West of the Moon

A Tolkien Fanfiction Archive



Rites of Passage: Bag End
An ongoing series fondly described by readers as 'The Forging of the RingBearer', which began at 'The Hall' and is now continued at 'Bag End'. RoP deals with adult situations and 'coming of age' issues: i.e. sex will be involved somehow, somewhen. In varied 'modus operandi' and orientation.
Author: Willow-wode
Rating: to NC-17




To Bilbo's surprise, Frodo returned fairly quickly from changing into dry clothes. Odder still, Merimac was not at his side, was in fact nowhere within sight. Frodo's plain insistence at hanging on his older cousin--obvious as any tween in the throes of their first playmate's touch--had led Bilbo to not expect their return quite so soon.

Bilbo smirked suddenly. Well, perhaps not more than a half hour, anyway, if this young lad was like most his age.

A small, youthful outcry met his break in concentration and he looked down at the Cottons' youngest--little Nibs was nothing if not vocal. A group of listeners had once more gathered about Bilbo, intent upon the story that had been interrupted by the Brandybuck invasion of the Water. "Ahh," he said, keeping an eye upon Frodo and pretending to dither, "where was I, then?"

"In the treetops, mister Bilbo," Sam said helpfully from the fringes of the group. "'Thirteen dwarves, a curmudgeonly wizard and a... a di-she-veled hobbit, all waiting to be roasted alive', you said."

"Ah, yes. Thank you, lad." As he regained the thread of the tale, Bilbo knew that only half his attention and considerable tale-spinning abilities were in use. He was too aware of Frodo, hovering gingerly about the edges of his presence. For moments Bilbo wondered if the lad would broach the small crowd of listeners, then felt a definite sense of gratification as his young cousin slowly did make his way closer, hesitating not a length behind Sam.

Clouds were beginning to blow in, heavy with the promise of damp, and Frodo had obviously heeded them. He'd changed into a heavier-weight shirt and layered it beneath the dark green vest and breeks that Bilbo had first seen him in at young Meriadoc's party. Really, Bilbo wondered if the boy had anything bright in his wardrobe. Esme certainly clad him warm and fashionably well--no cause for complaint there--but Bilbo wondered if her choice also had suited the boy in such sombre colours, or had the decision been Frodo's own? The other tweens looked peacocks in contrast; even the common youngsters were more gaily clad, albeit not so fine or so new.

Bilbo met Frodo's eyes, grinned and patted the empty bench beside him. Gratification became downright pleasure, settling deep in Bilbo's chest as the lad's remote and chary expression was replaced by a shy, pleased smile, and Frodo came over to sit beside him.

Others were not so pleased. The Sackville-Bagginses, in particular, were not overjoyed at this show of favour and--a rather unpleasant surprise--from his seated position amongst a small group of smoking farmers, the Gaffer gave Frodo a very guarded look of jaundiced disapproval which was gone before Bilbo had time to blink or react. Thankfully, not many of the gazes which turned to Frodo as he alighted at Bilbo's side were negative. There was, however, no doubt that everyone was watching carefully the newest inhabitant of Bag End--and paying heed to his uncle's treatment of him.

Frodo was also highly aware of it. The lad's gaze kept flitting from person to person, resembling more and more a bird looking for a safe place to alight. Bilbo thought to reach out and lay his hand on Frodo's shoulder, but the watchers gave him pause, and Frodo's rather-overwhelmed expression made him indeed think better of it. Instead he stuck it into his waistcoat pocket. The gold band there warmed and soothed his twitchy fingers.

Ridiculous, really, that he should feel this sense of well-being at the lad responding to him so.

Bilbo doggedly kept up his tale, noting that several of the listeners--those who'd heard this particular one before--were a bit confused at his uninspired re-telling.

Therefore it was even more ridiculous that, when Merimac did finally show up, Bilbo should feel an even-stronger jolt of gratification as Frodo refused to leave Bilbo's own side, even when Merimac walked by not four lengths away, intent on some pursuit. However, as the riverhobbit passed--seemingly paying little attention to where his young cousin was--Frodo's gaze tentatively followed Merimac, visibly clouding at the lack of notice.

Faith, but to keep up with those two Bilbo was beginning to think he'd require a scorecard!

"Bilbo!" A hearty, cheerful voice interrupted just as Bilbo had paused for effect, ready to describe, with appropriate gestures, the arrival of the eagles to rescue 'fifteen birds from five fir trees'.

The gathered children turned towards a middle-aged, quite prosperous-looking hobbit who was striding towards them. Almost as one all the listeners groaned. Next to Bilbo, Frodo frowned at this untoward show of pique toward a seemingly innocent source--but the newcomer laughed; he was obviously unfazed.

"I'm sorry, all, but the Mother's blessing's been given, the neck's all properly finished and the besoms set to sweep up for the table--and those clouds are looking altogether close to dumping on our curly heads. We need to get on with the purpose of the day so we can have our play with a better heart!"

"Awww..." one of a pair of lads--twins, with the same ruddy hair and freckles as the interrupter--lamented. "Dad, it's just getting to the good part!"

'Dad' grinned and stuck his hands into his pockets, still unperturbed. "You'll have time later to listen to mister Baggins' tales."

"You heard our esteemed Mayor, all." Bilbo stood. "Time later for tales. We've important things to attend to, now."

A collective groan rose, but it was somewhat half-hearted, for many of the youngsters knew from experience that Tithing night was almost as grand as Tithing day. Bilbo rose to his feet with a clap of his hands; Frodo rose beside him and waited, obviously unsure of what to do next. "Lad," Bilbo said, placing a hand on one thin shoulder and bringing him forward slightly, "you've not yet met Hobbiton's mayor. May I present Hiram Fastburrow? Mayor Fastburrow, please to meet my... well, to all intents my nephew from Brandy Hall, Frodo Baggins."

A broad smile and a warm, genial handshake was offered to the boy, who responded to it as readily as many did. Bilbo had never regretted this particular gentlehobbit's ascent into office, not one day.

"Very nice to meet you, master Baggins. I knew your father; excellent hobbit, Drogo was. I never knew your mother so well--she didn't live here long, as you know, and I don't get eastward very much."

"It's quite nice to make your acquaintance, sir," Frodo returned, with a soft aplomb to his manner that impressed Bilbo anew.

"I imagine you're finding Hobbiton a bit different from Buckland," Fastburrow continued.

I imagine you have no idea how different, Hi, Bilbo thought with a smirk. He saw Frodo glance at him out of the side of his eye, and an answering quirk teased at the boy's lips.

"Yes, sir."

The mayor laughed. "You'll do fine, young hobbit. Bilbo, we'd best get on with this, don't you think--?" then he paused and reconsidered Frodo, who seemed a bit at loose ends as Bilbo started to leave. "Silly of me. This lad's your guest and your nephew, old son, and he's nigh to the perfect age for this... of course you'd have asked..." he turned to Frodo with a small bow that took the boy aback. "Are you coming then, young master Baggins? No better way to see how Hobbiton works, truly, than to be chosen to witness the Tithing. And if the Widow agrees, then you'll have an interesting winter and spring, to be sure!"

Bilbo halted mid-stride, realising what the mayor was suggesting; he glanced at Frodo and hesitated further, knowing perfectly well what fire that particular frying pan would turn him out into. The mayor seemed to understand his own gaffe as he turned to take in Bilbo's expression.

"I'm sorry, Bilbo. I merely thought..." Fastburrow trailed off and harumphed uncomfortably to himself, having the grace to be embarrassed.

Unfortunately, Frodo was quick enough to see the sudden discomfort of both his older companions, but not sophisticated enough to ken exactly why it was there in the first place. He looked from Bilbo to the mayor and back again, then flushed and looked down. "It's all right. I understand."

Bilbo felt suddenly as if he were merely two hands tall and spoke quickly, lest he demolish what good faith he'd started to achieve with the boy. "No, Frodo, you don't. And Hiram's right. How better for you to learn Hobbiton ways than to sit at my side during the roll? I should have asked someone--you--before now, truth be told; it's expected of me. But we've been busy upon other things, and... well," he furthered as Frodo's face started to brighten once more. "Not only that, but you've a mighty neat hand. You can scribe for us as well. All right?"

The sudden, eager smile that lit up Frodo's face banished any sense of consequence, good or ill, that Bilbo would have to endure by giving the lad a place at his side at such a ceremony. Grinning back, Bilbo thrust his hands into his pockets and gestured to them to go on. Fastburrow gave him a quick, meaningful glance, and Bilbo shrugged apologetically. He was not as conscientious about picking a lad to sit to the Tithe as he should be; usually the mayor or the Gaffer or Tolman Cotton would patiently remind him of his duty, and the Widow quick to approve or disapprove the suitability of his choice--the latter which she had done on occasion. The local boys all understood it as well, although none of them would be rude or bold enough to put themselves forward for the chance.

It was always a young lad--one old enough to show a natural interest in the courting and play, but not into his maturity more than a year or so--who was asked to witness the Tithing and hopefully be accepted as the laird's successor and substitute to the spring Ploughing. The 'laird' himself--Bilbo--was obviously well past fulfilling that obligation, and it was also becoming obvious that a few people had been making assumptions regarding Frodo's place, temporary or no, at Bag End. Of course one bound to the Hill by blood relation was preferable; two years previous Bilbo had followed tradition and appointed Lotho to fill the place. Unfortunately that, relation or no, had not gone well, but last year it had been young Tom Cotton and, despite having no blood ties to Bilbo, a better choice for Harvest Laird they'd not had in years. The Cottons had been bound to the Hill for generations, and a successful rite the past spring and full-to-overflowing harvest bins now had proven young Tom's--and the sensible Daffodil Bolger's--worth.

Bilbo snuck a quick glance at Frodo, thinking of how this could all be to the lad's advantage. All it would presently bind Frodo to would be nothing more than a few dance turns, a bit of flirting and spoiling at the dinner table with and from the maiden chosen--it was Daisy Gamgee, if Bilbo remembered correctly--and would bring about 'That Brandybuck's' admittance into Hobbiton society with more ease of approval than perhaps any other. And come next spring? Frodo would still be here, all the more accepted and ripe for what would transpire; the seasons would look to themselves and perhaps nature would smile upon a simple, ancient petition for bountiful harvest and filled larders.

As to any familial or social machinations construed from this? Well, it would just have to be dealt with later. Bilbo wasn't about to lacerate the feelings of an overly self-conscious orphan just because of what people--particularly certain ones--might think. And while there was no doubt having a twitchy tween in his smial was not exactly what he'd expected, neither was it in any manner repugnant to think of Frodo bound into staying through their next birthday.

To perdition with interfering relatives, anyway!

* * * * * *

The clearing, though filled with hobbits, was remarkably quiet. The only sounds came from the caravans, free talk and joshing and a bark of victorious laughter that Frodo immediately recognised. He turned, espied Merimac slapping down a hand of cards on a small table and victoriously snatching up a small bottle that, from his cousin's delighted reaction, could only be his favourite alcoholic libation--Tuckborough uisge. Merimac was seated amidst a small group of tinkers, including the black-haired tweener whose grandmother had her own dose of Tookish Sight. Frodo's stomach gave a fierce twinge, an odd mix of longing and pique, resentment and fancy. It made no sense, none of it--he was unbelievably torn: still cross with his cousin yet regretting it all the same, furious with Merimac for not understanding yet knowing deep down that it was grossly unfair to expect Mac to understand when Frodo himself did not... and the worst, how Frodo was so relieved that he'd regained a distance that he wasn't really sure he wanted. It was frightening yet ultimately desirable all at once--to just allow himself to let go, to trust someone with this last, incomprehensible thing...

Then there was Bilbo--just as many conflicting feelings, just as much a yearning for and fear of trust. Frodo was nigh to beside himself to be here, in Bilbo's wake and trying to solve the mystery of the old hobbit's existence; yet another part of him sidled away from that permanence even as he yearned for it. The possibilities of belonging, of knowledge and place and dreaming all rolled into one fantastic place--Bag End--it was all he could have ever wanted. But at the same time, Frodo wanted nothing more than to be beside his cousin in that raggle-taggle group of gipsies, laughing and smoking and caring little for nothing but the day and the game and the next road...

He followed Bilbo and Mayor Fastburrow silently, his heart filled and snarled to bursting; he could scarcely breathe for the exquisite pain of all the choices laid before him--a literal feast of reality and possibility.

Slowly Frodo became aware that the Hobbiton folk had quieted, though they were remarkably matter-of-fact about the tinkers' din. In the clearing's centre was a table set up, a huge-planked, back-breaking sort of affair with writing equipment on a flat wooden board, and a pewter platter that held a loaf and goblet. Lily Cotton was still sweeping the loose sod from about the table's feet with a gnarled old besom, humming a tune as she did so, and one of the gardener's lasses--Daisy, wasn't it?--went behind her with a bowl in her hands, sprinkling clear droplets where the broom had swept. Three younger lasses--Marigold Gamgee, the Cotton's daughter... Rose?... and one other black-haired lass whose name Frodo couldn't recall--had their own brooms and were dragging them slowly against the surrounding grass.

As Frodo followed his uncle and the mayor over to the table, there was a quick, surprised murmur. Several people shifted; from the corner of his eye Frodo saw Lobelia rise to her feet, clearly in protest. Oddly enough a gesture from old Widow Rumble backed Lobelia down, although not without grumbling. By the table young Rose elbowed Marigold, whose mouth dropped open. The black-haired girl raised her eyebrows. Daisy turned with bowl in hands and also did a double-take then, as Bilbo nodded affirmation, shrugged and walked over to Frodo, a smile quirking her mouth. Frodo had the strangest feeling that she--in fact that nearly everyone, from what he could see of the surrounding expressions--knew that there was more to this than it seemed.

Eyes dancing, Daisy handed the bowl to Frodo. He took the chill pottery in his hands, quite nonplussed, then was further made so as Daisy dipped both her hands in the bowl he held and ran her dripping fingers over his face. He shivered and started to back away, but Lily Cotton had somehow come to stand behind him, halting any such motion. Daisy merely gave him a steady glance then dipped her fingers and wet his face once more. Then again. Evidently three was enough, for she took the bowl from him, handed it to Bilbo, and proceeded to perform the same service for not only Bilbo but the mayor as well. Frodo noticed that Lily Cotton also went behind each of those two and stood there, and the younger girls too, all with brooms in hand like some honour guard.

There was an air to it that reminded him somewhat of the harvest homes at the Hall. Water dripping down his chin and onto his shirt, Frodo found himself wondering, from the lasses' pointed attentions towards himself, exactly what Bilbo had gotten him into.

Turning back to Frodo and smiling at his obvious consternation, Daisy handed him a soft cloth and said, teasingly, "En't you never seen a proper Tithing, Buckland lad?" Still smiling, she sauntered off, the younger lasses in her wake.

"Not like this," he muttered after her, wiping his face, and Bilbo chuckled.

"Never heard of putting a clean face to the deed? Hand over the towel, lad, so we can dry off and sit down."

Frodo waited as Bilbo dried his face and offered the towel to Fastburrow. He was, as they sat themselves to the wooden table, beginning to wish he'd not agreed to be so subjected to the ceremonial scrutiny of seemingly every hobbit, gentry and commoner, within the bounds of Hobbiton proper. Bilbo seemed to take further pity on him and slid towards him the board upon which rested a sheaf of parchments, an inkwell and three new-sharpened quills.

"Here. All you have to focus on now is writing down what's given, and to whom. It's doesn't have to be terribly in order or neat, just readable so we can later transfer it to the proper ledgers." He peered at Frodo. "Can you do that?"

Relief filled him at having something tangible to do. "Oh, yessir!" he assured and bent industriously over the board, giving the quills a calculating look. One proved lacking; Frodo took a well-used penknife from his pocket and began correcting the nib.

Fastburrow chuckled. Frodo halted mid-gesture and looked up, fearing he'd done something wrong.

"Aye, he's of your stock, Bilbo, no doubt about that!" the mayor winked at Bilbo, and Bilbo turned a grin towards Frodo that made him feel better.

The Tithing itself was a very ceremonial affair; each name called, lineage given and occupation detailed. Every person took satisfaction in that calling, and justifiable pride in what they had to offer. Frodo's new-sharpened nib busily and capably scratched across the paper; he was probably writing a bit more than necessary, but Bilbo didn't seem to mind. Even the glowering notice of Lotho and his parents and their cronies didn't penetrate; Frodo was off in a welcome and familiar land of ink and paper, concentration and nimble fingers.

Many of the tithes were simply symbolic of the work. Tolman Cotton, farmer and landholder, laid a sheaf of barley on the table to signify the burgeoning crop his family had brought in upon Bilbo's lands and his own. The Widow Rumble brought a milking bucket filled with sweetmeats--Frodo's gaze lit up at the sight, remembering those--whereas her boys snatched the stained caps from their heads and recited the work that they would be doing to the various animal outbuildings on the Hill. The old chicken farmer whose name Frodo had forgotten gave it: 'Daddy Twofoot, o' the Row'. With hat in hand he laid on the table a fine, fat goose and said his hens were laying better than ever this year, and he hoped the Widow's boys would be careful fixing the coops, else the laying might cease and that would be dire doings, indeed.

Bilbo hastily reassured him and eyed the Rumble lads until they also set Old Daddy at ease with several laconic promises.

Gaffer Gamgee, Marigold at his side, brought a singular rose, perfect and tightly-budded. Frodo reached out and touched the soft petals; as the Gaffer gave him an admonishing look, he quickly drew away his hand and bent back to scripting. May gave a curtsey and a fresh, well-pressed handkerchief; and Sam was quite a surprise considering his youth, detailing the painting and chinking he was to do to Bag End over the next few weeks.

Others, mostly not of the Hill itself, brought less symbolic Tithes: a brace of coneys for the table, a basket of eggs, a purse of copper coin or a barrel of pipeweed. Old Dad Twofoot's five grown sons of the communal steading were amongst these--there were twelve adults with them, male and female, and a gaggle of children besides--they had an ample cartload of produce for the Bag End cellars as well as a well-filled pouch of copper coinage handed proudly over.

"I'm the one who financed that land for them," Bilbo murmured to Frodo as he dutifully counted the coins, "and never regretted it a day. They'll have bought me out of their shares in another few years or so--they're a prime example of the wisdom to keep your childhood friends and tweener playmates as true and worthy companions for life. They get a bit of gossip about their ways, Hobbiton being Hobbiton," Bilbo winked at this last, "but they still those wagging tongues by raising a healthy crop--corn and bairns--every year, working harder and achieving more than any family I've ever been privileged to witness!"

During a small lull in the offerings, Frodo's nib fouled; he tapped it, wet it with his tongue then shook it off to one side. When he did get ink once more flowing freely through the tiny slit, he turned to see the Widow once again there, and Bilbo nudging him to stand. The mayor and Bilbo already had gained their feet; Frodo did so, eyeing the old dame a bit uncertainly. Daisy was just behind her, holding a bundle of red cloth.

"The blessing's made, Tithing's done," she said slowly. "As ye've kept the laird's promise for the year, Squire, so have we all. 'Twas a good year!"

A muttered chorus of 'ayes' resounded through the clearing, then near-silence fell. Even the gipsies had quieted, only birdsong and the occasional pony's snort from the riverside caravans penetrating the stillness. The Widow stepped over to Frodo and eyed him right back; beneath the steady inspection, Frodo threw a questioning glance at Bilbo. Bilbo seemed to be avoiding his gaze. Several hard, callused fingers took Frodo's chin and angled him back to face the Widow's gimlet stare.

"I'm thinking you're older than you look, lad," she said sternly. "How long since your change came to you, then? Answer me, right quick!"

Again he shot an uncertain glance towards Bilbo; the old hobbit still was not looking at him. Merimac was nowhere in sight. Frodo winced as the old dame's fingers tightened on his jaw, and indignation at such handling stiffened his spine.

"A year," he shot back at her. "Just over a year."

"Auspicious, that." She had faded brown eyes, almost yellow, but they were formidably shrewd. "I'm thinking you're stronger than you look, too. These hands," she took her free hand and lifted one of his, "might have too much ink on 'em, but they've seen work." Frodo puffed up even more at the all-too-familiar intimation that reading or writing wasn't 'work' and wormed his hand from hers; a spark of what looked to be approval backlit the old dame's gaze as she gave a knowing snort. "It's plain from the happenings today that you en't too ignorant as to expressing your pleasures, neither--any of 'em--and that's also to the good." Releasing him, she stepped back with a curt nod.

As if that were a signal, the mayor picked up the small loaf of bread and handed it to Daisy. She took it with a small nod, knotted it with quick, capable fingers into her apron, then picked up the goblet and took a drink from it. Her eyes widened in obvious pleasant surprise at the taste of it. Her reaction reminded Frodo of Aster's delight in a wine not common on her family's simple table. Then, to Frodo's surprise, Daisy stepped lightly over and held the goblet out to him.

Since there seemed to be nothing else for it, he reached for it. Her fingers laced against his for a moment, cool and strong, then she relinquished it. He took a drink; the wine was indeed smooth, sweet and thick with spices, and as he started to lower it, Daisy's hand tilted it back upward and she hissed quickly, "Nay. Down it all."

The wine sloshed against his upper lip at the sudden motion and he gulped more in self-defence than want. Fortunately the wine was smooth and draining the cup was no horrid chore; but it was a big cup, and by the time he'd reached the end of it his lips were buzzing with ferment and damp.

There was an approving murmur as he handed the empty cup back to Daisy, and as she took it she scraped a finger along the rim for another sample, giving him a gamine grin. He grinned back.

"You're too bold by halves, lass," the Widow Rumble muttered, however she was smiling even as she gave Daisy a sharp nudge with her elbow. Daisy retreated, still suckling at her finger and giving Frodo a level look; he returned it for several nervy, fascinated seconds.

"Aye, and miss Daisy isn't the only bold one!" Lily Cotton sang out, grinning. Frodo broke off from Daisy's gaze, and chuckles resounded through the gathered hobbits. Lily clucked her tongue approvingly against her teeth and lightly tapped her broom handle against Frodo's hip; this caused another round of laughter. It was friendly laughter, but nevertheless Frodo cursed his complexion and kept his eyes pinned to his toes, writhing through another blush.

"Look up, lad," Bilbo muttered to him and slowly, Frodo obeyed. The Widow had once more come to stand before him, and she was unwrapping her bundle. It was a plaited dollie, woven from barley and wheat, twisted and braided with bits of bright ribbon. It was beautiful, smelling clean and fragrant, glinting gold even in the uncertain sun.

"I'm thinking you'll do," she said slowly. "You've a goodly amount of spirit behind those doe's eyes of your'n. 'Tis been a long time since we've had new blood for the mingling."

Frodo blinked at her and shot another quick, indecisive look at Bilbo. Bilbo's face was bland, giving nothing away, but the Widow chuckled at his hesitation.

"They teach a Shire-lad proper even on the river, I see." Frodo felt his ears warm again--though he thought it impossible to be more put on the spot--and the old dame's voice turned soothing. "Nay, boy, 'tis a fair thing, that you should think upon what this means. It is no light duty we ask of you."

Of that he had no doubt. The wine was warming his belly, and he was well aware of what something like this would mean in Buckland--though perhaps he was misunderstanding, for he'd never seen the promise handed from female to male back on the River. But nevertheless the thought of Daisy Gamgee cleaning his face, holding the harvest gleanings in that loaf of bread, and serving him wine with a knowing smile--all of it made his stomach clench rather startlingly with nothing that resembled good sense.

"So, young master. Shall I give the neck t' you, to promise and hold for winter's sleep, 'til you'll come to the place of the Bel-fires, blood and seed, ploughing the furrow to be waking with the sun?"

There were no more doubts of what they were asking of him--nor did he want to refuse this choice--it spoke too deeply to him, bound him too tightly in a thrilling embrace of welcome and belonging.

Choices, his and theirs. For they were choosing him.

Frodo took a sharp breath and reached his hands out for the 'neck'--the small bit of woven symbolism that was held in escrow as a promise of the wheel's turning, of rain and sunshine and hopeful success for next year's crops. The Widow gave it to him, and he touched it gingerly then looked into her old eyes. He thought of old Ness in her caravan, speaking of finding a home, and wondered if it might even be possible that he would find it, and actually be as one of them when the Tithing promise would take hold.

* * * * * *

Dinner came, with still no sign of Merimac. But good food was doing much toward resigning Frodo to his playmate's disappearance--that and the company of not only Daisy, but Cotton's eldest, a broad and lanky lad who was several years younger than Frodo yet as comfortably precocious as someone twice his age.

Bilbo was more than pleased to see Frodo's reserve thawing beneath young Tom's gregarious flirting. Daisy Gamgee's attentive and quite proper service was further drawing Frodo out; she had already poured him a brimming mug of hard cider and set down a small tray of tempting snacks for him. A small group of younger hobbits, including Samwise and Marigold, had also seated themselves with close fascination nigh to Frodo's orbit. Curiosity was not among the more-approved virtues within hobbit-kind, but children and tweens were allowed failings that were frowned upon in adults. It was more than obvious that, odd-looking or no, the new lad biding at mister Bilbo's smial was an interesting and novel attraction.

Tom in particular had decided that querying Frodo about life at Brandy Hall was fascinating entertainment. "Do they not have the Tithing in Buckland, then?"

"Oh, yes," Frodo said, "but it's not... like this." He looked over at Bilbo with a slight frown that held puzzlement and pleasure within it; Bilbo smiled at him reassuringly, then watched as the boy's eyes swept the clearing. Probably looking for Merimac, as he'd done much of the day, but also Bilbo suspected Frodo was also thinking of the Buckland harvest homes. Bilbo remembered the ones he himself had been to. There were always giddy doings, bonfires and dancing--that held true across the Shire--but on the River there was always a thin and thrilling edge of danger underlying all the festivities, the reminder that livelihood and success hung on a particularly delicate thread. Certainly nature was capricious, and any hobbit could starve in a bad year, but the addition of the Brandywine was another wild factor in the game of chance called survival. The River was provider, but could also be an unforgiving mistress--wreaking flood or carrying treasure depending on her whims--and any of the river folk forgot that at their peril.

"Any tithes are separate from the harvest home," Frodo continued, giving Daisy a shy smile as she refilled his cup for him and sat down at her place beside him. Bilbo hid a smirk beneath his hand as the lass' dimpled arm brushed Frodo's and he gave a slight judder in reaction.

"As are ours," Daisy said, taking a small pasty from the tray and tucking into it with a healthy, charming appetite. "We brought in the last harvest a fortnight ago. Now the moon's full, though, and it's time for Tithe."

"But..." Frodo might be mellow from wine, but he was as flustered by the notice of a pretty, attentive girl as any his age and he turned almost in desperation to Tom. "But you have the... well the choosing, we call it, during the Tithing. In Buckland we have it when we bring the harvest home. On bonfire night."

"We have bonfires here, too!" Samwise piped up, obviously eager not to be outdone by the Eastfarthing. Frodo looked across at him and smiled; the Gamgee lad grinned back and furthered, "We do. Harvest home night, we burn the scarecrows and rake 'em back into the earth."

"We do that, too," Frodo replied. Sam was so obviously curious his expression was comical; Frodo gave a quick chuckle, continued, "But we set them adrift on a raft, put it afire, give the River her due so she'll not take too many of us next flood season." A small flicker squinched his brows as Bilbo watched; but then the worried look was gone as if it had not been there and Frodo was taking up another meat pasty. Bilbo grinned. That made five. The boy could eat, when he was of a mind to.

"Well," Tom said expansively, "if you have any questions about it, you just ask me." He leaned forward conspiratorially. "'Twas I who held the neck the past year, see?" He pulled up his shirt sleeve, revealing a thin, finger-length scar along the underside of his forearm. Frodo seemed sincerely admiring of it, which chuffed Tom no end, and Bilbo thought of a morn after Ploughing night over seventy years ago, when he himself had come away from the dawn-streaked fields with a blooded arm, a light head, and very weak knees.

"As much as you've the rights to tell, Tom Cotton!" Daisy censured. "Some things en't meant to be spoken to ahead of their time, or the secrets spoiled by a young banty cock crowing all too loud."

The young Cotton lad ducked his head, his face red with the very well-aimed comment; Frodo gave Tom a rather sympathetic look which tickled Bilbo no end.

Unfortunately the impromptu dining group was broken up by the arrival of rain--hard, chill and sudden. Mild dismay and quick rearrangements ensued, and it wasn't long before everyone moved into the mill, the food mostly saved from drowning and everyone laughing at the untoward shower they'd received.

Candles and lanterns were lit against the dim; hobbits kept munching, filling up their 'corners' while the musicians, well-fed and ready for some action, set up in one corner of the cavernous threshing room.

Finally the music was in full swing, echoing upward into the vaulted ceiling, met by the sound of the mill-wheel's omnipresent growl and the louder rhythm of rain hitting the roof and trickling from the eaves. Several windows had been opened to let in the cool, damp breeze, insuring that the dancer or watcher who came by them got a nice drizzle of rain-waft. The slap of feet against smooth, stout flooring kept time to fiddle and hornpipe and bodhran, gave quick counter-time to the steady rain. Frodo stood next to Bilbo, and the lad was actually bouncing in place as he watched the dancers and sipped another mug of cider. Bilbo was beginning to wonder if Frodo was just a different being when slightly squiffed, and this disturbed him for reasons that he wasn't sure of.

Even more remarkable was the tiny, huge-eyed maid-child that shyly if resolutely came over to Frodo and looked up at him. When the object of her scrutiny didn't seem to notice her, Angelica frowned, took a deep breath then, again to Bilbo's amazement, reached out one hand and tugged at Frodo's waistcoat. The lad blinked, then looked down and blinked once more. Angelica just stood there, peering up at him a bit pleadingly. Several times she tried to speak, but couldn't seem to get the words out.

Bilbo had thought Frodo's first meeting of his shy little cousin was a fluke--surely a hormone-tangled tweenager with a huge 'touch-me-not' attitude would not be so gentle or forgiving to some non-descript little maid. To Bilbo's further astonishment, Frodo gave a soft smile, dropped down to his knees and, setting his mug on the ground at his feet, earnestly queried something to Angelica that made her flush with pleasure. Bilbo scooted a little closer, hoping that he could listen in, but Angelica's reply was so thin and high that he heard nothing until Frodo answered.

"Of course I will. I should love to."

To Bilbo's complete amazement, Frodo stood up and held out his mug to Bilbo with a little grin that said 'please, would you?' As Bilbo took it from him, Frodo reached down, grasped Angelica's tiny hand and squired her onto the dance floor as gallantly as any courting swain.

Not just one dance, but two, and towards the end Frodo scattering hobbits right and left as he picked up his little cousin and whirled her in a circle that had her furry feet flying. People were staring--not at the fact that Bilbo's Brandybuck cousin was causing yet another scene, but that Angelica, who was so painfully shy that she barely would speak a word if more than two people were in her vicinity, was giggling with delight.

Dora had come to stand next to Bilbo, and she was nigh to weeping--not her normal rash of easy tears, but very heartfelt and real. She was not the only one who was unintentionally charmed by the happenstance. After Frodo had set his little cousin back on her feet and told her to scoot back to her Aunt Dora and Uncle Bilbo, another lass had decided to take the given opportunity. Daisy Gamgee strode forward, tossed her chaff-coloured curls and politely extended her hand in asking.

Frodo looked at her hand a bit numbly then, with a sloe-eyed smile so resembling a cat discovering a dish of thick cream that Bilbo laughed out loud, took Daisy's hand and allowed her to lead him into a reel.

It didn't stop there. After Daisy had her turn and several more, it was May who braved her father's rather substantial scowl at one of his brood stepping so smartly out of her place and replaced her sister as Frodo's dance partner. Then Tom stepped forward with a teasing grin and a bow. Frodo gave him a smug lift of brow that surprised Bilbo--he'd hitherto only seen Frodo tease back so glibly with his cousin Merimac--and accepted with a smirk and graceful half-bow.

The ice had been well and truly broken, reticence flung aside and all around as the evening waxed full and festive. Frodo often disappeared into the throng of dancing hobbits, male and female, older and younger, and Bilbo watched it all as the boy looked first stunned, then pleased, then ecstatic. The half-drunk mug had long since grown warm in Bilbo's hand, and his silver-streaked toes tapped a quiet accompaniment. A pleasant sense of well-being stole into his breast as Bilbo once again found himself glimpsing that flushed, laughing boy he'd first espied at Brandy Hall, primed with liquor and adrenaline, fairly throbbing with life.

The gold band in his pocket, unheeded, hung cold and heavy.

"He's rather skinny and homely, Bilbo," Dora said beside him, with her usual well-meaning tactlessness, "but he can't help that. And my, does he turn charming when he smiles. He's Drogo's smile."

"And Prim's grace," Bilbo said softly, a smile lifting one corner of his own mouth.

"It is good to see him laughing, eh?"

Bilbo turned at the voice, found Merimac close behind him, standing in the shadow of a heavy wall beam and taking a long pull from his mug. The grey eyes were uncommonly thoughtful as they followed Frodo.

"I'm sorry I had to duck away for a while," the riverhobbit said finally, "but I just got a message by courier. I have to leave in the morning."

* * * * * *

"I just think he's shy," Tom said. "I asked him did he want to join us; I think he wanted to even if he said nay."

"Tom, why'd you want to ask some riverhobbit to join us?" his brother Jolly whined. "He's just... strange, that one is."

Sam stood beside Jolly, shifting eagerly from foot to foot. He was fair torn between agreeing with his best friend and contrarily wishing that Tom's bid for a new presence in their group had been successful. Sam just couldn't decide if he wanted Frodo Baggins along or no--particularly with what they were about to do.

The rain had settled in for the evening, dripping off the eaves of the mill. The small clutch of lads--each of them a farmer's or labourer's son--were huddled against the east-most wall, sheltered by the tiny shed there which normally housed tools. The wind occasionally spattered them with rain through the open sides, but they cared little--they were more interested in what Tom was fiddling with in his broad, nimble hands.

"Anyway, he might tell," the Widow's youngest, Tad, said. "He don't belong wit' us, he belongs with that group of swanks as have too much brass, just as he does."

"Well, it don't matter now, do it?" another lad--the blacksmith's son--sniped, looking about nervously. "Ye're going to light that, Tom, or just look at it? Ye need flints?"

Tom grinned and, with a small flourish, produced a real match from his waistcoat pocket. Sam rocked forward in anticipation, and Jolly giggled, shoving an arm into him.

"Sam's goin' ter wet himself if you don't hurry, Tom!"

"I'm not!" Sam shoved back.

"Y' are, dancing like you've the privy quickstep!"

Tad gave Jolly a smack to the back of his fawn-coloured curls. "Shut up, or we'll not be inviting you bairns again!"

"I'm not a bairn," Sam muttered sourly, but subsided as Tad raised his hand again warningly. The smith's son and the lad beside him--his cousin--tittered.

Tom lit the pipe with a finesse that suggested he'd done it quite a bit, took a deep pull of it that suggested even further, then passed it to his neighbour. Sam realised that, the way it was being passed, the pipe would come to him last and wondered if that was purposeful, it being his first chance to steal a smoke and all.

"That Brandybuck wouldn't be cozening up to those swank gits, any road," Tom said, looking like one of Bilbo's dragons with smoke curling from his lips. "Not if he clocked Lotho."

"D'you think he really did?" Jolly said sceptically. Sam realised that his friend was starting to dance with anticipation himself, and gave him a poke. Jolly grinned in acknowledgement and poked back.

"The way Lotho looks daggers through the Brandybuck?" said Tad. "I'd make book on it being true."

"En't th' size of the dog in th' fight, but the size of th' fight in th' dog," the smith's son said laconically, taking a satisfied pull from the pipe.

Which meant the pipe was getting closer. Beside him, Jolly fidgeted. Sam bit his lip.

"Poor Lotho," Tom said in a mocking sing-song. All the lads laughed, even Sam, though he felt as if he probably shouldn't, working for the S-Bs and all. But any guilt was undermined by the honest mix of hate and fear that Sam felt whenever he got nigh to Lotho--there was something not right about that tween, something unsound, somehow, something that made his flesh creep. He'd never been on the receiving end of any of Lotho's more elaborate wrongdoings, and he didn't want to ever be, either.

"Well, I didn't see that Brandybuck cozening up to much of anyone," Jolly said vehemently. "Unnatural, that is. You gonna pass that smoke this way any time soon?"

"Then you weren't watching too close, were you?" Tom ignored his younger brother's impatience, giving a knowing chuckle. "The lad was sure cozening with that sailor cousin of his."

Sam flushed--he'd been watching that with more fascination than was proper and he knew it. The older boys made assorted suggestive noises; one hooted appreciatively through his mouthful of smoke.

"I was thinking he was just a bairn hisself until I saw that!"

"He doesn't dance like a bairn." Tom winked. More soft laughter.

"Aye, and the Tithing table proved he's old enough for what he and that cousin are doing--" Tad waggled his eyebrows.

"What are they doing?" Jolly demanded.

"Bloody damn, Jol, if you en't sharp enough to recognise two lads gaming each other, then you're too stupid to live and no brother of mine!"

The blacksmith's lad and his cousin were pointedly hanging on each other, sniggering at Jolly. Sam shifted from foot to foot, his ears warming but the pit of his belly even warmer.

"But that riverhobbit's old, Tom!" Jolly shot back, making a disgusted face.

"Old enough to know exactly what he's doing, I'll bet," Tad said, rather wistfully.

Tom waggled his eyebrows. "Guess we'll know from the way the Brandybuck's walking come the mornin', aye?"

Sam's ears were about on fire--he decided enough was enough. "Now hang on, I'm not sure we should be talking about 'em like..." His voice slipped upward, then scaled down into a croak. All the lads laughed and Tad slapped him on the back.

"This 'un en't going t' be a bairn much longer, I'm thinking!"

Sam flushed, then forgot embarrassment as Jolly was finally handed the pipe. He took a quick breath then noticed that the other lads were watching them intently. He and Jolly were the newest additions to the group--and then only probably because Jolly was bloody brilliant at whining.

"Heerd that new lad's part Took, not jus' Brandybuck," said the smith's son curiously. "Mebbe that's why he looks to be young. Mebbe he is young, and his change came early." The other boys, including Sam despite his preoccupation with the pipe in Jolly's grubby fingers, nodded understanding. Part Took explained a lot of things, most of them slightly left of normal.

"He told mister Bilbo that he's almost twenty," Sam inserted, afraid his voice wouldn't stay steady, yet aware that he held important information.

"You're not on!" Tad marvelled.

Meanwhile, Jolly took a great puff on the pipe, just like he'd seen the others do. Immediately he went green about the gills and started acting as if he was going to hack up his lungs. Tad rescued the pipe, and he and the other lads laughed raucously. Even Sam had a grin on his face, because honestly if Jolly didn't know by now you couldn't suck down your first smoke like that, then he deserved being made fun of.

"And here I was thinking that lad was younger than me," Tom said once he'd caught his breath.

"Mebbe 'tis true about him only being half-hobbit. Mebbe the other half makes him younger," Tad wondered. Sam smiled.

"Well, mister Bilbo's got the same problem, and I en't never heard that he's half... Glory!" Tom interrupted himself, turning to his younger brother who was still choking and giving him a firm thwack on the back. "Give it up, Jol!"

Jolly tried desperately to subside, tears in his eyes and a greenish tinge still to his face.

"Here, Sam," Tad held out the pipe he'd rescued. "Try not to be a bigger fool than Jolly, now."

Not likely. Sam's own try at the pipe was much more tentative; it was quite satisfying, giving a spoil to the rather bloodthirsty hopes of the big lads. And even more satisfying, once Sam let the tiny tongue of smoke curl back out his mouth, that his companions gave him a brief, approving nod.

"Aye," said Tom, "Tad's right. This one's finally starting his growing, eh?"

Sam lifted his chin and grinned.

* * * * * *

"I'm not believing you."

"I wasn't asking for your belief," Lotho snapped. He was watching the water-wheel twirl and the rain fall about it. His left hand stayed deep into his coat pocket, fingering a broad, flat object that he'd kept in there since found.

Reginard Took came about, swinging from one of the support poles for the small lean-to between the mill proper and the wheel. "You always dance." His Tuckborough lilt was further slurred with alcohol and petulance. "Always. But because he's in there, preening and stepping, you--OW!"

Lotho's hand closed on the arm Reginard swung from, digging into sinew and muscle. "You'll go too far, Reg."

"Lotho, that hurts, curse it!"

Lotho smirked, but it held no humour and he let go. "I thought you liked it that way."

"In its place," Reginard retorted, rubbing at his bicep. "Bloody damn, Lotho, you're touchy as a farmer with three ripe daughters! If you're so hung up on that scrawny bit of Brandybuck, perhaps it's him you should be gaming instead of me!"

"Reg..." Lotho growled warning. His Took companion fell into sullen silence.

The sharp smell of cheap pipeweed curled around the mill's corner, misting into the rafters of the overhang. Reginard stepped over, peered about the corner, turned and came back to Lotho with a grin.

"Those commoner boyos are stealing a smoke over on the other side of the mill," Reginard ventured. "We could go and put the fear into them, scatter them."

Lotho shrugged.

"Ever since that jumped-up tinker of a Tom Cotton got to make the Ploughing here last spring he's thought himself quite the rooster in the henhouse. I should think you'd want to shake him up. Considering."

"Considering what?" Lotho said ill-temperedly.

"Well," Reginard shrugged all too lightly, but his eyes were gleaming, "he made the crops, not a bairn his backwater town wouldn't let him claim."


"Cousin Laurelinda is a bit of a feather-head, I know, but her dada's well-pleased that he has a grandson to hold his own name, now. They might have odd notions of claiming festival-gotten bairns here, but I'll give them this, never do they make it awkward for the Maiden or the babe... and Laurel says you didn't heed her in the making, after all..."

Fastening flattened eyes upon his Tookish companion, Lotho murmured, "Are you just looking for a way to get pounded?"

"Depends," Reginard said slyly, "on the pounding."

"Bloody damn, Reg, don't you think of anything else?"

"Of course not! Eating, smoking, beating up commoner's brats and shagging--what else is there? This is a nice place, really, and rather off to itself. That wheel will hide us well."

Lotho shrugged. The music from the mill's interior was audible even over the wheel and the rain.

"Come on, Lotho," Reginard wheedled, "have a heart! If you don't want to game then let's go dance!"

"I don't want to, not now."

"I'm overdue back home as it is," Reginard protested. "And I'm thinking I should be taking myself there. You've been different this time, Lotho."

"Go if you want to," Lotho told him pointedly. "D'you think I care?"

"I know you don't," Reginard said sulkily, "but you at least used to be fun."

The words pinked, but Lotho gave no sign of it, just stared at the wheel as it rotated. Lump, lump, lump, the wheel paddles slapped the surface and pulled through the current, shining with the rain. He was getting soaked, this close to the wheel and half in the rain, and most likely his mother would have at him for ruining the pile of the velvet on his lapels and pockets and cuffs. He smiled slightly.

"Lotho," Reginard stepped closer, his face mere inches from Lotho's, "what do you want?"

He rubbed one knuckle against his pocket.

"Well I'm getting cold, and I want to dance," Reginard continued. "Are you going to come dance with me, or not?"


Reginard smiled back, fox-sly. "Then maybe I'll let you!" he murmured, and leaned closer. "Or maybe I'll dance with that Brandybuck baggage, since you won't."

He ducked just in time, skipped away as Lotho aimed another swing in his direction.

"Do you even know what you want?" Reginard made one final sally from the door, then smirked and disappeared into the mill.

Lotho wanted to kick something, preferably Reg's arse, but since that had been removed from possible targeting, he instead turned back to the water. Picking up a large stone, he heaved it violently at the water wheel; it ricocheted out in the Water, making a satisfactory and large splash.

What do you want?

Treasure rustled in his pocket, and he smiled, not pleasantly.

* * * * * *

His feet were sore, his palms were smarting from clapping and the still-unhealed blisters, he was light-headed and giddy from drink and dancing, but it wasn't until he got a sharp stitch in his side that Frodo pulled himself away from the crowded floor. That last reel had been a busy one--in fact the same as the coupling dance he'd first participated in at Merry's party. Even more remarkable, he'd not seen Lotho on the dance floor yet. Frodo had, however, found himself looking for Merimac several times, hoping that he could dance with him but also still miffed enough with his cousin that he didn't want to actively seek him out.

Mac was not here, anyway--he was probably still playing cards with the gipsies, or courting that pretty lad who'd all but propositioned him, and who could blame him for going elsewhere for a light tumble when Frodo himself was such a bundle and mass of contradictions...

"Faith, Daisy, but I don't envy you that!" A giggle accompanied the words.

"And why is that, miss Bergenia?"

At Daisy's pleasant answer, Frodo turned slightly to see his dinner companion standing amidst a group of mid-tween lasses. They obviously didn't see him, for the bearer of the first voice, decked out quite handsomely, inclined her head to one side and smiled. "Well, he's not exactly much to look at, is he? And he's not from here. Granted, that old Baggins crank doesn't take his Tithing choices serious, like, but I can't imagine what the Widow meant by agreeing to give some scrawny, waterlogged Bucklander the honour!"

"The honour was given," Daisy said firmly, and there was a soft promise in her voice that warmed Frodo for no good reason. "And it's neither yours nor mine to question." Then she made a graceful, curling gesture with her hand and slyly continued, "Anyway, after dancing up next to him all close-like, I've a feeling that yon master Bucklander is going to surprise us all come the harvest."

The other girls giggled quite wickedly and Frodo flushed to the tips of his pointed ears. With elation and dismay both somehow crowding into his chest, he ducked further into the crowd and back toward the casks.

For being from such a supposedly tight-laced community, these Hobbiton lasses were downright scary. He needed a drink.

With an ease born of long practice, Frodo disappeared into the crowd, away from the light and music. The far corner beckoned, where several casks of ale and water had been blocked up for use. Frodo remembered at the last moment that Bilbo had his mug; he looked about, didn't see Bilbo anywhere, then shrugged and decided to use one of the many extras stacked by the kegs.

He filled one of them with more of a hard cider that he recognised as a Buckland brewing; it smelled pleasantly of the buttery spices the Hall always added. His hands shook slightly. He frowned at this, concerned for moments until he became aware, with belated wonder, of how long it had been since he'd been the centre of such activity and attention. Frodo still wasn't sure that he cared for it--as with many other things, it was nicer while it was happening than in the contemplation afterwards. Witness how those girls had been talking about him so pointedly, even if some of the things had been complimentary. How Bilbo always seemed to know exactly where he, Frodo, was. How the Gaffer had glowered at Frodo when he had agreed to dance with May. How eyes had fastened upon him earlier when he'd openly teased Merimac.

The demands of the day were beginning to settle upon him, and Frodo realised he was flat tired out.

A huge rumble shook the mill. Frodo jumped then settled as laughter resounded through the huge place. Grinning at his own startled reaction, he tipped the mug to his lips and watched the Hobbiton folk shake off their surprise with more music and laughter. Several hobbits came back, nodded politely at him--which informed him that, after all, his 'disappearance' had not gone totally unnoticed--filled their mugs and went back to the midst of activity. No doubt they were assuming he would as well. However he had no intention of doing so, at least not yet. The kegs were rather out of the way, back in a narrow corridor of thick wooden beams--a perfect place, actually, to just catch his breath, enjoy the quiet and observe. Frodo pulled himself another mug and leaned against the beam nigh to the kegs, wiping the sweat from his upper lip with a sleeve.

It was so... different here than from Brandy Hall. There seemed to be a specific order to things in Hobbiton--one amongst the grownups in particular--an unspoken restraint that was oddly gratifying to Frodo. He understood masks, oh yes. And the need to cloak unpleasant things, even if those things were not the same as at the Hall. But here there was also more notice, and this was not at all or necessarily pleasant. At the Hall there was so much to do, so many people's needs to tend to; it was easy to just become lost in the crowd. Here there was no large, communal smial to disappear in; every family seemed to have its own, clearly-defined place and notice was taken if those places were not filled or easily defined.

A smile was a smile and a touch a touch everywhere, it seemed. But still, there was a difference and he couldn't quite put his finger on it, only that the... well, the awareness of things was more rampant. Which was not at all reassuring...

"Master Frodo?!"

Frodo nearly jumped out of his toenails as the quiet exclamation came from, not near the ale casks, but near the window just behind them and the lad who had halted mid-climb inward. Samwise Gamgee quickly regained his composure and finished wriggling his way in to drop the very small distance to the flooring. The lad looked flushed and guilty as murder, and Frodo caught the whiff of tobacco-smoke that blew from him with a breeze from the window. He put his mug to his lips to hide the sudden grin at the thought of the gardener's lad out into the rain to sneak a snoot-full of pipe-weed.

"I thought you didn't climb," Frodo said, once he'd regained control of his twitching lips.

"Windows en't exactly climbing," the lad answered, a bit cheekily. "Not according to your standards, anyhow, sir."

Oh huzzah, Samwise! Frodo thought irreverently and drained his cider, stepped forward and dispensed more. "Well," he said recklessly, "take it from someone who knows all too well what a freshly-peeled switch can feel like when you're caught; I'd advise you to chew a bit of birch-gum or something. Your clothes can smell like pipeweed if you're standing next to it, but if your father catches it on your breath, believe me he'll figure it out."

The grey-brown eyes narrowed, then widened as Frodo went on.

"And if you'll further take my advice, young master gardener, I'd also suggest you practice not looking so frightfully guilty."

Sam looked as if he didn't know whether to be abashed or indignant. Suddenly his face twitched and he did neither. Instead, Sam laughed. Almost instantly he sobered, colouring again, and spoke very softly. "Aye. I think you're probably right."

Then, even more surprisingly, he gave a small bow and padded away. Frodo looked after him for several seconds, wondering exactly what type of leaf the lad had been smoking.

"I think it's quite ill-mannered of your cousin, actually."

"Well, Bilbo has never been known for his manners, has he?"

The pair of voices came from his far left, coming closer. Frodo stiffened, not only at the reference to Bilbo but the sudden recognition of the voice of Lotho's mother. He looked about and saw nothing, then took a peek to the other side of the beam he was leaning against and saw them. Not only Lobelia but three other dames--all dressed well, obvious gentry.

"Sitting that foundling brat at the Tithing table, of all things!"

Realising with that first description exactly whom they were talking about, Frodo frowned and looked down at the floor. He was tired of being talked of, tired of being looked at and the object of everyone's curiosity and concern. Particularly if that same 'everyone' had the surname of 'Sackville-Baggins'.

There was the sound of liquid flowing into ceramic, and another feminine voice, high and breathy. "Iris is right, sure as the rain's on the roof tonight--it was nothing but an insult, my dear Lobelia, a particular Bilbo Baggins-type affront at that. You shouldn't worry, though--the child will not be here long enough to take his place next year. What I found most insulting was that display at the Water. Bucklanders! They should stay in the Eastfarthing where they belong!"

"Too true, Ruby," a third voice sighed.

"And that Bilbo encouraging it with his absurd talk!" Lobelia answered. "Then there was the matter of that lad gaming with someone nigh to thrice his age--!"

Frodo felt his ears grow hot with first indignation, then chagrin. Merimac had tried to tell him this very thing would happen.

"--just proves what kind of scruples they have on the river! How dare that wretched child be so public and brazen, and after leading on my son, refusing him, then capping it all by telling lies that get Lotho expelled from Brandy Hall!"

Cider splashed over Frodo's toes as he nearly dropped his mug. Just in time he rescued it, quivering with resentment. Lies. Lies?

I did not lead him on, but you're bloody well right I refused him, you cantankerous old...

"Well, Lobelia, I hope you told Lotho that no one lad's worth that sort of trouble!"

"I did, sure enough, and especially that one! Who is Frodo Baggins, anyway? Nothing but an orphaned charity brat fathered by who knows what! Why, from what Lotho's told me about the talk at Brandy Hall, there's plenty doubt that he even has right to our name."

Ice snuggled down Frodo's spine, quelling ire; he molded himself to the beam, biting at his lip.

"Blood will out," a fourth voice quavered.

"Oh, and isn't that the truth." The first voice, again. "I've heard it said more than once that Primula Brandybuck was entirely too free with her favours once she married."

"Primula was madder than a hare in the Rethe rains," Lobelia rasped, and Frodo clenched his fists.

"She and Bilbo were very close," the fourth opined. "Who knows but he might have even fathered that orphan--"

"Maybe that's why he's brought him here!" the quavery voice hissed triumphantly.

"There is no possible chance that Bilbo could have sired that boy!" Lobelia interrupted indignantly.

A rash of muttered, rather-false apologies. Frodo clung tighter to his hiding place. He could all but hear his pulse thundering in his ears--was surprised that they could not. For mad seconds he thought his knees were giving way, and he wondered which affected him more--the thought that Bilbo could be considered his father, or the knowledge that he could not.

"I heard that she'd gotten some love philtre from the elves, and that's how she trapped poor Drogo into wedding her in the first place."

Lobelia snorted. "More like she was just very good beneath the coverlets--after all, Drogo was male."

Titters of agreement, the sound of more mugs being filled to brimming.

"Well, Lobelia, I think you're showing remarkable restraint. It's plainer than plain the only reason Bilbo Baggins has brought that lad here is to plague you and your family."

Frodo went cold.

"Introducing that nobody as his nephew! I ask you..." The voices faded away into the music and the merriment. There was a lively pairing dance going on--odd, how it had faded away beneath their voices and now all but assaulted his senses. It was the last straw; Frodo's knees buckled and he slid down the pole to crouch on his haunches. He stared at the mug somehow still in his hands, eyes starting to fill. The mug trembled and he gripped it more tightly, refusing to allow it to fall, staring at it as if it were the only real thing left in his awareness.

A scuffle, a muttered oath, then a clatter of wood. Frodo shot up from his crouch as if propelled. The mug, so resolutely held to, fell between his furry toes and shattered. He whirled to see Sam Gamgee standing there, pale in the shadows, looking down at the small rake he'd just tangled with. Slowly the younger lad's eyes moved up to touch Frodo's, hung and held there. The two boys stared at each other for the longest moment of Frodo's life, not speaking or moving.

Sam was the first to break the spell, stepping forward and kneeling at Frodo's feet. Taken aback, Frodo retreated a step only to find the beam at his back, wondered wildly what the lad was doing, then became aware of the fact that Sam was merely gathering up the pieces of the shattered mug.

"Can't leave these here, not on the threshing floor," Sam said matter-of-factly. Frodo stared down at the bent, tawny head for another moment; the plain, hard sense of Samwise's statement broke both shock and misery, and also the embarrassment at being witnessed in either. Slowly, Frodo lowered himself to his haunches once again, helping Sam espy and retrieve the shards.

"You've one tangled with your foot," Sam pointed out, but Frodo couldn't see it and Sam finally reached out, riffled through the fur on his right instep. A strange shiver claimed Frodo at this; he yanked his foot away almost at the same time Sam triumphantly held up the small sliver of ceramic. His grin faded as he noted Frodo's expression.

"I'm sorry, sir," Sam muttered, once again putting eyes to the flooring and looking for more broken bits. When there were none to be found, Sam gained his feet and retreated a few steps, casting an uncertain glance towards Frodo.

"You heard," Frodo murmured, "didn't you?"

Hesitation, as if Sam was uncertain whether to be truthful or not, then he quickly nodded. Frodo fell silent, quivering, and this seemed to release something in the younger boy, because he swiftly spoke up.

"I'm sorry, but I was just having a sip of ale, and watching you--"


"Just for the moment!" Sam protested quickly, "because... well, I don't know why, really, but... but..." he flushed. "I was curious, all right?"


"Well, aye. En't you curious about us?"

Frodo didn't answer, didn't meet those clear, uncomplicated eyes. Sam was quiet for a moment, then continued, a bit more quietly.

"Then those old dames... I mean miz Lobelia, miz Iris, miz Ruby and miz Portia all came up, chattering to claim the day, and..."

The lad trailed off and Frodo wanted to look up, to see what was expressed on his face. But he literally couldn't. He wasn't sure that he truly wanted to know.

Then Sam said something that totally floored him.

"It bothers you, what they said. Doesn't it?"

Still not looking up, Frodo snapped out the first thing that came to his lips. "If you kept being reminded that you were... nobody's... how would it make you feel?"

Silence. Frodo snuck a peek at the younger lad; the sandy brows were drawn in concern. "I'm sorry. I guess I..." Sam paused quite consideringly, then said, "I guess I thought you weren't caring about those things."

Frodo kept peering at him, wondering how it could be even possible that no one thought he cared, when he did and it was all he could do to not scream aloud some days from the ache of it all.

"Don't you be paying those biddies no mind, master Frodo," the lad said, suddenly soft. "What they think doesn't count, nay, not at all. They aim their bile at anyone they think is in their way, and it en't your fault you're an orphan--"

Frodo started to speak, to voice some sort of protest, but shut his mouth as Sam continued.

"--no more'n it matters who your dad was. Me dad's a laborer, naught more, and married himself a farmer's daughter anyway. He takes care of us, and better than most."

Again, a heartfelt protest before Frodo could stifle it. "But it's not who--"

"Aye, and why would anyone be surprised at what, neither?" Sam said frankly, then blushed.

Frodo was startled out of responsive anger to the blunt statement by the look on Sam's face. It lit up the gardener lad's sunny expression further, put a spark in the sepia-grey eyes that took it from plain to fantastic.

"If you are, or if you en't, why does it matter, 'ceptin' to those old biddies and cranks who are more worried about mister Bilbo's treasure than anything that matters. They'd make up anything if it meant they could get their hands on mister Bilbo's things. That's all they care about, is things."

"And you don't care? About Uncle Bilbo's... 'things', or about what..." Frodo realised he was stammering, controlled it angrily, "...what you hear about me?"

"Why should I? And begging your pardon, but it sounds to me like your dad was your dad, in all the ways that count. I've heard mister Bilbo talk about mister Drogo, and nothing but good, all of it. Your dad was with you, weren't he? He held to you, raised you best he could 'til he died, and dying weren't his fault--or yours, neither."

Frodo had started to retort hotly, but went very still at that statement.

"As to being trouble... if'n I didn't have no dad, and no sisters and brothers to call my own when my mum died, maybe I'd be a bait of trouble too." Sam wasn't looking at him any more, his cheeks colouring with emotion and his words tumbling over each other. "I've never seen any elves, master Frodo. Nor am I ever expectin' to. But I'm thinking that you're about the closest thing to one I'll see, mebbe, and I don't see how that can be wrong..." Sam took a look at Frodo's face, and what he saw there must have disturbed him, for he shut his mouth with an audible snap.

Frodo wondered what exactly was there; as for himself he felt all hollow.

"Oh, dear. I'm so sorry, master Frodo. I had no right. Sometimes I'm worse than me dad ever was, opening my trap when I shouldn't..."

"It's..." Frodo had to push the words out about the great lump in his chest. He had to say something, feel something, surely. "It... doesn't matter."

"Nay, sir, I've spoken out of turn, and I'm--"

"Sam." It was wrenched from him. "Please. Stop."

Sam obeyed, throwing him an uncertain glance. Frodo had to look away, because beneath that steady gaze was nothing but emotion, and he didn't want to so much as touch it. Beneath any exterior calm, the dragon writhed as if it were Smaug, pierced by the arrow that had brought him down...

"Master Frodo?" A broad, steady hand on his arm. "I'm sorry, truly I am. I had no call--"

Frodo sucked in a quick, anxious breath then yanked his arm from that asking touch, whirled and fled.

"Master Frodo?"

The call followed after him, concern swallowed up by music and the rhythm of dancing feet. Frodo left it behind, pushed through a small group of people, exclamations and oaths in his wake. He tripped over a particularly large and furry pair of feet belonging to an old hobbit half-dozing on a chair by the door; he avoided another gaggle of female hobbits who made shocked comments about his unseemly haste. The door to darkness and rain and outside air beckoned--it was close, too close in here, and too much attention riveted upon him, and he couldn't just vanish here. Or leave.

There was nowhere else to go...

The doorway, and chill, and damp darkness. The fresh air swallowed him up, the rain gusting into his face and shocking him with the cool wet, backing him a step... but only for the moment. Light and noise spilled after him, beckoning from the doorway, but Frodo started forward once again, letting it all stay behind him. All of the snide comments, the happy dancing and singing, the questioning glances and the strange mixture of welcome and alienation. But especially the riveted attentiveness of that gardener lad, and the strange knowledge that, somehow, Samwise really didn't care what he might have come from, only what he was. And that, somehow, was also entirely too dangerous...

Frodo bumped into a tall, unyielding form with a grunt, started to shove away then knew panic as strong hands laid upon him, gripped him tightly. With a strangled yelp, he twisted in those hands; when they didn't let go he writhed downwards. His foot slipped in the wet soil and he lurched sideways; the grip tightened, shook him, finally shoved him up against the wall and Frodo panicked further, letting fly with a hard kick. It landed with a solid thud against his attacker's shin, barking Frodo's own toes unmercifully; the large figure staggered sideways and, unfortunately, harder against him. It cursed roundly in Merimac's voice.

"Bloody son of a... Frodo! What in perdition ails you, lad?" There was pain, and real aggravation in his tone.

Frodo stilled, letting out the huge breath he'd taken in with a long sigh of relief.

"You kick like a jenny ass, damn your eyes--whatever have I done now?" Merimac's face was now visible in the light from the doorway, framed by wet, straggled locks. His eyes narrowed as they took Frodo in, also limned in the scattered indoor lanterns just inside the door. His hands tightened. "What is it, lad? You come barrelling from the party like a dragon's after you..."

You're not far wrong, cousin. Hysteria narrowed itself into a hiccup of panic-tinged laughter; Frodo threw the ever-dampening curls from his eyes and looked up at Merimac.

"I..." he croaked, "I thought you were... I didn't know who you were."

Merimac frowned, and bent closer, loosening his grip to prop one hand on the wall just above Frodo's shoulder. "And what are you doing out here, silly lad? It's too wet for man or beast."

"What are you doing out here?"

"Well, the privy is a slight walk, you know. Was that where you were going?"

Merimac's voice was fond, lightly chiding; he was leaning close enough that the rain scarcely touched Frodo, only leaving light spatters of damp across his cheeks. His arm shielded Frodo's eyes from the light, and the sound of the rain and his voice was covering the party, and all those voices save the ones within.

Shelter from the rain. Shelter from the storm. Shelter.

Frodo's hands reached up, fingers clutching at damp linen. "Mac?" It was a choke.

Another frown, and Merimac leaned closer, put his forehead against Frodo's. "I did give you a fright, didn't I? I'm sorry, I didn't mean to."


"What?" Merimac asked softly. His breath wafted across Frodo's cheeks, spiced sweet with the tinkers' card forfeit of Tuckborough uisge. His hair was damp, falling into his face, his shirt was unbuttoned just too far for propriety and tucked absently beneath a loose-slung belt--everything about Merimac including the lithe, well-lubricated bonelessness of his pose suddenly spoke to, not merely support and shelter, but abandon and willingness. Shivering, Frodo looked down, eyes following a long stream of wet that dripped from Merimac's hair onto his collarbone, trailing down the damp fur on his breastbone and into the open vee of his shirt. The rain pattered about them, steady and serious, soft accompaniment to the harder pulse of blood in his temples, to the sticky sing-song of panic still lingering in the pit of his belly, to the voices that urged him just to give in, to just... let... go...

"I'm sorry, too," Frodo blurted thickly. "I'm so sorry..."

"You're sorry for kicking me?" Merimac ventured, still quietly. "Which time?"

"Both. And for what I said. I didn't mean to..." He felt choked, trapped. His fists tightened, squeaking against wet linen. "Mac, please..."

"Frodo, I know you didn't--"

His fingers tangled tighter in Mac's shirt, opened it more. Leaning forward, he put his lips amidst the small runnel of water on his cousin's breast, caught it with his tongue, followed it. Merimac made a small, startled sound, hands tightening on Frodo's arms almost painfully, but Frodo merely clung tighter, continued. He followed that tiny line of wet down over fur-scattered ribs that expanded with a huge breath, to the nipple that went taut against his lower lip. One of Merimac's hands grabbed at his nape, threading fingers into dark-wet strands as Frodo suckled greedily at rainwater and damp, risen flesh. The broad fingers tightened, pulled him away and he whimpered protest.

"Frodo, I--" Merimac said again--or started to say again, for when Frodo's eyes met his, Merimac left off the words as if choked. Frodo bent forward once more, this time to the sopping curl that had begun his exploration. The pulse beneath it doubled as he latched his teeth gently there.

"Bugger!" Merimac hissed out somewhere near his left ear, "Does a row and then a fright just serve to make you more randy, lad, or--?"

Frodo leaned back against the wall and once again raised his eyes, purposefully slow, to meet Merimac's. His patience in not doing what he had wanted to do--just fling himself against Merimac and lose himself in that mouth and those arms--was rewarded by Merimac yet again trailing off as if someone had taken his tongue, and by the slight shudder that reverberated through the body against Frodo's hands.

The reality of this, the mind-numbing power of rousing such a reaction in another. This time, when he did pull Mac against him, there was no hesitation at his importunity; when Frodo kissed him, there was a return sweetness in that kiss that melted Frodo's bones to butter. He gave a whimper into Merimac's mouth, ground up against him, nipped at his upper lip.

"We are, you realise," Merimac murmured against his cheek, "right next to the door. In the rain."

"I don't care!" Frodo answered into Merimac's neck. "It's been forever. I want you. Now."

Merimac hesitated for a split second, and Frodo met that gaze with another of his own--asking, raw. In answer Merimac simply tightened his arms about Frodo's ribcage. Frodo felt his toes leave the ground; his cousin picked him up as negligently as if he were ten as opposed to twenty--but the way he angled against him in no way suggested anything childlike. Frodo raised his knees up to Merimac's hips, wrapping his arms about his cousin's neck and his calves about the small of the broad back as Merimac carried him away from the door, about the corner and into the shadow of the great mill-wheel.

It was darkly shadowed, close and tight about them. The wet from the great paddles misted them, water churning and tossing, quickened by the rainfall swelling the clear firth not four lengths from them. Merimac settled Frodo's spine carefully and firmly against the wall of the mill, took Frodo's mouth with his own. Frodo clenched his knees tighter into Merimac's hips, feeling muscle, sinew and bone meld with his own, blindly seeking the hard arc of arousal that lurched against him, butting with his own, compressed and contained by fabric.

Thunder rumbled in the sky; the wheel clattered with the wind. Merimac sucked at his tongue, at his upper lip, at his jaw, and Frodo groaned.

"More. Please."

Merimac twisted, unlocking Frodo's knees and lowering him back to the ground; Frodo let out a protesting sound which was muted by Merimac's fingers at his lips. Frodo ceased any protest as his own hands were able to loose their grip about Mac's neck, to slide downwards over rain-slicked skin. In this position he was able to reach his cousin's belt and breeches, able to unknot rope and unfasten buttons and slide his hands downward, fill them with sultry, hard heat. He wanted to latch on, demand response, but his fingers stayed themselves, controlled impulse and curled daintily, slid loose skin back, then forward.

"Mmm," his cousin said a bit lazily, and suddenly Frodo realised that laziness was an excellent front; somehow Merimac had unbuttoned and bared him; his breeches were falling about his ankles and one knowledgeable hand was taking him. Not easily, either--it gripped firm and fast, slicking over Frodo in a fashion he was coming to realise he preferred; bucking his hips sharply into the welcome pressure, Frodo opened his mouth, suckling at the two fingers placed over his lips. His own grip tightened, and one leg crept up, curling about Merimac's flank to urge him closer, constricting all extremities into a wonderful puzzle that only his cousin could untangle. And Merimac did so, shifting and pulling, probing and smoothing until Frodo thought he would go mad from the need of it all.

Then Merimac was lifting him again, pushing him up against the wall. He took one of Frodo's hands, guided it up and curled it about one of the high, thick dowels used for hanging implements. Frodo gripped hard, and Merimac's hand ran softly down, over his wrist and forearm, across his bicep and splaying over his chest, fingers so gentle as they encircled the risen nipple peeking from damp linen. Merimac bent down, folded his tongue about it then, sharp and startling, gave a quick nip that made Frodo lurch against him with a gasp.

Teeth gleamed in the shadows, a slow smile. "More?" Merimac asked him.

In answer Frodo tightened his knees and snaked his other arm upward, grabbing the dowel with both hands, arching his spine and hips forward. Merimac growled low in his throat and thrust up against him, driving a small cry from Frodo's lips.

"Again..." Frodo pleaded. "Harder."

Merimac gave him what he wanted, shoving his spine back into the unforgiving wood, rocking against him. Frodo clenched his hands tighter, pulling himself further up the wall and wrapping both legs about Merimac's waist, throwing his head back. Instead of the hard wood he found one of his cousin's hands, which gripped into his curls and pulled his head sideways.

Ah, the pure sensation of it--wet hair trailing, hard flesh straining, damp cloth creaking and sliding, the feel of Merimac's mouth upon him, tongue darting and teeth raking, the fur and silk and taut aching pulse captured between them, trailing slick tears and tangling, belly to belly. It roused his heart, pulsed deep into his toes and up into his temples, a passionate drumming to echo the driving of the wheel. Rainwater spattered against his exposed throat, to be lapped up by warm breath and an even warmer tongue. Shadows were all he could see, water was all he could hear... the roaring nearness of both washed the accusing voices from his memory, filled the lairs of ash and fiery breath and smothered them, covered them. Frodo thought for long seconds he would drown in it, drown in just the sound and the pitch, the sweet-hot skin against his own and the reverberation in his chest. All the energy whipped up in dance and drink and song only to culminate in that corner, cowering from the venomous words of an old harridan but, even moreso from those frank, heart-spoken words of a young gardener... then the rain and the water beating on him, rousing every sense that he had, and...

Only one way to assuage it, only one person who had proven it could be stopped.

"Take it from me," he whimpered against his cousin's temple. "Take it... take me... please..."

All of it, crowding into an already too-crowded consciousness, mercifully burning away like straw tinder in the fireplace grating as Merimac caressed him with rough and tender intent. Frodo clutched to him, writhed against him, buried his body and his mind into wet hair and flesh. His fingers tingled upon the wooden dowel, his arms quivered, his thighs shook. They were literally steaming as the rain from both the sky and the water-wheel misted them, commingling with sweat and saliva and heated breath fogging about them and into the air. The wood scraping against his back, and the feel of the music and the rhythm from within the mill tremoring at his spine; his own voice begging as Merimac thrust against him, choking into a hoarse, shrill sob against broad, quieting fingers as it burst within him.

It all retreated, then, a slow seepage that left him weak and trembling, as if someone had slit him stem to stern and emptied his life onto the rain-soaked ground. Strong hands holding him, fingers trailing from his lips to his nape, muscles quivering yet firm against his own. Wind and water, the creak of wood and hoarse gasps of breath. The sky rumbling against the trees, which swayed and moaned. More voices, true, but voices outside. Voices welcome.

Voices stilled.

Slowly he unclenched his stiff palms from the wall-hook, slowly his arms lowered. It was as if they did not belong to him, were extensions of some other hobbit who was propped quivering and wet and undone between wall and playmate.

"Better, now?" was the soft murmur against his cheek. Frodo tried to answer; nothing wanted to work. It was as if he were at the bottom of a deep, soundless well, cradled and sated and untouchable.

"Frodo," Merimac said softly, insistently.

"I'm... here," he answered, less than truthfully. Before he could stop it, his head lolled sideways.

"Believe me, I'm well aware of that..." the fond voice trailed off as Frodo went a bit limp in his arms; Merimac took his chin, angled his face to meet his gaze. A slat of light from the corner lanterns pinpointed in the grey eyes, illuminating the sudden frown. "Frodo? Are you all right?"


"Did I hurt you?" was the sudden query. "You seemed to want--"

"No," he answered quickly. "No, you didn't... I wanted you to..." With a bit of effort Frodo made himself focus on the concerned expression. "It was... really good. I just feel... a bit... light-headed."

Merimac was still frowning, but he accepted the explanation. "Perhaps you need to get your feet on the ground, love. I'm not surprised you're a bit dizzy, with me mashing you." He grinned, touched Frodo's cheek. "Next time, it's a softer backrest for you, eh?"

Frodo smirked and unwrapped his legs from about his cousin, wobbling as his toes touched ground. "Maybe," he said consideringly, "the cider is finally catching up with me?"

"Maybe," said Merimac a bit sternly, "you're soaking wet and for the second time today. Not to mention that your Uncle Bilbo will rightfully have my hide for me letting you have your way in the chill rain with a bare arse." He bent down, held Frodo's breeches for him; Frodo took them and, with the steadying force of both his cousin and the wall, got back into them. When he straightened, Merimac was peering at him quite piercingly. An uncomfortable twinge fluttered in the pit of Frodo's belly and he looked down.

"I'm all right," he said.

"Of course you are," Merimac retorted a bit acidly, fastening his own breeches. "But there's no doubt I'm a proper idiot, and that we both had better change clothes. I can't believe I just went along with this--"

"Because you can't resist me?" Frodo said, cutting his eyes sideways and catching Merimac's.

It had the intended effect. Amidst tying his belt, Merimac snorted an unwilling chuckle then closed his eyes and shook his head. "You are getting entirely too big for your breeks."

"Then I'll need bigger breeks."

Another snort, and a playful cuff to his head. "You cheeky wretch. Come here." Merimac pulled Frodo against his chest, wrapping his arms about him; Frodo closed his eyes and hung there with a delicious shiver.

"Don't leave me," he whispered into the crook of his cousin's arm.

"What, love?" was the return query, and Frodo was suddenly glad that Mac hadn't heard. Already he was starting to see things that Frodo didn't want him to... and Frodo was starting to feel things he wasn't sure he was ready for.

The shiver turned fearful.

"Come on," Merimac said abruptly. "You're cold, and I'm taking you up the Hill and getting you into dry clothes. Again."

* * * * * *

Frodo had disappeared.

Bilbo had searched the interior of the mill, slightly anxious. Finally he had asked several people, but none could tell him where Frodo was now, only that the last time they had seen the lad, he'd been in the far corner talking to the Gaffer's boy.

After a quick scout, Bilbo found Samwise with a few of his friends; he quizzed them as to Frodo's whereabouts and found out nothing--although the way Sam had refused to meet his eyes suggested that perhaps the lad might know more than he was letting on. Remembering Frodo's behaviour earlier in the day--and Sam's furtive but unsubtle notice of it--Bilbo thought, Merimac?

He chuckled and felt a sense of relief. Very likely.

No sooner had he come to this comforting conclusion than several outraged matrons descended upon him and demanded to know what his young ward was about, rampaging through the crowd as he'd done. Then an old hobbit lounging in a chair by the door answered that yes, he'd seen the lad, running from the mill as if dogs were at his heels.

Bilbo was starting to get worried once again.

In such state, he nearly ran into Lotho coming through the front door.  The lad was looking less than his usual bold self: wet through, sandy hair alternately clinging and frizzling about his skull, clothes spattered and sodden, one hand shoved deep into the pocket of his frock coat. His gait was slightly unsteady, and his dark eyes retreated, filled with some unfathomable and furious emotion. In fact, he looked rather ill, and Bilbo felt a twinge of concern, stopped the tween with a firm hand on one arm.

"Lad, are you all right?"

Lotho clearly hadn't seen him, and turned on him with a sneer on his lips. As Lotho noted the voice and exactly who held his arm, he visibly restrained himself and put a pleasant look to his features. Which also spoke to his disturbed state of mind; Lobelia's son usually could prevaricate with a light easiness that even she couldn't match.

Bilbo had always thought that, of his Sackville-Baggins relations, Lotho was truly the most intelligent--save that he had absolutely, from what Bilbo could see, no sense of shame or conscience to him. Lotho seemed as explosive and brilliant--and ruthlessly random--as one of Gandalf's fireworks.

"I'm... just fine, Cousin Bilbo," he said with studied politeness. "Thank you."

"Have you..." Bilbo trailed off as he reconsidered who he was asking and about whom. An uneasy, suspicious spark flared in the back of his mind as he once more took in Lotho's appearance. The lad was wet, and flushed; his breathing harsh and his eyes glittering. This, plus the factor of Frodo's absence--and seeming retreat--made Bilbo shoot out the question he had intended less than gracefully. "Have you seen Frodo, Lotho?"

"Frodo." It was dull, almost inaudible. The fire behind those dark eyes flattened, kindled low. "He wasn't with me, if that's what you're meaning. Sir."

Bilbo, caught off guard by the pointed insinuation of that reply, for moments could find nothing to say. Lotho, somehow fairly seething and scintillating both, dropped his eyes as if realising he'd said too much.

"If you'll excuse me, Cousin. My mother wants me."

"Well... yes. Of course." And before Bilbo could retract any of it, Lotho had slipped away into the crowd. His mother was nowhere in sight. And neither was Frodo.

"He wasn't with me..."

Nor would he be. But the comment, unguarded and disturbed, intimated that Frodo had been with someone and--this disturbed Bilbo more than he wanted to admit--that Lotho knew about it.

"...if that's what you're meaning."

It wasn't at all what he'd meant, and for Lotho to think otherwise was unreasonable past understanding. For wild seconds Bilbo wondered if he should go seek Frodo out, make sure everything was all right...

Stop it! he castigated himself, you're acting worse than a broody hen, and ridiculous to boot. Lotho has merely confirmed that Frodo is indeed with Merimac. Frodo is no gormless chit; he's a big lad, and no doubt at this moment still pleasantly occupied with his chosen playmate's company, as well he should on a festival night!

As to Lotho's insinuations--Bilbo was no doubt overreacting to those as well. Lotho did not take losing very well; it was obvious he was still angry about Frodo's victory over him at the Hall. And surely he had earlier witnessed Frodo's attachment to Merimac... as indeed had most of Hobbiton, Bilbo thought with a broad smirk. However the expression congealed as he spotted Lotho once more, over by the refreshments and downing the contents of a large mug. Unsurprisingly, Lobelia was nowhere to be seen.

Try as he might, Bilbo could not so easily dismiss his worry--not with the knowledge that Frodo had run from the mill, not in the face of Lotho's still-obvious agitation... and particularly not in the wake of Lotho's unintentional, rattling confessional.

"He wasn't with me..."

Abruptly Bilbo remembered Frodo's own confessional in the Bag End kitchen, the young voice so shaken and muted and thoroughly bewildered--within itself proof that the lad was not as knowledgeable as many that possessed his years

"I didn't... know what to do. And Lotho didn't really... I mean, he never... well he didn't... finish it, if you understand what I mean."

Bilbo's eyes stayed on Lotho as the lad downed a second drink, then a third.  He was still agitated, that much was plain--much more than would be expected at merely coming across a boyhood rival and enemy snogging in some outside corner with his playmate.

Was it possible that Lotho still and somehow believed there could be matters left unfinished?

No.  He was, again, overreacting.  Lotho wasn't stupid.  He couldn't possibly believe that he stood any chance of getting near Frodo again--willing or unwilling.  Nor could he be so possessed by revenge to risk what he would in pursuing such.  For Otho and Lobelia would never stand for anything--not even the habitually-granted whims of their only son--to jeopardise their single-minded quest for Bag End.

What in the nine thousand names of the Valar was going on?


* * * * * *

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