Chapter 20 - Gifts Given and Gifts Received

Now (3021 T.A.)

Whoever said that dwarves were more resilient to the cold than other races surely must have been lying. Because he felt the cold, acutely! Pulling the furs closer around himself, Kli built a little cocoon of warmth as he leaned into his brother. "Cold?" Fli asked, and the younger dwarf simply nodded. "It's because you're so lanky and won't put on any weight no matter how much you eat. Which is unfair by the way." Kli poked out his tongue. "And now you're behaving like a little dwarfling."

"At least people worry about dwarflings. Apparently now that I'm grown up, I can freeze to death." Fli rolled his eyes. "Well, you know what I mean. Why do we have to be out in the snow again? Because my hands are frozen solid and I'm afraid my fingers might fall off. And I need them, you know, for my archery. Then again, you wouldn't know a bow from an arrow, so why am I wasting breath telling you about it... Ouch!" Why on earth had Fli just smacked him over the head? You know very well why, just like you know why you're outside in the middle of the night. He did. Though he chose to not acknowledge it.

Let go of the past and face your future...that was easier said than done. Bilbo, Thorin and Fli were trying, that was true, but not even their attentiveness and love could quieten that voice at the back of his head that would seek him out at night when Fli was asleep by his side and speak to him of his failures. Of how he wasn't a worthy heir both of Durin himself and of Thorin. And worse yet, that voice told him that they knew, that they all knew of his failings, that they laughed behind his back. But as terrible as those whispered words were, they were also causing him to doubt. There was no way that Bilbo, sweet Bilbo, would laugh at him. There was not a cruel bone in the hobbit, and that thought alone gave Kli pause. Maybe that voice had been lying to him all along. Maybe... He did not dare hope.

"Bilbo looks amazing, doesn't he?" his brother's question roused him and returned them to the cold night. But he would rather freeze than listen to... "And Thorin? He's practically beaming with pride. I've never... They look so happy together, even though I wonder what uncle did to get Bilbo to wear the circlet. He was ever so opposed to it the last time someone mentioned it." Fli shrugged. "But whatever it was, our dearest hobbit no longer seems to have whatever reservations he may have had." The blond smiled then, one of those infectious smiles and the corners of Kli's mouth moved of their own volition. "I cannot wait until they are officially bonded. Bilbo...he will be good for Erebor, more than good."

Kli wholeheartedly agreed with that. The hobbit had been the heart and soul of their Company all those years ago and now... He had become the heart of their family in only a few weeks and soon he would be the heart of the Kingdom of Erebor as well. Whether it was Bilbo's innate goodness, or the kindness he showed everyone around him, Kli didn't know. Then a thought came to him and he chuckled quietly to himself. Or maybe it was simply the fact that he had somehow managed to wrap Thorin around his little finger. There was no doubt in his mind that their uncle would do anything and everything for the hobbit, and that Bilbo would do the same for the king. And then he remembered something else, his smile turning into a grin. "You still owe me quite a bit of gold, brother dear..."

Fli looked beyond startled. "What? Why?" Had he really thought Kli wouldn't remember? Eventually? That private little bet they had agreed upon that very first evening...

"Do you not recall? The few years you have on me must really have addled your wits, brother. Bilbo! And Thorin!" Fli stared at him blankly. "The bet... You know, our bet?!" His brother blinked, but showed no other sign of remembering. Kli sighed. And people called him a scatterbrain. "Bag End? Any of this ring a bell?" And finally Fli gasped. And shook his head.

"That's null and void. We died. Thorin died. And even if death doesn't break the bonds of the bet then it is you who is owing gold...to me." What? "As I recall, you said there'd be a wedding within the next two years. And unless I'm very much mistaken, which I'm not, there wasn't one. It's taken them eighty-two years. So...pay up."

"No, no, no... Thorin's death put the whole thing on hold. So in fact, they are nowhere near the two year mark." His logic was sound and solid and even Fli would have to admit that. Only his brother was still shaking his head.

"Those were not the terms of our bet, brother. And you know it full well." Blue eyes sparkled merrily as Fli's outstretched hand came into view. "Now pay up."

Right, so his brother wanted to be mean like that. Oh, Kli could do that as well. "But brother..." He put on his best puppy dog expression before continuing, "Do you really think those eighty dreadful years should be counted? You know as well as I do that if Thorin hadn't died..." Fli now glared at him. Good. "You've seen him, brother. You know that he didn't really lead a life until the day Bilbo arrived at the Harbours. And you know how fast they both acted then. Do you really..."

"You don't play fair!" A bag of coins was thrust into Kli's hand then, amidst much grumbling from his brother. But then that faded and Fli smiled at the royal couple. "I would have given more than the gold, Kli, more than my life if it were possible, to get them to the here and now sooner. Without all the heartbreak." Kli nodded, his gaze following his brother's. Bilbo and Thorin were about to release a lantern into the starlit sky; a bright flame, shining a light into the future. And as he glanced around at all the smiling faces of dwarves, elves and hobbits, Kli allowed himself to believe that maybe, maybe, even his future would have light in it to counter the darkness.

It was an hour later that Kli found himself next to Frodo. Fli had wandered off to speak with Bilbo and Thorin about the fireworks Gandalf, or whatever name he went by now, had sent to Erebor to be lit the following evening. There were some massive rockets there, one of which had made Bilbo chuckle and shake his head for some reason. Frodo had told him about some books he had found in the library, eyes bright with wonderment. But the hobbit was clearly as cold as Kli was himself; he was constantly blowing warm air on his fingers and rubbed his hands together in a feeble attempt to keep them from freezing. It was then that Ori walked up to them, a wrapped gift in his mittened hands.

"Hello Kli...Frodo. I...I understand that it is a hobbit tradition to give gifts on this day, so..." He placed the gift into Frodo's hands and bit his lower lip. Now hold on just a minute...

"That's...that's awfully kind of you. I...I have something for you as well. Kli? Would you mind holding this for me for just a moment?" Kli smiled sweetly and took hold of the proffered gift. Frodo then reached inside the layers of furs he was wearing and pulled out a small parcel that he thrust into Ori's hands. "It's not much, and I'll still have to add to it, but... I thought you might like it." The young dwarf smiles shyly as he opened the gift gingerly, taking care not to tear the paper. Kli rolled his eyes and grinned at the same time. Ori, Ori, Ori... Who'd have thought. Finally the...book...was unwrapped and Ori beamed. "A book on hobbit culture. Oh but that is perfect! Thank you." Frodo smiled at him and Ori looked away, clearly embarrassed. Dear sweet Aul, he would need help if he ever wanted to get anywhere...

Handing Ori's present back to Frodo, he muttered, "Your turn now, and I hope it's not another boring book." Both Frodo and Ori shot him glares, but Kli was simply grinning. Folk being totally and utterly oblivious was kind of endearing. Especially if it meant that he and his brother, and indeed their elven friends, could meddle.

The hobbit had turned his attention back to the gift and had opened the wrapping to reveal... "Oh Ori, these are wonderful. I was already wondering if I should ask you to knit me some." Mittens! Ori had made Frodo mittens. Ori had made something for Frodo. Oh, this was simply brilliant. And not any mittens either. The wool was the same blue as Frodo's eyes and they looked warm and soft.

"So Ori? If you're giving mittens and other knitwear to people this Yule, when can I expect mine? And Fli has been complaining about the cold as well..." He hadn't, but that was beside the point. "And look at Thorin's future consort. Bilbo is practically crawling into his robes..." Ori flushed as Kli had known he would and muttered something about "soon" and "before the year is out" and then he fled, clutching his book to his chest. And the way Frodo stared at his retreating form... It was matchmaking time again. It had worked with Thorin and Bilbo after all, what with giving the hobbit Thorin's oaken shield. And if they hadn't stopped dancing around each other at that point, they'd already decided on a course of action to see them lip locked before they got to Erebor.

Turning back to the hobbit, Kli inquired, "You like him, don't you?" Sometimes being blunt was the best course of action, Kli had found. Not often, actually almost never, but he was sure that this was one of those few moments when it was called for. And Frodo nodded... Hah!

"I mean, he is a great friend to me. Much like Fli and yourself." Of course... "He's given me something to do where I feared I would be...something of an outcast. Frodo Baggins, the silly hobbit who nearly messed everything up and..." Kli pulled Frodo into a hug then. Matchmaking could wait for now; Frodo needed a friend.

"That was never going to happen. At least not from us. You're as much a part of our family now as Bilbo is. When the ship docked, I expected to get my uncle back, but I got a cousin as well. And what you achieved, I don't think I could have. You held out for so long, don't be too hard on yourself for falling under the Ring's spell at the end. You are stronger than you think, Frodo Baggins. Just like your uncle." Stronger than any of us, he added silently. So much stronger than us.

---

"He won't believe his eyes. Come, come, we have to find him." Bilbo was giddy with excitement as he pushed two flabbergasted hobbits ahead of himself. Thorin walked behind them, a faint smile on his face. He could already envision Frodo's face; blue eyes wide in shock, mouth slightly agape... Maybe he would faint like Bilbo did on numerous occasions. Now where was Balin when he needed the older dwarf? Surely he wouldn't be opposed to a little bet or two.

Bilbo turned to him then and smiled, and all thoughts of fainting hobbits and bets were forgotten. His hobbit looked radiant in his new garb and the circlet on his brow, the circlet Bilbo had fought over so very hard. Seeing it made Thorin's heart sing. It marked the halfling as his, his betrothed. No one else would ever know Bilbo's touch, no one else would ever see the hobbit in the throes of passion. And above all, no one but him would ever have Bilbo's love. The love Thorin still felt undeserving of, but he wouldn't question his luck at having been given a second chance. A chance not only to atone for his mistakes, but also one to make Bilbo the happiest he could possibly be.

The lantern had been a symbol of that. Of finally letting go of the past and stepping into a bright future. And how could it be anything but bright? With Bilbo by his side he would be able to weather any storm, anything the Valar chose to throw at him. With Bilbo they would be able to withstand everything.

Catching up with the hobbits, Thorin caught Bilbo's hand, lacing their fingers. Let everyone see how happy their king is, huh? Indeed. Bilbo was not only loved by Thorin, but by all the dwarves of Erebor and cheers rose up around them at this display of affection. His hobbit, as expected, blushed to the very tips of his pointy ears. But his smile didn't slip and he even nodded his head at a few familiar faces. Thorin could just about stop himself from pulling Bilbo into his arms and kissing him, thoroughly. That would surely be the halfling's undoing. And while a fainting Bilbo was a sight to behold, he would surely die of embarrassment if it happened out in the open and for everyone to see. So Thorin contented himself with bringing the hobbit's hand to his lips.

And Bilbo smiled up at him, his eyes holding promises of so much more than chaste kisses and Thorin had to catch himself before he stumbled over his own feet. Bilbo...his sweet, little, innocent burglar...had changed greatly over the past few weeks. Yes, he was still shying away from being shown the respect he deserved, but he had embraced other aspects wholeheartedly. Giving advice, helping the dwarves of Erebor, and adding his own brand of counsel to decisions...Bilbo excelled at them. Even though at times he still could not believe that folk would ask his opinion in the first place. And then there were the changes behind the closed doors of their quarters.

It seemed that after his accident, Bilbo had finally come to terms with the fact that Thorin would not, could not be without him. And that in turn had made something within the hobbit settle into place and he had become more...mischievous and more willing to state his needs and desires. It could, of course, have also been the knowledge of...forever... That you will have eternity together and that nothing will tear you apart ever again. Well, whatever it was, it was intoxicating to the dwarf. He could no longer remember what life had been like without the hobbit by his side, and he didn't want to recall it either. Life was worth nothing if he couldn't hold Bilbo throughout the night, if he couldn't wake to the sight of an auburn mop of hair on his chest and the feel of the hobbit's body fused to his side. And you also appreciate his counsel, do you not? Oh yes, he did. He had learned the hard way that ignoring Bilbo's advice could be fatal. It had been before...

And then, tonight, the halfling had given him the most precious of gifts. Thorin had only been able to leaf through it quickly, but he could already see that Bilbo had truly given him his heart and soul with the book. The joy and wonderment of the first pages, and then the pain...pain that stretched far and wide, that filled almost all of the pages, until... Until he got to the last section, and the joy of the first pages paled in comparison to the love that poured off of every word. Knowing that this was at the end of all the pain...it gave him the strength to read it in its entirety. Eventually. When he was sure he wouldn't drown in a sea of guilt over his betrothed's suffering. And maybe, one day, he would be able to put into words how much he had truly longed for Bilbo during those eighty years, and how much he had always loved the hobbit. How foolish he had been to deny himself this happiness in the beginning...

They were nearing their quarry now; Frodo was standing with Fli and Kli, deep in conversation. The young hobbit was laughing about something, and his younger nephew joined in, and for a moment Thorin felt his heart swell inside his chest. Kli laughed, and after the recent weeks, that was truly wondrous. Bilbo's grip on his hand tightened, and he smiled faintly at the dwarf king. "He's healing, Thorin. Slowly but surely he is healing." Thorin nodded and relief flooded his entire body. Kli would be alright, eventually. And until then, and even after, he would have the support of his family, be it dwarven or of hobbitkind.

"If it wasn't for you, my hobbit, we would have lost him. At some point, he would have succumbed to all the pain he's been carrying with him for so long, and that light that shines so brightly within him would have been extinguished forever. And we would have been none the wiser." He glanced at their laced fingers then, the lighter hobbit skin and his tanned dwarven one. "I know now without a doubt that you were meant to come into our lives. That all of this was meant to happen." And it was Bilbo then who halted their little procession, and it was the hobbit who moved to stand in front of Thorin and closed the gap between them until their mouths were but a breath away. And then he kissed the king, pouring all his love into that tender brush of lips.

And he didn't blush at all at the cheers erupting around them; instead he simply smiled up at Thorin. "I owe great thanks to Gandalf for picking me to be the fourteenth member of your Company... I am just afraid any kind of 'thank you' won't be enough." Thorin chuckled and then turned the hobbit around to look at his young nephew. The noise around them had alerted Fli, Kli and Frodo and while the two young dwarves smiled at him and Bilbo, Frodo stared at the other two hobbits, mouth agape. Why oh why had there been no one bet with...