Title: September Days Across the Brandywine
Theme: January Potluck (Originally the September 22 challenge)
Elements: "Who would have thought it was autumn already?"
Author's Note: At eighteen, Frodo is at about the same maturity as a Man-child of twelve.
Summary: On a visit to Buckland, Bilbo tries to make a decision.
Word Count: 6,801
Who would have thought it was autumn already? Bilbo looked to his left, at the golden waters of the Brandywine, meandering placidly alongside the Stock road, the reflections of red and gold foliage mirrored in the placid and slow-running river. He'd passed the night at Woodhall, hoping that he might run into one of the bands of Elves that often passed through the Woody End in late summer or early autumn-- perhaps even his friend Gildor-- but there had been no sign of them. So he had travelled into Stock in a leisurely fashion and lunched at The Golden Perch on grilled trout and some of their fine beer. Now he was making his way to Bucklebury Ferry, to cross the River into Buckland.
He was quite looking forward to seeing his Brandybuck relations. Though it was a longer journey to Buckland than to Tuckborough, the visit was far more congenial. Brandy Hall was a pleasant place under the Mastership of his cousin Rory, and he had spent Yule there for more than forty years-- ever since his return to the Shire from his Adventure put him out of favour with his Baggins kin. He had once spent time at the Great Smials as well, but since Lalia had taken over there, he avoided the Tooks as well.
This visit to Brandy Hall would be enjoyable, he knew, most of all for the chance to spend more time with young Frodo. They always celebrated their birthdays together, whether Frodo travelled to Hobbiton or Bilbo to Brandy Hall. Still, it would have been nice if Frodo stayed at Bag End. He had come this year with a half-formed decision in mind. Frodo would be eighteen, nearly a tween! Surely this year Gilda and Esme would agree that Frodo was old enough to come back to Bag End permanently-- it was time for him to press his claim as Frodo's primary guardian. He enjoyed the visits Frodo made every spring; Frodo usually showed up at the end of Solmath and stay through Thrimmidge. They got on splendidly, for Frodo enjoyed the lessons Bilbo set him and was eager to accompany him on his rambles about the Shire. It was pleasant having someone else living in the smial, and Bilbo was always sorry to see Frodo leave at the end of the visit.
His cousin Dora had been pressing him as well, to bring Frodo back and "make a proper Baggins of him". He knew that she would have had him with her, if Dudo's poor health had not made that difficult. She was wary of her nephew living in Buckland among those Bucklanders who messed about in boats-- he knew she feared young Frodo could come to the same end as his father Drogo. Bilbo's assurance that Frodo had been taught to swim had not only not reassured her on that score, but had made her even more fretful.
He had reached the ferry landing, and saw the ferry hobbit waiting there for him.
"Good day, Mr. Baggins," he said. "They are expecting you up at t' Hall."
Bilbo made his way aboard the ferry with little trouble. His own fear of water had been cured decades ago. Nothing could be more harrowing than attempting to stay atop a barrel as it rushed along the current of the swift River Running. And he had not known how to swim, though he had known enough to hold his breath, whenever his unsteady perch dunked him beneath the water. If only Drogo.. but he shook his head free of the unpleasant thoughts, and greeted the ferry hobbit.
"Good day to you as well, Diccon! I trust all is well at Brandy Hall?"
"Oh yes, Mr. Baggins! They are all doing well up there! I know young Master Frodo is eager to see you! They're all looking forward to your visit, but none more'n him."
Soon they had bumped against the landing on the east side of the River, and as Diccon made the ferry fast, Bilbo gathered his pack, and scrambled up onto the dock. A short and pleasant walk through Bucklebury and then up to Brandy Hall-- and there was Frodo.
Frodo sat atop the gate to the lane that led to the Hall. He espied Bilbo at about the same time Bilbo saw him, and with a glad cry, he leapt down from his perch and raced into Bilbo's embrace. Bilbo noted that the lad had grown over the summer-- they were almost eye to eye now. Frodo was going to be taller than most when he had his full growth.
"Oh, Uncle Bilbo! It's so good to see you! I can't wait to show you what I've been doing! Did you know I'm having art lessons with Cousin Calla? And you should see Merry! He's grown like a weed! He wanted to come down to wait with me this morning, but Aunt Esme wouldn't let him because she and Dahlia are trying to see which of his clothes he's outgrown this afternoon. Did you know that Uncle Rory and Uncle Sara are allowing me to help with the apple harvest this year? Not just picking up fallen apples with the younger children but to climb the ladders! Did you know I can climb higher than some of the adults? Uncle Merimac is afraid to climb all the way to the top of his ladder-- but yesterday I went right up into the tree limbs to pick! Uncle Sara was not happy about it but Uncle Rory just laughed and said that was the Took in me! Do you think I have a lot of Took, Uncle Bilbo? I mean, you are half Took yourself. so you should know."
All this time, as his cousin had been babbling at him, they had been walking up to the Hall, Bilbo's arm companionably around Frodo's shoulders. He laughed. "Frodo, my lad, I think you have plenty of Took in you! Why, I think that you are more Tookish than I was at your age-- except when I was visiting my Took relations. Did I ever tell you about what I got up to with Cousin Adalgrim once? Ah, but here we are-- I think that will have to be a tale for another time."
They were nearly at the entrance to the Hall, and Bilbo waved a greeting to Seredic Brandybuck as he was hurrying out on some business of his own. When they entered, they were besieged by young Brandybucks!
"It's Cousin Bilbo! Cousin Bilbo! Will you be telling stories tonight?" was the most common of the cries that greeted them.
Bilbo laughed. "I do not think I will be telling them tonight! But I will certainly make time for it before I leave! Now, be off with you!"
But Margulas Brandybuck, a young tween, tapped Frodo on the shoulder. "Frodo! I've been looking for you! Some of the lads are getting up a game of kick-the-ball before teatime! I want you on my team-- you are much the fastest runner at the Hall!"
Frodo blushed and looked torn, but said, "Moggie, Uncle Bilbo just got here! I can't leave him now!"
Bilbo smiled at him. "Frodo, I did just get here, and I want to get settled and have a few words with your Uncle Rory! If you wish to play, go on and do so! And I will come out and watch you in a little while!"
Frodo looked at him searchingly. He would love for Uncle Bilbo to see him playing-- he was quite good at the game and knew it. But did he really mean it? The twinkle in his uncle's eyes reassured him. He turned to his cousin. "Moggie, let me see Uncle Bilbo to his room, and then I'll come. Are we playing on the south lawn?"
Moggie grinned and nodded, pleased to have his way. "That's splendid, Frodo! I'll go tell the rest you are coming!"
Frodo turned back to Bilbo, and took his pack. They went up the sloped passage that led to the guest quarters usually used by Bilbo on his visits to Brandy Hall-- a little set of rooms just across the passage from those used by the Son of the Hall and his family. Bilbo took his pack from Frodo, and dropped a kiss on his forehead. "I'm very happy to see you, lad! And we'll have a lot of time together on this visit! You run along now, and after I speak to the Master, I'll come out and see just what sort of ball player you are!"
"Thank you, Uncle Bilbo!" Frodo grinned and trotted off, and Bilbo took his pack and went into the room to stow his belongings. He had several small gifts there to give out at his birthday, day after tomorrow.
His belongings put away, he went back out in search of the Master's study. He wanted to have a conversation with Rory before his visit had properly started.
The door to the study was standing open, and Bilbo could see his cousin sitting at his desk. He was reading some letter or other, and did not notice Bilbo standing there. Bilbo frowned, and bit his lip. Rory was a good twelve years younger than himself, but he looked much older. It was rather disturbing to think about. He tapped at the lintel of the door, to get Rory's attention. Rory looked up with a frown, which broke into a delighted smile when he saw who it was. "Bilbo! I had nearly forgotten you were due to arrive today! Come in, come in and sit down! How was your journey?"
Bilbo pulled the door to behind him as he went in and took the comfortable armchair across the desk from Rory. "It was a pleasant walk! The weather's been quite fine for this time of year."
"Have you seen Frodo yet?" asked Rory. "He's been champing at the bit for you to arrive!"
Bilbo smiled. "I have. He was waiting for me by the lane!"
"That doesn't surprise me. He always very much looks forward to spending time with you."
"And I with him." Bilbo leaned back, took out his pipe, and arched a brow at Rory to ask permission to smoke. Rory nodded and took out his own pipe. As his cousin lit his pipe, Bilbo blew out a smoke ring, and then said, "Rory, I've been thinking..."
Rory chuckled. "That could be dangerous..."
Bilbo permitted himself a brief smile at the witticism, but then sobered once more. "You know as well as any that I am Frodo's primary legal guardian. Saradoc is a co-guardian, but Drogo's will made it clear that I have the final say in Frodo's upbringing."
Rory bristled, stung. "Bilbo! Are you unhappy with the way we are raising Frodo? Do you find fault with our care of him?"
Bilbo shook his head emphatically. "No, of course not! He's done better than I would have expected among you Brandybucks, considering the tragedy he's endured. But you know that it was my intention all along to take him back to live in Bag End with me. Only Gilda and Esme insisting that he was still young enough to need a female's care and that it would be cruel to take him away to a strange place made me consent to leave him here. But he's happy enough now, and older! And he truly enjoys his time at Bag End in the Spring. It's no longer a 'strange place'."
Rory pursed his lips, and scowled. Then he relaxed with a sigh. "I know that you have wanted to do this before. But think well on it Bilbo. Frodo has many friends here, and he has a secure place in Saradoc's family! Why, Merry thinks of him more as a brother than a cousin! And he is still very young! I hope you have not made your mind up to do this now-- please, watch and observe, and for goodness' sake, do not say anything to Gilda about this. You know her main objection to his living in Hobbiton."
"The Sackville-Bagginses. Yes, well, they wish to keep on my good side. They know better than to accost Frodo when he is visiting me."
"I have a feeling that restraint would not long last if he were living there permanently."
Bilbo thought of Lobelia, Otho, and their deplorable son Lotho. It was possible Rory was right. Otho had enough sense to maintain a pretense of civility. Lobelia had never been blessed with tact, however. And Lotho had grown up into a real bully.
"I'll be here for a few days. I won't bring it up again until I'm ready to leave. And I will speak to you again before I speak to anyone else. Frodo is supposed to be playing at ball on the south lawn with his cousins-- I promised I would come and watch."
Rory glanced at the clock over the mantle. "I've spent enough time here. I'll join you!" He laughed. "Do you remember the midsummer at Great Smials when that lout Mondo Bracegirdle was angry over losing, and kicked the ball into the duckpond? He was quite surprised when I dove in to fetch it!"
Bilbo laughed. "I remember. That was the same year we helped Chop to steal Gandalf's fireworks..."
They strolled together out to the lawn, where several of the adults and not a few lasses had gathered to watch the lads play. Bilbo saw Frodo sitting on the ground next to Margulas' younger brother Marroc, who was nearly the same age as Frodo, as they awaited their turn to kick. They laughed over something, and then Frodo aimed a swat to the back of Marroc's head. It seemed he was happy enough with his cousins. Then Margulas called out "Frodo!" and Frodo jumped up to take his place. Young Gundamac rolled the ball his way, and Frodo gave a mighty kick! The ball went hurtling, low and swift past Gundamac, to pass between two other lads Bilbo did not recognise. They both dove after it at the same time, but they ended up hindering one another, and had to chase after it. In the meanwhile, Frodo, swift as an arrow, was flying about the field, touching each base briefly before skidding to a halt where he'd started, before either of them could get hold of the ball and kick it back. Frodo's teammates were all cheering and pounding him on the back. "Frodo! Frodo! Jolly old Frodo!"
Bilbo lent his own shout to the others, and was absurdly pleased when Frodo caught his voice amid all the tumult and turned a shining face to him, and waved wildly.
Tea was taken at the Master's apartment, and not only were Rory and his wife Menegilda there, but also Saradoc, Esmeralda and little Merry, as well as Rory's younger son Merimac and his wife Linda and their small son Berry. They had an excellent tea, and as the adults talked, Bilbo watched Frodo who sat by the hearth playing with both the smaller children.
When tea was ended the two little ones were hustled off to their respective nurseries, and Bilbo took the chance to spirit Frodo away for a walk before supper. Bilbo had hoped to talk to Frodo of what he'd been up to, but Frodo instead preferred to question Bilbo about the doings in Hobbiton. He asked about the Gamgees and the other neighbors on the Hill, and about what Bilbo himself had been doing.
"Have you seen any Elves, Uncle Bilbo?"
"No, not this year, at any rate. I thought I might come upon some in the Woody End on my way here, but there were none. I did have a brief visit from Gandalf just after Midsummer; he only stayed two days, but it was good to see him again. He was on his way back to Rivendell from the lands away to the south, and he carried a message of greeting from me to Master Elrond."
"Do you suppose I will ever meet Gandalf?" Frodo asked, his eyes sparkling in wonder.
Bilbo chuckled. "I have no idea, Frodo! It would not surprise me if you did one day. But his visits are very much hit-or-miss! I rarely know when he will turn up, and he never stays long." Bilbo sighed. "When my grandfather was alive he used to make long visits to the Shire, and stay at the Great Smials." He shrugged, and Frodo nodded. Neither of them wished to discuss Lalia or their reasons for disliking visits to the Tooklands.
They walked about halfway to Newbury, turning back near the lane that led up to the little guesthouse Brandybucks kept at Crickhollow. They strolled back, and Bilbo began to sing one of his walking songs.
I saw three hobbits walking:
One was dumb with naught to say,
The others were not talking.
"Good night!" I said, "Good night to you!"
They heeded not my greeting:
One was deaf like the other two,
It was a merry meeting!*
They arrived back at Brandy Hall, laughing and singing, just in time to clean up for supper.
Supper was in the main dining hall, and Bilbo found himself at the High Table, with Rory, Gilda and the other adult members of the Master's immediate family. Little Merry was at the smaller children's' table attended by Dahlia and one of the other nursemaids of the Hall. There were several little ones there, still in faunthood or a bit past it.
Frodo was a the table with the older children. He sat between young Gundamac and one of the lasses-- Bilbo wracked his brain for her name-- ah! Laburnum! Yes, that was her name. One of Gorbulas's great-grandchildren, he believed.
Gilda was asking Bilbo about his cousin Dora. She and Dora kept up a lively correspondence. While they had a long-standing friendship, it was also a wary one. Gilda was quite aware that Dora did not feel Buckland was the place to bring up a young Baggins. And Dora respected Menegilda, but that did not allay her concerns over what was proper for Frodo. Still, when they wrote or visited, they enjoyed one another's company greatly.
"Dora had hoped to accompany you this year, Bilbo! I know in my last letter from her, she had said that she looked forward to seeing Frodo again."
"I am afraid that Dudo had palpitations last week, and Dora felt it best to remain with him." Dora's brother Dudo, as the saying went, "enjoyed poor health". He did, according to the healers, have a weak heart. But it was not nearly so weak as he believed it to be. Dora and his daughter Daisy were hard put to it to satisfy his demands on their time. Like his father before him, the death of his wife some years previously had dealt him a blow from which he did not seem inclined to recover. Dora and Daisy never complained (at least not to Bilbo) but it was clear that caring for Dudo when he had one of his "turns" could be quite taxing.
"I understand," Gilda said. "I know that she has had to take more of his care upon herself since Daisy has little Folco to care for now."
Bilbo nodded. "Folco is a sweet biddable child," he said, "but I'm afraid he does not seem to be as clever as some."
"Merry is a very clever child," Gilda said smugly. "Do you know what the little rascal did a few weeks ago, when Frodo had a cold?"
Bilbo's ears perked up at this. Frodo had been ill? He'd said noting of it in his letters! But as he listened to Gilda's tale, he relaxed. It seemed to have been only a mild and passing cold. He burst out laughing as she told him how persistent little Merry had been in trying to sneak into Frodo's room to be with him.
"And he kept repeating that Frodo would never give him a cold because Frodo wouldn't do that to him. And the funny thing is, the little mite was right! He never did get a cold! Esme said it was sheer Brandybuck stubbornness that kept him from it!"
Bilbo wiped a tear of mirth from his eyes, as he chuckled a bit more. "I'd say that there is probably also more than a bit of Took stubbornness there as well, Gilda!"
"I daresay you are right," replied his hostess. "But Merry adores Frodo, and he'd never allow anything to reflect poorly on him-- even at this age!"
That night as Bilbo lay in his bed, he reflected once more on what he had been thinking about. Was it the right time to take Frodo away?
The next morning was the day before their joint birthday, and both Bilbo and Frodo received gifts throughout the day-- Bilbo was given a nice pipe by Rory and Gilda, and a tobacco canister filled with Old Toby by Saradoc and Esme. Frodo got a number of gifts-- he lived at Brandy Hall after all, and was given a number of mathoms by various cousins during the day, some more useful than others.
His Uncle Dinodas, who was his tutor, gave him a book about the insects of the Shire. He'd written it himself a number of years before. And from Calla Brandybuck, who was teaching Frodo to draw and paint, he received a nicely bound sketchbook and several charcoal pencils.
Bilbo accompanied Frodo to his lessons with Dinodas, and sat by the hearth as Frodo and his cousin Marroc sat at the long table by Dinodas' window and worked on their lessons. Dinodas joined Bilbo once the young people were absorbed in their tasks, though he often glanced over to make sure they were still working.
"How is Frodo coming along, Dinny?" Bilbo asked. He and the Brandybuck family tutor were good friends. Bilbo understood Dinodas better than most, as Bilbo had once been the Baggins family tutor before he lost his reputation by becoming an Adventurer.
"He's my best student. It does not surprise me. Drogo was of a scholarly nature himself, and he passed along a love of books and learning to his son. I think if he had lived, he would have continued Frodo's education himself."
Bilbo nodded, feeling a pang of grief. "Drogo was always my most promising and eager scholar. I miss him greatly. Frodo may not look much like his father," Drogo had been more portly than even most hobbits and while he was not a bad-looking hobbit, none would have called him fair, while Frodo seemed to have taken most of his looks from his stunningly beautiful Brandybuck mother, "but his mind is every bit as fine."
"The one area in which he does not excel is in mathematics. I am afraid his heart is not in them. He much prefers to read and write, but numbers I fear, he finds dull."
"Are you saying he is doing poorly in that area?" Bilbo asked with a frown. "If so, I shall have a word with him!"
"Oh no!" Dinodas hastened to say. "He does the work, and he does it correctly. But he clearly would rather be doing other things, and takes far more time at the tasks than he should, simply because he allows his mind to wander to other things. But I am not displeased with his work!"
Bilbo nodded. "Very well. I see that you know your business. There is no reason one should have to rush such things, after all!"
"I have heard," said Dinodas, "that Brutus Bracegirdle sets time limits on the tasks he gives his students."
"What do you mean?" Bilbo asked.
"He takes a sand-glass with half-an-hour's time in it, and then says that they must finish their task before the sand runs out!"
"What rubbish!" Bilbo said firmly. "Why that's just an invitation to shoddy work!"
Dinodas nodded. "I think so for the most part, though with some students, it could be quite tempting."
"As well give a thrashing if they don't learn quickly enough! Such things never work," Bilbo said firmly.
"It won't be long," said Dinodas, giving another glance at his students-- Frodo was still working diligently, but Marroc was gazing out the window--"Marroc! Attention to your book, please!" He turned back to Bilbo, "As I was saying, it won't be much longer before Frodo has learned as much as I have to teach him on most subjects. I am wondering if I should not begin to groom him to take over my tasks one day."
Bilbo was startled by this. Frodo was a fine scholar, and would probably make a fine teacher-- he certainly had the patience for it, and seemed to enjoy being with the younger fry. But he was a Baggins, not a Brandybuck! And yet, why would Dinodas have any reason to think Frodo would not stay on at Brandy Hall for the rest of his life?
From Dinodas' study to Cousin Calla's studio in the upper reaches of the hill was their next stop.
Calla was pleased that Frodo had brought Bilbo with him. She set Frodo to his task of sketching an arrangement of fruit and flowers she had placed on a small table before her window. "Pay special attention to the light and shadows, Frodo. Try to capture the shine of light on the fruit and bowl, and the softer highlights on the leaves and flowers." Frodo nodded, and took his seat, his sketchpad on his knee.
Bilbo watched him for a few minutes. He studied the arrangement intently before he made his first mark on the sketchpad, then he drew quickly and confidently.
"He's quite talented," said Calla. "He is actually the first cousin I have consented to take as a student, and I am very proud of him."
Bilbo turned to her. Calla was an attractive hobbitess, long past the first flush of youth, but confident and intelligent. She had the sandy hair and grey eyes that were often found among the Brandybucks. She wore a white painter's smock over her frock, and her hair was tied back away from her face with a blue ribbon. Her hands were paint-stained as well. He had only ever met her briefly to speak to, but she was often in evidence at Brandybuck gatherings, keeping in the background, making drawings of her friends and relations, which she later turned into paintings. She was also much in demand as a portraitist. It was rumored that Lalia had tried to insist that she come and paint Ferumbras. She had refused, and Rory had backed her against Lalia's anger.
And if Bilbo remembered correctly, it was she who had calligraphed and illuminated Drogo and Primula's marriage lines. He also remembered a charming little watercolor painting given to Drogo on her birthday, of Primula and Frodo when Frodo was only about two.
"He's always been fond of making little drawings and paintings. I have a number of them in a chest at Bag End."
She smiled, revealing a dimple. "You are a proud Uncle."
Bilbo did not try to correct her use of the term. He knew that she knew his exact relationship to Frodo on both sides of the family. But Bilbo had ever and always been "uncle" to Frodo. "I am proud of him."
"You know, when he returns from his visits at Bag End, he fairly glows. He spends days talking of nothing but you and Hobbiton, and his friends there. Let me show you something." She led him to a set of wide flat shelves on which various pieces of artwork were laid, and went to one shelf where she removed a watercolor painting.
It was Bag End-- Frodo had often made drawings or paintings of Bag End as gifts for Bilbo, but this one was not at all childish. The colors were all correct, but more brilliant somehow, the garden brighter, the lights in the windows glowing more warmly.
"There are a few imperfections in the technique," Calla said, "though not noticeable to one who is not an artist as well. But what makes this picture shine is love, Bilbo Baggins. He loves this place he painted."
"You see a lot, Miss Brandybuck."
"I'm very fond of Frodo. He's a child with a lot to give the world, and I am not sure that Brandy Hall is the best place for him to learn what he needs to know."
"You do know the Mistress would be displeased to hear you say so."
"Gilda loves Frodo as well, and so does Esmeralda. They'd rather have him where they can keep an eye on him."
"I know." He turned and looked at Frodo again; the lad was clearly engrossed in his assignment. He smiled at Calla. "Miss Brandybuck, please tell him I will see him at tea. I think he will be a while."
"I think he will, too. In fact, he has a project to finish that he cannot work on with you present."
"Ah! Well, I suppose it's a good thing that I take my leave now. I will see you tomorrow at the birthday party?"
She smiled and nodded. "You are very good for him, Bilbo Baggins, Adventurer or no. I hope that one day you will allow me to do a portrait of the two of you together."
"I would be delighted!"
She smiled. "I could make the preliminary sketch while you are here then! I will see you tomorrow."
He walked back to his room to think. Calla Brandybuck's assertions that Frodo would be happier at Bag End than Brandy Hall should have encouraged him. Instead, it disturbed him. What if the reason he loved Bag End was because he only visited there? It wasn't his home, and he did not have the same duties and responsibilities there that he did here at the Hall. Perhaps it was only attractive because it was so different to what he was used to. Perhaps he loved it as a place to visit, but would soon grow bored with no one there but an elderly bachelor. He was used to having his cousins to play with. There were few young people his age on the Hill-- most of those who lived in Hobbiton were working class, after all, and most of the lads his age were already in apprenticeships and working. Bilbo had seen how much he enjoyed playing ball and having fun with the other youngsters at the Hall.
But he was a Baggins. He needed to know the Baggins side of the family as well.
"Bless me!" he said aloud. "Why can't this be a simple matter? I shan't think on it anymore today!" Tomorrow would be their birthday, and they would exchange their gifts. Bilbo was sure that Frodo would like the lovely book, bound in blue leather, and filled with his favourite poems. He imagined Frodo's delight in it, how his eyes would shine!
He wondered if he could surprise Frodo with it? They exchanged gifts at first breakfast usually, accompanied by a mock argument as to who would receive his gift first! Last year Bilbo had "lost" and had to open his first. But what if Frodo encountered his gift before breakfast? What if he found it when he woke up? It would be possible! He chuckled, imagining Frodo's expression. It wouldn't be hard to accomplish.
Late that night, after the folk of the Hall were all abed, Bilbo rose silently and put on his dressing gown. He put Frodo's gift in one capacious pocket, and then he went over to the wardrobe, and took his special ring out of the pocket of his weskit. He slipped it on his finger and quietly made his way across the passageway to Saradoc's apartment. He placed an ear to the door, and hearing nothing, he opened it silently. The moon was bright through the round windows of the sitting room. Bilbo made his stealthy way past the nursery and then through Saradoc's and Esmeralda's room to the inner room that Frodo had occupied since his parents' death. A small lantern burned low on a table next to his bed, and Bilbo could make out his dark curls against the white linen of the pillow. He smiled to himself, and reached over to touch them gently, but just at that moment, Frodo gave a small whimper and turned over. There was a furrow between his brows, and he moved restlessly. Bilbo realised that his younger cousin must be having an unpleasant dream, and he wondered if he should waken him. Yet how would he explain his presence here? He hesitated only briefly, but before he could make a move, he heard a soft sound behind him.
He turned, startled.
It was little Merry. He was in his nightshirt, and he carried a stuffed pony by one leg. He padded over to the bed, and reached up to touch Frodo.
Frodo blinked, shook his head, and then smiled. "Hullo, sprout. Have you come to keep me company?"
Merry nodded. "You were sad."
"I was just dreaming a little. I don't remember it now."
"You aren't sad now."
"No, Merry, I'm not. How can I be sad when my sprout is here?" He patted the bed, and Merry clambered up, and snuggled against his older cousin, who pulled the blanket about them both. "What would I do without my Merry?" Soon both were sound asleep once more.
Bilbo stood over them, and drew in a deep breath, as he reached up and wiped an unaccustomed tear from his eye. He put a hand in his pocket, where Frodo's gift still was, and then shook his head. "Tomorrow will do as well." he thought. He returned to his own room, quite settled in his own mind, took off his ring and went back to bed.
In fact, Bilbo slept late the next morning, right through first breakfast, and was wakened by a persistent knocking.
Bleary-eyed, he called out. "Just a moment, I'm coming!" He threw on his dressing gown once more and went to the door.
"Uncle Bilbo!" said Frodo. "You missed first breakfast!"
Frodo was already dressed, and had a package in his hand.
"Do come in, lad! I'm sorry I missed breakfast! I can't think why I overslept the way I did."
"I wanted to give you your present!"
Bilbo chuckled. "But I want to give you yours first!"
With a twinkle in his eye, Frodo said sternly, "You should have been on time for breakfast then!"
Bilbo laughed. "I will tell you what, Frodo. Why don't we make a new tradition. Last year, I had mine first. Why don't you have yours first this year, and next year, I will go first again."
Frodo hesitated only briefly, before nodding, and he followed as Bilbo gestured him into the room. He reached into his pocket-- the box with the book was still there. He drew it out, and handed it to Frodo.
Frodo sat down on the chair next to the bed, and opened the box. "A book!" he exclaimed. He took it out and thumbed through it. "Oh! It's all my favorites!"
Bilbo grinned. "I take it you are pleased?"
Frodo nodded wildly. "It's wonderful, Uncle Bilbo! Oh, thank you!"
He held out his own package. It was flat, wrapped in white muslin, and as Bilbo felt the edge, he realised it was a frame. He untied the ribbon and pulled the fabric away. "Why Frodo! This is excellent!"
In Frodo's precise and beautiful lettering, was one of Bilbo's songs-- a favourite walking song of both of them, "Upon the Hearth the Fire Is Red"; the top and sides were bordered in flowering vines, and across the bottom was a small scene, showing a road, with a standing stone, a gate, trees and a small stream beneath a bridge-- and at the end of the road, a smial that looked remarkably like Bag End.
Bilbo placed an arm around Frodo and gave his shoulders a squeeze. "This is just wonderful, Frodo! I shall hang it in the front hall! Thank you so much, my lad!"
"Now," he said briskly, "I need to get dressed! I don't wish to miss second breakfast, nor another moment of our birthday!"
It was a busy morning. After a second breakfast with Saradoc and his family, during which Bilbo made up for missing the first, he showed Frodo the various small gifts he'd brought to give out at the party, and Frodo showed him the mathoms he had prepared for their guests. Since it was his birthday, Frodo was excused from lessons. He and Bilbo did go up to Cousin Calla's studio, where she made a sketch from which she would work on a portrait of the two of them. Bilbo sat on an armchair, and Frodo stood behind him, one hand on Bilbo's shoulder.
Since the weather was mild, the party was held after luncheon on the lawn, and lasted through teatime. The two of them passed out their various gifts and received the good wishes of their guests. The younger children raced about playing tag, and the older ones had a game of quoits. Bilbo watched intently-- Frodo played well, but the game was won by Moggie. After tea, Bilbo gathered all the young folk around him for storytelling. He decided in honor of the occasion to tell about his exciting escape with the Dwarves from the halls of the Elvenking, and his birthday at Laketown, where he had a dreadful cold.
"And don't you know, it was dreadful enough that I have never had another cold since!" he finished triumphantly.
There were clamors for more stories, but it was getting late, and parents gathered up their children to take them in for their suppers.
Before Esmeralda shooed him off to his own bed, Frodo embraced Bilbo. "I've had a marvelous birthday, Uncle. Thank you!"
"Thank you, Frodo! I shall see you in the morning before I leave."
But Bilbo did not go at once to his own bed. Instead, he sought out his old friend Rory.
Menegilda had already retired, but Rory led Bilbo into the sitting room, where they enjoyed a pipe and a snifter of brandy.
"I have made up my mind, Rory," said Bilbo after a few minutes of companionable silence.
"I thought you might have." Rory leaned back.
"I think that I will wait a little longer. I do not know that Frodo needs mothering so much as Gilda and Esme believe, but he is loved here. And I think that he does need his little cousin Merry right now a lot more than he needs his old 'uncle'."
Rory let out a deep sigh of relief. "I must say that is not the answer I was expecting, but I am very glad."
Bilbo shook his head. "This is not the end of it. Frodo will come to live with me one day though this is not that day. But he is a Baggins, and he must learn to be a Baggins as well as a Brandybuck. For his own sake, I will not pursue the matter yet."
Rory nodded. "I do understand. And I do know that the day will come when he leaves Brandy Hall. I'll miss him, but when it's the best thing for him, I won't stand in the way."
"What about Gilda and Esme?"
"I will deal with that when the time comes." He raised his snifter. "To Frodo."
Bilbo returned the toast. "To Frodo."
Bilbo left the Hall the next day after elevenses. Frodo and Merry were given permission to accompany him as far as the ferry landing. They said their farewells there.
"Good-bye, Uncle Bilbo!" Frodo called, as Diccon poled the ferry away. "We'll see you at Yule!"
Bilbo turned and waved back until they were halfway across the River, and then he turned his face westward. He'd hoped Frodo would have been at his side on this return journey. But not quite yet.
He stepped off the ferry, tipped Diccon generously, and walked off briskly in the direction of home, whistling. "Upon the hearth the fire is red, beneath the roof there is a bed..."**
*From JRRT's The History of the Lord of the Rings, Part I: The Return of the Shadow, Chapter IV, "To Maggot's Farm and Buckland"
*From Fellowship of the Ring, Book I, Chapter III, "Three's Company"