by Frayach ni Cuill

"Can't we wait until the morning to wake the lad?"

"That wouldn't be right, now would it?"

"What can he do? There's nothing he can do. Let him get a full night's sleep, poor wee mite."

"It isn't right. The lad should be wakened."

"Then let me at least get a candle. It'll frighten the wits out of him if I go in stumbling around in the dark."

The voices seeped in whispers through the bright painted door with its white birds and blue flowers, and Frodo knew they were discussing him. He knew something was wrong and had known it for some time now, ever since he'd heard the voices calling from the river up to the open windows on the other side of the Hall. He'd known something was wrong but had not moved so much as a foot or an arm beneath the cool sheets, which, just that afternoon, he'd watched Maggie struggle to take down off the line and bunch into a wicker basket. They had seemed liking living things, billowing and snapping in the stiff little breeze off the river. Maggie's out gathering clouds, his mother had leaned down to whisper to him, as they'd stood on the steep bank overlooking the sun-filled inlet where the maids did the washing. Make a wish. And he had. Not a quiet deep-in-his-heart wish as his mother had suggested, but a lung-filling shout of a wish for all to hear.

Now he was barely even breathing, holding as still as a rabbit that feels the hawk's shadow. As long as he didn't move, it would all be all right. The voices would fade away down the echoing tunnels and the peep frogs in the water-filled barrels out by the stables would begin their song again. All he had to do was lie still until he felt his mother's lips on his forehead. We're back, sweetness. Sleep tight.

Instead, the door opened a crack, and he saw the flicker of candle flame and a dark shadow, full and wide in the hips, framed in the doorway. It was not his mother with her lithe body and bright beads at her throat. It was his Aunt. But still he did not move. She came toward him slowly, picking her way through the books and clothes strewn about his small bedroom, and set the candle on the bureau.

"Frodo-lad, wake up," she whispered gently. "Your Uncle and I need to speak with you."

"I am awake, Auntie," Frodo said, but his voice was little more than a squeak for having lain there in the dark, every muscle tensed as though he might need to run faster than he'd ever had to run before. He didn't want to move now, because he had a feeling that once he started running he might never stop. But his Aunt sat on the bed, drawing the sheet back as she spoke and gently rubbing his arm, up and down from his skinny shoulder to his wrist and back again. The touch was almost more than he could bear.

"We need you to come downstairs, duckling," she said softly.

"Where's Mama?" he asked and immediately wished he had not. The answer to that question, he knew, was what was waiting for him downstairs in his Uncle's cavernous study, and it was an answer he didn't want to discover. Ever.

His Aunt sighed and helped him sit up, smoothing his hair back from his face and wetting her finger with her tongue before scrubbing a bit of dirt off his cheek. Something had happened to his mother. He knew this, and with every minute the knowledge grew stronger. Auntie often wet her finger or a corner of her handkerchief to scrub dirt off his face, but it was always with a sharp comment under her breath "that Primula, couldn't keep you clean if you were carved out of soap" or some such. But now she said nothing, and the gesture was almost unthinking, more to bide time than to prepare him for his Uncle's critical glance. She found a pair of his breeches on the floor, and he tugged them on, tucking his nightshirt into the waistband.

With one hand brushing the wainscotting, he followed his Aunt out of his room and down the sloping hall and the short set of steps and around the corner and down another hall until all too soon they stood before the door of his Uncle's study. It was thrown open, and Frodo could see that the room was full of all his uncles and aunts and cousins and second cousins and their wives and husbands. Their excited chatter ceased as he and his Aunt entered, and they turned to look at him. Their faces were kindly, but all the more frightening for it. Frodo would have preferred to be ignored as usual, for that would have meant that the wet cloak on that chair, with its crimson embroidered edgework, was not his mother's. It would have meant that he had not been made an orphan sometime between the moment when his graceful mother had tucked him in and blown out the candle and this moment when his hollow-eyed Uncle gripped his shoulders and told him to be strong. But once he realized he was crying, it was impossible to stop.

* * *

"Frodo, do you want me to get the door or just leave it?" Merry asked, as he bounced from foot to foot in front of the chair where Frodo had thrown himself, slumped by the entry parlour's small fire.

"Find out who it is," Frodo sighed. He was exhausted and not at all in the mood for visitors, but he was also already aware keenly aware that he was now Master of Bag End, and there were things that masters must see to even in the wee hours of the morning after a night of drinking and revelry and a hundred and one excuses for the former Master's sudden and unexpected departure.

"It's Sam Gamgee!" Merry called from the hall. "He brings word from his father that the last remaining party-goers have been hauled off and dumped in their beds!"

Frodo straightened himself in the chair and swept his hair back from his face, tucking it behind his ears. Sam stood beneath the carved arch of the front door, neither in nor out. The new wool waistcoat he had worn to the party was open, as was his collar. He ducked his head toward Frodo shyly as he hastily unrolled his shirtsleeves and fumbled with the wide wooden buttons at their cuffs.

"All's sorted away down to the party field, Mr. Frodo, sir," Sam said as though nothing at all was amiss and everything was as it had been yester-morn when he woke up, the son of the gardener for Bilbo, not Frodo, Baggins. He finished with his cuffs and reached for the buttons at his collar.

"Thank you, Sam. I appreciate your and your father's help tonight. Please take those jugs of cider with you. Those there, by the door." Sam's fingers paused in their efforts to fasten the clasps of his waistcoat, looking doubtful, but Frodo persisted. He had watched Bilbo and Sam's father play this scenario out countless times over the years. "Please take them. They're left over and I haven't the storage space." They both knew this was a polite lie: Bag End boasted the grandest cellars in the WestFarthing. Sam remained silent for a moment longer than was customary, and Frodo added, clumsily, "they are my gift to you and your family on my birthday."

"But you've already gifted us, sir. Both you and Mr. Bilbo did so and handsomely, I might add."

"Sam, he's giving you another present," Merry laughed. "Shoo now and go get some sleep. I'm sure I'll be hearing your Gaffer's pruning shears too soon as it is."

At the mention of pruning, Frodo tapped his palm against his forehead and stood up. "That reminds me, Sam. You and your father needn't be at work at the crack of dawn. But I'd like it if you both came by before noon. We should discuss the new situation."

Sam's eyes widened for a moment. "Yes, sir. I'll make certain to pass on the word to me Da." He glanced again nervously at the jugs of cider before hoisting them, one under each arm, and staggering a bit with their weight and size. Frodo could not help but notice, albeit with a smile, that the new vest strained across his chest and the gaps between the clasps showed the white of his rough-spun cloth shirt. When would the lad stop growing? With another shy nod toward Merry and Frodo, he left and Merry closed the door behind him.

"You gave the poor fellow quite a fright there, Cousin," Merry said, throwing himself into the chair across from Frodo's as Frodo took his seat again.

"How... what do you mean?" Frodo asked, rubbing his head and hoping that Merry wasn't in the mood for a long chat before bed.

"He thinks you're about to let him go."

"What?" Frodo was suddenly aghast.

"Bet you a pitcher of ale at the Dragon that's what he's thinking that the 'new situation' you want to discuss is his and his Gaffer's dismissal. Hence the nice jugs of cider."

"Really? You think so?" Frodo groaned. "Oh, now I feel terrible. I didn't mean that."

"Well, whether you meant it or not, he'll be thinking it."

"How is it that a tweener like yourself is more fit to run a household than I am?" Frodo said, shaking his head. "It's a good thing I'll have you about the place for a week or so. Clearly I've forgotten my lessons on dealing with servants properly since leaving the Hall."

"That's what I've noticed most often," Merry said, biting on a fingernail and spitting it into the fire. "The servants are always afraid you're about to let them go. Some of my cousins love tormenting them catching them at something and then being all vague about whether they're going to tell or not."

"That's cruel," Frodo replied. "And stop biting your nails. Your hands will end up looking like mine, all gnawed to the nub."

"I didn't say I did it," Merry protested, still biting.

"I wouldn't expect you to. That's not the Merry I know," Frodo answered. "I imagine I'd be rather shocked if I lived at the Hall for long again," he continued, more to himself than his cousin. He was gazing into the fire now, letting the leaping flames lull his mind and his heart. "Bilbo never said a harsh word to the Gaffer or any of the other help. I'm glad I had his example in that. Now when I hear others upbraiding their servants, it sounds so, well, improper."

"I remember Bilbo giving Sam a lesson one afternoon and me coming in to sneak a cake while he wasn't watching," Merry said. "He caught me and switched me right in front of Sam. I was mortified. My father would never dream of scolding us in front of the help."

"Yes, but he never hesitated to scold the help in front of the children," Frodo said ruefully.

"Well, he isn't Bilbo, that's for sure. Do you know what I heard Bilbo say to Sam after sending me to my room? 'The only way to train a proper burglar, laddie, is to really let him have it when he gets himself caught.' Imagine my Dad giving thieving lessons to the help!"

Frodo laughed. "Bilbo just can't help it. If things aren't at least slightly topsy-turvy he gets bored. 'Frodo-lad,' he'd say," and here Frodo put on his very best Bilbo voice. "'It's getting frightfully dull about the place. How about running down to the Hornblowers' and leaving the latch of their coop undone. I know you're capable of it, since you've done it before.'"

"That's true enough, but then he'd always stomp around about all the ruckus," said Merry.

"But that's part of it all," laughed Frodo. "Bilbo loves to have things to complain about. But talk about upsetting the help! His pranks and oddities would have the Gaffer red-faced and sputtering: 'It just tain't right, Mr. Bilbo, sir. Begging you pardon.'" Here Frodo tried out his Gaffer voice, which he'd been perfecting for Bilbo's amusement over the last few weeks. Bilbo had seemed so distant, so melancholy, Frodo thought he would have done nothing short of setting loose all the chickens in Hobbiton and herding them all into the Sackville-Bagginses' garden if that would have gotten him a chuckle or even a wistful smile. Frodo sighed and the light mood quickly left him. Certainly he'd suspected something, but not that Bilbo would simply vanish without so much as a good-bye. In his heart, Frodo knew he would not return.

"Merry, it's time for bed," he said wearily. "You're wide-awake now, but that's only because you've had too many cakes and set off too many firecrackers. Soon as your head touches the pillow, you'll be asleep in no time."

"But I want to sit up with you..."

"Stop biting your fingernails..."

Merry abruptly dropped his hand from his face and tucked them both behind his back. "It's almost dawn. I haven't stayed up all night before, not without being sick, that is."

"I'm afraid I won't be good company for you. I'm tired and I'm sad and I guess I need some time to myself," Frodo replied. Merry put on his best pout. "Now stop that. I'm glad that you're here... very glad. But it's been a long night..."

"All right, cousin. I understand." Merry stood and crossed to where he sat. To Frodo's surprise, he wrapped his arms around Frodo's neck and kissed his cheek. Frodo could smell the sticky sweetness of cakes on his warm breath. "I'm sorry he's gone. Doesn't seem right, you losing another parent and all."

Tears stung Frodo's eyes suddenly and he hugged Merry back, squeezing tightly. "Good night. Sleep well," he said huskily, wiping his eyes as Merry pulled back.

"I will," Merry replied. "You too."

* * *

When would he stop thinking about Bilbo in the present tense, Frodo wondered. When, now that he thought on it, had he stopped thinking about his mother in the present tense, stopped expecting her to walk through the door with her bright laughter and her arms open for him to run to?

The moon was setting behind the line of hills to the west, and the grass was silvered with cold autumn dew. Frodo could see his breath in the pale light. Where was Bilbo now? He must be asleep somewhere, perhaps not even that far away, tucked between the roots of an oak or against a haystack. If Frodo left now, he might still catch him up. The thought sparked in his mind, but then faded almost as quickly. He would not follow. Not yet, at least. He couldn't. Something both held him here, where he was, and pulled Bilbo away. He could feel it in his limbs, leaden with exhaustion. And he could feel it when he thought of Bilbo. He remembered all the tales, the descriptions of nights spent under the stars, and the sense of purpose Bilbo had felt. "It isn't everyone, Frodo-lad, who is called on to show what he's made of." Frodo could hear Bilbo's voice, somewhere behind his heart. It came from the same place his mother's voice used to, and still did sometimes in the wee hours of the morning. "But you must wait for the call." Frodo turned to enter Bag End's wide front door but paused when his hand touched the latch. This was all his now. Everything he set his eyes on was his. The thought seemed too vast for him to take in all at once. Bilbo's beautiful hole, the pride of the Shire, the gift of Bilbo's father to his beautiful and capricious wife, all of this belonged to him now. But what good was a hole with only one hobbit to occupy it? What would it be like in the dead of winter, with a muffling snowfall outside and the silence drifting through the smial like pipe wisps of memory? What would it be like tomorrow when Frodo arose and there was no Bilbo puttering about in the kitchen or quizzing the Gaffer from his study window?

Thank goodness Merry was there. How glad Frodo was that Bilbo had suggested he invite his young cousin to stay until after harvest. Of course, now he saw where the suggestion came from, but he was touched that Bilbo would think ahead for him. He had planned everything out, down to the last detail. Frodo thought of the crowds he'd be facing in just a few hours and the piles of pointedly clever gifts Bilbo had assembled for nearly everyone. He must have been planning this for a year or more. Planning to leave Bag End, the Shire... and Frodo.

There's no point in feeling betrayed, Frodo scolded himself, but it did no good. The old feeling was there again as if it had never left. He'd blamed his mother, too. Blamed her for going to Brandy Hall that last time, out of spite, Frodo now suspected. Blamed her for stepping into the boat that starlit night. Blamed her for leaving him alone.

The moon's rim vanished behind the dark hills as Frodo opened the door to Bag End. The corner, where Bilbo's walking stick and ever-packed and ready bag used to sit, was empty. Before he could stop himself, Frodo began to weep. With one hand on the doorjamb and the other covering his mouth, he let himself sink to his knees. Behind him, the dawn spilled its pale light on the dew-beaded grass. His first day as Master had begun.

* * *

The first knock came just as Frodo was setting the tea to steeping and slicing the bread and ham for his and Merry's lunch.

"I'll get it!" Merry called from the parlour, and Frodo could hear the scamper of his feet all the way to the front door. Good thing one of them was in the mood to deal with visitors. Merry was positively bursting at the seams to tell Boffinses and Bracegirdles to "have a good day!" Frodo had been coaching him since he'd finally climbed out of bed, rubbing his eyes with the backs of his hands and stretching his toes on the kitchen's sun-warmed tiles. "Be polite but firm," Frodo had told him. "This will be good practice for you when you take your father's place someday as Master of Brandy Hall."

"Ha! Don't count your chickens," Merry had laughed. "He's vowed never to let me so much as inherit his last name if I don't 'shape up.'"

"Pish, he's just exerting his influence while he still can," Frodo had told him. "But regardless, it's never too soon to start practicing etiquette. As Bilbo is... was... always fond of reminding me, 'Good fences make good neighbors.'"

"It's the Gamgees!" Merry called to him now, and Frodo shook his head in chagrin. He'd already forgotten he'd asked them up to discuss the 'new situation.'

"Show them into the parlour, Merry!" Frodo called, quickly refilling the kettle and slicing more bread and ham. "I'll be out in just a minute!" Perhaps some cheese would be good as well and some roasted potatoes and those fresh little pears... But then again, such extravagance might set his guests on edge as the gifts of cider had done, inadvertently, the night before...

"It looks as though things are cleared away down to the party field. I'm just after talking to Milo Burrow's lad, and he says everyone turned out to work as was asked." The Gaffer was talking to Merry as Frodo emerged from the dining room, wiping his hands on a cloth, which he tossed over the back of a chair, and buttoning his cuffs and collar. "Good morning, sir... er... afternoon, I suppose..." The Gaffer removed the shapeless hat he seemed to favour and ducked his head at Frodo. Frodo extended his hand, and the Gaffer took it nervously.

"Good day to you as well, Master Gamgee... Sam..." Frodo extended his hand to the Gaffer's son who stood two paces behind his father, wearing the same anxious expression. Sam accepted the gesture and squeezed Frodo's hand in a strong clasp that belied his youth. Perhaps sensing that his handshake was firmer than it need be, Sam suddenly blushed and dropped his eyes from Frodo's face.

"Won't you join Merry and myself? We were just sitting down for a bite of lunch." Frodo stepped aside and gestured for his guests to enter.

"We'd be right obliged, Mr. Frodo, sir. Long as it don't put you to any trouble, that is." Frodo had never seen the Gaffer this perturbed before. Twice, since they'd arrived, he'd taken out his rough-spun handkerchief and mopped his brow.

"You wouldn't be putting us to any trouble at all. I was expecting you." Frodo hoped his little lie wouldn't show on his face as he ushered them back to the dining room. "I overheard you just now saying that the pavilions have all been taken down. Do you happen to know if Mr. Burrows saw to it that the right chairs made it back to the right inns? Bilbo left me a note to that effect, saying there would be trouble with the innkeepers if a mix-up were to occur."

"I can't rightly say, sir, as there was aught there but some barrels and half-laden carts when Sam and me passed by. But I'll give my good word for Milo Burrows and his lad and wager they saw to their orders right proper. They may be from ove

r the Hill, but they're from good Hobbiton stock afore old Otto Burrows went wandering..." The Gaffer stopped speaking with a swallow and took out his handkerchief again. "My, but it's a warm autumn..." he stammered.

"Yes it is, and good for the harvest, I would think," replied Frodo with a gesture toward the table. "Please, don't stand on ceremony and have a seat." He smiled what he hoped was a reassuring smile. "I shall return in a moment."

While the Gamgees were seating themselves and gingerly placing Frodo's linen napkins on their laps, Frodo retreated to his and Merry's rooms and grabbed the first jackets he could find. Images of Bilbo had flashed before his mind, bringing with them details he'd never thought to notice before. Such as the fact that Bilbo never ever went without a jacket or at least a waistcoat after mid-morning. He re-emerged brushing the sleeves of a blue wool jacket the first he could find in a pinch and handed Merry a waistcoat as discreetly as possible, but nonetheless smacking at Merry's hand as it reached for a slice of ham.

"Caught again, it seems," Merry winked at Sam, who blushed and looked down at his lap.

"Please, help yourselves. There's plenty more in the pantry if we should need it," Frodo said warmly, but still the Gaffer and his son took tiny portions before handing the platters on to Merry and himself. Best get down to business and disperse this unnecessary worry, Frodo thought.

"Well," he said, placing both hands on his thighs and looking directly at Sam and his father, who sat across from each other with wary but expectant faces turned in his direction at the head of the table. "Here is the situation. Bilbo has decided to leave the Shire. He does not plan to return, but he has named me as his heir. I will be running Bag End now."

If the Gamgees were surprised by anything he'd said, they did not let on but only continued sipping their tea, their strong gardeners' hands cradling his fine cups like baby birds. Frodo could nonetheless feel the tension radiating from them. I did give them a fright, he thought, not to mention Bilbo...

"As Master of Bag End, I have decided to expand my gardens and orchards as well as the acreage I wish to till. I'll need help and guidance from both of you in this endeavour, if, of course, you are willing and able." Both father and son looked at him with astonished faces. "And, of course, I'll raise your pay," Frodo stammered, interpreting their silence for outrage at the thought that he would be increasing their workload and not their income. "Furthermore," he added on a whim. "Furthermore, there are some household chores I could use some help with, now that I'll be alone here. Perhaps you would speak to May or Marigold to see if they'd be..."

"That's a right fine offer, sir, and me and Sam would be glad to take it." The Gaffer mopped his brow again, but his shoulders loosened and his customary down-turned smile lightened his face. "The only trouble being, sir, that... well... May and Mari... they being just young lasses and, well, it... it twouldn't be proper now would it, if either was to do for you, a young bachelor, sir. No offense intended, you understand... And not saying as..."

"No, you're right. I'm sorry, I wasn't thinking," Frodo acknowledged.

"Tisn't yourself, of course, sir, that worries me," the Gaffer tumbled on. "Tis the waggin' tongues of the village I'm thinking on. 'Specially now with Mr. Bilbo being gone and all. All the talk'll be on you and the Hill now, it will. I'd not have any blighter talkin' ill of you, sir."

"Nor your daughters, of course not. I understand, say no more. I'll look to one of the widows or..."

"I could help you, sir." They all fell silent as Sam set his cup down and met Frodo's eyes straight on. "I've got time enough and all." For a long moment, they held one another's gaze while something passed between them something fleeting, but as sure and strong as a mountain stream of melting snow.

The Gaffer shifted uncomfortably, and Frodo tore his eyes away, turning them on Sam's father. "Well, now, sir... with all the extra work we'll have to do, I don't know as he'll have time..." His sentence trailed off and he took a gulp of tea. Frodo guessed immediately what it was that troubled him. He did not want his son to be a servant, even the servant of the Master of Bag End. The distance between gardener and house boy might not seem much to hobbits of Frodo's and Merry's breeding, but it was well nigh a chasm in the eyes of skilled tradesmen like the Gaffer. He was training his lad up to be a gardener, not an errand boy.

"Thank you for your offer, Sam, but that's quite all right. You needn't bother yourself. I will make the appropriate inquiries," said Frodo, but he was filled with a strange reluctance that owed more to a wish to have Sam's familiar voice and face about than to any aversion to welcoming a stranger into the intimacies of his home.

The Gaffer breathed an audible sigh of relief and indicated his renewed comfort by taking a heaping second helping. Sam's eyes stayed on his plate.

"T'would be no bother, sir," he said softly before looking up again and into Frodo's eyes once more. It was Frodo's turn to shift uncomfortably. He could feel the Gaffer's eyes on him, willing him not to accept, but a wish was growing in his heart that he could neither place a name to nor deny.

"Well, perhaps for awhile," he murmured, his eyes still held by the bare frankness in Sam's. "Until I find someone more... uh... suitable," he stammered for lack of a better word. The Gaffer grunted but after a moment seemed to acquiesce. If the situation was temporary, he wouldn't raise too much of an objection to it, what with Frodo newly bereaved and all.

"When shall I start?" Sam asked with a sweet innocence that nearly took Frodo's breath away.

"Uhm, well, I hadn't thought that far ahead, to be honest," he stammered again, growing ever more keenly aware that he should take command of this situation. Clearing his throat and setting his hands on his thighs again a signal Sam would soon learn to associate with Frodo setting his mind to something Frodo suggested the following morning, if that wasn't too soon, of course.

* * *

Frodo scarcely had the chance to see the Gamgees to the door and slip into his dressing room and change before the first visitors and curiosity-seekers arrived at Bag End. He directed Merry to clean up the table and put away the dishes while he stood his ground in his best waistcoat and breeches with silver buttons at the knees and greeted all and sundry with what he hoped was a relaxed and confident smile.

"Where's that confounded Uncle of yours?" shouted Odo Proudfoot, as he pushed himself past Frodo, who, as far as he was concerned, was still the little wide-eyed pipsqueak old Bilbo had just adopted.

"Good day, Master Proudfoot. I am sorry to have to say that he is not at home," Frodo answered politely, and stepped aside to allow Mistress Proudfoot to follow her husband, who had thoroughly ignored Frodo and continued to call out "Bilbo! Bilbo! Where are you, you old rascal?!"

"There's a Brandybuck in the kitchen!" he announced, emerging again into the parlour. As if such a thing were the crowning proof of ignominy.

"Yes, there is. That is my cousin Meriadoc," Frodo replied, just as the younger Proudfoots pushed through the door with a great deal of excitement. It was clear that Frodo was going to have to exert a fair amount of energy in keeping all of these 'well-wishers' out of his home.

At just that moment a gaggle of Tooks arrived with their umbrellas and hats and fine brocade riding jackets. Bilbo had left several of them pointed little gifts, and Frodo ushered them inside. They exchanged polite "good days" with the Proudfoots, who grew at least somewhat more docile in the presence of such 'quality.' Merry emerged from the kitchen and was grappled into all-encompassing hugs by many of his Took relations.

"When shall we see Bilbo?" Eglantine Took asked, as she bounced her youngest further up off her hip. He was getting gangly like all of the Tooks, Frodo noted.

"I believe he's gone away," Frodo answered, spreading his hands apologetically. "For good, as far as I know."

"Put me down, Mama," Pippin complained, struggling to extricate himself from his mother's arms. "I'm too big!"

"You are too big," Eglantine huffed and dumped him on the ground unceremoniously. "You're breaking my back. One minute you want to be held, the next you want to be on the ground again. You're getting to be impossible, Pip. Go find your sisters. Well, Frodo," she said, turning to her young nephew. "It looks as though the Took side won out in our Bilbo. All I can say is I'm glad it was Bilbo and not my husband." She tweaked Frodo's ear affectionately. "How are you holding up, lad?" she added gently.

"I'm all right," Frodo replied, hugging his Aunt and kissing both her cheeks warmly. "I've got Merry here to keep me company."

"Well, to keep you busy, that's for certain. Good day, Meriadoc."

"Good day, Aunt," Merry replied, kissing Eglantine in his turn.

"My, but you have grown since I last saw you... when was that...?"

"Last night?" Merry asked wickedly.

"Oh, you! Goodness, you young pack of Brandybucks are all the same, aren't you?" But the sparkle in Eglantine's eyes belied her scolding.

"Frodo, Frodo Baggins!" Frodo turned toward the door and noted that the whole Baggins family tree had taken root in his front yard. They milled about, looking under shrubs and benches as though they expected Bilbo to be hiding and getting ready to pop out and frighten them.

"I'm here, Aunt Dora," Frodo called, giving Eglantine and Merry an apologetic glance. "Please come in, Bilbo's left you something." He took his Aunt's frail arm and helped her through the door and into the parlour.

"Where is the old scoundrel then?" asked Dora. "We still haven't forgiven him for that fright he gave us last night. Nearly, put me off afters, that did."

"I'm afraid Bilbo has left, and it does not appear he'll be returning," Frodo replied, but his Aunt just stared at him, open-mouthed.

"Not coming back? But how? Where?" For once, Frodo noted, Dora Baggins was at a loss for words.

"Frodo, I'm hungry," Pippin was tugging on his shirtsleeve and hopping from foot to foot. "I'm hungry and Mama doesn't care."

"Pip, I'm busy now. Go ask Merry. He'll find you something. Run along now."

"Back to the kitchen again?" Merry sighed, taking Pippin by the hand. "You should've had Sam start this afternoon..."

"I'd gladly trade places with you," Frodo hissed into his cousin's ear as he passed. "And you could try explaining to all these busybodies where Bilbo has gotten to and why he hasn't returned for lunch."

"Well, if you put it that way," Merry replied. "Come on, Pip, let's see what we can find you back here. Call me, Frodo, if you need me."

Over the course of the next two hours, nearly everyone Frodo had ever known (and some that he hadn't) filed their way through his gate, up his steps and sometimes, if he were less than vigilant, in through his front door. As the sun began to cast long shadows on the road, residents of Bagshot Row also arrived, but they remained outside the gate, at a respectful distance, with their hats in their hands. Frodo took this opportunity to escape from his relations and their endless questions to go down to them with his arms full of presents. No pointed jokes for those who had spent the years tipping their hats cordially to the Master of Bag End and waiting till they were at the Dragon or the Bush before engaging in the tales Frodo knew they told. Not one asked where Bilbo had gone to, but only clasped his hand warmly when handed gifts of linen and beeswax and bags of grain, floor and seed potatoes.

After dispensing Bilbo's presents, Frodo stood some time among them, and when they asked if he'd mind if they had a wee smoke, he not only joined them but brought forth his own satchel of Southern Star and passed it around. The deep nods he received in exchange were more worthy than gold to his mind, as was the fact that once their pipes were filled, they seemed to forget that they stood before the Master. Frodo listened happily to the murmur of their dialects though, at times, they were difficult for him to follow and studied the fields below as the breeze smoothed the barley back and then forth like a cat licking her fur in the sun.

Just a half-furlong down the lane, Frodo noticed Sam and several other young hobbits seated on the embankment, tossing pebbles into a pot hole. They laughed and talked, occasionally nudging one another off the bank or pulling each others' caps over their eyes. Sam seemed at ease there among them, sprawled in the tall grass with a straw caught between his teeth. When it was his turn to throw, he'd prop himself up on one elbow and cast his pebble, not seeming to care whether it hit its mark or not. But it always did, Frodo noticed and wondered whether Sam's insouciance was merely an act, while beneath it lay submerged a concentration he wanted to conceal from his companions. How different from the Sam he'd seen in his parlour that morning, with flushed cheeks and shy glances. How different... and, at that very moment, the breeze caught Sam's laughter like a ribbon and tossed it up toward the sky, above the laughter of his companions, and it felt to Frodo's ears as the sun feels on one's back when a cool morning gives way to a fine afternoon. Instinctively, he smiled in Sam's direction and met his glance. Just a flicker, before Sam dropped his eyes to the ground and sat up, his insouciance abandoned in an instant.

It was as though a cloud had passed before the sun, and Frodo heard again the banging of his gate and the clamour of voices at his back. Reluctantly, he turned but not before glancing at Sam again. And again, he caught Sam's eyes veiled with what might be shyness or distrust before they darted to the side again. Suddenly, Frodo had to know. "Sam!" he called down, and Sam looked up, startled. "Sam! Can I trouble you for a moment?"

Sam scrambled to his feet as his companions fell silent, gazing up at Frodo with the same expectant, yet strangely vacant expressions that he so often encountered when greeting poorer hobbits in the fields or at market. Quick as a jackrabbit, Sam was at his side, his cap in his hand and his eyes cast at Frodo's feet.

"Yessir?" he asked without looking up, and Frodo was caught by the urge to take hold of his shoulders and force him to look into his face, like he had that very morning. Certainly, there was no call for such shyness and diffidence from Sam. Hadn't Sam been a frequent visitor at Bag End as well as one of Bilbo's favorite pupils? Frodo saw no reason at all why the confidence Sam had seemed to gain over the years in relating to the Master should dissipate only because the Master's name had changed.

"Do you have a moment? Can you help me with something?" Frodo asked, scanning his mind for an appropriate task.

"Yessir," Sam answered neutrally.

"Good. Well, uh, come with me then," Frodo replied awkwardly and headed back up the hill toward his front door. The press of bodies about his gate and within the confines of his yard had increased since he'd gone down to meet with the hobbits of Bagshot Row. Passing through the crowd, Frodo could hear whispered mention of gold and jewels unnumbered. Some adventuresome folk had already started poking about in the garden and prodding any spot of loosened earth with walking sticks or umbrellas. It must be here somewhere, he heard someone mutter. Old Bilbo didn't grow rubies and emeralds like pansies now, did he?

Frodo pushed in through the door and signaled for Sam to follow him, although this was easier asked than done. Poor Sam found himself in the most uncomfortable position of having to gently nudge aside Tooks, Bolgers and Bagginses, and Frodo could hear his quiet voice murmuring "excuse me, ma'am" and "pardon me, sir" as they made their way to the pantry. When they reached a less crowded spot, Frodo turned and impulsively slipped an arm about Sam's shoulders.

"I'm sorry about all of this," he said, gesturing dismissively toward the mill of hobbits in his living room. "I expected there to be some curiosity seekers but not this many. Hopefully, they'll leave me enough dinnerware to eat with and candlesticks to light my way to bed. Can you believe that Merry had to keep them from taking down the curtains earlier? Frightfully bold!"

Sam glanced up at Frodo's face for the first time since Frodo had caught his eye outside and shook his head with disapprobation. "Doesn't seem right, sir, if you don't mind me saying so. After you being bereaved and all. If folks'd behaved like this after my ma died, I don't know what I'd have done." Sam's voice trailed off and he looked down at his feet again. "I'm right sorry, sir. Twas wrong of me and I'm right sorry for it."

"What in the Shire are you sorry for?" Frodo asked, startled. Sam shuffled his feet uncomfortably.

"That I was laughing, sir. That you heard me laughing just now and playin' games like a bairn whilst here you are having lost Mr. Bilbo and all..." His voice trailed off, and Frodo watched as a blush crept around the edge of his collar and up his throat. "Twas wrong, and I wasn't thinking is all. Twasn't proper, what with your face so sad and all." This time his voice did not trail off but instead ended abruptly, as though he'd swallowed his final words.

"My face looks sad?" Frodo asked wonderingly, and Sam glanced up at him again in surprise.

"Indeed, sir. The saddest I've ever seen you, sir. Near breaks a hobbit's heart, it does," and with that he looked down again, his blush deepening.

Frodo didn't know what surprised him more at that moment the fact that his heart might be visible on his face despite his careful efforts at concealment, or the fact that Sam not only noticed but seemed to know it as though it were his own. He sighed and looked around. A quarrel had erupted in the kitchen, and Frodo could hear another angry swell of voices coming from one of the bedrooms. Someone passed close by and squeezed his shoulder for a moment, but Frodo could not see his face. The slight gesture of kindness, however, along with Sam's sweet shy words, suddenly brought the tears to his eyes again.

"Come with me, Sam," he said huskily and made for the pantry and the small plain wood door at the far end. The cellars must be the only quiet place left in the whole smial, or at least that was Frodo's dearest wish at that moment. Sam followed and once inside the door, Frodo reached for two candles from the shelf. Handing one to Sam, he dashed out quickly to the sitting room and lit the other in the hearth. Upon returning, he stopped to close the door softly behind them and let the latch fall with a 'click' before turning to Sam and lighting his candle with his own. The quiet of cool earth surrounded them, and the tallow from their candles hissed and popped in the sudden silence. Without speaking, Frodo gestured for Sam to follow him down the low passageway, murmuring a quick warning every time he ducked beneath a low-reaching root. The earth beneath their feet was pleasantly cool and damp.

"Have you ever been down here before?" he asked finally, once the tears that had threatened to spill had been swallowed back.

"No, sir. I've heard about them, though. These cellars, I mean. Old Daddy Twofoot's father was one as helped dig them back when he was just a lad. I've heard told that a whole village could fit down here, more or less."

"Well, probably not a whole village," Frodo said with a soft laugh. "The cellars aren't that vast, and it would be fairly crowded if all of Hobbiton were to take up house down here. But they're certainly quite large. Much bigger than I'll ever need, I'm sure."

"Oh! You've got mushrooms growing over here!"

"We've got a whole crop down here, actually. Year-round nonetheless. It's very handy, isn't it? Every time I need a handful for my stew, I can just come right down here and pick them. Quite nice."

Sam stood for a moment gazing into the shadowed corners of the cellars at the tiered earth and the hundreds of mushrooms poking forth like blind little flowers. "I've never seen the like," he said in hushed tones. "If thems upstairs knew aught of this, they'd give up their silly searches for gold and jools and what-not and come down here where the real riches are."

"And find Bag End's beer and wine casks as well. No thank you, I'd rather have them up there squabbling over the unimportant stuff like silver and crockery."

Sam smiled broadly, and Frodo felt it like a deep breath of cool evening air. The dancing light threw their shadows about like a scythe throws up wheat after each wide swing, as Frodo set their candles into iron holders near the wine racks. He could feel Sam standing behind him, patiently, as though Bag End's cellars were the only place in the Shire he wanted to be at the moment, and Frodo was aware of a deep calm, like the slow swirling of a river's eddy, in his blood a calm so deep and elemental that it made him feel as though he were both very old and very young at the same time.

"I'll have to give you a key," he said thoughtfully, turning again in Sam's direction. "Not only to the cellars but the front door as well..."

Sam dropped his head shyly again. "I promise I'll not make any such blunders again, sir," he said.

"You didn't blunder," Frodo replied. "There was no blunder. Truth be told, I was happy to hear laughter instead of prying questions and bickering. It eased my heart. You have nothing to apologize for." They stood for a moment in silence, Sam still looking at his feet, until Frodo felt a bit awkward. The Master probably should not be skulking in his cellars while his neighbors stripped his hole from stem to stern. And certainly the Master shouldn't be feeling as though the only thing at all he wanted in the world was to bury his face against his servant's neck and let himself be held and comforted like a child... Just then, he remembered Bilbo's note regarding Old Rory Brandybuck's present a dozen bottles of Old Winyards. A fine gift for a dear old friend.

"Over here," Frodo gestured to Sam and led the way to the vast wine rack. "We need to get a dozen of these bottles upstairs and past the hoards. No small task, I'm afraid. They'll also need dusting. Here, use my handkerchief."

Sam looked more than a little dubious as he accepted Frodo's embroidered linen handkerchief and even appeared slightly appalled when Frodo indicated that he should spit on it to dampen it. Frodo laughed, despite himself, and took it back.

"All right, I'll do the wiping if you'll go over to the corner there... no, over there by the shelves with the preserves. Right... There should be a couple of shoulder baskets over there. Do you see them?"

One by one, Frodo wiped the bottles clean and tested their corks with his teeth while Sam placed them carefully in the baskets. For some moments they were absorbed in quiet work until Frodo suddenly broke the silence. "Bilbo's not dead, Sam."

"I know, sir," came the quiet answer, and Frodo looked at him with surprise.

"How? How do you know?"

"I can't say rightly, but I know," Sam replied thoughtfully, slowly. "Maybe tis something I gleaned from all his tales. A kind of dream, I suppose."

"What kind of dream?"

"Well, I can't say for certain, but I'd hazard to guess that he dreamed of seeing the elves again, sir. The way he talked about them. His heart was half in another place sometimes."

Frodo turned and went toward a set of steps where he sat himself down heavily. He was tired all of a sudden. No, exhausted would be the better word for it. He sat looking at Sam with his elbows on his knees and his chin in his hands.

"I know," he said quietly. "I've known it for years as well. He was just waiting, I guess. Until I was old enough and ready to take care of all this." He gestured absently, with a wave of his hand about his head. Sam paused for a moment and then came to sit near him on a lower step. "It's hard to begrudge him his dream," Frodo added, almost to himself. "The Lady knows but I've got my own as well. I guess I just never planned on being alone. I thought dreams are what you went after with other people. Like Bilbo and the dwarves."

Frodo could feel Sam's eyes resting on him and the feeling of calm he'd noticed before twined itself like a vine around his exhaustion, until he felt less tired and more... at peace, he realized. He felt sweetly at peace there in the cool dark with Sam.

"There's no need for you to be all alone, sir. Not if you don't want to be."

"Oh, Sam, you're very kind. Too kind, I should think," Frodo replied, wiping the back of his hand across his nose. The tears had started again with almost no warning, but they were less tears of sadness than tears of acquiescence of release. The golden light flickered across Sam's face in a pattern of brightness and shadow, like sunlight falling on swiftly flowing water. "I hope you don't think you had to take this position out of pity for me."

"No, sir, of course not. Tisn't my place to pity the likes of such as you, and I dare say pity's not what you need, sir. Just someone as can look after you is all."

In the flickering light, Frodo could only barely see Sam's eyes, but even so he could see that they fell on him with unblinking clarity. Like the sky at morning, Frodo thought, just before dawn breaks and the morning star still hangs like a bright spark in the soft grey light. Clear and steady and seemingly for his eyes alone. As the rest of the village sleeps, the morning slips through the trees from the east like a promise meant only for the few who, in their solitude, stand at their doors and breathe the fresh dew-soaked air. Just so was the feeling that flowed through Frodo as he sat there, his eyes on Sam's, and he gave himself over to it completely and unhesitatingly.

"We should take these bottles upstairs before all my 'well-wishers' make off with the furniture," he said quietly.

"Aye, that we should," Sam answered and before Frodo could protest, he brought forth his own handkerchief and wet a corner with his tongue. Gently, he rubbed at Frodo's cheeks, returning the handkerchief to his tongue now and again to dampen it. The gesture was so unconscious, so unassuming, that Frodo closed his eyes and pushed aside any thought at all of impropriety. He was a child again, with his Aunt leaning over him, her handkerchief smelling of lavender. After his mother's death, his Aunt never once spoke her name in Frodo's presence. But she'd always been there, like the spirit of her sister. Always there beneath the sprawling chestnut tree he'd learned to climb; always there ready to catch him by the belt as he leaned to push his little bark boats out into the river; always there just before luncheon or dinner to straighten his collars and smooth the cotton of his shirts. Sometimes he'd imagined that in her touch he felt the wish of his mother the wish she must have whispered aloud, as all mothers must, over the cradles of their little ones. Lady, look after him. He is so small and the world is so big, so cruel.

"Why am I so blessed?" Frodo whispered when Sam ceased his gentle ministrations. He opened his eyes to see Sam still watching him, his grey eyes full of waiting and calm.

"Maybe because you know what a blessing is when you see it, sir," he answered and rose to give Frodo his hand. "Those others are all looking for gold and jools and things that Mr. Bilbo left for them. It's never been like that with you. I'd not be surprised to learn that you'd chuck it all in without a glance if only he'd come back and ask you to go with him."

Maybe, Frodo thought to himself as he hoisted one of the baskets on to his shoulders and gestured for Sam to follow him back up to the pantry door. And then again, maybe not.

* * *

There's some reason why I'm here, Frodo thought as he gazed out the window of the study. After he and Sam had found Old Rory and given him his present, Sam had helped Rory's servant load it all into the wagon and then caught a ride back down the Row to Number Three. There's a reason why he didn't ask me to go with him. There's a reason why I didn't follow.

From the other side of the door, he could hear the slowly dwindling commotion. One by one, everyone was coming to accept that there would be no bangles and baubles and, furthermore, that the pears and cakes had run out. Merry was busy at the door handing back hats and cloaks and wishing everyone a "good evening!" Through the open study window drifted the still faint sound of evening insects and the smell of newly cut barley.

This would be the first harvest he must oversee. Now that it had come to it, Frodo wished he had paid more attention to the various books and ledgers Bilbo had kept. Nearly every morning, Bilbo had spent an hour or two going over acreage and crop notes, and every week he'd get a full report from Farmer Cotton on the prices at market and adjust the tillage accordingly. Don't worry, lad, he'd told Frodo only just a few weeks ago. You'll catch on quickly.

Is that why I'm here? Frodo thought. To oversee the vast lay of Baggins' land? Is that why Bilbo had come back and then never ventured forth again? ... Until now, of course. Frodo rose and went to the shelves where Bilbo kept all his books and ledgers as had his father before him. He pulled out the volume from the previous year and turned to the page that marked their birthdays. Nothing remarkable, only a list of the fields to be harvested or turned under in the coming week. Three Acres, the Bywater Enclosure, Lower Quarter... Nothing remarkable, except there at the very bottom, in the margin. A note in cramped hand: "Frodo jumped Bett at the fair. Blue ribbon." Frodo closed the book gently and ran his hand over the cover. In a shadowed nook on the other side of the small hearth, one of Bilbo's many waistcoats hung from a peg, its glass buttons catching the light of the sun, nearly set behind the low hills in the west, like errant stars. For a fleeting moment, it seemed to Frodo that every detail, every commonplace object, held a glint of magic or a glint of peril. His blood thrilled to the thought and he breathed deeply. This was why he was still here why he belonged here. The Shire was not full of ghosts for him as it had become for Bilbo. It was full of living possibility, full of a thousand marvelous wonders Frodo hadn't even learned to notice yet. Like the way the autumn sun lit to gold the thin line between the blue-black sky and the violet hills, the way it fell on the leaded glass of the open window and was trapped there like the edgework in a fine old book. Like the way the quiet respect of the tradesmen and farmers as they'd shared a pipe had made him feel. Like the way the fresh milk, with its cap of cream, had tasted when he drank it straight from the jug that morning, not bothering with a cup and saucer. Like the way Sam had touched his face so sweetly and unselfconsciously and the way that one touch had seemed to connect him with all the touches he'd known and yet exceed them by bounds at the same time. Surely, the Shire contained as many wonders as an elven kingdom, and if his years with Bilbo had taught him anything, it was that the unexpected can inhabit even the most ordinary like the sweet tender flesh of an old chestnut, roasted and split by hot tongs.

"He is indisposed." Merry's voice, sounding piqued, came to him through the study door. "He is resting."

"Hiding, you mean." The voice could only belong to one hobbit. Lobelia Sackville-Baggins. "Anyway we want to see him and we mean to see him. Just go and tell him so!"

Frodo sighed and lit the candles against the lowering light. He'd planned to watch the evening fade from the darkened study until the outlines of the sprawling oak were no longer visible and its russet bark was a solid black against the sky. Evening had always been Bilbo's favourite time of day, and he'd often roused Frodo from whatever book or task momentarily absorbed his attention to draw him, protesting, out into the garden for a smoke or a short stroll. It was in the evening, Bilbo often said, that he felt that anything was possible that the mysteries of the world lay close to the earth's skin waiting to be discovered or summoned forth with a whispered incantation.

There was a soft knock at the door. "Frodo? Frodo, are you in there?"

"I am, Merry, come in." Merry pushed open the door and shut it again behind him with a quiet click. "I hear that the Sackville-Bagginses couldn't stay away after all. It must have taken every ounce of will in their bones not to trot up here at the crack of dawn. I'm surprised they had it in them to wait this long."

Merry sighed and flopped into Bilbo's worn armchair by the small cold hearth. "Blight and blast them, is all I have to say. They're a frightful nuisance."

"They are that indeed, but go ahead and show them in. The sooner you do, the sooner I can send them on their way again, and we'll have ourselves a bite of supper."

Merry left and soon returned with Lobelia and Otho in tow, looking even more red-faced and full of umbrage than usual. They must have found Bilbo's gift of silver spoons, Frodo thought with a chuckle as he gestured for them to take the chairs by the fire, which they, to his profound relief declined. He hadn't even the chance to offer them tea before they launched into a list of bargaining proposals, which Frodo promptly and politely rejected. Otho responded with what could only have been a much-rehearsed speech, while Lobelia punctuated his every sentence with an indignant sigh or click of her tongue. There was much to-do about the niceties of wills and deeds and seals and witnesses and something rather grand that sounded like "the perpetuity of frogs," but Frodo was prepared for them and their legal arcana.

After Merry had left to summon them, he'd retrieved the envelope that Gandalf had pointed out on the mantel the night before. In it were papers, signed by all the major landholders of the Four Farthings, sealed with crimson wax and the stamp of the Baggins' ring, as well as a folded packet small, strangely heavy and cold. Frodo had not opened it then, but he knew what it was. Gandalf, in deed, had confirmed his guess, and he'd resisted the sudden urge to look on it. Now, however, as he had waited for the Sackville-Bagginses, he'd unfolded the parchment and slipped the gold ring into his pocket where it lay with a satisfying weight. He'd then drawn forth the papers and laid them out on the desk, weighting each corner to keep the slight wind that had arisen with the dusk from scattering them about the study like leaves. He gestured now in their direction.

"I understand your concerns regarding the rectitude of the transference and deeds," he said calmly. "Please take your time in examining the muniment. You are very right to take such an interest. It would be most unpleasant if anything had been left unclear and open to litigation."

Frodo heard a strangled giggle that quickly turned into a cough from the corner where Merry stood. Lobelia and Otho, however, didn't seem to notice and instead pushed forward eagerly to examine the stack of documents. Each was read and scrutinized while their faces became increasingly grim and resolute. As with everything he'd ever done, Bilbo had crossed every "t" and dotted every "i" every arcane legal rule had been followed, down to the listing of minute geographical features in each field, orchard and enclosure. There was not a single ambiguity the Sackville-Bagginses might exploit, and their disappointment was as palpable as a brown fog on the Brandywine.

In the end, Frodo was obliged to escort them off the premises and shut the door while they still stood on the stoop saying the most unpleasant things. Lobelia, of course, had had to have the last word and managed to insult both Frodo and Merry in the same sentence, although neither chose to see more in it than impotent envy. The day had been too full of discoveries to the contrary to allow Lobelia's snub that he didn't "belong here" to wound too deeply. Shortly after their departure, however, and just as Frodo was warming a pot of stew, Merry had discovered a number of young hobbits still searching for treasure in the pantries and guest bedrooms, and by the time they had evicted them it was past supper and nearly time for bed.

Frodo sat with his elbows on the broad table in the dining room and a cup of tea cradled in his hands. Steam, carrying the scent of hibiscus and rose hips, curled about his face and he closed his eyes, remembering the warmth of Sam's body beside him in the cool cellars, Sam's sure but tentative touch. Frodo could have fallen asleep where he sat, and another visitor was not at all what he had hoped for at that point in the day. But he had all but forgotten his other houseguest and another of Bilbo's legacies his favourite, in fact. Gandalf.

* * *

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