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79
The Transition

My first reaction to the "Love of Family Prompt" for the There and Back Again community Four Loves prompts. For PearlTook particularly. Beta by RiverOtter, with many thanks for her thought-provoking questions!


~~~

The Transition


Carrying a great hamper of food, Hamfast Gamgee followed Mr. Bilbo Baggins out of Bag End to the pony cart that Bilbo had engaged from the stable at the Green Dragon. “And where d’you wish me to set this, Mr. Bilbo, sir?” he asked.

“There in the tilt, just behind the driver’s seat, please, Hamfast. I’ll see to securing it as soon as I get my traveling trunk stowed.”

As he carefully lifted the hamper over the sideboards of the cart’s bed, the gardener examined the rig critically. “Beggin’ yer pardon, sir, speakin’ as one as p’rhaps oughtn’t, but wouldn’t ye be better off with a smaller trap? Seems a bit much, as little as ye’re takin’ with ye.”

“Oh, but I doubt there will be much room left over during the return trip. After all, Frodo’s not a young child, you know. He’s a tween now, with many interests and a good number of books and I hope a fair wardrobe to bring with him.”

“Do he play roopie and such? Do he have bats and all for the game?”

“Not to my knowledge, not that Menegilda would countenance him playing such sports. In fact I suspect she even frowns on him playing at golf. No, she sees roopie as too rough and active, conkers as a waste of time and concentration, and golf as being a pointless way to spend an afternoon.”

As the gardener agreed with that estimation of golf, he wisely kept his tongue still. Now and then, he knew, his master did partake in a game of golf, after all.

Once all was settled, Bilbo clambered up onto the bench and took up the reins. Then he paused, fishing in his pocket. “I’d all but forgotten--the keys!” He looked over his shoulder, up the hill toward the green door of Bag End. “Be a good chap, if you will, and lock up for me, won’t you please, Master Gamgee? And keep the keys there at Number Three--I’ll come down and fetch them on my return.”

“Will do, Mr. Bilbo, sir. Glad t’be of help, I am.”

“Thank you so.” Bilbo took another look up over his shoulder at the gardens of Bag End and their brilliant color as he absently set a hand on the brake. “Just think, Gaffer,” he went on thoughtfully, “when I come back I’ll actually have a family again! It may feel odd, sharing the smial with someone permanently, but it will be so very worthwhile, having my dear boy here with me.” He turned to smile brightly down into the gardener’s face. “Believe it or not, there was a time when I was certain I would marry and raise that family my own parents had wanted to see fill the old hole. I never did, but have always felt that Bag End deserves to shelter more than just one person.”

“Just so long as it’s not them Sackville-Bagginses,” muttered Hamfast.

“Even so!” Bilbo agreed, shuddering at the thought.

“I just hope as the lad’s not too much for ye, Mr. Bilbo, sir. I mean, ye’ve not had that much t’do with lads, ye know.”

“Oh, I’m not that lacking in experience. After all, your lads and lasses have always been welcome to visit with me all these years, as well as Daddy Twofoot’s young ones and many of my many younger cousins. And I think you will find that young Frodo is quite a fine youngster in his own right.”

“Not the way as ol’ Missus Lobelia’s a-tellin’ it,” the Gaffer grunted.

Bilbo laughed. “No, not as she tells it. But then according to her I’m so cracked I can’t find my way out of the hole without a map in hand and two at my elbow to guide me. Isn’t that true?”

Hamfast smiled. “Nay, yer right there, Master. Well, best get on wit’ ye er ye’ll never arrive. It’s the trip as is never started as takes the longest, ’tis said.”

Again Bilbo laughed. “And that’s true enough. Well, keep an eye on things, and I should be back on the first of the month. Frodo will return to Hobbiton on the first of May--a fine, proper day for it, don’t you think?” And with that he released the brake and shook the reins, and the pony gave a shiver before setting one foot before another.

*******


As he drove across the bridge toward Bywater, Bilbo saw young Folco Boffin paused, resting a bushel basket on the bridge’s railing. He pulled the pony to a reluctant halt, the pony not seeing the reason to stop so soon after getting started, and called to his young kinsman, “Oy--Folco! And where are you off to? Would you like a lift part of the way?”

The lad turned gladly. “You mean it, Uncle Bilbo? I’m to take this basket of potatoes from the last of our winter store to the Chubbs a mile east along the Road. I’ve carried it this far from the farm in Overhill, but it’s beginning to get terrible heavy, it is.”

“Certainly I mean it! And that’s quite the load for a lad your age, after all. I mean, you’re barely fifteen, if I have the right of it.”

“I’m just past sixteen, actually,” Folco sighed as he hefted the bushel into the tilt of the cart. “And where are you off to?”

“Buckland.”

Folco paused in surprise and gave the cart another look. “Then why didn’t you take but a trap? You’ve not much with you this trip.”

“Oh, but that will be different on the journey back, I’ll be bound. Come and join me on the bench.”

As Folco climbed up to sit beside Bilbo he said, “But this isn’t large enough to carry much in the way of furnishings if you’re helping someone remove back this-a-way.”

“Oh, there won’t be all that much need for furniture and so on. It will be mostly books and clothing and perhaps some oddments is all.”

“Did you buy a number of things at an auction, then, last time you were in Buckland?”

Bilbo gave a most satisfied smile. “An auction? Oh, no, not that this time. No, I’m bringing Frodo to live with me.”

Folco looked at him, surprised. “Frodo? Frodo who? Oh, you mean Cousins Drogo and Primula’s son?”

“Indeed I do.”

“But Uncle Odovacar says that Mistress Menegilda watches over him like he was somethin’ precious and would never think to let him go.”

“Well, that’s changed.” Bilbo’s expression grew sterner. “It’s about time I stood my ground as the Baggins, don’t you think, and see to it that the lad gets a proper education? For all his mother was a Brandybuck, young Frodo is definitely a Baggins with a Baggins’s love of privacy and peace and order. None of which he gets in Brandy Hall, you understand.

“As for Menegilda--well, let’s just allow it to be known that she’s realized she’s been wrong about the lad for some time, and is now ready to allow someone with the time and means to give him the personal attention he really needs to finish up his raising. Do come around when you can--I think you will get along famously with him. He saw you the day you were born, after all, and needs to get reacquainted with his family here in the region of the Hill. Knows the Brandybucks and the Tooks well enough; but it’s here most of his family ties are concentrated.” Certain that Folco was settled properly, he indicated to the pony it should resume its pulling. It gave him a glance over its shoulder and then set off once more, not particularly happy to find itself pulling a heavier load now.

“My mother will be saying that you’re too old to be raising a lad,” Folco said rather slyly.

“And what’s to raise, really? It’s not as if he were a small child, after all,” Bilbo pointed out. “He’ll be twenty-two in September, and is already past the stage of raiding farms and glass houses. And does this journey with a bushel of potatoes have anything to do with a raid on the Cotton’s smokehouse last week?”

Folco flushed slightly, but laughed as he admitted, “I didn’t realize Old Tom was staking it out. So Mother decided that perhaps a walk with a bushel of potatoes for a good four miles just might sort me out and remind me that as a farmer’s lad myself I have no reason to be scrumping at someone else’s place.” He stretched as he added, “But we don’t have anywhere the hams the like of theirs, mind you.” He pulled a dog-eared book out of his pocket and opened it.

“And what book do you have there?” Bilbo asked with interest.

“It’s a story about a widow’s son who found a dragon’s egg in a cavern, but doesn’t know what it is. The egg’s just starting to hatch, as far as I’ve got.”

“Ah--Celeborn and the Dragon, then? A fine story as I recall it. You must bring it by when you’re finished and I’ll see it copied.”

“I can copy it for you, if you’d like. Haven’t copied a book for some time.”

“You’d do that for me? What a thoughtful lad you continue to be! I’ll send over some paper for you to copy it onto once I get back, and will bind it myself for Frodo.”

“What’s he like? Oh, I know what Lobelia says about him, but no one believes all that!”

“Oh, a fine lad, my boy is. A bit on the slender side--far more than his father was, of course. That’s the Took in him, I suppose--not many amongst the true Tooks are as round as other Hobbit families. But has the dark Brandybuck hair--very dark brown--quite striking, really. And his mother’s beautiful blue eyes, with such lashes! Looks very like his grandfather Fosco, actually, but even more remarkable.” Bilbo smiled at the thought of his lad--he’d buy him a proper wardrobe, with good cloth and attractive embroidery to it. No more plain Hall cloth for his lad! No, Frodo would soon look a proper gentlehobbit, once Bilbo had him safe in Hobbiton and Bag End. He’d seen some cloth at the tailor’s....

“I mean, what does he like to do?”

“Like to do? Oh, he loves to read and write, and to swim and garden. Used to spend hours helping his folks in the gardens there at Whitfurrows before they died. He draws, and is interested in almost everything, or so I’ve found. He’s learned some Sindarin and Quenya....”

“He’s studying Elvish? He’s learned it from you, then?”

“Of course, although Lord Elrond has helped by sending texts about the subjects that interest him when I’ve asked.”

Folco smiled up at him. “I’ll look forward to coming to visit--if I can get Mother to agree, of course.” He sighed. “At least she’s realized Uncle Ferumbras is unlikely to do anything for me no matter what my Took connections, and she’s no longer treating your name as if it were a word equivalent with nastiness!”

Bilbo laughed. “So, there’s hope that Wisteria is coming round, is there? Well and good! No, Ferumbras doesn’t exactly favor me, does he? For all his father shrugged his shoulders at my horrible lapse in judgment leading to my adventures, Lalia has convinced Ferumbras I’m hopelessly contaminated with eccentricity and thus to be avoided at all costs!” He looked at the road and directed the pony to the left down a narrow lane that could cut a few minutes from their journey. “Not that I give a fig for the good will of either the Thain nor his lump of a mother,” he said. “Paladin may not believe I actually saw and did what I did during my travels, but at least he accepts me as a decent individual with merely perhaps too active an imagination. And his lasses are delightful. I don’t worry too much about my future relations with my Took connections, you know. And Ferumbras and his mother had best not try to project their own prejudices against me on my lad!”

Soon they reached the Chubbs house, where again the pony was pulled to a stop. Folco lifted his bushel out of the bed of the wagon, accepted the handful of horehound drops Bilbo produced from a pocket in his coat, and set himself to complete his mission while Bilbo shook the pony’s reins and once again set off eastward toward Buckland.

*******


“Come for the lad, have you?” asked the Bounder who encountered Bilbo as he turned off the Brandywine Bridge toward Brandy Hall. He examined the wagon critically. “Hope it’s big enough to carry all you’ll be taking home with the two of you!”

Bilbo looked back at the tilt, his brow furrowing briefly before he turned back, shrugging, to answer, “Well, I suppose we’ll just have to see. And what we don’t take now we can always come back for, I suppose. Although his room is already fully furnished, so there’s little need to be taking much of any size back with us.”

“Do you have enough in the way of bookcases? Frodo has a spate of books, it seems!”

The older Hobbit laughed. “You’re asking this of me--the one who gave most of those books to him? Don’t worry, Cardoc.”

And with a wave Bilbo went on, south toward the Hall and the beginning of his new life as Frodo’s guardian.

*******


Saradoc Brandybuck looked up from the report on rents collected he was reviewing as once again Esmeralda’s shadow darkened the text. She’d been pacing for much of the past hour,

He sighed and set the report on the table beside him and brought out his pipe and wallet of leaf. “You are going to wear a groove in the floor, pacing like this,” he commented around the stem of his pipe as he filled it.

“Where is he?” she demanded, turning toward him. “You don’t suppose he’s changed his mind and doesn’t want to say so, and that he’s just decided to stay in Hobbiton and send a letter that won’t get here before tomorrow at the earliest....” Her voice was filled with anxiety as well as a level of hopefulness that this might indeed prove true.

He removed the pipe so he could laugh more freely. “Esme--you have worked yourself into a state, haven’t you? Bilbo Baggins--change his mind? Not likely, and you know it! First, the pride he has in the strength of his word would never allow him to back out now; and second, he would never disappoint Frodo that way. And third--I just cannot imagine Bilbo having such second thoughts. He’s loved Frodo so deeply all the lad’s life, and he is the Baggins family head as well as having loved Drogo so deeply, almost as if he’d been a younger brother.”

“Then where is he?”

Sara got the pipe lit and puffed on it a few times before answering, “Well, considering it’s not quite tea time I’d make the guess he’s probably somewhere between the Hall and the Brandywine Bridge. He’ll be bringing a small cart....”

“Why not a proper wagon?” she demanded.

He shook his head as he replied, “And what do you think Frodo will want to take back with him? Bag End is fully furnished as it is, you must remember.”

“But what about the lad’s mother’s desk, or the wardrobe? His father built those himself, you know!”

Saradoc shook his head. “No, he says he wishes to leave those here in his room. Esme--he’s not going to stay away forever. He intends to visit often--we and Merry, and even my mother mean too much to him to pretend he has no ties here. He told me he wishes to keep his room as it is, as it is his room here. He’s not planning to stop being from the Hall--he only wishes to be known as one who belongs to both Brandy Hall and Bag End.” He set his hand on hers. “He’ll still be our lad, but he’ll be Bilbo’s, too.”

He could see the unshed tears in her eyes, and reached out to draw her to him, kissing the top of her head, careful not to burn her with his pipe. “Oh, my heart, there’s no question we will miss him, but you are the one who convinced the rest of us that things cannot continue to go on as they have--that we’ve been stifling Frodo to the point he wasn’t feeling alive any more.”

“I know,” she murmured into his chest. “But now it’s come to it, the idea that he won’t be there in his room every night frightens me. It feels as if a part of my heart is being cut right out of me.”

Again he kissed the top of her head before asking, “Where is he, anyway?”

He felt her shrug. “He said he wanted to go out around the grounds one last time, and I suspect he’s out at the old mill. Merry and Brendi went out after him about an hour ago.”

Sara gave a fond shake of his head. “He’s always loved the old mill,” he said as he released his wife and gazed down fondly into her face.

“It is as if he were going about the place, saying farewell to each familiar spot,” she agreed, accepting the handkerchief he’d produced from his pocket and wiping her face. She gave a guilty glance as his pipe. “I am afraid it’s gone out,” she noted.

“So, I’ll have to relight it? Not so unusual, is it?”

She gave a short laugh. “No, I suppose not,” she admitted before turning her attention again out the windows.

*******


In the old mill, which hadn’t been used for many, many years, not since the course of the river changed and left it too far away from the water to turn the wheel, Frodo was indeed taking his leave of Buckland in his own way. He was kneeling by the hollow in the stone of the ancient quern-way where the flour had gathered as the grain was ground, having placed there his hole-stone, a small stone circle carved from aventurine he’d once found along the banks of the river as the water receded from a flood. It had been one of his favorite possessions, and one he’d always carried with him. “Why are you putting your hole-stone there, Frodo?” asked Brendilac Brandybuck, who’d just entered with Merry in tow.

Frodo turned at the unexpected question, his face pale but his cheeks rather pink in embarrassment at having been caught at his leave-taking by his cousins. But he held his head high as he explained, “I feel as if it belongs here, Brendi. It apparently belonged once to the Men who lived here in this part of the Shire, back when the folk of Cardolan dwelt here, or so Bilbo tells me. They had a king and queen and princes and all, and farms and cities and villages of their own. They built the walls and helped raise the standing stones and circles and buildings that remain as ruins throughout Buckland and the Shire. Bilbo and Uncle Dinodas both say they built the original mill here.”

Merry objected, “But you said that it’s your lucky piece!”

Frodo shrugged as he wiped his hands on his trouser legs. “I don’t need a lucky piece any more, for I’ve found my luck, getting to go with Bilbo. I won’t need something to rub in my pocket any more to keep me from shouting out when I’m angry. I could never have shouted at Aunt Menegilda, but Bilbo told me I might shout at him if I feel I need to, and he won’t punish me for it--that I’m old enough to speak almost as freely as any adult. But he’s still my guardian and has final say, so once the shouting is over he still will do what is best, although he’s promised to take my desires under consideration, too.”

“You’ve really, really wanted to shout at Grandmum?” Merry asked, obviously surprised at this as a novel idea. “Did you ever want to shout out at Mum and Dad, too?”

“Not very often,” Frodo admitted. “I’ve wanted to shout more at Aunt Menegilda than at anyone else.”

“But I’ve never heard you shout at about anyone!”

“No, but I’ve written some things in my journal that weren’t very nice. Oh, I have gotten angry, Merry mine. I just don’t like to let others see, but inside I’ve felt quite ugly at times.”

“It took a time to find you.”

Frodo shrugged. “I’ve been all over the Hall lands today.”

“Uncle Dino said he’d seen you for a while by the river, but that then you headed this way, so we came after you.”

“Yes, I went to look at the river one last time.”

Brendi asked, “Are you glad to be leaving the river behind?”

Frodo lifted his eyes to those of his friend. “In part,” he admitted. “For all I’ve liked swimming in it and it’s part of Buckland and all, still, it’s where my parents died, and I’ve never given over being suspicious of it. Uncle Rory told me that you cannot blame the river for doing what it does, for it can’t help who falls into it and whether or not they can swim or get hurt. He said the best we can do is to make certain we watch out for ourselves and those with us. I’ve always done that, after all.”

Brendi nodded. “I’ll do my best to watch out for the younger ones for you, when I’m here in the Hall,” he assured Frodo.

“Thank you.” And Frodo gave that beautiful smile that had been so much a part of him but hadn’t been seen so often in the last few years.

He then turned back toward the place where he’d set the stone. “Let it lie there, a reminder that I was once part of Buckland and that still a part of my heart belongs here, will dwell here for the rest of my life. Let it lie there until the time comes for me to leave altogether.”

Merry and Brendi nodded their agreement, then followed him as he left the mill, seeing his shoulders straighten with determination as he quitted the building, and how he refused to look back again.

*******


They were approaching the front gardens of the Hall when they saw the cart coming down the road from the Bridge. Frodo examined it hopefully before shouting out, “Bilbo! He’s here!” and hurrying forward, only to stop short at the edge of the lawn as if there were an invisible wall there he would not pass as yet.

From within the Hall, watching out the front windows of the sunny parlor where he and Esme had been waiting, Saradoc Brandybuck watched his cousin’s run and the stop with some wonder. “He’s coming--Bilbo--Frodo’s just seen him,” he advised his wife, who’d been fussing with the arrangement of ornaments on a side table.

She turned immediately from her preoccupation and hurried to his side, peering out. “Frodo’s not running to meet him?”

Sara felt a level of pride in his young kinsman. “No, not yet. Not until he’s certain all is right to do so. He will feel he still belongs to the Hall until at last he gets into the cart with the old fellow, I’ll warrant.”

Esmeralda nodded her acknowledgment of her husband’s perceptiveness. “Oh, but I’m certain you’re right about that,” she sighed. “Let’s go out.”

*******


There wasn’t a great deal of fuss to loading the cart, for Frodo had carefully packed all he intended to take with him. He’d not packed a great deal in the way of clothing, for such things did not preoccupy his interest all that much. He did bring his father’s woodworking tools and a small loom that had been his mother’s, and a few ornaments that had been part of their family treasures, as well as the shadow pictures that had been done of Drogo and Primula Baggins. He’d chosen to take with him most of those items that had been gifts from Bilbo--books and maps, steel pens, sketch books and stores of drawing paper and sticks, chalks and paints; his better clothing that mostly Bilbo had seen made for him; hats and scarves and mittens and gloves that had barely been worn as his Aunt Menegilda, far too careful of his health, had done her best to see to it he had little interaction with what she felt was inclement weather; his collections of eggshells and insects and stones in their carefully wrought cases; a box of letters and pictures from his childhood; the few carved animals crafted for him by his father that he’d chosen to keep for his own; some of his favorite Yule decorations; Drogo and Primula’s favorite tea set; his family’s spice chest; a dried nosegay of violets he refused to explain; a small flat chest with clothing his mother had made for him when he was a faunt; the woolwork dragonfly blanket she’d also made and embroidered for him when he was small; his mother’s diary; his father’s ledger book; those books left him by Cousin Tumnus, who’d been lessons master until his untimely death due to an evil growth on his face.

“I’m leaving many of those books you said you have copies of at Bag End,” he explained to Bilbo.

“Wise, my child. Then you can read and refer to them during our visits here.”

All could see the lad glowing at this praise of his wisdom.

At the leaving feast, however, Frodo was plainly uncomfortable. He spoke little, and appeared embarrassed and stiff when his various female Brandybuck relatives came to hug him. Gomez came to offer him a fishing rod, while Gil presented him with a roopie bat and another cousin gave him a reed flute and a willow whistle. Frodo thanked them as if he were uncertain what to say or how to say it.

When Menegilda herself presented him with a beautifully crafted travel cloak, perhaps a bit large for him, he appeared to be at a total loss for words. When she hugged him he hugged her back, but what he couldn’t seem to say he expressed with a look that seemed to contain everything except blame.

As the end if the evening approached, however, he pulled Bilbo to the side. “May we please leave early, before most can gather to see us off?” he implored the Baggins in low tones that nevertheless were caught by Saradoc. “I couldn’t bear to go through this again in the morning!”

“If you wish,” Bilbo said in soothing tones. “As soon as first breakfast is over, if you desire. Willow has assured me she will have the food hamper ready for us by then.”

Reluctantly, as if he considered this perhaps rather too late, Frodo agreed .

Once Saradoc led his own family away to their apartments to see young Merry to bed, however, he made a point of speaking with his young Baggins kinsman. “Is it fair to those who love you here to slip away unremarked, Frodo?”

Frodo’s mouth worked for a moment before he finally said, “But it--it can be so hard to take leave again and again, Uncle. Please don’t press me.”

Sara searched his young cousin’s face. At last he hazarded, “Then you think a clean break would be easier?”

He could see the relief in Frodo’s eyes at the understanding.

When he came into Frodo’s room at dawn the next morning, Saradoc found Merry sitting disconsolately on the carefully made bed, a stuffed animal that had been Frodo’s clutched close to his chest, as Frodo saw his nightshirt and the dressing gown that had been a gift from Gomez’s mother carefully stowed in his new pack along with the boxes of personal jewelry belonging to his parents that Rory had brought in last night. “You are almost ready?” he asked, his heart fluttering slightly at the impending parting.

Frodo nodded wordlessly.

“We’ll miss you terribly,” Sara confided.

“I’ll be back--we’re to visit frequently,” Frodo answered, almost desperately, Sara thought. It was the first sign he’d had that Frodo was also worried about the pain of separation from the family who’d loved and sheltered him for these long years since his parents’ deaths.

“That you’d better see to,” the older cousin warned, then reached out to hug the lad. “You’re growing to be a Hobbit one is proud to claim as a relative,” he whispered into Frodo’s ear. “You just prove to those uppity folk in the Westfarthing that those from Buckland are quite as civilized as they are, hear?”

Frodo gave a sob-like laugh, and pulled away to pick up the pack and carry it out to the entranceway before they went to breakfast, thankfully served in the private dining room for the Heir’s apartments. There they were joined by Bilbo, who had some toys to present to Merry. “The Dwarves made these, this stone fetchback and the little hunting horn and the miniature axe,” he explained. “I hope you like them. I’d meant to give them to you yesterday, but young Sam Gamgee had helped me pack, and if he didn’t pack them at the very bottom!”

Sara suspected that these were truly intended to serve as a distraction for Frodo’s leaving, and that the unfortunate Sam was actually merely an excuse for saving them till now. He appreciated the thought, although he saw Esme eyeing the little axe, as beautifully formed and decorated as it was, with dismay. He hastily took up the axe as if to admire it. “How wonderful!” he said. “What a beautiful thing this is! We shall hang it up over the fireplace where you can see it every day.”

He noted Merry’s disappointment as he settled the axe on the mantel as well as Bilbo’s glint of amusement and Esme’s relief, and decided that if he could he’d find a way of paying the old Hobbit back somehow.

Frodo ate little enough, mostly pushing what was on his plate about it with his fork and the pieces of toast he’d take from the platter in the center of the table. The delay, Saradoc realized, was an exquisite form of torture for the lad. He shared significant looks with Esmeralda, and at a nod from his wife he dabbed ostentatiously at his mouth with his napkin. “I don’t think I can eat anything else now,” he commented. “And I think that if these two are to reach the Floating Log in time to get good rooms they ought to get on their way sooner rather than later.”

“No!” gasped Merry, but at a significant look from his father he left off his complaint. The two of them had had a serious talk the preceding night, and Merry had promised to do his best not to make the leaving harder for his beloved Frodo. Still, his lower lip trembled a bit as he pushed away from the table. He, too, had eaten little this morning.

Sara lifted his son from his place at the table and settled the lad on his hip. “So,” he commented as Frodo, obviously anxious to be on the road, rose and pushed in his chair. “We’ll probably not see you until the Free Fair, to give you a good chance to settle in. But after this year we expect you and Bilbo to come visit us frequently--you understand that?”

Frodo, unspeaking, was swallowing as he nodded his agreement.

Bilbo’s face was filled with sympathy for all involved, and he turned to Sara, Merry, and Esme. “We will do that, on our honor as Bagginses,” he assured them. “You three do your best, and we’ll do ours--won’t we, lad?” he asked, turning back to Frodo again.

Frodo was nodding, his face quite pale.

“We will do so,” Sara assured him. “But for now--well, I think it’s time for you two to get on the road. Mac has promised to have your cart ready.”

Frodo started to lift his plate and bowl as he usually did to return them to the kitchens, but Esme stayed him with a hand on his wrist. “No, Frodo dear, you don’t have to do that today. I hate to have you leave us, but it’s time.”

She was able to keep her gaze steady and gentle, and Saradoc loved her the more for it.

Frodo whispered, “Thank you, Aunt Esme,” before he turned away, reluctant to allow her to see the tears gathering as he furtively rubbed at his eyes with his fist.

Esme placed her hand on one shoulder while Bilbo did the same on the other, and together they walked out to the entranceway. There sat Frodo’s pack beside Bilbo’s, both on the bench under the line of pegs on which cloaks of visitors and those who were having to go in and out frequently were hanging. There hung their traveling cloaks, Frodo’s the new one given him by Menegilda.

Amaranth and Berilac, still in his nightshirt with his green dressing gown about him, stood waiting in the entranceway, as well as Menegilda and Old Rory. “So, it’s time,” Gilda said gently. “You’re ready to be off to a new life. We’ll miss you terribly, you know, Frodo-lad.”

His voice hoarse, Frodo managed, “Yes, I know.”

“You are expected to be back for a visit as soon after your birthday as can be managed--you understand?”

He straightened. “Yes, I understand, Aunt Gilda,” he answered, his voice firmer.

“The only excuse tolerated will be if you’re on your sickbed!”

He actually managed a smile, then leaned forward and gave her an embrace. “Love you,” he whispered loudly enough for Saradoc to hear. Then he was silently embracing Rory, then Mantha and Beri, then turning to the door, which Dodinas was opening for them while Rory slipped Frodo’s cloak over his shoulders. Frodo then reached down and swept up his pack and walked forward as steadily as he could. As Sara followed his former ward out of the door, he saw Frodo pause, looking at the cart by which Merimac stood, holding the pony’s bridle. As Sara came abreast of the younger Hobbit he saw that the tears were leaving his eyes, and now there was a barely suppressed excitement there, and a look of growing hope. At last Frodo dragged his eyes from the cart, turning toward Sara, Merry, and Esme, who’d come up alongside her husband. His mouth worked, but no words came out. Silently he hugged Esme one last time, holding her almost desperately for a moment, then more gently before he leaned down to kiss her cheek--when had he grown so tall?

Then he was hugging Sara, his eyes closed, before reaching to take Merry from his father’s arms. “You will watch over the place for me, won’t you, Merry mine?” he whispered.

Merry nodded.

“Good.” He walked to the cart, and after kissing the child handed Merry to Mac, carefully settling his pack in the tilt before climbing onto the bench.

Bilbo took his leave from one and all, then hurried to toss his own pack rather negligently over the sideboards, scrambling to his place, taking up the reins and setting his hand on the brake. The pony turned his gaze over his shoulder, eyeing the passengers and the load as Willow and her husband came out with the hamper of food, settling it under the bench, behind Bilbo’s legs.

Willow looked up and placed her hand on Frodo’s foot. “You will do well, there in Hobbiton,” she said. “But we will miss ye here--know that, lad.”

Frodo gave a wordless nod.

“Well, be on with ye, then, the two of ye!” she said with a swat to Frodo’s calf. “Ye’ve plenty there to last ye to the Floatin’ Log and beyond, I’m thinkin’.”

“Thank you, Willow,” Bilbo said for the both of them. He turned to look at those before the doors. “Well, we’re off, then. May all of you keep well!”

Frodo gave them all a swift glance, then turned his gaze forward; and as they drove away he did not look back.

*******


Frodo had still not spoken by they time they reached the Brandywine Bridge, better than two hours later. “Are you hungry, lad?” Bilbo asked after still another sideways look at his companion.

“No, not very--not yet, at least,” Frodo murmured.

“I couldn’t fail to notice that between your excitement and your grief you ate hardly anything this morning.”

“I know.”

As they came off the bridge onto the Road proper, Bilbo asked, “Would you like to stop at the Bridge Inn?”

There was a slightly delayed shake to his head. “No,” Frodo finally said. “Let’s go a bit further before we do. Otherwise....”

When it was plain he’d not complete the sentence, Bilbo finished it for him. “Otherwise it is too much like any other visit to Kingsbridge?”

Frodo nodded wordlessly.

“You never said goodbye,” Bilbo noted.

Frodo merely nodded.

After another silence the old Hobbit commented, “Your cousin Folco is now looking forward to your coming. He’s not seen you save at a distance at the Free Fair since you were still a faunt and he was a babe in arms.”

“Actually, he was at the Great Smials at the last Took Moot we attended,” Frodo noted. “Although I don’t think I really spoke with him then,” he added a moment later. “What is he like?”

Bilbo laughed. “He asked the same of you as I was leaving Hobbiton. Quite a nice young chap, really. Used to do a good deal of copying for me before his father died. Wisteria, however, to curry favor with Ferumbras was discouraging him from visiting me. She’s beginning to realize it’s pointless, though. Is very close to young Fredegar Bolger, though, and his cousin Narcissa. You remember Narcissa, don’t you?”

“Yes--I see her usually when we go to Michel Delving for the Free Fair.”

“Well, get out the food hamper from beneath me here, and find something that appears proper to second breakfast--you might not be hungry, but I am ravenous! Now, Narcissa’s mother Ivy used to dote on you when you were small and living in Hobbiton....”

Frodo didn’t appear to notice they’d already left Kingsbridge behind. By the time they got to Whitfurrows he was teaching his uncle the new verse to “The Mistress’s Knickers” he’d composed. They’d both sung it through twice when Bilbo turned the pony off the road into a clearing where obviously folk tended to pause during their journeys.

“You young scamp! I certainly hope you don’t sing that around Menegilda!” Bilbo laughed as he set the brake and Frodo hopped off the bench to help as he could.

“She taught me a few verses I’d not heard before,” Frodo explained, and Bilbo felt his eyebrows rise. “She says she hates it that since she became Mistress of the Hall no one will sing it around her any more, so I make a point of singing her any new verses I hear. She rather liked that one, really. And Aunt Esme is certain that when it’s her turn and she is the Mistress it will be much the same for her.”

Bilbo began to laugh helplessly. “You mean that we are all pointlessly trying to spare the feelings of the Mistress of the Hall?” he spluttered.

Frodo smiled with satisfaction. “Yes, and they think it’s both rather funny at the same time it’s rather silly, you know?”

Bilbo showed Frodo how to unharness the pony, and had him lead it to the stream to drink while he got a fire going to make tea. Frodo was looking across the Road at the rather shabby smial there and its littered grounds, his brow rather furrowed as if searching his memory before his eyes cleared. “The Broadloams!” he said, finally recognizing the place. “Greencap Broadloam lived there!”

“And still does,” Bilbo agreed. “We will have to keep an eye on the wagon while we’re here if we’re to be certain some of your things don’t end up being scavenged.” Then he eyed his ward curiously. “Want to take a quick look at the hole where your family used to live?” he asked.

Once they were done with their tea they returned their pony to its harness and drove down the lane that led past what had been the Baggins’s smial until the boating accident that cost Frodo his parents’ presence in his life. There they paused, and Frodo looked over the place. “It’s not home any more,” he murmured softly to Bilbo. “It’s not the same--not at all.”

Bilbo nodded his understanding. The place reflected the tastes of its current inhabitants, and the little that remained of Primula and Drogo’s planting had so changed in ten years there was almost nothing for them to recognize. Frodo shivered as he turned away. “I think I just want to go on,” he said decidedly.

“Then that we shall do, lad.”

They did not stay at the Floating Log, although they paused there to eat supper. They ended up camping out not far off the Road on the remains of an abandoned farm about five miles west of Frogmorton. Frodo, who’d not had a great deal of chance to sleep out of doors since his parents’ deaths, lay awake long beside Bilbo, remembering all he’d ever learned about the stars and constellations when he was younger and learning what more his older kinsman would teach him.

“And when the Hunter can be seen...” Bilbo was saying in a soft, soothing tone as Frodo’s eyes finally drifted closed on their own. Hearing the lad’s deeper breathing he paused, and smiled as he realized that at last Frodo was asleep and resting.

“You need some experience with the world and the Shire,” he murmured, looking sideways at his young cousin. “Oh, that you do; and I’ll do my best to see to it that you get it. I only hope it doesn’t become too painful for you.”

He smiled and curled up against Frodo’s back, glad of the solid feel of the younger Hobbit’s body against his spine. It was pleasant, he thought as he drifted off to sleep himself, not to be alone.

*******


Frodo was up already when Bilbo awoke shortly after dawn feeling a bit stiff as he turned in his blankets, already building up the fire and hanging the newly filled kettle from the tripod Bilbo had shown him how to construct the previous evening. The lad was humming softly as he worked, his attention on his new duties.

“Well, you sound quite happy this morning,” Bilbo noted as he sat up.

The lad spared him a short glance. “Of course! And I found a nice stand of button mushrooms I intend to stir into our morning eggs, if you like.”

“The ones off that direction?” Bilbo asked, indicating a shaded lawn to the west.

Frodo eyed him with more interest. “Then that’s why you chose to stop here, is it?” he asked.

“Well, it’s part of the charm of the place, I suppose. Add in that this is part of the property you inherited from your father, seeing that he had a half-interest in it at the time the Greenburrows died childless, and it makes it even more attractive as a camping spot. I used to visit it for him and collect his share of the harvests once he’d moved to Whitfurrows during those years when he could not come so far west. With Rory’s agreement I continued doing so after your parents’ deaths, until the Greenburrows died six years since. I’ve not been able to find good tenants for the place, however, and thought perhaps you should like to see to that task once you arrive--it would help teach you how to make good decisions regarding tenancy and setting rents and all.”

Frodo appeared surprised. “I had no idea I’d inherited land from my parents.”

“You still own the hole there is Whitfurrows, also, although the Chubbs family that lives there hopes to purchase it outright from you should you desire to sell it. You will be twenty-five in just over three years--at that time you can make such decisions, you know, with the agreement of Rory and me as your guardians and family heads, of course. And there’s a bit more you own elsewhere about the Shire, including a smallholding in Pincup--I do not suggest selling that to its tenant however, as Gordius simply would never keep it up if he weren’t answerable to another.”

As Bilbo continued to list off properties that Frodo had inherited ownership of or interest in, the younger Hobbit’s eyes opened wider with surprise. At last, as Bilbo had excused himself to visit the old wooden privy near the disused smial, he left his younger kinsman sitting thoughtfully on his heels by the fire. When he returned Frodo looked up at him. “Why has Uncle Rory never told me of these properties?” he asked.

“He’s had no reason to. He’s had your father’s bankers of discretion accept the rents and find suitable investments for them, and has had me visit them regularly on my own rambles about the Shire. The time when he would have been required to discuss them with you and begin teaching you how to oversee them would be when you turn twenty-five, of course. But it’s common that when young Hobbits try to assume oversight when they are still too young and lacking in discretion they tend to squander the rents and all too often mismanage the properties they’ve inherited. However, from what I’ve seen of you, my dear boy, I doubt we should find such foolishness occurring.”

Frodo’s cheeks grew decidedly pink at this praise. “So, you intend to begin teaching me now?” he asked.

“Indeed, lad. Now, the kettle’s on the boil at the moment, so let’s see to some tea, shall we? And then I’ll show you how to set up a cooking hearth over the coals.”

Ah, but his lad learned quickly and well, he found. It was such a joy, he realized, having someone he could teach such skills to. There was so much he now had to look forward to, now he would no longer be alone in Bag End!

*******


They arrived at mid-morning while the folk of the Row were all inside their holes for elevenses. They swiftly had the cart unloaded into the front garden, and together drove to Bywater to return the cart and pony. Frodo was allowed to pay the fees, which appeared to delight him greatly; and there was no question that old Oatbarrow, who managed the stable for the Green Dragon, was charmed by the lad.

Bell Gamgee was gathering in handkerchiefs spread over the front hedges to dry when they walked back along the Row, and produced the keys out of her apron pocket. “Was suspectin’ as ye’d be back early,” she smiled. “And this is your lad, is it? Ah, but young Frodo--how indeed as you’ve grown since last I saw ye! A fine lad you appear, young Master. Our Sam--he’ll be right taken with you, or so I’d wager, if’n I was one to wager, of course.”

“They’re not up in the garden?” Bilbo asked.

“Nah--had t’run into the village t’fetch some onion sets. Seems as the damp the winter past left those as Ham had set by for you mildewed, so he ordered some from Mr. Griffo, who just come t’say as they was ready. They was there in the garden early, though. Those odd seeds as the lad planted t’see what they was--turned out t’be stingin’ nettles, they did! Sam’s that embarrassed, he is. Well, on with the two of ye--and I’ll not tell the lads--let them find out on their own--let’m be surprised!”

And when Frodo bowed politely to her she was obviously most pleased and flattered. “You’ll do well enough, lad,” she said as they started up the Hill to the gate to Bag End.

They soon had all the luggage brought inside and quickly installed in their rooms, and Bilbo heard Frodo go out into the gardens, continuing to sing the walking song they’d sung on their way home from Bywater as he started toward the back of the place, intent on exploring the gardens and seeking out the entrance to the orchard. Bilbo smiled again. It would be a joyous time, watching his lad grow in competence and confidence as he came into his own.

Bilbo had fetched some ham and boiled eggs from the cold room for their own elevenses when he heard Hamfast come into the gardens through the back gate, apparently with his lad Sam in tow. “Don’t know as when the Master’ll be back, but I’d wish t’get this portion here weeded and them pansies by that window there deadheaded afore them does come, if’n it’s possible, o’ course,” the Gaffer was saying. “So, you take care o’ here, mind, and I’ll put the new onion sets out by the vegetable garden afore I go back to pullin’ out them nettles.”

“Dad,” Sam asked, “do you think as Master Frodo plays at conkers? Or that he’d like t’go fishin’?”

“Member, lad, he come from t’other side o’ the Brandywine. Suspect as he does know fishin’--’tis said as them Brandybucks is always messin’ around about the river, and ’tis said as the pike and trout there’s mighty good. But from what Mr. Bilbo tells me he’s not done much with games, poor lad.” Then, more cheerfully the Gaffer added, “Mayhaps ye can teach ’im. I reckon as he’d like that. But not til yer own work is done, mind.”

“Yessir, Da.”

“He’s a fine little fellow, our Sam,” Bilbo murmured to himself as he set the table.

“Oh, and there’s yer sissy, come with our elevenses. What with havin’ t’go into the village like we did, we’ll welcome that. Go on, now, child, ’n’ bring it up. We can sup as we work.”

Bilbo heard the back gate squeak open and closed. “Here, our May--I’ll take that!”

“Well and good, Sam. And Mummy says t’remember t’bring back the basket, hear?”

The old Hobbit chuckled. It was much the same every day, he knew. Young Sam had followed his dad about the garden for as long as he’d been walking, and the child had it in him to be an expert gardener, perhaps even outstripping his father and old Holman Greenhand.

The gate opened again as Sam returned, but it didn’t close again. Curious, Bilbo went over to peer out the window. Sam was standing just inside the back gate, his eyes wide open and his mouth a perfect O as he stared at something that had obviously taken him by surprise.

“What is it that’s taken him so?” Bilbo wondered to himself, craning his head to see what had managed to catch the child’s attention.

It was Frodo. His lad had just returned from his explorations, and had paused to examine the newcomer he’d managed to catch just coming in the garden gate. Bilbo went out the back door. “Well, there you are, then. Is it as you remember? It has been years, hasn’t it, my boy?”

There was a sighing of the gate hinges, and both Bilbo and Frodo looked back to see Sam finish his entrance, his wide brown eyes fixed on the newcomer. Bilbo smiled, recognizing that this little one had just been caught under the spell his Frodo seemed to cast on all who allowed themselves to become close. “Ah, our lad Sam!” he said. “Frodo Baggins, may I introduce young Master Samwise Gamgee, son of our inestimable gardener, Hamfast Gamgee, a veritable master of growing things.” And as Frodo knelt to greet the gardener’s lad Bilbo saw the hero worship growing in the child’s eyes and his face brighten.

They are intended to be there for one another, he thought. No, not a moment too soon have I brought my dear boy home to Bag End! Aloud he said, “Well, it looks as if our Sam has fetched elevenses for himself and his father, and ours is on the table now. Come along in, my Frodo-lad, and let’s all enjoy a good meal this wonderful day!”

No, not a moment too soon. Hobbiton would become a new place, now his lad was there to explore and enrich it.

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