I met your uncle last year."
Kili looked quite perplexed by all this, and Bilbo smiled at him and patted his knee.
"Let me tell you something about my home," he said.
And so he spoke of wild flowers and green hills, of gentle breezes and snow that fell light and fluffy, and not driving and hard as in the lands around Erebor. He spoke of his home in the hillside, and his neighbours and cousins, and of market day and the mathom house in Michel Delving and the ale at the Green Dragon. And when he had finished talking, Kili was watching him with a rather wondering look on his face that was not dissimilar to the one he had worn when Balin and Thorin had been telling stories in Lake-Town.
"I like see it some day, hobbit," he said finally. "Like see where you are made."
Bilbo chuckled a little at that. "And I would like to see where you were made, too, my lad," he said. "Ered Luin, of course," he added, in case Kili thought he meant the haunts of the orcs.
"Ered Luin," Kili said, looking down at his hands a moment. Then he nodded. "Yes," he said, "I like see Ered Luin, too."
"Well," said Bilbo, leaning back against the cliff and pressing his shoulder against Kili's, "perhaps some day we shall."
It was perhaps a week later when Dis came to see Bilbo.
Bilbo found himself quite flustered by her visit, clearing a heap of papers from the only comfortable chair he had managed to procure for himself and automatically offering her tea even though there was no kettle in the little chamber he had been assigned, nor yet a stove to put it on. But Dis waved away his concerns and leaned forward, face grave.
"Mr. Baggins," she said. "We have not spoken overmuch since I came here, and for that I must apologise. I have been so concerned with my sons that I have not made the time I should have to get to know our new dwarf-friend."
"Oh," Bilbo said, waving a hand, "that is quite understandable! Of course you wanted to be able to spend all your time with Kili."
"Yes, Kili," Dis said. "I must thank you again, Mr. Baggins, for finding him and for helping him so very much. I cannot express how indebted I am to you."
Bilbo blushed a little, though in truth almost every conversation he had had with Dis so far had consisted in her expressing her undying gratitude, and he was beginning to find it rather exhausting. "Well, I should thank you for raising him so well," he said without really thinking about it, for it was a common thing to say to hobbit mothers. Then he squeaked a little at Dis' pained face and tried to save himself. "I mean, his good breeding shows through even though - even though-" he said, and Dis shook her head.
"It is no matter," she said. "I wish I could say I have come to give you something in return, but I am afraid I come as a supplicant to ask you one favour more."
"Anything," Bilbo said immediately. "Well, er, although if it involves another dragon I might have to think about it a little bit."
"No dragons," Dis said. "I only ask your opinion, and that you give it honestly." She looked meaningfully at Bilbo, her eyes serious and piercing, and Bilbo felt rather like he was having a conversation with a rather less irritable version of Thorin.
"Of course," he said, subsiding into one of the uncomfortable contraptions dwarves liked to call chairs.
Dis drew a deep breath. "My son is much changed," she said. "Of course, I understand the reasons for this, or at least, as far as I can. But it seems to me he is changing still, and not for the better."
Bilbo frowned at this, but he did not interrupt.
"I do not think he is recovering," Dis said with a sigh, looking down at her hands where they were linked before her. "In fact, I think his - condition may be worsening. I have asked Fili, and he agrees, but he tells me that you are the creature that understands my youngest son best in the world, and that if any know the truth of it, it must be you." She looked up now at Bilbo, pinning him with her solemn gaze. "So tell me, Mr. Baggins: what is your mind on this matter?"
Bilbo paused a moment before answering, gathering his thoughts together with care, for it seemed to him that this dwarf who sat before him thought long and deeply, and he wished to do her the same courtesy. She showed no sign of impatience, but simply waited in silence, and finally Bilbo nodded to himself.
"I think the mountain is not good for him," he said. "It is too crowded and noisy and too - too dark. He likes to see the sky." He paused, waiting for protest, for Kili was a dwarf, after all, and it made no sense for there to be a dwarf who did not like it inside mountains. But Dis did not speak, merely watched and waited for him to continue. "I think-" Bilbo said, and then shook his head. "I think you are right. He is not getting better, not any more."
Dis sat back, her face sombre. "I am sorry to hear you say that," she said. "But now tell me, Mr. Baggins: what can I do?"
Bilbo paused a moment before answering, because he did not know this dwarf well, and he was not sure quite how she would take his answer. "There is something I have thought of a time or two," he said. "But I'm not sure you will want to do it."
Dis drew herself up proudly at this. "If you suppose that there is any task so unpleasant I would not take it on to help my sons, you are much mistaken in me," she said.
Bilbo nodded slowly. "Well, then," he said, and drew a deep breath.
They met with Thorin in the hidden council room behind the great throne. Dis brought Kili with her, and settled him in a corner with infinite gentleness. Bilbo came alone, and Fili appeared a few minutes later. Thorin raised his eyebrows to see them thus arrayed against him, but he did not speak, and after a moment's awkward silence, Bilbo stepped forward.
"Thorin," he said, "I want to go home."
Thorin looked like he had not expected this at all. For a moment, he looked like he might protest, but then he simply nodded gravely. "You are not a prisoner," he said. "Far from it. But you know you may stay as long as you wish."
"I know," Bilbo said, "and I do thank you for your hospitality, but - well, I miss my home."
Thorin leaned forward on the stone table, spreading his fingers and looking for a moment at them and not at Bilbo. "I understand," he said finally. "You will have anything you need for the journey, and anything else you might want."
"Well, there is one thing I do want, actually," Bilbo said, and Thorin looked up.
"Name it," he said.
"I want Fili and Kili to come with me," Bilbo said.
Thorin's eyebrows shot up at that, and Bilbo found himself raising his hands in a placatory gesture. "Just for a visit!" he said. "Kili wants to see my home, and Fili- Fili-"
"I will make sure nothing happens to either of them," Fili said, stepping forward and squeezing Bilbo's shoulder.
Thorin stared in astonishment at the two of them, and then his eyebrows came down and he shook his head.
"It is out of the question," he said.
"Why?" Fili asked, with a rather more confrontational tone than perhaps was required. "Has not our Mr. Baggins done enough to warrant granting him this small request?"
Thorin looked rather incredulous at this. "It is no small thing," he said. "You have duties here, and your brother only now begins to become accustomed to the mountain. It would be folly to uproot him now."
"He does not become accustomed," Fili said sharply. "He hates the mountain, uncle! Anyone can see that!"
Thorin's face grew thunderous now. "The mountain is his home," he said, and there was a warning in his voice. "It is his kingdom."
"It is his prison," Fili, and Bilbo sucked in a sharp breath.
"Fili, have a care," he murmured, but Fili apparently had no care at all.
"Have you been paying no attention at all, uncle?" he said, and he was shouting now. "Do you not see how he fades away? He does not sleep, he does not speak, he has not remembered anything new for months. Is it better for us to be the cause of it than the elves or the orcs, because we do it to protect him?"
"Fili," Dis said sharply, but it was too late, for Thorin had straightened up now, and there was fury in his eyes.
"And what would you have me do instead?" he asked. "Allow him to leave his people, leave his home? And have you forgotten what happened the last time he left this mountain?"
"And whose fault was that?" Fili roared, and there was a sudden, shocked silence. Thorin looked stricken, and even Fili seemed a little surprised at himself, for he subsided slightly. "Whose fault was that?" he said again, but quieter now.
"It was my fault," Thorin said, then, and his voice was deep with grief. "I would take it back in an instant if I could. But the fault was mine."
"I give you," said another voice now, and they turned to see that Kili had risen from his corner and stood now just outside the little circle they had formed, staring at Thorin.
Thorin stared back. "What do you give me?" he asked.
"I give you," Kili said again, and shot Bilbo a worried glance. "It is right? I not angry?"
"You forgive him," Bilbo murmured, and Kili nodded.
"Yes," he said. "I forgive you."
"Kili," Fili said, "you do not know what you're saying."
"No," Kili said, looking now at his brother, "I understand. I not angry Thorin. Thorin's head not right, not did want hurt. I forgive."
Thorin stared at Kili as if he could not quite believe what he was hearing. "You forgive me?" he asked.
Kili nodded. "Hobbit say it is gift," he said. "I give to you."
"It is the greatest of gifts," Thorin said, his voice hoarse with wonder. "Thank you, my nephew." And he bowed his head, and Bilbo saw to his astonishment that a tear rolled down his cheek.
Dis stepped forward then, brushing a gentle hand across Kili's shoulder as she passed, and crossing to stand in front of her brother, taking his face in her hands and pressing his forehead to hers. It was so like the picture that Ori had drawn that Bilbo felt a shiver down his spine, and Thorin reached up and pressed his hands to his sister's neck and closed his eyes. But when Dis pulled away, she did not let go of Thorin, but looked into his eyes with her serious gaze.
"You have tried," she said. "I know how hard you have tried, my brother. I know how hard we have all tried. But it is not enough. Kili is not ready for this life, for this mountain. Not yet."
"He is safe here," Thorin said, and Dis nodded.
"Aye," she said. "But he is not happy."
Thorin closed his eyes a moment, and Dis pulled him in again, leaning her forehead against his.
"There is one more thing you can do for him, my brother," she said. "One more thing that is within your power, and I would not ask if it were not needed, for it pains me greatly to say it."
"Then do not say it," Thorin said quietly, but Dis shook her head.
"I must," she said. "You know I must."
Thorin stepped back, then, letting his hands fall from her face. "You know I cannot deny you, my sister," he said. "If you ask it, I will grant it."
"Then let him go," Dis said, and she did not weep, but there was a rich strain of mourning in her voice. "Just for a little while, dear brother. Let him go."
Thorin stared at her, then looked quickly at Fili and more lingeringly at Kili. The silence stretched out, and Bilbo held his breath. Then Thorin passed a hand quickly over his eyes.
"Aye," he said. "I will let him go."
They set off on a cheerful morning in late March, when spring was most definitely in the air and even the mountain looked slightly less sombre than usual. It was a quiet leave-taking, for there had been no fanfare about their journey and most of the inhabitants of Erebor - swelled greatly now by continuous arrivals from Ered Luin - did not even know the princes were going anywhere. Only the members of their little company were there, along with Dis, and one by one they stepped up to say their goodbyes. Bilbo had never been hugged by quite so many dwarves in succession, and his ribs became quite sore before it was even half over. Bofur gave him a cheery smile, and Dwalin grunted in a way that sounded almost friendly, and even Bifur looked a little less terrifying than usual.
When Ori stepped forward, he had a piece of paper in his hand. "I've drawn you a picture to take with you," he said to Kili, and held it out.
Kili took it immediately. "Thank you, Ori," he said, and turned it over, then frowned. "What it is?" he said after a moment. "Is Kili?"
Bilbo craned his neck and saw that it was a picture of Kili and Ori standing in front of Erebor. Ori was clapping Kili on the back, and Kili was smiling, but Bilbo could see why the little dwarf was having trouble interpreting it, for it did not quite seem to be the same Kili that appeared in so many of the pictures from Ered Luin. This Kili seemed much more contained, quieter, somehow, though Bilbo had no idea how one picture could seem quieter than another.
"It's you," Ori said. "It's a picture of you coming back from the Shire. It hasn't happened yet."
Kili stared at the picture, brushing his fingertips over his own smiling face. "How you know?" he asked.
"I don't," Ori said. "It's what I hope will happen."
Kili looked rather thoughtful at this, but finally he nodded. "Yes," he said. "Is good picture. I hope, too."
"Well, I will miss you," said Ori, and Kili nodded again.
"Yes," he said. "I miss, too."
And finally, it was the turn of Thorin and Dis. Dis pressed her forehead to Fili's and Kili's in turn, and then stepped back and held out a hand to each of them, opening them to show a silver hair ornament on each of her palms.
"These belonged to my mother's father and his beloved brother," she said. "I give them now to you. They have never been parted for long, and I hope they never may again."
Fili smiled, taking the ornament from his mother's hand and fixing it quickly in his hair. "Thank you, mother," he said, and then took the other and smirked at his brother.
"Well, we will finally have to do something with that mop you call hair," he said, and then swiftly caught up the front part on each side and pinned them back behind. "Is it everything you hoped?" he asked his mother.
Dis raised her eyebrows at him, then fussed a little with Kili's hair. "It is better than it was," she finally pronounced, and pressed a swift kiss to Kili's forehead. Kili's eyes widened a little, and he reached up, brushing his fingers quickly across the site of the kiss.
"Thank you, Fili," he said, and then, rather shyly, "thank you, mother."
Dis smiled warmly at him. "You are most welcome, my beloved Kili," she said, and if there was a catch in her voice, she did an excellent job of concealing it. She turned then to Bilbo.
"Mr. Baggins," she said. "I know that I could ask for no better friend to my sons. Look after them, I beg you."
Bilbo nodded, feeling rather overcome. "Of course," he said. "Of course I will."
And now, at last, Thorin stepped forward. He did not speak, but Bilbo suddenly found himself caught up in the most bruising embrace he had yet experienced. It was rather like being hugged by a bear, but it was over almost as soon as it began, and so Bilbo did not have time to become seriously injured. Thorin set him down and stepped back, giving him a nod, and Bilbo nodded back gravely as if he, too, were a serious dwarven king and not a silly little hobbit at all.
Thorin turned then to his nephews. He touched his forehead to Kili's, his eyes closed and his hands cradling Kili's face, and to Bilbo's astonishment, Kili reached up after a moment and pressed his own palms one on each side of Thorin's neck. Thorin's eyes flew open in surprise, and Kili blinked and looked a little worried.
"It is right?" he asked.
Thorin stepped back and coughed once, twice. "Yes," he said in a gravelly voice. "Yes, my nephew. It is exactly right."
Kili nodded, and Bilbo gave his arm a quick squeeze. "Well done," he whispered, and if Thorin heard him, he pretended he hadn't.
Last of all Thorin turned to Fili. He proffered an arm, but Fili shook his head and took Thorin's face in his hands, pressing their foreheads together.
"I forgive you," he breathed. "I forgive you, uncle."
Thorin wrapped his hands around Fili's wrists, and after a moment where he seemed to be fighting with himself, his lips curved in a smile.
"Thank you, my nephew," he said.
The journey was a long one, made longer by the fact that they were afoot the whole way, as Kili was no more willing to approach a pony than he had been outside Beorn's house on that long ago summer morning. Much of the way they went accompanied - by Bard for a while, then by Tauriel, by Beorn and by Lindir, even by Gandalf for a week or two - but sometimes they travelled just three alone, and those times were the ones that Bilbo looked back on later with the fondest smiles. Not that there were no adventures, of course, or that they were never tired or hungry or cold, but they were never in any serious danger, and much of the time the sun shone, and Fili smiled more often than he did not, and Kili gradually threw off the gloom that he had plunged into in Erebor and became almost talkative, relatively speaking. Fili had brought a bow with him, and by the time they reached the western side of the Misty Mountains, Kili had become quite proficient, garnering himself compliments from Bilbo and Fili that left him tongue-tied and confused, eyes shining with pleasure.
They passed the Shire to the north and came first to the Blue Mountains, intending first to visit there and then pass through the Shire on the way back. They had been travelling then for some months, and it was nearing the end of July, a long, hazy summer evening, when Fili stopped and smiled.
"What is it?" Bilbo asked.
"I recognise this forest," Fili said. "We used to play here when we were children." He turned to look at Kili, but Kili simply glanced around himself and nodded.
"Good trees," he said. "Birch?"
"Beech," Bilbo said, for he had taken some delight in teaching Kili the names of every plant they had passed, and as they had come closer and closer to his home and the trees had become more and more familiar, that delight had only grown.
"Well," Fili said, "let us camp here, then. For old time's sake."
That night, Bilbo woke to find Fili sitting up, smoking his pipe and watching his sleeping brother with a pensive expression.
"How does it feel to be home, master dwarf?" he asked, sitting up himself.
Fili glanced at him, then looked back at Kili. "It is strange," he said. "To see him here, like so many times before. But he is so changed. And I suppose I am, too."
"How is he changed?" Bilbo asked, wondering if he might hear a story of Kili's youth, for they were hard to extract from Fili and he treasured them greatly.
"How?" Fili asked, and then puffed on his pipe a moment in thought. "Well, he is quieter, of course," he said. "And he is much more serious. And - I think he is cleverer, too, although I am not sure how that can be."
"Maybe he never had to be clever as a child, because you were there to be clever for him," Bilbo suggested.
Fili seemed to consider this. "Maybe so," he said, with something of regret in his voice.
"It is not a betrayal to grieve for the brother you have lost, even as you are grateful for the one you have found," Bilbo said quietly.
"You mistake me, my friend," Fili said, and now he smiled. "I have not lost my brother. He is much changed, it is true. But he is still Kili."
On the next day, Fili guided them up a bright little valley, making a careful berth of a nearby village, for he did not wish to see anyone who might recognise him or even Kili. They passed through a little green sun-dappled copse, and emerged on the other side to see a tumble-down old cottage, which looked not have been lived in for some years. The greensward at the front was a riot of dandelions and daisies, buttercups and scabious, and the grass was waist-high on Bilbo. They waded through this ocean of flowers, the sun shining down gently above them and the smell of the grass they crushed under their feet sweet in their nostrils. And when they were perhaps ten paces from the house, Kili suddenly stopped.
Fili stopped too and turned to his brother. "What is it?" he asked, but it seemed to Bilbo that he already had an answer in mind.
Kili was frowning at the house. "We were here before?" he asked.
Fili smiled a slow smile. "Yes, my brother," he said. "We lived here for twenty years."
Kili stared at him, then back at the house. "Before orcs?" he said.
"Before the orcs," Fili confirmed. "Do you remember?"
"No," said Kili, but he walked slowly up to the weathered little porch and sat down carefully on the third step from the top.
"Yes," Fili breathed, moving closer himself. "That is where you always used to sit."
Kili looked around himself thoughtfully, running his fingertips over the half-rotted wooden planks. He pointed to the top step, above him and to his left.
"You sit there?" he said.
Fili let out a laugh of delight and took the steps two at a time, settling himself where Kili was pointing.
"I sit here, indeed," he said. "Do you remember now?"
Kili was staring at him, his eyes huge. "No," he said again. "I - I not know."
"It is all right, my lad," Bilbo said, standing at the foot of the steps and smiling up at the two dwarves. "The memories will come if they want to."
Kili looked down at him and made a confused face. "Feel - feel safe," he said.
"Oh!" Bilbo said, and he clapped his hands in delight. "I am so very pleased to hear you say that, master dwarf."
"But it is not safe here at all," Fili said suddenly, and Bilbo looked sharply up at him to see he was sporting a troubled face that kept threatening to dissolve into a wicked grin. "There are all sorts of things to watch out for. Mountain goats. Unruly skuas. Marauding dwarves." And without warning, he launched himself at Kili, catching him around the waist and knocking them both off the steps and into the long grass. Bilbo put a hand to his mouth, for although he could hear Fili laughing like a hobbitling of ten, he was not at all sure that play-fighting was something that Kili would understand. But then the two young dwarves rolled into a patch of shorter grass, and Bilbo saw that Kili was not scratching or biting, but was instead writhing and wriggling under Fili as if he, too, was fifty years younger. A moment later he managed to roll them over and, with a couple of quick moves, he was suddenly sitting on Fili's chest with his knees on his brother's elbows. He stared down wonderingly, as if he had no idea how he'd done what he'd done, and Fili grinned up at him as if he had just single-handedly vanquished an army.
"Oh! I am slain," Fili cried. "Once more I am beaten by my brother's dirty tricks and underhanded tactics! Is there no honour in this world? Alas, I am undone!"
Kili made a ridiculous face and then looked up at Bilbo, and for just a moment, he smiled, too. It was brief enough that Bilbo thought he might even have imagined it, except that Fili's eyes had gone wide and now he lay still and stared up at his brother as if he thought he might vanish at any moment. And Bilbo thought later that in that moment, he might have caught a glimpse of that long-lost little dwarf who he had never met but who had been so greatly beloved and so deeply mourned by those that knew him.
But he did not think such thoughts yet, for now he was occupied by untangling his two friends from each other and setting them on their feet, and then he announced that it was certainly time for second breakfast, if not elevenses. They sat on the decaying porch and stared out across the field of flowers, and Bilbo thought about how before very many days had passed, they would set off for the Shire. And he thought about how by the time they arrived there, it would be too late in the year for two dwarves to go travelling the ways of the world alone, and so of course they would have to stay for the winter. There would be long, cosy nights by the fire, and plenty of food, and perhaps even snowball fights if the weather was right for it. And above all, there would be time, nothing but time for months and months, all the time that Bilbo had longed for on their long journey to Erebor, and more besides.
And in the spring, of course, the dwarves would have to go back to their home, for he had promised as much to their mother and uncle. But there were many days still before then, many days before it would be sensible for them to set forth. The spring was a good time for journeying, as Bilbo knew well himself.
Perhaps in the spring, he would visit Erebor.
A/N: So there we have it, my friends. Thank you so much to everyone who's followed along, and especially to those who have left comments. Special thank to the anonymous comments, and especially river, who has stuck with me all the way through. Hope your heart's not too crushed, my dear!
I have a vague plan to write some shorter fics in this universe filling in some of the gaps. If there's anything you'd particularly like to see, feel free to let me know! Oh, and before you all shout at once, the water thing is already on the list ;)