3. Mayor, Master, Thain

Bilbo POV

In which trouble and change are discussed, and respectability keeps causing problems.


Late Morning, Brandy Hall, 9 Halimath 1389

Bilbo had never had reason to care too much about respectability. Until now. He and Rory sat in Rory’s study, each holding a glass of brandy, and Bilbo tried to figure out a way to discuss what was on his mind. There were a number of things he needed to talk to Rory about, and all of them came back to Frodo.

‘Don’t know how you do it, Baggins,’ Rory ruefully laughed, ‘but you really aren’t getting much older.’

Bilbo smiled wanly, wishing he knew himself so he could get the speculation to end. He sometimes considered just saying it was the elf food. It made some sense to him, so who was anyone to second-guess him? ‘Come, now, Rory, you know the Baggins family is a long-lived one! Toss in some Old Took, and there you have it!’ He took a sip of brandy and tried to keep his annoyance from showing.

Rory eyed him. ‘I’m the same degree as you from the Old Took, cousin, and I look like a horse trampled me. And I’m younger than you by more than a decade.’

Bilbo joked, ‘It’s the Stoor in you, Rory. It makes you melt away like riverbank dirt.’ Bilbo swirled his brandy and spoke in a soft voice, ‘And I haven’t as many worries as you do, brother. I’m a carefree fellow. You have all of Buckland to watch over.’ The two old hobbits locked eyes for a few moments, and Rory nodded.

‘All of Buckland, brother. And watching my heart waste away in front of me. And trying to train the wrong son to do the Master’s work. Aye, I have my worries,’ Rory sadly concluded.

Bilbo set down his glass and moved his chair closer to Rory’s, then took the other man’s hand in his own. ‘I don’t know what to say, old friend. I wish there was something I could do, but humorous tales don’t heal and even were my fortune as large as people like to imagine, I can’t buy sense to put between Sara’s ears.’

Rory looked at him intently. ‘You have given us things no coin could possibly buy, Bilbo,’ giving Bilbo’s hand a squeeze. ‘Don’t be so sure about your stories not healing. Gilda hasn’t been this lively in months. She walked a little bit by herself after supper last night, did you know? You’ve made her laugh and forget her own worries for a while, which is the best tonic she could have. To see her laughing like that, and calling you names, ah, it made me feel younger, too.’

‘Speaking of feeling younger, you troublemaking son of a Took, I had a grand time telling Frodo about the uses we made of that old service hall behind the second kitchen back when we were his age,’ Bilbo cheerily informed Rory, who groaned and shook a finger at him, ‘and he couldn’t believe that his sweet, kind, good-mannered, ancient Uncle Rory was ever a hell-raising youngster. So, I of course had to give him some good examples of your dissolute youth.’ Bilbo stared up at the ceiling with a thoughtful expression. ‘I think I’ve given the lad a few adventures to try out.’

‘Damned Baggins!’ Rory chortled. ‘Now I’ll never get the rascal to behave!’

Bilbo considered opening his argument for why Frodo should come back to Hobbiton with him, but decided it was not quite time. ‘Ah, yes, the years of our own pranks have gone by, and it is time for a new generation of rascals to continue our dreadful deeds,’ he solemnly intoned, earning a playful slap from Rory. ‘Indeed, things are happening in the world around us,’ he continued, reaching over to retrieve his brandy, ‘as my travels showed me.’ He sipped from the glass, eyes on Rory, who simply looked at him with an expectant expression.

‘You know I’ve traveled farther from the Shire than any other hobbit now living,’ Bilbo began in a matter-of-fact voice, ‘and I’ve seen amazing things. People like my tales of dragons and trolls and exciting escapes, and I’m glad to amuse them. But there were things I saw that are harder to explain, too big to wrap your mind around very easily. I’ve kept talking to the wizard, and to dwarves and even a few elves that come through the Shire. They see things, they hear things, things that aren’t known here but which will affect us.’

Rory was watching him keenly, and motioned Bilbo to go on. ‘The grey riders you spoke of yesterday, Rory. That’s one of those strange things. Why are they here? What are they doing? Who are they? Who sent them? I’ve heard tell of these grey-cloaked fellows before, but no one knows anything for certain.

‘The dwarves bring news of building, peace and prosperity where the dragon once held sway. There’s a new town in Dale, and Esgaroth is busier than ever. So this is good news. But they also bring news of shadowy creatures growing in number and becoming more bold in the great forest of Mirkwood, and of rumors of armies in the far east. Gandalf said evil things have awakened in the south, and bid me to stay secure in the Shire. Most of the news from Bree is no better than fairy tales designed to scare children, and what’s left is simple things like a pony in a tap room, or some widow’s chickens getting loose. But there are some small bits of news that make note of more people, queer folk, coming up the Greenway from the south.’ Bilbo sat back and let that sink into Rory’s head.

The other hobbit stared into the fireplace for a bit, then gave his head a little shake, and replenished their glasses. Wordlessly, Bilbo handed over his pipe, knowing that Rory would want something to do with his hands as he thought. In all their years, this had never changed. Rory needed to have something in his hands if he was to think. A pipe to fill, a harness to fix, a fiddle to fiddle with, even some pebbles to toss - it did not much matter what it was, as long as he could wrap his fingers around it while he wrapped his thoughts around what needed thinking. He watched his cousin, as dear as a brother, slowly and meticulously fill and tamp their pipes. Old Toby, of course. Rory did not smoke anything less these days.

‘So, Bilbo, what’s landing on our doorstep? Wolves? Orcs? Dragons?’


Rory gave him an annoyed look. ‘Change? Why not wolves? We can deal with wolves.’

Bilbo smiled faintly at the joke. He remembered the White Wolves. They were not so easy to deal with. I wish I’d had Sting back then. ‘Well, no saying they won’t be part of it, Rory. But the reason we might get wolves - though I don’t think dragons - is because of change.’

‘Change doesn’t sit well with Shire-folk. Not even Bucklanders.’

‘I know. But, sit well or sit poor, it’s happening.’ Bilbo paused to draw on his pipe, one eye on Rory. ‘And we hobbits aren’t going to be given much choice in the matter.’

‘Well, it can just change out there,’ Rory gestured in a vaguely easterly direction, ‘and leave us be.’

Bilbo shook his head. ‘No, we shan’t escape it this time. Not when a wizard sees fit to warn us of it.’ Rory stared back, disbelieving, for a moment, then sighed and shook his head. ‘It’s true,’ Bilbo said urgently. ‘Gandalf has no reason to lie to us.’

‘Nay, you mistake me, brother,’ Rory sadly replied, ‘I’ll not be doubting you on this. The contrary is so, I believe you only too much, and I don’t like what that belief says.’

‘Like it or not, will we or nil, brother, there’s mighty powerful changes happening, and we here in the Shire are going to have to change somewhat, too,’ Bilbo replied, ‘and I don’t think it wise to leave those changes to chance.’

Rory’s look became calculating. ‘What mean you?’

Bilbo took a deep breath. This would be tricky. The Master of Buckland, even if that Master was his dear and trusting cousin, was not someone who allowed things to be dictated to him. ‘We need to start, now, while things are good, getting some solid folk into shape for taking care of the Shire for when things are not so good.’

‘When trouble arrives on the doorstep?’

‘Yes, when the Troubles come. And these folk need to be working with each other to keep things strong and stable during the Troubles.’

‘Sounds like you’re talking about the Mayor, the Master and the Thain.’ Rory’s voice was a bit flat, but his glance was sharp.

Bilbo nodded, ‘At the very least, these three, but more than them. Three isn’t enough, though without those three things will be nigh impossible.’

‘We’ve done well without any kings or lords or such,’ Rory replied. ‘We’ve lived here nice and peaceful without bothering or being bothered. We’ve done it for a good long piece, too, so I don’t see as how we need to build anyone up.’

‘Actually, Rory, we’ve hardly been here, the Shire’s hardly been here, for a blink of the eye as most people reckon things,’ Bilbo said, exasperated with the narrowness of Rory’s knowledge, but knowing his own sense of time was the odd perspective, not Rory’s. ‘Anyway, I haven’t said anything about kings or lords. I’m talking about what we already have, and how to change a little so that we don’t get pushed aside.’

‘So, say as what’s on your mind.’

‘What I think is that we need some schooling to happen, and we need to encourage the youngsters to think a bit more on what’s outside the Shire and might be coming in. I think we could use a bit better organized Watch, what with more strangers walking through the Shire, and I wouldn’t say no to more Messengers, or maybe a few new things for the Messenger Service.’

‘Sounds like you need to run for Mayor, brother,’ Rory teased him, but there was some seriousness to his tone, ‘and be in charge of the Watch and the Post. Maybe there can be some schools in there, too.’

Bilbo, sank back in his chair with a bitter smile. ‘Don’t think I haven’t thought of it, Rory. I’ve been sore tempted the last few times.’

‘So, why haven’t you? I wouldn’t mind entertaining the Mayor,’ Rory joked.

Bilbo didn’t laugh. ‘Oh, I guess “Mad Baggins” isn’t quite respectable enough to be a Mayor. Not enough for Pal, anyway.’ He had floated the idea around Hobbiton and in West- and Southfarthing a few months before the last election at the Free Fair in 1385. Most of those who showed up and voted were from those two Farthings, so it made sense to see what his reception might be.

Fort had died a few years before and rumor had it that Rum was not inclined to give up his libertine ways, not that he and Bilbo were speaking at the time. Fort’s widow, Lalia Clayhanger, ran the affairs of the clan within the Great Smials as she had done for fifty-three years, since her mother-in-law, Willow Burrows, had died. She and Bilbo were not on speaking terms, either. Bilbo had thought people would want an older and more sensible Mayor to counter-balance the new and irresponsible Thain. Pal had quickly put an end to that idea, letting folks in the Tooklands know that there was no call to have two like Rum in charge of important things. Bilbo also suspected that Pal was not interested in having someone as Mayor who might challenge his authority, and the current Mayor, Pasco Goodbody, was completely amenable to doing whatever Pal told him to do. Without support from the Thain, or the one whom people respected as the Thain, you did not become Mayor, and Bilbo had no interest in having a public battle with either Rum or Pal, his own reputation dragged into the mud either way.

He and Pal had exchanged some words not long afterwards, and that was when Pal had let him know he was no longer a welcome guest at the Great Smials, or anywhere in the Tooklands.

‘I might have to put up with a creature like Rum because there’s no putting him out, Baggins, but I won’t have another unnatural walking my home around my children. Your kinship’s not so close that I can’t tell you to take your tastes elsewhere. You can’t buy my affections, or any other part of me.’

Pal’s words had cut more deeply than he wanted to admit and the lack of protest by any of his other Took kin, especially Flame and Gis, had hurt even more. He expected that Lalia would oppose him, but not that his cousins would allow it. On the other hand, it does prevent any unfortunate run-ins with the Thain… He rarely tramped in Southfarthing anymore. Between the Sackville-Bagginses and the Tooks, there was little fondness for him in those lands. The feel of Rory’s hand squeezing his own brought him back to Brandy Hall.

‘Bilbo. Dear Bilbo, the fools don’t know what you’ve done, and they’re not good enough for you anyhow,’ Rory soothed. ‘Those western folk are more than a bit queer in the head and don’t see things plain the way we do in Buckland.’ Bilbo knew that “those western folk” meant pretty much everyone west of the Brandywine. ‘Pal’s all the worse an idiot for not seeing what a help you would be for him. I suspect he’s more than a bit jealous of you, brother, with all your good deeds. Maybe he was afraid you’d do such a good job of Mayor that some might want you to be Thain. If people decided they didn’t like Rum or Pal, well, the Thain hasn’t always been a Took. Besides, you’re closer to the Old Took than Pal is.’

‘Rory, stop spouting nonsense,’ Bilbo teased.

‘No more nonsense than wanting you to be Mayor. I know from a few of my people here that you’ve done naught but right by more than a few of the less fortunate folk around the Shire. Kin talks to kin. I know why you spend more time walking about than in your own smial. You’re always asking about what folks need, and suddenly, there’ll be some money from somewhere letting that silo be built, or that school be held, or a bridge set up. You may not get called “Mayor,” but you tend the Shire as well as any who’ve ever borne the title, and a sight better than most.’

Bilbo shrugged. ‘I should have tried to do it sooner, while Fort was still Thain.’

‘Yes, you should have,’ Rory answered, with a touch of annoyance, ‘as both Fort and I kept trying to convince you, if you will recall! Right after Wilton Grubb died would have been best. Gundred meant well, I know he’s your cousin through Pansy, but he caused more trouble than he solved. We needed you helping us keep things in order, not tramping about looking at stars and drawing pictures of leaves. By the Delver, we would have been something to reckon with!’

Bilbo laughed a little at Rory’s vehemence. ‘And what would we have done, oh high and mighty Master of Buckland? Raided all the kitchens from Buckland to the White Downs?’

Rory teased him back, ‘That would have just been the start! Not that you need to raid any kitchen. You go to more celebrations than the Mayor, it seems, and aren’t just there for the food. Though I hear you make a good impression on that count, too. You seem to be determined to make every goodwife in the Shire blush from compliments about her cooking.’

‘Well, the best way to be assured a place at the table is to appreciate the cook,’ Bilbo teased back. He always made sure to praise the cooking of the goodwife wherever he ate and to clean his plate. When he was out tramping, it was usually the only meal he ate during the day. He did not really have an appetite for more, not like he used to.

He puffed his pipe a few times, then shook his head and returned the squeeze on his hand. ‘No, Rory, I’m not the one to be Mayor. I am too old, too odd, and like as not I’ll go bounding off on some tom-fool adventure and leave you all dangling. No. I’m thinking of the younger fellows, the ones who are just grown and not quite grown. They’re the ones who’ll face the changes and the Troubles. At some point, not too long from now, I will die, regardless of how I look. I need to be looking out for after that time.’

Rory slumped down in his chair and rumbled a bit. ‘I think you’re right, brother, and I’m damn sorry to say I’ve done naught but add to these Troubles to come. Sara’s not a bad lad, but he’s such a block-headed fool.’ Rory watched the fire, little more than embers now, and Bilbo watched him clench and unclench his jaw a few times. ‘He’s not fit to be Master, Bilbo. And the only one who doesn’t know this is the fool himself. He’s got no mind for figures. He’ll do whatever I tell him with a grin and all the good-will in the world. He’s not witless, he knows better than to shame himself before the Hall, but that’s not enough. The Master has to think about things, know what’s around the next bend. Sara has no hobbit-sense, no feel for dirt and wind and the River. He’s as jolly a chap as any could ask for, but the folk, they don’t respect him, they don’t look up to him. Even the animals don’t pay him any mind. He loves Esmie and he’s good to her. The two of them are like tweens in a harvest hayloft. Couldn’t ask for him to love his babes any more than he does. He’s a good man, Bilbo, dammit, he is! But he’s not a Master. He’s not a Master for a time of trouble.’ Rory looked miserable as he summed up his eldest son. ‘And I’m failing Buckland with an heir like that.’

‘Rory, that’s not so. Brandy Hall and Buckland have never been more prosperous, not even under your father. Not a soul goes wanting in this land. You’ve got more than one son. What about Mac? Pal’s not the Thain, either, but he’s the one who manages Southfarthing, not Rum.’

‘But Pal’s going to be Thain, unless Rum embarrasses himself worse than he usually does and gets some girl in trouble because he can’t tell what he’s just poked into. Mac won’t be Master, and he’s not so close to his brother that he’ll do all Sara’s work for him. And, truth be told, even Mac’s not that impressive. He’s got more sense than Sara and he’s the most responsible boy you’ll ever see, but he can’t see further than his own nose. People ask him for answers, but they don’t ask him for advice. He’s not a one for troubled times either, though he’s better than Sara.’

‘So, we’re going to have to rely on the Thain and the Mayor, and see that Merry learns right, yes?’ Bilbo was ready to press his own suit now.

‘Yes. Though I can’t say I have much more faith in Pal or Pasco Goodbody than I have in Mac, for much the same reason. Pal works as hard as any hobbit born, but he’s got about as much imagination as a post. He knows how to order people about, not inspire them. He’s not a beast like Alder, but he’s got a mean streak and he doesn’t like to share, always looking out for his own purse first.’  Bilbo scowled and nodded. Rum might be irresponsible and obscene, but he was generous and protective of those who had suffered misfortune. ‘Pasco, well, I know he’s your second cousin down from your Da’s Aunt Lily, Bilbo, but he’s nothing like you. He can barely keep the Messenger Service running, and half the time I wonder if knows how to say a marriage benediction. Wilcar Chubb’s the one who makes sure the Mayor’s duties get carried out, to be honest, but he’s got Westfarthing to tend. We’re going to need some daring lads, with good heads on their shoulders. Might as well ask for Marcho and Blanco, or Bullroarer, to come back to life. Better yet, Grandfather himself!’

‘Well,’ Bilbo said in an off-hand fashion, ‘I think the answer is to look around at the most likely of the Old Took’s offspring and see who we can start raising up. Your own Merry, obviously, but doesn’t Mac have a boy, too? And all those cousins of ours down from Saradas and Asphodel. There’s four boys there - Seredic, Milo, Marco and the young one of Rufus’s…’

‘Bargo. He’s fostering here now, under Amaranth’s care, along with one of the girls. ‘

‘So, what of them?’

‘Seredic is a copy of Big Sara, a follower, not a leader, and inclined to spook at new ideas. But he’s loyal as the land itself. Animals trust him, so people do, too. He and Fred, Wili’s youngest, are close. They married the Bracegirdle sisters, Hilda and Helga. You know more of Milo than I do, but Bargo’s got a mean streak like Pal and he’s as stupid as Pasco.’

‘Milo’s married to Prisca’s niece, Peony, and I met him at the wedding. He’s affable and deals honestly with folk. He’s like Rufus; no one has a bad word for him. I don’t know much about Marco. Married to a Grubb girl, I think.’ Bilbo carefully did not mention Frodo, waiting for Rory to lay claim to these cousins first.

‘Yes, well, they’re all kin, so I can keep an eye on them.’ Rory scowled, thinking hard. ‘Can’t say that there’s much to harvest out of the Took tree itself, though. Esmie’s the brightest one to come out of the Great Smials since Fort, and she’s already here. Gave us Merry! And Merle’s quite something, too. A proper marriage for her in time to come, and we can bring some good fellow in. Can’t say I know much about Boulder’s grandsons, Hi and Singer’s boys. Don’t they have some Baggins in them?’

Bilbo shrugged his head. ‘More Bolger than Baggins, in truth. Less so than Alder’s children. Anyway, none of them stand out.’

‘Neither Flame nor Gis have produced anything to get excited about.’

‘Addy and Andy are sharper than Pal and not so surly, but…’ Bilbo kept any enthusiasm out of his voice. They did not need a Took Mayor to go with a Took Thain. Rory shook his head emphatically.

‘Andy’s married to Odogar’s daughter, and I don’t need Tooks messing about in the Marish. Odogar’s bad enough!  Pal’s the best as can be found down there in that warren of Tooks. He’ll get a son on Eglantine at some point, and then we might have something to work with. I hear they have a babe coming near Yule.’ Rory lapsed into thoughtful silence.

‘So, there’s the Master and the Thain, now we just have to take care of the Mayor,’ Bilbo teased, ‘and I’ll do that, seeing as how I’m closer to Michel Delving.’ Rory turned a curious eye his direction.

‘You have someone in mind?’

Bilbo dropped the joking façade and moved directly to the point. ‘Frodo. I might not be the right choice, but the Baggins have served well as Mayor since before Dargo.’

Rory just sat and watched him, then slowly nodded. ‘Aye. Too young yet, of course, but, aye, Frodo. That’s one to raise up right proper. There hasn’t been a Baggins Mayor since your Da was acting Mayor right after the Fell Winter, and I think people wouldn’t mind another.’

‘But there’s never been a Brandybuck mayor, and there’s the problem. As long as Frodo stays here in Buckland, there’s not going to be much welcome for him in the Shire proper. He’ll be seen as a Brandybuck.’ Rory did not say anything, just looked at him, waiting to see where Bilbo was going with the argument. ‘And there’s things he needs to know if he’s going to go on to such a place, things he’s not learning here by being Esmie’s baby-sitter, or dodging Sara’s elbows. Sara has no great love for the lad, I’m afraid.’ There, I’ve said it. Bilbo returned Rory’s look.

Rory dropped his eyes and studied the carpet near his toes. ‘It’s true Sara’s none too happy with the lad, but Frodo’s got a smart tongue in his head. Takes after his Da that way.’ Rory looked up quickly, a twinkle in his eye and a grin tugging at the corner of his mouth, ‘And he’d best learn to mind it afore it gets him into as much trouble as it did Drogo. But I think you’re too concerned, Bilbo. It’s more than half Esmie’s fault, him and Sara not getting along. She dotes on him more than is proper for someone not his Ma, and the lad’s turning into a fine looking young hobbit. He’s got the Old Took’s face, that’s for certain, and he’s turning a few heads.’ Rory’s eyes dropped suddenly, and Bilbo leaned forward, not liking the turn in Rory’s thinking. ‘He’s gone a bit sweet on Esmie, like every boy who’s ever seen her does. And I don’t think that’s such a bad thing. It’s harmless to the boy. A lad that age should be staring at a good-looking woman.’ Rory finally looked back at Bilbo. And looked at him the way Esmie and Frodo had.

Bilbo turned and set the glass of brandy down. He needed to compose himself. He also did not want to risk crushing the glass in his hand or throwing it in anger. Damn you, Rory, damn you. You know me! I’m your brother, damn you! He did not much care how cold his tone was when he answered. ‘It’s not so harmless as it would appear, Rory, when I can see with my own eyes that Sara doesn’t mind hurting the child – and he’s still a child! – for small things, like staring at his wife. It’s only going to get worse as Frodo gets older and Sara gets more jealous. If he leaves now, before there’s a real fight between them, by the time they run into each other again, this jostling will be forgotten. Sara and Esmie will have other babes, and Frodo will have a wife of his own. The Master and the Mayor have to get along.’

‘True,’ Rory agreed, ‘and I think it is best for the lad to go. As I said, Esmie’s a bit more fond of the boy than is strictly proper, but she does think of what’s best. She said something over breakfast this morning about sending him to Pal. Said she’d mentioned it to you, and that she’d already spoken to Pal. That doesn’t sound so bad. He’ll be in the Shire proper, and there will be plenty of cousins near to his own age. Can’t hurt him to be seen with the Thain if he is to be Mayor. He’ll need to get along with the Thain, too. I think it’s the best thing to do with the lad.’

Bilbo could not stand this anymore. He lunged up from his chair and began to pace. ‘No! What are any of you thinking? Send the boy into the Great Smials? They make Brandy Hall look like nothing! And what about Rum? Pal is not the Thain, Rum is. If you are so concerned about how things will appear, why are you sending Frodo to the most disreputable hobbit in the Shire? Put him in the Great Smials right under Rum’s nose with no one looking out for him. That’s like setting flowers next to a bee hive! You know there will be trouble.’

Rory sighed in exasperation. ‘Bilbo! Be sensible! Frodo is going to Pal and Eglantine, not Rum. He’ll hardly be in the Great Smials from what Esmie says. They spend most of their time on the plantation in Whitwell, not the Great Smials, just during winter. Frodo won’t just be running loose. Pal will put him to good use.’

‘Pal has no time for a tween,’ Bilbo snapped back, ‘not with his duties and obligations. Eglantine has three small girls, and you said yourself she’s got another coming soon. Pal may do the Thain’s work, but he’s not Thain, and what does he actually know? What did we just sit here discussing? He can’t see further than next week! He’ll just turn Frodo into some farm hand. Pal has nothing to teach Frodo, he’s not going to be pleased about why the boy’s been sent there,’ here, two can throw that rumor about, ‘and he’ll be far too harsh on him. Pal is as likely to try to thrash sense into the lad as to try to teach him.’

Bilbo was not ready for Rory’s next words. ‘Well, Bilbo, maybe the lad needs a bit of harshness to show him what’s right. A thrashing, applied at the right time, can teach quite a bit. It’s kept him out of Maggot’s mushrooms. We can’t have another like Rum, after all. Frodo’s going to need to be set right if he’s going to turn into what you think he should be. He’ll have both examples before him, Rum and Pal, and he’ll be shown how to choose the right one. With a firm hand, if need be.’

Bilbo stopped his pacing and stood very still. ‘Rory, if one of your ponies wouldn’t pull a cart, kept shying away from it, would you thrash him for shying?’

‘Frodo’s not a pony, and it’s not a cart he’s shying from.’

‘I’m not talking about Frodo. I’m talking about me.’

‘So, what are you shying from?’

‘Wouldn’t you rather just give me a thrashing? That’s what your face says. That’s what your words say. Just whip the beast until it does what you want, right?’

‘Bilbo, brother …’

‘Don’t you call me “brother” if you’re going to look at me like that! And answer me this, won’t you ruin a fine pony if you beat him when he rears up and won’t do as you ask right away?’

‘Now you’re speaking of the lad.’

‘Yes, now I am.’

‘So, he’s just rearing up a bit, you think?’

‘I don’t think it, I know it. I can tell these things! Can you look me in the eye and say you didn’t rear up a bit when you were that age? Remember who you’re talking to!’

‘Seems a bit more than that with Frodo.’

‘You just said he’s infatuated with Esmie. I agree. He hardly takes his eyes off her. So, which is it? And what do you mean “a bit more”?’

‘Sara’s said …’

‘Sara’s jealous! And not very smart, as you and Gilda have told me any number of times. He’d repeat any stupid damn thing if it let him get a dig in at Frodo. The more such things are said, well, the more it will be believed, whether or not it’s true. Like my tunnels full of dragon gold.’

‘So, it’s not so. So, it’s a few foolish things that have gotten exaggerated. All to the better, then. Why not send him to Pal, if that’s the case? None of the rumors, a crop of pretty girls who will want to flirt with the new boy, plenty of opportunities for him to stop rearing up.’ Rory shook an admonishing finger at Bilbo. ‘If Frodo is going to become what you want for him, he will have to be respectable. That means in other people’s minds, not just yours. Being fostered by the Thain-to-be, particularly by one like Pal, is a quick way to get there.’

‘Oh, yes, so respectable! I know what Pal thinks of “unnatural” people, Rory,’ Bilbo spat. ‘He won’t even let me into the Great Smials. I can’t believe you’d let Frodo go there! You don’t care, do you? You or Esmie! If the price of respectability is being beaten to within an inch of his life by an uncle who hates unnatural things, what of it? After all, it’s only Frodo who’s going to pay the price for respectability!’

‘Come now, Bilbo, you don’t know that will happen,’ Rory tried to soothe him.

‘You know it will!’ Bilbo snarled back. The two glared at each other.

Bilbo quickly moved to Rory’s chair and leaned down over his cousin, hands on the arms of the chair. Rory did not flinch. ‘Rory, we have known each other from the day you were born. We know all of each other’s faults and crimes, and shared most of them. You know me. What do you think I would do to him, that you’d rather send Frodo to Pal? To Rum?’

Rory reached up and laid his hands on either side of Bilbo’s face. Gently, he pulled his older cousin’s face down to his, and laid a kiss on his forehead, another on the tip of his nose, and a final one on his lips. Bilbo closed his eyes and rested his forehead against Rory’s.

‘Why do you think such things of me, Rory?’ Bilbo sadly said, ‘I never would.’

‘I don’t,’ Rory replied simply, and Bilbo believed him. Rory went on, ‘But others do think such things, and they don’t love either of you, and they will be more than happy to believe the worst. He can’t go to Bag End and only be with you. It wouldn’t be respectable.’

Bilbo sank to the floor and sat next to Rory, head on Rory’s thigh, as Frodo had sat next to him the day before. Rory stroked his hair and hummed some old lullaby. After a while, he left off humming and just rubbed his fingers on Bilbo’s head, just behind his ear, just as he would scratch a hound who had settled at his feet.

‘Damned Baggins,’ Rory gently teased, ‘you’ll die before you get old, you know that?’ Bilbo did not answer. ‘Cousin, I know you love the lad in the right way, and you want to do what’s right by him. Well, maybe that’s letting him be. He’ll do well enough. He’s not the first boy to be made to leave some mistakes behind with the help of a new place, and few clouts upside the head. Not even these kinds of mistakes. Frodo’s tougher than you think. And you’ve just told me yourself that we shouldn’t pay the rumors any mind, so why worry about Rum? Just don’t tell him the boy’s there. Frodo will do fine with Pal, and he will grow up to marry some plump, giggling lass, and have a smial full of children, and be Mayor.’

‘And he’ll be ever so respectable,’ Bilbo added.

Rory rubbed him behind his ear for a bit. ‘Yes, and he’ll be respectable.’


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