In which desires are exposed, offers are extended, and choices are made.
Evening, Brandy Hall, 17 Halimath 1389
Bilbo set two chairs in front of the fire, and considered how he was going to cut apart Esmie’s web. It had been a wearing day. Sara, Mac and Rory had all gone back to the Old Orchard to oversee the last of the pressing and getting the sheds packed for winter. They were also going to check the Gate into the Old Forest and take a close look at the High Hay near the Orchard. Gilda was in bed, resting from Harvest rites, and Esmie was playing Mistress.
She had kept Frodo close all day. Bilbo was astounded at how openly she flirted with the lad, though he certainly could not blame Frodo for reveling in the attention. After what he had seen in the woods, Bilbo had to admit he preferred seeing his boy blushing and giggling, so obviously enjoying himself. That the attentions were coming from a woman almost old enough to be the lad’s mother did leave him a touch queasy. That the woman was Esmie made it almost impossible to watch. She knew Bilbo was watching, and sent sly looks his direction.
Frodo would not look at him. The boy kept his eyes dropped, shooting quick glances when he thought Bilbo was not looking. Bilbo tired of watching, and took the opportunity to do a bit of investigating (with the help of his ring) in Sara and Esmie’s quarters. He quickly found the final butterflies, the finest of Prim’s linens, and they were now safely stored in the trunk. Bilbo wondered just when Esmie had claimed them as her own.
Part of him wanted to wait until he could speak to Gilda. He knew he should have found time, made Gilda give him time, the day he had uncovered Esmie’s scheme. She might have allowed Rory to convince her it was best to send Frodo to Pal, but she would never agree to what Esmie planned. But Esmie was going to leave with Frodo in four days and the soonest he could speak to Gilda privately would be tomorrow afternoon. The spider spins her web and I need to free him from it now.
Bilbo sat in one chair and began preparing their pipes. So much grasping after things. Esmie’s appropriation of Prim’s linens, of Prim’s child. Sara’s grasping hands from the night before, trying to seize the pipe from Frodo, then clutching at the boy himself. The other boy grasping Frodo’s hair, making him kneel. He remembered Frodo’s challenge to Sara, after all the insults, how fierce and proud his boy had been, facing down his tormentor.
The first step in eluding the spider, the only step that matters, is that Frodo must agree to go. Bilbo was certain of that, after the fracas with Sara. There can be no pushing the lad about. He will resent you and hate you if you do that. He is not something to be grasped and taken. Bilbo tamped the pipe-weed down in the bowl of his own pipe. What will convince him? Has he been touched with a dwarven-heart, too, living here with Esmie and Sara? Bilbo wondered again if the other boys had paid Frodo. His actions had been so perfunctory, not at all dissimilar from those lads you could obtain at certain inns if you knew how and whom to ask. Bilbo began work on Frodo’s pipe, pleased that his hands did not tremble.
Esmie’s words kept circling back in his head. “Don’t be so quick to be rid of your treasure, though, cousin. The lad’s affections might not be extended so easily if there was nothing but affection offered in return.” Bilbo considered that. He had always given the boy gifts, true; he delighted in it, though Frodo never asked for anything aside from the sweets that all children wanted. Is that where Frodo’s attentions to him lay? Would Frodo turn from him if the presents stopped? My lad does not have a dwarven-heart, unless it is one like Balin’s or Glóin’s. He’s generous to a fault himself. He’s like Rory, not Sara. He is not to be bought. Bilbo refused to think of lads at inns.
It was a moot point anyway; Esmie would not take his possessions in exchange for Frodo, which left them for Bilbo to use as he wished. She was simply counting on him to die before Frodo came to his majority so that she could make use of the wealth. And to be generous to his boy until that time should come. She won’t simply take it, she’s too careful, too subtle for plain avarice. Her plans ran deeper. Bilbo could see that. Wife to the Master, sister of the Thain, mother-in-law to the eventual Mayor - that Frodo would someday be Mayor, Bilbo was certain, especially after yesterday. Frodo would wait for Merle to grow up if he had Esmie in the meantime. Bilbo had no doubt now she intended a child between them to bind Frodo more closely yet. Lobelia’s designs on Bag End paled next to Esmie’s grasp for the greater part of the Shire itself. He had to admire the patient cunning of it all, though he wondered what she thought she would do with it, once seized.
Frodo had to want to come with him, and Bilbo was uncertain what he could do to make that happen. The lad looked at him askance, whatever his own activities, and Esmie had a great deal to offer that a tween boy would be eager to experience. Particularly one who had already seen another’s bared privates. I can’t argue against her, can’t say anything at all. If I try to discredit her, he won’t believe me. He’ll go to her defense. He’ll suspect a trick. Bilbo laid the prepared pipe down on the small table and picked up his own, moving to the other chair. He held the stem of the unlit pipe between his teeth and tried to see a way through the threads and windings.
In the flames in the grate, an answer formed. It was not much of an answer, and not anything like a plan. It was simply a recognition of what must be. Frodo was surrounded by rumor, lies, deception, false fronts. It must be burned away. Bilbo must tell and ask for the truth. If Frodo came to Bag End, it would be with no illusions, no falsehoods. How can the truth compare to hands on flesh, to whispers of want and affection, to gasps and groans of pleasure? The spider had many arms to wrap around the boy, snug threads to bundle him up and hold him in place. The stinging fly had only his bite.
A soft tap on the door brought him back. The round door opened and Frodo cautiously entered.
‘Sit, Frodo. I have our pipes prepared.’ Bilbo waited until Frodo was settled in the other chair, lit pipe in hand, eyes firmly fixed on the fire. Time for truth.
‘Well, Frodo, I am sorry that we won’t be celebrating our birthday together this year.’ The lad whipped around in astonishment. It’s rather nice to see your eyes again.
‘What do you mean? Are you going? You promised you’d stay!’
Broken promises… Bilbo had another target for his sting. He looked at Frodo in surprise. ‘Leaving? No, I’m not leaving. I’m staying, as I promised. You’re the one who will be going, not me.’
Frodo gave him a worried look. ‘What do you mean? I’m not going anywhere. Not yet. Not until after Yule.’
‘Well, Esmie said she would be taking you to the Great Smials on this coming Friday, and you’ll have your birthday there. I’ll be here with Rory and Gilda, though I’ll probably set out for Bag End the next day.’
Frodo was greatly upset. ‘Why? Why now? What has happened? I thought I wouldn’t be leaving for some weeks!’
Bilbo studied the boy’s worried face and saw something else. Guilt? Time to ask for some truth. ‘Well, Frodo, what has happened that Esmie wishes you to leave at once?’
Frodo sank back into his seat, drawing on his pipe and staring into the fire. After a moment he took the pipe in his hands and studied it. He shot a sideways glance at Bilbo, then shrugged. ‘I would say she had a row with Sara. Sara probably told her about the fight we had over the pipe yesterday,’ another glance, ‘and then complained. She probably doesn’t want another gathering where Sara can be so mean.’
‘I don’t think that’s it at all, Frodo.’ The boy gave him an alarmed glance, but did not speak. Bilbo waited, drawing on his pipe, until it became clear Frodo wasn’t going to talk. ‘You see, Esmie told me this on Saturday. I was rather upset and tried to talk her out of taking you away, to wait until after our birthday, but she was quite adamant. She wants you to go at once.’ He noted the relieved look that came over his boy’s face. Now, why was that? Ah, that the change wasn’t caused by what happened yesterday. ‘However, Frodo, you seem to think that something happened yesterday that would have changed her mind. What happened at Harvest?’
Frodo stared resolutely into the fire. ‘The argument with Sara, of course. You were there. You heard it.’
‘Yes, I was. And quite a bit was said that I wish I hadn’t needed to hear, while other things were said that I didn’t understand.’ The boy shrugged but wouldn’t take his eyes from the fire. ‘There was quite a bit yesterday that I saw, but didn’t understand.’ Sideways glance, shrug. ‘And there was something more than just the argument with Sara, wasn’t there?’
Frodo finally turned to face him. His face was quite blank, his eyes as they had been at the bonfire the night before. ‘What do you mean, uncle? There were many things that happened yesterday.’
‘I saw something yesterday, Frodo, and I’m honestly not quite sure what it was. I thought I saw you on your knees servicing three boys in succession in the woods out behind the center north shed.’ Bilbo sat back in his chair, and watched.
Frodo stared at him for some time, face going white, then red, then pale again. ‘You were spying on me,’ he replied, tone flat.
‘I was worried about you. I saw you heading off to a distant place with three much older, larger boys, and I followed.’
‘You couldn’t have! I would have seen you. Or heard you. They were watching and saw no one! Sara told you,’ Frodo replied hotly.
Sara told me? That did not sound right, either. ‘Frodo, remember who you are speaking to. I have spied on a dragon, outwitted forest spiders the size of most Shire ponies, and fooled an elf-king. I can certainly slip up on some heedless boys engaged in lustful acts,’ Bilbo dryly noted, and Frodo turned redder than ever. ‘Though I am now curious about your talk of Sara. I saw these fellows in his company afterwards. Did he send them after you for making a fool of him in the argument? Which you did quite handily, by the way. Very impressive.’ Bilbo drew on his pipe.
Frodo turned away and stared sullenly into the fire. ‘No. I don’t know. Maybe he did. It wasn’t anything to worry about.’
‘Sara didn’t send them to give you a thrashing?’
‘I don’t know. I don’t think so. I didn’t get hurt. They weren’t there to hurt me.’
‘So you weren’t doing this to get out of a thrashing? You didn’t bargain?’ Frodo shook his head. ‘Was this something you wished to do, your idea?’
Shrug. ‘I don’t care. It’s nothing, nothing to me.’ The boy stared into the fire, jaw clenched.
Bilbo felt his way carefully. ‘You didn’t hesitate much.’ Frodo shot him a look. Yes, I was watching, child. ‘Do you do this often?’ Eyes to fire, shrug. ‘These are the same ones, or some of the same ones, who threw Sara’s pipe away, aren’t they?’
‘Did they throw the pipe away because you wouldn’t service them?’
Frodo watched the fire for some time, working his own pipe between his fingers. Bilbo sat quietly and kept very still. The lad’s voice was clipped, yet soft, ‘They took it and said they’d throw it away if I didn’t, and would give it back, filled, if I did. So, I did, but they threw it away anyhow.’
Bilbo set his own pipe under his chair. He did not want to be touching it now. ‘So, they knew they could ask such a thing of you.’ Frodo nodded. ‘How did it all start?’
Frodo frowned and then looked a bit puzzled. ‘I’m, I’m not sure. It was just something a few of us did once, a while ago. We were just horsing around. And after a while, I was being asked. It’s not much. They weren’t terribly keen on having someone as young as me with them, but then they were, and they like for me to do this.’ He was quiet for a bit, then slowly turned his head and stared Bilbo in the eye. It was a knowing look, the one he had worn in the woods. ‘I’m good at it.’
‘So I could tell.’
Frodo blushed redder than ever and snapped his face back to the fireplace. They sat in silence. Bilbo mulled over the information and sighed to himself. Little child with larger bullies, but he wanted to belong. Oh, Frodo, why wasn’t someone watching out for you? Well, getting him away from the bullies would probably take care of the “naughty” behavior. He rather doubted Frodo would do this if he were not being pressured. Perhaps you’ll find a better use for your lips, with a more appreciative person. Then Bilbo remembered who had plans for Frodo’s lips and barely suppressed a shiver. Is bedding Esmie so much worse than what you saw? Is it any better?
‘Are you going to tell Uncle Rory?’ Frodo asked quietly. He still held his pipe. ‘I’ll probably be sent off tomorrow if you do. But I guess you have to.’
Bilbo listened carefully for guile in the lad’s words, but only heard sadness, a touch of defeat. ‘I would prefer you told Rory yourself, just as you told me, Frodo. I think he would want to hear it from you.’ The boy looked at him with an expression of disbelief. ‘I am not inclined to tell this tale to anyone, mostly because I think you need to be the one to tell it. I don’t mean about yesterday, or only yesterday. You should have spoken sooner to your Uncle Rory when the other boys started picking on you!’ he admonished.
As Bilbo expected, Frodo rolled his eyes and let out a great sigh at the foolishness of telling an adult you have been bullied by other children. ‘Or if not Rory, you should have gone to Gilda.’ He almost laughed at the look of horror that crossed the boy’s face. ‘Yes, I mean it! She loves you, Frodo, as dearly as she loves Merry and Merle, and trust me when I say she is probably harder to shock than Rory. A healer sees a great deal and knows things that most ordinary people don’t wish to think of. They take care of things people don’t want known, particularly things that happen because you fooled with someone when it would have been better not to.’
Bilbo felt a sense of relief at finally having gotten to the bottom of the rumors and worries. The news was ugly, but not unspeakably so. Frodo had got caught in a bad place that felt good, and had been too ashamed to ask for help to extricate himself. I should get him to talk to Rory tomorrow. Gilda would be better, though Frodo would rather bite his tongue off than admit such things to his Gammer. Bilbo made sure his tone was kind and reassuring, as he went on.
‘Either way, you should have spoken to someone. You still should. These older boys are taking advantage of you, even if they are not exactly hurting you. As for sending you away, well, that has been decided,’ though I shall do my best to circumvent that decision, ‘and Rory is not going to do anything to you if he hears the whole tale. Frodo, it may be little comfort now, but I think you could have spoken to any of the adults who are responsible for you and the bullying could have been stopped. Well, anyone but Sara.’
Frodo’s face twisted with derision, ‘Don’t need to say anything to him!’ He glared into the fire.
Bilbo froze. All the hints, all the off-hand comments, all the looks. He added things up, did his sums again, and still ended with something that made his blood run cold. ‘Do you mean that he shouldn’t be allowed to know, Frodo, or that he knows full well?’
‘He knows full well.’ Bitter voice, bitter smile. ‘He knows I’m good at it.’
Bilbo did not want to think this of Sara. He might hate the fellow, knowing him to be a drunkard and a wastrel, knowing he bullied Frodo, but Bilbo did not want to think the man would use a child. He’s married to a woman who would do so. ‘It’s what he did to you when he found out about the pipe, right? This is how he punishes you, isn’t it?’ Frodo did not look like he was listening. ‘Either service him or he’ll beat you? Does he make you choose?’ Frodo stared into the fire, giving no sign that he was paying attention.
Bilbo turned and stared into the fire himself. He felt as if he had been trying to translate a text, something obscure, and had believed himself to be seeking one meaning, and now found himself presented with something near incomprehensible, a similar theme, but much greater, more terrible. He had read Sara’s jealousy aright, but not the man’s cruelty. He loves his own children so much, how could he? In hindsight, it was obvious - the evasions, the odd looks, the silences, Sara’s knowing leer. Esmie knows. She has to. Does Sara know that she knows? Bilbo rather doubted it, for he knew Esmie would not fail to keep that knowledge to use to her advantage. Bilbo steeled himself to ask questions whose answers he really did not want to know. He had to read and comprehend this horrible text fully.
‘How did this start? Him using you this way?’
‘He caught us out as you did, but we saw him. He sent the others away, and said he was going to tell on me, tell Uncle Rory, and Gilda, and Esmie. Said he wouldn’t if I …’ Frodo shrugged.
‘Does this happen only when he’s punishing you?’ Frodo nodded, eyes fixed ahead of him. ‘How often?’
Frodo frowned a little, and thought. To his consternation, Bilbo watched Frodo tapping the fingertips of one hand with the forefinger of the other, ticking off a count. After too many taps, Frodo just shrugged. ‘A number of times. I don’t know. Whenever he gets mad enough at what I’ve done.’
‘As when you lost the pipe.’
‘Times like that, yes. When I deserve a good smack, I guess.’
‘Then you should have received a smack, not been asked to do this.’
Frodo gave Bilbo a curious, guarded look, then shrugged again. ‘You haven’t been hit by him. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t hurt me and I don’t care.’
‘I care, and it matters much to me!’ Bilbo growled. ‘He has no right to lay hand on you this way, whether it causes you pain or not!’ Frodo was watching him intently now, not looking away, apprehension written on his face. Bilbo made himself take a breath and calm down. Don’t frighten the boy with your own anger, Baggins. There’s more to know. The reading of these ugly passages left his mouth dry and his chest tight. He wanted to clench his hands into fists just as tight and find Sara. Or else open them and reach out to pull Frodo to him, cradle the boy as he had when Frodo was an infant, hold him as delicately as he had seen the Master-Archivist at Rivendell take a page of the great book of poems and turn it over to show a new passage. He must not do either. Bilbo folded his hands carefully in his lap and composed a question.
‘Have you ever seen, with your own eyes, Sara do such things to any other boy? To those he caught with you?’
Frodo shook his head decisively. ‘No, he never has,’ he replied, ‘I’ve never seen Sara do that, nor have I heard of it. And I would have, if he had.’
Bilbo was strangely reassured by the certainty in Frodo’s tone. The lad had looked him right in the eye and had spoken without any hesitation. Sara’s wickedness has some bounds, it would appear. It made the next question somewhat easier to ask.
‘So, you don’t think he would,’ Bilbo had to swallow and take a breath before he could finish the question, ‘that he would do anything… inappropriate… to Merle or Merry, do you?’
Frodo stared at him in horror. After a long moment of stunned silence, he slowly shook his head, looking at Bilbo as if his uncle had turned into an Orc.
‘No.’ If Frodo had sounded certain about Sara and other boys, this was truth carved in stone. ‘No. Absolutely not. Those are his children. He loves them! How could you think such a thing?’ he went on with some heat.
‘I would not have believed he would do such a thing to you, Frodo, had you not said so,’ Bilbo quietly responded. ‘One who would use a child as you have been used might not scruple over using others in the same manner. So, I need to know what I should or shouldn’t believe of Sara.’
‘Do you believe me?’ Frodo asked in a similar voice.
‘Well, yes, of course I do,’ Bilbo replied, puzzled. ‘Why do you ask?’
Frodo started twisting his pipe around in his hands again. They sat in silence long enough that Bilbo wondered if the boy was going to respond. ‘Because it’s a wicked thing to say of someone,’ Frodo began, ‘and it’s Sara, so who would believe it?’
‘Even your Uncle Rory knows Sara bears no great love for you, lad.’
‘But he’d not believe this,’ Frodo said with some sadness, ‘and Sara would say I was lying and who would believe me? Especially if they knew about the other boys.’ Frodo’s voice was a whisper by the time he ended.
Bilbo mentally counted who would take Frodo’s word over Sara’s and had to agree with the lad’s sums. Gilda, she would believe. Esmie would, too, though she’d probably lie or use it against you. There really was not anyone else who would simply accept Frodo’s words as truth. They might be convinced, but they would not just believe.
Bilbo smiled and spoke firmly, ‘Me, for one, and that’s all that matters right now.’ The old hobbit feigned a stern attitude, ‘Though if you were to try to convince me that you knew nothing about some missing mushrooms from a certain farm in the Marish…’ He let the sentence trail off and bristled his eyebrows at Frodo, then winked. As he had hoped, the lad started laughing, though Frodo did blush a bit at being reminded of his raids on Maggot’s mushroom beds.
Bilbo thought this was a proper point for ending this wretched conversation. He had uncovered the truth of the rumors about the other boys. He understood all he could stand to know about Sara’s torment of Frodo. He felt confident that Sara would not harm anyone else. That is more than enough, Baggins. Reassure him, then send his to get some rest.
‘Frodo, as I said, I will not repeat what you have told me to anyone. You have not done anything shameful. Foolish, perhaps, but your youth excuses most of it. I think perhaps that I have frightened you a bit because I have been angry over things you said. I am not angry with you in any way. Others have done shameful things to you, and this is what upsets me. I do think that both of us need to go see your Uncle Rory tomorrow and tell him how you have been used. He’s your guardian, and he needs to know how he has failed. He needs to be told about the other boys, and he needs to know about Sara.’
Frodo’s humor was put away as quickly as first breakfast. ‘No, don’t! Please, I don’t want Uncle Rory to know such things!’
Bilbo shook his head, and stood up, retrieving his pipe from the floor and placing it on the fireplace mantle. Honesty, Baggins, be honest with the lad. Bilbo turned and stood next to the fireplace, elbow on the mantle. Frodo had also stood and was watching him in dismay.
‘Frodo, it’s not such a great secret as you think. About the other boys, I mean, not Sara. Rory has a good idea of what you have been up to, and he’s not happy about it. When I spoke to him, just after I came here, he said he was concerned. It’s one of the reasons he’s thinking that you should leave Buckland, to get away from the boys that have been bullying you. He needs to know the truth, not just the rumors. And he needs to know about Sara. I don’t think there’s any way for you to stay, given that. It’s simply not safe. I see no reason not to tell him. I don’t want Sara touching you.’ Even Pal would be an improvement over Sara. I think he can be trusted to stay out of your pants, or keep you out of his own. It did not matter, he needed to get Frodo out of here as quickly as he could and worry about getting the boy to Bag End later. Not that Esmie is going to take him to Pal unattended, oh no!
Bilbo stared down at the floor, clenching his jaw, feeling knife-keen fury rise in him as the initial shock wore off and he truly comprehended what Sara had done to Frodo. And when I have Frodo safe, Sara, I will hunt you down and be avenged on you, one blow for every count Frodo made on his fingers. And then I’ll take you before your father and show Rory what a perverted creature truly looks like. And then I will… Bilbo was startled out of his thoughts of revenge by Frodo’s voice.
‘Please. Don’t. Don’t tell him.’ To Bilbo’s consternation, Frodo’s demeanor had changed. It was as Bilbo had seen on the first night he was here, but much stronger. The charming Took smile, a certain set to his chin and shoulders, honey in his voice. It was not quite as blatantly seductive as he had seen in the woods, and not at all the terrible beauty of the sunset. But the candles had burned down, and the fire cast a warm glow and soft shadows on Frodo’s face and neck, and he was lovely.
Frodo slowly walked over and stopped closer than he ought. ‘It’s not worth upsetting Uncle Rory, or anyone else. Don’t tell on Sara, either, please.’ Bilbo pulled a thoughtful face as his heart beat faster. Frodo smiled. ‘But maybe, then, there’s nothing for Uncle Rory to worry about, if it’s just the bullies that concern him. I won’t go around them anymore.’ He sidled in closer. Bilbo schooled his face to blandness, having to force himself not to recoil before Frodo’s approach. ‘You’re right, we probably should say something about the bullies, so he needn’t worry anymore. The reason not to tell him is so that I don’t get sent away, don’t you see? Not tell him about Sara, I mean.’ He fixed Bilbo with a hopeful gaze, and moved again so they were almost touching.
Bilbo carefully rocked back on his heels so there was a bit more space between them. ‘Not get sent away? But I don’t think you should stay here near Sara. I don’t like the idea of him using you, even if you aren’t being hurt.’ No, Frodo, please, don’t be doing this.
‘But if I go to Pal, then he won’t let you see me. You said so yourself. I don’t think I could stand that, Bilbo,’ Frodo said softly, ‘but you can always see me here. Don’t you want to… see me?’ Frodo fixed his large, earth-dark eyes on Bilbo and placed a hand on Bilbo’s arm.
‘Don’t. Touch. Me.’ Frodo jumped back in fright at the ferocity of Bilbo’s words. Bilbo glared until the lad backed a few more steps, then cocked his head and smiled. ‘A phrase you would be well advised to cultivate, Frodo. Just what do you think you’re doing?’
‘What you want,’ Frodo shot back. ‘Isn’t this what you want?’ Bilbo shook his head. ‘What do you want from me then?’ the boy demanded.
‘Not this, obviously.’ Bilbo felt he could breathe again.
‘You want something,’ Frodo snapped. ‘I’ve seen you staring at me, watching me. Aren’t I what you want? That’s what I hear.’
‘You’ve been listening to Sara too much, Frodo, which I should have hoped you were smart enough not to do,’ Bilbo replied with some asperity. ‘What is it that you think I want of you?’
‘You like boys like me, don’t you?’
‘According to whom? The only opinions you should listen to in Brandy Hall are Rory’s and Gilda’s. Is this what they’ve said?’ Frodo did not answer. ‘I thought not. I don’t want anything from you, Frodo. I’m not Sara.’
‘Yes, you do! You want something from me, or you wouldn’t bother about me the way you do. You wouldn’t watch me so, like a hunting fox. Quit lying! You want something.’
He’s right. I do want something from him. That wasn’t true, Baggins. He knows the scent of dishonesty. ‘Yes, you’re right, Frodo, I do want something from you, though you don’t understand what it is. My desires are rather more… sophisticated… than what you’ve been encountering.’ Frodo smirked and raised an eyebrow. ‘I’m curious, though. You’ve never shown this kind of interest in me in all the time I’ve been here until now. Why now? It can’t be because you’re attracted to me. You have no desire for me. I don’t see any signs of it on you. This means that you want something from me as well. You want to trade something. Let me see if I can figure it out. You want to exchange your very beautiful body and your rather practiced mouth for something I can give you. Do you know what that’s called? It’s called being a whore.’
Frodo’s face had gone quite pale again, as it had when first confronted with the news of having been observed. Fierceness had come back to him at Bilbo’s words, and he glared. Gandalf had once told Bilbo of the wizard’s first encounter with Gerontius Took, and Bilbo rather imagined the Old Took had been wearing an expression close to the one Frodo now sported. It suited him better than the doe-eyed sweetness of a moment before. It was of a piece with his defiance of Sara and his self-possession when he leaned against the shed wall and watched the other boy fumble at his own clothes.
‘You’re so smart and well-traveled, Mister Baggins,’ Frodo snapped, ‘Why don’t you tell me what else I would have to offer?’
‘Why don’t we start with a more intelligent question, Master Baggins? What is it that you want? It’s best to know what you’re trading for before you agree to the exchange.’
‘I want to stay home, here, in Brandy Hall.’ Frodo answered, and came back towards Bilbo, ‘I don’t want to be sent away, and you’re the only one I know who doesn’t want me to be sent off.’ He halted very close, but not touching. There was no supplication, no deceit in his carriage. ‘I’ll do whatever you want, as well as I know how, anything at all for you. Just don’t tell on Sara, don’t get me sent away. I’ll leave the other boys alone, be just for you, if you’ll help me stay here. You don’t like the idea of Sara touching me? Well, I won’t let him. Only you. It’s all I have. I can’t give you anything else.’
Bilbo reached up and slowly caressed Frodo’s cheek. ‘You would do whatever I want, wouldn’t you? Anything I asked.’
Frodo pressed his cheek into the old hobbit’s hand, though he kept his eyes trained on Bilbo’s. ‘Yes. Anything.’
‘Then you’ve put me in a difficult position, Frodo.’ Bilbo dropped his hand and crossed his arms. ‘What I most want from you, the only thing I want from you, is for you to leave Brandy Hall and come live with me in Bag End. That is what I want.’ Bilbo let the words sink in, and walked back to his own chair. ‘Now, take your seat.’ Frodo stood with his back to Bilbo for a few heartbeats, then complied.
Bilbo watched Frodo sit and stare into the fire, shamed, fierce, angry. He knew Frodo had meant every word and would have done anything he had asked. It was bone-white want, a direct and perfect promise, as only a child could have spoken. It frightened him how hard it had been to turn the lad away, as he stood with his hand on the child’s cheek. There had been one fleeting moment when Bilbo knew a part of himself wanted to extend that caress, fold Frodo into his arms, and have him. How could I not want someone so beautiful? He had seen again a glimpse of the sunset mask, had read ahead in this precious book, tracing the lines that limned the man that would be where the child now was, and Bilbo knew himself to desire what would be. He had been made to confess to himself that there was that desire within, to take up this beloved text and teach it its own beauty and worth. And then he had carefully closed that work of translation, for it was not for him to do, and placed the book back upon the shelf, left for another to find and to know.
Bilbo gathered his thoughts, and said, ‘Frodo, there is no possibility that you will be permitted to stay in Brandy Hall. You can’t stay. Rory and Gilda have seen a lot of young boys grow up, and they know the kinds of things boys do when left unsupervised. They’ve heard the rumors that are attaching themselves to you. They know Sara is becoming increasingly harsh towards you, and they are concerned for both of you because of that. They won’t let you stay. There is nothing I can say that will change your uncle’s mind at this point. He was determined almost a tenday ago that you should leave. And with what you have just said about Sara, I agree. You are not staying. You do have a choice to make, however.’
Frodo turned and looked at him, waiting. It was still the Old Took’s look, and Bilbo knew he had to speak carefully. It would be his only chance to foil the spider’s plans.
‘You must choose where you shall go. You must choose between Bag End and the Great Smials. Esmie can make her own case; I shall only speak for myself. At Bag End you won’t have any companions except myself, but you will also have all of my attention. I have already told you of what I would like to teach you. You will be far away from Gilda and Rory, but no further than if you lived in the Great Smials, and we shall visit on every holiday. I don’t want to make you or Gilda sad with not seeing each other. I shan’t forbid anyone from visiting you, and I will encourage Esmie to come visit with Merry and Merle - there’s plenty of room for them to stay.’ Especially as there is probably no decent way to prevent the spider from trying to weave her webs about you. ‘You won’t be allowed to run about so much as you are here, but I think I shall be able to give you more interesting things to do. And you’d best be prepared to do a great deal of walking, for I spend almost as much time roaming the Shire as I do sitting in my study.
‘I won’t force you to go with me. You must choose Bag End freely. Indeed, I don’t want you to come with me unless it is what you want in your heart. I don’t want you that badly.’ No, I want you so much more it will kill me if I lose you. ‘You may choose the Great Smials if you wish. That is where you will end up if you make no choice at all. But don’t think that you can escape from gossip. The rumors about your tastes and activities will follow you to either place. People won’t be silent about you, Frodo. They will gossip no matter what you do to them or for them. For all that you do what Sara demands, he still says wicked things of you, as you well know.’
The two sat in silence for a few minutes. Frodo did not look away. Bilbo sat patiently under the boy’s scrutiny.
‘I don’t know what to choose,’ Frodo said evenly. ‘How do you want me?’
‘I’m not sure how you mean that, Frodo. Be more precise, and be crude if you need to.’
Frodo bent and retrieved his pipe from the floor where he had dropped it. He stared down at it, turning it over in his hands while he thought. He gave a sharp nod, and caught Bilbo in the Old Took’s measuring gaze once more. ‘I want to know. Do you intend to lie with me once we are there and there is no one else about? Is that why you want me to come with you?’
Bilbo thought he would rather face Gollum again with his hissing riddles than Frodo with his blunt questions. If he had lost with Gollum, it was only his own life that was risked. To lose with Frodo would be to see his boy taken away and used, himself helpless to do anything except watch. But he could not use that as argument. Frodo was already having to pick between too many evils.
‘I do not bed children, neither lad nor lass, Frodo. The idea is abhorrent to me. Remember how you felt when I asked you of Sara and his children? That is what I feel at such a question. You are not a small child anymore, but you are still a child to me. I don’t intend to lie with you, to touch you or to be touched by you, as I saw you do to those boys, or in any similar manner.’
‘Do you lie with men?’ Tone sharp, gaze sharper.
‘It’s refreshing to be asked, instead of having it be assumed, but it is still a prying question. Why is it your business to know such a thing?’
‘I want to know what I would be getting myself into. I won’t always be a child.’
Bilbo considered it, then nodded. ‘Indeed, you should. I shall tell you my story, though I shall not say any names. I would not shame another person. I was a little younger than you when I became friends with a lad about the age you are now. We were always together and we enjoyed each other in every way we could think of. That was my first love and he died in the Fell Winter. In my tweens, I paid court to several lasses, and lay with at least one of them. To claim more would be bragging. In the end, their eyes went to others, and I held no one’s heart.’
Frodo had turned in his chair and pulled up one knee, resting his chin on it. The fierceness had left his face, and he looked as he had when Bilbo had told him stories about his parents while Frodo folded and stowed the linens. ‘Since I came of age, I have shared my bed with several others, both men and women. I have taken no lover who was unwilling or not of age, I have never purchased someone to lie next to me, nor have I taken coin to lie with another, nor have I lain with any man’s wife.’
‘Have you lain with a goodwife’s husband?’ Frodo asked.
‘Yes.’ Bilbo let the boy consider that for a while. ‘I make no claim to living as one should. There’s many times when I wish that I had chosen and done as your uncle Rory has. Perhaps I should have minded my manners and lived as a spinster aunt would do. Sometimes, though, you want to feel another’s weight on you, know what will make another gasp with delight, discover how they smell, how they taste. Perhaps what I have done is wrong and wicked, but I didn’t give too much thought as to whether I should do as I did, to whether the one who was with me was a man or a woman. Things were different in the years after the Fell Winter than they are now, and I was still a respectable Baggins. No one quite believed I could be doing the wicked things rumor would have me doing. Then I ran off into the wild with a wizard and a pack of dwarves and have never been respectable again.’
Bilbo paused, wondering if he had said too much. Frodo was just waiting for the next part of the story, calm but curious. ‘And after I returned from my adventures, I found I had little taste left for the things of love, of lust, anymore. I had a few lovers, but nothing that lasted very long. I looked a bit and thought of finding a wife, but could never find one who didn’t either have a greater love of my treasure than of me, or else wished to change me back into a respectable hobbit. I wanted to tramp about and talk to dwarves, you see! I’m afraid the matchmakers of Hobbiton took this as a personal affront and drew some rather unsavory conclusions as to my romantic activities. And there’s been this little warning voice I can’t quite explain, saying I should stay to myself.’
Frodo sat and thought. Bilbo watched the dying firelight play across his face. The lad had not seemed disturbed or disgusted by this account of his life. It’s not real to him. It’s just another of Uncle Bilbo’s wild tales.
‘And now?’ Frodo looked at him with curious eyes, a child again, asking for the “ever after” part of the story.
‘No one. I have not shared my bed in years, and have no interest in doing so again. And no one appears to wish to join me, so it all works out.’
‘Why not? Why wouldn’t someone?’
Bilbo chuckled a bit. ‘Well, perhaps because I’m odd and old! Why should someone wish for me?’
‘Because you’re funny and smart and nice and handsome and you know everything!’ Frodo replied with innocent earnestness, ‘Who wouldn’t like you?’
‘Quite a number. Many relatives among them. I think you’ve run into a few.’
‘Well, they’re all stupid, then.’
‘Allow them their tastes as I would wish them to allow me mine.’
Frodo grumbled a little and turned back to the fire. Bilbo thought a bit and knew he had to say one more thing. ‘You asked me, Frodo, how do I want you. I want what I’ve never had. I want a son. That’s my heart’s desire. That’s what I want of you, why I watch you so intently. And I certainly don’t care if you’re respectable. I’m not sure that you know what you want, Frodo. What I think you need is no one; no one demanding you do things to them, no one touching you in a way a child should not be touched. You need some time to think about what you want.
‘So, that’s what I am asking of you; that’s what I’m offering you. It’s all I have. I can’t give you anything else. The choice is for you to make. Myself and Bag End, or Esmie and Pal and the Great Smials. You have until next Friday, when the choice will be made for you.’
Frodo nodded slowly and stared back at the fireplace. They sat like that in silence for a quarter hour, while the fire burned low. Bilbo refused to think. The stinging fly has bitten, the threads of the web are loosened. It is up to Frodo now to step out of them. He watched his boy and hoped his heart would not be broken.
‘Are you angry with me?’
‘Why would I be angry with you?’
‘For what I did, what I said earlier.’
That’s a rather large amount of doing and saying, Bilbo thought, but replied, ‘Of course not, my boy. And I shall not speak of any of it to anyone else.’
‘You won’t touch me that way.’
‘No, I will not.’
‘Not even if I asked you to?’
Bilbo waited until Frodo turned and looked him in the eye. ‘No. I will not. Even if you were to ask me to do so. Even if that was truly what you wanted. No.’
Frodo nodded as though Bilbo had just told him the meaning of an elvish word, and thought a bit. ‘What if that were what I wanted? Not from you, but from someone else? What if I like this?’
Bilbo actually had to give this some thought. Honest, be honest. ‘I would hate any adult, a man or a woman, who laid a lustful hand on you, no matter how willing you might be. I don’t want you doing that. I don’t want you used. As to what you do with other lads or lasses, I can only say I hope you will wait until you are older and a better judge of what you are doing. Don’t allow another lad to use you, as has been the case. Given what I’ve said of myself, I really can’t advise you otherwise without being a hypocrite, can I?’
‘Hmm,’ was all Frodo said, pensive. Then his eyes were sharp again, ‘You won’t let someone, like Sara, do that to me again?’
‘I will geld him if he tries.’ Bilbo knew he was not exaggerating. If I saw him, I would do it now. I will rend him apart if touches my child again. I would do that to anyone who would try. I want him to hurt, like Frodo hurts, but so much worse …
‘How soon can I go?’
Bilbo again was yanked out his thoughts by Frodo’s voice. ‘What? Oh, when you like. You may go any time you wish, Frodo. You may stay as long as you have questions.’
‘No, how soon can we leave and go to Bag End?’ Frodo sat up in his chair and looked expectantly at Bilbo.
Bilbo stared stupidly at Frodo for a moment. He chose. He chose me. He’s mine. ‘I think you should go to bed and get some rest. We can talk this over tomorrow, and make sure that…’ he managed to stammer out.
‘No. I don’t need to think any more. I’m ready to go now!’ Frodo insisted, but then his face clouded, ‘Except, Uncle Bilbo, what about Esmie? She won’t allow it. She will insist that I go to the Great Smials. It will upset all she’s planned.’
You may not know her full designs, but you know that she is weaving a web. ‘I need Rory’s permission, not Esmie’s, Frodo,’ Bilbo quickly assured him. ‘Your Uncle Rory is your guardian. It is entirely up to him to say yea or nay. And he will give it.’ I shan’t give him a choice. I shall be as tenacious as Thorin, for something more precious than the Arkenstone is at stake. And I know how I shall convince him. He had done a bit of thinking on that point, and was certain he finally had an argument that would sway Rory.
Bilbo’s face lit up. ‘My boy, I guess we are going to go on an adventure sooner than we thought!’ He got to his feet and grinned at Frodo, who matched the smile in return. ‘Now, off to bed with you! We shall have a busy day ahead of us tomorrow, and, with luck, a long walk.’
Frodo rose and came over to him and began to reach out for a goodnight hug, but then pulled back, unsure. Bilbo smiled and held out his arms. Frodo slipped his arms around Bilbo’s neck and laid his head on his uncle’s chest. Bilbo wrapped him in a great embrace, and hugged him tightly. He held his boy close as he had wanted to for every day of the visit. Frodo started crying. Soon, the child was sobbing, and Bilbo ended up sitting on the floor holding him.
‘Shh, Wilwarin, shh. Just a bit longer, and you’ll be home. You’ll be safe.’