Bilbo looked up from the poem he was reading to smile across the table at Frodo, who was sitting, one hand wrapped about his mug of tea, as he read a book of natural history, the other hand ruffling his hair. It all seemed so very familiar, for it was much as the two of them had lived for eleven years there in Bag End, meeting in the kitchen for second breakfast, each with a book and possibly a pen or graphite stick and a pad of paper, sometimes enjoying what they were learning alone, other times sharing with one another. Except this was not Bag End, and before the hand on Frodo’s mug had held a proper complement of fingers. Nor had there been silver at Frodo’s temples, or a crease between his eyebrows, although Bilbo had to admit that crease was not as pronounced as it had been when Frodo joined the party traveling to the Havens there in the Woody End.
For all that, Frodo failed to look much older than he had before Bilbo himself had abandoned the Shire, fleeing the growing restlessness he had known as he’d begun realizing that indeed age was apparently avoiding him, as he’d felt the evil growing in the outer world and the danger he sensed somehow focused about himself. That he was leaving that evil and Its attendant danger to Frodo he’d never dreamed, and ever since those in Rivendell had realized what ring it probably was that he’d found beneath the Misty Mountains and brought back to the Shire he’d feared for what might happen to his beloved boy, although he’d never dreamed what in the end had indeed befallen his treasured younger cousin and chosen heir.
This morning, however, Frodo looked much restored, his eyes without the shadows beneath them that had been visible on his return after his ordeal. His face once again was falling into a habit of delighted discovery, and most of the pain he’d known was now eased, although certainly not forgotten. It was certainly heartening to once again see Frodo’s attention riveted by what he was reading--he’d not touched the books to be found on the ship during their voyage, after all.
Apparently, however, his older relative’s attention was enough to distract Frodo from his reading as he raised his eyes briefly to meet Bilbo’s own, and that blessed smile of his lit his face as it hadn’t done fully for so long. “And at what are you smiling?” Bilbo asked.
The smile widened into that familiar grin, the grin of one who appreciates irony and thinks in terms of mischief, even if he’d grown out of the need to practice it frequently. “I was looking at that dressing gown of yours and just smiling at it. Lord Elrond must have been appalled to have such a thing in the wardrobe of one of the residents of his house. You have to admit, Bilbo, that it is pretty distressing.”
Bilbo looked down at the worn fabric and brushed it briefly with his fingers. “Well, it’s been a part of my life now for, oh, at least the last ninety years. I’m really rather surprised it’s lasted this long, particularly as much as I’ve worn it.” He rubbed a bit of the faded rose material between his finger and thumb. “I suspect that the one reason it's still with me is that the fabric itself was originally woven in Imladris. My grandfather Gerontius apparently commissioned the weaving of it for the purposes of his wife and daughters; and my Dad managed to obtain some of it to have made into this dressing gown for my mother.”
“You mean that the dressing gown you wear was truly intended for your mum?” Frodo was obviously intrigued by the idea.
“Oh, indeed, my lad. Dad wanted something special for my mum to wear--not that she wore it much. She’d wear it first thing in the morning as she hurried to the privy, and late in the evening for the same purpose. But other than during the time she was ill when she lost the child intended to be my younger brother----”
Frodo straightened in surprise. “You never told me!” he said.
Bilbo felt himself become more solemn. “I know,” he said. “I’d not spoken of it before we arrived here since I was myself a young Hobbit. Yes, there ought to have been at least one more Baggins born in Bag End besides me, perhaps more. I was nine before Mum became pregnant again, or at least that’s the one pregnancy of which I was aware. She carried the infant six months, then became ill with a serious fever, at last losing the child. Afterwards she suffered from an infection. We almost lost her, I’m told, and it took her some time to recover--almost a year. Only then did she tend to wear a dressing gown more than in the earliest and latest hours of her day. Elrond is certain that the reason she didn’t conceive again after that was due to the damage left by the infection.
“She'd missed my dad so. She’d not been truly well for much of that last year, although she’d never admit it. You take after her a great deal in that way, my sweet Frodo.”
Frodo didn’t speak, but his cheeks became flushed in a familiar manner, and Bilbo gave a soft laugh before continuing, “After she died for a time I felt totally lost. Suddenly I was all on my own, the Baggins family head and Master of Bag End and the Hill, and answerable basically to no one. For a few weeks I did nothing, until dear Dora decided it was time to take me in hand. She almost considered me her older brother, and all too daft and in need of being taken in hand, or so it seemed. Fosco and Ruby had purchased the hole within the village from the Boffin who’d dug it--he and his wife had no children left in the area who wished to take it on, and they felt it was too big for them now; and it was there they moved with the children shortly after Dudo was born in Number Five. There was an epidemic of catarrh that struck while the three of them were in their tweens, and Fosco and Ruby were both lost in it, the children not yet old enough to live on their own. So we closed the hole in the village down and they came to live in Bag End until they were adult--or at least until Dora and Drogo were adults. Dudo spent the last of his tweens in Dora’s care in their family hole, which he and Drogo had agreed should go to her as the oldest.”
Frodo nodded, so Bilbo went on, “So it was that Dora was the one to come in and start the process of sorting out their things, and she had her brothers move all my things from my old room into the Master’s room. I’m a bit surprised she didn’t do the same for you.”
Frodo sighed as he shook his head, closing his book over a finger, then picking up his mug and drinking from it before saying, “She was very shaken when you left us, Bilbo. She only lived two more years after that, and Dudo not quite another one past her.”
“My dad’s dressing gown I could never have worn--he was quite a bit taller than I am, and had far more girth. Had I tried to wear it, it should have looked much as if I’d tried to wrap myself in the open sided tent the Green Dragon sends to the Free Fair in Michel Delving for their concession. I kept it for a time, then gave it to your father, and it fit him quite well. But I wouldn’t allow your Aunt Dora to give away Mum’s, either, keeping it to remind myself how much I’d always loved her. For years it sat in my wardrobe, a symbol of her memory; then, after I returned from my Adventure I took to wearing it. Oh, I haven’t the faintest idea why I felt I needed to wear her robe, but other than the color there wasn’t really anything to indicate it had been originally intended for a lady rather than for a gentlehobbit. And it’s always been comfortable and warm enough in winter and cool enough in summer. I wasn’t much taller than she’d been, and with the open front and tie belt it’s always fit well.”
“Much like our cloaks from Lorien, then,” Frodo observed.
“I suspect very much like that,” agreed Bilbo.
“Aunt Dora didn’t appear to recognize it that time she popped in on us during elevenses when we had been copying her book of manners.”
“I doubt she would have. When it was Mum’s it was always pristinely clean. Have you any idea how much bacon grease spattered over it, or batter for griddlecakes? Mum never wore it while cooking, but you know me--I practically lived in it mornings when I had no other commitments.”
“I was always surprised you didn’t take it with us when we went visiting.”
“Oh--that would never do! In the wardrobe in the room I always stayed in within Brandy Hall I kept a dressing gown Gilda gave me shortly after I became Master of Bag End, and I purchased one to leave at the farm in Whitwell as well. After all, I didn’t wish to have to carry such things as dressing gowns about with me along with all the other items I had to carry when out on a walking tour or a drive to see relatives throughout the Shire.”
“But you took it with you to Rivendell.”
“Yes, and I left it there while I went on to the Lonely Mountain, so it was there when I returned and took up residence. They’d cleaned it for me as best as they might, and I no longer wore it when I came for breakfast, although I often wore it when they brought me breakfast in my rooms. And by that time it had garnered another association.”
Frodo’s expression was again intrigued. “And what was that?”
“That I’d only worn it in your presence when anyone ever saw it, my sweet boy,” Bilbo answered gently, “except, of course, for the time Dora caught the two of us looking most disreputable, debating the etymology of the word estel.”
Frodo began to laugh, and Bilbo had to think that one of the sweetest and most welcome of laughs he’d ever heard, for it was truly the first time he’d heard Frodo laughing fully since the day of the Party. He patted the dressing gown, and was certain that it, too, was pleased.