2. The Rascal

Bilbo POV

In which tremors are felt, stories are told, pipes are a problem and a mystery presents itself.


Evening, Brandy Hall, 8 Halimath, 1389

‘Uncle Bilbo!’

Bilbo had only that shriek of warning before three small bodies sent him crashing to the floor.

He roared in mock rage, and began an energetic tussle with his younger cousins. After a few minutes, he had Frodo pinned, Merry captured more or less securely under one arm, but had to concede victory to Merle, who was sitting on his back, one arm around his neck and the fingers of the other hand firmly wrapped in his hair. The giggling tangle of them sat up, then subsided into silence as they took note of Menegilda Goold, Mistress of Buckland, glaring down at them, Esmie supporting her.

Bilbo beamed. ‘Hello, Gilda! So nice to see you.’ The old woman continued to glare. Bilbo continued to beam. ‘Such a nice cane you have.’ She glared, he beamed. ‘I hear from the highest authorities you've been putting it to good use.’ Gilda's face wrinkled up in an attempt to keep from laughing. Bilbo waggled his eyebrows, and mimed taking a swing with a stick. Gilda dissolved into laughter, swiftly joined by Bilbo and the children. Esmie rolled her eyes at all of them.

‘Come up here and give me a kiss, Beggar, or I will show you what this cane is good for!’ Gilda growled. Bilbo disentangled himself and indicated Frodo should get the little ones standing, then carefully but firmly embraced the old woman. Once, long ago, they had courted, then her eye had fallen on his cousin Rory, and she never looked at him again. He could not begrudge Rory her love, and never envied him her imperiousness, but he had never been able to free his heart from her claim upon it. When he looked upon her now, he still saw the striking eighteen year old who had caught first his eye and then his heart at the Old Took's last birthday celebration. Even at that young age, she knew how to command a room of boys. Not until Esmie grew up was there a worthy challenger to her reign as the most notable woman in the Shire. Aside from Ta… He hastily pushed that thought away. Bilbo looked into Gilda’s eyes. They were not as clear as they had been, but mischief ran through them, and love warmed them, and he was very glad he had decided to make this trip. He kissed her lips, then stepped back.

‘Well,’ he scolded the children, ‘aren’t you going to say good evening to your Gammer?’ Frodo quickly stepped in to give Gilda an embrace and to place a supportive arm around his aunt’s shoulder before the younger ones did any damage with their exuberant hugs. Bilbo watched how her hands and arms trembled as she stroked Merle and Merry’s hair. Merry did not notice, and chattered away about how he had knocked down a hornets’ nest that morning without getting stung. Merle did notice, and gently took her grandmother’s hand in between her own palms and put little kisses on Gilda's fingers. Frodo planted a loving kiss on Gilda's cheek, then lifted up some strands from Merry’s thatch of curls so she could get her fingers into them.

Bilbo took the opportunity to study Frodo out of the corner of his eye as he exclaimed over Merry’s tale of derring-do. An odd thought came to him. He looks like the Old Took. Oh, there was Baggins to be seen in him, no doubt; the dark hair and eyes, the small feet, the way the summer sun had turned his skin quite tan, all part of the Harfoot heritage. But the rest of him was Fallohide; almost adult height already, slim, with a delicacy to his face and a grace in his motions that most hobbits lacked. He looked like the portrait of Old Gerontius in his own youth. Sara, Pal, and Frodo: all great-grandsons of Gerontius, and, from their looks, all could have been his own sons. They looked more like brothers than most brothers did, and Sara's younger brother Mac rounded out the group. Except in the sun - Frodo tans like a Baggins, and they burn like Tooks. When winter had removed the golden mask of summer, however, Frodo would be more like to his forefather than the others. He even shared the same birth date as the legendary Thain, as did Bilbo. All he lacked was the Old Took's white forelock. Only Rum is more like Grandfather than Frodo.

‘And a good evening to you all!’ A loud voice shook Bilbo out of his reverie. Esmie’s face lit up and she looked back to the door of the room. Merle and Merry squealed and darted away to fling themselves against their father’s legs as he came through the door. Gilda sighed and gave Bilbo a pained look. What concerned Bilbo was how quickly the smile disappeared off of Frodo’s face, replaced with a sullen, closed look. There's some bad blood there, or I’m no judge of anything. He gritted his teeth, and tried to smile at Sara. Looking past the loud fellow, he saw his old friend and partner in trouble, Rory, and a true smile came to his face.

‘Mama, you shouldn't be left standing like this! Esmie, what are you thinking, leaving her standing and letting the children paw at her?’ Esmie turned a bit red and started to help her mother-in-law to a nearby couch. Frodo stayed at his aunt’s side until Sara was almost on top of them, then deftly slipped back and away. But not quickly enough to avoid being clipped by Sara's elbow as his cousin moved in to support Gilda’s arm. The youngster said nothing, but his look at Sara was not pleasant. Bilbo watched Frodo gently rub the spot on his arm where Sara’s elbow had hit, and was willing to wager there would be a little line of bruises on either of the tween’s arms.

Bilbo reached out and clapped a reassuring hand on Frodo’s shoulder, relieved to see the smile return to his nephew’s face. ‘Rory, you old dog, how are you?’ Bilbo laughed, firmly guiding Frodo over to Rory’s side, away from Sara. The old hobbits hugged and thumped each other on the back.

‘Ah, unlike you, you unnatural beast, I’m getting old!’ was the jocular reply. Rory's hair was heavily silvered, while Bilbo's hair was barely touched with grey. But the Master of Buckland was still spry and dragged the other two over to a sideboard. ‘What will you have, my dear?’ he asked Gilda.

‘Whatever is open, you ancient idiot, and tell your whelp here that I’m not on my deathbed yet, so please to quit fussing!’ Bilbo heard the cane rap against something soft and heard a pained grunt come from the direction of the couch. He exchanged a gleeful look with Frodo.

‘Sara, stop fussing. Mistress, stop hitting people. Esmie, be a good girl and take that cane elsewhere,’ was Rory’s unperturbed reply, earning a laugh from Esmie. Bilbo carried Sara’s glass to him, so that Frodo could take Esmie’s to her. Rory settled next to his wife on the couch, and Merry quickly scrambled up to nestle in between them. Sara sat in a large chair, Merle in his lap, an arm around Esmie to help her keep her balance on the arm of it. Bilbo went to the chair on the other side of the couch, and Frodo quickly sat on the floor at his feet, as he always did when Uncle Bilbo came to visit. They exchanged a quick smile. I need to get him away from here. Bilbo knew Yule was too far away.

‘So, Uncle, what's the news from Hobbiton?’ Sara cheerfully boomed as he made a face at Merle, then tickled her nose. This is more like it. Bilbo began recounting all the news he could remember from the last several months. I guess I make a respectable story teller, he teased himself, wanting to keep things light and jolly. As he had suspected, the tale of Old Noakes’ addle-pated grandson, Cob, attempting to lead a lost pony through the main tap room at The Green Dragon and getting the pot-bellied beast stuck in a narrow side-doorway left everyone with tears on their faces from laughing so hard.

Bilbo watched Sara keep his arm around Esmie the entire time, a fond, familiar hand kneading her thigh and rump. She leaned into him, and would sometimes brush his cheek or hair with her free hand, once even allowing him to press his head to the side of her bosom. What does she see in him? Bilbo pondered as he half-listened to Rory’s account of a group of grey-cloaked strangers on full-sized horses riding through the Marish on the road south from Stock very late in the evening a few months back. He can’t be that good of a lover. Esmie bestowed a rather wicked glance on her husband, and he smiled knowingly back, giving her rump a squeeze. Then again… Bilbo sighed and turned his attention back to Rory.

As Rory’s tale of the news in Buckland continued, Bilbo noted Frodo watching Esmie and Sara with a disapproving stare, paying his uncle no mind. Bilbo reached out and stroked the boy’s head as he had always done with the child, wanting to distract Frodo from the other two. He expected Frodo to lean back against his leg. Instead, the lad ducked away from the touch and carefully scooted a few inches forward, putting himself out of reach. Bilbo dropped his hand back on his knee, a bit sad. Frodo’s not a little child anymore, Bilbo chastised himself, and doesn’t want to be petted like one. He missed the little boy who would sit in his lap, as Merle and Merry did, and giggle and ask for hugs and stories.

A kitchen girl tapped on the door to let the family know that supper was ready. Bilbo immediately stood and went to Gilda and Rory, Frodo just a step behind him. Over his shoulder, he said to Sara in a light voice, ‘I’ll help Rory with Gilda,’ hoping the buffoon would understand he was to leave. He started to reach out and take Gilda’s arm, but she shook her head and waved at him to step back. Frodo took his place and held out his left arm, curved up like a hook. Rory did the same to the other side, but with his right arm. Gilda looped her arms through theirs, they each put their free hands behind her shoulders and all three moved together to rock her forward on to her feet, Gilda using their arms to leverage herself upright.

As soon as she was steady, Frodo let go of Gilda and collected her cane, while Rory moved to stand next to her, their arms loosely linked. Bilbo silently offered her his arm for her other side, and they walked to the door, Frodo following with the cane. Bilbo said nothing as they walked, listening to Rory and Gilda talk to each other, and tried to hide his growing dismay at Gilda’s condition. In the parlor, she had mostly been standing still or sitting on the couch, and the others had distracted him. Walking beside her, he noted the changes that had happened since he last saw her.

The last time he was here, she had trembled slightly, more something to be felt than seen, and she occasionally lost her balance, but had been able to walk and move with reasonable ease. Her face had been more mobile. Gilda’s movements now were somewhat slow and had a stiffness to them, though she did not cling to him or to Rory. She used their arms to catch herself when she started to weave and to pull herself along. She no longer stood fully upright, but had a slight hunch to her back like a woman ten or more years her senior. The tremors in her limbs were constant and easily seen. Even so, their walk was not that much slower than Sara and Esmie’s, and the grandchildren kept darting back and forth between the two sets of grown-ups, chattering and teasing.

When they got to the dining hall, Rory held out his hand for Gilda’s cane and shooed Frodo off before going to the head of the center table with Gilda and Bilbo. Supper was being brought to the table, and a gaggle of more distant relations joined them in the smial's massive main dining hall in honor of his arrival. The hall was so large that it was full only on special occasions and during the Highday evening table. The rumor was that dwarves had helped set up the heavy beams and stone work that supported the ceiling of the dining hall back in Gormadoc Deepdelver’s day. Bilbo was not so sure about this anymore, not after having seen true dwarven stone work in Erebor and Dale. He had hoped to have Frodo sit with him at supper and have a few words with the lad, but all the seats near him at the main table were claimed by elders who wanted to hear of “Mad Baggins’” latest adventure. He told several merry tales, making Gilda laugh. He liked that because when she laughed he could not see her tremble.

Bilbo got a glimpse of Frodo sitting with a group of tweens off to the side at the tween table and he seemed cheerful enough. And eating a great deal, which pleased Bilbo. Stoor blood was strong in Buckland, and the lads and lasses alike at the table were sturdy and broad, with open, honest faces, cheeks red from sun and mirth, and thick, strong hands. Frodo looked like an elven steed amidst a herd of solid draft horses, or a deer hound in a pack of mastiffs.

After supper broke up, Bilbo gave his regards to Rory and Gilda, and waved his farewells to Sara and Esmie before they could come up the table. He beckoned for Frodo to follow him, and quickly slipped out a side door, down the service hall and into the kitchens. With a wink to Frodo and a kiss for Maddie, the head cook, Bilbo snagged a few sweets from a tray and a lamp from a hook, quickly navigating through the busy place to a half-hidden door leading to a little-used back hall.

‘You’re better at that than I am, Uncle Bilbo,’ Frodo admired as they made their way down the dark hall by the strong light of the lamp.

‘I don’t think you're supposed to be telling me that, my dearest rascal,’ Bilbo chuckled back. ‘Esmie's been telling me more about your adventures than I think you really want me to know!’ He expected a giggle or a groan from Frodo. There was no sound. Bilbo stopped and held the lantern up to Frodo's face. It was the same expression that the lad wore when Sara had come into the sitting room, resentful, suspicious. What is this? Bilbo grinned, and added in a conspiratorial tone, ‘And why shouldn't I be better? I’ve had much more experience at it than you! Your Uncle Rory and I have made great use of this very passage for many a nighttime raid on the kitchens!’ Slowly, a smile came back to his nephew’s face, and the lad finally giggled.

‘You, I can believe, what with sneaking up on dragons and all,’ Frodo chided him, wagging a disapproving finger, ‘but Uncle Rory would never do such a thing!’

‘Oh, yes he would! How else do you think I learned about this hall, hmm?’ They both laughed, and Bilbo put a hand on Frodo’s shoulder to turn the boy and start them walking again. The lad’s almost as tall as I am, he noted, and grimaced at the boniness of the boy's shoulder. Don’t they feed the boy?

But Frodo seemed happy enough, setting aside the sullenness of a moment before. ‘Is this like the tunnel down to Smaug's lair, Uncle Bilbo?’ he asked, gesturing around at the walls. ‘I like to play pretend with Merry and Merle and imagine that it is.’

‘Oh, no, not nearly dark enough, or steep enough, or hot enough,’ and Bilbo entertained Frodo with a detailed description of the passage to Smaug’s chamber, followed by a quick list of Uncle Rory’s various misadventures in the Hall passage, while they made their way back to Bilbo’s room. Once there, Bilbo set down the lantern, started a small fire, and rummaged in his pack. Frodo took a seat before the fire, arms wrapped around his knees.

‘Ah, here it is!’ Bilbo turned back to Frodo, tucking the item he had pulled out of the pack behind his back. Frodo tried to crane his head and see what it was. ‘Frodo, in two weeks, it’s our birthday. You do remember that?’

‘Of course, Uncle Bilbo, how could I forget?’

‘Well, my boy, I’m going to give you my present a little early, since there doesn’t seem to be much point in packing it all the way back to Hobbiton, and then sending it off in the Post all the way back here. Close your eyes and hold out your hands.’ Frodo immediately did as he was told, and Bilbo laid a pipe in the outstretched palms. ‘Take a look!’

‘Oh, Uncle Bilbo, it’s wonderful!’ Frodo's eyes were alight. Then he shot a suspicious look up at his oldest cousin. ‘Esmie told you!’ he accused.

Now, this is interesting, Bilbo thought. He smirked down at his annoyed guest. ‘Esmie has told me any number of things, my rascally fellow. Now, why don't you tell me your version of the events, so I may hear the proper story?’

The wary look came back to Frodo's face. ‘No, it’s as she said,’ he mumbled, turning the pipe around in his hands. He would not look up at Bilbo.

This isn't interesting, this is intriguing. ‘Do you know where that pipe is from, my lad?’ Frodo was all curiosity. ‘It’s from Erebor. I had it made by the dwarves and brought by pack pony, just for you.’ The look of delight that crossed Frodo's face made Bilbo feel slightly guilty for his next words, but sometimes bribery had its uses. ‘However, if I am to leave it with you, I think I need to hear what this was all about.’ Bilbo took the pipe back from Frodo's hands, and took a seat at the opposite end of the hearth, back braced against the wall. Frodo's eyes stayed trained on the pipe in Bilbo’s hands. Bilbo fished a pipe-weed pouch out of his waistcoat and very slowly and deliberately began preparing the pipe.

‘I didn’t mean to do anything wrong.’ The words were so low Bilbo could hardly make them out.

Bilbo paused for a moment and smiled reassuringly, though Frodo did not look up. ‘I’m sure you didn’t, Frodo. I’ve never known you to mean to do wrong.’ A small smile flitted across the boy's face, and he shrugged a bit.

‘One of the fellows had gotten a good amount of Old Toby from his Da, and was going to share with us all, but they wouldn’t share a pipe and said I needed my own, so I borrowed one.’ Frodo's face got a little red, but he still would not look up. Bilbo finished filling the new pipe, and pulled out his own. It was not too difficult to figure out the true problem.

‘Did you have to borrow Sara’s pipe?'

‘I didn’t take his regular one! Just one of his extras! And the worst one of those!’ Frodo protested. Bilbo shrugged, then raised an eyebrow to indicate Frodo should go on. Frodo slumped, and went on in a morose tone, ‘So, I took a pipe and went to join the other boys down near the river. They only gave me a tiny bit of the Old Toby. Then Bargo Burrows stole my, Sara’s, pipe and wouldn't give it back. Then one of them thought it would be funny to toss it into the river.’ Frodo scowled. ‘Then another of them thought it would be even funnier to make sure Sara knew I had taken his pipe and lost it.’

‘Surely Sara would have noticed the missing pipe even if he hadn't been told,’ Bilbo ventured. Frodo gave him a scathing glance.

‘Sara is usually too busy keeping his nose in a tankard to notice much of anything!’ Frodo snapped. ‘Or pawing Esmie over,’ the boy turned to stare into the fire, face a bit red, ‘not that she seems to care how it looks.’ They were both silent for a bit.

Bilbo thought he could see things a bit more clearly now. Frodo was sweet on a girl, all right, but that girl was Esmie. He was willing to wager that a good amount of the rumors concerning Frodo and other boys was being spread by a jealous Sara. That might just pull you up short, Sara, if Frodo decides to disprove such tales. Bilbo would also wager that the idea to send the boy to Pal was Sara’s doing as well.

Frodo sighed. ‘I guess he would have noticed eventually. But they told him right away, before I had a chance to go into the river and see if I could get it back.’ Bilbo sat quiet for a minute and wondered what he should or could say next. He saw Frodo steal a covert glance at the new pipe.

‘Did Sara… did he strike you for taking his pipe without permission? Box your ears?’ Bilbo thought he would probably box Sara’s ears if he had laid a hand on the boy. Frodo gave him an odd look, wary like his earlier expression, then shook his head. So he did something. ‘What happened?’

‘He, he yelled at me in front of Gammer, and said I was a thief,’ Frodo's voice shook a bit, ‘and said I was good for nothing, and that I should be packed off somewhere if I were so ungrateful and wicked as to steal from my kin.’

‘That was not a very kind thing for him to do,’ Bilbo said as neutrally as he could. ‘I think I would have preferred to have my ears boxed than to listen to a drunkard spouting such wretched things in front of my Gammer.’ Sara’s threat to pack Frodo off confirmed Bilbo's suspicions about Sara’s jealousy.

Frodo nodded miserably, then smirked. ‘Gammer rapped him right smart across his shins with her cane, and said he’d lost two of his Da’s pipes, so he could hush up.’

Bilbo laughed out loud. I should have known Gilda wouldn’t stand for such clap-trap, especially from her own son! Frodo smiled a bit, but did not laugh. Bilbo motioned for the lad to come sit next to him, and Frodo scrambled over. Bilbo took one of Frodo’s hands, and firmly set the new pipe into it. Frodo looked up at him with joy, then his face clouded.

‘Why are you giving this to me, Uncle Bilbo? I just told you what I did, how I stole a pipe from Sara and lost it!’ Frodo searched the older Hobbit's face.

‘Well, Frodo, this is my birthday present for you. I said it was yours once you told me your story, not if I liked what I heard. So, you fulfilled your side of the bargain, and I fulfill mine. Always keep your promises!’ Bilbo gave him a stern look and Frodo hastily nodded. ‘Anyway, you didn't steal the pipe from Sara, as the idiot should have known. You needed a pipe, and thoughtfully took one of the second-best ones, with every intention of returning it.’ Frodo nodded even more vigorously. ‘I think the blame falls upon your friends who did you several bad turns, and should be ashamed of themselves.’ Frodo nodded, but only once, and kept his eyes on the pipe.

‘They’re not really my friends,’ he replied quietly, ‘they’re just the boys around here.’

‘No,’ Bilbo replied in a like tone, ‘I don't think they are friends if they do such cruel things to you. Being a bit stingy with Old Toby, well, I guess I can see that. If the pipe had been dropped during some horseplay, such things happen. But throwing it away and then telling Sara…’ He sighed. ‘Those are not acts of friends.’ He felt Frodo shake his head. ‘Enough of this long face, my lad! It is done, and now here is a pipe for you so you needn’t ever again bother your boorish cousin!’

Using tongs to pull a coal from the grate, Bilbo lit their pipes. Frodo choked a little at first, but soon got the trick of it. They sat in companionable silence for a while, side by side, and watched the fire. Bilbo wished again for the little boy who would have curled up against his uncle and fallen asleep. Treasure the memory, don't rue the loss, Baggins. Give him his space, and enjoy watching him grow up. When their pipes were out, Bilbo stirred and Frodo looked up.

‘It may not be Old Toby in the bowl, but I daresay the pipe’s better than anything else you've gotten your hands on. I doubt Sara's best pipe is dwarvish work.’

Frodo grinned up at him. ‘I think this is the nicest thing I’ve ever been given, Uncle Bilbo. I’ll take very good care of it,’ he went on earnestly, ‘and I won’t lose it.’

‘Be sure you aren't around any of those “friends” of yours when you use it,’ Bilbo admonished.

Frodo fiddled with the pipe. ‘What did Esmie say,’ he quietly asked, ‘Did she…’ Frodo stopped and swallowed hard. ‘Did she say I was a thief?’ He turned his dark eyes, just like Drogo’s, to Bilbo and waited for an answer.

‘Esmie has never said a word about this to me, Frodo. And, if you recall my words,’ he held up a hand to forestall Frodo's incipient outburst, ‘I never claimed she did, only that she has told me a few things about what a rascal you have been. And as to which of your adventures she has informed me, that is for me to know, and you to worry about. I am very glad you decided to tell me the story yourself, though I wish you had written to me and let me know when it happened.’ He gave Frodo a stern look until the lad’s face became repentant, then Bilbo grinned. ‘For then I would have sent you the pipe right away instead of waiting so long to deliver it myself.’ He beamed at his astonished nephew.

Frodo shook his head a little at the strange workings of Bilbo's mind, and examined the pipe again, admiring its beauty and craftsmanship. ‘I’ll keep it safe,’ he promised.

‘Why wouldn’t it be safe, Frodo, as long as you keep it away from those young hooligans?’

Frodo colored a bit, then stole a sideways glance at Bilbo. Bilbo was not pleased by these signs of caution. His boy felt a need to measure, and possibly deceive. ‘I will just need to keep this in a special place,’ Frodo began slowly, and threw another of those glances, ‘to make sure nothing happens to it if I’m not around.’ Bilbo did a bit of quick calculation, and did not like the answer he came up with.

‘Would Sara take it away from you if he found it?’

‘He always takes away the things I have,’ Frodo said in an even tone, though the tightness of his lips belied the calm. ‘He says I’m given all I need and shouldn’t be grasping after other things.’

Bilbo did some more calculations and thought it time to broach another topic. ‘Sara threatened to pack you off somewhere. Do you think you should go somewhere else?’

Frodo jumped up and backed a few steps away from Bilbo. ‘You think I should be sent away, too?’ he asked fearfully. ‘What has Esmie said? Is she terribly angry with me? Are you here to take me away?’

Bilbo sat there with his mouth open. What have they been telling the lad? He was not sure what to say, but knew he needed to say something because it looked like the child was going to bolt at any second. ‘Well I certainly can’t talk to you if you’re dancing around like that, Frodo,’ he scolded gently. ‘Sit yourself down and I’ll give you your answers!’ Frodo slowly sat at the other end of the hearth. ‘Now, let me prepare another pipe so I don’t have to interrupt myself. It’s bad enough when other people do it. Impossibly rude when I do it to myself!’ he joked. Frodo did not laugh, just stared at him and waited. Bilbo gestured for Frodo to hand over his own pipe and prepared both. After a few puffs, he thought he had come up with an approach.

‘I don’t think you should be sent anywhere you don’t wish to go, Frodo, and I am not here to take you away. I know Esmie wouldn’t do that.’ He saw the lad relax at that, and wondered if he should mention Esmie’s plans about sending Frodo to Pal. That’s for her to explain, not me. And I have until the end of the year to persuade her to do otherwise. ‘She is a bit dismayed that you are being rather wild, hanging about with fellows who are not of the best character and getting into some scrapes that I would prefer not to know about.’ He put on his most annoyed expression and glared, until Frodo turned red and whispered an apology and a promise to be good.

‘But I don’t see that you’re doing too many terrible things, not for a bright tween lad with too much time on his hands,’ Bilbo went on in a gentler tone, ‘and Esmie says you are a good boy. I tend to believe what she says.’ Frodo smiled and fiddled with his pipe. Bilbo puffed a few times, trying to figure out how to phrase things. ‘Esmie did say she thinks that these boys you’ve been seeing are not the ones she would like you to be associating with.’ There it was again, that strange look, a flitting half-smile, dropped eyes, a shrug. ‘I don't think you want to disappoint her.’

‘No, I don’t.’

‘As I said, I’m not here to take you away, Frodo, if that is what you are afraid of. But I think you’ve outgrown Buckland and what is here for you. I’m worried about you. I don’t like what little I can see of how Sara treats you, and I like even less what you have told me about Sara. These other boys sound like trouble, too. I think you are getting into mischief because you don’t have things to keep you occupied. I’d like to do more with you than tell you stories about elves,’ that strange look again, dropped eyes, ‘I’d like to teach you elvish,’ Frodo gave him a curious glance, ‘have you talk to dwarves,’ the boy's eyes grew big, ‘maybe even meet a wizard,’ Frodo was sitting up, excitement in his face. ‘Though the ways of wizards are strange, and I never know when Gandalf will knock on the door. And if that doesn’t convince you, you had better come and live at Bag End, Frodo my lad, and then we can celebrate our birthday-parties comfortably together. No more of this trotting back and forth.’ He settled back and puffed a bit, watching the prospect of meeting dwarves and a wizard work its magic on Frodo, not to mention sharing a birthday-party.

Then Frodo did something he did not like at all. That look came back, but a little different. It was the same look Esmie had given him earlier in the parlor, the look that called into question all his acts, all his motives, and reduced them to an impossibly crude answer. What have they told the lad about me? Bilbo knew he would probably be very angry if he did not feel so nauseated at the thought of what Sara might have said. A child should not even know such questions exist. He tried to keep his own face calm and pleasant. Frodo dropped his eyes and gave that maddening shrug again.

‘If you and Esmie think it is what should be done, and if Uncle Rory says it’s all right,’ Frodo gazed into the fire and tried to look disinterested, ‘well, I guess I have to go, right?’ The look again, fast, wary, suspicious.

Bilbo decided to turn the question around. ‘Why do you want to stay?’ Frodo looked quizzical. Bilbo pressed on. ‘What keeps you in Buckland? You said these boys aren’t your friends. Sara, the next Master of Buckland, doesn’t much care to have you around,’ Frodo made a face and shook his head. Bilbo filed that away for another conversation, ‘and unless you intend to become a farm hand, there’s not much more for you to learn around these parts. I imagine you’ve read about every book in the library here, yes? So, why do you wish to stay?’

Frodo shrugged, played with the pipe for a bit, then said, ‘I love Esmie and Gammer and Uncle Rory and Merle and Merry, and I don’t want to leave them.’ He looked back up at Bilbo, defiant. ‘They need me. Gammer’s sick and she needs me to help her move around since Sara,’ he almost spat his cousin's name, ‘is too busy attending to his business to help her. I don’t want to leave Esmie. She needs me to help with Gammer and the little ones, especially if there’s going to be more.’

Bilbo's eyebrows went up on that. He was not aware that Esmie intended to have more children, given some things Gilda had said in a few of her letters to him, though he suspected Sara wanted a second boy. Another thing to talk to Esmie about in the days to come. ‘Now, Frodo, Sara does have business to attend to,’ he’s just usually too busy in the tavern to see to them, ‘as does your Uncle Rory. That's the business of the Master, to look after things.’

‘So, you see, Sara and Uncle Rory are busy, so I am needed! They do need me!’ Frodo's voice was a bit too anxious to be assertive. Time to strike.

‘No, Frodo, actually they probably don’t need you.’ Bilbo watched his nephew's face crumple, and hoped the boy would not cry. He was never any good against tears. ‘They love you right back, as much as you love them, and they would probably keep you here forever if they could. But they don’t need you. There are plenty of folk here in Buckland who would be honored to help care for the Mistress. Grown up ladies who know more of healing and caring than you do. Ladies who are a good sight more sensible than a flighty tween who can’t be found half the time because he’s off raiding some farmer’s crops.’

Bilbo let Frodo stew in a nice pot of guilt for a minute. ‘As far as Esmie and the children go, lad, use your head! I don’t usually speak so plain but you’re old enough and sensible enough to understand such things. Sara’s a jealous man, and he doesn’t like you close to his wife.’ Frodo's face went as red as the embers in the hearth and he refused to look up. So much for Frodo having a taste for boys, Bilbo thought with a snort. Esmie definitely has another love-struck admirer. ‘I don’t think I have to spell out for you what kind of nonsense is going to run through your fool cousin’s head,’ or what kind of nonsense is already running through your own fool head, ‘if you stay for much longer around his wife. Especially if there might be another child.

‘In any event, it is nothing that can or should be decided now’' Bilbo concluded in a cheerier tone. Frodo glared at him for a moment, then sighed and stood up.

‘I should be going to bed, Uncle Bilbo,’ Frodo said, walking over to him. Bilbo stood. Frodo came to a stop in front of him and searched his face, silently considering the questions a child had no business knowing. Frodo then gave Bilbo a winning smile that did not quite reach his eyes. ‘I should go,’ the boy repeated.

Bilbo was not sure what to make of all this, but thought Frodo leaving now would probably be the best end to the evening. He put on his happiest smile and held out his arms for a hug. ‘Then I shall see you in the morning, Frodo!’ The boy stepped into the embrace, then turned his head and grazed Bilbo’s cheek with a kiss that made a small shiver run down Bilbo's neck. He gave Frodo a solid old-relative-gives-a-little-child-a-kiss-on-the-cheek kind of kiss, and took Frodo by the shoulders, making the boy step back.

‘It is so good to see you again, my boy!’ Bilbo hoped none of the alarm he felt showed in his face or could be heard in his voice. Frodo stared at him for a split second with that unsettling expression, then his face broke into a gleeful smile and he stepped forward to give Bilbo a more natural-feeling hug. He looked like a child again.

‘I’m so glad you came, Uncle Bilbo! Are you going to stay until our birthday?’ He sounded like a child again, all puppy-dog eagerness and cheer.

‘Oh, I think that can be arranged,’ Bilbo assured him.

Frodo grinned and started for the door, then stopped and held out the new pipe. ‘Will you keep this while you’re staying, Uncle Bilbo? I don’t think I’ll be smoking it unless I’m with you.’

‘Of course I will.’ Bilbo took the pipe, then put an arm around Frodo and walked him to the door. He kissed the lad on the forehead, bid him sweet dreams, and sent him off. Then he sat down in front of the fire and smoked and thought until he was too tired to do either.


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