Frodo turned to look at his older cousin, concerned by the sound of Bilbo’s voice. “What is it?” he asked reluctantly. He feared he knew what it was the old Hobbit would say.
“You’ll be of age this year.”
Frodo nodded, feeling the squeezing in his chest and his stomach clenching in on itself. “Yes,” he managed to say.
“And you’ll be ready to stand on your own.”
Frodo decided to set aside one fear, the one he didn’t believe was true, first. “Are you ailing secretly, Uncle?” he asked. “When Drolan Chubbs saw you last week, did he find a growth or something?”
Bilbo looked startled at the thought of it. “A growth?” he asked, obviously surprised the idea had even been considered by his young heir. “A growth?” he repeated, now looking amused at the thought. “Oh, my stars, no! Certainly not!” Then, more concerned, he continued, “Drolan didn’t say anything about such a thing to you, did he?”
“Oh, no--of course not.” No, definitely not illness. Then--then it was--the other thing. The dread was spreading, but he did his best to keep it hidden, raising his chin and doing his best to look merely curious. “Of course I know I’ll be of age, Bilbo dearest. But if you think I’ll be eager to be my own Hobbit, to set up my own home----” He knew that Bilbo meant no such thing, but this would be what most Hobbits his age would expect--even look forward to, after all.
Bilbo straightened, looking taken aback. “Me? Ask you to leave Bag End and found your own household? Why in Middle Earth would I even consider such a thing, Frodo Baggins? Why else did I adopt you as my heir except to keep the likes of the Sackville-Bagginses out of it--and because I love you dearly and rejoice to see you here, here in Bag End where you belong? No! Even if you were to marry I’d wish you here, my dear boy, you and whatever deucedly lucky lass managed at last to win your heart! I’d rejoice to know that it was the little feet of your children--yours and Sam’s--tracking dirt in and out of the parlor and kitchen rather than the elegantly groomed ones of Otho, Lotho, and Lobelia under the kitchen table, you know.”
Frodo found himself searching his uncle’s eyes, seeing the earnestness of his expression, the entreaty in them. And he saw the thing he dreaded more than all else there as well. Well, he wasn’t going to make it easy for Bilbo--not now. He held his tongue as he held the old Hobbit’s eyes.
At last Bilbo spoke. “I’m old, Frodo. I know I don’t look old, but I am, and you know it, too. Most Hobbits don’t even make it to a hundred and ten, much less eleventy-one. But, here I still am, an old Hobbit still looking--mostly, at least--like one in my sixties at most. But I can’t make it that much longer and still--still be able to do anything.
“You’ve always known I’ll want to leave the Shire once more when I can. And you’re aware, I’m certain, I swore to Rory and Gilda, Esme and Saradoc that I wouldn’t leave until you were of age. Well, you’ll be that in September. You’ll be of age, and--and I’ll be free to go back--go back and visit Erebor--pay back all the visits the Dwarves have made to me all these years. I’ll be able to visit Rivendell again, and maybe even visit Mirkwood once more. Oh, I know about the dangers and the giant spiders and all; but that one memory of the glory of sunlight on leaves and flowering vines at the top of the forest where the butterflies rejoice in the sunlight! Ah, Frodo, you can’t begin to appreciate what that memory does to my heart!”
Frodo remained quiet some moments longer before he finally spoke. He was astounded he could sound so calm, and even that the voice emanated from him--it sounded so even and controlled. “So, you’ll leave the Shire, and leave me Master of Bag End?” He searched the older Hobbit’s face, and saw the relief and growing hope reflected there. “You’ll be free to head off into a new adventure, and I’ll--I’ll remain here to fend off the Sackville-Bagginses, eh?”
That look of hope was quelled, and he saw with a secret satisfaction the growing alarm that replaced it in Bilbo’s eyes. “Is this,” Frodo continued, “why you educated me as you did in business and bookkeeping and investments, so that in the end I’ll be left to keep Otho and Lotho and Lobelia properly quashed? So I’ll be left alone--again? The ones I love most scattered all over the Shire or out wandering the wide world, and me left alone here in the midst of it?” At last he felt his own terror filling him, causing his eyes to fill and his lip to tremble. “Oh, Bilbo, but you can’t! You can’t do that to me--to leave me alone again! To take away the one pillar that keeps my heart upright in my body! You can’t!”
The tears were pouring from his eyes, he realized, and now he could barely see his stricken older cousin for them. He could no longer speak at all. He was shuddering with the grief he felt, the grief he could no longer hide or control. He clapped his hands to his eyes.
“But I’ve already planned it--I’ve discussed it with Gandalf--written to Rivendell and to Erebor! Oh, Frodo!” The words seemed to be fighting their way from miles away, through the roaring that had filled Frodo’s ears and the excruciating sound of his own sobs of fear and grief.
At last there was a hand pulling one of his own hands from his eyes, pressing into it a clean handkerchief, one that a rather separate portion of Frodo’s mind recognized as one he’d given Bilbo last spring on the anniversary of the day his cousin had run out of Bag End without any such things in his pocket, running after the thirteen Dwarves he’d then followed to Erebor. Frodo accepted it and straightened it, then bunched it up against his eyes as Bilbo reached forward to pull him against the older Hobbit’s chest and shoulder.
“No, sweetling,” Bilbo murmured softly into his ear. “I’m sorry--you aren’t ready for that as yet, I suppose. No, my dear, beloved lad, no--I won’t leave you. Oh, I promise--not until you are ready. I won’t leave you alone again. Please, Frodo--don’t cry any more. I promise truly.”
But instead of the reassurance he’d hoped to feel, Frodo now felt again a feeling of dread--but a far different dread than he’d known before, one he could put no name to. And something, something from the back of his mind, told him perhaps this wouldn’t be for the best....